Ubik watched the silver lines rise up the walls, slowly illuminating more and more of the chamber, revealing endless cubicles, each with a single occupant. They were droids, but no two were the same. And all of them were broken.
The walls rose up without end, revealing more and more. The silver lines formed shapes and patterns that indicated some kind of message that was being constantly overwritten. Life, death, life, death — that was about all he could make out.
None of these droids were able to move or function, frozen in a moment of time. They had parts missing or were severely damaged but Ubik sensed they were not beyond saving.
Droids could normally repair themselves but the state of these droids suggested they were beyond self-repair. Which was a strange middle-ground to be in. Normally, they would either be able to regenerate into their complete form, or they would be completely destroyed. How had these ended up like this?
Ubik looked around with wonder, the whole group stunned into silence by the sight. So many questions , and so much opportunity. It made his heart race.
Broken droids were exactly what he needed. The best way to learn how an unfamiliar technology worked was to find a broken example and fix it. Once you could do that, even if it was only through trial and error, you would have the key to understanding their entire technological habitat.
This place was his way in. The Antecessors, the Intercessors, whatever they wanted to call themselves, however they wanted to differentiate themselves from each other, they had a way of putting things together that was… well, it was alien.
Even though Ubik was able to recognise the intentions of their machines, he wasn’t able to clearly see the underlying concepts. Even access to a single unit wouldn’t give him that. He could take a droid apart and put it back together, and it wouldn’t tell him much more than how to take apart and reassemble that one droid. That was the confounding thing about Antecessor tech — it was easy to see how the ends connected, but the middles seemed to all be different.
With a droid like Junior, he was able to see there was a part missing, able to recognise others that fit with it, but how was it powered, what made it think the way it did, how did you program it? It was a mystery.
Here, though, with every type of droid, almost a catalogue of the different models, he would be able to find the unifying concepts. It was an opportunity he did not want to miss.
“Do not touch anything,” said Guardian Tezla. “Don’t move, don’t make any loud noises.”
“Hmm,” said Ubik.
“We don’t know what this place is or why we were brought here. Best to be cautious. I’m going to do a sweep and scan.”
“Without Rex?” said PT.
“Yes, I am not completely dependent on technology to assist me. It will take a little longer, but we’re trained to do each other’s jobs… to varying degrees of success. I will go into a trance and won’t be able to respond while I assimilate the data. Do not be concerned if I seem to stop breathing or have some kind of fit. All perfectly normal. I will be relying on you to keep me safe for the next few minutes.”
“You can count on us,” said Ubik, saluting.
A grimace formed on Tezla’s lips. “I’m also relying on you to keep me safe from Ubik while I am in my trance.”
“We’ll do our best,” muttered Fig. “My father is close. Please look for any signs of him.”
“Of course.” The Guardian lowered her visor and took a slightly wider stance, steadying herself. The suit looked heavier and moved more awkwardly without Rex, but the Guardian was big and strong and more than capable of utilising its basic functions. Whether she’d be as capable of dealing with the sensory deluge Rex could process every millisecond was another matter. Coloured lights flashed inside her helmet.
“Where did Junior go?” asked PT, looking around.
There was no sign of their guide. The floor — black, flat and smooth — spread out from where they stood with no obstacles and no interruptions. Nowhere for a huge Insanium class droid to hide.
“If its a mimic, it could be anywhere and we wouldn’t know it,” said Fig. “Ubik, Can you read what the walls are saying?” He still had the projection of the Antecessor droid on his head.
“No,” said Ubik. “There’s too much of it.”
“You said they were refugees,” said PT. “What made you think that?”
Ubik shrugged. “They’re all heavily damaged. None of them look like they’re in operational condition. Looks like this is where they’re kept until...”
“Until what?” said PT.
“I don’t know,” said Ubik. “They must be keeping them for something. Spare parts, maybe.” He began walking towards the nearest droid cubicle. He was pretty sure they weren’t being kept for spare parts. And this wasn’t a museum, nor was it a mortuary.
“Hey, stop,” said PT. “We don’t want them suddenly coming back online.”
“It’s fine,” said Ubik, stretching his hand back and waving it at what he assumed was PT’s disapproving face. “I won’t touch anything.”
“You look like you’re going to touch everything,” said PT. “You look like you’re thinking about getting all these droids into working order and then selling them to the highest bidder.”
“Sell them?” said Ubik. “No, no, no. That would be a waste.” He stopped and looked up. The droid he was trying to get a look at was above head height, in a slight alcove and not moving at all. From what he could see, its black body was oval, a bit like an egg, and its limbs — there were at least four — were short and thick, like the rest had been sheared off. There was a large crack on one side of its torso, filled with the same silver liquid that flowed up the walls, only congealed into a kind of gel. “What we have here is the workforce for a brand new enterprise. One to rival the mega-corporations at the heart of the galaxy. Ubik Unlimited, the company that will revolutionise the way you live.”
“Ubik Unlimited?” said PT. “A never-ending supply of Ubik. That sounds terrifying.”
“Don’t worry, PT. There’ll always be a place for you at Ubik Unlimited. Assistant Manager, Outdoors and Sports Equipment. Full benefits, after the probationary period.”
“Thanks,” said PT. “I look forward to it. Where are you going to get the capital to set up a major venture like that?”
“I told you, with the CA rewards, Ramon Ollo’s gratitude for looking after his son, remunerations from the people of Enaya for saving their world… I’m going to be swimming in cash.”
“I don’t want to ruin your dreams,” said PT, “but we’re all still members of the Free Volunteers Guild.”
“Sure, sure,” said Ubik. “But I’m sure we can part ways amicably.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said PT. “If you bothered to read the contract you signed, you’d know that anything you find, earn or claim belongs to the guild. Including droids that don’t work and spaceships awarded by grateful recipients of your help, the ones who survive.”
“What?” said Ubik. “Are you sure? Fig, does that apply to you, too?”
Fig didn’t respond, busy doing something under his big droid hat.
“What are you doing under there?” said PT. “You’ve been working on something ever since you put it on. Are you still in contact with the Intercessor system?”
“Probably searching for his dad,” said Ubik.
“No,” said Fig. “I’ve been studying Ubik. The droid projection helps extenuate the sensors on my suit, making it easier to follow what he’s doing. A lot of the time he sends out misdirections so we miss key events, but I’ve been keeping a close eye on him.”
“Really?” said Ubik. “That’s very flattering. I’ve never had a fan before.”
“He isn’t doing it as a fan,” said PT. “Are you?”
“He’s a Null Void,” said Fig. “Whatever that is, it seems to be important. My importance is based on the organic my father put inside me. Once it gets activated or removed, I probably won’t play any further part in all this. I don’t know how much time I have left, but I think Ubik’s the only one who can affect what happens once the Antecessors make their move.”
PT was nodding. “And you think you can work out what it is Ubik can do and how to control it?”
“I’m not sure,” said Fig. “So far, I think his main advantage is being able to see patterns that no one else can. He doesn’t necessarily understand them, but he can see where things lead and what connects to what. It means he can also see where to break connections to prevent things from happening.”
“That’s not bad,” said Ubik. “I wouldn’t say it’s as simple as that, but I do have a knack for putting things together and taking them apart.”
“Creating chaos, you mean,” said PT.
“I don’t think so,” said Fig. “It only looks like that to us. Chaos usually has a hidden order built into it, if you can see it. Most people can’t. That’s sort of its purpose. But Ubik can. Or at least partially.”
“Great,” said PT. “I’m very pleased for him. I don’t see how any of that helps us.”
“My organic,” said Fig, “I never really understood what it was for. My father wanted me to be able to access places no one else could. There are hundreds of Antecessor sites that no one can get to, even with the strongest organics. I was supposed to be able to do that once I fully integrated, assuming I didn’t die. But I think Ubik can get around the normal restrictions, the way he got us into this place without even facing most of the defences. I just need to get as much data on him as I can before I run out of time. My father will be able to make more sense of it.”
“Fig,” said PT, a look of motherly concern etched into his face, “they already know about Null Voids. If there was some kind of secret recipe to dealing with the Antecessors, wouldn’t they already have found it?”
“Maybe. But I have something they don’t — a live sample. We can learn a lot from observing him in the wild, as it were.”
“You two are getting carried away,” said Ubik. “I keep telling you, there’s nothing to this whole Null Void thing. It’s just wishful thinking. I’m just coming at the problem from a different angle; fresh eyes. Everyone else, they can’t help themselves thinking they already know everything. We’re approaching the situation with an open mind, no preconceptions. Nothing to get excited about.”
Ubik looked down. The ground felt different. It had a sheen to it he was sure wasn’t there before. “Hey, does the floor look different to you?”
PT looked down. “No. Wait. Maybe. Was it this shiny before?”
Tezla, who had been standing stock still, feet firmly planted and arms out to the sides, shook violently and made a guttural sound that could be heard through her helmet.
“Is this part of the thing she told us not to worry about?” said PT.
“I’m not sure,” said Ubik, coming back to take a closer look. “We should have asked for more details. A safeword, maybe. Mine’s cinnamon, if you’re wondering.”
“I’m definitely not,” said PT.
“She sounds like she’s trying to say something,” said Ubik, getting his head as close to her helmet as he could.
“I think she’s saying abattoir,” said Ubik. “I could be wrong.”
Weapons snapped out of the suit, ready to fire. Ubik ducked, just in case.
The floor rose up in front of the Guardian, making Ubik stumble backwards. It was Junior, now back into his cat-like shape. Then he changed into a sheet, like a wave falling on top of the Guardian, swallowing her.
The floor was flat again. The Guardian was no longer there.
“Did it kill her?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik. “Junior wouldn’t do that.”
“Don’t you think it was strange how easily Junior was able to remove Rex from the Guardian’s suit?” said Fig. “It knew where to find the unit, how to remove it, and was met with no resistance.”
“Which means what?” said PT.
“It means the Central Authority is compatible with Antecessor technology,” said Fig. “Because that’s what it’s based on.”
“It means,” said Ubik, “Junior knows more about Central Authority tech than they do.”
A shimmering blue light appeared above them, forming into a large head.
“Head?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik. Even before the image fully formed, he recognised it. Similar to Head in size and shape, only this one was decidedly human.
“Figaro, you are here, finally.”
“Father,” said Figaro.
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