Ubik was very pleased with how things were going. He had expected a little difficulty when they found Ramon Ollo, some kind of extra-effort security measures by the warring aliens to keep him under their influence.
That’s what he would have done if he had the preeminent scientist of recent times under a glass case — keep him nice and secure, off the ground to avoid water damage, in a sealed container to avoid exposure to air.
Big locks, impenetrable packaging, couple of top-level technician droids with multifire laser attachments.
But these warring aliens weren’t even trying. That’s what being top dog in the galaxy for several millennia got you — overconfidence.
Not only were there no guards on duty, Nifell had suddenly appeared with an army of nanodrones to help with the restoration of Ramon Ollo. How had the Antecessors allowed him to slip past their defences? Shoddy.
The nanodrones swarmed over the encased Ramon Ollo, eating the transparent cover as fast as it was being replaced. The thin film seemed to be made of a self-regenerating material that shimmered every time its bonds were broken, quickly reforming them. The nanodrones kept eating, the cover kept coming back. The unremovable object had met the insatiably hungry force.
“What are these things?” said Chukka. She looked disgusted. Ubik was sure her reaction would be quite different if she knew the financial value of just one self-replicating nanodrone. The illegality of the tiny creatures would only make her salivate more.
“Stay back,” said Ubik. “They’re very dangerous. Eat through anything.”
“Won’t they eat him, then?” said Bashir, his disgust couched in fear.
“No, they’re programmed not to harm any of the Ollos,” explained Ubik. “Fig’s immune, too. And I also have a special relationship with them. We go way back.” Ubik bent down to pick up a nanodrone that had fallen off the main heap and was going around in circles. “See? We’re old budd—ah, shit, damn.”
Ubik threw the little critter away as it bit his finger. The cuff of his sleeve began to disappear. He took off his top and hurled it to the ground where it rapidly began shrinking.
“That one seems to be bugged.” Ubik put his bleeding finger in his mouth and sucked it.
Fig bent down and picked up the remaining threads of Ubik’s jacket and plucked one of the many nanodrones still consuming it.
“I think he modified it,” said Fig, looking concerned. “It looks a bit… manic. Are you sure they won’t harm my father?”
“Of course they won’t,” said Ubik. “Nif came to help, didn’t you, Nif?”
“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all,” sobbed Nifell, on his knees, his forehead touching the ground which he was pounding with his fists.
“No, you won’t,” said Ubik.
“I will. I bloody will,” Nifell insisted to the floor.
“You think you’re angry but really you’re just hungry,” said Ubik. “Low blood sugar, it makes everyone a bit moody.”
Niffel leaned back and wailed, an unintelligible roar now aimed at the roof. His suit would have kept him hydrated but he really needed a hot meal. He would feel much better with something in his stomach.
“You have some kind of emergency rations, right?” Ubik said to Weyla.
She looked at him like she had a huge stash she had no intention of sharing with anyone. Her tongue rolled around inside her mouth, picking bits of food out of her teeth, probably.
“It’s an emergency,” said Ubik. “For him. He’ll keep crying like that until he gets fed.”
The Seneca Corps weren’t known for their charity. They didn’t drop food packages to the survivors of their attacks. Optics meant nothing to them. And also, there usually weren’t any survivors.
“Protein bars, I bet,” said Ubik. “Fruity flavours for you. Some sort of seaweed that tastes disgusting for her.”
Neither woman looked impressed by his guess. He was right though, he could tell.
“Order them to cough up,” Ubik said to Fig.
“They don’t follow my orders,” said Fig.
“Tell them you’ll snitch on them to your mother,” said Ubik. “They’re all terrified of her, aren’t they?”
Fig’s mouth went wonky with indecision. He really had to learn how to use his status to his advantage. What was the point of living a privileged life if you weren’t willing to use it against people? Seemed a complete waste.
Fig looked at Nifell who had gone quiet, his body shuddering.
“Do you have any food?” said Fig to the women. “I can pay—”
Weyla threw a small block of something brown at Fig. Some people got everything handed to them without even trying. Fig handed Ubik the bar. It smelled like dates.
“Here you go, Nif, old pal.” Ubik held out the bar and waved it in front of Nifell’s face. He didn’t seem to notice, his eyes staring without seeing. Ubik pressed it to his mouth and his nose twitched. He snatched it out of Ubik’s hand and scrambled into a corner to stuff into his mouth.
“There you go. He’ll be fine now.” Ubik turned back to Fig. “You should ask them for more, I bet they’ve got plenty. Hoarders like the Corps don’t like anyone to know how much stuff they’ve got in case someone points out how selfish they are. Hurts their feelings.”
“It’s not selfish to take care of yourself,” said Fig. Sadly, his mother being part of the Corps had made him into a Seneca apologist.
“Being miserly isn’t an admirable attribute,” said Ubik.
“We aren’t misers,” said Leyla, her face screwed up. The truth was often painful.
“See what I mean?” said Ubik.
“Can’t we bring him in unconscious?” said Weyla.
There was a loud crash as the cover over Ramon Ollo shattered. The nanodrones fell on Ramon Ollo’s body and rushed to cover him like a shroud. Thousands of nanodrones crawled inside his spacesuit.
“I’ve never seen them do that before,” said Fig.
“They’ve never had to,” said Ubik. “They’re trying to revive him. It’s good, saves us the trouble. Your dad really does think of everything. You should have faith in his creations.”
“I do,” said Fig. “You’re sure the asteroid’s network won’t suffer some kind of catastrophic collapse if they manage to get his consciousness back in his body?”
“Almost fifty percent certain,” said Ubik, grinning. He would put it a lot higher than that but low odds were more exciting, and everyone liked excitement.
Everyone stared at the nanodrones, waiting. Everyone apart from Nifell, who was huddled in the corner.
The nanodrones began falling off Ramon, revealing a freshly shaved face and trimmed hair. Why bring someone back from the dead looking scruffy? He really did think of everything.
Ramon Ollo’s eyes opened. He sat up and winced.
“Father?” said Fig.
Ramon turned his head to look at his son. His eyes widened. His mouth went up at the corners and broke into a toothsome smile.
“Figaro?” he said with surprising gusto. “You came.” He threw up his hands jubilantly — inert nanodrones went flying across the room.
“How wonderful.” Ramon turned so his legs fell off the table onto the floor and he stood up. He immediately put his hands on Fig’s shoulders and looked him in the face. “I am very proud of you. Well done.” He wrapped his arms around Fig.
Ubik could tell Fig was surprised by his father’s behaviour, and uncomfortable in his embrace. Some people had a hard time accepting affection. He gave Fig a thumbs up to let him know everything was going to be okay. Some people did a lot better with a firm lie to support them. And the asteroid hadn’t exploded or anything, so that was a bonus.
Ramon pushed Fig back to get a better look at him. “You’ve come at the perfect time. And who are your friends? Oh, Seneca Corps if I’m not mistaken.” He went over to the two Seneca women and shook their hands vigorously. “Did my wife send you? Good of her. Such a thoughtful spouse. The best.”
He turned to face Chukka. “More friends.” He threw his arms open and hugged her.
“That isn’t how my father usually behaves,” muttered Fig. “I think this is what was left of his mind after they took the other parts out.”
“He’s still functional,” said Ubik. “Who knows, maybe this version of him is the smartest of them all. It’s a lot more friendly.”
“I’ve never seen this side of him,” said Fig.
“Well, everyone has a warm soft side. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Not unless you were made in a petri dish. PT was, that’s why he’s so grumpy. Raised in a vat of amniotic fluid.”
Ubik waited for PT to interrupt with a forceful denial. He didn’t, which probably meant he had encountered some kind of problem. Not entirely unexpected, but there wasn’t much Ubik could do about it. PT would have to take care of it himself, which he was very good at. That’s what being grown in a jar did for you.
“And you,” said Ramon as he walked up to Ubik. “You must be…” For the first time, Ramon Ollo’s smile slipped. It was like he had just remembered he’d forgotten something but had no idea what.
“I’m Ubik.” He shook Ramon’s hand and kept shaking it. Nanodrones fell from the sleeve. “I’m hoping we can work together to bring the asteroid under control. It’s been acting up.”
“Yes,” said Ubik. “This asteroid. Your asteroid.”
Ramon checked his surroundings and his eyes lit up. “Ah, yes. We won’t be needing this old rock any—” He stopped and stared at Ubik’s hand. “That… I don’t recognise the species.”
Ubik lifted up his arm. The organism pulsated. “This? It’s an organic, I think. A variant. What do you think?” He pushed it towards Ramon’s face. The tip of the snake-like creature rose up and swayed from side to side.”
“Beautiful,” said Ramon. “Oh yes, I see, this is just a baby, but once it’s fully grown… the possibilities will be quite dramatic. No time for that right now, though. Figaro, where are you?” He spun around. “Ah, there you are. We have to be going.”
“Going?” said Fig. “Going where?”
Ramon had Fig by the arm, which he raised, revealing the bracelet on his wrist. “Yes, yes, this will be a problem.” He moved the bracelet closer to his face for a better look. “Doctor Yune’s work, I see. We’ll have to remove it.”
“We will?” said Fig. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Well, there’s a risk, but we can’t miss an opportunity like this, can we?” Ramon had his hands on Fig’s shoulders and his knees were bent just enough for their eyes to be level. He was talking to his child. “The Intercessors have arranged everything perfectly for you. They open the door, you walk through.”
“But what is it they want, Father?” said Fig. He didn’t seem upset to be treated like a toddler. It was his father, so that might be it. But no, Fig was actually playing along, acting the innocent to get his father to reveal information. This Ramon Ollo certainly wasn’t the smartest of them all.
“What does anyone want?” said Ramon. “They want to be happy, they want to be safe. There’s an entity who will destroy them and us if we allow it to. It was their creator, a being of immense power, but now it wants to use them — to use all of us — to open its own door that will lead it, not us, to happiness and safety.”
“We have to pick a door?” said Fig.
“Exactly,” said Ramon.
“And you want to send me through it?”
“Without my bracelet. And then I activate my organic and I destroy the entity on the other side?”
“That is a wonderful, noble idea,” said Ramon. “You really are the best son I could ever hope for.” He was almost tearful at the thought of his son’s sacrifice.
“I don’t think Mother would like that,” said Fig.
Ramon looked baffled by this revelation. Ubik knew an imminent short circuit when he saw one.
“Oh, now you’re willing to hide behind your mother,” said Ubik. “Don’t worry, Mr Ollo, I think your plan is the perfect solution to all our problems. Where’s this door we need to send your precious son through?” He pushed past Fig, giving him a look.
It was all very well roleplaying the meek child who needed convincing to do what he was being asked, but there were quicker ways to get answers. This version of Ramon Ollo might be affectionate and filled with enthusiasm for terrible ideas but he was also quite dim. You didn’t have to bother debating things with dim people. You just had to make them think you agreed with their stupid ideas.
“The door?” said Ramon. “We can’t go through it at the moment. It isn’t open yet. But it will be, soon. They’re almost here.”
“Who?” asked Fig.
“The Antecessors,” said Ubik. “They’re the ones who have the door opening technology, aren’t they?”
“That’s right,” said Ramon, pleased to have someone see things his way. “We just have to wait for them.”
So that was their plan. Call the Antecessors, let them think they were opening the door so they could send their creator the key to his freedom — Fig.
Only, Fig wouldn’t be a key, he would be a bomb.
“Great,” said Ubik. “Sounds like a plan.”