He adjusted the gravity suit, playing with the knobs that kept out temperature and forces of physics while he waited for his turn to come. She was there again, working, the way he always saw her. Thick black braces covered each wrist, synthetic material coating steel, all wrapped tight with velcro. He wondered how her wrists would look without it. Would they be thin and delicate or permanently lined, thick with work?
“Morning, shifty.” She smiled at him, eyes lighting up in her moon shaped face. She was pretty, not exactly beautiful, but each time he climbed down off the great machine he though she was the best looking girl he’d ever seen. Her hair wasn’t just shaved off or pulled back, but set into elaborate braids all around her scalp, dips and swirls of them that sometimes drew pictures and sometimes spelled words. Today it was a star, probably for Founder’s day. He’d ask her to the picnic when he got down, if he got down.
“Morning, climber.” She watched his smile for a while. Normally all she had to watch was monitors and cursors, lines upon lines of code telling her the great machine needed a shift or would need one soon. Then she’d start the program to determine how much, what kind, where. Math. She did math and ran math programs all day. She thought big thoughts, and talked about concepts even bigger than that: planetary alliances, orbital patterns, the need to keep the universes spinning in just the right direction, how a small shift could cause a big reaction. This guy – she gave him a glance up and down – with his meaty arms and squat stature, he didn’t know big thoughts. Just climb the machine, fix the problem, climb down. Maybe because if he thought too much he’d think about the number of climbers who fell each year, or the numbers that caught in the gears each day. “Ready to get started?”
“Sure.” He knew lots of climbers that didn’t have an arm or a hand, a few that were in tongue-operated wheel chairs, lots of lucky ones that were just plain dead. “Do you understand how it works?”
The question was a break in protocol, but his shifter, she didn’t blink. “Aliens left it for us, so not really, but I think the gears you work on move because of heat down in the planets core.”
“You’d think the aliens would make it perfect then, self-lubricating, never get stuck.”
A lot of shifters thought so, but she only laughed. “It’s the 9th gate again. Stuck open. I’ll try to hold the shift, but once you pop it in place things will move pretty quickly.”
“They always do.” Maybe this time he’d be too slow, spring out of the way a second too late. His suit would stop him from hitting the ground too hard. It would seal the pressure down around the wound. Lots of guys made a living one handed. Losing the arm would be worse, but not impossible. He just needed to fall right. He latched the suit on to the heavy wire line that ran up the side of the great machine, a wedge of metal seven stories high and stuck into the earth’s crust. The machine hung at the bottom of the world, upside down when you looked at the globe, but streaking into the sky above him. Now he hung with it. “Well if we want to see winter I’d better get going. See-ya, Shifty.”
“Hey wait.” She looked at him and he half turned back, one leg already moving against gravity as he went up the side of the machine. “The Founder’s Day parade. You up for it?”
“Sure. It’ll give me something to look forward to.” She watched his grin while he climbed. It faded away after thirty feet and she gave her attention back to the monitors. After all, someone had to make sure the Earth moved.