(Ok so this all is first draft material; aka, it’s not great. And with barely any editing to speak of. Buuut, I’ve been writing out random scenes with these characters just to get more of a feel for them and this is pretty much how I envisioned this going down anyway, so consider it part of the first draft.)
The crisp air out here is something that she is never going to get sick of. Not even the air outside Salt Lake can compare to this.
Holly isn’t really one for designated camping areas, though, so she snuck off into the bush to set up her camp a few miles from the nearest road. Her gear is light and compact – it all fits into a 70-liter pack – so while her site isn’t exactly a home away from home, it’s just the way she likes it.
The reception is terrible out here, and she’s barely got a single bar of coverage but she checks it anyway, biting her lip as she does, only to find that, like this morning, there are no new messages from Galen.
She settles down on a rock covered with a small foam pad and sighs, frowning as she stuffs the phone back in her pocket. “It was a stupid idea anyway,” she says to herself. “Would you ask an astronaut to drop everything they were doing just to hang out with you? No. Because they’re busy as hell and doing important shit.”
Holly guesses that she’s got about another hour before dusk, and decides to get some water boiling for tea. On another stone, low and flat, she sets up the small butane burner, and sets her small aluminum pot on top with some water.
And she sits there in peace, waiting for her tea. But the water doesn’t even start boiling when she hears a sound nearby. She freezes and listens, and while it sounds like it’s moving, she’s completely unable to place it. Not footsteps, not even a rustling, really. There’s a low, faint rumble and a kind of hum, coming from behind her and to the left. This fades, though, terminating with what she does recognize as a rustle of underbrush, but it’s heavily muffled.
Moving slowly and quietly, Holly turns and reaches for the bear spray on her belt, holding it out in front of her. Her rich brown eyes are hard as they shoot from one thing to another in the trees beyond her little clearing, but everything is still.
After a moment of standing whist, combing the area for movement, she lowers the spray. “If someone’s there,” she calls out, doing her best to sound intimidating. “Then you’d better come out unless you want a facefull of bear spray.”
There! A noise! She holds her breath, but hears nothing else.
“Enough with the chicken shit! You’re just pissing me off now!”
She just about jumps out of her skin when she’s greeted with a reply.
“You know,” it says; she can’t quite tell where it’s coming from. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
Something about it sounds familiar, though. “G-Galen?” she ventures, still holding up the bear spray and ready to make a run for it.
“Yeah,” is the tired reply. “It’s me.”
“W-where the hell are you?”
“At about your 1 c’clock. I don’t think it’d be smart for me to come out, though.”
Now she lowers the spray. “What are you talking about? If this has to do with the way you look, or something with your face, I don’t care, I promise. Here, you want me to close my eyes? I can close my eyes.”
The chuckle that comes from this man is deep in a way that she wasn’t expecting. She pauses for a moment as the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and Holly finds her fingers tightening their grip on the can of spray.
“I don’t think that’s going to help,” he says, and she can hear the smile on his voice. “But thanks anyways.”
“Dammit, Galen, then why are you here?” she says, frustrated, to the wall of trees. She’s starting to think that she knows where the voice is coming from, and takes slow, uneasy steps towards it. She doesn’t know that he can see her.
“Because I did want to meet you! And in a way, I sort of am.”
“I beg to differ,” she barks, eyes still scanning ahead. “And what changed your mind?”
“I realized that I’m just a big, lonely idiot who makes mistakes when he feels sorry for himself. In fact, I should have ended this weeks ago.”
Holly stops dead in her tracks, scrunching up her face, and surprised at the sudden hurt. “What about me, huh? You’d just have left me hanging then?”
“No!” he blurts out. “No, that’s… that’s not what I meant. I don’t regret getting to know you better. It’s just that I should have stopped things before they got this far. This is dangerous territory, Holly.”
“Would you at least have the decency to explain what that means before you go off forgetting about me then?”
“I’m not who you think I am.” He says it in a way that makes it sound like he’s in pain.
“Great. You must feel totally vindicated.”
“Dammit, Holly, this is serious!”
She hears another noise – it sounds like his footsteps in the leaves – and she heads for it. He’s behind a fucking tree or something.
“Holly… Holly!” he snaps, and she can hear more rustling along the ground. But it sounds big, somehow. Bigger than a bear. “You need to stay away from me!”
“Like hell I will at this point.” She beelines for the sounds. “This is what you get for showing up at all.”
