Ubik walked behind Junior and did his best to inspect this new form the droid had taken without looking like he was checking out the surprisingly sculpted backside the droid had given itself.
The light from the silver streaks on the walls of the passage glinted off the curved lines of the suit, reflecting off its black surface, distorting them just enough to change their meaning. A conversation? Or just a trick of the light? It was hard to say with rounded hemispheres bouncing in front of him.
It wasn’t an intentional attempt by the droid at sexualising the humanoid anatomy in space suit form, it was merely a copy of the Central Authority suit the Guardian wore. Which itself had a bum curved to be perfect for spaceflight and also Salsa dancing. The Central Authority was a mysterious existence indeed.
Now that he looked at the two backsides walking side by side in front of him, he wondered what image the CA hoped to present with this kind of overly-accurate buttock rendering. A tool for distracting your opponent? Maybe the ideal streamlined shape for atmospheric re-entry? Or just a machine mundanely reproducing the best-fitting form for encasing a human?
“What are you staring at with that lustful expression?” said PT, shifting Nifell onto his other shoulder.
Ubik pulled back, realising he was a little too close to the two suits to be able to pass it off as nothing.
“I was checking the level of detail in the replication,” said Ubik. “Junior has the Guardian’s suit copied down to the smallest detail, down to every function, it looks like. Pretty hard to get this kind of accuracy off such a small sample and with no delay. Insta-mimic.”
“And you didn’t know that before you decided to put them in conflict with each other?” said PT.
“No idea,” said Ubik. “None. But you can see the way this place works.” He pointed at the walls, the silvery lines following them. “Always something happening. There’s so much information here, we just have to be able to take a hint.”
“This is a hint?” said PT, looking at the patterns on the wall.
“Sure,” said Ubik. “Puzzle pieces. We just need to work out how they fit together, the way those droids clearly matched with Junior. You don’t need to know what the big picture is, you can just fit together the pieces and build up to the solution. You can find your way out of a dark maze with just a torch and what’s one metre ahead of you, you just have to take it one step at a time. And take the occasional risk.”
Ubik grinned at PT’s frustrated face. He was lying, of course. And PT knew that, of course. But that only made it more fun.
PT stopped and lowered Nifell to the floor. He blew some air out and rolled his neck, staring up at the roof of the tunnel as though there might be someone to call down and take him away.
“I’m sure Junior wouldn’t mind carrying Nif,” said Ubik.
“It’s fine,” said PT, leaning back and stretching. “He’s going to make it out of here with us.”
He said it like it was important to him. Ubik had considered Nifell a useful tool but he wasn’t much more than a burden currently. Would he have abandoned him by now?
PT picked up Nifell and began walking again. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“I’m not leading the way,” said Ubik. “Ask her.”
Guardian Tezla made a soft grunting sound which suggested that she should not be asked, about anything. She was in that middle ground between having made a decision and knowing it was going to end badly. Agreeing to ‘escort’ them on their search for Ramon Ollo made sense — he was the most likely candidate for ‘man with all the answers’ — but she hadn’t been sent here to get answers. She had been sent to fetch the Null Void.
Ubik didn’t like that term. He would have to think of something better. Something more snappy, that would look good on a poster for when they made a movie about him. They would probably cast someone too tall and too handsome to play him, but that was okay. Whatever pulled in the most tickets and made sure his cut was nice and big was fine with him.
“I don’t like it,” said PT. “He’s got that vacant look while he hums to himself. He’s thinking of new ways to get us all killed.”
“I think he’s daydreaming about being rich and famous,” said Fig. The boy was a sharp one. A chip off the old block. One day the boy would be the successor to the Ollo legacy, and he would make his old man proud. A good person to know.
“I am thinking about the future,” said Ubik. “Now that we’re about done here, time to make plans for what comes next.”
“Done here?” said PT. “What are you talking about? We’re following an insane droid and a pissed off Guardian into the bowels of an asteroid filled with more insane droids with a bunch of different droids surrounding us. How are we done here?”
“We’re already on the seventh level, which is where Ramon Ollo is being held,” said Ubik. “Junior obviously knows where to go, and he’s from here, local boy, so no one’s going to give us any grief. No traps, no attacks, no locked doors. This is like the easiest rescue ever attempted. We don’t even have to resort to my PLR.”
“PLR?” asked PT, apprehensively.
“Plan of last resort. Don’t ask, it’ll only upset you.” Ubik turned to check on Fig, who had been mostly quiet since they’d begun following Junior, still with a droid sitting on his shoulders, checking the control panel on his arm for signs of his father. “We got down here in record time, avoided any unpleasantness, most of it, made friends with the natives, and now we’re going to pick up Fig’s dad for the return trip. They’ll probably throw us a parade when we get back.”
“Are you sure Junior’s leading us to Fig’s dad?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik, honestly. How could he be sure of that? It was only one of many options, but it was one of them.
“I think these lines on the wall are communicating with the droid,” said Fig. “Wherever it’s taking us, they know we’re coming.”
“That’s not what worries me,” said PT. “It’s why they’re so keen to have us here. I don’t think it’s going to be cake and jelly when we get there.”
“No?” said Ubik, disappointed by PT’s prediction. “You don’t know that for sure.”
“That’s what worries you? Us walking into a trap, nothing. The idea they might not be serving tea and cake, lock and load.”
“I am astonished,” said Guardian Tezla without turning around, “how calmly you’re all taking this. We have a very high probability of being killed as soon as we hand over Figaro to them.”
She paused like she expected the exact figures predicting their demise to be announced over her comms. But that wasn’t going to happen with her suit’s AI disconnected. A Central Authority artificial intelligence stored in a handy pocket-sized container. What was the best way to get hold of the device?
“Now you’re staring at the Guardian’s rear,” said PT, rather tactlessly.
“I was just thinking about what reward the CA are going to give me for saving the life of their Guardian. One of those suits would be nice. Do they come in a medium? That one was a bit roomy for me.”
“Seeing how they ordered the suit to abandon the Guardian and leave us to die,” said PT, “I don’t think they’ll be offering you any prizes or medals.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Ubik. “They’ll cover their tracks by making sure to shower me in gifts, isn’t that right, Guardian?”
“Not my department,” said Tezla curtly. He noticed her fists tightened into a ball on each side, and that Junior’s fists did the same. Interesting.
“Award me with all sorts of high-value ticket items, make a big show of thanking me from saving their Guardian from a rogue AI, and then wait until the attention dies down, track me until I’m somewhere nice and quiet, and get rid of me when no one’s looking. Taking care of business.”
Tezla stopped and turned around, manually lifting the visor off her face. “That’s not how we do things.”
“That’s how all the big companies do things,” said Ubik. “Maybe not your department, but the CA have people to do their dirty work. People like Rex. Poor guy didn’t even get a choice, it’s all in the coding. Deep code — the stuff that activates without you even knowing it was there. Programmed into your DNA. Nice new body, by the way. Looked like solid construction, firm, hardly any wobble.”
Junior hadn’t stopped walking. He kept going down the passage towards the wall at the end. The passage split into two directions, left and right. Junior didn’t take either and walked into the wall directly ahead, and disappeared into it.
“Um,” said Fig. “Where did Junior go?”
“Must be a secret entrance,” said Ubik, walking up to the wall. “See? We would never have found this without a guide.”
He stood in front of the wall. Silver shapes flickered across it, trying to tell him something. Being able to read this alien language was a transitory experience. One moment he understood everything, the next it was all gibberish. He couldn’t keep it in his head long enough to remember how it worked, let alone become fluent.
He reached out a hand and touched the wall. It felt solid. The silver shapes spiralled around the point his finger touched. He moved his finger around, the shapes following, but there was no indication of any kind of entrance.
“I’m just seeing a wall,” said Fig, head tilted down, eyes on his control panel.
“If Rex was here…” said the Guardian a little sadly.
“He would knock you out and kidnap Ubik again,” said PT. “You know, you’ve been taking the whole betrayal thing very well. Are you in some kind of denial? Because your superiors clearly think of you as expendable and deliberately tossed you aside when it became convenient to do so.”
PT had always been blunt but was now the time to provoke the Guardian? Ubik would have waited until it was useful to have her lose her temper, but PT had his own way of doing things. And it would still be entertaining to see her unleash her fury at him.
“He didn’t betray me,” said the Guardian, disappointingly calm in her response. “Like Ubik said, it was in his programming. The Central Authority is led by machines. They don’t think like us. They see only the immediate step ahead of them, they believe the big picture will reveal itself in time.” She looked over at Ubik. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s incredibly shortsighted. That’s why they have us. We correct for a universe that doesn’t always make sense. But they usually have a good eye for which direction the problem lies. Ubik is quite possibly the biggest threat to galactic stability in a hundred years. It’s understandable they would prioritise his capture.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m the biggest threat, but it’s very nice of you to—”
“If someone was to strip the Null Void out of him and used it for something other than making a giant ass of himself, it could have some serious implications.”
“Ah,” said PT, “so it’s not the packaging, it’s the contents everyone’s after.” He nodded slowly like things made much more sense now.
“That’s a lot of assumptions you’re making,” said Ubik, a little displeased with how his rating had gone from galactic threat to a bottle with stopper a bit loose. “You don’t even know what this Null Void thing is, do you? Desperate panic isn’t how people act when they know what they’re dealing with.”
“I think you hurt his feelings,” said Fig, a small smirk on his lips. “Which is astonishing since I didn’t think he had any.”
“Very funny,” said Ubik. “Very amusing. Although I’m not sure you’ve got anything to smile about. You’re as much a commodity as I am. They just want what’s inside of you, same as with me.”
“I know,” said Fig. “That’s what makes it funny. We’re the two most valuable people in the galaxy, and neither of us are considered worth a damn.”
Ubik found himself smiling, too. “You’re right. They’re going to take whatever juice they can squeeze out of us and discard whatever’s left like litter.”
“I don’t know what you two are so jolly about,” said PT, “but they clearly see you as more than delivery boxes. You’ve got us this far and neither of you have even used these doomsday weapons you’re apparently carrying. And we’ve got Guardian Tezla here to make sure no one tries to pick your pockets, right Guardian?”
Tezla was looking at them with a frown. She seemed more confused and less angry by the minute.
“It’s good that you’re able to treat your situation so lightly,” she said, “but there are forces more powerful than the Central Authority. If they decide to take an interest in you, I’m not sure anyone will be able to help you.”
The three of them looked at each other.
“Well, that brought the mood down,” said Ubik. “Way to go, Tezla. You must be fun at parties.”
“How do we get through this wall, Ubik,” said PT.
Ubik shrugged. He banged on the wall with his fist. “Hello? Anyone home?”
“Brilliant,” said PT. “The rest of the galaxy should rightly be afraid of you.”
“Look, Junior wouldn’t just abandon us. He’s probably getting things ready for us, tidying the place up. Probably doesn’t get many visitors.”
“Putting out the cake and sandwiches?” said PT.
“Maybe,” said Ubik. “Won’t hurt to wait. Look at the signs, it’s all leading up to something.” He pointed at the wall. There was more silver liquid running around now. It was collecting, building up a solid block of glowing colour.
“How long do we wait?” asked PT.
“Not long. I expect it—”
The wall moved. It slotted out of the way in sections, peeling back to reveal a tunnel. They looked at each other. Ubik’s gaze ended on Nifell.
“I’ll go first,” said Fig. “They’re less likely to kill me on the spot.” He stepped forward. The Guardian put out her hand to stop him. “Be careful.” Then she let him go.
“Be careful?” said Ubik. “I was sure you were going to give him a weapon or something.”
“He doesn't need any more weapons,” said Tezla.
Ubik followed next, eager to see where Junior had led them. The tunnel led into a large cavernous chamber, rising high with silver lines lighting up the many sections on the walls. Numerous cubicles piled on top of one another, each containing a figure. There had to be hundreds of them, maybe thousands.
“What are they doing here?” said PT.
“I think they’re in stasis,” said Fig. “An army?”
Ubik looked around, taking in the way they were stacked, the way they silver lines cut in between them evenly distributed. It was old he knew that at once, but it was carefully tended to. Cared for. He tried to grasp the meaning in the way the silver lines spread out.
“No, not an army,” said Ubik. “I think they’re survivors… I think they’re refugees.”
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