Kayden was glad to have the wingdeer back, but she never seemed to have enough time. With Gaben and Tara gone, she was forced to either work in the clinic assisting Quinn or Collin, or she was called on to entertain Shanika. She loved the little girl, and often took her to the stables, but it did make working with the animals harder. Shanika always wanted to help, but she failed to comprehend how dangerous the beasts could be just kicking up their hooves in play. If only Kayden could push off some of the mundane tasks to someone else. Then she could focus on Shanika and training the four yearlings.
It was a week since Collin and Quinn had brought back Shanika. Kayden decided to mention it at dinner. They all ate together now in Collin’s dining room. She waited until they were all eating. “Collin, about that couple in Capitol. I really could use the help.”
“Maybe I’ll have time to check them out next month. I need to get to Alexandria and find some temporary medical help first.”
“But I can’t do everything. And the yearlings need training.”
“They can wait. There’s no rush.”
“But . . . .” At Collin’s firm glance she stopped. He’d made up his mind. She shrugged and picked at her casserole. “No rush.”
After dinner she walked back out to the barn. At least she had a few minutes alone in the evenings when it wasn’t so busy at the clinic.
“I miss you,” Jamel said as she entered the barn. “Do you want to go for a ride?”
Kayden sighed. She’d planned to work with Berry, but now she felt obligated to go up to the loft. As she stepped on the ladder, Jamel’s voice came to her again. “Not yet. Michael is coming.”
Kayden stepped off the ladder and leaned against the stall wall, waiting. She still felt drawn to Michael, even though she knew he would leave her. All the extra work, though, had kept them apart, except as co-workers -- hardly the ideal time to sort through all these emotions. So alone she had debated when her work didn’t require her full attention. And her anger had faded. Now she only wanted the time he had left to give her. She wanted him to hold her again and brush his lips across hers. She wanted him to tease her and look at her like she was the most desirable woman in the whole world. After all, he had come all this way, risked death and dismemberment just for her. He didn’t even care about those computers anymore. At least she didn’t think he did.
Michael came through the barn door, and Kayden pushed away from the wall. She walked to him and then looked up into his eyes. He still wanted her; she could tell. So she leaned against him, and hugged him.
“I’ve missed this so much,” he whispered into her hair.
She lifted her face to his lips. When he touched her, she felt it down inside her. She was alive again. “Oh, Michael.” She pulled away and took his hand, leading him to the back of the barn where they stored the hay and grain. She pulled him down into the pile of hay and kissed him again.
Michael kissed her lips, her cheek, her neck. “I love you,” he whispered between kisses. But then he stopped abruptly and rolled away from her staring at the wooden ceiling above them.
Kayden raised herself up on one elbow. “What’s wrong?”
Michael took a deep breath. “I want you too much. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She snuggled against him. “You won’t. I want to be touched by you.”
“Kayden.” He said it like a protest, his eyes squeezed shut. “It’s not just touching.”
“But I know you won’t hurt me.” She knew it as well as she knew anything. Michael would never hurt her physically. He could leave and rip out her heart, but he’d never cause her physical pain. “Why do you have to leave? Is it because of computers again?”
“No!” he said sharply.
He rolled on his side and drew her back to him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It’s not the machines. I just don’t belong here. Neither do you. We can start a new life on another world. A safe world.”
“No, Kayden,” Jamel said in her ear. “You promised me you wouldn’t leave.”
“You don’t even want to find Jamel?”
“No. I hope he has acid poured on his core.”
“Don’t say that, Michael. Jamel saved both our lives.” She sat up, crossing her legs. “I don’t know what’s worse, you wanting him, or you hating him. Can’t you just treat him like a normal person?”
Michael sat up then, rolling his eyes. “A robot is not a person. Neither is a computer, no matter how brilliant their programming.”
“Then why do you hate him so much if he’s just a normal machine?”
“I didn’t say he was normal.” He held up his hands. “Look, Kayden. Let’s not fight about this. I don’t care about the stupid thing. I never would have risked my life for a machine. I’m already going to tell my grandfather I couldn’t recover him, so what else can I do for you?”
Michael reached for her, and she let him pull her back down.
They kissed until Michael pulled away again. He wanted her too much. His heart pounded, and it took all his effort not to run his hands over her full body and work his way under her shirt. So he lay on his back, apart from her, staring at the ceiling.
“Where do those people live? That Niles and Marta. Do you have their address?”
Michael tensed. Was this his chance to jog her memory? Or should he just play innocent for a while longer? “Yeah. I’ve got it.”
“Can I get if from you?”
“Sure.” Michael sat up and grabbed his pack which had ended up near their feet. He pulled out a small notepad computer. It had current addresses, but no matter how he looked at the data, he couldn’t find the history of property ownership. Cee must have that information. “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to know what Collin did with Cee, do you? I need to ask him a few questions about some data files he’s carrying.”
“Cee? Jamel, do you know?”
Michael was shocked. After all he’d been through and here she’d known all along. “You have an implant. I thought Collin, but it’s you!”
“Collin does, too. And it’s not exactly an implant like yours was.” She leaned forward and tilted her head, pulling back her hair.
Michael bent her ear forward. A small black dot rested on the bone beneath it. He let her go, and she straightened. “Why, Kayden?” How could she be hooked with such an awful machine?
“He helped with the nightmares. And when it’s bad, he calls Collin. He’s my friend.”
“Where is he?”
“Thought you didn’t care.”
Michael couldn’t help the scowl. He didn’t like games. But he had to quickly accept that Kayden was quite attached to the monster. She may not want to leave because she didn’t want her safety net removed. He did, after all, save her life. And he had apparently been with her through every nightmare. Michael had nightmares also, but Cee had never said a word when he’d awakened in a cold sweat, blood dripping in his mind. How did a computer comfort a person from nightmares anyway? But if Kayden felt she needed it, he’d find a way to reassure her. “I want you to come home with me. If you want to bring him, I’ll tell my grandfather that . . . that it bonded to you. He’d believe that.”
A noise sounded overhead, like something plunked on the floor of the loft. Kayden closed her eyes. “Calm down, Jamel. Of course, you’re not leaving the planet. I’d never ask you to make that kind of sacrifice. Now... Michael originally asked where Cee was. Do you know?”
Kayden opened her eyes and looked at Michael. “You really don’t like computers much, do you?”
“Why do you say that? What did he say?”
“Just that you never loved Cee.”
“Of course I never loved Cee. He’s just a robot, a computer with wheels.” He stood. “Where is Cee?”
“He’s with Quinn.” Kayden lifted herself up and stood before Michael looking up into his eyes. “Don’t hurt Quinn. He’s had enough.”
Michael tilted his head down to brush her lips. “You know I wouldn’t hurt him or anyone else here. You guys saved my life.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her again. Then he decided they better go back to the house or he was going to lose what control he had left. He knew Collin was right. If he didn’t wait, she’d be hurt. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about never having his own children. Collin was right about that, too. If he couldn’t accept it without bitterness, he’d be better off leaving her here. But just the thought of leaving Kayden made him feel hollow inside. He didn’t think he could do it.
On the porch, Kayden stopped. “I think I should go back and check on the wingdeer. They need a lot of attention.”
“Do you need . . . ?”
“No. No. You go on. I’ll be fine. I do this all the time. I just need some time to think. Not much time for that anymore.” She lifted up on her toes and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Michael. See you in the morning.” Then she ran back to the barn.
He watched her until she disappeared. The A was in the barn. That noise in the loft. He was almost sure of it. One of these days he was going to go up there. The tech to rebuild Kayden’s hands was probably up there also. He’d been everywhere else and hadn’t seen anything. Not that he’d turn Collin in. He owed him too much. The man could build his own shuttle and leave the planet for all he cared. He owed him as much freedom as he wanted. That was it!
Michael found Collin in the office. He glanced up and pulled a ledger to him. Then he shoved the ledger aside to reveal a notebook computer. “Guess there’s no use hiding this anymore. Just doing some studying.”
Michael sat in the chair beside the desk. “On what?”
“A plant that I believe will help those asthma sufferers who are allergic to our current homegrown solution.”
Collin stretched. “They never give them enough of anything in Alexandria. It’s always rationed so tightly no one gets what they need.”
“Collin, I just had an idea. Why don’t I suggest that you come off planet with me and Kayden as an ambassador. Then you’d be able to explain the situation to them. They’d listen to you.”
Collin leaned back and let out his deep, earthy laugh. “Oh, Michael, you’re grasping here. This planet is my home. I’d never leave.”
“But you’d be able to help so many by telling them all the things that are wrong.”
“And what makes you think they’ll listen to a country doctor.”
Michael grabbed the notebook. “You’re more than a country doctor. Country doctors don’t study plants on computers. I bet most of them wouldn’t even know how to activate it. I saw them at the hospital. They haven’t a clue. So my first guess is that you weren’t really born here.”
“Wrong. I’ve never been off the planet.”
“Then my second guess is that you’ve found some stash of geneticist tech that wasn’t destroyed in the riots.”
“Not that you’ll ever be able to prove,” Collin said, his face still showing his amused smile, but he seemed tense. He took the notebook back. “Are you going to confiscate it and turn me in?”
“After all you’ve done for me? Never. My goal is the same as it was two weeks ago. I want to take Kayden off the planet.”
Collin seemed to relax a bit then. “So you think you can get that by offering to take me off?”
“It’s your freedom.”
“I have my freedom. I’m not a prisoner. I love this planet and all the creatures on it. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
Michael pushed himself up, defeated. “You’re right. Guess I just hoped to find another way to coax Kayden back to where she belongs.”
“She belongs here.”
“Yeah.” He stopped in the doorway and looked back. “Why doesn’t this place keep accurate birth and death records?”
“Not enough doctors. Too many disappearances which some assume are dragon-deaths are actually simple moves to another city. It’s an easy planet to find a new place to live and start over.”
“And you know how to start over.”
Collin shrugged. “You found me. Guess I didn’t hide too well, did I?”
Michael laughed then. “I wasn’t looking for you. Listen, Collin, unless you’re some kind of psychotic mass murderer, I’d never turn you in as a criminal.” He leaned against the door frame. “Besides, I have no illusions as to your ability to crush me the minute I endanger your life. Or of your A unit to kill anyone who hurts you or Kayden.”
“We wouldn’t hurt you, Michael. We’d just disappear. And next time the dragons will eat you. That’s all.” Collin’s grin left and he leaned forward. “But you’ve repeatedly promised that you will not endanger us, so why are you asking questions? It’s the questions that endanger people.”
Michael studied him. The man wasn’t really threatening him. He felt completely safe, as if he was having a debate over the best way to design a new security unit. “No more questions. No sex before marriage. You ask for a lot of self-control, don’t you?”
“Self-control and discretion.” He turned in his seat and picked up the notebook. “Have you ever thought of becoming a doctor, Michael? Doctors get to ask patients a lot of questions, and it’s perfectly natural.”
“Are you offering the apprenticeship Gaben was so afraid I’d get?”
“If you stay.”
“I hear Alexandria is safer than the country.”
Collin shrugged. “I suppose you could ask the hospital for free tuition in addition to your salary. Like you said, they’re pretty much in awe of those machines and anyone who can control them. You really need another profession than tech hunter.”
“Actually Governor Hollis thinks I’m single-handedly going to decimate the dragon population. He expects me to present him with a hide to prove my usefulness to the planet.”
Collin grinned. “So you were looking for Hans.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t seen a seven foot blue giant anywhere.”
Collin laughed. “Legends have a way of getting taller with the telling. Wait here.” He left the notebook on the desk and walked past him.
Michael heard him go upstairs. Then he reached for the notebook and scanned through the text. It was incomprehensible at first. He had to slow down to realize this wasn’t just studying the medicinal properties of a plant, he was studying the molecular makeup of it. He set down the notebook as he heard him coming back down the stairs.
And then he came in, dressed all in blue dragon-hide, hat to boots, his grin wide beneath dark sun shades. “What do you think?”
