36: Alienated

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.

Origin: Group A


The twelve of them were floating, some upside down from Point-Two’s perspective, inside a black tube with a circular portal at both ends, sealed shut. The walls were smooth but separated into sections by white lines that crisscrossed every available surface. In some places they were straight and geometrical, in others, they formed squiggles and curls. In both forms, the patterns were deliberate and calculated, although for what purpose was hard to say. They glowed softly, providing light to see by.

The suits had built in lanterns on the chestplate and on top of the helmet. Everyone’s lights were on, head and chest, making it hard to see beyond his immediate surroundings. Point-Two turned his off and the white lines on the wall next to him rippled in response. He turned the light on and off again to confirm the ripple had been a direct reaction. There was no ripple the second time, but Point-Two was certain he hadn’t imagined it.

“Turn off your lights,” he said over the comms. A couple of the suits turned off their lights. “It’s the two buttons on your belt, right side.” The rest of the lights went out. The white lines rippled again. He had only meant to reduce the glare so he could see more clearly which suit contained which trainee, but the environment was reacting to the change. It was aware of them and what they were doing, which suggested an intelligence at work.

It was something to take note of, but so were a lot of other things. He activated the comms again, and said, “Ubik, which suit are you in?”

“Over here.” One of the suits waved at him. It was facing the wall, inspecting the lines as closely as was possible through a visor. The number on the helmet was 12.

Point-Two isolated the channel and opened a private link. “Ubik, you prick, what did you do?”

“Huh?” said Ubik’s voice inside Point-Two’s helmet, entirely unfazed by the abuse. “What you talking about, Boss?”

“Cut the ‘boss’ shit, only us two can hear this. What did you do to the sim-u?”

“Nothing, just like you told me, Boss. What makes you think I did anything? You saw me, I was doing the same as everyone else. This place is pretty weird, huh? This is sending a message somewhere. No idea what it’s saying, though.” He tapped the wall with a gloved finger. The light radiated outwards like a stone dropped in a pool.

“I saw you bend down to tie your shoelaces. Your boots don’t have laces, and even if they did, that wouldn’t matter in here.”

“I respectfully disagree,” said Ubik, not sounding the least bit respectful. “What you saw was me making a mark on my left boot to see if it would carry over.” He pointed at his feet. He had the same boots on inside the simulation as he did out there. Ubik had run a simple test, he had made a unique mark on his boots in the real world to see if the simulation matched the change. Apparently it had. “Take care of your Delgados and your Delgados will take care of you,” said Ubik, like some kind of shoe salesmen. He would probably make a very good one. Customers would find themselves penniless with a closetful of shoes they didn’t need. “I’ll make the channel public, the others will want to know what your plan is, Boss.”

Point-Two’s helmet beeped and the radial of lights on the bottom of the visor indicated the channel was now public. Ubik had picked up how to operate this antiquated equipment surprisingly quickly. Actually no, it wasn’t surprising at all.

A flurry of voices rolled in.

“I can’t see, my visor’s all misty.”

“Why are all of you upside down?”

“We aren’t, only you are.”

“No one is, there’s no right way up.”

“I forgot how to use the thrusters. Is it the one on the thumb. You know, the thingy. What do you call it?”

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Hey, guys, chill,” said Ubik. “Boss is going to make an announcement.”

Eleven helmets awkwardly turned to face in Point-Two’s direction.

He could continue to ignore his unasked for elevated position or he could use it to his advantage. He could also teach this lot a lesson in not relying too heavily on others.

“We’re going to stay here.”

There was silence over the comms. When it became apparent he wasn’t going to say anything else, a voice said, “Stay here and do what?”

“Are we going for the record?” asked someone else.

“No,” said Point-Two. “There is no record for lasting the longest. You need to think in binary terms. You either win or you lose. Live or die. Plus, I doubt the timer starts until we go through that opening.” He pointed at the sealed circle at the other end. “We’re going to stay here so you can get used to operating your suits. Work out how to manoeuvre with the thrusters, get familiar with the comms and HUD readout. Don’t use the guns.”

His instructions were met with general acceptance. If they were in a holding area before the death and murder started, why not take advantage of the time they had? Everyone agreed a little practice wouldn’t hurt.

“Ubik, you take a look at the door. Do not open it.”

Point-Two waited for everyone to get started — slamming into walls, bouncing off each other — and then he sat down. Or rather, he pulled his legs up into a cross-legged position so he was floating in a sitting position. It felt good to be weightless and still. It reminded him of home. He closed his eyes and focused himself on what they’d been told.

A forty-man team had been wiped out. He assumed they had charged in without taking precautions. Sensors had probably shown no life signs, no live weapons. They had never encountered Antecessors before, nothing alien had ever been discovered up to that point. They probably assumed it was a failed experiment, a new propulsion system that didn’t work out. The big corporations all had their own super-secret R&D departments. So, a salvage operation, a scouting team to see if there was anything of value, maybe find out who it belonged to and sell it back to them. Forty people because of the size of the ship. The security division because they were the only ones not busy mining.

Then the hundred-man team was sent in. They were a suppression unit, used to quell riots and force holdouts to give up their territory. Flown in wherever needed, space marines. Mining consortiums were known for their brutal tactics. They would strip a region of space clean of valuable materials and then move onto new grounds, often already occupied.

They would be well armed and well trained. They had been wiped out, too.

But a group of six archaeologists had achieved what none of the marines had. It would be naive to assume they had just used their brains and knowledge of ancient civilisations to slip past the Antecessor defences. They may well have been heavily-armed archaeologists. And what advantage would their anthropological insights give them when facing an alien culture never encountered before?

Could it be that the ship’s defences scaled to the perceived threat? There seemed no obvious reason why they would. Why not just squash every threat with everything you had? Fig would probably know.

If the ship’s systems were still active and able to observe intruders, it might be able to make a decision about how to react, use only what it needed to. Conserve energy, maybe?

But the archaeologists had made it through the first area. It didn’t make a lot of sense.

No human-built AI would behave in such a manner. They were made to follow human survival instincts — control the situation first, make your judgements when the threat has been contained. Self-preservation is always the priority. All options become redundant once you’re dead.

A big team with guns, an obvious threat, can’t be permitted. A small group without guns? Maybe no threat was worth observing, learning from.

“How is he sitting like that without moving?”

Point-Two opened his eyes. The square pane of his visor was filled with eleven helmets looking his way, one still upside down in relation to the rest.

“Turn around,” he said to the aberration.

A blast of air shot out of the suit on the left side and spun it around so it was still upside down but now facing the away from him.

Point-Two unfolded his legs and kicked off the nearest wall. Thrusters were only really useful in open space. In a confined area like this, it was much easier and more exact to use his body to move around.

He floated up to the upside down trainee, number 9, and spun him around. Their helmets faced each other, eyes meeting, the rest of their bodies pointed in opposite directions.

“I’m going to reverse your axis controls,” said Point-Two.

Roddin, frustrated and tense, nodded.

Point-Two pulled a nodule on his shoulder, just above his armpit. It came out on a long wire. They hadn’t mentioned this during the familiarisation. He reached across and stuck it in a slot in Roddin’s helmet. His own visor lit up as the UI appeared.

It only took a moment to flip Roddin’s controls so that up was down and left was right. Some people had a natural tendency to do things ass-backwards.

“Okay, try again.”

Roddin suit’s vented gas and he turned over. A short burst on the other side stopped him spinning. His handling was good, his spatial perception was just borked. “Thanks. Thank you.”

Pont-Two flipped upside down and kicked off the surface under his feet. “Right, everyone take off your guns and leave them here,” he said, moving away from the group while still facing them. “I want to try something.”

He had expected some resistance, some demands for an explanation, but they simply did as he asked. The white lines around them blinked and flowed around the room like they were liquid in tiny canals.

A cloud of guns floated in the back corner. Weaponless, they waited for his next order.

“This door,” said Ubik. “I think I can get it open.”

“You worked out the mechanics?” said Point-Two, finding it hard to not be impressed.

“No, I found the door handle.” Ubik pointed at the wall where the lines formed a circular pattern.

“Okay,” said Point-Two, “open it.”

Ubik placed his hand on the circle. There was a hiss and the round door opened like an aperture, spiralling away until there was no door.

“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go through there and keep going. Whatever obstacle we encounter, try to fly past it. We’ll probably die but don’t worry about it. This is a reconnaissance mission, we want to see what this ship looks like, what’s out there and how much of a bit it is. This time we’re the forty-man mining sortie. The info we get, we’ll use next time, when we’re the hundred-man marine troop.”

The objective was clear, the method was a little vulnerable to being shot to pieces. Still, it made a sort of sense.

“If anyone gets injured, leave them. If we hit a door or other impediment, get Ubik on it. If Ubik’s dead, hit whatever buttons you see. Keep moving.”

Point-Two was relying on the ship considering them not a real threat. No guns, no danger. Since he had no idea what to expect, they might as well get as much information as they could.

“Right, let’s go. Ubik, you take point.”

“Don’t you want to lead the way, Boss?” said Ubik.

“No, I don’t want to be the first to die,” said Point-Two. “It would be embarrassing.”

Ubik nodded. He looked like he was laughing. “Right, follow me.”

Ubik adjusted his positioning and then blasted his thrusters. He went zooming through the open portal. The others followed in close formation, flying past Point-Two like a military parade. Point-Two waited until the last of them was through the opening — no one dead yet — and pushed off to bring up the rear.

The next chamber was a lot wider and a lot darker. The group turned on their lights just as Point-Two exited the tube. As soon as he was through, the aperture behind him spiralled shut. The room exploded in a burst of light and everything went black and then a message appeared.

Simulation terminated. Time: 4 seconds (NEW RECORD).

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