Book 2 – 42: Firmware

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Unknown Antecessor Site.

 

“And that,” said Ubik, “is how you defeat an alien.”

“What the hell was that?” said PT. He didn’t sound as impressed as Ubik had expected him to be.

“I, you know, snapped my fingers and…”

“You snapped your gloved fingers and the nanodrones magically turned themselves off?” No, PT did not sound impressed at all.

“Well, no, they didn’t literally respond to the sound of my finger-snap, but it looked cool, right?”

“I don’t know if you’re mentally ill or just stupid.”

“Are those the only two options?” asked Ubik.

“We’re going to die if you keep showboating like this.” PT took a moment to calm himself. He should have taken longer. “There is only one objective you need to worry about, and it isn’t looking cool. There’s no one here but us, and we already have a very good idea of what you are.” PT didn’t shed any further light on what that might be but from the look on his face, it wouldn’t be complimentary.

“I stopped him though,” said Ubik. It was hard not to sound a little put-out. He wasn’t used to having to hang around after pulling off something amazing — like stopping an alien invader from the distant past! — to justify his actions. It took all the fun out of it.

“You could have stopped him a lot sooner, and then we could get on with what we’re here to do. Which is…?” He seemed to be waiting for Ubik to fill in the blank.

“To… not be cool?”

“To find Fig’s dad.”

“Yes, of course,” said Ubik. “That’s our ultimate objective. The end goal.”

“The only goal,” said PT.

“Got it,” said Ubik. “We move in a straight line, we ignore distractions, we don’t smile, we retrieve the target and extract to the landing zone.”

“You’re not taking this seriously, are you?” said PT.

“I don’t think he has to,” said Fig. “He did save us from that thing.” Nifell’s body was still lying on the ground where it had fallen. “He’s still breathing.”

“What did you do, Ubik?” PT had his no-nonsense face on. He seemed to have taken on the role of parent. The mother. “The truth.”

“Not much,” said Ubik. “It’s all down to Ramon, not me. He put a timed reboot into the nanodrone core system, also triggered by a rapid intake with no sustained emission period.”

“To remove unprocessed materials,” said Fig. “There’s only a few things they can’t digest.”

“Exactly,” said Ubik. “Nice to see someone understands the science. I think maybe your frustration is due to your lack of understanding of the underlying principles. I can tutor you, if you like. My rates are very reasonable.”

“So you just waited until they flushed the alien out of their systems?” said PT.

“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. You have to take into account the rate of absorption versus the fuel efficiency coefficient.”

“You added it up in your head and took a guess,” said PT.

“You make it sound like I’m just making it up as I go,” said Ubik. “Which is only a large proportion of how I work.”

“We’re going to die,” said PT.

“No, no, no,” said Ubik. “You’re looking at things too logically.”

“Yes,” said PT. “I had a feeling that was the problem.”

“Science doesn’t simply follow rules. Put this here, put that there, same result every time. Who isn’t going to be prepared for that? You have to think about the presentation, the observer’s reaction to seeing something they have no experience of dealing with. You have to create a mood.”

“What?” said PT.

“A mood. The right setting. The right energy. Everything shifts once you change the balance.”

It felt good giving someone a shot at seeing the universe as it really was — a chaotic mess with the answers cleverly concealed to look like meaningless trash. He wouldn’t usually bother — people tended to be stuck in their simplistic rationalist view of their environment based on what their limited senses told them — but these two might be able to rise above their own preconceptions.

“You’re talking a load of nonsense,” said PT. “You’re good at surfing the madness you create, I’ll give you that, but you’re not good at doing it with company. You end up with collateral damage, like poor Nifell.”

“You’re the one who insisted on bringing him,” pointed out Ubik.

“If it hadn’t been him, it would have been one of us,” said PT.

“I know,” said Ubik. “That’s my point.”

“No,” said PT, “that’s my point.”

The two of them stared at each other, neither sure what point the other was making.

“I think neither of you should get worked up about this,” said Fig. “Not now, anyway. Whatever you think of Ubik’s approach, it’s kept him alive so far, and us. I agree with you,” he cut in before PT could protest. “I find it hard to accept his methods. It feels like I’m about to fall out of an airlock any moment. But it confuses everyone else, too.”

“I don’t know…” said PT, shaking his head. “I think we’re getting to the point where it’s going to make things too unstable and too unbalanced, and we don’t need to take that kind of a risk. Not yet, anyway.”

Fig shrugged. “I know what you’re saying, but how else did we get here? If not for taking inadvisable risks, we would be dealing with droids and sentries and VendX commandos in state-of-the-art gear. We don’t even have any weapons. That can’t be luck.”

Between the two of them, Fig and PT were slowly coming around to an Ubik way of doing things. He felt pleased to have met these two. Probably the only two people in the galaxy who might give his ideas serious consideration. They would probably still wind up dead, but it was nice to receive a little validation first.

“He’ll sacrifice us both when he needs to,” said PT.

Fig nodded. “Probably.”

“And he’s going to continue lying to us.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“None of his explanations have been even close to the truth. His Delgados are probably just a normal pair of boots.”

“What?” said Ubik. “How could you even…” He had thought himself unshockable, but PT had crossed a line.

“I tried running polygraphs on him,” said Fig, “but it all comes back as inconclusive, even when he says hello.”

“Guys, it’s all part of the experience,” said Ubik, doing his best to make them see he wasn’t a danger to them. No more than he was to himself, in any case. “We’re facing opponents better trained and better equipped than us. They’ve been tested under every condition imaginable. That’s why our best shot is the unimaginable.”

“What about the suit?” said PT. “Do you still have control over that?”

Fig looked at the panel on his arm. “I think so. He only marginally off-set the calibration.

Ubik felt the suit tighten around him. A little too tight in some rather delicate places. The bubble helmet went up.

He could see the other two still talking but he couldn’t hear them.

“Hey, guys? Guys?” He wanted to tell them the problem was a lack of communication, but Fig had turned the comms off. He wondered if they were talking about him. Admitting their regard for him in private to save his blushes.

It was understandable why PT was upset. Mainly it was down to him not being used to getting upset in the first place. Which kind of proved Ubik’s point. The thing hardest to deal with wasn’t the direct counter to what you were trying to do, it was what you weren’t prepared for.

“Guys, come on.” Ubik couldn’t move his hands to get their attention.

They were having a very involved discussion about the future of the expedition or something. Which was fine. Ubik didn’t need to be the centre of attention all the time. The truth was, he preferred to operate from the shadows and leave an air of mystery. Only, in this particular case, he felt they should pay a little more attention to him as he was the only one of the three who was facing the arch. And the only one of the three who could see that the nanodrones had finished rebooting and Nifell was sitting up again.

Now PT was taking off his spacesuit. He was upset and had decided the suit was the problem, apparently. Fig was focused on the panel on his arm. The two of them were engrossed in their personal issues and were about to be very rudely interrupted.

Ubik tried to move but the suit was restricting his movements. Fig was running some sort of diagnostic to reinforce his control over the suit. There was an emergency override, one that would allow Ubik to exit the suit if it posed a danger to him, but he couldn’t reach it with his limbs locked in place.

“Guys. Behind you.” He mouthed the words in an exaggerated fashion so they would be able to read his lips, but they weren’t even looking at him.

Nifell rose to his feet. Ubik was starting to think a more full and frank exchange of ideas between team members might not be such a terrible concept. He probably should have mentioned the reboot function was only a temporary fix. He would have thought it was obvious. He wouldn’t want to destroy a valuable repository of information, even if it was planning to kill them. There was so much to learn from it.

There was something to be said for trust between people. It was just that Ubik had been operating on his own for so long, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea. Unable to handle the thing he was least prepared for — the irony didn’t go unmissed.

But he was fully capable of modifying his behaviour to accommodate an opponent. Why not to accommodate an ally?

Nifell had risen without attracting attention. The alien was capable of adapting, too. It had underestimated them at first, assuming it could take them all on at the same time without the need for any kind of advanced tactic. The difference in their basic attributes was sufficiently large enough to justify its arrogance. But now it would be more careful. It would make sure not to make simple mistakes.

It had nanodrones to assist its movements, it had reduced gravity to aid mobility, and it had thousands of years of experience in overcoming its enemies. Nifell attacked.

PT moved aside and threw his suit over Nifell’s head.

Fig pressed buttons on his arm and the suit stiffened while wrapped around Nifell’s throat.

PT was already behind Nifell, unzipping his suit from behind, using the safety override to get him out.

Nifell didn’t seem to know what was going on. His visor was covered and his limbs were twisted out of his current suit and pinned to the ground in what looked a very uncomfortable position.

Within a few seconds, Nifell had been extracted from his suit and squeezed into the one PT had been wearing. As one part was taken out another was inserted. The two of them worked together seamlessly. It was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

Nifell tried to break free but every attempt at a thrust or kick was guided into a cooperative movement to get him dressed. As soon as he was in the suit, Fig hit a button and Nifell became as stiff and constrained as Ubik, the only difference being the bubble helmet around Nif’s head was pitch black.

It had been an impressive demonstration of what could be achieved by working in tandem.

The bubble around Ubik’s head disappeared. “Good work. I was trying to warn you but you weren’t listening.”

“We heard you,” said Fig.

“That’s why I took my suit off,” said PT as he put on Nifell’s suit. “Why did you think I was getting undressed?”

Ubik shrugged. “I don’t judge. I could have helped, you know?”

“By introducing the element of what-the-hell?” said PT. “Maybe next time.”

“No, really, I’m thinking I could learn a thing or two from you. Expand my repertoire.” He walked over to Nifell’s rigid body on the floor. “A little less compulsive, a little more introspective, right? Teamwork — everyone pulling in the same direction.”

PT and Fig looked like each other. Neither gave the impression of being convinced. He would have to prove his sincerity, which was fine. You had to earn trust.

Ubik bent down and looked at Nifell’s head. He couldn’t see anything through the dark helmet. He put out his hand and then passed it through the helmet, his flaxen glove slipping through the force field.

He moved his hand over Nifell’s face, barely avoided getting bitten, and then took out his hand again. He had one nanodrone between thumb and forefinger.

“Oh,” said Ubik. “Should I have told you I was going to do that?”

PT shook his head.

“It’s fine,” said Fig. “Go at your own pace.”

Ubik held up the nanodrone. “Hey, you in there? Listen, we’re going inside. You can come but you have to help. No free rides. We have to work together. Then, later, you can try to kill us. If you think you can.”

“That isn’t what I thought he meant by teamwork,” said PT.

“It’s… a novel approach,” said Fig.

The chamber they were in lit up. The light came from a glowing projection that filled most of the room. It looked like a map, several levels.

“Okay, Big Head,” said Ubik. “Welcome to the team.”

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