49: Team Elite

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Figaro was used to wearing the finest clothing. His outfits back home didn’t always allow him to breathe but they held everything together so well you hardly felt you needed to. Posture was rigorously maintained through excellent tailoring.

The FVG greys, by contrast, were loose and informal — your posture was your own business. Every part of him felt like it was on the move as he walked beside Princep Galeli. Cheap, functional, generic — and yet, somehow, the moment he put on the disposable fatigues, he felt like it brought everything into sharp relief. He had a job to do and objectives to complete. There was a reassuring familiarity to being part of a team.

“Until we get a handle on what exactly you found on the Origin,” said the Princep, brisk in speech and gait, “we’re doing our best to keep this discovery from leaking out, so I’m going to have to ask you to not share what we discuss here today with anyone, including your father. I realise his knowledge would be of great help in understanding this new phenomenon, but I would like a chance to make our own assessment first.”

“Of course,” said Figaro, lengthening his stride to keep up with the invigorated princep. “I consider it guild business, I will follow your instructions.” It wasn’t for him to decide how others conducted their affairs. “I’m not sure how you’ll stop it getting out, though. If it really is a new sigil, people won’t be able to keep their mouths shut for very long, I would guess.”

“True enough,” said the princep. “I see it as a small window we have until word gets out. My only intention is to make the most of the opportunity while we have sole possession of it. I envision a few days at the most.”

“What about the four who left?” said Figaro. “Don’t they pose a risk?”

“Not at all,” said the Princep. “It’s standard procedure to scrub anyone who leaves the program early. Nothing insidious, I assure you, it’s in the contract, on the front page, not the fine print. They won’t recall anything about the time they spent here. We have other secrets we wish to keep to ourselves, too.”

Figaro wasn’t particularly surprised but he still felt a bit uneasy at the idea of memory removal. It wasn’t a painful procedure, and only the recent past would have been scrubbed, but still, a person was their memories.

The four ex-trainees had exited the training program of their own free will, knowing the consequences. It wasn’t for him to judge their choice. As the princep had intimated, if they weren’t up to the task, better they declare it early and not waste anyone’s time, including their own.

But it had been the sight of Figaro, his features warped beyond recognition, that had scared them off.

Not everyone did well with being thrown in the deep end. That didn’t mean they couldn’t learn to swim.

Figaro was coming to realise that there was more to being a leader than showing how much more capable you were than everyone else. The people you led had to be able to follow you; they had to feel the orders you gave the were viable and also possible for them personally to accomplish. A leader needed to inspire confidence, not revulsion.

Princep Galeli stopped just before they reached the simulation room, its modern doors standing in odd contrast to the stone hallway.

“A word before we go in. Captain Hickory has reviewed the footage of you from the simulation,” said the princep, “so he is aware of what you managed to achieve in there. Unfortunately, he has not been able to replicate it. Not from want of trying, I assure you.”

“He didn’t come across the sigil?”

“No,” said the princep, “nor the hidden area you uncovered. His team made a thorough analysis of your approach, attempted an exact reenactment. They all died. Repeatedly.”

That wasn’t good news. It would probably mean he would be grilled for an explanation of their failure, as though their shortcomings were his fault. The psychology of negative group dynamics had been one of his least favourite lessons. There were too many variables, changing as they collided with each other, creating a billiard effect. Balls bouncing off each other into other balls, into other balls and so on. He hoped Captain Hickory was an autocratic lead figure. Bullies helped reduce the number of balls allowed on the table. A man who encouraged his subordinates to speak their minds and defend their ideas would make the room a nightmare to read.

A more worrying thought occurred to him.

“The recording you have of me,” said Figaro. “It’ll have to be, um, modified. I can’t be identifiable.”

“Yes, yes, all taken care of. We’ve removed any identifying features. No one will know who is in the suit.”

That probably wasn’t entirely true. Any high CQ organic with the appropriate augmentation would be able to identify him from his outline alone, even in a spacesuit. If they had met him before or met him in the future, they would immediately know it was him they had seen in the sim-U playback. It was a fairly small risk, though.

The princep’s reassurances were about as much as Figaro could hope for. The recording had probably already been sent out to various guild officials. The best thing for Figaro to do if he wanted to remain unidentifiable was not to attempt to limit his exposure through the playback recording — which would be virtually impossible — it was to put on a bit of weight and change the way he walked.

“I want you to take care what you say to Captain Hickory,” said the princep. “He doesn’t know your background and quite frankly I doubt he cares, but he may inadvertently ask you about your training or skill set that could reveal more than you think. He’s a shrewd man and very little gets past him.”

“I’ll be careful,” said Figaro, not really taking the warning very seriously. The Origin was as much a mystery to him as anyone, he envisioned most of his answers being in shrug form. Nothing he had done inside the sim-U had been planned, he had just tried a different approach for the novelty value. He had hoped his ability to stay alive, even when facing the Antecessors alone, would have impressed the rest of his group. It hadn’t quite worked out that way.

The princep walked through the doors as they slid open. Inside the room were four people. It was immediately obvious which of them was in charge.

“This is Captain Hickory. This is Trainee Matton. Fig Matton.”

“Yes,” said Hickory, as though he already knew everything there was to know about Figaro.

Captain Hickory was a tall muscular man, physically imposing in appearance and happy to use it to his advantage, was Figaro’s initial impression. He looked like he considered every door in his way an offence on some builder’s part.

Figaro could tell Hickory was an organic. But even without his organic activated, he had an awareness of his surroundings that went beyond good training and a high level of perception. To Figaro, Hickory seemed like he wasn’t just aware of his immediate surroundings — the room and its occupants — it was like he was factoring in everyone in the building, like he could see through walls.

“Hello,” said Figaro. He glanced around the room but received no reciprocation.

The other three — two men, and a woman who looked vaguely similar to the captain, at least in skin tone — were slouched in chairs. They seemed to be exhausted.

“Enough of the pleasantries,” said Hickory, who was standing with his legs apart as though braced to hold up the ceiling if it needed some help. “I watched the recording. What the hell did you do in there?”

Figaro was at a bit of a loss for something to say. “I, er… I did what you saw. Which part did you find confusing.”

“Ha!” barked a man with his jacket covering his face to keep out the bright lighting.

“We went in there,” said Hickory, ignoring the heckle, “the four of us. Nothing like what happened to you happened to us.”

“Four of you went in? Did you try sending only—”

“Of course we did,” Hickory cut in. “I went in alone and repeated everything you did. Exactly. I offered myself as a willing prisoner, and they shot me to pieces. It was not a pleasant experience.”

There was some sniggering. This time it wasn’t the barker, it was the woman. She was in one of the sim-U chairs, pushed away from the machine, leaning back with her head tilted, eyes closed.

“I don’t know what you did wrong,” said Figaro. “Maybe if I watch the recording of you, I might be able—”

“I did nothing wrong,” snapped Hickory. “You did something not on the recording. Not visible. What was it?”

Figaro wasn’t just being interrogated, which would have been bad enough, he was being accused of something. He had no idea what.

“I did nothing you couldn’t see on the sim-U playback,” said Figaro. “You have access to every angle.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Hickory was starting to shift the blame for his repeated failures onto Figaro. It was small-minded and petty of him. He probably wouldn’t appreciate having it pointed out.

“I promise you,” said Figaro, “I did nothing else. I wasn’t expecting the ship to react like that, either.”

“But you knew the droids wouldn’t kill you,” said Hickory. “How?”

“I didn’t know,” said Figaro. “It’s more of a hypothesis I came up with when running other simulations. Sometimes droids fail to recognise humans as a threat. It’s mostly the smaller ones. I think they were designed to manage waste, not act as defenders, although they can do both. It’s just a theory. My father thinks it’s nonsense. I guess I was sort of right?”

Hickory was scowling. He hadn’t interrupted, which Figaro had taken as a good sign — a willingness to listen suggested he wasn’t completely unreasonable — but the intensity of his gaze was unsettling.

“Who the hell is your father?”

Figaro looked over at the princep. Had he revealed too much?

“He works with simulation machines,” said Figaro. “That’s how I’ve had access to them before. I’ve run quite a few maps, some of them dozens of times.”

“Well how about that,” said the man with the jacket over his face, sitting up so the jacket slid off, revealing wild-eyed face crowned with unruly black hair, “we’ve got an expert delver in our midst. Time to take notes, boys and girls.”

Figaro hadn’t meant to sound quite so pompous in his declaration. He took the mockery with good grace. His own fault for not being more tactful.

“Why don’t we take him in with us?” continued the man, leering like he was suggesting something tasty to eat, so tasty he could already taste it. “See how a veteran runner calls the play.”

“Shut up, Gipper,” said Hickory.

“Bet you die before he does,” said the girl, also upright and paying full attention now.

“I’ll take that bet,” said Gipper. “Usual terms.”

The two of them nodded at each other.

The third member of the team, a slightly portly, bald man, sat with his hand on his knees, looking at Figaro intently. “You look awfully familiar. Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so,” said Figaro.

“Hmm. It’ll come to me in a moment.”

“All of you, shut up,” said Hickory. “We’re going in. You’re coming with us.”

“Now, hold on,” said Princep Galeli. “He’s still recovering from the sim-U sickness. If he gets another dose this soon after—”

“It’s fine,” said Figaro. “I’d like to try again. It’s only the initial opening of the hidden area that I need to activate. I don’t think I should be affected if I exit after that.”

“You’re sure?” said the princep.

Figaro was willing to take a small risk to see this team in action. He was used to very disciplined squads acting in concert, their abilities drilled and fine-tuned to a high degree. He very much doubted that was how this group operated.

“Princep, if I could have a word.” A man had entered, his posture suggesting urgent news. He had strange hands, red and blue.

“Not now, Bern. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“This matter can’t wait, I’m afraid. We’ve had a breach in security.”

“What?” Princep Galeli’s attention was fully on the new arrival now.

“We’ve caught the perpetrators.” Bern seemed to puff up a little at being able to report his success. “Two trainees. They were attempting to send a signal to a local restaurant.” There was a pause that could only be meant to imply something ominous. “JonJo’s Surf and Turf.”

The princep blanched. Figaro could tell the destination of the signal had greatly disturbed him. Either it wasn’t a very good restaurant, or it wasn’t a restaurant at all.

Patreon is two weeks ahead, so an extra six chapters. Patreon.

Afterword from Mooderino
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