The image of the Seneca ship froze at the moment it had ceased to be. Ubik could see every tiny particle glimmering on the point of disintegration.
He could see the energy fizzling, just about to be sucked away as the bonds that held matter together disappeared. He could see it all, every step leading up to the destruction of the huge ship, turning it into a cloud of atoms.
What he couldn’t see was what had caused it.
Undoubtedly, it was the Antecessors who had done it, but how?
There was no weapon he knew of that could spontaneously cause the connective tissue of the universe to fall apart like this. And even if such a weapon did exist, how could it not reveal itself when causing such a dramatic effect?
“Okay, now reverse it,” said Ubik. “Slowly.”
The patterns of light on the cube behind him reversed direction.
The image wound back in slow motion, the billions of particles reforming into the shape of a domineering, impenetrable warship of the Seneca fleet. The image was just a historical record of something that no longer existed.
“Hold it there. Hmm. Interesting.” Ubik leaned in to get an even closer look at the image he was already standing in the middle of. “I can’t see any source for whatever blew your ship up. It’s like it died from the inside. Hmm.... do you think they would have suicided when they realised they had no chance of winning against the Antecessor armada?”
“No,” said Nigella Matton-Ollo. She had been watching him closely from the moment Fig disappeared.
She hadn’t panicked, hadn’t started demanding answers no one had or insisting on taking action that no one could perform. She had simply taken her baby back from Weyla — who looked very relieved to hand the thing over — and then her focus had been Ubik, and only Ubik.
He had no idea why she had decided to make him her number one object of interest, it wasn’t like he was the one who had vanished Fig, but he did his best not to let it get to him. Which wasn’t easy.
For a beautiful woman, she could look remarkably ugly when she was unhappy. And right now, she had the face of a rather terrifying gargoyle.
Her mouth was spread in a wide frown, with thin lips and vicious little teeth, each filed down to a sharp point. Or so it appeared. It might just have been the lighting. Her once tiny nostrils were flared like a predator searching for a scent. And her eyes were unblinking.
She was one of the most powerful and relentless killing machines in the galaxy and she was powerless to protect her son, all she could do was show her fangs. Which she appeared to literally have.
The squirming child in her arms was no beauty, either. Babies were such little monsters. And they smelled terrible. And that was coming from someone who had grown up in a sewer.
“I’m assuming you’re going over the destruction of that ship because it will lead you to Figaro.” Nigella spoke in a soft voice devoid of any inflection that still managed to send a chill down Ubik’s spine. Ubik wondered if she was even capable of speaking without sounding threatening.
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Ubik, giving her his best reassuring smile. “Your son is fine. They need Fig alive. They won’t hurt him. Well, they won’t kill him. He’s got the organic they want, so that makes him the least in danger out of everyone.”
Nigella didn’t look very reassured. In fact, she looked slightly more homicidal than before at being reminded about her son’s perilous situation.
It seemed Nigella had identified him as the best hope for her son. Which made him her focus for the time being. It was a lot of pressure.
He looked over at PT, who had his arms folded and had the look of someone who wasn’t going to help. Synthia was standing next to him. They made quite the couple. Both scowled at him as though they could hear his thoughts. And the six other robots were also staring at him, but they had a vacant look so he guessed they had switched to some sort of low-energy mode to conserve power.
“Are you just going to wait for Fig to save us?” asked PT. He made it sound like an accusation.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “Did you see what they did to their ship? There’s no point trying to start a fight. We’ll just end up like the women on that boat.”
He felt the icy stares of the other Seneca women, who also wore grim expressions, their shock at seeing one of their invulnerable ships turned into dust now transformed into anger and bloodlust. He understood perfectly, but why were they looking at him when feeling that way. It made no sense.
Ubik decided it would be best to keep busy while they waited for Fig to save them all. Or not save them all. Whatever the outcome, it really was out of his hands at this point.
“Okay, wind it forward once more. Okay, now back it up again.”
The image of the ship was destroyed and reconstructed over and over. Ubik found it quite soothing. It was like a puzzle waiting to be solved, he just had to find the point of origin for the explosion. It wasn’t from the Antecessor ships, and it was unlikely to be a malfunction on the Seneca ship. So where was it?
“Please stop doing that,” said Weyla, looking pained.
“I’m sorry, do you find it upsetting?” said Ubik.
“Yes, a little,” said Weyla. “I knew a lot of the women who died on that ship.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” said Ubik. “A lot of people died on that ship, a lot of people were killed by the people on that ship. A lot more people will die on those other ships. Turn around if you don’t want to witness life and death carrying on in the universe.” What good would it do to start getting sensitive about these things? “Okay, Fourth, once more, this time slower.”
The Seneca ship once again scattered into tiny points of light. And then stopped at just the right point to enable Ubik to see the faintest trace of energy. It wasn’t that the energy showed him where the origin point was, it was more that each had very similar signature. One he was familiar with, sort of. Organics.
Every crew member on that Seneca ship had an organic. And every particle in front of him had a trace of the same energy signature.
The ship had been destroyed by the organics of the crew. Which suggested that the Antecessors could force them to self-destruct.
It was only a theory, but it meant there was a lot about organics, and the Antecessors’ ability to control them, that they didn’t know. Information he hoped Grandma would bring with her when she came back. If she came back. Assuming Figaro saved them all.
“They will pay,” said Nigella Matton-Ollo, her face a grim picture that was gradually getting grimmer. “For this, and for taking my son.” She shifted the baby to her other shoulder. “How did they take him?”
Her question was casually thrown out with no emotion behind it, but her eyes were on Ubik, he could feel them burrowing into him.
“I have no idea,” said Ubik. “You know what these Antecessors are like, always hiding their superior technology.”
“Don’t aggravate her,” said PT.
Ubik gave him a thumbs up to show he understood. For some reason, PT closed his eyes and bit down on his lower lip.
“But your friend, the Antecessor in the box,” said Nigella, “he will know, won’t he? He’ll know how they took him, where they took him and what they’ll do to him. Why don’t you ask your friend?”
There was something about the way she posed her questions that was very unassuming but at the same time, incredibly threatening. Not so much passive-aggressive as making conversation while waiting for an opening to attack.
She wasn’t acting any differently, but Ubik was sensing an increase in pressure. Like death was approaching.
“I’m sure Figaro is completely safe,” said Ubik. “Isn’t that right, Fourth?”
The cube stopped flashing its lines of light.
“You have changed the nature of the artefact he carries,” said the Fourth. “They will investigate those changes. They will open the host body and thoroughly investigate.”
Couldn’t he have chosen a nicer way to put it?
“Right,” said Ubik. “They’ll investigate him, that’s all. Using some sort of x-ray machine. Look inside and analyse what they see.”
“If they are unable to activate it in its current form, they will remove it and attempt to reconfigure it. Strip it out of the organic material it is bound to and start again.”
“Heh, sure, remove it, like how you removed his father’s organic. His father who is still alive and everything.”
“His father is truly alive?” said Nigella.
“Definitely,” said Ubik. “Last time we saw him. Right, PT?”
PT shrugged. “I suppose, technically speaking.”
He wasn’t helping. Ubik could tell he needed to give everyone some sort of hope to cling to.
“Let’s carry on with the video, here. Look, see how all the Seneca ships got away? That’s good, isn’t it? They ran away and survived — live to fight another day.”
“Are you calling them cowards?” said Nigella, her voice sharpening for the first time.
“No, no, I would never call them that,” said Ubik. “Smart move. I would do the same. Who wouldn’t?”
“They should have stayed and died like warriors,” said Nigella. She really was the most uncompromising woman Ubik had ever met.
“They retreated,” said PT.
“Tactical withdrawal,” said Ubik.
“Why?” said PT, staring at the image of the Seneca fleet running away. “That isn’t like them.”
“No,” said Leyla, “it isn’t.”
“And why did the Antecessors allow them to leave?” said Nigella. She turned to Ubik. “Ask your pet Antecessor what happened.”
It was an order, like he was one of her underlings. It made him not want to comply. What was she going to do, kill him?
“Do what she says,” said PT under his breath, “before she kills us all.”
“Your people are of no importance,” said the Fourth unprompted. “Where they retreat to will make no difference. Once the portal is open, there will be nowhere to hide.”
“So gloomy,” said Ubik. “All of you need to have a little more faith in Fig.”
“Yes,” asked PT. “But in the meantime, shouldn’t we be doing something?”
“Like what?” said Ubik.
“Oh, you know, running for our lives.” Behind PT, the cube pulsed with light. Was the Fourth agreeing with PT?
“And leave Fig to his fate?” said Ubik, shaking his head in disappointment. “I thought you were the heroic type.”
“Then you were wrong,” said PT. “I’m only trying to get through this in one piece, and not letting the Antecessors take over the galaxy seemed like the best way to do that. Now that we’ve lost our only source of leverage, I don’t really see the point of staying.”
“That’s a very pessimistic outlook,” said Ubik. “You don’t know what Fig’s up to. He might talk them round and get them to call the whole thing off.”
“You think he’ll persuade them to not take over the galaxy?” said PT.
“It could happen. We just need to sit tight and wait to see what he manages to pull off,” said Ubik. “Personally, I feel very confident. A new era is about to begin. Either the Antecessors will reign supreme or Figaro Ollo will be our new galactic overlord. Should be exciting, either way.
“What is it that you are trying to achieve here?” said Nigella, suddenly not composed at all. “They said to be wary of you, the mysterious Null Void, but you seem to be nothing more than a hapless fool. My son is in imminent danger of dying and you are supposed to be his friend who he thinks so highly of. Tell me why I shouldn’t gut you here and now so that you don’t pose a threat to any of us in the future.”
“So you think we’ll have a future, then?” said Ubik, not taking offence. “Good. That’s the first supportive thing you’ve said about your son, who you don’t seem too confident about. Let’s hope you do a better job with the new one.”
Nigella’s eyes darkened, turning into black pits. “My son isn’t here to protect you now.”
Ubik wished he had a better grasp of the Antecessors’ organic destroying ability right now.
Still, sometimes you had to accept you were going to get punched in the face and it was better to let people get it out of their system. Hopefully, he wouldn’t die in the process.
“Stop,” said PT, appearing in front of Ubik. “He’s a pain, but he’s still the person who’s kept your son alive, so far.”
“And what if I decide to take on the role of my son’s protector and put the Null Void out to pasture?” Her voice had grown deeper and her eyes had become darker. The baby in her arms started crying.
“Then forgive me for being rude,” said PT.
“Hah,” scoffed Nigella. “You are even less useful than him. Your corpse is all I need.” She raised her free hand and a dark hole opened in front of her. It was only the size of a fist, but the pressure from it was enormous.
PT grabbed Synthia’s arm and in an instant, her skin turned metallic. It was grey and dull, and reminded Ubik of something. Where had he seen that metal before?
Synthia seemed just as surprised but had no time to ask what the plan was as she was pushed into the path of the black hole, which struck her on the chest… and then bounced off.
“Oh, it’s lead,” said Ubik. “How did you know about that?” Lead was a rare metal used back when wormholes were first discovered. It was used to protect the hulls of the first exploratory vessels because of its resistance to dark matter, but it was quickly replaced by cheaper, easier to produce metals.
“Ramon told you,” said Nigella, enraged.
“No,” said PT. “He was even less helpful than you.” He turned to Ubik. “Born on a spaceship.”
“Of course,” said Ubik. “I would’ve—” The cube suddenly lit up, every one of its surfaces painted white. “Er, Fourth, is that you?” Ubik stepped back. This was new, and not in a good way.
“My task is complete,” said a different voice. It was the Machine. “The portal is opening.”
“Can we stop it?” said PT, also backing off.
“I don’t know,” said Ubik. “Fourth?”
“There is no going back,” said the Fourth.
“Make the Machine turn it off,” said PT.
“It is no longer here,” said the Fourth. “It has completed its task and now it has gone.”
“Gone?” said PT. “Gone where? Bring it back.”
“I cannot. The process is complete. There is no going back. You must prepare yourselves for annihilation.”
“He’s just being dramatic,” said Ubik. “Had this big plan for a carefree future. Now he’s in big trouble when his bros get hold of him.”
“The Creator will not suffer any of us to exist,” said the Fourth. “The future will not include any of us.”
“See what I mean?” said Ubik.
The sigils, which had been quietly floating in the background, began to move.
The cube began to glow brighter. It seemed they had reached the point of no return. The portal was opening right in front of them.
Everyone backed away. The Seneca women had weapons drawn, even Fermont on Leyla’s back had a gun in her one hand.
A figure appeared, silhouetted in the light streaming out of the portal.
