“You sure you don’t want to come with?” I asked Camille as I stood in front of the Merlin. It was resting on Ellie, and my back was towards its open ramp. I wasn’t wearing my Paladin yet; it was waiting in the drop bay. Being crammed in a big metal tuna can was not very comfortable. I was in a spare jumpsuit, my usual one was being repaired by the fabricators. Contrary to my usual inability to plan beyond the next 24 hours, I’d actually made five jumpsuits based on the design of the first one. I gave myself a big mental jerk off for that one.

Camille shrugged, “I just got here, there’s a ton of things I have to do. Jane knows I’m alive and okay since I called yesterday, but I need to have a longer conversation with her, tell her exactly what’s going on. I really want to review the dispersal pattern of the Assimilators and the scans of that Hive. I think I have a couple theories as to what they’re doing… Let’s see, I also would like to look around Camelot a little more, and I want to go over your schematics for the Assault Paladin. And there’s something in Denver I need to check up on from the satellites.” She’d been ticking things off on her fingers and looking more and more overwhelmed as she did.

I placed a hand on her head, “Calm yourself woman. You’ve been back for less than two days and you’re already stressing yourself the fuck out.”

She scowled at me, “You need to be more stressed out. We’re living in an alien apocalypse and from your attitude you’d think everything was sunshine and daisies.”

“Hey, it’s worked okay for me so far. I figure if I can procrastinate on the stress for long enough, at some point there won’t be anything else to be stressed about.”

“That makes sense in a very frustrating way,” said Adelaide over the PA.

“He’s annoying like that,” Camille agreed, “Anyway, you two should get going. You don’t want to leave your mercenary pals waiting. Let me know if you need anything, I’ll leave the coms open.” She leaned up and gave me quick a kiss. As she turned to walk away, I caught her gently by the arm and pulled her back a little.

“Hey,” I said quietly, so that Adelaide wouldn’t hear, “I know that’s not why you don’t want to go, not really. No secrets, remember?”

She looked away with a guiltily. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “It’s just… I don’t want to go back out there. Not until I can be in a Paladin.”

“I know you don’t. But you have to tell me that kind of thing anyway, okay? We’ll get you started on training tomorrow, you’ll be a Paladin in no time.”

She nodded, and I gave her a hug before I let her go. I boarded the Paladin, then gave her a final wave as the ramp closed up. Ellie began to raise us to the surface, and I made my way to the cockpit, now free from blood and Assimlator goo. I tried to reach the Red Eagles over the coms again, but they still weren’t answering. I’d been attempting to make contact with them since yesterday without luck. I really needed to meet with them; I still had to collect my payment for the mission, and more importantly I had something to give to Tom. Luckily, their convoy was a little hard to miss on the satellites, so we had their general location. At this point they should recognize the Merlin, so it wouldn’t be a big deal if we popped on by for a visit.

Hopefully.

With the coordinates locked in, I leaned back in the pilot’s chair, slightly dreading the next conversation. “Adelaide, are you busy?” I asked.

“No, Sam. The Merlin is on autopilot. Did you want something?” she replied promptly.

“Yeah, I just wanted…” I trailed off and rubbed the back of my neck, “I guess I just wanted to make sure you weren’t feeling too left out in the past couple days.”

“What do you mean?”

I shifted awkwardly in the seat, “Camille and I can be pretty coupley. I’ve been in the whole third wheel situation, and I’m sorry if we made you feel like that.”

“Oh, is that all?” she sounded amused, “It really isn’t a problem, you did nothing that left me feeling excluded. I would have been worried if you hadn’t acted affectionate. You haven’t seen each other in months, I believe it is warranted.”

“Well… okay then. Just let me know if we get too much for you.” I was relieved. Being the icky-gross couple was never a good thing.

“I will. To be honest, watching the way you two treat each other is quite nice. I have not yet experienced romantic love, but if I do I would like it to be similar to yours.”

I have to admit, I was pretty touched at that. I was about to express my heartfelt thanks when she cut me off, “There is one thing, though. The next time we watch a movie together, please do not seat me in between you two. I appreciate the sentiment, but it was rather hard to focus on the film with the two of you casting lustful gazes at each other over me.” I felt heat rising in my cheeks and I muttered something apologetic, which got a nice laugh out of her. I was searching for a way to change the subject when she put me out of my misery.

“If you have nothing else to add, I believe that our flight to the Red Eagles might be an opportune time to discuss the last battle,” she said, “I took the liberty of booting up the simulator last night and feeding the CAS scans and recordings to the training program. I recorded the advice the virtual instructors gave on the fight. Would you like to hear them?”

I sat up in the chair, “Yes, actually. Even though Danna’s going to turn my asshole inside out for losing power like that, it’ll be nice to get some feedback.”

The holoprojector on the dash changed from instrument readouts to a shrunk down image of a polar bear and a scowling woman. Danna started out this time, “You might think I’m about to ream you out, but you’d be wrong.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m not just going to ream you out. I’m going to fucking destroy you.”

Oh son of a bitch.

“That being said, you kicked ass for the most part and I’m damn proud that you went toe to toe with a Hive Lord by yourself.”

Yay?

“But when you did fuck up you screwed the pooch so hard that it’s still getting its ass stitched up in the hospital.”

As I was suffering from both emotional whiplash and a very unpleasant mental image, a replay of the battle popped up on the projector. It was from my point of view, but there were also reconstructed views from multiple angles that appeared around it, put together by a combination of the Paladin’s scans and some fancy computer wizardry.

Danna narrated as the battle began, “You started off pretty goddamn well. Delaying the engagement and attempting to keep it ranged were your best options. Normally, I’d say you should’ve put more distance between you and it, but given what you were trying to accomplish, it was understandable. After that, I don’t know why you thought it was a good fucking idea to unload your rockets into its center mass. Should’ve preserved them and gone for the legs, fuckwit. You were trying to delay the Hive Lord, not kill it. Can’t fault you for getting surprised by it popping back up after you took those two limbs out by the way, that thing was fucking tenacious.”

I watched my digitally reconstructed Paladin get smacked by the tail and I winced. It looked a lot worse on the playback.

Danna continued, “You should’ve been watching out for that tail. You either misjudged it or forgot about it, and you can’t afford to do either in a battle. You’re usually not too much of an idiot about that, so I don’t know if it was nerves or cockiness, but either way it was a major fuckup,” the next part played, where I got clawed by the Hive Lord’s reforming right arm, “Now that was some crazy shit. I’ve never heard of a Hive Lord regenerating that fast, even during the war, and it had freaky good control over what parts did and didn’t regenerate. I haven’t ever seen one that big either, so your unlucky ass might have run into something especially dangerous. That’s irrelevant right now, because you recovered damn well from that scrape and kept your cool. Which is why I cannot, for the fucking life of me, understand why your little brain departed your body right after.”

She slowed the video down and showed me leaping on to the Hive Lord’s back. Then she rewound it, and played it again. And again. And one more time.

“What. The. Fuck. Were. You. Thinking?” she snarled, “You’re lucky this is just a recording or else I’d be kicking your ass up and down the simulator.”

Danna brought back the video a little more, and focused on me skimming along the ground, strafing around the Hive Lord.

“See, this is some good shit. You’re using your mobility, your ability to outmaneuver the bastard in close range because while the thing is fast as all hell, it isn’t as quick as you. Confuse it, move around, efficiently use your resources to avoid blows and find an opening you can take advantage of, that’s the key to this kind of engagement, and for a while there it looked like you knew that.”

She showed me jumping on top of it again, pausing it to scrawl a stupid looking frown on my Paladin’s face. Just to really hammer it home.

“So why the fuck did you think that was good idea? I can follow your logic somewhat: Throw the Hive Lord off, get to a position where it won’t expect you, make it expose itself. Problem is, that might be okay in the short term, but long term it damn near got you killed. The amount of power you used in that flashy piece of shit maneuver was more than everything you’d used that day combined. Christ, the first jump alone was nuts, but what really tanked it was how much the automatic system had to compensate for your fat ass while you were tightrope walking like a shithead from the circus. If you’d had the luxury to control your anti-gravs manually, the drain might’ve been manageable. But when you’re trying to dodge a fucking tail and ride a twenty-foot werewolf simultaneously, that just isn’t going to fly.”

She stopped and glared even harder, “And then you unloaded all of your rockets. Not a couple. Not enough to just be effective and keep some spares. All of them. I’m not going to spend time on that particular bit of dumbassery, because I think you know just what a shitty decision it was. Same with your idiotic fucking angel leap into the air afterwards, when you lost power. The damn Hive Lord was blinded, just shoot the piece of shit in the head to stop it from regenerating next time. You need to learn how to conserve your fucking resources. God almighty but I’ve been trying to get that through your thick skull for months, and maybe now that you’ve been treated like an oversized pincushion, the lesson will finally sink in.”

As I watched myself tumble out of the sky, I felt rightly and properly shamed. The decisions felt appropriate at the time, but in retrospect they were… less than intelligent. I was about to get more self-flagellating when Danna started to speak again, “But this next part is where you made me proud, kid.”

She showed me ducking and weaving between the Hive Lords claws, avoiding each blow by the skin of my teeth, “You did all that without anti-gravs. You engaged a Hive Lord in close range without relying on any speed boosts, and it wasn’t just a normal Hive Lord, it was an insanely fast one. That’s fucking impressive. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline kicking in or what, but you managed to dodge those swings like you knew they were coming. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you’d be a goddamned monster if you stopped getting in your own way. Those instincts you showed there are top rate. I don’t know many that could pull it off. You got your ass kicked in the end, but the fact that you kept up with it as long as you did is what’s important. You need to simplify your game, because the more flashy shit you do, the less time you have for fucking up Worms.”

Danna sighed and shook her head, “Look. I know I’m being a hardass, but that’s what you need. Frankly, it was just dumb luck that you didn’t die there. If support had come just a little later, you’d be in the process of being shit out by that Worm. It’s a damned miracle that I had you training with the light beams before this, you’d have been slaughtered without that, and I just wish I’d started you on blocking techniques as well. What I’m trying to say here is that with the experience you had at the time, you did a hell of a lot better than you should have. But that doesn’t stop the mistakes you made from being mistakes, and it definitely doesn’t stop you from being able to learn from them. You’re alive; now make sure the next time you get into a fight like this, you don’t come back looking like you went through a fucking cheese grater.”

As I was both reeling from the tirade and blown away at how measured and reasonable she was at the end, Danna gave a signal to Jack. He moved forward with a massive step, which looked a little funny considering how small the projection was. The polar bear smiled his horrifying smile at me, “From an overall perspective, you did very well Sam. You thought quickly on your feet and were able to give orders to others efficiently. You determined the best course of action you had available, and you trusted your own judgement to carry it out. Most importantly, you embodied the ideals of a Paladin, and protected those that needed you without hesitation.”

I felt a real glow of pride there. It got lost in all the happiness of finding Camille again, but this was the first time I really felt like a Paladin. Sure, I had saved people before, I wasn’t discounting that, but every time I did I hadn’t been in any real danger. A part of me was afraid that when it really came down to it, I wouldn’t be able to make the hard choice and put others’ lives before mine. It was good to know that I would.

My musings were interrupted by an overhead view of a bunch of red dots and a much smaller number of green ones. Jack started rumbling at me, “Because I don’t have any more remarks on your performance, we are going to speak about the decisions that the Red Eagles made. From this, you will learn how to properly manage a retreat in very disadvantageous circumstances.”

After that, he launched into his lecture. The long and short of it is that the Red Eagles did passably well. It was chaos at first; the majority of the casualties came in the first couple minutes. The camp’s reaction to the Hive Cluster erupting was not so great, but after a few minutes or so of flailing about, things started to change. Adelaide informed me that Aaron took control at that point. Jack explained that the Red Eagles’ initial woes was caused by their lack of preparation. Adequate defenses and a proper exit strategy would’ve done a whole hell of a lot. The retreat itself was well executed, with the unarmored vehicles protected by the scout cars which harried the horde and kept them distracted. Still, it was Adelaide and the Merlin that pulled their shit out of the fire. Jack took the opportunity to drive home the importance of aerial superiority.

Jack spent the next half hour, the remaining duration of the flight, discussing effective air support in famous battles. The Battle of the Rhine River came up as a prime example. While it was technically a loss, the Assimilators overran the line and Europe was fully taken, the true purpose of the battle was to delay the aliens while civilians were evacuated off the mainland and ferried to the Americas. The desperate and heroic last stand was only possible due to the brilliant use of heavy gunships to herd clusters of Assimilators into kill zones. The Speyer Funnel, named for the town near where it was first used and the shape the Assimilators were herded in, was one of the main reasons the Alaskan Line lasted as long as it did. Camille and Adelaide both watched the lecture (Camille was watching a replay of it from Camelot), and I don’t blame them. Jack’s rumbling tones were perfect to deliver the subject matter, and he brought up interactive maps and simulations of the battles.

As we neared the Red Eagles’ camp, I paused the lecture and focused on the task at hand.

“What’s your plan?” asked Camille over the coms. She’d decided to watch through my Paladin’s feed to get a handle on the Red Eagles for herself.

“Well, I was thinking of just dropping down there and saying hello, getting my shit, giving Tom his shit, and then going home. I don’t think they’ll have a problem with it, I did kind of save their asses a couple days ago after all.”

There was silence over the line. “Uh. You don’t see where that might go wrong?” she said in a resigned voice.

I rolled my eyes, then remembered that Camille couldn’t see it, “Well yeah, I mean I might get shot at or exploded or whatever, but there’s a pretty solid chance that won’t happen. Like, 97% at least.”

“They could immobilize your Paladin, trap you inside it, then attempt to torture the information about your base of operations out of you. Or, alternatively, they could lock on to Adelaide with some sort of anti-aircraft weapon, and threaten you into leaving them the Paladin or taking them to your base. They could also -”

“Jesus, did everyone out here try to screw you over?” I cut her off incredulously.

“Well. No, not really. Actually, only a couple people did and it was like six months ago. But my points stand,” she said.

“Yes… I suppose it does. Look, I get the need to be suspicious of people, I really do, even if I don’t act like it. I get that it’s the end of the world and that makes it more likely that everyone you meet is trying to fuck you six ways till Sunday. But I’ve heard nothing but great things about Red Eagles, and again, a good number of them owe me their lives. And beyond that, the vast majority of people I’ve met so far have been kind. Well, except the raiders, but they’re more the crazy, murderous outliers in this situation.” I paused for a second and tried to gather my thoughts, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like to think normal people are still decent. Maybe if this apocalypse had happened before the Assimilators, things might be different. But I saw the way people banded together at the end. When all those refugees came over, they were welcomed into our homes without a second thought. During the food shortages, people gave freely to total strangers, and everyone pitched in to help. I dunno, I just don’t think that sense of unity would go away so fast.”

Camille groaned over the coms. “Urgh you make it so hard to argue when you’re so blindingly optimistic,” she grumbled, “Fine. Go meet with your stupid mercenaries in their stupid camp. But keep me a secret, for now. I don’t want them to know anything they don’t have to without coming up with a countermeasure for it. And be careful, okay?”

“I will, my paranoid weirdo. Love ya,” I said, and was met with a muttered ‘love you too’ in response. I grinned, then asked Adelaide to turn off the active stealth systems and open the hailing frequencies. I’m sure the Red Eagles were monitoring the area and had a channel for communications. Sure enough, I was contacted almost immediately.

A male voice crackled over the coms, “Unidentified craft, this is Red Eagles Command Center. Please state your purpose.”

I let Adelaide handle the response, “Red Eagles Command Center, this is aircraft M-01, carrying Paladin Samuel Lewis on board. Requesting permission to land.”

Adelaide kept the Merlin where it was at a hover while we waited for their response. After a few minutes, the voice came back, “Aircraft M-01, you have been granted permission to land. Proceed to the transmitted coordinates.”

“Roger that Red Eagles Command Center,” Adelaide said. She brought the Merlin into a lazy descent, bringing us closer to the Red Eagles’ operation. Jack would’ve approved of the place. For a temporary camp, it was fortified well. There were a couple of vehicles that had deployed into watch towers and bunkers, remnants of the old Mobile Fortification Doctrine. Barbed wire did jack shit against Assimilators, so there wasn’t any of that, but there were several hovertanks in positions that covered every approach to the camp. The best part was, it actually made fucking sense for this group to have them. That was a nice change of pace.

There was a space near the center of the camp cleared out, and two people stood with earmuffs and illuminated beacons, directing us to land. The Merlin touched down with its customary billow of dust, the engines humming loudly. They spooled down with a gentle whine as I equipped the Paladin. Feeling the metal ripple to a close around me never got old. The back ramp lowered, and I walked out into the center of the Red Eagles camp.

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