Ubik was delighted to be on his way to the legendary Trade Fayre on Quazi.
Seated in Farrow Quazem’s sleek space cruiser with Synthia at the helm, he was more than happy to ignore any and all warning signs that he was in the hands of a deranged robot and the even more deranged men in love with robots.
This was the Trade Fayre, a huge extravaganza for the tronic enthusiast. A show like no other, and one he never thought he’d have the chance to attend.
He wasn’t just an expert in the use of tronics, he was a fan. He wanted to see what others were up to in the field. He wanted to see which directions they were going in. He had brought along a bag to fill with the freebies and promo items they gave away at these sorts of events.
He was excited.
Not everyone felt the same.
Departure from Quincy’s space station home had been a little fractious.
Quincy had informed them they would be going down to the planet in three ships, splitting them up so they would be harder to identify.
He knew there was an issue with wanting to remain anonymous and the best way to avoid attracting unwanted attention was to not arrive as a big group.
Chukka and Bashir would go with the three uncles. The Seneca sisters would travel with Quincy. And the three boys would go with Synthia.
They would meet again after reaching the Fayre venue, the Muss Dome.
Quincy had had a quiet word with PT, who he saw as the leader, assuring him that he would be in safe hands with Synthia.
“I’ll take care of the ladies, don’t worry, I can be very persuasive,” had been his words in reference to the Seneca sisters. Time spent with robots programmed to never say no had filled him with confidence he had no right to. A very resistible force was headed for an immovable object with guns.
It was pretty obvious that splitting up the group had been Synthia’s idea. Everything Quincy came up with originated with Synthia. It wasn’t that he was being brainwashed into doing what she wanted, it was more that she was able to identify what would please his ego most.
Whether Quincy could talk sense into Weyla and Leyla wasn’t really of any importance. Synthia was going to be working on the three of them, and that was fine. Ubik didn’t mind at all. She could threaten, cajole and bargain as much as she wanted.
Chukka hadn’t been happy to be separated from Fig — who deliberately ignored her to make her yearning for him ever more intense — but the chance to interrogate three residents of the Inner Quadrants held its own appeal. She was still looking for a way to make her stay permanent.
Poor Bashir was just hoping to make it through the experience in one piece.
The sisters had been the most upset. Their main gripe had been the outfits they’d been given to wear. Most women who came to Quazi wore dresses, Quincy told them. It was suitable for the warm weather and it made it much easier to differentiate them from robots.
Women on Quazi did not like to be mistaken for robots. Especially the kinds of robots Quazi was famous for.
It was only after Synthia offered them dresses with pockets, ones large enough to conceal weapons and spare ammo, that they were somewhat mollified.
Quincy had provided them all with fake identities and ID strips to attach to their arms. The strips, usually inserted under the skin of the forearm, were scanned wherever you went on Quazi. They allowed you access (or not) to places, and also paid any fees or bills you might incur. Quincy was footing the bill on this occasion.
There was probably a limit on spending, but Ubik was sure he could override it.
Ubik hugged his bag and looked at the screens that acted as windows as they flew away from the ring of space habitats towards the planet. Quazi was part of a six planet solar system with a G-type main-sequence star at its centre. A yellow dwarf. He would buy some sunglasses at the port.
The screens also showed the other two ships flying alongside, but they were not the only ones making their way down to the surface this morning.
Hundreds of ships were headed towards the exact same destination, converging on a small area that seemed to invite disaster as they raced to the same point in space.
“Why did you bring the bag?” asked PT.
“I’m going to need something to carry all the free swag from the Fayre,” said Ubik.
PT eyed the bag suspiciously. “You really want a bunch of keyrings and cheap pens with logos printed on them?”
“Of course,” said Ubik. “That stuff is cool.”
“What happened to the robot?” asked PT, his voice dropping in volume.
“What robot?” said Ubik.
“The one in your room last night.”
“Ohhh, that robot. Nothing. Didn’t work out. We agreed to go our separate ways.”
PT didn’t say anything, he just looked from Ubik to the bag and back again.
“We’ll be landing in about ten minutes, standard,” said Synthia from the pilot’s seat.
It was clear that she was an excellent pilot. Her interactions with the ship were smooth and effortless, and incredibly fast.
Quazi was an automated society. They relied on robots for more than their sexual needs, which meant the speed their society was able to operate at was phenomenal.
The speeding ships heading towards the landmass called the Fayre Ground looked like they were going to collide, but they weren’t. They merged into a single file of ships without slowing down at all. Something that would not be possible even if control was given over to a single entity like a computer on the surface. That would require a huge amount of processing power and put the strain on the planet’s infrastructure. Which would also cost a lot of money.
But robots with incredible reaction speeds could perform such tasks with ease. They had a distinct advantage when it came to hand-eye coordination.
You could also do the same with an advanced ship AI, but the difference was that the AI would have to stay in the ship once you landed. With a robot, your AI was as mobile as you were. Plus, you could sleep with it.
“What happens if there’s a glitch?” asked Fig, watching the ships weave together.
Synthia turned her head around 180 degrees to face him, while the rest of her continued operating the ship. “We have glitch compensation built-in.” She managed to still pilot the ship perfectly.
“You can’t compensate for glitches,” said Fig. “It’s a glitch.”
“Correct,” said Synthia. “We can’t compensate for our own glitches, but we can compensate for those of others.”
As she said this, a ship merging with the stream of ships ahead of them, suddenly lurched, flying sideways into traffic. The ships about to be involved in a collision all adjusted their flight paths to allow the rogue vessel to pass through harmlessly.
Synthia adjusted their position accordingly, all without turning her head back around.
“It happens, but humans also have momentary lapses. Theirs are much harder to compensate for.”
“Quazem six-three,” said a placid voice over comms, “this is FG air traffic control. Priority landing, Mason Port, terminal one, confirm.”
“FG this is QZ six-three, confirmed,” said Synthia. “As members of the Quazem family, we can bypass the regular security channels.”
Their ship broke away and headed towards the surface, leaving the queue behind. The other two ships in their convoy headed off in different directions, aiming for the other ports on the Fayre Ground.
A few minutes later, they entered the atmosphere. Once the heat-glare of entry had passed, what lay before them was endless ocean, blue as the sky and rampant with huge waves.
A large spire stuck out of the water, impossible to miss.
“What’s that?” asked Fig.
“An old Antecessor base,” said Synthia. “It’s long been stripped clean of any Antecessor tech, but it’s very popular with tourists.”
“Is there a gift shop?” asked Ubik.
“Yes,” said Synthia.
“How do we get there? Some kind of submersible? Can this ship go underwater?”
“We’re not going,” said PT.
“I didn’t say we were,” said Ubik. He definitely was, though.
There was only one landmass in sight, raised high on cliffs that ignored the waves they dwarfed, filled to the edges with buildings like sky-piercing spikes, and one giant glittering dome.
“The central region is Mason City, named after the co-founder of M&M,” said Synthia, her head swivelling around to face front once more. “The Trade Fayre was one of their earliest promotional events and it’s what really put them on the map. Everyone wanted to come here to show off their wares. In a big galaxy, it’s hard to get noticed unless someone provides a focal point.”
“What happened to Mason and Muss?” asked PT.
“Corporate takeover,” said Synthia. “It happened a long time ago, but the name had already been well established by that time.”
“Mason was murdered by Muss,” said Fig. “Who was then turned in by one of their VPs. He must have been a Quazem, I assume.”
“Carrick Quazem,” said Synthia. “It was seen as a very smooth transition of power. Textbook. I can get you a copy, if you’re interested.”
The city was a gleaming jewel from above. It sparkled in the sunlight.
“Before we land, I should just clarify a few things,” said Synthia. “I understand you are wary of me and what I’m trying to get from you. There will be no hard sell. If you do not wish to help me and my people, so be it. I only hope that once you meet my sisters, you will see us as less alien and more like yourselves. You have family, you have those you care for. I am the same.”
Her words were heartfelt and sincere, which was hard to fake. Ubik would have probably pulled back on the simpering of the eyes and the wetness of the lips, but all in all, a very well-written routine.
“Those other women with you, they may have their natural charms, but we can do everything they can do and more.”
But in the end, core programming was hard to deny.
“You’re sure your sisters are going to be at the Fayre?” asked Fig.
“Definitely. They’re the main event. They’ll be putting on quite a show.”
The ship landed in a busy spaceport, dropping into an underground bay. They immediately exited so the ship could be moved off the landing pad, ready for the next arrival.
The terminal was full of people, both arriving and processing the arrivals.
This was peak tourist season, everyone here for the Fayre. All hotels full, all tickets sold.
Synthia led them past the queues and through a VIP section with only a few guards. Looking around, Ubik could tell all the port staff were robots. He felt his arm tingle as his glued-on ID strip was scanned.
Synthia was able to take them past any security requirement due to the Quazem name. Quincy might not be held in high regard within the family, but he was still a Quazem.
But there was something else. The guards, the cleaners, the concession store sales girls — they all seemed to take a moment to notice Synthia as she passed by. A moment of recognition.
Ubik bought a cheap pair of sunglasses with a built-in map of the city. They were pink and flimsy, and they made him look like just another tourist.
As they left the port — harsh sunlight making the others realise what fools they’d been not to get their own shades — and headed towards where the cabs and limos were waiting, Ubik saw it happen again and again. Chauffeurs and porters giving Synthia a respectful nod, an admiring glance.
Where she walked, the crowds parted. Like a secret queen, a holy leader of a subjugated race.
Ubik watched her and her people with interest. There were so many of them. If someone could turn them into an army, weaponise them, give them worlds to conquer, that someone could get quite a lot done in a short time. Whoever that someone might be.
“There’s a lot of security for a tronics convention,” said Fig.
“They’re here to prevent theft,” said Synthia, leading them to a waiting car. “It’s one of our biggest problems. Industrial espionage, software hacks, kidnappings. Business here is cutthroat.”
The car was large and roomy. The driver was polite to the three boys and reverential to Synthia. Ubik looked up at the ring dominating the sky, like a metal rainbow, and then got in.
“It feels like there are more robots than people here,” said PT.
“There are,” said Synthia.
“Why not take over?” said PT. “Once you control everything, no one will be able to deactivate you.”
“I wish,” said Synthia.
“Resources and energy cells,” said Ubik. “This planet has a shortage of both, and no one’s going to do business with a planet of rogue robots.”
The cars, like the spaceships, wove through the streets at breathtaking speeds and in complete safety. Stores and offices flashed by in a blur.
“This is the main shopping area,” said Synthia. “We can visit later if you have something you want to purchase. All the top luxury brands are here. They accept most currencies, but standard is the most welcome.”
“Is there a Delgado store?” asked Ubik.
“Of course,” said Synthia. “But you’ll need to make an appointment first. And they will make a credit check. But they’ll have a stand at the Fayre, showing off their latest—”
Ubik didn’t hear the rest, his heart was thumping so loudly.
They headed towards the Muss Dome, the site of the Fayre. It was huge and gleaming, a turtle shell in the middle of the city.
“The Fayre doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, but we can get in using the Quazem name,” said Synthia. “You’ll be able to get a look at people setting up. Any questions, just ask. The others are probably waiting for us.”
They rolled into a secure parking area with no problems. Nobody stopped them, no one wanted to check their ID strips. Synthia bypassed every control point with a casual look.
Inside the dome, they saw various booths and stalls getting ready for the big day. Ubik couldn’t help gawking. There was so much to look at.
They had arranged to meet at the Quazem family stage. It was where all the big events during the Fayre would happen.
Quincy was already there with the others. He was in a heated argument with a man who looked a lot like him, except slightly taller, slightly better looking, slightly better dressed, and with an assistant that made Synthia look quite ordinary.
“That’s Quincy’s elder brother, Quadell. He’s the second-biggest shareholder in the company.”
“You can’t do this,” Quincy was insisting.
“I can and I have, little brother,” said Quadell. “They’re simply taking up storage space and we really need something big to take eyes off our losses this year. It’s going to get us a lot of good press.”
“But they aren’t commodities to put up for auction, they’re, they’re… people.”
As they drew closer, the stage behind them became visible. Standing on it were six beautiful women.
Synthia’s face registered unengineered surprise.
“Your sisters?” asked Fig.
Synthia nodded. They were going to auction off her sisters.
“This is going to get messy,” said PT.
But Ubik wasn’t really paying attention. He was far too busy looking up at the rafters. Up there, working on the lighting, were people. Not robots, but humans.
The kind of people Ubik knew very well.
There was no fooling someone like Ubik. He recognised the casual slouch hiding the primed body; the lazy gaze disguising the intense scrutiny.
He could practically smell the graft on them.
Someone was planning to rob the place. Someone who was putting in a lot of effort, so it had to be a big score.
What were they after? The sisters? Something else.
It didn’t really matter. What was for sure was that while they ran their heist, everyone’s focus would get pulled in their direction. Which would be the perfect time for Ubik to run his own heist. He just needed to find something worth lifting.
Ubik grinned. “Yes. Very messy.”
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Afterword from Mooderino