Unknown Antecessor Site.
Point-Two followed Ubik into the tunnel beyond the broken Clave. He was now in Nifell’s regulations suit, the kind found in most third-tier planet’s militia. Basic, functional, one size fits all. He found it more comfortable than the skin-tight model that was now serving as Nif’s bodybag. Fig’s hurried footsteps crunched behind him as they chased after Ubik, who was striding ahead of them, carrying Nifell stiffened body under his arm.
The reduced gravity made him lighter, but it was still an inappropriately casual way to transport a corpse.
“He’s heavier than he looks,” said Ubik without turning his head. It was like he knew what they were thinking. Which was probably because he had put the thought there. Point-Two suspected most of the bizarre things Ubik did were just for effect. The more he filled your head with the things he wanted in there, the less room there was for the thoughts he didn’t want in there.
“Do you really need him for something?” asked Point-Two. Leaving him to rest in peace seemed a far better way to treat him.
“You’ve obviously never been on a raid like this before,” said Ubik. “You have to pick up everything you find. You never know when it might come in useful. Nif will save the day, you’ll see. Right, Nif?” Nif didn’t reply. “And let’s not forget the team motto: leave no man behind.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s never been the motto of any team you’ve been in,” said Point-Two. “In fact, the only motto you’ve ever had is: Ubik, Ubik, Ubik.”
“I like the sound of that. Catchy.”
The tunnel was narrow — you could touch both sides if you put your arms out — and very dark. Figaro’s suit provided some light but showed just the walls on either side. Above them, the darkness seemed endless.
“Where are we going?” Point-Two said.
“I have no idea,” said Ubik. “I’ve never been here before. Exciting, isn’t it? The mystery, the adventure, the romance of it all.” Nifell’s bubble helmet bounce off the tunnel wall. “Oops. Sorry, Nif.” He lifted Nif’s body over his head and carried him like a surfer heading towards the ocean.
Point-Two had tried surfing on the small planet of O-982, Planet Oceania. The Liberator Garu rarely intersected with the planet’s orbit and having leave at the same time was even rarer. He had enjoyed surfing. The freedom of it, the vastness of the water and the sky. It had felt exhilarating.
The tunnel felt quite different. It felt like the walls might slam together at any moment and turn them into paste.
“Why is this even here?” he wondered aloud. “Who is this tunnel for?”
“I think it’s a sort of service tunnel,” said Figaro from behind. “A way to access key areas without having to go through the different levels. I’ve never heard of anything like this being found in any other site. It’s a fundamental change in how we think of Antecessor structural design.”
“That’s right,” said Ubik. “This is all new ground, discovered by us. We’re pioneers. Explorers. Scientists. Our discoveries will get written up in the most prestigious journals, followed by lecture tours at all the great scientific institutions. And then movies, songs, our names in lights.”
“People have made discoveries like this before,” said Point-Two. “None of them got turned into pop culture icons.”
“That’s because they didn’t have the right management,” said Ubik.
“And who’s going to manage you, Ubik?” Point-Two could see that being the far more impressive feat.
“Me. I am the manager. I’m going to make you and Fig into stars.”
“What? No, no thanks,” said Point-Two.
“I get stage fright in front of big crowds,” said Fig.
“Come on, think of the screaming girls. And I’ll only take ten percent.”
“If you’re involved,” said Point-Two, “I imagine the girls will be screaming for an entirely justified reason.”
“Oh, thanks. Nice of you to say.”
Point-Two had no doubt Ubik knew exactly what he had meant and was choosing to ignore it.
“According to the map,” said Figaro,” we’re between levels two and three. We might be able to access three without even having to go through the door. If we’d known about this place before…”
“It was a little too easy getting through the arch, don’t you think?” said Point-Two. “If you can just blow the thing up, what’s to stop people strolling in whenever they want?”
It was very convenient to have a back way into the site, one that avoided all of the carefully placed security measures; but the ease with which they’d gained access had set alarms ringing in Point-Two’s mind. Then again, with Ubik leading the way, alarm bells were pretty much ringing all the time.
Still, he wanted to work out what Ubik was doing. He had allowed the head to escape on purpose, that much was obvious. Why?
Point-Two was sure Ubik really didn’t know where they were going, so he must have deduced something about the site from the information they already had. Information Point-Two also was aware of, but hadn’t given him any insights into how Antecessors thought or how they designed their creations.
“I think the Clave was intentionally weak,” said Fig. “It wasn’t really a barrier, more of a tripwire.”
Point-Two considered for a moment. If the site was a giant trap waiting to be sprung, all they needed to know was when the intruder arrived and where from. The site would take care of the rest.
“Once the site goes into high alert,” continued Fig, “it won’t reset until the intruders are killed. We always take care not to push the site into this state if we possibly can. If you approach slowly and carefully, the Antecessor behavioural patterns respond with a similar slow investigative approach, like they want to make sure you really are an enemy.”
“Or like they’re waiting for someone,” said Point-Two.
“There are a lot of theories about why they take a non-hostile first look,” said Fig.
“Unless you smash your way in,” said Point-Two.
“Yes,” said Fig.
“Hey, shine your light over here,” said Ubik. “Hey, PT, want to carry Nif for a bit? My arms are getting tired.”
“No,” said Point-Two. “You killed him, you carry him.”
“Twenty percent chance he’s still alive,” said Ubik, like that might make the offer more tempting.
“What is it?” said Fig, directing the light on the wall Ubik had turned slightly to face, Nif still held aloft.
The light showed a series of cracks on the rocky surface, but unnaturally straight. They were grooves, cut into the rock to form a design. Point-Two could just about fit his gloved finger into the space. It was empty, just a gap in the rock that stretched across the surface.
“It’s a circuit,” said Ubik. “Very primitive. They cut it into the rock, then filled it with some kind of conductive material — a fluid probably — and then, I don’t know, used it to run a giant asteroid-sized machine. That would be my guess.”
Point-Two stepped back and looked at the layout of the grooves. He turned on the light on his helmet. The lines went all the way up, as far as he could see. What Ubik had suggested could well be the case. It was startling how he could jump to these conclusions so easily, and even more amazing that he made it sound so plausible.
Once you spent some time around Ubik, even the most unlikely things seemed less unlikely. And more terrifying.
Something changed. There was a glow from above, masked by their own lights. Point-Two turned off his helmet and Fig followed. There were silver lines falling down the wall.
The grooves in the walls were being filled, the lines spreading out horizontally as well as vertically. The phosphorous glow illuminated the entire tunnel wall, revealing it stretching up far higher than Point-Two had imagined.
Point-Two felt a sharp increase in weight. “Gravity.”
“I know,” said Ubik, struggling with Nifell. He tilted the body, putting it down gently to lean against the wall, upside down. “Phew. Thought I was gonna drop him for a moment.”
Point-Two was surprised Ubik hadn’t thrown him to the floor. Standing him on his head seemed almost respectful.
“What triggered that?” said Fig to Point-Two. They both turned to look at Ubik.
“I dunno,” said Ubik. “I was with you when it happened. Fig, can you unlock Nif’s right arm?”
Fig tapped his control panel and one of Nifell’s stiff arms dropped away from his side and hit the floor. Ubik picked it up by the wrist and placed it on the suit’s hip.
“Great, turn it back on.”
Fig looked confused but did as he was asked. Nifell looked like he was halfway to posing as a teapot.
Ubik grabbed the crook of Nif’s arm and picked him up like a suitcase, using the bent arm as a handle. “Okay, let’s keep going. Bound to be something interesting at the end of this tunnel.
Ubik set off, luggage in hand. Point-Two and Fig followed, their eyes watching the walls as they filled with liquid silver. It did look like a giant circuit.
The glow gradually intensified and a thin strip of light appeared ahead of them. The end of the tunnel.
“Is the gravity the same as on the surface?” asked Fig. “Feels a bit heavier.”
“About one point one,” said Point-Two. “It’s fluctuating a bit.” He grabbed Nifell’s feet which were bumping off the floor.
Was he really taking Nif along just in case he might come in useful?
“Thanks,” said Ubik.
They were soon at the opening at the end of the tunnel. Point-Two expected Ubik to at least slow down so they could see what they were getting into, but of course he didn’t. Why wait for disaster to come to you?
They entered a large square cavern, at least a hundred metres high. The four walls were covered in the same silver circuitry.
There was a channel cut into the floor ahead of them, a pit that stretched across the room cutting them off from the other half.
“This is between level two and three?” said Point-Two.
“I know,” said Fig, his eyes on his control panel. “There shouldn’t be this much space, but… it’s not on the map, either.”
“You don’t want to take too much notice of the map Head showed us,” said Ubik. “That guy wasn’t really trustworthy.”
The wall to their right flickered and changed. The silver lines moved to form an image of a familiar oversized head.
“Good,” said a voice. “You are here.”
Ubik put Nifell down and looked up at the two-dimensional version of Big Head.
“You had time to check-in and see what you missed? Found out your masters wanted us here, huh?”
“Only one of you. The rest may not proceed.”
“Nope,” said Ubik. “Won’t work. We come as a package. Can’t separate us no matter what. Bonded by blood, legends in the making. And if you try, I can always kill our boy Fig, and then what will your masters think? Can’t let them out of jail without the key.”
Ubik had gone from ‘unbreakable formation’ to ‘sacrifice the boy’ in a remarkably short amount of time.
“I have studied humanity. You will not kill your own once a strong enough bond had formed..”
“He will,” said Point-Two.
“Definitely,” said Fig. “Feel free to help me when I try to stop him. Actually...” He looked at his control panel. “I should check he hasn’t already rigged my suit to explode.”
The face on the wall went from two eyes vertical to three horizontal and back again. Confusion. It said a lot that Point-Two found it easier to read an alien face than Ubik’s.
“See?” said Ubik proudly. “This is the power of being an unpredictable git.”
The head flickered with indecision.
“Take all of us,” said Point-Two. “You can always kill us after Fig has opened the door for you.”
“Very well.” Two eyes became four. Relief.
“You better reboot the site,” said Ubik. “Don’t want it on high alert. Something’s likely to kill us before we breakout your chums.”
The head flickered again and then disappeared, along with the silver lines on the walls. They were still there but dulled out.
Ubik picked up Nifell by his feet. “Fig, helmet.”
Fig tapped a button and Nifell’s bubble helmet disappeared. Ubik shook Nifell from his end and nanodrones came scurrying out. They ran across the floor and up the wall.
“They like this gravity a lot better,” said Ubik.
The wall blinked back into life. The head reappeared. “It is done. Now… wait, what is this? No, no, stop…”
The lines began to disappear as the silver fluid leaked out of their channels. The wall quickly turned to dust, removing the ancient circuit and the head along with it.
“That was it?” said Point-Two. “You just wanted to turn the asteroid off and on again? What for? What’s that going to…” Point-Two stopped and looked up. “Junior? You wanted to let out your pet?”
“He’s been cooped up in that room for so long. It’ll be nice to let him stretch his legs.” Ubik smiled. “Droids gets lonely, too. Maybe he’ll make some friends. Anyway, we have things to do. Can’t stay here.”
“How do we get across the chasm?” asked Fig.
“Across? No point going across. We want to go down. Ninth floor, right? We can skip every floor, I reckon.”
They approached the edge of the pit.
“We don’t know what’s down there,” said Point-Two.
“Good thing we brought Nif,” said Ubik. He went back and picked up Nifell by the shoulders. He brought Nif’s face up to his own. “Hey, Nif, wake up. Hey, come on. Snap out of it.”
Nifell’s eyes fluttered open.
“He’s alive?” Point-Two was stunned.
“There were no life signs,” said Fig, just as astonished.
“Of course he’s alive,” said Ubik. “You guys really think I’d let him die?”
“What? Where am I?” Nifell was disoriented, his eyes blinking quickly.
“You’ve been sleeping,” said Ubik. “Missed all the action. We even got you this nice suit.”
“I had such terrible dreams…”
“Me too,” said Ubik. “You get used to them. Hey, Nif, it’s your turn to go first. Quick recon, nothing you can’t handle. You’re the MVP, Nif. Ready?” He pushed Nifell towards the chasm.
“What? No. it’s not my turn. It’s not my…” Ubik shoved him over the edge. “...tuuuuuurn.”
Ollo Base - Control Room.
Special Analyst Glenn Flott crouched behind the main console, gun drawn. Their reinforcements had finally arrived. Now they just had to fight their way to the control room.
“We’re at the entrance,” said Major Chukka’s unmistakable voice over comms. “The site’s back up.”
Flott activated his mic. No need to worry about an unsecured channel, everyone was already here. “Yes, Major.”
“Any idea why?”
“No, Major.” That was the truth and not his problem. He had been tasked with getting the team on the asteroid. The completion bonus was theirs, if they lived long enough to collect it.”
“Give me a sitrep.”
“We’re holding the control room, Major” said Flott. “No casualties. We’ve taken out six. Four are injured and holed up somewhere. Two are giving us trouble.”
“They’re not rank and file organics. Women. Seneca trained, we think.”
“Not official Corps? That makes sense. They wouldn’t send in an authorised team. Too risky. Don’t worry, we’ve got something for them. We’re coming in hot.”
“Yes, Major. Be nice to see you.” He meant it. They’d been fighting for hours and it had only been Shiv’s ridiculous targeting skill that had kept them alive. Organics fought on a lot of different levels with many different methods, but they all went down quickly to a headshot.
But those two women had been ridiculous. They had to be Corps. Holding them off was about as much as they could do.
Bashir suddenly stood up.
“Get down,” Flott hissed at him.
“I don’t know. Something…”
There was a loud growl. It sounded like a cat. A very big cat.
Deeper Darker will go on a two week break now.
Chapters will resume on Patreon from Monday. They will resume here on Monday 20th.Afterword from Mooderino