Unknown Antecessor Location.
Point-Two grimaced as he lay pinned to the floor. The gravitational force on his body was more than he could deal with, at least three Gs, but not constant. The exact amount of pressure was being regulated to keep them alive but immobile. Different parts of his body were under separate amounts of force.
He suspected it was affecting him more than the others since he was in the cheapest suit. But adjustments may have been made for each of them and their particular needs. There was no way Point-Two could move beyond breathing until the Head decided to let them go, which didn’t seem very likely. For now, its focus was on Ubik and how to dispense with him first.
Point-Two was very familiar with how the different kinds of anti-grav worked from his time playing G-tag. It was a pretty straightforward sport but it had many divisions, including a heavyweight one.
The players who practised the most extreme form used momentum and brute strength to overcome intense pressure. They were giant bags of muscles who grunted and groaned their movements up to a speed where they barely had any control. One mistake could send you into a wall, and high Gs did not mix well with solid surfaces.
There was also the practice of G-doping, where people would train in much denser gravitational atmospheres and then compete at a much lower on. While not illegal, it was frowned upon, especially because of the side-effects. People who forced their bodies to undergo extreme gravitational conditions regularly ended up with distorted body-shapes and a high frequency of broken bones. They also accounted for most medal winners of the last few years, even though most denied it. The lack of neck and sixty-centimetre thighs suggested otherwise.
Point-Two had only experienced super-dense combat a couple of times, and then only for the experience. He hadn’t enjoyed it, preferring speed over power. Now it would have come in useful, although not even the most advanced G-tag rings employed micro-management on this level.
“So that’s why,” said Ubik. He has asked to see the asteroid’s full schematics and, surprisingly, Head had agreed. Which suggested there was something Head wanted Ubik to see.
“What do you see?” said Head, his voice flat and dispassionate inside their comms.
“Some background info would be nice,” said Ubik. “What’s the ship for? Who piloted it? Where were they going? How come you were left outside when there’s plenty of room indoors?”
“Your usefulness is limited to what you can tell me that I do not already know.” It sounded like the most bland threat Point-Two had ever heard. No indication of the consequences, just an intangible implication.
“Well, it’s hard to see much of anything from this angle, but the ship, the engine, it’s been altered. Won’t be flying anywhere in this thing, not any time soon. Shame, really. I’d like to know what it feels like flying around inside a planetoid. How do you keep it upright, for a start.”
Ubik sounded very cheerful for someone flattened against the floor and at the whim of a giant, resentful head. You’d almost think this sort of thing happened to him all the time.
Point-Two twisted his neck as much as he could — which wasn’t a lot — and looked up at the Head floating in the middle of the room. The eyes were vertical, which was a neutral position.
It had already proclaimed its intention to eliminate Ubik — more than once, in fact — but it hadn’t followed through. What did it want from him? Why did it want anything from him?
He breathed slowly, inhaling as much as he could in small sips and then twisting on the exhale. The map of the asteroid was now around Ubik’s head, formed from his helmet, enlarged to about double its normal size, so that Ubik was looking at it from the inside.
Ubik’s face was full of childish wonder and delight as his eyes flicked about from one part of the asteroid ship to another.
“Why didn’t the security system recognise you?” said Point-Two. Now seemed as good a time as any to ask.
“Alterations have been made in my absence,” said Head.
“But you’re part of the security system, aren’t you?” asked Fig. “Why would it treat you as an outsider? Unless someone deliberately shut you out.”
“This is an isolated node,” said Head. “Errors are not unknown.”
“Would have been fixed if it was an error,” said Ubik. “Look at the way the sections have been separated. That’s not part of the original design. Ants like things to slot together, not separated by a preventative layer. Someone decided to make sure one part didn’t know what the other parts were up to. It’s a crime, really. How could you break up such a perfect symbiotic ecosphere. The strength comes from all the different parts working together.”
“Then so does the weakness,” said Point-Two.
It was clear to him someone had deliberately disabled the asteroid’s core function. They may have had a good reason for that — who could say what the Antecessor’s true goals were? — but it was also clear the Head had no idea what the reason was either. And it wanted Ubik’s help to find out. How much of its behaviour had been to that end?
As much as it identified Ubik as a threat — something common to all sentient species, it would seem — it also recognised his ability to quickly find the purpose of a technological aberration. What it might not also know was Ubik’s predilection for taking that aberration and using it to make things much, much worse.
But this was good. If they could keep the Head interested in what Ubik had to say, and if Ubik could string things out long enough (and there was no one better at that than Ubik), they might be able to get out of this situation, or at least this room, alive.
All Ubik needed to do was make the Head feel like they were all on the same side, all wanting to find out what had happened here. Allies seeking knowledge.
“Looks to me,” said Ubik, “that they specifically didn’t want you to be involved in whatever it was they were planning. Stuck you on the outside and took away your security clearance. That says a lot, doesn’t it. What did you do, Head? Asked the wrong questions? Upset the wrong droid? They didn’t want to reformat you, obviously, so I guess you still serve some purpose in their eyes, but they really don’t consider you one of the team. Did they tell you it was only a temporary move? That’s the way it’s usually done. Leave the poor bugger thinking he’ll be let back in anytime soon. How long’s it been? Couple of thousand years? Even longer, probably.”
On the other hand, he could just insult it and see what that produced.
The atmosphere in the room, which was already very oppressive, seemed to get more so. Point-Two was sure Ubik had a reason to provoke the Head, but he was also sure there was a high likelihood that whatever it was, it could very easily backfire and blow up in their faces.
That said, once Ubik took the lead, you had little choice but to follow. If the ground under him was unsteady, the ground around him was molten lava.
“It would be a lot easier,” said Ubik, “if you let us get off the floor so some of the blood could return to my brain. And perhaps give us some information on what this ship was designed for, you know, for the context. Its got its own wormhole, which isn’t a very common optional extra on most spaceships.
“You think the asteroid and the wormhole are connected?” said Fig. “I mean, obviously they are, but the wormhole is a construct of the asteroid on the liminal level?”
“All this astrophysics technobabble,” said Ubik. “It’s hard to know what he’s going on about, isn’t it? He’s the youngest in the group. Likes to speak in jargon so he sounds smart.”
“He is the only reason you are still alive,” said Head. “The Core wants him, that is the only stipulation in this node’s command centre. It overrides all other security protocols. His life is worth keeping the rest of you alive.”
“Nice,” said Ubik. “I’m worth at least one-quarter of an Ollo. Not bad. You on the other hand, how much are you worth, Head?”
There was a pause.
“That node, not much doing is there? Looks pretty dead. What is it, localised to this room? They really don’t want to let you in. I think they might be a bit scared of you.”
The Head was less welcome here than they were. It didn’t seem to understand why and Ubik’s ribbing seemed to be making it more insecure.
Was this the real face of Antecessor technology. Humanity had only encountered the most simplistic security devices so far, left behind as a last resort to keep an eye on the stuff they left lying around the galaxy. Maybe they had planned to come back for it one day and events went beyond their control.
Perhaps the real Antecessor civilisation was more like this Head. And the Beast that Ubik had adopted. There may even be a whole range of different types of intelligences within the Antecessor culture, as there were within their own. Which meant some would be far dumber than others.
“You can’t go looking for answers without us,” said Ubik. “Me and my boys are your only ticket into the depths of this rocket rock ship.”
“Your nanodrones have been inactivated,” said Head.
“Oh, some have. But they replicate like crazy, you know? Big breeders. Always more when you need them.”
Nanodrones began crawling out of Ubik’s suit and crawling along the ground. The increased gravity seemed to have no effect on them. If anything, they moved quicker.
Point-Two felt the shift a microsecond before the pressure on his body eased and then reversed. He floated off the floor.
