Muss Dome - Backstage.
Point-Two flicked through the book, not really paying attention to its contents. It was a historical journal housed in a thumbnail-sized holographic square that could be stretched to whatever size you wished.
The quicker his eyes tracked down the page, the faster the words scrolled past. It all blurred into an indistinguishable wall of text after a while.
It was very dry information on the early days of Quazi and it made him feel sleepy just scanning through it. If he actually took the time to read it properly, it would probably put him into a coma.
He’d already read dozens of them. They’d been up all night. He didn’t know why, but he had assumed there was some point to it. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
The book could read itself out loud but his instructions were not to investigate the story of the Quazi founding fathers. His assignment, as given to him by Ubik, was to find any pictures from the old days and send them to the screen Ubik had set up behind his curtain.
The curtain was the first thing Ubik had requested. He had hung it around the workstation he was currently banging away on. He insisted privacy was a key element in his creative process, and he also insisted the curtain have a paisley pattern.
Everyone else had been sent away to enjoy the Fayre, despite their objections, and only he and Fig were allowed to stay. Not that they were privy to any details about what it was Ubik was making behind the curtain.
They had been deputised into the research team. Along with the curtains and the boxes and boxes of components, Ubik had asked for every book on Quazi that was available.
The information could have been easily stored on a single computer, and a simple search function could have found whatever Ubik was looking for.
He didn’t want anyone else seeing what he was up to. Offline books, boxes of them, surrounded Point-Two and Fig who were sitting on the floor of the large lab they’d been given by Quadell Quazem.
They found the pictures and sent them to Ubik via a LAN. His reaction was usually a grunt or maybe a chuckle. Then it was back to the banging. Sometimes there was sawing. Sparks occasionally flew over the curtain.
Point-Two finished the book in his hand — The Great Dome by J R Armanthion — after having found a grand total of zero photographs. He turned the book over in case there was something on the back, but the screen worked the same on either side.
In a moment of boredom, he thought of the books his brother kept in his library. Made of plastic, heavier than these things, requiring a manual swipe to turn the pages.
The sheet in his hand instantly transformed into the object in his mind. A real book. But empty. He flicked through it. Every page was blank.
He focused his mind and changed it back.
It worked with hardly any effort, except this book was also empty. It looked like it had before, but there was no content. He quickly shoved it under a pile of the books he’d already read.
“The news is full of the Fayre, the auction in particular,” said Fig.
“You’re getting the news?”
“Mm,” said Fig. “Grandma patched me through to the local networks. It’s all celebrity gossip about the big spenders who are here to bid on the six sisters. That’s what they’re calling those six robots Synthia wants to save. Some of them are famous inventors I’ve heard of. They’re going to be putting up their own items for auction, too. We’ll get to see what the best in the quadrant are working on these days.”
“Do you think Ubik’s creation will match-up?”
“I don’t know. He keeps surprising me,” said Fig, perusing his umpteenth book and sending the photos to Ubik with a sharp flick of his hand. “Even those curtains. The stitching is so neat and precise. I wouldn’t have guessed he could sew that well. And all by hand.”
Watching Ubik sewing the curtains to his exact specification had been quite a sight. The speed of his hands, among other things, made you think maybe he wasn’t even human.
“It’s just for dramatic effect,” said Point-Two. “He puts up a curtain, people think he must be doing something amazing back there. In reality, he’s hitting the tabletop with a hammer for no reason.”
“I don’t resort to those sorts of cheap theatrics,” shouted Ubik over the sound of banging.
“What are we supposed to be looking for in these pictures?” Point-Two shouted back.
The curtain billowed and then Ubik emerged carrying a stick with one end on fire. “It’s not one thing, it’s everything. Everything to do with Quazi and how they think. When you know how people think, you know how to make them think what you want them to think.”
Point-Two didn’t bother trying to parse through Ubik’s smokescreen of distracting words that meant nothing. He was far more distracted by Ubik’s appearance. “Why are you wearing a cape?”
Ubik looked over his shoulder at the sheet of curtain-matching material hanging from his shoulders. “This thing? It was left over so I thought I’d put it to use. In the olden days, all the top scientists used to wear capes. Just ask Grandma.”
