“This is Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority. All ships in the vicinity of the Tethari asteroid are ordered to cease activity and vacate the area immediately.”
“Ah, Guardian, this is VendX Orbital Platform,” said a squeaky voice through Tezla’s comms. “We’re here to—”
“Shut your mouth, VendX,” said Tezla. “Did I ask a question? I did not. I gave you an instruction. You will leave orbit and remove yourself and all your associate craft, drones and probes to a distance of sixteen thousand klicks or more — that goes for the rest of you, also. If you do not immediately initiate your engines and start moving by the time I finish this sentence I will open fire, and trust me, I may only be one woman in a spacesuit but it’s a Central Authority suit with more firepower than all your measly little tubs put together. Tezla out.”
The spacesuit Tezla was in had shot her across the sixteen thousand kilometres of open space between the CAV Reconcile and the asteroid in a little under an hour, standard. She hadn’t insisted on the suit’s max speed of Mach 19.2 as the clone body she was in was still new and a little stiff. There was no point pushing it to its limits quite yet.
The suit — RX-340, designation Rex — had been a little difficult, wanting to follow all the guidelines and regulations that the Central Authority insisted on. That was the normal way of things. You got assigned a new unit and then you trained it to ignore everything it had been trained to pay close attention to. It was a balance — one that she made sure tilted in her favour.
“Are they moving?” said Tezla as they approached the asteroid.
“Six are leaving,” said Rex. “Three are holding position at one thousand klicks. One is slowly manoeuvring to face away from the asteroid but has yet to ignite main thrusters.”
“Blow it up.”
“We’re not going to go through this again, are we Rex?”
“No, sir. But I am required by Central Authority primary directives to inform you that there are fifteen lives aboard the VendX orbital. There is no way for me to bypass that function.”
“I understand,” said Tezla. “Warning acknowledged. Reduce volume on all future primary directive notifications.”
“I cannot mute directives.”
“I didn’t ask you to. Turn the volume down to point one and speed up playback to times ten. Now, open fire, eight mini-warheads, full spread.”
“Shots away,” said Rex.
Eight small balls of light, each no bigger than a child’s fist, left the suit, four from each shoulder turret. They glowed bright red as they raced towards the VendX orbital, a circular ship with several docking ports on its main ring and a centrally-mounted engine that took up most of the space within the structure.
It could take a number of smaller ships across the quadrant at phenomenal speeds and act as a base for them when they arrived at their location. Utilitarian, basic and cheaply built. All the major corporations had similar ships, usually with no weapons, no shields, and no QoL features. It should have enough escape pods for all crew, though. That was the law as laid down by the Central Authority.
“VendX orbital shields up,” said Rex.
“What the…” The warheads exploded as they struck the shield, leaving the orbital intact. Tezla checked the HUD inside her helmet. The VendX ship was a small blip on her screen. “Magnify orbital, full scan. I want to know exactly what they’ve got under the hood.”
“I’m being jammed,” said Rex, sounding surprised.
“Shut it down. All systems, including life support.”
“I am required—”
“Point one sound, ten times speed, let’s go.” There was a blip as the required warning was given. “Do it. Force them into escape pods.”
Tezla felt the suit shake as a blast of electronic death encased in light fired out of her chest.
The orbital seemed to flicker as a mirrored surface appeared around it.
This clearly wasn’t a regular VendX orbital transport. They had sent something a little more advanced. That would explain why all of VendX’s competitors had hung back. This ship was probably armed to the teeth and kitted out with a full array of defensive measure. Most likely its intention was to stall for as long as possible and then apologise for some kind of error with its central processor.
“Switch to hard light,” said Tezla. The beam of light smashed through the mirrored shield, breaking it into glittering fragments.
“Rex, give me full control of weapons array.”
“Manual control transferred,” said Rex.
“What, no list of directives?”
“I just gave them to you,” said Rex. Barely a squeak this time.
“Good. Show me the cross-section.”
An image of the orbital appeared on her screen. It was an outline of the ship’s structure, showing every compartment and every component. Nothing was hidden from her sensors.
“Look at that. Every modern convenience, every weapon imaginable and some I’d never think of. Armour-piercing rounds, warship-class.”
Fins opened on her back and arms came out, each holding a missile that was still being constructed by tiny drones.
“Central Authority Guardian, please do not fire. We are having technical difficulties. Please hold while we attempt to comply with instructions.”
“Goodbye, VendX. Hope they didn’t skimp on the escape pods. Fire missiles.”
The missiles were each over a metre long now. They blasted off their mounts and headed for the orbital. She saw the radiation field appear in her HUD as shields went up. The missiles went straight through it. The orbital exploded.
“Three escape pods detected,” said Rex. “Each contains five lives.”
As the debris cleared, three coffin-like vessels showed up on her screen. Five people in each would be a tight fit.
“Must have moved their asses at full speed. What’s the minimum setting for immediate evac to a safe zone?”
“Emergency level five or greater,” said Rex.
“Open a public channel. This is Guardian Tezla. I am designating this a disaster area, emergency level five. Deploy a beacon.”
The suit released a small blimp that flashed a light from each end, broadcasting the designation on all frequencies.
The three escape pods fired boosters and blasted off towards the planet. Like all escape pods, they automatically left a danger zone for the nearest safe port, which in this case was the planet Enaya. It would be a little rough entering the planet’s atmosphere in an escape pod, and the landing would cause a few bruises, some broken bones, but better than dying in a level five emergency.
“All ships are leaving the area,” said Rex.
“Nice. What was level five again?” said Tezla.
“Local star going nova.”
“Right. Well, they all go nova eventually.” Tezla turned the suit to face the asteroid. “Controls are yours. Take us down.”
The suit’s boosters fired and Tezla flew down to the surface. At about a hundred metres the jetpack detached and she fell the rest of the way.
“Auxiliary station, maintain stationary orbit over the site,” said Tezla. “Destroy any non-CA vessel that approaches. No warning.”
The jetpack blasted back up and hovered over them as Tezla landed softly in front of the Ollo base.
“Recommend drone-cloud deployment,” said Rex.
“Deploy.” A mist of tiny drones sprayed out of the suit and hung around her. “I want self-destruct sequence active. Detonate if systems are compromised.”
“One percent.” That should make sure she didn’t lose control of the drones. She had seen what Ubik could do with tronics, she didn’t intend to give him access to her drones. “Make that point five percent.”
“Located a Holover ship. Hidden bunker detected.”
“Send in a scouting party.”
Five drones left the group and flew off. Tezla looked at the partly open entrance to the base.
She grabbed the bottom of the stuck gate and ripped it out of its fitting. The huge sheet of metal buckled and then sheared in half. She let the section in her hands fall to the ground.
“This body isn’t bad. Upgrade?”
“Nine percent increase in strength. I applied the additional force.”
“Excellent work, Rex.”
“Scout party reports an abandoned observation post. Also, several containers of unclassified nanodrones, Ollo brand.”
“Recall three scouts, detonate the other two.” Tezla entered the base as an explosion silently bloomed behind her.
Inside the base, there were bodies and three destroyed sentries. Data streamed across her HUD. She ignored it. There was a long tunnel leading to the main facility. She started walking. The drone-cloud spread out around her.
“Detecting signs of droid activity.”
“Up here? What kind?”
Tezla stopped. “Are you sure?”
“Ninety-four point six percent.”
“Well, this should be interesting. I hope we’ve got enough—” She felt the ground move under her. “What was that? An earthquake?”
“I’m reading a new power source approximately three hundred metres below us.”
“What is it?”
“Unknown? You don’t recognise the signature?”
“There is no signature,” said Rex.
“Great. What about life signs?”
“None within range.”
“Do a sweep for organics.”
“Detecting four… correction, five organics. Directly below us.”
“Four or five?”
“Five. One is very weak.”
“Okay, that’s somewhere to start. Send the scouts ahead.”
Five drones detached and flew down the tunnel as Tezla followed, checking her options for fighting an Insanium class droid. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the arsenal to do the job, it was just that blowing up the whole asteroid probably wouldn’t go down well at her next performance review.
Antecessor Facility, Level Three.
Chukka placed her ear to the floor. The rumbling sound was distant but still there. What was it? The Insanium droid?
“Do you sense anything?” said Chukka. “Any movement.” She held her breath and listened.
“Lots,” whispered Bashir. “Not our droid, though.”
“It can’t have disappeared,” said Flott. “It was right in front of us a moment ago.”
“I know,” said Bashir. “Believe me, I know. It’s gone now.”
Chukka crawled forward on all fours and peered around the corner. At the other end of the long passage were at least six droids. They were lined up in some kind of formation. They seemed to be standing guard, blocking the way forward.
Chukka took a long breath and tried to think. They’d made it down to the third level, already an accomplishment, but their guide-cum-escort had vanished into thin air.
Following it into the Antecessor site had been a masterstroke. Whatever the connection between the droid and Ubik, it was strong enough to the monster through the level. They had encountered numerous droid sentries and the strange creature had destroyed them all, barely pausing to do so.
But now they were deep into the level with no way of knowing where to go next or where to find the exit leading down. And droids everywhere. These may not have been Insanum class but there were still more than enough to take care of the five of them.
“We’re not staying here,” said Weyla. “You can, if you want, but we’re going to push on.”
“Push on where?” said Chukka. “You have no idea where to go, and how are you going to get past them?” It was annoying but they were safer with the two Seneca women. If they left, things would be even dicier. “Just wait.”
“No,” said Weyla, who did most of the talking for the sisters. “It’s better this way. You won’t slow us down.”
Chukka ground her teeth together. The Seneca Corps were well known for their arrogance. They might have earned the right but it was still annoying. If her CQ had been high enough, Chukka might have joined the Corps herself. Every girl’s dream. But now she would never lower herself to such a demeaning role. Follow orders and believe you were part of something bigger than yourself. They were just servants and maids with no hope of ever making their own choices.
“Fine, we’ll go together. At least we can watch each other’s backs.” She couldn’t allow the group to get separated.
“Did you not hear what I said?” Weyla scowled.
“Let’s just go,” said Leyla.
“Wait,” said Bashir. “I sense something.”
“The droid?” said Chukka.
“No. Something else. There.” Bashir pointed behind them.
It took a moment for Chukka to see the five tiny drones hovering in the passage.
“Where the hell did they come from?” said Flott.
“Get down,” said Chukka, diving to the floor.
The drones shot past them down the passage towards the droids. The walls lit up with white streaks of light and lasers fired from one side of the passage to the other, forming a wall of light. The drones hit the wall and instantly disintegrated, but the lasers flashed and the wall went black. Those lasers would have hit them if they’d gone ahead as planned.
The droids at the far end had noticed the incursion and began approaching. The only option was to retreat. Quickly.
A blur flew by them, straight into the droids. There was a crash, followed by an electrical discharge of some kind. Then there was a single person in a red and white suit standing there in a cloud of mini-drones, surrounded by droid parts littering the floor.
The helmet went up and a bald head turned to look at them. “This is now a Central Authority matter. Get out.”
Chukka got up. This might be a Central Authority Guardian, but she was still human. And Chukka knew how to deal with people.
“We can’t. There’s an Insanium class droid on the loose. If we go back, we’re as good as dead.”
The Guardian looked at Chukka, and then at the rest of the group.
“You two, ex-Seneca?” They nodded. She looked back at Chukka. “VendX?”
“That’s right,” said Chukka. “Chukka. Majored in Public Relations.”
The Guardian smiled. “Good. Come with me, then. I’m sure we can help each other out.”
She didn’t wait for an answer and started walking like she knew where to go. The woman had been surprisingly easy to convince. Chukka knew she would have to deal with her at some point, but for now she would be an asset. Two Seneca and one CA. It was quite the team she was collecting. Not even Ubik would be expecting this.
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