In Their Shadow

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Chapter 2: The Hiker

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 July 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.”

“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.

“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 doesn’t know that he’s not 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.

“Why is it that the only time I can do this is during the only times I shouldn’t be doing this?” he wonders aloud, looking around from under heavy brow plates. If his skin were flesh, there’d be a deep and permanent crease between them.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that it were planned that way.

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? Hm. 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 trial 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 he can slip down the steep slope on his own cushion of air just as easily as anyone else. And without his feet under him, he will fall hard.

“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 it, but at the same time, there’s not a soul in the United States who doesn’t know about the supposed ‘drone suit program’.

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. However, she’s running a slight 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 endure, 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.”

“Thanks, boss.”

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. “Yes it is.”

“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 to herself again a little, 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 I am…” she starts laughing again. “...worrying about how much this is going to cost me.”

Cost you?

Cost you?”

Are you kidding me??

“I’m sure you’ve got great insurance - hell, I’m sure you’ve got your own damn team of personal doctors. 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 can’t exactly un-hear that, Holly.

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.” 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 tight 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… 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 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.

Living can be real expensive.

Why? Why even do this if all SAR ends up doing is turning her over to debt-collectors? What’s that saying… they’re taking her out of the frying pan but throwing her into the fire? Wouldn’t it almost be better if she’d just died out here?

I mean, of course not, but…

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.

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 murmurs, sliding her into the belly of the helicopter. He says it close to her face so that she can hear 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.

“Holy...” 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.

“Yep. I’m gonna help that girl,” he murmurs resolutely, watching as the helicopter shrinks to a dark speck in the sky. 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; a veritable jolly giant. 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, change a tire? ]

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.

{ 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 don’t 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 inflexibility and backlash that the Division was 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...”

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