“How much will I have to suffer for you? Is there no depth to which you will not drive me?”
- Astral to Wren, By Painter's Grace, Act V, Scene III
Within five seconds of beginning to run, Astrid knows that she is going to lose. Badly.
Astrid's legs are as long and gangly as the rest of her, and she finds herself tripping over her feet and the edges of her overalls as she tries to navigate the obstacle-strewn ground underneath her feet. Wendy outstrips her immediately, her short strides kicking up tiny clouds of dust and metal shavings as she speeds off, neatly avoiding turning her ankle on any discarded refuse.
“How are you so fast?” she gasps.
“I don't really think that's the reason you're losing.”
“How are you such an asshole?”
“Lots of practice!”
As Wendy's back steadily shrinks into the distance, Astrid realizes that she is going to have to take risks if she wants to have any chance of winning. She glances at her surroundings, and her eyes land on a small path between two heaps of metal taller than she is. Potentially a shortcut, especially since if she follows Wendy, the two of them will be forced to ascend at least one scrap heap in order to get to their destination.
Astrid ducks onto the path, and the world goes quiet. The towers of old vehicle parts and obsolete machinery are far taller than she realized, towering high enough that the entire path is cast in shadow. She jogs along, alone but for the sound of her frenzied breathing and her pounding heart. The path has dozens of tight twists and turns, and she's forced to take them slowly, in order to avoid crashing into anything. After what feels like several minutes of running, she comes to an abrupt dead end, where junk blocks her path completely. She skids to a halt and doubles over, wheezing. The shortcut had not paid off.
“How's it going?”
Astrid looks up to see Wendy a few dozen feet above her head, lounging on an engine block protruding from the pile of junk and smirking at her. Unlike Astrid, who feels like her lungs are going to forcefully secede from her body, Wendy does not even look winded.
“Pretty well,” Astrid calls, forcing an air of cheerfulness into her voice. The thought that Wendy had taken the time to double back solely to taunt her is deeply grating.
“Really? You look a bit winded,” Wendy says, her voice dripping with mock concern.
Astrid glares up at her, rifling through her brain and doing her best to think of a witty retort, but stops halfway through. A smile comes to her face unbidden. She takes a small step forward and casually kicks a hunk of metal out of the base of the pile, then takes several steps backward.
The pile of junk shifts, then collapses with an almighty crash, spraying Astrid's face with small shards of metal and a cloud of choking dust. Wendy only barely manages to leap off the engine block and onto a different mound of junk. Astrid does not spare too long looking at her; the collapsed pile of trash has left her way clear. She sprints through the opening, leaping over pieces of machinery so ancient and damaged that they are all but unidentifiable.
She has only a minute's respite before Wendy catches back up, falling into step alongside her.
Rather than looking angry, she seems energized. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“I spent the last five years doing nothing but taking things apart and putting them together. Structural integrity is child's play.”
“Sounds pretty weird.”
“No weirder than someone who won't even talk to her new coworker.”
Wendy makes a noise that sounds like a combination between a snarl and a laugh. “So you really are a mechanic, huh?”
Astrid grins wolfishly. “The best in the world.”
They make it to the scrap heap blocking their path at the same time and begin climbing. Astrid moves slowly, carefully planning out her route and testing each handhold, but Wendy throws herself up the mountain of metal, casting herself from perch to perch with no regard for her own safety.
Wendy hollers over her shoulder. “If you really want to be our mechanic, you're going to have to learn how to climb better than that.”
A metal pole Astrid was using for a foothold groans under her weight, forcing her to flatten herself to the side of the mountain. “I'm making safety a priority.”
“Ooh, big talk from someone willing to cause massive destruction of property just to win a race.”
“It's a junkyard, no one owned that stuff. Anyway, I'm pretty sure I can climb just fine, thank you.”
“Really? Can you scale the side of a sentinel whose chassis is so hot that it can burn you, knowing that you have less than thirty seconds to fix a broken power conduit, all while a giant metal fist that could crush you into paste is flying within a foot of your head?” Wendy comes to a momentary halt to turn and shake her head at Astrid. “Trust me. You have no idea what it's like out there.”
Astrid glares up at her. “Then teach me.”
“I could, but no.”
Wendy reaches the top of the pile of junk and hops over the other side, leaving Astrid to struggle her way up. By the time Astrid reaches the top of the junk heap, she is drenched in sweat. The top of the junk pile is barely large enough to stand on; the nearest foothold is a warped chunk of a transmission tower. Astrid practically leaps onto the tower, desperate for a stable foothold as wind whips around her.
A single look over the edge tells Astrid that it is hopeless. Wendy has already reached the bottom, and is nearly at the girder-topped tower that marks the end of the race. It's over. There is no possible way for her to catch up. Her stomach drops. She is going to lose, and will have to go back to Pell and explain that she failed. With a sigh of defeat, she places her face against the hot metal of the old tower.
The power lines around her quiver.
Astrid raises her head. Power lines. She hadn't noticed them before, but they stretch from the top of the warped tower to many other locations in the junkyard. All of them are clearly long dead, and
One power line leads down to the top of the tower with the girder.
A plan begins to form in her head. A beautiful, stupid plan which could absolutely get her killed. Even as one part of her brain is screaming at her to stop, another part of her brain is buzzing with calculations. How much weight will the power line hold? How secure are its moorings?
Wendy begins to ascend toward the girder. She casts a look back at Astrid, and Astrid could swear that she smiles.
Astrid throws herself down, scrabbling through the junk around her until she finds a piece of metal that will suit her needs: A long axel, sticky with grease, but thick and very solid. She grabs it, grinning at the way the grease oozes between her fingers, and hefts it above her head. It is so heavy that it throws her off balance, and for one heart-stopping moment it feels as if she is going to go toppling off the tower. Then she regains control, and climbs back on the radio tower.
“This is the stupidest thing I've ever done,” she whispers, the wind stealing her words away. The she slings the axel over the power line as if it is a zip line, and before she can have any second thoughts she casts herself out into space.
Any fantasies Astrid had about gracefully gliding over the junkyard are immediately dashed. The axel skids along the top of the power line far faster than she was expecting, occasionally jolting hard enough that her teeth smash together. Her slender arms scream with pain as she holds on for dear life, hurtling toward the end of the race far faster than she intended. Air whips past her face, and she lets out a wild scream, half-exulted and half-terrified. Near the end of the power line, Wendy looks up. The look that comes over Wendy's face, one part wonder and one part fear, is so incredible that Astrid wishes she could savor it forever.
Astrid's moment of triumph is short-lived. The power line goes slack with a horrible snap, and gravity immediately takes over. Her stomach turns as she looses her grip and begins to free-fall, axel and power line plummeting past her. Her momentum continues to carry her toward the girder at the top of the junk pile, but she is hurtling faster than ever, and the girder is approaching at a sickening pace. A scream tears from her throat as her destination rushes up to meet her.