Collin awoke to Jake’s voice. “Collin! Michael’s relatives have come, and they brought Butler.”
Collin sat up abruptly. “I’ll meet you in the barn.”
In the barn loft Collin listened intently to Quinn’s detailed account while Jake patrolled the village, claiming that he could not be lax in his duty even for this.
When Jake returned, Collin said, “Take Cee and most of my tech up to that cave.” Jake had found a cave in the foothills of the mountain which was only a half hour flight for him. He’d brought down several pieces of medical equipment which Collin kept in Geoff’s room while he taught Quinn, Michael, and Geoff how to use it. Someday they may be able to use such things openly, but if not, the people of Hope wouldn’t know the difference, even as they benefitted. “If we need to, we’ll take it all to the lab, but I want those medical supplies close in case someone is hurt. But the people are probably safe. It’s you I’m worried about, Jake. Maybe you should hide with Cee until they leave.”
“No. I’m staying with you. He could alter lasers as easily as I did. He knows we know he’s malfunctioning without remorse since he attacked Cee. We must all be on alert.”
Collin caressed Jake’s neck and leaned against him. He loved Jake immensely. He was the only person who may outlive him, if he wasn’t destroyed by either Butler, who had far more experience than Jake at overpowering other units, or by Charles Jamel and Thom Granger who may be trying to recall him. He should have listened to Michael and not sent back the report.
“Collin, you need to remove your transceiver, and everyone else’s. If Butler suspects you have one, he may test frequencies until he finds it. He may have discovered Michael and Kayden’s.”
“Then we must watch what we say.”
“Collin, he could send a tone through the transceiver that would render you deaf. I do not want you hurt.”
Collin took a deep breath. “Okay, Jake. We’ll run blind. Let me gather our equipment including the transceivers and Cee, and you take it to the cave. I’ll gather our medical supplies together, just in case he somehow has access to a laser,” he said to reassure Jake, but he thought it more likely he’d be operating on Jake than one of the people.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next morning Thom was the last one to join them in the hotel’s restaurant. Tori recognized the traces of suppressed pain by the set of his eyes and his stance – perhaps abdominal pain by the way his left hand wrapped over his stomach.
Michael approached Thom. “Indigestion? I’ve got a powder for your tea.”
“I’ve got powders,” Thom growled, dropping his luggage as he slipped into a chair. Then he reached over to look into it, wincing as he did so.
“You have powders?” Michael asked. “I thought the rest of the universe used more convenient medications.”
Thom ignored him, pulling out a small packet and tapping some into the tea the waitress had brought.
“What is that?” Michael asked.
“You aren’t a doctor. It’s nothing to you.”
“On the contrary,” Kayden said, wrapping her arm around Michael’s waist. “Michael has been apprenticing as a medical doctor for a year to Dr. Alex Collin, and he has excelled in his studies.”
Because of Michael’s report and the previous evening, Tori had been prepared for the news, but she noticed James exchange a surprised glance with Rose and then meet Roger’s gaze.
Thom scowled. “Guess you couldn’t hack it in AI, could you?”
Charles lifted his gaze from his meal. “Michael competed even when you cheated on your tests. Are you still working with spoon-fed information?”
Thom shot his grandfather a startled look. Then his eyes narrowed. “You had him killed. Search my bags if you doubt it.” He gulped down his tea in one long swallow.
Charles lowered his gaze and pushed away his food. Tori’s heart ached for him, knowing he was torn between his love for his grandson and his revulsion at his deceit.
At the wagon, Thom sat alone on the seat directly behind Michael, stretching out along it, so that he lay down. Roger approached him, crouching beside him. “Thom, I’m a nurse with emergency training. If you need….”
“Just need some more sleep,” he snapped.
“Your decision.” Roger stood and made his way to the back seat beside Kelsi.
Michael told Kayden to go on ahead and tell Collin how many rooms they’d need prepared. She looked about to protest, but then her flying deer leapt into the air.
Then they were moving. He didn’t speak, only driving seven blocks until they stopped before a two story building. “This is the other medical facility Hollis wanted you to see. Perhaps Thom can use their services now.”
Thom sat up. “I’m fine.”
James and Rose stood. “I suppose we should look around, but you are taking us to a village clinic and Alexandria’s hospital, right?”
“Yes.” Michael walked to the doors of the building with James, Rose, and Roger, leaving Kelsi, Tori, Charles, and Thom outside.
Thom lay back down, not bothering to look their way.
They came back a short time later, talking about the robbery that had apparently taken place last night at the clinic, and that the clinic was not receiving visitors this morning unless they were dying. “Bet you could get us in, Thom,” James teased.
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
Michael drew away from the clinic, but he didn’t give much commentary until James walked up to sit beside him. After a half hour they were leaving behind the dense and busy city streets. Then the road turned to dirt, and the jarring increased.
Tori had never appreciated the smoothness of space travel nor the inter-station shuttles running their almost soundless wheels over the smooth halls. Even back home on CentiOne, traveling from one site to another was in smooth, solar powered cars which zoomed along predetermined flight paths.
Michael stopped several times so that they could stretch. He grinned as he stopped a third time. “It’s a good thing we still have food. This trip only takes two hours on wingdeer. Let’s stretch and eat.”
The site he’d picked was a small meadow surrounded by groups of trees. Two tables with benches had been set under the lone tree in the center. To the left was a run down barn, and to the far back near a border of trees was an out building. Outdoor plumbing or lack of plumbing was a shock, and not just to her, Tori could see.
Roscha jumped off the platform of the bus and stretched. “I think that ride is jarring everything from me. Come on, you two. I need moral support to brave those horrid insects. Don’t pretend you don’t need to go also.”
Tori glanced at Charles. “You go, Tori. I’m just going to talk to my grandsons.”
She didn’t want to comply, but she met James’ gaze and realized he’d be here. She walked back with the women, occasionally glancing back to the bus. Charles had moved and was sitting where James had. He faced Thom who was still lying down. Michael checked his horses and Roger walked back along the road, stretching. James had jumped off the wagon, but stayed close as he’d silently promised to do.
It wasn’t until they gathered to return across the meadow that it happened. She saw Thom sit up, his hand hitting the side of Charles’ head, knocking him off the seat and to the ground on the opposite side of the wagon. James jumped onto the bus, and a beam of light sliced into his left side, throwing him back on the ground.
Rose screamed. Tori pulled out her laser and ran toward Thom to stop him.
Thom lifted his arm, pointing it toward Tori.
Tori jumped aside as the laser blasted into the ground behind her. She kept moving and dodging to stay away from that beam. She aimed for his hand, hoping to sever it. She didn’t want to kill him. Charles would blame himself.
She knew the beam hit, but it disbursed as his laser fell to the ground. He cursed and reached for it, but Michael tackled him. Tori reached them, kicking Thom as he threw Michael off him. Thom fell back and began convulsing.
Michael attended Thom, and Roger ran to James. Rose held her husband’s head, crying. Kelsi had disappeared. Tori grabbed Thom’s pen-sized laser and jumped through the bus to the other side. Charles lay in a heap on the ground.
“Charles?” She ran her hand along the side of his head, but he did not respond. She knew he was alive, and he wasn’t faking his sleep. “Oh, Charles,” she whispered. She lifted him as gently as she could to take him to the bus.
“You’re stronger than I thought,” came a smooth tenor. “Let me help.” He was no longer in blue dragon-hide, but everything else was as she remembered in the moonlight – his gentle look, his handsome features, his voice. He took Charles up onto the bus, laying him across the back seat. Then he began to examine him, lifting an eyelid, touching the base of his neck for his pulse.
“I appreciate your position, but if you do not get out of my way, this man will die,” said a muscular man with deep brown waves of hair. He spoke to Roger who knelt beside James and glared up at him.
“Rose,” Michael said. “Collin is the best doctor on the planet. As James’ wife, you must allow Collin to treat him.”
Roger scowled. “His lung was punctured. I’m not leaving him to these butchers. We’ve got to get back to the station.”
“That’s impossible from here!” Michael said. “Let him work.”
“Michael get that man secured.” Collin pointed toward Thom who had pieces of leather holding his hands together. Kayden stood near him, holding another strap of leather.
Collin grabbed something off the ground, and by the way Rose leapt back and covered her mouth, Tori guessed it was James’ laser. Collin slipped it into his pocket and shouted up into the air. “Jake! Come here.”
And then the blue dragon flew toward them. Roger scrambled away. Rose stood rooted, staring up in fear. The dragon landed beside Collin.
Her friend – Rock Trapper, Kayden had called him – looked up at her. “You won’t try to kill Jake again, will you?”
His lips lifted slightly but then he sobered and jumped off the bus. “Collin. Dr. Jamel is unconscious. I can take him back on Rae.”
Collin gave a slight nod and knelt beside James, doing something with his side.
Rock lifted Charles and carried him off the bus and to the front of the horses where two wingdeer waited. He lifted Charles up and arranged him over the back of the deer, as if he were sitting. Charles seemed to rouse slightly. “Tori,” he whispered.
Tori touched his hand. “I’m here.”
But then he slumped over the deer’s neck. The dragon-slayer swung onto the deer’s back behind him.
“I want to go, too.”
“Michael might need help. Stay here.” And then he was flying away, taking Charles with him. Fleetingly she wondered if they’d ever have a conversation that consisted of more than several short sentences.
When they’d dwindled to a speck in the sky, Tori turned her attention to the one Michael had called Collin. Dr. Collin Hansell. If only Charles had been alert enough to see him! He definitely didn’t look 185 years old, but he took charge of the situation like one used to command. Director Roscha Zemmer, who should be in command, was inching toward her husband, but keeping her eyes on the dragon – the beautiful, sky blue, glimmering dragon.
The dragon focused on Kayden and rubbed his head against her chest. Kayden rubbed his ears, and leaned her face against him, kissing him. Roscha slipped over to kneel beside her husband, across from Collin.
Tori walked to Michael who was tying another knot in the strap holding Thom’s legs together. Occasionally Thom twitched or his eyes opened, but he did not seem coherent. She knelt beside him and took his right hand. “My laser didn’t cut him.”
“You must have missed. What are you carrying a laser for anyway.” Michael shifted to look at her, but then stopped as his gaze settled on Thom’s abdomen. A dark spot seeped through his pullover shirt. Michael pulled it up. Thom’s body jerked, sending fresh blood welling up through an inch-long, gaping wound which appeared to have broken threads on the edges of the flesh. “What did he do to himself? Get me my pack.” He pointed to the ground by the horses where he’d been standing when the fight broke out.
Tori brought it to him, and Michael withdrew his medical supplies. A shadow fell over them, and they looked up. “I’m going to have to leave you to this,” Collin said. “I’ve got to operate soon or James Bell won’t make it. I’m afraid criminals are last for medical care.” He looked beyond them. Jake was clutching the edges of a blanket. Kayden and Roscha stood beside him. “Get back as soon as you can.”
“Should be in the air by now. Kayden!”
Kayden jumped and then ran to Sam. She motioned to Rose to follow.
“You’ll have to settle for your friendly nurse from the space station.” He nodded toward Roger who watched them from the treeline with Kelsi. Collin then ran to Jake and jumped on his back. The dragon lifted into the air, the long blanket hanging from his forepaws cradling James Bell.
Michael refocused on Thom, cleaning his wound. “It’s deep.” He shook his head. “James said he didn’t have a laser. You don’t think….”
Tori removed the slim object from her pocket and showed it to Michael. It looked like a simple classroom tool – harmless. Weapons and most cutting tools were a bit wider, flattened into a long oval shape for easier gripping. But this laser even bore the name of a manufacturer of benign tools.
“He must have modified it somehow,” Michael stated. He examined the hole. “He must be really sick,” he said, and his voice shook. He quickly put in three expert stitches to hold the wound closed. “I hope that does it, but he might be bleeding internally, too.” He ran his finger over a faint line on the right side of Thom’s abdomen. “A removed scar. Four inches.”
Thom jerked. His eyelids opened but his eyes were rolled back in his head. His arms swung forward from above his head, missing Michael and landing on his own stomach.
Roger and Kelsi joined them. “Hold him!” Michael commanded. Tori held Thom’s arms, and Roger his legs. Then Michael felt Thom’s abdomen. Michael seemed to turn pale. “Oh, please, no,” he whispered.
“What is it?” Roger asked. He leaned forward and felt Thom’s stomach. His expression changed to one of surprise. “Hard as a board! Edges like… What the hell does he have in there?”
“Let’s get him on the wagon. Only Collin can do this surgery.”
Tori couldn’t help her surprise. “Are you sure?” she whispered.
“Check his luggage. All if it. If the core isn’t there, then it’s here.” Michael grabbed Thom’s arms and Roger his legs. Tori climbed into the back of the bus to examine Thom’s luggage. Kelsi sat beside her.
They placed Thom on the second bench back from the front. He struggled to get away. This time he seemed coherent. “Did I get her? See how he likes losing his little body guard.” Then after a slight pause, he swore. “She can’t be. No one moves that fast. Not even a ninja.”
“Roger, watch him so we can get going.”
“Aah, Michael. No more jarring. This hurts like hell. You’re mad about Tori, aren’t you? I did it for us. We have to get those 5000 plans.”
“Michael,” Roger said. “The jarring is bad for an abdominal wound.”
“Internal bleeding might kill him. I’m not qualified to operate.”
“I’m not bleeding internally,” Thom said.
“Are you sure? Butler told you that?”
“Just like Cee. We don’t need to lie about it any longer.”
Thom’s face contorted. “You lied! You told him that just to kill Butler. You never liked him.”
Michael slipped into the front of the bus and grabbed the reins, slapping the horses into a trot. Tori grabbed the seat to steady herself.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Quinn stayed with Dr. Jamel while Geoff and Collin operated on James Bell with Kayden assisting. He knew he’d just be in the way if he entered the room, and Dr. Jamel was not well. Marta rushed in with a leather bag. “Jake brought this for you.”
Quinn withdrew the hand scanner that Collin had recently taught him to use. It was a much smaller version, and not quite as accurate as the large sonar and x-ray machines at the lab. Good readings depended on how steady the user held the unit, so repeated tests were necessary.
Quinn thanked Marta. It was just what he needed. Collin must have suspected that and sent Jake for it. Normally Cee had some kind of built in scanner which Quinn was finding very useful, but Cee was now hiding in the cave in the mountains and couldn’t give him any information on the internal state of his patient. He’d miss that when Cee got her dragon body.
Quinn took multiple readings of Dr. Jamel’s skull and kept coming back with the same answers. He’d had a stroke, maybe precipitated by his fall. He did what he could and settled him into one of the beds in the double overnight room.
Collin brought James Bell from surgery, and Quinn helped settle him into the other bed. “Geoff, good job. Get some rest,” Collin commanded.
Geoff didn’t protest. He stumbled into his room and closed the door.
Then Collin asked about Dr. Jamel. He double-checked Quinn’s findings and approved of his treatment. “Now we can only wait.” He shook his head. “I hope he recovers. There’s so much to discuss.” Collin sunk into the armchair and ran his hands over his eyes. “He should recover. The damage is small. Looks like the biggest challenge will be motor skills on the left side. If his brain is mapped as eighty percent of the people, he probably hasn’t lost any of his cognitive abilities.” Collin leaned back, his eyes closed.
Quinn decided to let him rest. They’d both been relived when Kayden came and reported that Charles wasn’t the enemy. He wasn’t after Jake and Cee. They only had to worry about Thom and Butler.
Collin sighed and stood. “Guess I need to tell his wife.”
A few minutes later he returned with Rose and Kayden. “Kayden said he’ll be all right?”
“It looks promising. Without infection or unanticipated complications he should heal well. His lung has already begun working again on a limited basis. Ideally we’d have him on a respirator to make sure he’s getting enough oxygen, but I don’t have one.”
Rose looked up into his face. “Because of the tech limitations?”
Collin gave a slight nod. “But don’t worry. I’ve had many patients recover fully, and according to you he has enjoyed good health up until this point.”
Rose took her husband’s hand and murmured endearments. Collin settled back into the chair and closed his eyes.
Kayden walked to Dr. Jamel’s bed. “How is he?” she whispered.
“Oh, he just can’t die yet. Michael needs to work through their relationship.”
Par ran into the room. “Michael’s back. Has a patient who needs abdominal surgery.”
Collin sighed and stood again. “You’re up, Quinn. I’ll assist.”
But when they entered surgery, and Michael revealed the problem, Quinn knew Collin would be leading in surgery. “Michael, You’ll play nurse.”
“If you’ll allow me…,” Roger began.
“You don’t know my procedures or equipment,” Collin stated firmly. “You may watch, but do not interfere.”
Thom’s body jerked and twitched even after Collin administered the anesthesia. Collin finally told Roger to hold Thom’s arms above his head. Michael needed to keep the leg twitches from interfering.
As Quinn suspected, Collin directed the surgery from the opening incision, and he used his teaching voice as he did so. “Somehow Butler has integrated himself into Thom’s nervous system. Before any removal can take place, we’ll have to determine the extent of the neural invasion.”
They found Butler wrapped in a thin plastic coating. An interface band at one end was coated with blood and flesh.
“You can’t remove me,” The small rectangle cried out. “He’ll die.”
“Ah, so we meet the infamous Butler. You would kill your best friend, would you?”
“You are. You’ll kill him if you continue.”
“And if I don’t remove you, you’ll continue killing my friends. Not a difficult decision for me, Butler. You’ll have to use better logic.” Collin continued to probe into the wound, occasionally cutting away a small piece of flesh, slowly disengaging the unit.
“I won’t kill anyone. I’ve never killed anyone. The baby wasn’t even born yet, and Falice wanted me dead.”
“And what about your attack on James and Tori and Grandpa,” Michael spat out. Quinn had to glance up at Michael. He’d heard him bitter and a bit angry before, but never had he seemed this furious.
“Thom did that. Thom’s the killer. Not me.”
“Liar! What about Cee?”
“Cee is my friend! If he told you anything else, he lied. He not she! He malfunctioned and lied about me.”
Michael drew heavy breaths. His hands clenched and unclenched around Thom’s legs, as if he wanted to reach into Thom, grab Butler and destroy him right then.
“Michael,” Collin said softly, not glancing up from the wound he was probing. “Perhaps you should send Niles in here.
“Niles? But he….”
“Is less personally involved with the patient. Ask about his stomach first. If he can’t, send Par if he’s free.”
Quinn was afraid Michael would break his teeth by clenching them together so tightly. But then Michael released Thom’s legs and walked from the room.
Thom’s legs twitched. Quinn moved to hold them with one arm while he tried to clear the blood out of Collin’s way.
Niles arrived a short time later. Collin directed him to hold Thom’s legs. Niles became pale, but did as he was asked, keeping his eyes from Thom’s abdomen as much as he could.
“Please, don’t kill me! Tori is the killer. She sliced off my legs and my head without a pang of remorse. She’s a trained killer – a ninja. She’ll do anything to get those plans. That’s why she sleeps with him.”
“Sleeps with who?” Quinn couldn’t help asking.
“Quinn!” Collin chastised. “Ignore it.”
Quinn’s cheeks burned at Collin’s rebuke, and sure enough, he’d been lax at his duties. How many times would he fail Collin because of some woman? She wasn’t worth it. None of them were worth it.
“Quinn,” came Butler’s voice. “I’ll do anything for you. I know things that can help you. You want Tori? I know all about her. I can tell you what didn’t work for Thom and Michael. I can help you achieve anything you want. You protect me, and I’ll be loyal to you forever.”
“Your loyalty is noted,” Collin said dryly.
“You! Doctor, why should Michael be the only one with a computer? I have a full range of medical files. Let me assist you. I performed this operation on Thom. I can do anything!”
“Operating without a license, I see. I threatened to rip the A unit apart for the same infraction. At least he had the decency to realize that a bunch of medical files do not make a doctor.”
“You have him!”
“I do not.”
“Kayden. That isn’t fair to you, is it? Michael and Kayden get two of us and you none. But you must have hidden medical technology somewhere. You’re the doctor who regenerated her hands, aren’t you?”
Collin made another slice and withdrew Butler from Thom’s abdomen. Thom convulsed, and Collin threw Butler to the floor, focusing on the man.
“I’m yours, Doctor!” Butler called up. “You won’t destroy your new best friend, will you?”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing! I would never hurt anyone.”
Then Thom was quiet. Too quiet, and Collin had to force his heart to beat, as Quinn tried to keep what little blood the man had left inside his body. When the heartbeat was weak, but steady, Collin refocused on the incision. “These nerve endings are destroyed. It looks like he sent a final power burst through them. Tried to kill him.”
“I did not! You are misreading the situation. You have no experience with bionics and therefore are not a good doctor for Thom. He experienced an infection.”
Collin met Quinn’s eyes. “He has an infection from a botched operation within the last twenty-four hours. That is not what has caused his nerve damage.”
Roger gave a slight nod in agreement.
“Roger, take me as yours, and I’ll help you with all your patients.”
Roger briefly met Collin’s gaze but didn’t say anything as Collin finished sealing and stitching bleeding ends. “He’ll need a transfusion. Roger, take a slide to the analyzer.” He gave a motion with his head toward the one piece of legal tech they had. When the results came back, Collin said, “Both Michael and Kayden have the same type. Go out and ask Michael. Kayden already gave to James today. Unless you happen to be a compatible type. Unfortunately Quinn and I aren’t. But then again, you are, Niles. We’ve never had to go to you before.”
Niles seemed to turn a bit green, but then nodded. “I guess it’s part of the job.”
“No, Niles,” Collin said softly, now able to focus on him with Thom’s wound already closed. “I will not force anyone to give blood, and if you do not wish to, I will not think less of you.”
“But I will,” Niles said. “If Kayden can do it, her old man should be able to do it. Besides someday I might need the favor returned. Where do you want me?”
Collin briefly gripped his shoulder and gave Niles the smile which Quinn wished would be directed at him. He was proud of Niles, but Quinn was still smarting under his earlier failure.
They waited until a half liter of blood was drawn from Niles and a drip established into Thom’s arm before they left the surgery.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.