[ITS] Chapter 9: The Store

Stars, how refreshing it is to be carrying on something like a conversation with someone. Not just someone, but a human, at that! Honestly, Galen wasn’t sure that he’d ever see the day when a human would be talking to him like an equal. Sure, she still thinks he’s human too; but that’s just details at this point.

He’s gotten her final correspondence for the evening, and maybe it’s the fresh, mountain air getting to him, but he’s jonesing for… something. The shackles are off for the night, and he feels like he can do anything.

The mech checks the time again, for good measure – he’s still got about four hours before anyone shows up at EYSAR for work, and about that long before dawn, too.

He checks a map: at his top speed, Billings is only about 45 minutes away from the nearest stretch of highway, and at this hour, there should be few cars on the road.

Galen’s not sure what he’s going to do yet – a plan is still taking shape – but he wants to let her know that he’s going to attempt something. Pesky details like “it might involve stalking around your town in the dead of night” are omitted. He suspects that anything more than the vaguest explanation will be recieved with more sensation than he’s aiming for.

I really hope that I’m not overstepping here…

It’s a stretch, he knows that much. And it will not be the first time this evening that he questions his own motives, still uneasy at the idea of acting from anywhere but a place of altruism.

“Why are you doing this, anyways,” he groans as he moves through the trees with some measure of auditory stealth, then chuckles at realizing that he never used to talk to himself this much before coming to Earth. The humans do it a lot – must’ve picked it up from them.

It’s fun, either way, so he continues. “Sometimes you really are a sad sack of – agh!” he gets whipped in the face here with a sturdy tree bough “- parts! Look at you.” Another pause here as he ducks under a heavy branch, as thick around as his forearm. “You’re stealing out into the night to cavort with nature of all things, and now, a human.

He makes it out of the thicket, finally, and up goes the cloak as he heads out into more open terrain. The highway is a few kliks straight ahead.

“If only my old commander could see me now.”

He’s being rhetorical, of course – the sixth-rank officer was a jerk by all accounts, and enjoyed making fun of the green-eyed Ntaa for his interest in melee combat. Who the hell knows what he’s up to now.

{ Kenway! ] Galen calls out into the comm with a burst of nervous energy as he picks up speed, breaking into a heavy jog. He hopes that the mech isn’t asleep.

{ Huh? Galen? ] comes the reply, groggy and laced with static. { What in the smelter are you doing up this late? Nevermind that – what are you doing without mediation, man? ] The mech on the other end of the channel can tell, as easily as distinguishing timbre, that his fellow soldier isn’t wearing the Division-issue helm, nor is he using the radio in his lead-clad bunker.

{ I’m off on a joyride tonight, Kenway, ] the invisible Ntaa announces. He’s a little surprised at how casually it came out. { And I’ve got an errand to run while I’m at it. ]

Galen’s almost sure that he can hear the other smack himself in the face. { You know, I think I liked you more when you were the goody-two-shoes of the group. ]

He narrows his eyes, but the grin on his face is still there. { When was I ever the goodie-two-shoes? Stars, that idiom’s a mouthful… ] A fence is fast approaching, but he easily clears it without hardly needing to jump.

{ You need to get your memory banks checked, good sir. Was just like yesterday: it was me, five other mechs from our unit, you, and a crate of mods we lifted from storage. ]

Galen remembers this.

Kenway continues. { “I don’t think this is such a good idea, guys”, ] he intones. { “What if we get caught??” ]

{ Oh come on, I don’t sound like that. ]

{ “Stealing’s wrong!” ]

{ OK, I definitely don’t sound like that. ]

Kenway floods the channel with howls of electronic laughter.

{ To clear my name here, ] Galen muscles back in, { I had rounds in a matter of flourines and I was not about to report in stinking of fragging sluggers. ]

{ None of our CO’s could smell, man. ]

could, and that’s all that mattered. ]

{ I rest my case. ]

Galen laughs out loud, letting the sound leak out over their comm. The Ntaa’s native comm system isn’t sound-based, and it especially isn’t mouth-sound-based. But physical laughter just feels so much better.

{ I know you didn’t call me up to brag, and you definitely didn’t call me up to reminisce. So what’s up and where ya’ headed at two in the morning? Should I get Enno on the line, too? ]

{ Don’t, ] the green-eyed mech says with a bit more sobriety, pausing as he approaches the highway. { This is going to look suspicious enough as it is. They’ll know you’re talking to somebody, but without a matching record from someone else… ]

{ This isn’t my first rodeo… or did you forget who stole those mods in the first place? ] Kenway says with a smirk.

He’s surveying the traffic, which is about as sparse as it can get without being completely deserted. Only one car has passed him so far. { Well, while we’re on the subject of theft… turns I won’t have much of a leg to stand on after tonight. ]

{ Oh? Have we a rogue soldier on our hands? ]

Galen goes for it, and in seconds he’s approaching 160 kilometers an hour with the gravs. He’s never done anything like this before: this road was designed for vehicles going less than half this speed, and he’s beginning to realize that keeping steady and passing cars unnoticed is going to take a lot more concentration than he anticipated.

{ I hope not, ] he answers, banking a hard turn. { Remember that uh… that civivie human? ]

{ Yep, I definitely liked you more when you were the goodie-two-shoes. ]

{ I couldn’t… ] He vents here, and hard. The wind is fast being taken from his sails. { I couldn’t leave herstranded, ] the mech “mutters” over the channel. { She still needs help. ]

Suddenly rigid fear sweeps between them. { You didn’t – ]

No. No. I haven’t told her anything. ]

{ Best not, unless you wanna be junked. ]

There’s a long silence between them now, and Galen’s not sure what to make of it. Truthfully, he takes the opportunity to concentrate on the road, weaving past two more cars. Humans are dirunal, he recalls. I wonder what these folks are doing out at this hour? If they have any clue as to what’s just slipped past them… 

Galen hasn’t thought this through much at all. Not where he’s going to go, what he’s going to get, or what he’s going to do if the Division gets wind of this. The latter question he decides, though, is something he can think about later.

{ I plan on going to a store and getting her some food, is all, ] he says at length.

{ You plan on stealing her some food. ]

{ Don’t have much of a – ] he strafes past another car { –choice, do I? ]

{ I gotta say, Galen, ] sighs the mech on the other end. { You rarely get up to much of anything. But when you do, you can be one crazy son of a gun. ]

{ Coming from you? ] he chuckles. { That means a lot. I think. ]

{ Look, just remember that there’s a difference between crazy and stupid, alright? ]

{ Alright. And hey – don’t tell the XO? Please? ]

{ Fer cryin’ out loud, Galen, you know I hate keeping secrets from friends, XO or not. ]

{ And you know I can’t lie worth a damn either, but do this for me, OK? If this gets any more… involved, then I’ll fess up. But for right now… ]

{ You owe me, bud. ]

{ Sure, sure. ‘Nite, Kenway. Galen out. ]

{ Kenway out. ]

The rest of the ride is relatively uneventful. That is, aside from the flurry of thoughts swirling around with the nanenes in his big, metal head.

Before he knows it, suburban track homes begin coming into view; billboards advertising retirement homes and beer; and shortly, a sign stating that he’s entered city limits.

It’s a quaint town – though really, every town he’s been to on this planet counts as quaint compared to what’s been built back home – and according to his knowledge of this area, it’s also the largest in the state. There’s not much for him to see at this time of night, though. The streets are deserted and buildings dark.

He pulls off the highway at the next exit that appears and pulls off onto the shoulder at the intersection to figure out just what he’s doing here.

Am I really going to go steal food for her somehow?

Stars, he wishes Seaver were here. The slighter mech stands at not even 4 meters tall and he has manipulators for doing finer work. The frustrating part is that he probably wouldn’t even mind helping with this if there was any possible way that he could. His current station has him doing daily patrols at John F Kennedy airport. It would take a teleporter to get him here, and no one in the entire galaxy has invented one of those yet.

She’s running out of human… stuff, he reminds himself, the pertinent part of her email flickering at the edge of his foreprocessors. C’mon, you can do this. Think back to your training.

Withought fine tools, though, this is going to be hard.

He quickly recalls her missing persons report, flipping through it until he spies her address, which he plugs into his personal map program – part native war programming, part Google satellite data, tweaked and meshed together over the course of many dull evenings – and recognizes as being just a few kliks away. He designates the location as a waypoint, and it urges him toward it like the pull of a weak magnet.

Next, he does a search for a grocery store nearby, finding a small handful. The question is, which one? Galen has never set foot in such a place, let alone even been near one.

All he knows is that he needs to be able to fit in the door.

He takes his chances with one that he identifies as a “chain” – it looked to be sizeable from the pictures, and it’s nearby. It’ll have to do.

Galen takes off down the road, passing a single vehicle on his way, and soon finds himself in the parking lot of the store. To his dismay, the lights inside the building are all on, and for a brief moment he wonders if they’re open. But as he creeps closer, avoiding the bright orange spotlights from the buzzing lamps above his head, he sweeps the premeses and realizes that no one’s inside. Why keep the lights on, then? Humans are always going on about energy, you’d think they’d conserve it at every opportunity. 

The invisible mech approaches the nearest set of sliding glass doors, sensors on full as he gets into a careful kneel to assess the situation. Just as he’s about to inspect the alarm system, though, a large truck pulls into the parking lot. Instinctively, Galen jumps up and moves away from the entrance, but the truck passes by the building, disappearing around the back.

A delivery.

Which means that there must be workers present to recieve it.

Ktsek.

With a nervous vent, Galen carefully resumes hsi previous position at the door to figure out the alarms. Which, at least, don’t take long to disarm. The CCTV is next, but he simply resuses the same trick from before, and in a couple minutes he has that taken care of too.

But the most difficult part of this ordeal is proving to be the doors themselves. They’re glass for stars’ sake, and with a loud enough shout he could probably shatter them. But to get through without drawing a single hairline crack? The giant groans and rubs at his face.

Yep, I wish Seaver were here.

The issue is that they’re only partially electronic; their “automatic” feature only functioning when the store’s open. The locking mechanism itself is purely mechanical, and if he could just pick the lock somehow…

Hearth-core thrumming with frustration he searches the internet for information on picking human-made tumbler locks, which this one likely is. Images and video flash in his mind of small, carefully-bent lengths of stiff wire jiggering pins into their maddeningly slight niches so that a second pin can slip in and turn the tumbler.

Where the hell am I going to find pins?

He takes stock of the detail kit that every Ntaa soldier is retrofitted to carry with them – Galen’s is in a slim case molded onto one of his shoulders. In it is are a few instruments for scraping caked-on substances, another for picking fine debris out from between his lames, a simple, rounded rod for shaping thinner metal, and at one point there was a small chisel, but he’d lost that some time ago and never got around to replacing it. Not that it would have done him much good here.

Pins…

Voices from behind the building catch his attention, and the giant’s shoulders slump at the terrible, terribleidea forming in his mind.

Criminey, he chastises himself in English as he gets up and heads in the direction of the truck. Galen, what have you gotten yourself into?

Even though cloaked, the giant mech sticks close to the wall. Before him is the dock. His sensors detect three heartbeats in the area, and with the human men moving about, unloading the truck, his visuals, audials, and heat sensors verify this in a matter of seconds.

Galen finds himself cracking a smile. It’s funny, actually… he feels like he’s on a scouting mission again, gathering intel. Except this time, he plans on making off with a little more than just sensory data. Not to mention that his “enemies” could sit in the palm of his hand. Confidence returning, the mech readies a plan of attack, identifies his target, vents, and engages.

With a swift surge his cybernetic fingers strangle the current responsible for feeding the lights in the docking area, and everything is plunged into darkness. For thehumans, at least. Without so much as a conscious thought, Galen switches to his myriad other modes of “seeing”, including infrared, and deftly proceeds without skipping a beat.

“Hey!”

“Oh come on, not now!”

The men’s voices are loud and agitated as they halt their work, and as the shift manager waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, Galen’s behind him.

He hooks a thick finger through the ring of keys, and as quickly as he can physically manage, braces his other hand against the man’s leg as he gives the keys a rough jerk. The belt loop they’re anchored to gives right away, and Galen bites back a toothsome smirk, quickly removing his hands from the man.

“Holy sh– what the fuck just grabbed me! Something grabbed me!”

Galen secures the keys tightly in his fist to keep them from making noise as he steps away from the scene. The three men are shouting now, and the mech begins to feel bad for causing such a scare, but it couldn’t be helped. He can feel their racing heartbeats as he walks away.

“The keys are gone!” A pause. “My god.. look, they got torn right off me! Look at this!”

The giant winces.

“You’ll get ’em back in a few minutes,” he whispers, darting around to the front again to finish what he started.

Galen peers down at the small pieces of metal, dwarfed by his enormous hand, as he kneels in front of the front doors again. “Now which one?”

He scans the dimensions of the lock – it would take him too long to get measurements exact enough to fit the right key to it, but an approximation rounded to the nearest milimeter eliminates seven of the nine keys in short order.

“Last two,” he says to himself, trying to get enough of a grip on the tiny thing to push it in and give a little jiggle. His hearth-fire is burning hot and wild, nanenes having a field day at the sudden surge in energy output. He can feel it in the way his colloid ducting is beginning to tingle. But this key is no good.

The next one works. A muffled cry of triumph attempts to leave him, but he catches it behind his denta as he pries the glass doors carefully open and squeezes inside. Before he sets the collection of metal strips aside on the floor, though, he holds the correct one up to his face and takes careful measurements of it in the hopes that they don’t change the lock if he returns the ring. Just in case there’s a next time.

When he’s done, he rises up to his full height, making sure not to hit his head on any light fixtures. “Thank the stars humans have a taste for tall ceilings,” he murmurs, looking around.

While places of mercantile business follow a pretty universal design, no matter the species that owns it – and humans being no exception – being here is still a definite thrill. He’s made it across enemy lines and is, at the moment, free to roam their terrain.

The store is divided into two basic regions, it seems to him at first glance: the perimeter, which appears to have more basic foodstuff, and the interior, composed of orderly aisles, which has more heavily packaged varieties. He looks from one colorful box to the next and suddenly feels ridiculous.

I have no real clue what humans eat, do I?

Would it be better to get her a lot of one thing, or small amounts of many things? What foodstuff needs processing to be palatable? To be edible? What if she doesn’t like what he gets her?

He turns to the internet again.

balanced human diet

A lot turns up. A lot. Videos of television personalities, millions of websites and scientific studies – wait, do humans not even know what they ought to be eating?? – hits for snake oil salesmen, references to something called “Soylent”, and even a hardy side of joke pieces.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake, haven’t I?”

The clock is ticking, and the mech is beginning to feel that he’s outstayed his welcome when something catches his attention amid the morass of search results: something called a “food group”.

food groups

What he gets from this search is far more interesting and readily usable. It seems that there’s a few variations on the concept, but the jist is the same: human foods can be divided into basic categories of mineral and chemical constitution, and arranged by priority. And according to the diagram he’s looking at, there are six categories.

Six? He can work with that. Morever, it seems that the store has a section corresponding to every group aside from the one with the least priority: fat and sugar. Not to mention, that one seems to be the most hotly contested, so he’s going to leave that category alone for now.

“Alright, bread.”

He elevates up onto his gravs again to avoid tearing up the linoleum floor, and begins heading clockwise around the perimeter.  The bakery section is full of an assortment of lumps of leavened grain flour, and Galen frowns when he realizes that some of them would be better suited for the fat and sugar category. They’re in dozens of different sizes, shapes, colors, and even densities. The giant’s black and green eyes dart from one loaf to another, trying to figure out which one to take.

“They’re all the same!” he hisses with exasperation after almost a minute of deliberating. With a huff, he glides between two displays to a wall with nothing but loaves packaged in plastic bags. These will survive the trip, at least, he grumbles to himself, taking one last look over his shoulder at the other loaves, most of which are not as securely protected. With a swift motion, he snatches two bag’s worth and weaves his way over to the vegetable section.

Hardy,” he mumbles, scanning the displays in the middle and the moistened coolers against the wall. “Something hardy and easy to carry…”

The water content of most of the vegetables is unacceptable, and many of the others are too small for him to handle without a container. After a few quick moments of surveying his options, he happens upon something that looks suitable: something called a cabbage. It’s round, but at least it’s dense and, he hopes, provides decent nutritional value. He grabs one, forming something of a nook with his arm against his chest, and desposits the food items there before moving onto the next order of business.

