Hard Labor part 3b: The Specialist

Zero, as she would shortly discover, was a fellow oversized, narcissistic, ultraviolent supersoldier.

Unit 01 held her near his belly in his cupped, busted hand, leading them down the labyrinthine corridors of Nerv’s Geofront. Everything was white, and the doors clearly labelled, but still she had no idea where she was or where she’d come from after a short while.

Soon, though, they came to a door, much like the one they’d existed. Beside it read:




01 hit a panel beside the door with the side of his fist and it burst open, one lock at a time, and he entered.

Ellen flinched instinctively, and clutched herself. There was no peering around that needed to be done; Zero was the most visible thing in the space. The black of his bodysuit set him at incredible contrast with the rest of the room as he operated a VR helmet from where he stood in the center.

He looked up, the entirety of his face obscured by the tech, as they entered. Ellen swallowed, suddenly getting very nervous at the idea of being in the same room as two giants. And who was Zero? She found herself praying that he wasn’t somehow more cruel than 01 already was.

“Well look who it is,” he said, voice mechanized by the mask, before taking the thing off and letting it retract back into the ceiling.

“Thought I’d show you the plaything,” 01 rumbled from high above. Ellen retreated further into his hand.

“And how is she?” Zero asked. His voice was different, though no less deep and gut-turning than her… her boss’. Ugh why does he have to be my boss, she thought.

He grunted, and she could hear a smirk in there somewhere. “Good enough.”

Zero chuckled. “Yeah, well, can only expect so much from something the size of your thumb.” He folded his arms across his chest–he was a little leaner than 01–and cocked his head to the side. “So, what? You came in here to just have me fuckin’ look at her?”

Oh god. Oh god. I don’t like where this is going. Please god that isn’t where this is going.

“Fuck no,” he scoffed. “Letting you have her while I head to the armory.”

“Well no shit,” Zero laughed. Ellen remembered that 01 was still stark naked.

He presented her, flattening his palm. She scrambled back, staring up at him in trepidation. Where 01 was bulked up, Zero had lean muscle, and no less able to raze an entire city single-handedly. His complexion was darker– like cedar, almost, and his short-cropped hair was a brilliant white.

And just when she thought that a pair of eyes couldn’t get any more unnerving than 01’s, Zero’s fiery yellow ones set themselves on her. Her breath quickened and she stared at the lines in 01’s palm.

“Have fun for a while,” he announced, and Zero reached out to take her. Just as he was about to turn his hand so that she could fall into the strange eva’s, she craned her neck upward.

“Don’t I get a say in this??” she plead.

He smiled down at her, pausing, for just a moment, before dumping her anyways. “Like hell you do.”

She fell three or four feet into the gray gloved hand and it closed around her somewhat as he brought it up to chest-level. Ellen was getting a terrible, terrible, sense of deja vu.

“What can I do with her?” he asked, looking down at her with vague curiosity. Ellen watched as Unit 01 turned to leave.

The naked eva grunted. “Whatever.”

“Can I kill her?”

“What the fuck do you think?”

“Alright, alright.”

“She better be recognizable when I get back. That’s all I want.”

Ellen’s stomach tied itself up into knots and she trembled in the foreign hand.






The door shut, leaving her and Zero alone.

“Um… hi,” she squeaked, avoiding eye-contact.

He laughed. The sound was immense, and she covered her ears. “What’s your name?”

“E-Ellen, sir.”

“Let’s have a little fun, Ellen,” he cooed, grinning. “Before your owner gets back.”

She shuddered.

Zero walked over to the chair he was sitting in (if it could be called a chair, really), and laid her down on it in a way that could almost be described as gentle. Maybe… maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.

“Lay down on your belly for me, Ellen.”

She did as she was told, struggling to get her breath under control. She closed her eyes tight and listened to what he was doing behind her.

“And take that bra off.” She did that too, and heard him fetch something from one of the storage units in the wall. She could feel his steps through the chair below her. “Now. You ever see one of these before?”

She was suddenly thrown into shadow as his hand passed overhead. What he set before her eyes then made her fall back into her initial panic… and then some.

“Of course you have,” he finished for her. What he held in his hand was none other than a progressive knife. She knew the specifications and dimensions of that most basic weapon down to the inch: it was 21’ and 6.5”’ in length, to be exact, and weighing in at almost 2 tons. The very last fraction of an inch of the cutting edge was diamond, and when properly maintained, retained the sharpness and precision of a surgical scalpel.

In the hands of an evangelion, it was a formidable weapon. And this was no exception.

“Relax,” he murmured. “It hurts more when you don’t.”

That had the opposite effect it was intended to. Or maybe he wanted it to hurt? Who the fuck knew with these guys?

The giant’s sleek knife was lifted away. She flinched when a finger stroked her back along her spine, petting her and gently pressing her into the chair’s cushion. Ellen tried her damndest to relax, she really did, but her rigid body would barely yield to her brain’s demands.

He kept stroking her for about half a minute; some passes were rougher, some lighter, but each one started at her shoulders and ended at her plump rear. After a short while her skin began to respond with a flush.

Whether he saw or felt this difference in her skin was never something she would figure out, but as soon as she was on fire, he stopped.

“What are you going to do to me?” she whimpered. Her eyes were still closed, and she didn’t dare to look at him.

Ellen was thrown into shadow again as his head drew near to her. “ Relax ,” he repeated with a whisper.

There was a sharp pain in her back, and the small human cried out, gasping for air. In fact, she couldn’t help but leap up and turn around to face him, backing up further into the seat of the chair.

“Wh…” She was so startled and scared that it took another moment for words to form. The searing pain had disappeared as quickly as it came, and all that was left was a dull, throbbing ache, leaving her back on fire. Ellen swallowed, clutching herself, and dared to reach back to see what he’d done. Her hand felt warmth and when she brought it to see, her fingers were red.

“What the fuck??” she managed, looking up at him.

His visage betrayed a coldness, though. His yellow eyes rested on her, pupils dilated. And in his hand was the knife; so small would her spot of blood been on such a hulking weapon that she couldn’t even spy it.

“Oh come on ,” he sighed, rolling his eyes. “That was nothing.”

Ellen glanced around, looking for a way to somehow buy time until 01 came back. Then maybe, maybe, she’d be in the clear from this freak of nature.

The chair, she quickly guessed, was about 3 stories from the floor– far too high to jump. But with adrenaline pumping through her from the injury, Ellen made the decision to do something very stupid before her rational mind could catch up.

Taking off at a sprint, she found herself running at the evangelion, and a second later, she was in the air. Whether it was an automatic response on his part or something resembling concern, his hand darted out to catch her, and she landed hard in the palm of his gloved hand.

“The fuck do you think you’re doing?” came the deep and enormous voice from high above.

Ellen recovered from the tumble into his hand and righted herself just in time to launch herself off of him again, this time aiming for his right thigh, which was maybe about 9 or 10 feet below. Doable, even for someone like her.

The landing was, again, hard, and her ankle wasn’t happy, but she was in the clear now. She darted down his thigh, panting, and leapt off the end of his knee, finding refuge in the machinery underneath the chair.

Breathing short and heavy she peered out behind some kind of large cylindrical mechanism. All that was in her view was him from the waist down. His thighs were possibly the most muscular part of him, rippling under the kevlar suit, and terminating at a fat bulge between them. Zero bent over to see where she’d gone, and there was a mildly bemused look on his face.

“What now?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.

She scowled and pursed her lips. “I didn’t sign up to be sliced up by a progressive knife!”

“Sign up?” Zero laughed.

His hand headed toward her and with a gasp she headed further into the recesses under the chair. The hulking appendage felt around for her a bit and she squeezed herself further in to avoid it. After a few measly moments of searching, he withdrew his hand, but she knew better than to breathe a sigh of relief so soon.

“Who do you think really runs this shithole?” she heard him boom. Sounds came from overhead someplace, but she had no idea what they were. “You humans?”

Then suddenly she recognized the sound of locks being released, and before she knew it the seat itself was removed from above her. His face looked down at her and a smile spread his lips. There was nowhere to hide now.

“Think again.”

Zero’s hand blocked out the light and unceremoniously plucked her out of her hole like a bug, held loosely in his gray fist.

He descended to the floor and set her on one of his raised knees. “On your belly again. And don’t move this time… Oh-One wouldn’t be happy if I accidentally filleted you.”

Why, why, why…

But she did as she was told. “Thank you, Ellen,” he said.

He proceeded to massage her back again. Little gentle strokes with the pad of a single finger to warm her up. Warm her up, she realized, so he could get more blood.

Before she knew it, there was another searing line of pain drawn across the other shoulder blade, and she couldn’t help the cry that escaped her. Neither could she help the tear that ran down her cheek. He drew the tip of that horrible knife across her once, twice, three times more, and the tears fell freely by then.

Zero moved down as he went, and as he drew nearer to the small of her back, the pain factor shot through the roof and she couldn’t help but jump and cry even before he began to cut.

“Please, please,” she begged. “Not there. Not there… It’s too much.”

Ellen clutched one of the black plugs protruding from his kneecap, shivering and catching her breath, mind swimming with endorphins.

He poked her there and rubbed it a little, feeling the bones through her skin.

“Fair enough,” he grunted, and a second later he drew a neat line of white hot pain across one of her buttcheeks. “That better?”

She winced hard and said nothing.

He chuckled. “That’s what I thought.”

A few more cuts later and he seemed to pause. Suddenly there was something thin and hard slipping between her legs, spreading thighs apart: the tip of the knife. Ellen sucked in a terrified breath, expecting more, but he withdrew the weapon with a self-satisfied snort.

“It’s like juicing a small, delicate fruit,” he said in a low, throaty voice behind her. In a moment she was in shadow and his tongue was on her, licking at the wounds in a single swipe. Her entire backside stung terribly.


“Those little noises you’re making are turning me on. Just thought I’d let you know.”

She heard the knife settle on the floor with a heavy boom , and he shifted around her some. Still splayed out on his knee, Zero slipped his finger where the knife had been, prodding at the juncture between her legs. Ellen wanted to freeze up, but her endorphin high just turned her into jelly at the touch. No…

“Wow, would you look at that… I’ve got a massive hardon. You should help me take care of it.”

He grabbed her off of his knee and she watched as he undid the hydraulic clasps holding the cod of his suit, and out sprang his cock, pointing skyward. Ellen’s hunch from earlier was right: he was thicker than 01, though possibly a few feet shorter. Not that any of it really mattered at her size. A cock bigger than you was a cock bigger than you.

Zero licked her backside one more time, savoring the taste of her blood on his tongue, before spitting a fat wad of saliva on her and rubbing it around. A second later and she found herself sandwiched between his gloved fingers and the skin of his ten-foot prick, and a second glob of spit oozed down around her. He started pumping.

The sensation of being rubbed up and down against a giant shaft was disorienting. Ellen tried wrapping her arms around his girth, but every time she was pushed up to that sensitive spot just under the head, her arms wound up pinned at her sides again.

“I can feel your tits on me,” he chuckled, watching with hungry eyes at his own ministrations.

It was hard to breathe, her back hurt like fucking hell, and she couldn’t move as she slid around against his hot skin. For half a second she found herself wondering why in the hell these guys had cocks to begin with, but was torn from her mindless train of thought as she was stopped near the tip of his length and held there.

Ellen saw his gaze intensify and his teeth grit together as his grip around her and himself tightened, tightened, tightened…


…until she could no longer take in a full breath.

Panic. Ellen flew into a panic, thrashing around in his unyielding hold on her, even as it continued to tighten ever so slightly. Somewhere off in the distance she heard him groan in pleasure as she fought against the edge of his foreskin, pounding her fists against his purple cockhead.

“Please,” she mouthed, but nothing came out. Her vision started to get weird.

But then a voice, one that she never in a million years would have thought she’d be happy to hear, distracted her captor.

“Looks like fun,” 01 announced, standing in the doorway, clad in his black and purple, a smirk on his face.

His grip on her loosened completely and she fell back against his fingers, coughing and panting.

“You trying to kill her?” he asked, walking over.

Zero narrowed his yellow eyes at the frail human in his hand. “Eh, just a little.”

“Well don’t mind me. Hurry up and finish because I’m ready for seconds as it is.” Ellen’s heart sank.

The black and gray eva stood over them, pulling himself out as Zero positioned her in his fingers again, adding one more helping of saliva to lube her up, and began stroking again. She wanted to get a better look at Unit 01, maybe he’d be able to see the look in her eyes that said “get me the fuck out of here”. Up and down the fleshy column she went, and a few strokes in he pressed her head forward at the top to smear her face in his pre-come. She sputtered as her mouth filled with the clear fluid. Ellen turned her head to the side, looking as far off to her left as possible, and did manage to see him; catch a glimpse of his face and shoot him the most miserable look she could. All he did was cock an eyebrow at her and spit into his wanking hand.

“You know what, nah. I got an idea.” Zero rose up, Ellen removed from his prick and laying in his open palm. Maybe… maybe whatever it is that he had in mind would be less shitty.

Seemed like 01 saw her back because he snorted: “Wow, you really did a number on the poor kid.”

The tiny human realized then that both evas were exactly the same height with almost exactly the same bodily proportions, because her captor positioned himself facing 01, touching the heads of their cocks together. She was set on her back in his palm and held once again to the underside of Zero’s thick member; a moment later he’d slid her along to the base of 01’s.


Unit 01 grunted with satisfaction. “Go.”

Zero proceeded to pump away at both cocks, one, and then the other. One, and then the other. One…

01 grabbed the other’s hips roughly to keep them both more or less stabilized. And Ellen… well, she was surprised to find herself being able to finally relax a little with a familiar face in the room. (Even though that face was bigger than her Nerv-issued suite.)

After a few moments of being passed from one member to the other, she was letting herself get into the action. And realize exactly what was going on: not one, but two monumental cyborg soldiers, ripped and handsome, were jacking off with her.

At that moment, she started to contribute a little bit of her own lubricant.

Zero was using both hands now, and she caught a glimpse of 01’s balls slowly beginning to tighten. Deep rumbles began to emanate from the hulking giants above her and she knew they wouldn’t last.

Her boss released his grip on his fellow and stepped back, taking himself into his own hand. Zero, whose hand she was still in, did the same, holding her out so that both of their cocks were pointing at her. They both quickened their pace, and she braced herself.

Zero came first, gritting his teeth together and squeezing his eyes shut as his tremors shook the hand she wound up on all fours in. The ejaculate came in hot, sloppy ribbons, just about covering her on his own, but moments later, 01’s turn came. The cording in his neck tightened and his load shot out at her.

“Fuck,” he breathed, opening his bright green eyes and looking down at her. “You’re a mess.”

“Whew,” Zero said, running his free hand through his hair. “Here, lemme hose her down, heh.”

Ellen watched at first in confusion and then in uncertainty as he reached for his dick again, almost completely flaccid now. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but she could see his stomach muscles tighten. After a moment, hot, clear liquid came out and drenched her.

“Eaugh!” Ellen shielded her face from the torrent of cyborg piss. She heard Unit 01 laughing.

It didn’t last long, thank god. And when it was over, she found that it neither smelled or tasted like urine. Not that she knew what urine tasted like. In fact it didn’t taste like much of anything… except a distant hint of LCL.

“Shoulda seen the look on your fuckin’ face,” Zero rumbled.

“Alright. alright, give her up. I fucking fought this morning and you didn’t.”

He did as he was told. “Wow, thirds? And you thought I was trying to kill her!”

Ellen was aching, her back throbbing, and all-around exhausted. She looked up at 01 and gave him a pleading look. He just arched his busted eyebrow at her and said nothing.

“See you around, fucker.” With that 01 headed toward the door.






Zero waved them out. “Get outta here, you bastard.”

Unit 01 chuckled.

Ellen was in a daze for the rest of the walk back. So exhausted, in fact, that it didn’t even occur to her to ask where they were going when he took a few turns she didn’t recognize and wound up on a dark, capsule-like lift. Down, down they went, but she woke up some when they hit water. Or, as the lighting clued her into, LCL.

Despite her first encounter with him here, he rarely called her to this particular space. Ellen wasn’t sure why, and hadn’t spent too much time thinking about it. Maybe it was a special place for him; it was where he “ate” and sometimes where he “slept”. Maybe because trying to have sex here was such a pain in the ass and his movements were heavily restricted.

He sunk down into the pool, dispensing her into the liquid as he got settled. Wincing, she held her breath and ducked under the surface for a few seconds to scrub the slowly drying spunk out of her hair, but was not expecting his hand to come up under and lift her just above the surface.

Ellen looked up at him as he regarded her wordlessly. The fire in his eyes was abated–for now–and he was settling into one of his lazier moods. Truthfully… she really liked those moments.

Sitting in a puddle in the middle of his palm, she went to work, cleaning up. Ah, not good enough, though.

Unit 01 dipped her down into the LCL a little, gathering more of it, and cupping his hand this time so that she was almost sitting in a bath. With his other, he gently rubbed her down with his middle and index fingers–two of the ones she’d bandaged earlier, hidden beneath the purple glove–lingering a little around her breasts. He dipped his hand again to get fresh LCL, rubbing her sides and after a few moments, turning her around to get her back. Which he was… surprisingly gentle with.

He flattened his hand, letting the liquid run off, and pushed her up onto the pads of his middle finger so that she was able to hug it, backside up. The eva began to softly and quietly massage her bloodied back and ass, and for the first time all morning, Ellen felt almost completely at ease.

Yes, it still hurt like a sunnuvagun. Evas must’ve had some kind of clotting factor in their saliva like humans, which would be the only way she would have stopped bleeding by now. Her face scrunched up in a wince as 01 moved from her ass to her shoulders. There, the wounds nigh burnedunder his touch, and she sucked in a breath, trying to lose herself in the sensation so she could at least relax about it. Eventually she began to produce endorphins again, nature’s painkiller, and she settled into a strange half-sleep; a lump of putty in his hand.

His finger slowly pushed up between her thighs to caress her groin and ass at some point. 5 minutes later? 20? Ellen groaned–not particularly in pleasure–and shifted her hips so that they were sideways, trying to avoid his all-powerful touch.

“Come on,” she muttered. “I’m so tired…”

“What, you really thought I was going in for thirds? Dream on, kid.”

Oh fuck off.

Unit 01 lifted her up and brought her to his chest. She climbed off and steadied herself as he reached up to switch off the lights. Ka-CHAK. They were both plunged into darkness. He shifted again and Ellen fell back against him, trying to intuit how he was positioned so she could get comfortable.

“Where are your arms?” she asked tentatively, completely unable to see any of him in his dark uniform.

“Folded,” he rumbled quietly. “Left on right.”

She nodded, which she knew he’d see if his eyes were open. The eva heaved a deep sigh, raising her up by 5 or 6 feet at least, before he settled into slower, and more regular breaths. He was getting ready for a nap. Or… whatever his equivalent was.

Ellen carefully treat downward, soon seeing the massive black shape of his arms. She felt around with her hands and feet, recognizing the fingers of his right hand peeking around the swell of a 15-foot bicep. It was here in this warm, rough crevice that she eventually settled down in. She took one last glance up at where his face would have been, and caught sight of the giant’s alien green eyes, glinting ever-so-faintly in the dark, peering down at her. She watched as they disappeared behind unseen eyelids, and she, too, quickly followed.

For a few moments she wondered at the monumental being surrounding her. Today he’d saved them all from certain cataclysm, warded off the apocalypse for a few more months until the next angel was sure to invade. Why’d he do it? Did he fight simply because he was bred–and built–to crave blood and violence, and it didn’t really matter that he was saving humanity in the process? Or was he actually capable of some sort of empathy? In all her interactions with him, this was something she was still trying to figure out; whether he had any personally positive feelings toward humans whatsoever, or whether he simply tolerated Nerv (and consequently, her) because it was advantageous for him to do so.

Ellen had once thought that navigating around his sadistic psychopathy would be a nightmare, but it was getting easier all the time. In fact, this was probably the most straightforward relationship she’d ever had with another person. No drama, no lies, no bullshit. Codependence? Maybe. They were straightforward; she never claimed they were healthy. But nothing about Nerv was healthy. It was the most blighted place on Earth.

If Third Impact happened tomorrow?

No other place I’d rather be.

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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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