Point-Two stood at the front with Fig behind him and Ubik at the back, which wasn’t where you wanted Ubik. You wanted him where you could see him and, optimally, with an unblocked exit you could get to before he could.
As soon as they had left the waiting room, worried soldiers flanked them with their backs extra straight, eyes nervously flicking towards Levitan, who glowered at them.
He was upset, Point-Two could tell. He hadn’t managed to break Ubik. He hadn’t even managed to turn on his torture device. He was probably very frustrated with how things had gone so far. No torturer wanted to look useless in front of his victims. It created the wrong sort of ambience.
“Take them to Dr Fairway and tell her to keep them quiet,” said Levitan, making it sound like there was some unpleasant way to prevent them from making any noise. If there was, Point-Two wouldn’t mind a bottle of it. He was sure it would come in handy next time Ubik wanted to annoy people carrying weapons. The Seneca Corps, Antecessors, random people in a field — there was always someone with an itchy trigger finger.
“If anything unnecessary happens,” continued Levitan, “you will all be held accountable, as will your families. I hope I make myself clear.”
They set off at a fairly quick pace, pressed in from both sides. The soldiers had looks of immense concentration and some of them were sweating, rifles held in both hands, ready to shoot. They were too frightened to even throw resentful glares at their prisoners.
“How come my hands are cuffed behind me and they get to have theirs in front,” said Ubik. “It’s not easy walking like this, you know? I mean, I’d understand if we were all treated the same, that’s fair. But singling me out for poor treatment when I’m the one who was trying to help, how does that make any sense.”
“Don’t worry,” said Point-Two to the soldier on his left, “you won’t have to listen to him once we get to Dr Fairway.” In truth, he doubted Dr Fairway would be able to shut Ubik up, but he felt it was best to give the soldier some kind of hope to cling onto.
They headed down several sets of wide stone steps, which at least meant they were going in the right direction, but judging by the views from the windows they passed — treetops and clouds, mainly — they were still quite a long way from the planet’s core.
After another five minutes of marching through empty stone corridors, they came to a large archway, through which were people in glass cells, making them look like exhibits in display cases.
“This is nice,” said Ubik. “Very clean. A modern dungeon — I like it.”
He was right. It was a clean and well-maintained dungeon.
The people were all wearing simple tunics that looked like they would tear apart at the slightest tug. They also looked in poor condition, their faces pale and drawn, their eyes hollow and ringed with dark bruises, their bodies frail and hunched.
Some of them were curled up on the floor, others shook like they were having some kind of seizure. None of them were making any noise and only a few seemed to have the strength to pay attention to the new arrivals.
“What’s wrong with them?” said Point-Two.
“Nothing,” said the soldier to his left. “They’re being kept quiet.” He didn’t make it sound like a punishment, more like a relief for all parties concerned.
There were dozens of glass cells on either side of the long room, each containing four or five detainees. In the central area between cells, half a dozen people roamed from one cell to the next, making notes on clipboards. They wore white lab coats, which were very different to the kind of clothing that the people out in the fields had been wearing.
The overall atmosphere wasn’t like a prison, it was more like a medical facility. Or a mental asylum.
“I think they’ve been experimented on,” said Fig. “Organics.”
Point-Two looked at the captives with renewed interest. He knew that there had been many attempts at using people less than ideally suited for the procedure, and often with artificially created organics.
The idea of being able to manufacture bespoke organics, usable by anyone, had been a goal for many of the large corporations for a long time. They had the Antecessor originals to reverse-engineer, which was how they had produced many of their greatest and most profitable technological advances, so there was a strong belief organics would be the same.
But results had never been good. In fact, they had been so bad that the process had been made illegal hundreds of years ago.
Point-Two had no real idea what someone who had been experimented on would look like. The symptoms were probably very varied. But he trusted Fig’s judgement on such matters. In many ways, he had been the subject of something similar through his father.
Thinking about it, they had both undergone experimental procedures, which made him feel a level of sympathy for these people. He could have quite easily have ended up in a similar condition.
At the far end of the room was a large desk with a woman seated behind it. She was busy looking through paperwork, ignoring the arrival of the armed escort and three prisoners.
The soldiers came to a stop in front of her desk and waited, not offering even a polite cough to get her attention.
When she did finally look up, she was surprisingly young-looking. In her early thirties at most. Her mousey-blonde hair was tied up in a bun and she had glasses sitting on the end of her long thin nose.
“What now?” Her manner was terse and dry, although her voice was actually quite cute and childlike.
“Three prisoners to be held until—”
“We’re here to liberate your people,” said Ubik. “Freedom from tyranny.” He looked around, raising his voice. “The end of suffering and slavery. Join us in our fight against the people who, er, are bad and mean.”
A couple of the lab-coated staff stopped to see what Ubik was doing, but he was mostly ignored.
“This is them, is it?” she said, looking past the soldier with an air of strong disapproval. “These are the terrorists responsible for taking the food out of our children’s mouths?”
“I hardly think that’s an accurate summation of what happened,” said Ubik. “Not unless your kids eat high-yield alcohol products.”
Dr Fairway stood up. She had the same white lab coat as everyone else, but she had a gold name tag on her chest.
“No, we don’t. We sell the crops and use the money to buy food. The bigger the harvest, the more the pay. The smaller the harvest, the less the pay. I hope that makes the situation clear for you.”
She was dry and sarcastic, which wasn’t going to work on Ubik.
“If you grew edible crops, you could feed them however much you wanted,” said Ubik. “That’s how farming works in the rest of the galaxy. You know, where they don’t have to fund their evil experiments with highly flammable crops.”
There was a moment of awkward silence before one of the soldiers hit Ubik in the stomach with the butt of his rifle.
“Ow,” said Ubik, staggering back a few steps, shaking the hand he had used to block the butt. “Didn’t they train you how to hold those things properly?”
“I think he did it on purpose,” said Fig.
“Did he? Why?”
“There’s no need for that,” said Dr Fairway. “The prosecutors from Rome will want them undamaged for their… questioning. Put them in there.” She pointed at an empty cell with the pen in her hand.
“Do you have somewhere deeper?” asked Point-Two, as the glass wall slid aside and they were shoved inside.
The doctor looked at him with confusion that could have also been irritation. “Deeper?”
“Yes,” said Point-Two. “Like a really, really deep cell under here. Like, way down.”
“There is nothing under here apart from the morgue,” said Fairway.
“What about the older cells, in the dungeon, where they keep the really terrible prisoners?” asked Point-Two.
“The old dungeon is unsafe and no longer used,” said Fairway. “You don’t want to go down there.”
“We do, I mean, we can escape from here,” said Point-Two, trying to make being moved seem like a reasonable request. Although, he could tell by her face he had some way to go. “A more secure cell, deeper underground, would be more effective.”
The glass wall slid back into place and things went oddly quiet, like the air was thicker and harder to penetrate with sound waves.
Dr Fairway took off her glasses and stared at him, like he was some sort of unusual specimen.
“You’re being too suspicious,” said Ubik.
“I know that,” said Point-Two, “but how else are we going to get to the core?”
It was tricky getting people to trust you by making it look like you wanted to help them make things worse for you. What kind of idiots would want conditions to be more harsh and unpleasant?
“Why don’t you just ask her?” said Ubik. “They probably hate the people in charge. Probably happy to help. Right?”
“I don’t know where you get your information from,” said Dr Fairway, her voice slightly distorted, “but the people on this planet are more than happy with conditions. We have everything we need. That is, we had everything until you arrived. If you think you’re helping us in some way, please stop. We don’t need your help.”
“Do you really mean that, or can you just not say?” said Ubik.
“If she can’t say, she can’t tell us she can’t say, can she?” said Point-Two.
“She could let us know with a signal. Blink two times for ‘Help, I’m being oppressed by an unfair society,’ that sort of thing.”
“You willingly work for these people?” said Point-Two, his face close to the glass wall, paying close attention for any kind of signal. The glass surface was cold and made his nose tingle.
“We do,” said Dr Fairway. “If we didn’t, we’d have all been executed a long time ago.”
