I stood in the main room of the Red Eagles Command Center, inspecting the holographic map of Denver that was displayed in front of me. As part of the agreement for hiring the scout team, I’d been given access to this room for the briefing. It was frankly pretty shitty compared to Camelot’s, but that wasn’t important. I had a measure of trust in everyone that was going on the mission with me, but I wasn’t nearly at the point where I’d be okay with them hanging out in my home base.

Mary was standing next to me, her arms crossed across her chest. I’d picked her up from Sterling on the way over here so she could be involved in the briefing as well. She was wearing the same gear I had on. It was a light armor, far less bulky than the heavy armor I’d used in the simulator, but no less protective. While the heavy armor was standard-issue, I’d extensively customized this set. It used a lot of the same materials as the Paladins’ armor, except the ones that added too much weight. It didn’t offer complete coverage, that’d lower maneuverability if there wasn’t a mechanical system like the Paladins’ in place, but it shielded the vitals perfectly. I wouldn’t be tanking any Hive Lord claws in this, but I could handle a solid hit from a M-1 or R-1 Assimilator. I’d painted them a very dark navy blue for this mission, as it would be at night. The only way mine differed from hers was a slot for the Paladin insignia on my breastplate.

“This is some crazy good gear you’ve got here,” Mary said conversationally, tapping the armor, “I don’t think I’ve seen armor this nice before, even in spec-ops.”

I quirked an eyebrow at her, “The giant metal mech suit doesn’t impress you, but this does?”

“Fair point,” she said, then unholstered her SMG, turning it over in her hands lovingly, “Still though. Even the guns are miles ahead of the stuff they had in the service.”

I smiled at her in response, “I told you I wasn’t planning on being cheap, remember?”

I’d basically just miniaturized the SMGs I had on the Paladin. They were a lot more traditional, with only one magazine instead of two, but they still had a compact form for storage. You could still use two types of ammunition, the barrel size would shift accordingly depending on the size of the bullet, but you had to manually switch the magazines. I’d also silenced them, for obvious reasons, though the single-fire high caliber rounds really didn’t give a shit about things like silencers. Worked well on the automatic mode though. In short, they were excellent weapons to bring on an infiltration mission. We’d be moving through some tight spaces, so the traditional assault rifles were out. I’d also provided a more-or-less standard issue handcannon. I just hadn’t had time to modify them yet.

I was graced with a wolfish smile in return as she let the gun fold back up with a click, “I’m not complaining. Getting to keep these toys is the best thing to happen to me all year.”

Any further conversation was interrupted by the door to the room sliding open. The scout team, minus Tom, funneled in led by Aaron. They’d all equipped the gear I’d provided, though Aaron had grumbled about not having the noble Red Eagle on his chest plate. The helmets were back in the Merlin, they covered the head fully so it didn’t make much sense to have them here.

“So, Caterpillar Man,” said Rebecca as she walked up to me, “I just had one question. How did you know exactly what size we were? This armor fits a little too perfectly to be coincidence.”

I coughed, “Uh. Well. The Paladin has pretty advanced scanners and stuff. So I mean, I just extrapolated the data from that and-“

“Pervert,” said Allie.

“Pervert,” agreed Rebecca.

“Eh,” shrugged Mary, “better than it chafing.”

Aaron cleared his throat, “Sam’s perversion aside,” -I resented that, for the record- “we should probably get this briefing underway.”

He offered me a wonderful escape route so I took it. I cradled the holopad in my arm and moved my fingers across the projection. The luddites didn’t even have a full mental interface. The larger holoprojector mimicked my actions, and the map displayed birds eye view the Denver Tech Center, where the lab was located.

“So, before we get into the plan itself, I’d like to go over a couple things. First off, introductions.”

Aaron gave me an approving look. It was a little silly, like a high school class playing a name game, but getting to know the people in your squad was invaluable. You can glean a lot from a short introduction.

Maryglanced at me, and I dipped my head shallowly in return. She heaved a sigh and raised a hand, “I’m Mary. Ex-Force Recon, did my time in Europe during the war. I’ll be guiding you today.”

The others introduced themselves much the same way. Just their names, their specialty, and that was about it. Brief, to the point. I was surprised, honestly. I didn’t expect them to go revealing their deepest darkest secrets, I sure as hell wasn’t planning to, but I thought I’d get something more from them. It finally came to my turn, and I made another potentially shitty snap judgement call Camille was definitely going to get pissed at me for later. But she wasn’t on the coms with me right now, she was getting ready for the mission, so I had free reign. I wanted these people to trust me, and trust had to start from somewhere.

I grinned at the gathered team, “As I’m sure you all are very aware at this point, my name is Samuel Lewis. I was born out near San Francisco, in 1999. Let’s see… Yeah, I went to MIT, then did a lot of work in Xeno-Engineering, up until the world went to hell at least. As for my credentials to lead you on this mission, I think what I’ve done speaks for itself, to a point. If it hasn’t, hopefully this will.”

I clicked the Paladin insignia out of the slot on my armor, and laid it flat on a table. Ignoring the curious looks from the squad, I pressed my thumb to it, and spoke in a clear voice, “Samuel Lewis.” The metal disc glowed faintly, and projected a large holographic representation of the Paladin symbol, with a line of text around the circle stating my full name, military rank, and the Paladin motto. Underneath it was another symbol of some sort, which looked a lot like the Great Seal of the United States with a few weird differences, but I could never figure out what it was for, so I’d always ignored.

It meant something to Mary apparently, because she looked awestruck, “Holy shit. Who the hell are you? How did you get a Presidential Commendation Seal?”

“What the fuck is that?” Allie asked helpfully. Honestly, I wanted to know too, because I frankly didn’t know what the hell Mary was talking about. I was just trying to show off that I was an officer in the military, I had no idea what a Presidential Commendation Seal was.

Luckily, Aaron answered for her, “It’s basically an exemption from the chain of military command. It’s not like it changes your rank, you can’t go ordering people around who’re above you, but it means that whoever holds it can choose to disobey orders from anyone except for the Commander in Chief.”

“Yeah,” Mary agreed, her eyes still wide, “Force Recon buddies of mine used to talk about them. Never seen one in the flesh before. Not many could be trusted with one.”

“How do you know its genuine?” asked Jackson, like a little dickweed, “I mean, the prick could’ve faked it somehow.”

If I wasn’t so curious about that myself I’d have wanted to punch his teeth in, but I restrained myself and continued to stand impassively, like I couldn’t be bothered to answer such a silly question.

Mary snorted at him, “Don’t be a dumbass. Barely anybody knew about this thing, let alone could forge it. From what I hear, the holoprojector for the seal,” she pointed at my insignia, “could only be made by one fabricator they had back at the Pentagon.”

Note to self: Don’t lose Paladin Insignia.

Aaron bobbed his head up and down, “I only know about them from Commander Berston, and he was pretty high up in the ranks before he retired. From what he told me, they weren’t used so much during the Assimilator War, more during the Derelict Wars in the 2010’s.” He turned to me, “Which begs the question, why do you have one, Sam?”

I’d kind of figured that out while they’d been talking, actually.

“That has something to do with my place in the military. I’m a Paladin, a new designation that was created right before the end, specifically for the soldiers that would pilot Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit. If you somehow haven’t put two and two together, then yes, the Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit is the big red and white thing I squash Worms in. The entire purpose of the Paladin is to act as a shield between the Assimilators and humanity. That means that sometimes, my goals and the goals of the military won’t exactly line up. Whereas the army might be forced to retreat in order to preserve its forces, even if it means leaving civilians behind, a Paladin can’t, and won’t. The oath I took is to protect innocents at any cost, and nobody can order me to do otherwise.” After I finished addressing the team, I breathed a sigh of relief on the inside. That had actually sounded plausible. And I’d even managed to turn it into a bit of a recruitment pitch there at the end. I snuck a glance at Aaron and saw his eyes practically shining. I had to resist the urge to chuckle. He was like putty in my hands.

The rest of the team looked sufficiently impressed. Mary looked like she still had a lot of questions for me, but I gave a little shake of my head. I needed to get this briefing moving, we had a fairly strict deadline to meet. She inclined hers minutely, which I took to mean that we’d be talking about it later.

I clapped my hands together, “So! Now that that’s out of the way, we can get down to actually figuring out how we’re not going to die. I’ve got a pretty solid plan for that, and Mary is going to start out with some general explanations.”

“Alright, from what I’ve heard of your corp, you’re pretty good, but frankly, I don’t think you quite know what you’re getting into,” Mary said, “Urban infiltration of an Assimilator controlled area isn’t easy.”

Jackson rolled his eyes, “Well no shit. We’ve worked with Worm Hives before, it’s nothing spec-“

Mary cut him off, “Shut the fuck up, please,” he did, and she continued, “Infiltrating a Hive in the open is a completely different beast than one in an urban environment. Assimilators have pretty good senses, but they tend to have more balanced ones than we do. That means we can see a whole hell of a lot better, which translates to a huge advantage on the plains out here, where we can see them coming from a long way off, before they see us. A megacity isn’t going to be so forgiving, especially one as ruined as Denver is. Visibility is shit, sounds echo a lot more, and vibrations travel through concrete better. However careful you thought you were being out in the open, you’re going to have to triple it in the city. All it takes is forgetting to check one corner. If one of the Worms spots you, the whole Hive knows. I don’t have to tell you how fucked we are if that happens.”

She let that sink in for a while before starting to talk again, “Luckily for you all, I’ve been doing this type of thing for a long goddamn time. Reason I’m telling you all this is so that you know that while we’re in there, my word is the word of God. Sam hired me to guide this group, and that’s what I plan to do. I can’t do that if some dumb sonuvabitch decides he knows the Worms better than I do.” She glared at Jackson again, who looked like he was going to crap himself, then stepped back.

I mentally put myself in super serious mode, then started to speak, moving the map around as I did, “The plan is pretty straightforward. The objective is the Greenwood Building, dead center of the Greenwood Plaza. The lab is in the basement. We’re going to take the Merlin to a LZ outside of Denver, a place called Chatfield State Park. It’s far enough that we won’t tip off the Assimilators, but close enough to make it there within eight hours. That’s going to be our soft time cap, for reasons I’ll get to in a second. Reason we’re landing west of the objective instead of directly south is so that we can cut directly North into the Littleton suburbs, which skirts the range of a nearby Hive, and then head straight east to the objective. Minute we start heading east is when things start to get a little more dicey. Littleton didn’t get as heavily developed; a few high rises is all. Once we get into Greenwood Village, we start seeing the real skyscrapers. It gets tight down in the streets, so we’ll have to be extremely cautious. There is some good news, though. We’re going to be threading the needle between the West Denver Hive, and the South-West Hive. Means that there won’t be as many patrols, we’re at the edge of their range. I’m not going to go through the route street by street, because we’re going to have to improvise based on Worm patrols. Any changes will go right to the CAS.”

The map view switched to an internal schematic of a building. The Greenwood Building was a massive skyscraper, the centerpiece of the Denver Tech Center, where the vast majority of the xeno-research in the US had taken place.

“Once we reach the building, it should be smooth sailing from that point on. Assimilators generally don’t leave the street, unless they’re hunting. Now, that’s only generally, so we’re not going to be wasting time in there. We’re heading straight for the basement, where the lab is. I’ll get us past the biometrics on the vault, and download any software onto a drive. Any hardware we’re going to have to carry. I can’t guarantee what will be there; I personally haven’t been in there for a couple years now. Once the tech is secured, we’ll head to the roof for pick up.”

I turned the projector off, and faced the squad. “So, back to the eight-hour soft cap. We’re going in at night, to limit the Assimilators’ view as much as possible. They have good night vision, but it’s still worse than it is in the day, and the CAS night vision is much better. In addition, that’ll make the most important component of our plan more successful.” I brought up a hologram of a small drone on the projector, “This is something I’ve been working on for a while. They’re small reconnaissance drones that link directly to the CAS. Once Adelaide drops us off at the LZ, she’ll proceed to a high altitude and control them remotely,” that was a lie, Camille was going to be controlling them from Camelot, “The drones have active camo and are almost completely silent. We’re going to have six of them with us, and they’re going to make sure we aren’t running headfirst into any patrols. The problem with them is power. Active camo takes a whole hell of a lot of it. That means we’ve got eight hours until they run dry, which means we’ve got eight hours until we’re blind. I don’t trust the satellites; there could be any number of Assimilators that can block our scanners. The drones have cameras and Adelaide will be marking targets manually, which is why I decided to go with them despite their limitations.”

I let my face get deadly serious, “Now, in the event that we get discovered by the Assimilators, we’ll have a maximum of ten minutes before we’ve got an entire hunting party bearing down on us, roughly two hundred Worms. That’s not counting any patrols that happen to be in the area, they’ll be there faster. There is no way in hell we can fight that with just six of us. So if we get spotted, we’re going to get to the roof of the tallest building we can find, as fast as physically possible, and call Adelaide for pickup. Doesn’t matter how close we are, doesn’t matter if we’re a pube hair from the vault. We get compromised, we run like hell. This won’t be our only shot at this, we can come back when the Hive calms down, approach from a different angle. Whatever is in that vault isn’t worth our lives. I’ve got a responsibility to keep you alive, and I intend to see that through.”

“Any questions?” I asked, after a moment of silence.

Allie raised her hand, “If things go tits up, why not just bring in your Paladin, or whatever the fuck it’s called? From what I’ve heard about Fort Morgan, that thing can drop in from pretty fucking high.”

“A Paladin is way too fat to climb a building,” I responded, “So Adelaide would have to land in the street to extract us, which isn’t a great plan if we don’t want to die a horrible death.”

“Can Adelaide handle that many drones?” asked Aaron.

“She can handle up to thirty at the most, but six will give her much finer control,” I told him. He looked quite impressed at that, for good reason. As good as I was at mental multitasking and control, Camille made me look like an amateur. She was a fucking genius. With only six drones, they’d be like an extension of her body. She was training with them right now, which is why she wasn’t listening in on the briefing.

“What’s the policy on engaging the enemy?” said Jackson.

I blinked. That wasn’t that dumb of a question. “Don’t fire unless absolutely necessary. If one of those Assimilators goes dark, the entire Hive knows. If they aren’t attacking you, don’t give them any reason to.”

I waited a bit for more, and with none forthcoming, I began to talk again, “Alright. We’re going to head to the Merlin now, so make sure you’ve got everything you need with you. A couple things before we go. First, this mission is doable. It might seem crazy, but at the end of the day, the Assimilators don’t really focus much on defense. They patrol, yes, but they aren’t constantly on the prowl for anyone that might enter their territory, especially towards the peripheries. Second, I just want to thank you all. I want you to know that the tech we’re going to get will save thousands of lives, and it means more than I can say that you’d volunteer for this.” I looked around the room, making eye contact with each person on the team. Mary looked unfazed, Allie looked bizarrely excited, Jackson nervous, Aaron determined, and Rebecca, well, she quirked a lip up at me teasingly.

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