“Ah, now I get it,” said Ubik. “I thought you were in some sort of tussle with the Machine, but it was your old Antecessor buddies you were trying to keep at bay. Did you win?”
There was no response from the cube. Ubik got the impression the Fourth was a little embarrassed.
“Who is he talking to?” said Fig’s mother.
“There’s an Antecessor god inside the cube,” said Fig. “It’s a long story.”
“There is no evidence the Antecessors had gods,” said Nigella.
“I know,” said Fig. “It’s just a powerful existence that Ubik likes to flatter. How are you, Mother?”
“I am very well,” said Nigella, smiling briefly, shifting the baby in her arm but keeping her eyes on Ubik. “This cube, I think I want it.”
“Fourth?” said Ubik, his attention on the cube. “Did you win?”
“He just said we failed and they have control of the network,” said PT. “I think we can call that not winning.”
“There are many types of winning,” said Ubik, not even bothering to look over at him.
His eyes were fixed on the cube, which no longer had hyperactive streaks of light running back and forth across its surfaces.
The lights were bright and static, painting a pattern of completeness. It was fascinating. And dumb. Everything the cube was going to do was written on its big dumb face.
“Their strength is profound and their power unfathomable,” said the Fourth. “They will be here soon, so…” The Fourth God of the Antecessors hesitated in a very ungodlike manner.
“So?” said Ubik, wanting the Fourth to say it.
“So, if you have a way to stop them, now is the time to act.”
Ubik couldn’t help but smile. Whatever the situation, no matter how bad it was for them, he was pleased that the Fourth had finally come to the realisation that he, Ubik U Ubik, was the only one who might possibly be able to do something about it.
It was a nice feeling to be recognised by a god. Especially this smug bastard.
It would have been nice if that realisation had been born of confidence rather than desperation, but you can’t have everything.
“Hoho, you think I can stop an entire Antecessor fleet hell-bent on taking away my good friend Figaro Ollo? Quite the expectation you have of me, Fourth.”
“That means you can do it, right?” said Fig.
“Yeah, can you quit the grandstanding and get on with it?” said PT. “Didn’t you hear what he said? Now is the time to act.”
Ubik sighed to himself. The Fourth might have begrudgingly accepted Ubik’s place at the forefront of this endeavour, but it was clear these two only saw him as a means to an end.
“Now is not the time to act,” said Ubik. “Now is never the time to act when you face profound strength and unfathomable power.”
“Then when is the time to act?” asked PT.
“Oh, you know, a few days back. You really want everything already decided long before you get in this sort of situation.”
“And did you?” asked PT.
“Unfortunately, didn’t have the time,” said Ubik. “I suppose we’ll just have to wing it.”
“So you’re saying we’ve already lost?” said PT.
“No, I wouldn’t say we’ve lost.”
“Because there are many different types of losing?” said PT.
“You’re doing that thing where you try to use my own words against me, aren’t you?” Ubik turned to Fig’s mother, who was watching them bicker with a look of mild consternation. “That’s his thing, using people’s own momentum against them. His greatest weakness is when his opponent does nothing.”
“That explains why I can never beat you,” said PT, sourly.
“Ahem,” said Fig’s mother, lightly clearing her throat. She raised the black-gloved hand not holding the baby and pointed her finger at Ubik. “Are you really relying on him to defeat the Antecessors.” Her tone was somewhat dismissive.
“Hey, Fig,” said Ubik, “you never said your mother was so mean.” He shook his head. “Pretty girls... think they’re better than the rest of us. Right, Captain?”
Fermont just sneered at him.
“Yes, Mother,” said Fig. “He certainly has a better chance than the Corps.” He glanced over at Fermont sitting on the ground.
“True,” said Nigella. “Your team’s performance has been less than satisfactory, Captain.”
Fermont looked up at Nigella with dispassionate eyes. “He has the same ability as your husband.” She said the word like it was painful to have it in her mouth. “Our organics were useless.”
Nigella looked at Fig and raised her hand, palm facing out, at her son. Her eyes turned completely black. The baby woke up and began crying.
A dark ball of nothingness formed just in front of her and began moving towards Fig. The pressure from it was immense and Ubik couldn’t help but back away.
Fig frowned and his eyes flickered with light for a moment. The ball disappeared.
The baby stopped crying.
“Good,” said Nigella, a small smile on her red lips. “You have already mastered his organic. We should be able to find many uses for it.”
Fig didn’t look very pleased about her tone. She definitely sounded like she intended to be the one who would decide on those uses.
Nigella didn’t wait to hear what Fig might think about it. She was looking down at Fermont.
“And you. Are you useless without your organic?” asked Nigella.
Fermont lowered her head, not saying anything.
“I can see we need to take a trip to Immigré after this,” said Nigella. She looked over at Speers and Otenu, both of whom were looking dispirited. “The two of you, also. You should be grateful to my son for highlighting your weaknesses so we can work on them.”
“What’s Immigré?” asked PT.
“It’s a Seneca training planet,” said Fig. “A tropical paradise.”
“Oh, sounds lovely,” said Ubik. “Have you been?”
“Men aren’t allowed,” said Fig. “Except as prey to be hunted.”
“I think I’ll give it a miss, then,” said Ubik.
“We weren’t properly briefed,” said Fermont bitterly. “If we had been, we would have brought a full team and we wouldn’t be in this condition.”
“Yes, you are correct,” said Nigella. “It is a position the Corps has been in often, and finding a way to survive so we can return prepared is what we do. It’s what you did. There is no shame in it, only opportunity. You two, help her.”
Two women came forward from behind Nigella — Weyla and Leyla.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Ubik. “Couldn’t stay away, huh? Did you come to rescue us? You and the sex robots working together, are you?”
Neither sister said anything and moved to assist Fermont, getting her off the ground and strapped to Leyla’s back. No words were spoken between them.
“It has been a long time since the Corps had to face a worthy enemy,” said Nigella. “Too long. We have grown soft, it can’t be denied.” She was looking at Fermont as she spoke. “I don’t consider the Corps capable of averting disaster here, either. Which is why we need to leave this place immediately.”
“There is no point leaving, Mother. If we lose here, there will be nowhere left to go.”
Nigella looked displeased by her son’s outburst. “This is not a fight we can win, Figaro. We need to prepare correctly, only then will we have a chance to be victorious. It is not only yourself you need to think of, Figaro. There is also your sister, who you have ignored so far. Do you not wish to meet her?”
She looked down at the sleeping child cradled in her arms. The baby sighed and moved slightly, unaware of the peril she was in.
Figaro took a step forward but stopped. “What’s her name?”
“Cady,” said Figaro softly. He looked at his mother. “I will not leave, Mother. As much for her sake as my own. Father would agree with my choice.”
“Your father isn’t here. And it’s high time you stopped letting him rule over you. You are no longer a child.”
It was obvious to Ubik that when she told Fig not to listen to his father, she didn’t mean he should listen to his own counsel. It was quite the family dynamic they had going.
“Father told me to make my own choices, which is what I will do. I no longer follow the path he set for me, and I won’t follow you, either, Mother.”
“How can you be so foolish, Figaro?” said Nigella. “Aren’t the Antecessors here for you? Don’t you hold the key to their goal? Without you here, they will be forced to change their plans, and that will be enough to stop them, for now.”
“You seem to have a very clear idea of what the Antecessors are after,” said PT. “Almost like you knew they would come for your son.”
“You are also an important part of this. You will come with us. The power you wield belongs to the entire human race. It is what will save us, but only if we use it correctly.”
“No,” said PT. He pointed at Ubik. “He’s insane, but I’d much rather take my chances with him. The Seneca Corps doesn’t hold any appeal for me. None at all.”
“An ungrateful son,” said Ubik sadly, “and an unwilling sacrifice. These two, huh? Who’d be a parent?”
Nigella handed her child to Weyla, who took the baby with a flash of fear and reluctance.
“It isn’t hard to see what the goal of the Antecessors is,” said Nigella, walking towards Ubik. “Neither is it very difficult to see what your goal is.”
Ubik started walking backwards, but bumped into the cube.
Nigella reached out with her gloved hand and closed it around Ubik’s throat. She lifted him off his feet with no apparent effort.
