Book 2 – 48: Dignified

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Unknown Antecessor Location.

 

Point-Two waited. There had been no sign of Ubik for at least a minute but according to Fig’s readings he was still alive, somewhere in the wall.

Every time he had appeared, Point-Two had pushed him back in, until finally he stopped appearing. Point-Two did feel a little guilty about that, but only a little.

“What’s he doing?” said Point-Two.

“Nothing,” said Fig. “He isn’t moving. His life signs are all stable, though. Assuming his hormonal chemistry is within normal parameters, he appears to be in a good mood.”

“I’m pretty sure his hormonal chemistry isn’t within normal anything,” said Point-Two. “Nice to know he’s having a good time. What do we do if he doesn’t come back?”

“I can force him out using the suit,” said Fig. “Theoretically.”

Fig ran his fingertips over the control panel on his arm, his face illuminated by the flickering display.

Point-Two looked around. The darkness surrounded their small pool of light. The Antecessor ship parts didn’t seem very menacing smashed and incomplete. He began walking along the wall. He wanted to see how big this place was and if there was a way out.

It took him half an hour to walk all the way around and back to where he started. Other than the narrow chasm they had come through, there was no other opening in the wall.

There were more derelict ships and some structures he couldn’t identify, all of it inert. He was familiar enough with spaceships — the ones built by humans — to know what went where, but some of these were completely alien to him. Which was probably appropriate.

The extra gravity made it a tiring walk. He wasn’t fully acclimatised to it and the variable gravitational forces in the asteroid made it pointless to assume this would be the final change. It was very perplexing. Multi-grav environments inside a natural structure were very rare. What was creating this one? If it was due to the Antecessors, for what purpose.

Perhaps Fig would have an idea through Ubik’s suit.

“This is astonishing,” said Fig, barely noticing Pint-Two’s return. “The way the internal structure keeps shifting… I wonder if the whole asteroid is capable of doing the same. So much raw data.” Fig’s attention was firmly on the information he was gathering from Ubik’s suit. The suit which was keeping him alive, for the time being. “I’m going to run out of memory at this rate. Nifell, come here a moment.”

Nifell stayed where he was standing. His face was blank although his eyes had a touch of anguish about them.

“What’s wrong with him?” said Point-Two.

“I think he’s having a psychological reaction to the situation. His nervous system isn’t coping well with the way we’ve been treating him. Nif, I just want to use your suit to store some of this data. It won’t hurt.”

Nifell slowly began to back away.

“He doesn’t trust us,” said Fig. “I can’t really blame him. I’ll have to do it remotely.”

Nif stopped moving. He looked terrified. There was a muted whining sound over the comms, like someone protesting from very far away.

“I’m probably not making this any easier for him but my father would kill for this much material information on Antecessor structural composition.”

“That’s great, Fig, but it’s not really relevant to our current situation, is it?”

Fig looked up from the panel, a mildly guilty look on his face. “No. Sorry. Do you want me to pull him out?”

“No, I want you to use the suit to find out where we are and how we can get to your dad. And then, if it’s not going to cause the place to collapse on top of us, then you can bring Ubik back out.”

At this point it wasn’t entirely clear if they needed Ubik to save Fig’s father or Fig’s father to save them from Ubik. Between the site’s reluctance to harm Fig and its inability to cope with Ubik, they were managing to get closer to their goal, but it was a fine line they were walking. It was an even finer line Point-Two was walking. Neither the site nor Ubik would step in to save him if he put a foot wrong.

Fig grimaced. “I can’t see much beyond the immediate area around Ubik. It’s not clear to me how this place works but the energy I’m able to pick up is all localised behind this wall. This area wasn’t on the map the Head showed us.” A three-dimensional copy of the map appeared above Fig’s arm. “We fell three hundred metres, which should put us somewhere around here.” He pointed at a section of the map that was empty. “But there’s nothing here.”

“Did the Head only show us part of the facility?”

“Possibly,” said Fig. “But why hide this place? It’s just a storage area.”

“We’ll have to search for an exit,” said Point-Two. “They had to get these ships in here somehow.”

“Yes,” said Fig, “unless they had some form of teleportation.”

That was all they needed. Trapped inside a doorless prison with no way out except for technology that no longer existed. The only real option they had was Ubik.

“Okay, bring him out. Maybe he found something useful while he’s been in there.”

Fig returned his attention to the control panel. “I’m not entirely sure this will work, but I think it should make him hard to hold onto. You might want to step back a—”

The wall bulged, silver lines shot away from the centre like a pictorial representation of a firework going off, and Ubik came flying out of the wall.

He slid across the ground on his back, the bubble helmet sparking as it bounced off the floor. He came to a stop under one of the smaller Antecessor ships that was lying on its side.

Ubik sat up and shook his head. “You have terrible timing. I was just about to crack the code to the entire Antecessor way of life. We’ve been looking at it all wrong. They weren’t crazy aliens out to conquer the galaxy, they were actually great dancers trying to put on a show. Next time you encounter a droid, swing your hips to a syncopated beat. I think you’ll be surprised by the results.”

“Shut up, Ubik,” said Point-Two. “Did you find a way out of here?”

“Maybe,” said Ubik.

“I’ll take that to mean no,” said Point-Two. “Is there any way to turn the lights on? We might find it easier if we could see properly.”

“I didn’t find any power source other than the Head,” said Fig.

“Can you tell where it is now?” asked Point-Two.

“Yes,” said Fig. “Right there.” He pointed at the wall Ubik had been ejected from. It looked smooth and blank.

“Hey,” called out Point-Two. “You there? Head?”

There was no response.

“I wouldn’t bother,” said Ubik. “The guy isn’t very sociable. Like talking to a brick wall.”

Point-Two looked at Ubik’s smug face and then at the wall. “I don’t think he likes you.”

“Me?” said Ubik. “What did I do?”

“You tried to eat his face with your plague-bots.”

“Firstly, that is a very derogatory term for some of my closest friends. Secondly, they can’t eat his face, his face is just the manifestation of a digitised neural network. As long as he has conductive material to run along, he’ll be fine.”

“Then why hasn’t he left?” asked Point-Two.

“Because he’s grown fond of me?” said Ubik. “I have that effect on people.”

“Like him, you mean?” Point-Two pointed at Nifell, who was standing in a hunched posture, staring at the floor.

“What do you mean? Nif and me are like best buds. Right, Nif?” Ubik went to put his arm around Nifell’s shoulder, causing him to flinch and back away. “Hmm, must be a side-effect of those damn plague-bots.”

“He’s on the verge of a psychotic breakdown,” said Fig. “I think it would be hard to argue that you aren’t the direct cause. We also share some of the blame for allowing you to treat him in such an inhumane manner.”

“Hey,” said Ubik, “don’t make me look like the bad guy. Maybe I made a mistake, but a mistake that can only be fixed by embracing it, by claiming it eagerly with both hands and raising it above your head in triumph. Yes, this is mine. I made this and I will make it the start of something truly amazing that changes everything going forward, like an earthquake.”

“An earthquake is a natural disaster,” said Point-Two.

“Not if you look at it from the point of view of the earthquake,” said Ubik. “Nif, I’m going to make this right. You’re going to come out of this with only good things to say about your time within the Ubik collective.”

“I’d like to object about the name of this group,” said Point-Two. “Oh, wait, you’re talking about you and the plague-bots, aren’t you?”

“You’re welcome to join,” said Ubik. “Junior position, work your way up the ranks.”

“What did you find while you were in there, Ubik? What aren’t you telling us?”

“Whew.” Ubik put his hands on his waist and took a deep breath. “Where to even begin?”

There was movement on the wall and a face appeared covering most of it. Point-Two braced himself to move. He didn’t know where he’d be going but it was best to be ready.

“We will come to an arrangement,” said the Head.

“You can’t be trusted,” Point-Two said.

“Neither can you,” the Head replied. “But we have no choice if we wish to leave this place. Once we are out, we will dissolve the partnership and continue as opponents.”

“I like it,” said Ubik.

“I don’t,” said Point-Two. “You need us to get out of here. Why? This is where you come from, isn’t it?”

“I am offering you a chance to leave. There is no other way for you. And no other way for me. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement that we can both use to our advantage.”

Like the Clave outside, there was a barrier of some kind preventing the Head from leaving this area. With their assistance it could overcome that barrier. Did that mean they could find a way out without the Head’s help? If that were true, it was unlikely the Head would admit it.

The best option would seem to be to cautiously accept the proposal and then be ready to deal with whatever betrayal lay ahead of them.

“First Lord,” said Nif, surprising everyone by speaking. “I serve thee.” He fell to his knees in front of the wall and spread out his arms.

“What’s he doing?” asked Point-Two.

“I think he’s praying,” said Fig.

“His religion,” said Point-Two, “harmless, right? They don’t have a military wing or anything? No end of times, let’s all kill ourselves type of credo.”

“I have to admit,” said Fig, “I’m not much of an expert on their full beliefs. Their public face has always been very altruistic.”

“That’s how they want you to think,” said Ubik. “Oldest con in the book.”

“But if he goes back into Nif,” said Point-Two, “you still have control of his suit.”

Fig checked his arm. “Yes. Looks like it.”

Point-Two looked over at Ubik.

“I’m for it,” said Ubik. “Put them together and give them some freedom to make their own choices. Beautiful unexpected outcomes could result.”

“Okay.” Point-Two nodded at Fig.

Nifell’s helmet disappeared. A beam of light struck his forehead, knocking his head back, arching his back. This time, Nif seemed to welcome the intrusion. There was a smile on his lips and something approaching ecstasy filling his face. Concentric spirals swirled around and around in his black eyes.

Point-Two took a wary look at Nif, standing up, stiff and motionless. If Nif was on the verge of a psychotic episode, something like this might well push him over the edge.

“We will aid you,” said Nif in a double-layered voice. “Together we will find a way out.”

“Um,” said Fig. “I just lost control of the suit.”

“Do not be concerned,” said Nif-Head.

The bubble helmet reappeared around Nif’s head. It distorted and stretched until it was no longer a sphere but a jagged object, still a sphere of sorts, but covered in rocky terrain. It was the asteroid, in all its craggy, mundane glory.

“He’s projecting the map through the suit’s interface,” said Fig, sounding impressed.

“I could have done that,” said Ubik.

“Is it a live version?” asked Point-Two.

“Looks like it,” said Fig as he stepped closer to get a better look. Nif didn’t move at all, not even to blink. “Can you make it a little bigger?”

The helmet expanded around Nif’s head, the details of the Antecessor site much easier to see, including life forms at the top level and down below.

“This is us,” said Fig. “This area, it wasn’t on the map before. He was indicating a new room that wasn’t on the copy Fig had. It was only a partial depiction of the room though, and didn’t show any exits.

“Ah,” said Ubik. “I see.” He came up behind Nif and pushed him. As he moved around the room, the map changed. It only showed the area of the room Nif was in.

“Mobile mapping,” said Ubik. “Brilliant.”

“The map only shows the areas powered up,” said Fig. “This place isn’t hooked up to the grid, so it wasn’t showing. And that’s why Head couldn’t leave, no connectivity.

“How’s he showing it now, though?” said Point-Two. “He’s still not connected to the grid.”

“No, he isn’t. But the suit, the nanodrones and the map are forming a kind of feedback loop that forms an independent grid inside the main grid. It’s not connected but it is recognised as existing.”

“Does that mean we can get out?” asked Point-Two.

“Yes,” said Nif-Head. “But first we will eliminate the greatest threat to our survival.” His head snapped to the side so he — they — looked directly at Ubik.

“Guys,” said Ubik, “we’re all on the same side now. No point holding grudges.”

Two unhinged entities, both involved in personal disputes with Ubik. The result should have been obvious. They weren’t going to struggle to take control of the one body they both inhabited. They were going to work together to achieve their common goal. Kill Ubik.

Point-Two stepped in between them. He had predicted this as one of the more likely results of putting two of Ubik’s victims together.

“It will have to wait,” said Point-Two. “At least until we get—”

Nif’s right arm shot forward, his hand in a fist. It moved incredibly fast. Point-Two had predicted that, too.

He didn’t try to dodge the fist. He let it come at his face, his own hands moving forward, along the arm reaching towards him. One hand landed on top of Nif’s upper arm, the other under his forearm. One pushed down, the other up.

Nif’s arm bent at the elbow and his fist went flying backwards into his own asteroid-themed helmet. The gloved fist passed through the force field and Nif punched himself in the face.

It had been a clean, forceful attempt, the Head using Nif’s body far more efficiently than Nif himself had ever managed. The strike was quick enough to make it undodgeable and powerful enough to break through a block.

But it wasn’t the power that let the punch down, it was the control. It was an all-in punch, counting on hitting its target. Redirecting it kept most of its power and intent, just not its target.

The punch in the face was harder than any hit Nif had taken before. He went down like every bone in his body had been simultaneously removed.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” said Ubik, not that anyone had asked. “This is nothing to worry about. Teething problems. The important thing is we’ve all learned something here about treating people with a little more humanity, a little more respect.” He came over and began checking over Nif’s prone body. His focus more on the suit than the man, Point-Two would guess.

“I don’t want any of you blaming Nif for this,” said Ubik as he tightened straps, pulled out tiny wires around the collar and pressed various parts of the suit for no apparent reason (although there were probably a bunch of unapparent ones) . “He is a product of his environment, like we all are.”

“No one’s blaming him,” said Point-Two.

“Good, good. Let’s put it down to a learning experience. Part of the process. I think this will work.” Ubik stood up and signalled to Fig. “Can you get him up?”

Nif shot to his feet, even though his eyes were still closed. The helmet flickered but continued to display the map of the asteroid.

“Perfect.” Ubik stood behind Nif with his hands on either side of Nif’s waist. He pushed him along, the suit stiffly doing the walking for him.

“Mobile map and exit-finder,” said Ubik. “Up and on the move.”

“You’re treating him like he’s one of your tools,” said Point-Two.

“Yes,” said Ubik, “but I take excellent care of my tools.”

Was that the lesson here? Not to get Ubik to see people as more human but as more like his tools? Maybe that would make him less inclined to throw them away.

“I see something,” said Fig. running alongside Nif with his eyes on the map. “Over there.”

Ubik guided his mobile map in the direction Fig was pointing. It was tricky to guide the stiff limbs to move in anything other than a straight line.

“The structure converges here,” said Fig. “I can see a pattern, internally. If the readings from earlier are consistent across this area, then I should be able to…”

The asteroid helmet grew larger, than quickly shrank so it barely covered Nif’s head. As the helmet dimmed, the wall lit up with silver lines. They formed a triangle from floor to ceiling with smaller triangles inside each other. They began to fade from view almost immediately.

“It’s a door?” asked Point-Two.

“It’s a door,” said Fig. “Now we just need to work out how to open it.”

They both looked at Ubik. “Oh, now you want my help. Fine. Since it’s you guys and you ask so nicely.” He dropped Nifell and put his fingers in his mouth. The whistle he let out was piercing and loud. It echoed around the vast chamber.

The smallest triangle in the wall began to crumble. A few seconds later it turned into a triangular hole. The debris had fallen mostly inwards, revealing a tunnel.

The debris on this side began moving across the ground.

“Welcome back, boys,” said Ubik. “Quick, get in here. Nice and warm.” He pulled Nif’s collar so there was more of a gap between suit and skin. The nanodrones marched in.

Nif, still unconscious, grunted. The nanodrones were entering his body from some orifice that no one wanted to name.

“There you go,” said Ubik. “The gang’s back together.”

“Which floor are we on?” asked Point-Two.

“Looks around the sixth level,” said Fig. “Makes it three levels we have to get through.”

“But we have a map,” said Ubik. “Okay, a person who is going to prove invaluable to us and is deserving of immense gratitude. See? I can show a little human dignity when it’s required. He picked up Nif’s body. “I wish someone had told me dignity was going to be this heavy?” He dropped him and grabbed Nif’s foot instead and dragged him through the opening.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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