I sat in the commander’s chair in the control room. My brow was furrowed in concentration, and I stared at the crystal clear holographic projection in front of me, my face bathed in its many colors. My hands twitched on the holo-keyboard, fingers flickering over the keys. For three long hours, I had been locked in a battle with a foe both deadly and clever. And I was losing.

“Oh my fucking God! That piece of shit!” I yelled, as the words “YOU DIED” faded onto the screen in garish red letters. “Did you see that Adelaide!? That was such bullshit! How did it get me from there? The hitbox on that attack is insane!”

The pseudo-AI chimed in, “Actually Sam, from my analysis the attack range of that dragon is well in line with realistic weight and speed distributions. In addition, the degree of accuracy in the game engine is very high, so it is highly unlikely that the attack did not directly impact your in-game avatar.”

Stupid computer, what does it know. If I had been using a controller I would be chucking it across the room right now.

Yesterday, I had completed my first portion of the Paladin Training Course. I was as physically fit as was required to pilot one of the destructive beauties. Sergeant McBitchface had even given me a compliment, telling me that I was “slightly better than the usual garbage, though not by much.” I was quite touched. I was even given a day off to cobble together the bare husks of my sanity into something workable. After three straight weeks of eight hour a day rigorous physical training devised by the Devil himself, I really needed it.

I was spending my time off going through the backlog of entertainment that the military had provided. My assignment in Camelot was supposed to be one year long, but I would have had very minimal contact with the outside world, for security reasons. Most of the facility was automated anyway, so there really wouldn’t be much for the engineers staffing the base to do. We were mostly there to keep an eye on things and make sure the prototype fusion reactor didn’t turn the southwest US into a crater. To keep us from going batshit bonkers, we were provided with a massive database of books, articles, movies, TV shows, and games. Pretty much every piece of entertainment media in the past century or so was provided for us – well, me now – and frankly, it was pretty awesome.

I was pretty annoyed that I had spent a good portion of my precious day off trying to beat a game that seemed to be relentlessly mocking my struggle. But I had come too far to quit now. I was going to murder the shit out of this dragon if it was the last thing I did.

Seven deaths later I quit. I had to check up on my projects. Also, that game was dumb and unfair.

“If you would like,” Adelaide offered helpfully, “I can give you words of encouragement on your next attempt.”

 

 

I walked down the stairs to the second floor, surprised at the lack of soreness in my body. Adelaide had mentioned at some point that I would recover from fatigue and injury faster after the GIDS treatment, so I guess I have that to thank for the spring in my step. I hadn’t really noticed when I was in the middle of my three weeks of hell, but I was never that sore between the days. So another point for GIDS I guess.

Jumping down the last three stairs, I landed heavily in the massive warehouse-like Armory. The lights turned on in their typical dramatic fashion. The racks above had filled in a little more, occupied by the thirty Paladins churned out daily. I had tried to stop them from being made, as it was just a waste of resources at this point, but I didn’t have the clearance to override the base’s prime directives. If nothing else, they would be excellent for spare parts.

I walked over to the project I had been working on, giving a fond pat to the Merlin as I walked by. That project had been completely fabricated a couple weeks before, though I hadn’t had the time to look it over given how busy I had been. I still needed the sim training for that sexy little piece, but that would come after I finished my current course.  I was looking forward to seeing how Ellie was doing, but she wasn’t at this floor today. She was probably helping the fabricators out. I walked around the railed-off pit that was her usual spot, and took a left.

One of the major flaws with the base’s Paladins was how damn long they took to get on. I calculated the time once. Getting from the command center on the first floor to being fully equipped took, in a best-case scenario, six minutes thirty-seven seconds. In a situation where Assimilators were approaching Camelot, that was simply unacceptable. It took about a minute and a half longer to get from the secondary facility over to the Armory, so that was even less acceptable. And beyond that, once you were fully armed and ready to murder, you had to wait for the freight elevator to take you to the surface, adding an additional few minutes.

Which did make sense, considering that this facility was never intended to be rapid response ready. It wasn’t even meant to be anywhere near the front lines, instead serving as a manufacturing and training facility. The Paladins and their operators would be shipped off to fight in the war, and the base would start churning out a new batch.

The reality of the situation was that if I didn’t want to become another victim of the apocalypse, I had to be able to deploy in a Paladin suit in under a minute. To that end, I had been developing my prototype Paladin Arming Station, or PAS. I can do acronyms too.

My Paladin Arming Station was a thing of beauty, in my humble opinion. I designed them from scratch to help me not die in the event of an Assimilator raid. I imagined them being deployed all over the base, so that I was never more than a thirty second run from one. Each would contain a fully armed and mission ready Paladin. It would assist the pilot (me) with equipping the suit, then launch it through a concealed access shaft that lead to the surface.  The shafts would just be glorified elevators that moved really fast. The g-force from how quickly the elevators ascended would probably incapacitate a human, if they were not equipped in a lovely Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit complete with advanced inertial dampeners.

If I had a little more time on my hands, the PAS would also let me choose the armaments I would be taking to the surface. One of the best parts about the Paladin system was the sheer variety of highly destructive weaponry that it was capable of using. And the even better part is that it was delightfully easy to make custom-designed weapons compatible for use with the Paladin. When I had a bit of extra time on my hands, I planned to go hog wild with those possibilities.

In the meantime, I had a small issue to work out before I could start mass producing the Arming Stations. There was this annoying little bug that would happen every once in a while that would turn whoever was trying to equip the Paladin into what we in the business call a meat smoothie. I couldn’t for the life of me isolate the issue, and several disturbingly human-like dummies had been gruesomely sacrificed in the name of progress. Their bravery shall be briefly remembered.

Ah well, fifty-seventh try’s the charm. I hauled over a dummy from the pile next to the PAS, which looked suspiciously like the remnants of a serial killer’s crazy night out. I unceremoniously stuffed it into the Paladin waiting in the Arming Station.

“Adelaide,” I called out, mentally saying a little prayer for the unsuspecting dummy.

“Yes, Sam?”

“Please initiate test case thirty-two, running diagnostic check alpha-five.”

“Understood, Sam.”

 

 

The good news was that I isolated the issue to the software instead of the hardware. That made my life easier in that I didn’t have to go through the components piece by piece. It also made my life exceptionally more unpleasant due to the fact that one of the worst jobs on the planet is debugging code. People – usually soulless computer scientists – who tell you otherwise are sycophants, liars, or insane.

As the spider bots reluctantly cleaned out the jellied remains of the 62nd test dummy, I sat on the pile of its siblings and stared blankly at the holopad that was displaying the PAS’ firmware. I had asked Adelaide to devote some of her primary threads to help isolate the bug, or more likely, multiple bugs. So far, we had had little success. Though the dummy pile was surprisingly comfortable, I longed for my plush bed in the commander’s quarters above, and my head wasn’t really in it anymore.

“Hey Adelaide?”

“Yes, Sam?”

“I have a question that’s tangentially related to the PAS’ issues.”

“I would be happy to answer it, Sam.”

“What would happen if an Assimilator tried to replicate itself? Would it, like, explode? I mean, I guess the duplicates it makes are kinda like copying itself, except it’s more like they’re being built off a template, you know what I mean? And what happens if a Matriarch copies more than two of the same thing? Does the better specimen win or does it just randomize them as it spits them out?”

There was a moment of silence.

“I fail to see how that is related to our current project in any way.”

“Oh, it’s not really, I was just curious.”

“I see. To answer your question, the mechanism behind Assimilator duplication or initial mimicry is not currently known. Your guess is as good as mine. I would suggest, however, that we focus on the problem at hand.” She said.

“Damn, again with the backtalk,” I said with a grin.

“I apologize, but you did specify that a parameter of my personality should be, and I quote, ‘sassy’. I am merely attempting to fulfill those parameters.”

I shook my head. “Nothing to apologize for, I was just proud of you. Anyway, I still can’t find this bug. I’ve narrowed it down to a post-initialization helper class that’s involved in suit decompression. We’ll test it tomorrow, but-“

“Actually Sam,” Adelaide interrupted with a bit of pride in her voice, “I have found and fixed the bug. It was, as you said, in the post-initialization class. An integer variable was mistyped, resulting in a loss of suit integrity and rapid, and deadly, vibration throughout the suit.”

That was the best news I’d had in days. I shot a wide smile to Adelaide (well, towards the ceiling) and gave her a double thumbs up, “That is some excellent work there, my digital friend. You saved me a whole lot of grief.”

“I am happy to be of help, Sam,” she said, and she was clearly quite pleased with herself.

I hopped off my pile of dummies with a smile. It had been a surprisingly good day.

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