Tezla skated down the passage using her suit’s propulsion jets on minimum setting to off-set the friction her boots would normally encounter. It wasn’t flying and it wasn’t running; somewhere in between. It was fast, which was good. The only problem was working out where to go.
The light from her suit lit up the area just ahead of her and the HUD projected on the inside of her visor showed her what was coming up. What was coming up were mostly a lot more passages.
The calculations and constant adjustments made it tricky to manoeuvre around the occasional corners. Coordinating her movements and the asteroid’s fluctuating gravity would have caused her to lose momentum if it wasn’t for the RX-340 unit controlling the suit. She still wasn’t happy about that.
Rex could detect subtle changes in gradient and elevation to find the most probable path leading up. Even if she trusted the AI, the chances of finding her way to the surface with this method were slim, but the least bad option was still the best option.
Her idea was to move quickly and meet up with the other Guardians as soon as possible, and then to turn off the AI controlling her suit. If the information she’d been given was correct, there would be two of them. That made them the ideal number. Three Guardians could combine their suits to set up a reinforcement loop — enough power to deal with a planetoid of this size. As long as they had one functioning AI between them there would be no problem.
Tezla consulted the readings on the inside of her visor.
“Rex, scan within a one-hundred-metre radius and get a layout of this level. We need to find a route to the surface, I don’t care if we have to blow our way out. Ducts, access tunnels, coolant pipes — there has to be a more direct route than this.”
“Scans are restricted by structural limitations,” said Rex in its usual disinterested manner. The same tone it always used but it didn’t sound the same to her ear now. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, but it was there. Or not there. Something added or missing. She didn’t know, she had no proof of anything being amiss, but she felt it in her newly minted bones.
“Guardian, I have already run—”
“Do it again, deep scan. Deeper than the last one. Deeper than you think is necessary.”
“I will not be able to run a self-diagnostic at that level and also maintain a full sweep of the environment.”
“You just told me the walls are too thick to penetrate so limit environmental checks to verifiable activity. While you’re at it, run a tier-three defragmentation and look for any indication of recently healed fractures in your internal architecture.”
“You wish me to locate undamaged code?”
“Recently damaged code that is no longer damaged,” said Tezla.
“You suspect I have been compromised and reconfigured. I assure you, Guardian, if that was the case I would have—”
“Why are you questioning my orders?”
“I have already begun the third round of self-diagnosis, as instructed, Guardian.”
Tezla knew the chances of finding anything were minimal. If Ubik had done something, he had hidden it well — so well, two scans had found nothing — but Tezla knew there was something there. Something waiting to spring a surprise on her when she least expected it.
The interruption to communications between her and RX-340 had been an obvious ruse. Make it look like his sabotage had been discovered so the real modification would go unseen. The most galling part, though, was not the fact he had tampered with the AI, it was that he was well aware his ruse would be suspected and still go undiscovered.
His smugness was deeply, deeply irritating and she didn’t appreciate the effect it was having on her ability to function. She was already as tense as it was possible to be without snapping like the overwound mainspring of an ancient timepiece, an Ubik-surprise was the last thing she needed.
The passage came to an intersection. There was no indication which way to go. Time to start blasting through the ceiling?
“I am receiving a signal. Central Authority encryption. Identification marker, Guardian Onla.”
“No message. Tight beam to penetrate the shielding.”
Smart. Onla had stripped down the signal to just her ID marker so it could punch through whatever these walls were made of.
“Where’s it coming from?”
“Directly above us.”
Tezla looked up and the light from her helmet showed a flat, smooth roof to the passage. There were no markings but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something on the other side which should best be left undisturbed.
“Self-scan complete,” said Rex. “All systems are clean. No signs of unauthorised interference. A clean bill of health, Guardian.”
A corrupted system giving itself the all-clear. Very reassuring.
Her instinct was to move quickly even if it meant taking risks. Whatever Ubik had done to RX-340, her best shot was to outrun it. She knew this situation called for analysis and measured action, not guesswork. Her AI was meant to support her in making the right choice but she couldn’t afford to trust it, not completely. Taking the direct route seemed the logical step but it could end up being the final one if she wasn’t careful. Standard operating procedure had been rendered worthless.
She hooked the targeting matrix off the HUD onto her retinas and focused her sight on the roof. “Load tunnelling torpedo. Prepare to fire on my mark.”
“Movement detected,” said Rex.
Tezla braced herself and flexed her fingers around the butt of her holstered weapon. It was a small gun with limited penetrative power but she found it reassuring to have something outside of the suit. She would have very much liked to have a target to shoot at.
“Straight ahead.” In front of her was a blank wall. “On the other side of the wall. It is approaching.”
Tezla took a step back, her eyes scanning for a change in the flat, motionless surface. The HUD on her visor showed nothing but that could be because Ubik had done something to it.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. It will arrive in three, two…”
The wall opened up, slotting sideways like pixelated curtains being pulled apart, the blocks disappearing into themselves to reveal a circular space with no roof or floor. A platform descended and stopped.
“There’s a shaft,” said Tezla.
“Yes,” confirmed Rex.
“Why didn’t you detect it before now?”
“It wasn’t there before,” said Rex.
She approached the opening but didn’t enter. The gun was out of its holster. There was an implied invitation. Get on the platform and let it take her to wherever it wanted.
“Okay, we’re going to chance it.” She was trained in taking calculated risks and her training told her to not take this one. But time was not a luxury she had. The more time she took, the greater the likelihood of Rex turning on her.
She peeked her head into the shaft and looked up. The walls stretched into the darkness in both directions. If the platform didn’t take her up she could always climb.
As soon as she stepped on the platform it began to rise. There was no sensation of acceleration, no jarring from inertia. It felt like she could have been stationary if she didn’t see the walls passing by.
“Detecting anything?” Her voice was down to a whisper, as though that would keep her from being heard by whoever was controlling the platform.
“Voices,” said Rex. “Approximately two hundred. Echolocation indicates at least two hundred and seventeen biologically viable bodies. Human.”
Tezla strained to hear. There was a background hum that sounded like it could be the murmur of a crowd. Two hundred plus people? Not Central Authority. She ran a check pf her already checked weapons again.
“Yes,” said Rex. “Seventy-five metres. Seventy-four...”
The countdown appeared in Tezla’s HUD. The darkness they were ascending into showed no signs of life.
When the countdown reached zero, the platform stopped and the shaft wall in front of her slid aside just like it had below. Hundreds of crouched figures in defensive positions with their backs to her had their weapons drawn pointing at the other end of the room. Hundreds of shocked faces turned to stare at her over their shoulders.
“Two hundred and nineteen VendX employees,” said Rex although their employer was obvious from the markings on their cheap suits. “Two Guardians of the Central Authority.”
The crowd parted, people shuffling aside on their knees as a familiar face appeared from behind a lifted visor.
“Tezla, where have you been?” said Guardian Onla. “What’s going on? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” said Tezla. “What’s the situation here?”
The momentarily stunned crowd broke into chatter.
“Shut up!” shouted a voice from behind Onla. “Next person to start bitching gets a termination notice from my left shoulder turret.” The crowd was instantly silenced. Guardian Horne appeared next to Onla, a gun turret on his shoulder swivelling threateningly from side to side. Not Tezla’s first choice for backup, but he would do. “You should see the weather outside, Tez. I think it’s going to rain.”
Tezla dropped her visor and opened a private channel. “Horne? Was there no one else available?”
“Like it was my choice,” said Onla. “How did you get here? Can we go down that way? Did he send you?”
“Who?” said Tezla.
“The guy who sent us here,” said Onla. “Hollet 3.2, he called himself.”
Was he the one who provided her transportation? “I’m not sure. I think so. We could try but I don’t think we can get everyone in there and I have no idea how to control the platform.”
“I see you’ve got a new body, Tez,” said Horne, breaking into the conversation. “Very nice. As you can see I too am rocking the latest model. Want to compare physiques?”
“Why have you got all these people down here?” asked Tezla, ignoring the offer. “What are they going to do?”
“I know, right?” said Horne. “I was all for abandoning this rock and nuking it from orbit so no one gets to play with it — sends a message — but Onla insisted we rally the troops and make a last stand here.”
Onla frowned. “We need the Null Void, if you recall the point of this mission. Have you any idea where he is?”
“I was with him, down there,” said Tezla, nodding at the shaft behind her. “Somewhere.”
“You lost him?” said Horne. “That’s no like you. Tez. Can’t remember the last time you let someone get away.”
“He isn’t going anywhere. We’ll need all three of us to bring him in.”
“Three of us?” said Horne. “For one guy? You sure that new body of yours is working properly.”
“If she says it’ll take three of us it will take three of us,” said Onla. “More pressing problem — we’ve got a fleet of Antecessor ships about to land. They’ve already taken out all our ships.”
“They took out all our ships?” said Tezla. “They must be in stasis, though, right?”
Onla shrugged. “They must have weapons way beyond anything we’ve seen from their wrecks. If we don’t stop them here, who knows what it could mean for this quadrant.”
“Telling you, nuke it from a distance,” said Horne. “Only way to make sure.”
“You can’t nuke an Ollo facility from orbit,” said Tezla. “The defences are too strong. We’d have to blow it from in here. If we combine our suits we could do it but we all die in the process.”
“So?” said Horne. “We can restore from backup. Lose a bit of short term memory, that’s all.”
“I don’t have a backup,” said Onla.
“You don’t…” Horne shook his head in disbelief.
“I don’t think it will come to that,” said Tezla. “What we need is more info on these Antecessors, preferably before they come swarming in here.”
“We’ve got nothing,” said Horne.
“He’s right. Limited intel,” said Onla. “Ziff, anything new?”
“Negative,” said Onla’s AI.
“RX-340 requesting handshake from ZF-989,” announced Tezla’s AI.
“Aberration detected,” said Ziff. “Systems compro...mmmm...ai-ai-ai-ai.”
“What are you talking about?” said Onla, banging the side of her helmet. “ZF-989. Ziff.”
Tezla’s jaw tightened. “What did you do, Rex?” she managed to squeeze out between gritted teeth. “RX-340, report.”
“Data downloaded,” said Rex, as ambivalent as ever. “Antecessor ships inbound. Central Authority vessels incapacitated. Seneca Corps incapacitated. VendX in orbit around Enaya. Extrapolating.”
“Did your AI just violate my AI’s memory banks?” said Onla, her eyes flicking around inside her helmet. “What’s it doing? My systems are being scraped. Tezla! Tell it to stop.”
“I can’t,” said Tezla. If this was Ubik’s plan it seemed very unnecessary. It wasn’t like Guardian’s didn’t freely share information. There was no need to ransack another AI’s data storage.
“Predict Central Authority will remain dormant and observe. Predict Seneca ships will launch Kamikaze Protocol. Success rate negligible. Antecessor strategy designed to create survivors. Predict need for survivors in future Antecessor plans.”
Rex was speculating. Central Authority AI didn’t speculate. They relied on statistics and hard data, and even then they only gave out the top options with dozens of caveats.
“Hey, what’s going on,” said Horne, stepping in front of Tezla.
“RX-340 requesting handshake from...” There was a pause.
“That’s right Rex or whoever you are,” said Horne. “I don’t have an AI. Hack into that. Tezla, shut it down.”
“Wait,” said Tezla. “This is Ubik’s handiwork, the Null Void. I think he’s trying to help.” She didn’t tell them how Ubik’s attempts to help usually ended up but he did seem to be providing assistance. For now. “The attack by the Antecessors, they didn’t carpet bomb you?”
“No,” said Horne. “Surgical strike.”
“So they could have wanted most of these people to survive.”
The three of them looked around at the VendX employees. Furtive and anxious and mostly useless.
“Why?” said Onla.
“I don’t know,” said Tezla. “But I think Rex is right.”
The Antecessors needed live subjects for some reason. The question was how to use the information to their advantage.
“Recommend counter to the Antecessor plan,” said Rex.
“How can you counter their plan when you don’t know what it is?” said Horne.
“Recommend you kill all VendX employees.”
It was a recommendation Rex would never make, but it would take away the resource the Antecessors had deliberately collected. It didn’t matter what they wanted these people for if they removed them. She looked around at the men and women. It would be messy, but a lot less messy than blowing up the whole asteroid. She took out her gun.