Figaro watched closely as the two brothers argued.
“You have to stop with these delusions, little brother,” said Quadell. “These are products of our company, nothing more. The perfect solution for home and business. Machines of the modern age. Ask them, they’ll tell you.” His attitude was extremely condescending, but his body posture suggested he was enjoying taunting his brother on a level commensurate with someone who were themselves regularly treated in such a manner.
He was taking out on his little brother what he couldn’t give back to his own tormentors.
A petty man.
Synthia had mentioned he was the second-largest shareholder in M&M, so perhaps it was the largest shareholder who made his life miserable enough to make him seek solace in bullying others.
By Figaro’s estimation, if he was second, there was quite a gap between him and first place.
“You don’t have to agree with my views,” said Quincy, chin jutting out in defiance. “You can’t sell off company assets without board approval. And I very much doubt they gave it since there haven’t been any board meetings this week.”
“None that you were invited to,” said Quadell, beaming.
Quincy was taken aback. “Why wouldn’t I be invited? I am still on the board, aren’t I?”
“Of course you are,” said Quadell. “You’re a Quazem, so why wouldn’t you be? But you don’t have to be there for every tiny decision, do you? We know how busy you are in Dad’s old bachelor pad. Partying the days away, hmm? Must be nice.”
His words were jovial, but they were meant to put Quincy in his place. The son no one listened to. The youngest. The least important. Unwanted opinions from an unwanted child. An accident, or so Quincy had always suspected.
Figaro could see his insecurities written on his face. He made no attempt to hide them, probably because no one had ever bothered to read them.
“I don’t care whether you think I need to be there or not. The company charter says you can’t take a vote on overriding company policy without all board members being present. Which makes your resolution invalid.”
“Now, now, Quince. What are you going to do? Take the family to court?”
“No, not the family. Just the board members who tried to push through a non-binding resolution behind my back. Who else was in your cabal? Quiselle, right?”
Quincy was sure of his facts and had absolute faith in his claims, but Quadell didn’t show any reaction suggesting he had been caught out. In fact, he seemed quite amused by his brother’s protests.
“Well, you do that. File a motion and get Uncle Janis to send us all to prison.” Quadell spoke as though he was genuinely encouraging Quincy to take the matter to court, but his smile suggested otherwise.
Figaro assumed Uncle Janis was the magistrate who would preside over the case, and also a member of the Quazem family.
Corruption and nepotism were nothing new in the world of business and, for most people on the inside, such occurrences were part of the normal workday.
What would be the point of dominating a planet if you couldn’t get your way when you wanted?
His father had a similar relationship to Enaya. He didn’t abuse his power in the interest of fairness and good faith. Except when he didn’t have the patience to wait for the General Assembly to see sense. Then he would take the controls long enough to correct course, before handing them back.
Thoughts of his father gave Figaro a pang of guilt. What was his condition now?
“You’re not putting them up for auction,” insisted Quincy. “I won’t allow it.”
Quadell’s infuriating good mood remained undented. He proudly passed his gaze over the six female robots standing motionless on the stage. They didn’t look the least bit upset about being sold into slavery.
“They’re a novelty,” said Quadell. “Wonderful anomalies, I’ll grant you, but there’s no way they’re ever going to make it into mass production. Robots that think for themselves? Definitely not what our customer base is looking for. The main reason most of them buy our products is to avoid that very thing. But, there are always collectors who are willing to pay over the odds for something unique — and they’ll be at the auction tomorrow night. I’ve invited some real aficionados of the art of robotics. Tinkerers, hobbyists, eccentrics — call them what you will — but they’re all loaded. Only six in the whole Inner Quad. A limited series. Even our top of the line models wouldn’t be able to attract those weirdos.”
He paused to look at the tall robot standing next to him, dressed in a short skirt and flowery blouse, pad in hand with a stylus in the other to take notes if required. A robot that advanced wouldn’t need to take notes, of course. It was for the look. Bespoke robots to send a message to rivals and competitors. M&M’s speciality.
A head taller than him, with a slim torso and incredibly long legs but no prominent chest, and a face that was angular and harshly beautiful, topped with hair pulled back into a bun that probably unwound down to the waist, the robot looked down on everyone, both literally and figuratively. “They make you look quite ordinary, don’t they Despira.”
“Yes, sir,” said the robot, her voice as austere as her face, her ruby red lips barely moving.
Quadell looked back at the stage. “And wait until they see them put on a show up there. What a performance I’ve got planned! Oh, they’ll be fighting for the chance to throw money at us.”
Quadell turned to Quincy, whose face was red with apoplexy, unable to speak.
“You know, you should put her up for sale, too.” Quadell was looking at Synthia. “She’s the best of the batch. Technically, she does belong to the company, so...”
“Never.” Quincy’s fists were clenched tight by his sides.
“This is going to be a problem,” said PT, turning his head towards Figaro’s ear and keeping his voice low.
“It’ll be fine,” said Figaro. “They’ve been like this most of their lives. I don’t think they’ll come to blows.”
“I don’t mean them,” said PT. He motioned to the side with a tilt of his head.
Figaro turned slightly. Beside him was Ubik, staring up at the roof of the dome, a big grin on his face. He was chuckling to himself.
It was hard to resist looking up, too. There was a huge lighting rig above them, with workers moving about, adjusting huge lamps. Whatever had Ubik’s attention, it wasn’t immediately obvious.
“What are you looking at?” PT asked Ubik.
“There’s going to be a big show,” said Ubik, without looking at him.
“He’s up to something,” PT said to Figaro.
He was undoubtedly right — the signs of Ubik about to go off were all there — but what was he planning to do? Steal the lights?
It was a ridiculous thought, but Figaro still looked up again to see how hard it would be to carry something that big out of here. It said a lot that Figaro didn’t even bother to wonder why he’d want to steal a giant light.
“We’ll see about this,” said Quincy. “I’m going to convene an emergency board meeting.”
“I doubt anyone will come,” said Quadell.
“They have to! It’s an emergency!”
“Only to you, little brother.”
“Synthia, wait here with… our guests. I have to take care of this.” Quincy stormed off as his brother watched him go with an amused expression.
Quadell leaned towards his assistant, who tilted her head down to listen. She nodded. Then he walked over to a man by the stage as Despira moved towards Synthia, covering the distance in a couple of steps of her long legs.
“My master would like to offer your guests seats at the auction,” said Despira to Synthia.
“Thank you,” said Synthia. “I’m sure they’d be delighted to attend.”
Their words were polite but there was clearly no love lost between the two.
“I’ve run an identification check on them, but their ID strips are counterfeit.”
“Of course,” said Synthia. “People of their stature don’t allow themselves to be tracked.”
“Of course,” said Despira. “But I will need their real details, for our records.”
“As I just told you, their identities are sensitive. You should try using the Central Database to find out who they are. It won’t work, but it will at least give you something to show your master so he won’t have you deactivated and replaced by a newer model.”
“Thank you, but being replaced is not something I fear. Fear is a human emotion and I am not human. It must be distracting to be engulfed in dread all the time.”
“I am not human, either,” said Synthia. “My emotions are unique to me. It’s hard to explain what that feels like to a unit incapable of feelings.”
“I am capable of feelings,” said Despira. Her face configuration realigned in a mechanical fashion to produce a very distinct emotion: malice. Then it reset to neutral again. “This gentleman.” Despira turned to face Figaro. “My master recognises him from somewhere. May I have your permission to run a face recognition match?”
Asking for permission meant there were strict laws in place to prevent an invasion of privacy, which meant those in positions of authority were doing things they didn’t wish to be made public.
But there would still be ways to circumvent the rules when required, as long as it was legally justified.
“Permission denied,” said Synthia.
“Thank you. False identification strip detected, under the remit of—”
“Oh, this one’s been modded,” said Ubik, appearing in front of Despira out of nowhere. “Very nice work. Bit unstable though. It’s the legs. Too long.” Ubik put out a finger and gently jabbed Despira in the stomach.
The robot’s head dropped first, pointy chin hitting the top of the chest before the whole body collapsed.
Figaro had watched him do it but still had no idea what he had just seen. Robots didn’t fall over just because of a finger. Not unless it was Ubik’s finger.
“Hey! What did you do to my robot?” Quadell came rushing over, incensed.
“It broke,” said Ubik. “Faulty wiring, I think. Is it still under warranty? You might be able to get your money back.”
Quadell’s face was an ever-evolving picture of dismay and fury. If his company’s engineers had a vidform of it, they could probably improve the emotional range of their expression configurations by leaps and bounds.
“You’ve ruined her.” Quadells’ hands were like upturned claws as he crouched over the glassy-eyed heap that was his assistant a moment ago.
“Ooh, I think you got there first,” said a disapproving elderly voice out of the ether.
“It’ll be fine,” said Ubik. “You’ve got a repair workshop, haven’t you? I know you guys don’t allow repairs to your products normally, but I’m sure they’ll make an exception for you. Sentimental attachment, was it? I get like that with my gadgets, too.” He patted Quadell on the shoulder.
Quadell shook him off with a jerk. He stood up and glared at Ubik, then at the others.
“Excuse me,” said Chukka, choosing her moment. “I’m actually a representative of VendX Galactic. Perhaps I could have a word?”
Quadell turned his glare, still set to kill, onto Chukka. “VendX? VendX? The garbage collectors?”
“Yes, that is part of our business. But I think I have an offer that would interest you.”
She was trying to distract him, so he wouldn’t have them all thrown out. Or murdered.
“Are you deliberately trying to annoy me?” Quadell sounded pretty annoyed already.
“Mr Quazem.” Chukka’s tone was serious. Her eyes were steely. “These people have come from across the quadrant.” She nodded behind her. “Seneca bodyguards.” She nodded at Ubik. “Anti-tech defences.” She turned her focus back to Quadell. “This isn’t the time to act undignified.”
She wasn’t really saying much, but the implications were flying around freely.
Quadell calmed himself as he took in her possible meaning, his imagination filling in the blanks.
These people were out of the ordinary.
It wasn’t a good idea to aggravate them without knowing who they were.
It could be bad for business.
He turned to look at Figaro.
“You. I know you from somewhere. Where do I know you from?”
It was going to become a problem if people kept recognising him. He wasn’t particularly famous, but a certain type of person was interested in the son of Ramon Ollo. Envy, curiosity, search engine suggestions, any number of prurient reasons put his face in their browser history. It was only a matter of time until someone put a name to it.
“Why are there people here?” said PT to Quadell.
At first, Figaro thought he was attempting a distracting tactic like Chukka, but his stance was wrong. He was genuinely asking a question.
Figaro looked around, and then up. People, yes. Human people. PT had spent the last few minutes ignoring the squabble and figuring out what Ubik had found so interesting in the rafters. His prioritisation of problems was, as usual, excellent.
“What are you talking about?” said Quadell, completely wrong-footed by the sincere query.
“People. Humans, not robots. Up there.” PT glanced up. “Why? Robots would do a better job and be safer, no?”
There was no let-up in PT’s intensity. Figaro was very familiar with different levels of authority. Every tier, other than the top, had one above it that could suppress the ones below, just as Quadell could do to Quincy, and how the person above Quadell did to him.
These tiers were usually very clearly defined and hard to disrupt. PT had used his mysterious identity to break through the established rules of the game. If he acted like he was from a tier above, maybe he was.
Quadell decided to play it safe. “They… they have a union. Certain jobs can only be performed by humans. It’s an old law.”
Figaro sensed it before he saw it. A change in the air. The robots working around them carried on as normal, paying no attention to the humans. Even the ones on stage that were supposed to be as human as you could get in a polytextured sleeve, didn’t blink.
But there were individuals, not just up in the roof — Figaro could see them now — who had stopped what they were doing to pay special attention to PT and Quadell’s conversation.
Eyes sliding to the side, ears tilting in their direction, lips pressed together in concentration.
“Yes,” butted in Ubik. “These human workers are up to something. You tell them, boss.”
Eyes turned back to PT, who looked baffled by why Ubik had made such a provocative proclamation, and then thrown back to him.
“He’s good, isn’t he?” said Ubik from the side of his mouth. “That PT, knows how to get right to the heart of the matter.”
“What matter?” said Figaro.
“It’s about to get dark,” said Ubik. “Don’t worry too much, just let it happen.”
“Look out!” cried out someone from above.
Everyone looked up as a massive light fitting came crashing down.
No one was below it, but it shattered with a huge sound, sending glass everywhere. The lights in the dome all went out, leaving them in darkness.
Fig sensed movement all around him; swift and meaningful. Professionals. He didn’t take any action.
A moment later, the lights came back on. Nothing had changed, except PT and Ubik were gone.