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Then a ping in Tom's brain: Morning classes have now commenced.

"I had to look over your firewall programs twice just to be sure." Blackburn leaned his elbows on the podium, his broad shoulders stretching his fatigues. "At first, I honest to god thought those were the real programs. But then I remembered that these are the best and the brightest young people in the USA even without neural processors, so they couldn't possibly be serious about such laughable, poorly written code. Well done, trainees! You had me. Now where are the real programs? Feel free to submit them now."

Blackburn began drumming his fingers on his podium, waiting. Despite his easy words, there was a grim, almost angry set to his features. Tom glanced around for some cue about what was going on. All the faces he saw were fixed in varying degrees of tense expectation, like they knew the mildness of their instructor's tone was deceptive.

After a time, Blackburn glanced up into space. "That's funny. Looks like I got … nothing. Do you mean to tell me those were your real programs? In that case, we need to talk about some fundamentals here for a minute, children. In fact, let's start with fundamental number one. Are you listening? Here it is: there are computers in your brains."

He let those words hang there and looked over the room.

"Do I need to repeat myself?" This time, he jabbed his finger at his temple with each word. "There are computers in your brains. Do you know why I am wasting my breath trying to teach you to program? No, it's not so I can spend precious hours looking at this sea of happy, shiny faces. It's so you can learn to control your own neural processors." The mild tone vanished from his voice-his irritation seeping through. "Mastery of programming is mastery of self, and if you can't take that seriously, then the joke's not on me, it's on you. What, Ms. Akron?"

Heather's hand dropped. Her voice rang out, "If it's really so important we learn this, sir, then it would make much more sense to just put everything we need in the download streams."

Blackburn puffed out his cheeks and released his breath very slowly. "I've said this before," he replied, "and I'll say it again: those neural processors can't manipulate computer languages the way they do human languages, and there's a very simple reason for that-it's illegal. We have federal laws in this country. One such law prohibits self-programming computers. Your neural processor, as a computer, falls under this law. Your brain, as an organ in your skull, does not. If you have a problem with this, then you can take it up with the good folks at Obsidian Corp. who lobbied your congressmen for that legislation. You see, they built the neural processors, so it makes sense for them to keep the military dependent on their programmers. That's why you folks are all so very lucky I'm here, and I, unlike you, realized how important it was to control the computer in my brain, even if it meant I had to sit down and teach myself the Zorten II computer language the hard way."

Tom stared at Blackburn, still stuck on those words "The computer in my brain …" How could Blackburn have a neural processor? He had to be forty, at least. General Marsh said adults couldn't handle neural processors. But he remembered seeing an IP address in Blackburn's profile. That must be his.

"But, sir," Heather pressed, "some of us are Combatants. We're fighting the war. You had more time to learn the regular way, since you were just …" She trailed off.

She didn't seem able to say it, so Blackburn gave a short, harsh laugh. "I was just … locked in a mental institution?"

"He was in a mental institution?" Tom whispered to Vik.

"First test group was sixteen years ago," Vik replied softly, "three hundred adult soldiers. The military didn't know yet what neural processors do to adult brains."

"They all went insane?"

"Only the lucky ones. The rest died."

Tom took a moment to absorb that as Blackburn went on, "No need to dance around my mental illness, Ms. Akron. I've never tried to hide it from you. If there's one monstrous representation of a neural processor's destructive potential, you can see it standing right here. That computer in your head is a weapon, but it is a double-edged sword. Don't ever forget that."

"He doesn't seem all that crazy," Tom whispered to Vik.

"He taught himself how to reprogram his neural processor and fixed his own brain."

"There's this attitude," Blackburn was saying, "and I find it in trainees again and again. The first few months with a neural processor, it's all amazement and awe. And then? You start taking it for granted. Don't. Never take a neural processor for granted. There is nothing natural about having a computer in your head. So while you have a point, Ms. Akron, about having a time crunch, you also fail to see the forest for the trees. Yes, I was a paranoid schizophrenic with nothing better to do than figure out how to program, but you, as an actual fighter in this war, have a much more critical reason to learn programming for yourself. Let's start with point one: you're fighting a war. What is the basic definition of war? I don't need anything deep, just a quick, one-sentence answer."

Silence. Then, a Middle Company trainee Tom's processor identified as Lisa Sanchez answered, "War is a violent conflict to resolve a dispute."

"That's right, Ms. Sanchez. This war springs from a disagreement over ownership of the solar system. Each side has laid claim to it, and each is trying to enforce that claim using violence. Point two: why do you think your identities are classified? Anyone?"

An Alexander Division Combatant Tom's processor identified as Emefa Austerley raised her dark hand. "Security, sir."


"To protect us."

"From what?"

No answer this time. Tom glanced around, wondering about it himself. It wasn't like they'd be killed if their identities were in the open. That didn't happen now.

"To protect you from violence," Blackburn supplied. "And I know what you're all thinking: no one kills in this war. We've evolved beyond that, right? Even you Combatants aren't putting your lives on the line to fight since the battle is taking place thousands of miles from you.... So why protect you from violence? Nigel Harrison, you seem to have something to add."

A slim, dark-haired boy said, "War evolves over time. It's better to say, 'No one kills in this war yet.'"

Blackburn snapped his fingers and pointed at him. "Give the boy a gold star. No one kills in this war yet. Violence hasn't reached you yet. Let's face it, why would the Russians and Chinese try to kill you? They know if they kill one of our Combatants, we'll set out to kill one of their Combatants. And then the two companies sponsoring those Combatants will have wasted a whole lot of money on some dead kids. There are what, forty something Combatants in the entire world? You're valuable. It's not worth it financially to bring death into the equation. But what happens a few years down the road when some discount neural processors hit the market and there are four hundred of you? What about four thousand? Here's a hint, trainees: your stock goes down. You become expendable."

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