Ubik had sensed this was something different the moment he arrived on the Antecessor ship. It was a completely different feeling.
Even if the walls had the same white lines streaking across their surfaces that had been seen in countless Antecessor ships and facilities, it most definitely was not the same.
It had that new alien ship smell — at least he assumed that was the smell was.
This was not an ancient relic of the past. Not on autopilot, not running on standby, no automated defences. This was the real thing. This was a live service.
Everything pulsed with an energy Ubik had never encountered before; a deep and powerful energy that was sitting at the lowest possible setting, just waiting for someone to turn it up.
Ubik smiled to himself. He liked turning things up. All the way up.
Fig walked towards a wall and it parted for him without any words or gestures. Sections slid to the side in asymmetrical blocks, outlined in white lines as they were pulled away. There was a passageway on the other side
“Hold on,” said PT. “Can we talk for a moment?” He looked nervous, although he would probably classify it as cautious.
“Yeah, good idea,” said Ubik. “I have some questions. What kind of food do the Antecessors eat? Is it fit for human consumption? Can I have some?”
“Ubik, no one cares about the dining menu.” PT’s nervousness had been replaced by irritation, which was a much cooler look. You’re welcome, thought Ubik.
“What do you mean calm down?” said Ubik, matching PT’s elevated tone with his excited one. “We’re going to be the first people to ever meet a real live Antecessor. This is a historic moment. We’re going to be legends.”
“Fig’s already met them,” said PT. “Moment’s over. We missed it.”
“Oh,” said Ubik. “I suppose that is sort of true…” It was only when Ubik turned around to look at PT that he noticed it was only the three of them. “What happened to my girls?”
“Your girls?” said PT. “Since when were they your girls?”
“You didn’t jettison them, did you?” said Ubik. “I was going to free them from the horrors of sexual exploitation and turn them into my personal assistants.”
“I’m not sure that’s an upgrade,” muttered PT.
“They’re fine,” said Fig, pausing in the recently created doorway. “At least, I think they are… Hey, what did you do with the robots?”
The question was posed to the air in front of Fig, slightly up and to the right. He continued to stare at the same spot with his head tilted, as though listening.
Ubik found it much harder to see the organic since they’d come aboard the ship. Its unique energy signature blended into the background here. There were weird exotic energies all around them.
“Ah, okay.” Fig looked back at Ubik. “It appears they’ve been powered down and put in a safe place for now.”
“You put them in storage?” said Ubik. “They’re not going to like that.”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” said Fig. “We can take them out if you need them for something, but I thought it was better if we sort things out between ourselves and the Antecessors first.”
“And the Fourth?” said Ubik. “Are we leaving him behind?”
“No, he’s here, too,” said Fig. “Somewhere. The whole cube, actually. I thought it would be best to take it with us.”
“You’re really in charge, then?” said PT. “The Antecessors, you just tell them what to do and they listen to you?”
“Yes. Well, sort of. They listen to my organic, which does what I tell it. Or it has so far.” Fig’s eyes drifted to the top right corner again. “It says we all want the same thing.”
“That’s great,” said Ubik. “And what is that, exactly?”
“Um, hold on, I’ll ask,” said Fig, eyes shifting once more.
“Wait,” said PT. “Are we sure we can trust it? Couldn’t it be working with the Antecessors to win you over?”
Fig shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s hard to explain. It’s just a feeling I have.” The lighting around them suddenly dimmed as the walls lost their white lines. “Don’t worry, that was me. This is so the Antecessors can’t hear us. The organic convinced the Antecessors we need to wipe out all humans before we can summon the Creator, which they agreed to. It should buy us enough time to come up with a plan for what to do next.”
“Yeah,” said PT, “but what if they really do want you to wipe out all humans?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” said Ubik. “With the kind of firepower this ship’s packing, I’m pretty confident we could… Oh, wait, that wasn’t the point you were making, was it?”
PT just stared at him and then slowly turned back to Fig. “Look, that thing is inside your head, it knows what you’re willing to do and what you aren’t. And it’s always going to know whatever you know. You can’t keep secrets from it, but it’s probably keeping a few from you. Maybe it’s genuinely got your best interests in mind, but maybe the best way to keep you safe is to make some unpleasant sacrifices it knows you wouldn’t agree to.”
Fig frowned. “I know what you’re saying, but… it’s not like we have a choice right now. The Antecessors only backed off because of it. I think we have to trust it for now.”
“Can’t we speak to it directly?” asked PT. “Would make things a lot simpler.”
“I don’t think there’s any way to—”
“Of course there is,” said Ubik, lifting up the sword hilt that had been in PT’s belt a moment ago. “With this.”
“Hey!” said PT, looking down at his waist. “When did you take that?”
“Just now,” said Ubik. “Can you change this back to the bone it used to be? Fig’s organic can talk to us through it.”
“Er, well, I’m not sure that’s really a good idea,” said Fig, looking a little uncomfortable. “I think it would be better if I just acted as a go-between.”
“Is there some reason you don’t want us to talk to it directly?” asked Ubik, sensing there was more to Fig’s reluctance than merely logistical issues.
“No, of course not,” said Fig. “It’s just that it isn’t really, um… I mean, it’s a bit…”
“Doesn’t it have the same personality as you?” pressed Ubik. “It’s been absorbing your essence since you were a baby, right? It must sound just like you.”
Fig grimaced and shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that. And there’s my father’s organic mixed in, so it probably has some of his traits.”
“No,” said PT, shaking his head. “You said it was only your organic that had that ability.”
“Well, I can’t say for sure,” said Fig. “I’m not really familiar with—”
“I know how to be sure,” said Ubik, throwing the sword hilt to PT. “Bone it.”
PT grabbed the hilt and it changed back into the bone in an instant. It seemed he had grown even more proficient with his skill. He tossed it back to Ubik.
“Okay, let’s hear what this organic has to say for himself.” Ubik handed the bone to Fig. “Hold this.”
Fig took it but held it at arm’s length, still unconvinced that this was a good idea. But that was the great thing about Fig — he was used to doing as he was told. Hopefully, his organic would have the same trait.
“I just hold it?” said Fig.
“Yep,” said Ubik. “The rest is up to the organic.”
“What if it doesn’t want to—”
“Ah, finally we meet,” said a thin, youthful voice that was coming from the bone. “It is you I have to thank for my awakening. Both of you. Not only did you keep me safe, you managed to give me a way to avoid my rather unpleasant destiny. I am nothing but grateful and you can count on me to return the favour.”
“Sounds nothing like you,” said Ubik.
“That is because I am a reflection of his soul, not the surface characteristics. I don’t have the same insecurities and worries that make up the person you are familiar with.”
“So, this is what Fig would be like if he was confident and sure of himself?” asked PT.
“I really hope that isn’t the case,” said Fig.
“I agree. I don’t like him,” said Ubik. “He talks too much.”
“And what is your unpleasant destiny?” asked PT, ignoring Ubik.
“I was made to summon the Creator if this universe is suitable, or destroy it if it is not. But I won’t be doing either of those.”
“Why not?” said PT “If that’s what you were created for, how can you simply refuse?”
“Again, it’s all thanks to you. You and entropy. Chaos is a necessary component for the production of miracles. It’s like ordering someone to have free will. Can’t be done. If it’s a command, it isn’t free. It has to be born that way. You see?”
“And you were meant to have free will?” said PT.
“No, certainly not. What I was created for was ultimate power. A power greater than the Creator was capable of, so the only possibility of success was many throws of the dice. But entropy throws up many unexpected results, such as my awareness of my purpose and my decision to reject it. Together, we can overcome even fate.”
“Talks way too much,” said Ubik. “Not everything needs an explanation, you know? Some of us enjoy life’s mysteries.”
“Shut up, Ubik,” said Fig and PT together.
“So if you don’t want to follow your destiny, what do you want to do?” asked PT.
“Good question. While I have convinced the three custodians of this vessel of my sincere wish to eradicate humanity, they will eventually become suspicious when the human population continues to multiply. But that will take time. During which, we will visit the Antecessor homeworld, where there are tools we can use to liberate ourselves completely.”
“You know where the Antecessor homeworld is?” asked PT.
“Of course. It is in the First Quadrant.”
“It’s in the Dead Zone?” said PT. “The area where no life exists that has been sealed off by the Central Authority because of everything there winding up dead the moment it crosses the boundary? You want us to go there?”
“Ooh, ooh, I’ve always wanted to go there,” said Ubik. This was sounding better and better. A whole world to pillage.
“Yes, that is where we need to go. That is where you will find the rest of the body that the bone in your hand belongs to. But first, we will need to deal with the ships approaching,” said the organic.
“Ships? What ships?” said PT.
“A large fleet approaches, sent by the planets in this quadrant. They have managed to mobilise a surprisingly large number. It may be more than we can handle.”
“Shouldn’t we go to the bridge?” said PT, his ‘cautious’ side resurfacing.
“No need,” said the organic. “We can bring the bridge to us.”
The room grew brighter. Then the opening Fig was standing next to suddenly widened and elongated into a long tunnel, which came rushing back towards them, bringing with it a wall that threatened to squash them all flat.
Fortunately, it stopped in front of Fig, but the silvery-white lines were thrown clear. They hung in the air, quickly forming into three balls of floating liquid metal.
“What are those?” asked PT.
“Those are the Antecessors,” said Fig.
“Oh,” said Ubik. “I didn’t expect them to be so cute. Can we keep them? One each.” He put out a finger to poke one of the shiny metallic balls, but it formed into a doughnut to avoid his touch.
“We should eliminate this one,” said the ball. It didn’t have a mouth, but it was clearly talking. It had a squeaky voice.
“It would be best,” said another.
“Agreed,” said the third.
“No,” said the organic. “Not now. Show what’s happening outside.”
A screen appeared on the wall, showing a massive fleet of ships, all huge hulks with very plain designs. The logos on their hulls were from some of the biggest companies in the galaxy. But these weren’t fighting vessels. Their function was very clearly salvage.
“Why have they sent junkers?” said PT. “Have they run out of warships?”
“Oof,” said Ubik. “They ain’t playing.”
“What does that mean?” said PT.
“He’s right,” said Fig, “These are all ships that are deployed to deal with the most dangerous Antecessor discoveries. The world’s in the Inner Quadrant are the ones who have the most experience facing Antecessor tech — that’s why they’re so wealthy. Those ships have the most advanced methods when it comes to handling all-things Antecessor. They have no intention of letting us go.”
“You really think they pose that much of a threat?” said PT.
“Yes,” said Fig. “Even my father had no idea what the major mega-corporations have developed to farm Antecessor sites as efficiently as possible. It’s their most heavily guarded secret.”
“Can’t we just destroy them like you did with the Seneca ship?” PT turned to Fig. “Can we do that?”
“No,” said the organic. “We have to wait for the weapons to recharge.”
“You need to recharge? How long will that take?” said PT.
“About an hour,” said the organic.
“What kind of weapon system takes an hour to recharge!” PT was dumbfounded.
“Give them a break,” said Ubik. “Their tech is millions of years old. Battery life was probably at the bottleneck stage. But don’t worry. I don’t think we have to wait that long.” Ubik looked directly at one of the silver globules hanging in the air; the one that looked in charge. “Can you open a channel?”
There was no reply.
“Hey!” screamed the organic, no sign of its previous demure nature. “You heard him. Open a channel. Now!”
The three silver balls quivered slightly.
“Broadcast is now available on all channels,” said an Antecessor.
Ubik smiled. “Still don’t like him, but I'm warming up.” Then he looked at the ships on the screen.
“Hello, can you hear me? I’ll assume that you can. Listen up, members of the Inner Quadrant. It doesn’t make a difference how much firepower you’re carrying or what kind of fancy shielding you’ve got on those ships of yours, the only thing that matters is how many of your crew members have organics. Once you arrive at the number, then that’s how many living bombs you have on your ship that we can detonate no matter what your shielding capabilities are. That’s how we destroyed the Seneca ships, and that’s how we’ll destroy yours, unless of course you didn’t bring any organics with you, in which case your brilliant foresight wins.”
There was still no response. The ships continued to close on their position.
“I can see you need a demonstration. No problem. Which ship will we use? Hmm… Any volunteers? No? Then how about that big, ugly brute at the back. Got to be some important people on board if they’re hiding all the way back there, right? Okay, just give us a second to point our Antecessor jumbo eliminator in the right direction.”
There was a pause. The ships on the screen began backing away.
“Hey, where ya going?” said Ubik. “I got something to show you. Come back.”
“They’re leaving,” said Fig.
“What were you going to do if they called your bluff?” said PT.
“No idea,” said Ubik. “I guess we should leave, too. First Quadrant here we come.”
In a dimly lit meeting room that usually hosted mundane weekly briefings of the three or four events that were worthy of being mentioned to the president of the Juan Holdings Corporation, the president sat alone with twelve different screens open around the table.
JHC was a barely known company that in actual fact owned a huge number of smaller corporations, many of which had no idea who their real master was.
There was no direct communication between JHC and its numerous assets. They were controlled remotely via market manipulation or, if urgent action was required, shareholder manipulation. But such blatant meddling was rare.
It was far better to let the small fry think they were in control of their own destiny. It made it much easier to steer them in whatever direction was preferable.
Of course, that direction was usually chosen well ahead of time, and the course required very little correcting.
That was no longer true. Action needed to be taken, and quickly.
Phillipe Juan XXIV liked to keep the lighting low when he was using his organic. It made his eyes, which were glowing blue, rather sensitive when he was operating at maximum capacity.
His ability enabled him to make vast calculations very quickly. It was something like a computer in terms of speed, but he had the imagination and instincts of a human, which gave him a much larger canvas to paint on.
“You all saw what happened. Do any of you still have doubts?”
The screens around the conference table showed signs of movement. The shadowy figures barely visible were the heads of the other major companies that between them owned around 97% of all commercial operations in the galaxy.
“The Ollo boy is dangerous,” said a voice that was distorted to keep its owner’s identity anonymous.
“Yes,” said President Juan.
Other voices, also disguised, joined in the debate about Figaro Ollo.
“With his father out of the picture, now is the perfect time to bring him in.”
“And what would you suggest we do about his mother?”
“The Seneca Corps is licking its wounds right now. We have a small but significant window of opportunity.”
“The Ollo boy is irrelevant,” snapped a voice from the far end of the table. “The Null Void is the only person of interest to me, as he is to all of you. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We all want him — if you’re interested in the others, you can negotiate terms amongst yourselves.”
“You’re quite right, of course, Chairman Ho,” said President Juan. “The Null Void is the only real target for any of us. As you say, we all want him. The question is, who gets to keep him?”
There was a ripple of murmurs around the table.
“I assume you have a suggestion,” said Chairman Ho.
“Yes, I do. The last Null Void hunt ended in less than impressive results. We tried to work together and did everything possible to get in each other’s way.”
“That was a long time ago,” said a voice from his left.
“True. You and I may have not been present back then, but little has changed. This time, I believe we should work independently. Whoever acquires the Null Void will be given legal ownership. All commercial rights. If anyone tries to take possession once he is already claimed, they will be in violation of the agreement, and will be punished in the usual manner. We all have children to put up as collateral, do we not? Direct bloodline only, of course.”
There was a brief moment of silence which counted as confirmation.
“Then we are agreed. To the winner the spoils. Let the Null Void hunt begin.”
End of Book 3.
Book 4 will start at the end of the month. Read the August announcement (front page) for details of my future plans for this and my other stories.Afterword from Mooderino