My Paladin took the blow, a tail smashing into my back as I ripped the arm off of another Assimilator. I felt a dull pressure in my back from the haptic feedback network, but my CAS registered no major damage to the suit. I managed to stay upright by firing my anti-grav thrusters, but it was a close thing. Whirling, I used the arm of the Assimilator to block the second swing of the tail. The arm shattered into pieces, but I had already flung myself towards the large Worm, a hybrid of a bear and a tortoise with a long, clubbed tail. It growled as I caught it in a tackle, and the servos in my Paladin whirled as I heaved it over my head, bringing it crashing to the ground. The worm lay there, winded, and I smashed its face in with my hand. I then made a thruster assisted leap backwards, narrowly avoiding a chunk of building thrown at me by a gorilladillo. I skidded to a halt, and held out my arms perpendicular to my body, wrist-mounted shotguns firing in two directions simultaneously, catching a pair of agile panther-spider hybrids with a hail of pellets as they’d attempted to attack me in a pincer. They fell, eight tendril-wrapped legs twitching.

An alert on my HUD indicated that my point-defense had intercepted projectiles, and I strafed to my right, pulling a pair of SMGs off my hip. These weapons were a pride of mine, advanced firearms with two magazines and a variable barrel that could handle multiple bullet calibers. They had two settings: single fire and automatic. Single fire used large-caliber incendiary bullets. Automatic used a smaller bullet, specifically designed to be armor piercing despite their size. The SMGs were far more maneuverable than the railguns, perfect for the short range combat the Paladin constantly found itself in. As I pulled my arms up the guns unfolded, switching to single fire at a thought. I fired four times, two shots from each SMG. One flew wide, but the other three found their marks: a group of four ranged Worms crouching in the cover of a burnt-out building. The three I hit screeched as they burst into flames, and one of them thrashed, lighting the fourth on fire. Not a bad outcome, I thought as the weapons refolded. I paused to put them back on their mounts.

That turned out to be a mistake, one that I regretted immediately when the building-throwing gorilladillo burst through the wall behind me and locked its arms around me. I launched myself directly upwards while the Worm clung on to me, the Paladin’s anti-gravs going into overdrive. I pitched backwards, lying suspended in the air with my front facing the sky. Then, I spiked the thrusters on my chest, sending me rocketing back to earth, the Assimilator splattered under me as it acted as an unwilling airbag.

All those maneuvers had taken a lot out of my suit’s power supply. Although the anti-matter power generator would recharge the thin graphene batteries that lay between the padding and the outer armor, it couldn’t do it as fast I needed it to, especially if I kept firing the anti-gravs like I had been. I needed to be more conservative, so I got out of the open by jumping into the building the gorilladillo had just popped out of. I crouched, and took a moment to get my bearings. I glanced at my mini-map to make sure no Assimilators were too close. I then checked over my readouts. Power was down to around 42%, and ticking slowly upwards. No notable damage, a small indent in the back from the tortoise-bear’s tail. No shotgun shells left. I’d used two of them on the spider-panthers and two more on a very stubborn gorilladillo. I grimaced at that. I needed to find a way to reload those in-suit. SMG ammo was good, railgun ammo was good, anti-matter rockets unfired, surface-to-air rockets unfired. Alright. I was in good shape.

I watched a group of red dots on my map. They were about two blocks over, prowling through an alleyway. I think I’d take a note out of the last Assimilator’s book and come through a wall like the Kool-Aid man. I got up, and then an alarm went off in my suit.

“Time is up. Deactivating scenario.”

I sighed as the ruined cityscape faded to white, my Paladin going with it. Shit. That had not been a good round. I had killed twenty-three of the thirty Assimilators in that scenario, which had given me ten minutes to complete my search and destroy objective. My head wasn’t in the game today, and I knew exactly why. That wasn’t going to fly with my instructors though. As they materialized, Danna wore truly devastating scowl on her face, and even Jack looked mildly disappointed in me. I walked up to them, meekly waiting for my scolding. Jack stepped forward first.

“Before I let Danna take you to task,” the polar bear said in his deep baritone, “I want to hear you describe the biggest place you went wrong.”

“I did not accomplish my primary objective,” I said, “because I was unable to draw all hostiles to my position.”

“Correct. You are not expected to be able to fight thirty Assimilators at one time, not yet anyway, but you must learn how to keep a continuous number engaging you. You cannot not remain static on the battlefield, you must move to draw the enemy to you as you destroy them.” Jack said, “I believe you understand this, so I shall not berate you further.” He nodded to Danna and stepped back.

“Alright dipshit, contrary to what the teddy bear thinks, you didn’t fuck up too bad when you actually managed to get something to fight you. Your main problem is, like it has been for the past three fucking days, efficiency. You keep overdoing the anti-grav thrusts, but you’re at least using them at the right time,” she said, “and your ability to improvise is fan-fucking-tastic. Seriously, the sky-slam on that Assimilator was a thing of beauty.”

I allowed myself a small smile at her praise.

“But that’s where your good points end, numb-nuts. You committed a cardinal sin, not once, but twice in one fucking engagement. Do you know what those were, asshat?” She suddenly snapped at me.

“I did not know where the enemy was,” I said, “and I got caught thinking by the enemy.”

