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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Origin - Sim-U

Figaro loaded into the sim-U and found himself back in the airlock of the Origin, with its familiar black walls and white strips of light. He wasn’t alone. Eleven other people in spacesuits were in there with him, all of them talking at the same time. None of them had noticed him, yet.

“What the hell’s going on?”

“Has anyone got a connection to the Octanaria?”

“This is a simulation.”

“You think I don’t know that? One minute I’m in a white cell with no doors, the next I’m in an airlock with all of you. Unless someone invented magic in the last hour, obviously we’re in a simulation.”

“There’s no need to be sarcastic.”

“Really? Really? Then what is there a need for? Stating the obvious?”

The voices chattered openly over the comms, no attempt to take precautions in case they were being monitored. They were collectively in a state of annoyance, feeding off each other to become more and more irritated.

Everyone seemed to have reacted badly to their short incarceration inside the sim-U. No doubt they had tried all the standard ways to exit the program, and found that none of them worked. It must have been frightening to think you’d be stuck in a white room forever, with no way of contacting anyone on the outside unless the people on the outside wished it.

Even more frustrating for organics, used to smashing their way out of any situation. Their abilities weren’t of much use when their whole reality was under someone else’s control. The actual simulation would follow a realistic representation of the ship, but exit and entry points were fully under the control of the machine operator. You could be moved at will and could be immobilised at will.

Figaro knew of a couple of ways around those protocols, ways to force the simulation to crash and disconnect, but they came with risks. He would have still used them if he’d ended up in their position. He wondered how many of them would if he told them how.

“Where’s the assistant manager? Is he here? I don’t hear him? Where is he?”

“Didn’t you see? He got his brains splattered across a wall.”

“No way.”

“I recorded it, I’ll show you. Honestly, no one deserved it more. Prick refused to sign off my attendance mandate because I was thirty seconds late. Not even thirty, twenty-seven!”

“I saw it too. They’re not going to recover anything but middle-management DNA out of that suit.”

“What the hell are these suits we’re in. How old are they? What are they powered by? Steam?”

“They’re period accurate.”

“For which period?”

“Don’t you recognise where we are?”

“So who’s in charge now?”

There was a pause as they looked at each other. Figaro found the hesitation a little odd. Should there be an established chain of command? He recalled some mention of a manager who was on leave for a training course. If the assistant manager had temporarily taken his place, wouldn’t they have assigned someone to fill the second-in-command position? From the extended silence, it would appear they hadn’t got round to it.

“If Assistant Manager Larep isn’t here, how are there still twelve of us?”

“Who is that?” One of them was pointing at Figaro. All eyes turned to look at him.

“Welcome to the Origin,” said Figaro, changing his voice to sound a little more feminine and speaking in a flat emotionless tone to. “I am your guide for your first mission.”

“Wait, I think it’s an NPC.”

“This isn’t a game, Destri.”

“No, think about it,” said Destri. “They sign up all these clueless kids for their guild, ram them through boot camp and out into the field as quickly as possible so they can start scavenging for loot. They don’t want to waste too much time getting them comfortable around Antecessor tech. Give them a simulated guide, walk them through the ship with plenty of warning about what’s up ahead, everyone passes feeling like they’re ready for the big show.”

“They have a guide for newbies? Talk about hand-holding.”

“Wish I’d had a guide on my first run. Dying’s no fun.”

“Popping your cherry first time out is part of the experience. You’ve got to die in a sim-U to make it feel real.”

“Ohhh, this is the Origin.”

“How did you not recognise it?”

“I did. Just took a moment to jog my memory, that’s all.”

“This should be fine, then, right? We’ve all done this run a thousand times, right?”

There was more chatter, but less fraught with anxiety. Their familiarity with the Origin simulation had put them at ease, which was foolish. This wasn’t a training run designed to hone their skills.

One of the Vendx team pushed off the wall and floated towards Figaro. “You, what’s your designation?” He peered in through Figaro’s visor.

Figaro adjusted the lighting of his HUD so the glare made it harder to see in. He might still be recognised.

“I am the guide. I am here to help you navigate the Origin on your first mission.” Repetition would hopefully dull their curiosity.

“I don’t get it. Why stick us in here and give us a guide to help us?” said someone.

“It’s probably automatic for first-timers. Gives their newbies a nice confidence boost facing the drones. This guild really is low-effort easy mode. I can’t believe they sent us all in to deal with such a pissy little outfit.”

“We got our butts kicked, if you recall.”

“That wasn’t the guild, that was something else. You all saw the readings. We couldn’t even get a ping off that guy.”

“I thought that was because he was too low to register.”

“Or too high.”

“No way. He was probably shielded.”

There was a piercing beep over the comms. “Hey, can you all stop acting like we’re on a break here? We’re still trapped and out of commission. We don’t get paid for time spent immobilised, remember?”

There was silence as this reminder sunk in.

“What are we supposed to do?” asked Destri, the only voice Figaro had put a name to so far. “Clearing the ship won’t make a difference.”

“What about the guide? Maybe it knows how to abort the run, you know, if one of their trainees freaks out and needs to get out.”

The Vendx employee nearest to Figaro leaned in again. “Hey, Mr Guide, I need to exit the simulation. It’s an emergency. Em-ur-gen-cee.”

Figaro wasn’t sure how to respond. Lead them on a wild goose chase around the ship? It would buy some time, but then what?

“Nothing. It isn’t even realistic. Looks like a generic computer model — they haven’t even bothered putting any hair on its head.” The man had his visor pressed against Figaro’s.

“Assault Team R, Assault Team R, this is the Octanaria, do you read?” The voice was coming in clear over the comms.

Everyone responded at once.

“Tadum, reading, over.”

“This is Yarlik, reading you loud and clear.”

“This is Chesney, what’s going on? Has the mission been cleared?”

“Destri, reporting in. We’re in a sim-U, repeat, they’ve locked us into a simulation of the Origin.”

Figaro couldn’t make out all of the names or what they were saying. Discipline was not a high priority in the Vendx training program, apparently.

“Listen, this is Commander Creed. We know your situation. We have a man on the inside who switched you over to your current location. We have new instructions for you.”

“Is this covered under our current work order?” asked someone.

“Yes, same pay, same benefits.”

There was a murmur of approval.

“Destri is the new acting-manager.”

“Me? Why me?” Destri didn’t sound at all pleased with the promotion.

“You have the best scores for simulated runs. Your new objective is inside the Origin. You will get all bonuses for the managerial role while you’re in command.”

There was some grumbling at Destri’s good fortune.

“You aren’t extracting us?” asked someone.

“The extraction point is in the forward compartment of the Origin.”

“If we just have to get to the other end of the ship,” said a disgruntled voice, “anyone could have been made leader. Even I could do it.”

“There have been some modifications made to the simulation, do not approach it as the Origin you’ve run before.”

“What kind of modifications?”

“We’re not sure. You’ll have to take precautions as you would on a virgin site.”

“Virgin site? Shouldn’t we be getting the full first-entry rates, then?”

There were noises of support for this suggestion.

“You are still inside a simulation, you can’t actually die. And in any case, you are bound by your primary contract. This is just an extension, as covered by the sub-contract options clause. You have already been notified of the additional actions required of you within the requisite time frame. If you have an issue, you can bring it up with the Resources Manager at your debrief. It will go on your permanent, of course.”

No further comment about pay rates was made after the Resources Manager was mentioned.

“We were also told you would have some help in there. Our contact has sent someone in to guide you.”

“Yes,” said Destri. “It’s here with us. Some sort of AI.”

“Good, it should be able to help you navigate any tricky parts. Head into the ship and, I repeat, do not rely on your past experience of this simulation. We need you to get to the other end in one piece and link up to the Motherboard. Once you authenticate the connection, we’ll have full control over the facility and can bring you out. Any questions?”

“Yes,” said a voice. “Does Destri get time and a half for taking on the managerial role?”

“No, there’s no overtime on this mission. If you go over the allotted time, you will be expected to pay the usual fines.”

“Let’s go,” said Destri. “Get that door open. Everyone, check your suits — make sure you’re familiar with the controls. This will be a speedrun, no collectables, no side-routes. We all know the basic outlay, follow the racing line, avoid pulling drones. We hit the checkpoints in this order: one, seven, nine, five. You, Guide, lead the way.”

Suddenly, the whole team was operating like a finely-tuned machine. They all seemed confident and ready. The only person who didn’t know what they were doing was Figaro. Ubik wanted them in the other part of the ship and connected to the Motherboard. Once that was done, how would Ubik turn that to his advantage? And how would Figaro get off this planet and back home?

There was only one way to find out.

Figaro fired his thrusters and passed through the opening as it spiralled open.

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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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