When I opened my eyes, the polar bear was sitting at a chess table.
So I guess I can add that to the list of weird fucking shit that happened today.
Feeling like I was living in some surrealist’s wet dream, I decided to just roll with it and sat down on the empty chair across from him. He dwarfed the chess board, and I wondered how such a tiny little chair was supporting his weight. Jack gestured with one of his enormous claws at the board, letting me make the first move. So, I did. I didn’t really get how to play chess beyond the basic rules, so I just kinda moved a pawn somewhere. It had never really interested me, and if it had, I had somehow been too nerdy for chess club in high school. He considered my move and took his own, his four inch claws delicately picking up a pawn.
“So,” he said, his rumbling baritone breaking the silence, “how do you think your first scenario went?”
I moved a horse to a random spot, and responded, “Well. I think it went pretty well, up until I died. I really should have shoved a bed against that door.”
He hummed at that, making another move, “That was a mistake, yes. Am I correct in assuming that was the first Hive Lord you have seen with your own eyes?”
“Yes,” I replied, “it was horrifying. But at least I killed it.”
The polar bear looked at me in legitimate surprise, eyes widening. He started laughing, which might have been entertaining had it not shown off his cavernous mouth full of very long teeth. “Killed it?” he said, still chuckling, “my friend, you merely inconvenienced it.”
“But… I blew its head off? I burned its brains out?” I asked, as confused as he was entertained. I still continued to haphazardly place pieces on the board.
“Yes, and that would kill a normal Assimilator,” he said, shifting into teaching mode, “but a Hive Lord is anything but normal. They have more than one ganglion-cluster, you see. They actually have three of them, and one isn’t even in the head.”
My eyes widened. That is just straight up cheating.
“Quite frankly, if you encounter a Hive Lord without heavy weapons support, running away is the only thing that can save you. And even then, you don’t have much of a chance.” He moved a bishop, taking one of my pawns, “Still, you did an excellent job incapacitating it with what you had. Not many soldiers, even veterans with years of experience, could have done that.”
I swelled with pride at that, until his next sentence.
“Regardless, you still did fail in the end.” He said serenely.
“Just because I died?” I spluttered, “That was a Kobayashi Maru! How could I have killed a Hive Lord!?”
“Oh, you didn’t fail because you died, though that was not a mark in your favor. You failed because you did not join up with your squad.” He took a knight this time.
“What? If I hadn’t been in that hotel, I wouldn’t have been able to take the shot at that Hive Lord, and the squad would’ve been wiped out!” I protested, thoroughly confused.
He smiled at me, shaking his massive furry head, “Do you truly think your squad was stupid enough to trap themselves in a building without a plan of retreat? If you had gone to them in the first place, which by the way you had plenty of time to do, you would have been able to pull back the moment that Hive Lord was spotted. The only reason they stayed was to protect you.”
I sat back in my chair. I hadn’t thought that my squad might have had an egress point. I hadn’t even really considered what they had been doing there at all. They had been sitting in a department store, waiting to ambush a group of Assimilators. They had control of the terrain and the area of engagement. Why would they trap themselves if they had set it all up?
“Sam, you missed the forest for the trees in this scenario. It is a common mistake among those that think themselves smarter than the average bear,” He said with a terrifying grin, “if you’ll pardon the pun. You saw only how you could help the situation, not how you could work with your squad to improve it. You went into that hotel because it gave you the best chance of making an individual difference, not because it was the most tactically advantageous move. In order to pass this course, you must move beyond thinking that you are the center of the board, and instead consider the larger game at hand.”
As I contemplated his words, he went on to take my queen, then my king. I wasn’t really paying attention to the game, I was going over all the decisions I had made during the previous scenario.
“How could I possibly have known that my squad had a plan of retreat?” I asked.
“Did you try asking them?” He said with a chuckle, returning the pieces on the board to their starting positions.
That day, and the two days following, I lived a thousand lives.
I was a soldier the most. I followed orders and ignored some. I made friends and I lost squad mates. I died heroic deaths and ignoble ones. I was bored on guard duty and dropped in the middle of pitched battle. I was alone and outnumbered. I was one in a thousand that routed shattered enemies. I ran for my life from an impossible foe. I wielded the most powerful weapons humanity had to offer, and I learned to make do with a knife and my wit. I saved the innocent, and helplessly watched them die. I was strong and I was weak, but I was always strongest when I let myself trust the men and women around me.
I was a medic, one drafted into the army with no real concept of what to do. I clumsily bandaged wounds so horrific that I wondered how those endured them kept going. Unarmed, I felt the helplessness as the enemy moved in on me, knowing that I could not fight back. I learned to trust the soldiers to protect me, as they threw down their lives and gave me a chance to do my work. I spoke to my fellow medics, who were so broken, so tired, but still gave their all to save another life. I held the hands of soldiers that knew they were dying. I spoke kind words to civilians in field hospitals, whose eyes were wild in terror and pain. I comforted parents who had lost their children, children who had become orphans, the shattered and desolate, and the ones who remained so strong even when their world had fallen apart around them. In flickering candlelight and brightly lit rooms, I heard their stories and I told them mine. I received thanks and curses, prayers and lamentations.
I was a civilian, an emergency responder, a militia, a mayor of a small town.
I was a child, a father, a brother, a lover.
I learned of life through the silhouettes left in ash on the sides of a houses.
I learned of humanity. I learned of the enemy.
I had survived the apocalypse before, but now I had lived through it.
Later, I asked Jack how it was possible that I had spent more than, by what was my count, a month in the simulator when only thirty hours had passed outside.
He told me that this was the only approved usage of perceived time dilatation. The simulator slowed my brain down to the point where it would think things were happening much quicker than they were. Extended exposure would almost certainly cause insanity and an inability to readjust to the real world. This was the only time in my life that I would be able to experience it. A marker in my brain had been triggered, one that couldn’t be lifted, that forbade any simulator from dilating time for me again.
Jack and I debriefed after every few lives. We talked about the decisions I had made, good and bad, the people I had met, the ones I trusted and the ones I didn’t. After a point, and I’m not really sure when, there was no more chessboard, no more talk about passing or failing. It was just about the experiences. Adelaide joined in every once in a while, offering her thoughts and opinions. I had asked her to look through my eyes for each life, and she did. I knew that these experiences were even more valuable for her than they were for me. I had my own humanity to go off of, but she was still learning hers.
The last session was one in which I had to choose between saving a little girl with almost no chance to live, and saving a soldier who would have walked the battlefield again. I turned to the soldier, and he shook his head, teeth gritted. I nodded at him, and gave him something for the pain. There was fear and gratitude in his eyes, and I went to help the girl. She died under my inexperienced hands.
I was pulled out of that one shortly after. Jack was facing me, and he reached out a paw to put on my shoulder, almost knocking me flat. There was no debrief this time. “Do you understand the true reason why you had to go through this?”, he asked, his words rumbling around the empty space.
“Yes,” I responded, “now I know what I have to protect.”
He smiled his big, crooked, toothy smile at me. “Samuel Lewis,” he said proudly, “I deem you ready to train in a Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit.”