Unknown Antecessor Site.
“This is amazing,” said Ubik. “Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The large alien head hung in the air beyond the ledge the four of them had climbed to. The concentric circles in its black eyes had stopped moving; its squared scalp was resolutely inhuman; the magnified pores on its blue-grey skin giving its face the appearance of a topographical map.
The possibilities were endless. The secrets it held might change everything.
“I wouldn’t call it beautiful,” said PT.
“Shallow,” said Ubik, shaking his head. “You have no taste. You’re judging the aesthetic of an alien culture with the palate of a man who thinks mashed potatoes and soft-chew steak are the high-point of human achievement.”
“I have no idea what point you’re making,” said PT, “but if you’re trying to make me feel hungry, you’re doing an excellent job. Give me a sandwich.”
“I don’t have any left,” said Ubik.
“Sure,” said PT. “Sure you don’t.”
“It’s the truth. I gave my last one to Nif. Tell him.”
“He… yes, Mr Ubik did,” said Nifell. His eyes were transfixed on the large head, awe and horror competing for real estate on his face.
PT walked up to the edge of the platform, to the side of the stairs they had ascended, and stared up at the image. He seemed far less impressed. “It’s waiting for us to choose.”
“One moment,” said Fig. “Let me run a few scans.”
“Good idea,” said Ubik. “Something this advanced can probably kill you instantly if you make a wrong move. We need to show respect for an older and more advanced civilisation.”
“You want to show respect?” said PT. “You mean you want to steal their tech.”
“Tech? This is more important than gadgets and knickknacks. This is first contact with an alien species. Well, a recording of one.”
There were three coloured circles below the head. They looked to be red, yellow and green. Were you supposed to name the colour or was it non-verbal? He reached out a hand, finger pointing at the first button, to see if the buttons would react to movement.
PT slapped Ubik’s hand down. “Don’t touch anything.”
“I’m nowhere near it,” said Ubik, shaking the slapped wrist. “Aren’t you excited? This is the greatest discovery of the last fifty years. Maybe even the last hundred years.”
“I discovered a new Antecessor sigil a few days ago,” said Fig without looking up. “So it’s really only the greatest discovery this week.”
“A sigil? What was it, a few squiggly lines? This is the face of the Antecessors!”
“I don’t think so,” said PT.
“Could be,” said Fig. “Probably not.”
“Of course it is,” said Ubik. “This is the mystery solved. Who were they? What did they look like? What happened to them? All of the answers are here. Have you any idea what the people out there would give to have access to this beautiful face? Have you any idea what they’d do? To us? Rip us to pieces and put us back together so they could do it again. Oh, if they were ready to do us harm before, now they’ll do it twice as hard and poke our eyes out, too. We have the thing everyone wants, and everyone is going to tear off our heads and stick their—”
“Alright, we get the picture,” said PT. “Calm down, you’re upsetting Nifell.”
“What’s the timer?” said Nifell, his eyes bugging out. “What happens when it hits zero? How long have we got?”
The numbers above the head were still counting down. There were sixteen digits, the three on the far left all zero. The three on the right were the only ones changing, the furthest right faster than once a second, the one next to it slower than once a second and the one next to that slower than once a minute.
It wasn’t comparable to any known system of calculating time Ubik was aware of, but he felt he could get a rough idea of what it was indicating.
“I’d guess it’s somewhere between one year and one thousand years,” said Ubik.
“Fantastic,” said PT. “What’s the margin of error? Plus or minus infinity?”
“I’m just giving the outside figures,” said Ubik. “You have to start on the outer edge and work your way in. This is how science works.”
“According to my scans,” said Fig, eyes on the panel on his arm, “there’s nothing here. No energy signature, no light emission, nothing. It doesn’t exist.”
“See?” said Ubik. “Light years ahead of anything we can do. Where’s it projected from? How did we hear what it said? How did it learn our language?”
“It’s being projected from up there.” PT pointed at the dark roof of the chamber they were in. “We heard it through the bones in our ears, some sort of telepathy or maybe a vibrational communication device. And it learned our language from Fig when it hit him with the steam. Probably read his mind.”
“That’s just guessing,” said Ubik.
“Yes,” said PT. “That’s how science works.” He looked up at the head. “I don’t like it. Something feels off.”
“That’s normal,” said Ubik. “When primitive man encounters something he doesn’t understand, he will ascribe supernatural meaning to it.”
“No,” said PT, “I don’t think it’s magic, I think this is all too easy for something hidden so carefully. We bypassed all the security systems the Antecessors put down, got straight here without any interference… it doesn’t add up.”
“Because we’re with him,” said Ubik, pointing at Fig. “He’s the one they want, you said so yourself.”
“I know what I said. It should still try to target the rest of us. There’s no plus one on his ticket. Or plus three.”
“You’re very paranoid, you know?” said Ubik. “If you keep trying to second guess yourself, you’ll never get anything done. We only have a limited time — somewhere between one and one thousand years. Try being a little more spontaneous. You’ll have more fun that way. I’ll show you.”
Ubik stepped to the front of the ledge and raised his hand.
He ignored PT’s protest and said, “Red, please.”
The eyes, vertically stacked in the middle of the alien face, shifted to become horizontal, a little too close together to be human but certainly less alien. The face took on a more intense expression.
“Level of purity unacceptable.”
Beams of blue light shot out of the eyes and struck Ubik in the chest. He was thrown into the air, flying across the platform and landing on his back.
His head was spinning but he wasn’t badly hurt. The reduced gravity made falling a lot less painful, although his chest ached. Two heads appeared over him.
“Nice suit,” said Ubik. “My compliments to the tailor.”
“I’ll pass the message on,” said Fig.
“Nif, stay back,” said PT. “If Ubik bites it, we’ll need you.”
“It’s a little hurtful,” said Ubik.
“The beam of light?” said PT.
“No, you lining up my replacement. It’s not like you have to worry about the nanodrones. They’re not even here.”
“Sure,” said PT. “Sure, they aren’t.”
“What are you implying?” said Ubik as he sat up, wincing at the pain in his chest. “You can search me, if you like. I swear to you on my Grandma’s life, I don’t have a single nanodrone on me.”
“I’ll try,” said Fig. “Might not want to kill me.”
“Or we could ignore it and see what’s through the arch,” said PT.
“Really?” said Ubik. “And miss out on the answers to all of mankind’s questions? The secrets of the universe right there in front of us, but you’re in too much of a rush looking for the secrets of the universe?”
“We’re not here to find the secrets of the universe,” said PT. “We’re here to find Fig’s dad, remember? And sometimes knowing a secret isn’t worth the price.”
“It’s always worth the price,” said Ubik.
“Red,” said Fig.
“You are tainted.” A beam shot out again and threw Fig backwards. Ubik rolled out of the way as Fig landed in his spot.
“Ow,” said Fig. “That thing’s got a bit of a kick.”
“Looks like their millennia-old death rays aren’t a match for our modern spacesuits,” said PT.
“Or,” said Ubik, “it isn’t trying to kill us. Yet.”
“This obsession it has about purity,” said Fig, sitting up. “What do you think it means? Some sort of bloodline? A descendant?”
“I don’t imagine it’s a good thing,” said PT. “People who demand racial purity are usually psychopaths. I would have thought Ubik was the closest thing to a distant relative.”
“I’m one hundred percent human,” said Ubik.
“A hundred percent?” said PT.
“Maybe it wants an organic,” said Ubik. “A fully-active one.”
“But why let us in here if Fig isn’t the one it’s looking for?” said PT.
“Because maybe this isn’t an Antecessor?” said Fig.
“Right,” said PT. “Could be one of the other factions. We may be in the middle of a feud we know nothing about. We should just go. We aren’t going to get any answers here.”
“Or you could try your luck,” said Ubik. “Worst case, you get a kick in the chest like us.”
“No, thanks,” said PT. “If it didn’t accept you two, it won’t accept me.”
“Come on, man, just because there’s nothing special about you doesn’t mean… Wait, where’s he going?” Ubik was watching Nifell walk towards the edge of the platform.
“I am pure,” said Nifell. “I am a true Enayan. I am untainted.”
“What’s he going on about?” said Ubik.
“He’s a member of the First Temple,” said Fig. “It’s a sect on my planet. People who believe they are the true natives of Enaya.”
“Isn’t everyone on your planet a settler?” said PT.
“Yes,” said Fig. “But they believe in a mystical presence on the planet that claims their souls.”
“I’d better stop him,” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik. “Maybe he’s right.”
“Oh, now you believe in the supernatural?” said PT.
“Won’t hurt to see,” said Ubik. “Well, it won’t hurt us.”
Nifell stood with his arms raised. “I ask the First to accept the true inheritors of Enaya.”
“You are pure. You are accepted.”
Nifell was hit by a beam of blue light but unlike the others, he wasn’t knocked down. The light bathed him and raised him into the air. Nifell had his arms out to the side and his head tilted back.
“Which button did he press?” asked Ubik.
“None,” said PT. “I don’t think he’s getting any answers, either.”
The giant head vanished and Nifell dropped back down, slow enough to land on his feet. He turned around.
“We will enter the vault,” said Nifell. His voice sounded very different. “You will lead.” He pointed at Fig.
“I think someone’s getting a little too big for his boots,” said Ubik.
PT grabbed the visor on Nifell’s helmet and pulled it up. His eyes were black with concentric circles. His arm shot out and sent PT flying into the wall.
“I get it,” said Ubik. “It couldn’t download itself into me or Fig. Not pure enough. Not simple enough. Good thing you didn’t try, PT.”
“How do we stop it?” said PT.
“You will do as I command.”
“Can we get a couple of those answers first?” said Ubik. “You know, the secrets of the universe and the hunters and everything?”
“You will do as I command.” Nifell’s eyes began to glow.
“Okay, that’s a no, then. Bye.” Ubik waved his hand.
Nifell arched his back and convulsed. His head was thrown from side to side and his arms bent at unnatural angles.
“I knew it,” said PT. “Those nanodrones. You put them in Nif’s suit.”
“I needed somewhere safe to store them. That’s what you use a backup for, isn’t it?”
Nifell was lying on the floor, not moving.
“But they don’t work in low gravity,” said Fig.
“They behave differently inside a liquid,” said Ubik.
“Liquid?” said PT. “Wait, you fed them to him? In the sandwiches!”
Nifell sat up. His eyes were pure black now. “You will obey my commands.”
“He isn’t dead,” said PT.
“Of course not,” said Ubik. “I wouldn’t kill him. What kind of a monster do you think I am? Don’t answer that. I just cut his optic nerves.”
“You blinded him,” said PT.
“Arrgh,” cried out Nifell, his head turning from side to side. “You will—”
“I won’t,” said Ubik. “But if you don’t want to be stuck in the dark forever, I think it’s about time you answered some questions. I’d like to press the red button, please.”
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