Muss Dome - Backstage.
Ubik loved his gift. He had received very few in his life, and even fewer that he truly appreciated, but this one was a definite keeper.
The logo was one he had always admired. The slogan — Jump in with both feet! — not only made him smile, it summed up his approach to life. And the material felt nice against his skin.
“This is great,” he said, rubbing his chest with an open palm. “You guys are the best.”
“It’s just a t-shirt,” said Weyla, her blue-dyed lips trembling from the cold of the ice cone.
“And what did you get me?” Ubik asked her.
Weyla’s blue lips thinned as she sucked them into the mouth. “Sorry,” she said unapologetically. “You’re a hard person to shop for.”
“That’s true,” said Leyla. “What do you get the man who ruins everything?”
Ubik could see the two of them weren’t in the mood for banter. Looking at the way they clung to the remnants of their ice cones, he could see why.
“I don’t think you should have any more of those,” he said. “The ingredients are addictive. It’s how they keep you coming back for more. Solid business model, but a major health code violation.”
Leyla looked at the cone in her hand and then back at Ubik. “It’s just sugar.”
“Then throw it away,” said Ubik.
Leyla continued to look at him, hand firmly gripping the cone. Weyla took another slurp of her cone.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Don’t blame me when you get hit by the crash.”
Ubik turned to Fig. “Are the four of you double-dating now?”
“They followed us,” said Fig. “They have a crush.”
Ubik looked over at the Seneca duo fully absorbed by their iced treats. “On who? You?”
“On my mother. It’s common among the Corps. Authority figures end up becoming the vessel for inappropriate feelings that have no other outlet. They grow up without men, so they develop daddy issues, which they project onto their commanding officers, who happen to be women, but the effect is the same. They both served under my mother, so they feel they can win her approval if they keep me safe.”
“That’s not true,” said Leyla, blushing. Her red face didn’t really go with her blue lips. At the very least, she should switch out the green jacket for something in a purple.
“My teeth are hurting,” said Weyla.
“Seriously, what does it do?” said PT, who was staring at the cube in Ubik’s hand.
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” said Ubik. “Let’s just say I’m expecting the bidding to go through the roof.”
“It’s very small,” said Fig. “I feel like I’ve seen it somewhere before, though.”
“Me too,” said PT. The two of them stared at the cube intently.
“Is it a toy?” said Weyla. “Let me have a go.” She reached for it but Ubik pulled it back.
“You’ll notice my reactions are noticeably faster than yours,” said Ubik. “And you’re Corps-trained. Doesn’t that seem odd?”
Weyla furrowed her brows. “I wasn’t really trying. I could take it from you if I wanted.”
“Go on, then,” said Ubik, holding up the cube so she could grab it.
Weyla’s eyebrows met in the middle as she gave the matter some serious consideration. “I don’t feel like it right now.” She licked her cone. There was no ice left, just the stains on the side.
“Wasn’t there something like it in one of the pictures?” said PT.
“Oh yeah, I think you’re right,” said Fig. “I think I saw it in a few of them, actually. It’s like a motif — keeps cropping up. The locals will probably like it. Nostalgia does well at auctions. Antiques, too.”
“The locals aren’t the big spenders, though,” said PT.
“What else did you get?” asked Ubik, tiring of their bad guesses. He would have told them if they’d been close, but they were way off.
PT put the bags he was carrying on the table and began emptying them.
More t-shirts, badges, pamphlets and hats came pouring out.
Pens, mugs, stuffed toys and bottles of various coloured goo.
Everything had the logos of various companies stamped on them.
PT opened up a sheet of transparent film, stretching it to chest width. A picture appeared of a young woman heavily armed with numerous weapons and her clothes mostly removed.
At the top, it said, Girls of the Corps.
“Sexy Seneca,” said PT, flipping through the pictures of militaristic nudes.
“It’s fake,” said Leyla. “No one from the Corps would holster their firearm like that.” She didn’t appear to be offended by the depiction of her beloved Corps. Both and her sister were surprisingly hard to trigger. Ubik really had to up his game.
There was a buzz at the door, followed by insistent knocking. The voice-activated door controls had been deactivated — if it could hear you tell it to open the door, it could hear everything else, too.
Ubik picked up a stuffed fish with ‘Get hooked!’ written on one side and ‘Genoshum’ on the other. He threw it at the panel next to the door and the door slid open.
Chukka came rushing in looking flustered.
“You’re all here, good,” she said, slightly out of breath. “Did you see the news?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Did something happen?”
Chukka rushed past him towards his workshop area, ignoring everything a reasonable person would have been fascinated by, and making straight for the control panel under the large screen.
The screen came to life and a grim man stared at them through a window in the middle of captions and advertising messages running horizontally and vertically around him. His mouth moved silently until Chukka turned up the volume.
“...our top story again, the rumours of a fully-functioning Antecessor armada discovered in the outer quadrants. The Central Authority has issued a galaxy-wide alert for this man,” —a picture of Ramon Ollo appeared— “Ramon Ollo, feted and well-regarded entrepreneur and previous participant of the Trade Fayre Auction — you might remember the patent for his unified slave suit that went for a TFA record a few years back. He is believed to be involved in an alleged conspiracy to destabilise the outer four quadrants, and may have resurrected the armada for personal gain and possible market manipulation. Wormhole activity has been restricted to essential operations until further notice, although the Central Authority insists this is only a precautionary measure. More information as we get it.” The man’s sombre expression flipped to one of delight. “Now, back to the details of the 1094th Trade Fayre.”
The screen changed to an aerial-shot of the Muss Dome.