Fruit. The mech groans, venting. This is even worse. Most of these items are categorically smaller than the vegetables, and have a higher water content… making them easier to squish. But it seems that the humans acknowledge this too, and so some of them – maybe the higher quality varieties? – appear to be packaged in ways that would minimize their damage in transit. He reaches for a box of one sitting above a label that says “organic peaches”, relieved to find their cardboard tray strong enough to withstand his grip. With this under his arm, he piles the bread and cabbage on top, and rounds the corner to the “meat” section.

He stops in front of the refrigerated shelving, scanning the neatly-butchered portions of flesh, and is at least relieved to find them all in relatively leak-proof packaging. (The mech is not especially fond of Terran blood. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Ntaarin ferrofluids in smell, except that, unlike ferrofluid, it has a propensity to rot at warmer temperatures.) Without thinking this one through too much, he picks up the first sizeable piece of something he sees and moves on.

Dairy… dairy…

The last category is, admittedly, a little confusing to him. Dairy products are made from the secretions of livestock mammals, and are designed for consumption by their offspring, but humans have been injesting the fat and protein-rich liquids for thousands of years. The idea is a little unsettling to him, but who’s he to tell a different species where it ought and ought not to get its energy from? The confusing part is the myriad forms dairy products take. There’s solids, liquids, and everything in between. Do they all have similar nutritional profiles? Which form is the best?

Checking his chronometer, Galen decides that it doesn’t matter, and plucks a roughly rectangular shape out of a cooler against the wall. His sensors tell him that it’s coated in a layer of paraffin wax, and the label says “cheddar”.

Whatever that means.

Into the tray of peaches goes the small brick of cheddar dairy, and Galen heads for the exit.

Picking up the ring of keys from where he left them near the door, he squeezes out, trying to conceal the food under his arm as much as possible. The cloak, as well as it works for him, can only be extended for objects that he’s able to interface with, and he cannot interface with foodstuff. But obscuring it behind his arms should do the trick enough to suffice.

What Galen’s not expecting, though, is to see a police car pull into the parking lot and head around behind the store just as he’s trying to pull the doors back together. Pushing them apart was one thing, but without handles of any kind, bringing them flush together again is almost impossible.

Shit.

Thankfully, they didn’t seem to notice. Hearth-fire pumping, the tingle returns to his ducting and a faint charge builds up in his fingertips at the prospect of astrategic self-extraction. He knows that this shouldconcern him more than it is, but instead of apprehension, a little rush tickles at the corners of his foreprocessors. This is exciting.

Keys in hand, he winds his way around back on the gravs, the light humming sound the only noise that they might catch if he gets close enough. Good thing he doesn’t need to.

“Just calm down, sir,” he catches one of the officers say. If he concentrates, Galen can sense that the shift manager is seated, with the others around him. “We need to know what really happened.”

“Dammit, I told you!” he man shouts, still shaken from the invisible assault. “The lights went out, and then s-something… something grabbed me and took off with the keys.”

“He’s telling the truth, officers! We saw it!”

“How’d you see it in the dark?”

“Well, we… we didn’t see it, exactly, but we heard it!”

There’s a pause. “Griffith,” the one offer grunts before turning back to the workers. “How many drinks have you boys had tonight? Now be honest with me.” The mech can sense the second officer returning to the vehicle.

“Oh for the love of…”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”

Galen decides that now would probably be a good time to intervene. Playing an old recording of a sharp whistle that causes all five men to just about jump out of their skins, Galen hurls the keys over to them, and they land squarely at the police officer’s feet.

“What the–!”

“It’s back! The thing, it’s–”

And with a snap of his mental fingers, the lights in the truck bay flicker on again, whereupon they all fall deathly silent for a few moments.

“These wouldn’t happen to be your… your missing keys, would they?”

Biting back a burst of laughter, the mech turns on his levitating heel and races back out to the street, heading for the faintly nagging waypoint that is Holly’s residence some kliks away.

Kenway, you’d be damn proud of me right now.

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