Book 2 – 47: Step Down

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Unknown Antecessor Site.


Ubik crouched and peered over the edge of the chasm. He watched Nifell grow smaller as he fell. His screams, however, didn’t diminish as they filled Ubik’s ears through the comms system.

“Can you turn off the audio?” Ubik asked Fig. “It’s kind of annoying.”

“Don’t you want to know what he sees down there?” asked Fig. He didn’t sound upset or even surprised at Nif volunteering to go on recon again.

“Fine, just turn the volume a bit then.”

“How’s he going to tell us anything when he’s going to end up dead?” asked PT. He did sound upset, but no more than usual. “The gravity increase down here is going to turn him into a stain on the floor.”

“Um,” said Fig, “the comms are open, so might be better not to…”

“He won’t die,” said Ubik, nice and clear in case Nif was listening; not that he’d be able to hear much with all that screaming. “He’s in an Ollo suit, isn’t he? Excellent workmanship. I’m sure he’ll survive. Might even be able to walk.” He nodded at PT in conspiratorial fashion, indicating he should also try to put a positive spin on things.

“Actually,” said Fig, “I think this gap is within range.” He was staring at the other side of the chasm which was about ten metres away.

Ubik stood up and gauged the distance. “Within range of what?”

Fig leaned over the edge and Ubik did the same. Nif was more or less a dot at this point. It was a very deep chasm.

And then Nifell’s head puffed up to ten times its size. Or rather, the force field helmet around his head did. Like gum being blown into a bubble he had a large pink balloon coming out of his neck.

It didn’t send him floating back up, though. It did stop him falling.

The bubble helmet was wide enough to touch either side of the chasm, and wedge Nif in place.

“Is that intended to work like that?” asked PT, joining the other two now. The three of them looked down on Nifell. At least he had stopped screaming. There was still a little whimpering, but that was to be expected.

“No, not really,” said Fig. “I improvised.”

“See?” said Ubik. “I’m rubbing off on him.”

PT made a face that suggested that might not be a good thing.

“Hey, Nifell,” said Ubik. “Nif, buddy, what can you see?”

“Nothing, I can see nothing, you monster.”

“Open your eyes.”


“Can you hear anything?”

“No. But something smells awful.”

“That’s strange,” said Fig. “He shouldn’t be able to smell anything through the suit’s filters.”

“I don’t think the smell’s coming from outside of the suit,” said PT.

“Nif,” said Ubik, “you’re doing a great job. The Great Satan of Enaya will be very proud of you.”

“It’s called the Senate,” said Fig.

“I think he’s referring to himself,” said PT.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” said Ubik. “We’ll take good care of you.” Ubik turned to Fig. “Send him down the rest of the way.”

Fig and PT exchanged a look. They didn’t say anything but they seemed to have no better ideas.

“He’ll be fine,” said Ubik. “And even if he dies, the suit can give us environmental readings, right?”

“Nifell?” said Fig in a calm, quiet voice. “You might feel a bit of a drop.” He touched the panel on his arm and Nifell’s enormous helmet began to fall, but slowly with sparks flying from the edges where it made contact with the wall.

“What if the walls get wider apart further down?” said PT.

“That’s as big as I can make the headpiece,” said Fig. “I hope it’s not too much deeper. The helmet uses up a lot of energy when it’s that size.“

“What are you so worried about?” Ubik asked PT, who had an increasingly sour look on his face. “Things are going pretty well, don’t you think? We’re avoiding all the major obstructions the Antecessors put up and we’ll be on the lower level in no time. Don’t you like easy mode? Not enough of a challenge for you?”

“It’s plenty challenge,” said PT, unsouring not at all. “I’m just wondering when the nanodrones you released into the walls are going to encounter some vital systems and destroy the asteroid in a massive explosion.”

“Pah,” said Ubik. “You have some imagination. They’ll come back once they get bored. They like to have a look around, that’s all.”

“And what about Big Head?” asked PT. “He’s been eliminated, has he?”

“I hope not. I don’t believe in destroying tech that sophisticated and long-lasting. Wouldn’t have survived this long if he hadn’t been built by a master craftsman. Whatever his purpose, we should all be able to respect the level of skill that went into building him. And I’m pretty sure I can strip him for parts and use him to make something really cool.”

“Very respectful,” said PT.

“Did you see his face when my boys ate his circuits?” Ubik chuckled at the memory.

“Yes, I did,” said PT. “His face was five metres tall at the time, kind of hard to miss. His expression suggested he was going to find a way to get back at you.”

“That’s what you’re worried about? No need. I can take care of myself.”

That’s what I’m worried about.”

“I’m alive,” said Nif’s voice, panting hard and wavering.

“I never doubted it,” said Ubik. “Good job. What’s down there?”

There was a long pause. Ubik waited it out. The poor guy was probably still in shock. It would be good to let him get used to it. Probably wouldn’t be the last time he got thrown into a bottomless pit.

“Ships… I think. There are a lot of them, whatever they are.”

“I’m getting some odd readings,” said Fig, looking at his arm. “They could be ships. But… I’m not sure.”

“Ships,” said Ubik. “That’s kind of interesting.” He jumped into the chasm.

A second later, his helmet inflated until it filled the gap and he came to a sliding halt.

“Just a fraction less,” Ubik called out. The edges of the bubble flickered and he began to descend again, this time at a controlled rate.

It felt very strange, suspended by the neck by a large balloon that threw up pink sparks. He looked up and saw two sets of feet falling towards him.

Fig’s suit was a different model with no bubble helmet and PT’s was Nif’s basic suit with no upgrades at all. But they both fell with style, bouncing off the walls to slow their descent.

PT, in particular, made it look like he was performing some kind of trick, a series of tumbles and kicks, using gravity and friction and air resistance in a three-way combo. He looked like he could twist and turn his way back to the top if he wanted.

Fig was a little more restrictive in his movements. He seemed to be aiming for Ubik, or rather the top of his helmet. He landed on it — one hand and one knee down — and Ubik felt his fall speed up momentarily. PT shot past both of them. Sliding down the wall like it was a very steep snow slope.

As Ubik touched down — his boots absorbing the impact — PT was already down and looked completely unfazed.

Fig slid off Ubik’s helmet, which shrank down to regular size. They were on a level floor, not rocky so it had been flattened artificially. A gap cut into the rock of this size — what could it be for?

The passage stretched out on either side with no interruption. No side channels, no alcoves or recesses. There was no sign of Nifell.

“He’s over there,” said Fig, pointing down the chasm where a light appeared. It was the light from Nif’s suit, controlled by Fig. Slaved spacesuits really were very useful. Almost as good as a drone.

They set off towards the figure which wasn’t moving. The light showed an opening at the far end. Nif was standing just before it, going no further. The perfect position to start his next recon mission.

“This is incredible,” said Fig. “I can’t get over it.”

“It’s just a passage,” said Ubik.

“No, not that. I mean the way my life has gone since I left home. I was trained specifically to defeat this place’s defences, and we’ve avoided all of them. Nothing I was taught seems useful any more.” He looked over at Ubik. “I’m supposed to be able to read a person’s intentions before they know them themselves, but I can’t read you at all. Every situation I encounter just proves how unqualified I am.”

“But you’re special,” said Ubik. “Without you, this place would just kill us on the spot.”

“That makes my most valuable contribution being a hostage,” said Fig.

“No training teaches you how to do the task it’s training you for,” said PT. “It only teaches you how to survive while you learn on the job.”

Nifell turned as they approached him. “I’m a decorated guardsman,” he said in a barely controlled voice that was on the edge of breaking. “I’ve been in situations that were terrifying and I’ve faced death many times without losing my nerve or my mind, but I can’t go on like this. You three are pushing me over the brink. I’ve had enough.”

“I know you have,” said Ubik, patting the man on the shoulder. “Not much longer now.” He shoved him out of the opening.

Nifell went stumbling out into the large open area behind him. He didn’t try to resist, he just had a sad expression on his face. He came to a stop a few metres away, the light from his suit illuminating the ships around him. He remained there, shivering.

The area was full of what were clearly spaceships of Antecessor design, but they looked incomplete. It wasn’t just the lack of lights zipping across their surfaces, they were asymmetrical, which was not typical of Antecessor builds. They were also of different shapes and sizes. Some were barely big enough for one person. One human, anyway. Others rose up until their higher parts couldn’t be seen.

It was an enormous hangar, deep in the heart of the asteroid.

“Were they building an armada?” said PT.

“Down here? No,” said Ubik. “Not building. Taking apart. These are all broken. Can’t you tell? You don’t leave ships lying around like this unless you intend to use them for spare parts. The Ants were like me, didn’t want to waste anything.” He walked around and Nifell scurried away from him, and then slowly crept nearer, his conflicted posture suggesting he wasn’t sure if he was more scared of what was in the dark or what was in the light.

It was eerie and very quiet. Every way Ubik turned, some new construct appeared in the lights from his suit. “This is amazing. So much stuff to work with. I bet I could build a really nice… something.”

“You don’t know how Antecessor stuff works,” said PT, following him.

“Not yet,”said Ubik.

“We don’t have time to learn,” said Fig. “We still have to find my father.”

“What level are we on?” asked PT.

“I don’t know,” said Fig, checking his arm and bringing up the map Big Head had shown them. “My copy of the map isn’t live. It doesn’t show where we are and the crevice doesn’t appear on it. I think it’s a vent or a waste disposal access. I think Ubik’s right, this is all junk.”

“Hey, easy,” said Ubik. “Nothing wrong with junk. I’ve had a lot of good times with my hands on some junk. Hey, I see something. It’s glowing.”

“Don’t touch it,” said Fig and PT together.

“You guys, you really care about me, don’t you. Don’t deny it.”

He was standing next to a black wall, smooth and unmarked save for one square of white that was glowing softly. He reached out a finger to poke it.

“Don’t!” they said in unison.

“It’s fine,” said Ubik. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Nothing happened. “See?” Ubik let out a yell. His body shook violently and his eyeballs rattled in their sockets as a warbling sound vibrated out of his mouth.

Fig and PT stood there watching him.

Ubik stopped. “Little electrocution humour. Not buying it, huh?”

“Your Delgados wouldn’t let you get electrocuted,” said PT.

“You two… Always one step—”

A familiar face appeared on the wall behind him. It opened its giant mouth as it stretched out of the wall and fell hungrily on Ubik. Then it slurped him into the wall and disappeared.

“Do you think this is another fakeout?” said PT.

“Probably,” said Fig. “Even if he isn’t, the suit is very durable. Take a while for him to die. The readings are all fine.”

Ubik suddenly appeared out of the wall, wild-eyed, arms flailing and head yelling inside his helmet as he tried to escape before being dragged back in.

“Should we do something?” said PT.

Fig thought about it. “No.” He checked the control panel. “Should be able to get some useful reading while he’s in there.”

Ubik appeared again, this time most of his upper torso. “Help!” He looked genuinely distraught.

PT leapt forward, grabbed him by the shoulders, and pushed him back in.

A few seconds later the top of Ubik’s helmet began to emerge. PT placed his hand on it and kept it from coming out any further. He turned to Fig. “Get as much as you can. I think I can keep him in there for a while.”

Nifell came closer, looking at the situation with mild curiosity.

“Let me know if your arm gets tired,” he said.

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