“Is there anything I can do?” asked Ubik. He rubbed his wrist, pushing back the pulsating alien snake attached to him. It loosened a little and then wrapped itself tighter. At some point he would have to get rid of it.
Ramon Ollo smiled and nodded. “No, no, this is all going according to plan. We should start seeing the way forward very soon.”
“Great. Just wait here, do we?” Ubik looked around the room — a way in and a way out, no windows, and a recently vacated sarcophagus taking up most of it. “I don’t suppose your Intercessor-masters are going to be providing refreshments.”
Ramon continued smiling in a gleeful yet vacant manner that reminded Ubik of some of the kids he grew up with. A lot of street children had ended up abandoned because of their poor mental faculties; a side-effect of illegal medical procedures to boost the chance of giving birth to a child with a high CQ. Confused but cheerful tykes who would do whatever they were told and occasionally walk into traffic. This Ramon had the same helpless optimism in his eyes which made Ubik want to protect him, and also use him as a distraction while he committed a crime. Idiots made the best decoys.
“Why are you trying to help them, you bastard?” hissed Chukka. She had been keeping quiet up till now — no doubt biding her time until the perfect opportunity to make her move. Whether it was the crystal pods, the goblins or the parasitic worm wrapped around Ubik’s arm, she intended to come out of this with something to trade. A brand new, never-seen-before Antecessor artefact would allow her to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top. Ubik was looking forward to seeing how she would attempt to do it and which of the Seneca mercs would shoot her first. His guess would be Weyla. She would probably shoot all of them just to be sure.
“Take it easy,” said Ubik without rancour (because he knew how infuriating she would find it), “this is a very delicate point in our galaxy's future. We are at the cusp of a new dawn. It’s a very cuspy moment. Possibly the cuspiest ever.”
“Everything will be fine,” said Fig. “Please remain calm.” He had a way of being polite and deferential while still indicating he would resort to violence if his ‘suggestions’ were ignored. Something he probably learned from his mother.
“You remain calm,” said Chukka. She glared at Ramon and pointed so there was no mistake who the glare was intended for. “He’s going to end our galaxy and hand it over to his Antecessor friends.”
“No, no,” said Ubik. “I don’t think they’re his friends. Are they?”
“Oh no,” said Ramon. “Definitely not. I expect they’ll try to get rid of me as soon as they no longer have a use for me.” He seemed delighted to make the admission.
“See? We’re all in this together,” said Ubik. “That’s why we should work as a team and do our best to get that portal open.” Chukka looked confused and turned to the Seneca mercenaries for some sort of sisterly support. She received none and ended up looking to Bashir, who shrugged and backed away from her, as though she was a bigger threat to him than the invading aliens.
“You must try to think of the long view,” said Ramon, grinning inanely. “Our environment — by which I mean our world of machines and artificial constructs: computers, electronic devices, interlinking homeostatic organisms — it is all starting more and more to overwhelm and supersede what is left of our humanity. Even we, the creators of our replacements, are an amalgam of foreign parts welded together. Tronic implants, surgical modifications, genetic manipulation and organics. At the rate of change we are undergoing, it is only a matter of time until we become artificial constructs. It is in our best interests to study what we will eventually become in order to better understand ourselves.”
“You’re insane,” said Chukka.
“He isn’t,” said Fig, standing up for his father like a good son. “He’s just currently mentally retarded.”
Ramon Ollo maintained his rictus grin and nodded.
“But how will we continue to observe what the Antecessors are doing once they take Fig to their base or wherever it is they plan to do their experiments on him?” asked Ubik. “Especially if you plan to use him as an explosive device to destroy them.”
“You misunderstand,” said Ramon. “Nothing will be destroyed, only transformed. And we will all be there to see it happen.”
“Front row seats,” said Ubik. “Nice. So what you’re saying is they need us. Well, not us. Not me or any of you. But some humans. Living humans who can provide them with something.” He held up his arm. The living artefact writhed slowly. “Somewhere to put this.”
Fig stepped in front of Ubik as though they were the only two in the room. “Are you saying they need one of those things inside one of us to make their portal work?”
