Restricted Area 2B.
Figaro was finding it hard to accept what he was seeing. Ubik had surprised him a number of times, but taming the Beast of Tethari was by far the most astonishing thing he had done. Today. So far.
“How did you know draining its stomach would work?” he asked.
“Huh?” said Ubik. “I didn’t even mean to do that. The nanodrones, it was their idea. That’s what happens when you allow a little initiative in the workforce.”
“When did you teach them hand signals?” said PT.
“I didn’t. They’re blind, don’t have any visual input.”
“He’s right,” said Nifell, his voice a hushed whisper. “They don’t have eyes. They echo-locate.”
The Beast was sitting there like some kind of lap dog, poking its own stomach with the tip of its snout while Ubik instructed it to behave itself from now on. Could the Beast understand him? It didn’t respond but it didn’t attack him, either.
“Stop staring at your belly button,” said Ubik. “Look at me. Hey.” He kicked it in the shin, or the part of its foreleg that might be construed as that.
The Beast looked up and the opening in its chest spun wider — the sign it was about to consume you.
“No. Bad. No more eating people. You’re not hungry, are you? No. We don’t eat when we aren’t hungry. Snacking is bad for you. Do you want to get fat?”
A rumbling growl emanated from the Beast’s stomach. Ubik pulled a face and sniffed. He leaned forward. Then he climbed up the front leg and grabbed the lip of the open aperture and stuck his head inside.
Figaro winced involuntarily, fully expecting the aperture to spin shut and Ubik’s headless corpse to drop to the floor.
“Looks fine,” echoed Ubik’s voice. “You’re cured. I have healed you.” He pulled his head back out. He looked over at the others. “Another patient saved by Dr Ubik.”
“Stop messing about,” said PT. “We have to get out of here before more people arrive.”
“Just hold on a minute,” said Ubik. “Before we go anywhere, I want to find out what Junior’s been guarding all these years. Okay, everyone,” said Ubik to the floor, “spread out and search every corner of this place.” He spread his arms wide.
The floor, or the nanodrones sitting at his feet, scuttled off in every direction.
“I told you,” said Figaro, “there’s nothing else here.”
“There wasn’t supposed to be anything else on the Origin,” said Ubik. “But there was, wasn’t there?”
He had a point, Figaro couldn’t deny that.
“Junior?” said PT.
“Ubik Jr. That’s what I’ve named him.” The Beast tilted its head like this was the first it was hearing about its new appellation.
“I don’t think I’m ready for two Ubiks,” said PT.
“My father says being ready is the least important part of any venture,” said Figaro.
“What’s the most important part?” asked PT.
“Him,” said Nifell. The Enayan was staring at Ubik with a touch of what might be described as hero-worship. Ubik’s antics, distressing as they were to witness, appealed to the common man. The way news of a disaster caught everyone’s attention.
“Let’s see if you feel the same way an hour from now,” said PT.
“What’s going to happen in an hour?” asked Nifell.
“Nobody knows,” said PT. “That’s what makes it so terrifying. How do we get out of here, Fig?”
“I… I’m not sure.”
“Come on, this is no time to start doubting yourself. Those VendX agents are going to find a way to turn off the asteroid’s defences and then we’re going to have company. Lots of it. We need to find your father and get out of here before that happens. You’ve spent hundreds of hours in this site, haven’t you?”
“Only in the sim-U,” said Figaro. “This is my first time up here, same as you. Shouldn’t we ask—”
“No,” said PT. “Ubik isn’t someone you consult.”
“Dr Ubik,” shouted Ubik. “Consultations by appointment.”
“Shut up. Consultants aren’t referred to as doctor.” PT looked around. “You’re the resident expert, Fig. Put your brain back in gear. What part of the site are we in? What are the nearest facilities we can access? How far to the place where your father was last seen?”
PT was being level-headed and professional. He was able to remain calm and focused under the most trying circumstances. Figaro would have claimed the same thing about himself, until recently. Now he wasn’t so sure.
No, it was irrelevant how he felt. There was no room for dithering here. This might not be the same Tethari he had been trained in, but he was still an expert in all things Antecessor. It made no difference what changes the site made, he would adapt.
“We can’t get out of here, not by using force,” said Figaro. “This is meant to be a prison for that thing.”
The Beast shook his head and sparks flew around the room.
“Stop that,” said Ubik laughing, covering his eyes so he wouldn’t be blinded.
“The dead walls keep it isolated from the rest of the site.”
“What about the nanodrones?” said PT. “They ate through the exterior wall once it was turned off. Same with these dead walls?”
“Only until they reach the barrier on the other side. These walls don’t lead to the outside. The only way out...” said Figaro, “is the way we came in.”
“The kill room?” said PT.
“Yes. I think the droid would have taken me out through a hidden exit, like the one on the Origin. That hadn’t been seen before, either. If the ship was able to hide a whole section of its hull, there’s a good chance this site can do something similar.”
Figaro walked over to where the trapdoor was.
“So you’re saying the kill room might not have been added specially for us,” said PT.
“It could have been here and just not active,” said Figaro.
“Until you came,” said PT.
“Possibly. I’ve never been allowed in this room, not even in the sim-U. If I am the trigger, like on the Origin, then that would make sense.”
“Then couldn’t this be what Junior was guarding?” said PT.
Figaro nodded. It was feasible. They could have entered and passed through the very thing they were looking for.
“That means there could be another exit down there,” said Figaro. “One the droids would have taken me through.”
“Yeah,” said PT. “After disposing of us.”
“But if we’re correct,” said Figaro, “how are we meant to open the way without the droids?”
On the Origin, Figaro had been ferried through the hidden portals by droids. They had restrained him and carried him. He had no idea how to operate the openings himself.
“Ubik,” said PT.
“Hold on, I’m still looking.”
“Just give me a second. I’m doing a full sweep of the room. These nanodrones can get into cracks and crevices we can’t even see. If there’s a secret compartment holding a treasure beyond comprehension, I’ll find it.”
“We’ve found it,” said Figaro.
“You have?” said Ubik. “Where?”
Figaro and PT pointed at the floor.
“Down there? We’ve already been… Oh. You mean like on the Origin. I suppose that could be it. Not very exciting. I was hoping for some kind of puzzle with instant death if we got it wrong. We could use Nifell as a down payment.”
“Whatever you say, Mr Ubik,” said Nifell.
“Now he’s got two pets,” said PT. The nanodrones scuttled up the walls. “And an army.”
“He’s a great man,” said Nifell. “I can tell. He’s the real thing.” He stared at Figaro.
“Yes?” said Figaro. “Is there something?”
“You. I know who you are. I didn’t recognise you at first, without your hair.”
“Ah,” said Figaro, not sure what the man was getting at.
“You have all that white hair on the stamps.”
“Yes,” said Figaro.
“You have your own stamps?” said PT. “And a spaceport named after you.”
Figaro nodded. It wasn’t something he thought about much. His family was an Enayan institution. His face and his name were part of the planet’s culture.
“Your father’s a tyrant,” said Nifell. “Your family has kept us oppressed for generations.” He looked over at Ubik.
Figaro wasn’t sure what to say. He knew people felt that way about his father but they rarely said so to his face. The man had been inspired by Ubik to challenge authority.
PT shook his head. “Misplaced hope in a far worse fate.”
“Guys,” said Ubik, “I’ve had a brilliant idea. Another one. We livestream our adventures in the depths of Tethari, beamed across the quadrant. Think about it, we already defeated the undefeatable Beast of Tethari. Imagine the audience reaction. Who knows what terrifying creation of the Antecessors we’ll encounter next.”
“Ubik, we’re trying to avoid attracting attention right now,” said PT. “Because people are trying to kill us.”
“But we’ll have the public on our side,” said Ubik.
“And what good is that?” asked PT.
“Well, you know, lots of likes on social media.”
“We only livestream internally,” said Figaro. “No one wants to make their discoveries public.”
“Sure, sure,” said Ubik. “But this is a privately owned facility. No one but us Ollos can get in. No harm in putting on a bit of a show.”
“Us Ollos?” said PT. “When did you join the family?”
Ubik shrugged. “Might get an invite if I save the big man, right?”
Figaro was at a loss. “You want my father to adopt you?”
“No, no. Not unless he wants to. We’d be brothers. You, me and Junior. The Ollo boys.”
PT had his hand over his eyes. “I can’t… it’s not…”
“Oh, sorry, sorry, don’t get upset,” said Ubik. “Didn’t mean to leave you out. I can put in a good word for you.”
“Please don’t,” said PT. “I think it’s best if we end this conversation.” He walked forward and dropped into the trap like a man gladly accepting his fate.
Figaro followed him.
The trap snapped shut over them. The kill room was quiet and empty. The white streaks of lights whizzed up and down the walls. Unlike the room above, this place was still connected to the grid. Didn’t that mean the site was aware of them? Would more droids be sent to apprehend him?
“This place is active,” said PT.
“Yes,” said Figaro.
“Upstairs isn’t. To stop the Bea… to stop Junior, right?”
“Right,” agreed Figaro.
“So this place is vulnerable to Junior,” said Figaro. He looked up at the roof. The trapdoor was closed but even open it wouldn’t be big enough to allow Junior down here. Not all of him.
“Hey, Ubik!” there was no response. “Hey…”
The doors fell open and Ubik dropped down. “Yeah, what’s up, Bro?”
Nifell came hurrying after him, a fearful look on his face.
Figaro took a moment. “We need to find a way through these walls.”
“Might respond to you,” said Ubik. “Have you tried ordering it to let you pass?”
“No, I don’t think that will—”
“Or it might react to your DNA. Lick the wall.”
“I’d rather not. Can we get Junior down here to—”
“Sure, sure, that might work, I guess.” Ubik whistled, loud and piercing
The trapdoor opened again. A square face peered down at them. The snout could fit through but that was about all. The one big eye gave the impression it was curious. The spiral design turned and glowed red. Sparks fell.
The strands of cable that formed a mane around Junior’s head snaked into the pit. They moved around, prehensile. Strands slithered down the walls, touching and feeling.
The white lights changed pattern. They hurried away from the tendrils seeking them out. They flashed and fled, only to find other tendrils in their path. There was no escape.
The lines of light got pushed together, squeezed into one area of the room, one block on the wall. They formed a rectangle. The rectangle began to unlock.
Parts of the wall slid apart to reveal an opening. A black hole.
“What’s through there?” said Ubik.
“It doesn’t look safe,” said Nifell, the words shaking out of him.
“You can stay here with Junior if you like,” said Ubik.
“No, no. I’m with you, sir.”
“Okay, in you go then.” Ubik moved aside and indicated Nifell should go first.
“Me? But, but…”
“You’re part of the team now, Nif. Nice and slow.”
Junior’s tendrils snaked around the entrance, sparking. Nifell hesitantly edged forward.
He disappeared into the shadows.
“How’s it going?” said Ubik.
“Fine. I feel a bit argggggh...”
Figaro rushed forward and turned his suit’s lights to full. As he passed through the opening, the lights revealed an enormous cavern. He slowed as his movements became sluggish. His foot struck something and he stopped to look down.
There was a ledge, hanging from which was Nifell, his eyes wide with panic.
“Gravity’s reduced here,” said PT from next to him. “Point-six standard, I’d say. Wonder what’s down there.”
“Good job, Nif,” said Ubik as he walked up and kicked the man’s clinging fingers.
Nifell slowly fell out of sight.