I headed towards the slaver group, mulling over what I was going to do in my head. Mostly, I was pumping myself up mentally to talk to actual human beings. After my last less than successful encounter with other people, I had brainstormed ways to make it so that I didn’t clam up again. It was absolutely unacceptable that I hadn’t gleaned more information from Mary and the others that I rescued. I couldn’t afford to be frozen again. After that incident, I had decided that the best course of action was to come up with a character, and become him when I was talking to other people. I had practiced this for quite some time now, and it was becoming easier for me to play the part. It would distract me from the situation while also providing a separating wall between me and other people. The basis of my plan was a simple concept: Fake it till you make it.
I wasn’t worried about being attacked by them. A quick scan of their weaponry revealed that the only thing that posed a threat to me was their hovertank’s railgun, but its pilot was currently leaning against a troop transport about twenty feet away from it. Plenty of time to blow it to hell, if it came to that, which I had little doubt it would. But I needed to stall for time and gather some information, if possible. I still knew close to nothing about the outside world, and I needed to find out what the hell was going on with these slavers. After that, I’d threaten them a little, slap a couple around (gently), blow up their nice tank, and maybe they’d leave Sterling alone. A guy can hope, right?
They actually had a few sentries posted, which meant someone in their outfit had a semblance of a brain. I approached them in plain sight, walking straight towards the front of the column, not wanting to provoke a fight quite yet. I saw one of the sentries stiffen as he noticed me, but I held my giant hands above my head, the universal symbol for ‘please don’t shoot me’. The slavers scrambled to their feet, grabbing their weapons, as the sentry shouted a warning over his shoulder. I walked closer to the camp, and stopped about thirty feet from it. I noticed that the hovertank pilot hadn’t gotten into his vehicle, instead joining the crowd of raiders that stood gawking at my armor. The short man moved his way to the front of the crowd, gesturing at the slavers. The crowd fanned out, and I watched as a hundred people leveled guns at me. If this didn’t give me stage fright, nothing would. I stared at them
“Hello there,” said the boss, looking me up and down, “Seems that you want something with us.”
Show time. I slipped into the mindset of the character that I created. I wore the role like a second skin, forcing myself into it completely. “I’m just a traveler,” I said, the suit’s PA changing my voice to his, a deep, trustworthy baritone, “I was moving through here when I saw your group.”
“Oh, just passing through?” The man said, tapping the pistol he kept strapped to his waist. I noticed he wore a communications device of some kind in his ear. “What’s your name, friend?”
“You may call me Uther, and I think you and I might have something in common.”
“Your parents were fans of the classics huh?” said the man with a pleasant laugh, “Now, what do you think we have in common?”
“Well,” said I evenly, “I couldn’t help but overhear about your business with the town of Sterling. I happen to share an interest in them as well. I think we might be able to help each other out.”
At this, the man visibly relaxed. He smiled, “An enemy of my enemy is my friend, eh? I know that well. But you don’t look like a raider or a slaver, so why come to us?”
This man was bafflingly open about his horrific occupation. “I am not. Indeed, I find the practices to be reprehensible. But in our new world, one does not have the luxury of choosing their allies. I cannot fight an entire town alone, so I need something to even the odds.”
“Fair enough,” said the boss, “and I appreciate the honesty. My name’s Harry, and this is my press gang,” he gestured back at the crowd.
There was a chorus of hellos from the group, which was a little funny. I looked back at Harry and asked, “And where are you from? I am a wanderer, but I’ve been travelling up from the south.”
“We’re from the east a ways, but you could say we’re wanderers, just like you,” Harry said, “We make acquisitions on the road, and peddle our wares back home.”
“You’re not from around these parts then,” I replied, “So why do you have a bone to pick with a place as far away as Sterling?”
Harry grimaced and looked away, “We don’t really have a bone to pick with them, as such. We’re just people trying to survive out here. Cruel, maybe. But so is this world. Sterling presents a very good opportunity for us. A risky opportunity, as I’m sure you overheard, but one we can’t afford to pass up. Merchandise from towns like Sterling fetch a good price.”
I almost broke right there and then. These motherfuckers were just wrapping their disgusting acts in a pretty shell of words. I didn’t give a shit if that’s how they justified it to themselves. It just made it worse. Adelaide murmured something into through the coms about filthy degenerates. Taking a deep breath, I let myself fall back into character, letting icy calm cool my rage.
During the time that Harry had been talking, not a single peep rose up from the slavers around him, but they had begun to slowly fan out, moving around into a wide circle. They were about as subtle as an elephant stepping on firecrackers, but it didn’t look like they were trying to hide their actions.
“A choice I can’t agree with,” I said in response, shaking my head, “But I do not have to. Everyone still living is entitled to their choices, after all.”
Harry smiled bitterly. His teeth were surprisingly white. “You’re saying it like we had a choice. You think anyone would choose this kind of life? Put their lives in the hands of someone else? Go to hell.”
That confused me enough to break character, “The hell are you on about? You’re slavers.”
“Fuck you,” Harry said flaring up in anger, and the crowd of slavers started muttering angrily, “You think we want to be here? You think we like what… Ah,” he said, calming down, “You don’t know what a press gang is, do you?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”
He stared at me incredulously. “What rock have you been living under?” he sighed, “Forget it. I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“I’d appreciate one all the same. I appear to have very little idea of what is –“
Midway through my sentence, I saw Harry’s face contort, and he shook his head, muttering something angrily into his earpiece. A second later he screamed in pain, twitching horribly. I watched in shock as Adelaide spoke into my ear, “Sam, the scanners are picking up someone speaking to him through a heavily encrypted channel. There is also a signal being transmitted to the devices in the heads of all the slavers, Harry included. I can’t trace either signals’ origin.”
“Keep working on it on your end, I’ll try to figure out what the hell is going on over here,” I said into my coms, the Paladin containing my voice. Harry’s eyes rolled back in his head, and though his mouth was twisted open, he wasn’t screaming anymore. The rest of the slavers were showing discomfort, but not the level of agony that Harry was going through. After a moment, Harry finished shuddering. He gasped for breath, a hand squeezing his thigh. I tensed up, preparing myself for anything.
“Is everything alright?” I asked. This was freaking me out more than a little. Harry ignored me, but he signaled at the slavers. They suddenly surrounded me in a tight circle, guns raised, and the pilot of the hovertank sprinted to his vehicle. I was tempted to destroy it, but the explosion would have killed the pilot and the slavers nearby. They hadn’t fired on me yet, and I wasn’t about to start slaughtering people before I absolutely had to. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t get ready. I grabbed both my SMGs, deploying them and setting them to automatic as the pilot scrambled into the hovertank. My cluster rocket pod popped out of my shoulder.
“What the hell is happening here?” I growled, my suit’s PA ringing out over the silent crowd. Harry stared straight at me, his breath evening out.
“I’m sorry, Uther,” he said, and there was actual regret in his voice, “but my superiors have informed me that there’s something they want from you.” He gestured at me, “They’d like that armor you’re wearing. If you take it off without a struggle, they promise that they’ll let you walk away. If not, I’ll have to take it by force.”
“I have a counter offer for them,” I replied immediately, “turn this convoy around, leave Sterling alone, and never come back this way again. Or I will come for them, and I will destroy them all.”
Harry shook his head at me, that bitter smile on his face, “I’m afraid that won’t happen.”
“Don’t do this,” I said, “it’s not worth it.”
“We don’t have that option,” he whispered. Then he yelled, “Open fire!”
The hovertank’s railgun fired first. I’d been preparing for it, but the range was so close that I couldn’t avoid the projectile entirely, and it traveled too fast for my point defense. My anti-gravs flung me to the right and the slug clipped my side, denting the armor enough that it broke a few ribs and sent me careening. I ignored the injury, and as I regained my balance three rockets burst from my cluster pod, embedding themselves in the tank and detonating in a series of massive blue explosions. The back row of the slavers was flung forward by the shockwave. The rest began firing at me, a hail of bullets that clattered into my Paladin from all directions, doing more damage to them than it did to me, the ricochet taking several lives. There were a few slavers with anti-tank rifles in the crowd, which might’ve been able to damage some of my systems if they landed a lucky hit. My CAS targeted the threats, and the rounds from my SMGs made short work of them. I winced as I saw the bullets rip them apart.
I activated the thrusters on the front of my suit, flying backwards as fast as possible. A couple slavers didn’t get out of the way in time, and I felt them cracking on my armor through the haptic feedback system as I bowled them over. Once I had escaped their encirclement, the small arms fire slackened for a second, the rest of the slavers clearly hesitant to fire directly at their own. I skidded to a halt, my Paladin covered in blood, trying to figure out how to end this. I roared at them, the PA turned up as loud as it went, “I’ve removed everything that can touch me! Put down your weapons, and I will not harm you further!”
I looked around the crowd, and I saw that most of them were shaking. I saw the fear in their eyes, the fear of me, the fear of death. I saw one woman lowering her gun, and I hoped the rest would follow. And then I saw her mouth tear open into a soundless scream, her eyes rolling up into the top of her head, blood leaking from her ears. She fell to the ground a moment later, twitching lifelessly. What the fuck.
As her convulsions stopped, there was moment of hesitation before another round of gunfire flew at me, but they had nothing that was effective anymore. I began to take evasive maneuvers to be on the safe side, and tried to come up with another plan. I raced through a few options, and settled on getting a hold of the communicator that Harry was using. Maybe I could trace back the signal and threaten the people ordering this insanity.
My mind made up, I flared my main thrusters, launching myself into an arc over the crowd. My CAS locked onto the communicator’s signal, and I burst downwards, knocking a few slavers flying. I fired my anti-gravs again, and flew directly at Harry, who fired his pistol wildly into my armor, his eyes stretched wide in fear and disbelief. My armored hand closed around his neck, and I slammed him against the side of a transport. As I reached for the communicator with my other hand, he began twitching like the woman had, and went slack. I watched astonished as the communicator exploded in his ear, taking half his head with it. “Holy shit,” I muttered in shock, dropping the limp body. I realized belatedly that the gunfire had stopped. I turned around, dreading what I would see.
“Oh Christ.” I said, freezing in place. There was a field of corpses in front of me, and every face was twisted, mouths contorted in agony. I stumbled and fell to the ground, catching myself on my hands. What the fuck. What the actual fuck was happening. “Adelaide, are any of them still alive?” I asked hoarsely.
“No Sam, none of them. And the chips in their heads are destroyed,” she said, badly shaken, “Who would do this?”
I knelt among the bodies, my Paladin covered in Harry’s blood, gasping for breath. The entire camp was silent, except for the hovertank crackling with flames, its mangled hull creaking from the heat. “A monster,” I replied, my voice cracking, “Only a monster could do this.”