Unknown Antecessor Location.
The images poured into Figaro’s mind in a cascade of colour and abstract shapes. This wasn’t like the previous time he had communicated with an Antecessor creation, but then it had been a slow and methodical attempt to come to a common form of discourse.
This was not like that.
This felt more like he was being bombarded with information stripped down and sharpened to the most effective point so the message was clear. The effect was like being prodded with a thousand needles.
Figaro resisted flinching — which was all his body wanted to do even though there was no actual physical attack to retreat from — and hoped the deluge wouldn’t overwhelm him.
He understood. This method of sharing information was new to him but he somehow knew what was being said. Or offered.
They wanted him to come to them and they were holding the lives of the others as leverage. Now PT and Ubik were the hostages instead of him. If he accepted the Antecessors’ terms, his friends would be allowed to survive. There was no indication of how that would be delivered, but they were clearly going to die very quickly without assistance.
Agree to whatever was being asked of him and they would live for now. That was all he could be sure of receiving for his compliance.
Figaro had said no. He had considered the other option and rejected it immediately. It was a bad deal and not worth taking, even if it was the only deal. Now was not the time to grasp desperately for any solution, like a drowning man trying to breathe water on the off-chance he was part-fish.
Figaro had been trained in the art of diplomacy, in negotiation and compromise. Threatening death, directly or indirectly, was only used as leverage by those who had failed to find any other form of advantage. It was an admission of a weak position and always worth rejecting.
If someone wanted something from you that only you can give them, killing you or someone close to you wasn’t going to put that thing in their hands. Coercion, extortion, blackmail — all of these methods relied on capitulation by the victim. Which meant they had no way of forcing you to give them what they wanted. And the more they wanted it, the safer you were refusing to hand it over.
The droid floating in front of him wasn’t really here. It had materialised out of thin air, it had seemed, but it wasn’t solid. It wasn’t a Holover but it was something along the same lines. Something far more sophisticated, but its ability to interact with its surroundings was limited.
Its black, spherical body was outside the red partition that surrounded Figaro. The long tendrils that hung below it snaked along the floor and up the wall, fitting into the grooves recently vacated by the silver liquid. Streaks of light glittered along its limbs.
It wasn’t here but it could form an interface with the system operating the red shield. Partial control judging by the way the shields flickered.
PT and Ubik were on the other side of him, flattened against the ground. He didn’t have time to worry about them. Saving them now so they could be eliminated later would serve no purpose. Short-term gain was meaningless. Either you won the long game or you folded to save wasting energy. No point losing and also dying exhausted.
A red shield appeared around the others again. All three looked unconscious, hanging limp inside their protective bubble.
Another barrage of images struck Figaro’s mind. With a tremendous effort, Figaro managed to limit the effect on his consciousness. He had to be careful to take in a little information at a time or he would be swamped. It wanted to fill every corner of his brain but he focused on narrowing the entry point so the rate of image-flow was reduced to a manageable level.
This was an attempt at persuasion. PT, Ubik, Nifell. Each assigned a simple icon. A circle with an intersecting line, a squiggle forming a square, an oval with a dark spot inside it. Resistance, non-conformity, observer. The shapes broke apart into random lines and then reformed into symmetrical star shapes. A threat? Not of death, this time. Control? Slavery? Some sort of transformation?
His face felt strange, hot and malformed as though the images were piling up inside him and spilling over. He tried to open his mouth but the muscles wouldn’t work. The Antecessors had refined the language but not how to deliver it. The pressure inside his skull made it feel like he would go insane before he could come to any kind of arrangement.
The Head had managed to imitate human speech, more or less, but it had had time to learn. The Antecessors Figaro had encountered seemed to have woken from an endless slumber and weren’t able to work out the complexities of human language. Or weren’t willing to.
Using all the strength he could muster, he forced his mouth to form words. “I don’t care about them. Aggression will only anger me.”
He did his best to put the emotion of each word into his mind. He couldn’t use their system of images but he had managed to get across his basic feelings before. For all the advances they’d made, this was still a very clear extension of what had happened on the Origin. There was a link between the ship in a simulation and all the other Antecessor sites in the real world. They could speak to each other, but they couldn’t speak to whatever this place was.
This asteroid, this inner part, did not belong to them. At least, not the ones controlling this droid.
“I will agree...” He wasn’t sure how to convey his willingness to submit but only under conditional terms. Creating a shared language was hard when you were trying to communicate with aliens without mouths or ears or hands or even eyes. “For information. Tell me the reason you are here. Tell me about your god.”
The moment he opened up his thoughts to try to convey the enormity and all-encompassing idea of a deity, the images exploded a thousand-fold and Figaro felt his mind buckle.
There was no attempt to deflect or withhold. Quite the opposite. There was an eagerness to share. Figaro did his best to take it all in but there was so much. Perhaps he had been wrong to assume the Head was the one who had adapted to human language more competently. What he was now consuming directly would never be possible through words alone.
Language wasn’t too complex, it was too limiting.
An abundance of devotion washed over him. He wasn’t sure if he was genuinely receiving emotions or if the images in his head were so accurately describing what the Antecessors felt about their god that he was experiencing it vividly enough to give him a sense-memory. His arm began to feel warm and the bracelet on his wrist bit into him, stopping him from getting lost in the unbridled joy of loving a god.
The Head had also been reverential about this deity of theirs, but nothing as intense as this. These had a spiritual, near-transcendent quality to it.
The Antecessors were machines. Blocks of ancient technology built to kill. That was how they were seen. No one had any idea what the creators of these droids were really like, so they ascribed them with the same tendencies as the ones they left behind. Soulless robots.
What Figaro was experiencing felt far more human, and not necessarily in a good way. Devotion to a supreme being had led to many of humanity’s earliest atrocities. Were the Antecessor’s zealots in a holy war? They would need an enemy for that, and none was known. Unless they fought themselves.
The burst of ecstatic reverence faded.
It was replaced by sadness, regret. The moment of joy receded. It was pushed away. It came back but this time it was more than just a presence, it was a force of energy that was hard to be near. There was a whiteness in his mind that made him wince in pain.
It was a ball. No, a hole. A white hole. It was in space, pouring out its light and energy, filling the void. Sparks of life.
Figaro saw it like he was watching from a starship window. No, there was nothing between him and the white hole. He was in space, floating next to it. He felt waves of energy flowing through him as it travelled out from the hole.
It was glorious and majestic. The creation of stars and galaxies.
It was almost like this was his history, his legacy. He could be part of this. He could continue the journey to see where it ended. He was being called to join.
Tempting as it was to give himself over to this beguiling sight, to let himself be carried along by the current, he resisted. He closed his eyes and pushed the image out.
“Tell me about the Head.” He brought up an image of the large Head as it had appeared when they first met, the vertical eyes, the desperate desire to return to the inner sanctum.
He felt the Antecessor recoil. Here was something it didn’t like. That was good to know. He needed to find out the things it didn’t want to tell him. That was the whole purpose of asking it to open up and tell him about itself, about the Antecessor way of life, their purpose. Obviously, it would only want to tell him what it thought would serve its own interests. Figaro’s job was to tease out more.
Figaro felt the hesitation, and also the attempt at covering it up. It didn’t want him to know its true feelings on the Head.
Figaro thought in terms of oppression and servitude, put the concepts at the forefront of his mind. If what Head had said was true, the Head and its kind had once been the servants and the Antecessors the masters. He pushed that thought in his head and then extended it to the white hole. He turned the glory of creation into the power of domination. Chaos moulded by force into static order, bound and contained.
There was no denial. He pushed harder. The white hole sent out beams and waves of light to search and scour. It left nothing untouched. It was greedy and unrelenting.
Figaro had no idea if his representation was accurate but he could sense the uncomfortable reaction. There was an attempt to disconnect but he held on.
And then he saw it. For a brief moment, he saw the face of god. Their god. A child.
It looked human. But its skin was impossibly black and its veins were shockingly white. And the eyes glowed. They glowed with every colour imaginable. It was organic. All of them at once.
He watched it grow, surrounded by droids the size of planets building something immense, using stars as furnaces.
And then everything fell apart.
The images broke down into abstract shapes once more. The droids fractured into smaller pieces, into geometric patterns that attacked each other. They broke free and spread out. No, they ran, trying to escape.
Some formed a barrier to prevent pursuit. Some hid. Some destroyed themselves.
One shape caught Figaro’s eyes. One fleeing icon was a squiggle forming a square — the same shape that had represented Ubik. In all the chaos, that shape was the only one that didn’t touch any other. Didn’t interact, didn’t get caught. It headed out into the darkness and kept going.
Figaro lurched backwards as his mind went blank. Even though his thoughts were his own again, he felt his head had been emptied and was now hollow. He couldn’t think straight, couldn’t make sense of what he’d been shown.
The droid was still floating in front of him but it didn’t seem quite right. Like it was frozen.
“It’s buffering,” said Ubik’s voice over the comms. “You pushed it pretty hard. Nice job.”
Figaro looked over to see Ubik floating in his red prison. “You saw that?”
“Yeah. Interesting show. Lot to take in. Similar to what the CA use to talk to each other. Not as much lag.”
“What did it mean?”
“Oh, you know, lots of cool visuals and not much of the real story. Puff piece.”
“You think that was a promotional video?”
“Sure, something like that. But anyway, we should probably get out of here while it’s cooling off.”
“You know, like in the video.”
Figaro shook his head. He hadn’t seen anything to do with the asteroid.
“The part where they showed how Head and his crew took over the organics and flew out of there at full speed. Good thing too, seeing where things were going.”
“Where were things going?”
Ubik shrugged. “Probably find out in episode two. But they set up these ships so no one but them could fly them. That silver stuff, that’s the key.”
“But we don’t have any.”
Ubik smiled through the red shield. It made him look strangely menacing. “Oh, I might know where we can get some.” He looked past Figaro at the droid.