Austin’s Playground – Village of Hope
Michael Jamel closed his eyes, enjoying the night air whipping against his face as they flew through the darkness. Only two quarter moons lit the sky, and sometimes clouds would cover them. He tightened his grip around Kayden sitting in front of him on Jake’s large back. He still had a hard time believing he was actually riding a dragon – a friendly dragon at that. It was hard to believe there were any friendly dragons at all, although he’d heard Kayden, Quinn, and even Collin say that Jake was the only one.
Only was a very closed word, and he’d passed it off as a measure of the mammal dragon’s near extinct status. He wasn’t even about to ask Collin if he was still performing illegal experiments, and if Jake was a recent addition to the planet’s exotic wildlife. He didn’t think the man even had the time, and he still couldn’t figure out where his tech was hidden.
But then he wasn’t trying to figure it out anymore. He was content with the medical studies and work Collin had assigned him. Although he was a bit jealous Quinn was studying cellular plant structures while Michael was still learning basic human anatomy. He felt so far behind, but when he’d mentioned it to Collin, he just laughed. “You’re at the top of your class.”
“I’m the only one in my class,” he said, not amused.
“That’s right. So how can you say you are behind? Who are you behind? Did your grandfather have more than one apprentice at the same place of study?”
“Yeah. Me and my cousin Thom started at the same time. I’m the better programmer.” He shrugged. “He was the better robot owner.”
Collin’s smile disappeared, but he set his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “That hasn’t been determined. My judgment is that neither of you should have mentored a 5000 unit. But then perhaps not even your grandfather knew what he’d done.”
It was one of those statements that Collin never clarified. Instead he had switched the subject, going over the day’s lessons in anatomy.
“I’m so glad spring is here,” Kayden said, her words whipping back to him.
“So am I.” The day had been almost summer-like after several months of chilling outdoor temperatures. Michael had never experienced anything like winter. Even the water froze solid at times. Once flakes fell to cover the ground in a thin layer of white, but mostly it was just rainy and sleety and cold.
Jake had winged over the north end of the village and now headed south along the Capitol River. He never wore a bridle. Kayden said he wasn’t to be controlled, but if asked nicely, Jake would probably comply to any of their wishes.
Jake’s large blue ears twitched, and then he made a sharp turn angling down, making the riding straps cut into Michael’s thigh.
“Watch it!” Michael called. “I could have fallen.”
“You can’t fall. You’re strapped, remember?”
Michael was glad she was ahead of him so she didn’t see him blush over his impulsive fear. Somehow riding the wingdeer didn’t give him near the adrenaline rushes that riding Jake did.
Jake landed beside the river. Kayden undid her straps and slid to the ground. “Come on. Something’s wrong.”
“Jayyyyy-Neeeee!” yelled a female voice near the house. Further away he heard a male voice repeat the call.
Michael undid his own straps. “That’s not that young couple who just had the baby boy last month, is it?” He remembered their little girl Jaynee who was slightly older than Quinn’s five and a half year old daughter Shanika. Collin had the woman brought to the clinic, because the baby was breach, and Jaynee had drawn Shanika into all kinds of mischief out in the stables – things Shanika knew she wasn’t to do, but had done anyway with her new friend.
Michael ran after Kayden to the house. The mother had just taken a deep breath to yell again when Kayden ran up the two steps of the porch and stopped behind her.
“Oh!” she whirled and clutched at her chest. Then she focused on Michael. “You’re the doctor’s apprentice, aren’t you?” She grabbed his arms. “It’s Jaynee. Something’s wrong. I just know it.”
“What’s wrong,” Michael asked in the soothing voice Collin had taught him to use with distraught patients. “How may I help?”
“She went out to play after supper. Just until the sun was blocked by trees. But she never came back. Oh, I just know she’s hurt. And dragons....”
She clung to Michael, her forehead against his shoulder. Her husband ran from the next yard, but froze when he saw Michael. “Oh, no.”
Kayden touched his arm. “We’ll search along the river and let you know.”
The man seemed to breathe again. Apparently he’d thought they’d come with bad news. “I did look there first, but I didn’t see anything.”
Kayden stared down river. Michael followed her gaze.
“A dragon!” shouted the father.
“Stay here,” Kayden said. “We’ll go look.” She ran off the porch before Michael could stop her. All he could do was follow and hope the dragon was Jake, and if it wasn’t, he was banking on her promise and Collin’s promise that Jake protected them from the reptile-dragons.
He caught up with Kayden, but she kept on running. “It’s Jake, right?”
“He’s found her.”
“How do you know?” But Kayden didn’t speak again as they ran along the river path, sometimes fighting fallen tree limbs.
Michael’s chest burned by the time they reached Jake. Jake ran his nose along the ground, down below the path near the water. Kayden slid down the bank. “Hurry, Michael. She must have fallen into the river and was carried downstream.”
Michael saw the child now, a sodden heap on the bank.
“She’s like ice.” Kayden slipped off her dragon-hide coat and gently wrapped it around Jaynee. “You get on Jake. I’ll hand her up.”
“I’ll go back and stay with the parents. You’ve got to get her to the clinic. Collin’s waiting for you.”
Michael didn’t bother asking how Collin knew. Both Collin and Kayden had transceiver implants to the A unit – Jamel, they called it. Collin had actually offered him a transceiver two months ago, but Michael had refused. He didn’t want someone talking in his ear whenever they felt like it, especially a psychotic robot. No one mentioned Cee at all, so Michael rarely thought about him, except when he wanted some piece of information. But a few keystrokes on the notebook computer in his pack would usually yield what he wanted.
When Michael was strapped on, Kayden handed Jaynee up to him. Her skin was cold and clammy; he hoped she didn’t die as he held her. He had barely settled her in his lap when Jake leapt into flight leaving Kayden behind without her jacket. Michael wanted to protest. She’d freeze. There could be reptile dragons out here.
But they flew straight to the clinic. Collin was indeed outside, and when they landed, he rushed up to grab the child. Before Michael could say a word, though, Jake jumped aloft again. And then the air was streaming so fast around his face, he could do nothing but clutch Jake’s neck. He’d asked for speed once, but after that decided he’d pass on the aerial gymnastics that Quinn enjoyed with Jake. Michael was surprised the beast seemed to know who liked what type of flight and accommodated them.
But now Jake was speeding, and then he banked and dove. Michael saw the reptile dragon, and his heart raced with fear. “Kayden!”
The beast was almost upon them. Michael knew he’d be raked by dragon claws or teeth during the inevitable fight. Why couldn’t Jake have waited until he was off? As Michael was about to clamp his eyes shut, he saw a red beam of light slice into the dragon’s head. The beast faltered and fell below them. Jake abruptly back-winged, slowing before he circled and glided between rows of trees to the ground. He landed beside the reptile dragon. His head lowered to the beast, and Michael felt the jerk as Jake ripped out its throat.
It was over too quickly. Michael still wasn’t sure how they’d avoided a deadly clash of dragon teeth and claws. He remembered the red beam. Someone had shot the beast with a laser. But they were alone.
Michael felt faint. No one was to have lasers on the planet except him, and Collin had wisely taken his laser. And he knew that psychotic robot had lasers, but he was no where around either. In fact they were completely alone.
Jake couldn’t possibly have killed the beast with a laser. He just couldn’t be a laser-breathing dragon. Collin Hansell wouldn’t give his mammal dragon a laser after he’d accidentally designed his reptile dragon to “like” people.
Jake snaked his head around, his bloody muzzle stopping inches from Michael’s face. “It is dead. You are safe.”
Michael closed his eyes. He’d been jarred too much. Perhaps he’d hit his head. Animals didn’t talk. Not even bioengineered dragons.
“Michael! Collin, I think he’s going to faint.”
Michael opened his eyes. “Collin? Where’s Collin?”
“He’s attending the child at the clinic.” Jake turned his head to focus one large eye on him. “You don’t remember?”
Michael took deep breaths of the cold night air. “In the four months since I’ve known you, you’ve never spoken. Why tonight?”
“Collin finally said I could speak to you again. I had to kill the dragon. This is the first one that has tried to invade our village in almost three months.” Jake swung away from Michael to peruse his victim. “This is a very nice shade of blue. Perhaps this is what Cee and Quinn are looking for. You may dismount, Michael.”
Jake waited until he unstrapped himself and jumped down to the sparse, almost dead grass between the pearpricot trees. Then Jake curled back his lips and opened his mouth. A thin laser shot out and cut the head from the rest of the beast. “Here’s your head for Governor Hollis.”
“You have a laser. Where did you get a laser?” He tried to ignore the rising panic.
“Charles gave it to me. Although this is slightly modified.”
Michael sagged backward. He’d thought he was close to the tree, but not close enough. He fell backward, banging his head against the dirt.
“Michael!” Jake’s breath steamed into his face, a distinct heavy odor wafting around him.
“I’m going to be eaten by a robotic dragon.” He squeezed his eyelids together.
“Michael,” Jake said softly. “It’s okay. You’re safe with me. I won’t let anyone hurt you. Especially those reptile dragons.” His voice changed, sounding humorous then. “No one has been hurt by reptile dragons in this village in the last four years. They should know by now it is useless, but they are stupid creatures, those reptile-dragons.” He paused and then moved away from Michael. “You rest then. I will skin the dragon alone.”
After his heart slowed, Michael opened his eyes and then rolled to his side. Indeed the beast ran its mouth laser around the dragon’s wing and then pulled the hide from the thin bones and muscles. He watched, fascinated. He’d seen the results of a dragon hunt many times, but he’d never seen the actual process.
When Jake had bundled the fresh hides into two neat bales, he ripped into the remaining flesh. His obvious enjoyment of his meal caused Michael’s stomach to turn.
Jake swung his head around. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Is with the child’s parents. She will walk with them to the clinic after the sun rises. She insists,” he added, and Michael had the impression the beast disagreed as much as he did.
Michael stood and walked to Jake and the mutilated dragon remains. “Are you a robot?”
Jake chuckled. “I’m a mammal.”
“Mammals don’t have lasers.”
“In my first encounter with a reptile-dragon, I was rather ripped up. Collin did not wish all his hard work to be ruined, so he gave it to me. But you saw my report on Kayden’s abduction. Do not worry. I will not harm a human with the laser again. It is set so that I can not change it, even if I desired to do so.”
“He’s an idiot. Collin is an idiot. He sets a malfunctioning AI unit into a killing machine with wings. Great work. Tell me, is he a robot also?”
“A robot? Collin?” And then the dragon chuckled, just as Collin did when he found Michael’s questions humorous. “Collin is not a robot, and neither am I. I have a robot unit, but it is far from here. I rarely use it.”
“So you just hop from dragon-skin to robot shell whenever it’s convenient.”
“No. I am always in my dragon skin.” He laughed again. “That is why you could never find me. The core is inside my head. It is my brain. Do you think I wanted you to kill my beautiful dragon body just so you could take my core back to a place where I have no purpose and no one to love me? No. I’m never leaving the planet. I belong here now. Cee will too someday.”
Michael could hardly comprehend what Jake had said. Somehow Dr. Alex Collin – Dr. Collin Hansell or a clone of Dr. Hansell – had managed to link the 5000 core to a flesh body. “Did you tell my grandfather in your report?”
“No. I do not wish to be hunted. But I trust you now, Michael. I can see you still dislike Jamel, but you like Jake. And you love Kayden. You won’t hurt her by hurting me. Besides, you know I keep you safe from the reptile dragons.”
He was talking, but his mouth wasn’t moving. “You have a core, a laser, and a voice enhancement unit. What else?”
“Just a protein to energy converter and battery. The core can go indefinitely on the small solar collector in the back of the eyes, but the laser needs more. The rest, however, is flesh.”
Jamel chuckled again. “You have quite a ways to go in your studies before you’ll understand any explanation I can give you. Climb up, Michael. You need to get some sleep before breakfast.”
“Is stubborn. You know that. Besides, she is right. The family is distraught. Her presence is keeping them inside with the baby instead of braving stray beasts like this one.” Jake/Jamel lowered himself as flat to the ground as he could.
His only other option was walking home in the dark, but he could barely climb onto Jake’s back. The long night of continued adrenaline rushes had caught up with him. “I don’t suppose you’ll treat me to a nice gentle ride, will you?” He’d probably do all he could to antagonize him, as he had that day he’d taunted him until he’d had to have Collin remove the datalink transceiver.
Jake lifted his body, grabbed the two bundles of dragon hide in his forepaws, and gently sprung into the air. He glided silently through the night, not jerking, nor tipping with circling turns. Even his landing in front of the clinic was so smooth, Michael wasn’t sure of the exact moment they’d hit the ground. “You may dismount here,” Jamel said softly. “You’re too tired for the ladder.”
Michael slid to the ground, and his legs almost collapsed. Did the beast actually care that he could barely walk? Michael stumbled into the clinic. He couldn’t go up to his room yet, though. He found Collin back in the patient guest room, sitting in the stuffed chair and holding the child, now wrapped in a blanket. “How is she?”
“Still alive. The next few hours are critical as her body temperature rises. I suspect pneumonia will set in. She took a bit of water into her lungs. But there’s nothing more you can do tonight. Go on up to bed, and we’ll talk about your adventures when we are both rested and have a moment alone.”
Silently Michael complied with his mentor’s wishes. He had questions, but tiredness would make the answers incomprehensible. Up in his room, he briefly regretted that Kayden was not with him, but then he was asleep.
Centauri Research University
Charles Jamel watched as his grandson, Thom Granger, strode into the cafeteria, the android Butler following closely behind in his black suit and tie. Thom joined his pregnant wife and two friends at a round table near the door, while Butler walked to the meal ordering stations along the back wall. Charles had not interfered with either Michael or Thom’s use of their 5000 units. He’d only mounted the B and C cores in different shells and allowed the boys to choose which they desired. Thom had immediately claimed the android, leaving the shorter robot for Michael. Michael hadn’t seemed to care, but then he’d been apathetic and moody for the first few years after his friend’s abduction.
But now Charles knew he’d made a mistake in playing the non-interfering scientific observer. Jamel’s report had been uplifting. Even his insistence that he would never leave Austin showcased his lively, loyal, and lovable personality. In his report he used many contractions and informal turns of speech. But near the end, he’d spoken about Cee and Butler and his outrage over what Charles had allowed to happen to Cee. It appeared Jamel was taking a protective role as Cee’s older brother, confirming everything Dr. Collin had said about him being more than a study in artificial intelligence.
But Cee’s report was first an apology for not protecting Michael adequately. He detailed their time on the planet, and how he’d finally did the only thing possible, sent out a distress signal. And then he’d made a pledge of secrecy to save Michael’s life. Cee hadn’t malfunctioned as Michael had thought; instead he’d creatively found a way to save his life. How could Michael not appreciate the lengths Cee had gone to? And Cee apologized over and over for not protecting Michael from harm as Charles had asked him to do. Charles wanted to throttle Michael when he read about Michael’s request for Cee’s destruction from Cee’s point of view. The unit truly did seem to love Michael, although the boy certainly had done nothing to merit the child’s love. Yes, Dr. Collin was indeed right. These units were children.
Right now Butler was playing the role of faithful servant, bringing Thom his meal from the dispenser and then standing slightly behind his chair, hands behind his back. But what would happen later when Butler tired of play. Already he questioned Thom’s and even Charles’ decisions during meetings. What Charles had labeled an annoyance now suddenly seemed ominous. After reading the rest of Cee’s report, Charles could only feel revulsion as he watched the android smiling and greeting other University staff as they passed him.
Cee’s report detailed continued and more intrusive invasions of his neural net from eight months after activation to the time he’d left with Michael. The invasions had been coupled with words, which when viewed by an outsider, were designed to cut away Cee’s personhood. Cee though, did not write the report as if the words were anything other than facts. He was a malfunctioning unit. He was an unloved unit, because he had no worth. He had no purpose. He had no ability to judge Michael’s needs, therefore Butler was forced to do what he did.
Cee did rally a bit at the end of the report though. “My new owner does not care if I ever have a body. He always moves to protect me. He likes what I say and wants me to talk to him. He likes me to give him information. I am no longer useless. Someday we will even design plants together like Jamel and Collin. We will hunt together. I hope I never make the mistakes I did with Michael. I do not want my new owner to hate me like he does.
“I still miss Michael. I wish I knew what I did wrong. Collin says I did nothing wrong. Michael was hurt by Jamel’s abductor, and he could not love any unit. My new owner knows what it is like to love a father who could not love him. He says he will always love me, and I am to tell him if anyone tries to hurt me again, no matter who it is – even Collin or Jamel.
“I know Collin will not hurt me. He has requested daily reports now on how I am doing with my new owner and with Jamel. He has authorized special codes, so that when Jamel wishes to speak privately I am not to receive his signal, and he is to do the same when I speak privately. So far I have not caught Jamel listening to my reports. He says he will not. We each deserve our own thoughts and communications. I will know over time if he is as trustworthy as he desires others to be.”
Charles was a bit surprised to find out about an unnamed owner. He understood from Collin’s report that he owned both units. But he was keeping a close watch on their progress, just as Charles had wished he’d done.
Tori slipped into the chair beside him, setting her meal tray on the table. She followed his gaze to Thom and Butler. “Is there a problem?” she asked softly.
“I’m not sure. Tell me what you think of him.” He was far enough away, that Charles hoped their soft tones did not carry to him, but he took his pen from his pocket and wrote Butler on his napkin.
Tori watched them as she began eating. “You know I agree with Michael. His personable chatting is just a programmed response to gain favor.”
“But to gain favor for what end? Why put so much effort into it?”
“His friend wants him to? You said they adapt to their primary caretaker’s needs.”
Charles had tried not to let his thoughts go in that direction, but this time he couldn’t stop them. There had always been a friendly competition between Thom and Michael. Michael had excelled at his studies from the beginning, probably because of the extensive training he’d had working with his father, while Thom had needed so much help, Charles thought he’d have to drop him both as a student in his University classes and as his apprentice.
For years he’d silently wondered if Thom ever really learned what he had needed to continue his studies, or had he just learned how to rely on Butler. After a trip home, Thom had returned and seemed to master the material, the break apparently doing him good.
“Tori, dear, do you think you could read those reports from Michael and tell me whether you think an old man has cause for concern?” He lifted himself out of his chair. “In the meantime, I think I’m going to examine a medical record or two.”
Back in his study he deftly worked his way through security codes until he reached the patient medical records – Thom’s record.
Thom’s record was almost bland reading. There were only his yearly required physicals. Then there was an entry about Thom’s appendix. Thom had taken a trip to a management conference not long after Michael left for Austin, but he never made it to the conference, as he had appendicitis on the way. He was operated on and dropped off at a mining oriented space-station to recover and wait for a return passenger ship. When Thom returned three weeks later the University doctor had examined the healing incision and declared the ship’s doctor an incompetent hack. With today’s technology the incision should have been less than an inch, but this one was almost four inches. He noted the area seemed rigid, but Thom reported no pain. Two weeks later, he agreed to treat the flesh to hide the scar. That was it. No other operations were listed in Thom’s record, not even for the implant Thom said he received two years ago when he graduated.
The University maintained a strict rule that no student could have a datalink implant or pin until they’d passed their fourth year oral and written exams. Most students ran to the infirmary or the University’s store with their signed certificates to receive their reward. Then they needed to register their link’s frequency with the University’s archive computer. The implant allowed the answers to be heard only by the implantee, while with the datalink pins, any person close enough to the user could hear the answer. Both had their advantages.
Charles knew Thom now had an implant. He began the little muttering that most implantees used not long after his exams. Michael had never wanted an implant, and he rarely attached the pin to his shirt. He had always preferred keypad to voice. Charles never had an implant because a pin could be removed when he did not want any possible spy to overhear his planning of his next units. He hadn’t used his pin since his android Pet was killed, considering the security code compromised. Pet had been retrieving a late night snack for Charles in the cafeteria six months ago, when his core memory was wiped clean. His shields had been running at maximum, causing Charles and Tori to guess that a spy had been searching for his 5000 plans. Fortunately, Pet did not have the complete schematics to the 5000 units, but his death told Charles that he still needed Tori’s protection.
Tori entered the office. “The reports, Sir?”
“Ah, yes, Tori.” He pulled them from the drawer. “Guard them well, my dear.” He sighed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to request that Thom’s degree is revoked. It appears he never received an implant, which means he already had one.”
It meant far more. Butler knew he’d been the key to Thom’s academic success. And now that Michael was gone, Thom was to be Charles’ successor in his research. Given the circumstances and Dr. Collin’s report, Butler was bound to be experiencing emotions of superiority.
Charles wondered if Butler’s first foray into Cee’s net been at Thom’s request. And if Butler had done it to Cee, had he been the one to attack Pet? The thought brought both pain and fear. If Thom had requested that Butler retrieve information from Pet, then his beloved grandson was a traitor. If Butler did it on his own, what would he do next?
But Charles managed to push the thoughts aside for now – at least until Tori went over Dr. Collin’s reports. Instead he thought about Michael.
How had Michael stayed competitive when Thom had Butler spoon feeding him every answer? It only proved what he’d always known about Michael. He had a phenomenal memory, and he’d excel wherever he chose to apply himself. Charles felt a sudden keen loss that all the new information he’d been given had momentarily masked. If not for that maniac in the shuttle bay six years ago, Michael would have been his successor, carrying on his work. But now Michael’s potential was lost. His years of work would end.
Slowly Charles rose from his chair. “Just feeling my years, dear. Just feeling my years.” He made his way to the couch and lay down. “Keep the books safe, Tori, dear. They are the culmination of my work, and there is no one left to continue it.” He closed his eyes.
Tori draped the light woven throw over him. “As I guard your own life, they will be safe.” Her hand rested briefly on his shoulder, and then she left, closing the door softly behind her.