Aloft (Petronaut Tales) (5 page)

BOOK: Aloft (Petronaut Tales)
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“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered, plodding over to the bouquet.  Each flower had cost him more than he’d ever imagined spending on a plant. 
And I don’t even know if she likes tulips.  What am I thinking?
  He tapped a fingertip against the thick green stems, shaking his head.

The door swung open behind him, with the sound of the street rising up with it.  Cooper twisted his head around. 
Is that—?

“Cooper,” Skye said, tilting her chin up at him in greeting. 

She turned back to close the door behind her, and he snatched up the tulips and tossed them under the counter in a single frantic flash.  Her eye caught the movement and she turned back to him.

“Hey there,” he said, leaning his tailbone against the counter.

“What’re you doing?”

“Just cleaning up a little.”

“Were those flowers?”

“I know, right?”  Cooper scoffed.  “The messes that get left around here!”

Skye opened her mouth, then closed it with a frown.  She looked around the room, squinting into the corners.  “Upforth made you do a deep cleaning when we’ve got all this Expo work to do?”

“It’s, uh.  It was implied that I should.  There’s a client coming.”

Skye raised an eyebrow.  Realization slowly set in on her broad face. 


She drifted over to the employee cubbyholes on the streetside wall.  “Well, I was thinking about doing some machining, but all I really need are my schematics here,” she said casually.  She reached into her cubbyhole and pulled out a weathered scroll case.  “I’ll put in a few hours in the shopyard instead.”

Cooper felt a little tension drain away from his shoulders.  “Sure.  Great.  Thanks, Skye.”

“‘Thanks?’ Just doing my job,” she shrugged.  “Of course, if you are feeling a little grateful to me for some reason, I’ve got about three dozen misaligned gears that need to be ground down half a centimeter.  Think you’ll have some time, once you’re done with the client?”

He grinned tightly. 
Nothing comes for free.
  “Hey, no problem.”

Skye knocked the cap of her scroll case twice against the wall and gave him a nod.  She didn’t look back to him as she pushed the door open.  It drifted closed with a click, sealing out the noise of carriages and the chatter of pedestrians.

Cooper dashed to the far side of the counter and crouched down.  The tulips had slid halfway across the room, on the floor under the second bank of work surfaces.  He put one hand on the metal stanchion holding the second counter up and stretched out on all fours, grabbing the bouquet by the stems.  Half the blossoms were dusty or bruised.  Cooper’s knees started to hurt as he brushed dirt off the petals.


He froze.  A light, uncertain voice flitted through the air.  He came out from under the counter and leapt to his feet with the red bouquet at his side.

Ensie screamed, covering her mouth.

Cooper dumped the flowers on the countertop and raised his hands, rushing forward.  “Ensie!  I didn’t hear you—I’m so sorry!”

“No, no,” she said, her eyes wide and her heart pumping.  “I just, um, saw Ms. Skye just outside, and she told me this was the right building, but I wasn’t sure who was inside, so I opened the door quietly.”

“Well,” Cooper said, a smile on his face.  Seeing her actually made the light through those narrow windows seem brighter.  “Here I am!”

“Here you are.  Hiding,” she said, brushing her hair out of her face.

“What?  No, that wasn’t hiding.  That was important business.”

“Important business?  On the floor?”

“Sure.  It’s standard practice in the private sector.  Try to keep up, Petronaut.” 

She giggled at him.  “Sorry, I keep forgetting that inventions I take for granted—like
—haven’t filtered down to commoners like you yet.  I mean, look at this place,” she said, casting her eyes around the room.  “You’ve even got…”

Ensie was looking over his shoulder when she stopped.  Cooper fought the urge to swallow.  She’d caught sight of the red-and-white bouquet.

“…tulips,” she whispered.

“Just, uh.”  Cooper took a careful step closer to her.  “Just wanted to make you feel welcome for your first off-site consultation.”

She pressed her hands flat to her hips.  Her overalls hung shapelessly off her bare shoulders, but her body was awake beneath the coarse gray fabric, and he could envision her as clearly as through the sheerest negligee.  He could feel his own breathing start to deepen.

“You like tulips?” he asked, his voice husky.

“Not really,” she breathed back.  “The shape of the petals is a little closed-off.”

“Fair.  And Spheres are they expensive.”

“If I wanted to pay a lot for something dead, I’d buy a steak,” she whispered, drifting closer to him.

“I’ll have a steak waiting for you next time.”

“I’m trying to eat more fish lately, but I’m not as good at preparing it yet.”

“I like flakefish with scallions and chicken stock, like they make at this place in Bohock.”


They were a hand’s span apart.  She placed a palm gingerly against his chest, and he let his fingers drift up to touch her arm.

“We’ve, uh.”  He couldn’t get over the way her eyes shone when they were so close together.  “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Right,” she nodded.  “We should get started.”

What do you know,
he thought later. 
It turns out we did have important business on the floor after all.



“So who gets to fly it?”

Cooper folded the edges of his collar back down and smoothed out his sleeves.  Ensie looked at him as she tucked her hair back in the glittering, beaded snood she hadn’t worn in ages.  She’d resurrected her trunk of halfway attractive clothes from its storage place in her crawlspace. 
I still can’t believe I’ve got a reason to wear the stuff again, let alone to work...

The gaslight in drafting room 26A shone down on them, sending beams of white glinting across the austere Aerial cell.  They had become very fond of the private room and the thick, sound-dampening walls over the past few days.


“Who’s going to fly the Flicker?”

Ensie frowned.  “Sir Tomas, I guess.  ‘Nauts and expert techs are the ones who do the piloting most of the time.  They’ve got the training and, you know, the confidence.”

“Oh, okay.”


Cooper shrugged and sat down next to her on the short bench.  She leaned into his shoulder as he rested his hand on her thigh.  “It’s just that I’ve still never met him.  But I’m sure he’s up-to-date on all the progress we’ve made.”

“Well, we haven’t made all that much progress.  Not that I’m complaining,” she smiled up at him.

“Oh, come on.  You’ve said your senior tech is happy with what you’ve shown her.  And Upforth is singing among the Spheres with every progress report I give.”

She kissed him on the shoulder.  “All I’m saying is, Sir Tomas won’t have any trouble following what we’ve done when he gets around to it.”

Cooper raised his eyebrows.  “When he gets around to it?”

“He’s pretty hands-off.  Hands-free, really.”

“Don’t you report to him?”

“Iggy delivers updates to his box every day.  He clears out his mail… oh… once a week.  He probably reads most of it, I think.”

“Burn me.  I can’t fathom a boss like that.” 

Ensie shrugged.  Cooper shuffled his boots against the stonework and looked at her. 

“What does he do with all his time, instead?”

“So, Miss Miri,” Tomas said, his hands nonchalantly tucked through his belt loops, “how about you give me a demonstration of what you’ve got in mind for the Expo?”

The violet-eyed Parade apprentice shook her head a little as she grinned.  Unlike with his own techs, Sir Tomas would at least look at Miri Draker when they spoke.  But that still didn’t mean his eyes were anywhere close to her face.   

“Well, I would, sir, but I’m afraid it would get pretty technical for you to follow.  You see, I’m going to be singing

“I’ve been an Aerial ‘naut for years.  I think I can handle Parade’s idea of technical.”

Miri frowned.  “Wait—you’re an Aerial?”

“Of course I am.”  His smirk slipped a little.  “Knighted in 864, active duty ever since.”

“Huh!”  She scratched her scalp through her long, silk-black hair.  “The way you don’t seem to care about your work or your techs, I assumed you were Cavalier.”

Iggy barked with laughter as the young apprentice made her exit, boots clacking precisely on the hangar floor as her hair spilled down her back. 

“Come on,” Sir Tomas said, turning back around to where Iggy and Ensie were bent over the Flicker.  “That wasn’t funny.  Too precious by half.”

“If you hit on children, don’t be surprised when they get cute,” Iggy said.  Ensie couldn’t keep a smile off her face, no matter how hard she tried to focus.  “I like that girl,” Iggy went on.  “Can’t wait until she makes ‘naut.” 

Tomas snorted.  He buffed his fingernails against his jacket and walked after Miss Miri.

“Come on, sir.  Leave her alone,” Iggy called after him, frustration edging into her voice.

“It’s all part of the chase, senior tech,” he said, unconcerned.  “Carry on.”

“He’s got side projects,” Ensie said, clearing a tickle out of her throat.  “But I’m sure he’ll know the Flicker inside and out by the Expo.  He’s always ready when the time comes.”

“Well, at least everyone will know during the demo that you and Ignatia are the ones who really made the Flicker fly, and he’s just the pilot.”



“I mean, all the Aerials know about Tomas, but there’s no need for us to spread the word much further than that.  I mean, we’d never complain to the Board of Governors, or anything.  And if the Flicker gets serious attention at the Expo, then he’ll be the one who gets, you know, the Palace visit, or the contract negotiations with the merchants, or whatever happens.”  She shrugged.  “He’s the knight, you know?”

There was an odd look on Cooper’s face, and his eyes turned sad.  Ensie leaned away from him. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head and gave her a half-smile.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “It’s just that I had this idea that the Petronauts were the one group in Delia where cream really did rise to the top.  That there was no place here for—well, for the Billy Upforth, Jr.’s of the world.  The people who get the credit on the backs of the people who do the work.”

There was silence in the little drafting room. 

Cooper put his arm around her shoulders and held her close.  She leaned her head against him. 

“I’m not doing this for the credit,” she said.

“Sure,” he whispered.  She could feel his voice through the top of her head.  He kissed her hair through the beaded mesh.  “I just think someone like you deserves a chance to fly.”

Ensie thought back to the front yard at her parents’ cottage, one hill away from the graveled beaches of the Bay of Delia.  The setting sun was a bright copper platter in the sky, and the clouds were the color of plums and wine.  Five years old, she stretched her bare legs out in the tickly grass and watched the sky.  White storks flashed overhead on their way to the water.  She saw their long wings beating through the evening air, the power of their muscles bending the invisible wind into service.  The control they had, and the freedom it gave them!  Ensie pressed her fingers together and slowly extended her arms as far as she could.  As the birds flew by, the little brown-haired girl flapped along with them with her arms perpendicular to her chest.  The wind blew past her cheeks, and she vowed that one day the wind wouldn’t just pass her by.  It would keep her aloft.

Ensie wiped her eyes, not knowing why they were full of tears.  She put a hand on Cooper’s knee and felt his body against her side as they sat and breathed together for a long time.




Iggy bit her lower lip as she wrenched at the port-side propeller.  She adjusted the bucket-shaped canister, tilting it perpendicular to the ground, and then slapped a level on its domed top.  The oily bubble went sleepwalking back and forth between the lines.  She manhandled the propeller with her leathery hands repeatedly until, finally, the level stayed put in the center of the glass vial.

“Calibrated,” she called out.  She wiped a finger along the Flicker’s brushed silver fuselage.  The morning sun caught the machine nicely, and even without its final trim and polish, it was a good-looking craft.  (Much easier on the eyes than those bizarre sketches of floating platforms that were circulating elsewhere in the Aerial squad.)

The Flicker was five meters long, with a body like a cigar and two tubular wings curving up and back from near the nose.  The wings didn’t stick out perpendicular from the body but curved back along it, like a prawn’s antennae, so seen from above the craft looked more like a forward-pointing arrow than a cross.  The pilot sat up front, with two handlebars at shoulder height on either side of his or her body.  The handlebars changed the pitch of the propellers when pushed forward or back, and changed their tilt when twisted beneath the pilot’s palm, for steering during the ascent and descent of each jump.  Footpedals controlled the jumping action of the ranine box.  The small pedal on the left was for single jumps.  A wider pedal, covering much of the floorspace in the tiny sitting area, controlled the force of the box for continuous travel mode. 

They’d decided that asking a pilot to reliably time each jump to the precise moment of impact—the end of the last jump—would be asking for trouble over a long trip.  Instead, by turning a dial, the pilot could switch the Flicker into continuous travel mode after the first jump.  That way, each time the Flicker descended from a jump, as soon as the suspension felt the impact with the ground, the ranine box would automatically respond by launching the machine upwards again at the low point of the jump, so as to make travel as efficient and foolproof as possible.  The flatter the angle of the pedal, the greater the force of each jump, while keeping it just barely depressed would allow for lighter, shallower hops.

BOOK: Aloft (Petronaut Tales)
4.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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