[ITS] Chapter 12: The Routine

This is the fifth time that he’s raided that store, and he’s gotten quite good at it over the past few weeks.

The key was made from a strip of metal he’d quickly lifted from the back of Tom’s truck, which he’d carved into the appropriate shape with his detailing kit and by gnawing on it with his own denta, believe it or not. He’d worked on it for days – methodically and carefully, because he wasn’t sure where he’d find another piece that would do the job like that. He kept it hidden in the case, in the spare slot where the chisel once was. Currently, it might possibly be his most precious possession.


Chicken, spaghetti, salsa, zucchini… he checks off the list of things she asked for this time.

“Chips?” he asks aloud, not quite sure what to do about this last request. “Stars, I’d crush those like nothing…”

Is there something I could substitute for chips? It’s… going to be hard for me to get them for you.

He shoots off the blurt of an email, hoping that she’s awake and able to check it. Galen likes to cap his time in the store at 10 minutes, and he’s cutting it dangerously close this time. If he doesn’t hear back, then he’ll just grab her a basic bread like last time.

Other than this little hiccup right now, things are going well. Or… reasonably well, rather. The last time there’d been a call, the Commander told him to stay behind. He’d wanted the guys to “remember” how to do an operation without him.

Galen saw it coming, he really did. But he wasn’t expecting it to hit him hard enough for static to begin licking at the edges of his HUDs. He’d gone back underground and ripped the helmet from his head, catching himself in mid-wind as he prepared to pitch it at the adjacent wall. But he didn’t, and with what the humans might have called a white-knuckle grip, it was put away in its housing without a dent. And in hindsight, that was a smart move. The piece of hardware probably cost the Division upwards of $30 million, and as the Ntaa found out a long time ago, retaliation for damaged equipment is swift and severe.

Wait. Are you at the store?? she replies back a minute later. The giant groans; he doesn’t have time for this.

Classified, he quickly thinks “aloud”. Gimme an alternative asap or it’s wonder bread tonight!

Holly gets back to him faster than he was expecting: Tortillas then, pls! fuck ty

He doesn’t know what “ty” means in this context, but  forty seconds later and he’s out the door, shoving them carefully closed and locking them.

There were two kinds, he sends as he races out of the parking lot, feeling that feeling again – the good one. The happy one. So I grabbed you one of each.

Galen doesn’t get a response, so he figures that she’s gone to bed. Which is for the better – she’s always been asleep when he shows up like a giant, metal, Kris Kringle,  dropping her goodies off – and he doesn’t want to start sneaking around while there’s any possibility that she might see or hear him now. But when he’s only a few blocks away, he comes to a screeching halt as he gets another message from her, doubling down on his hold on the foodstuff lest it comes tumbling out of his six-fingered hands.

“Shit!” he hisses.

thank you thank you thank you

He glances around, sensors groping about for any sign of life. Nothing. Good.

Shouldn’t you be in bed, kiddo? It’s almost 2.

I had a coke about an hour ago. Probably won’t be hitting the pillow for a little while still. And “kiddo”? What are you, my dad now? lol

He bristles a little – the term of endearment was probably unwarranted, he’ll admit. But that’s besides the point now: she’s still awake and that’s a problem.

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…

Yeah, a little uncanny.

Galen wants to crack a joke about it, but knows all too well that it could come across as creepy. The humans are very particular about their boundaries, he’s learned. As with everything that he doesn’t quite get about them, he writes it off as probably another survival instinct thing.

He can’t tell her that she needs to be down and out by the time he gets there, because then she’ll never go to sleep again. The mech has only been regularly corresponding with her for about a month now, but he knows her well enough to guess at how stubborn and curious she can be. Otherwise admirable qualities put to troublesome use here.

Well, like I said all those weeks ago… no need to thank me.

With that he guns it toward her place, hoping for the best.

Before he knows it, he’s silently gliding up the shabby grass towards the entrance to her building, ducking under that second story and coming to a stop at her little door.

He bites back a groan when it becomes apparent to him that not only is she awake inside, but moving around near the back. For a moment, though, he “watches” in thinly veiled fascination. To some of his sensors, she’s a red blob; to others, a white smear amid a field of black and grays; to another, a tightly packed form of wiry static. She’s still hobbling, which draws his mouth down into a frown, but that’s quickly wiped from his face as she throws herself at her bed, lifting her good leg straight up into the air and scratching it unceremoniously as she fiddles with her phone with the other hand. The mech lets out a quiet chuckle at the candid scene, smiling and shaking his head as he picks up the image of her sticking her finger in her ear to scratch that too.

You don’t really know what humans do when they’re alone in the comfort of their own homes, do you?

He sees them at work, in the field, and on TV; that’s about it. What does a human do in their actual, genuine spare time?

Scratch themselves and lay about in awkward positions, apparently.

Galen cycles air lazily and his face scrunches up in amusement again as he lowers the goods at her door, taking pains not to let them make a single sound as he does so. The plastic bags crinkle a little and the rest hits the concrete almost soundlessly, but the jar of salsa makes a little more racket and he curses under his proverbial breath.

He catches her freeze for a moment before reaching for her crutches.

Part of him wants to lower his cloak and crouch down at the door when she inevitably comes over to peer outside, with an awkward smile plastered on his face and a hand waving in front of him.

He does the right thing and retreats away – but not too far away. Around the corner, is more like it. Balancing on his anti-gravity thrusters, he lowers into a hunched kneel and peers around the corner as she undoes the deadbolt lock and…

“Holy-!” the human hisses into the dead, damp silence of night, covering her mouth.

The door isn’t flung wide open, but rather just wide enough for her to stick her head out, which she does slowly, tentatively, like a prey animal emerging from a hiding spot. He watches as she looks around for a few long moments, then at the mess at her feet, before sinking down and slowly picking out a bag of tortillas. She looks at it for a long time, holding onto it like it might jump out of her hand and make a break for it, and looks around again with furrowed brows.

“He was just here,” she whispers under her breath. “He was actually… here.”

Still here, he sighs into his own CPU, careful not to actually vent. But not for long.

He watches as she sits, awestruck and dumbfounded at the stuff on the ground around her, as though she wasn’t expecting it to be there. Or more like, that she wasn’t expecting a sign of his real, actual presence to be there. He can see her skin pucker up into raised dots, which confuses him for a moment, but as she glances around one more time before beginning to move the things inside, she looks in his direction for a split second and he sees it.

Disappointment.

A quiet moment later and the door shuts with a faint click, the deadbolt sliding back into place. He can still see her as though the door weren’t there, standing in the hallway with her weight on one foot and shoulder against against the wall. She’s staring – at the floor, at the bedroom beyond, he can’t quite tell – and when she rubs at her arm, clutching herself, the invisible giant decides that is time to go.

10 minutes later and he gets a text:

thank you

And still, the look in her eye as she searched the darkness for any trace of him is stuck in his the forefront of his CPU. Galen still can’t quite believe what he saw: that someone had wanted him to be there.


{ I don’t have the time for this, ] grumbles the Commander – a seventh-rank – behind the closed office door. Though all Retainers have the sensors to see outside of the visible spectrum, the space is brightly lit – a symbol of the empire’s power.

{ You’d better make time, Seventhbecause not only was the transfer approved, but the lot of them arrived not a fluorine ago. ]

{ Dammit, sir, why didn’t you at least give me a chance to contest it? ]

{ The soldier’s just a physiopath! Hardly any different than any of your other Retainers. Besides, what do you know? You’ve never had one in your ranks. ]

{ I’ve heard stories, ] says the Commander in their last bid before giving up in the face of authority. { They can see and hear through walls. They can read transponders when they’re not even on. They have tactile sensors! Tactile!]

The Eighth’s groan practically floods the entire comm.

But the Seventh isn’t done yet. { And in spite of all this, they struggle to interface with the latest equipment code?  It’s like trying to get by without knowing Common for stars’ sake! We’re an Imperial outfit – you think I wouldn’t turn down a recruit who didn’t know Common? ]

The Eighth has just about had it. The edges to their comm, previously free-form like liquid lapping at a shore, seizes up with a sudden firmness.  { Are you trying to tell me that there are Retainers out there who aren’t fit for service? ]

A strangled cough-like expression leaks out from the Seventh. { No, sir. Wouldn’t even think it. ]

The comm is released from its rigor. { Every Retainer is fit for service, ] announces the Eighth, signal low but strong. { Now, I want you to look over their file. Once you do, I think you’ll find your concerns to be overblown. ]

{ Of course, sir. ]

All of the Retainers on base are summoned into a call formation several fluorines later: two-hundred and fifteen mechs of various shape and color assemble themselves into a nine-tiered half-circle around the Commander, the Eighth, and their Data-class aides. The green-eyed physiopath is front and center with the other six mechs in their transfer group: four frontliners, an engineer, and a programancer.

{ I’d like to welcome our new comrades-in-arms to installation 29, home of the 41st battalion. ]

The collectively shared comm erupts with electronic hoots and cheers, and the green-eyed soldier glances around to see smug grins plastered on everyone’s faces as they nod at each other and wink. They frown, returning their gaze to the commanding officers ahead of them, shoulders still squared and head high.

{ As you seven can see, we have a culture here, ] the Commander continues. { A culture of kinship and excellence on the battlefield. ]

More cheering. The Commander cracks a smile themselves.

{ But most importantly, we have a culture of respect for one another. We respect each others’ strengths as well as each others’ weaknesses. However, that tightly-woven fabric of dignity wouldn’t exist if not for the sense of unity that these fine Retainers foster in their cores and in their minds.

{ If nanenes are the life that course through our pores and cables, then we are the life that courses through this battalion; this empire. ]

Ah yes, the rote “we are nanenes write large” speech. Not that isn’t true, but… it’s overdone.

Suddenly the Commander looks squarely at the physiopath, fixing their golden optics on the brassy, mid-sized soldier. Their brow plate twitches under the scrutiny.

{ And like nanenes, there is no individual here. You are us. And if you’re not, ] they say, raising a thick arm and pointing behind them: [ Then there’s the door. ]

The soldier’s core flares in its housing, but their expression doesn’t change, even as the rest of the soldiers once again burst into raucous applause. The Seventh holds their subordinate’s stare for another beryllium before continuing on. They don’t pay attention to the rest of the talk – it’s a quick rundown of protocol and base rules. The soldier’s green optics had fallen to the ground at their feet, and it’s only when they feel an insistent nudge from an aide trying to initiate a file transfer between them that they discover the talk had ended without them.

{ Sorry, ] they apologize, accepting the transfer. It’s a map of the base and a few other documents they’ll need to keep during their time here.

Later, the soldier lies awake at their slab – a magnetized recharge berth arranged almost vertically that holds a Ntaa upright for their sleep cycle – and stares at the ceiling. A few other soldiers are here dozing away as their core types require, but this soldier might as well be alone as they try to figure out how to fend off that feeling of not wanting to be here.

There’s the door.

What was that about?

This isn’t their first transfer to a new installation, and it most definitely won’t be their last. The war hasn’t even started yet, after all, and combat – real combat, not that lazy busywork that passes for fighting among the empire’s “project” worlds – is still on a murmur on the horizon. Dissidents in the cities are being arrested more and more and it won’t be long before a fellow soldier will take this one aside and, with a pregnant sort of tone, ask what they think of the New Society rebels. Ask if they ever find themselves idly picking away at the imperial blue painted onto their arms. It won’t even be half a Vanadium later when it’s announced that the capital city has been the target of an airstrike.

They’ll make some friends at installation 29, and even more once they arrive at installation 6 to begin full-fledged war drills. That’s how they meet the mechs that will one day name themselves Kenway and Kadar. They later encounter Logan and Seaver while with the 16th battalion; not as comrades, though, but enemies.

But for the rest of their long and ugly career, up until the moment they set foot on the Ntassantek, there’ll always be that undercurrent of mistrust from their blue-streaked superior officers and fellows. Their war will reduce them to a race of interplanetary pariahs, and as the Retainer who will eventually be called Galen whiles away their time in a bunker outside of Yellowstone National Park comes to notice, the physiopaths spend most of their operating lives treated similarly.

Too organic for machine society, and too… well, too Ntaa for anything else.


That look Holly gave what she’d thought was empty space spurs something in his code into overdrive, though. If that grocery store key is his most precious possession, then making these extremely forbidden nocturnal sojourns into Billings to dump stars-knows-what at a little human’s doorstep is the most important job he’s ever done.

It might just be the most harmless thing he’s ever done, too.

Well, depending on who you ask.


“Guys, check this one out.”

In a dingy, cluttered, 3-bedroom apartment someplace in Albuquerque are situated four people at computers. A window unit blasts cold air into the room with a droning whine, with a curtain above it blocking out most of the light from outside.

Three of them – two younger, probably in their mid to late twenties, and one nearing forty – get up from their stations to crowd around the fourth, who’s pointing at his screen. Or rather, the headline splayed across it:

Increasing Local Reports Of Mysterious Breezes, Humming Sound At Night

He starts to read the article aloud.

“”A strange phenomenon is beginning to capture the attention of Billings’ night owls, according to new Facebook group ‘Montana Mystery Sounds’, founded by James Kent, owner of Old Faithful Brewhouse. According to Kent, who started the group after speaking with late-night regulars, he’s experienced localized breezes accompanied by a faint humming sound around closing time on several different occasions over the past month. And he’s not alone: the Facebook group currently has 28 members, all of whom claim to have experienced similar phenomenon while out late at night.”” He skips ahead. “And check this out: “One of the members claims to have been assaulted by an invisible assailant while working an overnight stocking shift at Ralph’s several weeks ago. The men on shift were so startled that they’d even reported the incident to the police.” Emphasis his.

“The Billings Gazette?” confirms one of the men, bending over to read the website’s header for a moment, before rubbing at his chin. He’s one of the younger ones: tall, on the spindly side, with a mess of long red hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. He’s wearing a shirt with the Linux penguin on it.

The oldest one adjusts his glasses and walks over to a map of the United States on the wall, dotted with about ten red pins and a few dozen more white ones. The white ones have dates beside them on little sticky notes along with a number, but the man is interested in a particular red pin: the one currently stuck into the little town of Cody, Wyoming.

“Suit number six isn’t exactly close,” he announces.

Another younger man, just on the verge of thirty, shakes his head. “Those things clock in at over 90, easy,” he rebuts. “And their maneuverability is unparalleled for any other vehicle on the planet. It could make it to Billings and back in one night without a problem.”

“Yeah, but what doing it while not being seen?” The older man taps at the map before stepping away to think. “That guy working at Ralph’s said the assailant was invisible.”

They all heave a collective sigh.

“Get that bar owner on the phone,” he says to the only man still at his computer. “Schedule interviews with as many folks as you can. We’ll probably have to turn this one over to MUFON, but until then, treat it like a Nightwatch case.”

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