When I pictured Denver after the war, I always pictured it burning.

Not so much an inferno, but I pictured flames still smoldering in the buildings, casting dim lights onto the streets. I pictured things scurrying around in the shadows, maybe the evidence of a survivor here or there. I pictured bodies hanging from the windows or leaned up against the fractured buildings.

What I got was sheer desolation.

Denver was wrapped in a smothering silence that seemed to ooze out of every burnt-out building that lined the streets we shuffled down. The silence shrunk back at our footsteps but crept up behind us as we moved past. Every time we spoke it dispelled a little, but it filled into the cracks left when the conversation inevitably trailed off.

The squad was advancing much slower now, walking in a tight cluster. Camille was keeping the drones in a rough circle around us; some of them were on watch while darting a couple of them down side streets and into buildings. It had been a couple hours since we’d entered the city, and we’d only run into three patrols.

Adelaide started speaking into my coms, “There is small group of ten Assimilators a quarter-mile to your north-east. They appear to be moving on a course that will intersect with yours. I would suggest finding an alternate route.” She was calling out locations from the Merlin. It seemed a little roundabout, but it actually made things more efficient, allowing Camille to focus solely on manipulating the drones. She’d designate targets or points of interest and let Adelaide or the CAS handle relaying the information to us.

“Roger that,” I said. The rest of the squad was on the same channel, so we pulled up to a stop. Mary crouched down, letting her SMG dangle from its strap. She’d be trying to figure out a way through the streets that would avoid any Assimilators. It was taking longer and longer for her to find paths, but we were still doing well on time. I checked on Camille while we were waiting, restricting the coms to just her.

“How’s it going Camille?” I asked, “You holding up okay?”

She didn’t answer for a little so I tried again, and this time I got a distracted response.

“Huh? I’m good. I love you, but I really have to focus on this so you don’t die.”

“Okay, love you too. Let me know if you need a break, we’ll hunker down somewhere.”

I got an affirmative grunt, and I sympathized with her plight. She probably had the most continuously strenuous job in the entire mission. When you control thirty combat drones, you can let up on them for periods of times and let the automated systems keep them going. But what Camille was doing was like spinning six plates while intently watching six videos at the same time. She’d probably have an absolutely bitch of a headache once this was done. On the other hand, she had the luxury of not being in the middle of a murderous alien playground. Trade-offs, really.

“Got it,” exclaimed Mary with a good deal of satisfaction, “We’re going to cut south down 67th and all the way to Orchard, then head east again.” The CAS’ navigation updated the new route, and I stretched a little.

“Everyone good?” I asked, stretching my arms.

“Well, this place is freaking me the hell out, but other than that I’m just peachy,” said Rebecca.

“That sums up my thoughts on it too, actually,” Aaron added.

Allie tossed in her piece, “Fuck this city with a rusty pole. Let’s never come back, yeah?”

“My feet hurt,” said Jackson.

Mary didn’t respond.

“Glad to hear it. Now quit your bitching and start moving,” I replied.

Allie snorted, “You’re fucking terrible at being reassuring.”

“Yeah, well I’m not paying you to be reassured,” I paused, “Hold up. How do you get paid?”

Aaron decided to answer, “Well, we all get room and board, obviously, and in addition-“

Mary cut in with an annoyed growl, “Can we save this for later? Like when we’re not here?”

“Exactly my thoughts, Mary,” I said, walking past her and following the route on the CAS, “These people just get so distracted at the drop of a hat.” I got my first resigned sigh from her for that, and grinned in satisfaction.

As we moved, Aaron spoke to me over the coms, restricting the channel to just the two of us, “That was well done, Sam. We needed the levity. The way we were going, we’d have been mentally tapped out in another hour or so.”

I chuckled, “Yeah, everyone, me included, was wound a smidge too tight. Caution’s good, but that much would screw us over soon.”

We reached our first major obstacle about a half hour later. One of the skyscrapers, a 140-story behemoth, had tipped over completely, blocking the street for over a thousand feet. After a quick debate, we decided the best course of action was to climb through it. A detour would throw us seriously off schedule, and put us in the path of another Assimilator patrol. The drones started to dart around, looking for an opening. After a minute or so, Adelaide’s voice came in over the coms, “Sam, is it possible for you to move a metal beam?”

Camille clarified, talking to just me, of course, “Sorry, it was about the only entrance I could find that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the structure.”

“Hmm, how big of a beam we talking about here?” I said after considering it for a few seconds.

“If you lift it at the optimal point, you will have to handle roughly seven hundred pounds,” responded Adelaide.

There was a general snort of derision over the coms.

“Yeah, I can do that. Mark it on the CAS.”

“Okay, Sam.”

Jackson cut in, “That’s just pure bullshit.”

“I actually agree with the dumbass this time – ” (“Fuck you Rebecca!” snapped Jackson in the background) “- manly bravado is great and all, but we should be serious here, alright?” said Rebecca in a patronizing voice.

I just shrugged and moved over to the spot indicated, about twenty feet to the north. The huge building had smashed into another one on its way down, which had collapsed large sections of it, but kept others intact. A steel girder was stuck diagonally over a window. I inspected it thoughtfully.

“Stop wasting our time, man,” Jackson said. Fuck this guy, I wasn’t sure about this before but I was going to do it just to prove him wrong.

I let my SMG fold up and stowed it on the back of my armor, just below the hardened backpack.

“Hey, Adelaide,” I called out, rubbing my hands together and stretching my arms above my head, “Send me an analysis of where to hold this thing so the whole section doesn’t come crashing down on my head.”

“If it did, that might deflate the hot air in it,” muttered Rebecca, to a general snicker of laughter from everyone but Mary and Aaron.

A readout appeared on my CAS, and I grimaced. This was going to be a bitch. Manly bravado sucked, because it made you do stupid things. Eh, I was already pretty committed at this point, so it wasn’t worth backing down now. I walked up to the helpfully marked spot. I’d have to lift it, and hold it while people passed under. Ugh.

I bent down, in proper lifting form of course – wouldn’t want to throw out my back. “Get ready to go through, don’t want to hold this thing longer than I have to.”

“This is fucking dedication to the bit right here,” chortled Allie.

In response, I grabbed the chunk of steel and lifted it clear off the ground to about chest height, straining a tiny bit as I did.

“What the fuck,” stated Rebecca.

Mary started talking before anyone else could. “Get moving, now,” she barked at the team. Aaron had already started ducking under, and the rest followed him in what I hoped was a shocked daze. I couldn’t really tell because I was focused on trying to hold this fucking piece of shit up. Seven hundred pounds my ass, the damn thing felt closer to seven-fifty.

Mary moved through last, giving me a pat on the shoulder as she did. I pushed the steel girder up above my head, shifting carefully through the opening while making sure to keep it steady. Chunks of concrete rained down softly, but everything seemed stable for the most part. Once I was on the other side, I lowered the beam gingerly, taking care not to crush my toes. That would’ve been mortifying.

It came to rest with a muted thunk, and I let it go with a bit of a groan. It hadn’t been that heavy, all things considered, but holding it there had not been a what I would call a walk in the park. I rolled my shoulders back, and turned to face the squad, grimacing as I did. I’d be feeling that one tomorrow. Might be a good idea to toss something like it into the exercise routine though. Beam lifting could be a pretty useful skill. I’d consider it.

“I’ll reiterate,” Rebecca said, “What the fuck?”

Camille chimed in to my coms with an annoyed sigh, “God damn it, you just had to show off. Now the hussy is just going to want to pork you even more.”

I ignored her quip and responded to Rebecca solemnly, “Ye of little faith. I’m a man of mystery and unfathomable depths, after all.”

“You got the GIDS treatment, didn’t you?” Aaron asked. Motherfucking party pooper.

“Yup.”

“You know, I’m done being surprised at this point,” Mary sighed.

I let them explain to the rest of the squad what the stims were as I took a look around the building we were in. I’d stepped on what would’ve been a wall, and had a clear view… straight into another wall about ten feet in front of me. I pulled out my gun and gave a quick glance around the room we were in. It appeared to be a small office, and was clear of anything murder-y. I checked my CAS for a layout of the building, then realized I was an idiot. Satellites weren’t phenomenal at seeing through solid things like skyscrapers, especially since we were on the floor (side?) of one.

“Adelaide, have the drones mapped this thing out?”

“Negative, Sam. Most of them are waiting outside. Only one can be controlled in a space this tight. I’m still attempting to find a route, but I would suggest that you proceed yourself. If the drone does happen upon any Assimilators, the results will be the same as if you do. The drones are not completely invisible to the them in close quarters.”

“Oh, that’s just lovely,” I muttered, “Just get Ca- just pull the drone out of here, we’ll find our own way. Six pairs of eyes are better than one camera.”

The explanation for my freakish strength seemed to be wrapping up behind me, and I listened in just to see what was happening.

“- but he looks like such a skinny little bitch!” Allie was saying incredulously.

“I resent that,” I piped in, “And I think the sims just kind of compressed all my muscles and stuff. I dunno, I’m not a doctor or anything. Anyway, moving on from my delectable bod, if you didn’t hear Adelaide we’re blind in here, so pay close attention.”

“Alright, fine,” acquiesced Rebecca, “but we’re going to have a chat after all this is done.”

Camille muttered something about skanky hussies, then switched off the connection to me. I led the way through the building, pausing at each juncture. It was slow going. Beyond having to be incredibly cautious for Assimilators, the place was a maze of rubble and hanging wires. We made it about three quarters of the way through the building when we came upon a huge conference room. The minute I stepped in the doorway I felt something off, and I tensed up and crouched down in response. I held up a fist to halt the squad, and gave a quick scan of the room. It was completely empty. I checked what used to be the ceiling and floor to the left and right of me, and they were bare. A tangle of wires hung from above.

“What do you think?” I asked Mary.

I could imagine her narrowing her eyes, “I don’t like it either, but it looks like our best option. The exit should be just on the other side, and the faster we get out of here, the better.”

I nodded. “Alright. Let’s move through, quick and cautious.”

We moved through, guns held up at the ready. I was getting that prickly feeling on the back of my neck. It wasn’t so much danger, but it was something wrong. We were almost at the end when I heard Allie gasp in horror.

“Oh Jesus fuck,” she said, “Look at the ceiling.”

I did, and regretted it. The bodies that had been missing were suspended up there, wrapped up in Assimilator tendrils I’d thought were wires. They were desiccated, with hollowed out cheeks and empty eye sockets, the skin clinging to their skeletons tightly. The corpses were arranged in neat rows, but I could only see about a hundred of them due to the night vision’s range. I had a horrible feeling that they spread throughout the room.

“What the hell is this?” hissed Aaron.

I shook my head mutely, making sure there wasn’t anything else in the room before zooming my CAS onto one of the corpses. It looked like some of the tendrils were stuck into the bodies, but the they were a dull black, not interwoven like the ones that made up the Worms. I directed everyone but Mary to stand guard, and she and I tried to figure out what the fuck was going on. Defying idiotic horror tropes, we didn’t get within ten feet of the things.

I switched my voice off the main channel, “Camille, do you have any idea what the fuck is going on here?” I’d been streaming the video to her the entire time.

“No… This is incredibly atypical behavior for the Assimilators. They generally ignore human bodies completely. I wish we could get a sample, but there’s absolutely no way to know what would happen if you disturbed them. I’d say just get as much footage of them as you can for now. We’ve got to stick to the mission here.”

I made a noise of affirmation, then spent the next minute or so inspecting the bodies from different angles. Once I was finished I spoke to the rest of the squad, “Alrighty, let’s get the fuck out of this place, I’m shitting my pants here.” I got a round of agreement from everyone, and we moved out of the room. There wasn’t any further incident as we made our way towards a window that led to the street. Luckily, there were no obstacles on this one, so I didn’t have to exert myself again.

As I stepped into the street, I had a thought. “Hey, Adelaide, why don’t you set the Merlin to a hover and jump into my helmet? You’re not doing anything up there, and you can optimize some of the systems this way,” I said it just to her and Camille.

After a moment’s hesitation, Adelaide agreed. Immediately, my vision through the helmet got a little sharper, and the HUD seemed to update a bit snappier. Sentient information aliens were just so darn handy to have around. After Adelaide finished syncing up with me, I glanced around the rest of the squad. I couldn’t see their faces, but their body language told me they were shaken up. I was a little surprised at how okay I felt, honestly. I think I was subconsciously pushing down my horror and revulsion, at least until the mission was over.

“Okay everyone, let’s take five, I want to go over the rest of the route with Mary,” I told them. It was probably better to give them some time to process it, I didn’t want them to be too distracted. I keyed into Aarons coms, “Hey, can you make sure the squad is alright? Check in with them, get them refocused?”

“Of course,” he said. Aaron moved over to where Allie had squatted, crouching down and resting a hand on her shoulder.

Mary started talking to me immediately after, “Nice thinking. I’m pretty used to fucked up things myself, saw my fair share of it in Europe, but it still rattled me a bit.”

“Yeah. That’s just… that was something else. I wasn’t lying though, I do want to go over the route with you again. We’re clear until the Greenwood building, yeah?”

“Unless another patrol shows up, we should be good,” she said slowly, “But things have gone a little too well here, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

I looked at her in horror, “Why the fuck would you say something like that? You basically just showed me a photo of your wife and kids back home! Have you never seen a movie before!?”

I heard a low chuckle from her, “One of my old Force Recon buddies always did stuff like that. Good for a laugh on missions like this.”

I disagreed vehemently, but didn’t press the point, instead double checking my CAS’ navigation. We had a straight shot down Orchard to the Plaza, and it was about a two-hour walk. We’d arrive with a couple hours to secure the tech.

After another few minutes, I rounded up the squad, and we moved out. The streets here were just like the ones before: filled with destroyed military hardware and rubble, but otherwise eerily empty. Every once in a while, we’d step over collapsed street lights or skirt around fields of broken glass. The lack of bodies in the streets was a haunting reminder of what we’d just seen. I had to force my mind off the terrifying implications, keep focused on the mission. We continued on like that for a while. No patrols seemed to be near us, at least that Camille could find.

Around twenty minutes from the Greenwood Building, I felt that prickle on the back of my neck again. There was a hollowed out building to our right – an old shopping mall, the front of it ripped off completely, leaving a gaping hole. The inside was wreathed in shadows, but with a jolt I recognized the outline of something around ten feet tall.

“Stop. Now.” I commanded. Mercifully, everyone immediately did. “Okay. There’s a M-2 Worm in that department store to our three o’clock. We’re going to shift away from it, quietly as possible, because it doesn’t seem to have noticed us. Looks like it might be dormant.”

I picked up a sharp intake of breath from someone, but I couldn’t tell who it was. We crept, inch by inch, farther away from the store. The Worm didn’t move at all, standing stock still like a statue. Once we were on the opposite side of the street, as far away as we could be, we started to move forward slowly. I kept my eyes fixed on it, making sure not to step on any glass, or stumble on a conveniently placed patch of rubble. It seemed like everyone else was capable of doing so as well, because there wasn’t a sound except our light footfalls on the concrete. As I was staring, my breath caught in my throat. I thought I saw a red glint for a second, a glint like the eye of an Assimilator. I froze. For a horrible few seconds, I waited there for it to burst out of the store, lunge at us with its jaws gaping open.

Nothing happened.

I shook my head. As much as I thought it was just my imagination, I wasn’t stupid enough to leave it at that. I spoke to Camille and Adelaide, “Camille, keep one of the drones back here. I want to know if that thing moves so much as a muscle. Adelaide, review the footage of what just happened. Let me know if you saw its eyes open.” My CAS showed one of the drones come to a stop in front of the building directly opposite of the Assimilator, pausing there.

We finally got past it, and there still wasn’t any movement. Once we were safe, I let the squad know about what I thought I saw. I sent over the video to their CAS, and then gave the option of bugging out right then and there. After a few minutes of review, nobody seemed to see what I thought I had. So, we decided to keep going.

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