Chukka ran through the darkness, down the long tunnel, moving as fast as she could. The reduced gravity on the asteroid allowed her to take long strides without tiring.
If she had been wearing her personal spacesuit, its augmented features would have sent her rocketing down the tunnel much faster. But even then she doubted it would be able to outpace that bizarre droid-creature.
One person versus an Antecessor droid was not much of a contest, and that was when you had the most advanced tech to defend yourself with. Coming into an Antecessor site with only basic gear had been a risk from the start but she had seen it as the best way to counter Ubik’s particular set of skills. She hadn’t expected to be ambushed by an insanium class droid before she’d even entered the site. She still wasn’t sure what insanium class was, but she had seen enough to know normal protocols for dealing with droids didn’t apply.
Her only hope was to rely on it being distracted by the Holover image of Ubik long enough for her to get to safety, assuming there was any to be found on this rock.
Why it had been so fascinated by him she had no idea but that was hardly something to worry about. Her own encounters with Ubik had left her just as fascinated. She could only assume the droid had experienced something similar.
Arms and legs pumped in time with each other as Chukka pushed herself. She wanted to stop, to look back in case she was being pursued, but what would she do if she was? It would only cut short the only advantage she had — distance.
She was not trained for fieldwork but she liked to keep herself fit and able. Even in Public Relations, sometimes you needed to run for your life. And you never stopped to see if you were ahead.
The rules she had been taught to succeed in business applied now more than ever. Her team was dead, she was on her own and without any form of backup. She had even lost her EPK, the one piece of equipment a PR agent always held onto. Right now, it was acting as an entertainment device for a giant droid. That wasn’t even one of the options listed in the manual. She would have to see about adding it.
The tunnel ended in a door. It was too dark to see but she had memorised the layout of the base. VendX had detailed files on the base, the asteroid, the first two levels of the Antecessor facility. Every detail Ramon Ollo had logged about the asteroid had been leached by VendX’s Deep Research division from numerous sources over several years and at great expense.
All the information she needed to access the site, both the Antecessor levels and the Ollo base sitting on top of them, was loaded onto her electronic press kit, and she had no intention of going back to get it.
The door had to be close. She flashed the light on her suit to get an idea of how much further. She hadn’t wanted to keep the light on in case it drew unwanted attention but neither did she want to run into a closed blast door. How she would get it open was going to be the next problem.
The light from her suit showed the door up ahead. Her estimation had been almost perfect. She was good at guessing, always had been. Sizing up a situation, making rough calculations. She was rarely off. But she hadn’t thought there would be someone waiting for her.
Two people, in fact. Neither in VendX gear. By the way they were standing she didn’t need to guess where they came from. The Seneca Corps had a posture all of its own, trademarked and vehemently litigated. Everyone who worked in PR knew that stance. It was the classic example of aggression-branding. Even a shadow on a wall was enough to produce an immediate surrender.
As her light went out, two lights came on, aimed in her eyes.
Chukka slowed down. Her options were limited. Behind her was almost certain death. In front of her was a near insurmountable obstacle. It would take all of her Public Relations training to find a way through this maze of complications. Fortunately, this was what her training had been for.
“You don’t want to stand there,” said Chukka. “I’m bringing company. Antecessor droid’s right behind me.”
“You Major Chukka?” said a flat voice that sounded unimpressed by her warning.
Chukka came to a stop. “Yes. You know me?”
“You’re alone. Everyone dead?” The tone was so matter of fact it made the death of her team seem hardly worth confirming.
“Yes. The droid, it…”
“We know. We came to get you.”
“What does the Corps want with me?” The Corps taking advantage of Ramon Ollo’s death was no surprise but she hadn’t expected to be targeted personally.
“Nothing. We aren’t Corps.”
Ex-corps mercenaries. A million questions jumped into Chukka’s mind but she pushed them aside. Now was not the time.
“You’re here to raid the site? This is an Ollo base, you know that, right? Ramon Ollo?”
“We are aware. We have a connection to his son. I think Ramon Ollo would find VendX presence on his asteroid more of a concern, don’t you?”
They were here for the son. That made sense, in a convoluted way. The mother. But why send in mercs? To hide Seneca’s involvement? Since when did Seneca care about how they were perceived? No, wait, there was the Central Authority to consider. The whole thing was a political minefield. Something she could use it to her advantage.
“I’m here on a mission of—”
“Sure you are. We made a deal with your man Flott. We bring you into the base, you get us into the facility down below. You’re the one with the access, right?”
What had Flott told them? She was the one with the plan to get inside the Antecessor facility and locate Ubik, but it wasn’t guaranteed access by any means. And that was before she lost her EPK.
“Yes,” said Chukka. “He isn’t authorised to make any deals, though.”
“Then you can stay out here and wait for the rogue droid.”
“You know about that thing? What is it?”
“Enough with the questions,” said a second, no less testy voice. “You agree to an exchange of services or not? We have other options we can explore.”
A negotiation would normally be something Chukka would have welcomed, but she wasn’t too keen on spending time out here when she could be inside the base and in a defensible position. Ninety percent of a winning strategy was down to location management.
“Fine. We can sort this out once we’re inside.”
“No, we can sort it out now. We take you in, you take us down. Deal?”
An inhuman howl echoed down the tunnel.
“Okay. Not like I have much choice.” She had come here with a plan to deal with the Ollo network and the Antecessor defence grid. Throwing in the Seneca Corps on top wasn’t going to make things any more impossible.
The lights turned off and the door slid open, spilling soft red light into the tunnel. She could see one of the women had cables running from her suit into a service port on the wall. VendX weren’t the only ones with contingencies in place for dealing with Ollo tech it seemed.
The woman yanked the cables out of the wall and the door began to slide closed.
“Better hurry, Major,” said the slightly taller of the women as they both entered the base without waiting for her.
Chukka did hurry. She wasn’t sure what the best play was, but it certainly wasn’t sitting out here.
The doors closed behind her. They were in a small vestibule, the first checkpoint. Normally, the Ollo network would run a security scan, the red light a probe-spectrum that was able to analyse down to the genetic level, but her forward team would have disabled that.
“My men, are they—”
“You’ll see for yourself.”
“Can I at least know what to call you?” Time to revert to the basics. Identify, form an alliance, share core goals, build trust.
“I’m Weyla, this is my sister Leyla. If you try any of your PR bullshit on either of us, I’ll shoot you in the face.”
“Right,” said Chukka. Sometimes it was better to take a slower approach.
There was another door on the far side of the room. The one called Leyla plugged her cables into the wall and the door opened. How advanced was their tech? If they were ex-Seneca, probably not the latest. If they were working under a disavow contract, they might have been given an incursion packet. If she had her EPK, she might be able to run a hack. VendX support software versus Seneca’s. Who would win?
There was a passage ahead of them and consoles lining the walls showing no signs of activity. The lighting was limited to strips on the floor; the main power was either out or deliberately restricted. If her men were following VendX guidelines, they would have shut down all but the essential systems.
The two women marched down the dimly lit corridor like they owned the place. They had their guns drawn but hanging at their sides. Their heads occasionally tilted to one side, their hands sending signals back and forth between them constantly.
“Stay away from the sides,” said Weyla. “It likes to come out of the walls.”
“Up here?” said Chukka. “This isn’t Antecessor construction.”
“It isn’t a normal droid,” said Leyla.
She already knew that much but this droid seemed unlike anything she had ever been taught. Admittedly, her knowledge was limited. She had never been interested in running delves or raiding Antecessor ships, but she knew enough to recognise this thing as being highly unusual, possibly unique. Still, the Advanced Research agents had been able to identify it as insanium class, which meant it wasn’t unheard of.
“It’s insanium class,” said Chukka.
“Yes,” said Weyla.
“You’ve encountered one before?”
“No,” said Leyla. “There’s only been one other reported. There was only one survivor.”
She didn’t say who the survivor was but Chukka sensed the shift in tone, a definite rise in the Vemer Index of her voice denoting a small uptick in pride, suggesting the sole survivor was a member of the Corps. Did that mean they knew how to handle the droid? Or that only one person could?
They arrived in front of double doors.
“Your men are holed up in here,” said Weyla.
Leyla kicked the door and shouted, “It’s us.”
The doors slid open. The control room was brightly lit, blinding Chukka for a moment. When her eyes adjusted, she saw two men peering at her from the far corner, weapons drawn.
One was the team leader, Flott, the other was the tech Bashir.
“Where’s Condos?” she said as she walked in. He was the PR consultant she had put on the team. More importantly, he would have an EPK.
“Dead,” said Flott. His eyes looked Chukka over which she found objectionable before realising he was taking in the blood she was covered in. The Seneca women hadn’t even registered it. “So is Deku. Only you made it?” He didn’t sound surprised. The man’s voice was as grim as his face. His Vemer Index was off the charts, and not in a good direction. “That thing killed them and every other agent sent down here except for these two.”
“No contesting operatives?” said Chukka. That at least would be some good news.
“No.” There as an additional level of umbrage in Flott’s voice. He was taking this all very personally.
“We brought her,” said Weyla. “Let’s get moving.”
“Wait,” said Chukka. “Condos body, where is it?”
Flott’s face tightened but he only nodded towards the other end of the room. Chukka moved across to find two bodies, what was left of them, lying on the floor covered in the baggy insert suits they’d used to slip inside the base’s defence grid. They were useless now, absorbing sensor lights like a sponge until the skein went inert, now only good for covering the dead.
Chukka lifted one of them to find a mangled corpse, no arms, only one leg. Not Condos, thankfully. The other body had its head missing but the arms were still intact. Chukka bent down and detached the EPK. It was an older model from hers but it would do. She clicked it onto her suit.
“Bashir, uplink me to the orbital.”
“Can’t,” said Bashir. “The Ollo network is in the middle of fighting off the Antecessor grid. Surprisingly evenly matched. Both are jamming everything in or out.”
“Didn’t you suppress both of them?”
“Yes,” said Flott.
“Then do it again.”
Flott looked at the console next to him. There was a smashed up cube sitting on it. “Didn’t like the feedback.”
Chukka looked at the control panel on her arm. There was a lot of useful information there but not what she needed. “Can you do a lateral-link? My EPK is back in the tunnel. I need the data uploaded here.”
Bashir nodded. “Maybe.” He came over and examined her arm. “Won’t be able to download restricted material.”
“You won’t need to, I left it running.”
A mild look of surprise crossed Bashir’s face but he set to work. His eyes flickered with green light as he made adjustments.
There was a click and her arm began to vibrate. The warmth of the unit spread up her arm as trillions of bytes of data filled the device. She grimaced as the heat increased and her forearm tensed.
She checked the panel. “That’s enough. I got what I needed.”
Bashir stopped the transfer and Chukka squeezed her fist to relax her arm. Then she began entering a series of instructions.
“Okay, let’s go. That thing just lost its favourite toy and I’m guessing it’s going to come looking for us.”
“Lead the way,” said Weyla.
Flott stood up. He looked like he thought this was a bad idea. He also looked like he didn’t care. Bashir looked like he did care but he was too scared to say anything.
“The entrance to the first level is through there,” said Chukka, pointing at a door across the room. “Once we enter, we’ll be attacked immediately. The site is on hyper alert, no intruder’s tolerated. We need to get to the second level, and then through the door to the third. Our target will already be through.”
“How?” said Weyla.
“They were invited,” said Chukka.
“And we weren’t,” said Leyla. “You know how to get through?”
“I have some ideas. First, we have to get there.” Chukka looked at the four people in front of her. The odds weren’t good with just five of them, but two were Seneca Corps.
They moved towards the door Chukka had indicated. Everyone but her drew weapons.
“No movement,” said Bashir his eyes glowing intensely.
Chukka nodded at Leyla who plugged into the wall and opened the door to reveal a sloping passage. The black walls were covered in white lines that weren’t moving. That was a good sign.
They headed in. Nothing moved ahead of them but this was just the entry portal. The passage levelled out and they came to a four-way junction. This was where things would start to get tricky.
Chukka pulled up a map on the EPK. “We’re going to rush this point and then fight our way to the exit here. Ignore all other routes, we only want to get to the next level down. Once we get past the transition point, the defence grid will switch priority. This is what Ramon Ollo figured out after several years of exploration. The whole site is based on a SEP defence. Once we leave an area, we’re somebody else’s problem, so we get out of each zone as quickly as possible. Speed is our best defence.”
“Then the slowest person here is our biggest weakness,” said Weyla.
“Yes,” said Chukka. “But getting to a locked door first isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t have the key.”
No one was happy to be in this situation but that was okay. Chukka had already given up on this being an easy win. But this was the shot she had and she wasn’t going to give it up just because it was quite probably going to get her killed.
“Fine,” said Weyla. “Just do your best not to slow us down.”
The two Seneca women took up position either side of Chukka. Chukka nodded and they began running at a steady pace, eyes searching the walls and side-passages for the first attack.
It never came.
They made it all the way to the next level without encountering a single droid.
“I don’t sense any movement,” said Bashir, confused but relieved.
The entrance to the second level was permanently fixed open by a complicated scaffold that exerted more force out the more pressure was applied to it. A beautifully simple engineering design that was studied by all aspiring engineers, the Ollo Fold.
A sloping passage led to the next level.
The first droid they encountered was lying in the middle of the passage in a dozen or so pieces. More broken parts littered the floor as they progressed. Something had already destroyed the site’s defences beyond anything Chukka had seen before.
“I guess we have our friend to thank for the free ride,” said Weyla.
Chukka had to agree. Insanium class seemed a more than apt name. This thing killed its own.
Human bodies started appearing as they approached the entrance to the next level. They’d been dead a while. They were almost comforting to find, only showing normal damage levels for an Antecessor encounter.
When they reached the door to the third level, it was very definitely closed. And guarded. The droid sat in front of it like it was waiting for them.
“Now what?” said Weyla.
“Wait here,” said Chukka. Everything depended on what happened next and how good she was at guessing. She was betting on really good.
Chukka approached the monster. There was no point being afraid now, if she was wrong she was dead, that was all there was to it.
The droid watched her come closer, it’s head dripping sparks, its eye narrowing to a tight focus.
Chukka slowly tapped on her arm and brought up the Holover of Ubik. The droid stood up and moved towards the image.
Chukka started the routine she’d set up. Ubik fell down. He clutched at his throat, he screamed in silence. Verbal manipulation was an effective tool, but visuals were universal. Ubik was in distress and the droid was concerned, she could see it in its body shape. Good. She started the second routine.
Ubik got up and ran. He ran through the door to the third level, the Holover disappearing into the solid wall.
The droid immediately followed, paying no heed to the wall in its way. It smashed through like the wall was made of paper.
There was no Ubik on the other side, only a sloping passage. The droid let out a long howl and then ran down the passage.
“Follow it,” said Chukka. “It’ll lead us to Ubik and clear the way for us. You’ll find Ollo’s son, we’ll get Ubik.”
The Seneca women exchanged a look and Chukka knew at that moment that they weren’t here for the Ollo boy, they were also after Ubik. That would pose a problem but she would deal with that when the time came. And she would come out on top, that was her guess. They chased after the dreadful monster any sane person would be running from, into the lower levels of the asteroid.
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