“Now that we have a direct form of communication,” said Ubik, “we can finally have a proper chat. Good, eh?”
Junior kept walking down the passage, so most of Ubik’s comments were aimed at the droid’s flank and rear end.
“Whatever you’ve got planned for the universe,” continued Ubik, “we can help. Make it less, you know, alien. Easier to consume for the locals. Actually, you probably think of yourselves as the locals and us as the aliens. What I mean is, people are going to have a preconceived idea of what you want and what you’re going to do to them. Panic, not good. A few reassuring words, and then you can invade them and take over their planets and turn them into your slaves without anyone freaking out. We can give you a few pointers.”
Junior padded along, not too fast. He seemed satisfied that his prisoners were following him, so there was no need to be aggressive. That was the impression Ubik got. Junior wasn’t going to do them any harm. Whoever he was taking them to, though...
Ubik found this latest development very exciting. At some point, he had hoped to be able to open a dialogue between himself and the Antecessors — or the Intercessors, he didn’t really mind which — without all the headaches from staring at the symbols and patterns that seemed to pass for good conversation in their world.
It was still early days, but there had been a real breakthrough here. Rather than ripping Rex out of the Guardian’s suit and then stamping on his casing until there were only tiny bits of mangled microcircuitry left, Junior had elected to integrate the AI into his own system, and then used the voice box to speak.
If nothing else, it showed a willingness to communicate.
He could have used brute force and just made them do as they were told, but he hadn’t. There was a definite sense of honour and duty among these Intercessors, which was both admirable and also an easy target for manipulation. If that became necessary.
Ubik kept pace with the droid filling up most of the passage, cables plugged into the other droids attached to his body.
The small droids were clearly separate and individual, but they also fit together very well, the patterns on their bodies moving seamlessly from one newly added section to another. They belonged together, or at least had been made with a single modular construct in mind.
The set-up reminded Ubik of one of those boy bands that occasionally threatened to dominate the galaxy with a catchy tune. All dancing together in flawless synchronisation, all desperate to take their share of the fame they’d accumulated and run off to work on their solo projects.
Not that Ubik had any interest in that kind of hysterical adulation. More trouble than it was worth.
Figaro Ollo he could see as the frontman, the one who could actually sing, the teen-favourite. PT, he’d attract the loonies, the girls who thrived on men who ignored them and tactlessly told the truth whenever asked. Ubik himself would obviously be the quirky one who fans loved to watch tear the stage apart. The bad boy. And then they’d be doubly surprised when he put the stage back together with much better acoustics and lower power consumption. There was no way he wouldn’t end up the breakout star and fan-favourite.
“Hey, stop daydreaming,” said PT. “You’re supposed to be our go-between. Our liaison. Junior seems to be ignoring you.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Ubik. “He’s assimilated Rex, used his circuits to imitate human speech, but that doesn’t mean he’s learned the language. He can say a few simple words, but he can’t understand long complex sentences.”
“Tell it to give my AI back,” said Tezla. Even though they were under no threat, for the time being, she still carried a sense of wariness, bringing up the rear, checking her suit to make sure the weapons were ready. From the look on her face, nothing was as it should be since the suit’s recent remodelling. She wasn’t happy. The whole ‘follow the droid’ approach they were taking didn’t sit well with her. She was playing along for now, mostly because she didn’t have much of a choice, but when she did, look out.
“Junior, old friend, old buddy. Any chance you could let the bossy one at the back have her toy friend back? She gets lonely without anyone to talk to.”
Junior stopped and turned his large head, the one eye spiralling hypnotically. The aperture in his torso spun open — a sound like distant wind could be heard — and a handful of broken pieces flew out. Ubik caught most of it but there was no way to put it back together.
“Rex,” said Junior, grinding the word out like it was being squeezed between heavy gears. “Left.”
A section of Junior’s shoulder slid off and fell to the floor. It was attached to a long cable but only loosely. The newly emancipated piece, a small droid, began crawling away, hoping to escape its partial leash.
The little droid looked severely damaged, one of those left in storage because there was no hope for them. Ubik picked it up like it was some sort of crustacean on the beach. Its limbs, the ones it had left, went wild for a moment, trying to attack Ubik’s wrist and then continue the offensive from there.
Ubik easily avoided the grasping limbs and turned the droid over. He tickled its tummy, not to be cute but to access the central unit. He had to hold fast to prevent the droid from breaking free. It thrashed its limbs anyway.
A few minor modifications, mainly involving securing loose fittings, and he placed it back on Junior, pressed it down, refitted the cable. Not so high this time, and with the cable attached more firmly, so the droid wouldn’t fall onto the floor next time.