Michael laughed so hard he had to sit down. “Is there anything you don’t do?”
Collin leaned on the door frame. “So... what exactly did you want to speak to me about?”
Michael shook his head. “At first I thought you could teach me to hunt. But then I realized I don’t care to learn. I just want to show Hollis I’m not dead and not a waste of his time and hospitality. But just out of curiosity, how do you do it? Or is that forbidden also?”
“How do you think?”
“The A’s laser?”
“Good guess.” He removed the sun shades.
“I had three guys almost kill me for suggesting you might have a laser. The people love you.”
Collin lifted his eyebrows. “Really? I wonder if one can ever do enough right to counteract the negative in people’s minds.”
Michael wondered what Collin possibly could have done wrong.
But then Collin smiled. “Some other time.”
“Excuse me? Oh, what’d he say?” He must have been responding to one of the A’s comments.
“Says his new religion has something to say about that.”
“His new religion?” Michael knew he had misunderstood something. “We’re talking about the A, right?”
Collin’s grin grew wider again. “Yep. The guy’s a new man. Got himself religion. He asks that you forgive him for harassing you. Think you can?”
Michael stood. “I, ah, I think it’s time I turned in.” They’d been talking so normally, and then he’d said the most ludicrous thing Michael could imagine. It just didn’t fit the man. Doctor, plant geneticists, dragon hunter, with a religious computer?
Instead of going to his room, he walked through to Quinn’s side. He needed to ask Cee about that connection between Alex Collin and Collin Alexander. Maybe these pieces would fit together.
The hallway was dark and all the bedroom doors were open in Quinn’s section. Michael had never been up there before and realized it wasn’t quite set up like the other side. He wasn’t sure which room was Quinn’s.
“Who’s out there?” came Quinn’s voice.
Michael followed it and entered the room on his right. “It’s me, Michael,” he whispered, realizing Shanika was asleep somewhere close by.
A match flared lighting up Quinn’s face. Then the lamp was lit. Quinn sat in bed, the blanket covering his legs, his chest bare. “Emergency?”
Michael looked around for a place to sit, but there wasn’t one. Just the large bed, a shelf, a dresser and a night stand. He leaned against the dresser. “No. Just found out you put my computer someplace. I need to check its data files.”
Quinn stared at him like . . . like a mouse trapped by a kittle. Michael shifted his gaze from Quinn’s face. It had to be the lighting. “If you just let me know where it is, I can get it myself.”
Quinn continued to stare at Michael but his hand reached back under his pillow. Michael had the brief sensation that Quinn was trying to disguise a movement for a weapon. And then Quinn was holding the small unit, rubbing his thumb over the side of it. “I know you love him best,” he whispered. “I’ll miss you.” And then he held out Cee.
Michael tried to ignore Quinn’s strange behavior. The man had been under a lot of stress lately. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly. He took Cee. “Thanks for keeping track of it.”
Quinn just stared at him, so Michael slipped away and down the steps. The man really had been through too much lately. He needed his sleep.
Michael took Cee through the house and up to his own room, lighting the lamp. He sat at the desk, set Cee before him and drew out his notebook. “Okay, Cee. I need to know how Alex Collin and Collin Alexander are related? What do your files say?”
Michael waited, but nothing happened.
“Cee? Listen to me. I need you to tell me about Collin Alexander, the founder of the hospital in Alexandria.”
“Cee? Are you in there?” Michael picked up the box and held the narrow side up to the light. The small writing was there -- Jamel 5000C.
“Cee, diagnostic,” Michael demanded.
“Stupid computer.” Michael reached into his pack for his toolkit. The core had survived dragons and killer trees only to have Quinn somehow break the indestructible. He grabbed the diagnostic sensor and ran it over Cee. It detected no internal activity. “Quinn was talking to a broken unit. The man is crazy. No wonder Tara left him.”
But then Michael remembered Quinn’s confession about his father. He didn’t blame the guy at all for being a little strange. He knew a lot of guys who talked to and cursed at nonspeaking computers. He supposed Quinn just hoped if he kept at it, the machine would eventually answer back. But machines weren’t like that. They followed orders. If they didn’t, they were broken. But how in the world had Quinn broken the thing?
