Ubik crouched down and sorted through the pile of nanodrones. They were small and inert, giving no indication of what they were capable of. From a cursory look they were all identical, a simple self-replicating, self-powered consumption engine, miniaturised and given a singular purpose. It was a supremely elegant design.
“These are great,” said Ubik, squeezing one of the nanodrones. The body gave a little under pressure. A gel to remove the need for complex connective architecture. “Shame we don’t have more of them.”
“There are several more cans of them back there,” said PT. He pointed his thumb at the dark passage he had just emerged from.
“We should be careful,” said Fig. “They’re a lot more dangerous than they look.”
“Even better,” said Ubik. He got up and decided to check the stores.
“Not really,” said Fig. “If they get out of control, they could eat through the whole asteroid.”
“Won’t they run out of power eventually?” said PT.
“No,” said Fig. “Everything they eat is converted to energy and used to keep them eating. As long as they have food, they can keep going.”
“Shouldn’t something like that be banned?” said PT.
“If people knew they existed, then yes. My father didn’t make them public, so it’s surprising he gave them away so easily.”
Ubik left them discussing matters of morality and galactic disintegration. He wasn’t particularly interested.
Inside the narrow passage the smell was something else. Ubik had spent much of his life in a junkyard so he was no stranger to disgusting odours, but this was horrific.
Fortunately, the room with the canisters was the first one he looked in. He grabbed two and stuck them under his arms and picked up two more. Then he quickly returned holding his bounty and his breath.
“So they do wear out eventually,” PT was saying to Fig, still in the same conversation.
“Yes,” said Fig. “But a small rock like this wouldn’t take long for them to digest. They also use any excess materials they dig up to reproduce. They’re simple enough to be able to make replicas.”
“They’d be a terrible weapon in the wrong hands,” said PT.
“I don’t know what you did back there,” said Ubik as he poured his newly acquired nanodrones onto the floor with the others, “but you should change your diet.”
PT pulled a face. “That wasn’t me. That’s the result of long-term—”
“Hey, you were the last one to go in there,” said Ubik. “And now it smells like that. You should seek medical advice.”
PT’s frown tightened into a thin-lipped grimace but he didn’t say anything. He was getting too good at ignoring bait. Ubik would have to improve the quality of his lures. He put it on his to-do list and inspected his improved collection of nanodrones. The heap rose to a point about level with the top of his Delgados. Seemed an appropriate amount.
“We never used that many,” said Gerd from his bunk. His voice sounded shaky. “They made it clear to us we should only use tiny amounts. I mean, that’s what Nifell said. He was the only one trained to handle them. The more you use, the harder it is to keep control of them.”
“Nifell?” said Ubik. “The dead guy? Here’s some advice for you. Don’t put a lot of weight behind advice from dead people. If it didn’t work for them, it probably won’t work for you.”
“The drones didn’t kill him,” said PT. “You did.”
“Assisted suicide,” said Ubik, “but my point still stands.”
“No,” said PT, “it doesn’t. Listen to how scared the guy is. He’s more freaked out by the nanodrones than he is by you. Do you realise how dangerous they must be?”
“It’s fine,” said Ubik. He had an excellent grasp of the situation. One error and they’d all wind up dead. How was that different from any other day of his life? “The important thing is to get inside the base and find Fig’s dad, right?” He looked to Fig for confirmation.
“I think my father would prefer to be rescued into a secure environment rather than a catastrophic one.”
“Rescued is rescued,” said Ubik. “Now, let’s get these babies fired up.”
He turned to the console and opened a control panel he’d spotted earlier. He hadn’t known what it was then; a supervision suite for drones that didn’t exist as far as he could make out. Now he understood perfectly.
The nanodrones were activated and monitored from here. Give them a task, send them off, put in a recall command for when they were done. What could be simpler?
“Whew,” said Ubik, looking over the parameters. “This is really basic. Who programmed this? Nifell, I bet. That guy…”
“What?” said PT. He was looking at the screen with the gormless expression of someone who had no idea what he was seeing. Pretty much his regular look.
“This is a very simplified set of directives,” said Ubik. “How many of these did you use at a time? Twelve?”
“No,” said a defensive voice from the top bunk. “ A few hundred. They replicate very quickly so we could only use a few to start with. We had to sweep them up and put them in those cans to stop them breeding. They’re dangerous. Like a virus. We had to sterilise them and even that didn’t stop them multiplying.”
“I really don’t like this,” said PT.
“I’m inclined to agree,” said Fig. “We should proceed with the utmost—”
“Nanodrones activate!” said Ubik, flicking a switch. The pile of drones on the floor began to vibrate and buzz. “Good thing your dad put all this spyware in here, makes taking control of them a lot easier.”
PT and Fig stepped back.
“Don’t look so worried,” said Ubik as he began the process of initialising the nanodrones. “Gonna scrap most of this...” He waved a hand at the screen. “I’m going to compile a completely new set of instructions with built-in fail-safes and a host of improvements, amendments and fine-tuning. The self-repair mechanism will act as a regulator for any excess production. Won’t be able to go exponential. This will be a newer, safer nanodrone. Some people would dismantle where they were supposed to build, others would duplicate what they were meant to replace. The risk is you end up releasing millions of potential cancer cells into an otherwise healthy body, decimating it. And then you have to keep track of each one. They could quite easily eviscerate everything in their path, or accidentally breach the containment around a hazardous core. Even if all goes well, the whole process could take days or weeks to perfect.” Ubik sat back. “Finished.”
“What?” said PT. “What do you mean, finished? You said it could take days.”
“Weeks,” added Fig.
“That took you thirty seconds,” said PT.
“I know what I’m doing,” said Ubik.
“Did you do all the safety checks?” said PT. “The fail-safes, did you add the fail-safes?”
“Mainly they’re just for show. A redundant system to make people feel better about the dangers.”
“I know,” said PT. “I want to feel better about the dangers.”
“Is it alright if I leave now,” said Gerd. “I promise I won’t tell anyone about what happened here.”
“Look, you doubters,” said Ubik, “this isn’t my first time running a hot rig on the fly. I’ve made more complex calculations while dodging strafing drone-fire, nailed it every time. This will work just fine. Watch.”
Ubik sent the commands to the nanodrones. People had a tendency to get anxious before anything had even happened. They could easily work themselves into such a state that they ended up causing the disaster they were so afraid of. You just had to jump in and make corrections in the moment. It was the only way to get good, assuming you didn’t die in the process.
The drones moved across the floor like a dark rug. They reached the wall to the left of the console and crawled up it. The wall caved in with hardly any noise or dust, just a blast of warm air.
“What did you tell them to do?” asked Fig.
“I sent them to the base, most direct route. Shouldn’t take very long. They’re fully automated so they’ll come back when they’re done.”
“You gave them full-autonomy?” said PT, sounding needlessly horrified.
“It’s more efficient,” said Ubik. “You have to have faith in your work.”
“Um,” said Fig. He managed to sound troubled in just the one syllable. Deeply troubled.
“What?” said PT.
“The base is that way,” said Fig, pointing in the opposite direction to the one the nanodrones had taken.
“Is it?” said Ubik. He looked around the room, trying to remember which way they’d entered. “Are you sure?”
“Excellent,” said PT.
“It’s an easy miscalculation to make.”
“I thought you could make perfect calculations under drone-fire,” said PT.
“I can, but there isn’t any drone-fire here,” said Ubik. “That’s what threw me.”
PT just stared at Ubik for a long time. Then he turned to the top bunk. “Where did you put that gun you had?”
“It’s fine,” said Fig. “They’re coming back.” He pointed at the newly created tunnel. A black carpet crept back into the room.
“See?” said Ubik. “Self-correcting. Which way is the base?”
Fig pointed at the wall the bunks were against.
“Okay, boys,” said Ubik, “don’t make daddy look bad.”
The carpet disappeared under the bottom bunks and then all the bunks collapsed, ejecting Gerd in the process. He fell out backwards, slamming the back of his head on the ground.
“Don’t let them eat me,” he cried out in a panic, rolling to get clear of the devastation. The wall behind the bunks disappeared.
Gerd lay there rubbing a rising bump on the back of his head. He had a pinched, pallid face and dazed eyes.
“Come on, get up,” said PT. He bent down and pulled Gerd to his feet. “You can’t lie around all day.”
“I could stay here.”
“I don’t think so, Nifell,” said PT. “It is Nifell, isn’t it?”
The man looked like he was about to protest, but he just ended up looking glum. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No, better that you be honest,” said PT. “I was going to kill you but now I’m going to keep you around in case Ubik disappears and leaves us with a drone plague to deal with. It’s the sort of thing he would do.”
“Harsh,” said Ubik. “But fair.”
“Don’t worry,” said PT. “Me and you, we’re in the same boat.”
“We are?” said Nifell.
“Sure,” said PT. “I know what it’s like trying to survive while someone else calls the shots. The shots that are aimed at you. These two have no idea what that’s like. He’s in the family business and he’s self-employed. I’m the only one who knows what it’s like to have a boss.”
“I’ve worked under other people,” said Fig.
“Family doesn’t count,” said PT. “They prefer to keep you alive.”
“How are you any different to my other bosses?” said Nifell.
“If we die, you die,” said PT. “If we live, you live. That’s the best I can offer.”
Nifell nodded, seeming to take the offer. It was a novel approach, giving the enemy a chance to come out of a dire situation intact. One with inherent risks attached. Ubik approved.
“Let’s get going then,” said Ubik. The nanodrones had had plenty of time to burrow their way to the target.
“Wait,” said Nifell, pulling Ubik back. “The superheated air in the tunnel makes it impossible—”
Ubik pushed past him. “It’ll be fine. These suits are—”
PT pushed him back. “Listen to the man. He’s an expert.”
“I’m an expert,” said Ubik.
“Yes, but he’s an expert who respects death,” said PT.
“Fine,” said Ubik. “Let’s stay here and do nothing.”
They waited for five minutes until Nifell gave the all-clear. “Shouldn’t be too bad now.”
“Okay, Ubik,” said PT. “Lead the way.”
“You want me to take point?”
“Yes. If anything happens to you, we still have Nifell.”
Ubik liked PT’s new approach. He thought he was reducing the chances of harm and injury by taking as many precautions as possible. All it really did was encourage Ubik to think up new stuff to try. You always had to be innovating if you wanted to stay ahead of the crowd.
The others held back as Ubik climbed over broken beds and entered the tunnel, his helmet went up and the suit stiffened as it reacted to the intense heat. If it was this strong now, it must have been scorching a few minutes ago. Good thing they waited. His chest glowed and a brilliant light flushed the interior. A long passage stretched out in front of him.
“How is it?” asked PT.
“Lovely,” said Ubik. “Light tropical.” More light poured in from behind as the others entered. “This way.”
“This is the only way,” said PT.
“Then I must be right,” said Ubik.
The tunnel walls were smooth and humming. The dissipating heat was making the rock sing. There was no sign of the nanodrones.
“They’ve stopped,” said Fig.
“How do you know?” said PT.
“I interfaced with the console back there.” Fig was looking down at the panel on his arm, a light on top of his helmet illuminating it. “I thought it would be best to keep an eye on things. Just mirroring the display. I can’t control the drones, though.”
“Don’t need to,” said Ubik. “They know what to do.”
“I don’t think that’s how they work,” said Nifell.
“That’s how they work now,” said Ubik. “No leash.”
The tunnel ended up ahead. There was a wall with a hole in it.
“This is it,” said Ubik in a low voice. “Once we’re through there, we’ll be in enemy territory. Try not to ruin all my hard work.”
“Are you thinking out loud?” asked PT. “Note to self?”
“We’re inside the base,” said Ubik. “As promised. Another successful mission from Ubik Industries.”
“Bit early for that claim,” said PT. “What’s inside?”
Ubik edged closer. As he approached the hole light from his suit revealed a dark room with black walls, empty except for a small pyramid on the floor. The nanodrones were piled up in the middle of the room.
“All clear,” said Ubik. “The nanodrones are waiting for us. Looks like some kind of storeroom.” He climbed through the hole.
The drones were just sitting there. They were supposed to keep going until they reached their target location and then return. Apparently they’d made an executive decision to stay here.
Ubik took a closer look at the wall. He couldn’t see an exit anywhere.
“Where’s the door?” said PT.
“Um,” said Fig. Everyone turned to look at him.
Fig turned his light on full. The black walls responded by lighting up with white lines.
“Up there,” said Fig, pointing at the ceiling. “This is a kill room. It’s where you drop into if you trigger one of the traps on the second level of the Antecessor facility under the base.”
“Wait, we’re in the facility?” said PT. “How? You said the site was shielded from the outside.”
“It is,” said Fig. “It must have let us in.”
Ubik turned around and looked at the hole they’d come through. There was a shimmer across it. “Looks like it doesn’t want to let us out.”
“When you say kill room…” said Nifell.
The walls moved. Droids detached from them, hovering in the air on all sides of them.
“Everyone relax,” said Ubik. “It let us in. It wants Fig here. It invited him, remember. This isn’t a trap, it’s a friendly welcome.”
The pyramid of nanodrones got narrower and taller. It was almost like the nanodrones were frightened.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino