Muss Dome - Underground Level.
From where Point-Two was sitting, the two of them looked like opposing coaches meeting before the game.
Grudging respect. Friendly rivalry. A disdain for the players who never did what they were told.
Despite the difference in age, there was a strong similarity between the two. You wouldn’t want to get in a small confined space with either of them.
“Which firm do you work for?” the man asked Ubik. Not harshly; polite and curious. There was even a small smile on his face. But his blue eyes were cold and piercing.
“I don’t belong to a firm, not anymore,” said Ubik. “Went solo a long time ago.”
“Bought out your contract?”
“Ha,” snorted Ubik. “Like anyone’s got that sort of money. Fought my way out.”
“He’s one of us,” said someone in the dark.
“Who is he?”
“Looks too old to be an apprentice. Is he a master?”
“No way. Look at his hands. Never done a day’s work in his life.”
“Maybe he moisturises.”
“He’s ronin, isn’t he? Ronin. Killed his whole firm and went rogue.”
“What are you talking about, you numpty? You read too many books.”
“At least I can read.”
“You must have come out of somewhere,” said the man. “I have a good feeling about you, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I need a little background. Something I can buy into.”
“Epsilon-416,” said Ubik.
The man’s eyes widened. “Planet Garbage.”
“You heard of it, have you?” said Ubik, not sounding surprised.
“Hasn’t everyone? That’s quite some claim. You’ll know Drimbo, then.”
“You could say that.”
“Still got that patisserie, has he?”
“If you mean the parfumerie, yes. Still got Lexi, too.”
“Really? I never thought they’d last.”
“No one did,” said Ubik. “Not even them.”
“Are you two old friends or something?” asked Point-Two. He could see this going on for some time if he didn’t cut in.
“Acquaintances in common,” said Ubik. “The name’s Ubik.” He put out his hand.
“Smyke,” said the man, putting out his own. They shook hands without touching, but in perfect time with each other so you could only tell if you were at the right angle.
“I told you he was one of us.”
“More reason not to trust him. I still don’t trust you.”
“Okay, boys. Lights up.”
“Are you sure, Smyke?”
“They look dodgy if you ask me. Especially the one with the square head.”
“I like his square head. He looks like he works out.”
“Works out his head?”
“Just the top part. Slams it against a punching bag.”
“Quiet down, boys. Sometimes you’ve got to show a little faith. Lights.”
Point-Two winced as lights in the ceiling came on.
They were in a small room with pipes on the walls and shelves full of cleaning equipment. A broom closet.
He expected to see a bunch of kids in the room, but what he found was a group of old men, very similar in appearance to Smyke. Dressed the same, around the same age but a bit younger.
They could easily pass as regular workers, but it was only when Point-Two examined the faces more closely could he sense something was amiss. Something about the way the skin sat on their faces didn’t seem quite right.
“Are they wearing masks?” said Point-Two, squinting. His perception was usually very good, but he couldn’t be sure.
“It’s paint,” said Ubik. “High-grade make-up. More natural than the commercial stuff. You can build it up to change the shape of your face, your age, your race. It’s an art form. These guys are pretty good.”
“Are you saying you can tell?” said one of the disbelieving middle-aged men in the voice of pubescent youth.
“Only when I look closely,” said Point-Two. “Which I only did because your voices tipped me off.”
“Ah, well. We were going to kill you, so it didn’t really matter. You’re not one of us, are you?”
“No,” said Point-Two. “I’m not.”
“No need to be like that about it.” The middle-aged child rolled his eyes.
There were seven of them, plus Smyke. They varied in size from taller than him to a couple who were about the same size. They were probably in their mid-to-late teens. All slight of build, although some had padding to fill out their bellies a bit.
It was only now that he was looking that he could see any of this. Before, he had looked closely at the human workers in the dome and noticed nothing.
“Spotted us right off, didn’t you?” said Smyke.
“Yeah, but no one else would have,” said Ubik. “Silky work. Pure silk.”
Ubik’s words seemed to lift the group mood, their chests puffing out.
“What’s this, then?” asked a quiet voice.
One of the boys-to-men was holding up a black stick. No, it wasn’t a stick. It was a bone. A black, glossy bone.
“Where did you get that?” said Ubik, sounding shocked. He looked down at his boots, turning them this way and that.
