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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Medical Bay.

Figaro woke knowing he was okay. The moment his eyes opened, he was aware of his body being back to normal. He didn’t have to touch himself or look in a mirror, which was convenient since he could do neither.

He was in a bed in the medical bay, naked with a thin sheet over him up to his chest. The machine next to him silently kept his vital signs under observation, keeping its findings to itself. He had no need to inquire about his condition.

He had recovered from the sim-U sickness and could go back to his room with no concerns. His room wasn’t where he wanted to go, though. He wanted to visit his group in their dorm, to see how they viewed him now. He had seen how perturbed some of them had been at his appearance when he emerged from the sim-U — Fayzil, in particular, had looked shell-shocked — but he could use that to his advantage. His recovery would reassure them. Able to take the hits and keep going.

Fayzil’s conversion would be paramount. Pilit Song, Wolfram Hait, Gibber Hodle, they would all follow his lead. After that, the whole group would be his. He just needed to let them see him whole again, unbowed by the experience. Only he couldn’t, because his hands were chained to the bed rails on either side.

It was mildly annoying but there was probably a good reason for him being manacled. His struggle to get the right amount of suppressant into his veins might have been interpreted as a fit of some kind. Of more immediate concern was the absence of his bracelet that should have been on his right wrist. Without it, a lot more people might end up needing medical attention.

He lifted his head off the pillow and looked around for someone to call over. The room was fairly small and his bed was the only one in it. He doubted very much that all the beds were in private rooms here. He had been isolated. For his own good? To keep his condition a secret? To stop him from wandering off?

They weren’t entirely wrong to be worried. What he had seen in the sim-U had been astonishing, to say the least. His first thought was to contact his father and tell him what he’d discovered on board the Origin. As an expert in the field, Ramon Ollo would be able to comprehend faster than anyone what the new sigil meant, both in terms of Antecessor technology and the effect its existence would have on their own civilisation. Interested parties would quickly begin to mobilise their most elite teams. At the moment, lying in a hospital bed, Figaro couldn’t even begin to fathom what their goal might be, but he had no doubt they would all rush into action.

The Origin wasn’t even a ship anymore. It was nothing but a historic reference, a point to start from. No one thought it had more to tell them. The map had already been disseminated far and wide, it wouldn’t be that hard to get hold of a copy, but then what? Research? Years of quiet study?

No, that wasn’t how these things went. Organic fever was what Figaro expected. A wild and unrelenting rush to extract every last trace of meaning from the discovery before anyone else could, and then to apply it in the field through trial and error, making whatever sacrifices needed. There would be no price considered too extravagant, and not just in financial terms. It had happened before, and it hadn’t been pretty. The potential rewards made it inevitable.

There were Antecessor sites that had not been unlocked. Sites like the one owned by his family. Tethari, an inert rock sitting at the edge of a wormhole, had yet to give up its greatest treasures. There were many more sites in a similar position — impenetrable. The thought that this new sigil might provide a key that was previously unavailable was bound to occur to people. The opportunity for a breakthrough would make the new sigil the focus of a lot of attention. The folding space that had crashed the sim-U would also be thoroughly investigated.

It wouldn’t be of much interest to him, though, if he didn’t get his bracelet back.

“Hello?” he called out. “Anyone there?”

“Would you like assistance?” said the machine next to him.

“Yes, please,” said Figaro. His own upbringing had not included many drones or servile machines. It was considered character-building to learn how to do things for oneself. He didn’t disagree with that school of thought, but it made him feel a little out of place outside of his home. Every machine he encountered wanted to talk to him and he found it a little disconcerting.

The machine didn’t respond. Its lights flashed and lines zigzagged across a screen. Figaro waited.

A few minutes later, the door opened and Dr Libstein walked in. He stood next to the machine and examined the screen with his one good eye.

“Ah, good, you seem to have recovered. You’re feeling fine?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Figaro. “Could someone unlock these cuffs?”

“Of course, of course. You were quite a handful, you know? We didn’t want you to injure yourself, or any of us.”

“I’m sorry,” said Figaro. “It was unintentional. The jector was applied incorrectly, I had no choice.”

“Yes, yes, a regretful mistake. These things happen, nobody’s perfect. I hope you won’t hold it against us.”

“Not at all. Now, if you don’t mind.” Figaro raised his wrists as far as they’d go and rattled his chains.

“Ask and it shall be done, but first, let me check on a few things. We don’t want to make any more slip-ups.”

Figaro was getting the impression the doctor was on a bit of a power trip. He wanted Figaro to know he was in charge, that he was in control. A way to reassert his position after his mishap?

“Doctor, please,” said Figaro. It was hard to not sound exasperated. “I need you to release me and I need my personal effects. I had a bracelet on my wrist, a silver one. It’s a medical bracelet and it contains a regulator. It’s important you put it back, immediately.”

“Oh, I see. I had no idea, it’s not in your medical records. What’s it for? Princep Galeli has been very tight-lipped about you, Trainee Matton. Is there something I should know?”

His initial judgement about the doctor, Figaro realised, had been wrong. He wasn’t on a power trip, he was just nosy. The doctor was a gossip fishing for any juicy tidbits.

“It’s a personal matter,” said Figaro.

“You can count on my discretion. I am a doctor.”

“You aren’t my doctor, doctor. Would you mind calling the Princep for me? I think he can clear this up.”

“Certainly, in a moment.”

“Now, doctor.”

“Trainee Matton, as my patient, it’s important you accept I have your best interests at heart. I can’t give you the necessary treatment without an accurate understanding of your condition.”

“I don’t require treatment, doctor. I require my bracelet. I—” Figaro paused and turned to look at the machine. It had a serial number etched on one side. “Machine Sigma Three Nine Six, summon Princep Galeli urgently.”

The machine made no response other than to blink a few of its lights. Had it heard him? Would it comply? Figaro was trained to use any manner of combat tech, but the etiquette of communicating with domestic drones and bots was lost on him. He would need to fix that.

“Belay that order,” said Dr Libstein.

Perhaps Figaro’s first impression had not been so wrong. The doctor was an old gossip and on a power trip.

“Order override,” said the machine.

“Good,” said the doctor.

“Princep Galeli has been notified,” added the machine.

“Wait, which order did you override?”

“Libstein belay three-twelve rejected. Order override, standing directive, authority Galeli.”

“You see?” said the doctor, his one dismayed eye open as wide as possible. “How can a trainee’s command override the chief medical officer’s? Something very fishy is going on here.”

“Libstein,” said Pricep Galeli as he barged in surprisingly soon after being contacted. “What are you doing? I told you to call me as soon as he woke.”

“He just woke up now,” said the doctor, which was more or less true.

“Princep, could you let me out of these, please.”

“Of course, right away.” He pushed past the doctor and tapped the cuffs around Figaro’s wrists, leaning across him to get the further one. The cuffs snapped open.

“And I need my bracelet,” said Figaro.

“Drone Sigma, bring Trainee Matton’s effects here.”

The machine blinked and flashed.

“It’s a medical bracelet,” said Dr Libstein. “Don’t you think I should be informed about medical matters? I am the chief medical officer, after all.”

“We don’t have a chief medical officer,” said the princep. “Stop awarding yourself titles that don’t exist.

The door slid open and a small drone floated in carrying a bag twice its size. The princep took it and started taking out the contents. He placed grey fatigues on the bed.

“Here.” He handed over the bracelet.

Figaro slid his hand through it and immediately felt better. He didn’t need to use it, but having it on his arm freed his mind from the ball of dread caused by its absence. He wouldn’t have liked to have been the cause of everyone’s death, not even the doctor’s.

“Now, if you’re feeling up to it, trainee, I would like you to talk to Captain Hickory. He’s our—”

“Wait,” said the doctor, the horror in his voice hard to miss. “Hickory? When’s he getting here?”

“He’s been here since last night, running the sim-U. I left him outside while I checked on the patient.”

“Outside?” said the doctor, looking startled and backing away from the door. “Here? Now? You know I can’t see him. You know what he’ll do to me.” The doctor desperately looked around for an exit. There was only the one door.

He turned to the window. “Libstein, override, open window.” He tried to push the window open but it didn’t budge. “Libstein, override, override.”

The window popped open with a sigh, like letting out a long-held breath. Libstein pushed it further open and climbed out. He immediately dropped out of view.

“Will he be okay?” asked Figaro.

“Yes, don’t worry about him. You can’t break titanium legs. Get dressed and I’ll take you to meet Hickory in the simulation room.”

“He isn’t outside?” said Figaro.

“No, I just thought the doctor could use some fresh air. Being cooped up in here drives him a little feverish. Now, come along. They’ve been running your map all night. They have questions.” He lowered the guard rails with a snap and Figaro rolled off the bed to get changed.

“What about the rest of Group B?” asked Figaro as he climbed into his fresh greys. “Will they be going into the simulation again?” He didn’t want them to go without him. He wanted to take them back in personally, leading the way this time.

“Ah, yes, there’s been a few changes since your accident. A couple of your fellow trainees dropped out of the program. Faced with the stark reality of the risk from the simulation, they began to truly appreciate what it means to confront the legacy left to us by the Antecessors.”

“Who left?” asked Figaro.

“Ong, Song, Hait and Hodle,” said the Princep. “A shame, but better now than later. They’ve been sent back to their teams for reassignment. Nothing to be unduly concerned about. It happens.”

Figaro felt a stab of disappointment. It was like losing men in the field, men who had fallen while under your command. There was no point in being a leader if there was no one left to lead.

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mooderino

Bio: Moody writes: 'How to Avoid Death on a Daily Basis', 'The Good Student' and 'Deeper Darker.' How does he do it? Where does he find the time? Is he just a better person than me? All good questions.

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