Book 2 – 33: Under Way

Third Quadrant

Asteroid Tethari



Point-Two didn’t need his bubble helmet. The air did smell terrible down in this bunker — nine men living for months in close proximity wasn’t a scent to be sought after — but living on the Garu had taught him how to tolerate all manner of odious atmospheres, both literally and figuratively.

He decided to look around while Ubik did whatever it was he doing under the console (it was best not to ask) and Fig concentrated on the panel on his arm. Either he was continuing to try to patch into the asteroid’s network or he was keeping tabs on Ubik. Both were advisable.

The man in the top bunk wasn’t a threat. He probably had more useful information that could be extracted, but in his current state it was probably better to let him calm down first. Familiar surroundings, as unpleasant as they were, would help him feel safe. He knew this place better than them, he would probably start thinking about how he could use that information to his advantage, which was fine.

He was currently indulging in some deep self-pitying muffled groaning, possibly into a rancid pillow. Point-Two had lived on a patrol ship for three months during his basic training — obligatory for all on the Garu — and he had a very good idea of what happened to bed linen under such circumstances.

The room they were in was perfectly square, dug out of the rock in primitive fashion; no designs, no decorative features, just straight lines and sharp corners. Certainly not built by the Antecessors.

There was a narrow corridor beside the bunks. Point-Two slipped into it, having to enter sideways and move with his back against one wall. There were three more rooms; one on each side and one ahead. The first was a storeroom, barely head-height, with packages in maintenance crates usually used for long-haul trips to keep perishables from going off.

There was one light on the roof that came on when he entered. There was no room to move and it was difficult to get to the boxes at the back with them all piled on top of each other. He opened a couple of the easy to reach ones to find them empty.

There were some other storage boxes with diagnostic tools, some recording media stacked haphazardly — some with dates and notes on their labels, most without — and a range of accessories for weapons. The weapons themselves were not present, presumably taken by the men who had gone into the base.

Point-Two recognised all of this as the basic equipment for an observation post, although he would have expected things to be better organised. There was a clear indication of the men slowly losing focus and probably hope.

The room opposite was the same size but in here there were a number of thin metal canisters, each about knee-high and a sealed lid, filling most of the floor. Point-Two counted sixteen of them.

They had printed labels with serial numbers but no indication of what was inside, other than some warning symbols to indicate they should be handled with care. Just about every danger symbol — toxic, corrosive, radioactive, biohazard — was on there.

Weapons of some kind? Explosives? They might come in useful.

He picked one up. It was quite light. It didn’t smell of anything — although it would be hard to detect anything subtle inside the bunker — and was cool to the touch. When he gently shook it, there was a sound like shifting sand or salt.

He backed out of the room and kept going down the narrow passage towards the room at the end but as he approached it, the stench became overpowering and he gagged. It was obvious what room this was and he had no interest in making a closer inspection.

Having got a rough idea of the layout, Point-Two returned to see if things had developed any. He slid out of the passage to not much of a reception; Fig glanced up at him before returning his attention to his arm and Ubik, who had his head out from under the console and was glued to the screen which was full of scrolling lines of code, didn’t react to his return at all; he probably hadn’t noticed he’d gone in the first place.

“Haven’t you found it yet?” said Point-Two. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was Ubik was looking for but it was bound to be something he wouldn’t understand even if he did know.

“It’s not that easy,” said Ubik. “This stuff is very basic.”

“Shouldn’t that make it easier?” said Point-Two.

Ubik turned his head just enough to reveal a frown. “That’s very ignorant thinking. Some of the most sophisticated devices are deceptively simple.”

“You’re literally contradicting yourself,” said Point-Two.

“No, I’m not,” said Ubik, turning back to the console. “The structure can be simple while the produced effect can be complex. Like fighting someone with a stick. Some people can just hit a child very hard with it and some can win battles against armies single-handed.”

“Which people?” said Point-Two. “Against what armies?”

“I don’t have time to give you a history lesson right now,” said Ubik. “There should be a subroutine in here somewhere, something that leads into the Ollo network, but there’s nothing. There isn’t even anywhere to hide it.”

“What did they use this set-up for?” asked Fig.

“Observing the exterior of the base,” said Ubik. “That’s it, as far as I can tell. They drilled holes and put up some cameras to watch who went in and out.” He fiddled with some knobs on the console and the screen switched to a view of the base entrance from somewhere behind the shed. The camera was very low and the shed partially obscured its line of sight.

“There are some storage discs back there,” said Point-Two. “I suppose they recorded around the clock. Must have caught whoever it was who arrived before us, although they aren’t labelled very clearly.”

“Who cares?” said Ubik. “They’re in there and we’re out here. Doesn’t matter who they work for, does it?”

“Well, I’d like to know,” said Point-Two.

“Me too,” said Fig.

The two of them looked up at the top bunk, its occupant shrouded in darkness. He was no longer groaning but Point-Two could hear laboured breathing.

“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked. There was no response.

“Shall I get the torture ball out?” said Ubik without looking over.

Point-Two had no idea what a ‘torture ball’ was. He assumed Ubik had made it up to frighten their blanket-wrapped captive. He hoped that was the case.

“Gerd,” said a hoarse voice from the shadows.

“Did you operate this thing?” Point-Two pointed at the console.

“We all did. There was a rota.”

“So you know how it works?”

“No. Nifell was in charge of maintenance.” Then he added bitterly, “He’s the one you murdered.”

“Never lucky,” said Ubik.

“The people who came here before us,” said Point-Two, keen to keep him talking, “what did they look like? How many of them were there? What sort of weapons did they have?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I don’t know anything.” It sounded like he was receding further into the dark, if that was possible.

“Is there a tape? Where’s the recording of them arriving?”

“I… there isn’t one.” He was clearly lying. Despite his fragile mental state, some part of his training was still present, telling him to keep the information safe from enemies. His commanders sent him here to collect this information, his duty was to deliver it intact.

Point-Two understood the difficult position the man was in. They could drag him out from there and beat the truth out of him, but Point-Two sensed he would clam up once he accepted there was no way out. If he was going to die anyway, might as well give up nothing. A soldier had his pride.

“Torture ball has six different settings,” said Ubik. “I bet he won’t be able to get past the third one.”

“Shut up and find your code,” said Point-Two under his breath. “You know Ramon Ollo wouldn’t let them stay here unobserved, which means you aren’t good enough to find something he hid.”

Ubik made a grumbling sound and the screen changed back to lines of computer code.

“Hey, how did you manage to fool them into thinking there was an extra ship on the pad?” asked Point-Two. “They can’t be that dumb.”

“Huh,” said Gerd dismissively. “You’d be surprised. We’ve been here for months and they had no idea. But… actually, we only stuck that shed there after the base got overrun. We needed a way out, get into one of the ships and get out of here.”

“Built it in front of your own cameras,” muttered Ubik, focused on the console. “Genius.”

Point-Two moved in front of Ubik, so his voice would be harder to hear.

“Why didn’t you leave?” asked Point-Two.

“Because they landed. The captain said we could take them — they weren’t even armed, no guns anyway, and they didn’t have any drone support.”

Point-Two exchanged a look with Fig. They were coming to the same conclusion. No drones, no guns, no tronics. Anti-Ubik precautions.

“You don’t know who they were?”

“There were only four of them. Dressed weird.”

“Advance party,” said Fig. “Secure the base and shut down the defences so the main force could land.”

“But how did they get past the defences?” said Point-Two.

“I don’t know,” said Fig.

It was very strange. Even with the base personnel out of commission, the automated defences should have dealt with any unauthorised visitors, at least any visitors that didn’t have a member of the Ollo party with them. If these people were able to land without being challenged, why would they need to deactivate the defences?

“Either they have tech that only works on a very small scale,” said Ubik, “or it’s so expensive, they can only afford to use it on a small group. Either way, if they do manage to get the defences down, we’re going to have a lot of company.”

“My team will deal with them,” said Gerd.

“Your team is probably dead,” said Fig. “I’ve managed to get a very weak link with the sensor array in the base. It’s the lowest level of security, but it shows four life signs on the control floor. You said you sent in seven. I don’t think this is four survivors from your team. The readings are odd, masked somehow.”

A small case, similar to the media files in the other room, came flying out of the top bunk and landed on the floor.

Ubik picked it up and stuck it into a slot on the console. The screen changed to a shot of the base’s exterior, but this time the lighting was different. Four figures ran into frame, heading for the base. They were dressed in orange suits, hard to miss, oversized and baggy. No identifying markings. They were out of sight in a few seconds, hidden by the shed.

“Did you get them landing?” asked Point-Two.

“No, we don’t have a camera aimed at the second pad. No one ever uses it.”

“They’re VendX,” said Ubik.

“How can you tell?” asked Fig.

“Easy. Look how they run. That waddle, it’s unmistakable.”

“How can you really tell?” said Point-Two.

Ubik sighed. Then he ran the tape back and forward again. As the men ran towards the base, he froze the image. The man in the rear had his back foot slightly raised, revealing the sole. From the low angle of the camera, you could just about make out the distinctive VendX logo on the base of the heel.

“Okay,” said Point-Two. “One mystery solved. Good.” As Ubik had said, it made no real difference, but he still felt better for knowing. At least it was someone they had dealt with before, even if they seemed to have had an upgrade since then. “Now what’s in here?” He held up the canisters he’d brought from the other room.”

“It’s a tube of nanodrones,” said Fig. “Where did you get them?”

Point-Two turned to face the unexpected direction of the answer. “In there. There’s a bunch of them. You know what they are?”

Fig nodded. “My father created them. Small self-replicating drones that can burrow…” He lowered his arm and looked around him like he was just realising where he was. “Ah, of course. I should have realised. These tunnels, they were nanondrone-built. They aren’t commercially available.” He looked up at the bunk. “They must have stolen them.”

“Made with Enayan resources,” said Gerd defensively.

“So are a lot of things that don’t belong to you,” said Fig.

“Nanodrones?” said Ubik. “Let me see.” He snatched the canister from Point-Two.

“Be careful,” said Fig. “They’re very—”

Ubik had already popped the lid off, upending the tube and pouring the contents onto the floor. They were like shiny black grains of rice. Ubik picked up one between finger and thumb. He turned back to the console, pulled out the media case and tossed it away. Point-Two moved quickly to catch it.

Ubik placed the nanodrone in the empty slot and fiddled with some knobs. Code appeared on the screen.

“There it is!” said Ubik. “He didn’t put the subroutine in the mainframe, he put it in these tiny buggers. He must have arranged for them to be stolen.”

“Yes, I can believe that,” said Fig.

“Can they get us into the network?” asked Point-Two.

“Better than that. We can use them to tunnel into the base.”

“No,” said Fig. “It won’t work. That’s why my father made them. If we couldn’t get to the third floor through the door, he thought we might be able to dig our way in from the outside, bypass the Antecessor barricade completely. But the exterior’s shielded. The nanodrones couldn’t make it through.”

“But I don’t want to get into the parts that are blocked off,” said Ubik. “I only want to get into the control room, which isn’t protected by the Antecessors.”

“Wouldn’t it be quicker to walk?” said Point-Two. “We know how to get past the sentry drones — you have the biosig.”

“That’s not the problem,” said Ubik. “VendX are here. They know we’re here. They’ll be waiting. But they won’t expect us to come from behind. It’ll be a surprise attack they won’t be ready for.”

Fig looked confused. “Aren’t all surprise attacks—”

Point-Two cut him off with a shake of his head. Now was not the time.

“There’ll still only be three of us,” said Point-Two. “And like you said, they’ll be ready.”

“Three of us?” said Ubik. “No, no. We won’t be facing them alone. Not now I have my army.” He looked gleeful as he spread his arms out and looked at the mess on the floor. “My army of tiny killer drones. They can eat through rock. Imagine what they’ll do to a VendX sales rep.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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