Wormhole Island - Interior.
Point-Two took a breath. It tasted funny and gave him an unsatiated feeling like when he ate on one of those small planets where they sold everything fried from street stalls but it never filled you up, just sent you to the lavatory more often.
He was hungry now. Also thirsty. The suit he was in was cheaply made with basic specs. It minimised water-loss and removed waste, but it would eventually stop doing both. Then things would start to get interesting, and not the good kind of interesting.
He looked around, wondering if there were bathroom facilities somewhere. If this was a regular Antecessor ship, the answer would be a definite no. But this wasn’t the norm by any stretch. The Fourth might not be a droid. It could even be organic and need the occasional bag of deep-fried squid bits for sustenance. Point-Two remembered stuffing his face with them — so cheap and delicious — from that rural planet they’d stopped off to pick up fresh fruit that one time. He couldn’t quite recapture the taste but the smell was somehow in his nose.
What a strange thing to remember. They’d revisited the planet on the next loop, seven years later. The whole planet was dead, a barren wasteland, seas all turned black. No one ever found out why. Not on the Garu, anyway. It wasn’t considered all that important. Planets died, got repopulated. Local problems.
The energy in the room had dropped, which was good. No one chasing anyone, no one chasing him, which was great. Everyone had taken a moment to regroup in their separate factions, taking stock, setting their agenda.
Point-Two wished there was someone to tell him what to do — someone who knew what they were talking about. He missed getting orders and then signing off as soon as the job was done.
He made a headcount. He had only made estimates before. VendX, Seneca, they both had survivors in large numbers. Some were off on recon missions, others were taking care of survival needs — shelter, supplies, defence — so any number was going to be an estimate, no matter how accurate at the time.
Now, they were in an enclosed space with restrictions in place.
VendX had twenty-one people, including Chukka. Even though she had been with Fig, now that Fig was no longer himself, Point-Two assumed she would return to the fold. The way she was staring at him from across the way suggested she might not be the woman she once was, but he doubted the Seneca Corps was recruiting right now.
Seneca had fifteen, plus two more in the two mercenaries. He didn’t feel it was right to count them as serving members. They were standing near General Sway, but not standing to attention the way the others were.
And then there was Ubik. On his own, talking to his hand.
“What are you doing?”
Ubik put his arm behind his back and shrugged. “Nothing. What are you doing?”
“Don’t you think you should cut that thing off before it drives you crazy? More crazy.”
“I can’t. It’s integrated into my skin. I’d have to cut my arm off.”
“And?” said Point-Two. “Wouldn’t that be a good excuse for a new arm? Something with amazing attachments and a range of newly invented offensive hand-gestures?”
“Tempting, yes,” said Ubik. “But I like my hands. They’re in my top three favourite body parts. And number one isn’t what you’re thinking.”
“I bet it is,” mumbled Point-Two.
“Damn it!” Ubik brought his arm in front again. “Will you stop? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not you, it’s him.”
“What are you talking about? Are you having conversations now?”
“It’s nothing,” said Ubik. “Well, if you must know, it’s sulking. It feels rejected. You know how bad that can feel.”
“Rejected? By… the prisoner… Fourth?”
Ubik flashed a short-lived grin. “Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds silly. But even alien parasites have feelings. Your whole purpose is to resurrect your extinct rebellious race, and you finally come face to face with the leader of your uprising, and then what? Only to get the brush-off.” He shook his head. “Got to hurt, right?”
Point-Two was, as usual, stunned at where Ubik’s attention had ended up. They were in the middle of what was probably a galaxy-ending situation, and Ubik was focused on the tribulations of a jilted parasite.
“Look, it’s fine,” said Ubik to the back of his wrist. “He’s not the only ancient alien overlord in the universe. There are at least three more, right?” He suddenly pulled his head back. “Fine, fine. He’s the special one.”
“Don’t worry, time’s the great healer, as Grandma always says. Or the great killer. Anyway, sometimes you think it’s love, but it’s just obsession. That’s the problem with any symbiotic relationship, nutrients always getting sucked harder in one direction. Never feels like both sides are getting the same out of it, you know?”
“No, and I don’t really care,” said Point-Two. He definitely didn’t want to get involved in Ubik’s couples-counselling session. “We need to find a way to get Fig back and then get out of here.”
“Hmm,” said Ubik, in a way that didn’t sound like he whole-heartedly agreed with Point-Two’s summation. “It’s a nice sentiment — save everyone, fly off over the event horizon, live happily ever after, but…”
“But Fourth won’t let us?”
“Fourth? No, he’s not the problem. He’s obviously bluffing about how much power he has here. Once we find a way off this prison ship, he won’t be able to do anything about it. No, the real problem is…” He pointed at Ramon Ollo, who was standing over by the open door — or as close as he could get and not be blown back — examining the walls with one hand shielding his eyes.
“Him?” said Point-Two. “Why him?”
“He’s the one who wants Fig here, right? Wouldn’t be here otherwise. Probably already knows how to get him back, but…”
“Doesn’t want to.” Point-Two was starting to see what Ubik was getting at.
It took quite a few leaps in logic, and you had to assume Ramon Ollo was a devious, manipulative, brilliant psychopath with no real feelings for his son (not much of a leap, admittedly), but taking all those things as given, Ramon Ollo was clearly the man who should be leading them out of there, his son under one arm and the answer to defeating the Antecessors under the other.
“And if we try to take Fig with us…” said Point-Two.
“I doubt he’d allow it. Not unless it advanced his plans in some way.”
Point-Two had lots of issues with Ubik and his way of doing things (and who he did them to) but he had no doubts about the strengths of his insights. If he saw the main obstacle as the man with all the answers, chances were he was right.
“So what then?”
“I suppose,” said Ubik, “we go have a look inside the ship and see what we find. It won’t be boring. Might even learn a thing or two. You can always improve yourself, PT.” He smiled broadly, very much implying he wasn’t using the word ‘you’ in its inclusive form.
“I have something to say,” boomed the Chairman, his voice cutting through the chatter and drawing all eyes to him, including the venomous ones of the Seneca Corps. “This journey we are about to undertake will be a dangerous one. The Fourth God of the Antecessors would not need our help if there wasn’t a great many obstacles in the way, and we all know the kinds of obstacles favoured by the Antecessors.”
There was a light mumble of agreement, mainly from the VendX employees surrounding the Chairman like an asteroid around a large gas planet.
He was blind, so his eyes never rested in one place but he seemed to be taking great pleasure in being the centre of attention. “Our strengths have been enhanced but I strongly advise against overusing your organics. Now that I have had a chance to think, it seems obvious that a greater output will be coupled with a shorter lifespan. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr Ollo?”
Ramon turned and nodded slightly, before returning to his own thoughts.
There was a distinct change in the atmosphere, as concern for what was awaiting them changed to concern for what was inside them.
“What’s he saying?” said Point-Two. “Can organics burn out?”
“Not usually,” said Ubik. “But if you run them at over their recommended max…” He made a flowering bloom gesture with his hands. “It’s not a bad guess. Not that impotent losers like us have anything to worry about.”
Point-Two frowned, not liking the choice of words.
“That is why,” continues the Chairman, “we should join forces, work together to find a way to reignite this ship’s engines, and ensure our mutual survival.” His tone was civil and his manner quite magnanimous.
“Are you finished yet?” General Sway interrupted him impatiently.
Chairman Crafbeg looked stunned and stopped talking.
“If you’re finished then please leave.” General Sway waved him away with her hand. “GO first, do as you please, but don’t involve us. The Seneca Corps does not cooperate.”
The Chairman’s face sank in an instant. A cold smirk spread across his face. “Very well, General. Never let it be said VendX didn’t offer assistance to those in need. I hope you don’t come to regret your choice of stance.”
Ubik shook his head. “Seneca have always been terrible at negotiating. Could have got some nice VendX coupons out of that deal if she’d used her head.”
General Sway had already moved on, organising her people into smaller squads. This was probably exactly the sort of thing they trained for. They would be efficient and professional.
Two of the women stepped away from the rest and headed towards where Ubik and Point-Two were standing. It was Weyla and Layla, marching assertively towards them, although they probably didn’t know any other way to march.
At the same time, Chukka came walking, rather less assertively, over.
“You two,” said Layla. “You’ll be going in together?”
“We aren’t together,” said Point-Two. “Even if you see us next to each other, it’s just proximity.”
“Me and the boss are going to win this thing, no question,” said Ubik. “The rest of you will be fighting for second place.”
“It isn’t a competition,” said Layla.
“Hmmph,” said Ubik. “Isn’t everything a competition for the Corps?”
“We aren’t in the Corps,” said Weyla.
Point-Two’s gaze drifted over to the Seneca area, to find General Sway looking directly at him. “Did your General send you over to keep an eye on what we do?”
“I told you, we aren’t Corps,” said Weyla.
“Did she pay you to keep an eye on us?” asked Ubik.
“You think we’ll do anything for money?” said Layla.
