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A note from ForLackOfStars

Minimal editing due to COVID-19 complications. Thank you for your understanding.

One of the more unique aspects of Inapithe is the way that it integrated itself with its surroundings. While other city-states kept careful control of their expansion or demolished still-standing structures in favor of their own infrastructure, the government of Inapithe chose to repurpose the buildings damaged and abandoned in the Retributive War. I posit that this assimilation contributed to Inapithe's reputation as a cultural melting pot.

Richard Cambiot, The Influence of Inapithe on Modern Art

“Quit your whining, we're here.”

Astrid takes a long moment to listen to the lap of waves on concrete and assess what she is looking at before responding. “Are you sure, Pell? Are you absolutely sure that this is where we're supposed to be?”

“Don't sass me; I know this city like the back of my hand. Pun not intended.”

“Pell, this is a turret.”

The two of them are, indeed, standing in front of an old turret, which sits at the edge of a small inlet. The turret has a squat, rectangular base, upon which is mounted an enormous cannon, several stories in height, which is pointed out into the sea. The turgid, brackish water laps at the edges of the base, producing a steady, rhythmic smacking sound.

“We're on the edge of the city, Astrid,” Pell says, striding forward with an air of confidence that Astrid wishes she could emulate. “Most of the buildings here were reclaimed by urban explorers in the years following the Retributive War. People live in some odd buildings. Don't worry about it.”

Astrid follows her, each of her long steps easily matching three of Pell's short ones. She cannot help but look over her shoulder every few steps. This part of town is nearly deserted, which she appreciates, but the wide open streets crisscrossed with the shadows of power lines make her feel slightly on edge, as if they are walking into an ambush. “Call me crazy, Pell, but living inside a giant gun doesn't exactly strike me as normal. Why hasn't the government, I don't know, built new buildings?”

Pell sighs. “The government, as you call them, is a little different here than you're used to. They see it as a chance to extol the self-reliant and artistic virtues of our culture, or something like that. Bunch of bull, if you ask me. They just don't want to put any money into infrastructure. Frankly, I'm surprised it works as well as it does.”

Astrid can think of a dozen different issues with that system off the top of her head, but she pushes them aside for the moment, because the two of them have arrived at a small metal door set directly into the base of the turret. The nerves that she has been fighting off all day come roaring back, wrapping themselves around her lungs and strangling her.

“I don't know if I can do this, Pell,” she whispers.

“Yes, you can,” Pell shoots back. She links her arm with Astrid's, pinning her in place. “They'll like you, trust me. Especially once they see what you can do.” She raps on the door, sending a tinny booming noise reverberating through the turret. The sound of footsteps on metal echoes from within, slowly growing louder as their owner approaches the door.

“No, seriously, I—”

The rest of her protest is cut off when the door is thrown wide, and the woman within screams, “Ms. Erickson!” Pell's arm is wrenched out of Astrid's grip as the woman tackles Pell in a running hug, knocking her back a few steps with the force of her leap.

“I've told you a dozen times, just call me Pell,” Pell says grumpily, but with a definite hint of a smile in her voice. She squeezes the other woman and the two of them separate, both laughing.

The woman who embraced Pell looks to be about Astrid's age. Like Astrid, her hair is long, but is thick with bouncy, frizzy curls. She seems unable to keep completely still, and continuously bounces up and down on the balls of her feet as if in imitation of a boxer.

“Astrid, meet Sylva. She's been a client of mine for a while now. Sylva, this is Astrid. She and I grew up together, and she's the best mechanic I've ever met.”

“It's so awesome to meet you, Astrid!” Sylva rushes forward, neatly avoiding Astrid's outstretched hand to sweep her up in a hug. She is warm, and smells vaguely of baked goods. “Pell has told me so much about you!”

Astrid manages an affirmative grunt, and Pell laughs. “And with that, my job here is done. Come by for dinner later, okay Astrid?”

Astrid shoots Pell a look from around Sylva's shoulder. “You're not coming with?” she mouths incredulously. Pell smirks and waves, then sets off back down the street. Astrid glares at her back as she leaves. Typical.

“So,” Sylva says, releasing her. She bounces a few steps backward and puts her hands on her hips, still beaming. “Pell told me that you're looking for work?”

“Uh... yes?” Astrid hazards. She hopes that Sylva cannot see the way her legs are shaking. “I'm good with machines, I guess.”

“Awesome! That's exactly the kind of person we're looking for. Come on in.” She waves Astrid after her, and disappears inside the base of the turret. Astrid gulps, and after a moment's hesitation, follows.

The inside of the turret is much larger than Astrid expected. Although the base is divided up into separate rooms and hallways, the gun and structures mounted on the platform are almost entirely hollow. Instead of ceilings and conventional electric lighting, the rooms they pass through have nests of metal girders and I-beams, around which are wrapped strings of tiny, decorative lights. Overall, it feels much more lived-in than her own apartment.

The sound of Sylva asking a question drags Astrid back to reality. “I'm sorry, what?”

“I asked if you were new to Inapithe. Ms. Erickson, I mean Pell, said that you haven't been around here long.”

“Oh, yes,” Astrid says. “I only moved here a month ago.”

Sylva tosses a grin at her over her shoulder, as the two of them begin ascending a rickety staircase. “Nice! How do you like it so far?”

Astrid bites back her initial response of, “I don't,” and settles instead on, “Oh, you know. It's taking some time to adjust.”

“You should talk to Drew. I was born here, but he didn't move here until he was five. I know he had a tough time getting used to things.”

Astrid nods along, only half-listening. Sylva's voice is exceedingly loud, and is only magnified by the cavernous nature of the interior. It doesn't make her nervous, exactly, but it certainly sets her on edge, and reminds her of how much she doesn't want to be here.

Sylva stops in front of a plain door at the top of the stairs and pounds on it with her fist. “Drew! Your butt! Get it out here!”

“Go away, Sylva,” says a muffled voice from inside the room.

Sylva flashes an apologetic smile at Astrid, then returns to pounding on the door.“She got here early! We have to do the interview!”

The door opens while Astrid is halfway through apologizing for being early, revealing a bulky young man, wearing a rumpled set of clothes that were clearly thrown on within the last ten seconds. Despite having apparently just awoken, his dark eyes betray no drowsiness as he looks Astrid up and down.

Sylva hops behind Drew and slings an arm over his shoulder. “Astrid, this is Drew. He's our strategist, medic, and resident grouch.”

“Stop it, Sylva, you're embarrassing me,” Drew grumbles, extricating himself from her grip. His voice is far softer than Astrid expected from someone of his size. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Astrid.” He extends his hand to her, and Astrid takes it. His palms are rough, and covered in callouses, but his grip is surprisingly gentle. “Let's get this interview on the road.”

Astrid falls into step behind Drew and Sylva, who immediately begin bickering over the time that the interview was scheduled. For the first time, it occurs to her that she has absolutely no idea what sort of job she is interviewing for. All Pell had said was that they needed an engineer, but what sort of job could require an engineer, a strategist, and a medic? She wants to ask, but the idea of asking an unprompted question makes her queasy, and Drew and Sylva seem too busy arguing to take notice of her discomfort.

Drew and Sylva lead her back down to the ground level and into a large chamber, which Sylva introduces as a workshop. One of the walls is taken up by a segmented metal shutter, and the beams overhead have been cleared away, allowing the room to stretch to a dizzying height. The floor is carpeted in tools, discarded parts, and half-assembled contraptions Overall, the rooms looks for more akin to an enormous, unkempt garage than any sort of workshop.

It occurs to Astrid that it may have been a good idea to ask Pell about not only the nature of this particular position, but its legality as well.

“Please, forgive the mess,” Sylva says, nudging a tangle of copper tubing out of their path. “Our last mechanic wasn't exactly known for his cleanliness.”

“Or competence,” Drew mutters, prompting a punch in the shoulder from Sylva.

Astrid allows herself to be led over to a very messy table, at the center of which sits an enormous contraption, consisting of what appears to be a motor, a fan, and an exhaust port that have been forcefully merged by way of being tossed into a bonfire. Just looking at it offends every one of Astrid's sensibilities as a mechanic.

“So in case you couldn't tell, we don't exactly have a formal process here,” Drew says. He and Sylva share a brief look. “Despite how much Sylva and I have pushed for one. So, we've come up with an alternative.” Drew slaps his hands on the unsettling amalgamation of parts in the center of the table, causing it to emit a visible cloud of soot. “Our last mechanic was, to put it bluntly, not cut out for the job. The work he produced failed in a critical moment, and the results were less than ideal.”

“What Drew is trying to say,” Sylva says, “Is that everything started on fire.”

“Well, yes. We couldn't recover much, but we did manage to discover that the fire started with this, right here. You figure out why this overheated, and you've got the job.”

Astrid blinks. “That's it?”

“That's it.”

“Nothing else?”

“We're on a tight deadline.”

Astrid circles the engine, sizing it up, her footsteps soft on the concrete floor. They can't know how anxious she is, she thinks. She has to stay calm and collected. Steadying herself, she kneels down next to the engine and takes a deep breath in, letting the smell waft over her. She begins talking, at first so quietly that it is just a whisper. Gradually, the volume of her voice increases as her awareness outside of everything but the machine in front of her fades away.

“This thing is ancient. Judging by the smell, it ran on gasoline at one point, but based on the relatively weight it feels like someone ripped out half of the components and slapped a conversion matrix inside. Why your mechanic would do that instead of using more appropriate housing I can only guess. I don't even have to open it up to know that the reason it started on fire is because the conversion matrix wasn't properly insulated, but let's do a proper check.”

She pulls a few wrenches out of her bag and begins undoing the bolts on the engine, talking the entire time to keep herself occupied. “Now normally, I would have to raise this up to get at all the bolts, but I have a hunch that the previous owner didn't do a terribly thorough job. See? I just took off the fan, and there we are, already inside the housing. It looks like he just sawed a hole in the metal and slapped a fan onto it, which is frankly mind-boggling.” Astrid reaches inside the ragged hole and feels around. “It's almost like...” Her finger seize on a small, round object, and when she withdraw her fingers she has finds a small, circular tin in her palm. “It's almost like this isn't a motor at all.”

Sylva's quiet choking noise drags Astrid back to the present, reminding her that there are other people in the room. She jumps, and offers Sylva the tin. Sylva takes it from her and gingerly sniffs it, then opens it and runs a finger along the inside of the lid. Her finger comes away stained a bright, poisonous blue. She slams the tin shut and immediately begins scrubbing at her finger with the edge of shirt, looking disgusted. “Shit! That's gloss! High quality too.”

“That little rat,” Drew says, taking the tin from Sylva and examining it incredulously. A few motes of blue dust fall from it like tiny raindrops “He used our engine as a stash.”

“That must be why he always wanted to do maintenance on the shoulder after our matches.”

“I can't believe this. A loss in the championship because we hired a dealer.”

“Wendy is going to murder him, after she gets done murdering me for hiring him.”

Astrid tunes their conversation out. Now that she has gotten over her initial disgust at the construction of the motor, deconstructing it has become almost like a game. She is already deeply involved in the question of how the previous engineer had managed to keep the drugs from combusting in the engine, and what had gone wrong that led to the breakdown of the system.

“Astrid?”

Astrid blanches. She had completely forgotten that she was in the middle of an interview. She immediately straightens up, hastily stowing her tools in her bag. “Oh, sorry! So sorry! Yes?”

Drew gives her a small smile, the first she has seen out of her, and Sylva positively beams. “You've got the job, if you want it.”

Astrid supposes that she should feel excited, or at the very least something other than existential dread at the idea of continued interaction with these admittedly very nice people. “Great,” she manages, arranging her face into what she hopes is a smile. “That's great.”

Drew offers her a hand and helps her to her feet. “We've just got to clear it with our pilot. You'll be working very closely with her if you choose to take the position.” He gestures to Sylva, who bustles off into the building, her yells bouncing off the walls and making Astrid wince.

“So what exactly do you guys do—”

Sylva returns to the room, talking nonstop to someone trailing behind her. “Listen, you're going to love her. She's going to be a natural, I swear. Disassembled it in nothing flat. She's the sweetest person, too!”

“I get that you're excited Sylva, all I'm saying is wait until I'm dressed next time.”

“Look, if you didn't stay out all night, this wouldn't be an issue. Just come up, chat with her, and give us a yes or no answer. That's all.”

“Fine.”

A young woman slouches into the room behind Sylva, back hunched and hands stuffed deep in her pockets. She comes to a halt a few feet from Astrid and raises her head. The moment she does, Astrid's stomach drops out.

Even with her unkempt hair and bleary air, the woman in front of her is clearly the same one who saved her. The one who should have been stabbed, and then miraculously managed to walk it off. Recognition blooms across her face, followed by the mixture of fear and anger she displayed when Astrid saw her unbroken skin. Astrid swallows.

“Good to have everyone finally together,” Sylva says brightly, oblivious to the situation. “Astrid, this is our pilot and team leader, Wendy.”

Wendy, as she is apparently called, glares at Astrid. Her brown eyes brim with an icy fury far beyond anything Astrid has seen in Tove or Pell's eyes. It crosses the boundary between dislike and hatred, edging into murderous territory. Astrid's gut urges her to run, but she remains fixed to the spot, unable to move. Wendy gives her a cursory look up and down, then shakes her head.

“Absolutely not.”

Wendy turns on her heel and strides from the room, slamming the door behind her so hard that it echoes through the cavernous workshop.

After overcoming her initial surprise, Sylva's eyes narrow, and for the first time since Astrid has met her, a scowl crosses her face. “If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm going to go have a very... polite... exchange of words with our dear leader.” She rushes out of the workshop after Wendy.

Astrid does not move, does not breathe, until Drew taps her on the shoulder. “Come on,” he says, gesturing for her to follow him. “Those two are going to be a while. Let me show you what it is that we do here.”

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ForLackOfStars

Bio: I like cats.

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