The last three days had been wonderful. She was really married. Both Collin and Niles Pannier had signed as witnesses. And Michael had been so gentle, so kind and patient that first night when the fears hit. How Collin had known she’d panic when all she’d felt before was desire, she couldn’t guess. But she had panicked. Fortunately she heard both Collin and Jamel in her ear, as Michael held her and soothed her. She would never admit to Michael that they’d been right with her that night. He wouldn’t understand.
And the next morning they came down to breakfast after Quinn, Niles and Marta were already working. Collin slipped into a seat across from them. “Everything work out okay?” he asked softly.
Kayden gave him a tentative smile.
“Of course it did, Collin. You’d think you were an old mother hen the way you worry about something as natural as sex.”
Collin smiled. “Good. Guess it’s just hard for an old man to give up his only daughter.” He stood and clapped his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Guess the two of you can spend the rest of your time here enjoying yourselves. Let the old man know if you leave town though, so he can worry accurately.” He kissed the top of Kayden’s head, giving her a quick hug, before going out to the clinic.
And they had spent the days together, going down to the river or into the village. One afternoon Michael took out his paints, and Kayden played with Shanika under one of the few shade trees.
But today the shuttle would take them from Aussie. Michael swung his stuffed pack over his shoulder, flung a second pack over the other shoulder, and then grabbed the paintings he’d done while he was here. Kayden only had one pack, filled with a few clothes, dragon-hide items, and a couple pieces of jewelry Collin had given her. Everything she really loved was too big to take with her.
She had hoped, and even prayed, that somehow Michael would change his mind. She’d done everything she could, tried to be as happy as possible, as loving, as sensual -- after that first night -- and yet, he was still planning to take them away. She bit her lip. She couldn’t say anything, couldn’t ask one more time, because he’d think she wasn’t happy with him. And he’d let it slip; he thought she’d leave him like her mother abandoned her father because she didn’t like where he had to live.
Kayden grabbed the last painting Michael was trying unsuccessfully to carry with the other two. “I didn’t realize we could take these.” Kayden followed him down stairs.
Niles and Marta were waiting in the living room. Kayden hugged her father. She still didn’t really remember him, but over the last few weeks she’d developed a real fondness for him. Perhaps part of that was remembered feeling, like the way she felt when he called her “Kaydie”. Or when he said something outrageously strange with a straight face -- and then winked.
Then she hugged Marta, the picture of her and Shanika playing under the tree still in her hands. Michael handed one of his paintings to Niles -- the one of her and Sam. Kayden’s throat tightened. She would miss Sam also.
“Thought you might like this one,” Michael said with a slight shrug.
“Oh, Michael, it’s so like her,” Marta said, taking it from him. “Thank you so much. Oh, I wish you didn’t have to go.” Marta set down the painting and hugged Michael and then Kayden again.
Collin stood in the doorway. Michael walked over to him. “I’d like to thank you for everything you’ve done for us, Collin. I owe you our lives and so much more. I know this won’t make up for it, but . . . .” He held up a painting, again of Kayden, but with the wingdeer flying overhead.
“Thank you, Michael. I’ll treasure it.”
They didn’t say goodbye to Collin though, because he would be going with them to take back Sam after they’d left.
Michael took the final picture from Kayden. It was a little smaller than the other two. “I thought maybe Quinn might like this as it has Shanika in it.”
“Where is Shanika?” Kayden asked. “I have to say good-bye to her.”
“I’m sorry, Kayden. Quinn took her with him to a house call. It’s going to be too hard for her to lose both her mother and you right away. He thought it would be easier this way.”
The lump in her throat became tighter, and the tears that had threatened before, spilled over. But there was nothing she could do to help Shanika. Instead she brushed past Collin out the door. Then she ran to the barn. She had to see Jamel one last time before she’d never hear his soft voice in her ear again.
Michael hated to see her hurting. Why did this have to be so hard? He hadn’t had this much trouble when he left home, nor when he left his grandfather to find Kayden. But now his eyes stung also.
As Michael walked past Collin, Collin grabbed his arm. “Give her just a few minutes. Let her say goodbye to the animals.”
“But we’re taking Sam to Capitol.”
“Sam isn’t the only one she loves. Those animals have been her responsibility -- a responsibility she chose herself, for almost six years.”
Michael walked out on the porch and leaned against the post by the steps. Before him the field stretched out -- first grasses, and then wheat. Further back was a tree line separating the field from another. Beyond them, the mountains rose toward the sky, broad leafed trees covering the nearer foothill, and pines the higher peak behind it. And the sky was still that vivid blue which set everything off in brightness. He loved the shadows and light. “You’re right, Collin. The planet is beautiful,” he said.
Collin chuckled softly as he stepped up beside him. “Guess a late confession is better than none. I’ll miss you, Michael.”
Michael smiled. “You’ve got to put up with me till we get to Capitol. Can I go to the barn yet?”
Collin stared at the mountains, and then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You’ve got to let her go,” he whispered.
At first Michael thought he was talking to himself. But Collin didn’t seem like the kind of man who would say that out loud to himself. Not in his hearing. “The A is in the barn!” Michael didn’t wait for Collin to respond. He ran to the barn. There was always nothing in the loft, but she wasn’t below. He slipped the packs off his shoulders, letting them drop to the floor. Then he grabbed the ladder.
“Do not move. Do not talk. Do not do anything,” Collin was saying in a low voice, right behind him. “It’s too light to go outside.”
Michael made it up the ladder, turned around, and almost fell. Collin grabbed him, so that he landed with a thud on his bottom beside the hole.
A dragon lay on the floor, its large eyes watching him, as Kayden sat beside the long neck, half lying on the beast’s head, caressing and scratching behind its ears.
Michael fumbled for his laser, finally pulling it from his pocket. His arm was hit as he pressed the button, sending the beam high into the far wall of the barn.
Collin twisted the laser out of his hand. “Thanks for the hole.” He stuffed the weapon into his own pocket. “This is not a reptile dragon. He’s the only mammal dragon around, and he’s as harmless as a wingdeer.”
The beast rolled over, and Kayden smiled, her face red and wet from crying. She scratched under his chin. “Yes, you’re harmless, Sweetie.” She lay across his neck and hugged him. “Oh, Michael, just feel his fur. It’s so soft.”
The beast closed its eyes half way, its mouth open slightly, showing rows of pointed white teeth.
Michael looked at Collin, and he had his grin now. “Hey, Michael, guess it’s time I introduced you to Jake Trapper, my partner in crime.” Kayden lifted herself from the beast’s neck right as Collin made a diving tackle. The beast rolled with him. Michael watched in horror as it pinned Collin to the floor and then opened its huge maw, larger than Collin’s chest. And then its tongue flicked out, tasting Collin’s face.
Kayden laughed. The girl was losing her mind.
“Oh, not dragon kisses. Anything but dragon kisses,” Collin said, shoving the huge head from him, and then wrapping his arms around it. The beast lifted him up, spreading its wings to almost span the loft from one side to the other.
Kayden grabbed his hand. “Come on, Michael. Come meet Jake. I wanted you to meet him a long time ago, but you know why he’s a secret, don’t you?”
Michael slowly got to his feet. He wished he still had his laser.
“It’s because anyone looking for a trophy would think a dragon who won’t hurt people is an easy mark, and they’d try to kill our precious baby.”
“They’d also kill us for harboring a killer,” Collin said, one arm draped over the beast’s neck in an informal way. “They wouldn’t take the time to see he’s different from the rest.”
Kayden pulled on his arm again. “Come on, Michael.”
Michael stayed where he was, right next to the escape hole. He kept his gaze locked on the beast. Any moment it would open its huge mouth and attack.
Kayden rushed back to the dragon, hugging him. “Come on. Come meet Michael.”
“No.” Collin said. “Stay where you are, Jake. If Michael wants to touch you, he’ll come to you. Let him make the first move.”
Michael abstractedly realized that Collin knew what he was thinking. He also realized that this cold, impotent fear was terror. When he’d feared for Kayden’s life, others were at least horrified, realizing it could have been them. But this time his companions were hugging and playing with the object of terror like two children.
“I promise you, Michael, that this dragon will never hurt anyone unless they try to do harm to those in my household, and even then he will try to disable without mortally wounding anyone. He’s the one who brought you from the lake. It’s four hours by wingdeer; he got you here in two. Any longer and you’d have been dead.” Collin’s hand rested on Michael’s back, as if to reassure him.
Michael felt his heart slow down a little. It wasn’t attacking.
Collin walked to the beast and nuzzled his face to its snout as he would do with the wingdeer. “He is safe.” He turned to Michael. “I can truly say this is Collin Hansell’s most beautiful and beneficial work of art.” He grinned. “And Jake agrees with me.”
Collin Hansell. Collin Alexander. Alex Collin. The other name -- Hans Vita. Collin and Vita Alexander. Hans Trapper. Hansell. C. H. Anon. Collin Hansell.
Michael felt the trembling, but couldn’t stop it. It was impossible. But the man watched him -- the man with the perfectly designed -- the genetically engineered body. Human genetic experiments were illegal, except as a way of solving birth defects. They’d been illegal for over two hundred and fifty years -- before Reese Austin bought this planet and set his researchers on it. Had he done it not to have an animal playground as he claimed, but to have a front for illegal experiments?
That was a long time ago, but what was this man doing now? It had to be something. Was he actually Collin Hansell, or did he clone himself? He knew every obscure geneticist, even down to which shell creatures they’d designed. Didn’t clones start out with a blank memory? Didn’t clones start out as babies? But no one lived for 200 years.
The man was beside him now. “Michael, you’re ill. Perhaps you shouldn’t travel today. There will be another supply shuttle next month.”
“The shuttle. We have to leave, Kayden.” Michael grabbed the ladder and made his way from the loft. Briefly guilt raged through him. He should have made sure she was safe.
But she was safe, his rational mind said. She’d been playing with that dragon for almost six years. Quinn probably let Shanika play with that dragon. He certainly hadn’t been concerned about the dragon Gaben had seen even though his brother had been killed by one.
Michael found Sam and Angie already bridled and saddled in front of the barn with Marta. Marta smiled. “Is there something besides the hay bails I saw up there?”
Michael jumped when Collin answered. “Kayden had a bit of nerves. She’ll be all right.”
Marta’s smile left. “Oh. I’m sorry. Of course she would. I can’t imagine leaving all this. I’ve never been in space, but Niles says that we had more room in our little house than he’d ever had before. I’d be claustrophobic in such tight conditions.”
Collin took Angie’s halter. “I’m afraid Kayden will be also, but she will follow Michael anywhere, whether it’s good for her health or not.”
“And staying here as dragon bait is better for her?” Michael snapped, and then was immediately sorry he’d done so. He grabbed his packs, and then mounted Sam. He didn’t dare look toward Collin. He knew he’d be tempted to stare at him, trying to determine what he was.
“Sorry, Michael,” Collin said softly. “I’d told you before and had determined not to interfere again. I know you’re doing what you think is best. That’s all a man can do.”
Michael glanced down at him. And this time Collin looked old. Not physically, but in his gaze and the resigned set of his mouth. Michael quickly refocused his gaze on the barn door. “Kayden!” A fear settled in his stomach. Maybe she’d changed her mind.
But then she ran from the barn, her face again wet. Collin hugged her and took her bag. Then he lifted her up in front of Michael, although they all knew she didn’t need the help. He handed her a cloth from his pack. “No need to let your face chap in the wind, Beloved.”
Collin carried Kayden’s pack along with his own and mounted Angie. And then they rose to the sky and headed south toward the large white clouds piled high in the sky.
Kayden leaned against him. She mumbled, but Michael couldn’t make out the words as the wind whipped past them. She kept bringing the cloth to her eyes. They’d only gone a couple miles when she called out, “Jamel!” And then she began sobbing.
Michael took the reins from her, but no matter how he tried to sooth her, she kept sobbing. He finally motioned to Collin that they land.
When they touched down, Kayden sat up. “Why are we stopping?”
“Why are you crying, Sweetheart? What happened?”
Her tears started again, and she shook her head. Collin brought Angie along side them and touched Kayden’s shoulder. “He’ll always be here if you come back.”
“The dragon?” Michael asked.
“Him, too,” Collin said. “We’re out of Jamel’s range now.”
“I’ll never hear him again.”
“Oh, that. I’ll get you a new computer.”
“I don’t want a stupid computer,” she snapped. “We either leave or we stay here forever. I can’t go through this again.”
Michael urged Sam into the sky. She was right. He didn’t want to go through this again either. As they glided toward Capitol, he tried to determine why this place was so hard to leave. He knew some of the reluctance he felt was connected to how difficult it was for Kayden, but even taking that into consideration, he was surprised that he’d miss the feel of the wind in his face and the wingdeer beneath his legs.
He wondered if he did accept Quinn’s offer for the new calf, if it’d be as loyal to him as Sam was to Kayden. No one would ever permanently be able to steal Sam. There was something about that kind of loyalty that appealed to him, and he could even forgive the huge beast for taking off on him. What would Sam do now that Kayden would be gone? Would he ever be able to adjust to a new owner? If he was in front he would have reached forward to caress the deer’s neck, but he couldn’t without disturbing Kayden. She rested against him, the sobs no longer racking her.
And then the most bizarre image came to him. He saw himself sitting astride the sky blue dragon, zipping through the air at twice the speed of any wingdeer. He glanced over at Collin, flying beside them, and he knew Collin had flown him. That’s what that strange saddle was beside the loft door. He wondered if the man had ever tried to fly the reptile dragons. And then he remembered his words, “beneficial and beautiful work of art.” The man loved art, and the dragons were the most beautiful creatures in the sky. Why had he made them deadly?
“Why do the dragon’s kill people?” Michael asked Kayden.
She snuggled against him. “The reptile dragons? For food.”
“But why did he design them to eat people.”
“He didn’t. Geneticists are just people. They aren’t perfect. He wanted a wingdeer temperament, but the adjustment took differently on a reptile brain, and he didn’t realize it until it was too late. Jake’s a mammal though. He likes people as friends, not food.”
“Have you flown on him?”
He could only see the side of her face, but he knew she smiled then. “Yeah. He’s gentle with me. But you should see him and Quinn. Quinn has a strong stomach, and they do loops and dives, and it about makes me queasy just watching them sometimes.”
“She’s too young to expect she can keep that kind of secret. And you know Tara hated all dragons. It’s best to keep these kind of things quiet until she’s old enough to appreciate the danger.”
“Of his teeth?”
“Oh, no. He’d never hurt anyone. The danger of other people. Although I do suppose a child might confuse that one friendly dragon means all are friendly.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You hated dragons. And you did try to kill him. If Collin hadn’t stopped you . . . .” She shivered and then snuggled against Michael. “He isn’t the one who hurt you or ate your horse.” She smiled again. “In fact he almost starved because he didn’t want to eat the sheep Collin bought him. He won’t take domestic animals at all now. He hunts only wild meat, boars and such, but mainly reptile dragons.” She often talked as if her charges had wants and desires, so Michael knew the anthropomorphizing was just her way.
Michael settled back and tried to adjust to this new view. He’d obviously been a very poor spy to miss something that large right in the barn. He imagined the A was probably sitting somewhere just as obvious. But the man flying beside him . . . .
Michael glanced over at him again. Collin’s brown waves of hair slicked back in the wind. He wasn’t smiling today, nor did his face hold its humor that said the world was here for his amusement. Perhaps, after all, the world was here for his amusement. If he was 200 years old, he’d have seen it all. But he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. He had to clone himself or something.
But what would it be like to work with a man like that for the rest of his life? He was a geneticist, that much was certain, and he plied his trade on plants because the culture wouldn’t let him do anything else. And he’d teach Michael if he stayed. He’d make a difference finding cures for the diseases these people faced.
Michael hugged Kayden. Why was he letting himself entertain the idea of staying here forever? It wasn’t safe. Not only for the dragons, but it definitely wasn’t safe living with a geneticist, especially a geneticist who somehow traced his linage back to the most hated geneticist who ever walked the planet. And he wanted to be safe from irate and psychopathic people even more than safe from the dragons. Kayden was right. Dragons were predictable. People were not.
They flew over Capitol to the east side and to the immigration intake office. A tall metal and wood fence with wire across the top ran from the side of the building, enclosing an area three times larger than the building. As they flew in they could see the shuttle being unloaded. Michael guessed the fence was electrified, but he wondered how they kept wingdeer out.
Collin carried Kayden’s bag inside for her. The room was small, with most of the light coming from the open door. Michael walked over to the small counter and showed his badge, his marriage license, and the small paper that said he could take Kayden off the planet to the clerk.
“He’s not going,” the clerk stated, nodding to Collin.
Collin gave a slight shake of his head. “I’m just leaving.”
Kayden collapsed into Collin’s arms and cried. Michael tried to ignore her sobs to keep them from tearing him apart. Instead he studied the papers the clerk made him sign. Collin kissed Kayden’s cheek one more time and then ran out of the building. Through the doorway Michael saw the wingdeer greet him, and then they took off. Kayden ran outside and stared up into the sky.
“It’ll be another half hour before you can board the shuttle,” the clerk said. He took a small paper with their names on to the interior section of the building.
Michael stood at the counter, staring out through the dark door frame at the bright outdoors. Kayden sunk down on the steps and placed her head in her hands. Her body shook with sobs.
Michael walked outside, the oppressiveness of the dark building falling away as he sat on the steps beside Kayden. She leaned against him. When her sobs subsided, he asked, “You really want to stay here, don’t you?”
She turned to him in alarm. “You don’t want me?” She grabbed his arms. “What did I do? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ll try not to cry.” And yet the tears flowed stronger.
“Shush, Sweetheart. It’s all right. I’ll always love you.”
Michael held her and studied the sky. He didn’t see Collin anywhere. He was already gone. The clouds still filled the sky, making a white mountain. He wondered if CentiOne ever had clouds. He’d only been there once, and only met his aunt and uncle a few times. In the domed community the breeze was steady from large wind turbines, and the blue of the sky stayed the same always. A duller, washed out blue than Aussie’s skies, and permanently part of the plastiglass dome’s radiation shielding. The only open fields were planted with food crops. And although he’d let Kayden believe that some day they may own horses there, he knew that unless he became very wealthy, there just wasn’t the room to house large recreational animals on CentiOne, except for the zoo, and that was considered a community and scientific endeavor.
Kayden still leaned against him. She tried not to cry, but every so often she’d take a shuddering deep breath.
“You really don’t care that CentiOne is safer, do you?”
“It sounds like a prison far more than Aussie,” she admitted. She sat up. “Maybe if you told me what I’ll be doing there, it would . . . help. How soon before I can start a horse farm?”
Michael kept his gaze focused on the clouds. He’d avoided that question for the last nine days, and he still didn’t have a completely truthful answer for her. The truth was, he didn’t know. Sure he thought she’d be good with the zoo animals, but would they let someone without training and with a convict father near those expensive, imported animals? Even dung haulers were thoroughly screened. Truth is, she’d be stuck in their small apartment while he earned their way.
“You could breed kittles,” he suggested.
“Oh, that’s hard. Tabitha’s never needed a bit of help from anyone -- except in finding the little ones new homes.”
Michael winced. So much for his only idea.
“You said horses . . . a zoo . . . .”
“If there’s not, will you still come with me?”
Her lips trembled, her face white. “I’ll go anywhere with you,” she mumbled. “Just don’t leave me.”
And he realized she was terrified. Terrified of where they were going, and that he would leave her. She’d go with him to face her own prison.
They’d both be in prison, he realized. He’d just be putting in time doing repair work for a paycheck. He wouldn’t make any lasting impact. And he’d never see her laughing in a field under the flying wingdeer again.
Michael stood and walked back into the building. The clerk was at the front counter again. “You are approved,” he said. “You may board in five minutes.”
Michael grabbed his second pack and set it up on the counter. Then he pulled out all the reports he’d gathered. The ones for Director Raleigh were in a smaller silver dragon-hide report pouch. The books for his grandfather, along with his own observations were in the larger bronze pouch. He’d sealed his grandfather’s with the bands he’d brought that had an electronic locking code. Only his grandfather knew the release code.
“May I send on these reports? I’m going to stay here.”
The clerk gave him paper, and he quickly scribbled two notes to attach to the packs before he sealed them in the boxes the clerk gave him and sent them on their way.
“Are you sure you don’t want to leave?”
Michael smiled. “I have a job here. I think I’ll keep it.”
The clerk nodded knowingly. “Find anything?” he whispered.
Michael leaned over the counter and whispered back, “Not that Director Raleigh will let me discuss.”
The clerk’s eyes widened briefly, and he nodded again. “Top secret. I understand.” He nodded yet again.
A man with a pilot’s arm badge came through the interior doors. “You better get those passengers back here. We’re leaving.”
The clerk met Michael’s gaze one last time and then grabbed the boxes from the counter. “He’s staying. But he needs these important reports sent up to Raleigh.”
Michael met the pilot’s gaze and winked at the clerk’s posturing. For some reason he felt as if the weight of the future had lifted from him.
The pilot gave him a small smile as he took the boxes from Michael. “Maybe next time.”
Michael just smiled. Then he walked from the building. “Let’s go home, Kayden.”
Kayden stood and turned toward the building, but Michael kept going down the steps to the concrete parkway. Kayden rushed after him. “Michael?”
“I’m sure we’ll find an inn for the night, and then tomorrow we’ll find a couple horses to buy to get us back home.”
Michael stopped, now on the other side of the parkway. “Yes?”
“We’re staying here?”
“Forever or just until next month?”
Michael gave a slight shrug. “As long as Collin lets us stay with him. We’re both happy there, aren’t we?”
Kayden jumped into his arms, almost knocking him over. She kissed him all over, finally settling on his lips. Then she stopped. “You promise. You’ve got to promise me.”
He smiled. “I promise. As long as Collin will let me work with him, we can stay. You’re right. It’s better here than in a prison of another design.”
He hugged her, and then they started walking again. “Tell me, how does our good doctor stay so young looking?”
Kayden pulled away from him. “You won’t hurt him!”
“Of course I won’t. He’s saved both our lives, given us everything, and he even offered to teach me the art of making plants -- a job that will make a difference in people’s lives. We both have work that matters here.”
Kayden hugged him again. “You’re right. His work is so important.”
A blast sounded behind them, and they both turned to watch the shuttle lift over the fence, up above the building, and then it shot up through the sky. They watched until it disappeared, Kayden holding on to Michael tightly. “We’re really staying,” she whispered.
Then they whirled around as hooves clopped down behind them. Kayden jumped to hug Sam’s neck. “I knew you wouldn’t forget me, big guy. You’re the best.” Sam nodded his head and rubbed against Kayden.
A moment later Angie landed beside him, and Collin slipped to the ground. “I thought you two were supposed to be on that shuttle.”
Kayden hugged Collin.
Michael stood before him. “I decided it would be best for both of us to stay here. I’d be honored if you would accept me as your apprentice in all your work.”
Collin’s face broke into the familiar smile. “All my work?”
“Well, perhaps I don’t need to know how to supply Ulan Tole with his wares.”
Collin let loose a loud laugh and clapped his hand down on Michael’s shoulder. “I accept the challenge, Michael. And you are a challenge. Let’s go home.”