Ubik looked from one confused face to the next, his hand held out expectantly. No one moved.
“Come on,” he said. “One of you must have a knife or a dagger or something. What about the old lady? You look like you keep a knife handy. Help cut off your food and stuff.”
The woman glared at him.
“That’s General Sway,” said Fig. “She’s the leader of the Seneca First Battalion.”
“Ooh,” said Ubik. “You must have a really fancy knife. Can you lend it me?”
Her stare was ice cold and a little hurtful. Ubik had the impression she was thinking mean things about him.
“Do you have some kind of grudge with this woman?” Ubik asked Figaro. “Did you have to provoke her?”
“I didn’t provoke her — you’re the one she’s suspicious of. Can you be a little more respectful? I think we might need her help to break through the door,” Figaro admitted reluctantly.
“I can do respectful, no problem.”
“Okay.” Fig nodded indifferently.
Ubik snapped his fingers. “Knife. Now.” He opened his hand, palm up. He moved his mouth to the side, towards Fig. “Respect as equals. It’s what us apex predators respond best to.”
“I don’t think she sees you as an equal,” said Fig.
“I know, that’s why I’m coming down to her level. She appreciates it, you can tell by her face.”
“We’re not going to give you a weapon,” said General Sway, her face full of thunder.
“Then how am I supposed to cut off his arm?” said Ubik. “I’m just a civilian. What do you expect me to do? Use my sharp wit to hack through his biceps?”
“My arm feels fine,” said Fig. He was sitting up now, rotating his wrist and shoulder.
“Of course it feels fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. I need the thing on your wrist. The secret to getting inside that panel is in your bracelet, I can feel it.”
Fig looked at the cleared patch on the ground and then at the bracelet on his arm. “Can’t you use it while it’s still attached to me?”
“Well, I could, but it’d be a bit inconvenient.” He turned back to General Sway. “Lady General, you aren’t going anywhere without me, so why don’t you be a good girl and—”
Fig groaned and lowered his head as Ubik went flying. The General had always had a devastatingly fast kick.
Ubik sat up next to Chukka.
Fig made a grunting sound, still not fully recovered from the psychic attack or whatever it was he’d just undergone. He didn’t seem very well equipped to deal with it and chances were it would be back.
He looked over at Chukka. She seemed to be able to help Fig manage, but it wasn’t exactly a long-term solution.
“You. Chukka, wasn’t it? Got a knife?”
She didn’t look in great condition herself. Her face was cut and bruised. In fact, now that Ubik looked more closely, she seemed to have taken quite a beating recently.
“No.” Chukka shook her head. “You can’t cut off his arm. I won’t let you.” She got to her feet and unsteadily made her way towards Fig. There was a protective look in her eyes that was mildly surprising. It actually looked genuine.
“Hey, Fig,” Ubik said to Fig. “You and this VendX chick, you got something going on?”
Fig looked at him and shook his head, although whether he was denying any involvement or trying to clear his head, Ubik wasn’t sure.
“She seems to have fallen for you,” said Ubik. “Won’t let any harm come to you. Gotta be love, right?”
“You can’t let him hurt him,” Chukka said to the leader of the Seneca Corps. Appealing to the least sympathetic women in the galaxy; not much of a plan. “He’s Ramon Ollo’s son. He’s our only way out of here.”
“No one’s cutting off anything,” said General Sway.
“Do you want to get through the door or not?” asked Ubik as he got to his feet. He turned to Chukka. “Do you love him? Is he the most important thing to you? He is, isn’t he? I think that’s beautiful. Good for you. I wonder when will someone feel that way about me?” He sighed.
He turned to look at the Seneca women gathered around him, hostility seeping out of their every pore. “Maybe one of you… Hmm, I wonder which one of you is destined to fall for me by the time we leave this place.” No one stepped forward, which was disappointing.
The tall woman Fig had knocked out groggily stood up, holding the back of her head.
“Oh, hello,” said Ubik, tilting his head up to look up at her. “I think we have a volunteer.”
The woman scowled and threw out an arm to swipe him away. Ubik ducked under her surprisingly large fist, moved into her and pushed her away with a shove to her stomach. She was still off-balance and wasn’t able to resist, although she only stumbled back a few steps before steadying herself.
“Nice,” said Ubik, holding up the large dagger now in his hand. “Seneca steel.” He twisted the polished blade. “They say the only thing harder to bend is Seneca stubbornness.” He turned towards Fig, who was also back on his feet.
“No!” shouted Chukka. “Stop him!” She had given up on the Corps and was addressing the six VendX employees Ubik had brought with him. They looked a little sheepish and didn’t respond to her orders. “Bashir!”
“Sorry, Major,” said Bashir. “We were told to follow his orders. By the Chairman.”
“It’s fine,” said Fig. “He isn’t going to cut off my arm.” Fig extended his arm for Ubik to do with as he pleased.
As expected, the son of the great Ramon Ollo wasn’t an easy person to troll. Ubik held Fig’s wrist with one hand and stabbed the bracelet with the dagger held in his other.
It was a sharp blade with a very fine point, made to cut through spacesuits and padded armour before sliding through skin, flesh and bones. Serrated on one side, ground to razor-sharpness on the other. There weren’t many materials that could resist if enough force was applied.
Ubik only had the strength of his muscles, which wasn’t a lot, as he would happily admit. But not every problem was solved by brute force.
The bracelet on Fig’s arm was made of some kind of resin or densely-packed fibrous material. There were no obvious joins or seams. It probably required the correct application of an electrical current to open, although it clearly didn’t require electrical power to function. If it did, it wouldn’t have been able to suppress Fig’s organic. Not in this place.
Ubik stabbed and poked across the surface of the bracelet, which stretched from Fig’s wrist to halfway up his forearm. Then he turned Fig’s arm over and tried the same on the other side.
Everyone else stood watching, not sure what he was doing or even what he was trying to accomplish.
“They think I don’t know what I’m doing,” Ubik said under his breath.
“Do you?” asked Fig.
“Not really. But no great thinker ever does. Wait!”
Ubik suddenly ran towards the open area on the ground and began jumping up and down on it. After a couple of minutes of energetic bouncing, he stopped and came back to Fig.
“Worth a try.” He went back to prodding Fig’s bracelet with the knife.
The women of the Corps and the men of VendX continued to watch, their initial anxiety settling into general bemusement. The two groups were keeping away from each other, but very wary.
Ubik saw the tension between the two parties as unnecessary.
“You know,” Ubik said to Fig, “I brought those guys with me, and there’s all these women here — do you think you could organise a dance for them later? Maybe it’ll break the ice.”
Fig let out a long sigh. “The Corps doesn’t really approve of dancing. Especially not with men.”
“Yeah, but I have moves they’ve never seen.” Ubik raised his eyebrows suggestively and tried to bend the knife blade with the tip partially stuck in Fig’s bracelet.
“None of them are going to fall for you, Ubik.”
“That’s just the prisoner talking.”
“Prisoner?” said Fig.
“This island, it was built as a prison, so… must be a prisoner here. He’s the one who’s been trying to get in your head, telling you what to do.”
“No one’s been telling me what to do,” said Fig.
“No strange voices in your head?” asked Ubik.
“No,” said Fig.
“Great, great, good,” said Ubik. “Me neither.”
Ubik paused to look over his shoulder at all the pretty faces staring at him. It was true that no one had any sort of warmth in their gaze, but it wasn’t like he was expecting love at first sight. He saw himself as more of an acquired taste.
“It’s alright for you, you’ve already got your castaway love sorted. Although, to be honest, if you were going to choose a girl to hook up with, I’m not sure she’s the best you could do. Some of those Seneca chicks look like they’d scrub up quite well. I’d even go as far as to say there’s a couple of beauties in the herd.”
A chill seemed to tighten around the back of Ubik’s neck. He looked back at the women, who didn’t look very impressed with what they were hearing, which was poor manners at best since they were listening in on what was clearly a private conversation.
Ubik turned towards the tight-jawed Seneca women, waggling the dagger still stuck in Fig’s arm.
“Yes, I’m objectifying women. But I’m objectifying them in your favour. I’ve read your books. That’s what you like. It’s romantic.” He shook his head and returned his attention to Fig’s arm. A crack appeared on the bracelet and then a panel popped open. “Oh. How did I do that?”
Everyone closed in to get a better look.
Ubik spun around, the dagger pointed at them. “Back! Oh, you’re all flirting with me now that I’ve got the shiny-shiny. So fickle. Chukka, even you?” He shook his head at Chukka. “Can you imagine how hurt Fig will be when he finds out you’re this kind of loose woman?”
Fig, who was standing next to Ubik, tapped him on the shoulder. “How is this going to get the door open?”
Ubik turned back around. The bracelet’s insides were a solid mass of a dark purple gel. There were no moving parts, nothing to modify or extract.
“Your dad made this?”
“Dr Yune,” said Fig. “He’s my father’s head of research.”
“But your father has the same technology.”
Fig shrugged. “I suppose so.”
After studying the inside of the bracelet, Ubik’s understanding of the technology created by Dr Yune didn’t drastically improve.
“You don’t know how it works?” said Fig.
“No idea,” said Ubik. He prodded the interior with the dagger.
The moment he did so, he felt a charge of energy rush up his arm. Or try to. It reached the bracelet on his own wrist and his arm seemed to freeze up.
“Put your hand in.”
“Put my hand in there?” Ubik said to Fig.
Fig’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking me?”
“It was your idea, wasn’t it?” said Ubik. The look Fig gave him made it clear he wasn’t the one who had made the suggestion.
Ubik rubbed his forehead and looked at the parasite on his arm. “Was it you? Are you trying to talk to me?”
“Put your hand in,” repeated the voice.
“I don’t like being told what to do,” said Ubik.
The parasite moved, tightening around Ubik’s wrist. The pain sent him to his knees and his hand paled to white before turning an unpleasant grey-green.
“Nope,” said Ubik through gritted teeth. “You’re messing with the wrong guy with a knife.”
Ubik raised the dagger and thrust it into the parasite. It went straight through, not really doing any damage to the gelatinous body, but the Seneca steel kept going, into his arm.
Ubik didn’t as much as flinch as he began sawing. He looked up to find everyone looking horrified by what he was doing. These women were really hard to impress.
“Is he… going to cut off his own arm?” said Chukka, aghast.
“He doesn’t like being told what to do,” said Fig in a quiet voice.
The battle of wills could only have one winner. The parasite unwound, loosening its grip. As it eased its pressure, blood began to flow out.
Ubik stopped. “Anyone got a bandage.” He turned to the Seneca women. “One of you must have a rag for soaking up blood, right?” He was met with blank faces. “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.”
Ubik lifted up his bloody arm and shouted. “Hey! Tighten up and stop the bleeding. You want me to die or something?”
The parasite rotated and tightened. The bleeding stopped.
“Pretty good, huh?” said Ubik, feeling pleased with himself. “Wound infliction and tourniquet all in one.”
Fig didn’t look all that amazed. A miracle right in front of him and nothing. Ubik shook his head. He was becoming jaded at such a young age. Clearly, his father had fatigued his son’s sense of wonder. Ubik would have to correct the boy’s trajectory.
“Here, let me see that.” Ubik grabbed Fig’s arm again and peered inside the open bracelet.
Whatever the substance was, it didn’t appear to be doing anything. But Ramon Ollo had found a way through and this was the only substance that could have helped him. Ubik stuck the tip of the knife in and pulled out a ball of purple gunk. He held it up to his nose and sniffed.
“Do you recognise the smell?” asked Fig.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “It smells like trouble.” He flicked it at the ground. The globule splattered on the cover to the entrance. Nothing happened.
“Hmm,” Ubik said again. He dug out another small amount.
Fig watched, clenching his fist and testing to see if the bracelet still worked.
“How long before you get another visit from the old head fairy?” Ubik asked.
“It comes about once every hour,” said Fig. He looked worried.
A frown flashed across Ubik’s face but he buried it under a smile. “Should be fine. Plenty of time. Might need to brace yourself, that’s all.”
Now Fig looked more worried.
Ubik walked around the three walls, inspecting the strange patterns carved into them. He didn’t recognise them. They looked nothing like the Antecessor symbols he’d seen so far. He’d been able to read some of the ones he’d encountered, but these ones were indecipherable to him.
The others watched him make a circuit of the area. He could feel their anticipation. He stopped and walked back a bit. One area on the wall looked a bit cleaner than the rest. He leaned forward and sniffed.
With a flick of his wrist, Ubik sent the gunk on the knife onto the wall. Then he used the blade to spread it out, filling the grooves. Something clicked.
The cover to the entrance slid open.
“You know what they say,” said Ubik. “Genius is ninety-nine percent hard work, and one percent copying someone smarter than you.”
Everyone closed in to look into the darkness.
“Right,” said Ubik. “Who wants to go first?”
Ubik turned to General Sway. “What good are you if you can’t even take a small leap of faith into the unknown? Are you just a bunch of cowards in pretty dresses? I mean, not dresses, obviously, but I can see you’ve gussied up your battlesuits. Matching gloves and helmets. Polished the gun turrets and used scented gun oil on the built-in grenade launchers. Very la-di-da.”
Sway stared back at him, unmoved.
“Ogden, come here.”
Bashir stepped forward, very hesitantly. “Er, I don’t really think—”
Ubik kicked Bashir so he fell forward with a yelp. He disappeared into the dark, screaming.
“See?” said Ubik. “That’s what bravery looks like.”