Figaro stared up at an empty blue sky. It was an odd blue. Not what was commonly referred to as ‘sky blue’. This sky had an aquamarine greenish tint to it. It was not a sky he recognised.
He was lying on his back, his mind a little distorted (which was normal for the kind of transport system he had just used, at least from his limited experience) and his mouth and throat felt incredibly dry, which was new.
He slowly sat up and his head seemed to shrink around his brain, compressing it in an uncomfortable manner. It wasn’t painful but it wasn’t pleasant.
There was also the nausea that Ubik had warned them about. Only, he had said it would come just before they entered the sigil, and he distinctly remembered it starting only after he was already inside.
Slowly, he moved his head — it felt ten times as heavy as it usually did and he had to squeeze his shoulders to make sure it didn’t roll off the top of his neck — and looked around.
There was a plain, flat landscape in every direction, undulating slightly but with no discernible features. No trees, no mountains, no hills. Certainly no buildings or manmade structures.
The ground under him was sand. He closed his hands around it and rubbed it between his fingers.
It seemed that he was in a desert.
They were meant to be going to the planet Jove, which had been described as a place of leisure with beaches and entertainments for the rich and powerful of the Inner Quadrant.
There was certainly a lot of sand here, but no water. And no sign of those large umbrellas people sat under to avoid sunburn.
He looked up. There was a single sun in the sky, a little lower than halfway, that provided very little heat. In fact, it was quite chilly.
Figaro stood up and dusted himself off. Sand poured off his spacesuit. He looked around again from this new, higher vantage point. A desolate silence filled the air. Air which was breathable, thankfully. He tapped on the control panel on the arm of his suit, and found it non-responsive. He checked the rest of the suit’s systems and found them also to be non-functional.
He had no idea where he was and he had no supplies. His suit provided basic protection from the elements but it wouldn’t keep him hydrated or take care of his other biological needs, making it about as useful as a normal set of clothes.
Since he appeared to be uninjured and not in immediate need of food or water, his thoughts turned to the fate of the others. Had they also been transported to this barren, arid place or was it just him?
He did the only thing he could think of. He called out.
“Hello! Anyone? Ubik? Point-Two? Hellooooo!”
He turned and shouted in all directions before letting out a deep sigh and started to think about which direction he should start walking in. Nothing stood out as a target to aim for.
There was a good chance there was more sand in every direction, but there was no point waiting here to be rescued.
Just as he was about to set off in a random direction, he heard someone call back from not too far away.
“Hey! Where are you?”
He recognised the voice and immediately began walking towards it, calling out, “I’m here. Coming your way.”
The land wasn’t quite as flat as it seemed, with dips and possibly deeper valleys hidden from view when looking out across the vast landscape.
A head rose out of the sand in the distance as its owner climbed a slope on the other side. As PT came into full view, another head appeared behind him. A smaller, prettier head with a scowl painted across it.
PT raised an arm and waved at him. “Anyone else with you?” he called out as he approached.
“No, just me. What happened to her?” Figaro was referring to Synthia, who was staying a few steps behind PT and radiating a hostile air that Figaro could pick up from where he was.
Her hair was a mess and the elegant dress she wore was torn at the shoulder so that one arm was bare, and the bottom half had been ripped off so that her legs were visible to the tops of her thighs.
“Nothing,” said PT, not sounding very happy. “She isn’t with me. Ignore her.”
Synthia's grim stare shifted from straight ahead to a few degrees to the side, the scowl intensifying as her gaze fell on the back of PT’s head.
“Any idea what happened?” PT asked as he neared.
“No. My suit’s dead. But if she’s still operational, that means there’s no power dampening field here. Did you two get into a fight?”
Now that they were closer, Figaro could see that PT was also looking a bit ragged around the edges. He was wearing the clothing provided by Quincy, which were made of light fabric cut to a tight fit, but there was a rip in the side of the shirt and the waist of the trousers were tied together with what appeared to be the bottom of Synthia’s dress.
“No,” said PT. “She attacked me.”
“I was defending myself,” said Synthia.
“Preemptively defending yourself is called attacking. I’m sure you have a dictionary function in that high-powered brain of yours; look it up. Or is there too much sand in your gears?”
PT spoke without once looking at Synthia, who was now standing beside him. It was obvious they had some kind of altercation. One that PT was aggrieved about and Synthia defensive.
It was easy enough to tell that Synthia was in the wrong, probably making an assumption about what PT was going to do to her and making the first move to prevent it. And he knew PT well enough to know how he would take that kind of presumption about his character. A simple misunderstanding.
“We could deactivate her,” said Figaro.
Synthia’s focus changed from PT to Figaro. She took a step back, ready to fight.
“Calm down,” said PT. “If I’d wanted to kill you, you’d already be a pile of sand.” He kicked the ground and sent sand flying. “She might still have some useful information. She is from here, after all.”
“From where?” said Figaro. “Do you know where we are?”
“We’re on Quazi,” said PT.
Figaro looked around. It would be hard to find a planet less Quazi-like than this one. For a start, there was the very noticeable lack of water. “How do you know?”
“Gravity,” said PT. “I can feel it’s the same.”
“You can see how unstable he is,” said Synthia. “He’s out of his mind, like he was… earlier”
“I told you, that wasn’t aimed at you, I was just letting off steam because this always happens when I let Ubik do what he wants and I’m getting a little tired of it. That’s all. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Syntia bridled at the way she was being spoken to. Figaro could understand her reaction. PT was treating her like she wasn’t even human. Which was probably because she wasn’t.
“No matter how little you think of me,” said Synthia, “my sensors are much more sensitive than yours. This place does not have the same gravitational signature as Quazi. It’s similar, I’ll grant you, but it isn’t the same.”
“No, it isn’t the same,” said PT. “But that’s because the gravity here hasn’t stabilised. But it has the same feel. You don’t stop being you just because you’re younger.”
It took a moment for Figaro to understand the implication.
“Are you saying we’ve moved back in time?” said Figaro.
“Maybe,” said PT. “We don’t know what the portal is capable of, or what Ubik is really after. If anyone can understand the potential of the Antecessors’ sigils, it’s him. And would it be much of a surprise to learn he’d used it to send us back in time without telling us?”
“But why?” said Synthia.
“I suggest you don’t waste time asking that and stick to figuring out what we need to do next to survive this,” said PT.
“No, you’re wrong,” said Figaro.
“About Ubik sending us back?” said PT.
“About anyone sending us back,” said Figaro. “Time travel, at least backwards, has been proven to be mathematically impossible. Moran Leeman proved it in his paper Chronological Manipulations of Matter more than a century ago. It’s very famous. Mainly for the humorous diagrams.”
“I’m sure it’s hilarious,” said PT. “Why is it impossible? The simple version.”
“Basically, you can’t change the balance between the mass and energy contained in the universe. If you were to remove something from the present and move it to the past, you would put this universe in deficit and the universe in the past in excess. Even if it’s by one atom, it would be enough to make the universe collapse. What?”
“Nothing,” said PT, who was smiling. “It’s just weird to get a straight answer to a question.”
“You know he only messes with us to amuse himself,” said Figaro, referring to Ubik.
“And that makes it okay?”
“No, but I imagine he spent a lot of his childhood with a need for distractions from the constant threat of death he was surrounded by.”
“You’re not going to make me feel sympathy for him.”
“I’m not trying to,” said Figaro. “Most serial killers have a similar origin.”
“You said we can’t move back in time. But we can move forward?” said PT.
“Yes. Technically, that’s what we’re doing anyway, so it isn’t that hard to transport something from now to later without letting it age. Time would continue the same, the object would just be in stasis. It wouldn’t need to cease to exist.”
“I don’t think this is the future,” said PT. “But if this isn’t the past, where is it?”
“You’re sure this is Quazi?” said Figaro.
PT nodded. “That or an incredible…” He stopped and looked at Figaro.
“It’s a simulation,” said Figaro.
“Why are we in a simulation?” said PT. “Is this where the portal was supposed to send us.”
Figaro thought about the first time he encountered the sixty-fifth sigil. That had been inside a sim-U. Which meant there was a possible link between the two, or maybe a facility within the portal for creating simulated realities.
But it didn’t make sense for them to be in one now. Ubik had clearly wanted to go to Jove and take over the quadrant. He wouldn’t delay something that exciting if he didn’t have to.
“Could someone have sent us here?” asked PT. “The Antecessors? Or the Fourth.”
“Possibly,” said Figaro. But there was something niggling him at the back of his mind. “Did either of you feel something strange happen when you entered the portal? Like something went wrong?”
“I did feel a sudden drop in the energy field surrounding us,” said Synthia.
“Yeah,” said PT. “I felt something was off, too. It wasn’t like any of our previous trips.”
Figaro nodded. “I think the portal collapsed while we were in it and we were shunted into this simulation as a protective measure.”
“We’re being buffered?” said PT.
“I think so. I imagine it’s a safety feature. The sigil contains a record of the planet from its creation, and we’re inside it.”
“What about our bodies?” said PT.
“And how do we get out?” said PT.
“I don’t know,” said Figaro. “I think we have to rely on Ubik finding a way, and then deciding it’s worth his time.”
“We’re on an Antecessor world from the time of the Antecessors?” said PT, looking around. “This is Quazi before they covered everything in water. Doesn’t that mean all their secrets are just lying around exposed?”
Figaro looked around too. There was sand in every direction and nothing else.
“Yes, but how do we find them?” Figaro tried the control panel on his suit again. Still nothing.
“You’re claiming this is a simulation of Quazi from its inception,” said Synthia, the rancour gone from her face now. “And everything is replicated from back then?”
“It’s more of a hypothesis,” said Figaro. “But yes, that’s the basic premise we’re working with.”
“So that means Mother and Father, the original version, before Mason & Muss resurrected what they found, they are here, too?”
“I suppose so,” said Figaro. “Somewhere.”
There was a gleam in Synthia’s eyes.
Her body began to change. She put out her arms to either side and they elongated and grew thinner. Her hands turned into balls, perfectly smooth without fingers or any other protuberances. The top of her head formed a point, making her wig slide off and fall to the ground.
Figaro felt a pulse of energy go through him, like a shockwave, then another. He and PT stepped back as Synthia continued to send out signal after signal.
After about ten minutes she stopped. Her appendages returned to normal and she picked up her hair.
“That way,” she said, pointing past Figaro. “They’re waiting for us.”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino