We rattled into town in a cloud of dust and smoke. The dust couldn’t be helped, but the smoke was pure dramatics. I fixed Sergeant Reynolds’s exhaust months ago, but he insists the smoke is a necessary aspect to a good entrance. I think he just enjoys making people cough. I have to do something about that rattle, though. Probably that stupid nut came loose again.
“Remember, Eratosthenes, no burning anything down,” I muttered, as his copper body slithered out from under my scarf to perch on my shoulder.
“You’re no fun, Aife,” he complained, releasing a bout of steam from behind his left ear, “when can we go back to the air pirates? They have a proper appreciation of my flair for pyrotechnics.”
“They also have a tendency to get themselves blown out of the sky,” I retorted, “and unlike you, neither them nor I can get ourselves pieced back together again.”
“How would you know?” Eratosthenes made a leap for my head, and I winced as he latched onto my curls. “You’ve never risked getting your head blown off to find out.”
I shrugged. It was true, I avoided violent disputes as much as someone who was frequently employed by air pirates could. I’ve worked hard to make the name Aife Scamallborn mean something, and I’d like to keep it as long as possible.
The rattle in Sgt. Reynolds’s engine got worse, and I focused on keeping him running until we reached a boarding house with a “vacancy” sign in the window. Great. Now I’d have to get him running again as well as find enough gadgets that need fixing to pay for room and board.
“At least this one has a coffee shop,” Eratosthenes commented wryly, flexing his wings with the squeak of unoiled gears, “you get cranky without caffeine.”
“And you get creaky when you ride outside your pocket,” I retorted, pushing my goggles to the top of my head and pulling his claws free of my hair. It was hard enough getting people to take me seriously without an animatronic dragon with attitude riding on my head.
“There’s nothing to look at in that pocket!” he protested, gears grinding as he tried to escape my grip.
“I’ll let you out once I’ve arranged for a meal and a bed,” I promised, shoving him in one of the sergeants saddlebags. “And we’ll see what that rattle’s all about,” I said, giving the sergeant a pat.
I gave a rueful glance at my reflection in the window. Streaks of dirt and grease on my face, dust covering my wrinkled and travel-stained clothes, a rip on one knee, and curls going everywhere. Well, at least I didn’t look like a snot-nosed kid hiding from her parents. Squaring my shoulders, I pushed the door open and went inside.
I was surprised at how empty it was. Normally, people congregate in places like this, but the only occupants were a scruffy cat perched on top of the espresso machine, and a man I assumed to be the owner. He glanced up from his newscaster as I clomped across the floor, then back down and said, “Machine’s out of order if you’re looking for a caffeine fix.”
I suppressed a groan. Three days on the road, and now the local coffee shop didn’t have coffee? “Actually, I was hoping to get a room for the night.”
The man looked up again, and looked me over. “Beds don’t come cheap in these parts,” he commented, clearly looking to see the color of my money.
This was always the tricky part. All my money went for fuel and parts for the Sergeant and Eratosthenes, not to mention food for me. “I was hoping to trade service for service,” I said, trying to seem as businesslike as possible.
The man arched an eyebrow “Not that I run that type of business, but you seem a tad…wild…for that sort of thing.”
An angry flush crept over my cheeks. “I was thinking more along the lines of fixing the coffee machine, and any other gadgetry that’s out of sorts around here.”
The man’s other eyebrow crept up to join its brother. “Do you have any experience with delicate machinery?”
I smiled. This was the part I really enjoyed. I reached into my satchel, and pulled out this week’s project: an early prototype of a handheld ray gun. “You could say that. I fixed this, after all.” I flicked the safety off, and the gun made a soft whirring sound as it powered up.
The man’s eyes went wide and I could see he was an inch from diving under the counter. I offered the gun for him to inspect, but he raised his hands in protest. “I’m sure it’s in good working condition,” he stammered, “would you like a room with a view of the street, or one with a balcony?”
My smile widened. “I’ll take the balcony.” I powered down the ray gun, and stashed it in my satchel again as I went out to retrieve my toolbag and move the Sergeant into the yard behind the boarding house.
“Did you bother to tell him that death ray of yours has to be coaxed into even stunning someone?” Eratosthenes asked, scampering up to my shoulder as I walked back around to the front door.
I shrugged, letting my smile shift into a smirk. “He seemed confident in my skills, so I felt no need to elaborate.”
“Just try not to make this one too crazy,” Eratosthenes said, skittering over the broken espresso machine, “all these bells and whistles provide ample opportunity for this lovely to get quirky.”
I made a face at him. “Just give me your diagnosis, Era, not your advice.”
Eratosthenes rolled his eyes with a rattle and a clank, and more steam erupted from behind his ears. “Typical stuff. Machine suffers abuse, stops working properly, suffers more abuse, rodents play havoc with wiring, machine is considered lost cause and thrown out.”
I shrugged out of my coat, fingers lingering over the old medals that no longer held meaning. “This machine hasn’t been thrown out yet, Era, which is why we’re here.”
Era gave his wings a flap and landed on my head, his favorite perch when we tinkered together. I started taking the espresso machine apart, grimacing at the build up of grime and rolling my eyes at all the extra moving parts. With my luck, I’d fix the machine, but it would make comments that reflected the bitterness of the drinks it served. Or it would refuse to make anything before ten in the morning. I shook my head, and focused on Eratosthenes’s commentary as my hands moved with practiced ease through the inner workings of the machine. The more occupied with the actual workings of the machine I am, the less likely it is to develop a personality.
I hardly noticed when the landlord brought me a tray of dinner, but I must have found time to eat because by the time I’d finished putting the machine back together, all that was left on my plate were crumbs and a few drippings of gravy.
“I hope I liked it,” I yawned, scooping up my tools and coat and heading up the stairs for a long soak in a tub. Eratosthenes let out a snore when I moved him from my head to the nightstand, and I smiled. Annoying as he could be the mechanical dragon was good company.
I left my clothes in a heap on the bathroom floor, and let out a contented sigh as I slipped into the hot water of the bath. It was almost worth going the long stretches without hot water, or bathing in general, in exchange for the ecstasy of finally getting clean in comfort. I lay there for I don’t know how long, before a creaky yawn from the bedroom reminded me of the work I still had in front of me. I groaned, and started scrubbing away.
“I was starting to think you’d fallen asleep and drowned,” Eratosthenes griped, scampering over to my knapsack and tossing articles of clothing at me.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I fired back, pulling on a fresh pair of pants and tugging a shirt over my head. I glanced in the mirror at the mess my hair remained, gave up on trying to make it look better, and pulled on my boots without bothering to lace them up. “Are you coming? I’m sure Sergeant Reynolds missed you.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Eratosthenes replied, but he flew to my shoulder as I shrugged into my coat.
We took the back stairs, and went out through the kitchen, snagging some fresh rolls on our way. The Sergeant gave a grumpy rattle as I pushed him into the shed, but refrained from trying to choke me with smoke, so I knew he was glad to see me.
Sure enough, that blasted nut had come loose again, and I had to fish it out of the engine.
“I swear this thing comes loose every time we fly,” I muttered, swiping the hair out of my eyes and probably smudging my freshly scrubbed face with engine grease. “Are you sure I can’t just replace it?”
The Sergeant’s speakers crackled. “I told you, that nut is imbued with a vast portion of my personality.”
“So we absolutely should replace it,” Eratosthenes chirruped, scampering back and forth across my shoulders.
“Play nice, you two,” I said, pulling the wrench from the straps on my boot to return the nut to its rightful place, “or I swear I will disassemble the both of you and blow town with a flying ace.”
“I catch you with a flyboy and you’ll have to disassemble me,” Sergeant Reynolds growled, letting out a small puff of smoke, while Eratosthenes just clattered and squeaked his way into my back pocket.
I just chuckled and shook my head. I made sure the nut was nice and tight, then sat back on my heels. “Try that.”
The Sergeant’s engine roared to life with a satisfying burst of cheering from his speakers.
“My turn?” Eratosthenes squeaked, poking his head out.
“Oh, if you insist,” I replied, offering him one hand and grabbing a can of oil with the other, “It would be so much easier if you just stayed inside when there’s sand around.”
“Someone’s got to make sure you two don’t get lost,” he retorted, stretching out across my hand so I could reach all the little crannies that let sand into his gears.
I chuckled again, and bent to my task, humming along to the jazz music the Sergeant loved so much.
I woke up the next morning to a way too loud rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, and Eratosthenes pouncing at my face.
“Now you’ve done it, Aife!” he shrieked, whacking my nose with a flapping wing, “The espresso machine is singing showtunes! I thought I told you not to make it quirky!”
“If I could avoid giving machinery quirks, I wouldn’t have such a persistent alarm clock!” I snapped back, tumbling out of bed and scrambling to stuff all my belongs in my knapsack. I pulled my boots on to the sound of groggy complaints, and slipped out the window as stamping feet climbed the stairs.
We blew out of town with nary a wisp of smoke, leaving behind nothing but the echo of the Sergeant’s engine, and an espresso machine belting out “Defying Gravity”.