Ubik quickly took in Chukka’s appearance. Alone, dishevelled, clinging tightly to an object she was trying to hide. It was clear the large blue crystal was important to her.
“What is that? Can I have a look?”
Chukka gripped the object tighter, moving it to the side and partly behind her. There was a flash of wild calculation in her eyes. She was going through her options at breakneck speed, searching for the right lie to tell.
Ubik liked her. Whenever she was in a tight spot, giving up was never an option. The only thought in her head was how to turn things to her advantage. She was like a gambler who doubled their bet every time they lost. A reckless and idiotic approach, but hugely rewarding if you managed to pull it off. Ubik would never make that mistake, though. Quadruple the bet or why even bother playing?
“Nothing, it’s nothing.” She was looking past Ubik now, at the Guardian looming behind him, her eyes widening, then narrowing.
“Where are my manners?” said Ubik. “This is Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority. Major Chukka of the VendX Corporation.”
“We’ve met,” said Tezla, her face mask hissing as it slid up. “You’re still alive. Good. Why are you down here? What happened to the others? Dead?”
“Most likely,” said Chukka, her resentment overflowing. “Thanks to you. Found your target, did you? I’m sure they’ll give you a pay rise when you take him back.”
“We don’t get paid,” said Tezla. “And only you survived, you say. How fortunate.”
“You have no idea the horrors I’ve faced after you abandoned us. Why are you still here? Shouldn’t you get him out before someone takes him from you?”
“I’m sensing some kind of history here,” said Ubik, glancing from one to the other. “Wait, did you both come here looking for me? Is this going to be one of those two women fight over a man things?”
“No,” said Chukka and Tezla together.
“Well, I don’t like to be objectified like that, but go ahead. I’ll be the prize. Winner takes all. Maybe take off the suits so you can move around a bit more freely.”
Chukka glared at him. Then her eyes looked him up and down. “Why aren’t you wearing a suit?”
“No need,” said Ubik, patting down his clothes. “You don’t want to get too dependent on tech, like some people.” He pointed surreptitiously at the Guardian in her battlesuit. “Addicted to high-grade explosives. Watch out for her when you’ve got her in a clinch, she’ll probably try to blow your head off with one of her little rockets.”
“We don’t have time to fight,” said the Guardian, getting tetchy again. “We need to get out of here as quickly as possible.” She had been moaning about the importance of getting clear of the asteroid and calling in help ever since PT had sent them off.
“We’re here to find these creatures, remember?” said Ubik. “Don’t you want to meet the aliens?”
“I’m taking you out of here,” said Tezla.
“Same thing,” said Ubik pointing past Chukka’s shoulder. “The way out’s this way too. Down here and up a bit.”
“No,” said Chukka sharply. “Not that way. There’s no way out that way.” She was shaking and her face had paled. “You’ll only find death and monsters. You mustn’t… you can’t...”
A grin of delight appeared on Ubik’s face. “Oh, that’s good. That’s really good. The way your skin changed colour, how do you do that? Some kind of implant? And the shaky voice and everything. Really nice work.”
“What are you talking about? I’m serious. There are real monsters down there. Not droids.”
“Good, isn’t she?” Ubik said to Tezla. “I bet the higher-ups at VendX have got their eyes on her. Commitment, that’s what you have to have to get to the top in the business world. Let’s go see these ‘monsters’ then.”
“Listen to me, you idiot,” snarled Chukka. “You’ll die if you go that way. You will be devoured.” She made a real meal of the last word to make her point.
“These monsters,” said Ubik, “they don’t have mouths, do they? Hard to devour anyone without a mouth.” He chomped his teeth at her.
Chukka looked up at Tezla with a mixture of stunned and baffled beautifully painted across her face. “Why are you letting him lead you into the jaws of death?”
“They don’t have jaws, either,” said Ubik.
“The way out is through there,” said Tezla in measured tones. She wasn’t very happy about letting Ubik lead, either. “My suit’s AI confirms it.”
“Your suit’s AI is wrong, then,” said Chukka. “Or…” She looked at Ubik. “Or he’s done something to it.”
