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Authors: Kaitlin R. Branch

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BOOK: Valeria
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A down gust of wind hit the tail with a slap, and the whole contraption came off the floor a foot and a half. Panicking, Mache shouted a battle cry, tossed his effects onto the floor and scrambled to follow them. Undo the belt, foot in the chair, hand on the dash,
heave!

There was a moment of fear when Mache wasn’t sure he would make it. Next a moment of triumph when he realized he was clear. His feet hit the floor. He stumbled backward, suddenly dizzy. He wheeled his arms.

The wind hit again. The airfoil’s nose tossed like an angry horse, clipping Mache’s already abused skull. He heard a hollow thud and hit the floor face down.

Hopefully whoever owned the dirigible would understand.

* * * *

Good God almighty he had a headache. Gear monkeys clanged at his skull and shook the chains in his mind. There was a bright light on the other side of his eyelids and he tried to lift his hand to shield his face. Instead he smacked himself on the cheek. “Errg…” he groaned, blinking. Man, his face was scratched up. What in hell had the airfoil done to him?

“Are you awake?”

Mache opened his eyes, regretted it instantly, and slammed them shut again. “Sorta?” he moaned. “Whose airship is this?”

“Mine.”

A woman. Oh thank the stars. “Who’re you?”

“Valeria.” Her voice was sweet, soft. Noblewoman’s daughter, he guessed. Maybe he wasn’t in too much trouble. If he played the dashing pilot she might even feed him.

“Ms. Valeria, my name is Mache Harcming. I experienced catastrophic airfoil failure and tried to crash land, but I’m afraid I didn’t realize your flight deck was altered.”

“Oh. Is that how you wound up in there?”

He chanced to crack open an eyelid. A leather bustier lined with several utility belts. Loose white blouse tied at three quarters length. A slim, white wrist with one of five strangely long fingers pointed up, tapping against a dainty chin. He blinked, eyes opening more as she continued. “I wondered. The airfoil must have slipped back out and hit you, right? You’ve a nasty knot on the back of your head and it’s quite unfortunate how you landed on the grilling.”

Mache stared. The woman who sat beside the bed had a fae’s face, delicate lines and porcelain skin. Perched on her nose was a pair of glasses with a series of successively more powerful lenses attached. A plain leather eye patch covered one eye. The leather extended over her forehead until golden hair covered it. He noticed, even in among the golden wire and glass of her eye-gear, her good eye was blue. “Uh…yeah,” he managed.

“It’s not a wonder you thought the ballroom was the flight deck. It used to be, you know, when this was a war-buggy. When we acquired it–I mean, the only times the flight deck is used is when the CEO needs to get in or out, or one of the clients comes up maybe once a year, and we thought it made a wonderful view–I converted it to a ballroom and made a flight deck on the fourth level. It’s a wonderful flight deck. I’ll show you when you’re able to move. I never was able to get the grilling out of the original. Pity, your face is torn up!”

Had she stopped talking? Mache ventured to speak again. “You made the decks?”

“Oh, the basic layout was already done. I did the alterations so it could be how I liked it in my laboratory and quarters. Don’t you think the guest quarters are lovely?” Pink lips curved a contented smile as she gestured with both hands.

Mache glanced around. It was true. The room he was in was sumptuous. Wooden paneling, more velvet, another chandelier of worked glass and bright bronze. The light was coming through blinds pulled back from floor-to-ceiling windows. He squinted. It looked to be late afternoon and the bright light was the sun. Crap. He was supposed to be making his delivery now. “Pretty fabulous,” he said.

“The flight deck is even better,” she gushed. “Since I don’t have to worry about more than one landing at a time, I use one of the pads as a garden.” She studied her hand, and again Mache noticed her strangely long fingers. “Even if the dirt gets in everything, it’s worth it to have fresh lettuce and carrots, don’t you think?”

“Sure?” Mache murmured, watching her cautiously.

Valeria didn’t reply for a moment, squinting at a finger. “Hmph. Everywhere,” she hummed, and her hand abruptly unlatched, and then
exploded.
Mache yelped, jumping to the far side of the bed as Valeria looked up in confusion, holding out her hand. “What?” she asked. “It’s only a prosthetic.”

“A what?” Mache said, staring. Each finger split into five triangular slats, which moved independently of each other, each slender new extension with two joints of its own. “Gah. It’s like an insect.”

“It’s one of my inventions,” Valeria said. “I call it the millipede. It’s most useful for people in careers with complex jobs to be done by hand. Gear assembly, limb-making, even a seamstress came to get one.”

“You
make
those things?” Mache asked, eyes widening as he crept back to his pillow, head pounding. “Which company do you work with, anyway? Are you an independent inventor?”

“Oh, no, no!” Valeria laughed off the notion, flicking a microscopic something out of a joint and pressing a button. With a pneumatic snap the hand collapsed, resuming its previous long five-fingered shape. Mache gaped. The lines were seamless. “I’m a contractor for Elthgo Industries. You landed on my workshop.” She beamed. “Pretty lucky, I’d say.”

Mache stared at her. Elthgo was a company with a fearsome reputation for secrecy and a hardline stance against intruders. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Lucky.”

Maybe he should have let the ground win.

* * * *

Once Mache showed he wasn’t likely to slip into unconsciousness again Valeria disappeared for several hours, insisting he take a bath and rest and relax. Mache mostly spent the time worrying. How was he going to explain this to the boss? How was he going to explain this to Elthgo? God in heaven, he was screwed.

Still, when Valeria appeared at the door, smudged with soot, the magnifying glasses absent, and her hair bunched into small, tight waves, he couldn’t help thinking that if he was screwed, it was a damn good screw. Valeria was intelligent, curious, and downright fascinating. She only got more interesting when she served them both dinner.

“Do you work for a delivery service? Is that why I’ve been seeing more airfoils in the last three years?” she asked, nibbling at a fresh salad.

Mache picked at the food, still queasy from his conk on the head. “Yes. Once the airfoil was made available to the general market at an affordable price, express delivery exploded. We can cut the time seventy-five percent, and because we don’t use more fuel than it takes to keep our dirigibles up, it’s not prohibitively expensive.”

“How delightful,” she chirruped. “Though I wish you’d been able to keep your aircraft in the room. I would have loved to see the differences between my first generation and yours. I wonder how they got the price down?”

“What’s yours made of?” Mache asked, tilting his head. Higher quality airfoils were made with higher quality metals.

“Paper covered in a compound glass derivative,” she said. “I think they call it fiber glass on the ground.”

Mache started. “Fiberglass? Wow. Mine was aluminum.”

She laughed. “That would explain the price difference, wouldn’t it?” She hummed. “They probably have less sophisticated controls. I admit I don’t even know how to fly mine.”

“You what?” Mache was caught off guard. “I mean, what if the dirigible went down? Don’t you go down to get food, see your family?”

Valeria shrugged, her voice light and sweet as ever. “This is my home,” she said, “and it has been for fifteen years. I only go down when an executive wants to talk to me and can’t come up here. Elthgo sends food up once a month and I don’t have family.”

“Oh.” Mache wondered how he was supposed to feel about that. The way she said it sounded as if she wasn’t sorry about the lack, a state he shared. But if he were wrong, there was no doubt she would get very testy. There was a long moment of silence. Feeling rather lame, Mache offered, “I don’t either.”

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me.” Valeria sat up, holding out her hands, hair shifting in her haste to speak. “No, not at all. They sold me into slavery for some food before Elthgo recognized my talent and bought my contract.”

Mache blinked. “You’re a slave?” he asked.

“Do I look like a slave?” she countered.

Mache looked around. The dining area was sumptuous, the dinner fresh and tasty even if he was still having trouble eating it, and she was well kept. Still, it bothered him, a single person stuck in a dirigible drifting above the land. “When was the last time you went down?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

She seemed content with this and tapped her chin. “Oh, two years ago I guess.”

“What do you do?” Mache asked, fighting the urge to drop his jaw. He couldn’t imagine being stuck in one place like that.

Valeria giggled. “I’m an inventor, silly,” she said. “I invent.”

“But, people? Don’t you get lonely?”

She shrugged. “Not really.” she said. “Crowds make me nervous, people are dangerous.”

“Yeah, but–” Mache cut himself off, shaking his head. He stabbed a carrot, put it in his mouth and chewed, forcing himself to calm down. Valeria was putting up with him and he was the guest. It wasn’t his place to question her lifestyle. Once he swallowed, he asked, “What do you invent?”

Valeria’s good eye lit up as she sat up straighter. “Many things, but I like to focus on limbs and body parts. My hand is my own invention!”

“Yeah, you mentioned,” he murmured, glancing at her strangely long fingers. “What happened to your real hand?”

“It was crushed by a gear setting in the factory when I was eight,” she said, and waved. “It was terrible, but my fault.”

“…crushed?” he asked faintly, eyes wide. What planet did this woman live on? Why was an eight-year-old working with gears in a factory and why was she okay with this? Had he passed through dimensions when he hit the glass? Perhaps he was hallucinating.

“Sure. I was setting a gear in place for a dirigible engine and when it slipped in place my hand got caught in one of the wells.”

“You were eight,” he protested. “What were you doing setting a gear?”

Valeria grinned. “I wouldn’t let anyone else do it. It was my invention.”

“You were eight,” he said again, wondering if she’d ever get it.

“Yes. And the Elthgo Dirigible Power Fifth Generation was mine.” She glowed with pride.

Mache coughed. “The fifth generation came out almost thirty years ago,” he said. “I wasn’t even born yet.”

“I was eight.”

“You’re thirty-eight?”

“And a half.”

Mache stared. He coughed. “You don’t look a day over twenty.”

“It’s the replacements.” Valeria said, tapping her hands and the eye patch. She beamed. “I haven’t been able to prove it yet. I think my method of attaching spare limbs increases life span slightly. It reduces the amount of energy the body spends on repair and upkeep.”

Mache stared again. He was tempted to rise, thank Valeria for dinner and leave post haste. Clearly his first impression had been correct. He was in an alternate universe or some sort of fold in space-time. Outside factories churned smoke, the streets bustled with women who complained that their corsets were too tight and men who complained the same. And yet here he was in this dirigible with a madwoman talking about extended life and how she’d crushed her hand in an inventing accident when she was eight.

“And your eye?” he asked.

“My best invention,” she said. “Actually, I only perfected it last year, with a few spare crystals the CEO brought up for me.”

“Invention?” he asked, trying to decide how an eye patch was a new invention.

“Oh, that,” she said, and reached up, burying slim fingers in her golden locks and made a few motions until the leather patch fell away. Mache gasped. Nestled in her eye socket was a sphere of silver with a gilded lip that matched her hair. A startling golden light filled what was clearly an empty space. “It’s a variable magnification lens,” she said, and started to outline how the model came to be, the expensive materials Mache had never heard of, and how she’d come to make it. Mache only heard one thing.

“You plucked out your
own eye
?”

Valeria was brought up short. “Yes.”

He reached up, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Your own blooming eye,” he murmured. “What the hell for?”

She hummed. “I wanted to see better when I was working with small parts.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. I couldn’t design a properly functioning lid, though. Without the fluid of a natural eye it was difficult to mold something properly, but I might figure it out with a few more years.”

He put the fork down, more queasy than ever. “Well…” he said, meaning to get up and leave.

Valeria stood, interjecting. “You can see my workshop,” she said. “And then we’ll look over the plane and you can tell me more about yours, maybe even teach me.”

“Teach?” Mache asked. “You want me to teach you to fly?”

“Of course I do,” she said, beaming. “Like you say, what if the ship went through a catastrophic failure that I couldn’t fix or something happened in the ship and I needed to get down quickly? I should learn and since you’re here, I won’t have to bother the CEO.”

BOOK: Valeria
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