Unknown Antecessor Location.
Ubik peered at the bubble helmet shaped like the map of the asteroid that sat on Nifell’s shoulders. It glowed with a soft pink light that illuminated the patterns engraved into the walls, and also the back of Nifell’s closely shaved scalp. He walked with a firm stride suggesting determination and certainty — two very un-Nifell-like qualities.
Head had returned willingly to his host, and the host had welcomed him in. They had formed something of an unlikely partnership, the soldier who had lost his nerve and the guardian who had left his post. Now they were both striving to complete a new mission. But it was clear who was in charge.
The map continued to show their current position but not much else in their immediate surroundings. The tunnel extended ahead and behind. The rest of the base rose above their position. A single point of interest could be seen below. The tunnel was some place in between.
The rest of the asteroid was blank. There was lots more there, as Head had briefly shown them, but it was no longer visible since they had left the small room that had tried to kidnap Fig.
“You know where you’re going, do you?” asked Ubik.
The map stretched and transformed into Head, looking at Ubik with two vertical eyes. It was a bit odd being faced by someone walking ahead of you.
“Assuming the basic structure has not changed, we will come to a central shaft. The control configuration is shielded and should still be available to me. From there I will be able to access any level without interference.”
“Won’t they be waiting for us like they were back there?” said PT from right behind Ubik.
Ubik would have jumped if the increased gravity down here hadn’t made it too much of an effort to be startled. Still, it was impressive how quietly PT could move. If life was going to continue to be this eventful, Ubik would have to look into becoming more stealthy and clandestine. He tended to rely on running very fast and taking corners without slowing, but that would be hard to do in long, straight tunnels with a surplus of gravity all over the place.
“What are you doing?” said PT.
Ubik had stopped moving and had his hand on the sloping wall, the angle forming a perfect equilateral triangle with the other two sides. The triangular design was very unusual.
“Interesting,” he murmured to himself.
“What is?” said PT.
“These markings,” said Ubik. “Very interesting, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” said PT. “I have no idea what they mean.”
“Really? You can’t… Oh, sorry. Only taught you basic things on your ship, I suppose. How to recycle your own urine and the dangers of opening a window. Must be awful all the times someone felt a bit hot and opened a window to get some air, only to get sucked out into the vacuum of space.”
“I think,” said PT, “that you only joke when things are bad. And the worse the jokes, the more grim our situation. We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
Ubik smiled and nodded. He always appreciated PT’s bluntness. “Of course. But before that, we’ll make some memories, shed some tears, maybe even meet some girls who aren’t trying to kill us.”
“I find that very unlikely,” said PT. He didn’t say which part.
“Look at the way this place flows in the same direction,” said Ubik.
“It’s a tunnel,” said PT. “It can only flow in one direction.”
“Not just this tunnel, the whole place.” Ubik leaned to see past PT. “The map, have you got it recorded?”
Fig nodded. He tapped the controls on his arm and an image of the asteroid appeared around Ubik’s head. It wasn’t a live feed like the one Head was transmitting via Nifell’s suit, but it contained the full map Head had given them a glimpse of. It came as no surprise to Ubik that Fig had had the presence of mind to grab a snapshot.
“Look at it,” said Ubik. “Unlike any engine I’ve ever seen yet every line of its design screams thrust and oomph and grrrr.”
PT peered at Ubik, trying to see what Ubik saw. “Those the technical terms are they?”
“So much to take in,” said Ubik. “How was it powered? What was the conversion rate? Was there waste? Was it displacement-based? Did it create motion or shift through sub-space? Is the wormhole its exhaust fumes!?!” There were so many questions, so many possibilities. “I could wander around here for days and never tire of this place.”
“We do not have time to ponder,” said Head, his face appearing and disappearing from the back of Nifell’s head. He had stopped to wait for them, which told Ubik he needed them.
“You could tell me the answers,” said Ubik.
“That is not part of our agreement,” said Head, reappearing. “I will find out what happened while I was gone. You will remain alive to assist me.” He set off again but slowly.
“Okay, good talk,” said Ubik. He turned to PT. “We’ll let him take us to the control room and then we fly this baby around the quadrant, our own personal cruiser. Need to give it a new paint job first, though.” He began walking.
“I think the Antecessors might have something to say about that,” said PT.
“Frankly,” said Ubik, “I’m surprised we aren’t dead already. They only want Fig, you’d think they’d have figured a way to get rid of the rest of us by now.”
“Didn’t they just try?” said Fig from behind PT.
“Back there?” said Ubik. “They were just being cute, testing to see what we’re made of. Now that they know we have Head working with us I expect they’ll get serious. Can’t afford to take it easy when we have an ex-resident on our side. He knows how this place operates, all the secrets.”
“What do you mean, ‘more serious’?” said PT. “More serious how?”
Ubik shrugged. “I’m not an Antecessor, am I?”
“We don’t know what you are, Ubik,” said PT drily.
“Well, I’m not, believe me.” Ubik’s hand brushed against the wall as he walked, feeling the grooves and ridges through his gloved fingertips. It was like a tactile language he couldn’t translate. Yet. “All this beautiful alien tech and I have no idea how any of it works.” He sighed. “If I were them, I’d turn the engine on and blast us into atoms.”
“Wouldn’t that kill Fig?” said PT.
“Hmm.” That was true. “I’d separate us first. That’s probably going to be their next move. Divide and cremate.”
“They might not be able to turn it on,” said Fig. “It must be several thousand years since the last time.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ubik. “Looks like it’s in pretty good condition.” He patted the wall. “You saw how quickly everything came online in that room. They were fast and Head was even faster. He really knows this place, knows how to work around the changes they’ve made while he’s been away. Right, Head?” There was no response from either Head or Nifell. “He’s our advantage over them. At least until he turns on us.”
“So when you got him to reboot the system,” said PT, “it could have reignited the engine and killed us all?”
“No,” said Ubik, shaking his head with confidence. “Definitely not. Zero chance of that happening.”
“How can you be so sure?” said PT.
“We’re alive aren’t we?” said Ubik.
“Flawless logic,” said PT. “Absolutely flawless.”
“Thanks. Even if there was a slight risk, this is still an excellent way to enter a site that’s keen on not letting anyone in. Nobody ever thinks to go in via the propulsion system — who would be that crazy? Obviously, it requires a very large engine or very small trespassers, and also for the engine not to be operating at the time, but apart from that it’s the perfect entry point if you don’t want to be noticed.”
“Oh, I think we’ve been noticed,” said PT.
“I don’t understand why they attacked us,” said Fig. “They want us to go to where my father is, that’s why they took him. And that’s where we want to go, where we are going. Why not just wait till we get there?”
“Maybe it wasn’t us they attacked,” said Ubik.
The three of them looked at Nifell-Head walking ahead of them.
“They see it as that much of a threat?” said PT.
“We don’t know what it did to get kicked out,” said Ubik. “Could be a very bad Head. Some sort of glitch in the network that could destroy us all.”
“And you’ve given it the keys to the place,” said PT, not sounding very impressed.
“As long as it gets me to my father, I don’t really care what it does,” said Fig.
“That’s the spirit,” said Ubik.
After a few more minutes of walking, the tunnel ended in a triangular opening. According to the map on NIf’s head, there was a square room through it, much larger than the last one. Nifell paused before going through.
“There is no indication of Antecessor presence,” said Head. “But do not touch anything. You may inadvertently give away our location.” He went in.
The other three followed, led by Ubik.
The room was square but also very tall. A four-sided shaft that went up beyond sight and down into darkness. The only light came from their suits but it was enough to know it was a long way down.
The platform they were on went around the sides, only a metre or so wide with no guardrail. Other than the sounds of their boots on the metallic platform, it was deathly silent.
Nifell was standing to one side facing the wall. Fig was next to him, looking at the back of his helmet. The map showed the complete internal structure of the asteroid. His father appeared to be directly below them but still some distance. The structural elements of the engine continued a long way beyond. There didn’t appear to be any other exit.
“How do we get down?” said Fig, leaning slightly to look down into the depths of the shaft.
“One moment,” said Head. “I will activate the transport system.” Nifell’s hands ran over the wall and lights flashed on and off. The grooves in the wall filled with silver liquid.
An opaque red wall appeared around Head and Fig, surrounding them on two sides, putting them into a triangular cubicle — a tribicle? — separating them from Ubik and PT. Head continued to work on whatever mechanism was inside the wall. Fig peered at them through the red wall, mouthing something. He pointed at Head, then at his arm. He waved his hands across each other.
“That red wall’s blocking the comms,” said Ubik. “But I think he’s saying he wishes he’d taken the time to learn more dance moves.”
“He’s saying he can’t override Nif’s suit,” said PT.
“Oh, I suppose that’s another interpretation.”
“No, that’s what he’s saying. I can lip-read.”
“Is now really the time to brag?” said Ubik. “Tell him it’s fine, just wait.”
“How do I tell him that?” said PT.
“You’re the one who said you can lip-read,” said Ubik.
“It doesn’t work like that. Just because I can... Forget it. How do we get through the force field or whatever it is.”
“It looks more like shielding. Probably stops the Antecessors interfering. And, you know, blocks radiation and stuff.”
“You aren’t suspicious?” said PT. “You don’t think this is where he betrays us to the Antecessors?”
“No,” said Ubik. “He isn’t with the Antecessors. He’s with whoever built this ship.”
“Not the Antecessors?” said PT.
“Didn’t you see the map?” said Ubik. “Didn’t you notice how different the three sections are?”
“Three sections?” said PT.
“Yes. The base built by Ramon Ollo, the facility built by the Antecessors, and this.” Ubik raised his arms towards the shaft. “The engine.”
“The Antecessors didn’t build the engine?” said PT.
“Obviously not. Look at the design of this place, all woosh and zoom and going places. Then look at the Antecessor plug they stuck on top, rigid and choking. They wanted to make sure this place couldn’t be fired up. Big block on top, no joy rides.”
“Then what is he?” said PT. “An enemy of the Antecessors?”
“More like a victim,” said Ubik. “They stole his ship, chucked him out and vandalised the place. Probably wanted the wormhole to themselves.”
There was a loud sound, like huge metal cogs clunking together. The shaft lit up in silvery light. A second sound began, but in the distance, and growing louder.
“And what’s that sound?” asked PT.
“Well, I’m not an expert,” said Ubik, “but I’d guess ignition.”
“Doesn’t that mean we’re about to be blasted into atoms?” said PT.
“Yep,” said Ubik. “Probably what the shield’s for.”
“But we’re not behind the shield,” said PT.
“Nope,” said Ubik. The shaft began to glow brighter and the sound became a lot louder.