Antecessor Facility - Level 3
The door down to the fourth level was open. Chukka could see the dark interior and the occasional flicker of light from inside. It wasn’t possible to see any more because of Guardian Tezla.
She was standing ahead of the group, facing the door, having a conversation with herself, or so it seemed from what Chukka could see through the visored helmet on Tezla’s very impressive spacesuit.
“Are we waiting for something?” asked Weyla impatiently.
Tezla raised a hand towards the Seneca woman without turning around or interrupting her conversation. This did little to improve Weyla’s mood which had been growing steadily worse over the last couple of hours.
Chukka understood her frustration, but it was the sort of frustration one should be grateful for. They had made it through the third floor surprisingly easily. Ramon Ollo had purportedly been trying to access this level for several years and once he managed to get the door open, clearing a new level in a site of this type would be an equally slow and arduous process.
Tezla had led them through this level’s long straight passages at a pace more suitable for a final sweep of a thoroughly explored site, not one that had just been opened.
She had known which turns to take and exactly where she was going. There were no dead-ends, no doors to unlock, no rooms to search.
She had dealt with every droid they encountered, pathed the group around traps and hidden triggers as though she had been here numerous times before, and had only interacted with the rest of them when she wanted to make sure they stayed back and gave her space.
There had been nothing to do for the rest of the team, and the two Seneca women didn’t enjoy being along for the ride. They preferred to be the ones taking care of any problems, hands-on.
“Why are we even here?” muttered Leyla. “She clearly doesn’t need us.”
“I know,” said Weyla. “I think she just wanted an audience so she could show off her fancy suit. Like to see how good she is without it.”
Guardian Tezla turned around and the visor slid up and over her head, taking the rest of the helmet with it into the collar-ring around her neck. She was completely bald and her unblemished face hadn’t even a single wrinkle.
“The Insanium class droid went through here. You can see from the markings around the entrance that this door was forced open.”
Chukka looked past Tezla at the rectangular opening. She couldn’t see any markings.
“Yes, I can see that,” said Weyla. “Why don’t you go in? The droid isn’t here now, is it?”
The two women stared at each other with neutral expressions, neither willing to give the other the satisfaction of showing their annoyance publically. As though it wasn’t obvious.
Chukka looked over at her two VendX operatives, Flott and Bashir. Neither would be very useful if things boiled-over between the Guardian and the ex-corps women. It might be to her advantage later but right now they needed to work together. Once they reached their objective, then they could fight all they wanted.
“If the Insanium droid forced it open,” said Chukka, “where are the normal droids that tried to stop it? We saw lots of them on the second level — what was left of them, anyway — we haven’t seen any remains on the way here.”
“That’s right, well spotted,” said Tezla, her voice full of condescension, which Chukka ignored — she’d faced worse. “We took a different route, that’s why we didn’t see any trace of the droids. The defences targeted the droid and we were able to get through relatively unscathed, facing only the maintenance droids. I was able to handle those easily enough, but from here on it’s going to get much harder.”
She made light of how she had handled the droids they’d encountered. If they had been non-aggressive units, it wasn’t going to be much fun meeting the battle droids a site like this was no doubt fitted with. But Chukka knew enough about Antecessor droids to be aware of how multi-functioning they were. Even a lowly maintenance droid came with a full set of killing options as standard.
Perhaps they had avoided the bulk of the defence droids thanks to the Insanium beast, but Tezla’s performance had been impressive whatever way you looked at it. Her and that suit she wore had cut through any impedance to their route.
“Once we go through there,” continued Tezla, “we’ll be facing a non-stop barrage of droids, of all types. I can locate and identify them, but I can’t fight them all at the same time. I’ll need you to hold some of them off until I can get to them.”
She sounded very sure of herself, absolutely certain of what was beyond the door no one had ever been through before.
“Hold them off?” said Leyla, sounding put out. “Won’t it be quicker if we just kill them?”
“If you can, that would be very helpful,” said Tezla. “But I don’t think you’ll do very much damage with those Seneca blasters. What are they, third generation?”
Leyla frowned. “Second.”
“They do just fine,” said Weyla, defensively.
“For rounding up thugs and bounties, sure,” said Tezla. “Look, you don’t have to take my word for it, you’ll see for yourselves. Just remember, you wanted to come. I didn’t force you. I have it on tape, right Rex?”
Her suit collar lit up for a moment.
“And as for you,” she said, turning to face Chukka. “You’re practically unarmed. What was the idea behind the pellet shooters?”
She looked over at the gun Flott was carrying, a rifle with a huge magazine slotted underneath.
“This has enough firepower to take down a class seven droid,” said Flott. Chukka recalled he hadn’t been very enthusiastic about the guns, either, but he wasn’t about to let someone badmouth a VendX product. He could be fined a large amount if head office were to find out.
“Ammunition runs out. Droids don’t.”
“It was a precaution,” said Chukka, also liable for a fine if she didn’t speak up. “One of the people we’re looking for is good at turning tronic devices against their owners, including guns. And suits.”
Tezla frowned. “I’m well aware of Ubik’s ‘gifts’. He isn’t going to cause you much of a problem if the droids kill you first though, is he?”
“We came prepared for the droids,” said Chukka. “My team…” Her team, her plans, that hadn’t quite played out as expected. “We weren’t prepared for the Insanium droid.”
Tezla nodded, acceding to the unlikely nature of this particular scenario.
“No, you couldn’t have predicted that. But that’s why you will adhere to my instructions and not think for yourselves.” Tezla looked from the VendX group to the Seneca duo. “You should all be used to that.”
Chukka could see both Seneca women stiffen. What Tezla was saying was true, of course. Both the Seneca Corps and VendX Galactic demanded obedience and complete loyalty from their subordinates. It was hardly an insult, that was how all successful organisations worked, even the Central Authority.
“Just let us know when we can defend ourselves,” said Weyla. “Wouldn’t want to break your concentration when you’re doing your Guardian business.”
“The fourth level of a facility of this type is when things get serious,” said Tezla, oblivious to Weyla’s tone. “You’ll have to work together and do exactly as I tell you. There won’t be time for questions and suggestions. I don’t care what you think or feel or what you’ve been trained to do, all of that is worthless down here.”
As a leadership style, Tezla’s approach was not recommended in the manual. The manual Chukka was thinking of was the VendX Manual of Management Strategy and Resource Acquisition, her personal bible and guide. She read it most nights before going to sleep and always found something new she hadn’t seen before.
In a situation like this, bullying was not the most effective tactic. Bullying was best employed in a one-on-one setting in a confined space with only one exit.
“We can take care of ourselves just fine,” said Weyla.
“Yes, and get the rest of us killed while you do it,” said Tezla. “Fortunately, we have an advantage. The Insanium droid will have carved a path through the defences so we will only have to deal with what remains. That will still be quite a task, believe me.”
“How do you know?” said Flott, speaking up finally. “This is your first time here — not even Ramon Ollo has been down there before. It’s not like you bump into an Insanium class droid every day.”
The two Seneca women turned from Flott — who they had glared at with disdain when he started speaking — to Tezla, eager to hear her response.
“That is correct,” said Tezla. “I have never encountered a droid of this class before, but the Central Authority has. All their knowledge on this droid and about this type of facility is available to me. My suit is constantly scanning and comparing this site to the data we have on file. Of course, if this is an entirely unique facility unlike anything we’ve encountered before, then we will be dead in a few seconds. But that’s fairly unlikely.” The collar lit up on her suit. “No, Rex, I don’t need the exact figure.”
Tezla looked at Weyla again, eye to eye. “These droids were created for some unknown purpose but they ended up bugging out. Every one discovered so far was caged and kept separate from the rest of the facility they were found in. They have an ability to access the power source that powers all Antecessor sites against the site itself. This opening, it is impervious to any kind of forceful attack. What it can’t withstand, though, is its own power used against it.”
Tezla’s suit suddenly lit up and thin arms came out at the shoulders.
“In order to facilitate better communication, I will patch you all into my network. This will override your own comms systems and make it impossible for you to talk to each other via any other channels.”
The arms shivered.
“Hold on,” said Weyla.
“I don’t see why that’s necessary,” said Chukka.
“It isn’t,” said Tezla. “Just a byproduct of having to punch through the proprietary adaptors your respective superiors decided to use when constructing your suits. I can’t easily connect our three groups together, as simple as that might seem, and is. So instead, I will use brute force. Try not to move too much.”
“Why?” said Chukka. “What are you—” She felt her knees buckle as a wave of pressure shot down her ear canal.”
“Rex, confirm courtesy network stable,” said Tezla from inside Chukka’s ear. The quality was fantastic; much clearer than her regular comms.
“Stability confirmed,” said a calm, light voice that matched the rhythm of the flickering lights on Tezla’s collar.
Chukka checked her own internal comms. No response. The system was down, which wasn’t unheard of, but would it come back online once the connection with the CA network was terminated? If not, it wouldn’t be cheap to replace.
“Okay,” said Tezla. “You, Bashir, you’ll take point.”
“Me?” said a startled Bashir. “But I’—”
“Comms, I know. Won’t need you for that. Your organic, long-range sensor, right? I want you to be our early warning system. All you need to do is call out if you spot anything bigger than a house moving around ahead of us.”
“A house?” said Bashir. “What’s going to be that big down here?
“Pray you never find out,” said Tezla. “Go on, in front.”
“But if I’m in front, I’m going to—”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.” She bundled Bashir into position facing the open doorway. Rex will keep you safe. Right, Rex?”
“I will do my best,” said the other voice.
“I can take point,” said Flott, looking like he didn’t care what happened to him.
“No, you’re in the rear. Shocker, right? That’s where you’ll be needed.”
Flott didn’t look happy but didn’t argue.
“You two,” she said to the Seneca women. “Flanks, either side of me. Keep your guns pointed low. Anything higher than waist-high, ignore it.”
Her instructions were so strange and vague it was hard to dispute them. No one understood what she was planning. Or why.
As strategies went, this was fairly textbook. As long as no one knew what they were about to face, they had no choice but to follow the Guardian’s orders. She was the only one who had any idea of what they were about to face. Or the only who claimed to.
