The powerful anti-grav engines hummed all around me. The canopy glass of the cockpit doubled as a large HUD, and it was currently showing a map of the surrounding areas, beamed remotely to it via the re-established satellite connection. Adelaide had gained access to the vast majority of the military’s satellites, including their communications platforms, so we essentially had a connection back to Camelot at all times. This made things much less risky for Adelaide when we went out like this. If it looked like things were going sideways, she’d make a short, if very disorienting, hop up to the satellites and then back to the base. This was the third recon mission we had been on since our discoveries from the satellite maps.

“Sam,” said Adelaide over the coms, “We are approaching your drop off point. Please prepare for deployment.” She was currently inhabiting the Merlin, which she had become quite proficient at piloting.

I grunted in acknowledgment and stood up from my seat in the cockpit. Adelaide was piloting, I was just along for the ride. I wasn’t in a Paladin, but both the pilot’s and copilot’s seat could expand to fit them. I walked to the drop bay. My Paladin sat in a metal harness, suspended upright. There were six harnesses in the drop bay, three on each side, but the other five were empty. I walked over to the suit and it rippled open, allowing me to enter. I waited inside, preparing for the drop.

The Merlin was what I had worked on the most in my six months of isolation in Camelot. I had conceived it as a companion to the Paladin, a beautiful mix of a heavy gunship and a small squad transport, with the ability to execute combat drops. It was a fairly long ship to accommodate for the drop bay, around 110 feet in length. It was propelled by four rotating anti-grav engines, two near the front and two near the back. The front pair sat slightly behind the sloped cockpit, each embedded in a wing about 30 feet long. The back two engines were placed near the tail, as part of the rear stabilizers. The drop bay tapered up to the tail, and the back opened into a ramp to allow entry. It was well armed, with anti-matter rocket pods and a large, three-barreled cannon mounted below the nose, in addition to several point-defense arrays. It also had some heavier torpedoes for the really big targets. For weight reasons I only included four of those. The Paladins riding inside had gun ports for their railguns, allowing them to engage ground targets.

I took great pains to throw every bell and whistle I could think of on it. Camelot had an incredible surplus of materials, even with the 10,000 Paladins it was making, so a few expensive craft like the Merlin wouldn’t be an issue. It was EM shielded and contained sophisticated stealth capabilities, and it was as heavily armored as it could be while maintaining a max speed of Mach 2.5. Like all my designs, I took great pains to ensure that the Merlin would be fuel independent. The twin anti-matter reactors provided plenty of power, but there was a limit to what they could do. I couldn’t mount any powerful high-energy weapons onto it, like railguns or laser cannons. The top speed was slower in comparison to other gunships and especially fighter jets. Even with those drawbacks, I thought the benefits of not having to rely on fuel were well worth it. I didn’t have the luxury of multiple refueling stations, so independence from Camelot was a must for longer ranged missions.

This would be my first drop from the Merlin, and I gotta say, I was not looking forward to hurtling down from almost 20,000 feet. The Paladin could handle it easily, the anti-gravs and inertial dampeners making the landing a cakewalk. But holy shit it sounded fucking terrifying, and I wasn’t even afraid of heights. I loved my Paladins, but something about being stuck in a giant metal body suit and falling through the air without a parachute didn’t quite sit right with me.

My thoughts were interrupted by Adelaide’s smooth voice, “Drop point reached. Preparing for drop in 3…”

The floor beneath my feet retracted towards the belly of the Merlin, giving me a phenomenal look at the really very far away ground.

“2…”

Ah shit ah shit ah shit.

“1…”

The harnesses disconnected, and I dropped. I couldn’t feel it of course; the inertial dampeners took care of that. It felt like being in a Paladin always did. But the fact that I didn’t feel anything only made my skydiving experience even more bizarre. It was pretty nauseating to see the ground rapidly approach me even though I felt like I wasn’t moving. Also, it was fucking terrifying to see just how fast I was going. The automatic landing procedure hadn’t kicked in yet, so my speed hadn’t slowed a bit.

As the Earth got nearer and nearer, an image of a bowl of petunias flashed through my mind. Oh no, not again. I grimaced in my Paladin, empathizing with the flowers. My altimeter showed me 500 feet above the ground when my anti-gravs suddenly kicked in, and my velocity began to slow rapidly. Amazingly, I still felt a small amount of pressure even with the inertial dampeners clocked into overdrive. The g-force on the Paladin must’ve be absolutely insane. The ground was still getting closer much faster than I would like, but when I was just 20 feet above it, my anti-gravs flared to an even higher degree, and I touched down with far less speed than I thought I would. I stumbled a bit on the landing, but the thrusters evened me out. I still sat down though, taking deep, heaving breaths.

“How was your first combat drop, Sam?” said Adelaide, holding back laughter, “From the number of expletives I heard, you had a wonderful time.”

I hadn’t even realized I was swearing. I held up a metallic middle finger, making sure my suit’s cameras would catch. I heard Adelaide chortling away through my coms. She was just getting more and more sassy. I think I may be a bad influence.

In the week and a half since the fuck up with the slaves, we had reviewed thousands of satellite images. Well, Adelaide did most of the work, but I was an excellent cheerleader. I even had F-03 make me pom-poms, which I don’t think Adelaide appreciated as much as she should have. Disappointingly, we hadn’t found too much about the slavers. We’d narrowed down the search to Nebraska, Kansa and Oklahoma. Of those three states, Kansas seemed the most likely. Wichita had been flagged by the FBI; they’d suspected that there were a few factories on the outskirts that might have been producing the Persuaders, as the syndicates called them. Unfortunately, Wichita had been wiped out by the Assimilators, just like every other major city. The trail went cold because of that, and we needed more information before we could keep going. Kansas was a big place to search, so time was necessary to analyze the satellite images in detail.

In the meantime, we had more hands-on problems to worry about. After we come up with our ‘Independent Cluster Theory’, we’d switched immediately to doing recon on them. Clusters tended to act independently from each other, rarely crossing territorial borders. Interestingly enough, it seemed as though the Assimilators patrolled the borders between neighboring clusters more heavily than anywhere else. But satellite images couldn’t tell us everything, so hands on reconnaissance was required. We’d done some unnoticed flyovers, and we’d confirmed the number of Worms in the Hive Cluster. In short, there were a fuckton of them, and a couple Hive Lords to boot. Definitely more than I could handle currently, and I’d been getting much better in the simulator. Much of my job during the last week was designing a Heavy Assault loadout for the Paladin. It was going to be a beautiful instrument of mass destruction, but it wasn’t quite done yet.

After I had taken a minute to breathe and recharge my power reserves, I stood up and looked at my mini-map. The objective this time wasn’t just reconnaissance of the Hive Cluster we had picked out for smashing, as the past couple missions had been. I was planning on engaging a patrol of Worms, to gauge their reaction to a territorial infringement. I was pretty deep in enemy territory, and while the Merlin was only a short flight away, I had to be cautious. I grabbed the railgun from my back, leaving it undeployed, and started moving through the Pawnee National Grasslands. This had been a massive nature preserve from before the war, and it was an ideal location to engage Assimilators. It was far from human settlements, and had a Hive Cluster smack dab in the middle of it.

I headed towards the patrol of Worms that Adelaide was tracking from on high, moving quickly but cautiously through the short-grass prairie. I prowled past a herd of bison, who stopped to stare at me with judgement in their big brown eyes. It wasn’t my fault that I sounded like a rhinoceros in this thing. And bison weren’t exactly subtle either, so it was the pot calling the kettle loud as fuck. I seriously had to get around to making a stealth and reconnaissance version of the Paladin, but that would require a major redesign, and I had too many projects already lined up. Maybe I’d get an apprentice or something. Shame I only knew Mike, Mary, some dude with a ponytail, and a bunch of dead slaves. I frowned. I should really expand my social circle.

Ah shit. Focus. “Hey Adelaide,” I said, “Anything change from up there?” We didn’t have to practice radio silence. As far as we knew, the Assimilators didn’t give two shits about listening in on our coms, even if they had the capability to. Also, our networks were encrypted to hell and back. The Paladin blocked my voice from leaving unless I wanted it to, so there were no issues having a conversation.

Adelaide responded almost immediately, “I was about to contact you, Sam. The patrol is being joined by another group of Assimilators. The total count has gone from fifteen to twenty-five. Are you sure you want to continue with the mission?”

“Give me composition and classes.”

“There are thirteen M-1s and two M-2s. The other ten are R-1s”

Urgh. That could turn into a shitshow really fast. I’d taken on groups tougher than that in the simulator, but real combat was much less easy to predict. I wasn’t about to turn around, though. Momma didn’t raise no quitter. I’d have to eliminate the M-2s first. They were big, tough, and really fucking annoying once they got close. Luckily, I would have the drop on them, so the railgun should be able to handle the oversized Worms. The rest would go down quickly after that.

“Roger that Ghost Rider. I’m going to keep the mission going. Stay close, I might need you to pull my ass out of the fire,” I said to her. I think she secretly liked it when I called her that.

The red dots appeared at the edge of my map. Adelaide had updated the CAS so that it displayed the class of the hostile in small letters on their dot. A genius, sentient information alien was super handy to have around. With a thought, I had the CAS show me the Assimilators’ expected route, and picked out a nice ambush spot. It was up a small rise that placed the patrol within range of my railgun. I wouldn’t be charging at them like an idiot this time, so I would have plenty of time to pick them off.

I moved in small leaps over to the ambush, skating a little on the falls, which boosted my momentum into the next jump. I was getting the hang of it, and it looked way cooler than flinging myself through the air like an idiot. I reached the rise and settled in, the patrol only a few minutes out of my range. I didn’t have to lie down like a sniper would. The Paladin kept my railgun steady. I deployed it, and raised it to firing position.

The patrol came over the horizon. They moved in a diamond, with the M-1s making up the perimeter of it, the ranged ones clustered in the middle. One M-2 was in the vanguard, one in the rear. My CAS targeted the leading M-2 with a thought. It was a big one, around ten feet tall. It bore a disturbing resemblance to a Satyr. It had the head of a bison, and stood hunched over, walking on two cloven hooves. Its arms looked incredibly muscular, the tendrils wriggling and bulging out, and they ended giant, creepy racoon hands. This Worm was going to have a starring role in my nightmares. The rest of the Assimilators were similar to what I’d seen before. The gorilladillos were there, and a couple of turtlebears. No panther-spiders though, thank God. Those ones freaked me the fuck out. The ranged were a mix of a scorpion and a deer. The stingers that arced over their backs were what shot the projectiles. I waited until the first creepy Bison-thing was in my range, then I took a deep breath. Show time.

My first railgun slug smashed into the head of the leading M-2, causing it to explode in a fountain of gore. It slumped over with a crash, and my second slug was already on the way, but the bison-head in the rear dodged with supernatural reflexes, and the slug only ripped off its shoulder and arm instead of blowing open its torso. My next shot wasn’t perfect, but it took the M-2 out of the game by ripping off its right leg. I fired round after round into the approaching patrol, aiming for the turtlebears first. The R-1s weren’t a threat to me, so I saved them for last.

“Sam, something came up,” said Adelaide, “I’m on my way to retrieve you.”

“Little busy here!” I yelled. The Assimilators were scattering now, approaching me in a wide arc. As my railgun’s magazine ran out, I stored it and pulled out my SMGs, set to single fire. Automatic wouldn’t be guaranteed to work on these armored M-1s. I took the initiative, careening towards them with a flare of my anti-gravs. The pack of Worms tightened in response, exactly what I wanted them to do. I spiked my main and bottom thrusters, sending me into a short soar above the leading aliens. I opened up with my SMGs on group of M1s in the front, simultaneously tagging the Assimilators near the back with the CAS for the anti-matter rockets. The Cluster Pod popped out of my shoulder and ten rockets arced out, turning the ranged Worms to ash. I fell back to the ground, stowing the SMGs, anti-gravs firing to propel me forward towards two M-1s that hadn’t been killed by SMG fire. One was slightly in front of the other, so I ducked its punch and unloaded a hail of pellets into its face while keeping my momentum. My shoulder rammed into its corpse, the body flying into the Worm that was behind it, sending it sprawling. While it was dazed, I moved up to it and smashed its head with a stomp.

I heard a rumbling coming towards me and I fired my thrusters, retreating as fast as possible. My HUD told me the M-2 I’d downed was coming back for more. Must’ve had regenerative abilities, like some of the big ones did. The horrific bison-headed Worm sprinted at me, its massive legs carrying it ten feet with each bound. I targeted the Assimilator, preparing to fire the rest of my anti-matter rockets into it, when suddenly there was a deafening thrum and a series of gaping holes was blown through the Worm’s back. As it fell to the ground, the Merlin swooped low over me, gleaming white and red in the sun. Its engines hummed as it landed a short distance from where I stood, the back ramp hissing open.

I moved towards the Merlin, whining the whole way, “That one was mine! You’re a filthy kill stealer! Also, don’t talk to me while I’m murdering things!” Even while I was complaining, I was glowing on the inside. That engagement had gone phenomenally. I went up against 25 of the bastards at once, and the Paladin hadn’t even gotten a scratch. The only mistake I had made, and it wasn’t even that bad, was letting the bisonhead regenerate. But it would’ve been ripped to shreds by the anti-matter rockets if Adelaide hadn’t interfered.

“I apologize for interrupting you during combat, I hadn’t realized you had already engaged,” Adelaide said, “I felt it necessary to let you know that Camelot’s scanners have picked up another group of people within the perimeter. They do not appear to be pursued by Assimilators. I believe they are another group of scouts searching for the base.”

I picked up the pace, muttering in annoyance. Over the past week and a half there had been three separate groups of people that had wandered into the perimeter. The first one I dismissed as coincidence. It wasn’t odd that there would be groups migrating through the area. The second two I couldn’t ignore, because they were clearly looking for something. The little fuckers had been moving around in the area, not just passing straight through. Someone was looking for me. “Hey Adelaide,” I said, boarding the Merlin, “I think it’s time to find out more about our guests.”

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