Consider the focal point of the competition: Defunct war machines refurbished into brawlers, piloted by young adults, and bewitched to move through the most ancient of magic. Countless hours, and an incalculable amount of passion, all put toward something which is of absolutely no practical use. Sentineling is truly a sport that could have only sprung out of the ingenuity and insanity at work in the minds of young Inapithians.
– Sentineling, An Inside Look, originally published in the Inapithe Daily
Upon their return to the turret, their arms full of more components than Astrid can keep track of, she and Wendy are greeted by Sylva. She begins waving them closer as soon as she sees them. Behind her, the garage yawns open like a great black maw, the angle of the sun obscuring anything that might be inside.
“It's here! It's here!” She yells, practically bouncing from foot to foot with excitement. “They dropped it off while you were gone!” She runs inside the garage, clearly too impatient for Wendy and Astrid to finish walking over.
“I'm excited, aren't you?” Astrid says, trying to make eye contact with Wendy. The other woman has been very quiet since their conversation in the junkyard, and she has not smiled since.
“To find out what kind of metal deathtrap I'll be climbing inside this year? Oh, definitely.” Her voice is thick with sarcasm, but she begins walking slightly faster, and the corners of her mouth turn upward ever so slightly.
“What are you expecting to see?”
Wendy shrugs. “Honestly, I don't know. There were all kinds of models of Sentinels produced in the early days of the Retributive War. I know it'll have two legs and a set of arms, but that's about it. As long as it handles well, I couldn't care less.” Her eyes flick to Astrid. “Mostly, I can't wait to see you geek out over it, like you do over everything mechanical.”
“I do not 'Geek out!'” Astrid says indignantly.
“Oh really? What do you call what you were doing when we were delving through the scrapyard?”
“That was different! That converter had a limited run of only six months, before it was taken off the market due to unintended modifiability. This is just a giant piece of metal. It's totally...” The two of them enter the garage. As soon as her eyes to adjust, all of Astrid's thoughts scatter in different directions, and her mouth falls open. “...different.”
The sentinel take up nearly the entire garage, stretching nearly from wall to wall. Even in its current pose, curled into a sort of fetal position, the metal hulk nearly touches the ceiling twenty feet above. It is humanoid in the barest sense, with two legs, two arms, and a central mass made up of a cockpit, but without any sort of head. The surface of it is covered in a carpeting of moss, creepers, and mineral buildup, making it appear far more alive than mechanical. The sentinel towers over Astrid, dwarfing her, so massive that it seems to almost have its own gravity. Without meaning to, she takes a few steps toward it, feeling as if she is a fish on a line, being reeled in. Behind her, Wendy lets out a small snort.
“Good, right?” Sylva exclaims, barely able to contain her excitement. “Kythe model; you can tell by the height. These are rare. I haven't gotten the chance to crawl around inside yet, but it looks mostly intact too!”
Astrid sets down her armful of components and moves forward, torn between hanging onto Sylva's every word and getting closer to the enormous automaton in front of her. On one hand, it seems rough, like a human sculpted out of clay that cracked apart in the sun. On the other, there are parts with more care put in than she can fully take in: Fully articulated fingers, precursors to the kind that she designed for Pell's hand. Omnidirectional joints. Exhaust port cleverly concealed beneath plates of armor. Overall, it is an incredible piece of engineering. One thing is bothering her, though.
“How does it stand up?” she asks, turning to look at Sylva.
Astrid circles the mech, sizing it up as she goes. “When we first met, Drew mentioned that Sentinels were discontinued because they couldn't stand up under their own weight. From what I can see here, that checks out. If it had more legs, maybe, but with two? No way. The physics just doesn't work out.”
Sylva shrugs, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Don't worry about it, Astrid.”
Astrid shakes her head incredulously. “How am I not supposed to worry about it? I have what, two weeks to get this in workable condition for the competition? How do I make something stand up that physically can't do so?”
“That,” Drew says, entering the room and slinging an arm around Sylva, “is what we have her for.” He motions Astrid over, and has both of them sit down on the concrete next to him. “Ok. So as Astrid said, we have our qualifying match in two weeks. We can't afford to waste any time.”
Sylva grins and rolls her eyes. “Lighten up, Drew! You know what the qualifiers are like. As long as we can get this hunk of junk to stand upright, we've got this in the bag.” She winks at Astrid.
“Something which, again, is your responsibility,” Drew says pointedly, glaring at her. “Anyway, it's not going to be that simple. A week ago, Astrid hadn't even seen a sentinel, and she hasn't been up on one yet. We're starting from scratch with a completely new model, which we've never worked with before. Not to mention the changes being made to the format this year.” He grimaces darkly, but before Astrid can ask what changes are being made to the competition, Drew stands up and points at her. “Astrid. Your job is to check that thing out from top to bottom. Make sure there's no faulty wiring, the coolant isn't going to leak, the exhaust isn't blocked, the works. Your goal is just to get the engine to start, don't worry about getting it off the ground.” He turns to Sylva. “Syl, you know what you have to do. You've only got two weeks, so no procrastinating. Wendy—” He stops and looks around the room. Wendy is nowhere to be seen. Drew heaves a great sigh, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Typical. Well, let's hope she shows up for the competition. I'll spend time scoping out our opponents. Break.”
Drew leaves the garage, and Sylva gets to her feet. Instead of following him, she offers Astrid her hand. Astrid gratefully takes it, and Sylva pulls her to her feet. “You ready for this?”
Once again, Astrid looks at the sentinel towering over them. At first, she thinks about how she will be climbing on top of it in only two weeks, and her stomach twinges. Then, she thinks about opening it up and plunging her hands inside, figuring out exactly how it works, and making it hers.
“Yes,” Astrid says. She pulls out a wrench from her bag and smiles. “Yes, I am.”