Ubik sat down on the floor, legs crossed, with the cube behind him.
White lights flickered across its surface in a flurry of activity. The Fourth was inside, protected and shielded by the cube’s original owner. He had decided to make the most of this opportunity and there wasn’t much Ubik could do about it.
He folded his arms and leaned back. He could feel the cube vibrating at a very high frequency. It was quite pleasant.
“I’d rather not,” said Fig, referring to Ubik’s suggestion that it was time for him to call in his mother.
The world was in the clutches of a malignant power, there were warships in orbit ready to vapourise them, and somewhere a fleet of Antecessor ships was still out there, but poor Fig was far more concerned about facing his mother.
Ubik never knew his own mother but surely they were meant to be kind and loving creatures. Warm embraces and embarrassing displays of affection in public. Extra-large portions of your favourite foods at dinner.
“You have a way of contacting her, right?” said Ubik. “She’s going to answer if it’s you calling.”
“It won’t work out the way you think,” said Fig. “She’ll come for me, but the rest of you…” Ubik looked from Ubik to PT. “She’s always considered my male friends to be a bad influence.”
“Is this a puberty thing?” said Ubik. “Teenage hormones making you resent your parents? Are you experiencing cold sweats and hot flashes?”
“I think you’re confusing puberty with the menopause,” said PT. “If he says it’s a bad idea, it’s probably a bad idea. Why aren’t you trying to stop the Fourth?”
“He’s ignoring me,” said Ubik. He pointed at the cube behind him. “Look at these messages it’s sending out. He doesn’t even consider us worth mentioning.”
“We can’t read what it says,” said PT.
“Oh, can’t you?” said Ubik. “Never mind, you aren’t missing anything.” He shifted his shoulders so the cube was hitting just the right spot. “If you don’t want to involve your mother, that’s fine. Just seemed like it might help.” He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. The cube also felt warmer than before.
The small copy he’d made of the cube didn’t vibrate or heat up. Either he had missed something or this was the result of the Fourth and the Machine working together.
Ubik opened his eyes and looked at Fig. “If you two work together, you can probably think of a way out of this.”
“Work together?” said Fig. “But you have the best chance of taking back control of the cube. You did it before.”
“You have to know when you’re outclassed,” said Ubik. He raised a hand and rapped his knuckles on the cube. “They’ve got all the advantages right now. Maybe they make a mistake and we get another chance, but there’s no point trying to force them when they can stay in there and run everything without taking any notice of us.”
“But what about the bone?” said Fig. “It’s their weakness, isn’t it?”
“Ahh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Ubik. “It’s more like a conduit that can siphon off energy, creating an imbalance that pushes the gradient in one direction. Slide right in, slide right out. But now that they’ve got this thing powered up and firing on all cylinders, we need a lot more power to get the bone to do its thing, if you know what I mean.”
“No, not really,” said Fig. “You can’t just hit it with the bone like before?”
“I wasn’t hitting it,” said Ubik. “I was creating a transfer of kinetic energy. And no, I can’t.”
“And the little cube you made?” Fig was clearly intent on finding some way — any way — to proceed that would not involve his mother.
“It won’t work now,” said Ubik.
“But what if—”
Fig was pushed aside by PT who stepped in front of him. “He’s right. We don’t need him, we can deal with this between us. Think of it this way, how often does he let us take the lead?”
Just for a moment the two of them looked at each other as though they were communicating telepathically. As far as Ubik was aware, neither of their organics gave them that ability, but the two of them had been in so many near-death situations that it wasn’t surprising that they had developed some sort of intuitive understanding.
Fig slowly turned to look at Ubik, his eyes no longer fretting about his mother, now full of suspicion. PT really was a bad influence.
PT turned and addressed Synthia, who was still trying to make sense of the predicament they were in. She was having trouble with the fast pace of change with every new problem being significantly worse than the last one. She would get used to it.
“You said you could sense ships in orbit,” said PT. “How many?”
Synthia stared at PT impassively. “Maybe it would be best if we go our separate ways.” There was a coldness in her tone that was more than just the neutrality of a robot.
“You mean with them?” said PT. He was looking past her at her six robot siblings.
All six were up and active, but they all displayed the same pained expression — the wincing squint of a serious headache.
“They’ll be fine,” said Synthia. “They just need to finish updating.”
Synthia had forced an update on them in the simulation. When they were returned to the real world, the update had carried over. It had been uploaded into their primary processor, so the information was directly delivered into their brains.
Now they were trying to process the instructions here, even though whatever the upgrade was had been triggered in a different reality.
Such things were not advisable. Don’t cut the power, don’t make any hardware changes and definitely don’t initiate the update in a simulation and leave halfway through. No better way to void your warranty.
Ubik knew of a way to stop the unstoppable update. The manufacturers would say there wasn’t one. Not a safe way. Not one they approved of. But of course there was always a way.
But Ubik was curious to see how the six sisters would cope. You could learn a lot about a machine from the way it handled an error. Self-repair was a common feature for most devices these days. Self-repair that was actually successful was another matter. And self-cleaning was just an out and out marketing lie.
Still, it was nice seeing those of limited talent coming together to pool their resources in an attempt to survive. It almost gave Ubik hope for the universe.
“You’re staying here,” said PT. “This is your planet. You know how it works. You can be useful.”
“No,” said Synthia. “I have seen enough of you and your friends in action to know we have a better chance of surviving this on our own.”
PT nodded, not showing any anger or irritation at being turned down so firmly. He took rejection very well.
“I don’t care,” said PT. “We need a read on what’s happening up there, and you can give it to us. If you don’t want to cooperate, I’m happy to rip your head off and build an improvised rig out of your disassembled brain parts.” PT turned to Ubik. “You can at least do that much, can’t you?” He turned back to Synthia before Ubik had a chance to answer.
Fig, the able friend, did not support PT with words or even threats. He simply moved towards Synthia with the clear intention of holding her down while PT unscrewed her head from the neck.
She moved back, glancing at her sisters who were still in a state of flux. She didn’t have a choice.
“Fine. I’ll do it. Just wait a moment.”
She tilted her head up and her eyes rolled back.
Ubik could tell that she really was doing what PT wanted, she was just doing it a lot slower than she was capable of. But that was alright. He was also slow rolling in order to let events catch up with where he needed them to be.
“This place is amazingly put together,” said Ubik.
“Yes, I know,” said Grandma from the small cube in his hand. “It’s far more impressive now that they’re running at something close to full capacity. Very nice. I especially like the pretty lights.”
Ubik leaned back so his head was resting on the large cube and took in the whole chamber.
The first time he came down here he immediately recognised the clever way that energy was distributed and circulated within the core, using the whole planet as a conductor and the core as a focal point. But he had only seen a fraction of what the planet could achieve.
Not what it was fully up and running, it was like a completely different entity. Like the difference between roller skates and a rocket ship.
Ubik had always had a gift for sensing the flow of electricity through a circuit. It wasn’t some amazing power, not something he could quantify or manipulate, but when energy shifted, when it moved in a way that pushed things ahead of it and dragged along what was behind, it created a current that was physically present and detectable. Like movement in water. Or in air.
It wasn’t just one molecule moving around, it was a shunt effect. If one moved, all moved. And that was what he was sensitive to. Usually on a small scale.
But in this room, he was in the middle of a vortex. It was global power condensed into a small space that had been built to harness it and then send it back out.
When he closed his eyes, it was like music. Admittedly, it was more like music when you were deaf, mostly bass and changes in pressure, but the rhythm was easy to follow.
The rhythm in this room was building to a crescendo.
The potential for what you could do with it was limitless.
Being able to change weather patterns was the least of it.
And it was all under the control of the Fourth.
Almost all of it.
There seemed to be one note running counter to the others. A little bit off-key.
Nothing big or powerful, just not part of the rest. Not integrated. This one stream running against the flow felt more like what he had felt when he first entered the core. Something left behind from when M1F had been at the helm.
A signal, weak but persistent, heading straight out.
“You know,” said Ubik, “the problem with the whole Antecessor plan is that they don’t really belong here. They should have done their job creating the universe and then faded away quietly. They can’t succeed because they can’t learn how to live in a universe they think they fully understand. How can you learn to win an unfair fight if you’ve always held the advantage? It’s not possible, is it?” He had his head turned just enough so that his words were spoken to the dark wall of the cube.
They weren’t listening in there. They had already claimed victory in the battle for this planet.
“Think about it. We were placed into a universe that gives us nothing but problems and hardships and nothing but deadly threats, yet we are able to survive merely by imagining something better. We don’t have any way of knowing if better exists, but we still imagine it and then act on it and make it exist. How? How can we create something we don’t know, have never seen, have no experience of, simply by being inconvenienced by its lack? Almost as though it was a role assigned to us, hmm?”
The buzz of the cube’s vibrations intensified. Whatever the Fourth was doing, it was doing more of it.
Ubik pushed his lower back against the cube to really feel the benefit.
“You know what I would love to see, Grandma?”
“What’s that, dear?”
“I’d love to get on board a fully crewed, fully operational Antecessor ship. Everything working like it should be, manned by the original hands. If lighting up this place can reveal so much about how their technology worked, imagine what a real Antecessor warship would show us. This planet only had one job, but a warship has so many tasks to accomplish, so many different variables to deal with… the complexity of the patterns they create must be off the charts. I’d love to see it up close and personal.”
Synthia lowered her head and looked at PT with open contempt. “There are six ships with their weapons trained on the planet. They all show Seneca Corps designations. There are a further twelve ships facing away from Quazi. None of the ships are preparing to fire and judging by their heat signatures they stopped all attacks some time ago. I don’t know what they’re waiting for, but I have identified a number of ships approaching, although none of them appear to be armed. Does that satisfy you? Do you now have the information you need to get us all out of here safely?”
PT glared right back at her, although he had little chance of winning in a staring competition.
“The ships approaching, where from? Edge of the quadrant or interior?”
“Interior,” said Synthia. “They’re too far for me to identify but I would guess they are a delegation from the other planets looking to negotiate with the Corps before things get out of hand.”
“The Corps doesn’t negotiate,” said Fig.
“Not with enemies,” said Synthia, “but these aren’t—”
“They don’t negotiate with anyone,” said Fig.
“Then it makes no difference if I try,” said Synthia. “Unless you’ve already come up with an exit strategy.”
“I’m working on it,” said PT. He chose that moment to look over at Ubik. Ubik gave him a thumbs up. If he was trying to impress the sex robot before they all died, good for him. His flirting technique could use the practice.
“I have spent my life becoming what people want me to be in order to make them happy. Men, women, it makes no difference. As long as they have sexual desires,” Synthia gave PT a stern look, “I can fulfil them.”
“You want to seduce the commander of the Seneca fleet?” said PT.
“Yes,” said Synthia. “I can be whatever she wants me to be. Face, body, size of sexual organs. I can even change my personality. You want to stay here, fine. Let me and my sisters leave.”
“Update complete,” said the robot nearest to her. “Synthia, why did you—”
Synthia raised a hand. “Not now, Number Three.” Number three stopped talking.
“If they aren’t powering up weapons then we still have some time,” said PT. “And you can go when we no longer need you.”
Synthia looked at Number Three.
PT put his hand on the robot’s shoulder and her arm turned into a green leafy vine hanging uselessly by her side.
“And if you try to fight your way out I’ll turn every one of your robot siblings into a pile of slag.”
Ubik was impressed by how cold-hearted PT was being. Some women like that. Liked being bullied. Synthia was a robot, though, and would probably just try to kill him when she got the chance.
Number Three looked at her arm in mild confusion and then pulled the vines off and let them fall on the floor. Then she went into what looked like a trance and her arm grew back. It only took a few seconds. Ubik was amazed. A proper self-repair function. There was no way they would be putting that in the production model.
“We can kill him,” said Number Three. The other five robots now stood beside her.
“No,” said Synthia. She turned to PT. “Just tell me what you want. If we stay here, we’ll all die.”
“You don’t understand people,” said PT, “you only understand biology. When I was eight I killed a man because he thought what he wanted was what he should have. A simple biological drive. What he wanted was my sister, naked, half-dead and bleeding. He thought that was what would make him happy. He was wrong. Have you ever seen how blood leaves the carotid artery in zero gravity? It takes forever. Makes it a very slow death. You can really see the change in their expression, in their eyes, as they realise they never should have tried to take things that didn’t belong to them, it was far more important to keep hold of what they already had. I still have my sister and now he has nothing. Don’t make the same mistake.”
“Um,” said Fig. “What’s that?” He was looking at Ubik. Or around him.
“What’s what?” said Ubik.
PT was staring at him now as well. “The cube, it’s got a circle of light around you.”
Ubik turned his neck as far as he could. The white lights that had been running up and down the cube had stopped and instead had formed a Ubik-shaped outline around him.
“Oh, that. It’s a tiny hole I made in their defences.”
“You’re attacking the cube?” said Fig.
“What? No. That wouldn’t work. But I found part of the signal Miff set up. I managed to get it back up and running.”
“What kind of signal?” said PT.
“Broadcast signal,” said Ubik. “They were broadcasting us on their channel, remember? To the whole quadrant and beyond. I wonder if we’re famous.”
“And now?” said PT.
“Oh, I doubt anyone’s watching. Everyone ran away. Or died. It’s just the Corps now.”
“The Corps?” said Fig. “We’re being broadcast to the Corps? Right now?”
Ubik nodded. “Yep. You might not want to talk to them, but I thought I could still have a word, get them on our side. I mean, I’m no sex robot, but I can be quite the charmer.”
“Please no,” said PT. “How long has it been live?”
“Not long,” said Ubik. “Although they probably did hear you confessing to that murder.” Ubik pulled a yikes face. “Sounded like you killed a horrible guy, though. They should probably thank you for saving them the trouble.”