Authors: Ben Rovik
“So, right! When I think of a burly man or woman in armor jumping through the air no problem, and then I envision someone on the svelte side—like you—piloting a Flicker that, all things being equal, is the same weight but with, you know, better airflow?”
“Hang on,” she said.
“Sure. Sorry. I know I don’t have the right terminology—”
“Did you say, uh.”
She pressed her lips together.
But there was no hope.
“Did you say I’m ‘on the svelte side?’”
Cooper’s looked down at her. His face went gray with horror.
“I hope that word means what I think it means,” he whispered.
She looked to the far wall.
Cute? Petite? Is that what you meant?
She longed to ask him that like a Parade squad nymph would say it, drifting towards him with an archly raised eyebrow and a lazy, kissable half-smile. But just playacting through the line in her head set a swarm of nervous giggles buzzing around in her throat, perilously close to her voice box, and it was all she could do to keep a lid on them.
Was that my voice?
The word was a mortifying squeak.
Ensie swallowed and tried again. “You’re right that the aerodynamic profile of the Flicker sure beats an armored ‘naut,” she said, folding the corner of the blueprints back for the fourteenth time. “And weights are comparable. But the jumping action we’re thinking of is on a different scale.”
“Ah, okay. Higher elevations.”
“Yes, but more importantly, jumping’s the primary locomotion for the Flicker. A ‘naut can leap around from time to time, sure, but most of what they do is run. A totally different use of the coils and their, uh, built-in suspensions. Their legs.”
“Whereas the Flicker does nothing but jump,” Cooper said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Jump, and glide, and jump, and glide. You see? That’s why we need to make sure the coil box we build can handle tons of impacts, and launch with tons of force; but not so much force that the pilot loses control. See? It’s tricky.”
“It’s tricky,” he agreed. Cooper raised his hands. “To be honest, though, I’d trust you Aerials more to make it work right than I’d trust us.”
“But, uh.” Was he really going to walk out of her life because he was too honest to land his company a contract?
Keep him. Keep him here!
a hungry voice blared out somewhere inside her.
“You must have done something this size before,” she said, hurriedly.
“Oh, sure. We’ve worked big carriage suspensions. A motorized dais that raised and lowered, too, and had a bunch of dancers leaping around on it for, uh, a play or something.”
“See? So Upforth’s could lend experience with scale, while we figure out the whole ‘aloft’ part.”
“Ensie. I just want to be sure we wouldn’t waste your time.”
Ensie took a deep breath through her nose. “It
take a lot of time,” she said slowly. She curled her hands into little fists, rubbing her thumbs against her fingers as she looked up at him.
No giggling. No giggling!
“We’d have to meet, uh… quite a few times, probably.”
Cooper looked down at her. His hands unlocked from behind his back and floated to his sides. “Quite a few times?” he said, quietly.
“Oh, yeah. A big project like this could take hours and hours of collaboration.”
He nodded. One of his large fingers pointed to the desk. “Here?”
As he tapped the surface of the desk, Ensie thought of purposes for the wide flat surface that had never even crossed her mind before. She’d never wanted to get started on a collaboration so badly.
“Or your workshop,” she said. “You know. Whichever sounds more productive.”
“Either sounds good to me.”
“Great. Can I say—”
“I just want to—”
They both spoke up simultaneously, and leaned a little closer at the same time. It brought them many centimeters closer than either had meant independently. Ensie froze there. He was so close that her hairnet was almost brushing the center of his chest. She turned her face up to him and saw something very interesting in his eyes.
“You first,” she whispered.
Cooper took a long moment before speaking. “Can I just tell you that I’m looking forward to working with you?”
“Likewise…” Ensie shifted her hand so their fingertips on the desk were touching. “Cooper.”
He shifted his hand on top of hers. Warm pressure, skin-to-skin, flooded up her arm and into her chest. The contours of his rough palm were fascinating as she explored them through the fine hairs and delicate nerves of the back of her hand. Her vision went a little blurry as she dedicated all her brainpower to experiencing his touch against her skin.
A massive noise clattered through the hallway just outside. Ensie recoiled before she recognized the sound of the tool cart for what it was. Cooper started too, raising his hand up and away. He flushed the color of an overripe apple and he refused to meet her eyes as the tech outside pushed the noisy cart from one workroom to the next.
“I.” Ensie brushed the nonexistent dust off the blueprints again, trying to get her voice under control again. Cooper slowly put his hands behind his back.
“That, uh.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. That was unprofessional of me, and I’m sorry.”
She looked up at him.
“I shouldn’t have… I mean, I didn’t mean anything by, by touching you.”
“Well, I… it’s not... There’s a time and a place, that’s all. Unprofessional,” he rambled, shaking his head.
Ensie felt the grain of the desk beneath her hand. “I made you think unprofessional thoughts,” she murmured.
Their eyes met.
“It’ll never happen again,” he said, something low coloring his voice.
Ensie raised one eyebrow in an unspoken
she would have been very proud of if she had been able to see herself.
Sunlight flooded the room as their lips pressed together.
“Fantastic,” Upforth said, hardly believing his ears.
“On behalf of my team, I feel just the same way,” Ensie said. “I think this partnership’s going to be absolutely vital to the success of the Flicker.”
“We’ve got something to add to your ranine technology.” Upforth said it proudly, like a statement, but couldn’t keep a questioning light out of his eyes. He crossed his arms over his chest and stepped closer to the pair in the hallway outside drafting room 26A.
“Absolutely. Since our coils have never deployed in a vehicle quite like this before, it’s a new world. And we could use, uh, even more good minds helping us out.”
“Well, Upforth’s Hydraulics is on board one hundred ten percent. I’d love to personally review any preliminary discussions you had with Mister Carper.” He even mustered up a tight smile for his towering employee. “I imagine I can be more thorough than he was.”
Ensie developed a tickle in her throat, and rubbed the back of her neck as she coughed. Cooper was studiously looking at the ceiling.
“Actually,” Ensie said, “the, uh, thoroughness was fine.”
“Well, just so long as you’re satisfied.”
“I was satisfied, yes.”
“Because at Upforth’s, we live to please our clients—”
“I should go,” Ensie said, talking a step backwards.
She tucked the edges of her hair into her snood. Upforth clasped his hands at his waist and bowed his head again as she explained, “I need to inform Sir Tomas and my team about this, uh, development, and get their confirmation on the, uh, the best way forward.”
“Whatever suits you, technician! Again, I’m so glad Mister Carper performed all right today—”
“I have to go,” she brayed, launching herself towards the door. She fiddled with her hairnet with one hand as the other locked onto the door handle. “But thank you for—thank you. I’ll be in touch!”
“You know where to find us!” Upforth called, a little bemused through his smile.
The sunlit door at the end of the hallway leapt open and drifted closed after her. Upforth turned to Cooper.
“She does know where to find us, right?”
“We, uh. We exchanged contact information, yes.”
“I’ll be honest, Carper. I didn’t think you could seal the deal.”
“Well, we didn’t exactly seal the deal,” he said, drawing himself up a little. “I mean, that’s a little fast for a first—”
“Shut up. As long as she feels fine talking to you, you get to deal with her. But you remember, buddy: you are replaceable. And if you’re not getting results I’ll pull you off of her myself.” Upforth ran a hand over his hair. “They want this Flicker thing ready for the Exposition?”
“A few days before, for testing.”
“Then I want you working this thing until you’re blue in the face every hour between now and then. When Ensie the tech snaps her fingers, I want you at her side. When you’re awake, you’re on her. And when you’re asleep, you’re dreaming about being on her. Got it?”
Cooper kept his face very still. “Got it.”
“Spheres revolving,” Upforth swore, shaking his head at Cooper, “if you weren’t such an ape I’d tell you to sweet-talk her a little, but I think we both know how that would go.”
“I think we do.”
“It wouldn’t hurt for you to spruce yourself up a little, at least. Look at you! You dress like a dockhand. And what’s that on your neck? Is that a bug bite or something?”
“I think I’d better get back to work,” Cooper said weakly, covering his neck.
“Help Kini until the Aerials get back in touch.” Upforth clapped his hand, his chin jutting out in fierce excitement. “This is a big flaming day! You’re lucky you’re with Upforth’s.”
Yeah, I am
, Cooper thought, dog-trotting behind his boss back to the Aerial hangar.
Iggy crowed with laughter, throwing her arms around Ensie’s shoulders.
The junior tech went her patented shade of pink. “I—I’m glad you’re excited, boss, but it’s just a consulting partnership. It’s not—”
“Did you get his address?”
“Or did you give him yours?”
“I…” She quailed under Iggy’s radiantly delighted stare.
“Both?” she said weakly.
The senior tech pressed her hand against Ensie’s shoulder and practically dragged her to the ground. They sat cross-legged by the sheltering arc of the Flicker’s one good wing.
“How could you possibly know?” Ensie said.
“Please,” Iggy said, waving a hand impatiently. “Oh, Ensie, Ensie, Chatty Ensie, I give this latest endeavor of yours every blessing I can think of. I think you’re incredibly resourceful and incredibly enterprising to be keeping your eyes open for a tumble even in the middle of a busy hangar.”
“And if talking shop gave you the excuse you needed to break the ice with this guy, I’m all for it. There is one thing I need to know. If this consultancy you’re telling me about on the up-and-up, or is it just your spare key to the back door?”
Ensie scratched an itch on her knee, trying to follow. “Senior tech, what do you mean?”
“Does the Flicker actually need Upforth’s? Or do you just need an excuse to see him?” Iggy tilted her head and her long, crinkled brown hair brushed just above her elbows. “Because if all you really want from this is to get bedded, don’t make me waste my time getting Tomas’ authorization, like a midling trying to pull one over on mom and dad. Just take him home and bed him.”
Ensie wanted to crawl inside her own boots and hide until it was over. Iggy was speaking at a completely normal volume in her customary low, lazy voice. The junior tech was sure that passing civilians were hearing every word.
“It’s a real partnership,” she maintained, fighting down a catch in her throat. “I think Upforth’s really can help us make the Flicker better.”
Iggy’s thin eyes looked oddly sad. “Fair enough,” she said. “You know that means that I’ll be expecting results each time you meet with him?”
“Yes, of course.”
“That means you’ll actually have to work, Ensie. And with the Expo coming up fast, Tomas and I are going to expect you to stay on schedule.”
“Absolutely. Sure. Wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Iggy sighed. “You’re a strange bird, Ensie,” the senior tech said, shaking her head.
Ensie looked at the ground and smiled. She rubbed her hands against her knees and glanced back to Iggy. “And you’re a good boss, senior tech.”
A mischievous look came over the older woman’s face. “We’ll see if you still feel that way when I let the squad know you’re in heat,” she said, stretching up to her full height.
Ensie laughed nervously, scrambling to her feet. Iggy started to walk towards the nearest knot of Aerials.
“Senior tech? Senior tech, you aren’t serious—”
“Get working on that second wing while I’m gone,” Iggy said casually over her shoulder.
, Ensie thought miserably as she turned to the sheets of metal on the hangar floor.
I’m never going to live this down.
Upforth’s machine shop was as romantic as a fishmonger’s stall.
Cooper looked around the dingy black room with despairing eyes. He’d swept the iron shavings and sawdust up twice, and put the tools in their precise drawers in the tool chest with painstaking care. He’d even taken a rag to the windows. The glass panes were as thin as arrow slits, and even with two centimeters of grime scoured from their surfaces, they only let light pass through grudgingly and under duress. It wasn’t as if there was much light to come through, anyway. The late afternoon was overcast, unlike the sunshine that had beamed down on the Aerial hangar all day yesterday.
, Cooper thought, hanging the dustpan back on its hook on the wall,
how you can feel so good one day, and so anxious the next.
He brushed his palms off and looked at the nearest counter. Next to the carpenter’s vise was a sheaf of red-and-white tulips, bound together with a twist of white ribbon. The blossoms had a wet, pearly sheen to them, unlike the hard edges and dusty film on everything else in the room. Nothing could have looked more out of place.