[ITS] Chapter 7: The Bridge

The room is dimly lit from the lower-quality energy that now trundles through the once surging grid of this prefecture’s capital city. It’s been one tritium* since the ceasefire, and the Ntaa are still struggling to rebuild their razed homeworld, called simply Tchanggarec in Common: The Machine Hive. The Ntaarin name for it, obviously, holds the planet in considerably higher esteem than the rest of the inhabited worlds.

A green-eyed soldier, who will someday come to give himself a name in a language that won’t even exist for a few more thousand years, sits at the business end of a desk. The surface is adorned with a slew of dark-screened datapads and other info terminals, but only the one in the hands of the opposite Ntaa is illuminated. They are tiredly perusing it.

{ Says here you fought on the side of the Imperialists, ] they note, glancing at the soldier with deep orange optics and a cocked brow plate.

The soldier looks down, frowning. { I didn’t like the way the New Society… did things at first. ] It’s been a long time since the acid bath that ate away at the bright blue paint that adorned their shoulders, and the simple circle stamped onto their girthy forearms: the crest of the Empire of the First Way. Even the name sounds ridiculous to this one now, though.

{ It was war. You take opportunities as they present themselves, stranger. I’d think someone with a record like yours would understand that. ]

The soldier isn’t fond of having his nearly spotless service record, punctuated with honors, thrown in his face like this – especially by someone who goes by an ‘analyst’ designation. But that pride comes at a steep cost; it’s always had. And it goes well beyond the bitter knowledge of having fought for the wrong side in a devastating war.

{ I joined in peacetime, ] the soldier reminds.

{ And why’s that? ]

The soldier narrows their eyes. { Why does this matter? Look, if you don’t want me for the reconcilliation missions, then fine. But I’m not going to waste my time justifying my decision to avoid defection to someone who never even saw combat]

Even though a soldier, they hate that war merits continue to mean so much to this society. Pulling rank still gets your voice heard, which they admitedly don’t care for – rank was always just a way for them to get out from someone else’s thumb, a means to an end. They never wanted the control that came with it. What does mean something to them, though, is combat sodiumslogged; this one has thousands behind them. The analyst, they can tell, logged little if any. Their frametype isn’t suited to it: a quick scan reveals plating that’s just a little too thin, struts a little too weak, joints a little too exposed, derma a little too unmarred.

The analyst watches as the soldier moves to stand up, before setting the pad back down onto the desk between them. It blackens as soon as it hits the surface – an energy-saving measure. They smirk and lean back in their chair. { You are good, ] they chuckle across their shared comm. { No wonder the Imperialists wanted to hold onto you. ]

{ They didn’t hold onto anything, ] the soldier snaps, though fatigue nips at the heels of their signal. { Only reason I stayed was because I didn’t up and leave. That’s all there is to it. ]

The analyst considers the green-eyed Ntaa, and the soldier can all but feel the circuits firing in the analyst’s CPU. { My job is to make sure that we don’t accidentally recruit any loose cannons, stranger. And in spite of your long history with the Empire, I will admit that it appears to be bland as hell. ] They pick up the pad again, flipping through it when the screen flickers to life. { I’ve seen dirtier shades of white, for the First Core’s sake. ]

The soldier’s interest is piqued again.

{ However… ]

But it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve gotten their hopes up.

{ There’s a note here that says you often preferred direct, physical engagement with the enemy. ]

The soldier stiffens. { Guns can be too imprecise in many situations. ]

{ Only if you don’t know how to use them. Which, I might add, is clear that you do, ] the analyst says, gesturing to the pad. { You’ve got sensors like no one else I’ve met and you’re trying to tell me that you’re a weak shot? ]

Green optic rings divert down and to the side.

{ Look, it doesn’t sound like you’re going to be a liability on a mission – like I said, you are one blandly upstanding mech. ]

{ Dammit, would you stop jerking me around? I’m either accepted or I’m not. ]

{ You’re in, ] the analyst relents, but the tone in their signal carries a warning with it. { But I’m putting you on a ship with as many New Society crew as I can find. With any luck, you might find yourself fallen out of certain habits by the time you get back. ]

The soldier grits their denta behind tight lips. This is why they didn’t defect – but broadcasting that little bit of information wouldn’t endear them to much of anyone. Especially since the New Society, more or less, won the war.

{ You never know, ] the soldier grouses slowly, strumming their fingers along their upper arm. They don’t want to stick around and find out how much more New Society line-toeing they can handle before even making it onto a manifest.

The analyst snorts; an odd sound coming from this one, as they seem to be one of the few Ntaa who can divert air through their facial seams. { I’ll have your assignment delivered as soon as we figure out where to send you, stranger. Don’t get too comfortable. ]

{ I never do, ] they reply, already on their way out. They give their own snort in return and step out of the room.


Galen can’t help but start to feel that most moments in his life, the moments that he will remember ten-thousand Terran years from now, are just echoes of even older memories. Same roles, same story – different actors. He’s caught between the Empire and the New Society all over again.

So when the SAR crew dismiss themselves for the evening, completely unaware that Galen knows exactly where they’re going, he’s got little to lose. He’s decided to leave for the night.

The mech begins by strolling into the small sortie bay, and pretends to occupy himself with something about the helmet as he reaches out with intangible wires to lift a few seconds of footage from the security camera in the corner of the space. The contents of its harddrive are uploaded to the Divison’s server every 10 minutes, then wiped; he’s got plenty to work with for its current cycle, and with deft “fingers”, he plucks out a pristine 2-minute clip of an empty room, loops it, and eases it back into place. It takes a little jiggering to figure out how to get the timestamp to work properly, but the CCTV system is rudimentary enough that even someone without much engineering experience like him can make it work after a moment.

After that, he’s free.

With a self-satisfied grin he puts the helmet away, taking one last bitter glance at it before stepping into the lift and throwing on the cloak.

The warm night air passes over him, and for a moment it feels like the gentle breeze has a texture. He glances around – first to the twin Hueys off to his left. They’re big, relatively impressive machines, and almost look like insects as they sit there on the helipad in the dark. Then his green optics wander over to the wall of trees off past the west end of the property: black and looming. With a flick of a psychosomatic switch they go from impenetrable to mundane, as visible as they are in daylight. But still, he can guess at the kind of fear that might strike the heart of a human at the sight.

He decides to head parallel to the trees, off into the grassy, star-lit BLM.

Looking down, he watches as his invisible feet make prints in the ground, pressing the blades of grass flat and displacing soil. The sight is strikes him as, well, a bit silly, and it gets a chuckle out of him. If there were an onlooker, the great tracks would be appearing out of thin air to them.

“Damn, I could go just about anywhere I wanted to, couldn’t I?” the mech says to himself, looking off in the direction of Cody. But he remembers the SAR team and deflates a little – or maybe hardens, rather – and Galen can’t help but wonder what they’re saying. It’s only a few minutes before he decides that there are other things he’d rather do with his evening than think about what tomorrow will bring.

Bizarrely enough, Galen feels like he’s back in the military again, before the height of the war. The Imperialist armies were loosely-organized federations of units that rarely ever needed to assemble into battalions because of the sheer power inherent to the Ntaa as a race. All-out war was unthinkable to them until they were faced with the only beings the galaxy had to offer that were as hardy and strong as a Ntaa: other Ntaa. Unfortunately, as a result of the lackadaisical structure, many of the units further afield devolved into little more than roving gangs, but Galen is thankful that he usually found himself among company of higher quality. But still, enlistment meant freedom in those days. Freedom, because being among the ranks meant someone trusted you.

On Earth, he’s found trust to be rare. Loyalty is traded on the open market like any other commodity here, and earning it is a – what was that word? – Sisyphian endeavor. Especially if you’re an outsider.

The New Society had promised to bring the Ntaa together again, undo the damage wrought by the aristocrats of the fallen empire, and rebuild Homeworld. But as Galen had begun to find out, these weren’t simply concepts and ideals: they became literal, legal mandates as soon as there was a government again. Ntaa who didn’t want to come home were sometimes even forced to at gunpoint.

In a civil war between wealthy empire-builders and angry isolationists, where the hell was he supposed to go?

Fifth rank.

Keep your sensors sharp, guns high, and feet on the ground.

Where’s the fifth rank now?


The chronometer reads 0128 when he stops to open up that email again. The temperature has dropped not insignificantly, and the gibbous moon is finally peeking over the horizon. Having taken off the cloak some time ago to save energy, the mech’s found himself seated on the bank of a stream that he doesn’t know the name of. Little bugs are drawn to the faint light of his green eyes, and after a moment of trying to wave them futilely away, he just offlines them. His dozen other sensor arrays pick up the meager slack.

“What the hell do I say to you now?” he quietly rumbles to himself, venting.

One part in particular is sticking with him, though. Something about her choice of words here – though it is echoed throughout the letter – is implicating something, but he just doesn’t know what:

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.

Then it occurs to him that she’s speaking from a place of disappointment. A place where, maybe, trust is as hard to come by for her as it is for him. Galen scowls, hearth-fire burning low as he ponders (and far from the first time) what kind of life she’d chosen to leave behind in Salt Lake City. Maybe she’d walked away from her own sort of New Society.

Holly-

It was the least I could do. I promise.

I’m just doing my job.

No… no, that’s not right. He deletes that line.

I’m… he tries again. I’m powerful in only a couple ways; a couple out of many. And I’m definitely not beyond reproach. I’ve been called a bleeding heart a few times, in fact.

Just setting the record straight, here. That you know this is important to me.

I do this sort of thing because I want to. I like helping humans  – quickly he deletes this, not sure how it slipped out – people. It’s my job. And let that be the answer to your “why” too, OK?

He studies this last part, not quite satisfied with it. It reads like… like he’s trying to shut her down. Hm. Galen continues gingerly; groping around for a permissible truth.

It may have been the exhaustion and dehydration talking, but you told me what you needed; you were honest. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that what I learned about you from the police report didn’t factor into it too…

But either way, I’m glad to have met you, and you definitely don’t owe me anything.

-Galen

He shifts, bottom scraping moss and dirt along the ground. A gray and bronzy arm, both of which were resting on his knees, goes up to worry at one of the seams on his cheek as he thinks. The mech finds himself wanting to say so much more, and is, frankly, surprised. And a little worried, too.

Galen feels that a sort of ultimatum, or a gamble, is presenting itself now, and the idea unsettles him: to fold or raise?

Folding would be the smart thing to do. The professional thing to do.

But his reputation, it seems, if he had much of one before, is deteriorating right before his eyes. As it gets harder and harder to feign non-sentience, it’s just a matter of time now before the SAR crew – for all the great work they do –  will refuse to vouch for him anymore. The mech can feel what their hearts and blood pressure do every time he so much as shrugs near one of them. No… that bridge is slowly burning.

How do the others do it? 

Kenway and Seaver had said, after their first assignments, not to hold back at first; not to try and impress anybody. The humans expect consistency, whether it’s a mech who doesn’t know how to shut up, or one who hates dirt and rain, the human teams need to know what they’re getting right off the bat. Change terrifies them.

Galen – and in his defence, a good handful of others, too – dismissed the advice as half-cocked or only suited for certain assignments.

They don’t want to get to know you, they’d said. Like any other equipment, they just want you to work

EYSAR doesn’t want to get to know him; how he came to have perfect fighting form. Why he’s capable of being treated unfairly.

Moreover, they can’t.

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

ps- How’s the leg doing?

“Maybe it’s time to build a new bridge,” he whispers, and the email is whisked off into the disorganized murk of human-made cyberspace.

What have I got to lose?

Some time later he’ll come to find himself eating those words. Right now, though, it’s just a shot in the dark.


* The half-life of hydrogen-3: 12.3 years.
 The half-life of sodium-24, about 15 hours; it’s a common short interval of time.

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