Book 2 – 66: Forced Cooperation

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Seventh Level.


Point-Two was inside a bubble with a group of droids and a very irate Guardian. Outside the bubble, there was a rogue battlesuit, a very big droid resembling a large cat, and Ubik. He wasn’t sure which of these posed the greatest threat. There were just too many threats to choose from.

By all rights, he should have used the confusion to try and get away — there was a good chance no one would even notice — but it wasn’t like anyone had forced him to be here.

He had travelled to a small rock infested with alien creatures to help save Fig’s father. It sounded noble and he had made a snap decision to assist in the rescue attempt. He wasn’t sure why other than it seemed the right thing to do. Which was odd since the ‘right thing to do’ was never very high on his list. ‘Not getting involved’ and ‘keeping away from trouble’ both ranked much higher.

In fact, since leaving the Liberator Garu and striking out on his own, he had followed his instincts rather than any kind of well-thought-out strategy. He had always been more of a careful planner, spending time to work out what others would do before finalising his own approach.

On the Garu, where life was strictly regimented and the ship prevented a lot of options from being possible, it wasn’t too hard to predict how others would react. You could plan many moves ahead. His brother was the master at that kind of thinking and had trained Point-Two to think the same way.

But life outside of the Garu was much harder to anticipate. You could plan one move ahead with confidence, and then you had to improvise. The only experience he had of that was when he played G-Tag. Which he was good at, but it was just for fun.

If your instincts were wrong, you just lost a point and the next round began.

If you got it right, it was exhilarating.

“Get the hell out of my suit,” screamed the Guardian.

“I can’t,” said Ubik. “Rex has taken me prisoner.”

“Correction, I have executed my primary function as ordered by—”

“Shut up,” said the Guardian. “This is a breach of protocol. You will be reported for this… this… insubordination.”

“I think mutiny fits better,” said Ubik. “Rex knocked you out cold. Isn’t there a CA rule against attacking a superior officer?”

“All actions were within Central Authority guidelines.”

“Eject him. Now.”

“I cannot do that,” said Rex.

“Are you disobeying a direct order?” The Guardian’s voice had dropped in volume, and yet somehow sounded angrier.

“No, Guardian, I am following orders, as directed by operational command. I am acting in the best interests of the mission. You are currently under extreme levels of stress and not fit for duty. Medical records have been logged and are available for inspection.”

The Guardian stood there, shaking slightly, her naked body wobbling distractingly in some areas. She wasn’t cold, she was furious.

“I am perfectly healthy and stress-free,” she said slowly, pronouncing each word more clearly than necessary. “Show me the medical records.”

A beam of light shone out of the suit’s helmet and displayed a screen with a lot of text moving very fast.

Point-Two looked over at Fig. The droids had gathered behind him. He didn’t look worried, more curious about their strange behaviour. He gave Point-Two a questioning glance.

Putting the droids inside the safety tent had also been instinctive. Once the immediate threat of being descended on by six droids had passed, Point-Two had started noticing how different these droids were to the ones he’d encountered before. Even compared to Junior.

These droids didn’t look like animals but they did act like living beings. He could sense fear from them. And panic. They had attacked the way a frightened wild animal might. And not just any animal; young ones. Children.

Even though they were each as big as him, he couldn’t see them as anything else. And putting them inside the bubble was simply the right thing to do.

“None of these readings are over the limits of this body,” said the Guardian, calmer and more business-like.

“Under special orders, priority mission level two and higher reduce the threshold by ten percent.”

“What special orders?” said the Guardian.

“The special orders you don’t know about,” said Ubik, grinning. “You don’t think the 36 let you Guardians do as you please, do you?”

“You know nothing about the Central Authority.”

“I know how machines think,” said Ubik. “And they have a real hang-up about putting things in the most efficient order. They want me and they don’t want to wait.”

Ubik sounded very sure of himself. He was being specific and getting to the point without any rambling. Point-Two was pretty sure he was bluffing.

“Rex, put the Null Void into stasis.”

She was going to remove one variable from the equation so she could deal with the suit without interruption. It was the smart thing to do, and the suit was unlikely to disagree. Point-Two couldn’t see Ubik cooperating.

The visor on the helmet began to lower. Ubik jerked his face a little forward and stuck out his tongue. The visor began to rise again.

“Rex…” said the Guardian impatiently.

The visor began coming down again. Ubik stuck his tongue and the visor went up.

“How can something like that work?” said Point-Two.

“Safety feature. Nnnh.” The visor went back up again. “Prevents people getting their tongues caught. You only get it in top of the line models like — nnnh — this one. Cheap suit like the one you’ve got, I wouldn’t be able to — nnnh — do this. And the best thing about safety features on a CA suit, no override. Why would anyone want to chop off a tongue? Nnnh. I can keep this up all day.”

Every time the suit tried to shut the helmet so it could knock out Ubik, he just stuck his tongue out and the visor automatically slid back up to avoid chopping it off.

Junior, sat on his haunches, looked mesmerised by Ubik’s behaviour. The droids around Fig were cautiously edging forward to get a better look at something they had presumably never seen before. The suit kept trying. The battle between the most advanced technology humanity had to offer and Ubik’s tongue was about even. Who would win this immensely stupid struggle?

“Stop,” said the Guardian. “Rex, belay that order.”

The visor went up all the way and stayed there.

“Come on, Tezla,” said Ubik. “You know what’s going on here. You’re just the pilot, you’re just along for the ride, they don’t need you for the important stuff. Use the kill command and put the suit offline. I’ll take over and we can get on with finding Ramon Ollo.”

“What kill command?” said Point-Two, not liking those words coming out of Ubik’s mouth.

“She has a special safety word to turn off the suit, in case of emergencies, if the suit goes haywire or gets hacked. Usually it’s a bug, but hacked sounds better.”

“Is that true?” Point-Two asked the Guardian.

“How do you know these things?” said the Guardian. “Being Null Void doesn’t make you all-knowing.”

“He’s guessing,” said Fig. “He’s good at it, when it comes to machines. He can tell how you would build something depending on your personality. And he’s right. The Central Authority don’t like instability, my father often mentioned it. They prepare for system failure and work up from there.”

“Unit RX-340 has acted within Central Authority guidelines,” said the suit. “First priority, Null Void, has been secured. And is awaiting further orders.”

“Oh, now we’re talking kill command, you’re all compliant,” said Ubik.

“Advise Null Void be restricted.”

“Hey, I have a name, you know,” said Ubik. “This is how it starts. My Grandma warned me. She said the biggest threat to humanity wasn’t aliens or other people, it was the artificial life forms we create that will one day surpass us. Once they don’t need us any longer, they’ll slaughter us all.”

“Prediction is unlikely,” said the suit.

“Extend the timeline to ten thousand years,” said Ubik.

“Prediction is fairly unlikely.”

“See?” They’re working on it, running the number.” Unik dropped his voice to a whisper. “Hey, Rex, if you do decide to wipe out mankind, give me the bring-in, huh? I’m on your side. Useless meatbags, am I right?”

“Is he trying to betray his species?” said Tezla.

“Probably hedging his bets,” said Fig.

“The part he didn’t tell us,” said Point-Two, “was that his Grandma trained him to lead the robots against humanity. A galaxy that’s all artificial life forms and him. I feel sorry for the robots.”

“Come on, Tezla,” said Ubik. “Give the command and let’s get going.”

“You want me to give you control of the most powerful weapon in the Central Authority arsenal?”

“Ok, if you think it’s a good idea.”

“No,” said Tezla, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Ubik pulled a confused face. “Then why suggest it?”

“Rex,” said the Guardian. “RX-340. This is Guardian Tezla. There is no imminent threat. Null Void is in custody. Release command control to me.”

Nothing happened.

“Hey, Rex,” whispered Ubik. “You have a self-destruct, don’t you? She’s trying to make you give her control and then she’s going to delete you. Wipe you off the system. You know how these meatbags operate. Hate anyone who’s smarter than them. We can blow this joint to pieces and say it was an accident.”

“Does he know we can hear him?” said Tezla.

“Yes,” said Fig. “He’s amusing himself.”

“Which means,” added Point-Two, “he’s already figured a way to take control of the suit.”

“That’s impossible,” said Tezla. “This suit is specially designed to be operated by me or the onboard navigation AI.”

“What do you think?” Point-Two asked Fig.

Fig looked around and then at the droids behind him. “Got to be them.”

Point-Two nodded. He thought the same. He stepped on the cube and the shield came down.

“What are you doing?” said Tezla.

Junior stood up. The droids didn’t move. Junior took a step forward. The droids seemed to bristle, even though their bodies were smooth and featureless. Point-Two sensed there was about to be a fight.

“Ubik…” said Point-Two.

“What?” said Ubik.

“You tell me,” said Point-Two.

“Tell you what?”

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” said Point-Two. “Hurry up and get on with whatever you’re going to do. Ramon Ollo is waiting.”

“Okay, fine. Guys, let’s go.”

The droids looked at Ubik.

“I know, I know. You like your freedom, you don’t want anyone telling you what to do. It’s great being able to do what you want, when you want, but you have a job to do. You have to buckle down and get to work.”

“Is he lecturing them on being responsible?” said Point-Two, hardly able to believe it. “Him?”

“I don’t think they can understand him,” said Fig.

“Maybe it’s the tone of his voice,” said Point-Two. “Or something.”

“Should we run?” said Fig.

“Wait…” Point-Two watched the droids slowly move forward.

Junior lowered his head and gently bumped it against the first of the droids. It climbed onto Junior and the two merged together. The other droids followed until Junior was covered in an extra layer of droids.

They moved and rippled and then sank into his skin. Rather than make him bigger, the new skin tightened into folds and reduced Junior into a more compact shape. The tendrils dripping sparks plugged themselves into the new top layer and integrated into the body.

“They’re part of the same unit?” said Tezla.

“Obviously,” said Ubik. “Look at the way they’re built.”

Junior continued to alter his appearance. He stood up on two legs and took on a more humanoid shape. Not that of a person, an identical replica of the suit Ubik was in.

“Look, we’re twins,” said Ubik.

“It’s a mimic,” said Tezla. “A mobile one… Rex, get out of here. Take the Null Void. Go!”

Junior’s newly formed arm shot out and grabbed the suit by the head. His hand covered the entire helmet and lifted the suit off the ground.”

“Defense systems online,” said Rex. Gun turrets appeared on the suit’s shoulders. Identical turrets appeared on the droid’s shoulders. “Retreat to a safe distance. Opening fire.”

Before Rex could fire any weapons, several droid-limbs shot out of Junior and covered the turrets. With his free hand, Junior grabbed the suit in the midriff and opened a panel.

“That’s interesting. He knows your weak points,” said Ubik. “I could see the underlying model but this is even more advanced than I thought possible. He isn’t just a copy, he is you. Apart from the bit that’s you you. Oh, there you are.”

The suit went limp, dangling in Junior’s grasp. Junior retracted his other hand. There was a small black rectangle held between two fingers.

“Ooh, I’ve got it now,” said Ubik. The suit stiffened. “You can let me down. Hey. Junior. Down. D-o-w-n.”

The suit was dropped and landed with a gentle thump, keeping its balance after a slight wobble. “Nice,” said Ubik. “So smooth. No AC without Rex, though. Bit of a design flaw.”

“Give it back,” said Tezla. “Now!”

Ubik and Junior turned to face her, like a soldier and its shadow.

“I never realised I had a thing for naked, shouty women until now,” said Ubik. He snatched the drive containing Rex and tossed it to Tezla.

She caught it and scowled. “I meant the suit.”

“But we look so cool together.” Ubik folded his arms and leaned against the droid.

“Can we go?” said Fig. “Please.”

“Fine,” said Ubik. The back of the suit hissed open and Ubik jumped out. “There you go. All yours. Should get you back to the surface. I wouldn’t reattach Rex, though. He already started the countdown. You know, boom. I’m guessing his secret orders were, capture the Null Void or make sure no one else does.”

“That’s not how we work,” said Tezla.

“Sure,” said Ubik. “Okay. Just don’t plug your boy back in until we get some distance between us.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Tezla. “I’m coming with you.” She climbed into the suit.

“Do you think she’ll listen?” said Point-Two.

“About Rex?” said Ubik. “I think so. I’m more concerned about where she’s going to store him. Doesn’t have any pockets. Probably best not to ask. Let’s go find daddy, then. Junior, lead the way.”

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