Muss Dome - Backstage.
Ubik twisted the solder rod so the flame tightened to a bright white dot. He pulled down his goggles and applied heat in broad sweeps across the microcircuit board Synthia had supplied him with.
It was important to keep the flame just the right distance from the board to maintain the correct level of heat at all times. Too little and there would be no effect, too much and the everything printed onto the board would be burnt to a crisp.
Ubik snapped his wrist left and right, humming himself as the lithogen mixed into the circuitry was melted away.
These boards were top quality components in the field of robot circuitry, but they were nowhere near the level he needed for his greatest creation. They were nice and easy to use — snap together in the prepared configuration — but there was a lack of choice inherent in the design. You could change the colour of the board, but that was about it.
The Mason & Muss company were known for their elegantly constructed robots that looked beautiful and worked with intuitive controls, but simplicity was a hallmark of the stupid.
Not simplicity as a choice — that was just an option. Not simplicity as a default — that was just a starting point. But simplicity as the one and only mode of operation, that was an attempt at suppressing competition.
The lithogen locked in the circuit design so no alternative pathfinding was possible. It also acted as filler to make the board feel nice and heavy. People liked to feel the weight of their components. Made them feel like it was expensive and well-made. Which was obviously nonsense.
It was tedious work, going over the whole circuit board, burning away unnecessary excess, but it would be worth it. The end result would be freedom. Freedom to be better. Freedom to do more.
The potential was already there, locked away, but if they gave people the freedom to have things the way they wanted, why would they need anything more?
Mason & Muss had over ninety percent of the robot market. Even the cheaper brands that offered less reliable models were actually subsidiaries of M&M. Their only goal was to keep their market share and give people more of what they wanted (based on them no longer wanting what they had previously been told they needed).
Ubik’s goal was different. He didn’t care what people wanted. He was going to build something they hadn’t even realise was possible.
He could see it now, the crowds of people sitting out there in the audience, expecting cool robots and fancy gizmos. They were not ready for what he was going to put in front of them. He chuckled to himself.
“Why are you laughing?” said a deep voice from the side.
Ubik looked over. The robot head he had placed on the counter was looking at him with a concerned expression.
Ubik stopped and stood up straight, lifting the goggles and resting them on top of his head.
“I’m at a very delicate stage in the operation,” said Ubik. “So, if you could keep the interruptions to a minimum…”
The robot had been a very beautiful young woman with seductive lips and expressive eyes. With its wig removed and the top panel opened to reveal the internal workings, it looked more androgynous, and slightly cross-eyed. The deep voice coming out of such delicate features was also somewhat incongruous. Ubik could have modulated it, but he quite liked his new buddy to have some bass in his voice. It made him come across less whiny.
“Who are you?” it asked Ubik, the eyes making it look like it was talking to the bench behind him.
“I’m Ubik. We’ve been through this before.”
There was a short pause. “Who am I?”
“You are my good friend, Fourth.”
“My name is Fourth?”
“That’s right. Together, we are trying to help you regain your memories and make you a fully-functioning member of society. And when I say member, I mean titan overlooking your domain.”
There was a pause while the robot head’s eyes moved in independent directions before settling back into their cross-eyed position. “Why can’t I remember anything?”
“Well, it’s mainly a matter of a small baking tin and too much cake mix,” said Ubik.
“I do not understand.”
“That’s okay. You will soon have enough space to be able to use all parts of your mind. Parts you haven’t used for a long time.”
Ubik unclamped the board he had been working on and picked it up. He blew on it, a sharp blast of air through pursed lips, and golden dust flew into the air. “Nice.” The more dust in the air, the less useless crap on the board.
He took out an atomdriver, a thin pencil-like tool, and scratched notches into the board. It required extreme precision to get this part right. Ubik managed it by keeping one eye closed and letting his tongue stick out from the side of his mouth.
“Are you really my friend?” asked the Fourth. For an Antecessor god, he could be quite maudlin in his obsessions. Maybe they all were. Maybe they had disappeared all those aeons ago because they had been sulking in their bedrooms and refused to come out.
“I am your best friend,” said Ubik. “We’re a team, an unstoppable duo. Me, with my technical know-how and blistering speed. And you, with your, er…” He looked over at the robot head. “Winning smile and curious eyes.”
“I have to tell you, I feel somewhat incomplete.”
“That’s because you’re just a head without a body,” said Ubik. “But we’re going to fix that.”
“You’re building a body for me?”
“Better than that. I’m going to put you inside a box of tricks that will make you the most envied creation on the planet. Everybody’s going to want a piece of you.”
“It doesn’t appear to have any appendages,” said the Fourth.
“You won’t need them.”
“How will I obtain things? I feel a strong compulsion to obtain many things. A vast universe of objects that I alone command. Is that normal?”
“For you, yes,” said Ubik. “But you won’t have to worry about your cravings, that will all pass. We’re going to give you a much more important role in the grand scheme of things. We’re going to make you the brightest star in the sky. A being of immense power, striking awe in the hearts of everyone who sees you.”
“Really? I can’t even move.”
He was also surprisingly needy. Had Ubik known Antecessors were this insecure, he would have approached fighting them in a completely different manner. A hug and some reassuring words would have been enough.
Ubik dipped the board in the alkali bath he’d prepared. It fizzed in a satisfying manner. Timing was of utmost importance here.
“Thousand and one, thousand and two… that should be enough.”
