93: Crisis Management

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Antecessor Ship: Origin (sim-U).


Figaro had been trained to deal with difficult circumstances. Experts in their fields had put him through rigorous and unrelenting exercises to prepare him for any eventuality.

He had been taught breathing exercises that would keep him calm in the most trying situations and also keep him alive when there was little to no oxygen available.

Underwater, outer space, caverns underground — there was an expectation that he would find himself in these sorts of places and that things would, at some point, go wrong.

He had been trained not to panic when that happened.

Controlled breaths, a calm disposition, an acceptance of death as not the worst outcome.

Once he was in control of himself and able to think clearly, the knowledge ingrained in him since childhood would allow him to deal with the specific problem he faced. That was the theory.

Time and again he had been put into the worst possible situations, and left to disentangle himself from the ensuing complications.

It had been done inside a sim-U, but it had felt completely real. He had always succeeded in getting himself out.

Figaro was confident that if he found himself in such a position in real life, he would be able to acquit himself in a reasonable manner. He was less confident he would be able to do so when faced with all of his worst-case scenarios at the same time.

Ironically, the combination of worst-case scenarios he was currently dealing with were happening to him while he was inside a sim-U, but they were very, very real — inside and out.

An attack on a Central Authority vessel was complete suicide. Their technology was far in advance of anything owned or operated by anyone else. They had accrued the most sophisticated Antecessor tech in all four quadrants, and they had the best understanding of how to use it. A drone assault was not going to do much more than piss them off.

“Can you stop them?” said Figaro. There was little he could do from inside a sim-U, even this one.

There was some chatter as questions were asked between the people on Figaro’s screen, everyone jabbering at the same time.

“No,” said PT, cutting through the cacophony. He, at least, could be counted on to identify a solution if someone presented one, and he had quickly come to the conclusion no one in the room was going to. “What about you? Can you do anything?”

Figaro had already come to his own conclusion that he couldn’t, but he still gave it another consideration.

This was a very different simulation experience to what he was used to — to what anyone was used to — so it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he might be able to affect the outside world in some way.

He took a deep breath of the fetid air he was now surrounded by — it smelled exactly like the air inside the suits of the dead Vendx team members — and looked at the droids around him. They had stopped moving, other than some gentle swaying of their limbs, once the ship had changed the atmosphere to a breathable one.

They hadn’t tried to interfere with Figaro or his one surviving companion. Destri was still unconscious but breathing normally. The connection to the Vendx ship had come as something of a surprise but by now Figaro had given up trying to understand how any of this was possible.

His father had given him a broad idea of how the simulation machines worked, and an awareness of the real universe was not part of their design. In fact, it was a necessary omission to their programming in order to make simulated objects behave exactly like their counterparts. As far as the Origin was aware, it was the original ship in its original universe. Although, clearly it had figured out that was not the case.

Why had it wanted to connect him to the outside world? Figaro doubted it was for his benefit. But what could the ship gain from access to the physical world?

“I can’t think of anything to stop the drones,” said Figaro, his attempt at scanning his mind for any shred of relevant knowledge coming to naught. He could, at a push, repair a faulty ship drive, if the problem was limited to the outer casing, but the inner workings of drones were not something he was very familiar with. “If Ubik is behind this, I expect he’s already found a way to lock out anyone from Vendx, so we’re unlikely to—”

“What’s going on? What’s happening?” Destri had suddenly come round and was reacting wildly to the sight of the large droids hovering before him. Even when not attacking, they projected an air of irrefutable menace.

Destri suddenly realised he was no longer wearing a helmet and began to panic, grabbing at his throat and gasping. There was plenty of air to breathe, but Destri’s panic was making him hyperventilate and putting him in danger of passing out. It might have been the best thing for him.

But Destri was evidently planning on going out with a bang. He raised his hands, his face bright red from the rapid, squealing breaths he was forcing into his airway, and prepared to fire off another EMP blast.

Figaro didn’t know what that would do — possibly end the simulation and return them all to their bodies — but he wasn’t willing to find out. He grabbed Destri’s left hand and twisted it down and behind his back, pinching the wrist hard through the man’s suit.

Figaro’s father had not only taught him how to survive against the elements and the environment, he also had Figaro trained in how to survive against other people, including organics.

Ramon Ollo himself was the most potent anti-organic weapon alive, his ability negating that of other organics, but he still invested time and research into being able to restrain an organic augmentation, and his son had been taught every known technique.

Figaro bent the wrist back and stopped the blood flow. Destri still had another hand free, which was pointing at one of the droids. The droid hadn’t moved, other than a slight bobbing motion. Another anomaly that made no sense. Why had the whole ship decided to open a channel and then leave everything to him?

Destri was battling against confusion, the pain in his left wrist, and his inability to accept that he could breathe inside an Antecessor craft keeping him from being able to think clearly. It gave Figaro enough time to swing Destri around and grab his other hand.

With both hands pinned behind his back, Destri stopped struggling.

“What… what…” He was still gasping for air. “What are you… I can take them out.”

“This is a simulation,” said Figaro, forcing himself to sound relaxed and reassuring. Even though he was restraining the man, an unelevated tone would keep him from thrashing around. A calm human voice was still preferable to alien monsters. “They can’t hurt you. We’re fine.”

The tension in the arms eased and Figaro adjusted his grip to cut off less of the blood. An EMP strike right now would only make things more chaotic and that was the last thing he needed.

“Hey, what’s going on?” said a chirpy voice from behind him.

Figaro spun around, almost losing hold of Destri. Ubik was standing in front of him — in normal clothes and without a helmet. He looked completely out of place.

“How come you guys can breathe in here?” Ubik asked, a look of gleeful curiosity on his face.

Figaro was a little thrown by the question. “The same way you can.” It made no sense for Ubik to come here without a spacesuit if he wasn’t expecting to be able to breathe. Which raised another questions. “How did you get here?”

“The same way you did,” said Ubik. He seemed completely unfazed by the droids. “What’s that thing?” he said, pointing at the large sigil hovering in the air. “Does it have a dimmer switch? It’s a bit on the bright side, isn’t it? Didn’t realise Antecessors were so into kitsch furnishings.”

Figaro pulled down on Destri’s right arm, making him grunt with pain and lean to the side to lessen the strain on his joints, allowing Figaro to see the droids. They weren’t reacting to Ubik at all.

“How did you get past the defences?” said Figaro.

“Walked,” said Ubik. He was walking right now, strolling in fact.

Something wasn’t right here. Something didn’t fit with what it was like to be inside a sim-U. “You aren’t here,” said Figaro.

“That’s kind of dismissive of you,” said Ubik, looking around like a tourist in a museum. “Hey, droids, come at me!” He waved his arms, mimicking the swaying tentacles. “All at once, come on.”

“Stop that,” said Destri, reacting with greater fear to Ubik than he had to the droids. “Is he crazy?”

“No,” said Figaro. “He isn’t part of this simulation. He’s an observer. I didn’t think it was possible, just theoretical.”

“Theoretically anything is possible,” said Ubik, passing his hand through the nearest droid. “You just need the right theory.” His hand disappeared into the body and came out the other side. The droids didn’t react. “You catch on quick, Fig. The old man would be proud, I’m sure. I’m being piped in from Motherboard. Can’t integrate me into the programme, but I can get in on a visitor’s pass. Hello, you must work for Vendx.”

He waved at Destri, who looked utterly confused. “You can do that?”

“Sure,” said Ubik. “Just need to tweak a few knobs.”

“What’s going on up there?” said PT’s voice. “Have you thought of anything? The CA ship’s destroyed most of the drones and I think we’re next.”

The surprise of seeing Ubik had momentarily dislodged the other unfortunate event currently taking place from Figaro’s mind. No one had trained him how to remain focused in an Ubik-level disaster.

“Why the hell did you launch an attack on a Central Authority ship?” Figaro was hoping against hope that there would be a brilliant if unconventional explanation.

“There’s a Central Authority ship here?” said Ubik. “Wow. I wonder what they fly. Got to be something pretty impressive, huh?”

“Why did you attack them?” Figaro’s ability to modulate his tone and breathing had all but deserted him. In front of Ubik’s breezy indifference, it was all he could do to not become hysterical.

“Me?” said Ubik. “I would never attack someone unprovoked. I’m basically a pacifist.”

Figaro took a slow breath, clearing his mind and focusing on remaining present. It would be easy to lose it right now. Very easy.

“I did leave them on perimeter watch. The drones must have made an independent tactical decision. Self-defence — it’s a basic human right.”

“No,” said Figaro, letting out his breath in a controlled burst, “it isn’t.”

“Isn’t it?” said Ubik. “Since when?”

“About three hundred and fifty-two years,” said Figaro.

“That doesn’t seem right,” said Ubik. “I’m surprised people agreed to it.”

“They didn’t,” said Figaro. “Millions died. Call them off.”

“I can’t,” said Ubik. “Not from in here. Don’t worry about it, I’m sure they’ll understand once we explain it was just a misunderstanding. The Central Authority are all about getting the full story first before they make a judgement, right? Hey, you know what? I feel like I’ve seen this somewhere before.” Ubik was looking at the sigil.

“Ubik, they’re all going to die if you don’t — wait, what?”

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