Aloft (Petronaut Tales) (2 page)

BOOK: Aloft (Petronaut Tales)
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“Get your head in it, Carper!” Mister Upforth said, clapping at him.

Cooper Carper ignored his boss as he fumbled for a grip on the two-by-fours on the back edge of the cart.  The beams these Aerials ordered had to be four meters long each, which made them an absolute pain in the neck to move.  Cooper shuffled backwards with his palms cupped underneath a stack of three beams, sliding them off the pile.  Skye helped feed the beams along to him as they pulled off the cart.  Finally, he’d scooted far enough away from the overloaded cart to let her get underneath the back end of the long planks.  The wood rattled in their hands and the sawed-off corners dug into their palms, even through their leather gloves.  They crabwalked towards the far wall which would be the home for this horizontal forest;
at least, until someone needs it moved again, at which point Upforth will say—

“Carper, Skye, hustle it!”

They bent their knees and dropped the beams on top of the growing stack by the far wall.  Cooper’s eyes drifted back to the tool rack, but there was no one standing there anymore.

“Don’t Petronauts have suits to do their heavy lifting?”  Skye said, rolling her shoulders.

“The Haulers do; completely different squad,” he said absently.

“Wish we were working for them.”

Cooper didn’t respond.  Skye looked over at him as he scanned the hangar.  A fly landed on her braided horsehair snood, a black dot against her tightly wound black hair. 

“What’re you looking for?”

“Uh.”  They started sauntering back towards the cart before Upforth could clap at them again.  “One of the ‘nauts.  She needed a nine-point-five socket wrench.”

Their heavy boots were inaudible over the sawing, grinding, and raised voices all across the busy hangar.  Skye shot a barely interested glance over at him when he didn’t elaborate.

“See, that’s the same size I needed on the bumper I was building before the cart got here, and Upforth—”

“So she’s got your wrench.”

“Well, that’s okay.  She said ‘I’ll have it back in one piece.’”

She looked up at him.

“It’s funny.”

“It’s funny,” Skye repeated.  “You got the next ones?”

Cooper wrapped his gloves around another stack of giant two-by-fours and started shuffling backwards. 
It is funny
, he thought, looking off to the side.  Where had she run to? 

Upforth’s Hydraulics had only started contracting with the Aerial squad this morning, just like all these other civilian businesses on Workshop Row who were joining forces with the ‘nauts for the feastday Expo.  So it wasn’t as if Cooper had a lot of personal experience with Petronauts.  (Who did, really?)  But what he’d seen of the Aerials so far wasn’t much to his taste. 

Tools and materials were strewn across the hangar in haphazard piles.  The skeletons of brilliant machines sat uncovered and unattended for hours as ‘nauts took long breaks to gossip, argue, or take a few dozen leisurely nips from the nearest flask.  And though their attitudes didn’t make him feel unwelcome—in fact, every Aerial he’d seen was warm and smiling—there was a little brusqueness every time they spoke to a civilian. “I’ll keep this conversation short,” the tone said, “because the longer it goes on, the more confused you’ll get.”

You Petronauts aren’t the only ones who know your way around a machine shop
, Cooper thought.  Getting indignant helped him not feel so overwhelmed; he and Skye had been supporting each other’s self-righteous feelings all morning long.  Every new Aerial they saw helped them justify their superiority a bit more.

But then he’d reached for a wrench, and he’d seen a pair of gold-brown eyes in a wide, heart-shaped face.

I’m Ensie…

“Carper.”

“Yes, Mister Upforth?”

Billy Upforth, Jr. put his hands on his hips.  The pomade was thick and glistening on his black hair, like a beetle’s carapace.  He showed no intention of moving out of their path as they headed for the far wall.  Cooper and Skye awkwardly sidestepped around their boss with the four-meter beams as he narrowed his eyes.

“You finish assembling that bumper?”

“I was working on it when this cart came.”

“The ‘nauts need it double-quick.”

“Should I stop unloading?”

Upforth sighed.  “I’ll get Kini on it. The nine-point-five wrench is over by your worksite?”

“No, um.  A ‘naut tech has it.”

“Spheres, Carper, did you even get started?”

“I...” His back protested as he bent down to drop the beams on the stack by the wall.

“Who’s this tech, then?  What does she look like?”

“She’s, uh, about this high.” He indicated just above his rib cage.  “Pale.  Her hair’s up in a net.  Long, brown, with some copper in the light.  Her overalls are actually clean, unlike the rest of them. Uh; she’s got a great smile—”

“‘A great smile?’”  Upforth tilted his head to the side.  “You think I’m trying to fix Kini up here?”

