Dook Asteroid Field.
Quazi Base 9.
Ubik felt a sense of loss. The moment the ridiculously named Quincy Quazem had appeared, flanked by his artfully manufactured escorts, Ubik’s heart had stirred.
What others might have perceived as a near-perfect recreation of the female form, designed to stimulate the carnal desires of those looking for a way to satisfy their base needs, Ubik saw as something pure and wholesome.
What he saw were two mobile stores of spare parts.
Judging by the condition of the skin textures, at least when they first entered, the two units couldn’t be more than a year old. Which meant the tronics inside them were the latest generation, with barely any wear and tear on them.
But now, those two units were in a heap on the floor, their mechanical parts bent out of shape and their tronic parts burnt-out due to excessive load.
The two robot girls had tried to fight toe-to-toe with their Seneca opponents. They might have pretty faces, but it seemed their decision-making algorithms hadn’t been of the same sort of quality as their impressive breast engineering. One of them had a nipple exposed, which was rotating round and round for no reason.
Ubik looked over at Weyla, who had taken special pleasure from beating the hell out of her opponent and possible future-replacement.
“If you wait with Taio at the hangar, I will meet you there,” said Quincy, now keen to throw his lot in with a bunch of strangers. A short performance by two real women and he was all in.
That was the problem with accepting substitutes to provide your manual labour needs. Yes, it was more consistent and didn’t require wining and dining, but the end result was of a much lower standard. Consistency came at the cost of brilliance.
“Good, excellent,” said Ubik. “We’ll be in your hands, then.”
Of course, there was no way Quincy would simply roll over and passively agree to whatever was asked of him.
Even if he was the least successful of his brood, he had been raised in an environment of deceit and manipulation. He would also most likely be in possession of a high quality organic, or have people around him who did. They would be going over everything with an expectation of being deceived and manipulated, and rightly so.
“And, as a way to make up for any misunderstandings,” continued Ubik, “allow us to fix these two units for you.”
Quincy looked down at the broken bots, a small frown on his lips. “I don’t think that will be necessary. They’re too far gone.” He looked back at Ubik with a business-smile now in place. “Don’t worry, I can have them replaced at no cost. I was going to throw them out soon anyway.”
Ubik’s sense of loss increased. So many useful bits and bobs, just sitting in front of him. He consoled himself with the thought of how many more of these marvellous repositories Quincy had at home. He was looking forward to getting his hands inside one or two of them.
“Taio, take them down to the hangar,” ordered Quincy. “If you’ll excuse me, I just want to invite a couple of experts to join us. No, it’s fine,” he added when he saw the reaction. “I have no intention of revealing anything to the authorities. Private business should remain private. These are all people I’ve worked with before and they’ve already signed agreements preventing the disclosure of any secrets.”
“Experts?” said Ubik.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” said Quincy. “The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to understand half of what you said if it came to technical matters. I need people to advise me so I can fully appreciate what it is you're offering me here.”
What he said made sense. It was the wisest move, to bring in consultants who could give him a reasonable idea of what the costs would be and what kind of return he could expect.
“You’re right not to trust us yet,” said PT all of a sudden. “To your eyes, we are strangers with no background and no proof of our claims. Even our suits probably look cheap and of poor quality.”
Quincy didn’t disagree. Ubik wondered where PT was going with this. It was fine to point out the inconsistencies with your own story, but only if you had a way to turn it to your advantage. Then it became a source of trust.
“But things aren’t always as simple as they seem. Fig, show him.”
PT handed off the rest of his bamboozle to Fig, who didn’t seem at all surprised to be on the receiving end. Had the two of them planned something? And why hadn’t he been invited to this secret meeting?
Fig pressed a few buttons on his control panel and the suit stiffened. A bubble helmet appeared over his head and a soft sheen of light appeared over his entire body.
None of this was particularly impressive in Ubik’s eyes, but it did make for a nice backdrop to what he did next.
With a few button pushes, Fig took control of one of the broken robots and got it to stand up on one leg. Its face was lifeless and its limbs moved with the jerks and twitches you might see from a marionette, but it was up.
It no longer had the elegance of a fashion model as it hopped about, its head lolling about like the robot undead, but it was managing to stay upright when precious little of its systems were still operational.
What was even more remarkable was that this kind of robot wasn’t designed to be controlled remotely.
The robot lasted for about twenty seconds before collapsing.
