Book 3 – 84: Girls and Boys and Robots

Inner Quadrant

Planet Quazi - Western Ocean

POV Cygnet


Leyla was impressed by how smoothly the ship slid into the water and adapted to life as a submersible. It seemed much more at home in the water than in the air.

That was mainly due to the huge waves and mighty winds that were creating a global storm that no vessel could have withstood for long, but there wasn’t even the slightest tremor from the ship’s hull as they entered the roiling seas of Quazi.

Silence enveloped them and the ship’s engines purred as they dove downwards. The screens at the front of the cabin showed nothing but underwater murkiness. It felt eerie.

Leyla had been on many drop-ship missions, and the one thing that had always been consistent was the noise.

Everything shuddering, creaking, groaning, threatening to fall apart at any moment. Orders being shouted over the din. Weapon fire cracking in rapid bursts and ammunition striking the undercarriage.

When you sent a ship into a warzone, you sent a bare-bones, light and spright vehicle you could afford to lose and which was easy to put back together because it only consisted of essential parts.

But the Cygnet was more like a luxury yacht — that happened to be fitted out for all environments and conditions. If they had been in any other ship, they would have been shaken to pieces and entered the water in far less elegant fashion.

It was an Ollo vessel, so it shouldn’t have been that surprising. Even the medical supplies were of the highest quality.

Leyla cleaned the wound on Captain Fermont’s head and sprayed her inner ear with ammonia vapour to rouse her. She had been struck by a Seneca memorial insignia to remember the fallen which had been placed on top of the HUD for good luck.

It was an angel with wings spread out, only 5cm in height but very heavy, made of gerrum so it should have stuck to any surface it was placed on.

But flying through an extinction level event was a little too much and it had struck the captain on the side of her head.

Had she seen it, she would have easily been able to dodge, but she was otherwise preoccupied at the time and also probably wasn’t expecting her good luck charm to hit her in the face.

Superstitions were common among the Corps, as they were with a lot of people who regularly put their lives at risk.

Fermont groaned as she started to come round. “What… What happened?”

“It’s fine, Captain,” said Leyla. “The dizziness should pass in a moment.”

“This is a lovely little ship,” said Grandma. “Handles beautifully.”

“Hmm,” said Leyla, not sure what to say. She knew Grandma’s presence had saved them, but the fact she was here meant they were unwitting participants in a plan not of their choosing.

“Who is that?” said Speers. She was a young woman, barely in her twenties if that. If she was on board, she was a capable soldier, but she was clearly still a little green so it was surprising she had been sent on this mission.

“That’s Grandma,” said Weyla.

“And who is Grandma?” said Otenu, who had the look of a grizzled veteran. Her large eyes were calmly watching Leyla work on Fermont, but the tension in her jaw and neck indicated she was ready to pounce at any moment.

“She’s an AI,” said Leyla.

“That is factually incorrect and not a little insulting, dear,” said Grandma.

“Sorry,” said Leyla. “I was trying to keep it simple and easy to understand for them.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Otenu, taking immediate offence at the implication. She was on her feet and keeping absolutely steady even though the ship was at a forty-five-degree angle. There was a flicker of light in her eyes.

Weyla stood up slowly.

“Weyla,” said Leyla quietly.

“It’s fine,” said Weyla. “She wants the long version, I’ll give it to her. Grandma is a recorded memory from a soul box. She was a real person who was memorialised by her family and then ended up in Ubik’s hands, and now she’s a free-floating sentience who can bypass Ollo-level security systems and fly a cruiser better than anyone in the Corps.”

The light in Otenu’s eyes dimmed and was replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about? That isn’t possible.”

“Which part?” said Weyla.

“Any of it. All of it.”

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Weyla. “Welcome aboard the Ubik express, where nothing makes sense and every journey ends in five kinds of impossible. Why don’t you sit your ass down and buckle up? This is going to be a bumpy ride.”

The ship was gliding effortlessly through the water, but that wasn’t the ride Weyla was referring to.

Weyla sat down with a bump and Otenu slowly did the same.

“Is what she said true?” asked Fermont, her eyes clear now.

“Yes,” said Leyla. “But don’t worry, it gets weirder.”

Fermont shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. We have our mission. We need to take back control of this ship.” She sat up and put her hands out over the controls. Nothing responded to her touch. She began to hit things with her fists.

“Please don’t do that, dear,” said Grandma. “This is a very expensive piece of equipment. You wouldn’t like it if someone came onto your ship and started banging on things, would you?”

“This is my ship,” said Fermont. “Where are you taking us?”

“To your mission objective, of course,” said Grandma. “There’s a very handy tracker signal coming from young Figaro. I thought we’d have trouble finding the boys — you know how boys are… Actually, maybe you don’t. Anyway, I’ve got a very clear signal. Shouldn’t take long.”

“There,” said Leyla, pointing at the screen. “What’s that?”

A building was just about visible through the dark waters. A long, tall structure.

Everyone stood up and peered at the tower rising from the sea bed.

“It looks like… an Antecessor construction,” said Otenu.

“Does it?” said Weyla.

“If she says so,” said Speers. “Otenu is an expert on Antecessor constructs.”

“It’s an old base,” said Leyla. “They told us about it when we first got here, remember? It got cleared out years ago. They turned it into a museum for tourists.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Weyla. “That’s right. I can even see the parking lot.”

As they got closer, they saw the docking bays for vehicles, and signs it was almost impossible to read as they weren’t illuminated, but Leyla used her augmented sight to see as much as possible.

Welcome to the Grand Quazi Museum of the Antecessors read the largest of the signs, with a grinning cartoon Antecessor droid wrapping its tentacles around the lettering.

The Cygnet slowed to a stop and then rotated before reversing into one of the airlocks. The engines turned off.

They moved to the back of the ship where the doors were. Nothing happened.

“Grandma?” said Leyla. There was no response.

Otenu touched a panel on the wall and the door opened into a dark passage with glass walls. Fish swam past, probably trained to swim near the airlocks for the visitors.

“Grandma?” repeated Leyla. “Are you there? Hmm. She must have gone on ahead.”

“How?” said Weyla.

Leyla shrugged.

“Heavy armaments,” said Fermont. “Full loadout. Antecessor quality ammo.”

Speers and Otenu opened a compartment and started taking out large firearms.

“It’s a dead site,” said Leyla. “There won’t be any droids here.”

“There weren’t any droids here,” said Fermont, “but can you guarantee there aren’t here now?”

Leyla could see her point. With Ubik loose, there was no telling what they were going to find inside. She looked over at her sister who seemed to be having similar thoughts.

“Give me that gun,” said Weyla. “No, the big one.”

They headed through the passage, lights from their suits showing the way and attracting more fish to come gawp at them through the glass walls.

“You’ve seen Figaro recently,” said Speers, gun raised to eye-level.

“Yes,” said Leyla.

“How is he?”

“Fine. You know him.”

“A little.” The way she said it, Leyla was sure it was more than just a little.

They stopped when they reached the other end. The door was closed and the control panel was dark.

Fermont nodded at Speers, who stepped forward and put her hand on the panel. Her eyes lit up, the green glow drawing more fish.

The door clicked, whirred and then opened.

They were met with a dark interior. Then lights came on, starting far away and then step by step towards them.

There were more signs, these ones now fully illuminated and colourful to the point of being garish, pointing out where to go. The bathrooms, the cafeteria, the gift shop. The various exhibition halls. Hall A for artefacts. Hall B for droids. Hall c for weapons. There was also a large map with a ‘you are here’ arrow.

As they stepped into the reception area, Fermont leading with her two subordinates flanking her, the sisters just behind, there was a clank as a waste bin (not an Antecessor relic) was knocked over.

They all pointed their weapons in that direction as a large droid floated into view, tentacles swaying, listing to the right like it was slightly drunk. It veered to the left and bounced off the wall.

“Wait,” said Otenu, the Antecessor expert. “That isn’t a real droid. Looks like a mock-up.”

“Ah, there you are,” said Grandma from the fake droid. “Hold on, this thing is a bit of a mare to control. Programmed to run on a fixed circuit around the site, give the visitors a thrill. One of its wheels is a bit wonky.”

Now that it was closer, they could see it wasn’t actually floating, it was on casters attached to legs painted to look like the other tentacles.

“Okay, I think I’ve got the hang of this.” The droid veered right and banged into the opposite wall. “I’ve downloaded the blueprints for the site, so just follow me.”

They followed Grandma as she bonked off one side of the passage to the other, staying alert just in case. The lights came on ahead of them and turned off behind them, keeping them escorted by an illuminated box. There were no indications of anyone else being in the area. No staff, no guest, nobody at all.

Otenu was happy to point out the many, many fake exhibits they saw along the way.

When they reached a sign that said: Planet Core, with an arrow pointing left, the droid turned right.

“There should be a service elevator up ahead. No unauthorised personnel, it says on the blueprints. Should lead us down to where the boys are, more or less.”

The elevator turned out to be nothing special. Two brushed steel door that slid open as they approached.

Leyla assumed this was Grandma’s doing until she saw the group of boys exiting. They saw the droid and the five Seneca women and stopped dead in their tracks. There were seven boys and one older man. All of them were carrying boxes and sacks.

“Let’s get them,” shouted one of the boys, dropping his sack. “Alpha formation.” He ran forward.

“Seneca,” said the bearded man in the lead, grabbing the boy by the collar and pulling him back. “We don’t want to start anything with them. Special division.” He turned back to the women. “You’ll be here for Ubik, then. He’s down there.” He nodded towards the lift doors. “Out of the way boys, let the ladies through.”

The boys all pressed themselves flat against the wall.

“It’s fine,” said Leyla. “He’s just a thief.” She gave Smyke a hard look. “I assume you have your own transport. If anything happens to our ship, there won’t anywhere you’ll be able to hide from the Corps.”

“No, no, we’ve got our ride,” said Smyke. “You carry on. There won’t be any trouble from us.”

“We should just kill them,” said Fermont.

The boys pushed themselves even flatter against the wall.

“No,” said Leyla. “We have a mission, remember.” She walked past, not waiting for an answer.

They headed into the elevator. The doors closed on some very relieved looking boys.

“You’ve grown soft,” said Fermont.

Leyla gave her the same look she had given Smyke. “I don’t really know how Ubik’s brain works, but I can guarantee you this: if you had touched any of those kids, the Corps would make an enemy of him.”

“So?” said Otenu. “You think he can defeat the entire Corps?”

“I don’t know,” said Leyla. “I know we wouldn’t come out of it unscathed.”

“You’ll see,” said Weyla.

The journey down was a long one. Eventually, they came to a stop. The doors opened and seven women stood blocking the exit.

Weapons were immediately raised, ready to fire.

“Stop,” said Leyla. “Synthia, we aren’t here to fight. Where are they?”

“You know them?” said Fermont.

“Of course,” said Grandma. “Everyone knows these sluts. Out of the way. Coming through.”

Grandma’s droid pushed through the crowd of unhappy robots and then fell over.

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