I sat in the Command Center the next morning, working on the design for the Heavy Assault Paladin. I was starting to get seriously pissed at it. It just kept on getting bigger, too large and heavy to be feasible for the anti-gravs to propel while having any sort of efficient power consumption. I was going about this the wrong way, I knew that, but I couldn’t figure out what the fucking right way was. I’d gone through four separate complete revisions of the damned thing, but no matter how much I tweaked it I kept arriving at a point where the thing was just unwieldy. Even if I could get the power supply up to snuff, there was a reason the Paladin was as small as it was in the first place. It was to make it so that the pilot could have more natural control over it, be able to move in it mostly like they were moving their own body. That wasn’t going to happen in a suit that was more than ten foot tall.

I sighed and saved the design I had been working on. I knew better than to try to force through a block. Inspiration would come to me, but until it did I was just wasting time. I’d already done my exercises in the simulator today, led by the ever-pleasant Danna, so I switched the holoprojector to the satellite images I’d been reviewing. With the information that Allie had cursed at me yesterday, it was confirmed that the slavers were located out of Kansas. We also had the confirmed name of one of their cities, Hays. But that’s where the good news stopped. I groaned out loud as I looked over the satellite images.

First off, the population was absolutely massive in comparison to any settlement I’d seen that was still standing. It had a whopping 40,000 people living in it, which was even larger than it had been before the war. My guess was that after the Assimilators had dispersed, a few nearby towns had merged into it. That made it a target, but it also gave it a lot of manpower. Allie hadn’t been lying when she said that the place was like a fucking fortress. Whoever had designed their defenses knew what they were doing. There were heavily fortified checkpoints scattered in strategic locations, and from what I could tell there were multiple anti-air vehicles and emplacements throughout the city. But what was absolutely batshit bonkers was the number of hovertanks they had. I spotted at least thirty of them. This town had a small army, and from what I could tell most of it had military grade equipment. With the entirety of humanity at war, there had been a lot of it around before it ended, but when the military was wiped out so was most of their equipment. My only guess was that someone in the city had found a reserve stock of weapons and vehicles, or a fabricator that could manufacture them.

I mulled over my options. My Paladin could kick a whole hell of a lot of ass, and the Merlin packed quite a wallop too. But up against Hays… I wasn’t confident that I could take them in a straight fight. I could probably pick off the hovertanks one by one, but I didn’t know if all they had was thirty of them. There could be more in a warehouse, in reserve. Those fortifications were also a problem. I didn’t have a lot of bunker-busters on me. The railgun could wreck some shit, but it had limited ammo. I could get around that by stuffing the Merlin to the gills with spare ammunition, but with the amount of anti-air they had, it wasn’t worth the risk to fly it around there. I tapped a hand on the desk. I was skirting around the real problem here, that it was absolutely pants-on-head insane to attack an entire city on my own. Even if I won, what the hell would I do after that? Shoot their mustache twirling leader in the face then ride off into the sunset? I needed something that could govern them after I was gone, that could restore order when…

“The Red Eagles!” I yelled, smacking a hand to my forehead. If I offered them all the plundered military hardware in Hays, they might help me out. It’s not like I needed any of that shit; Camelot’s fabricators could make whatever I needed. I was pretty sure I had better intel than them, so they would work with me for that reason alone, not to mention that I could probably take half the city’s army by myself. I just needed a firm plan of attack, so I didn’t sound like a crazy person. I took a second to think, then slowed my roll a little bit. I needed a better handle on how they operated before anything else. I wasn’t sure that attacking and holding a major city was their MO. Also, I needed to be positive they wouldn’t stab me in the back and steal my shit. But it was the best idea I had right now, so I’d refine it with Adelaide when she got back, and come up with hopefully better plans in the meanwhile.

I checked the map in the corner of the holoprojector for her location. She was currently flying the Merlin, doing reconnaissance sweeps of the Hive Cluster we’d hit the day before. The Cluster hadn’t reacted dramatically to their patrol being wiped out, only sending out a couple of scouts. We’d keep an eye on it, but if we were expecting a massive change in their behavior it didn’t look like we’d get it. I had a niggling suspicion that it would take a torpedo to their Matriarch’s tendrily face to see any real changes.

I reached my arms above my head and stretched. I figured it might be a good time to start running through my to-do list. I opened up the files for the advanced scanner tech to detect potentially cloaked Assimilators. Then I got an idea for really cool new weapon set for the Paladin, and got distracted drawing that up. Fancy scanners would have to wait. At least I’d finished the cyberwarfare suite for the Paladin. I was putting the finishing touches on the basic shape of my new toys when Adelaide’s voice started coming in over Camelot’s PA. We’d rigged up the Merlin’s coms to be able to connect to the base’s.

“Sam, we have a situation developing. Please suit up. You’ll need to use the catapults, time is of the essence,” she said, urgency in her tone.

I had already started heading to the Arming Station in the Command Center when she had said the word ‘situation’. “Roger that Ghost Rider,” I said, “Can I get a sitrep?” I stepped into the suit, and it ran through its diagnostics. The doors slid closed behind me, and the catapult launched me to the surface.

“I will fill you in after we meet at the rendezvous point I have designated on your map,” she said, “Get to it as soon as possible.”

I located the dot on my map that indicated the rendezvous, and started making my way towards it, traveling near the Paladin’s full speed. The scenery flew by me, the plains turning into an indistinct blur. She’d set the meet up point almost directly west of the base, a few miles outside the perimeter. It made sense that it was closer to my position; she was a lot faster than I was. My full-on sprint took me towards the dot on my map, and in the distance I saw the Merlin touching down, blowing dust everywhere. The ramp was facing me, and it had already lowered by the time the gunship landed. I slowed my run down enough that I wouldn’t barrel straight into the cockpit, and jogged up the ramp. It closed behind me, and without any warning the Merlin shot up into the air, and took off heading west. I couldn’t tell how fast she was going, but I’d hazard a guess that it was the Merlin’s top speed.

“What’s going on, Adelaide?” I asked, moving over to one of the drop-harnesses. I figured that if she was in this much of a rush, we wouldn’t have time for a nice, peaceful landing.

“On my way back from my reconnaissance, I detected a series of distress calls over several frequencies. Upon investigation, I discovered that a large group of slavers was approaching a small town called Fort Morgan.”

“Shit. Alright, have you figured out how to deactivate those murder-chips yet?” I said. I couldn’t get one day to rest, could I?

“I have, but that is not relevant in this case. As far as I can tell, none of the slavers have a Persuader installed,” Adelaide said, “According to the chatter on their communications channel, this slaver group appears to be acting of their own free will, and seem to be in high spirits. They are also certainly planning on attacking Fort Morgan. By my estimation, they should have already begun to engage the minor guard force present in the town.”

“Oh that’s seriously fucked up,” I growled, “Okay. Fine. So I need to protect a town from a bunch of actually evil slavers. How many of them did you say there are?”

“There are three-hundred and sixty-seven slavers,” she said evenly, “with four hovertanks and twenty light attack vehicles.”

Oh well fuck me in the ass and call me a shish kebab. This was going to suck. I tried to crack my neck in my armor, but it wouldn’t, so I felt like an idiot. Alrighty.

“Are there any signals that lead back to wherever they came from?”

“Yes, one. I believe that the leader, whose name is Reaper as far as I can tell, has two communication devices. One of those is for speaking to the rest of the raiders, but the other is similar to what Harry wore. However, I cannot hack into that one from the Merlin. I will need close proximity and the cyberwarfare suite on your Paladin.”

I thought for a minute, mulling over some options.

“What’s our ETA?” I asked.

“Three minutes, fifty-six seconds.”

“Okay, here’s my preliminary game plan, feel free to change it,” I said, “Set the Merlin to automatically hover over them at 20,000 feet AGL, and then hop into my Paladin. I’m going to do a combat drop, and target those hovertanks with my railgun in midair. I don’t know how accurate it’ll be from that height and speed, but I’ll hope for a lucky hit or two. When I get in range of their leader, immediately eliminate any signals going to that communicator, and prevent it from detonating. We need one intact so we can study it. Once you’ve done that, you’re going jump back into the Merlin, and get ready. I’ll try to stall and get them to surrender, but I seriously doubt that’s going to work. Once shit inevitably hits the fan, I’ll need you to give me close air support while I protect the civilians. I know you haven’t killed before. So, can you do this?”

Adelaide didn’t hesitate, “Yes. I can if it will protect those innocents.”

“Good,” I said, nodding, “It’s going to get real hot down there, and I might need you to pull my ass out of the fire if those hovertanks are still up by the time you get to me. Make them your priority target if any are left. Also, patch me into their coms, I want to know what I’m up against.”

“Understood, Sam,” she said, “I am connecting you to the communication channel between the raiders.”

The sound of gunfire entered my ears first. Shit. I hadn’t expected them to be engaging already. There were also jeers, and screams in the background.

“Reaper, this is Seventh Squad,” a gruff female voice said, “We got a group of towners and we’re bring them back to the convoy.”

“Alright Seventh,” said a deep, powerful male voice, “But cull the ones that aren’t up to snuff. We’ve got a big harvest today, we won’t have room for the dregs.”

“Aye, Sir,” said the female voice.

The next minute was general coms chatter, nothing really directed at Reaper. From what I could tell, they were moderately organized, launching coordinated attacks on the few remaining guards. I listened again when I heard someone else addressing their leader.

“Oi, Reaper, we’re almost done with the guards here, can we let loose?” said another male voice, this one high and nasally.

“If you deviate from the attack,” said Reaper calmly, “I will cut off your dick and feed it to the Worms. I decide when we enjoy ourselves. And we will. We have enough merchandise that we can keep a few of the pretty ones for ourselves.”

I silenced the coms for a moment and looked at the cockpit. A red-hot fire had been growing within me, and rage started to burn in the pit of my stomach. “Adelaide,” I said, “I’m modifying the offer to surrender. I’m not going to wait for them. I’m going to offer it once, when I land, and if they don’t take me up on it by the time I reach them, they die.”

“Understand, Sam. I agree with your decision.” said Adelaide, “We are approaching your drop point. I’ve set a landing zone for you, and the Paladin will automatically adjust your drop to get you as close as possible to their leader.”

I nodded, and deployed my railgun, holding it close to my body vertically.

“The Merlin is at a stable hover at 20,000 feet AGL. Prepare for drop.”

I took a deep breath. The floor opened beneath me, and I dropped into the empty air. I plummeted through the empty expanse. Unlike the last Combat Drop, I didn’t give a shit about the fall. I was too focused on trying to force myself into the icy calm I’d need to survive this fight. I couldn’t go into it angry, and as much as I wanted to let loose and destroy every raider in this fucking gang, my most important objective was to protect civilians. In this case murdering evil bastards and protecting innocent people weren’t mutually exclusive, but I had to be much more careful that I don’t accidentally hurt the people I was trying to protect.

The altimeter in my suit dropped steadily. I still held my railgun close to me. At the speed I was going, it would cause too much drag if I held it out, and would seriously fuck up where I was supposed to land. So I waited, listening to the carnage on the ground through my coms, waiting as the towners below me were killed and dragged away. Maybe I should have turned them off, help me keep a cool head. Maybe I should have ignored them, so that I wasn’t affected emotionally by what was happening. I didn’t do either. I listened to each and every scream and plead for mercy that echoed in my helmet. I listened as the raiders laughed and yell, reveling in pleasure at the violence. I began to picture them grabbing Harry from a settlement, laughing as they threw him in an armored truck, the doors closing on him and the rest of the slaves from that press gang. I imagined the look in the slaves’ eyes once they realized they would never have their freedom again. And then a scene from the nightmares that came every night started to play in my head: A field of corpses with their eyes turned to me, their mouths twisted open in pain, agonized accusation in their faces. And my anger lit up again, burning even hotter this time. I would end these monsters, the ones that preyed on the very last of their own species and enjoyed it. As the fire grew to a fever pitch, I fell faster and faster, and their deaths got closer and closer.

My HUD lit up with a number of potential targets. Adelaide had long since marked the raiders as red and the civilians as white from above. I mentally commanded my CAS to limit my targets to the four hovertanks. I picked the one closest to me. It would die first. My targeting reticule was jumping around, trying to compensate for my speed. I ignored it. I would wait until the landing procedure started before taking my shots. Better chance that they would hit; I didn’t want to give myself away too soon. I was going to destroy them before they knew what had happened.

I counted down the feet as I dropped, so I knew exactly when my thrusters kicked in, forcing me against gravity. I snapped my railgun to its firing position. My targeting reticule stopped bouncing around so much, and locked on firmly. I could feel the railgun’s barrel twitching wildly, trying to compensate for the shaky environment. I took a deep breath, the wind rushing past me, and I fired. In the part of my mind that remained cold, I noticed the Paladin actively correcting for my aim, the servos in its arms whirring rapidly. The slug burst from the barrel in an almighty roar, the recoil knocking me a few feet up, plasma tearing the sky apart. As the rails cooled I watched as the round slammed into the target, blowing half of it away and detonating the volatile fuel it ran on. The explosion boomed out, knocking the raiders around it flying like ragdolls. I grinned coldly as I watched them scurry around like rats, trying to figure out what had happened. I checked my CAS readouts. I only had time for one more shot. A soft ping indicated I was ready to fire again, and a madrium-tipped metal slug ripped through the air once more. My aim wasn’t perfect this time. It grazed the edge of one of the propulsor lifts on the tank, enough to send it crashing into the ground, its movement crippled.

As the anti-gravs made their final burn, I stored my railgun away, and prepared to land. I would be right in front of the man known as Reaper. I saw him as I got close, saw his eyes that were flared in fear and confusion. I would end him, but first I needed that earpiece. I wouldn’t forget that; I wouldn’t fail again. I loosened my body, and let my Paladin smash into the ground, knowing that it would be able to withstand the impact. The earth rumbled and a cloud of dirt erupted around me as I landed, on one foot and one knee, propped up by my outstretched arm. I raised the head of my Paladin, and stared into the eyes of the terrified man in front of me.

“I’ve blocked the signal to his communication device,” said Adelaide coldly, “Now starting my run with the Merlin.”

Reaper approached me, a mask of bravado over his fear, one of his guards by his side. “And who do we have here?” He said, “Some fancy bastar-“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence before I flared my main thrusters, and launched towards him. His guard jumped in front to shield him, but I backhanded the man so hard that he flew ten feet and smashed into an armored car, denting it. As Reaper tried to scramble back, I grabbed his entire head in one hand. With my other, I smoothly ripped the com device out, taking a good amount of his ear with it. As he screamed, I stored the earpiece in a slot in my suit. The raiders around me watched in shock as I let the Reaper fall to the ground, gasping in pain. Then they watched me grab his head in both hands and knee his face in, the gore exploding onto the Paladin’s leg. As they stared at their leader’s limp corpse sliding to the ground in front of them, I took the raging fire and I compressed it into an ice-cold ball, letting the deadly calm rush over me. The example had been set. Now it was time for control. I turned up my PA to full, and my voice boomed out over the silent battlefield, “Your Reaper is dead. Drop your weapons, or join him.”

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