Figaro was tightly bound. The information that had been pouring into his HUD was all gone. The moment the spider-droid had grabbed him, the Antecessor-droid-construct he had bolted to his suit disappeared. It just fizzled out and the sudden return to his regular sensor array made him feel practically blind.
He wasn’t in any pain or even discomfort, but he could barely move and he certainly couldn’t get free.
From what he recalled from his entomology classes, certain types of spiders cocooned their prey and then injected them with venom to liquefy the contents before ingestion. Of course, the droid wasn’t an actual spider — it had far too many legs, for a start — but he still felt like a packaged snack hanging under the droid’s body.
“Interesting how none of these Intercessor droids float, isn’t it?”
Figaro was able to turn his head just far enough to see Ubik walking alongside the droid, skipping and weaving in between the limbs attaching and detaching to the floor, walls and ceiling of the tunnel to propel the droid forward.
“What do you mean?” Figaro asked.
Ubik ducked and side-stepped to avoid being crushed by appendages that didn’t seem to care if they squashed the small human underfoot. Usually it was the reverse, with spiders scurrying to avoid heavy feet.
“All the Antecessor droids fly about like drones,” said Ubik. “Very mobile. Not this lot. Different culture altogether.”
Now that he thought about it, all of the droids down here — the damaged ones from before and the ones that had assembled to take this spider-like form, had moved using their limbs to crawl or walk or, in the case of Junior, run. None of them had shown the ability to fly.
“We’ve only seen a few of them, so far,” said Figaro. “There might be others that can.”
“I don’t think so,” said Ubik. “They don’t look the type.”
Figaro had no idea what ‘type’ Ubik was referring to, but if he sensed these machines weren’t designed with flight in mind he was probably right. It was the sort of thing he was good at.
“And does that tell you something about them?” Figaro asked.
“Not really,” said Ubik. “Just thought it was interesting. How are you doing under there? Any motions sickness? I always get nauseous when I have to travel any sort of distance upside down.”
He made it sound like it was something he had experienced often.
“I’m okay,” said Figaro. “Do you think there’s any way you can convince Junior to let me down?”
“Junior’s not in charge now,” said Ubik. “New guy seems a bit uptight, don’t think he cares about quality of life upgrades. Might be able to make you a bit more comfortable, though.”
Ubik leaned closer and tugged at the tendrils wrapped around Figaro. The droid didn’t seem to notice or didn’t care. There was very little give and the parts of the suit Ubik could reach had no helpful functions for this particular situation, as far as Figaro could recall. Ubik pressed and twisted and tried to squeeze his fingers into gaps, but all that happened was Figaro’s visor darkened and the few readings still coming in disappeared.
“Nope, not going to get out of there without a tub of grease,” said Ubik. “I don’t think they mean to harm you, it’s just them being protective.”
“What are they protecting me from?” said Figaro.
“Oh, not protecting you. Protecting themselves from you. I think it’s pretty obvious no one wants to risk setting you off. I thought they were just treating you like a valuable item they were being careful around in case the goods got damaged.”
“Now I can see they’ve gone out of their way not to attack you or kill you because if they did, it would probably be bad for them.”
“Like a bomb, you mean?”
“Right,” said Ubik. “Like a bomb. But with a prize inside. They want the prize, they don’t want the bomb to go off while they’re trying to get it out.”
It did make sense, in a way. Figaro was well aware of how dangerous the organic he carried was. It had been drilled into him from an early age. Literally. And he had always been able to sense its power, even a tiny fraction of which was enough to overwhelm him if it seeped out, which it had on occasion. But he had never been told the exact nature of the organic, or how it would manifest its destructive power. There had always been an intimation that knowing would somehow make it more likely that something would be inadvertently triggered. And to some extent, Figaro had himself resisted the urge to learn more. Not knowing made it less frightening. Or maybe it was not thinking about it.
All he knew was that one day it would either emerge under his control, or it would kill him in the process.
“Those other droids gave into Junior, and then Junior gave into this guy,” said Ubik. “I mean, he probably still has some influence, but someone else is calling the shots now. The way they change who gets to give the orders is very clear cut. Once you’re accepted as the leader, everyone else falls in line.”
“Yes,” said Figaro. “If we can figure out how it works, I think it might reveal a great deal about how Antecessor society functioned. Historians and xeno-archaeologists would be very interested.”
Ubik chuckled to himself. “You think? Maybe we should make notes so that when they find our corpses, researchers will be able to write papers on the subject.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea.” Figaro wasn’t sure what Ubik found so funny. The truth about the Antecessors was important. The future of the human race could be impacted by their legacy. It could also be ended by it. Even if he wasn’t able to prevent what the Antecessors had planned, he could at least leave behind information for those who came after.
“You realise we’re it, don’t you?” said Ubik.
“Yes, it. The only one who’ll get a chance to stop the alien menace. No offence, Senior.” He patted the droid on one of its limbs as it swung past. “I call him Senior because he’s bigger than Junior.”
“Yes,” said Figaro. “I get it.”
“What did you do to the Guardian’s suit?” said PT. Figaro could just about see him from the corner of his eye.
“Yes, you. Who else could get a Central Authority Guardian all riled up and muttering to herself? She’s convinced you’ve sabotaged her suit. Keeps saying it feels different.”
“Paranoid,” said Ubik. “They get like that when they hop from cloned body to cloned body.”
“You’re an expert on bioengineering too, are you?” said PT.
“Engineering is engineering. It’s all about sticking one end into another, if you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t,” said PT. “And please don’t explain. Just stop messing with her. Whatever we find at the end of this endless tunnel, we don’t need her on edge when we get there.”
“Hey,” said Ubik, “have you noticed how none of the Ints float like the Ants?”
“Yes,” said PT. “It’s because of the gravity shifts down here. They would risk being thrown around if they didn’t remain anchored at all times.”
“Oh, there’s a reason. I just thought it was interesting. Kind of ruins the magic when you explain things like that. I guess that’s why you’re the brains of the outfit. PT,” said Ubik, suddenly sounding very sombre, “remember, we’re counting on you to get us through this in one piece.”
“I think that’s what I’m supposed to say to you,” said PT.
“Put Nifell out of your mind,” continued Ubik. “Think of your failure to save him as motivation for the next time people rely on your leadership qualities.”
Figaro could feel the irritation emanating from PT even without having him in sight.
“I’ll do that,” said PT, very calmly.
“Okay, good, I’ll go talk to the Guardian.”
“No, wait. That’s the opposite of what I just—” There was a sigh and then PT’s face peered at Figaro from right next to his helmet. “You okay?”
“Yes. I’m not in any pain, at least. Would be nice to have the use of my body back.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said PT. “At this rate, we’ll be walking for some time. Be thankful you’re getting a ride.”
“Want to swap?”
“No,” said PT.
Even though he couldn’t see PT very clearly, mostly just his profile bobbing in and out of his field of vision, managing to navigate the droid’s limbs as well as Ubik, Figaro could easily see the weight PT was carrying.
“I think he’s fine.”
“Who?” said PT.
“Oh. Not really anything we can do about it.”
“I know, but I still think he’s okay. The suit will keep him stable until we can go back for him. And if we can’t, then it’ll probably be better if he doesn’t wake up.”
PT was silent for a minute. Then he let out a breath. “It’s hard to shake my conditioning, even when I’m aware that’s what it is. When you grow up on a colony ship, you’re taught to put aside any differences when lives are at stake. If the ship goes down, so does everyone. Status, position, background, it means nothing. You can hate whoever you want when times are good, but once things take a turn for the worst, you save everyone you can.”
“That’s a very impractical way to view life when you’re not on a colony ship,” said Figaro. “You can’t save everyone.”
“Yes, I know,” said PT. “Doesn’t mean they can’t be saved.”
“Get away from me!” The Guardian didn’t sound happy.
“What’s he doing?” asked Figaro, unable to see what Ubik had done to upset the Guardian.
“I don’t know,” said PT. “I’m afraid to look. It’s too late, anyway. There’s something up ahead. I think this is it.”
“Oh, I can feel it.” There was a wave of pressure flowing towards them. It wasn’t physical, though. It reminded Figaro of entering a sim-U and feeling the world reform inside his mind. There was some kind of mental presence ahead. A big one.
The patterns on the wall had grown more intense, rushing forward as though to lead the way. Figaro tilted his head back as far as it would go and caught a bright light at the top of his vision. He was upside down so that meant it was coming out of the floor.
The pressure Figaro felt started to pull at him. He could feel the droid’s grip tighten, but not in a threatening manner. It was keeping him in place rather than let him be yanked away, and he definitely considered it the better of the two options.
