Collin patrolled the village until after the bar closed as he’d promised Jake he’d do. The night air invigorated him, but he wished he could go someplace where he was sure to find a dragon to kill. They rarely came into the village anymore.
Perhaps it would have been merciful to let Thom die on the operating table. He could probably restore his nervous system at the mountain lab, but there was no guarantee about his mental state. His character, after careful review from what little Cee had known and kept quiet about before, led him to believe that a restored Thom would still be a dangerous Thom. He’d been unable to handle the power he’d been given with Butler, and it allowed all his flaws to be magnified. Now, with power removed, Collin doubted he’d be repentant, but more likely bitter.
Too bad Trea had to be another innocent victim of that drive for power. Collin knew it was foolish to risk the lab and his chance to finally destroy the reptile dragons he’d created so many years ago just for an android, even though he knew how close to human that android was and how much it meant to both Jim and Rose. He wasn’t going to suggest taking Trea there, because then she would know where it was located.
But Jake had offered an ingenious solution, knowing before Collin had a chance to voice his concern what was at stake. He suggested a sensor shield. He’d take Michael to the cabin; retrieve the shielded pouch from the lab, and then take them the rest of the way with Trea in the pouch. On returning, if she survived, Trea would be in the pouch until she reached Hope. Kayden had gone with them, and Collin felt his years tonight and the weight of loneliness.
He returned to the house in silence, but slept little. He did not expect them back right away. The operation would take hours, and Michael knew he should sleep before it to be at his peak.
Collin was up as Wilma arrived to prepare their breakfast. “Michael and Kayden have the day off,” he informed Quinn, Geoff, and Par. “I have a few patients to see. Par, you have emergency house calls again. Geoff and Quinn will cover the office.” He slipped from the room as Rose entered.
Rose grabbed his arm. “Collin. May I speak with you?”
Collin sighed. She somehow suspected he had tech. Probably the same way Michael had figured it out. She’d seen that video that Jake had sent back of Kayden’s abuse. “Later. I’ve got people to see.”
Collin ignored her, going through the office and opening the safe to remove his pack.
“Why do you lock up your pack?”
Collin withdrew his pack and relocked the safe, slinging it over his shoulder. When he finally turned to face her, he said, “Medical supplies are restricted. Now, Director, please. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I do have patients in the village. Barring an emergency I will have time to speak with you this afternoon about your husband or Thom’s recovery. We can work out a schedule and plan for their trip home then.”
She stared at him as if wishing to challenge him, but she didn’t speak again as he brushed by her out of the room.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
After Collin left, Rose took a deep breath and slid into his desk chair. Of course his patients were more important than her desire to confront him and hear him confess the truth to her. His patients had always come first.
Rose made her way back to Jim, but he was not in bed. Instead he was in the guest living room, seated on the couch, talking to Charles who sat in the armchair. Rose settled next to her husband.
“Sorry about your Trea,” Charles said. “Maybe Michael can help her. Maybe he has a better eye and steadier hand and doesn’t need the equipment.”
“Where is Michael?” Jim asked.
Charles shrugged. “Don’t know. Didn’t tell me where he was going. Not my apprentice anymore, you know. He runs for Doc Collin.”
“Michael took her to look at later.” Charles sighed. “Like I said, he might be able to do what I can do no longer.”
Tori entered the room with a cup of juice for Charles. Then she stood to the side and slightly behind him. “What have you for me today, Sir?”
Charles chuckled. “The good doctor does not need you?”
“Which doctor is that?” Jim teased. “The boss or the dragon slayer.”
Tori gave a slight grin. “I have orders from neither, and they know my commitment is to Charles first.”
“No, Tori, dear,” Charles said softly. “Your first duty is to your husband. Don’t let me ruin your happiness, Child.”
Tori bit her lip a moment and then said, “Quinn is busy with patients right now.”
“Did you rest well last night?” Rose couldn’t help asking. The girl certainly looked rested, and Rose noted a large diamond flashing from her left hand. Apparently some commitment had been formalized last night, although Rose didn’t think Quinn was actually her husband yet.
“Yes, Ma’am. I slept well. And you?”
Rose shook her head slightly, but wouldn’t elaborate about her internal debates over confronting a living legend. The truth was that she was in awe of the man. He not only could create dragons and kittles, he cared for the people of the village with a dedicated resolve. Even Mayor Talbert had praised him to their small group and told how he’d come to their village when they had no doctor, how he was always available, even in the depths of the night. She should have no fear for her husband because Dr. Alex Collin had cured many who seemed hopeless, and he’d trained young Quinn into a fine doctor also.
And she could not fault Collin’s care of Jim. Collin Hansell was indeed a man of compassion, and it was only her desire to ask more of him than he was probably prepared to give that caused her tension with him.
“Rose, my love,” Jim asked softly.
She smiled and shook her head. “Don’t mind me, Love. You know I need to debate all my decisions, and you’ve bailed out on me. So has Trea. So I must keep hashing them out in my head until they’re implemented.”
“Can you discuss anything now,” he asked softly, brushing his lips against her cheek.
Rose shrugged. Some of her plans were not that earth shaking. “I’m going to rearrange the disbursing of funds and take it out of Governor Hollis’ control. Michael doesn’t need to be harassed. Also that will make the trade payments easier. I already have Dryderi working on it, and he’s assigned a subordinate to work on the planet in the intake office in two weeks. I need to have Michael go to Capitol and arrange housing for him and his family between now and then. So much to do.”
“Which man? Or is it the Cheneys?”
“Yes. They consider it a challenge to work on the planet, and they are trustworthy. Their boys will have more room to run also,” she said with a chuckle. More than once the four rambunctious boys had been reprimanded for racing through the empty halls of the station. The gymnasium and exercise room just could not contain their energy.
“Good choice,” Jim said, his smile telling her that he was thinking of the boys also.
“Yes, but confronting Hollis will be the biggest challenge. Even my identification might not be enough to garner his good will.”
“Of course it will, Dear. He wants what you can give him.”
“He wants power, and I want him to have less of it. I just have to determine how to take that power while making him think he’s getting the better bargain.”
“But you can do it, Love. You’ve always been good at that. But I want to be with you. In case there’s trouble.”
Rose smiled and shook her head. The man would indeed kill himself to protect her. “Perhaps Tori will spend that week with me, if Quinn will not be too inconvenienced.”
Tori rested her hand on Charles’ shoulder. “If Charles does not need me, perhaps I can assist again, but I prefer to stay on the planet.”
Rose grinned. “See, dear. Tori will protect me. Although if it’s going to keep getting colder, I think I’d prefer to leave in three weeks and come back when it warms up again. There are advantages to domes.”
“Like oxygen,” Jim noted dryly. “Fortunately this planet has enough of its own.”
Quinn rushed into the room, Shanika trailing after him. “Tori, there you are. Do you think you could help Shan with her school work? Gwen teaches her, but now is when Kayden usually takes over.”
Tori glanced at Charles and then at the girl halfway hidden behind her father. Rose had the impression that Tori wasn’t quite sure how to fulfill the request. She bit her lip again, but then gave a small smile. “I guess I can. Where are you working?”
Quinn took a step to her and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Sweetheart. Her books are in the dining room.” Then Quinn disappeared back into the clinic.
Shanika stared at Tori for a moment. Then she sighed. “Do you know how to do subtracting?” she asked as she started out of the room. “Kayden says I need it to be a veterinarian.”
“Yeah. I learned that in school.” Tori followed her.
Rose couldn’t help but smile. Tori looked so like Quinn and Shanika with her long black hair and lithe body. Only the roundness of her face indicated that she might not be Shanika’s mother.
When Collin came back before lunch, Rose was careful not to confront him. He’d said he’d see her this afternoon, so she’d be careful not to become the nuisance. She so hated it when others pestered her after she’d made a decision, and she must give Collin the right to run his practice in whichever timely manner he had chosen.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Collin had gone through all the papers he could in his office. He’d hoped to hear from Michael or Kayden by now, but he knew it was still early. Michael could still be operating. Collin knew he was stalling. Rose would ask him about Trea, and he had no answers. Hopefully he could keep the conversation to her husband and Thom.
He found Rose in the infirmary beside her husband’s bed. Jim needed an afternoon nap, but he was making good progress. She met his gaze and rose when he motioned her to follow him. She had a small woven bag with her, and she set it on her lap when she sat in the chair beside his desk.
Collin closed the door to the waiting room and the one into the surgery before settling into his chair. “As you can see, Director, your husband is recovering quite nicely.”
“Please, Collin. Although I hope for a good working relationship, I do hope that there will be ample room for friendship also. Please call me Rose.”
Collin nodded. “Rose,” he amended. “Jim is….”
“I’m not here to talk about Jim. I know you’ve done excellent work in saving his life.”
“No. Please, Collin. This is not even about Trea, although I know you could help me with her.”
“No, Rose. I am simply a country….”
“Collin Hansell is no country doctor,” she whispered fiercely and then took a deep breath.
Collin tried to keep his expression neutral. Had Tori really told her after he’d trusted her? “Collin Hansell is a hated geneticist. Almost everyone knows someone who was killed or injured by a dragon. If he hadn’t died years ago, he’d certainly be killed now.”
Rose gave a slight nod. “I understand that, Collin, and I do not wish to injure you in any way.”
“I am not concerned for myself. Unsubstantiated rumors have started riots and killed many people. I do not wish my family to experience that. Most of them have had enough terror in their young lives.” He tried to be as vague as possible and not confirm her statement.
“I assure you that I will do nothing to jeopardize you here. But I do want you to work with me.”
Collin stood. He needed to get out and go flying, determine how to deal with this. “You have mistaken me for someone else. Or perhaps Tori has. The girl has been delusional from lack of sleep to the point of mistaking Quinn for Butler. Surely you don’t think….”
“Tori told me nothing. I knew she wouldn’t so I didn’t bother to ask. Michael knows, too, doesn’t he? But I could see his loyalty was with you also.” She pulled a small palm notebook computer from her bag and thrust it at him. “Play sequence A1,” she commanded it. “I found this in my archives.”
“Hello. I’m Dr. Collin Alexander and this is my wife, Vita. Welcome to our home. Please be comfortable,” came his voice from the computer.
Collin stared at the tiny screen as Vita offered their guests something to drink. Her voice, her face, her…. “Vita,” he whispered as he sunk into his chair. He remembered it now as if it were yesterday, and yet it’d been so long ago. He hadn’t known they were recording the interview, and yet he wouldn’t have cared if they had. He hadn’t thought it would matter then. He watched silently until the interview was over forty-five minutes later. Rose had remained silent, watching him, but he knew of no response. He handed the computer back to her.
“I also researched Collin Hansell,” she said softly, “Because of your intriguing mammal dragon, and that you both claim he was created by Collin Hansell.”
Collin felt drained. The past always did that to him. He needed to go out and kill a reptile dragon to wipe away the melancholy and the memories, but he was trapped in this office with the head of this planetary prison.
“Collin, Jake is remarkable.”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, nodding slightly to acknowledge her.
“I want you to make more.”
He opened his eyes in surprise. “What?”
“Zero deaths in 4 years, your mayor said. The closest village to that statistic was the Village of Big Rapids which had only 9 deaths. Each village averages two to four dragon deaths a year here! The cities have even more. That is why Charles came here, isn’t it? So that you could make more mammal-dragons.”
Collin could only stare at her for a moment. This woman definitely had a sharp mind. But then he finally chuckled. “No, that is not why Charles came. He didn’t know about Jake’s body then. I only sent back my impressions of his 5000 units and the safety measures he needed to install. I also let Cee and Jake send back their own reports.”
“Then how did he know about your past?”
Collin shrugged. “I guess he deduced it from some articles I had sent back. He did manage to get a few of them published for me.” It was useless to hide it now. She knew it all.
“But you can make more dragons, can’t you? Pair them up with honorable owners throughout the continent to kill off the reptiles. Eventually you could kill them all.” She studied him. “That is what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he whispered. “I made a mistake letting them loose. By the time I heard of the first deaths I could not kill them all. They reproduced faster than I could find them. I managed to slow down their population growth by introducing a teasel, a small weasel-like creature which feeds on the eggs, but I haven’t been able to reverse the population – until now.”
“And Cee? Have you planned a body for her?”
“Yes. Only she will be female. She wishes….” He hesitated. She may approve of a way to kill dragons, but would she approve of other wildlife experiments. But all was on the line now anyway. “That pegasus out there is the only one I’ve seen in at least twenty-five years. And it’s a male. Cee wishes to provide a womb so that we can work to reintroduce some of the gentler and perhaps even beneficial beasts. We do not know how that will work yet, but we are hopeful that she will be able to do it. She’ll also hunt dragons when she is not near birth.”
“And then what? Would she have baby dragons? Is that how you planned to reproduce them?”
“No. You have guessed that they need an AI core for a brain. I had no plans after that, as I had no more cores. If I had the cores, your plan sounds like an excellent one.” He didn’t bother telling her that as soon as they’d seen Charles’ cache of inactive cores, he and Kayden automatically thought of it.
“Will you use Trea?”
“Trea? She is yours. If she survives the operation, then I assume she will return home with you.”
“What operation? Michael is doing it now?”
“I assume so.”
“I’m sorry, Rose. I can not go that far. You may kill me, but the lab is needed here. If I am dead, Jake can continue my work. Plants are designed there for medical purposes. Our history is stored there, and our art.”
“I wouldn’t destroy it, Collin,” she said, shock in her voice. She shook her head and reached out to grasp his hand. “Collin, I, too, have concealed records on the station, and I must decide if the people of the universe are ready for them. It is a heavy responsibility, and I would value your opinions. You are right. History must be preserved, if only so that our mistakes are not repeated.”
“There are things that perhaps should never come out. I sometimes wonder if I should purge them from the archive,” Collin admitted. “At least purge the knowledge of how it was done, if not that it was done.”
Collin nodded. “I was lucky,” he whispered, his throat again tight. “They were just animals to their creators. I, at least, was a son. Their keeper could perform anything on them. They were caged, mocked, unloved. I….” Collin tried to erase the images of his friends and how they were taken and dissected on a whim when they were no longer viable or useful. The lower level. He had never gone back down there since that time right after the riots to determine that no one lived.
Collin stood. “Look, I need to go… go….”
Rose caught his arm at the doorway. “I’m sorry, Collin,” she said softly. “We do not need to worry about history for a while. When you get back, we’ll figure out what you need to start your mammal dragon project.”
Collin gave her a slight nod and then slipped out of the door. He ran to the stables, calling Angie from the sky as he did so. He avoided Marta as he saddled Angie and soon he was flying, letting the wind dry the moisture from his eyes. How he wished at times like this that his father had slipped and dulled his memory, caused it to fade a bit as some people’s did. But each of his 185 years could be brought back in full color and emotion, except the first two, and he even had glimpses of them if he tried. But he didn’t often try.
When he had flown half way to Alexandria he was able to turn his thoughts forward instead of back, and with the turning of his thoughts he urged Angie back home. Rose would work with him. He had government approval to make more mammal dragons. He could finally correct his greatest mistake.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rose watched Collin run outside, and going to the porch she saw him run to the barn and call his wingdeer to him. Her throat constricted. Whatever had happened in his youth, he still felt it keenly. How had time not damaged that sensitive man into a bitter and hard soul?
Rose made her way back to Jim. He sat in the bed, but he was alone. She could hear Geoff with Thom.
“My flower,” Jim said immediately, the concern in his voice drawing her out of her thoughts. “What happened?”
She shook her head. “Our host, Love, is a very special man, and I know why these people love him now.”
Jim took her hand as she sat beside him on the bed, facing him. “Why’s that, Sweetheart,” he whispered.
She needed to tell him. Perhaps he was the only one here who didn’t know. But perhaps some of the others didn’t either, she would have to make sure she didn’t give away his secret. “If we were alone, my love, I’d tell you all. But it is part of Michael’s new commission to rid the planet of the reptile dragons. Don’t fret, Love. This raspy throat is only emotions of sympathy, not any pain inflicted on me.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.