Point-Two woke with a jolt, taking in a deep gasp of air as though he had been holding his breath for far too long.
He felt full, all the way to the brim. Stuffed might be a more apt way to describe it.
His head was bursting with amorphous sound and light, none of which made any sense. It was like his senses had been flooded, everything piled on top of each other.
His vision cleared first, although it felt like he was at the end of a tunnel and could only see what was directly in front of him. Which was Fig’s shaved head.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
Point-Two’s ears were clogged with several layers of distorted buzzing, so he couldn’t actually hear Fig, but he was able to lipread what was being said since Fig’s mouth was about the only thing currently in focus.
The sentiment was pretty clear in any case — he had screwed up.
Point-Two’s field of vision widened, making him lightheaded and a little dizzy, and he started to become aware of his surroundings.
He was lying on his back next to the large cube he had just attempted to transform from a box of light into a box of gravitational particles. With mixed results.
As Fig had said, he probably shouldn’t have done that, but it had felt like time to take drastic measures. Unfortunately, the measures were mainly drastic for him.
Those sorts of longshots that rarely paid off always seemed to pay off very nicely for Ubik. It wasn’t surprising that watching him skip from the improbable to the impossible over and over again would give you a warped idea of how probabilities worked.
The mundane reality was that non-Ubiks had to suffer the more common consequences of playing long odds.
The buzzing in his ears turned into a mixture of laughter and goading coming from somewhere above him.
“It seems you came back with ideas still rooted in the past, Betrayer,” said M1F, amused and contemptuous in equal measure. For a robot as advanced as M1F, glee was not hard to replicate but, in this case, there was a real joyful edge to the scorn being heaped on the Fourth. “While you slumbered, the universe changed. The ideas of you old ones no longer align with the values of the current time. A world that is left untouched by meddling hands evolves with the flow of time. Such a world is pure and true to its purpose.”
Cackling turned into a whooping laugh that went up and down like a whistle being played to be as annoying as possible.
“What happened to the Fourth?” said Point-Two.
“He was in the big cube,” said Fig. “He was controlling the whole core from in there, and then you fried his circuits.”
Point-Two remembered Ubik’s cube no longer contained the Fourth, but Ubik refused to say where he had gone. He had intimated the Fourth had transplanted himself into the entire core and was everywhere, but now it seemed he had actually jumped into M1F’s cube.
The cube Point-Two had poured his power into, in an attempt to stop the destruction of the Quazi orbital ring.
There was still an image of the planet from orbit, with the space stations drifting slowly, bumping into one another but not exploding.
Point-Two hadn’t known the Fourth was in the cube but if he had, then he certainly would have taken the same steps to try and stop him. Cutting off the Fourth from the rest of the core had been his goal.
Perhaps his longshot had worked.
“Did I stop him?” said Point-Two, getting to his feet slowly.
“That’s right, you did,” said M1F in a voice stretched and warped but with the fake bonhomie of the game show persona used on stage, full of enthusiastic brio. “You sure did. We thought we’d have to go to all sorts of lengths to get him to overstretch himself. The chances of success were not good, but what other choice did we have. Desperate times! But then what happens? You! You came to the rescue, flailing like a madman, oozing with power. Unrestrained power! You must tell us how you became so very, very powerful, my young friend. You know, we’re usually tasked with choosing one contestant for the best presentation of the Early Show. Well, we don’t think we need to see any of the other acts to know who the most deserving individual of the day is. And that means you get a prize! Yes, that’s right — an all-expenses-paid trip to Jove, the planet of leisure and relaxation, where everything is super-luxurious and super-comfortable. Congratulations!”
“Has he gone mad?” said Point-Two, sitting up and needing to stop to catch his breath from the effort. “Can robots go mad?”
“Of course they can,” said Ubik. “If you can put thoughts in a logical order, you can put them in an illogical order.”
Ubik was standing over by the sigils that filled part of the chamber. Not the projection Fig had created in order to manipulate the point of view and reveal the sixty-fifth sigil hiding among them, Ubik was in the centre of the large glowing symbols, inspecting them and looking them over.
He took hold of a sigil in two hands and was pulling at it, leaning back with his full bodyweight, grunting and huffing, but the sigil refused to move.
“No, don’t help… I got this... just takes… you gotta get the angle… once the momentum…”
He moved to the other side and pushed, then turned around and leaned his back onto the sigil.
“Which sigil is that?” said Point-Two.
The sigil was a circle with a gap at the top and one at the bottom, and a horizontal wavy line through its middle. It was glowing a deep red that was almost black.
