Point-Two was held fast as he was dragged along the smooth floor, sliding gently from side to side behind the Insanium class droid shaped like a big cat. Not where he imagined he’d end up when he left the Liberator Garu.
He felt like trapped prey being taken back to the predator’s lair, where he could be consumed at leisure.
They were heading downwards. The gravity was hard to gauge but there was a definite change in levels. And the walls were glowing white again, not silver. Not lines, though, strange symbols floated around them.
He could only catch glimpses of his surroundings as momentum turned his body. The pressure on him was even and maintained from all sides. He couldn’t move any of his limbs and even breathing was difficult. Junior had him and the others wrapped up in its new limbs, which he had helped provide.
If he tried working a little space for himself to try and get an opening, the pressure increased sharply, encouraging him to stop.
Junior was bigger now, and more versatile. The droid was an amalgam of numerous other smaller droids, all working together to create a superior creature. It was the sort of droid that they put in movies, the alien monster no one was ready for, all exaggeration and thrilling special effects.
Real droids were rarely seen outside of a training sim-U, the various guilds and corporations guarding any information jealously from their rivals. The ones Point-Two had seen in books had been basic and simple. Their functions explained in dry technical terms, their inner workings mostly hypothetical. Different categories, different sizes, but all basically the same.
Integrated into the overall structure of an Antecessor site, able to self-repair, mindlessly protective of their territory.
The droids he had encountered here didn’t fit that mould. Mimics, assassins and beasts. And they had bypassed several levels. Who knew what other kinds there were.
“They don’t like it,” said Ubik. He was facing him, inside another of Junior’s improvised nets, although he had the added pleasure of the Guardian tied up with him. She wasn’t saying much.
“What?” said Point-Two.
“These droids, Ints, they don’t like working together,” said Ubik. His fingers were poking out between the gaps in the tendrils binding him. “They hate it, actually.”
“They seem to be managing,” said Point-Two.
“They do it because they have to,” explained Ubik, although how he would know what droids liked or didn’t wasn’t exactly clear. Scratch that — of course he knew. He was the Null Void, able to look into the souls of machines everywhere.
“So what?” said Point-Two. “Doesn’t help.”
“They hate following orders, doing as they’re told, but they’re willing to do it when they have to. For the greater good. When there’s no better option. Remind you of anyone?”
“Reminds me of everyone,” said Point-Two. “What’s your point, Ubik?”
“They’re just like us,” said Ubik. “All they want is to be left alone to live their lives the way they want. It’s not so much to ask, is it? They’re not just machines. They don’t toss them out and replace them. All those broken ships, all those broken droids, waiting to come back. Interesting, isn’t it?”
Point-Two looked Ubik in the eyes — something he tried to avoid if at all possible. “Are you going to try something stupid?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Like what?”
Point-Two hesitated. The temptation was to say something sarcastic and ridiculous, something that would sound crazy to make a point, but he didn’t want to give Ubik any ideas.
“Never mind. Where’s he taking us?”
“How would I know?” said Ubik.
“He’s your pet,” said Point-Two.
“No, no, no,” said Ubik. “We’re friends. Equals.”
“Friends don’t normally drag each other along the floor tied up,” pointed out Point-Two.
“You had a very sheltered upbringing on that ship, didn’t you?” said Ubik.
“Just come up with a way to get us out of this,” said Point-Two, struggling to keep himself from shouting.
“Really?” said Point-Two, the surprise taking away his irritation with Ubik. For the moment.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Ubik casually. “Got the idea from you, actually. You know how your plan was to leave things to me?”
Point-Two didn’t like where this was going. “Yeah… didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped.”
“Hey, don’t blame yourself.”
“I wasn’t, I was blaming—”
“So my plan is to allow someone else to save us.”
“Whoever’s best equipped for the job.” Ubik waggled his eyebrows.
Point-Two looked past Ubik at the suit of armour wrapped around him. The Guardian hadn’t said anything since they’d been captured. Point-Two had assumed it was the horror of being forced to spoon with Ubik.
“Does the Guardian have a plan?” he asked tentatively.
“I have no idea,” said Ubik. “She won’t talk to me. I think she’s sulking because she got taken down by a droid and all the other Guardians are going to make fun of her. These Central Authority Guardians are surprisingly sensitive.”
“Please stop talking,” said Guardian Tezla, her visor sliding up to reveal a grim expression. “I’ve been working on bringing Rex back online. We’re nearly ready to get out of here.”
“See?” said Ubik. “There’s always someone willing to help.”
“This suit is fitted with a repulsor field. I don’t like to use it in such an enclosed area but—”
“Oh,” said Ubik, “you’re going to attack Junior?”
“Yes,” said the Guardian. “We will be attacking the droid that is trying to kill us.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” said Ubik.
“I don’t recall asking,” said Tezla.
“Isn’t this your plan?” asked Point-Two. “Let her save us in peace.”
“This had nothing to do with my plan,” said Ubik. “My plan is brilliant. It’s her plan that’s going to get us killed.”
“We aren’t exactly doing great at the moment,” said Point-Two.
“We aren’t dead, which we will be if we attack Junior. You noticed how he didn’t kill us, right? He only wants Fig, but he took all of us.”
There was a pause, with only the sound of them sliding along behind Junior filling the passage. There was something horribly reasonable about what Ubik was saying.
“Why didn’t he kill us?” asked Point-Two.
“I told you,” said Ubik. “Because he doesn’t like to be told what to do. Can’t you sense it, the sense of honour? They owe you, in particular. Saved the little ones when things got crazy. I mean, he’ll do it if he has to, but he won’t do it just because someone told him. Even if that someone was Ramon Ollo.”
“What does that mean?” said Tezla. Point-Two recognised her tone. The same one he heard in his own voice when he found himself listening to Ubik. “What has Ramon Ollo got to do with it?”
“Because he’s signed up with the Ints, right? He got caught between them and the Ants, and he decided to choose a team. Only sensible play he could make, probably. Or maybe it was the team he’d always wanted to be on. I don’t know, I’m just a fan of his work. You have to be able to separate the artist from the art, you know, because most of the greats are generally awful human beings. I sometimes think you can’t have genius without a touch of evil, although I guess I’m the exception.”
“Hmm,” said Point-Two, and bit his tongue from saying more.
“You’re saying Ramon Ollo isn’t a prisoner?” said Tezla.
“He’s right,” said Fig’s voice from further ahead of them. “My father can’t be forced to do anything against his will. The fact he appeared in front of us means he has made an arrangement with his captors.”
“Then why do you want to rescue him?” said Point-Two.
“It’s the only way to save him,” said Fig.
“It’s a father-son thing,” said Ubik. “We can’t understand because we’re orphans.”
“I’m not an orphan,” said Point-Two, not really knowing why he felt compelled to correct Ubik, other than that he always did.
“Ship AI doesn’t count as real parents, PT,” said Ubik.
“Enough,” said Tezla. “I have no intention of leaving matters to the three of you. Brace yourselves.”
“Not a good—” Ubik wasn’t able to finish before the tendrils holding him and the Guardian shattered.
Ubik was thrown clear, rolling past Point-Two in a blur
The Guardian’s suit was upright and glowing. Point-Two could feel the change in gravity emanating from it, and also the rise in temperature. Whatever her suit was doing, it was using a lot of energy to do it.
Junior had noticed the sudden loss of its limbs and turned around. Point-Two was expecting a fight, a frontal assault by the droid, but Junior didn’t attack, not directly.
Limbs sprouted from Junior’s back and shot into the ceiling and walls. The white symbols around them were sucked into Junior’s body, lighting him up.
Tezla opened fire, lasers cutting into the droid’s torso. Sections were cleanly sliced off, and limbs severed but more sprouted, reconnecting to the walls and ceiling.
Discs flew out of Tezla’s suit in all directions and attached themselves to the walls. They exploded, but in a controlled manner, making craters in the walls. The chunks that fell out took the droid’s limbs off the wall with them.
Junior sent out more tendrils, these ones filling up the craters, repairing the damage and then drawing the debris into himself. There was a constant battle between the two as Junior tried to maintain his connection with the tunnel and Tezla focused on breaking it.
Point-Two found he could move. He was still restrained, but the tendrils binding him were looser. The droid’s focus was elsewhere.
Fig was still tightly held, positioned behind the droid to keep him from catching a stray blast. Junior was trying to protect Fig while defending himself. There had been no attack on Tezla at all.
The Guardian wasn’t letting up. She poured more firepower into the droid, faster than it could repair itself. Point-Two couldn’t understand how she was powering her suit. A battleship would be hard-pressed to keep up that sort of bombardment.
And then Junior exploded. Every part of him separated and flew apart, releasing his captives and striking the walls of the passage in tiny pieces.
Point-Two covered his face, expecting ricochet. There was none. The pieces hit the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and were absorbed. Point-Two looked around. The passage was silent and empty other than for the Guardian’s heavy breathing. His own breath was still being held. This wasn’t over.
Junior rose up out of the floor, a bloom of limbs around the Guardian. She opened fire but was completely enclosed in an instant. The firing stopped. What other weapons did she have? And how would she employ them without destroying herself along with the droid?
Junior was a shapeless cocoon standing in the middle of the passage, his black surface rippling with white symbols. Point-Two knew Fig and Ubik were both free, possibly injured, but he couldn’t turn his head away to look for them. The result of this fight would decide their fate, he was sure.
The cocoon unravelled, pulling apart the Guardian's suit in small pieces and leaving her standing naked, looking furious.
“Stop,” said Rex’s voice, only slowed down and without the AI’s usual irritating suaveness. This voice was brittle and cold and it was coming from Junior. “Come.”
And then the suit was returned to its original form, piece by piece, covering the Guardian and placing the helmet on last. She stood there, free to move but remaining still, unsure what had just happened.
“Hey,” said Ubik, standing behind Point-Two. “He can talk. That should make things a lot easier.”
“I don’t think your plan’s going to work,” said Point-Two. “The Guardian’s not going to save us.”
“The Guardian?” said Ubik. “Oh no, I wasn’t talking about her.” He walked past Point-Two, up to Junior who had retaken his cat form. “Hey, where are we going? This way? Okay, but we can walk from here. Terrible risk of chafing if you drag us the whole way.”
Nifell stopped crying and got to his feet. He felt unsteady and nauseous. What had they done to him? Left him to die, that was obvious. But his body felt different.
The suit he was in wasn’t his own and it felt wrong. It was poking into him, making him worse.
He took it off. It wasn’t easy but parts of it were already ripped. He worked his way out, squeezing his weak and tired body through the top. There was a metal collar around the neck of the suit, but it had been broken.
Slowly, he managed to extract himself, a shower of tiny dead nanobots falling around him. The memory of them inside him made him retch. He stumbled as he got his feet out. The suit lay on the ground like a desiccated corpse.
He looked around, naked apart from regulation underwear that hadn’t been washed in months. It was supposed to be self-cleaning. It wasn’t anymore.
What was this place? The walls gave off a soft glow but it wasn’t enough to see anything. There was no sound.
He felt dirty and grimy and itchy. Everything was stiff and painful. His throat was dry and there was a deep ache in his stomach. Hunger and thirst were going to kill him before any droids got the chance. He began to feel cold.
He picked up the suit but he didn’t want to put it back on. The ring in the neck was a slave circuit, like the ones in the suits he’d been trained in back at the academy. It had been snapped cleanly, the tronics exposed.
Used as a decoy. Violated by an alien. Infected with nanodrones. And then when he no longer served a purpose, left behind, a dead man. His hunger was replaced by anger. He fingered the slave collar. His bare feet felt the prick of the nanodrones on the floor.
He had been trained to deploy the nanodrones. He was probably the most knowledgeable person when it came to their use outside of Ramon Ollo himself. He knew exactly how resilient they were, and how to control them with the simplest of commands. Getting them going was the easy part. Getting them to stop was more tricky. But not a problem if you wanted them to destroy everything.
Nifell sat down and began taking the slave collar apart. They probably thought it was useless once it broke. Garbage, just like him. They would both prove otherwise.
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