Wormhole Island - Interior.
The parasite squeezed and twisted from wrist to elbow, yanking Ubik about in an effort to get him moving. It wanted him to go into the room. It demanded it. Threatened to twist his arm off if he didn’t comply.
Ubik slammed his arm into the wall.
“No, no, no,” he scolded the parasite.
He bent down and slammed it into the floor. The parasite’s squishy body took hardly any damage, but he was just trying to distract it enough to take back control.
So far, he had tolerated the alien existence clinging to his arm. He had a feeling it would come in useful at some point, and he had allowed it to tag along.
He’d had trouble with it before — some voices, some discomfort — nothing major. But there were limits to what he would put up with.
It continued to fight him. He understood that it was excited, but it was important to establish who was the boss here. You give in even once and the whole balance of power shifts. Maybe irreversibly.
His arm went up and down in a large swinging motion, trying to get him moving. Ubik guided the flailing arm into the edge of the doorway, striking it against the hard black surface in sharp blows which left many thick indentations in the parasite’s body several centimetres deep. The dents quickly popped back out, having done no real damage. Ubik’s arm shot forward again, dragging the rest of him with it.
The parasite seemed intent on rushing towards the tree, with no restraint or caution. Ubik caught the lip of the doorway with his other hand and held on.
The pressure from the tree made Ubik’s skin tingle. The power it was emitting might not do anything to him, or to PT for that matter, but he was still very aware of its presence. It filled the room with a concentration of power that made the air crackle.
The two Seneca women stood stock still, frozen in mildly suggestive poses with their mouths a little open and their eyes flickering with light, overcome by this force.
But the parasite was far from paralysed. It was driven to action, filled with an ecstatic urge to get to the tree. Ubik could feel its joy and elation. He could also hear it.
“Quickly, move closer.”
“I said no. No means no. Give me back my arm. Give it!”
Ubik’s grip was slipping. He had been quite eager to investigate the apple, the tree, the waves of energy emanating from its boughs… but that had been before it turned into a non-negotiable decree. He really didn’t like to be told what to do.
His fingers were barely clinging on and his boots were of no help. Right now, they were just very good quality footwear. He kicked out a leg to try and wedge himself between the gap, but the other side was too far away.
“What are you doing?” said PT, grabbing Ubik by the wrist and swinging him back towards the two women.
Ubik landed on the ground and skidded along for a bit on his backside before his parasite-infested right arm began heading back, its grip manipulating the muscles and tendons so that his hand scuttled along the floor, pulling the rest of him along the floor.
A click and a pop, followed by a hiss. PT had one of the women’s guns. He was shooting at Ubik. At his arm.
Ubik covered his eyes and hoped for the best.
The tiny pellets didn’t do much. They hit the parasite — it was a relief to discover the space rat knew how to shoot — but immediately sank into the gelatinous body, disappearing without leaving a mark.
The shots were enough to slow the mad dash back towards the doorway.
PT wasn’t one to let go of an advantage, and pressed forward. He came running, the gun held backwards, the muzzle in his fist. He dropped to his knees and slammed the gun’s butt into Ubik’s arm.
Ubik yelled as he was struck again and again. The parasite’s body provided him with some protection — actually, it completely absorbed every hit without letting Ubik feel any pain — but he felt he needed to give PT some feedback.
“Don’t…” Ubik to get out between hits. “Don’t… stop. Don’t stop.”
It was probably unnecessary advice — PT didn’t look like was willing to miss this kind of opportunity to release some tension — but it was nice to give a colleague some positive reinforcement.
“Okay, okay, stop,” said Ubik.
PT did stop, but only to take a closer look at the parasite, gun raised to continue raining down hits.
The many dents and gashes covering the parasite’s body were no longer fixing themselves. If it wasn’t able to regenerate, that meant it was too weak to cause trouble, at least temporarily.
Ubik lifted his arm and examined the parasite. It was a different colour from before. More blue, now.
“Well done, boss. I knew you had it in you.” Ubik gingerly prodded the parasite and winced.
“Had what in me?” asked PT.
“An unrelenting thirst for violence,” said Ubik, sucking in air between clenched teeth. Even though the parasite had softened the blows, his arm was still quite bruised underneath. “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch.”
“You’re welcome,” said PT. “What was all that about?”
“The tree,” said Ubik. “It’s like a charging station for organics. That’s what put them in a trance.” He nodded his head towards the two Seneca women. “And this one seems to have some sort of connection to organics, too.”
PT nodded, looking from the parasite to the tree to the girls. He stretched out a hand and shook Leyla by the shoulders.
She didn’t budge, rooted in place like she was a sculpture.
“Are they back in the simulation?” asked PT.
“My guess would be yes.”
“Seems a bit more intense.”
“Because we’re closer to the source,” said Ubik.
“But we aren’t affected, this time.”
“True,” said Ubik. “It must have learned it can’t affect us.”
“You’re saying the tree’s sentient?”
“No,” said Ubik. “I’m not saying that.”
PT gave Leyla a hard shove, but it was like pushing a wall. “How do we snap them out of it this time?”
“Well...” said Ubik. “You could try waking her with a kiss.”
PT gave Ubik a gloomy look. “I think you’re confusing this for some kind of fairytale.”
“Those old myths, most of them are based on real events, you know? But, if you don’t have the stomach for it, just leave them like that for the time being. Bit of peace and quiet would be nice. We should go check out the tree.”
“Are you sure?” said PT. “Won’t that thing go crazy again?”
“It’ll be fine. Just give it a thwack if you see it acting up. Should keep it in line.”
“What if it gets stronger the closer we get to the tree?”
Ubik was impressed. PT had already begun to understand how this worked.
“Hit it harder.” Ubik walked towards the tree. It glowed a soft phosphorous white. “It’s not really a tree, of course.”
“Of course,” said PT. “What is it, then?”
“Like I said, a charging station. There’s probably a bunch of them all over the ship. Anyone strolls past, instant charge for your organic.”
“And the apple?”
“Portable battery pack, in case you need some extra juice between refills.”
PT pulled a long face. “So there used to be a bunch of organics wandering around here?”
“I expect they were inside someone, or something. Whatever the situation with the Antecessors, some of them used organics, and some didn’t.”
“And the Fourth didn’t, I suppose,” said PT.
“Right,” said Ubik, slowly walking around the tree. “You saw how it rejected the parasite. No interest. The other three probably used organics, and the Fourth used something else. If you look at the Antecessor sites that have been found so far, they’re full of droids and machinery that do stuff, and organics that do nothing. There had to be some use they had for organics, so I’m guessing there were different types of Antecessors who specialised in different areas.”
“The Fourth can’t use organics so they surrounded it with Antecessors that could,” said PT.
“Who better to watch over him than those with a power he can't use?”
Ubik reached out a hand and plucked the fruit off its branch. PT’s face spread as shock and horror filled it. A bit much, in Ubik’s estimation. There was nothing to get so worked up about. The apple came away in his hand without any fuss. Ubik paused to see if something terrible was about to happen.
“See? All perfectly fine. You worried ab—”
The parasite suddenly uncoiled from his wrist and pounced on the apple in the opposite hand, swallowing it whole and then reattaching itself to Ubik’s sore and battered limb.
“Shit,” said Ubik. It had happened so fast, he had no chance to react.
PT came over with the gun raised like a club. “Spit it out, you greedy beast.”
“Wait, wait,” said Ubik, holding his arm out in front of him. “I can feel something. I think it might be about to throw up.
The parasite was rippling and undulating.
It began to glow, its entire body brimming with white light. Then the serpentine body which had been stuck to Ubik’s arm for so long began sinking into his skin, as though being absorbed into Ubik’s flesh.
PT brought the gun butt down hard. Ubik screamed as he felt a bone break. The parasite was already gone.
“What do we do? Cut it off?” PT was looking around for a knife.
“No, wait, don’t do anything too rash.” Ubik could see the white glow beneath his skin. It was still attached to his arm, just on the other side of his skin. “It’s okay, it jus—”
Ubik let out another scream as his arm lit up from the inside, revealing bone and muscles and blood vessels. He could see PT retrieving a large knife from Leyla’s suit.
Ubik’s body had gone stiff and his brain felt like it was on fire. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the sound of metal sawing through flesh.
Ubik pushed his hand out as far from his body as he could — he didn’t want to get too much blood on the rest of him. His hand felt a branch of the tree and instinctively grabbed onto it. His mind filled with visions of the ship. The interior, the different floors, the compartments, the mechanisms… and the sigil.
“Oh, wow, I’m in the ship.”
“What do you mean?” said PT.
“I can see all over the ship,” said Ubik, his eyes still closed. “All the levels, the rooms. I can see through walls and floors.”
“Can you control the ship?” asked PT.
“No, I don’t think so. Just see things. There are more trees like this one. They form a network. Their roots spread everywhere and connect up. And I can see the sigil. There.” He pointed at the glowing red object below them, filling an entire room.
“Can you see how to get there?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Ubik. Now he was looking all around, getting a good look at all the nooks and crannies. Even if there were no lights, he could see what was in each area of the ship.
The ship itself was massive, hundreds of kilometres across and several layers deep, so it would take a long time to go through everything.
“VendX and Seneca are down there, too.” He pointed towards them. They were still some distance from the sigil but they were headed in the right direction. Before they’d been caught. “They’re near another tree. They’re trapped in a simulation, like our two.”
Ubik opened his eyes and let go of the tree. He blinked to get himself to focus on the person in front of him.
“I don’t get it,” said PT.
“Don’t worry, ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s fixable.”
“What I don’t get is if these trees are charging stations like you say, why do they put people with organics into a simulation?”
“Could be a number of reasons. Humans might not be able to handle the intensity so the brain bugs out. Or maybe it’s a safety feature to keep them from going crazy while they get supercharged. Or it might just be a way to pass the time. Organics take a while to get to full charge, might as well provide some entertainment while you wait.”
“We don’t even know what they used to put their organics in,” said PT. “It could be dangerous for humans.”
“Nah, they seem alright,” said Ubik. “I could see into their simulations. Nothing too terrible. Bunch of daydreams. A lot of them are happier in there than they’ve been in years.”
“You can’t possibly know that,” said PT.
“I’m very good at reading people,” said Ubik. “Take those two.” He indicated Weyla and Leyla on the other side of the entrance. He put his hand back on the tree. “Yes, see, she’s thinking about being back in the Corps, being all chummy with her gal pals. Missing the good old days. Very wholesome. Smiling like she’s got a coat hanger stuck in her mouth. And this one.” He turned his head slightly so he was facing Weyla. “She’s… Oh...”
When he had looked inside Weyla’s simulation, he had expected something similar to what he saw in her sister’s. But this was entirely different.
The setting appeared to be a grand palace of some sort, with tall windows and colourful, patterned carpets. The furniture was all antique and there were paintings on the walls of snooty-looking people.
Weyla was there, dressed in a large frock that didn’t look at all practical for fighting in. She was swishing her way down a long hall, followed by a familiar figure dressed in a tight suit and his hair slicked back. He walked with his back straight but with a deferential dip of the head as he listened to Weyla give mundane instructions about household chores while he nodded and kept saying, “Yes, madam.”
It was very clearly him. Ubik. She was envisioning him as a servant or butler or something of that sort. The cheek of the girl.
Ubik — the real Ubik — wasn’t part of the simulation, he was an observer, watching from a distance. He could hear PT asking him something in the real world, but he was intrigued by what Weyla was going to do with him and remained watching a little longer.
They approached a long table together, and then Butler Ubik sat down while Weyla poured him some tea. She continued to give him instructions, but she appeared to be the one serving him. Psychologically, there was a lot to unpack here.
He felt himself yanked away from the tree and the scene changed to PT’s face.
“What did you see?” asked PT.
“Nothing. Really, just random, er, nothing. Let me just wake them up…” He put his hand back on the tree, just brushing against it and tapping twice with his knuckles. Both women jerked like they’d been given a mild electric shock and then looked around, slightly dazed.
“What happened?” said Leyla.
“You got caught in a simulation again,” said PT. “You feel alright?”
“Fine,” said Leyla. Her eyebrows knitted together. “Why do you have my gun?”
“Oh,” said PT. “Sorry. Just borrowing it.” He handed it back to her. “What about you?” he asked Weyla.
“I’m fine,” said Weyla. She caught Ubik staring at her. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Ubik gave her the big innocent eyes. “Me? I’m not. Why would I?”
He moved to the far wall, touched the engravings carved into it, and a door opened.
“We can get to the sigil without encountering anyone. Direct route. No problems.” Ubik looked at Weyla and bowed his head a fraction. “After you.”
Weyla paused and her eyes narrowed, but then she shook her head and proceeded through the door.