Wormhole Island - Interior.
Ramon Ollo, True Master of the planet Enaya, greatest authority on the Antecessors, the sole known owner of an organic suppressor, and the only independent scientist on the Inner Business Council, stood in front of an immense wall and rubbed his chin in deep contemplation.
He was, in a word, stumped. It had been a long time since he’d found himself this perplexed.
The wall was actually a door. That much he had been able to figure out.
The designs carved into the wall that was a door had the same root source as those of the Antecessors that had been found on ships and bases across the galaxy. They were familiar to him in that he recognised their symbolic structure and foundations. And yet, they were totally new and different from anything he had seen.
He was the foremost expert on Antecessor symbols and sigils. He had written numerous articles and papers that were considered the standard texts for anyone investigating the Antecessor presence left behind in what was now human-occupied space when the Antecessors had abruptly disappeared. He had spent a substantial portion of his life studying everything related to the Antecessors, down to the most obscure and tangential piece of evidence. But this…
This was the first time he had encountered something that predated the Antecessors — at least the Antecessors humanity was aware of.
These carvings weren’t a variant, they were a primary source. In their simplicity and clarity of purpose, he saw the key to many puzzles and cyphers still unsolved in Antecessor academics.
The confounding thing about it, though, was that despite opening his eyes to the meaning of the patterns and designs that came later, these carvings in front of him, these simple building blocks that hinted at the origin of the Antecessors, were completely indecipherable.
He couldn’t make any sense of it.
The only reason he had been able to understand that this was a door was because the shape of the carvings represented a keyhole. It was like having what you knew was a book in your hand, but having no idea what the language the book was written in.
If he could understand what the carvings spread out on the vast wall said, he would have the key to unlocking the door. But he couldn’t, so the door remained closed to him.
The wall shook for the second time, the cry from the other side penetrating his mind and passing into the rest of the ship. It was a shockingly powerful energy.
Whatever was behind the door was aware of his presence. It wanted him to open the door and let it out. Ramon would have been happy to do so were he able. No matter how terrible the result, it would be a discovery he could not pass up.
He pressed his right thumb against the ring on his left hand and popped open the gem top to reveal a small compartment containing a small amount of dark purple gel. He had used most of it in the bridge room where he had been trapped so foolishly until his son’s friend had happened along.
To have been freed by luck did not sit well with him. If not for the boy, he might still be there, suspended and incapacitated.
The gel, the substance the Antecessors had considered their greatest treasure, was integral to the function of this ship. Which made it unlike any other Antecessor craft.
Dr Yune had found various uses for the gel, a mystery substance Ramon had found in tiny amounts during his adventuring days, but it was only now that he realised the huge potential of this unique material.
It could open this door, if he knew where to apply it.
He looked again at the grooves carved into the wall from top to bottom. He didn’t have nearly enough to take a guess and apply it at random. Relying on luck again.
He shook his head.
There was more gel to be found here — the ship seemed to be built with it as its primary power source. He had seen a whole river of it flowing under him in the bridge room. Flowing out of phase with the three-dimensional world, making it appear to be static, but to touch it would create an impossible schism. One that would instantly kill the person making contact.
The time and effort it had taken to extract the paltry amount he had been able to collect for Dr Yune’s to experiment with made it abundantly clear he couldn’t simply scoop up a bucketful. No, he would need to rely on the small amount he had with him. The only other course of action would be to take some from his son’s bracelet.
The bracelet he relied on to confine his wayward organic.
The risk would be too great. And even opening the bracelet posed a danger.
He had allowed Figaro to find his own path. It was the right choice. Ramon would find another way. There was always another way.
He turned as sounds of people arriving echoed down the passage behind him and felt the frisson of momentary surprise as it washed over him. He recognised his son immediately, and the two he had taken to travelling with. The very person he had just been thinking of suddenly appearing before him.
To force his son to take the path he, Ramon Ollo, considered ideal under the circumstances was inappropriate, but if Figaro’s chosen path happened to intersect with his…
He felt a mixture of pride and trepidation at his son’s continued growth and independence. It would have been easier and more convenient if Figaro had been an obedient child who did as he was told without question or protest, but what satisfaction would that bring?
Better to have produced an offspring who caused worry and complications. Progress came from overcoming challenges, even if that challenge came from those closest to you. If he had to defeat his own son to accomplish his goals, then he welcomed a fight that was difficult and close. And if he lost, then it would be because his son had risen to the point where his talent was indisputable. It would be a win either way.
But the victor between the two of them at this stage was beyond doubt. The boy had yet to mature to his full potential, and with the limited time allowed, there was no chance of him progressing quickly enough to offer any kind of real contest.
They came across the wide-open space towards him. There were five of them. Two seemed to be dressed in VendX uniforms. It made no difference, but Ramon was a little curious as to why his son would choose to bring along two minor figures from a second-rate outfit like VendX Galactic.
“You made it this far,” said Ramon. “You have done well.” He had never been one to deny praise where it was due. He was fully aware of how little most people achieved, how parochial their ambitions were. Any step attempting to reach for something other than ordinary was to be respected. He had always made it his business to monitor his surroundings for those struggling to do more than they needed to. They were the people you either recruited or prepared to confront.
“We heard a scream, Father.”
“Yes, it could be interpreted as a scream,” said Ramon. “It came from beyond this wall.”
“Ah, it’s a door,” said the one called Ubik. “The prisoner must be behind there.”
Ramon was impressed by the Null Void. He was perceptive and insightful, and decisive in his actions. A rare thing. But he was still very young, and being Null Void meant very little other than having absolutely no compatibility with organics. Most of the mystical powers ascribed to his kind were simply wishful thinking. In the past, there had been Null Void who had possessed great minds and great abilities, and there had been those who had been completely unremarkable.
“Not necessarily a prison—”
“Did you have to leave me hanging in the air like that?” said the one his son referred to as PT. “You could have brought me over to the other side with you.” He seemed upset.
“I would have to use part of my limited resources to do so,” said Ramon. “And I didn’t consider it a worthwhile expenditure.”
PT looked confused. “What resources?”
“He means the purple gunk,” said Ubik. “He thinks you have to use it to activate the buttons. I saw he’d smeared some on the first panel.”
“And we don’t need to?” asked Fig.
“Not those ones,” said Ubik. “That pool of sludge we had to cross over, that was enough to power them up. But this one.” He pointed at the wall behind Ramon. “This needs a bit of juice if we’re going to prise it open and let out the screaming prisoner.”
The walls shook again as another scream rushed past them.
Ramon was in a state of shock — something he was not accustomed to. The Null Void had just explained the function of this ship of unknown origin as though he was intimately familiar with its workings.
“And how do you know all this?” Ramon asked him.
“Just guessing,” said Ubik. “Wild stab in the dark.” He moved past Ramon towards the wall. “Do you want to have a go at opening this up or can I give it the old Ubik try?”
“Be my guest,” said Ramon. “But you’re going to need some—”
“Some purple goo?” said Ubik. “Yeah. Thought so. Fig, can I borrow a dollop?”
Figaro stepped forward, his arm extended.
“I don’t seem to be as affected by the screaming now,” said Figaro. “I thought it would worsen the closer I got.”
“No,” said Ubik, opening up a panel on Figaro’s wrist limiter with astounding ease. “I think he’s being a bit more restrained with the screaming now that he’s got our attention and we’re here. More of a friendly bellowing of welcome.” He pulled out a dollop of the gel from the bracelet.
“Wait,” said Ramon, even more shocked now. “You were able to open Dr Yune’s bracelet?”
“Just came apart in my hands,” said Ubik nonchalantly.
“And it didn’t explode?” asked Ramon. He was very familiar with Yune’s predilection for adding violent security systems to his devices.
“He was in a bit of a hurry when he put it on me,” said Figaro. “Maybe he didn’t have time to add the usual failsafes and backups.”
“Lucky thing for us, huh?” said Ubik.
Ramon felt his head was reeling. The boy might have been astute and have a high level of awareness, but what Ramon had perceived as ‘decisiveness’ now seemed more like reckless stupidity.
“Are we sure we really want to open this door,” growled PT, still dwelling on his recent imprisonment. This one was dour, but at least he was a little more prudent in his calculations.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “If we don’t open it, how are we going to know what’s on the other side?”
“What if the thing behind it wants to kill us?” asked PT.
“We all have to go someday,” said Ubik. “And if we don’t hurry up, we’re going to be here when the others get here.”
“Which others?” asked Ramon.
“VendX and Seneca are engaged in a tussle above,” said Figaro.
Ramon spared a glance towards the two VendX employees who were skulking at the rear of the group. He didn’t feel like asking why they had been allowed special dispensation to join the party, he doubted it would be pertinent to the problem at hand.
“Seneca are bound to gain the upper hand, aren’t they?” said PT.
“I would think so,” said Figaro.
Ubik turned to the two VendX employees and said, “Aren’t you going to stick up for your team?”
“I think the Corps will decimate them,” said the woman. The man next to her only nodded.
“Wow, the focus group has spoken,” said Ubik. “No brand loyalty at all.” He raised his hand, two fingers covered in purple gel, and flung it at the wall.
Ubik moved closer to the wall and stared up at the splatter of liquid that had been sent randomly across the surface. Did the Null Void truly rely on luck? Was it some kind of preternatural ability? It seemed ridiculous that he could have survived this long with the way he behaved purely by chance.
“What is that meant to achieve?” asked PT, his face indicating he did not approve of the Null Void’s methods.
“It’s a mood setter,” said Ubik. “First, I need to get a feel for what the door’s trying to say. Broad brush strokes. Then I hone in on the message hidden within. To open the door, you must think like the door.”
PT shook his head, his expression a mixture of regret and bemusement.
Figaro closed the panel on his bracelet and took a step back.
They both seemed to be taking the Null Void’s actions with cautious acceptance, but a high degree of wariness.
“Okay,” said Ubik, flexing his hands and cracking his knuckles. “Looks to me like this part of the door is a little more shiny than that side.”
All parts of the wall looked exactly the same in terms of shine.
“Here we go.” Ubik stepped forward and smeared the gel across the surface of the wall in what appeared to be haphazard fashion, bouncing up and down to reach the higher parts.
He swished his palm this way and that, filling up the grooves his hand passed over. There seemed to be no pattern he was following.
Ramon Ollo may not have been familiar with this particular Antecessor design, but he was sure it still followed the same basic principle of the later designs he had encountered. And you couldn’t rely on simply waving your hand about and hoping for the best.
The wall began to glow in certain sections.
“This isn’t poss…” Ramon couldn’t accept it.
“It’s a trick,” said Figaro.
Ramon shifted his focus, with difficulty, away from the wall. “A trick?”
“He wants us to think it’s pure luck, but he’s actually figured out how the door works. He just won’t tell us.”
“Because he’s an ass,” said PT.
“You know how whenever you solve a problem in front of me,” said Figaro, “and I ask how you did it, you say I have to work it out for myself?”
“This is the same?” said Ramon. “He’s trying to teach…”
“No,” said Figaro. “This is similar. Except, in Ubik’s case, not only will he not tell you how he did it, he’ll leave a trail leading to the wrong answer, and when you land on that wrong answer, he’ll congratulate you for being so smart and let you believe you have unravelled some mystery when you are nowhere near to doing so.”
“Because he’s an ass,” said PT, supplying the answer without needing the question to be asked.
“He’s already made some sort of connection with the Antecessor way of thinking,” said Figaro. “I suspect it’s allowed him to read this door. All the jumping around and waving his hands is for show.”
“Has it occurred to you,” said Ubik, no longer jumping around waving his hands, “that that’s just what I want you to think?”
The wall behind him began glowing down the middle. With a click, the two sides of the line separated and slid away from each other.
A psychic wind blasted through the crack as soon as it appeared, shrieking through his mind, threatening to eviscerate his every thought. But rather than cause his harm, he could feel his organic being supercharged, overflowing, leaking out of him.
But at that moment, Ramon’s only concern was for his son. If Figaro’s organic was similarly affected, there was no way he’d be able to maintain control over it. Ramon reached out to suppress his son’s organic. But when he looked over at his son, he found it was already too late.