“I’m on board, Adelaide,” I gasped, and staggered into the cockpit. There was another emergency kit there. Out the canopy I saw the Hive Lord lying prone on the ground. It was still alive, putting itself back together, achingly slowly, but alive nonetheless. The Merlin turned and blasted to the east, leaving the wretched monster behind. “One more torpedo,” I muttered while I fumbled at the medical kit on the wall, “and that fucker would be done.”

“Sam, you have to take off your Paladin before you begin to repair the damage,” said Adelaide. There was concern in her voice.

“Right. Duh.” I looked down at my side, considering my options. Pulling out the claw might do more harm than good. It could be holding important…

I lost my train of thought for a moment. Okay. The claw. The tendrils would break apart soon anyways, they wouldn’t stay cohesive far away from their hosts. I made up my mind, and retracted the visor and faceplate of my Paladin. I tore off a piece of mediband with my left hand, wadded it up, and bit down on it.

“Sam, wait, what are you –“

I pulled the claw out in one smooth motion, the Paladin’s strength making the task easy. It hurt a bit, but I was surprised. I probably hadn’t needed the makeshift mouth guard. I dropped the claw and it clunked to the floor.

But I could sure feel it bleeding a lot down there. I pulled myself out of the pilot’s chair, and almost fell over. The anti-gravs fired, keeping me upright. Oh, now you want to work. That’s just lovely.

“Sam, I couldn’t hear what you just said.”

“Didn’t mean to say it,” I grunted, then picked up the emergency kit and moved to the drop bay. I commanded the Paladin to open, and it complied with a series of horrific grating noises, jerking apart in jagged spurts. Still came apart, but would need some serious TLC back in Camelot. I stepped out, being careful to do it slowly and carefully. Didn’t want to take a tumble now. Needed to stay standing.

I checked over my wound. Could’ve been a lot worse probably. I dunno, I wasn’t a fucking doctor, just some guy that put bands on stuff. But it was pretty clean. Nice little gap in my side, but who needed one of those anyway. I was just mad that my jumpsuit was wrecked. I looked around for the emergency kit and realized the Paladin was still holding it to me. I found that amusing. But laughing would probably hurt so I didn’t do that. There was a foaming thing that would stop bleeding in wounds like this. Couldn’t remember what it was called for the life of me. I grabbed the can and started spraying it liberally into the wound. Stung like a motherfucker, but hey, at least I wouldn’t get more blood on the pilot’s chair.

My immediate concern taken care of, I took stock of my various other injuries. Deep puncture to the right forearm. Would need a foam and a mediband. Shallow gash on the left leg. Bleeding already stopped due to advanced recovery. Broken bones: Right forearm; four ribs, three on right, one on left. Would need to fix at Camelot. Internal bleeding and potential organ damage, unknown severity. Would need to fix at Camelot. Difficulty thinking. Maybe a concussion? Or blood loss? Not sure.

I considered how fucking lucky I was as I wrapped the mediband around my forearm, noting the dull pain as the nerves around my broken bone protested weakly. I didn’t have anything life… I was thinking something. Oh well.

Ran out of power like an idiot and still made it out alive. So stupid, should’ve kept my damn eye on the reserves. But hey. I one-vs-one’d a Hive Lord and survived, so it wasn’t all bad. That’d be something fun to tell the Rebecca and the gang. Oh shit.

“Adelaide, how’s Tom? Did everyone make it out?”

“Tom is stable. The Red Eagles suffered casualties, but nobody from the 4th Scouting Team was killed. The Assimilators stopped pursuing the vehicles once we outran them.”

“Good,” I said, “that’s good.” I looked down at my forearm. It was swelling up and I’d forgotten to put the foam in the puncture first. Fuck it. It’d probably be fine.

I left the Paladin torn up in the drop bay and returned to the cockpit. I considered sitting in the clean co-pilot’s chair, but I sat in my normal spot instead. Already blood all over me, so it didn’t really matter. I sat back in the chair, letting myself sink into it.

“Hey Adelaide.”

“Yes, Sam?”

“Our field trips fucking suck.”

“They do, Sam. They really do.”

I chuckled a little bit then immediately regret that decision. Chuckling hurt. Also I could taste blood again, which was a bit of a bummer.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I just raised an eyebrow at the camera embedded in the dashboard.

“I apologize. That was not a very intelligent question. How are your injuries?”

I smiled. Or I grimaced, maybe a bit of both, “Well, I’m not going to die or anything, so that’s nice. Arm’s a bit busted and I might have lost a piece of a liver or something, but those grow back pretty quick. All things considered I’m doing positively wonderful.” I was proud that I managed to get that description out in one piece.

“That does not sound very wonderful.”

“Oh yeah no, it isn’t pleasant at all…” I trailed off, losing the thread of the conversation, then I grabbed it again, “But do you know what the worst part is?”

“What?”

“I only survived that because of stupid fucking Allen and his stupid fucking pain training.” The lights in the cockpit were just a bit too bright. That ‘maybe a concussion’ was turning into ‘probably a concussion’.

“You should rest, Sam.”

“That’s a solid plan.”

I didn’t let myself close my eyes, but I tried to relax my body as much as I could. I suppose I could’ve taken a pain reliever, but I hated not being in control of my brain parts. Besides, I could ignore pain like a champ. I was kind of zoning out when a notification popped up on the canopy’s HUD. The automated scanner had picked something up. It would distract me from passing out so I decided to look into it. I brought up the map, and there were a bunch of red dots and considerably smaller number of white dots southeast of us. And one of the bunches looked like it was chasing the other, three guesses as to which. I checked the Merlin’s ammunition on the HUD. I think the main gun had enough left, but the numbers were blurring together so I couldn’t really tell.

“Heyy buddy,” I said.

“Oh no. We’re getting you straight back to Camelot.”

“Just a quick stop. Y’know, make sure everything’s alright down there.”

“Sam. You are seriously injured.”

“I mean, what is ‘seriously’ anyway? Just a silly word to describe things.” I waved my left hand dismissively, “Now, tell me, I think I see fifteen-ish white dots and a big ol’ blob of red ones. How likely are they to be okay without us?”

“Sam, that is beside the point. Also, the first part of what you said made no sense.”

“Hush now. Are they going to be okay?”

Adelaide stayed quiet for a while, then reluctantly said, “There is a hovertank with them. Even with it, the group of humans will suffer a minimum of 50% casualties without assistance.”

“Jesus fuck does everyone get a hovertank out here? Whatever. Let’s go save them, it’s on the way anyway. It’ll be like a five-minute detour, tops.” I said. Seriously though, why the hell does everyone… hovertank? I blinked and tried to clear my head.

“I won’t do that Sam, I need to get you home,” Adelaide was clearly trying to keep the worry and frustration out of her voice. I hated to upset her.

“But I can’t let those people die,” I took great pains to formulate my words perfectly, “Not when I can help them. That’s what it means to be a Paladin. I can’t put their safety below mine. I’m the shield, I’m meant to take the burden.”

I pulled the medallion out of my jumpsuit with my left hand, and rubbed it with my thumb. It had remained pristine since I received it. “If I die I won’t be able to help anyone. I get that. But I won’t die. Not today. It’s just a little pain, that’s all. I can handle a little pain. Wouldn’t be holding this if I couldn’t.” I clenched the medallion hard in my hand, feeling the smooth metal press against my palm, and put it in its slot. It snapped right back into place. “Can’t keep wearing it if I start leaving people behind.”

 

 

As we arrived near the two groups a few minutes later, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the people weren’t dead. I was less happy to see that most of the Worms were still alive too, but you take what you can get. I mean, at least I thought they were alive, the HUD had kind of melded into one big bright mess at this point, but Adelaide hadn’t told me anything different though I might as well ask…

“Hey Adelaide, they still good?” I said.

“Yes Sam. The group has managed to keep their distance from the attacking Assimilators, with the hovertank providing covering fire. Only two of the seventeen people have been killed, however the Assimilator group has lost only seven out of the thirty-five.”

I was about to sarcastically ask where they found thirty-five Assimilators, but there was a lance of pain that flashed through my brain and I closed my eyes for just a second. That just made me really nauseous so I opened them back up. My arm was throbbing quite exquisitely now and my torso felt like a couple Paladins had been playing hop-scotch on it. On the bright side, the blood had more or less stopped coming up in my mouth.

So, I was fine. Totally fine.

“Alrighty, would you please murder those things so we can pat ourselves on the back and go home,” I said. I heard Adelaide’s affirmative noise, and then my brain started to drift. I wondered why it seemed like every time I ran into people they were being chased by things. Maybe Hive Clusters were able to figure out if something is moving through their turf. I hoped I would remember that little theory, would come in handy to test out later.

I felt the Merlin pitch forward and my urge to vomit spiked accordingly, but I held it back, listening to the peaceful roar of the nose-mounted cannon firing. I looked out the canopy and saw the lovely sight of the Worms being torn to shreds. I hummed a little ditty but I couldn’t quite remember the tune so I kept trailing off. The hovertank had stopped to engage as well, focusing its fire on the two big ones that were left. Whoever was piloting the thing was talented; it was dodging nimbly around projectiles from the ranged Worms that were attacking it. Hovertanks like those were light interdiction models, their armor was thin for better maneuverability. Took some mental skill to strafe like that though.

Adelaide’s voice intercepted my thoughts, “Sam, the Assimilators have been destroyed. I’m taking you back to Camelot now.”

Huh. When did that happen? I waited for the answer expectantly, then realized I had forgotten to say it out loud. I opened my mouth to fix that when the Merlin suddenly rolled hard to the left. This time I did vomit.

“What the fuck?” I coughed and spluttered, wiping at my face with my unhurt arm.

“I’m not really sure,” said Adelaide, sounding more than a little annoyed, “but I think the hovertank just shot at us.”

I took a second too long to process that. “Huh. Well that’s stupid. Are they still doing it?”

Adelaide just sounded confused now, “No… Now the tank has stopped, it appears that the hatch is opening.”

I took a gander out the canopy. I was really curious now, and still a little annoyed. Who would shoot at something this pretty? I mean sure, if we shot at them first that would be something else, but we just came over here and saved their asses and they think they can just –

My heart stopped in my chest.

“Adelaide. Land right now.” I said. I stood up from the pilot’s chair, wobbling slightly.

“What? Why?”

“I need to be there, I need to be there on the ground now,” I could hear myself babbling, and I wasn’t making sense. I knew I wasn’t. Thoughts were flying around and getting stuck in the foggy parts of my head. But one thing remained clear. An absolute, ironclad certainty, the moment I saw the figure running towards the Merlin.

“Sam, we have to get you to Camelot, you aren’t speaking coherently.”

No. Not again. It wouldn’t be like last time. I wouldn’t be trapped again. My brain was running at a mile a minute but was also caught in a quagmire, and I mustered up every last scrap of my concentration.

“Adelaide, I need you to land the Merlin. I think that’s her. Please.” God damn it I meant to say her name, why couldn’t I just have done it fucking right, now she wasn’t going to let me –

“Okay, Sam. I understand.”

And then, mercifully, we started to drift downwards. I almost sobbed in relief, but I kept my composure. I made it to the back ramp, and leaned up against the wall near it. I had to close my eyes this time; getting up to walk over here had taken a lot out of me. The inside of my head was flicking between a jumble of incredulous thoughts and a blank expanse of nothingness.

I barely recognized the fact that the Merlin had touched down. I felt the jolt and almost dismissed it, then my eyelids snapped open. The ramp was already halfway lowered in front of me, and the sunlight burned into my skull like needles. Disoriented, I threw up a hand to shield my eyes. As the pain faded, I heard footsteps slapping on the metal ramp, and something slammed into me, holding me tightly around the waist. With supreme effort, I stayed standing, and I held Camille in my arms again.

“Found you,” she whispered, “I finally found you.”

Wasn’t sure if it was the concussion or the shock, but I couldn’t find the words for this. So I just squeezed her with my good arm, trying to put everything into the embrace, and even that wasn’t enough. My face was resting in her black hair. We were too close in height for her to fit under my chin, and she was just short enough that she couldn’t put her head over my shoulder. An awkward fit but my God was it absolutely perfect, because I was home now.

“I missed you so much,” I mumbled into her head, my voice cracking. I didn’t care how she came back to me. I didn’t care that she was crushing my broken arm to my side. I just cared that she was here.  My vision was starting to fade, and I struggled to fend off the encroaching darkness, just for one more second with her. She pulled back a little bit and stared up into my face. I tried to focus in on her eyes but there were two overlapping images that refused to mesh. She was saying something, and there was concern in her voice. I was trying to tell her it was okay, it was all okay now, but then I slid into black.

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