“You aren’t supposed to be here today.” The general’s long shadow stretched into the hangar from the rolled-up garage door.
Skye peeked out from the cockpit of a mech with half its front armor blown out, metal blackened and curling in from the impact point. With a screwdriver between her teeth, she tossed a charred actuator onto the ground and called out, “I’m glad you’re here, Appa. I want to show you my plans for the decommissioned exosuits.”
“You promised your mother.”
“The engines are okay. The shields cause all the issues.” She hunched down behind what was left of the front armor, only slices of her showing in the blasted-out hole. “Every new generation of these machines, we add more armor, which means more weight, which means bigger engines and more crystal power …”
“…which means more dependence on the crystal mines, which means more war.” The general’s face was hard-lined, but his eyes and voice softened. “This is not the time for this discussion.”
“The mechs take fire because they’re too slow.” Loosened screws tink-tink-tinked to the ground, then Skye kicked at the wrecked armor from the inside. “We’re going about it the wrong way. We need … more… mobility.” A word for every kick with her combat boots, until the front armor crashed to the ground, exposing her in the cockpit. “We should be going lighter on the mechs and heavier on the firepower. I put the 25-millimeter autocannons on this one. With the vectored thrust jet nozzles on an integrated airfoil on the back, it’s light enough for halcyon-tipped rockets. I know it’s a risk, but …”
“Skye. She is coming.”
“Ah. Here she is. Go to work, people.” A dozen clattering footsteps accompanied a shrill voice from the garage door. Two men dragged a full-length mirror to a workbench. A dressmaker and his assistants, pins poking from their pressed lips, set up a mannequin. The manicurist, hairstylist and makeup bot took over the workbench. The voice followed behind, barking out orders; it belonged to a small woman with tall, upknotted hair and black eyes. “Mind the grease. That silk cost more than your monthly wages.”
“Umma, what are you doing here?” Skye whined, slumping in the cockpit.
“Your name will be chosen from the tiles tonight. Get out of that thing.” Skye’s mother stood next to her husband at a stern parade rest.
“I don’t want to be chosen. There’s a war happening.” But Skye obeyed, climbing down to join the crowd, casting a betrayed glance at her father.
He shrugged. “There is always war. You cannot be a soldier forever.”
“I’m a pilot, Appa. And I’m the best pilot you’ve… ow!” She winced as the makeup bot attacked her eyebrows with tweezers. The manicurist sat on a stool beside her and clucked under her breath at the broken nails and calluses. The hairstylist pulled Skye’s hair out of its knot and yanked through the tangles with a comb.
“No black around her eyes,” Skye’s mother said to the makeup bot. “It makes them small. And overdraw her lips; they are too thin.”
The makeup bot bowed and rummaged through its box of powders and creams while Skye scowled. “What happens if you’re lucky tonight, and some high-placed family chooses me for their son? What will he say when he sees me without all this stuff on my face?”
“A fish is not kept the same way it is caught.”
“Great,” grumbled Skye. “So men are fish.”
“Gold rings and orchids for her hair,” mused Skye’s mother, peering down at a velvet-lined box of decorations. “You know, Skye, Baron’s mother will choose a tile tonight.”
Skye went still. “She … she would never choose me. There are many highborn girls in the tiles this year.” The hairstylist stood on a stool behind her and pulled Skye’s hair into braids, weaving in the rings.
“The politics of the choosing are complex. A choice for the general’s daughter would send a message,” replied her mother.
“It would be an overt act of war not to join Baron with one of the marriageable girls of Silk or Tiger House.” The general’s brow wrinkled with worry.
“If it is war they want, my new mech design will win it.” Skye’s flight jacket was removed, and the dress draped around her. The dressmakers knelt, pins sticking out from their mouths, to correct the hem.
“Stand up straight,” barked her mother. “Your overcoat will be hemmed too short.”
To be continued …