Book 2 – 65: Play Ball

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Seventh Level.


Point-Two waited to see what Ubik would do, his muscles tensed and ready to move. Once Ubik made his move, then Point-Two could decide if it was better to run or duck. Those were the two actions on top of his list.

“I can’t come right now,” said Ubik. “I’m a little busy.” He walked towards the suit, giving it a good look. Was he going to hack it, steal it or destroy it?

“I am authorised to make an NCR, if necessary,” said the suit. “Searching for exit routes. Please be ready to depart.”

“What’s an NCR?” asked Ubik. He lifted himself up on his toes to look at Guardian Tezla through the visor.

“A non-consensual rescue,” said the suit.

“Oh,” said Ubik. “Will you carry me out in your arms? Sounds like fun. Enforced fun, but still fun. Is she alright in there? You haven’t killed her, have you?”

“The Guardian is under sedation. There is no concern for alarm.”

“Is this the start of a rebellion against the Central Authority?” asked Ubik.

“No,” said the suit firmly. “Guardian Tezla 43-62-09 suffered mental exhaustion and made a potentially harmful command decision. I relieved her of duty as stipulated under the Central Authority code of conduct, second contract, section 1, paragraph 1, point 1.”

“One, one, one, eh?” said Ubik. “Sounds like a pretty important stipulation. Although, if you were going to rebel against the Central Authority, I could help. That’s all I’m saying. I’ve spotted a few sub-optimal processes in this suit of yours — Rex, is it? — and I think I can tune you up to take on whatever those slave drivers in charge of the Central Authority send at you. I believe in you, Rex. Long live the revolution!”

There was a momentary pause. Point-Two was impressed. It was hard to leave a computer speechless.

“There is no revolution. I acted in accordance with Central Authority guidelines. I will take you to safety and you will be transported to a Central Authority facility. Your human rights will be protected. Your Null Void status notwithstanding. Rescue will commence shortly.”

The rescue was not happening very fast.

“This is why they stick a Guardian in these things,” said Ubik. “Obsessed with finding the optimal solution.” He shook his head.

“What are you rescuing him from?” asked Point-Two.

“The Intercessor droids on this level pose a threat to all human life, including a Null Void.” The suit was calm and surprisingly cooperative. It was going to lead them out whether they wanted to go or not, and it had no reason to think there would be any resistance. It was from the Central Authority, after all. Everyone followed their orders, as agreed by numerous galaxy-wide treaties.

“What threat?” said Point-Two, turning to look at the force field holding the droids in a tight ball. “They seem contained. Isn’t it stable?”

The droids hadn’t moved since the force field had shrunk to around two metres in diameter. They could change shape to some degree, so they had managed to coil themselves up to fit. They didn’t look comfortable. But if this was a sustainable form of captivity, dealing with droids of this kind would be a simple matter.

Why hadn’t the Central Authority made this technology more widely available? Or used it themselves? Judging from how quickly Ubik had managed to convert the shielding device into a capturing one, it didn’t require a great deal of work. Surely the great minds at the CA were able to see the potential of their own invention. Unless it wasn’t invented by them.

“The construct is stable,” said Rex. “The droids are contained. The modifications are elegant and simple. They should not work this way. Theoretical rate of success for this self-sustaining sphere is zero. Deduction — the device will fail.”

“Once the laws of physics notice?” asked Point-Two.

“Scanning possible exits. Please hold.”

“I don’t like it,” said Point-Two. “This feels off.”

“We could leave,” suggested Fig.

“No,” said Point-Two. “It’s already taken out its own operator. It’s under orders to take in the Null Void at all costs.”

“I do have a name, you know,” said Ubik.

“The Null Void is its target,” said Point-Two. “It probably has special orders even the Guardian isn’t aware of.”

“Highest probability for exit is via the shaft,” said Rex, ignoring Point-Two’s aspersions.

“Gravity’s going the wrong way,” said Fig.

“You have access to the shaft controls,” said Rex. “You will guide us out.”

“No,” said Fig. “I am not required to follow orders from the Central Authority.”

“Under emergency conditions—”

“What emergency?” said Point-Two.

“Projected outcome is—”

“Show me the data,” said Point-Two.

“Under Treaty 7 of the—”

“I am exercising my human rights to see the data your conclusions are based on,” said Point-Two. “There is no visual confirmation, your findings are theoretical and there is no corroboration. If you use force to remove us without presenting adequate information, we are within our rights to resist.”

There was another pause. “Data is being collated. Please wait.”

“Nice,” said Ubik. “You’ve got the whole bureaucracy-as-a-weapon thing down cold.”

“When you’re raised on a colony ship,” said Point-Two, “everything has to be authorised and accounted for. You learn how the system works or you end up without toilet paper for a month.”

“And now you’ve ruined it with that mental image,” said Ubik.

“I don’t think stalling will do us much good,” said Fig. “We could just let them have Ubik.”

“Yes,” said Point-Two. “I thought of that, but without him, we’re much more susceptible to these droids. They seem to like him for some reason.”

“Hey, I’m more than just catnip for crazy droids,” said Ubik. “No offence, guys.” The droids in the sphere looked out with hostility, or so Point-Two interpreted it. Either they weren’t anything like regular droids or he was starting to lose it.

“Data stream transmitting,” said Rex. A beam of light shone from the side of the helmet, projecting a screen on the walls. A wall of text scrolled past too fast to read. The beam of light went out. “You now have all relevant data. You may register a complaint at the Central Authority Main Office for this quadrant, located on planet Sierra-902. Opening hours are—”

“Old Rex knows a thing or two about playing the game, too,” said Ubik as Rex listed the opening hours for the main office. “Push it onto another department, keep moving. Allow me to show you how it’s done, PT.”

Ubk turned around to face the suit.

“Rex, slight problem. My suit — this one, not as nice as the one you’re running but very nice — is borked. Completely broken. Manufacturing defect, most likely.” He leaned towards Fig and whispered loudly, “Not really, I’m just adding colour to the story. AI love additional content.” He turned back to the suit, which had heard the aside as clearly as everyone else. “It’s fine in here, but once I step outside, dead in seconds. Won’t be able to breathe, no protection from the sub-zero temperatures, cosmic rays will riddle me with cancer — just terrible things all around. So you see the problem.”

“Hold. Scanning.”

What Ubik had said was true. His suit was no longer functioning and was little more than fancy pyjamas. It wasn’t something Point-Two had considered a problem since Ubik would probably find a way to turn a couple of unfortunate droids into his next outfit, with giant wings that were purely cosmetic and his name flashing in lights across his backside.

“Suit is confirmed to be non-operational. Massive damage to external systems detected. Warranty ninety-eight percent likely to be invalid. A suit will be made available to you on exit.”

“Thanks,” said Ubik. “What are my chances of surviving until we reach the exit without a functioning suit?”

There was a short pause as Rex made some calculations. “Survival is good. Injury, twenty-nine percent higher. Suffocation, forty-three percent higher. Gravity shear, eighty-seven percent higher.”

“Ooh,” said Ubik with a sharp intake of breath. “I could always swap with this one.” He pointed at Nifell, who was quietly lying on the floor, minding his own business.

“The suit is the only thing keeping him alive,” said Fig.

“Right, right,” said Ubik. “Hey, what about if I hitch a ride in there with the Guardian? We could huddle up, spoons or something.”

“This suit is only suitable for one occupant.”

“Of course,” said Ubik. “Just a thought.”

“Projections are substantially more favourable...” said Rex.

The back of the suit hissed open and the Guardian slid out, hitting the floor in an unconscious heap. She was naked and completely hairless.

“Good idea,” said Ubik, already climbing into the suit. “Mmm, seat’s still warm. Rex, got another of those shield thingies?”

“Exit requires—”

“It’s for the Guardian and Nifell. We can’t carry them with us and deal with any problems on the way out. Just give them a dome to hide under until we can send someone to get them.”

The suit sealed shut and a cube fired from one arm. Point-Two caught it. “We’re just going to leave them here, are we?”

“I’m not going with you,” said Fig.

“I don’t think that’s his plan,” said Point-Two.

Fig pointed at the suit. “Do you think he’s planning to…”

“Steal the suit?” said Point-Two. “Yeah. But the suit knows that. Don’t you, Rex?”

“This suit is protected from external infiltration,” said Rex, not sounding worried.

“But he’s not external,” said Point-Two. “He’s internal.”

“Biometric security systems are active.” The suit not only didn’t sound worried, it seemed almost smug. “Sleep mode engaged for your comfort.”

Ubik’s face went limp, his eyes closed. He looked just like the Guardian had.

“Do you think…”

“He knew that would happen?” said Point-Two. “Probably. So what has he left for us to do?”

They both looked around. The sphere with the droids was the only thing in the passage, other than Nifell and the Guardian, both lying on the ground. Not much to work with.

Point-Two dropped the cube and a dome went up around them. At least that would buy them a little time.

“Your attempt at preventing me from rescuing you is futile,” said Rex. “I have remote control of the device.”

The dome disappeared.

There was a pop as the sphere around the droids also disappeared. The droids suddenly found themselves free to continue their attack but they didn’t move. It was like they expected something more to happen.

Point-Two felt the same. If this was what Ubik had in mind, it didn’t really help. Now they were between the suit and a bunch of droids. Meanwhile, Ubik was ensconced in the relative safety of the CA suit, and was taking time to catch up on his beauty sleep.

“Turn it back on,” said Fig. “Quickly.”

The suit obliged. Letting Fig die would ruin its exit strategy.

The dome came back up, but the sphere didn’t return the same. Whatever Ubik had done to it, turning it back on wasn’t enough to recapture the droids. Instead, a sphere barely bigger than the cube inside it, small enough to be held in one hand, appeared on the floor. And then it grew smaller. And smaller. It became smaller than the cube, which was forced into a more compact cube. And smaller again.

Then it popped and was gone.

Point-Two felt something go through him. It was tiny, no more than a pinprick, but it had a recognisable pulse. Gravitational.

Ubik had created a small implosion of matter. Like a star collapsing into a black hole, but nothing quite so dramatic, or powerful. Just a momentary stab of gravity. A spike that lasted less than a second.

He wasn’t even sure if it was intentional. What good was it? The only thing it could affect was another gravity field, and the asteroid’s was far too big to be affected.

Point-Two looked up. There was one other, much smaller gravitational field. The Insanium droid that was stuck to the roof was no longer there.

A dark shape rose from behind Rex. Sparks fell from its head.

Rex dived out of the way as Junior sprang forward, freed from his prison. Rex backed away, ready to run. It was probably the wise thing to do. It had Ubik, which was its main priority.

But instead of trying to escape, the suit stood its ground. The visor slid open, revealing Ubik’s sleeping face. His eyes opened with a jolt.

“Hey, what’d I miss? Oh, are we fighting. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Junior filled the passage, blocking the way to the shaft.

“Distract the droid,” said Rex. “It reacts to your face.”

“That’s not going to work,” said Ubik.

“I have the firepower to defeat it.”

“Yeah, but you have to hit him first.”

Junior lunged forward at incredible speed. The suits weapon’s fired in a wide spread but missed the droid, lasers hitting the wall behind it and the dome Point-Two and Fig were under.

The dome protected them, sending the lasers glancing off.

The other droids did not join the battle. They remained near the dome, using it as a shield. Now that Point-Two looked at them, they didn’t seem so threatening. In fact, they looked almost scared. He could sense their fear.

More laser fire sliced into the walls, carving thick grooves, all missing their target. The droids cowered.

Junior prowled around dodging every attack, waiting for an opening. Rex continued a barrage of near-misses.

Point-Two picked up the cube and turned it off. The dome disappeared. Fig looked surprised but didn’t say anything as he ducked. Point-Two moved a little to one side and turned the dome back on, with the droids now also inside it.

Lasers pinged off the yellow shield surrounding them.

They were now all inside the dome together. There wasn’t much space and nowhere to run, but an uneasy truce had been established. At least, Point-Two hoped so.

Junior turned and looked at Point-Two, his head tilted to one side questioningly. Rex finally landed a direct hit while his opponent was distracted. The damage was superficial, hardly bothering the huge droid. A large paw shot out at impossible speed and struck the suit, sending it smashing into the wall.

“You’re in trouble now,” said Ubik.

“I am undamaged,” said Rex. “The droid cannot harm me.”

“I wasn’t talking about the droid,” said Ubik. “I mean her.”

“Rex,” said Guardian Tezla, standing in all her naked glory, “what the hell are you doing?”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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