3 -Junelle Station
Nash felt sorry for the girl sitting across from him and knew from her expression that she wanted to be there even less than he did.
Time to get it over with. “Hi, I’m Nash Korpes.”
“Hello, I’m Rozwyn Kuld,” she replied, quietly.
Nash looked over at the large, one-way mirror and addressed the team of observers that lurked behind it. “There you go. Not only has she set an interview record by remaining longer than a minute, but she satisfied the preliminary meet and greet section by introducing herself and acknowledging my presence. Please spare us the embarrassment of going through the rest of this shit; let her reject me and go home. Making her sit here is cruel, even for you people.” Nash could feel them staring, and today it got on his last nerve. As he waited for a response, he glanced at the young woman.
Roz’s silent desperation saturated the room, and it hurt him to know he was the cause.
Nash focused his outrage and glared at the one-way mirror. “Look at her! It’s obvious she doesn’t want to be here. Let her go.”
Nash blinked in surprise. He’d heard those words twice before, and both times it had ended horrifically.
Roz made eye contact with him and didn’t flinch.
“Speak into the microphone please, Ms. Kuld.” The disembodied voice made them both jump.
Nash bestowed a look of utter contempt on those behind the one-way mirror, then turned back to Roz.
Her hazel-brown eyes held a volatile mix of fear and fury.
Please don’t look at me like that. I’m trying to get you out of here. Nash felt like he was drowning as he sought to find a way to save the situation. “Why? I can tell you’re miserable.” He softened his tone when she looked down. “Regardless of what they’ve said, you don’t have to do this. You can say no. Then they’ll find someone much better for you. Trust me.” He smiled and tried his best to get a positive response.
Roz leaned forward. “I’ll stay.” It was loud enough for the microphones to pick up this time.
Nash could sense the activity behind the mirror and panicked. “You don’t have to do this, really.” Another possibility occurred to him. Duress? Nash stood abruptly. “Let’s go for a walk; it’s allowed.” He spoke directly to Roz, ignoring their unseen audience. He made his way to the exit and held the door open for her. Once she was through, Nash made a rude gesture at the people behind the mirror and slammed the door shut.
To their credit, the guards stationed outside let them pass and made no effort to follow.
Thank the Gods for small miracles. Nash was still upset, but his anger was rapidly being replaced with concern. He could feel the discomfort radiating off Roz, and he didn’t know what to do. He walked beside her, keeping both hands in his pockets. Nash ducked and gracefully passed under a support beam, and they continued down the hall until they came to a junction in the passage. He stopped. “The one to the left leads to the main hangar.”
Roz stared down the dark corridor. Her body language shifted as she tensed, and her expression grew wary. “Hangar?”
Nash stepped back slightly, lifting his hands in a placating gesture. “Don’t worry, it’s a public area, and at this time of day, it’s crowded. I’m only suggesting it because it’ll be harder for anyone to eavesdrop.”
Roz nodded, and they walked on, each isolated by their own thoughts until they reached their destination.
Nash directed her to an observation area that overlooked the entire bay and broke the silence first. “Look, it’s obvious you don’t want this to go any further. I understand, and it’s okay, really. What’s up? Who’s making you do this? If they told you that you don’t have a choice, they lied.”
Roz looked up at him and studied his face before she spoke. “I’ve already used my three vetoes. I don’t have any left. I’m sorry that I didn’t have a nicer way to say that.”
“Actually, it’s a relief to finally find out that other guys get rejected too. I appreciate you telling me that straight up. Thanks.”
Roz frowned at him, not trusting his response. “Being rejected doesn’t bother you?”
Nash shrugged. “When it happens a lot, you grow a thicker skin.”
Roz looked away, taking in their surroundings.
You can’t turn me down. Part of Nash couldn’t believe his luck. The rest of him didn’t think it was luck. Set-up. “So, what do you want to do?”
“I said I’d stay.” Though the answer was immediate, the flat tone betrayed the fact her heart wasn’t in it.
No eye-contact this time, Nash followed her gaze out into the main hangar. He found himself hoping that she’d relent and give him a chance. What the hell is wrong with me? He suppressed the urge to touch her. “You don’t really want to, though, do you?”
Roz left a universe unspoken.
“If it were your choice?” Nash bit his tongue, he didn’t want to hear the answer out loud, but it had to be asked. The sooner this was resolved, the better for it would be for everyone.
She looked up at him; her frustration was punctuated by her frown. “You seem nice enough, but …”
“Yeah. That’s what I figured. Thanks for being kind.” Nash knew what the ‘but’ meant. He looked at himself in the mirror every day. I’m a real prize.
He reflected on the other two who’d said yes. Curiosity? Orders more likely. He hoped they’d been well compensated for their trauma. Both encounters had been short and utterly humiliating. That had been four years ago, and everyone had rejected him since. This girl would make it thirty-four times they’d tried to match him with someone. He’d become something of a legend for this distinction, the gossip followed him everywhere, and he hated the fact that the whispers still had the power to hurt him.
Nash looked up and noted that some of the cameras in the area were now active. Fucking spies. “Let me give you a tour of Junelle. Over here is the machine works.” Where the high-frequency sounds play havoc with the surveillance system. He led her over to where they were working on repairing a military train engine. “So, what do you do for a living?” Nash asked a general question as they crossed the open area between locations. He was interested, and it didn’t matter if it was overheard.
“I’m an artist, I paint.”
“Are you any good?”
“I’ve managed to sell a lot of my work and three pieces hang in the Sharo Art Gallery in Ribal.”
“I’ve always admired people that can create like that. I have no artistic or musical talent. Can I ask you about your family?” Nash led the way between the busy work bays.
“If you’re interested.”
“Do you have any Tyran ancestry?”
“Yes. It only shows in my blood-type and some genetic anomalies— But I’m not a throwback,” she added quickly.
Nash flushed and looked down.
“I’m sorry, that was thoughtless of me,” Roz said, trying to take back some of the sting.
“No problem,” Nash lost himself in his own thoughts. Anomalies. Since being stationed at Junelle, Nash had met many of the throwbacks from the other groups, and he’d observed a trend. Now his theory had more traction. If all his interviews had been engineered by KMR and D, then there was a chance his progeny were destined for the Rec-Gen labs. But only if I agree to the match. Damn it. Nash glanced down at her and had to admit that they’d done a fantastic job of selecting someone that would appeal to him. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but she had something that drew him to her like a moth to flame. Nash would have given anything to have been someone else, someone acceptable, and someone who had a clue about what to do next.
Roz shifted from one foot to the other. She was growing uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
Shit. Now I’m scaring her. “Sorry for staring. I know it’s creepy, but you’ve probably already noticed I’m not adept at this social crap and, well— You’re very pretty. I, uh—”
The Kind voice came to his rescue. Take her somewhere she’d find interesting.
“Let’s keep moving. The research gardens and hydroponics are this way.” Nash suggested through a nervous smile.
Could you be any more pathetic? The Sarcastic voice chimed in.
Shut up! Nash tried to tune it out.
She’s a sure thing, but you’ll screw this up. You know you will. Just wait until she gets you in the—
“Thank you for the compliment – apology accepted. Why did you ask about my heritage? Everything is in my file, didn’t you read it?” Roz’s voice pulled Nash away from his internal argument.
He blinked, focusing on what he’d last said to her. “Uh. No, I didn’t. I just wanted to confirm my suspicions.”
Nash stepped off to the side of the corridor to explain. “You’ve been honest with me, so I’ll return the favor. After I had been picked up by the prodigy screening, I was assigned to the Rec-Gen labs. I thought it was because of my IQ and memory, but it turned out that it was my ancestry. That was the first time I’d heard the term throwback.” Nash sighed, “Anyway, I’ve observed things in the files of the people that were selected for me, and it’s always the same. It all comes down to them having the old Tyran blood-type and the two markers I happen to be missing. Three-quarters of the labs here are tied to genetic research. I’m officially assigned to the Special Projects Division, but I spend ninety percent of my time in Rec-Gen. There are Ebo, Drakkar, and Birlo throwbacks working here as well—” He stopped, as it occurred to him what they could do with all that DNA. He pictured a tall, muscular, dark-skinned blond with silver blue eyes, floating in a suspension tank. If it gets any of my personality traits, there will be trouble. Nash grinned as he visualized the myriad outcomes.
“What’s so funny?” It was the first-time Roz had seen him smile and not look nervous.
“They’re probably trying to hybridize a super soldier from the best traits of each group, or something equally—” Roz’s horrified expression made him regret having shared his daydream. “I’m sorry. Regardless of what your job description says, if you’re Diasporan, you are part of the research and development in some capacity.” He paused then smiled, trying to re-establish her good will, and breathed a sigh of relief when she smiled back.
Nash started walking again, indicating the doors at the end of the hall. “I think you’ll find this interesting.” He typed in a code to open the personnel access to the hydroponics dome, then led the way into a small chamber. The door slid shut behind them. “It’ll take a minute for the system to scan us for contaminates. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.” He put his arms up, and Roz imitated him as a band of light slid down their bodies.
“Clear,” a voice over the intercom announced and the access light came on.
“After you.” Nash indicated the way out.
They wandered out onto a large stone balcony that overlooked the main gardens. Elaborate latticework supported the sections that had the floor to ceiling growth. The lights were shifting to the end of the day cycle, and in the gloom, the upper reaches of the dome weren’t visible.
Roz stopped and stared up into the dark. “This is incredible.” She inhaled the rich scent of the air and sighed.
“Junelle, Parlos, and Sandyn Stations supply just over forty-five percent of the food that Korlune requires. I’ve seen images of Sandyn, and their gardens are four times this size. They had to design a new type of dome—” His voice trailed off as he realized he was talking to fill the void. Nash watched as Roz bent to sniff a pink colored bloom.
She doesn’t want to hear about domes, moron.
A sad smile graced Nash’s lips. I know. He turned and climbed up onto the wide, stone railing behind them, then helped her up next to him. Both noted the contact, but neither spoke, choosing instead to take in the view. Nash hugged his knees to his chest and stared out over the garden, reflecting on the revelations of the last hour. Genetics. Funny, it all makes sense now. It’s always been there for me to see; I guess I just didn’t want to. His two previous encounters took on a new light. It was depressing, but the negative experiences had done him a favor. You can’t grieve the loss of something you’ve never known. Time to accept that and move on.
Roz sat next to him and studied him discreetly in the silence. Nash was not what she was expecting. She’d read the file and had been terrified of the prospect of meeting him. She reflected on their introduction and their time in the interview room. He’d been angry, and it had supported what was documented, but now, she found herself questioning her first response. Now, his anger seemed rational and fit the situation. Now that she’d talked to him, she didn’t find him frightening at all. He’d been honest, sweet even, and she found herself liking him despite what she’d read.
“Can I call you Nash?”
“You can call me Roz.”
“Thank you, Roz.” He smiled but didn’t look at her. “You shortened your name?”
“Yes. Rozwyn’s an old family name,” she said with a degree of resignation.
“I understand completely.” He was grinning now. “My middle name is Xander, and I’ve taken flack for it over the years. I don’t tell people what the X stands for anymore.”
Silence descended on them again.
The Sarcastic voice prompted him this time. Talk to her, you idiot.
“Do you know the tradition behind our names?”
“It’s a way of remembering the Tyran houses that fell during the final war?”
“Almost. Korlo history would have us believe that the old families died out, but the truth is we were stripped of our surnames and forced to take new ones when we lost to the Birlo. My sister and I were lucky; my grandmother knew the old stories and believed they were important enough to share. Giving someone their real family name each generation is, in fact, an act of defiance.”
“There should be a rule that states they aren’t allowed to assign it as a first name,” she blurted out, hotly.
Her comment caught him off guard, and he laughed. While he understood the importance of the tradition, he sympathized. He turned, she was smiling too. You did that to get a response… Gods, you’re beautiful. For a moment, he was transfixed. He would have sold his soul to make things work without any thought to the consequences.
Roz stared at him, equally mesmerized.
Nash got flustered first and looked away, blushing. “Sorry … Staring … Creepy …”
“Why didn’t you read my file?”
He had to take a moment to recover himself. What the hell is wrong with me?
How long do we have to draft the list? The Sarcastic voice replied.
Shut up. Nash pushed himself to make eye-contact with her again. “Experience has taught me it’s easier to deal with the ‘no’ when you don’t know what you’re missing. I haven’t read a file in over three years. It’s not personal.”
“I read your file.”
“I’ve read my file too. Based on its contents, I’d reject myself in a heartbeat.”
“I’m starting to suspect that the information in it isn’t entirely accurate.” Roz watched him carefully, knowing she’d struck something. “It isn’t, is it Nash?”
He looked away, choosing not to answer; rejection was easier to take when you didn’t feel naked as well. He’d learned that the hard way.
Roz reflected on their exchanges, allowing silence to descend on them again. “What if I were to say yes to this arrangement?”
“Please, don’t tease me. Not on this subject. You don’t want this match; you’ve already said it. You just think you’re stuck with me. There are ways around it.”
“What if I said yes?” She pressed the point.
“Stop.” Nash turned back to face her. He searched her face for any sign that she was just having a go at him to be cruel. After an eternal minute, he decided the risk was worth it. “If we were in a Diaspora, this situation would be a lot easier to deal with. You could be rid of me once the kids were born by citing extenuating circumstances; no magistrate would argue the point once they got a look at me. If you didn’t want to raise the children, then my family would take them in.”
Tell her how you feel, or you’ll regret it forever. The Kind voice prompted.
Nash took a deep breath, resigning himself to his fate. “Know this— If we were both in the Diaspora, I’d swim Lake Evora if it meant that you’d consider me as a real prospect.”
Naked now. Feel better?
Yes. Nash answered the Sarcastic voice before continuing. “Sadly, I’m not. Things with me are never normal, and I’m here. Accepting this match means you would be trapped here with me.” He stared at her, and the dam burst. Things he’d never said out loud fought to be heard. “Roz, I hate my life, I’ve hated it since I was thirteen. If I wouldn’t wish this on someone I detest, why would I condemn someone I love to this? I’m not that selfish—” He paused as what he’d just voiced sank in. “No, I can’t lie to you. What I really, really want to hear is a ‘yes’, to have you mean it, but I can’t ask for that. I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, but this isn’t only about what I want. It’s about what’s right.” He hung his head unable to continue.
She admired his fearlessness. She found she admired a lot about him when she reflected on the time they’d spent walking and talking. Roz took a closer look at Nash as he stared down at the gardens and weighed what she’d read against what she’d been shown. A small smile crept across her face when she remembered his offer to swim Lake Evora to win her attention. Brave and romantic. I can still claim extenuating circumstances, he said as much … but … Roz shook her head. It wasn’t the answer.
Nash didn’t attempt to fill the void in the conversation. He had nothing left to say. He’d buried his loneliness well, but the depth that he’d felt it when he spoke it out loud to Roz, had shocked him. When you leave, that’s it. He could feel the weight of her gaze and turned to meet it. She didn’t appear uncomfortable; it was more an expression of curiosity.
“Your eyes are actually green, aren’t they?” she’d never met someone with green eyes before. The artist in her studied the young man in front of her.
“I wish I had green eyes, they’re beautiful!” Roz drew in closer to get a better look.
Nash just about fell off the railing and had to brace himself quickly. He stared at her in disbelief.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” She’d not expected a reaction.
“No one has ever made that observation.”
“You’re kidding? Apparently, no one has looked at your eyes properly then,” she leaned in closer and caught herself staring. She realized that she was making him uncomfortable now. “All of your coloring is remarkable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as blond as you, up close … May I?” She indicated that she wanted to touch his hair.
No one’s ever asked to do that before. Nash wasn’t sure what to do, so he leaned down. Roz slowly ran her fingers through it, the texture was much softer than she’d expected. He closed his eyes, leaning into her hand and enjoying the sensation of being touched. Nash pretended that he was the person she wanted.
They both heard the air filtration systems click over into the night cycle mode. Within a few minutes, the temperature within the dome dropped tangibly.
Roz shivered and moved closer, wrapping her arms around his waist in an attempt to get warmer.
Whoa. Nash wasn’t sure what to do. Few people touched him voluntarily and she’d now done it three times. It took him a moment to realize he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, trying not to be obvious. Yes. This close, the fact she wore perfume became evident, and it was wonderful. It made him slightly light-headed. He hesitantly put his arm around her shoulders and was surprised when instead of flinching, she cuddled in closer. Perfect. He committed the scene to memory.
They sat in silence as the garden shifted into the night cycle and the atmospheric sprayers activated. Neither of them had ever experienced real rain. Topside, all water was acidic.
Roz shivered. She was getting colder.
Nash slid out of his lab coat and wrapped it gently around her before putting his arm around her shoulders again.
She snuggled closer.
He desperately wanted to kiss her, but didn’t dare; the moment was too fragile, and it would only add more to his problem. “Would you like to go and get coffee? It might help you warm up.” He was soaked to the skin, but his senses were entirely focused on Roz and where she was touching him.
“No. Not just yet— I like this, it’s peaceful, and you’re keeping me warm.” She pressed closer and shut her eyes. “Yes, I like this.” Roz murmured as she focused on the sound of his heart beating. It was comforting.
Peaceful? No. More like amazing. Nash sat there, trying to stop time using sheer willpower.
She’s just making the best of a situation she feels trapped in, the Sarcastic voice reminded him.
The truth was a bullet. The fragile moment shattered. Nash remembered the expression in her eyes when they first met and he knew that if he saw it again, it would kill him. “So, about our problem. I have a solution.” He felt like someone had punched him in the chest.
“What do you mean?” Roz asked.
“It’s simple. I’ve never used my vetoes, so, I’ll give you one of mine. For the sake of the paperwork, I’ll reject the match.” The pain in his chest grew with every word, and he realized that what he was feeling was his heartbreak. He had no idea that something non-physical could hurt so much.
What’s the matter with me? I just met her … things don’t happen this fast! Even as he thought it, he knew it wasn’t true. She was different. His heart was telling him she was.
“You’d actually do that for me?” Roz was astonished. She shifted her position so she could see his face.
“Yes. It’s the best course of action. Neither the pairing protocol nor KMR and D can block a veto. Let’s go get it sorted right now. If I get the paperwork done tonight, you can be on a train out of here and home within the next couple of days.” He looked down at her, wishing a final time that he was the someone she wanted. Nash lost himself in her eyes, he could feel where she was pressed against him. She was warm, and her hand was now resting on his upper thigh. Oh, shit! Gotta move – now. Without his lab coat, his erection was obvious, and it had just become painful on several levels.
Roz watched him as he swung around and slid off the railing. She imagined going home, waiting and then meeting the next person selected, and it struck her. She knew she’d met the one she was interested in. She was looking at him now. Roz came to a decision and smiled. “Yes, this could work.” She handed him back his coat. “Thank you.”
Nash helped her off the railing, then turned away as he slid the lab coat back on. It’s for the best. He was cold, wet and trying his best to not look as utterly destroyed as he felt.
“You’re serious about this?”
“Yes, and for the record, I think you’re putting the veto to excellent use.” He looked over his shoulder at her and forced a smile.
Roz took his hand, halting his march toward the door.
“Stop for a minute, Nash— I’m saying yes. You asked me earlier if I’d be willing to give you a chance. In the last hour of talking to you, you’ve shown me, someone, I’d like to get to know better.” She stepped closer. “What you’re offering to do for me now is so incredibly noble. I’m afraid that you’ve sealed your fate. I accept this match.”
“Uh. What?” Nash stared at her, confused, then what she’d said filtered through into reality. “Really?” The pain in his chest, evaporated, only to be replaced by anxiety as the full meaning registered. “No, wait! Seriously, that’s an appalling idea. I’ve already explained why.”
“You can’t live your life not daring to reach for things you want because of the unknown. That’s not living! That’s letting them win! I say we don’t let them! We have six months to get to know each other before things are finalized, but I already know I like you, and it’s only been a couple of hours.” She reached up and kissed him softly on the lips.
Nash was speechless. He fought valiantly to maintain the logical course, but his resolve crumbled as he looked down at her. She’d said yes. Romantic optimism swept away the last vestiges of caution or doubt.
“Do you want to give this a chance?” she asked.
“Do I still have to swim Lake Evora to prove my intent? I think I have more to offer you in the long run if I’m alive.”
Roz giggled, then shook her head.
They left the gardens, holding hands, in search of a hot cup of coffee and something for dinner. Nash privately wondered which of the Gods now owned his soul, so he took the precaution of thanking them all.