I turned my Paladin to face them, hoping that I cut a heroic and dashing figure. Who am I kidding, I know I did. A giant suit of white armor makes anyone noble and dashing.
The group that met my eyes was a surprisingly healthy looking bunch. I was expecting the post-apocalyptic humans to be dirty, with teeth strung around their neck and bones in their hair, but these people seemed fairly normal. There were three of them, two men and a woman, wearing jeans and dusters. The woman was in her fifties, the two men probably in their early twenties. Two of them had short cropped hair, military style, while the last one wore his hair in a ponytail. They were well armed, with militia issued weapons and armor. It wouldn’t have helped them against the number of Assimilators they were up against, but each of them probably could’ve taken one Worm each.
As I faced them, I could see all three of them looking visibly nervous. A young man, with olive skin and dark hair, was standing slightly in front of the other two. I figured he was the one that had spoken, and my suspicions were confirmed when he spoke again, “Sir,” He said politely, “we just wanted to thank you for helping us.”
I intended to respond with something like “Don’t worry about it” or “All in a day’s work” or a line equally as vaguely reassuring, but I couldn’t get anything other than a strangled squeak out of my mouth, which Adelaide thankfully prevented from leaving the suit’s mic. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t seen or talked to anyone in so long, but I didn’t feel like I could find my voice. I settled for a nod instead. I could work with being the strong silent type.
I realized that I still had my railgun deployed. It closed itself back up at a thought, and I stored it away, earning a visible look of relief from the three survivors. I motioned for them to continue, or at least I hoped I did. I’d never learned sign language.
The young man looked behind him at his companions for a second, then turned back to me, “We were just travelling between outposts, you see, and got caught by a worm patrol. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t think we would have made it. Which outfit are you a part of? I haven’t seen armor that nice before, since… well, ever.” A lot of the fear had already left his eyes as he looked over my suit in awe. I saw his friends looking like a bizarre mixture of scared, resigned, and constipated behind him. Apparently his rather open personality was well known.
I didn’t answer as my brain was currently on a rollercoaster, attempting to sort out possible responses. I guess they took my internal panicking as a stoic silence, because they shared a quick glance, and this time the older woman spoke to me.
“What Mike here is trying to say is that we owe you our lives,” she said, cautious eyes sweeping over me, “so if you ever need a favor, come over to the Sterling Outpost, and we’ll help you out as best we can. Ask for me, my name’s Mary. We’ll get out of your hair now, so thanks again.” She turned and started walking away, signaling the two men to follow. I saw through the optics that she was still shaking slightly with nerves. Silly, if I had wanted to kill them they’d be dead a hundred times over by now. I stood and watched them leave, and I saw Mike give me one last wave as they walked off. When I was sure that they couldn’t see me anymore, I sat on the flat ground, my giant metal robot ass landing with a loud whump.
My hands were shaking in my suit, the adrenaline finally wearing off. Combat outside the simulator was fucking intense. Everything seemed to move faster, and less predictably. The enemy made movements I hadn’t expected, darted erratically in ways that they hadn’t in the virtual world. Their attacks carried more impact, and the aliens were far more intimidating in the flesh. I hadn’t been in any real danger. The suit could have taken a beating from those worms all day without a scratch. The rawness of that fight was exhilarating, but also terrifying.
“Are you okay, Sam?”, Adelaide said over the coms, and her voice calmed me down.
I laughed weakly, “Yeah, that was just more intense than I thought it’d be. Honestly though, trying to talk to those people at the end there was way harder than that fight.” I suddenly had I thought, “Hey. Why didn’t you use the suit’s com system to talk to them when you realized I was panicking?”
The reply was prompt, “It was more entertaining to watch you struggle.”
I returned to the base via Ellie. The rapid response shafts, as I had taken to calling them as of about five minutes ago, were awesome for going up, but not so much for going down, an issue I’d fix in future iterations. That was fairly low on my ever-growing list of shit I had to do. The elevator shuddered to a halt on the second floor. I was going to have the spider bots give the Paladin a good once over to make sure there were no issues, and give it a nice scrub to get the dirt and Assimilator goo off. One of the ten reserve Paladins would take its spot in the command center’s Arming Station.
I gave a quick mental command and the suit rippled open. I stepped out into the Armory, stretching my arms and legs. I felt pretty damn good. Ran in a robot. Blew up some aliens. Saved some people. It had been a good day up until this point. I checked the wrist of my jumpsuit, which had a sleek holopad embedded into it. It was the late afternoon, and I had plenty of time until sunset.
There was something I still had to do, my brain told me sternly.
I desperately tried to ignore it, thinking about ways that I could improve the Paladin. Maybe some sort of proximity warning for rapidly approaching foes. I had been taken by surprise by the tracking type worm because I hadn’t kept an eye on my mini-map. That might have gotten me killed in a less advantageous combat situation. My feet were on autopilot as they took me up to the first floor. I was still frustrated at how slowly the Caliburn-R01 fired. I had managed to get the muzzle velocity significantly higher, but cooling remained a difficult bet. The water cooling turned out to be far too bulky, so I had just refined the original heat sinks and called it good for the first attempt. Now that I’ve used it in combat situation, I knew that the slow firing speed was a fatal flaw. The elevator started taking me to the secondary facility.
The CAS, on the other hand, had worked absolutely flawlessly. For a normal soldier, the CAS was an incredible luxury. In a Paladin, it was absolutely invaluable. On top of all the things it managed and monitored, the accuracy they system allowed me was nothing short of breathtaking. As opposed to normal linked weapons, which would only shift their barrels to compensate for aim, the Paladin’s CAS could make minute corrections to the position of the weapon by overriding the suits movement. The user still had final control, but the system’s aim assistance could make even the most inexperienced marksman look like a veteran sniper. With that, in addition to the weapons control and thruster management, the CAS was nearly impossible for the Paladin to go without. I couldn’t take credit for it, I had just set some parameters in the program. Whoever had put together that glorious piece of software was a genius.
“Sam. Are you going to go inside.”
I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to.
But I promised her I would.
The door to the mess hall loomed in front of me like the gates of hell.
“Sam, please. We need this.”
I nodded shallowly. She was right. And I promised. My hands were shaking as I walked forward, removing a small, black rectangle from a cord around my neck. It was something I always carried with me. It was the base’s master key, and while I held it I had the highest authority in the facility. Not as high as the top brass, and I couldn’t change all the settings, but it gave me control of the base’s defense and fabricators. I brought it unsteadily towards the large sliding doors, and after a few, painful seconds, pressed it flat onto them, undoing a lockdown I had placed on the room more than seven months ago. The doors slid open with a soft whir, revealing a large, empty room.
“Take the recorder, Sam,” Adelaide said, as a spider bot approached me, carrying an earpiece with an attached camera, “I need to see this too.”
The mass hall was cavernous. It was meant to serve the trainees that would become Paladin pilots. There were dozens of long, plastic tables, complete with benches, that were arranged in neat lines around the room. They looked like oversized picnic tables. I started walking through the hall, my steps echoing on the tiled floors, the sound bouncing around me and dying off in the corners. I moved between the lonely benches. Only one of these had ever been used, and that was during happier times. Adelaide was silent as I reached the end of the hall, and stood before the door of the kitchen.
Panic loomed its ugly head again, and fear bloomed deep within me. But I promised her and I wouldn’t fail her again.
I pushed on the door and it swung open easily, welcoming me. The kitchen was disproportionately small compared to the mess hall, but that was due to the high amount of automation. One or two chefs could feed the entire base with ease. There were two doors at the back of the kitchen. One led to the massive freezer that stored the base’s long term supplies, which stayed at a constant temperature, the other to a smaller one with temperature control. For more flexible storage. My eyes did not process anything but the door to the smaller freezer. I thought for a wild second that I could hear the sound of a heart beating through its doors, calling to me, but then I realized it was my own, going wild in my chest. I somehow found myself at the door to the smaller freezer. My hand paused on the handle. It was shaking so much worse now, audibly rattling the handle. I steeled myself and pulled it open.
In the middle of the small, cold room, there was lone figure wrapped in white bed sheets.
I choked back something in my throat. I couldn’t stop here. I picked the bundle up in my arms, the cold unable to penetrate my jumpsuit. The part of my brain that wasn’t in shock was quietly surprised at how light it was, compared to the last time. I could cradle it in one arm now, if I needed to.
I walked back through the kitchen, back through the mess hall. I walked past the barracks, back to the elevator to the main facility. I walked past the engineering quarters, and the command center, and the commander’s quarters. I walked to the freight elevator, already waiting for me, a shovel propped up on its rails. I stood on it, the bundle still carefully held in both hands, as it slowly rose to the surface. The massive blast doors above slowly inched open, allowing the golden rays of the sunset to peak in. When the elevator came to a stop, I felt the sun on me for the first time in nine months. I felt the wind on my skin, and I felt the fresh air filling my lungs. The plains stretched around me in all directions, and the sound of the grass rustling filled my ears.
“Please go to the hill, Sam, the one she liked.”
I nodded, barely keeping myself in control. I cradled my burden in one hand, and picked up the shovel with the other. I don’t know how I got over there. I don’t really remember the walk, beyond the first step onto the dirt. I remember the feeling of the grass brushing against me. I remember the wind ruffling my short hair, and the bedsheets lightly flapping. Before I understood what was happening, I stood at the base of a little hill. I began to climb it, my newly forged body having little trouble with the ascent. When I reached the summit, I saw the old cottonwood tree growing crookedly off the top. I walked up to it, and placed the bundle gently at its base. I put my hand on the gnarled bark of the tree, leaning my weight against it for a moment.
I took the shovel in both hands, and started to dig, a little way away from the base of the old tree. For a while, all I could hear was the sound of the shovel in the dirt. I did not feel like I was controlling my body as I dug. I was a stranger inside myself, watching through the windows of my eyes as I went deeper and deeper into the ground, shovelful by shovelful. I knew when to stop, though I didn’t understand why I knew. The hole was my height now, about six feet deep. I climbed out of it, and walked over to the tree.
I knelt by the bundle. I could almost make something out under the wrappings. I was moving to pick it up when I head Adelaide whisper in my ear.
“Sam. Please let me see her one last time.”
I was worried. “Adelaide, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
I leaned forward, and with hands that were steady now, I gently pulled apart the sheets, revealing a woman in her early forties with frizzy orange hair and a peaceful smile. Death had sapped the happy glow from her face and closed those blue eyes that had always seemed to dance when she smiled. Over the intercom, I heard Adelaide stifle a sob.
We sat there for a moment, and I let her study Amy’s face for as long as she needed to.
“Okay,” she said, voice steadier, “I’m ready.”
I covered her face again, and wordlessly picked her up, carrying her over to the grave. I gingerly lowered myself, one arm holding Amy tight to my chest. I placed her onto the cold dirt floor. I wished I could do something else for her. I wished I could have made her a coffin. But she didn’t want that.
I climbed up to the surface again, a few pieces of dirt sliding down as I did, landing on Amy’s shroud. I wanted to go down there and wipe them off, even though I knew it was a stupid thought.
“Do you have anything you want to say to her?” I asked.
There was silence for a moment.
“Please let her hear me,” she said.
I sent a thought to the earpiece, allowing it to project sound.
“Mother,” she said, her voice cracking, “you were the most wonderful thing that will ever happen to me. I am so lucky, luckier than you’ll ever know, that you were the one that brought me into this world. You gave me a place here. You gave me unconditional love when you didn’t have to. You invited me into your family. You…” she broke off for a second, and got her voice back under control, though it was still quavering, “you gave me a life that I never realized was the best life I could have lived. You even gave me my best friend, and you were right about him. I… I just wanted to thank you for that, and tell you that I love you so much.”
It was quiet for a while, and the dying sun was painting the sky with swathes of orange and purple.
“Why did you leave me?” Adelaide said suddenly, and I heard her crying into the coms, “You promised me, so why did you leave me, mom?”
She stopped talking then, and all I heard were her quiet sobs. The hilltop was serene, and the chirping of crickets filled the air.
After I was sure that Adelaide didn’t have anything else she could say, I started to speak. “Hey Amy, it’s me. We’re doing okay down here. It’s uhh,” I said, my own voice faltering, “it’s been tough for me since you’ve been gone. I didn’t know you for very long, but you became important to me so fast that I didn’t even realize it. I miss you, a lot, I miss talking to you about your boring computer stuff and looking at pictures of your kids,” I stopped talking to wipe something away from my eyes, “Speaking of which, you raised a real handful of a daughter over here. You’d be proud of how much she’s grown. Don’t worry, I’m going to take good care of her for you. I promise.”
I looked for something else to say, but I didn’t trust myself to keep my composure if I kept going like that.
“Goodbye Amy,” I said finally, “I hope you find the peace you were looking for.”
Adelaide was still crying, and when I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to say, she told me there wasn’t. I picked the shovel back up again, and gently poured the first bit of earth onto her. Another shovelful followed the first, then another, and another, until the white sheet couldn’t be seen anymore, until the ground swallowed Amy up again.
When all that was left was a smooth mound of dirt, I let shovel drop. There were several large rocks scattered around the hilltop, and I found a good sized one and picked it up. I placed it as a crude headstone, then removed my multitool from one of the jumpsuit’s utility slots.
“Sam,” whispered Adelaide, voice wavering but back under control, “please inscribe the following on the stone.”
I nodded, and followed her directions. I carved away at the stone with the tool’s cutting laser, leaving smooth, clean letters.
HERE LIES AMY PHILIPS
HER WORK WAS HER LOVE, HER CHILDREN WERE HER LIFE
I sat back, and looked over my work.
“Thank you, Sam,” Adelaide said.
“There’s nothing to thank me for,” I replied.
The sun was almost gone underneath the horizon, and a dark blue light was falling over the plains. Above us, you could almost make out the stars.
“No,” Adelaide said, “thank you for keeping your promise to her.”
I realized my cheeks had been damp for a while now. I sat down, resting my head back onto the cottonwood tree, feeling the rough bark against me, and wept. I cried for my friends. I cried for Amy, for my sarcastic mom and my gentle dad, and for my kind little brother. I cried for Camille, my love, and the fact that I would never again see her beaming at me or hear her pretty laugh. I wept for the world that I had lost, and the people in it.