“He doesn’t—” Chukka was unable to finish her sentence.
“Quiet,” said Fig, his tone brooking no dissent. Chukka’s mouth snapped shut. It was impressive how much power the kid possessed and never used. One day he would be quite the formidable opponent.
“Well,” said Ubik, “they need something to stop this portal they intend to use to take you away from collapsing like the one in the sim-U. Right?”
Ubik could see the cogs turning in Fig’s head. Not that anyone used cogs these days. Grandma swore by them, though. Much more reliable than a motherboard, apparently. Much harder to hack.
Fig’s face was screwed up with concentration. “That was a simulation, though.”
“Yeah,” said Ubik. “But it follows the same principles. It might not have been able to take you wherever it had planned to, but it wouldn’t have crashed the sim-U machine. The sigil it created requires a lot of power. So much that it tried to take everything the simulated universe it was in could provide. And it still wasn’t enough.”
“So,” said Fig, his eyes narrowing, “you’re saying the simulated version of what’s happening here destroyed the simulated version of the entire universe.”
“The sim-U crashed, didn’t it?” said Ubik.
There was silence in the room.
“But a simulation isn’t real,” said Bashir.
“The simulation doesn’t know that,” said Ubik. He was quite enjoying seeing them crawl closer to the truth.
“So if they fail in the real universe…” said Chukka, her voice catching in her throat.
“The end of this universe,” said Fig.
“Don’t be so negative,” said Ubik. “Obviously they know that. They wouldn’t be trying it if they didn’t have a solution.”
“They’re going to bring people here and put those things in them,” said Fig, pointing at Ubik’s arm. No surprise that he was the quickest on the uptake.
“Right,” said Ubik “Enough people to do the job, however many that is. But they need to be healthy, in mind and body. This thing’s a bit choosy.” Ubik put his hand out and hovered it over Nifell’s head.
Nif’s eyes were glazed and he seemed to be almost catatonic.
“I had expected it to try and use him,” said Ubik. “But it’s showing no interest.” He shook his arm to try and get the thing to jump into Nifell’s body. It would be useful to see how it operated. No luck.
“Because he’s too far gone,” said Fig, “after the abuse you put him through.”
“Hey, let’s not point fingers. If anything, my abuse saved him from—”
“From the abuse you had in store for him,” Fig finished for Ubik. Perhaps he was too quick on the uptake.
“Anyway,” said Ubik. “They made sure they’d have a wide selection to choose from this time. I expect they’ve got hundreds of candidates up there, just waiting for this thing to find the perfect test subjects.”
“You’re saying they wanted us here to use us like batteries,” said Chukka.
“Something like that,” said Ubik. “Don’t worry, it’s not like they plan to kill anyone. Not straight away. That’s why they provided a breathable atmosphere. Probably a water source somewhere down here, too. They’re very hospitable, aren’t they?” He looked to Ramon for confirmation, who enthusiastically provided it with lots of nodding.
From their faces it seemed no one liked the idea of aliens taking a bunch of humans as support-supplying hostages. Apart from maybe Ramon. But then he seemed pleased about everything.
“Won’t they need more than one of those things?” said Fig. He was looking at the parasite on Ubik’s arm again.
“Maybe,” said Ubik. “It might replicate. Or whistle for the others. There were quite a few of them down there.”
“What do they do?” asked Bashir.
Ubik shrugged. “No idea.”
“Exciting, isn’t it?” butted in Ramon. “They’ve thought of everything to lead us to this very place and time. And we’re right here! Lucky, don’t you think?”
Before anyone could reply, another voice joined them.
“I don’t think they’ve thought of everything.”
“PT?” said Fig, looking up and around in case the owner of the voice was present.
He wasn’t. “Yes. I’m with your father.”
“So are we,” said Ubik. “That means we know where two of them are.”
“How many more of them do you think there are?” asked Fig.
“Oh, dozens probably,” said Ubik. “How’s it going, PT?”
“Great. The Seneca Corps sent help, which was destroyed. The CA bravely stayed out of it — also destroyed. VendX turned up.”
“Destroyed?” asked Fig.
“No, the Intercessors invited them to join the party. They let a couple hundred of them into the base above you.”
“Ah,” said Ubik. “They’ll be the candidates for Antecessor employment.”
“No, they won’t,” said PT. “They’re all dead. The Guardians killed them.”
“Oh,” said Ubik. “That was smart of them. All dead? You’re sure.”
“Yes,” said PT. “And now my Ramon is having a bit of a sulk. I’m not sure what they’re planning next but I doubt it’ll be a good time.”
“Tell him not to worry,” said Ubik. “I’ll fix it, no problem.”
“You will?” said PT. “How?”
“I’ll show you,” said Ubik. “Just tell your Ramon to let us up top where the Guardians are.”
“Are you going to bring the dead back to life?” asked PT, no trace of sarcasm in his voice.
Everyone was looking at Ubik, waiting for an answer.
“That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?” said Ubik. “Sadly no. But what I can do is get this bracelet off of Fig’s wrist and get him into the Antecessor portal. Piece of cake. They don’t have any cake lying around do they?”
“You can take my bracelet off?” said Fig.
“Sure. It’s not that complicated. The guy who put it on was a doctor, right? It shows. He made it so it feeds off your bio-energy. All you need to do to get it off is give you a dead arm. Well, not a regular dead arm, but you know, mild necrosis should do it.”
“He’s right,” said Ramon, eyes wide with wonder. “Of course, of course. How simple!”
“Not that simple,” said Ubik. “It needs to be done with a delicate touch. You could do it yourself, if you were the whole Ramon. I don’t suppose the Intercessors would like to give us a fully-functioning Ramon Ollo for the task.” He paused for an answer and didn’t get one. “I didn’t think so. In which case I’m the only one who’s familiar with the technique required.”
There was another pause.
“Ramon says okay, but you have to leave your Ramon there.”
“Fine by me,” said Ubik. “You?”
Ramon raised his hands. “Of course. Everything as it needs to be to get the job done.”
“Something’s happening,” said Bashir. “Something’s moving.”
The wall behind Ramon slid open and a platform descended and stopped.
“There wasn’t a shaft there a moment ago,” said Bashir. “I would have sensed it.”
“Fast builders,” said Ubik. “Let’s go.”
He walked onto the platform and turned around to face the others. They slowly followed, the two Seneca women staying close to Fig, their guns drawn.
Nif remained sitting on the floor until the last moment and then he ran forward and jumped onto the platform just as it began to rise.
“I’m going to get off this rock. You aren’t going to stop me.” He sank into a corner and carried on muttering to himself.
“This isn’t a good idea,” said Chukka, staring intently into Weyla’s eyes.
“I know,” said Weyla. “Please stop looking at me like that, it makes me uncomfortable.”
Chukka turned away looking disappointed.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Weyla to her sister.
“I don’t think so either,” said Leyla.
Leyla moved her head closer to Fig so her voice wouldn’t be heard so easily. Ubik could still hear her, though. “He’s going to get us all killed.”
“Yes,” said Fig. “But he’s still the best chance we’ve got.”
“Poor bet,” said Weyla.
“Maybe,” said Fig. “But as you should know, once you’ve made your wager, you have to ride it out. Doubt only lengthens your odds.” He calmly looked from one sister to the other. When he spoke to them his demeanour completely changed.
There seemed to be some insider Seneca knowledge being exchanged. Ubik wondered if they had a secret handshake.
“If we wait it out,” said Leyla, “there should be a Corps rescue mission launched.”
“Since when has a Corps rescue mission ever rescued anyone?” said Fig. “Revenge isn’t the appropriate response in this case.”
The two women looked like they were thinking the same thing — revenge is always the appropriate response. Ubik smiled.
“You should listen to him,” he said to the two mercs. “You were part of the Corps how long? A few years? He’s been part of the Corps his whole life.”
“He isn’t part of the Corps,” said Weyla.
“He’s part of it enough to know your weakness,” said Ubik.
“And what’s that?” said Leyla.
“The Corps’ weakness? That’s easy. You’re all women. It’s a huge handicap.”
Weyla rolled her eyes seeing Ubik’s comment as an attempt to get a rise out of her. “We’ve done alright so far.”
“That’s because no one’s ever used your weakness against you,” said Ubik. “Never had the right tool.”
“Which is?” said Leyla.
“Him. Or anyone like him. They don’t let you have kids in the Corps do they?”
The two women looked at each other to share their lack of understanding.
“That’s our flaw?” said Leyla. “Being able to have children?”
“No, not the ability,” said Ubik. “The child. A son learns about women from his mother. She taught him how you all think. He’ll always be one step ahead of you.”
“A son learns about women from his mother?” said Weyla.
“That’s right,” said Ubik.
“You’re an orphan, aren’t you?” said Weyla.
“Yep,” said Ubik. “I don’t have a clue how women think, Seneca or otherwise. Don’t need to. I’ve got him. What are they planning, Fig?”
“They’ll be playing dead,” said Fig. “Preparing to mount an attack that will destroy the Antecessors, themselves, us, anyone passing by. It’s their way of letting people know they either win or everyone loses. It’s effective against humans. I don’t think the Antecessors will care.”
The platform stopped moving and the walls opened.
On the other side were three battle-suited Guardians surrounded by bodies, slightly smoking. One of the Guardians was Tezla, the other two — one male, one female — were unknown to Ubik.
“Hello,” said Ubik. “Did you have to kill everyone or were you just bored?”
“Who’s this?” asked one of the Guardians.
“Is it him?” asked another
“Yes,” said Tezla. “This is the Null Void.”
“Let’s grab him and go,” said the male Guardian.
“Yes,” said the female. “I agree with Horne.”
Tezla slowly shook her head. “You’re welcome to try. I don’t advise it though. Not if you want to keep control of your suits. Or your sanity.”
“Stop being so dramatic,” said the other female Guardian. “He’s just one man.”
“I am,” said Ubik. “It’s true. But before we go, I think there’s a small invasion force about to arrive.”
“What do you plan to do about it?” asked Tezla, a look of concern on her face.
“I’m going to help them open their portal,” said Ubik. “Which will be a little tricky now that you’ve killed the people they had planned to use to do it.”
“That was your idea,” said Tezla.
“Me?” said Ubik. “I don’t think so. I mean, it does sound like something I would suggest, but I don’t think I did.”
“It’s what you programmed Rex to suggest,” said Tezla.
“Rex? Your suit’s AI? No, I don’t think so,” said Ubik, shaking his head. “I didn’t program your AI to say anything. No, wait, I did loosen some of his screws that were a little too tight because of what you said.”
“What I said?”
“Yeah, you know, how the CA were always too cautious and dithering and stuff.”
“I never said that to you.”
“Well, maybe you didn’t say it, but you implied it. Actually, maybe implied is too strong a word. You looked like you were thinking it. Anyway, I just let Rex speak his mind without worrying too much about the consequences.”
“Well,” said the other female Guardian, “he suggested we kill everyone and deprive the Antecessors of whatever it was they needed them for.”
“That didn’t come from me,” said Ubik. “That must be what the AI thought but wouldn’t normally tell you. Kind of creepy they think like that but keep it on the downlow, isn’t it?”
The three Guardians stared at Ubik.
“Not much we can do for them now that you’ve killed them all.”
“You only wanted them alive so you could infect them with that alien parasite,” said Weyla.
“Which wouldn’t kill them, would it?” said Ubik. “Never mind though. We’ll just have to work around it.”
“How?” asked Fig.
“Yes, how?” said PT’s voice.
“The problem with these Antercesors and Intercessors and their whole operation,” said Ubik, “is their attention to detail. There’s far too much of it. They have to get things just right. Predict it to the nth degree. Be as efficient as possible. It’s a losing philosophy.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” said PT.
“I’m saying that arranging for a couple hundred VendX jobsworths to land on their rock is a bit blinkered when you’ve got an entire planet of people on your doorstep.”
There was a moment’s silence before Fig said, “You’re talking about Enaya? You want to use the population of the planet Enaya as a sacrifice to the Antecessors?”
“Sure,” said Ubik. “Why not?”