Point-Two had not expected the gravity to suddenly turn off. That was what if felt like, somebody flicking a switch and normal zero-G weightlessness resumed. Although it wasn’t accurate to say there had been gravity before the sudden change. There had, but not the sort of gravity he was used to.
The whole thing was very much outside of his understanding of what gravity should be able to do. And what you should be able to do with gravity.
Using it like your own personal telekinetic power was not something he had ever seen before, mainly because it was impossible to manipulate in that manner. Not according to current scientific theories. They would probably need to be updated. Or rewritten from scratch.
But then, the reaction of the Floxyn gas — which he had never even heard of before — with gravity was also new to him. Perhaps there were whole books about gravity that regular people weren’t allowed to see. Everyone was told it was all about large spinning masses and the stretching of the fabric of space, and then they were given a bunch of ridiculously complex equations to keep them from asking anything more.
In any case, normal gravity — or its absence — had been restored, and the large sections of droid parts that had been used to threaten Ubik were continuing on the same trajectory as before, directly towards Ubik, which at least was in keeping with the laws of momentum.
Ubik was doing an excellent job of not getting out of the way. He was waving his arms about and kicking his feet, but not actually going anywhere. His form was terrible and he was using up far too much energy. It was nice to know there was something he wasn’t good at.
“Little help,” called out Ubik, surprisingly calmly considering how fast the droid limbs were spinning. If one was to strike him, it would easily take off a body part. Although, knowing Ubik, somehow the inanimate, very-animated object, would probably stop when it got to him, sit up and beg for a treat.
“I’m not kidding,” said Ubik, sounding a little more concerned. “I can’t move.”
Possibly, the Floxyn hadn’t affected the whole area evenly. Perhaps Ubik really was stuck in that one spot, unable to avoid the spinning death fast approaching his position. He was curious to see how Ubik was going to get out of this one.
There were several other pieces of spinning debris, now released from Intercessor control, but none of them posed an immediate threat. They just spun harmlessly through the air. Ubik was the only one in immediate danger. He was leaving it very close.
“PT!” Ubik sounded upset.
And then Point-Two was moving. Not of his own volition, though. Someone has pushed him. He managed to turn his head just enough — part of a manoeuvre he had to make in any case — to see the Guardian with her boot up. She had kicked him.
Why not go save Ubik herself? But then he saw she had positioned herself next to Fig, who was ignoring Ubik’s plight in favour of the amalgam of his father and the Intercessor intelligence that now existed in the image still hanging in the middle of the chamber.
“Eeeee…” said Ubik, which made no sense whatsoever, but which Point-Two assumed was some sort of final animal sound before the arrival of death.
He turned, put out his boot and tapped it against the very tip of the spinning object about to take Ubik’s head off his shoulders.
It was only a gentle touch, but it sent Point-Two shooting off at an angle. Timing was everything when collisions were taking place. You could get smashed to pieces or you could absorb speed, you could even exchange energy.
The rotor stopped spinning and remained in place. It had taken a very precise strike to get it to do that. Not many people could have pulled it off. He probably wouldn’t be able to if he tried again. One in ten times. Maybe three in ten, if he was in form.
He was pleased with how cleanly he’d made the hit, even though it had been quite some time since he’d practised this kind of skill. It used to infuriate people in zero-tag matches. All fired up to ping across the arena, only to power up your opponent and be left for dead.
“You’re welcome,” he said as he went spinning off towards the far side of the sphere they were in.
Ubik had his hands covering his eyes. He took them away and looked around to check why he wasn’t dead. He saw the large, flat piece of droid material hanging in front of him and smiled, like this was all part of his plan. It wasn’t, but it would be hard to prove once Ubik found a way to work it into the next phase of his mission to get everyone killed.
Point-Two was already distancing himself from Ubik’s position, which he could have stopped — there were some complex moves you could do to shed momentum in a no-friction, weightless environment but frankly, getting some distance between them before he tried it seemed like a good idea.
He was currently heading towards the far edge of the brain — half-a-brain — that Ubik had built. The Intercessors were less likely to do something violent to him if they might end up damaging themselves, or that was his thinking.
The others were busy doing their thing. Fig was dealing with his parental issues. The Guardian was playing her eponymous role, to the galaxy and to the Ollo heir — she was also probably quite annoyed that she’d had to be Ubik’s assistant. And Ubik was being Ubik, which meant an explosion of some kind was about to happen imminently.
