Unknown Antecessor Location.
Figaro checked the control panel on his arm. Ubik’s suit was intact and showing no abnormal readings. Figaro’s control of the suit’s functions were limited, but there were ways to force it back into slave mode. Ways that Ubik might be aware of but so far hadn’t disconnected.
That didn’t necessarily mean Figaro would be able to assume full control of the suit when he needed it, but at least there was no evidence that Ubik had somehow managed to shut him out.
Currently, Ubik was dragging Nifell along as they walked through the three-sided tunnel they had found. The bubble helmet on Nif’s suit showed their immediate surroundings, but that was just the tunnel ahead and behind them. There was as yet no indication of where they were headed.
Figaro passed his hand over the control panel and switched to the other suit’s readings. At least he still had control of that one. Integrity was good — being dragged along the floor was well within its durability.
The suit contained a more or less catatonic Enayan, some form of Antecessor AI, and a bunch of nanodrones. At least two of those had the potential to break his hold over the suit, which was currently in stasis mode, using a minimum of energy and keeping all moving parts locked down.
If the Head managed to take control of the suit there was no telling what it might do. PT had managed to catch it off-guard but Figaro was doubtful it would fall for the same trick again.
He switched back to Ubik’s suit, just to check. Keeping track of both was tricky, moreso because he had no idea what form any adjustment would take or if he would be able to detect it. He could hear Ubik talking in a carefree tone that made him sound like he was out for a stroll while having a chat with an old friend.
“They build this place in sections, right? The Antecessors, your old bosses, they made the parts separately and slotted them together, right?” There was no response. “Grunt once if I’m right, twice if I’m wrong.” Nothing. “It’s beautifully put together, honestly, just a work of art. Can’t even see the joins. You’d have to agree with me on that.” Nothing. “I know you can hear me, Head. The Enayan might be out cold but my little friends can see what you’re up to. Nowhere to go even if you could get out. No power in these tunnels, apart from you. Thanks for providing us with a little illumination, by the way. I wonder what your bosses would say if they knew you were helping us.”
Figaro thought he heard the quietest of grunts. Hard to tell how many.
“Damn, you're heavy. How come the gravity is so much more down here than up there? What kind of rock has variable gravity? How can you trust the scales when you weigh yourself? Is it some kind of dieting scam? Were the Antecessors fatties? Is that the secret you don’t want us to find? They don’t deserve your loyalty, leaving you outside like that.”
Ubik continued rambling, not waiting for an answer to any of his questions.
“Fig, can you hear me?” said PT.
“Mm-hm,” said Figaro, still switching between suits and occasionally checking the helmet-map sliding along the ground ahead of him.
“What about him? Can you make this channel private?”
“I think so. Hard to be sure.” He tapped on his arm. “There. Should just be us two. What is it?”
“Nothing, I just want us both to be ready.”
“Ready for what?” asked Figaro.
“For whatever it is Ubik’s going to get us into at the end of this tunnel.”
Figaro glanced over at PT, who had the black visor down on his suit — the one previously worn by Nifell — so his face wasn’t visible.
“You’re being a little paranoid,” said Figaro. “Probably a good thing. We just have to stay out of his way, don’t we?”
“That’s worked so far but I have a feeling it won’t be so easy. Especially for you.”
“Me?” said Figaro. “Why me?”
“The Antecessors want you. Ubik is bound to use that against them at some point. I doubt it will be in a way you’ll enjoy.”
There was a lot of sense in what PT was saying. Ubik might be a tech wizard but that wasn’t where his true genius lay. His ability to use whatever was at hand to his advantage was what separated him from the norm. That and his willingness to put everyone, including himself, at risk while he did it.
“Okay,” said Figaro, “but I don’t see what we can do when we have no idea what he’s going to try.”
“Just think of him like Nifell,” said PT.
“How is he like Nifell?” Figaro couldn’t see any similarity between the two.
“The psychotic break he’s undergoing, you can see it’s getting worse?”
“Yes. I don’t think there’s much we can do for him without the correct medication and some intensive therapy, and even then—”
“I think Ubik went through something similar when he was younger.”
Figaro was a little taken aback by the comment. Certainly, Ubik showed signs of abnormal pathology, but there was no indication that he had undergone anything as severe as what Nifell was currently undergoing.
“I don’t really see it,” said Fig. “And if he did, he seems to have made a remarkable recovery.”
“I don’t think so,” said PT. “I think he did what he does with all the broken things he comes across.”
“He fixed it?” said Figaro. “He fixed himself?”
“Right. Only, he put the pieces back in the way he thought best. He has a knack for getting more out of things than they were originally built for.”
“He upgraded himself?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“He’s not a machine though, is he?”
“No. But I think he looks at everything the same way, like it’s a machine, including himself. He doesn’t have to be right for it to allow him to produce results.”
“True. There was a time when people believed gravity was a simple function of centrifugal force. It allowed them to create an artificial approximation that more or less served as a substitute.”
“Yes, but left them unaware of the side-effects.”
“I’m not sure I follow how this relates to Ubik,” said Figaro.
“It doesn’t directly, not his machinist-sympatico way of thinking, at least. But his psychosis, as useful as it can be at times, has an underlying flaw. It lacks rational foundation. He is as likely to act out of curiosity and boredom as he is out of a sense of survival or defence.”
“He’s going to get us killed, you mean?”
“Unless we’re very lucky, yes.” PT bent down to check on Nif’s helmet-map. “How long is this damn tunnel?
“You just want me to be aware of this? Ubik’s predilection for acting without reason and disregard for his or anyone else’s safety?”
“No. No more than we already are. But the thing that stands out to me, the thing that perhaps you haven’t noticed because it is a little too close to home for you, is Ubik’s primary obsession.”
“My… yes, I suppose that’s true. But isn’t that actually quite rational considering where his interests lie.”
“That’s what makes me suspect something isn’t quite right. Since when did anything rational appeal to Ubik?”
Figaro looked up at Ubik ahead of them, marching along with his head up and shoulders back. He flicked over to the other channel and heard him humming. Even if his ‘condition’ was due to some traumatic event in his past, he was certainly a fully-functioning adult now. Way above average, able to stand on level terms with organics, even. If he had fixed himself as PT suggested, he’d done a pretty good job. He flicked back.
“I don’t think you’ve got anything to be worried about right now,” he said.
“It’s not me that should be worried,” said PT.
“I should be?”
“When we find your father, Ubik isn’t going to let anything stand in his way.” The dark helmet turned to look at Figaro.
“I’m in his way?”
“You’re ahead of him in the line,” said PT. “I don’t know what that will mean when we get there, but just be careful how you position yourself. The Antecessors took him to get to you. They will, I’m fairly certain, put you in a difficult position, and the choices you’ll make won’t just affect you and him, they’ll affect Ubik.”
What PT was saying started to make sense. It was easy enough to follow the logic, but now he could also see the many different ways it could go wrong. It wasn’t just a linear progression to potential disaster, it was a burst of possibilities, connected and intertwined.
Ubik, for all his brilliance, was a danger to anyone around him. He could save you, he could abandon you, and he could destroy you. So far, that had worked in their favour. So far.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” said Figaro.
“Hey,” said Ubik. “What are you two talking about? Me, I hope.” He was talking on their channel, the private one. Not so private now. Had he been listening the whole time? It probably made no difference to what he would do.
“Yes,” said PT. “We’re working out ways to stay alive when you go off.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“No, I mean when you go off, like a bomb.”
Ubik laughed. “Nice. I bet it’ll be a big bang. See anything on the map? I’m getting a pain in my neck from having to turn my head all the time.”
“No,” said Figaro. “Just the tunnel.”
“I mean, it’s fine,” said Ubik. “You can find your way out of a dark maze with just a torch, right? Just what’s ahead of you, that’s enough to go by. But this tunnel, it makes no sense. This whole asteroid...”
Something caught Figaro’s eye and he bent down. “There’s something up ahead.”
They stopped and stood around Nifell’s body, staring at his head. The tunnel they were in now showed a room at one end. A cube.
“Can’t see any exits,” said Figaro.
“Maybe when we get closer,” said PT, flipping open his visor to get a better look.
“Hmm,” said Ubik. “Only one way to find out. One of you want to carry the map now? No? I’m really not feeling a team vibe from you two.”
“I think you’re the best person to handle a surprise attack,” said PT.
“That’s true,” said Ubik. “What if the surprise attack comes from him?” He pointed at Nifell.
“Then you’ll be right where you need to be,” said PT. “Plus, your boots help counter the additional gravity, don’t they?”
“Fair enough. But…” Ubik narrowed his eyes and leaned forward to look the two of them in the eyes, first PT and then Figaro. “Can I count on you two to back me up? Of course I can!” he answered before either of them could. “That’s what I like about this collaboration. The unconditional trust. It’s our secret weapon.”
He turned around and set off again dragging Nifell behind him. “Hey, Head, this is the right way, isn’t it? You’d tell us if we missed a turning, wouldn’t you?” There was no response. “Wish they’d turn the gravity down a bit. My arm’s really tired. Come on, Nif, time for a walk.”
Ubik didn’t pause when he reached the end of the passage. He marched straight into the room and took up position in the middle. The light from his and Nifell’s suits revealed a perfectly square room with smooth, blank walls with triangular marks on each of the five walls.
There was nothing else in the room. Figaro stepped in and took a look at the triangles on each wall, roof and floor. They matched the opening they’d come through in every way, apart from not being accessible.
“Are you going to use the nano—”
Ubik raised a hand. “We’re being watched.”
PT and Figaro looked around.
“By whom?” said PT.
Ubik shrugged. He pointed down at Nifell. His helmet was flickering.
Figaro checked the control panel on his arm. He had been distracted by the room and Ubik’s insertion into it. Watching what happened to him had seemed the quickest way to assess the level of threat. A stupid mistake. “We’re being analysed. It’s scanning us from…” He looked up and then to the sides. “Everywhere.”
They were in a neat container, easily seen from all sides — an observation tank. Figaro looked back the way they had come. The triangular opening rapidly shrank to nothing with a hiss, leaving behind the same marking as the other walls. At least that proved they were in a six-way junction.
“No point trying to escape,” said PT. “We’ll have to see what it—”
They all fell to the floor. The gravity had increased by a factor of at least two. Figaro could barely breathe. He could see PT lying next to him. Ubik was on the other side of him.
Figaro managed to turn his head with an immense amount of effort to look at Nifell. His helmet had disappeared. His eyes were open and full of terror.
Beams of red light shone out of the four walls and struck Nifell’s head from each side. A red circle appeared on his skull where they hit. Nifell didn’t make a sound.
Slowly, Nifell began to rise. His body was limp and it seemed like he was a doll being lifted by its head. His feet left the ground and he floated in the air. Figaro could just about see his face, contorted and desperate.
There was a flicker as the bubble helmet reappeared, but now it wasn’t a map of the asteroid, it was Head — one head superimposed over another.
“What’s it doing?” said PT.
“Transferring data,” said Figaro, looking down at his arm. “I think they’re communicating.”
“You’d think they’d want some privacy during this intimate moment,” said Ubik, squeezing the words out. “Call me a prude but lovemaking should be private.”
“Talking doesn’t mean sex,” said PT.
“It does if you do it right,” said Ubik.
The image of Head faded in and out.
“Looks like the reject isn’t welcome back,” said Ubik. “I wonder what he did to get thrown out.”
“We’ll be next,” said PT.
“Not all of us,” said Ubik.
Figaro looked up. There was another beam of light, this one white, aimed at him. He could feel it on his scalp, through the helmet he was wearing. He began to move, sliding across the floor. There was a sound behind him, a hiss followed by a woosh of air entering the room. Another passage had opened and he was being sent through.
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Ubik. “Let’s wrap this up, boys.”
Nanodrones began crawling out of the top of Nifell’s suit and climbing over his face. They gathered in the tiny pools of red light.
The image of Head became clearer and more solid. The nanodrones fell off and hit the ground.
Head grew larger and then seemed to burst. The beams of light disappeared. The room was dark. The gravitational pull pinning them to the floor vanished, leaving them weightless. They began to float.
“What did you do?” said PT in the dark.
“Released the rest of Head,” said Ubik.
“You held some back?” said PT. “That’s why you let him run around like that. He wasn’t at full power. You could have told us.”
“And ruin the surprise?”
The room lit up as the beams of light reappeared, this time six of them, meeting to form an image in the centre of the room. Head.
“I have taken control of this node,” it said.
“You’re welcome,” said Ubik. “Can you let us down now?”
“You will be eliminated.”
“There’s gratitude for you,” said Ubik, not sounding very upset. “Hey, before you zap me out of existence, one last request. Can you show me the full map? I’d like to see what this place is really like, like it was back in the old days. I guess it was pretty amazing.”
There was a pause. Then the Head turned into a map of the asteroid. The rooms of the base above and the levels below, plus more tunnels and more rooms. They appeared one by one until the whole interior of the asteroid was filled with them.
“Ah,” said Ubik, “now I see. It isn’t an asteroid, is it? It’s a ship.”
Figaro could see it, too. The layout was that of a vast engine and they were inside it.
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