“You’re mercenaries,” said Point-Two. “That’s literally your job description.”
“Ha!” said Ubik. “He got you there, ladies. One for the boys. Up top.” Ubik attempted to high-five no one.
“Again,” said Point-Two, “let me make it very clear, I am not with him, I am just near him.”
“Are you going to save Figaro?” asked a worried voice. It was Chukka.
“Go back to your own people,” said Point-Two.
“I can help you.” She looked nervously over her shoulder.
“No, you can’t,” said Point-Two.
“She can,” said Ubik.
“She can?” said Point-Two.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “Can you get Ogden to come over here?”
“Ogden?” Chukka looked confused. “You mean Bashir?”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” said Ubik. “Unlike you, he’s pretty useful. Try to sneak him onto our team and I’ll put in a good word for you with Fig.”
“You think they’ll let a special teams navigator leave?” said Chukka, her tone mocking.
Ubik flapped his hands at her to lower her voice. “Not if you go around shouting about it. Be subtle. Use your, you know, winky power.”
“Your winky power. Where you wink at people and they do you a favour.”
“That isn’t what—”
“Forget it,” said Point-Two. “We don’t need him. It’ll be better for everyone if we don’t make a fuss. Especially for him.”
“What do you mean?” said Ubik. “I’ll take good care of him.”
“Like you did with Nifell?” said Point-Two.
“Who?” said Ubik. “Oh, wait, I know who you’re talking about. Skinny, pale guy, always weeping, right? He’s fine. He’s around here somewhere, probably. It’s a big ship. He’s probably hanging out with the Guardians or something. Partying with the babes.”
Both Seneca women scowled.
“One of the babes is a guy,” said Ubik, “so direct your indignation elsewhere. I mistreat all genders equally, unlike some people.”
The mention of the Central Authority Guardians was another thing to worry about for Point-Two. He didn’t think they had died, so they were probably finding their own way to cause problems.
“Prepare yourselves,” said a voice that filled the chamber. A section of the wall slid open and a ramp sloped downwards.
Chukka slowly returned to the VendX area, towards a nervous-looking Bashir. Ubik began trying to wave him over and Bashir immediately turned around and pretended he hadn’t seen.
At the same time, General Sway left her people and walked straight up to Ubik, her eyes blazing with anger as she glared coldly in his direction.
Ubik frowned but he didn’t say anything to make her attitude any more hostile. Which was both a relief and a surprise.
She looked like she couldn’t wait to tear him apart with her bare hands.
“You will stay here,” said the General.
“What do you mean?” Ubik wore a confused look and feigned ignorance.
“Do you think I don’t know what you’re capable of?” the General sneered. “Whatever’s down there, you won’t hesitate to take it for yourself and leave the rest of us to suffer the consequences.”
Ubik looked astonished. “That is an outrageous thing to say, General. PT, tell her.”
Point-Two was caught trying to find the right words that would diplomatically not make him a liar. “It’s a reasonable suspicion.”
“How could you—”
Point-Two quickly followed up with, “But, it’s not like she gets to decide who can go and who can stay. The Fourth said we can’t fight among ourselves, and I believe there are ways to punish us if we do.”
“You are both powerless,” said General Sway.
“So no need to fear us,” said Ubik.
“I do not—”
“Like the Chairman said,” interrupted Point-Two, “organics are going to be of limited use. We’re all in the same boat. Ship.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Sway, with great conviction.
“You better get going before he beats you to the treasure,” said Ubik.
VendX were already passing through the opening, their Chairman in their centre. The Seneca women were lined up and ready to go, but awaiting orders.
“Eventually, we will be able to leave here, if you do anything to cost the lives of my people,” Sway clenched her teeth and her body trembled, fully illustrating her intense anger, “I will make you pay for it!”
She seemed almost unable to suppress her anger and was on the verge of attacking Ubik. Then she took a step back, glanced at the two mercenaries, and then turned around and stormed off.
“Shame,” said Ubik. “I was hoping she’d hit me.”
“Why?” asked Point-Two.
“Would have confirmed if the Fourth was a being of its word,” said Ubik. “Now we’ll just have to wait for someone else to throw a punch. Shouldn’t take too long.”
They waited until the others had all entered and then Ubik walked over to Ramon and held out his hand.
Ramon looked at him for a moment, and then handed over part of the broken bracelet that had fallen off Fig.
Ubik tucked it away somewhere and they set off after the others. Point-Two spared one look back at Ramon Ollo fixated on the symbols and carvings, seemingly with no interest in saving his son or himself.