If I told you that watching my girlfriend get her ass handed to her by my virtual instructor didn’t inspire a good deal of Schadenfreude, I’d be lying. Danna tossed her like a sack of potatoes, and she landed flat on her ass with a loud whump and a quiet whimper.

She loomed over Camille, her eyes burning with rage, “And what the fuck was that piece of shit display? I was under the impression that you were trying to fight me, not give me a gentle fucking hug. Get your useless ass up and come at me again, or I swear to God I’ll make you hurt in ways you never thought possible.”

I admired Camille as she grit her teeth and struggled to her feet. Frankly, compared to me she wasn’t talented, at all, at fighting. But the thing was she never gave in. The three days in a row, she’d been getting the shit kicked out of her, and hadn’t quit once. That was a definite improvement over myself when I started training. It took me a lot of painful lessons to get to the point where she was now. I considered that maybe I was just romanticizing her incredible stubbornness as I watched her hit the floor again.

I was standing on the rubber floor of the simulator’s training room, having finished the morning’s exercises, and waiting for Camille to do the same. After my usual light-beam routine, I’d done some weapons training. Being in combat with that Hive Lord, as well as all the other close quarters combat engagements I’d been in with the Assimilators, lead me to realize that having a weapon other than just sharp fists would be infinitely helpful. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to use, but I was making sure it was the best choice. Luckily, the simulator provided access to every weapon known to man, so I was able to test the waters.

“Did you decide on something yet, fuckwit?” said an annoyed voice behind me. I turned with a sigh to face my incarnation of Danna. It was more than a little bizarre, but the simulators allowed simultaneous copies of each instructor. Every simulator in Camelot was connected, so that trainees could work together on team exercises. In ‘public lobbies’ such as this one, it was only logical to be able to instruct people separately but simultaneously. The instructor-copies all shared the same data as well.

I nodded at her, “Yeah, I think I’ve got it pretty much nailed down. We’ll start some real training with it tomorrow, right?” I heard the other Danna cursing Camille out again behind me. Poor girl.

She grunted in acknowledgement and watched her clone elbow Camille in the solar plexus. She sighed and shook her head, “If that dumbass girl had even a third of your talent, she’d be one of the better recruits I’ve seen.”

It was fascinating to witness how differently Danna treated me compared to Camille. Graduating the course seemed to have softened her attitude towards me significantly; there was a marked difference from the verbal lashing she was giving Camille. Even though she still swore at me like a sailor, there was a base level of respect, and she worked with me rather than exclusively telling me what to do. I marveled once again at the programmers who’d created this simulation. Computer scientists were generally soulless shells of human beings, but damn did they do good work sometimes.

After the nightmare of embarrassment that was the trip to the Red Eagle’s camp, we’d stuck to staying in Camelot for a while, trying to figure out our next move. Camille, Adelaide, and myself had all put together some thoughts on that, and we were having a meeting in the Command Center later to figure it out. Camille in particular seemed to have a lot she needed to go over. Speaking of Camille, it looked like her version of Danna was wrapping up her tirade. I walked over to them, the Danna next to me dematerializing. I needed to come up with a naming system for them. I’d give it some thought.

I helped Camille to her feet, ignoring the scathing glare from Danna. She cast me a grateful glance and stood up, wincing a little at the simulated bruises. We both faced her, hands behind our backs, standing to attention.

Danna faced Camille first, “I didn’t think you could break your previous record for most fuckups in a single day, but goddamn it you did. Show that shit to me tomorrow, and I’ll run you until you beg for the sweet release of death.” She turned to me next, “Well done today, Lewis. Your thruster efficiency is improving steadily. Looks like that Worm beat some sense into your thick fucking skull. We’ll start you on weapons training and blocking tomorrow, so we’re going to have to tack on an extra hour of training time, that is unless your pansy ass can’t handle that?”

She clearly didn’t give a shit what my response was, because she dematerialized immediately after the question, and the simulator turned to black around me. As the pod cracked open, I jumped out of the harness with practiced ease before it started lowering, and walked out the door. I leaned against the wall, waiting for Camille. It took her a little longer to get out of the exo-suit. She emerged from her room a few seconds later, a white towel draped around her neck. She was wearing the grey simulator jumpsuit, and had her hair up in a ponytail. Not gonna lie, I was super into that look.

I offered her my hand and she took it. We started to head towards our room. I felt another wave of relief at the fact that Camille pretty much didn’t give a shit about Rebecca’s thing for me, at least after the initial discovery. She mostly made fun of me for not noticing her blatant crush. She didn’t threaten me with cliché dismemberment or genitalia removal if I stepped astray. What it came down to was that she trusted me, and I trusted her. But she had been referring to Rebecca solely as ‘that hussy’, so I think there might have been a tiny bit of resentment left.

I could tell that she was distracted by something as we stood in the sidevator. I noted the look of concern on her face. “Hey, don’t worry about Danna, she was way worse with me when I first started,” I said.

Camille snorted and shook her head, “That’s not what’s bothering me. Danna’s a pushover compared to my mother, she could peel the skin off your bones with just a glance.”

“Then it’s something about the meeting, huh?”

She nodded shallowly, “Yeah. I’ve been stressing about it for a while now.”

I gave her hand a squeeze, “It’ll be easier to deal with once we all get to talking about it. Wanna give me a spoiler?”

“I’m not that easy, pal. You’ve been trying to get me to spill what I’ve been working on the past few days, no way I’m going to cave now.”

I shrugged as we stepped into the main facility, “It was worth a shot. Anyway, you go and take your shower, it’s my turn to make lunch. We’ll meet in the command center, alright?”

Camille made a sound of agreement and split off. The small kitchen attached to the common room wasn’t going to be cooking up any five-star meals, but it was more than enough to get by. After I had eventually extracted myself from the hell that was Tom’s hospital room back at the Red Eagles camp and returned to the Merlin, I found that Commander Berston had given me a good deal more than what we’d agreed on as payment. There was a note on the storage chests that said, “For Overtime Work”. When I cracked them open back at Camelot I almost started to cry from joy.

Humming to myself, I pulled out a frying pan and started to cook some bacon. I wasn’t the best chef, not by a long shot, but I could do the basics. I’d love to say that Camille adhered to the feminine stereotype, but she was about as shitty at it as I was. When you work pretty much all the time, it’s hard to get good at cooking. So basically, we’d be eating a lot of scrambled eggs, sandwiches, and slightly burnt steaks. The Red Eagles had given us a surprising amount of meat. Colorado did a lot of ranching back before the end, so there was plenty of cow to go around, as well as pork and eggs. The majority of what we’d received was wheat (pre-milled, thank God), corn, and potatoes. There was a smattering of other veggies in there as well. We were a bit too early for the apples, but we did get some peaches. Camille and I had to figure out how to bake fairly edible bread and hack off cuts of meat from the large hunks we were provided, but that wasn’t too much trouble with the full knowledge of humanity in Camelot’s databases.

What it came down to is that we were good on food for a while. My services were apparently worth quite a lot. I’d say the Red Eagles got their money’s worth, personally. I was throwing together the second BLT when Adelaide started to speak to me over the PA, “Hi, Sam. I just wanted to let you know that Camille just got to the Command Center.” I gave the security camera a thumbs up and stacked both sandwiches on one plate. Less dishes that way.

Adelaide had converted the Command Center to its ‘conference’ mode. The rows of chairs that faced the big holoprojector shifted until they formed a circle around the room, and the holoprojector itself moved to be in the middle. Mini-desks unfolded out from the chairs to give people room to write on. It was so tantalizingly close to the round-table set up I dreamed about. All I needed to do was a couple of retrofits, and I’d be good to go.

For now, though, this would have to do. I took the seat next to Camille and put the plate down on her unfolded desk. She gave me a tight smile of thanks. Something was really bothering her.

I clapped my hands together, “Alright, no point in sitting around. You want to go first Camille?”

She shook her head, “It’s probably best if I go last.”

God damn it I was so fucking curious, but I hid it as best I could. “No problem, I’ll start us off then, unless you would like to, Adelaide?”