Point-Two was a little taken aback by her logic. “Wait, you’re saying because you chose to do this rather than die, it’s voluntary?”
“Yes,” said the doctor with a completely straight face.
“So, if someone put a gun to your head and demanded your money or your life,” said Ubik, “that wouldn’t be robbery, that would be a legally binding exchange of goods?”
“If you want to put it in crude terms, yes,” said the doctor.
Point-Two leaned back slightly. “I don’t think these people are oppressed, I think they’re crazy. Is stupidity one of the side-effects of organic experimentation?”
“All these people are suffering from the effects of exposure to the modified corn we grow here,” said Fairway. “Used to grow here. It’s an unfortunate condition but a rare one. Out of the whole planet of several million, these are the only ones affected. It’s a blessing there are so few. There are no experiments. There is nothing untoward happening here. We are giving these people the best medical attention possible.”
She sounded dignified and sincere.
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” said Fig, stepping up to a part of the wall where the glass looked a little more blue than everywhere else, his voice sounding surprisingly clear, “but all these people are showing classic symptoms of forced integration with synthetic organics. The ersatz alternatives manifest very distinctive side-effects that modified corn crops can’t replicate.”
The doctor gave Fig a withering look. “I assure you—”
“That man is about to vomit blood,” said Fig, pointing at a man in the next cell who was shaking so hard he was almost a blur.
A second later, the man folded in half and spewed blood onto the floor.
The doctor’s look of contempt faded. “How did you know that?”
“If you analyse the blood, you’ll find the red blood cells have started to form DNA clusters. It’s typical of this kind of low-grade organic infusion. These people have all been experimented on. Not by you, I’m sure, but they were sent here after the failure of whatever procedure they underwent.”
“You should ask the people from Rome about it when they get here,” said Ubik. “I’m sure they’ll have an explanation.”
There was probably a chance they could convince her they were telling the truth, but it would take time. And Point-Two wasn’t willing to wait that long.
He placed a hand on the glass wall of the cell. It was very thick and reinforced. A second later, it turned to water and flooded the floor with a sudden splash.
Now the other cellmates did take notice. They were standing and pressed up against their own glass walls, eyes wide and curious, heads bobbing about. It was strange seeing them all come forward together to get a better view.
A soldier lowered his rifle to point it at Point-Two. Before he had a chance to do anything else, Fig had taken it out of his hands and turned it around to point back at the soldier, who raised his hands and backed away.
He was pushed back towards Fig by Ubik who had somehow gotten behind him without anyone seeing. Point-Two had been keeping tabs on him — as he always did, or tried to — and even he hadn’t seen him slip around the back.
The other soldiers looked panicked and fumbled to get their own weapons pointing in the right direction.
“Tell us how to get to the core or we start shooting these soldiers,” said Point-Two, doing his best to sound like he meant it.
The tense silence was broken by the sounds of feet marching towards them. They all turned towards the entrance arch as a group of six men in flowing grey robes and hoods that covered most of their heads came into view.
The people behind glass walls all retreated, cowering and trembling.
“Put those weapons down,” said the man at the head of the group.
The hooded man to his right raised his hand and the rifle flew out of Fig’s hands. But Ubik jumped up and caught it.
“Aha!” said Ubik, pointing the gun back at its original target. “Woah! Hold on!” Then he began wrestling with the gun as an invisible force tried to pull it out of his grasp.
Ubik was practically floating as he was raised up on his toes, refusing to let go. Then a shot fired, pinging off the ceiling and ricocheting off a glass wall, shattering it. The inmates inside stayed stuck to the back wall.
“Fine, if that’s how you want to do it,” said the lead hood. He raised his own hand and the doctor went flying through the air, ending up in his embrace.
He placed his hand on top of her head. “We know who you are and what you want. Surrender yourselves or I kill Dr Fairway.”
Point-Two was momentarily confused. He looked over at Fig, who shrugged.
“Um, okay,” said Point-Two.
“No,” said Point-Two. “You can go ahead and kill her.”
If the man thought threatening Fairway would have any effect on them, he clearly had no idea who they were or what they wanted.