97: Hard Line

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Antecessor Ship: Origin (sim-U).

 

“It’s probably a coincidence,” said Figaro. “It’s just similar to the symbol you saw. In your junkyard.”

The green sigil filled the room and seemed very deliberate.

“Could be,” said Ubik. “Different shapes mean different things to different people. Who knows what this meant to the Antecessors? Could have been a sign pointing the way to the nearest bathroom, for all we know.” He grinned.

“You don’t think it’s a coincidence, do you?” said Figaro. He still couldn’t read Ubik, the man was a total enigma, but he recognised sarcasm when he heard it.

“I think…” Ubik tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I think it’s unlikely. Same way it’s unlikely you triggering this thing was a coincidence.” Ubik walked up to the sigil so his face was bathed in green. “Something about you made this possible. Might be your DNA, or your face, or your abilities — it needed you to be here so it could activate. It wants something only you can give it. Any idea what that is?”

Figaro wished he did. “None. I’ve been in lots of simulations. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“Well,” said Ubik, “it might be the timing. It needed you and it also needed a bunch of other things to line up, stuff we aren’t aware of. But you, you’re definitely a key component.” Ubik turned his attention to the droids silently hovering either side of the sigil. “By the looks of things, the ship doesn’t want to scare you off. It needs you to play ball.”

“You’re saying it chose me because it can manipulate me into doing what it wants?” Figaro wasn’t naive enough to think the Antecessor ship was his new best friend. Whatever it wanted, it would use whatever method it considered most likely to succeed. Figaro had enough experience with Antecessor technology to know that much.

“I was gonna say it needs someone gullible, but ‘manipulate’ is a lot less insulting, so, yeah, it needs someone it can manipulate.”

It was a strange experience being disrespected so directly. Figaro was used to snide remarks coming from an angle, difficult to prove or deflect. Ubik didn’t care. In fact, he revelled in it. Even more surprisingly, Figaro felt no offence from the remark.

“I think the ship wants me to go home,” said Figaro.

“Oh,” said Ubik. “Back to your dad?”

“No, I don’t think this had anything to do with him,” said Figaro, but as he said it, the thought occurred to him that maybe his father was somehow involved. It certainly wasn’t something he should discount yet. “There’s an asteroid near my homeworld. It has an Antecessor site on it, it controls a wormhole.”

“Sounds like a busy place.”

“Yes, it is. The site, we only have access to the top two levels. No one’s been able to get past the entrance to the lower floors.”

“Not even your dad? Must be heavily defended.”

“Not really,” said Figaro. “I mean it is, but that’s not the problem. There’s a door. No one can open it. Can’t break it, can’t even scratch it. But… I think this ship wants me to go down there.”

“Alright,” said Ubik. “It’s given you a key, has it?”

Figaro was mildly surprised that Ubik had understood so quickly, but he was getting used to Ubik being able to keep up. Or maybe he was slowing down, so Figaro could keep up with him.

“Yes. I think so. I won’t know for sure until I get back. I’d like you to come with me.”

“Sure, sure, sounds like fun,” said Ubik. “I’m looking forward to meeting your dad, if he’s got time.”

“I’m sure he’ll make time,” said Figaro. “Someone who was able to reconfigure a simulation machine to port into another machine’s active simulation, he’d want to talk to that person.”

“No, no, no,” said Ubik hurriedly. “Don’t tell him that. That wasn’t me, I wouldn’t want him to think I took credit for that. That’s all Vendx.”

Figaro was momentarily confused. “Vendx can do that?”

“Not all their machines,” said Ubik. “Just the executive ones. They like to keep an eye on their employees, like, close up, without them knowing. The top execs and VIPs, some of them like to, ah, watch.”

“Ubik,” said Figaro, “I know what you’re getting at. You don’t need to be quite so careful around me. I might be young, but I’m not totally inexperienced with the darker side of human nature.”

“Of course not,” said Ubik. “Never crossed my mind. Only, we aren’t alone, are we?” He nodded towards Destri, who was floating in a curled up ball to the side, overwhelmed by the situation. “No point demoralising the workforce any more than necessary.”

Figaro nodded, not entirely sure he should take Ubik’s kindness at face value. “I’d like to get home as soon as possible. That doesn’t seem very likely at the moment.”

“No,” said Ubik. “We’ve got Vendx and the Central Authority to deal with. And we’ll probably have trouble with the guild and the city council, too. Everyone will want to delay your exit.”

That’s what worries me,” said Figaro. “I was thinking, if I could contact my father, once he was aware of the situation, it would be much harder for any of the parties involved to hold me here.”

“He has that much clout?” said Ubik. “Even with the CA?”

“Yes,” said Figaro. “My mother, also, would have some influence on their actions.”

“Uh-huh. Power couple, are they? Turn heads when they walk into a room? Must have been fun growing up being the least important member of the family.”

Figaro’s had an urge to defend his parents but he disregarded it. Ubik wasn’t the type of person to be convinced by disingenuous words.

“The problem is the drone net over the city,” said Figaro. “We can’t send a message from down here. What about from up there?”

“Possibly,” said Ubik. “But it would be better to just take the net down, no?”

“You can do that?” Figaro had seen what Ubik was capable of, so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility, but still, the Vendx drone net was known for its dependability. They wouldn’t be able to get away with the misdeeds they committed if that weren’t the case.

“Hmm, well, you know, I’ve been thinking it over. I might have a way to do it. It’s a big ask, the security will be tight, super-tight, not an easy job by any means, but we’ve got to get you back home. It’s not guaranteed, but like I said, it’s all about the—”

“Hey,” said PT’s voice, “we’ve got a development. The net’s down. It’s all down.”

“—timing,” said Ubik. “Oh well, looks like we got lucky.”

“Were you responsible for that?” asked Figaro.

“Responsible? Not a word I like to use. I was gonna say—”

Ubik disappeared. One moment he was standing in front of Figaro, the next, he had vanished.

“He’s dead,” said Destri, his eyes bloodshot and his lips trembling. “I saw him go. They killed him.”

“He DC’d,” said Figaro. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

“What he said about the execs watching us in our private sim-U sessions, do you think that was true?”

Figaro felt uncomfortable under Destri’s gaze. The poor man was falling apart. It was a common effect of spending too much time in an Antecessor map. The stress was continuous, even when there wasn’t a direct threat. The indirect threats were enough.

“I don’t know,” said Figaro. “Probably just a rumour, you know how people like to talk.”

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Destri. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”

“We’re in a sim-U,” Figaro reminded him.

“I heard you, your plans. I know too much. You can’t lie to me, I’ve been working for Vendx long enough to know when an employee needs to be silenced. They tell you he was moved to a different department, but everyone knows he must have seen something he wasn’t supposed to, and now he’ll never be seen again.” There was a defeated look in the man’s eyes.

“I’m not going to kill you,” said Figaro. “I don’t care what you heard. It’s fine.”

“Really?” Weak hope seeped out of him.

“I won’t kill you. But we might both end up dying in here if we don’t find a way out. I can’t get through to the guild and they don’t seem able to disconnect us from their end. Without our suits, we have to wait until they decide to end the sim-U.”

“Yes, sorry, sorry about that,” said Destri. “Couldn’t you… couldn’t you ask them to let us out?” He nodded towards the droids without directly looking at them.

It was an unusual suggestion considering what droids usually did to anyone who approached them, but this was an unusual situation.

“Um, hello?” said Figaro to the sigil. “It’s me again. Look, I understand where you want me to go, and I’m willing to go there, but you have to let us out first.”

He waited. None of the droids moved, the sigil stayed the same. Did the ship even understand it was a simulation? It was adapting and changing, but that didn’t mean it grasped everything.

“We’re not actually in this ship,” Figaro continued. “We’re inside a simulation. You have to let us go so we can return to the real world.”

Would any of what he was saying make sense to the ship? It sounded ridiculous even to him.

The sigil changed colour to white. Then it began to fade until all that was left was a faint afterglow. The droids remained where they were.

Figaro waited for something else to happen. Nothing did.

“Princep Galeli, can you hear me?” Figaro tried to use his suit comm even though it was fried. There was no response. He looked at Destri. “There is one other way. We have to suicide and hope the programme will end when there’s no one else here. We’ll be in the buffer, but they should be able to tell on their end.”

Destri took a breath of Antecessor-made air and nodded firmly. “Okay, okay, how do we—” It was his last breath and his last words as Figaro grabbed his head and smartly broke his neck. It required very little force, it was all in the timing.

Now it was his turn. Figaro faced the droid nearest him. “Listen to me. I need you to kill me.” It would have been convenient if the droid did it for him but the tentacled monster stared impassively past him. Just his luck to encounter the only pacifist droids the Antecessors had made. “Execute me!”

A droid limb shot out and grabbed Figaro’s neck. It squeezed until his head popped off.

 

***

 

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Simulation Room.

 

Figaro opened his eyes to find a girl staring at him.

“He’s awake,” said Bev.

“Ah,” said Princep Galeli. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you,” said Figaro as he got out of the chair. The needle in his neck tickled on the way out. “I need to send a message home.” Princep Galeli’s eyes flared with concern. “To my father.” Galeli’s concern lessened.

“Yes, a good idea. I was reluctant to involve him, but we have scant other choices. Shouldn’t be a problem now that the net’s down. I don’t suppose you know how that happened.”

“Not exactly.” Figaro looked to the side where the Vendx assault team were still in their chairs. “Are they in the buffer?”

“They are,” said the princep. “We’ll have to return them, I suppose.”

“Can you erase their memories?” said Figaro. “You have that technology, yes?”

“Yes,” said Galeli. “Probably for the best. Not entirely ethical, but… I could put them back to when they first landed.”

“No,” said Figaro, “erase them completely. Vendx will have recovery software. Leave them blank.”

Galeli’s mouth dropped open. “What? You can’t be serious. That would be tantamount to murder.”

“No,” said Figaro, “it wouldn’t. It’s the only way to keep Vendx in the dark and save these men. What do you imagine they will do to these people if they suspect there might be something to extract in their brains?”

“He’s right,” said Captain Hickory. “Vendx will tear them apart trying to find any information on what happened in there. If they’ve been wiped, there won’t be any point.”

Galeli sucked in his lips, but he nodded and set to work.

Figaro had told Destri he wouldn’t kill him and he’d kept his words. But, as his parents had taught him, emotional responses were a poor substitute for common sense. Destri probably wouldn’t thank him but then Destri would never know.

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