Book 2 – 61: Cat Fight

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Antecessor Facility - Level 4


Chukka couldn’t help but be impressed watching Guardian Tezla deal with the Antecessor droids. She moved with a fluidity that people in full battlesuits shouldn’t have. Her attacks were precise and elegant. The way she predicted what the droids would do was practically supernatural.

Of course, the suit had a lot to do with it. Even the most elite units of the VendX sales force didn’t have access to anything on the same level. The cost would have been far too high — no point going into a sales pitch where losing a single suit would make the whole deal unprofitable.

And then there was the suit’s AI.

“Movement, there,” called out Bashir from in front of the Guardian.

“New droid confirmed,” said the suit over comms. “Class seven, thirty degrees, one-six-point-nine, moving to vector two-five, two-three.”

Tezla pointed her fist at the top left corner of the room and beam of intensified light heat shattered the droid emerging from the wall.

“And here,” said Bashir.

“New droid, class six-a, forty-two degrees…”

“I see it.” A rapid burst of laser fire blew a smaller droid to pieces.

“One more.”

“New droid…”

Every call-out by Bashir was pinpointed by the suit and swiftly dealt with before it had a chance to cause them any real trouble. Even when they emerged in multiples, Tezla only had to point — there, there, over there, down there — and searing lasers would turn the droids into molten slag. The power expenditure alone would send the VendX accounts department into conniptions, and then there was the wear and tear, replacing munitions, insurance costs… The list was long and undoubtedly very expensive.

The Central Authority were funded — reluctantly — by the Greater Business Bureau, but they had to have other sources of income.

The passage they were travelling down was long and straight, the white lines static but still providing light, with occasional wider areas every hundred metres or so. It wasn’t clear what these larger spaces were for, but this was where the droids attacked. And were obliterated very soon after.

It also helped that the droids they had encountered down here on the fourth level had been small and no more than six at a time.

It was unusual to be facing such a low-level threat on a newly opened level of an Antecessor facility. The deeper you went, the tougher it got, normally.

The larger threats, though, had already been taken care of. The signs were hard to miss — the damaged walls, the debris not cleared away by the ever-efficient maintenance droids, the droid parts littering the floor. Unlike Tezla’s method, these remnants of droids had been crushed not melted.

The Insanium class droid was clearing a path for them and Tezla only had to deal with what the giant droid had overlooked or deemed as not a worthy threat. She was more than up to the job. Which begged the question: Why did she need any of them?

Even the two Seneca women walked along behind the Destroyer of Droids with their weapons holstered, looking a little bored.

“Up ahead…” said Bashir. He had stopped and was leaning forward, like he was trying to hear something in the distance, his glowing green eyes indicating his organic was active.

“Yes,” said Tezla impatiently. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure. Something… not there. A gap.” Bashir looked confused. “Either there’s some kind of void or…”

“Or whatever it is, it’s being shielded from you,” Tezla finished for him. “Rex, search the database for anything that matches. Go deep. Restricted archives if necessary.”

“Yes, Guardian,” said the suit’s AI.

The group stood waiting in the passage. It was completely quiet apart from the occasional buzz as sparks fell from the gouges in the walls. The Insanium droid had made it very easy to follow its trail.

“You think there’s a trap waiting for us?” asked Weyla. She was the more impatient one of the sisters, the one more likely to snap. Chukka had no idea what had made her so testy — the Corps was well known for its emotionless conditioning of its members, trained to act without feeling or morals. Cold and without regret, not willing to waste energy on whatever horrific act they were ordered to commit in the name of gender security.

“Undoubtedly,” said Tezla, flipping up her visor and checking her sidearm, which she hadn’t used so far. “Every site like this is riddled with them.”

“Very prescient of them,” said Chukka. “Taking precautions against people like us thousands of years in their future.”

Tezla’s lips curled into a sneer. “Do you really think they would care about what we did with their tech once they were gone? The traps were for the Intercessors.”

“Who?” said Flott, standing next to Chukka but barely registering as a presence. He seemed to have already given up.

“You people know nothing.” Tezla shook her head. “Intercessors. Rivals of the Antecessors. They often clashed. Chased after the same resources.”

“Another species of aliens?” said Weyla. “I’ve never seen any evidence of them.”

“Not another species, the same species. We know there were at least two factions of Antecessors — probably more. There was some kind of civil war, or an uncivil one judging by the level of destruction.”

“And the Central Authority has this evidence?” said Chukka.

“Of course,” said Tezla. “It’s not a secret among the larger corporations, either.”

From her tone, the implication was that she didn’t consider VendX to be one of those larger corporations. It would be hard to dispute. Even though it was considered a supercorporation, VendX was only mid-tier. The true superpowers, the megacorps, operated in the heart of the galaxy, buying and selling planets.

VendX could do as it pleased in the far reaches of the quadrants, where the populace were spread out and took time to profit from. In the heart, you could buy anything you could dream of and sell it for twice as much once you were done with it. If you could get in, that was.

“So every ship and base the Antecessors left behind was designed to keep these Intercessors out?” said Chukka, keen to keep Tezla talking. Knowledge may or may not have been power, but information was definitely money. “The droids and the booby traps. We just happen to be the lucky recipients of an ancient grudge match?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” said Tezal. “But as far as we know, there was no quarter given from either side.”

“What were they fighting over?” asked Bashir.

“No one knows for sure. Probably the usual — power, freedom, revenge, a demented leader. Who knows?”

“Search complete,” said Rex. “Anomaly identified with acceptable margin of error, red anti-gravity particles. Insanium class droid detected.”

The Seneca women drew their weapons and changed their postures to more aggressive ones.

“Could have mentioned that first,” said Weyla.

“It’s not here,” said Tezla. “It’s down there, with the anomaly.”

“Red anti-gravity particles,” repeated the AI.

“In the open?” said Tezla. “Unlikely.”

“The Intercessors,” said Bashir. “Did they have ships, too? Bases?”

“Yes,” said Tezla. “Less sophisticated, more powerful. Usually better hidden. Like on this asteroid.”

“Here?” said Chukka. “This is an Intercessor site?”

“No,” said Tezla. “This is Antecessor. But it’s built on top of an Intercessor facility. That’s what the archives suggest, anyhow. The Insanium droid, it’s an indicator.”

They walked a few more metres and the next open area, the Insanium droid was right there, in front of them. With its back to them. And most of it body inside the wall.

It took a moment for Chukka to understand what it was doing. There was a large hole in the wall, clearly not a feature of the design. It had been smashed through, cracks spreading in every direction. The white lines that had been static but present all along the passage had disappeared completely in this room, making it a lot harder to see. But the droid was dripping with sparks, its tail appendage swinging from side to side and sending arcs of electricity around the room, lighting it up to reveal the monster half in and half out.

It slowly reversed out of the hole and turned around to look at them with its one large eye. Something flashed by, falling from the top of the hole to the bottom, caught in the flashes of lightning from the droid’s mane.

There was some kind of space behind the wall.

“Shaft detected,” said Rex. “Gravity increase detected. Source of shielding detected. Anti-gravity particles, red, seven parts per billion.” The AI sounded a little smug. “Danger threshold low. Climbing.”

“That’s where I need to go,” said Tezla. “It’s uncovered an Intercessor access point.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” said Flott drily, “but there’s a rather large droid between us and the ‘access point’.”

“Yes,” said Tezla. “What we need to do is distract it long enough to get into that shaft.”

“You want to jump into an unknown shaft?” said Flott. “Our suits don’t have thrusters. Not even yours.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Tezla. “You just have to keep it here while I investigate.”

Chukka started to get the feeling this was the end of their road trip. “You want us to stay here with that thing?” she said.

“There’s an increased gravity field through there,” said Tezla. “I wouldn’t advise any of you going any further in those suits, thrusters or not. You could be squashed flat in an instant. But let’s take care of the droid first.”

The droid was slowly stalking across the room towards them. It didn’t seem particularly aggressive. Maybe it recognised her. Chukka wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

Tezla didn’t wait to see what mood it was in. She moved blindingly fast and launched herself forward, both arms extended and issuing a stream of instructions to her suit.

Chukka saw the droids chest open and the air compress in front of Tezla. There was a strobe effect from the droid’s flashes of blue light that slowed everything down. It showed Tezla open fire, the beams of light fracture as they made contact with where the air had been compressed, and then Tezla was punched back by a mini sonic boom.

As she came flying back the way she came, the two Seneca women were already moving forward. They had decided to go along with the plan, apparently. A charge into a superior opposition position was very much to their liking. How was she going to get them to do what she wanted? She needed people who used their heads — how was she supposed to use her training on people who acted on instinct? They were the hardest to control.

“What do you want us to do?” said Flott.

“Nothing. Stay out of their way.”

“As you command,” said Bashir with a relieved salute.

Weyla somehow avoided whatever weapon the droid was using and managed to spin it around. Leyla came at from its blind side, but its tail whipped out and caught her mid-air, slamming her in the chest and sending her flying across the room.

“No!” screamed Weyla, immediately knowing the injury was serious.

“I’ve got her,” shouted Chukka, running towards the fallen figure slumped against the wall on the far side of the droid, a large impression left on its surface where she’d struck it.

Tezla was back up already and rejoining the fray. Chukka managed to avoid being spotted by using Tezla as cover. This was her chance.

Leyla was clearly the one to target. She was going to be more susceptible to implanting, even if only by a tiny amount. If she could get one sister, the other would follow.

Chukka slid in next to Leyla and stabbed her with the heal stick Tezla had given her. The stick turned bright green as Leyla’s body jerked, practically trying to get back to her feet while still unconscious.

“She’s fine,” shouted Chukka as she grabbed Leyla and pulled her back down.

Her eyelids were fluttering. She was alive but weak. Perfect. Now was the time to probe her for vulnerabilities. Everyone had them, even the Corps. Which way did she favour? Visual, auditory, emotional? The correct insertion method made a huge difference.

Her pupils were dilated, eyes falling down and to the right. Emotional, most likely. It was hard to tell under the conditions, but it would be near impossible with Leyla fully conscious. Emotional, definitely. She was a feeler. Unusual for Seneca but lucky for Chukka.

Chukka’s eyes flickered blue and the hairs on her arm rose. Weak, her organic had always been the lowest tier. But it had helped in some ways. Harder to spot.

“You’re fine. You’re going to be fine. The pain will be gone in a minute. Hang on.” She put a hand on Leyla’s forehead. “I’ve got you. Hang on a little longer.”

Leyla groaned.

“Your sister’s fine. It hasn’t touched her. You need to be strong for her so she doesn’t get distracted. You have to fight. Strike back. Be firm. Can you feel it? The heal stick is bringing you back to full strength.”

It wasn’t the best way, to push so many trigger words in such a short time, but there was no other choice. Her eyes flashed and she couldn’t see for a moment. Then Leyla screamed and went stiff in Chukka’s arms. Had she pushed too hard?

Weyla yelled in response and came hurtling across the room, under the droid, knocking away one of its legs and sending it stumbling across the room. Weyla came sliding in to take Leyla away from Chukka, pushing Chukka away with her other hand.

A cube slid along the floor and came to a stop next to Chukka’s feet. It shook like an alarm bell was going off inside and a thin beam of yellow light shot straight up, making Chukka jerk her head back to avoid getting hit.

Just before the light hit the roof of the chamber, it spread open like an umbrella, encasing Chukka and her men, along with the two Seneca women, in a yellow-tinged force field.

The Insanium droid stopped and tilted its head. It was on one side of the room-blocking enclosure and Tezla was on the other. She was standing on the cracked bottom of the gaping hole.

“You’ll be perfectly safe as long as you stay inside this safety tent,” said Tezla. Chukka could hear her through her comms but the force field didn’t let sound in. “You can turn it off but I assure you, the droid won’t be happy.”

The droid didn’t look happy already. It was pawing at the force field, unable to get through or move it, and the fit was too close to the walls and roof to allow it to get past. Its mane swung from side to side in a manner that suggested agitation to Chukka.

“What are we supposed to do?” said Weyla. “Wait until we die of hunger?”

“No,” said Tezla. “Hopefully not. I should be back soon. Once I return, I will escort you out.”

“You’re going after Ubik alone,” said Chukka. “That’s not a good idea.”

“You needn’t worry,” said Tezla, “I’m sure I’ll manage.”

Chukka could see her thinking. Even if she had underestimated Ubik, having extra bodies along wouldn’t improve her chances. Not unless they had come specially prepared for Ubik and his shenanigans.

“Just sit tight and try to keep the droid amused. Insanium droids have shown a tendency to go easy on people they find entertaining. An odd quirk but one that might save your lives.”

“Are you saying it can get through the force field?” asked Bashir nervously.

“No, it’s impervious to any attack or damage. Or movement once it’s activated. But the resonator has a limited energy supply. It will eventually turn itself off.”

“How long do we have?” asked Weyla.

“Plenty of time. Eighteen hours at the very least. I should be back well before then.”

“And if you’re not?” said Weyla.

Tezla smiled. “I hope you know some good jokes.” She turned and faced the hole. “Rex, mute comms.” She jumped into the shaft.

“I knew she couldn’t be trusted,” said Weyla. “Good thing we came prepared.” She unholstered both her guns and slotted them together so they became an even bigger gun.

Leyla got to her feet with a series of grunts and did the same with her weapons. Both women were ready to kill the droid or die trying. Chukka knew which was more likely.

“Wait. I can get us all out of here alive.”

Everyone turned to look at her. So far everything had gone to plan. Now she just had to convince them to go the rest of the way.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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