I recommend that you don't read the story now. You could, but it isn't finished and I'm still changing a lot of it. If you are interested in reading a story in a very scattered condition just to see how or if it comes together, then go right ahead. When I actually do finish it I will make sure to start the post with a note that says so. Don't worry, you won't miss it.
“Alright. Roll your wrist inward. From the wrist not the elbow.”
“Okay. Like this?”
“A little slower. Do you feel the line?”
“Yes. I think? Yes.”
“Don't pull too quickly. If the line snaps it will unravel the whole seam.”
It was always the movement of the hands. Even when he was very young Kee would watch the armourer’s hands while she worked. They would glide in long graceful arcs barely skimming the surface, touching off the armour gently once or twice, before darting in with the elegant violence of a striking fish. A percussive clunk delivered to the armour’s skin would ripple through the cart. Sometimes her workbench would shake with the force of the blow. At other times, her knuckles would bend at precise angles, each finger taking up a slightly different shape, holding it briefly with invisible tension, before crisply shifting to a new position. Gentle and powerful all at once. The damaged surface of the armour would reply to these gestures and strikes by knitting back together in ways that defied simple explanation. To young eyes, skill and careful practice was the same as magic.
“Slide through the seam. You lead, it follows.”
“How do you know how hard to press? I can only see the surface.”
“Only the broken edge cells will respond to pressure, so you really can’t press too hard. Nothing you or I can do will hurt them. It’s a lot stronger than we are. Going too shallow can be a problem though so try to press all the way through if you can.”
“What about the line? If I press while I’m still holding the line will it snap?”
“You understand that it’s not really the line that snaps, right? The line isn’t real. The line is just your connection to the armour. If you keep your other hand steady while you press with this one, the line will hold. Once the cells are fused, they won’t let go. You can’t split them apart.”
“I’ve seen you do it. Split a seam.”
“That’s different. Focus on what you’re doing, where your hands are now. Maybe we will get to that later.”
Carts would drift into town a few times per year and set up a slapdash market. Most were loaded down with fresh fruits and exotic vegetables packed tightly into chilled boxes or stabilizer cabinets. Some of them sold woven fabrics or even hand sewn clothing with dynamic, ever changing patterns bred into the fibers. Expensive, sure, but up to date fashion always is. There were carts that specialized in toys, games, and treats from beyond the front. Anything trickling in from outside the borders of Uniune was exciting so all of the town kids would flock around those carts. Kee would stop by the treat carts too, following the crowd, but as the afternoon wore on he tended to drift from his friends to linger in front of the armourer, watching her hands.
The armourer’s cart didn’t really fit with loose semicircle of commercial carts. Why would it? Both in design and purpose it was just a different animal entirely. It sat apart from the other carts. Off to the side and behind like it didn’t want to participate in this group photo. Shy, or looming. Difficult to tell. For an object so conspicuous the locals put forth a strong effort to ignore it. The cart kept up it’s end of that bargain and made itself easy to ignore.
“I understand these small cracks, but I once saw you weave an entire arm. How did you do that?”
“Pay attention. Don’t look at me. Keep your eyes on your work”
“No sorry, just do it.”
“Okay. Is this right?”
“Yes. That’s a very clean seam. Close to perfect. A bit more practice. Do you feel this raised area here?”
“That spot is just slightly weaker. It could let go there. Then again, this repair might outlive both of us. Hard to say. Weaving new parts is difficult. Difficult and sad. I try not to do it.”
“What do you know about armour?”
Commercial carts were uniformly sized and shaped; long rectangular metal boxes riding on lift skids or wheels mostly hidden beneath long plastic skirts. They all had the same collapsible mesh metal ramp and roll out awning extended to invite customers, welcoming them to have a look around. Much of a carts presentation was focussed on letting everyone know how profitable and popular that particular business was. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to shop at the popular carts with their bright lights and colorful signs and soft, bouncy music. Add to that, everything they contained was something difficult or impossible to fabricate locally.
Compared to the other carts the armourer’s looked like it had accumulated and solidified by rolling over a junk heap. Panels of different colors were patched together in awkward patterns. Cube like bulges broke up the typical cart shape at irregular intervals along the surface. Several portable engines crowned the roof of this rolling calamity. Still, the armourer’s was the only cart with the official Uniune emblem applied to it in several places, so a certain amount of respect was owed it no matter how shabby it looked.
Every few months the carts would engage in a comically polite race to set up in their favorite spots. Owners would nod at each other and calmly negotiate behind fake smiles until every cart found its own small plot of land. That settled, every owner would saunter down from their cart to meet with the locals in the middle of the temporary market. This dance involved a lot of hand shaking and forced laughter. They would share coffee and tea while staff and family set up the carts making them as enticing as they could.
During this ritualistic flurry of activity the armourer’s cart would roll to an inconspicuous, usually shady spot and silently self assemble. If you were very near, and Kee always tried to be, you could just barely hear the wire motors click on and whir into position. Despite outward appearances, the workings of the cart had been immaculately maintained. There was never so much as a squeak as the metal surfaces slid past each other. Protrusions and panels extended cleanly until the entire workshop was deployed.
The whole procedure took only a few minutes. This was time the armourer used to look over a stack of papers handed to her by one of the town constables. She would sip at a steaming drink and nod occasionally, flipping through the stack of papers as the constable talked. If she ever smiled, joked, or even asked a question, Kee had never seen it.
“What is this armour made from?”
“It’s an engineered fungus blended with nanomesh and some distributed nanologic, I think.”
“Hmm. Yes I suppose so. That’s the outer shell, how was it made. How was it built”
“I don’t really know.”
“Why was it built? What was it made for?”
“They were made for the war. The Three Borders War.”
“These armours served in the war, yes. Why are they here? We are days from the front.”
By the time he was twelve Kee would sit beneath a tree and stare openly as the armourer worked. She must have spotted him there but she had never acknowledged him. She rarely ever looked up from her work for any reason. When he was fourteen he arrived at the market clearing before the carts, sat beneath his tree and waited.
This was maybe the 14th or 15th time that Kee had watched this particular interaction play out. Every time the exchange would conclude with constables upending a flatbed loaded down with damaged and immobile armours. She would watch them tumble to the ground making a not entirely successful effort to be stone faced. As soon as they had settled she would walk over and crouch beside each one in turn taking a long few seconds to contemplate it. Then she would begin the process of dragging and aligning them into a careful triage line beside her cart.
This time though, she did something startling. She stood, turned purposefully toward Kee and shouted at him. It was so unexpected and jarring that he had no idea what she had said and just stared back.
“So, come on then then.” she added a sharp head nod that cut through Kee’s confusion.
This time he understood but still didn’t quite know what to do, so he stood and shuffled very slowly over to where the armourer had beckoned.
“If you want to come here to help me tomorrow, you will go home and tell your parents that the armourer Ms. Lin Quan asked for your help. If they say yes, you will be back here at 6:30 in the morning to help me move the armours and keep records. Okay?”
Kee could barely keep all the instructions straight in his head, but he nodded and exhaled a noise that might have been "yes" before running back home.