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Authors: Kaitlin R. Branch

Valeria (3 page)

BOOK: Valeria
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He supposed he could understand. And it wasn’t like laying low for a few days wouldn’t do him some good. The shipment wasn’t too important but he wasn’t sure if it was insured. If it wasn’t the customer was likely to be cross. If it was, the customer would be fine. The boss, however, would be more than a little testy. Besides, figuring out Valeria was becoming a more and more difficult task by the minute. “All right. Invention show for flying lessons. I can deal with that.”

* * * *

She showed him things he had never imagined and kept him up late that night. Mache couldn’t manage a complaint, too in awe of the spread of her talent. Mobile arms, steam-powered hammers, drills, and saws that could cycle their water rather than allowing it to escape, creating near infinite energy. He discovered to his amazement that she had decorated the dirigible herself; the chandeliers he had admired upon arriving were her handiwork. Her labs were a riot of function and art.

It occurred to him that if he was caught aboard with Valeria, he would surely die. And why not? His airfoil was in tiny pieces on the ground and his boss would probably assume he’d gotten caught in a tree somewhere and sliced to ribbons. Valeria never mentioned the danger, though. He wasn’t sure if she didn’t know, didn’t care, or wasn’t talking about it.

He could understand why Elthgo would kill him, though. Valeria was a treasure.

“How much of your body is natural?” He asked in wonder as she showed him the dexterity of her hands.

She tapped her chin. “The only parts that aren’t natural are my hands and my eye,” she said. “I’d say, oh, ninety-five percent according to volume, a bit more by weight. Both parts are metal alloys, you see. Very dense.”

“Sure.” Mache yawned. It was probably three in the morning but he couldn’t bring himself to go to bed. “What’s it like, working for Elthgo?” he asked. “Rumor says it sucks.”

“Sucks?” she asked, frowning. “That means bad?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking to the side. “Sorry for the crass language,” he mumbled.

She beamed. “Oh, it’s okay. It’s nice working for Elthgo! I get to invent whatever I want most times, and the CEO comes up to see my things every few months.”

“The CEO? You know them?” Mache’s eyebrows rose a few notches. No one even knew if the CEO of Elthgo was a man or a woman.

Valeria nodded. “She’s so nice. She always tells me what I’ve done well, and sometimes she gives me these marvelous ideas. She even gave me the idea for the eye when I complained I couldn’t see delicately enough.”

Mache felt his veins chill. “Sounds great,” he said, unable to get the part about plucking out her own eye out of his mind. He shivered. “So most stuff coming out of Elthgo is your invention?”

“I doubt it,” Valeria said, waving. “I have very high-quality materials. I’m mostly a special requests person. If someone important needs something like a leg or an arm, they come to me. It’s my specialty.”

“And that’s why the ship is so pretty,” he said, looking around the lab. It was full without being cluttered and most everything was clearly in its own special place.

“Most of it.” She giggled. “People never come in here or my room. You’re the first in something like ten years!”

Mache blinked. First, huh? He smirked. “Honored.”

She stood, stretching her long hands up to the ceiling, tilting her head back and humming with a small grin. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “Having someone to talk to, I mean. I didn’t miss it, but it is nice.”

He was struck by the lines of her body still laced tightly in her bustier, stretched within arm’s reach, shirt pressed tight against her skin as she pulled one arm back, and then the other. Mache forgot to speak for a moment. “Er,” he said, floundering until her words caught up to him. “Sure. I mean, no problem.”

“And tomorrow is flying lessons,” she said with a smile. “I’m going to bed early.”

“Early?” he asked.

“I don’t need much sleep. I never have. I lay down and I think and I think and I think and it doesn’t seem to matter when I go to bed.”

“Right,” he said, and rose. “What time would you like to wake?”

“Whenever the sun wakes you will be fine. I’ll make breakfast.” She bounced with excitement.

Mache gulped and rose. “All right,” he said, a little too quickly. He hoped her innocence would hold out long enough for him to exit. Thirty-eight and bouncing around like a fifteen-year-old just wasn’t fair. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Valeria probably bid him good night, but he wasn’t positive, breathing a sigh of relief as he got back to his rooms.

* * * *

Morning came early for Valeria. Thus, morning came early for him too.

“Mache?” There was a gentle touch on his bare shoulder. A cool, soft something slid over his skin. The smell of fresh grass and warm metal. What a peculiar combination. Still, whatever it was, it was disturbing the best night of sleep on the softest of mattresses. He batted the touch away.

“You should get up. Breakfast is ready.”

His head pounded in protest of the late night and early morning so soon after being knocked around. He groaned as the hand drew a cool line across his shoulders. “…Nuh-uh.”

“Are you sure?”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay. If that’s the way you want it.” The hand withdrew. He pressed his face into the pillow. For a breath, he fancied himself asleep again. There was a cheerful, bubbly giggle. It was Valeria doing something that she found funny and he would probably find completely mortifying. “Wake up time!”

He had time to open his eyes half way before a tumble of leather, cotton, blond hair and ninety-five-percent flesh according to volume fell onto his midriff. Her hands ripped away the covers and, unperturbed by the fact that he’d divested himself of his shirt before sleeping, poked, prodded and tickled his chest.

His first response was a grunt at the sudden weight on his stomach. He winced at the rush of blood to the head. It began to pound again. Finally, there was the alternate cold and warmth of her hands as she chanted, “Time to get up, time to get up.”

“I’m up, I’m up,” he cried, batting at her hands. He managed to grab the warm one but couldn’t quite bring himself to touch the one of metal. It stilled as he grabbed the natural one. Trying to hide a grimace at the thought of the millipede hand in his, Mache left it laying in the center of his chest. He eyed her. Valeria sat on his stomach, already dressed in flying gear–the same bustier, now with a leather jacket, a flying cap over her hair and a single goggle pulled up over her cap. The eye-patch was different, he noticed, with the emblem of Elthgo stamped in the middle.

For some reason the stamp chilled him, and he focused on her good eye. “Do you wake up everyone this way?” he asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “A friend did it all the time in the factory. I haven’t gotten to do it since I came here.”

“And where is that friend now?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. “You can do it to
him
.”

Valeria’s face fell. “There was a big explosion fifteen years ago. He died in that.”

Mache felt terrible. Women always managed to do that to him. Nibbling on his lip, he tried to think of something to cheer her. “You’ve only got one airfoil, right?” he asked.

As expected she perked up, or she hadn’t been too sad in the first place. Mache supposed the incident was fifteen years passed. She pulled her hair in a tail from where it spilled in beautiful waves out of her flying cap and let it go again. “Yes. That’s okay, right?”

“Most airfoils are made with room for two,” Mache replied, trying to find his shirt. “Should be fine.”

“Is my hair okay?” She asked. “If it’s out of the cap?”

He blinked. Then he chuckled. “It might be difficult to brush out afterward, but it should be fine.”

“What do the lady pilots do?” she asked, eyes wide in curiosity. “The ones with long hair?”

Mache frowned, trying to figure out if he knew any lady pilots. There were a handful of airship captains he’d heard of. Mistress Henley was the most famous of them, from America, but he didn’t even know what she looked like. “I guess they tuck it under their cap.” he said, shrugging. “Don’t really know.”

Pulling on his gear, Mache tried to keep up with Valeria’s next conversation, mind twisting around air speed velocities, gliding power, head winds, and trade winds. Even with his fairly good education on flying, he gave up after a minute and focused on getting everything ready. Hopefully he wouldn’t pass out or anything due to his concussion.

He waited for her to take a breath. “Okay, ready. Let’s go to the hanger and we’ll start there.”

“Wonderful! We can get breakfast there too.”

Mache blinked. “We can?”

She took his hand and dragged him out. Not in the habit of arguing with beautiful women, Mache followed. He saw a fair amount of the airship the night before, but in the morning light it was even more dazzling. The curtains were free of dust, the chandeliers glittered in the morning light, a hundred details he hadn’t seen before making themselves known, like the wire wrapping on the glass drops to keep them in place and the way many of the structures of the chandeliers were actually delicate gears wrapped in gold plating. It was more than valuable metal, though–it was art, and Mache found himself admiring it without any thought to the gold, only the golden haired beauty that made it.

Valeria threw open the doors, doing a turn as Mache looked around. “This was the main control room. We altered it to be the hanger when we bought it. It keeps people confused if they don’t know where to land.”

“Or, you know, has them crashing through your ballroom,” Mache retorted.

She giggled. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I replaced most of the window last night, I’ll do the rest today.”

“Where’d you get the material?” he asked, frowning.

“There’s a lot of silicon in the lab, and you crashed inward. I picked up the pieces, ground them, and melted it back to the correct shape,” she said, and knelt at a plot of lettuce growing near the window, pulling up a few leaves.

Mache looked around again. The materials up here were worth hundreds of thousands of marks. It unsettled him. Materials so valuable on the ground were hers at the drop of a hat. He frowned and shook himself. No skin off his nose. “Does the lettuce grow well up here?”

“Year-round too,” she said, pulling up a head, breaking off a piece and standing. She pressed it to his lips with her natural hand, smiling. “Here.”

He took a cautious bite. “It’s good,” he said. “We ate some yesterday, right?”

“Of course we did.” Valeria grinned. “It’s always good for you, though.” She ate her
 
portion and strode over, tugged a cover off to reveal an airfoil in dazzling white. Mache’s breath was stolen away. If there was one thing he appreciated it was aircraft, and this one was beautiful.

The airfoil he had lost was rough hewn, with edges that could slice a hand. Not this beauty. It was curves and sweetness. Dings were common and ignored on his; this one was pristine. He stepped forward, touching the smooth surface with a low whistle. “Wow,” he said. “Damn, Valeria.”

“It’s nice?” she guessed.

“More than nice,” he murmured, tracing the curve of the wing. It was custom cut. Not a moment on the factory floor for this beauty–someone made her with two hands. “Did you make this?”

Valeria blushed for some reason. “No,” she said. “I understand aerodynamics, but the prototype was made by a man in America. Orville or something.”

Mache floundered for a way to restore her pride. “Er, you made the engine to fly to the dirigible. That’s amazing too.”

She studied him. “You think?”

“Yes,” he said, and meant it.

“Okay.” She smoothed her hands over her waist, took a breath, and went to look over his shoulder. “What about the controls?”

Mache tore himself away from admiring the curve of the airfoil. “Here, you’d better get in first. I’ll come in behind you and help you figure things out.”

She stepped close as he waved her over, instructing her on how to place her foot at the part of the wing closest to the barrel of the pit. She was not the epitome of grace and he apologized when he realized he’d forgotten to specify which foot went first. Finally she got her right foot on the wing so her left could swing over and she could step in. He helped her in and, feeling rather stupid, jumped in behind her.

“Sorry,” he said, “it’s automatic for me now.”

“It’s fine.”

Valeria was already running her hands over dials and buttons, and nearly pulled the break up before Mache reached out and grabbed her hand, heart in his throat. “Whoa, whoa. Pull it and this flying lesson will be awfully short,” he said, trying to swallow the lump.

“It’s the brake?” she asked. “Can I press the pedals?”

“Yes,” Mache said, finally relaxing. “In fact, go ahead now. I’d like to see too.”

She flexed her foot and with incredible smoothness the wings tilted and changed. Mache restrained himself from stroking her shoulders. “Good. Keep playing with it. The difference is a real shock in the air.” He reached out, adjusted her hands on the controls in front of her. “Go ahead and mess with that too. I’ve got to look at this other stuff.” He sat up, leaned forward over her shoulder, and scrutinized the dashboard.

BOOK: Valeria
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