Even though Figaro had no body to speak of, and no vision with which to track his surroundings, the sense of movement was undeniable. He was zooming through something towards somewhere.
There was no other way to describe it. It was fast and exhilarating, and all in his mind. And then he came to a full and incontrovertible stop.
He was unable to gauge time — it could have been seconds, it could have been millennia — but he sensed he had travelled an immeasurable distance. That didn’t necessarily mean physical distance. He might well still be in exactly the same grid location as his body (the real one and the one in the sim-U) but the same could be said of both ends of a wormhole.
Everything was black. He didn’t have eyes or any other body parts, there was only his sense of self, disconnected from his bodily existence. He existed as thought and was able to pass ideas and images and words through his mind just as he could before. Other than that, he could do nothing. It was a little lonely.
Light appeared from a single source. It was white and made his skin prickle.
The realisation he could see was quickly overtaken by the realisation he had skin. He looked down at himself, at his body. He was naked but, other than that, it was his body just as it was in the real world. No clothes, no bracelet.
Figaro had a flash of concern about his naked wrist, far more disconcerting than the rest of his nudity. He had spent a lot of time naked as a youngster, being a research subject for his father. It had never been insisted on but there had been so many tests it hardly seemed worth getting dressed between them.
Most likely, the absence of his bracelet wouldn’t make a difference here. As long as it was attached to his real wrist back in the academy, there was nothing to worry about. Logically, he knew that was true, but it was hard to convince himself of that.
The bracelet appeared on his wrist. A kindness to make him feel more comfortable? He sensed an intelligence at work. A hospitable one.
Figaro looked down at the rest of his body and imagined his clothing. Nothing happened for five seconds as Figaro tried to picture exactly what he’d been wearing before he ended up here. Not the spacesuit, just the FVG greys. They were simple enough to picture accurately.
The greys appeared on him just as he’d pictured them. The way they had appeared made him sure he was in a simulation, or at least a similar device. It was able to draw concepts out of his head and replicate them, just as the Vendx machines could. A sim-U inside another sim-U.
It didn’t seem that outlandish to think the Antecessors had the same sort of technology available to them and had one installed on their ships, but it was odd that it had never been encountered before. And just because they could create artificial realities, that didn’t necessarily mean they used them in the same way as humans did. The same knife could cut bread and spread butter.
The light changed to red. His skin tingled. Green, blue, purple, each made him aware of the surface of his body in a way he never did normally. It made him feel like he was encased in a membrane. Then the light went out, but he kept feeling the tingling in short intervals. Light outside of his visible spectrum?
It felt like he was being scanned. Having been a lab subject for so much of his life, he recognised the systematic pattern of evaluation. If this was as invasive as it got, he was fine with it.
A series of images appeared in front of him, hanging in the air (for want of a better word) much like the sigils, only much smaller and less brightly. Everything else was in darkness, he could no longer see his body (although he was aware of it, his skin still mildly tingling).
The way the images were laid out one after the other seemed to form a sequence of some kind, but Figaro couldn’t see the connection. They were arbitrary geometrical shapes as far as he could tell.
They disappeared and were replaced by another series of equally baffling images, and another.
He recognised the eighth sequence he was shown. It was dots and dashes, but it was clearly a binary sequence. The repetition of only two symbols in a variety of configurations was easy enough to spot. Figaro felt relief at having seen something familiar, like he’d answered a question correctly in a test.
This time, the sequence remained in sight and another, vaguely similar sequence appeared beneath it, but with squiggles instead of dots and dashes. The new series was also a binary numeral system, but cruder than the first one and harder to distinguish. Why show him the same thing again, only worse?
It disappeared and was replaced by yet another binary system, this one circles and crosses. It was better, more like the ones and zeros he was used to.
The first sequence disappeared and another one appeared below the noughts and crosses.
Figaro understood. This was an attempt at communication. Whatever had brought him here, it was trying to establish a baseline using his reactions to refine what both parties understood. A common language of numbers.
The flutter of pleasure at this realisation caused the ongoing exercise to select the wrong series of pictograms and Figaro felt a wave of dismay at having ruined a perfect run. The previous series returned.
He could convey his thoughts through emotion. And he could force an emotion into his mind rather than just react instinctively to a stimulus. If he focused on emanating satisfaction, it was taken as a positive. If he projected disinterest, the opposite.
It became quicker after that. They went through various different numeric concepts, and finally reached something resembling decimal numerals. The individual numbers weren’t the same, but the repeating function of zero was.
“This. This is what we use.” He knew his words wouldn’t be understood, but the associated emotion would.
It started showing him images of animals and plants. He didn’t recognise most of them, only slightly felt familiar with others, and often only certain body. It quickly narrowed down the field to a bipedal mammal. It was asking him to identify himself.
Figaro also vocalised Yes and No along with his emotional projection. Eventually, he stopped manifesting emotion altogether and simply said the words. He was understood.
It was very satisfying, although he was careful to keep his emotions in check so as not to give a false positive.
Many attempts had been made to communicate with Antecessor technology, but to no avail. The language was lost and the droids had little interest in holding talks. They were too busy trying to kill you.
In this case, though, he had the assistance of the Antecessors themselves. Assuming that was who he was talking to.
Figaro had many more questions to ask but Yes and No weren’t going to be enough, he felt. It wasn’t even clear to him what their purpose in bringing him here was. If this technology existed and they were interested in contact, why wait until now? What was it about him that had triggered this response?
“What about you? Show me what you look like.” It was hard to express the request non-verbally. Figaro tried his best to project curiosity, a need to know more.
An image appeared, one Figaro recognised. Why wouldn’t he? It was the one he saw every time he looked up at the sky over his homeworld — the wormhole that hung over Enaya. And Tetheri, the small asteroid that served as its sentinel.
The rock was the focus. The image moved towards it.
What was it trying to tell him? That the answer was on Tetheri? He had come all this way to be told what he wanted to know was back home? That seemed a very unlikely coincidence.
He was confused and couldn’t grasp something that was being pushed into his hands, which was frustrating.
There was a click and Figaro’s skin prickled, but not like with the changing light scans. This was far more familiar and far more frightening — his organic was activating.
In a panic, Figaro reached for his bracelet. If he didn’t deactivate the process before it completed, he would die, and so would everyone around him.
He stopped himself. There was no one around him. This wasn’t real. Even if the organic in his actual body could be remotely activated from here, there’d be nothing he could do about it. Injecting this simulation of his body with drugs he’d imagined into existence a few minutes ago wouldn’t make a difference.
The organic turned itself off.
It was a message. He had asked for an explanation, he had got Tetheri and his organic as answers.
The organic had come from Tetheri, a long time ago. It was one of the most powerful and most unstable organics ever found. No one had been deemed suitable for it until Figaro had been born and his parents had implanted it in him knowing the risks. It had made him question their feelings about him growing up. What kind of parents would do that?
They loved him, he knew. Cared about him greatly. And had a purpose for him.
The organic came from Tetheri, that was where he’d find answers. Only, no one could get past the second level defences. He had tried many times, and if this simulation could recognise his link to that place, why couldn’t his father’s simulation of Tetheri itself?
Still, he would like to visit the real site, rather than the sim-U version. He doubted his father would allow it.
The image was still moving, inside the base on Tetheri now, gliding through the passages Figaro had explored so many times. None of the defences fired, nothing attacked, but that wasn’t very surprising. It was more like a guided tour.
The final door appeared, the one that led down to the next level. The one no one had managed to open. A solid slab of a substance impervious to all and any attempts to break through it. Every substance known had been tried, from high explosives to salty water.
A glowing symbol appeared on the door’s surface. It was the sigil he had found earlier. The same sigil appeared three more times, each in a different orientation. With the fourth, the slab slid aside.
A key. He had been given access. A black rectangular hole stood in front of him.
His mind reeled as it was pulled out of the sim-U. Everything stretched and distorted until his eyes opened with a sudden jerk. A sharp pain in his neck told him the simulation machine had been disconnected from him.
A man in a helmet covering his entire face was staring into Figaro’s face from an uncomfortably close distance. The Vendx symbol was embossed on the headplate just above his eyes.
“This is an official product recall,” he said in a voice through a filter. “You’re coming with us to see a customer services representative.”