Wormhole Island - Interior.
Point-Two’s body shook from the inside. On the surface — his skin, his limbs (thankfully once more human), his balance — all appeared normal and within his control. But that was just the container.
In his core, he was a mess.
He was well aware of what it felt like to be off-kilter. He had experienced deep space nausea, where you couldn’t work out which way was up and ended up puking everywhere. This was much worse than that.
Ubik had mentioned there might be backlash from using his newly-infused organics, but he had no idea it would feel like this. Like he didn’t belong in his own body. Like he wished someone would peel off his skin so he could get out.
“Are you okay?” asked Fig.
Point-Two nodded. He was perfectly calm on the outside, so he had no idea how Fig knew something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he was just checking up on him because a moment ago, his arms were tentacles.
“Shouldn’t we follow him?” asked Leyla, looking towards the black opening Ubik had just nonchalantly strolled through.
“In a second,” said Fig.
The two Seneca women looked confused. They weren’t used to hanging back while someone else took all the risks.
“You need to give him a five-second window,” explained Point-Two, trying his best to ignore his inner turmoil, “just in case he comes running out in the opposite direction.”
“Ubik lag,” said Fig.
“The time between Ubik deciding something’s the best idea he’s ever had, and realising it’s going to kill him.” It was only as Point-Two said this that he realised he was inducting them into a very special and exclusive group: people who deliberately remained near Ubik. He really needed to print up some pamphlets to hand around.
Point-Two stood up a little straighter. The unpleasant buzz in his soul had subsided. He had been looking forward to getting his own organic for so long, he hadn’t really considered the painful process it involved.
That was obviously why people went to such lengths to make sure the compatibility of the person and their organic was so high, and why they underwent so much intensive training with instructors who had similar organics.
It was also why people who forced-implanted unsuitable organics always looked so terrible.
Was he going to have to suffer pain and disorientation for the rest of his life? There was no way his body was compatible with six organics, no matter how high his CQ happened to be.
“Okay,” said Point-Two. “Let’s go. It’s either safe or he’s dead, and he’s never dead.”
“Never,” confirmed Fig.
Point-Two flexed his hands in and out of fists. It was good to have hands, something he had taken for granted until recently. The moment he had tried to send his ability outwards, with all of his focus on turning the limbs of all the droids he could see into brittle versions of their current material, it had rebounded on him, turning his own limbs into droid tendrils.
He had realised there were too many of them and that it might be beyond him, so he had very cleverly decided to only change part of them, and to modify what was already present, rather than completely transform one substance to another. Very clever.
It was still too much. Maybe because he was trying to do so much at once. He didn’t really understand how his organics worked, and yet he had attempted something super complicated as a way to make it less of a strain. Brilliant.
Now the question was what would happen next time?
The added anxiety of not knowing if he would suffer another backlash only made it more likely he would make a mistake.
Fortunately, Point-Two had plenty of experience in messing up and climbing back into the ring. The mental side of competing was a huge part of his life growing up, something his brother — an excellent athlete in his own right — had gone to great lengths to emphasise. You always had a chance to beat a superior opponent if you kept your head while they lost theirs.
He walked through the opening first. Fig would have done it, but someone had to keep an eye on Point-Two, in case his organics did something odd and needed to be suppressed. The others followed behind — two ex-Seneca soldiers and two (most probably soon to be) ex-employees of VendX Galactic.
The tunnel on the other side of the opening was quiet and dark. Just a few metres away, Ubik stood with his hands on his hips, inspecting the walls and ceiling. They were flat and featureless as far as Point-Two could see, but Ubik had the ability to see things no one else could see. Things that weren’t even there.
“There you are,” said Ubik without turning around. “Now, we’ve got to be careful in here. We’re at a disadvantage, seeing as we’re in the Fourth’s domain.”
The others had arrived now and were bunched up behind Point-Two.
“I know you have no idea what’s up ahead,” said Point-Two. “Can we skip the speech and just blindly charge into whatever horrors await us?” He was not in the mood for one of Ubik’s long rambling monologues that he used as a delaying tactic while he tried to come up with something to do.
“We’re under observation right now,” said Ubik, narrowing his eyes in an admonishing manner. “So try not to give away any of our super secret plans.”
What Ubik was saying was, don’t ask me any questions and I won’t tell you any lies. But of course, he was framing it as necessary in order to keep the Fourth learning of their intentions. As though the Fourth cared the least bit.
“Can somebody turn up the lights?” said Ubik.
The Seneca duo adjusted their suits and beams of light shot out of their chests. Fig also provided some illumination, although his was more of a gentle glow that lit the group more than the surroundings.
His light flickered and didn’t seem very stable.
“What did you do to my controls, Ubik?” Figaro sounded mildly annoyed as he tried to work the button on his forearm.
“Improved them,” said Ubik, as he walked off. Everyone fell in line behind him.
“Don’t listen to him, dear,” said a voice coming from Fig’s arm. “It really doesn’t need any improvement. My, my, the circuitry in here is absolutely divine. Oh. Glorious. My compliments to the engineer.”
Fig stared at his arm with a puzzled look on his face. “Thank you. I’ll pass it on to my father.” He raised his head towards Ubik. “I think your Grandma’s in my suit.”
“Yes,” said Ubik.
“Why is your grandma in my suit, Ubik?”
“I had to put her somewhere. She can’t spend the rest of her life inside a giant robot, can she? It’s very drafty inside of those things. Not at all suitable for an elderly lady.”
“I’m not that old,” said Grandma playfully.
Fig played around with the controls some more. “I… can’t seem to turn her off.”
“You can’t decide when to turn someone off,” said Ubik. “Where are your manners?”
“Don’t worry, deary. You won’t even notice I’m here. You just carry on as you would normally. I’ll make sure to turn a deaf ear if you want to get intimate with someone. Or even by yourself. I remember what it was like to be young and lonely.” She sighed longingly.
Fig looked quite distraught. Point-Two would have felt sympathy if it weren’t for the realisation that the one saddled with Grandma could have easily been him.
Point-Two quickened his pace to catch up with Ubik. Everyone else was being cautious and watching for an ambush, but Point-Two had been around Ubik long enough to know the ambush never came when you were looking for it.
“The Fourth wants something from us,” said Point-Two. “That’s the only reason it brought us here.”
“You’re probably right. I guess that’s why you’re the boss.”
“Yes,” said Point-Two, refusing to rise to the bait. “You already know what it’s after, don’t you?”
“Me?” said Ubik. “Haven’t got a clue. Could be anything. To be honest with you, it’s more likely you or Fig. He’s got that organic all the Antecessors are after, and you…” He gave Point-Two an admiring glance. “Well. We all know what a step up from the gutter you’ve made recently. If they could see you now, back on the old floating houseboat.” He shook his head. “No more sticking your head down the head and flushing it.”
“Nobody ever stuck my head down the head,” said Point-Two.
“Of course not. Sociable chap like you, probably had loads of mates. That’s the right terminology, isn’t it? Shipmates?”
“Ubik, what does it want?”
“What do any of us want?” said Ubik.
Point-Two knew there was no hope of getting any sense out of Ubik, but he couldn’t shake the feeling there was going to be a big sacrifice that needed to be made. And he certainly didn’t want to be the one to make it.
He looked back at Chukka and Bashir. He would be happy to use them as collateral, but would anyone want them?
The tunnel was long and straight. It wasn’t possible to see too far ahead because of the darkness. Even with the lights, the tunnel refused to show too much. No more than the Fourth was willing.
“I think I can see something,” said Ubik. “Nearly there now.”
Point-Two peered into the dark but saw nothing. “Nearly where?”
“Here.” Ubik stopped.
Point-Two also stopped, as did everyone behind him. There was nothing remarkable about this part of the tunnel.
Everyone waited for the big reveal, but nothing happened.
Then, Fig stepped forward. “I can feel something. Something familiar.”
He pushed past Point-Two and Ubik. He took a couple more steps forward and then stopped abruptly. Then he backed up.
“There.” He pointed at nothing. “It’s a sigil.”
“This is what you need to work towards,” said Ubik. “Awareness. You’ll never find anyone to love you until you can see beyond your own little world of dreams and self-interest.”
Point-Two was caught between wanting to know what Fig had found and wanting to tell Ubik to shut the hell up.
He was unable to do either before a voice said, “Give me the bone.”
This voice did not belong to a little old lady and it wasn’t coming from Fig’s arm. It was emanating from the walls, and it had the weight of millennia behind it.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ubik.
“It wants the bone,” said Point-Two. “That’s… great. Hand it over.”
“No,” said Ubik. “It’s mine.”
Of all the things it could have wanted, the bone was easily the least concerning.
“Who cares,” said Point-Two. “We should be grateful that’s all it wants. Where did you put it?”
“It’s in my pocket,” said Ubik. “Or did you just think I was perpetually pleased to see you? Because, obviously, I am.”
Point-Two was about to wrestle Ubik for the bone when Fig put out an arm to hold him back. “Wait. Why doesn’t it just take the bone?”
“Aha!” said Ubik.
“What, aha?” said Point-Two. “What are you talking about?”
“It could use force to get the bone,” said Fig, “but it’s asking. Why is it asking?”
“Aha!” said Ubik again.
“Stop doing that,” said Point-Two. He understood what Fig was saying, but he couldn’t think of a reason. And Ubik’s aha-ing wasn’t helping. He looked around, but no one looked like they had an answer for him. Which left only one person. “Hey, Fourth, why are you asking us? Why don’t you just take it?”
There was a long pause before the voice said, “I require your assistance.”
“They all do in the end,” said Ubik, looking around smugly.
“Not you,” said the Fourth.
“Not me?” said Ubik, genuinely surprised for once. He looked around again, this time as though he couldn’t see anyone worth seeking assistance from.
“Him,” said Fig, looking at Point-Two.
“Him?” said Ubik, like he couldn’t believe it.
“Me?” said Point-Two, like he couldn’t believe it either.
“Yes,” said the Fourth.
“Are you sure?” said Ubik.
“The only way I can leave this place is in the bone. The only way for me to enter the bone is as a conducive element.”
There was a pause. “You want me to turn you into a parasite?” said Point-Two.
Another pause. “If that’s what you call it.”
“And then what?” said Fig. “Once we put you in the bone and leave here… through the sigil. Then what?”
There was an even longer pause. Then a new voice spoke. “Agree, Figaro. The Fourth is the only one who can take you away from here.”
“You are right to be concerned, and it can absolutely not be trusted, but there is no other way. You must take this chance.”
The wall next to them changed into a screen, showing the exterior of the island. The three robots were being swarmed by droids. They shot at the ship hanging over them but their aim was spoiled by droids pulling at their limbs. They fell and got up, then fell again.
The ship began firing a barrage of laser bolts, hitting its own droids and not caring. The ground shook above them and sent tremors down through to where they stood.
“You are about to overrun,” said Ramon Ollo. “We may already be out of time.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Ubik. “Grandma?”
“Already in motion, dear,” said Grandma. “Should be arriving… Now!”
As they watched, three new figures appeared in the air. Three Guardians. The fighting took on a new level of intensity as the Guardians let rip with the full might of Central Authority ordnance.
“Where did you hide them?” said Point-Two.
“I wasn’t hiding them,” said Ubik. “I was keeping them in reserve.”
The Guardian’s reliance on tronics would explain why they hadn’t been active since arriving on the island, but once the suppression was lifted, they should have come forward. Unless something — or someone — even more oppressive had already infiltrated their suits.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” said Point-Two. It wasn’t necessarily the right decision, but it was a decision, and that was what was needed now.
“What if you get another backlash?” said Fig.
That was Point-Two’s worry, too. “Try to stop me overloading, if you can.”
“Wait,” said Chukka, suddenly speaking up. “How do we get out of here? Once we help that thing, how do we leave?”
“The sigil,” said Fig. “It’s a gateway.”
“Gateway to where?” said Chukka.
“What makes you think you’re going anywhere?” said Ubik, his voice taking on a chilly note as he looked at the other four.
The Seneca sisters and the two from VendX all looked shaken.
“Haha, only joking,” said Ubik. “You should have seen your faces.” He shook his head while chuckling to himself.
None of them found his little joke very amusing.
“Let’s do it,” said Point-Two. “Ubik, the bone.”
Ubik didn’t look willing, but he reached inside his trousers and pulled out the bone.
“Okay, now what?” said Point-Two. He needed to be able to see the Fourth to transform it.
A dim glow appeared in the dark. It formed into a triangular shape emerging from the dark. The sigil had been right in front of them the whole time.
“This will take you to another of our bases,” said the Fourth.
“You’re going to drop us in a random Antecessor facility?” said Chukka. She was annoying but she asked the right questions. Which was good, because if she annoyed the Fourth too much, she could be offered up as a sacrifice.
“All sites contain breathable air, so we should be fine,” said Fig. He seemed to have total faith in his father’s suggestion.
Something moved through the sigil towards them. It was a droid. Not like the ones that had arrived with the Antecessors, this one was much smaller, and had an aged feel to it, like it had been worn down by time.
“I have placed my sentience in this vessel.” Its short tendrils swayed from side to side.
“We can still—” The rest of what Fig was about to say was lost as Point-Two focused on the droid.
One small droid. That should be within his abilities.
Point-Two focused harder. He willed the change and felt the power leave him.
The air shimmered and the droid rolled over. As it came back around, it had changed into a copy of the parasite.
It jumped into the bone and disappeared.
Everyone stared at the bone like it was going to do something.
“There’s something already in here,” said the Fourth’s voice.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” said Ubik. “You’ve got a roommate. Be nice and share the chores. Make a rota, that usually helps.” He looked at the others. “I wonder what those two will get up to in there? Maybe the sound of tiny suction cups running around soon, eh?”
It was not a pleasing image.
Fig looked pensive. “This could be a terrible mistake.”
Point-Two couldn’t help but agree. “We don’t have to let it out.”
The ground shook again. The bone seemed to get blacker and the sigil glowed brighter.
“You know the way?” said Point-Two.
Fig nodded. He faced the sigil. “Father?”
“I will be fine, my son. We will meet again.”
Fig ran towards the sigil with others right behind him. The sigil elongated and turned into an infinite tunnel. As they entered it, they were stretched and thrown forward. It was like being ripped apart and put together again.
It only took a second, or maybe forever.
When they arrived at their destination, they stepped out of another sigil into a square room that was obviously part of an Antecessor site. The design and layout were immediately recognisable, but nothing was activated, no signs of Antecessor surveillance.
There was also a very concerned looking man glaring at them.
“What are you doing here?” He seemed very upset. “This is private property. You aren’t authorised to be here. Where are your badges? All employees of Mason & Muss are required to wear their badges on-site at all times.”
Point-Two vaguely recalled the name. Mason & Muss. It was one of the super-mega-corporations that ruled over the central regions. But what were they doing here? And where was here?
Chukka was the first to respond, eyes glittering, hand extended. “Hello, I’m Major Chukka, VendX Galactic, PR Department. Tell me, do you have any job vacancies?”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino