It took me about five minutes to complete the obstacle courses with all ten drones. It took me a further thirty minutes to convince my very obstinate polar bear instructor that I was, in fact, not cheating, but had truly completed that portion of the course five hours faster than even the most optimistic of estimates. The conversation would have gone a lot better had Adelaide helped out, but she was suspiciously silent as I struggled. Finally convinced of my abilities, the shaken bear, bowtie askew, ears waggling with indignation, began his explanation of the next portion of the course.

“You have now mastered the ability to control your mind in a way that lets you command the full potential of your Paladin.” He said launching into explanation mode again, “You are now qualified for the final segment of the mental conditioning portion of the Paladin Training Course. This time, you will learn how to think on your feet, making the best choices you can in combat. After all, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so it is essential for you, a lynchpin of the frontlines, to be able to react swiftly and decisively in unexpected situations.”

He waved a massive paw, causing the white of the default simulator space to mold into a war-torn city illuminated by the setting sun. We were suddenly standing in the middle of a street that had been ripped apart by explosives.

“You will be put in a series of scenarios that test your ability to think and act on the fly. These scenarios will vary highly. You might be alone, or with teammates. You might have to search for and destroy a target, or protect a group of civilians.” I winced at that, but Jack continued unperturbed, “Some of the scenarios might have an unexpected twist, some might not. Most will have enemies, but a few will not. You are being tested on your ability to survive and complete the objective given to you. A few words of warning: Do not treat this as you would a game, as the stakes are much higher, and do not treat your life as expendable, because death might reflect poorly on you.”

The polar bear paused, then gave me a small smile, which was still creepy no matter how well intentioned, “That being said, it is not the end of the world should you fail. Failure is the best learning tool we have, after all. The first scenario will begin in thirty seconds. Prepare yourself.”

Jack faded away, and I was left in the hellish city, gunfire echoing in the distance. I didn’t recognize any of it. I think it was in America, but I couldn’t quite place it. When I was attending engineering conferences before the world fell, I had visited many cities all around North America and Europe. This one, if it was a real city and not created from scratch, was unfamiliar. I looked around, trying to get my bearings, aware that I now had less than fifteen seconds until the scenario started. I probably didn’t want to be out of cover when it did start, so I jogged over to a burnt out storefront and crouched in a corner, feeling more than a little foolish.

A soft pinging noise was all the warning I got that the scenario had begun. As I crouched there, clothes began appearing on my body. First a combat uniform, then a set of heavy armor. It covered the entirety of my body, reinforced plates of titanium alloy hidden underneath Kevlar. The armor was heavy, but more than manageable. The comforting weight of a helmet weighed on my head. On my hip, a hand cannon appeared, and an XC-17 Heavy Assault Rifle materialized on a strap hanging from my shoulders. I stood up, inspecting my new equipment. All standard issue, and very serviceable.

When the Assimilators broke through into western Europe, the Joint Chiefs ordered that every person in the military and the Department of Defense, including the office workers, researchers, and support personnel, would be required to go through a basic combat preparedness course. The course included marksmanship training, squad tactics, and light conditioning. The only exemptions to this ruling were those physically or mentally incapable of performing the tasks. At the time, I bitched and moaned about it to no end, lamenting the four weeks I would be wasting on something I thought I’d never need.

I flipped the rifle into my hands. The XC-17 was a bullpup heavy assault rifle. It had a magazine capacity of twenty-one armor-piercing rounds, capable of punching holes in a pre-alien tank, enough stopping power to break through the armor of low or medium class Assimilators. It also had an under-barrel rocket launcher for the big stuff. I checked the safety, making sure it was still on, which it was. My finger rested on the trigger guard as I brought the light grey gun up, muzzle pointing slightly at the ground. I was armed and armored. Now what the hell was I supposed to do?

I waited in the cover of the storefront for a minute or so, then decided to move out. As I did, the coms in my helmet crackled to life.

“Sam, where the fuck did you go!?” A female voice called into my ear, more than a little pissed off, “You just up and disappeared!”

I spoke into the mic, giving a simple mental command to my helmet to transmit my voice, “I think I got turned around, what’s your position?”

“I don’t fucking know!” The annoyed replied came through a moment later, “you’ve got that shit right in front of your eyes, don’t you? You aren’t showing up on our HUDs, so make your way over to us. And hurry the fuck up, we got a squad of Worms closing in us fast.”

I cursed my stupidity as I directed my thoughts to bring up a small map located on the bottom left corner of the visor built into my helmet. My HUD, showed a group of green dots a few blocks from my position, clustered into a building. With my destination now locked in, I started moving quickly but cautiously towards what I assumed was my squad, stepping carefully over the debris littered streets, trying to make as little sound as possible. I desperately thought back to my combat course that felt like a lifetime ago, struggling to remember how to actually fight in a squad.

I wasn’t worried about hitting my targets when I did start firing; the Combat Assistance Software, or CAS (the military really likes acronyms), included in my helmet took care of a lot of the hard parts of using a firearm. It provided a reticle and highlighted targets for me, and when I pointed my weapon at one, it would minutely shift the barrel to compensate for my aim. Weapons linked to the CAS would show an ammo counter on the HUD, so you could see at a glance what needed reloading, and how many magazines you had left. These innovations were priceless to a soldier. Unfortunately, they were also pricey, so many of the government-sponsored militia that cropped up in defense of the country had to do without them.

I followed my map, keeping an eye out for any Assimilators. Ones that were flagged by reconnaissance drones or spotted by other squads’ CAS systems would appear on my map, but that relied on often outdated information. Putting too much stock on your map was a great way to get yourself murdered. Honestly, I was relying quite heavily on my misbegotten hours poured into first-person shooters. I didn’t know the first thing about fighting in a real war. But it was all I had to go on, and military tech had made the battlefield much closer to a video game than it ever had before. The difference was, this was far more realistic than anything I had played, and my heart pounded rapidly as I moved forward, reminding myself about Jack’s warning over and over again. This was not a game.

I turned right at an intersection, poking my head out from behind the corner of a tall apartment building to give the street ahead of me a quick scan. Traditional thermal imaging didn’t pick up the Assimilators, so the military was forced to equip soldiers with alien scanning tech. Luckily for them, the alien scanners were actually cost-effective, in contrast to most xeno-technology. Scans picked up nothing but rubble and crackling flames. The desolate street made me take notice of the lack of people in the city. Had they been evacuated beforehand?

I was snapped out of my reverie by the sound of my coms crackling to life, and I jumped nearly a foot in the air in shock.

“Where the fuck are you Lewis!? We got worms coming out of the woodwork here and we need every soldier we have!”

“I’m on my way,” I said, and started picking up the pace. I didn’t receive a reply, but all the green dots on my map were still there so I assumed she just didn’t care to respond.

Belatedly, I noticed that a cluster of red dots had appeared on my HUD, about six blocks North from where the squad was holed up. They were approaching fast, heading directly at them. I sped up even more, jogging towards them. I was a couple blocks away, to their east. I could see their building, it looked like what used to be a department store. It sat facing the intersection of three roads arranged in a T, facing North, right at the approaching Assimilators. They would probably be on the second floor, waiting until the aliens were in range to fire. I could maybe reach them before they –

No. I slowed my run, thinking about it. If I tried to go to them now, I would only be getting in their line of fire. However, if I set up in one of the buildings kitty-corner to them, I could catch the Assimilators in their exposed flanks.

“Hey,” I said into my mic, “I’m going to post up in that five-story hotel across from you guys, see if I can catch them in the crossfire.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever fucking heard,” the voice snapped back, “going off alone like that against worms is a phenomenal way to get yourself killed.”

“I won’t make it to you guys in time,” I said, “and I’d rather not be out in the open when they get here.”

She didn’t respond for a bit, and I approached the hotel at a run, pushing open the doors and taking the stairs two at a time as I climbed to the third floor. Finally, her voice came through again, sounding tired and resigned.

“Shit, I’m going to get you killed, but I don’t have time to argue with you. Just keep your head down, and only start firing on the worms if it looks like we’re going to get overrun, and that’s an order.”

“Yes sir,” I said into the coms.

I reached the third floor, and shouldered my way into a room that overlooked the street. I took a quick glance around, confirming it had a window. It was a small room, just two beds and a couple of armchairs. I walked up to the window and sat leaning against the wall under it, keeping my eyes trained on the approaching red dots on my HUD. There were about thirty of them, compared to the five green dots of my squad. The Assimilators were still about four blocks out, having slowed down a good amount. I watched the red dots inch closer, and as I was doing so I realized that I still hadn’t keyed into the squad’s communal channel. I sent a thought to the CAS, telling it to connect me.

The moment I did, a burst of noise filled my ears.

“ – like we got only six ranged, the rest are melee,” said a low male voice.

“Okay,” the woman that had been in contact with me started to say, “we’ve got six of the ranged fuckers down in the back, so I want Bencomo and Daniels keeping them pinned. The rest of us need to stop the melee bastards from crawling up our assholes. And Lewis, I dunno if you are on this channel but stay the fuck out of this until I tell you otherwise.”

A chorus of affirmative responses rang out, mine included.  I planned to follow her instructions. At this point, I was pretty sure she was the squad leader. I was not experienced in warfare, and having someone else telling me what to do was A-Okay with me. I nervously watched on my HUD as the Assimilators approached, picking up speed again when they were three blocks away. I heard my squad mates calling out positions, and a few seconds later the chatter of rifles erupted. The initial volley picked off a few of them, and I realized that my squad had their rifles on single-fire mode. It made sense, the Assimilators were at the very extreme edge of their range, and the CAS could switch between firing modes with a thought. As the Assimilators drew closer, the single shots turned into burst fire, and the red dots started disappearing faster. But not fast enough.

I heard a shriek of pain ring out over the coms.

“Shit,” I heard a female voice, higher than the previous one, “Daniels took a bad hit. I’m pulling him back, I gotta get a bandage on his leg.”

“We’ll cover you, so hurry it up.” The low male voice said. I noted that while I could hear the gunfire from the street, it was muted over the coms.

As my squad continued to fire, I started feeling more and more useless crouching alone in a building. They were nothing more than fancy NPCs, but having them die would still suck, and I doubted that this scenario looked favorably on your squad getting wiped out. I could be helping them right now, I could be opening fire. The Assimilators had no idea I was even here. I listened to the sounds of my squad mates starting to panic as the aliens grew closer and closer to them. My hand tightened on my rifle’s grip, and my legs tensed as I prepared to stand.

Wait.

Shit.

This is how I die. This is how I get my squad mates killed. I’ve seen this movie before, watched the idiot think he could be the hero as the audience screams at him to just sit down and listen to his orders. I was not going to be the moron that made the whole operation go tits ups. I was going to wait until the right moment, and this wasn’t it. I watched the battle continue on my map, hearing it narrated in real time over the coms. The squad was holding its own impressively well, keeping the aliens pinned down in the street below them. They had killed around ten of them in total. The red dots in the back, the ranged ones I assumed, had been mostly eliminated, and there were only two left. The Assimilators actually started pulling back, inching slowly down the street, trying to avoid gunfire as they did. It looked like the squad was winning.

Thing is, I’d seen this movie too, and right about now is when everything was about to go to shit.

I felt it first. A rumbling whose source I couldn’t pinpoint. I checked my map, but nothing was showing up on it. There was something coming, and I had a horrible suspicion that I knew what it was.  The rumbling grew louder and louder, until suddenly that high-pitched female voice shouted out in terror.

“Oh fuck! Hive Lord!”

A red dot on my map finally lit up, approaching down the western street at an incredible pace. The Assimilators that had been falling back suddenly erupted forwards again. The squad leader began barking out orders but I knew they wouldn’t change anything. The Hive Lord was approaching from the west; they didn’t have an angle on it. Daniels was still down, so he wasn’t going to be of any help.

Well, at least that made my next decision pretty damn easy.

I waited for the red dot from the west to get closer, watching as it was four blocks away, then three, and when it reached two I popped up from behind my window, setting my eyes on a Hive Lord for the first time in my life.

Like the rest of the Assimilators, a Hive Lord looked like it was made out of a million wriggling, pitch black worms. The tendrils formed sinewy limbs and torsos, like a normal animal was wrapped entirely in hundreds of tiny strands of black rope. They generally took on a similar form to other things found on earth, but distorted and grotesque, often a horrible amalgam of many different beings. This Hive Lord was particularly terrifying. Standing at around 15 feet tall and 30 feet long, it was like a cross between a mantis and a monitor lizard. It stood on four legs, like a centaur, but instead of horse legs it had insectoid ones and instead of hands it had long, curved sickles. Its tail and head were those of a reptile, and its scarlet red eyes locked on to me as its maw leered open.

I heard the squad leader screaming something at me over the coms. But I knew she didn’t have a better plan. There weren’t any mines cleverly placed on the western approach. There was no sniper a few blocks down ready to fire, no reinforcements rushing to help. There was just a terrified squad trying their best to live, crouched in a building as the enemy swarmed towards them.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled the trigger, and was surprised when nothing happened. I calmly switched the safety off, cackling in my head at the absurdity of that, and pulled the trigger again. This time, it did fire. I had switched it to burst mode, and the recoil of the three rounds as they exited the muzzle was easy to handle with my new strength. I fired four bursts directly at the Hive Lord’s head, and every one of them hit. It definitely felt them as it reeled back in anger, but I saw no visible damage. That was fine. I’d have been shocked if that had done anything more than piss it off.

It roared at me, and I almost lost my nerve. It sounded like someone had put a fork in a disposal system, mixed that noise with a foghorn and magnified it a thousand times. It was a horrific, grating sound, and it reached into me and twisted my guts around my body. It felt like it was directed at me alone, and as far as I knew, it was.

With another mind-tearing roar, the Hive Lord charged directly at me. I felt my hands shaking on my rifle, but I managed to squeeze another two bursts on target thanks to the CAS. That just made it even angrier, and I felt its eyes boring into me. As it drew closer, I directed my CAS to switch my weapon to the under-barrel rocket launcher. It continued running at me, and when it was just a half block away, almost in front of my squad mates’ building, I fired a madrium-tipped rocket directly into its forehead.

A second after lodging itself deep into the head of the Hive Lord, the rocket detonated, and chunks of wriggling tendrils started raining down into the street. The front of the Hive Lord’s head looked like a flower, blown wide open.

I heard someone cursing in shock over the coms, but I knew I wasn’t done. I fired my last three rounds into what was left of the head, and let my rifle drop to my side. What I had done wouldn’t keep a Hive Lord down for long. They could regenerate devastating damage in a matter of minutes. The only way to put one down for good was to tear their entire body to shreds, or destroy the cluster of ganglion-like organs they used as a brain.

The Assimilators’ great strength was that they could copy and refine most of what they consumed, devouring and duplicating as they rampaged. But they had a limit. They could combine and twist and distort, but for reasons unknowns, some things had to stay the same. They all had a respiratory system that resembled those found on Earth. They all had some sort of digestive system. If the majority of the animal they mimicked was a vertebrate, they had a spine. And, most importantly, if the creature they copied had undergone cephalization, they would have something resembling a brain in their noggins. That brain, like most animals’, was very important.

That was what I was aiming to destroy when I launched my rocket at it. I wanted to expose the brain, then rip it to pieces. I sent a mental command to my CAS to change the ammo in my hand-cannon to explosive rounds, then pulled it off my hip. Holding it with two hands, as steady as possible, I fired all seven oversized bullets in the magazine into the gaping wound, watching as the stump exploded further in a fountain of gore. It stood there for a second, tendrils smoldering from the explosives. The Hive Lord slowly tipped over, its massive bulk crashing into the street. The smaller Assimilators shrieked as they scattered away from the motionless body.

“Holy fucking shit,” the squad leader said in the shocked silence that followed, “did you actually get it?”

I was about to respond with a witty one liner when the door burst open behind me. As I whirled around I felt sharp claws pierce through my helmet like it was butter, and lodge into my skull. My vision went dark before I had the chance to scream.

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