“Can’t hide anything from Smut.” The fake-bearded boy with Ubik’s bone spun it on his finger. “Smut sees all, finds all. Even the things he’s not supposed to.”
“Is he talking about porn?” asked Point-Two.
“Yes,” said three or four voices in unison.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” said Ubik.
“Why not? Afraid I might break it?” Smut tossed it into the air and acted like he wasn’t going to catch it, before catching it at the last moment.
“No,” said Ubik. “It’s pretty much unbreakable. But it’s an Antecessor artefact with a parasite inside it, so…”
Smut stopped tossing the bone and threw it back to Ubik. “Ugh. Yuck.”
Ubik caught it casually but Point-Two thought he saw a glimmer of relief. The master of mayhem seemed to have met his match in this lot. Finally getting a taste of his own medicine.
“What about this, though?” said another voice. This time, another middle-aged boy was holding up Ubik’s bag. “What do you think’s in here?”
“I wouldn’t look in there, if I were you?” said Ubik.
“Ooh, secret, is it? What could it be? Feels pretty heavy.” He opened the top and peered in. “Yahhh!” He dropped the bag and leapt back.
A head rolled out of the open bag.
Point-Two recognised it. It was the female robot from Ubik’s room. Well, part of her.
The head rolled to Ubik’s feet.
“It’s a robot head I’ve been working on,” said Ubik, picking up the head and putting it under his arm.
The robot head’s eyes looked up at Ubik. “This is not what we agreed on,” it said in a deep voice.
Ubik grabbed the bag off the floor and shoved the head in it without any ceremony. It continued speaking but it was hard to hear what it was saying.
“Still working on the voice box,” said Ubik. “Anyway, you were saying about the core…”
“That’s right,” said Smyke. “We’re here to nab the planet’s core and—”
“Wait, wait,” said Point-Two. “You’re going to steal the planet’s core? Not the robots or something up for auction? The actual core of the planet?”
“Do you even know what the core is, son?” asked Smyke.
“Isn’t it the middle bit of the planet?” said Point-Two. “Hot magma and stuff?”
Smyke shook his head slowly. His seven assistants mimicked him.
“It isn’t?” Point-Two looked at Ubik. He didn’t seem to know what they were talking about either, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut.
“History not your subject?” asked one of the smaller boys. “Didn’t you pay attention at school? I bet you went to one of those posh places with uniforms and short pants.”
“Are you trying to mock him for going to school or not going to school? Lame burn, either way.”
“Can you not bully me about how I bully people?”
“Then bully him properly. Hey, square-head, where do you buy your hats? Blockhead’s Haberdashers?”
“I’d give that a three out of ten, and that’s only ‘cos you’re my brother.”
“I don’t have a square head,” said Point-Two.
“See that tear in his eye? He’s already an emotional wreck thanks to my merciless jab.”
“You know why the Inner Quadrant is where all the big wigs hang out, son?” asked Smyke, ignoring the bickering. “You know what makes all the planets in the Inner Quadrant special? They all have one thing in common. They use their planet’s core to provide all their energy needs. And the reason they can do that is because of the Antecessors. All the planets in this region have their cores converted to power reactors with a control sphere to manage operations. No one knows why these planets in particular, but you can guess how advantageous it is to have a planet with a limitless supply of energy at your fingertips. And not just that. Change the weather, the landmasses, the magnetic poles. Whatever you want. The planet owner is a god.”
Point-Two didn’t know much about the Inner Quadrant, other than it was where the powerful and wealthy had congregated long ago. They had settled in, built up their bases, and then had done everything possible to keep the riff-raff out.
It was the seat of power in the galaxy, but now it seemed there was a specific reason to choose the planets in this region.
“This was an Antecessor planet?” said Point-Two.
“That’s right, son. All of them around here were. Goldrush it was, back in the day. First come, first serve. Once they cleared out the Antecessor defences, they had an endless supply of resources to use as a foundation for their businesses. It’s a good thing there were enough competing factions to prevent a monopoly or we’d be living under some totalitarian empire, unlike the beautiful spirit of entrepreneurial excess we enjoy.”
Smyke paused to smile. His buys smiled in perfect synchronisation with him.
