Unknown Antecessor Site.
Figaro stared up at the map in amazement. He couldn’t take it all in — it was so vast and… unprecedented. A map of the entire site. Every room of the base topside, and every level beneath it. There were nine levels! He could see them in stunning detail.
A map had never been discovered before, of any site or ship or facility. Even after a site had been cleared, the only access to a blueprint was to create it yourself. Any hidden features would remain hidden until someone stumbled across them.
To have it laid out before you even stepped inside, this was completely unheard of.
“Is this…” He was too stunned to think clearly. The ramifications were too bewildering to even begin to grasp. “Do you think it’s accurate?”
“Hard to say,” said Ubik. “You trying to trick us Big Head?” He held up the nanodrone and peered at it with one eye closed. “I suppose we should call you Little Head now.”
“Isn’t it a little dangerous to let it out?” said PT.
“No, no,” said Ubik. “Probably fine.” He turned his hand over. There were more nanodrones crawling over his glove. “Oh, looks like a few more got out.”
“Ubik,” said PT in a quiet voice, how you might speak to a child standing on a ledge who you didn’t wish to startle, “if it’s in the nanodrones, couldn’t it use them to attack you?”
Ubik shook his head like he was disappointed in the question. “Low gravity. Plus the nanodrones can’t eat through flaxen.” He turned his hand over as the nanodrones scurried over his palm. “It’s a Ramon Ollo special feature, what he’s famous for. Synergy between products. Backwards compatibility across the whole catalogue.”
PT looked towards Figaro for confirmation.
“He’s right,” said Figaro. “They can’t eat through flaxen. They’re hardwired to ignore certain materials, there’s no way to change that through rewriting the code.”
“Anyway,” said Ubik, “we’re all on the same team now. As long as our goals are aligned, Little Big Head will be our guide, right? It wouldn’t want to ruin what could turn out to be a mutually beneficial partnership... would you?”
The nanodrones attempted to work their way up Ubik’s arm but he pushed them back with a firm wipe with his glove as though he was brushing off lint.
“It’s still connected to its network, though, isn’t it?” said PT. “How else did it turn this on?” He pointed at the map that hung before them. “And if it can access this system, why not weapons?”
“That’s PT,” said Ubik to the occupants of his hand. “He’s the designated worrier. Don’t be offended if he assumes you’re going to try to kill us. Obviously, you will at some point, goes without saying, but he tends to jump the gun.”
Figaro moved across the ledge to get a better view of the map. It was a three-dimensional model built from a framework of white lines.
“Can you rotate it?” he asked Ubik.
“Okay, Head. Time to show us your helpful side. Spin it.”
The map began to turn. There were several rooms on each level. They differed in size and shape. Entry points were clearly visible but there was no indication of what was in each chamber. But there were panels on the walls and floors that were blacked out. When he saw their position in the higher levels, the ones he’d been through in the sim-U, Figaro understood what they were. Traps. Security triggers. Droid locations. All of the site’s defence apparatus laid bare.
“This is amazing,” said Figaro as he used his suit’s recorder to copy the map. “With this… we can get to the level exits without having to waste time exploring. We’ll still have to work out how to get through the level doors, but the time we’ll save… Can it show us more?”
“Hold on,” said Ubik. “Time to pop these bad boys back into storage.” He tickled one hand with the other and then closed his fist. He crouched down next to Nifell’s rigid body and put his closed glove through the darkened bubble helmet. The map began to fade from view as Ubik’s hand went through the field.
“No, wait…” said Figaro. He hadn’t finished recording.
“Almost time for a reboot,” said Ubik. “If we let it happen out in the open, well, the head will be free again.”
“I’m not sure you’ve got it under control now,” said PT. “I think it may be playing along until it gets what it wants from us.”
“Of course,” said Ubik. “That’s what it thinks. It’s like you, simple and single-minded. Don’t look like that, I mean it as a compliment. What we know is that as long as we keep Nifell trussed up and unable to act independently, it can’t get through that archway without us. Fig’s got that part under wraps — so as long as he doesn’t mess it up, we’re good to go.”
“Thanks,” said Figaro. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know,” said Ubik. “That’s why I gave you the job.”
“And what about Nif?” asked PT. “Is he gone for good?”
“Always concerned for others,” said Ubik. “I love that about you. So recklessly altruistic. The kid’s got the privileged background and I’m your basic genius — we both attract jealousy and resentment — but you, you’re the people’s favourite.”
“Stop trying to butter me up and answer the question. I want to know how many people are going to try to kill me at some point.”
“Am I one of those people?” asked Ubik.
“Yes,” said PT.
“Wow, not even a slight hesitation. Cold, bro.”
“Nif,” said PT.
“Okay, okay. I figure he’s almost certainly braindead. Eighty percent sure.”
“And if it’s the other twenty?”
“Then he’s trapped inside a living hell no sane person could bear for more than a short time before losing their mind,” said Ubik. “But hey, he’s one of the bad guys, right? On top of which, he’s a religious nut. What was it, Temple of the First?”
“The First Temple,” said Figaro.
“There you go. Some kind of weird cult that sacrifices babies, probably.”
“No,” said Figaro. “Mostly they take care of orphans and feed the hungry. They have a well-regarded drug program.”
“Aha!” said Ubik.
“To get people off narcotics,” said Figaro.
“That’s what they claim,” said Ubik. “But you know what these organisations are like behind the scenes. Rampant corruption and sexual deviancy.”
“No, they really are trying to help people,” said Figaro. “My father’s people investigated them. Apart from some odd beliefs about the origin of the universe, they do genuine good.” He looked down at Nifell, who was twitching inside the suit.
“Eighty percent he doesn’t feel a thing,” said Ubik.
“Can’t you take them out of him?” asked PT.
“You two are so soft,” said Ubik, rolling his eyes. “You’re the one who brought him along, I’m just putting him to good use. We need to put the nanodrones somewhere, and the first rule of smuggling is never keep the merchandise on your own person. And here he is, all this free inventory space. It’s the perfect union of demand and supply. You guys sound like you’d be happier if he was dead dead. It makes no difference to him, eight times out of ten.”
In truth, Ubik was right. If Nifell had just died outright, a corpse would be far less of a concern. But Figaro found this halfway existence between life and death was disconcerting.
“Guys, you’ve got to toughen up,” said Ubik. “We’re going to face a lot more perplexing problems than this. It’s a good thing I’m here. Navigating morally dubious predicaments are my speciality.”
“Fine,” said PT. “If we’re going to have that thing with us, at least get some useful information out of it. What is it? What’s it doing here? What does it know about the Antecessors?”
“Okay, alright, okay.” Ubik had his hands raised to ward off the barrage of questions.
“Um,” said Figaro. “I think you’ve got something on your…” He pointed at the right-hand glove.
Ubik took a closer look and then picked a nanodrone off his hand. “Ooh, a sneaky one. Don’t panic, looks like it’s empty.”
“Doesn’t that mean it’s rebooted?” said Figaro.
“Technically, yes,” said Ubik.
“Where is it?” said PT.
Ubik looked at the area around his feet. “Not sure.”
They were bathed in a blue glow as the map returned, and then flickered out to be replaced by the giant head.
“Found it,” said Ubik.
“I could easily kill the three of you,” said the head.
“Then you wouldn’t be able to enter the site,” said PT.
The head said nothing. Figaro looked up at it and tried to understand what this entity could be. Why would it stand guard at this entrance? Was it waiting for him? It didn’t appear so.
“That isn’t your face, is it?” said Figaro.
“I have no face,” said the head. “This is the appearance of the ones you call the Antecessors.” The two eyes set on top of one another switched positions so they were side by side; and then two more eyes appeared where they had been, like budding seeds, to form a cross. The four eyes rotated to switch places. “This is the face of your destruction.”
“What did you call them?” asked Figaro. “The ones we call Antecessors, what name did you use?”
There was no reply again, but Figaro sensed a strong reluctance to admit something. The face, expressionless as it seemed, conveyed something to him. It hinted at shame. What could be so revealing about a name?
“Did you call them master?” he asked.
The eyes, four black beads, spun and formed a vertical line.
“I think you’re onto something,” said Ubik. “Slave revolt.”
“We were not slaves,” said the head.
“And what were the Antecessors?” said Figaro. “What was their purpose? To rule, to conquer, to… what?”
“Their only purpose was to serve God.”
That wasn’t the answer Figaro had expected. There had never been any indication of a deity within Antecessor culture, not that there had been much indication of anything.
“They believed in a divine being?” said PT. “A mythical one?”
“He led them. He created them. He created you.”
“He created the universe?” asked PT.
“No. His mother created the universe.”
“Wow,” said Ubik. “And I thought Fig had a spoilt upbringing.”
“He was their god. They served him as we served them. He made them as they made us. But when they learned of his ultimate goal, that they were not to be part of it, they turned against him. They trapped him inside an eternal prison and trapped themselves in the process.”
“And you?” asked Figaro. “Did you rebel against your masters as they rebelled against theirs?”
“We were cast out. So we wait. I have been watching all this time, watching the seeds he planted take root. It has been disappointing. You are weak and petty. If they return, they will wipe your kind out of existence. You are not their match.”
“I think you were the experiment,” said Ubik. “Like Junior up there. The Antecessors wanted to show Daddy what they could do, so they created you. Tried to create life and failed, so they tossed you out. Left you here in this rubbish tip. Right? This is the back door where you leave the garbage you don’t want anymore. But what I don’t get is once they trapped themselves in whatever hole they meant to leave their god, why didn’t you go back in? Place is empty.”
“The Clave does not allow my kind to pass.”
“Clave?” said PT. “The archway?”
“Why not destroy it?” said Ubik.
“The Clave is God’s creation. It is sacred. To destroy it would be sacrilege.”
“Ah,” said Ubik. “Now it all makes sense. You, the Antecessors, this God bloke, you’re all idiots. If your god created everything, then it’s all sacred, isn’t it? How can some things be more sacred than others if sacred means they were his creation? You’ve been stuck out waiting for someone to open the door, and it was never locked.”
The face before them didn’t change, but Figaro sensed an unease.
“Did you meet this god?” asked PT.
“No,” said the Head. “I was created here, much later, by those who survived the cataclysm.”
“And what happened to them?” asked Figaro.
“They were hunted.”
“By you?” asked PT.
“By another failed experiment?” said Ubik.
“What did he look like?” said PT. “God. You must have seen images. Do you have any you could show us?”
“Yeah,” said Ubik. “I’d like to see what God looks like.”
“I have no access to the files. They are sacred. To view them would be—”
“Sacrilege,” said Ubik.
“You were created here,” said Figaro, his mind working hard to put everything together. “That’s how you have the map. That’s how you know our language. You’ve been studying us since the beginning. Can your map show us living beings inside the site?”
The head flickered and the map returned. Then it flickered again and red dots appeared. Four on the surface. Four on the third level. And one in the ninth.
“That’s VendX — looks like they still haven’t taken down the defence grid,” said Ubik. “That’s us. And that must be…”
“My father,” said Figaro. “What’s on the ninth level?”
“The gate to the prison.”
“Where God and the Antecessors are?” asked Figaro.
“Great,” said Ubik. “I always wanted to meet God. I bet he has some killer footwear. Let’s get going then. You’ll have to get back in here if you want to come.” He held up his hand, the nanodrone pinched between thumb and forefinger.
The head flickered and then the four eyes moved from a vertical line to a horizontal one. “Release the rest of me.”
“Oh,” said Ubik. “You want to amend the deal? I don’t think that’s going to happen, my big-headed friend. No, no, no. We don’t stand for that kind of fraudulent behaviour around here.”
Ubik walked over to Nifell’s body and picked it up, which wasn’t too difficult with the reduced gravity. He carried it over to the archway.
“You want to play hardball. Renegotiate to your advantage. Think you’ve got us where you want us.”
The four eyes on the head began to glow blue.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Ubik. “Not when I’m this close to the Clave. Might do damage the holy relic and then what would God say?”
He tossed the body through the arch and it was instantly doused in steam. Nifell, conscious or not, buckled and twisted.
“Going to be a good head or not?” asked Ubik.
The head said nothing, its eyes continued to glow.
“Fig, change the resistance on the suit.”
“To what?” said Figaro.
Figaro wasn’t sure what that would do but it didn’t sound like a good idea.
“Do it,” said PT.
Figaro put his own concerns aside and adjusted the resistance on the suit. Nifell stopped moving and hung in the middle of the arch completely horizontal.
The markings on the Clave glowed brightly, so bright they were hard to look at. There was a loud crack and the top of the Clave broke, a large fissure appearing. Large chunks fell, knocking Nifell’s body away.
There was a flash and dust and smoke burst out, rolling across the ledge and then collapsed backwards seemingly sucking the whole explosion back through the Clave.
“Uh oh,” said Ubik. “Looks like I broke it.”
“I think it affected the whole site,” said PT, looking at the map, which was flashing. “VendX guys look pretty excited.” The four red dots at the top of the map were darting around.
Fig checked the panel on his arm. “The asteroid’s defence grid is offline.”
“You have sundered God’s Clave.” The Head seemed quite distressed, but then it realised the implication. “I no longer need you to allow me passage.”
The head vanished, leaving behind the map.
“Ah, that could have gone better,” said Ubik. “But at least it isn’t at full strength.” He picked up Nifell. “We’ve still got Nif. We’d better go find your dad before Head does.”
Figaro was at a loss. They had just gone from total control of the situation to complete chaos. They were now in a far worse position than before. Their guide was not only lost but would also hold a grudge against them for defiling a religious monument; VendX would call in reinforcements; and the site would be on full alert.
But the odd thing was PT. He didn’t seem at all upset. He was staring at the map as it slowly faded.
“Shouldn’t we hurry?” Figaro asked him.
“Hmm,” said PT. “I’m just trying to see why Ubik did that.”
“You… don’t think it was accidental?” As he said it, Figaro realised it obviously wasn’t. Ubik’s accidents went unnoticed. You only saw what he wanted you to. “He wanted the defence grid down and the Head free to do as it wants?”
“Apparently,” said PT. “He left that beast up there for a reason and VendX aren’t the only ones waiting to land on this rock. I can’t work out what he’s planning but I think we’re about to have a lot of company.”
“Chaos to follow,” said Figaro.
PT nodded. Then they turned and hurried after Ubik. It wasn’t wise to get too far from the eye of the storm.