Michael tried to send a diagnostic through the bottom where the core attached into the robotic unit. It wouldn’t go through. Michael briefly wondered if Quinn had found a vat of acid to dip it in. But he could find no sign of damage on the outside. The unit was supposed to be able to operate even underwater, but perhaps that had been the problem.
Michael took out the small heating laser and unwelded the plastic seams. He pulled apart the core, laying the sides down beside each other on the desk. Then he ran the diagnostics over it again. Still nothing.
A tap sounded on his door, and before he could answer, it opened. Quinn stepped in. “I wondered if....” He froze, staring at the desk. His breathing quickened, and then he fixed wide, haunted eyes on Michael. “You killed him!”
And before Michael could respond, Quinn lunged at him. He grabbed his shirt collar and lifted him out of the chair, throwing him across the room onto the bed. Then he stared at the desk, his hands hovering over the unit.
Michael tried to ignore the pain in his shoulder and the bump on the back of his head. The man was unstable. He needed to be prepared for another attack.
Quinn carefully picked up both sides of the unit. “Hang in there. Just hang in there. We’ll get help,” Quinn whispered. He took the unit from the room and down the stairs.
Michael slowly followed and saw him go into the office. Michael slipped up to the door.
“Michael killed him. Please. You’ve got to save him. Please.”
“Ssh. Sit down, Quinn,” came Collin’s voice. “Sit down and let me look at it. Jamel, the case is opened. That isn’t fatal, is it?”
“Michael, come in here.”
Michael jumped in surprise. Somehow Collin had sensed he was just outside the door. He slowly looked into the room, hoping Quinn would keep his fists to himself.
Collin was watching the doorway. “What were you trying to do?”
“It’s broken. I was running a diagnostic when Quinn attacked me. He threw me across the room.” Michael rolled his shoulder against the ache settling into it.
“But did anyone ask you to do that?”
Michael wasn’t sure what Collin was getting at. “No one needed to ask me. It’s my machine.”
Collin shook his head. “I seem to recall you begging us to remove and destroy it. If someone else took it from the refuse pile before it was burned, it seems to me that the unit would now belong to them. Namely, this is Quinn’s unit, working or not.”
Michael shook his head. “Quinn’s? He doesn’t know a thing about computers.” And he tried to ignore the way Quinn seemed to wilt in the chair. He was no longer the man ready to attack but a child expecting the worse life had to offer, knowing he’d be crushed under its weight.
“We are not talking about Quinn’s computer abilities. We are talking about ownership. Do you not distinctly remember asking for the operation and asking for the destruction of this unit, against my express recommendations?”
“Yeah, but . . . .”
“So, if I set the unit in the garbage to be burned -- the most common form of destruction on this planet, in case you thought we used compressors and molecular recyclers. Is the unit still yours?”
“You overheated it! That’s the problem. Although I’m surprised there isn’t any evidence of it on the outside. The main chip is probably damaged. It’s useless.”
“Then let’s get this straight, once and for all, Michael. This unit is worthless to you. You gave it up. Quinn wants it. What is your problem?”
Michael’s gaze went from Collin to Quinn, but he couldn’t focus on Quinn because it made his stomach queasy. There was too much pain there, and it wasn’t hidden tonight. He let his gaze stay on the broken C unit. “Not a problem. Quinn can have the broken thing. I just wanted some of its data files, but they must be gone also.”
“He never loved him,” Quinn mumbled. “Never.”
Collin took a deep breath. “Let me borrow your toolkit, Michael. I’ll return it when I go up to bed.”
“It can’t be fixed.”
“I know,” Collin said, keeping his gaze on the unit, his fingers moving over its contents as if hoping to see something. “Just let me put it back together for Quinn.”
Michael gave in. He ran upstairs to get the tool kit and brought it down. “Need help?”
“No. You may go. I need to talk to my son.” Collin rose and closed the door of the office, leaving Michael on the outside.