Michael’s feet were so sore, he didn’t know how he’d walk the rest of the way to the jewelry shop. He knew he had at least two blisters, maybe three or four. He wondered if there was a hotel nearby. Maybe he should buy a horse. But he didn’t want to spend anything until he got that ring. He gave the waitress a brief thankful smile as she set the herder’s special in front of him. It looked like stew again. It seemed to be a favorite no matter where he went, although everyone had their own way to season it. He ate slowly, sometimes closing his eyes against his tiredness. Just nine more days on this planet. Then he could leave on the supply shuttle.
“May I join you?”
Michael glanced up in surprise. “Quinn! You can’t believe how glad I am to see you.”
Quinn took a chair, and his lips twitched into a brief smile. “Glad to see you’re in one piece. Kayden was sure you’d fallen when Sam returned alone, although Collin said he probably just took off on you.”
“At least he wasn’t stolen. I didn’t know how I was going to break it to her that I’d lost her beloved wingdeer. How’d you find me in here?”
Quinn hesitated. Then he touched his pocket. “I had a little help.”
“Cee? He’s working again?” Michael glanced around the room. He had to be careful. “Skip that. We’ll talk later. Hungry?” He motioned to the waitress, and Quinn ordered, not the herder’s special, but something called “bluefish”.
“How do you know Rae will always stay for you? What did I do wrong? I don’t remember Kayden or you ever tying them to the posts.”
“Sam knows he belongs to Kayden. If you had a wingdeer who knew you, he’d wait for you. Tess was a multi-owner wingdeer, so she was more patient, but Kayden and I helped deliver Sam and Rae. They’ve never had anyone else.”
“But Collin said . . . .”
“He thought I should come this morning because Rae’s presence probably would have kept Sam here. If not, at least you wouldn’t have been stranded.”
“I thought he didn’t trust me,” Michael admitted. He should have realized Collin had a better reason than that. The waitress brought Quinn’s food, and it looked just like a fish, although breading instead of scales covered the outside. Quinn began eating.
When they were finished, Quinn took out his money pouch, and before Michael realized what he was doing, he paid for both of them. “Wait, Quinn. I can pay my own way.”
Quinn shrugged and led him from the building. “I owe you.”
“For what? I owe you for rescuing me from a walk home.”
Quinn walked to the only wingdeer in the lot who was waiting as peaceably as any horse. “You’re limping. You need some new boots.”
“I figured that out, but I wasn’t sure it was a good time to break a new pair in when I thought I had to walk home.”
Quinn gave Michael a boost up, and then settled into the saddle in front of him. He walked Rae only a few steps from the other animals and carts before Rae lurched into the air. Michael clutched Quinn’s waist to keep from jerking backward. “I’d still like to get to that jewelry store,” Michael said, leaning forward near Quinn’s ear.
Rae angled downward and then landed on a side street. She stopped in front of a cobbler shop. “You can get some new boots here. I’ll be back in a few minutes to pick you up. I’m going to see if I can get the stitches removed from a pegasus wing.” In took a second before Michael realized he was talking about Shanika’s toy. He decided not to protest and slid down, wincing as his feet touched the ground.
When the cobbler realized how blistered Michael’s feet were, he wanted to wait to fit him, but he finally did when Michael insisted. Afterward he sat on a bench outside until Quinn returned.
“The horse fixed?”
Quinn grinned as he helped Michael up. “And it now has a friend, brown with black mane, tail, and wings.”
“Ah, Lightning with wings. She’ll love it.”
They finally made it to the jewelry store, and Quinn came in with him. “So what are you planning to buy?”
“A ring for Kayden.”
“So when will the wedding be.”
“I hope soon. I plan to leave next week.” Michael followed Quinn to the shop keeper. When he finally picked his ring and paid, they left the shop.
“Do you have to leave?” Quinn asked when they reached Rae. “I’m sorry about hitting you. Let me make it up to you.”
Michael shook his head. “It’s not you, Quinn. I just don’t belong here.” Quinn sat in back this time, so Michael lifted himself to the front and took the reins. “Home, now?”
Michael urged Rae into flight and then toward home. The sun was starting its descent. “Are you sure we have enough time?”
“Yeah. Look, Michael, I really am sorry. I can’t give you Cee back, cause he doesn’t want to go, but he said he’d give you a data file you wanted. I’m not sure how that works though.”
“I’ve already transferred it,” Cee said.
