The thing about high expectations was that they inevitably led to crushing disappointment. The actual Paladin Training was shockingly tedious. I had to memorize every subsystem, every servo, every weapon, every material that composed every plate of armor. I had to know beyond a shadow of a doubt every mental command and physical input I could use when piloting a Paladin. I had to understand how the anti-grav maneuvering thrusters worked, and how much force the inertial dampeners could compensate for. I had to learn its top speed in various different loadouts, how it functioned at suboptimal power levels, and how to preform basic maintenance. There was fucking homework on it, I had to write goddamned essays on that shit. If I were a normal soldier, this would be invaluable knowledge. But considering I designed the damned thing, it was my brainchild, and I had spent years and years perfecting it, it was all incredibly redundant information.
There were few parts of the training that were practical, and all of them happened in the last three days of the course. I finally got to put on the virtual suit, and I was supposed to learn exactly how to move in one and how to manage for the additional bulk of a Paladin. I was also tasked with switching through every subsystem on the fly and activating dozens of them at once.
But there was a problem with this as well.
The Paladin in the simulator wasn’t perfect. It really shocked me when I first got into one and realized that it was slightly off. I felt, as the kids say, bamboozled.
“Hey Adelaide!” I yelled, storming away from the simulator room.
“Yes, Sam?” she responded.
“Why did that Paladin suck so bad?”
Unsurprisingly, she had a very good explanation for that, “Well, in the first place, the training program was never completed. If you will recall, soldiers were not meant to begin training until after the first year of production. The fact that some semblance of a training program exists currently is, to put it mildly, a miracle. Secondly,” she continued, “at the time that the training program was first uploaded to Camelot’s database, its programmers had not achieved full accuracy in their model of the Paladin. Keep in mind that they had to design their model almost completely from scratch off of only prototypes and schematics. The programmers did, however, have access to the complete specifications, and they managed to implement it in time, which means that the knowledge you learned over the last two days was not useless.”
I frowned, “Alright, but I already had that stuff on lockdown. Are you telling me the actual cool part of this hell-course is the only part that is completely worthless to me?”
Adelaide hesitated for a crucial moment. “Well,” she said slowly and delicately, “it was not a complete waste to go through the subsystems. And it will make it easier to acclimate to the weight and size of the real Paladin.”
“Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I am very sorry Sam.” She sounded quite contrite.
I thought for a second and made a decision. “Alright Adelaide, skip the rest of the course and bring me to the graduation.”
She made a noise halfway between a squeal and a gasp, “Skip… the course?”
“Yup,” I said, turning to go to get an apple from my room. I figured it might take her a while to get around the program’s security.
“But you can’t!” she yelled at me.
“Well obviously I can’t,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that’s why I’m asking you to do it.”
She started spluttering, “That’s not what I meant! If you graduate now you won’t be ready! You won’t have completed the course! The protocols state that you must finish the course in its entirety before you receive your pilot certification!”
I sighed. I hated having to explain my convoluted thought processes. “Look, Adelaide. This course is now completely worthless to me. The Paladin is all wrong. It actually does me more harm than good to continue training in it. I’d learn the wrong things, and get screwed in a real combat situation when I moved a foot to the right instead of an inch. I’m going to get my practical experience by training in one of the thousands of real Paladins we have gathering dust below. I’ll practice a whole shitload in the Armory, there’s plenty of space in there, and I’ll do it completely unarmed. Worse comes to worse I just put a few holes in the walls, and the spider bots can fix those up right easy.”
I stepped into the sidevator and started my journey to the main facility, happy with my flawless logic.
“But the programming is ironclad! Subverting the restrictions might as well be rewriting the most important elements of the base’s security!” She was making excuses now. I had her right where I wanted her.
“I happen to recall someone in this base deleting an entire instructor, then replacing him with a polar bear.” I said, “Or, am I remembering that wrong?”
“That’s different,” she said, “This is much more difficult.” I’d like to imagine that she was fidgeting.
“Well,” I said, picking up an apple and going for the death blow, “that’s why I’m letting my most trusted friend take care of it, isn’t it?”
“Gah.” She said.
“I have full confidence in you, Adelaide.”
A very salty Adelaide completed the override later that day. I really had to give her a gift or something at this point. Putting that on the mental to-do list.
When the simulator booted up I found myself in a very familiar looking room, one that every American would know at just a glance. I was standing in the Oval Office. And behind the desk in front of me, flanked on the left by Sergeant McBitchface and on the right by a giant, anthropomorphic polar bear, was the now deceased President of the United States, Barbara Rothschild. The first female president, she was a tall, handsome woman who radiated an air of calm authority. Though she had been a divisive President before the war, after it started she rallied the country with amazing poise, uniting America as it hadn’t been since the second World War. She had stumbled in the beginning, refusing to commit troops to helping Russia, but after that became one of the most stalwart defenders of our allies overseas. She spoke to Americans daily, soothing our fears of the end and encouraging us to believe that we could win. She knew that the fight would be won, she knew that humanity would overcome its foes. That she was so very wrong did not change the fact that she was one of the last beacons of hope as humanity’s flame flickered out.
And now this legendary woman, or at least a holographic representation of her, was standing before me, that trademark fearless smile crinkling the ebony skin at the corners of her eyes.
“First of all,” she said, her smooth voice washing over me, “I just wanted to congratulate you, Sam.” Ohmygod she said my name. “You have become the first person to ever qualify to become a Paladin. I wanted to be able to tell you that in person, but circumstances won’t permit it.” She beamed at me, “Hopefully, this recording can transmit the depth of my pride, and my gratefulness. A Paladin’s training is one of the more difficult things that one can accomplish. I’m sure I couldn’t do it myself. But it ensures that you are qualified to defend our way of life.”
“It has been a long, long war,” she said, suddenly looking very tired, “and we need every advantage we can get. I know I put on a brave face, I know that I put on airs to keep hope alive in our citizens, but the hard truth is that we are losing. We are losing ground every day. We are losing soldiers that can’t be replaced, and civilians whose lives we swore to protect. And we can’t keep this going much longer. We are at a tipping point, Sam, and you have come at exactly the right time to help us even the odds.”
She sighed, and broke eye contact with me for a moment, a look of guilt flashing across her striking features, “I wish I could tell you to relax and revel in your achievement, as you should be able to. But we can’t afford that luxury anymore. Tomorrow, along with any of your fellow Paladins that have completed the course, you will shipped out to the front lines. It pains me to do this, but I know that this order must come from me, as I am the one putting you in harm’s way. I am truly sorry.”
There was silence in the room, and then she grinned sheepishly, breaking the moment. “I’m jumping the gun a bit though, and I think it’s time for me stop rambling, and finally give you what you have fought so hard to receive.” She stood up, and she was taller than I had thought she would be.
“Samuel Lewis!” barked the Drill Sergeant.
“Yes sir!” I said, snapping to attention.
She continued, eyes locked on mine, “You are the first to be granted the rank of Paladin, and all the rights and privileges forthwith. You will be granted authority equivalent to that of a Colonel, and all the responsibilities that entails. Step forward now and receive your insignia.”
I stepped forward, and as I did, President Rothschild walked around the desk, holding what appeared to be a small, perfectly round metal circle, about an inch and a half in diameter. She stood in front of me, a proud smile on her face.
“Samuel Lewis,” she said, “I hereby grant you your rank, and bestow upon you your insignia.” She pinned the medal to my chest. It was painted a deep red, emblazoned with an intricate white shield encircled by two thin white lines. “May you adhere to it, and serve with honor and selflessness. May you protect our land and our people. May you forever act as our champion, and be true to your title. You have become our Beacon of Hope, the Shield of Humanity. A Paladin.”