Wormhole Island - Interior.
It was relatively quiet inside Ubik’s head. He wasn’t sure he preferred it that way. A voice in your head might be a sign of madness or, as in this case, the presence of an alien consciousness, but it was still nice to have someone to talk to, bounce ideas off, share a joke or two with.
Now it was like a silent tomb, no one knowing what to say. That’s what the air smelled like. Like the absence of life. Like the morning after a party before the cleanup.
“What are you making that face for?” asked PT.
“I’m not making a face,” said Ubik. “This is what I look like.”
The incline of the slope they were on seemed to be increasing. It was very wide and smooth, like it had been designed for something very large to be rolled down it. The only light they had was from the occasional patches of luminescence that appeared on the engraved walls; old and sticky, like a spill that hadn’t been cleaned up properly. It barely illuminated anything.
“You were smiling sadly and sighing,” said PT. “Is something terrible about to happen?”
“Undoubtedly,” said Ubik. “But that’s not my fault.”
Ubik veered closer to the wall on the right. The grooves and engravings didn’t tell him much. They seemed dead and burnt out from overuse.
PT frowned and looked very much like he thought any problem they encountered would be Ubik’s fault. This was the problem with helping people. They always ended up blaming you for everything that went wrong, even the stuff that had nothing to do with you, the stuff that was put into motion long before you were even born.
“What about Fig?” asked PT, all serious and direct.
Ubik shrugged. “Why ask me? I’m not his dad.”
“I know,” said PT. “That’s why I think you might care.”
“He has something the Antecessors need,” said Ubik, brushing his hand against the wall as he walked. “Naturally, they won’t risk his life until they get it. Then they’ll kill him or throw him out of an airlock. Either way, I’m sure he’s fine.” He switched to a more haughty voice. “Probably making notes about it for a series of edifying lectures to be released on the net. My life as the toy of our new galactic overlords.”
“Could you save him, if you wanted to?” asked a voice from behind him.
Ubik turned to look at Leyla, her face expressing curiosity rather than sarcasm.
“Why do you care?” said Ubik. “Don’t you hate men?”
“We don’t hate men,” said Weyla. The two sisters were marching side by side behind him and PT. They moved surprisingly quietly, didn’t seem to be in a rush to get to the action, and, so far, hadn’t bothered to join the conversation. “Not all men.”
These two felt they owed PT some kind of life-debt. He had helped them survive their forced claiming by the wormhole, and now they were going to follow him around until they saved him back, whether he needed saving or not. That’s what you got for helping people.
“Ah, yes, of course, I forgot. You were in love with one of us. And then he dumped you.”
Weyla’s mouth twitched and her eyes sank into her face. “You know nothing about him.”
“True,” said Ubik in a whimsical tone as he tried to conjure up the image of the kind of man willing to pursue a woman of the Corps. “But looking at the way your face goes from cold, hard killer to nettle-chewing pufferfish, I can see why he’d have second thoughts and leave town in the middle of the night.”
“My face isn’t puffy.”
“Ignore him,” said Leyla. “He’s trying to rile you.”
There was a sound from ahead of them. A tortured scraping as though some large door was slowly being forced open.
“How far is that sound coming from?” said PT.
“Not far,” said Leyla.
“How did you know he left in the middle of the night?” mumbled Weyla.
“Hmm?” said Ubik. “Oh, cheaper off-world space flights if you book pre-dawn. He wouldn’t want to waste any of the money on unnecessary expenses.”
“What money?” said Weyla, a sharpness creeping into her voice.
“The money the Corps paid him to abandon you,” said Ubik.
There was a moment of silence before Weyla exploded. “What the hell are—”
“Don’t,” said PT, turning to stop Weyla from attacking Ubik. “He’s just making things up to annoy you. It’s what he does to amuse himself when he’s bored.”
“I’m not making it up,” said Ubik. “How often do you think men come along and try to seduce the ladies of the Corps? As a challenge, as a form of revenge, out of true love? Quite the badge of honour, to have one of them as a notch on your bedpost. And if the Corps did nothing about it, all they’d have left would be the lesbians and the ones with really bad hygiene issues. Standard Corps policy — buy off the lotharios. Pretty effective, from what I’ve heard. Right, Leyla?”
Leyla frowned but didn’t respond.
Weyla looked at her. “Is this true? Did they buy him off?”
Leyla looked at the ground.
“Judging by how guilty she looks,” said Ubik. “I expect she was the bagman.”
Leyla continued to find the area around her feet to be fascinating.
Leyla’s fists clenched and then she blurted out: “It… it was for the best. If he hadn’t taken the money, then that, that, that would prove his heart was true. But he did. He did take it.”
Now both women were staring at the ground. They continued down the ramp in silence, only the screech of metal on metal from below to be heard.
“Did you really have to do that?” asked PT.
“No,” answered Ubik. “Better out than in, though, as my Grandma always says.” He looked back at the two women. “She’s right, though. You find out about people when they’re tested. Not testing them and telling yourself they would pass is no help to no one. You should thank your sister.”
Weyla looked up and scowled at him. He gave her a thumbs up to help keep her buoy her spirits. He understood the difficulty in dealing with the shame and anger of being let down. How could you possibly accept it as a good thing? But reliable people were very rare, and the quicker you confirmed who was and who wasn’t, the better.
“We have to be careful about what we find down here,” said Ubik.
“Careful how?” said PT.
“Have you ever been to prison?” asked Ubik. “Locked up with a bunch of sweaty men in an enclosed space with very poor washing facilities and an uncomfortably high level of sexual tension. Actually, life onboard your ship was probably a lot like—”
“No,” said PT. “I haven’t been to prison.”
“Oh, well, I can tell you, being locked up for a long time can do strange things to people. Like our prisoner friend. Even if you’re an alien being of immense power and ability, a few thousand years of solitary confinement and it’s going to do things to you, head-wise. I mean, just look at the interior decorating in here. Black, grey, bit of purple. It’s a very aggressive colour scheme.”
“What point are you trying to make, Ubik?” asked PT.
“I’m saying that even though we got sent down here to turn off a switch or whatever, chances are that there’s more to it than that.”
“Yes,” said PT. “Once we do what it wants, it’s going to kill us all and go off to reconquer the galaxy. I don’t think anyone thinks otherwise.”
“Sure,” said Ubik. “That’s a given. What I’m talking about is why it wants us to turn off the switch.”
“So it can escape?” said Leyla, rejoining the conversation.
“You really think the Antecessors who locked it up would leave such an easy way out for their greatest enemy? Or that they’d send us here if that was a possibility? I don’t know if you have much experience with battle strategies in the Corps, but thinking through the worst-case scenarios before you set off on a course of action—”
“Thanks, we get it,” said Weyla. “You’re very smart and we’re all very dumb.”
“Wow,” said Ubik. “You really do get it. And so quickly.”
“Then why does it want us to turn off the sigil?” asked PT
Ubik shrugged. “How do I know? I’m not psychic. Hey, do you have any psychics in the Corps? I’ve heard they exist, but I’ve never seen one, so, mmm, I’m not convinced. What can they do, tell you what number you’re thinking of?”
“There are three psychics in the Corps,” said Weyla.
“Weyla!” her sister snapped at her.
“What? What are they going to do to me? Throw me out? Have me killed? Pay me to shut up?”
“Three? Wow.” If there really were psychic powers produced by organics, Ubik would have expected the Corps to have even more influence over the galaxy then they already had. It depended on what those powers were, of course.
“They keep them hidden in secret locations,” said Weyla. “No one knows what they do or how they do it, but they have a very high level of protection and we win every battle by making the right call. So that speaks for itself.”
PT was looking at Ubik with a weary face. “This is why you wanted to turn her against the Corps? Intel?”
“No,” said Ubik. “It’s not even useful intel. When am I ever going to bump into their psychics? And it’s not like they can predict what I’m going to do. It’s only a useful power if no one knows you have it. Otherwise, you can just not do what you were going to. You do something random instead. I was born with immunity.”
PT didn’t look convinced. Not that he ever did.
“We’re in a prison,” said Ubik. “Worse than a prison. A dungeon. Underground, dark — a place of torture to teach someone a lesson. Him.” Ubik looked up. “It. That thing. He’s been trapped here for a long time. He gave up on escaping a long time ago. You don’t last long if you hang onto hope. This is his home. He’s the master here, and we’re the new inmates. We have to take on a prison mindset if we want to survive.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” said Weyla.
PT shook his head. “He’s getting into character. He thinks this is a game.”
“Isn’t it?” said Ubik. “Don’t we have a quest to fulfil? Teams to beat?”
“No,” said PT. “You said so yourself. Whoever turns off the sigil, we all lose. There aren’t any prizes or the winner”
“Aah, I don’t know. I think you’re wrong,” said Ubik.
“It was your idea,” muttered PT.
“I think the game won’t be any fun unless we try to win. Conflict, battle, head-to-head competition. Gladiators in the arena. You know the worst thing about prison? The boredom. It is so, so dull! Our host wants some entertainment. Our job is to make sure he gets it.”
PT looked up, as though he might be able to see what Ubik was looking at. “So he’s going to give us some false hope, some incentives to fire us up?”
“Right, right, exactly. And that’s going to be our chance to turn the tables.” Ubik could sense it. An opportunity lurking in the dark, along with the dangers and disasters. It wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t any risk for the dungeon master. The house always wins, but no one had ever got ‘always’ to stick.
It was one of those words people used when they knew it didn’t apply. With caveats that completely nullified their meaning. Coupled with ‘unless’ and ‘except for’. Because it was good sales technique. Like saying, ‘I will always love you,’ but never showing you the opt-out clauses.
And in any crooked game, there was ‘always’ that small chance that the dice would inexplicably land the right way at the right time and someone would score big. Win the battle, lose the war. That was the trick. To only fight in battles, never in the wars.
There was a glow up ahead. The slope levelled out and there was an open area, filled with people. There were many archways going off from a central area, but they were closed off.
And there were large blocks, taller and wider than a person, being pushed around — making horrible noises as they were moved — by teams of Seneca and VendX personnel working together.
“Seems like they’ve decided to combine their strengths,” said PT. A little smugly, Ubik thought.
“You think so?” said Ubik. He took out the broken bracelet Ramon had given him and scoped out a finger of purple goo. He looked at the wall to his right, scanning up and down, and then stepped forwards and smeared his finger in a straight vertical line.
There was a purple glow.
One of the archways made a loud click, and the barrier blocking the way fell, revealing a long tunnel.
Everyone working hard to shift blocks suddenly stopped. There was a moment of inaction, and then orders were barked and they all ran, pushing and shoving to get there first. In a few seconds they were all gone, but their screams and shouts could still be heard.
“See?” said Ubik. “Let the games begin.”
“Yes,” said PT. “But the Fourth didn’t do that, you did.”
“I know. But he isn’t the only one who wants to be entertained.” Ubik wiped the wall and the opened archways slammed shut. Another archway opened. “Let’s try this way.”