The Beast of Bell Island part 5

Brooke had to wave her father goodbye from inside the tree line as he boarded the small private craft headed for Anacortes. She trudged up the cedar path back to the villa alone and contemplated just what she’d gotten herself into. Her stomach started growling as she stepped back in through the front door. It made her wonder what, and how much, her client ate.

“Amos?” she called, not quite sure what to do now. All she knew was that she wanted to spend as little time around Jack Ilyin as humanly possible, and that surely meant avoiding places where he could fit.

Brooke was not expecting a small, unassuming little panel in the wall beside her, fitted with the same green light, to speak. “What may I get for you, Miss Foster?” it said.

It occurred to her then that Amos wasn’t just the robot, but the whole house. No wonder Google wanted their hands on that tech.

“Is the ‘master of the house’ going to provide meals, or do I need to order pizza?” she deadpanned at the panel.

“The kitchen is down the hall behind you and to the left. Help yourself to anything you find.”

She followed his directions, and quickly found herself in the most beautiful kitchen she’d ever seen. Sparkling white marble floors, counters, and backsplashes lined the enormous space, and in the middle was an island of thick butcher block with its own sink, under-the-counter refrigerator, and stove range. Attached to it was a four-person bar, and Brooke thought that this was exactly the sort of kitchen that a celebrity chef would film their TV show in. There was another full-height refrigerator along the far wall, three ovens, a dishwasher, wine cooler, second stove top with two induction burners, and another, much larger three-basin sink. She pictured lavish parties being held here, with four-star chefs being brought in to cook for the luxurious crowds.

“Everything here is yours to use,” Amos said from the kitchen’s wall panel.

She went to the refrigerator and found all manner of farmer’s market produce, fresh eggs, local meats, artisan cheeses, the finest olives and capers and prosciutto, and…

“If there is nothing there that strikes your fancy, then you may browse Master Ilyin’s stock through that door there.” Brooke closed the fridge and headed for another door off in the corner. A blast of chill air startled her, but the light came on and she saw that it was a walk-in cooler. A huge walk-in cooler. At least twenty feet long and almost ten feet wide, and lined with shelves packed to the hilt with food.

She counted a dozen halved pigs, eight legs of veal, nine whole turkeys, slabs of unsliced bacon, wheels of parmesan, cheddar, and smoked gouda cheeses, entire bushel boxes full of cabbages, potatoes, carrots, apples, oranges, lettuces, and other leafy greens, gallons of milks and creams, and at the very end, at the coldest part, were fully stocked shelves of nothing but vodka.

Brooke liked vodka.

She grabbed one – the most Russian-looking one – and headed out.

“You’ve found the master’s collection,” Amos said with a little bemusement on its voice. How did it do that? “I’m afraid that you need more for lunch than vodka, however.”

She snorted and poured herself a small amount in a tumbler. It tasted like the Arctic wind. “My god, this is amazing stuff.”

“It’s imported from a small-batch distillery in St. Petersburg, Miss Foster. I’m glad it pleases you.”

“OK,” she said, setting the empty glass down on the counter and opening up the normal fridge to root around again. “Now I can eat.”

Amos-the-unit (versus Amos-the-system) showed her around the house after she’d made and devoured a humble rye sandwich.

She was indeed shown a guest room, a pool room, and a smoking room, in addition to a study, and sound mixing studio. (One of his college buddies had been a sound engineer and helped him put the place together. Artists from all over the country had come there to have their music mastered, and Amos proceeded to list a few of them off.)

“What happened to some of these other rooms?” she asked, noticing that only the rooms along the outside of the premises remained intact – the ones facing the courtyard had largely suffered violent fates.

“You must understand how terribly Master Ilyin has suffered from this curse,” the robot explained as they passed another gutted space. “The whole of his life had been taken from him.”

Brooke did feel a pang of guilt, but it quickly dissipated. “Uh huh,” she grunted. “Except for the millions in the bank, the private island, the robot butler, and the majority shares in Orcasoft.”

“Yes, well…” Amos trailed off, until they came to a room at the top of some stairs leading to the third story. “Here we are. Master Ilyin’s old office.”

Her eyes just about popped out of her head and rolled across the floor. It was a corner suite, with more floor-to-ceiling windows that gave her a near-unobstructed, 180-degree view of the Wasp Passage, and the islands surrounding. About a quarter mile away she could see the Friday Harbor ferry chugging along in the still waters, leaving a silvery trail of a wake behind it. She could only imagine the views from here come sunset.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Amos said, looking out with that single green eye. She wondered if that was a preprogrammed response or if it had some kind of ability to judge beauty. “This was Master Ilyin’s favorite room of the house.”

“It may be mine too.”

“Now here’s the master’s old computer system,” the robot said, ushering her into the plush, high-backed office chair. As soon as she sat down, the system booted – and she could see why: each of the triptych of screens had a small green light at the very top. So Amos was there, too. After a very quick boot process, a desktop appeared, and then an internet browser was opened for her. “This should be sufficient for you to perform your research. There are printers and a scanner in the closet.”

“Thank you,” she said, pulling up her email account then pausing. “I’ll need to… talk to him before I start, though. How well does he remember the incident?”

Very,” Amos said, “looking” away. Brooke knew what that meant.

“Does he still get violent?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Well I’m not going to do a damn thing until he can promise me that he’ll keep his temper under control.”

“I do wish you well, but…”

It stopped when they both noticed the faint quaking of heavy feet hitting the mossy earth. Then, he came into view outside. Just barely, though, he wasn’t tall enough to be at eye level with the third floor, but he was close. Brooke sucked in a breath because she’d almost, somehow, forgotten that she was dealing with a bona-fide giant. Jack glanced inside before fixing his eyes on the horizon with a brooding look on his face. After a while, he turned and poked at a thin section of window along the floor and it pivoted open.

“I don’t see you working,” he said.

Brooke grimaced at him for a second and stood up to storm over to the window. “I just sat down,” she huffed. “And I don’t even know what I’m looking for yet. I need to… interview you.”

He just stared at her and raised a brow. “Better get down here, then.” He turned and was gone.

Brooke was going to head back downstairs to begin collecting his account of this magic woman person, but stopped and turned to Amos. “What kind of drunk is he, do you know?”

“You will not like him when he’s had a few bottles, Miss Foster.”

Well, so much for the idea of liquoring him up for this.

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[ITS] Chapter 13: The Guard

Bad news, his email starts. I don’t think I’ll be able to grab you your stuff this time.

This time or… for the forseeable future.

Holly frowns, though not because she feels entitled to this stuff he’s doing for her. She frowns because it means something’s changed for him, and from what little she knows of his job, it’s probably not for the better. Especially since, as strange as it sounds, he seemed to enjoy bringing her groceries.

She probably won’t get an answer, but she figures that it won’t hurt to ask: Why? Is everything ok?

Let’s just say there’s been a complicating factor. It begins with “security” and ends with “guard”. 

Holly laughs to herself – the sort of ugly-sounding but honest laugh you can snort out when no one’s around – and smiles at the fact that his sense of humor has been coming out more and more over the weeks. He doesn’t seem so… miserable.

But she wonders what he means by that. Surely, whatever facility he’s in enlists security guards by the dozen? And none of this mall cop stuff, either, but the real deal. Why would one make or break this whole thing for him?

It’s ok, she replies. I get my cast off in less than a week anyways, and you’ve done MORE than enough already. Not only wasn’t I expecting you to do this more than once, but I wasn’t expecting anyone to do this at all.

She gets up from the couch, remembering to take a look at the clock on her phone and is surprised to see that it’s almost midnight. Holly pauses, though, and knits her brows together, thinking that she might suddenly have a two and two to put together.

It’s almost late enough for him to be in the area, is her guess – and while he didn’t explicitly say that he was doing a run tonight, she’s thinking that it’s heavily implied.

The whole thing gives her second thoughts, but she’s not sure why. She hasn’t arrived at a “four” yet, but… it feels close. Eerily close.

Thinking about the guy, about the whole situation, has required a certain amount of suspension of disbelief for her. She can accept that he’s hooked up to a bunch of machines somewhere like someone in The Matrix, she can accept that he’s been at this for too many years, but the details, when she’s thought about them, paint a distorted picture. Things don’t add up. But it’s been a few weeks since she’s given up trying to piece them together.

Except at weird moments like this – reminders that he actually exists someplace.

Or maybe it’s that she feels like she exists  someplace.

I’m a little angry at myself for not seeing this coming, but… I guess the joyride’s over. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, alright?

He still insists on being at it, huh? Holly chuckles a little to herself, then gets ready for bed. She decides that it was nice while it lasted, and still, even though he’s told her not to, she feels indebted to this stranger.

Thanks, Galen.

She’s about to send that off by itself, but decides at the last minute to add: And if you ever find yourself in the area, mi casa es tu casa. 

As she falls wearily to sleep, her phone lights up with a notification. The preview text displays the entirety of his reply:

I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.

She doesn’t hear the gentle hum of anti-gravity thrusters or the strangled, vented air outside her bedroom window, before the mysterious sounds disappear into the warm night air.

The next morning, Holly sits down to some scrambled eggs in her last flour tortilla. There’s a notepad in front of her, some bank statements and a few other things – she’s sitting down to sort through her finances.

And it doesn’t look good.

The cast comes off soon enough, and while she has enough to pay for that – I hope – she doesn’t have enough for next month’s rent. Or next month’s groceries. Or next month’s electric. A dull panic sort of wells up in her belly like a coiling snake but she takes a deep breath. It’s not a matter of whether she can do it or not – it’s a matter of whether she can do it without asking somebody for money.

Holly jots some things down; she does some math. Soon, the page is full of numbers and nonsense and she’s left staring at it with impatience, like if she gives it the stink-eye long enough it’ll cough up something more satisfactory.  But it doesn’t and it won’t.

“Gotta get a fucking job,” she sighs, slumping in her chair.

Easier said than done without a computer.

Some years back, tablets and smart phones overran the computer market, and affordable computers started to go the way of the dodo – or boom box, rather. Desktop computers became a thing for the workplace, so the few models that were left skyrocketed in price, and the average home user had no choice to to start using tablets. But for somebody like Holly, even those were just beyond affordable. Thankfully, 99% of what she ever needed the internet for was available on her phone, but for applying for jobs? She needs a desktop.

With a groan she picks up her phone and starts searching for a local FedEx.

There’s one nearby – just a mile or two away – and once again, it becomes an issue of getting there. She’s got to get to her car, drive to the location, get out of her car and to the place… no, wait: she needs gas. Alright, so get to her car, drive to the gas station…

The young woman falls forward, letting her forehead hit the table with a faint thunk.

“This is a goddamn nightmare,” she whispers to herself. “A goddamn fucking nightmare.”

As she hobbles into the FedEx, preparing to spend a stupid amount of money for access to desktop internet, she wishes that her friends were here. Wishes she just could have gone to Gabriel’s house to use his machine to job search – the same machine that she used to choreograph her move up here. (The thing was 10 years old; practically an antique.)

But nope. There’s no Gabriel, no Natalie, no Frankie, no Hunter, no Martin, no Julian, no Manuela, no Daniel. No cousins, no aunts or uncles… and definitely no Cecilia, Heather, or Ernest. (They made that pretty goddamn clear.)

Just some guy named Galen, who lives god-knows-where and helps her out for god-knows-why.

Holly settles down at a station and sticks her ATM card into the machine before it lets her use it. Once the clock starts ticking, she doesn’t waste any time opening up three different job hunting websites as well as a few classifieds sites.

It’s going to be a long afternoon.

A few hours and about a dozen applications later, it dawns on her that this might not work.

That all of this might have just wound up being an exciting and extravagant failure – and yest another “I told you so”.

Outside she sits on the edge of a brick planter box and decides to spend the money to dial up one of her friends. Talk minutes had long since been surpassed by data in terms of affordability, and actually speaking on the phone was rare outside of professional environments. But when your last words to a familiar face were an angry “goodbye”, that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

“Oh my god, Holly!” exclaims the girl on the other end. “How’s it going up there?  How’s your leg?”

She wipes her forehead and sighs, smiling a little at hearing Frankie’s voice on the other end. “It’s going,” she says. “And the leg is… goin’ too.”

“How much time you got to talk? You don’t sound so great.”

“A couple minutes. Look, I just… I gotta bitch to somebody. I’m sorry.”

“Bitch away.”

She chuckles a little, but the smile quickly deepens into a frown again. Where to start? “I have no money and I don’t know what to do.”

“Ouch. Is it that bad?”

“I had some crazy good samaritan pay for my hospitalization, but… that was just the beginning. I got $1100 in the bank to get the cast off, but rent’s due, and -”

“You qualify for disability? Food stamps? Section 8?”

Holly shuts her eyes tight and clenches the muscles in her face. “For just a month,  maybe two? No. Shit wouldn’t kick in until I didn’t need it anymore anyways.”

Frankie’s thinking on the other end of the line. She has no money, and they don’t know anybody with enough money to help either. They’re all living hand to mouth. “What about that good samaritan of yours?”

That gets a good laugh out of her. “No. No, no, no, no, no. I’m not gonna ask him for anything. He, uh…” she trails off, thinking about the food. “He was too good to me to begin with.”

“Where does he work? Maybe he could get you a job, at least.”

Holly stops to consider this, but shakes her head. No – the man is hooked up to a machine almost 24/7. And you seriously thought he might be able to just walk up to HR and ask, “Hey, we’re not looking to hire any baristas any time soon, are we?” 

Galen probably doesn’t even remember the taste of coffee.

“He’s not from around here,” she mutters.

“Well,” Frankie says after a long pause. Despite the name, she’s got a pretty elegant voice, or so Holly always thought – if she keeps up the smoking, though, that won’t be the case for too many more years. “What if you have to move?”

That’s the elephant in the room that Holly’s been trying to dance around for a few hours now. It’s hard not to think about how much more smooth this would have been if she just hasn’t up and shattered her leg during her first weekend out here.

Frankie’s voice brings her back to the conversation. “Would coming back to Salt Lake really be that bad? I mean… we’re all here.”

The very idea of being in the same town as her family makes her sick to her stomach right now. That would mean no easy excuses not to go to the birthday parties or the weddings or the funerals. “Most of you don’t like me” just wouldn’t fly.

“Yeah, well, so is the uncle who asks how much money I make working the fucking streets,” she murmurs.

Frankie’s family lives there, still, and she hasn’t spoken to them since she was kicked out of the house at seventeen. She knows what it’s like.

But she’s got tough love in her, too. “Well you’re gonna be livin’ on the street if you don’t do somethin’ soon.”

Yeah, I know. I guess I was just hoping you’d have the magic cure somewhere up your sleeve.

“I’ll see about the job thing,” she lies, trying to make her friend at least feel like this wasn’t a total waste of time.

“At least you can’t say you didn’t try, then.” A pause. “And look – we’re not gonna let you wind up on the street, alright? Unfortunately that means Utah, honey. Now I’m gonna let you go because I’m sure this is getting expensive,.”

“Thanks,” she says, blinking something back. “I’ll uh… I’ll keep you guys posted.”

“Take care of yourself. I’ll talk to you later.”


Holly stares at a couple cigarette butts on the ground in front of her and watches a car pull out of the parking lot before she checks her phone. The little “call ended” dialogue on the screen says that $3.18 will be applied to her next bill.

She’s suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to throw the phone across the parking lot, but she settles for clenching her teeth and sucking in a loud breath from her nose before grabbing her crutches and heading off.

“Guy said that his regulars could hear it every week like clockwork,” says one of the men at the table in the Albuquerque apartment. It’s been five days since they started on the Billings case, and two of the younger men just returned from a visit to the city themselves.  “Here are shots of the street.” The one with the red ponytail, a twenty-six year-old named Ryan, puts takes some photos out of a folder in front of him and neatly lines them up on the table for everyone to see.

“We consulted with a local ghost hunting organization,” says the other, named Oscar. “The building is only twenty years old, and if it’s a paranormal hot spot, they’re not aware of it. Most importantly, though, is that because the building is new, a lot of the electrical is properly done and up to code. We took a few EMF readings, and there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

The eldest and founder of the small group, Mark, rubs his chin. “And the owner heard it too, so we can cross drunken tinnitus off the list.”

