Book 2 – 35: Escape Artists

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Kill Room.


Figaro couldn’t move. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t understand it. He had run this map a thousand times. He had begged his father to let him try the real thing but his requests had fallen on deaf ears. He was ready, he had always believed that. And now here he was. He didn’t feel ready.

His father had been right, this didn’t feel like the simulation. There was a pressure coming off these droids that the sim-U versions had never produced. It wasn’t physical, it was on a completely different level. It was like intent. He could sense their intent to apprehend and remove the foreign objects in their area of authority.

Everything he had learned about droids — how they operated, how they fought, how to beat them — was available to him. He could remember it all. It didn’t help. He had no idea what he should do. Or rather, he had numerous ideas of what to do. It was picking the right one that was leaving him frozen.

He tried harder to find the correct answer. Usually he didn’t even have to think, the right course of action was obvious.

There were four droids, each two metres tall with numerous appendages flailing under the black central unit. White streaks of light shot up and down their torsos and along their arms. They could split up into smaller units, or combine into bigger ones. Their ability to adapt made them hard to out-fight.

They were class three restriction droids. They closed in on intruders who entered their designated patrol area and captured them. Very basic. Once you were enmeshed in their limbs, they constricted and crushed until there was a small compact version of you, easy to dispose of. Normal laser fire would do nothing to them. Fighting and struggling were useless.

You could overcome them with high-intensity cannons which were too large to be manoeuvrable inside the site, or you could ignore them if you wore a special pressure suit. It was bulky and not really practical — these weren’t the only droids in the facility and tailoring your loadout to suit one particular class of droid would leave you vulnerable to the other types.

His father had made specialised suits to make sure nothing was missed. Every droid on this level had been beaten at least once. These kinds of droids weren’t used to guard anything, they were there to remove unauthorised elements. They were housekeeping droids.

There was no need to face them so the best option was to avoid them. Don’t fall into traps and you could ignore them altogether.

That was the path Figaro had always taken in the simulations. Now he saw that was a mistake — he could have used the experience.

It wasn’t like he’d never been in an encounter with this droid class before, but it was usually with a team. Each person with a specific role. With the necessary weapons. With a plan.

Walking into a situation like this unprepared brought with it an entirely different experience. Even what had happened in the Origin map, which had been unexpected, hadn’t felt like this.

“Hey, snap out of it,” said PT. “What do we do?”

They were back to back in the middle of the room. The droids were closing in, slowly closing the circle. It was their most basic move, one they didn’t get to use very often because very few people were dumb enough to get caught like this.

The others were looking to him for answers. For leadership. He had told them he was familiar with this place, had hundreds of hours logged. Unlike his father, they thought it meant something.

“I… I’m not sure.”

“Come on, come on,” said Ubik. “This is what real pressure feels like. They haven’t found an algorithm to replicate it so enjoy while you can. Gets the blood pumping doesn’t it?”

It was no surprise that Ubik found the sensation invigorating. This was what he had been brought up in, not artificially safe facsimiles.

“You know this place,” said PT. “Focus. What’s the way out?”

“Don’t think,” said Ubik. “What’s your gut say?”

They were telling him to do two different things. Both sounded correct.

“Why are we inside the site?” said Nifell. He was shaking and almost sitting on the floor. Fear was making him curl up. It was a reasonable psychological response, making himself a smaller target. “They said we wouldn’t have to enter the site. I didn’t sign up for this.”

“We should have gone in through the front door,” said PT. “With guns.”

Figaro had told them not to bring any firearms. His experience on the Origin had convinced him they would only make them appear as a threat.

“Guns wouldn’t work against these droids,” said Figaro. It sounded like a weak excuse.

“We could use them on ourselves,” said Ubik cheerfully. “I have a feeling this isn’t going to end pleasantly.”

Figaro came to a decision. He wasn’t sure he was right but he was sure doing nothing was definitely wrong. He took off his helmet. The droids stopped moving. Maybe he could communicate with them.

“It’s me they want. I’ll keep them busy while you get away. I don’t think they’ll harm me.”

The air here was warm and tasted slightly tangy. He breathed it in. He felt a lot better now he’d made a choice.

“That is a terrible idea,” said PT.

“Dumbest one yet,” said Ubik. Neither of them seemed impressed by his sacrifice.

“They wanted me here. I should be fine.”

“Never mind you being fine,” said PT. “You have the controls to our suits.”

“I can take it off him,” said Ubik.

“I’d rather have no control than have you be in control,” said PT. “And where are we supposed to go? We’re in a box, if you’d forgotten.”

“The doors are pressure activated,” said Figaro. “Very sensitive. If you step on them, they open immediately, but they snap shut once you fall through. G-tag, that involves wall running, right?”

PT looked up at the ceiling. It was about ten metres above them. Even with the reduced gravity, there was no way to jump that high.

“You think they’ll react from this side?” said PT. “Worth a try.”

And then he was moving. He ran past the droids.

It was an astonishing thing to witness. Figaro had seen numerous battles fought against droids, real and simulated. He had never seen someone dodge a droid so effortlessly.

You couldn’t read a droid’s movements. They were machines, their bodies didn’t shift and tense up to indicate their intentions. Even the pressure Figaro could feel from them now was shapeless; he had no idea where the threat was aimed, he could just tell there was a lot of it.

But PT didn’t read what the droids were going to do, he predicted what they would do in response to the best line he could take, then he faked taking that line. When the droids did as he expected, he shifted to the actual line, a far less efficient one, and far less likely to successfully evade capture, if he had gone with it first.

“Look at them slinky hips,” said Ubik. “I could move like that with those hips. Genetic lottery, that’s what that is.”

PT wasn’t finished displaying what his chromosomes were capable of. Once he was past the droids, he ran up the wall. Even the droids had stopped to watch.

The reduced gravity was partly responsible but it was more than just that. He managed to get up about halfway and then pushed off soaring over the droids, face pointed up, angled towards the ceiling. His right arm was outstretched. A firm slap should be enough to spring the release mechanism.

PT’s hand missed by a good metre.

He came falling down backwards, the trajectory sending him straight into the waiting embrace of one of the droids.

“Ubik, the walls are made of a metal with similar properties to steel. Magnetic. Maybe…”

“Say no more,” said Ubik. “Time for tronics to put DNA in its place.”

Ubik set off in the opposite direction, using PT’s fall as a distraction. The droids had moved to surround PT, allowing Ubik to run up the other wall in a similar fashion, only not quite so far. And he didn’t fall, either. His first step was about a meter up and the second was a little under two. His feet remained stuck there with Ubik horizontal to the ground.

“What are these walls made of?” wailed Ubik. “I can’t demagnetise.”

“Perfect,” said PT. “Stay like that.”

PT came down on top of one of the droids. It was ready and waiting for him, no need to do anything else but wait for delivery. But PT came down hands first, placed a palm on the top of the droids head and rotated.

The droids sent its limbs up towards PT, closing around him like the petals of a flower at dusk. PT didn’t wait for them to slam shut with him inside, he pushed off and backed up, slipping through the gaps between the tentacles.

He landed on his feet and ran towards Ubik still sticking out of the wall. The droids turned to watch. Figaro had the feeling they were quite interested to see where this was going.

PT ran at the wall at an angle this time. He jumped up using Ubik’s planted feet like steps — sending Ubik crashing to the floor — and managed to keep wall-running much higher this time.

His legs pushed with explosive force and launched him across the room again. He didn’t have to reach very far to hit the ceiling, his nose almost touching it this time. He thumped his fists several times on the surface as he soared by.

The third hit did the trick and the trap door fell open, two flaps on either side of PT. A beam of light washed over him as he fell, arms out to the sides.

His hands latched onto the edges of the flaps before they fell away from him and kept them from falling any further. His legs dropped beneath him as he stayed there in an iron cross position. There was nothing to hold him up except for immense grip strength.

“Quick, let’s go,” grunted PT.

“How?” said Ubik. “Fly?”

PT’s feet were well out of reach, and even if they were able to grab hold of them, they’d only bring PT crashing down.

“Reverse polarity on your boots,” said Figaro. “If the attraction was stronger than you expected, so will the repelling force.”

“Sounds ridiculous,” said Ubik. “I like it.” He bent down and tapped his boots, and went flying into the air, hit the ceiling and came down face first.

Droid limbs lashed out to catch him but he managed to twist so his boots faced the droids. He went flying away from them.

“This is great,” said Ubik. He angled his feet down and grabbed Figaro by the collar. They rose in wonky, unstable lurch towards the opening. “We’ve discovered the Antecissor’s weakness. They can’t catch what they repel.”

“Not really,” said Figaro, as they shot out of the hole and landed in a heap. “Magnets drive Antecessor tech into ultimate mode. They kill everything they see.”

“Hey, guys,” said PT. “The droids are doing something weird.”

Figaro looked down into the hole. The droids were merging together.

“How do we get you out?” he said to PT.

“Ubik, boost me.”

“You want me to go back in?”

“And grab Nifell on the way,” PT added.

Nifell was currently curled in a ball on the floor below, hoping to be ignored by the droids. The plan had worked quite well so far.

“Do we really need him?” said Ubik.

“It is on your way,” said Figaro.

Ubik sighed and then dropped into the hole. A moment ago he had been wildly out of control, barely keeping from smashing himself to pieces. This time, he landed next to Nifell, grabbed him and bounced back out, hooking PT on the return trip.

The landing could still use some work but they made it out before the trap door slammed shut. The three of them slid across the floor. Now that Figaro looked at it, the floor design in this room was familiar.

“Delgados to the rescue,” said Ubik lying face down on the floor. “I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder.”

“Good job, Fig,” said PT.

“What about me?” said Ubik.

Nifell just groaned and curled up again.

“How do we get out of here before more of them turn up?” said PT, ignoring Ubik.

They were in a much larger room with double doors on the far side. The walls had similar white markings to the one below, but these weren’t moving. For a good reason. Actually, for a very bad reason.

“That way,” said Ubik, pointing at the doors. “Probably locked but we’ll soon put a stop to that.”

“Wait. There’s something I should tell you,” said Figaro.

“Uh oh,” said Ubik. “Is this one of those famous Fig ‘um’ moments?”

“It’s the room. I recognise it. We shouldn’t be here.”

“We just got out of a kill room,” said PT. “What’s this one called?”

“Restricted area 2B,” said Figaro.

“Doesn’t sound too bad,” said Nifell, sticking his head out, a hopeful twang to his words.

“It’s not the room, it’s the droid that lives here.”

“Lives here?” said PT.

“It’s not an ordinary droid. My father thinks it was an experiment that went wrong. This room is cut off from the rest of the facility. It’s like the Antecessors wanted nothing to do with it. It’s a very unusual droid, the only one of its kind.”

“What classification is it?” asked PT.

“Insanity class.”

“You people love your dramatic names,” said Ubik. “How insane can it be?”

“It doesn’t think of itself as a machine. It thinks it’s alive. And it needs to eat.”

“What… what does it eat?” asked Nifell.

“Meat,” said Figaro. “Maybe if we’re quiet and just leave it won’t wake up.”

The white lines on the walls turned red.

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