[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 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.


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.


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.


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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[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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[ITS] Chapter 4: The Hospital

She wakes, dull and heavy, from the death-sleep of general anesthesia, finding herself in a quiet and verybeige room. Without any idea why its beigeness seems remarkable to her.

A nurse is at her side, smiling, and says something to the effect of “everything went well, we’ll be taking you to your room shortly”. Holly nods dumbly and wants to go back to sleep, so she does. When she wakes up again, she’s in much smaller quarters – less beige and more white.

“What’d they do?” she asks, trying to sit up, but her body would still much rather stay horizontal. A different nurse is there, and goes to wrap a blood pressure monitor around her arm. She hits a button and it inflates.


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[ITS] Chapter 3: The Bout

“You want us to do what?

The woman’s voice on the other end of the line is cold. Her job doesn’t resemble HR so much as it does, say, a food inspector’s.

Galen’s chassis cycles a long draw of air, and he looks down at his four-toed feet as he stands on a lawn of clover, buttercups, and native grass that extends far beyond the bounds of the property.

“I’m asking that you pay for this girl’s treatment. That’s it.”


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[ITS] Chapter 2: The Beartooths

There’s only one more call before the start of Yellowstone’s busy season – a simple case of a father and son who didn’t make it back to their car before nightfall – and by May, Galen’s permitted himself to begin forgetting about the pilot of the Cessna. It’s early June when he’s summoned to what he, and everyone else, thinks to be an ordinary briefing for an ordinary rescue.


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