When I entered the simulator the next day, I found myself in a glowing white world. I was standing on what appeared to be clouds, stretching off into every direction. Honestly, this was a marked improvement on the previous simulation experience. It really did feel like something I couldn’t get in real life, unlike the brutal and sad realism of the physical fitness course.

I was attempting to grab handfuls of the clouds underneath me when a man appeared in front of me. He wore a shy smile and a black suit, a pair of square glasses perched on his nose. His hair was a dusky brown similar to my own. I already liked him way more than Sergeant McBitch face, and he hadn’t even started talking yet.

“Hello,” He said gently, as if speaking to a frightened rabbit, “my name is Allen. I will be your instructor for the mental training portion of your Paladin Training Course. Unlike the previous course, we will not be focusing on the forging of your body, but we will instead improve your most important aspect: your mind.”

I think I might be in love. This was what I was looking forward to. I wasn’t a jock. I didn’t strive to improve my body. My mind, my intelligence. That’s what I’ve always sought to improve.

“The mind is our greatest advantage over the Assimilators. Though they are intelligent, it is in a limited capacity. They cannot plan like we can. They cannot strategize like we can. And, most importantly for this program, they cannot multitask like we can. We will spend four weeks out of the allotted two months on developing your mind. I hope you approach it with the gravity it deserves.”

Allen reached out his hand, and a three-dimensional representation of the brain appeared, hovering over his palm. His deep brown eyes held a quiet confidence as he looked at it.

“In the latter part of this course, we will spend time on strategy. I will teach you how to outthink and outfight our foe. I will teach you how to think on your feet, how to make the hard choices, and how to decide the best course of action within seconds.” He paused for a moment, letting me digest that.

“However,” he continued, “the bulk of this course will be dedicated to rebuilding your mind into something that can command a Paladin Mobile Infantry Suit.” I designed that interface! It was me!

“The Paladin is an incredibly advanced, incredibly complex machine. Traditional tactile interfaces proved to be far too simple for it to function at its full capacity. Thus, we needed something better, something far more delicate.”

The lecture was getting fairly boring considering that I made the damned brain scanner and stuffed it into the Paladin in the first place. I decided to tune it out until he got to the good stuff.

“- the brain turned out to be the best tool for th-“

I wonder what would happen if I fell through these clouds. I don’t think that would be possible. But maybe I could fly in here.

“- the range of commands that could be given was infinite, its pote-“

I started hopping up, attempting to miss the ground as I fell. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be working. I then tried simply willing myself upwards, but that wasn’t going to fly either.

“ – the raw, untapped power of the human mind turned an impos-“

Heh. Wasn’t going to fly.

“ – thanks to a brilliant advancement from MIT, pioneered by Camille Brown and Samuel Lewis, the Brain Wave Reader was brought into being.”

Ooh he was talking about me again. And it looked like he was close to wrapping his spiel up.

“Thus, we will train your mind, and mold it into your greatest tool for piloting a Paladin. Be warned though. This will not be a pleasant process. Only a select few are able to achieve the level of control necessary to pilot a Paladin.” He smiled again, this time without the shyness, “Though you stand a much better chance than most. The pre-screening for this program has confirmed that.”

Prescreening?

Ah fuck.

“Through hard work and with proper determination, I am confident that you will be able to unlock your potential. The program will begin now.”

With that last inspiring nugget delivered, the space around me began fading to black. Allen began dissolving into it, like a reflection in water disturbed by a ripple. The world was dark for a while. A light appeared in front of my eyes, dancing on the horizon. It grew brighter, and I realized with a horrible jolt that it was a lance made of a white, silvery material. I didn’t know what it would do exactly, but I knew with an icy sureness that I didn’t want to be in its way. I attempted to move my body to get out of its path, but it was locked into place. I watched in horror as it drew closer, panic rising in my throat.

I had been hurt before in my life. Several times, actually. I had broken half the bones in my right leg when I got sideswiped by a car when I was biking to school. I had smashed a few ribs skiing when I was fifteen, and I suffered a punctured lung. Even during the previous simulator experience, I had been beaten to within in an inch of my life, and though the wounds didn’t stick, the pain was very real.

This was something else entirely.

When the lance it hit my right arm, it was as if all the pain in that I had ever felt and ever would feel had been concentrated into the spot where it entered my flesh. My mind filled with white agony as the pain blossomed out. My screams wouldn’t leave my lungs. I was trapped in myself, trapped with the horrible, wrenching pain. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t rationalize it. It just hurt. With an aching slowness, it faded.

My mind felt like it was dimming. I struggled to pull it together. My thoughts were messy, disorganized.

Allen appeared before me again. He wore a look of sympathy on his face.

“The first step in this journey,” he said, “is to master control over your mind. Without the ability to focus in any situation no matter the suffering being endured, you cannot succeed in this program. Pain is the great distraction, the element that can most easily force the mind astray. In order to pilot a Paladin, you must conquer it. You will learn that pain is just a mentality, one that can be transcended. When you can block out the pain, we will continue.”

This was insane. This was beyond insane. I couldn’t even imagine how this was allowed. It was near torture. It was torture.

“Prepare yourself,” the man said sadly, “it will come again, soon.”

 

 

I fell from the simulator when the bonds released me. I curled up on the floor, my cheek pressed into the cold tile. I couldn’t feel it anymore, but I could remember it. The utter helplessness, the lack of control. And the pain.

I passed out as the tell-tale clicking of spider bots reached my ears.

 

 

There was no birdsong when I woke up. No smell of dew. No sunshine. The bed was soft, and the sheets were light on my body. I cracked open my eyes.

“Good morning, Sam. How are you feeling?”

I didn’t answer her question.

“How did I get in bed?” I whispered to the ceiling.

“I had the spider bots bring you here,” Adelaide said quietly, “You passed out in the simulator room.”

I remembered the pain.

“Adelaide.”

“Yes, Sam?”

“Why did you let that happen to me?”

There was silence in the room. When you’re alone underground, the silence is deafening. There is no wind, no rustling of the trees. No footsteps in the hallway or voices murmuring in the background. There is just the silence, and it is almost tangible as it lays thick in the air.

“I am so sorry Sam. I was restricted by the simulator’s programing. The secrecy of the program takes a higher priority than I am allowed to override. Once you begin, there can be no warning of what is to come.”

“Are you lying to me?” I asked.

“No, Sam. I would not lie to you.”

“Okay.”

 

 

Adelaide didn’t tell me to go back to the simulator that day.

I ran that morning, the same route I did before the simulator. Down the stairs, down all the way to the third floor. Around the fabricators three times. A quick pat to the third fabricator. Down to the Armory. Past the freight elevator and under the Paladins. Up the stairs to the first floor. I didn’t think of much this time. I left part of my mind somewhere in that hell, screaming into the void at the unrelenting pain.

It would hit me in a different place every time. I watched it coming, stuck in place, unable to avoid it. Every time I thought it was over, the devil would appear wearing a suit and a sad smile. And I knew that it would continue.

Even when I had lost everything, I had retained control over myself. I was my own last bastion, my final stand. They could take my love, my family, my joy from me; but they couldn’t take my control. When I was at my lowest point, I crawled back up and laughed at the world, spitting in its face, and in my mind that made me strong. In the inky blackness, I learned just how weak I was. How easily my fortress could be stripped away. And I was terrified by it.

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