“I am sorry,” Thorn said to me possibly for the sixteenth time as he did up the catch of my necklace and settled the blue stone against my mate mark. “This will be painful.”
I turned and smoothed the fabric of his overcoat over his shoulders. It was deep blue, the same colour as my dress, and intricately stitched with a pattern of leaves. It made his eyes bluer, I thought.
“You look very handsome,” I told him.
He groaned and rested his forehead against mine. “It will be endless, agonizingly ignorant questions about your world and people,” he warned me.
“Well, they haven’t been there before,” I reasoned, “they’ll be curious.”
“When you’ve had enough, just tell me you’re feeling unwell.”
“And when you’ve had enough?” I asked him, smiling.
“I’ve already had enough,” he grinned. “I like this dress. Let’s just stay here, and I’ll enjoy what’s under it.”
I laughed at him. “Be brave, Valiant, let’s go. I’m actually feeling well, and I am hungry.”
“Hopefully once they have had the opportunity to ask their questions, they’ll leave us in peace,” he said optimistically folding my fingers in his and opening the door into the hall beyond.
“Hopefully,” I let him hold onto that hope for the time being.
I didn’t mind getting out of the room for a while. The medic’s suggestion of carb rations at regular intervals had helped the nausea, and I hadn’t vomited all day. We’d spent it in bed, catching up on lost sleep, and immersed in each other. The pregnancy had pervaded the entire day, however, and my feelings about it were complex. Thorn was not oblivious to my ambivalence and there was an edge of unease between us as a result. I wanted to distract him, to take the focus off my feelings, and a dinner with other people would do that.
I was also interested to see the ship - my father would want details, and I wanted to be able to provide them for him. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, by the interiors we walked through.
“This is a bit like walking through a hospital,” I complained to Thorn, deflated. “A windowless hospital.”
“We only have a few passenger ships suitable for deep space travel,” he told me, “the ones we have are mostly functional. They’re designed to move people as efficiently as possible, rather than in comfort.”
“Our room is comfortable.”
“The privilege of wealth,” he replied, with a slight flush. “Most of the accommodation on board consists of iso-bunks, up to twenty in a room our size, with shared bathroom facilities. There is only a limited amount of private room accommodation.”
“So, if you’d been booking our travel, rather than your father, we’d possibly be sharing a small bed in a room with nineteen others?” I smiled fondly.
“Which, in hindsight, would have inconvenienced everyone,” he admitted.
“I think your father should be in charge of booking our travel accommodation from now on,” I agreed.
“I just have to adjust my mindset,” he replied firmly. “I am used to making do with minimal comfort. I must remember that now I have a mate, minimal comfort is not sufficient. It is an ongoing transition. I am not used to planning for two people. I am used to my decisions solely affecting myself.”
“We’re both learning,” I assured him, amused. “It’s a first time and still new to us both.”
“In my defence,” he added quietly as we waited for an elevator. “When I came to your world the second time, it was on a transport vehicle, and I had a mesh bed strung above the crates in the cargo hold. An iso-bunk is luxurious in comparison.”
“No wonder you looked so tired when you arrived,” I commented.
The elevator opened. There were other people within, also formally dressed. Thorn inclined his head to them, and we stepped in. “Excuse me,” someone said. I saw Thorn breathe out slowly. “But is she...?”
“Yes, I am from the fourth planet,” I squeezed Thorn’s hand, and turned slightly so I was facing the speaker. The man looked astonished that I spoke his tongue. “I am called Briar. This is my mate.”
“Thorn,” Thorn added, turning and drawing me against him and into the circle of his arms. “I am called Thorn. They use names on the fourth planet. It is considered rude not to. We must adapt and integrate.”
“Is that so?” a woman looked intrigued. “A common use name?”
“Yes,” Thorn said. “Obviously not a birth name, but something you can use uniformly in all interactions on the fourth planet. They have a complex code of interactions, which include enquiring about each other via name, and using names for people they haven’t actually met. It can be disorientating at first, but it does actually have advantages.”
“How does one acquire the common use name?” She asked.
“Some ask to be given it, some give it to themselves,” I answered her.
“Is it also true that the three home worlds are merging in outposts?” one of the men enquired.
“When we left, it was being discussed. It may have become actuality in the interim,” Thorn replied.
“Briar speaks our language,” the first woman observed.
“I have been fitted with a translator.”
“Is that common practice on the fourth world?” She was frowning. “I understood our translators had been updated with the new program because they did not speak our tongue.”
“It was a gift,” I told her. “It is not something all of my people are being given.”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
“This is it,” Thorn murmured to me, and took my hand, leading me into the corridor beyond.
The other occupants of the elevator unsurprisingly also got out.
“It would be helpful,” the first man suggested, “if you would speak in your language. It would enable our translators to adjust faster.”
“If you wish,” I replied in my language. “If you wish,” I repeated in his own.
“So, how did you acquire the common use name Thorn?” the man asked.
I wasn’t surprised that that section of Thorn’s armour record had not been publicised, due to their customs around names. “Briar is a prickly bush – a plant with thorns. So, when I asked his name, he told me it was Thorn,” I told them.
“I like that,” the woman said, pleased. “I like the idea of taking on a form of your mate’s name as your common use name.”
“It was accidental,” Thorn demurred.
“Maybe in your case,” she agreed.
There was noise ahead, music and voices. I could see other people walking through a wide doorless entry. “Here we go,” Thorn muttered.
The room we entered was large with many tables set in small groups. The walls looked as if they were made of glass showing the stars beyond the ship. I knew enough now to realise they were screens, and the real stars were flashing past so fast as to be a blur.
The floor looked like dark water and rippled out under the footfalls of the people above. “A bit extravagant for a basic passenger ship,” Thorn murmured in my ear. “I think the owners have aspirations towards converting this vehicle into a more luxurious transport now that travel to your world will be more frequent.”
“We might use them again, then,” I replied.
“True,” he considered that. “Best be polite tonight, then.”
“Were you planning otherwise?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
He shrugged his good shoulder. I was getting used to the unbalanced shrug. He had been working on the bad shoulder, but progress was slower than he liked, and he had gotten into the habit of favouring the other. I wondered if I should mention it to him. “It was a thought. It would prevent further invitations and add some flavour to the evening.”
We walked into the room. I watched the ripples spread beneath my feet. “That’s disconcerting,” I commented. “Walking on water.” The ripples did not spread in a natural pattern but seemed to direct a path into the room. “Thorn...” I pointed to our feet.
“Ah,” he grimaced. “Ostentatious. Follow the ripples, my one, and it will show the way to where we’re to sit tonight...” We followed the ripples towards the centre of the room. I felt him sigh and glanced up at him. “Head table,” he told me under his breath.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes. “We’ll see. Just pause a moment. There’s no hurry to be seated.” Thorn looked around the room. There were mechanical people with trays of drinks circling the tables. He signalled one and selected two drinks from the tray. “Sip this. One glass will be fine. Don’t accept a drink that I don’t give you, tonight, my one,” he told me quietly.
“Why?” I wondered. The drink was shaded like a sunset, from a deep grey to a bright orange, with hues of pink and purple in between. It was pretty. I tasted it cautiously. It was vaguely fruity, but not any fruit I was familiar with.
“There are additives to the drinks,” he sipped the golden drink he held. “A variety of additives. Alcohol, which isn’t good for the baby, but also intoxicants such as narcotics and aphrodisiacs... Probably more, but that’s just what was on that tray.”
“Narcotics and aphrodisiacs,” I repeated.
“You would have seen their use on the vids,” he raised his eyebrows at me. “Didn’t my father explain them to you?”
“Yes, he did, but I thought they were just part of the story, not real.”
He laughed, delighted. “Ah, Briar,” he drew me against him. “Father obviously didn’t go into much detail. They’re quite real, and quite common, and sometimes used at functions like this. But I prefer not to use them so publicly, and they’re not good for you if you’re pregnant, so we’ll leave exposing you to them for another time.”
“I’m not sure I want to be exposed to them,” I told him honestly. “Whenever they were part of the storyline, the people ended up in compromising, embarrassing or complicated situations.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “and thus my preference not to use them at public functions. So, please-”
“Don’t drink from anything you haven’t given me,” I nodded. “So, what’s in these drinks?”
“Yours has a very low dose of alcohol, and mine is a stimulant,” he replied absently, watching the people around us.
“What’s a stimulant?” I added.
“Keeps you awake and alert,” he took me by the arm and moved me out of the way of a group who seemed a little unsteady on their feet. “Can’t have too much of that, either, or I’ll be awake for days, but I have a tolerance for it, as it’s used frequently on long missions.”
“So, why?” I wondered. “Why have they done that to the drinks?”
He threw me a look and chuckled. “People find it enjoyable, my one. And they believe that people are more genuine with lower inhibitions.”
“Hello,” a man paused by us, and then laughed to his companions: “I thought she was underage, she’s so small, but she has a mate mark and all!”
“She’s one... From the fourth world,” one of the women replied exasperated. “Hello,” she said to me, flicked her eyes to Thorn and hesitated. “Hello,” she said to him warily. “We’re sorry to have intruded.” She drew her companions away: “You do know who he is, don’t you?”
“You’re scary,” I said to Thorn, amused.
“To people with the right information,” he replied mildly.
“They don’t put that in the adverts,” I nudged him with my shoulder.
“No,” he grinned. “They gloss over those details. There is a large number of elite force here, which isn’t surprising, but does make me wonder how they’re filling the ranks with immigration so high...”
“Do you know people here?” I wondered.
“Quite a few,” he said.
“No one’s coming over to say hello to you...”
“They will,” he was confident about that. “At the moment, they’re just observing.”
“Like you’re observing,” I realised.
“Yes,” he considered, and then drew me closer to him, my back against him, so he could lean down to place his mouth by my ear. “The testing process for immigration is intensive. There are several elements you have to pass: physical, acumen, fertility, psychological, and skills.
“Once you pass, you have to be accepted to a posting, which is why, when I first arrived, I had to report to the leader of our outpost. In return for the shelter and provisions of his outpost, I offer my services.
“Elite force have to pass the same testing process annually in order to remain on the force, so it is not surprising to see so many here, and their skills are highly sought after, so most leaders accept their applications on sight, even without having a specific role in mind.”
“That does not explain why you’re not greeting each other.”
“Pecking order,” Thorn clarified. “This is our first opportunity to see who else is on board, who we actually like to work with, who we hate, and, of course, to assess who is the most dangerous.”
“And who is the most dangerous?” I was intrigued.
He laughed. “I am, because I have you.”
“Oh.” I thought about it. “So, technically, I am the most dangerous person in the room?”
“Yes,” he found it amusing. “But they’ll be inclined to underestimate you. I am waiting to see which one works it out first. They’ll be the first to approach us to say hello and to try to establish alliance.”
“Is everything always so complicated with you?” I asked him, exasperated.
“This is nothing,” he pressed his lips to my cheek. “Compared to all those weeks of handshakes and negotiations.” He straightened as his attention diverted to the door. “Looks like our host and captain have arrived.”
I saw two women enter the room. As the gathering of people parted, they became visible, and I felt the change in Thorn - something shut down, and his posture became rigid and more formal. The soldier coming to the forefront. Trouble, I thought, glancing up at him in concern.
Both women were tall and striking, with a bearing that reminded me of Willow: regal. One wore a dress of rich and vibrant red, the other a more masculine outfit in shades of silver. They inclined their heads to various people as the crowd parted for them and made their way to the central head table.
The one in silver paused as she passed Thorn and met his eyes. Her lips curled, before she continued to her seat.
“Our position has been usurped, my one,” he murmured to me. “Be wary.”
As much as I would have loved to ask what he meant by that, everyone began taking their seats, and the opportunity was not afforded to me. Thorn helped me into my seat, before taking his. There were ten at our table. We were directly opposite the captain and ship owner. I had not determined which was which.
“We have been so very much looking forward to meeting you,” the lady in silver spoke to me across the table as the mechanic servers placed food in front of us. “The stories about you are quite legendary,” she flicked her eyes to Thorn, and back to me. Although she smiled, it did not reach her eyes.
She was not, however, I thought, the one that was dangerous. Thorn was very deliberately avoiding looking at the woman in red, and the tension was tight across his back and shoulders again. When the server served drinks, Thorn accepted another stimulant, and a green beverage for me.
“I am not sure what the stories are,” he replied, and none of the tension or wariness was evident on his face or in his tone.
“I heard that you held a shield against an explosion, and saved a civilian building,” the man to my left offered, with feigned casualness. “That would have been remarkable to see.”
“That is true,” Thorn met the man’s gaze across my head, and I sensed some sort of agreement reached between them. “I am sure Briar will be happy to demonstrate a shield for you. Briar?” he looked to me.
He had never asked me to demonstrate my power before I thought as I threw up a shield around the table, so that we were all enclosed. I saw the other occupants of the table react as the energy passed over them.
“Well, this is cosy,” the woman in red purred, she reached out a hand and touched the interior of the shield, closed her eyes. “I can feel the power behind this,” she murmured. “Quite remarkable.”
“You can release it now, Briar,” Thorn told me.
I dropped the shield.
The room had fallen silent, the music now overloud that it did not compete against so many voices. They all watched us, with interest.
“I am told she has other abilities,” the woman in red lifted a drink in the same hue to her lips. For a moment, I saw graphically, Thorn, naked, in her bed, with that wicked smile upon his lips. She was a telepath, I realized. I responded, with an image of my own, feeling a sharp pain spike behind my left eye as I did so. Her eyes flicked to me and widened.
Thorn glanced at me. I kept my face blank with effort. His behaviour was puzzling and unnerving me.
“She has many other abilities, but they are more complicated to demonstrate,” he told her.
The sharp pain behind my eye was developing into a headache. Telepathy was not consequence free for me. The other people around the table were eating now, at some unspoken cue. I poked at the meal before me without appetite. I regretted, very much, coming to this dinner or taking this ship.
Thorn’s attention remained on the woman in red.
“Will you tell us about your world?” the man beside me asked.
My focus was off, I thought, miserably. I did not want to have conversations right now. I wanted to go back in time, and tell Thorn to go ahead, investigate what lay beneath my dress... “I am not sure my information is up to date,” I replied to him. “We have been away for many weeks now, and the situation changes constantly.”
“What was the situation when you left?” a woman down from the man spoke.
“The three worlds had formed an alliance and were assisting in the recapture of an outpost that had been using pre-war weaponry against the occupiers.” I had the attention of the whole table, including Thorn and the woman in red. “I don’t know if the city has been retaken in the interim.”
“Your people fight against us consistently,” the woman was frowning.
“Well, yes,” I agreed, bewildered. “You are invading our planet.”
“But, not really - ” she started.
“You all come uninvited and unannounced to our world. The first world kills people and steals others from their homes, and then imprisons them until they accept that escape is fruitless. The third world steals people, takes their eggs and semen to send back to their home world, and artificially inseminates women, and then takes those children,” I smiled coldly. “What would you call it?”
“The second world does none of that,” she argued.
“The second world still comes uninvited and unannounced, and takes over a position on our world, slowly expands and as it does changes things to suit them, until a people’s home is no longer theirs... It is still an invasion.”
“You have killed your own people, does that make you a traitor?” the woman in silver phrased it as a question, but it was a deliberate verbal blow.
“Yes,” I did not flinch. “I am a traitor.”
“My one,” Thorn’s voice was tight. “You do not have to answer these questions. Perhaps we should retire. You have not been well.”
I wanted, very much, to accept the option to escape, and yet, I felt, it would be a retreat. “My people would view me as a traitor,” I sipped the green beverage. It was delicious - something fresh and cool, like cucumber. “So, I am a traitor. But I am also doing what is right, and what I have to do. Your people will not stop coming now that you know about us. My people do not have the ability to stop you. It is futile to try, and only makes our position more perilous. I do what I need to, to mitigate the situation.”
“I am sorry,” the man to my side spoke, and his empathy was raw in his voice.
I rose to my feet. “I will need to retire now. I have been unwell.”
Thorn rose immediately, placing a hand under my elbow. “Please excuse us,” he said to the table. “My mate is with child and has been experiencing sickness.”
I saw the woman in red recoil. “Of course,” the woman in silver replied to Thorn, smoothly.
We walked across the room, and I could feel the woman in red’s eyes like a burn between my shoulder-blades. She could see my mate mark, I realised, with grim satisfaction.
As the elevator doors closed behind us, Thorn sagged against the wall with a sigh. “Well, that’s going to complicate this trip,” he said darkly.
“Who is she?”
“A mistake,” he replied, and reached out to draw me against him. “I am sorry, Briar. That situation was entirely my fault.” He buried his face into my hair. “Are you feeling unwell or was that just to escape?” he asked, anxiously.
“Both. She’s a telepath.”
“Yes,” he was wary. “What did she send you Briar?” he asked me.
“It doesn’t matter, I sent her something better, but doing so has given me a headache. I hate telepathy,” I pinched the bridge of my nose.
I felt Thorn sigh. “I am sorry,” he repeated, quietly.
I turned in his arms and wrapped mine around him, breathed him in, and felt better. “Not your fault,” I told him, resting my head against his chest. “I just need to eat some carb rations and go to bed.”
The elevator opened and we linked hands as we walked back towards our room. We both ate rations, undressed, and crawled into bed. I reached for him, drew him to me, and found his mouth with mine. Our breath, our lips, our tongues, our limbs tangled. He was gentle, reverently so, and I felt the golden glow build and fed it into him, binding him to me. He cried out against my skin and came within me.
We lay, skin warm, breath synchronised. “I love you Briar,” he murmured, on the edge of sleep.
“I love you too, Thorn.”
I woke and for a moment, I was not sure what woke me. And then he moved, restlessly, and groaned.
“Thorn?” I leaned over him.
He tossed his head against the pillow, his fine hair already matted. He cried out, and I realised he was caught in a fever dream. I laid my hand on his chest and sent my power into him. There was nothing wrong with him, I assured myself, after searching, not a fever, just a nightmare. But... there was a whisper, and for a moment I saw her, rising naked above me, her head thrown back...
I slammed up my shield, and the vision was gone.
Thorn relaxed beside me, became still, slipping into a more natural sleep.
I lay in bed and stewed. “I hate telepathy,” I snarled to myself.