“Look,” said Ubik quietly into where Junior might have an ear, “the ones running this asteroid, they’re old and they make mistakes. It’s a hard job, but you should see at least a little progress over the course of ten thousand years, right? Seems like a reasonable trial period. So here’s what we do. We go find them, do as we’re asked, but if they start going on about gods and wars and telling everyone else how to spend their weekends, we leave them to it. You, me, the little ones… we find a nice rock somewhere. Like this one. Mobile, roomy, nice views. Leave them to their important matters. What even is this place for? Not like they’re using it for anything.”
Junior growled, “Supplies.” And then added, “Various.”
“His vocabulary’s improving,” said Ubik. “Amazing, isn’t it? And this is them at their worst. Broken parts, missing bits, loose connections. Once I get them into proper working order, they’ll be unstoppable.”
“I don’t think we want to be ‘unstoppable’,” said Guardian Tezla, two small plates from her suit in her hands. “Better to wait for the rest of the Guardians to arrive. They’re on their way. They can deal with this situation much better than you three.”
“I understand why you don’t want Ubik to do anything,” said PT, “and I want you to know I whole-heartedly agree with you.”
“As do I,” joined in Fig.
“But the Central Authority aren’t going to do much,” continued PT. “They might already have arrived and are sitting out there, discussing which bylaws they’re willing to break and waiting for permission from Central Authority Central.”
“We don’t require permission in an emergency,” said Tezla. “That’s the whole reason they have Guardians take command of these situations.”
“You already saw what happened when they decided you weren’t up to the job, Guardian,” said Fig. “Not that you did anything wrong, but the stakes are too high for them to allow even potential mistakes. The fate of the quadrant, the whole galaxy, could be decided here.”
Tezla frowned. “Marvellous to see how much you’ve grasped about an organisation you have very little knowledge or understanding of. Thank you for the clarification.”
She didn’t look very grateful. She only saw the droids as a threat and was unlikely to change her mind. But then people rarely did, until things got so bad they had no choice but to abandon their own dumb ideas and let someone else have a go. Usually when it was too late.
“This would work better here,” said Ubik, taking one of the plates out of Tezla’s hand and slotting it into a pouch along the suit’s waist. He made some minor adjustments and part of the suit lit up. He took the other plate and slotted it into the other side and her visor came down with a hard click. “There you go. Might need to hold your breath while it reboots.”
He turned away before she could say anything.
“Junior,” said Ubik. “I’m on your side. I say we find a ship down in the hangar — doesn’t have to be in good working order, bad working order is fine — and then we skadoodle.”
Junior was noncommittal. He sat down in the middle of the passage. The walls glowed on either side of him.
“I don’t think he understands you,” said PT.
“You think I should use simpler words?” said Ubik.
“I think he understands the words,” said PT, “he just can’t figure you out as a person. None of us can.”
Ubik smiled and stepped back so he’d have more room. Sometimes, people needed to see the big picture.
“He’s damaged and broken. He’s doing well so far, but he still isn’t whole. You can see that for yourselves.” Ubik glanced over at Junior, who seemed to be resting. Or waiting for something. “See? No hurry, nice and relaxed. Not a threat. Not the behaviour of a kidnapper. Not a machine programmed to follow orders. There’s a lot to unpack here. The complexity of the coding to create this kind of sentient existence… it makes the mind boggle. Not my mind, I’m fairly unbogglable, but for the rest of you, it must be very difficult for you to make sense of any of what’s going on here.”
“I think it’s fairly self-explanatory,” said PT. “We’re prisoners. You’re the one who’s going to be executed first.”
“No, no, of course I won’t. Not me.” Ubik pointed surreptitiously towards the Guardian. It was obvious who was going to ruin things for everyone — Guardian Killjoy.
Tezla’s visor snapped open, her eyes wide as she took a sharp intake of breath. “What did you do to my suit?” she gasped. “Tell the droid to give me my AI back. Now.”
“Bit tricky,” said Ubik. “He consumed most of Rex’s components.”
“He killed Rex?” asked PT.
“AI don’t die,” said Ubik, “they just get reinstalled. The CA probably have a backup on their ship. He’ll be fine.”
“Like Nifell?” said PT.
“Last I recall, you were in charge of Nifell. Poor bugger. So while you do have cause for guilt, try not to dwell on it. He knew what he was signing up for.”
“I don’t think he did,” said Fig.
“Safer where he is, probably,” said Ubik. “You can go back for him later. It’s not like we need him now we have Junior as our guide. Major upgrade.”
“That’s how you see people, isn’t it?” said PT. “Components to be upgraded.”
“That’s how everyone sees people,” said Ubik. “You choose the best from what’s available, and swap them out for better models when you can.” He looked at the Guardian. “Right?”
She scowled, her hands going over her suit — inside, outside, checking the surface, adjusting connecting parts. Ubik was fairly certain she was planning various contingencies, as she had no doubt been trained to do, but it was proving much harder to do without the suit’s AI.
“You better not have bricked my suit,” she said.
“It’s fine,” said Ubik. “Better, actually. But if you want me to change it back...”
She backed away from him. “Don’t touch anything else.”
Ubik held up his hands. “Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.”
“How far is Junior from being fully restored?” asked Fig.
“Not sure,” said Ubik. “I think he already would be if the droids he merged with hadn’t been so badly damaged. They all need a good servicing, lubricant bath, wax and polish. Sounds good, huh?”
The droid made a rumbling sound, which could have meant anything, but which Ubik decided was purring.
“And you can do that?” asked PT.
“Not really. I mean, a little touch up here and there, but not the kind of overhaul they need.”
“But if you could…” said PT.
He was right. Curing what ailments they might have would be an excellent way to win them over. But it would take more than taping up loose wires and changing a battery. He needed to show the Intercessors they needed him. Once he had their trust, he would be able to make his way up the hierarchy and take control of the entire organisation.
“Stop grinning at nothing like that,” said PT. “It’s creepy.”
“Something’s coming,” said Fig. “Lots of something.”
Junior was standing now and looking down the passage. A crowd of droids, these ones appearing to be in good shape — no injuries, no broken bits about to fall off — were approaching.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “We have to take this slow and easy. They’re suspicious of us and we don’t know what they want. One false step could bring the whole thing down on us. Let me deal with this.”
He took a step forward and immediately felt himself floating backwards. Fig and PT had taken him by each of his arms and lifted him off the ground.
“Let’s wait until Junior gives us the all-clear,” said PT.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “I suppose they haven’t seen each other in a while. Let them get reacquainted, good idea.”
“We should be ready to run,” said Tezla.
Junior wasn’t moving forward. There was something about his stance that seemed a little apprehensive. Nervous, even.
“It’ll be fine,” said Ubik. “You know how it is at family reunions. They probably just want to—”
The swarm of droids now surrounding Junior pounced on him. They smothered him so that there was no sight of him under all the other droids.
“What are they doing?” said PT.
“Cuddles, probably,” said Ubik. Although it did seem a little aggressive for cuddling.
PT started backing away. “I think we should—”
There was a cacophony of sound as metal scraped and banged together. The mound of droids in front of them grew and took shape. It was bigger than Junior. Not just taller, but wider and with more legs. Rather than a cat, it looked like a spider.
There was no sign of Junior in the new creature. He had been absorbed into the whole. He probably hadn’t wanted to be, but there was always a higher purpose that required someone to make a sacrifice.
The droid, a single creature, filled the passage almost completely.
“Junior?” said Ubik. “You in there?”
The droid moved forward, legs on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling. It rotated from one surface to the next.
“You,” it said in a distorted version of Rex’s voice. “Come.” A single tendril shot out too fast to be dodged, wrapped itself around Fig, and reeled him back in so he hung under the massive body.
There was no discernible spider-head but there were many eyes lined along the top of the body. They flashed different colours in a series of blinks.
“You.” It said to the rest of them. “Leave.”
It wasn’t a bad offer. They’d get to live, which would be nice.
“Wait,” said Ubik. “I want to—”
Another black tendril shot out, this one hitting Ubik in the chest and sending him flying back into the wall where he was pinned with a painful thud.
“Hey, Junior,” he called out. “I think you still owe me.”
Junior was still in there, somewhere. This new upgraded version had taken Rex’s voice box from him and knew how to use it. That information had to have come from Junior. It stood to reason.
The tendril slackened and Ubik felt the pressure ease on his chest.
“What...” said the spider, its tone a little different, “...want?”
The droids might not like losing their individuality but they weren’t entirely subjugated once they were assembled together.
“It’s not what I want, it’s what I can do for you. This place is pretty rundown. I’ve seen the state it’s in. I can fix it. Ask the others, they’ve seen what I can do without a manual or anything. With your help, I can restore your crew and get this ship flying like it’s supposed to.”
It was a bit of a punt, but it did seem like the sort of offer they’d be interested in. The spider had listened to him and now its body was covered in flashing lights. Some kind of internal consultation, Ubik guessed. It hadn’t killed them, which was a step in the right direction.
“What...” said the spider “...need?”
“Nothing. I mean, you’ll have to teach me how your technology works so I don’t accidentally break anything important, but apart from that, I’m just a curious guy who likes to fix things. No charge.”
The spider let him go.
“Fix. Or die.”
Ubik smiled. Best deal of his life.