Ubik felt confident he could get the alien organism inside PT. It would be a little tricky to do it without PT noticing — a little sleight of hand would be required and Ubik pickpocketing skills were a bit rusty — but PT was easily distracted so it shouldn’t prove too hard.
The organism was tightly wound around Ubik’s fist. A little too tight. He would also have to find a way to coax the organism into PT. Hopefully, the two of them would hit it off. These sorts of arranged marriages often came down to first impressions.
“Someone’s following us,” said Bashir.
“Yes,” said Guardian Tezla. “Human.” She kept slapping the side of her helmet in an effort to get her AI back online. It was already online and probably doing its best to get through to her. You could reduce the problems of the galaxy down to that very thing — a failure to communicate.
“Ubik!” called out a voice from behind them.
Everyone stopped and turned around. The goblins — there were over a hundred of them bunched up in the tunnel, some on the walls, others stuck to the roof — milled around aimlessly. They somehow knew where to go while simultaneously bumping into each other like they had no idea where they were.
“Keep moving,” said Ubik. “He’ll catch up.”
Ubik heard Fig call out but it didn’t sound particularly urgent. It wasn’t like his face was being chewed off and he needed immediate assistance. He wasn’t the sort of boy to ask for help even when he did need it. Too proud, too capable. Must have been nice growing up with people believing in you.
Not that Ubik was jealous. He preferred a more challenging environment. It made you more resilient, he felt. More understanding of others. He smacked a goblin on the top of its shiny bald pate to make it get out of his way.
“You know who it is?” said Chukka, looking over her shoulder anxiously as she bumped into the goblins around her. They made growling noises and swiped at her, which she brushed away absentmindedly. She seemed to have come to terms with the creatures she had previously been terrified of, although something else was preying on her mind. The way she kept stealing furtive glances at his arm made it clear what that was.
“Just a friend,” said Ubik. “Don’t worry about it. Come on, we don’t have time to waste. We don’t want those guys back there getting upset at us for not keeping our word. Right boys.” He patted the goblin in front of him, which immediately attacked the goblin next to it. They both went down in a brawling pile. They really weren’t very bright when they weren’t given a clear goal to attack.
Ubik stepped over them and kept moving. Get to PT, convince him to ingest a rather large squid-like thing, and then see how things turn out. It sounded very doable the way he pictured it in his head.
“Wait, Ubik, wait.” Running footsteps closed on them from behind.
The goblins seemed to sense Fig’s approach and stopped. That made it quite difficult to move. Ubik had to push and shove his way through them.
“It’s Figaro Ollo,” said the Guardian. Her suit was still very useful, even without an AI to fine-tune the sensors and regulate the more complex processes. She could see down the long, curving passage and fire her weapons. It just took a little longer.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “He probably got lost.” He stopped and turned, raising his hands to cup his mouth. “Hey, Fig. The Guardian says she’ll assist you. I’ve got to keep moving. Good luck with whatever you’re trying to do.” With that he swivelled back around and kept going. No point wasting time on whatever terrible scheme Fig was working on. He was a good kid — bright and eager to do well — but he lacked experience. And confidence. And stupidity. You needed to be a little stupid if you wanted to really do well, a willingness to ignore common sense. Fig was just too damn smart for his own good.
Something brushed past Ubik, barely disturbing the goblins. Ubik looked back and then forward again, and Fig was standing in front of him.
“How did you do that?” said Ubik.
“Shadow steps,” said Fig. “It’s a martial arts move, allows you to move through crowds quickly. I can teach you, if you like.”
“Thanks, sounds like it would be useful. I’m heading back to PT. Going my way?”
“Um, yes, back to PT, me too,” said Fig, in a way that made Ubik feel he wasn’t getting the full story. Or the full truth. “What’s that?” He pointed at Ubik’s arm. “And why aren’t these creatures trying to kill you?” He looked around him, down at the goblins that barely reached up to his chest. Then he noticed the Guardian. “Guardian. And you’re with VendX, right?” He greeted them both.
“You’re asking a lot of questions, Fig,” said Ubik. “We don’t really have time. The Guardian can fill you in while we keep moving.”
“What do you mean, fill him in? When are you going to fill me in?” She sounded a little upset. And also a little inappropriately sexual. That was the Central Authority for you — a mixture of good intentions and uncontrollable desires.
“He took that thing from the Antecessors,” blurted out Chukka. “It’s some sort of alien life form based on organics that needs a living host to grow, and it belongs to the Ollo family, so you should take it from him.”
Fig looked mildly taken aback by her sudden forthcomingness. “Okay. Thank you. I’ll let him hold onto it for now.”
“Ignore her,” said Ubik, walking away with his alien-wrapped hand held up. “She thinks this will make her rich and fancies her chances getting it off you rather than me. Which is only because she doesn't realise how ruthless you are behind those puppy-dog eyes.”
“That’s not true,” said Chukka. “I am fully aware of what the Ollo name is capable of. My intentions are honourable and any offer I make will be fiscally advantageous to all parties.”
“See? She thinks she can buy you out.”
“Do you know the way back?” asked Fig, keeping up with Ubik. “You know all three of them are planning to attack you the first chance they get, don’t you?” he added a little more quietly.
“Not the tracker,” said Ubik. “He just wants to go home.”
“The third I was referring to were these goblins.”
“You can read their body language?” asked Ubik.
“Yes, but they want to kill everyone, so it isn’t that hard. How did you get them not to? They aren’t part-machine, are they?”
“No, they’re totally biological,” said Ubik. “They just like me.”
Two goblins went down in front of them, wrestling with such intensity that bits of their bodies broke off. Ubik kicked them out of his way.
“How could they not?” said Fig.
“Did you find your dad, by the way.”
“Yes. Sort of.” Fig explained his theory about the splitting up of his father’s mind, and the machine that was holding his body on the seventh level.
Ubik found it very interesting and agreed that putting the mind back in the body would probably bring Ramon Ollo back to the world mostly whole.
“Mostly?” said Fig. “I was hoping to get back the complete thing.”
“Hmm, yes, but it’s hard to put the pieces back in the exact same way they were before, and that’s assuming you can even find all the pieces intact. Bits fall off all the time. And from what I’ve seen, Antecessor technology isn’t meant to be lossless. They just add on new bits.”
Fig went quiet.
“Don’t worry,” said Ubik. “I’m sure we can get pretty close to the original. We can go get him first.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay,” said Fig. “We should get PT first. He’s probably getting annoyed.”
“That’s alright,” said Ubik. “I don’t mind if he gets annoyed.” There was something off about the way Fig was offering to put his father last. It wasn’t the Ollo way. “With PT running the asteroid, we should be able to find your father much quicker. Once we pop him out of the machine, then we can swing around and pick up PT. No need to rush things.”
Figaro nodded slowly. “No, actually, I spoke to PT and he said there was a sudden attack up on the surface, with the CA and VendX sending in assault teams and a fleet of Antecessor ships arriving through the wormhole and also the Seneca Corps. So it would probably be best to pick up PT first, then my dad, and then keep heading for the exit.”
“The Central Authority are here?” said the Guardian. “Do you know who they sent? How many? Rex, can you read me? Open a channel. Rex?”
“VendX are here?” said Chukka. She didn’t sound very pleased.
“Oh, I’m so glad,” said Bashir, relief erupting across his face. “Finally, I can leave this place.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Chukka. “You’ve hardly covered yourself in glory.”
“What? I’ve performed my duties fully.” Bashir looked even more worried than when he thought he was going to be torn apart by a swarm of goblins. “That’s what you’re going to say in your report, aren’t you?”
“Now you’ve done it,” said Ubik. “All your talk about conflict and confrontation is getting the goblins overexcited.”
The goblins were still bumping into things and occasionally falling off the roof of the tunnel.
Up ahead, there was a four-way junction.
“This way,” said Ubik, not that he had a proper grasp of the layout. This tunnel seemed to him to have more of an uphill incline. “Next stop, seventh floor.”
“The thing is, I don’t think we can really release my father from this machine without PT there. There may be complications.”
“No worries,” said Ubik. “I’m good with complications.”
“With gravity, I mean.”
“I’ll handle it. PT won’t mind. He’s very reasonable.”
The walls around them filled up with streaks of white light.
“What the hell are you doing?” said PT’s voice. “Where are you going?”
“Rescue Fig’s dad,” said Ubik. “It’s a family emergency.”
“Ubik, there’s an army of people up there, and they’re all looking for you. Which I don’t really mind, but you could at least get me out of this contraption before you go charging into them.”
“I agree,” said Fig. “We should get PT first.”
“See?” said PT. “Even Fig agrees with me.”
“He’s only saying that because he needs someone to replace his dad in the Antecessor brain-eating machine.”
“What?” said PT. “Is that true?”
“Erm… no,” said Fig.
“Look at him lying,” said Ubik. “Come up with a plan to benefit yourself at everyone else’s cost, destroy anyone who gets in your way, betray who you have to. It’s the Ollo way, right?” He threw his arms open and looked directly at Guardian Tezla for an answer.
“I don’t know why you’re asking me,” said the Guardian.
“Because you have a lie detector built into your suit,” said Ubik.
“Which I can’t activate because you’ve done something to my AI,” she responded angrily.
“Please, don’t change the subject. We’re in the middle of a very important discussion here.”
“Ubik wants to use you as a host for his alien parasite,” said Fig.
“Huh?” said Ubik. “Who? Me? What are you talking about? That’s an outrageous slur. I would never do something... Guys, back me up.” He looked around at the goblins. “Boys?” But they just bounced off one another. “Fig, what the hell? You just turn on me like that? Not cool. I was trying to help you, I was about to flip the switch, talk PT around into volunteering, win-win. You and me. But now...” He shook his head.
“You were going to stick that thing in me?” PT sounded upset. “How were you planning to do it?”
“Well, not all at once, obviously. That would be traumatic. But a little bit at a time… you might even enjoy it.”
“Just go and get Ramon Ollo,” said PT
“But…” said Fig.
“You’ve got three people with you,” said PT. “Use one of them if you need a substitute.”
The three in question suddenly stiffened.
“But they can’t be trusted,” said Fig. “You’ll have a lot more power once you’re in my father’s place.”
“Oh, sure. Like he does, you mean?” said PT.
“No,” said Fig. “If Ubik is the one who controls the procedure, I’m sure he can bypass the whole brain fracturing part. I wasn’t going to just leave you there.”
“Actually, that’s not a bad plan,” said Ubik. “I could probably come up with a workaround. Keep most of his brain in one piece.”
“Thanks but no thanks,” said PT. “We’ve only got this far because both the Intercessors and the Antecessors have backed off to see what we do and how it will benefit them. The ships that are about to land contain who knows how many alien droids and biological organisms, and all we have is you two idiots.”
“We’re not idiots,” said Ubik, sounding a little hurt. “He’s a little immature and I’m ahead of my time.”
“You’re not putting me in anything and you're not putting anything in me.” PT didn’t sound like he was open to discussion on the matter.
“Okay, fine,” said Ubik. “What do you want us to do?”
“Send the Guardian to help her two comrades and just kill the VendX agents and get it over with,” said PT.
“Wha—?” exclaimed Chukka. She tried backing away but the goblins pressed in, surrounding her and Bashir. “Guardian, I claim asylum.”
“Request denied,” said Tezla. “Ubik, I can’t help my comrades without my suit’s AI.”
“And give her back her AI friend,” said PT.
“I didn’t do anything to it,” said Ubik.
“Ubik,” said PT.
“I’m telling you, I did nothing. Try turning up the volume.”
“What are you talking about?” said the Guardian.
“The volume on the internal comms.”
There was a short pause. “It’s already set to max.”
“The gauge is upside down,” said Ubik.
“Guardian, can you hear me?”
“Rex?” She turned to look at Ubik with eyes burning. “That was it? You turned down the volume?” Her voice was now also a lot louder.
“I hope you’ve learned a valuable lesson about paying attention to detail, or something,” said Ubik.
“You have to stay and defend us,” said Chukka, unable to move. “The Central Authority charter says so.”
“No, it does not,” said Rex. “Human life is the responsibility of the individual.”
“Turn that thing’s volume down,” yelled Chukka.
Guardian Tezla lowered her visor, paused long enough to decide she wouldn’t kill them all, and then shot off down the passage.
Chukka struggled to get free of the goblins while Bashir began sobbing.
“Calm down, we’re not going to kill you,” said Ubik. “PT, he’s from a colony ship. Any time something goes wrong, they start getting rid of ballast. It’s a reflex. You’re perfectly safe.” He turned to Fig. “See, that’s how you tell a lie.”
“They can still hear you,” said Fig.
“I know, but they can’t go anywhere so it doesn’t matter. I’m just making a point. You really need to work on your manipulation skills. You’re never going to impress your dad the way you’re going.”
“Just go get his dad,” said PT.
“But if we don’t replace him with a compatible person, the whole asteroid will be destroyed,” said Fig.
“Is that what they told you?” said Ubik, shaking his head. “And you believed them?”
“It’s not true?” said Fig.
“No,” said Ubik. “Probably not. Come on, I’ll show you. PT, light the way.”
The passage ahead lit up.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (usually 6 chapters currently 4)Afterword from Mooderino