He could move freely, as could the nanodrones, which were aimlessly floating away. Their weakness was low-gravity and Head was using that to prevent Ubik pulling any of his tricks. But as Point-Two knew from experience, if you were one step ahead of Ubik, you were in his direct line of fire.
“What are you doing?” said Nifell, now upright. “This wasn’t our agreement. You said you would kill him.” There was a sad, desperation to his voice. The last attempt of a fractured mind to grasp onto some kind of achievement.
“He is of use to me,” said Head.
“And I’m not?” said Nifell. “You are the Lord of the First Temple. Your promise is inviolate. Give me what you promised.”
Nifell’s lord had failed him just as Head’s masters had abandoned it. And as Head told it, the Antecessors were no happier with their creators. There was an unmistakable chain of disappointment leading to this moment. All coming to a single point centred on Ubik.
He didn’t seem to mind.
“Let’s not fight. We have a long way to go, still. Together, watching each other’s backs.”
“I have no desire to go anywhere with you,” said Nifell, his voice shaking. Possibly with rage, but just as likely with frustration or a nervous breakdown.
“But you do, Nif, you must. Don’t you see? What you’ve been through, it’s made you stronger. Remember when you were just another grunt following dumb orders from people who didn’t care about you? Now you’re with the Lord of the First Temple. This is your true calling. You were meant to be here, now. I know it was painful, but you had to break out of the prison you’ve been in for so long.”
Nifell looked utterly confused by Ubik’s speech.
“But this time you’ll be working with Lord Head, as a team,” Ubik pressed on. “He can’t be killed and he won’t let you get hurt. You’re his only form of transportation. If the Core finds him in the system, it’ll purge him.” Ubik leaned towards Nifell, drifting towards him. “He’s the one they don’t like around here, not us. We’re easy to handle. Head knows all their secrets.”
“So I’ll be in extra danger,” said Nifell. He was catching on.
“Normally, yes, but we need Head alive. So we need you alive. Which is why I’m going to make sure you stay out of harm’s way. See him?” Ubik pointed at Fig. “He’s the one they all want. No one’s going to do anything that might hurt him. So you’re going to stick to him like a shadow. You and Head and Figaro Ollo, you’re the heart of our team. You stop beating and we’re all dead.”
Ubik’s words about death and being targeted by the entire facility somehow came across as soothing. The fire slowly went out of Nifell’s eyes. Ubik flicked a few floating nanodrones at Nifell’s mouth. He obediently swallowed them.
Point-Two watched the taming of Nifell unfold, not particularly interested in Nifell’s prospects — he was in as much danger as the rest of them — but wondering why Ubik wanted those three together. Very unlikely for the reasons he’d stated, that was for sure.
The head disappeared and then reappeared as part of Nifell’s helmet.
“I had my doubts about Serval’s claim,” it said, “but looking at you now, it seems she was correct. You are Null Void but your grasp on your faculties is impressive.”
“Serval?” said Ubik, a flicker of confusion passing across his face. “Oh, you mean Junior? She’s a she is she? That’s interesting. Said good things about me did she? Nice to know someone has a good impression of me.”
“She said you’re even crazier than she is.”
Ubik laughed. “What do you mean? I’ve been putting on my sensible face.”
The Beast was somehow in touch with the Head. How? And for how long?
“Do you know which way we need to go?” asked Point-Two.
“No,” said Head. “The internal structure has been reorganised. Deliberately, to prevent access of any familiar systems. This is not our way. It wasn’t our way. Something changed.”
There was one open tunnel. It was where the Antecessor node guardian had wanted to take Fig so it seemed the best place to start. At least they had a direct route to follow.
Ubik’s helmet flickered and showed the asteroid in all its glory. He raised a hand and slid it across the surface of the helmet, making it spin around his head. He had a smile on his face that sent a chill down Point-Two’s spine. He had the feeling they wouldn’t be taking the direct route anywhere.