It was funny, I’d had this idea in my head when I heard of a small town’s garrison that they’d be all young men or women, clad in rugged-but-stylish armor, dirt streaked artistically over their faces. But these people were mostly in the clothes I would have seen in street every day before the war ended. Ragged and filthy clothes, but still. They were of all ages and sexes, young boys in their teens to one leathered old woman who looked to be in her sixties. Their guns were hunting rifles, mostly, or militia weapons. I suspected that would change.
The rest of the towners looked okay, all things considered. While I’d been tending to the wounded, they’d been keeping themselves plenty busy. There were teams of people moving all over, most of them out into the field. I didn’t look over there, but I saw them coming and going. They came back with handfuls of weapons, and someone had actually driven one of the raiders’ supply trucks over. When it opened and revealed a large stash of ammo, everyone around it cheered. Michael was near me at the time, and he flashed me a glance, but I shook my head. They needed it far more than I did.
I gave the leg I was working on a cursory once over. The man had been silent most of the time I had been working on him. He was older, in his mid-fifties, with a phenomenal handle-bar mustache. I had introduced myself as Sam, and he mumbled his name, Bob. Then he’d looked away, and I gave a mental shrug and started patching up his leg. The simulator had given me a lot of lessons, and the time I spent as a combat medic had given me a good idea of what to do. I was still much worse at it than Darryl, the RN, and I told him as much. He directed me to the patients that had simpler wounds, while he focused on the really bad ones. It was what I needed right now. Work that was fairly simple, but important enough that I had to focus on it. Something that I could do that would heal people.
Bob’s injury was minor. A shallow graze from a bullet on his right leg. He hadn’t even lined up with the rest of the injured in the beginning, instead sticking to his post on the sandbags. He’d only relented when someone who looked a lot like him, his son maybe, stormed up and pointed at the bleeding wound, yelling at him to go the hell over to the triage area that had been set up. During a short break, I’d asked Darryl why we were seeing the patients out here and not back in the clinic, and he grimaced. Apparently, the clinic had been the victim of an early Worm assault, before they’d set up the wall. The supplies had mostly survived, but the town was still in the process of repairing the damage.
The leg wouldn’t need more than a mediband. Made my job a whole lot easier. First, I cleaned it out as best I could, appreciating the fact that Bob didn’t even flinch as I did. Then, I estimated the length of the wound, and cut a piece off the mediband roll I had with me. I adhered it over the bullet graze, and made sure it set right. The wound would be disinfected and healed within an hour or so, then the band would just absorb right into the skin. No muss, no fuss. I reflected on how crazy it was that people used to literally stitch their wounds closed. I got up, and stretched a bit. I looked down at Bob, who was still sitting on the cot that had been rolled out to the triage. “Looks like you’re good to go here. Just stay off the leg for a couple of hours to be on the safe side, don’t want it opening up while the band does its work,” I said to him, packing my medical supplies back into the case. He had been my last patient, and now I needed to find Michael and figure out what to do with the prisoners.
“Were those the first people you’ve killed?” said Bob suddenly.
I whirled around in shock, and found him staring me in the eyes. I stood there for a bit, at a loss for an answer. For the first time, I really looked at him. He was a medium sized man, burly though. I bet he was as strong as an ox just ten years earlier. Still looked damn strong to me. “No,” I said finally, and it was barely above a whisper, “They weren’t”
He studied my face, and we stayed in silence for a little while, before he started speaking again. His voice was somewhere in between boot-leather and the deep twang of a cello, “In the Amazonian War twenty-three years back, I was a gunner in an AC-750. First time I killed someone was when we got ambushed flying over North Brazil. I just shot back into the jungle, killed a couple, watched em’ get blown to bits. Didn’t feel a thing. Second time was at Manaus. The BRA was falling back, and my crew was picking them off as they ran. I felt it after that. So, let me ask a bit differently. Is this the first time you’ve killed someone,” he pointed at the battlefield behind me, “like that?”
I slowly turned and looked where he pointed. The GIDS procedure had improved my eyesight, and now I wish it hadn’t. The smoldering wrecks of the hovertanks were the first thing I saw. Then the bodies. The towners hadn’t had the time to clean up yet, so they were strewn where I had left them. Some were torn apart, some were embedded in vehicles. Most just law there, unmoving, in the pools of blood that had started to seep into the ground. The nausea rose, and I swayed where I stood. I sat down, hard.
“Yeah,” Bob said, “I thought so.” He paused for a while as I sat there among the cots, eyes closed, trying to forget all the terrified faces that kept flashing through my mind. I was brought out of my reverie by Bob’s voice, “That BRA army had been looting the countryside for weeks. The bodies they left in those villages weren’t pretty. Took our boys almost a month to catch them. Me and my crew mopped up the last of them as they ran back into the jungle.” He hopped off his cot, ignoring my previous directive. He stepped past me and patted the band on his leg. “You do good work, kid,” he told me as he walked away.
A few minutes later, I walked out of the triage area, looking for Michael. I needed to get home so I could make sure Adelaide was doing alright. When I’d asked if it was okay if I stayed to help with the wounded, she said of course, then lapsed into silence. I knew this couldn’t have been any easier on her than it was on me. The towners were still busy around me. The place had an interesting set up. Like most small towns, Fort Morgan wasn’t densely populated before the end. But now, it seemed like most of the civilian population was concentrated in a central area, around the town hall. All the old commercial buildings like the banks and small office buildings had been converted to housing. It meant a lot of people were cramped, but it also meant a lot less area to defend, and there was a decent sized wall made up of old cars and scrap metal that surrounded the central area of the town. But not all the residents were here, obviously. It was hard to fit over 6,000 people in an area this underdeveloped. When I was acting as a medic, I’d overheard guards talking about ‘making the rounds’ to visit the houses outside the main town.
As I walked through the town, the Paladin close behind me, I took in the damage that had been dealt to Fort Morgan for the first time. Civilian casualties had been shockingly low; they had been evacuated to the fortified town hall. But the buildings themselves hadn’t been so lucky. The ones near the edge of the wall had been almost entirely ripped to pieces by stray hovertank slugs and gunfire from the raiders. There were people bustling about everywhere, but I noticed that nobody seemed to want to make eye contact with me. The whispers followed though, and when I did happen to catch the eye of someone who had been staring at me, I saw one of two things: awe and fear.
I found Michael a small distance outside the North entrance. He was directing a group of guards that were pushing a scout car back to the town. It was mostly intact, one of the few that were. He heard me approaching; the Paladin’s loud steps a dead giveaway. He turned around to look at me, and I saw a flash of fear, and something else in his eyes. I couldn’t tell what exactly. Maybe pity?
“Ah Uther,” he said, raising a hand in greeting, “I was just about to go looking for you. Are you done with the wounded?”
“Just call me Sam. No point in having a secret identity if you take off the mask, right?” I said, gesturing at the Paladin behind me, then continued, “Yeah, I just finished up. I gotta say, you’re lucky you have Darryl with you. He’s damn good at what he does.”
Michael looked back at the town, “We definitely are. Don’t think Fort Morgan would be around right now if it weren’t for him. Anyway, I was wondering, what are you going to do with those raiders?” he said, pointing over to where the Merlin hovered.
I frowned, “Honestly, I have no idea. I can’t really take them, and I can’t let them go, knowing what they are capable of.”
“If you’d like, we can dispose of them for you,” said Michael nonchalantly.
I blanched at that. “Kill them? In cold blood?”
He stared at me, confused, “Yeah, what about it? We can’t afford to feed the bastards.”
I considered it for a long minute. I felt uncomfortable with that on a deep level. It just felt so wrong to kill unarmed people. On the other hand, there were cruel realities out here. Besides, those raiders didn’t come here to make friends. “Well,” I said, drawing out the word, “If there’s no other option, then I’ll leave them to you. But I’d prefer to find another way, those people did surrender to me after all. Do any other towns take prisoners?”
Michael blinked and rubbed his chin, “Actually… Maybe. Some Runners passed through here the other day, said something about a big project linking up Sterling Outpost and Burlington. They were asking around to see if anyone wanted to go back to Sterling to work on it. They might be okay taking on free labor like those prisoners. But no promises, raiders aren’t well liked around here.”
Better than nothing I guess. “Alright,” I said, “is there any way you can hold them for a day or two while I check in with Sterling Outpost? I’ve been meaning to visit for a while.”
Michael nodded hesitantly, “The lockup should be able to hold them if we squeeze them in tight, and you’re a bit of a savior around here so people will be willing to deal with them on your account. But I can’t guarantee they’ll all be alive when you get back. Folks who lost friends and family probably won’t be too happy with them.”
“That’s fine. Better than all of them dying, I suppose. I’ll escort the prisoners your way, and then I’ll be leaving. I’ll be back in a few days with word from Sterling.” I didn’t respond to the part about being a savior. I didn’t know how to. I knew that the town wouldn’t have survived without me, and I was incredibly proud of that. The whole reason I became a Paladin was to save lives. It’s just that being called a savior while I dripped in the blood of the people I had slaughtered felt wrong somehow, like the two concepts were conflicting. I turned around and the Paladin rippled open in front of me. I suppressed a shudder as I got inside, and felt the armor close up. As the HUD came up a split second after, I noticed that most people in the town had turned around to look at me, completely stopping what they were doing. Which was a bit eerie, to say the least. I did my best to ignore them.
It didn’t take much cajoling to get the remaining raiders to listen to me. Quite frankly, the moment I started to get near them it looked like they had decided to enter a synchronized pants shitting contest, and were really gunning for gold. The hardest part about it was just walking out there and seeing the devastation I had caused. The nausea wasn’t as bad now. But it still wasn’t good. At least I wasn’t close to panicking anymore; I couldn’t afford to have a breakdown out here. I walked them back to the entrance, and a group of guards led by Michael took it from there. I didn’t want to go back into the town if I could help it. One of the guards gave me a shaky salute, and I returned a deep nod. As they marched the prisoners away, Michael approached me and looked up into the visor of the Paladin.
“Hey, before you go, I just wanted to let you know that we really do appreciate what you did for us. I sure it’s a bit,” he searched for the right word, “uncomfortable for you right now, with how we’re all acting, but that’ll pass. When you come back, stay for a while, alright? By then things will have settled down, and I think we’ll all be able to do a much better job of showing our thanks.”
“I’ll be sure to,” I said, though I didn’t think I would. There was something else I should’ve said at that point, I know it, but it wasn’t coming to mind. Honestly, he was right. I was uncomfortable. Taking praise had never been my strong suit, and as deserved as this might be, it was just too much right now. I raised a hand in goodbye, “See you in a few days, Michael. It was nice meeting you all.”
“Goodbye, Sam,” he said, and there wasn’t so much fear in his eyes now, just that strange pity, “and thank you again.”
I turned to leave, but I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The residents of Fort Morgan had been placing their dead in neat rows, just outside the town. There was a somber air about them, but most of the towners seemed hardened to it. I guess when you live out here, outside of a concrete bunker, you get used to death pretty quick. That didn’t mean that they were unaffected, though. Groups of people would cycle through, moving to the covered form of someone that had been important to them, murmuring over them. I saw children crying next to bodies and a man sitting in silence, holding the cold hand of a dead woman. Most of them, the ones not intimately related, would stand up again after their respects were paid, and move on to whatever needed doing.
When I’d been in the simulator I’d learned a lot about humanity, and what I’d be protecting as a Paladin. Most of that lesson was universal: people stayed people, even after the apocalypse. But the residents of this town made me realize that there were differences. There was a leathered hardness to their lives that hadn’t been present before. As the Merlin touched down behind me, I gave a last look at the ones who lived out here, like grass growing between the cracks in concrete, and I realized that there was no reason to feel conflicted. I’d done my job today, and I’d done it well.