I held your soul in my hands, and it was hot and heavy. It smelled of steel and grease, fire and oil. It hissed and spat in my fingers, but I only tightened my grip. You were mine everlasting.
- Fragment recovered from the ruins of an Inapithian library
Astrid holds her breath and gently rotates her screwdriver in her hand, loosening the final screw keeping a plate attached to the chassis of the sentinel. It comes free, and she deftly catches both it and the plate before they can clatter to the ground. She lets out a small, self-satisfied sigh, and begins examining the bundle of wires and mass of sensors she has exposed, which tumble from the newly-made opening and onto her face like rain.
This is the thirty-sixth such plate she has removed today, and the one hundred forty-fourth screw. She does not need to keep count; the numbers have etched themselves as clearly in her brain as if she had carved them in the concrete beneath her. Her mind is abuzz with the possibilities and mystery of it all. What function does this particular chunk of wires hold, she wonders. What wonders does it contain?
She has never had the chance to work on something so large before. As she delves deeper into the circuitry of the legs, she can practically feel the weight of the Sentinel above and around her. Even with the majority of plants cleaned off of its surface, it feels somehow alive. On some level, she thinks she understands it. Not well, certainly, and certainly not completely, but she is beginning to see the outlines of how the system fits together. The way the servos in the legs coordinate with one another, and the ingenious way they balance one another out. The brick-sized computer behind the seat of the pilot, and the way wires spread out from it like a nervous system. All of it interconnected.
“Hey! Sylva to Astrid! Are you in there?”
Sylva's voice pulls Astrid back to reality. She scoots backward across the concrete, until she can sit up without hitting her head on the great metal leg. “What's going on?”
Sylva's face enters her field of vision. “I asked if you wanted some light.”
For the first time Astrid realizes how dark it is in the garage. She isn't sure what time it is, but a quick glance outside tells her that the sun has dipped behind the surrounding buildings. She nods, and Sylva disappears briefly. The room floods with light, painfully bright, and Astrid puts her hands over her face. By the time her eyes have adjusted sufficiently for her to see, Sylva has returned and sat down next to her, leaning against the dull gray wall of the sentinel.
“So, how's it going?” Sylva asks. “Making friends with old dusty?” She jerks her thumb and indicates the sentinel.
Astrid nods emphatically, sending several locks of hair cascading in front of her eyes. “It's going so well! I've never seen anything like this. The motors are primitive, but the assembly of it all is nothing less than art. Don't even get me started on the way the systems are distributed. If I'm understanding it right, this thing could lose an entire arm and operate just as effectively. Don't even get me started on the way the cooling system. I've had to replace a couple pieces of tubing and a processor, but other than that it's all remarkably intact. I still don't see how this thing is going to get off the ground, but beyond that, it's nothing less than a marvel.”
Sylva lets out a peal of laughter. “Well, I'm glad you're enjoying yourself so much. That's awesome. I was getting worried, though.”
“Sorry,” Astrid says quickly, reddening. “I tend to... um... I tend to space out a little when I'm working.”
“You're fine,” Sylva says, waving her hand. “I was just wondering whether you wanted to get dinner with us.”
“Dinner?” Astrid says blankly. After so long doing nothing but making repairs and exploring machinery, she feels like she is thinking through fog. Now that she thinks about it, she is rather hungry.
Sylva nods and grins. “Yeah. Drew makes dinner every night. It's really good.”
“I don't want to impose.”
“You wouldn't be imposing! It's sort of a group thing, actually. We do it every night. Drew and I are always there, and even Wendy shows up.”
Astrid wavers. The more she thinks about it, the hungrier she is. At the same time, though, the thought of eating dinner with all of them makes her gut clench. Three people is a lot, especially in the turret's small kitchen. It hadn't been so bad in the morning, because no one had wanted to talk, but she's sure all of them are going to be loud during dinner. Full of questions about her, as well.
“I don't know,” she says. “I'm making really good progress. I think I might keep working for a little while.”
Sylva looks crestfallen. “Are you sure? Drew's making bread pudding tonight. It's going to be excellent.” At Astrid's nod, she sighs and gets to her feet with a toss of her long hair. “We'll be in the kitchen if you change your mind, okay? We'd love to have you!”
After Sylva leaves, Astrid goes back to working on the sentinel. Try as she might, however, she cannot recapture the blissful focus of earlier in the evening. Sylva's offer continues to run circles around her head, not helped by the distant laughter and shouting she can hear coming from elsewhere within the turret. After half an hour, she is sure that she made the wrong decision. She is sure that Sylva is offended by Astrid's denial of her offer, and the laughter that she can hear must be directed at her.
“Stupid,” she whispers aloud, gripping her wrench until it digs into her palm.
After a few hours, the laughter and talking dies down. The garage drops into a silence, cut through with the buzz of electrical lights and the occasional groaning of metal. Astrid continues to work, heedless of the lateness of the hour. There is simply too much to do, too many secrets to find within the mechanical hulk. As the hours progress, the doubts in her head do not recede. Rather, they grow ever larger, until they block out all the other thoughts from her brain.
She should have gone to dinner, she thinks. She should have smiled more when talking to Sylva. She shouldn't have zip-lined across the junkyard to beat Wendy in the race. They all think she is weird, and stupid, she just knows it. Her brain becomes a whirlwind of “should haves,” and her attempts to focus grow more intense. She clenches her jaw so hard that it begins to hurt, and hopes for something, anything, to drive the thoughts from her brain.
Unfortunately, it is not until late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, that she is interrupted again. Even more unfortunate is the nature of the interruption. As Astrid is pacing around the sentinel, contemplating how to reach the shoulders without scrambling up the treacherous metal surface, Sylva's voice rings through the air.
“Team emergency! Team emergency!”
Seconds later, Sylva skids into the garage, moving so fast that she nearly crashes into Astrid. “Team emergency,” she gasps, collapsing on the floor.
“What's happening,” Astrid asks, offering her hand to Sylva.
“No idea.” Sylva is dressed in green pajamas with a great deal of holes, complete with a pair of very fuzzy slippers. She takes Astrid's hand, and Astrid is taken aback and the rocky extent of callouses that cover it. Far more than Drew's. “Drew told me to gather everyone. He wouldn't say what's going on. Have you seen her?”
“No, I haven't,” Astrid says, pulling Sylva to her feet. A moment later, Drew rushes into the room. His dark hair is a tousled mess, and his mouth is set in a firm line. He approaches them with crossed arms.
“Astrid. Good. Either of you seen Wendy?” At the sight of their faces, he sighs. “Typical. Whatever, she's got to show up at some point.”
“What's going on, Drew?” Astrid asks.
Drew pinches the bridge of his nose. The look on his face is one of a man who has to deliver some very bad news. “You both might want to sit down.” He waits until they have sat down on the concrete, then takes a deep breath. “There's been a scheduling change.”
“What kind of change?” Sylva whispers, a slight hitch her voice.
“Our exhibition match got moved to tomorrow. Noon.”
Tomorrow. The word sends a chill through Astrid. She hasn't even figured out how to climb onto the sentinel, much less examined it thoroughly enough to be sure that it won't explode. She hasn't even been working this job for a full day.
“How can they do this?” She asks, half expecting Drew to already be staring at her, the new engineer, with some sort of sympathy. Instead, his eyes are on Sylva.
“New management this year,” he says, not glancing in her direction. “They've been shaking up a lot of things. Syl, are you going to be ok?”
In the scant few seconds since she has been informed that the match will be tomorrow, Sylva's fingers have crawled up her face. She looks thoroughly sick, and her forearms shake.
“Syl, are you all right?” Drew repeats. Sylva manages a small nod, but does not speak. Drew nods tightly. “Ok. We're going to have to do this fast. No painting the sentinel, or adding extra cushions, or anything like that. That can come later. I'll jump in with you and help give you some pointers, Astrid. Syl, you do what you have to do.”
“What about Wendy?” Astrid asks, getting to her feet. Her heart in her ears. There's so little time. “Isn't she the leader?”
“She'll show up or she won't,” Drew says grimly. “For now, buckle down, people. We've got less than ten hours to get this thing working.”
In the corner of Astrid's eye, Sylva wraps her arms tightly about herself and buries her head between her knees.
Ten hours remain.