Restricted Area 2B.
Figaro switched his internal field of view filter. The room went from a deep red wash to light pink. Contrast was vastly improved and he could see details more clearly. The wall at the far end was moving. Limbs had emerged and were extending towards the floor. From what he could remember about this particular droid, it was slow.
Which would be an advantage if they had somewhere to run to.
“Aren’t we going?” said Nifell, pulling on PT’s sleeve like a child. “We should run away.” His voice was strained and desperate.
“No,” said Figaro. “The doors are locked now. We’d need an orbital laser to blast them apart. They won’t open until it finishes feeding.”
The droid had detached from the wall in an amorphous mass. It was still assembling itself — how long since it was last active? — but its size was obvious. It was enormous.
“We can try,” said Nifell. “We’ll die here. We’ll… we… we...” He was hyperventilating. “How can we face that thing? Why are we facing a monster?”
Nifell turned and ran for the door. His panic was entirely justified but going for the door would do him no good.
Ubik tripped him up as he tried to get past, sending him sprawling. He grabbed Nifell by the boot and dragged him back, sliding face-down along the floor.
“This should buy us some time,” said Ubik, lining up a shot aimed at the droid.
PT was in front of him before he could send Nifell skimming towards certain death.
“Why? He’s a liability.”
“I’ve still got a use for him,” said PT.
“The nanodrones?” said Ubik. “You’re still on that? That’s yesterday’s news.”
“Where are the nanodrones, Ubik?” PT’s head was at an inquiring angle. “They were in the kill room, but I didn’t see them when I was hanging there. I don’t know what you have planned for them, but I’m keeping Nif on the team until I find out.”
Ubik threw up his hands. “We have bigger issues at the moment than harmless little drones.”
“Plus I gave him my word he’ll stay alive as long as we do.”
Ubik shook his head and let go of Nifell’s foot. “He’s going to get you all killed.”
PT bent down and helped Nifell up by yanking the collar of his suit, snapping him into an upright position. He looked startled to be back on his feet so quickly.
“I notice you didn’t say he’d get us all killed.”
“Of course not,” said Ubik. “No point being a defeatist — where will that get you? I’ll be fine, it’s you two I’m worried about.”
The droid had detached itself completely, pulling the last of its tendrils free, and had taken shape. It resembled a large cat, an abstract image with sharp angles and nothing rounded. It moved on four limbs with a predator’s grace. The head, which was crowned with a mane of hanging cables, dripped sparks.
No other droid looked like this or behaved in this way. It acted like an animal. It ignored its true nature, even when its innate abilities would be far more useful. And it was completely unpredictable.
It was still a machine. It should follow repetitive routines and perform tasks in the same manner. But it didn’t. It swung its head from side to side like it was stretching its neck after a long slumber.
The four of them backed away. It didn’t put very much extra distance between them and it, but it was an instinctive reaction.
“What’s its attack pattern?” said PT.
“It isn’t consistent,” said Figaro. “But it’s slow to get going. It likes to take its time. It even plays with its prey if it feels they aren’t much of a threat.”
“We have to go, we have to go,” rambled Nifell.
“Quiet, Nif,” said PT. “But it’s beatable, right? Your father must have beaten it. At least in a sim-U.”
Figaro nodded. PT was thinking clearly and asking the right questions. He was able to keep a level head in this situation, without any of the training Figaro had been through. He felt disappointed in himself.
They had managed to get out of the kill room thanks to Figaro’s suggestions, but neither of his ideas had worked the way he had intended them to. Only between the three of them had they somehow made it work.
It was gratifying they had been willing to follow his instructions even if they were untested. And illuminating that they were willing to rebuke him when a suggestion wasn’t worth considering. That wasn’t how a disciplined hierarchy worked. He wasn’t the leader of this trio; their relationship was structured in some different way. He had yet to figure out what that was.
But he could provide information. He knew everything his father knew, and if his father had been here, he would think of something. Between the three of them, they could too.
“This place,” said Figaro, “they use it as rites of passage. When you join the Primary Exploratory Team, you run this room in the sim-U.”
“And what’s the best way to beat it?” asked PT.
“No one ever has,” said Figaro. “You aren’t expected to. You get eaten by it. Everyone goes through it, a simulated death to remove fear of the unknown. They call it the Beast.”
“Wow,” said Ubik. “Your dad’s a troll.”
“That thing’s the troll,” said PT. “Doesn’t follow the rules, destroys everything in its way, not part of the system. You two should get on. It’s the Ubik of the droid world.”
The Beast turned around, its mane swinging from side to side, sparks pouring down.
The head was a large square block of black and red, or pink through Figaro’s visor. The design made it look like it had one round eye in the middle of its head.
