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In Their Shadow

By kisupure All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 1: The Cessna

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 Ebsathnnen,” 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.

Ebsathnnen.

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. “You’re… gonna have to come upstairs to sign a couple NDAs,” one of them says reluctantly.

The young man’s confused again. “What?”

“We’ll explain everything inside.”

Galen holds back a bitter chuckle until they’ve all disappeared behind the building’s side door.

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 the small realization, when another one hits him: I think I’d rather die here than back home.

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...

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