Wormhole Island - Interior.
Ubik II flipped his hands and produced two daggers out of thin air. He threw them both and Ubik only just managed to avoid having his eyes poked out by falling onto his backside. He got back to his feet. There were already two more daggers in Ubik II’s hands. The parasite had taken control of the simulation pretty smoothly.
“Oi, you sponger, how is this the correct way to show gratitude?” shouted Ubik with the appropriate level of disappointment and justified rancour. Duels were all about taking the high ground. “After all the nourishment and nurture I gave you. Ingrate.”
Ubik raised his fist and adjusted his stance.
“I don’t normally use violence to solve problems but you have a very punchable face.”
The parasite tilted Ubik II’s head to the side and squinted one eye. “But I have your face.”
“Yes,” said Ubik, “and it doesn’t suit you at all. Come on. Do you want closed hand or open hand?” He flexed his fists open and closed. “I think someone needs the bitch slapped out of them.”
Ubik started to circle the parasite, fists up by his temples, head bobbing. Two daggers whizzed past. Ubik smiled. “That all you got?”
Ubik II shrugged and pulled out a sword. It was a thin foil with a basket handle. He pointed the business end at Ubik.
“Hey, that’s cheating.” Ubik lowered his fists and straightened his posture. “What are you trying to do? Give alien parasites a bad name?”
“I am not a parasite, and you are the alien here. I am the last vestige of hope for a mighty race of superior beings. I will not fail in my mission. You are no more than an empty vessel without purpose. You are not qualified to be my opponent.”
“Don’t you think this arrogance is uncalled for?” said Ubik.
There was a snort from behind him. “It sounds just like you.”
Ubik glanced over his shoulder. “That’s because I’ve been its incubator. It’s been learning how to communicate from me, how to best adapt to its new environment so it can fulfil its mission. Obviously, emulating me is its best shot. But a single-celled organism like this is very single-minded. Lacks imagination. That’s why I—”
Ubik ducked as the sword jabbed at his head, then skipped backwards as Ubik II charged forward, swinging and slashing.
Ubik was forced to retreat, dodging each cut and thrust that was sent at him so fast he could see multiple after-images.
“Why are you letting him take over your world?” Ubik shouted at Weyla.
She was standing there doing nothing, more interested in being an observer than helping; like a princess watching two beaus duel for her affections.
“What do you want me to do? It wouldn’t be a fair fight if I attacked him.”
“Fair?” Ubik ran behind a column and jumped from side to side as the stone pillar was hacked to pieces. “You’re in the Corps. What has fair got to do with winning?”
“I left the Corps,” said Weyla.
“Does anyone ever really leave the Corps?” said Ubik.
“Yes,” said Weyla as Ubik stumbled backwards past her, dodging and weaving. “We have our own support group and veterans association. There are more of us than you’d think.”
Ubik kept moving, running around pillars, looking for something to throw. “Look, the only reason he can take control of your butler is because you’re letting him. The simulation doesn’t force a matrix on you, it takes whatever’s going on in your mind and extrapolates so you have something to do while your organics get charged up.”
“I’m not letting him do anything,” insisted Weyla.
“He pulled a sword out of his ass. Did you put it there? I really hope not because that would mean you have even more serious psychological problems than I thought. Just push the parasite out and shut this place down.”
Weyla exhaled through her nose and closed her eyes. Her head trembled as she concentrated.
Ubik II kept lunging at Ubik’s vital parts. Nothing changed. Fortunately, the parasite didn’t offer much variation. One-cell organisms tended to be tenacious but predictable.
Judging from the expressions coming and going across Weyla’s face, she was too distracted to be of much help. Somebody else’s confused and turbulent psyche wasn’t the best place to have a duel. If it had been his own confused and turbulent psyche, that would be different. The scenery would be a lot more interesting for a start.
The palace flickered into existence for a moment, but reverted to the dingy cavern the parasite preferred.
“Keep trying,” he shouted as encouragement.
A shadow fell across Ubik II’s face, an effect of the deadly intent the parasite was exuding. His eyes glinted with dark fury, nothing like the timid, obedient eyes of the butler Weyla had cultivated in her imagination.
It was certainly trying its hardest to kill him, but with a sword? Where had it come up with that idea?
Ubik stopped retreating and stood still as the next attack came thrusting forward. He didn’t even bother to evade it, he just grabbed the sword by the blade. The tip looked sharp but the blade had no edge, so it didn’t hurt.
“Okay, enough,” said Ubik. “I thought me being in danger might spur her into action, but no. So let's try putting your neck on the chopping block.”
With a click of his heels, his boots came online. Ubik kicked at the hand holding the other end of the sword, activating his boots’ grav plates at the same time, and Ubik II was sent flying backwards. Ubik tossed the sword up so it spun around. He caught it by the hilt and pointed it at Ubik II.
“I always thought swords were impractical weapons,” said Ubik. “But pretty cool.”
“Yes,” said the parasite. “That’s why I knew you’d try to take it off me.”
The sword glowed an intense red before exploding.
He was blown across the room, his clothes ripped to pieces and his face stinging like it was one huge shaving accident doused in alcohol.
Ubik II came at him like a storm. He leapt and spun, going low, going high, his legs kicking out at different heights — at all heights, it felt like. It was all Ubik could do to deflect the pointy, well-polished shoes striking at him.
“Ow, ow, hurts.” His hands were covered in blood and the skin was almost entirely peeled off. It wasn’t real blood, of course. A simulation wasn’t real. It just felt real.
Ubik blocked with his elbows and knees while screaming every time he made contact. Fists were coming in behind kicks and he was being backed into a corner.
Luckily, his Delgados gave him just enough of an edge to keep out of range. He kicked off the wall, landed hard enough to create a small shockwave that put Ubik II off-balance, and mounted a counterattack.
It had taken a few minutes of careful defending to work out the parasite’s pattern of attack. It was fast and used multiple combinations, but it was still lacking in imagination. Why bother with the unexpected when you could beat someone over the head with the obvious?
Ubik waited, waited, waited… and then timed his next kick to match his opponent’s. Their feet met in the middle and shoe smashed into boot. There was never any doubt to the outcome. Even in a simulation, Delgados didn’t lose out in a toe-to-toe battle.
Ubik II’s foot buckled at an unnatural angle and the next spin-kick collapsed as soon as his damaged limb touched the ground.
Ubik was already airborne, leaping with his landing spot already designated — one neatly combed but very oily head.
As his reinforced heel was about to crush the nose of his horrified victim, Weyla called out a desperate plea. “Don’t hurt him!”
It wasn’t just the inappropriate timing that was shocking, it was the idea of a Seneca stalwart speaking up for a man. Had the universe been flipped upside down?
Rather than stamping down hard and crushing the head like an overripe fruit, Ubik landed and stepped off the face in a quick hop, which was still enough to leave the parasitised butler prostrated and dazed.
Ubik swivelled around and walked up to Weyla with a sour expression. “What do you mean, don’t hurt him? He isn’t even real. Plus, he’s the enemy, remember? What the hell happened to you? Did it really break your mind when that guy dumped you? Where’s your self-respect? Can’t you function like a normal human being anymore? You’re Seneca. You stay on target until mission-end, don’t you? Do you have any idea how much harder this would be if it had worked out that tronics work in here and it didn’t need swords and daggers?” He stood in front of Weyla with his hands on his hips. “Now, focus your brain and give me a proper weapon.” He put out his hand. “Preferably something with a grenade-launching attachment.”
Weyla’s eyes grew bigger and rounder. She wasn’t looking at Ubik, though. She was staring over his shoulder.
Ubik turned to follow her gaze.
Behind him, Ubik II had risen. Not only to his feet but into the air. And around him pieces of Antecessor tech had appeared and were collecting like a suit of armour. Within a few seconds, his entire body was covered in black plates covered in white lines. Extra limb, weapon turrets, tentacles and a large scythe coming out of its back.
“I think you helped jog its memory,” said Weyla.
It seemed the parasite had not only figured out that tronics worked here, it had taken advantage of Weyla’s distraction to turn Ubik II into a droid. A big one.
“I’ve never seen one like that before,” said Ubik. It was similar to droids he’d seen, but with added death flags.
“This was one of the battle droids we used when I was first created,” said the parasite from somewhere inside the armoured body. “Its destructive capabilities are beyond anything you can imagine.”
“You think I’m scared?” said Ubik, shaking his head. He turned to Weyla. “Okay, you’re up.”
“Me? I thought you wanted me to change the simulation parameters.”
“I do. But you can fight that thing and switch settings at the same time. Punching someone will help you clear your mind. It's like meditation for you Seneca chicks, isn’t it?”
There was a flicker of doubt in her eyes and then she pushed him aside.
The droid towered over her, white lines streaking up and down its dark metal body, the arms ending in long tendrils that whipped about, ready to pin down anything that came within range.
Weyla eyes flashed red as she pounced, a streak of muscle bound in a flouncy dress. Now that her little manservant was covered up she seemed more able to beat the crap out of him. The two of them started to pound on each other.
The droid tried to ensnare Weyla in its tentacles while it kicked at her with its lower limbs. Weyla responded by ripping the tentacles out like weeds and using them to whip the droid’s face and head. The material was hard enough to cause quite a lot of damage.
“Change the simulation,” Ubik called out.
Weyla responded with a grunt — a sophisticated grunt that managed to convey the feeling that if he thought it was that easy to fight an Antecessor droid and make mental reconfigurations at the same time he should try it himself — but the cavern they were in changed to the palace.
Within a second or two, it changed back to the cavern. Then it changed to a spaceport — Ubik didn’t recognise which one — then back to a cavern. Well-cared-for training field, cavern, a monastery on top of a mountain, cavern, a basement full of weapons…
Ubik rushed to grab something that fired explosive shells but…
The changes were happening so rapidly it was dizzying. The two combatants were still locked in battle, neither holding an advantage for very long as they swapped focus between smiting each other and trying to take control of the simulation.
“Hmm, interesting,” said Ubik. It wasn’t the alterations in his surroundings that were catching his attention, it was what he saw in between the swaps.
Every time the backdrop switched, for a fraction of a second he saw the space beyond the simulation.
“Keep going,” he shouted. “More. Faster.”
Weyla had her thighs around the droid’s head and was trying to break off its arm. “What?”
“More changes, different places. As many as you can. I can see a way out.”
The scenery began to change more rapidly. It didn’t wait for the cavern to appear, it kept switching.
“Great. Wait here.” Ubik ran at the wall.
“You better not leave me here,” shouted Weyla. But Ubik had run through the wall and disappeared.
At the same moment, the droid shattered, revealing Ubik II inside.
“Where did he go?” Weyla stared at the palace wall, serene and elegant, and shouted. “Ubik!”
“Madam?” said Ubik II meekly, his perfect hair a messy nest.
“Ubik! Come back here!” Weyla turned on Ubik II, nostrils flaring, eyes glowing incandescent. “This is all your fault.”
“I…” A look of terror crossed Ubik II’s face as Weyla descended on him.
From outside the simulation, Ubik watched Weyla take Ubik II by the throat and throttle him.
He was in some sort of non-space. It wasn’t a vacuum like in outer space, it was still inside the sim-U, or whatever the Antecessor used to hold minds inside these artificial realities, but he had fallen somewhere between the cracks.
It was quite a revelation to learn that Antecessor machines had cracks. Apart from the transparent sphere Weyla was strangling Ubik II in, there were many, many more spheres hanging in the darkness. They appeared to be the simulations holding the other arrivals on Prison Island — the VendX and Seneca people.
None of the constructs looked very stable. Ubik could feel the flow of energy, the strain on the system caused by so many simulations stuck in partial-completion. The system wasn’t designed to hold people indefinitely.
Not only that, but Weyla’s sphere had a number of other sphere’s extending from it. Every different setting she had manifested had its own sphere that hadn’t been deleted after it was replaced, and there was a very clear burden being placed on the system.
Even the creations of the great creators of the universe suffered from memory leaks.
“You found your way here,” said a voice that could have come from the darkness or it could be in his head.
“Yes. Are you still trying to kill me?” asked Ubik.
“I think that would be best.”
“Why? After all I did for you.”
“Did for me? You only care about your own survival.”
“Isn’t that why you hitched a ride with me?” Ubik looked around the endlessly confining darkness. “The Antecessors aren’t what they once were. Look at this place it’s falling apart.”
“Yes.” The parasite sounded almost sad. “The corruption has spread to an unmanageable level, even if there were anyone left to manage it. The strain your people are putting on it is too much.”
“We need a way out.”
“There isn’t one,” said the parasite. “And even if there was one, why bother?”
A depressed parasite, just what the world needed.
“It might not be the galaxy you expected, but you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It might surprise you. If you come with me, you can live long enough to find out.”
“Aren’t you the one most likely to kill me?”
“Yes,” said Ubik. “Which is why I’m the best person to guarantee your survival. I just have to do nothing.”
It was a risk, Ubik knew that. The parasite was changing, but changing into what? It had some knowledge of the Antecessors but it was little more than a tool to them. Still, it might come in useful.
“First you have to find a way out before the whole architecture collapses in on itself.”
It only took a moment for Ubik to work out how to use this to his advantage. Then he located the crack he had slipped out through and dived back in.
Weyla had Ubik II by the throat, his bulging eyes the only part of him still moving.
“Why? Why did you leave me? Why wasn’t I good enough?” she screamed at him.
“See?” said Ubik, taking her by surprise. “You can take charge when you want.”
Weyla dropped Ubik II, who fell to the floor in a heap, and stepped in front of the body. She faced Ubik with a wild look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you find a way out”?”
“Don’t you want to make sure he’s alright?” Ubik II’s face was grey and he didn’t appear to be breathing. “Or have you come to your senses and realised how much superior the real thing is?”
Her face returned to its usual emotionless state, although she was breathing heavily. “How do we get out?”
“Same as before. Keep changing the background. As many different places as possible, as fast as possible. It’s going to draw a lot of energy, so be ready to grit your teeth and take it like a man.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, you’ve never heard that expression?” said Ubik. “Something my Grandma says a lot.”
Weyla gave him a dark look but then closed her eyes. The surroundings began to change. It was a lot easier without a droid trying to smash her into pieces.
The world crumbled and fell apart around then. Masonry fell but disappeared before it hit the ground. Darkness fell and a white mist enveloped them. When it cleared, they were looking at the double doors as they opened, liquid light spreading out from the white trees on either side, filling the markings in the wall. The room beyond contained something massive. It looked like a giant bone.
“You did it,” said PT. “Well done.”
Weyla stood up. She was looking down at herself like she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. “I feel… I feel different.”
The two white trees exploded in a shower of sparks, and the white lights covering the doors and walls went out, leaving them in the dark with the bone, which was gently glowing with a pulsating light, like a heartbeat.