[ITS] Chapter 6: The Turn

It’s a training day at EYSAR. The team’s recently gotten all-new GPS gear – the old stuff was apparently getting embarassing to be seen with, but funding is hard to come by and a lot of the guys already part with their own money enough as it is to buy gear.

Brett, the new guy, still hasn’t had a chance to properly train with Galen, so they’re out killing two birds with one stone today. Galen normally likes training: he gets pointers, gets to be outside, and there’s little pressure on him to perform so rigorously as the others. And maybe most of all, it’s fun to watch the humans at work. (With a little play thrown in for good measure, too.)

But the others are wary around him now – ever since his outburst.


He’d returned that evening as promised, and Turner had made him give the team the stock apology:

“I’m deeply sorry about the trouble I caused earlier, but everything’s fine now. I’d had a small glitch in my personality matrix, but program engineers diagnosed the issue while I was gone. My coding’s been patched – they’ll do a full diagnostic during my next maintenence cycle. Until then, I’m back to my old self.” End with joke.

Right now they’re set up at the bottom of a small cliff, only 10 or so meters high, and Galen’s watching as Brett brushes up on his rock-climbing skills alongside Tom. The Commander is at home in the harness, but the younger man is still a little nervous at turning a hobby into something much more serious. They’re about 6 meters off the ground and fiddling with the new GPS devices. Galen can hear Tom walking the rook through best practices while in the middle of a vertical ascent, and normally the giant would be utterly fascinated by the talk.

But today, he’s standing away from the crew on the ground, with one of his feet propped up on a boulder and his arms folded. The 5 other team members are standing or sitting around, shooting the shit, as the saying goes. One of them is at a laptop plugged into a truck parked off to the side, and another is with him – it looks like they’re trying to troubleshoot his device.

“…wonder when he’s gotta redo his NASAR certificaiton,” the mech catches someone say.

The reply is quiet and mumbled; they all know that he’s got impeccable hearing. This, truthfully, isn’t his first experience with hushed voices, however. “Who the hell knows with that thing.”

The cabling under the brassy lames of his neck and shoulders clench, and he vents long. He’s got to be extra careful with his body language for the next few weeks; they need to buy the personality glitch horseshit. So much as a fist or sarcastic roll of the shoulders and he’ll be on the next cargo plane back to Nevada for being a menace.

“Six,” Tom calls out to the giant robot from the rocky wall. “We’re going to borrow you for a minute!”

Brett looks on with vague circumspection as Galen picks his way through the small boulder field at the base of the wall, nearing eye-level with the two men. At his size and weight, he has to make sure his footing is secure; solid ground to a human is usually less so for him. Zygotactyl toes, thick and short at the ends of a meter-long foot, dig into the substrate under him to get a firm hold.

“What do you need, Commander?”

“I want Brett here to get used to you handling him.” He turns to the young man. “Sometimes there are extractions that only we can do,” he explains. “The suit can’t reach, say, a ledge on a steep slope without putting the vitcim in danger. That’s delicate work.”

Galen can’t argue there.

“When am I ever going to need to do this though?”

“Those rocks down there could be rushing water, thorny brambles, rusted piles of scrap metal… I can think of at least a dozen other things you don’t want to be stepping into in a rescue situation.”

“Fair enough.” Brett inhales sharply, eyeing Galen with a little hesitation as he secures some of his gear to his harness.

The giant knows the drill: he lifts his hands up to about chest-height, just below Brett’s dangling feet.

“Alright, he’s got you covered,” Tom announces. “Now just lower yourself down onto his palm…”

Fiddling with the ropes, the rubber of the rook’s heavy boots touch down onto his left hand, and in a moment the man’s full weight is on it.

“Good, good.”

He unclips himself from the now slack line, carabiner jangling at his waistband. Galen is quick to bring his free hand up to cup at the man’s side, giving him some protection, as he steps away from the wall. His rough, small hand grabs at one of the giant’s thumbs to steady himself.

“This is really weird, man.”

“It’s weird for everybody first time around, but you’ll get used to it. Pretend he’s a bucket lift.”

what?

“A what?”

“You know, those things that lift you up for tree trimmin’.”

His words to Holly echo back through his foreprocessors: I’m just equipment to them. 

Literally.

He vents, and Brett, being only a human’s arm-length from the giant’s orange, insignia-emblazoned chest, starts at the sound of sharply whooshing air. And as though he doesn’t notice, Galen slowly drops down into a kneel with the man in his hands. Once a half-meter or so from the ground, Brett steps off his palm and looks up at the Commander, still dangling above from his harness.

“See? Not so bad. Wait ’til you start practicing with the Huey,” he chuckles.

Brett’s eyes widen and he smacks himself in the face. “Of course the Beemer -” this is Brett’s own nickname for the mech “- would be hauling us in and out of a hovering helicopter. Sorry, but I want that thing checked out before I put myself through that.”

Galen stiffens, flexing his fingers instead of bunching them up like he wanted to.

Play it cool, or you lose this damn job, he acridly reminds himself. He settles on setting his jaw and narrowing his eyes from behind the impenetrable mask, gloss darting out to press into his upper lip.

Just pretend you’re a rook in basic again. You did it once, you can do it again.

It’s hard to do, now that he actually tries to remember what it’s like – and it’s not because it was so long ago, but because he’s been on the other side of that fence most of the time since. He was well past first rank by the time the war got underway, spending most of his career in fifth – a position that often put him in charge of small field units. Once upon a time, he was the “cap”. Still, there was always more rank above him than not, and following orders comes, some have said, naturally to him.

Basic was still hell, though – as the humans would call it. Obedience only got a rook so far even then. The years he’s spent awake on Earth have felt very similarly. Of course, this time, there’s no ascending rank. You stay a flunky here.

“I don’t know why they gave it a personality anyways,” Galen hears the young man mumble as Tom leisurely rappels down the rest of the way. “Seems like such a pain in the ass.”

Tom clears his throat, glancing up at the faceless giant looming above them. “I think we should talk about this later…”

Brett’s busying himself with taking off the climbing harness at Galen’s feet, though. “Why, afraid to hurt its feelings?

The surface of the mech’s hearth-core is hot enough to cook an egg on.

But the military training wins. It always does.

There’s still a war on, apparently.

“I just think that his programming is a little more complex than any of us knows,” Tom dodges.

Galen’s staring daggers at the two of them when it occurs to him that, unlike basic, he doesn’t have to stand here and listen to them talk about him in the third person. Silently and without excusing himself, he turns and heads… somewhere. Away. The two men are hushed up at his departure and the sound of his heavy footfalls.

Tom tries whispering, but the mech, armed with ability to find a needle in a haystack from 10 meters away, can stil hear him. “I told you to lock it up, Brett. I don’t think they fixed him completely.”

A safe distance away he folds his arms – tightly. He can’t tell if he’s hugging himself, of coiling up his entire upper body into one large clenched fist, or some combination of the two. But still, he pretends.

His near-photographic memory remembers the incessant plinking of droplets of ammonia rain on his back during his first iodine-length* sentry duty. He remembers being inundated with his instructor’s broadcast field for the first time – it like was pure, unadulterated anger and authority flooding into his CPU over a brute-forced hardline. The rook next to him fell to the ground, clutching his head, and was dismissed in short order. He remembers the cramped conditions, the constant over-clocking.

Galen lets himself go, returning to Earth again. He glances down at his feet, weeds up to his ankles, and gives into the compulsion to reach down and grab a stone. It feels good in the hand – his sensor arrays stop short of being able to measure weight, but his 8 kilo guess is as good as any – and with a careful wind-up, he gives the thing a good throw, HUDs trained on it as it sails through the air and disappears into some tall grass exactly 52 meters away. Several small birds flee the area, and Galen frowns.

“Crap,” he murmurs, breaking out into a jog to make sure he hadn’t hit anything, mindful of where his feet are stepping too.

He’s relieved to find that there’s nothing but dirt under the rock.

If there had been, what then?

The mech grunts, mouth screwed up like the humans do when they’re thinking, slowly returning to the vicinity of the vehicles and crew.


The exercise area is only a hanfdul of klicks outside of Cody, Wyoming, which is the nearest town to EYSAR headquarters and where most of the team lives during the busy season. The short distance means that Galen is expected to get himself back to the facility – bringing “the truck” to haul the mech for something like this was, in Tom’s words, a waste of gas.

There’s little in the way of settlements or even dirt roads between here and there, but the giant’s always felt bizarrely exposed while traveling alone in civilian territory. Speeding along through the wilderness is one thing, but flying down a road on his gravs, passing by homes and the occasional parked car, is almost unsettling, even if no one’s around to gawk at the hulking robot.

Being 5 meters tall and decked out in neon orange doesn’t help. He could throw up the cloak in situations like these, but it’s not really among their best practices, and doing so would require that the helmet came off. Which is definitely not a best practice. So it’s either this, or risk a 22 caliber slug to the face for tresspassing.

He glides past a ranch, with a little house on a hill some ways from the road. There’s cattle grazing off in one of the pastures, and Galen slows to get a good look at the building.

It’s two stories tall, in a style that’s common in this part of the States. If he “squints”, he can see the wrap-around porch, and detect something pass by one of the curtained windows.

That little box of timber and sheet rock is home to somebody. It’s where they lay their head at night, eat their meals, rear their offspring. It’s where they go when the weather turns bad and their bodies have a hard time keeping warm or staying cool or fending off fatigue. The mech wonders what it feels like to have muscle tissue burn with lactic acid.

Or what it feels like to freeze to death in a crashed Cessna.

It takes a moment to realize that he’s actually come to a stop in the road, and when he does, there’s a small flash at the edge of his somatosensory awareness – a notice from his HUDs that he’s gotten… an email?

Galen’s a little confused; no one ever contacts him by email, and moreover, he doesn’t have an email to be contacted by. He can send them, sure, but he’s never gotten a reply before. Let alone something out of nowhere like this.

But when he glances at the top of the letter and the metadata, the whys and wherefores become obvious, and the cabling in his shoulders constrict.

Galen-

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? Over a week since you wrote me, and, well, a lot has happened since then.

I had no idea what to make of your note at first. Honestly? I thought you were pulling my leg… some kind of joke that you might’ve thought was funny because your job makes you feel powerful and above the consequences. And then a couple days ago I saw that it was true, and I felt like a jackass.

I’m not sure why I was so ready to be angry at another person screwing me over, but maybe you can’t blame me? It DID seem too good to be true. 

I spent two days trying to figure out what to say. And I guess there’s really nothing left TO say but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You saved my life twice.

For no reason.

Thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU.

I owe you.

Sincerely,

Holly Mendoza

ps: Would it be rude for me to ask why, exactly? Why me, of all people? I’m just… morbidly curious to know. I could use a little entertainment these days anyways.

The giant is dumbstruck, so he reads it again.

And once more, for good measure.

The sharp honk of a horn behind is enough to startle him, in fact. He whips around, fists in the air, expecting something he hasn’t seen in millennia – but it’s only the rescue crew backed up on the road behind him. Galen, almost panting, drops his hands and takes a few steps back and off into the shallow ditch beside the road.

Shit,” he says as Tom gets out from behind the wheel of the nearest SUV. “Shit, I’m sorry. I got distracted for a moment.”

“That’s… that’s alright, Six,” the man says, almost as slow as his movements. The mech notices the man sitting in the passenger seat has their hand on something behind him, and the results from a quick detail sweep has his frown deepening: it’s a hunting rifle. 

Tom glances at his passenger, moving his head the tiniest bit as he does so, and Galen can feel the man’s grip on the gun loosen.

“You sure you alright?” Tom continues, thinking that the mech has no idea what almost happened. “I don’t want a repeat of last week.”

“No!” the mech blurts, holding his hands up. “No, stars no. Of course not. They must’ve been uh… must’ve been doing the rest of that patch when you came up behind me like that.”

“Uh huh…” Tom swallows. “You just get back to HQ ASAP, alright? You shouldn’t be out here for too long.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll be on the road again as soon as they’re done installing that patch.”

The Commander nods, but the tight line of his mouth betrays something else; something that Galen doesn’t have a word for, but that he knows the implications of like the circuits and pathways of his own foreprocessors: If these men ever trusted you, they don’t anymore.

He vents as Tom shuts the door to the SUV and takes it out of park, gravel crunching under its tires as he turns the wheels to give the mech a wide berth; so too do the two trucks that follow. The air that comes out his backside is hot enough to blister skin.

Did you see that?” a voice crackles in his head – his sensors are still on overdrive, and he’s picking up their radio as though they were speaking directly to him. “The suit looked like a UFC fighter. Perfect goddamn form for a second there.

Doesn’t make any sense,” Tom says. “Nobody said anything about outfitting him with that kind of programming.

Yeah, well, “nobody said” a lot about that thing that we’re finding out now,” someone else chimes in.

Tom sounds like he’s speaking with a scowl. “I think we should all get together at Buffalo’s tonight and talk about it, because I’m not sure what to do anymore.

Good idea,” a third crewmember cuts in, just as Galen’s losing the weak signal. “We gotta ——— eye out —————–“

As the SUVs disappear down the road, faint clouds of dust kicking up behind them, it seems to Galen that they bear a slight resemblance to the birds from earlier, fleeing the stone: little beige and brown creatures, so easily terrified by the sudden movement of even inanimate objects.

He turns his sensors toward a different sort of movement off to his left, and turning his head to see, spots a young man jogging down the hill from the house.

“Excuse me, sir!” he shouts as he approaches the fence, careful not to touch the tape at the top which, to Galen at least, is humming with electrical current. He’s panting from the sprint. “Excuse me! Can I take your picture?”

The mech looks over at him – he can’t be older than 18 Terran years – and in his hand is a phone. His angry, luminescent gaze bores down into the tiny thing’s shutter and lens. He reaches out with cybernetic fingers, snaking them around its core hardware, and with a jerk of his invisible hand, the phone’s display convulses before winking off. Truthfully, Galen’s not sure if the small piece of tech will be salvageable.

“What the -!”

No,” he mutters harshly, and takes off down the road.


 

*Iodine-131, which has a half-life of 8 days.

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