Limbs shot out and grabbed the others. He heard Ubik whoop excitedly and the Guardian shout some kind of warning. His ears felt like they were about to pop.
The walls were blindingly white now but Figaro kept his eyes open. He wanted to see this.
And then they were going down. The droid’s limbs that weren’t holding the four of them were pressed against the walls of a shaft. It was bigger than the previous one, and there was no platform. The droid was their elevator.
They slid down, getting faster and faster, until the walls disappeared and they were falling. No, they were being pulled towards something immensely powerful. Figaro had felt this kind of pull before, when going through a wormhole. Something you would usually do from inside a ship with dampening fields active.
The stop was sudden but only mentally jarring. He would have expected his organs to fly out of his body with the kind of deceleration they must have undergone, but he felt fine, just a little out of breath.
He found himself being lowered from the droid’s underbelly and turned upright. As he was released to float in place, he checked his suit’s functions. All dead.
The others were beside him. There was no floor, though. They were levitating in mid-air, alongside the droid. They weren’t hovering or flying. It was like they had been caught in the centre of a perfectly balanced magnetic field. And around them, filling the walls of a huge spherical chamber, were droids.
Black bodies, white patterns, multi-limbed. They covered every surface, in every direction, three-hundred and sixty degrees from every plane.
The perspective was confusing. They seemed to be part of the wall, coming out of the wall, and completely separate from the wall, all at the same time. But unlike the chamber with the broken droids, these droids didn’t seem to be in need of fixing. They were much more like the droids Figaro had been trained to deal with — aggressive and ready to attack.
“Where is my father?” called out Figaro.
There was a flicker and a familiar face, several storeys tall, appeared in front of them.
“I am here,” said Ramon Ollo, a curious look on his face. “You chose to defy me, yet you come directly to the place I tried to bring you to.”
“I came to take you home, father,” said Figaro. “My decision shouldn’t mean you have to stay here on my behalf. Where is your physical body?”
There was a look of mild amusement on his father’s face. “A rescue? It has been a long time since anyone tried to save me.”
“You often told me I would be more powerful than anyone who had ever existed,” said Figaro. “Surely this is not beyond me.”
“Your power,” said Ramon Ollo, smiling, “the true power of the organic you host, is that you can locate any object, no matter where it is.”
“That’s it?” said Ubik.
“And then travel to that place, no matter where in the galaxy it might be.”
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Lost me for a moment. Now you’ve got me back.”
“Travel across such distances distorts the very fabric of the universe. If not properly controlled, you could rip space into shreds.”
“And the Intercessors do not wish me to use this power?”
“The power was created to find a particular object. One the Antecessors seek, but these droids would rather see left hidden. They fear what you might become, but to destroy it would risk annihilation. And to extract it would require your cooperation.”
“And to leave it for me to decide once I have the power?” asked Figaro.
“I do not think they are willing to take the risk.”
“What if I use my life as leverage?”
“How would you do that?” asked his father.
“This suit, which, as you know, has a wide range of attributes”
“The suit cannot harm you,” said his father. “I created it, and like all my creations, its core function forbids it to injure you in any way. And even if you could override my instructions, a threat is only of value if it is credible. Are you truly prepared to sacrifice yourself?”
“It’s hard to know for sure,” said Figaro. “I think it is one of those things we can only know in the moment. To predict such a monumental choice is a futile exercise, even for the most self-knowing person.”
“You are correct,” said his father, sounding a little proud. Figaro knew him too well to think it was pride in him.
“But in this case, whether or not I would be capable of it is irrelevant. There is someone else here who is very much capable of it and, I would say, looking forward to proving it. Him.”
Figaro pointed at Ubik.
“You think the Null Void has the power to turn the suit against you?” asked Ramon Ollo.
“I don’t know what a Null Void is or what it means. All I know is that Ubik deactivated my suit. It could never harm me, as you said, but it now cannot protect me, either. Which is why, I assume, he modified the Guardian’s suit.”
“I knew it,” said Guardian Tezla. “The little…”
“And a Central Authority suit is powerful enough to kill all of us standing here, whether it explodes or discharges its weapons or employs some other offensive or defensive feature.”
“That does sound like something I would do,” said Ubik.
“Whatever it is you fear would happen if I died,” said Figaro, “Ubik is willing to see if you are correct. Are you willing to insist on your vision, to the point of no vision at all?”
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino