[ITS] Chapter 10: The Retainer

He flies down deserted streets as he makes his way through the grid-like arrangement of blocks, heading for Holly’s address.

The giant ducks under streetlights as he passes them, and it feels a little bit like a game; he swerves around a single car and remembers that there’s a human sport that looks similar to what he’s doing: inline skating. The form is a little different – all he needs to do is lean to generate propulsion rather than push himself along – but his movements still bear a funny resemblance to the videos that are playing in his mind. He tries remembering the first time that he fell when the gravs were installed. It only happened once, as he was busy calibrating them, and he was still under the watchful eye of the Stewards at the time.

But Earth isn’t Homeworld, and it’s been almost ten Terran millennia since Galen was considered a machineling. By human standards, he might counted as young, but age is just short of meaningless among his people. Nanene colonies can live forever if provided with the energy, after all. And what are the Ntaa other than communities of microscopic machines?

It doesn’t take long for him to come upon her residence. It’s kind of an ugly building: boxy, plain, and garishly white. The U-shape makes for a courtyard in the center, with hab suites – apartments, Galen – on a lower and upper level. There are satellite dishes anchored everywhere, it seems, and the place is practically alight with current and wireless signals. With a quick sweep of the premises, it appears just about everyone is asleep. Lowered body temperatures, slow, steady heartbeats.

It’s fascinating to him, seeing the humans in their, well, native habitat for lack of a better term. The mech’s never been among them like this, he realizes. Aside from the occasional travel route in and out of Cody, his entire experience with humans has been confined to their workplaces.

With a long, slow vent, the giant creeps up the concrete path that leads from the street to the courtyard, green apertures glancing around with something almost like wonder.

So many of them in one place! And they have no idea that I’m even here…

He consults the report once again, and stops in front of what he knows to be Holly’s apartment.

Only when he situates her in the context of this place does it occur to him how small the suites are. The edge of the walkway for the units on the second story is just a touch higher than his belly, and so he gets down into a kneel just to be able to see her door, lowering himself from the gravs to come to rest on the concrete.

It’s like a burrow, he decides. A squarish burrow, made from timber and fiberglass insulation, finished off with a neat, white door that could barely be said to keep her own kind out, let alone his. Galen silently scans the interior of her suite and finds a small heat signature at the back, and only the slightest movement: breathing.

That’s her, isn’t it?

He’s not sure why the statement got framed as a question in his head, but he does remember the foodstuff in his arms. With a careful motion he deposits the pile on her doorstep, feeling a bit ridiculous. The mech stares at it for a moment.

Why am I doing this?

His memory banks respond with a flicker of the image of her face at the bottom of the ravine. I know that, he chastises silently. But why this, of all things? Why did I come here? No memory follows to retort.

There is a reason, he can feel it. It’s on the tip of his tongue.

A distant burning sensation creeps across the taupe and gunmetal of his hands: another ghost sensation. As a machineling, the Stewards warned him that the code and hardware his hearth-core wanted to express might do something like this. That, despite having a Retainer-class core, he was being written as a physiopath – something that rarely happened outside of the Data-classed Ntaarin.

They told him to expect conflicting initiatives, but it never caught him with such frequency until Earth happened to the shipwrecked crew of the Ntassantek. A planet and people still, comparatively speaking, alive with wildness.

Galen frowns, still staring at the food on the little doorstep. I’d barely be able to get my leg through that door, he distantly notes.

But the sensation in his hands grows irritating and so he rubs, trying to make it go away.

“Maybe,” he whispers to himself, trying with a grimace to muffle the sound of his metal fingers scraping against each other, “Maybe this is what it feels like to finally snap.”

Or maybe your Retainer code is slipping. Ever thought of that?

The metal soldier bristles. It was no secret that Retainers were purpose-driven mechs, drawn to defend things by whatever means their core best expressed. A joke among the class was that they were all born masochists – that the Ntaa Retainer full of shrapnel was still happier than the one who wasn’t.

After the ceasefire, Galen was miserable. He was ordered home and told to await his new station, but the assignment never came and the reconciliation missions seemed like a good stopgap. The New Society had plans for the lion’s share of the Retainers, but the specialized ones – the logicians, the programmancers, the empaths, and the rare physiopath – had no place. To give them the benefit of the doubt, Galen is willing to acknowledge that they probably do now at least; the Ntassantek disembarked more than 3,000 Terran years ago, after all.

