77: Defend Yourself

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Antecessor Ship: Origin (sim-U).


Facing eleven opponents was not a position Figaro would have chosen to be in. He had been trained to deal with multiple adversaries, but the training was mainly based on not getting himself into this kind of situation in the first place.

On top of being outnumbered, they were all organics. In addition to which, he had no idea what kind of abilities they possessed. If his instructors back home could see him now, Figaro was certain their response would consist of heads shaking slowly and eyes rolling exaggeratedly. If there was one thing the teacher of a capable student loved, it was to remind them of how far from the finished article they were. 

What he should have done was spent the time getting here casually learning what qualities each member of the Vendx team possessed. Not just their organic augmentations but also their general combat competence, situational awareness, tactical intelligence, and level of stamina control. Basic stuff.

The problem was that he had chosen to play the role of the non-human tour guide. To be fair, the role had been thrust on him, but he was the one who had decided to go with it. A mistake? Possibly, looking at it in hindsight.

It had given him the easiest way to remain in the group without raising questions, but perhaps he should have encouraged them to turn on him. It would have been the quickest way to ascertain their individual skills and power-levels. It would have been a little harder to then get them to work together with him, but not impossible. His mistake, he now realised, was in accepting convenience over raw data.

Someone like Ubik, he was sure, would have forced out each person’s strengths and weaknesses immediately, and then found a way to make them reliant on him to get any closer to their goal. Figaro’s approach had just made him the easy scapegoat, more valuable as bait than team member, let alone team leader.

It was both galling and embarrassing. His tutors were lined up in his mind, frowning and clucking their tongues. 

Figaro’s self-admonishments flashed through his thoughts as he threw the Antecessor droids at the Vendx team. He was impressed by how quickly the Vendx assault team reacted, spreading out to make themselves a harder target.

He assumed they had been well-drilled and were acting as they had been taught, although it could just as well be self-preservation and a strong desire not to die before they got their bonus pay.

The droids, which had been linked together, let go of each other and headed in different directions. They were more than capable of adjusting their trajectory and return their attention to Figaro, but they seemed fine with their newly assigned tasks — take care of the intruders. 

Figaro put his own suit’s thrusters into reverse so as to avoid getting involved in the melee, and observed carefully. He might as well try to learn what he could about the Vendx team, even though the knowledge would probably be a lot less useful to him now.

“What is this suit? How do you even—” One of the suits vented too much from one side and slammed into one of the large vats of liquid. The glass wall didn’t crack, which was good, but the attack on the ship’s infrastructure caught the attention of all the droids.

The other members tried to get organised and assist one another, but they were having similar problems with mobility. They were used to the most up-to-date equipment that had assisted steering and onboard computer safeguards. You didn’t have to worry too much about dodging and correcting your angle of elevation, modern suits did all of that for you.

Moving in a straight line or down a chute had been fine, but being in zero-G combat had put them to the test. They were not getting very high marks.

Two droids clamped down on the Vendx employee who had collided with the vat, one at the feet and one on the head. The one down below wrapped itself around both boots, while the one above formed a chain around the base of the helmet. The eyes inside the helmet lit up blue. That meant a low to moderate ability, usually not an offensive power.

The two droids twisted in opposite directions. Whatever the person’s organic was, they had no chance to activate it before their head was ripped off their body. 

The two parts drifted away from each other, fat red blobs emerging from the neck stump.

“What the hell?” Shouted someone over comms. “Why are they hyper-aggressive? This is supposed to be a level one map.”

There was a lot of panicked chatter filling Figaro’s ears, making it hard to hear what anyone was saying, but the gist of it was easy enough to work out. This kind of droid-behaviour was generally associated with a much higher level of Antecessor facility. The most lucrative sites were also the most ruthlessly defended. If any of the people here had been at a level where they could deal with this kind of engagement, they probably wouldn’t be working for Vendx.

“Stay calm,” said Destri. “This is a simulation. No one’s going to die. Nero isn’t really dead, he’s just stuck in the sim-U buffer until we get to the evac point. Get frosty and use your training.”

Destri had turned out to be a good choice for interim leader. The group was in danger of falling apart without a strong voice in command.

The two droids that had made short work of Nero unwrapped themselves. The other three had taken up positions so they could cut off most of the room, keeping the ten remaining members of the Vendx assault team in one corner.

“These suits, these useless, stupid suits. We don’t even have any weapons. We’re screwed, we’re screwed.”

“Be quiet,” said Destri.

“You be quiet. This is your fault. You’re the leader.” The sarcasm and general unhelpful behaviour weren’t helping. Figaro would have immediately shut that down — one man less was better than one man more to spread panic and disorder.

“Harrald,” said Destri, “I’m giving you a preliminary citation. Two more and you get a reduced share.”

Harrald stopped complaining immediately. There was something to be said for making your people value their pay over everything else.

“There’s just five of them,” said Destri. “We can do this. Team one, take front. Team two, cover.”

“We don’t have Nero,” said someone. “He was our immobiliser.”

“You don’t need him,” said Destri. “Take them down quickly, two to a droid. Pick and stick.”

“Which pairs?” said Harrald, wanting to say more but resisting the urge. 

“Odds and evens. Come on, people. We’re in a simulation. Stop overthinking it. Even if they’ve gone hyper, there’s only five. Five! It’s not even an issue. Let’s do this.” Destri was trying to get everyone geed up. He was right, they should have been able to handle something this straightforward with ease. 

But they weren’t used to having to run maps. Their primary function was to manage other human beings. People much less powerful than themselves. Normally, this map would have also been a lesser threat, but this map hadn’t been the same since Figaro unlocked the hidden area. This was no longer a level one encounter, that much was clear.

The droids were now floating in formation, five points evenly distanced from each other. They seemed unsure if they wanted to deal with Vendx or Figaro first. 

“What about the guide?” said someone.

“Forget about him,” said Destri. “He’s just following his programming. Looks like his job isn’t to just make this a walk in the park for their trainees. Let’s not get tripped up by their training program, okay? We’ll deal with them first, him next.”

Figaro wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was happy to take a back seat and let them thrash it out with the droids first. He wanted to see what organics they had, and what they were capable of doing with them. If he had to choose a winner at this point, he would probably bet on the droids. They had shown behaviour Figaro had never seen before, and an ability to adapt that was unprecedented. 

“Go,” said Destri. 

The remaining ten members shot forward in pairs. Figaro could feel the organics activating through his suit. The droids didn’t move.

The first person to take action slapped his hands together, sending a shockwave towards the nearest droid. The droid burst into pieces, small black strips floating in every direction like toy bricks. Then they stopped and began returning to their original position like video being run in reverse.

The shocker’s partner was already moving in. He put both hands forward, closed fists glowing red through the gloves. The heat was enough to make the people near him swerve away.

The droid closed in on the two fists, encasing them in a black ball. The heat was gone, at least outside the casing. The owner of the hot hands shook and trembled as he poured in more energy. 

The black manacles turned and tightened. The man’s arms were twisted but his whole body followed, turning him upside down. The shocker came up behind and placed his hands on the droid. Between them, they heated and vibrated, cooking up a storm. 

The other four pairings were also engaging with their droid opponents. There was another shockwave user — a hard-to-control ability in confined areas and virtually useless in a vacuum — working with a strongman. 

An analytic who was calling out structural details of the droid he was dealing with, for his partner, a kicker of some sort, to aim their foot at. Weightlessness did not help.

Two others were both strength-based and were taking the direct route via dismemberment, even though the droids were capable of self-assembly. 

And the last two were Destri, who was hanging back, and Harrald, who turned out to be able to fire intense light energy from his eyes and also to be unaware of the lack of frequency modulation in the glass visors of older suits. 

His lasers bounced back off the inside of his helmet and burnt out his eyes. He screamed for an instant and then hung limp.

The heat and vibrate combo exploded their droid, sending shrapnel in all directions. Figaro saw it coming and took up a position behind the second shocker. Fragments tore through him and his partner. Another piece pierced the back of the kicker’s helmet, and flew out the front in a red streak.

“Look out,” shouted his partner, using his ability to point out the projectile far too late. The distraction was enough to allow the droid to wrap itself around his waist and squeeze. The too-late warning ended in a gasp, followed by silence as legs and torso separated.

Four droids were still active and ready to deal with intruders. One had been blown apart into tiny fragments, but was now slowly reassembling itself. 

The only Vendx operative left was Destri, who hadn’t done anything so far.

“We never had a chance, did we?” said Destri, ignoring the droids closing in on him and looking at Figaro.

“You always have a chance,” said Figaro, “it just isn’t always at winning. What does your organic do?”

“Electromagnetics. You aren’t computer generated?”

“No,” said Figaro.

Destri nodded, then turned towards the droids. He raised his hands and showed them his palms.

Figaro felt the EMP go off. His suit went dead as did the droids.

It was obvious now why Destri hadn’t used his ability. Knocking out the droids also knocked out the suits. Without the suits, you had no air.

Destri turned to look at Figaro. “Guess we both suffocate now.” His voice didn’t come over the dead comms, it barely reached across the thin alien atmosphere that filled the ship, but Figaro could read his lips. Destri was smiling like this was some kind of victory.

Figaro took a breath and held it. He still had to get to the bridge. There wasn’t enough air in the suit and the systems weren’t just offline, they were fried. He wouldn’t even have enough time to think of a way out of this before he ran out of air. He would have to improvise and hope for the best. His tutors most definitely would not approve. Prepare, evaluate, have a contingency plan and countermeasures. All very well if you have the time and the oxygen.

Figaro grabbed hold of a body, only the lower half it turned out, and threw it behind him. He floated in the opposite direction.

“Want to tell me who you are?” asked Destri, adjusting his position to keep an eye on Figaro as he approached.

Figaro put a finger to his lips, or where his lips were from outside his helmet. Talking took up air, and Figaro needed him alive. 

“Hey, don’t you think—”

Figaro punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Destri folded into two, making a high-pitched sucking sound. That would keep him quiet for a bit. Figaro started to gather the other bodies, but only the whole ones.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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