Unknown Antecessor Location.
Point-Two put his toe on the edge of the platform and tried to get a feel for any gravitational fluctuation. He looked up. The rumbling sound had stopped. On the wall across from him the grooves were still filled with the strange silvery liquid the Head had poured into them, but it was no longer shining, it looked dull and grey, like filler paste used to smooth over cracks.
The Head had been dealt with, or so it seemed, but their situation had not. They were trapped deep inside the asteroid with no way to go deeper. Point-Two curled his toes. Something… drawing him closer.
“Poor Head,” said Ubik as he walked past Nifell’s body and Fig looking concerned. “All he wanted was to go home. And now he’s gone forever. I wonder what he was trying to do.”
“Are you sure he’s gone?” said Fig, looking at the panel on his arm.
“Do you see signs of him?” said Ubik. He was standing in front of the wall Nifell had been manipulating. The grooves on that wall matched the ones across from Point-Two. They had turned equally dull and lifeless when Head was terminated.
“No. But that doesn’t mean—”
“Of course, no, nothing’s definite in an infinite universe,” said Ubik. “But my nanodrones went full kamikaze, didn’t they? With Head still inside, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go. This wall, this alien tech, it wasn’t ready to take him. You didn’t give him enough time, Fig. Cut off his exits. Nicely done. This is so far beyond anything we have, isn’t it?”
Ubik reached out a hand. Point-Two winced, afraid of what first contact between Ubik and an alien technology might result in. His finger touched the grey matter between the grooves and flakes fell to the ground. He lowered his hand and caught some on the end of his gloved finger. Then he raised his finger to his mouth and stuck out his tongue.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Ubik could identify the substance’s composition just by tasting it. Probably the date of manufacture and its point of origin, too.
Ubik pulled a face and spat out air.
“What did that tell you?” asked Point-Two.
“That this alien tech tastes disgusting.”
“Is there tech that doesn’t?” said Point-Two.
“Sure. The wiring on an old P-19 chip has a high salt contact. And the coolant in a Mark V Lilette carbine tastes quite fruity. They go really well together.” Point-Two had heard of neither of those and suspected Ubik had just made them up. “Now you’ve made me hungry,” continued Ubik, licking his lips. “What do they do on your ship when the food runs low? Cannibalism? Eat the babies first, I expect. I’d eat the oldies, you know they’d just start whining otherwise. ‘Why are the portions so small?’” He looked down at Nifell.
“We aren’t eating Nifell,” said Point-Two.
“Of course not,” said Ubik, mock horror applied to his face and then whipped away as quickly. “Look how stringy he is.”
“Do you still have nanodrones held back with bits of Head in them?” asked Point-Two, switching the conversation abruptly to see if that had any effect on Ubik’s ability to lie freely.
“None at all. Even these ones killed themselves on Fig’s say-so.” He pulled out his hand from inside his suit and brought out a handful of tiny drones. He let them fall on the floor in a shower of metallic tippy-taps.
“It had very little to do with me,” said Fig. “The nanodrones were designed to self-terminate if they posed a threat to me. I wasn’t expecting all of them to do it, though.” He looked down at his feet where the inert nanodrones were piled into a small heap next to Nifell.
“Me neither,” said Ubik. “I rewrote most of their code and Head probably rewrote the rest, and neither of us found that gem of paternal precaution. Your dad must have hid it well deep.”
“Would you have tossed it out if you had found it?” asked Point-Two. He didn’t expect an honest answer but you could still tell quite a lot about a person from a dishonest one. Trying to work out where Ubik was headed required constant updates and new data, and even then the best you could do was cross off some possibilities from the list.
“I’m not sure. Depends what I wanted the nanodrones to do. I hadn’t really decided, and now I never will. Shame. They’ll be missed, my boys.” He sighed.
“You sound much more upset about the nanodrones than Nifell,” said Point-Two. “And you’re to blame for him.”
“Blame for what?” said Ubik. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
“Just,” said Fig. “These readings don’t look great. I’ve reduced his oxygen intake and put him in a coma. The nanodrones discharging inside him did a lot of damage. We need to get him to a medical facility.”
Ubik leaned across Fig and looked at the panel on his arm. “Looks fine. He’ll live to be a hundred.”
“The average lifespan on Enaya is one hundred and fifty,” said Fig.
“Really? No wonder they’re so upset about everything.” Ubik shook his head. “Old people love to complain.” Both Ubik’s hands were on the wall now, sliding around the same way Nifell’s had.
“Do you know how to operate that?” said Point-Two.
“Good.” The last thing Point-Two wanted to deal with right now was Ubik randomly turning things on and off. “The Head wanted to take Fig somewhere, so there has to be a way out of here.”
The shaft they were in was around ten metres in diameter with a one-metre platform going all the way around. Point-Two put his hand out over the hole and struggled to hold it there. There was definitely a difference.
“Gravity gets heavier here,” said Point-Two. “This shaft was designed to funnel something down to whatever’s at the bottom.”
“Oh, that’s interesting.” Ubik walked over to Point-Two. “Can I borrow your helmet?”
Point-Two unclipped his helmet from the collar-ring and handed it to Ubik.
“Thanks.” Ubik took the helmet and threw it into the shaft. It dropped out of sight in an instant. “Okay.”
“Did that tell you something?” said Point-Two, trying not to get annoyed. Sometimes zenity just abandoned you.
“Not yet. Hold on.”
“Couldn’t you have used something that I didn’t rely on to remain alive?”
“Life is a resource,” said Ubik. “You have to be willing to invest it.”
“Why don’t you invest your own?”
“Only a terrible investor would invest their own funds when they can use someone else’s,” said Ubik. He leaned a little closer to the edge.
If he wasn’t careful, he’d be the next one to go over.
“Are you thinking of pushing me to my death?” asked Ubik with a wry little smile.
“Often,” said Point-Two. “But this is the first time there’s a chance my dream might come true.”
“There’s something coming,” said Fig. “Can you hear it?” He looked up.
The other two did the same. There was nothing up there, and then a small object. With a whoosh the helmet fell past them, again.
“Interesting,” said Ubik.
Point-Two exchanged looks with Fig. Both had reached the same conclusion — if Ubik acted like he wasn’t expecting something, that meant he had totally expected it.
“This shaft,” said Fig, “it’s a loop?”
Ubik didn’t reply, just looked up, waiting. Did he want to see if it came around again? Point-Two followed his gaze, Fig had his eyes on his control panel, probably timing it.
The helmet returned in two minutes, at what appeared to be the same speed as last time. As it passed them, Ubik began counting. “One, two, three…” He threw a handful of nanodrones after the rapidly disappearing helmet. They fell like confetti that turned into a streak chasing the helmet.
Point-Two peered over the edge, leaning back quickly before he got pulled in. Ubik was already looking up again. What was that supposed to prove? Or was Ubik just amusing himself as usual?
When the helmet came around again, the nanodrones weren’t following behind, they were side-by-side with the helmet in a flat layer.
“The nanodrones caught up,” said Fig.
“Yep,” said Ubik. “Looks like this is a transportation system with automated stops.”
“An elevator?” said Point-Two.
“Sort of,” said Ubik. “Doesn’t just go down, goes round and round. But where it stops or how… If the nanodrones were still active, we might be able to find out.” He looked at Fig. Then he looked at Nifell.
“You can’t,” said Fig, standing in front of Nifell.
“Well, he is the best man for the job — the most experienced — but okay. One of us could go.” He looked at Point-Two.
“Are you volunteering?” said Point-Two.
“I thought…” Ubik’s voice trailed off. He was staring across the shaft at the far wall.
Point-Two looked as well and saw that the grooves that had been filled with the grey remains of the silvery liquid were now empty.
They all turned to look at the wall behind them. The smaller version was also empty but the contents had settled on the platform in a metallic pool. A pool that was moving. It trickled and spread and narrowed, like a mono-cellular creature, heading towards the edge.
“What is it doing?” said Point-Two.
“Should we stop it?” said Fig.
“No, let it go,” said Ubik, crouching down to get a better look as the mercurial liquid slithered past him. “I think this is some sort of flushing out of the system. Could reboot the engine.”
“Wouldn’t that kill us?” said Point-Two.
“Not immediately,” said Ubik. “But it’s not like we can stay here doing nothing. Invest!”
The pool reached the edge of the platform and slid off. Point-Two watched it fall, wondering if this was such a good idea, and guessing it probably wasn’t.
The Head had wanted to activate something, possibly the elevator itself. But why put up a shield to summon it? No, there had to be more to it than that.
Point-Two was the first to feel the change in gravity.
“It’s getting—” was all he managed to get out before he was slammed to the floor, pressed down by an irresistible force. His suit provided little protection from the pressure squeezing his internal organs but even if it had, without his helmet his head was completely exposed.
Fig and Ubik were also lying down, grunting and wheezing as the air was pushed out of their bodies. Their suits weren’t helping much, either.
Nifell was the only one not to react, still unconscious — probably the wise choice.
The only option seemed to be to try to get to the edge and fall off. Whatever waited for them below, it could only be death or better, and even death seemed preferable to the agony of being slowly pressed flat.
But there was no way to move, the pressure was too great. He couldn’t even activate any of the suit’s basic functions. Perhaps Fig would be able to get Ubik and Nifell’s suits moving, and his own suit probably had advanced features that could do the same for him, but Point-Two’s suit was by far the least robust.
His vision began to blur as the force on his eyeballs increased. He saw something coming towards him. He wanted to tell Fig to not waste time and get the others off the platform, but it wasn’t Fig. It was large and black.
The pressure stopped. He was bathed in red light. A shield, like the one Head had produced. Point-Two began to feel light and floaty. He was floating. Gravity had reduced to around 0.3G. His body still ached, but the sense of imminent death was gone.
When his vision cleared, he saw a droid floating outside the shield. An Antecessor droid with a spherical body and tendrils. Inside with him were Ubik (unconscious from exposure to the unbearable pressure) and Nifell (unconscious from exposure to an unbearable Ubik).
On the other side of the red shield, he could see Fig. He was saying something, but not towards Point-Two, he was speaking to the droid.
“If I come with you, they will live?”
Point-Two could read Fig’s lips but he had no way of hearing the other half of the conversation. His guess was that Ubik throwing things into the shaft had attracted attention and this droid had been sent to offer Fig a deal. The Antecessors had worked out that trying to separate them only made it harder to get Fig where they wanted him so now they were using a new tactic. Do what we want or your friends die.
All Fig had to do was agree to go with the droid, willingly, and they would be saved. They would probably be left trapped but at least they would be alive. Fig already knew they would find a way out. It was the obvious choice.
“No,” said Fig. “No deal.”
The red shield vanished and Point-Two was slammed back into the floor, his body rapidly approaching death as he was crushed.