Blood and Armour - Sample

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Chapter 2

I woke to daylight. I couldn’t remember the last time I had woken to the sun shining through a window. It seemed like forever. Thorn snored slightly beside me. I grinned. It was so unusual for me to wake before him, he slept so lightly. The sun shone on his hair, spread like a luxurious silver cloth across his back. He lay on his stomach, his face turned away from me.

I stroked his hair across his back. The heavy silver locks were body warm. I wrapped my arms around his chest and snuggled into the curve of him, feeling the subtle change of his breathing as he woke. I drifted my hand down his side, to his hip, and felt his intake of breath.

“Ticklish?” I grinned, running my hand back up, feather light.

“Are you looking for trouble, Briar?” he chuckled, and flipped suddenly, dragging me over and then under him, so I shrieked in surprise. We both laughed. He lowered his head and bit my bottom lip.

The doorbell rang. He cursed. “A moment,” he called over his shoulder, cursed again, and threw back the cover, striding over to the cupboard. He pulled on the green trousers from the day before. I gathered the cover up against me. “Enter,” he said to the door.

“Good morning,” a medic entered, his dark grey hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck, and his white coverall immaculate. He was carrying a tray. “Apologies for the early morning. We’ll just administer the medication and leave you to your day.”

“What medication?” I asked, holding the cover against me under my arms, wishing Thorn had thrown me my dress.

The medic exchanged a look with Thorn, and then placed the tray down on the bed at my knees. “The fertility medication,” he said to me.

“Oh,” it was ice in my veins. I really didn’t want to do this, I realised. It had been easier, with the white ones, when it had been already done, and I had been dealing with the consequences. This was submitting to something that logically I understood and had consented to, but emotionally I found uncomfortable and confronting.

“Brief sting,” the medic said brightly, and administered the medication to my neck before I could formulate a response. He took something from the tray, a small cup with liquid. “And this please.”

I put it to my lips, my eyes meeting Thorn’s over the rim. There was tension at his mouth, and shadows in his almost-colourless blue eyes. I closed my eyes and drank the liquid. It had the viscosity of honey and tasted bitter.

“Wonderful,” the medic reclaimed the cup, placed it on the tray. “Finger please,” he said, and pressed my index finger to a small machine. I hissed as it bit me. He held it down until the machine beeped, and then released me. “All done.”

I sucked my finger, glaring at him reproachfully.

He gathered up his things, the tray, and smiled. “Tomorrow, then,” he said and went to the door, which hissed open for him, and closed behind him.

“Lock,” Thorn said. I couldn’t look at him for the moment, couldn’t deal with his feelings on top of my own. I felt the mattress depress. “Briar…” he touched my arm.

“I am not doing this again,” I told him quietly. “This is the end of these egg things for me.”

He drew me back, laid us both down, and tucked me up against him. “I am sorry, Briar,” he said. “I can’t promise, but I will do everything in my power to prevent it occurring again.”

I nodded, knowing he spoke the truth, and turned in his arms so I faced him, so I could bury my face into his chest and wrap my fingers in his hair. He stroked my back. “I know this is hard for you,” he murmured. “I don’t totally understand why, but I know it causes you distress.”

His hair and mine merged, silver and white, around us. I found that comforting. I wrapped a lock of our merged strands around my fingers. “What is melanin?” I asked him.

He kissed the top of my head and sighed out a breath on a laugh. “Melanin is the pigment in your hair, skin and eyes that affects it’s colour.”

“You said that what I did… affected the melanin in my hair.”

“It was a guess,” he admitted. “I am not a medic or a scientist. My knowledge is minimal. But your hair turned white, and melanin is what causes hair and skin colour, so it seems logical that it was affected.”

“Why is your hair silver?” I wondered. “Nexus is grey, and the white one’s are white…”

“Hmm,” he considered. “I don’t know exactly. I’ve never thought about it. People from the first world just have darker hair, third world paler hair, and second world is somewhere in between… I guess I just assumed it was environmental, or maybe due to the genetic groups that settled the second and third worlds.

“I do know that white hair has no pigment, I remember that much from school,” he spread some of my hair out between his fingers thoughtfully. “I would assume my hair has less pigment then someone from the first world. I believe melanin is affected by a lot of different things - genetics, hormones, climate, pollutants and toxins, chemical exposure.”

“The white one’s skin is dark,” I frowned. “Surely if it affects the hair it would also affect skin as melanin is in both…”

He laughed and kissed my head. “I wish I had all the answers for you, Briar,” he said. “I never was very studious. I coasted my way through my education, I don’t have the patience for studying obscure things, in that, you and I are very different. I think you would enjoy our education system. I wonder what they would make of you, and what field they would recommend for you.”

He sighed. “We should get up,” he decided. “Get something to eat, and maybe I will show you some of the facilities the home-worlds have to offer and see what you make of them.”

“I thought we couldn’t leave the hospital?” I tightened my grip, not ready to face the day yet.

“No, we can’t. But there are a lot of hospital we can take advantage of. They have extensive rehabilitation facilities here I think you’d find interesting and seeing as my preferred form of incidental exercise was interrupted this morning…”

“I have no idea what rehabilitation facilities are,” I let him pull me out of the bed and tugged my dress over my head.

He grinned as he pulled on his own shirt. “That’s half the fun, Briar,” he told me, “showing you something new and watching your face to see what you make of it. Come on.”

We went down the long corridor, into a small room which, when the doors closed, dropped down at a steady pace causing me to grab at Thorn reflexively.

“Elevator,” he told me, grinning. “Takes you up and down in tall buildings.”

The doors opened into a large room. Windows lined one side, large and arched, light glowed from the ceiling and along the edges of the walls. Neat tables sitting between 2 and 8 people were set at regular intervals throughout the room, many of them occupied. In between the tables moved machines that looked remarkably like people in form: two arms, two legs, a torso and head, completely of metal, with the face blank.

Thorn propelled me forward out of the elevator and into the room, whilst I stared at the strange machines. “Why don’t they have faces?” I asked him.

“Some do. These don’t require them,” he was amused as he sat us at a table. One of the mechanical people glided up to us. I stared at its empty visage. There weren’t even indentations to give an idea of eyes or mouth, it was just smoothly curved, as if it had been wiped clean. It seemed wrong to not give something so close to a person in shape a face. “We will have the vegetarian option and the red meat option, with water.”

The thing glided away. I hung off the edge of the table to see that although it was equipped with two legs, it actually rolled along the ground. “Does it have wheels? I can’t see any wheels.”

“They use similar technology to our terrain vehicles in order to move.” He replied, sitting back in his chair, at ease and highly entertained.

“What is everything made of?” I wondered. “It’s all so shiny and perfectly smooth.”

“Artificial polymer, environmentally friendly to produce, efficient as it can be used a variety of ways, and it is easily recycled,” he replied glibly. “Hospitals tend to be a bit dull with the colour scheme and design however.”

“I only understood some of those words,” I stroked my hand across the table surface, looking for faults or joins and found none.

The faceless mechanical person returned and deposited two containers in front of us, with cutlery-like instruments, and cannisters of water. Thorn sighed. “Hospital food,” he commented, “is always bland and overly processed. A bit like rations.”

He reached over the table and peeled back the lid of my container. The meal within was brightly coloured, and nothing looked familiar. It smelt different, but good and I was hungry. I examined the utensils and decided one was similar to a fork, so used it as such.

“The things are so bright,” I said, stirring the items in the container.

“Artificial,” he grimaced as he used his fork like implement, “to improve appeal.”

I tried something purple. It tasted a bit like a carrot but had the texture of cooked zucchini. I eyed off the blue items suspiciously. “Do you have blue vegetables?” I asked him.

He laughed and said a word that didn’t translate as there was nothing comparable in my language. “You’ll like it.”

I stabbed a bit, and narrowed my eyes at him, before taking a nibble. “Corn,” I decided, relieved. “Corn flavoured potato.”

We had attracted attention from nearby diners, I noticed them looking at us and leaning over the table to whisper at each other. When they saw me look their way, they dropped their eyes and moved their chairs closer together.

Thorn followed my gaze and rolled his eyes. “Keep eating, Briar, it doesn’t matter.”

“Why do they stare?” I wondered and then I realised. “How many people have seen the footage from your and Willow’s armour?” I asked him, flushing.

“Select sections have been widely publicized,” he grimaced. “Nothing personal, Briar.”

“I don’t know how to make that distinction, when it all involves me,” I replied, uncomfortable. “What sort of sections?”

He shifted on his seat, to lean forward, and closed his hand over mine. “Briar,” he said quietly. “As far as I am aware, they have made advertisements out of what they determined to be our more photogenic moments and displays of your… ability.”

“What is an advertisement?” I whispered. “What is photogenic?”

“An advertisement is something meant to attract interest… It is meant to be a promotion of the advantages of signing up for immigration,” he was embarrassed. “Photogenic means an image, like a painting, that is visually appealing.”

“Do I… Do I get to see one of these advertisements?” I asked him, confused.

He touched the table surface and it turned black. “Advertisement of planet 3.8.XIVVirgo, short,” he said.

Music played from the black surface beneath our food, and the blackness became scattered with stars. “Welcome to the future, our greatest adventure…” with dizzying quickness, the image changed, until one of the stars stood out, blue and green against the black. Closer we went to that star, and passed through clouds, to zoom amongst fields and trees, flowers, bodies of water… to rest upon my face, laughing.

“Romance, and power.” An image of me in the river, arms thrown back, the water thick with fish corpses and the trees exploding into bloom, petals raining down like snow.

“Our future strength.” That final day with rebels turning to dust around me... I shuddered. Willow had warned me that her armour would be recording on our missions, but I had never imaged the images would be used in such a way.

“Find your happiness.” Thorn and I in profile, inclining towards each other a moment from kissing.

“Applicants need to be between 25 and 45 years of age, and pass fertility, health, and acumen testing.” The music faded out.

I stared, blankly, as the black surface faded back into white.

“Briar,” he still held my hand. “It could be worse.”

I looked up at him, eyes wide. “That’s alright for you to say,” I said to him. “You look fabulous all ruffled up. I look an absolute mess.” For a moment, he stared at me, and then he began to laugh, bowing over with it until his head touched the table surface. “Most of that was from Willow’s armour,” I observed, feeling a little betrayed.

He released my hand to wipe the tears from his eyes. “Yes,” he agreed.

“If applicants must be twenty five to forty five of your years, and your years run one point three - ”

“Eight three,” he corrected.

“One point eight three of our years…” I tried to work it out in my head, and just ended up frowning at him. “And the average age for men on our planet is fifty years…”

“By your world’s standards, I would be…” he faded off, flushing.

“My father is forty-eight,” I said, slowly.

“Your lack of medical options is a major factor to your lifespan,” Thorn said carefully. “With the added benefits of our medical advancements, your father can expect to live into his eighties or nineties.”

“Which would still be only… Thirty years or so more than you’ve already lived, now…” I stared at him.

“Briar. I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, softly.

“So… am I a child?” I tried to work it out in reverse.

“It doesn’t work like that. We reach physical maturity at almost the same rate as your people do,” he flushed.

“Uh huh, and what is the age most of you, you know, get together?” I wondered.

“Twenty would be considered early,” he shrugged. “Most start families between thirty and forty-five… of our years.”

I was enjoying his discomfort. “What do your parents think of this?” I asked him. “You bonding to someone my age? At the age of what exactly? Twenty-five? Thirty? Thirty-five?”

“Briar,” he had pushed past his own embarrassment to realise that I was teasing him. His lips curled at the edges, and his tone held mock warning.

“Yes, Valiant?” I replied, sweetly.

He sighed out a breath, mild exasperation, heavy relief. “So, the advertisement doesn’t displease you?”

“It’s not great,” I shrugged. “It could have been worse, though, couldn’t it?”

“Yes, it certainly could have been,” he agreed.

“Willow’s footage,” I repeated.

“Yes, but,” he was cautious, “it is possible something similar exists on my world, and the third world, using similar footage from other sources… including more from my armour.”

I nodded. “So, why do they have these advertisements?” I asked him. “Why do people watch them?”

“We have an entertainment facility called… well, it hardly matters,” he shrugged. “We have entertainment devices that play music and other things. These advertisements appear during these things and because people are watching or listening to the first, they watch the second…”

I looked at him for a long moment. “Sometimes, the things you say,” I said to him, shaking my head, “I realise I know absolutely nothing about your people.”

He laughed, startling the people at the nearest table. “Sometimes,” he said to me, “the things you say makes me realise how much my people have that we don’t actually need. I never thought of us as frivolous until I spent time with you.”

“I wouldn’t call you frivolous,” I said.

“Give it a couple of weeks,” he suggested.

“So,” I pushed away the remains of my meal. “What now?”

“Excuse me,” one of the women from the neighbouring tables had worked up the courage to approach us. She was older than Thorn, I thought, an older mother, possibly a young grandmother… How many of my years had she lived, I wondered with amazement.

“Yes,” Thorn’s tone was polite but uncommitted.

“She’s… She’s from the new planet? She’s the one, from the advertisements. I mean, you both are, but her hair is different… She is, though, isn’t she?” she asked him.

“Yes,” Thorn remained neutral but wary.

“She’s so small. Beautiful, and delicate,” she beamed down at me, like a proud mother. “My son, he has been thinking of volunteering. But we didn’t really believe the advertisements were real. But now I see her… and she’s real.”

“Yes. She is,” he looked at me, apologetic.

“Can she do… What the advert implies?”

“Yes,” Thorn met my gaze, “and more.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she said to him, excitedly, “except how exciting for us. You must be very happy. You look very happy, watching you here with her.”

“I am,” he held my gaze as he said it.

“I am glad,” she said, warmly. “I hope you are both well, being here…”

“We are,” he assured her. “We will be leaving soon.”

“Good,” she nodded. “I am sorry for the intrusion, and I will leave you now, but… congratulations, and we are all… wishing you well.”

“She didn’t realise you spoke our tongue,” he apologised to me, under his breath, when she had returned to her table.

“I understood that,” I assured him.

“People will be… curious.”

“Yes.”

“Briar, I need a little more from you,” he pleaded.

“How is this your fault, Thorn?” I asked him. “You’re looking at me and talking to me like I would blame you for this. I don’t understand why you think you’re to blame for things beyond your control. Could you change how Willow and your footage from your armour is being used? From what you have said before, I don’t think so. So, how are you to blame for this?”

He looked at me. I saw the tension release. We both sat in silence. The mechanical man came and took the empty containers from our table.

Thorn’s thumb traced from my wrist to the tip of my index finger before threading his fingers into mine. The hair on my arm stood on end, sending sensation across my back and chest. “Briar,” he said, his voice dark with intention. My heart clenched.

“Yes Thorn?” I pretended ignorance, though the look in his eyes sent a shiver up my back.

“We should go back to our room.”

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