I watched the mercenary scout group, my arms crossed impassively. After Rebecca’s spirited introduction, Aaron called her over sternly, and she immediately moved back to the group. All five of them were now huddled together. I suppose they didn’t see me as a threat, because none of them had a gun trained on me. Not that it would’ve mattered, their weapons were essentially useless against a Paladin.

I tried snooping on them, but I was surprised to find they had deployed some sort of noise scrambling device. I wasn’t sure how they worked, I hadn’t had an interest in them before the end of the world, but now that it was used against me I needed to look into finding a way around them. My goddamn to-do list just kept growing. After the second minute of waiting, I started to plan my Assault Paladin. It would have to be larger than this one, to be able to handle the heavy weaponry I was going to stuff it with. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of nine feet tall. Luckily, I had designed the Merlin with plenty of room to spare, anticipating something like this down the line. I caught movement through my visor, and quickly snapped back to attention.

Aaron was approaching me, no longer quite as cautious. The other Red Eagles stayed back, and watched him. Aaron stopped a respectful distance away. He opened his mouth, and even his fucking teeth were perfect. The genetic lottery was bullshit. I tried to divert my seething jealousy as he spoke, “I think we can work something out, depending on how long you’ve been in this area.”

I nodded, “That’s a fair condition. I have been living around here for about four months, give or take.”

“Excellent,” said Aaron, a gleam in his eyes, “Then I believe we have a deal. Ask your questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.”

Wow. These guys were way nicer than the slavers. I mean, that wasn’t a high bar, more like it was a bar that was embedded twenty feet underground, but still. Talking to reasonable people was refreshing.

“I’m very glad to hear it. I will try to limit my questions.” I said, “My first is about your Red Eagle Company. I wouldn’t presume to ask about your operations, but I was curious as to how the outfit formed, what type of jobs you typically do, and how many others like it there are.” I’d seen a good amount of settlements on the satellites, but I’d never heard of mercenary groups. They might be handy to have as an option if I were to assault a particularly tough Hive Cluster.

“I can answer that easily,” said Aaron, and a look of fanaticism rose on his face, “The Red Eagles are the premier mercenary outfit in Colorado, formed by Commander Berston, a hero of the war. We boast the most men, a staggering 2,000 strong. Our Company is outfitted in only the finest gear, military standard in all aspect. Our armored capabilities are exceptional. Our men and women are brave and will fight to the last man. We primarily deal in defense contracts, guarding innocent civilian caravans from the Worms, as well as hunting raiders. But we only take contracts that we deem just, and compared to the other so-called mercenaries we act with professionalism and grace. We-“ He stopped to take a deep breath, and I took the opportunity to snap him out of his fervor.

“Uhh, thank you, but I believe I have received the answers to my questions.” I hadn’t really, but I was afraid the man was going to pass out if I kept letting him talk. I saw Rebecca rolling her eyes behind him. Alrighty then, hopefully the next one wouldn’t send him back into crazy town.

I waited for him to catch his breath, and continued, “Since the war ended, I have kept myself mostly isolated, except for speaking with wandering groups such as yours. I have seen many settlements around, but I have not interacted with any of them. I always wondered, though: Why don’t the Assimilators just wipe them out? They certainly have the numbers.”

If he was surprised by the admission that I hadn’t been to any settlements at all in nine months, he didn’t show it. “Well, the short answer is that we don’t really know,” Aaron said slowly, tapping his well-defined chin, “But the longer answer is that Worms do sometimes launch attacks on towns, but never ones that could wipe them out, and the attacks themselves are quite rare. They’ll kill a few towners, and retreat. But if you encounter a Worm outside of a settlement, they will hunt you without mercy. It’s quite perplexing, and even the best minds in the Red Eagles have no idea why our enemies are acting this way.”

I nodded, “That about lines up with what I’d suspected, but it is nice to have it clarified. On the topic of the Assimilators, I have heard rumors of them banding together in groups that have a focal point. Do you know if these rumors are true? Have you ever seen one of these ‘hives’?”

Aaron grimaced and answered me, “The Red Eagles were tasked with destroying one near the settlement of Canon City. To this date, it’s the only contract our group has ever failed. The number of Assimilators was not the problem. We even outnumbered them. It was the Hive Lords. They’re what tipped the balance. The hive had five of them, surrounding the Matriarch at its center.” He shivered, “I had never seen a Hive Lord in person before. The only thing that saved us was the fact that our Commander sounded the retreat as soon as the scouting groups, ours included, told him what we were up against.”

“Be lucky he did,” I said, “Your army would have been slaughtered. I have encountered several of those monsters, and every one was a nightmare incarnate, capable of things I would not believe, had I not seen them with my own eyes.”

“You’re full of shit,” piped up a voice from the back, and I was surprised to see it was Jackson, not Rebecca. She did grace him with a hard elbow to the ribs though, which I appreciated, and he glared at her, “What!? He is! If he had actually ‘encountered’ a Hive Lord, he’d be dead right now.”

I turned to look at him, and my stare bored into his eyes, my red visor glowing, “I would not lie about what I have seen,” I said simply, then dismissed him, leaving him looking like he was about to piss himself. And to be fair, I wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t wrong either. Every time I had fought a Hive Lord in the simulator I got killed in various new and exciting ways. But this cockbag didn’t need to know that.

I think there was new respect in Aaron’s gorgeous brown eyes, the bastard, so I decided to go for one more question, one that had been bothering me greatly, “As I mentioned to Rebecca before, I had the misfortune of running into a band of slavers that called themselves a press gang. I began talking to them in the hopes of deterring the group from raiding a nearby outpost. Whoever was controlling them ordered them to attack me, and when they realized the attack wouldn’t be successful, killed the entire press gang.”

Aaron scowled, and looked over his shoulder, then back at me, “I’m not the best one to answer that, but before I hand it off to Allie I feel compelled to let you know that the men and women of the Red Eagle company destroy slavers in all situations, contract or no. We have a very firm code of ethics, and protecting civilians no matter the situation is a primary tenant.” He coughed and then gestured to Allie, who took a step forward.

Allie was cute, in that little sister kind of way, and she smiled up at me with big doe eyes, “Well, the poor saps you’re talking about were press gangs, as you said. They’re a sad lot of motherfuckers, and about the only way to deal with them is to put em’ down. But the ones that control them come from out east. Old government ain’t around no more, so legality is up to whatever fuckhead has the biggest gun. Around Kansas, that’s a merry little gang of assholes known as the Kansas United Townships, a group of the cruelest excuses for human beings you’ll find west of the Mississippi. Only town that we know for sure is a part of them is Hays, but the place is a fucking fortress. Anyway, the people that are in charge are a bunch of limpdick old men that made all the horrible old stuff legal, slavery being one of them,” she paused a second, “Though I guess they don’t really care what the slave’s skin color is so at least they’re progressive. Anyway, these douchebags force gangs of death-chipped slaves to hunt in the surrounding states for ‘merchandise’, and burn their brains out if they don’t. Any mercenary group with a shred of decency,” I saw Aaron caress the Red Eagle on his chest, “knows to put the poor fuckers down if they see ‘em. It’s why I joined up with the Eagles in the first place.” She paused to look at me, “Speaking of which, there’re usually a hundred of them in a gang, and you said they couldn’t beat you?”

I nodded, a little off balance.

Allie gave a low whistle, “Damn, you’re a tough one, aren’t you? Good job wiping the sad sons of bitches out. It probably wasn’t very pleasant, but you were doing them, and the rest of the towners around here, a favor.” She then smiled shyly at me and stepped back, looking at the ground and fidgeting adorably. I wondered if every squad in the Red Eagles were as batshit crazy as these guys.

Aaron walked up again, and crossed his arms, “Now, Uther, I think we’ve answered your questions. Care to help us out?”

“Of course,” I said calmly, “I’ll help in any way I can. What are you looking for out here?” I had already determined from my snooping that they weren’t trying to find Camelot, so I wasn’t quite as cautious.

“A good while back, maybe a month or two, an advance team of Red Eagle’s came through this area. There were ten of them, and they would’ve had a similar insignia to ours. Their trackers went dead around here, and the last communication we received from them indicated that they had spotted a large Worm hunting party.” He looked at me, “Have you seen or heard anything about them?”

I felt my mouth grow numb and my hands started to shake in my Paladin. Ten of them. Pursued by a large group of Worms. I knew. I noticed the scouting squad look at me curiously, and I gave a mental shake of my head, trying to fall back to Uther.

“I apologize,” I said, speaking slowly. If I lied to them, told them I hadn’t seen anything, the issue would go away. If I told the truth, they’d want revenge, because I just let their friends die. “I am afraid that…” I faltered and looked over the group, noting the disappointed faces. Shit. “Ah damn. I’m sorry, your advance team is most likely dead. And I’m at least partly responsible.” I winced as the faces changed to anger.

“Explain,” said Aaron, his eyes narrowing in suspicion, “and leave nothing out.”

“It was a bit before I actually noticed them,” I said in a rush, “I wasn’t looking for humans, I was just keeping an eye out for Worms, and a huge hunting party suddenly popped up. I didn’t realize until I started keeping an eye on it, but there were ten people running from them, from the north to the south,” I paused. I had to keep it together, “I… the Worms that were chasing them, I can send my readout to your CAS, but there were a lot of them, and for some reason there was,” I hesitated, “a Hive Lord in the group.”

Adelaide had been listening in, and had sent the scanning data over to them when Aaron had readied his CAS for data transfer. Aaron nodded at me to continue.

“It… well they were chasing your advance team, and I watched as they kept going. They’d pass by me if I didn’t do anything. I wanted to help, I did. But I,” I gulped, “I was afraid to. I knew the Worms would catch them if they kept moving like that, and I knew that I could draw them away. But I did nothing, and I just let them pass by. That… I’m sorry for that, and I know that doesn’t mean much,” I bowed low, “I’m sorry that I let your team die.”

I heard Allie cursing lowly in the background, and Jackson started to mutter something. I shuddered, waiting for admonishment with my eyes closed. I felt like vomiting, but at least I hadn’t lied to them. At least they knew what happened now. I waited in the stretching silence, sweating in my Paladin.

I heard Rebecca sigh, “I can’t believe the dumbasses got themselves into something like that. Oi, Aaron, the scanner read out clears through my CAS, it isn’t faked. And our mopey metal friend over there was understating the problem. There were thirty-three of them, not including the Hive Lord.”

“What did they do to piss off a group like that?” Aaron said with disbelief, “Hive Lords don’t go on patrols, and neither do mechanoids,” he turned to me, “do you know exactly where they caught them?”

“Uhh,” I said, confused and off balance yet again, “I don’t know exactly, but I’ll send my CAS’ estimate over. It might narrow it down.”

Aaron nodded, “Excellent.” He addressed the rest of his group, “Alright, we’re going to move to that position, and do some searching there. Maybe we can figure out what the advance team got themselves into.” The team let out a chorus of ‘ayes’ and started to quickly form up.

“Wait.” I said, “Hold up.” I shook my head, “You’re not upset?”

Jackson looked over at me, “The fuck would we be upset at you about? If you were lying I’d kick your ass, but I saw that those scans. Group like that would’ve wiped out an entire assault team, let alone one douche in fancy armor. I’m pissed that the team died, I knew a couple of them, but that’s the fucking Worms’ fault, not yours.”

“That was shockingly well put,” said Rebecca in awe, “I didn’t know you could speak in full sentences like that.”

“Fuck you Rebecca! I can be good at words sometimes!” Jackson yelled at her.

I was trying formulate a response when Tom spoke up, “Advance Teams… I’ve been a part of them before, back during the war. They’re in the wilds with no support. They know what they’re getting themselves into. You’re a good sort, I see that, but not everything is your responsibility.”

“Yeah dipshit,” Rebecca chimed in, “what were you going to do, wriggle at them? Your caterpillar powers aren’t going to kill many Hive Lords.”

I couldn’t help myself and chuckled a little at that, shaking my head, “Alright. But I know that I could’ve done more for them… so I’d like to offer my help in searching. My scanners are pretty damn advanced, and I can have some eyes above,” I looked at Aaron, who seemed interested, “Please. Think of it as allowing me to gain closure, while making amends for what I couldn’t do.”

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