Book 2 – 64: Cause for Offence

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Seventh Level.


Point-Two was the first to react.

He lunged past Fig, his body low and accelerating. In a high-gee environment, inertia was your enemy. Every movement took a fraction of a second longer. You compensated by beginning to move before you needed to, before you knew where it was you were going to move to.

You engaged the muscles in your legs first, the jump between standing still and getting into motion being by far the most time-consuming. Point-Two had been on the verge of running, jumping or diving out of the way since he had detected the increase in gravity.

The Guardian could probably have moved faster but she wasted valuable time assessing the situation, or her equipment was doing so on her behalf. Point-Two had always found people in authority became reliant on their underlings. Giving orders, giving speeches, awaiting suggestions and recommendations — it slowed down mental processes.

When faced with a superior opponent, you couldn’t rely on winning a drawn-out fight. Your only hope was to seize the initiative. And even then, your chances weren’t good.

Fig came from a similar background, an expert in using the tools his father had created, which also required action through at least one filter. No matter how fast you were, every extra process you had to go through would cost you time.

And then there was Ubik, who was always willing to act without thinking, without waiting to see what the problem was before hurling out answers at random. He might have been quicker off the mark but he seemed happy to see the stampede descending on their position. Amused, even.

Six behemoths, smaller than Junior but barely able to fit into the passage as they surged forward. None of them resembled the Insanium droid currently stuck on the ceiling. They weren’t shaped to imitate animals, they were droids of the familiar type. The type that simply killed people and went about their business.

Ubik, friend to deadly automatons everywhere, would probably emerge unscathed, somehow. Fig, too, was considered a special existence within this alien civilisation. And as for the Guardian, she would survive for at least a while inside her mobile fortress. Even a quick glance told him her suit was an advanced piece of gear built to deal with droids, although perhaps not half a dozen Insanium class droids at once. If nothing else, she could flee.

No, the only person in real danger here was him. No one was going to take care of poor old Hollet 3.2. He had to save himself. And the only way he could think of buying himself enough time to think of a possible way out of this situation was to deploy the only weapon he had access to.

He grabbed Ubik around the waist and lifted him just enough to throw him.

“Hey, what the—”

Ubik’s speciality was in making others react to him. He liked to keep people busy so he could get up to mischief at his own pace. People who liked to stay one step ahead weren’t used to dealing with maniacs like themselves.

Using his momentum and the skills he had learned playing G-tag, Point-Two launched Ubik into the air, directly into the path of the oncoming horde.

He had no idea what Ubik would do — possibly be trampled to death — but his instincts told him Ubik would think of something. Which would be enough to buy the rest of them some time.

What Ubik did was nothing. He landed a few metres away with the droids bearing down on him, not looking like they were even going to stop. Ubik’s posture didn’t suggest fear. His pose wasn’t even that of someone who was going to run, not that you could ever tell what Ubik was about to do. He seemed ready to take on all six head-on.

“Idiot!” shouted the Guardian as a small cube went skidding along the ground. It stopped when it bumped into Ubik’s boot and a yellow dome of light popped out of it, enclosing Ubik within its borders.

The droids hit the yellow wall and bounced off. The dome didn’t move a single centimetre. It blocked the passage from top to bottom, leaving only small gaps in the top corners where the curve of the dome didn’t reach the roof. The gaps didn’t look big enough to allow the droids through, but the droids didn’t seem to think so.

They climbed the walls, sliding up them with their long tendrils probing ahead, over the force field and into the gaps. The droids changed shape into long thin bodies that squeezed into the narrow space, merging together.

Point-Two had hoped to stall the attack for a couple of minutes. He estimated the Guardian’s shield had bought them around two to three seconds. What had surprised him more was that her method hadn’t been so much a way to block the passage as it was to make sure Ubik was safe. She could have sealed off the passageway at any time. She had only acted when Ubik seemed to be in danger. What was that about?

Ubik, unsurprisingly, wasn’t fazed, either by the droids or the Guardian’s act of devotion. He seemed far more interested in the device at his feet. He bent down to pick it up.

“Don’t touch the—” The Guardian didn’t have time to finish before Ubik turned off the only thing preventing him being torn apart by six Insanium droids.

The droids, which had almost made it through the narrow gaps on either side of the dome, suddenly found themselves with plenty of room and lost some momentum due to the change in circumstances. The last thing they had been expecting was a helping hand.

“This is great,” said Ubik, focused on the cube in his hand. “So compact.”

The droids were now on either side of Ubik, with a choice of attacking him or moving onto the rest of the party. Or maybe both. There were six of them, they could afford to think big.

Ubik turned the device back on and held it up. Instead of a dome around him, there were two domes one either side of him, coming out of the walls. Inside each half-sphere, three droids were trapped against the wall. The domes extended so that their tops were about a metre apart, with Ubik standing in the empty space between them.

“So versatile. When do they go on the market?”

“Rex, analyse the safety tent. How is he doing that?”

There was a slight pause. “A very elegant readjustment,” said a calm, emotionless voice. “Nodes have been cross-inverted and attached to each other.”

“But the cube isn’t inside the force field,” said Tezla. “What’s holding it up without a central beam?”

“The tent is now an expanded version of the central beam, making it sixty-six percent more efficient and thirteen percent weaker, but twenty-eight percent more flexible. The change required a small adjustment to the core pins which will fail in approximately sixteen seconds.”

“It’s only going to fail because I had to use my fingernail,” said Ubik. “If I had some proper tools, it would last years and be a vast improvement on whoever put this contraption together. Nice idea, short of brilliant. Doesn’t the Central Authority have any computers that can think creatively? I guess not, that’s why they need you Guardians. And you,” he said to Point-Two, “recklessly tossing me into the path of danger with no concern for my safety, acting without thinking…” Ubik sniffed and looked teary-eyed. “I feel like I have nothing left to teach you.”

“Ubik,” said Point-Two. “Six seconds left.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it.” He turned the cube over and both domes disappeared ahead of schedule.

The droids all rushed towards Ubik, their target now clear. Ubik dropped the cube and the dome sprung up as before, with Ubik now inside it together with the droids.

The droids stopped. They seemed uncertain, which was very undroid-like behaviour, although maybe not for the Insanium class.

Ubik picked up the cube again, raised it over his head while the dome didn’t move, and a second dome appeared under it, with only him inside it.

Two domes, one inside the other. Ubik stood in the inner one, separated from the droids in the outer one.

He dropped the cube again. This time it inverted, lifting off him, the two domes joining to form a sphere, pulling all six droids into it. The droids were now inside a ball that filled the passage. The cube was inside with them, Ubik was standing outside looking in, as you might at an aquarium. The droids floated about looking confused. They had no expressions to transmit their feelings, but Point-Two could easily read their body language.

These droids were strange and complex. They could think. They could doubt. They could definitely recognise a threat but they were also able to consider their own safety. Point-Two recognised these signs. They didn’t want to die. A common consideration when you spent time around Ubik.

One of the droids sent an investigative limb towards the cube. If Ubik could use it to operate the field, then why not them? Point-Two could see the thought process, but would not have advised testing the theory.

The moment the tip of the droids limb touched the cube, the sphere shrank by around twenty percent, squashing the droids closer together. Another tried, the sphere shrank again.

“Still, very useful in a pinch. I’ll take a dozen,” said Ubik, “at the friends and family rate.”

“They aren’t for sale,” said the Guardian, sounding a little terse. “And you don’t qualify for the friends and family rate.”

“Where’s the love, Tezla?” said Ubik. “I saved your life!”

“No, you didn’t,” said Tezla. “I died. This is a cloned body.”

“You still made it,” said Ubik. “That’s better than seventy percent of people I come in contact with.”

Point-Two considered seventy somewhat on the low side but didn’t say anything.

“What about Junior?” said Fig, looking up at the droid still pinned to the ceiling. “Is he still friendly?”

The droid wasn’t moving but there was an air of anger about it. One large eye glared down at them.

“Of course,” said Ubik. “He’s just a little upset. You would be too if you’d been speared with a gravity spike. Never seen one that big. What other cool gadgets you got?”

“Enough of this,” said Tezla. “You are coming with me.”

“Wait,” said Point-Two. “You’re taking Ubik? Isn’t he the one you want?” He pointed at Fig. “When did Ubik become a wanted man?”

“I’ve always been very desirable to discerning palates,” said Ubik.

“It’s because he’s Null Void,” said Fig. “It’s a big deal to the Central Authority.”

“It’s bigotry, is what it is,” said Ubik. “Some guy who had the same thing as me did some terrible things a hundred years ago and so now I must be a bad person, too.”

“You have also done some terrible things,” said Fig.

“Not recently,” said Ubik.

“Fairly recently,” said Point-Two.

“Guys, come on, we need to project a united front. We’re a team, aren’t we?”

“You can take him,” said Fig, “but I need to find my father.”

“You will all come with me,” said Tezla. “There are other Guardians on the way. Once they arrive, they will clear this site. We have equipment that can deal with Intercessors.”

“What’s an Intercessor?” said Point-Two.

“These droids, I guess,” said Fig. “I assume it’s the group Head belonged to.”

“So the CA knows about them?” said Point-Two.

“I expect they know a lot off things they haven’t made public,” said Fig.

“Not about force field projection devices, they don’t,” said Ubik.

“Enough,” said the Guardian again, a little more forcefully this time. “We don’t have time to discuss this. How long before the field breaks down this time.”

“Device is… stable,” said Rex, sounding mildly surprised.

“Of course it is,” said Ubik. “I fixed it. You’re welcome. You want me to sort out your suit?”

“There’s nothing wrong with my suit,” said Tezla.

“Was it made by the people who brought you ‘poor workmanship in a box’? Then, in that case, it probably needs a complete overhaul. I’ll do it at the friends and family rate, of course.”

“Let’s go,” said Tezla.

“We’re not going,” said Point-Two. “He’s on this level somewhere. You can either help us find him, or you can deal with us making your life — your new life — as difficult as possible. We have an Ubik and we’re not afraid to use him.”

“A little afraid,” said Fig.

“Yes,” said Point-Two. “Only a little.”

Tezla scowled. “Very well. I will scan this level, but we go no further if he isn’t here.”

Point-Two was pleasantly surprised at how quickly she agreed. Ubik did have his uses after all. Mainly as a deterrent.

“Rex, we’ll make a full sweep of this level.”

“Guardian, your orders—”

“I know what the damn orders say,” snapped Tezla. “Now calculate the best route for a full clear.”

“The Null Void is our top priority.”

“Priorities change.”

“The Null Void is our only priority. Directive three of the Guardian—”

“I’m not having this discussion now. Do as I order or—” Her visor slammed shut and her body went limp, almost collapsing before restabilising. The suit looked completely different, its posture stiff and unwavering.

“The Null Void will come with me,” said the suit as weapon turrets appeared on the shoulders and along the arms. “Under the directive of the Central Authority, you are detainees and can be held for forty-eight hours, standard. Any attempt to resist detainment will be met by force, as stipulated under Treaty 4, article 36a.”

“Told you it needed fixing,” said Ubik.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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