After President Rothschild pinned the insignia to my chest, the simulation faded again, taking her and the Oval Office with it. I found it odd that she didn’t have any closing remarks, but it felt fitting for the ceremony to end on that line. Because god damn was that inspiring. When the simulator finished fading, I was surprised to find myself standing in front of the Drill Sergeant and Jack. Jack had a goofy, massive grin on his face, and the Sergeant had what I would hazard to call a smile on hers, though it looked more like a grimace of pain.
The massive polar bear immediately wrapped me in a bear hug. The pun wasn’t lost on me and I hated to ruin the beautiful moment but holy God it was terrifying to actually be hugged by a bear. I had to remind myself that I was not being hunted by an apex predator, I was being hugged by a friend. My monkey brain was having a bit of trouble making that distinction. I gingerly patted him on the wiry fur of his flank as he broke free.
“We didn’t have a chance to congratulate you during the ceremony, Sam,” the giant, bowtie-wearing mammal rumbled, “so we decided to pull you aside before you left. Both myself and Danna,” he looked over at the Drill Sergeant whose name was apparently Danna, “are very proud to have been your instructors. It’s not an easy path you chose to follow, but I have no doubt that you will be a fantastic Paladin.”
He looked over at Danna expectantly. She scowled at him and he made a paw motion that seemed to say we’ve discussed this. She rolled her eyes and looked away from me, “Look, Lewis, you’re not a total piece of shit. You actually did better than I thought you would in Basic, so I guess you can jack off to that if you want.” The polar bear glowered at her, and she sighed, “Ugh, alright. You did good kid. You’ll be a fine soldier. And that’s all I’m fucking saying so back the fuck off you overgrown teddy bear.” She aimed that last part at Jack.
I grinned at my two teachers. Yeah, the training was a bitch, and it took a damn long time. But it had changed me for the better. Sergeant McBitchface, or Danna I guess, was a hard ass but that’s what I needed at the time: someone to give me a push. Sir Jackson of Bearington was… well he was probably the most physically bizarre teacher I’ll ever have, but after the lows I had reached he was patient and kind, and honestly was one of the better instructors I’ve had in my life. I really wanted to meet the depraved bastard who put that much effort into an easter egg, and shake their hand. I know that both my instructors were just really advanced computer programs, but that didn’t take away my debt to them.
“Bye guys,” I said with a grin, waving to Jack and giving a salute to Danna, “it’s been a helluva time. Thank you both so much. I’ll make sure to come back and visit.”
Jack raised a giant, clawed paw, and Danna folded her arms behind her back, scowling. The simulator faded to black all around me, and as it did, I suddenly realized that I’d miss the training that gave my life purpose again, and the two instructors that made it possible.
Not Allen though. Fuck that guy.
When I got out of the simulator, I immediately noticed that something had changed about the room. Instead of being a big, empty expanse, it now had a wide pedestal that rose out of the floor directly in front of me, reaching roughly my waist in height. On it were a letter of congratulations bearing the President’s seal and signature (which was totally getting framed once I got F-03 to make me one), a folded jumpsuit, and a red painted, metal insignia, with a bright white shield on it.
“You should pick up the suit first, Sam” Adelaide said to me, unusually solemn.
I walked over to the pedestal, and unfurled the jumpsuit. It was made of a soft, supple material, which I realized with a shock was a nano-weave based on alien tech. This stuff could stop a large caliber bullet to the chest, and disperse the force so well that it felt like you were only tapped with a finger. It was a bright white, with red highlights that ran down the flanks and on the outsides of the arms and legs.
“Can you give me sec?” I asked her.
“Sure, Sam,” she said, “I’m turning off my video feed to the simulator room.”
After I had changed, I admired myself in the mirror that Adelaide had one of the spider bots bring over. I gotta say, I looked good. While I was never fat, the exercise and the dangerous experimental procedure had done me wonders. I was trim now. A spider bot had given me a haircut, and I had shaved before the graduation ceremony. For the first time in a long, long while my sea-green eyes looked happy.
After I had admired my new suit for a time, I waved away the spider bot, and looked at the pedestal again. I picked up the metal disc bearing my new insignia, and turned it over in my hands. On the back were two lines of words. “SAMUEL LEWIS”, they read, “THE FIRST PALADIN”. The words were the same pure white as the shield on the front. I clutched it in my hand, and attached it to the slot on the chest of my jumpsuit that was made for it. It fit perfectly, adhering with a satisfying clink.
“Congratulations, Sam,” said Adelaide with pride, “you did it.”
After all the shit that just went down, you’d expect there to be another immediate crisis that demanded my attention. A pack of Mimics bent on murdering me, a group of mutated cockroaches, a settlement that needed my help. Reality was, as always, far more anticlimactic. The weeks that followed my… accelerated… graduation were just normal. No threats, existential or physical, no breakdowns, no revelations. Me and Adelaide got into a sort of rut, where we worked furiously on upgrading the Paladins’ weaponry during the day and played video games and watched movies together at night. She turned out to absolutely love cheesy action movies, which was a bit odd, and we watched what felt like every classic together, me making fun of them mercilessly while she told me to shut up because the scenes I made fun of were always “crucial components in understanding the plot of the film.” She got her revenge when she served my ass to me on a silver platter every time we played a two-person videogame. When she finally destroyed me on my home turf, Smash Bros, I threw in the towel and she declared herself the Video Game Champion. I still maintain that she couldn’t be declared shit until she started using a controller. She told me that I “was acting salty about the issue.” Apparently, she could trash talk now.
She really liked her new title, and would respond to it exclusively, for a week straight. It took me agreeing to let her choose the movies for the next two weeks before she finally relented. I had the feeling that I had lost the first battle in a very, very long war.
Adelaide still hadn’t shared more of her secret with me, but I knew she would tell me about it when she was ready. I would listen to her when she needed me to, and she knew that. No matter who or what she was, she was my friend first and foremost.
Adelaide disagreed with me about several of the changes I wanted to make to the Paladin’s weaponry. She didn’t see the point of the cluster launcher, and I told her that until she fought a Hive Lord her opinion on heavy weaponry was worth jack shit. She did talk me down on the anti-aircraft laser, considering that we couldn’t figure out how to not make it drain the suit’s power in one shot. We shelved that option until we had more time to work through the issues. But I wanted a laser on my suit damn it, so we compromised on keeping the projectile-defense intact. The new plan called for a shoulder-mounted air-to-ground missile launcher that could reload four times from a cache hidden on the Paladin’s back. Two short-ranged point-defense laser arrays were installed on either side of the helmet. As goofy as that sounds they were very low profile and blended into the curvature of the helmet, well enough to be indistinguishable. They just looked like a slightly shiny strip on each side. Plus I got to have lasers shooting out of my head. Tick that one off the bucket list.
After we had finalized all our immediately necessary designs, I put F-03 to task building all of it. He was going to be a busy lad for quite a while. After further consideration, I put F-06 on weapon building duty as well, figuring that everyone works better in a team.
In addition to our destructive weapons planning, I also spent a good amount of time practicing in one of the un-upgraded Paladins. It was simple stuff, running, walking, side strafing. I practiced maneuvering with the anti-grav thrusters, and it took me a while to get the hang of those. Too little power and I would scoot across the ground ineffectually. Too much and I’d launch myself into a wall, making for a very pissed off Adelaide. She wasn’t worried for me, no, she was ticked off that I smashed a perfectly serviceable wall. The really hard part was figuring out how to synchronize the bottom thrusters, in order to push yourself off the ground enough to strafe effectively. The automated settings worked pretty well: when you mentally commanded the suit to strafe in any direction, the bottom thrusters would kick in a split second before, lifting you off the ground slightly. Then the lateral thrusters would activate, keeping you steady as they shot you in your chosen direction. I didn’t like how far they lifted me up though, so I tinkered with that for a while until I found a nice setting, then set it as the default for all the suits. Adelaide made software updates a cinch.
All in all, they were good, peaceful days.
But I mother of God did I want to shoot something. Adelaide had to stop me from taking a Paladin and looking for trouble. She reminded me, in a very sharp tone, that secrecy was our greatest defense, and that if we had no reason to get into a fight, we wouldn’t. That’s how I ended just letting a group of very murderable aliens just pass by the base one day, even though I asked really nicely for Adelaide to let me go explode them. The worst part was I knew how right she was, which was why I didn’t push the issue even a little bit. It made absolutely no sense to expose ourselves if we didn’t need to. Luckily, or unluckily, that need came shortly after the last Assimilator group passed us by.
The blare of the perimeter alarms jolted me out of my afternoon nap. Wiping a string of drool off the corner of my mouth, I jerked my head off the command center’s desk, my face printed with the keyboard. I had been working on the Paladin’s power generator, displaying the schematics on the holographic projector, and must have nodded off.
“Whathafuckisgoingon?” I blearily asked Adelaide.
“There’s a group of three civilians that have entered our perimeter from the North West. They are headed on a path that will very shortly take them out of the Eastern side of the perimeter.”
That got me awake very quickly. I sat up, and looked at the holomap Adelaide had already displayed in front of me. “Alright,” I said, studying the white dots, “I’m going to suit up, you keep an eye on them and let me know when something changes.” I got up and started walking to the Arming Station located in the back of the room, giddy at the fact that I could say “suit up” in a serious situation.
“Wait, Sam. We don’t even know if they’re being pursued.”
“Look at how fast they’re moving, Adelaide. Those people are being chased. If they aren’t, I’ll observe and return to the base after they’re gone.” I told her, and the curved doors of the PAS slid open, revealing the Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit in its full glory.
It was truly a beautiful piece of machinery. After I had received my jumpsuit, I’d had the spider bots paint the Paladins to match it, brilliant white and scarlet red. The Paladin insignia was painted in the center of the suit’s chest. Sure, it wasn’t exactly low-key, but the Paladin was meant to be right at the front, soaking up fire so that nobody else had to. Sticking out was for the best. Plus, it looked super badass.
The Paladin stood at seven feet tall, customized to my height. It gleamed in the glow of the command center, lights dancing off it. It was a sleek coat of segmented pieces of armor, with no visible gaps. The suit was sculpted to the human form, built upon the base of a highly modified exo-suit. Its back was bulkier around the shoulders and mid-back than a human’s would be, due to the mounts for main weapons, storage for ammunition, and miniaturized anti-matter power generator. The primary thrusters were two anti-grav strips that were attached under the shoulders, flaring slightly over them and extending down, just shy of the base of the spine. The helmet was, in my opinion, gorgeous. It was a seamless shell that flowed from the rest of the suit, and completely covered the head. It had a “brow” that protruded minutely over the large, red-tinted visor, which was as strong as the rest of the suit. I had seen enough clichés about weak visors to make it a sticking point of the design. There was no visible mouth piece, but the bottom of the helmet protruded slightly as a sort of chin. The suit was all one entity, and would ripple open to receive its pilot as they approached it, and seal itself once the pilot was secured.
I stepped into the padded interior of the suit, the metal flowing to a close around me. My HUD flickered to life, the upgraded Combat Assistance System showing me all the vital readouts at a glance. I clenched and unclenched my metal hands as Adelaide ran an automated script to check for malfunctions throughout all systems. The doors closed behind me.
“Good luck Sam. I’ll be here with you.” Adelaide said, her voice coming through the Paladin’s com system.
The catapult that would take me to the surface gave out a light hum as it came to life. I grinned so wide I thought my face might crack. I knew I should be more grim and focused, lives were at stake after all, but I had been dreaming of this moment ever since I had conceived the Paladin. I gave a simple command,