92: Joining Forces

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain .

VGV Motherboard (orbit).

Simulation Room 3A.


“It looks like you’re not alone,” said Point-Two.

“I’m not,” said Fig. Black arms snaked around behind him on the screen.

“But… you’re okay?” Point-Two was being guarded in his questioning, uncertain of the exact situation. He didn’t want to say something that could compromise Fig.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you for asking. You don’t appear to be alone either.” Fig was being equally circumspect. The two of them were attempting to ascertain how much trouble the other was in without making it worse.

Point-Two glanced behind him where the thirty or so members of the Motherboard crew had gathered to watch from a distance. They mostly looked confused and nervous. Whether that was due to the strange boy on the screen, bathed in green light with tentacles writhing menacingly on either side of him, or because they didn’t know what their employment status was going to be after this was over, it was hard to tell.

“I’m on the Vendx ship,” said Point-Two, turning back to Fig on the screen. “You’re on the Origin?”

“Yes. And… Ubik?” asked Fig, letting the name sneak out of his mouth in case saying it too loudly might set off alarms.

“He’s… around here somewhere,” said Point-Two. “What are those things? Are you sure they aren’t dangerous?” The black tentacles hadn’t stopped moving, but he couldn’t see what they were attached to.

“Yes,” said Fig. “For the time being. They’re Antecessor droids.”

“You’re their prisoner?” said Point-Two.

“Not exactly. I’m not sure, actually. They don’t seem hostile, currently.”

“Is that normal?”

“No,” said the technician next to him, breaking into the conversation. “It is not. Why aren’t you wearing your helmet? What’s going on? Is this some sort of prank?” The strangeness of the situation and his professional interest in such matters had overridden his fear of the intruder. Now he was insisting on answers and investigating what, to him, appeared to be impossible circumstances.

Point-Two considered slamming the man’s face into the console. Not out of malice — the question was a perfectly reasonable one and Point-Two wouldn’t mind hearing the answer — but to make sure nobody started to get any ideas about who was in charge.

Once they realised they were no longer in immediate danger, it would only take a few of the people here to overpower him. It was best to keep them off-balance. Which, Point-Two realised, was straight out of the Ubik playbook, which was not a warming thought.

There was an alternative, though. He could keep everyone’s mind off rushing him by keeping it on the big screen.

“Yeah,” said Point-Two, “shouldn’t you be suffocating to death right now?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine. The air’s breathable. The ship, it changed the atmosphere so we could breathe. And then it tried to contact you through the connection you were trying to make. It oscillated the optical input drive to produce a sonic pulse. Did you hear it knocking?”

The ‘knocking’ had sounded more like the ship falling apart.

“That’s impossible,” said the technician. “You’re in a simulation. You can’t impact the optical drive from in there.” He seemed to be in charge, the other techs were staying by their controls, ready to push buttons and turn dials. They looked like they were expecting the whole thing to go into meltdown at any moment. “And you can’t be breathing oxygen, it just isn’t… it’s never… it can’t be…” He was flustered and unable to get his words out, which was good. Everyone else seemed to be taking the lead from him, looking at each other with baffled expressions.

“I assure you it is possible,” said Fig in an even and measured voice. “You’re the head technician on the Motherboard?”

“Assistant Chief Simulation Engineer Genjin, second grade, first grade pending,” said the man proudly, especially the pending part. “I’ve been working in this field for seventeen years, and I’ve never heard of anything remotely like what you’re suggesting. Not even in any of the research journals. And you’re suggesting it’s possible in a class nine map? I know the Origin. Intimately. I did my graduate thesis on that vessel. There is nothing on that ship that could do what you’re suggesting.”

He sounded forthright and confident in what he was saying. It was interesting how the man was able to overcome the panic of a few moments ago simply because he was dealing with an area he felt he had expertise in.

Point-Two was careful to keep the wry smile off his face. He hadn’t known Fig very long, but he could tell this was a set-up.

“Assistant Chief Genjin,” said Fig, his calm demeanour that of someone who had frequently dealt with people who doubted what he was saying, “can you identify this?”

The camera moved to the side, showing the owner of the tentacle-like limbs. The droid was black and white, streaks of light running over its body and undulating arms. It looked like it could wrap itself around a person in a spacesuit and crush them like a tin can.

“That’s a senior archivist droid, third generation in ultimate mode, found in class two or higher… wait… how?” He had started off very confidently, his tone very matter-of-fact as he rattled off the droids designation, using his knowledge to establish the bonafide nature of his credentials. Now he looked shocked by his own words, the argument against his total conviction in his professional opinion coming out of his own mouth. “That isn’t possible. That’s a second-gen… in ult mode. What’s it doing in a class nine map?”

Assistant Chief Genjin looked over his shoulder at his team. “Is it a substitution?”

The other techs all looked down at their consoles and rapidly went to work. Everyone of them looked back up at the same time and shook their heads in perfect synchronisation.

Genjin looked back at the screen. “The code’s been rewritten. It must have.”

“You’re connected to the same code I am,” said Fig. “You can see if there’s been a code violation. You know there’d be a dozen tripped alarms if anything like that had happened. Didn’t they tell you why they wanted you to intersect with this simulation?”

Fig’s calm, reasonable tone had switched to something more insistent now. He was forcing the assistant chief to follow his own logic to the end, rigorously. He would refute himself, unable to throw accusations of deception at anyone other than himself.

It was fascinating to watch. How many people had Fig had to overcome in this manner to be this skilled at this kind of approach? He fought his verbal battles the same as his physical ones, with a gentle dominance and a mastery of whatever weapons he chose to employ.

Point-Two guessed it was a method devised by someone who couldn’t shout and insist he was right. A method devised by a child to defeat adults whose pride wouldn’t allow them to bow to the wisdom of someone beneath them.

Rather than a privileged life where things were easier, this was someone who had been forced to fight to be heard every step of the way.

Genjin’s eyes were darting around, looking to his team for answers, looking at the screen for clues. “They said… they said it was a surge error. False readings and a dangerous level of cortisol stimulation. Artefacts can appear in the worst cases, it’s happened before. Non-interactable objects, that’s all.”

“Does this look non-interactable?” Fig grabbed one of the tentacles.

The techs in the room all gasped. Fig was holding hands with an Antecessor droid. They were deadly machines that showed no mercy and killed relentlessly. They didn’t do hand-holding.

There was indecision in Assistant Chief Genjin’s eyes. Fig was pushing hard to convince him what he was seeing was real. Once he was on board, once he couldn’t deny the veracity of what the readings were telling him, Fig would get him to agree to whatever it was Fig wanted from him, this was Point-Two’s assessment.

Point-Two had no idea what he himself would ask of these people, even if he had their willingness to cooperate. He was doing his best to not give the ones he had brought with him an opening in case they asked for instructions, so he was more than happy to leave it up to Fig.

Only, he had the horrible feeling Fig was doing his best to win them over so as to be ready for when Ubik arrived to reveal what the plan was. That was where Point-Two was with all this. He had gathered a group of people to… wait. But if Ubik didn’t turn up, then what?

Genjin looked like he’d come to a decision. He was looking up at the screen, at Fig, lips trembling.

“No, no, no,” wailed Genjin. “We’re all dead.”

Fig looked surprised and let go of the droids limb. “What’s wrong? You still don’t believe me?”

“I believe you,” said Genjin. “But this is Vendx we’re talking about. If we cooperate with you, if we give in to your threats or coercion, they’ll kill us all. Do you really think they’ll allow something of this magnitude to—”

There was a piercing sound that hurt every part of Point-Two’s skull. His teeth felt like they were about to explode. If he hadn’t been weightless, he would have dropped to the ground in agony.

“This is Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority,” said a voice directly into the middle of his head.

Through squinting eyes blurred by pain, Point-Two could see everyone in the room was having the same agonising reaction to the voice.

“Cease and desist all activity. Stand down all operations and prepare to be boarded. This is an official order of the Central Authority.”

The sonic insertion stopped and Point-Two could breathe again.

“What happened?” said Fig up on the screen. He didn’t look like he’d been affected.

“The Central Authority are here,” said Genjin. He seemed relieved, elated even. “Maybe we have a chance of getting out of this alive.” He was smiling, his eyes that were a moment ago filled with despair, now hopeful. “Something beautiful and impossible is happening and we will get to witness what could be the next evolution in our understanding of Antecessor tech—”

A siren went off. It was loud, but not as disabling as the Central Authority’s message. Point-Two recognised the universal ship order for all hands to report to their stations to prepare for battle.

“What is it?” said Genjin. “Are they attacking us?”

The techs were checking their consoles for information.

“No,” said one of the techs. “We’re attacking them.”

“Interceptor drones were already deployed,” said another. “They’ve taken up formation.”

“But why?” said Genjin, dismayed and appalled. “Not even we would attack the Central Authority. Who would be crazy enough to do something so stupid?”

Point-Two looked up at Fig. Neither had to say anything. They both knew who.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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