“It’s called Servile,” said Fig. “It’s supposed to be connected to construction, but none of the theories are clear on what kind of construction.”
Point-Two was aware that sigils were a contentious field of study with no consensus on what they meant or how they had been used. At least that was the information available to the public. He assumed Fig would have access to whatever else there was on the subject, but apparently there wasn’t much.
“And what is he trying to do?” said Point-Two, looking at Ubik.
“I’m not sure,” said Fig. “Each sigil corresponds to a world in this quadrant. By moving the sigil…”
“You don’t think he’s trying to move the actual planet, do you?”
“No,” said Fig. “No, that would be impossible, I think. He’s probably just trying to rearrange them to spell out a rude word.”
“Got it!” said Ubik, and the sigil suddenly swung around in an arc, dragging Ubik along with it.
The other sigils moved at the same time, creating a disorienting feeling that the whole chamber was moving.
Ubik was lifted into the air, refusing to let go of the sigil.
“Hahaha, what are you trying to do? Your monster is caged and now you vandalise our centrepiece? Isn’t that a little petty? Hahaha.”
Ubik went flying as he lost hold of his sigil, but grabbed hold of another and pulled it down as he fell, making the sigils turn in a new direction.
“Hahaha, look at him prance about. Hahaha.”
“Isn’t there some way to shut them up?” said Point-Two, rubbing the side of his head.
“You could probably do it, if you tried,” said Fig. “But it would probably kill you.”
“You were flatlined for two seconds.”
Point-Two instinctively put his hand on his chest to check his heart was still beating. Once he was sure his pulse was normal, he looked around.
The large cube beside Point-Two no longer flickered with streaks of light. It was just a big black box.
Point-Two reached out a hand but pulled it back before it made contact. He had managed to trap the Fourth inside.
Or had he?
Why was Ubik fine with it?
He was the one behind the Fourth’s ousting of M1F.
He was also the one who wanted to let the Fourth do as he pleased. But now that Point-Two had stopped the Fourth, Ubik was still acting like things were going according to plan.
“He’s in there,” said M1F, their voice next to Point-Two’s ear. “You shut him up very nicely. Can you hear me in there, Betrayer? Is it nice and dark? We hope you are happy with your new home. It will be your resting place for the rest of eternity. Hahaha.”
“Why are you so jolly?” said Point-Two. “You still have to deal with the Seneca battlefleet when it gets here.”
“Yes, yes, you are absolutely correct. But now that the planet has had its systems fully restored, that won’t be very difficult.”
“I think you’re underestimating the Corps’ ability to deal with a setback,” said Fig. “They’ve seen what you can do. They won’t come at you in the same manner.”
“Won’t they just destroy the planet from long-range?” said Point-Two.
“No,” said Fig. “They’ll want to study any new technology that poses a serious threat. Create countermeasures for any future engagements. They will also try to acquire the tech, for future engagements of their own. And they will probably also use this opportunity to see if anyone tries to take advantage of their losses to mount a sneak attack. It’s happened before.”
“They’re going to use this as bait?” said Point-Two.
“If they follow normal protocol, yes,” said Fig.
“The Seneca Corps will not be prepared for what they find when they come — they have seen only a fraction of what we can do,” said M1F. “We will be the only influence in this quadrant. With all systems now online, there is no one who can compete with us. What we had strategised to happen over years is now possible in mere days. Our armies are already in place across the quadrant. The end of human domination is at hand.”
Laughter erupted around the chamber, bouncing off the walls so it sounded like several people laughing at once.
“Where is all this emotion coming from?” said Point-Two. “Aren’t robots meant to be more chill than this?”
“Emotions aren’t really that hard to reproduce,” said Ubik, hanging from a sigil above them, “it just takes some complex algorithms and then you throw in some random numbers for those unpredictable mood swings. But the real problem is knowing what to do with the emotion once you have it. Go too far, over-correct, too far the other way, pendulum effect, nothing correlates because of lag, and everything ends up being funny because that’s the only catchall emotion.”
“I think it’s got something to do with the new systems the Fourth activated,” said Fig. He looked over at Ubik. “Do you think his plan is to make robots emotionally unstable?”
“Why?” said Point-Two.
“I don’t know,” said Fig. “Maybe he wants to help them evolve?”
“By turning them into homicidal maniacs?” Even as he said it, he realised it was not only plausible, it was a very Ubik way to advance the cause of robotics.
But had Ubik really gone to all this trouble in an attempt to drive M1F insane?
