I stared at Camille dumbfounded. I looked down at my BLT, and then back to her, “I’m sorry, did you spike my sandwich while I wasn’t looking, because I thought you just said that I won’t be in a Paladin when I go into the middle of an Assimilator infested city, and that would be fucking crazy. So I’m tripping balls, right?”

“I know it sounds crazy –“

“Oh holy shit you weren’t kidding,” I cut her off, incredulous, “I’m just gonna go with a hell no on that plan. No force on heaven or earth could get me to go in there without a Paladin.”

“Are you sure you want to be quoting that right now?” Camille asked with a wry smile, “You do realize Grant ended up going, right?”

I snorted, “Unlike him, I’m not a complete fucking idiot, so yeah, I’m pretty comfortable quoting it.”

Adelaide added her opinion, “I have to agree with Sam, Camille. This seems like a very bad idea.”

Camille sighed in frustration, “Look, will you at least listen to the rest of what I spent the last two days putting together?”

I considered my options. On one hand, if I listened to her plan I might actually be convinced to go along with this batshit bonkers farce. On the other, she’d be really pissed at me if I didn’t. Since I’ve established that I wasn’t a complete fucking idiot, I went with option number two.

“Yup, nope, not even considering it. How about we go watch a movie?” I said, standing up with a stretch.

“Every time it’s my turn to choose movies, I’ll pick the Phantom Menace. For two weeks straight,” Camille said quietly.

I froze and turned to her in horror, “You wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t I?”

My eyes turned hard, “You do realize there are going to be consequences for this, don’t you?”

“I accept all responsibility,” she said, unyielding, “and I’ll even sweeten the pot. You get my movie choices for those weeks if you stay and listen.”

We stared at each other for a half a minute, then I slowly sat back down. Adelaide gave a sigh of relief. I’d made her watch it once.

“Good choice. Alright, you know what’s in the vault now, and why it’s important to us. Now let me lay out exactly why I’m proposing something this insane,” Camille brought up a map of North Eastern Colorado. We were a bright little dot almost directly between Sterling Outpost and Burlington. “Normally, I’d say that we should wait, develop some sort of stealth Paladin and go in with that. Those upgrades obviously aren’t worth the risk to our lives, after all. But developing something so radically different from the original design would take months, at the very least, and I don’t know if we have that time.” The map zoomed in on the Pawnee National Grassland, right on the Hive Cluster Adelaide and I had harassed. For reference, it was almost directly west of Sterling.

“Do you see what’s going on?” Camille asked.

I looked closely. “Nope,” I responded cheerily.

“Okay, fine. Let’s look at something else,” the map switched places rapidly, and focused on a Hive about seventy-five miles north of Sterling, over the Nebraskan border. I was confused. She was just showing Hive Clusters in their normal dispersal pattern.

“Oh, no,” said Adelaide, with fear in her voice.

“I’m missing something here,” I said, “Those are just Hive Clusters. We’ve known about them for a long time.”

Camille just silently panned the camera to one more Hive, this time a few hundred miles south of us. “See the difference?”

I frowned and was about to ask if this was just an annoying prank, when my breath froze in my throat. That Hive Cluster to the south was different. It had thousands more Assimilators. Camille jumped the map back to the Pawnee Grasslands one, then silently switched between dozens of other Hives. All of them, without exception, had a near uniform number of Assimilators. Except for the two near Sterling. They were missing around five thousand each.

“Where the fuck did they all go?” I asked, “They can’t have just up and disappeared.”

“That’s the ten-thousand Assimilator question, isn’t it?” Camille replied, “I have absolutely no idea. I was looking over the satellite images to try to plot the dispersal pattern, and I noticed it. They were there one day, and gone the next.”

I felt sick to my stomach, “The scanners can’t pick them up.”

“Bingo.”

Adelaide sounded panicked over the coms, “This is just like the invasion into the Americas. We have no way of telling where they are, or what they are planning.”

“But the scanner tech might let us,” I said, standing up and starting to pace. Fuck. Fuckity fucking fuck. I didn’t have to state the obvious to them. Only the Assimilators closest to Sterling had disappeared. Where there happened to be a creepy, empty Hive and a Red Eagles advance team that found something dangerous enough to be hunted by a Hive Lord.

I heard Adelaide begin to speak again, “I now understand why the new scanner technology is necessary. But why don’t we just hire a team to get it for us? Why risk going ourselves?”

I was the one that refuted her, “We can’t do that. The vault is heavily biometrically locked down. You know how long it took you to crack Camelot’s system? The vault is far simpler to secure, so it might take even you years to get through it. Camille and I have access to it, but we have to be there in person. That thing can’t be fooled or hacked in to.”

Camille grimaced, “Exactly. We can’t just hand this off to someone, as much as I’d like to.”

“We need to warn Sterling, get them prepared. I’ll start the fabricators on making weapons and armor,” I stopped and frowned, “Why do we even need the scanners? We could just make Sterling into a fortress and…” I cut myself short, “Ugh. I’m being an idiot. We don’t know that they’re going for Sterling, do we?”

“That’s true. We have no knowledge of what their plans are until we have access to those scanners. They could be after something completely different,” Adelaide agreed.

“And we’d just be waiting around in Sterling with our thumbs up our asses. Well, that doesn’t stop us from warning them and getting shit ready. We should let Commander Berston know, he’d probably be willing to help out,” I said.

Camille cleared her throat.

I looked at her guiltily, “Sorry, you were saying?”

She gave me a frosty look, then continued, “My plan is separated into five basic steps. Step one: Warn Sterling, the Red Eagles, and the surrounding communities. Step two: Begin to build up armaments in preparation for an assault. Step three: Gather a small team for infiltration. Step four: Infiltrate the lab, grab the tech, and get out. Step five: Install the scanners and make final preparations with the new intelligence and technology.”

I cut in, “Step six: Question mark. Step seven: Profit.” I got another glare for that, so I shut up again.

“Where was I… Right, steps one, two, and five are pretty straight forward. Steps three and four are where things get… complicated.”

The holoprojector switched to list of names. There was a photo of the person named next to each one. I ran my eyes down it. There weren’t any surprises on here, but I was worried about something. Noting Camille’s increasingly annoyed look, I decided to hold my questions to the end.

“The issue with this, obviously, is how to get people to agree to something so crazy. I have a potential solution to that: Honesty, and a whole lot of payment. Mary should be the easiest to recruit. Once we show Sterling Outpost the satellite images and explain what the danger is, as well as offer plenty of incentive, I don’t think Sterling will be able to ignore us. The Red Eagles team could prove to be more difficult. But with them, we have one big advantage; they’re mercenaries, so they always have a price. Camelot can whip up some pretty advanced toys, which should be excellent to trade.”

I pretty much agreed with her assessment, and though I didn’t say it out loud, both Mary and the Red Eagles owed me their lives, which I’m sure had to count for something. But I did have to add something, “If we do manage to get them on board, this could be super helpful for later. My list of potential Paladin pilots pretty much matches the people on the screen. Being able to work with them in a combat situation, where I’m not just protecting them from getting killed, will actually let me see if they’re viable candidates.”

Camille considered it, “Huh. I hadn’t thought of that, but sure. Anyway, we get the gang together and outfit them in the best gear we have. There’s no need to be stingy here. The plan after that is fairly straightforward, but it’s going to be tricky to pull off.”

 

 

Mary sat across from me in the bar, rolling a glass of whiskey around in her hand. Her eyes were boring into mine, and I had to resist the urge to fidget uncomfortably. I’d been in Sterling for around an hour now, and after informing the mayor about their potential impending doom, I’d pulled Mary aside to talk about the infiltration plan. Since I’d finished my spiel, she’d been silent for almost a minute. I was starting to get nervous, so I took a sip of my drink to calm my nerves, then grimaced. This whiskey was fucking terrible.

She set down her glass, and leaned forward, rubbing her temples, “So what you’re telling me is that you want me to guide you on some suicidal mission to a lab in Denver, so that you can get your hands on tech that would let us detect cloaked Assimilators? Which, if I’m understanding it correctly, might not exist in the first place?”

“Uh. Well it sounds bad when you put it like that, but essentially, yes,” I admitted.

She looked at me for a second, took a long swig of her whiskey, and then sighed, “Alright, I’m in. One condition, I want access to the scanner tech you find.”

It took that second to sink in, “Wait. What?” I asked, incredibly confused, “Why are you saying yes?”

She raised an eyebrow, “Did you want me to say no?”

I waved my hands, “Of course not! And I’ll definitely give you the scanner tech. But I mean, it’s a pretty risky plan, and pardon my saying so, but you don’t seem the type to take many risks.”

She lapsed into silence, seeming to ignore my statement. I sat there awkwardly, and decided to observe the bar in the meantime. It was a small place, just your usual small-town tavern really. A couple of booths, like the one we were in, a couple of tables, and the bar itself, complete with a mustachioed bartender that was wiping down glasses. It was only us in the place right now, considering that it was before 11:00 AM. It was chilly in here, fall meant that the days didn’t get warm until the afternoon.

I brought my attention back to Mary as she started to speak again, “Few reasons I said yes. First, I like this town, and I don’t want the people here getting screwed. Second, I’m a Runner, and I intend to be a Runner for a good while. If your new scanners can actually spot those cloaked Assimilators, I’ll be much less likely to die out there. Third, I owe you one, and I hate debts. And last, with a few tweaks your plan’s not impossible with me there to guide you, not by a longshot.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Mary was the most important person to get on board with this plan. She had an incredible reputation around the small towns here, according to Camille at least. Without her, we’d have to find someone else competent enough to get us through to the lab, and frankly, I didn’t know anyone else.

As I was musing, another question popped up in my head, “Are you going to be bringing along Mike and Wade?”

Mary snorted, “Nah. Those boys are good, but they’re green. If we get into a scrape in there, they’d be deadweight. I hope the team you’re getting is better.”

I shrugged, “They’re a Red Eagles scout team, and they seem to be pretty damn good.”

Mary made an impressed face, “Red Eagles scouts, huh? That’s better than I expected. Those guys don’t fuck around. They also don’t come cheap.”

“Well, I don’t plan on being cheap,” I said with a grin. Mary smirked and raised her glass at me, and I raised mine in return.

 

 

Commander Berston studied the map in front of him. The holoprojector in the Red Eagles Command Center was displaying the Assimilators’ disappearing act. He was impassive, and his eyes were flicking over the satellite images rapidly. The Command Center’s main room was medium sized, with a similar set up to Camelot’s, minus the fancy conversion capabilities. Currently, the rest of the scout team was in the room as well, sans Tom. He was still in the middle of rehab, and was in no shape to go on a mission this dangerous, much to his consternation. We were standing with the Commander, waiting for him to speak.

I perked up when Berston took his hand off his chin, signaling he was about to speak, “Well. I’m not even going to ask you where you got these images, but they seem genuine. I must say, this is definitely troubling. I will accept your offer for the Scout Team. Ten HRA949 hovertank railguns, and copies of the new scanners, in exchange for our help on this mission of yours. If, of course, they volunteer for it.”

I nodded, “Obviously. I consider these weirdos my friends. There’s no way I wouldn’t let them choose to take this on.”

Berston smiled slightly and turned to the squad, “You heard the man. What’s it going to be?”

To my incredible surprise, it was Jackson that spoke first, “I’m going.”

He must have caught my look of shock because he scowled at me, “Look, you might be a dick sometimes, but you saved my buddies’ asses. I don’t forget things like that.” He winced and looked at the Commander sheepishly, “Apologies for the language, sir.”

Aaron glanced around the rest of the squad, then spoke next, “I believe that Jackson captured all our thoughts, in a nutshell. We stick by people that help us.”

“Yup,” said Allie, “You’re a proper friend. Don’t know many that’d throw down with a Hive Lord for me. Besides, this kind of thing is our MO. We’ve snuck right next to a Hive itself for recon, going around the outside of one is nothing.”

Rebecca made eye contact with me and grinned, “Now that you’re out of your fancy caterpillar suit, you’re gonna need someone with some actual skill to carry you through this.”

I was a bit overwhelmed. I’d expected maybe Aaron and Rebecca to go along, and hesitantly at that. “Thanks guys,” I said, my voice thick, “It’s going to be my turn to owe you one after this.”

“Oh God, if you start blubbering on us I swear I might change my mind,” groaned Rebecca.

Aaron turned to me, “I joined the Red Eagles to assist those in need. If the scanning technology in that lab is truly what you say it is, and we can spread it to the rest of humanity, then we’ll save more people than I ever could alone. That is worth the risk, to me at least.”

As much as Aaron enraged me with his perfect good looks and charming personality, I knew he was at the top of my list for recruitment. He didn’t even wear the Shield, and he already embodied the most important thing a Paladin should stand for. I looked over all the members of the 4th Scouting Team. I got really damn lucky that I ran into them out here.

Commander Berston shook his head with a bemused smile, “I believe you have your answer, Mr. Lewis. I’m not sure exactly what you did to inspire such loyalty so quickly, but there you have it.” I had a warm glow in me, but that was shortly ruined by Berston’s next words, “Unfortunately, the Red Eagles will not be able to assist the town of Sterling.”

Aaron looked at him in shock, “Sir?”

“Captain David, I do not believe I gave you permission to speak. Take your squad and clear the room.” Berston said sharply. Aaron immediately snapped his mouth shut, and the scout team walked swiftly from the Command Center.

Berston faced me again, and continued, “The Red Eagles make it a point of helping where we can. I believe that all of us have a responsibility to humanity. I however, have a responsibility to my soldiers, and that comes above all else. I cannot afford to keep my entire company here for however long it will take to discover what these aliens are plotting. Nor will I send them into battle against a force of that strength if it is not absolutely necessary to.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, “Despite the fact that it was your advance team that started this whole mess? It doesn’t have to be your full company. A small contingent to help the people of Sterling train would be more than enough.”

“You have no proof of that, and even if it were the case, I did not order them to do whatever it is they did,” the Commander said calmly, “We are a mercenary company. We are not the military, we are not sworn to protect civilians. If there is an opportunity to, I will direct the Red Eagles to help, but not at the risk of my troops. In fact, the only reason I’m allowing the 4th Scouting Team to go along with this is because they insisted I allow them to, and more than a hundred of my people owe you their lives. I owe Sterling Outpost nothing.”

I gave him a bitter smile, “So all your altruism comes down to is convenience. It’s funny, Aaron told me about your ‘code of ethics’. I never thought it would be so flexible.”

Berston sighed, and he looked just a little older, “There was a time when I thought of the world like Aaron did, and like you clearly do. One day you’re going to learn what it means to lose those that trust you with their lives, due to a decision you make. When that day comes, Sam, you can talk to me about ethics.”

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