But Earth isn’t Homeworld.

And it’s hard to be anything here. Hell, the whole damn planet might as well be Dreamland.

Yet here he is – kneeling at the doorstep of a civilian human who’s nursing a cracked strut of calcium in her lower leg. Humans aren’t made with primary functions the way his people are, but he still can’t help but wonder what her chosen one is. Her police file said that she was a barista at a coffee chain, but the mech has a hard time believing that her true calling in life is to make drinks.

Galen vents. “I should go,” he murmurs, checking his chronometer. It reads a worrying 0351. Yep – definitely time to hit the road.

He rises to his full height, taking one last look at the small mess he made on her doorstep, and disappears into the night.


Light is just barely a whisper over the horizon when Galen makes it back to Cody, and with less than an hour to spare before the first team member comes shuffling up to the facility with a steaming coffee in hand, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he fumbles for the key.

He steals away into the bunker, checking the surveillance feed to make sure that it’s still all working properly, then slips into the other room and out of view before he lets it loose again. Then he promptly collapses onto his berth with a long, slow vent. His optical rings are already shutting themselves off for the time being.

The mech ought to go to sleep is what he should do – there’s no telling what will need to be done when the crew starts filing in and the day becomes accounted for if another mission isn’t on their hands.

But there’s a nagging in the back of his CPU, and honestly, the excitement from earlier is beginning to give way to worry. Even as his systems are readying themselves for sleep his foreprocessors insist on untangling themselves. He’s wondering what the SAR team discussed the previous evening, what they’d decided about him; if Holly will ever speak to him again or whether he completely overreached; but what puzzles him the most is why he did it to begin with.

Part of him still doesn’t buy his own cabin fever story. What, these six walls aren’t claustrophobic enough for you after all? It’s a box barely seven meters long and ten wide, with hardly a meter and a half of headroom. The mech can touch the ceiling with arms still deeply bent.

He rubs at his face, the thin tactile pads on the underside of his fingers faintly catching on the seams in his cheeks and the ridge of his brow.

What if my Retainer code is slipping?

It’s a ridiculous thought if he’d ever heard one: 30 Terran years – two and a half tritiums – of being stuck here is enough to unravel core code that has withstood irons*  of evolution? 

None of the primary classes were meant to be holed up like this, though. Any Ntaa would wither under such conditions. Even the Stewards.

Maybe that’s his problem…

“Whatever,” he mumbles as a few other sensor arrays quietly power down.


Galen barely gets in an hour of rest before he’s jerked awake by the sound of Tom’s voice coming over the intercom above the giant’s head.

“Rise and shine, Six,” comes the familiar greeting. It’s a ritual that he almost enjoyed. That is… until recent events began straining his fragile relationships with these people. “Just making sure you’re alive down there.” Normally Tom would sound almost cheerful – give or take a lousy night’s rest – but this time he sounds distant and cautious.

He reaches up with a sloppy hand and jabs at the button. “That I am, sir,” he replies. “Anything you need from me this morning?”

“Not that I know of, but I’ll let you know.”

“Sure thing, sir. Galen out.”

With that, he goes back to sleep. Because what else is there to do but wait?

He gets another couple of hours – his core type only needs about 12% downtime per half iodine before the CPU starts gumming up. Well below the humans’ required 20-40% per every few sodiums. On a planet designed to be asleep almost half the time, the Ntaa have had to figure out how to keep themselves entertained for most of Earth’s 24-hour solar cycle.

Some of them like to watch television: sports, serial dramas, game shows from across the planet. Others occupy themselves with tinkerer’s projects, stargazing (attempting to spot ships, more like – but like the Kassar said, Earth is a backwater planet), or studying all the intricate hypocrisies of human culture. But Galen likes to read. Every now and then he’ll try his hand at compiling a database of sorts, but it just isn’t all that fun to the soldier. Not even when they prove to be useful enough to be proud of, like his catalogue of shoes and their prints.

The mech mostly reads non-fiction. The conventions of fiction-writing on Earth are odd to him, and reading about the history of the planet’s scientific developments and wars – he always keeps a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with him – is more than interesting enough. But he did make a point to branch out, and that’s where the Jack London thing comes from. (He likes his work better than he liked The Iliad, and that’s saying a lot.)

The Ntaa can technically “read” several billion bits per second, and if the average English word is 6 letters long, then that’s a lot of words per minute, but the humans’ written word just wasn’t meant to be processed like that. It doesn’t store neatly, it doesn’t recall cleanly, and the life in the text just doesn’t translate. So Galen – and many of the other Ntaa – have long since gotten into the habit of reading no faster than they can speak. Apparently this has had a few interesting side-effects on their hindprocessors, but the soldier was always bored to pieces by that kind of talk and didn’t bother finding out more.

All of this is why it’s taken him several hours to get as far into Call of the Wild as he has, and why there’s still a few hours left to go before he finishes it.

And why the book is proving to be such a pleasant read. Or, it would have.

He’s not really enjoying the book, because right now, he’s mostly just trying to kill time until he hears back from Holly about the surprise that he left her. His hearth licks at its casing, tongues of white-hot plasma; one of the only pieces of his own anatomy that he’s only ever felt and not seen. It does this when he’s nervous.

An hour passes by since he woke up, and still nothing from her. What time does she wake up? Would she even notice that it was there? What if someone took it?

Both of his hands come up to cover his beige face and he vents, long and slow.

I screwed up, didn’t I?

He gives up on the book and takes some of the detailing tools out of his kit to begin cleaning his hands. The wait kills him, but around mid-morning, it’s over.

The mech’s almost startled at the notification that appears at the corner of his awareness. Don’t forget to ask Nachmen how she’s even sending me these, he notes sullenly. Squaring his jaw, he braces himself for what it contains, almost glad that he did.

ok, cut the crap: just who ARE you?

That’s it; that’s all she’s written.

He winces.

Yep, she’s freaked out.

The question is, though, just how does he try to placate her?  If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you, he mimes in his own head with a lackluster chuckle before letting his head fall back against the wall with a groan.

Kenway once read How to Win Friends and Influence People – as though the mech needed any help – and swore up and down that the whole crew ought to read it. Nobody really listened to him (except Seaver, who didn’t even finish it), but Galen is wishing he had now. He imagines, though, that he wouldn’t be able to get very far along in the text without coming across the word “honesty”.

Countless parables on Earth and elsewhere tell the tale of some fool who tries to impress others by deceit, following them through their rise in renown and their inevitable downfall. And the downfall always happens, no matter how good-natured or well-intentioned the poor soul is.

And here the mech thought he was building a bridge, not selling one.

He curses in his native tongue.

Holly-

Look, I lied to you a little, but you have to understand that I had to. I wish I could take it back, I really do, but I’ve got no truths to replace it with. So let me start over.

My name is Galen, and I am the person behind the suit. Many of my days are spent in isolation, and it’s been this way since being posted to my first station 14 years ago. I’m a combat veteran, so I wasn’t exactly young when I was recruited to the program either, and I’m used to being in teams and working with others. So being forced to go about like this is frustrating… at best.

He pauses, feeling words well up in him, and decides to let some of them out.

Helping people is the only thing that keeps me going these days. I like doing it. It gives me a sense of purpose, and I feel like I’m making up for… something that I did a long time ago.

But you’re the first person I’ve ever helped that also knows my name, and I guess I underestimated how powerful that would be. I was a… well, it was almost like I was almost a somebody to somebody for a minute there.

I didn’t want that feeling to go away.

And to himself: I didn’t want to have to be shooting at somebody to get that either.

With a long vent, he continues.

That crap on your doorstep? That was me. Please don’t ask for details, as I can’t give them to you. Throw the food away if that’s suspicious- hell, I’d probably do that if I were in your shoes.

I’m sure you’re wondering what all of this is about and to tell you the truth, I haven’t the faintest clue. All I know is that it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

If I went too far, I understand that too. We could cut things off right now if you’d like. It might be for the best, even – I’m not exactly supposed to be doing any of this, and I ESPECIALLY wasn’t supposed to do what I did last night. For a number of reasons.

He writes in a “lol” here. It’s his first.

