The battles had become tiresome.
Maybe that was because Lila knew they were all faked. She wasn’t really face to face with some nightmare creature with giant suction cups where its face should have been, slithering toward her across a gloomy swamp.
She was standing in a simulation room, deep in the bowels of the Sword and Shield skyscraper, and lunch should have started twenty minutes ago. The cafeteria would be out of the delicious fried tubers if they didn’t let her out of the simulation soon.
Or maybe it was because she always lost the battles. The other trainees had been fighting in these kinds of simulations since they’d been discovered to be Wielders, usually sometime around four or five years old. They knew exactly how to move, what to do, when faced with every one of the monster creatures ever discovered on Salazie or the worlds surrounding it.
“Lila, are you planning on moving anytime soon?” The voice in her ears sounded as tired and as annoyed as she felt.
“I’m supposed to throw something at it, aren’t I?” She asked, taking a wild guess at the proper technique for battling a creature with suction cups. “Pepper or something?”
“What?” The annoyed voice sounded incredulous. “What would — have you even watched the lesson? Do you even know what this creature is?”
Lila bit the inside of her cheek to keep from making the snarky response that would only have gotten her in more trouble. But which one of the eight thousand lessons in her queue was she supposed to have watched? Did any of the instructors ever consider that if she was in class and training twelve hours a day, sleeping eight hours, and taking care of basic human needs like eating, bathing, and dressing for at least a few minutes more of the remaining, it left her very little time to review the endless stream of instruction that the System had lined up for her.
She’d started out approximately ten years behind the other students in her age range. At the rate she was going, she’d be twelve years behind by the end of the year.
The voice sighed.
Lila had no idea who the voice belonged to. The instructors were constantly changing, the assistant teachers rotating in and out according to some mysterious schedule known only to the System. Each of the full Swords and most of the Sword trainees had to take supervisory rotations. Lila wasn’t entirely sure why but apparently the System believed that human supervision was an important precautionary measure when teaching violence.
“You are battling — supposed to be battling — an Ancortian merslug,” the voice said, with faked patience. “They’re very sensitive to sound. Turn on your aural amplifier to a frequency of 17MhZ and hit play, so we can get the hell out of here.” The patience was entirely gone by the time he reached the end of his instructions.
Lila checked the belt at her waist. Aural amplifier, that was one of the little black boxes. Not one that she used often. Basically, it made a big noise to scare the monsters away and most monsters were not so easily scared. She pulled it off, the clip that held it in place releasing at her tug, and held it up to her face. Set to 17, that must be the little slider thing on the edge. A small square display should reveal the number, but the screen wasn’t the light up kind, and it was hard to see in the dim light of the swamp. She looked down, toward her cheekbone, and found the icon for suit controls on her interface. Calling it up, she let her eyes drift down until she found the vision icon, then chose the one for brightness. She turned it up, sliding it slowly until she could see the display on the device in her hands clearly.
She moved the dial on the device up, then down, then up again. The lowest number the display showed was 80. The highest number was 180. She thought the voice had said 17, but he must have meant 170. Right? She hesitated, then gave a tiny shrug, and pressed the play button.
The noise was immense.
Lila screamed and dropped the device, clapping her hands over her ears. What the hell? What kind of lousy advice was that?
The voice was yelling at her, inside her head, but the sound couldn’t penetrate the roar around her. It felt like she was standing in the middle of a thunderclap that just kept going and going and going.
She knelt and fumbled for the device, turning it over until she found the button that had turned it on. She pressed it again to turn it off.
Silence, but her ears were still ringing and not just from the yells of the voice. “Megahertz, megahertz, not decibels! Frequency, not volume.”
She didn’t have the faintest idea what he was yelling about.
In a decidedly grumpy, but quieter voice, he said, “Well, you’re dead. The merslug would have eaten you before you even found the controls. Fail.”
Lila stayed kneeling. The simulation wasn’t so good that the ground felt like swamp. She could tell that she was just on the same kind of bouncy artificial surface that all the exercise rooms had for flooring. Which was good, because she really wanted to pound on it, and she really didn’t want mud splattering into her face if she did.
Her teeth were clenched. These simulations were so very stupid. When would she ever be wandering around a swamp like this alone, anyway? The Swords never went out alone, they were always in teams of five people. And if she had to face some creature with giant suction cups, she would avoid it first and if she couldn’t possibly avoid it, she’d zap it with lightning.
But why wouldn’t she be able to avoid it? She could levitate herself out of any such stupid situation and obviously would.
Of course, the administration at the Sword Academy didn’t know she could levitate. They thought she was only an illusion wielder. But even then, if she faced a monster like this one, she’d make herself invisible and get the hell out its way.
Why were they so determined to make every peg fit into the same round hole? Every trainee had to learn to use the same weapons, had to develop the same strategies, had to pass the same tests. It was so stupid.
A tiny red dot started blinking at the edge of Lila’s vision. Resigned, she accepted the request for communication access.
It was text, not voice. A meeting had been added to her calendar, for forty minutes away. Just about enough time to get cleaned up and, if she hurried, to eat some lunch, too. Lila sighed and stood.
The voice in her head said, “I’ve put you in for a retest, but you’ll need remedial instruction first. You should have recognized that merslug immediately. They’re distinctive and common enough on Andolyn that you will encounter one at some point…” There was a hesitation, brief but noticeable, before the voice continued. “…if you become an active Sword.”
Lila would have liked to make a rude gesture at the speaker. If she’d had any idea where he was located or where the cameras were that he was using to watch her, she might have tried. But he was just a voice in her head.
She trudged toward where she thought the exit door was located. But the swamp moved around her, trees scrolling on endlessly.
“Do you mind?” she said, waving at the scenery.
“Ah, sorry.” The voice sounded apologetic.
The swamp disappeared. A wall appeared directly before her, with the door only a few feet to her left.
Lila tried to let the thought of fried tubers improve her mood. But whatever the meeting was that had appeared in her calendar, it would take up time that she was supposed to be using for classes and then she’d need to make up the classes in some moment of her non-existent free time. The fried tubers were going to have to be good, because she was probably going to miss the evening meal.