Book 2 – 72: Outside Interests

Third Quadrant.

Asteroid Tethari.

Antecessor Facility - Level 4


Chukka edged closer to the end of the passage and looked around the corner. She immediately found herself looking into Weyla’s unimpressed face.

“I told you to wait,” said Weyla, standing facing her as though she had expected Chukka to ignore her instructions.

The rest of the passage was dark and only their suit lights provided any illumination. Weyla was scary enough in bright light, in shadows she exuded an involuntary menace.

“Just checking you hadn’t gone ahead without us,” said Chukka, keeping her voice low, although they hadn’t encountered anyone else down here for several hours.

“Why would we do that?” said Weyla. “We’re a team, aren’t we?” There was a heavy dose of sarcasm in her words.

“Of course,” said Chukka. She looked into Weyla’s eyes, using the skills she had been taught to give her instant insight into a person’s demeanour, their level of reliability, what would push their buttons. The slightest dilation of the pupils, a flicker of an eyelash, a tremor along the top edge of an eyelid — it all indicated what was going on behind the eyes. Chukka saw nothing. Absolute stillness. “Of course,” she repeated as she backed away from the unblinking stare and stepped back around the corner where Bashir and Flott were waiting, one looking nervous and unable to keep still, the other with a grim expression that hadn’t changed since they entered the fourth level. Her team, or what was left of it.

“Wouldn’t it be better to go back to the surface and wait for them there?” said Bashir, talking fast with a jabbering insistence. “We could catch them on the way out, after they’ve got what they came for. And then we could take that, too. Better than wandering around down here not knowing where they are, no?”

“No,” said Chukka.

She could have explained the reasons to him but justifying your actions to your subordinates only made you look weak. As it was, needing an explanation made him look weak, but that wasn’t much consolation when he was someone she was relying on.

It should have been obvious that hoping to bump into their targets after they had successfully navigated their way up from the depths was not going to be cost-effective. They might find another way out. Or they might end up dead. Either way, the only way to make this venture profitable was to get hold of their bodies. The Seneca women understood that. VendX employees should have also.

“He’s right,” said Flott in a dull monotone. His mind seemed to be preoccupied with other things. “If they wind up dead, chances are the same thing will kill us. And if we do catch up, we still have to apprehend and drag them out.”

Chukka was trying to be a good leader. Not forceful, not bossy, just pragmatic. They were a small unit with limited options, they had to think rationally and act quickly. No time for musing on a hundred different options.

“You also want to return to the surface?” she asked Flott. He was the leader of the forward team, he’d had a chance to get a feel for the place. His opinion would at least be considered and based on experience.

“I don’t care,” said Flott, his face backing up his claim. “You’re the mission leader, I’m just the specialist. And I don’t specialise in any of this, so whatever you say goes.”

If she didn’t know better, she would think he was trying to position himself for the post-mission debrief and performance assessment. When you were on a mission that was going badly, you allowed the leader to make all the decisions and take all the credit. And all the blame.

But she didn’t think that was what Flott was doing. He genuinely didn’t care. About anything as far as she could tell.

“Where’s the other one?” Chukka asked Bashir.

Bashir stared into the middle-distance, his eyes glowing green inside his shadowed helmet. “She’s on her way back. Moving fast.”

“Alone?” said Chukka.

“Yes. No pursuit.”

Chukka nodded, relieved. The two Seneca women had taken it on themselves to scout the passages. They worked efficiently and quickly, and they didn’t appreciate any offers of assistance or criticism of their methods.

Which was fine with Chukka. The layout down here on the fourth level was unlike anything Chukka had seen. It was a maze of crisscrossing passages that seemed to have no end and no doors. They hadn’t encountered a single room since leaving the last one behind.

The Insanium droid and the Central Authority Guardian had both left via a hole in the wall, but the shaft behind the wall had been some kind of gravity well with no bottom. There was no way to tell what was down there. Bashir couldn’t even get a base reading. Just a never-ending hole.

The Seneca women had decided to take the more traditional route of exploring the level for another exit, and they didn’t put it up for a vote.

“Maybe we could call in reinforcements,” said Bashir hopefully. “From the surface.”

“No,” said Chukka.

There was a mild breeze and then the sound of quiet talking. Chukka risked another look around the corner. Now there were two of them, Leyla back from her reconnaissance.

“Any luck?” asked Chukka.

“It’s clear this way,” said Leyla. “No signs of any droids. No exits, either. If there’s another door on this level, it must be well hidden.”

“It’s here,” said Chukka. “That shaft proves this isn’t the bottom floor. It goes down a lot further, and that means there’s another way that doesn’t require kicking the walls in.”

Chukka didn’t have the greatest experience when it came to delves and raids, but she had done as much research as she could once she’d been awarded the mission lead. Antecessor sites followed a pattern. Not one that was easily understood, but you knew what to expect.

“Ready to go?” said Weyla.

“Yes,” said Chukka. “Lead the way.”

Weyla gave her a dark look, objecting to being given permission when none was required. There was no winning with her. Both sisters were hard work. Chukka had targeted Leyla as the easier one to break, but Weyla, the one with the tough exterior and no time for any nonsense may have been the better subject. There was still time to find out if her PR training would work on either of them.

They set off down the dark passage. There were no white lines on the walls to provide light. There hadn’t been any since they entered the maze.

Normally, the walls of an Antecessor site were lit up with streaks and flashes of light. You were constantly observed and tracked, with countermeasures being placed in your path. Not here. Here the walls were black and lifeless.

“Stop,” said Weyla.

Chukka turned to look at Bashir who shook his head. With his ability, he would know if there was something approaching, but he indicated there was nothing.

“Wait,” said Weyla, her hand held up.

Leyla moved fast and was swallowed by the darkness. Her ability involved speed while her sister’s seemed to be focused on strength, although both were strong and fast. While not knowing the exact nature of their organics, it was obvious they were both top tier. It seemed strange the Corps would let them go. Chukka had tried asking them about it, in a subtle manner, of course. She had received cold looks in return, of course.

They waited for Leyla to come back with the all-clear.

“Still nothing,” Chukka asked Bashir.

“Still nothing,” said Bashir, the light in his eyes flickered. “Actually, even deader than before. Some sort of dampening field, maybe.”

“Someone hiding?” Chukka felt a chill run down her spine.

“Hard to say. Not sure I’m going to be much help. Maybe we should try a different direction?”

“We have,” asked Weyla. “This is the only area we haven’t checked. And we haven’t checked it because it’s a dead zone.”

“Are you sure?” said Chukka. She had read up on the subject, but the details were sketchy. All that was known for sure was that certain regions inside an Antecessor facility were unscannable. Sensors didn’t work, organics didn’t work, sound and light were heavily muted.

The purpose of these areas wasn’t clear. If the Antecessors had the ability to negate organics, why not deploy these dead zones everywhere? Raiders would have a much harder time of it.

But they were sporadic and their exact reasons for existing was the subject of much academic debate. Mainly, the advice was to avoid them.

“This is the only place left to look,” said Weyla, her tone flat and restrained. “If the level exit isn’t here…”

“It’s here,” said Chukka. She wasn’t as sure as she sounded, but certainty built morale. And they needed as much as they could get.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Weyla. “Dead zones mean trouble.”

“But no one knows what the dead zones are for,” said Chukka.

Weyla looked at her without changing her expression and yet still conveying a great deal of disdain. After all the effort Chukka had put into the sisters, she would have to be careful not say something stupid and lose all the progress she’d made.

“The Corps has a theory about these zones?” said Chukka.

“A dead zone is where Antecessors fought each other. Everything winds up shorted out, infrastructure completely fried. The Corps has records detailing several of them, but this place, this is still being contested. Above us is one group, below us is the other. They stopped without coming to a resolution, and now they’ve taken up from where they left off.”

“So this level is neutral?” asked Bashir.

“No,” said Weyla. “This is a battlefront. We could be walking into the middle of a war.” She checked her large gun, split it into two and holstered them. “Not just organics that won’t work in there, tronics won’t either. Guns, trackers, comms. All dead in the dead zone.”

“I don’t get it,” said Bashir. “If it’s droids versus droids, why bother neutralising organics? They don’t use them.”

“Someone did,” said Weyla.

“Or it’s just a relic of a different time,” said Flott. “It’s been thousands of years. The whole place will probably fall down on top of us.”

“All the more reason to act swiftly,” said Chukka. “Special Analyst Flott, you have a lot of combat experience. How are you with hand-to-hand?”

“I’m in the mood to break things, if that’s what you mean.”

It wasn’t what she had meant but it was telling nonetheless. He was slowly drifting into a post-traumatic fugue. His training, the people with him, the high-risk environment, it was all keeping him up and moving, but he wanted to give up and lie down, wait for the end. Not a good mindset for your main defensive expert.

“But if there’s anyone in there,” said Bashir, “they’ll be just as blind as us, right?”

“That’s not how it works,” said Weyla, looking at Bashir like she considered him clueless.

Chukka would have reacted the same but she was familiar with the VendX organics program. Not much time was spent on theory. The Corps obviously provided a much more comprehensive education.

Leyla appeared out of the darkness and stopped next to her sister. She had a strange expression on her face.

“You found something?” said Weyla.



“I don’t know,” said Leyla. “Probably. This way.” She turned and began walking.

The others followed. Chukka felt apprehensive but whatever Leyla had found it obviously wasn’t an immediate threat. Droids would have come after her. The passage was empty.

A few moments later there was a light up ahead. It was a soft glow of indeterminate colour and it was pulsing, providing enough illumination to highlight a doorway. It was about three metres high but only one metre wide. The way down to the next level?

“It isn’t guarded,” said Leyla, walking through. “I’ve checked.”

Bashir hesitated. “How can you check if none of our organics or tronics are working?”

“The old fashioned way,” said Weyla, “using our brains and our expertise.” She shoved him through.

On the other side was a room, walls still lifeless, but in the middle of the square chamber was a large rock formation from floor to ceiling like a pillar. Lodged into the pillar’s surface were at least a dozen globes throbbing with lights of various hues, throwing colourful splashes across the walls.

Chukka was stunned. “Organics… what are they doing here?”

No one said anything for a moment, all taking in what they saw. These were organic pods, containing a seed ready to be implanted in a human host once they were removed from inside the resin cases. Organics were often found in Antecessor sites. It was one of the main reasons to risk entering them. They were always well-defended and one or two at the most in any one place. A larger site may have multiple deposits, but this many in one location was unheard of.

“They all look high grade,” said Weyla. “And still viable.”

Chukka agreed. The power level of an organic seed varied greatly, and the weaker ones were much more common, their power fading over time and dependent on the conditions of their environment. These all looked to be in perfect health. And worth a fortune. A very large fortune. And a promotion.

“Is it a trap?” asked Weyla, turning to her sister.

“Has to be,” said Leyla. “Probably best to leave them.”

Flott stepped forward and reached his hand out towards the nearest one, a blue globe about the size of a large grapefruit, embedded in the rock.

“Stop,” said Leyla, but her speed was that of a normal person and she was too far to reach him.

If this was a trap, they were about to find out what kind.

The globe came away in Flott’s hand, leaving a little dust behind in the crater its removal created. Nothing exploded, no defenders appeared to protect their treasure. Flott seemed transfixed by the globe and held it up, looking at the thin, dark line at its centre.

“What are you doing?” said Chukka. She was the one in charge. Flott was acting without orders and endangering them all. “That belongs to Ramon Ollo. It’s private property.”

“Ramon Ollo is dead,” said Flott. “Like everyone else.”

“I doubt it,” said Weyla.

“I suppose Seneca have records on him, too,” said Chukka.

Weyla cocked an eyebrow. “Of course. He has been a thorn in Seneca’s side for decades. We even sent our greatest warrior to take him down.” Weyla sighed. “He impregnated her.”

“I’m taking this,” Flott said matter of factly, placing the globe in his side pouch. “It should get me enough to buy out my contract with VendX, and then some.”

“Er, shouldn’t you wait until we’re on our way out,” said Bashir. “If any droids see you with that…”

He was technically correct. Organics were only taken once a team was ready to exit a site, usually after a full clear. If you encountered droids with an organic seed on your person, they would go into full alert and be much harder to deal with.

“I’m leaving,” said Flott. “There’s no point carrying on. Our team’s all dead, we’re heavily outnumbered and outgunned, and we don’t know where our target is. This mission is a bust, it has been from the beginning. We’re just going to die like them if we keep going. So I’m not. Good luck.” He grabbed another globe, a green one. It was a little trickier to pull out but he dug his nails in and clawed it out.

“You’re not going anywhere,” said Chukka. “And put those seeds back before you bring the whole security system down on us.”

“What security system?” said Flott. “This whole level is dead, remember. There’s nowhere else for us to go.”

There were no other exits leading from this room, this was it. They’d gone over the entire level and encountered hardly any resistance, or droids of any kind. It was like they were all busy somewhere else. And if they could find where that was, Chukka was pretty sure they’d find their target.

“There is another way down,” said Chukka. “There has to be.”

“There’s the shaft,” said Weyla. Her stern countenance suggested the sisters were going to risk climbing into a gravity well and do their best not to be sheared in half.

“Good luck.” Flott turned to go.

“Let him go,” said Weyla. “If anything, he’ll attract any droids away from us. Take more organics, if you want.”

“Perhaps you should all go,” said Leyla. “I don’t think you’re prepared for what we’re going to face. The Corps’ records on how the Antecessors fought one another don’t make for a fun read. Of course, they’re all historical records, no one’s ever seen them in action. It all happened a long time ago.”

“And what would you do in the Corps if one of yours decided they were going to stuff their pockets and bail on a mission?” asked Chukka.

“You aren’t in the Corps,” said Weyla. “He’s just an employee. He can quit if he wants.” There was a distaste to her words, like she considered working for a living beneath her. It was strange how easily she compartmentalised her situation into thinking she was somehow different, her cause more noble. Chukka could see there were so many gaps in that infamous Seneca mental shield, now that she was up close. If she had more time…

“I don’t care what he decides to do after his contract is up,” said Chukka. “As of now, he is a member of my team and under my command.” She looked at Flott. He had been a highly regarded VendX specialist at the start of this deployment. Yes, he’d lost his team, but it shouldn’t have affected him this much. He was a professional.

But there was something more to it. He had lost someone close to him. That was what was causing this behaviour. Inter-team relationships were frowned upon, but they were still fairly common. He was grieving, and angry, and willing to be reckless in the hope it would end up with him also losing his life. She would never have thought he was so immature.

“I don’t give a shit,” said Flott with no emotion. “If you want to stop me, you’ll have to do it yourself.” His eyes crackled with electricity.

“How did you do that?” said Chukka. “I thought this was a dead zone. His eyes shouldn’t do that, should they?”

The others all checked their abilities. None of them were able to activate them.

“The seeds,” said Bashir. “Must be.”

Another new discovery. There was so much happening at once it was hard to know what was the most important. If she could get all of this information, plus Ubik back to Head Office, her future career would be secured and golden.

Flott was staring at the globe in his hand. The green light gave his face an eerie look.

The problem with authority was that you needed a way to back it up. Chukka just didn’t have it. Even if she could have used her ability, it wasn’t suitable for these sorts of moments. If she had a real organic, like the ones embedded in the pillar, she could have blasted her orders into Flott’s head.

She looked back up at him with as much disdain as she could muster, just in time to see a solid black shadow detach itself from the wall behind him.

Chukka froze for an instant, unsure if she’d seen right. She swept her gaze across the others. None of them were facing the direction she was. If she said anything, the shadow would attack, and she would be in its line of attack, along with Flott. The others might have a chance, but only because of her sacrifice. She certainly wasn’t going to make that play.

“Fine,” she said. “You can go. You know what will happen once I report this.”

“You really think you’ll come out of this alive?” said Flott. There was no flippancy to his question, just a flat inevitability. He had the air of someone with nothing to lose. Even the organic seeds he planned to sell on the black market seemed an afterthought. Chukka understood the mentality — if you only had a minuscule chance of not dying, you might as well make sure the payoff was a big one on the tiny chance you somehow managed to pull it off.

Suddenly, Flott was hurled bodily off his feet to slam crosswise into Leyla. There was a large, black figure standing in front of the pillar, taller than any of them and twice as wide, but completely flat, like a drawing that had walked off a page.

“Don’t move,” said Weyla.

“You know what this is?” hissed Chukka.

“Assassin droid. It’ll target the strongest organics first.” Weyla had one hang on the butt of a gun, the other grabbing onto her sister’s shoulder, pulling her back up. What were they planning to do with no organics and no guns?

Flott slowly rose to his feet.

“Flott,” Chukka whispered. “Don’t do anything rash. He wouldn’t want you to waste your life like this. He loved you. He’d want you to be happy. These things already killed him. Don’t let them—”

With a roar, Flott threw himself at the droid. His body was covered in arcing electrical discharge. The organic globes still in the pillar flashed as power was drawn from them.

Flott was quickly overwhelmed, wrapped in layers of black shadow. The droid’s other limbs snaked out towards the others, targeting the organics, strongest first, Chukka last.

She used the time to draw her weapon. Not electronic, no tronic parts, specially made to face Ubik. Or Ubik-like monsters.

She fired at the droid, the metal slugs punching holes through its body. It lost its grip and was forced back, unable to find an appropriate response to such a primitive weapon.

Flott was the only one still held captive, wrapped up too tight. He had a globe in one hand. His hand crackled with lightning and the globe burst, soaking the droid. It made a strange shrieking sound, almost a lament. It made little sense. The droid wasn’t a mother and the organic wasn’t an egg, just a sac of chemical.

Flott poured more electricity into the droid, a hand lunging towards the other organics embedded in the pillar. He drew out their power, making them pop as the droid went down, its neural network flooded with a surge of power it couldn’t handle.

The two eventually stopped moving, lying in a last embrace, steam rising from their bodies.

Bashir gingerly edged forward to check on them.

“He’s dead,” he said, his hand covered in blood. He looked up at Chukka. “I think you hit him a few times.”

Chukka shrugged. “I tried my best to stop him.” And she had. She had used the exact right words to get through to him. The effect had been just what she hoped for. “I’ll expect you to verify what happened in your report.”

Bashir nodded.

“He broke the dead zone,” said Weyla, her eyes glowing.

They all looked at the pillar with none of its organics left.

“Back to the shaft,” said Leyla with a resigned sigh.

“No, it’s here,” said Chukka. “These organics, they’re just a decoy. You find them, you think you’ve got the treasure, you leave. It’s a very basic psychological trick.”

“Droids don’t fall for psychological tricks,” said Leyla.

“No, they don’t,” agreed Chukka. “There must have been other enemies once.” She moved closer and began inspecting the platform, pushing Flott’s body aside. Her fingers searching for any kind of button or opening.

“Out of the way,” said Weyla as she nudged Chukka away. She lifted up a foot and stamped on the platform. A large crack appeared down the middle. She put her fingers inside the newly formed crevice and pulled it apart, her eyes a fierce red. The rock broke open with a loud crack, revealing a hole. There was a ladder on the side.

“Droids don’t use ladders, either,” said Leyla.

A surge of excitement filled Chukka. What awaited them was probably death and lots more droids, but they had progressed further than she had thought possible. If organics were used as bait, who knew what other treasures they’d find lying around. She carefully positioned the blue organic she had taken from Flott’s corpse and started down the ladder.

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