Unlike the other droids, it didn’t float. It moved with deliberate, heavy steps. It was one of the reasons it was so slow. But that didn’t make it any less dangerous.
“I don’t see a mouth,” said Ubik. “How’s it going to eat us?”
“The mouth is in its chest,” said Figaro. There was a spiral pattern just below the head, partially hidden by the curtain of sparks. It opened like an iris and led directly to the stomach, which was filled with acid.
“What about you?” said PT. “Did you get eaten?”
“I’m supposed to run it next year. I was meant to do it on my last birthday but my father decided I wasn’t ready.” There had been many arguments about that, but now Figaro could see his father’s reasoning more clearly. He probably wouldn’t be ready by his next birthday if things so far were any indication.
“But you said your father managed to beat it,” said PT.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “After many, many attempts in the sim-U, he found one method that worked. The only one. But the sim-U didn’t reveal what the Beast was guarding. So he came here and used the same method. It took three attempts before it worked. A lot of lives were lost in the process.”
“And?” said Ubik. “What was the secret to defeating it? Did he build his own Beast and have them duke it out?”
“No,” said Figaro. “He brought in one-hundred-man teams and blasted it to pieces.”
The great Ramon Ollo reduced to relying on brute force. It wasn’t something he liked talking about but it had been the only way.
The Beast was padding from side to side, raising its head like it was smelling the air. None of its behaviour made sense. It was aware of them, knew exactly where they were and what danger they posed. The rest was some kind of weird charade.
“And what was it guarding?” asked PT.
“Nothing,” said Figaro. “They didn’t find anything. They looked all over this room, same as the sim-U. No secrets. So he let it reform. Decided to leave it here.”
Usually, after defeating a droid like this one, you would dismantle the pieces and store them separately to stop the thing regenerating, as well as to study it, maybe sell the parts. But his father had decided to let this one droid return to its post as a mark of his respect for its unique design.
“That’s no good,” said PT. “We can’t overwhelm it with numbers. It seems a bit strange that there’s nothing here, though.”
“Rubbish,” said Ubik. “Of course it’s guarding something. A treasure even Ramon Ollo missed, and we’re going to be the first to find out what. This is great. I bet normally you have to work your way through a bunch of low-level trash to get to a room like this, but we got sent straight into its den, direct delivery. Not even VendX offers this kind of premium service. You’re all very welcome.”
“Are you mad?” wailed Nifell. “We’ll die here. I don’t want to be eaten. Slowly dissolving in that thing’s stomach. I couldn’t stand it.”
“I could break your neck, if you like,” said Ubik. “Just put your head on the floor.” He raised one boot and indicated the space underneath. “My Delgados have a special setting, you won’t feel a thing.”
Nifell's look of horror became more horrified.
The Beast finally began to stalk towards their end of the room. Its head was nearly hitting the roof. The building blocks used to make the angular body were the same as any other droid in the site, but far more intricately put together.
The shoulders rose and the head dipped down. The opening in the torso pulsed as it opened and closed.
“No, no, no,” said Nifell.
“Ready, Ubik?” said PT.
“Ready for what?” said Ubik.
“To save the day,” said PT.
A flicker of confusion crossed Ubik’s face. “And how am I supp—”
PT kicked him. It was fast and sharp, in the chests. Figaro could read it well enough to see it was more of a push than a strike. Ubik went flying backwards. He probably could have avoided it or at least rolled with it to absorb the force of the kick, but he took the hit. Probably as curious as Figaro to see how this would help.
It took him a second to realise he had ended up over the trap door. A second too late.
The floor dropped beneath him and he dropped into the hole.
“Why did you…?” Figaro stopped when PT raised a hand.
“The Beast doesn’t get on with the rest of the facility, right?”
Fig nodded, still not understanding.
Then Ubik came flying out of the hole. He had used his boots again to repel himself out, but this time he was followed by the droids from below floating out in Ultimate mode, combined into one large amalgam of Antecessor wrath.
“I get it,” said Ubik excitedly. “We get them to fight each other. This was my idea. I came up with it first.”
Figaro had suggested a fight between Beasts, a duplicate made by his father. And PT had used the idea to recruit the droid Ubik had already goaded into a frenzy as the second combatant. This was how you pooled ideas into an actionable plan.
But would it work? These were just restriction droids. Even in ultimate mode, they weren’t a match for the Beast. Although it had paused its advance when the droid appeared.
“No, that’s not the idea,” said PT. “I don’t think it’ll take on the Beast. It’s too taken with you and your boots.”
He was right. The droid ignored the beast and attacked Ubik.
Ubik backed away. “I take it back. I don’t like this plan.”
“Then do something,” said PT.
Figaro finally understood. “Release the nanodrones.”
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