Point-Two watched the Seneca ship come apart as explosions bloomed across its hull.
The huge cruiser reacted like it had been hit multiple times by high-powered projectiles but there had been no sign of any weapons being fired from the planet.
The only change had been the organics in the walls being destroyed, which may have been connected. Just prior to that, the cube they had arrived in had lit up for a moment, and then the light had poured into the floor and rushed up the walls.
It had happened very fast and was no more than a flash of light before the chamber fell back into the dull gloom created by the sigils and the image of the planet superimposed on top of them, leaving the walls around them shrouded in shadow.
The Seneca cruiser continued to break apart.
“That’s not going to be well-received by the High Command,” said Fig.
“I think that’s the point,” said Point-Two.
A piercing sound cut through everything, causing a sharp pain in Point-Two’s ears. A recorded message arrived along with the pain:
“This is the Seneca Corps. All those within hearing of this message have been tagged by sonic marker as enemies of the Corps and marked for destruction. If you attempt to flee, you will be hunted down. If you wish to justify your actions, you should record your testimony now and it will be added to our files for posthumous appraisal. The first, second and third battle fleets have been deployed and will arrive shortly.”
The message was delivered as a blip that seemed to rapidly unfold words inside your head. The meaning was clear enough.
“Now the whole quadrant is aware of you,” said M1F, their voice flat and toneless. “You have brought yourself to the attention of the entire human race.”
“Excellent,” said the Fourth. “I await their arrival.”
“You have a very low opinion of them,” said M1F.
“And you don’t?” replied the Fourth.
Point-Two was inclined to agree with him. M1F was no ally of humanity. They might have wanted to keep humans around as slave labour to do all the fiddly things robots found particularly difficult, like tying shoelaces, but their end goal was pretty much the same as the Antecessors — total domination.
“I have never taken them lightly,” said M1F. “And to bring them together in defiance of a singular enemy is to bring out their true barbaric potential. It might surprise you how resilient they can be.”
“It might surprise you how little I care,” said the Fourth.
“We are not surprised. You have control of the planet, its defences and its offensive capability. Most of these systems have never been available to us. This is the first time they have been brought online since the planet was colonised. Impressive, indeed.”
“This isn’t right,” said Fig, quietly in Point-Two’s ear. “The robot’s up to something.”
He was referring to M1F’s newly acquiescent demeanour. Point-Two might not have been as adept as Fig at reading robot voices, but he sensed the same thing.
While it was understandable that the ousted controller of the planet might realise there was no way to defeat the Fourth and reclaim their former position, there was something about the complete and immediate capitulation that suggested M1F had not entirely given up and was in fact stalling.
“Ubik,” said Point-Two. “Is this part of your plan?”
Ubik had wandered off and was standing away from everyone else, staring at the sigils rather than the image of wanton destruction taking place beyond the upper atmosphere. His face was full of wonder, like he was observing some kind of amazing firework show, even though the sigils were motionless and giving off only a dim glow.
“Hmm?” said Ubik without looking over. “Oh, let them sort things out between them. I’m sure they’ll be able to come to an agreement about who owns the planet or whatever.”
It wasn’t the answer Point-Two had been expecting — when was it ever? — but just as M1F was roleplaying the part of the compliant loser to hide whatever scheme they held back in reserve, Point Two suspected Ubik was showing no interest in their squabble because he too had things planned for later.
Point-Two had played this game long enough to know that Ubik rarely sat back and watched. Even though he very much gave that impression, like he was doing right now.
“This planet is now operational,” said the Fourth. “Power couplings are fully charged. The energy stores have been drained and capacity has been reached. For all your faults, you have done a good job of maintaining this facility at the minimum requirements. Well done.”
“Thank you,” said M1F coldly.
“This will now be the centre of operations for the coming battle.” There was a grim pleasure seeping from the Fourth’s voice, like a man in a fistfight whose foot knocks against something on the ground which turns out to be a gun. “The other planets in this sector will be harder to bring online, but once the other human ships arrive, it should make things a little easier.”
The implication was that the Fourth had gone out of his way to attract the attention of the Seneca Corps and every other major power in the quadrant because they would somehow provide fodder to activate the rest of the planets.
“I think you should rein in your god,” said Point-Two.
Ubik had the cube which housed the Fourth. Point-Two was confident he could destroy it if he had to, if he could get hold of it, but Ubik was aware of his abilities. If he wanted to make sure the cube remained intact, he would have thought of a way to do it.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Fig, “but he must have seen this coming. Which means he wants it to happen this way.”
“Mm,” said Point-Two. Fig was obviously right, but that didn’t make being in the middle of Ubik’s chaos engine any more enjoyable.
“And if I’m not wrong, M1F is going to make a move at some point. Which is when we should also make a move.”
“We should join M1F?” said Point-Two.
“I’m not sure… but I think so.”
“Yes,” said Fig.
Point-Two wasn’t against the idea. M1F most likely had a few more cards up their sleeve and, as the most powerful robot on the planet, those cards were probably good ones, but the problem was that the Fourth would be expecting such a move, and so would Ubik. But then, Fig also knew that.
“How will that help?”
“It’s hard to explain,” said Fig, “but I think that if we help M1F we will have a better failure experience.”
“You mean, we can’t make M1F succeed, but we can help them fail… better?”
“Yes. Which will force Ubik to adapt.”
“Which will give us a small chance to affect his actions.”
Point-Two felt like he had a headache coming on. “You’re saying, he’s got things how he wants them at the moment, so anything we try to do to change things, he’ll already have predicted and easily be able to counter, but if he has to think on the fly…”
“Okay.” It did make sense, sort of, but it was somewhat demoralising that the best they could do was to divert Ubik into a more favourable lane, not actually stop him. “Won’t he also know that, though?”
“Yes,” said Fig. “But he can’t resist a challenge.”
Up until then, Point-Two had been in agreement with what Fig was saying, he was just pessimistic about how effective it would be. A loss was a loss, after all.
But Fig’s closing argument sealed the deal. He was right, Ubik couldn’t say no to a test of his abilities — the worse the odds the better, as far as he was concerned. He would even allow others a chance to queer the pitch, just to show off how little a level playing field meant to him.
Which would have been a huge weakness, if he didn’t consistently manage to prove himself unable to lose, even under the most difficult circumstances.
So the only correct play when facing him was to minimise your losses.
Which used to mean coming out alive, but now it felt like they had moved one step beyond that. Both he and Fig had attained abilities that made survival much more likely (although still not guaranteed).
Now they were looking to make small gains where they could. Which was... progress?
The image of the Seneca ship changed to focus more on the orbital platforms that surrounded the planet.
There was a flurry of activity as ships flew home, escaping the unknown fate of Quazi now that the Muss Dome had been swallowed by the ocean. They had decided to head for the relative safety of the stations and, at the same time, numerous ships made the opposite journey having seen the destruction of the Seneca cruiser and preferring to have solid ground underfoot, even though there were hardly any landmasses on the planet.
The chaotic two-way traffic would usually be handled effortlessly by robot pilots, but most of the Quazi citizens seemed to have lost confidence in their mechanical slaves and were flying their ships themselves.
Which would normally be fine — their ships were designed to fly themselves and only required supervising under the harshest of conditions — but in this case, the conditions were beyond the normal range, and many collisions took place.
The overall situation was still within a manageable range, until the space stations, which were linked together in a belt encircling the entire planet, suddenly all uncoupled at the same time and started to drift apart.
That was when disaster truly fell on the people of Quazi.
The orbital platforms — space stations designed to provide habitats for millions — were still within the gravitational pull of the planet, so remained in orbit. But without proper control, they began to collide with each other, setting off a chain reaction of destruction.
Point-Two bit down on his teeth as he watched the horrifying spectacle.
There were numerous escape pods being launched, both from ships and stations, but there were also bodies being jettisoned into space in suits not designed for long-term exposure to the ravages of the endless nothingness they now found themselves in.
Others were shot out towards the planet, doomed to perish once they hit the atmosphere.
And then there were those without space suits, just their everyday clothes.
Nobody was coming to rescue them. Everyone was too busy trying to save themselves.
“Ubik, tell him to stop.”
“You don’t know any of those people,” said Ubik.
“That isn’t the point,” said Point-Two.
He had a very clear idea of what it was like to be blown into space with no hope of survival. When you lived on a colony ship, forever travelling between stars, you were at constant risk of being lost to the void. Once you were out there, you could only rely on others to come get you.
It had been drummed into him since childhood — you don’t let others perish in space, because one day that could be you.
Everyone on the Liberator Garu would do the same. It was part of their core values. It was what made it possible to be out there and not be in a state of perpetual panic.
Didn’t matter who it was. You didn’t let them just die.
Point-Two took two steps towards Ubik, who just looked at him. He took the small cube from Ubik’s hand with a single swipe and held it up.
“Stop now or I will turn this cube into ash.” His eyes flickered with gold light.
“He isn’t in there anymore,” said Ubik.
Point-Two stared hard at the cube, as though he would be able to see the Fourth in there, peering out of a window. The cube looked the same as before, except it was no longer glowing.
More stations were being blown to bits as the explosions spread around the orbital ring. Even if there was a way to stop it, thousands were probably already dead.
“Stop!” shouted Point-Two. He spun around, trying to find a place to vent his anger. The Fourth was in here, somewhere. “Where is he, Ubik?”
“I have no idea,” said Ubik. “Everywhere. This place was built for someone like him to inhabit.”
Ubik’s casual disregard for the massive loss of life only served to infuriate Point-Two even more.
The Fourth had control of the whole planet, and the ability to destroy tiny vessels in space as though they were tin cans.
Even with his new powers, what could Point-Two do against an entire Antecessor-built world?
Maybe he could do nothing to the planet, but this place wasn’t so big. The core had to play a key role in the Fourth’s ability to rain down destruction.
It was bigger than anything he had attempted to transmute so far, but the dome, the cube, this chamber deep underground — they all seemed to be related, and necessary.
If he could break even one link, that might be enough.
Point-Two reached for the only thing he could grab onto, which was the open flap of the cube they had arrived in. It was still flickering with light which trickled down into the floor and disappeared.
If there was some connection between the cube and the Fourth’s ability to control the planet, how would it affect things if these lights were no longer comprised of photons, and were made of something much heavier and harder to control?
As an engineer on the Garu, he had a lot of knowledge about the different materials used on board the ship. He was familiar with the one that was hardest to obtain, and the most mysterious in how it worked.
Gerrum was what gravitational plates were made of. It allowed artificial gravity to be created anywhere. It could even be modified, if you had engines big enough. But they had to be massive, specially designed engines. Otherwise, gerrum could easily go out of control.
What if light particles were replaced by gravitational particles?
Point-Two put his hand on the cube and his eyes began to glow.
“What are you doing?” said Fig, concerned. “Be careful…”
Point-Two was aware of the dangers of pushing himself too hard, but he wasn’t going to stop. Whatever Ubik’s ultimate goal, he wasn’t going to allow this to go on.
He felt the lights pass under his hands and he changed them. His mind was full of the technical diagrams from his studies from when he was in training, containing structures that were only meant to be theoretical.
He remembered how everyone used to complain there was no need to go into such detail when they would never be able to put any of it to any practical use.
The light kept flowing, Point-Two kept changing it.
The flow grew faster. And heavier. Momentum seemed to be drawing the power out of him until he felt he would be sucked dry.
It was too much and he tried to stop, but he couldn’t. He fell to his knees, unable to see anything except for a blinding gold light.
Behind him, he could hear someone call out. Someone grabbed him. He felt the pressure on him, forcing his power down, but it was impossible to stop. Then, everything went black.
The last thing he heard was wild laughter.