Figaro hadn’t noticed the small stall before PT pointed it out. He was usually very observant but the small enclosure with a single man sitting behind a counter hadn’t even registered. It was almost like it was intentionally trying to not draw attention to itself.
Which would be an odd thing to go for at a trade convention.
“Delgados,” said PT when he saw Fig staring through the crowd.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “I see it.”
The double D logo was faded and barely visible among the neon signs and flashy screens. There were no shoes or boots on display.
The man under it was maybe in his early 20s, with sleepy half-closed eyes and his head drooping. He wore a simple jerkin with no sleeves, revealing his skinny but wiry arms. It was hard to tell if he was extremely fit or malnourished.
His reddish-brown hair was long and dishevelled except at the back where it was gathered into a ponytail.’
He had one foot up on the counter.
“Something feels off,” said Fig.
“I know what you mean,” said PT. “But it’s an eccentric brand. They probably don’t have a marketing division.”
“His shoes,” said Figaro. “They aren’t Delgados.”
It was true. The man was wearing very basic sandals with his toes exposed. Very basic.
“Maybe he can’t afford them,” said PT.
The two of them were staring at the stand across the way. People flowed past and around them.
“Why don’t you just go and see?” said Weyla, still working on her ice cone.
“Hmm,” said Figaro. She was right but there was something holding him back. “What happened to the other two?” he asked while scanning the area.
“The man went straight to sleep,” said Leyla. “He has severe psychological fatigue and won’t be of much use. The woman is glued to a media conduit trying to learn as much about the Inner Quadrant as she can.”
“She won’t be of much use either,” said Weyla.
“Hmm,” said Figaro. He was trying to figure out what was bothering him but it was good to maintain the illusion of being regular visitors to the Fayre, so small talk was useful as a cover. He didn’t really care what Bahir and Chukka were up to.
He had done quite a lot of research into the Delgado footwear company. Ever since he had met Ubik, and learned about his obsession with the shoemakers, he had thought it worth investigating a little further. Not for any particular reason, just for general background. Perhaps it would give a better picture of Ubik’s psychological makeup.
It hadn’t, but it was surprising how little information there was on them.
He had never heard of the company before meeting Ubik. His father and the people who worked for him, who all prided themselves on using only the best equipment, had never mentioned the brand.
Which in itself wasn’t cause for concern, but now that he was seeing what he assumed was an actual employee of the firm, he felt like he should be cautious. He had no idea why he felt like that.
PT turned to Figaro. “This isn’t going to be straightforward, is it?”
Figaro shook his head. “I don’t think so. We should be careful.”
“They just make shoes, don’t they?” said Leyla, looking at the two of them with their serious faces, as though they had gone mad.
“Yes,” said PT. “Ubik’s shoes.” He understood the situation.
Figaro and PT started moving, weaving between the flow of the crowd, approaching the Delgado stand from two slightly different angles. Figaro was confident he could rely on PT to keep a lookout for whatever it was that needed to be looked-out for. Even though he had no idea what that was.
Many of the visitors to the Fayre wore elaborate costumes that Figaro didn’t recognise but which he assumed were from various entertainment franchises. They were colourful and gaudy but impractical for most purposes other than disguise.
There was so much of the galaxy Figaro had ignored, not deeming it worthy of investigation, but now that he was out here, he realised it was all of use, if you knew how to use it. If he wanted to blend in, he needed to start absorbing everything.
The man sitting behind the counter casually glanced up as they walked towards his booth. He didn’t seem particularly interested in their arrival, but took his foot down off the countertop.
“Hold on,” he said with a soft sigh before Figaro had a chance to say anything. The man bent down and came up with four clipboards, pencils attached, which he put down in front of each of them. “You’ll have to fill these in first.” He sat down again and yawned as though exhausted from the sudden exertion.
Figaro looked at the form clipped to the clipboard. It appeared to be a disclaimer of sorts. There were a series of Yes/No questions that needed to be checked off.
Have you previously owned a pair of Delgado shoes?
Have you ever been a client of the following financial institutions?
Ishman Banking Federation. Gosman Scars PLC. Wushing Savings and Loans...
A long list of the largest banking corporations filled part of the page in tiny font.
“What is this?” said Weyla. “Are you a serving member of or have you ever served the Seneca Corps?”
“Why do you need to know that?” asked Leyla, the sharpness of her voice drawing a lazy eyebrow raise from the young man.
“Standard questionnaire,” he said. “I didn’t write it but I can tell you we don’t do business with the Seneca Corps because of a breach of contract on their part. My Nanoo wasn’t happy. He doesn’t like welchers.”
“Your Nanoo?” asked Figaro.
“My great grandfather, Christiano Delgado. He signed a nonaggression pact with the Corps, but they aren’t allowed to wear our shoes. Ever.”
“The Corps agreed not to attack a shoe salesman?” said Weyla.
“No,” said the man. “The other way around.”
Weyla looked like she didn’t believe a word of it and pushed the form back, uncompleted, followed by her sister.
He took the clipboards back and put them back under the counter. “It isn’t personal. I myself greatly admire the Corps and their solution to the Good Genocide problem.”
“What’s the Good Genocide problem?” asked PT.
“Simple really,” said the man, now leaning on the counter like a barman between drink orders. “Once it was established that the most useful traits for success in human endeavours were those of a sociopath, it became clear it would never be possible for decent people to get anywhere in life. Cheaters always prosper, you know? The only solution was for decent people to roundup the deviants first and kill them off so those traits left the gene pool. But of course, once you start killing off the evil people, you become the evil people. There are no good genocides. No matter how justified, murder is murder.”
“And the Corps solved this issue?” asked PT.
“In their own way,” said the man. “They drew a line in the sand and decided to ignore everyone as long as they didn’t cross the line. But if they crossed it, then they would be exterminated without remorse or mercy. If you know about the line and intentionally cross it, then it isn’t murder, it’s pre-emptive self-defence.”
“That’s a huge simplification of the Seneca Protocol,” said Leyla.
“It’s pretty accurate,” said Fig, as he continued reading the form.
Do you suffer from any of the following pre-existing conditions?
Athlete’s foot. Bunions. Plantar fasciitis. Gangrene…
A comprehensive list of diseases, mostly foot-related, filled another section of the page in barely legible type, each requiring a tick of a Yes or No box.
The very last question on the form proved to be surprisingly specific.
“Are you an employee of a family member of Ramon Ollo,” read out Figaro. He looked up at the man.
“Copyright infringement,” said the man. “Some people can’t be trusted.”
Figaro wasn’t sure how to react. He couldn’t imagine his father wanting to steal shoe designs, but it wasn’t like he was the most scrupulous of men.
“Couldn’t people just lie on these things?” asked PT, who was rapidly ticking boxes.
“They could,” said the man. “They would ultimately regret it.” He opened his eyes more fully and looked at PT. “Look, I know it’s a bit odd, but it’s a traditional family business and things are done in a certain way, even if no one remembers why.”
“You’re in the family, then?” asked Figaro. “You said the owner was your great grandfather.”
“Yep. I’m thirty-third in line to the throne. Caliber Delgado, at your service.” He made a half-hearted salute to no one in particular. “But don’t get the wrong idea. Nanoo strongly disapproves of nepotism. You’re guaranteed a job for life, but the exact kind of job will depend on your personal work ethic. As you can see,” —he indicated the shack he was in— “I’m not really full of BDE.”
“BDE?” asked PT.
“Big Delgado energy. It’s what makes the bloodline special, apparently. If you’d ever met any of my siblings or cousins, you’d understand. Me, not so much.”
“I noticed you aren’t wearing Delgados yourself,” said Figaro.
“Observant. That’s right. I like my toes to be able to breathe.”
“Aren’t Delgados climate-controlled?” asked PT.
“Right again. But they recirculate the air in-boot so it doesn’t impact the environment. Disgusting is what it is, to be perfectly frank.”
“Should you be telling us that?” said Figaro.
“It’s fine. I can see you aren’t really Delgado material. No offence, but the prices are well beyond your means. Beyond mine, if I’m honest. Nanoo doesn’t believe in pandering to the masses. You wouldn’t think of it as a viable business plan, but he’s actually increased profits substantially.”
“Isn’t there a Delgado outlet here in the city?” asked Figaro.
“Decoy store,” said Caliber. “Never open and no appointments available. Does wonders for our image.”
PT finished filling in the form and passed it back.
Caliber took it and gave it a quick look. “Seems okay. What can I do for you?”
“I don’t know,” said PT. “You sell shoes, don’t you?”
“We sell dreams,” said Caliber, leaning over the counter. “You tell us what you have the greatest need for, and we provide you with the perfect foot-based solution. So tell me, what do you need to achieve?”
“Need? I don’t know…”
Figaro expected PT to come up with something to keep the man talking, maybe reveal something about his business. He didn’t expect what PT said next.
“I suppose I need to stop everyone around me from dying and prevent an ancient alien race from reemerging and devouring the whole of mankind. Can you help me with that?”
“Ah! Of course,” said Caliber. “You’re a fan of Captains Alert!”
“What?” said PT, baffled.
“Captain Arjay Alert.” Caliber pointed at a colourfully garbed boy walking past. He was wearing a very tight-fitting spacesuit — blue across the shoulders, white torso, red down to the blue boots. He had a toy gun on his waist and a trident in his hand.
As Figaro looked around, he saw several other people dressed the same.
“You’re on the second season. I’ve been bingeing it the last few weeks. Only 742 episodes before I’m all caught up. Great show.”
“Yeah,” said PT. “Big fan. Can I see the merchandise now?” He glanced around the inside of the stall, which was completely empty.
“Nothing to see,” said Caliber. “We don’t expose our goods to the public unless absolutely necessary.”
“Then why are you here?” asked Figaro.
“Mostly, for the sea air. It’s very stuffy working in a cobbler’s cubicle all day. And it’s not like any of my designs are ever approved. Nanoo thinks my insteps are too radical.” Caliber rolled his eyes. “Nice to get out and see what the rest of the galaxy is up to every now and again. Market research, officially. Helps to raise brand awareness. I just like going walkabout.”
“I’m not sure many people will be aware of you in this dark corner of the dome,” said Figaro.
“That’s what makes it perfect,” said Caliber. “Just put your foot in there.” He handed a small metal tray to PT.
PT took it and gave it a quizzical look. “What is it?”
“Shoe-size,” said Caliber. “Can’t do much without it.”
“But I thought—”
“Barefoot, no socks. Just the imprint is all we need to know what kind of support you need. For your arches. Very important, the arches.”
PT hesitated for a moment and then placed the tray on the floor. He was wearing the light slippers provided by Quincy, so it was just a matter of slipping them off and putting his foot on the empty tray.
“Ooh. It’s a bit cold.”
“That’s fine. Let me have it back.”
PT did as he was asked. The tray looked exactly the same, with no markings.
“Ah, yes, I see,” said Caliber, inspecting the tray. “So you were born on a colony ship. Interesting.”
PT was taken by surprise. “How did you know that?”
“You can tell a lot about a man from the size of his feet,” said Caliber. “We’ll take a closer look at this and then we’ll be in touch with an offer.”
“What do you mean?” said PT. “What kind of offer?”
“Depends. First, we need to work out what it is you need. Only then can we work out how much it will cost. The only thing you can be sure of at this stage is that it will be more than you can afford. Haha. Anyway, that’s all for me on Quazi. Time to move on.”
“But what about the Fayre?” asked Figaro.
“Only one customer per planet, that’s the rule.”
Figaro found he couldn’t speak. His mouth just opened and closed a few times.
Caliber started to dismantle the stall. He stopped when he found something under the counter and handed it to PT. It was a slim bag.
“You might as well have this. Promotional material we never got round to using.”
PT took it and opened the bag. Inside was a white t-shirt. He shook it open. It had the DD of Delgados on the chest and underneath, in large black print, it said: Jump in with both feet.
“We’ll be in touch,” he said to PT.
“But how? You didn’t take any contact details.”
“We’ve got your footprint,” said Caliber. “It won’t be hard. Nice doing business with you.”
With that, Caliber put the tray under his arm and walked away, leaving PT and Figaro lost for words.
“I think I just bought a pair of shoes. He didn’t even ask for a down payment.”
“I don’t think you pay with money,” said Figaro.
“What’s wrong with you two?” asked Weyla, holding her second ice cone.
“Nothing,” said PT. “I got Ubik a gift.”