It might seem a little stupid to go confront the assholes looking for your base of operations, because that pretty much confirms that they’re on the right track. But they had been staying for longer and longer each time they started poking around, and I didn’t want to accidentally reveal the exact location of Camelot if I chose the wrong time to launch in a Paladin. Hiding a seven-foot tall mechanized suit of armor is a little difficult, especially if it’s flung out of the ground at half the speed of sound. Even if I went psycho murderer and killed them all, which I wasn’t going to do, I would just fuck myself over if they were attached to a larger group that wasn’t already pissed at me.

I was curious as to who had been sending them, and why. The only people I had interacted with were the slavers and Mary’s gang, but one of those groups was dead and the other probably didn’t want anything else to do with me. I suppose it was possible that the whoever was in charge of the slavers had sent teams after me, but I was fifty miles away from here when I’d confronted that group. Also, the first search team had shown up only two days after the incident. I doubted they could’ve found me that fast.

We’d been circling high above them for an hour or so, out of sight. We were trying to get as much info as possible, so that there wasn’t a repeat of the slave’s incident. Adelaide had hacked into their coms, but we hadn’t gotten much from them. It looked like they weren’t using them, and instead were speaking person to person. That was a teensy bit frustrating, because the Merlin couldn’t pick up their voices from here. They also hadn’t been in contact with whoever had sent them, if anyone had. Still, it wasn’t completely useless. We knew their loadout, and we’d confirmed that there weren’t any murder chips in their noggins. So that was comforting. But unfortunately, I’d need to get closer to figure out what was going on.

“Bring us in low Adelaide,” I told her, “but stay out of their sight. I’d like to keep the Merlin as a hidden card for now, and I don’t think anyone’s ready to see your ugly mug quite yet.” That garnered an annoyed sound from Adelaide and I mentally tallied a point in my column.

I hadn’t taken off my Paladin, and I went to stand in the harness that would drop me. It wouldn’t be a combat drop, which is good because while I’m pretty sure I didn’t shit myself on the last one, it was a close thing.

“Would you like me to standby for a pick up?” she said.

“Nah,” I said after considering it for a moment, “You should probably go back and see if the shitstomping we gave that patrol had any effect on the Hive Cluster. I bet we got one mighty pissed off Matriarch and I wanna see what she does when she sees all her splattered kids.”

“That wasn’t gruesome at all,” said Adelaide, “But I take your point. To be frank, I’d much rather be surveying hideous monsters than watch you fail miserably at social interactions. The former is far less arduous.” Before I could respond, Adelaide opened the drop bay, and I fell into the empty sky, watching as the Merlin blasted away into the distance. I wasn’t even mad. That might have been the best way to end a conversation I had ever seen.  I tallied four points for Adelaide, one for the quip, three for the mic drop.

The fall this time was pretty short, about 500 feet. I hadn’t wanted to make a scene as I fell in, and I had already practiced my combat drop today. My anti-gravs flared and I stuck the landing this time, coming to a running stop to bleed off my momentum, and sliding the last couple of feet. That probably looked super awesome, but nobody was around to see it. I should’ve just asked Adelaide to drop me right in front of them, just so they could see how cool it was. I brought up the mini-map with a thought. The Merlin had tagged the human group from overhead, and there were five of them, very well armed, with military grade equipment. That most likely eliminated any of the settlements. The majority wouldn’t have access to weapons like that, and those who did would keep them behind for defense.

I groaned to myself I was walked towards them, feeling sore from my recent combat stint. Of fucking course it couldn’t be simple. Why the do jerkoffs with military grade equipment keep showing up near my shit? I mean I wasn’t exactly threatened by them, but I had just killed twenty-five psychopathic alien monsters and I really wanted a shower. Instead I had to deal with stupid little pricks and their stupid weapons on my stupid land. I kicked a rock poutily and cringed as it soared a hundred feet or so. I reminded myself that tantrums in Paladins were always dangerous.

I shook my head, trying to get myself back in the game. The current plan was to scout out whoever they were, and shadow them as best as I could, listening in on their conversations. To be honest, it was a really shitty plan. If they were any sort of competent, unlike those slaves, they’d spot me almost immediately. I mean, at least when I trailed the slavers they had the false sense of security their scout cars afforded them, so they weren’t on the lookout. If these guys didn’t find me, I would seriously question how they had survived this long. If you couldn’t catch a seven-foot tall metal man crouching awkwardly in the plains, you had some very serious issues. The problem was, I didn’t have a better plan. They’d notice one of the normal drones even faster than they’d notice me, and I hadn’t finalized my stealth drone’s designs yet. Another fucking thing on my to-do list.

“Hey Adelaide,” I said, “What should I say to these dildos if they notice me?” I was still a decent distance away from them, so I didn’t have to worry about being stealthy yet.

“Well,” said Adelaide after a moment, “I had assumed that you would have thought of that before you insisted on meeting them.”

I snorted, “Adelaide, have I ever been a man of plans?”

“Yes. Often very convoluted ones. Action is where you tend to falter.”

“Let’s see, of the two of us, who murdered twenty-four tendrily freaks today, and who sat in a plane with their proverbial thumb up their non-existent ass? Ah yes, I remember,” I said with a patronizing smile that I knew she could see, “Now run along dear, there are critical surveys that need taking.”

I grinned at her silence. One more for Sam, and revenge was truly delicious. My mood improved, and I hummed a little ditty as I closed in on the unknown group, and then I remembered why I had started talking to her in the first place. I slowed my approach to a walk. Alright. So, probably going to go with Uther again, because talking to people was still freaky. Besides, I wanted a secret identity and this one fit the whole Arthurian theme I had going on. Once I had actually made friends with physical bodies, I was going to have F-03 make me a round table.

I debated whether to approach the group with weapons drawn or not, then decided against it. It’s not like they could do much to the armor with the weapons, and I didn’t need a gun to smack some bitches around a little. Also, going in with guns out was a great way to make people hostile. My goal right now wasn’t necessarily to intimidate them, though that was a bit unavoidable when I was wearing a Paladin. I just wanted to figure out what they were doing in mah swamp, so to speak.

I finally got within listening range of them, and I lay flat in the grass and began army crawling at them. I felt like a fucking idiot, but maybe they wouldn’t see me like this. I heard Adelaide sniggering over the coms, muttering something about a “mentally deficient robot.” I ignored her, and focused on the task at hand. The group was still within range of Camelot’s passive scanners, so my mini-map was displaying their position in real-time. I activated the listening devices on my Paladin and directed them at the people that were stalking through the grass.

“- third scout group out here and we still haven’t found them, and I don’t think we’re going to,” said a whiny male voice, “Let’s just radio back and tell them that we turned up empty. I don’t want to be in Worm country for any longer than I have to.”

“No,” said another male voice, huskier than the first, “I know you all are nervous out here, but we have to find out what happened to the advance team. If it really was Worms, then we have bigger problems on our hands. Not much other than a full hunting party could’ve taken them out, not with the gear they had. If those are roaming around, we can’t risk letting the convoy pass through here.”

On the bright side, they weren’t looking for Camelot. On the not so bright side, they were going to be hanging around here for a while longer, and there was apparently going to be a convoy rolling its ass over my house.

“Ughh,” groaned a low-pitched woman’s voice, “let’s just keep moving. Honestly, if you just ignore Jackson’s bitching, it’ll save a lot of time.”

“Hey, fuck you Rebecca!” said the man who I presumed was Jackson, “Those were all legitimate complaints! The food last night was cold as hell! And my mattress was as lumpy as a –“

“Uhh guys,” interjected another female voice, “Am… am I going crazy, or is there a giant goddamn robot crawling in the grass over there?”

Ah shitty fuckballs. Well, it was worth a shot. I popped up from my embarrassing position and walked nonchalantly towards the incredibly confused group, like I hadn’t just been lying on the ground like the world’s hardiest earthworm. “Sam,” said Adelaide, “As much as you might wish, I don’t think acting casual will make what just happened go away.” I hissed at her to shut up, and mercifully she did so.

The scouting team, or whatever it was, were decked out pretty well. They had matching light armor on, with helmets that had the CAS installed. The light armor helmets didn’t cover their head fully, unlike the heavier variety. There was still a visor that provided the HUD, but they needed a separate earpiece to act as their communication devices. Each of the people had an eagle painted in red painted on their chest plate. I recognized the XC-17 rifles they were carrying as well. Luckily, I didn’t see any heavier weaponry. The XC-17 hit hard, but not hard enough to pose a threat. The group was composed of three men and two women. They had immediately moved into a formation upon seeing me, but they still looked a bit taken aback by my unconventional entrance, so I decided to use that to my advantage.

“Hello,” I said in Uther’s deep baritone, “I was just passing by, and I happened to see your group. My name is Uther.”

They stared at me in silence until a woman with clever hazel eyes spoke at me. I recognized her voice as Rebecca’s, “Why the fuck were you lying on the ground like that?”

“Well, I was walking along and decided, wow, I’ve always wanted to be a caterpillar, so then –“ I coughed, wincing at the automatic retort. Adelaide was a horrible influence on me. “I mean, uhh, that’s not important right now.” I waved a dignified metal hand, as if to shoo away the whole thing. I saw Rebecca and one of guys grinning a little at my almost-retort.

One of the other men stepped forward. I assumed that this one was the leader-type guy who had been lecturing. He was tall, and had a chiseled chin and deep brown eyes. I hated him already. “My name is Aaron, and I’m the squad leader of the 4th Scouting Group. Now, explain what you’re doing here.”

“I apologize, I am not sure what the 4th Scouting Group refers to.” I said politely, “And as for me, I am a traveler, and I was moving through here when I spotted you.”

“Yeah, and I’m President Rothschild,” said Rebecca scathingly, “have you ever actually fooled anyone with that traveler bullshit?”

“There was a group of slavers that bought it,” I said, “But they also didn’t notice my stellar impression of a prairie dog, so that should give you a good idea of their intelligence.”  Shit, this woman made me break character too much. Also, maybe too soon to make fun of the dead slaves.

Rebecca grinned at me and turned to Aaron, “I like this guy. He actually has a couple brain cells unlike most of the mouth breathers out here.” She was met with a withering glance.

“We are a scouting team under the command of the Red Eagles, a mercenary group that operates in southern Colorado. Now, will you tell us why you’re actually here?” said Aaron cautiously. They hadn’t raised their guns at me yet, so I took that as a good sign.

“Of course. I’m sorry for attempting to lie to you, caution has done me many favors out here.” I gave a small nod of apology, “I have made a temporary residence around these parts, and I was patrolling when I spotted you. I planned on moving on soon anyway, so I decided to introduce myself. Not many people come this far into the plains.” I looked at them all, “By the way your team was moving, it seems as though you are looking for something. I’ve been keeping a close tab on everything in this area, so I can most likely help you find it.”

Aaron began to nod his stupidly handsome face slowly, “Alright, but I doubt you’re offering from the goodness in your heart. What do you want in exchange?”

“Information,” I said immediately, “I am rather reclusive by nature, so knowing what is going on outside of my current corner of the world is invaluable.” I had considered asking them to guarantee that they wouldn’t come back through here, but that would just reveal that I thought of this place as more than a temporary home. I was planning on having Adelaide wipe their CAS readouts and recordings of my suit anyway, so I didn’t have to ask them to do that. I couldn’t stop them from describing it to the rest of the Red Eagles, but without a readout or recording they had no idea of its capabilities. I was worried that maybe this wasn’t the best course of action, but I really needed information and leads on the slavers.

Aaron paused to consider my words, and entered into a whispered discussion with the other woman, who was shorter than Rebecca. I was about to listen in on them, because why not, when Rebecca walked up to me raised a hand.

“Howdy, my name’s Rebecca,” She said, “Nice to meet ya. And this here,” she gestured to the man she had been smiling with, who was tall with a round face, “is Tom. Quiet lad, but nice enough. Over there,” she pointed at the last man, who wore a distrusting scowl on his face, “is Jackson, and he’s a real prick.”

“Hey, fuck you Rebecca!” Jackson yelled.

“Shove it up your dickhole,” she calmly said to him, “Now where was I. Ah yeah, so you’ve met Aaron, our fearless leader and the fun-police, and that other girl over there is Allie. She’s the one that spotted your dumb ass.”

I stared at her, not really sure how to respond. Adelaide interjected quietly, “For the record, this is what I imagine people that meet you for the first time feel like.”

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