“Oh, you’re finally here,” said Ubik.
Figaro came walking out. “You were waiting for me?”
“Huh?” said Ubik. “Oh, not you. Although, welcome back. I was talking to Grandma.”
“Hello, dear,” said Grandma, her voice coming from Figaro’s arm. “Did you miss me?”
Figaro stared at his control panel in shock. “Grandma, you were there all the time?”
“Yes, yes. Napping, mostly. Not much to do on that ship, was there?”
Figaro’s mouth was hanging open
“Figaro,” said Nigella. “What happened?”
“Hm? Oh, the Antecessors see me as some sort of special artefact they have to work with to bring their Creator back.”
“You weren’t their prisoner?” asked PT.
“No, I’m, erm, sort of their... leader.”
“That’s great,” said Ubik, “but what the hell is that thing?” He pointed at the strange ball of light hanging over Fig.
Figaro looked up slightly. “You can see it?”
“And the rest of you? Can you see it, too?”
The others looked confused, indicating that they could not see it.
It was an odd thing Ubik had never seen before but it somehow felt familiar. The energy radiating from it seemed to be connected directly to Fig.
“Is that… your organic?”
Fig looked surprised. “That’s right. The Antecessors tried to remove it from my body and it ended up like this, and also, it can sort of talk to me.”
“It’s sentient?” said Nigella. “Your organic is sentient?” She was staring intently at her son, and around him, but she clearly didn’t know what it was she was supposed to be looking for.
She came closer and handed the baby to him, more interested in examining him.
“Yes, Mother.” Fig had hold of his sister, holding her a little awkwardly, although she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, her attention was on the organic over Fig’s head. She was smiling and waving her hand as though trying to catch it.
“I think she can see it, too,” said Ubik.
Fig held her up and she tried to swat it. The organic moved out of the way.
“Stop that,” said a thin, reedy voice that seemed to be coming from the ball of light.
“You. You are the herald.” The Fourth sounded uncomfortable.
“Yes. And you are the traitor. Another one.”
“How did you manage to convince them to let you come back?” The Fourth was in deep conversation with the organic, practically ignoring everyone else. One moment all doom and gloom, next, chatting away.
“Will someone explain what’s going on here?” said PT. “How is his organic sentient?”
“I don’t know exactly,” said Fig. “It’s been growing inside me since I was a child. Absorbing part of me, or so it claims.”
“Does that mean my organics will do the same?” said PT, also sounding uncomfortable.
“I don’t think so,” said Ubik. “I think this is a special organic. And it seems to be on our side, which is nice. I take it you can control the Antecessor ships now.”
“I think so,” said Fig.
“Does that mean you were controlling them earlier?” asked his mother. “When the fleet was attacked.”
“Yes,” said Fig.
“You attacked our ship?” Nigella’s voice wavered.
“I needed them to leave,” said Fig, “and there was no other way.”
“Figaro…” His mother was shocked. “You should not have done that. You have made yourself an enemy of the Corps.”
“That is how they always saw me,” said Fig.
“Well, let’s go, then,” said Ubik. “We can’t hang around here.”
“You want to leave on the Antecessor ship?” said PT.
“Of course. That was the whole goal of this enterprise. A ship.” Ubik turned to Synthia. “Oh, you should come with us.”
She was still covered in grey. She nodded and her sisters copied her example.
Ubik didn’t know what use they’d be, but PT seemed fond of her.
Fig passed his sister back to his mother, who was still a little stunned by her son destroying a Seneca ship. Perhaps she was seeing a little too much of her husband in him. In any case, she didn’t try to stop them. She just looked at her son with questioning eyes.
“It’s alright, Mother. This will keep all of you safe. I’ll come back once it’s done.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, but Fig had already walked back through the portal. Ubik followed him, his heart thumping wildly.
The next moment, Ubik found himself on the Antecessor ship. It didn’t seem very interesting, just four walls, but finally, he had made it onto a real, fully operational, active Antecessor vessel. The Fourth had said they existed and he’d got one to come to him.
There was so much to learn. So much to play with. He just needed a little time to go over it all.
“What about the Creator guy?” said PT.
“Um, we have to prepare a few more things before that can happen,” said Fig. “Actually, we have to eliminate the human race. But I’ll explain later. First, you better meet the Antecessors.” Fig led the way.