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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Origin - Sim-U

Figaro checked his suit was responsive and brought up the HUD inside his helmet. There was no point activating voice command, he had three other people with him in the airlock and he would need to keep his channel open to speak to them. And to listen to them. He had a feeling things weren’t exactly as he had been led to believe.

“Are you sure about the Ubik boy?” said Princep Galeli over the comms.

“Don’t you trust my insights anymore, Gal?” replied Captain Hickory.

“It’s not your insights I’m worried about, it’s what Terrific JonJo will do if the boy upsets him. He has a bewildering ability to get under people’s skins.”

“I know,” said Hickory. “It’s intentional. He uses it to put people off-balance. It’s an incredibly risky approach but since he’s still alive, it would seem he’s managed to make it work. That should tell you all you need to know.”

“We’ll see,” said the princep. “He’s only had to deal with the criminals on his tiny junk planet so far. Our crooks are a level above what he’s used to.”

The princep almost sounded like he was boasting. Figaro listened quietly, not fully understanding what they were referring to, other than something to do with Ubik. He doubted the princep was correct about Ubik’s level of experience, though. Ubik’s behaviour, his wilful disregard of obvious threats, suggested he had experienced something far more terrible than petty criminals. Whatever it was, he had survived, which, as Captain Hickory said, told you all you needed to know.

“Well, he’s out there now, not much we can do,” said the princep. “At least he’s not alone.”

They were using a private channel, thinking no one else could hear their conversation. Figaro had hacked into it quite easily, simply redirecting both sides to his own receiver. If the princep checked, he would be able to tell immediately, but he wouldn’t check. Figaro could tell just by the way the man spoke to his subordinates that he was averse to reviewing anything they had already cleared. It would be tantamount to accusing them of incompetence, and he wouldn’t want to do that. After all, he had selected them for the job, so what would it say about him?

“Can I ask a question?” said Figaro, speaking on the regular channel.

“Yes, what is it?” said Captain Hickory. He put on a more brusque tone when speaking to his subordinates. He would have no problem calling someone out for a mistake. Nothing to feel guilty about there.

“Why are you wearing those suits?”

Figaro was in the same dated suit as before, but the other four were wearing very modern suits with all the attachments you could wish for.

“It’s what we normally wear when we go delving for treasure,” said Gipper. “Jealous?”

His suit was the most ostentatious, green and pink, with some sort of pouncing cat on the chestplate and a small cannon mounted on the shoulder.

“It’s very nice,” said Figaro. “But I thought you were trying to replicate what I did. If the ship sees you as a different kind of threat, it might react differently.”

“No, no, no,” said Gipper, dismissively waving a gloved hand studded with artificial gems. “That’s not how Antecessor tech works. Trust me, I’ve been in hundreds of ships like this one — and I’m not talking about simulations.”

“You’ve been in maybe three ships like this one,” said Figaro. “It’s hard to be accurate when you’re dealing with low numbers — statistical variance is much higher.” He fired a little burst of gas and turned the suit to face the girl. “You’ve been in over a dozen, but mostly in the rear or after a defensive encampment has been established.” He moved around a bit more to look at the larger man whose suit looked the most worn. “You could probably give me some tips. I’d like to speak to you after this, if you have a moment.”

“No problem,” said the man, although his voice sounded hesitant.

“Very observant,” said Captain Hickory, “but do you really think how we’re dressed makes a difference to the automated systems on this ship? The functionality of our suits is more or less the same.”

“He’s got a cannon on his shoulder,” said Figaro. He found it odd they were arguing with him on this point. It seemed obvious why you would try to avoid changing anything from the run you were trying to replicate. Even if it seemed minor or irrelevant, why take the chance if you didn’t need to?

“It’s a wave gun, just like the rifle you’re carrying,” said Gipper. He was getting a little annoyed at being singled out. That kind of sensitivity also seemed out of place on a team like this.

“Why is he here?” Figaro asked Hickory. “What is his area of expertise?”

“Hey, what kind of—”

“He’s an excellent pilot,” said Hickory, waving away Gipper’s protestations, “and the ideal person to have around if things go wrong. He won’t panic or leave you behind.”

Figaro could sense Gipper swelling up inside his unnecessarily ornate suit. “Neither of which are required here. We don’t need to fly anywhere, and we can’t get into a desperate situation, other than a little sim-U sickness. Are you trying to test me, Captain? I thought you just wanted me to open the restricted area for you.”

“Oh, come on,” said Gipper. “You want to tone it down a bit, kid? I’m not a test for you.”

“Yes,” said Hickory, “that’s right, I wanted to see you operate at a bit of a handicap. It reveals more, I find.”

“What?” said Gipper. “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course he is,” said the girl. “Jace is the only breacher here. We never get to go in first on regular delves, do we?”