Michael twisted, but couldn’t really see Quinn behind him. “It’s working again! How’d it start working again?”
“I never stopped, Michael. I want to stay with Quinn.”
Michael sighed. “Machines don’t want. You’re malfunctioning, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps,” came Cee’s tiny voice. “I am not leaving. Quinn said I could stay.”
“I won’t give him back, Michael, but I’ll do anything else for you. Just name it. I’ll do anything.”
Michael knew he couldn’t be serious, so he decided to call his bluff. “Okay. Give me Rae instead.”
He could feel Quinn’s hands tighten against his waist. He judged it was close to a minute before he spoke. “Will they let you have a wingdeer on a space shuttle?”
“Oh, geez, Quinn, I’m joking. I wouldn’t take Rae from you. She’d just fly away anyway.”
“I’ll give you her calf. She’s due in five and a half months.”
“You don’t have to give me anything. But my grandfather is really going to think I’m brain-dead for leaving two of his precious 5000 units on this tech dead world. Why don’t I give you one of my notebook computers instead? I can even turn the speech back on if you want. They work perfectly.”
Quinn’s right hand left his waist, and Michael felt the back of it against his back. He was holding his pocket again. He must have had Cee in his pocket for a while, because he’d been doing that quite often.
“Why are you so attached to the thing? It’s like loving a microscope or a hammer. It’s just a tool. Don’t let its emotion/voice programming fool you.”
“I’m sorry. I should have listened to Collin and not let you know he still worked. But Cee felt bad because he didn’t give you the file, whatever a file is.”
Michael gave a quick laugh. “He can’t feel bad, Quinn, no more than a hammer can feel bad for missing a nail. You can feel bad, but the hammer doesn’t. It’s just trying to manipulate you, just like Butler does. Now there is a computer who has learned how to work people.”
“I am not like Butler!”
“A hammer can’t learn. Cee is alive.”
“On the contrary, in a non tech-dead situation, many tools ‘learn’ repeated movements. It’s part of artificial intelligence. But it is artificial. Cee is designed to respond on a human level, but it is not human.”
“I don’t care if you think I’m a fool,” Quinn mumbled. “Don’t try to take him. I won’t let you.”
The man was like a child with a precious toy. If he’d wanted it for any other reason than that he really seemed to love the little box, Michael would have fought harder -- he would have risked Quinn’s fists again. But he’d already resigned himself to going back to his grandfather without it. He’d even written up his report about how it was destroyed after that pesky A unit had harassed him. He had admitted that the A was still functional, but he couldn’t find him. And he said he’d quit looking because he owed the man who was hiding him both his and Kayden’s life. He wrote that he’d hoped his grandfather would think that his life was worth it, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to say that to his face. He’d probably just mumble in disgrace, and try to catch the next shuttle to CentiOne.
They arrived at the clinic just as the sun began slipping behind the trees near the river. Quinn dismounted and then looked up at Michael. He seemed wary, one hand held over his pocket.
Michael slid off Rae. “Need help stabling her?” He tried not to limp as they walked into the barn.
“No. You can go in.”
“Hey, Marta,” Michael said, as the woman emerged from the back of the barn. “You made it.”
Marta greeted him with a smile and a hug. “Michael. It’s good to see you again. You didn’t sell Twilight, did you?”
She would ask right away. “Dragon got him. Raked up my back pretty well, also. Doc Collin saved my life.”
“Oh, Michael, I’m so sorry. And glad you’re all right.”
Quinn walked past them to Rae’s stall.
Marta ran after him. “Oh, Dr. Stone. I can stable her and brush her down. She’s such a pretty girl, isn’t she? Oh, Michael, I can’t thank you enough for recommending us for this job. It’s like heaven here.”
Michael laughed. “I thought you’d like it. Doc Collin’s a great guy to work for, too. You can trust him with your life.”
Quinn rubbed Rae’s nose, and then rested his cheek against her snout for a moment. “See you tomorrow,” he whispered. And then he left.
“He doesn’t say much, does he?” Marta asked after he’d disappeared.
“Probably just in a hurry to give his little girl that new toy he bought her. He’s going through a divorce so things have been rough. But I trust him, too. He’d protect anyone he thought was being hurt. Where’s Niles?”
“He’s inside with Kayden.”
“Does she remember him yet?”
“No, but at least she’s not denying that he’s her father. That really hurt. And she was clinging to Doc Collin.”
“Yeah, she would. Guess it’s a natural reaction, since he has been the one to help her over her abduction. She was hurt pretty bad.”
“And you’re engaged.”
“I hope she still feels that way when I leave next week.”
“No, Michael. Not yet.” She looked up into his face. “Niles hasn’t had time.”
He wanted to give in, but he couldn’t. If he didn’t catch this shuttle, he’d have to wait another month. And if Kayden wouldn’t follow him as his wife, the longer he stayed the more it’d tear both of them apart.
Kayden rushed to the barn. “Michael!” She threw herself against him, wrapping her arms around him. “I thought you’d fallen. I was so scared.”
Michael kissed her forehead, and she lifted her face so that he could kiss her lips. He did once, but knowing Marta was watching made him keep the contact chaste.
“I’m so sorry about Sam, Michael. I know he’s loyal, but he knows you belong here. He should have waited.”
“No, Kayden,” he said slowly. “I don’t belong here. You know that.” He led her away from Marta, giving Marta a slight wave good-bye.
“But you do, Michael! You’re Collin’s apprentice. You . . . .”
Michael touched his finger to her lips, but then kept her walking until they reached the porch. He leaned against the railing and took the ring from his pack. “I love you, Kayden. Will you accept this ring and become my wife?”
Kayden wrapped her arms around his neck again, nearly knocking him over the railing backwards. Then she kissed him. Finally she pulled away and examined the ring, putting it on her finger. “It’s perfect, Michael. I love it.”
“I’m leaving next week. Do you love me enough to come with me?”
“Michael, you can’t go. We have everything here. We . . . .”
Michael slipped away from Kayden and made his way upstairs.
Kayden pounded up the stairs behind him. “Michael, stop. Just stop.”
“Why? You said you won’t come with me.”
Kayden stood before him. She bit her lip and then studied the floor. “I’ll go with you,” she said in a low, weak voice.
Michael grabbed her into his arms. “I love you so much, Kayden. You won’t be sorry. I promise. We’ll go to CentiOne. It’s a domed world. They have the biggest zoo off Terran Earth. It’s the safest community around. You have to get permission to come inside the dome. We can get in though, cause Thom’s parents live there -- my aunt and uncle. You’ll love it.”
Kayden clung to him. “Don’t ever leave me, Michael.”
Later that night he sat on his bed and removed his new boots from his blistered feet. Across the room was the picture he’d painted of Kayden dancing on the grass while the wingdeer flew circles above her. The wind whipped her hair around her face, only revealing her laughing smile. He loved the scene, but realized the picture was too large to take with him. He’d have to give it to Collin. Yes, he’d give it to Collin. He’d miss her. As he blew out the lamp he thought about Niles. Maybe he should give it to Niles. He was her real father. But as he drifted to sleep, he knew the picture should be Collin’s. He’d given him everything to paint it, and he’d even given Kayden the means to smile under those wingdeer. It was his. Maybe he’d be able to finish that picture of Kayden touching her forehead to Sam’s muzzle before he left. He could give that to Niles.
Kayden had cried herself to sleep. Collin had heard her until Jamel returned from the lab in the middle of the night and began talking to her. And Collin couldn’t do anything to stop her heart from breaking. He’d done all he could, offered Michael every incentive to stay that he could think of. There was nothing left.
“Don’t let her leave,” Jamel said in his ear.
“We can’t stop her,” Collin said, weary.
“But she’s crying. He’s hurting her, just like I knew he would.”
“No, Jamel. If she didn’t love him so much, she wouldn’t be hurting. Don’t blame Michael.” Although Collin did, he couldn’t let Jamel do it. Jamel had already attacked Michael once to protect her. He had to make it clear. “Do not go near Michael, Jamel. Do you understand me? Kayden would cry even more if Michael was hurt. She loves him. She loved him before she loved you or me. You know how she called for him through all those nightmares.”
“Are you sure she didn’t call his name because he was the one hurting her?”
“Now, Jamel, you killed the one hurting her.”
“I used to think he was Michael. She just kept saying it when he’d come at her again. I think I didn’t understand human emotional responses well then. I still don’t. She says she’s happy she’s getting married, but she’s crying because she doesn’t want to leave us. How can she be happy and sad?”
Kayden must be trying to explain as well. It would be no problem for a computer to hold two different conversations at the same time -- or even ten. Jamel’s uniqueness was in caring, in loving. Collin had always known he loved Kayden.
