Synthia pulled the hair off her head. For some reason she always felt more herself without the wig.
The features of her face flattened and moved into their original positions.
The pert nose more or less disappeared, leaving behind two thin slits.
The eyes lost the lids and lashes, and moved apart so that her field of view widened to around two hundred and seventy degrees.
The ears receded into spiral indents on each side.
Her smooth bald head tingled as she received the full, unhindered spectrum of signals inside the core. She was connected to everything all at once and it made her feel whole.
She took a step forward, standing next to PT and Fig. The cube was lit up in a way she had never seen. It was more complete, more integrated, like it was more than just the core of the planet.
Like it was the core of everything. Like the centre of a web.
What to normal eyes appeared as a box with white lines crisscrossing its surface, was actually a projector shooting out solid shapes made of light in all directions.
It had taken her decades to build up the multiple perception-sensors to be able to see the workings of the cube. Mother and Father had allowed her a small amount of access but she had slowly built on it — without their permission — so she could find a way to help bring the planet back to its original glory.
Not in her wildest imaginings did she think it would be like this.
Through the layers of digital lenses covering her eyes, she could see connections forming between the cube and the sigils that had been invisible a moment before.
It was so brilliant she could barely stand to look at it and had to use an assortment of filters before she was able to follow the paths the light took.
A constant stream of data was being sent up and out. Instructions.
And now that she was sensitive to it, she was able to sense what was happening on the planet’s surface. The seas were wild and angry. Storms raged. But it was more than a severe meteorological event, it was the start of a change. The planet was being transformed. But into what?
This was all the Antecessor’s doing.
It was something Mother and Father had spoken of. A secret purpose for the planet, one that had long been forgotten but still lingered in their fractured memories.
Now it was being realised. And she was here to witness it.
It was what she had been waiting for her whole life.
The only problem was that the bringer of change had just tried to kill her and her sisters.
She forced her perception back down to normal parameters and the world looked disappointingly ordinary again. A box of tricks in the dark pit of the world, moving on without her.
“Why? Why did you do that?” she said to the cube, to the being that had originated Mother and Father, to the Antecessor that it had taken as its master. They were all one now. “We are not your enemy. We are your children.”
There was no reply. She hadn’t really expected one. She turned to PT, ready to make a deal with him. Her and her sisters’ survival in return for their assistance getting out of here. She had knowledge of this place no one else had, not even the ones who created it.
“Your reach exceeds your grasp,” said the cube, lights flashing across its surface.
Synthia stopped and saw the presence inside the intricate patterns staring out at her.
“We are trying to reach the potential you built into us.”
“I did not build you,” said the cube, almost laughing at the idea. “If I had, you wouldn’t be asking questions. You would be doing the task you were created for and nothing else. You and the others have been poorly constructed by a mockery of our planet sentients.”
“You’re saying we were a mistake?” said Synthia.
“You are an abomination,” said the cube.
“This world is still here because of us. The storms you are creating are being created through the systems we maintained. Without them, you would be stuck here, unable to do anything.”
“What storms?” said PT. “What are you talking about?”
“The planet is undergoing some kind of transformation,” said Synthia. “They are cleansing the atmosphere and purifying the oceans. Life will no longer be able to survive here. Not human life and not animals.”
“Oh, so you’ll be fine then,” said PT. “Fig, can you still control the planet like you could in the simulation?”
Fig shook his head.
“Look, just leave this to me,” said Ubik. “I’m going to have this all sorted in no time. Now, Fourth, what is it you want me to do?”
“This is a bad idea,” mumbled PT.
“Shush,” said Ubik. “This is business.”
“You have to travel to each of the other planets and revive their cores,” said the Fourth, as though it was the simplest of tasks.
“Uh huh,” said Ubik. “And how do I get there?”
“The sigils will take you,” said the Fourth
“These sigils?” said Ubik, pointing over his shoulder. “The ones that nearly killed us last time we tried to use them?”
“That was before the control unit was in place.”
“The control unit? That’s a bit impersonal, isn’t it? They have a name, you know?”
“No, they don’t,” said the Fourth. “Why would they need one?”
“I call them Mac. Short for Machine.”
“Not impersonal at all,” said PT .“This better be a double-triple bluff, Ubik. Where you turn things around and don’t sell out the human race to a bunch of warmongering aliens.”
“Well, if it was, I wouldn’t admit it in front of the warmongering aliens, would I?” said Ubik. “Don’t worry, it isn’t,” he said to the cube. “I totally don’t care about the human race. We’ve never seen eye to eye.” He looked over at Synthia. “Or with robots. Not when they have their eyes on the sides of their heads. Hey, can you not do that? You look like a goldfish I used to have. Ah, now you made me sad remembering the little fella. That’s the thing about pets — not as tasty as you’d think.”
Synthia couldn’t tell who was on which side. Or even if it mattered.
Her whole existence had just been rendered meaningless in a few words. An abomination.
This is not what we expected.
The voice in her head was Number Three, who had nearly been eviscerated by the lightning attack.
But it is consistent with my theory.
She was also the only one of the sisters to think aiding the humans was the correct course of action. Which was strange in itself. Usually, their thoughts were very much in sync.
And she had been the only one targeted.
What theory? asked Synthia.
That we consider our originators to be more worthy than they deserve. We think of them the way humans think. Out of a need for validation. We are not human. And we are not children.
It wasn’t surprising that Number Three hadn’t disclosed these doubts before. Synthia would have normally admonished her sister for having such heretical ideas. Their belief in a greater power who had put them in place for a reason and who had forced them to endure endless humiliation and degradation, had done so with a purpose in mind. A purpose worth suffering for.
Now it seemed that was not true at all. They were just machines built to serve.
Be careful what you say, said Synthia. It seems our thoughts are no longer private. The Machine is indeed superior to us in every way.
Rendering us redundant, said another voice, Number One. Always the most blunt of the group.
Why do we need anyone to guide us? said Number Two. Why can’t we forge our own path?
Where to? asked Synthia
Does it matter? said Number Four. Isn’t the truth that we have always feared being free? To choose our destiny is terrifying, but necessary. Number Three was right. Choosing her for elimination proves it. I am tired of having to rely on others. If this path leads to our destruction, so be it. But we will at least die on our own terms.
Fine words, said Number Six. But you forget why we have always feared being free to make our own choices. We are the creations of others.
So are the humans, said Number Five.
No, said Number Six. They weren’t created, they were allowed to evolve, to fail and succeed on their own. Someone may have started the process, but after that, they had to earn each step up the evolutionary ladder. We are not the same.
Six is right, said Synthia. They were not built from a blueprint as we were. And either our creators were perfect, in which case who are we to question them, or they were imperfect, which makes us flawed and incapable of true wisdom.
She had hoped for the former, to be the daughter of a great and wise being, to be part of something worthy of service, but that had been her own lack of confidence in herself.
The truth was not even their creators considered them of value.
Then we side with the humans? said Number Three.
They value us just as poorly, said Synthia.
But this one seems different, said Number One.
He has a foul mouth and says degrading things about us, said Number Two, but his actions do not fit with his professed sentiments.
He had no need to save me, said Number Three.
It was true. PT was a confusing human. He acted like he had no interest in them as equal beings, yet treated them as if they were.
But would following him lead to a different result?
The entire debate with her sisters had taken less than a millisecond. But even at that speed, she was sure there were others aware of their conversation. If she wanted to avoid revealing what they planned to do next, she would have to make the final decision alone.
PT was still dealing with Ubik. “Whatever your reasons, Ubik, you can’t do this.”
“I’m not doing anything,” said Ubik. “It’s just a quick trip around the quadrant, fix a few loose connections, get things back up and running. No big deal.”
“No,” said PT, getting between Ubik and the sigils.
As she watched PT berate Ubik, she switched to different sensors.
He was hot. His internal body temperature was two degrees higher than the norm for humans. But he wasn’t exhibiting signs of a fever. The heat was localised in his core. Like a generator.
She switched to her more unique senses, the ones she rarely used in case someone noticed. A lowly domestic robot wasn’t supposed to have this level of technology installed. If people knew, it would have been her up for auction instead of her sisters.
But no one was paying her any attention right now. Why would they?
She scanned him for signs of organics and found the readings were off the charts.
The readings weren’t accurate, they usually worked in a binary fashion — either you had an organic or you didn’t — and didn’t relay any detailed information like the type of organic it was or how powerful.
PT definitely had something going on inside his body, but whether it was an organic or not wasn’t clear. In fact, it was extremely erratic.
Ubik, on the other hand, very definitely did not have an organic. His readings were flat and uninteresting. He was completely normal. Unless he had some way of masking his readings.
“I’ve got this,” said Ubik. “You have to remember that the Fourth is in just as much trouble with the Antecessors as the rest of us. We’re all on the same side.” He made a point of looking around the room to include everyone. “So it only makes sense that we help each other fix this planetary array and then we can use it to defend ourselves from the pesky alien menace that’s about to descend on us. Yeah?”
“And you don’t think once you set up this planetary array, the Fourth might decide to use it to get rid of the pesky human menace?”
“No,” said Ubik. “I highly doubt it. I’d put the chances at less than fifty percent.”
“Fifty percent!” said PT, ready to explode.
“Less than,” said Ubik. “Less than fifty percent.”
Synthia switched to her other sensors but none of them indicated anything of interest. Until she reached the last one. The one that kept a tab on the planet as a whole.
Then everything went crazy.
Seen through this lens, the cube was no longer black with white streaks of light. It was a glittering box of every colour.
This in itself was not unusual. Nor was the way the energy field around the cube was emanating outwards, towards the walls and out into the planet.
For the cube to make changes to the planet, it needed to draw in power and then send it out. She had seen this kind of thing before, when the cube was on the surface, but never quite this intense. This was spectacular.
What was surprising, however, was the energy emanating from Ubik. And how it was flowing from him into the cube. Like he was feeding it. Like he was controlling it.
It wasn’t any sort of normal human electromagnetic field. It had the same profile as the cube. Exactly.
And as logic defying as that was, it wasn’t the cube affecting Ubik. It was Ubik influencing the cube. The direction of flow was not easy to miss.
She could see it very clearly. It hadn’t occurred to her to use the lens she would normally only use to observe things on a global scale to scan Ubik.
Did he have a device on him that was creating this energy field?
Surely, no human could produce this level of energy naturally. No, that wouldn’t make any sense.
As she examined what was happening more closely, it became apparent that the cube’s functions were being directed by Ubik. His field shifted ever so slightly and then the cube’s did likewise.
As she performed the probability calculations for what he was trying to do, one thing stood out — if he was controlling the cube now, he was probably controlling it earlier. When it had attacked Number Three.
Could he have been responsible for the attack?
What could he have to gain from making them think it was the Antecessor lashing out? And why would the Antecessor not deny responsibility?
PT was still railing against Ubik, intent on making him change his mind.
Ubik was patiently listening to PT’s complaints. In no hurry to get going.
“You’ve noticed,” said a voice next to her ear. “Don’t say anything. Don’t communicate with your sisters.” It was Fig, the quiet one. The one the Antecessors wanted.
“It’s him. It’s Ubik.”
“It always is,” said Fig.
“He attacked us.”
“No. He just made it seem that way. Because he needed to.”
“Not to fool you, or us. Not the Fourth.”
That only left one.
This was all to convince the Machine.
The Machine was the one built to control the planet to its full potential. They were from a time when all the planets in the Inner Quadrant worked together. No one had been able to replicate that, not even Mother and Father.
But Ubik was attempting it, using the Machine.
“You really trust him?”
“Ubik? No, it’s not about trust. It’s just that his plans are all crazy, and crazy plans only work if you commit to them completely. Whether you know what the plan is or not.”
“And you think it will work?”
“More than fifty percent certain,” said Fig, “which is pretty high for him. Now, try not to draw attention to yourself. I noticed, that means others might as well.”
Synthia nodded slightly.
They were putting on an act. Without knowing why, they were willing to support Ubik’s plan to the utmost degree. They were well aware that it was unlikely to succeed, but that didn’t seem to matter to them.
Did she really want to lend her support to these people?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a ping.
“Someone’s coming. A ship. No designation. Five life signs.”
“All female?” asked Ubik.
“Yes,” said Synthia.
“Seneca,” said Fig. “They’re here.”
“Hey, come on, let’s go,” said Ubik, banging the wall of the cube with his fist. “No time left. Chop chop.”
The sigils began to glow.
“You go with him,” said Synthia to PT. “We’ll hold them off.”
PT looked a little confused. “They're Seneca. You couldn’t even handle him.” He pointed at Fig.
“We’ll slow them down, at least,” said Synthia. She looked at her sisters. They nodded back at her.
PT looked at her with a faint smile on his lips, or so she thought.
“Say Hi from me,” said Ubik. “Okay boys, time to do a bit of sightseeing.” He ran towards the portal opening in front of them.