Book 2 – 39: The Drop

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Unknown Antecessor Site.

 

Point-Two watched as Nifell disappeared into the darkness below. He didn’t scream, he just looked horribly betrayed. By the one person he had decided to put his faith in.

“He’ll be okay,” said Ubik, leaning over the precipice. “Falling at that speed won’t even break any bones. As long as there aren’t any spikes down there. Or acid. Or angry robots.”

“Can you hear me, Nifell,” said Fig. “Are you okay?” There was no response.

Point-Two took a breath. The air was different here. Better. It didn’t smell stale or tainted with the odd taste it had had in the kill room. It tasted clean, almost sweet. An increased level of oxygen.

The change in gravity was unexpected. A localised field on a large scale was very hard to sustain. How large, though? The darkness kept the size of this place hidden.

“Wait,” said Fig, “I think I can hear him.”

Point-Two could hear it, too. A sniffing sound. The speakers in the collar of his suit worked better when his head was covered by the bubble-helmet.

Fig raised the visor on his helmet, the enclosed space acting like an amplifier. The sound was much louder but still hard to identify.

“He’s fine,” said Ubik. “That’s him crying.”

“Nifell, respond,” said Fig.

“What can you see?” said Ubik. “Observe and report.”

It would be easy to think of Ubik as a psychopath with no regard for human life, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Even when he had sent the other Enayan under the wedged entrance to the Ollo base to be shot by the sentry drones, there had been a purpose to it. If they had gone in without checking, then they would be the ones riddled with laser blasts. And since it was the Enayan’s own sentry drone, deployed to kill, there was a certain macabre justness to it.

Those who were willing to hand it out should be able to take it in return. That was Ubik’s mentality. You took your shot and if you missed the mark, then you had to stand firm as fire was returned.

Nifell was just taking his turn at rolling the die. The odds weren’t too bad in his case — a fall in greatly reduced gravity. Ubik liked to offer people odds he would happily take himself. He would roll the die when his turn came, prepared to take the loss if it came to it. He was insane, but not a psycho.

“I… I’m alive,” said Nifell, his voice breaking.

“Of course you are,” said Ubik. “You’re the recon team. I wouldn’t send you in if you weren’t the right man for the job. What’s down there? Droid graveyard? Antecessor bones?”

“I don’t know.” Nifell’s voice was full of panic. He had already been on the verge of a nervous breakdown so putting him under more stress probably wasn’t helping. “It’s dark, it’s so dark.”

“Turn your suit lights on,” said Fig.

Laboured breathing followed for a few seconds. “It’s still dark.”

“Try opening your eyes,” suggested Point-Two.

“Oh… yes. I can see now.”

Point-Two was used to people freezing under pressure. He had been on many exercises and missions on the Liberator Garu where death or endless drifting through space were very real possibilities. There was a certain group of people who just didn’t do well under those circumstances. They were a threat to themselves and to those around them, making the situation actively worse, every instinct urging them to do exactly the wrong thing.

Nifell was one of those people. His threshold might be fairly high thanks to his training and general level of experience dealing with pressurised conditions, but a combination of long-term isolation, abnormal events, and Ubik had pushed him past his natural levels of tolerance. He wasn’t going to be of much use to anyone from now on.

“Great,” said Ubik. “You’re doing a fantastic job, Nif. I knew you were the right one to keep alive. Not like that other guy.”

“He… he was my best friend.”

“Was he? Oh, shame. My condolences. Anyway, take a look around and tell me what you see.”

“I… I can see the floor. It’s uneven. I don’t think anyone’s been down here in a long time.”

“Are you lying face down?” asked Point-Two. “Try turning over.”

“Hold on… Wait a… Okay, I can… Oh no…”

“What is it?” said Fig.

“Nothing. There’s nothing here. It’s a hole, a black hole of emptiness. I knew I should never have applied for special duties. My fitness evaluation was so high though it seemed the logical next step. And the benefits were so much better. Now I’ll die down here, in a hole. A black hole.”

“Good thing you sent him,” said Point-Two. “How else would we know it was dark down there?”

“Nifell, stay positive, buddy,” said Ubik. “We’re coming.”

“You’re coming to get me?” Nifell’s voice climbed higher with rising hope. “A rescue mission?”

“Sure,” said Ubik, “we can call it that if you like. Just stay put.” He turned to Point-Two. “We know there isn’t an immediate threat waiting for us, don’t we? Seems like a successful recon to me.” Ubik stepped off the ledge.

Fig looked at Point-Two, who shrugged. They jumped after him. A mournful wail followed them from above.

“Couldn’t we bring Junior with us?” said Fig as they slowly fell. “He might come in useful.”

“Too big,” said Ubik. “He wouldn’t fit.”

“Still Antecessor tech,” said Point-Two. “Can’t it change shape?”

“Nope,” said Ubik. “I think it’s stuck like that. Poor thing got composited into a hard-case endomorph.”

“How many of those words did you just make up?” said Point-Two.

“They’re all real words,” said Ubik. “They may not have been used in that order before, but they’re all real.”

They sank through the darkness, Fig’s suit’s lights creating a sphere of white around them that illuminated nothing.

“I can see you,” said Nifell. “I can see you coming… no, no, not there, you’re going to—”

Point-Two landed gently, the reduced gravity making it very easy to stay on his feet.

“Oof,” said Nifell.

“Sorry,” said Ubik, bouncing off the man lying on the floor. “Didn’t see you there.”

Point-Two looked around. The area they were in was too large for the lights to reach the walls, assuming there were some. There was no indication of which way to go.

“This is big,” said Fig. “It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t fit.”

“Can you use the nanodrones to scout the place?” said Point-Two.

“Didn’t bring them,” said Ubik.

“What?” said Point-Two. “Why not? They were our best tool.”

“Our hearts are our best tool,” said Ubik. “And our imaginations. I thought Junior might get lonely so I left them up there to keep him company.”

Point-Two was finding it hard not to lose his temper. He could remain calm under the most trying conditions but Ubik was beyond his zenity.

“They don’t work well under low-grav conditions,” said Fig. “It’s in case they get loose inside a ship or orbital facility. My father wanted a failsafe that couldn’t be tampered with. The asteroid is supposed to have greater gravitational pull the further down you go. Nothing like this place has ever been found before. The nanodrones would be next to useless in this kind of environment.”

“And also that,” said Ubik.

“I can do a short-range scan with my suit,” said Fig. “One moment.”

If he didn’t know better, Point-Two would say Ubik was deliberately trying to goad him. But he did know better. That was exactly what the little twit was doing.

“You don’t think like a normal person, Ubik,” said Point-Two.

“Thank you very much,” said Ubik.

“Walking blindly into every dangerous situation isn’t a good way to proceed.”

Ubik shook his head. “If you see a path that’s an obvious trap, what do you do?”

“Don’t take it?” said Point-Two.

“That’s right, you take it,” said Ubik, not listening as usual. “Because what will the trap-setter have planned for? If someone sees the trap, they won’t go that way, and if they go that way, it’ll be because they haven’t seen the trap. But no one will expect someone to see the trap and walk into it. They won’t be ready. Advantage Ubik.”

It was worrying that Point-Two found himself nodding, like any of that made the remotest amount of sense.

“I want to go home, now,” said Nifell timidly, up on his feet and bouncing up and down to test his changed weight. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can be of any help to you. I’m just not prepared for this.”

“Don’t be so down on yourself,” said Ubik. “You’re one of the team, one of the boys.”

Nifell backed away. “No, you just want to use me to spring traps and test dangerous areas. If I’m going to die, I’d much rather do it up there, with that thing.”

“Junior won’t hurt you. He’s a sweetie. And you’ve got it all wrong. You took the fall this time, next time it’ll be me, then him. We take these things in turn. No special treatment. We’re all equal.”

He was clearly stringing Nifell along. For what reason Point-Two dreaded to think.

“What about him,” said Nifell, nodding towards Fig who was staring at the panel on his arm while he swept it from side to side.

“Even him. No favourites here. My first boss, he’d send us into absolute dire predicaments, no chance of getting out alive but everyone’s first mission, he’d go with you. Be your partner, side by side, show you he wouldn’t send you anywhere he wouldn’t go himself. That’s how a real team operates. We share the laughter and the tears.”

“What happened to him?” asked Nifell. “Your old boss.”

“Oh, he died. Horrible. It was my first time as well. Not a nice way to start a career.” Ubik grinned. “Feel better?”

Point-Two couldn’t tell how Nifell was feeling but he certainly didn’t look any better after Ubik’s pep talk.

“I think there’s something over there,” said Fig.

“Let’s go,” said Ubik, taking Nifell by the arm and setting off with large bouncy steps. “You’ll see, this’ll be fun. Think positive. We’re the first people to step foot on this ground. We’ve discovered an Antecessor site no one else has ever seen, not even Ramon Ollo, and he’s been searching this place for years. Imagine. And we bypassed all the usual defences, didn’t even have to find a key or nothing. We’re going to be known as the fastest Antecessor site divers in history. We laugh in the face of the Antecessors. Ha ha ha ha.”

The sound echoed around them as they bounded effortlessly across the floor, shrouded in darkness.

After a few minutes their lights revealed a wall. It was nothing like the walls in the facility above. There were no white lines, no smooth finish. It looked like the rock wall to a cave.

“Look,” said Ubik. “Natural, untouched.”

“Not quite,” said Fig, turning his light to the side where there were a wide set of steps carved out of the rock. They were roughly hewn, none of the precise lines the Antecessors were known for.

They walked up them, lightly drifting over two or three at a time, the top not visible until they were there. Another ledge, but this one was bigger, stretching out on both sides. And ahead of them was an archway with figures painted on its surface, at least that’s how it seemed to Point-Two. Not people, but creatures of some kind, with many limbs. The Antecessors’ true form?

There was something menacing about it, a feeling of sinister surveillance, like they were being watched.

“There was more than one kind,” said Fig. “The Antecessors weren’t unified. They fought each other. Different factions. Different species.”

Point-Two wouldn’t necessarily have jumped to that conclusion from the convoluted pictograms, but it was certainly one way to interpret the images.

“I’m not going first,” said Nifell, stepping backwards and nearly falling down the steps.

Ubik caught him by the arm. “I’ll go this time. You just stay here and watch.”

For all his lies and exaggerations, Ubik really was prepared to enter the archway first. He walked up to it in long strides. There was a passage on the other side.

Fig grabbed him. “No, if it’s going to let anyone through, it’ll be me.”

Ubik stepped aside like he was always planning to. “Go ahead.”

Fig checked the panel on his arm one more time and then walked forward.

What looked like jets of steam gushed out from the underside of the arch, enveloping Fig. He fell to his knees screaming. Point-Two rushed forward but as soon as he touched the white mist he was thrown back.

Fig held his head as he sank to the floor and lay there, not moving. The steam dissipated.

Point-Two shot forward and rolled Fig over. “Are you alright?”

Fig’s arm came up, a hand indicating he was okay. “I think… it scrambled my brains.”

“Erm, excuse me,” said Nifell.

“Analysed you, probably,” said Ubik. “Checking if you passed the test.”

“I think I must have failed,” said Fig, sitting up and holding the side of his head.

“You’re alive,” said Point-Two. “I’d call that a pass.”

“Mr Ubik, sir.” Nifell’s more urgent tone made the others turn and look.

In the middle of the chamber there was a giant head. It was some kind of hologram but not like a Holover. This was very faint and more two-dimensional, a blue wash making it seem old and faded.

The head wasn’t human. It had no mouth or nose, but the two eyes, one above the other, contained several rings that contracted and expanded.

“Welcome,” said a voice, toneless and artificial. “We were the survivors of a dead universe. We came here to avoid sharing its fate, but they came after us. They hunted us. They will hunt you. We do not know how long it has taken for you to find this message but this is the time you have remaining.”

A long list of digits appeared above the head, counting down.

“We can provide you with the history of our people, the nature of the hunters and the path to salvation. Please choose.”

Three coloured lights appeared below the head.

“Nice,” said Ubik. “I think we’re through to the help desk.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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