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Preface from Mooderino

37: Directions

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Origin: Group B


The group of twelve were in a cylindrical airlock. Figaro had never run this map and didn’t recognise the configuration — he would have to work out what this ship wanted from first principles. And he would have to work out what his fellow team members wanted in return for their respect the same way. Figuring out the Antecessor ship felt like it would be the easier task of the two.

The Princep had given them a short briefing on the ship Origin. Figaro knew of the ship, had been taught its history when he was very young. As the site of first contact with the Antecessors, the ship was famous. At least, the name was. The actual details of how it had been found, and the process by which its secrets were finally prised from it, differed depending on which source you believed. There were various myths and legends surrounding the six who managed to get past the Level 1 defences. They were ‘The Six’ because of what they accomplished. Figaro did not recall anyone referring to them as archaeologists before.

Had Figaro known this was to be their first map, he would have read up on the methods they’d used. From what he recalled from his own distant studies, the Origin was a transporter ship, not prepped for battle. Its weapon loadout was minimal. Still way beyond the technology of the time it was discovered, but far from insurmountable.

Figaro had a good memory but it was still hard to recall the details he had been taught as a child. This was a pretty standard ‘move and map’ exercise. Move to a central node, deactivate the armed response, map the area for the next node. Once you involved organic-augmented individuals, the whole thing became a lot quicker. But there were no organics allowed on this mission. They were meant to approach this as naked as the first boarders; to die just as quickly, no doubt.

It didn’t have to be that way. If the others were willing to do as he said, they would be able to go all the way to the control room. Four chambers, if he remembered correctly, with the ship’s organics held in the last one.

Would they listen to him? Not yet, that much was very evident.

“Everyone get in line over here,” said Fayzil Ong. He had put himself in charge from the moment they’d been taken to the armoury and put in suits and handed guns. “We’re going to make sure everyone can operate their suits.”

The others complied. Pilit Song remained next to Fayzil, backing up his authority. Did Figaro need an enforcer to get people to listen to him? It would defeat the goal of being recognised as a true leader.

“Okay, everyone try moving forward then backward,” said Fayzil.

The lined up team did as instructed with varying levels of success. Fayzil moved down the line, controlling his own movements with practised ease, helping and correcting. Song floated behind him like a shadow.

Ong and Song, a double-act of sorts. Both with a military background. Song, an ex-soldier, discharged for something he didn’t want to talk about. He held his secret like something that disgusted him, but rather that than let others see it. Built like a tank, well trained, a good fighter under normal circumstance. In zero-G, his movements were awkward. He was ground troops, a grunt.

Fayzil was smaller, leaner, officer material, or so he saw himself. Keen to tell everyone about his family, their rich history as members of the Tridian Army, known for its conquest of new worlds, making them inhabitable, selling them to the highest bidder.

Figaro had heard of them, knew of their tough reputation. Fayzil hadn’t measured up. The chip on his shoulder was the size of a boulder. Didn’t want to accept a lower rank than he felt he deserved, embarrassed to be surpassed by younger siblings, possibly. His ego led him to believe he could take another route to the top. His high CQ giving him a chance to still impress, show them they had underestimated him, make them regret it. But surely his family would have had him tested, would know he had potential. Why wouldn’t they have trained him for an organic themselves?

He didn’t show signs of hiding a dark secret, no shame, just ego, lots of it. Not a man who should lead others, in Figaro’s opinion, but the others in question were doing just that, without hesitation. Here were men looking for a leader, hungry for instruction. But they wouldn’t even look at him.

“You, kid, you know how to use that suit?” shouted Fayzil into the comms like he was trying to bridge the distance between them. “Need some help?”

Figaro turned down the volume on his suit’s speakers. “I think I’ve got it.” He moved forward, turned around and moved back.

The suits were very old and basic but solidly built. Figaro was used to much better fitting suits, bespoke, the highest specifications, but he had been trained in all manner of rigs. Everything he had been taught had started from first principles. A wooden sword, an air pistol, a basic spacesuit. He had learned how to build his own very basic weapons from scraps, how to build a shelter, find water, store air in a container.

He was prepared for this. He had been trained for this. He had been left on an uninhabited planetoid for two weeks with no supplies. He had solo-landed a powerless thopter.

He wasn’t good enough to be seen by these men. He wasn’t ready.

The other group had a real leader. Not one trying to outreach his grasp like Fayzil. Not one fumbling his way through new experiences like Figaro.

Fayzil had put on the suit during the familiarisation exercise and had immediately started helping others to put theirs on correctly, adjusting them for a better fit. Eager to show how much better he was than them. Song had taken to him, happiest when slotted into a subservient role. Classic grunt psychology. A good grunt, no longer allowed to follow his true calling, carrying his sadness like he used to carry his sixty-kilo backpack.

“Looking good,” said Fayzil. The supportive leader boosting the morale of his men. “Just keep it simple. We’ll use a basic search pattern to get an idea of what this place is like. Four groups of three, stay in constant contact with each other. If you come across anything, don’t engage, call it in. We just want to get a feel for what the ship has in store for us at this point. Watch each other’s backs, don’t take unnecessary risks and maybe we can blow past this seventeen-minute record — what do you say? Are you up for it?”

There was a flurry of overly-affirmative noises compensating for a general anxiety that Figaro could see through every suit. He could have seen it through lead plating.

Fayzil went through them, splitting them into groups of three and assigning a group leader for each. His instincts were good enough that no one complained about not getting to be in charge of their trio.

Figaro was grouped with Gibber Hodle and Wolfram Hait. Gibber was clearly a criminal. He had the observation pattern of a thief and the twitchy finger movements of an accomplished pickpocket. Wolfram, on the other hand, was honest to the point of being naive. He wanted to believe everyone was decent and dependable, so he did. Figaro had no idea what either of them was doing in the guild. No doubt they had their reasons, but neither was suitable for an organic implant, even if their CQ had been 100.

Gibbler was put in charge, much to his obvious pleasure.

“This should be fun,” he said. “I bet the Antecessors left some nice loot behind.”

“Not really,” said Figaro. “This is a supply ship and the Antecessor’s supplies aren’t valuable to us. Mostly chemicals in a raw form.”

“How do you know that?” said Wolfram.

“I read about it,” said Figaro,

“Great,” said Gibber. “We’ve got our own librarian. Should come in handy.”

“Right, we’ve got the door figured out,” said Fayzil. “Ready up.”

The door opened in a swirl, revealing blackness and an impression of a vast open space.

The lights on the airlock walls flickered and moved.

“What was that?” said someone, panic creeping into their voice.

“The ship’s finished scanning us,” said Figaro.

“Ignore him,” said Gibber. “He likes to read a lot.”

There was some laughter over the comms.

“Okay, kid,” said Fayzil, “you heard what the Princep said, this isn’t like the Holover games you’ve played. This is the real thing. Don’t make assumptions. That goes for all of you.”

Figaro wasn’t so sure this was the real thing. The D’atnari Institute was notorious for selling incomplete maps. They liked to keep their most precious discoveries for themselves. His father had had some run-ins with them over the delivery of inadequate merchandise. They, of course, denied everything, until his mother offered to come speak to them in person.

“Remember, this is a dead ship, been lying here for thousands of years. No one’s home, no one knows we’re here. If we don’t go in all guns blazing, the automated systems have no reason to see us as a threat. Nice and calm, observe and report.”

Should he say something? Warn them?

The four teams exited through the open portal, each given its own direction to take. Two left and right. One down the middle, angled up, one down the middle, angled down.

It was a bad idea. A terrible idea. But Figaro making a fuss wouldn’t be received well. Insisting they all listen to him would only make them see him as a brat. And when he was proven to be correct, it would only breed resentment.

“Right, slow and steady, stay in contact, no heroics. Let’s go.”

The teams moved out, gently floating into the dark, their lights encasing them in a bubble of glow. Figaro hit his thrusters into reverse and floated back into the airlock.

“Hey, kid,” said Gibber, “you pressed the wrong button? Maybe you should just stay there. It’s pretty scary out—”

Figaro switched off the comms — he didn’t enjoy hearing people scream — and closed the portal.

He waited until he heard the distinctive pop of the Antecessor null field activating. Then he turned the comms back on and opened the door to silence.

“Anyone still here?” he said. There was no response.

He brought up the HUD on his visor and ran through the options until he found voice activation.

“Voice activation check.”

“Check,” said a soft voice in his helmet.

Using voice commands was a lot easier than pressing buttons but made things a bit messy when there were twelve of you, all speaking at the same time, trying to hear orders while giving instructions to your rig. But there was no one else to talk to now.

“Forward, point-two seconds.”

A burst of air sent Figaro floating out of the opening. “Reverse point-two, lateral point-six, reverse lateral point-three. On my mark. Mark.”

Figaro was turned around to face the opening he’d just left, then tilted back into a horizontal position so his feet came up to face the opening.

From his perspective, he hadn’t moved, the ship had rotated around him so that he was standing over the opening like it was a pit, looking along the wall that was now his floor. He could only see a short distance ahead.

“Increase light, mid, two hundred percent.”

“Safety protocol active. Unable to comply.”

“Override safety protocol. Accept warranty violation.”

The light on his chest increased in brightness, showing the walls covered in dull markings. There would be a mechanism to turn them on somewhere.

Antecessor routes never went into the open, they stuck to surfaces. Something to do with their physiology. The surest way to get targeted as an invading presence was to step off the path. He could have told the others if they’d been willing to listen. But they hadn’t been willing. Perhaps actions would speak louder than words.

“Forward, point-nine.” A burst of gas sent him gliding towards the next portal.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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