The fall hadn’t been that bad. Ubik had no way of knowing what he was falling into, but the actual falling part was fine. It was kind of fun.
Hitting the ground, on the other hand, had been quite painful.
He lay there, slowly checking his body by sending out gentle suggestions for various parts to move a bit. Some moved better than others. Some hurt more than others.
“Hello? Fig? PT?” No response. The suit has suffered some kind of loss of power. Or the internal circuits were fried. The Antecessor symbols he pushed through it probably took their toll.
The suit, of course, had helped him not die. The suit had also been responsible for nearly killing him. Why it had slid through the platform as though it wasn’t there he couldn’t say for sure. There was probably a good reason. Well, not a good reason, but a logical one.
The ground he had struck on the way down, which he now flattened against, wasn’t the bottom of the shaft. The shaft probably didn’t have a bottom, it was most likely a loop. Ubik had fallen, eyes open, looking for an exit point from the grand asteroid loop-di-loop. He had seen the ledge ringing the shaft, very much like the one he had just left, and had tried to direct himself to land on it.
It wasn’t very wide — the same metre or so as the one above — but wide enough to stop his current trajectory. He had been right about that.
He had hit the ledge more or less as planned — not bad for a first time skydiver — but his expectation of what it would feel like to hit the metal platform, at the speed he was falling, at the current level of gravity, was a little off.
PT, no doubt, would have done a somersault, bounced off the wall to reduce the impact, and landed in a heroic pose with his theme tune playing in the background. But then PT was a man born between the stars, where falling was eternal. Even when you were asleep in bed, you were falling through space at ridiculous speed.
Ubik smiled to himself, impressed with the poetic image of PT as a child of the heavens — you never saw an angel with a head that square or a nose that squat. He grimaced. Something definitely wasn’t right with his shoulder.
For a start, he was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be bumping up against the top of his head. Maybe his shoulder was fine. Maybe his neck was broken.
His boots, of course, had absorbed some of the force. Even from inside the suit, they were able to automatically identify an impending traumatic episode rapidly approaching and had taken corrective measures to protect his ankles.
Unfortunately, the suit — also built to protect lives — had tried to brace his body for the same event.;
You would think with both the Delgado company and Ramon Ollo’s genius combining to save him, the result would be doubly successful. You would be wrong.
Ubik had struck the ledge with no ability to choose where he fell or control his fate.
His feet were fine. His ankles, never better. The rest of him had struck the wall, the ledge, the wall again (somehow), and then the edge of the platform in a manner that should have broken him into two, if the suit had allowed it.
His breathing was okay, if a little shallow. His chest didn’t hurt but he couldn’t seem to expand it more than a small amount. The helmet was up and the inside wasn’t full of blood, so that was a good sign. It was just the difficulty he was having moving any part of him that was a worry.
Arms and legs were still attached. He could see his feet and one hand. His head wouldn’t move from the position it was in, almost like someone had their foot on his neck. He could feel his fingers and toes, all present. Everything was just very, very heavy.
His first thought had been that the problem was gravitational. He was caught in some kind of extreme gravity field that not only didn’t want to let him go, it wanted to make him a lot smaller and compact, squeezing him into a fun-sized version of himself — an Ubik for your shelf. But the pressure was coming from above and below.
The only other explanation was the suit. It was keeping him fixed in place as a precaution. Broken bones healed better when prevented from moving. But he was pretty sure none of his bones were broken, apart from his shoulder. And that was just dislocated. It had happened before, not a terrible injury, and very handy for escaping from a straight-jacket. Not that anyone had ever put him in one, but someone was bound to try eventually.
The suit meant well, he was sure. Its final act to keep him safe until help arrived. Slave suits expected to be under supervision. They were designed with accidents in mind, precautions built-in. Full body cast on demand.
Luckily, Ubik had already made some adjustments to the suit’s functions which would enable him to override the suit’s natural inclinations.
Unluckily, he couldn’t currently reach those adjustments with his arms flattened on the floor.
There was a distant whooshing sound. Not very loud, but distinguishable in the complete silence. He managed to look to the side and up, and saw a helmet falling. Then it was gone.
Interesting. PT and Fig were obviously up to something. He could just wait for them to come rescue him…
No, that could take forever. They were both solid individuals who could be relied on to do their best, but when had anyone’s best been good enough?
There was no point leaving matters in other people’s hands. It was much better to do it yourself, Ubik had always found.
He wiggled his toes. His boots had kept them relatively unaffected from the suit’s well-meaning intentions. His big toe flicked at a small bump on the inside of the boot.
His feet began to get warmer.
Warm, dry feet were a boon in wet and cold conditions. Delgados made sure your feet didn’t rot, even if the rest of you did. It wasn’t particularly wet or cold down here, but it was still a pleasant sensation to have toasty toes.
The boots, however, continued to grow hotter. One of the first things Ubik had done on receiving his boots was to remove all the limiters the manufacturer recommended. The boots could be modified a reasonable amount, there was no need to go to extremes.
As the temperature of the boot increased, the suit noticed. It was designed to be fire-resistant, but to fires on the outside. Heat from the inside, the suit would act like tin foil around a potato.
Even without power or active systems, the suit would have built-in safety measures. It wouldn’t harm Fig, it wouldn’t allow its occupant to burn to death, things like that.
The pressure eased and Ubik felt the straps on the back of the suit unlock. The cool air felt nice and being able to move felt even nicer. His shoulder hurt a lot more now that the suit had let him go.
Ubik took the opportunity to get out of the suit. It was a little awkward and his body suddenly decided it was in a lot more pain than it had initially let on, but he managed to get out and roll over onto the ledge. His shoulder poked him in the ear.
The suit lay next to him, the back open like it was in the middle of undergoing a surgical procedure, the helmet turned off.
He felt a little exposed. He was inside an asteroid, sitting on a ledge in an alien shaft. Not really appropriate for casual wear. He sat up with a groan.
The walls were bright silver. There was no exit or opening. The ledge was here for a reason, though. There could be a door, it was just closed. All in all, not the worst position he’d been in.
He slammed his shoulder into the wall and it popped back in. He didn’t scream. Not that he wouldn’t have liked to, but he had learned early on not to announce his wounded state for everyone to hear. They had a tendency to hear it as a dinner gong.
The helmet went sailing past again.
Now what? He could jump off and follow it, see what else was down there. He didn’t very much like that idea. He leaned across and picked up the suit, and regretted the stretch. His shoulder burned with pain.
The controls he’d jury-rigged in the suit’s belt weren’t responsive.
“Hello? Anyone?” There was always the chance he was still sending, just not receiving. “Fig, if you can hear me, I’m alive and hungry. Please send food.”
There was no response, not even static.
He slowly got to his feet and looked around. The ledge went all the way around the shaft. There was one section of the wall that looked like the control area Head had been trying to access. It was hard to be sure with the silver liquid filling all the grooves now. It seemed to be moving, flowing through the channels, connecting everything into one seamless pattern, gently pulsating. But this part looked different. Sort of.
Perhaps he could access it. He’d done it before, although that had been through the droid. He had managed to instruct the droid through its language, perhaps the wall would also respond to some forceful suggestions. They shared some sort of heritage, as far as he could tell, why not a language?
He tried to think what he would say. His mind was suddenly blank, unable to recall any of the symbols he had seen. They had all been there at once, cramming every nook of his brain, and now it was like someone had cleaned out his closet without telling him.
Ubik looked at the suit in his hand. It had been a key part of his success. The success of controlling the droid. It also deserved credit for the failure of not being able to stand on a perfectly solid elevator.
Flaxen, Fig had called it — that must have been what did it. How had a material created in Ramon Ollo’s laboratory to interact with a specific type of force field managed to have the exact same effect on an Antecessor construct made thousands of years ago? It didn’t seem like a coincidence.
The wall began to pulsate. Something was happening. Ubik looked up, the silver lines flowing into symbols that seemed familiar. It was hard to see them clearly, just a glimmer taking shape for a second.
It was similar to the Antecessor language but not as harsh or as intense.
Information, lots of it, moving around the walls like a newsfeed. Now instructions. Taking control. Of what? Not the wall, not the shaft. This was reporting what was happening, not undergoing the change itself.
Ubik took a moment to let his mind clear. This was like what he’d experienced on the Central Authority ship. So much data flooding his senses. They were all related though, all shared a common base. The CA and Ramon Ollo, both keeping secrets about their links to the Antecessors.
He saw what was happening. Someone — Fig, probably — was attempting to take over the command routine of an Antecessor droid. Not a full droid… not a real droid… What? The virtual droid that he had destroyed. It must have returned, or they sent a replacement.
