Michael rested in Collin’s chair, knowing that night duty would not exempt him from tourist duty tomorrow. Thom had awakened several times during the day, Collin had said, but he still was not speaking. Michael hoped he didn’t wake tonight. He didn’t even like to go into the room, but he fulfilled his duties as quietly as possible. Thom was not who he’d been, and if Thom tried to justify his actions as he had right after he’d attempted to kill Tori and Jim, he was afraid he’d forget the man was critically ill.
Michael rose and went to his grandfather’s side, sitting on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling tonight?” he asked softly, not wanting to wake Jim.
“Better. Michael…” He lifted his right hand to touch Michael’s arm. “Always been proud of you. You… you’ll make a good doctor.”
Michael fought his emotions. At first he wanted to lash out at the sentiment. Why speak of this now? But he couldn’t lash out at this frail man whose wild white hair surrounded his head on the pillow, making his face seem small and drawn. “Do you need help to the rest room? Are you hungry?”
Michael looked beyond him to Jim’s bed.
“I’m sorry. About… about Kayden. Never knew what to say, and sorry isn’t enough.”
Michael stood. “Yeah, well, that’s all past. Not much use dwelling on it. Are you sure you aren’t hungry?”
His grandfather’s blue eyes studied him until they began to close.
Michael straightened the covers over him. “I’m glad you’re going to be all right. Maybe you and Collin can figure out how to make a sizable dent in that reptile dragon population,” he whispered. He hadn’t liked the idea of AI controlled dragons, but he had to admit that if they were as efficient as Jake in protecting small villages, then perhaps… “You could save many lives,” he added with a slight smile.
Charles opened his eyes, and Michael was surprised to see tears roll down the sides of his face into his hair.
“Hey, let me check your chart. Must be time for your medicine.” He grabbed the file from beside his grandfather’s bed. Anything to avoid the emotion. It must be part of the damage from the stroke. His grandfather had never shown much emotion before. And Michael was sure he’d never cried about anything.
He focused on bringing his grandfather a tea and some broth, and by the time he returned the tears were gone, leaving only a slight dampness on the sides of his grandfather’s face.
Michael did get a little sleep that night. His grandfather woke before dawn, and then Tori entered the room, carrying a box. “I thought you gave up your round the clock watches. Or don’t you trust me.” He grinned to let her know he was teasing, hoping she forgave him for his outburst last week.
“It’s almost dawn, and during the day everything is so rushed. I haven’t had a chance to give you this. It’s from your mother. A wedding present.”
Michael noticed his grandfather was awake, and he helped him to the rest room and then to sit up in the bed. After he brought him juice, he settled back into his chair and finally focused on the box Tori still held. “So how are Mom and Dad?”
“They seemed healthy,” Tori said, but she glanced at Charles with a look of sympathy.
Michael glanced back at him. Charles’ eyes were closed, but his features seemed tenser than when he was asleep. “What happened?” he asked Tori, still keeping his voice soft because he didn’t want to disturb Jim.
“Not much. We only saw them one time the week we were there. They do not seem to understand that you would have come here whether Charles gave his consent or not.” She glanced at the package. “Your mother begged us not to come, but then later she brought this package for you.”
“But why should she care if you came here?”
Tori focused on Charles, who still kept his eyes shut. “Write and tell her that you are happy Charles is here. They just don’t understand. They think you’re hurting like Thom is.”
“No, Tori,” Charles said weakly. “If I am a burden to Michael then he should not lie to his parents about it. Hopefully I will not burden you long, Michael.”
Tori was right. Charles needed him to care. That was what his strange emotions were earlier when he’d apologized about Kayden. And Michael realized he still didn’t know how to handle his grandfather’s emotions, just as his grandfather hadn’t known how to handle his. He stood and straightened the covers over his grandfather. “Nonsense. You’re not a burden, and you’ll be here a long time. We’ve got work to do, right?”
His right hand rose shakily and rested on Michael’s arm. “You’ll help?”
Michael hesitated and then shrugged. “I do whatever Collin needs done.” Then he grinned. “Why do you think I stayed? We can make a difference here.” He glanced up as Rose entered the room. He stood, relieved he wouldn’t have to struggle with the emotions any longer. Anger, bitterness, despair. Those were the easy emotions. Love, forgiveness, compassion. That was harder. It was not the first time that Michael wondered how his grandfather had managed to program a simulation for something he did not fully know how to use in his own life.
Michael made his way to Rose and Jim as Rose grasped her husband’s hand. Jim didn’t open his eyes though, apparently still sleeping. “How is he doing, Doc?” she asked quietly.
Michael gave her a slight smile. “Not a doc for six more years, and that’s if I pass the tests in Alexandria. Jim is doing just as well as he was when you left him last night.”
Rose gave her husband a soft kiss on his cheek and then studied his face, but she spoke to Michael. “You sound like you’ve made a permanent move here.”
“My wife is here. Where else could she do what she loves? It’d take a miracle to get permission to resettle on Earth, and most domes don’t have room for large animals which would be for recreation only.”
“You’ve sacrificed your career for her?” Rose asked, still not meeting his gaze. She asked not as Roger would, but in a quiet, non-judgemental way.
Michael shrugged. “I’d rather be here than in a prison of another design. And I do have meaningful work.”
Rose then smiled and glanced up at him. “Tour guide? Do you like that job?”
Michael relaxed at the teasing. “Didn’t think I would, but I’m getting used to it. Collin teases that I have too many jobs. Apprentice, Tour guide, Repairman at the hospital, and small town politician.”
“Dragon hunter,” Rose added.
He winked. “No. That’s Quinn’s job, but Hollis doesn’t need to know it.”
“Roger said he thought you were supposed to be looking for illegal tech.”
Michael took a deep breath and wished Collin would come through the door right now. But he didn’t. “I guess Zemmer’s going to fire me pretty soon, because I haven’t reported any. Unless he wants to update my job description to tour guide and liaison. With my work here and at the hospital I’m just too busy to go snooping around in factories looking for infractions.”
“But not too busy to be a tour guide.”
Michael shrugged, wishing the woman would now stop. Rose had never questioned him this closely before. “I do what I’m ordered to do to the best of my ability. Some things I’m pathetically ill equipped to do.”
Collin did appear then, and he walked immediately to Rose and placed a hand on her back. “Michael’s a rotten tech spy. He doesn’t know how to be sneaky, so he ends up getting himself beaten because spies are not well liked. I don’t like stitching him up all the time, so I try to keep him too busy to go asking questions. He’s too much of a scientist to be a proper spy.”
Michael met Jim’s gaze. “Yeah, go tell Zemmer, Jim. Frankly I know I’m not good at that one, but I had hoped to keep the lines of communication open between us. The rumored trade, the tourism, the extra medical equipment we might get – all of that’s good for the people, and I guess that’s what I’m working for.”
Collin helped James to sit as Michael spoke, and now James said, “So you wouldn’t turn in any illegal tech if you found it, would you?”
Michael met Collin’s gaze, but could get no clue as to how he should answer. Roger had tried to nail him on this also, but somehow he didn’t think James and Rose wanted to hurt him so much as understand. Finally he shrugged. “Medical, probably not. Weapons – yeah. I’d always try to find a way to destroy weapons. Transportation off planet – yeah. Communications – maybe, depended on the type and purpose. Might ask for guidance on that one. I would hope that if I did stumble onto something that I would do what was best for the people over all, now and in the future. I think Director Zemmer sees this vision, too. We can change things now, if we move carefully and don’t zap things indiscriminately.”
Jim clapped his free hand against Michael’s arm. He chuckled and then groaned. “Remind me not to do that.” He took a deep breath.
Rose touched his arm also. “Roger made me curious. I hope I didn’t overstep my place.”
“No, of course not.” He grinned. “It’s part of being a guide, learning how to answer difficult questions. But truth is, I think that answer isn’t a good one for all tourists, so I’ll still have to search for the right one.”
Jim raised an eyebrow. “But is it the truth?”
“Yeah. It’s the truth. I just don’t think I should discuss it with the average tourist. But you, Jim, are not the average tourist.”
Jim chuckled and then winced again. After a couple stabilizing breaths, he said, “I’ll be glad when this side is healed. Yeah, I’ll plead your case to Roscha. See, my dear, I told you Roger was just causing trouble. Michael is not a threat to base security.”
“How could I doubt you?” Rose said with a grin.
At Collin’s questioning glance, Michael guessed that Collin wanted it to seem like he’d not yet told him his suspicions that Jim was one of his bosses and reporting directly to Zemmer, so he repeated it now. “I believe Jim, here, is not just the group’s security guard, but he’s checking up on me.”
“Pretty good deductions for a non-spy,” Jim teased.
“It’s just the scientific mind,” Michael couldn’t help but counter. “A reasonable deduction given the facts at hand.”
“Stop,” Jim said, grinning. “Don’t make me laugh again. Doc, this guy is torturing me.”
“Then I’ll send him up for a few hours of sleep. See you later, Michael.”
Michael grinned and scooted from the room.
At the steps he heard Tori call. “Wait, Michael.”
He turned and waited until she caught up. She held the wrapped package out to him. “Thanks, Tori. I’ll open it upstairs with Kayden.” As he took the box upstairs, thunder rumbled overhead. Michael groaned. He would never get used to violent weather. He probably wouldn’t get much sleep wondering if the wind would indeed succeed in ripping off the roof of the house as it had knocked over the Everman’s barn last winter.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tori ran back to the infirmary to Charles’ side. Collin was explaining about the rumbling. It was a natural phenomenon which was usually accompanied by high winds and rain. But they would be comfortable and safe in the house. Rose wanted to see, and she asked if she and Tori could go on the front porch.
Collin grinned. “Perhaps. But first I want to talk to Tori.” He motioned her into the examination room. “How were the nightmares last night?”
Tori sat on the exam table. “Just one. He asked me to marry him.”
Collin smiled. “Already?”
“You told him I liked him, didn’t you?” But she wasn’t angry at Collin for that. She just wanted to understand why.
“Ah, you’re afraid your confidence has been breached. A very easy conclusion with two monitoring AI units and a nosy dictator,” he said with a slight grin. “Well, in that instance I did reassure my son that I approved of his interest in you.”
“But if you hadn’t, he wouldn’t have talked to me again?”
Collin chuckled. “He didn’t listen to me before, but perhaps he’s learned that my judgment can be trusted.”
Tori smiled at his grin, but didn’t know if she should mention her dream.
“Did you say yes, Tori?”
“I think we are considering it. Collin, if… if….”
Collin rubbed her back and waited.
“If after we’re married, if Cee… if she….”
Collin drew her close, hugging her. “I will not allow Cee to interfere with your marriage. If she does not keep her place, as Jake does with Michael and Kayden, then she will be reprimanded.”
Reprimanded? What did that mean? Falice was almost killed. “But Falice said she was treated like a child. She could never disagree. He killed her baby! He almost killed her.”
Collin sat beside her, and she leaned against him. He felt so safe, as when her father had held her a long, long time ago, back before she turned ten. “Tori, I can try to reassure you, but I know nothing but time will really help, that and an attitude change on Cee’s part. The child is scared, but the child will not kill, nor attempt to kill. She needs to learn to express her concerns from logic and not emotion. And she needs to learn when to let an issue rest.” He paused a moment. “Pointing out a concern is not wrong, Cee. But believing that your concern is always to be acted on is. You do not make the decisions, and you must accept our decisions without debate. You are to treat all humans with respect.”
Collin sighed and rubbed Tori’s back. “The child will learn. You see, Tori, Charles did something with these units that is amazing. They love. Jake loves Kayden.”
“I love you, too, Collin,” Jake said in their ears.
Collin gave a slight smile, but ignored the interruption. “And Cee loves Quinn. She still loves Michael also, but when Michael found Kayden, he gave Cee away. Do you see how the child might be feeling now? She needs reassurance, just as Shanika will, that she will not be thrown out.” He rubbed her back again. “But believe me, I do know how you can be scared right now. I wish I knew more about Thom and what exactly went on between them, so that I could understand how Butler lost his love or respect for Thom and became violent.” He stood. “One nightmare. Early morning? But you slept well the rest of the night. Let’s leave the medicine as it is for a few more nights.”
Tori nodded and slipped off the table to leave.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rose deferred to Collin and ate breakfast before attempting to go on the front porch. Roger and Kelsi had joined them, Roger jumping at each rumble. Collin again assured them that they were safe in the house. Rose sat near the dining room window where she could see the rain pouring down.
Light flashed, and the thunder cracked so loud it seemed to jar the windows. Even Tori jumped at that noise and then smiled sheepishly. “The rain on CentiOne is preprogrammed. There is no thunder.”
Rose ate quickly. She could feel a strange restlessness inside, an excitement.
Kayden rushed in and grabbed her plate from the table to eat standing before the window. “Isn’t it great! I just love a good thunderstorm. It makes you feel so alive.”
Rose gave a small laugh. “Is it the storm? I thought it was adrenaline.”
“Actually Collin told me it was a combination of adrenaline and the changes in air pressure, along with all the electricity in the air. He says some people can’t feel it at all.” She glanced at Kelsi and Roger who left their meal to retreat into the interior of the house. She lowered her voice. “And some people feel it and fear it.”
Rose lowered her voice also. “Truth, Kayden. Is there any danger at all?”
Kayden stared out the window. “Some. Lightning could kill you. That’s why we aren’t letting the animals out. It usually strikes the tallest objects in an area, and that could be a horse in a field, or a wingdeer in flight.”
“Or a person on a street.”
Kayden shrugged. “We haven’t had any lightning victims since I’ve been here, but there are a few animals killed every year. Most people know enough not to stand out in the pouring rain.”
“Is it safe on the porch?”
Kayden grinned. “I think so. But sometimes the wind drives the rain at you.” She set down her almost empty plate and led Rose and Tori through the house and to the porch.
The wind blasted rain into them as soon as they opened the door. Kayden laughed. She appeared to love the wildness of the wind and rain. Rose could only stay out with her a few minutes before she decided that she’d be better off inside.
She went back to Jim, and he teased her about having to be where the danger was. Rose wished they could be completely alone. She longed to share observations with Jim about this situation they’d gotten themselves into, about Michael, about the talking dragon which was not listed in the scant records she had of the wildlife of Austin, and about the doctor who’d saved Jim’s life. Dr. Alex Collin was an enigma. He seemed to be far better acquainted with computers and lasers than he should, although Michael could have shared that information with him over the last year.
What was really amazing was that although everyone in the village claimed that Dr. Stone was the dragon-slayer, Dr. Collin was in charge – even of the dragon itself. And as Michael had promised, Dr. Collin knew each shell they had shown him and the name of the designer. That information was definitely not in the files she’d downloaded to her notebook computer. Although she had a list of long dead geneticists, rarely did their list of achievements include any wildlife unless the animal made it off the planet, such as Collin Hansell’s kittle. Collin Hansell was also listed as the creator of the man-eating dragons. Now there was an odd combination. How could the same man make something so cute, and then something so deadly. She wished she could access the station’s archive computer from here, but the tech sensors would kill her just as easily as someone else if they detected a high-powered communications beam.
Rose sighed. Michael was hiding things from them. She wasn’t sure what, but it had to do with Dr. Collin. Roger was right in that regard. His first loyalty was not to Roscha Zemmer. He’d admitted that. Although she couldn’t fault his words. His goals did seem the same as hers, but how did this obscure, yet expert, doctor fit into the picture. Even Tori Yasuo and Charles Jamel seemed content to defer to the good doctor, although Rose had not yet been able to determine if that was because of Charles’ illness or not. Several times she had a suspicion that Charles Jamel and Alex Collin already knew each other, but that was impossible.
They gathered in the living room, Par staying back with Thom Granger, although Charles Jamel and Jim were both up and brought in. Rose took the opportunity to snuggle beside her husband on the couch, and he wrapped his right arm around her and kissed her forehead. She noted that Tori sat quite close to Dr. Stone on the couch across the room, while his daughter sat on his lap. Rose wouldn’t be surprised if Tori and Quinn had a relationship now. From what little she knew of either of them, they seemed well suited to each other.
Collin was again explaining the weather. It was no longer thundering, but it remained misty and foggy. He appeared to know what they wouldn’t expect.
“Have you ever lived anywhere else, Doctor,” Rose asked.
Collin sat near the outside door on one of the dining room chairs they’d brought in. He gave her a smile. “I’ve lived in quite a few places around the continent, but I’ve been here almost eighteen years.”
“I meant off planet.”
He shook his head. “No. I was born on Austin.”
Well, that shot that theory. And she had a listing of his apprenticeship in Shade on her notebook computer. Perhaps her impression that he had known Charles Jamel before was wrong, and it was just the doctor’s open, friendly nature which made instant friends.
Two days ago while they were in town a man had told Michael that there was a shipment for Geoff Napier. It was delivered to the doctor’s room yesterday afternoon, but Dr. Napier was busy then, and Rose never did hear what was in the crate.
Now Geoff came from the back of the clinic carrying two instrument cases. “Remember that trunk I had Misti ship to me? Well, she had everything I asked for in it. Even my daddy’s old fiddle.” He handed one of the instruments to Collin.
“You kept it!”
“You play the fiddle?” Kayden asked, coming close to touch his shoulder. “You never said anything about playing any instruments.”
Collin chuckled. “You never asked, my dear.”
“But if you could play, why didn’t you buy a new one?” she insisted.
Collin focused on Geoff though. “Too many memories on the violin, Sweetheart. Just like the piano.” Then he grinned. “But if you want to learn something different, we can look at instruments the next time we go into Alexandria.”
“Hey,” Geoff said roughly. “No blathering about memories. I never could teach Vince to play this right. Misti was passable, but it just wasn’t the same without my daddy, dragon-eaten fool that he is.”
Collin gave a deep laugh. “I see your daddy didn’t tan your bottom quite near enough, did he? You’re far too imprudent, still.” He withdrew the violin from its case as Geoff withdrew his own. They both tuned their instruments and then Collin drew a soft, solemn song from his.
Another of the doctor’s hidden talents that even his daughter hadn’t known about. And somehow Rose felt there was more in the two doctors’ banter than she could interpret. Now Geoff joined Collin on his own instrument, and the melodies wove together. Kayden ran upstairs and a few minutes later she emerged with a still sleepy Michael.
Par had even come from the back room by the time they stopped, and everyone talked at once, asking Collin why he’d hidden his skill, asking for more music. Collin and Geoff entertained them most of the afternoon, and although he supposedly hadn’t played in years, the two of them sounded as though they’d had years of practicing and playing together.
But through it all, Rose still didn’t have time alone with her husband.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The storms stopped during the night, and the next day as Rose stood on the front porch after breakfast, she was amazed at the way the colors of the trees and sky seemed brighter, sparkling as the sun dried the excess water from the grass and leaves. Michael was right, she thought. This place was the best prison ever designed. If not for those dragons, it’d be a paradise. If only she could come up with some permanent way to get rid of them.
Michael and Kayden joined her on the porch. Kayden grinned. “Want to go flying again?”
Rose smiled. “That sounds like fun.” She did love those huge flying deer. That would definitely be a tourist draw. So would Jake, but Rose wasn’t sure if she should use him in promotion or not. They claimed he was alone of his kind, and even though she did not fear the dragon now, she sensed that it would not be wise to place expectations on him as if he were a mere beast. She would need his consent. That in itself was disturbing. But Kayden again distracted her from her thoughts, drawing her out to the barn.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That afternoon they sat on the porch. Michael sat on the steps, and Roger harassed him with snide comments. Suddenly Jake winged down low, almost touching Roger’s head. Roger cursed and ran into the house.
Rose grinned and rested against the porch rail. Collin stood by Jake’s head while Kelsi settled on the ground beside the beast with Quinn’s little girl and the winged baby horse. Roger had never taken a turn riding the dragon, but Kelsi seemed to love it. She was so much the opposite of Roger, Rose wondered how the couple had gotten together. Quinn and Tori joined Kelsi and Shanika on the ground, and Collin sank down also.
Rose decided to join them, and she sat between Collin and the others. “You know who designed each shell. Who designed Jake?”
“Collin Hansell,” he said with a slight smile.
“I am his best work of art,” Jake said, rolling his head for Collin to scratch under his chin.
“How do you think he did it?”
Collin chuckled. “Should I know how a geneticist does his work?”
Rose gave in to the temptation of running her hands over Jake’s soft neck. “As a doctor, I wondered if you noticed which creatures he was bred from. No matter how godlike the geneticists may seem to you, they did not create ex nihilo. They had to start with existing creatures. For instance, I’m guessing the wingdeer is an elk or moose with perhaps enlarged bat wings.”
Collin laughed out loud then. “It’s a little more complex than that, but I see what you’re after. The reptile dragon was a crocodile/iguana cross, enlarged and with wings. That wasn’t the total animals used, but those are the two main ones. A mammal dragon, on the other hand, could not be converted from that base. I would guess he started fresh, with perhaps a weasel.”
Jake chuckled just as Collin would. “Do I look like a weasel?”
“The fur kept its softness even with the color modifications,” Collin said in a slight teasing tone.
“I prefer to be specific,” Jake said, straightening his head and laying his chin on the ground. “Fifty-one percent mink.”
Rose couldn’t help her surprise. How would a creature know its make up that accurately? It brought back the uneasiness. “And for his brain, his cognitive processes – did Collin Hansell combine human genetic material, do you think?”
“Collin Hansell never experimented with altering human genetics. He only did so as a service to the poor to correct birth defects.”
“Really? Then how do you explain Jake’s brain.”
“I don’t.” And Rose had to look closer. The man was no longer smiling.
Kayden ran to them, and almost threw herself into Collin’s lap. “I love you, Daddy,” she said, just loud enough that Rose could hear her also.
Collin hugged her. “I’m all right, sweetheart.”
Rose kept rubbing Jake’s neck and decided not to pursue it. Instead she switched the subject. “Is that pegasus unique with both bird and mammal parts?”
Collin seemed to relax a little then. “Fairly unique. There were more attempts at it, but the dragons have decimated their populations. I even thought the Erikan pegasus was gone until a friend found this one.”
Rose let the conversation be drawn away from Jake, but she couldn’t forget it. She’d spoken with Jake enough to know that he could think. He wasn’t just mimicking, nor was he a simple instinct driven creature.
Wilma called them in to dinner. Rose lingered until the rest left Jake’s side, and he stood, stretching out his length.
“Jake, may I ask you a few more questions?”
Jake’s large head swung around, and he studied her a moment before he settled back into the grass. “How may I assist you, Rose?”
“You said you were 51% mink. Are you any part human?”
“No. I am not.”
“Where did you get your brain then? And how do you even know what the percentages are?”
Jake chuckled as Collin would. “Do you believe in God, Rose?”
It was not the question she expected from a talking dragon, but then she remembered Wilma mentioning his church attendance, which was even more bizarre. “Yes. I think it’s a rational conclusion. Everything has a creator.”
“Yes, that was my conclusion. The heavens declare the glory of God. It is true.”
“Rose, you are missing your dinner.” Jake lifted himself up and then jumped into the air.
The dragon was hiding something from her! What was she missing? It was something important; it had to be. What had Michael Jamel stumbled on?
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.