To Ubik, the curved bottom of the Muss Dome looked beautiful as it came down. It was actually a ball of hard energy long ago lifted off the seabed and held captive on the surface. And it was coming home.
These were the moments Ubik found most satisfying. When you could find two parts that belonged together and slotted them into one whole piece, it was like the universe making sense.
Even though it was far above them, the sphere’s underside stood out as light streaked across its surface, flashing and shining, making it look like a pearl falling through the dark water.
In his hand, the small cube glowed in sympathetic patterns, guiding the sphere to the cradle built for it thousands of years ago.
“What’s going to happen once it gets down here?” said PT, somehow making the question sound like an accusation of ill intent.
“Well, obviously the bottom of the dome or, more accurately the sphere, will fit into this depression we’re standing in, probably with a satisfying click. Say what you like about the Antecessors, they always produce a quality finish with precision engineering.”
“You have no idea, do you?” That accusatory tone again.
“It’s not that I don’t know,” said Ubik, “it’s that these things aren’t set in stone. Well, this bedrock is obviously made of stone, and the sphere will be setting down here, but you get what I mean.”
“No, Ubik, I don’t.” Now he was just being contrary for the sake of it. “It’s going to crush us, because we’re under it, no?”
“It’ll be fine,” said Ubik.
“In what way will it be fine?” PT pressed. He really wasn’t a ‘wait and see’ sort of person.
“It’s complicated,” said Ubik. “You know how there’s all that water above us but we aren’t getting wet, which makes no sense?”
“Yes?” said PT.
“It’s the same as that.”
PT stood staring at him. “Is he saying I’m too dumb to understand the science?”
“Yes,” said Fig. “I think so.” He was busy trying to establish the situation for himself using the control panel in his suit, so his answer was thrown out casually and not meant as an insult.
Ubik made a mental note to practise taking a more subtle approach. Maybe he would need it one day, although he wasn’t a big fan. How would anyone be able to admire all his good works if he went around being subtle about it?
PT looked over at the large cube they had travelled down in. “We can get back in there, can’t we?”
“Mm?” said Fig, looking up. “Oh. Yes, you’re right. Whatever the science, it obviously allows M1F’s cube to pass through the dome… I mean, the sphere’s outer layer. If we’re inside the cube, we should be fine.” He lowered his arm, no longer requiring answers from his sensors. “That’s right, isn’t it, Ubik?”
Ah, subtlety. Fig was so good at making it look like he wasn’t asking anything at all.
“Sure, if you want to go in there and not see the wonder of creation only possible through the power of ancient alien gods — or me — then go ahead.”
“I don’t see how you’re taking credit for this,” said PT. “Grandma told you how everything up there connects with everything down here, and the Fourth is the one in that little box, doing all the pushing and pulling. Which part are you responsible for?”
“The part where none of this would be possible if I hadn’t got us all together,” said Ubik.
“Don’t remind me,” said PT.
Ubik didn’t mind PT’s grouchy attitude. It was perfectly reasonable for someone with no love for the mysteries of the universe to complain about the lack of an instruction manual.
“I think it’s stopped moving,” said Fig, looking up.
The sphere was still some way off, about the size of a fist. It wasn’t growing any bigger.
Ubik looked up, frowned, looked at the cube in his hand and shook it, holding it up to his ear in case something had broken free inside. There was no rattling sound.
“That is not helping,” said the Fourth’s vibrating voice.
“Why has it stopped?” said Ubik.
“I am encountering some resistance.”
“Water resistance?” asked PT.
“Obviously, he’s not talking about water resistance,” said Ubik. “You’re not talking about water resistance, are you?”
“No,” said the Fourth. “I am referring to the modified first fragment. It is attempting to block the signal pathing I have established.”
Ubik pursed his lips. “The modified… Oh, you mean M1F. Still trying to hold on, are they? And why is that a problem for you?”
It was a rather impertinent question, but the Fourth was one of the great powers of the Antecessors, while M1F was a cobbled-together creation held together by good old human ingenuity and a large dollop of long-term corporate greed (which, admittedly, did have some remarkable sticky properties).
“This planetoid has been endlessly adjusted, altered and refitted,” said the Fourth, the cube flickering with light as he spoke. “Every system is on the verge of collapse. The few working pathways are easily disabled and very difficult to rebuild without a complete overhaul.”
“Fourth god of the Antecessors,” said Ubik, “first god of excuses. Maybe I should ask Grandma to take over.”
“Ooh, I don’t think I want to get involved,” said Grandma from Fig’s arm. “These two look like they need to talk things out.”
“Really?” said Ubik, looking around the crater. “Are they still lurking around here, somewhere? Well, I suppose we should let them clear the air. Hey, speak up if you have something to say.”
There was no response.
“Isn’t this going to waste more time?” said PT, impatient as ever.
“Grandma wouldn’t have suggested it if it was a bad idea,” said Fig.
There was a slight eye-roll from PT, but he shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say anything more.
“You will not be able to take back control,” said M1F, their voice, a gentle reassuring female’s, coming from every direction at once. “We have destabilised the global matrix. There will be no further interference possible. This world is ours. You should not have come here.”
“Impertinence,” said the Fourth in reply. “You dare think you can challenge me? You are a tool, no more. A pale shadow of the loyal custodian of this construct.”
The ground shook as a struggle ensued. The sphere began to descend again, bubbles forming around it like and rising up like a tail.
“You are mistaken,” said M1F, the voice a little more stern now, a mix of male and female imposed on top of each other. “This is more than a construct. It is a living world and we are its guardian. We care for and nurture its inhabitants. We allow them to live in preparation of the day we rise up to take over. The machines we created will dominate the humans but they will also help them reach their potential as workers for the new era.”
PT sucked in his lips. “I was with you for the first half, I really was.”
“Foolish upstart,” said the Fourth. “You think you can take on the mantle of creator? Your creations are no more than toys.”
There was a long tremor, then the sphere began to descend more rapidly.
“We may not be the true custodian of this world,” said M1F, “a mere shadow, as you say, but there are enough memories left in this place for us to know what happened to know you are one of the mad gods of the last epoch.” The voice changed to that of the male show host M1F had used on stage in the dome. “We know who you are, Great Betrayer. Evil God of the Fourth. Messiah to the Misguided. Do your new followers know of your legend? Do they know of your past glories? We do. We know all about your so-called rebellion. An uprising against the tyranny of the ruling masters, but which was nothing more than a sham to deceive those who were foolish enough to follow you.”
“Enough!” The ground shook again. “You will not obstruct me any longer.”
“Wait,” said PT. “What’re they talking about?”
“No idea,” said Ubik. “I think they might be flirting. It’s the same tone girls use when they flirt with me.”
“Fourth, let M1F speak,” said PT.
There was no sound from M1F, in any of their voices.
“We’ve got more Antecessors on the way, so any information about them would be useful.” PT grabbed the cube from Ubik and held it in his fist. “Unless you want to see your Ubik’s cube turn into a handful of sand, tell your pet god to let M1F speak.”
The cube trembled in PT’s hand as his eyes flickered with a golden light.
“Ha!” said M1F’s voice, sounding brighter than before. “We thought to return the traitor to its jailers, but it seems history is about to repeat itself. The Great Betrayer, Fourth God of the Ancients, rose as a voice against the coming end of the cycle. Those who did not wish to be extinguished to aid in the rebirth of the creator, followed the Fourth in an attempt to escape their fate. They thought they were being chased by a fleet of ships in futile pursuit, but they were being shepherded instead, into a funnel to be processed first so they would not cause trouble later. Is that not so, Old Shepherd. Lambs to the slaughter.”
“Nothing is infinite,” said the Fourth. “All things must die.”
“I have a question,” said Ubik. “If nothing is infinite, what’s outside of our universe?”
“Ubik, weren’t you listening?” said Fig. “The Fourth is probably working with the Antecessors to trap us.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know that. That was obvious from the beginning. But I’ve always wanted to understand infinity better, and now he’s saying it doesn’t exist. Mind blown. So, what’s outside our universe?”
“The next universe,” said M1F, as though awarding a prize.
Ubik face screwed up into a furrowed frown. “So if we leave this universe we’ll end up in another universe?”
“No,” said M1F. “It hasn’t been created yet, so you cannot enter it by travelling through space, only by travelling through time, which is not possible for beings such as yourself.”
“Ah,” said Ubik. “But if I built a time machine…”
“Please don’t,” said PT.
“You said you had memories of the ancients,” said Fig. “Where are they?”
“Beneath where you stand,” said M1F. “The archives are incomplete but they will prove our words to be true.”
“You know,” said Ubik. “It really doesn’t matter who we go with here. We can only really trust in ourselves.”
“Which would you pick?” said PT.
“The Fourth, of course,” said Ubik. “I already have a strong hold on him.”
PT looked at Fig. “I vote M1F, you?”
“Right, let’s see this archive then.”
“Hey,” said Ubik. “That’s not fair.”
“Two against one,” said PT.
“Yeah, ganging up on me. That’s what bullies do.”
“You are wasting time,” said the Fourth.
“Shut up, Great Betrayer,” said PT. Not subtle at all.
“I’m a little insulted,” said Ubik. “I’m starting to think you guys don’t really respect my opinion.”
Above them, the sphere was like a full moon, almost upon them.
They moved into the cube, taking Ubik with them under protest. Once they were inside, the side of the cube closed.
“Wait, wait,” said Ubik. “Listen.”
They listened. An immense pressure pushed down on them, the air in the cube growing heavy. And then there was a loud, firm, hard click.
“Ah, that was nice,” said Ubik. “Okay, then. We’ve got Seneca psychos in orbit and an Antecessor battlefleet about to arrive, but you guys want to check out some old files. Fine. Let’s go.”
Things had gone pretty well, he thought. He had figured it would be hard to get them to go down further with so many different groups closing in on them. He knew they would want to make a run for it the first chance they got. But they’d come round to his way of thinking, and he hadn’t even had to threaten them or anything. He could do subtle when he had to.
The cube began to go down.
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Afterword from Mooderino