Ryan gestures to the photos again. “We could find no structural reason for the sounds, either. No equipment that might have a reason to run at that hour. No construction going on, no buzzing from street lighting, no… nothing.”

Mark stands up to pace. “But there’s still the question of why there are sounds and no suit.

The other two look at each other. “Cloaking,” Ryan says. “Cloaking technology is the only thing that  fits the evidence.”

“Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -”

Mark stops and holds up his hand, none too impressed. “…however impossible, must be the truth. I know. But we don’t have cloaking technology. Nobody does.

“Nobody has anti-gravity technology either, and yet the suits do,” Oscar grunts, folding his arms.

Mark sighs, placing his hands on the table and eyeing his proteges. “Cloaking tech that good is as good as impossible. Eliminate that too, alright?”

“So what, it’s swamp gas, then? Venus?”

“I’m not going to let you hand this over to MUFON. This is too good.”

There were times when Mark wanted to strangle the young men. “I didn’t say we were going to hand this over to MUFON… yet. Besides, we have a reason to place suit number six in Billings now.”

Mark reaches into his folder and pulls out a photo of a young Latina: she’s got a soft face in spite of a strong chin, a brown complexion made darker by days spent outside, and short-cropped hair with a small top-knot.

“Who’s that?”

“A backpacker reported missing not long ago. Name is Holly Mendoza, recently moved to Billings. She was found at the bottom of a ravine in the Beartooths a few days later, found by the Eastern Yellowstone wilderness search and rescue unit. Number six was dispatched during that mission.”

Oscar and Ryan exchange looks, trying not to give the impression that either of them is beside himself with excitement.

“So she encountered it,” Ryan suggests, sitting up straight.

“It’s a tempting possibility.”

Oscar shakes his head. “No, that’s a probability, Mark. She’s in Billings, the suit is visiting  Billings. What’s possible is that Holly Mendoza is in active communication with this thing.”

There’s a long silence as everyone ponders what this means.

Mark rakes his fingers through his thinning hair and he slumps over the table a little, as though the weight of this case is a burden becoming heavy to bear. “Oscar, write MUFON and see if they can’t advise us on best practices when interviewing an abductee. I’d like to find out if this Mendoza girl won’t maybe talk to us.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Maybe she’ll give us enough to read between the lines.”

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[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.


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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[ITS] Chapter 11: The Kicks

The fight had dissipated as fast as it exploded in a corner of the schoolyard, and no one was seriously injured. Really, no one was even moderately injured – it had been more a spontaneous act of boyish excitement when someone had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. It’s easy to say the wrong thing when you’re seven.

She’d wanted to be part of the fight, to say that she’d had that experience, but none of the boys really paid attention to her once they started letting fists fly without a clue as to where they ought to have been aiming. She did get hit, though, and when she’s older she’ll revisit that memory and wonder why. Why there of all places, but more importantly, why she reacted the way she did.


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[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.


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[ITS] Chapter 8: The Help

Her eyelids are heavy when the notification lights up her phone at almost 2 in the morning. She’s been texting all evening, and so reaches for it where it sits on the couch armrest with a sloppy groan.

“I thought you were in bed,” Holly mumbles, wondering why she isn’t in bed herself. The late-night infomercials are starting to crowd out the normal programming on TV and she’s running out of reasons to stay awake.

But it’s not a text from her old friend Daniel, it’s an email. And it’s not just an email, it’s a reply. From the suit operator.


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[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.


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[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.


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[ITS] Chapter 5: The Broken Ties

Honestly, I’m not sure what to say. I’m not even sure if I should believe you… I hope you’ll understand when I say that this is the most ridiculous, far-fetched thing someone has ever told me!

I mean, I can’t actually verify this until billing gets a hold of me, but if I take you at face value, whoever you really are… then I kinda owe you a big thank you, don’t I?

Holly pauses, trembling finger hovering over the keyboard on her phone’s screen. Teeth gently, rhythmically gnaw on the soft insides of her cheek – nibbles so small that they don’t even hurt.

Why am I doing this?


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