As everyone else started to funnel out of the command center, Aaron pulled me aside to discuss some last-minute details. Food, water, medical kits, emergency supplies, that sort of thing. I would have been fairly unprepared, had I not worked out all of it with Mary beforehand. She was, unsurprisingly, incredibly thorough with her preparations. We were going over the final points of bathroom breaks, because of course we were, when the door to the command center slid open behind us. I saw Aaron snap to attention, and I turned to find Command Berston approaching us.

He inclined his head in greeting, “Sam, do you have a minute before you head out?”

“I do, actually. I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you as well,” I responded.

Aaron was still standing stiffly, “Would you like me to clear the room, sir?”

Berston waved at him, “At ease, Captain. You may stay if you like, but don’t interrupt.”

“Yes sir,” said Aaron, and stepped back a few feet.

I saw that Berston wanted to start speaking, but I beat him to the punch, “I wanted to start off by apologizing to you, Commander. I was out of line the other day. It’s not my place to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do with your command. Honestly, it’s pretty awesome that you care about your soldiers so much. I also want to explain myself, somewhat. I am not frivolously using the 4th Scouting Team for my own selfish purposes. I’m asking them to help me save thousands of people, because I can’t alone, and they came with me of their own volition. However, I won’t ask them, or you, to fight with me in whatever conflict comes after. I couldn’t do so in good conscience, I couldn’t use any debts they feel they owe me to influence them like that. I understand what it means to lose people, Commander.

“Whatever happens, I’m going to go into that fight myself if it means protecting the people of Sterling, even if it looks hopeless. I didn’t mention it when we spoke last, but that’s what I swore an oath to do. Is that idealistic? Hell yes. But that ideal is what I stand for, and I’m not going to abandon it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that people I care about might suffer for my actions, that if I die it’ll destroy the ones I love, and vice versa. I get that your first responsibility is to your soldiers, and I respect your decision to keep them uninvolved. If you change your mind however, get in touch. I’m never going to turn down help.”

I winced. There I go getting preachy again. Uther stuck with me a little more than I thought he did. Commander Berston had his eyebrows raised, and I felt a wave of embarrassment. He cracked a small smile, “I came to apologize as well, strangely enough. I haven’t changed my mind, but an old man like myself shouldn’t be lecturing someone that’s willing to put himself in harm’s way so readily for other people. I admire what you do. In your position, I wouldn’t be going to Denver, hell, I probably wouldn’t have stayed to fight that Hive Lord.”

Well, I can’t say I was expecting that. It appeared Aaron didn’t either, but he had a barely contained look of disappointment on his face rather than surprise. Still, I was pretty happy with the praise.

“While I’m still not going to send my company to Sterling, I have a peace offering, of sorts, that I hope will help you out,” he pulled a small black drive of some sort out of his uniform’s pocket. Noting my frown Berston explained, “This is the hard drive that was inside the black box you helped the 4th Scouts recover. It’s not much of a gift, frankly. Our technical team ran into a wall with it, they can’t go any further with their analysis. But you seem to be well equipped, to put it lightly. I’m hoping that you’ll have the capability to find out what the hell is on this, and that it’ll be helpful in figuring out whatever those Assimilators are up to.”

I took the box from him reverently, turning it over in my hands. I’m not above admitting that I had fantasized before about finding what was on here. I managed to take my eyes off it long enough to give my heartfelt gratitude to Berston.

He waved it off, “Please. It was the least I could do. We weren’t going to be getting anything more from it anyway. But let us know if you manage to find out what’s on it.”

“Of course,” I said with a dip of my head, “And thank you, again.”

He turned to walk out of the room, but stopped and looked back, “Captain David, if you’ll please accompany me, I have some things I’d like to discuss with you.” Aaron followed him out.

I went back to staring at the drive, wondering how to go about trying to get information off of it. Adelaide came to mind as the obvious solution to the problem, but I’d need to rig up appropriate hardware to ensure that even if something went wrong during the analysis, the data onboard wouldn’t be destroyed. I was planning out the framework for the idea when someone cleared their throat loudly.

I let out a very manly and dignified shriek and jumped a foot in the air. Rebecca was leaning on one of the tables in the room, with a big grin on her face.

“That was the funniest shit I’ve seen all week,” she said, chortling.

I tried to come up with a witty comeback. “Yeah well. Shut up,” is what I managed to get out. My witty comebacks need work. Rebecca’s raised eyebrow indicated she agreed with that.

“Besides trying to startle me into literally shitting my pants, whatcha need?” I asked, trying to avoid direct eye contact. Ever since I’d been clued in on her… feelings, it’d been a little hard interacting with her. I didn’t want to lead her on or anything.

“I want you stop worrying about leading me on,” she said flatly.

Oh.

“Unlike you,” she continued, “I don’t have a lead skull, so it was pretty damn obvious when you figured out I had a thing for you. Honestly, it was kinda cute. But it might lead to problems on the sort-of-suicidal mission we’re on if you can barely make eye contact with me.”

She had a fair point.

I was fairly flustered at this point, “Look, I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything, I jus-“

“Shut up,” she sighed, so I did.

“Look, I’m going to say again that I’m not nearly as fucking dense as you are, which means I noticed the face you made when Anton asked you about your girlfriend. I get it, I really do. That’s not the type of thing you just get over. But I like talking to you, you’re easy to pick on but you put up a decent fight most of the time. So don’t start getting all squirrelly on me.”

She walked up to me and rapped her knuckles on the front of my armor, “Let’s just go back to how it was before, okay? No use messing with a good thing, and I think we had a pretty good thing before. Seriously, don’t stress about it, it’s not good for your complexion.” She turned and walked towards the door, giving me a parting shot before she left, “But when you’re ready, keep me in mind.”

 

 

It was just after dusk when the Merlin came to a soft landing next to Chattfield Lake. The ride over had been shockingly uneventful, but had given me a chance to get re-chummy with Rebecca, and more importantly, had allowed the team to go over the plan again. Mary had been specifying buildings on the map that would be good spots to bug out to if we were spotted. She also gave us rough approximations of the range of an Assimilator’s senses. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be an issue with the drones spotting for us, but it didn’t hurt to be safe.

As we stood up to get out of the Merlin, a series of clunks announced that Adelaide started to deploy the drones. I didn’t have time prior to the mission to finish the design of the ‘mothership’ attachment, so I’d replaced the rocket pods with a couple of slapdash harnesses. My reasoning was that the main cannon could handle most things, and the torpedoes would take care of anything it couldn’t. Besides, if we were at the point where things were going badly enough that we needed the Merlin to start engaging, we were pretty fucked. Which probably meant it was going to happen.

Before I put on my helmet, I addressed the team, “Alright, we’ve got the plan nailed down. Don’t do anything stupid, don’t fuck up, and most importantly, if you die then I’m going to get murdered by Berston, so please don’t do that either. Well, except for you, Mary, but don’t die anyway because that’d be pretty upsetting.”

I got a collective eye roll and sigh from the assembled group. I grinned at them, “Let’s get this shit over with, I wanna be home in time for breakfast.”

I slid on my helmet and it locked into the neck of my armor with a satisfying click. It had a darkly tinted, see-through visor a lot like the Paladin’s, made out of the same materials, and the CAS sprung to life on the inside of it. My squad mates were highlighted in green as my gaze moved over them. I unholstered my gun as the ramp descended, letting in the cold fall air.

One by one we left the Merlin, gathering in a small group near the edge of the lake. I tried to find the drones in the air, but was having a hard time of it. The only thing that gave one away was a very faint blue anti-grav signature. And the fact that my CAS could highlight them, but that felt like cheating. I was really proud of the finalized design. Active camo had been around for a while, but it hadn’t been used on a platform this small before. It took some serious finagling to get the power supply sorted.

I gave a wave to one, and it bobbed up and down in return. Camille, being a rational not-idiot, hadn’t insisted on going on the mission. She hadn’t done any combat training in the simulator, she was still just preparing her body for the enhancement procedure. Not to mention she didn’t have any squad tactics training whatsoever. Camille wasn’t under any illusions that she’d be anything other than a liability out here, and honestly, having her control the drones was far more helpful than having another pair of boots on the ground.

Camille wouldn’t be partaking in any banter that might pop up, which was a shame. She’d decided that it was probably okay to let people know she was still alive and with me, but hadn’t wanted to distract anybody (cough, Rebecca, cough) with that knowledge before the sort-of-suicide mission was over.

“Coms check, wave once if you hear this,” I said. Just like the Paladin, the helmets restricted noise from escaping if set to do so, so we didn’t have to worry about pesky things like radio silence. Everyone waved back at me. The night vision on the CAS was fairly advanced. It looked like daytime for a good distance, but vision dropped off rapidly at the edge of its range, and everything faded to black.

“Okay, let’s get moving. Remember, the drones might not see everything, so keep focused.”

We started a quick walk, following the path laid out on our CAS. The Merlin took off behind us, ascending quickly to above the clouds, where it would hover in wait. I looked over to where the Denver skyline should have been. Since the StarArc fell, the city had developed incredibly quickly, as more and more xeno-research came its way. Along with New York and LA, it became one of the three ‘megacities’ in the US, turning into a field of sleek skyscrapers. Before, it would have been lit up so brightly that you couldn’t see the stars, and the echo of people and traffic could be heard clearly. Now though, the city was silent, and eerily dark, the night vision on the CAS unable to see the buildings from this far out. It felt wrong, in a deeply disturbing way, to stand and face the place I lived for years, that I knew so well, and see nothing at all.

We stayed quiet, for the most part, during the two hours or so that it took to move into the Littleton suburbs. It’s not like it was particularly dangerous: we only had to change route once, there’d been an Assimilator patrol that might’ve intersected our initial one. The chit-chat was mostly stifled by the somber atmosphere. If viewing the void that should’ve been a city was eerie, walking through the suburbs was straight up unsettling.

“Fuck me,” said Allie in a hushed voice, “I like this place even less than I liked that empty Hive.”

The houses were a mix of old and new, with a decided lean towards redeveloped newer ones. But it didn’t matter, because they were all equally destroyed. This place hadn’t gone nicely. Rubble was strewn through the streets, walls were torn apart, and some houses were almost entirely demolished. Cars were strewn like toys, and many had their metal shells ripped through like butter. I couldn’t see any corpses, which was unsettling, but I saw the evidence they’d left behind. There wasn’t any blood in the streets, but every once in a while, there would be large splotches of it on the walls of houses. I started to imagine what it must’ve been like when the Assimilators invaded. It was late at night when they attacked; most people would’ve been in bed by that point. They’d attacked other cities first though, so maybe everyone had been awake, gathered around the holoprojectors, watching the world burn, when the sirens started to blare. I forced myself to stop thinking about it. Getting distracted could get me, or someone else, killed.

The CAS had been leading us up to this point, with little input from Mary, but she stopped us with an upraised fist, then led the way into an empty house. The CAS showed the drones arrange themselves in a circle around the perimeter. Mary crouched down and motioned for us to do the same.

“Alright, this where things get serious. We just skirted way outside the perimeter of the south-west Hive, but now we’re going to be moving in between it and the Hive directly to its north. Patrols are going to increase, and the terrain is going to get real hazardous. We’ve done well so far, but we have room for improvement. Jackson, Allie: you’re not stepping lightly enough. Rebecca, Sam: I caught both of you getting lost in your heads, can’t let that shit continue. Other than that, I’ve got no complaints, but we’re going to have to be better about communication, calling out potential hazards or threats.” She paused to turned to me, “Anything you want to add, Sam?”

I had a second of internal debate, then decided to say my piece, “Nothing to add to the tactical situation, I’m happy to follow your lead on that front. But there is one thing I’d like you all to keep an eye out for. I don’t know if you noticed, but there aren’t any bodies here. At all. Assimilators don’t eat, so something happened to them. I haven’t heard of anything like this, so any intel we can gather on it might be critical.”

Mary nodded, “I noticed it too. It’s definitely unusual.”

“Christ, you just had to go and make things even fucking creepier,” muttered Rebecca.

“Regardless, don’t let it distract you. Keeping alert for Assimilators is more important,” added Aaron.

“Agreed. It’s something to be aware of, but once we get the new scanners, we can figure out more without risking our lives,” I looked around the group, “If there’s nothing else, let’s move out. We’re making good time, let’s keep it up.”

We exited the house, and started heading in a north-eastern arc towards the objective. The route took us through more of the devastated suburbs, and the damage only got worse as we closed in on Denver proper. The hollowed shells of hovertanks and APCs started to appear on the streets, most of them ripped to pieces. Scorch marks stained the ground, and thousands of spent shells of ammunition and hundreds of mangled weapons were scattered around.

Jackson spoke up for the first time, “They got slaughtered out here.”

“But not a single goddamned body,” said Allie.

The skyscrapers were looming large in front of us, the tops of them disappearing in the black, the night vision unable to see that far up. It was like they were melting into an impenetrably dark fog. We stopped again in the cover of a short highrise just before the major road which separated the suburbs from the city proper. The contrast was stark. On the west side of the road, the tallest buildings were just short, stout apartments. Just a couple hundred feet to the east, the buildings suddenly sprung to at least a hundred stories. The streets between them faded into nothingness.

We took turns standing sentry as everyone took the chance to get a drink or relieve themselves. There probably wasn’t going to be another opportunity for a long while. I waited until everyone had their helmets back on.

“This is it. Everyone ready?” A chorus of subdued ayes followed my question. I didn’t bother giving them the option to turn back. I knew nobody would take me up on it anyway. I took a deep breath, and led the squad across the road, into the belly of the beast.

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