Quincy had a stunned expression on his face. “How did you… There’s no way you should be able to…”
“We have the technology,” said PT in a sombre voice, “we just need your help with location.” He was getting quite good at sounding like he was a man of importance. There was a lot of Ramon Ollo in the performance, which helped.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” said Quincy, backing away with excitement dancing in his eyes. He was starting to believe this really was a heaven-sent chance for him. “Taio.”
He gave Taio the nod to carry on, and then rushed off while pretending to be unhurried and not at all desperate for a shot at the big prize.
Ubik knew he still had his suspicions and was going to take precautions against being conned or worse — the Seneca duo being his main concern — but Ubik was confident he wouldn’t go to the authorities.
Ubik had seen the greed well up in the man’s beady little eyes. He was going to guard his secret lottery ticket and wait to see what he might win.
And he certainly wouldn’t go to any of his family. They were the ones to watch out for, especially those near the top of the family tree. But poor Quincy was the son who never amounted too much, and now he was presented with the golden opportunity to grab something for himself. How could he resist?
“This way, please,” said Taio. He looked nervous, and sweaty around the upper lip area, but since his assignment was to lead them to the hangar and not try to fight anyone, he was managing to keep it together.
“Where are we, by the way?” asked Chukka, stepping over the bits of robot that littered the floor. “Underground?”
Taio led them out of the room into a featureless tunnel that lit up as they walked; non-Antecessor lighting.
“Um, well…” Taio was nervous, keen not to say the wrong thing but also keen not to offend anyone by refusing to talk. “This is Quazi Base 9. We’re on a small asteroid in the Dook asteroid field.”
“And the Quazem family owns the asteroid field?”
Ubik could see him weighing each answer in his head before speaking, making sure he was only giving away basic information that was freely available.
“And there are nine bases in the field?” pressed Chukka.
“No. There are three in the asteroid field, and six more in… other places.”
The information was mildly interesting but not all that useful. They weren’t looking to plunder any Antecessor sites, and even if they had been, the other eight sites didn’t belong to Quincy.
Taio led them directly to the end of the passage to a hangar with a medium-sized ship that could probably seat ten people in a pinch.
It was an expensive cruiser, sleek and with more fins than necessary. The paintwork was a rich, glossy burgundy that deepened to purple when it caught the light. It was an older model. Not a classic or vintage, just one that had been in vogue about a decade ago; the kind a young man of privilege would be given as a gift, for a birthday or the like. Perhaps it held sentimental value, or maybe he couldn’t currently afford anything better.
Ubik hoped it was the latter reason.
They stood outside the ship, waiting for Quincy to return. Taio wandered away from the group, standing awkwardly by the large doorway as he anxiously awaited the return of his boss.
“That was a nice move with the robots,” said PT.
“Mostly Grandma,” said Fig, never one to take undue credit.
“What about this ship?” said PT, looking up at the dented and pockmarked hull. “Can’t we just take it? You know how to make it run twice as fast as normal and how to change the identification signal, don’t you?”
Ubik shook his head. “Too slow and too old. This thing will fall apart if you try to overclock it. All about the looks.”
He had already made an appraisal. Not nearly good enough. But he could feel he was about to come in contact with a rich selection of temptations. When you broke into a rich man’s house, it was important not to just grab the first thing you saw and flee.
“Sorry about that,” said Quincy as he came trotting into the hangar. His mood was a lot better now, no doubt due to whatever he had arranged for them.
Everyone had the same thoughts in the back of their heads, ones of being captured and experimented on. And that was without him even knowing about the treasures in PT and Fig’s bodies.
Ubik felt the eyes on him, questioning if this was really a good idea. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, and one he quite liked. He basked in their doubts.
Quincy opened up the back of the ship and they filed up the ramp. Inside, the ship was luxurious but showing its age. The seats were covered in velvet but a little worn in places. It was comfortable, though.
“This won’t take long,” said Quincy. “I live quite close.” He was alone in the cabin with them. Taio had stayed behind to continue guarding the site and to also sweep up the robot parts. Being outnumbered didn’t seem to bother Quincy. He was from a large family, so he was probably used to it. And the ship probably had security features. Luckily for him, today wasn’t the day he would find out how useless they were.
Quincy took his seat at the front and the ship lifted off, quietly and with minimal vibrations. It flew out of the hangar and quickly entered a sea of rocks, big and small.
The asteroid field was densely populated and the ship had to weave it’s way through rocks larger than the ship, all the way down to pebbles that pinged against the hull.
“He’s pretty good,” said PT, watching their many near-misses on the screen.
“Hmm,” agreed Fig.
There were no windows so they didn’t get a chance to see what Quazi Base 9 looked like from the outside. In a few minutes, they were through the asteroid field and in open space.
Everyone sank into their seats and enjoyed the lack of imminent threat. Ubik did a quick mental check of the ship, thinking about how he would improve it. Not only the furnishings, but the engine sound told him it needed some work. But no one would ever bother to give an old jalopy a tune-up, they’d just wait until they could buy a new one.
Soon, a planet appeared in the distance. It was very blue with a ring around it.
“That’s where we’re headed,” said Quincy. “Quazi.”
“Quazi, Quazi, Quazi…” muttered Ubik to himself. “Why does that name sound so familiar? Grandma?”
“Oh yes, Quazi, I remember it. They tried to name themselves, ‘The birthplace of robotics,’ but it never took. I can name you six planets that were at it long before these were. The cheek. People think it was named after the Quazem family but, actually, the Quazems changed their name to make it look like that. I knew one of them. Bristol Quazem. Used to come to my lab and try to get into my confidential dossiers. Busy-hands Quazem we used to call him.”
Quincy turned around in his seat to look back at them. “Is that some kind of information storage AI?”
“She’s not an AI,” said Fig. “She’s a person.”
“Oh, you… I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
Quincy pulled a bemused face, like he knew he was being joked with but not what the joke was. He turned back to face front.
“Another thing about Quazem,” said Grandma, deep into gossip mode, “is that it’s over ninety percent water. Terrible flooding due to over-industrialisation. The land that’s left is some of the most expensive real estate in the Inner Quadrant. That’s why most people live in those space stations.”
As grandma finished her report, they drew close enough to see the ring around the planet in more detail. It wasn’t made up of rocks and debris like a natural ring, it was wholly constructed from orbiting platforms.
There were thousands of them, if not more. All squeezed together, surrounding the planet in one plane.
“No, that wasn’t it,” said Ubik, still reaching for a lost memory.
“Maybe you’re thinking of the Trade Fayre they hold every year,” said Grandma.
“That’s it!” said Ubik. They had a big expo where people came to show off their latest creations and discoveries. Not just in robotics, but every field of tronics and science.
“Oh, it’s that Quazi,” said Fig. “It’s going to be very busy if the Fayre’s on.”
“When’s the Fayre, Quincy?” Ubik shouted.
“It starts in three days,” said Quincy. “Would you like to go?”
Ubik grinned. The top minds showing off the fruits of their genius. Of course he wanted to go.
“I thought we were supposed to be avoiding crowds,” said PT, unfairly judging Ubik for having a smile on his face.
“If it’s a really big crowd, it’s fine,” explained Ubik. “And we can make a lot of money, if we have something to sell.”
“What have you got to sell?” asked Fig. Both he and PT were looking at him like they didn’t approve, whatever it was.
“Nothing yet. But I’m sure I can knock something up.”
The ship flew over the ring of orbiting stations and stopped above one that was a little larger than the ones around it.
The screen showed the view below them as they descended, coming to dock on one side. There were three other ships already docked, each of them much newer and better fitted out than this one.
“Ah, good, they’re already here,” said Quincy, sounding ever-more relaxed. They were on his home turn now, so naturally he felt more confident.
Everyone else was back to being tense. They would find out if they were walking into a trap as soon as the airlock opened and men with guns rushed them.
Ubik was confident that wasn’t going to be the case.
Quincy jumped up. “This way, please.”
The back of the ship opened and a bevvy of beauties stood in attendance, their smiles perfect and their eyes vacant.
Quincy led them out. The station had normal gravity, just as the ship had. He really had no fear in spending money on graviton plates. Everything was grav-normalised.
“No sex with the robots,” hissed Ubik under his breath. “That’s how they collect your DNA.”
“Why did you only look at me when you said that?” asked an annoyed PT.
Ubik shrugged. “Some guys have a thing for girls who remind them of their mother.”
The six stunningly attractive robots provided a guard of honour for the returning prince. At the other end of the dock stood three men, each in a spacesuit far fancier than Quincy’s. They were older, with greying hair and weathered faces.
The eyes of all three lit up as soon as the group disembarked. They were all organics.
The Seneca sisters had their hands on their weapons. PT and Fig exchanged apprehensive looks.
“Is everything ready, Uncle Francis?” said Quincy.
“Of course,” said the one with a beard trimmed just like Quincy’s. “I rushed over and prepared the meal as soon as I got your message. Dinner is ready when you are. Now, who are these people you said were going to join our fight for freedom?”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino