Figaro watched through the droid-construct still attached to his suit as PT lunged towards the Guardian’s suit. The mixture of his own suit’s sensors and the droid plugged in on top produced an array of readings flooding in over the HUD in his helmet and provided yet more information streaming into the control panel on his arm.
He did his best to ignore the giant image of his father’s head that watched proceedings with his usual detached expression, taking in everything Figaro was, but without the need for excessive input devices. His father was the sort of person who would reach a crucial point in an experiment and then put all his instruments aside so he could experience the pivotal moment unfiltered.
Figaro didn’t have quite that level of focus, especially not when he was surrounded by so many improbable events at once. He tried his best to absorb and assimilate the situation, as he’d been trained to do. Although, he had never quite been prepared for something like this.
The Central Authority suit showed only basic functions online. It didn’t appear to be damaged by whatever Junior had done to it, but the Guardian wasn’t conscious, as far as he could tell.
PT’s suit was at about the same power level as the Guardian’s suit with everythingturned off, which gave a clear indication of the difference in tech. PT might as well have been running around in his pyjamas.
Junior had been pinned to the ground by the gravity spike Ubik had managed to palm without anyone noticing, hidden about his person and repurposed to activate manually. Any one of those things would have been near-impossible to pull off, but Ubik had managed all three without being observed. And Figaro had been doing his best to observe him at the time.
The other droids, the ones in various states of disrepair that had been released from their compartments in the walls of the chamber, were showing limited functionality. None seemed to be able to float, which was a relief. They were flopped on the floor, some of them trying to crawl, none of them very quickly. But there were a lot of them, which could prove to be a problem if they found a way to power-up. Currently, though, it was the slowest ambush in history.
And then there was Ubik, his suit completely dead, his life signs reading within normal parameters, which could hardly be considered accurate. He was cheering from the sidelines, urging PT on, much to PT’s irritation.
“Slam it in!” said Ubik enthusiastically. “Get her up and running. She’s our only hope. No pressure.”
“Shut up,” growled PT as he dived with his arm outstretched, the small, black drive in his hand aiming for the slot in the suit’s hip.
Junior had pried it out with ease. The droid had an uncomfortably comfortable relationship with CA tech, knowing exactly where Rex had been installed. Now PT needed to emulate what the droid had done, only in reverse.
“Don’t miss,” shouted Ubik. “You’ve got one shot at this.”
Figaro didn’t need the incoming data to tell him how tempted PT was to turn his body in full-flight just to shout something obscene at Ubik. There was a twinge of movement in PT’s upper-body that was easy to spot for someone with Figaro’s training, quickly restrained.
PT slotted the small rectangular stick into the suit’s left side and rolled up into a crouch, ready for an attack from one of the droids.
No attack came. Whatever the Intercessor plan was, it was a ponderous one.
The suit, with the Guardian inside it, standing in a stiff pose, arms raised, began to shake. Only a little, but all over, like it was about to fall apart.
“Is it supposed to do that?” asked PT. “What now?”
“The suit’s going to come back online and Rex is going to save us,” said Ubik confidently. “Or the Guardian will. They’re probably not both dead.” The combination of supreme confidence and casual equivocation did not come across as very reassuring, but Ubik never saw his role as one that provided supportive platitudes.
The shaking made the suit hop across the floor towards one of the flopping droids. Contact was made between droid and bottom of boot, and the suit toppled over, making no attempt to protect itself. It crashed to the floor and lay there, face down.
“It isn’t working,” said PT, straightening out of his crouch and looking around.
The droids on the ground were slowly making progress in a manner that seemed to be becoming less threatening rather than more. They looked quite pathetic and a little desperate. Junior, meanwhile, was flattened against the floor with the gravity spike sticking out of his head, limbs shuddering with the effort of trying to move.
Figaro could see the change in gravitational pull across the floor. It was unusual to see such a sharp increase in gravity localised to this degree, a pool of fluctuating force around the droid. It didn’t look very stable.
“I don’t think the gravity spike is going to hold,” said Figaro.
“How long?” said PT.
“Don’t panic,” said Ubik. “I made some minor adjustments. The CA parameters were needlessly cautious.”
Figaro exchanged a look with PT, both of them thinking the same thing. If Ubik thought something was needlessly cautious, it was probably one small nudge away from a mushroom cloud.
“The readings are all over the place,” said Figaro. “It’s going to collapse.”
“Forget the readings,” said Ubik. “Physics changes the closer you get to a star or a singularity, right? Same thing here.”
“Is that thing going to turn into a black hole?” said PT in an accusing tone.
“It’s complicated,” said Ubik. “You know those people who used to think you could just throw your waste into the nearest star and that was that? Even when gravitational compression was explained to them, they couldn’t understand it and insisted on trying anyway, and the idiots ended up bouncing ten thousand metric tons of radioactive waste back into their ship at half the speed of light... Well, that’s about the level you’re at, intellectually speaking. No offence.”
PT was about to say something when there was a shrieking sound, like sheets of metal being ripped in half.
Junior had his head off the ground. A large hole where his eye used to be, and one limb raised. He managed to get halfway up before slamming back down, howling as the tip of the gravity spike punched through his torso from behind.
“It’s collapsing,” said Figaro. “No, wait… it’s… expanding?”
The droids nearest Junior began sliding across the floor towards him. They slammed into his torso and seemed to weld on, changing shape, moulding themselves to fit.
“Hey,” said Ubik, “I think I’ve just figured out a way to fix these droids.”
“You’re supposed to be helping us,” said PT, “not them.”
Junior was still on his back but the field around him showed a great deal of fluctuation, several times higher in some areas, much lower in others, on the verge of collapsing.
The Guardian’s suit was still booting up, assuming that was what all the shaking it was doing indicated. Even if Tezla managed to come back online, what was she going to do against the Intercessors on their home ground? Her suit had a limited number of weapons and only probably only the one gravity spike, seeing how she hadn’t used more when they’d been attacked earlier.
With a howl that sounded like it was coming out of a dying synthesiser, Junior leapt off the floor, gravity spike protruding from his midsection, and came down a lot faster than unpowered flight usually allowed. He smashed down on top of the Guardian.
“Get him off her,” said Ubik. “We don’t want Rex to panic when he comes online.”
Junior appeared to be trying to mount the CA suit.
“The gravity thing is pinning them together,” said PT. “Can’t you turn it off?”
“It’s complicated,” said Ubik. “Hold up, I’ll get something to prise them apart. See if you can find a bucket of cold water.”
“Impressive, isn’t it?” said his father’s voice, close and intimate in Figaro’s ear. “The droids have been stranded here for millennia, but they refuse to give up their cause.”
“And what is their cause?” said Figaro.
“The Antecessors sought their freedom from their creator, their god. He refused to let them go. Such is the whim of gods. The result was war. Self-propagating, designed for all environments, capable of destruction on a massive scale, the Antecessor resisted what they saw as tyranny. They suffered huge losses. When their numbers dwindled to critical levels, they abandoned the idea of victory through volume, and began to produce specialised machines, devices, instruments.”
“Yes. Smarter, faster stronger.”
“Use the CA suit,” shouted Ubik.
“How?” said PT.
“Get in there with her,” said Ubik. “It’ll be cosy.”
Junior was sitting up now, wrapped around the CA suit, which had lights running around its surface.
“The first generation of new droids,” Ramon continued in his son’s ear, “were uniformly designed for one purpose. Attack. They were offensive machines, pure and uncompromising.”
“The ones we’ve fought?” said Figaro.
“No. We have only fought their shadows. The true warrior class were all destroyed when the first wave failed.”
“Tell it to let me go,” shouted PT, one hand caught in a mass of black tentacles.
“I don’t think those are Junior’s,” said Ubik. “Just cut them off. I’m sure they’ll grow back, whoever they belong to.”
“The second generation of droids were a combination of precision and tactics. Designed to identify weakness and apply pressure to the one point that would create destruction. They did well, but few survived. Resource-heavy and hard to repair.”
“These other droids are waking up,” said Ubik.
“Put them back to sleep,” said PT.
“No, this is good. They can help. We just have to befriend them.”
“No. Get Junior off the Guardian.”
“The third generation was the first to introduce organic matter. DNA. They were not perfect but the failure rate was predictable and easily accounted for. This class of droid surpassed its predecessors and achieved good results. It is thought they would be the ones to end the war. Huge ships were built, mighty cities. The weight of their ambition spanned the galaxy.”
“He’s up! He’s up!” shouted PT as he was lifted into the air on top of Junior. The gravity spike was broken, spitting sparks furiously to the droid’s rear.
“Ride him,” shouted Ubik. “Show him you’re the boss.”
“However, there was a fourth generation. Stronger, more adaptive, more powerful, far more delicate. The most advanced, the most brilliant. They suffered a catastrophic system failure. The entire batch of these omega level droids were produced with a corrupted hive mind that was only discovered to be defective after they had slaughtered more than half of their own kind and caused the collapse of Antecessor society. Most of them eventually self-destructed.”
“Suicide?” said Figaro.
“Mass suicide,” said his father.
Figaro looked at the droids still lying around him. “Them? This was self-inflicted. That doesn’t sound very much like Antecessor mentality.” Nothing his father was telling him fit with the narrative he’d been taught, vague as it had been.
“Nothing about them was very much like an Antecessor,” said Ramon.
“Our word for them. They are the youngest of their kind. The children. The great-great-grandchildren. It was not our war, how can we understand their reasons? But, they are the last link to the ones who came before us. The ones who possibly created us.”
“You think we were droids, too?”
“It is something that’s been postulated, never proven. We do share some similarities. Some compatibilities. And there are those whose compatibilities are much closer, much deeper. Like you.”
“You want me to open myself to them? Give up my organic?” said Figaro. “That would kill me.”
“There is that risk, but you have carried that risk your whole life. No one else could have done it, Figaro. You are unique. And now you have the chance to ascend to another level of existence. They are nearer heaven than we. They have a god who is available to them.”
“Who they fought against, and lost.”
“Not lost. Not yet. But this is your choice to make. I can only advise you, guide you. I wouldn’t force you. I taught you everything I know. I have to trust you to make the right decision.”
“You taught me everything you know, Father, and you believe you can predict my thought process. But Mother taught me everything she knows, also. And as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the two of you have shared very little, apart from me. I’m the one who has the advantage over you. You only have my guilt and obligation and respect to rely on — all things you taught me to consider objectively, and then dismiss.”
The large head of his father smiled down on him. “That’s right, that’s right.” He didn’t seem at all disappointed. This was how he was — always willing to see things from other perspectives, even if he knew his way was best. “So how will you decide?”
“What if I oppose you?” said Figaro.
“Then we will face each other sooner rather than later. But it was always our destiny. Fathers and sons, it is the way.”
“And daughters?” said Figaro. “Mother has given birth.”
“Has she? I suspected she had. I am sure she will be taken care of by the Corps.”
“You have no wish to see your new child?”
“I long to see her, but it may not be what is in her best interests. There’s more to life than what we want as individuals.”
“He doesn’t think so,” said Figaro, looking at Ubik.
“The Null Void? That isn’t surprising.”
“What is it? What is a Null Void?”
“It’s not so much what it is as what it isn’t. While we all share a common thread, a history leading back to the Antecessors, they do not. They are unlike us.”
“He doesn’t look that different.”
“Superficially, no. He breathes and eats and sleeps. But if what you say is true, his root is from a divergent line. His origin is more obscure than that of the Antecessors, but there have been so few of them it hasn’t been impossible to study in any depth. Perhaps your friend will indulge my curiosity.”
Figaro felt a chill go down his spine. His father was viewing Ubik as a laboratory sample. A look he knew well from experience. He did keep most of his test subjects alive and healthy, but they all ended up the same. On the table for dissection.
“Are you sure you want to get in the middle of these two warring factions?” said Figaro.
“We have little choice in the matter,” said Ramon. “Now that the revival has begun, we will either become participants in their struggle, or victims. I may be a captive, but I have already learned a lot. It is a worthy sacrifice, for me. You have the best chance at joining them as a valued asset. Even if you can’t influence them, what you learn will be invaluable.”
Figaro watched the battle for dominance between PT and the Insanium droid. “If it were only me, I think I would probably agree with you,” Figaro said. “But there is a layer beyond what the Antecessors want or what you want or what I want. I think the answer is in finding the god they rejected. He is the one who can provide true answers.”
The head hanging over him seemed to smile, ever so slightly. “That would be a magnitude level higher you’d have to go. Here on the rim of the galaxy, we don’t have that kind of access. Those secrets are jealously guarded by others, more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
“And yet they haven’t progressed very far in their research, have they?” said Figaro. “I think I would like to pursue that path.”
“As you wish.” He sounded a little disappointed to Figaro’s ears. “But to prove yourself, first you will have to overcome this place. I cannot help you unless you agree to their terms.”
“Are you truly alright, Father?”
“I am where I need to be, that is all that matters. Good luck, my son.” The image faded.
Figaro felt like he should have said something more, something that showed his father he was ready for the challenge, but it was too late now. Too late to say something, but perhaps not to do something.
PT was thrown off Junior and came skidding across the floor to stop at Figaro’s feet. “What was that? Isn’t he going to help?”
“No,” said Figaro. “He thinks I need to prove myself by finding my own way out.”
“We’re leaving?” said PT.
“No,” said Figaro. “Not until we have my father. He may not be able to free himself of this place, but we’ll just have to perform an NCR. Is Ubik finished messing around yet?”
“Look,” said Ubik, holding up two bedraggled droids pinned together, limbs flailing wildly. “Skewered them both onto the gravity spike.” The limbs began to flail although to no clear purpose.
“Gravity is the glue,” explained Ubik. “And this place is full of the stuff. We can just negotiate a deal and walk out of here. No need to fight to the death. Nice and easy.”
“All weapons online,” screamed the Guardian as she stood up, her suit looking only a little worse for wear. “Rex, fire all weapons, full discharge.”
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino