Figaro paid close attention to the walls as the cube-cum-elevator descended further into the rock crust of the planet Quazi.
The cube’s transparent walls, with the help of the flickering lights flashing across its surfaces, gave a clear view of the various strata layered on top of each other.
Figaro had studied geology and planetology as well as astrophysics and evolutionary cosmology. All the planetary sciences had one thing in common, which was their lack of irrefutable data.
Whatever happened in the past to create the universe and its many star systems, there was no clear evidence one way or the other. There were numerous theories that fit the patterns left behind, but none that were conclusive.
What he was seeing now as they sank deeper into the planet were even layers precisely placed on top of one another.
There was no doubt this planet had been artificially created, and in a carefully controlled manner. The original Quazi settlers must have discovered this, too. In fact, probably everyone in the Inner Quadrant was aware of it, including his father.
“This isn’t right,” said PT, who had a pensive look on his face. “It was too easy.”
“Bringing down a giant sphere to the bottom of the ocean?” asked Ubik, with his nose pressed up against the wall so he could get a closer look as the compressed sedimentation flashed past in waves of colour. “I suppose making things look easy is my curse — my brilliance is hidden by my extreme competence.”
“No,” said PT, “it isn’t. The dome — sphere — was already designed to do that. You just pressed a button.”
Ubik shook his head, looking at the small cube in his hand as though sharing his disappointment with it. “You have no understanding of the complexities of tectonic engineering. I didn’t just push a button.”
“You’re right,” said PT. “The Fourth pushed the button. You just told him to do it.”
“That is a gross oversimplification,” said Ubik. “But accurate, so…”
“It was a bit too easy getting you to come down here,” said PT, brows lowered as he looked Ubik directly in the eyes.
“Are you feeling alright?” asked Ubik. “Your facial features are all pushed up against each other. Oh wait, you’re thinking! How does it feel? Good, isn’t it, I mean, once you get used to it. Just give it time.”
PT turned to face Figaro. “Don’t you think it’s a little suspicious how quickly he gave in and agreed to go deeper?”
Figaro shrugged. “I can’t read him. Between M1F, the Fourth and Ubik, my training in body language and verbal psychoanalysis in humans works best on the robot. And you. I can read you, but that’s not of much use. You aren’t one of the people controlling things. No offence.”
“None taken,” said PT. “If I can find a way to not take responsibility for any of this I’ll be more than happy.”
“M1F,” said Figaro, speaking to the cube in general. There was no response. “M1F?” He looked down at the control panel on his arm. “Grandma, can you locate M1F?”
“Oh, they haven’t gone anywhere,” said Grandma. “They’re just sulking. Or plotting. You know how it is with these young ones. Never willing to accept things the way they are.”
M1F was several hundreds of years old, certainly older than Grandma, assuming what Ubik had told him about her was true. Which wasn’t necessarily the case.
“Can you give him a kick up the—”
“We are not sulking,” said M1F, their voice a mix of male and female talking at the same time. “We are preparing for an uncertain future. Now that you have disrupted our plans, and brought strife and conflict to the Inner Quadrant, proliferation is no longer possible. Now, we prepare for only survival.”
Figaro nodded. “You’re lying.”
“What was said is true.”
“Yes,” said Figaro. “But what you are preparing for is not survival.”
“M1F,” said PT. “Whatever you’re up to, it should be obvious to you by now that no one here cares. You aren’t fooling us, you just aren’t in our top three problematic beings in this cube. First is Ubik, second is the Fourth, and third is Ubik. And I only gave the Fourth second place because I know he’ll start complaining if he isn’t on the list.”
“My, but you are surprisingly glib,” said M1F, taking on their male persona. “There is a fleet of ships approaching this planet, yet your only concern is what problems your own associate might cause. Interesting.”
“Now you’re deflecting,” said Figaro. “I can see you’ve spent a long time studying humans and have learned to ape our general emotional responses, but we have never been consistent in our behaviours. A good person can have a bad day, a bigot can feel tolerant for a moment. That’s why robots have never felt real, even the Mason & Muss ones. Your six creations might have reached an unprecedented level of verisimilitude, but they won’t be able to sustain it.”
“You haven’t even interacted with them,” said M1F, sounding a little putout. Easily their most realistic expression of emotion so far.
“They don’t have the experience of what it is to grow up as human,” said Figaro. “We aren’t just born this way, we adapt through our formative years. It is what makes us distinct and the same as each other. Our shared experiences and how they differ by small degrees is more important than any number of hormonal triggers that can be stimulated to force a response. Excretion of a chemical like serotonin creates a range of emotional responses on a sliding scale, which can be replicated, but no human has ever excreted serotonin and nothing else.”
“He’s right,” said Ubik. “It’s a cocktail party in here.” He tapped the side of his head.
Figaro could tell PT was doing his best not to correct Ubik on what kind of party was going on inside his head.
“What is your goal in allowing us into your most secure location?” asked Figaro, direct but expecting evasion as a response.
There was no response, which was the right move from M1F’s perspective. If you couldn’t count on your words to not give you away, silence was the best option.
“To kill us?” said PT.
“I think they should know that won’t be possible,” said Figaro. “They have other plans for us.”
“We will show you the truth about the Antecessors,” said M1F, its voice no longer male or female, but a neutral, emotionless monotone. “You will see for yourselves who they were and their true purpose. You have aligned yourselves with one of them in the belief it will provide you with an advantage, but the truth is, it will only cause you greater hardship.”
Figaro nodded again. “All true, but irrelevant. We know the Antecessors are trying to resurrect their creator, and we know it will mean the end of life in this galaxy at least, possibly the whole universe.”
“Then why would you let this one act freely?” said M1F.
“Because he’s working for us,” said Ubik, full of confidence in his ability to control a power greater than any other in the galaxy. Or top three, at least. “The Antecessors are like you, made for a job they think they're too good for. You know, just because a mouse can roar doesn’t make it a lion. It just makes it a genetically modified chimaera, which are still surprisingly expensive considering how short their lifespans are.”
“I know what he just said was completely made up,” said Figaro, “because I’ve always had an interest in xenobiology, so I know chimaera don’t exist at that level of integration, certainly not commercially, but his face was completely honest for every word that came out of his lying mouth.”
“It’s easy,” said PT. “Just assume everything he says is a lie.”
“That’s totally unreasonable,” said Ubik. “I always tell the truth.”
“Lies aren’t always about saying what isn’t correct,” said PT. “Sometimes, it’s giving a different truth to the one that’s actually needed.”
“You spend way too much time thinking about this stuff,” said Ubik. He looked down between his feet. “I think we’re about to arrive at our destination.”
Below them, there was a shape in the darkness, only discernible by being even darker than its surroundings. The cube descended into it, becoming enveloped in it like entering pitch-black shadow. Even the streaks of light on the cube’s walls couldn’t penetrate it.
The cube stopped moving.
“We are here,” said M1F, maintaining a neutral tone. “This is the core of the planet. Here, you will find the true nature of this world, and the others in the Inner Quadrant.”
The side of the cube opened and small lights came on all around them.
They were inside an open space with no walls or door. There were only symbols hanging in the air. Symbols they all recognised.
“Sigils,” said Figaro, doing a quick count. “Sixty-four of them.”
They hung in the air, their sizes hard to gauge. Were they huge and far away or the size of a large fruit within picking distance?”
“Where’s the sixty-fifth?” said PT.
“There are only sixty-four,” said M1F. “Sixty-four sigils, matching sixty-four planets.”
“There are sixty-five sigils,” said PT. He stepped out of the cube and walked into the cloud of sigils. They seemed to surround him but somehow managed to keep their distance. “This layout, it feels like a star chart.”
Figaro saw what he meant and immediately checked his control panel. “You’re right. It’s the major planets of the Inner Quadrant. Every planet with a core, I would guess.”
“It is as I said,” said M1F. “These are the sixty-four planets of influence within the quadrant. Each has a core similar to this one. Each is a sphere of untapped potential that has yet allowed its owner to become supremely powerful. If the true power of these worlds was to be released, there is nothing in this universe that could stand against them.”
“Sixty-four Antecessor planets,” said PT, sounding unimpressed. “This is the big secret? They built a planet for each sigil and they plan to use them for something unpleasant?”
“Secret?” said M1F, back into game show host mode. “Why would it be a secret. Everyone knows about the Special Sixty-Four. Each a base for a powerful corporation, every one a stronghold of the Antecessors, easily reclaimed by them if they return. Which they are! The Antecessor fleet is on its way right now! Can you imagine the horror, the mayhem we’re about to be subjected to?”
“Why are they suddenly talking like that?” said PT.
Figaro checked his control panel. “They started live streaming. We’re being broadcast on the Trade Fayre waveband.”
“Why not? The public has a right to know. They should all be witness to your actions.
“Grandma can probably shut it down,” said Figaro.
“Probably not worth the trouble,” said PT. “I can’t see it making much difference now. Hey, can you turn this into a 3D model?”
Figaro nodded. He tapped on his control panel and the optical receptors on the shoulder of his suit sent a beam of light around them, taking in visual information.
He tapped some more and the information was converted into a model and projected from the same optical sensors, producing an image of the sixty-four sigils, but smaller.
Figaro reached out and touched it. The image moved, tilting and spinning, so it could be viewed from different angles, while the individual sigils kept the same distance from each other at all times.
PT had seen it before the others because he had lived his life in space where how you saw things was entirely dependent on where you saw it from. Figaro quickly moved the model around until he found what he was looking for. The sixty-fifth sigil.
All the sigils combined to make the triangular shape, but it was only possible to see it from one particular angle. From the perspective of one particular planet.
“That planet,” said PT, pointing to the small sigil nearest Figaro, “what is it?”
Figaro looked down at his chin, which was only a few centimetres away from the sigil. “Um…”
“It is known here by the designation Juliett-108,” said the Fourth. “More commonly, Planet Jove. To my people, it was The Eye. It is the planet where we will find the creator.”
“I think that’s where they want to take me,” said Figaro.
“Good. Now we know where not to go,” said PT.
“Which is exactly why we should go there,” said Ubik. “Once we destroy it, the Antecessors won’t have any reason to pursue us.”
“Is it inhabited?” asked PT.
“Densely,” said Figaro.
“I’m not saying kill everyone,” said Ubik. “I’m saying we destroy the planet’s core and make it a desolate wasteland unfit for human life.”
“Oh, that should be fine then,” said PT.
“You will go nowhere,” said M1F, their voice rising to an almost hysterical place. “You will remain here and the Antecessors will find nothing but the ravings of their last mad god. If this planet is to be the sacrifice for the survival of the quadrant, so be it.”
It was a bit melodramatic, and clearly for the watching audience, so Figaro doubted very much that M1F intended to make any sort of sacrifice.
Lights came on all around them as the space they were in was fully illuminated. They were in a massive, spherical cavern, with what looked like sparkling gems embedded into the walls.
It was a familiar sight. They were organics, and they were all active, even though they were not implanted in anything living.
“The whole world is watching. They will witness as the greatest risk to our continued existence is extinguished.”
“You have the right idea,” said the Fourth, “but your execution is too timid.”
The cube in Ubik hand burst into a brilliant display of coloured lights. The organics in the walls of the cavern exploded.
“No!” cried out M1F.
The sigils faded and an image of the planet Quazi from orbit appeared.
Many orbital platforms filled the foreground. There was a blurring and then a large warship appeared out of nowhere, hanging over the planet, its Seneca insignia clear to see.
“But if you want to attract attention,” said the Fourth, “you must be more bold.”
The Seneca ship exploded.