“Please, go ahead Sam,” Adelaide replied.

I considered standing up and doing my thing like that then realized it would look silly as hell considering there were only two of us with physical presences here, so I just decided to go for it, “Well, I don’t really have much to report, honestly. I’ve been trying to approach the slaver thing, the group in Hayes I told you about, from a few different angles, but I can’t find a workable solution to the problem with what we’ve got. We wouldn’t necessarily need an army to take the town, but we’d need one to hold it and reestablish order. As much as I want to end them, that’s outside of my wheelhouse. I do think it might be a good idea to focus on trying to find and track raider groups, so that I can eliminate them,” I paused to tap a finger against the desk, “As far as engineering goes, the Assault Paladin is coming along quite nicely. I give it about another month before its ready for prototyping, now that you’re here Camille. I was seriously dreading trying to modify the mental firmware, it would’ve taken me months. I’m also pretty much done with the ‘Mothership’ loadout for the Merlin, but I’ve run into a huge wall on the scanner tech. I honestly have no idea how to go about advancing it further than it already is, which is a problem, because ours clearly can’t catch Assimilators.”

I hesitated, debating whether to bring my next topic up, and decided to go for it, “There is one giant elephant taking a shit in the room we have to discuss. We’ve got a lot of Paladin’s down here, and more than enough room… I’m not saying that we should start bringing people aboard and getting them trained up, but we at least have to talk about the possibility.”

Adelaide made a noise of agreement, “I have been considering that same subject myself. There are risks, of course, that are not inconsiderable. Anyone we would train would have to be absolutely trustworthy. As soon as they come to Camelot and train to become a Paladin, they will know essentially everything about us, including what I am. We would have to develop some way to have final control over the Paladins, in the event that a pilot turns against us. And at a more fundamental level, there is the question of why we should have more Paladins in the first place.”

I gave the camera puzzled look, and Adelaide responded to my voiceless question, “We have to carefully think about our goals. What do we intend to do? How do we use the weapons and tools we have at our disposal? We have, up until this point, mostly reacted to situations as they have appeared before us. We have done investigations on the Hive Clusters, but beyond that we have been more or less aimless. If we start to recruit more pilots, there must be a reason for it beyond the fact that we can. Do we want to become a local power? We surely have the capability to do so, but why would we? I see in neither of you the desire to control, and we have everything that we need to survive in Camelot; it is essentially impervious to outside assault. It could be argued that under our rule, people would be safer. However, there appears to be a functional society emerging around us; we could help it grow and become stronger with the assistance of our resources, rather than control it ourselves. Do we want to attempt a major offensive against the Assimilators? That is an extremely dangerous proposition. We could end up triggering another invasion that wipes out the remnants of humanity. We simply do not know enough about why they are here to risk angering them.”

I tried to think of other uses for them. “Well, we could use multiple Paladins against Hayes,” I said slowly, “But then we run into the same issue all over again. What the fuck do we do after we’ve won? We’d still need a stabilizing force, and I don’t know if we can provide that.”

“Exactly. As far as I can tell, the only reason we have to recruit more Paladin pilots is to build our capabilities in case we need them to protect people. So far, that need has not arisen. The slavers have no weaponry that could threaten us in the field. There have been no major raids by Assimilators since they won the war, only small conflicts from roaming patrols. As was previously mentioned, we cannot risk a full on attack on a Hive Cluster at this juncture. Our range will not expand because we have more Paladins, we will still only be able to effectively operate in and around Colorado.”

I lapsed into thought. Eventually, I said, “So what it comes down to is what we want to be when we grow up, and that more or less boils down to two options: A local military power, or a superhero squad that helps out wherever possible.”

“Essentially, yes,” replied Adelaide.

I ran a hand through my hair, “Well, shit. I know that I really, really don’t want to have to be in charge of anything big. And frankly, I think everyone in this room would be fucking terrible at it…” I trailed off, and then kept going, “Okay. So, I think we should try for a balance. I still want to recruit people, but not many. I don’t want to deal with a bunch of dipshits I don’t know, but I think that being able to have a squad of six or so Paladins would let us keep our operation small without compromising our ability to fight against the vast majority of threats. That also means that we can heavily vet the people we bring aboard, they’d be our most trusted allies. I have a few in mind for that, and we can keep an eye on them and gauge whether or not they can be brought into the fold. Once we have that nailed down, we can start to act as intermediaries between towns. If we can help them build up infrastructure and defense, as well as connect them to each other, they can become secure and self-sufficient without us having to constantly baby them.”

“I am in favor of that plan. It allows us to mostly keep the status quo, which seems to be working, while increasing our options,” Adelaide said, “But we have yet to hear from you, Camille. What is your opinion on this?”

Camille had been silently observing us for the duration of our discussion, paying attention but adding nothing. I expected her to shoot the idea down, but to my surprise she didn’t, at least not entirely, “I think it’s idiotic not to cover our asses. We should start making a list of potential recruits, like Sam said, and depending on how things change, we might want to bring them on board. But we have to be absolutely positive that they can be trusted.”

I arched an eyebrow at her, “Wow. I didn’t expect that from Miss Paranoid McDistrustfulface.”

“That’s Dr Paranoid McDistrustfulface to you, plebian,” she corrected with an upturned nose.

“Oh, that is so not cool. The only fucking reason you have a goddamn PhD and I don’t is because you got to defend your thesis before the world went to shit,” I said angrily.

She waved a hand at me imperiously, “I’m sorry, ingrate, I don’t associate myself with those unworthy of being recognized by academia. But your little Masters really is quite cute, you should be very proud.”

I was about to give a scathing reply when Adelaide interrupted, “As entertaining as this is to observe, I do believe we should continue our discussion of more serious matters.” I tried to surreptitiously shoot the camera a glare. I had finally been able to get Camille to loosen up somewhat, but now she’d gone back to looking nervous and slightly sick.

I sighed, “Alright, alright, fine. I don’t have anything else to add, it’s one of your guys’ turn for show and tell.”

“I have nothing remaining as well, beyond the fact that I now have full control over all of Camelot’s functions,” Adelaide said proudly.

I gave her a round of applause, and after a second Camille joined in as well. Adelaide had been working on that for many months now. It was a testament to the incredible cybersecurity in Camelot that she’d taken this long to do it. After I got tired of clapping I looked over at Camille expectantly. She groaned and stood up, apparently not having my qualms about looking silly. I noticed that she was wearing an earpiece, probably to connect to Camelot’s mental command framework.

“Alright. Let’s get this party started,” she murmured, and the holoprojector cast a satellite projection of Denver. That surprised me more than a little. Camille caught my curious look and said, “I’m not quite done with my theory on the Assimilators’ new behavior. There’s a lot of data to pour over.” I sat back in my chair, mollified.

“Okay. So. This is going to be working up to something more important, but for now I’m going to start with us. We have a major problem right now,” Camille said, “And it’s that everything in this base is unfinished and our ability to detect enemies is extremely limited.”

I blinked. I knew that. Why hadn’t I thought of it?

“Camelot still had months to go before it was fully operational. The training systems are still using beta software, the base defenses were never completed, and most importantly, the Paladins are lacking crucial updates. Specifically, the mental firmware update that I was developing, and the efficiency optimizations that the programming team was working on. Without those, the Paladins are operating at somewhere in the neighborhood of 65% of their capability. The mental firmware in particular is heavily impacting their performance.”

I raised a hand, my mouth filled with a bite of BLT. She rolled her eyes and pointed at me. I swallowed my food and lowered my hand, “So can you redo the mental firmware?”

“I really wish I could, but it’s just not feasible. The advances we made were the culmination of years of work, by a team of over thirty people. I’m good, but I’m not good enough to replicate that much in the timeframe we need. You almost got killed by that Hive Lord because you ran out of power,” I opened my mouth to say something and she cut me off, “I know it’s on you for not watching it, but there’s no reason you should’ve been that low in the first place. And beyond that, without the newer framework, you aren’t perfectly synced up with the Paladin’s systems yet, so you can’t move as well as you should be able to. Keeping the Paladins as they are, especially since they’re seeing so much use, is just too dangerous,” she took a breath, “Too dangerous is also a very good way to describe our current ability to detect Assimilators. From what you told me about the Hive, you had absolutely no idea you were standing on top of thousands of Assimilators before they broke out. That’s a recipe for catastrophe.”

Camille was scratching at her elbow, which meant she was very agitated, “Which brings me to the point of this whole thing.” The map of Denver started to zoom in rapidly, landing on a rubble strewn spot on the south-east border of the city. My eyes widened in realization.

“Oh hell no,” I said, jumping to my feet, “That’s fucking crazy.”

“I know,” she said miserably, “But I can’t think of anything else.”

“I appear to be out of the loop,” Adelaide cut in, “What am I looking at?”

“That’s our old lab. It had up to date hard copies of everything related to the Paladin. Schematics, updated simulator software, the nearly finalized mental firmware, you name it, it had it,” replied Camille, “Problem is, we can’t access it from here.”

“You want us to go there in person.” I said flatly.

“Yup.”

I ran a hand through my hair, “That’s fucking suicide, Denver is absolutely crawling with Assimilators. When we were looking over Colorado, there were at least four Hives in city limits. Tens of thousands of Worms, Camille. We’d be slaughtered.”

She made eye contact, “Let me finish, okay? Trust me?”

I looked into her grey eyes, nodded stiffly, and sat back down.

She continued, “Those aren’t the only objects of interest in that lab. It was the center of a lot of bleeding edge research. Weapons systems, vehicles, aircraft, all sorts of insane prototypes, things that were too experimental or expensive to be in mass production. Camelot has the ten most advanced fabricators ever created. We aren’t limited by expense. But the most important thing in there is their scanners.”

I snapped my head up.

“I’m not really clear on all the details, but I heard from someone in the lab, before everything went to shit, that they’d made a massive breakthrough in scanner tech. They could actually pierce through an Assimilator. You could see their inner workings in real time…”

“Which means we could see the ganglions in the Hive Lords,” I finished for her, “and then I wouldn’t just be firing blindly and hoping for a hit. I could target their weak spots, actually kill them instead of just whittling them down. And we wouldn’t get caught by surprise Worms anymore.”

She nodded at me, “And they have some way of shielding themselves from our current scanners. The new technology might solve that issue’”

I rubbed my forehead, “Fuck. That’s a hell of an incentive alright. But it doesn’t really matter how many nice things they have there if we can’t fight our way in without getting swamped by the entire Assimilator population of Denver.”

Camille hesitated, “Well. We actually can.”

“Come again?” I said.

“Runners and scavengers have been passing through the outskirts of Denver recently,” she explained, “They know ways of getting around the Assimilators without being noticed.”

“So it would be an infiltration mission, essentially,” chipped in Adelaide.

“Exactly. The lab is near the edge of the Hives’ territory. Ideally, we wouldn’t be fighting any Assimilators, we’d be sneaking past them.”

I shook my head, “I guess it’s technically possible, but I have no clue how to do that type of thing, beyond some basic stealth training in the simulator. I’ve never even heard of infiltrating a Hive Cluster, and I’m not a Runner…” I suddenly caught on, “But Mary from Sterling is. You’re saying we should hire her, or another Runner, to guide us?”

“Yup. And the Red Eagles scout team too, if we can,” Camille replied.

I thought about it for a bit. As insane as the husk of the plan was, it sounded like it could potentially be pulled off, especially if there was a precedent for people going through Denver before. And I wasn’t going to lie to myself: We really needed what was there. Without the heavy weapons of the Merlin supporting me, I had no realistic way of putting a Hive Lord down, and the upgrades to the Paladin would be unbelievably useful. But there were still major problems.

“I mean, maybe we could get them on board, but that’s a pretty big assumption. I don’t know if anyone would agree to something as crazy as this. And there’s also a fairly big point you’re glossing over: Paladin’s aren’t exactly sneaky, Camille,” I said.

Camille looked like she was going to vomit, “That’s the thing. You wouldn’t be in a Paladin.”

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