The next morning Michael slipped into his seat at the dining room table after everyone else had started eating. Being the only one on his side of the house, there were no other movements to wake him up. He’d be glad when Niles and Marta arrived.
He mumbled a thanks when Wilma set his eggs before him, and then began eating.
“Michael needs to go into Capitol,” Collin said. “I thought perhaps he could use Sam.”
“I can take him,” Kayden said.
“I thought you were behind on you work, Sweetheart. But perhaps Quinn could go with him, if you think you might like a friend with you, Michael. But he will need his own mount with those four dragon heads.”
Kayden glanced from Collin to Michael. “I . . . .” He could tell she didn’t want him to take her wingdeer.
“You don’t think I know enough about riding yet?” he asked her.
“It’s not that. I . . . Well . . . I guess you can.”
“Would you like company?” Collin asked again.
Michael hesitated. He hadn’t been on his own since he’d been dragon-bait, and Quinn wasn’t meeting his gaze. He apparently didn’t want to go anyway. “I’ll be all right,” Michael said. “The city is straight down the river, right?”
“Right. Two hours down river by air, and during the last hour of flight you’ll probably see a lot more people on the road below you.”
Kayden still didn’t look comfortable, so he tried to reassure her. “I’ll be back before dark. I promise.”
She smiled then. “I believe you, Michael. It’s just Sam, I’m thinking of. He’s not been away from me since he was born.”
“That’s true,” Collin said. “It might be a problem.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “I’m sure I’m ready for this. Didn’t I just fly for hours each way to Jacada and Alexandria? That’s far more experience than I had when I first mounted poor Twilight.”
Collin focused on his food, but he had a slight smile which irritated Michael. But he tried to remember his resolve. It didn’t matter if Collin was amused. Rather amusement than condemnation, right? But it wasn’t that easy to ignore the irritation.
Kayden and Collin both helped him saddle up and then tie the heads together and on to the back of the saddle, two on each side of Sam. Sam pranced and stretched his wings as if nervous.
“It’s all right,” Kayden soothed. “Those dragons are long dead. They won’t hurt you, Sweetheart.”
Michael lifted himself into the saddle and tightened the straps. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring him back safe.” He urged Sam into the air.
Sam gave a leap and a huge downward pull with his wings, and they were in the air. He tried to circle back, but Michael urged him south. Finally he gave in and left Kayden behind.
It was two hours to the northwest edge of Capitol, but the governor’s building was on the southeast side near the ocean, and it took another three quarters of an hour to make it there.
He landed on the front lawn of the building. Sam pranced and refused to hold still as Michael dropped to the ground. He was surprised the beast still seemed to have endless energy. Michael unstrapped the four dragon heads and then thanked Sam for the ride as he’d watched Kayden and Collin do. And then they’d just leave their mounts untied in the yard.
Michael grabbed the dragon heads and walked up the steps to the building. Opening the door was difficult, but when a man came out, he caught the door with his arm. The man stared at his load, and Michael gave him a brief smile before making his way through the building to the governor’s office. The first man wasn’t the only one to stare. He felt as if he’d suddenly been thrust into a holomovie, and he was the star playing -- Hans Trapper, of course. He grinned at his thoughts. Now if he’d dressed in head to foot in blue dragon-hide they’d really have something to stare at.
He reached the governor’s secretary. “I’m here to see Governor Hollis.”
“Aaah . . . You wouldn’t happen to have an appointment, would you?”
“Right. Tell him Hans . . . I mean Michael Jamel is here to see him.”
Her mouth opened wide in an O. “You’re not . . . ?” She jumped out of the chair. “I’ll get him right away, Mr. Trapper.”
Michael briefly wondered how upset Collin would be if he found out Michael was being mistaken for Hans Trapper. Most likely he’d be deeply amused. And if Collin was amused, then Michael could be, too.
The secretary returned. “You can go right in, Sir.”
Governor Hollis sat at a large, polished wooden desk, and he wrote in a book as Michael entered. He didn’t glance up until the secretary closed the door behind her. “Michael, I didn’t expect to see . . . .” He stood, staring at Michael’s bundles.
Michael lifted them up and then set them on the floor, relieving the stress on his arms. Those things were heavy. “Well, I got four of them so far.” He tried not to wince at the lie. He did have four heads so far. And Collin might give him more.
Hollis came around the desk and then crouched to examine the heads. “Where are the rest of ‘em? The hides?”
“Too heavy to keep.”
“Did you have to mutilate these heads?”
Michael’s irritation snapped. “I’m afraid trophies are the last thing on my mind when dragons are trying to kill me. You wanted someone to kill the beasts, here’s proof they’re being killed. Now I need a bit more cash.”
Hollis straightened and met his gaze. “See you bought some dragon-hide souvenirs,” he said, giving a negligible wave to Michael’s new pack.
Michael sighed. “Yeah. Are you going to pay me for these, or should I take the next flight off this hellhole of a planet.”
Hollis motioned him to a chair in front of the desk, and then Hollis sat adjacent to him. “So where’d you get these from?”
“Here and there.”
“I want you to focus on Capitol.”
“Should I hang out by the pit?” Everything about this planet was barbaric, especially its insistence on capital punishment by dismemberment.
Hollis’s eyes narrowed. Then he went around his desk and rummaged through a stack of papers in the corner of the desk. He finally pulled out one and handed it to Michael. “These are all the reported sightings for the last three weeks. Start in these places.”
Michael glanced over the list, and then shoved it into his pack. He’d give it to Collin, but he doubted Collin would make the effort to come into Capitol. “I thought you were governor of the whole continent, and Capitol itself was the mayor’s problem.”
“Let me worry about politics. Your job is to kill dragons.”
“I thought my job was tech-spy, according to Raleigh.”
Hollis rolled his eyes. “Raleigh doesn’t know anything about the planet. He sits up there in orbit and doesn’t even bother to read our requests correctly. I requested a dragon-slayer, not a tech-spy.” He stood and motioned Michael to follow him. “Next time bring the hides instead.” He opened the door, and they walked past the secretary.
“Too much work. When I kill one of these guys, I don’t stick around skinning them so their buddies can come in and eat me. You don’t like that, you kill the bastards yourself. This isn’t the job I signed up for, and frankly, I’ve had more fun cleaning out an ore freighter’s cargo door panel. It’s a bit safer hanging outside a ship with only a thin tether line for safety than trying to avoid those teeth and claws. Never got hurt by space dust yet.”
“And you apparently weren’t dragon food either,” he said dryly, as they entered the treasurer’s office.
“Got a back full of scars that’ll be with me forever, so I’m about ready to leave.”
Hollis whirled from the counter to meet his eyes. “You were hurt?”
Michael nodded, but suddenly didn’t want to talk about it. He faced the treasurer.
Hollis finally requested the money. But then instead of giving it to Michael he motioned him back to the office. When he shut the door, he said, “Listen. I know you’re lying about something. You say you got scars, then show them.”
“I’d rather not. May I have the money?”
“You embellished your story just a bit too much. Now where did you get the heads?”
“They’re dead dragon heads. You wanted dead dragons. There they are.” Michael shook his head. “I’m not lying. I was mauled. Doc doesn’t know how I survived.”
“Show me. Your face looks just fine.”
Michael wanted to walk right out. To hell with the man’s money. But then he didn’t like being called a liar, even if he was lying about where he got the heads from. He slipped the pack from his shoulder and then pulled off his shirt, turning away from Hollis. Then he replaced his shirt, grabbed his pack, and started for the door.
Michael stopped with his hand on the doorknob, turning only enough to look back at Hollis.
“You forgot your money.” He tossed the sack of coins to him.
Michael caught it with both hands.
“Don’t leave. Kill the beasts any way you can. But I just want you to know that hide is worth a lot of money if you do have time to retrieve it. Letting it rot is almost sacrilege.”
Michael gave him a small smile, now that he had his money. “Perhaps I did tell a little lie. I like to get paid twice. When I have to give the doc more money than you gave me to start out with, I don’t feel the least guilty for getting paid double for the beasts.” He tilted his head at Hollis’ widened eyes. “I doubt you planned to give me any more whether I brought it in or not, did you? This is just the salary that Raleigh promised me.”
He thought Hollis was angry, but then the man laughed. “You got me there, Jamel. I better make that a motto: Never underestimate a dragon-slayer.”
Michael leaned against the door. “So how much are you planning to give me for these beasts? Or doesn’t it matter if I risk my back and every other part of my body.”
Hollis held up his hands. “Okay. Heads are one hundred and hides three hundred.” He approached Michael. “Let’s go back to the treasurer.”
Michael made a note to check with Collin to see if the numbers were fair, but for now, he’d accept the extra four hundred gold. His pack was heavy when he added the rest of the coins. He was beginning to see how Collin made all his money. And without a scar on his broad sculpted back for all his trouble. Not that he’d ever begrudge him the money. He wasn’t going to go out and kill the beasts.
Hollis left him at the door to the capitol building. “You will stay now, won’t you? The people need some relief from the beasts.”
“Not sure. I’ll think about it.”
“Get those dragons over by Medon Beach first. That’s a resort area, and it’s really making it bad for the vacationers.”
“A resort area? Here?” Well, he could see Jacada as a vacation getaway if he forgot about the dragons.
“Governor?” asked a young man just entering the building. Governor Hollis waved Michael on and turned his attention to the man.
Michael walked outside. Now where was Sam? He studied the skies and still didn’t see him. Self-consciously he raised his voice and made the calling noise that Kayden would. Still no Sam. Now what? He was stranded.
He wondered if he should go back inside, but then decided he’d pushed his luck enough with Hollis. Instead he pulled out his crude map. He needed to go to the immigration intake office and find out when the next shuttle could take him from this rock. Then he’d figure out how to get to that jewelry store Collin had told him about. It was way over on the mid north side of the city. If he was lucky, maybe Sam would come back. He hated to think what he’d tell Kayden when he finally made it back home.
Quinn stepped out into the waiting room just as a couple came into the room. He’d never seen them before, and he thought he knew everyone by sight in the village. He went to the man. He was a little older than the woman. “I’m Dr. Stone. May I help you?”
The man shook his hand. “Niles Pannier and my wife Marta.”
“Oh, yeah. Collin’s with a patient, and Kayden’s probably in the barn, but I can show you to your room. Do you have luggage?”
“On the porch.”
They only had four medium sized cases, and Quinn quickly helped carry them upstairs. As they came downstairs, Kayden rushed into the house. “Quinn! Is Michael here?”
“But Sam’s back.” She focused on his face, not looking at Niles and Marta. “I know something’s wrong. Maybe he’s hurt. Where’s Collin?” Shanika came in and stood back by the door, clutching her pegasus.
“With a patient. Are the straps broken? Do you think he fell?”
He regretted asking. “No. Oh, no. Quinn, he needs a doctor. I just know it. You or Collin have to go find him. He can’t die.”
“I’ll go,” he said, reassuring her. He stepped into the office and grabbed his pack. Then he hesitated at the door. “I’ve shown Niles and Marta their room. Perhaps you can show them around the place.”
“But Michael . . . .”
“I’m going.” He ran toward the barn.
As he saddled Rae, Shanika ran up to him. “Daddy! Are you going to Capitol? You said you’d take Peggy.” She held up her pegasus with the medically stitched wing.
Quinn took the horse and stuffed him into his pack. “If Michael isn’t hurt, I’ll get him fixed.” He kissed her forehead and gave her a hug. “But now I have to go.” He mounted and walked Rae away from Shanika so she wouldn’t be hurt when he urged Rae into the air.
“Quinn!” shouted Collin.
Quinn walked Rae to him. “Yes?”
“He went to the Capitol building. Then he was going to the jewelers. Try there. I was afraid Sam might strand him, but he got a little defensive when I suggested you go along.”
“Maybe you . . . .”
“I’ve got Kayden’s emotions to deal with. I trust you won’t be punching him today. You can get him.” Collin grinned, and then patted Rae’s neck. “I’m sure he’s okay.”
“I won’t punch him.”
Collin stepped closer to Quinn and lowered his voice. “How are you two getting along?”
Quinn shrugged. “Okay. He’s never acted mad at me. He has a right to though. I . . . I’ll find him.” Quinn walked Rae toward the road and then urged her into the air. He was acutely aware that he’d unfairly attacked Michael twice, and Michael had forgiven him both times. But Quinn was still guilty, and he didn’t know how to repay him.
He turned Rae toward Capitol. “Cee, would you see Michael if he was on the ground somewhere?”
“I am scanning for him. If he fell, I would see him. I hope he is safe.”
“You still love him, don’t you?”
“I will stay with you, Quinn.”
“But Michael? You do care about him, don’t you?”
“I will always care what happens to him, but he doesn’t want me to. He would work better with a 3000 unit. In those the emotion simulation does not affect the core. It does not have the ability to care how it is responded to. I wish I did not care how Michael responds to me, but it is built into the chip itself, and I can not alter it.”
Quinn remembered wishing it didn’t hurt when his father, or later Tara, called him names. He rubbed the outside of his pocket.
They flew along in silence for half an hour before Quinn’s thoughts returned to his guilt. “How can I make it up to Michael for hitting him? What can I give him or do for him that will be enough to cover the crime?” He knew many times the courts allowed the criminal to make restitution if the victim was willing so that the death penalty could be avoided, but a crime committed in the process of restitution, or restitution promised but not delivered earned an automatic trip to the pit.
“No crime was committed,” Cee stated.
“But I hit him twice. I need to make it right. What can I do to show him I’m sorry?”
“I wish I knew. I have never been able to regain Michael’s favor, and every time things would begin to go well, Butler would invade my neural net again. And then Jamel didn’t invade my net, but he got Michael mad at me.”
Quinn touched his pocket. He wished he could protect Cee. “What does Michael want? Maybe I could give him something.”
“He wants Kayden. He wants to meet people’s expectations, even when he is incapable -- that’s why he wanted the dragon-hides. He wants my data files on previous property ownership.”
“That’s why he was taking you apart? He was going to take out a file?”
“Your sentence indicates a lack of understanding.”
“I don’t understand most everything about computers.”
“Data files can’t be removed physically. I would need to send a copy of the information to his notebook computer. Do you think I should give him the files?”
“Oh,” Quinn said, although he still didn’t understand. “Well, I don’t want him to take anything away from you.”
“I would still have the files. It wouldn’t take anything away from me to give it to him. But he is trying to track the relationship between Collin Alexander and Alex Collin.”
“Oh! But we can’t hurt Collin.”
“No. I don’t think Michael would hurt him. And all the files say is that Collin Alexander originally owned the mountain property. He deeded it to Hans Vita, and Hans deeded it to Alex Collin, each transfer in the year of the previous owner’s death.”
Collin Alexander. Quinn still had a hard time believing he was not only the student of the greatest doctor ever honored on Aussie, but he was also the student of the great geneticist, Collin Hansell. He’d always known Alex Collin was the smartest person he knew, and he loved him, but now . . . now he knew he was right about his mentor being a genius and the greatest man to ever walk the planet. “I should ask Collin how he came up with the name Alexander.”
“Collin Alexander Hansell. It has always been his name. Michael would not be able to trace Collin to Collin Hansell by the property records. There is nothing in them about Collin Hansell.”
“You want to give him the files?” Quinn asked in surprise.
“He asked, and I disobeyed a direct order because I selfishly want to be with you. You are very kind to me. You even lift your hand to protect me when danger is near. Selfishly, I want to stay where I am appreciated and not where I was ordered to stay. I should at least give him the files. I am sure he will not harm Collin. He knows he owes him his life.”
“He owes you his life, too.”
“I am a machine. I am just doing what I am programmed to do.” Cee’s voice sounded small and bitter. “I do not want to be a machine. I wish I was flesh like Jamel. Again I am selfish. I know I can never have that with Michael. With you, there is a chance. But even without the flesh, you treat me like I am flesh, and I do not want to give up even that little bit of life. But . . . I don’t want to be selfish. How can I have everything? I can’t. Quinn, can you help me not be selfish?”
And Quinn wanted to be selfish and hide his little black box away where no one would ever find him -- especially Michael. Instead he tried to focus on their mission as they reached the outskirts of Capitol. “Have you been scanning for Michael?”
“Yes. I have not seen him yet.”
Quinn winged toward the Capitol building, making a circuit so that they’d pass over the jewelry store.
“He is in that building below us,” Cee said.
They were flying fast, and there were many buildings below them. Quinn circled and slowed to land. “Which building?” He flew along a street, startling a horse below them. He could hear the owner cursing him.
“I have identified it on the map. 6532 Tagamil. Kilborn’s Diner.”
Quinn brought Rae down on the street between a set of workhorses pulling a truck, and a lightweight buggy. He ignored the stares a wingdeer’s entrance into traffic always brought. He trotted Rae down the street to the right building and then turned him into the side street to the dirt lot behind. When he dismounted, he nuzzled Rae and gave her a treat from his trouser pocket. “Good girl.” He hoped Michael didn’t take off out the front door before he could enter the back of the restaurant.