That night Collin and Quinn met up in the loft with Jamel and Cee. Collin pulled a large cloth bag from the corner. Then he set it in the middle of the loft and pushed back the bag, uncovering a rectangular machine. Quinn could make no sense of it, although it appeared to have a mouth at the top. Collin glanced over it, pressing one of the small square buttons on a square panel. A green light flashed above it, and a whirring noise began. Then within the square panel, a box showed the words, ‘Self-test’. It flashed a moment and then several lines of letters and numbers followed. “Good work, Jamel. Not quite fully charged, but it should have enough.”
“It’s not fully charged because I’ve already printed my report.”
Collin followed Jamel’s gesture and walked back to the corner to lift up a book. “Detailed everything, didn’t you?”
“It is a scientific report. I could not assume anything.”
Collin set the half inch thick book on the floor beside the printer. He reached into his pack and brought out a rectangle -- a notebook computer. He tapped a few keys on the machine, and then the box’s whirring became a shuffling. Quinn jumped back in alarm as a book popped out of the mouth of the machine.
Collin grabbed the book and glanced through it. “Okay, Cee. It’s your turn.”
“What do I do?” Quinn asked.
“You don’t have to do anything.”
And indeed the large box was shuffling again. And another book spit out of the machine. Cee’s was over three-quarters of an inch thick.
Collin took it but didn’t open it. “Nice work, Cee. This should do it.” He pulled some dragonhide straps from his bag and tightened one around each book. Then he reached into his pocket, held up a round cylinder, and moved a small switch. Then he aimed it at the leather and a red beam of light hit the straps. When Collin picked up the next book, Quinn tentatively examined the first. The leather had been fused together where the light had hit it, just like the tool in Michael’s toolkit had sealed Cee back together.
“What is that?”
“A laser. I have it set low so as not to cut though.” He handed it to Quinn. “It’s what I kill dragons with.” He leaned over and pointed to the two buttons, one thumb sized, and the other a small switch, inset in the unit and hard to get to. “This is what you use to fire it with, and that little one will change the settings or if pushed to the end there, allows a new program to be sent to it.”
“A new program?”
“Yes. For instance, this one is programmed to check what it is slicing first, and it will not penetrate human flesh, wingdeer flesh, or now Jamel’s flesh. That way I don’t have to worry about accidentally hurting my friends while I’m fighting.”
Quinn handed it back. “What if a person was hurting you?”
“I’ve decided I’d rather risk being hurt by a man than me hurting an innocent person by mistake. I wasn’t cautious enough when I made my dragons. Perhaps I’m too cautious now, and it’ll never make up for the innocents killed by the dragons, but I won’t have any additional blood on my hands.” Collin changed the setting and shoved the laser into his pocket.
“Is set the same way. And short of choking himself, he’d have a hard time changing it.”
“I don’t want to change it. I don’t want any additional blood on me either.”
Collin caressed Jamel’s head and then leaned against him. They stood together for a moment, and Quinn began to wonder if Collin remembered he was here. Collin turned back then, picked up his notebook computer and tapped a few more buttons. Soon another book spit out of the machine. Collin handed it to Quinn. “Here. ‘Basic Genetic Structures’. Something to put you to sleep at night.”
“May I have a copy of that file also?” Cee asked.
“Sure. Help yourself. You and Quinn can discuss it and ask when you have questions.”
“Thank you,” Cee said, but Quinn didn’t see how or if he got the file, just as he didn’t understand how Cee had given Michael that file as they rode home on Rae. But he was starting to guess that files might be books before they were printed.
Collin turned off the box and then pulled the cloth back over it. “You’ll have to take it back soon.”
“Can we go hunting?”
Collin smiled. “Yeah. I think I need to. You want to come, Quinn?”
But Collin seemed weary, depressed, and Quinn thought he wanted to be alone with Jamel. “Maybe a different time.” He took his book and started down the ladder. When he reached the porch he saw them flying away toward the mountains.
Collin hadn’t been in his office the last couple nights, apparently going up to bed right away. But Michael came back downstairs to try one more time even though he knew they had to get up early to go to Alexandria the next day.
The light was on in the office, but Collin wasn’t studying or writing. Instead he just stared at the wall over the desk. Michael hesitated, unsure if he should interrupt. He leaned against the door frame, and Collin whirled the chair around to face him. “Michael,” he said, smiling. “Ready for our trip tomorrow?”
Michael came in and sat in the chair beside the desk. “Just wondered if you had those reports for my grandfather.”
Collin pulled open a desk drawer and withdrew three sealed books. “Here they are.”
“How’d you print these things?”
Collin smiled. “Trade secret. You refuse to be my apprentice so I guess I can’t tell you.”
Michael laughed. “Yeah. And if I decide to remain on Austin forever, you’ll tell me all your secrets.”
Collin tilted his head. “Maybe. Just maybe, Michael. But those secrets are only for my most loyal assistants.”
“Kayden and Quinn.”
Collin’s smile left. “Quinn couldn’t tell you where anything is. He doesn’t know yet. Information is always on a need to know basis. It’s safer that way.”
“You live in fear, Collin. Why don’t you come with me?”
“The fear I have is for those I love, not for myself. I’d be killed on any world.”
Michael rolled his eyes. He knew the man was exaggerating. “You just hate to admit this is a pit of a world.”
“No, Michael. Every world has its problems. You just don’t want to admit this world has a beauty found nowhere else. I won’t leave. Problems aren’t solved by running from them. I won’t help anyone out there. Not like I can here.”
“And what do you do here that any doctor couldn’t do?”
“You know what I do. I create new herbal cures. I am paring down the number of deadly dragons one creature at a time. I am preserving the world’s history for a time when they will appreciate it. This is all part of my job here, and I can’t do it anywhere else. You could be a part of this world’s destiny, too, if you stay. It’s not a glamorous job, but for all that I can discover, I’m the only one doing these things.”
Michael felt a slight chill. There was a conviction in his voice. Collin knew his place, his destiny, his job, and he accepted it with every part of his being. Maybe the calling was passed down as the mountain property was, from his mentor, and his mentor before him. What was it like to know with such certainty where one belonged in the universe? Michael knew he’d never felt that certainty about working with his father or his grandfather. He wasn’t even certain that CentiOne would be able to fill that longing for significance. He just knew it was safe, and he wanted to be safe.
So he lashed out to keep the rest of his fears at bay. “You just want me to stay, because you want Kayden to stay. It has nothing to do with wanting an apprentice.”
Collin leaned back, his slight smile returning. “Yes, Michael, I want Kayden to stay, because I know she’ll be miserable if she can’t feel the wind in her hair, or the sun on her face. But I also love these talks of ours. You are challenging, and you have a scientific mind. You, Michael, could design plants to the disease they need to combat. It would be a joy to debate those design issues with you after you’re trained.”
Michael felt the chill deepen. Could he be serious? Was he suggesting that Michael would be the one he’d pass the calling to if he stayed? “But Quinn,” was all Michael could think to say.
“What about Quinn?”
“Couldn’t you debate with him?”
“Perhaps. But it’s hard to debate with someone who thinks you’re always right. You have no such illusions, do you?” And the humor that had been missing for the last two days was again in Collin’s face.
Michael felt a little disoriented, as if they were talking about two different things. “But I’d never want to hunt dragons.”
“Don’t expect you would.” Collin chuckled. “I’m sure Quinn will learn how though.”
Maybe he’d have two successors, one for the plants and one for the dragonslaying. But Michael didn’t want to think about that. He was going to CentiOne where it was safe. He didn’t need some great purpose to his life other than to marry Kayden, raise a family . . . but . . . .
Michael picked up the report books for his grandfather. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He could hear Collin’s soft laughter as he walked through the waiting room to the stairs on the ‘guest’ side of the house.
Kayden walked out to the barn, savoring the cool night breeze. Tonight three moons were out in various phases, giving the fields a silvery glow. She knew she’d never see a silver wheat field in space. She doubted she’d see one on CentiOne no matter how great Michael thought the domed planetoid community was. She slipped into the barn, not bothering with the lamp. As she passed the horses, she touched the soft snouts that greeted her. “I’ll miss all of you.”
But she didn’t linger. She wanted to see Jamel -- her beautiful, soft, and precious dragon friend, whose voice was almost always with her. She scrambled up the ladder and rushed into his draconic embrace, his wing wrapped around her as she hugged his neck and kept her cheek against his soft furred hide.
“What am I going to do without you?” Kayden whispered.
The anguish ripped through her again. “I have to. He’ll never believe I love him if I don’t. I can’t force him to stay.”
“But I love you,” Jamel said, his voice taking on a pleading tone as he wrapped his neck to further enclose her. She’d never be as safe on CentiOne as she was wrapped in a dragon’s embrace.
But there was more to life than embraces, and she couldn’t let Michael leave her. She knew it was illogical. She knew she shouldn’t agree to a future based on impulses from the past she didn’t understand or remember, but she couldn’t help it. When Michael had been gone to Alexandria for the last two days, she’d felt the panic rise. Collin had made it more than clear she wasn’t the type of woman he looked for as a wife. What if Michael decided she wasn’t either, and he left without her?
But at least he’d come home. Granted it wasn’t until almost dark, and they hadn’t had time to be alone yet, but he had come back, and he’d kissed her like he couldn’t wait until their marriage was confirmed.
“Let’s go for a ride.” When would she ever be able to ride on the back of a dragon again? Or the back of a wingdeer, or even a horse? Kayden pushed back the dragon-hide curtain to let in the light before she grabbed the saddle. She was tightening down the last strap when Jamel swung his head around to look toward the ladder.
“Michael is coming,” he whispered. And then in an alarmed tone, “he’s coming up the ladder!” He stepped away from her and jumped out the window.
Kayden watched him fly toward the river as she heard Michael enter the loft. She didn’t turn to greet him.
Michael slipped his arm around her waist. “I kept wondering what brings you out here, risking dragons and death.” He kissed the side of her forehead. “It is a beautiful view of the pasture, the gardens, the moons and those distant trees.” He paused, but Kayden still didn’t speak. “If I had more time, maybe I’d paint it.”
This time the pause was longer. “Let’s sit, Kayden.”
They sat on the loft floor with their legs dangling over the edge. She leaned against him. “I missed you.”
He kissed her forehead again and tightened his grip on her waist. “I started to wonder. You seem a little upset.”
She shrugged. “I’m just going to miss my home.”
Michael hugged her. He leaned against the door frame, and pressured Kayden to lean against him. “Do you ever see dragons from here?”
“Only the good one.”
“You mean that silver beast that scared Gaben senseless?”
Kayden gave a small laugh. “Yeah, him. And he’s more a swirling sky blue color. Beautiful.”
“And what makes you think he won’t eat you, like that dragon tried to eat me.”
Kayden gave a little shrug. “Gaben’s still alive, isn’t he? He would have eaten him if he had a taste for human flesh.” She twisted to look up into Michael’s face. “Would you stay if I told you he’s our protecting guardian here? I’m sure he keeps the reptile-dragons away.”
“No. You’ve just convinced me you like to live more dangerously than you should.”
Kayden sighed and lay back against him. “Don’t even go there. Gaben said that, too, and frankly I trust the dragons far more than humans. At least they’re predictable. They attack for food, and they don’t keep you alive just to hear you scream.”
Michael’s arms tightened around her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you again. I promise.”
“I wish I’d insisted that Collin teach me how to use that laser.” She lifted her feet up to stretch out along the floor. “He wouldn’t teach me no matter how much I ask, though. He thinks I’d shoot first and ask questions later. Probably right, but I wish I had a laser with me when we leave.”
“I’ve got one in my pocket. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
She sat up. “Will you teach me how to use it?”
Michael reached into his pocket. “You just point and fire.”
“And you always hit exactly what you want to hit?”
Michael stuffed the laser back into his pocket. “I managed to survive.”
Kayden lay back against him and rolled her eyes, but didn’t let him know that she wasn’t impressed by his ability to survive. “Maybe you shouldn’t get that laser out in a fight. You wouldn’t want to accidentally kill someone.”
“Most lasers have safety features that won’t allow them to cut human flesh,” Jamel said in her ear, “but the energy blast may deaden nerve endings long enough for you to get away.”
“Oh. In that case, go ahead, Michael.”
“You were listening to the A again, weren’t you? What’d he say that changed your mind about my abilities to protect you?”
“He just said that lasers have safety features against cutting humans. I wonder why Collin wouldn’t teach me if the lasers won’t hurt people.”
“I didn’t say they wouldn’t hurt you, Kayden,” Jamel corrected. “They just won’t kill you.”
“I’d rather not have my nerves jangled by a bolt of energy, nor risk a heart attack or brain seizure,” Michael said.
“Oh.” Kayden rested against him. “You’ll be careful not to hit me then, won’t you?” And although she knew she should be frightened of the laser, she wasn’t. It was as if they were talking about something so far removed from them, it wasn’t reality. She couldn’t imagine Michael fighting dragons with a laser like Collin did.
“Of course I won’t hit you.” They sat in silence until Kayden wondered if they should go inside. But then Michael leaned back against the door frame again. “So where is the tech hidden?”
“The A. The regeneration unit he used to fix your hands.”
Kayden stood and brushed off the few stray pieces of straw from the back of her pants. “We should go back inside.”
Michael caught her at the ladder. “Wait a minute. You say you love me, and you don’t even trust me.”
“It has nothing to do with trust, except you trying to force me to break a confidence entrusted to me.”
“I’m not going to turn him in to the authorities or anything. I just want to know.”
“Then ask Collin. He wouldn’t even be jeopardized like this if he hadn’t saved my life. I won’t risk him further.”
“I wouldn’t . . . .”
“Then quit acting like it’s some big deal. You don’t want to stay anyway, so it’s not going to make a bit of difference. Unless your tech spy boss will be mad because you didn’t get the info.”
She tried to go down the ladder, but he held her arm, and then drew her close. “I’m sorry, Kayden,” he whispered into her hair.
“I’m giving up everything. Don’t say it’s not enough.”
Michael rubbed her back and ran his lips along her hairline. “I love you, Kayden. I’m sorry. I used to say you were the curious one. I guess it was really me.” He led her back to the loft door, and they sat back down. “I’ll never forgive myself for not being able to save you from that bastard.”
Kayden settled beside him and leaned against him. “I’ve never blamed you. Except for wanting to work with your grandfather more than wanting to stay.”
Michael kissed her. “You weren’t even thirteen. I couldn’t stay. My dad knew I liked you too much, although I wouldn’t admit it even to myself.”
She shrugged. “Your work is still more important, but I won’t let you leave without me.”
“I don’t have any work.”
“Sure you do. You can do anything.”
“But there’s nothing that says I should do one thing over another. None of it makes a whole lot of difference. Nothing I do will last beyond the moment I die.” Michael grabbed her and kissed her, leaning back until they were both lying on the floor. And then he was caressing her and touching her.
Kayden used everything she’d learned from him so far to keep him enthused. He wanted children. She knew that’s what he’d been thinking. But maybe if she could pleased him enough, he’d never leave her, even if she could never fill that longing inside him.
But then a light shown. Michael rolled off her and to his feet, straightening his pants. Kayden let her shirt fall, and pulled at her pants, avoiding Collin’s gaze as he came into the loft.
“Michael? Kayden? I thought you’d gone to bed, Sweetheart.”
Her cheeks burned. “Just heading inside.” She still didn’t look at him. Only a few more days with him, and now she’d never be able to face him. Her eyes stung. She grabbed the ladder.
Collin’s arm wrapped around her waist and hauled her back to him. He kissed her hair. “Sweetheart, I’ve been in love before. You don’t need to fear what I think. You know I only asked you to wait because I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“He won’t change his mind now,” she mumbled. She’d never admit how scared she was that he would do just that.
“I love Kayden. I’m tired of these games. You come to my room. We don’t have to hide like we’re cheating on anyone.”
Collin’s arm tightened around her waist briefly. “I asked you to wait. You’ve only got four more days until you leave my roof. If you stay, we’ll go down to the village hall and register your marriage.” His lips brushed her head again. “I’m serious, Kayden. I don’t want you left hurting.”
“I’m not going to leave her.”
“Let me finish,” Collin said firmly. “Everything may go great, but if it doesn’t or if the problems don’t show up for two more days, I want to make sure you’re in for the rest of her life. If you don’t stick with it, she’ll be hurt far worse than you are. Can’t you see she desperately wants your love?”
“She’s got it.”
“Michael, there are other reasons for lust than sexual attraction. You’re thinking of your own needs, not hers.”
Michael grabbed the ladder and started down. “I said I’m with her forever. I’m tired of you not believing me.” He was down the ladder, and the last of his words were almost lost. And he’d sounded hurt again.
Kayden pulled away from Collin. “I love him. I’m going with him.” She scrambled down the ladder and ran after Michael.
She caught him on the porch, wrapping her arms around his waist until he turned to hold her. “Michael. Please. Let’s register the marriage tomorrow. We can do it again with your parents, but let’s do it now, too. Please.”
“Why does it matter?” he whispered. “I do love you.”
“I know, but . . . .” And the tears began flowing. She wished she could stop them. “Please make him happy. It’s not a big thing to do for him. He’s done so much for me. Please.”
“It won’t make him happy.”
“Michael. Please. Let’s get married tomorrow. Please.”
Michael brushed her lips with his. “Okay. We’ll do it his way. Only because I love you no matter when we get married, and I’ll never leave you.” He kissed her one more time and then walked her to Collin’s living room. He kissed her again at the bottom of the stairs, and then watched her as she made her way up. She waved down at him, and he was still watching when she left the hall and entered her room.
“They’re getting married tomorrow,” Jamel said in his ear. “And she left him. She’s alone now.” A moment later, Jamel flew through the dragon-hide curtain. “Ready to go hunting?”
Collin leaned against Jamel, letting the tension flow from his body as he rubbed his bare arms over Jamel’s soft fur. He tried to see the bright side. At least he’d never know when Michael and Kayden died. The down side then was that this was goodbye forever, and he couldn’t let her go, knowing she felt ashamed of what she was doing with Michael. Just the way she’d kept her gaze from him told him more than any words. Whether she believed it or not, she needed the security of marriage.
But then Michael would know that a simple marriage registration on a backward planet like this would never be found out or acknowledged if he did leave Kayden. Collin no longer thought he would. He just couldn’t stand to have Kayden spend her last few days with him feeling like she was rebelling. And if she did have problems, he didn’t want her to hide from him, but confide in him.
Collin rubbed his face against Jamel’s neck. “Yeah. We can go riding, my friend. Looks like you’re all set anyway.” He checked the saddle and then jumped up on Jamel’s back. “Let’s go hunting again.”