Authors: Ben Rovik
After the machine was assembled, Iggy came scooting around with the hydraulic lifter, a ‘tum-powered vehicle on permanent loan from the Hauler squad. The senior tech backed up just in front of the Flicker’s nose, so the flatbed was at about the same height as the handlebars on the concept vehicle. Ensie pulled and twisted the metal pin that locked the back edge of the bed in place. The flap swung down, forming a slanted wedge up to the lifter’s bed.
Iggy pressed a switch by the driver’s seat. With a sustained mechanical moan, the entire bed tilted down until the wedge touched the floor. Ensie picked up a length of chain that ran from a long spool at the top of the bed, between the two seats, and got down on hands and knees to affix the carabiner at the end of the chain to the eyelet on the underside of the Flicker. Iggy pressed on another switch, and the chain gently pulled the Flicker up into the bed, its skis making an unpleasant scraping sound against the textured bed.
Ensie clambered into the vehicle and took her seat on the bench next to Iggy. The senior tech kept up genial patter all the way out the double doors and along the konkrii paths to their test site. Ensie’s mind was elsewhere, though, and they both knew it.
I don’t care that he didn’t come to see me last night. I’d just love to know what he did instead. Or where he’s been all day. Or what he’s planning to do this evening
. A strand of hair flopped out of her snood, and Ensie blew it straight up with a sullen gust of air. It was hard to remember why this relationship they had—whatever it was—had seemed like a good idea.
Iggy drove the Flicker to its mark and tilted the bed to the ground. The measuring pylon rose up out of the earth just a few meters away, a numerical obelisk stretching for the clouds. Ensie looked up at it as the chattering spool of chain lowered the Flicker into place. She flattened to her belly and unhooked the carabiner again.
“I’ll park this bastard, and we’ll do some jumping,” Iggy shouted from the driver’s seat over the sound of the chains.
Ensie nodded. She shifted her weight and felt the copper bell slide along her ankle. She had no prayer of hearing it jingle over the sound of the motor and the clattering metal. But the movement of the anklet was like a cool breath against her skin, and for some reason she had to bite back a sob.
, she thought determinedly.
She set across the test range to fetch her trunk of pilot’s gear. There was only so much daylight left.
“For Spheres’ sake, just let me off here!” Cooper bellowed, thumping his fist against the front of the coach.
It was bad enough that the driver had been babying his horses all the way along the coastal road. The pair of nags had practically stopped to graze at every bend in the road, while couriers and farmers’ carts looped around to pass them. Cooper had ground his teeth in despair every time he’d seen a vehicle clop past through the unscreened quarter-meter windows. In the second hour of the trip, he’d finally closed the wooden hatches over each window so at least he wouldn’t have to see
hear how thoroughly the traffic to Delia was passing them by.
But now that they were in the city limits, having pulled through the Gilded Gates in the east thirty minutes earlier, his frustration levels were only higher. There was bound to be congestion in a city just shy of a million people, with even more travelers and merchants passing through in ships and wagons daily. Cooper acknowledged that, and accepted it. But from the way he was steering their coach into every single back-up in the city, the driver seemed to have a sort of mystical reverence for traffic. He was only happy if he was moving at the same pace a stick of butter, left to melt in the sun, would trickle along the cobblestones.
“I’m to take you to your shop,” the driver shouted back.
“I don’t care.” Cooper peered out the open window, wrinkling his nose at the dust and the pervasive smell of manure. People, bicycles, horses, and pedicabs were surrounding them in the too-narrow roads of the Toss. The district was infamous for the worst traffic in Delia, a symptom of its crowded apartments and unpredictable open-air markets, which might hijack any given block at any given moment. His many conversations with pedicab drivers had impressed on him that any sane traveler would have taken a right after entering the city, cutting north to Changer’s Way. It was the only sensible way to cross the city to Workshop Row, even if it looked like more kilometers on a paper map. Barreling straight through the Toss at this time of day instead had been pure idiocy.
And I’m not going to stand Ensie up again because some fool doesn’t know how to drive.
Cooper swung the door open. A woman with a burlap bonnet looked up at him curiously as he stumbled down to the street. He shifted his grip on his satchel and his day bag and slammed the door to the coach closed with his elbow.
“Hey! Where are you going?” the driver said. He pointed a finger sternly towards the coach, as if ordering a dog into a crate.
“I’m better off on foot.”
“Burn me whole! Too slow for you, am I, big shot?”
You got it
, Cooper thought. He stepped to the side of the street, under the nearest awning, and began to trot west.
“Know the way, do you?” The coachman sneered after him.
In fact, Cooper was trying very hard to keep his hazy mental map of the city in his head as he walked, big arms swinging this way and that. The Toss was adjacent to Workshop Row, but it was also adjacent to Bohock if he went too far south.
What street am I on now
? he wondered, peering up vainly for a sign. He saw two for taverns and one for a vendor of exotic sausages, but nothing to tell him what road he was walking along so briskly.
Still, he was already leaving the coach far behind. If he took the right roads—or at least got clear enough of the traffic to make hailing a pedicab worthwhile—he might make it to the Aerial compound in time for it to matter.
Cooper Carper ignored the straps of his bags as they dug into his palms, and doubled his stride.
Ensie fastened her goggles over her eyes.
She stuck the keypin in the ignition and readjusted herself against the plumped-up cushions.
These are much nicer, at least
, she thought, enjoying the plushness against her back and seat. She looked over towards the sandbags, where Iggy was ready and watching. No other figures were visible.
“Ready to go?” she shouted out, giving an inquisitive thumbs-up.
“Go,” the senior tech responded, giving her the same sign in return. “Single hops to start.”
Ensie double-checked the dashboard to make sure the dial for continuous travel mode was set to ‘off.’
Not interested in jumping before I’m good and ready.
She tugged the last centimeters of slack out of her shoulder harness and lap belt and pulled her gloves down against her wrists. Taking in a deep breath through her nose, Ensie turned the keypin.
The engine bellowed into life and settled down into a purr just as quickly. The airy overtones from the two propellers seemed to complete the sound, creating an oddly organic noise from the disparate machine parts. Ensie squeezed the handlebars in satisfaction. It felt good to be in the pilot’s seat of a machine that sounded this powerful.
The latest round of repairs that they’d asked for from Upforth’s had been right on target, if the new-and-improved sound was any indicator. Which it wasn’t, of course. How the Flicker moved was what was important, not how it sounded. But all the same, it was a nice ego boost that the Flicker was roaring like a proper Aerial craft at last.
Single hops to start
, she thought.
Let’s see what you can do today, Flicker.
Her boot hovered over the pedal, ready to give it a prudent tap. Instead, the grinning tech pressed down with a sudden, authoritative stomp.
The rush was amazing. Her body sank down into the cushions with the force of the lift. It took more effort than last time to turn her head enough to look at the measuring pylon. Ensie’s eyebrows rose when she saw a large black
5 m 250
staring back at her, right at eye level on the thin tower.
Time seemed to freeze as she blinked at the numbers.
I guess I got my oomph
, she thought.
began to float up and away as the Flicker descended. Ensie shook herself back to reality. She was listing a bit to port. She pulled and twisted at the handlebars to force the machine into a level descent. The propellers behind her complied with a rush of air and noise, and the metal insect she was controlling evened out.
Two full heartbeats later—long enough to notice and exhale the breath she was still holding—the Flicker clattered to the ground on its skis. Her head jerked forward, and the impact still reverberated through her body with serious strength, but the new padding made a big difference. It didn’t disguise the fact that she’d just fallen more than a story out of the sky, but it sure made it more bearable.
Iggy was running towards her, arms pumping. Ensie raised her hand to the keypin and hesitated. Her heart was pounding. Did the senior tech want her to stop the test?
“Are you all right?” Iggy shouted over the noise of the engine. She stopped a few meters away from the Flicker, squinting against the dust the propellers were kicking up.
“Five meters and change? That’s a lot of burning lift for a single hop!”
“I kind of stomped it,” Ensie admitted. She shifted on the seat, the pressure of her harnesses feeling a little over-tight.
Iggy tilted her head to the side. Her sun-baked face was full of concern. “Our projections didn’t call for a bump this big. Last time you stomped it, we peaked at four five!”
She remembered the feeling of yesterday’s tests, and how much stronger the rush had felt when she pushed down on the pedal this time. Things were definitely different, and she could feel a creeping coldness along her arms beneath the heavy pilot’s suit. But she set her jaw and sat up straight.
Don’t be timid
“Ten, fifteen percent rise in altitude’s what we wanted,” she shouted.
altitude, not on the first jump!”
“It made landing easier. I had time to think.”
Iggy crossed her arms over her chest. “You think you’re okay?” she said.
Her dubious tone was almost insulting. Ensie gave the senior tech an emphatic thumbs-up, trying not to let her irritation show. “Good to go,” she shouted.
Iggy turned and trotted slowly back towards the sandbags, her shoulders tense. She shot a glance back at Ensie, and Ensie deliberately turned her eyes forward. The squat-roofed fuel center was in front of her, wisps of gray smoke rising out of the pipes of the two-story building. “Go,” Iggy’s call floated into her ears from behind the barrier.
Since you’re so worried about me
… she thought, twisting her mouth. She pressed the ball of her foot against the pedal as gently as she could.
The Flicker leapt straight up into the air, peaking below
, as best as Ensie could tell. The shallower jump gave her less time to make adjustments for the fall, but the machine barely wobbled this time so little correction was necessary. She grunted as the shocks and padding absorbed the impact. Ensie looked through her goggles over to the sandbags.
After a momentary hesitation, Iggy gave her a thumbs-up.
Ensie twisted forward on the handlebars, pivoting the propellers to give her forward momentum.
, she thought, giving the pedal a firm press.
The Flicker tilted nose-down as it entered the air, and Ensie felt the thrilling rush of air press her down and back. There was a thunking noise she didn’t recognize from somewhere behind her, in the ranine coil box, and a barely perceptible ping in the dashboard. Ensie squashed her momentary flash of worry. The Flicker had never been used like this before, so it was to be expected that internal parts would settle themselves out the more she jumped, she told herself.
She hit the apex of her arc and hung weightless for a moment, until gravity settled around her, calmly, like a woolen robe being lowered onto her shoulders. Especially with these higher jumps, she had every confidence in her ability to steer the Flicker to a safe alignment well before touching ground. This was quite a forward leap she’d been able to make; maybe four meters. She banked the Flicker slightly starboard during the descent and evened it out just before the skis touched the ground, looking over her shoulder towards the sandbags. The Flicker landed—
—and launched again.
Ensie’s head snapped forward as the Flicker jumped into the air. Her neck lit up with pain. She gasped as she straightened her head, and a rush of dusty air swept into her mouth. Her stomach roiled inside her body as the Flicker veered to the side, almost bringing her perpendicular to the ground before she was able to twist the propellers enough to right her. Another few degrees to the side, and she would have effectively capsized, she realized, her body flaring with the pins-and-needles of fear. If the Flicker banked too far to one side, the propellers would stop providing lift. Instead, they would join forces with gravity to drive the machine that much faster into the ground.
The Flicker was already descending towards said ground after its unexpected jump.
Ensie risked another quick look behind her, towards the sandbags and her senior tech. Iggy had both hands locked behind the back of her head, frozen in shock, and even from this distance Ensie could see the whites of her wide eyes.
I need to get off this thing as soon as I touch down
, Ensie thought, her mind struggling to keep up with what was happening. She braced herself as the skis made contact with the earth again. The impact erupted through her body despite the padding, much rougher than before.