Ubik bent down and inspected the wall closely. It had been black with the occasional white light flashing across it, forming complicated mosaics that lasted for seconds at a time, just like every other surface inside this place.
Now there was a grey smear about the size of a palm that ruined the aesthetic. A patch of ugly. Like someone had found a crack and covered it in with cheap filler, and then forgotten to paint over it.
He had identified this particular spot as the source of the broadcast being sent out to the Inner Quadrant and beyond as part of the big Quazi extravaganza — the early show, the auction, probably an after-party and a bunch of other show business off-shoots from the Mason & Muss promotional department — and he had used it to get in touch with the Seneca ships in orbit.
That part had gone as expected, and even PT’s rather grouchy intervention wasn’t a surprise. But then he had simply touched the wall and the broadcast had come to a sudden and irrevocable halt.
His abilities were developing at quite an alarming rate. And he had yet to fully master them.
“What did you change this into?” Ubik said out loud, poking the grey plaster. It was hard and rough under his fingertips.
“Ugh,” said PT from the floor where he was lying down holding his stomach. “I didn’t change it to anything.”
“This has definitely changed.” Ubik scratched at the wall with a fingernail. Dust scraped off.
“I know,” said PT, his voice strained by pain. “But I didn’t think of anything in particular. I thought if I let it change randomly it might cause less stress to my brain.”
Ubik straightened up and turned around. PT had been writhing on the floor for a couple of minutes now. “Did it work?”
“Not as well as I’d hoped,” said PT through gritted teeth. “My brain feels fine, though.”
“Good,” said Ubik. “Organics are obviously going to have to draw their energy from somewhere. I compensated for that somewhat, but you have six of them, so there’s still going to be a surcharge to use them.”
“What kind of surcharge?” said PT.
“Oh, probably shave a couple of decades off your lifespan. No big deal. It’s the crappy years at the end you’ll be losing. You wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway.”
PT stopped moving. “Tell me you’re joking Ubik.”
“Yeah, sure. Joking. Of course.” Ubik shifted his focus beyond PT to where Fig was pacing back and forth.
Normally, if a man was down, Fig would be doing everything in his power to get him back up. He had that leadership quality where concern for anyone on your team was considered paramount, like some kind of legendary virtue. Ubik wasn’t sure how this misconception had started — no aggressive conflict in history had ever backed up this claim, not even slightly.
Yes, people ran into the face of danger to save other people, but never anyone wearing the real fancy hat or the needlessly expensive uniform. They just told others to do it and then acted like their work was done.
Fig was young and idealistic. He would grow out of it.
“This is bad,” said Fig. He was speaking to the floor. “Really bad. She’s going to send them down here. Then it’s going to get worse.” He stopped pacing and looked at PT on the floor. “You haven’t seen her personal guard in action. They won’t stop until they get what they’ve been sent for. I can’t… I’m not going to be able to… It won’t…”
“Fig,” said Ubik. “It’s fine. We’ll be fine. Breathe. You’re not like you were before. You can deal with them. This is all going to plan.”
“This is going to plan?” said PT. “This? Are you sure?”
“Well, not my plan,” said Ubik. “But somebody’s plan. That’s how the universe works — it might not look like it, but there are patterns hidden in the chaos. Once you get into the groove of one, it’s just a fun ride with hardly any effort. You can even make small adjustments to nudge things the way you want. Just go with the flow.”
“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” said PT, sitting up, one arm on the floor behind him, the other still on his stomach.
“We have to leave,” said Fig. “Ubik, get us out of here.”
Ubik shook his head. “Now isn’t a good time to—”
“PT,” said Fig, instantly switching to a more receptive ally, “we have to get out of here. I have a really bad feeling.”
“Okay, okay.” PT slowly got to his feet. He faced the cube which was covered in white streaks of light. “I suppose we can just use the sigils and hope it turns out better this time.”
“Will they let us leave?” said Fig, also looking at the cube, his eyes following the ever-changing patterns.
“Probably not,” said PT. “I wish we knew what they were planning.”
The patterns weren’t very complex. To Ubik, it was very obvious what the Fourth was trying to do. Even if he hadn’t been able to decipher the streaks of light, it wasn’t that hard to guess.
A system of sixty-four planets that were all Antecessor constructs, linked together for some purpose.
Get the connections back up and running, and you had a giant array that could do something really powerful. Probably a lot of things.
Did knowing that make a difference? Not really.
“Guys,” said Ubik. “All we have to do is wait and—”
“I could destroy it,” said PT.
“You think you can?” said Fig.
“Listen,” said Ubik. “Guys. There’s no point—”
“I think so,” said PT. “I managed to change the wall, and that seems to be made of the same substance.”
“That was a lot smaller,” said Fig.
“I might be able to at least disrupt it,” said PT.
“Hmm,” mused Fig.
“It won’t work,” said Ubik. “You can’t—”
“Worth a try,” said PT.
“It won’t work,” said Synthia. She was standing with her six sisters, watching while making some sort of conference call between them. Ubik would have tapped into their chat if he had thought there was a chance they were saying anything interesting.
“Why not?” said PT. “Look at the wall.” He pointed at Ubik who was standing in front of the wall. It was almost like he didn’t see him.
“The cube is self-repairing,” said Synthia. “It uses the planet as a power bank.”
“But the wall hasn’t repaired itself,” said Fig.
“The planet isn’t self-repairing, it needs to be actively fixed. If they wanted to change it back, they could. They don’t seem to feel it’s necessary. Or they are too consumed by what they’re doing.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” said PT.
“Of course,” said Synthia. “This is our home.”
“So, you know how to destroy the cube?” asked Fig, impatient to get things moving.
“Can you stop ignoring me for just five seconds?” said Ubik. “Do you really think you can trust her?”
“No,” said PT. “But that’s still ten times more than I can trust you.”
“Mathematically, that makes no sense,” said Ubik.
“So you understand,” said PT.
“Perfectly,” said Ubik.
“Will you help us?” said PT, switching to Synthia.
“To destroy our home?” said Synthia.
“No, just the cube and its contents,” said PT. “And in return, we will help you take over from M1F. Most people have already abandoned the planet, so you won’t have any problems. And once you’re installed as the only world power with full control of the planet, it won’t be easy for them to come back.”
PT’s offer rolled off his tongue like it was an idea he just had. Ubik was impressed. The other leadership quality necessary was the ability to convince people to do things against their own self-interest. That one was actually a real requirement.
“I trust you,” said Synthia, “about ten times less than you trust him.” She was looking at Ubik.
“Rude,” said Ubik.
“What reason would I have to lie?” said PT.
“All of human history,” said Synthia. To be fair, that was a decent precedent to put forward.
“Okay, yes, people lie,” said PT. “But you don’t really have another choice, do you? You saw how that thing treated you. They didn’t even consider you worthy of their contempt. You think I have a low opinion of you and your sisters, at least I can be emotionally manipulated into doing what I don’t really want to do.”
It was a highly unusual approach to negotiating that PT was taking. Ubik fully approved.
Synthia had no particular expression on her face but still managed to project doubt and uncertainty.
The robots behind her were equally impassive and yet perplexed.
“I believe what you’re saying,” said Synthia. “I don’t know if that’s enough for us.”
“You’re experiencing doubt,” said PT. “That’s good. That’s the most human thing I’ve seen you do.”
He was in danger of coming across as patronising. It was a risky play but he wanted to push Synthia just enough to get her to agree. Ubik could see him turning into quite a good politician. And by ‘good’ he meant a threat to all human life outside of his own immediate self-interests.
Synthia had that glazed look again, the one that indicated she was in silent communication with her sisters. She slowly shook her head.
“No. We won’t help you. We won’t betray our maker.”
“What if they betray you?” said PT.
“They won’t,” said Synthia.
Fig turned away and PT’s shoulder’s sagged. “What’s wrong with you people? Can’t you see this is the only way? Why won’t you listen to reason?”
“Between us, we have the processing power to calculate millions of possible outcomes based on our projections of what you might or might do, and even in the ones where you keep your word, we gain no benefits. You aren’t able to affect the other humans who can undo your promises. And we don’t have the ability to resist them.”
“Fine,” said PT. “Be like that. But not all humans are as untrustworthy as you seem to think. Some of us are just trying to live our lives without bothering anyone and without being bothered by anyone. Although chance would be a fine thing.” He turned to Fig. “Looks like it’s Plan A. I’ll pour everything I’ve got into changing this thing into a cinder block. You try to keep me from exploding.”
“It won’t work,” said Ubik.
“Thanks… This isn’t some kind of reverse psychology thing, is it? You want me to do this so you’re telling me not to?”
“No,” said Ubik, “I really think it’s a bad idea.”
“Okay. Good.” PT turned back to Synthia. “You don’t want to change your mind? It’s very human to change your mind.”
“We are not human and have no desire to be,” said Synthia.
“Right.” PT let out a breath of air and took one step towards the cube, his hand raised and ready to make contact.
He stopped, his face went from cold determination to a twinge of surprise, and then he ran to his left.
The robot directly in his path stood there with no intention of getting out of the way. She was considerably heavier than him and also probably glad of a chance to prove herself by dealing with someone who wasn’t Fig.
PT turned his run into a slide at the last second and whipped her legs out from under her, which she seemed to have foreseen and made her jump backwards.
At the same time, a bolt of lightning shot out of the cube and passed through the space where she had been standing with a crackle. It struck the far wall and dissipated across the surface with a crescendo of sparks.
Everyone took a moment to take in what just happened.
“Interesting,” said Ubik as he approached the robot. “Looks like they only had a small amount of energy to spare and used it to target this one. What’s so special about you?” He turned to PT who was getting up off the ground. “And why not just take you out? And how did you see it coming?”
“Lot of questions you’ve got there,” said PT, and proceeded to answer none of them.
“They knew,” said Synthia. “They knew she was the one who wanted us to help you.” She looked at the cube, her face darkening.
All the robots took on a similar mood as they came to a collective realisation.
“Why did you save her?” Synthia asked PT.
“Just a reflex,” said PT.
“You ran five metres on a reflex?” said Synthia.
“He has hero complex,” said Ubik. “Wants to save everyone. It’s an illness.”
“The ground beneath the cube,” said Synthia. “It needs to maintain physical contact with the planet. If you change the ground directly beneath it, the cube can’t draw the power it needs to change it back.”
PT’s face lit up. “Okay. That should be doable.”
He took a step towards the cube before it lit up into a solid block of light.
“You are all going to die,” said the Fourth, “if you don’t help me.”
“Help you?” said Ubik. “Help you do what?”
“Defeat the fleet of ships that are on their way here,” said the Fourth.
“You want us to help you?” said PT.
“Not you,” said the Fourth. “Just him.” The cube’s lighting shifted to place a white glow on Ubik. “Help us reconnect this planet to the network and we will guarantee your safety.”
“You’re saying if I help you take over the quadrant, you will let me live?” said Ubik.
“Give me whatever I want?”
There was a short pause. “Yes.”
“Sounds like a good deal,” said Ubik. “I accept.”
“Ubik!” said PT.
“Are you crazy?” said Fig.
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” said Synthia. “That’s the most human thing I’ve seen him do.”