“You think I haven’t thought of that?” snapped Tezla. “I’ve double-checked. It’s through there.”
“You’re both going to die. Well, good luck to you. I’m going that way.” Chukka pointed past Ubik and Tezla.
“So good,” said Ubik. “Managed to make it all about who’s going where just to deflect from my question about that thing she’s got tucked under your arm. Can I have a look now?”
“What is wrong with you?” said Chukka. “Not everyone’s putting on act just because you are.”
Ubik pulled a face suggesting he had no idea what point she was trying to make. “I admire the persistence but I’ve seen people get upset a lot. I mean, I’ve seen it a lot. People get upset around me all the time. All the time. Men, women, children. Sometimes even drones, and they don’t have the circuits for it. I know what it looks like when somone’s panicking for real and when they’re trying to deflect. And you’re deflecting like crazy.” Ubik smiled at her. She was calculating again. “Rex must have run an analysis by now. Anything interesting?”
“Unable to identify. Readings are inconclusive. Material is unknown.”
Tezla turned her keen gaze onto Chukka. “What is it? No more pretending.”
“I’m not pretending,” said Chukka, taking a step back. She took a breath. Whatever she’d decided, here it came. “This is the only thing that saved me. I don’t want to give it to you because I’ll die without it. You have your suit and he has… whatever it is that keeps him alive when he should have died a hundred times already. They… the monsters… they won’t attack me while I’ve got this. They’re afraid of damaging it, which means they’ll leave me alone while I’ve got it. It doesn’t matter what is — I don’t even know, and I don’t care. This is the only thing keeping me alive and you can’t have it.”
She gripped the object even tighter.
“Now that,” said Ubik, “I believe.”
Chukka’s eyes filled with relief for a moment, quickly draining away. “You’re still going to take it from me.” Her lips tightened into a thin line.
“Me?” said Ubik. “No, never. I wouldn’t steal your hard-won treasure. Who knows how many people died so you could walk out of here with that thing. It’s all yours as far as I’m concerned. Guardian?” He looked up and back at Tezla.
“Anything found inside this asteroid is the property of Ramon Ollo,” said Tezla. “You aren’t authorised to remove it or damage it in any way, not as a private individual and not as an employee of VendX Galactic.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Ubik. “There is that. Better put it back where you found it.”
“I told you,” said Chukka. “This is the only way to protect myself. I’m claiming it as an emergency measure, on humanitarian grounds.”
“Your presence here is illegitimate,” said Tezla. “You do not have the right to claim anything.”
“You could,” said Ubik, “come with us and then relinquish it before we leave. You could.”
“I could,” said Chukka, eyeing Ubik through narrowed eyes, more calculations rapidly being performed. “But are you really sure this is the shortest route to the surface. You do want to get out of here, don’t you? You don’t plan on going deeper.”
“Of course,” said Tezla. “We will return to the surface and then we will contact the Central Authority vessels on the perimeter to pick us up.”
“And this is the way?” Chukka still seemed reluctant to go back the way she’d come. Ubik couldn’t wait to find out why.
“This is the way,” he said. “Right, Rex?”
“This is the way,” said Rex in a flat monotone.
“And what about the monsters?” asked Chukka.
“Monster is such a negative term,” said Ubik. “I’m sure they’re quite reasonable once you get to know them.”
He set off down the tunnel, confident she would follow. She wasn’t lying about the monsters but she would go back. She was relying on her monsters to take care of him and the Guardian. It was the only way she would be able to leave with the object she so desperately clung to. Whatever it was, she was willing to go back into harm’s way to make sure no one took it from her. It had to be something good. The monsters wouldn’t hurt her while she was holding it, that was what she’d said. The same was not true for Ubik and the Guardian. Not a bad plan. A very Chukka plan. Ubik smiled to himself — not as good as his plan. Once he thought of one, of course.
The end of the tunnel wasn’t very far, and then he emerged into a large domed chamber. Instead of the smooth, curving walls in the tunnel, these walls were rough and uneven, covered with bulges and ripples.
This place hadn’t been carved out of the rock by droids. Something more animalistic had dug and clawed this place into existence, but in a deliberate and exacting manner. Sculpted by inhuman hands.
There was definitely a purpose to it, a very specific purpose. This was a hub, created to amplify some kind of signal.
Ubik liked it. He had spent a lot of time underground and knew a safe bolt hole when he saw one. This place wouldn’t fall on your head. It was nicely balanced, plenty of room, lots of grips. It was designed to be climbed for access. Access to what?.
Lights flashed around him. They weren’t streaks of white like in other parts of the facility, these were dots of colour spread out at random. His eyes followed the pattern as they jumped back and forth, twinkling like stars.
A deep rumble attracted his attention down. At the foot of the steps was a gathering of white, faceless creatures. They had a bizarre appearance, helpless and handicapped. They swarmed together, bumping into one another in their blindness. But Ubik wasn’t frightened by them. It was hard to be sure, but he didn’t think they were here for him. Their focus seemed to be directed towards Chukka.
“Hello!” said Ubik, seeing no reason not to be friendly. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ubik, this is Guardian Tezla. Chukka, you already know.”
The rumble stopped for a moment, leaving a confused silence, and then it returned as a quieter hum. They didn’t attack, which was the important thing.
“They don’t have ears,” whispered Chukka.
“Then why are you whispering?” said Ubik. “I wasn’t talking to them, anyway.” He pointed at the walls where the flashing lights had become much more active. His finger traced the pattern from one light to the next, all the way to the object in Chukka’s arms, which pulsed a dull blue.
“You came back!” called out a voice from somewhere across the chamber.
“Yes,” said Chukka, her tone a little hesitant. “I brought help.”
“You said everyone was dead,” said Tezla, grimly understating the accusation that was implied.
“No, I said they probably were,” said Chukka.
“You were going to abandon them,” said the Guardian.
“I don’t think you have the right to lecture anyone on that score,” said Chukka. “At least I came back.”
It was a deft move, making herself appear like the one who wanted to return, rather than the one insisting they didn’t.
“Ubik,” said another voice, this one female and insistent. “Come over here.”
“Sorry, do I know you?” said Ubik, unable to see the owner of the voice.
“Ubik, you little shit,” said another female voice, “get us out of here.”
“And then we’ll get you off this rock.”
He knew who it was — the two sisters — but why were they here? It could only be to grab him or Fig.
“What about Fig?” he asked.
“Him too,” said… Weyla?
“Well, thanks, but we’re not ready to leave,” said Ubik. “We’re actually settling in very nicely. Might even make the move permanent. Might not look it right now, but this could become the premier vacation spot in this quadrant.” He redirected his gaze towards the walls where lights were pulsing wildly. Something was about to happen.
Ubik turned his head towards Chukka and the Guardian. “I’m going to go down and have a word with the boys. See if we can’t come to an understanding.”
Chukka shook her head. “You’re insane.”
“Where is the way out?” demanded Tezla.
“I can see you’re both worried about my welfare, but please don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re a dead man,” said Chukka.
“Where is the exit,” said Tezla.
“Just one thing,” said Ubik. “Can I borrow that?” He reached his hand towards the crystal pod in Chukka’s arms. She instinctively pulled back.
“I’ll give it back,” said Ubik. “The Guardian will keep you safe until then.” He looked at the Guardian, encouraging her to back him up. She shook her head.
“No,” repeated Chukka, wrapping both arms around the crystal and pulling it into her chest.
“Give it to him,” said Tezla.
Chukka turned to give the same answer to Tezla. Ubik chose that moment to lunge forwards and grab the crystal. Chukka leaned out of range and tripped over the step behind her.
Ubik managed to whip the crystal out of her grip as she stumbled.
“Thanks, I’ll take good care—” and then juggled it as the smooth surface he wasn’t expecting slid out of his grasp, smashing on the floor into tiny pieces, an oily liquid wetting his boots and something dark and wriggly slithered down the steps.
The lights around the chamber all lit up at the same time. For the first time, Ubik could see across the entire chamber and the three people embedded into the far wall, only their heads and hands showing.
“What did you do?” said Chukka, her voice genuinely panicked as the creatures began climbing the steps towards them.
“Oops,” said Ubik.