Burlington had really shitty whiskey, Mary decided as she grimaced at the empty shot glass. Sure, it came out of a fancy bottle, but she was pretty sure they’d started pouring bottom barrel piss into it. But she couldn’t do anything to change it, so she shrugged and let it go. She’d been doing that a lot recently, with the world ending and all.

She didn’t have it so bad, Mary reflected, pouring herself another shot, letting the last drops from the bottle drip into the glass. She had a nice income. She had standing in this weird little society that had popped up in the small towns scattered across America. Her job was dangerous, sure, but so was everyone’s now. She had lost her fair share of people, but so had everyone else. So, all in all, it could be a lot worse. She could have died in Colorado Springs like she was supposed to have. Dumb luck saved her from her fate; she was coming back from visiting her sister in Nebraska, on I-76 westbound when an incredibly bright flash of light lit up the horizon, and her radio went dead. She was smarter than to keep driving towards that so she pulled over in Sterling. Things progressed from there.

Mary found herself watching the lights flickering through the amber in her glass. Burlington kept their tavern lit with electricity, one of the three buildings in the town that were allowed to use it. City Hall and the clinic were the only other two. People, no matter what the situation, needed access to their booze. Sterling Outpost had a similar setup, but they had more electricity to spare, so they kept the lights in the town on at night.

She sighed. She was not looking forward to the trip back. Crossing that much territory was always dangerous, especially now that they lost the horses, and even more so when the Worms were pissed, which they undoubtedly would be now. She took her shot and made a disgusted face. She probably had to go check on the boys now. God knew what type of trouble they’d get into without her to babysit them. Besides, she needed more whiskey.

She got up, and stumbled a bit, catching herself on the table of her booth. Maybe she’d had a bit too much to drink. Well, that had never stopped her before. The Post was a dinky little tavern, but it was pretty clean. The bartender had half a brain in him, and even though his booze was shit, he made a mean Old Fashioned. The place was comfortably full, not packed but not desolate either. There wasn’t much else to do after dark anymore, and drinking killed time.

She scanned around for her partners, searching for one in particular. She spotted him, and sighed. Wade’s head poked out above a big crowd near the bar. He was about 6’2”, and had long black hair he kept tied in a ponytail. Easier than getting it cut, apparently. She had no qualms about using him as a landmark. If Wade was there, Mary had no doubt in her mind that Mike would be too. As she approached the crowd, she heard the story that was keeping them all there, and groaned.

“- fifteen of them. Fifteen Worms, by himself. I’ve never seen anything like it, killed them as easily as you’d kill a bug. He just destroyed the first ones from at least a half mile away with this big gun he kept, half as tall as Wade over there. I mean these Worms were absolutely blown to bits, and he never even missed a shot. Then he killed five of those fucking gorilla bastards with his bare hands. His bare hands people. I swear the man didn’t even look winded afterwards.”

“I thought you said he was a big robot,” someone called out from the crowd.

“I said he looked like a big robot, friend,” countered Mike, “no robot could move like that. Now, where was I… yeah, so he killed those Worms like he didn’t even notice em’, and we decided to go over, to thank him, y’know. And I got a good look at the guy, and holy shit, was he huge. Eight feet tell at least, made Wade over here look like a little kid.” Wade nodded solemnly, “And he was metal, like one of those cartoon heroes. He was all painted in white and red, and he had this big old shield on his chest. When he turned to look at us I almost crapped myself. He had this glowing red eye –“

“Visor,” Wade interjected.

“ – Yeah, visor, and when he looked at me I could feel it. He had his big gun out and I know if he decided we were annoying we’d be dead before we knew it. So we thanked him real politely, told him we owed him a favor, and scooted our asses out of there. He never said a single thing the entire time, just stared at us until we left.” He finished his tale with a dramatic swig of his beer.

Mary rolled her eyes so hard she thought they might pop out, but she stayed leaning against the bar and listened to the discussion that was going on in the crowd. She was curious what the made of the story.

“Well I think it’s pretty obviously bullshit,” Said a woman from the back, “Who the hell has equipment like that? The military was the only one and what’s left of them are sitting in North Dakota with their thumbs up their asses.”

“Could be mercs,” said a bearded man with tattoos running down his arm, “You got a few outfits popping up now, some of them are ex-military.”

The woman who had initially spoke snorted, “Please. I did some work for the military, and the tech this idiot is describing would be a highly-advanced prototype, if it even exists in the first place. Which I still don’t think it does.”

This one had a good head on her shoulders, thought Mary, tapping a finger on her empty glass. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, she wouldn’t have believed it either. She shuddered as she remembered that massive head turning to face her, splattered in gore, looking like the specter of death itself. She owed her life to that thing, but that didn’t stop it from scaring her shitless. She never wanted to see it again, honestly.

Over the clamor of the group, everyone giving their own pet theories, Wade spoke up. He had a quiet voice but it was deep, and when he talked people listened. “I don’t think it was mercs or the military,” He said, “The mercs don’t have the tech and we would have noticed the army coming back here.”

“Oh, then what do you think,” said another voice, the dumbass who had asked if it was a big robot.

“I think it was someone who got their hands on a military prototype, like this kind lady said,” He nodded at the smart one, who looked vindicated, “And they were on their way somewhere and happened to be passing by. They didn’t have anybody else with them. If they were military, or mercs, they wouldn’t be alone. All I know is, I saw the same thing Mike did. He did exaggerate a bit though.” He finished with a gentle smile.

Mary wished that both her partners were as smart as Wade. He was a good kid, calm, rational, and not annoying as hell. But, she thought, it would make for a much duller trip without the little chatterbox. He was a phenomenal shot too, which was quite the added bonus. She was still caught up in her musings when someone leaned at the bar next to her.

“Interesting duo you got there,” She said. She had a smooth, throaty voice.

Mary chuckled, “What made you think they were my duo?”

The woman laughed, “You came into the bar together, and you’ve been watching over them like a mother hen ever since. You three are travelling together, at the very least, but it seems like you’re working together as well.”

Mary turned to look at her, an eyebrow raised. The woman was young, she thought, though it was hard to tell with the cowboy hat she wore, and the red bandana tied under it, over her forehead. She wore a bomber jacket that hung open, with a t-shirt underneath.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch your name,” said Mary.

The woman stuck out her hand, “Jane.”

Mary took the handshake, appreciating how firm it was, “Mary.”

Pleasantries out of the way, Mary said, “How did you know we were partners?”

“Well, besides the fact that you came in together, packing some serious and identical firepower, I know that a group of Runners from Sterling Outpost was supposed to stop by here sometime this week. Not hard to put together,” said Jane with a smile, “Sorry if that’s not something you wanted out there.”

Mary waved a hand at her, “It’s not a problem, I’m just curious about what gave us way. It’s not like we’re doing anything secret in this town. Just dropping off a couple of letters, staying a couple days, drinking some god-awful whiskey.”

Jane gave a chuckle at that, “Yeah this place always gives the shit booze to the out-towners, keeps the locals pacified. Let me tell you what, I’ll buy your next round, and it’ll be the good stuff this time, if you’ll tell me all about your robot friend.”

“I was wondering when you’d get to what you wanted with me. But you seem like the type that wouldn’t care about flights of fancy like all that.”

“I normally wouldn’t,” Jane said with a nod, “But I’m kinda the leader around here. I make it my business to know what’s going on in my neighborhood.”

Mary rolled her eyes, “C’mon now, if we’re going to come to an understanding you’re gonna have to quit the bullshit.”

Jane held her hands up, “You caught me. I’m interested in where the thing came from. Your friend there had it right on the money, except I don’t think it was just passing through.”

Mary hummed noncommittally. “Why do you think that?”

“I know you know why, but I’ll spell out for you if you want. Thing like that, alone, needs a base of operations. Military tech that advanced is gonna take constant upkeep. That means it can’t go far from wherever it calls home. Even if it was travelling, the same restrictions apply, and no way that you could hide a resupply convoy on the plains. Also, by the fact that you came in here on foot, I suspect you had to ditch the horses to distract those Worms, which means the guy really pulled your ass out of the fire. Oh, and you’re also ex-military, special forces I’d wager.” Jane grinned Mary, “How’d I do?”

Really fucking well, Mary thought with shock.  This woman was smart.

“I’ll take your silence to mean that I hit the nail on the head,” said Jane, “now how about that drink?” She flagged down the bartender, and motioned at a bottle behind the counter. He grabbed it immediately, and pulled a pair of tumblers out from under the bar. He placed them with a clink, and left the bottle next to them. Jane uncorked the top, and poured a good amount of amber liquid into glasses. Mary raised a glass at her, then took a long swig.

“Ah, that’s so much fucking better,” she said with a satisfied sigh, “Alright, you’ve successfully bribed me. First of all, it killed eleven Assimilators in under five minutes, which should give you an idea of its capabilities. The mech suit, it wasn’t a robot, was about seven feet tall, give or take a few inches, painted white and red. No camo, which was a dumb call in my opinion. It was using a railgun, by the plasma trail I saw, one of the most powerful I’ve seen on a mobile platform. The thing was built like a fucking tank though, I saw it take more than a few blows from a couple M-1 class Assimilators and not even flinch. It was fast as hell too, and I’m not just talking about top speed. It could strafe like you wouldn’t believe. Propelled by… I wanna say anti-grav thrusters by the maneuverability and blue glow, but I wasn’t close enough to tell for sure. Whoever was in it was well trained, but pretty raw. They made a few mistakes but handled themselves decently overall.” She stopped and thought, “Weird thing was, whoever was in there made a beeline straight for us, and seemed to go after the Worms closest to us. Not many folks out there these day that would rush to help a stranger, especially at the risk of their own hide.”

Jane gave her an appraising look, “Damn, definitely special forces.”

“Force Recon, specifically. It was my job to notice things everyone else didn’t.” Mary said, taking another drink, “Now, are you going to tell me the real reason why you’re so curious?”

“I suppose I do owe you that much. I’m interested in an acquisition, of sorts. Remember that installation we were talking about? There’s bound to be a hell of a lot of fancy toys back there. Weapons, ammunition, et cetera. My thoughts are, no one person deserves all that, right? We could use some of the repair equipment to tune up some things we have here in Burlington. More importantly, there’s bound to be a power supply there. Burlington is running on a few solar cells now, and if I’m honest, that’s not cutting it anymore, with how much the population has grown.”

Mary sighed, “This is a recruitment drive, isn’t it? Thanks, but hell no.”

Jane looked confused, “I didn’t even get the recruitment part, and you’re saying no? I’m willing to offer you a hefty sum of cash, and any –“

“Nope. The guy, or gal I guess, saved my life. I owe them for that, so again, thanks, but no thanks.”

“Military types, absurdly loyal huh?” said Jane, studying her, “I’ll tell you what I think. I think you’re scared of that mech, and you don’t wanna go near it again.”

“You didn’t see it,” Mary said simply, “Mike was right about one thing. It was like nothing I’d seen before.”

“Huh. Well, I’m not planning on fighting the thing if I can help it. If it comes to that, I doubt it can survive a hovertank’s railgun to the chest,” said Jane with a wry smile, “but I can see that your mind is made up. Shame, but I get it.” She finished her drink and put her glass down. “Keep the bottle, and let me know if you change your mind. You can find me in the police department during the day, or in here every other time. Nice talking to you, Mary.” Jane stood up, tipped her hat at Mary, then walked away from the bar.

Mary watched her go, shaking her head. The girl was going to get herself and a lot of other people killed. She hadn’t seen it. It was like a demon had come to Earth. Or, she thought as she poured another glass, an avenging angel.

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