“Whoever controls the core, controls the planet. Of course, everyone keeps their control sphere nice and secure. Except one planet. Want to guess which one?”
“This one?” said Point-Two.
“Well done, son. That’s right.”
“You want to steal the control sphere?” said Point-Two. “Where is it?”
“You’re standing in it, son.”
“The dome? It’s a sphere.”
“You only see the top half,” said Smyke. “The rest is buried underground. They brought it up to the surface and made a big deal about letting people see it. Used it as a publicity stunt to advertise their robot business. Worked too.”
“Isn’t it a bit big to steal?” asked Point-Two, knowing he was asking a stupid question.
“If they’d kept it in its original form, yes. But they wanted to show off their technological skills. So you know what they did? They stripped it out, the whole sphere. Empty shell for tourists is all it is now. And what did they do with the tech they stripped out? They put it inside a robot. This planet, Quazi, it specialised in droids. Every kind. Like it was some kind of droid storage facility. Based their whole robot manufacturing system on what they found here. Cheap imitations, of course, but still hugely advanced on what anyone else can produce. Only the Central Authority surpasses them, but they have their own Antecessor tech to crib from.”
It was a lot to take in. Point-Two had always thought of Antecessor technology as rare and precious, and mostly used for specialised equipment. But now it seemed whole planets were Antecessor artefacts.
“Why did they put the control sphere tech inside a robot?” asked Point-Two.
“It’s the Quazi way,” said Smyke. “Robots, robots, robots.”
“And where is this robot?” asked Point-Two.
“In a very secure place,” said Smyke. “But they bring it out once a year.”
“For the Trade Fayre,” said Point-Two.
“Now you’re getting it, son.”
“Nice,” said Ubik. “They house their control system inside a robot and you’re going to kidnap it. Just like you did with us.”
“Right,” said Smyke, nodding. “You two were a dry run. We’ve got two teams, so we took both of you. Worked very well, I have to say. But it won’t be so easy on the night. Lot more people in the dome, lot more security. And also, the robot in question weighs over three tons.”
“How are you planning on shifting it?” asked Ubik.
“At the moment, very slowly,” said Smyke. “That’s where we could use a little assistance.”
“Who are you doing this for?” asked Point-Two. “Is it Quincy?” He could see it as a way for Quincy and his fellow robot sympathisers to take over the planet. But then why was he so keen to get their help?
“Can’t reveal my client’s identity,” said Smyke.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” said Ubik. “We’ll help.”
“We will?” said Point-Two. “Why?”
“Because we need their help. They can get us what we need to disappear into the Inner Quadrant. No one better.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said Smyke. “But do you really have a way to help us?”
“Absolutely,” said Ubik.
Point-Two doubted that was true, but it would be. He could see the gears starting to work in that malicious little brain already.
“Great,” said Smyke. “I knew we could count on you. Microwave, show them the way back. You get started on your end and we’ll be in touch. I think this will be a very mutually beneficial partnership.”
A smaller worker opened the door. “This way.”
Ubik got up and walked to the door, a slight nod towards Smyke and one received in return.
Point-Two would have liked to hash out a few more details, ask a few more questions, find out what the hell was really going on here. But that wasn’t how the professionals did it, apparently. All nods and winks and flying by the seat of your planets.
He followed Ubik out of the door into a hallway.
“Just follow it to the end and up the stairs back into the dome,” said the one called Microwave. “Can’t miss it. Bye.” He closed the door on them.
The two of them stood there for a moment.
Point-Two reached out his hand and opened the door. He expected it to be locked, but it wasn’t.
On the other side was another hallway. The room was gone. He closed the door.
“We’re going to help them?” asked Point-Two.
“Sure,” said Ubik.
They started walking back. It was a long, cold, featureless corridor.
“And you trust him?”
“Not at all. We’re going to be set up and used as a decoy. And he’s not a him, and he’s not as old as you think.”
Point-Two tried to think back. He had been able to see the makeup on the boys, once he knew what to look for, but the old man had seemed genuine. Apparently not.
“Isn’t he an old pal of your Drimbo?”
“Bitter rivals. Hate each other’s guts.”
“So why are you going to help them again?”
“Help is a relative term,” said Ubik. “Haven’t you ever wanted your own planet?”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino