Planet Soros - Core.
“It smells funny in here,” said Ubik. “Can’t you two smell it? Funky. Like something died.”
“When was the last time you bathed?” asked PT.
Fig snorted a short laugh and then quickly looked down at his control panel to avoid Ubik’s questioning gaze.
“The same time you did,” said Ubik, not minding the banter. It reminded him of old times, back on Epsilon-416, teasing his buddies as they undertook a job which promised high risks and high rewards.
That had been back when he was very young, when every job had been an adventure, and even failure was a lesson in how to escape with your life and perhaps, if you were lucky, a small bag of stolen goods stuffed inside your shirt.
He sniffed in PT’s direction. “It’s not you. You smell like spicy soup, left to stew a little too long.” He turned his head towards the narrow corridor ahead of them. “It’s coming from down there. I think it’s a rotting corpse.” He sniffed again. “Can’t tell if it’s male or female.”
“Can you normally tell the sex of a corpse by its smell?” asked PT.
“No,” said Ubik. “But there’s a first time for everything.”
“Well, I don’t smell anything,” said PT. He turned to Fig. “You?”
“No,” said Fig. “But he’s probably got a super-sensitive nose from growing up in a sewer, or something.”
“Of course he does,” said PT.
“Aren’t you going to go have a look?” asked Ubik.
“Aren’t you?” said PT.
They were standing at the bottom of a very deep shaft, with their ride behind them, lying on its side.
It wasn’t supposed to be on its side — judging from the configuration of the engines and the controls inside, it hadn’t been built to land again after taking off — but it had toppled over when Ubik had reversed the magnetic polarity of the lidanium coating that covered the ship’s surface.
The whole process had been a delicate one, requiring precise timing. Switch too early and the rocket would accelerate too fast and crash into the ground. Leave it too late, and the opposing forces on the hull would have torn it in half.
Either mistake would have resulted in an explosion that would have killed them and probably destroyed the planet. But you couldn’t let the small chances of annihilation stop you from taking a risk or two, as Grandma always said.
“I can’t detect any movement or life signs,” said Fig. “But I’m getting a lot of interference, so…”
“You should go take a quick look,” said Ubik. “I have a bad feeling about what’s through there.”
“You want me to go first?” said PT. “Why?”
“Because you have the best movement between the three of us. You can avoid getting hit the easiest.”
“You do have the best movement,” said Fig.
“It’s a narrow tunnel,” said PT. “I don’t think there’s enough room for any kind of movement.”
“Okay, I’ll go,” said Ubik. “You two stay here and guard my rocket.”
“Wait, wait,” said PT. “Is this some kind of double bluff to get us to stay here while you run off? Maybe I should go.”
“What if it’s a triple bluff?” said Fig.
“You’re right,” said PT. “But maybe that’s what he wants us to think.”
“Fine, we should all go,” said Ubik. “But don’t blame me if someone nicks the rocket while we’re gone.”
“It’s a giant bomb,” said PT. “I hope someone nicks it.”
Fig approached the tunnel entrance and peered in, checking his control panel and frowning.
“I think it’s safe. Probably.”
“Great,” said Ubik, slapping Fig on the back so that he was thrust into the tunnel. “Personally, I don’t think it’s safe, but I’m happy to go with your expert opinion. Coming?”
He could hear PT growling behind him, but that just meant he was on board and willing to ignore his own doubts. Perhaps ‘willing’ wasn’t the right word.
The three of them moved forward slowly, carefully investigating the floor and walls with Fig’s suit providing just about enough light. They encountered no danger and found no corpses.
Ubik could still smell the strange odour he couldn’t quite place, but there was no point worrying about it. They would find out what it was soon enough.
The light from Fig’s suit illuminated the walls, showing the Antecessor engravings but no active Antecessor white streaks. They were definitely in the right place.
“How long before they send someone down to check on us?” said PT.
“I reckon we’ve got at least an hour,” said Ubik. “Their readings are going to tell them the explosives are unstable and could go off at any moment.”
“You messed with their computer to give a false reading?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik. “I made the explosives unstable.”
“Is that a joke, Ubik? He’s joking, right?”
Are we going to have to go through this for sixty more planets?” asked Fig. “I’m not sure we’ll have time.”
“No, we just have to fix the broken ones,” said Ubik. “Maybe this is the one causing all the problems. Fix one loose connection and all the lights come back on.”
“There’s an opening up ahead,” said Fig. “Get ready.”
“Oof, that smell’s getting stronger,” said Ubik.
They kept moving and carefully made their way through the archway at the end of the tunnel. It was dark and silent.
There was no ambush, in fact, no signs of life whatsoever. What they found was a large cavernous chamber similar to the one on Quazi, only this one was full of crates and boxes, some covered by sheets but all covered in dust.
“Looks like they’ve been using this place for storage,” said PT.
“The most powerful location on the planet, and they turned it into a warehouse,” said Fig.
“Ah, I found it,” said Ubik.
“Found what?” said PT.
“The source of the smell. Look.” He was pointing at what looked at first to be a pile of spare parts, but on closer inspection, they appeared to be the remains of a machine that had fallen apart and was covered in some kind of green and red mould.
“That’s the decomposing body you smelled?” said PT.
Ubik crouched down and poked it with a finger. “Looks like it used to be a robot. Pretty sophisticated one.”
“Looks like a pile of junk,” said PT.
“If Synthia heard you speak that way about one of hers, it’d break her heart.”
“No it wouldn’t,” said PT. “She doesn’t have a heart.”
Ubik shook his head sadly at the needless bigotry, but also because he couldn’t understand what had turned the robot — probably left to keep watch over all these boxes — into spoiled remains.
“Why is it green and red?” asked Fig. “Is it rust?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Looks more like accelerated ageing due to excessive load…” He realised as he said it there was only one way a robot could have been pushed to this sort of excessive decay.
He stood up and kicked the pile, sending up a cloud of red and green.
“What are you doing?” said PT, backing off.
Ubik didn’t have time for explanations. Under the pile was a circular design gouged into the ground. He clicked his heels together and passed his foot over the area. More dust was blown away, revealing the circular pattern more clearly.
“Under here,” said Ubik. “We need to open this.”
“Open what?” said PT.
“Looks the same as the rest of the floor,” said Fig.
“It’s concentrated here. The robot stood on top of it because of the buzz, but it was too much for it to take.” He could see the other two weren’t really following. “We just need to open it.”
“How?” said PT.
“Change it into a handle. The top part, make it so I can twist and pull on it.”
PT came closer and bent down. He placed his hand on top of the circle design. His eyes glowed in the dark and his hand raised up. A long rod appeared like a sprouting tree, with a looped part at the top.
PT backed away, a little unsteady.
“Are you okay?” asked Fig.
Of course he was okay, it was just a little manipulation of matter.
Ubik took hold of the handle and turned it. There was probably a better way to do it, but he would need to be an Antecessor — or have one working for him — to know how to do it.
The circle turned and came up, just enough to let out a deep hiss.
White liquid rushed out from the edges of the circle like it was overflowing.
It ran into grooves in the ground, rapidly spreading across the floor.
Boxes and crates were tossed aside and rolled over.
The white liquid ran up the walls, lighting up the chamber.
Softly glowing balls of light appeared in the air all around them. Within a few seconds, they formed sigils.
“There you go, all done,” said Ubik. “Check if we’ve got a circuit.”
“Me?” said Fig. “How do I do that?”
Ubik tapped his wrist while looking at Fig’s arm.
Fig checked the control panel on his sleeve. His eyes changed from confused to curious.
“How? None of this was on here a moment ago.”
“What is it?” said PT.
“It shows the planets in the Inner Quadrant,” said Fig, “but with the sigils superimposed over them. Hold on.”
A beam of light projected an image from Fig’s wrist. A map of the Inner Quadrant showed sigils and planets combined, but with lines connecting Quazi to Soros, and then from Soros to three others.
“Ah,” said Ubik, looking over Fig’s shoulder. “Still not working. But it looks like the next three are fine. That one,” he said pointing at a sigil, “that’s where we need to go next.”
“How?” asked PT.
“Same as before,” said Ubik. He leaned forward and began moving the sigils on Fig’s map.
The sigils in the room moved at the same time.
“Are you really an Antecessor disguised as a human?” asked PT.
“No,” said Ubik. “I just understand where they’re coming from. Okay, next.”
A portal opened in the middle of the room and Ubik walked through. A few seconds later, he emerged into bright sunlight in the middle of an open field of wheat, or corn, or possibly tall yellow weeds. Botany had never been his strongest subject.
“Where are we now?” asked PT.
“Er, this is…” Fig was looking at his control panel as usual. “Rho-562, known locally as Romeo. It’s a feeder planet. Agricultural, mainly. Some livestock. Large labour force with a small governing elite. Authoritarian rule, not much in the way of personal liberties.”
“It’s a slave world,” said PT.
“Well, technically, indentured servitude. The workforce is paying off debts accumulated over time. And some other legal issues that have been commuted to financial penalties.”
“They owe money so they have to work it off,” said Ubik.
“Yes,” said Fig. “Or their ancestors owed money, and they have to make good on their debts.”
“Slavery,” said PT. “Anyone nearby?” There were fields of crops all around them, tall and green, blocking their view.
“Um,” said Fig, “yes. Lots of people. All around us.”
They began walking across the field.
Ubik sniffed at the air. “I don’t think they’re armed.”
“You can smell weapons now?” said PT.
“The air changes when people carry guns,” said Ubik. “It’s the ionization.”
“Sure,” said PT.
“We should ask for directions,” said Ubik.
“Where to?” said PT. “The planet’s core?”
“Yes,” said Ubik.
It took a few minutes to find the people Fig had located on his control panel. They were working in a field, digging and hoeing with manual implements. They were talking and laughing as they worked.
The three of them crouched down at the edge of the field and watched them.
“They seem quite happy,” said Fig. “Clothes in good condition. Clean and healthy.”
“Why aren’t they using tronics?” asked PT.
“Not allowed, I expect,” said Ubik. “Too much access to tech means they might build an escape vehicle and, you know, escape.”
“This is all illegal isn’t it?” said PT.
“Of course,” said Ubik. “If anyone knew about it, I’m sure there’d be a terrible fuss, wouldn’t there, Fig.”
“Um, ahem, yes, probably.” Fig looked a little red in the face.
“You knew about this sort of thing already, didn’t you?” said PT.
“Kind of,” said Fig. “I know there are places where people are treated less than equitably.”
“Like your planet?” said PT.
“No,” said Fig. “Not anymore. I mean, my father got rid of the more egregious infractions.”
“You’re doing that thing he does,” said PT, “where you start using long words when you don’t want to admit to something.”
Fig sighed. “I know it’s wrong and should be stopped, but the truth is it never will. You can’t stop it. Human nature is just made this way. The rich will always try to use their wealth to make their advantage as permanent as possible. All social mobility will be controlled so there isn’t too much change, especially at the top. And if there is ever a big switch, then the new aristocracy will quickly fall into the same poor behaviour as their predecessors.”
“So let it be?” said PT.
“It doesn’t really matter what you do,” said Fig. “Change it here, and there are still hundreds of worlds just like this one. And any change won’t last long.”
“I hope you aren’t thinking of doing something heroic,” said Ubik.
“Why would I?” said PT. “I’m just one person.”
“One very powerful person,” said Ubik, “with six organics.”
“Who blacks out whenever he tries to use them. Don’t worry, I have no interest in helping anyone,” said PT. “I’ve been cured of that tendency through meeting a diverse range of people since I left home, and realising that I don’t like any of them.”
“Almost any of them, is what I think you mean,” said Ubik.
“I know what I mean,” said PT.
“What should we do?” said Fig. “We still need to find a way to the planet’s core.”
“We could ask to borrow a spade and start digging,” said Ubik. “Hey, where are you going?”
PT had risen from their hiding place and was walking across the field towards the nearest group of labourers.
Fig followed and Ubik didn’t fancy being left on his own, so he joined them.
When the people realised there were strangers approaching, they stopped working and went silent.
“Hello,” said PT. “Our ship had a malfunction and we had to make an emergency landing over there.” He pointed vaguely behind him. “We’re a bit lost. Can you tell us where the nearest city or port is, please?”
A man with a beard growing on his neck and a wide-brimmed hat that shaded most of the rest of his face, leaned on the top of his hoe and nodded in a sympathetic fashion.
“Crash landing, was it? That’s the trouble with those silver birds. You can get them up, but they don’t always stay up.” There were murmurs of agreement from around him. “I’m happy with both feet on the ground, I am.”
“He does seem happy, doesn’t he?” said Ubik. “Not in need of rescuing or anything.”
PT gave him a withering look before returning his attention to the man. “Can you point us in the direction of the nearest place we can get help?”
“Oh, you won’t be able to get there from here, not without a ride.”
“It’s very far?” said Fig.
“Ooh, I should say. Take you days to get to Castle Corum.”
“Castle Corum?” said PT. “Is it an actual castle?”
“Of course,” said the man, looking around and sharing a chuckle with his colleagues. “The clues in the name.”
“Corum?” said Ubik. “Named after the planet’s core?”
The man looked confused. “Named after King Corum, of course.”
“You have a king?” said PT.
“No, no, he died hundreds of years ago. We have a queen right now, bless her name.” The man took off his hat out of respect, revealing a shiny bald head. The others did likewise.
“I like these people,” said Ubik. “Good, wholesome people of the land.”
“Thank you,” said the man, a wide grin on his face. “Kind of you to say.”
“My kind of people,” continued Ubik. “The kind I can work with.”
“Leave them alone, Ubik,” said PT. “They’ve suffered enough.”
There was a distant rumble and a silver lozenge-shaped vehicle appeared in the sky. It came hurtling towards them and stopped overhead.
“Run,” cried out the man, and all the workers scrambled to get away.
“Don’t look so happy now, do they?” said PT.
“This is the County Sheriff,” boomed a voice from the sky. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Ubik peered up with a hand shading his eyes. The ship was shiny but quite primitive. A simple dual-engine hovercraft with jet-air propulsion, only good for short journeys. Wherever it had come from couldn’t be too far.
“We’re from Quazi,” shouted Fig. “We left when the Seneca Corps turned up. Perhaps you heard about what happened.”
There was a short pause as the ship dropped down to make the conversation a little more intimate. A door on the side opened and a soldier in uniform, helmet covering his face, appeared. “You don’t have permission to be here.”
“Our ship malfunctioned,” said PT. “We had to make an emergency landing. We set it down over there but we couldn’t fix it. Can you take us to the nearest city so we can arrange repairs?
The ship dropped down further, causing dust to fly and crops to get blown away.
“Get in,” shouted the man.
They jumped into the craft as it hovered just above the ground. The interior was covered in straw and smelled strongly of manure. As they rose into the air, a building was visible on top of a large hill in the distance, and then the door slid shut.
“There really is a castle,” said PT.
“Is it called Castle Corum because it’s built on top of the planet’s core?” Ubik asked the soldier, who had taken off his helmet to reveal a round, pudgy face.
“No,” said the soldier. “It’s named after King Corum the first.”
“Okay, but does it have any rooms beneath it. Like, way, way beneath it.”
“You mean the dungeons? Yes. That’s where we put the worst criminals.”
“Oh, right,” said Ubik. “And what sort of crime do you have to commit to get thrown in there?”
“The most terrible crimes imaginable,” said the soldier.
Ubik gave him a thumbs up and turned around. “Okay, boys. I think I know how to get us to the planet’s core.”