Figaro was surrounded by goblins, all of whom were paying him no attention. Figaro had been in elevators where the occupants ignored each other, but never quite like this. It was fascinating to have discovered an unknown alien lifeform, and then to be riding between floors with them like commuters going to work. His training to deal with Antecessors hadn’t prepared him for this. He did a quick headcount but stopped when he got to two hundred.
There seemed to be some connection between the goblins, a way to coordinate their movements so they acted as a unit, but it wasn’t at all clear who made the decisions.
Their heads bobbled slightly as the platform rose up the shaft. There were more goblins scaling the walls at the same speed as the platform.
When he bent down to get closer to them, they leaned away from him. They couldn’t see or hear him, but they could definitely feel his presence. They were an existence he had never encountered before, not even in theoretical papers. His father would have loved to get one on his dissection table to find out how they came to exist. Perhaps he still would.
“Don’t stare at them like that,” said Ubik, staring straight up the shaft, trying to work out their probable destination. “You’re making them nervous.”
They didn’t look nervous to Figaro. He only had to look over his shoulder at the VendX two, Bashir and Chukka, to see nerves in action. Bashir was gritting his teeth and pushing himself into the corner. Chukka was behind him, keeping him between her and the goblins.
“What’s up there?” said Chukka.
“I can’t sense anything with them everywhere,” said Bashir, his eyes glowing slightly. “They’re making too much noise.”
The goblins were completely silent, but that wasn’t the kind of noise he meant.
The other two non-goblin occupants on the platform were the two Seneca mercenaries. They looked calm and unflustered on the surface, as they were trained to be. But Figaro had spent enough time around the Corps to know when they were relaxed and when they were on high-alert. These two had their weapons hanging at their sides and their eyes constantly scanning everything.
“This is going shockingly well,” said Ubik. “I don’t normally get this far into a job without everyone turning on me and trying to kill me. Who knew I’d be this good at working with others?”
“It helps having PT organise things,” said Figaro.
“Right? Who would have guessed putting him in that cradle would work out so well. I would have bet on him losing his mind and ending up in a vegetative state. Still, early days.”
“Does this go all the way to the surface?” asked Chukka. She was already planning her exit route.
Ubik shrugged, which sent a ripple through the crowd of goblins packed onto the platform. They seemed very happy to cling to him. They weren’t machines, so why the affinity with Ubik?
“It doesn’t go all the way up,” said Figaro. “My father would have detected it.”
Chukka’s eyes flicked from side to side, desperately looking for something. She hadn’t stopped doing that since they boarded the elevator. A woman in search of an advantage, intent on coming out of this situation with more than just her life. Even though that would be more than enough for most people. Bashir certainly would take that deal.
But Chukka had other, bigger ideas. Always her eyes would come to rest for a moment on the organism attached to Ubik’s arm. The skinless snake that occasionally rotated around his wrist to get a better grip.
Figaro felt sorry for her. So wrapped up in how to make a profit out of this situation, it hadn’t dawned on her yet that Ubik would only bring her along because he had a use for her. And Figaro had seen the kinds of uses he put people to. His father’s dissection table was by far the better option.
Figaro twisted the bracelet on his own arm, trying to relieve some of the pressure as it bit into his skin. He was grateful it had stopped the organic in his body from activating, but he would appreciate it if he could get it to loosen just a little.
The platform started to slow down. There was no end to the shaft in sight, but there was an opening letting in light. It was wide, taking up one entire side of the shaft, but it wasn’t very tall. The goblins on the wall scuttled through it, from above coming down and in from the sides, disappearing in an instant.
As they came level with the passage, it was about the right height for the goblins if they wanted to run with their arms raised. It was a little on the cramped side for everyone else.
The goblins on the platform streamed out and Ubik and Figaro were carried along with the tide. Although less spacious, the passage was similar to the ones they had entered when accessing the third level. The walls were cut very cleanly at sharp angles, and white lines formed patterns on the surface, filling in grooves.
“This is different,” said Ubik, scratching the wall with his finger. “Who’s in charge here, I wonder?”
To Figaro, the lines suggested this level was controlled by the Antecessors. The lines were straight and geometric in their movements. But as he watched, he saw what Ubik meant. There was something odd about the lines, as though they were struggling to move. They were sluggish and paused sometimes.
“Maybe this is the meeting point between the two factions,” said Figaro.
“The frontline of the battle between Ants and Ints,” said Ubik. “Maybe you two should go first,” he said to the Seneca women.
“Yes,” said Chukka.
Weyla scowled. “And you can take the rear. That’s probably where the first attack will come from.”
“I don’t sense any movement apart from us,” said Bashir. “There’s no one to attack us.”
“Everywhere he goes,” said Leyla looking at the back of Ubik, “someone gets attacked.”
“You don’t have to worry about us,” said Chukka. “We can take care of ourselves.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Ubik. “The boys will take care of any droids, that’s what they’re made for. Probably only be a few maintenance droids, anyway. Nothing major.”
“How do you come to that conclusion?” asked Weyla.
“This level is meant to be secret, somewhere you carry out stuff you don’t want others to know about. Level seven and a half. That means much less security.”
“Why?” said Leyla. “Wouldn’t a secret level have more security?”
Ubik shook his head. “That would only attract attention, which is not what you want to attract to your secret level. You put it between floors seven and eight and you don’t make a big deal about it. You’re thinking of the Antecessors as one big likeminded group all pulling in the same direction. But they were just as varied and competitive as we are. They didn’t agree on everything and they didn’t always do what they were told.”
“And this is where they held their secret meetings, was it?” asked Weyla, as sceptical as her sister.
“I don’t know,” said Ubik. “Maybe it’s where they hid their snacks. We could be on the verge of an amazing discovery. Hopefully one that comes with a beverage.”
Suddenly, the goblins began running. They left Figaro and the others behind as they rushed off, rapidly disappearing into the gloom.
“Where are they going?” said Chukka.
“I don’t sense anything,” said Bashir. He sounded relieved not to be hemmed in on all sides.
“Droids versus goblins,” said Ubik. “My money’s on the goblins. They’re small but they’re full of spunk. You shouldn’t underestimate spunky.”
Ubik proceeded at a more leisurely pace. Figaro tried to get some readings off his suit but the sensors were picking up confused signals that told him very little apart from the immediate layout. The long passage was long and straight and empty. Even the goblins weren’t showing up.
They reached a crossroads after about ten minutes. There was no indication where each of the three options would take them. Figaro’s suit told him nothing and Bashir couldn’t detect anything. And then he could…
“They’re coming,” squealed Bashir in an overexcited babble.
“Who?” said Weyla, weapon up and ready.
“Where?” said Leyla, head swinging from side to side as she checked the three passages.
They came from the passage going straight ahead. It was the goblins, running back at great speed. Behind them, there were large droids keeping pace with them, filling the passage with their menacing black and white bulk. Three that Figaro could see, with their tendrils stretched out in front.
“Those don’t look like maintenance droids,” said Chukka. She was right. Even in the gloom and from a distance, it was easy to see that they were battle droids.
The Seneca women braced for a fight.
Ubik was as relaxed as ever. “I don’t think…”
“Don’t shoot,” said Figaro, tapping Weyla on the shoulder. “The droids aren’t here willingly.”
As the goblins came closer, it became more obvious. The tendrils weren’t reaching out towards the goblins, they were being used to drag the droids along, like a running child holding onto a balloon string.
The goblins rushed to the junction and took the right passage as though they were in a terrible hurry.
Everyone ducked as the droids swung wide, banging into the walls — first one side, then the other — making an awful racket. They were yanked along with no ability to escape. Figaro had seen a lot of footage of droid encounters, but he’d never seen anything like this.
Even when a tendril managed to get free and grab one of the goblins around the waist or neck, it did no damage. When it squeezed in one area, another area just expanded. Some of the goblins had giant heads, others had swollen bellies or chests.
“Perfect counter,” said Ubik. “You don’t need that in a unified society. Goblins to take care of the droids. I wonder what they used to take care of the goblins.”
Antecessors had built ways to deal with other Antecessors. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about them.
“Which way?” said Figaro.
“PT?” called out Ubik. “Hello? Directions, please.” There was no response. “Might as well follow them,” said Ubik as the last of the goblins disappeared down the right passage. “They seem to be having fun.”
Another ten minutes passed and they reached another junction. Bashir called out a warning and they stopped in time to not be trampled by the goblins running from right to left. They had acquired more unfortunate droids. What were they planning to do with them?
They turned left and followed once the train of goblins had passed. Ubik was convinced they were leading them somewhere useful. He liked to bet on hunches and even when they were wrong he would find a way to make the result work for him. Figaro’s background in logic and reason seemed less and less productive the more time he spent around Ubik.
The next junction was actually a square room with three more passages leading off it. But more interesting was the table in the centre.
It was a solid block with a naked figure resting on it, slightly sunken into the surface in an outline moulded to the body’s shape. There was a transparent bubble covering it, much thinner than glass.
“Father,” said Figaro, rushing forward. It was Ramon Ollo, lying in state.
He had found him. Or his body. Or his corpse. He looked perfectly healthy otherwise. His skin showed good colour and his face looked unperturbed.
“Is he dead?” asked Leyla.
“He’s alive,” said Figaro. His suit was picking up faint life signs, similar to those from someone in a coma.
“Is it really him?” asked Weyla.
That would be harder to confirm. With the Antecessors mimicking ability, they could probably fake a body to a high degree of accuracy.
“What is this technology?” said Chukka, walking around the table.
Figaro looked over the readings again. “He’s alive but I don’t think his consciousness is in his body.” There was no brain activity. An empty vessel. “We need to find what they took out and put it back in.”
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Shouldn’t be too hard.” He walked up to the table and banged on the cover with his fist, The sound was sharp and clear, like hitting crystal. “Hello? Wakey-wakey?”
There was no response, which was to be expected, but then again, with Ubik you never knew what would work.
“They’re coming back,” said Bashir.
The sound of hundreds of scampering feet could be heard. The goblins came rushing out of the far passage and straight past and around and over everyone towards the passage they’d just come from. They had no droids with them this time.
“Did they seem different this time?” said Figaro. He could sense something but not quite put his finger on it.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “Sort of more… scared.”
Then a chittering sound filled the room and a wave of tiny black beads flowed out of the passage accompanied by angry screams.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you all.”
Nifell came stumbling out of the passage, eyes wide with madness, hair matted and face covered in dirt. His body was covered with nanodrones. They fell off him as though he was producing them internally and releasing them to overwhelm everything in their path.
He stopped when he saw there were people in the room.
“Hey,” said Ubik with a big smile. “I thought you’d go up top but you came down to help us.”
“I don’t think he’s here to help,” said Figaro.
“Kill them!” shrieked Nifell. “Kill them all.”
The nanodrones flooded the room. There were far more of them now. But they didn’t attack anyone, they headed straight for Ramon Ollo’s case.
“No, no, what are you doing?” yelled Nifell, sinking to his knees. “Listen to me. Listen to me.”
The nanodrones were eating through the transparent cover and swarming over Ramon Ollo’s body.
“I told you he was here to help,” said Ubik. “Thank you. You’re a very useful guy, Nif. Say, you don’t have an organic, do you?”
The organism on Ubik’s arm twitched. Ubik always found a way to make use of people.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (usually 6 chapters currently 4)Afterword from Mooderino