Tom was waiting for me when the Merlin touched down. His face look composed but the stoic effect was ruined by the fact that he was nervously bouncing on his toes. I walked out the back ramp, and he held a hand up in greeting.
“Hey, Sam,” he said, “how’s it going?” His eyes were continually flicking between me and the open ramp.
“Pretty good, how’re you?” I said, pretending not to notice, then looked behind him to find the rest of the squad, plus an older man that I didn’t recognize, approaching me. They were walking away from the fairly large group of people milling about the staging area. There were a couple small armored transports and three light scouting vehicles. I was mildly surprised to see no hovertanks, but maybe I’d just gotten too used to seeing everyone have about fifty of them.
Aaron walked up to me, his helmet held under his left arm. The bastard had perfect, wavy dark hair. I bet he just rolled out of bed and looked like that. “Sam. It’s good to see you. Thanks for taking us up on this, it helps a lot,” he said to me. He gestured at the man they’d come with. I’d wager that he was in his early-sixties. He was wearing field pants, a sun hat, and a rugged looking long-sleeve t-shirt, and sported a truly fantastic white beard. “This is Anton. He’s our Assimilator expert. He’ll be in charge of leading the survey team.”
I nodded at him, “It’s very nice to meet you Anton. I have a question though, if you don’t mind me asking,” he looked bemused but shook his head, “Okay. Why does a mercenary outfit keep around a scientific team with equipment that advanced!?” I pointed excitedly at the armored transports. They’d been heavily modified, with sides that could open and an array of advanced tools bolted onto the insides. “You’ve got like six top of the line Marion Electronics Micro-Analyzers in there! Most of the labs back in Denver didn’t even have tech that nice! What model are they? Do they have the full particulate separator suite installed?”
He blinked at me a bit, then smiled widely, “Well, first off, it’s a pleasure to meet you too. It’s nice to have someone else around that appreciates the finer things in life. They’re the second revision of the MicroSpec Line, and they’ve got all the bells and whistles you could ask for.”
I gave a low whistle, “Well slap me in the ass and call me a stripper, that’s some good shit you’ve got there.”
I heard a snort from the left, and I turned to see Rebecca smirking at me. “I mean, I always thought you were a giant nerd, but this is something else,” she said.
I waved a hand at her, “Hush girl, the grown-ups are talking.” Ignoring her unimportant retort, I turned my Paladin back to Anton, “Seriously though, where’d you even get tech like that? I mean, that model hadn’t even made it into circulation, only the best connect-“ I froze.
“Are you… Are you the Anton Marston?” I stammered.
He nodded at me, looking surprised, “Uhm, yes. I am.”
I gave a quick mental command and my visor and faceplate slid open. That was a feature I’d put in the Paladin after I realized I’d be doing a lot more human interaction. Made it more personable that way. I was ecstatic that I’d finished it early, because now I could talk to Anton Freaking Marston face to face.
“Ohmygod,” I squealed, “Dr. Marston, I’m a huge fan of your work. Your essay on the uses of Andarium composites in rebuilding alien technology was absolutely inspired! I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful your theories were in guiding my fabricator research!”
His face showed confusion, and then suddenly a lightbulb went off, “Hot damn,” he gasped, “you’re Sam Lewis aren’t you?”
Maybe I was giving away too much, but frankly I didn’t give a shit at this point. Honestly, I was sick of being so afraid of people knowing who I was. I hated treating every single interaction with another person as some deadly game, where if I slipped up and revealed too much, I died. Because honestly, even if someone knew who I was, that didn’t give them anything to use against me. Everyone I loved was dead, or in Adelaide’s case, more or less impervious to harm. A Paladin made me as close to untouchable as a person could get. Camelot was one of the most secure facilities on the planet; only the absolute top of the food chain knew its position, and Adelaide had taken control of the entire facility at this point. I was tired of hiding underneath the surface, and I didn’t need to anymore.
But that wasn’t important right now, what was important was the man standing in front of me. Dr. Anton Marston was an absolute visionary in the field of alien materials research, and had done pioneering work on derelict basically since they first started falling. It was his papers that got me into xeno-engineering in the first place. I was meeting my idol, and silly things like ‘operational security’ or ‘secret identities’ weren’t going to stop me now. And he recognized my name.
“Yeah, I am, but why do you know that?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me? You were the leading figure in xeno-engineering before the war ended! Every single fabricator in the world has your fingerprints all over them! How could I not know you?” he said, and I felt a warm glow of pride in my chest.
I saw Allie lean over to Rebecca and say, “Do… do you know what the fuck is going on over there?”
“No idea,” Rebecca replied, looking at me, “but it’s kind of adorable.”
Anton continued, “I can’t believe you’re actually alive! When the labs in Denver went out, I was sure you were there.”
“I got lucky, happened to be out of town.” I had a horrible sinking feeling I knew what was coming next.
“Wait. If you’re here, then is Camille Brown with you as well? I’d love to talk to her about her last paper on Mechanoid Assimilator origins.” he asked, looking around.
“Who’s that?” cut in Rebecca, a weird lilt in her voice.
“She is… was my girlfriend,” I said with a sad smile aimed at her, then I faced Anton again, who had a dawning look of understanding on his face, “And no, she didn’t make it. She was still in Denver when it fell.”
Anton looked horrorstruck. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “I just thought… I knew you two never worked without each other… I had no idea.”
“It’s okay, really. It was just dumb luck that I survived, that’s all.” I said, trying to wear a comforting smile that I knew was a bit stiff. An awkward air fell over us.
Then Aaron clapped his hands, “Alright folks, we’ve really got to get moving here, daylight’s wasting. Sam, will you cover the convoy from above? Also, Tom and Rebecca wanted to ride with you, is that alright?”
I turned to him, glad for the distraction, “Yeah, for sure. I was going to invite Tom along anyway, I was just waiting to see how long it would take for him to break down and ask, he looked constipated the whole time we were talking.” That got a snigger from Allie and a smirk from Aaron and Jackson. Didn’t seem to land with Rebecca though, she had a distracted look instead.
I glanced back at the older man, who still had guilt plastered over his face. “Dr. Marston,” I said, extending an olive branch, “Would you like to come with us too? I’d love the chance to chat with you about your research.”
He nodded at me, “I’ll take you up on that offer. And please call me Anton. I don’t think doctorates matter much anymore.”
I chuckled at that, and then everyone started moving. Allie and Jackson headed towards a scout vehicle, while Rebecca and Tom returned to the staging area to grab their gear. Anton said something about checking in with his team, and I started to hash out the details of my payment with Aaron. There were some sticking points (I wanted all the beef), but we came to an arrangement that was satisfactory. I’d pick it up when the mission was over, so the Merlin didn’t get too full to fit the other passengers.
Aaron and I were still talking when Tom and Anton came back my way, trailed shortly by Rebecca. As they walked past me into the Merlin, Rebecca flashed a quick glance at me, then hurried past. Aaron stopped midsentence. I looked over at him, my head cocked inquisitively. He was watching her go, one eyebrow raised.
“Look, you seem to have a basic misunderstanding of fabricators,” I said to Tom, “You can’t just ‘make fabricators fabricate fabricators’. That’s just straight up not how it works.”
He looked torn between hesitation at hearing me rant more and curiosity about the subject, “Err… Why?”
“Because every single fabricator on Earth was, in one way or another, taken directly from an alien spacecraft. We never learned how to make them, not really. There’s a key aspect to building them from scratch that we just never figured out. Specifically, there was an element, as in periodic table element, we couldn’t recreate. But what we did learn was how to repair them.”
Anton chuckled at that, “We? You mean you. I swear, we’d have spent another decade on those things if you hadn’t come along.”
“Well, I mean, I wouldn’t go that far.” I said, suppressing a squee.
“Oh my God. Are you actually blushing right now?” asked Rebecca incredulously.
We’d been flying for about forty minutes now, everyone except for me was sitting on the benches that unfolded from the inside walls of the Merlin. The convoy would take close to three hours to get to the coordinates, so we had a bit of time on our hands. They were in an interesting location, almost directly in the middle of Sterling and the Hive Cluster me and Adelaide had been going after.
“Well look who decided to rejoin us,” I said to Rebecca, “Had any deep thoughts? Or any thoughts at all? I mean, even the second would be a major improvement over the status quo.”
“Don’t try to take attention away from the fact that you look like a fangirl meeting a boy band right now,” she fired back.
Adelaide spoke up for the first time on this trip, “I am inclined to agree with Rebecca. Your attitude towards Mr. Marston is disconcerting, for everyone involved.”
I laughed along with everyone on the outside. “Don’t embarrass me in front of Anton,” I hissed into the coms, so only Adelaide could hear. She responded with a giggle.
Anton took the opportunity to look over at the cockpit. “I presume the voice that just spoke was our pilot?”
“Yes,” replied Adelaide, “And I apologize for not introducing myself earlier, the flight was keeping me busy. My name is Adelaide Phillips, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
I heard a strangled gasp from Anton, and looked at him. His eyes were flared wide, and he stared at me straight in the eyes, absolute shock radiating from him.
“Everything okay, Anton?” asked Tom, looking concerned.
He gained control of himself quickly, and smiled over at him, “Yes, of course. Adelaide… One of my very good friends had a daughter named that. They both died in the end, you see. Just brought up some painful memories.”
Rebecca reached over and placed a sympathetic hand on his forearm, and gave a light squeeze. Anton gave her a small nod of thanks. I was staring at him, and he made eye contact. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, which I took to mean as we’ll talk later.
The rest of the flight passed uneventfully. Rebecca mostly returned to her usual ‘charming’ self, and I somehow managed to keep my cool. I even had some pretty enlightening conversations with Anton. Turns out he’d been a part of the Red Eagles since the beginning. One of his colleagues, a retired military officer, had started it up soon after the war had ended. He’d been invited along, and accepted. His role was to help the mercenary group in studying the Assimilators they came across, to make more effective combat strategies against them. Not his exact field of study, but towards the end every major xeno-engineer was more or less an expert in Assimilator physiology. Most important part of designing a weapon was knowing exactly how to kill what it was pointed at.
We were in the middle of discussing the flaws in conventional Assimilator classification, a topic that Tom and Rebecca could actively contribute to, when Adelaide spoke up for the first time since she’d introduced herself, “We are approaching the coordinates now, and I’ll be making a preliminary sweep before dropping you off, Dr. Marston.”
Aaron had decided to keep Rebecca and Tom onboard the Merlin when I told him about its gunports. His opinion was that more guns in the sky was far better than having them on the ground. I’d linked my communicators to the scout squad’s, so he’d be able to call us in if there was an emergency. My Paladin was also connected to the controls in the Merlin, so I gave a mental command to fully lower the gunport shielding, giving us a good view of the location we were surveying as Adelaide made a few passes over it.
“Holy shit,” I breathed, “I get why that advance team marked this place down.”
A flat circle of earth stretched out under us, around two-thousand feet in diameter. It wasn’t just flat like the plains were, it was perfectly level, with edges that rose slightly above the ground and some that were dug a little in. A fractal pattern of dark lines, embedded into the ground, spread from the center of the circle. Upon closer inspection, the lines were actually iridescent, shimmering slightly in the sunlight.
Rebecca came up next to me, looking out the same gunport. “Damn. That’s one weird crop circle,” she said, and I granted her a small sound of amusement.
“The initial sweep does not register any hostiles, so I will be taking us in for a landing shortly,” said Adelaide, “However, the Merlin’s scanners are not registering the material that make up that pattern, which is exceptionally odd.”
I frowned, “That is bizarre. We’ve got the best scanners humanity had to offer in this baby.”
Anton shrugged, “We’ll find out more once we get on the ground and start doing analyses on the materials down there.”
Adelaide landed the Merlin outside the circle, in the new staging area that the Red Eagles were setting up. The ramp opened, but Anton started speaking before we could get out, “Excuse me, Tom and Rebecca, would you mind giving Sam and I some privacy? There’s something I need to discuss with him and… well, it’s sensitive.”
Curiosity flashed through both their eyes, but after a brief look between themselves, they nodded. They walked out of the Merlin, talking into their coms to the rest of the squad. Adelaide closed the ramp, and sealed off all communications to and from the gunship. Anton sighed, turning his hat around in his hands. We waited in silence for a bit.
“Is Amy alive?” he asked finally.
I shook my head.
“Damn,” he whispered, tightening his fist into a ball, suddenly looking much older, “God damn it.” He took a moment to compose himself, wiping at his eyes.
“You’re her daughter, right?” he said to the ship in general, “She told me a bit about you. Gave me quite a shock when she told me she had a fully-fledged AI she was working with.”
So, Amy hadn’t told him everything. That was a relief.
“Yes,” Adelaide responded eventually, “I am. If I may ask, how did you know my mother?”
He gave a small smile, “We went way back, Amy and I. Student of a colleague of mine, but we hit it off famously. She was a real handful when she was younger, always taught us old guys a lesson. We kept in touch throughout the years. She brought her kids over for dinner a good number of times when we both lived in Washington, back before I moved out here. She was a great woman.”
He addressed me now, “So I’m assuming you were the other one on that top-secret assignment with her. Would explain all this experimental gear you have.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but he cut me off, making direct eye contact with me, “No, don’t worry about that. I swear on my life that I won’t say anything to anyone about you, or Adelaide. I owe Amy that much, and so much more. I would never betray her daughter like that.”
I considered that. He was either being genuine, or he was an incredible actor. At the end of the day the secret was out, at least a little bit. But at least it seemed that he cared enough about Amy to keep a lid on it. I’m not proud to admit it, but I considered killing him for a brief, insane moment. He was my idol, one of the most important inspirations in my life, but I wouldn’t hesitate if it would protect Adelaide. Killing him wouldn’t solve anything though; it would just draw more suspicion to us and get rid of a lot of potential allies. It just wasn’t worth it.
Adelaide made the decision for me though. “I believe you,” she said simply, “and once this mission is over, I would be extremely grateful if you could tell me about what my mother was like, when she was younger.”
“I’d be honored to,” Anton said. Then he stood up, “I don’t want the others to get suspicious, so we should wrap this up.” He walked to the back of the ship, with me following him, and then he paused. The ramp was cracking open, and the sun filtered in on him as he looked back at us. “How did she die?” he asked, quietly.
I thought about what answer to give him. “Peacefully,” I said honestly.
He gave a stiff nod, and walked outside, past Rebecca and Tom. They gave me puzzled looks, and I stepped out of the ramp and joined them, stretching my arms above my head.
“What was that about?” asked Rebecca.
“Oh, nothing much. I worked with a friend of his. He just wanted to see if they made it out of Denver.” They looked like they understood just from that. Everyone had lost someone during the end. Tom said that he had to go get something from Aaron, some type of advanced recording device the science team wanted us to use while we kept a lookout from on high. That left me and Rebecca standing out by the Merlin.
“Hey,” I said to her as soon as Tom left earshot, “you okay? You’ve been acting off today.”
Rebecca studied my face for a second, then smiled brightly, “Yup. Just peachy.”