I froze.

“Wh… What?” I stammered.

“The Assimilators are pursuing a group of ten humans, who are fleeing along the eastern border of the perimeter towards the south.”

“Why didn’t you let me know sooner!?” My voice was rising without me meaning to.

“I did not initially pick them up as they passed the perimeter alarms, because I had not calibrated them to trigger on human contact.” Adelaide said, “I apologize.”

I collapsed into the command chair. Other people were out there, just a short distance from where I was sitting. I never really thought that humanity was truly extinct. I figured there had to be groups that lived, that hid like I had, surviving in any way they could while avoiding the aliens that lurked around them. Humans were tenacious like that, and we were too smart and too spread out to be eliminated completely. The Assimilators could find and destroy the centers of human population easily, they were basically big glowing ‘kill me!’ signs, but humans had settled everywhere. It’s hard to search an entire planet. But to see proof of that, to know without a doubt that I was not the last person left… it was a huge relief.

I snapped myself out of my thoughts. I had to focus. The holographic map in front of me contained a collection of markers. There were ten white dots that were at the most southeastern part of the map, which I assumed referred to the survivors, and a much larger cluster of red dots near just a little past the northeastern edge. As I watched, the ten white dots disappeared off the map.

“What is the composition of the Assimilator group?” I asked, struggling to stay calm.

“There are twenty-three animal type, four mechanoid type, five unclassified, and one Hive Lord.” Adelaide listed calmly.

Not for the first the first time today, I froze in shock. This time though, there was a good deal of horror mixed in. “A Hive Lord? Are you serious?”

“Yes. Its classification is H-1.”

“Oh fuck,” I breathed. A Hive Lord. Massive, terrifyingly strong, incredibly well armored. They could rip through steel like it was made of tissues. Only railguns and madrium-tipped projectiles could pierce their hide, and on the off chance you did hurt one, they could visibly regenerate. They were a nightmare incarnate. And now one was on my doorstep.

“What do we have that’s capable of taking one of those things down?” I asked, shoving down my panic.

“The perimeter railguns should have enough power to eliminate the Hive Lord, if they focus their fire. Currently, the Assimilators are out of their range.”

“Okay,” I said, “keep them on standby until further notice. Give me an estimated time until the Assimilators reach the base.”

I looked at the holographic map in front of me, expecting a timer to appear on the side. When it didn’t, I stared at where it should’ve been, confused.

“The Assimilators are not on a course towards the base, Sam. There is a 97% chance that they will continue to hunt the human group. They will have no reason to approach the base, unless we make our presence known.” Adelaide informed me.

I smiled in relief at the first half of Adelaide’s assessment, then became confused at the second. Our presence known? What possible reason would I have to let a group of Assimilators know that Camelot was here? There was no scenario that could –

Oh.

“Adelaide,” I said, dreading what would come next, “how long will it take for the Assimilators to catch that group?”

“Keeping both groups’ current speed consistent, I estimate that the Assimilators will reach the survivors within ten minutes.”

God damn it. God fucking damn it. I didn’t have to ask if that group of people could win against the Assimilators. They had all appeared to be on foot. Maybe if the Hive Lord hadn’t been there, and they had sufficiently advanced weapons, they could eke out a victory. But as it stood now, they would be slaughtered.

“Adelaide, how many fast attack drones do we have available?”

“We have ten armed drones available for launch. They could reach the Assimilator group in thirty-seven seconds.”

Ten wasn’t enough to wipe the group out. Against the last Hunting party that moved through here? Definitely. But against that many and a Hive Lord? There was no chance. Ideally, I’d destroy them in a single move. That might disguise the fact that there was a larger human presence here. If I got into a protracted battle with them, their Matriarch would be able to easily put the pieces together, and I’d have to fend off countless waves of Assimilators.

I needed another option, another plan. The firepower on the drones couldn’t kill them all in one go. Hell, they probably wouldn’t be able to damage the Hive Lord at all. If they were in range of the railguns, maybe, just maybe I could wipe them out with a combination of the drones and the heavy defensive emplacements.  But they weren’t in range, and they were moving in a maddeningly straight line towards the southern border.

Camelot wasn’t designed for things like this. While it was shockingly well defended for what was a glorified factory, it had very little long range attack capacity. Camelot’s specialization was being nothing more than a blip on the radar. Stealth was its greatest defense, and that quality had kept me safe in enemy territory for years. The whole facility was highly shielded, with few outgoing signals. There was a heavily disguised satellite dish about ten miles west, which fed its signal to an underground fiber optic cable leading to the base, and that was about it besides the scanners. They were based on alien tech, and passive scans were thought to be undetectable.

“Adelaide, give me an estimated time until they leave scanner range.”

This time a countdown did appear next to the map.

“There are seven minutes remaining until the Assimilator Hunting party exits scanning range.”

That gave me too much time. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was afraid that I’d come up with a solution, because then I would have to make a choice. Help the survivors, risking my own life in the process, or let them be hunted. I know the choice that the ideal me would make. The ideal me would risk everything to help those people out. It was the selflessness that was touted so heavily in the waning days of humanity. Throw yourself at the invaders, and save your fellow men and women, no matter the cost. The problem is, I think the ideal me died in Simulator 001 all those weeks ago.

I could feel the panic swelling again. A dark, cloying beast clawing up from my gut, worming its way into my brain. It slowed my thought process down, and my breath started speeding up again. I desperately tried to suppress it, but that seemed to only encourage it.

“Sam, I have a suggestion, if you want it.”

I knew what she would say next, and I hated myself for wishing I didn’t. I had thought of it too, immediately after I realized the drones wouldn’t be enough by themselves. It wasn’t optimal. But it was very feasible.

“Draw the Hunting party over with the drones, and eliminate them with the outer defenses.” I said it for her. It was a simple plan, and an obvious one really, but the best ones always were. I think she knew that I had already made it.

“Yes Sam. I estimate a 70% chance of success, should you command the drones yourself.”

I knew that I could do it. Modestly, I was a good drone pilot. Immodestly, I was an incredible one. I could give commands to twenty of the mostly autonomous drones simultaneously. It was a bit like controlling units in an old RTS, except for the response time and the presence of physics and limited ammunition. They could auto engage targets marked as hostile, and would avoid enemy fire to the best of their ability. To truly make them effective, however, took a skilled hand. I had replaced the drones’ old control units with an advanced mental interface, so I could give commands extremely rapidly.

I had five minutes left. Plenty of time to get everything in position. Time enough to guide the nearly mindless aliens into a trap. The drones would tease the Hunting party at the limits of their range, taking potshots whenever possible, perhaps eliminating three or four of the animal types with long range anti-tank rounds. Two of the ten drones would be tasked with drawing the Hive Lord out from the center of formation, making sure it was leading the party as they entered the twin-barreled railguns’ kill zone. A concentrated hail of metal slugs would rip the Hive Lord to shreds, while the drones harassed and picked off the remaining Assimilators. The railguns would be prepared to fire again in roughly three-quarters of a second. The next volley would eliminate the mechanoid types and the ranged animal types remaining. The unknowns were most likely reconnaissance and tracking, and would not be able to damage the reinforced emplacements. The combined firepower of the railguns and drones would make short work of the remaining Assimilators. In the process, I would lose three to four drones, which were easily replaceable by the fabricators. The railgun emplacements would survive unscathed. The engagement would last less than five minutes. Simple. Efficient. Low risk.

I knew I could do it.

So why wasn’t I. Why was I staring at the holomap, watching those little red dots get closer and closer to the edge. Why was I paralyzed into inaction, my heart pounding so loud in my chest that I couldn’t hear anything else. I should be helping them, I should be dispatching the drones right now so that they could get there in time.

Instead, I watched the seconds on the clock tick down, one by one.

I know Adelaide was asking me if I wanted to proceed with the plan. I’m sure she was expecting me to. She had understated the odds of success, not knowing my proficiency with the drones, but even without that they were still high enough to be well worth it. Any odds would be worth it to save ten lives, lives that represented some of the last of humanity. But I couldn’t answer her.

I was so scared. Not of the Assimilators, no, they scared me in an abstract way. I knew that they were monsters, I knew that they were terrifying. I was afraid of them finding me of course, but that seemed like a faraway problem, a catastrophe for tomorrow’s me. Thing is, I had never fought with one, so there was no practical fear there.

I was scared of the pain that would happen if I lost. It was so irrational, so cowardly and childish. I was scared of the dark, of those lances of light. I could imagine them, shot from the maw of an enormous Hive Lord, piercing my body. I saw myself laying on the floor of the cold concrete hallway, the pain consuming me as I helplessly thrashed in agony.

The time went by in aching slowness as I watched the dots leave the sensor, blipping out in a flash of red, one by one until they were gone. I heard Adelaide stop talking, and I felt the dreadful silence that erupted around me. I placed my head in my hands. Cold sweat trickled down my neck.

Oh God. What had I done.

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