“I was a child when they put me in here,” I said, staring off into the distance wistfully, “They said that it was the only way to save my life. My injuries were just… too severe. My mother cried and cried, and my father, he blamed himself for my state, and drank himself to an early death over it. He had been driving the car, you see, on the night of the incident. I yearned to tell him, nay! it was not his fault, and hold his hand in mine… but alas, I could not. My mother died shortly thereafter, of a broken heart, and I was alone. Ever since then, all those years ago, I have never felt the sunlight on my skin, never known a person’s touch. When the rest of the children were playing with their action figures, I could not for fear that I would break them. I remember snapping my favorite dino-cop, Alfonse, in half, and crying to see the monster I had become… Metal Butt, the children called me, and I hear them mocking me even now,” I sighed, and put my face in my hands, as if I could no longer bear my reality, “I have been alone in here for as long as I can remember, and I fear that will stay here until I die.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry man,” said Jackson, scratching his chin awkwardly, “I didn’t think it would be like that. I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

“No,” I said nobly, “do not blame yourself. It is a story I must tell, for doing so is a balm upon my heart. I only wish…” I stopped and frowned.

“You only wish what?” Jackson prompted me gently, sympathy in his eyes.

“I only wish that I could have seen mother’s face before she died, with my own two eyes, not through this damnable visor,” I fell into a pained silence, gripped by emotions. Jackson lay a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, and Rebecca finally burst into laughter. She had been holding on valiantly; she had been silently shaking for the past minute of my tragic story.

“Rebecca!” said Jackson reproachingly, “Have some respect!” There was a look of righteous indignation on his face which only made her laugh harder, doubling over and waving a hand. Tom and Allie had started to laugh too, Allie’s a hearty guffaw that sounded horrifically out of place coming from her petite body, and Tom’s a noise which was like a donkey being strangled. A horrified look of realization crossed Jackson’s face when he saw their reactions.

“You fucker!” He yelled at me, his expression one of heartfelt betrayal, “You lied to me!”

I couldn’t help myself and started to chuckle, further enraging him.

“I’ve never… seen someone that… gullible before,” Rebecca managed to wheeze, “You ate that bullshit up… like it was Wagyu beef.”

Allie chimed in, “What the fuck were you expecting, asking a dumbass question like that?”

“I thought that ‘Why are you wearing that armor?’ was a very valid question!” spluttered Jackson.

Aaron cut in, “Quit the chatter, we’re still in enemy territory.” There was a smirk threatening his impassive face.

Rebecca rolled her eyes at him, still sniggering a bit, “Aye aye, fun police.”

It had been a few hours since the Red Eagle scouting party and I had begun to make our way over to the where my CAS estimated the advance team had been caught. The team, mostly Rebecca, had managed to bring out of my funk with a combination of sarcasm and insults, and by now I felt comfortable enough to drop most of Uther. It was nice interacting with a group like this. I’d been missing that in the months underground. They had a very interesting dynamic. They acted like a group of rowdy college students most of the time, but would snap into a deadly quiet, professional attitude when Aaron made a direct or serious order. I wish Adelaide could have joined in, but when I offered she said she wasn’t ready for something like that. I didn’t press the issue, but I was slightly disappointed. Hearing Rebecca verbally spar with her would have been mighty entertaining.

We hadn’t found anything of note yet. The scout team was incredibly thorough, combing over every inch of a wide swathe of land. For my part, I kept my scanners going on full power, and (limitedly) linked them to the others’ CAS. They were moving slowly south, being careful to follow the exact route the advance team had taken. I was told to walk behind the group as much as I could to avoid messing up any evidence with my clumsy metal gait.

Aaron stopped us about ten minutes later, “Alright, here’s where it gets serious,” he said, addressing the scout team, “We’re nearing the estimated location where they went down. Fan out and keep a five-foot gap in between you. Holler if you find anything that looks like it could be relevant.” He looked at me next, “Uther, could you continue to look out for any metal or other technology? You were right when you said you had good scanners, those things are incredible.”

“Aw shucks,” I said, daintily twisting my giant toe in the dirt, “You’re gonna make me blush.”

He snorted at me, “Alright, let’s get moving. And remember: Be careful. We don’t want to accidentally miss anything. Any information we get could be crucial.”

As the scout group began to fan out, they turned far more serious than they had previously been. I wisely decided to keep my witticisms to myself from there on. They had fully switched to professional mode. As they started their achingly slow walk forward, Adelaide began to talk over the coms, “Sam, I’m done with the surveys, and I’m returning to your position. I recorded some very interesting data that we need to review as soon as possible.”

“Okay Adelaide,” I responded, “Will you be able to provide an extra pair of eyes from up there? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I’d rather be out of here sooner than later. I gotta take a shit like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I suppose I would not believe that,” said Adelaide, “I will be over to assist you shortly. Additionally, you forgot to restrict your voice to inside the Paladin.”

Ah fuck. I looked over at the scout team, who were staring at me in silence.

“So… do you want us to wait while you find a bush?” asked Tom.

 

 

After a hurried explanation of who I was talking to (leaving out small details like the fact that she was a hyper intelligent alien that lived in computers), the Red Eagle team decided that we should just wait for her to show up rather than keep scouting without aerial assistance.

“So what type of bird you got up there?” asked Allie curiously, “None of the scouts mentioned anything about seeing a ship out this far.”

“If it’s a butterfly I’ll be really happy,” said Rebecca, “It would just fit you so well.”

I gave her a metal middle finger, and responded to Allie’s question, “Well… it’s hard to describe, but she’ll be arriving shortly now. My partner’s a bit shy though, stays in the cockpit mostly. I’ll see if I can get her to say hi.”

Adelaide piped up in my coms, “Perhaps. Listening in on your conversations with these humans has lead me to be inclined to trust them. Enough to speak to them, at least.”

“How far out are you?” I asked, checking my HUD, “Can’t see you on the mini-map.”

“I’ll be arriving in one minute. I plan on landing a short distance to your north to avoid disturbing any evidence. I’ll introduce the Merlin, then I will ascend to a higher position.”

“Roger that Ghost Rider,” I said.

“You call your pilot Ghost Rider?” said Aaron excitedly, “That’s one of my favorite movies!” Of course it was.

Anything I was about to say was interrupted by the low hum of powerful anti-grav engines. I saw Tom’s jaw drop in shock, and I turned to follow his line of sight. The Merlin was approaching us quickly from the west, getting visibly closer second by second. As it got near us, the anti-gravs flared, and the large gunship entered a wide banking turn that ended a good way north of us. It hovered low over the ground, kicking up clouds of dust, looking gorgeous in its white and red paint. Four landing skids emerged from the bottom, and it came to a gentle rest on the ground, engines humming in idle. I rolled my eyes. Show off.

“Holy fucking shit,” said Tom. I stared at him. He hadn’t cursed once in the four hours. “Where the hell did you get something like that?” He looked at me and then back at the gunship, his head swiveling like he was watching Ping-Pong, “That’s top of line, military grade hardware! And I’ve never seen the design before! Is that a prototype?”

Adelaide made smug, happy noise in my coms, proud of her current body. “Well,” I said slowly, “Would you believe me if I told you I whipped it up myself?”

He gave me a look that said I was full of shit, which was a bit hurtful. I had been telling the truth after all. “Yeah, sure.” He said scathingly, “Whipped it up. Fine, don’t tell me.” Ouch.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist ‘cause the man won’t share his most important secrets,” said Allie, “But I am curious. How in the seven hells do you refuel that thing?”

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, “the Merlin’s got a couple anti-matter reactors, doesn’t need fuel.” As soon as I said it I cursed my big stupid dumb mouth. That was not information they needed. Apparently, Adelaide wasn’t the only show off. I reluctantly turned to Tom, who had made a strangled sort of noise.

