Gorbol Training Academy.
Dinner was served in separate halls. The two groups, despite what Fig had said, were very much being kept separate. Point-Two wasn’t sure what the strategy was meant to accomplish but he was sure it was deliberate.
After their meal, which was very plain and portioned out in different amounts for each person, they were taken by drone to an exercise room and made to run around the perimeter for half an hour.
Point-Two had been told it wasn’t a good idea to exercise right after eating, but apparently the guild observed a different set of rules. The drone acted as pacesetter and wasn’t very fast. No one suffered any side-effects. The food had been hard to identify — they had been given a tray with what looked like mashed potatoes in different coloured dollops — but a slight chemical taste suggested they may have included additives. They were unlikely to want to harm their new recruits so Point-Two didn’t bother to think too hard about it.
By the time they returned to their dorm, it was getting late. They were expected to be in bed by nine, asleep by ten and up at six, the drone informed them. It was willing to answer any questions, but most were met with, “You will be notified at the appropriate time.”
They showered and got changed into the fresh greys waiting for them. The open plan toilets were still awkward for some people, but having showered together, the embarrassment of nakedness had at least passed. It felt like all of this was a deliberate effort to get people to shed their self-consciousness.
There was a little chatting and joking but mostly people were too apprehensive about what would happen tomorrow as they faced the legacy of the Antecessors. Ubik went around the room, making people laugh and buoying their mood. Point-Two suspected the worst. He didn’t know what that was, he just knew he wouldn’t like it when he did.
Sleep came quickly. Rather quicker than Point-Two had expected, which made him suspect a sedative in their meal. A good amount of sleep was no bad thing, but here it seemed to be enthusiastically enforced. Or maybe they had been really tired after a long day.
There was no breakfast, their two meals a day being in the middle and the end. As soon as the drone woke them with a series of high-pitched beeps, they were expected to be up and moving. No time to shower, no time to wash your face or brush your teeth. They were being reprogrammed into a new pattern of behaviour.
The drone led them down the stone steps to the courtyard. The sky already above them was a sharp blue and the sun was a pale white. It would warm up later, the sun growing in size and changing colour. Right now, the morning chill cut through their flimsy overalls.
They were led through a side door, into a large room split into two areas. One side had lots of clothing hanging on rails. The other side had lots of guns sitting in racks. A guild instructor stood behind a table on each side, with Supervisor Varruk standing in between the two.
“Before you go into the sim-u,” said Varruk, “we will put you in the equipment you will be using. This is merely a familiarisation routine for this particular simulation, using equipment specific to this particular map — you won’t be using anything like this when you’re out in the field. This gear is old and outdated by several decades, but it will be what you’re given in the sim-u so it’s best for you to get a feel for it.”
They were given very low-quality spacesuits to put on. They wore them over their overalls, climbing into them from an opening in the back and pulling them up their bodies while trying not to make their greys bunch up.
“They do have waste collection facilities incorporated into them,” said Varruk, “but do not use them. I repeat, DO NOT use them. Inside the sim-u, you can do whatever you please. This is just a familiarisation exercise.”
The way he emphasised the point made Point-Two think there had been accidents in the past.
The suits were a tight fit, fairly easy to move around in once they were on. They would be even easier to manoeuvre once they were in a weightless environment, which was what they were meant for and gave a rough idea of where the group would be deployed. Antecessor sites came in two main types — some kind of base on a planetoid or asteroid. Or a ship. One generally had gravity and one didn’t.
If it had been a question of breathable atmosphere, the suit would have been completely different. There were thrusters built into these ones.
On the Garu, Point-Two had been trained to use any number of different spacesuits, as had every other person on board. When you lived on a ship flying through space, you never knew when the universe might try to stop you. There had been many instances of the huge ship taking damage and sections losing power. You had to be able to survive with whatever you had at hand.
They were given instructions on how to operate the comms and the thrusters. Very basic instructions. Those without experience of zero-G mobility would not have an easy time picking it up. Perhaps this was a way of finding out who needed extra training. Maybe it was a way of cutting those who would require too much.
Nothing was powered up so they couldn’t actually see how things worked, but you could press buttons and flip switches. Nothing had labels so you had to remember what each toggle was for.
Ubik had already stripped down the leg on one side of his suit and was inspecting the internal workings, which looked like strips of silver foil.
One of the instructors began to shout at him but the supervisor told him to leave Ubik alone. They clearly had their eye on him and had decided to allow him some leeway. Point-Two did not approve.
Once everyone had got to grips with their suits — as much as they could in a training hall — they were each given a rifle.
They were old and scuffed. Made of black carbonite, very light and with cracks in the casing.
Point-Two hadn’t seen a gun quite like this one before, but he understood the theory behind it. You pointed it at the target and pulled the trigger.
There was no ammo once it was turned on. It fired an endless series of high-frequency waves caused by the mechanical action of pulling the trigger, designed to disrupt signals. The wave-bullet wouldn’t kill a man, but they could make his suit malfunction, turn his gun into a blunt instrument, turn off machinery.
It was a useful weapon in space, where projectiles could threaten hull integrity and lasers started fires. How useful was it against Antecessor technology?
They were taught how to use the rifles, which took five minutes, and then they were given some time to walk around in their suits pointing their guns at each other. Not exactly battle ready. Then they handed back the guns and took off their suits. They were led back to the courtyard and through the doors on the other side. They passed the other team going in the opposite direction. Nods were exchanged. Fig was at the back not looking very happy, barely acknowledging his presence. He did, however, give Ubik a long look. Maybe he just liked him.
This time, they were taken to a large white room with thick metal doors that slid open as they approached. This area didn’t have the same antiquated feel as the rest of the academy. This area felt very up-to-date and modern.
There was a large white machine that sat in the middle of the room, a long oblong with six seats on either side.
“Good morning,” said the Princep. “This will be your first encounter with the Antecessors. I realise you don’t feel prepared for this but that is by design. You will be given the bare minimum of information, which I will walk you through now. Then you will be thrown in the deep end.” He paused to take a look at them for the first time since they’d entered. His stare was intimidating and not at all reassuring. Many of the men averted their gaze or looked past him.
Point-Two was listening but he was keeping an eye on Ubik, who was uncomfortably close to the machine. Point-Two moved around the group to get in between him and the machine their lives would depend on.
“Our main goal here,” continued the Princep, “is to get an idea of how each of you react inside an Antecessor environment. How much your reaction needs to be adjusted is a key part of the process and something that will play a large role in your future in the guild. But this is a preliminary run which none of you are expected to survive. You need to get accustomed to the simulation machine, and to dying. It won’t be painless but it will be fairly quick. The record for survival for a new trainee on this map is seventeen minutes standard; and that trainee spent a lot of the time hiding. I’m not judging, the record is the record. If you attempt the same game plan, good luck to you.”
So no first-timer had ever survived this test and the longest anyone had lasted was seventeen minutes. At least they wouldn’t be expected to come away from this with a victory.
“Before you go in, let me show you your destination. This is it.” He turned to face the large screen on the wall behind him. A ship floating in space appeared behind him
“This is the Antecessor ship named Origin. It was the first Antecessor ship ever found.”
The spaceship on the screen, hanging limp against a backdrop of stars and asteroids, looked nothing like the ships now used, or ever used by humans. It was a mixture of swirls and entwined limbs. Near-black ochre green and rusty orange-red, the long sleek shape ended abruptly where the back had been blown apart, leaving it looking like a pod that had burst open.
“Many of you will have heard of this ship, know its history, maybe even played games on it on your Holovers — let me assure you, you know nothing about the real Origin. It was discovered in an asteroid field by the mining ship Cordoba Serenity, owned by the Hi-Rize Corporation — one of the biggest corporations in the galaxy, now. They sent in a forty-man team from their security division. All forty died within ten minutes. A hundred-man team was dispatched from their elite suppression unit. They all died, too. Only when a specialist group of six archaeologists from the D’atnari Institute were given access did they start to find out what the ship was. Understand, this is a deadly place you should take seriously. Also understand, it doesn’t require brute force to gain passage beyond the defences. Use your brains and act accordingly. Understand also, this is not a simulation as you think of it. You will be entering the real decks, facing the real defences, fully operational. Our map was given to us by the D’atnari Institute which owns the remains of this vessel. The scan is more than ninety-nine percent accurate. You will face what the first boarders faced, with about as much information. Do not be afraid. Never believe yourselves to be safe.”
It was a speech that told Point-Two practically nothing about what he would have wished to know, and far too much about things he wouldn’t. Still, it was an exciting prospect. They all took a seat and the helmets were lowered over their heads.
“One more thing,” said the Princep’s voice. “You may feel a slight sting.”
A vicious pain shot through the back of Point-Two’s neck. His body went rigid and he would have screamed if he had control of his mouth. Blackness surrounded him and in the back of his mind he recalled seeing Ubik bending down to tie his shoelaces just before he sat down. His shoes didn’t have laces.