Barefoot in the Sky


    Calico Rae unwrapped the bandage from her right foot, glad to see that it didn’t stick anymore.  This burn was healing better than the one on her left.
    Metal rang as Spider climbed the bunk bed poles to watch, clinging with his many limbs and peering with robotic intensity.  “Does it hurt like dented plate mental?” he asked.  “Or like a pinched circuit?”
    Cal sighed.  She’d long since given up trying to convince the automaton that she didn’t know what his pain felt like either.  “Probably the dented metal,” she said.  “As long as it’s a dent on something important.”  Spider nodded.
    “How long until you’re fully functional?” Tankerbelle rumbled from the opposite (heavily reinforced) bunk.
    Cal flexed her feet.  “I’m pretty functional now,” she said.  “It’s just tender.  Should be forgettable in a few days.”
    The pink behemoth shook her head with a scrape.  “Unfair,” she declared.  “If my feet got melted, we’d still be looking for replacement material months from now.”
    “You have my sympathy,” Cal said with cheerful insincerity.  She picked up a fresh roll of gauze.  “You’ll just have to be comforted by your ability to bench press half the ship.”
    Tankerbelle shook her head again.  “If I knew you were such a smart-mouth, I would have convinced the captain to find another token human to buy supplies.”
    Cal held the gauze to her chest and batted her eyes.  “You’d miss me.  My witty repartee.  My skill with a soldering iron.  My noble tattoo.”
    The robot had to admit that they would miss this particular human’s connections.  The ship wouldn’t have legal privateer status without them.
    “Though we do have to deal with your smelly human biological needs,” Tankerbelle said.
    “You say that like you have a sense of smell!” Cal laughed.  “You wouldn’t notice if I left food rotting under your bunk for a week!”
    “It’s the principle of—”
    Violent impact jolted the ship sideways.  Cal tumbled onto the floor.  Spider nearly fell, only catching himself with his lowest pair of hands.  Tankerbelle shifted slightly.
    “That felt serious,” she said.  The floor was starting to tilt.
    Cal’s sarcastic remark was lost in the static of the intercom.  Captain Flash snapped a status report, irritation in her voice.  “They found us first.  That was a harpoon to the starboard flight chamber.  Jetpacks and repair kits, now.”
    The crew moved.  Spider scuttled off the fastest, Tankerbelle lumbered into the hall, and Calico Rae dashed her bandages to the floor and ran for it barefoot.
    Mag was already strapping on a jetpack.  Cal gave a nod to the repair bot with the magnetic feet — Mag probably didn’t need the pack, but it would let her get to the damage faster.  And judging by the angle of the floor, speed was critical.
    Cal readied her jetpack as fast as she could, adrenaline thrilling down her limbs.  Things looked bad, but they’d looked bad before.  It was a long way to the ground, and that meant plenty of time to fix the hole.
    Though they did seem to be losing altitude a little faster now…
    Cal belted on her toolbox and padded over to where Tankerbelle was already opening the hatch.  She waited for the robots to jump first.  The floor was cold under her bare feet, and she felt distinctly naked to be wearing all her repair gear but no shoes.
    There wasn’t time to think about it.  Spider disappeared into the gusting wind, and it was Cal’s turn.  She jumped with a whoop.
    We’ve got this.  Tank will bend the metal back into place, then I’ll — Dear god, bare feet feels wrong!
    More than wrong; it was terrifying.  The wind blasted past her and the jetpack sputtered reassuringly at her back, but the cold air between her toes touched some primal fear.  Her feet were exposed, with a vast empty space below them.
    Calico swore and rubbed her feet together, trying to shake the feeling.  She jetted around the hull with the hope that she’d have some excuse to brace them against the ship.
    But no.  Spider and Mag were already fixing the hole at the top, while Tankerbelle was pulling the harpoon free of the bottom.  Tank needed her soldering skills.
    And my thrice-bedamned bare feet!  Cal took up her position, clicking an anchor to the ship to free her hands for work.  Tankerbelle yanked the harpoon out with a gust of ozone-scented air.  Cal didn’t look to see if the big robot kept it as evidence or let it drop; her job was fixing the hole.  As soon as Tank bent the warped metal into place, Cal slapped a plate of thin steel over it and lit the soldering torch.  She already had tinted lenses down over her flight goggles.
    The repair was easy.  She was done in a flash.  But sweat dripped down her sides under the jetpack straps, and she kept flexing her toes like they were searching for something to stand on.  She put away the tools and released the magnetic anchor reluctantly, taking a moment to press her feet against the steel of the ship before jetting away toward the entrance.  She hoped Tank didn’t notice.
    But of course Tank did.  When Cal climbed through the hatch after her, the first thing the robot did was ask if the anchor had gotten stuck.
    Cal shook her head, breathing heavily and grabbing at the floor with her toes.  “No, it’s fine.  Thing with my feet.  Don’t worry about it.”
    Spider scuttled over with a hiss of steam.  “Did the pain level change?” he asked.  “Your skin looks paler, like when you got shrapnel through your leg.  What is the status of your feet?”
    “They’re not wearing shoes,” Cal snapped.  She could feet the blush creep up her neck.  “I’m fine; leave it.”  She moved to unfasten her jetpack.
    The intercom crackled to life again.  “Back in the sky, folks,” Captain Flash said.  “Good repair.  Now it’s our turn.  I’m burning some of the special fuel to catch up, so hold on to something.  It ought to hit in three, two, now.”  The ship jolted forward like it had been swatted by a sky whale.  Which would have been ironic under the circumstances.
    “Grab the limpet mines and go get ‘em,” Captain Flash said as the crew members clattered back upright.  “The ship is ahead and above.  Be advised that we are flying into a whale pod, and there will be harpoons in action.”
    Calico swore to herself.  She cast about the room for anything resembling footwear, but found nothing.  The others were trading toolkits for mines.  Tank was opening the hatch again.
    Something clattered to the floor.  “Will these help?” Spider asked.  Cal looked down to see him offering two small drawstring sacks which had recently held the nuts and bolts rolling across the floor.
    “Thank you,” Cal said, grabbing the bags with a glance at the other robots.  They didn’t seem to notice.  Cal jammed her feet into the bags, blushing hard, and cinched them tight around her bare ankles.  Then she threw off her toolkit and grabbed a mine pack, hurrying to follow Spider out the hatch.
    It helped.  By all the odd gods, it helped.
    It was embarrassing as hell, though.
    Calico set her jetpack thrusters at top speed and powered forward, grateful now for the wind on her burning cheeks.  The whaling ship was ahead just as promised, an old retrofitted thing with limited visibility in the rear.  Lucky for them.
    The sky whales undulating through the clouds were also a convenient distraction.  The great beasts had spotted the harpoons and were starting to scatter, but they moved slowly.  Tempting prey for the criminals wanting to harvest their flight essence.
    Tankerbelle’s voice floated on the wind.  “In the name of the Queen!”  Cal watched her press both mines into place on the hull, then jet away.  Mag followed suit, with Spider catching up.  Cal was still far behind.
    Her pulse jumped.  If I don’t get there soon, Tank’s will blow before I’m free!  And if I hang back instead, it may not be enough mines to break through!
    Cal gripped the controls tighter, jaw clenched.  She tried to will the jetpack on to greater speeds.  As she approached, she rehearsed the motions for planting her mines.  She picked a spot.
    She put her feet out to land against the hull.  She prayed the bags wouldn’t slip.
    Bam against the hull.  Jets on auto, pushing forward.  Unsnap the mines.  Slap them in place.  Press the buttons.  Jets on reverse and go go go!
    Calico dropped like a stone as the world exploded above her.  She closed her eyes despite the goggles, feeling the shockwave and bracing for shrapnel, but none found her.  Whales bellowed in alarm.  She hoped none found them either.
    When she opened her eyes, she saw the whaling ship billowing smoke and going into a nosedive, far away from her in the sky.  With a panicked thought for how close the ground must be, she angled her fall into an arc back upward.  She looked down and saw that she wasn’t as close to death as she’d thought; the fields outside town were still tiny in the distance.
    Cal took deep breaths as she jetted to her ship.  She spared a thought of pity for whichever farmer was about to have his crops ruined by the falling whalers.  The limpet mines had done their work: as Calico watched, parachutes and jetpack flames popped into the air above the ship.
    That was when Captain Flash swooped in with the industrial cargo nets.  Cal cheered as the automaton’s piloting skills let her catch all of them in one pass.
    Cal hurried to rejoin her crewmates.  There was celebrating to be done, once these enemies of the crown were properly stowed.
    By the time Cal made it through the hatch, most of the work was done.  Tank was shutting the door of the cargo bay.  Impotent yelling cut off when the door closed.  Mag hung up the unused “passenger fastening” ropes while Spider boxed up a collection of confiscated weapons.  Captain Flash turned when the hatch slammed behind Cal.
    “Are you hurt?” the captain asked, electricity glittering behind her clear chest panel.  She was visibly concerned.  Cal blushed again.
    “I’m fine,” she said.  The bags on her feet itched now.  She longed to pull them off, but that would just draw attention to them.
    Captain Flash of course noticed anyway.  Under her questioning, Cal had to explain the whole stupid situation.  By the time she finished, her face felt hot enough to power the engines.
    “I see.”  The captain’s metal face couldn’t smile, but there was amusement in her voice.  “So the next time I hear insufferable human smugness, I just have to commandeer your shoes and order you to fix something outside.  Good to know.”  She turned and raised her arms.  “Well done, team!  Even those of you with weird phobias, which will never ever be brought up again.  Let’s go call the Queen.”
    Cal stood there red-faced as Captain Flash left the room, followed by Mag.  Spider gave her a sympathetic glance before skittering after them.
    Tankerbelle clapped her on the back.  “Come along, Bagfoot!  Oh pardon me, should that be Baroness the Burlap Calista de Rae?”
    Cal scowled.  “It’s Calico,” she grumbled, yanking at the jetpack straps.  “When I get enough money to buy my lands back, you will not be invited.  You … peasant.”
    The large automaton laughed heartily.  “That’s the nicest insult I’ve ever been called.  C’mon, Bagfoot.”
    Cal sighed.  She shucked off the jetpack, tore the bags from her feet, and flung them into the farthest corner of the room before following.

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