All in all, Point-Two’s best chance of surviving was to stay out of everyone’s way until it became clearer how they were going to get out of here. They probably weren’t, but in case an opportunity presented itself, he wanted to be away from the targets of the aliens’ interest. Which appeared to be everyone but him. He wasn’t complaining.
“Wait,” Ubik called out after him. “Where are you going? Oh, right. Good thinking. I’ll come with you.”
Point-Two wasn’t sure what Ubik was talking about or how he intended to come with him, but considering how terrible he was at moving under zero-G conditions, he felt confident Ubik wouldn’t be catching up to him any time soon. Ubik could, of course, prove him wrong, which was exactly what he did.
First, Ubik grabbed one end of the now stationary droid artefact. It was composed of a bunch of smaller droid parts that no longer had any reason to stick together, but they still did.
Ubik slowly twisted his body while holding on to the long, flat rotor-like arm, spinning in a circle twice before stopping so that the arm went floating towards Point-Two with Ubik attached to one end.
It wasn’t a difficult move if you knew what you were doing. But Ubik didn’t know what he was doing, or so Point-Two had thought. Actually, from the way he had pulled off that manoeuvre, Point-Two was still pretty sure he didn’t know what he was doing, he had just thought it up on the spot and decided to try it.
Not one to rest on his achievements, now he climbed onto the droid limb and stood up, using it as a surfboard. Point-Two wasn’t surprised by this, but he was surprised that the surfing Ubik was somehow accelerating towards him. That shouldn’t be possible without some kind of propulsion system. It was the boots. It was always the boots.
“Good idea,” said Ubik as he came up alongside Point-Two, who had stopped spinning but continued floating towards the Intercessor half-brain. “We can work on the brain while Ramon competes with the Ints for control. By the time one of them wins, we’ll be the one running things.”
There was no good starting point so Point-Two just asked the most obvious question first.
“How are you going to take control of their brain?”
“Easy,” said Ubik, looking mildly confused at the question. “I built it. It’ll do what I tell it”
“If it just follows your orders, why didn’t you take control of it as soon as it came online?”
“How could I? Them two were both in the way?” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
The image of Ramon Ollo’s head was flickering and glitching out. Some kind of struggle was going on, that seemed obvious.
“Aren’t they working together to defeat you?” asked Point-Two.
“Nooo,” said Ubik in a long drawn out dismissal of the idea. “That’s what they told each other, but they both reckon they’re smart enough to outthink the other. Arrogance, it’s a terrible illness. Many have died from it.”
Point-Two was tempted to tell Ubik to seek medical help before it was too late, but it wouldn’t do any good.
“They’re locked in a battle for control so you’re going to use the time to take control yourself.”
“That’s even better than my idea,” said Ubik. “Let’s try yours first.”
“Are you just going to break things and put them back together again until something interesting happens?”
“No. That would take too long. This Ant tech is surprisingly simple, you know. They’re all built on the same principle. Each construct is modular, made up of snap-in parts designed to be easily replaced. Something stops working, you just open a fresh module, factory-sealed, no glue, screw or welding required. The tricky part is finding a way to remove the ruined bit without interrupting critical functions. The new parts are made to slot right in. It’s very user-friendly.”
“Great. You know how to snap them together. But you don’t know what any of it does?”
“A very small part of the equation,” said Ubik. “Not even worth wasting time thinking about. You get to that part eventually.”
The more blasé about it Ubik was, the more Point-Two suspected there was something the little shit wasn’t telling him. Knowing what it was probably wouldn’t make him feel any better.
“What about destroying it?”
“What do you mean?” said Ubik. “Why would you want to destroy something so amazing?”
“To stop it from destroying us?”
“No, no, no. That’s a terrible idea. Then you’d just have a large rock floating around in space, just like any other large rock. What kind of an existence is that?”
Point-Two was even more sure there was something Ubik wasn’t telling him.
“You mean, what kind of existence is that for a large rock? About the same as it is for most rocks. Ubik, can you destroy the droids or not?”
“Is anything ever truly destroyed?”
“Yes, Ubik, it is. Usually just after you’ve passed through. It would be a lot quicker to end this if you make everything on this particular rock non-operational. All the droids stuff, all the Ollo stuff, all the stuff you’re keeping to yourself because you think you’ll be able to do something really crazy with it and then Fig’s dad will offer to adopt you.”
“Do you think he would?” said Ubik, a little too eagerly.
“He’s supposed to be a genius, so I can’t see him making such a rudimentary mistake.”
“Am I not deserving of love, PT?”
“No,” said Point-Two emphatically. “What you deserve is…” He was about to say something insulting, which Ubik would ignore or deflect or turn back on him, but a stray thought wandered into his mind at that moment.
A thought that rang a little bell. An alarm bell.
He was floating away from the others, which was fine, but he was doing it in the company of Ubik. Which had the potential not to be fine.
Point-Two and Fig had come to the conclusion that being close to Ubik when he was attempting to pull off some highly improbable act was the best place to be. Ubik had a habit of putting a small boundary around Ground Zero to protect himself, and it was a reasonably safe place to be.
The only time that wasn’t the case, he and Fig had decided, was when Ubik actually invited you into that space.
Then it became imperative to find out why he wanted you so close by, and what he intended to use you for.
The sound of Ubik calling for help repeated in Point-Two’s mind. Ubik didn’t call for help. He never needed it. But he had called for Point-Two specifically, to save him from the spinning rotor. And then he had proceeded to ride it like a surfboard, as though it were something he did all the time.
“What do you need me for?”
Ubik looked down from his surfing position. “Oh, you know, someone to talk to, a friend to call when I’m bored, a light in the darkness when—”
“No, I mean why did you want me to come over this side of the room with you? You want me to do something. Something you know I won’t want to do, but you’re going to wait until I have no choice before telling me what it is.” Point-Two looked up at Ubik’s impassive face. “What is it?”
“But if I told you, you’d only say no.”
“Then I’m saying no.”
“You can’t say no, this is our only chance to get out of here. Those two are going to be bickering, internally, for a couple more minutes at least. And then Fig’s going to try to convince the winner not to do whatever it is they think is the next step in human evolution. Whoever comes out on top, they’re going to want to do some kind of weird alien-human hybrid experiment, right? It’s the obvious next step.”
“I don’t think that’s the obvious—”
“This is the best chance for us to sneak in behind the back and take control of this baby ourselves. The brain, the asteroid, the whole thing. And when I say us, I mean you.”
“Me? Why me?”
“That’s what I’m going to show you when we get there.” Ubik looked ahead at the wall they were closing in on. The structure Ubik had built, the brain, or half-a-brain, was attached to the rocky surface, anchoring the giant droid parts that formed the complex lattice that spread across almost half the chamber.
Point-Two twisted his body and used Ubik’s impromptu surfboard to right himself. It looked like scaffolding from up close, with lights pulsing through it. Or most of it.
“We need to go in there,” said Ubik. “And then up near the top, where there’s a small opening.”
“What kind of opening?” said Point-Two, already not liking where this was going.
“Hard to say. The way these parts fit together, it makes it very easy to know what goes where, but not so easy to know what it does. And some parts are made to sit inside other parts. You sort of layer the parts on top of each other. But that means you can’t see what’s happening when it turns on. If you take it apart to have a look, it stops working. Pretty sneaky.” He sounded like he approved.
“Maybe it’s dangerous and needs shielding,” said Point-Two.
“Maybe. I’m not really sure what this stuff’s made of. I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to figure it out. Should probably ask Fig, he’s the type who would know.”
“What is the hole for?”
“What is any hole for?” said Ubik. “A way in, a way out. Won’t know until you go take a look.”
“Me? No, I don’t think so.”
“It’s a small hole. Some bends, needs a flexible person to navigate.” He gave Point-Two a look. “Hmm?”
“You’re smaller than me,” said Point-Two. “You’d be the better fit, I’m sure.”
“It’s not just the size, it’s the gravity. It’s all about gravity. And you’re the gravity guy.”
“I have as much understanding of how they—”
“You can feel it,” said Ubik. “You can adjust to it quicker than anyone else here. You’re the guy for this job.”
“You. You’re the guy.” Ubik reached out a hand while still looking at Point-Two, and caught the nearest droid beam in his hand. There were no lights pulsing or streaking along it.
“Is that one broken?” asked Point-Two.
“No. It’s not plugged in. There’s a lot of them that aren’t. Not a lot, but just the right amount to provide a path through there without setting off any alarms. Probably.” Before Point-Two could get a clarification on what kind of ‘probably’ Ubik was referring to, Ubik had pulled himself into the lattice with an ease and agility he hadn’t shown earlier.
Now would be the time to bail. Ubik would never be able to catch him, and then he’d have to take the risk himself.
But Point-Two was curious. He was here now. And it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. He looked back at the giant head still flickering. The battle of the two minds seemed far from over. He slid through the web of droid parts the same way Ubik had and then followed him up.
The path was easy enough to navigate. The areas that weren’t lit up were safe to grab onto and push and pull your way deeper into the brain. Ubik had it all mapped out.
Being weightless made it very easy, although there were some sudden sharp turns. He was careful not to bump into any glowing parts. He was impressed at how smoothly Ubik was able to do the same, the big faker.
“What am I supposed to do once I get inside this hole?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
“I have no way of understanding their technology.”
“Neither do I. Just do your best. It’ll be fine. It’s not like the droids know much more than us.”
Point-Two swung his body around and then up. “What do you mean?”
“It’s pretty obvious droids didn’t build droids. The Ants, the Ints, someone else made them.”
“A third type of alien?”
“Who knows how many types there are. Look at how many types of people there are. But this hole, this insertion point, it wasn’t made for droids.”
“Droids can change their shape to any size, can’t they?” said Point-Two.
“Yes. So why make it that shape?” He pointed up ahead at a place where the droid limbs came together to form a knot, in the middle of which was a hole. In the shape of a man.
Humanoid, in any case. Two arms, two legs, a head. It would be presumptive to assume it could only have been made for humans but it was hard not to see the similarity.
“You built that,” said Point-Two.
“I told you, I just put the pieces where they fit. The whole thing was pretty much prefab. Slot and lock.”
“And why can’t you go in and have a look what’s in there?”
“Go closer. You’ll see.”
Point-Two slid past Ubik and approached the opening. He felt it immediately, the pull. It was drawing him in. It would be easy enough to allow it to drag him inside, but getting out again could be a problem.
He put his hand out to get a better sense of it. There was no movement of air, no gradient around the hole. Even, regular, gravitational pull. And then nothing outside the defined area.
“What do you think?” said Ubik.
“I think it’s probably their version of a toilet, automatic flush.”
“I wish,” said Ubik. “It hooks up to the main command junction, far as I can tell. And no droids allowed.” He took out a small droid part and threw it in the hole. It came flying out, against the flow of gravity.
Ubik caught it. “Someone else is meant to be driving this. You know, I thought the Intercessors were using this place as a hideout, and the Antecessors came to keep them bottled up. But now I think they both came here to fight over something else.”
“What?” said Point-Two.
“Dunno. Why don’t you go have a look? Better be quick, once the Floxyn dissipates, they’ll have control again, and I don’t know what that’ll mean for in there.”
He could refuse, but then what? There was definitely something worth investigating here.
“Hell with it.” He let himself float into the opening.
The moment he was in front of the man-shaped hole, he was sucked in. He had to quickly get his arms and legs in the right position to prevent getting hit.
“Call if you need me,” said Ubik.
“And what will you do?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Ubik’s words were lost as Point-Two hurtled into a passage in between walls of droid limbs. The passage grew smaller and narrower. Point-Two adjusted his position into a dive, head-first. He expected to find himself being jettisoned into space, a living missile. Maybe this was the Antecessors’ secret weapon, using their enemies as ammunition.
A dead-end approached with no way to slow down. He stopped just before he was going to hit. It was sudden and with no sense of inertia, not jarring at all. He had been moving very fast, and then he wasn’t.
The walls around him were very close, but he wasn’t touching them. They felt like they were closing in on him. The pressure was immense, like he was being crushed.
And then he was part of the asteroid. He had access to all of it. He could sense the droids moving around. It wasn’t like seeing through a camera, it was a general awareness. He had been plugged into some kind of sensor array. It wasn’t uncomfortable. He felt like an observer more than someone in control, though.
There were droids here, and humans, and… something else. Something that seemed to be waking. Not like a droid, not a machine. It was a sentient presence, very much alive, and it was all over the asteroid, spreading, growing. And it was very, very angry.