Well that's a finished story. I think there might be a lot of editing left to do, and maybe I will add a few more paragraphs, but that's it. It's complete and might be a jumping off point for another story sometime later. I think there is quite a bit that I could explore in Uniune culture and history, so maybe I will. we'll see I guess.
“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, and then where would we be.”
It was always the movement of the hands. Even when he was very young Kee would watch the armourer’s hands while she worked. Watch them glide in long graceful arcs barely skimming the surface, touching off the armour gently once or twice, before darting in, elegant and violent as 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, the line 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 a feeling. 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. In a few weeks if you keep up.”
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. Every few days they would get restocked by flatbeds floating lazily in and out of town. 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. 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 easier to ignore.
“I can fix 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 focus.”
“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. I try not to do it.”
“Because it makes me sad. Watch that seam or it will get away from you.”
“They only have so much in them. 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, different decades, had been appended to the original frame. Blocky bulges broke up the carts 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.
“Draw your hand back slowly until you feel the line catch in the bend of your third finger. You could use the second, but I find that I sometimes need the extra finger up front to brace against.
“Is there always a line? I mean, I can’t see it. Is it always at the end of a tear like this?”
“Yes. Always. It’s a feature of the armour. It’s supposed to be self repairing, but some of these older ones don’t really self anything anymore. Yes there will be a line near the end of the damage. Sometimes it can start further back than it looks on the surface, if the damage runs deep. That’s why you reach out ahead of it like this and draw your hand back slowly. Give you the best chance of catching the line without snapping it or tangling.”
“Yes. Good. You could become very good at this.”
“Thank you. What makes you say that?”
“Someone has to be. Keep pressure on that seam.”
Every few months the carts would engage in a comically polite race to set up in their favorite spots. Owners dressed in impractical layered suits 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 members of council, also in impractical layered suits. This dance involved a lot of hand shaking and forced laughter in the center of the market. 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.
“So you have proven you can fix them, but what do you know about them. What is this armour made from?”
“It’s an engineered fungus blended with nanomesh and some distributed fiber processors, I think? Right?.”
“Hmm. Yes I suppose so. That’s the outer shell, though. I’m talking about how it was made. How was it built”
“I don’t really know.”
“Okay then this one here. Why was it built? What was it made for?”
“They were made for the war.”
“They volunteered. What war?”
”The Three Borders War.”
“These armours served in a few wars. But this one, why are they here? We are days from the front.”
“They come back home, right? They are supposed to come back home”
“This armour, this one right here, is a very long way from home. I don’t really know if they will ever get home. Not this one. Not really.”
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 the flatbed pulled away, she would walk over and crouch beside each armour in turn taking a long few seconds to contemplate it, flipping through her papers and making a few scattered notes. 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. Eliza 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.” A long pause ended with a nod. “Okay?”
Kee could barely keep all the instructions straight in his head, but he nodded back and exhaled a noise that might have been yes before running back home.
“Why did no one ever come to get them?”
“I don’t know. How many years have you worked with me, and still you ask me these stupid questions?”
“Liz, c’mon, you know it’s not stupid. They Just wander along our borders for what, 130 years now?”
“One hundred thirty three”
“Right. So even the SNC doesn’t come get them. We’ve been friendly with them almost a century.”
“Eighty nine years come March”
“Right. And any time they could just come get these armours from us. Any time, but they don’t.”
“That one, the one you are working on, isn’t SNC.”
“I know that. It’s just that they could. This is one is, what? Concordian?”
“Different heat exchange along the ventral ribs. Probably DBU.”
“DBU? You are a long way from home aren’t you. Just need to re-weave the head of your tibia and maybe you can get back there.”
“Nice thought. Sentimental. It could also be that we are the only two anywhere around that help them at all. Maybe no one else cares if they get home.”
“Who do you think it is?”
Every morning during ten day market, Kee would arrive early and mark down every minor defect in the waiting line of armours. No matter how closely he examined one he would always notice a new problem. A joint degraded from decades of walking, a shoulder pauldron torn by a rock face or tree limb. Armours can withstand impressive concussive force and impacts intended to peirce. They shrug off radiation and temperature extremes, but like everything else, the abrasive grinding of movement and time can’t be repelled.
He leaned over a Concordian heavy, might have been female once, and took stock of a nonfunctional left arm. Radius riddled with microfractures, metacarpal sheath torn in three places. Maybe only two require a repair, but he would have to ask the armourer.
“The field is weak today. I picked up radio all the way from Dunway. I’ll have it on in the shop today as long as it holds out.” The armourer, Liz, emerged from her cart carrying her usual steaming drink, glasses flipped up onto her dark hair. Kee had been so wrapped up in examining the armour he was momentarily startled, but Liz didn’t seem to notice. If she did, she was too polite to draw attention to it. She just looked off into the grey morning sky as it slowly warmed with the sunrise.
“Maybe there just aren’t enough armours left out there to keep a broad field going. Don’t know if that’s good or bad. Suppose it doesn’t really matter” She sipped at her drink. Kee wasn’t sure if she had been talking to him or herself or no one. He supposed, like she did, that it didn’t really matter, and went back to checking out this damaged left arm.
She slowly turned to watch what Kee was doing. He ran the tip of his middle finger along the shattered radius pausing and twisting his wrist at each major break. He went back to his notes, confirmed what he had just found, and went over it again in the opposite direction.
Liz spoke softly so as to not break Kee’s concentration “Do you want to be a warrior? An armour?”
“No, I don’t think so” he answered more quickly than even he had imagined he would.
“So why are you here?”
“I think I just want to help them. Is that what you do?”
“Yes. I think so. Usually.” Liz sipped at her drink. “Would you like to know how to fix that arm?”
“Yes, I think I would.”