Mira could barley move her arms. They were pressed against her chest, palms up, and she tried to free her left hand enough to reach into the metallic belly of the contraption. Sweat poured from her brow and soaked her hair, which was pulled into a tight braid and pinned beneath her head. “Can you see it, Mira?” she heard her father ask.
“Ot yeh,” Mira replied. She had tried to say “not yet”, but the light clenched in her teeth had prevented her from doing so.
After a second of silence, her father said, “Is that a yes, or a no?”
With a grunt of frustration directed at herself rather than her dad, Mira wriggled the fingers of her right hand until she was able to take the light from her mouth. It had started to dim, so she shook it as well as she could. Its light gained a little strength. “Not yet,” she replied. “This is the same model we worked on yesterday. Why is the coupling not where it’s supposed to be?”
From the room around her came the modest sound of someone clearing his throat. “I’m afraid that’s, um, my doing,” said Mr. Mayota, Mira and her father’s latest client. “I had some, um, modifications made on it a few months ago. Now it only takes half as much coal to keep it hot!”
“Until it breaks down,” Mira grumbled to herself. Louder this time, she asked, “Do you know where they put the power coupling when they did these ‘modifications’?”
“Not really,” Mr. Mayota replied. “I don’t know much about these things, so I didn’t really ask questions. Which is also why I called you two instead of crawling under there myself.”
Mira squinted into the metallic underbelly of the huge pressure-cooker. Everyone in Beryl had one, and fixing them was what kept Kinvara Repairs in business. Her father had started the business when he was not much older than she, and since her arms had been long enough to reach into the metal bellies of the things, Mira had been tagging along. Mira suspected that her father used his daughter’s knowledge of contraptions to keep himself from clambering beneath the things. She teased him about it often, but only because she loved him.
Suddenly she spied a familiar part amid the mismatched and jury-rigged innards: a narrow, hard glass cylinder that was capped on both ends by brass knobs. Inside the coupling was a spring, which was supposed to be at least somewhat compressed. This one had decompressed almost completely and nearly forced one of the brass knobs off the end. “I found it!” she cried in triumph. “Wow, it’s a wreck. There’s no recompressing this one. It’s shot.”
Mr. Mayota said a curse word, to which Mira’s dad responded, “Kish, if you don’t mind! My daughter is in the room!”
“I’m sorry, Maleer,” he replied, though he still sounded flustered. “It’s just … I thought my troubles were over when I paid for those modifications.”
“Think of it this way,” Mira said as she twisted her left arm among the cogs and pistons of the contraption. “The money you saved on coal will pay for the new coupling. So you haven’t really lost anything.” She took the coupling with her gloved hand and tried to pull it free. Whoever had cheated Mr. Mayota out of his money for the so-called ‘modifications’ had really forced it into place; Mira bit her lip in frustration and pulled harder.
Without warning the coupling pulled free, and her hand came flying back. A thin stream of lukewarm water issued from the coupling socket and splashed onto Mira’s face.
Of all the things that could have happened when she removed the coupling, that was the worst possible. The spring inside the power coupling was meant to stay compressed and regulate the heat from cooker’s coal-fired belly to its water pot. The result was steam, which powered the contraption at three times the efficiency of coal-fire alone. Every time the steamer was used, the spring decompressed a little, until it had to be reset. But whoever had messed with the cooker’s innards hadn’t put it back correctly; the trickle of water could only mean one thing. Mira was seconds away from a blistering blast of steam to the face.
When the water splashed onto her face, Mira squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn away from its source. “Pull me out! Pull me out!” she cried frantically to her father, who had been holding her ankles the entire time. Two hands yanked hard on her boots, and just as Mira slid from beneath the cooker she felt a searing blast of steam broil her long braid, which trailed behind her head.
“Mira! Are you all right?!” Mira heard her father cry. She finally allowed herself to spit the acrid, metallic water from her mouth as two hands slipped beneath her back and lifted her from the floor. Mira flung away her heavy gloves and wiped her face with a handkerchief from her pocket.
“I’m fine,” she assured her father when she could see again. He sat in front of her, his dark eyes full of worry and his tall, prominent nose only inches away from her. His huge arms wrapped around her and squeezed her tightly and his onyx-colored beard, peppered with its fair share of white, scratched comfortingly against her cheek.
When he finally released her, Mira turned and looked at the damage to the cooker. The low-ceilinged room had become stiflingly hot and muggy from the blast of steam. The floor beneath it was covered with water, and even from a few feet away Mira could feel the heat that radiated from the puddle. If her father hadn’t pulled her out when he did, she’d surely be dead. Or she’d be in so much agony that she’d wish she was dead.
“Mira! Maleer! I …. I ….” Mr. Mayota stuttered. The short man ran his hand across his bald pate, which was covered in sweat from the heat of the room.
Mira, her heart thundering in her ears from the close call, tossed the broken coupling at Mr. Mayota’s feet. “That’ll be seventy-one cogs for the new coupling, ten cogs for removal fee …” she looked back to the cooker. As if on cue, it burped out one last blast of steam. “ … and twenty cogs for installation of the new one. Once your cooker cools off.”