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In Their Shadow

By kisupure All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 3: The Outburst

“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 three-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 seven-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 does things. 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.”

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 people 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? Why, that’s practically a steal.

“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 the director 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 knows that 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, no, no. They can’t do this to him - without this, he… he…

“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?

“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 he has.


“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 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 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.

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