Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.
Classification: M0 (optimal conditions).
“Welcome to Fountain,” said the morose woman behind the counter, shielded by thick plate glass so her voice sounded like it was in another room.
“Sorry,” said Figaro. “Where am I?”
“Fountain. Foxtrot-435.” Her face soured a little more as she perused a screen. “You aren’t here to enjoy our famous baths and spas?”
“Oh, no. Actually, I’m here to register at the Gorbol Training Academy.”
The woman turned her head slowly to give Figaro a more thorough examination. “Oh. I see. You’re one of them.”
Figaro had no idea how to respond. “Yes.” He didn’t know what she meant but as long as he was honest and direct, there wouldn’t be any problems. That’s what his father had told him. He had said it in reference to taming a grumon beast and breaking it into a saddle, but he had presented it as a universal approach.
“Everything looks to be in order, Mr Matton. You can go through. And please don’t harass the locals, too much. We’re all just trying to get by.”
A buzzer sounded before he could ask why she thought he would harass the locals. The barrier went up and someone was already walking in from behind him, so he felt obliged to go. As he left, he was sure he heard the woman say, “Shame. Such a nice looking boy, too.”
He had taken his mother’s name and shortened his own. He was now Fig Matton. It was hardly an impenetrable disguise, but if someone really wanted to track him down they were unlikely to use his personal details to find him. Trackers using organics were able to follow a trail of discarded skin particles through space, or so people claimed.
It was more of a way to prevent him from sticking out. He was just another nobody.
The trip to Foxtrot-435 — Fountain — had been unremarkable. The Seneca ship had taken him through the wormhole and dropped him off on the other side. The giant sea world of Delphinia operated the wormhole from the Fourth Quadrant and was a hub for travellers. You could catch a ride going in any direction you wanted and at any price, even free, assuming you were willing to suffer the conditions.
From there, he had taken a cruise ship to Cherub-12, and from that tiny planet of dubious entertainment offerings he took a shuttle the short hop across the system to Fountain (a name no one had used until he got here). The whole journey had taken six days and he had hardly spoken to anyone in that time, except to identify himself and get directions.
He had taken it upon himself to be discreet and inconspicuous, which had turned out to be much easier than he’d anticipated as nobody in this quadrant cared who he was or what authority his family held. He was just Fig Matton.
It was a strange feeling, but also a liberating one. Any esteem he received going forward would have been earned. People would follow him because he deserved to be followed, not because of his family name.
As he exited the port, the sights and sounds of this world surged into his senses. The other worlds he had stopped at on his way here had not had this kind of feeling. He had stayed within the connection terminals, surrounded by other travellers and spaceport staff. Everyone united by the same purpose.
Here, people were living their lives.
The sidewalks were full of people, dressed in light, colourful clothing, no fear of being exposed to the elements, not worried that they might be threatened by others or by the planet’s indigenous fauna. Figaro appraised them with his keen sight as he walked through the streets. Unconcerned, busy, not interested in wasting time — this was a place where people felt safe and secure.
Fountain was a verdant world, full of plants and trees. The city was called Fraiche, and the buildings so far had a uniform look to them — white stone and large windows. The automated vehicles travelled single file in opposite directions, smoothly weaving between each other at intersections. Even the traffic was calm and reasonable.
Figaro knew where to go, his corneal implant projected the route on the back of his eyes so it appeared as an overlay across his vision. The Academy was a tall, thin, ornate relic that seemed out of place between two solidly modern buildings. The tall wooden door was nothing like the glass and metal sliding entrances that every other building seemed to favour.
His father could have sent him to a more prestigious institution where the training would be carefully monitored and thoroughly professional to make him a competent and well-prepared young man. That wasn’t the goal. It wasn’t enough to take away all his advantages and privileges, he was to have them all set in opposition.
Figaro pressed the intercom and entered through the needlessly tall doors as they swung open. Nothing about this place came across as efficient or practical.
“Welcome, Mr Matton. I’m very happy to see you’ve arrived safely. Your father asked me to let him know when you got here, and then to not contact him again. He wants this to be a test for you, a measure of your ability to take care of yourself. A Spartan left in the wild.”
“Something like that,” said Figaro. “Am I early, Princep? I didn’t see any other new arrivals.”
They had sent him to see this man, the head of the facility, as soon as he had told them who he was at the door. The place had seemed very quiet and he hadn’t seen any of the other trainees.
“Not at all. You’ll be able to meet the others shortly. I thought it better if we spoke first and established a few things. No one else knows who you are, although most of them wouldn’t care if they did. Still, I intend to keep your identity a secret. You will be treated exactly the same as every other new arrival, no special treatment, good or bad. That is the arrangement your father made.”
“Yes,” said Figaro. “That’s right.”
“You will be the youngest trainee, so I’m afraid you may suffer some bullying. You will be expected to take care of it yourself.” The Princep smiled apologetically. He was a little shorter than Figaro, but broader with a physique that suggested he was highly trained in combat techniques. Figaro could see it very clearly in the way he was standing.
“I’m sure I’ll be able to cope,” said Figaro.
“Some of the trainers… may also bully you. It isn’t personal, they just have a tendency to pick one of the weaker trainees to intimidate the rest. Your youthful appearance may fool them into thinking you aren’t as well-prepared for the course as the others.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t come running to you over a few harsh words.”
“It may be more than a few harsh words, but I wasn’t concerned about being called upon to intervene, although if you consider the situation out of hand then please do. I was more worried that you might retaliate. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt. Good trainers are hard to find.”
“I understand,” said Figaro. “Restraint.”
“Thank you. Now, before I give you the tour, let me assure you the facilities here are of the highest possible quality. Other places may have newer and fancier buildings with more comfortable amenities, but the realm of the Antecessors is not a place for the coddled and well-rested. Everything is the way it is for a reason, and you will be expected to face each challenge to the best of your ability.”
“Good, then first, let me show you to your room.”
Figaro’s room was large and airy, with a single bed and his luggage, which had been sent on ahead, waiting to be unpacked.
“Does everyone have a room like this?”
“Certainly not. These rooms are reserved for the sons of wealthy benefactors and those the guild deems of high value.”
“Won’t that make me stand out?”
“Yes, but only to your detriment. As a spoilt child of a rich industrialist, you will be treated with a fair amount of animosity from the rest of your class. This, too, is as your father wished it.”
Figaro understood the reasoning. It would make it much harder to get the others to respect him if he was set apart from them. There was no point trying to win them over as an equal. He would never be their equal.
“You can set the lock to your biometrics. I advise you to lock your door at night. Now, I’ll show you the simulation room.”
The Pricep led him through stone passages that smelled of wet mud, down some stairs to a courtyard open to the skies. Vines grew on the walls, covered in small white flowers. There were people here, dressed in matching overalls. They looked of varying ages, some in their thirties he was fairly sure.
The challenge was to make them, and men like them, see him as a valid leader. His own age would be a problem.
He had a wealth of knowledge about what it would take to be a great leader, a plethora of historical examples to take guidance from. Some had achieved it by setting an example for others to be awed by. Others had been passionate about a cause and dragged whole nations along with them. And in some cases, the people had a need for someone to follow and hungrily chased after the first suitable candidate to appear.
Figaro’s task was going to be a difficult one. What he needed was an opportunity to show them what he could do.
“This is the machine we use,” said the Princep. “I believe you are familiar with it.”
The machine was similar to the one his father had in the palace. Only, this one had portals for twelve people, whereas the one at home only accommodated four at a time.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “Will we be running simulations for long?”
“Six weeks. We require each trainee to log at least thirty hours before we allow them to enter an actual site.”
Thirty hours. Figaro had over a hundred and sixty. “What maps do you have?”
“Most of the level ones and twos. We have recently acquired Tethari Level 2.”
“From my father?”
“Yes. He was very kind to let us have a copy, under some restrictions. We’re very excited about it. The reason I’m showing you this is so you understand the protocol here. We run simulations, which no doubt will pose you no problems, and then we will enter live sites. They will have their treasures already collected, but the defences will be armed and lethal. No active organics allowed, not even for the trainers.” The Princep waved away a technician who was about to enter. “We are making an exception for you to be allowed to join this program, someone of your age and background wouldn’t be a suitable candidate, normally. You may think you are ready, but you won’t feel like that once you are out there. I expect you to follow the training sincerely, and then follow orders once you are out in the field.”
Figaro wasn’t sure what his father had told the Princep about him, but there seemed to be a strong indication that he was going to be watched closely. His stubbornness had got him into hot water with his father numerous times, but it wasn’t like he couldn’t control himself.
“Good. Once we leave this room, we no longer have any relationship other than the immediate one of master and student. I will treat you with mild contempt and you will show me respect and due reverence.”
Figaro returned to his room and started unpacking. He had plenty of closet space, which no doubt would earn him the resentment of his fellow trainees in their cramped dorms. He would find a way to turn that emotion around, somehow.
His bracelet pinched his wrist and he sat on the bed. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal the blinking blue light on the metal ring. He squeezed it so it bit into his wrist, releasing a shot of cold liquid into his blood.
Figaro fell back onto the bed, his eyes turned white and his scalp itched. The drug quickly suffused his whole body and subdued the organic he’d had implanted in him the day he was born. To allow it to manifest would tear his body apart. It was a lot easier to control with his father around to help suppress it, but that was the point of all this. Control.
He sat up and pulled his sleeve down, and carried on unpacking.