The bell in the watch tower had been ringing since the sentries had sprinted back, and the old tornado sirens were howling. By the time Michael saw the army cresting the hill, white scythes painted on their vehicles, most of the civilians had already fled inside the walls. All the guards were already at the sandbags with their broken-down militia gear, wearing Kevlar vests if they were lucky, and denim ones if they weren’t. They’d lined up with their weapons propped up on the measly fortifications. There were a little under two hundred of them. There were many more willing to fight but there just wasn’t enough ammo to go around. Fort Morgan had been a small town in America, which meant that there were a lot of guns here. But nine months of fighting off Worms and press gangs had put too much of a dent in their ammunition, so most were nothing better than clubs now.

The ones that stood there were the ‘elite’, the ones that were the best shots, or had military experience, or were simply brave enough to stare down a charging Worm and not flinch. Michael was among them, and he was a bit of a combination of all three, which had gotten him appointed as their leader. He had to make the decisions, the tough calls and the smart tactical choices, and he’d done okay so far. He’d thought a black man giving orders in a small town like this might’ve run into some troubles, but it didn’t seem like most folks gave a damn about that anymore. As long as you were human, and not one of those alien monsters, you were alright.

And here he was, facing a gang of slavers and raiders so large that it nearly doubled the size of their ‘garrison’. He watched as they poured out of their vehicles, filling the field in front of them. He had to start giving some orders out. He knew the men and women looking at him expected him too. But he knew. He knew that they’d all die here, or be taken away. He knew that these bastards getting closer by the second wouldn’t stop at throwing them in chains, but would rape and pillage their way through his town if the guards lost, which they would. But he had to tell them that they stood a chance. He had to look around at these people that were willing to die for their families, and tell them to do so even though it was pointless. He was already hearing the mutters running down the line. They’d heard about the raider gangs like this from the Runners that came through. The press gangs… they’d only take some of you, and leave the rest alone. These raider gangs would do so much worse, just because they could.

“Alright, guys,” Michael said, keeping the fear out of his voice, “I know that this doesn’t look so good now. And I ain’t going to lie to you. It’s not good. Not at all. But when has it ever been good? When have we ever had the upper hand? We’ve been hounded by Worms since the day humanity fell, and did we crumble then? When the press gangs came at use, one after another, did we let our town get taken by them? And these sons of bitches in front of use aren’t any different. They’ll come at us and we’ll throw them back, because they’re fighting to fill their wallets, and we’re fighting for our home, our families, and our friends. We didn’t fall before, and we sure as hell won’t fall now!”

He winced as he finished saying it, because he was a terrible public speaker, and he saw that they didn’t believe him. They knew that this wasn’t a fight they could win; the enemy in front was worse than anything they’d seen. But they put on brave face, and they cheered at the end of his speech. It was a small cheer, and sounded lonely in the hot summer afternoon. Michael barked out a few cursory orders. Luckily, the walls they had painstakingly put up over the past few months restricted access to the town to two entryways. He was sure that they’d come straight at them through the main entrance. They had the numbers, and the weapons to ram right through. So he put the majority of his guards in and around the north entrance, placing them in buildings, leaving most of them at the sandbags. He wondered what the slavers were waiting for, but it gave them a chance to evacuate the rest of the civvies to the middle of the town, so he was thankful for it. They’d also started to send out distress calls, but he knew that no one would answer them. Then he heard one of his guards cursing, and turned to look. He let out a strangled groan.

Four hovertanks came over the rise, taking up position in the slaver ranks. They were of the standard variety, model LAT-5. One HRA721 heavy railgun as primary armament. HMG turret for lighter targets. If there was a sliver of a chance before, it was gone now. He laughed a broken little laugh to himself. He’d survived the Alaskan Line, lived through wave after wave of those fucking Worms, their endless numbers stretched to the horizons. He’d watched his friends die alongside him, watched them ripped apart by the dozen. And for the first time, he wished he had been there when it fell. The Worms would kill you quickly. They were machinelike. Efficient. They didn’t give a damn about the killing, just that you died. It was funny how much more cruel humans could be, compared to the aliens that had remorselessly wiped them out.

But he had survived, and now this was his reality. He saw his guards look at him for support, so he hefted his rifle, the XC-17 he’d looted from leader of a press gang, and grinned at them. He took a rocket out of his bandolier, and slotted it into the under-barrel launcher.

“Good thing they only have four of those rustbuckets,” he said to the surrounding guards, “because I only got five of these left.” He saw them chuckle a little at that, and then they turned again to face the slavers, who had begun inching closer now. He saw with a sinking heart that the armored transports they had with them were moving forward as well. They’d be using them for cover. They’d be fighting smart.

The slaver gang stopped just out of firing range. Michael could hear the vehicles rumble in idle, and the low hum of the hovertank’s propulsors. It was a sick irony that the sound that used to comfort him on the front could make him want to piss his pants now. A man walked out in front of the horde. He was tall, with tanned white skin and close-cropped beard. He wore a trench coat that hung open to reveal a shirt and jeans, all dyed pitch black. The dumbass must’ve been roasting in that gear, thought Michael with a barely suppressed nervous grin. The man had begun speaking, and he must’ve had a communication device hooked up to some loudspeakers because his voice reached the town loud and clear, and echoed eerily.

“Hello, friends,” said the man, “My name is Reaper, and I lead this gang. You will die or be enslaved by my hands. I hope you fight well. Goodbye.” He turned and walked back, signaling with his hands for the assault to begin.

Michael cursed under his breath. The motherfucker didn’t even have the decency to monologue and let him come up with a better plan. The raiders started heading towards them, fairly slowly, using their vehicles as moving cover. He saw a small group of light vehicles, two or three, split off and start to circle to the back of the town.

“Fuck!” he swore, “Andy! Take your squad south entrance, and hold it!” A broad chested farmer nodded and began sprinting with a group of five others towards the south.

By this point, the raiders had entered rifle range, but they were still too far out to waste ammo on. Apparently, the gang didn’t have those same reservations, because shots began to ring out over the battlefield. The guards were smart enough to keep well under cover until the order came to fire. Michael peeked out between a gap in the sandbags, watching them get closer and closer. He waited. And then he yelled the order. There was a brief moment of silence after the guards popped up, sighting their targets. Then the deafening crack of gunfire erupted around him, and hell brook loose.

The battle after went about as poorly as could be expected. As he fired his assault rifle into the approaching horde, he saw his troops fall quickly, the hovertanks’ railgun’s ripping their cover to pieces, the raiders’ military-grade weapons decimating them. The north entrance was barely holding, but it wouldn’t be for long with the casualties they were facing. But the south entrance was another story. He’d heard a panicked report over the radio that the light vehicles had already broken through, and had grabbed a number of towners, then retreated. But Michael forced that report to the back of his mind. He had to focus on the enemy in front. He did a quick headcount. Down from two-hundred to just over one-hundred and twenty. Nearly half their guards in a little more than six minutes. They’d taken somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty lives from the raiders, he’d personally shot four of them, but that didn’t mean much. The hovertanks were out of the under-barrel launcher’s range, so they were still completely untouched.

The gunfire suddenly slackened from the raiders, and Michael yelled to his men to cease their fire. A gap in the ranks opened up, and the man called Reaper stepped forward, a guard at his side and two hovertanks a few dozen feet behind them. Maybe Reaper wanted a parley of some sort, but for what reason Michael couldn’t imagine. He was probably trying to preserve as many of his raiders as possible.

“Friends,” he said, a crooked smile on his face, “You have fought well, and now I offer you a choice. Between a gruesome death here, or a qui-“

His words were interrupted by an almighty roar and a bright flash from above, and every head on the battlefield swiveled upwards, then downwards again when one of the hovertanks behind Reaper erupted in a massive explosion. Michael still stared at the sky, disbelief on his faces. As the rest of the fighters on the field were recovering from the shock, a second roar came, louder this time, and Michael saw the tell-tale trail of plasma erupt in the air, and then something impossible. A white blur, falling from the sky, blue lights flaring brightly all over it. He watched in awe as it smashed into the ground ahead of him, at a speed that nobody should have survived, dividing the town from the raiders. As the dust settled he saw that it was a suit of armor, gleaming white and red. The silence that followed was broken by the voice of Reaper.

“And who do we have here?” He said, “Some fancy bastar-“

For the second time, his speech was cut short, as the armor exploded forward in flash of blue. It moved too fast for Michael to tell what exactly had happened, but he saw the armor hold Reaper by his head for a moment, then drop him. The armor grabbed him by the head once more, and Michael saw it crushed as the suit drove its knee into it. Michael watched in stunned disbelief and growing fear as the headless body fell to the ground, and suddenly there was a deep male baritone that rose clearly over the shocked silence. “Your Reaper is dead,” it said, “Drop your weapons, or join him.”

The man in the armor paused, and Michael realized that it was a mech of some sort, but way more advanced than anything that had been on the Alaskan Line. The raiders were still frozen, but one by one they realized they vastly outnumbered him. The moment the first raised his weapon, the man in the suit exploded into action. He careened towards the hovertank his second shot hadn’t ended, and Michael saw something pop out of its shoulder, and before the tank could fire it erupted in a series of explosions. The rest of the raiders began to shoot at him, but he danced around the battlefield in a storm of bullets and blue lights, ripping them apart with two automatic weapons he held in his hands. He moved quickly, far too quickly for something of that size, and the gunfire and explosions made him even more difficult to see. The raiders’ weapons seemed to have as little impact on the suit as spitting on it would. The other two hovertanks sped towards him, their railguns charging to fire, and it looked like the man in the armor would take their rounds, but they exploded in blue as well and the noise of powerful anti-grav engines hummed out. Michael felt yet another shock as he saw a gunship, the same colors as the suit of armor, make a quick pass over the field. It came to a hover outside of small arms range, and the gun on its nose began to fire with a loud thrum, targeting the light attack vehicles that were zipping around the field.

Michael and the guards stood still, ignored by the raiders completely now, as they watched the pair of machines rampage through the raiders. The gunship was only focused on the vehicles, picking them off carefully one by one. He saw the man run out of ammo for his twin weapons, then put them away and in one smooth motion leap into a group of tightly packed raiders, the blows from his fists breaking them every time they landed, then begin to just barrel straight into others, smashing them with the speed and weight of his armor. He saw him stop an armored car that tried to ram him with his bare hands, then pick it up and swing it into another one, the two vehicles exploding as they collided. He watched him rip straight through a transport that a group of raiders was taking cover behind, tearing through its reinforced siding like it was paper. He was merciless, and brutal, and his white armor was soon covered in a coat of blood. But during the carnage, Michael noticed that both the man and the gunship didn’t touch a single raider that had put down their weapons, but would target those that tried to run while holding their guns. More and more of them chose to put them down, lying on the ground with their hands covering their heads.

One of the guards next to Michael let out a reverent whisper, “What is he?” Michael just shook his head, without the words to answer her. All he knew was that he was far more scared of this man than he was of the raiders. He had never seen anything like it, even on the Alaskan Line, and he prayed that the terror in white wouldn’t turn upon them next. Watching him break the raider army like they were porcelain dolls, he knew that the scant guards remaining would last no more than a couple minutes. The only thing that comforted him was the fact that the armored man had intervened on their side, for now.

But worrying about it wouldn’t help anything, and there were more important things to do right now. He began ordering a few of his shocked men to gather the wounded, and made one of them run to get the town doctor, who was little more than a registered nurse, but far better than nothing. Besides, the nurse had been forced learned too much about field medicine in these long nine months, and was getting better at it every raid. Michael continued to watch the battle, though it was more like a slaughter, wrap up beyond the town’s defenses. When the gunfire finally tapered off, he counted forty-two raiders that had surrendered. Every other one was dead. He saw the man in armor round up the surrendered raiders, and the gunship hovered above them, keeping a watchful eye on the disarmed group. As far as Michael could tell, the gunship had only fired on vehicles throughout the entire engagement. He then walked over to an armored transport, far back from the rest of the raiders and ripped open its back door straight off. A group of Fort Morgan towners stumbled out of it, blinking in the sun, and the man motioned at them to follow. Michael shivered in fear as he realized that the armor was approaching the town now. Every guard still on the sandbags tensed up.

The man stopped a good thirty feet from the line, but the towners kept moving, walking quickly through the massed guards and back into the town. There was bafflement, tears, and gratitude on their faces. After they had passed, Michael got his first good look at the armor. It was covered in blood and scratches and scorch marks, but remarkably undamaged considering the battle it had just fought. There was some sort of symbol painted on the front, but it was covered by the marks of the battle. The man’s voice rolled out. “Hello, I am Paladin Uther,” he said, in that same deep baritone, “I do not mean you any harm. My pilot,” he gestured at the gunship that hovered the sky, “heard your distress calls and we came as soon as possible. We have confirmed that there are no more hostile members of the Reaper Gang in the vicinity. Now, who is your leader?”

Michael hesitated a moment, then stepped forward. He had been in enough combat to be able to stop himself from showing fear. He tried to erase the tremor in his voice, and mostly succeeded, “I am Sergeant Michael Green, and I lead the guards here in Fort Morgan. On behalf of the town, thank you for your assistance. Everyone here owes you their lives.” Michael figured that ‘Paladin’ was some sort of title, maybe military, so he gave his rank as well.

“I did what I could,” Uther said, then he paused, his red visor sweeping over the assembled guards, “You have many injured, but I only see one medic. Do you have more?”

Michael shook his head, “No. It’s a small town, we only had the clinic up here and the doctor was out of town when the war ended.”

Uther stood in silence. Michael was fidgeting nervously, wondering what was about to happen. Would he just leave? Would he ask for a reward? What could they have that someone this powerful would want? Then the person in front of him gave Michael yet another shock. The suit of armor began to make a soft whirring noise, and it rippled open. A man stepped outside of it, dressed in a form fitting jumpsuit, that was white and red just like the armor behind it. It had a small metal insignia on the right breast: a white shield in two circles. He was young, realized Michael in surprise, very young, in his early twenties. He had brown hair that was cut short, but not a military style cut. The man smiled at them, and it was an honest one, if a bit shaky. “Hey,” he said, his voice completely different from the deep baritone, “I have some experience in combat medicine. I’d like to help out, if I can.”

Michael nodded dumbly, and the man began to walk towards the injured, his armor tailing him like a giant metal puppy. The crowd of guards split in front of him, allowing him through. As he passed by Michael, he noticed that the young man’s face was pale, his hands were shaking slightly, and he looked on the verge of vomiting. His light green eyes were slightly flared. Michael had seen that look before, plenty of times, ten years ago when he served in the Egyptian War. The shell-shocked look of a rookie not quite used to killing.

The man reached the wounded, and knelt down, speaking quietly to the RN while the armor loomed over them. The two nodded to each other, then the young man started working on the wounded, swiftly and efficiently. He was speaking soothingly as he worked. Snapping himself out of his daze, Michael started barking out orders. He sent a group of men to start gathering the weapons that had fallen. He tasked another with assessing damage to the town and making a list of deceased. The next half hour passed by in a blur, and he was too busy to pay attention to the surreal scene happening just a few feet from him. At one point, he overheard a snippet of conversation between the mysterious pilot and a woman whose arm he was patching up. He had the sleeves of his jumpsuit rolled up, and wore a pair of surgical gloves the RN had given him.

“Thank you, Paladin Uther,” she said, teeth gritted through the pain, “My daughter is safe because of you.”

“Call me Sam,” he responded with a small smile, “and I’m just trying to help out where I can. It’s the apocalypse, remember? We gotta stick together out here.”

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