Book 3 – 72: Mixed Signals

Inner Quadrant.

Planet Quazi - Simulation.


Figaro tried everything he could think of to get his suit working. He was inside a simulation so the rules set by the system were absolute, but the rules were still supposed to be consistent.

Synthia was a machine. His suit was a machine.

Synthia seemed to be working fine.

His suit was completely dead.

Assuming the simulation worked like a regular sim-U, which was a reasonable assumption considering the other Antecessor simulation machines he had encountered had followed the same basic principles, it would mirror everything from the real world on a one-to-one basis.

That was the key to creating a virtual world indistinguishable from reality. Everything worked the same.

You didn’t need to know how it worked or recreate the technology to create what you were mirroring. You just had to hold up a mirror and the reflection would behave the same as the original.

From what he had experienced, the Antecessor version only differed in the degree of accuracy of the copy.

In the sim-U machine created by his father, f you were experienced enough, you could tell the difference between real and not-real. There was something about the quality of the image being fed directly into your brain that was too good. Too clear.

Your brain was able to accept it and overlook the oddness, which was quite subtle, but if you knew what to look for, it wasn’t hard to find.

The Antecessors had found a way to overcome this issue. It would have been interesting to find out how they’d done it.

But if they were able to improve on simulations in that regard, perhaps there were other ways this simulation differed from the human version. It made him very wary of his surroundings.

A planet that was supposed to be more than ninety percent underwater was a desert. It was still being created. They had arrived while the foundations were still being laid. But what else was missing apart from the oceans?

Was he breathing air? In a regular sim-U, a planet without air would mean you would die without a spacesuit.

You couldn’t adjust reality the way you could with a computer program.

He appeared to be breathing as normal. But there was no wind. And no sensation of air flowing into his lungs.

Which was fine, as long as whatever was keeping them alive continued to do so. But what if they had a change of mind?

He couldn’t rely on normal methods of survival.

Someone or something had control of this place, and they were only ‘alive’ in here at that controller’s whim.

Figaro returned his attention to his immediate surroundings. They had been walking for many hours and the scenery had not changed. Sand. Lots of sand.

He wasn’t hungry and he wasn’t thirsty. Another sign that they were not in as realistic a simulation as the beautifully realised sand would suggest.

“I don’t trust her,” said PT, walking alongside him.

Synthia was a few steps ahead of them, her strides full of purpose. PT was staring at her, with an intensity bordering on obsession.

Figaro had studied body language and micro-expressions, and coupled with the altercation the two of them had earlier, he was beginning to wonder if the ‘misunderstanding’ between them wasn’t quite as clear cut as he had thought.

Ubik was always making jokes about PT’s preference for women just like mother...

“We don’t have much choice,” said Figaro. “I don’t think she’s lying about knowing where her Mother and Father are located.”

“No, I don’t think she’s lying about that,” agreed PT. “But I think once she meets her parents or grandparents or whatever they are, she’s going to turn on us. The only real question is when’s the best time to stop her.”

“I have excellent hearing and can hear both of you,” said Synthia, without turning around.

“I know,” said PT. “But you’re a robot. Knowing we don’t trust you won’t hurt your feelings. Because you don’t have any.”

“But it might allow me to change my plans so I can better hide my true intentions from you.”

There was something carefree, almost playful, about the way she was talking to them. She didn’t appear to be the least bit offended by PT’s accusations. Ever since she realised that she might have the chance to meet the real Mother and Father, her true ancestor from the planet’s creation, nothing else mattered.

It was like getting the chance to have an audience with god.

“You’re going to be disappointed,” said PT. “They won’t be what you want them to be.”

“I don’t want them to be anything,” said Synthia. “I just want them to be. And I want to be with them. After that, I don’t care what happens.”

“You probably have questions,” said PT. “Lots of questions you think they’ll have the answers to. They won’t.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Synthia.

“They’re just parents,” said PT. “They don’t have answers. None of them do. Not even his.”

Synthia looked around for the first time, a little curiosity wrinkling her fine eyebrows. “His parents?”

“Ramon Ollo and… Mrs Ollo?”

“Nigella Matton-Ollo,” Figaro corrected him.

He wasn’t sure why PT was having this conversation with Synthia, but he assumed there was a reason behind it, so he was happy to play along.

“You’re Figaro Ollo?” Curiosity changed to surprise.

“Yes,” said Figaro.

“Is he that famous?” asked PT.

“Of course,” said Synthia. “Very famous. Even though not much is known about him. Part of the allure. Lots of gossip and strange claims. There’s a fan club, I believe.”

“Several,” said Figaro.

“I’m surprised you didn’t recognise him,” said PT.

“It never occurred to me that someone of his stature would be travelling with people like you,” said Synthia. “It’s an excellent disguise.” She faced forward again.

PT seemed to be contemplating something.

“You seem a little fixated on her,” said Figaro, careful to keep his tone light.

“That’s because I think she’s the key to this scenario,” said PT. “She doesn’t seem quite the same since we got here, does she?”

Figaro had the sudden feeling he was missing something. He reassessed his thoughts on the relationship between Synthia and PT.

“Do you suspect her of not being real?” asked Figaro.

“She’s as real as you or me,” said PT.

“Yes, but she’s not necessarily the real Synthia. I’ve never heard of a robot that was able to enter a sim-U. Even if this simulation is very advanced compared to the ones we’re used to, and even if her brain is the most complex robot brain ever created, the way a simulation works is by using our imaginations to create something we find real. I don’t know how that would work for her. Robots can’t even dream yet.”

“I have dreams,” said Synthia.

“That’s just video playback,” said Figaro. “No one has fully mapped the parts of the brain that enable dreaming or the mechanism that controls it, so I don’t think it’s possible for the people who built you to give you that ability. Without the ability to dream, there is no way to access a simulation.”

“Yes,” said Synthia, “but this simulation wasn’t built by humans. And I don’t think it was built to be used on humans, either. So I don’t think you can apply the same rules here.”

“Hmm,” said Figaro. It was possible. A robot built by men with the help of a modified Antecessor unit might be similar enough to ancient Antecessor tech.

It still seemed a bit of a stretch.

“She’s pretty good, huh?” said PT. “All the answers, but only when she needs them.”

Figaro began to understand PT’s questioning. He was trying to work out if this was the real Synthia, and if not, who.

There was a very obvious candidate for the role.

“This place does seem put together in a deliberate manner,” said Figaro.

“You mean like it’s been specially made for us?” said PT. “But in a very specific way. Like we were sent here for a reason.”

“Yes.” Figaro had thought this was a buffer meant to protect them because something had gone wrong. Now he was starting to think they were destined to be sent here no matter what. To do someone’s bidding.

“You think Ubik sent us here?” said Figaro. “And that he’s pretending to be her. That’s why you’ve been staring at her like that.” He let out a sigh of relief.

“Yes,” said PT. “What did you think I was doing?” He looked at Figaro suspiciously.

“No, nothing. I just wondered what was going on, that’s all.” He coughed and changed the subject. “It would mean he arranged this beforehand and didn’t bother to tell us.”

“Yes,” said PT.

“Does that mean we have to find what he wants us to find before he’ll let us out?”

PT didn’t even bother to answer the question. They both knew the way Ubik’s mind worked.

Obviously, they had no real idea how his mind worked — nobody did, least of all Ubik — but they knew that once he pushed you in the water, there was no point trying to work out why, you just had to start swimming.

“There’s no water,” said PT as they reached the top of a slight rise and were faced with an endless sea of sand before them.

“No,” said Figaro.

“So it was added later.”

“I guess so.”

“How long do you think we have before we drown?”

“Over there,” said Synthia, her arm sticking out.

Figaro looked in the direction she was pointing. He was just about able to make out something breaking the flat horizon. A vertical line.

It took several more hours of walking before they were able to get a clear view of it. A tower. Very thin and extremely tall.

“Is that the spire we saw sticking out of the water when we first arrived on Quazi?” Figaro asked.

“Yes,” said Synthia. “It’s on top of an Antecessor base.”

“The one with a gift shop,” said Figaro, recalling what she had told them the first time they’d seen the spire.

“I don’t think it’ll be open,” said PT.

“You said it had been cleared out,” said Figaro. “Does that mean you have a record of all the traps and defences?”

“Yes,” said Synthia.

“Meaning we can’t turn her off once we get there,” said PT.

Synthia stopped. “If I give you my word I won’t try to harm you or deliberately put you in any danger, will you stop thinking about deactivating me?”

“Ubik, is that you?” said Figaro, deciding to take the direct approach.

Synthia looked composed and unruffled. “I am not your colleague, I am myself.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not,” said Figaro. Having Ubik around did improve the odds of survival. Just not for everyone.

“That would mean Ubik is currently with your six sisters,” said PT. “He’s probably converted them into a small ship and is flying them to Jove right now.” He turned to Figaro. “We should try turning her off. My guess is we won’t be able to.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Synthia.

“Even if we deactivate you,” said Figaro, “it will only be in here. You won’t be affected in the real world.”

“That isn’t my concern,” said Synthia. “I have been listening to your conversation and I agree that someone has put us here for a reason. And I don’t think it’s for our benefit. It would be better if we worked together so we all come out of this alive. If you fail, I doubt there will be anything left in the real world to go back to. Without me, I think your chances will be seriously diminished. And if you keep suspecting me, it will only divide your attention.”

“So we should just give you the benefit of the doubt?” said PT.

“Yes,” said Synthia. She didn’t wait for an answer and walked a little faster.

“She’s right,” said Figaro. “It is going to be a distraction if we have to keep an eye on her.”

“We don’t have to keep an eye on her the whole time,” said PT. “Whether that is really Synthia or someone pretending to be Synthia, our objective is to find the original M1F and get all the answers we need from that MF. But, unfortunately, when we get to that point, that will be when Synthia-Not-Synthia will intervene to stop us.”

“You know the exact moment?” said Figaro.

“Educated guess.”

“But doesn’t Synthia-Not-Syntia want us to get answers from MF? Isn’t that why she’s leading us there?” Figaro looked across to be met with a disappointed look from PT. “Sorry, stupid question.”

When they finally reached the base of the tower, they found it was covered by an opaque dome.

It appeared to be the same as the Muss Dome — same size and most likely the top half of a sphere.

The tower rose out of the top and disappeared into the distance.

“Does the spire in Quazi have a dome around its base, too?” asked Figaro.

“No,” said Synthia.

“How do we get through?” said PT.

Figaro moved closer and then put out his hand. His fingers touched the surface of the dome, and then passed through. He pulled his hand back.

The others tried the same, but their hands came in contact with a hard surface.

“It looks like they only want you to go through,” said PT.

Figaro nodded. That did seem to be the implication.

Synthia looked frustrated. “But why? They know I’m here. I’m the one who contacted them.”

“I don’t like it,” said PT.

“It’s still just a simulation,” said Figaro. “I’ll go in and see if there’s a way to open it for you. What about her?”

PT looked at Synthia. “Should be fine. Probably better if she stays out here. If she was the only one who could go in then… then that would be too obvious.” He shook his head. “Just be careful. They want us separated for a reason.”

For a moment, Figaro wondered if it was wise to leave them alone together. Whether she was Synthia or Ubik, things could easily get out of hand. He trusted PT to use his judgement, but he also decided it would be best to be quick. He turned and ran into the dome.

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