As soon as Collin finished his article for the medical journal, he spent his late hours working on the report for Charles Jamel. He admired the man’s work tremendously. Jamel was an artistic and realistic work of artificial intelligence. He had to let him know that it was good. And he needed to tell him the bad. A unit with this kind of ability could become an independent monster invading and overriding the programming of other machines at a whim. What Jamel could tell from his limited conversations with Cee it appeared the B unit Butler might be headed down such a path. Collin hoped not, but he’d been a designer who ignored the warning signs in a beloved creation, and he knew the consequences. He had to at least warn him. He realized that perhaps the best way to highlight both the glory and the pitfalls was to allow both Jamel and Cee to give their reports. He caught Quinn one evening as he left Shanika’s room. “We need to talk with Jamel and Cee. Meet you up in the loft in half an hour.”
Quinn gave a brief nod of acknowledgement.
When Collin went to the barn later, Quinn was already in the loft. He sat on the floor with Jamel’s large head upside down on his lap, scratching his chin and neck. Collin grinned and then tackled Jamel’s chest. Jamel twisted and gently wrestled him until he pinned Collin to the floor, breathing into his face.
“Oh, dragon breath,” Collin teased. “You’re torturing me.”
Jamel licked his face. “You wanted to be dragon-tortured or you wouldn’t have jumped on me.”
Collin laughed. “Torture but no kisses.” He hugged Jamel’s neck, and let Jamel lift him to his feet as he raised his head. Then he vigorously scratched Jamel behind his ears.
Quinn watched without moving. Collin thought he detected a slight envy, but he knew Jamel would wrestle with him also, if Quinn indicated a willingness to be mauled. “Have you and Quinn been dragon hunting without me lately?”
Jamel lowered his head, wrapping his neck around Collin before looking toward Quinn. “He hasn’t asked me. I miss him. He likes loops and dives and speed.”
Collin laughed. He’d seen them in flight before, and even met Quinn as he dismounted, expecting him to stagger to the wall and recover, but Quinn’s only response was a bright, eager look around his eyes, and a slight smile that usually remained on his face well into the next day. He didn’t even stagger or tilt with vertigo. Collin didn’t know how he did it, but he had to admit, Quinn had the stronger stomach.
“We’ve been busy,” Quinn said. “If you want to go hunting, I’ll go. But warn me so I can take a knife next time.” His hand, though, rested on his pocket in a protective way.
Collin settled on the floor.
“No rides tonight?” Jamel asked. He could fly anywhere on his own, but he seemed to love their company.
Collin reached up to scratch his chin. “Maybe later, Dear One.”
Jamel plopped down beside him, laying his head on Collin’s lap. “Why isn’t Kayden here? Should I call her?”
“No need, Jamel. This is about Charles Jamel, you and Cee’s designer. Cee, are you with us?”
“Yes, Collin,” came the small voice from Quinn’s pocket.
“Good. Michael has agreed to let me send back a sealed report to his grandfather. As a researcher and designer I do know he would like to know how well you two are doing.”
“I’m not going back,” Jamel said immediately.
“Neither am I. I want to stay with Quinn.” Quinn rubbed his thumb over his pocket resting his hand against it. There was a definite bond.
Collin briefly wondered how deeply the units imprinted to the person they bonded to. He wondered what would happen if Quinn died. He hoped both Cee and Jamel were set in their moral character by then. Collin also wondered briefly about Butler’s owner, but he hadn’t the information to make the conclusions. He could only give his information to Charles so he could draw the proper conclusions. It was so hard to see the flaws in ones own work.
“I don’t want either of you to go back. But I thought perhaps both of you could give me your reports to include in mine. If you wish, I will not even read them.”
“He wants a paper report, and I have no printing unit,” Cee said.
“Jamel will bring a printer here. There’s a portable one in room 231 that will work, and you can send your report directly to it. I want you to focus on your own development. Michael has agreed not to read it, and it’s on paper so no other unit will see it. Tell Charles Jamel about your life. Tell him how events have affected you, what you desired, why you made the decisions you made there, and why you’re making the decision to stay here. I prefer you call me Dr. Collin in the report, and don’t use Quinn’s name, simply refer to him as your new owner. You may draw comparisons.”
“Do I mention Jamel?”
“Yes, but not that he is in a dragon form. That would indicate to them that there is a tech beyond legal limits here. It may even be illegal in the rest of the galaxy. There were movements two hundred years ago, and that’s why Reese Austin chose this planet which was so far from everything else. Jamel, you know what’s at stake. You know what needs to be protected for the sake of the people. You may find creative ways to express your contentment here. You may indicate you are using your knowledge base to help find new plant-based medicines.”
“And I kill reptile-dragons.”
Collin hesitated and then agreed. They knew he had lasers. It’d be natural. “Sure. And Cee? I think you should give Charles your impressions of Butler and Jamel. Tell Charles about situations and events that support your conclusions. If you ever felt misunderstood, this is your chance to tell your side of it.”
“What if they come back for me?” Timid. Fearful.
Quinn pressed his hand protectively against his pocket.
Collin glanced at Jamel. He’d been right. Something was wrong. “You tell Charles why you’re scared, Cee,” Collin said softly, “and if anyone ever comes, we’ll be able to hide you where no one can find you. You and Jamel both.”
“Butler won’t hurt you anymore, Cee. I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Jamel said.
“Who is Butler?” Quinn asked. “You haven’t told me about him.”
“He’s an android. He’s a better unit. He didn’t hurt me. He would just get Michael mad at me by stealing my data.”
“He’s not better,” Jamel said, lifting his head with a snort. “If he ever tried to take my data, he’d be zapped.”
“You’re a dragon. I don’t even have a robot body anymore.”
“I wouldn’t zap him with a laser,” Jamel said, raising his gaze toward Collin. “What about an electronic shield which sends a burst of power back over the invading communications beam?”
“It doesn’t work,” Cee said, his voice quivering. “Nothing works.”
Cee seemed about to break, so Collin held up his hand to indicate that Jamel should cease his line of questions. “You tell all that in your report, Cee. Tell Charles each time it happened, how you protested, how the information was used against Michael. You tell Charles everything. He needs to know how you units work together and against each other. You give the report. Butler will never find you here.”
“They will be able to find this clinic.”
“Probably so. But you wouldn’t be here long, if they did. Jamel would take you somewhere else.”
“The property records would show that you own the cabin. They could find me.”
“You wouldn’t be at the cabin either. But that’s classified information for now. Eventually you and Quinn will learn where we made the dragon body.”
“You have a secret lab not destroyed in the riots.”
“Good guess, Cee.”
“They said Collin Hansell had a genetic deformity keeping him in a childlike body, but he didn’t. He just ages very slowly, doesn’t he? You are Collin Hansell.”
Quinn stared at Collin. Then he began shaking.
“Whoa, Quinn.” Collin reached for him and wrapped his arms around him. “Hey, Quinn. It’s all right, Quinn. It’s all right.”
Jamel wrapped his wing around them both. “Why is he shaking?”
“Quinn?” Cee asked in near panic.
“Sssh, you two. Quinn, you know me. You know I love you as my own son. You’re ready for this secret. I know you’re strong enough. And if trouble starts, Jamel will fly Shanika straight to the hidden lab to keep her safe.” He rubbed his back. “If it’s too much, Quinn, I’ll leave. You can keep this practice and all you’ve worked for. I won’t force you to take my risks.” He rocked him slightly. “Just say the word, Quinn, and I’ll leave.”
Quinn clutched Collin’s arm. “I . . . am . . . okay.” But he still shook.
Collin caressed his hair with his free hand. “I’m sorry, Quinn. If it’d been up to me, I’d have never endangered you like this. But it’s just beginning, Quinn. I can feel it. Chance and a poor choice of names has endangered us.” He kissed his head. “I can leave as soon as Kayden marries Michael. I won’t hurt you.”
“No! Don’t leave.” His grip tightened on Collin’s arm. “You promised me! Do not leave.”
“Shanika?” Collin asked, making sure Quinn knew his decisions affected her also.
“Jamel will take her to safety.” He spoke steadily, staring straight across the loft beyond Collin. “Everyone knows but me, don’t they?”
“Everyone? Just Kayden and Jamel. Kayden was too messed up to save without the tech at the lab, and the robots there all call me Dr. Hansell, so it wasn’t difficult for Jamel to figure it out.”
“No. Not yet. He’s putting some pieces together, but he hasn’t quite got it yet.” Collin settled beside Quinn. “Want my history that Michael is close to guessing? I think Cee has it, don’t you?”
“I am not sure how you survived the riots.”
“I looked like I was eleven. I pretended I was an orphan, and was taken in by a widow. Later I met up with another surviving geneticist in the small town of Reese. He had opened a small medical practice, and he let me join him. I married a nurse, and she helped a bitter man regain his joy with life. With her encouragement I expanded the clinic to a hospital until she died 57 years later.”
“But the town is Alexandria,” Quinn protested weakly.
“They changed the name after my death. I was well liked there. Next I went to Shade.”
“As Hans Vita, taking your wife’s name,” Cee said.
“Yes. I married a woman there, but she divorced me and ran off with an apprentice. Incidentally at that same practice we visited, Quinn. I had to give poor Geoff a shock. I adopted him after his parents left him with me at ten years of age because he had leukemia. As the years wore on I had to fake my death there, and Geoff found my planted evidence. Would have had to do the same to you someday, Quinn. May still if I feel it will protect you.”
“And then you came here,” Quinn whispered. “How old are you?”
Collin shrugged. “184. But Quinn, that’s not really important.”
“When did you make the dragons that kill people?”
Collin winced. He stood and walked to the edge of the loft, looking out into the night. “After all this time, that’s all anyone cares about. I’ll never, ever do enough good to fix that mistake.”
Jamel’s head snaked around him and leaned against him, encircling him. “Collin, no one can ever do enough good. You are never going to be able to balance a record. Life doesn’t work like that.”
Collin grabbed Jamel’s head and rubbed his face against it. “Is this part of your fire and brimstone message? We all go to hell?”
“We all deserve hell. You’re not any worse than anyone else.”
Collin smiled. “You have a way with words, Jamel. Somehow I’m not encouraged.”
“You aren’t?” Jamel moved his head away. “Do you want to go kill a dragon?”
Collin laughed. “Maybe.” He turned to see Quinn close behind him. “How are you feeling, Quinn?”
“Like I’ve met God.”
“You sure that’s not Satan himself? That’s what most people would call me.”
“What do you call you?” Quinn asked with a tilt of his head.
“I’m just a man cursed to live a very long time and watch everyone I love grow old and die. Jamel here . . . and maybe Cee now, are the only ones I know who will outlive me.”
“I meant your name. Do you want me to call you Collin?”
“I don’t care what you call me, except Hansell. That will get us killed. Look, Quinn. Why does this have to change anything between us? I’ll still do whatever I can for you because I love you as a son.”
As Quinn kept watching him, Collin momentarily feared Quinn would sneer and tell him he’d never want to be the son of Collin Hansell. And then he asked, “Why did you want to make dragons that kill people?”
Collin lifted his gaze to the rafters and sunk down against the frame of the large doorway out of the loft. “I never wanted to make dragons that kill people.” He let his right leg dangle off the edge of the loft. He didn’t bother facing Quinn. “I wanted to make the most beautiful flying creature in the air, and I wanted to be able to fly with him. I imagined him with a wingdeer personality, but I failed to consider that reptiles are far different in temperament than mammals.”
Quinn sat next to him, putting both his feet over the edge. “So then you made mammals? Did the reptile dragons kill most of them like they did the pegasus?”
Jamel joined them resting his head on the floor between them.
“No. I didn’t make anything after that. At least not until after the riots. I finally made a few smaller animals. I went back over Angela’s research and reintroduced the wingdeer when they seemed to be extinct. Thought about doing it with the pegasus.”
“Jamel and I designed that body after he arrived. There’s something about having someone to bounce ideas around with, someone who can help fill in theory with actual processes. He’s the only mammal dragon that ever was or is.”
“Cee and I could design his body?”
Cee spoke up. “I do not have any genetic files. We could not do it without extensive research. Collin lived in an environment where everyone did it. We are so far removed from that, I don’t think I could, even if I had a robot or android body.”
“Cee’s right, Quinn. But when we get to it, maybe next summer, we’ll go over everything with you both. Be thinking about what you want though. Dragon, wingdeer, something else.”
“I want a dragon,” Quinn said.
“Dragon,” Cee repeated.
“Then pick your colors.” Collin’s tension left. “You want to share my risks?”
“I am ready to live dangerously,” Quinn said, giving him a small smile. “I told you that before. I just needed a moment to adjust. How could you stand Tara cursing you all the time?”
Collin shrugged. “I’m used to it. She certainly isn’t the only one. I curse my mistakes every time I see another victim.”
Quinn leaned against Jamel and closed his eyes. “Does that Geoff Napier know?”
“I had to tell him I was still alive, so he knows I’m older than I should be, but so far that’s it. If he comes here, I have a feeling he’ll find out. His wife needs an operation I can only do at the lab. But of course, he doesn’t know that there’s an operation that can cure her. I told him I could help, but he’d been to Alexandria. Thinks everything’s been done.”
Quinn smiled but didn’t open his eyes. “Gaben thought I wasn’t as well trained because I only had one instructor. But I’ve got the best on the planet. You’ll keep teaching me, won’t you?”
“As long as I can. Now that you know about the tech, I can give you texts on a notebook computer that you can’t read anywhere else.” Collin stood. “Jamel wants to go flying. Why don’t you two go have some fun? I’m going to go back to that report.”
Quinn and Jamel stood, Jamel stretching his wings. Quinn reached past Collin for the saddle.
Collin grabbed Quinn into a hug. “Thanks, Quinn. It helps to have family who love you no matter what you’ve done.”
“Yeah,” Quinn agreed. And then he saddled Jamel and flew away.
Michael hadn’t been avoiding Kayden exactly, but he hadn’t sought her out. He was afraid both of his own inability to resist temptation, and that she’d refuse when he again asked her to marry him. Then he realized he had no ring to give her, nothing to signify her acceptance.
He found Collin in the office as he suspected and leaned against the door frame. “Still working on that report?” He’d been at it for at least five days.
Collin stretched and turned in his chair. “I don’t take my obligations lightly. I’ve still got at least a week, don’t I?”
Michael entered the room and sat beside the desk. “I wondered if there was some kind of jewelry shop in the village that I’ve missed. I’d like to propose with a ring this time.” He shrugged. “Of course if I could get a little more money first . . . you wouldn’t happen to have a spare hide lying around that I could show Hollis, do you? I could probably get more money from him.”
Collin gave a small laugh. “And the jewelry store is in Capitol also. Think you’re ready to solo on the wingdeer if we can convince Kayden to let you take Sam for the day?”
“Well, ah . . . probably.”
Collin stood. “Follow me.” As they walked off the porch, Collin looked up into the sky. “I hope that silver-blue dragon stays in the mountains until we’re done out here.”
Michael scanned the sky also. “Aren’t you ever worried about Kayden running back and forth to the barn at night?”
Collin smiled and started walking again. “It’s not that far, and she knows how to take care of herself. You’ll have to learn, too, as a doctor; we often have to make our way home after dark.” Then Collin shook his head. “I shouldn’t have admitted that. Don’t want to give you one more reason to leave. But the trick is staying near shelter, not being out in the open for more than a few seconds. It’s a courtesy that everyone leave their barns unlocked even though they worry about thieves.”
“That’s what those box like structures are by the road!”
“Yes. It’s so people can move around within the village at night if there is a need. See, it isn’t all bad.” He pulled open the barn door and then lit the lamp on the shelf beside it.
Collin started up to the loft. Michael followed. Now he would see the illegal tech and the A unit. His heart pounded. He briefly wondered if the A would kill him like he’d killed Kayden’s attacker, but he couldn’t seriously entertain that thought. He really didn’t think Collin would let him be harmed.
As he lifted his head above the loft floor, Collin hung the lamp on a hook, highlighting the large, empty room. Michael pulled himself up and stood looking all around. Hay was spread on the floor and piled to one side. A few extra bales were stacked in a corner behind the hole he’d climbed up on, but that was it. The large door over the far wall was covered with hide strips. He walked across to it.
“Be careful. That first step is about twenty feet down.”
Michael stopped at the curtain and then shoved it aside to reveal the night air. Nothing. As the curtain swung shut, Michael noticed it wasn’t normal leather as he’d assumed from the field below. “This is dragon-hide!” Why would he waste that kind of money? He turned to see Collin watching him in amusement.
“Come on. This is what I want to show you.” He turned to the left hand side of the barn, back behind the hole they’d come up.
Michael walked over to the dark corner and jumped back when Collin handed him a grotesque head. But Collin ignored his behavior and reached into the darkness again. When he finished, four dragon heads in various stages of mutilation were lined along the wall.
“I’ve been saving these for you. I won’t give you a whole hide. I have an agreement with Ulan about that, and it’s working well for both of us. Besides, I don’t want anyone else working the hides. They’ll ruin the color.” Collin nudged a mutilated head with his foot. “Notice that each of them are not trophy quality either. I don’t want anyone mounting one and claiming they took it. You were just supposed to prove they were being killed, right? This should do it.”
“Yes,” Michael agreed, but Hollis had specified a whole hide. He’d be irritated, probably because he knew how valuable the hide was. He’d have to come up with a story.
“This will be easier for you to carry than hides, anyway.”
Michael gave a quick smile. Collin could read his mind, it seemed. But then he glanced around the loft again. “Where’s the A unit? Isn’t he up here?”
Collin grinned. “No. He’s not here. Told you that you wouldn’t find him.”
“What about the regeneration tanks? The electron microscopes, and everything else you needed to restore Kayden’s hands? I thought you must keep it up here.”
Collin lifted two dragon heads and tossed them back into the corner. “You’ve been assuming a lot of things, haven’t you, Michael? I see nothing wrong with Kayden’s hands. And we haven’t had electricity for anything until just two years ago.” He tossed the other two heads back. “When you’re ready to go, I’ll help you attach them to the saddle.”
Collin brushed off his hands and then walked to the hole down. He grabbed the lamp. “You first, Michael.”
“Wait. I know her hands were messed up. I saw the bastard slice her fingers off myself. And then the A recorded the hours of torture. I only stayed in the conference room long enough to know those aren’t Kayden’s original hands. So what happened?”
Collin sighed. “I guess I’m turning in. Make sure you blow out the lamp before you come in.” He swung himself onto the ladder and disappeared.
“Wait!” But Collin didn’t wait. Michael rushed down the ladder, a movement made more awkward by the lamp he was now required to take care of. He extinguished it by the door and set it on the shelf. Then he ran after Collin who was already on the porch.
He caught up with him in the office. Collin didn’t acknowledge him, keeping his gaze on the notebook before him, even though Michael was sure he knew he was there. Michael plopped into the chair beside the desk. “I don’t understand. Do you trust me or not?”
“Sorry, Michael. I don’t play those kind of games. Trust isn’t measured by gullibility. You needed proof of dragon deaths. That’s what I gave you. As far as Jamel goes, he doesn’t want to be found by you, so I’m not going to betray his trust to gain yours. I don’t really care if you trust me or if you think I trust you. I’ll have those reports for you soon, and you’ll be able to leave like you want.” He focused on his work again.
Michael stood. “You’re saying a machine means more to you than me or Kayden. I’m surprised you don’t kill me to keep me quiet. After all that’s what people do around here to protect their tech, don’t they?”
Collin didn’t look at him, but Michael thought he saw the corner of his mouth twitch as if he was amused at him again.
“And quit acting like I’m some amusing new microbe you’ve just discovered under your microscope.”
Collin did chuckle then. “Microbes don’t amuse me this much, Michael.”
Michael stalked from the office and up the stairs to his room. The man was a pompous, self-righteous bastard.
As he lay in bed though, his thoughts turned from Collin to Governor Hollis and the look on his face when Michael gave him those four dragon heads. And then Michael groaned and rolled over to put his face into his pillow. Collin had given him the means to make a good showing to one of his employers without requesting anything in return, and he’d stalked off cursing the man because he wouldn’t give more of himself. Why did Collin put up with him?
Michael couldn’t help but trust Collin. He realized to his shame, that Collin was perfectly within his rights to be amused by Michael’s childish fits of temper. Had he forgotten how to control his temper? Perhaps he’d only learned to hide it and not control it. He was amazed that Collin was just amused. His father would be disgusted and embarrassed.
Michael tried not to think about what his father thought of him, and how disappointed he’d be when he learned he’d failed at artificial intelligence.