Ubik’s arm itched. There wasn’t much he could do about it since the itchy area was directly under the alien parasite attached to his forearm. He really needed to find a way to get it off. Another host would probably be the best way. Next person he bumped into would find themselves the lucky recipient of a new best friend, he decided.
He ignored it for now and gave the ship’s controls another quick inspection along with a couple of thumps. No power. None at all. It was like someone had taken hold of the heart of this beautiful, innocent vessel, ripped it out and crushed it. The POV Ubik was dead.
Fortunately, Ubik had managed to bring the ship in to land on this weird disc that seemed to attract everything bigger than a brass button towards it. The pull had been irresistible, but that helped guide him in.
Landing had been a bit scary, but there was a resistance applied as he approached the surface, which indicated there was an intelligence at work. There had to be a source to the force drawing stuff here.
His only real concern was Grandma. She was in the ship’s systems with no power and no easy way to contact him. He assumed she would take the appropriate steps to look after herself and wait for him to get her out, but it made him a little uncomfortable to not have an emergency exit for her in case he wasn’t able to get back.
He shook his head. What was he even thinking? He would have to come back, that was all there was to it.
At least the ship was in one piece. It would have been nice to have the ship operational so he had the option of a quick getaway if and when (more likely the latter than the former) he needed to make a quick exit, but you can’t have everything. They just didn’t make suitcases big enough.
Ubik rose from his seat and stamped his feet. The Delgados were dead, too. No magnetics, no tronic systems at all. But they were still damn comfy, and ideal for a long walk across a rugged landscape.
He used the mechanical override to open the ship’s door and jumped down. His boots hit the hard, metallic ground and dust flew up. The air was breathable, if a little oily in taste.
The itching grew worse now. The worm-like creature wrapped around his arm didn’t look like it was alive. It looked like an exotic bracelet, designed by someone who thought more jewellery should have the colouring of petrified mucus.
Ubik glanced at the rather drab scenery. The ship was in a slight depression while in the distance there was a ring of peaks jutting into the air like the mountain ranges you might find on any world. Only they weren’t mountains made of rock and stone, they were the accumulation of who knew how many millennia of junk and trash.
Wormholes didn’t just take in a ship or two as they travelled across the galaxy, they sucked in all sorts of garbage. And then there were all the ships that had been damaged or destroyed inside the wormhole. It would be dangerous to let the remains float about in here. It made sense to have a way to gather it all in one place. The wormhole’s very own junkyard.
Ubik spun around, taking it all in, and felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It was like he was home. No one knew more about life among the trash than he did. Whoever brought him here thinking they could trap him on a ball of useless crap had made a grave error. He sniffed the air. Yes, he recognised the smell. The unmistakable scent of treasure. This place was a goldmine.
Ubik spread his arms out. What this place needed was a name. And a flag. He could build a city here, at the very least a castle. The possibilities were—
“Excuse me,” called out a meek voice.
Ubik snapped out of his reverie and spun around. A small, crouched figure was peering at him from behind a boulder that might have once been part of the fuselage of a ship, worn down over time to an indiscriminate lump. Might even still have some fuel trapped inside it.
“Hmm?” said Ubik, more interested in the indiscriminate lump than the speaker. “Something you want?”
The figure stepped out. “Sorry. I just saw you land earlier and thought maybe… ah… I’m Ogden Bashir, I was on the asteroid with you. Before, you know, on the asteroid, in the control room. VendX?”
Ubik’s confused look switched to one of recognition. “Of course. VendX. You lost or something?”
“Um, well, yes. Aren’t you?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Pretty obvious what this place is.”
“It is?” said Bashir, looking around like he must have missed something. “What is it?”
“Hey, wait, you have an organic, right?” said Ubik, remembering something about this VendX employee. “You can sense movement or something?”
“Yes,” said Bashir. “I can detect and trace movement within a kilometre or so.”
“Brilliant. Check now. Anything moving.”
Bashir’s eyes immediately lit up and his head rose, straightening his neck. He was surprisingly tall when he wasn’t cowering in fear.
“Yes. I can feel some movement in that direction.” He pointed. “Seven or eight people. Maybe more. They don’t seem to be going anywhere, holding position. We could head over there, if you think it’s a good idea. I’m not sure who they are, so I’m a little apprehensive about investigating alone, to tell you the truth. Hehe.” He let out an uncomfortable laugh.
“No, no, not that way,” said Ubik. “I don’t want you to look for movement around us, I want you to look for movement down.” He pointed at the ground.
Confusion passed over Bashir’s face. “Down? You think there’s something below us?”
Ubik shrugged. “You tell me.”
Bashir’s eyes glowed again. His chin hit his chest as he scanned the area around his feet.
“No, I don’t think so…”
“Are you sure? Can you spot any open spaces, airflow, fluctuations in density?”
“Um, oh, no, no, I don’t think…” Bashir looked back up. “You think this island has caves under it?”
“Island?” said Ubik. “This isn’t an island. Why do you think it’s an island?”
“It isn’t?” said Bashir. “It looked like it from up there. Wait, you think it’s some kind of huge spaceship?” His eyes grew wide with the realisation.
“Ship? No idea. That’s not important. What’s important is that it’s a prison.”
“A prison?” Bashir looked around. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. Look at this place. Impossible to get off of, middle of nowhere, all tronics neutralised. What else could it be?”
Bashir had no answer.
“And a prison can only mean one thing — a prisoner.” Ubik folded his arms and nodded confidently. “Somewhere inside this pile of junk is at least one very important prisoner the Antecessors don’t want getting out. So I think it’s pretty clear what we have to do.”
“We?” said Bashir.
“Of course. Every man needs a purpose... Ogden, was it?”
Bashir nodded slowly, trying his best to only agree to his name and nothing else.
“Imagine how important the prisoners here must be for them to be locked up in a place like this!”
“They, er, must be pretty dangerous…” said Bashir.
“You bet,” said Ubik. “Probably crazy-mad killers. But imagine how grateful they’re going to be once we unshackle them.”
“Is that really a good idea?” Bashir didn’t look very enthused by the idea of being adrift on a floating island with a group of maniacs. “I mean, they’d probably be dead after all this time, wouldn’t they?”
“Dead? What dead? How could they die? They’re not human.”
“Obviously not. More likely than not, some kind of Antecessor experiment that went badly wrong, creating unstoppable enraged monsters who only know how to kill and destroy.”
“Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it? One man’s monster is another man’s best friend.”
“If your best friend is a monster, wouldn’t that mean you were also a monster?” said Bashir.
Ubik gave a quick nod to acknowledge the possibility but carried on with his train of thought, which he felt was headed towards something illuminating. “The important thing is we find these miscarriages of science, I mean, miscarriages of justice, and set them free. They’ll be so grateful, they’ll lead us directly to the treasure.”
“Treasure?” said Bashir, his mind still reeling from the prospect of fleeing from failed alien experiments lumbering in pursuit of them.
“Yes, treasure.” Ubik inhaled deeply. “Can’t you smell it? There’s rich and juicy pickings here, just waiting to be plucked off the vine. You and me, Ogden. We can clean up.”
Bashir didn’t look as excited by the idea as Ubik had hoped. In fact, he looked more horrified than anything. Ubik felt a duty to bring him around. After all, having someone along who could detect movement would be incredibly useful for what he had in mind. A mobile early-warning system would be extremely effective in what was bound to be a series of insurmountable obstacles, lethal defences and wicked traps. A willing helper would be welcome. An unwilling one would also do, but it would still be a poor second.
“Shouldn’t we, er, look around first?” said Bashir. “Familiarise ourselves with what’s here? We could, uh, split up. Cover more ground.”
Ubik could tell he was losing his new partner. He had to regain his confidence. “I already know what kind of place this is. I grew up in places like this. There’s nothing interesting on the surface, trust me.” Ubik kicked at the ground, sending pieces of metal flying. “This is all for show. The good stuff is underneath. We have to get down and dirty. Now, which way…”
“Head for the tower.”
“Hmm?” said Ubik. “What tower?”
Bashir looked confused. “I don’t know. What tower?”
“You said, head for the tower.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Bashir.
Ubik stared at him. He didn’t look like he was lying. “Oh. Must have been me. Anyway, let’s climb a bit higher so we can get a better look.”
The depression they were currently standing in had a ridge that prevented them seeing their immediate surroundings. Ubik scampered to the top for a better view.
It was a desolate landscape, dusty and barren. There was the occasional glint off of reflective surfaces in the far distance, and a tall structure amongst the mountainous peaks that didn’t quite fit. It gave off less of a ‘stuff piled on top of each other over time’ vibe, and gave off a more deliberate ‘put here for a reason’ ambience. It looked like a tower.
“Looks like a tower,” said Bashir, standing next to him. He sounded like he was starting to have some faith in Ubik.
“That’s right. That’s where we’ll find our way in.”
“That way?” asked Bashir, a hesitant note to the query.
“Yep. Why? Have a better idea?”
“No, no,” said Bashir. “It’s just that, there’s a lot of movement in that direction. We might bump into someone.”
“Good. I’m sure they’ll be friendly,” said Ubik. “Let’s go.” He set off down the other side of the ridge, sliding and skidding, bringing bits of the surface along with him. He could hear Bashir following.
Ubik felt distracted by his arm. He could really use a sharp something or other to chop it off. The worm, not his arm. He scratched at his elbow and his wrist, but he couldn’t reach the area that was causing him the problem. “Can’t you just move a bit?” he muttered to the parasite.
With a slither, the worm twisted away, revealing a patch of dry, red skin. Ubik gave it a good scratch. “Oh, so good.” Perhaps the two of them were coming to an understanding. Eventually, he might be able to ask it to find a new home. He looked over at Bashir. He might do.
“They’re close,” said Bashir after a while of walking. They’d been on the move for over an hour; up and down over the uneven surface. “Quite a lot of them.”
Ubik heard them before he saw them. The unmistakable sound of chatter. They reached the top of an incline and saw the ship first. It was the VendX flagship, half-buried with the rear sticking out of the ground. No smoke or fire, it looked like it had been stuck there for centuries, already covered in a thick film of dust. If its nose had penetrated deep enough, it might provide a way to whatever was beneath the surface.
Bashir threw himself on the ground. He was keeping very flat, peeking from in between small rocks, doing his best to blend in.
“What are you doing?” asked Ubik. “Aren’t they friends of yours?”
There were several people milling around the VendX ship — at least thirty — busy trying to set up a base and organise search parties. They would have been trained for this sort of situation. An undiscovered land meant the chance to exploit a new market. Even aliens needed to buy shit.
Bashir rolled over onto his back and started breathing heavily. “I’m going to be in a lot of trouble,” he wheezed.
Ubik nodded. “Sure. Failed mission, most of the team dead, equipment lost.”
Bashir closed his eyes and shuddered.
“Ah,” said Ubik. “They’re going to charge you for the equipment.”
Bashir nodded. “It’s going to at least double my debt. Maybe we could go around?”
The tower was past the VendX ship but they could easily take a detour.
“Well, you can’t avoid your fiscal responsibilities, Ogden. Think of it as an opportunity. Stick with me and not only will you clear your debt, you might end up making a profit on the deal. Most people go through life seldom encountering true hardship. And they end up very mediocre. Happy, but mediocre. You, on the other hand, have the chance to walk through fire. This could be the making of you — tempered in the flames of adversity. You know this already — anyone who rises to the top has to do so by facing endless setbacks, but it isn’t easy finding an environment that’s harsh enough to produce true greatness. Trust me, now that I’m here, you’ll have more opportunities for greatness than you ever dreamed of.”
Bashir’s face paled at the prospect of reaping the rewards Ubik was offering him. Paled from excitement, probably.
“Wait, who’s that?” Ubik watched as a very large man, both in height and width, came walking out of the ship’s bowels, one arm resting on the shoulder of the man next to him. He appeared to be blind.
“I don’t know,” said Bashir, rolling over and peeking the bare amount to get a look. “I’ve never seen him before. But the man helping him is Secretary Daccord. Wait, if that’s the Secretary, then that must be… I think that’s the Chairman.”
“The Chairman of VendX Galactic?” said Ubik. “Hm, I suppose he does look a bit like him. Put on a lot of weight though.”
“You know him?” said Bashir.
“Of course. We go way back,” said Ubik. “How do you think he ended up blind? Come on, let’s go say hello.”
Ubik went running down the slope, waving his arms and yelling, “Cooooeeee.”