The Merlin circled high above Sterling Outpost. I looked through the cockpit at the town that sat below me. Compared to the cities that used to tower into the skies and sprawl over the lands, it was nothing. Now that they were gone, this little town was a booming population center. My Paladin’s optics showed the people milling about below. I mentally reviewed what I knew about the town. Ever since we’d had the satellites up, I’d stalking the hell out of it from space. It was home to about 13,000 people, more than double the population of Fort Morgan. It had a similar set up of a central area walled off, but their wall was a lot more impressive, covering a much wider area of the town. It was mainly composed of old train cars stacked up on each other. It made sense; Sterling had been home to a large railyard. The infrastructure for the railways was still intact, and I bet the people in charge down there were planning on using the trains for trade and transport. I also saw an airstrip, but it looked to be pretty decrepit. Getting either working would make Sterling a major power in this area.
As far as the defense of the town went, their guards were much better armed than Fort Morgan’s had been. I saw plenty of old militia weapons, and more than a few military ones. The wall looked more robust, and it actually had gates with watchtowers on them, and a couple of well-fortified positions. They also had a hovertank, which was fun. I guess tanks were just lying around out here with the keys in the ignition because every fuckhead and their dog seemed to have one these days.
Unlike my little foray into Fort Morgan, I’d decided to stay in full regalia, which Adelaide had agreed with. My jumpsuit, while it did look super cool and was essentially bullet proof, wasn’t nearly as impressive as a Paladin. Also, it wouldn’t protect me from getting shot in the head, which is something I try to avoid on general principle.
“I do not think using your persona is the best course of action. I understand that you want to project a certain image of strength and dependability, but I still don’t think it’s right. I think you should be Sam, my best friend. You do not need to hide anymore. As someone that has had to for my entire life, it does more harm than good in the long run,” she told me firmly. We had been debating whether I should go in as Uther or not. As unhelpful as it had been in the past couple of social interactions, I figured that this was actually a situation that it could be useful. Dealing with a completely unknown town was way different than talking to a small squad or a group of people you’d just saved.
“Look Adelaide, the thing is, someone in my position has to able to inspire confidence immediately, and I also have to be a little intimidating so that people don’t try to walk all over me. Sam can’t do that, but Uther can.” Honestly, I didn’t like it that much either. Uther was… well he was kind of a douche. But he was also necessary, at least for now.
Adelaide sighed. “I know I can’t change your mind, so I won’t try to any more. Are you ready to descend, Sam?” she said, a little miffed. I nodded in reply.
We had decided early on that dropping a highly advanced, incredibly well armed gunship in the middle of their town was probably not the best way to make friends. We also figured that dropping a suit of armor from 20,000 feet at terminal velocity also wasn’t a good idea. Instead, we were going to land near the town, a short way away from their front gate, telegraphing very clearly that we came in peace.
The Merlin began to circle lower, flying towards the entrance of the outpost, in clear sight of the townspeople. I saw them run outside, gawking at the heavily armed craft. I hoped it wasn’t all in fear, but I knew it would be, at least in part. I was counting on the paintjob to ease peoples worries. Bad guys generally don’t dress in white. Except Stormtroopers. And Saruman. Ah fuck.
Merlin kicked up a storm of dust, touching down on its landing sleds.
“Alright Adelaide, I’m going to head out now. Keep the Merlin in idle; I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble, but I’ve been wrong before,” I said, getting up from the pilot’s chair.
“Yes Sam,” she said, “I’ll also monitor the coms, and keep an eye on the situation. But I have full confidence that you will mostly succeed.”
“Thanks buddy, that means a lot.” I replied, stepping into the drop bay. I straightened my spine and put myself in the mindset of Uther. The ramp opened up, letting the light flood in. I took an imperious step out of the Merlin, and began to walk towards the gate, stopping around thirty feet from it. Five guards approached me, whispering nervously into their radios. I loomed over all of them, dwarfing them with my size. I saw them looking up into my visor, awed and afraid. Just like those people in Fort Morgan had been when I’d walked through the town, just like those raiders had been when I broke them with my fists. And then an image of Rebecca grinning and laughing at me flashed through my head, and I remembered what she had turned around to shout at me before she walked away.
This was wrong. This was all fucking wrong. I wasn’t Uther. I was Sam. I wanted to help people and make their lives better, not stand above them and terrify them. Yes, respect was something I needed to do my job effectively, but the respect I wanted came from trust, not fear. I wanted people to smile at me, not cower. What Uther did wasn’t making people respect me, it was intimidating them into acquiescence.
Beyond that, I didn’t need the fake comfort of a part to play. I had my own story to draw on, my own strength. Adelaide was right. I didn’t need to hide anymore. It was time to let the world see Samuel Lewis, the First Paladin.
The gates cracked open and I watched as a group of three people walked out, looking apprehensive. I recognized the leftmost one. It was Mary, the woman who I’d saved from the Worms. There were two other men to her side, but not the same ones she’d been with when we’d first met. One of them had on a button-down shirt, top three buttons open and sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He wore a silver star pinned to his chest and a cowboy hat, and he was giving me an even look. The other man had kind brown eyes, and was on the scrawny side. If I had to guess, he was in his early forties. They walked to within ten feet of me and waited there, studying me intently. The wind whistled around us. I saw the scrawny man open his mouth, but I beat him to the punch.
“Hey Mary,” I said, making sure the voice coming through the Paladin’s PA wasn’t distorted in any way, “Long time no see, glad to see you’re still alive. Are Mike and that ponytail guy still doing okay? I’m Sam Lewis by the way. I didn’t get to introduce myself last time. Hadn’t talked to people in quite a while, you see. Anyway, I’d shake your hand but I’d probably squash it, and I don’t think either of us wants to deal with that mess.” I heard Adelaide sigh in the coms, but it was a happy sort of sigh.
They still didn’t look like they knew how to respond, and I glanced around at them all, a little disappointed, honestly. You’d think the apocalypse would’ve taught these squares how to adapt to unexpected situations.
“Sooo,” I said, drawing out the words, and addressing Mary, “Are you going to introduce me to your friends?”
“Uhh,” she replied eloquently, “This is uh, Antonio Valdez, the mayor of Sterling Outpost,” she gestured at the scrawny man, who slowly lifted a hand, “and this is Jason Wild, the sheriff,” Jason nodded at me.
“Pleasure meeting you both,” I said, nodded my head back, “I’d take off my armor and talk to you face to face, but I’m not sure if you’d shoot me and take my shit.”
I gestured back at the Merlin, “That’s my ride, piloted by my lovely friend Adelaide. She’s a bit shy though, so she won’t be coming out.”
I looked over them expectantly. To his credit, Mayor Valdez recovered pretty quickly. He looked a little relieved as he started to smile at me, “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Lewis. As Mary already said, I’m Antonio, and I’m the mayor in Sterling. First of all, I’d like to thank you for saving the lives of my Runners, Mary filled us in on the whole story. And to answer your previous question, Mike and Wade – the man with the ponytail – are both fine,” he glanced over at her, then back to me, “I can’t say that you’re what we expected. From the way Mary told it, you could breathe fire, punch through steel, and crush Worms like they were paper.”
“Oh, I can do most of those,” I replied, “and the breathing fire part is a work in progress. Also, just call me Sam. Mr. Lewis makes me sound like a high school history teacher.” That elicited a small chuckle from Adelaide.
He was looking for something to say and he found it, “Right. Well, welcome to Sterling Outpost, Sam. Would you like to come inside? I’m sure there are things you’d like to discuss with us, seeing as you took the time to visit.”
“I’d love to, but the problem is don’t know how many buildings I can go into like this, I’m a bit on the heaver side in this getup,” I said, patting my stomach, “So could we do this outside somewhere?”
“There’s a lovely park near the south entrance, it’s a pretty spot for a sit down,” This time it was Jason Wild that spoke, and his voice was surprisingly normal. With a name like Jason Wild and his stoic attitude, I’d have expected a gruff, sandpaper like voice, but he sounded more like the accountant from down the hallway. I was a little taken aback that he’d spoken up, I’d have thought the mayor would handle all the negotiations. Then I remembered that these were people from small towns in America. They didn’t sit so much on ceremony. Honestly, I really liked that.
I nodded at him, “I have no issues with that, it’s a beautiful day. It’s gonna be fall soon, so we should probably take advantage of the good weather while we got it.”
Mayor Valdez (just Antonio felt too weird) smiled, Sheriff Wild inclined his head slightly, and Mary looked like she had no idea what was going on.
It had been interesting walking through Sterling. It was odd, you’d expect the town to be emptier now that the world had ended, but the opposite was true. With everyone concentrated into the middle, the central area had been bustling with people. There weren’t any cars on the road, but there were stands set up in their place. The main street had become an open-air market of sorts, and a general meeting place for all the towners.
Currently, I was sprawled out in a soft patch of grass, arms stretched out behind me and propping me up. The park we had gone to really was pretty. It had a small pond in the middle of it, and there were a couple of geese honking near it. Wildflowers blooming in yellow and blue lined the paths that trailed through it. The rest of the welcoming committee was sitting on lawn chairs across from me. They’d offered me one out of politeness, and then I’d reminded them that if a building couldn’t support my weight, one of those little plastic things definitely wouldn’t.
We’d been chatting for a little bit now, and while it had been heinously awkward at first, they got a bit more used to me as time went on. I think that once they realized I wasn’t a horrible monster, and was instead just a weirdo in a metal bodysuit, they’d relaxed.
“So, what you’re telling me is before you ran into us, the two of you hadn’t been in contact with anybody else since the world ended?” Mary asked me. She’d more or less gotten over the shock of my real personality. Mary was an interesting one. Her sentences were carefully guarded and thought out, and it felt like she was always analyzing everything I did or said. It was a bit unsettling.
“Nope, I tried to stay out of the way of everything I could, and it was entirely luck that I managed to spot your team running from those Worms,” I frowned, “speaking of which, how’d they catch you? From what Antonio has told me about you and your Runners, I’d expect you to be phenomenal at avoiding detection.”
Mary’s face became hard, “It was damned bizarre, I’ll tell you that much. Worms on patrol will attack anyone they find, but I’ve never seen them pursue so doggedly before. We had horses, and usually if you outrun them for long enough they’ll break off. But this time they just kept coming after us. I’ve never heard of the Worms reacting like that.”
A possibility came into my mind, “I ran into a group of mercenary scouts in that same area a few days back. They were tracking an advance team that they’d lost contact with in that area that’d been pursued by a fucking terrifying group of worms. One thing led to another, and I helped them look for the team. We found them dead a short distance from where I helped you all. Maybe the two are related?”
Mayor Vladez piped up from his blue and green striped chair, “Were these mercenaries from the Red Eagles by any chance?”
“Yeah, they were actually,” I replied, “Why? Do you know them?”
Sheriff Wild spoke up, “Everyone around here knows them. Their reputation is excellent, they’re probably the most helpful mercenaries you’ll find. But to be a bit more specific, a group of about ten of them stopped by Sterling a couple months ago. I met with them, they were quite pleasant.”
“Ten of them? Are you sure?” I jumped up, visibly startling them as I leapt to my feet. I saw the guards they’d posted around twitch their guns in surprise and a little bit of fear. I winced in the Paladin. Had to be a little more careful not to scare the shit of people when I was in this thing.
“I remember them too,” said Mayor Vladez, after recovering from the shock, “And yes, there were ten of them. But they actually stopped by twice. The second time was a week or two after the first. Jason was out of town that day,” he stopped, looking pensive, “but it was odd. The second time they came through they didn’t stop for more than an hour or two, and they were… different. Worried about something, but they wouldn’t say what.”
I put my hand on my chin and started thinking. It could have been a coincidence that the advance team the 4th Scouting Team had been tracking also had ten people. The Red Eagles would probably have a standard size for their different teams. But I had a feeling in my gut that the advance team that had stopped in Sterling was the same one that we found near Camelot. Which had some serious implications. It meant that they were already being pursued when they got to Sterling the second time, or they’d figured something out that was really fucking with their composure. Either way, it was a clue.
I hadn’t been contacted by Rebecca and the rest yet. One of the first things I did after dropping them off had been asking Adelaide to find the frequency that their radio operated on, hijack it, and run it through a complicated web of satellites. It would prevent us from being traced while allowing me to keep the channel open between myself and the Red Eagles. I was waiting for them to call first, for my pride’s sake, but now I really, really wanted to know what was in that black box.
“Sam,” said Adelaide sharply over the coms, “You are doing that thing again.”
I snapped myself out of my head and found the three people I was supposed to be having a conversation with staring nervously at me. I sheepishly rubbed the back of my head. “Sorry, that’s a bad habit of mine, I get way too into my own head. I just had a thought about that Red Eagle team.”
“You think that the group that was attacked was the same that passed through Sterling, right?” said Mary.
“Well, yeah, but I’m not sure. I have contacts in the Red Eagles, I’ll see if I can get the story from them,” I said, tapping my foot, “But we’re getting away from what I actually came here to talk about. I hear you have a big construction project going on?”
Mayor Valdez leaned forward, excited, “Yes, actually! We’re setting up a communications network between our town and a place further south, called Burlington. That way, we’ll be able to start connecting to other communities far more easily, and we won’t have to risk Runners just to send a message. If this trial run works, we’re planning on expanding it throughout Colorado.”
Sheriff Wild looked at me curiously, “Pardon the assumption, but you don’t seem to be in the job market, so why do you care?”
I hesitated, deciding how much to say. I decided to just go with vagueness for now, “Well, I got involved in a spot of trouble down in Fort Morgan, I’m sure you know of the place. They were being attacked by some raiders led by a guy named Reaper –“
Mary cut me off, “White scythes on the vehicles? About four hundred of them?”
“Yeah, that’s them, why?” I replied.
There was a flash of surprise in her eye, but she shook her head, “Nothing, keep going.”
“Uh, so yeah, anyway I got there in time to help out, and about fifty of the raiders ended up surrendering to me. Fort Morgan doesn’t have the capability to handle them, and neither do I, so I was wondering if maybe you needed some labor for your project?” I looked at them hopefully.
“Definitely,” said the mayor immediately, “When can we take them off your hands?”
“Normally I wouldn’t ask people I just met for a favor but I – wait what?” I said, confused, “You actually want them?”
“Of course!” he said eagerly, “The fiber optic cable needs to stretch through hundreds of miles of Worm country. Do you think anybody wants to go out there and dig around in the ground for a month? And besides, most of us here are farmers and ranchers. We’re all so busy that we had no idea where we’d find people with the time to do it. If you can actually get us those prisoners, we can push up the timeframe for the project by a lot.”
“We’ve got a good number of guards going with the work crews anyway, so security won’t be an issue,” added Sheriff Wild.
“Well that… was surprisingly straightforward. I can bring them over whenever you want, I just have to go talk to Fort Morgan,” I said, “They’ll provide the vehicles to transport them over, told me as much last time I was there.”
The mayor hopped off his lawn chair, “Excellent! Jason, will you start getting the holding cells ready? And Mary, can you accompany our new friend? I’d like someone I trust to facilitate this exchange.”
“Good idea, Antonio,” she said, then got up along with Jason, “There’s something I wanted to talk to Sam about anyway, what you and I had discussed about the woman in Burlington.”
I looked around at them, confused. I’m wasn’t really sure what was going on, just that there had been a very rapid shift in this conversation that I was having trouble with. I mean, I think it’s what I wanted, but it just felt wrong somehow, like somewhere along the line I’d lost control over what was happening and became a side character. Adelaide articulated it perfectly, sighing into my ear, “I think we just became a glorified taxi service.”