Dook Asteroid Field.
Quazi Base 9.
Figaro understood they were in a tight spot with some very deft manoeuvring required if they were going to get out of this old Antecessor site in one piece. He knew this but found it hard to show much interest. Compared to the series of crises they’d been through recently, this seemed well within their abilities to deal with.
What he was finding more perplexing at the moment was the control panel on his arm. The one with Ubik’s Grandma now inside it.
He didn’t mind that Ubik had put her in there. She was actually quite helpful and reasonably pleasant company. He had never met his own grandparents, whom his parents never spoke of. Neither of them seemed to have had good relations with their own parents, and they didn’t like to be questioned on the subject.
Grandma visiting was fine. The thing that had him stumped was how Ubik had got her in there. It shouldn’t have been possible.
The control panel had been designed by his father and, like all his devices, one of its most rudimentary features was the impossibility of it being hacked. Not a very hard thing to prevent, if you were willing to give up some non-essential features.
Of course, Ubik was able to fiddle with the control panel, just as he could with most tronic devices, and make it do things better than Figaro could, but that was just a difference in skill and expertise.
You would expect different farmers to have varying results with their crops — the quality of the food, the size of the yield and so on. What you wouldn’t expect was for one of the farmers to have raised apple pie trees and fields of ripe chocolate cake.
Figaro had always been considered to be a prodigy. Quick to learn; disciplined in his training; relentless in his desire to improve execution.
Not to brag, but he had considered this evaluation of him to be fair.
He had talent and he worked hard to make the most of it.
He couldn’t take sole credit for this. His genes were inherited and his training was carried out by some of the finest tutors alive. And then there was the personal care and attention from his father. Hard as it had been for him to grow up as an Ollo, with all the expectations and pressures that created, there was no doubting the quality of his upbringing.
Even if it wasn’t a happy childhood, nor an enjoyable one, it was certainly a productive one and he was now reaping the benefits of those years of suffering.
Not that there weren’t people better than him in every discipline he studied. There was no shame in that, just an indication of where you were in your own progress and how far there was to go. Figaro had never seen those ahead of him as anything other than something to aspire towards.
But, generally speaking, the people ahead of him were older than him. Much older. They had spent several more years to get where they were now, and Figaro never doubted that once he did the same, he would surpass them.
That was not the case with Ubik.
There was no getting around how young he was and how little effort he seemed to put into what he was doing.
Figaro was starting to question his father’s methods. Maybe there was a better, less painful way. He had been taught to focus on one thing at a time, to achieve excellence and to only adapt and improvise once the basic foundations were in place.
But the reality was that one thing at a time was not how the world worked, nor the universe.
Currently, there was the matter of the Antecessors who were after him. There was his organic, or organics, and their value to other people. There was also the Fourth, who was in Ubik’s bone, but probably had ideas about getting out and causing havoc. Now there was this new variable of Quincy Quasem. And each of those issues had their own sub-issues.
And that was just a fraction of their troubles.
The less-immediate issues could be ignored for now — or he hoped they could because that was what he was doing — but now they were in a new region of space; one that had its own rules and regulations to watch out for.
Figaro was only slightly familiar with the Inner Quadrant and what kind of people lived here. His father had once been an inhabitant and could still easily pass through the barrier that kept the riff-raff out, but he had chosen to move away.
Tired of the constant infighting, Ramon Ollo had left them to it and taken over a medium-sized planet for his personal use. The shops weren’t as handy, but the cost of living dropped to much more acceptable levels.
The Inner Quad was also something his parents declined to talk about. Which meant Figaro’s knowledge of the region was far from comprehensive. He knew some of the main players, some of the dealings and practices, but had no deep insights.
He knew M&M were famous for their very lifelike robots that cost a huge amount and were bought by wealthy individuals who didn’t want to have to please someone to be pleased by them in return.
These weren’t robots constructed to do things people couldn’t. They were constructed to look as human as possible. For reasons that no one talked about but everyone understood.
As successful as their business might be, were they really the best people to use as shields?
Ubik seemed to think so, and Figaro had no reason to doubt him, but things were rarely as they appeared with Ubik. He was a whizz with tronics. Robots were tronics dressed up as people. So the question became, what did Ubik want with robots?
“What are you giggling about?” said PT.
They were waiting for the guard to come back with news. Did the dead president’s son agree to meet them? When and where? And if the answer was no, then what was the next move?
Nobody thought it was a good idea to just wait, but nobody had a better idea, which was the fuel that powered Ubik’s engine.
Ubik was standing there, his shoulders shaking slightly as he chuckled to himself. “Quincy Quasem. It’s such a stupid name.”
“Your name’s Ubik U Ubik,” said PT.
“Yeah,” said Ubik. “What that’s got to do with anything?”
“Nothing. Forget it.” PT was another person who defied the natural order, but in a different way to Ubik.
Here was a young man who had very little training or guidance. From what Figaro had learned, he was mostly self-taught. But there was no doubting his ability to keep up with both Figaro and Ubik. There had never been a feeling that PT was being carried by others. He held his own in any company.
“There’s probably a ship here,” said PT, changing tack. “We could take it and leave.”
“I guarantee there is no ship,” said Ubik. “Strictly shuttle service, once a month, if not longer. You leave a ship lying around with some guy marooned here for who knows how long, slowly going crazy; what’s to stop him just throwing in the towel one day, firing up the rockets and zooming off into the wide black yonder?”
“Why does he even need to be here?” said Bashir. “It’s not like there’s anything worth taking.”
“It’s still an Antecessor base,” said Chukka, still riding high on the thrill of being in the Inner Quadrant, even if it was inside a dingy old ruin. “You can’t be sure it's been completely cleared out. Plus, you don't want people just wandering in to have a look. You have to keep up appearances in the Inner Quad.”
“Someone’s coming,” said Bashir, stopping the banter and causing them all to look towards the doorway. “Four of them.”
“Four?” said Ubik. “Looks like the young master rushed over. Probably brought some heavies with him. Remember, try not to use any flashy stuff. We’re just simple scientists trying to bend the universal laws to our whims. Brilliant but, you know, low key brilliant.”
Voices could be heard before anyone appeared.
“I can’t believe you, Taio. I was in the middle of a very sensual meal.”
“I know, sir. I’m very sorry, but these people… and the sigil… it’s just…”
“Yes, yes. Are you sure you haven’t been using again? I set you up with this plum assignment, even gave you an excuse to avoid that nasty wife of yours… if it wasn’t for that time you…”
A man appeared in the doorway and stopped talking as he saw the group waiting for him, and the sigil behind them. It had dimmed down even more but the outline was still visible.
“What the hell is that?” The young man, who looked to be in his early twenties, with a very glossy head of hair and a trim beard, marched across the room towards them.
His green and blue spacesuit was half unzipped and the collar was half up and half down, but there was no doubting the quality of the manufacturing. It was a very expensive, very technologically advanced outfit. It also had a small cape hanging over one shoulder. Figaro could tell a lot about a man from how he accessorised.
The man hadn’t come alone. Two tall, very attractive women escorted him. They wore long white dresses with hoods that were illuminated on the inside, so their beautiful faces were easier to see.
“You…” said the young man looking around the group. “Which one of you is in charge?”
“You can talk to me,” said Ubik. “I can answer any questions you might have.”
“Good. Who are you? How did you get here? What’s that thing and how did it get here? And they better all be good answers or I’ll have the lot of you thrown in prison with no hope of ever getting out. Are we clear?”
He stood there, imperious and awaiting answers.
Figaro felt something clench inside of him. Watching Ubik at work was a very stressful experience. Figaro had been in some very unpleasant situations, life and death matters, but nothing gave him palpitations like this. He had no idea which way Ubik would take this.
“May I know your name, sir?” said Ubik politely. Too politely.
“Certainly,” the man replied with heavy sarcasm. “I am Quincy Quasem, owner of… what the devil are you smirking like that for?”
“Excuse me,” said Ubik, straightening his face. “I’m just very happy to see you. When we requested a meeting, we had no idea you would come so quickly. Thank you so much.”
“Yes, well… Taio here seemed to be in such a panic, I couldn’t very well… Never mind all that, answer my blasted questions. And don’t think about trying any funny stuff. These two ladies behind me have the strength of several large elephants and have been programmed in three different martial arts. Their thighs are registered as lethal weapons.”
“Very impressive,” said Ubik. “They’re the latest model, are they? I can barely tell they aren’t human.”
The two female robots were lifelike, but there was a vacant look in their eyes which was vaguely unsettling. Figaro had seen similar devices before, but never ones this perfect. Too perfect.
“My name is Ubik, and I am merely the spokesperson for my employer, the brilliant scientist over there whose name I won’t mention for legal reasons but who I am sure you have already recognised.”
Young Master Quincy stared at PT, who did his best impression of someone aloof and disinterested. Fortunately, the expression was not dissimilar to irritated and resentful, so he more or less pulled it off.
“I’m afraid I don’t. And who are all these other people?”
Ubik went through another set of vague introductions with no actual names mentioned and segued smoothly into a stream of nonsense about instantaneous cross-galactic travel while Quincy remained incredulous throughout.
“I think,” whispered PT into Fig’s ear, “that at some point we may need to dump Young Master Ubik and strike out on our own.”
“Hmm,” muttered Figaro, still working on the control panel on his arm. “For reasons of self-preservation?”
“Exactly for those reasons,” said PT.
“Do you have a way to leave without him noticing?”
“No. Do you?”
“No,” said Figaro. “I’ll work on it.”
“Good. So will I.” PT quietly leaned back and continued to look like he was formulating an unsolvable theorem, which he probably was.
“This is ridiculous,” said Quincy. “You want me to join you in some ridiculous venture involving travel between here and the 4th Quadrant, for which you refuse to provide proof, and you won’t even reveal your names or who you work for? I may not be the most experienced member of the Quazem family, but I know when something doesn’t smell right. And quite frankly, this whole thing stinks.” He looked very unimpressed with Ubik’s presentation. “Now, you’re going to stay here and I’m going to call some people who will find out who you really are and what this is all about.”
“This isn’t working,” said Chukka, coming forward on her own initiative.
Ubik had told them to follow his lead, so she was.
“And who are you again?” asked Quincy in as offhand a manner as he could.
“Major Chukka, VendX Galactic, PR Department,” said Chukka, not holding anything back.
“VendX, VendX… Don’t you people collect salvage or something?”
“No,” said Chukka. “Some of our subsidiaries do, but it’s a very minor part of our business.” She had a steely look about her and showed no signs of nervousness. “What’s important here is that we control the other end of this transportation array, and there is no reason for you to be involved in this if you aren’t willing. It’s true, it took quite a few attempts to get a stable connection, and it was somewhat random, but we can try again and see where we end up. Maybe in a different quadrant, maybe another Antecessor site in this one. It really doesn’t matter. Once we establish an instantaneous link between galaxies, we will mostly be conducting research into replicating the technology, so it isn’t as though we’ll be opening a resort for tourists. I can fully understand why this sort of thing wouldn’t be of interest to someone in the servicing industry.” Her eyes moved from Quincy to the gorgeous automatons behind him.
“Well,” said Quincy icily, “that may well be true, but either way we will find out once—”
Weyla and Leyla decided they’d had enough of being observers and made their own move.
They easily slipped past the people standing in front of them and each took down one of the robots. It was effortless and elegant, their movements predicting the attempts of the robots to defend themselves, twisting limbs until something inside snapped. Even though an artificial body was many times stronger than a human’s, a mixture of organics and Seneca training proved superior.
The robots ended up in a mangled heap, still smiling seductively.
Quincy’s mouth hung open and his eyes were wide with shock. “You… You’re Seneca. Why do you have Seneca troops with you? What are you planning to do to my planet?” He looked genuinely terrified and held onto Taio’s arm, while Taio looked equally terrified as he held onto Quincy’s.
“They’re ex-Seneca,” said Ubik. “Hired muscle.”
“The Seneca Corps doesn't work for men,” said Quincy. “Not even ex-Seneca.”
“They work for me,” said PT, chipping in. “You don’t have to get involved with this, but neither can you be allowed to involve others. This sigil will fade in a few hours and there won’t be any trace left. If you can drop us off at the nearest spaceport, I would be much obliged. We won’t trouble you again. You can send me a bill for the repair of your toys.”
He didn’t state who to send the bill to or where, but there was a very definite undercurrent of this request is not a request.
Having been addressed by the supposed leader, Quincy took on a change of attitude.
“I see. Maybe I’ve been a little hasty.” Quincy glanced over at the two sisters, clearly more impressed by the ability of this man to command Seneca subordinates than his ability to cross galaxies. “How about this. Come with me to my home and we’ll discuss the matter more fully. I’m sure we can come to terms. I will guarantee absolute confidentiality, of course. I’ll sign whatever you want to that effect.”
Figaro smiled to himself. Without showing any interest in what Ubik was trying to achieve, PT had seamlessly inserted himself into the problem and solved it. Ubik had a grin on his face as though this was all as he’d foreseen it. The galling thing was he probably had.
“Ooh, that turned out well, didn’t it?” said Grandma.
“Is it what you were expecting?” asked Figaro.
“Oh no, I try not to have expectations,” said Grandma sweetly, “it just limits people. I’m glad we got rid of those two sluts, though. Horrid things.”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon. I know, I can't believe I got my buffer back up either.Afterword from Mooderino