Bonnie bar Abe led him to her work room.
“You have a good memory?”
“Yes.” He nodded. On the wall was a large painting. “Is that a Delense?”
She nodded. “It’s full size. I find it helps, when I get stumped, to take another look at the designer who built the machine I’m trying to fix.”
James looked closely at the figure. It had to be fifty percent more massive than an adult U’tanse, comfortable on four limbs. Covered with a water-repellant pelt, it had a large vertical tail fin.
“Father calls it a beaver, but his sketches of that human home planet animal look much more crude. Take a look at the Delense forearms. When they sat back on the rear legs, those fingers were every bit as flexible as our fingers, and each could oppose the others. But see how the plate on the side of the hand could be used to dig. Although they were machine users, most of Home was built by ‘hand’.”
“Did you paint this?”
“No. Not completely. Belle, my birth-mother, started the sketch from some history videos produced by the Delense. They had made the videos for the Name, and we only had access to them for a short time. I helped with the coloring and shading when I was old enough, but...” She pulled a book from the table. “These are mine.”
James carefully turned the pages. Each was a sketch of a piece of Delense technology showing how a Delense hand would operate it.
“You see something?”
James nodded, tapping at the image of one of the machines. “I was trying to work with this thing in the big workshop, but I was holding it wrong.”
“Maybe. These are just my best guesses.”
Each day he showed up and Bonnie handed him a Delense gadget. “Fix it.”
It was a test. The first was a fluid pump, and he could see that the sealing clamp was snapped off. He dug through the big shelf of parts bins and found the replacement. There was even a little finger-sized pry bar perfectly designed to replace that kind of clamp. He fitted it on a test fixture and it pumped water fine, with no leaks. He handed it to Bonnie and she told him where to put it -- back in the parts bins to fix something even bigger.
Other days were different. The L-shaped device as big as his arm with no external seams or ports other than a seemingly useless screw ring defeated him after three days of puzzling and testing. Bonnie made an empty shelf. “Put your failures here.”
He hated that shelf--all his failures. But he couldn’t help thinking about them. Each morning as he walked in, he looked them over, occasionally picking up one for a second examination.
Bonnie said nothing. She worked at her own repair jobs, usually ones much larger than the gadgets she handed to him.
He wondered when he’d advance to the bigger devices, the ones that they had to bring in through the big overhead hatch. He’d seen only one delivery, and they made him leave until they could purge the outside air. He was happy to be gone. The small boat that settled down between the rows of equipment was being driven by a Cerik, and those claws made him nervous. The way he slashed at everything made him afraid someone could be carved open by accident.
He told himself that it was safe. He just didn’t believe it in his gut. Everyone knew about Sue bar Carl, the eight year old girl who snuck outside and was eaten. It had happened fifteen years before he was born, but every child in the nursery knew the story -- and it wasn’t a fable. It was even marked on the official family tree.
But he guessed he would have to prove himself on the little repair jobs before he could graduate to bigger jobs, and when he was older, go off on those expeditions to repair the Delense factories like Father still did.
Two months went by, long enough so that he could almost tell what was likely broken before he picked up his next device. The Delense had some gadgets that were marvels of elegance and rarely broke except by physical trauma, but there were others that always had the same broken latch or burned out heater element. James was sure he could make an improved in-line heater if he could just make a new element with a thicker end.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have access to the factory that made those elements. That was under the control of a different Cerik clan and they were happy to trade replacements to the other clans and reject the suggestion that any U’tanse could re-program their factory.
James walked to the bath toying with the idea of raiding their parts bins and making a little depositor to rebuild those heating elements with thicker metal. Unfortunately, that wasn’t his job, and nobody was likely to take the suggestion of someone as young as he was.
He felt his ineda slip a little. I can’t have that.
He’d been told that some people kept their ineda up constantly, but most didn’t. However, once he started keeping his mind blocked all the time, more people talked to him. It was a revelation. Some people did want to know what he thought, and if they had to talk to find out, they did.
He took the opportunity to calm and compose his mind and lock it down tight as he undressed. Uncertainty was like an itch. Hanna hadn’t come to give him an update on his ineda progress. He was mostly confident that he was doing it right, but he couldn’t be sure.
Walking out into the bath chamber, he saw a half-dozen girls stretched out next to the water, chatting among themselves. So much bare skin after a long day working on the machines inspired him. A plan came over him. He looked around. No one had raised their head to look his way. He smiled.
Easing into a run, he turned at the last second and jumped high, making the biggest splash he could right next to them.
When he came back up to the surface, the naked girls were all on their feet, squealing and yelling at him. He smiled and ducked down below the water, heading out into the middle.
It worked. No one could read me. It was a complete surprise to them.
He savored the memory as he swam all the way across the bath and sat on the other side. Maybe it wouldn’t be wise to swim back just yet.