Back at their room which was actually a suite of rooms, Michael was still a bit angry with Collin’s high handed treatment, even though he’d bought him a report pouch, a new sable brown pack and a money pouch in shades of violet.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Collin said.
Michael froze. “All of us?”
“No. Kayden will stay here.”
He wouldn’t actually kill him, would he? Maybe he’d lock him outdoors for the dragons. He grabbed his new pack and slung it over his shoulder. “Sure.” He followed Collin outside into the cool night air.
Michael followed Collin silently and tried not to look over his shoulder at the dark sky. And then Collin took them into the hospital through a back door. They walked along almost pitch black hallways, until Collin entered a room and turned on a light. A small lounge. Michael watched as Collin closed the door and locked them inside.
Collin motioned to a chair and took another. “I warned you Kayden didn’t want to go back. Are you planning a long distance marriage?”
Michael closed his eyes. “I’m hoping she will eventually love me enough to follow me.”
Collin rested his feet on a small table. “She may. But she won’t be happy. You claim you love her, but you don’t really. You love a memory and a fantasy.”
“I do so love her.” He stood and paced the small room. “Ever since I arrived here everyone keeps thinking I don’t love her. I go through hell to get here, and it’s just because of some fantasy.”
Collin remained silent.
Michael sat down. “Don’t tell me I don’t love her.”
“You see an old friend and a fascinating woman. You don’t see the woman who hates to be confined inside any building. You don’t notice when she goes outside even in the rain and sleet, because she’s too restless inside. You ignore the fact that she loves her work and loves the animals she works with.”
“I planned to go to CentiOne. They have a large zoo.”
Collin rolled his eyes. “I’m sure she’d be thrilled to look through bars at the animals. Unless CentiOne is a living planet, and you can own a large enough piece of land to have, at the minimum, horses, you’re going to be depriving her of her joy in life.”
“She’ll be too busy for that when the children come.”
Collin took a deep breath. “There will be no children, Michael. Not hers. I’m sorry. Even her ovaries were destroyed. If you want children, you will either have to adopt or marry someone else.” He closed his eyes. “It was her place to tell you, not mine. But perhaps this will hurt her less in the long run.”
Michael felt all the strength drain from him. He bent over, placing his head in his hands. He’d always thought, always known, he’d have a family someday, when he was ready. He’d been prepared for her hands and knew he could get them fixed. He’d anticipated her fear and believed he could work through it, but this he had not thought possible.
Collin stood. “If you will resent this, don’t marry her. She’ll feel your hurt, and it’ll crush her. Let’s get back.”
“Wait. What will happen to her if I don’t marry her? Will she marry Gaben?”
“No. I’m sure of that. I imagine some day there will be someone who will be able to accept her and love her for who she is now. Don’t let guilt drag you into marriage. She will be fine, and you have helped her get over her revulsion of being touched. For that, I thank you. You can leave with a clear conscience.”
“You prefer that I leave, don’t you?”
Collin opened the door and flipped off the light, but not before Michael noticed that Collin seemed older than he’d ever seen him before. “I only want what’s best for Kayden, Michael. I can not judge your heart on this. You hate your work; you hate this planet. I am still trying to determine if you can truly love anything.”
They walked in silence through the building. Michael couldn’t protest Collin’s critique. He’d sounded too weary.
“I remember bitterness, Michael. A wonderful woman helped me recover a love for life. But I’ve seen other women crushed under a man’s bitterness. I pray that you can recover also. I wish I knew how else I could help you.”
The man sounded sincere -- sincere and still weary. Michael could only think of one response. “I appreciate all you’ve done and continue to do. It’s helped.” And he was no longer angry over Collin’s bossiness or his secrets. In fact he guessed that Collin might even tell him if he asked. They left the hospital and walked back to the apartments. “How are you related to Collin Alexander?”
“You really don’t want to know, Michael.”
“Are you his great grandson?”
“He had no children.”
“He had no children!” Collin said with a low roar. “Don’t even throw those lies around. He was faithful to Vita all her life. Vita . . . She . . . You go inside. I’ll be back in a few hours.” Collin strode away.
Michael shivered as Collin disappeared. If he still had Cee he could ask him now, but he’d have to search the records manually on the notebook. It would take a little longer to do it that way. Maybe he should see what Collin did with Cee and get him back. He had a feeling Collin hadn’t destroyed either unit like he’d requested.
But Michael didn’t want to bother Kayden as she slept on the couch, so he silently slipped off his clothes and into the bed. Collin claimed he was comfortable sleeping in the chair, and neither he nor Kayden questioned him.
Quinn walked outside with the father of the baby he’d just delivered. “Thanks for coming,” the father said. “I don’t know what I’d have done.” He glanced skyward. “You’re welcome to stay in the barn till morning.”
Quinn shook his head. He wouldn’t leave Gaben alone with Tara for the whole night. “We’ll be careful. I’ll check back in a couple days.” He led Rae from the barn, and the new father disappeared into his house. It had been a difficult delivery, but now the baby was nursing.
Quinn glanced up at the sky. He wished he hadn’t brought Rae. Now she was in danger. It was safer to walk home on foot because it was easier to hide from the dragons. Quinn touched his shirt pocket. The little black box had spoken last week to warn him of the dragon, but it hadn’t spoken since. Somehow it could tell where the dragons were.
“Cee? If you see any dragons out there, let me know, okay?”
The box didn’t speak.
Quinn climbed on Rae’s back and set her in a low flight toward home. Only half of one moon and a quarter of another lit the sky. It was too dark to see far.
“There is a dragon south of here. I do not think he sees us yet, but he is coming this way.”
Quinn started in surprise, but then angled Rae down toward the closest homestead. “Thanks, Cee. Think we can hide till he passes on?”
“That barn looks like a safe spot.” The tiny voice sounded hopeful.
“Good idea.” Although he’d already thought of that, he wanted to keep Cee talking. They landed on the north side of the barn near the door. Quinn dismounted and made sure he could get inside, but he kept them out beside the building. “Is he close?” Quinn whispered.
“He is west of us now and still going north. If you wait another five minutes, he should be gone.”
“It’s a good thing you’re with me,” Quinn whispered. “You saved our lives.” He didn’t know if that was completely true, but Cee needed to know he wanted him. Quinn still found it hard to believe that Michael so hated Cee that he wanted to give him away, especially after he’d saved his life.
He waited until Cee said, “I don’t see any more dragons right now.”
“Good. Thanks.” They started home again.
They were almost home when Cee spoke again. “Another is coming from the north -- a different one. He sees us!”
Quinn urged Rae to go faster. “Will we make it, Cee?”
“Don’t slow down.”
In other words, it would be close. They landed and walked into the barn before Quinn dismounted. “Thanks, Cee. You saved us.” The horses greeted them with snorts and nickers.
Quinn found the lamp on the shelf and lit it. The room brightened, and he removed Rae’s gear. He led her back to her stall and suddenly felt sick. Only two wingdeer were in their spots, Angie’s calves from the spring before last. Tess and the other two yearlings were missing. Where would Gaben take those two? Kayden was just beginning to train them for riders.
“Do you see Tess or the other yearlings?”
“No. They are not on the farm.”
“Where are they?”
“I do not have that information. I’m sorry.”
Quinn reached up and ran his hand over the outside of his pocket. “No need to be sorry, Cee,” he said, repeating words Alex had often said to him. He took a deep breath and then set to brushing Rae, making the act last as long as possible. He didn’t want to hear about whatever had happened. But finally he blew out the lamp and started for the house.
No lights came from the windows. Sweat broke out on Quinn’s forehead and palms. As he stepped on the porch, he saw a silvery lump by the door. He picked it up. Shanika’s pegasus.
He opened the door and silver fluttered to the ground. One of the pegasus’ wings had been ripped off. Quinn closed his eyes. He knew something bad was coming. Something so bad he’d be left quivering in the corner of life. He didn’t want to go on. He clutched the horse and ripped wing to him as if they were Shanika herself.
Quinn entered the practice and flicked on the electric lights. Everything was still. Silent. And his dragon head lay on the floor, the sword sticking straight up from the side of its snout, its red blade glimmering as the light hit it. But everything else was in place -- the chairs for the patients, the little wooden puzzles on the corner table, the books of wildlife for the patients to look at, the painting of a family playing chutes on the other side of the door.
Afraid to go into his home, Quinn walked through to the office. It was in order also, but a paper lay on the middle of the desk, held down by the small, shiny vase Alex kept pencils in. Quinn slid into the chair.
“Dr. Alex Collin, Dr. Geoff Napier in Shade has offered me a partnership with three years service. I regret that I must leave the people of Hope to pursue this opportunity. Dr. Gaben Blanne. P.S. Tara has decided to come with me. I agree that she has gone underappreciated in your service also. I am sure Quinn will receive papers initiating the divorce within the next week or two.”
Quinn stared at the paper unable to comprehend it fully. Gaben took his wife. He clutched the stuffed silver pegasus. “Shanika!” He ran through the house and up to her room. “Shanika!”
But the light showed she wasn’t there. Neither were her clothes or her two dolls or her favorite blanket.
“No! He can’t take Shanika.” He knew Tara didn’t love him anymore. He knew he couldn’t force her back, and she’d just run again if he tried. But Shanika -- Shanika was his little girl, his precious child who laughed when he teased her and begged him to hold her and fell asleep safe in his arms and . . . . “He can’t have Shanika.” He’d pound the bastard until he begged for mercy. Then Tara would see who the girlbaby was. Then they wouldn’t dare take his little girl from him.
He ran downstairs and out the front door, dropping the pegasus and wing on a waiting room chair. He didn’t bother to turn off the lights, nor did he light the lamp in the barn, but ran straight up to the loft. Jamel would get to Shade faster, and he’d make Gaben quake in fear for what he’d done. “Jamel! Jamel!”
Quinn walked to the loft door and pushed aside the stripped drape. “Jamel!” he called out into the night.
“He is not within sensor distance. I do not know where he is,” Cee said.
He was probably watching over Alex and Kayden in Alexandria. Quinn sunk to the floor in the doorway, leaning his back against the door frame. If he moved to the right he’d drop twenty feet to the ground below. But he didn’t move. Gaben took Shanika.
“Maybe I could help you,” suggested a timid little voice.
Quinn kept his eyes closed, but momentarily his thoughts left Shanika and focused on the box in his pocket. It wanted to help, but how could it? He needed strong wings. He jumped up and ran back to the ladder. Then he grabbed Rae’s saddle and began to ready her for flight.
“Quinn?” asked Cee. “Quinn, we can not fly to Shade tonight.”
“You can tell me where the dragons are.”
“No, Quinn. Please wait until morning. Tara will not let her be hurt, will she? She is safe for now. You need to stay safe. In the morning you can go and come back all in one day.”
Quinn tried to ignore him.
“Quinn, you will endanger Shanika if you take her out of a house at night to bring her back.”
Quinn threw the saddle to the dirt floor of the barn. Then he stalked back to the house. He grabbed the pegasus as he entered and took it to the surgery. Then he carefully stitched the wing back to the horse. It didn’t look right, but the gaudy stitches would have to remain until he could find a seamstress to heal the wound.
He turned off the surgery lights and made his way up to his room, taking the pegasus with him. The bed was stripped of blankets, and nothing remained on the shelves. He turned off the light and lay on the bed, curling up and holding the toy to his chest.
He wasn’t sure how long he remained locked in his pain until he felt the jabbing in his chest. He hadn’t bothered to take off his clothes and now the little rectangle in his pocket was tight against him. He rolled on his back and pulled Cee from his pocket. He couldn’t see him in the dark, but he could feel the smooth surface. It wasn’t wood or metal. He thought the blood analyzer Alex had gotten last year was made of the same substance.
“Thanks, Cee.” He whispered because somehow any louder wouldn’t seem right in the still darkness. “You’re right about not risking Shanika or Rae. I’m just so . . . so angry and . . . and I guess I should wait. That’s what Alex always says. Wait until the anger dies down before you act.” He lowered his arms, bringing Cee closer to him. “You’re still talking to me, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Next time you can ask me instead of Jamel.”
“I wasn’t going to ask him anything, except to fly me to Shade.”
Cee didn’t speak.
A brief memory came to Quinn of the time his father had asked their neighbor to help fix his roof. After his refusal, six-year-old Quinn had tentatively offered to help. His father had cuffed him and called him stupid, and Quinn had run away to hide under the porch knowing he wasn’t good enough.
“You helped me, Cee. There are probably lots of stuff you can help me with, but I don’t know it yet. You’ll have to tell me when you can help. I never saw a computer before.”
“Jamel is a computer, and the notebooks are primitive computers.”
Quinn rolled back on his side, Cee still in his hands, and the pegasus tucked under his left arm. “I still don’t understand how Jamel can be a dragon and a computer. And... what are notebooks? I have paper sheets I clip together into books that I take notes on about my patients.”
“Collin has not shown you the computer notebooks in his pack?”
“No,” Quinn said, wondering what else Alex had hidden from him. But he trusted him. He was protecting him until he could survive the danger. Knowledge was dangerous. Hadn’t Burke attacked him once he was a doctor? Now more people would if they knew about Cee. And Alex had given him Cee and thought he was ready for the responsibility and danger. “Can you shoot red fire like Jamel?”
“If I had my robot body. It has a tool laser that would need to be reprogrammed before it would cut flesh.”
“Where is your robot body? It isn’t flesh, is it? Like Jamel?”
“No. It isn’t flesh. I do not know how Jamel got his flesh body. I suspect that Alex Collin has found equipment left by the original geneticists. I suspect more about Alex Collin. Should I tell you?”
“Alex is like my father. He’s the only one who’s ever loved me like a real family loves. Him and Shanika. Tara -- sometimes she loved me. Sometimes I think she just loved things about me. Like I lived with the doctor and was a doctor. Please don’t tell anyone else anything that would hurt him. I can’t lose him, too. I really don’t know how to get Shanika back. I don’t know anything. I hope he comes home tomorrow.”
“I won’t hurt Alex Collin. His records show that he is a gentle man. Maybe someday he will give me a dragon body just like Jamel’s.”
“You think he can do that?” His fear left as amazement set in. He knew his mentor was the most intelligent person he knew, but this was almost godlike, just like those geneticists who first designed wingdeer and . . . and dragons. “He made a dragon, just like Collin Hansell,” he said in awe.
“Yes. And he will be hated and killed as Hansell. You are right. No one must know.”
Quinn wasn’t sure when he fell asleep. His wonder at Cee’s confession kept him from total despair. If Alex Collin could make a dragon like Jamel, then he could surely get Shanika back for him.
And then he saw Shanika in Tara’s arms. He grabbed her, but Tara didn’t let go. He pulled harder and harder, and Tara pulled harder and harder. And then he heard a large ripping noise, and he saw Shanika on the floor, ripped in two like his sister’s rag doll, her stuffing littering the floorboards.
“No!” Quinn sat up, fully awake.
Quinn took several deep breaths. “Just a nightmare,” he mumbled. He tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t forget the torn rag doll. His sister had been pushed around between his father and mother, both claiming she loved each better. She’d run away and married a husband over twice her age at not quite eleven because they’d broken her, and to please one she always had to hurt one. She was still a timid, run down woman at only twenty-two. But at least her husband didn’t beat her that Quinn could see. He wasn’t always faithful, but then Quinn’s father hadn’t been either. But he didn’t want Shanika to end up broken like that, pulled apart by him and Tara.
That morning he went downstairs. After going through the cupboards and eating some dried apple slices, Quinn walked out to the waiting room, setting the pegasus on the desk as he went through the office. That dragon head really shouldn’t be in the middle of the floor. He replaced the sword back into its scabbard and on its hooks, and then lifted the dragon head up above it. The hole was noticeable but not gaping.
“Are we going to Shade?” Cee asked.
“Do you think we should? I’m not quite sure how to get her back without hurting her. I thought Alex might know.”
“You want to wait for him?”
“You think I’m a girlbaby coward, don’t you?” He checked his supplies both in the room and in his pack.
“No. It is a wise decision to wait. It will be better to go with Alex. He knows Shade.”
“Yeah, he does,” Quinn said. He’d forgotten that Alex had said he lived in Shade before he moved to Hope. “Maybe he even knows that other doctor.”
“If my assumptions based on my records are accurate, he knows him very well.”
“Friends or enemies?” He could get very used to these instant answers to his every stray thought.
“Friends. But Alex may decide not to go to Shade. This is a curious situation. I am anxious to see how he responds to it.”
Quinn’s stomach tightened. The apples didn’t agree with him. What if Alex decided it was better for Shanika to stay in Shade? What if he wouldn’t help him get her back?
“You have guests,” Cee said.
Quinn made his way to the waiting room to begin the day’s work.