They paused for a word from the wise. There was no response.
“She’s sleeping,” said Fig.
“She sleeps?” said Point-Two.
“She’s old,” said Fig. “Says her brain patterns aren’t what they used to be. There are no historical records of any cape-wearing scientists to my knowledge.”
“That’s because history is written by the winners,” said Ubik.
“So you’re saying only losers wear capes?” asked Point-Two.
Ubik pointed at him. “You. Very good.” He wagged his finger at Point-Two. “You’re looking for pictures of old robots. Form is function. Words are just what you’d like people to think, but an object always reveals its true nature.”
“You’re saying,” said Point-Two, “that you can look at a picture of an old Quazi robot and work out exactly what it was made to do, how it was made, why it was made and how to replicate it?”
It wasn’t exactly what Ubik had said, but Point-Two was testing his skills at deciphering the Ubik code.
“That’s right!” said Ubik, flourishing his flaming stick like a wand.
“So you want to build them a robot just like the ones they used to make a thousand years ago?” said Point-Two. “I’m not sure there’s a demand.”
“That’s because you don’t understand the process of creation,” said Ubik. “An object not only reveals itself, it reveals its creator. Every choice, every decision, it’s there for a reason, it’s designed that way for a purpose. You can use a spoon as a backscratcher, but a master craftsman will know it was made to be a spoon.”
“That’s very profound,” said Point-Two. “We should write these insights down for future generations to cherish.”
“I have already compiled a large number of them,” said Fig.
“For forensics,” said Fig, “so people can work out what happened after we’re all dead.”
“Humans are not so easy to understand,” continued Ubik. “Because, we were designed in the least efficient, most lazy manner possible. Put in everything you can think of and see what survives. Then, combine that, and see what survives then. Repeat. That’s how you hide your true intentions, but it takes forever.
“But with tronics, you don’t have that sort of luxury. So you can’t help but give away the truth. Like those six robots. Clearly, they aren’t what Synthia says they are.”
“What are they?” asked Point-Two.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The ratio of the elbows. The lack of vents. No porous skin for heat dissipation. Assassins — you can see it, right?”
Point-Two nodded sagely as he considered the conclusion drawn from completely unrelated evidence.
“I see,” said Fig.
“You do?” said Point-Two.
“They invite all these famous inventors to buy a robot and take it home, where the robot will kill them so that…” Fig stopped as he reached for a conclusion. “Nope, I don’t see.”
“Not to kill the inventors,” said Ubik. “What would be the point of that?”
“To kill who then?” asked Point-Two.
“How do I know? It’s not important. The real question is who made them. Not Quincy’s uncles. And not Quincy or Synthia.”
“And old photos of robots will help you solve this mystery, will it?” asked Point-Two.
“No. That’s what’s going to help us make a lot of money.”
“Money?” said Point-Two. “This is all about money?”
“We’re going to give them a robot that will blow everything else out of the water. And this planet is mostly ocean, so it won’t be easy.”
“You’re going to give them a robot,” said Point-Two. “The people who invented modern robotics.”
“That’s right,” said Ubik. “By giving them something they never knew they needed, even though it’s been with them from the beginning.”
Point-Two turned to Fig. “Did that make any sense to you?”
Fig opened his eyes. “I’ve been taking micro-naps to avoid sleep deprivation. I didn’t hear what he said.”
“Is it some kind of giant automated spider?” Point-Two asked Ubik.
“No,” said Ubik. “
“Will you be putting the Fourth inside whatever you build?” Point-Two followed-up.
“It’s all a matter of how streamlined I can get the lossless compression induction reflection coefficient,” said Ubik, his face suggesting each word was a surprise as it came out of his mouth. “If it’s under three, we’re golden.”
Point-Two stared at him, not wanting to dignify the answer with a response. “Less than three?”
“That’s the magic number.”
Point-Two looked at Fig.
“Sorry, nodded off again,” said Fig. “Did I miss something?”
“No,” said Point-Two. “Nothing important.”
“You two look a bit faded,” said Ubik. “You should go out for a bit of fresh air. See the sights. You don’t want to come all this way and not spend any time at the Fayre. It’s a modern wonder.”
“What about you?” said Point-Two. “Didn’t you always dream of coming here?”
“Yes, but not to see what others bring. This is a stage where I can finally reveal what I can do to the whole galaxy.”
“We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile,” Fig reminded him.
“Low-key reveal myself,” said Ubik.
“Low-key reveal to the galaxy,” said Point-Two. “Lossless compression.” He was starting to see a pattern. Not a pretty one. A lot like the paisley curtains. “I think I will go out for a walk. You’re right, it would be a shame to visit all these amazing places and not get a sense of them before they’re gone forever.”
“Why are you looking at me when you say that?” said Ubik.
“I’ll come with you,” said Fig, rising from the floor in a smooth motion that made it look like he was levitating to his feet.
“Bring me back something nice,” said Ubik, turning so his cape twirled around him before he disappeared behind his curtain.
The two of them left the lab feeling hungry and tired but still very much alert and wary of their surroundings. Being around Ubik meant you were always producing adrenaline.
The lab was in a backstage area that had been quiet when they first arrived but now was heaving with activity. People were running around carrying boxes, poles, tools and parts of hull-plating, all in a rush to get somewhere.
Doors to other labs were open with people rushing in and out. Groups of technicians had various contraptions gutted and exposed on the ground wherever there was space.
Point-Two and Fig ducked and dodged without having to think too hard about it; they were in a mental zone where you expected to have missiles hurled at you so it wasn’t so hard to evade them.
“What if he really does just want to be recognised for his talent?” said Fig, side-stepping a man in dirty overalls carrying a two-metre-long mirror over his head.
“Then I would be happy to see him get what he deserves,” said Point-Two, sucking in his stomach as a small woman with goggles dragging a string of lights squeezed between the two of them.
Once they were out of the backstage area and into the main hall, Point-Two was hit by a wave of sounds and smells that was unlike anything he had experienced before. The dome was packed with thousands of people making their way from one area to the next through channels lined with stalls, stands and stages. People of all ages; families with children; eager young men dressed in clothing displaying the brands they were loyal to; enthusiastic first-adopters trying out various prototypes while even more enthusiastic salespeople tried to get them to sign up to free updates they could opt-out of at any time, standard contract, no need to wait, pre-order now.
The central area was cordoned off and guarded by large muscular robots wearing black uniforms and caps emblazoned with the M&M insignia of the Mason & Muss Company. The main stage was through there and wouldn’t be open till later that evening for the big show.
Large electronic signs pointed out various company show stages with bright logos and promises of marvels never seen before. Absolutely no one was interested in a couple of fugitives. They had free key-rings and badges to collect.
Point-Two turned to Fig, who looked startled. “Are you okay?”
“Mm,” said Fig. “Never been around this many people before. Not without a secure perimeter. I feel like I could be swept away.” He grinned, which was rare for him.
It was hectic, and they were jostled as they made their way from one presentation area of gadgets and gizmos to another; people shouting their claims and specs at passers-by without making much sense; compact devices being demonstrated on small platforms by people dressed in bizarre costumes. It was strangely invigorating.
“Let’s go over there,” said Point-Two. They headed toward a small stall, not too busy, selling iced desserts. If you were going to do the tourist thing, might as well go all in.
The fake ID strips Quincy had given them contained enough credit for minor expenses. They got a cone each. Then Fig got two more.
Point-Two gave him a questioning look.
“If you’re going to tail us,” said Fig over Point-Two’s shoulder, “you might as well have these.”
Point-Two turned around as the two Seneca sisters emerged from the shadows like sulky ghosts. They apparently weren’t used to being made so easily. They took a cone each.
The four of them stood licking their freezing fruity ices in silence while the cacophony around then continued unabated.
“Where to?” asked Fig, his eyes constantly moving from one flashy sign to the next. For someone trained to take in as much detail from his surroundings as possible, he was being tested to his limits.
There was so much to see, it was hard to know where to start.
“There,” said Point-Two. He pointed to a small stand it would have been very easy to miss. A bored-looking young man was sitting on a stool nodding off. Above him were double Ds painted by hand onto a makeshift sig. Point-Two recognised them from Ubik’s boots. Delgados.
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Afterword from Mooderino