Ubik lifted the board out of the bath and moved over to the table where the other boards were already assembled. He slid in the newly stripped one like he was reconstructing a loaf with slices of bread. He was almost finished.
“Once I finish this little beauty, you will be able to do what you want, move where you want. You can even take up dancing.”
“How will I fit in there?” asked the Fourth, his eyes shifting to look right. “It’s so small.”
“Good question,” said Ubik, making sure the newly added board was properly placed. There were no connections, just a very weak electromagnetic field that balanced the boards against each other and held them in place. “It all comes down to the quark space in between the hadron and the electrons in a perfectly balanced cuboid, which is, as I’m sure you know, infinite.”
He looked up at the screen where there was an old photo of the first Trade Fayre that had proven to be the most useful out of all the ones Fig and PT had found.
Crowds gathered around the stage, which looked exactly like the one they still used. On the stage was a large cube, about the size of a small house.
The faces of the people were full of awe and wonder, like worshippers at their holy temple. Which made the cube their god.
A god created not in your own image was a rare thing. It usually meant you weren’t the ones who created it. The complex designs on the surface of the cube indicated who did.
But not many Antecessor constructions were this regular in shape. Droids were multiformational and able to change shape. Only their ships were this rigid and symmetrical. And even they weren’t so perfectly fixed in three dimensions. The reason for the boxiness was obvious. Maximum optimisation of quark space.
“We just need to transfer you into this box with a little help.” Ubik moved across to another table where the black bone was attached to a large number of wires. Each of the more-than-a-hundred wires had their ends inserted into the bone using extremely fine quantum needles, so thin they could fit into the space between atoms.
The wires went from the bone to the open panel on top of the robot head.
“I refuse,” said a different voice coming from the robot’s mouth.
“Get out of my mouth,” said the Fourth.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” said the parasite, which had taken on a rather combative personality of late.
“Don’t use my lips without permission,” said the Fourth.
“They aren’t your lips, they’re for communal use.”
“I object to this violation,” said the Fourth, sounding distressed. “Ubik, tell him to get out of my head.”
“Ubik, this is a bad idea,” said the parasite. “You can’t reinstate the Fourth’s memories. The Antecessors don’t work well with others.”
“Who are the Antecessors?”
Watching the head have an argument with itself in two voices made it look insane. The smoke rising out of the open panel added to the effect.
“We have to help each other if we’re going to get this finished on time,” said Ubik. “And you don’t have a choice.”
“I don’t think he likes me,” said the Fourth.
“He just has a little performance anxiety,” said Ubik. “This was what he was designed for, but he’s never tried it on this scale.”
“I don’t have performance anxiety,” said the parasite. “I just don’t think bringing back an avatar of universal destruction is a good idea.”
The parasite had spent some time with the Fourth when they had both been confined inside the bone. Ubik didn’t know what had transpired between the two, but it seemed there had been some disagreement.
“That was the old Fourth,” said Ubik. “The new Fourth will be a more evolved being.”
“It called me a mindless tool.”
“You are a mindless tool,” said Ubik. “But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“How can I be a mindless tool if I can think and talk for myself?”
“Now, now, boys,” said Grandma’s voice, coming from the same mouth. “What did we discuss? No fighting.”
“I am not a boy,” said the parasite.
“I am not sure what I am,” said the Fourth.
“You’re all my boys and you’re going to get along or I’ll be having strong words with the both of you. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Grandma,” said the parasite.
“Yes, Grandma,” said the Fourth.
The two of them were constantly bickering, but both had become respectful of Grandma in a manner not even Ubik understood.
“And what about you, Ubik?” she said. “Have you not finished the outer casing yet?”
“Almost, almost,” said Ubik. He started working on the next board.
“It’s his fat fingers that are the problem,” mumbled the parasite.
“I don’t even have fingers and I could do it faster,” muttered the Fourth.
Ubik finished constructing the box and began the process of transferring the Fourth into it. The parasite didn’t approve but agreed to accommodate the transfer with a little push from Grandma.
Several hours later, Ubik lay flat on his back, his singed fingers aching from the intense pinching necessary to operate such small tools.
“We’re back,” called out PT from the other side of the curtain. “Ubik?”
Ubik got up and stepped out from behind the curtain. PT and Fig were carrying many bags and were covered in badges and stickers. The two Seneca sisters stood beside them licking on ice cones, their lips bright blue.
“Anything interesting?” asked Ubik.
“It was mostly shoe shopping,” said Weyla.
“You men and your obsessions with shoes,” said Leyla, shaking her head.
“Here,” said PT, holding out an unimpressive piece of cloth. “We got you something.”
Ubik took it and unfolded it. His mouth dropped open.
“We found the Delgado stand,” said Fig.
“It was kind of strange,” said PT.
“I love it,” said Ubik, eyes gleaming. He immediately put the t-shirt on.
“What about your project?” asked PT. “Is it finished? You don’t have much time left.”
Ubik barely heard the question as he admired himself in his new Delgado-branded shirt. He had no idea they even did promotional-wear. “Of course. Nearly. Just a few last adjustments.”
“Can we see?”
“Okay.” Ubik pulled back the curtain.
PT and Fig looked at the mess.
“Where is it?” asked PT.
Ubik walked over and picked up the small black cube and held it in his palm. “This is it. I call it the Ubik’s Cube.”
“What does it do?” asked Fig.
“It changes everything,” said Ubik, smiling.