Another sound escapes him, though there are two things wrong with it: one, it’s not words. It’s not even a growl or a groan or some other mammalian noise. It sounds like a dial-up modem. Part whirr, part chirp, part clicking, part low, deep, electronic grinding. The other thing wrong with it? It came from way above her head.
She probably doesn’t consciously catch all of that, though, because there’s only about a second in between hearing the unearthly vocalization and colliding face-first with something large, hard, and invisible.
But it’s not invisible for long.
“Dammit!” she can hear him growl.
Holly’s been knocked to the ground, clutching her nose with both hands as a ridiculous amount of blood runs down her chin. And in between the stars and spots in her vision, she sees it.
With a faint flash of light and a bizarre rippling effect that’s almost potent enough to make her motion-sick, there’s suddenly a giant kneeling before her, hands hovering about her.
“Are you OK?? Shit…”
But Holly’s not really listening. In fact, she’s all but forgotten about her busted nose too. As far as she’s concerned, this enormous human-like thing on the ground in front of her is all that exists. And she’s decided that she doesn’t like it.
She’s crawling backwards now on all fours, scrambling away from it even as the taste of blood fills her mouth.
It reaches out for her with a terrifyingly huge six-fingered hand, but doesn’t pursue. “Holly!” It gestures to itself, putting its hands on its chest. “It’s me! Galen! I’m Galen!”
Holly’s shaking her head and getting up off the ground, still backing away. She spits out blood. Her whole mouth is still red. “No you’re not,” she counters dumbly. Even in a kneel it still towers over her. “Galen… H-he…” she scrambles to come up with some proof that this noseless, black-eyed, six-fingered, mechanical giant before her isn’t Galen. But she quickly realizes that she can’t. “Galen’s human! I don’t know what the hell you are.”
There’s a pained look on its face – it has things that look like eyebrows, and its using them to emote – and it reaches for her. In a split second Holly’s firing a steady stream of bear spray at its fingers. It recoils, but not exactly in pain, and she makes for her little camp.
The thing that’s calling itself Galen stands up, covering its face with its giant hand. “I’m the one you’ve been writing to!” it insists, pleading. “You’re Holly Mendoza! I rescued you from a ravine in the Beartooth mountains, I had your medical bills paid off so you wouldn’t have to borrow money from your cousins!”
She continues scrambling to put away her bivvy sac.
“You… you live in Billings, Montana. You work at Starbucks… you moved out here to get away from your disapproving family and their mean comments, their comparing you to your sister, and you still have no friends in your new town so you were desperate enough to take me up on my stupid-ass offer of correspondence and… and friendship.”
It’s voice started trailing off at some point, as though already given up. But she listened, and as it listed off information she divulged in the contents of her emails, she stopped what she was doing because she was being faced now with a conundrum.
She can pretend that none of this – not the previous 8 weeks – had happened, or she could take what this machine is saying at face value.
And going home now to pretend that none of this happened becomes less and less of an option as the seconds pass by. This leaves her with…
“I’ll be… going now,” the giant says from where it’s standing, huge shoulders slumped, from the edge of the trees. It takes a rumbling step in the other direction before disappearing in the same way it had come to appear, and she can hear it begin to trudge off into the forest.
“Wait!” Holly takes off after it, but stops short of the stand. It reappears again – she realizes now that it has some kind of in-built cloaking technology – and it just stands there, looking down at her, hands that are big enough to grab her by the skull balled into fists. She wipes at the now dried blood around her mouth, but she’ll need water to really clean up.
She studies its face. It’s remarkably human; even down to the fleshy tones that color the strangely malleable plating. Elegant and almost organically-curving seams swoop up from underneath its jaw and trace up the contours of its visage, curling around the edges of a sapient mouth and dancing about the shapes that subtly protrude from where a pair of ears might’ve been. It has no nose, but it would look weird for one to be there, and its eyes… its eyes, now that she’s giving them the time of day, are full of intelligence and emotion. From the way they study her just as hard as she’s studying them, to the tiny little movements they make as they focus on one part of her face and then another.
“Are you or aren’t you the guy I’ve been writing to for the past two months?”
Holly takes a deep breath and when she lets it out, her whole body sags a little. She averts her eyes and stares at the ground between them.
“And who are you?”
Now its the giant’s turn to look away, shifting uncomfortably in its – his – own proverbial skin. He folds his arms across a sleek chest.
“I don’t think you’re ready to know.”
“Oh come on, don’t start that shit with me again!”
He unfurls himself and squares his gaze at her, gesticulating. “You don’t understand, Holly! This is deep shit.. The kind of shit people get disappeared for.”
“Then why did you come here!” she yells at him. “Why risk both our asses, huh?!”
“Because I’m a fragging idiot.”
Holly’s got a headache, and her face still aches from her run-in with his leg. “Are you going to tell me or not?”
He looks sidelong at her, and she can see the tenseness in him, the trepidation, the anger. His hands are still balled up, but after a moment, they’re loosed at his sides, and his eyes head skyward, to the first stars beginning to appear in the gathering dusk.
“There is no human being behind drone suit number six. And there is no artificial intelligence behind it either. Under that armor? It’s all me.”
Holly swallows, not quite sure what to make of what he’s telling her.
“What are you, then?”
It seems that his eyes don’t actually fully close, but she catches the little luminescent rings that serve as pupils turn off, and a gentle whooshing sound escapes from pencil-thin slats on his back like a sigh.
“I’m not ready to tell you. Not right now. OK? Don’t… don’t push it.”
Holly stares up at him, watching as his eyes light back up and turn toward her.
After what seems like hours, she nods. “OK,” she says at length. “I won’t ask.”
She’s not quite sure what to do now. The blood on her face is getting crusty, though, and she was really wanting that tea, so she silently turns and heads back to her camp to turn off her miniature stove. (If the fuel hadn’t run out already, that is.)
Holly roots through her pack and takes out a small ziploc that has a few loose teabags in it. Chamomile. It’s definitely time for some chamomile.
Actually shots would be better.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t do alcohol on solo trips. The chamomile will have to do.
As she pulls out a small stainless mug, she hears him – Galen – slowly approach and then seat himself on a rock to watch. She can tell that he’s trying to appear as small and nonthreatening as possible.
“Tea?” he asks.
“Yeah. For the nerves.”
She seats herself back on her foam pad, cradling her hot cup, and blows on it.
“I’m really sorry about your nose… does it feel OK?”
Holly scrunches up her face, but it hurts to do so. “Shoulda put a cold pack on it. Or was it a hot pack… I don’t fuckin’ remember.”
There’s a long pause between them. Night is deepening.
“You know, you’re shorter than I thought.”
She snorts. “Yeah, and you’re taller.”
“Not always,” he offers with a tilt of his big head.
“I can halve my size if I need to.”
Holly squints at him. “Halve your… what?”
“I can uh… I can shrink down to half my height and a quarter my volume. It came in handy at one point a long time ago, I’ll say.”
She tries taking a sip of her tea, but it’s still too hot. “I’m not even going to ask. This is all just too much for my little pea-brain.”
His body makes that sighing sound again. “I’m sorry,” he offers. His voice is quiet; tender, almost. “I didn’t mean… for any of this to happen this way.”
“It’s not your fault? I guess? Fuck, I don’t even know that much anymore.”
“No, it’s pretty squarely my fault. If I’d just sucked it up and kept to myself like the others do, then neither of us would be in this mess.”
“But here we are.”
“Here we are.”
Holly tries the tea now. It’s just barely tolerable, but dammit, anything that’ll calm her down at this point will help.
“Are we still…” he pauses, and she swears she can hear him swallow. “…friends?”
That’s what they were before this, huh?
“If you’re still the same Galen that I’ve been emailing, then I don’t see why not.”
He smiles a little, then. It’s almost contagious.
He really is the same guy, isn’t he.
I knew it was a weird name.
He looks up at the sky again, a little more peaceful now.He twists around to look at it some more, until his eyes come to rest along the trees due west of them.
“You know,” he begins. His voice is cautious, but there’s a bubbling happiness there. “I think if I got you up on my shoulder, you might be high enough above the trees to see the sun as it sets behind the mountains.”
Holly all but chokes on her tea as a nervous laugh escapes her. “Get up… on your shoulder?” It sounds more like a girlish giggle than the scoff it was meant to be. He presents that piece of anatomy to her, almost anticipating that she’d be staring at it.
It’s wide and sturdy enough; a couple feet wide, the joint itself is covered by a plate of armor that moves in concert with his arm. It’s flattish, but still rounds and ripples as it forms the base of his neck and descends toward his back and chest. But it’s definitely enough for her small feet to have purchase.
“Come on, I’ll make sure you don’t fall.”
She shakes her head and laughs through her nose as she sets the tea down. This – all of this – is the most ridiculous thing in the world. But here she is, doing it anyway.
“Yeah, OK,” she relents.
He seems absurdly happy at this, and he descends into a low kneel as she approaches, hands low to the ground.
“Step here,” he instructs with a smile. She places her foot into the palm of one massive, metal hand, and his other is suddenly behind her, she can feel. Making sure she doesn’t fall backwards as he gently, carefully, lifts her up to his shoulder. “You can hold onto my head if you want.”
Holly sucks in a breath as he rises onto his feet, and she is suddenly almost two stories off the ground. And she does grab onto his head. Maybe a little too tightly, because he’s chuckling at her, and bringing his hand up to steady her, sandwiching her comparatively small body between his head and his hand.
She is weirdly overwhelmed by feelings of safety and protection. But analyzing that will have to wait, because all of a sudden she does have a nearly unobstructed view of the mountains to the west of them, They look like great, gray, paper cut-outs against a neon sky streaked with fiery pinks and oranges. And just as he said, the sun is merely a sliver now, and faster than she can gasp, it slips away.
“We caught it just in time,” he says, fingers brushing lightly against her pant legs.
He nods, then turns the other way: the moon, meanwhile, is rising.
“You alright up there?” Galen asks.
“It’s weird,” she admits. “But pretty damn cool too.”
“Confession time,” he says. Holly cocks an eyebrow at him. “I’ve never actually interacted with a human like this before.”
Interesting choice of words, she notes.
“Like… acknowledging the fact that I’m bigger than you. Stronger. The only time anyone allows me to carry them anyplace is when they’re half-dead and in a stretcher. It’s just weird being ignored like that, is all.”
“If I had a dollar for every time someone chose to ignore the fact that I like men and women, you wouldn’t have had to help me with my medical bills, that’s for sure.”
“I’ve also never interacted with a human like that either. I’ve… nobody I’ve ever worked with has bothered to even try relating to me like you just did.”
And just like that, the fact that she’s standing on his shoulder ceases to register. All that she can focus on is the frustration and hurt in his voice as he spoke. And all she can do is let it frustrate her too. Flesh or not, the guy is her friend, and she hates it when her friends are hurt.
“Something tells me that it’ll be in our best interest to keep in touch,” she says quietly, eyes fixed on the gibbous moon.
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Maybe? Here we are: two people, grossly misunderstood, grossly underappreciated, and lonesome as hell, with the whole damn world ready to beat us into the dirt first chance they get. People like us… we gotta stick together.”
He turns his head so he can try to get a look at her. “But what about–?”
“We’ll figure out the details as they present themselves.”
Galen nods. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Where do you have to be tonight? I thought you said that they track your every move.”
“They do… sort of. Nobody I work with is my boss, exactly; I answer to others elsewhere for the most part. The SAR group are… co-workers. They can report me, but they don’t reprimand me.”
Holly knew that there was a whole lot more that he wasn’t telling her. For now, she was just going to leave it at that.
He goes on: “But because there’s nothing for us to do at night, I could actually get away with being out until dawn.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Go for it.”
“How did you get here? How did you, like, find me?”
“Oh. I uh… I triangulated your position based on your cell phone. Don’t worry too much; it’s only something me and my kind can do. Then in order to get here, I have a cloaking device and, uh, stuff built into my legs that lets me travel pretty fast without walking.”
“Wow. Makes you wonder just what’s lurking in the dark out there, then.”
“There aren’t too many of us,” he sighs. “A couple decades ago there were a few more, but… that’s a story for a different day, maybe.”
Holly can spot a few constellations by now, and realizes that she’s still up on his shoulder.
“So… are you going to let me down or what?” she laughs.
“Oh! Oh, sorry…” Galen lowers himself and to her surprise, she’s suddenly grabbed by the waist and set down onto solid ground. His fingers were clasped around her for only a second, but it was the strangest feeling…
“Well,” she says reaching for her tea again. “If you’re going to be staying the night, might as well get comfortable.”
She looks up at him – he’s standing very close, now – and he cranes his neck down to beam a smile at her. Wow, it even looks like there’s teeth in there. Weird.
“Alright,” he says. “Where would you like me to sit?”