As I walked out of the Merlin, I was greeted by the sight of a really very large crowd of people. They stood a respectful distance away in an orderly mob. They weren’t milling about, but they weren’t snapped to attention either. All of them wore green and yellow camouflage fatigues with a small eagle patch on the breast. For the most part, they looked curious rather than awestruck or intimidated.
I recognized Anton at the head of the group, and another man stood slightly in front of him. He was above average height, probably six-foot or so, and looked older. I couldn’t pin down the age though, because the guy was in seriously good shape, with a lean, hardened face. The man wore a combat uniform like he was born in it. He had a fantastic bristly mustache and a hard glint in his eye. He looked every inch a military commander, which I assumed he was from the way he carried himself. I made eye contact with him through the visor of my Paladin, and then I made a potentially idiotic snap decision.
“Hey, Camille, Adelaide?” I said, isolating the sound to the interior, “I’m going to get out of the Paladin. Just wanted to let you know.”
“Ha. That’s a good one,” Camille snorted. There was a pause, and then in a voice of dawning horror she said, “Oh shit you’re not kidding, are you? Sam, that’s a seriously terrible idea. Like, a really, really, really good way to get yourself killed.”
I kept my eyes on the commander as I replied to her, “I know it is. But I’m getting this feeling in my gut that if I don’t meet this guy face to face I’m going to really regret it. It doesn’t make sense, even to me, but I’m absolutely positive that staying the Paladin is the wrong move here. Trust me on this one, okay?”
She made a frustrated noise. “You know I will. I really don’t want to, but I will. Please, be safe.”
“I trust you as well, Sam,” Adelaide added, “And for what it’s worth, I believe that your decision is not wrong.”
I set the Paladin to follow me in a defensive posture. It couldn’t fight or do anything complicated, but it would tail me and attempt to shield me from incoming fire. Anything more than that was too much for an automated system to handle. A human brain was the only thing complex enough to fully control a Paladin. My team had tried to make it work autonomously, but the movements were always too slow, stiff, or awkward to be useful, and our best programs just couldn’t analyze a situation fast enough to respond effectively. But with the kickass mental interface Camille designed, a person could manipulate the Paladin like an extension of their own body. That’s why there were such intense multitasking requirements: they were needed for unconscious control of the Paladin’s movement and thrusters.
I snapped myself back to the present. The mercenaries in front of me seemed confused and restless. I’d been standing still for a little while now. The commander looked unfazed though. I took a deep breath. I’d talked a big game to Camille, but in truth I was nervous. When I’d left the Paladin in Fort Morgan, I’d been so shell-shocked that I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Now though… I’d be stepping into a group of heavily armed mercenaries, at their total mercy. But this was the right call.
The Paladin opened from the face first. The bottom half slid down and the top half slid up. Then it split to each side from the bottom of the head down, the metal armor rippling open in a smooth, unbroken wave. I stepped out of it, onto the stamped down dirt. The only piece remaining of the suit was the detachable communicator (equipped with a camera for Camille and Adelaide’s benefit) over my ear. There was just the shyest hint of autumn in the morning air. A brisk wind played in my hair, but the sun was still warm on my face. I had a sudden memory of the aspen trees glowing gold and yellow and orange along the side of a winding mountain road. It was around this time of year that Camille and I always used to go see them. It was her favorite season. I smiled to myself and drew in a deep lungful of clear Colorado air, and walked towards the Red Eagles. Sometimes I forgot that I lived in this world just like everyone else.
The commander walked out to meet me, and Anton followed shortly behind him. I noticed that Anton’s eyes were hollow and sunken, and his face was drawn and pale. He seemed to have aged years since I last saw him. The commander’s eyes were sharp and intelligent, and he eyes me up and down as we approached each other. When we got close enough, I stuck out a hand for him to shake, “Hello there, I’m Sa-“
I was cut off as the man grabbed my hand and pulled me into an abrupt and very strong hug. I froze, my brain trying to figure out what the fuck was happening. My arms stuck out the sides like a mannequin, and they dangled there uselessly. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I opted for standing perfectly still like a very uncomfortable wooden statue.
He pulled back and clapped a hand on my shoulder, a wide smile etched onto his gruff features, “I already know who you are, Sam. I owe you and your friend Adelaide more than I can ever say. You saved my soldiers, you saved my husband, and you risked your own life to do it.” Anton gave a ghost of a smile from next to him.
“Uh. Don’t worry about it, I was just doing my job,” I managed to say, trying to get back on steady ground.
The man laughed, “Then you have the most incredible work ethic I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t introduced myself.” He grabbed my hand in a vicelike grip and gave it a firm shake, “My name is Renard Berston, I am the commander of the Red Eagles. It is an honor to make your acquaintance.” His voice sounded like sandalwood smells, rich and woodsy.
Commander Berston made a sweeping gesture with his right hand, “And these are the men and women of the Red Eagles, the finest mercenary company in Colorado.” I got a massive chorus of greetings from the entire group.
“Hi,” I said back with a shaky wave.
Benston’s face fell a little as he turned back to me, “Now, I’m sorry to say that Aaron and the rest from the 4th Scouts aren’t here right now, they’re out on a patrol. But Tom is, if you’d like to meet him. He’s recovered nicely, though with the prosthetics we have, I’m afraid to say he won’t ever quite be the same.” He looked legitimately saddened by that.
I suddenly remembered the main reason I was here, “Actually, I have a solution to that problem. I just need to grab it from my ship. Can someone take me to him after that?”
His eyes widened and then he shook his head with a bemused smile, “I should’ve expected that, I suppose. I’ll add it to the list of things I owe you for. If you don’t mind, I’ll bring you over to Tom myself. It’s the least I can do.”
“Oh, really, don’t worry about it, I’m sure you have plenty of important things to attend to,” I told him. I felt guilty pulling him away from his probably enormous amount of responsibilities.
“Nonsense! Don’t worry, I promise that I make a good guide,” he said easily.
I didn’t want to be rude and refuse again. “Well, alrighty then. I’m just going to run back to the Merlin, I’ll, uh, I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for an answer, I turned and walked back to the gunship, the Paladin stomping after me.
“Well,” said Camille through the communicator, “I really didn’t expect that to go so well. Also, are all your first meetings that bizarre?”
“The synchronized greetings were a little strange,” Adelaide agreed.
I thought about it for a second, “Yeah, I’m realizing the only part that really threw me for a loop was being hugged by a stranger.”
“Indeed. I would say that it was far less uncomfortable than your initial interaction with the Aaron and his squad,” said Adelaide.
I groaned, “God, don’t remind me about that. Rebecca still won’t let me forget the caterpillar thing.”
I walked into the Merlin and grabbed the metal case, and hefted it with some effort. Despite my enhanced strength, the damn thing was still heavy as all hell. I grunted to myself as I went back to meet up with Berston. He was talking quietly to Anton. The rest of the Red Eagles had cleared out, going back to whatever tasks needed to be accomplished. As he saw me approaching, he waved me over. Anton excused himself, and Commander Berston watched him go with a pained look on his face.
I gave him a curious glance and he sighed, “He blames himself for what happened, you know. Says that if he’d listened to you in the first place, nobody would’ve died.” Well, he wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t about to be the douchebag that said so. “But that’s not the issue right now, is it?” Berston said, “Let’s make our way over to the field hospital, shall we?”
There were several things I noticed as we walked through the camp. It was ridiculously organized, for one. The tents and vehicles were all placed in neat rows. Men and women in uniform bustled about. I saw a group of familiar vehicles being looked over by frustrated mechanics. By the look of them, the retreat had been by an even narrower margin than I thought. I caught a few mercenaries gawking at the Paladin, but most of them were disciplined enough to avoid staring. I also saw that the mercenaries would look at the Commander with a great deal of respect when walked by. He flagged down a few of them, calling them out by name, asking for a quick update on this or that. He somehow managed to do it while being constantly on the move, so it didn’t feel like he was wasting my time. It was impressive, to say the least.
We eventually reached a series of medium sized grey buildings. That confused me a bit, until I realized they were just a group of massive vehicles, like mobile homes on steroids. Commander Berston looked over them with pride, “These are the heart and soul of our operation. The Command Center, the Field Hospital, and the Simulator Facility.”
I gave a low whistle of admiration, “Damn, where’d you all find a mobile simulator building? They’re rare as hell, I heard they only made a couple as prototypes.”
Berston smiled happily, “They’re great, aren’t they? This one started out as another command center. Anton and his team ripped out the insides and wired up some older simulators. They really did save us a whole lot of grief; training recruits on the go is a breeze.”
“Now that’s interesting. I’m curious to see how he solved the power draw. I’d love to take a look at it, or pick his brain about it. Once he’s done moping around like that of course, he looks like someone just took a dump on his thesis,” I winced as soon as the words left my mouth. I heard Camille sigh in my communicator.
Berston looked at me, amused, “Now that’s more what I expected from you, given what I’ve heard from 4th Scouts.”
“Who’s the bastard that’s been tarnishing my sterling reputation? I bet it was Aaron, he always looked like a gossip. Or Rebecca, she’d do it just for the laughs,” I said immediately, affronted, then I cursed my stupid mouth again and backtracked. “I mean, those accusations are completely unfounded and I’ll have you know that I only conduct myself with dignity and honor.” Nailed it.
The older man just chuckled and shook his head at me, “I can see why they liked you so much. That group has always been a bunch of real characters.” We were standing in front of the Field Hospital, denoted by the large red first aid sign on it. The Paladin was casting a shadow on me. He stopped just outside the door, “Now, before you go in, I’d like to ask you just one question.”
I waved at him to go ahead. Worst comes to worst I just wouldn’t answer, or I’d lie.
He looked me directly in the eyes. His gaze was intense, but wasn’t threatening, it was just burning with pure curiosity, “How did you survive? You stayed behind against a Hive Lord, alone, for at least ten minutes, maybe more. And not just any Hive Lord, it was a Broodguard by all indications. And I know you held it, those teams would have never made it back if you hadn’t. The truly unbelievable part is that you don’t seem to be injured. You aren’t carrying yourself like you’ve broken anything or even have so much as a bruise. How did you do it?”
I maintained eye contact. After a staring contest with a Hive Lord, nothing else was really an issue. I considered what to tell him, then settled on a brief summary, “I fought it. I got lucky, and didn’t die. Adelaide pulled my ass out of there afterwards. That’s about all there is to it.”
He studied me for a bit, then nodded, his face serious. “I believe you, and I understand that you need to keep your cards close to your chest. At the end of the day, I’m just glad you were there for my people. I give you my word that the Red Eagles will never raise arms against you. If you ever need anything, at all, we will be there for you. We honor our debts above all,” he said, and he looked completely sincere. “Now, I’m sure you would rather meet with Tom by yourself, so I’ll get out of your way. Just ask the receptionist for his room number. Oh, and I’ve arranged for your payment to be placed by your ship. Thank you, again, for everything you’ve done for us.” He gave me a salute, which I returned, and then turned on his heel, walking towards the command center.
As I watched him go, Camille piped up in my ear, “I don’t really get why, but I trust him. I don’t know if that makes him more or less intimidating.”
I gave her a noncommittal hum and moved into the hospital, letting the Paladin stand guard outside. I had more important things to do than worry about the motivations of the Commander. The mobile building was small but well put together. There was a front reception area, with a bored looking teenager tapping away at a keyboard. He had a close-cropped blonde hair and a skinny frame. His eyes never left the holoscreen as I walked up to him.
“Excuse me, but do you know where Tom is? Um, I don’t know his last name, but he’s in the 4th Scouting Team. Quiet, bald, missing a leg?” I asked politely.
The kid gestured to the hallway on my right, “He’s in Room 3, second door on your left down that hall.”
“Thanks.” Kids these days. I walked down the tidy hallway and knocked on the specified door, rapping my knuckles twice on the hard plastic. It hissed open a moment after. Tom was sitting upright on the hospital bed, more a cot than anything, a weak smile on his face. He was in a traditional medical gown, not the fancy types I had in Camelot. The sheet was pulled up over his waist, and his hands were folded neatly in his lap.
“’Sup buddy?” I said as I walked in the door, “How’s it been?”
He gave me a hybrid of a smile and a grimace, “Oh, I’ve been better. But I have to say, it’s a really nice surprise to see you alive. I saw that thing you were going to fight, didn’t know if you’d make it out.”
“Eh. Little bastard wasn’t so tough,” I replied.
“Oh, I doubt that,” Tom said wryly, “I have to thank you though. You and Adelaide saved our whole team.”
“Anytime,” I waved my hand casually, then considered how to best approach the next topic. “So how’s old stumpy doing?” I gestured to his leg. Tact was never really my strong suit.
Luckily, Tom didn’t seem to be too offended. He just chuckled wearily and shook his head, “You’re an asshole, know that? Uh, the leg’s okay, it closed up nicely and I don’t have to worry about infection or anything. Stem cell treatment worked well to get it completely stable. I’m going to be fitted for a prosthetic sometime this week, not sure when.” There was a dull look in his eyes. I’d fix that.
I nodded distractedly, looking around the room. I spotted what I was looking for and hurried over to it. The small table was easy to carry to the foot of Tom’s bed. He looked at me curiously but I signaled at him to wait. I heaved the metal case up and it landed on the table with a satisfying whump.
I paused dramatically, one hand rested on the case. “So, I was trying to come up with a way of helping you out. Now, I have access to some fairly advanced medical facilities. But nothing can regrow a leg, as far as I know. So that was off the table,” I clicked open the clasps sealing the case shut, “Then I decided to go with something a little more traditional, something to give you a leg up, if you will.”
I opened the case with a flourish. Nestled in a bed of foam was a prosthetic leg, built from the knee down. It was clearly artificial, but it was sleek, following the curves of a human leg exactly. The dark grey metal and carbon fiber outer shell hid the internals. “This is a heavily modified ArcLabs third generation leg prosthetic. I’ve customized it for your height, and it’ll automatically make minute adjustments, so you shouldn’t ever have to worry about feeling off balance. It works through a pretty damn advanced mental interface, so there’s going to be a learning curve there. You’ll have the option of a mental chip implant or an earpiece. I’d suggest the chip implant myself, much less difficult to dislodge.”
He looked a little overwhelmed so I continued, “The leg itself is pretty much bullet and scratch proof. It should hold up just as well as heavy combat armor would. You won’t be flipping any hovertanks with this thing, the power in a kick doesn’t really come from the knee down, but you should be able to put a hole through a wall without much trouble. I wouldn’t suggest it, but it comes with kinetic impact dampeners so you could theoretically fall from a couple stories onto it. Let’s see… it’ll pretty much behave exactly like your other leg does, down to the toes. Once you learn how to use it, you’ll forget it’s there. Normal kinetic motion is enough to power the leg; the graphene battery lining doesn’t noticeably passively drain, so you don’t have to worry about it shutting down on you,” I picked up the prosthetic and pointed at the top of it, “The attachment point uses a stupidly strong adhesive gel. It can be dispersed with a mental command once you’re connected to the leg, but there isn’t any reason to take it off, the gel protects and hydrates the… stump, for lack of a better term. It weighs almost exactly as much as your other leg will, but there’ll obviously be small differences for you to compensate for. For all intents and purposes, it’ll be like you never lost it.”
I looked at him eagerly, “So, what do you think?”
“Why did you do this for me?” he whispered, and his face was a mix of wonder and confusion.
I deflated, “Wow I was expecting more gushing excitement than this, to be honest. To answer your question, even though we haven’t exactly known each other for long, I consider you my friend. I stick by my friends.”
He nodded dumbly and I grinned at him, “Now call your doctor in, I want to stick this leg on you and we should probably have a medical professional around so I don’t accidentally turn you into a gibbering vegetable from the mental load.”
A few hours later, Tom was leaning on my shoulder as he practiced walking around the room. The still astounded doctor, a woman in her thirties named Katlyn, was observing us, making sure nothing went wrong.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she muttered, half to us and half to herself, “the mental interface is wildly more sophisticated than it should be. Tom shouldn’t be able to move like this so soon, it’s like the prosthetic is interpreting his brain signals exactly like a normal leg would.”
I smiled internally. Camille had done the mental interface wizardry, I’d done the engineering, and Adelaide wrote the programming for it and essentially made it impossible to reverse engineer by locking down the software tightly and working with me to install several anti-tampering countermeasures. Tom’s new leg was the first combination of all our abilities, and it was a kickass first attempt. I voted for calling us the dream team but was overruled.
Tom was getting tired, so I helped him into a seat. I straightened up. It was about time for me to leave, the leg was working without a hitch and I hadn’t done my training for today. After getting chewed out by both Hive Lord and Danna, I wanted to get back into the simulator as soon as possible. I was about to start saying my goodbyes when the door hissed open behind me. I turned around to see Rebecca standing there in her armor, sans helmet. She was breathing like she’d just run from somewhere, and she looked like she’d just seen a ghost.
I held up a hand in greeting, “Hey! What’s up? Want to see Tom’s new leg, it’s pretty fucking swe-“
Before I could finish my sentence, Rebecca caught me in a tight hug. I froze. Not knowing what to do, I patted her awkwardly on the back a few times until she let me go. She stepped back and gave me a wide smile, a very faint blush rising up her cheeks. My brain was still trying to figure out why the fuck so many people were hugging me today when Camille cut in over the coms.
“So I take it that’s Rebecca,” she said with a hint of ice in her voice, “She seems like a lovely girl.”
Before I had the chance to respond, Rebecca started to talk, “I’m glad you’re alive, Caterpillar Man. If you’d died there, your last moments would’ve been way too heroic to fit your character.” She poked me in the chest, and her voice was teasing but filled with happiness.
“Yup, I’m tenacious like that. I’m happy to hear you’re safe, and everyone else too. Where’s the rest of the gang?” I looked over her shoulder, expecting them to walk in soon.
She shrugged nonchalantly, “Oh, they decided to get out of their gear before coming to see you.” She looked me up and down, “I see you decided to shed the chrysalis as well. Nice jumpsuit, you’ve got the matching outfit down to a T.”
“Quite a lovely girl indeed.” Camille’s voice dripped with menace, “Now, I wonder, why didn’t you mention the fact that she has a massive crush on you?”
“What!?” I squawked.
I noticed Rebecca looking at me with confusion, and I furiously waved my hands to dispel it, “Sorry, Adelaide just told me something over the coms. I’ll just need a second to listen. But um, Rebecca, thanks for worrying about me.” Rebecca looked pleased while I berated myself for being an idiot. I just had to toss that last part in, didn’t I?
I tried to keep my cool, turning away and touching a finger to my communicator uselessly, “Please repeat that last Ghost Rider, I didn’t quite catch it.”
“That bitch wants to pork you something fierce,” said Camille bluntly.
Adelaide replied to her in my stead, “I don’t understand how you came to that conclusion, Camille. Rebecca merely seems to be friendly.” Exactly what I was thinking. Thank God for Adelaide being reasonable.
“Damn it Addy, I expected Sam to be this oblivious but I thought you’d have picked up on it,” Camille groaned, “Fine, here’s the abridged version: Casual physical contact, check. Blatant teasing and flirting, check. Pet name to deepen intimacy, check. Christ, she even sprinted over from wherever the hell she was, in full equipment, just to see Sam when she realized he was alive. She’s basically beating him over the head with it.”
“Oh. Well I do see what you mean now,” agreed Adelaide calmly. I did too. Fuck.
Just then I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and I turned my head to find Rebecca’s face entirely too close to mine. “Everything okay there?” she asked, “You look like you accidentally swallowed a grasshopper and it’s trying to crawl its way out of your asshole.”
“Fine!” I yelped, “Everything is just fine!” My voice was little strangled and high pitched. I saw Tom snickering at me out of the corner of my eye.
Camille chose this moment start talking again, “Damn, I wish she wasn’t wearing all that armor.”
Adelaide sounded confused, “Why?”
“So I can see if the hussy has bigger boobs than me,” she said, frustrated.
“I fail to see how that is important,” Adelaide replied.
Camille snapped at her, “Of course it’s important!”
I was trying furiously to tune them out, but it was way harder than it seemed. I decided that my best course of action was to make a very speedy tactical retreat.
“Hey, I’m really sorry to take off right when you got here, but something important came up,” I said to Rebecca, and by extension, Tom, “but I’ll be back soon to check up on Tom’s leg, we can catch up then.”
Rebecca’s face fell, “That’s lame as hell, even for you. Can’t you stick around to say hi to the rest of the squad at least?”
I looked at Tom for help, but he betrayed me while attempting to hold back a smile, “Yeah, they should probably be here soon, why don’t you stay for a little longer?” Fucking traitor. I should take back that leg and see if he’s laughing then.
Rebecca was looking at me, so I uncomfortably avoided eye contact and scratched my chin. I tried to come up with an excuse that sounded plausible but my brain wasn’t functioning so hot right now, what with the two conversations I was being exposed to at once.
“Why is this an issue in the first place? I highly doubt Sam would be unfaithful,” Adelaide was saying.
“Well no duh, I’m not mad at him, he didn’t even notice it because he’s denser than a neutron star. That’s not the problem here at all, it’s about marking my territory. Fuck! I should’ve just had him tell people I was alive.”
“That is not rational,” Adelaide responded, “the logic for not revealing yourself is exactly the same as before. Also, that was fairly insulting to Sam.” Adelaide was my only ally left. I really needed to do something nice for her soon.
“Sam will be okay, and rationality can take it up the ass,” Camille shot back.
Rebecca and Tom were still awaiting my answer, the doctor sitting in the chair looked bemused, and there was a loud argument going on in my ear. I was opening my mouth to apologize again and insist on leaving as the door opened once more. Aaron led the rest of the 4th Scouting Team into the room.
“Sam!” he exclaimed, walking up and grabbing me by the shoulder, “It’s great to see that you’re okay!” He looked around the room, saw Rebecca, then pulled me in closer to him. “I don’t want to alarm you,” he whispered conspiratorially in my ear, “But I do believe that our Rebecca over there has a little thing for you.” By the sheer grace of God it didn’t seem as though Rebecca heard him. I mumbled something in denial and he just pulled his head back and gave me an exaggerated wink. Allie grinned knowingly, Jackson scowled at me, Tom was still snickering, and Rebecca was staring at me hopefully.
I whimpered internally. I just wanted to go home.