“You must let Kayden go, Jamel,” he whispered. “If we force her to stay against her will, we’ll be like the man who abducted her.”
“We can’t force her to stay. We can only love her and support her no matter what decision she makes.”
“I want her to stay.”
“So do I, Jamel. So do I.”
The table from the other dining room now was end to end with the table in Collin’s dining room, making it difficult to go around them, but allowing all to eat together. Quinn wished that Niles, Marta, and Michael would eat on their own side. Meals could not be relaxed with such a crowd. He watched Michael, smiling and happy. Kayden sat beside him, sometimes clutching his hand, rarely lifting her lips in a brief smile. Her eyes were red from the tears he’d heard her crying. He’d almost gone in to comfort her, but he suspected Collin must have. And then Cee said that Jamel was.
He rubbed his shirt pocket. He knew that Cee had helped him during that awful silent night and day when he was the only one here and he hadn’t known whether he’d ever see Shanika again. Michael was watching him now. Quinn was afraid he was trying to come up with a way to get Cee back. If Cee wanted to go, it’d be different. But Cee was afraid of that Butler, and Quinn just knew Michael wouldn’t take that fear seriously enough to protect Cee from Butler.
The back door shut as Wilma left to work in the vegetable garden. Michael smiled at Collin. “I’d like to go to Alexandria one more time before I leave. I’ve got to get a report or two.”
“Take Sam,” Quinn couldn’t help suggesting.
Michael grinned at him, and Quinn tentatively returned the smile. Perhaps he wasn’t scheming against him.
“If you were staying, Michael, I’d get you your own wingdeer,” Collin said.
“Quinn already offered me Rae’s calf. But he was joking.”
“I wasn’t. You can have it if you’re here. They’re more loyal if you start the minute they’re born.”
“Unfortunately Angie won’t stay with you either,” Collin said. “But I do need to look into finding that doctor, especially since you’ve decided not to apprentice, so I guess we can go day after tomorrow.”
“You know I don’t belong here.”
“Michael, I don’t think you know where you belong, do you?” Collin focused on Niles. “Kayden will show you the morning routine in the stables. If I’m not busy this afternoon, we can discuss maintenance, which horses will tolerate the wagon best, and where to go and what to do when you need supplies.” He stood. “Michael, check the medical garden, and then meet me in the pharmacy.” Collin disappeared into the clinic.
Niles glanced at Michael. “So where do you belong?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Come on, Niles. I apprenticed in artificial intelligence. This place is . . . .” He stopped when he met Quinn’s gaze.
Quinn knew he’d been going to say something negative, like Gaben would say because he was hospital trained and Quinn was just trained by Collin in a backward village. But Gaben didn’t know he’d had the best master. Artificial intelligence. What was that compared to a man who could make dragons? He was as wrong as Gaben had been. And Quinn couldn’t help his smile.
“What’s the smile for?”
Quinn shrugged. “Don’t mind me. I don’t know the difference between artificial and real intelligence. But you said you weren’t going back to artificial intelligence. And not everyone can train to be a doctor. Maybe you’re afraid you can’t succeed.”
He wasn’t sure why he challenged him. He’d never done anything like that before, but then the barbs Michael had unintentionally inflicted over Quinn’s ignorance of artificial intelligence still ate at him. He expected Michael to get angry, and for a moment he felt himself cringe, before he got himself in hand and forced himself to return Michael’s gaze.
“I’ll miss you, Quinn,” he said in a strangely subdued voice.
Quinn pushed the rest of his food away. “Are you going to be with Kayden today?” he asked Shanika, but looked at Kayden.
Kayden stood and hugged Shanika. “Yes. She can be with me. I’ve got a lot more help than you do today.”
“I’ll take my Lightning pegasus.”
“And not poor Silver pegasus?” Kayden teased. “He’s all healed.”
“Silver Peggy is a girl. Lightning’s a boy.”
“Actually Lightning the horse is a girl,” Kayden corrected.
“He is?” her faced seemed to fall a moment, but then brightened. “Okay, Peggy is the boy.”
Kayden laughed. “Okay. Let’s go.” They ran out of the room together. Niles and Marta glanced at each other and then followed.
It was only Quinn and Michael now. Wilma still worked outside in the vegetable garden. “Michael, she was crying almost all night.”
“Kayden. I heard her. She’s like my sister. I can’t stand to see her hurting like that.”
Michael looked out the window, his smile gone now. “I don’t want her hurt either. I know she’s going to miss everyone here. I will, too. But this just isn’t our home.”
“You called it home yesterday.”
“Do you really want me to stay, Quinn? Or do you just want it so Kayden will stay?”
Quinn stared at Michael. He’d never tried to separate his motives. Cee loved him, Kayden loved him, even Collin liked him, he knew. They all wanted him, and Quinn wanted them happy.
Michael sighed and stood. “I better get to work.”
“Michael, I . . . what can I do to prove I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, Quinn.”
“Then what do you want?”
Michael gave a slight smile. “I’m not sure. Maybe just a friend who won’t punch me next time he doesn’t understand what I’m doing.”
“I don’t understand why you’re leaving. But I’m not punching you. I won’t ever again. I promise. You’ll never get a mentor as good as Collin anywhere else.”
Michael grinned. “Thanks. And if I want a mentor in medicine, you’re right. I think Alex Collin is probably the best on the planet.”
“The best anywhere!”
“You may be right.” He cuffed his arm lightly and then took off out the door.
Quinn walked around the table and into the clinic.
Collin straightened from the cabinet and dropped a roll of gauze in his pack, preparing for the day of potential house calls. “You tried.” He motioned Quinn to the table, and Quinn noticed a tray beside it with a syringe, a small piece of gauze, and a black spider thing in a small dish of disinfectant. “Do you still want the implant?”
“Okay. Up here and lay down with your right ear up.”
He only felt a slight amount of apprehension. This was what he’d been waiting for. He would be able to hear both Cee and Jamel. And if Michael did take Cee, Cee could tell him where he was instantly. Quinn lay on his side, his head on the support. He felt Collin push his hair back, and it pulled at his braid. Then he washed behind his ear with disinfectant. He picked up the spider thing with tweezers and brought it to Quinn’s ear.
“Cee, do you have the frequency? Speak to Quinn through the transceiver.”
“It’s in?” Quinn asked. He’d felt no pain at all.
“No,” said a somewhat richer voice than Cee’s small little voice. “He is making sure it works first.”
“Is it working?”
“Did you hear Cee?” Collin asked.
“You didn’t ask me to say anything to him yet,” came a reproachful voice, with slightly more tenor than Cee’s.
“I heard Jamel!”
“No need to get excited. Wilma doesn’t need to know you’re getting an implant.” Collin set the spider back in the dish.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Okay. I could give you a local pain shot. That’s one poke, and a fifteen minute wait. Or I could just put it in. That’s those six legs poking and grabbing. It should hurt less than a buzzer sting, and it won’t swell. If it does, we’ll have to take it out.”
Quinn didn’t want to wait. Any moment a patient could walk in or Michael could come back. “Just put it in.”
He could see Collin’s smile of approval and knew he’d made the right choice even though Collin would never belittle anyone for wanting to avoid pain.
Collin lifted the spider again, which Quinn now realized looked closer to a bug than spider. It was the long legs instead of the number of legs that had caused the mis-impression. And then there was a stinging, like a small bite, and the pressure of Collin pushing his thumb into the bone behind his ear.
“All done.” Collin began putting his tools away.
Quinn sat up. “That’s it? No cutting?” He reached up and felt the small dot behind his ear. “Is yours like this?”
Collin lowered his head, pulling back his short thick waves of hair and allowing him to look. “Much easier to use than Michael’s, although I imagine he had that because it was better hidden. Your hair hides the back of your ear better than his does.”
He heard a patient come into the waiting room. Collin grinned. “Back to work.” As Quinn started for the waiting room, Collin touched his arm. “By the way, you know that transceiver is two way. Anything you say or hear will be broadcast to Cee and Jamel up to two miles away. If you need to talk to me, you can ask Cee or Jamel to get me the message. They do have the ability to open a channel between us, so we can talk directly -- but not in front of anyone, okay?”
Quinn nodded. When Collin resumed his work, Quinn went for the waiting room. This was even more than he’d imagined. It was like sudden initiation into a special group. Becoming a doctor and being accepted by the village had been a long process, but this initiation was heady and special. Probably he, Collin and Kayden were they only ones on the planet who had these transceivers and could hear Jamel and Cee. He gave old Mr. Johnson a wide smile as he greeted him.