Gorbol Training Academy.
Antecessor Ship: Origin (sim-U).
Figaro didn’t have a great deal of experience with Antecessor spacecraft. He had run maps in three different vessels, none of them heavily armed. There were huge battlecruisers and city ships that had been found, which were the source of many of the most common organics, but they were vast and complicated — beginners didn’t run those, they were the domain of experts looking to increase their chances of survival next time they entered those vessels for real.
In addition to which, those sorts of maps were held by the large corporations that owned those vessels, who jealously guarded every tiny bit of data associated with their valuable property, the source of their incredible wealth. You didn’t want to infringe their property rights.
The ships he had run were smaller vessels like this one, that had very few organics to start with and had been thoroughly divested of every single one of them.
A map like this one provided good training and a reasonable place to start your experience of an alien culture. Short, limited in threats, an assault course of common Antecessor systems.
But this ship was unlike any Figaro had encountered. Or seen in any recording. Or even heard of.
The strange interlocking doorways were something he hadn’t come across before. The walls with their rapidly changing patterns were standard fare, the circular portals were present in all the Antecessor ships he’d ever seen. Most doorways were simply open arches, though.
There wasn’t time to think about it right now. The ship was aware of him, the white lines on the walls were keeping pace with him as he floated down the long corridor.
He couldn’t shake the feeling there was a deeper intelligence to these glowing white markings than he was used to. They morphed into different designs as they flickered and danced along the wall, but then they would create an image that looked like him, a stick figure with little flourishes to match the vents blasting out air. He had never seen that before.
There was no sense of threat, no attempt to communicate a warning. It felt like the ship was curious.
A sim-U was accurate down to the last molecule. You might not be able to tell what it would do, but the copy would act the same as its original. You might not be able to tell why it acted as it did, but you could count on it being accurate. It was what made the machine so essential. This ship could do everything the real ship could do, except kill him.
His white-lined companion, occasional lo-fi doppelganger, provided a gentle light to Figaro’s surroundings, but the rest of the corridor was hard to discern. Were there droids waiting up ahead? Most probably. He would need to deal with them quickly. A ship like this wouldn’t have very many, and none of the really advanced ones.
Some of the droids inside Tethari, the ruins that orbited his homeworld, were as large as buildings, with enough firepower to wipe out a twenty-man team in seconds. And there were hundreds of them.
Figaro was confident he could handle whatever he faced at the other end of this corridor, he would just have to aim well. The smaller droids could be disabled with a single burst of a wave gun, but the larger ones would only be partially disabled. An arm or a leg. You had to target accurately and shoot fast. Using more explosive firearms wasn’t really an option since they would just blow apart and then come back together again. That didn’t stop them from trying to blow you apart, though.
Up ahead, he saw the faint outline of an archway at the end of the corridor. There were no droids waiting for him, there was just an opening, a regular arch of the kind he was used to seeing. There didn’t seem to be any kind of defence system, not one he could see, at least.
He checked the HUD on the bottom of his visor for any signs of movement around him. They could have given the trainees any kind of suit, even the most advanced. Money was no object as long as the sim-U had the blueprints in its memory, and the guild would certainly have them. But the trainees only got to use obsolete gear with very poor range.
There was no sign of any movement or active targeting systems.
“Rear, point two.” Gas vented ahead of him. He slowed down as he approached the entrance to whatever lay in wait for him. No point charging in.
As he neared the archway, he saw the bottom of something hanging in the air. Something big.
He knew what it was, or thought he did. Antecessor sites all had some common elements, the chief being: droids, semi-independent and mobile; bots, task-oriented and ignorant of what was going on around them; and sigils.
A sigil was a symbol that appeared like a huge neon sign hanging in the air. It couldn’t be interacted with but it indicated the kind of area you were entering, so were very useful if you recognised them.
There were sixty-four known sigils, all of which Figaro knew by heart. They were one of the first things he was taught as a child, along with his times tables and alphabet.
Sixty-four, known by everyone who entered an Antecessor site or planned to.
Figaro stopped on the edge of the archway and looked up at the three oval shapes, slightly wider at one end so more of an egg shape, the three shapes touching at the narrower end, forming something that resembled a clover.
Figaro’s mind couldn’t quite take it in. It was immense and bright and a colour he couldn’t even name, but all that was normal. What was confusing Figaro was that he had never seen this sigil before. There were sixty-four sigils. He had memorised them all. This was a sixty-fifth and he had no idea what it signified.
How was this possible? His father would have told him about this, which meant either there was a reason to keep it a secret, or that his father didn’t know. Did anyone?
The D’atnari Institute must know. It was their map, based on their property. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility to think they would keep this to themselves, use it to gain an advantage of some kind. But then why make it available to others? They couldn’t count on others not finding it. Unless they didn’t know either.
“Princep Galeli? Are you there?”
“Um, yes,” came the instant reply inside Figaro’s helmet.
“You can see this, yes?” asked Figaro.
“What is it?”
There was a long pause. Then, in a quiet voice, “I have no idea.”
“No one’s come across this before?”
“No. No one’s ever crossed the wall you went through. This map has been run hundreds of times, dozens under my supervision, by trainees and experienced guilders. No one has entered this area before.”
It sort of made sense. The reason he wasn’t familiar with the interlocking doorway was because it was a special security system to keep an area hidden. But there was an airlock here, the one he had tossed the droids into. It would be visible from the outside but not the inside. Wouldn’t that raise suspicions? Then again, he had only assumed it was an airlock.
But even if he was the first one to unlock this area, the D’atnari institute had taken the ship apart. They would have found this area.
“This sigil,” said Figaro. “It isn’t known.”
“No,” said the Princep. “It’s a fantastic discovery. Well done. I’ve already informed the guild high council. This could be huge.” He sounded excited now.
Figaro was more perplexed by the discovery. What did it mean?
“I’m going to take a closer look,” said Figaro.
“Yes. Be careful.” It was an odd piece of advice. At worst, he would just die.
“Forward, point one.”
The tiniest of blips and he began drifting into the room. It was only once he entered that he realised there was something wrong. The room had no ceiling. It stretched up like he was looking up into a tower, far taller than the dimensions of the ship would allow.
An optical illusion? A hologram of some kind? Neither was present in other ships, but then this was apparently not a normal ship.
The tower was also leaning towards him, like the opposite wall — white lines streaking up and down it — was about to collapse and crush him.
He brought the suit to a stop.
“Sole thrusters, two seconds.” Might as well see what was up there.
He felt the thrusters kick in under his feet, heard them fire, but he didn’t move. He stopped them. He had no idea what to make of that.
“Forward, point five.”
He began moving into the circular room, closer to the sigil.
The tower moved. It leaned away from him into an upright position. Would he be able to ascend now? As he kept moving, the tower did, too. It leaned back and back until it was horizontal, a tunnel stretching away infinitely.
He was in some kind of folding space. He was familiar with the concept, had learned the mind-numbing equations and how to solve them. It was the basis of the wormholes used to traverse the galaxy, but the term was a misnomer. Space didn’t actually fold.
But this space did. Or seemed to.
He was under the sigil now. Was this what it meant? A transportation mechanism of some kind? Where would it take him? He kept moving forward.
He started falling, like he was caught in a gravity well. The weight brought his suit down to the ground, but the falling sensation continued. It was immense and irresistible and painful. He was being crushed, turned into paste. He couldn’t do anything.
Everything went black. Numbers raced across the darkness in long strips. He recognised what was happening, had seen it before, had caused it to happen, much to his father’s annoyance. The simulation machine was crashing.
Figaro’s eyes opened. He was in the lab, hooked up to the simulation machine, which was uncharacteristically quiet.
The helmet rose from his head and he tilted his head forward. A sharp twinge indicated the spike in the back of his neck was exiting. It was normally automated but he was doing it manually, which was a great deal more dangerous. He’d done this before, too.
Once the spike was out, Figaro took a breath and turned his head. The Princep was coming towards him looking concerned, through a crowd of his fellow trainees from both groups, minus two.
Figaro stood up, a little stiff. He had wanted to gain their trust, their loyalty, their respect. Looking around the room, he seemed to have gained something else. They were looking at him with fear.
He put his hand to his face. His normally soft skin, which gave him his unhelpfully youthful appearance, was hard with ridges and lines.
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