“Welcome to the 1094th Trade Fayre and the greatest auction in the Inner Quadrant…” said an irritatingly cheerful voice.
Chukka turned around. “They think it’s just a rumour, but the Antecessors are going to take over the outer quadrants. Businesses are going to grind to a halt. The economic repercussions will be devastating.”
She genuinely believed what she was saying mattered.
“Can you move out of the way?” said Ubik. “I want to see this piece on the auction.”
Chukka took a step to the side, confused by the lack of appropriate reactions. “But the Antecessors… They’re blaming Ramon Ollo…”
“They’re not blaming him,” said Ubik. “They planted the story to get our attention.”
“They know we’re more likely to notice something about my father,” said Fig. “They want us to contact them.”
“Good,” said PT. “Means they don’t know where we are.”
“Standard operating procedure for the CA,” said Leyla. “Reveal enough information to be able to say they warned us, make it vague enough to seem like a hoax so no one panics.”
“But, if they planted the story in the Inner Quadrant, they must know we’re here,” said Chukka.
“Possibly,” said Fig. “Or they planted it everywhere.”
“Shhh,” said Ubik. “They’re showing my competition.”
On the screen, there was a man with his hand out. He was well-groomed and dressed in a cutting-edge tech suit, with prosthetic limbs built into the shoulders. One of the shoulder-claws reached down and picked up the toy ship and tossed it away.
The ship instantly grew to its full size, large enough to accommodate a crew of six (which was flashed on the screen in a ridiculously large font).
As viewers were given a tour of the rather basic interior of the ship, the annoying voice blathered on:
“From Jigg Castaway, the creator of last year’s miniature ore refining facility, the Factoreo, comes the Pocket Rocket Spaceship! It’s portable and it’s pocketable. No need to pay expensive port tariffs and hangar fees, just put it in your pocket. Reputed to be able to travel between star systems without refuelling. The current model is the smallest ever made and one of a kind. Bids are expected to reach—”
“Bit weak,” said Ubik. “Bet it only works a few times before it gets stuck in one form or the other.”
Flashy visuals filled the screen and then a woman dressed similarly to the ones on PT’s poster appeared, only with slightly more clothes on. In her hands was a gun that extended into a rifle with a flick of the wrist.
“From Genoshum Tactical, the Senecot All-Purpose Eliminator R-15, a weapon that can do it all. No aiming required, no ammo to load, self-cleaning and fits in a handbag. Ladies, this is the partner you’ve been looking for your whole life. Try the test model on display in Area J at the Trade Fayre.”
The woman holding the gun rested the rifle butt on her hip, and pointed her finger directly at the camera.
“I invented this gun because I know how important it is to have someone you can rely on. A special edition will be available at the auction with features that will make your head explode — literally. Don’t miss out!”
“Senecot,” said PT, laughing. “She actually even looks like she’s Corps.” He turned to Leyla, expecting a denial, but Leyla didn’t say anything.
“She is Corps,” said Fig. “Obvious from the way she’s holding the weapon.”
“At least she’s putting her Seneca training to good use,” said Ubik. “You two should start your own business. Do something productive with your lives.”
Leyla and Weyla both looked nonplussed at the suggestion.
“She’s a traitor selling our secrets without permission,” said Weyla. “She’ll be dead within hours of making her first sale.”
“Six sisters,” boomed the voice from the screen. “Are they human? Are they something more?”
Synthia’s six sister robots appeared on screen, each dressed in tight clothing with slight variations to suggest a difference in personality. They came sauntering towards the camera in synchronised sashaying.
“The most advanced service robots ever created, six unique creations with functions never before seen in any Mason & Muss product. They don’t just walk and talk, they will make you believe they are as human as you are. They even have a soul. Watch the demonstration on the main stage tonight and you’ll believe they are as capable as any real thinking, feeling woman. The singularity is finally here, and there are six of them.”
The six robots stared at Ubik through the screen as the camera panned across them. They didn’t speak, gave no evidence of their superiority over robot-kind. But Ubik could feel the power coiled up inside them, ready to be released. Never mind the other inventors, these six were going to be the main problem.
“Experts in robotics from around the galaxy have gathered for the bidding war of the century. Tickets are all sold out, but you can watch the insanity live, here on Channel Q, the home of all things Quazi.”
“They’re really making a big thing about those six robots,” said PT. “Are you sure your box is going to be able to compete?”
“No problem,” said Ubik. “They’re all style over substance. The Ubik’s Cube is beyond anything those six can do.” He knew it was true, because otherwise they were all in big trouble.
“And don’t forget the Early Show,” blared the screen. “The craziest inventors bring you the wackiest inventions.”
A man with hair sticking up and thick glasses appeared with a box in his hands. It was bigger than Ubik’s cube, but it had a similar design on the outside. He opened the lid on top and a frog in a top hat jumped out and started dancing.
“You won’t believe the things people will try to sell you! Don’t miss the Early Show!”
A series of mad-scientist-types were shown with ridiculous objects and devices. Where the earlier inventors had been dressed up to look like serious engineers, these were all dressed up to look as kooky as possible.
“Looks like they even have a section of the show for delusional people to have a go,” said Ubik, shaking his head. He normally didn’t waste his time feeling sorry for people, but there was no need to mock those who were doing their best to create something original and of use, even if their efforts were clearly hopeless.
There was a buzz at the door again, but this time it opened without having a stuffed toy thrown at it.
Quincy entered with Synthia behind him.
“You’re all here,” said Quincy. “Excellent. Everything’s ready. I’ve booked you a slot in the Early Show.”
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino