Ubik could tell he had lost the room. It was his showman’s instinct letting him know it was time to bring out his A material. If you let the crowd turn on you, it would only get harder and harder to win them back. Especially when you had a tough crowd like this one — no eyes, no ears, not even noses. All the wonderful smells he could produce would do him no good here.
But it wasn’t too late. If he found a way to wow them with some premium quality moves, they’d jump right back into your pocket.
“Everyone calm down.” Ubik raised his hands, one towards the pale creatures incandescent with rage ( literally, they were glowing with an inner white light), and the other hand facing Chukka and Tezla, making sure they felt no need to jump in.
Nothing ruined a good set-up like someone trying to help when you had everything under control or were about to very soon, most probably.
“You stupid idiot,” hissed Chukka.
“Wait,” said Tezla. “I’ve seen him worm his way out of worse.” Which was enough to stop Chukka from telling Ubik what she thought of him.
Ubik was grateful for the Guardian’s intervention. Not because he appreciated her faith in him — faith that was entirely misplaced since he had no idea how he was going to get out of this — but rather because he had no interest in hearing Chukka whine and complain. He definitely wouldn’t want her giving his eulogy?
She continued to glare at him like this was all his fault. She was the one who had stolen the crystal pod or whatever it was. He would never have broken it if she hadn’t been holding it in the first place.
Ubik slowly descended the steps. The creatures had yet to convert their anger into violent action. They were hardly paying Ubik any attention at all, in fact. They were too busy forming a loose cordon around the larval organism that had emerged from inside the shattered crystal, which was now lying in a puddle of its own making on the floor below.
It looked smaller than it had a moment ago.
The lights from all around the cavernous chamber held steady; bright and revealing. Everything looked so much clearer fully illuminated, and so much worse. Nowhere to hide and nowhere to run without being seen. Hardly the ideal staging.
“This isn’t as bad as it looks,” said Ubik, tilting his words up at the walls.
That was where the eyes and ears were. The other crystal pods embedded in the walls of the chamber held some kind of unified intelligence. They thought as one, commanded the pale creatures as one. All he had to do was convince them everything was okay and then the rest would fall into place. Easy.
Ubik jumped down the last few steps, landed in a crouch and picked up the prematurely freed organism. It was translucent grey, with ridges covering its long, slippery body. He stood up and held it over his head, squeezing it gently so it wouldn't slide out of his grasp. It bulged and rippled either side of his hand.
The lower end hanging limp whipped sharply around his wrist and slithered tongue-like around his bare forearm. Ubik felt multiple tiny needles try to pierce his skin, then ease off, then try again. Then the whole body went slack.
“It’s fine. It’s alive.” Ubik shook it a little bit to make it look like it was still moving. “Even the colour’s coming back. See?” It was turning a darker grey.
None of the creatures attacked him, which was a surprise; a welcome one. This was going better than he’d expected. Something dribbled down his arm but Ubik ignored it.
The creatures stepped back. There was something in the way they moved that suggested to Ubik that not only were they not going to attack him, they were thinking about running away.
It was then that it occurred to Ubik how strange it was for them to have stood watching their defenceless little responsibility die. They might be of alien origin but, usually, when the thing you're trying to protect falls on the ground, you rush to pick it up.
That had not happened.
You could put it down to shock. You could also put it down to fear.
Ubik looked up at the thing in his hand. It wasn’t moving. It was about the length of his forearm, if it was stretched out.
“Why aren’t they attacking him?” said Chukka. There was a disappointed edge to her voice.
“I don’t know,” said Tezla. “I think they expected him to die.” She nodded towards the creatures. They were crouching and edging forward now, but leaning back as they did it, the way you might if you were trying to approach something that might explode at any moment.
“From this?” said Ubik, lowering his hand. The creatures shuffled backwards. “This isn’t as bad as it looks. I’ve fished out a lot worse from the sewers back home.”
Chukka made a disgusted face. She looked over at the Guardian, who winced. These were people unused to living an unrefined life. Ubik really didn’t understand how people like them expected to understand the universe without looking in the dark places.
The voice of Chukka’s despondent subordinate came wailing from the other side of the chamber. “Get me out of here. The wall’s eating me.” Which didn’t even make sense. Typical VendX exaggeration. Anything to make a sale.
“Hold on,” said Ubik. “We’ll get to you in a moment.” He took a closer look at the thing in his hand. With everyone on pause, now was a great time to figure out what to do next. It was these quiet moments when everyone was too horrified to move that Ubik was able to really shine.
It was soft and rubbery. It had no appendages or openings. It looked like a snake or an eel. Something that lived underwater. Or perhaps in the depths of space. His eyes lit up.
“I know what this is. It’s a baby space whale!” He looked up at the walls. “Am I right?”
The lights on the walls dimmed.
“No?” said Ubik, disappointed.
“Space whales don’t exist,” said Tezla.
“Not finding something doesn’t prove its non-existence,” said Ubik. “Open your mind, Guardian.”
“It’s an organic,” said Tezla, mind resolutely contained inside that bald head of hers. “A big one. Rex confirms it.” Her eyes flashed from side to side, seeing sensor readings on her HUD. “It probably can’t do anything to you because you’re Null Void.”
It wasn’t a bad guess. Ubik had never actually seen an organic before they were inserted into a person’s DNA, but he knew they were smaller than this. A lot smaller. But what if they grew to this size under the right conditions? Conditions humans hadn’t been able to replicate, so they put the immature forms into themselves and assumed that was the final product.
How much more powerful would they become if their organics were as developed as this one? Would that power be controllable?
“Isn’t it a little big to be an organic?” said Chukka. She kept her eyes on Ubik’s wrist. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. The look wasn’t one of disgust or fear, it was something else. Something more like avarice. What did she think? That she could get him to smuggle it out of here and then she’d claim it off his corpse to offer to her superiors in exchange for a promotion? Wage-slaves were so predictable — always looking to please their masters.
“It’s bigger, but it has the same basic structure,” said Tezla. “Rex’s readings are conclusive. It was trying to find a way to get inside Ubik’s body, but it couldn’t. If it got inside an appropriate host, it would be able to assimilate rapidly, far more efficiently than we’re capable of. After that… who knows?”
“How could something that large get inside a person?” said Chukka. “It would kill them.”
“You’re assuming it needs all of the person,” said Tezla. “If it takes over the host body, it might only need rudimentary functions to work.”
Ubik held the organic up to his face. The lower end jumped into his mouth. He spat it. The tapered tip shot up his left nostril. Ubik blew it out and then sneezed.
“I think you’re wrong,” said Chukka. “It just wants to kill him.”
“Hmm,” said Tezla, like she was seconding the motion.
“I think you’re right,” said Ubik, holding his arm as far from his face as possible.
“Which one of us?” asked Chukka.
“Both of you,” said Ubik. “I think it wants to find a host and I think it wants to kill me. That’s it. That’s what we have to do.”
“Let it kill you?” asked Chukka.
“No, find it a host.”
“It’s an alien parasite that will overwhelm its host and run rampant with an unknown level of power,” said Tezla. “We’re not here to speed up the end of humanity.”
“You’re looking at this situation very negatively, Guardian.”
“You’d like to give the end of humanity a positive spin?” asked Tezla.
“Oobie wouldn’t end humanity, would you Oobie.” He held up the flaccid organism and it lashed out at him again. “See?” said Ubik, dodging. “Harmless. Mostly.”
“He’s named it after himself,” said Chukka.
“No. The spelling’s completely different.”
The lights on the wall flickered, some message that was near impossible to decipher. Ubik closed one eye.
“I think they like my idea.”
“Can you get us down now?”
“One minute, Bashir,” said Chukka. “You want to implant that thing inside someone and let it take them over? Who? Who’s going to let you do that?” She was more curious than objecting to his idea.
Ubik gave her a long look.
“She has an organic already,” said Tezla. “Very weak but her receptors are blocked.”
Chukka seemed surprised by the Guardian’s declaration, but she didn’t deny it.
“So do those three.”
Ubik looked over at the Seneca women and Chukka’s friend stuck in the wall. So not anyone already with an organic. He turned his gaze to the Guardian.
“It won’t work with a cloned body,” she said before he had a chance to say anything.
The lights flickered. They were getting impatient. Then the lights pulsed rapidly. Ubik couldn’t follow them at all.
“Ubik?” A voice filled the chamber, scattering light across the walls.
“Yes. What are you doing? Why aren’t the goblins attacking you?”
“Goblins? Them?” Ubik gave the creatures a look. “Why would they attack me? We’re practically family.”
“We have incoming. More goblins. Advanced ones. Those ones are supposed to be a defence against them, but now you’ve neutralised them I guess we’ll have to come up with another way to protect ourselves.”
“They aren’t neutralised, they’re just resting. Right, guys?”
The goblins didn’t move. They could have been made of marble.
“What are you holding?” said PT.
“Hm? Nothing.” He put his hand behind his back. “I’ve got a hangnail. By the way, you have a high CQ, don’t you? And you don’t have an organic or anything, right?”
“Why do you ask?” said PT, his voice thinning into suspicion.
“Oh, no reason,” said Ubik. “You still in the same place? We’ll come to you. I’ve got something to show you.”
“Well, you better hurry up. I’m seeing more new arrivals and they’re headed down here. They seem to be heavily armed. Central Authority and VendX and a bunch of others.”
“Finally,” said Guardian Tezla.
“Have you been stalling all this time?” said Ubik. “That why you’ve been so agreeable? Waiting for reinforcements? You’ve got to learn to work with what you’ve got, Guardian.”
“Rex, activate a beacon.” She paused. “Rex?”
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” said Ubik. “He’s probably busy or something.”
“What have you done to Rex?” said the Guardian. She sounded as suspicious as PT. If he didn’t know better, he’d guess they’d been practising together.
“We better get moving.” The lights dimmed, the goblins twitched. “Okay. You up in the walls, this is it. The moment you fulfil your destiny. I know they left you here in forever-sleep, forgotten. Your wait is over. I’ll be back for the rest of you after I find a good home for Oobie. Be ready.”
“I think he’s working for the enemy,” said Chukka.
“Or they’re working for him. Rex. Rex, come online. The scan was clear. Reboot, damn it.” Tezla slapped the side of her helmet.
Ubik turned to look at the goblins. The name suited them. A deaf, blind army, but they might have their uses. They couldn’t hear him but he felt he should say something.
“My Grandma always used to say to me, ‘Work hard, play later,’ but she would also say, “Play hard, work later.’ Then she said, ‘Work play, hard later,’ which was when I realised she had a corrupt file in her voice matrix. So I deleted that file and now she’s a lot less bossy. Okay, that’s the commencement speech over. Follow me to victory.”
Ubik raised a fist in the way he imagined generals of old would galvanize their troops. The goblins showed no reaction.
“They can’t hear or see you,” said Chukka.
“They don’t need to.” Ubik tapped the side of his head. “We have a connection. Let’s go boys. Or girls.” He checked them for any signs of sexual organs. Not even a hint of a bulge anywhere, top or bottom. “Let’s go… people.”
“They aren’t people,” said Chukka.
“Bigot. This way.” He took a step up the stairs and looked back. None of the goblins moved to follow him.
“What about us?” called out Bashir plaintively. “You can’t just leave us here.”
There was a loud crash as part of the wall on the far side crumbled and the two Seneca women walked out like it had been a bank of snow.
“You could have freed yourselves all this time?” said Ubik.
“No point being free if you don’t have an exit planned,” said Weyla, brushing herself off.
“The Corps trains you to be patient and find the right moment to act,” said Leyla.
“Does the Corps train you to wait until a man comes along and saves you, too?” asked Ubik as the two women approached through the goblins who remained impassive.
Four women now surrounded him. For the first time, he noticed that all four were taller than him. He didn’t like it. The strain on his neck was already becoming painful.
“One moment,” said Ubik.
He made his way through the goblins, all of whom were shorter than him, to the wall where Bashir had been entombed alive. He brushed away some loose rock and then tried to break Bashir out but one hand was wrapped in alien rubbery flesh, and the other hand made little impression on the granite-hard surface.
Pale hands emerged around him and pulled pieces of rock away from the wall. In a few seconds, Bashir stumbled free. He fell to his knees and then jumped back to his feet, startled by the faceless goblins crowded around him.
“Calm down, they won’t eat you. No mouths. They can strangle you at best. Would take ages with a fat neck like yours. Are you hurt?” There was dried blood on the man’s regulation VendX-issue suit.
“She… shot me,” said Bashir.
“The suit stabilised you, didn’t it?” said Chukka, sounding annoyed at the accusation. “It was a calculated risk, which saved your life. Don’t make me amend your report.”
The suit had self-sealed over a hole in the chestplate. These kinds of suits were cheap and basic, but they did have basic life-sustain features in case of injuries. More cost-effective to bring employees back wounded and alive, and then terminate their contract, than to pay out the life-insurance VendX made them subscribe to.
“Listen,” said Ubik in a lowered voice, “there’s four of them but two of us, plus my boys. Or whatever. If things get rough and the ladies turn on us, it’s you and me, bro. I’ll take care of Chukka — I know you’re contractually obligated not to attack your supervisor — you handle the other three. You with me?”
“No,” said Bashir, shaking his head vigorously.
“They may all be deaf and blind,” said Weyla, “but we’re not.”
“Huh?” said Ubik, turning around sharply. “I was just kidding.” He looked back at Bashir and whispered, “Wait for my signal.”
Bashir shook his head even more vigorously.
Ubik returned to the stairs and headed up. This time the goblins followed, calmly and in orderly fashion. The four women stepped aside to let them pass. Chukka stared greedily at his alien-encircled arm. Tezla scowled at him while trying to get Rex back online. Weyla and Leyla took turns checking their weapons while making sure one of them had eyes on Ubik at all times.
Ubik smiled to himself. One would be easily distracted, one wouldn’t be able to trust her own suit, and two would stay close enough to him to provide him with a convenient shield. He could work with that.