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In Their Shadow

Chapter Text


 

It doesn’t take a viewscreen to see the planet below the ship; it’s completely filled the view from the windows that jut out from the front of the bridge. And it’s a view that the crew of the Ntassntek, as it’s called in the common tongue, have been anticipating for a while now: since they departed for it from the other side of the galaxy.

The captain, a Ntaa of impressive stature, sits eagerly in their chair, staring intently at the vast, blue oceans of liquid water below, watching as their orbital speed has them gently floating above an enormous landmass now creeping into view. They’ve never been here - none of their crew has - but they’re here to do a job, and one that should never have needed doing. Get in and get out, is the only thing that’s on their collective minds right now.

{ Well? ] they ask. These people, when amongst themselves, have little use for verbiage. Eons ago - and if any record of how this came to be was made, then it was surely destroyed in the war - the Nterenna started making use of electronic signals in addition to more traditional vocalizations. Eventually it became a matter of proper etiquette to eschew mouth-sounds altogether.

The captain is uneasy, and feels as if they’ve wasted enough time waiting in this world’s orbit. Their binocular apertures, orange rings set in black spherical sensors that would easily be mistaken for gelatinous ‘eyes’ to the bipedal race slowly taking over the planet below them, flicker with a glow faint enough to barely see in a darkened room. They dart from one helmsman to another impatiently.

The captain is uneasy, and feels as if they’ve wasted enough time waiting in this world’s orbit. Their binocular apertures, orange rings set in black spherical sensors that would easily be mistaken for gelatinous ‘eyes’ to the bipedal race slowly taking over the planet below them, flicker with a glow faint enough to barely see in a darkened room. They dart from one helmsman to another impatiently.

{ I’m picking up evidence of civilization, sir, ] one of them finally says, looking up from their station for a moment. { Fortifications, city-centers, massive structures, fleets of sea-going vessels… ]

{ Sounds like they’ve been busy, ] the captain mumbles in a way. There’s a heaviness in their chest, a gnawing. These people have progressed quickly… too quickly for my liking. { Is it possible for us to land and conduct the search without being seen? ]

{ It appears so, ] says another crewman, off to the captain’s right: the science officer for this mission. They meet the captain’s orange gaze with their yellow one. { The amount of land that’s been developed is only a fraction of a percent. I’d say our odds are favorable. ]

{ And no clues as to where it is, right? ]

{ The records were all lost in the war, sir. ]

{ How ironic. ]

The chief engineer shakes their head from where they sit at their station on the captain’s left. They’re bulkier than most of the others on the bridge, the extra protruding mass around their shoulders concealing extra sensor arrays and hookups. Carrying the mental weight of extra hardware isn’t easy, but the engineer has always made it look effortless.

{ How do we know that it hasn’t been discovered yet? ] they gruffly interrupt.

The captain massages the plating on the side of their head, pressing their lips together into a tight line. They thought that these kinds of concerns had been put to rest before they even disembarked. { We don’t, ] they say firmly.

The engineer continues. { And if they do? If they’ve trucked it off to some city, what then? ]

{ There’s no way they could have harvested all of it, ] the science officer replies. { Not with the level of technology they have now. Not with hand-tools. Besides, they wouldn’t know what to-- ]

{ All that matters, ] the captain says, suddenly standing up from their chair; the bridge immediately falls silent. They don’t have time for this. { Is that we shouldn’t have given it to them in the first place. We are here to try and rectify that mistake before it becomes a problem for them, and for this entire sector. Now helm, take us down before… ]

A notice flashes in the air before the captain, a floating, massless, pane of light bearing a message: another ship has approached.

{ We’re being hailed, ] says the second helmsman.

...before we’re spotted.

Ktsek,” the captain hisses in Common, aloud this time. The bridge, quiet aside from the deep thrum of the vessel’s engines and power systems, is suddenly filled with a voice, and everyone starts. The captain doesn’t often curse, but when they do, it just feels better to say it with mouth-sounds. { Open a comm line, ] they mutter, balling their hands into fists.

The magnificent view of the planet below them is replaced with the face of a Kassar captain bearing a military insignia on his breast. The Ntaarin captain quickly surveys what they can see of the bridge around him, and is cautiously relieved to find it understaffed. It appears that they are on no martial errand here. Still, the Ntaarin have earned themselves a poor enough reputation to merit little more than an armistice from the galactic community, let alone allies, since the civil war ended. And the long-lived Kassar have never liked them much anyways.

The Ntaa rises from their chair. If they’d been in the same room, the Kassar would have barely come up to their knee. Truly, viewscreens were the real equalizing force in the galaxy. “What can I do for you, captain?” they say with authority.

“You can start by telling me what a band of Ntaarin is doing all the way out here, in a sector that was more than disappointed when you all failed to genocide yourselves.”

The blue-faced, four-armed Kassar live for a long time - almost as long as the Ntaarin themselves - and the captain guesses that this one might be old enough to remember their devastating civil war that took place in the time since the Ntaarin’s last visit to this lonely planet. There’s nothing so indomitable as a Kassar with a grudge.

“Glad I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome,” they scoff.

“Generations of war has all but thrown your race into a dark age, and you still haven’t grasped the concept of humility. You people never change, do you? Now answer my question,” he snaps.

The captain scowls, an ancient holdover of some sort. “On the contrary,” they begin, swallowing their ego for just a moment. “We’re here on a mission of redress. The provisional government is sending ships of volunteers to our old targets to see what may be done to… undo the effects of the Program.”

“Let me get this straight,” says the Kassar. “You spend more than a niobium* parading around the galaxy, impressing primitive races with parlor tricks, and giving them technology that they haven’t even begun to earn yet… and now you believe that simply showing up again to take it all away is somehow helping more.”

The captain shifts uncomfortably and folds their arms. Their scowl deepens. Should they tell him? Should this be the time and the place to reveal one of the Program’s darkest secrets?

No. Not now… and perhaps, not ever.

“I have my orders, captain. Now let us on our way - you have no jurisdiction here.”

“Actually, I do,” the Kassar says darkly. “The Congress of this sector decided some time ago to prohibit Ntaarin vessels from coming within a quarter light-year of all systems within its borders. And as I can see right now, our suspicion was not unwarranted.”

“You can arrest us later,” the captain all but barks. “But either way, we’re going down there.”

The Kassar’s frills flare with agitation. “True to Ntaarin form, you’re making a big mistake, captain. We are authorized to use whatever means necessary to keep you from making planetfall anywhere in this sector. You have one-quarter carbon to acquiesce and allow us to escort your vessel to neutral space. I suggest you take us up on such a generous offer.”

{ Cut the channel, ] they order the first helmsman with a slam of their fist on the nearest console before taking a seat again. { Suggestions? ]

The science officer is the first to chime in. { This race is progressing faster than any we’ve yet encountered, sir. If we return later, it may be too late. Our safe contact window is already fast closing. ]

The engineer soundlessly snorts. { It might be too late already. ]

{ That isn’t what I asked. ]

The engineer sits up straight and averts their green apertures, suddenly grim. { This ship is more than a carbon old, captain. I’m not sure there’s anything it can do for us against the Kassar’s weapons. ]

{ They’re hailing us again, sir. ]

The captain thinks, and hard. But not too hard; it’s times like this that they know the value of instinct. { Ignore them, ] they announce. { Helm, take us down. There’s no way they’ll engage us in such a low orbit. ]

The old vessel begins to move; the helmsman has picked a spot far away from the oceans of liquid hydrogen dioxide, and after a moment they've geosynchronized themselves, ready to make landfall.

{ Engaging thrusters, ] they announce, and the hum that fills the bridge gets louder.

After a moment, a flurry of small, metal objects go shooting past the front window.

{ They’ve fired across the front bow, sir. ]

{ Keep going. ]

{ They’ve got ballistics lock... ]

Evasive maneuvers. ]

Lights flash at the sudden hail of bullets chipping away at the hull; as soon as they begin to penetrate the plating, though, the vessel lurches.

The engineer finds themselves surrounded by red panels. { We’ve got hull breaches in compartments seven through twelve, captain! ]

{ They won’t follow us below the stratosphere. Maintain course! ]

A klaxon begins sounding off, though; one that the captain hasn’t heard in a long time.

{ They’ve got radiological lock on us, sir! Your orders?? ]

The captain’s internals freeze up like a case of vapor lock, and their plating suddenly feels too stiff for comfort. No. No way… not here. They wouldn’t dare. { They’re bluffing. ]

The electronic communication line open between everyone on the bridge suddenly clouds with dread. { One… two! Two sub-nuclear missiles headed our way, sir! Orders! ]

“Ktsek!” { Jettison all escape pods, now! ]

The second helmsman is a flurry of panicked movement at their controls. { Pods jettisoned, sir! ]

Mere moments later do they feel the jerk and shudder of the sub-nukes exploding at their backs; the pods provided some buffer between them and the explosion, but not nearly enough. The engineer and first helmsman are thrown from their stations, and the captain is almost sent careening to the floor themselves.

The bridge goes dark, gravity generators fail, and the Ntassentek is thrown into a spin as they begin to enter the atmosphere. All that illuminates them now is the oscillating planetshine of the world below.

{ We’ve lost main power! I-I can’t correct the rotation without thrusters, captain! ] the helmsmen futilely cling to the rails along the edge of their stations to keep from floating away from them.

And still, the Kassar fire. Flak pierces the hull above them, sending pieces of metal shooting through the bridge from ceiling to floor and floor to ceiling, all while the pristine little world before them zooms in and out of view before the heat of their atmospheric entry threatens to fry their optical sensors. Without power, they can’t even lower the blast shield. At least the friction manages to straighten them out some, and after a moment the captain feels that they’ve mostly stopped spinning, perhaps pointed straight at whatever patch of land is now destined to be their grave. Distantly, the captain hopes that the Kassar will at least have sense enough to clean up the crash before any of the locals stumble upon it.

So that’s it, then.

{ All hands, brace for impact. ]

 


Area 25, Nevada, 1986.

The midmorning sun beats down on the enormous crash site without mercy. Tents and tarps provide shade, sure, but even out of the direct sunlight the air feels like its is hot enough to evaporate spit before it could hit the ground. The forensics and geologist teams have at least been given the opportunity to dress down for this particular excavation, and it seems like almost everyone who isn’t zipped up into a relatively sterile clean room suit is wearing khaki shorts.

Everyone, that is, except for two men standing on a short ridge nearby, surveying the site below: they’re dressed in sharp, black suits with their hair done so that it’s hard to tell if it’s been combed back with sweat or grease. The rivulets running down the nape of their necks reveal that even these men of mystery, though, would prefer to be indoors right about now.

“Not sure how we’re going to cover this one up, Thompson,” the one, a bit younger, says to the other. A hot wind blows their ties up and over their shoulders, kicking up dust and sand from below. There’s some shouting as a tarp threatens to take off.

“D.D.O,” Thompson says, counting his fingers. “Distract, destroy, and obfuscate. Let the hoaxers do the rest.”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me. This isn’t anything like what we’ve had to deal with before.”

“Did it not work for Project Mogul?”

“Yeah, but--”

“All it took was the hoax in Aztec, and boom: truth-seekers suddenly become nutjobs overnight. And there’s no better endorsement than from a nutjob in this business. Once you get to be too embarrassing for small talk, you’re golden.”

The younger of the two wipes the sweat from his brow and shakes his head. “You’re out of your mind if you think this is going to be like covering up a goddamn surveillance balloon made of balsa wood and tin foil.”

A truck pulls up behind them, a Chevy-type CUCV, gravel crunching under its tires; out step two men: one of them has four stars on his lapels, and the other, the driver, a silver oak leaf.

“Good morning, General Hall,” Thompson says with a curt nod of his head, before doing the same to the younger of them. “Major Reed.”

The General is a man nearing retirement age; Agent Thompson has been in close correspondence with him throughout this entire affair, and has come to know his service record. The man, apparently, still has a bit of flak in his calf from Normandy, though you’d never know it just by looking.

“Thompson,” the General says in much the same way, though he sticks his hand out for a shake, then turns to the other. “You must be Agent Clark. Pleasure meeting you.”

“Same for you, sir.”

The two military men join the suits and gaze out over the scene below, the four of them surveying it like a master painting. “What’s the latest, gentlemen?”

“It’s definitely extraterrestrial,” Thompson announces with a slight grin. Even when he conveys emotion, it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking.

“How much more is buried?”

“We’ve estimated that what’s here is just short of 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. It’ll be another day or two before we can tell if the thing’s intact, though. As you can see, its angle of descent was pretty steep, otherwise we’d be standing in a debris field here. It also doesn’t appear to have been traveling much faster than terminal velocity, which tells us that it might have been at dead stop just before whatever happened that caused this. We’ve got some theories about it; you can read ‘em in the reports later.”

The general’s greying brows press together. “Any survivors?”

“No. It doesn’t appear that anyone aboard was alive enough to try and escape before they ran out of air or food or whatever.”

The military men exchange looks. “You got any bodies for us?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” the agent says, flashing that impenetrable smile again. “C’mon, I’ll take you in.”

The four men plod down the gentle slope of the ridge, sending little white and red rocks tumbling down ahead of them. The alien vessel really begins to have an effect the closer the men approach: it looms more than 3 stories overhead, with another 4 still buried under the dirt, and they can’t help but look upon the dull - but untarnished! - silver hull with awe and trepidation. That is, all of them aside from Agent Thompson.

They stop at a station beside the port entrance - an airlock some 25 feet tall covered with a sheet of clear plastic to keep the sand from blowing in - where they all don ill-fitting clean suits and pull on pairs of plastic booties and latex gloves. Then pulling aside a flap in the tarp covering the entrance, Thomspon waves them in.

“Lord Almighty,” mutters the General, craning his neck to peer at the ceiling high above them. “Wouldn’t want to run into one of these guys in a dark alley.”

“Please, watch your step.”

The floor is littered with electrical cords of varying colors, powering the harsh fluorescent lighting anchored to the walls here and there, the caged floodlights set on the ground in the larger spaces, and the equipment being used by the computer engineering team. Though musty, the air is much cooler in here.

“We’ve managed to find a few pieces of material that could be carbon-dated: some of this stuff is more than ten-thousand years old,” Thompson explains, leading them around their first corner. “For reference, we’ve dated the impact event itself to only about the first century BC.”

“So these bodies of yours,” the general says, stepping over a particularly large bundle of cables. “What are they, mummified? Fossilized?”

Thompson and Clark chuckle to themselves at the old man’s ignorance.

“Inorganic material doesn’t decay, sir,” Thompson says with a little amusement. “Which is why finding something to carbon-date was difficult: just about everything in here, bodies included, is metal.”

The general’s eyes widen from under his bushy brows and he looks at the Major, who appears equally dumbfounded.

“You don’t mean to tell me that--”

“It’s still too early to be completely certain, but… this ship does appear to have had an entirely roboticized crew.” Thompson leads them to the mouth of some yawning orifice at the end of their present passage. It looks like it was something at one point, but has since been gutted in the past few days. Cables disappear up inside, and heavy ropes dangle down, some with pulleys at their ends. A man is standing at the bottom of it, ankle deep in torn cables and fallen pieces of metal plating with a power drill in his hand and a light on his hardhat, shouting something to someone high above him. Their voices echo. “Now, we haven’t been successful in getting any of their systems online - it’s too damn esoteric and we need the proper facilities anyways - so we had to tear out the whole damn lift mechanism. So until this morning, we weren’t able to access the bridge.”

The agent gestures to ladder rungs that have been welded to the inside of the lift shaft, and both the general and major take a good look at the climb that’s in store for them now: about 3 stories.

“Hope you’re in the mood for a little exercise,” Clark jabs with a chuckle. Thompson begins to climb and the military men follow suit, with the younger agent just behind them. “Comin’ up!” he calls.

The strenuous ascent through the broken, twisted lift shaft is eerie at best: the sight of a familiar piece of machinery in such a mind-boggling place. What hands build it almost 10,000 years ago? In what facility? Where?

If the General and Major are occupied with such thoughts, Agent Thompson isn’t. He can hear the blood in his ears at the prospect of showing off the find of the century - no, the millennium - and getting his due reward for it.

The man in the black suit hoists himself up past the top of the shaft, squeezing between two thick, heavily-armored, interlocking doors. Or rather, what was left of them; the things, each 25 feet high and weighing more than Thompson cares to imagine (though the figure would no doubt be measured in tons) are askew and buckled.

“Here,” he grunts, kneeling down to lend the D-Day veteran a hand. The other two are in better shape and can get themselves over the last few feet.

The bridge is bustling with activity: engineers, scientists, forensics teams. Off to the left of the doors sits a jaws of life, probably left exactly where it was after they pried the doors open a little after 5 this morning, completely forgotten in the face of what was summarily found inside.

The military men have stopped dead in their tracks at the scene before them. If the massive corridors on the lower deck were enough to inspire awe, then this was nothing short of staggering.

There’s really nothing that needs to be said at the sight, so Thompson simply gestures at it.

Before them lies the expanse of what was once a sleek and unthinkably advanced control deck - about the space are stations that were probably once as beautifully-designed as they were technologically advanced, and in the middle, still somehow intact, is the captain’s chair: its seat further from the floor than a man is tall.

The room is also strewn with bodies. Enormous bodies.  Some remain slumped over their consoles; just as they were when the ground came up to meet them 2,000 years ago. Others are heaped at the front… or what’s left of it: the entire nose of the ship is smashed in, crumpled like a soda can.

“Really makes you think, dunnit?” Thompson says, breaking the silence between them. He turns to see the Major on tip-toes, trying to get a look at the consoles, and the general with his nose practically buried in the hand of one of the dead giants.

Even though he wasn’t exactly being addressed, Agent Clark folds his arms and surveys the room… and not for the first time this morning. “Makes you think about what they wanted with us,” he mutters, frowning.

Thompson’s eyes pan up the dusty backside of one of them; its middle has been visibly distorted by the force of colliding with the edge of its station. Dented, though, not gored. This is the cleanest catastrophe the two agents have ever been called to, that’s for sure.  It may even be victimless - though it’s far too early to tell. Hell, that might not even be something they’ll ever be able to find out. These things need to be alive enough to question in order to find out if they were ever sentient.

“Man ain’t the only intelligent creatures God created,” the General says, examining the robot’s second thumb. The men in black give him their attention. “And there we saw the Nephilim, and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them." Numbers 13:33.”

“I didn’t know you were a biblical scholar, General Hall. That’s not exactly a popular passage.”

“I’m just another God-fearing man, Thompson. It was the Good Lord that got me through France back in ‘44; you’d be memorizing every word of the gospel if you’ve been through hell and back too.”

He chuckles, thinking that the old man is probably right. But Thompson hadn’t yet even spoken his first word when Private Benjamin Hall got his leg full of shrapnel on the beach at Normandy, and when he might have been sent to Korea, Agent Thompson was busy organizing with drug lords in Guatemala on behalf of the CIA. God had little to do with his line of work.

And now, standing in a crashed space-faring vessel filled with the remains of ancient, extraterrestrial machine-men? Why, Thompson was beginning to think that the Heavenly Father had quite a sense of humor.

“How many are there aboard?” the major asks.

“We haven’t excavated every compartment yet, but so far we’ve found 16. Some of them are in much better shape than others.”

The general rubs at his nose with the back of his latex-covered hand. “The air in here’s getting to me,” he says gruffly. “As much as I’d love to poke and prod at these things, I gotta wrap this up outside.”

“Sounds good.”

A few minutes later and the four of them are disembarking the ship through the plastic tarp, and the heat hits them like a brick wall. The Major screws up his face, thinking about nothing else but getting back to Nellis and some air conditioning, when he notices a stream of neat punctures along the side of the hull that look suspiciously familiar.

“Are those… bullet-holes?” he says to nobody in particular, gazing up and realizing that this side of the ship is covered in them.

Thompson chuckles as he takes off the clean suit and throws it into a bin. “Good to know that some things just don’t change, huh?”

“But some things do, don’t they, Thompson?” the General says in a tone that only a man with four stars on his lapels knows how to summon. “Let’s take a walk, son.” He nods at the other two men, dismissing them.

The General walks off at a leisurely pace, hands clasped behind him, and the black-suited man must admit that he isn’t entirely sure what this is about. “I need to know that you take this very seriously, Thompson,” he begins, once they’re far out of earshot of anyone else. “This isn’t no damn airplane, no bomber, hell - this ain’t even a moon mission.” He stops walking and looks him square in the eye now, pointing at the ship. “That? That’s your last frontier right there, son. And while we were busy building pyramids, it came a-knockin’.”

“That it did, sir.”

“What’s the next step?”

“We should have the hull breached by tomorrow, and then we can start getting those bodies over to Dreamland for evaluation. It’s gonna be tough, though. They’ve been sealed away in that ship for two-thousand years, in cool, dry, conditions. If we can’t get them to a climate-controlled facility, they may start to degrade out here.”

“I think something can be done about that.”

“Oh?”

“Your proposal has been approved,” he says, taking off his hat to wipe at the sweat along his receding hairline. “A charter is being drafted and should get approval by the President and Secretary of Defense by the end of the week.”

Thompson is thrilled; his only tell, though, is a smirk. “What’d we get?”

“Everything. Your new department got green-lit faster than any in US history.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you, General. And I mean it.”

“You kiddin’ me? The pictures did all the talking.”

Agent Thompson realizes that he suddenly has a lot of work to do. “What’d they wind up calling it, by the way?”

“Oh, the uh… the Extraterrestrial Research and Response Division. A black department, of course.”

“E-R-R-D,” the man in black muses aloud. “Gonna be a bitch to shorten.”

“You’re a card, Thompson. Now how about you stop worrying about your damn name and start thinking about who you’re gonna have to hire to get those computers online? You may have gotten everything you asked for, but the DoD has still made a few demands of their own.”

“I’m sure they have.”

“They’re gonna set you up nice at Groom Lake.” The General starts walking again, this time back up the small hill to where the Major’s waiting in the Chevy. “Your starting budget is $800 million, and they want progress reports weekly. You’ve got 9 months to show ‘em something.”

“Like what?”

“Hell if I know. Get somebody from MIT or Boeing to figure that out for you.” His shirt is dark with patches of sweat as they near the top of the ridge. “Damned heat,” he mutters.

“One last thing, General.”

“Mmh?”

“Why d’you think they came here? If you were a giant machine alien, what in the hell would you be coming to Earth for two-thousand years ago?”

“Everybody’s got something to prove, son. What you need to do is stop playing philosopher and start taking ‘em apart. Sooner you do, sooner we can figure out how to kill ‘em if they decide to come back.”

“Can do, sir,” Thompson chuckles.

“As for me, shoot, I gotta get out of this sun. Have no idea how you boys do it out here in those suits without getting heatstroke.”

“See you tomorrow morning, General?”

“8am sharp. I like my coffee with cream, no sugar.” The passenger-side door to the CUCV closes and Thompson waves as they head back toward the road. Clark joins him.

“What was that about?”

The older of the two rubs his clean-shaven chin. “I’m about to become your supervisor,” he says, showing teeth. “Welcome to the Division.


* The halflife of niobium-94: 20,300 years.
the half-life of carbon-11: 20 minutes.
Carbon-14, here: 5,730 years.

Chapter Text

They can feel the sensors coming online, the hearth-core slowly churning, and life returning to their stiff limbs as fluids struggle to move through old cabling, thick as sludge from the long sleep.

This twilight consciousness lasts for what seems like forever before voices begin to creep into the corners of their waking thought, signalling awareness. They sense that they’re laying on their back, and that the the others - the crew of the Ntassanek - are nearby.

As the fluids warm and flow more easily through their cabling, the Ntaarin’s foreprocessors begin firing up, and they sharply ascend now to alertness. And what greets them is… unsettling.

They don’t online their binocular optics, and remain still as a stone as their full array of sensors sweep the area. There’s bustling movement; heat signatures from small creatures nearby; and there are instruments exploring the recesses of their chest, which they realize now is splayed open like a bomb casing.

Where… am I?

The last thing they remember, though, is pain. And fire. The memories they’re lifting from the rusty datatracks come slow and blearily, but eventually, they remember klaxons, warning lights, being thrown at a wall in the sortie bay with more force than they’d ever thought possible. And that was it.

Crash. Boom. Nothingness.

But that still explains nothing about where they are now. About why the lights in here are so damn bright, about why they’ve been brought back from stasis on a planet that is clearly not theirs. About why there’s someone apparently trying to pry out their third median inertial regulator.

Even without appearing conscious, this one has the attention of the creatures scurrying about, and this is worrying. They decide to try and break radio silence.

{ Is anyone else awake? ]

But apparently, the small organics have the means to detect the Ntaarin’s transmission residue, and this has them in an uproar. They’re yelling at one another in a language the Ntaa doesn’t recognize; running from some piece of primitive machine to the next, and while the inertial regulator has been forgotten, there’s now some other device that’s hovering close to their body. It must be trying to detect where the signal is coming from and how.

{ There’s six of us, ] comes the faint reply from far across the space. The signal is so weak that they almost don’t hear it at all. Like a mouth-whisper. { Including the captain. ]

But this Ntaa, a soldier, knows what that small piece of information is meant to convey, and so they buckle down to wait for the captain to make the first move. For the next quarter-sodium* they wait, biding their time, carefully and quietly scanning every creature, every machine, every nook and cranny of the area so that, in the off-chance that the captain gives the word to make a run for it, they can with at least some chance of success.

Suddenly, they can sense movement from across the space. Big, slow, movement. The soldier’s hearth jumps like a stoked fire in its chest, and they are frantically groping with sensor arrays to see who is getting up from their slab.

The place is in an uproar.

It’s the captain.

What are they doing!

The soldier takes this opportunity to online their optical sensors, catching their first real glimpse at the these small people out of the corner of their green apertures. Most of them are dressed in stark white, while others, now streaming into the enormous room from a doorway, are clad in tighter, denser, black. 22 weapons are now being pointed at their captain.

“Speakers of Common call me Ebsathnanen,” they say, gingerly enunciating every syllable. “Neither I nor my crew mean any harm to your people.”

{ These people don’t know Common! ] comes a frustrated burst from the other direction.

The engineer growls over their channel. { It’s so they can at least hear what the captain’s saying. ]

The sprawling, cluttered lab is silent, and the soldier can practically feel what they will later come to know as heartbeats from every organic in the room. Neither the black- or white-clad people say anything. That is, until four more individuals dressed in black - a completely different sort of outfit than the weapon-bearers - enter from another direction. The soldier trains their optics as hard as they can on the new-comers, and oddly enough, sees them smiling.

One of the four steps up to the captain, addressing them in their native tongue. The captain shakes their head.

{ Does that sound familiar to anybody? ]

{ No, sir… it’s completely unique as far as my data banks are concerned. I won’t be able to translate it. ]

Eventually, the same organic attempts a near-universal communication tactic. The soldier senses them gesture to themselves, and then declare in a clear voice:

Thompson.

The captain smiles, and does the same.

Ebsathnanen.

But something about this isn’t right, and the soldier lying motionless on the slab can feel it deep in that strange place where programming and instinct intermingle. In fact, they’re just about to make note of it when the Thompson gives an order to someone on a mezzanine level above their heads. It’s curt, and the subordinate hesitates, but the Thompson repeats themselves.

{ What are they…? ]

But none of the captured crew has a chance to finish that thought before a searing pain cuts through them all, and even the power in the lab is strangled offline.

When the soldier comes-to from the primitive, but effective, EMP, they’re in shackles.

The day is November 2nd, 1989, and the next two Terran years will be some of the worst of the soldier’s long, war-torn life.


“Galen!”

The giant is brought out of his idle daydreaming at the behest of a sharp call from Tom, their department’s SAR Commander, from the other side of the helipad. He turns his head and sees the man waving him over.

“Hm?”

“Get over here and meet the new guy!”

Five meters and 1450 kilos of bulk turn to cross the concrete, cracks exploding here and there with hardy weeds. He steps carefully to avoid making more as he heads for the group of men gathered under the awning of Yellowstone’s eastern search and rescue headquarters. The building is small and plain, betraying the importance of the work done there: they answer dozens of calls every year. Everything from plane crashes, to lost hikers, to the - thankfully rare - homicide victim recovery falls under their jurisdiction.

The air is still brisk despite it being well into April, and Galen can see the puffs of warm breath escaping from the human’s mouths as he approaches. He fights the compulsion to get down into a kneel to greet the newest member of their team - over the years he’s found that it’s just easier to remain remote.

“Brett, this is our very own resident drone suit: the number six. Galen, this is Brett. Brett Bond.”

The man is young, probably in his late twenties, and from the look in his eye, the giant mech can tell that he’s a firecracker already. Either way, it’s always nice to see a new face around here.

Galen nods down at him, not bothering to do anything with his expression; the team can’t see it through the black, mirrored finish that covers his helm from chin to brow, and they never do. He’s expressly forbidden to remove any bit of his white and orange armor around them.

“It’s a pleasure.” His voice is mediated by the helmet, distorted just enough to make it difficult to tell if it’s computerized or not.

Brett’s eyes widen, though, and he steps closer to Galen’s enormous feet with a smile spreading across his face. “Whoa, I’ve never seen one of these things in person…” Without pause and without question he reaches out to touch a bit of armor on Galen’s calf, and the giant recoils a little at the sudden contact. Brett jerks his hand back, startled. After a moment, he laughs nervously and glances at the featureless helm; they've all been told that there's cameras in there. “Sorry man, that must've been like touching your car without asking.”

The analogy is lost on Galen, but he gets the jist and stays silent.

One of the other SAR members quickly throws his hand on the young man’s shoulder and clears his throat. “Not quite like touching somebody's Beemer,” he says, trying to let the rook off easy. “Remarkably real, isn’t he?”

But Brett isn’t satisfied yet. “Wait, I don’t get it. I thought the suits were like, actual drones? Being driven by people someplace.” He gestures at the giant, scowling. “There's a guy behind that, right?” There's a painful pause and Galen fights the urge to scoff and walk away. “Right?

The other members look at each other, as though they’re in on a secret. They sure do think they are, at least, he muses to himself. “This might, uh... this might be a good time to go inside and start signing a few things,” one of them says reluctantly.

The young man’s confused again. “Sign things?”

They all look at each other - and nobody looks at him - before the teammember with his hand on Brett's shoulder begins guilding him inside, and the rest follow. Galen catches just a snippet of the continuing conversation before a door is shut behind them: "You know what an NDA is, kid?"

Galen's been holding back a bitter chuckle, but lets it out now that he's alone again.

Explain everything,” he murmurs to himself in a mocking tone, returning to where he was across the expanse of concrete.

The giant has been with Yellowstone’s professional SAR team for about 4 years now, and the rookies’ reaction to the “big reveal” about the giant robot is always the same, every time. But it’s exactly how the Division planned it: always have another story handy. The more secretive an explanation is, the more likely it’ll be accepted without question.

Even all the way over here, he can faintly sense their bodies inside the pale gray structure; they’ve gathered in the debriefing room. Galen imagines the look on Brett Bond’s face as he’s being told that no, there aren’t in fact any human operators behind the drone suits. They’re actually highly advanced AI that the military has been testing in various domestic arenas for the past 20 years. He imagines the young man’s face going from astonishment to a smugness as he’s initiated into the elite community of humans who “really know” what he is. He won’t even need threats of prosecution to keep him from letting the secret out; loyalty to his newfound brotherhood will be enough.

Of course, it’s all just as much of a lie as the one being fed to the public by mass media.

But, as the humans say, that’s a dead horse.

Galen’s returned to his spot at the edge of the property, taking a seat on a rock protruding from the ground. (He tried measuring how big it was, once, but his sensors couldn’t reach the bottom.) And before him is his view: the majestic wall of mountains to the west, blue and purple, rising up like a frothing wave of living stone. The Rockies are the backbone of this continent, and they don’t disappoint.

It’s here that the giant spends most of his time. Sitting, watching, waiting for the next assignment. It’s a bad place to be if you’re a thinker, though, which Galen is, and it’s hard for him not to wonder how things might have been different.

If they could have been different.

The spot on the side of his leg where the young man had touched him still… burns, in a way, and Galen absentmindedly rubs at it with gargantuan fingers, painted orange like the rest of him. And it’s very silly for him to be doing this because this is the armor, not him, that the rook had touched. But the ghost sensations do tend to start cropping up once he’s been in the suit for too long. It’s usually a cue for him to take a few hours’ worth of well-earned rest in between calls.

Isolated from the cluster of human facilities there is a small barrel-roofed building on the south side of the premises. It’s newer than the others as well - about four years old, to be exact. And while it appears to be typically constructed, something that Galen could theoretically tear apart like tissue paper, it is in fact assembled from much sturdier stuff. And that’s because the Division built it.

The giant is standing in front of the door now, which is sized to match his specifications, and transmits a signal that allows him to enter. The lock disarms and he steps in. If anyone else has caught glimpses inside of this space, then they wouldn’t have seen much of anything. In fact, there’s nothing more than a lift that descends into the 2-meter slab of concrete underneath him, which can be engaged only by another passcode signal and a transponder check. Galen steps onto the platform and heads down to the only other level.

Lights buzz to life in waves as he steps off the conveyance, illuminating a space that he’s long since gotten sick of looking at. Needless to say, he’s not allowed company down here. Ever.

While the space - which is built like a bomb shelter, really - symbolizes everything he hates about his and the others’ current situation, it’s also the only place that he can get any kind of R&R. The only place he can take off the mask.

Making himself conscious of his HUDs, he flicks a mental switch and the armor begins peeling away. They’re like brightly painted fish scales, or roofing tiles, as one by one they lift away from the body underneath, fade to a transparent orange, and then slip out of existence. Though solid while activated, the intricately designed lames and panels are nothing more than solidified light. Hardlight, actually. Their only tell is the vaguely ill-fitting sound they make when tapped; they clack like plastic instead of ring like the titanium alloy that they've been calibrated to imitate.

The helmet is the only thing on him that’s “real”, and through it he’s able to hone these otherwise massless images into something that could almost take a shelling. Lifting his hand to what might be considered an ear, he presses two buttons in a short sequence and with a pop and a hiss the visor slides upwards and the rest of thing loosens its grip on his head so that he can finally take it off.

Galen breathes a proverbial sigh of relief as he sets the helmet into its very expensive housing in the small deployment bay and heads for one of only two other rooms in the bunker: his personal suite, where he intends to spend some time chipping away at White Fang. It'll be a few days before he starts training with Brett, and until then, his schedule is wide open.

He chuckles as he pulls the text out from his databanks, remembering the days before WiFi and ebooks, and how much more difficult it was for him and his comrades alike to get ahold of just about any information pertaining to Terran society. They would have to hunt down a modem, get within 20 meters of it, hijack its traffic, and then hopefully find what they were looking for before being caught. And before modems? Don't even talk to him about magnetic tape.

The mech sits down on his berth and reclines against the wall with a sigh from the pencil-thin slats along his back.

Finally, some time to relax.

All in all, Galen doesn't get the interrupted 24 hours that he's hoping for, because at about 6 o'clock a speaker above his head crackles to life, and it’s John’s voice:

“Just got a call, number six. Personal aircraft that never showed up at an airport outside of Idaho Falls, last communication was about eight hours ago, just outside of Trout Peak. P of A meeting in 10 up here so we can get to work first thing in the morning.”

Galen shuffles away the ebook in his mind and sits up to reach the receiver.

“Yeah, I copy. I'll get topside ASAP.”

He gets up and heads back out to put the helmet on again, recalling the SAR motto that’s actually printed on the hardlight armor of his left arm: So That Others May Live. If he wasn’t in the best of moods earlier, then he’s all business now. You can at least expect that from someone like him: when there’s a mission to be completed, he always finds it in him to focus on the objective at hand.

...for better and for worse.

The giant pulls the complicated piece of hardware over his head as it clamps down on him like a manacle, and a second later, the white and orange armor falls into place to obscure the unearthly body beneath.


The next morning, the SAR facility is tightly choreographed tumult as everyone is let out from the 5 am briefing to pack and suit up. Brett is staying behind on this one.

There are two missing persons involved in this mission: a single pilot and passenger who were coming in from the east and headed to Idaho, and passing over the mountains between the 14 and 212 highways. The Northern Absarokas just about feast on planes: in his 4 years with the SAR team, they’ve gone on 9 missions in the area, looking for downed craft. And truthfully, these are his most hated calls. By the time they get there, there’s usually no one to rescue.

And while nobody said it - nobody ever says it - they suspect that they’ll be sending these two tragic victims to the morgue instead of the hospital. Out in the bush, exposure is always there to finish what an accident started.

Galen doesn’t help with the loading or manifests - the team made it clear pretty early on that they’re to handle the human-sized stuff as much as possible. It’s when they truck out the second Bell Huey and start prepping his longline that he always starts feeling a little useless. But truthfully, he is an incredible asset to the force: his sensors can pick up heartbeats from 10 meters away and heat signatures from 100.

In no time, though, they’re ready to go, and he exchanges a thumbs-up with his pilot. The Huey lifts up, and as soon as he has the clearance, Galen steps into the stirrup and grabs hold of the line, holding as still as possible as they both continue into the air.

“How’s it going down there?” the pilot’s voice crackles in his helmet.

“Glad I’m not afraid off heights.”

The 45 minute ride is long; he can’t let his mind wander because it takes concentration to keep as still as an inanimate payload. Even though he’s done this dozens of times, he still has to fight the urge to correct any sway. If he can’t let the pilot do his job, then they’ll be careening into a mountainside in no time.

At about 8,000 feet he’s notified that he’ll be dropped. During the briefing it was decided that a nearby valley would be the best place for him to touch down, as his method of covering ground is so different than traditional sweeps done on foot that they usually just leave him to his own devices while the helis engage their search patterns in the surrounding areas.

Boom.

His broad, heavy feet hit the ground hard, and he’s quick to get out of the way so that the personnel onboard can land and disconnect the longline.

“You remember your orders?”

Galen nods. “You’ll hear from me as soon as I see anything.”

“Good luck, Six.”

He’s nicknamed that because in bright white numbers on the side of his helmet and the shoulder of his opposite arm is his official ERRD designation - #006 - and to everyone outside of the Division, that’s his model number or something.

It’s underneath this that he taps with his second and third fingers, giving a nod to the pilot as they take off again.

As soon as they’re up and away, Galen pulls up his map HUD, where the borders of his search area had been delineated for him earlier; moving dots mark the location of the helicopters, and fields of color indicate the crash location’s probability. While he’s indispensable for the difficult extractions typical of these high elevations, the choppers are better at detection above the tree line, and his skills are put to use in the view-obscuring bush.

He engages his thrusters: like flexing a muscle do the sides of his calves open up, panels sliding up or off to the side, and out slips a disc for each leg. They look like shields, each maybe a half-meter in diameter, and cover what would be his ankles - and with a deep, vibrating hum, the giant is lifted slightly off the ground as his hindprocessors reroute extra energy to his legs.

The giant positions one foot in front of the other, and with a gentle forward lean, he’s off as well, prepping his systems to comb about 160 square kilometers of some of the most remote wilderness in the continental United States.

He hopes that today turns out to be a good day.


Four hours and one false positive later, Galen hears from one of the pilots that they’ve found it. Through the high-pitched whine of the Huey’s cockpit, he’s given coordinates, an elevation, and… orders from the Commander that he’ll probably be arriving before they do. Both helicopters need to head back to the staging area and refuel.

“Wilco, boss.”

With a much more aggressive lean, like a sprinter ready for the starting shot, he races through the thick old growth pines, leaving nothing but a flurry of dust and brown needles in his wake as he beelines for Trout Peak some 40 kilometers away. Tree boughs whip him painlessly about the head and shoulders, almost hard enough to scratch paint. He slows every now and then to pick his way through denser stands, or to weave up a loose hillside, and before long he’s cutting through the thin, frigid air above the tree line, now leaving a trail of glistening slush as he passes over the pristine banks of snow like a hot wind. He travels the remaining 25 kilometers unobstructed this way.

He rounds his last ridge, though, and jerks himself into a momentary stop at the sight across the valley. Along the northern face of one of the peak’s long arms, the crash is plainly visible against the bright snow.

Ktsek,” he whispers, frowning.

Galen’s hearth-core fire shrinks in his chest, and he lets out a single anxious vent before gunning it.

It takes him just less than ten minutes to reach the debris field. In a single fluid motion he “steps down” from his anti-grav padding onto solid ground and tucks the thrusters away as he closes the remaining distance at a brisk jog.

“Hello!” he calls out. “Search and rescue!”

Sensors tell him that there’s only one pulse nearby, and it’s faint. The craft - once a fine 1970’s-era Cessna - is mostly in one piece, though smaller debris is littered about on the ground next to the smashed fuselage.

Two heat signatures, one heartbeat.

There’s stirring inside of the mangled cockpit, and a hand, bright red and reading very cold, weakly extends out through where the windshield used to be.

“Are you badly injured? Can you get out?” Galen stands next to the side of the plane, planning the extraction.

The man inside, the passenger, is probably in his early sixties; there’s a sharp bruise under one of his bleary eyes and a dried trickle of blood running down the side of his head. Galen knows there’s more from the way he’s sitting, and dammit, his suspicions from a moment earlier are confirmed: the man’s frostbitten and needs to be warmed up now.

“Think I… I broke some ribs,” he murmurs, wincing as he tries to twist around in his seat.

Galen shakes his head. “Don’t move, alright? I’ll have you out of there and warmed up before the team arrives.”

He gets a firm hold on the roof of the cockpit with one hand, and the side with the other, separating them with a sudden and forceful jerk. The welded joint protests for only a second before giving with a shrill creak while chunks of white siding crumble away. The giant pauses for a moment to make sure the man is alright, and sees that while startled, he’s not cogent enough to even be traumatized right now. Hands switching to more favorable positions, Galen proceeds to carefully pry open the side of the Cessna, widening the gap enough to get the old man out. Once able to he reaches in, but thinks better of it once he notices that the helis are only a few minutes out, and instead holds the palm of his hand to the human’s small body and sends heat to the appendage to keep him warm.

The giant mech keeps talking. “The others are almost here, so you’re just going to have to hold tight for a minute, OK Paul? I’m going to keep you warm - just try to relax.”

The man nods, eyes closed now.

For the first time, the mech allows himself to take a look at his companion, the Cessna’s pilot, pressing his lips into a tight line at the sight. The injuries he sustained to his head look worse, but it was ultimately exposure that killed him: all the man was wearing was a turtleneck sweater.

Galen’s hearth fire quivers, and he has to look away from the gray body, slumped so unnaturally in its seat. He thinks back to how he and the crew of the Ntassantek got here in the first place - not the Kassar that shot them down from orbit, but rather the Program and the material it left behind. Their orders have never changed. Their objective is still to find and recover the energy seeds, wherever they are. Galen’s not sure how any of them are expected to do this, especially now.

But seeing these two humans, one dead and the other fighting death so far from the comfort of sea-level, the giant finds himself feeling that this, in a strange way, is more important. Keeping this old man warm is the most important thing that he can be doing right now.

“Here they come,” he quietly says when his audio sensors catch the first sign of the approaching craft. “You’ll be alright.”


Human hands are what lift Paul McGuire out of his seat and place him into a bright red basket stretcher, and human hands carry him to one of the Hueys.

It’s Galen’s job to extract Richard Smith, the unfortunate pilot, and gingerly slip him into a stiff black body bag.

He hates it.

But he does it.

And just like that, the first helicopter is off, headed to the nearest hospital.

“Galen, you ready?” The voice sounds in his helmet.

The mech turns from watching the other bird disappear, and gives the teammate standing in the doorway a thumbs up. But behind the impenetrable mask is a frown.

The rest of the way home, Galen ponders over the nature of organic - human - existence, as he does sometimes. Aside from their size, and their mushy, pliable bodies, they and his kind aren’t all that dissimilar.

He tries to put himself in their shoes, as the saying goes, because one of the ways in which they aren’t similar is in the realm of death. It’ll be another hundred-thousand Terran years before his hearth-core goes out, before his nanenes are cut off from their energy supply, and his components begin to degrade until he can no longer function. But death is such a strange thing for his people, he decides. Compared to the simplicity of a stilled heart, of breathless lungs, of stiff limbs - these things are all so final - Ntaarin death is a contrived thing. And the only time that it’s not, the only time it ever approaches the peaceful brevity of organic death, is on the battlefield.

Galen scowls at the thought, not knowing what to do with it.

Several hundred meters below him pass vast expanses of trees and green, rocky moors. The land here is littered with streams and small lakes from the snowmelt, and looking west, he can see the rest of Yellowstone, and further off, that great wall of purple mountains. Behind the mask his frown deepens.

“Wish my bunker had this view,” he mutters. “Hell, any view.”

When they get back to base, Galen stands off to the side to watch the helicopter crew do their thing; there’s nothing he can do to help with this kind of stuff. He’s too big.

And it bothers him to the point of anger because for the rest of the crew, the humans, this is part of how they decompress. This is part of how they go back to reality, go back to the routine of waiting and training, and family and friends outside of work; this is how they forget about the dead man.

He vents forcefully, like there’s something stuck between one of his exhaust slats, and turns to go back to his view until they summon him for the debriefing. No one will bother asking if he’s alright, like they would if they still thought he was a man a thousand miles away in an unmarked DARPA facility.

But no. He’s AI prototype no. 006, property of the US government.

Galen finds that his fingers and his palms still… burn, in a way. So he starts rubbing them together a little, hoping the ghost sensation goes away. And it’s very silly for him to be doing this because it’s the armor, not him...

Chapter Text

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.

All meetings are done inside the SAR building, which Galen is far too big for. At first, they tried simply letting him attend through an open window, seeing as how he’s about eye-level with them, but they quickly found out how unsuitable the idea was during even slightly inclement weather. So now he attends remotely, via the same tech that makes his armor possible: the hardlight. Though it’s mostly for the humans’ benefit: he can’t throw his voice like some of the other Ntaa can, so he just appears to them as a floating bust at the back of the room, while he listens and speaks through a radio. It’s cumbersome, but it’s something they’re all used to by now.

Tom is at the front of the room, standing beside a whiteboard with a marker in his hand and some papers in the other.

“Okay,” he begins, and goes to write the target’s name on the board. “Got a call this morning about a Holly Mendoza. Young woman, hiking in the Beartoooths alone -” Galen sighs at this detail. “- was only supposed to be gone for a night, but apparently never came home.”

“How young are we talking?” someone asks.

“Uh… 29. We’re told that she’s a skilled outdoorswoman, though, so if that’s the case, then something must’ve really gone wrong for her to never have made it back down the trail.” He studies the papers before taking to the whiteboard again. “Timeline,” Tom says, making the first of several bullet-points below the girl’s name, marked “Saturday”. “Mendoza left Saturday, was supposed to return Sunday afternoon. Family makes a call to the local PD… Monday morning they go to the apartment, no one is home. She hasn’t showed up to work. Her car is discovered Tuesday afternoon, parked at the Silver Run Plateau trailhead. That's our LKP.”

“Are we looking at the possibility of foul play, here?”

“Always the possibility.”

“There are challenging hikes in the Beartooths, but nothing a seasoned backpacker can’t handle.”

“Maybe she went off the trail, got disoriented.”

“Did we check the weather report for the area?”

“Mike did. Nothing but clear skies.”

“What about the vehicle?”

“It’s been impounded; local police are conducting an investigation in case we are looking at something like an abduction.”

Galen frowns outside - it seems like that’s all he does anymore - and decides to pipe in. “If you get me to the location, I can scan the area for blood,” he offers. It’s been a few years since he’s last had to bring up this particular ability, and he’s not looking forward to putting it to use again. Some part of him hopes that, whatever happened to this young woman, it wasn’t at the hands of another human.

It’s the sort of thing that would happen to a young woman, though.

Sometimes... the small, fleshy creatures disgust him. Maybe not often enough, though.

“Good, thanks for reminding us, Six. Alright. So here’s the plan…”


The giant is thrown into a 5th wheel trailer for the two-hour drive to Red Lodge, where they rendezvous with the sheriff at the trailhead where Holly Mendoza went missing, and the doors of the thing swing open for him.

He steps out onto the pavement of a small parking lot that’s been taped off, and he immediately notices one of the parking spots is marked off with four bright orange traffic cones. Galen sees a second officer with a dog, walking the perimeter of the lot.

It’s revealed that his preliminary task has been replaced by a hound, and so once again his attempt at working alongside other humans is thwarted. Instead, he’s given his search parameters and told to hit the trail while one of the helicopters is scrambled.

“Our 48 hours are up already,” the sheriff reminds them. “Get up there and see what you can find, gentlemen.”

“Will do, sir,” he murmurs as he rises up a few more centimeters above the humans at his feet, standing now on a warm layer of air vibrating with the gentle thrum of his anti-grav generators. Kicking his sensor arrays into high gear, the mech lets out a single gust of air, and heads into the trees.

The fact that the others didn’t let him help scan the parking lot bothers him for some reason - maybe it’s because he’s growing tired of trying to help in other ways and become more involved in the team, only to be shoved back into his box and just taken out when it’s time to sic em, boy. And even when he runs into someone who thinks he's human - like this sheriff - there’s never any sense of camaraderie. Ever.

But that’s neither here nor there right now.

Come on, you’ve got a job to do.

It’s slow-going.

He’s got at least two or three different sensors combing as far as they can reach, but he’s also using some of the tracking training he received during his first days with the unit. Those sorts of clues take a skilled eye and a bit of intuition to spot, and it was one of the things that really brought him closer to understanding humans and their habits as sapient animals.

The trail is tough to work, though. Not like out in the bush, where a footprint and a broken branch actually mean something. On such a beaten path, it’s impossible to single out your quarry by visuals alone.

Right now, Galen’s starting to wish he was a dog.

An hour goes by. Two hours. Three. One of the Hueys joins him, doing a pass overhead, at which he does a quick little salute - the humans like salutes.

“I’m going to start exploring side-trails,” he announces into the helmet. “Who knows where she might have gone at this point.”

“Roger that,” comes the reply from the heli pilot. “Good luck.”

He picks his way up the trail, kilometer after kilometer, feet not even meeting the ground as he steps lightly along the narrow path. The anti-grav tech allows him to walk as well as it allows him to glide.

Galen glances around, combing with his eyes, with his heat sensors, with his density scanners - the water in a human’s body appears different than, say, a rock using this method of seeing  - and sighs out through his back. At what, he doesn’t even know anymore. All he knows is that there might be a human out here who needs help, and that’s what he’s going to focus on because the rest… well, the rest almost borders on absurdity.

He passes deer trails that criss-cross the main path, and for each one he pauses to do a more careful sweep in the direction it disappears in. But for each one he gets nothing to work with, and so continues on.

The giant begins to wonder what sort of young woman would come out here alone. And really alone: they were told that she has no family anywhere in the area, no friends, no one to look out for her, and yet… she goes off anyways. What would someone like her be out here looking for? Or maybe, running away from? What sort of trouble might she be most likely to find herself in? If there was trouble, where might someone like her go?

Galen pauses along the path, triggering the visor’s release. It glides up and away from his face, and for the first time in a while, he feels the fresh mountain air on his beige, metallic cheek. For a second, he lets himself enjoy the sensation with offlined eyes.

He takes the opportunity to glance about and try to put himself in this young woman’s proverbial shoes. No family or friends in a strange, new, place… no need to pretend; I know what that’s like.

The giant screws up his mouth and lets out a little grunt as he thinks, continuing with the profiling exercise.

“So if I were a bushman,” he says with a mutter, staring at the thin trail under his floating feet.

“And I were coming up here to get away, where would I go?”

Where would I go?

Anywhere, really.”

Galen continues along the path, slowly, methodically.

Still... even as a bushman, I have obligations. Even without friends or family, I still have work. Maybe I wouldn't jeopardize that, because it's one of the few things I have.

On the other hand, maybe I would.

He notices that the footprints along the dirt trail are thinning, and that the newer ones are beginning to be easier to separate from the old.

Hm.

“If someone were to attack me out here, I would likely have the upper hand because I’m familiar with the wilderness.” He’s following his soldier’s intuition; something that he was encouraged to foster at the beginning of his military career long ago. “Who would be more familiar with being outdoors than me? Or maybe... it’s more of a what.”

The giant pauses again, taking in a long drag of air through thin slots on his chest, and “smelling” it. Assessing the chemical composition of airborne molecules is not his forte - but he’s almost sure that he can smell scat in the vicinity. And that it doesn’t belong to a deer.

Galen knows that, while a Ntaa has nothing to worry about out here, the humans do: bear, cougar, snakes, rutting moose.

“Holly Mendoza!” he calls out, his voice booming across the valley. He detects movement in several places - but it’s of the four-legged or winged variety. Other than that, nothing.

He presses on, and the visor slides back down with a flick of a switch in his mechanical head.

Another few klicks up the trail, he can finally distinguish a single set of tracks as being the freshest. He stops to commit the shoe print to memory, running it through a database of his own devising - one of his private projects that he’d pursued in his early days of isolation down in that bunker; compiling the data killed time and wound up useful - and comes across a likely match: it’s a hiking boot from an expensive brand with a good reputation, but the specific make is a few years old. Sure enough, though, it is a woman’s boot in a size 8. Based on what the team knows of her physical characteristics, Galen knows that this just might be Holly’s tracks.

Another thing that he notices now, though, is that it while she clearly made it this far up the mountain, there doesn’t seem to be a matching set of tracks heading in the opposite direction: she never made it back down.

Shit,” he murmurs; sometimes English curses come to him easier than not. He activates his radio:

“Tom, this is Galen.”

“I hear you loud and clear, Six,” the SAR commander replies from his seat in the Huey.

“I’ve got tracks here that might be a match for Mendoza; I’m following them up the trail but I don’t see them coming down. I’m requesting that you do a pass a klick or two ahead of me, about northwest of my position, just to see what you can see.”

“Copy that. We’ll be overhead in about four minutes.”

Galen continues, and in no time at all he can hear the helicopter approach from behind, then pass over him, heading in the general direction of the trail as it winds its way toward the plateau looming ahead.

“Six,” Tom’s voice crackles in his helmet. “We’re not seeing anything over here. We’ve got about an hour’s worth of fuel, so we’re going to check out the plateau before heading back to regroup. Keep on those tracks.”

“Copy that.”

And just as quickly as it came, the Huey disappears into the distance.

Galen quickens his pace, keeping careful note of where the 3-day old tracks are going, and for another 4 kilometers he follows them up the side of a steep incline until, above the bottom of a 30-meter deep ravine, he comes across something that he didn’t want to see.

Holly’s tracks suddenly become a mess. They’re stumbling over each other, tripping over a rock here, breaking a branch there… Galen’s eyes narrow as he follows this woman’s feet as they double back at encountering something. And there - the impression of a stone that was picked up and…

“...thrown over there…”

He jerks his head to study where the rock landed, and to his horror, he finds a very different, very large, set of tracks.

“Cougar.”

The giant returns his hard gaze to the human’s prints and gets down into a kneel as he races to try and piece together what happened. He follows them with a pointed index finger, glancing up to see if there’s any evidence of her hitting the ground.

But there’s nothing to point to her being anywhere but on her feet during the whole encounter, and maybe most importantly…

“...no blood,” he whispers, scowl deepening.

After a moment he’s able to ascertain Holly’s last prints, and the sight of the disturbed earth at the edge of the trail sends his hearth-fire leaping in a sudden burst of dread.

Galen jumps to his feet, nearing the edge as much as he dares to - he is not completely weightless with the anti-grav generators activated, and is only able to maintain a hover of about 8 centimeters. If the ground under him is suddenly 30 meters lower, down he'll go. All 1450 kilos of him, if he doesn't land on his feet.

“Holly Mendoza!” he calls out again, though this time through the visor.

There!

A movement!

And a voice!

It’s faint, and he can’t make out any words, but it’s coming from the bottom of the ravine.

“Oh thank the stars,” he whispers before doubling back on the trail so that he can get down into the canyon without sending a bunch of rocks tumbling her way. He shouts to her again: “Wilderness Search and Rescue! I’m coming down; you’re going to be OK!”

As soon as he finds a spot with a more comfortable grade, he steps off the trail and slides down the rocky slope, catching himself on a thick tree trunk here and there to slow his descent. Once at the bottom, he pushes his way past knee-high patches of scrubbrush, and briskly makes his way up the canyon again. His feet make an intimidating sound as they hit the ground for the first time all morning, and he hopes that it doesn’t scare her. It would not be the first time that he’s terrified someone that he was trying to save.

“I’m over here!” comes the hoarse voice, and when Galen rounds a corner, he sees her.

Holly Mendoza is on her back on the ground, with one of her legs awkwardly inclined on a stout, fallen branch. She’s twisted around and attempting to prop herself up on her elbow to see who’s approaching, eyes wide and mouth open at the sight of him.

“Oh my god,” she breathes, looking him up and down.

He’s used to the startled gawking, but at the same time, there’s not a soul in the United States who doesn’t know about the supposed ‘drone suit program’. Most of the time they get over it pretty fast.

Beside her he sees something that looks like it was supposed to be a signal fire - she must’ve heard or seen the helicopter - but with her in that position, there was no way that she could gather enough material to stoke it. The pile of sticks and leaves burnt up in seconds, he guesses, and the thinnest thread of smoke is all that’s left of what must’ve been an impressive flame. His hearth-core aches at the sight.

“It’s OK, I’m with search and rescue,” Galen reiterates, softening his tone as he approaches, trying to make himself appear a bit smaller. He taps at the emblem on his left breastplate: the silhouette of a human hand inset into the icon of a mountain. “I’m here to help.”

She nods, wincing as she lowers herself back down. He can feel her pulse as well as if his finger were pressed to her wrist, and thankfully, it’s strong and steady. He realizes, though, that she’s running a fever.

“How badly are you hurt? Can you feel your legs?” He kneels at her side, and it’s moments like these that he truly feels gigantic - alien and alienated.

The young woman is a mess. Her face is dirty and sallow, her bloodshot eyes undergirded by deep bags. And even through all the stress her body’s endured, from the fall, from the sleep deprivation, from the dehydration, she manages a smile and a rasping chuckle. “Wish I couldn’t,” she says.

Holly’s joke is welcome - and in a way, he finds that they’ve switched roles for a brief moment: she’s the one doing the comforting.

Oh.

“Good, I’m glad,” he says, smiling behind the mask. He takes this opportunity to call for the EMTs aboard the Huey like a reflex. “Galen here. I’ve found her. She doesn’t appear to be critical, but she does need treatment ASAP.”

He can hear the commander clap and announce the good news to the rest of the crew aboard the helicopter, and his audio receptors are filled with the sound of cheering.

“We’ll be there in 10,” Tom says. “Anyplace to touch down near your location?”

“Didn’t see any.” Galen shakes his head. “But I’ll keep her calm and stable until you arrive.”

“Good work, Six.”

“Galen out.”

He turns his attention back to Holly, who’s staring listlessly at him. “So how does this work?” she breathes. “You put me in a… in a thing and carry me back to the parking lot?”

“A helicopter is on its way to airlift you to a hospital,” he explains. “You’re in bad shape and in an even worse location.”

Her face suddenly changes from wearily optimistic to worried confusion. Galen finds the sentiment contagious and his hearth-fire anxiously jumps along with her heart rate.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, frowning behind the mask.

The small human splayed out at his feet lets out a pained breath and looks over at her swollen leg. “I just…” Holly says, almost panting. This is why I’d wish they’d let me administer painkillers, dammit.

His hands come up and hover near her, almost of their own volition. It’s his body’s way of asking if there’s anything he can do to help. She continues, elevating her gaze in an attempt to meet his.

“You’re in a room someplace, aren’t you?”

“I…” he pauses, and wonders why it suddenly feels not just frustrating, but wrong, to lie right now. “Yes, I am. Hooked up to the… the interface.” But he does anyways. He has to.

“Must be at least sort of warm and comfy in there, right?”

Galen nods, picturing - and not for the first time - this non-existent room that his non-existent human operator operates out of. He adds ‘warm’ and ‘comfortable’ to its list of attributes. “For the most part.”

“I don’t think you can imagine what I’ve been through these past couple of days.”

“I’m… afraid that I can’t.”

“My first night down here,” she goes on, interrupted every once in awhile by a sharp, involuntary inhale, and he can feel her heart jump at those moments. “I fought off a mountain lion. It saw me as easy prey.” She starts laughing a little, deep belly laughs that  blur the line between chuckling and coughing, and shakes her head. “Filled the air so full of bear spray that I wound up getting myself. Was almost sure that that was going to kill me. My eyes are still red, aren’t they?”

They are. Galen wishes, desperately, that he could make it go away. That he had a little pill that he could give her to put her body at ease, even if only for a few precious minutes…

“My eyes and throat and… and nose were on fire. For a whole day. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t fucking see.”

The giant doesn’t know what she’s trying to get at, but it’s important. He’d let her tell him her whole life story right now if that would help.

“Holly, what’s the matter?” The words that leave him come out softer than he even anticipated.

“It’s just… it’s stupid. I’ve almost died for fuck’s sake, and here…” she starts laughing again. “…all I can think about is how expensive this shit's gonna be. Should just amputate the leg right now." She makes a sawing motion with her hand and cackles. "That's what it's going to cost me!"

Cost you?

Cost you?”

Are you kidding me?

“You? You’ve probably got a whole fuggin'… team of personal doctors wherever you are. Me, though?” The human starts blinking, and it takes him a moment to realize that she’s trying not to cry. “When you don’t have insurance… living can be real expensive. Fuck. This whole thing was one big mistake.”

Galen can tell that she’s not just talking about her sorry state, but the rest is a mystery to him. His shoulders slump and he looks away.

I’m one big mistake,” he catches her whisper under her breath.

What? No. No, no… Don’t say shit like that, come on.

His hands are still hovering.

“I… It… This whole thing just adds insult to injury, is all.” She wipes her face, wincing at what must be lingering pain in her eyes. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I’m just rambling, alright? Don’t listen to me.”

Don’t listen to you?

I'm not just going to ignore you.

And while it’s going to be a few minutes before it sinks in, something in him is already gravitating towards this Holly Mendoza; maybe it’s her so-called rambling, maybe it’s her broken leg and scuffed up arms, maybe it’s her story about the cougar and the bear spray…

Maybe it’s a savior complex.

A silence passes between them for a moment, and the mech can hear the helicopter off in the distance, though it’s too faint for her still. The question she asks in the meantime, though, catches him completely off-guard:

“Hey, what’s your name?”

The giant snaps his head back in her direction. He stares down at her with his luminous green eyes, finding his mouth slightly agape. Did she just…?

It’s the first time in years since anyone’s asked him for his name.

“Galen.” He hopes that he doesn’t sound too surprised. “You can call me Galen.”

“Galen, please tell me I’m not - “ Another halting wince. “ - the first to say this kind of shit to you?”

“No, you’re not the only one,” he lies again, trying to smile with his mechanically distorted voice and finding himself wanting to slip the helmet off so she can actually see the smile on his face. It might mean more, even if it is a lie.

“Well, there it is," she murmurs. "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."

The Huey is close now, and he can hear that it’s touching down. The mech minds his map: they’re about about a half-klik away.

Galen’s mouth tightens into a stiff line and he vents a frustrated gust of air, foreprocessors churning. “I wish there was something I could do for you, Holly…” A little growl escapes him, and he hopes that she doesn’t hear it. “But these guys, they… I’m just equipment to them. If I were a proper part of the team I might have a say. Frag, I might’ve been able to take you all the way to the damn hospital myself.”

She knits her thick brows, and the tiny movements in her brown eyes tell him that she’s trying to search his featureless mask for something, anything. The fire in hearth-core is burning low and hot.

“I said don’t worry about it, alright?” And then it’s that smile of hers again. “Just hook me up with some morphine and I’ll be fine. I’ll figure out how to deal with this later.”

But this isn’t what Galen wants to hear. Not by a long shot. He reaches forward with one of his oversized hands and places two fingers gently on her shoulder, trying to think of something to say.

I've got nothing.

Behind him, Galen feels two people approaching as quickly as their feet will carry them and as lightly their load will let them. And before he knows it, he’s rising up to his full height and stepping out of the way to let the humans lift Holly Mendoza up and into the familiar red of a basket stretcher. He looks away as a strangled cry is wrenched from her when they quickly handle her broken leg, and looks back to see sweat beading on her brow.

Tom gestures at the giant from his place at her side before standing up. Galen knows the routine. He crouches back down, and using specially-made handles, gets a good grip on the stretcher and hikes Holly up to waist-height.

“I’m going to carry you to the helicopter now,” he says; it’s important to keep victims informed on what he - especially - is doing, but for some reason the words strike him as impersonal.

Holly nods, shutting her eyes tight. Galen tries to keep from jostling her as he trudges along, even as he begins the ascent up the hillside. But he’s thinking about what she said, and with every slow, heavy footfall, he gets a little angrier.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Why? Why even do this if all SAR ends up doing is turning her over to debt-collectors? Wouldn’t it almost be better if she’d just died out here?

I mean, of course not, but…

...it'd be cheaper.

With what he knows of the culture of this people, the tragic irony isn’t lost on him.

It wouldn’t be so bad if she had family or friends in Montana, but Galen knows she doesn’t. He hurts for her, like how he secretly hurts for almost every person he’s pulled from a gulch or snowbank; yet this is different, somehow. He can’t say that he knows everything there is to know about her circumstances, but the look in her eye as she insinuated with such appalling nonchalance that human culture values wealth more than life touched something in him that hasn’t been touched in a long, long time. Old coding that hasn't been read since the crash.

And it’s as he takes his last step over the top of the incline that the giant decides to try and do something about it.

“I’m sorry, Holly,” he says, sliding her into the belly of the helicopter. It would have been a murmur, but she wouldn't have heard him over the roaring whine of the idling machine.

An EMT aboard the helicopter shooes him away as he preps Holly’s hand for an I.V., and in no time they’re administering a dose of that morphine she was wanting. He watches as her eyes widen and cheeks flush.

“Fuck…” she mouths, and is lost to what appears to be solid bliss. The sight makes him laugh a little, and just as they’re about to shut the door she waves at him with that filthy, scuffed-up hand of hers. He raises his own six fingers in reply.

The Huey takes off, and Galen’s informed that he’ll be getting himself down the mountain; which is fine by him. He can use a few hours to himself right now.

For a moment he wonders what ‘mistake’ she was referring to, and who would think of her as one herself. He doesn’t get very far; there’s still a lot about human culture he doesn’t understand.

With a small hop off the ground, he returns to a hover, and works his way back to the trail; he’ll be able to get back down a helluva lot faster than it was coming up, but he won’t be returning to the parking lot too quickly. His foreprocessors are already firing, entertaining a wealth of ideas.

He does something that he hasn’t done in a couple of months, though.

{ Kenway? It’s Galen - I gotta run something by you if you’re not busy. ]

Galen’s comm-voice is raspy - the Division does not like it when the Ntaarin use this method of communication among themselves because they still have no way of intercepting or decoding it. Much to their chagrin.

{ Holy shit, ] comes the reply in their native “tongue”. Kenway is a fellow crewmember of the Ntassantek of the soldiering variety, though his specialities lie in tactics rather than Galen’s old role in reconnaissance and good ol’ gruntwork. He’s been stationed in Chicago for over 2 years now. { It’s the mountain man! ]

Galen can’t help but laugh. The Ntaarin don’t often get a chance to talk to each other, being stationed so many miles apart, and their communications being closely surveilled by their ERRD-issue gear. And the Division needn’t be able to know what they’re saying to each other: it’s that they’re saying anything at all that bothers them.

{ I hate to say it, but I didn’t call to ask how you’re doing; we’ll catch up at the biannual debriefing in August. Right now, I need a second opinion, and bad. ]

Kenway is an old friend of Galen’s, and the two of them first met long ago during the Civil War. Where the green-eyed scout is pessimistic and sensitive, the other is loud and boisterous; their entire unit had once said that Kenway should have become a carnival barker instead of a soldier. Still, they’ve made a good match over the eons, and he’s truthfully one of the only real confidants Galen’s ever had.

The other mech’s chuckle fills the channel. { Make it fast - you know they don’t like us gossiping on the job. ]

The giant clad in white and orange picks his way down the trail, mind filled with this young woman’s words. { I know, ] he says. { I just… there’s something I’ve got to do and I have no idea how to do it. ]

{ What, keep your souffle from falling? ]

Galen vents anxiously. Despite their close friendship, Kenway has never been able to take much of anything truly seriously. To him, life is little more than a series of setups and punchlines. It's what makes him so refreshing to be around - and frustrating, too.

{ Who do you think I should talk to about following up with… with a civilian? ]

{ A civvie? Oh no you don’t, Galen. That’s just asking for all sorts of trouble, and the captain would give you an earful about it if he found out. Which he will, because he’s the captain. ]

{ I have to at least try alright? ] The giant suddenly feels very foolish, setting his jaw behind the mask. But he refuses to let his resolve waver. I’ve got to do this. It’s my damn job to save people, and I'm not leaving this job half-finished. { I know you’ve at least got the name of someone I can contact. Someone maybe sympathetic. You’ve spent way more time at Division HQ than I have. You know them! ]

{ Criminey, ] comes the approximation of the English word. { Didn’t know you liked civilians that much. Anyways, yeah, yeah, I can hook you up with someone who’ll at least hear you out. ]

His hearth-fire swells at the prospect, and Galen finds that there’s a spring in his huge, heavy steps. A name appears in his head: that of a liaison at Dreamland, someone Galen’s never spoken to before, and the mech fills the channel with his thanks.

{ I get it, I get it! ] Kenway chuckles. { And look: I have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, but for the hearth-fire’s sake, be careful, would you? I know these humans can seem cute and pitiable when you’re out there playing the hero, but trust me: the Division doesn’t like the kind of shit you want to pull. And they’ve got the teeth to prove it. ]

You think I don’t remember they way they treated us?

{ I know. And hey - thanks. ]

{ I’ll see you in August… and hopefully, in one piece. Kenway out. ]

Galen cuts the channel and pauses, thinking about the reprimand he’ll be getting later for going through their native comm system. But it’s OK - it’s nothing that he hasn’t dealt with before.

He cracks open the visor to his helmet again, and part of him is even tempted to disengage the whole hardlight ensemble, but now’s not the time. The mech needs to get back to SAR headquarters and see about putting his plan into motion.

Galen pauses for only a moment to entertain a thought: I haven’t felt this alive since the war.


Back at headquarters later in the afternoon, Galen stays above ground so that he can contact this liaison at ERRD with his own onboard tech. The SAR boys are packing up gear and bonding in the wake of their successful mission - as, obviously, any good team does -  even though the giant robot did all the work. Sure, there are the almost-obligatory “we couldn’t have done it without you”s and the “you’re one helluva scout, Six”s, and that’s really it. But it’s not just the Search and Rescue team that’s like this with him - even his previous station with a rural sheriff’s department was similar, and he’s never quite been able to figure out why. His guess, though, is that his form lands him squarely in what, on Earth, gets called the 'uncanny valley'.

One of his other crewmates, a mech now called Ezra, noted at a previous Biannual that the less anthropomorphic the robot, the better their treatment and the quicker the humans are to empathize with (or at least project emotions onto) it. Galen had realized that the counselor’s theory held when at least applied to the two Mars rovers that NASA was so proud of.

And maybe that’s another reason that Galen wants to help Holly, above and beyond his call of duty. Even in her belief that he’s just some guy hooked up to a machine, he can’t get over how she treated him.

She asked for my name!

He tries to remember this as a ringtone echoes in his head before being replaced with a curt voice:

“Section 62,” the man on the other end of the line announces, rather robotically himself. “Please identify yourself and your destination.”

“Authorization code: five three niner delta lima zero victor dash zero zero six, codename Galen. I’m trying to reach the Director of E.M.E Services, please.”

“Verifying the integrity of your connection…” A pause. “Integrity established. Patching you through, Galen.”

A few clicking noises are all that he hears before a woman answers from someplace deep under the dusty airstrip of Groom Lake. Or, as it’s most commonly known, Area 51. Dreamland.

“What can I do for you today, Galen?”

Her cordiality is seductive - but he steels himself in preparation for the inevitable hostile backlash that the Division is so known for among the Ntassantek's crew.

“This is going to sound real odd, ma’am, but I need to ask the Division for a personal favor...”

Chapter Text

“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.”

“...which, from what you’ve said, will cost upwards of fifty or sixty-thousand dollars, Galen.”

“The Division is a black project, isn’t it?” the mech asks, trying to keep the frustration out of his tone. “You probably have billions in the coffers. You spend two-hundred thousand each time one of us goes in for routine maintenance. This is chump change to you.”

Galen knows that money has never been a problem for the ERRD - at least, not since they accidentally figured out how to bring the slumbering Ntaa online. They didn’t do a very good job of shielding their networks in those early days. They’ve gotten better at it, though. Right now, for instance, he can feel that the Director is talking to him on as primitive of a telephone as she can stand to use. Something that would be quick to short out if he tried using it to worm his way into her office.

She scoffs, aware that he knows how the Division doesthings. With no point in lying to him, she changes tactics.

“Why do you care so much about this ‘kid’? You’re not supposed to be getting chummy with civilians. Or do I need to remind you that you're not human?”

He knows what to say, though. He learned the ins and outs of military petitioning eons ago, and it was the only way he was able to survive in the service for as long as he did.

“I won’t feel like my job is done until you can make this happen, ma’am. I’m out there, helping people to the best of my ability, on-call every day of the year… and I don’t ask for much. C’mon, I’ve never asked for hardly anything, have I?”

He can sense that she’s glancing at his file to double-check the claim.

“You haven’t,” the Director concedes warily. “You’ve been pretty good.”

Galen ignores the implications of her choice of words and continues. “Fifty, sixty, maybe seventy grand. That’s all I’m asking, ma’am. It’d make me very happy if you did this for me.”

“Happy, huh?” she all but grunts. He can guess at what she’s thinking: A happy Ntaa is a well-behaved Ntaa…

There’s a long pause on the phone, and if he didn’t know better, he’d have thought that she’d hung up.

“I don’t think you know how much of a pain in the ass this is going to be,” she says at length. “We’ll have to do this through one of the subsidiaries.”

A smile blooms across his face behind the mask. In the right lighting, some have even sworn that he has dimples when he smiles like this. “Thank you ma’am. You don’t know what this means to me.”

“You’re right, I don’t. What I do know is that you owe us, now.”

I owe you. Right.

“I’ll give you an exoplanet for it.”

“Fine, fine.”

The Ntaa usually return the Division’s small favors with small favors of their own - handing over any piece of technology is never done lightly, so revealing bits of the galaxy that the Terrans still haven’t discovered yet usually suffices. About 74 uninhabited exoplanets have become known to human astronomers this way since 1991. And in exchange for a $60,000 medical bill? That amount would barely cover a single night's worth of operating costs for a 12-meter telescope - let alone the cost of paying the scientists to use the thing. This is a steal and the Director knows it.

“Send me over this civilian’s information and I’ll get you a star chart by the end of the week.”

“Done,” he declares. The battle’s been won.

“I’ll see you at the Biannual.” And then she hangs up.

Galen brings his awareness back out of his head and finds that he’s practically ecstatic. It feels like his standing on the gravs, but his feet are firmly on the ground. He could fist-bump the moon; run laps around the Abrasokas; save a hundred people in one fell swoop.

Wait ‘til she finds out, he muses to himself, hearth core abuzz and swirling. Stars, I wish I could be there to see the look on her face!


Galen is beaming behind his mask during the debriefing later. Shoulders back, chest out as he’s asked to detail his ground search. Even his normally calm, distant demeanor is punctuated by an excitability that he hasn’t experienced in a long time. The others, he can tell, don’t really know what to make of it, and the mech is surprised when Tom pulls him aside afterward. There’s something on the man’s mind, but all Galen can think of is that his change in tone was a little too obvious. He makes a point to curb himself.

“Is everything alright?” the man asks from where he stands down by Galen’s hulking metal foot, thumbs hooked along his belt. It’s t-shirt weather these days. “You need to get looked at or anything?”

He feels compelled to clear a throat that he doesn’t have. “No, I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Tom’s voice is bordering on concern, but something is holding him back. As usual. “You know, you’ve been with the unit for four years now and I haven’t once seen anyone come by to… I dunno… do computer stuff to you.”

“We, uh… we handle that when I head back to Nevada every six months. I get debugged, recalibrated, have my auto-synchronization modules replaced, my high-impact nano-fiber circuits retooled…” He’s just making shit up now. “The whole nine yards.”

Tom’s looking out across the helipad, to the south. Maybe at the mech’s building, he’s not sure. The human chuckles a bit, though. “I’ve always wondered, Six: were you programmed to speak English so - oh, what’s the word - fluently? Or did’ja pick it up along the way? You know, the little things, like what you just said: ‘whole nine yards’. Who taught you that?”

Truthfully, a Ntaa’s ability to quickly pick up verbal and body language cues from whatever local population they happen to find themselves in is a very old skill, and not one that came about benignly. While the mech now named Galen came online during the fall of the old empire, he knows as well as anyone that the cultural mimicry that the Ntaarin were once so famous for was little more than an expression of arrogance and another tool of domination: a way to quickly make friends with new peoples before ruining them.

Ironically enough, the trick hasn’t seemed to work since the Division woke them up.

It’s almost as if some ancestral memory of their last meeting some 10,000 years ago has lodged itself in their genetic material, and every time a human gets close to one of them, something very small and old throws up a faint warning signal: Danger! Danger!

Not that it would be wholly unwarranted, he muses with a slow vent.

And yet, this Holly person happened to him.

“English is hard, I’ll admit. But it’s all learned,” he relents stiffly.

“Fascinating,” the man murmurs, shaking his head and still looking out over the wide open sky. “Fascinating. You know, whenever it’s time for you to go do your real work overseas or wherever with the military, you’ll make a fine soldier, I’m sure.”

The mech bristles, and judging by the jump in Tom’s heart rate, it’s visible.

His earlier happiness is just about gone. “I’m sure I will,” he grinds out.

But something in his voice tells Galen that idle chat isn’t the only reason he’s out here. Spooked now, Tom seems hesitant to say it.

“Hey, so… I came out here to let you know of a… a slight change in protocol we’re going to be implementing over the next few months.” The man, big and sturdy by human standards, is still barely higher off the ground than Galen’s knee-joint, and right now this is making itself very apparent to him. Galen knowsthat he seems very big right now, and Tom very small.

Galen folds his arms and stares the man down through the black visor. “New protocol?” What’s this got to do with me?

“Well… the boys and I were talking and…”

And?

“...and we think it might be best if you stopped approaching victims unaccompanied.”

What?

No. No way.

“W-we feel that something like yourself can just be on the intimidating side. Especially if they’re alone, and not expecting it.”

He’s referring to my comment during the debriefing about Holly being startled by my approach, isn't he?

“Everyone knows that there’s a drone working in this county by now,” he retorts, the scowl returning to his tone. “It’s in the news all the time! Why am I suddenly being thought of as a liability? I do everything I'm supposed to: move slowly, speak calmly, make myself heard well before I'm seen…"

“You're not a liability. It's just that… We didn't come to this decision overnight…” Tom clears his throat nervously. “This is something we've been talking about for a while now, and we just think that it's going to be in… in the best interest of the unit and our mission as a search and rescue operation.” The man glances up at the mech, his eyes falling on his right orange gauntlet. Galen knows exactly what he's looking at. “It's like what your arm says, there.” Yeah, there it is. The motto. “Do you know what those words mean?”

He can’t believe that this is happening to him.

Galen unfolds his arms and balls the hand in question into a fist, gesturing to the motto printed there with perhaps a little too much aggression. “Of course I do,” he says harshly. “Just the same as any of you. I wouldn’t fraggin’ be here if I didn’t.” Tom takes a few steps back and makes sure that his hands are visible - an instinctive human response to a threat. The giant mech vents sharply and stands up again, hands at his sides.

“Six - Galen - you’ve gotta understand where I’m coming from,” Tom pleads from far below. “Please don’t be…”

Upset?” The giant finishes for him with a snort. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Galen turns away from the SAR Commander, and Tom starts at the sudden movement of the giant mech’s feet, each big and heavy enough to cave in a sedan like cardboard.

“Where are you going?” the man shouts after him as he begins to cross the helipad, not worrying this time about cracking the concrete. Boom. Boom. Boom.

“I don’t know,” the giant rumbles, initiating his anti-grav generators, and speeding away before Tom has a chance to order him back. The man is left where he’s standing, actually, and is soon joined by another team member from upstairs.

“What the hell was that?”

Tom reaches for his phone with a shaking hand, and pulls up a contact in his address book: Dan Sung, DARPA. “I have no idea, but I ain’t going after that thing.”


Galen’s made it about a klick into the wilderness when he stops, sending dirt and grass flying from his feet, and with a growl, he disengages the helmet and tears it from his head faster than he perhaps ought to have. The armor doesn’t peel elegantly away - rather, the mass of it shivers and convulses before winking out of existence, and Galen activates another old piece of technology: his cloak.

The processeses that go into powering the hardlight is exactly the same stuff that envelopes him in a bubble of bent and shimmering light; and after a moment, he fades from view with a disorienting wiggle.

“After all I’ve done for them,” he mutters, tightening his grip on the helmet. “After all the thankless missions…”

The giant thinks back to the phone conversation earlier.

“I haven’t asked them for anything.

He’s back on the ground now - all 1450 kilos of him - and he’s tearing through the bush, leaving a trail like a bulldozer plowed through here. His frustration has finally come to a head. In spite of what he accomplished for Holly, or because of it?

About half a kilometer later he stops, his body panting, hearth-fire churning. The trees have opened up before him, and the giant is suddenly aware of the silence. Galen’s mind, which was running like a hamster in a wheel, quiets, and he lets his green apertures soak in the view.

I think she was onto something by coming out here to get away.

A vent escapes him, and after a moment, he sits down on the ground with his back against a tree, tossing the orange helmet to the ground nearby. Thop.

Galen looks at his hands. He’s got four gunmetal fingers, tipped with aluminum white, and they’re framed on either side by two brown thumbs. His palms bear a passing resemblance to a human’s, intricately lamed so that not even the slightest gap appears as he flexes his fingers or contorts his hand.

38: that’s the number of people these hands have rescued in the past four years, and zero is the number of people who were worse off for encountering him.

He frowns and lets them fall into his lap, wondering what to do now. At any minute he’s expecting to hear from Agent Turner, his designated liaison, for running off like this. He’ll return willingly, just… not yet. He just needs some time. He’ll go back and accept the blow to his dignity and personhood like a good soldier. Just not yet.

The sky is just so blue, Galen notices. And the grass that tickles his ankles are like long, wispy, golden brushstrokes. After a few minutes of sitting in still silence, even the birds start singing again, and he begins to feel like part of the landscape.

His CPU wanders back to the subject of Holly again; being out here like this, he can’t help but think of her now. The giant alien imagines that she came out here to trade her isolation for solitude, and decides that maybe something in her instinctively knows that this is a good place to be.

Question is, what was she running from?

Galen does something he doesn’t often do, then, and looks to the internet to see what it might tell him about the young, solitary hiker.

Holly Mendoza Montana missing.

Local news websites are most of what turns up via the faint threads of cell service he’s tugging  on out here. Most of them contain the same information, taken from a single press release, and all of them accompanied by the same photo: a closely cropped image of her smiling face with clear sky behind her. A mountain vista someplace, maybe?

Skimming one of the articles, it’s mentioned that she is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and is a very recent transplant to Billings - she’d up and disappeared on one of her first weekends in the area.

Salt Lake City… clearly, that’s the old life that she left behind.

But why Billings of all places? In all the movies, don’t young people go from small towns to bigger towns? Billings is practically backwater, and its only claim to fame is being close to Yellowstone.

Curious, Galen does a social media search for her, and comes up with a Twitter and Facebook account. For some reason, this lifts his spirits, and he aims to dive headfirst into her latter profile, only to find it abandoned as of a few years ago. He hacks the encrypted database with ease, prying into her photo albums.

She’s a pretty average-looking human: still about knee-height, skin the color of rich elm wood, black hair done up in a tight knot just behind the crown of her head with the sides cropped short. There’s a tattoo on her left arm, but all he can make out is that the last word says “die”.

There are a lot of pictures of her with friends - drinking, hiking, camping, mountain biking - and of her with family - at weddings, birthday parties, holiday dinners - and Galen thinks that she looks happier in the photos where she hasn’t tagged any family members.

Interesting.

The one thing he doesn’t expect to find, though, is her contact information... and suddenly the giant mech is proverbially sweating proverbial bullets.

Part of Galen doesn’t really want to contact her, even though he knows that it would be the right thing to do. He has no idea how hospitals really work beyond what he’s seen on TV, and he’s worried that surprising her with it might be a headache for her all on its own. But what does he say?

Would he really be doing it just to let her in on it? The hesitant part of him says otherwise.

More likely, you’re looking for a reason to stay in touch.

He stops short of himself, his brow plates pressing together harshly.

Why in the hell would you want to do that?

Galen wants to believe that this is simply another extension of him carrying her in that stretcher up to the helicopter, but he can only lie to himself for so long. This has nothing to do with his integrity as a professional, nor does it have much to do with altruism.

Turns out that hesitant part of him isn’t so small after all.

He pushes the idea aside for the time being, and takes a peek at her Twitter profile, which, it seems, is far from abandoned.

moving SUCKS! she’d said two weeks ago; the tweet is accompanied by a photo of moving boxes stacked up in a small, otherwise empty room.

Another one from a few days later reads: Thank god for primos. Below it is a picture of a 24 pack of beers sitting on her kitchen counter.

Her last tweet is simple enough: going for my first solo trip tmrw, wish me luck! #yellowstone #hiking

Galen wants to glimpse further down her timeline, peer further back into her past. But it feels wrong to do so.

The giant bows his head and rubs at the back of his thick neck, venting again.

You’ve got to do it, he tells himself. It’d be weird, but it’d be weirder not to.

He opens up his email interface and “stares” at it.

The hell do I even say? ‘Hello, I’m the giant alien that rescued you earlier; I’m not usually in the habit of overstepping my boundaries, but you’re a special case! Did I mention that I was a giant alien?’

Yeah, right.

Galen stands up and shunts the HUD - it’s too soon. She won’t get the note until she’s out of the hospital, and who knows when that’ll be. Not that he couldn’t tap into the hospital’s computer records, but deciphering that stuff has a frustratingly steep learning curve and he’s just not interested in trying to figure it out. Especially not right now.

So he sits against the tree, binocular optics offline, and he enjoys the sounds and the sensations going on around him.

For a moment he wonders what it must be like to be a human out here; an organic life-form immersed in an organic environment.. Earth creatures are almost three-quarters liquid water - it’s what helps make them so pliable - and compared to his measly 4%, it’s almost miraculous to him.

A good many years ago he came across a quote in one of his forays onto the internet; and he tucked it away into a secret place in his head because he had the feeling that it would help him understand these creatures all the more:

The cure for anything is saltwater - sweat, tears, or the sea.

He didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but Galen thinks that he comes closer and closer to understanding it every time he mulls it over. But part of him knows that he’ll never get it completely.

But to be human in the wilderness. Warm, fleshy hands touching, legs pumping, blood coursing… lungs filling and gelatinous eyes seeing. Lungs - Galen was first told about them more than 15 years ago and he’s still amazed by what they do. To him, it’s pure alchemy: turning air into liquid into energy. Spinning gold from a metaphorical nothingness.

So fascinating.

Suddenly, though, there’s the sensation of tapping on the inside of his cranial plating: a phone call.

...from ERRD.

Galen vents, and answers. “It’s been a while, Turner.”

The man on the other end of the line is somewhere in his late thirties and he’s got a faint New Jersey accent.

“Galen, Galen,” comes the agent’s voice, lilting like parent speaking to a child. “I heard you’re causing trouble again?”

And like a child, he can’t talk back. “I got a little mad, sir. That’s it.”

Agent Turner is the handler for Ntaa numbers six through eight: Kenway, Brid, and Galen. It’s his job to know where they are, to know what they’re doing, and who they’re with. It’s his job to conduct annual psych evaluations and schedule their maintenance. The man has their specifications memorized down to the millimeter, to the gram, to the kilometer per hour; he knows their favorite “flavor” of Sunshine; why they chose the Earth-names that they did. And what little the Ntaa have revealed about their lives pre-Earth, he knows that too.

Mostly, though, it’s his job to keep EMEs #006, #007, and #008 in line.

“Mad?” Turner asks. “I heard that we’d done you quite a big favor earlier,” the agent says. “I don’t see why you even have a reason to be mad.”

“Just a policy change that I feel… is unfair, sir.”

“Are they treating you badly?”

“No, but -”

“Do you want to change stations?”

“No…”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I… nothing, sir.”

“Good to hear it; I’d hate for us to not send that money because you decided to -” he interrupts himself here to chuckle; “- to, well, throw a temper tantrum.” Turner pauses to finish laughing to himself, and after a moment he asks a question that raises Galen’s hackles: “So. When should I tell them that you’re coming back?”

He rubs at his helm, hearth-fire smoldering. Why does it feel like he’s been here before? Right, because hehas.


“Guys, Anselm’s run off!”

Kadar rushes into the bright white hangar, leaving deep gouges in the floor from where his hurried steps scrape the cement. On his pale face is etched apprehension.

This space, hangar 4, is the only place where the Ntaarin can gather in peace, without being harangued by the humans. Galen remembers the trouble they all went through to get access to it - the Division did not want to give them an opportunity to all gather without being monitored. So, they traded a minor piece of technology with them as a show of good faith (or maybe more like paying a ransom): their hand and wrist designs, along with the promise to use mouth-speak whenever possible.

So Galen and five others are occupying the makeshift rec space - complete with tables, chairs, and a couple Sunshine dispensers - when the heavy frontliner barges in; the four soldiers are already on their feet, but it doesn’t take the engineer and geologist long to catch on.

“What? Why?” demands the geologist, known as Bellamy these days.

Kadar shakes his bulky head, and the comm signal between them is flooded with trepidation. This has never happened before.

“They took his arm .” It sounds like the answer had to be wrenched from him.

Something like a gasp passes between them, and Galen voices what they’re all thinking: “They did it without…”

“Without giving him time to disengage,” comes the grim reply.

Galen winces, a shiver passing through his hearth core, and and he can almost swear that his very nanenes shiver too. Hardware severance without disengagement is like amputation without anesthesia.

“Ktsek!” hisses Seaver, the slightest and youngest of the soldiering Ntaa on Earth. “They knew what they were doing, didn’t they?”

“I-I don’t know,” Kadar stammers, shoulders slumped. “Somebody’s gotta go after him, though!”

“They’ll let him bleed out,” murmurs Bellamy, using the English equivalent to a similar Ntaarin phenomenon. “And pick up his body in the morning.”

Galen can’t believe his proverbial ears. “No… no, somebody’s gotta bring him back here so Pallas can take a look at him. Where is Pallas?”

“They’re questioning him about what they fraggin’ did.”

“Galen, you should go,” says Hjalmar, who’s been silent. “You’ll be able track him down faster than any of us.”

He frowns and looks away, the grip on his five-gallon bucket of Sunshine tightening. “I’ll go,” he relents at length.

Dreamland is located in the middle of a dry lake bed, and during the daytime, you could spot a Ntaa a klik away, easy. So it’s not that they’re afraid of him disappearing, like Elin does a year later. It’s the principle of it.

Galen sets down his bucket of liquid code, and one of the mechs gives him a slap on the back before he shoots out of the hangar and off into the cool night air.

The base is not like any other in the US - it does not appear to be well-maintained, there is no signage on any building, and at night, it is not well-lit. In fact, the only visible light is coming from the open hangar doors a half-kilometer behind him; but out here, it’s pitch black.

{ Anselm! ] Galen broadcasts, but the signal disappears into the ether without a reply. That’s not a good sign.

The soldier vents, long and slow, before switching gears. He activates the entire gamut of sensor arrays at his disposal: thermal, density, spectro, movement, and chemical. It’s not long before he picks up a faint trail of ferrofluid and nanenes dribbled on the ground, and then, footprints. They’re frenetic, the sign of a half-jog, half shamble.

Galen leans forward on his gravs, following the tracks, but stops short of the property’s boundary line. The edge of the base is marked by a fence: high, covered in barbed wire, and electrified. But this spot has been twisted and trampled flat.

“Dammit…!”

The soldier tracks his fellow almost 15 kilometers north of the site, well into the foothills of Bald Mountain, when there’s a tapping sensation on the inside of his head.

It’s the Division calling.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Galen?” comes the cold, biting voice of a man in a black suit.

“Sir,” the mech begins slowly, though already he feels his resolve being chipped away. “I have an injured comrade out here, and I’m bringing him back to base.”

The man on the other end chuckles darkly. “No, you’re not. You’re going to turn right around and come back alone.”

Galen’s hearth-fire is roaring deep in his chest. “You tore -” he begins, words escaping him like mortar fire, but he catches himself. He tries again. “Sir, will all due respect, your gross negligence has put Anselm in danger. You let him fall into a syncope out here, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get him back.”

“That’s not your concern, soldier.”

He vents harshly, balling his hands into tight fists.

Galen’s seen this on the battlefield, and it’s ugly. Mechs with limbs blown off by enemy ordnance, and if an enemy is big enough, sometimes it can be done by hand. Sure, the appendages can be rebuilt or replaced, but the psychological scars heal thick, and it’s never the same anyway.

Never in Galen’s wildest dreams did he think that such a thing would happen to them on this planet.

“Sir, I can’t… I can’t just leave him out here!”

“You can, and you will. You are being ordered to return immediately.”

“...Yes sir.”

“Good to hear it. Now when can we expect you back?”


Galen’s hearth-fluids are running hot: almost 100 degrees celsius. But his heat is well-contained; the only way a human might know is by feeling the warm air rushing from his back.

“Give me an hour, sir.”


Anselm had made it back to Dreamland after that night in ‘93, but he never had two arms again. The ERRD removed the limb because they deemed it a hazard: being an older Ntaa from the golden age, he had onboard weaponry - a static discharge rifle - and the veteran mech barely even remembered how to route power to the damn thing.

But it didn’t matter.

Galen looks wearily at the bright orange helmet sitting in the long grass, and after a few moments, reaches for it, cradling it in his hands.

The inside is designed to snugly fit the back and sides of his head. At particular intervals there are holes in the padded lining for the various plugs that directly interface with his own systems - interacting with his HUDs, and harnessing his cloaking tech so that it can help him bend and focus light and other particles to make things appear rather than disappear. So while his systems can cloak without it, only the most highly-skilled covert operatives can manipulate their hardlight fields at will.

Long ago, early in their relationship with the ERRD, one of them made the suggestion that they all go into hiding. Even now, more than 15 years later, human technology isn’t sophisticated enough to see past their cloaks, and with bit of work, they’d be able to figure out how to outfit the civilian Ntaa - the scientists, engineers, and historian of the Ntassantek - with them too.

But it would have been a miserable existence, and the captain, who gave himself the Terran name Absalom, decided against the idea. “To abandon our relationship with the humans now,” he’d said, “Would be to give into cowardice of the likes that drove our forebearers into creating this mess in the first place. We finish this right, come what may.”

At the time, Galen found himself agreeing with their leader. But since then… well, things have changed.

His foreprocessors wander back to Holly, and still, he feels good about what he did. In fact, in spite of everything, he feels good about every mission. As awful as things are for him and the others, he can’t just walk away from this; can’t just throw up the cloak and disappear into the mountains, living out the rest of his time here like a shadow in the trees. They need him.

Galen slips on the helmet and it clamps down onto his large, metal head.

“You really are starting to sound like you’ve got a complex,” he mutters to himself with a chuckle.

But at the same time, the giant knows that this won’t last forever; the Extraterrestrial Research and Response Division can only keep the Ntaa hidden in plain sight for so many years. They demanded to be let out 18 years ago, and so they were introduced to the world as the Drone Suit Program. It’s only a matter of time before people - real, everyday people - start asking questions.

Maybe then would be a good time to finish their performance on the world stage with a disappearing act.

But Galen’s just a soldier, a pair of hands; not a fortune teller.

The big decisions are for someone else to make.

Chapter Text

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.

“They set the bones,” she explains. “And put a pin in your ankle. You shattered a couple things.” The young woman half-sitting, half-lying in the hospital bed winces at the harsh word. “But the doctor will be in shortly to explain everything.” The nurse introduces herself, explains how the bed and TV works, writes her name on a whiteboard on the wall and then leaves so that her patient can get some rest. Or, makes to leave, but pauses in the doorway. “Oh, and I think your parents called to say that they were going to drop by later?”

Holly Mendoza is suddenly very awake.

Fuck.

“OK, thanks,” she grumbles, and the nurse excuses herself, promising to return in a couple hours.

A not insignificant part of her surveys the hospital suite and wonders if she might make an escape before Ernest and Cecilia - and, god forbid, Heather - walk in. She could make a rope by tying the sheets together and…

Holly lets out a ragged sigh, forced like the air from a compressed bellows stoking a fire. She knew that Billings wasn’t far enough away. Where the hell else could she have afforded to live, though? Kansas? Texas? Fresno? More like hell-no.

The clock on the wall says that it’s a quarter past 7. With Salt Lake being a nine-hour drive, Holly gives the Mendozas T minus two hours before they pull into the parking structure outside of her window. She wonders if the hospital cafeteria serves liquor.

But with another sigh - this one’s longer, softer, like a balloon deflating - an eerie calm washes over her. Holly sets her jaw.

She grabs the edge of the rough, white, blanket and pulls it aside so she can see her leg. It’s hidden under thick layers of padded plaster, but she still wants to see it. Commit the sight to memory and hope that this’ll never happen again.

Because - and it’s like she told that suit operator - this isn’t going to be a story of survival, of the perseverance of the human spirit or any of that Oprah book club bullshit. This is just one more chapter in the story of Holly Mendoza, The Black Sheep Fuck-Up. Nobody that comes to visit will be able to help themselves from opening that book up again and quoting from it. Passages like:

“Remember those friends you had after high school? The ones who were always out getting drunk and fucked up at that club? Wasn’t one of them on coke?”

“Or what about that time you went mountain biking with those boys and dislocated your shoulder?”

And her favorite, the epilogue:

“Why can’t you just settle down like your sister? Come back home, Holly. You shouldn’t be living up here by yourself.”

She moves the blankets a bit more to reveal her left foot, which isn’t broken, but has been wrapped up tightly in a bandage. And it’s no wonder why: the thing is still swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

Holly moves up her body, surveying what else had happened when she fell. The fall itself was over before she knew it, but it was a few extra moments of tumbling and sliding before she came to a stop. There was dust and gravel in places that she didn’t even know she had, and when the shock of what had just happened wore off, she’d tried to stand up.

That was when she realized something was wrong.

She’d yelled herself hoarse after a few hours. Part of the reason she picked this hike - it didn’t see as much foot traffic as others - could have wound up being one of the things that did her in.

By nightfall, her endorphins had run dry, and the cold sweats settled in, and she knew that she was well and truly fucked.

And that was before the giant, hungry cat came a-stalking up the ravine after nightfall.

Holly’s spent countless nights under the stars, but after this… it’ll be a long time before she’ll willingly spend the night alone outside again.

The young woman is covered in scuffs and scratches: her hands and arms are a tight weave of deep red lines. Even with the narcotic painkiller in her system, she can tell that her arm smarts and that it will for another week or two.

Too bad they don’t prescribe demerol for home use.

Maybe she’ll be asleep, or pretend to be asleep, for as long as the Mendozas can stand to wait around, and they’ll leave before she comes-to.

Holly glances at the whiteboard, and sees that she scheduled for some kind of medication in another hour. If she’s lucky, it’ll inspire sleep. But for now, she’s awake.

She wonders what they’ve done with her things - her pack that was on the ground beside her when they put her in the basket, and she doesn’t remember someone grabbing it. But then again, she doesn’t remember much.

Well, except for the relief of being found, the exhaustion, the pain… and the suit.

The young woman has never personally encountered a drone suit before, never even seen one in person. In fact, the idea had always terrified her on some level: more sophisticated drone technology to go and, well,kill on behalf of the military. On her behalf. Drones like white, avian weathervanes, faceless and humming through the skies were eerie enough; but drones with hands? Legs? Heads and shoulders? Holly is one of the few people she knows that allows herself to feel uneasy at the idea; everyone else is either enamored or apathetic.

One of her old friends, one of those guys on the mountain bikes, had once wanted to know where to sign up to pilot one. He’d cited his xBox use as relevant experience.

It didn’t take much research to find out that there is no application, no training program. That they, supposedly, come to you.

So when she heard its footsteps rounding the corner behind her, there had been a moment of sheer terror. It’s well known that one operates out of Yellowstone and the surrounding eastern counties as part of its testing regime. But… who the hell ever anticipates running into one themselves?

Not this Mendoza.

Holly wants to turn onto her side, but she’s still too heavy, and she’s nauseous from the anesthesia.

Where’s that demerol?

Another 45 minutes.

“Fuck,” she breathes, resigned to spending the rest of the time between now and then on her back.

 

She does fall into an uneasy sleep, though, before the doctor returns to explain everything. And everything he does explain - he shows her x-rays, discusses the cast, recovery times, how much pain she might expect to be in. And, of course, is sure to mention physical therapy.

Piss off. PT’s for rich people.

A nurse that’s with him administers the blessed drug through the IV, and sweet, sweet nothingness follows for a while.

Unfortunately, this means that the Mendozas are there to greet her when she wakes up.

In fact, the first thing Holly becomes aware of is the distinct sound of someone crying.

It doesn’t take long to find out that the sound is coming from her mother - Cecilia. A proud but sensitive woman in her early fifties and second-generation immigrant from Aguascalientes. Her thick mane of black-brown hair frames her face like pine boughs frame a bird’s nest, and the colors she wears reminds Holly of abuela’s house in Arizona - colors bright and vital.

Standing in the corner behind her is a figure less warm and volumnuous: her father, Ernest. A slight man of short stature by American standards - the son of a horse jockey - the patriarch of the Mendoza family is severe enough to darken a room simply by walking in. And his corner behind Cecilia’s chair is practically storming.

Cecilia's face lights up at seeing her daughter stir in the bed, and the quiet weeping explodes into full-blown waterworks. She reaches out for Holly’s hand and grabs it hard.

“God is good,” are the first whispering words out of her smiling mouth. The woman believes it, heart and soul; Holly does not. Then something the youngest Mendoza can relate to: “Everything’s going to be alright. Just rest, alright?”

Ernest, despite still being of the school of that famed Mexican stoicism, is easy to read. The way his brows and lips are pressed together, the way his cheeks stiffly buttress the muscles underneath his graying mustache… he’s worried. But perhaps more importantly, he’s disappointed.

But what else is new?

“Is Heather here?” Holly’s voice comes out sounding worse than she anticipated, but she clears her throat in anticipation of more talking.

She’s surprised to hear her father answer, though. “She didn’t want to leave Noah with Scott,” he explains, meeting her gaze for the first time. There’s something in his eye, and it’s not dust. Holly thinks she recognizes that look.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s busy.”

She was aiming for sarcasm, but the hurt has a way of oozing out like the whites of a boiling egg with even the thinnest crack. Heather’s never there when Holly needsher, and hasn’t made herself available since Scott came along. In fact, Holly has long gotten sick of being disappointed in her sister.

“She wanted to come,” Cecilia reassures. “She really did. But Scott’s been working overtime lately, and…”

“I get it.”

The silence in the room is palpable.

“The doctor says you’ll be here for another night or two,” Cecilia says, though it’s more like a suggestion rather than a recollection of something that actually happened.

“Yup.”

Another silence.

“You should come home.” Ernest says from his grim corner, though it’s more like a declaration of something that is bound to happen than a suggestion.

Holly runs her tongue over her teeth, though her mouth suddenly feels a little dry. Nurse, can I get some water?

“I’m staying,” is all she has to say in return. She’s said it a dozen times already, and she’ll say it another dozen if she has to.

Ernest breaks form. His arms unfold and his hands, thick and worn from years of hard, manual work, look like they’re trying to hold up the air in front of him. “Why do you do this to yourself?” he bursts. She can see the glint of the gold fillings in his molars. “Why do you do this to us? Your family?

Her mother is a deer in headlights - for all the courage she needed for raising two daughters, for her own years of hard work, she still diminishes herself in the face of her husband’s anger.

But Holly won’t. And it’s one of two reasons the Mendozas don’t know what to do with her.

“If you don’t lower your voice, they’re going to ask you to leave.”

The muscles in her father’s face clench. “Is that all you have to say to me?”

Holly looks around, almost like a rhetorical gesture. “Is that all you have to say to your daughter who almostdied this weekend?” she hisses, flinging the blankets off her legs so they can see the extent of the damage with their own eyes. Cecilia’s tears return and Ernest looks away, scowling.

“Dammit, Holly, we care about you. We want you to come back home to heal.”

It’d take a lot more than that to get her old man to cry, though.

“No. I don’t know how many times I’ve told you, but I’mnot going back to Salt Lake. I’ll sooner come back in a fucking pine box.” She shakes her head, realizing that they took out the band holding up her topknot. “You want to help me? You can stay here for six weeks while I recover. You can pay my bills. But I’m not goinganywhere.”

“Don’t use that language around us,” Cecilia whispers.

“I can use whatever language I damn well please, mom.”

Cecilia shakes her head, wiping tears away and speaking slowly. “I pray for you every night, Holly. I do.”

“If God listened, I’d be praying every night for you too.”

A low blow.

Maybe too low.

Ernest mutters something in Spanish under his breath and leaves the room. Probably headed for the cafeteria; Holly knows they’re not leaving that soon. It’s still a 9-hour drive back home.

Her mother’s eyes are red and wild with emotion. “You don’t know how much you hurt your father. I know you don’t mean it.”

But Holly can’t keep from biting her tongue, now; not with the lump forming in her own throat. “No,” she all but barks. “He - no, all of you - don’t know how much you hurt me. How much you’ve hurt me for the pastfifteen years, mom.”

Cecilia’s shoulders go rigid and she looks away - at a machine in the corner or something - and Holly isn’t sure if she’s even going to answer.


“We forgave you for that a long time ago,” the older woman whispers, almost ashamed at even having toreference it.

“Forgiveness in name only,” Holly retorts with a depreciating laugh, blinking back her own tears and trying to keep the lump from distorting her voice. It’s been a long time since she felt comfortable with being vulnerable around either of her parents and she’s not about to start now. “Why the hell do you think I left?”

Cecilia knows. And while proud, she’s not so proud as Ernest, who can’t even entertain the possibility that their daughter up and left because of something as immaterial as feelings.

Holly’s fundamental transgression isn’t forgivable - but with some effort, it is forgettable.

“Is this the way it’s going to be while we’re here? Because if it is, your father won’t tolerate it.”

“And that’s his problem.”

Cecilia’s eyes, hard and heavy, dart frantically from one thing to another in the room. It’s what they do when she’s thinking and emotional.

“Could you see if my phone’s in there?” Holly asks quietly, gesturing with her chin to the slim cabinet in the corner.

Her mother gets up and opens it, producing a plastic bag containing the clothes that Holly was wearing when they admitted her. The chances that they were at all laundered are slim, and this suspicion is confirmed when Cecilia makes a face when she opens it.

“My god,” she half-chokes, half-chuckles, sticking her hand into the bag with a grimace on her face and fishes around for something flat and hard.

And a little smile tugs at the corner of Holly’s mouth just then - even if all the world wanted her to burn in hell, her mom would still be there to stick her hand into a bag of her daughter’s dirtiest laundry without complaint.

“It smells like an open grave!”

Well, almost without complaint.

“It was going to be,” Holly says, deadpan.

A silence as thick as pea soup fills up the small room and Cecilia quickens her hand, which soon finds the device.

It’s handed to Holly, who groans at seeing the cracked screen - another expense she can’t afford to pay - and sets it aside to chew her lip in thought.

“Do you have a charger in the car?”

“It’s dead?”

“Yeah. I’m sure people are wondering about me.”

“I’ll be right back.”

There’s a feeling deep in her belly that is putting her on edge, though, even as her mother leaves to make the trek back out to the car. It’s subtle - hard to place, and harder to describe - and Holly knows that being doted on by her mother should feel good. But it doesn’t.

I think I feel used, she thinks. It close, but still not quite right. There's no rush, though. She's got about 6 weeks to home in on why her mom's kindness right now is off-putting.

-

Her father returns shortly after her mother does, and he’s got a book of crossword puzzles with him so that he has something to do while he’s not talking to his daughter. Cecilia is watching TV.

Holly glances at Ernest as he takes a look at his watch from under heavy brows, and he grunts. “It's getting late. I don't see a point in staying here much longer,” he mutters to his wife. “She’s not even talking to us.”

“Look at her. Does she look like she’s in any shape to talk?”

He grunts again. Cecilia sighs, reaching for the remote.

“We’ll be back in the morning, mija.”

Holly bristles at the name. “Don’t forget my phone.”

“Oh, thanks for reminding me.”

Ernest stands up, rubbing at the faint stubble along his cheek,and stuffs the crosswords under his arm. “I’ll be waiting in the car,” he says as they both leave. “Goodnight, Holly.” It’s practically an afterthought.

Cecilia reappears a few minutes later, handing the device to her daughter. Holly groans, having forgotten about the screen already, and hopes desperately that she can still use it.

“Thanks, mom,” she says quietly, booting up the phone.

“That’s what moms are for, mija.

“Stop calling me that.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s weird.”

“It’s not weird. My grandmother used to call me that all the time.”

Exactly.

“We’ll be back in the morning, alright?”

Her hand is in Holly’s hair - or at least, what hair she has that isn’t cropped close to the scalp - and it finds itself cupping her cheek.

“Hey,” Cecilia says. Her daughter looks up. “I love you.”

“Love you too, mom.”

“And your father loves you as much as I do.”

I’m sure he does.

“See you tomorrow.”

-

The phone didn’t get a chance to charge all the way, but it’ll be enough to last her until her next round of painkillers at around 11.

What she isn’t expecting, though, is to see dozens of text messages waiting to be read, and suddenly Holly isn’t sure what to do. Her fingers freeze and she swallows, neck and ears growing unbearably hot. Her phone lets her see previews of many of the messages, and what she finds there is not escape from the hospital room, but more like a punch to the gut.

Days-old notes from friends wondering where she is, if she’s OK.

A text explaining that someone called the police.

She recognizes one of them as the beginning to Ave Maria.

Holly’s hand begins to tremble and something in her chest trips over itself and she sets the phone down on the bed beside her and --

For a moment she listens to the silence of the dark room, lit only by the lighting from the nurse’s station outside; there’s the hum of machines, and faint, unintelligible voices from down the hall. If she closes her eyes, it’s almost quiet enough to imagine that she’s back in the Beartooths.

Yeah, don’t do that.

She lays there for a few more minutes, though, staring at the ceiling and picking her at her fingers. When the air starts getting thick, she reaches for the phone again.

It only takes a moment to delete every message that she has en masse.

Then, taking to Twitter, she posts a simple announcement:

out of surgery, everything’s fine now… i’ll catch up later xo

What else is there? Right, about 15 voicemails. Holly’s tempted to delete all of them too, but realizes that there’s probably important stuff in there. Like angry messages from her manager.

“That’s going to be the best phone call ever,” she mutters under her breath, scowling. Holly realizes that she has no idea what the labor laws in Montana are, and as a result, doesn’t actually have any idea of what to expect when she tries to go back to work. “Fuck.”

She hides the voicemail notification for now, and sees to the last thing on her list of shit to check: email. It should be pretty painless - it’s probably all mail from online stores she’s subscribed to. And if she’s lucky, it’ll be something exciting like a bank statement, reminding her how broke she is.
But the very top message is not something that she’s expecting.

Her brows press together when she glances at the sender:

0a912000x778gl3m4t@72nbbw938441m00104427hwtla9hsfi3

That’s... not even a domain name.

It’s the contents of the email, though, that really leave her with the distinct sensation of being in a dream.

Hi Holly,

It’s me - that drone operator. I want to start off by wishing you all the best, and that I hope you have a speedy recovery. I really do.

I’m writing to tell you that I’ve done you a favor, too. I wish I knew of a better way to draw out the suspense, but I’m not especially talented with words, especially in English, so straightforward will have to do:

I talked to some of my superiors and, well, your medical bills are all taken care of.
What you said this morning really stayed with me. And besides: it’s not my style to leave a job half-finished.

I just hope that… that I’m doing the right thing, I guess.

Best,

Galen

Holly swallows. Then swallows again, looking around the room as though this guy could be anywhere all of a sudden.

“The fuck?” she whispers.

Then she reads the email a second time.

And a third.

A flurry of unanswered questions floods her brain; “Is this too good to be true?” being the chiefest among them. There is no way that this is happening. Even if he says it is.

Holly looks up at the clock on the wall, near the door to her tiny bathroom that she’ll be using when they take this damn catheter out of her. It’s 10:45, and that little vial of liquid bliss couldn’t possibly be taking longer to get here.

If she’s lucky, it’ll all make sense in the morning.

Chapter Text

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?

“I… I don’t even know that any of this is true,” she mutters to herself.

The clock reads about a quarter after 6. It’d been a restless night in spite of the drugs, and unlike what she’d hoped, the morning didn’t help it make more sense.

So why is she so eager to reach out to this guy, even though there’s a good chance that a big fat series of bills will still be there, ready to force her pitiful financial hand? It’s happened in her family before – the primos know the drill, though everybody’s broke. Holly knows that she can ask for help, but part of her understands that it won’t be well-received, having left the state and all. She’s broken the unspoken contract.

And still, she’s on fire as she sits in the hospital bed, licking her lips like a stray dog with a piece of meat that’s being dangled just out of reach. Holly can’t help it. Even the faintest thought of free money gets the blood flowing.

Did I win some kind of lottery?

And then:

…What’s the catch?

There’s always a catch.

She sucks in a long breath and deletes the email, setting the dying phone down. Maybe there’s nothing she can do but wait and see if this prize money really exists or not. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s been let down.


“How’d you sleep?”

Cecilia’s voice is actually a nice respite from the harried silence of the room. Holly’s been awake for two hours by this point, staring at the ceiling and thinking. At some point she’d made the decision not to tell them what was going on.

If, of course, it turned out that something was going on to begin with.

“Uh, fine. You find my place alright?”

“It was pretty easy. And not far, too.”

“Nothing is around here. Ain’t exactly a big town.”

“I helped you unpack a little,” her mother says, sitting down.

“Oh god…”

“Relax. I just organized your kitchen.”

Holly sighs.

There’s a long, pregnant silence. Her parents glance at each other, and she notices now that they’re both wearing red. It’s unintentional, but still, the sight bothers her for some reason.

“We were…” Ernest begins, and Holly’s surprised to hear him speak without the machismo in his voice. “We were wondering if you might be in the mood to tell us what happened.” His eyes are small and hard, like chips of obsidian, and even now they’re difficult to read, but she can tell that this is his way of reaching out. One of the few ways he knows how.

“The phone calls were confusing,” her mother quietly adds, and, brushing away a tear forming at the corner of her eye: “They said you might’ve been abducted.”

Holly’s brows press together and she isn’t aware of it under her forehead starts to hurt. Aside from the delirious chatter with that operator as they waited for the airlift, she hasn’t said a single word about what had happened last weekend. If it’d been deliberate, then Holly might’ve said that she’d tried to put it out of her mind, but… that’s not quite true. Deep down she knows that the accident still has something to teach her, and that it will for quite some time.

So she’ll tell them, but they’re not going to get the whole story. The Holly that Galen saw never happened.

 


Holly didn’t realize how much paperwork was involved in checking out of a hospital; the last time she was at one for something serious – that dislocated shoulder – was when she was just out of high school and and still, it was nothing like this.

“Normally, all this is taken care of before admitting you,” the man behind the desk says, giving a shrug as he hands her another release form to initial.

Either way, it feels great to be sitting upright. In a chair. With her feet on the floor.

“Is there any chance I can get a copy of my bill before I leave?”

“M’fraid not,” he says, tick-tacking away at the keyboard of his computer. “You’ll have to wait for the billing department to get you an itemized invoice in the mail.”

“And how long will that take?”

“‘Bout a week.”

A goddamn week!

Holly stares at the papers on his desk and rakes her fingers along her brow and down the side of her face. It’s going to take that long to find out? That long before she can finally breathe easy and figure out if she needs to start strategizing about which uncles and cousins to ask for money? Figure out which ones have already lent someone money this year or aren’t busy with their own debt?

That long before she can reply to him?

Cecilia’s hand is on her daughter’s shoulder, giving it a little squeeze. “We’ll figure it out,” she whispers.


 Walking out of the building with crutches is a lot less great. Her arms protest against the hard pressure of the “pads” straining the tissue in her pits, and she knows that more than a few hours of this at a time is going to be pure hell. But as she gets into the back seat of her father’s car, Holly knows that it’ll a small price to pay for autonomy.

They arrive at Holly’s apartment – a short, plain building in an extremely unremarkable part of town, with a strip of crab grass out front and a number missing from the address so that ordering pizza always turns into something of an ordeal. (By day it’s easier to spot: there’s a shadow in the sun-bleached paint marking where the 8 used to be.)

“I still think that you couldda found better in Salt Lake,” Ernest grunts.


 Cecilia is making the most use of Holly’s little kitchen that it will ever see, and the smell of the roasting cochinitas alone is almost enough to coax her back to Utah.

Holly’s father is sitting on the couch, watching a soccer game, and she’s sitting as far away as possible from him with her cast propped up onto a makeshift coffee table made from upturned moving boxes. She’s not watching the game.

She’s on her phone, but she’s not really looking at that either. Her fingers are moving, sliding up and down the spider-web cracks in the glass that makes text near the top almost impossible to read. The endless feed of square images float past her like projector slides out of focus. There’s a new pair of shoes, new handlebars on somebody’s bike, dogs, mexican food. But it doesn’t really matter to her right now. Doesn’t really register.

I almost died, she thinks dumbly. And it turns out that I might even regret it.

Holly wants to throw the phone across the room. Messages are pinging her, but having to type out how she feels through a crack in a glowing glass screen suddenly feels ridiculous. She wants to talk with her friends, but not like this.

The sticky sweet of the cochinitas is real. The sharp, crisp smell of freshly chopped cilantro, cool in the same way as a michelada on a hot summer’s day is cool, fills her shitty apartment with the odor of childhood and family. It feels wrong that the walls are white – they should be blue or gold or mint green.

Is that real? Nostalgia?

Or is that a warm, Latin life that only exists in the murals at restaurants with names like Mijares and Lupita’s?

Should I go home?

The operator’s – Galen’s – words swirl along in the cocktail in her head, too. The announcer on the TV shouts a long, bellowing ‘goal’, and distantly she can hear the crowd roar to life.

I almost died.

I almost died because Billings wasn’t far enough away.

But that creeping-crawling claustrophobia is almost impossible to deny. Even now she can feel it, coiled at the base of her spine. Waiting.


 “We’ll go get your car tomorrow,” Cecilia says, taking a bite of the dripping sandwich. The plates are covered in orange, and Holly’s teeth tingle with the buzz of a spicy head-rush from the habaneros. “And I’ll make a trip to the store to stock you up on some food and stuff like toilet paper.”

“Don’t forget the sock thing,” Holly reminds her mother from where she’s still seated on the couch. Her parents are at the dining table. “I’d like to take a shower this week.”

“I’ll write it down.”

“I hope you don’t intend on driving,” Ernest says through a mouth full of food, roughly wiping the sauce from his jowls with a paper towel stained bright orange. “If you get into an accident, you’ll be to blame as soon as they see you reaching for the crutches.”

“Uncle Hernando did it.”

“My brother is a grown man who knows how to handle a car.”

“Are you saying that I’m a bad driver?”

“I’m saying that women are sometimes more likely to reactemotionally to difficult situations on the road, or…”

“Ay, Ernesto,” Cecilia loudly complains. “She’s a fine driver!”

“So you approve of her getting behind the wheel with a cast?”

“No, but…”

Holly mops up the rest of the juice with a piece of bread. “What, you want me to stay locked up in here for six weeks, then?”

“I’m telling you that it’s a stupid idea.”

“Don’t have much choice, do I?”

Her father is silent, and a moment passes.

“You always have a choice, mija,” Cecilia says quietly.

Her blood pressure climbs. “Stop calling me that, please.”

“I don’t understand what the big deal is, Holly.” Her mother is exasperated.

“I’m not a little girl that needs babying!

Her father doesn’t miss a beat. “Maybe if you’d stop acting like it…”

Holly hunches over and rubs at her temples. “I can’t believe that this conversation is happening in my house. Under my roof.” In fact, she starts laughing – that’s all there’s left to do.

“You want to know what I think?” Ernest twists around in his chair. “I think only children put themselves in the kind of danger that you did this weekend. Only children are dumb enough to do what you did.”

I almost died, and my father is blaming me for it.

She grinds her teeth and continues to stare daggers at her own knees.

“You know,” he continues. This has been a long time coming, she can tell. “You’ve been rebelling against us since… since that thing. We prayed to God that it was just a phase, that you’d grow out of it. No. You dig your heels in. And for what? What do you have to show for it?”

Holly’s heard this tirade a few times before. She still doesn’t know how to nip it in the bud.

“You have an ugly apartment in Montana,” he barks. “A broken ankle, no career, no husband, no children.”

“I’m not having kids,” she grinds out.

“No man is going to want damaged goods like you anyways.”

Her hands begin to shake.

“I swear to fucking god,” she says, whipping her head around to meet his steely gaze. “I am this close to kicking you out.”

She can hear her mother scowl. “Watch your language.”

Ernest gets up from his seat and walks nearer to where she sits on the couch, incapacitated. So this is how you roll now, dad? You corner the fucking wounded? Kick your daughter while she’s down?

“This is my house,” she slowly asserts.

The flash of his hand registers too late, but the sudden jerk of her face, the sting on her cheek… it’s unmistakable. Her hand goes up to touch the reddened flesh like a reflex. It’s not the first time this has happened either, but the shock never lessens.

Blood rushes to her face.

His voice is barely above a whisper. “And we are your parents. I didn’t raise you to be a cochina.”

There are few words in Spanish that can make her feel like such utter shit as that one. It gets the point across so succinctly.

“If I didn’t know better, dad,” she finds herself murmuring. The words are coming of their own accord now, and she has no wherewithal left to stop them. “I’d think that you’d have preferred that I did come home in a pine box.”

The man’s brown face screws up like ropes pulled suddenly taut, and his black, wild eyes narrow at her. He looks like he wants to raise his hand again.

But Holly is too old and too fierce and he knows it. Corporal retaliation never worked with this one, anyways. It just made her stronger in all the wrong ways. A reaction that, maybe, he’d wished he had growing up with his dad.

“Go on, hit me. Yell. It’ll fix everything.”

And just like that, the ropes snap.

He goes back to the table where Cecilia is sitting, stiff like plaster – or a Prince Rupert’s drop being held by the bulb – all breath and tendon and darting eyes. She doesn’t take a side, and never has, but this just means that Ernest is all the more the patriarch.

“The sacrifices your mother and I have made for you,” he mutters. “What we did to raise you, to put a roof over your ungrateful head.” He’s clutching the edge of the counter the way a sick seamen grasps at the bannister of a ship’s upper deck, staring at the backsplash, maybe. Or what’s more likely, through it. “Your sister gave us grandchildren. But you… you give us this.

The word, surprisingly enough, leaves little to the imagination. Holly knows exactly what he’s referring to. She stays silent, coiled, fists balled tight in her lap.

“You don’t want to come home? Fine. Because as of now, you have no home to come back to.”

Cecilia gasps – the way women do in old movies. Holly whips her head around.

Get up, we’re leaving,” he says in Spanish.

“Ernest,” his wife breathes, eyes wide. That hair of hers seemed fierce earlier; now it’s just frizzy and unkempt. “W-we can’t leave yet!”

“She doesn’t want us here, and I don’t want to be here,” he spits out. “There is no reason to stay.”

“H-her car, dear…”

He stops his angry restless movements, and Holly’s eyes snap over to him immediately. She watches as he storms back over to her.

“Your wallet and keys,” he orders.

She narrows her eyes at him.

Give me your wallet and keys so we can get your car.

“They open at eight.”

“I didn’t say I was going tonight. Now give me your wallet or you can go get it tomorrow.”

I can’t believe this. The son of a bitch…

She stares daggers at him, but has no choice. “On my dresser.”

He disappears into the other room and instead of returning, she can hear him begin to angrily throw things into his duffel bag. Cecilia, who’s been avoiding eye contact with Holly during this entire exchange, finally meets her daughter’s acid gaze as she rises to go fearfully join her husband.

“Thanks a lot, mom,” she murmurs through clenched teeth.

Cecilia answers with tightly pursed lips as she leaves the room.

Holly feels cold all over. She tries to ignore the hushed voices coming from the bedroom, but it’s almost impossible. It’s not an argument, she knows that much about her parents – if the head of the family wants to disown his daughter, then the dutiful wife will find a way to come around.

Fucking disgusting.

Heather used to find the arrangement off-putting too, back when they were in high school together. But then she got a job working the phones at an air conditioning company after graduation, and met Scott. He put her in her place, started taking her to mass, and that was that. All bets were off.

Holly lost her sister when they got married. And for ten years she’s had to endure the Latin family hell alone.

If Scott never happened, she realizes with a scowl, I might still be in Salt Lake.

But that’s sewage under the bridge. No sense crying about what could have been. Ernest has Scott, the son Cecilia never gave him, and Heather, the daughter that he’s long since stopped praying Holly would be like.

At this point, she’s just surplus to requirements.

She soundlessly falls over onto her side, bunching her shoulders up and grasping at a pillow with fingers that feel like they belong to the dead. Holly stares listlessly at the field of green on the TV, and the little men in white and yellow chasing a ball. They almost look like motes of dust swirling around in the air.


The goodbyes could barely be called such. They were going to some kind of motel for the night; they’d be getting her car for her first thing in the morning, and Cecilia would drive it back to the apartment so they could be on their way.

When Holly’s mother returns her keys and wallet, there’s no apology. She’s standing next to the couch, where Holly spent the night, with her hand on the young Mendoza’s shoulder.

“He’ll change his mind,” she murmurs. “He still loves you.”

“Funny. When people love somebody, they usually act like it. I can’t even accuse dad of lying because he’s never even said it.”

Mija, he -”

She aggressively shrugs away her mother’s hand. “Why are you still here?” Holly’s eyes shoot over to her mom from where they were at the TV. “Leave. Please.”

There’s a long, uncomfortable moment of eye contact as tears dribble from Cecilia’s eyes. After a few seconds, she nods. Her head hangs low as she closes the front door behind her, almost without a sound.


The meager rations that Cecilia had bought while she was in the hospital are just about gone by dinner the next day – they’d never gotten a chance to make that run to the store to stock up – and Holly is in no shape to leave the apartment.

She’s been nursing a steady buzz since the midday before, and hasn’t showered since the day she got home, which barely counted as a sponge bath as it is.

But still, errands desperately needed to be run. A phone call to work desperately needed to be made. And in spite of everything else, like salt on a wound, medical bills would probably need to be paid with money she didn’t have. The mysterious email from four days ago barely registers now. Life just feels too shitty, too useless, and the hope that she’d had before is just about gone. Clearly, it’s just someone’s idea of a sick joke.

Fucking drone jockeys.

She’s glad she never sent anything in reply, because the idea of dignifying the prank with a response of any sort now isn’t worth the bandwidth it’s delivered on.

Who the hell gets off on fucking with people like this?

Holly knew the program needed people – young white boys, specifically – who thought of life as one big video game, and this just confirms it.

Who the hell does this guy think he fuckin’ is…

The young woman is whipping herself up into a rage, and so grabs her phone and begins doing a little search string-fu.

drone suit 6 yellowstone

The results number in the hundreds of thousands – most of them press releases about rescue missions, several year-old news articles about the suit’s transfer to the SAR unit, and a few interviews with people who work with him about their day-to-day operations. There are pictures, too. A lot of them: press photo-ops, candid shots of it in the field or at headquarters, and even a good many at stock photo sites. Not good enough.

who is drone suit 6 yellowstone

This begins to yield a few more interesting results. Now only in the tens of thousands, sites about the drone suits themselves are beginning to crop up. Fan and hobbyist sites, aficionados of military technology trying to broadcast theories about what parts Boeing or Raytheon or IBM likely manufactured, or which countries contributed the most technology. She discovers a not insignificant number of entire forums dedicated to discussing the drone suit program and their operators, and entire websites dedicated to information pertaining to their most obvious and remarkable pieces of technology: the anti-gravity thrusters, the hover-thrusters, hover tech, etc. (there doesn’t appear to be a consistent terminology for it). Why do they have them? How long has this technology been around? Why equip the suits with them and do nothing else with it? Does the government not see how much longer our roads would last if cars had anti-grav instead of tires? How much further we could take the space program? The countless national defense applications for it? When will this breakthrough be shared with the world?

Her anger is fading, being instead replaced by pedestrian curiosity – but curiosity doesn’t feel as good as rage right now, so she keeps looking. She wants to hold onto that ember of hate even though she knows she ought to let it go.

who is drone suit 6 yellowstone operator prank

Holly peruses a site dedicated to the operators of all three waves of suits, getting lost in reading about the authors’ theories of when each suit might have changed operators over the course of their deployment, and which ones have seemingly had the same person behind it the whole time. She’d forgotten about the waves – four suits were revealed to the public eye each year from 2000 to 2002. Number 006 was deployed in 2001, and spent two years patrolling the Pentagon along with the other three from the same wave: numbers 007, 008, and 010.

Curiosity begins getting the better of her again when she reads about how, in 2003, suit #006 is suddenly and inexplicably transferred to a rural sheriff’s department in Idaho, even though the country was still at the height of its paranoia about terrorism. The more she reads, the more she begins to agree with the website’s author’s conclusion that nothing about the drone suit program makes any sense, which is exactly what one should come to expect from the US. (For a few minutes she gets stuck reading about the controversy surrounding the F-35 and begins to agree with the author’s latter statement as well.)

Each suit has its own page on this site; complete with timeline, speculations about abilities and onboard technology, links to videos and personal accounts recalling interactions with them. They even each have their own personality profile.

Holly scrunches up her face as she reads Galen’s:

“This operator is purported to be amiable, kind, and above all else, professional.”

She reads the descriptions of some of the others, and discover that they get descriptions like gruff, quiet, talkative, competitive, or excitable.

That’s when she realizes, however, that none of the profiles list names – just their numbers. Is this some kind of courtesy, or…?

She scowls, bunching up her mouth like a drawstring bag, and it dawns on her.

Am I the only person to know his name?

She sorted through her memories of that harrowing morning – it seems so far away, now – and tries to remember how she caught his name at all. She’d just asked for it, didn’t she?

Interesting.

As Holly sets down the phone, she realizes that she’s not so angry anymore, and that she’s made it past the point of trying to nurse it. The buzz is fading, too, leaving her with the gross dregs of the hangover, and with all this there’s a gray emptiness as she returns to the couch from the vivid, captivating world of internet conjecture. The life of Holly Mendoza is far from captivating right now.

Hunger settles in – a mundane and indifferent force of nature that she has no choice but to contend with. She also remembers that there’s only one roll of toilet paper left, and that’s another.
With the flippant resignation of someone who almost died and then was summarily disowned for it, of someone who hasn’t had a proper bath in almost a week, and of someone who had two beers with breakfast that morning, she picks up the phone again and dials up the cheapest pizza joint she knows of and prepares to order four extra-large cheese pies to live off of for the next few weeks – and all with a self-denigrating smirk on her face.

I hope I have enough room in the freezer.


Truthfully, reading about the drone suits had managed to resurrect a small bit of that earlier hope she’d felt at the hospital. The same hope that filled her up when her mom stuck her hand in that bag of filthy clothes. But holding onto it is hard: she spends the next few days dancing between militant apathy and over-eager, Pavlovian restlessness.

At one point she stops to laugh about the sheer absurdity in being excited to get a bill, but still – checking the mail is the only reason she’s left the apartment yet.

Holly gets up at 6 o’clock that evening to begin her nightly journey to the mailboxes. It’s just far enough to be frustrating when it’s raining, but in crutches, getting there almost feels like a Herculean task. After a few minutes of swinging herself forward with the help of two glorified poles, she reaches the bank of cubbies. She fumbles for the little key on her ring, and then jiggering the metal door open. Unlike all the other times she’s been over here since her parents left, there’s actually mail this time.

Several pieces, in fact.

“Oh man,” she mutters, quickly slipping the envelopes between her teeth as she races back to her apartment, suddenly trembling all over.

She all but collapses into a chair at the dining table, eyes quickly raking over the upper right-hand corners of the letters. One saysBillings Police Department, Vehicle Impound Yard, and the other is from the hospital’s billing department.

Shit, shit, shit…

Her hands are clammy and shaking when she goes to rip it open. This is it. This is it…

But she pauses, staring at the torn paper and the letter that’s peeking out now from inside, crisp and white. She feels like that kid looking for the golden ticket in that bar of chocolate. (What was his name?)

But this is it.

He’s either telling the truth, that the thing is paid, and she’s in the clear.

Or, he’s not, and she’s fucked.

With a deep breath, she pulls out the papers, skipping over the letter, and going straight for the invoice, with its columns and itemized lists and fine print.

Near the bottom, on its own little row, are a series of three zeroes with a period between them.

And like that, something in her breaks – the same thing that her father tried to crack when he’d struck her face, maybe – and there’s a gushing sensation. Black gold of one sort or another rushes out to meet the light of day. The levees in her face threaten to spill with a deep weight behind them; for the first time since waking up, Holly lets herself grasp the enormity of the would-be burden that has now, miraculously, been lifted from her weary, scuffed-up shoulders.

With a single sob, she slumps forward onto the rest of the mail to cry for a little while.

Chapter Text

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.

He’d returned that evening as promised, and Turner had made him give the team the stock apology:

“I’m deeply sorry about the trouble I caused earlier, but everything’s fine now. I’d had a small glitch in my personality matrix, but program engineers diagnosed the issue while I was gone. My coding’s been patched – they’ll do a full diagnostic during my next maintenence cycle. Until then, I’m back to my old self.” End with joke.

Right now they’re set up at the bottom of a small cliff, only 10 or so meters high, and Galen’s watching as Brett brushes up on his rock-climbing skills alongside Tom. The Commander is at home in the harness, but the younger man is still a little nervous at turning a hobby into something much more serious. They’re about 6 meters off the ground and fiddling with the new GPS devices. Galen can hear Tom walking the rook through best practices while in the middle of a vertical ascent, and normally the giant would be utterly fascinated by the talk.

But today, he’s standing away from the crew on the ground, with one of his feet propped up on a boulder and his arms folded. The 5 other team members are standing or sitting around, shooting the shit, as the saying goes. One of them is at a laptop plugged into a truck parked off to the side, and another is with him – it looks like they’re trying to troubleshoot his device.

“…wonder when he’s gotta redo his NASAR certificaiton,” the mech catches someone say.

The reply is quiet and mumbled; they all know that he’s got impeccable hearing. This, truthfully, isn’t his first experience with hushed voices, however. “Who the hell knows with that thing.”

The cabling under the brassy lames of his neck and shoulders clench, and he vents long. He’s got to be extra careful with his body language for the next few weeks; they need to buy the personality glitch horseshit. So much as a fist or sarcastic roll of the shoulders and he’ll be on the next cargo plane back to Nevada for being a menace.

“Six,” Tom calls out to the giant robot from the rocky wall. “We’re going to borrow you for a minute!”

Brett looks on with vague circumspection as Galen picks his way through the small boulder field at the base of the wall, nearing eye-level with the two men. At his size and weight, he has to make sure his footing is secure; solid ground to a human is usually less so for him. Zygotactyl toes, thick and short at the ends of a meter-long foot, dig into the substrate under him to get a firm hold.

“What do you need, Commander?”

“I want Brett here to get used to you handling him.” He turns to the young man. “Sometimes there are extractions that only we can do,” he explains. “The suit can’t reach, say, a ledge on a steep slope without putting the vitcim in danger. That’s delicate work.”

Galen can’t argue there.

“When am I ever going to need to do this though?”

“Those rocks down there could be rushing water, thorny brambles, rusted piles of scrap metal… I can think of at least a dozen other things you don’t want to be stepping into in a rescue situation.”

“Fair enough.” Brett inhales sharply, eyeing Galen with a little hesitation as he secures some of his gear to his harness.

The giant knows the drill: he lifts his hands up to about chest-height, just below Brett’s dangling feet.

“Alright, he’s got you covered,” Tom announces. “Now just lower yourself down onto his palm…”

Fiddling with the ropes, the rubber of the rook’s heavy boots touch down onto his left hand, and in a moment the man’s full weight is on it.

“Good, good.”

He unclips himself from the now slack line, carabiner jangling at his waistband. Galen is quick to bring his free hand up to cup at the man’s side, giving him some protection, as he steps away from the wall. His rough, small hand grabs at one of the giant’s thumbs to steady himself.

“This is really weird, man.”

“It’s weird for everybody first time around, but you’ll get used to it. Pretend he’s a bucket lift.”

what?

“A what?”

“You know, those things that lift you up for tree trimmin’.”

His words to Holly echo back through his foreprocessors: I’m just equipment to them. 

Literally.

He vents, and Brett, being only a human’s arm-length from the giant’s orange, insignia-emblazoned chest, starts at the sound of sharply whooshing air. And as though he doesn’t notice, Galen slowly drops down into a kneel with the man in his hands. Once a half-meter or so from the ground, Brett steps off his palm and looks up at the Commander, still dangling above from his harness.

“See? Not so bad. Wait ’til you start practicing with the Huey,” he chuckles.

Brett’s eyes widen and he smacks himself in the face. “Of course the Beemer -” this is Brett’s own nickname for the mech “- would be hauling us in and out of a hovering helicopter. Sorry, but I want that thing checked out before I put myself through that.”

Galen stiffens, flexing his fingers instead of bunching them up like he wanted to.

Play it cool, or you lose this damn job, he acridly reminds himself. He settles on setting his jaw and narrowing his eyes from behind the impenetrable mask, gloss darting out to press into his upper lip.

Just pretend you’re a rook in basic again. You did it once, you can do it again.

It’s hard to do, now that he actually tries to remember what it’s like – and it’s not because it was so long ago, but because he’s been on the other side of that fence most of the time since. He was well past first rank by the time the war got underway, spending most of his career in fifth – a position that often put him in charge of small field units. Once upon a time, he was the “cap”. Still, there was always more rank above him than not, and following orders comes, some have said, naturally to him.

Basic was still hell, though – as the humans would call it. Obedience only got a rook so far even then. The years he’s spent awake on Earth have felt very similarly. Of course, this time, there’s no ascending rank. You stay a flunky here.

“I don’t know why they gave it a personality anyways,” Galen hears the young man mumble as Tom leisurely rappels down the rest of the way. “Seems like such a pain in the ass.”

Tom clears his throat, glancing up at the faceless giant looming above them. “I think we should talk about this later…”

Brett’s busying himself with taking off the climbing harness at Galen’s feet, though. “Why, afraid to hurt its feelings?

The surface of the mech’s hearth-core is hot enough to cook an egg on.

But the military training wins. It always does.

There’s still a war on, apparently.

“I just think that his programming is a little more complex than any of us knows,” Tom dodges.

Galen’s staring daggers at the two of them when it occurs to him that, unlike basic, he doesn’t have to stand here and listen to them talk about him in the third person. Silently and without excusing himself, he turns and heads… somewhere. Away. The two men are hushed up at his departure and the sound of his heavy footfalls.

Tom tries whispering, but the mech, armed with ability to find a needle in a haystack from 10 meters away, can stil hear him. “I told you to lock it up, Brett. I don’t think they fixed him completely.”

A safe distance away he folds his arms – tightly. He can’t tell if he’s hugging himself, of coiling up his entire upper body into one large clenched fist, or some combination of the two. But still, he pretends.

His near-photographic memory remembers the incessant plinking of droplets of ammonia rain on his back during his first iodine-length* sentry duty. He remembers being inundated with his instructor’s broadcast field for the first time – it like was pure, unadulterated anger and authority flooding into his CPU over a brute-forced hardline. The rook next to him fell to the ground, clutching his head, and was dismissed in short order. He remembers the cramped conditions, the constant over-clocking.

Galen lets himself go, returning to Earth again. He glances down at his feet, weeds up to his ankles, and gives into the compulsion to reach down and grab a stone. It feels good in the hand – his sensor arrays stop short of being able to measure weight, but his 8 kilo guess is as good as any – and with a careful wind-up, he gives the thing a good throw, HUDs trained on it as it sails through the air and disappears into some tall grass exactly 52 meters away. Several small birds flee the area, and Galen frowns.

“Crap,” he murmurs, breaking out into a jog to make sure he hadn’t hit anything, mindful of where his feet are stepping too.

He’s relieved to find that there’s nothing but dirt under the rock.

If there had been, what then?

The mech grunts, mouth screwed up like the humans do when they’re thinking, slowly returning to the vicinity of the vehicles and crew.


The exercise area is only a hanfdul of klicks outside of Cody, Wyoming, which is the nearest town to EYSAR headquarters and where most of the team lives during the busy season. The short distance means that Galen is expected to get himself back to the facility – bringing “the truck” to haul the mech for something like this was, in Tom’s words, a waste of gas.

There’s little in the way of settlements or even dirt roads between here and there, but the giant’s always felt bizarrely exposed while traveling alone in civilian territory. Speeding along through the wilderness is one thing, but flying down a road on his gravs, passing by homes and the occasional parked car, is almost unsettling, even if no one’s around to gawk at the hulking robot.

Being 5 meters tall and decked out in neon orange doesn’t help. He could throw up the cloak in situations like these, but it’s not really among their best practices, and doing so would require that the helmet came off. Which is definitely not a best practice. So it’s either this, or risk a 22 caliber slug to the face for tresspassing.

He glides past a ranch, with a little house on a hill some ways from the road. There’s cattle grazing off in one of the pastures, and Galen slows to get a good look at the building.

It’s two stories tall, in a style that’s common in this part of the States. If he “squints”, he can see the wrap-around porch, and detect something pass by one of the curtained windows.

That little box of timber and sheet rock is home to somebody. It’s where they lay their head at night, eat their meals, rear their offspring. It’s where they go when the weather turns bad and their bodies have a hard time keeping warm or staying cool or fending off fatigue. The mech wonders what it feels like to have muscle tissue burn with lactic acid.

Or what it feels like to freeze to death in a crashed Cessna.

It takes a moment to realize that he’s actually come to a stop in the road, and when he does, there’s a small flash at the edge of his somatosensory awareness – a notice from his HUDs that he’s gotten… an email?

Galen’s a little confused; no one ever contacts him by email, and moreover, he doesn’t have an email to be contacted by. He can send them, sure, but he’s never gotten a reply before. Let alone something out of nowhere like this.

But when he glances at the top of the letter and the metadata, the whys and wherefores become obvious, and the cabling in his shoulders constrict.

Galen-

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? Over a week since you wrote me, and, well, a lot has happened since then.

I had no idea what to make of your note at first. Honestly? I thought you were pulling my leg… some kind of joke that you might’ve thought was funny because your job makes you feel powerful and above the consequences. And then a couple days ago I saw that it was true, and I felt like a jackass.

I’m not sure why I was so ready to be angry at another person screwing me over, but maybe you can’t blame me? It DID seem too good to be true. 

I spent two days trying to figure out what to say. And I guess there’s really nothing left TO say but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You saved my life twice.

For no reason.

Thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU.

I owe you.

Sincerely,

Holly Mendoza

ps: Would it be rude for me to ask why, exactly? Why me, of all people? I’m just… morbidly curious to know. I could use a little entertainment these days anyways.

The giant is dumbstruck, so he reads it again.

And once more, for good measure.

The sharp honk of a horn behind is enough to startle him, in fact. He whips around, fists in the air, expecting something he hasn’t seen in millennia – but it’s only the rescue crew backed up on the road behind him. Galen, almost panting, drops his hands and takes a few steps back and off into the shallow ditch beside the road.

Shit,” he says as Tom gets out from behind the wheel of the nearest SUV. “Shit, I’m sorry. I got distracted for a moment.”

“That’s… that’s alright, Six,” the man says, almost as slow as his movements. The mech notices the man sitting in the passenger seat has their hand on something behind him, and the results from a quick detail sweep has his frown deepening: it’s a hunting rifle. 

Tom glances at his passenger, moving his head the tiniest bit as he does so, and Galen can feel the man’s grip on the gun loosen.

“You sure you alright?” Tom continues, thinking that the mech has no idea what almost happened. “I don’t want a repeat of last week.”

“No!” the mech blurts, holding his hands up. “No, stars no. Of course not. They must’ve been uh… must’ve been doing the rest of that patch when you came up behind me like that.”

“Uh huh…” Tom swallows. “You just get back to HQ ASAP, alright? You shouldn’t be out here for too long.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll be on the road again as soon as they’re done installing that patch.”

The Commander nods, but the tight line of his mouth betrays something else; something that Galen doesn’t have a word for, but that he knows the implications of like the circuits and pathways of his own foreprocessors: If these men ever trusted you, they don’t anymore.

He vents as Tom shuts the door to the SUV and takes it out of park, gravel crunching under its tires as he turns the wheels to give the mech a wide berth; so too do the two trucks that follow. The air that comes out his backside is hot enough to blister skin.

Did you see that?” a voice crackles in his head – his sensors are still on overdrive, and he’s picking up their radio as though they were speaking directly to him. “The suit looked like a UFC fighter. Perfect goddamn form for a second there.

Doesn’t make any sense,” Tom says. “Nobody said anything about outfitting him with that kind of programming.

Yeah, well, “nobody said” a lot about that thing that we’re finding out now,” someone else chimes in.

Tom sounds like he’s speaking with a scowl. “I think we should all get together at Buffalo’s tonight and talk about it, because I’m not sure what to do anymore.

Good idea,” a third crewmember cuts in, just as Galen’s losing the weak signal. “We gotta ——— eye out —————–“

As the SUVs disappear down the road, faint clouds of dust kicking up behind them, it seems to Galen that they bear a slight resemblance to the birds from earlier, fleeing the stone: little beige and brown creatures, so easily terrified by the sudden movement of even inanimate objects.

He turns his sensors toward a different sort of movement off to his left, and turning his head to see, spots a young man jogging down the hill from the house.

“Excuse me, sir!” he shouts as he approaches the fence, careful not to touch the tape at the top which, to Galen at least, is humming with electrical current. He’s panting from the sprint. “Excuse me! Can I take your picture?”

The mech looks over at him – he can’t be older than 18 Terran years – and in his hand is a phone. His angry, luminescent gaze bores down into the tiny thing’s shutter and lens. He reaches out with cybernetic fingers, snaking them around its core hardware, and with a jerk of his invisible hand, the phone’s display convulses before winking off. Truthfully, Galen’s not sure if the small piece of tech will be salvageable.

“What the -!”

No,” he mutters harshly, and takes off down the road.


 *Iodine-131, which has a half-life of 8 days.

Chapter Text

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 simplyTchanggarec 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.

{ Says here you fought on the side of the Imperialists, ] they note, glancing at the soldier with deep orange optics and a cocked brow plate.

The soldier looks down, frowning. { I didn’t like the way the New Society… did things at first. ] It’s been a long time since the acid bath that ate away at the bright blue paint that adorned their shoulders, and the simple circle stamped onto their girthy forearms: the crest of the Empire of the First Way. Even the name sounds ridiculous to this one now, though.

{ It was war. You take opportunities as they present themselves, stranger. I’d think someone with a record like yours would understand that. ]

The soldier isn’t fond of having his nearly spotless service record, punctuated with honors, thrown in his face like this – especially by someone who goes by an ‘analyst’ designation. But that pride comes at a steep cost; it’s always had. And it goes well beyond the bitter knowledge of having fought for the wrong side in a devastating war.

{ I joined in peacetime, ] the soldier reminds.

{ And why’s that? ]

The soldier narrows their eyes. { Why does this matter? Look, if you don’t want me for the reconcilliation missions, then fine. But I’m not going to waste my time justifying my decision to avoid defection to someone who never even saw combat]

Even though a soldier, they hate that war merits continue to mean so much to this society. Pulling rank still gets your voice heard, which they admitedly don’t care for – rank was always just a way for them to get out from someone else’s thumb, a means to an end. They never wanted the control that came with it. What does mean something to them, though, is combat sodiumslogged; this one has thousands behind them. The analyst, they can tell, logged little if any. Their frametype isn’t suited to it: a quick scan reveals plating that’s just a little too thin, struts a little too weak, joints a little tooexposed, derma a little too unmarred.

The analyst watches as the soldier moves to stand up, before setting the pad back down onto the desk between them. It blackens as soon as it hits the surface – an energy-saving measure. They smirk and lean back in their chair. { You are good, ] they chuckle across their shared comm. { No wonder the Imperialists wanted to hold onto you. ]

{ They didn’t hold onto anything, ] the soldier snaps, though fatigue nips at the heels of their signal. { Only reason I stayed was because I didn’t up and leave. That’s all there is to it. ]

The analyst considers the green-eyed Ntaa, and the soldier can all but feel the circuits firing in the analyst’s CPU. { My job is to make sure that we don’t accidentally recruit any loose cannons, stranger. And in spite of your long history with the Empire, I will admit that it appears to be bland as hell. ] They pick up the pad again, flipping through it when the screen flickers to life. { I’ve seen dirtier shades of white, for the First Core’s sake. ]

The soldier’s interest is piqued again.

{ However… ]

But it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve gotten their hopes up.

{ There’s a note here that says you often preferred direct, physical engagement with the enemy. ]

The soldier stiffens. { Guns can be too imprecise in many situations. ]

{ Only if you don’t know how to use them. Which, I might add, is clear that you do, ] the analyst says, gesturing to the pad. { You’ve got sensors like no one else I’ve met and you’re trying to tell me that you’re a weak shot? ]

Green optic rings divert down and to the side.

{ Look, it doesn’t sound like you’re going to be a liability on a mission – like I said, you are one blandly upstanding mech. ]

{ Dammit, would you stop jerking me around? I’m either accepted or I’m not. ]

{ You’re in, ] the analyst relents, but the tone in their signal carries a warning with it. { But I’m putting you on a ship with as many New Society crew as I can find. With any luck, you might find yourself fallen out of certain habits by the time you get back. ]

The soldier grits their denta behind tight lips. This is why they didn’t defect – but broadcasting that little bit of information wouldn’t endear them to much of anyone. Especially since the New Society, more or less, won the war.

{ You never know, ] the soldier grouses slowly, strumming their fingers along their upper arm. They don’t want to stick around and find out how much more New Society line-toeing they can handle before even making it onto a manifest.

The analyst snorts; an odd sound coming from this one, as they seem to be one of the few Ntaa who can divert air through their facial seams. { I’ll have your assignment delivered as soon as we figure out where to send you, stranger. Don’t get too comfortable. ]

{ I never do, ] they reply, already on their way out. They give their own snort in return and step out of the room.


Galen can’t help but start to feel that most moments in his life, the moments that he will remember ten-thousand Terran years from now, are just echoes of even older memories. Same roles, same story – different actors. He’s caught between the Empire and the New Society all over again.

So when the SAR crew dismiss themselves for the evening, completely unaware that Galen knows exactly where they’re going, he’s got little to lose. He’s decided to leave for the night.

The mech begins by strolling into the small sortie bay, and pretends to occupy himself with something about the helmet as he reaches out with intangible wires to lift a few seconds of footage from the security camera in the corner of the space. The contents of its harddrive are uploaded to the Divison’s server every 10 minutes, then wiped; he’s got plenty to work with for its current cycle, and with deft “fingers”, he plucks out a pristine 2-minute clip of an empty room, loops it, and eases it back into place. It takes a little jiggering to figure out how to get the timestamp to work properly, but the CCTV system is rudimentary enough that even someone without much engineering experience like him can make it work after a moment.

After that, he’s free.

With a self-satisfied grin he puts the helmet away, taking one last bitter glance at it before stepping into the lift and throwing on the cloak.

The warm night air passes over him, and for a moment it feels like the gentle breeze has a texture. He glances around – first to the twin Hueys off to his left. They’re big, relatively impressive machines, and almost look like insects as they sit there on the helipad in the dark. Then his green optics wander over to the wall of trees off past the west end of the property: black and looming. With a flick of a psychosomatic switch they go from impenetrable to mundane, as visible as they are in daylight. But still, he can guess at the kind of fear that might strike the heart of a human at the sight.

He decides to head parallel to the trees, off into the grassy, star-lit BLM.

Looking down, he watches as his invisible feet make prints in the ground, pressing the blades of grass flat and displacing soil. The sight is strikes him as, well, a bit silly, and it gets a chuckle out of him. If there were an onlooker, the great tracks would be appearing out of thin air to them.

“Damn, I could go just about anywhere I wanted to, couldn’t I?” the mech says to himself, looking off in the direction of Cody. But he remembers the SAR team and deflates a little – or maybe hardens, rather – and Galen can’t help but wonder what they’re saying. It’s only a few minutes before he decides that there are other things he’d rather do with his evening than think about what tomorrow will bring.

Bizarrely enough, Galen feels like he’s back in the military again, before the height of the war. The Imperialist armies were loosely-organized federations of units that rarely ever needed to assemble into battalions because of the sheer power inherent to the Ntaa as a race. All-out war was unthinkable to them until they were faced with the only beings the galaxy had to offer that were as hardy and strong as a Ntaa: other Ntaa. Unfortunately, as a result of the lackadaisical structure, many of the units further afield devolved into little more than roving gangs, but Galen is thankful that he usually found himself among company of higher quality. But still, enlistment meant freedom in those days. Freedom, because being among the ranks meant someone trusted you.

On Earth, he’s found trust to be rare. Loyalty is traded on the open market like any other commodity here, and earning it is a – what was that word? – Sisyphian endeavor. Especially if you’re an outsider.

The New Society had promised to bring the Ntaa together again, undo the damage wrought by the aristocrats of the fallen empire, and rebuild Homeworld. But as Galen had begun to find out, these weren’t simply concepts and ideals: they became literal, legal mandates as soon as there was a government again. Ntaa who didn’t want to come home were sometimes even forced to at gunpoint.

In a civil war between wealthy empire-builders and angry isolationists, where the hell was he supposed to go?

Fifth rank.

Keep your sensors sharp, guns high, and feet on the ground.

Where’s the fifth rank now?


The chronometer reads 0128 when he stops to open up that email again. The temperature has dropped not insignificantly, and the gibbous moon is finally peeking over the horizon. Having taken off the cloak some time ago to save energy, the mech’s found himself seated on the bank of a stream that he doesn’t know the name of. Little bugs are drawn to the faint light of his green eyes, and after a moment of trying to wave them futilely away, he just offlines them. His dozen other sensor arrays pick up the meager slack.

“What the hell do I say to you now?” he quietly rumbles to himself, venting.

One part in particular is sticking with him, though. Something about her choice of words here – though it is echoed throughout the letter – is implicating something, but he just doesn’t know what:

I thought you were pulling my leg… some kind of joke that you might’ve thought was funny because your job makes you feel powerful and above the consequences.

Then it occurs to him that she’s speaking from a place of disappointment. A place where, maybe, trust is as hard to come by for her as it is for him. Galen scowls, hearth-fire burning low as he ponders (and far from the first time) what kind of life she’d chosen to leave behind in Salt Lake City. Maybe she’d walked away from her own sort of New Society.

Holly-

It was the least I could do. I promise.

I’m just doing my job.

No… no, that’s not right. He deletes that line.

I’m… he tries again. I’m powerful in only a couple ways; a couple out of many. And I’m definitely not beyond reproach. I’ve been called a bleeding heart a few times, in fact.

Just setting the record straight, here. That you know this is important to me.

I do this sort of thing because I want to. I like helping humans  – quickly he deletes this, not sure how it slipped out – people. It’s my job. And let that be the answer to your “why” too, OK?

He studies this last part, not quite satisfied with it. It reads like… like he’s trying to shut her down. Hm. Galen continues gingerly; groping around for a permissible truth.

It may have been the exhaustion and dehydration talking, but you told me what you needed; you were honest. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that what I learned about you from the police report didn’t factor into it too…

But either way, I’m glad to have met you, and you definitely don’t owe me anything.

-Galen

He shifts, bottom scraping moss and dirt along the ground. A gray and bronzy arm, both of which were resting on his knees, goes up to worry at one of the seams on his cheek as he thinks. The mech finds himself wanting to say so much more, and is, frankly, surprised. And a little worried, too.

Galen feels that a sort of ultimatum, or a gamble, is presenting itself now, and the idea unsettles him: to fold or raise?

Folding would be the smart thing to do. The professional thing to do.

But his reputation, it seems, if he had much of one before, is deteriorating right before his eyes. As it gets harder and harder to feign non-sentience, it’s just a matter of time now before the SAR crew – for all the great work they do –  will refuse to vouch for him anymore. The mech can feel what their hearts and blood pressure do every time he so much as shrugs near one of them. No… that bridge is slowly burning.

How do the others do it? 

Kenway and Seaver had said, after their first assignments, not to hold back at first; not to try and impress anybody. The humans expect consistency, whether it’s a mech who doesn’t know how to shut up, or one who hates dirt and rain, the human teams need to know what they’re getting right off the bat. Change terrifies them.

Galen – and in his defence, a good handful of others, too – dismissed the advice as half-cocked or only suited for certain assignments.

They don’t want to get to know you, they’d said. Like any other equipment, they just want you to work

EYSAR doesn’t want to get to know him; how he came to have perfect fighting form. Why he’s capable of being treated unfairly.

Moreover, they can’t.

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

ps- How’s the leg doing?

“Maybe it’s time to build a new bridge,” he whispers, and the email is whisked off into the disorganized murk of human-made cyberspace.

What have I got to lose?

Some time later he’ll come to find himself eating those words. Right now, though, it’s just a shot in the dark.


* The half-life of hydrogen-3: 12.3 years.
 The half-life of sodium-24, about 15 hours; it’s a common short interval of time.


 

Galen with his war colors.

Chapter Text

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.

Not quite awake enough to be reluctant, she opens it with a wary grimace, and blinking a few times with puffy eyes, begins to read. The first thing she notices is that the "address" is still a string of gibberish... but a different string of gibberish. It must be due to whatever system he's emailing her from.

When she's done, she gets that strange feeling that something about this doesn't feel quite real. Holly tries remembering what his voice sounded like - the only thing about the encounter that she could use to confirm that she was, in fact, interacting with another human being - and finds it difficult. Mostly it was the delirium, and the drugs, and the chaos of getting airlifted, but... something about the voice is still hard to place. A low baritone, with a faint accent - Midwestern, if she had to call it. Maybe he's from Michigan, she decides, only able to really start thinking about the contents of the email after establishing this.

Because in order for her to take his words seriously, she needs to be able to imagine a person behind that big, heavy machine. She needs to know that Galen's more than just a jarhead - albeit a kind, soft-spoken jarhead that saved her ass twice - in a motion-capture suit and VR helmet. And even though she's been given a glimpse of the human being behind the suit through his words, Holly knows all too well that words are cheap.

Still, her mouth curves upward in a little smile at the mention of being a bleeding heart; that's the hint of a personality she was looking for.

Normally, this is where correspondence might've stopped. The gentle finality in his writing is obvious; the exchange of gratitude for compassionate reassurance is complete, the loose ends are, for all intents and purposes, tied up. And that would be for the better, being a black-ops military tech operator of quite possibly the world's most advanced war machine ever created and all.

But there's a postscript.

Holly chuckles at it, a little. It's a very straightforward question, something that anyone who even has a passing familiarity with her might be expected to ask. Hell, she's been fielding the question at least once a day as it is. But even in this state, mental faculties as dull as a popsicle stick from hours of late-night television, the intention is obvious. Like a conversation with a troubled stranger at a dive bar who doesn't want to close his tab, it's not so much an inquiry as it is a plea:

Keep talking.

The smile slowly fades from the young woman's face, though, and she finds her heart swelling with pity. A response is a given, now. But, still. Her mind's drawing a blank on how to proceed.

The leg's doing alright, she decides to start with. 

Still pretty broken, but the pain's letting up these days at least. I've still got another month or two before the cast comes off. I can't wait for that to happen... these crutches are a nightmare lol.

Turns out that she may not need to have any kind of grand plan on what to say. These things are just spilling out on their own. Is it appropriate, though? Maybe, maybe not. But he asked, and she's more than happy to oblige right now.

In another year, the hardware comes out. Hopefully, that'll be something I can be more financially prepared for. Assuming that nothing else happens between now and then, at least. Right now though? I can barely get myself to the bathroom, let alone out to the car and the grocery store! So, I'm running on fumes over here too, but... I can deal. The upside is that I'll be great at left-foot driving after all this. 

Holly pauses here for a breather. What now?

How's the job going? Haven't seen your suit in any headlines lately... hopefully that means some downtime, yeah?

And because it feels wrong to say anything to you without giving my thanks (...again...), here it is: thank you!

- Holly


She sends it, deliberately avoiding thinking twice about it - and her devil-may-care attitude towards certain things in life has gotten her into trouble before. Worse case scenario here is that he stops talking to her. Right? Right.

Tossing the phone at the far end of the couch, it lands with a faint fwup on the cushion, and she reaches for the crutches. It's definitely time for bed. Holly hoists herself up onto her good leg, positioning the cutch pads under her now tender arms. She pivots and is about to head to the bathroom to wash up when she sees the phone light up again. Another email.

"The shit?" she mumbles to herself, maneuvering the glorified aluminum poles so that she can reach for the damn thing again, resigned to bringing it with her to bed. Holly glances at the recipient with eyes even heavier with fatigue than the first time. "Christ," she hisses. "Already? I sent that like, less than a minute ago!"

She shakes her head, having no idea if it's even possible to type that damn fast. With a strained groan, the phone is stuck between her teeth - ow, this stupid thing is heavy - and quickly hobbles over to the bathroom. The toilet seat is cold, but it's a place to sit (and do her business) as she reads the bizarrely hasty reply. Holly expects a couple of lines at best, but is surprised to find it as long-winded as any of the others he's sent.

Glad it's doing better already.

The rest sounds like a real pain, I'll be honest. Why are the crutches so bad? I've never used them, so I wouldn't exactly know. Television makes them seem pretty straightforward.

And jeez, you can "barely" get to the store? What does
that mean, exactly? How are you getting food? And, uh... other things you need?

Work can be slow; this is all I do right now, and sometimes it's weeks in between missions. It's not hard to get cabin fever around here. The base, that is. I'm online and on-call 24/7, minus a few hours here and there for sleep. Between you and me, it can get boring.

But it's an honest living - that's a lot more than some folks can say.

And please, no need to keep thanking me. Really!

- Galen


So, her initial impression was right.

Holly's not at all unfamiliar with it. Before she started really hitting trails and exploring the bush, she was in the... party scene, some might call it; that was where she really learned to navigate landscapes of people. Specifically young people, people who drank and fucked their worries away. People who were skeptical that they had a future doing anything, anywhere.

And it was seductive. For a while.

But the music was too loud, the use of condoms and dental dams too intermittent, and buzzes got harder to chase, so Holly fell out of it in favor of a different high.

It's funny how much she's beginning to recognize Galen's tone. If she suspends her disbelief for a moment - which is relatively easy to do at this time of night - she feels like she could be talking with someone nursing a drink at one of those parties as he sits in a corner and frowns, watching a couple of people with pot on their breath grope at each other across the room. Where every word out of his mouth is just the tip of an iceberg of something that she'll never see.

Yeah, she knows that guy. She's met him a dozen times before.

The last part bothers her, though. And she knows thatthat is probably the biggest iceberg of them all. She's suddenly reminded who she's talking to: not exactly a sharp-eyed wallflower in a crowded apartment or haunted drunk at a dim saloon. The man's still a drone jockey, after all.

Holly brushes her teeth and washes her face, then heads to the small bedroom with the phone in her mouth again. The bed creaks as she collapses onto it, injured leg hoisted to the top of a mountain of pillows at the foot of the bed. The cottage-cheese ceiling above her is heavy with dust and cobwebs, and for a brief moment she wonders if that stuff is possible to clean. The young woman yawns, long and deep, eyes wet when she's done.

With a groggy voice she cedes to the faint nagging excitement in the back of her mind, though: "Fine, one more reply." With that she reaches for the phone.

Well, your armpits weren't exactly designed to be load-bearing. Stuff in there's pretty tender, and the padding on these guys suck anyways, so every time I use em it's like having a metal bar smashed up against a bruise. I've sorta figured them out though so that it's not THE worst thing ever.

I don't really have anyone here to help me out, so if I need groceries, I gotta go get them myself. Cast, crutches, and all. I've only done it once so far, but... I'll just say that it's almost impossible to haul groceries while you're using even just one crutch. People did a lot of staring, and I did a lot of cursing. It wasn't fun, lol.

I was only able to get a few day's worth in and out of the car too, which is sorta bad. I'm not really in any shape to be running errands twice a week right now. But we'll see... I've probably been in worse situations?


Holly pauses here to sigh - she hasn't, actually, because she's always had a cousin or a friend to call for help before. The last bit was thrown in there to reassure him more than her. She knows exactly how difficult getting through the next month is going to be, but Galen might be the worrying type, and she doesn't want to give the impression that she wants him to solve her problems. She's just another stranger at the bar with her own plea, not quite ready to close her tab either: Keep listening. 

Honestly? It feels good to yak at someone like this. Cathartic.

So she keeps going; she wants to finish this email before her eyelids get any heavier.

I gotta say, the work you guys do down there is amazing stuff. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you, and I did even before... well, before my own accident. (I did obviously gain a new appreciation after that, though.) But that sounds boring as shit, no lie.

Why the hell are you on-call all day, every day? Couldn't they wait for someone to go missing and THEN rig you up? I mean, so you have an opportunity to have like, a life? Sounds like some bullcrap to me. And you don't have to answer if it's classified or whatever, I totally understand, but... did you volunteer to do this? Did you know what you were getting into?

And ok, but only coz you say so...

- Holly


And with that, she calls it a night. 

When the phone flashes with a notification barely two minutes later, though, she's already sound asleep. 

-

Holly's woken up, actually, by the sound of someone knocking on her front door at a little before 10 the next morning.

The flops over... sort of. The cast makes doing much of anything but laying on her back more trouble than its worth, and with a faint growl from getting caught up in the sheets, she gives a bellow as she works on righting herself.

"Hold on, hold on, I'm coming!"

Her hair, a long quiff with short-cropped sides, is splayed out across her eyes without the hairband, so she smooths the deep brown locks back and reaches for the crutches.

"Coming, coming..." Holly mumbles as she approaches the door. She opens it, and standing outside is a neighbor. A middle-aged woman that she's seen around before, with purse and keys in hand. "Uh, g'morning?"

"I was on my way out, and I saw... this in front of your door, and wasn't sure if you knew about it?" She gestures with a ostentatiously-manicured finger to the ground between their feet.

Holly squints in the morning light being refracted right into her face from the other half of the white building across the courtyard. She's confused for a second, but looks down to what the woman is pointing at and...

Oh.

"What the hell?" Holly mutters, screwing up her face even more at the sight.

"Anyways, I don't know how long it's been here," the neighbor shrugs. "But I thought I'd let you know."

"Thanks."

"No problem. Have a good day."

"You too..."

What it is is a pile of food.

Deposited straight onto her doormat; no bags, no note, no receipt, nothing.

The first thing that she recognizes is a flat - a whole flat - peaches, each in it's own little plastic cubby-hole. But there's more than that: a head of cabbage, two loaves of bread, what looks like a 4-pound chuck roast, and a small, shrink-wrapped block of gourmet cheddar.

"Who in the everloving fuck?"

With the crutches, she tries maneuvering some of the stuff out of the walkway and into her apartment, but it's really to no avail at all. So she growls, and tosses the things aside, grabs the doorframe for balance, and bends over to shovel the stuff over the threshold with her other hand. Her face is locked up in a fierce glower when she's finally got the door closed and is sitting on the floor to look the goods over.

The peaches are in pristine condition - beautiful orange globes, about ready to explode with their own sugary juice. The cabbage and bread are in good condition too. The bread bags are little steamy, though, from sitting outside in the warm air. The meat... she'd probably have to toss the meat, as much as she loves what her mother could do with even the worst cut of beef. The cheese is probably fine, though. So long as she gets it into the fridge...

"Wait minute..." Holly mutters, reaching up to brush her hair out of her face again.

You're not seriously considering keeping this, are you?

It has been years since she's had a peach, though, and these... holy shit, these are even organic!

She stares at the small, mis-matched feast, and her shoulders slump. "Organic doesn't mean shit if it's dusted with anthrax or something."

No. No, it all has to go. Holly has no idea who or where it all came from - except for the meat, thanks to the weight label - and she'd had it hammered into her head to never take food from a stranger. As tempting as it is, this is ringing too many alarm bells.

Using the doorknob for leverage, she hoists herself up, grabs her crutches and heads for the other room to grab her phone. She'll take a picture, post it to something, and if she's lucky, a friend will fess up to the good-natured prank so she can move on with her life. That way she'll be able to give 'em shit for wasting a perfectly good cut of meat, too.

Holly storms past the lock screen, ignoring the morning's notifications as she heads straight for Instagram. But something about the thing is needling her in the back of her mind, and after a pause, she goes back to look over the list of them. 

Of course, there's an email.

Truth be told, she doesn't know what she expects to find there. What she definitely doesn't expect, though, is this:

Holly, I'm going to see if I can do another favor for you. Don't worry, part of me just wants to see if I can even pull it off. Blame it on that cabin fever.

Advance apologies if this winds up coming across as rude, though...

- G


Holly stares at the screen, feeling her eyes doing that thing that her mother's do when she's thinking or feeling too hard. Her mouth suddenly feels a little dry, head a little achey, heart beating a bit fast... and she gets the feeling that she's being watched.

The young woman hobbles silently over to the couch, settling down, and stares out the window with a pensive scowl. Strands of black-brown hair creep closer to her eyes again.

The main question on her mind is how?

How did he know where she lived? How did he get here so fast?

After a few more minutes of jumbled thinking, she can at least conjure up a possible answer for the former: it was obviously in the police report, and there's a good chance that everyone on the search and rescue team had read it. Including, she supposes, him.

This makes her feel a little bit better. 

The other question, though, she can't even begin to start answering. Did he send someone to do this? Did he get here himself? Is he... nearby?

Holly looks back over to the food on the floor, still wondering if any of it is safe to eat.

"What is going on?" she whispers. "What am I doing?"

Suddenly, she's not sure that she knows who this Galen guy is at all. Or maybe she's catching a glimpse at one of those icebergs, and they go way down. But what else did she expect?

The man's still a drone jockey. 

Holly is almost beside herself with temptations of all sorts. To keep the food, to wade a little deeper into the strange water that she's dipped her toes into... to see what this is all about.

Because one of the things she hasn't told him - hell, hasn't told anybody, for that matter - is that just a couple days ago, she found out that she has no job to go back to when she can walk again. "You can reapply when you're ready to come back," the manager told her, as though he were actually throwing her a bone. "You'd get priority." How she's going to pay July rent, let alone what it's going to cost her to get the cast off, is something she's yet to figure out.

Those peaches are starting to look pretty delicious after all.

Something in her mind clicks, or shifts, maybe - and suddenly the random food items on the floor seem different somehow. Holly considers the suit operator behind it; the man that she's decided is from Michigan, who, if recruited to pilot drone suit #006 at the tender age of 18, would be in his mid-thirties by now according to the accounts she's read.

They treat me like equipment, he'd said to her.

What, him? Or the suit? Or has it been so long that they're practically one and the same now? Maybe that, there on the floor, is what makes sense to a guy who wants to reach out and has all but forgotten how because at some point he started believing them when they said that he was just a means to an end.

The young woman squares her jaw, grabbing the phone, and begins to type.

ok, time to cut the crap: who ARE you?

Chapter Text

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.

The mech checks the time again, for good measure - he's still got about four hours before anyone shows up at EYSAR for work, and about that long before dawn, too.

He checks a map: at his top speed, Billings is only about 45 minutes away from the nearest stretch of highway, and at this hour, there should be few cars on the road.

Galen's not sure what he's going to do yet - a plan is still taking shape - but he wants to let her know that he's going to attempt something. Pesky details like "it might involve stalking around your town in the dead of night" are omitted. He suspects that anything more than the vaguest explanation will be recieved with more sensation than he's aiming for.

I really hope that I'm not overstepping here...

It's a stretch, he knows that much. And it will not be the first time this evening that he questions his own motives, still uneasy at the idea of acting from anywhere but a place of altruism.

"Why are you doing this, anyways," he groans as he moves through the trees with some measure of auditory stealth, then chuckles at realizing that he never used to talk to himself this much before coming to Earth. The humans do it a lot - must've picked it up from them.

It's fun, either way, so he continues. "Sometimes you really are a sad sack of - agh!" he gets whipped in the face here with a sturdy tree bough "- parts! Look at you." Another pause here as he ducks under a heavy branch, as thick around as his forearm. "You're stealing out into the night to cavort with nature of all things, and now, a human."

He makes it out of the thicket, finally, and up goes the cloak as he heads out into more open terrain. The highway is a few kliks straight ahead.

"If only my old commander could see me now."

He's being rhetorical, of course - the sixth-rank officer was a jerk by all accounts, and enjoyed making fun of the green-eyed Ntaa for his interest in melee combat. Who the hell knows what he's up to now.

{ Kenway! ] Galen calls out into the comm with a burst of nervous energy as he picks up speed, breaking into a heavy jog. He hopes that the mech isn't asleep.

{ Huh? Galen? ] comes the reply, groggy and laced with static. { What in the smelter are you doing up this late? Nevermind that - what are you doing without mediation, man? ] The mech on the other end of the channel can tell, as easily as distinguishing timbre, that his fellow soldier isn't wearing the Division-issue helm, nor is he using the radio in his lead-clad bunker.

{ I'm off on a joyride tonight, Kenway, ] the invisible Ntaa announces. He's a little surprised at how casually it came out. { And I've got an errand to run while I'm at it. ]

Galen's almost sure that he can hear the other smack himself in the face. { You know, I think I liked you more when you were the goody-two-shoes of the group. ]

He narrows his eyes, but the grin on his face is still there. { When was I ever the goodie-two-shoes? Stars, that idiom's a mouthful... ] A fence is fast approaching, but he easily clears it without hardly needing to jump.

{ You need to get your memory banks checked, good sir. Was just like yesterday: it was me, five other mechs from our unit, you, and a crate of mods we lifted from storage. ]

Galen remembers this.

Kenway continues. { "I don't think this is such a good idea, guys", ] he intones. { "What if we get caught??" ]

{ Oh come on, I don't sound like that. ]

{ "Stealing's wrong!" ]

{ OK, I definitely don't sound like that. ]

Kenway floods the channel with howls of electronic laughter.

{ To clear my name here, ] Galen muscles back in, { I had rounds in a matter of flourines and I was not about to report in stinking of fragging sluggers. ]

{ None of our CO's could smell, man. ]

{ I could, and that's all that mattered. ]

{ I rest my case. ]

Galen laughs out loud, letting the sound leak out over their comm. The Ntaa's native comm system isn't sound-based, and it especially isn't mouth-sound-based. But physical laughter just feels so much better.

{ I know you didn't call me up to brag, and you definitely didn't call me up to reminisce. So what's up and where ya' headed at two in the morning? Should I get Enno on the line, too? ]

{ Don't, ] the green-eyed mech says with a bit more sobriety, pausing as he approaches the highway. { This is going to look suspicious enough as it is. They'll know you're talking to somebody, but without a matching record from someone else... ]

{ This isn't my first rodeo... or did you forget who stole those mods in the first place? ] Kenway says with a smirk.

He's surveying the traffic, which is about as sparse as it can get without being completely deserted. Only one car has passed him so far. { Well, while we're on the subject of theft... turns I won't have much of a leg to stand on after tonight. ]

{ Oh? Have we a rogue soldier on our hands? ]

Galen goes for it, and in seconds he's approaching 160 kilometers an hour with the gravs. He's never done anything like this before: this road was designed for vehicles going less than half this speed, and he's beginning to realize that keeping steady and passing cars unnoticed is going to take a lot more concentration than he anticipated.

{ I hope not, ] he answers, banking a hard turn. { Remember that uh... that civivie human? ]

{ Yep, I definitely liked you more when you were the goodie-two-shoes. ]

{ I couldn't... ] He vents here, and hard. The wind is fast being taken from his sails. { I couldn't leave her stranded, ] the mech "mutters" over the channel. { She still needs help. ]

Suddenly rigid fear sweeps between them. { You didn't - ]

{ No. No. I haven't told her anything. ]

{ Best not, unless you wanna be junked. ]

There's a long silence between them now, and Galen's not sure what to make of it. Truthfully, he takes the opportunity to concentrate on the road, weaving past two more cars. Humans are dirunal, he recalls. I wonder what these folks are doing out at this hour? If they have any clue as to what's just slipped past them...

Galen hasn't thought this through much at all. Not where he's going to go, what he's going to get, or what he's going to do if the Division gets wind of this. The latter question he decides, though, is something he can think about later.

{ I plan on going to a store and getting her some food, is all, ] he says at length.

{ You plan on stealing her some food. ]

{ Don't have much of a - ] he strafes past another car { - choice, do I? ]

{ I gotta say, Galen, ] sighs the mech on the other end. { You rarely get up to much of anything. But when you do, you can be one crazy son of a gun. ]

{ Coming from you? ] he chuckles. { That means a lot. I think. ]

{ Look, just remember that there's a difference between crazy and stupid, alright? ]

{ Alright. And hey - don't tell the XO? Please? ]

{ Fer cryin' out loud, Galen, you know I hate keeping secrets from friends, XO or not. ]

{ And you know I can't lie worth a damn either, but do this for me, OK? If this gets any more... involved, then I'll fess up. But for right now... ]

{ You owe me, bud. ]

{ Sure, sure. 'Nite, Kenway. Galen out. ]

{ Kenway out. ]

The rest of the ride is relatively uneventful. That is, aside from the flurry of thoughts swirling around with the nanenes in his big, metal head.

Before he knows it, suburban track homes begin coming into view; billboards advertising retirement homes and beer; and shortly, a sign stating that he's entered city limits.

It's a quaint town - though really, every town he's been to on this planet counts as quaint compared to what's been built back home - and according to his knowledge of this area, it's also the largest in the state. There's not much for him to see at this time of night, though. The streets are deserted and buildings dark.

He pulls off the highway at the next exit that appears and pulls off onto the shoulder at the intersection to figure out just what he's doing here.

Am I really going to go steal food for her somehow?

Stars, he wishes Seaver were here. The slighter mech stands at not even 4 meters tall and he has manipulators for doing finer work. The frustrating part is that he probably wouldn't even mind helping with this if there was any possible way that he could. His current station has him doing daily patrols at John F Kennedy airport. It would take a teleporter to get him here, and no one in the entire galaxy has invented one of those yet.

She's running out of human... stuff, he reminds himself, the pertinent part of her email flickering at the edge of his foreprocessors. C'mon, you can do this. Think back to your training.

Without fine tools, though, this is going to be hard.

He quickly recalls her missing persons report, flipping through it until he spies her address, which he plugs into his personal map program - part native war programming, part Google satellite data, tweaked and meshed together over the course of many dull evenings - and recognizes as being just a few kliks away. He designates the location as a waypoint, and it urges him toward it like the pull of a weak magnet.

Next, he does a search for a grocery store nearby, finding a small handful. The question is, which one? Galen has never set foot in such a place, let alone even been near one.

All he knows is that he needs to be able to fit in the door.

He takes his chances with one that he identifies as a "chain" - it looked to be sizeable from the pictures, and it's nearby. It'll have to do.

Galen takes off down the road, passing a single vehicle on his way, and soon finds himself in the parking lot of the store. To his dismay, the lights inside the building are all on, and for a brief moment he wonders if they're open. But as he creeps closer, avoiding the bright orange spotlights from the buzzing lamps above his head, he sweeps the premeses and realizes that no one's inside. Why keep the lights on, then? Humans are always going on about energy, you'd think they'd conserve it at every opportunity.

The invisible mech approaches the nearest set of sliding glass doors, sensors on full as he gets into a careful kneel to assess the situation. Just as he's about to inspect the alarm system, though, a large truck pulls into the parking lot. Instinctively, Galen jumps up and moves away from the entrance, but the truck passes by the building, disappearing around the back.

A delivery.

Which means that there must be workers present to recieve it.

"Ktsek."

With a nervous vent, Galen carefully resumes hsi previous position at the door to figure out the alarms. Which, at least, don't take long to disarm. The CCTV is next, but he simply resuses the same trick from before, and in a couple minutes he has that taken care of too.

But the most difficult part of this ordeal is proving to be the doors themselves. They're glass for stars' sake, and with a loud enough shout he could probably shatter them. But to get through without drawing a single hairline crack? The giant groans and rubs at his face.

Yep, I wish Seaver were here.

The issue is that they're only partially electronic; their "automatic" feature only functioning when the store's open. The locking mechanism itself is purely mechanical, and if he could just pick the lock somehow...

Hearth-core thrumming with frustration he searches the internet for information on picking human-made tumbler locks, which this one likely is. Images and video flash in his mind of small, carefully-bent lengths of stiff wire jiggering pins into their maddeningly slight niches so that a second pin can slip in and turn the tumbler.

Where the hell am I going to find pins?

He takes stock of the detail kit that every Ntaa soldier is retrofitted to carry with them - Galen's is in a slim case molded onto one of his shoulders. In it is are a few instruments for scraping caked-on substances, another for picking fine debris out from between his lames, a simple, rounded rod for shaping thinner metal, and at one point there was a small chisel, but he'd lost that some time ago and never got around to replacing it. Not that it would have done him much good here.

Pins...

Voices from behind the building catch his attention, and the giant's shoulders slump at the terrible, terrible idea forming in his mind.

Criminey, he chastises himself in English as he gets up and heads in the direction of the truck. Galen, what have you gotten yourself into?

Even though cloaked, the giant mech sticks close to the wall. Before him is the dock. His sensors detect three heartbeats in the area, and with the human men moving about, unloading the truck, his visuals, audials, and heat sensors verify this in a matter of seconds.

Galen finds himself cracking a smile. It's funny, actually... he feels like he's on a scouting mission again, gathering intel. Except this time, he plans on making off with a little more than just sensory data. Not to mention that his "enemies" could sit in the palm of his hand. Confidence returning, the mech readies a plan of attack, identifies his target, vents, and engages.

With a swift surge his cybernetic fingers strangle the current responsible for feeding the lights in the docking area, and everything is plunged into darkness. For the humans, at least. Without so much as a conscious thought, Galen switches to his myriad other modes of "seeing", including infrared, and deftly proceeds without skipping a beat.

"Hey!"

"Oh come on, not now!"

The men's voices are loud and agitated as they halt their work, and as the shift manager waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, Galen's behind him.

He hooks a thick finger through the ring of keys, and as quickly as he can physically manage, braces his other hand against the man's leg as he gives the keys a rough jerk. The belt loop they're anchored to gives right away, and Galen bites back a toothsome smirk, quickly removing his hands from the man.

"Holy sh-- what the fuck just grabbed me! Something grabbed me!"

Galen secures the keys tightly in his fist to keep them from making noise as he steps away from the scene. The three men are shouting now, and the mech begins to feel bad for causing such a scare, but it couldn't be helped. He can feel their racing heartbeats as he walks away.

"The keys are gone!" A pause. "My god.. look, they got torn right off me! Look at this!"

The giant winces.

"You'll get 'em back in a few minutes," he whispers, darting around to the front again to finish what he started.

Galen peers down at the small pieces of metal, dwarfed by his enormous hand, as he kneels in front of the front doors again. "Now which one?"

He scans the dimensions of the lock - it would take him too long to get measurements exact enough to fit the right key to it, but an approximation rounded to the nearest millimeter eliminates seven of the nine keys in short order.

"Last two," he says to himself, trying to get enough of a grip on the tiny thing to push it in and give a little jiggle. His hearth-fire is burning hot and wild, nanenes having a field day at the sudden surge in energy output. He can feel it in the way his colloid ducting is beginning to tingle. But this key is no good.

The next one works. A muffled cry of triumph attempts to leave him, but he catches it behind his denta as he pries the glass doors carefully open and squeezes inside. Before he sets the collection of metal strips aside on the floor, though, he holds the correct one up to his face and takes careful measurements of it in the hopes that they don't change the lock if he returns the ring. Just in case there's a next time.

When he's done, he rises up to his full height, making sure not to hit his head on any light fixtures. "Thank the stars humans have a taste for tall ceilings," he murmurs, looking around.

While places of mercantile business follow a pretty universal design, no matter the species that owns it - and humans being no exception - being here is still a definite thrill. He's made it across enemy lines and is, at the moment, free to roam their terrain.

The store is divided into two basic regions, it seems to him at first glance: the perimeter, which appears to have more basic foodstuff, and the interior, composed of orderly aisles, which has more heavily packaged varieties. He looks from one colorful box to the next and suddenly feels ridiculous.

I have no real clue what humans eat, do I?

Would it be better to get her a lot of one thing, or small amounts of many things? What foodstuff needs processing to be palatable? To be edible? What if she doesn't like what he gets her?

He turns to the internet again.

balanced human diet

A lot turns up. A lot. Videos of television personalities, millions of websites and scientific studies - wait, do humans not even know what they ought to be eating themselves?? - hits for snake oil salesmen, references to something called "Soylent", and even a hardy side of joke pieces.

"I've made a terrible mistake, haven't I?"

The clock is ticking, and the mech is beginning to feel that he's outstayed his welcome when something catches his attention amid the morass of search results: something called a "food group".

food groups

What he gets from this search is far more interesting and readily usable. It seems that there's a few variations on the concept, but the jist is the same: human foods can be divided into basic categories of mineral and chemical constitution, and arranged by priority. And according to the diagram he's looking at, there are six categories.

Six? He can work with that. Morever, it seems that the store has a section corresponding to every group aside from the one with the least priority: fat and sugar. Not to mention, that one seems to be the most hotly contested, so he's going to leave that category alone for now.

"Alright, bread."

He elevates up onto his gravs again to avoid tearing up the linoleum floor, and begins heading clockwise around the perimeter. The bakery section is full of an assortment of lumps of leavened grain flour, and Galen frowns when he realizes that some of them would be better suited for the fat and sugar category. They're in dozens of different sizes, shapes, colors, and even densities. The giant's black and green eyes dart from one loaf to another, trying to figure out which one to take.

"They're all the same!" he hisses with exasperation after almost a minute of deliberating. With a huff, he glides between two displays to a wall with nothing but loaves packaged in plastic bags. These will survive the trip, at least, he grumbles to himself, taking one last look over his shoulder at the other loaves, most of which are not as securely protected. With a swift motion, he snatches two bag's worth and weaves his way over to the vegetable section.

"Hardy," he mumbles, scanning the displays in the middle and the moistened coolers against the wall. "Something hardy and easy to carry..."

The water content of most of the vegetables is unacceptable, and many of the others are too small for him to handle without a container. After a few quick moments of surveying his options, he happens upon something that looks suitable: something called a cabbage. It's round, but at least it's dense and, he hopes, provides decent nutritional value. He grabs one, forming something of a nook with his arm against his chest, and desposits the food items there before moving onto the next order of business.

Fruit. The mech groans, venting. This is even worse. Most of these items are categorically smaller than the vegetables, and have a higher water content... making them easier to squish. But it seems that the humans acknowledge this too, and so some of them - maybe the higher quality varieties? - appear to be packaged in ways that would minimize their damage in transit. He reaches for a box of one sitting above a label that says "organic peaches", relieved to find their cardboard tray strong enough to withstand his grip. With this under his arm, he piles the bread and cabbage on top, and rounds the corner to the "meat" section.

He stops in front of the refrigerated shelving, scanning the neatly-butchered portions of flesh, and is at least relieved to find them all in relatively leak-proof packaging. (The mech is not especially fond of Terran blood. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Ntaarin ferrofluids in smell, except that, unlike ferrofluid, it has a propensity to rot at warmer temperatures.) Without thinking this one through too much, he picks up the first sizeable piece of something he sees and moves on.

Dairy... dairy...

The last category is, admittedly, a little confusing to him. Dairy products are made from the secretions of livestock mammals, and are designed for consumption by their offspring, but humans have been ingesting the fat and protein-rich liquids for thousands of years. The idea is a little unsettling to him, but who's he to tell a different species where it ought and ought not to get its energy from? The confusing part is the myriad forms dairy products take. There's solids, liquids, and everything in between. Do they all have similar nutritional profiles? Which form is the best?

Checking his chronometer, Galen decides that it doesn't matter, and plucks a roughly rectangular shape out of a cooler against the wall. His sensors tell him that it's coated in a layer of protective wax, and the label says "cheddar".

Whatever that means.

Into the tray of peaches goes the small brick of cheddar dairy, and Galen heads for the exit.

Picking up the ring of keys from where he left them near the door, he squeezes out, trying to conceal the food under his arm as much as possible. The cloak, as well as it works for him, can only be extended for objects that he's able to interface with, and he cannot interface with foodstuff. But obscuring it behind his arms should do the trick enough to suffice.

What Galen's not expecting, though, is to see a police car pull into the parking lot and head around behind the store just as he's trying to pull the doors back together. Pushing them apart was one thing, but without handles of any kind, bringing them flush together again is almost impossible.

Shit.

Thankfully, they didn't seem to notice. Hearth-fire pumping, the tingle returns to his ducting and a faint charge builds up in his fingertips at the prospect of a strategic self-extraction. He knows that this should concern him more than it is, but instead of apprehension, a little rush tickles at the corners of his foreprocessors. This is exciting.

Keys in hand, he winds his way around back on the gravs, the light humming sound the only noise that they might catch if he gets close enough. Good thing he doesn't need to.

"Just calm down, sir," he catches one of the officers say. If he concentrates, Galen can sense that the shift manager is seated, with the others around him. "We need to know what really happened."

"Dammit, I told you!" he man shouts, still shaken from the invisible assault. "The lights went out, and then s-something... something grabbed me and took off with the keys."

"He's telling the truth, officers! We saw it!"

"How'd you see it in the dark?"

"Well, we... we didn't see it, exactly, but we heard it!"

There's a pause. "Griffith," the one offer grunts before turning back to the workers. "How many drinks have you boys had tonight? Now be honest with me." The mech can sense the second officer returning to the vehicle.

"Oh for the love of..."

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me."

Galen decides that now would probably be a good time to intervene. Playing an old recording of a sharp whistle that causes all five men to just about jump out of their skins, Galen hurls the keys over to them, and they land squarely at the police officer's feet.

"What the--!"

"It's back! The thing, it's--"

And with a snap of his mental fingers, the lights in the truck bay flicker on again, whereupon they all fall deathly silent for a few moments.

"These wouldn't happen to be your... your missing keys, would they?"

Biting back a burst of laughter, the mech turns on his levitating heel and races back out to the street, heading for the faintly nagging waypoint that is Holly's residence some kliks away.

Kenway, you'd be damn proud of me right now.

Chapter Text

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 recites. "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.

Holly-

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.

Hm.

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.

-Galen

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.

Chapter Text

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.

It was a kick, swift and sure, that landed between her legs. Was it supposed to hurt the same way that such a blow often hurt other boys? It stung like being kicked anywhere else, sure, but the look on her opponent’s face made it seem like he was expecting something more. When she didn’t crumple up like a tin can he turned and started focusing on more familiar targets, leaving her with the strange, dull, stinging sensation.


“Grandma,” Holly calls out, running across the big orange tiles in the entryway to where the older woman sits in the dining room beyond.

Abuela,” she corrects, looking up from a thin book that her granddaughter would later recognize as a collection of embroidery patterns. At this age, she's still trying to teach the girl Spanish, but most of it wouldn’t stick. Cecilia didn’t make a point of speaking it at home.

“Abuela, I got into a fight today!” the little girl says, tonguing the hole in her own smile. The tooth had come out barely a week before, and it still tasted funny.

“You did?” The woman clicks her tongue, but her disappointment is non-committal. She knows how her granddaughter is. “Eso no es propio de una dama, chica. Did you get hurt?”

The young Holly understands the Spanish but ignores it. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “Not even when David kicked me.” She’s beaming with pride.

Abuela Jesusita scowls, doubling the number of creases along her ochre brow. “Donde? Let me see what this David boy did.”

Holly’s pride dwindles for some reason that is currently beyond her, and she hems and haws for a long moment, fidgeting and looking away. Some part of her knows that what happened was wrong, but something about it is remarkable enough to confess to the woman that she trusts so completely. She grasps the back of one of the wooden chairs at the dining table, studying it.

“Umm… you can’t,” she says quietly. “He kicked my…”

Abuela’s eyes widen, but the child misjudges her grandmother’s reaction. She’s quick to appease her.

“It’s OK, though!” the young Holly blurts. “It didn’t really hurt. It sorta felt good.”

But that seems to make it worse. She grabs Holly’s hands and holds them tightly – a little too tight. “Holly.” Her voice is low in a way that the child has never heard before. “Don’t say that,” she hisses quietly. “That is wrongWhat he did was wrong.”

The seven year old girl is paralyzed with fear, and nods.

“And do not tell your mother. Ay, cochina…”


The girl’s hair smells like sticky sweet perfume, and it irritates Holly’s nose. But she looked good in heels from across the room, the sinews of her legs strong and taught, something the tomboy always admired.

What’s her name? Sandra? Samantha? Cassandra?

“Czarina,” the young woman, proud and tall and elegant like a skyscraper, introduces herself.

“Holly,” says the 17 year-old, taking a swig from her rum and coke.

They get to talking about music – everything from  Nirvana to Selena – and laugh when they discover each others’ collections are still in CD form. It’s 2004 and they’ve already seen the rise and fall of Napster. Neither one is sure they trust their music to digitization yet; it’s all still so new.

At some point, maybe an hour later, Holly finds her face buried in Czarina’s hair as they lay in someone’s bed.  The sheets don’t seem to have been washed in a few weeks and she’s surrounded by the scent of people. Not soap or fabric softener or even musk, just the heavy odor of skin and hair and a living, breathing body. But Czarina’s perfume tickles, and not in an especially pleasant way.

Her hands are warm, though, and she’s deceptively strong. Even stronger than the tomboy in her arms. If this were a guy, Holly might have allowed herself to be put off by the smell. But she’s more lenient with other girls. They’re hard to come by.

“Who did your tattoo?” Holly traces the portrait of an infant on the young woman’s arm. Above her head is the name “Elena”, written in that Chola cursive that she hates so much. The portrait is well-done, though, and Holly wonders if the baby is a sister or a daughter. It’s best not to ask.

“One of my cousin’s friends,” she murmurs, tickling the nape of her neck. “I can give you his number.”

She’d like that, and for a few minutes she thinks about the ink she’d want to get. The body in her arms is distracting, though, and insistent. Lips kiss a faint trail up her neck, and Holly has to bite back a giggle.

“You know, you’re pretty timid for a butch,” Czarina laughs.

Holly laughs too. “A what?”

“No makeup, short hair, wifebeater… you sit with your legs open.”

“I do, don’t I?”

Czarina giggles. “You’re a baby butch.”

But Holly’s hardly a baby. “What does that make you, then?”

“Interested.”

The two girls look at each other then burst into laughter together, alcohol still heavy on their breaths.

“It’s funny,” she goes on. “Normally, I like to be the one being chased. But there’s something about you that makes me wanna, I dunno…” She wraps her arms and legs around Holly and squeezes tight. For a brief moment she can’t move, and the air is crushed from her lungs, but Czarina quickly lets go. “Do that.

Holly’s left momentarily breathless, and not from being so tightly embraced. There was something there, and it felt right. Really right. She wants her to do it again, but forever this time.


She never gets a very good definition of ‘butch’ out of her, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, because they only end up dating for a few months at any rate.

It lasts just long enough for Holly to get sucked into the world of casual sex and loud music, the world that Czarina knows like a fish knows water. It’s scary and colorful and exciting and strange – all things that a high school junior without a clue what she wants to do after school is looking for.

All things that a young woman with a burgeoning streak of sorts is looking for.

But when Holly asks if Czarina could try kicking her one night, the older girl laughs, and laughs hard. Holly frowns and quietly tells herself that its probably time to move on.


So maybe that’s what this is, ponders the woman on the couch with her hair in a short top-knot, faint scar above her eyebrow from an old piercing, and leg in a cast from a stupid mistake.

The past few days have been spent in thought, and occasionally indulging a nervous tic or two. It’s better than what she ought to be doing.

Holly’s beginning to get the distinct sense of transgression – a felt sense that she’s been drawn to for years now, but this time, it’s different. A part of her actually does want to just end it. It would be easier, safer. The repercussions here might mean more than just a black eye or a bad hangover.

“Several home-made bombs were set off at about 5 o’clock this morning at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” announces the voice-over of a journalist on the TV. Holly’s a few years out of high school and she’s almost out the door for a shift at the grocery store, but she pauses at the breaking story as a camera pans across a hideously broken building, blackened and littered with papers.

“Police believe that the attack is related to a threatening letter that the university’s department of electrical engineering received earlier this year, which implicated DARPA in a conspiracy to turn the United States into “another Third Reich”: Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

“Only four out of a total of nine home-made explosive devices succeeded in detonating, however, and there have been no reported fatalities. Only two people suffered mild –“

It took them three years and four attacks to figure out who did it. The news called him the new Ted Kaczynski, especially after an alleged manifesto surfaced, which claimed that the drone suits were America’s attempts at the fabled ubermensch. The media circus went nuts, and the trial almost surpassed the OJ Simpson ratings.

Holly isn’t super political, nor does she have many opinions on matters, but she does pay attention to the news, and she does pay attention to what the military is doing to the best of her ability. A long time ago Holly realized that it was generally a good idea to take the opposite stance as her brother in-law, and Scott, as it turned out, was quite the war hawk.

In the months after a heated debate that took place over one year’s Thanksgiving spread in which she got her ass rhetorically handed to her, she hunkered down and did her research. That’s when she learned to fear the drones that Scott spoke so highly of.

And she was far from alone, as it turned out.

That was about 5 years ago, and if you’d ever asked her if she thought she might run into one  – a real one, not one of those recreational quadcopters – she’d have laughed.

“I hope not,” she’d have told you.

Holly ate the food that this mysterious operator had mysteriously heaped at her doorstep, confused but bizarrely thoughtful in its selection. Nothing happened, either; not even a stomach ache. It was just food – to be taken at face value.

It’s friday evenning, though, and she’s sitting in her car, with a 24-pack of toilet paper and her crutches in the back seat, and she’s out of breath as she looks out across the crowded parking lot. Carts full of beer and charcoal briquettes roll lazily past her, friends talking and laughing loudly as they load up their trunks.

This time she’d used one of the electric wheelchair things for the first time. It’d been a godsend, but it agitated her pride. One of the bag boys offered to help her back to the car too, which she almost declined out of habit. But not this time – no, she really did need the help. Even if it came from a pimply-faced nineteen year-old who was neither subtle nor appreciated in his flirting.

Still, the ordeal takes a while. And the brief moments of interaction with another person are already over.

Time to go back to the bleak, quiet apartment.

Holly knows her fridge is far from full, and she’s been critically low on everything since her parents up and left. She’ll have to do this again in a few days, and suddenly the thought of doing so crushes her like a weight. She can only take so much hobbling around in  a still-new town before it takes its toll.

I could use a friend.

If you’d have asked her if she ever thought she’d hear that coming from a fuckboy with a joystick operating a giant killing machine, she’d have laughed in your face too.

But if you’d said that not only would she hear those words, but take them for the cry of help that they probably are, well…

She stares at his email again on her phone.

“Fourteen years,” she murmurs to herself, scowling. Fourteen years this man, maybe from Michigan, maybe not, has spent in isolation.

That’s cruel.

She hits a button on the screen and a keyboard appears.

That’s not how you make friends, she types.

Then again, that’s not how you’re supposed to live either, so I guess it’s time to throw out the rulebook.

Holly snorts, half out through her nose and half through her mouth, and shakes her head. “Rules,” she mutters. “God, since when have I given a damn about rules?”

For a while there, she didn’t even give a damn about common, let alone good, sense. She wiggles her toes a little, but the cast makes it difficult.

“Still don’t, apparently.”

You know what? Let’s do this. I’ve got nothing to lose.

We both could use somebody right now. You need purpose, and I need…

She thinks back to that crushing embrace more than ten years ago.

Well, we all need our kicks, right?

So let’s start over.

Hi, my name’s Holly Mendoza, and I guess I’m your new penpal. I won’t press for details, and I won’t ask for pictures. You can bitch and complain to me, you can tell me about your day, whatever. All I ask is for the chance to do the same thing to you. Sound like a deal?

The leg is… the same, really.  Still a long ways to go before the cast comes off, and even longer before the pins come out. Until then, I’ll be bored out of my skull. Can’t go anywhere. Looks like the both of us have a captive audience!

What I don’t get (and you probably won’t be able to give an answer) is why you’re hooked up to the suit all day, every day. That’s gotta take its toll. I mean, it SOUNDS like it does, but… well, you know what I mean. The whole thing reeks of bullshit to me. 

She originally bristled when she read that he was a combat vet. A not insignificant part of her wanted to distance herself at the mention of it, but… the rest of his story was too compelling. Besides, it only made sense. They wouldn’t hand such a delicate and psychologically intense position to just anyone, let alone some hothead right out of basic training. Back in high school she learned that the first generation of astronauts were all ex-ace fighter pilots. Maybe this is similar.

So, he wasn’t young after all. He probably wasn’t from Michigan either.

Can I ask how old you are? Where you’re from?

All the best,

H

With that, she pulls out of the lot and heads for home, not having any clue that this is the same store that Galen had gotten her groceries from.


How do you relate to someone in a situation like that? That’s what she’s been trying to figure out all week, and she’s still turning it over in her head as she pushes the huge pack of TP along the walkway with her crutches to get it to her front door. She fumbles for keys in her sweatpants pocket, jiggering the lock open just so, and with one last grunt, she shoves the whole mess inside.

Holly leaves the toilet paper by the door, too tired to get it to the bathroom, and busies herself with making a quesadilla before plopping onto the couch to check her phone.

This is kinda exciting, I gotta admit.

If this was Vegas, she’d have been rewarded for her bet: there’s a message there waiting, just for her.

It’s a deal, he says.

And… you’re right, it is bullshit. Never thought of it that way, but you’re spot on. I’ve got a contract, though, and it’s good for a long time, I’m sad to say.

Pins? The break was that bad? Damn, I’m sorry… It  looked bad when I saw you, but not that bad. Let me know if you need any help when it comes time to deal with that. 

Really?” she blurts out loud. “Not sure what you can do for that, but… it’s the thought that counts?”

Speaking of help.

Uh oh, Holly thinks to herself.

Hypothetically speaking… if I wanted to do what I did again… would you hypothetically be alright with it?

The one thing she’s noticing about his emails is that they get her making all sorts of faces as she reads them. Eyebrows all over the place; mouth open, grinning, frowning, twisted to the side so she can chew on her cheek.

She wants to laugh, but the image of that gutted building at MIT flashes in her mind, and she’s not so sure. Yeah, free shit, but…

But that was Boston. This is flyover country: nowhere, USA.

Who the hell would possibly notice something amiss here?

There are only two reasons people come to Montana: to visit, or to fall off the map.

As for how old I am and where I’m from? Um, I’m in my late 30’s, and I’m from a little town in Nevada. You wouldn’t know it.

I don’t particularly miss the desert, though. Lots of dust out that way and not much to look at. (She deflates a little here – she’s been out that way a couple of times and loved it.) I prefer the trees and mountains. If bears live there, I probably like it. lmao.

Luhmao?” She cocks an eyebrow. “Haven’t heard that one in a while.” What do you expect from a guy who’s almost forty?

Still, he goes on. I’d take a normal search and rescue position in Death Valley over this, any day.

G

Well, it seems like he’s loosening up? If he’s that guy nursing a vodka juice in a dark corner of a raucous party, then maybe he’s on his second or third drink, and the words are coming easier. Not stilted, but an organic kind of honesty. For some reason, the man she pictures him to be is out of time – like, he belongs in a black and white photograph, his collar neatly starched. He doesn’t belong at the party and no one knows who he is, but he’s there anyway and she’s talking to him because there’s something in his voice that tells her he’s seen some shit.

Holly gets up and hobbles over to the bathroom, making a detour for the stack of toilet paper along the way and grabbing as many as will fit under her arm.

She finds herself at the sink, studying her face. From the back she’s been told that she looks like a 16 year old boy, but from the front, she’s harder to place. Equally young from far away, but this close, her laugh lines start becoming apparent and the few whispering strands of silver kiss the crown of her head are unmistakable.

She did get that kick eventually.

His name was Nate, an aspiring DJ with a taste for expensive shoes and girls that didn’t have so many damn guy friends. Girls that didn’t enjoy going out every weekend to mountain bike with said friends. Girls that trusted their men enough to pull out in time.

She did trust Nate for some reason – and looking back, she still can’t pinpoint why – but what she hadn’t counted on was that he was just as prone to making mistakes as anyone else, even when he swore up and down that he’d pull out.

This time, though, pulling out is her job. No one else but her will make sure that she can come up for air.

Holly swallows, plopping her ass down on the toilet after a minute of staring at herself. She replaces the empty roll with the new one, doing her business with her chin resting on the heel of her palm.

She produces the phone from her pocket and opens a new email, beginning to type:

You know, you’re older than I thought…

Chapter Text

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 wasprobably unwarranted, he’ll admit. But that’s besides the point now: she’s still awake and that’s a problem.

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

Yeah, a little uncanny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratch themselves and lay about in awkward positions, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointment.

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

10 minutes later and he gets a text:

thank you

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


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

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

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

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

{ I’ve heard stories, ] says the Commander in their last bid before giving up in the face of authority. { They can see and hear throughwalls. 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’ttrue, 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 thepolice.” 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.”

Chapter Text

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

This time or... for the forseeable future.

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

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

Let's just say there's been a complicating factor. It begins with "security" and ends with "guard". 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Galen.

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

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

I'll keep that in mind, thank you.

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


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

And it doesn't look good.

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

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

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

Easier said than done without a computer.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

It's going to be a long afternoon.


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

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

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

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

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

"How much time you got to talk? You don't sound so great."

"A couple minutes. Look, I just... I gotta bitch to somebody. I'm sorry."

"Bitch away."

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

"Ouch. Is it that bad?"

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

"You qualify for disability? Food stamps? Section 8?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He's not from around here," she mutters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thanks," she says, blinking something back. "I'll uh... I'll keep you guys posted."

"Take care of yourself. I'll talk to you later."

Click.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Once you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -"

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

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

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

"So what, it's swamp gas, then? Venus?"

"I'm not going to let you hand this over to MUFON. This is too good."

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

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

"Who's that?"

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

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

"So she encountered it," Ryan suggests, sitting up straight.

"It's a tempting possibility."

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

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

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

"And if she doesn't?"

"Maybe she'll give us enough to read between the lines."