Trying to take control of it directly was incredibly risky. Getting it to expose itself to you also meant exposing yourself to it. The worst you could do to it was cause it to malfunction and break. The worst it could do to you was cause you to malfunction and die.
It was a terrible, risky, stupid idea. I love it, thought Ubik.
If it worked, Fig would have access to the shaft through the droid, the way he had, but in a more stable manner. He would be able to operate the elevator and a lot more.
The chances of success were ludicrously low, but that only made the idea more appealing. Bravo. The kid had potential, assuming he didn’t get himself killed first.
Now the walls were lit up with streams of information. The droid was aware of what Fig was going to attempt. It was waiting for him. It would use it to take him. It didn’t say how.
The suit? It would infiltrate the suit Fig was wearing. There were bound to be safety measures. The suit would warn Fig. He would find a way to reject it, probably.
But that would be a waste.
When would the droid make a move? Ubik thought it through, how he would do the same thing. Wait until Fig thought he had control, let him focus on what he wanted the droid to do, sneak up on him while his attention was diverted.
Ubik took the suit in his hands by the collar ring and bent it back. His shoulder protested but he ignored the pain.
Where the collar and the metal ring joined, Ubik felt for a connector plate. It would only be the size of a fingernail, maybe even smaller. He found it on the left side. Four of them. Even better.
The suit might be dead but it had residual power. If Ramon Ollo wanted to maintain failsafes, he had to have the power to activate them. Ubik just needed one short blast of juice.
Ubik reached into his memory and searched for the symbols the Antecessors had used. They might be hard to retain but Ubik had always found things stuck in his head, even if they sometimes slipped down into the murky depths. There was always a lot of space down there.
The symbols he saw in the walls helped, gave him a clue what to look for. He found them in a heap, muddled together, no way to tell them apart or sort out their meaning. If they had been confusing before, now they were completely confounding. No matter. He didn’t need to send out orders this time, he just needed to make some noise at the right time.
He looked up at the wall. It was like watching a crowd at a sports event, building with anticipation. It knew what was going to happen and was happy to wait and see the result.
Ubik saw Fig enter the droid, take control, or think he had. As he began to interact with the wall, Ubik pushed two plates together and touched the collar ring to the wall. He formed the symbols in succession, one after the other, in a message of complete gibberish. It made no sense, but there was a lot of it. An overwhelming amount.
Fig took control. The droid missed its opportunity. The wall hadn’t expected the sudden shift in attack and failed to defend itself from Fig-controlled droid.
There was a howl of surprise that seemed familiar. Junior? Then the pulsating wall stilled into a steady glow, under Fig’s control.
Ubik took a breath. He had timed it just right. Whatever had been controlling the droid had been kicked out before it could start its counter-attack. Ubik’s flood of confusing symbols had momentarily incapacitated the droid, just long enough for Fig to complete his takeover.
Ubik dropped the suit and rubbed his shoulder. Above him, he heard a rumbling sound. They would be here soon. He decided the suit still had its uses and put it back on.
A few seconds later, the elevator platform descended with PT carrying a body and Fig (presumably) wearing a droid. That wasn’t how Ubik would have taken control of a droid, but to each his own.
“What’s wrong with your shoulder?” asked PT.
“Nothing, what’s wrong with your face?” said Ubik automatically
PT’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times. “Nothing. I don’t think. It always looks like this.”
“Oh, okay. Looks good,” said Ubik.
“He’s got a droid on his head, why are you picking on me?” PT seemed a little offended.
“Nice,” said Ubik to Fig. “Suits you.”
“Thank you,” said Fig’s voice.
“While you’ve been taking it easy down here, “ said PT, “we’ve taken control of the shaft.”
“So I see,” said Ubik. “It’s like you don’t even need me anymore.”
PT frowned. “What have you really been doing down here?”
“Yes you have,” said PT. “I can tell. That look… What did you do?”
Ubik stepped onto the elevator platform.
“NO!” said PT. Then he looked confused. “Why didn’t he fall through?”
“The suit’s dead,” said Fig. “He broke it.”
“So this is what it feels like to be the one who’s rescued. Kind of tingly. I like it. You should rescue me more often.”
PT looked across at Fig, or the droid on top of Fig’s head. The droid shrugged. The elevator continued to descend.
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