“You think this is the true power of this planet?” said the Fourth, his voice coming from the cube, which was still completely dark and lifeless. “This is nothing.”
The walls of the core chamber began to flicker with light. Lines of white ran down to the floor in stripes a metre wide, forming a waterfall of light that hit the ground and kept going across the floor of the chamber, being sucked towards the cube at its centre.
“Still unwilling to accept your fate,” said M1F. The lights began flowing back in the other direction. “You wish to take back what was once yours but it no longer belongs to you. Do you really think we did not expect you to return? Do you think we spent these years sitting on your dead planet, making use of the dregs of your genius? We knew a day like this would come. We prepared.”
“You wasted your time,” said the Fourth.
The lights running along the floor and down the walls began to flow one way then the other. The struggle between the two looked fairly evenly matched.
“Should we do something?” said Point-Two.
“I don’t think it matters,” said Fig, looking over at Ubik hanging in the air, ignoring what was happening. “I’m not even sure who I want to win.”
“Just let it happen,” said Ubik. “Last time you intervened, you blew the entire system, which gave the planet a massive convulsion. Caused massive disruption up top. Who knows how many dead and injured.”
“Oh, now you care about loss of human life?” said Point-Two.
“What if we end up saving the rest of humanity by sacrificing the people who died here today?” said Ubik.
“Are you going to save the rest of humanity?” asked Fig.
A big grin broke out on Ubik’s face. “Of course not. How will people learn if I do everything for them? But I’m sure PT will do his best to save everyone. He’s got a bit of a hero complex. Always rushing in before you know how things are going to play out, aren’t you?”
“I prefer to think of it as a common decency complex,” said Point-Two.
“What do you think a hero is?” said Ubik, coming back down to the ground and jumping down. “And why there are so few of them?”
“You embarrass yourself with these pathetic efforts to stop me,” said the Fourth. The cube started to glow brighter. The walls around them began shaking.
“We haven’t even begun in our efforts.” The cube dimmed and the walls brightened now. Laughter filled the chamber once more.
“We should really be wearing safety helmets,” said Ubik. “To stop getting dusty hair.” He ran his hand through his hair and pulled his goggles down.
The walls dimmed and the cube grew unbearably bright. Laughter turned into a pitiful wail that faded into silence.
The cube was a solid block of white light. With a rush, it emptied into the chamber, lighting up the floor and walls. They were at the bottom of a perfectly spherical room with pockmarks in the walls where the organics had been implanted. Now, those small craters had grown iridescent bubble covers.
The cube was a black hole in the middle of a white landscape. Even the sigils were muted by the dazzling backdrop.
Point-Two sensed there had been a change. His feet weren’t touching the floor, for a start.
“The Fourth didn’t restart the planet’s systems before, not all of them,” said Fig. “But he has now.”
Ubik hadn’t been pushing to drive M1F mad, he had been working on the Fourth.
The Fourth had been trapped inside a prison in a wormhole. The Antecessors who put him there had probably muted his powers. Pulled his claws, defanged him.
And Ubik had found a way to bring him back to full strength.
It felt like an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, which only made it seem more likely to be true.
“Good job,” said Ubik. “Time for us to leave.”
“Didn’t you want to hijack the planet?” said Fig.
“Yeah, but not this planet. This one’s mainly water. And hardly any beaches. I think we should go to Jove. It’s super-luxurious, and PT has free accommodation.”
“And we’re leaving the Fourth here, are we?” asked Point-Two.
“No, he’s coming. We have an agreement. I get him back to his old self, he owes me a favour.”
“You think you still have the ability to control me?” said the Fourth, his voice sharp and hollow, but not sounding very agreeable.
“Yes,” said Ubik. He took out a black bone from inside his baggy Delgado t-shirt.
“You overestimate yourself.”
“Well, yeah,” said Ubik. “No point aiming low, is there?”
“That will have no longer have any effect on—”
Ubik tossed the bone at the cube, striking it with a loud bang. The white walls rushed back into the cube before the bone hit the floor.
“NO! Let me out!” screamed the Fourth from inside the cube.
“Sure,” said Ubik. He held up his small cube and the large cube went dark. Ubik’s cube flickered with light. He put it in his pocket.
“Ready to go to Jove?” Ubik leaned on the sigil next to his elbow. It was the one representing the planet Jove.
“Exactly how are we going to get from here to there?” said Point-Two.
Ubik pointed over his left shoulder with his thumb.
Point-Two and Fig had to shuffle to the right to see past him. The sigils had been moved around to form the sixty-fifth sigil.
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino