Sometimes I wondered if I was crazy.

I was considering that as I was hit by lances of light three at a time and the pain roared through me like fire. Try as I might, I still felt every single cell in my body light up in agony. If I were really sane, then I probably wouldn’t volunteer to do this. I couldn’t imagine anyone that would. Anybody with a shred of sanity would jump in a Paladin now and figure out the controls as they went, rather than endure eight hours of literal torture a day. But I didn’t want to do that, and I really wonder why.

Over these past four days, I had not been able to block out the pain even once. After the third day, I had decided on a new course of action: I would just ignore it, like one ignores annoying children hitting you with pillows. I would still feel and be devastated by it, but I would box it up and put it into the back of my mind, thinking about other things instead. To a very offended Adelaide, I likened it to trying to delay an orgasm. Just focus your mind somewhere else, do some math, remember the Alamo; that type of thing.

This turned out to be easier said than done.

It’s really, really hard to do random mathematical equations when you feel like your insides are boiling out of your skin and your eyes feel like they have red hot corkscrews being slowly twisted into them. The national anthem is very difficult to recite if you feel like every bone in your arms are being slowly and agonizingly broken. I did not turn to happy memories, fearing that they would get tainted by the pain, so I went with something else.

I’d always been told that I had a singular and very frustrating talent for tuning people out. You could be chucking tennis balls at me and blowing airhorns in my ear, but if I were absorbed in a good book or reading an interesting article, I probably wouldn’t notice them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have either of those things in the simulator. But I did have my brain, or what was left of it, and my brain loved to plan things.

As a lance burned through my left femur, I started mentally drawing up concepts for weapons that I could equip on the Paladin. A Paladin was armed to the teeth, but its weapons were nowhere near as advanced as its defenses and internal tech. It would have been exponentially more expensive to outfit them with armaments as high-tech as their armor was. Their role was primarily defensive, after all. They also had jaw-dropping maneuverability for an infantry platform. This left little money left over for the stuff that went boom.

Which left me in an excellent position to design new systems or improve the old ones. I didn’t have to equip 10,000 Paladins, I just had to fabricate enough for ten, twenty of them at the most, enough to fill all the Arming Stations in the base, and have a few spares just in case. There were more than enough spare materials buried four floors down. I wondered idly about how fast the fabricators could churn them out as a lightning bolts of pain shot up my spine. It would depend on how complex my designs were, and they tended on the ridiculously complex side, so I was probably looking at a month or so to outfit them all. I’d make a trial run first obviously, prioritizing the Paladins that would be in the Arming Stations. I would start with the ones that were near the most commonly used rooms, most likely the command center, the commander’s quarters, and the Armory. I would have to ask Adelaide for the specifics usage percentages though. That seems like something she’d keep track of.

White hot pain shot up from the soles of my feet. I think I would design the stand-alone railgun first. They were the primary weapon of the Paladins, and while the military standard ones were okay, they weren’t really anything to write home about. Their projectiles had a velocity of roughly 2.7 kilometers per second, or roughly 1.7 miles per second for the unenlightened. Which was really fucking fast, but I bet I could make them faster. They could fire at a maximum rate of 70 rounds per minute, which I could definitely improve on. Replace the steel-gold alloy (very nice innovation) and the standard heat sinks with a nice set of madrium-graphene rails and a water-cooled system, and you get far less potential for rail warp and more conductivity to boot. I’d have to run the calculations by Adelaide yet again, but some rough mental math gives me a 20-30% increase in projectile speed. I couldn’t do the rounds per second estimate off the top of my head, but hey, that’s why we have computers right?

I heard a small but polite cough and ignored it.

What I was really looking to get my grubby mitts on were the shoulder mounted armaments. Currently there was a missile launcher that would pop up from a concealed spot in the shoulder blades. They contained traditional heat seeking rockets for anti-aircraft purposes, which was a valid concern, but I think I could find a better use for those slots. The right shoulder would hold a cluster launcher containing anti-matter rockets. Those made a really big boom. The left should would contain an anti-aircraft laser that could double as point defense for projectiles. Wasn’t sure exactly how that one would work but I’d figure it out eventually.

I was still thinking about anti-matter rockets when someone poked me in the cheek. Shockingly, that is what brought me out of reverie, not the horrific pain.

“Oh hey doucheface,” I said to Allen, who stood before me with a slight frown, “haven’t seen you in a while. If you could fuck right off and go stick a floppy cucumber up your ass it would really improve my mood.”

Allen glared at me and started speaking in an icy voice, “I just wanted to inform you that you have completed this portion of the training. It is truly an impressive achieveme-“

“Yeah, no, I gathered as much. Can you leave now? This place is great for my concentration.” I said.

This little prick had been torturing me without remorse for nearly 120 hours. I was not going to give him the satisfaction of congratulating me. I mean logically I knew that he wasn’t a person at all, but my point still stands. And you know what, I had been wrong about that assumption before so it didn’t hurt to be on the safe side.

“Unfortunately, I must ask you to vacate the simulator as the next portion of the course is prepared for you. We recommend at this point that you take a day off in order to –“

“I’ll be back here tomorrow.”

“I really cannot recommend –“

“Look, I’m going to come back here tomorrow, and I’m also going to have my friend purge you from the simulator’s memory and replace you with the backup instructor,” I said, “so quite frankly I don’t really give a shit what you recommend. It has been truly horrific knowing you. Have a nice death.”

At that, the simulator went black, and the metal shell peeled open. Was it petty that I derived an amazing amount of satisfaction from that exchange? Yes. Did the knowledge that Allen would be destroyed without a trace make me feel like an anvil had lifted off my chest? Also yes.

“You nailed the timing on that one Adelaide,” I said with a grin, the restraints on the exo-suit retracting with a mechanical whirl. I dropped to the ground and wobbled a bit, steadying myself on the frame. Damn, that hell still took it out of me.

“Thank you, Sam,” she replied happily, “that was extremely cathartic for me as well. Now, if you would proceed to your quarters, I’ve unthawed a celebratory cheesecake for you.”

She was just so thoughtful. I’d have to do something nice for her in return, but I didn’t know what the digital equivalent of a frozen cheesecake was.

We still hadn’t talked about what – or who – she really was. But I don’t think either of us was ready for that conversation. There was still some business that needed to be taken care of before we could take that step. Until then, I would treat her like I had before: an employee that had turned into a close friend. I would try to be more polite to her, but honestly my personality was pretty abrasive. For her part, she seemed content at the status quo. I noticed that she no longer faked her robotic speech, or attempted to conceal the emotions in her voice, but she had always been adorably bad at that. I was pretty happy with the change. The fact that she had never used contractions had been getting on my nerves.

But we didn’t dance around what had happened with the last Hunting party. We couldn’t have. It was always there, at least for me. The nightmares hadn’t gone away, and I doubted they ever would. A group of people, their faces obscured by white light, would stand still, watching me, as they were torn to pieces one by one with invisible black blades. I would wake up gasping for breath, covered in sweat. I told Adelaide about it the second time I had them. She just listened to me. I didn’t realize how helpful that could be. Adelaide had told me about her guilt as well, about the fact that could have mobilized the drones and carried out the plan herself, but she was too afraid to do it. Afraid of what, she wouldn’t say.

A burden taken on alone can break you. One shared is still heavy, but easier to bear.

What I had done, or not done, would stay with me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t at peace with it, and I hoped that I never would be. If I became someone that could forget it, I don’t think I’d like the person that was. But I wouldn’t torture myself over it. Instead, I would make sure that I would never become paralyzed like that again, that the choice to save the lives of innocents would come to me as naturally as breathing.

Some might find that stupid, or self-sacrificial. Some would say that nobody else was more important than themselves. Fuck those people. I knew better, and I would make sure that I could protect myself and anyone who needed me. I knew I couldn’t save everyone. But never again would I stand by and watch someone die. Not if I could help it.

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