38: Explorer

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Antecessor Ship: Origin (Sim-U).


His father had told him that simulations weren’t the same as the real thing. He had sent him across the galaxy to get some real-life experiences under his belt. And here he was, inside another simulation.

Figaro floated through the darkness humming to himself. He wasn’t sure what the tune was called but they had played it on the ship that had brought him to this planet, and it had suddenly popped into his head. He had noticed its soothing effect on the passengers. Was he trying to soothe himself?

Being inside an Antecessor vessel was far from a relaxing experience but it was something Figaro was used to. At least, in a simulation. If he needed soothing, it was more over his anxiety with regard to his fellow trainees. He was far more comfortable dealing with the deadly defences in here than the sceptical defensiveness out there.

The light from his suit showed the wall beneath him spreading out in all directions, but only a strip about three metres wide contained the intricate designs similar to the ones in the airlock. It would have been much easier to see where he was going if they were turned on and glowing, but then the ship would know where he was going, too.

The Origin was in pretty bad condition. It hadn’t just been abandoned, it had suffered some kind of catastrophic failure, possibly after being attacked. Who had attacked it? Other Antecessors, presumably. There was no evidence of any other alien lifeforms, although that didn’t mean there weren’t any.

Had the ship still been in full working order, Figaro was sure he’d already be dead. A single intruder didn’t stand much chance against a fully operational Antecessor defence system. A disabled ship might not have offered the greatest threat, but it was an interesting exercise to go in blind.

A couple of drones were usually sent in first to scout out the general layout of a new site. The only downside was that the drones would be scanned in return. Sending in a tactical drone with weapons and shields would get you a forceful response and put the whole site on high-alert. A camera on a floater, though, could get fairly deep into a facility before it was deemed a threat, and even then it would just be destroyed or captured.

The real key to any Antecessor site was finding out what it wanted. What did this dead ship want?

The vessels, the temples, the wormhole stations, they all had a function they were built to accomplish. They had an intelligence that ran them. Not like the computer AIs humanity had built to act as surrogates and efficient servants. This was a much more basic intelligence that responded to threats with violence, and to assistance with open doors. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy to divine the purpose of these ancient creations. Sometimes moving an object from one area to another gained you entry into a deeper level, other times there seemed no option but to fight your way through waves of Antecessor droids and then kick the doors in.

Ahead of him, Figaro saw a dome, about the right size to cover another portal. He adjusted his speed so he would stop next to it.

“Trainee Matton, can you hear me?” The voice came in over his helmet.

“Yes, Princep.”

“I just wanted to check you were alright in there.”

“I’m fine, thank you. Just approaching the first blister.”

“You don’t need to continue with this exercise if you don’t wish to. Obviously, it is much simpler than the maps you’ve run.”

“It’s fine, I quite like the idea of running it alone. I haven’t done this one so its all new to me.”

“I see,” said the Princep. “Are you perhaps aiming for the record?”

“No, I didn’t think I would be eligible. The record was for a first-timer, wasn’t it? This might be my first time in here, but I hardly count myself as a newbie. It wouldn’t really be fair to put me in the same bracket as someone who had no experience of Antecessor technology.”

He had reached the dome, a translucent half-bubble. He took hold of the rifle slung around his shoulder.

“Left lateral, point two, forward, point one, helmet rear point six. Mark.”

“Say again,” said the Princep.

“Sorry, I was talking to the suit,” said Figaro, as he tilted down close enough so he could put the muzzle of the gun against the floor next to the edge of the dome. He didn’t want to attract the attention of any prowler droids if he could help it.

“May I ask how you managed to do that? We deactivated voice commands.”

“I hacked it. I suppose it’s sort of a bug with the sim-U,” said Figaro. He pulled the trigger once and the dome flickered, then disappeared. “The simulation is so accurate it can make a one-to-one copy of anything, even things far more complex than itself. But the sim-U mainframe can’t necessarily override a more sophisticated system in here from out there. That’s why you can’t simply tell it to take control of Antecessor processes. You can stop the simulation, but you can’t guide the individual components unless you know how to do that in real life.”

Beneath where the dome had been was another closed portal. Figaro searched the perimeter for the locking mechanism. It was harder to see it without the lines lit up. The blister was anti-powered — it only came on when the power went out — but the door mechanism would need juice to work. Hopefully, there was power on the other side like there had been in the airlock.

“You’re saying if there’s a way to hack a system inside the simulation, we can’t stop it from the sim-U controls?”

“Not unless you know how to block the hack.”

“I had no idea. I don’t recall it being mentioned in the instruction files.”

“It isn’t.” Figaro moved himself over the portal using the manual controls and placed the gun against the centre. He squeezed the trigger and held it.“There’s a small clause in the terms of service, under liability. It’s very vague, although I think some people have tried to take Vendix to court over it. But you know the kind of company Vendx Intergalactic is; everything’s tied up in lawyers and court dates. They’ll never admit to it, even though the issue is that the sim-U is too accurate. A quality product, my father calls it.”

“I see. Very enlightening. Clearly, you are the expert here.”

“Not really,” said Figaro. “I just spent most of my childhood in one of these things. You pick up a lot of the idiosyncrasies that way.”

“To be sure,” said the Princep. “Well, if you wish to continue you are welcome to do so. No one’s ever attempted to complete a solo run. That would be a record in itself.”

“There is one thing I’d like to ask of you. A favour.”

“Yes?” said the Princep.

“The other trainees, are they still in the lab?”

“They are. I was just waiting to see if you wanted to exit before I sent them back to their quarters.”

“Could you keep them there and, um, could you broadcast me on the screen.”

There was a slight pause. Then, “Are you sure?”

“I think so. I’d like them to judge me on what I can do rather than what I look like. I know they don’t think very much of me. I’m curious if that would change.”

Another pause. “Yes. I think I would be interested to see the result of that, too. Alright. It will take a few seconds. Should I begin now?”

“Yes, ready whenever you are.”

Figaro waited for a few more seconds and then let go of the trigger. The portal cover rippled. Then it slowly spiralled open. Beneath him was a long tunnel, much narrower than the airlock. It was like a chute.

“Boot, front, point six. Helmet rear, point six.” Figaro rotated so his head was pointing directly down. He could use his thrusters to blast himself down through the tunnel like a missile, but he had a limited amount of air and no idea how much he would need. He also didn’t know what was in the tunnel.

“Forward, point three.” A short burst sent him slowly into the opening. Once inside, he used his hands against the walls to punt himself along. The walls flickered with light where he touched it. The power was on here, which meant he was being observed. One more audience member to help inflate his viewing figures.

It was risky, of course. Allowing the others to watch him wouldn’t necessarily play in his favour. A show-off, an arrogant child, an attempt to belittle them — there were many negative connotations they could take away. But at least it would be based on what he was, rather than how they perceived him to be. In any case, it was the approach he had decided on. Now he had to see it through. It would be even more awkward if he screwed this up.

The tunnel was long and straight with no other occupants. What did it say about Antecessor physiology that they used these sorts of connecting tubes? That they were similar in size to humans? That they were long and thin? They could change shape, perhaps. Maybe they had no bones. Or maybe they sent their droids down these tubes rather than themselves.

Figaro came out of an opening without a cover, into a large room bathed in red light.

“Filter out red,” he said.

The visor shimmered and the room became white, harsh and hard to look at.

“Soften filter, five degrees.”

The visor shimmered again and the light changed to something close to daylight, perhaps on an overcast day.

It took a moment to orient himself correctly. He was in a room with six large tanks, each about twice Figaro’s height. Made of glass with metal hoods on either end, and filled with liquid.

This was the ships cargo, the chemicals they were delivering. Figaro had never seen a ship with full vats. Either the cargo was missing, taken by the attackers, or the scanning process usually occurred well after the site had been cleared and all items removed. But this was the first discovery. The Six had recorded everything as they went, unsure if they’d make it back to give an oral report.

Figaro moved closer to the glass. The liquid looked green, although it was hard to tell with his filters on. This substance was important to the Antecessors. Precious, even. No one had any idea what it was. Impenetrable to all but the most basic scans, inert to all stimulation. A mixture of molecules that could be found anywhere.

Here was the perfect chance for Figaro to try out one of an idea his Father had never taken seriously. If it didn’t work, no big loss, apart from maybe all his fellow trainees thinking he was a useless idiot; no real change.

Figaro rose to the top of the vat and inspected the hood. It looked like it was made of copper. Then he sank down and checked the one at the opposite end. He found the control panel and opened it.

Five sections of the far wall lit up and then detached themselves, floating like six-fingered stars. They were black with white lines that lit up.

Figaro moved away from the vat and moved his wave gun so it hung behind him. He stretched out his arms and legs on either side, as wide as possible.

The ship had already scanned him, knew his level of mobility.

“Rear, point one.” He began floating away from the five droids.

Their fingers snapped forward, changing their appearance from an open hand saying a friendly hello, to a hand about to give you a pinch. There was a fizzing sound and all five of them came flying towards him.

Figaro remained in spread-eagle position. The droids latched onto him. Hands, feet, one on his head. They clamped down, encasing his extremities. There was another round of fizzing and he began moving forward. It was hard to see exactly where he was going because of the droid attached to his helmet, but it appeared to be towards the wall.

Just as he reached the wall, too slowly to do any harm, sections of the wall moved apart like interlocking fingers separating. The gap was the same shape as Figaro, arms and legs outstretched. The droids carried him through the opening made for him, a millimetre’s gap on every side.

Why waste his own thrusters exploring the interior of the ship when he could get the ship to give him a free ride?

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Afterword from Mooderino
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