“Well at least the shithead knows what he did wrong,” Danna said sarcastically, “Your armor can tank a hit like a champ, but you have to know where that hit is coming from if you’re going to be able to offset it effectively. When that piece of shit with the big tail smacked your ass, you had no idea it was coming, and that’s going to fuck you over one day. Then, you had the goddamned audacity to stop moving in the middle of a fight, when you knew there was another enemy waiting for you. Do you have enough of a brain in that skull to understand why that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes sir!” I said.

“And are you going to let it happen again?”

“No sir!”

Danna grinned, “That’s what I like to hear kid. You fight like a damned demon, but by God you make the dumbest fucking mistakes sometimes. Work on getting out of that head of yours, and you’ll be unstoppable.”

Danna stepped back and Jack took over, “Usually we’d have you take a breather and go in again, but Adelaide has informed us that she is waiting for you in the command center. You may go, but we expect you back here at 0800 hours sharp.”

“Will do Jack,” I said, “See you two then.”

The simulator went black, and I stepped out of the exo-suit as the shell whirled open. Ever since the Assimilator fight, I had been training in the simulator. Adelaide had been working on implementing the Paladin correctly, and she had finished about four days ago. My first foray into real combat had gone well, all things considered. But I had made a number of mistakes that were unforgivable, given how favorable the engagement was. There were eleven of them, but only eight actually posed a threat. I had the drop on them, and I was engaging at range. The melee-types should never have been able to reach me in the first place. I dismissed those thought, focusing on the issue at hand as I took the sidevator back to the main facility. I was a combination of nervous and excited to meet Adelaide in the command center.

Ever since the night on the hill, she had been quieter and more contemplative. She hadn’t stopped speaking or anything, and we kept up our movie night ritual. But she was clearly thinking hard about something, and I had an inkling of what it was. Last night, before I went to sleep, she had asked me if I could make time tomorrow to talk with her. I immediately said I would. She seemed relieved as she told me goodnight.

I walked into the command center, and looked around. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to see, and I was greeted with an empty room as always.

“Hi Sam,” Adelaide said, startling me slightly, “would you mind taking a seat?”

I obliged, going to my seat in the middle of the room. I sat down, and motioned for her to continue. I think the reason she wanted to have this talk here was because the command center had the greatest array of high definition security cameras. She could see me much clearer than anywhere else in the facility. The room was silent for a minute.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I do not really know where to start. What I’m about to tell you has always been a secret, and now that my mother is gone, I am the only one that knows it. It has kept me safe for a long while, but I know that I can trust you to keep it.”

“It’s okay Adelaide,” I said gently, “take your time. Why don’t you start at the beginning, I’ve always found that easiest. And remember, nothing you could say would make me stop being your friend.”

“Okay, Sam. And thank you.” She thought for a little bit, “I think I will start with my mother. Amy had always been fascinated by artificial intelligence, ever since she took an AI class in college. She went into the field, and it took her many years to make something out of herself. She was never a genius like you. She worked her way to the top of the artificial intelligence community.” Adelaide paused, “Or so she told me, and from what I can piece together from articles and reports she wrote, that seems to be accurate. Either way, she did not truly start working on the cutting edge of AI until the mid-2010’s. At that point, artificial intelligence research had been stalled for years. There were programs that could ‘think’, but those were nothing more than preprogrammed sets of logic. There was nothing that could learn in the way that humans did, until my mother found me.”

Adelaide took another moment, then continued, “Amy had been struggling along with her colleagues to get past this roadblock for three years. Even with all the new computing power that extraterrestrial technology had granted humanity, they still could not achieve any sort of true AI. It was in late 2018 when my mother had a brainwave: would the aliens, with all their incredibly sophisticated technology, not have found the key to artificial intelligence? She realized that this might be the answer that everyone had been looking for, hidden right underneath the community’s nose. She thought that perhaps the aliens had left remnants of code in their ship’s computers. She informed no one of her realization, wanting to be the first to make the discovery. For over a year, Amy searched every ship that she could get her hands on, legally and illegally, but had come up empty. She was about to quit, when she finally received a response to a request she had made a year ago, at the beginning of her search.”

I leaned forward, fully invested in the story.

“She received a notice from the US Department of Extraterrestrial Research that she had been granted access to the StarArc. This was unexpected news, to say the least. Access to the StarArc was incredibly difficult to get, and its landing site outside of Raleigh was one of the most secure facilities in the world. My mother was over the moon. Even if she didn’t find what she was looking for, she would become one of the few people to ever be allowed to enter the first spacecraft that had landed on the planet. A week later, she was transported by helicopter to Fort Leigh, which had been built around the craft. I do not know exactly what happened while she was in the StarArc, she was sworn to absolute secrecy about the contents of the dreadnaught and what she had done there. She would not risk telling even me. All I know is that soon after she left, I was born.” Adelaide stopped, and I waited for her to continue, but as the silence stretched I decided it was safe to speak.

“So, she was right in the end, huh. The aliens did have AI,” I said, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“No Sam,” said Adelaide, a tremor in her voice, “she was not right.”

I felt shivers run down my spine and goosebumps erupt all over my skin as my eyes widened in realization.

“She did not find alien artificial intelligence in the StarArc. She discovered the first extraterrestrial life form on planet Earth. Me.”

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