“A-anti-matter reactors?” He stammered, “Two of them!? That’s absolutely insane! That’s idiotically extravagant! That’s… so beautiful.” He whispered the last part.

I looked at Rebecca helplessly, and I think she got the message. “Tom is a bit of an airplane aficionado,” she explained, “He goes fucking nuts for the things, always blabbers about Warthogs and flying-fortresses and all that shit.”

I felt something grabbing my Paladin’s arm and I looked down to see Tom staring up at me, starry eyed, “What’s its top speed? What weapons does it have? How much power can the anti-matters put out? Cargo capacity? Thrust? Can I ride in it?”

“Alright, simmer down,” said Aaron, cutting off further questions, “We’ve pissed away enough time here. Let’s keep moving.”

Thank God for the fun police. Tom reluctantly let me go as the Merlin’s engines spooled to life, lifting it directly into the sky, climbing to an altitude where it wouldn’t disturb the ground and hanging there. If there was anything to find, I had confidence that Adelaide would detect it. The Merlin’s scanners were stupidly powerful right now. I had outfitted it for Hive Cluster reconnaissance rather than combat, and Adelaide could interpret the data incredibly efficiently.

We fanned out and began our search, the comforting hum of the anti-gravs high above us. The squad went back to strict silence, focused on their task. After about ten minutes, Adelaide’s voice came through the coms, “Sam, there is some sort of digital device buried 200 feet from your position. It appears to be a black box of some sort. I’m marking it on your map.” A yellow dot appeared on my mini-map, south-east of me.

“Hey guys,” I called out, “looks like Adelaide found something.”

“Excellent,” said Aaron happily, “We’ll have something to report to the Commander.” I could almost see his tail wagging.

“About time,” Jackson whined, “My feet are starting to cramp.”

I shared the CAS info with the scout team, and we made our way over to the spot Adelaide had marked. It rapidly became clear that a struggle had occurred here. There wasn’t any blood; the summer’s afternoon showers had taken care of that. But there was dirt overturned, and blast marks that were etched into rocks. Aaron signaled to Allie, and she pulled a multi tool off the small of her back. It unfolded with a click, and she carefully began to dig at the map marker. We took up guard around her, which was a bit useless considering Adelaide would spot any threat from miles away, but hey, it gave us something to do.

Allie suddenly stopped and put aside her multi tool, then motioned to Jackson. Together they began to excavate the rest of the way with their hands. Jackson let out a noise of satisfaction, pulling something out of the ground. It was a small black rectangle with a Red Eagle painted on it. Aaron took it, and turned it over in his hands.

“CAS emergency recorder,” he said softly, “and it’s going be heavily encrypted. We’ve got to get this back to the convoy ASAP.”

“God damn it,” said Jackson with a groan, “Now we gotta walk our asses all the way back?”

“Quit your bitching,” said Rebecca, eliciting a loud ‘fuck you!’, “it’s only a few days back.”

I conferred with Adelaide for a moment, making sure I kept the conversation from leaking out. I raised a hand, “Hey guys?”

Aaron turned to me, “Ah, thanks for the help Uther,” he said gratefully, “We would never have found that if it weren’t for you.”

“Hey, no problem. Least I could do,” I said, “but I was just wondering if you’d like a ride back to your convoy?” I stuck my thumb over my shoulder as Adelaide brought the Merlin to a hover just behind me, the anti-gravs glowing a vivid blue.

“Eeep,” said Tom.

 

 

The engines hummed as the Merlin touched down a few miles from the convoy’s position. I hadn’t wanted to get too close it. I had about thirty-three percent trust in the 4th Scouting Group. I knew they probably wouldn’t stab me in the back, and I had enjoyed my time with them. But that pseudo-trust didn’t extend to the other 2,000 mercenaries that they were pals with. I’d had Adelaide scramble the scout team’s automatic CAS recordings and scans of both myself and the Merlin. Again, nothing stopped them from describing my technology to other people, but I hoped that wouldn’t give too much away.

I was also itching with curiosity about what was in the black box they had recovered, but Adelaide informed me she’d probably need more time than a quick Merlin ride over to decrypt the thing, then encrypt it back again. I’d decided the risk wasn’t worth it. I didn’t have many friends in this new world, and I wanted to leave as good of an impression as possible on the Red Eagles. From what I’d seen and heard from everyone in the scout team, they seemed like they could be a good bunch. Getting caught hacking the highly secure final recordings of their dead advance team probably wouldn’t give me many brownie points.

The ramp opened, and I followed the scout team as they funneled out. They were illuminated by the setting sun as they stepped back onto the plains. I stopped at the bottom of the ramp and looked at the squad. It had been a while since I had that much fun talking to a group of people like that. I saw Aaron opening his mouth to say something but I cut him off.

“Hey,” I said, and I switched off the modulated baritone, letting my real voice escape, “It seems poorly timed, but I should probably introduce myself now.” I held up a hand, “I’m Sam. It’s nice to meet all of you.”

Rebecca grinned at me, dimples forming in her cheeks, “Yeah, Uther was a dumb fucking name. Nobody in their right mind would call their kid that. It was nice to meetcha Sam. Oh, and that Adelaide girl.” Adelaide had introduced herself as the pilot during the flight over, but had kept the door to the cockpit securely shut.

“Sam, huh?” said Jackson, “That’s weirdly normal for a big metal robot.”

“Shut up, Jackson,” said Allie, “But yeah, it’s been a fucking blast working with you. If you need someone to help you kick some slavers’ dicks straight into their guts, lemme know.”

Tom spoke next. During the flight, he had looked like he was about to cream his pants, but now he’d returned to his normal, stoic self, “It’s been good, Sam. I’d like to fly with you again,” he paused to look longingly at the Merlin, “and tell Adelaide it was nice to meet her too.”

Aaron gave me a deep nod, “Thank you for your help, Sam. You’ve saved us a lot of trouble, and allowed us to get some invaluable information to the Red Eagles. The information we gave you in exchange wasn’t enough, and we owe you a favor now.” He walked up to me, and signaled at me to lower my head, speaking softly “I know you still blame yourself for our comrades’ death, and I know that you won’t stop blaming yourself. But I hope that you find peace with it soon. I don’t hold you responsible.” He handed me a small black radio with a long antenna, “This is a communications device keyed in to our frequency. Keep it off if you’re worried about us tracking you, but if you need the Red Eagles for anything, or just want to say hello, don’t be afraid to get in contact.” It was very nice gesture, even if he was just trying to curry favor with the freakishly well-equipped stranger he met. He went back to his squad mates, and they stood in a line.

“It’s been nice working with you lot,” I said, trying to make my smile go into my voice, “And I’m sure I’ll be seeing you all again at some point. Most of my acquaintances are Worms, and you guys make marginally better conversation partners.”

I got of chorus of responses, ranging from ‘fuck off’ to ‘see you around’. The squad turned and walked away. I was pretty happy. This was the first human interaction I hadn’t completely fucked up since I got out on the surface, and I had a great time to boot. I was about to go back in the ship when I saw Rebecca stop and turn around.

“Hey, Caterpillar Man,” she yelled, “You’re way better as Sam than that Uther douchebag, so I’d drop that dumbass act if I were you. Also, try not to get killed, yeah? It’s hard to find someone worth talking to out here, and your corpse probably wouldn’t be very witty.”

The ramp started to raise. “I’ll keep that in mind,” I said with a chuckle, making sure the PA made the words loud enough for her to hear. The ramp finished closing and I stood in the empty drop bay. One thought consumed my mind.

God damn did I have to shit.

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