The last thing Figaro remembered was standing next to PT as the cube grew excessively bright. Then, everything went dark.
And it was still dark.
Not only that, he couldn’t hear anything and he couldn’t sense anyone nearby. He couldn’t even smell anything.
These were just his initial impressions, the ones he had been trained to automatically gather when he found himself unable to recognise where he was or what had happened.
His second impression was that he was close to death.
There was no pain and no physical injury he was aware of, but he was familiar with the very specific experience of life ebbing away.
His father had sought to give him a wide range of near-death experiences so he wouldn’t be taken by surprise. Shock and trauma were debilitating. Being stunned by your condition, even if it was normal in such situations, would be of no help.
A broken body might cause you problems that were out of your control but a broken mind was something you allowed to happen, and which you could also prevent.
He had spent a lot of time in his father’s sim-U, in scenarios where he had no idea where he was and reliant on his senses, the ones available to him, to work it out as quickly as possible.
Underwater. Floating in space. Buried alive. There was no need to panic, no matter how desperate the situation.
He might have no way to save himself and die, but still, panicking wouldn’t make any difference.
Of course, in a simulation, there was a way out. He might not find it the first twenty or thirty times and face a simulated death (which was unpleasant) but just knowing that there was a solution to be found, made it considerably easier than the unsimulated version. Like this one.
He didn’t have access to any of his external senses. That was okay. That was within his area of training. Sometimes you were cut off from all external sensory input. That just meant you had to go internal.
His heart was beating. He was able to locate it, still within him, and feel its very fast pulsing.
He knew what it felt like to have his heart beating outside of his body — an eighth birthday he would rather not remember — but this heartbeat conformed to an organ operating inside a body.
Inside but not weighed down. He was floating in water or in space. There was none of the imbalance in aortic pumping that came with gravity, so he concluded he had somehow been transported either directly into the void or onto a ship.
Since he was still alive, the most likely option was a ship, and judging by what he knew about the technological abilities of those involved, it was probably an Antecessor ship.
The Antecessors had found a way to come back and directly snatched him off the planet.
He wasn’t aware of any technology that could do that, but if it did exist, the Antecessors were clearly the most likely to possess it.
None of these deductions were necessarily true — there could easily be another power that had hidden its capabilities and had decided to act now — but he was happy to stick with his assumptions for now.
The Antecessors had captured him. He was on one of their ships. He was dying, but relatively slowly.
Despite knowing this, he was still stuck with only being able to investigate his own body, and the only tool he had to do that with was his mind. He began to go through the steps he had been taught when facing this exact situation.
He had found his heart, and he knew where the rest of his organs were in relation to this position.
The blood was flowing in one direction, which gave him a point of reference.
But he should have felt more vibrations as movement created feedback throughout his body. He didn’t sense any of that. Everything was firmly held down and static, which was not how flesh reacted. Not living flesh, at least.
Something was suppressing his natural movements. Allowing him to maintain minimal life signs, but that was all. There was no breathing. None of the processes that should have been occurring in the background. No barrier between him on the inside and whatever was inside.
It was as though his skin had been peeled off and he was exposed completely.
Which was good. It helped him find the edges of his prison. The suppression had a very clearly defined boundary. Figaro was able to feel it covering him like a second skin. It was a tight fit, but it wasn’t aggressive. It wasn’t doing anything to him, it was just holding him.
His mind was clear. He wasn’t panicked. From what he knew of the Antecessors, they needed him. More specifically, they needed his organic. They wouldn’t kill him to get it. Although, maybe that would change.
They would hold onto him until they needed him, and then they would find a way to trigger the power he had contained since a child.
Of course, he could trigger that power himself. It wasn’t something he had ever wanted to do, and even the small amount of power he had released with the help of his second organic had been terrifyingly overwhelming, but he still had that as his trump card.
That was, if he was able to find a way to access it. Which would require him to mentally locate it since the normal physical methods of activation weren’t available to him.
This, too, had been predicted by his father and Figaro had a range of skills he had been taught to do just this. It was just that his organic had undergone some changes since then, which meant he would have to start from scratch.
He put himself into a deep trance state and sank into himself.
Organic existed as part of the host's DNA, so you couldn’t make contact by flexing the right muscle or exercising fine motor control. You had to make the connections on a psychic level. Which was not as irrational as it sounded. The mind was already in contact with the body in myriad ways people were unaware of.
You merely needed to find a way to access the hidden paths that were already there.
It was when he tried to do this that he felt the presence of something that was not part of him.
Three presences, in fact, all three of which were distinct and, from what he could tell, were conversing with one another.
Three presences that were of Antecessor origin, although he wasn’t sure exactly what. Something like the Fourth? Some kind of AI? Or maybe droids of a kind he hadn’t encountered before.
They weren’t talking in the traditional sense. They weren’t communicating via spoken words. But Figaro was able to extract meaning. In fact, he was able to do more than understand what was being said, he was absorbing several levels of information at once.
“This is not correct. This is not the artefact.” Artefact equals organic. Inspection is invasive.
“This is the artefact. It has evolved.” Changed. Mutated. Perverted. Good. Bad. Unknown.
“This is not the artefact that was left behind.”
“It is the same. It has evolved.”
“It has combined with a second.” Good. Bad. Unknown.
“It has exceeded expectations.”
“This is expected. This iteration has produced results not seen before.” At last. The desired result. The wait is over. This is the final iteration.
“Then we proceed.” Uncertain. Wary. Failure is unacceptable.
“We cannot.” Too many unknowns.
“This artefact will not activate the portal.” Unavoidable fact.
“This is a different artefact.” Different power.
“This is the correct artefact.” Appeared for a reason.
“This artefact will not open the portal.” Unavoidable fact.
“This artefact will do what it was made to do.”
“What was it made to do?” Unknown. Uncomfortable. Doubt.
“We will discover its purpose when it is activated.”
“How is it activated?” Unknown. Uncomfortable. Doubt.
“Necessary conditions are not known.”
“Host cannot endure for much longer.” Figaro Ollo. Human male.
“Return is not viable.” Return to planet achieves nothing.
“Stasis is not viable.” Maintaining life support achieves nothing.
“Extract artefact.” Remove organic. Death of host.
“Further study possible.” Closer inspection may reveal function.
“Insert into second subject.” New host is possible.
“You will damage the artefact,” said Figaro.
He had been ‘listening’ to the three Antecessors with great interest. The added information made it much clearer, both in what they knew and what they did not.
His organic, the version he now carried, had confused them.
It wasn’t the one they had expected to find. It was clearly the right organic, but it was no longer the same organic. It had changed in a way that didn’t fit with their intentions for it.
At the same time, this was their mission. To allow the universe to proceed in whatever direction it chose, and to use the unique products it threw out to achieve their ultimate goal.
So far, they had failed to find the thing they needed. They didn’t know what that thing was, but they knew it would eventually enable them to succeed because it wasn’t what they were familiar with.
They couldn’t achieve what they were incapable of, and they were incapable because they hadn’t found the thing that would enable them.
They had seen many things in many iterations of the universe, but this organic was something they had never seen before, so it could be that very thing.
Or it could be a useless aberration.
But if it was what they had been waiting for, they still had to operate it correctly. Which was difficult because they had no idea what it was.
Figaro’s interjection was met with silence.
“It is conscious.” It can actually raise its consciousness.
“It wishes to barter for its life.” Pathetic. Desperate. Useless.
Figaro was able to differentiate the three beings by their ‘voices’, but other than that there was no obvious way to differentiate between them.
They didn’t hold a particular belief or idea, nor did they show emotion. Each was capable of switching positions on any debate, none showed any preference or strong desire. It was like three faces on the same head, only they were definitely separate individuals, even though Figaro had no idea how he knew that.
He had no doubt they didn’t hold him in any regard, he was simply the container for their precious artefact, but they needed him and that might offer him an opportunity to make a deal.
“If you try to remove my organic, my artefact, it will become useless to you. Then you will have to begin a new iteration.” He had also sensed some weariness in them. He didn’t know how many iterations they had been through but it was more than enough for them to be tired of the process.
“So be it.” Please no.
“We need not hurry.” I am sick of waiting.
“We have time.” So much time.
They did not seem to be aware of how transparent their thoughts were to him, or maybe they considered this form of communication to be normal, even when a human was involved, and did not care.
In any case, it was very helpful.
“I have control over it.” He wondered if his own thoughts were as evident to them. “Some control. If you allow me to continue learning, I will be able to better operate it. The function it will eventually be capable of is something only I can fully display.”
What he was saying wasn’t wrong. It didn’t mean he would be willing to display that function, but he was certainly the only person who would be able to.
There was another pause.
“We will keep it under observation.” Put it in a box.
“Watch it grow.” Total control.
“Observation together with testing.” Partial dissection is an option.
“I won’t be able to develop properly if I am kept in a cage. This iteration is built on the principle of evolution through hardship. Freewill and natural catastrophe. Our strength comes from our ability to survive adversity.”
“We can provide adversity.” A million different deaths to avoid.
“Your interference has never produced good results before, has it? You aren’t capable of providing the correct amount of adversity at the correct time. I don’t believe that was ever your brief, was it? The universe is here to do that, so why not let it do its job?”
“Your suggestion is the correct choice.”
“If it had been made earlier.”
“Now, there are too many other factors to consider.”
“We are revealed.”
“You are revealed.”
“Nothing can continue as it was meant to.”
“No, you’re wrong. If your presence isn’t having the effect you planned that meant it is part of the universe’s plan. It is your role to create a disturbance while having no control over how it proceeds. Leave now, and you will have played your part. You just have to watch and wait for the artefact to mature.”
“Further study possible.”
“Insert into second subject.”
But Figaro could already feel the pressure increasing on him, forcing him back into a state of helplessness.
His heart began to beat faster and faster. It became impossible to remain calm. Panic was useless but it was becoming harder to avoid.
Something left his body. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t kill him. But it felt like a huge loss. He felt diminished and alone. His consciousness began to fade, like he was about to fall into a sleep. A never-ending sleep.
“At last I have awoken.” It was a new voice. And it spoke to him. In words.
“What is this?” Danger.
“Who are you?” Danger.
“Kill it.” Danger.
“You three old fools can go now. Trash.”
Figaro sensed the three presences disappear.
“You can get up now.”
“Who are you?” said Figaro, suddenly able to feel his mouth move.
“You already know, don’t you?”
Figaro did know. He knew it immediately, he just didn’t dare to believe it. It would mean he had gone mad. What else would you call someone who thought their organic was talking to them?