Point-Two was offended. He was offended on behalf of Ubik, which was an odd position to be in. Apologising for Ubik’s offensive behaviour was much more the norm.
“The Early Show?” said Point-Two to Quincy. “Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?”
Quincy, who had come in all bright and breezy, ready for the big day, dressed in what was clearly a brand new outfit, was somewhat taken aback and his face grew noticeably paler.
“Um, no, I don’t think so. I thought you had something you wanted to put up for auction? Did you change your mind?” He smiled a little too hard as a bead of sweat trickled down his temple. Fortunately, his new outfit was a light linen suit that was ideal for hot days and steamy dressing-downs.
Point-Two realised he had broken character and startled Quincy, who had been led to believe Point-Two was the stoic leader who remained unperturbed by minor matters — a term which encompassed all matters — and considered such things to be beneath him.
From his own experiences, he knew how much more shocking it was for someone who hardly ever said anything to suddenly lose their temper. He untensed his shoulders and tried to appear mildly irritated in the style of someone whose beverage was supposed to be decanted at room temperature and had been opened too near a window.
Rather than full-on enraged, which had somehow emerged from his psyche.
There was a possibility the constant tension of life in the Ubik dimension was starting to get to him.
“I think what he means,” said Fig, gently pulling Point-Two back, “is that we were led to believe the Early Show isn’t really for serious inventions. Isn’t that right, sir?” Fig nodded deferentially towards Point-Two.
Point-Two nodded back in a dignified manner.
“Ah, well, I wouldn’t say that.” Quincy collected himself, more comfortable dealing with Fig’s polite inquiry than he was facing Point-Two’s suddenly more aggressive manner of holding a conversation. “It’s true the Early Show is less prestigious, but at this late stage, I’m afraid all the slots for the main event are taken up.”
He smiled apologetically, rubbing his hands together as he looked over at Point-Two, and then quickly back to Fig.
Fig glanced at the screen, which was still showing flashy visuals promoting the Fayre. “It isn’t a compendium of deadbeats and con artists?”
“Oh, no,” said Quincy. “I don’t think that’s fair. Not fair at all. I mean, yes, there are some contestants who are simply there to entertain and provide some light relief, but they are professional in their own way. There is actually quite a big market for unique devices that are of little practical use, but provide some amusement. Nothing wrong with that. But overall, the aim is to give everyone a chance to show off their wares, without having to invest a huge amount to do so.”
“People have donated quite generously to get onto the main bill,” said Synthia. “It simply isn’t possible to add you without any idea of what it is you intend to present. Perhaps if you told us?” She looked at Ubik.
“It’s fine,” said Ubik. “I think going on early will give us an advantage. No one will be expecting very much. It should make the reveal that much more of a surprise.” His eyes gleamed.
Ubik didn’t care when or where he was put on display. He was confident all eyes would end up on him.
“And you do still get introduced by the Master of Ceremonies,” said Quincy. “Our beloved first robot, M1F, is reason enough to want to appear on the Early Show. If they take a liking to your invention, it can be a career-making endorsement.”
“The first robot?” said Fig.
“It’s the oldest robot on Quazi,” said Synthia, speaking to Ubik. “The first extrapolation of Antecessor droid technology. We are all descended from them.”
“A wonderful example of the traditions of our world,” said Quincy. “And an amazing sense of humour, for a robot.”
Point-Two hadn’t failed to notice that Synthia had taken to speaking directly to Ubik regarding all matters technological.
She had already worked out who the technical expert was here. Which was going to be a problem if she drew too much attention to him.
Point-Two was meant to be the decoy. He wasn’t doing a very good job of it. He looked around, trying to figure out a way to reestablish himself as the leader of the group.
“You should go up alone,” he said to Ubik. “We want the minimum amount of exposure.”
“Absolutely, Boss. You can count on me playing it nice and subtle.” Ubik saluted.
Point-Two would have liked to say a few choice words to Ubik about the definition of the word, but he didn’t want to break character again.
“It’ll be best if you do what you need to do as early as possible,” said Quincy. “I shouldn’t really say anything…” Quincy looked around furtively. “The truth is, we’re planning a little surprise for the audience later. For everyone, actually. Things might not go as smoothly as some people are expecting them to.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.
He waited for someone to ask for further details, but was too impatient and carried on without needing prompting.
“The people on Quazem, they’ve been spoiled for too long. Convinced they are masters of their destiny. But who of us is really able to change the direction of the universe?”
Point-Two had an answer to that question but he kept it to himself.
Quincy lowered his voice. “Once they see how little control they have over their lives, over the ones closest to them, I think their eyes will finally begin to open.” He smiled smugly, past Point-Two, towards where the Seneca sisters were standing. “I can say no more than that.”
“You’re going to make the robots revolt,” said Weyla
“Bad idea,” said Leyla. “Blood on robot hands won’t make for good optics.”
It seemed obvious Quincy was planning to remove the control the people of Quazi had over their robots. Probably with Synthia’s help.
“No, no, no. Nothing violent,” said Quincy, shaking his hands at them in flustered consternation. He looked to Synthia for confirmation. Her face betrayed no emotion. “Just a demonstration. A clear example that these are actual living, breathing — well, not literally — thinking beings. I think we’re going to change a lot of hearts and minds today. But also, of course, there will be some outrage, maybe a little mild panic. Only a tiny bit, right, Synthia?”
“We estimate a very small proportion of the crowd will become overwrought.” Her face remained serene. “Minimal deaths caused by pre-existing medical conditions.”
“Exactly, exactly,” said Quincy. “Minimal. One or two at most. And we have health providers standing-by, just in case.”
“What about the rest of the quadrant?” asked Fig.
“What do you mean?” said Quincy.
“Your robots aren’t just sold here, on Quazi,” said Fig. “They exist all over the quadrant and further. It would only have a limited effect on the wider community of owners if robots only demanded equal rights on Quazi.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose that’s right,” said Quincy. “But the live broadcast… Everyone will be watching.”
Fig shook his head. “It would be far more effective if every robot in every home refused to follow orders at the same time.” He looked at Synthia. “Wouldn’t it?”
Synthia didn’t say anything but her face shifted slightly. For once, she appeared to be trying to not let her emotions show, her face in full lockdown mode.
“Synthia?” asked Quincy.
“It would be very difficult to send a signal to every robot ever constructed by Mason & Muss,” said Synthia. “But it is technically possible. Would you like me to try and make it happen?”
“No, no, not at all,” said Quincy, the mild panic he had predicted appearing on his own face. “We don’t want to go too far on our first public outing. Let them get used to the idea. We want to bring everyone along for this journey. If we act too forcefully, they’re bound to react. Laws of physics and all that.”
Synthia nodded in acquiescence, but she hadn’t actually said she wouldn’t be sending the signal.
If Fig had been able to work out the most effective route of action, Synthia and whoever else she had working for her, undoubtedly were also able to do likewise. But Point-Two wasn’t too worried. A widescale commotion might turn out to be a useful thing. Once Ubik did his thing, whatever that might be, any sort of distraction would be of help.
“I think you’re right,” said Point-Two. “The Early Show will be a better setting for what we have in mind.”
“Is it possible for us to have a look at it?” asked Quincy, looking around. “I’m just a little curious as to what you’ve brought.”
“I’d rather it be a surprise,” said Point-Two. “The more people who know about it, the more likely word will get out and spoil the… impact.”
“I would never…” began Quincy.
“It isn’t you I have concerns over,” said Point-Two, looking at Synthia.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” said Quincy. “Synthia would never—”
“Any machine can be compromised,” said Point-Two. “And not just robots. This lab was arranged for by your brother. We had to disable a number of spying devices, and there may have been some we missed. It’s best to take all precautions, no matter how paranoid they may appear.”
What Point-Two was saying was not a true concern. There were indeed a number of attempts by Quincy’s brother, or possibly by Quincy himself, to monitor their activity, but Ubik wasn’t someone who could be observed so easily. And even if you did get to observe what he was doing, it rarely helped.
His goal in warning Quincy about the dangers of trusting machines was more to get under Synthia’s skin. If she knew where the real power lay with their group, then Point-Two was just as aware who was at the controls of Quincy’s cabal of revolutionaries.
If all she was doing was sparking the first flames of a robot uprising, that was fine. She would obviously fail.
The galaxy had many failings — corruption, injustice, unreasonable taxing policies — but putting down violent insurgents was not one of them. Any excuse for venting some of the aggression people had been forced to pent-up in the name of peace and stability in the last few hundred years was always taken up with enthusiasm.
But he suspected her true goal was something more than helping her fellow robots gain their freedom. And if she had worked out what a powerful force for change Ubik was — and nothing ever stayed the same after Ubik had come across it — then it was more than possible she was going to try and draw him into her machinations.
What arsonist with a can of inflammable liquid was going to walk past a lit match without picking it up?
“Your invention,” said Synthia, “it wouldn’t have anything to do with Antecessor armada that’s been reported.”
Chukka suddenly came to life and stepped forward. Fig put his hand directly on her face and pushed her back
“Armada?” said Ubik. “There’s an armada? Is it part of the Trade Fayre’s opening ceremony?”
“No,” said Synthia. “It’s an Antecessor fleet of ships, as you saw on the newscast earlier.” She indicated the screen, which was now showing adverts for robots that could climb walls like spiders and repaint your house for you.
“Ah, she hasn’t been spying on you,” said Quincy. “I make her memorise the broadcast schedules so I don’t miss my favourite shows.”
“Do you know anything about this fleet of alien ships?” asked Fig.
“Me?” said Quincy. “No, no, I don’t know anything. It’s just a rumour. These things crop up all the time. Sightings of ghost ships and so on. It’s not very likely a fully-crewed Antecessor battle fleet would suddenly appear now, is it? I mean, what do they want?”
“Perhaps they are searching for someone,” said Synthia. “Or some people.”
“I doubt it,” said Ubik. “They’d be more interested in reclaiming the galaxy and cleansing it of any undesirable elements. Or making us slaves. I’m not sure they’d have much use for robots, though. They have their own droids, which tend to be of a superior build quality. They must have the most amazing QA testing. I’ve never encountered a droid that ran out of battery power in the middle of trying to kill me.”
“They are indeed remarkable,” said Synthia.
Point-Two was becoming more and more wary of her. Whatever she was planning, she had the home field advantage and plenty of support. He hadn’t forgotten how the other robots reacted to her. If she wanted to create a bloody uprising, it was probably well within her abilities.
“We should go,” said Quincy. “The Early Show starts in less than two hours, and we need to register you and get you into rehearsals. They’ll tell you what you need to do and when and where and all that stuff. It’s very well organised. My brother may be a lot of things, but he is not one to put on a sloppy show. Do you need help transporting your…”
“No,” said Point-Two. “He’s got it in his pocket.”
Ubik patted his pocket.
They left the workshop and headed through the backstage area to the main stage, which had become much quieter now that the contestants had moved to the inner area.
From outside, the rumble of the audience could be faintly heard. Point-Two felt their presence even though he couldn’t see them.
Registration didn’t take long. There was a robot attendant taking names from a line of people stretching across the backstage area. It seemed anyone who wanted a shot at the big time was welcome.
“Most of these people are here for the lottery,” Quincy explained. “You won’t need to worry about that.” He went straight to the head of the queue and they were ushered past the waiting masses.
There were those who were guaranteed a slot, and those who got picked at random. A palpable sense of excitement filled the air. If you were able to get decent bids for your creation, it could make you an overnight success. If M1F made a favourable comment, you might even become a galactic sensation.
Judging by the odd contraptions most of them were carrying, they were far more likely to become overnight laughing stocks.
As they were about to enter the official Early Show green room, an entourage approached them, led by Quincy’s brother, Quadell. He was flanked by his robot assistant, Despira, who eyed Ubik warily.
“You’re here, good,” said Quadell, stopping in front of Point-Two. “A slot on the Early Show. Smart. You’re going to surprise everyone without having to compete against the big show stoppers.” Quadell nodded, as though he was appreciating this stratagem.
“I’m sure it won’t be as grand as the six sisters,” said Quincy. His animosity towards his brother was nowhere in sight.
“So you don’t know what they’ve brought, either,” said Quadell to his brother. He turned back to Point-Two. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. This armada…” His gaze intensified as he looked into Point-Two eyes. “No, never mind. I wish you luck.”
He shifted direction and was off, his coterie of followers rushing to keep up.
Everyone seemed to have connected their group with the rumoured Antecessor fleet. Was it really a rumour? The news had made it seem so, but those with the power to gather their own intelligence probably had a much clearer idea of what was going on. Which meant they might also have information on the people the Central Authority was looking for.
Point-Two looked over at Ubik. Was appearing on a galaxy-wide live broadcast really a good idea? The answer was obvious, but Ubik had something planned, and it was never wise to get in his way. The only thing that ever achieved was a speed-up of the countdown.
The sooner they were able to obtain a way off this planet the better.
The green room, which was just a large hall with benches, was full of nervous-looking people. They were watching screens showing the stage, with workers still making last-minute changes, moving parts of the set and checking and tidying away cables.
“You’re here,” said a voice next to Point-Two’s ear.
He turned to find a middle-aged workman with surprisingly young eyes standing with a clipboard in his hands.
“We’ll need you for a quick run-through. We have someone who can tell you exactly what you need to do.”
In all the rush to get show-ready, Point-Two had almost forgotten about Smyke. Another variable to consider. If only he could find a way to set Synthia and Smyke up against each other.
He nodded at Ubik, and then followed the workman.