“What about me?” said Chukka.
Tezla looked at her. “You’re PR, aren’t you?”
“Well, stay close behind me. If any of them get through, try talking them into letting you live.” A thin humourless smile spread across her smooth face. She really looked like she took excellent care of her skin.
“I don’t think they’ll be very easily persuaded,” said Chukka.
“No,” said Tezla. Two small objects popped out of her chest armour. She caught them, one in each hand, and gave them to Chukka. “Heal sticks. About a hundred times as effective as those packs of sugar water VendX gives you.”
“In case I get injured?”
“In case one of them do.” Tezla pointed at the Seneca women, both of whom looked greatly offended by the suggestion they would take damage. “We need to keep them alive. Meat shields can’t tank hits if they’re lying on the ground.”
Neither woman appreciated the comment but they also recognised it as an attempt to bait them, so let it pass. Reverse psychology — the Guardian was impressing Chukka more and more.
Chukka looked at the long thin sticks in her hands. She wasn’t even sure which end was which. “I’m not a medic. I wouldn’t know—”
“Jab it anywhere you see blood or a gaping wound. If a limb comes off, try to grab it and save it for later. I have staples.” Tezla grinned menacingly.
Bashir wasn’t keen on going in first but Tezla didn’t give them any time to think of excuses. Chukka had to admit the Guardian’s methods were effective. It helped that she was carrying the most destructive power among them. It was always hardest to say no to the person with the biggest gun. Although, there were other ways to get your way, and Chukka hadn’t come to this rock completely unprepared for non-Ubik encounters.
The passage beyond the door was dark and sloped downwards. It was wide enough for the Seneca women to walk either side of Tezla. Drones separated from Tezla’s suit and hovered above her, sending beams of light ahead. The passage showed no signs of ending any time soon.
Bashir gingerly stepped forward and the others followed. “I don’t sense anything. I mean no movement at all.”
“Good,” said Tezla.
White streaks of light ran down the walls as though in an awful hurry to get somewhere. Only a few, though. They kept walking. Their footsteps sounded ridiculously loud and were sure to announce their presence. After about a minute, there was a low hum and the passage lit up with lines of white light covering the walls in their entirety. The cramped tunnel suddenly felt a lot bigger.
“Keep moving,” said Tezla.
“They know we’re here,” said Chukka.
“They already knew that,” said Tezla. “This is just to help us get there quicker.”
There was a doorway ahead of them, bordered by white light that constantly moved around the frame.
“We’re just going to walk in?” said Bashir.
“Yes,” said Tezla. She sounded very sure of herself, which was the right tone to take, whether it was true or not. Chukka wondered if Guardians had access to the Manual of Management Strategy and Resource Acquisition.
Bashir walked through the opening without hesitation, either accepting his fate or buoyed by the lack of movement ahead. They entered a large room, the walls glowing with streaks of light. There was another doorway ahead of them.
“Stop,” said Tezla once they were in the centre of the empty room.
There was a marked difference between the two sides of the room. One was flat walls with regular Antecessor markings, the other had large gouges cut into the walls, the white lines skipping around them.
“It’s been here,” said Tezla. “No one shoot until I tell you to, and don’t pick anything up. No shooting, no looting, got it? It took out about half of it, so we should be alright.”
“Half of what?” said Chukka.
The wall in front of Bashir erupted into shards of black and white. They flew out like shrapnel from an explosion, but rather than spreading out, they converged on Bashir, drawn to him.
A shield appeared around Bashir. The shards struck it and fell to the floor.
“Flott turn around and unload your organic into the back wall. Now.”
There was the crackle of electrical energy being released and the back wall lit up. Blue light arced across to the other walls, increasing the brightness of the Antecessor lines to a brilliant intensity. And then everything went dark except for the drones hovering over Tezla.
“Corps, thirty degrees, point-blank, full burst, thirty, follow-sighting. Fire.”
Chukka had no idea what that meant but the Seneca women obviously did. Both aimed their weapons down and opened fire.
The floor seemed to ripple. Limbs reached out like hands from the grave, and then exploded into splinters.
The ground shifted under them.
Cables shot out from the shoulders of Tezla’s suit, attaching to the walls on either side. The cables went taut, lifting Tezla off the ground. She kicked her feet up and inverted, pointing both arms straight down.
The floor opened, revealing a hole. Chukka stumbled backwards, barely avoiding falling in. Small rockets appeared all along Tezla’s arms. They launched with a whistling sound and flew into the pit, the explosion coming a surprisingly long time after. The hole snapped shut. Tezla rotated around and landed on her feet as the cables whipped back into her suit.
The drones grew brighter to show an empty room not that much different to when they first entered.
“What exactly did we shoot the shit out of?” asked Weyla.
The walls collapsed, their surfaces sliding off to form heaps of deconstructed droid pieces all around them.
“Mimic droid, pretending to be the room,” said Tezla. “No injuries? Good. Nice warm-up. Now it starts to get hard. Lead the way, Bashir.”
Chukka held on tightly to the heal sticks. If that was the warm-up, she was going to need more than two of these.
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