Gorbol Training Academy.
Figaro was held firmly in the multidroid’s grip. It was as if the ship had reached out a giant hand and grabbed him. This was not like the previous time. Then, it was a delicate pinch on the end of his extremities, like he was an unpleasant find the droids were taking away to dispose of.
There was no getting out of his confinement. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but he was wrapped up tight with only his head free, just able to turn his neck so he could look to the sides.
He wouldn’t be able to exit his suit like he had with the original droid formation. He had the distinct feeling changes had been made to avoid repeating the same mistake, but the simulation couldn’t make memories. The whole point was for humans to learn how to get better at dealing with Antecessor technology, not the other way around. And if it was possible for the simulated Antecessor constructs to learn from their mistakes, surely it would have been noticed. He certainly would have noticed it.
It was an unexpected development but he was happy to be taken wherever it was he was being taken. Any unusual activity in an Antecessor site was something worth looking into. Figaro had been on numerous sim-U missions and he had never encountered anything like this, or even heard of someone being taken prisoner.
He had seen droids use humans as shields and even as weapons — it was quite something to be clubbed to death by a fellow member of your team — but there was no reason for them to keep a captive alive and locked up somewhere.
But a prisoner was definitely what he was, there was no other way to put it. He had been deliberately captured while the others in his party had been immobilised. No one had been killed, for some reason. Antecessor encounters didn’t get much more unusual than that.
He was floating towards the airlock which was now open on this end. This was where he had managed to escape from the droids last time. He had left them disabled in the airlock and then proceeded to the strange phenomenon that had crashed the simulation. This time, he was interested in seeing what was through the other end of the airlock.
As he floated through the opening, he felt a twinge of trepidation. Despite his many hours spent inside a simulation machine just like this one, this time he felt like he was not in an artificial environment. He knew that he was, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like a brand new experience.
“Are you okay?” asked the princep over the comms. “We’re keeping an eye on your readings, just in case.”
“I’m fine,” said Figaro. “I could use a bit of stretch, though. I hope they don’t keep me like this for long.”
“Just let us—”
The portal behind Figaro closed and at the same time the comms went dead.
“Hello? Princep Galeli? Can you hear me?”
There was no response.
Another portal waited for him at the other end of the tube he was now in. The walls were black with the presence of the ship’s sensors indicated by the streaks of white light that zipped alongside forming geometric designs. He recognised the patterns.
These white lines not only observed what was happening inside an Antecessor site, they also provided information for those who could interpret them. The language of the Antecessors had never been cracked, but some basic instructions and labelling had been identified. The pattern to his right was indicating that there was an escape pod ahead.
Most Antecessor sites had them. A means to evacuate quickly in the event of… nobody really knew. What constituted an emergency for the Antecessors?
They were usually spherical capsules, powered by a limited fuel source that would fly the occupant to the nearest wormhole. How they navigated or what activated them was a mystery, even though numerous people had managed to inadvertently fire themselves off the site they were investigating.
The symbol for an escape pod was a perfectly normal designation to find in an airlock. Except, how did an escape pod escape from the middle of a ship?
“Activate backup communication systems. Boost signal. Princep, can you hear me?” He tried numerous ways to reestablish contact, but nothing worked. There was nothing wrong with his suit, the signal was being blocked by some kind of interference. Which would have been understandable if this was the real Origin. But it wasn’t. The signal didn’t have to travel from him to a receiver. The simulation machine was the receiver.
The portal ahead of him began to spiral open. The white lines darting around the walls shot forward and gathered around the opening. Then they leapt off the walls and formed a shape made of light. It was like three petals — the sigil.
Framed in the opening, it now looked more like a fan. If it started spinning, would it prevent him from passing through? Would it slice him into pieces? It was a fanciful thought. He could see through it, like it was a hologram. The light was faint and he could see the interior of a pod through it.
The droids attached to him didn’t ease their grip. They floated him through the holographic sigil, into an open area. The escape pod was empty, not even a chair for Figaro to strap himself into.
Even if it could launch itself out of the ship, where would it go? The simulation didn’t include the rest of the universe.
He stopped moving. The hologram of the sigil blinked and then went out. The door closed.
The droids enveloping him began to shift. He could feel the movement against his suit. He found he could move his arms out to the side. At first he thought the droids had opened a gap for him, but as he raised his arms, he saw that the droids had stretched out to cover his limbs, like a suit on top of his own suit.
From around his neck, the black material, similar to the walls all around him, rose up and covered his helmet and visor. His whole head was quickly covered leaving him unable to see anything other than the softly illuminated HUD at the bottom of his vision.
There was a whirring noise. Everything started to shake. A light appeared in front of Figaro’s face, inside his helmet.
It was the sigil. It was right in front of him. It seemed to be pulling him forward. Not physically but mentally. It felt like his mind was being sucked out of his brain. His mind was the one part of him that was really here, and it could be directly affected as it had with the sim-U sickness.
Figaro resisted. Whatever was happening now, the technology was designed to work on Antecessors. Human physiology was not as robust, at least that was what had been hypothesised.
Fortunately, he wasn’t in the real universe where he would be subject to the real laws of physics. This was a projection into his subconscious, a kind of dream. It was hard to control a dream, or even to realise you were inside one, but it was possible. Figaro had been trained to reject the input if necessary.
It wasn’t advisable, and there was a strong likelihood he would crash the simulation again, which wouldn’t be great for his health, but it seemed preferable to having his consciousness unravelled.
His awareness, his sentience, his ability to think and process his surroundings, they were all here inside the simulation. What if this capsule didn’t transport the physical body, what if it was a device to send his consciousness on a journey? The ship didn’t exist in the real universe, but would it need to? A photograph could send your mind to a distant memory, why couldn’t this ancient replica of a lost civilisation do something similar?
Figaro stopped fighting the pull on his mind and focused instead on trying to keep his sense of who he was together. The important thing was to continue to exist. He just didn’t know where he would be existing.
“The readings are dead — no brain activity,” said Princep Galeli.
“Hmm,” said Captain Hickory, nodding thoughtfully.
“What am I supposed to tell his mother?”
“Nothing,” said Hickory. “A bit early for that. He’s still breathing, isn’t he?”
Galeli leaned forward and looked at Trainee Matton’s face. The eyes were open but there was no indication of any awareness. He was still plugged into the simulation machine, it was too risky to detach him when his brain function wasn’t responding, but it was okay to remove the helmet. The boy looked normal, no sim-U sickness, no necrosis. He looked quite healthy.
“He’s brain dead,” said Galeli. “It’s been known to happen.”
“Really?” said Gipper nervously. “No one’s ever mentioned it before.”
Galeli stood up and gave Gipper a hard stare. “It’s very rare.”
“I don’t think he’s brain dead,” said Hickory.
“No?” said Galeli, very much wanting him to be right. “Then what happened to him?”
They had lost contact with Trainee Matton — audio and visual — once he entered the strange airlock. And then alarms began ringing and everything went flat. All that was left was this living corpse.
There was a click followed by a humming noise. The air around Captain Hickory crackled and his eyes glowed crimson. He inhaled sharply and turned away from the boy. There was another click and the hairs on Galeli’s arms stopped tickling him. Hickory’s eyes returned to normal.
“His consciousness isn’t gone for good,” said Hickory, slightly unsteady on his feet. “It’s just very far away.”
“Where?” asked Galeli, peering at Matton’s face like he might be able to see something. He didn’t have Hickory’s sight, though. All he saw was a boy in a vegetative state.
“I’m not sure,” said Hickory. “I can only see the trail. Maybe not even in this quadrant.”
“How is that possible?” said Gipper, looking on warily. “This is a simulation.”
“The machine can affect your mind, though,” said Bev. “It only sent his mind to the next quadrant.”
“It still doesn’t make sense,” said Gipper. “None of it makes sense. He said he’d been in simulations hundreds of times, didn’t he? Why would this one be any different? Someone’s been toying with this rig, I bet.”
“That’s not possible. The people at Vendx would know, and they would let us know, I can assure you,” said Galeli. “Let’s not jump to any unnecessary conclusions or speak about this to anyone. How do we get him back?”
“We don’t,” said Hickory. “We wait.”
Galeli found the answer unsatisfactory.
“Can’t we reboot the machine?” asked Bev. She stood over the console, examining the buttons and switches.
“Don’t touch anything,” said Galeli. The last thing he needed was the machine to stop working and sever the connection with Trainee Matton. His mother really wouldn’t be very happy about that.
A light on the console started flashing.
“I told you not to touch anything,” said Galeli, his voice pitching up in panic.
“I didn’t!” said Bev, backing away guiltily.
A message appeared on the screen:
Vendx Galactic apologises for any performance issues you are currently experiencing. A maintenance team has been dispatched and will be with you shortly. Please whitelist us on any active defence protocols. Vendx Galactic does not accept responsibility for any damage caused in the pursuit of vital technical work.
This message would like access to your Vendx Sim-Utm memory drive.
A large button at the bottom suggested ‘I agree’. It was the only option given.
“Oh no,” said Galeli, “they’re sending in an assault team.”
“An assault team to fix the machine?” asked Bev.
“To fix anything that needs fixing,” said Captain Hickory. “You better bring all the drones you have online.”
“No point,” said Galeli. “They’re all Vendx-built. They can override them. We need to deactivate the ones already operational. We can’t let them have the boy, Hick.”
Hickory sighed. “Jace, contact the ship. We have a Vendx repair and replace unit arriving any time between 0900 and 1400 standard. Get everyone down here, battle-ready.”