After dinner Geoff shuffled back to bed. He wasn’t regaining any strength. He’d been right to write his children. He was dying, and he was ready to die. He was too weary to live.
When he awoke it was dark except for the small electric night light which was always on in the room. Who had Hans foisted him off on this time?
“I see you’re awake, my son,” Collin whispered, standing before the bed.
“Guess it’s your turn, isn’t it?”
Collin sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hand over Geoff’s head, sweeping back his scant greying hair, just as if he were a ten year old boy again. “Ready to go for a walk?”
Geoff shook his head. “You know I’m dying.”
“We’ll fix that at the lab.”
“Don’t want it fixed. Let me die.”
Collin closed his eyes and his jaw tightened. “Don’t do this to me, Geoff.”
“I’m just in your way here.”
“No!” It was almost a shout, a hushed roar. He grabbed the thin blanket and tore it from Geoff. Then he lifted him into his arms.
“Put me down. I’m not a child.”
“You’re my child, and if you really wanted to die, you wouldn’t be here.”
“Stop. Hans, please.” They were outside now on the front porch. Collin kept walking, carrying him like a baby, out to the barn and beyond. “Hans. You can’t treat me against my will. You said you wouldn’t.”
Collin brought him closer, hugging him. His eyes were closed, and he let Geoff’s bare feet slide to the ground. “Don’t do this to me, Geoff,” he repeated.
“You didn’t ask me if you could die. You can die and I can’t? Hardly seems fair to me.” He wished Collin would release him, but he held him closer than a grown man should hold another. He wasn’t a child, hadn’t been a child in so many years.
“Don’t do this to get back at me,” Collin said fiercely.
Geoff used all his scant strength to push away. When Collin let him go, he staggered to the nearby bench. They were behind the barn. He hadn’t realized they’d come so far so quickly. “I’m just in the way here. You never wanted me as a true son. You never cared whether I lived or died all these years. I could have died fifteen years ago, and you wouldn’t know it or care.”
His name came out like a moan, but Geoff couldn’t let that affect him. He attacked again. “You told all of them. All of them! And I fooled myself, pretending it didn’t matter my real parents didn’t want me. I had you. You always wanted me around. What a lie!”
Collin sunk onto the bench beside him and leaned over, his head in his hands. They sat in silence for a long while, and Geoff began to feel the chill on his bare feet and the hardness of the bench.
“Why aren’t you with your children right now, Geoff?” he asked without raising his head.
“They have their own families. They don’t need a sick old man hanging around.”
“You had your own family, Geoff. You didn’t need me. And if my secrets came out, your children could have been killed. I’d been there long enough to be in my sixties or seventies, but I looked thirty. How long until I endangered you? How long until I made your life a living hell?”
He raised his head. “Kayden found out first. She was so mutilated I had to regrow her hands at the lab. Michael came looking for her last year, and he’d seen her fingers cut off when the madman first abducted her. He knew I’d done something. Quinn… He found out about Jake when Jake saved his life right after his brother was killed. And then Michael was ill, and he gave up his computer in front of Quinn. Michael works for the government as a tech-spy. He wasn’t born here or a convict. That’s a secret, too. Kayden crash landed on the planet with a robot whose core was an experiment in AI – artificial intelligence. I named him Jamel, as he was the Jamel5000A unit, designed by Charles Jamel, Michael’s grandfather. He now calls himself Jake to avoid confusion, and I’ve given him the body of a mammal dragon. Quinn’s computer, the unit Jamel5000C, will have a dragon body also. That’s what we are going north to do. Begin the process of making the first female mammal dragon. So Geoff. I did not tell them outright. They all found out one way or another, and that’s why I told you I’ve been compromised. We could all die sooner than later.”
Geoff watched the man staring straight ahead into the pasture. He had all his questions answered, and somehow he didn’t know what to do with the left over resentment which no longer was logical to maintain. The man was either insane or completely serious. He truly believed he could be killed any time by a rioting mob.
“Your feet are bare.”
“You just noticed that?”
“You are being unreasonable with your refusal for treatment.”
“Your new friends do not want me around, Hans. I’m a weak, old man.”
“They don’t know you. No one has said anything to you about the matter. Jake? No, I didn’t think so. You’re projecting emotions to them, and you don’t really know them. If you still feel that way after you’re well, you’re welcome to leave, but don’t make me watch you die when I know I can save you from this. I have to do it too many times with locals.”
“Lenora’s dead. There’s no reason….”
“I wanted to die when Vita did also. But if I had, what would have happened to you? Vince, Misti and Raini would never have been born. Shanika wouldn’t have, because Quinn would be dead also. So would Kayden. You have a lot of years left, Geoff. Don’t give up too soon!”
“I’ll never be able to keep up with you and the rest of them.”
“Keep up!” Collin stood and paced. “Keep up! You’re doing it again. You think life is a competition. Well, it’s not. You do what you can, help who you can. But you aren’t competing with anyone!” Collin whirled around and looked upward, toward a silvery object in the sky, growing larger. “Now don’t be alarmed by the dragon. He is completely harmless.”
“Yeah, right. The rapist is thinking that in his grave.”
Collin shot him a glance. “And you prefer he be allowed to rape and kill the girl?”
“Gods, no, Hans. But you can’t call a dragon completely harmless, even if he had no teeth.”
The beast came in low and then glided to a stop right before them. His huge head snaked over to Collin.
Collin hugged him and rubbed his face against him, as Geoff had seen him do to his wingdeer many times. “Geoff, this is Jake.”
Geoff felt his heart pounding harder than it should be, but he tried to be as nonchalant as possible. He wouldn’t be outdone by those young kids. “So you say it has a computer for a brain?”
The dragon chuckled. “Yes, Geoff. I have a computer core as my brain, a voice enhancement unit, and a laser I use to kill reptile dragons with, but Collin and I have decided it is best the village doesn’t know any of that.”
“It does talk!”
“Yes. I talk. And I am a male dragon. The proper pronoun is currently he.”
“Geoff, Jamel or rather Jake’s core is not just any study in AI. He actually feels and thinks. If you continue to talk as if he is not here, you will hurt his feelings. Right now he finds it amusing, but please don’t continue to snub him.”
Geoff was having a hard time comprehending it all. And then Collin said, “Wait here. Let me get your shoes.” And he ran off, leaving him with the huge dragon.
“I guess death a few days sooner won’t hurt my plans any.”
The dragon squatted and stretched out along the ground. “Feel free to touch me and satisfy your curiosity.”
“I’m just curious if you’ll kill me with the first or the second bite.”
The dragon made a noise which seemed like a sigh. “You trust Collin so little that you think he’d leave you with a man-eating dragon. No wonder you’d rather die. I suppose you think he plans to torture you with experiments if he takes you to the lab.”
Geoff stared at the creature. “I never thought….”
“Well, you certainly don’t trust him. I just hope his trust in you isn’t misplaced. You could get us all killed.”
“Then you should want me dead.”
“No. I want Collin happy. Let him help you. He has explained the surgery to me, and it is relatively simple, as is the renewing of your blood vessels. I will assist. Quinn will watch and learn.”
“Ah… yeah. A dragon as a surgeon.”
The dragon chuckled. “No. Collin’s the surgeon. My robotic unit would be assisting. I generally stay in the stables when I’m there. He has too much artwork, and I always end up knocking something off the walls or shelves when I wander around much.”
“I can see where that would be a problem,” Geoff said, feeling as if his mind had separated from his body, and he was dreaming.
Collin returned with Geoff’s shoes and his lightweight jacket. He gave him the jacket and kneeled in the dirt before him to help him into the shoes. “Come on, Geoff. We’re going for a little ride. Just like you dreamed about as a boy.”
He’d remembered. Why would he remember that silly little incident? The kittle had brought home a baby dragon, but it wasn’t quite dead, and Geoff had hidden it away for two full weeks before Hans had found out and killed it. Geoff had been furious. But then that night, in the dark, Hans had told him how he’d tried to raise a baby dragon also. But as it grew it became violent. His father and friends had wanted him to kill it, but he hadn’t; he couldn’t. So he let it go. And the beast had come back and killed people he knew, and all because he’d let the dragon go.
Geoff let Hans help him into his jacket. “Your baby dragon. It was the first dragon, wasn’t it?” he whispered.
Collin rubbed his back. “It was a litter of eight, and I released them all. Every death is on my head.”
The dragon’s head swung around and rubbed against Collin’s chest. “I love you, Collin,” the dragon said.
Collin rubbed his face into the fur on his neck. “With Jake, we’re finally changing things. We can make a difference.”
He turned to Geoff. “Ready?” He lifted Geoff as easily as he’d lift a child, and he placed him on the dragon’s broad back in a saddle that Geoff hadn’t noticed before. But that was his weak eyes again. It was a good thing he would die soon before he accidently gave someone the wrong medicine.
Collin strapped down Geoff’s legs and then climbed up behind him, wrapping his arms around Geoff, again as if he were a child. “Give us a nice gentle trip around the village, my friend, and then bring us back to the loft.”
Then the dragon was in flight so smoothly Geoff was barely jarred. Hans’ strong arms were around him, and suddenly up in the air with no one to see or no one to care, he wanted to be 10, and he wanted to stay in the world of good dragons with gallant knights as owners.
He had finally relaxed, even closing his eyes against the cool night air.
“Let me help you,” Collin whispered near his ear. “You’ll be able to ride the dragon often. He’ll be your friend, too.”
Geoff was immediately jarred from his dream. To ride the dragon as a healthy man – what would that be like? But Quinn hadn’t liked Marta cutting into his time with the dragon. None of them would like that. And even well, he’d still be an old man with failing eyesight, greying hair, and weak limbs. “Let it end like this, Hans. I’ve lived my life.”
The arms tightened around him in steel bands, but not another word was spoken. The dragon flew at the barn and then inside through a curtain of hide strips. He stopped before Geoff realized what had happened.
The room was lit by only one low flame lamp, throwing everything in shadows, but he counted three others. Upon dismounting, he recognized Quinn lounging against a pile of straw. Michael and Kayden sat together leaning against a straw bale.
“My children,” Collin said softly. “I have told Geoff all our secrets, and I trust him completely. Unfortunately he’ll only be with us another six weeks or so, as he has refused treatment.”
Michael sat up. “You mean he wants to die?”
“Unfortunately, yes. That does mean, Quinn, that we will postpone our trip north, so that we may spend these last weeks with Geoff.”
Quinn nodded, but said nothing.
“Relax, Geoff.” Collin led him to a straw bail, between Quinn and Michael. Then he hesitated. “Jake and I must patrol the village again.”
He jumped on the dragon’s back, and with a quick flick, he had the straps tightened. Jake spun around and jumped through the curtain. It was so abrupt, they all stared at the curtain. Then they silently stared at Geoff, the intruder. Yes, Hans wanted to spend time with him. That’s why he left him up here with a bunch of young kids, showing him just how much he didn’t fit in with his new family.
Then Quinn sat up. Kayden’s hand covered her mouth as a slight moan escaped, and Michael drew her into a hug. Geoff looked around, but didn’t know what had alarmed them. His hearing was about the only thing not impaired, and he hadn’t heard anything unusual. And tears were streaming down Kayden’s face.
“You,” Kayden said, wiping her hands over her face. “He loves you, and you’re tearing him apart.”
“I’m not doing anything. In fact, I’d be in bed if he hadn’t dragged me out here.”
“I wanted to die before,” Quinn stated simply. “You can’t give up, Geoff. Let Collin treat you.”
“You don’t know anything about being old,” Geoff snapped. That’s all he needed was a bunch of youngsters questioning his decisions. They’d always disregard his wishes as silly, just as Vince did since the day he’d turned fourteen. Geoff had enough of that, and in Alexandria every young doctor questioned his care of Lenora over the last eight years. Everyone thought they knew better, and they hadn’t even been there. If only he’d brought her here.
“I know if Collin says he can help you, he can,” Kayden stated. She jumped up and then kneeled before him, holding out both her hands, clenched with her fingers up. “Look. My wrists. Both of them. See that thin line. All that’s new! He regrew my hands. He can do it! Do you see?”
He gently shoved her hands away. “Can’t see anything that small, Child. I’m old.”
“And patronizing, I see,” Michael said dryly. “I’m sure Collin could repair your eyesight also. Everyone has it done all the time in the rest of the galaxy.”
“And I can’t stand being treated like I’m stupid.”
Michael laughed. “Neither can I. I think the man is just so incredibly intelligent that he can’t help treating us lesser beings like children.”
Geoff had resented Michael’s comment and couldn’t help his surprise when Michael turned it around to include him in fellowship against Hans. “He wasn’t this bad before. And I have learned a few things since he took off on me.”
“You want to die because you think Collin is too bossy?” Kayden stared at him, her mouth open. “You call that intelligent?”
“I never said that.”
“Kayden does draw immediate conclusions from scant facts,” Michael said dryly. “But she’s incredibly loyal and loving.”
Kayden ran to him and tackled him, tickling him. “Thanks for your support, Mr. Know-it-all.”
“And she’s very excitable.”
She tickled him again, but then sat back and stared at Geoff. “What would change your mind?”
Geoff sighed. “I’m old. My wife is dead. My kids are grown. There’s nothing left….”
“By my records you are 61 years old,” stated a voice coming from Quinn, but it wasn’t Quinn. It was higher pitched and emanated from his pocket.
Quinn pulled a small black rectangle from the pocket, and the voice continued. “But Charles Jamel accomplished his greatest achievement, Jake and I, at age 80. I am certainly glad he did not give up at 61. The people of Hope, and perhaps all of Aussie will be glad that he didn’t give up, because Jake is killing more dragons than Collin ever could alone. I plan to help repopulate the extinct or near extinct pegasus and other wildlife and kill dragons. We will make life better here because he didn’t give up.”
Michael rolled his eyes, but said, “Good point, Cee. My grandfather is 87 and as far as I know, he’s still working on designing the perfect android.”
“He has already succeeded,” Quinn said.
“Let’s not go there again. I was ordered not to speak my true views, so don’t start an argument with an unarmed man.”
Quinn rubbed his thumb along the edge of the rectangle. “I think Cee is perfect.” He grinned. “And she’ll be a beautiful dragon.”
“Yeah. Right. If my grandfather only knew….”
“What would he say, Michael?” Kayden asked, slipping her arm around him.
Michael shook his head. “Actually he’s probably still cursing me for not sending those two little black boxes back to him. Fortunately I don’t have to face him and tell him about it.” He looked straight at Kayden now. “You know the only reason they are still here is because I love you more than any stupid machine.” And then he winced. “I mean any AI core, robot, or other piece of equipment Collin might have a use for.”
“About that,” Quinn said. “You’re making it sound like he’s a thief. You even called him a thief, and he’s not.”
Kayden laughed. “No. Michael’s the thief. Don’t you know he stole Collin and Vita Alexander’s picture right off the wall of the hospital’s reception area?”
Geoff winced, and then tried to discreetly grab his chest against the ache. They couldn’t be saying Hans Vita was not only Collin Hansell but Collin Alexander, the greatest doctor who’d lived on the planet and who’d founded the Teaching Hospital in Alexandria.
“He took that picture.” Then Michael grinned. “But in all fairness he left more money than it was worth. Very good likeness also.”
“And Collin didn’t steal me. You gave me away, Michael,” the black box said. “And Jake was stolen and became independent and there is no way, short of killing him to return him. Collin is not a thief.”
“Promise them a dragon body, and they claim undying loyalty,” Michael said dryly. “Let’s hope you stay loyal.”
Kayden squeezed Michael’s arm. “Geoff, tell us what Collin was like as a father. I was thirteen. Quinn, how old were you?”
“I was ten,” Geoff admitted. “As sick as I am now. Well, I still had my vision and my heart.” He shook his head. It’d been so long ago. “He cared for me, even when his wife demanded he throw me into the orphanage. Sometimes I wondered if it was my fault she eventually left him. They fought about me a lot.” Geoff had never admitted to Hans how much he feared he would one day give into his wife’s wishes and leave him, as his parents had, on someone else’s porch in the middle of winter, freezing, hungry, and too sick to do more than protest feebly as his parents took everything but his scant clothing back to their mountain home. But Hans had never left him until…until he was a man with his own family. And he’d given him everything he owned when he left.
“I couldn’t believe it when Collin told me his wife had left him,” Quinn said. “I’d been married five years then and never knew he’d ever been married. And it’s so hard to believe any woman would divorce a man as great as Collin is.”
“See, Quinn,” Kayden said softly. “It wasn’t your fault Tara did what she did. Even a perfect guy like Collin can’t keep a woman like that happy.”
“But an imperfect guy like me has no trouble with a wonderful woman like you,” Michael teased the tension from the air, grabbing his wife.
Kayden grinned. “Well, do you have any trouble?”
“Only when you keep saying Collin is perfect.”
Kayden tickled him. “He’s too perfect. Did he treat her like she was his sweet child? That would annoy me as a wife.”
Geoff slowly shook his head. “By the time I moved in with them, there wasn’t a lot of sweetness. She wanted her own child, and I felt – and this is only a child’s impressions – but I felt she hated him, and more so because he’d adopted a child but given her none.” Geoff frowned. “So he was Collin Alexander? And I never heard of him having any children either.” He shrugged.
“No,” Kayden said softly. “That’s why he adopts us. Because he has too much love not to share it. Please, Geoff. Let Collin help you. It’s tearing him apart. That’s why he left, you know. He didn’t want you to see him crying.”
“He wouldn’t cry,” Quinn said with a scowl. “But she is right about him being upset. Imagine he’s seen a lot of people he’s loved die over the years. Can’t you just do this much for him?”
“If he doesn’t want to see me die, I’ll leave.”
“Oh, that solves it, Geoff.” Kayden stood and towered over him. “You think you’re suffering? You don’t know the first thing about pain and begging for death. You aren’t even in pain right now, are you? And no one is standing over you, leering at you, taunting you to scream, slicing off a little more of your hands if you don’t, pushing his disgusting….” Kayden shivered and she staggered back, her eyes suddenly darting frantically.
Michael grasped her. “Cee! Call Collin back.”
Kayden hit out at Michael. “No! Stop! Not my hands! No! Not… Don’t! Michael!” She fell to the floor and curled up.
Michael dropped with her. “I’m here. Kayden, I’m here. You’re safe.”
Jake flew through the curtain and rested his head against Kayden as Collin jumped down and grabbed her. He held her firmly in his arms, Jake surrounded them with his wings until Geoff could no longer see them.
When Jake removed his wings, Kayden was still in Collin’s arms, resting her head against his shoulder. Michael caressed her hair, tears on his cheeks.
Quinn stood. “I should get back inside in case Shanika wakes.”
Collin met Geoff’s gaze. “Geoff should be back in bed. Could you help him down and inside with Jake’s help?”
Geoff ignored his chest and allowed Quinn to strap him on Jake’s back. Quinn sat behind him, but not as close as Collin had. And then Quinn was helping him into bed. He left him, but then returned to sleep in the second bed. Geoff didn’t tell him about the pain though. Perhaps it’d finish him off silently during the night, and he wouldn’t have to think about how much that poor girl had suffered.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.