The view from inside the droid was confusing. Figaro could see the shaft moving as the platform descended, but it was mainly a blur indicative of a general downward movement.
He could see Ubik and PT, carrying Nifell, but they were masked by a layer of translucent droid-projection. Even though the droid wasn’t a solid object, merely an avatar made of light and some kind of force field, its presence was hard to ignore. Especially when its tentacle-like limbs rippled and slid around his field of view.
The control panel on his arm was now connected to the droid and had full control of it, although it was limited in what it could do. Simple commands, the type you might use to test basic movements on the core of any automated device, worked flawlessly on the droid. Not just that, they worked flawlessly on the droid to control the lift shaft which was part of an entirely separate system.
Figaro’s experience with Antecessor technology, with technology in general, told him that connecting three completely different networks shouldn’t have worked as smoothly as it had, if at all.
Most surprising of all was how compatible his father’s handshake protocol had been with the droid’s. It was almost as though the two were built on the same infrastructure. Which was impossible. Or should be.
“Are you alright in there?” asked PT, peering in from the front of the droid, Nifell draped across one shoulder.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “I’m fine. It just takes a little getting used to.”
“Can it tell you where we’re going?” asked PT.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Figaro, checking his control panel anyway, just in case he’d missed something. His arm and the whole top part of his body were encased inside the droid. “I can only give it very basic instructions and I’m not really sure how it’s converting them into whatever language it uses to move the elevator. I don’t have access to anything else. I don’t think this droid was much more than a simple conduit for whoever sent it.”
PT nodded, still looking in through the droid. “Okay. But how’s all this silver stuff running around the droid’s body?” He poked at the droid, his finger passing through its body so the tip touched the silver liquid flowing through the construct and into its tendrils like blood vessels carrying blood to the limbs of a living creature. The silver liquid moved away from the finger and continued on its way.
The droid was a light-construct, entirely intangible. It could transfer communications or carry an electrical charge easily enough, but to pick up a solid object required something more. Some sort of localised force field, maybe.
“It’s gravitational phase transition,” said Ubik. “I told you, it changes state when affected by different levels of gravity. The silver stuff isn’t being directly manipulated by the droid, the droid is manifesting through the silver stuff and then guiding it with low levels of impedance.”
“A guess?” PT asked.
“You can call it that, if you want,” said Ubik. “All great minds are accused of not knowing what they’re talking about and then told they got lucky when they turn out to be right. It’s the price we pay for our brilliance.”
“I’m pretty sure the price for your brilliance is us nearly dying every time you have one of your ideas,” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik, “that’s just an optional extra I throw in for free. Your lives would be much more dull without me here to spice things up for you.”
“I see what you mean,” said Figaro. What Ubik said made the movements he perceived from inside the droid make more sense. “The gravitational effect on the silver stuff turns it into this liquid form which attempts to fill the grooves in the wall, but by manifesting the droid’s body on top of it as it moves, the exact placing is changed to where I tell it. The droid’s limbs aren’t moving the silver stuff around, they’re manifesting in different places to change the trajectory of the liquid already trying to reach the walls.”
“Exactly,” said Ubik. “See? Someone who actually listens.”
Even from inside the droid, Figaro could tell PT wasn’t convinced. “That wasn’t what you said.”
“Those were more or less the same words I used,” said Ubik, “only not necessarily in the order I said them.”
Whatever the mechanism was, it still only enabled Figaro to move the platform through the shaft. He had no way of knowing where they were headed or what he should be looking for in terms of a disembarkation point. Would there be an obvious stopping place? An exit sign? They could end up just going all the way around endlessly.
“Here!” shouted Ubik. “Stop here.”
There was nothing special about this section of the shaft as far as Figaro could tell but he tapped the instructions into his control panel and the platform came to a smooth stop.
The shaft glowed, pulsing slightly.
“Why are we stopping here?” asked PT.
“This is the level we want,” said Ubik confidently. “There’s probably a door around here somewhere.” He scanned the walls in a purposeful manner.
Figaro used his suit’s normal sensors but there was no indication of any kind of opening, not even a closed-off one.
“How do you know?” said PT. “What did you see?”
“The walls told me,” said Ubik. “I can read some of what they’re saying.”
“They’re saying stuff?” said PT. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” said Ubik. “Lots of things. This place is full of chatter. It’s like they’re holding a big meeting, sending messages all over the place.”
PT looked up and from side to side. “And you can understand it?”
“Some of it,” said Ubik. “It’s a very complex language and… what’s the word? Boring. A very boring language. Everything repeated and confirmed a million times to make sure. But it definitely said this is the seventh level. That’s where we want to go, right?”
“Yes,” said Figaro. “Seven levels deep.”
“Then this is it,” said Ubik.
They all looked around. The walls were covered in silver and otherwise featureless.
“Does it say how we open the door?” asked PT.
“Hold on, let me see.” Ubik turned a complete circle, eyes on the walls. “Hmm, yes, I see. Fig, use your droid powers to open a hole in the wall.”
“Um, okay.” Figaro tried to tell the droid to open anything that might be a door. The droid’s limbs began skimming around the wall to no overall effect.
PT sighed. “This is pointless.”
There was a hiss and a dark crack appeared in between the silver lines.
“Ah,” said Ubik insistently. “Ah, ah, ah?”
“We don’t know what it is yet,” said PT.
The crack widened until it was big enough to walk through. There was a passage on the other side. The walls were glowing with streaks of white light.
“Ah? Ah?” Ubik continued, pointing and raising his eyebrows.
“Fig opened it,” muttered PT, shifting Nifell around so he didn’t slide off his shoulder.
“I don’t know what I did,” said Figaro. “There’s no way I would have known to do it at this spot without Ubik telling me to.”
PT gave him a betrayed look. Then he shook his head and he was back to his usual look of resignation. “Fine. Let’s head in, then. I’m sure there won’t be any dangers down here on the seventh level of an Antecessor site. Probably a welcoming party with cake.”
“Cheer up,” said Ubik. “Look at how well we’ve done so far. Taken on all-comers and not even a scratch on us.”
“Nifell might have something to say about that,” said PT. “You know, if he wasn’t in a coma.”
“He’s just resting,” said Ubik.
“Can I take this thing off now?” said Figaro. “It’s a bit cumbersome.”
“No, better keep it on,” said Ubik. “Never know when we might need it.”
“Are you saying that because you think it will be funny to have him walk around like that?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik, not entirely convincingly. “Look at the walls through there. Don’t they look a bit odd to you? I mean, compared to the walls at the higher levels.”
Figaro looked into the passage. It had the appearance of a regular Antecessor passage — black walls with white lines moving in different patterns — but there was something different.
The lines should have been moving at high speeds, rushing to get somewhere. But these lines moved more slowly. Sluggish, even. And the patterns were distinct, not flowing like he was used to seeing them in every simulation he had ever run.
“Some kind of slowdown?” he said.
“Some kind of something,” said Ubik. “I’ve been wondering why the Antecessors wanted you to give yourself over to them when we were headed where they wanted anyway.”
PT grunted, but said nothing. That was the question he had asked — now Ubik had taken it as his own. It was how Ubik operated, taking freely.
“And what answer did you come up with?” prompted PT. If he got an answer, it didn’t really matter who asked the question originally.
“Because they don’t have Fig’s dad,” said Ubik.
“Then where is he?” said Figaro.
“Oh, he’s down here,” said Ubik, “but they don’t control this part of the asteroid.”
“Head?” said PT.
“Maybe his group,” said Ubik. “Or someone else. Who knows how many different competing factions there are? But this level isn’t controlled by the same Antecessors who control the top levels.” He stepped off the platform directly into the passage. The walls stopped moving and the lights glowed more brightly.
Ubik put a hand on the wall. The white lines gathered around his glove.
“They know we’re here, then,” said PT, stepping off the platform to join him, “whoever they are. Got a plan do you?”
“If you think of what to do too early, your ideas will just go stale,” said Ubik. “We’ll have to use our wits and our smarts. There could be even worse things down here, even more powerful than an Insanium class droid, waiting to rip us to pieces, but the answers will come when they’re needed. Fig, you go first.”
Figaro stepped off the platform. He had no qualms about leading the way. None of them knew what they were walking into, but his father was down here somewhere. Not going wasn’t an option.
As he left the elevator, the droid’s tendrils detaching from the walls and the platform blinked out of existence. Would he be able to recall it later? They still had to find a way back.
“Okay,” said Figaro. “I’ll—” He turned around quickly. “Did you feel that?”
“Feel what?” said PT as he gently put Nifell down.
“A… rush of air, I think. Something moving very fast.” He looked into the shaft but didn’t see anything, not that it was easy with the droid on his head.
“No,” said Ubik. “Maybe you’re getting droid fatigue. You know, from being inside a droid for so long.”
“I’m fine,” said Figaro. He walked into the passage ahead of the other two. The droid’s limbs extended to touch the walls but they didn’t seem to have any effect. Figaro considered what instructions he could use to test any interactions, but what was there to ask of a wall? Maybe if they came to a locked door he might try to get it open.
Now that he was in the passage, there was a very clear difference between the way the lines on the wall were moving. It was similar to the symbols used by Head in the elevator shaft.
Ubik appeared to be right. The Antecessors had wanted him to give himself up to them before he got here, and the only feasible reason for that was that they didn’t have control of this part of the asteroid. And whoever did was not on good terms with the Antecessors.
It also meant that his father was in the hands of this faction. What did they want with his father or with him?
As he walked through the passage, he sensed that it was a lot older and in greater disrepair than the levels he had seen while in the sim-U. There had been something clean and regimented about those levels. Almost sterile compared to this level.
In the sim-U, the Antecessor sites had felt alien and from another time, but this place felt truly ancient.
“How is the droid still here,” said PT from behind him, casually dragging Nifell along the floor by his boot, “if it uses the silver stuff to manifest itself?”
“Look at his suit,” said Ubik.
“Oh,” was all PT said in response.
Figaro looked down at himself, but it was hard to see anything clearly inside the droid. “What is it?” he asked PT.
“You’re covered in silver dust,” said PT.
“Sparkly,” said Ubik.
“Not liquid?” asked Figaro. “How’s the gravity in here?”
“A little over standard,” said PT. “It’s hard to pin down exactly, there’s a flow.”
“What does that mean?” said Ubik.
“It means that gravity itself is moving,” said PT, “as well the objects within its sphere of influence.”
“And what does that mean?” said Ubik.
“It means that it isn’t being created by the asteroid,” said Figaro.
“Yes,” said PT. “But I’ve never heard of anything being able to create a gravitational field on the scale of a planetoid that wasn’t the actual planetoid.”
Ubik laughed. “Planetoid. That’s a funny word. Did you make it up?”
“No,” said PT.
Figaro stopped. There was movement up ahead. “Um, I think we’ve got company. Looks like droids of some kind.” He checked his control panel. “Lots of them.”
“This is fine,” said Ubik. “Fig, pretend you’re a droid. Blend in.”
“I don’t think they’re going to be fooled,” said PT.
“He’s spent his life studying droids with the foremost expert on them.” Ubik looked at Figaro. “Now your chance to be the artificial lifeform your dad always wanted you to be.” He gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“They aren’t regular droids,” said Figaro.
“Neither are you,” said Ubik.
“They’re showing up as… well, similar to… Insanium class.”
There was a moment of silence.
“When you say ‘lots’,” said PT, “how many, exactly.”
Figaro checked again. The readings were hard to read, bleeding across each other. “Six. Might be more behind them, they’re blocking the passage.”
“Alright, Ubik,” said PT. “Time to do your magic.”
“Me? What do you want me to do?”
“Tame them,” said PT. “Whisper in their ears or whatever it is you do. We’ll wait back on the elevator.”
“Let’s not be hasty,” said Ubik. “We’re a team, right? They think like animals, that’s the whole Insanium angle. We just need to show them who’s top dog. Fig, just think like an alpha. Remember, they’ve been down here for thousands of years. Who knows the last time they had a firmware update?”
Figaro looked down the passage. He could only just see the red lights but his control panel told him they were big and they were moving closer. He wasn’t confident that he’d be able to convince them he was one of them, let alone a superior version. Getting others to follow his lead was still a big issue for him.
“I don’t think they’re going to… wait.” Figaro checked his control panel. “They’re backing off.” He took a step forward. The droids retreated some more. Were they trying to lure him in? Surely they weren’t intimidated.
“I don’t think it’s you they’re backing away from,” said PT.
Figaro turned around. Behind them was a moving shower of sparks.
“Hey!” said Ubik. “It’s Junior. When did he get here?”
The Beast opened its chest howled.
“I don’t know,” said Figaro, “but I think they aren’t happy to see him. They’re running away.”
“Daddy’s back and the kids are scared,” said Ubik. “See? I told you everything would be fine. All we had to do was—”
There was a loud whoosh and Junior suddenly turned upside down and was yanked up to the roof of the tunnel. From the way he was pinned there, it didn’t seem a voluntary choice.
Now that he was no longer blocking their view, Figaro was able to see a figure.
“Just the people I was looking for,” said a stern female voice.
“Guardian?” said Ubik. “Is that you? You’re alive.”
“Yes,” said the woman. “And I would like a word with you.”
“Now’s not really the best time,” said Ubik. “Nice trick with the droid, by the way. What is it? Some kind of magnetic net field?”
“Something like that,” said the woman.
“Do you have any more? Say, like about six more?”
“Why would I need six more?” said the woman.
“For them,” said Ubik, pointing at the charging droids.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino