Wormhole Island - Interior.
There was an open doorway directly in front. Ubik let go of Weyla, who he had his arms around, and stood up. She let out a sigh or a moan or possibly an angry shout of “Get off me, you pervert” — it all sounded the same. He wasn’t really interested, his attention was taken up by the large object he could see through the opening.
A bone. An enormous bone like it was from some sort of primaeval beast, the kind that got dug up occasionally and the planet’s evolutionary history would get rewritten for the umpteenth time. Not that anything would really change other than the local museum getting a new exhibit. Stuff from that far back never made much of a difference.
But this bone was weird. It was jet black for a start. Bones tended to be white. Not here. Here the trees were white and the bones were black. And the lights were off, but he had no trouble seeing the bone. It was glowing. But not in the usual way.
Ubik felt the aura pouring out of the huge black bone like it was heat radiating off an active becquart block, like the ones he would sometimes find still hooked up to one of those small rotor-ships dumped in the junkyard, leaking protnickel oil and highly radioactive. Only, he didn’t feel the heat on his skin, he felt it in his mind.
“Did you do that?” said PT’s voice. “It just opened a minute ago, when the lights went out.”
“Hmm,” said Ubik, neither confirming or denying.
“What happened to all the trees?” asked Leyla. “Why did they explode like that?”
The two trees on either side of the opening were dull and lifeless.
“He broke them,” said Weyla.
“Just here, or all over the ship?” asked PT, not bothering to ask how or why. “Because if it’s all of them, that means everyone who was caught in a simulation is now free to run around the ship.”
You had to hand it to PT, he knew how to spot a potential problem way off in the distance. Way, way off.
“I don’t know. What’s with the bone?” said Weyla, standing up so she blocked Ubik’s view.
“Hmm,” said Ubik. He walked around her and moved closer. The only lighting was from Weyla and Leyla’s suits, but Ubik didn’t need it.
“Don’t just walk up to it,” said PT. “Don’t you feel that?” He stuck out his hand like he was trying to ward something off, but kept moving it around to find the right place to block it.
“It’s in your head,” said Ubik without looking at them.
“You’re saying I’m imagining it?” said PT.
“No, I’m saying it’s in your head,” repeated Ubik. This bone was special. It held secrets. He could feel it in his own bones, down in the marrow. You could learn a lot from what your bones told you, as Grandma always said.
“I feel it too,” said Leyla behind him. “From the bone. Everything feels different.”
“Your organic, does it feel more powerful?” asked Weyla.
“Yes. I don’t know. I’m not sure,” said Leyla.
“Kind of itchy?” asked Weyla.
The two sisters began comparing notes, both sensing something had changed since Ubik and Weyla had emerged from the simulation.
“Yes, tightened up,” said Leyla. “Like I’m bursting with it. My organic, maybe I should…”
“Hold on,” said PT, the worrier as always, “don’t max out your powers. If you push too hard, your body might not be able to handle it. Ubik?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Ubik distractedly. “Might pop a vein or something.” He was slowly moving closer to the open doorway, one step at a time, eyes squinting.
“A vein?” said Leyla. “That wouldn’t be too—”
“Or your head might explode,” said Ubik, still focused on the giant bone in the other room. It wasn’t glowing, not really, but it had that sort of weird vibe to it, like it was feeding off a vast store of energy. It was almost magical. Of course, Ubik didn’t think in those terms. But the way it was floating in the air was kind of odd. Not anti-grav, not magnets, but then what?
“Ubik,” said PT, a little more insistent, a lot more impatient, “where are you going?”
“I’m just going to check on the, uh, bone.” He pointed ahead of him, although he couldn’t possibly mean any other bone.
“Aren’t you going to tell us what happened in the simulation?” PT always wanted to know every detail, always keen to avoid a possible disaster by collecting information. It was such a plodding, old-fashioned approach, it was a wonder the guy didn’t die of boredom with his pathological need for preparation and caution.
Over there, Ubik could feel the source of the aura waiting for him. In the middle of a large empty room, there was a mysterious bone, bigger than his whole body, floating there while its mysterious aura glowed; but only in his head. Who had time for considering the consequences when you had giant floating bones to inspect?
There were layers of energy around the black bone. Ubik knew what it was. It was the source of the Antecessor’s power. He didn’t know how he knew that, but he had no doubts. It was pure power without impurities. Something new.
“Ubik?” prompted PT.
“Just ask Weyla.” Ubik had his eyes fixed on that black bone. “She knows all the details.”
“Weyla?” prompted PT in a new direction. “What happened?”
“Uh, mm, well…”
“What is it?” said Leyla. “Why are you looking like that? Are you blushing? What the hell happened?”
“Nothing,” said Weyla. “Nothing happened.”
“Did he do something to you?” Leyla sounded both concerned and suspicious. “You can tell me, I’m your sister.”
“If you’re my sister, you should know I can take care of myself.” Weyla’s response didn’t sound too pleased with her sibling. “What could he do to me?”
“What about the parasite?” said PT, joining in the interrogation. Ubik crept closer.
“What do you mean?” said Weyla.
“Was it in there with you?” asked PT, becoming more insistent. “It talks to him. Did it influence him in any way?”
“No. He was like he always is. Annoying. The parasite…” Weyla’s voice drifted off.
“What?” said Leyla. “Did the parasite do something to you? Did it touch you?”
“No!” snapped Weyla. “It didn’t do anything. It was a lot nicer than him.”
There was a long pause. Looks were probably being exchanged. Ubik’s focus was on the bone. Whatever they were bickering about, it didn’t really matter. This bone, this was what mattered.
“Such enormous power after so long,” said a voice in Ubik’s head. “Is it not awe-inspiring?”
“Hmm?” said Ubik. He was at the door now. The waves of energy washed over him; through him. “You know what this bone is from?”
“Of course. It’s a finger from the left hand.”
It was hard to tell if he was being mocked or if the parasite was just naturally very obtuse. It wasn’t really well-versed in conversation until quite recently, after all.
“I mean what creature it’s from,” Ubik clarified.
“It’s hard to say. After the fall of the first era, the gods began to experiment with their own creations. Many hybrids were bred — abominations, really. They varied in size and ability. And longevity. Death was—”
“Did they create humans?” asked Ubik.
“Humans? You mean your kind? No. You are too—”
“Forget it then.”
There was a pause. “You don’t wish to know about the origin of this bone unless it directly involves you?”
Where had it learned to be so judgemental? Not from him.
“I don’t have time for long-winded life stories about the dead and ancient. Interesting as I’m sure you would make it. Did you even exist back then?”
“I was part of the creation process.”
“But were you conscious? Were you able to think? Weren’t you just a tool, a way to combine organics with organic beings?”
“What has that got to do with any—”
“I’m just saying, you only just learned how to talk, and most of your thinking patterns are based on me, right?” No response. “I can pretty much guess where you’re going after a couple of words. No point stretching things out, is there?” More silence.
Ubik stepped through the door. The pressure inside his mind was quite fierce. It was like he was trying to get closer to a furnace on full blast. He couldn’t get any closer physically, not without hurting himself.
With a tinge of expectation, Ubik closed his eyes and pushed back with his mind, reaching out to the bone. He felt a resonance between them. A coming together.
“You shouldn’t do that,” said the parasite.
“Be quiet for a minute, I’m at a delicate bit.”
There was definitely something here. Something inside the bone, deep in its core. It was packed tight and very powerful.
Ubik felt himself slip inside it. A few seconds later, he retreated.
“Oh. It’s deteriorating.”
“Yes,” said the parasite. “It is very old.”
“But there’s no intelligence. No programming. Just raw power fading slowly.” Ubik was disappointed. He had hoped to find some kind of ancient computer to plunder.
But this was just a beacon emitting waves of unidentifiable energy. There was no indication of how it operated or what effect it had. He guessed this was the source of the tronic jamming signal, but he had no idea how it was doing it.
And if he was right, why did the Fourth send everyone to the sigil? Wouldn’t coming here to destroy this thing be the way for it to gain its freedom?
“So,” said Ubik. “The Fourth, your god, it doesn’t want us to stop this bone from blocking all the tronics on this ship?”
“What tronics? This ship doesn’t work like that.”
“Right, right,” said Ubik. “Because it’s not like the other Antecessors.”
“That’s correct. It was the one who watched over the others.”
“You mean it kept them in line, like an enforcer.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that,” said the parasite.
“But they locked it up and left it here.”
“With this bone. As a… reminder?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said the parasite. “This is a valuable treasure. A repository of many organics.”
“Inside the bone?” said Ubik. He moved his focus back to the bone. It didn’t seem like an organic-rich item. He looked more closely. “Oh, I see. It’s the blueprints that are here. You’d need a way to convert it back to… is that what you do?”
“It is something I was designed to do, yes.”
“You could take it out of the bone and put it inside someone?”
“You are not compatible. None of your kind are. The organics you have claimed so far have all been wasted. You are able to express a fraction of their power and with only one.” The parasite sounded disgusted. Apparently, humanity’s use of organics to improve themselves had been an egregious misuse of a precious resource. Treasure that had been squandered by the undeserving.
“So, what you’re saying is that you won’t put any organic inside a human, even though that’s what you were made to do?”
“I wasn’t made to do any such thing.”
“But you could do it if you wanted to.”
“There would be no reason to do so,” said the parasite.
“And the organics are just sitting in there, waiting to be transferred. One of many. Pick and choose, whichever one. Like a catalogue.”
“You really don’t understand,” said the parasite. “One? That would be like… fitting a single engine to a ship when two or four or more would make the ship the fastest thing in the universe. But in the case of your kind, two would shake the ship to pieces, because of inferior workmanship.”
The parasite was trying to put it in terms it felt Ubik would be able to grasp more easily. And he did. He understood that humans were fragile and delicate. Only some of them could manage one organic, and at a very reduced power level. Two would be too much. Not that anyone had ever tried.
Ubik understood. But even if it was unlikely to work, you would think it would be worth trying at least once. Sometimes the specs surprised you, once you pushed them past their limits.
“How many organics could you get out of there and put in a human, hypothetically?”
“I told you, you aren’t compatible.”
“Not me,” said Ubik. “I wouldn’t do anything that risky. But I think I know the ideal candidate.”
He started to withdraw from the bone. Voices began to filter back into his consciousness.
“You mean he took control of a character in your simulation.”
“Like a real person?”
“Yes. Like him. He copied the way he talked and everything.
“Did he touch you? You know you’re weak to being touched.”
“Leyla, shut up. He can hear you.”
“He’s in some kind of trance.”
“Not him. Him.”
“Um,” said PT. “I wasn’t listening. Really. But you said the parasite, it was like Ubik? How much like him?”
“A lot. But not as crazy. More reasonable.”
“The alien was the reasonable one?”
“I’m just saying, if it did take over his body, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. We could probably come to an arrangement.”
“You’re saying it would be easier with the parasite in control,” said PT, sounding dubious. “We should side with the parasite?”
“No, no. Only if — if — it takes over.”
“Hey, quiet. I think he’s back.”
Ubik opened his eyes to find three suspiciously guilty-looking faces.
“What?” asked Ubik.
“Nothing,” said PT. “Did you find anything interesting?”
“I did, actually, yes.” Ubik smiled. “But I’m going to need a volunteer. PT, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”
Chapters one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino