The first time I sat in a cockpit of a sentinel, I knew. I don't know a way of saying it without sounding like stupid, but I just knew. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life.
- Tove Sangon, Sentinel Pilot
Astrid has only a scant few seconds to get her balance before the sentinel beneath her begins to move. The metal surface jolts under her, sending her to her knees and tumbling across the hot surface. For a sickening moment, she can see over the edge and pick out Drew and Sylva far, far below. Then her cable yanks her back from the edge, and she is on top of the sentinel again. Her heart thuds against her ribcage, filling her with fear and adrenaline. That was close. Too close.
“How's it going up there?”
Wendy's voice, crackly with static and directly in her ear, is entirely unexpected. Reaching her hand up to the side of her face, Astrid finds a small metal device protruding from her ear. That must have been what Sylva had inserted during her preparation. “Wendy?” She whispers, the word slightly garbled by her mouthguard. A moment later, an enormous crash swallows up her voice, and an enormous shudder runs through the sentinel, jarring her bones and making her teeth vibrate.
“Good, radio's still working,” Wendy says, voice still audible over the ringing in Astrid's ears. “I hoped that Drew would be able to run you through this, but we couldn't find his mic, so I'm stuck with it. What you just felt? That's me taking a step.”
“That's just a step?” Astrid says incredulously.
“I'm still getting used to these controls, so a little bit of a forceful one, but yeah.”
“It nearly killed me!”
“The cable would have caught you,” Wendy says dismissively. “Anyway, can you stand?”
Astrid gets to her feet, bracing herself with one hand on the hot metal in order to keep her balance. The blue sentinel is standing in the center of the field, arms folded and one enormous foot tapping the ground. The image is so ridiculous that Astrid has the odd urge to laugh.
“The key is in how you shift your weight. You want to be leaning into the step. Always in, never out. Got it?”
“Lean in, not out.”
“Good. Here we go.”
The sentinel's left foot lifts off the ground. Astrid's insides shudder almost pleasantly at the brief feeling of weightlessness, and she leans to the left. The impact when the sentinel's foot hits the ground is still jarring, but this time she manages to remain on her feet. They take another step, and then another, gradually picking up speed as Wendy becomes more comfortable with the controls. Astrid too gradually finds a rhythm, swaying back and forth in time with the sentinel's steps as steam pours from the exhaust vents around her.
By the time they reach the center of the field, Astrid's teeth hurt, and her legs feel like jelly. She hopes the entire match is not going to be like this. Their sentinel comes to a halt a scant few feet in front of the blue one, so close that Astrid can almost touch it. Across from her, atop the blue sentinel, is a boy, perhaps a year or two younger than her. He has a crew cut and tan, weathered skin, but his face is almost entirely obscured by a comically large pair of sunglasses. He too is tethered to the top of his sentinel by a set of cables, and is wearing a similar outfit. He must be their team's mechanic.
Wendy's voice crackles in Astrid's ear. “Shake hands.”
The boy scampers to the edge of his sentinel as casually as if he is playing hopscotch. Astrid edges across her tiny platform, testing each step carefully before shifting her weight. She reaches the edge and extends her hand over the dizzying abyss, her heart pounding.
The boy takes her hand and they shake. “I'm Cayden,” he says, his voice cracking slightly. He gives her a lopsided, gap-toothed smile. He is nearly a whole head shorter than Astrid.
“This your first time?” Astrid nods, and Cayden grins widely, his sunglasses sliding to the end of his nose. “Me too. My brother and I heard about the prize this year and, well, how could we not? Are you here for the prize too?”
Astrid stares blankly at him. Prize? Frankly, she isn't sure why she's here, or how she got talked into this mess.
Wendy's saves her from answering. “Don't get too chummy. Remember, they're our competitors.” Each of the sentinels take a step backwards, breaking Astrid and Cayden's handshake. “We can't afford to get too friendly.”
Both the sentinels retreat to opposite sides of the field. Once again, the nerves begin to build in Astrid's stomach. She isn't remotely trained for any of this, but everyone is depending on her to get things right the first time. “Wendy, what am I supposed to do?” she says.
“Ideally nothing. These kids are so green that they're practically grass, and I'm the best pilot in the city. Just stand up there and try not to fall off.”
Astrid raises her eyebrows. She privately doubts that Wendy is the best at anything besides slacking off, but she elects not to say that. “So you'll end it quickly, right?” she says hopefully.
Wendy chuckles, filling the mic with static. “I didn't say that.” Across the field, the blue sentinel comes to a halt, and they do as well. Seconds pass, and no one moves. If it was not for the impressions of her breath in the radio static, Astrid would swear that Wendy has disappeared. The stillness stretches on and on, until Astrid is so anxious that she has half a mind to go down into the cockpit and give Wendy a piece of her mind.
A sudden breeze kicks up, sending the grass of the field rippling like waves and nearly knocking Astrid off the top of the sentinel. “Wendy, when are we—”
Astrid had expected them to walk forward, or at the very least slowly build up to a run. Instead, the entire sentinel jolts underneath her as it launches into the air with a piercing screech of metal. Hot steam caresses her face as they soar forward through the air, and her hair streams out behind her in the wind. Her feet lift up until only the tips of her shoes are touching the top of the sentinel, and only her cable keeps her tethered. Astrid opens her mouth and lets out something between a scream and a whoop as they reach the apex of their leap, and gravity takes over. They crash into the earth with an impact that Astrid is sure would kill them without the aid of Sylva's magic, and with an explosion of noise that leaves her ears ringing.
Astrid cups her hand over her ear. Dust and clods of earth from the impact shower down around her, spattering the metal around her. She is unsure whether her heart is beating with anxiety or with sheer exhilaration. That was terrifying. That was wonderful. That was incredibly stupid. “Wendy!” She shouts into her microphone.
“It's fine!” Wendy's voice is thick with a breathless joy that Astrid never would have guessed the young woman to be capable of. “I'm just seeing what this baby is capable of.” Again, they leap into the air, but this time Astrid is ready for it. She braces herself against the sentinel, reveling in the air skating across her face. Her eyes stream as she scans the field for the blue mech. She finds it almost exactly where it started, making its way toward the center of the field with meticulous, careful steps. On top, she can just make out Cayden, his jaw hanging open at the speed with which Astrid and Wendy's sentinel leaps around the field. As they descend from their leap once again, the blue sentinel picks up speed, turning toward them and breaking into a sprint.
“Wendy!” Astrid calls out.
“I see them.” A sound suspiciously similar to knuckles cracking echoes in Astrid's ear. “Let's do it. Hold on.”
They hit the ground running. Wendy transitions the sentinel from bounds to a series of short steps that echo with a sound akin to thunder, sending up a massive cloud of dust around them. The distance between the two of them and the blue sentinel closes with frightening speed. Astrid scarcely has time to close her eyes flatten herself to the top of the sentinel before they collide in a blaze of sparks and crash of metal. She opens her eyes to the sight of the two sentinel's hands, each of them massive enough to crush her inside a fist, interlocked, the two machines straining at one another and vying for dominance. Steam pours from the exhaust vents around her, and acrid smoke stings her eyes. Through the haze, she sees Cayden catapult himself of his sentinel, rappelling down its front and prying open a panel near the knee.
Astrid gapes. She can't help herself.
“Well, that's not good.”
Wendy's quiet pronouncement pulls her back to reality. “Wendy? Wendy, what's not good?”
“Right arm isn't firing. We're locked like this.”
“And that's bad?”
Wendy hisses in frustration. “Well, given, that I'm not practiced in controlling this thing yet, and theirs is a good bit stronger, yes. I give us maybe a minute more of this grappling before it gives out completely.”
Astrid looks at the right arm of their sentinel. It is shaking quite badly, and black smoke pours from one of the exhaust vents in a massive column. Probably blocked with debris. She swallows. “Ok, so this is the part where I fix it, right?”
“What?” Wendy says. “No, that's stupid. I'll just eject the arm from the chassis.”
“That's insane, you can't just eject a limb when it's not working! Also, screw you! I spent hours making sure that arm would work!”
Astrid can practically hear Wendy rolling her eyes. “No offense, Astrid, but I've done this a lot more often than you. I think I know what I'm doing. There's only like a fifty percent that I get electrocuted by the feedback.”
“Ok, fine. Sixty percent. Seventy five at the absolute most. Ok, what I'm saying is we're probably boned.”
Astrid gets to her feet. “No. That's stupid. This is stupid. You're not going to electrocute yourself, and we're not going to lose because you don't trust me to do this.”
“Astrid?” Wendy sounds decidedly angry now. “Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't. I can handle this on my own.”
Astrid aims a kick at the cable system attached to her tether. With a clunk, it goes very slightly slack. She strides toward the edge of the sentinel.
Before she can stop to think about the sheer stupidity of what she is doing, Astrid throws herself off the sentinel, spreading her arms out the same way she saw Cayden do. Gravity takes over immediately, and she hurtles downward through the mist and smoke toward the ground. Halfway down, her tether catches, sending her flying back upward. She lands hard on the metal arm of her sentinel, sending pain lancing through her arms and legs. Gritting her teeth, she gets to her feet, and rushes down the uneven surface toward the smoking exhaust port. She skids to a halt in front of it, holding her arm in front of her to block the smoke from her eyes. From her suit she withdraws a wrench and a screwdriver.
Wendy's taut voice sounds in her ear. “You've got thirty seconds. Make it count.”
“I know that,” Astrid hisses. She kneels down on the blazing metal and sets to work, prizing open the panel that she knows will give her the access she needs. The panel cover comes off, and promptly tumbles off the arm. Astrid pays it no mind, opting instead to focus on the set of meters, wires, and indicators now exposed to her. It isn't a blocked port like she expected; something else must be wrong. She picks through the wires, desperately searching for something, anything out of place.
Astrid's stomach drops out. She's going to fail. They're going to lose, and it's going to be all her fault. All her fault.
Her fingers trip over exposed metal, and she sees it. Two wires improperly spliced together, likely late last night in her sleep-deprived haze. It's so simple she could almost laugh. Biting her lip, she twists the two pieces of metal together. Nothing happens. She curses under her breath, undoes her previous work, and twists the wires together again. A shower of sparks tumbles from them, and she yanks her hands back.
With a roar, the exhaust port a few feet from her erupts to life. Astrid tumbles backwards, latching onto the edge of the arm with the tips of her fingers. She manages to hold on for a few seconds, and then she plummets downward. For a brief moment, she is sure that she is going to die, then her tether catches, and jerks her backward. She slams into the chest of the sentinel and scrambles upward, throwing herself up the handholds that gave her so much trouble only a few short minutes ago. With the help of her tether, she makes it to the top of the sentinel. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Cayden still laboring on the middle of the blue sentinel.
“Wendy!” she shouts. “Do it!”
The arm of the sentinel that Astrid was just standing on rotates at the wrist. A devastating crunch cuts through the air as the blue sentinel's wrist crumples in on itself like tinfoil.
“Yes!” Astrid screams, a grin spilling across her face. She braces herself and shifts her weight as Wendy draws the arm back, extending it to its full range of motion. Then the arm swings forward, fingers curling into a fist. The fist catches the other sentinel in the place where its head would be located. The force of the impact jars what feels like every bone in Astrid's body, and is so powerful that it sends the blue sentinel reeling backwards. Small explosions issue from areas near the joints, flames leaping out of exhaust ports.
The blue sentinel sways for a moment, then topples over backwards, Cayden clinging onto it for dear life. It hits the ground with a thunderous explosion that echoes through the surrounding buildings.
“We did it,” Astrid whispers, staring down at the plume of rapidly rising dust.
“Yeah, Astrid.” Wendy says. “Yeah, we did.” Distantly, Astrid can hear Drew yelling something, and Sylva whooping in excitement.
By the time that the wind from the impact hits her, Astrid is already laughing. For the first time since moving to Inapithe, it feels like she is where she's supposed to be.