Figaro couldn’t see her face, but he could feel her eyes rolling at Gipper’s lack of comprehension.

“Well, Bev, you’re all going to be very surprised this time round,” said Gipper, “I can tell you that.”

“Can we change the suits?” asked Figaro. “I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I’d rather try to keep this run as similar to my last one as possible.”

“Very well,” said Captain Hickory. “Princep Galeli, would you mind?”

“I’ll see to it,” said the princep’s voice. “One moment.”

A few seconds later, there was a flicker and the suits around Figaro resembled his.

“What is this ancient UI,” moaned Gipper. “It’s so… basic.”

“Shall we go?” asked Figaro.

Captain Hickory signalled to Jace, who opened the circular portal with an ease that suggested familiarity and proficiency. At least Hickory hadn’t decided to hamper him in all departments.

Figaro led the way, gliding out of the airlock and reorienting his position as he had done the previous time. The others followed his example. They were all clearly well-practised in the basics.

“If we wanted to replicate my last visit,” said Figaro over the comms, “we should send someone into the engine core to die.”

“I volunteer the kid,” said Gipper.

“That’s not how volunteering works,” said Bev. “You can’t volunteer someone else. They aren’t a volunteer then, are they?”

“Battlefield promotion,” said Gipper.

“That makes no sense,” said Bev.

“Do you really think it’s necessary?” asked Hickory.

“No,” said Figaro, moving along the same strip of wall as before. “The ship already knows we’re here.”

“If it doesn’t matter, why did we have to change our suits?” said Gipper.

“One affects the likelihood of engagement, the other affects the manner of engagement. We’re only interested in the latter.”

“What did he say?” said Gipper.

They reached the second airlock without issue. Figaro hovered over the sealed opening as the others gathered up around him. He had got through here using his wave gun, but Jace inverted his suit so his helmet was close to the floor and pushed against various panels. The spiral door unwound to reveal the chute.

“Lead the way,” said Hickory.

Figaro did as asked. He dropped down and reached the same room as before, the large vats of liquid glowing gently. The others appeared behind him, ready for the next part.

“This is where you died?” asked Figaro.

“Only because we tried to surrender,” said Gipper.

“It worked for him,” said Bev.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing it happen live.”

Figaro moved further into the room. He was looking forward to seeing how things happened this time, too. His training had involved repeating the same tasks in the same way endlessly. This leap into the unknown was a novel approach for him. It was actually quite fun.

The wall ahead of him moved. Five droids detached themselves, starfish-shaped. Then more droids detached from the other walls.

“This is new,” said Hickory.

None of the droids approached. There were over twenty in the room.

It wasn’t surprising that the ship would react differently to a bigger threat. How best to proceed now, though? Standard tactics would be to take down the droids as quickly as possible, but standard tactics wouldn’t have brought them swanning into an unsecured zone like this.

Figaro raised the rifle and pointed it at one of the vats.

“I don’t think that’s a good—” the girl began to say.

The droids moved with astonishing speed — towards each other. They formed five separate clumps, which then unfolded into much larger droids.

“I think we should leave,” said Gipper.

“No, wait,” said Figaro. “Don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re going to att—”

They attacked, one for each trespasser. The four people around Fig were slammed into, driven back and pinned to the walls before they could even raise their weapons.

Figaro wasn’t pinned, he was grabbed. His designated droid wrapped itself around him like a fist, leaving only his head exposed. It was almost like it remembered what had happened last time and made corrections, which was impossible.

“This is fun,” said Gipper, squashed beneath a large palm.

The others were all being held flat against the wall, unable to move but not otherwise harmed. Figaro began floating towards the wall in front of him, which slid open.

“I knew it,” said Hickory over the private channel. “It’s him, it’s the boy.”

“It seems so,” said the princep. “It only works for him.”

“You want to unlock whatever’s going on here, you’ll need him.”

There was a sigh from the princep. “You have no idea how impossible that is.”

“How many times have we faced the impossible and won, Gal?” said Hickory. “Time to be bold, princep.”

Figaro could see the logic of their conclusion, but he wasn’t convinced. He had been inside many simulations, none of them had reacted to him any differently than they had to anyone else. Something else was going on here.

He left the room behind and entered the same corridor as before. There was an airlock ahead of him, the one he had assumed was going to be used to eject him from the ship.

“Princep Galeli, can you bring up the schematics for the ship? I know this area isn’t on there, but can you extrapolate where this airlock leads to? Outside?”

There was a pause. “No. It seems to lead further into the ship.”

An airlock between sections of the same ship? Why?”

“Do you want me to pull you out?” asked the princep.

There was a chance he would end up getting sick again, but how many folding universal gateways could one ship have? Something else was through here.

“Time to be bold, princep,” said Figaro.

There was no response. The portal opened.

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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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