Figaro did his best to act like he was perfectly fine on his own. They had asked him where Ubik and PT had gone, and he’d told them the two of them had gone to look for the Delgado stand.
It had been the first thing that had popped into his head, and it sounded quite believable to him. The fundamental rule to telling a good lie was to believe it yourself.
Disappearing in the middle of a blackout might not be what a normal person would do, it might even be a cause for concern, but they had already established themselves as not normal. Which helped.
Eccentric off-worlders who got bored during technical difficulties and wandered off wasn’t so hard to accept.
Quincy and his elder brother had other things to occupy their time. Currently, their main bone of contention was the robot Ubik had turned into a heap of useless components in an attractive bag of Simu-flesh™.
The robot hadn’t moved since Ubik poked it in the belly button. A team of technicians were standing around the robotic corpse, examining the screens on their diagnostic instruments and looking baffled.
Quadell Quazem was not happy; with them or his brother.
He should have taken up his grievances with Ubik, but Ubik wasn’t here, so he was venting his anger on whoever was at hand.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know,” said Quincy. “If you just—”
“How did he do it? What did he do?”
“I… I’m not sure,” said Quincy. “If you wait for him to come back… I’ll pay for a replacement.”
“This was a one of a kind special edition, Quincy. You can’t pay for a replacement.”
He really did seem very upset about the loss of his robot assistant. Almost as though it meant more to him than even a real human secretary would. The people of this world had a very odd relationship with their machines.
“You, you there.” Quadell pointed at one of the technicians. “How long to get her back up and running?”
“Sorry, Mr Quazem.” The bald man shook the device in his hand like it wasn’t working properly. “Everything checks out. Diagnostics are all in the green. It should be working.”
“But she isn’t, is she?” Quadell pointed out emphatically.
“No, sir, she isn’t.” The technician shrugged apologetically. “Could you describe what this person did again?”
“I told you, he poked his finger in Despira’s stomach.”
“Hmm.” The tech shook his head. “That shouldn’t do anything.”
“Well, it did. He poked. The robot fell down.”
“May have just been a coincidence,” said the technician. “Some sort of malfunction occurred at the same moment. We do have a three percent failure rate with these models. Although, I have to say, I’ve never seen one burnout with no sign of any electrical discharge or circuit overload. It’s quite a puzzle. Is it alright if we take it back to the lab?”
“No, it isn’t,” said Quadell. “She contains a lot of sensitive information. If you can’t fix her, I’ll have to have her…” He closed his mouth with his lips pressed tightly against each other. “What about you?” Quadell directed his question at Synthia, who was standing just behind Quincy, acting as his support robot. “Do you know what’s wrong with her?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” said Synthia, no trace of emotion.
“She’s one of your kind. Don’t you care?”
Synthia stared at him impassively.
“Quadell, I’m really sorry…” Quincy’s antagonism with his brother seemed forgotten as he reached out compassionately.
“Shut up. This is your fault.”
“I know it’s painful right now.”
“You don’t know anything. It’s just a machine. Don’t assume I’m as obsessed with these things the way you are. It’s just inconvenient.”
“The grief you’re feeling right now—”
“It isn’t grief,” said Quadell through gritted teeth, “it’s irritation. I’m very irritated. Mainly with you for bringing these people here. Who was that man? Where’s he from? What’s his name?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Quincy.
“You don’t know what to tell me!” Quadell was completely flummoxed. “That’s great. That’s just great.”
“Quadell, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. This is my fault. I will fix it, Quadell, I promise you. There’s still a chance we can save her. We just have to find that man…” Quincy looked around, his eyes settling on Figaro.
It was hard to know what kind of response to give. Figaro certainly had no idea where Ubik was. Even if Ubik had been here, there was no guarantee he would fix the broken robot. Still, the grief Quadell felt at the loss of his robot assistant was no different to any other kind of grief. Figaro had seen it often enough.
Figaro looked around, thinking he would ask Ubik to fix the robot. Quadell Quazem was a manipulative, overbearing narcissist but that didn’t mean he should be tortured through the loss of someone close to him. Under the Central Authority’s charter, that kind of punishment was considered a war crime. Although, like most rules, they applied more to some than others. His eyes fell on the Seneca sisters, looking bored and wary at the same time. But it wasn’t just the Corps who flouted CA laws.
