Gorbol Training Academy.
“It’s okay,” said Figaro, talking quietly like he had been trained to when dealing with frightened grumon beasts. “This is normal.”
The rest of the trainees, their mouths either hanging open or shut tight into a grimace, didn’t respond. They were all frozen in place, unable to comprehend what had happened to Figaro’s face, wincing at the sight of him.
“This is just sim-U sickness. It happens sometimes. I’ve had it before.” Figaro stroked the side of his face. It was a particularly nasty outbreak, but he was sure it was still treatable. His cheek felt rubbery. It was only if it hardened that you needed to start worrying. Assuming you were still alive.
“Yes, yes, this is perfectly normal,” said the Princep, pushing his way through the rooted crowd. “Nothing to be alarmed about. We’ll take care of it in the medical bay.” He was speaking a little too fast to be completely reassuring, but no one was paying him much attention. They were all riveted by Figaro’s monstrous appearance.
Even though he couldn’t see himself, he had a rough idea of how he appeared — everything creased and folded from just above the mouth up to the hairline. He didn’t have any hair at the moment, so that probably made it look weirder.
“Does it hurt?” asked someone.
“I thought the machine couldn’t affect you in real life,” said someone else before Figaro could answer.
The Princep was beside him now, ready to lead him away. The instructors had started trying to corral the trainees out but not with much success.
Figaro considered this far too good an opportunity to miss. They were all interested in what had happened to him and who knew when he would have their attention again.
“It doesn’t hurt,” said Figaro. “And the machine can’t affect you physically but it can mentally, and some mental reactions can have visible effects, like this one. It’s only temporary.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be a failsafe?” They were all concerned for their own safety, which was understandable.
“There is,” said the Princep. “It prevents anything dangerous, and real harm. This is just a cosmetic change. You’ll see, he’ll be back to normal by dinner. Now, shall we…”
“You’ve been in one of these before,” said someone at the back of the group. It was hard for Figaro to see who was talking with his eyelids so puffed up and heavy.
“Yes, a few times,” said Figaro. This was good, they were really listening to him, he could tell by the tension in the air. He could feel the Princep’s hand on his arm, gently trying to guide him away, but they wanted more from him. He didn’t want to go now. “It’s not that hard once you get the hang of it.”
“What are you doing here, then?” asked someone else before he’d even finished speaking. There was a mild accusation in the tone, suggesting he was a ringer, here to make them look bad. But his appearance would help offset any resentment. He had taken the hit for them, that’s how he should make them see it.
“I’ve only ever run simulations. I’ve never been in an actual site before. I think I’m ready to face the real thing now. I’ve had a lot of practice but it isn’t the same as the real thing.”
He was one of them. He was on their level, just with some technical expertise they could all benefit from.
There was some muttering he couldn’t make out. They were reassessing their view of him, which was good. If only he could see better, he would have been able to tell which way they were leaning. A promising talent they could rely on or a cocky pretender who thought he knew it all?
“That thing in there, what was it?” said a voice he recognised as Fayzil’s. If he could win him over, the others would be more likely to follow.
“That’s enough,” said the Princep. “We need to get Trainee Matton treated before the change becomes permanent. The instructors will answer the rest of your questions. It’s good that you see the possible side-effects of what we do here — you should have a realistic view of what you’re involved with — but also be aware of the ease with which we take care of any issues. Nothing to be alarmed about.”
He took Figaro’s arm a little more firmly and led him away.
Figaro was reluctant to go just as he was starting to build up momentum but he was starting to feel sluggish. Even though he wasn’t in any immediate danger, the longer he waited to get treated, the longer his recuperation would take. He hoped they would still be interested in what he could do for them when he was discharged. The instructors were very unlikely to give them proper answers which might make them impatient for fuller explanations. This could work in his favour.
The medical bay wasn’t very far. There were a couple of other people with them, but the Princep was the one keeping hold of Figaro’s arm.
“This won’t take long,” said the Princep in a low voice. Perhaps he’d been taught how to rear grumon beast, too. “Nothing to worry about. You do look a bit of a state, I’m afraid, but that shouldn’t last too long. Been through this before, have you? No, no, don’t try to answer. I’m just talking to myself. I’m quite shocked to tell you the truth. I never thought I’d be witness to something as monumental as this. The sixty-fifth sigil. Well, well, who would have guessed such a thing even existed. We could be on the brink of a new era, or maybe I’m overstating things. I really must stop getting so overexcited, eh? I’m like a young delver making his first discovery. Careful now, mind this step. There you go, that’s it.”
The lighting changed. Figaro was in the medical bay. He could hear people talking around him but his hearing was failing. The swelling was spreading inside his head.
They sat him on a bed and leaned him back so he was horizontal. Something cold touched his neck and he felt the chill of the anti-inflammatory suppressant enter his blood stream, but it began spreading downwards, into his chest and left arm. They’d inserted the vaporiser incorrectly.
He couldn’t speak. He could still just about hear their voices. From the relaxed tone, they weren’t aware of the mistake.
Figaro forced his eyes open. Through the crack, he could just about make out the tray. There were two or three jectors but he had no way of knowing what they contained. He was about to pass out. They would probably realise what had happened once he crashed, but that wasn’t ideal. He swung out his arm.
He could hear them when they shouted. His hand closed around something that felt right.
“No, no. Stop him!” Hands grabbed him.
They probably thought he was having a seizure or bad reaction to the suppressant. There was no time for explanations. He closed his eyes and let the sounds and movement of air guide him.
He slid from their grasps and rolled off the bed, jector in his hand. As he landed on the floor, knocking over the trolley with all the medical equipment on it, he jabbed himself in the neck. If he missed, both sides of his body would be numb and his head would slowly continue to implode.
The cool atomised liquid drifted up his neck and into his skull, letting him sense the shape of it like a helmet on too tight. He let out a sigh and passed out.
“What do you mean you made a mistake?” said Princep Galeli. “You’ve been doing this for years, how could you insert it incorrectly. I knew I shouldn’t have given this job to a one-eyed doctor.”
“We all make mistakes,” said Dr Libstein. “And you’ll remember you were the one who cost me my eye.”
“Yes, well, no need to bring that up.”
“Fortunately, this young man saved his own life before we could. It’s not like we would have let him die, anyway. You’re far too excitable, Galeli. You always were.”
And with good reason. The Princep was only too aware of who the boy’s mother was. He was even more aware of who she really was. If something had happened to him while he was in their care, not even the combined forces of every organic in the guild would be able to withstand the fury of the Seneca Corps’ Armageddon. In fact, there was only one person he knew of who could restrain her, and he would be just as eager to avenge their son. Not even Princep Geleli’s decades-old friendship with Ramon Ollo would have protected the guild or him.
“You’re sure he’s going to be alright?” Galeli asked, more for reassurance than medical information.
“Yes, yes. Don’t look so terrified, you’ll upset the new trainees. You know how that sort of thing messes with the psych evaluation. The boy’s a bit of a marvel, isn’t he? Managed to get off a perfect shot while deaf and blind and the whole medical team trying to hold him down. Shame you exempted him from testing — I’d love to see what he’d be capable of fully fit.”
“Pray you never do,” said the Princep.
The boy was lying there, his misshapen head starting to shrink back to something more human. Could he hear them talking? A normal person would be out cold, unable to register anything, but he was far from normal.
“Don’t worry, everything’s taken care of now.” The Princep patted the boy’s arm in what he hoped was a comforting manner. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk about your discovery once you're back on your feet. Your input will be very valuable.”
There was no reaction from the boy but it was best to reassure him he would participate in whatever came next, even if that was not what was going to happen. The stakes were far too high to allow that.
Princep Galeli left guards outside the medical bay with strict instructions not to let anyone in or out, the medical staff included. He hurried to his office to make sure his instructions had been followed.
His assistant, Bern Gordon, was waiting for him. He was a tall, thin man notable for two prosthetic hands that glittered blue and red. He had lost them due to an accident Galeli was not entirely free of responsibility for, but they were as functional as real hands and then some. They had cost a lot of reputation points, but Bern had more than enough, with more in reserve. He could have gone back out into the field, but he had declined. The truth was he had lost his nerve, which happened fairly often to those in the vanguard of the guild’s expeditionary forces. There were things in the depths of Antecessor sites that no one talked about in public, and rarely in private.
“Did you lock everything down?” asked the Princep. “All drones on alert?”
“Yes, the perimeter is secure. A couple of the drones are acting a little odd, though.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing, really. Stability’s a bit off, that’s all.”
“Well, get them replaced as soon as you can. Do I have to supervise maintenance now, too? What about communications?”
“Nothing’s getting in or out,” said Bern. “All comms are under grey restriction.”
“Grey? I said black.”
“Going completely dark would be very likely to bring us to the council’s attention, and you said you didn’t want that. Are you sure we shouldn’t fill them in on what’s going on?”
“No, no, we don’t want to get them involved yet. They’ll only send in one of their teams to take over. We need someone we can trust. Have you been keeping an eye on the Red Devil? Is she still close by?”
The Red Devil had only just left a day ago after dropping off the adversarial Trainee Ubik; another anomaly that needed to be handled carefully.
“She’s sitting in the middle of nowhere doing nothing as far as I can tell,” said Bern. “They refuse to say what they’re up to. Very hush-hush. I don’t think they’ll be very keen to interrupt their very important mission.”
“Contact Captain Hickory on a priority channel and tell him to get back here. Make it an emergency order if you have to. I have a simulation I need him to run.”
“You want to use an elite extraction team to run a simulation?” said Bern, scratching his chin with a metallic finger. “That should go down well.”
“Hmm, you’re right, he’ll probably just ignore the order. Tell him we found another fragment of that map he’s obsessed with.”
“He’ll be upset when he finds out it’s not true,” said Bern.
“When he sees what we he have here,” said Princep Galeli, “I doubt he’ll remember that damn map even exists. We’re entering a new era, Bern. Everything will change.”