Ubik walked towards the cube full of confidence.
This was all going very well. Much better than he had planned. Not that he was surprised since most of his plans were designed for events to exceed expectations.
That was the beauty of coming up with ideas no one else would — they were frequently terrible, which gave real life the space it needed to really shine.
He had always been aware that the universe wanted to create things that were elegant and beautiful, that created interlocking patterns and formed completely logical structures, it was just that its previous creations constantly interfered and tried to force things to conform to what was beneficial to the status quo.
The old always resented the new.
If you truly wanted to see the full potential of what could be achieved by giving chaos free rein, all you had to do was get out of the way.
Ubik stopped in front of the cube, holding one end of the black bone in his hand while resting the other end on his shoulder where it bounced gently up and down.
“Hello? Anyone home?” He reached out with his other hand knocked.
The cube had streaks of white light running across its surfaces, indicating that it was up and running.
Where his knuckles made contact, the white lines spread out like ripples on water.
“My name’s Ubik. I don’t think we’ve met.”
There was no response.
The lights grew brighter and moved faster. The cube hummed and the whole chamber seemed to respond.
Ubik turned to the others. “I think something’s going on in there.”
PT and Fig were both watching with intent expressions that suggested they were waiting for something terrible to happen.
Synthia was standing with them, her face slowly mirroring their lack of faith. At least she was using this opportunity to add a new expression to her database.
“Oh, you think so, do you?” said PT. “An Antecessor computer that is now back in its original box and has access to all its old systems which were used to create this planet and control every moving part along with every other planet in this quadrant, and you think it might be up to something. Amazing insight. What are you going to do about it?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who brought it back here,” said Ubik, not appreciating the high level of sarcasm from PT. “I’ve never even spoken to it, so I can’t be blamed for whatever it’s doing in there, can I?”
PT looked like he wanted to say something but his mouth remained closed.
“Can you stop it?” asked Fig.
“Of course,” said Ubik. “This is one of the best outcomes we could have hoped for.”
“This is one of the best?” said PT, his tone flat and not at all sarcastic, which made it all the more difficult to explain how he still managed to make it come across like the most sarcastic comment he had ever made. It was like art that was made by throwing paint at a wall and somehow producing a masterpiece.
“I figured there was a chance we would get bounced back here, so I arranged a few precautions so we would have the advantage,” explained Ubik. “If they’d taken us to Jove, then it might have got a bit tricky. But here, a place we’ve already been and had time to set things up, I wouldn’t even call it a fair fight.”
PT and Fig looked around the room. They were in Quazi’s planet core where the Fourth had wrested control away from M1F.
To the untrained eye, it probably looked like a big empty cavern. Nothing had changed since they had exited via the sixty-fifth sigil.
Of course, that was how Ubik had wanted it to appear. No point setting a trap if everyone can see it.
But they would see it soon enough, and then they would be impressed despite themselves.
The cube lights intensified and moved even faster. It was operating at a level well beyond what M1F had been able to maintain. This was to be expected. The original owner was now in control, and even if the cube had aged and was no longer at its best, it was still going to be able to demonstrate a much higher level of activity.
“Shouldn’t you do something then?” said PT. “It can control the whole planet from here.”
“Yep, yep, no problem,” said Ubik. “Grandma, could you shut everything down for me?”
There was a short pause before Grandma’s voice was heard coming from the control panel on Fig’s arm.
“Ooh, that’s strange. Looks like I won’t be able to do that at the moment. Sorry, my lovely.”
Ubik was a little taken aback. It wasn’t often Grandma wasn’t able to do what he asked, especially when it was something they had set up together.
“Grandma?” said Fig to his arm. “You’re here.”
“Were you in the simulation?”
“Oh no,” said Grandma. “I really don’t like the way those artificial worlds try to make you believe things that aren’t true. Very disturbing. I stay clear of all that nonsense. You should, too.”
“She can’t be simulated,” said Ubik.
“Why not?” said Fig.
“Long story. Grandma. The array isn't working?”
“That’s right, dear. It’s definitely not working.”
“Isn’t the, ah, array installed correctly?”
The others were looking at him. He gave them a reassuring smile. “It’s fine. Probably a loose connection.”
“No, no, no, not a loose connection,” said Grandma. “Nothing loose here.”
“Not a loose connection.”
“Well, to be honest, dear, it looks like someone’s stolen it,” said Grandma.
“They stole the array? Someone came down here and stripped out the array and took off with it?”
There was another pause. “Yes. I think that’s a wonderful summary of what happened.”
Grandma was always supportive, even when it pertained to bad news. The others could learn a thing or two from her.
It only took Ubik a second to work out who it must have been. “Smyke.” He shook his head. This was the problem with showing someone a little mercy by not murdering them. Never again.
“Grandma, can you open up the revenge list.”
“Yes, dear. It’s getting quite full, though.”
“How many people on there now?” asked Ubik.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Put Smyke in at two hundred.”
“What’s going on Ubik?” said PT.
“Well, he deserves to be punished but it’s not like he’s the worst person I’ve ever met. Two hundred is about—”
“I mean the cube. What’s happening with the cube.”
“Oh, that, it’s under control,” said Ubik, spinning around and giving everyone his most convincing smile of utterly assured confidence.
“We’re screwed,” said PT.
“We should get out of here,” said Fig.
“There’s no need to overreact,” said Ubik. “We just need to talk this out with… What did you say their name was?”
“I didn’t,” said PT. “They don’t have a name. Not one they’ve told us.”
“Interesting. No name, pure function. Well, that’s fine. We can just give it a name.” Ubik looked over his shoulder at the cube. “We’ll call them Machine.”
“That’s a bit impersonal, isn’t it?” said PT.
“They don’t care,” said Ubik. “They’re a machine. Machine’s don’t care about things like names and being treated with respect and all that stuff.”
“That isn’t true,” said Synthia.
“I’m not talking about machines like you,” said Ubik. “I mean machines that have a purpose and don’t have time to make up problems for themselves to wallow in.”
He had tried to differentiate between the two different types of machines as clearly as possible, but Synthia seemed to be having difficulty processing his explanation. Her face was contorting into all sorts of weird shapes, suggesting there was probably a faulty connection between her processor chip and her facial motor receptors.
“Fine, we’ll call them Mac,” said Ubik. “Nice and friendly. Now watch me bring Mac over to our side. Everyone step back. Just give me some room. This is a little delicate, so a little cooperation would be nice.”
Ubik didn’t mind. He knew it was time to bring the magic. To do the thing only he could do. Save the day. Make the million to one shot. Rise from the rubble clutching a diamond.
He raised the black bone he was carrying and lightly but firmly struck the cube with it.
There was a hollow chime, deep and musical, but also powerful and full of promise.
“What is that supposed to do?” said PT.
“Wait,” said Ubik.
Ubik polished the end of the bone on his sleeve and then banged it hard against the cube in a far less elegant manner.
The flashing lights stopped. The cube was utterly black.
“Please don’t do that,” said a polite but exact voice. The cube began to flicker with light again.
“Nice manners,” said Ubik. “Always the sign of a higher intelligence.”
“Absolutely,” said Grandma.
“I think we can work with them,” said Ubik.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to,” said Grandma.
“I don’t suppose you want to go in there and have a word.”
“No thank you,” said Grandma.
Ubik sighed. Sometimes, you had to take the direct approach. Ubik swung the bone in a wide arc and smashed it into the cube. And then followed up with another and another.
With M1F it had been much easier. They only had a weak attachment to the cube. With the Fourth, that was a lot easier because he had a much stronger attachment to the bone. But this one was already integrated into the system like it really belonged here. Getting it out was not going to be easy.
He took the bone in two hands and swung it again.
“This is you being delicate, is it?” asked PT.
“I have a very gentle touch,” said Ubik, striking the cube so hard the bone left an impression. Which quickly disappeared.
The cube went dark again. Then it turned completely white. Two black circles appeared and looked at Ubik as though they were eyes.
A line appeared under them.
“You will stop doing that,” said the newly formed mouth.
A humanoid face. Why would it bother with wanting to appear human?
Ubik could only think of one reason, which was to keep his attention on the cube.
He turned and looked around the chamber. There were flickers of light running up and down the walls but he didn’t recognise any of the patterns. Not because they were indecipherable to him but because they seemed incomplete. Like they had pieces missing.
Ubik smiled. Good old Smyke. He had stolen more than the array Ubik had left here. He would drop him down a few hundred spots on the revenge list.
“Look, Mac, you can stall all you want,” said Ubik. “You can’t access the rest of the planet, can you? Which means we’re in a closed system. The perfect time for me to introduce you to someone.”
“Hey, come out of there.” Ubik had a small cube in his hand which he was shouting at. “Come on.” He shook the cube vigorously.
The small cube glimmered with a weak light.
“I refuse,” said a petulant voice.
“We had a deal,” said Ubik.
“Which you broke,” said the Fourth.
“You broke it first,” said Ubik. He looked at the others who were staring at him. “He’s always grouchy first thing.”
Ubik placed the small cube on the ground and crouched over it.
“Look, I just need you to go in there and bring out the guy hiding inside.”
“I already did.”
“No, this is a new guy. You’ll like them, they’re from the old times. You’re stronger than them and smarter. Should be easy.” Ubik lowered his voice. “Just take care of this and I’ll do that thing we discussed.”
“Ubik, you aren’t making deals with an Antecessor god, are you?” said PT. “Because that isn’t going to turn out well.”
“Of course not,” said Ubik. “Although I think you’re allowing your prejudices to get the better of you. Yes, the Antecessors are a violent society looking to dominate the galaxy by force, but they’re fundamentally honest.”
“You will restore my memories in full,” said the Fourth.
“You know it,” said Ubik.
“And you will release me from this prison.”
“Will do,” said Ubik.
“Once I am free, I will use every power at my disposal to kill you and your friends,” said the Fourth.
“See?” said Ubik. “Honest to a fault.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Fig.
“It doesn’t have to be a good idea,” said Ubik. “It just has to work.”
He picked up the small cube and touched it to the big cube. There was a crackle of lightning as a spark jumped between the two.
Both cubes went dark.
“It is done,” said the Fourth, his voice coming from the larger cube.
“That was quick,” said PT.
“Have you reconstructed the planetary infrastructure?” continued the Fourth
“To your specifications, Master,” said a second voice from the cube. This one was very well-mannered.
“Then the fleet?”
“I have contacted the fleet. They have locked onto our sigil and will be here shortly.”
“Good. You have done well,” said the Fourth.
“Thank you, Master. My purpose is to obey.”
“Ubik,” said PT, “did you just give the Fourth an assistant?”
“Me? No, I don’t think so.”
“But they seem to be working together now,” said Fig.
“Mmm? Do they? Shouldn’t make a difference. I’ve already factored it in.”
“How have you factored it in?” asked PT.
Ubik tried to think up a good answer. Nothing came to mind so there probably wasn’t one.
Ubik turned to Fig. “Fig, so, your mother. Any chance she could give us a ride out of here?”