The simulated sunshine peeked shyly through the simulated blinds. The recorded, gentle tweeting of birds filled my ears. They sang to each other in beautiful lilting melodies. There was a smell in the air, of delicate dew in freshly cut grass.

I still hadn’t figured out how to turn off the piece-of-shit morning routine that came pre-programmed in the commander’s quarters.

I had asked Adelaide to do it but she claimed she didn’t have proper clearance which just sounded like a bullshit excuse to me. I groaned loudly and covered my head with my pillows. I didn’t sleep with earplugs, in case of Assimilator attack, so I was treated to my own little slice of hell every morning at 7:00 AM. I imagine if I ever got to smell real dew again I’d go on an axe-murdering rampage. I wouldn’t be murdering the axes though, they were innocent in all of this. I’d be using the axes to murder people. Or grass.

“Adelaide!” I yelled into the pillow.

“Good morning Sam.” She said promptly and pleasantly. “The high today is a lovely 78 degrees Fahrenheit. There is a slight chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.”

“I never go outside. I don’t give a shit.” Ugh. That was rude. “But thank you anyway.” Saved it.

“You are very welcome Sam. Shall I prepare breakfast for you?”

Prepare breakfast my ass. I eat granola and a banana every morning. Pouring cereal is not preparing breakfast. But there’s no benefit in being impolite.

“Thanks. Give me five minutes to get up,” I said. I really needed to diversify my diet. I hadn’t had anything beyond the incredibly basic meals that had been placed in the main facility’s insultingly small freezer room and pantry. The secondary facility had a much better supply, in the mess hall’s free-

No. I felt my mind start to twist and contort, and I squeezed my eyes shut so hard my vision turned to white. I focused on taking deep breaths. At some point, I had sat up in the bed. My hands were in fists, clenching the sheets, my knuckles turning white. With some effort, I relaxed them. But I could feel them shaking. That always did a number on me, even all those months later. I felt myself calming down. Telling myself that I didn’t have to go there, that I never had to go there, made me feel better. My eyes still felt a bit blurry, but when I blinked them a few times it went away.

I was still a little shaky when I got out of the bed a while later. If Adelaide had noticed anything about my abnormal state, she chose not to mention it, which I appreciated. They say talking about something like that helps you process it, but I didn’t agree with that. At least not in this case, and especially not with Adelaide. I started heading small the kitchen in the engineer’s quarters, where Adelaide would have already laid out my meager breakfast. Maybe some granola would solve all my issues.

 

 

I sat back in the exercise exo-suit, breathing heavily. Core day was almost as bad as leg day. I was still sore from the previous workout, and this definitely didn’t help anything. Whoever invented exercise was a sadist, and whoever made it mandatory for being healthy was a demon. I toweled the sweat off my brow, and used the conveniently located spray bottle attached to the machine to disinfect it. I suppose it didn’t really matter as nobody else was around to use them, but one should always adhere to gym etiquette.

I walked out the doors, the lights automatically turning off behind me. As I was going back to the main facility, Adelaide began speaking to me, “Sam, I have Simulator 001 prepared for you.” Ah fuck. I forgot about that.

“I’ll get to it in a little bit. I just wanted to check on a couple of my projects first,” I said, looking away guiltily, which was kind of dumb. It’s hard to look away when the thing you’re talking to is the entire base.

“I am very happy to report that none of your current projects require your immediate input. The Merlin is being prepared by F-03, with an estimated time of 128 hours until completion. The quick-launch tubes are being managed by my auxiliary functioning, and the spider bots are making very nice headway in expanding them. The Paladin Arming Station is well underway in the armory.”

“What about the fabricators? The maintenance just finished yesterday so I was thinking of running some diagnostics on them.” I was grasping at straws here and I knew it.

“I have already compiled a full diagnostic report on all ten fabricators. It is available for you to review from any terminal. To summarize: they are all running in optimal condition.”

“F-03 might miss me?”

“Fabricator F-03 is incapable of feeling emotion.”

Goddamn she’s good. I sighed, stopping in the hallway. I pinched the bridge of my nose and looked up at the ceiling.

“Fine.” I said, resigning myself to my fate. “Let me take a quick shower and I’ll head to the simulator room.”

“Understood, Sam.”

 

 

I might have lied about the shower being quick. I dallied, day-dreaming about being back in high school. Not really sure why I day-dreamed about that considering I hated high school with a passion. I mostly took so long because of how insanely comfortable the shower was. It had five different shower heads, and it felt like being gently caressed by a river spirit. I didn’t even have to feel guilty about wasting water. Camelot had a mostly closed-loop system, so everything was filtered on site and recycled.

I had recently started to shave again. For the first few months I had let my beard grow out. That proved to be a mistake for several reasons. The first and most important being that my beard grew in scraggly dirty-blonde patches, despite the fact that my hair was brown, which made me look like I was suffering from a horrific disease. The second problem was that letting the beard grow out felt like admitting defeat. I’m not really sure why. Regardless, I had a near infinite supply of blades due to F-03; there was no reason not to shave.

Putting on my standard-issue jumpsuit, which featured the exciting colors of grey and slightly darker grey, I started dragging my feet to the simulator room. I attempted to come up with some excuse to not do it, but they sounded hollow even in my head. The main problem was that I didn’t really want to skip the simulator. Well, it was more like I really wanted to pilot a Paladin. The transitive property asserted that I wanted to do the simulator course too.

A short sidevator ride over to the barracks and I was standing in front of the simulator room. I took a deep breath, willing away memories of the embarrassment that was my previous attempt.

“Adelaide,” I called out, “please open the simulator room.”

The doors slid open with a hydraulic hiss. Each simulator was contained in its own room, for safety and privacy purposes. That’s what they told me at least, but it seemed like a silly regulation. The simulator itself was currently nothing more than an exo-suit suspended in the middle of a matte black ring. It sort of looked like the Vitruvian man but with a normal number of limbs. Also, less spread eagled. I took a moment to ready myself and approached it.

I paused in front of the looming ring. “Hey Adelaide,” I said, “Make sure to wake me up if anything approaches the facility. Additionally, monitor my vitals. If I start panicking in this thing, pull me out.” She was probably going to do all that anyway, but it was best to err on the side of caution.

“Understood, Sam,” she replied, a comforting inflection in her voice.

I clambered into the exo-suit. Which was surprisingly difficult with one person. Normally, a simulator was manned by at least one operator, who would be responsible for monitoring vitals and helping the trainee in and out of the suit. Obviously, that wasn’t an option in this case. Before I could actually get into the damn thing I had to scale it like a rock climbing wall. There had to be a control panel or something that would make this easier. I made a mental note to look for one the next time I was here.

When I was settled in, padded restraints sprung from behind the suit, firmly securing me. I figured that this might inspire minor panic attacks in less strong-willed people. Or arousal in those with a bondage fetish. I was in the former camp myself.

“I am beginning the program now.” Adelaide said to me over the base’s loudspeakers. I gave her a shaky nod in response.

The minute I did, the circle of metal began to expand into a sphere that completely surrounded me. I felt a helmet lower over my head. For a brief, terrifying second, the inside of the simulator was pitch black. White light bloomed from the top of the sphere, causing my eyes to close reflexively. When I opened them again, I was standing in what appeared to be a massive warehouse made entirely of concrete. Then, a calm male voice began speaking.

“Hello, Samuel Lewis. Welcome to Simulator 001. Which program would you like to run today?” The voice sounded like it was speaking directly into my ears. I found that very disconcerting. A scrolling list of options appeared in front of my eyes. I ignored them, and spoke in a clear voice, “Initiate Accelerated Paladin Training Protocol.”

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