There was no sign of Ubik, and there were fewer workers about. It was unsettling.
It wasn’t that Figaro felt abandoned, exactly. He was more than comfortable working on his own. He usually preferred it. But ever since he had met Ubik and PT, there seemed to be some kind of bond between the three of them.
Their problems were easier to deal with between them. Their problems were also massively increased by one of them, but for some reason that seemed acceptable.
Even though they hardly knew each other, they had formed an understanding. One that didn’t expect anything of the others, nor did it have a reason to exist. There was no mutual advantage to their cooperation. Usually, the opposite.
But now that he was on his own, it was almost like he missed them.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be back soon.”
Figaro looked to his side where Chukka was standing, looking at him with big eyes.
He had only meant to coerce her a little. And only as a means to not have to kill her. It had been an act of mercy, really.
But he hadn’t expected her to fall for him so completely.
He had thought at first that she was playing along, double-bluffing him until an opportune moment for her to turn the tables appeared. But now he was certain she genuinely had a thing for him. The worst kind of thing. A crush.
The negative reinforcement treatment usually only worked this effectively on people with a predisposition for wanting to be dominated, which most often came from a traumatic childhood. Another case for pity. He really had to stop feeling sorry for everyone he came across.
“I know,” said Figaro, giving her no kindness to cling to. It was hard enough keeping her at arm’s length as it was. “There they are, now.”
It was hard not to feel relieved as he saw Ubik and PT come sauntering back towards them, looking no worse than when they left.
“Did we miss anything?” asked Ubik, as all heads turned towards them.
“Where have you been?” demanded Quadell.
“I wanted to see the latest offerings from Delgados,” said PT, assuming the role of team leader and taciturn misanthrope. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, yes there’s a problem,” said Quadell. He pointed at his floored robot. “What did your man do to my robot?”
“Nothing,” said Ubik. He walked over to the robot, the technicians parting to let him through but keeping a close watch on him.
Ubik bent down and lifted up the robot, one arm behind its shoulders, the other on its stomach.
First, she sat up, then, she was up on her feet. She blinked a few times, the way any person would when waking from a long sleep. She looked confused.
“My apologies, sir,” she said to Quadell. “I’m not sure what happened. A glitch, perhaps. I’ll put in for a full diagnostic servicing.”
Quadell seemed unable to speak, his eyes filled with tears. He realised everyone was looking at him and collected himself. “No, that’s fine, Despira. You’re fine, that’s all that matters. Take her for a checkup,” he said to the technicians. “Nothing invasive.”
They nodded and escorted Despira away, her head the only part of her visible in a sea of overly-familiar techies.
Quadell let out a large breath, letting go of the overbearing weight of bereavement, and donned his mask of disdain once more.
“You. How did you do that?” He was looking at Ubik. The technicians paused their exit to hear the explanation.
Ubik shrugged. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You put your finger in the robot’s lower torso and it collapsed,” said Quadell. “I saw you.”
“Probably a coincidence,” said Ubik. He turned to look at the paused technicians. “What’s the failure rate on this model? Ten percent? Fifteen percent.”
“Three percent,” said one of the technicians, sounding aggrieved.
“Yeah, sure. In the promotional literature, maybe.” Ubik rolled his eyes and the technicians did their best not to appear implicated in some terrible crime. They hurried off with Despira.
Figaro looked over at PT. You couldn’t tell what the situation was by looking at Ubik, but with PT, there was usually an indication of how bad things were.
PT gave a Figaro a mildly exasperated shake of the head. Figaro read that to mean Ubik was up to something that would involve the two of them, possibly putting their lives in danger while causing chaos for everyone on the planet and in the orbiting space stations. So, no immediate reason for panic.
Quadell continued to berate his brother, who took the dressing down the way someone genuinely remorseful would. He bore no ill will towards Despira, even if she wasn’t one of his special robots. He had brought Ubik here, so he took the responsibility.
At heart, Quincy was a decent, moral person. Which, from Figaro’s extensive reading on the subject, made him easy to manipulate and exploit.
Synthia stood behind him the way a good woman would. Like she’d studied the role. She glanced behind her at the stage. Her sisters hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow the whole time.
Ubik turned to Synthia and took a step towards her. She covered her stomach with her hand and took a step back.
“I just want to ask you something,” said Ubik. She was right to be concerned.
