Quinn set the large book of fairy tales on the small table beside Shanika’s bed. “Okay. Time for sleep, Sweetheart.” He pulled the blanket up to her neck and then tucked her brown stuffed pegasus on one side of her and her silver on the other.
“Will you ever get me a real pegasus, Daddy?”
Quinn sighed. “I would if I could, Shan.”
“The dragons ate them all, didn’t they? I hate dragons. I hate that Hansell.”
Quinn winced at his ex-wife’s words coming from his little girl’s lips. “No, Honey. Don’t hate Collin Hansell. He is a good man. Not all the dragons are bad.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’ll ask Doc Collin if he can find us a pegasus when you’re old enough.”
“I’m old enough,” she said, glaring at him. “I’m not a baby.”
Quinn smiled. “Then you better be good so you can prove it to me.” He kissed her one more time and then blew out the light.
“Daddy,” came her timid voice when he was out in the hall.
“Jaynee will be all right, won’t she?”
“I hope so, Sweetheart. She just needs to sleep a lot right now. You sleep, too.”
She was silent, so Quinn continued downstairs.
On the porch he paused at the steps, glancing back. Collin sat tilted back in the far right chair, his feet up on the railing, his eyes closed. He had barely taken a break over the last few days from either tending Jaynee or comforting her distraught parents. Tonight, the parents had gone home, and Par Morrell, the young doctor they’d hired three months ago fresh out of Alexandria’s Teaching Hospital, was sitting with Jaynee.
Quinn had hoped to go up to the loft. Cee said Jamel had something to show them, and Quinn also yearned for a heart-stopping ride. But if Collin needed him.…
Michael and Kayden came out. Kayden immediately went to Collin. Collin smiled, opened his eyes, and shifted his feet to the porch floor. “Come here, my children,” he said softly.
Kayden sat in the chair beside him, reaching over to grasp his hand. Michael and Quinn stood before them, leaning back on the railing. With four other adults and Shanika around, it was rare that the four of them were alone. They were the only ones Collin had entrusted his secrets to. They were his family.
“I’ve decided to add another house behind ours. With Par and Gwen expecting their first child, and now Niles and Marta....”
“Marta’s pregnant?” Kayden asked. Niles was Kayden’s real father, although she claimed she still didn’t really remember him. He and his wife helped in the stables and with other jobs around the clinic and farm. “She hasn’t said anything.”
Collin squeezed her hand. “Forgive me, Kayden. I am probably speaking out of turn. You won’t let them know I’ve already planned their future, will you?”
Michael smiled. “So just what future do you plan for them.”
Collin gave a negligible wave. “I have considered building a separate house behind the clinic. It would have two sections, one for each growing family.”
“And what about the other half of this place? That’ll be empty.”
“I don’t imagine it will be for long. Besides, I always find it’s prudent to have a least one guest room. Without the new building we will have none. With it, we’ll regain the four over here.”
And it would make it easier to talk and ask questions about the new studies Collin had given him. Par had already overheard one question, and he’d seemed horrified that Quinn would even consider the genetic structure of anything. Later Collin expressed his irritation at the lack of proper training they gave doctors at the hospital. “Obviously the hospital will always rely on the government to import their medicines, and they’ll hide helpless from any disease that can’t be treated with a handy pill or tea. How long will these people be content in their ignorance? Even if we could get our penal restrictions lifted, would they stay locked in their isolationism for fear of what they have no knowledge of? Will they continue to berate life saving research because of the abuses and mistakes of a few people?” Quinn had been surprised by the tirade, but then took it as an additional indication of his changed status. No longer was Quinn simply the recipient of Collin’s generosity and gentle care. Now he enjoyed the privilege of confidant.
“Are you expecting company?” Michael asked, bringing Quinn back to the present.
Collin shrugged. “Tara may visit again. And I have a friend who may. You never know. We may find another half-dead tech spy who needs a home.” He winked at Michael.
Tara had visited her daughter once in the five months since she’d taken off with Gaben Blanne, a doctor Quinn had once considered his friend. He found life was less tense without her. However there were nights he longed for the physical release she’d always given even when she’d berate him as a stupid coward during the daylight hours. Quinn tried not to think about her, but he failed. He needed a good heart-pounding dragon flight to ease the tension.
Quinn backed toward the porch steps. Collin focused on him, and Quinn stopped, embarrassed he’d been caught wishing to leave. They had so little time, and all he could think of were his own desires.
“That’s all I wanted to tell you. If you have no objections to the changes, you may go on to the barn.”
Quinn slipped off the porch and ran to the barn. Of course he had no objections. Collin always knew what was best. If he’d listened to him, he would never have married Tara in the first place. Maybe he’d be married to a loyal, loving wife. He couldn’t help but envy Michael for getting Kayden. He was sure Kayden would never call Michael a girlbaby in public and tell everyone just how much she suffered being married to a coward.
Inside the barn he lit the lantern and carried it up the ladder to the large loft – Jamel’s home. The square board door covered the entrance to the loft, fitting tightly against the ladder. Quinn lifted it up and shoved it to the right. They’d added the wooden door so that Jamel could prevent others from coming into the loft during the day. He had only to slide a beam through the two metal U clasps on either side of it and no one would be able to lift it and enter the loft.
As soon as Quinn hung the light on its hook, Jamel rubbed his head against Quinn’s chest. “I’ve missed you.”
Quinn rubbed behind both Jamel’s ears. “How’s the hunting look tonight?”
He heard someone on the ladder and stared back at it. At the sight of Michael’s light brown hair, Quinn focused on Jamel again. Unfortunately their conversation would be stilted.
Jamel chuckled out loud, though. “We can always find something to hunt.”
Quinn glanced at Michael.
Michael stepped off the ladder. “So you talk to Quinn also.”
“Yes. Quinn is my friend. He’s a good hunter.”
Michael made a face, but then smiled at Quinn. “I guess I have you to thank for some of those dragon heads I’ve been collecting money on. I’m surprised you haven’t asked for your share.”
“Share? I don’t do anything.”
“Far more than I do, just carting the things to Capitol for the reward money.”
“No, I mean, Ja … Jake makes most of the kills. I’ve just killed two so far. Besides I still owe you. Rae will have her calves within the next two weeks. Do you want one? You’ll still get to ride Bambi whenever you want.”
“You’re still offering?”
“I promised you.”
“Yeah, but … Hey, why don’t I pay you?”
Quinn shook his head, keeping his hands running over Jamel’s ears. “I don’t want money.” He still felt indebted to Michael for Cee, but he didn’t want to remind Michael about how he’d acquired Cee from him.
“Michael and I went hunting a couple nights ago,” Jamel said.
“Something I’d rather didn’t happen again.”
“Is that when you learned he could talk? He spoke to me when he killed that bronze dragon. I thought I was losing my mind.” The bronze dragon’s head was still hanging on the waiting room wall, even though Tara had made sure everyone knew Quinn had not killed it, but she’d never known who had.
Michael smiled and sat on a hay bale. “So I’m not the only one who has trouble with a talking dragon. But that means you weren’t around when Jamel’s core was somehow put into the creature’s head.”
“I am a mammal-dragon, and the body was designed for me. In fact, I helped design it.”
“We discussed plans in the living room. I lived in Collin’s pocket back then.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Just like a dumb machine. Where was the body made?”
“There is no need to be rude, Michael. But to answer your question, you will both learn when Collin deems you are ready and not before. Quinn, Cee, we got a blue dragon.” He left Quinn, and pulled a strip of hide away from one of the bundles in the corner with his teeth.
Quinn accepted it, studying the rich blue which graduated into lighter and dark shades, but always staying within the same royal blue hue, a deeper blue than Jamel’s silvery sky-blue.
Michael stood and joined them. “This is what we got the other night? Wow. It’s looks so much better under the light. Just think what it’d look like in sunlight. I like it.”
“What do you think, Cee?” Quinn asked.
“It’s beautiful,” Cee said softly from his pocket, not using the transceiver. “I want to be this color.”
“I’ll ask Collin to have this made up for us then.”
“You think Collin will use that hide to make a dragon body for Cee? I hate to say this, but I don’t think that’s how he does it.”
Quinn smiled. “No. I don’t know how he does it, but I doubt he’d take a dead reptile hide and make it into a furred mammal hide. I just want a jacket and pack and boots out of this, or at least as much as it’ll make. Jamel says Collin can make Cee any color, so we’ve been watching for the right one.”
Michael grinned then. “You’re designing your own Hans Trapper outfit?”
“Yeah,” Quinn admitted. “I’m still thinking about a name.” He’d been amazed to learn that his beloved mentor, Alex Collin, was secretly Hans Trapper, the dragon slayer. He’d been even more shocked to learn he was Collin Hansell, a 184 year old geneticist who’d designed the deadliest beast on the planet in his youth... well, he’d been slightly older than Quinn at the time, but when a man is 184 years old, anything less than fifty seemed like childhood. But he never stopped wanting to be as much like Alex Collin as he could. When Collin had given him a laser and taught him to use it, he now had the means to do what had previously only been an embarrassing fantasy.
Michael laughed. “Will it end in ‘Trapper’?”
“I think so. It’s part of the legend.”
Michael turned his gaze to the dragon again. “I want to hate you, Jamel, but for some reason I can’t.”
Jamel brought his nose to touch Michael’s chest. “I am sorry for harassing you. Tell me how I can make restitution.”
“Restitution? Just don’t harass anyone again.” Michael shook his head. “I can’t believe Collin trusts you with a laser.”
“It won’t kill humans.”
“You’ve modified code before.” Michael shook his head and paced to the loft doorway, shoving aside the strips of dragon-hide which draped in front of it to keep out the wind. “Except I wish you’d done it sooner,” Michael said so low that Quinn almost didn’t hear him.
“So do I.” Jamel walked to him, but didn’t touch him. “I was afraid of waiting too long again. She sounded so hurt that day you asked her about me. I can’t stand to see her hurting.”
Michael took a deep breath. “For all that flesh surrounding your core, you are still a machine. You do not need to act human to me. If fact, I prefer if you cut all the emotionally charged words from your vocabulary. Don’t blame your actions on your emotions. You are a machine. Explain your actions with logic.”
Quinn wrapped his left arm around Jamel’s neck, wondering if Michael’s words bothered him. He bet they were bothering Cee. With his right hand he rubbed the outside of his pocket, wishing Cee was indeed covered with flesh so that he could give him that type of tangible reassurance.
“You are like a doctor insisting that since the human brain is mapped, and it is known how the electrical charges in the brain transfer thoughts, that human beings have no reason to be emotional. All their processes can be explained, and yet the same processes go on in completely different personalities.”
“People are not engineered. They are not programmed. Jamel, you are a machine.”
“I have never denied that my core is not flesh, and I’ve never said I was equal to a human in any way. You are the only one who seems to care.”
Michael whirled around. “I care if you’re going to malfunction and kill people.”
“People malfunction and kill other people. I think my risk is less because I have already struggled with the issues of life and death, guilt and forgiveness. I know what I’m capable of, and I strive not to repeat my mistakes. You, however, react on the emotion of the moment. If Collin hadn’t taken your laser, I’ve no doubt you’d accidently hurt or kill someone. You tried to kill me, remember?”
Michael’s fists clenched.
Jamel chuckled. “You want to kill me now. Don’t you think you should learn to control those emotions?”
“I’m not your damn apprentice. Don’t tell me to hide away my emotions. Don’t tell me it’s time to get over things. I was right. She is alive. She....” Michael caught Quinn staring at him. His anger seemed to drain away as his gaze dropped to the floor. “I hate machines taught to be emotional when men are encouraged to be machines,” he mumbled. He walked to the loft ladder.
Jamel curved his wing around Michael, stopping him. “Please wait.”
Michael jumped back from the wing. “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry, Michael. I did not mean to hurt you with those words. I was teasing. I guess I need to study that more. I don’t do it well. You can and should have emotions, Michael. You are designed to relate to other humans and creation on an emotional level. You can’t appreciate the true beauty of the universe without emotions to magnify the Creator.”
Michael stared at Jamel a moment and then focused on Quinn. “I think I liked him better before he could talk.”
Jamel sat back on his haunches, his head almost bumping the twenty foot ceiling. “As you wish. To you, I will remain a glorified wingdeer.” He let his body land so that he was facing the loft door. In Quinn’s ear, he said, “Would you like to go flying tonight?”
“Yes.” Quinn grabbed the saddle from the hook and began buckling it to Jamel.
Quinn faced Michael, keeping his right hand on Jamel’s wing. “Yes?”
“I didn’t mean to get all emotional on you. I’m sorry.”
“You did not hurt me.”
Michael glanced at Jamel, who kept his nose on the floor, just outside the dragonhide curtain. He shook his head. “He can’t be hurt, Quinn. He’s just a machine. He’s just trying to make you feel sorry for him and be mad at me.”
“I don’t want you mad at Michael for my sake,” Jamel said in his ear. “Then he’ll hate me more.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Quinn said, although he was a bit irritated that Michael insisted his best friends had no emotions on which to engage a friendship. He didn’t care if Michael had been working with and engineering machines throughout the galaxy, he was wrong about Jamel and Cee. Collin had said they needed reassurance and love like a child, and Collin had proven he knew far more than either of them.
“Then why are you leaving?”
Jamel spoke in his ear again. “Kayden is talking to Collin about not ever having babies. Maybe Michael needs to talk, too,” he suggested. “I will go patrol the village, and we can hunt later.” With that he lifted his wing gently over Quinn’s head until he was beyond him. Then he launched out the loft door, leaving the dragon-hide strips flapping back into place.
Quinn focused on Michael. “I’m not leaving.”
“Why did he go? I thought….” He shook his head.
“He patrols the village.”
Michael settled onto a hay bale. “You’re not tired, are you?”
“Not really.” Quinn pushed some of the loose hay of Jamel’s bed into a pile, then he stretched out into it, his back and head supported so that he could watch Michael. “So, you hate emotions.”
“No. I don’t hate emotions in people. I just know that machines use them to manipulate people.”
“I’ve known a lot of people who do also.”
“True, but usually there’s something behind the emotions if you dig deep enough. All that is behind an AI unit is the instructions to imitate human behavior to facilitate acceptance. What I really hate are androids.”
“Why are androids worse?”
Michael chuckled and slipped down to the floor, crossing his legs in front of him. “You probably don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Cee told me Butler is an android. He has a human body.”
“He does not have a human body.” Michael gave a small shudder. “Don’t ever give Collin that idea. That’s not only outlawed throughout the known galaxy, it’s murder. Taking the brain out of an animal is one thing, but out of a human….” He shuddered again. “Collin wouldn’t do that.”
“The body was made with only a brain stem,” Jamel stated into the transceiver, apparently listening to their conversations through that same transceiver. “He did not take an existing animal with previous dangerous tendencies.”
“No,” Quinn reassured Michael. “Collin didn’t even do that with Jamel, remember? He created fresh.”
Michael nodded. “Yeah. Just a horrid thought. Butler’s bad enough as he is. Although everyone else thinks he’s just great, because he knows how to manipulate them. The outside of his body is mostly vinyl. Thom dresses him in a suit although he has no anatomy – I mean what would a robot do with anatomy? Scratch that. Something else not to think about. He has no hair, but now he wears a short blond wig, which stands out against his putty grey body. His eyes are just sensors. They don’t look like eyes, I mean, except he uses the lens cleaners as eyelids, and he’ll wink or blink as if he’s surprised –just to get people to say, ‘Oh, look at him. Isn’t he darling?’ And he’s learned to move the mouth to look like the words are actually coming from vocal cords, tongue and lips, but of course he really doesn’t even have lips. Just a slit which allows access for maintenance. He’s got another slit just like it in his abdomen where his core is inserted, but of course no one sees that with his clothes on.”
“Sounds like a monster from a fairy tale.” Quinn wondered how Cee ever could have wanted a body like that.
“Yeah, exactly! You’re the first person to agree with me. Most think he’s cute.”
“Once when Tara and I were in Capitol we saw this really ugly bird. Tara said it was so ugly it was cute. Made me wonder if that’s how she saw me.”
Michael burst out laughing. “You’re not… oh, man, you are serious.” He sobered instantly. “Quinn, trust me. I’m sure the women aren’t at all thinking that about you. I’ve seen how they notice you when we’re out. They know you’re single again, and I’m pretty sure if I took a poll, you’d be listed as the most desirable bachelor in Hope.”
Quinn gave a soft laugh. “You haven’t been here long enough to know what the people of Hope think of me.” But then he didn’t want to think about that either. His father and brother were dead, so they no longer threw slurs about, but his mother really hadn’t forgiven him for letting Burke die, as if he’d had the power to save him. It was more than that. Burke wouldn’t have been out in the field drunk if Quinn had given him a job as his assistant. It didn’t matter that it was Collin’s practice and Collin’s decision not to hire Burke. Quinn was a coward for not exerting himself and getting his brother a job.
“I know what I see, Quinn,” he said softly. “Sure I’ve heard things, but I’ve heard twenty positive comments about you for every negative. You are not the drunkard’s son anymore. You’re Dr. Stone.” Michael chuckled. “They like you Quinn. You’ve proven yourself. May have taken you years to do it, but you have.”
“But I’m sure my divorce has proven I’m bad.”
“On the contrary, I think it’s improved your standing. She left you and her child. What woman would let her child stay to grow up with an awful person? No, Quinn. You’ve listened to Tara for too long.”
“What do you suggest, Dr. Jamel?”
“Hardly a doctor yet.”
“I’ve heard a few patients who think you are.” Quinn relaxed as they left the heavier emotions behind and joked about the practice and the sometimes humorous situations that arose. They even touched on Par’s aversion to some parts of medicine – specifically genetics and surgery. He preferred the herbal cures, which was why he’d decided to accept Collin’s offer to come to Hope. Collin grew most of his own medicines. But the man would never know that Collin designed those plants using his knowledge of the plant’s molecular structures.
They talked for over an hour when Jamel spoke into his ear. “Kayden’s waiting for Michael.”
Quinn grinned at Michael. “Your wife told Jamel she’s waiting for you.”
Michael stood. “I guess that is one advantage to having an implant in a society with no other communication devices. Isn’t there some low tech alternative?”
Quinn rose also, brushing the hay from him. “Sometimes people set up something called a telephone. Had one going good in Capitol, and they were going to extend the lines out here. Then the tech sensors blasted the main building.”
“You’re kidding? Was anyone hurt?”
“Two people. Guess they’d been warned, but they thought it wouldn’t get blasted with people inside. That was back when I was about five.”
Quinn shrugged. “Some say hidden tech. Some say there wasn’t anything hidden. They just wanted to keep us weak. Don’t know. There was talk about trying again, but no one wants to put the work and gold into it just to have it vaporized.”
Michael grabbed the ladder. “I’m glad I was never really tempted to turn Collin in. I still think this planet has a cruel justice system.” He gave Quinn a grin as he started down the ladder. “Best prison in the universe though. You should be glad they don’t let people look around, or you’d be fighting off the immigrants.”
Quinn laughed as Michael disappeared. Michael had just admitted he liked living here anyway.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.