The gentle roar of waves on the beach soothed me as I lay in my wicker-backed chair. The ocean was a twinkling sapphire jewel, white highlights rippling over it every now and then as wave’s crest broke the surface. My hand dangled off to the side, my fingers idly running through the white sand, the grains filtering through my hand.
I had decided that I needed a vacation. I came to this decision after my third straight week of wallowing. I had been stuck in an underground bunker for nearly eight months with no human contact for half a year. I was going stir crazy in a way I had never experienced before. I saw the same grey, concrete walls every day, the same pristine, tiled floors, the same fabricators, Paladins, gym, and control room. It was no wonder that I was losing it. I was confined to a series of dull military rooms. I could only talk to a damn computer, and my only hang out pals were empty suits of armor and an evil drill instructor. I was very satisfied with this explanation of my state.
I had gotten Adelaide to override Simulator 003 with a prototype VR program from before the world fell. “Mind Vacation”, it was called. Like everything else in the sim, it was phenomenally realistic. I could feel the sun shine on my face, warming it slightly, but without the risk of a sunburn. The slightly salty smell of the ocean filled my nose, and I could hear the rustling of palm fronds, their leaves playing in the gentle breeze. I let out a sigh and adjusted my sunglasses. I had a fantasy book propped open on my lap. With a thought, I could change what I reading, or the setting, or anything else really. It would read my thoughts and devise a scenario based on them.
“Mmm, I needed this,” I said, stretching like a cat.
“That is good to hear, Sam.” replied Adelaide.
While I was still aware that she wasn’t really a person, that didn’t stop her from being the closest thing to a human I had here. Not talking to her was the same as voluntarily placing myself in solitary confinement. I just had to be careful and not fall for the illusion. She had found a way let herself into the simulators, finding a loophole in the base’s subroutines, or so she claimed. I had no doubt in my mind that she had always had access, but didn’t use it for reasons I could not fathom. That was yet another reason to not fully trust the computer.
“No, but seriously. I was going nuts in here. Thanks for arranging it,” I said with a small smile that was close to genuine.
“You are very welcome, Sam.”
We lapsed into a comfortable silence, the cries of frigate birds filling the air. I loved watching them fly in lazy circles above me.
It was a shame though. Simulators were not allowed to provide artificial food or drinks. They were even forbidden to include taste. The fear was that people would get so caught up on the fake stuff that they would neglect their needs in reality. It seemed like one of those silly, fear mongering regulations to me, until I thought about it. People tended to get really obsessed with things. If a video game was able to provide realistic tasting food, I’m sure that there were some who would never leave. Myself included, if the game was good enough.
But I could really use a drink right about now.
I gave a mental shrug and picked up my book. Roshar was in a state of impending crisis, and I needed to know what was happening next. I was torturing myself by reading this series, because it was incomplete, and would probably never be finished. Still, it was damn good. It was a shame, then, that I had been reading the same page over and over again for around an hour.
There was something niggling at the back of my mind, like it had been for weeks.
I snapped the book shut and put my head in my hands. I ran my fingers through my hair, over and over. It was getting long again. The sand from my hands dissolved as it reached my hair. You wouldn’t want to get dirty in paradise, after all.
It was all fake. Every inch of it. Every grain of sand, every cloud, every goddamned bird. It was beautiful and lifelike if you didn’t pay attention, but the minute you looked closely you could see the touch of the unreal. The way that the sky faded. The way that the water clipped into the ground, just a tiny bit. The fact that the waves didn’t make any foam as they crashed onto the beach. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I needed. I needed something perfect, something that I could shove my brain – that just wouldn’t shut the fuck up – into for a few minutes. Just so I had time some time away from that goddamn pressure that built up more and more every time I walked past that place, every time I ignored what was just two doors down from.
Adelaide was saying something to me but I couldn’t hear her. My ears were buzzing from the inside. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe. My mind was running through this list, this list of things that I just had to get up and do but I couldn’t. I had to check the Arming Stations, the launch tubes, the satellite feeds that I had been ignoring for months and months because I just couldn’t look at them because then I would see how the world burned.
The scenery was changing second by second as I sat there. I was in a silent forest, then on a isolated mountain top. A lakeside cabin materialized for just a few seconds before I was looking out over a glittering city scape. They started switching to places out of my memory, my old house with its twin oak trees, the lab in the university, my apartment with –
Everything went black. There was a whining hum, and the simulator cracked open. I squeezed my eyes shut. I belatedly realized that my breath had been coming in short bursts, and attempted to even it out.
“Are you okay, Sam? You were displaying symptoms of a panic attack. I deemed it necessary shut down the simulator.” Adelaide spoke to me. She was worried.
I nodded shallowly, my teeth still clenched together. My fists were balled up and my palms stung. I unfurled my fingers to reveal my bloody hands, cut open by my nails.
“You are injured, Sam.” Adelaide said.
“I’m fine.” I responded, still a bit short of breath.
When I remembered that I was still stuck in the exo-suit, I felt the panic starting to rear its head again. At my struggle, the restraints sprung open, and I fell to the floor, catching myself with my hands. I staggered upright, leaving bloody palmprints on the clean tile.
“God damn it.” I mumbled to myself, steadying my swaying body.
“Sam, you should proceed to the sickbay. I have a medical station on standby to disinfect and repair the damage to your hands.”
I looked up and shook my head. My legs were still shaky.
“No… it’s okay. I don’t need all that. I’ll just grab some bandages and wrap them up.” I said to her, trying to get my legs to stop wobbling.
“I must insist.” Adelaide said, her tone slightly sharper, “The wounds on your palm will cause you significant discomfort if they are left as they are.”
“It’s okay, Adelaide.”
“Please Sam.” Christ but she sounded human.
I looked over the unblemished skin on my hands, studying them to see if there was any indication of the cuts that had been there before. I could see none. The sickbay’s medical station was phenomenal. Medical technology had advanced incredibly rapidly in the years after StarArc’s arrival. The alien medical facilities were lightyears ahead of our own, and their methods translated fairly easily to ours. From this, it was theorized that the aliens had been carbon-based organic lifeforms similar to us.
The medical station I was currently propped up in looked like a giant white egg when it was in use, the designers clearly taking their cues from science fiction. They were sleek, gorgeous machines that stood out starkly in comparison to the plain utilitarian design of the rest of Camelot. An advanced medical station like this one could cure most known diseases, repair broken bones and internal organ damage, and weave new skin like thread. There were two in the main facilities smaller sickbay, and around two dozen in the sickbay near the barracks. They were heinously expensive, and for the most part more traditional methods, like stem cell bandages, served to be a far more economical and efficient way of treating minor wounds like mine.
I didn’t really get a choice in the matter this time. I was basically escorted to the sickbay by a spider bot, and my continued insistence that I was fine fell on deaf ears. Honestly, it was a bit nice to be fussed over like that. I hadn’t experienced it in a very long time, and I knew logically it was just a set of conditionals that was doing it, but still. It was nice.
I pushed myself off the soft, plastically material that served as the medical station’s bed and operating table. It was surprisingly comfortable. Stretching a bit, I tried to decide what I would do from here. Clearly, I was more psychologically fragile than I had previously thought. I hadn’t had a panic attack that intense for since college, and I was not looking for a repeat experience any time soon. I had to figure my shit out, and soon.
Adelaide chimed in, breaking my train of thought, “I’m glad to see you are feeling better, Sam.”
I smiled. Still in mother mode I guess.
“Thanks for watching out for me,” I said, “though I still think you might have gone overboard this time. Even without the bandages, GIDS makes me heal faster, remember?”
“My primary task is to maintain the wellbeing of the staff of Camelot,” Adelaide replied, “That is my most important function, and I intend to do it to the best of my abilities.”
I stood there for a second, trying to come up with an answer to that, and settled on a nod of affirmation.
“However,” she relented, “I believe you were accurate in observing that my reaction was disproportionate to the injury incurred, in this case.”
“So, in other words, I’m right?”
“About this and no other topic, yes.”
I laughed at that. She could be just as stubborn as I was.
“That is very good.” Adelaide said.
“What is?” I replied, confused.
“The last time you laughed was ten days prior to this date.”
I guess it had been a while.
The calm atmosphere in the sickbay was suddenly interrupted by a blaring alarm, an alarm I had installed into every room of Camelot after the last Assimilator attack.
My heart started pounding as I stood there for a second, my brain working furiously to remember what I should do. I ran for the control room.
“Adelaide!” I called out, tearing through the halls, the door to the control room sliding open in front of me, “Give me a preliminary analysis!”
“There are thirty-three assimilators are approaching the north-eastern corner of the perimeter.”
I almost fell down from shock a foot from the central chair. That was double the past largest group. Icy fear bloomed in my chest. Had they found me?
“There is something else, Sam.” Adelaide’s voice was grave. “They are pursuing a group of humans.”