“The blackout, that wasn’t an accident,” said Synthia, keeping her voice low as her master and his brother continued to quarrel. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where you really went?”
“Delgados,” said PT, eyes cold and emotionless. He was getting quite good at that. “I need a new pair. My old ones fell apart.”
Ubik’s face twitched at the heresy, but he kept his mouth shut.
“I wanted to ask you about the auction,” said Ubik.
Synthia looked up at the stage and smiled sadly. “It looks like we’re too late. They’ll be sold off to collectors all over the quadrant. Slaves for life.”
Ubik looked like he had no idea what she was talking about. Then he followed her gaze to the stage. “Oh, you mean them? Why don’t you just buy them at the auction? Quincy comes from money, doesn’t he?”
“Not enough,” said Synthia. “I fear there will be some extremely large bids for my sisters. Only the wealthiest individuals will be able to compete.”
“Mm,” said Ubik in a way that set both Figaro’s and PT’s teeth on edge, flight or fight response primed. “So what you’re saying is there’ll be some big rollers at this auction? Do you think it would be possible for us to put up something?”
“You want to sell something at the auction?” said Synthia.
“Why not?” said Ubik. “It would be a good way of testing the level of demand for our more specialised products.”
From the vague description, Figaro could only surmise that Ubik had no idea what he planned to auction off.
“I’m not sure it’s possible,” said Synthia. “There are some very stringent rules concerning the auction. It’s a very old institution on Quazi, and only a very few people can give permission for—”
“Give him a slot,” said Quadell, his interest piqued. “I’d like to see what he brings.”
“I’ll contact the auction administration,” said Synthia.
“Great,” said Ubik. “And also, do you know if there’s a workshop I can use?”
“A workshop?” Synthia looked confused. “The auction is tomorrow.”
“Last minute adjustments,” explained Ubik. “The boss is a bit of a perfectionist.” He nodded his head towards PT.
“Give them everything they need,” said Quadell. “If you think you can stand shoulder to shoulder with what the Quazem family will be offering, I’m more than willing to give you the chance.” He had an indignant look on his face. “Quincy, I’ll talk to you later.” He stared at his brother, then turned and walked off.
“Could you take care of it, Synthia?” said Quincy. Something unspoken passed between them.
“I’ll see to it,” said Synthia.
“I have some things to take care of. I’ll leave you with Synthia for now.” He left to talk to his uncles.
“There are some private workstations in the prep area. If you’ll follow me.” She led them away.
“By the way,” said PT, “the auction, how does it work. Anyone can bid on anything?”
“No,” said Synthia. “You need to register and provide proof of funds. The presiding auctioneer will only take bids from recognised individuals or groups. The Quint is very particular about following the rules.”
“The Quint?” said PT.
“The Quintessential,” said Synthia. “It’s a robot of the first generation, the only one left. Its main use is regulating the planet’s environmental controls but it also manages the auction. It’s an old tradition from before my time.”
PT and Ubik shared a look. Figaro assumed that meant the Quint held a position of importance beyond what Synthia had stated.
“Can we meet this Quint?” asked Ubik. “Sounds like a special robot.”
“After what you did to Despira, I doubt they’ll let you anywhere near the Quint, or any other robot. I don’t feel very safe standing this close to you now.”
Ubik looked like he had been unfairly maligned. PT could still learn a thing or two about feigning expressions from the master.
“Shame,” said Ubik. “Still, it’ll be at the auction, right? I’ll be able to see it from a distance, at least.”
“Yes,” said Synthia, looking slightly worried. “But please don’t do anything to it. This world’s weather patterns would be very unstable without it. Many people would die. Humans.”
She said it as though making it clear the loss would be human would make it an obvious deterrent to Ubik’s meddling. Which it would, to anyone but Ubik.
“I don’t really care about the weather,” said Ubik, as though that was the issue. “Can I give you a list of components the boss will need?”
“What do you think he’s going to make?” PT asked Figaro.
“We’re at the epicentre of all things robot,” said Figaro. “So my guess it would be a robot that makes them realise they’ve been wasting their time for the last thousand years.”
PT nodded. “I’m betting on a giant automated spider that destroys the planet.”
Figaro nodded. There was no telling what Ubik would come up with. The only thing for certain was that this was not going to be the kind of auction these people were expecting.
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino