“ – And then she just fucking walked back inside the gate! I mean they offered me tea but how the fuck was I supposed to drink tea in a big suit of armor. I ferry the fuckers back and forth in my ship, and all I get is tea I can’t even drink and a cryptic warning about some lady named Jane gunning for me in Burlington! Shit like that is just straight up rude, it felt like a filler quest in an RPG, but at least you get a weapon you can break down for parts in one of those. Y’know what, this is just another reason why real life sucks.”

The polar bear looked at me, devoid of sympathy, “Yet again, I do not understand the majority of what you are telling me, as my knowledge base does not include it. Though I am sure it is not pleasant, considering this is the sixth complaint you have lodged in six days. However, I would like you to focus on the task at hand.”

I glared at the strategic holomap in front of me, a three-dimensional battlefield with thousands of red, green, and white dots. Enemies, allies, and civilians in that order. I was supposed be directing the defense of a small city, tasked with holding out against a significant Assimilator attack force until reinforcements arrived. I had to give commands mentally, sometimes dozens at a time, and my orders weren’t executed immediately, instead taking a realistic amount of time to follow. It was like an RTS on crack. The exercise served two purposes: Heightening my ability to think and act on the fly, and honing my mental control and multitasking capabilities.

As I had been complaining, a cluster of red dots had been throwing themselves against the northern most line. I had been inching back my forces there bit by bit, and suddenly the Assimilators were in range of the hidden defensive emplacements along their flanks. I felt a rush of satisfaction as the dots winked out one by one. That satisfaction turned to irritation as a large Assimilator task force started hammering the two battalions of infantry supported by an armored company that were holding a chokepoint to the east. I gave a mental sigh. There was a long fight ahead of me.

 

 

The servos in my Paladin whirred as I dodged a swiftly moving beam of light. They were coming at me in groups of four now, spaced so that if I moved just right, I’d avoid them. Which was way easier said than done, because they sped at me damned quickly. A short burst of my thrusters launched me between the next two beams, and I spun like a top to avoid the last, but it clipped me in the shoulder and pain lanced through my arm as a harsh buzzer sounded. I bent over in the Paladin, panting for breath. This exercise had been going on for about three hours now.

It was one of Danna’s favorites, because she was sadistic like that. It trained physical ability, concentration, and combat awareness all at once. She’d added a new wrinkle recently. Instead of having an unlimited amount of power to use for my anti-gravs, she’d been decreasing it more and more, slowly bringing it in line with what I could expect from my Paladin in the field. Danna was trying to teach me how to conserve my Paladin’s energy reserves better. My progress had been limited.

Currently, she was standing with her arms crossed, scowling at me like I’d just punted her dog into a lake. I hadn’t, for the record.

“And what,” she snarled, “was that shit-tacular display? I believe I told you to avoid the lasers, not try to make sweet love to them.”

As I was trying to come up with a witty comeback she clapped, and the lights in front of me started up again. I groaned internally and crouched, tensing my legs up. I had a funny feeling that I hadn’t heard the last of Danna’s insults for today.

 

 

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus on the schematics floating in front of me. I’d gotten past the fun part of designing the Heavy Assault Paladin and was now working on the nitty-gritty details. I was currently in the process of remapping the electronics almost from scratch, to accommodate for the lack of anti-gravs. They were disgustingly complex, but were one of the most important components in the suit. The last thing I wanted was for an electrical issue to short out my Paladin in the middle of a fight. That meant that everything had to be 100% perfect. Adelaide would be absurdly helpful in programming the Assault Paladin’s operating system, but the physical design was all me.

And I was really, really tired of it. The electrical systems had dominated the majority of my last week, and I was beginning to see circuitry in my sleep. But not the good kind of see it in my sleep. The circuitry would slowly creep around me like a boa constrictor, and lovingly squeeze me to death, cooing sweet nothings into my ears. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. I was brought out of my daze by an error pop-up. The intelligent software had determined that I was majorly fucking up somewhere. I took a look, and realized that I had been doodling smiley faces out of circuits. I mashed control-z about fifty times, and then put my head in my hands.

“Adelaide,” I said through my fingers, “I do believe that I am going crazy.”

“That theory hinges on the assumption that you were sane in the first place, which leads me to reject it,” she promptly replied.

I couldn’t muster up the will to retort so I flipped off the security camera instead. I closed the program; it’s not like I was getting anything productive done anyway. The last week had been incredibly dull. Absolutely nothing of note had happened. The first day had been a little exciting; we’d taken down two Assimilator patrols, but in reaction their Matriarch had pulled everything back to Hive Cluster and they’d had been holed up there since. We had no idea why they were so seemingly afraid of me, and unless I wanted to tangle with thousands of Worms and no less than three Hive Lords I wasn’t going to be doing any investigating. The communication device I’d… acquired… from Reaper had been promising, if uneventful so far. The bastards over in Hays had immediately switched frequencies once they’d lost contact with Reaper, which meant they had a brain. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t know that Adelaide was a sentient information alien. Using the information she’d acquired from her brief control of the communication device, she’d been slowly working her way into their coms system, taking great pains to remain unnoticed. In this case, ‘great pains’ was synonymous with ‘really slowly’.

On the bright side, my foray into crippling boredom had allowed me to make decent headway on my to-do list. I’d implemented reloading for my wrist shotguns, and the stealth drones were finally in a workable state. They didn’t have active camo yet because I couldn’t figure out a feasible power supply, but they were silent and small enough to be unnoticed by most people. While I was working on the stealth drones I came up with a neat idea for a “drone-carrier”, an attachment to the Merlin which would allow it to release a swarm of autonomous combat drones. This, unfortunately, ran into the same problem as all autonomous drone platforms did. Simply put: drones are really fucking stupid. Turns out it’s a bloody bitch to get a low-powered computer to be able to distinguish, then target, a rapidly moving object (like an Assimilator) and effectively engage it. It’s a different story if someone is controlling them mentally, but even exceptionally talented operators could only control around twenty at once. That wasn’t helpful for me, because a single Paladin was about a hundred times more effective than twenty drones. The only place autonomous drones held an advantage is if you overwhelmed your enemy with sheer numbers. The problem was, rule one of Assimilators is that they always have numbers on their side. So, unfortunately, my dream of building an RTS drone army and having them do my dirty work for me just wasn’t feasible.

Speaking of the to-do list, I’d mostly finished my new prototype weapon for the standard Paladin, and was making a few last tweaks. Adelaide called it ‘idiotically childish’, but I think she was just jealous that she didn’t come up with the idea herself.

But I wasn’t in the mood to do any more engineering work right now. Or work of any kind, really, because my to-do list now included things like “consider the moral implications of giving raiders away as free labor, i.e. slaves”, and “figure out if people in Sterling are nice enough to give a whole bunch of weapons to”. F-04 was building up a small cache of small arms and ammunition just in case, but there were things I was really concerned about. As decades of ugly conflicts in godforsaken sandy/mountainous/jungley parts of the world had shown, giving a shit-ton of highly advanced armaments to certain groups can lead to some very bad things. I didn’t want to be responsible for what Sterling did if they turned out to really not like the town up the lane.

So instead I decided to play some video games to pass the time. I’d been playing XCOM 3 a lot, but it bore an incredibly depressing similarity to my own life, so I was ready to move on to something else. I was scrolling through my list when an old-fashioned phone ring started to play throughout the base.

“Oh thank God,” I muttered, and then sent a mental command allow the connection.

“Hey Caterpillar Man,” a voice came through, “Didn’t catch you jacking it, did I?”

“You know Rebecca, I become more and more amazed every day that Aaron let you within five feet of a radio, let alone put you in charge of one,” I said with a smile.

“My professional personality and affable demeanor are second to none. Now, have you gotten over your little hissy fit about Sterling taking advantage of your dumb ass?” she responded.

“For your information, after hours of soul searching, I determined that I haven’t gotten over it yet and am still incredibly bitter.”

Pretty much the only break in the dull routine had been contact with the 4th Scouting Team. Immediately after I’d gotten back from my taxi run, I’d initiated a call to them to inform them about what I’d found out in Sterling, and since then they’d been checking in with me daily. Or, to be more accurate, Rebecca had. Wasn’t really sure why, but the conversations were a pleasant break so I didn’t question it. Probably the Red Eagles’ high command trying to get in my good graces and get any information about me that they could. I had been very careful not to reveal anything about Camelot or my capabilities. For all they knew, I was just receiving their transmissions from the Merlin.

“Them’s the breaks, kid,” she said, “try not to be such a doormat next time.”

“Will do. Also, if you want to patronize someone use ‘champ’ instead of ‘kid’, it’s way more demeaning. Now, did you have an actual reason for calling me this time? Beyond insulting me of course.”

She made an offended noise, “Am I not allowed to call up my favorite larval stage of Lepidoptera in order to have a friendly chat?”

“Entomology themed jabs, I’m officially impressed. Where’d you get that one from?” I said.

“Aaron is shockingly into it. He brings this jar with him whenever he goes on patrol and catches any creepy-crawly he deems as a “beautiful and noble specimen’, kills them, and sticks them full of pins. He has this inordinate fondness for beetles in particular.”

I sighed, “Just when I think my illusions of him couldn’t be shattered further, you go and do that.”

“Yup, he’s as crazy as the rest of us,” she said with a laugh, then her voice turned a little more serious, “But you’re right, I didn’t call this time just to shoot the shit and wow you with my exceptional witticisms. We actually have a job offer for you, if you’re interested.”

I perked up a bit at that, “Go on.”

“So most of this is hush-hush but I got the go ahead to let you in on some of it. Basically, that black box we found is all sorts of fucked up, and we haven’t been able to get much off of it yet. The tech guys are trying to recover what they can, and so far we managed to get a location, and command deemed it important enough to send a team out there to check it out.”

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, “I’m not going to be a goddamn carrier service again.”

“Calm your tits, I haven’t gotten to your part yet. Anyway, they want our scout team and a team of Worm experts to go and poke around the coordinates in the box. There was a fragmented message that went along with it about the Assimilators. We’ve got our own transportation, but we need eyes in the sky and air support, which you conveniently have on hand.”

I tapped my hand on my chair and considered that, “Hmm, so it’s an escort mission. I could be talked into it. What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” she replied, “You’d just be covering the science teams’ asses from on high. No ferrying, you don’t even have to get out of your fancy gunship if you don’t want to.” I heard some noise in the background, and heard Rebecca sigh, “Tom is requesting that he rides with you, if you end up going with us.”

I laughed, “Yeah, I think I can arrange that. If I take the job. What do you have to offer? I mean, I’m not exactly hurting for gear.”

I could almost hear Rebecca smile, “Well, remember a couple days ago when you were bitching to me about the shitty food you’ve been eating for the past nine months?”

Camelot, while well stocked, only had very basic and bland food that preserved exceptionally well. It was supposed to be regularly supplied with fresh food, but the world’s end had put a stopper on that. My heartbeat quickened, “You can’t mean…”

“Oh,” she said, “But I can. Fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, whatever your starving little palette desires. All delivered in refrigerated chests directly onto your pretty bird.”

“But… where did you even get it?” I said, confused and excited.

“The outfit helped out a few little farming towns, they could only pay in food, and now we’ve got a ton of it. I hope you like corn and beef, because we’ve got it coming out our assholes.”

I stood up, and was heading to the second floor begore she finished her sentence. “Where do you want me to meet you?”

Rebecca laughed at me. “I guess that means yes,” she said coyly.

“No fucking shit that means yes, do you know how many bowls of goddamned oatmeal I’ve had in the last nine months? Now where do you want me to meet you?” I said impatiently.

“We’ll transmit the coordinates to you. The teams are already formed up and almost ready, so we’ll hammer out the details of your payment in person. Don’t dally now, it’s not good form to be late on your first day.”

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