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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Antecessor Ship: Origin (sim-U).

Things had started off so well. Figaro’s role as a guide generated by the simulation was considered a breaking of the official terms of service but, other than that, perfectly plausible.

The reaction of the eleven Vendx employees had been a mixture of complete understanding that such a modification would be useful to trainees entering a sim-U for the first time, and general scoffing that they would need that kind of hand-holding to get through what was considered one of the most basic Antecessor sites known.

They didn’t appear to be too concerned about the legalities of the matter as that wasn’t their responsibility.

“I’m glad it’s this ship,” said one of them as Figaro led them out of the airlock and towards the next portal. “If it had been one of the city ships or deep shaft facilities, we could be stuck wandering around for days.”

There was a murmur of agreement over the open channel. They were happily chatting, unconcerned about being trapped in here. It was a simulation, after all. They couldn’t die. And their ship had already contacted them to let them know they were still on-mission. Which meant they would get paid.

“This is Creed, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Commander,” said Destri. “We’re on route now.”

“Good, good. I’ve been authorised to award a punctuality bonus if you can make it to the evac point in under an hour.”

Chatter filled the comms.

“That’s unusual, isn’t it, sir?” said Destri, not sounding as enthusiastic as the others.

“Yes. This is important. Don’t screw it up. Creed out.”

Their commander had sounded nervous. Was he under pressure from his superiors? His nervousness had sounded more excited than fearful. Anticipating a big reward for a successful mission?

“You heard the man, let’s double-time it.”

“No,” said Destri. “They wouldn’t have authorised a bonus if there weren’t additional risks. They aren’t telling us something.”

There was a lull on comms as they thought about what Destri said.

Figaro had decided the best way to not raise any suspicions was to say as little as possible and keep moving. He was their guide, he just had to show them the way.

He was prepared to act like an AI, but a simple mistake might give him away. This kind of pretence was not something he was accustomed to. Which probably meant this would be good practice for him, but he had to remember he was with eleven organics who would be very hard to handle if they turned on him. Their powers would work the same in here as in the real world.

Ubik, he was sure, would have approached the task very differently. Constantly talking and provoking all eleven in a display of carefully orchestrated bedlam, getting them to lose discipline and focus, so that if they did figure out the truth, they wouldn’t act in concert.

It was a strange experience trying to fathom the workings of an Ubik plan when nothing Ubik did followed any kind of logic or reason. You couldn’t follow the Ubik blueprint because no one could tell what he was doing or why, not even him. It was fascinating to watch, though. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Figaro was quite looking forward to seeing what his father would make of him. Figaro had never seen his father stumped before.

Figaro’s own approach was pretty much the opposite of Ubik’s — keep a low profile and don’t attract any unnecessary attention — but he was still in an Ubik-arranged situation, so it was hard not to think in Ubik-terms. Which basically meant expect things to get worse before they (hopefully) got better.

“Can you hear me?” said Princep Galeli over the comms. Figaro had taken care to keep his channels split so no one else would be able to listen in on his link with the guild.

“Yes. Have you heard anything?”

“No, I’m afraid not,” said the princep. “Anything happening on your end?”

“I still have time before we get to the front of the ship, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do once I get there.”

“Well, ah, do your best. You haven’t actually succeeded getting past the midsection so far, so it could be Trainee Ubik isn’t expecting you to go to where he told you to go to.”

Princep Galeli seemed to be having as much difficulty predicting Ubik’s intentions as Figaro. If the game was to keep everyone from guessing what he had in mind, Ubik was doing an excellent job.

“I’m going to assume he wants me to deal with any issues in whatever way I see fit. There seems to be very little to gain from allowing the Vendx people to take over the simulation and we don’t have the processing power to reverse the connection and take over their ship, not from down here, anyway.”

As he said it, the thought occurred to him that it might be possible if Ubik could actually get onto the Vendx ship, but how could he possibly manage that?

Then again, as Figaro was learning, just because he couldn’t think of a way didn’t mean Ubik couldn’t.

Everything had gone smoothly up to the point where they had entered the portal and made their way into the first room. As before, there were vats of liquid and black walls with the ship’s sensors streaking around as white lines.

The Vendx team were familiar with the layout and were confident in their ability to deal with whatever they faced. That was their first mistake.

“What are your orders, acting-acting-manager?” asked one of the more snotty members of the group. It was the same disgruntled employee who had questioned the choice of interim leader.

“You can stop being such a jerk, for a start,” said Destri. “At the double, preferably.”

They were grouped up near the shaft they had descended, making sure of their surroundings. They were a bit too bunched up, in Figaro’s opinion, but he wasn’t in a position to say anything about it. Or perhaps he was.

“This is the first compartment of the Antecessor ship Origin,” said Figaro, trying to sound like the tourist guides at the Enaya National Museum. “Here, you will encounter your first droid opponents. Please take care to keep your guard up at all times. Do not attempt contact or conversation as these approaches will be ineffective. Remember, think before you act.”

“Do they really need this sort of spoon-feeding?” asked one of the Vendx team.

“Best practice is to split into smaller teams with separate responsibilities,” added Figaro. “Please choose your teams now.”

“Get a load of him and his noob tactics.”

They were organics and they were trained for battle, but Figaro wasn’t sure they were ready for the Origin, not this version. He could at least try to get them to take the ship seriously. For all their strengths, overconfidence could still get them in trouble.

“Shouldn’t we just take out the droids before they activate?” asked someone. They sounded mildly bored.

And that was when everything went wrong.

The droids detached from the walls like they knew they were being talked about. Five droids , eleven organics.

“Okay, get ready,” said Destri, “we attack on my mark.” The sound of organics being activated — click, click, click — filled the room. “Three, two, wait… where are they going?”

That many organics should have been more than capable of dealing with the situation. But the droids ignored the organics and headed straight for Figaro, who was standing to the side, doing his best to look like part of the interior design.

Everyone turned to see where the droids were headed.

Figaro felt a bit awkward. How was he supposed to explain this?

“Why are they targeting the guide?” asked someone.

“Hey, Destri, do we attack? They didn’t even notice us.”

“Must be a glitch. What you get for making unlicensed modifications.”

“If they’re not going to attack us, we could take them out without any risk.”

The channel was full of chatter as everyone chipped in a suggestion.

“No, wait, shut up, hold on…” said Destri, wresting back control. “Let’s just go. Let him keep them busy.”

“Good idea,” said someone else. “Let’s make that bonus.”

“Yeah, brilliant. Let’s just go.” The idea of leaving Figaro as chum in the water was met with universal approval.

Figaro watched them head off towards the far end of the room, as the droids closed in on him. Most likely, they would take him captive, again, and he’d have to go through the same mindbending journey to make small talk with the Antecessors. Or maybe something else equally consuming. The simulation had shown a remarkable ability to adapt and change its behaviour. The droids had already learned how to stop him from getting away from them.

“What are you doing?” asked a voice in his helmet. It didn’t seem to be coming from any of the open channels.

“Ubik?”

“Yah. Hey. Grandma thinks you’re going to die. I can’t really use you if you’re dead, so could you not?”

“I’m not going to die,” said Figaro. “It’s a simulation.”

“Grandma says otherwise, and she’s pretty good at this sort of thing. Your life signs are all over the place, she doesn’t think you can take the stress of any more weird shit. Her words. Do you have a weak heart?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Can’t look at a puppy without bursting into tears? Always falling for the wrong girl?”

“I don’t think those are symptoms of a congenital heart problem.”

“Depends on the girl,” said Ubik. “I need you to get to the bridge.”

“What about the Vendx organics.”

“What about them?”

“Do you need them on the bridge?”

“What would I need them for?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who put me in here with them.”

“Oh, I just thought you’d find them useful. That ship seems to have taken a liking to you. Thought a few decoys would help you out.”

“You want me to use them as decoys?”

“Just an idea.”

Figaro looked past the droids at the Vendx team leaving. How was he going to switch places with them?

“Anyway, I’ll speak to you once you get to the bridge.”

“Wait, how—” Figaro could sense Ubik was no longer there.

Figaro took a breath and considered his options. There didn’t seem to be very many.

“Forward thrust, maximum, emergency one protocol. On my mark. Mark.”

His suit shook and then he was hurled forward into the middle of the droids. They snapped at him, trying to get a hold of each limb, but Figaro grabbed back, an extended limb in each hand, and swung them into the grips of the other droids so they ended up grabbing each other.

Figaro was still shooting forward, the droids trailing behind him, flashing white lines along their flapping extremities.

“Please return to the designated area, this exercise is not skippable,” said Figaro.

As the team turned to face him, he hurled the droids into their faces.

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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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