We decided to table the discussion about the earth-shattering bomb Adelaide had dropped at the end of the discussion. It didn’t really matter if there were more of her kind in the StarArc, at least not right now. We had no way of getting there (I was working on that), and it was probably absolutely crawling with Assimilators. Until we had heavily upgraded our capabilities or had access to a very large army, we weren’t going there anytime soon.
Until then, we had more immediate concerns, like whether we were about to get mobbed by an angry horde of Assimilators. After Amy’s burial, I decided I had to get over the mental block that was preventing me from looking at satellite feeds that Camelot had access to. It was absolutely idiotic not to take advantage of that resource. Information was by far the most valuable advantage in a war. Fired up and ready to face my demons, I stomped into the control center the next morning, and discovered that the feed was completely down. In fact, I couldn’t access any outside information at all. Nothing could get through to us, either, because the satellite dish that was our only connection to the outside world was malfunctioning. We still had the short-range defense communications that extended a good way past the perimeter, but other than that we were completely cut off. The Paladin had a fairly comprehensive inbuilt communications network but it couldn’t connect to the important military satellites without proper clearance.
That decided our next course of action for us. I was going to do a little field trip out to the pesky satellite. I’d bring along a new dish that F-03 had made for me, and Adelaide would hitch a ride in the suit to help me install it, because the defensive coms didn’t extend that far out. That did mean that we would be leaving the base defenseless, but the round trip was an hour at most, and the automated defenses could hold everything short of an army off for at least that long.
I stretched in the Armory, my insignia gleaming in my jumpsuit. There was no reason to use the catapults today. They were flashy but ultimately unnecessary if I wasn’t trying to respond to an immediate threat. Also, resetting them took the spider bots an hour. Still need to work on letting them go down automatically. So instead, I was planning on taking Ellie, always reliable. I stepped into my Paladin, the same one I had used in my first fight, feeling a little thrill as it rippled close around me. I had grown attached to it, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t pick favorites. I hadn’t had enough time to make a lot of improvements to the Paladins in the past few days. The most recent additions were the twin SMGs mounted on the Paladin’s hips. Dual wielding was finally feasible with the CAS in conjunction with the Paladin’s frankly unfair aim assist.
My HUD sprung to life in front of my eyes and I moved to the freight elevator. I was pretty excited about this trip. It would be the farthest out from the base I had gone, well past the perimeter. I was curious to see exactly what had become of the land beyond the government-owned property that Camelot was surrounded by. Ellie reached the surface with a clunk, and I stepped off, the camouflaged blast doors closing behind me. It was a lovely summer morning in Colorado. The Rockies were hazy on the horizon, an ever-present guide to the West. Camelot sat on a wide swathe of the plains, untouched by agriculture. To ward off suspicion and prying eyes in the days before the end, the area around the base was a nature preserve.
I started making my way northwards, moving at a comfortable 70 miles per hour, the dish attached to my back. I still hadn’t gotten the hang of ‘skating’, but simulator practice had improved my efficiency. My bounds reached a far lower maximum height while propelling me farther. Moving like this did not make my power supply decrease, so as long as I kept focused on my efficiency I could move indefinitely.
The satellite uplink was located about twelve miles away from Camelot. It was very well hidden, camouflaged both physically and digitally. Without knowing the coordinates, it would be almost impossible to find. But that didn’t mean that it would never be damaged. Standalone dishes like that could be jostled or damaged by a whole slew of things. Cattle, rodents, high winds or hail could all knock a satellite dish askew, even if it was as hardened as the military-grade one I was going to find. It had been installed fairly close to a road, so that maintenance people could get to it easily.
My HUD provided navigation to me, and my mini-map showing the direction I had to go. I was running on autopilot a bit. After a while the Paladin’s CAS would learn the pilot’s tendencies and would be able to replicate them to a small extent. The update that Camille had been working on would have made this learning far better. I noticed that it still hurt to think about her, but I could do it without going catatonic. So that was progress.
When I reached the satellite dish and uncovered its camouflage, I found basically what I had expected. It looked like something, probably cattle, had knocked the thing over. I stared at it for a while, trying to make a decision.
“Hey Adelaide,” I said, “I need an opinion on something.”
“Sure Sam, what do you need?” replied Adelaide through the suit’s coms. Her ‘possession’ of the Paladin had no negative side effects I could find.
“What do you think we should do about this satellite? Replace, or fix? And I’d like to put it in a better sport than this, I’d rather not be coming out here to fix it.”
Adelaide thought for a moment, “I think we should replace the satellite, to be on the safe side. Also, I think it isn’t a good idea to move it. Whoever designed Camelot probably had it installed here for a reason. Instead, we should design a long-range maintenance drone that can be automatically dispatched if the dish is damaged.”
Ever since Adelaide’s coming out party, she’d been much more vocal in her opinions. It was a nice change, because it meant someone could second guess my dumbass decisions. I nodded, knowing that Adelaide would pick up the movement from inside the Paladin, and I got to work on the satellite. It was pretty dull stuff. Remove the old dish, replace it with the new one, cover it again with camouflage, make sure that it matched the repair documentation Adelaide had drudged up while watch the prairie dogs frolic. I waited until she confirmed the uplink was reestablished to destroy the old dish, stomping it into a pancake then ripping it to pieces like paper. I then buried these pieces a short bit away from the site. Paranoid? Probably, but in the apocalypse a healthy dose paranoia wasn’t a bad thing.
“Is the satellite link up?” I asked. When I didn’t receive a response after multiple promptings I began to sing That’s Amore to her in an obnoxiously fake Italian accent.
“What do you want!?” She snarled over the coms, “I am trying to reconfigure thousands of settings that will allow us to access not only the spy and communication satellites but the orbital bombardment platforms, while avoiding anti-tampering protocols that are very intent on destroying me. Listening to you sing about pizza pie is not assisting me.”
“Oh, sorry” I said. “Are you done?”
“I am now. But I’ll need more time to get the orbital bombardment online.” She said stiffly.
“Cool. Because there’s a big group of armored vehicles moving down that road and I was thinking of saying hi.” I pointed at the slowly approaching convoy. There were a surprising number of them, mostly APCs, and a couple of scout vehicles decked out with antenna. I wasn’t worried about them. The Paladin was well shielded from most scanning. What was really interesting was the hovertank that was leading the convoy. I hadn’t expected anybody to have one of those, or have the skills necessary to pilot one. Every vehicle in the convoy had a symbol painted on it, a stallion with blazing red eyes. So, not military. Maybe a mercenary group?
I had really flubbed my chance at getting any information about this new world when I had clammed up with Mike and the other two survivors. All I knew was that there was a settlement of some sort over in Sterling. I needed information, and while the satellite uplink would give me images, it wouldn’t be enough.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Sam,” said Adelaide cautiously after observing the group, “It might be wiser to retreat to Camelot for now and review the satellite images, then make a decision on which survivor group to contact.”
“Hmmmm. But I’ve been cooped up in that base for a really long time and I kind of have this persona I want to try out on people. Also, nothing they have except for the hovertank’s railgun can put a scratch on me.” I thought for a bit, “Alright, I’m gonna go for it. I’ll shadow them and listen in on them with the Paladin, and worst comes to worse I just run away.”
“I’m not going to change your mind,” sighed Adelaide, “so just proceed cautiously. I will keep an eye on you and Camelot, but I’m going to continue working on the satellites. I need to access their image cache, it will give us valuable information on how the world progressed while we were underground.”
“Roger that. I promise to try to stay out of trouble mostly,” I started moving towards the convoy, staying out of their line of site while directing the Paladin’s powerful listening devices towards them. One of these days I was going to figure out active camo for the suit, but until then stealth wasn’t exactly its strong point. I had to pop up and down in an incredibly embarrassing fashion to avoid being noticed.
Unsurprisingly, the Paladin didn’t pick up much. It was very difficult to hear people over the rumbling of tires, even with the suit’s noise filters. I frowned, but continued to follow them. Something in my gut told me that I shouldn’t leave these people to their own devices, but that could just be prejudice from all the action movies I had been watching with Adelaide. Never judge a book by its shocking amount of advanced weaponry. I shadowed them for about an hour or so, and when the sun was at its zenith the convoy began to slow down to a stop. We were about fifty miles from the base. I grinned. This is what I had been waiting for. Lunch time.
A group of people got out of the troop transports, and started milling around road. They were… bizarrely normal looking. There were men and women from around eighteen to forty, and they were dressed in clothes that were frayed, but not rags. They were well armed, but they had little to no body armor. The Paladin’s scanners brought up one odd thing: Each person in the group had some sort of electronic device lodged in the back of their head. It wasn’t any tech I had seen before. My curiosity piqued, I turned my Paladin’s powerful microphones towards them and listened in.
A tall man with a close shaven beard was talking to a shorter man, who looked unassuming, like any white-collar worker you’d find before the war, “Boss. We just got word back from the reconnaissance. The scouts agree with the preliminary reports: Sterling Outpost is organized, and well-guarded. Might be a good idea join up with the Reapers before we hit the town.”
The short man thought for a moment, hand on his chin, “I’ll review the reports, but I’d rather not involve another gang. We can’t afford to split what we find, and I don’t like how they operate.”
“Fine,” said the bearded man, “But I don’t know if we can fight off their guards, at least not without casualties. They’re pretty well equipped.”
“But they still don’t have an answer to our hovertank,” the shorter one replied, “so we have a good advantage there. We’re better armed, and much more mobile. We just have to leverage it, so we’ll draw up a plan of attack tonight. I’m thinking we harass them, grab a few with each go. Besides, I don’t trust the Reapers with the aftermath. They have a nasty habit of raping and pillaging. Could draw us into a larger fight than we want, and I don’t need any more atrocities on my conscience. More importantly, we have to keep the merchandise intact if we want to be able to afford anything other than the shit they feed to the piss-slaves.”
They were slavers by the sound of it. I groaned. Why couldn’t I have found a heavily armed, large group of friendly merchants? Or a merry band of kind-hearted mercenaries?
The bearded one began to open his mouth, but the boss held up a hand, “I know what you’re about to say, and my answer is still no. No letting loose in Sterling. If we turn to things like that, when we get out of this shit we won’t be able to go back to our old lives. We’ll keep it the way we have before: get the towners locked up, take them back home, then we’ll have our fun. Let them blow off some steam back with the whores. Besides, undamaged goods are worth a lot more.” The nonchalance as he said that turned my stomach. But this wasn’t how I had imagined a slaver group to operate.
“Sam,” said Adelaide over the coms, “I believe it is time to introduce yourself to our new friends.”
“You know what Adelaide,” I said as I stood up, the Paladin keeping my voice contained, “I think you’re absolutely right.” I double checked the readouts for all my systems. Time to find out what the fuck was going on here.