“No, no.  Of course not.”

“A name, Carper?  Does she have a name?”

“Ensie.”

Upforth started walking away backwards.  “I want this cart empty,” he said, clapping his hands.  He turned on his heel and plowed his way through the bustle of workers and machines.

“Yes, sir,” Cooper said under his breath. 

He felt Skye looking at him, but kept his eyes on the planks as they hefted another load off the cart.

 

 

“‘Scuse me.  I’m looking for a wrench?”

Something strange pressed against Ensie’s heart.  She hadn’t had a moment yet to break away from the Flicker, and Sir Tomas was coming by to inspect their progress at any second.  But she hadn’t had to look for the civilian.  There was that unfamiliar-yet-familiar voice behind her, come to get the wrench himself. 
And the first thing I’ll do is ask his name
, she thought, brushing her hands on her overalls as she turned around.

The man was short and tan, with a long goatee like a beetroot.  It looked more like a black tail growing out of his chin than a beard.  Ensie froze with her mouth open.

“Are you Ensie?”

“Yes.”

“Kini, with Upforth’s Hydraulics,” he said, tipping his forehead at her.  “You still using that 3/8ths socket?”

“No, uh, thanks.”

“Damn awkward size,” Kini said with a grin, snatching up the wrench from the ground.  She smiled back in half-hearted agreement.

“Ensie, let me get your eyes on this,” Iggy said behind her, scratching a fingernail against their blueprints.  Kini turned to go.

“Hey,” Ensie blurted out.  “Who’d you say you were with again?”

“Upforth’s.” 

He shot her a questioning look over his shoulder.  She raised her fingertips in nervous thanks, then scurried over to Iggy’s side.

“Sorry,” she said, leaning over the scroll.  “What are we, uh.  What’s the issue?”

“Just wondering about power-to-weight here,” she said, pressing her index finger down on the blue pencil sketch of the ranine coil box beneath the pilot’s seat.

“Ah.”  Ensie put on her most professional expression and ran some calculations in her head.

Iggy left her finger on the page as she looked down at Ensie, her lips curling up in her weathered face.

“What’s on your mind, junior tech?” she said.

“Hmm?  Well, I was just thinking you’re right; if we don’t make the coils strong enough for—”

“Ah-ah.  You were just thinking something else,” Iggy said, crossing her arms over her chest.  “Focused Ensie, Dependable Ensie, the only Aerial who knows how to do an honest day’s work.  I think you’re distracted.”

“I’m not distracted, senior tech.  I promise.  We’ve got too much work for me to be distracted.”

“You thinking about going back to civilian life?”

“What?  No.  No, why?”

“Just trying to figure your interest in Upchuck’s Hydraulics, that’s all.”

“Upforth’s.”

The correction erupted involuntarily.  Ensie turned bright red at the look of glee on Iggy’s face.  “I was just making conversation,” she said.  “I just want the civilians to feel, you know, welcome.”

Sir Tomas swept into their area just in time to give Ensie an excuse to stop babbling.  The lean ‘naut had a cowl of gleaming black hair that framed his sharp features.  The wrinkles around his eyes were unnaturally deep for someone his age; the lines of someone who’d celebrated his youth a little too vigorously, and was paying the price for it now.

“How’s our Flicker?” he murmured, pushing a fingertip against the machine’s curved wing.  He spoke directly to the device rather than looking at the techs.

“Won’t fly too good now,” Iggy said, waving a hand through the space where the second wing would be.  “But when we get it going it’ll turn a few heads.”

“Burn that,” Tomas swore casually as he flicked the metal tube.  A dull ping died away quickly.  “The Parade squad’s for people who just want to turn heads.  If this concept machine’s not a viable option for manned flight, what are we doing making it?”

“Generally, you can’t tell if something is viable or not before it exists, Sir.  Well, maybe
you
can; peons like me who didn’t buy their way into knighthood need to do experiments first.”

“Money well spent.  Now I get to make important decisions, like whether or not a project is going to be an embarrassment to the squad I serve.”

“Get over yourself.  The Flicker’s going to jump, and it’s going to be sensational.  They’ll build a marble statue of you piloting it into a glorious future, and stick it in the middle of Parapet Square.  The sculptor will even make you look halfway young.  Anything else, Sir?”

Sir Tomas smiled a little and flicked a glance somewhere in the vicinity of Iggy’s ankle, which was about as close as he ever got to looking his techs in the face. 

Ensie’s eyes were wide and white as gaslights.  No matter how many rounds of acerbic Aerial give-and-take she sat through, it never got easier to listen to. 
There must be a workplace in this city where bosses are supportive and employees are respectful; where people who like each other don’t feel this compulsion to talk like there’s a blood feud on.

“Junior tech,” Tomas said, turning towards her, “your so-called superior is obviously drunk, which is both shameful and dangerous for a woman of her advanced age,” the ‘naut said, shoving his hands in his pockets.  Iggy gave a single bark of laughter.  Ensie wet her lips and made herself smile as Tomas went on.  “I’m depending on you for a straight answer.  Do you have what you need to make the Flicker fly?”

“Yes, sir—though we were, uh, just settling down to talk about the ranine coils, as diagrammed out here.”

“Flaming big apparatus,” Tomas agreed.  “I thought the same thing when I went over the plans those idiots in drafting drew out.”

“It might work.  There might be more than enough power.  We just… I just don’t have enough experience with ranine pressurizers of this size to know if the Flicker will get meaningful loft with each leap.  And if the jumps aren’t high enough—”

“The pilot might as well walk,” Iggy said, rubbing her tech on the shoulder.  “I was figuring I’d talk to Recon and the Cavaliers.  They push their coils the hardest when it comes to distance jumping.”

“Burn them.  Your junior tech’s on to something.  We’re talking a coil box that’s a half-meter cube here.  Those firebounders in Recon or the flaming Cavs have little springs in their boots.  Orders of magnitude different.”

“Fine.  Who should I talk to, then?”

“There are all these civilians floating around.  The party line from the Board of Governors is that some of them do impressive things.  And everything they do is bound to be bigger, clunkier, and more muscular than what we come up with.”

Iggy raised an eyebrow.  “You really think they know more about ranine coils than our guys do?”

“Look, Roulande, we’re supposed to be forging partnerships with these yahoos anyway.  All I’m saying is, leave your junior tech plugging away with the wrench here, and you go out there and get a consultation from one of these workshops.  Someone who works in steam pressure, or hydraulics, or—”

“I’ll go,” Ensie said.

They looked at her.  Sir Tomas actually raised his eyes to her face.

“I mean, I
could
go.”

“Go what?” he asked.

“Go forge a partnership?” she offered quietly.

Sir Tomas frowned.  “That’s a horrible idea.  You belong with the metal and the sprockets and the quiet mouths, junior tech.  Asking you to go talk to people?  That’s a disaster waiting to—”

“Ease up there, Sir,” Iggy said.  “You usually can’t be bothered to check in on our work more than one day a week.  Don’t start micromanaging us now.”

“But come on, tech, you don’t seriously think it’s a good idea.”

“Ensie.”  The lanky woman looked down at her junior tech, who was pink as a boiling shrimp from all this.  Iggy spun her fingers in the air casually.  “By any chance, do you have any leads on a civilian workshop that might know a thing or two about pressure mechanics?”

“Upforth’s Hydraulics, maybe?”

Tomas raised an eyebrow.

“Speed of the Spheres with you, young Ensie,” Iggy proclaimed.  She rolled up the blueprints and handed them to Ensie.  The tech cradled the blueprints in her arms like a glass vial of something caustic.

“…Now?”

“Yes, junior tech, now.  We need this Flicker built to thrill.  Time’s wasting, and we’ve got a boss to humiliate.”

Ensie opened her mouth, and closed it just as quickly.  Nothing she could say would make this conversation any more pleasant, so she just nodded and dashed away to the far side of the hangar.

“You work with the odd ones, don’t you?”  Tomas said, scratching a fingernail against his long chin.

“Yeah,” Iggy said, grinning over at him.  “And Ensie’s a little strange too.”

 

 

Upforth hadn’t yelled at them for more than five minutes. 
Strange. Usually, he’s hovering so close we feel the breeze.

Cooper rubbed the small of his back as he stood up from the lumber pile and scanned the bustling floor.  He spotted Upforth’s tan vest quickly, festooned with pockets and weighed down with tools he never used.  The man wasn’t too far away after all.  He had his back to Cooper, lost in an animated conversation with some poor soul or another.  As he and Skye headed back to the cart in silence (only three more trips to go) the boss spun around and pointed straight towards them with one hand, as his other arm wrapped around the shoulders of—

BOOK: Aloft (Petronaut Tales)
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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