Wormhole Island - Interior.
Ubik gritted his teeth and did his best to ignore the biting pain in his arm. He smacked the parasite against the side of his leg.
“Present me, present me,” said the voice in his head.
Ubike tried ignoring it again, all while smiling like a normal, happy, uninfested person. He didn’t want people to start thinking he was crazy.
“It is the Lost One. Kneel. Abase yourself and present me.”
“Shurrup,” Ubik muttered under his breath.
Fortunately, all eyes were on Fig. Or on the hovering body of Fig, which was clearly under the control of some ancient Antecessor. It wasn’t very clear what it was — a droid or maybe a more advanced creation — but they had found the prisoner. That was the important part.
The prisoner who had been imprisoned in the most inhospitable and hard to escape from prison that had ever been created. Ubik was quite impressed by the lengths they had gone to in order to keep this prisoner incarcerated.
It must have done something really bad.
And it also meant that no matter how powerful the convict might be, it wasn’t capable of breaking out. Not on its own.
Which suggested, very strongly, that the detainee would be willing to go to even greater lengths than its captors to get out of here.
Ubik felt there was room for a deal to be made. He felt confident that eventually, the only person who would be able to provide a way out was him. It was his speciality.
He had the experience, he had the technical wherewithal, and, most importantly, he had a criminal brain. How could the two of them not find common ground?
“They sent you here,” said Fig, his voice deep, filled with the wisdom of the ages — a cheap effect but not ineffective. The people around the room hung off every word. “I have explored this one’s mind, and I have seen your path here. They sent him, and you along with him. He is the one they have been searching for all this time, and then they sent him to me.” Fig shook his head, amused, his eyes flashing from one colour to the next.”
“Who are you?” said the Chairman, his voice just as deep but hollow. He was trying to sound imperious, as though he was the one in charge, but who would believe it?
“Who I am does not matter. The only thing that should concern you is that when they arrive, you will all be considered superfluous. Only this one is of value. The rest of you will be expunged. But it does not have to be so.”
Fig looked serene and benign. He usually looked tense and alert, his training working hard to find threats, both present and future. Sometimes, even past. He was quite the paranoid-type.
“What’s to stop you eliminating us once we do what you want?” said Ramon Ollo, getting to his feet but looking unsteady. He wasn’t buying it. He had a bit of a criminal mind himself. A darker way of looking at the world. It was one of those things you were born with it or you weren’t. No one could teach you how to think sideways.
“I have seen you in this one’s mind,” said Fig. “You are this one’s progenitor. Your ties are strong. You suspect deception. You are wise to do so. But it will not help you. There is no other choice but to do as I say. I cannot promise to save you all, but those who assist me the most, will reap the greatest benefits.”
Ubik liked the way it spoke. It was like one of those old AIs that tried to sound human but only managed to sound like someone trying to sound human.
“The ones who are coming to take your son,” said Fig, “they will not save you. You know this. They believe me to be in poor condition. They have every reason to be confident in their belief. But as you can see, I am far from helpless.”
Fig turned in mid-air, looking down at all the people gathered before him, like he was generously granting them an audience.
“As many of you have already deduced, I am trapped here. I am not able to effect an escape, even though there are many ways to achieve that outcome. There is power at the heart of this ship that prevents the ship from becoming operational. It also prevents me from becoming operational. If you can find a way to deactivate it, then I and this ship can be unshackled. We can leave this place before they arrive.”
It sounded very simple. Press a button somewhere, maybe turn a key, shut down the suppressing power, and everyone could go home. Ubik couldn’t help but grin. If you had to make something sound so simple, it had to be practically impossible.
Nobody dared move. Nobody accepted or refused. They were all thinking the same thing: how do I make this work in my favour?
“There were four of you,” said Ramon. “And then there were three. The others worked together to remove you. Why?”
