Chapter 26


Michael walked out to the barn with Collin. Today the clouds formed large and white over the wheat fields to the south. Several wingdeer flew in a circle as if chasing each other, spiraling up into the air. Michael smiled. "I'd like to paint that."

"Are you an artist?" Collin asked with that tone which meant he found something or maybe just life in general amusing.

Michael blushed. He probably shouldn't have mentioned the painting to him. Collin was a scientist. He had a mind which would be completely at ease pioneering research in a big university hospital. If he showed him his pictures he'd find every flaw in them. "Just a little hobby. Nothing worth saving."

"I've always been fascinated by colors and how they work together. I never had an urge to pick up a brush, but I appreciate the work of others." They reached the fence and leaned against it. "Art isn't appreciated enough on this planet. There's only one small gallery and museum in Capitol. Part of the problem is that our best artists are stunted by those who don't appreciate their vision. They're shuttled off to do something practical, and money spent for paints and canvases is often thought of as frivolous." Collin glanced at him. "You have to go to Capitol or Alexandria for supplies. Next time I go, you could tag along."

Michael watched the wingdeer playing and then watched the woman beneath them in the field. She was beautiful. Her hair whipped around her in the wind, and her laughter floated up to the beasts above her. He wanted to paint her this way also, dancing beneath the circling wingdeer. "Not much time to paint, nor money for supplies. I owe you for that last operation."

Collin wore his slight smile. "You're still recovering. You can take the time now. Nice day for it. Wish I had more than pen and ink to offer you though."

Michael wondered if the man had read his mind. "I do have a few paints with me." He let his pack slide off his shoulder where it was becoming permanently attached. But then everyone on the planet carried their most personal items with them everywhere, so at least he didn't look as paranoid as he felt.

Collin grinned then. "Hey, great. Let me get you some paper. We'll have to wait for our trip to Alexandria to get real canvas."

"I have a little paper, too," he admitted. "A little worse for all the banging around, but usable."

"Then you need an easel, right? I think I have just the thing." Collin ran back to the house, leaving Michael to stare after him. How could he be so enthusiastic over him painting?

He hesitated to take out his paints. He wasn't up to having his work ripped into by an art critic, especially since he knew that his apprenticeship with his grandfather was over. Having Cee and A destroyed would not go over well. If Collin had actually destroyed them.

Michael angrily pushed the thought from his mind and withdrew his paints. He would not be controlled and manipulated by what was best for stupid little computers. No machine was worth Kayden's life. He knew he could never go back and pretend that he thought his grandfather's current projects had any importance at all. And he wouldn't go back to work with his father. So now he was left with nothing on a planet full of thieves and man-eating dragons.

Kayden walked across the field toward him, her face lit with a bright smile.

Nothing, except that Kayden was alive! Alive and whole and more precious than any robot or career. He didn't dare think about her hands, those beautiful hands he'd get up in the middle of the night to draw just to keep the nightmare away. Doc Collin was hiding tech no one else on the planet had. That was the only way Kayden could be whole. But blast that job, too. He wouldn't destroy the man who'd saved both their lives.

"Hey, are those paints?" Kayden asked, leaning over the fence to touch her cheek to his shoulder in a brief affectionate gesture. "You paint, don't you? You've painted me before. I know it."

Michael grinned. "You're my favorite subject. I've got lots of pictures of you." He reached into his bag and pulled out his portfolio. She'd always been the most enthusiastic admirer of his paintings. "Remember this?" He opened it to the first print of Kayden as a ten year old child.

Kayden climbed on the fence and sat on the top rail. "Yeah. Oh, Michael, I do remember that painting. You gave me a copy, too." Then she frowned. "But I haven't a clue where that would be now." She rested her arm over his shoulder and leaned against him, looking into the portfolio. "You've got more?"

Slowly he turned the pages for her, and she excitedly told him about when he'd painted them, until he reached the few that he'd brought from the time between her disappearance and now.

Collin joined them, carrying a wooden triangular structure, similar to his metal easel back home. "We'll get you better stuff when we go to Alexandria. Oh, you brought some of your work." He set down the easel and took the portfolio.

Michael tensed as Collin silently studied the pictures. It was not a quick look, but a thorough examination. He was looking for flaws. Michael just knew it. "I did that one over eight years ago," he mumbled to excuse its amateurness. "I was only fifteen."

"Nice shading of color on her face. I'd like to see the original, but I guess you were forced to leave those behind." He turned to the next picture, examining it just as closely. When Collin finished, he handed the book back to him. "You have a lot of talent and are a deadly accurate portrait painter. Don't ever paint my picture."

Michael set the portfolio back in his pack and straightened, studying the man, this time as an artist. "You'd make a great subject. In fact there is a painting on Frontier Base 28 of a loin-clothed man fighting a dragon with a sword. The dragon is not anything like the real thing, but I can picture you as a sword wielder."

Collin leaned back and gave a deep laugh. "Loincloths are too drafty for my tastes." He rested his hand on Michael's shoulder and squeezed it affectionately. "If the temptation is too great for you, I'll give you a way out. I will own anything with my picture. Years ago I had an artist for an apprentice, and he didn't follow my rules. But you will, won't you?"

Michael hesitated. "What did you do when he disobeyed you?"

Collin gave that smile like the world was one big joke. "I had to acquire the painting the hard way."

"You didn't fire him?"

"Fire him? No. He painted from love. I don't begrudge him that. He was a fine man." Collin's smile left, and his gaze went to the wingdeer, two still playing a game in the sky.

Michael couldn't help the strange stirring within. Apparently Collin's friend had died. Kayden removed her arm from Michael's neck and jumped off the fence. Then she hugged Collin.

He wrapped an arm around her and kissed her forehead. Then he turned his attention back to Michael. "You paint. I need to tend the garden. Quinn and Gaben will call us if we're needed." Collin left Kayden and Michael.

Kayden climbed back up on the fence and watched while Michael set up his supplies. The easel Collin had brought had small pin-like nails to hold the paper to the flat wood surface. He pinned the paper up, but knew this wouldn't be one of his better painting experiences. The wind tried to rip the paper from his grasp before he secured it, and then it rattled the edges. He sighed. Maybe if he just sketched out the picture he'd be able to work on the actual painting another day -- when he had a real canvas. He began concentrating on the scene.

"Hey, Quinn," Kayden said, jumping down from the fence. "Michael's going to paint my picture again."

Michael shot her a grin. "I never said that, imp. I may just paint the clouds." They were an interesting study by themselves.

Quinn looked over Michael's shoulder, but there wasn't a whole lot to see -- just a few charcoal lines.

Kayden crouched down and grabbed his pack. "Look. He brought some great...."

Michael snatched his pack from her hands. "Stay out of my pack!"

Kayden backed away, shaking her head. "Sure. I'll stay out of your life. Guess your idea of marriage isn't based on trust. Go marry your stupid computers." She whirled around and stalked toward the barn.

How dare she say he didn't love her? Didn't he almost die? Well, maybe she wanted him dead. He ran to her, stopping her before she reached the barn. "You want to know what's in here? You want me dead? Here . . . ." He opened the pack and turned it upside down, shaking out the contents and then flinging it away. "Here! Let them all kill me. I'm sick of this damn planet anyway." He ran to the house. His room was the only spot he could think of to try to regain his raw nerves and emotions.

"Wait! Michael!" Kayden called, but he didn't stop.

Up in his room Michael closed the door and then sat on his bed. His nerves jumped inside him. He stared at the door. Any time they'd come in and finish him off. Niles had said the tech in his pack would get him killed someday, hadn't he?

Michael shoved himself back on the bed, bringing up his feet, until his back hit the wall. Then he stared at the door, trying to slow down the panic. Let it be fast, he prayed. He couldn't stand to suffer like Kayden did.

The door opened, and Michael tensed, briefly contemplating the laser in his pocket. Collin entered the room, carrying his pack. No, he could never aim the laser at a person. He closed his eyes as he saw Kayden's fingers sliced from her hand again.

"Michael," Collin said softly. He heard him pull the chair away from the desk. "Michael, I know you're scared. You never should have taken that job as tech spy. You just weren't prepared."

"Only way to find her," Michael mumbled. "Are you going to kill me?"

Collin chuckled. "After I've stitched you up how many times? Michael, I knew you were a spy when I removed the implant and accepted your computer. I suspected you were before that. It was too big a coincidence that Charles Jamel's grandson showed up on my doorstep five and a half years after his amazing prototype dropped into my life."

"It's all his fault!"

"Who's fault, Michael?"

Michael closed his eyes. He wasn't sure what he meant. "The computer. Grandpa. No one cared about her, just that stupid machine."

"You cared," Collin said softly. "And it is only the fault of the killer who tortured her. The machine was a pawn, too. And your grandfather . . . I know what it's like to lose something you've worked on for years. It's like your own child."

Collin sighed and refocused on Michael. "You're safe here, Michael. I know, Kayden knows, and so does Quinn. That couldn't be helped because you requested the operation and gave up Cee in front of him. Quinn can be trusted, though. However, I would be careful around Gaben or Tara. You can guess why Gaben wouldn't mind destroying you, and Tara . . . she's just fickle in her loyalties -- irritatingly so at times. Don't trust her with anything."

Collin lifted Michael's pack and set it on the bed. "I think we found everything and got it back in there, even that little badge from Capitol that's killed more men than any amount of tech because with it they can get off the planet. Maybe only as far as the security station in orbit, but too many are willing to take that risk."

"But Governor Hollis knows who I am. Not anyone could use it."

"Don't need to go to the governor, just the immigration intake office. You came through as any other prisoner, right? They don't know who's who."

Michael realized that he didn't have to admit defeat to Governor Hollis to take his report back to his grandfather.

"Really pathetic way of doing things, too. Implants in the spies and scanners at the intake office would prevent the problem, but they're afraid to let the intake office have any tech either. By the way, how long did you plan on staying on the planet?"

Michael wasn't sure he could answer the question. "I thought until I found Kayden. I'd planned to take her back to her mom and . . . and the hospital, but . . . You do have things to hide."

Collin didn't flinch or shift his gaze at all. "Yes. I do. This practice doesn't. Whatever you decide to do, leave Quinn and Gaben here for the people and leave Kayden here for her own happiness."

"I'd never leave Kayden."

"If you love her, you won't take her from the planet."

"This place is a hellhole."

"This place is a beautiful array of plants and animals found no where else in the galaxy. The people are not all a bunch of reprobates like the rumors portray. Most are just trying to live their lives in the company of friends and family they love. I know you've been through hell since you've been here, but give us time to show you the other side -- the beauty."

Collin stood. "Yes, Michael. I want you to paint. I want you to look at this planet through the eyes of an artist. See the details and the full picture. Any place can be hell to the unprepared. If the weather is good, Quinn and Tara are going to Capitol tomorrow. Make a list of any supplies you want, and I'll have him take it to the store." Then Collin left abruptly.

Michael stared at the door. He hadn't even had time to form the question, "Why?" Why was Alex Collin going to all this trouble to make him happy here?

Michael bolted from his room. He found Collin in the office downstairs, sitting at the desk, pen in hand. "Collin," he said, keeping his voice low and addressing him as Kayden did. "You saved my life. I won't do anything to harm your secrets. You don't need to buy me a bunch of supplies. I'll work for you to earn my way."

Collin's mouth twitched up in that familiar, humorous grin. "I'm not as worried about my hide, Michael Jamel, as I am about my little girl. You're a bitter and disillusioned man, but I know you don't have to stay that way. Start looking for the beauty again, and maybe you won't snap at my precious daughter when she is only being enthusiastic about your work."

"But I need to pay you. I need to earn my way -- do something useful," as his father always admonished him after picking out all the flaws in his paintings. Why was Alex Collin doing this? How could a small-town country doctor own a whole herd of wingdeer, a mountain cabin, and a well maintained practice, all while spending money frivolously on complete strangers. "Are you the wealthiest man on the planet and living in exile?"

Collin gave his deep laugh again. "Maybe. Maybe I'm a scientist looking for a friend. Maybe I'm just a father trying to make his daughter's childhood fantasies come true, even though she doesn't remember them." He looked up at Michael, his humor-filled face becoming serious. "Maybe I want to show you what you can report to your boss to make things better on this world. You do have access to people who can make changes." He smiled again, turning his attention to the note on his desk. "Go on, Michael. Make your list. You may get lucky, and Capitol will have half the things you want."

Michael wanted to protest. Hundreds of reports had been filed, he was nothing. But Collin dropped the pen into the vase on his desk, shouldered his pack and walked through the waiting room out the front door. Michael glanced at the desk. "Gone to see the Taylor baby. 3:17. A.C."

He decided to go back outside and apologize to Kayden for his behavior. He couldn't leave the planet and make any report until Kayden loved and trusted him enough to come with him.



"Where are we going?" Tara asked again as Quinn searched the crowded streets of Capitol. He could feel his wingdeer Rae beneath him almost as nervous as he was with all the bustle around them. He kept one arm around Tara's waist with the reins in his hand, and in the other hand he held the sheet of paper with Alex's directions and Michael's list.

"An errand," he repeated.

"What kind of errand? What does Alex need in Capitol? I thought you got all your doctor stuff in Alexandria? I want to go to the jewelry store. You have enough for a bracelet, don't you? I want topaz and gold to go with my jacket." Although it was hot, and he'd warned her it'd be even hotter in the city, she'd insisted on wearing her dragon-leather jacket. "To keep the wind off me," she'd said, but Quinn knew she was showing off.

He'd put off the trip as long as possible, because he knew she'd embarrass him with that dragon-killing story again. Last time they'd gone into Capitol she'd told the clerks and store owners that Quinn had single-handedly killed the dragon and had the jacket made. And they'd either looked at him like he was a pathetic liar or Tara was. But Tara didn't seem to notice. She kept telling everyone, as if killing that dragon would make him someone. And maybe it would have if he'd actually killed it.

There it was. 2348 Inglewood. "Harmon Arts and Supplies." He pulled Rae to a stop and slid off her back. Then he helped Tara down.

"What's this? Quinn . . . ." She closed her mouth as they entered the store.

Quinn glanced around the shop. Light streamed in from the glass side wall. Two artists worked near the window, one painting and the other working with clay. Rows of shelves ran through the middle of the room at a forty-five degree angle, holding all manner of supplies, but he didn't bother looking through them. He approached the counter and handed the clerk the paper in his hand. "Could I have all these things shipped out to Hope?"

The clerk glanced through the list. "Only if you pay now."

"Yes. I have the money."

"It better be Alex's money," Tara said under her breath.

The clerk began writing numbers beside the items on the list. He could see this would take a while and stepped over to watch the potter work.

The man looked up from his clay. "Nice colors on that jacket," he said. "One thing about Collin Hansell, the man was a true artist."

"Damn Hansell to be forever eaten. My husband killed this dragon after it killed his brother."

The man's eyebrows raised. "Really? Hans Trapper, are you?"

Quinn didn't meet his gaze. Instead he stepped closer to the painter, who painted large bright balls on a black background. From a picture in one of his patient's homes, he'd learned it was a starscape, a solar system of planets.

"Quinn Stone. He's a doctor," Tara said. "He just doesn't talk much."

"And a very creative doctor at that. One must survive on very little sleep doctoring by day and hunting by night, hey? Perhaps you should write a story of your adventures." Quinn glanced back to see the man grinning, his eyes twinkling with delight. "Tell me, sweet lady, how did you meet your husband? Did he rescue you from the evil dragon's cave? Are you in a royal line? Dragon-slayers are noted for rescuing damsels from the royal line."

Quinn's jaw tightened. He knew it would happen, and this time the disbelief was not kept silent.

"Oh, I volunteered to help the doctor so I could work off my mama's medical bills and ended up marrying his apprentice. 'Course now Quinn's a great doctor, even if he didn't study at the university."

"An apprentice is only as good as his master," the man quipped.

"Oh, Alex. I used to think he was a god, but that was before I saw how easy he lets that girl take advantage of him. That's why we're here, I bet. Her new boyfriend wants art stuff, so Alex buys it. The guy hasn't even done any work. Still recovering from being dragon-bait, and here we are, buying art stuff for him. That's it, isn't it, Quinn?"

Quinn wanted to walk from the building. Instead he made his way back to the counter. He tried to block out the rest of Tara's words as he waited, but he still heard her. Did she know how stupid she made him sound?

The woman at the counter looked up from her numbers. "I made the substitutions as the note said, and here's the total." She slid the paper for him to examine as she named the amount.

Tara rushed back to his side. "He can't spend that much on a reprobate. It's not fair."

Quinn withdrew the money bag Alex had given him and began counting out coins.

"No!" Tara protested. "I can't believe this. Wait until I tell Gaben."

Quinn's jaw became tighter. Why should it matter to anyone, and why should she care to tell Gaben? Gaben used to spend the odd moments during the day joking with Quinn and Alex. Now he immediately disappeared back into the house, and Quinn could hear Tara's laughter. Well . . . not always. He didn't do it if Alex was near. It appeared Gaben no longer wanted to be his friend, and Quinn was not going to waste time crying like a girlbaby about it. He just wished the man would stay away from his wife.

The clerk took the money and assured him that the items would be shipped tomorrow or the next day. Quinn took the receipt and left the store.

Tara ran after him out the door. "I just can't believe it! That much money for a no good convict. Alex is getting ready to toss you out, Quinn."

Rae nuzzled him, and he gave the wingdeer a hug. At least she never compared him to other wingdeer owners, and if she did she kept her opinions to herself, always appearing eager to see him. He kept his gaze on Rae's broad neck as he stroked her. "Are we going somewhere else before the toy store?"

"Of course we're going somewhere else." Tara stood before Rae's side waiting for Quinn to lift her up. "I want to get a bracelet. You do have money for that, don't you?"

Quinn lifted her up. "It depends on how much it is."

Tara settled on Rae's back and then rolled her eyes. "Do you know Gaben gets more money than you do? You should start your own practice before he kicks you out."

Quinn swung up behind Tara and lifted Rae into flight. He hoped that cut off Tara's words. Why had Gaben discussed his salary with her? Quinn had quit doing that after their first year of marriage, not confiding each time Alex raised it, because she had gossiped to her sister, who told his sister, who told his mother and Burke. The whole thing had caused so much trouble, he just kept silent. And Quinn didn't think Gaben knew what Alex gave him. Quinn didn't know what Gaben's wage was, and he didn't care. Except he knew it couldn't be more, could it?

They flew to the jewelry store they'd been to several times before. Again Tara bragged about the dragon as they looked at bracelets. He bought her one.

Tara put the bracelet on immediately, walking out of the shop with her arm extended to admire her wrist. "You stood up to this dragon, Quinn. It should be easy to go get more money from Alex. He obviously has it to waste on convicts and tramps."

"I didn't stand up to the dragon. Will you quit telling people that."

She rolled her eyes again. "Of course you did. You killed it."

"I didn't kill it. It fell on top of me. I didn't take a cut into the thing until it was already dead. There. Are you happy? It's all a lie and everyone knows it. Now quit talking about it."

"No!" Tara's face went white. "No, Quinn. That's not true. You went out there to avenge Burke's death."

"I went out there to die honorably." He lifted her up to Rae's back.

"Ouch," she said at the rough treatment.

"Just stop talking about it." And then as he lifted himself up behind her, the guilt pricked him. He'd been too rough when he lifted her up. "I'm sorry," he whispered, wrapping his arms around her and nestling his face in her hair. "Please don't keep repeating it, Sweetheart. It . . . it just . . . doesn't feel like a victory," he said, finding the words Jamel had used that morning.

But Tara sat stiff before him. "Let's go home," she said, her voice low and rough.

"I want to buy Shanika a toy. Mrs. Willamore told me about a place that sells baby dolls with real hair. I saw one when Rainy had bronchitis. She loved it," he said referring to Mrs. Willamore's daughter who was only a year older than Shanika. Tara claimed that only the rich celebrated birthdays, and they weren't rich yet. But Quinn wanted to give Shanika something for her fifth birthday. He bought Tara a piece of jewelry every year, and she expected it. He only felt it right to include Shanika in this yearly indulgence. The shop wasn't far. In fact it'd be more work to fly than to walk, so he set Rae walking.

Tara refused to go into the store. She even refused to come down from Rae's back, so Quinn went in alone, almost relieved. Now he wouldn't have to justify how much he spent.

The shop was filled with dolls on one side and stuffed animals on the other. Three women sat in a rectangular area of waist high display cases in the middle of the store. One worked on a doll, a second on what looked like it may be a dragon. The third was studying the second, apparently an apprentice.

The first woman set down her doll, rising to meet Quinn. "Welcome to our little shop," she said, placing a hand on his arm in a friendly way. "Are you looking for a gift?"

"My daughter is five."

"And you were thinking a doll?" she asked and then glanced at the two women still working. "Or perhaps a cuddly pet?"

Quinn looked from one side of the room to the other. Then he spotted the ten inch horse, white with glittering silver wings. Shanika loved the horses. But she liked to go flying also. She'd asked Quinn if there were flying horses just a few weeks ago, and he had to tell her he wasn't sure if there were any left, although he knew there used to be.

He walked over and grabbed the horse. "I'll get this and a doll."

When he finally had his doll and horse bulging his pack, he went back outside.

Tara didn't speak to him, not even looking at him. She was in a mood for some reason, probably upset about the toys. Quinn didn't know why she wanted more children when she seemed to begrudge Shanika the money he spent on her.

They made it home several hours before dusk, and Shanika ran to Quinn, her long black hair swinging in two braids at her sides. "Daddy! Daddy! Kayden gave me a ride on Lightning, fastest horse on the planet." Quinn squatted down to hug her.

Kayden gave Quinn a slight smile. "She's born to ride."

"I was Kayden's apprent's," she informed him proudly.

"Good job," Quinn said, repeating the encouragement Alex often gave.

"You will not be a stable hand," Tara said. She glared at Kayden as she stripped off her jacket. "Stay away from her."

"The guys were busy with patients, but then I suppose they should have taken her in to watch," Kayden said, returning Tara's glare before leaving their living room to return to the clinic.

Shanika stared at her mother, wide-eyed.

Quinn knew she was startled and tried to fight his own anger. He didn't want her to live with the fears he had growing up. "I brought you something."

Tara walked back to the kitchen, leaving them alone.

The doll peeked out of his pack so he had to give her that first. She hugged it to her, and he smiled at her happiness.

"I found something else." He reached in and pulled out the pegasus.

Her eyes opened wider. "A winged horse. Daddy, a winged horse." Instead of grabbing the horse, she flung herself to him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "You're the best daddy in the whole world! I got to show Kayden." Then she took the winged horse and flew it into the waiting room and to the other side of the house.

Quinn picked up the doll and set it in the chair. Shanika would be looking for her later.




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