Michael had barely spoken to Kayden over the last four days. He was never rude or angry, but he seemed depressed ever since that night they’d argued in the barn about Cee. She’d tried to address it once. It was a stupid thing to be fighting about anyway. But Michael refused to discuss it. He spent all his free time with his baby wingdeer, which was good, except Kayden couldn’t help feeling as if he was avoiding her.
Now a roan mare was giving birth, and Michael stood with Niles, watching intently from outside the stall, as Marta and Kayden comforted the mare and then helped rub the foal dry. She heard a noise and turned just in time to see Michael striding away without saying a word of goodbye. Niles stared after him, his expression showing that he was just as surprised.
Niles focused on her. “Nice foal there, Kaydee. A colt or a filly?”
“Filly,” Marta said, her gaze not leaving her new charge. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Marta glanced up at Kayden. “Is Michael impatient for children?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Now Marta,” Niles said. “Men just don’t like to talk babies. Just because he walked off during your planning the other day just means he’s too busy to talk about our nursery.”
Kayden bit her lip but couldn’t speak. She’d never told her father or his wife about the rape, and now she was sure Michael never had either.
“Oh, Kayden, relax,” Marta said. “It takes time. We’ve been married three years, and I was sure starting to wonder.”
“I think I’ll let you girls talk,” Niles said, walking out of the barn.
“Oh, wouldn’t that be funny if Niles had a child and a grandchild almost the same age?”
Kayden couldn’t answer. Instead she focused on cleaning up the stall, pulling the blood soaked straw into the corner with the pitchfork.
Marta took the pitchfork from her. “Truth time, Kayden. You’re upset that your father is having another child when you’re nineteen years old, aren’t you? But this is good for him. You don’t know how much it tears him up inside that you still act like Dr. Collin is your father.”
“I’m not upset,” she managed to blurt out.
“Yes you are. You’re almost crying.”
“Kayden,” came Jamel’s – Jake’s voice in her ear. “Collin is waiting for you outside the barn.”
Kayden ran from the stall and outside, straight into Collin’s arms. She sobbed against his chest. Collin’s strong arms settled around her, and she knew as long as she was with Collin, everything would be fine. He knew what it was like. His wives had wanted children he couldn’t give them. “Daddy, can we take a long walk,” she asked, looking up into his face.
He kissed her forehead. “Let’s walk down to the river.”
Kayden turned and was surprised to see Niles standing by the corner of the barn, watching them. She really had been trying not to flaunt her relationship with Collin, and she blushed with embarrassment now, unable to meet his quiet and hurt gaze. She truly didn’t begrudge him another child, nor was she upset he’d married a woman closer to her age than his own. The age difference had never bothered her. If Collin had accepted her rash proposal last year, she would have married a man over four times her father’s age. No, her problem with Niles was that she simply did not remember him as her father. Collin was the only one who had always been with her – Collin and Jamel – from the moment she’d awakened at the mountain lab with her hands and body mutilated by a sadistic madman she only remembered in her nightmares.
Collin walked with her in silence down the two mile long lane which ran through the middle of his property. On one side was the field where the horses played, and part of the other side Collin rented out to a farmer closer to town. The sun was starting its downward angle, and Kayden was sure they’d miss dinner, but she didn’t care.
At the river she sat on the bank beside Collin, leaning against him, and she poured out her frustration at knowing she couldn’t give Michael what he really wanted. When they walked back, she felt better. Collin had even had alternatives she could offer to Michael.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Michael waited at the corner of the barn. He could see them coming, walking slowly together, Kayden occasionally leaning against Collin.
Niles stopped briefly beside him and stared down the lane toward the setting sun. “If I didn’t like the guy so much, I’d probably hate him,” Niles mumbled.
Michael tried to smile. “I’ve felt that way more than once.”
But he couldn’t keep joking. At dinner, Marta had accused him of pressuring Kayden about children. He’d been too shocked to deny it, until he met Quinn’s accusing glare. “I haven’t!”
Quinn stared at his plate a minute and then he gave Michael a tentative smile. Had Cee and Jake stuck up for him?
But Marta continued. “Everyone can see the way you get when Gwen and I talk about our babies.”
Gwen nodded in agreement.
“Give it time,” Marta continued. “You haven’t been married that long.”
“If you’d like a few tips on fertility that I picked up at the university,” Par began.
“We’re fine! We don’t want kids…” Shanika was staring at him. “…right away. We….” Now Quinn was staring at him. Michael pushed his food away. “I don’t know what happened in the barn after I left, but it wasn’t my fault. Kayden and I discussed this before we were married.”
“Oh, no!” Marta brought her hand to her mouth. “You mean you don’t want any children. But you have a good job. You have….”
“Marta,” Quinn said evenly. “A couple’s fertility is a very private matter. Tara and I tried five years to have Shanika, and she was never able to get pregnant again. I don’t think we should discuss and accuse over the dinner table.”
“Perhaps a good checkup….” Par suggested.
“I imagine they have or will discuss it with Collin, not us.”
Michael could only stare at Quinn. The protector of women and machines was now protecting him, and it was not with fists.
“Perhaps a tea. There was an article on that in the Austin Medical Review about six years ago.”
Quinn smiled. “I know. Collin showed it to me.”
Michael guessed that Collin probably wrote the article. He pushed away from the table. “I’ll eat with Kayden.” He had walked out to the corner of the barn, and there he stood for almost an hour, waiting for them to return.
Niles walked into the barn. “Gotta get that fence back up that those builders rammed into.”
Quinn stopped beside Michael a moment and watched Kayden and Collin approach.
“Thanks, Quinn. I didn’t do anything to make her feel bad, did I?”
“Not that I know of. Probably just Marta and Gwen being nosy about it.”
“You know, don’t you?”
Quinn watched Kayden approach. “Does it matter?” He glanced back at Michael. “Don’t know details, but then it’s none of my business, ‘cept as you need a friend.”
“It was the bastard that cut off her hands. He ripped her apart.”
Quinn gripped Michael’s shoulder.
“You know I’d never do anything to bring that back to her, don’t you?”
“I know,” Quinn said.
“After Cee and Jake confirmed it,” Michael accused, still keeping his voice low.
“Sorry. Just a momentary lapse. Probably cause Tara always blamed me. I get a bit sensitive.”
Michael did smile then. “You’re sensitive anyway about anyone you think is hurting. Appreciate you waited to punch me.”
Quinn gave his arm a tapping punch. “What’s amazing is you still trust me.”
Shanika ran from the barn. “Come on, Daddy. Come be with me and Flash.” She grabbed his hand and pulled.
Michael smiled as he was dragged off. But then he refocused on Kayden and Collin, taking the last few steps to them. “Kayden?”
Kayden smiled and went into his arms. He clutched on to her tightly and kissed her temple. “Marta told me you were upset about babies. She thought I was pressuring you.” He pulled away from her. “Kayden, I love you. I made my choice. I don’t regret it.”
Kayden hugged him again.
Collin rubbed her back. “Don’t forget to eat dinner, Precious One.”
Michael grabbed Kayden’s hand and walked with her to the house. “He’s right. Don’t skip meals. I saved mine to eat with you and Collin.”
Their plates were still on the table, although it appeared Gwen and Marta had cleaned up the rest of the dining room and kitchen. Michael sat beside Kayden across from Collin and they began eating. “I’m sorry, Kayden. If I said anything that hurt you, let me know. I know I’ve been in a pretty sour mood lately, but it wasn’t anything to do with you.”
“But maybe you’re feeling what I am,” she whispered, not looking at him, but the last of her meal. “Everyone’s getting pregnant and having babies. Even someone who was never designed to do such a thing. It’s not so much that I can’t have children, or that Cee will be a female dragon, but both together.”
He glanced at Collin who didn’t speak, and Michael had been ordered not to say anything negative about the machines, such as it was ludicrous to put a malfunctioning AI unit in a dangerous body, and even more ludicrous to ask the AI unit to be a living incubator. And the final lunacy was allowing machines to pretend marriage and desecrate the special union. “Look, Kayden, I don’t want to get into this robot thing again. I don’t want to argue.”
“Neither do I. Where’s Par and Gwen?”
“Out at the barn checking out the pegasus and new foal.”
“Good. Jake, tell us if anyone comes in here, okay? Michael, you could still have children.”
Michael shook his head. He wasn’t sure what she was suggesting, and he wouldn’t dare speculate. “No. Not without you. I’d never do that to you.”
“I didn’t mean that you’d go out on me. I meant… Oh, Collin, explain what you said to me about those frozen eggs and all.”
Collin shoved his plate aside and leaned on the table. His voice was low and even. “Michael, you do know that I had to regenerate Kayden’s hands. At the time I did not regenerate a womb because a second abdominal operation would not have been wise, and it would have added almost a month to the time it would take before I could bring her home here. She can still have the operation.”
“She can? I thought you said she’d never have children.”
“Not her own. It is very rare that a regenerated ovary will produce a viable egg. But she may, and I stress may, be able to carry a fetus to term. Nothing is guaranteed in this field. I could take your sperm and fertilize one of the thousands of frozen eggs in storage at the lab, and we could attempt to plant the embryo into her new womb. Miscarriages are common with the procedure so it may take a number of attempts.”
“Thousands of frozen human eggs? What were they planning to do with them?”
“This lab was hidden for a reason, Michael. It was where all the experiments on human embryos, children, and adults took place.”
Michael shook his head, his worse fears about those long dead geneticists just confirmed. “I don’t want experiments.”
“No. I wouldn’t change anything. If you prefer, I will not even try to direct which sperm fertilizes the egg so that you can be surprised by the child’s gender, although I should check for genetic birth defects that can easily be fixed before implantation.”
And yet as Collin spoke, Michael couldn’t see his own child. He could only see the question that had haunted him since he’d figured out that the man before him was somehow related to Collin Hansell. He glanced at Kayden and then swallowed. “Collin, this is none of my business, but how can you be Collin Hansell? Do you clone yourself every so often?”
Collin gave a sad, but gentle smile. “No. I’m really 185 years old. I am the survivor of a genetic experiment. But I wouldn’t subject any man to that.” He shook his head. “The past isn’t important. But Kayden is willing to risk the procedure I outlined to you. You should both talk about it. Miscarriages are just as hard as infertility. And this will be hard on Kayden’s body. She will be restricted after surgery and at various times during pregnancy. Make sure you are both certain you can live with whatever the results are. Some women go through all this and can still never carry to term. And every surgery carries the risk of death, however slight in this case.”
Collin left the table, and the front door closed a moment later.
Michael stared after him. “How’d he survive the riots?”
“Passed himself off as an orphan.”
Michael was surprised she’d answered. Usually she simply refused to talk about it, proving her loyalty to Collin Hansell even above her love for him. “I thought he said even children were killed in the riots.”
Kayden gave a slight shrug. “Maybe that was afterward then. I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it much, ‘cept what he’s already told you. He always gets depressed when he does say anything. You really thought he was a clone?”
“You just accept that he’s 185 when he looks less than forty?”
Apparently Kayden had never thought about it. Right now she frowned. “Why wouldn’t I? He had no reason to lie. Jamel… Jake even said he was and so did Mauve and Burgy and Archive.”
“Who are Mauve, Burgy, and Archive?” Michael was almost afraid to ask, although Archive sounded like a facility computer.
“Robots. Well, not Archive. He’s kind of in all the walls.” She stood and gathered the empty plates. “Par and Gwen are coming.”
Discussion was at an end then. But when they went up in bed later, Kayden brought it up first. “Were you asking all those questions about Collin because you don’t want to think about us?”
“I’ve been curious about Collin for months. I still would like to know where all this tech is.”
“I’m sure Collin will take you there someday. I couldn’t. I just know it’s somewhere in the mountains.”
“So why do you all of a sudden trust me?” He snuggled against her.
“I’ve always trusted you, but I told you before. It’s not my place to tell Collin’s secrets. But he said there wasn’t much I could say that you didn’t already know, so I didn’t have to worry about what I said to you. So, what do you think? Do you want me to get the operation?”
Michael had avoided thinking about that all evening. He didn’t like the thought of anyone cutting into Kayden again. He assisted in surgery at least once a month now, and it was always harder when he had met the person before the emergency arose. He tried to block the images of Kayden’s blood crying out to him.
“I don’t want any children,” he said, rolling away from her and closing his eyes, although he hoped he didn’t fall asleep.
“Michael?” came her timid voice. “Are you mad at me?”
“Of course not. I’m just tired, and I wish everyone would stop trying to pressure us into parenthood.” He turned to face her. “That’s it, isn’t it? Don’t let anyone pressure you, Kayden. Not even Collin. Let him operate on Gwen and Marta if he wants to slice into someone.”
“No, I don’t! Don’t let anyone tell you that. I want you. Haven’t I made that clear? If I’d wanted you to try some womb replacement trick, I’d have taken you off planet to do it in a well staffed, completely modern hospital.”
“You don’t trust….”
He grabbed her shoulder. “No one is cutting into you again. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” she said weakly.
He lay back down and stared at the ceiling.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She thought he slept, but Kayden couldn’t. Why was he so angry with her all the time? She thought he’d be happy. She tried not to make any noise as the tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry, Kayden,” came Jamel… Jake’s voice in her ear.
“But why?” she whispered.
“Cee says he’ll have nightmares tonight.”
“He dreams of you being hurt. I never should have sent back the file of your pain. I was trying to justify murdering him. I didn’t think how it would hurt anyone else to see it.” A slight pause. “Cee said the nightmares were always with him. Something to do with how you were taken.”
A few times Michael had awakened her with his restlessness since they were married, but she didn’t think he’d had a serious nightmare. She hadn’t had any really bad ones either. Just having him next to her seemed to keep them at bay.
“I think Cee’s right, Kayden. He loves you. Don’t let all the baby talk bother you. Collin has never had children of his own, either, but he adopts many. You have adopted Shanika. You don’t need to risk surgery.”
Kayden didn’t really want surgery nor to be confined at the lab or even in the house here. She just wanted to please Michael. Maybe she had misjudged his distance. Was he still upset about Cee for a different reason? Was he upset with Collin for chastising him that night? Collin had demanded he not speak as if Cee’s desires were stupid. And she had a transceiver so that Jake or Cee could hear whatever he said. Maybe they just needed to go out of range once in a while so he’d feel free to open up.
“No! Stop him! Kayden!” Michael’s arms flung out, barely missing her face, before they covered his own. “No,” he moaned. “No more blood.”
Kayden shifted on her side and slid her arm around his waist. “Michael,” she whispered. “It’s okay, Michael. I love you.”
He clutched her. “Kayden?” He pulled her close until his face rested against her bare shoulder. His body trembled in her arms, until slowly the trembling subsided.
Then he kissed her shoulder, her neck, her lips, and she gave in to the moment, hoping it took away whatever lingered from that brutal day over six years ago.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.