“Knowing my history won’t change anything. It won’t make your task any easier. I have seen what you have become in the many millennia since I last was free. You have spread among the stars, and I am pleased. It is how it should be, how I wanted it to be, yet the others refused to accept it. They were willing to sacrifice everything, including themselves, to welcome back our master. They are about to succeed. I will not allow it, if I am able. This one is the key. He is safest with me.”
“Then why not kill him and prevent any chance they have?” asked Ramon, the pragmatist first, father second. He was pushing for answers, even though he knew he wouldn’t receive any. His true purpose? Ubik was not privy to the thoughts of Ramon Ollo. He had his reasons, no doubt.
“You might as well ask why they did not kill me,” said Fig. It wasn’t a bad question.
A silence settled over the room. Apparently, everyone had come to the conclusion that it had been a rhetorical question.
“Why didn’t they kill you?” asked Ubik, his voice nowhere near as deep as everyone else’s. It made him sound like a child trying to join in a conversation between adults. He lowered his tone an octave or two. “Also, can you turn off whatever’s boosting everyone’s organics before someone bursts all the blood vessels in their brain and their head explodes?”
Fig looked directly at Ubik, holding eye-contact, but Ubik wasn’t intimidated. It was definitely cheating if you were trying to win a staring contest when you had multi-coloured lightbulbs for eyes. Didn’t count.
“We do not kill our own. Torture, maim, abandon, yes. Death is too much. Only the Creator may end that which he created.”
“Now, now, now,” insisted the voice in his head.
“What about this?” Ubik shoved his arm towards Fig. The parasite on his wrist wriggled, unfurling. Finally, a chance to get rid of the stupid thing. “It seems to want to talk to you.”
Fig’s eyes only shifted for a moment. “It is weak and poorly made. Such a thing is unsuitable for my needs. You may keep it.”
That wasn’t exactly what Ubik had in mind.
“Noooo,” screamed a voice in Ubik’s head.
Ubik brought his arm to his mouth and bit the annoying creature, hoping to pull it off. There was another scream in his head and the parasite rewrapped itself even tighter.
Ubik put his arm behind his back and played it cool.
“Arm was itchy. I don’t suppose you can get it off me, can you?”
“It can not harm you,” said Fig.
“It can’t? It kind of pinches, already.”
“You are the Null Void.”
“Yes,” said Ubik, “but don’t make a big deal out of it. There are no real advantages. I’m just a weak, helpless boy.”
“Agreed,” said Fig, “which is why it will eventually lose interest in you and fall off. But were you to help me leave here, then I will gladly remove it for you.” Fig smiled and turned away. “There will be no more fighting and no more influencing others to do your bidding. You may work together or separately, but to interfere with others is forbidden. I may not have the power to break free of my chains but I still have the ability to punish those of you who seek to make things more difficult than they need to be.”
Everyone lifted off the floor, floating helplessly. Ubik glanced over at PT to see if he was as easily overcome as the rest. Since he was hanging upside down, Ubik assumed he was. Although, PT was a sneaky one, so you could never be sure.
Everyone was gently lowered back down.
“The more of you who help me,” said Fig, “the better chance for all of us to regain our freedom.”
“What is it you want from us?” said General Sway. Her tone was calm and steady, but her eyes were glued to Fig, assessing him for an attack or looking for any weaknesses.
“It is simple. Deep in the bowels of this ship is a sigil. I can open the way, but there will be obstacles and defences you will have to navigate on your own. The sigil needs to be destroyed, however you can. Once that is accomplished, I will be able to fly this ship wherever I wish. You may either come with me as I rediscover the fate of this galaxy, or I can leave you on whatever planet we pass by.”
“You expect us to believe you will simply let us go?” asked Sway.
“Why not? Your lives are so short and so bereft of meaning, what joy is there in snuffing them out? I have been here a long time. My only desire is to travel where I will, to enjoy my freedom again. After that, there will come conflict, but you will all be long gone by then.”
There were no orders or instructions. It was like being offered an opportunity — take it or leave it.
PT spoke up. “What about the one whose body you’re in? What will happen to him?” He had quite a naturally deep voice. Ubik considered building a voice changer so he could sound more manly. The Seneca women would definitely be impressed.
Fig turned to face PT. “Naturally, he will come with me. If I let him go, he would only be hunted down. And once apprehended, there would be little chance for any of us. Were the Creator to return, he would bring with him the end of all things, and the beginning of something new, but something without the need for you or me.”
Fig, it seemed, was not eligible for the save-me-save-yourself deal. Although, the prisoner did have a point. It wasn’t like letting Fig go would do him any good.
“I will give you a moment to prepare yourselves. Remember, do not waste time on petty feuds. You will face great difficulties and challenges, but there are also things that can aid you, if you are able to find them. This ship was once a repository of our finest tools. We searched the galaxy for the remnants of creation, elements of the origin, and shaped them into magnificent devices. You may keep any you find, if you are able.”
Fig turned and headed back towards the door. “I give you an hour.”
“What do we call you?” asked Ramon, still sounding more interested in a history lesson than any sort of meaningless short-term goal like escaping certain death.
“As you have named me already just call me Fourth. It will do as well as any other name.” Fig floated away.
Once he disappeared through the gap, chatter erupted around the room.
“It’s a trap, isn’t it?” said PT, appearing next to Ubik.
Ubik shrugged. “Sounded pretty sincere to me. How strong do you think he is? Were you able to move at all when he lifted you off the ground?”
“A little,” said PT. “But that was probably just a display of strength to shut everyone up. He might have a whole bunch of other powers he can use on us.”
“Maybe,” said Ubik. He wasn’t sure which of the powers he’d seen so far were under the control of the prisoner and which were here to take control away. “He’s right about one thing. There’s no point waiting for the rest of them to arrive. We have to get out of here.”
“What about Fig?” said PT.
“He’s happy where he is,” said Ubik. “That’s the vibe I was getting.”
“I don’t think that’s the vibe he was sending.”
“How do you know?” said Ubik. “His consciousness is trapped under the insane remains of an ancient psycho who went stir crazy ten thousand years ago. It’s not an exact number, I’m rounding down.”
“If we find the sigil he wants shut down, we could negotiate for Fig,” said PT.
“There will be no negotiating,” said Ramon.
“Yes, thank you Father of the Year, we know how much you care about your son’s life and who gets to sacrifice it first,” said PT.
Ramon didn’t seem offended by the thick layer of sarcasm he was being served. “Imagine living your entire life with total control over existence, your own and everyone else’s. Imagine living your entire life as a god, consuming whatever you desired to consume. Just consider what it would be like having millions willing to serve just so you could have more than you already had. Consider the appetite of it — the power of it. Try to imagine what that must feel like.”
Ramon looked into the middle-distance, as though seeing the world he was speaking of.
“Now imagine something approaching that could take all of it away from you. And worse than that… it would turn you into that which you have lorded over for thousands of years: a mere droid, following orders. How badly would you overreact to this threat? How badly would you want that threat destroyed? What would you sacrifice to hold on to your power?”
His eyes refocused on the two in front of him.
“Do you really think the Fourth God will consider your wishes once it is free? Do you really think it will travel around the galaxy, sightseeing?”
“Good point,” said Ubik. “Which is why we need to find all the good stuff on this ship and then fly it out of here. We can dump jack-in-the-box number four on some deserted ice moon.”
“He can probably hear you, you know,” said PT.
“I’m the Null Void. I’m weak and helpless. He doesn’t care what I do. Nobody does. That’s why I always win.”
PT frowned. “Running away isn’t winning.”
“Well, I’m running away anyway. You want to come or not?”
“Yes, please,” said PT.
Ubik smiled. Why free the troublesome godling intent on reclaiming his galactic throne when you could just nick his ship and take it for a joyride? He wouldn’t mind. Not if he was still stuck in his cell and couldn’t do anything about it.