At any rate, I’m here if you’ll have me.  I could use a friend; I don’t have many anymore.

Hm.

I’m not fishing for your pity, though. This is the hand I’ve been dealt… the hand most of us operators have been dealt. We make the best of it, and things will get better for us eventually.

That last part is cutting it damn close, but to hell with it.

So that’s my story for now. The rest, I’m afraid, is classified.

-Galen

And with that, he sends it off.

The mech feels strange; partly relieved, partly apathetic. He wonders how the Division might find out – everything on his end is encrypted beyond any human’s ability to make heads or tails of, and unless the correspondence is caught in transit, or once it gets to her, then no one’s the wiser. And as far as he knows, the ERRD hasn’t done anything more than catalogue the names and faces of every civilian that a Ntaa speaks to, filing them away for reference purposes. If they’d gone into the business of actively spying on people, then Nachmen would have undoubtedly found out. (That mech’s pastime is getting dirt on every networked government computer that he can sink his electronic teeth into.)

No… the only way that anyone would find out is if one of them talks. Can he trust her not to talk, then? Well, he wants to, at least.

Galen stands up, suddenly wishing that he’d had a gun to do some practice shooting with. Instead, he walks over to the helmet, that damned thing, and clamps it on in preparation to go outside.

Whatever my next assignment is, it better keep me busy. Not sure how much more free time I can take.


Being among the humans has warped their sense of time. Back home, among their people, a tritium passed like a month does here. The Homeworld’s days were longer than its years, and every revolution around its white dwarf star took about 340 times as long as it took the Earth to do the same. But now, an hour feels like an iodine once did.

He’s beginning to adopt the humans’ hurried, fidgety nature, and right now, the wait is killing him. All of it – the wait for everything. For the next mission, for his job with EYSAR to fall apart, for Holly’s reply.

The reply, as a matter of fact, doesn’t come.

Nor does it come the next day.

A mission does, though.

Galen has his proverbial nose buried in The Principles of Nonlinear Optics, trying to keep his CPU from computing itself apart when Tom’s voice breaks the silence.

“Six, we’ll need you topside in 20 minutes. P of A for a missing child just north of Mount Stevenson.”

“How old?” the mech asks, holding down the intercom button.

“Uh, seven. Look… I know you’ve been programmed to do a job, but this is a kid we’re talking about here. I’m gonna pair you up with Brett and Lee, and you’re to go at their pace. Got it?”

This he understands.

“Clear as crystal, sir.”

Tom sighs. “Alright. See you in a few.”

Galen hates that a helpless and probably terrified child needed to be separated from their guardians in order for him to feel this way, but… he really was born for moments like this, wasn’t he?

The humans would call it a complex – and that’s always been part of the joke for him; a homogeneous species like theirs would never understand – but for a Ntaa Retainer, this is what life is all about.

Even if the kid or their guardians never know his name, it’ll scratch the itch.

Maybe not as much as when there was a war on and he had cities to defend or lines to hold or targets to scout or POWs to track down, but it’ll do. Even when he’s sure it won’t, it still does. Every time.

The hand-and-mountain emblem, part of a series of rebranding efforts actualized by some famous graphic artist in preparation for the deployment of the suits, is one of his favorites. It’s a hand reaching upward towards a stylized mountain peak, but it’s done in a supporting gesture, almost like its holding the mountain or catching it; more a vessel than a tool.

He’ll miss it.

The helmet goes on with a soft whirr and a few clicks as ports in his head open to receive the connective plugs. The visor, which is actually transparent before he puts it on, darkens to an inky mirror finish,  and small vents along the sides let out a puff of air, loosening any dust from inside. Some part of his vision comes to life with the thing’s series of consoles and status panels – maybe what the humans would call his “mind’s eye” – and with the faint twitch of a particular cybernetic muscle, the translucent scales cascade downward and in seconds he’s covered from head to foot in orange and white.

He glances at his six-fingered hands, now orange too.

38 rescues in four years. That number, the one he quoted to himself that afternoon was wrong, actually. Holly Mendoza was number 39.

Maybe getting to associate her with a number would be good. It works well enough for Tom, right?

“Let’s go find number forty,” he says, venting a powerful burst of air and stepping into the lift.


* One iron is equivalent to 1.5 million years.

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