“Ukh! Fig, little help,” said Ubik, barely managing to get the words out.
“I can’t do anything,” said Fig. “She isn’t using an organic. Don’t worry, I don’t think she’s going to kill you.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Nigella. “This one is responsible for the deaths of thousands. And his objective is entirely self-serving. Which I can respect, but cannot allow.”
“PT?” wheezed Ubik.
I don’t know why you’re even asking,” said PT.
“Grandma!” shouted Ubik. “The glove.”
“Ooh, okay, okay, I’m coming, dear.” The fake droid trundled out from the crowd of robots towards Nigella.
Nigella glanced over and casually flicked her other hand at it. The droids collapsed. But there was a crackle of electricity along Nigella’s arm.
She scowled and then shook her arm like she was shaking off some water, moving Ubik bodily, like a rag doll.
“Oh, will you look at that,” said Grandma, her voice coming from Fig’s arm. “She’s got a firewall protecting her. Not even a little gap anywhere. Very, very strong.” She sounded impressed. “There’ll be no bypassing that, I can tell you, and no mistake.”
Ubik felt the grip around his throat tighten. The glove could augment her strength, but she also had a level of protection around it that was even beyond Grandma’s abilities. Probably a gift from her husband. Which made this tricky.
“You need me,” said Ubik in a tiny voice. “I can stop them.”
“Really?” said Nigella, sounding unconvinced. “How?”
“I like your mother,” said PT. “She’s very direct.”
Fig just frowned.
Ubik didn’t really mind being suspended by the neck, his feet flailing. He quite enjoyed it. He kicked his legs around like he was walking on air.
The pressure on his throat eased ever so slightly.
“It’s easy. We can’t send the fleet away — you already tried that — but they need two things. They need your son and they need the planets in this quadrant. All we need to do is get rid of the planets.”
Nigella opened her hand and dropped Ubik.
“You want to destroy all the planets in this sector,” said Nigella, not sounding like she disapproved of the idea.
Ubik rubbed his throat. “No, that would be murder on a scale only a madman or the Seneca Corps would consider. We only need to get rid of this.” He slapped the cube a couple of times. “Without the cube, they can’t control the network. It’s the key component. Just use your portable black hole to send it away and it’ll take them forever to find it again. Problem solved. Temporarily.”
Nigella looked at the brightly glowing cube behind Ubik.
“Aren’t there others like this one?” she said.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “But they all need to be present to connect the network. Even one missing will make the whole thing collapse. Of course, we can’t just destroy it, the energy released would be catastrophic. And we need to separate it from the planet, otherwise there’ll be a thread they can follow to find it. But that should be easy enough — our robot workforce can dig a moat around it and put some sort of insulating material underneath. I’m sure there’s something lying around we can use.”
Nigella was nodding her head. “I believe that would be—”
“That’s the most complete explanation I’ve ever heard him give,” said PT. “So I think we can safely assume it’s a lie.”
“Why is it a lie?” said Ubik, not happy with PT’s negativity. “You think everything I say is a lie.”
“Everything you say is a lie,” said PT.
“Is now really the time to insult me?” said Ubik.
“The end of the universe is imminent,” said PT. “Who knows if I’ll have another chance?”
“If what you say is true,” said Nigella, “then we don’t have to send it away, we can take it with us. Along with the Antecessor inside it. Wait, what is happening now?”
The cube had started to glow brighter.
“Oh, this is the ignition of the, you know, whatchamacallit. Portal opening.”
“Then stop it,” said Nigella.
“Can’t. Seems we’re too late. You probably shouldn’t have wasted all that time chatting.”
It had been obvious the cube was counting down, all he had to do was stall. Now, there was no way for Nigella or the Seneca Corps or anyone else to prevent the portal from opening.
“Ubik,” said PT, “are you sure this is alright?”
“Sure, sure. As long as we have Fig, they can’t do anything. They’ve got the lock, we’ve got the key. Nothing changes. We just get to see what it is they’ve been working for all this time.”
There was a bright flash. When it faded, Ubik looked around. Nothing seemed to have changed, except...
“Guys, where’s Fig?”
There was no sign of him.