The mechanics of Napoli, Ohio were used to operating under blazing conditions – ninety-plus degree weather, hot metal, sweat rolling off their foreheads. In the whole of the small town, only two existed; Ben and Sheyenne worked together at a small open-garage car shop on the corner lot of 8th and Main, and they were an irreverent pair – they rolled out the Sundays like coins into a slot machine, repairing the day's supply of broken-down cars while their owners sweltered inside the chapel of the local Baptist Fellowship. On any given Sunday a string of rowdy laughter could be heard emanating from the shop at all hours, while hymns hovered over the church lot and even the neighborhood's loudest dogs took shelter from the blistering sun beneath their respective porches.
But on this particular Sunday, for the type of work Sheyenne was anticipating, the summer weather seemed almost too mild - the sky hovered at a pale white-blue, and wisps of cloud stroked the edges of the sun. For the first Sunday in years, the shop was closed. There was business to be done today.
"Hey! Hold on!" she shouted, jogging to catch her long-legged guide, once again several yards ahead of her with his quick lope. She grumped quietly to herself as she drew up beside him. The man must have been a hell of a runner in his earlier days.
Ben was the senior mechanic, and, until recently, her mentor of sorts. She had been in and out of his shop for three years, unable to satisfy the desire to get her hands dirty under the hood of whatever scrap-bucket car was available. It was only last summer that she'd begun working for a salary. She'd never kept a regular shift. She started work late and ended it late, and most weekday nights found the two of them camped out in front of the garage, diggting into hamburgers at eight or nine o'clock. The arrangement had suited them both just fine.
Then, less than a week ago, a small-time mech boxing show had hit the summer fair of their little Ohio town. Sheyenne had disappeared backstage and had returned fascinated. Ben, however disenchanted he was with the bot industry, had seen that his apprentice was fast moving beyond the boundaries of what his own experience could teach her.
So the next Sunday's lazy afternoon saw them tramping across a half-empty fairground toward toward what once was a lofty horse barn, now transformed into a temporary mechanic shop. Even from thirty yards away, Sheyenne could smell the grease of metallics and knew that someone inside was up to their elbows in work.
"So - tell me more about this guy," she prodded Ben once she caught him.
Her mentor smirked at her. "Girl," he corrected her.
"Yeap. She's a pretty tough one, so I've heard. Got herself in a bad accident with a bot, 'bout seven years ago. Still in the business."
"What happened to her?"
"Bot she was workin' on glitched and went crazy. It was real bad. Lost her an arm and a leg each. Took out an eye. Heard she even lost both arms, but whether you believe the word of mouth is up to you."
"And she just kept working?"
"Yeap. Got herself some high-tech prosthetics and got right back in the business."
"What about her eye?" In Sheyenne's mind, an image was forming of a tall, grossly-deformed woman, half-covered in metal plates, glaring down at her with her one good eyeball. For a moment she almost began to second-guess the impulsive decision that had led her here.
"Her eye? Got a fake one, I heard." Ben grinned impishly. "A robotic one."
"You made that up."
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. Guess you'll have to see for yourself." The grizzled mechanic hauled open the huge double doors and loped inside.
Sheyenne peered in. A sticky gust of air buffeted her in the face. The temperature inside was at least fifteen degrees hotter. Sheyenne pulled her dark hair back in a sloppy bun.
"…You comin', kid?"
Inside, the shop was a catastrophe. Rows and rows of tools, robot parts, maintenance supplies, and work tables had been hurriedly set up inside, and half the contents were scattered around the floor. Ben had already disappeared into the mess; she could hear his voice echoing off the corrugated tin ceiling, conversing with someone farther in. Sheyenne followed the sound, stepping carefully.
Around the corner, a wide space had been cleared in the center of the floor and a long work table lay stretched out, with a damaged robot lying on top of it. She spotted Ben leaning against the table, chatting it up with the bot's engineer as she worked.
The woman was bent over the robot in an air of industriousness. She didn't look up at the sound of Sheyenne's tennis shoes on the concrete. "That her?"
Sheyenne was taken aback. This woman was no taller than Sheyenne herself. The blunt "that her?" was a casual mix of regional influences - southern and western states rolled into one, far from the steely snarl she'd conjured in her head. Her light reddish hair, which was all that Sheyenne could see of her at this angle, was chopped haphazardly short. She glanced up, revealing an unusual mix of features - sharp cheekbones, a strong jaw, a heart-shaped face, deeply tanned skin. One eye was bright blue; the other had been replaced by a sheet of metal, shaped to fit her face like an eyepatch. A glinting white optic flashed out where her left eye should have been.
Ben raised an eyebrow at Sheyenne's look of surprise. "This is Jesse," he commented with a gesture of his work-roughened hand. "Head of this operation, far as you're concerned. She's their top engineer."
As Jesse stood up from her work, the true extent of her accident was revealed - one leg was clearly metal-made underneath a pair of faded jeans, and the sleeves of her shirt were rolled up to the shoulder to reveal not just one, but both arms missing. In their places were two mechanical limbs. Neither of the appendages resembled human arms, other than basic structure. They were all left bare and gray – crude looking, but sturdy and obviously fully functional. One robotic hand held a dirty oil rag. Grease stains darkened their surfaces up to the elbow joint. Jesse was a strange mix of human and machine, but no more intimidating a figure than Ben was.
Speak of the devil. Ben's voice snapped her out of the beginnings of a trance.
"Kid, stare or don't stare, either way. It ain't like I pay attention." Jesse had stepped around the table to shake her hand. There was no 'nice to meet you' or 'how's it going' - just a steel robotic claw, outstretched expectantly in Sheyenne's direction. A little awkwardly, Sheyenne took it. Jesse's shake was fluid and quick. Realizing abashedly that she'd been expecting a stiff, remote-control motion, Sheyenne dropped it quickly and followed her back to the table.
"You've never worked with bots, have you?" Jesse promptly picked up a small welding tool and resumed her work.
Sheyenne frowned. "Well, no, but I've rewired cars from the inside out."
"I wasn't asking you to prove yourself, I was confirming information." Her tone was quiet and blunt. It took Sheyenne by surprise - again.
"Good." Jesse didn't look up once as she welded.
Sheyenne waited for the rest of her response, but the silence between them began to stretch out. Ben fidgeted for a moment, then took back the conversation.
"The fighters are headed out day after tomorrow," he informed Sheyenne. "Goin' to a fair in Kentucky. Means you have two days to decide if you're goin' with 'em. If she'll take you along, that is."
"S'long as the crew'll put up with her," Jesse added gruffly. If there was a slight hint of humour in her words, Sheyenne couldn't catch it. As blue sparks popped into the air from the welding tip, her eyes were drawn to the damaged bot on the table - a simple model, unpainted, with a faint bronze tinge to the armour. Part of the torso and right shoulder joint had been crushed, but the nameplate was legible – Atom, read the name plate in swooping letters.
"This one's my personal favorite," Jesse told her, noticing her curious gaze. "Generation Two sparring prototype. Been trying to fix him for weeks." There it was, finally, a small flare of emotion. Her tone and posture remained the same, but the words carried a dose of protectiveness. Mama bear, Sheyenne thought instantly.
"What happened to him?"
The engineer straightened and set the welder aside. "Stories later." Turning to Ben, she asked, "How long's she been working with you, again?"
As the mechanics made small talk about their businesses, Jesse's eyes strayed to the side, where Sheyenne was still standing beside Atom, looking him in the face. Her fingers traced somberly over the bot's damaged arm, while her eyes roved over the armour at a deliberate pace.
In her head, Sheyenne was at work. She imagined her hands picking up the welder, moving into position, and beginning to seal the crumpled plates. She soldered wires, threaded cables through hinges, sealed leaks, polished surfaces, refitted screws, rotated the shoulder joint to check for any lingering stiffness -
"What are you doing?"
Sheyenne blinked. Before her lay Atom, dented and torn up. The welder sat quietly next to his shoulder. She glanced back and forth between her superiors, a deer caught in the headlights. "Um. Nothing, just, I don't know..."
Both of the older mechanics were looking at her. After a moment of silence, they glanced at each other.
"…She gets like that sometimes. Doin' all the work before she picks up a wrench, seems."
"Mmm. Well, bring her by on Tuesday and we'll see." Jesse sounded indifferent.
Sheyenne remained standing uncertainly before them, fingers itching. "So...that's it?" she asked. "No special audition or anything?"
Jesse paced back to the table and braced herself against it, leaning over the G-2. Her lips quirked. "Nah. Nobody's got time for that."
She turned to Ben questioningly. Her mentor shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Well, you heard her. Let's get out of here." They headed towards the door, leaving Jesse behind. Sheyenne glanced back at her once. She was bent over the table again, looking just the same as she had when they came in. The barn doors shut behind them with a faint echo, leaving her alone with her work.
Jesse stared at the quirky smile dented into Atom's face mask, contemplating the odd pair she'd just parted company with. The girl seemed smart, she'd give her that. But there was an overdose of energy to the kid – what's her name, Sheyenne – that she couldn't place, something that almost set her cringing. A party-kid type energy, she thought to herself. Unbeknownst to Sheyenne, Jesse had taken one look at her and thought, groupie.
But the kid's hands belonged at a work table – Jesse could easily see that. She'd noticed the twitching at Sheyenne's fingertips when she'd laid eyes on Atom's dented breastplate. There was talent there – she would have bet money on it.
Without leaving her work, Jesse reached for a cell phone and flipped it open, dialing with her chin. An older man's voice answered.
"Well, how'd she do, Jesse?"
"Fine, fine. Paul, you headed to the Jackson's tomorrow?"
"Tonight, actually. What you want? A Coke?"
"Make it two Cokes, Paul."
She could practically hear the old truck driver grinning from the other end of the line. "There, I knew you'd like the kid."
"No promises." Jesse hung up the phone.