Normal service is resumed, chapters go Mon-Wed-Fri.Preface from Mooderino
Ollo Base Landing Pad B.
Chukka viewed the landing area on the screen that covered the floor of the dropship as they descended at the equivalent of a three G dive. The ship’s internal buffers prevented the passengers and crew from feeling the effects of the accelerated plunge but did nothing to stop the ground rising up at incredible speed on the screen, giving the impression that a crash would be the inevitable outcome.
“Coming up on the landing site,” said the ship’s captain over the comms. “Looks clear. Prepare to deploy.”
The interior of the ship was one large space currently containing sixteen VendX Priority Team commandos, strapped into pods attached to the walls on either side. The ship jerked and slowed, the noise of the thrusters dropping in pitch to a monotone growl that shook Chukka’s suit and helmet so hard her vision became blurred.
Chukka had never been given command of this scale before, and now she was in charge of a full-scale task force. It was both thrilling and a cause for concern.
She was certainly the best-informed company rep on this matter — her interactions with the target and his companions gave her a clear understanding of what they were up against. Any other commander would be hard put to correctly gauge the variables even if fully briefed. You really had to experience Ubik to believe he was capable of the things he was responsible for. But she was still very inexperienced, which meant her superiors were using her for what the marketing department liked to call a ‘toe in the water’. If marketing were involved, the water was likely to be filled with piranhas.
If things went wrong, she would be the one taking the fall. Which was fine. It was a risk she gladly accepted considering the possible rewards if she managed to pull this off. And they had given her the entire Priority Shipping Fleet to get the job done. They wanted her to succeed, but they suspected she wouldn’t. It was just business. She would test the waters, give them a better idea of their next step — preparations were probably already underway for a stronger second response.
That was if she failed. Her job was to make sure she didn’t.
The ship came to a stop over the landing area, hovering and making an immense racket as it did so. Outside there would be no noise in the airless atmosphere but inside there was a relentless cacophony. Sound insulation was seen as an unnecessary expense when everyone on board was hooked up to the comms system in their suits. And modern suits did a good job of shutting out everything else. But they weren’t in modern suits.
“We see two ships on the pad,” said the captain’s voice in Chukka’s ear, “both show no signs of life on board. One is ours.”
Chukka squinted and cleared her vision. Her fingers tapped on the old-fashioned arm controls to adjust the suits internal pressure to counter the vibrations as she looked down at the two ships on the screen. Seen from above, they were small blocks, but it was clear that one was a small, compact shuttle with typical features for its size, and the other was a melted lump of metal with the VendX logo just about visible on its warped roof.
“What happened to it?” she asked the captain.
“No idea. Our sensors are telling us it was fired on by one of our own ships.”
“A VendX ship did that?”
“According to the fire patterns, VendX heat signatures. But we haven’t got another ship on site. Must be the other ship using our gear. We do sell it commercially.”
“Yes, Captain, I know. What can you tell me about the other ship?”
“Nothing. Doesn’t have any ID, no ping-back at all. No weapon configuration, either. It’s either unarmed or very well shielded.”
“Is it damaged?”
“Not a scratch, Major. Not a scratch. Want me to land somewhere else?”
“No. Hold position.” It didn’t seem possible, a small shuttle like that able to decimate one of VendX’s premium assault vessels. But that was why she was the ideal person to lead this mission — she knew such things were possible, when the person behind them was Ubik.
Chukka released herself from the pod and floated to a standing position. “Okay, listen up.”
“Eyes front,” barked Sudan, a broad-shouldered grunt and a veteran of multiple hostile sales pitches. He was the type to not get his scars removed even though that was one of the perks of working for the Priority Fleet, as the gouges in the left side of his face proved. He was far more experienced than Chukka and they both knew it, but he was also smart enough to know who would get the blame if things went bad, and that giving her command was a good indicator that that was the expected outcome. He would be a good second-in-command because only a fool would want to take her place.
“I want you to treat this as an extremely prejudiced pitch,” said Chukka, “soured beyond rescue. We aren’t here to win anyone over. There’ll be no walking away with a clean signature from this one.”
She could feel sixteen pairs of visored eyes watching her, doubting her credentials for running what looked like a basic smash and grab op. There was no winning anyone over here, either. No one liked the PR department because no one trusted the PR department.
“I want to make this very clear,” continued Chukka, “so there’s no room for confusion. Whatever your training tells you, no matter how confident you might feel, if you’re face to face with the target, you open fire.”
She pressed buttons on her arm and a Holver image of Ubik appeared next to her. Even through their visors, she could feel just how unimpressed they were with what they saw. It was imperative she get them to ignore their intuition. Overconfidence would get them killed.
“Those of you wondering why I was put in charge, understand, I’m the only one who’s had direct contact with the target. I know what he’s capable of. You don’t make any judgement calls here, you open fire. No headshots. We need him alive or his brain intact at the very least. That’s why we have four medics on this job. They aren’t for you, they’re for him. We drop him as fast, get him stable and then extract. Take him down as quick as you can, you won’t get a second chance.”
“Why not give us real guns, then?” said a disgruntled voice over the comms.
“Watch your mouth,” said Sudan. “Mics are open.”
“That’s fine,” said Chukka. “He’s right, we’re using low-powered weapons that are going to make the job harder. You know the reason for that. We want to give him as little to work with as possible.”
“He uses our strengths against us,” said another, equally disgruntled voice, “so we go in as weak as possible? Sounds like a great plan.”
They weren’t happy. They were going into a lethal situation heavily underpowered with a green commander. They knew the odds were stacked against them.
“I know,” said Chukka. “But he succeeds by surprising people with what he can do. We won’t be surprised.”
“That’s him. What about the Ollo network? And the Antecessor defences? How do we deal with them?”
“We also have two techs from Advanced Research,” said Chukka. All heads turned to the two agents at the far end of the hold, both dressed in black suits with mirrored visors, who didn’t move at all. “They’ll take care of that. Captain? I want to do a leaflet-drop from…” She pressed a button on her suit. “Orbital, what’s the maximum height we can drop in from, no rigging?”
“Two hundred metres,” came the immediate reply.
“Okay, Captain, drop height is two hundred.”
“In these suits?” said Sudan, unable to hide his shock.
“Yes, Lieutenant. These suits might be old, but the old gear was built to last. Captain, once we’re out, get into low-level orbit and wait for us to call you. Orbital, who’s on the ground?”
“Ground is clear. We see six competitor ships, two stealthed, no life signs on the surface.”
The competition was here but six was fine. They would just get in each other’s way and she was confident her team would be able to take care of whoever was left. A small, surgical team that knew why it was here. The rest of the fleet just needed to stop anyone else from joining in.
“Keep the skies clear,” said Chukka. “No one lands.”
“We’ve got six ships incoming. Authorisation for pre-emptive action?”
“Negative orbital.” The last thing she needed was a fight on two fronts. “Use everything but lethal. I know you’ve got a few tricks to keep them busy.”
“Wilco. Won’t be able to hold them off forever, though.”
“No problem. Do what you can. Okay, let’s go.”
The team unstrapped from their pods and stood up. The two AR agents grabbed a large flight case between them. The floor went black and then opened like bomb bay doors to reveal the actual surface of the asteroid. Everyone fell.
They fell slowly, their suits self-adjusting to keep them upright. There were no thrusters to slow them down as they approached the ground but the lining of their suits expanded forming an extra layer around their bodies. As they touched down, the suit absorbed the impact. A couple of people stumbled or ended up in a kneeling position but no one was injured.
Chukka looked up. Her ships shot across the starry sky, keeping watch.
The two techs from AR didn’t even pause to steady themselves. They wore their own suits, confident that they wouldn’t suffer any problems even though Chukka had given them a strong warning about what to expect. She had no idea what would happen if they ran into Ubik, but they wouldn’t be in the front lines and hopefully that particular meeting of minds wouldn’t happen. She didn’t have much choice in the matter — she needed some tronics if she hoped to get past the Ollo systems. It was the only part of her plan she felt unsure of. The rest was all designed to take care of the Ubik factor as efficiently as possible. Once they found him.
The Priority Team immediately set up a perimeter and checked the surroundings. They had come down between the secondary landing pad and the main base. Chukka turned to take in the full view. It was a miserable little rock with no notable features, other than control of the giant swirling eye above them, and the deadly lair of the Antecessors below.
“Should we investigate the ship, Major?” asked Sudan. He was referring to the mysterious shuttle that had somehow destroyed one of their most advanced craft.
“No, we’re not here to investigate anything. Have you made contact with the forward team?”
Sudan looked over at his comms operator who shook his head. “Interference.”
“You said you had a way past the Ollo network,” said Sudan, sounding like he didn’t really believe it.
“Not me, them.” Chukka tilted her helmet at the AR agents who were setting up their equipment in line of site of the base. It consisted of a series of poles inserted into the ground around them.
“Do we even know if this Ubik character is on the asteroid?” said Sudan as they watched the poles slide into the rocky surface like it was wet mud. “If he has any sense, he’ll probably head out of the quadrant and lay low on some out of the way planet.”
“He’s here,” said Chukka.
“How can you be sure?” said Sudan. “There haven’t been any confirmed sightings.”
Chukka pointed at the mystery ship. She had inspected it using the magnifier on her antiquated viewfinder. Sudan looked and magnified, and nearly choked when he saw what she had. The name of the ship was the POV Ubik.
“The boy’s some kind of idiot,” said Sudan, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Some kind,” said Chukka.
Six poles in the ground crackled as a blue light flickered between them. One of the AR agents looked at Chukka. “Too much noise.” His voice was distorted and deliberately modulated to hide his identity, if he even was a he. Researchers for supercorporations were the most likely to be kidnap targets for rival companies. Chukka had overseen a number of forced acquisitions herself.
“You were supposed to be able to override the Ollo network.”
“It’s not the Ollo network we’re having trouble with,” said the AR. “The Antecessor grid is off the charts. Something’s happened.”
The agent shrugged. Then he turned and helped his companion remove the poles as though any further problems had nothing to do with them.
“Flott’s a good man,” said Sudan. “Calm head. You can count on him to hold the fort until we get there.”
“Okay,” said Chukka. “Let’s move out.” She was well aware that things weren’t going to go exactly to plan, but she had hoped they would take a little longer to begin the derailment process.
Sudan gave the order and the team moved towards the base at a jog, weapons raised and ready.
The AR agents stopped as they approached, causing everyone else to stop and scour the perimeter down their gun sights.
“This ship,” said one of the agents, “it’s a Holover. A tunnel leads down—”
“Ignore it,” said Chukka. “If anything seems off, stay away from it. Keep going.”
This time the team didn’t wait for Sudan to give the order. They seemed to approve of Chukka’s non-interventionist approach.
The entrance to the base showed signs of damage. The gate was jammed in a semi-open position — an obvious trap. But the forward team had already entered and they had been informed of what to expect.
The two AR agents ran ahead as the rest of the team took up defensive positions. They produced a series of tubes which they slotted together and then passed under the gate. One of them then held the end to their visor and looked down it.
It was hardly the most advanced tech, but it worked.
Sudan pointed at two of his men and signalled for them to go first. They ran up to the gate, dropped to the floor with their weapons held tightly against their chests, and rolled under. The rest followed, two at a time.
Chukka went last but two, the rear guard following her in. They were in a large hangar with a single tunnel, large enough for a small craft to fly down, leading into the base-proper. This was clearly an Ollo construction, with their family insignia on the wall and the patented Ollo green and gold colour scheme in evidence on all the machinery.
A number of sentry drones stood guard with their heads missing and their bodies blasted to pieces. There were also two dead bodies.
“Touch nothing,” said Chukka as firmly as she could.
The AR agents had their poles out again, sliding them into the concrete floor as easily as the rocky surface outside. The blue light flickered between the tips. The AR agent nodded at her.
“Dampening EMP is working,” said a distorted voice.
“Sir,” said the comms operator, “I’ve got a signal.”
Sudan glanced over at the AR duo with begrudging admiration. Then he looked at Chukka with a flat, functional tolerance. “We have contact.”
“Okay, let me speak to them.”
“This is Flott,” said a shrieking voice in her helmet. “Get the hell out of here.” The volume faded and rose making it hard to catch every word, but the tone was unmistakable: panic. “It came out of the walls. It killed everyone. Get—”
The transmission cut out. An uneasy silence descended on the Priority Team.
“How many organics can you ID?” she asked the AR agents.
“Six within a one klick radius. Wait. Five. One just died.”
Chukka felt the weight of expectation from all sides. “We’re heading in.”
Sudan nodded once, a curt acceptance of her decision. They were professionals here to do a job. They didn’t get paid if they came back with nothing.
They formed into two ranks and set off down the long tunnel to the Antecessor facility. There were vehicles to the side, small carts that could be used to carry gear or people. No one suggested using them, her message of treating every electronic device with suspicion getting through. They were used to augmented suits that did most of the work for you, but they had low loadouts and the reduced gravity helped.
The tunnel was long and lit with bright white lights from above and the sides. After about a minute of a loping march, the lights ahead of them in the distance turned off. Then more and more lights followed, producing an eerie effect of darkness closing in, one step at a time.
Confused: “What’s that?”
Nervous: “I can’t see anything.”
Distorted: “We’re getting some strange readings. Advise we hold position.”
A moment later, they were enveloped by the dark. The team’s suit lights flickered on, barely illuminating each other. A loud howl echoed down the tunnel towards them. Everyone was frozen in position, waiting.
“Don’t fire until I give the command,” said Sudan. There was no more doubt or insolence in his voice now, just authority.
There was a flash of flickering light in the distance, like trapped lightning. It seemed to dance from wall to roof to wall. Then it began to rain sparks down from the roof. Something was moving towards them. Something very big.
“What is it?” said Chukka.
“Droid,” said a distorted voice. “Insanium class.”
“What?” said Sudan. “What’s it doing up here?”
The droid howled again as if in answer and then came surging towards them. The lightning intensified, the glow revealing a creature running on four legs like an animal. Running upside down on the ceiling, long tendrils hanging down, dripping electricity.
No one waited for the order, they just opened fire. The projectiles their guns used pinged and ricocheted off the droid with absolutely no effect. An iris opened in its chest like a huge mouth ringed with a serrated edge like teeth. It leapt down from the roof of the tunnel and began to wreak havoc.
The team stood their ground. There wasn’t room to get past the behemoth and only a long straight tunnel to retreat into. The droid killed with every swipe of its huge limbs, behaving nothing like a regular droid. This was a wild beast.
Panic: “Help, medic.”
Terror: “My arm.”
Despair: “Man down. Man down.”
One of the medics was busy treating another medic who had been hit by shrapnel from their own bullets. A third ran across the tunnel to get to someone who had lost a limb. As he ran past the droid, its chest iris opened and sucked the man in as he vainly tried to outrun his fate. The iris snapped shut on his waist so his legs fell to the floor. Then the creature turned and raised its tail — why it had a tail was completely baffling — and ejected the top half of the medic from its rear, the man still screaming as his blood and entrails were splattered against the wall behind Chukka, coating her in red.
She stood there, blinded, unable to move or to even think. There had to be a way out of this. As she tried to think, the screams in her helmet comms gradually lessened.
She wiped the viscera from her visor and looked around. She was the only one left standing. For something so big it had moved incredibly fast. But now it was moving very slowly towards her.
It was huge and graceful and menacing. She had never seen a droid like this. Never heard of insanium class. The tendrils around its head hung like hair, like dreadlocks bursting with electrical power. Its one large eye rotated and grew smaller, like it was locking on target.
This wasn’t how this mission was going to end. She refused to accept this as her final act. She needed some way to distract it. If she’d had her own suit, top of the line with all the optional extras, she would have been able to outrun it at least. But all she had was this basic, outdated skein that barely kept her warm.
She forced herself to remain calm as the creature stalked towards her, like a cat approaching a mouse. She hit a button on her arm.
An image appeared next to her, the Holover of Ubik. If there were two of them, she had a fifty-fifty chance it would attack him first. It might not save her but it would buy her a little time. She could run, find somewhere to hide. Something.
The droid stopped. Its one big eye dilated. It didn’t attack either of them, it sat down and made a strange rumbling sound. It tried to touch Ubik with its paw and seemed confused when the paw passed through the Holover. Then it lowered its head and just stared at the Holover.
It recognised him.
Chukka slipped the control panel off her arm and left it on the ground with the emitter facing up. She slowly backed away and manoeuvred around the fixated droid. She had to climb over slippery, mangled bodies but she worked in Public Relations, climbing over corpses to get where she needed to be was part of the job. She made it to the rear of the creature and then she ran.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino