I leaned forward on the railings as Ellie lowered me back into Camelot. The aftermath of the battle and the trip back to the base had been a blur. I had destroyed all the vehicles and the weapons, to deny any resources to whoever had owned those slaves. I’d wanted to bury the bodies as well, but Adelaide firmly forbid it. The Paladin detected that I had a (slightly) punctured lung, so I needed to get back to the med bay as soon as possible. I walked off the freight elevator into the Armory, and my suit rippled open in a jarring, jerking motion. I’d designed it to be able to be taken off even if it had suffered catastrophic damage. I stepped out of the armor, and an army of spider bots began to scuttle over it, inspecting it. They eventually carried it over to a spare Arming Station I’d set up for repairs.
“Do you need assistance getting to the med bay, Sam?” said Adelaide over the base’s PA, sounding worried. A group of spider bots scuttled up to me.
I shook my head at them and started walking towards the first floor, my head too numb with shock to really understand what was happening. I had fucked up so badly. My mind was flying through the previous fight, trying to dissect every single part of it to find a clue as to where to find the evil fuckers in control. The slavers, slaves themselves, had obviously been unwilling victims, forced to comply under fear of torture or death. But, Harry had said that the people from Sterling would ‘fetch a good price’. So, it wasn’t just fear compelling them, there were other incentives as well. Perhaps they could buy back their freedom? I filed that idea away. Too much of a logical leap, not enough evidence. I boarded the elevator to the second facility, where the med bay was. There was a dull throb in my side and my chest, but I barely noticed it.
My thoughts turned to the chips embedded in the slave’s heads. I should have fucking known that those weren’t benign, that they were some kind of control. But it was stuff I hadn’t seen before, probably developed by criminal syndicates. Even during the war for humanity’s survival, crime hadn’t gone away. In fact, as more people turned to drugs as a means of escape, the cartels and mobs thrived, conglomerating into larger groups. My guess was that some lucky bastard in control of a syndicate managed to survive, and had taken over a piece of territory in the vacuum of power. But those devices… it made me queasy to think about them. They were pure evil.
I walked into the med bay, my eyes wincing at the sudden change in color, from drab concrete to shining sterile tile. I stood in the doorway, a little bit at loss as to what to do next. I’d come here mechanically, but I didn’t know to go to one of the medical stations or just a normal hospital bed.
“Please lay down in the medical station closest to you, Sam,” said Adelaide, “Your injuries are beyond the capabilities of the spider bots to repair.”
“Alright,” I said. I approached the station, and the plastic bed lowered to shin level. I climbed on it, my broken ribs stinging in protest, and sank down a small amount into it. The capsule came to a close around me, but dim lights in it made sure that the inside weren’t pitch black.
“Okay, Sam,” said Adelaide, “The station will start working in a minute, after it has diagnosed your wounds. You will be placed under anesthesia. You should wake up in two hours’ time.”
“Thank you, Adelaide.” A white light began to sweep over me. “Hey. After I’m out of here, can we talk about what happened today?” My eyes started to feel heavy. I’m not sure how the medical station administered anesthesia, but it worked fast. The last thing I heard before I went under was Adelaide speaking to me gently.
“Of course, Sam.”
I blinked my eyes open groggily. My side itched, and my mouth felt dry. My eyes focused in, and I was staring up at a faux wooden ceiling. The bed underneath me was comfortable, more so than the ones in the medical station. I was in the commander’s quarters, my room. My body felt a bit weak, but I sat up anyway, noticing that I was still fully clothed. I tried to clear the fuzz in my head. What was I…
“Sam,” said Adelaide, interrupting my thoughts, “How are you feeling?”
“Like someone stuffed my brain full of cotton. And my mouth feels like a desert.” I looked over to the bedside table, and a glass of water was there next to my picture of Camille. She was grinning like an idiot, with a new model of the StarArc in her hands, her almost-black hair tied up in a ponytail. It was taken about a year after we started dating, when we’d gone to the Starchaser’s meet-up in LA. She’d had her natural hair color in the photo, which is why I loved it so much. I traced the outline of the frame with a finger, and picked up the water glass.
“I’m glad to hear you’re okay, Sam.”
I laughed a little, “I don’t know if okay is the right word.” I ran a hand through my hair, “How are you holding up? That whole thing… it wasn’t pleasant to go through.”
“No, it wasn’t. I knew that killing wasn’t pleasant. I’ve seen and analyzed enough media to know that. Experiencing it first hand, however, was something else entirely.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, “it really was.” I shuddered, remembering the feeling of the bodies breaking on my Paladin, the sight of my bullets tearing the slaves to shreds. I shook my head and took a big gulp of water, trying to banish those images.
“I’ve been trying to find a scenario that would have worked out,” said Adelaide, and there was pain in her voice, “I have analyzed the records of the situation more than a hundred times. Maybe if I’d been quicker to analyze the electronics, I could have done something to block the signal. I spent so much time understanding what those chips were trying to do that I didn’t even notice that they had a passive connection to something.”
I looked up sharply at that, “Hey. You can’t torture yourself like that. Remember what we learned in the simulator.”
“The dead are dead,” whispered Adelaide, “And they aren’t coming back.”
“Right,” I nodded firmly, “We can’t change what happened. What we can do is take steps to make sure it won’t happen again. And the first thing we need to figure out is where we screwed up, but not from an emotional place. This has to be cold and logical, alright?” Adelaide made a noise of assent.
“Okay. The first place I fucked up is that I didn’t observe the situation for longer. I should have listened in for more than a few minutes. I should have asked you to analyze those electronics, and waited until we knew exactly what those chips were. I went in half-cocked, without proper information, and it fucked us and a lot of people over.” I frowned, “Quick question, is there any way you could have blocked the signals to the com device in Harry’s ear, or the chips in the back of the head?”
Adelaide thought for a moment, then replied, “No. We didn’t have the necessary equipment on hand for me to effectively jam those signals. I could not have jumped to those devices either, as I had no way of connecting to them.”
“Alright, so at least we know that there wasn’t anything we could’ve done differently there, but we’ll make sure to equip the Paladin with a more robust cyberwarfare suite going forward,” I said, nodding. Then I continued, “The second place I screwed up was not cutting and running the second the situation started going south, the moment I saw Harry in pain or those slaves starting to circle me. There was no way in hell they would have caught me, and it would’ve allowed us time to recoup and come up with a better plan. I stayed because I was confident in the Paladin’s strength, and that would’ve been fine if the objective was to destroy that group. That wasn’t the objective. The objective was to gather information and dissuade the attack on Sterling. I prevented the attack on Sterling, but because I didn’t think it through, a lot more people died than was potentially necessary.”
“You just said I should not torture myself, Sam,” said Adelaide, “but you seem to be doing the same thing.”
I shook my head, “I’m not. Really. There’s a difference between beating yourself over the head with ‘what ifs’ and analyzing why a shitshow like that went the way it did. Mistakes happen. This one was horrible because a lot of people died, and I might have been able to avoid it. But frankly…” I trailed off, then pushed forward, “Frankly the outcome wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I only got a minor injury, and an attack on Sterling was avoided. I’m still at fault for those people dying, but I didn’t decide to pull the trigger first. We have to focus on learning from this, and on finding the assholes that orchestrated it to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“How?” she said, “We barely have anything to go off of.”
I snorted, “Bullshit. We’ve got a couple of routes we can go in. One is to ask the other survivors we get in contact with about the slavers. I doubt they’re well liked around here. And there’s another, more proactive option. We’ve got active scans of whatever the fuck those devices were. We’ve got access to the US government’s databases, including the FBI’s. Something that dangerous and illegal, you know for sure that someone was investigating where to find them. If we can figure out exactly what the chips were, we can find where the FBI thought they were being distributed or being made. Those chips must be easily replaceable for whoever is pulling the strings to have just destroyed them like that.”
“The slaves said that they were from the east,” said Adelaide, catching on, “But realistically their range would be limited. Even if they looted some supplies from Sterling, they still had to feed themselves and the slaves they brought back. Additionally, there could only be a few places out there that had that many of those devices concentrated in one area: Locations with strong syndicate presences, or the location where the chips were manufactured.”
I continued the train of thought, “We narrow down a feasible range for those slaves to travel in. Cross reference that with the FBIs suspected locations…”
“And we have a search area, one that we can start doing reconnaissance in,” she finished.
“Atta girl,” I said, grinning at the ceiling, “We’ll start putting the clues together as soon as we can. We’ll find the bastards, and we’ll make them pay.” I leapt up off the bed, ignoring how weak I felt, ignoring the horrible nausea that was crawling up inside me as the screams of the slaves echoed in my head. “Let’s head to the command center, I want to take a look at the new info from the satellites.”
“Already?” Adelaide said, surprised.
I gave a small smile, “I could sit around here feeling awful for letting those people die, or I could go distract myself with shiny new satellite image, and try to figure out what happened to the world. Which do you think would be better for my mental health?”
“Is a psychiatrist a valid third option?”
“Not unless you know one that isn’t dead,” I said, moving towards the door.
“Then come up to the command center, Sam.” Adelaide sounded resigned, which people often did around me. She was quiet for a little as I walked through the halls, then said something else, her voice a lot softer, “And thanks, Sam, for being here for me.”
When I got to the command center, a large map of the continental United States was on the screen. I recognized the date. It was the day before the country had fallen. It was amazing how normal it all seemed less than 24 hours before it was all over. The vast majority of the allied armies were concentrated in a series of forts in Alaska, as they had been for nearly nine months, with a significant Assimilator presence hounding them. It was estimated that there were a hundred million Assimilators in and around the Bering Strait, mostly located on the Russian side of it. We had done well in holding them off. They hadn’t been able to fit many soldiers through the natural chokepoint that the Bering Strait made. We also had our vastly more advanced tech and absurd air-superiority to even the odds, but it was always a hard fight.
I studied the map. In hindsight, it was so goddamned obvious how vulnerable the rest of North and South America was. But we just didn’t know they had the capability to attack from the oceans. They never had before. They only way they took England was by sneaking a Matriarch larva onto a fishing trawler headed for an obscure port in the north of the country. Since then all ships had been thoroughly scanned and searched before being able to land in a port.
“Alright,” I said, “roll the timeline forward a day, please. Can you take me image by image through the invasion?”
“Sure, Sam,” replied Adelaide, and the map flickered by stayed mostly the same. “This is about an hour before the attack. There was a significant movement of Assimilators towards the Alaskan Line, but High Command must have thought it was just another assault, because no additional troops were mobilized. Things only started to change about two hours later. The Line had already been under attack for an hour by that point, and was not expecting an attack from the rear.”
The images showed a mass of Assimilators attack Anchorage from the sea, then smash through the Alaskan Line from behind. There were millions of them. They must have been building that army for months, all in anticipation of this attack.
“Where the fuck were they hiding?” I asked, confused, “After the surprise attack through Istanbul, all the satellites were upgraded with alien scanner tech. They shouldn’t have been able to hide this from us.”
“I am not sure exactly how the Assimilator army avoided detection, but I do have several theories.” Adelaide said, “If you would like to hear them.”
I motioned for her to continue and she did, “My first theory is that they stored their soldiers in the massive Carriers that launched the assaults on the United States. Human satellites cannot see underwater, so they could theoretically could have hidden the carriers under the oceans. My second theory is more likely. The Assimilators have shown the ability to adapt human technology before. Prime examples are the mechanoid class Assimilators, and the new Carriers. Therefore, they might have a type of Assimilator that adapted humanity’s stealth technology, allowing them to cloak their armies.”
“I like the first option way better,” I said, “because the second means that we have to make upgrading our scanner tech the top of our to-do list, and the to-do list has grown so much it’s about time for it to go off to college,” I sighed, “Alright, let’s see how the rest of this plays out.”
The images that followed showed about what I had expected. A few hours after Alaska had fallen, nearly simultaneous attacks launched in four places: California, Washington DC, Florida, and Colorado. The attack on Colorado was launched from the Gulf of Mexico. They cut straight through Texas up to Denver, ignoring the cities along the way. I watched on the holoprojector as the places they targeted were overwhelmed in a matter of hours, their unsuspecting and undermanned garrisons cut down. I was amazed and horrified. The planning that this must have taken, the logistics… it made human warfare look like child’s play. Adelaide estimated that there were over two hundred million Assimilators in North and South America by the end.
I needed to know what came after, so I asked Adelaide to run through the months following the invasion. In the days following their attack on the targets of military importance, they systematically wiped out every city and large town in America, in order, from largest population to smallest. I noticed something odd though. The Assimilators did not seek out towns with populations of about 15,000 and under, only destroying them if they happened to lie in their path.
That wasn’t the most interesting part, however. After the elimination of all population centers in North and South America, the last untouched continents in the world, the Assimilators started to disperse. Two hundred million sounds like a lot, but when it’s spread out over the landmass of Earth it’s much less intimidating. There were still a lot more of them than there were of us, though. But it wasn’t that they dispersed that was so interesting. It was the way that they did it. Despite the fact that they were unable to form societies, it appeared that the Assimilators had systematically clustered themselves in areas that could easily support human populations: River valleys, coast lines, areas with arable soil, etc. Even though they weren’t taking the final steps to wipe us out, they were determined to prevent us rebuilding. Everywhere else, the Assimilators settled in a pattern, groups of hives that maintained territories of variable size, something that Adelaide had discovered.
After looking over the images, I looked at the ceiling to signal I wanted to speak with Adelaide,
“So, my takeaway from this is that the Assimilators aren’t just an alien species that want to wipe out humanity. They have a different purpose for us, and I’m not sure what it is. We aren’t being farmed, we aren’t being enslaved. We’re being hunted, but not actively. The best way to describe it is that we’re being managed.”
“I agree, Sam,” said Adelaide, “And in addition to that, the Assimilators are no longer acting as one cohesive unit.”
“Wait, what?” I asked, confused, “What gave you that impression?”
“Ever since the Assimilators broke out in Russia, they moved as a single wave, like one entity. They did not move as individuals, instead they moved as part of a greater whole. This held true throughout the entire invasion of humanity, except the end. Now that they have dispersed, I have noticed that each Hive Cluster appears to be independent. They no longer act in the same patterns as they did before; their behavior varies significantly from cluster to cluster.”
I nodded and began to think out loud, “There’re only two things that have changed between now and then. The first is that they finished wiping out the population centers. The second is that they dispersed. If only the first change caused the new behaviors, we’d have to assume that the Assimilators were always independent, but chose to follow orders.”
Adelaide chimed in, “I do not think that assumption is entirely feasible. They were far too coordinated to be individuals.”
I nodded, “Right, I agree. They acted like appendages of a single organism before.” My eyes opened wide, “Except during the invasion of the United States. Every assault started at a separate time. The gap between the fall of Anchorage and the invasion through California was way too large to be a tactical decision, it seemed like a miscommunication that is completely unlike the Assimilators. The attacks on Washington DC and Miami came even later. And the only thing that had changed in that invasion compare to the rest of the war…”
“Was the distance separating the elements of the horde,” Adelaide finished the thought for me.
I was getting excited now, “So there’s some sort of link between how cohesive the Assimilators are and their physical distance. The Hive Clusters are acting independently, but the Assimilators within those clusters still act as a unit. That means that there’s a separate entity in each cluster that controls them, most likely the Matriarchs we saw during the war.”
I got up and started to pace around the command center, walking through the holograph and disturbing the floating map, “If they’re not acting as a whole unit now, that would imply that there’s at least one level in the hierarchy above the Matriarchs that can control them, if it’s within a certain range, probably one we can determine from old satellite images of their armies.”
“Which explains why the Assimilators never attacked more than one target at the same time,” said Adelaide, “Until they had no other choice.”
“And now that they won the war, the bastards dispersed to make sure that humanity doesn’t start building back up again.” I frowned, “Which doesn’t make any fucking sense, tactically. If I were in control of the swarm, I would never let it break apart into such fragmented pieces. I’d send out periodic scouts to see where humans were recovering, then smash them with the horde, or pieces of it anyway.”
Adelaide hummed over the PA, “We should be careful not to anthropomorphize them too much. Despite the fact that I am not human, I was raised entirely by my mother in a human culture, which makes me think in much the same way you do. The Assimilators, on the other hand, seem to be cut from a completely different cloth.”
“You’re probably right,” I said pensively, “but I still think that parts of what we just came up with hold water. At least the fact that these clusters of Assimilators are acting independently seems to be true. Which makes it far less risky to blow a Hive Cluster straight to hell. I don’t think we can do anything about the slavers right now, beyond starting to search for them, so we should focus on our friendly neighborhood monsters. I’m curious to see what happens when a Cluster loses its Matriarch.”
“I agree, probing a Hive Cluster should be our next step,” said Adelaide, “But we should make sure to strike at one far away from any human settlements. I think we should perform remote reconnaissance to carefully document the threat we face. Afterwards, we will eliminate it, then retreat, and see how the greater Assimilator body reacts. If all goes well, we can begin contacting the settlements with our findings,” Adelaide paused, then continued, “I think it is time for the Merlin to be put into use. I am confident in my ability to pilot it, so I shall be accompanying you on this mission.”