Muss Dome - Green Room.
Point-Two followed Smyke’s little helper with Ubik casually sauntering after them. They made their way through the other contestants, towards an open doorway with an electronic sign over it with a big red cross currently displayed.
Fig gave a curious look as they left, asking if there was something he should do, but Point-Two gave him a slight shake of the head in return. When it came to Ubik, what could any of them do?
The middle-aged stage manager who was leading them away was dressed differently to the ones they’d encountered before. No overalls and toolbelt, instead, he wore a silver spacesuit that wasn’t functional, just for the look. All the dome employees were dressed the same to make them easier to identify. Only, the others were robots.
“The Early Show will begin in an hour,” said their guide as he led them through a doorway into an empty corridor. “Wait until the old robot, wasisname, calls you and then you go through here to the main stage. Sign over the door will be green. That’s the signal.” There were stairs ahead of them.
“Wasisname?” said Ubik. “What kind of research did you do for this role?”
The man turned around, his face showing no reaction to being called out. “It’s only you, though, isn’t it? No need to put on a song and dance when it’s just the two of us.” He looked at Point-Two with a slight look of disdain. “Three of us.”
“You don’t play the role for the mark, you play it for the authenticity,” said Ubik. “You should know that, Smyke.”
The man’s face showed his surprise before settling into an assenting smile. “What gave me away?”
“The eyes,” said Ubik. “You wouldn’t let any of your team show their eyes that way.”
Point-Two was just as surprised. The man looked nothing like the Smyke they had met before. And the youthful eyes had made him think it was one of the young boys playing at being older, even though none of them had made such a blatant mistake before.
“Also,” added Ubik, “the Delgados.” He looked down at Smyke’s silver boots, which looked nothing like Delgados. “Can’t mistake that smell.”
Smiley grinned ruefully and rubbed his chin. “Seems like I underestimated you. I think I’ve been doing that a lot.”
He took something out of his pocket, a small device, and pressed down on it with his thumb.
There was a hum that tickled the inside of Point-Two’s ears.
The air around them changed. Not in a drastic way, just a rise in the air density, so it became a little harder to breathe.
“We’re in the bubble,” said Smyke. “You know what that means.”
Ubik nodded. “What’s said in the bubble, stays in the bubble.”
“That’s right. What about your friend? I know he’s not one of us. Can he be trusted?”
“Of course,” said Ubik. “If he breaks the pledge, I’ll take care of him myself.”
“I haven’t taken any pledge,” said Point-Two, not liking how he was being talked about like he wasn’t there.
“You’re in the bubble,” said Ubik. “By entering, you accept the conditions of entry.”
It sounded like a very dubious stipulation but it wasn’t as though Point-Two intended to leak information to anyone, so he kept his mouth shut.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on you,” said Smyke. “Very impressive. You’ve got the whole Quazem family running around in a panic. They’re convinced you’re going to be putting up some amazing doodah for auction. That right, is it?”
“Could be,” said Ubik.
Smyke chuckled. “Nice, very nice. It’s a wonderful bluff. Real lovely piece of graft. I bow to your art.” Smyke lowered his head slightly, lifting an invisible hat off his head as he did so.
“I accept your bow,” said Ubik.
Point-Two watched them go through what seemed like some ancient ritual, but also like a duel with sarcasm and suspicion as the weapons.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to share what it is you plan to show up there.”
“That would not be appropriate,” said Ubik. “But I think you’ll get a kick out of it.”
“Ha, yes, I think so too.” Smyke’s look, even through the mask and contact lenses, showed a glint of admiration. “Truth is, I planned to use you and your people to create a diversion. Drop you in the thick of it so we would have an easier time of it on our way out the back door with the old robot.”
“Not planning to anymore?” asked Point-Two.
“No need. Looks like you’ve already put yourselves in the spotlight. The Quazems aren’t the only ones with their beady little eyes on you. And, to be honest, I think it would be best if we keep to our separate paths. You obviously have your ruse all set up and ready to go, and we have ours. I did think, at first, you might be trying to muscle your way into our game, but I can see now that you wouldn’t be interested in what we’ve got going on. You like the fine swindle, we only trade in smash and grab plays.”
“We should be done right after the Early Show,” said Ubik.
“Exactly,” said Smyke. “We won’t hit them until near the end of the Big Show. No need for the two of us to cross paths.”
This meeting steeped in consideration and mutual respect was carving up the auction so that the two sides wouldn’t get in each other’s way. Which was great news and also made Point-Two very suspicious.
He wouldn’t have trusted Ubik, if he was on the other side, and he considered Smyke to be just as trustworthy.
“You’re planning on taking the old robot?” said Point-Two. “At the end of the show, with everyone watching.”
“That’s right, son.” Smyke seemed unmoved by the enormity of the task. “The robot and everything that’s inside it.” He gave Ubik a meaningful look.
“You don’t have to worry,” said Ubik. “We aren’t interested in the old robot. It’s all yours. And everything inside it.”
Both of them seemed to know what was ‘inside it’.
“You mean the planet core?” said Point-Two.
“That’s not the only thing,” said Ubik. “They use M1F as a repository, of sorts. It’s where they keep all their valuables. And the valuables used as collateral by the bidders.”
Point-Two knew the bidders, the serious ones here for the big prize, had to deposit funds to prove their ability to pay up. He hadn’t known about the collateral.
“I knew you’d figure it out,” said Smyke. “But it’s an ugly mugging compared to the elegant subterfuge you’re planning. I don’t think you’d be interested in something so crude. Can we agree to stay out of each other’s hair?”
The two of them put out a hand each at the same time, and shook them without touching.
“Then I’ll just add this,” said Smyke. “We were aiming for an end of show big finish, but we might have to move the schedule up a little, so I would recommend you vacate the premises as soon as you’ve completed.”
“You’re expecting a bust?” asked Ubik.
“Not exactly. You’ve heard about the invading alien fleet?”
“Isn’t that just a rumour?” said Point-Two.
“No, not at all,” said Smyke. “There really is a fleet, at least a dozen ships. I’m not saying they’re actually crewed up with Antecessors, nothing so fantastical. From what I’m hearing, it’s that man, Ramon Ollo. You’ve heard of him, of course.”
“Of course,” said Ubik, giving away nothing. “Who hasn’t?”
“He’s quite the respectable fellow on the outside,” said Smyke, “at least these days, but the truth is, he’s a hardened adventurer of the old school. Even when I was just a little tyke, running around the streets of Mapover, getting into meaningless scrapes, I heard stories about the ruthless Ramon Ollo. He’s a great man, genius to be sure, but a black-hearted man. When he wants something, worlds perish if they get in his way.”
“What has that got to do with the timing of your exit?” asked Point-Two.
“It seems the fleet he created — who else could resurrect an entire fleet? — is headed in this direction.”
It took all of Point-Two’s concentration to hold a neutral expression in the face of this news. Ubik reacted as nonchalantly as ever.
“Why would they be headed here?” asked Point-Two, as calmly as he could.
“Can’t say for certain it’s this world they’re aiming for,” said Smyke, “but better to be safe than dead. Whatever he’s after, he’ll be passing in this direction, with who knows what on his tail. The Central Authority and all sorts, I’d guess. Best not to be around when they turn up, is all I’m saying.”
“That won’t be an issue,” said Ubik. “We should be long gone by then.”
“Same here,” said Smyke. “Don’t want to get caught up in that kind of mess.”
“Me neither,” said Ubik.
They shared a laugh. Point-Two didn’t think it was funny. Not at all.
“Then I guess this is where we part ways,” said Smyke.
“Hold on,” said Point-Two. “Aren’t you supposed to walk us through the show?”
It was all very well impersonating one of the dome employees to have a chat, but those employees had a job to do.
“This why you keep him around?” said Smyke. “Keep on top of all the boring stuff.”
Ubik nodded. “That’s right.”
It wasn’t right, and even if it was, someone had to make sure they didn’t fall at the first hurdle. Even if the hurdle was some sort of explosive device placed there by Ubik when no one was watching.
“It’s very simple. You go up when the old robot calls your name. You stand on the mark by the time the intro music stops, and then you make your spiel. You’ve got five minutes, same as everyone on the Early Show. Then you wait to see if anyone makes a bid. I’m sure they will.” He laughed again.
“It’s going to be fine,” said Ubik, directing his reassuring words at Point-Two.
“You’re on last, by the way,” said Smyke, looking down at his clipboard. “Last minute addition. You fancy guys like to cut things close, huh? I’ll be watching with interest. Might even make a bid myself!”
“I doubt you’ll be able to afford it,” said Ubik. More good-natured laughter followed.
They both seemed to be revelling in the fate of the poor rubes caught in their web of deception, and possibly, they were enjoying the thought of how they were going to outmanoeuvre each other.
“I’ll be going up here. You should go back to the green room and wait for your names to be called. Good luck.”
“And good luck to you.”
Point-Two was sure neither wished the other anything close to good luck.
Smyke pressed the button on his device and the air pressure eased. He went up the stairs. Point-Two and Ubik walked back down the corridor.
“You don’t believe he’ll leave us alone, do you?” said Point-Two.
“No. But he’ll probably be too busy to do any real harm.”
“Wait.” Point-Two stopped. “He said we have to wait for our name to be called.”
“Oh, I gave Quincy a fake name to register us with. Obviously, we can’t use our real names. I’m Qubik Q Qubik. I thought it would go well with the Quazi/Quazem vibe.”
“That’s your way of remaining incognito?”
“I told you, I know how to be subtle.”
Point-Two felt like protesting, but what was the point?
“Everything ready?” asked Fig, when they returned to the group.
“Yes,” said Point-Two. “No problems. No new ones, anyway.”
They were seated in a corner of the green room, surrounded by eager-looking hopefuls.
The Seneca sisters looked uninterested and Chukka looked nervous. Bashir had joined the group while they’d been gone, and looked confused.
“I don’t like going on last,” said Ubik. “Crowd are going to be tired.” He stretched his neck and looked around.
There were dozens of people in every direction, most of the inventors coming with a team of technicians and hangers-on. Twenty of them were guaranteed a slot on the early show, and then there were the lottery winners.
“Ollo,” said a man wearing an oily apron over his clothing. He was pointing at Fig.
“Sorry?” said Fig.
“Your spacesuit, that’s an original Ollo, right?”
Fig looked down at his spacesuit, which was indeed an original Ollo.
“I knew it.” The man snapped his fingers and jumped up and down on the spot. “I’ve always wanted one. Can’t buy them anywhere. Where did you get it? No, no, never mind that. How much you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale,” said Fig.
“What slot do you have?” cut in Ubik.
“What slot?” said the man. “Oh, I’m on fourth.”
Ubik shook his head. “No, not good enough.”
“It’s not for sale,” said Fig.
“I know,” said Ubik. “I just said fourth wasn’t good enough.”
“It’s not for sale whatever the position.”
“Don’t worry, I can get it back later,” said Ubik.
“You don’t think I can get it back?”
“No, I think you can, if you want to. But not if you change your mind and stop caring, which is highly likely.” Fig spoke with a calmness that indicated his full understanding of the Ubik way of failing to live up to his promises.
“Hmm,” said Ubik. “Who’s got the first slot?”
“That’ll be Einlich over there,” said the man, pointing out a fat, slovenly man with crazy hair sticking up in all directions. “He’s always on first, it’s a tradition. People love him because his inventions are so ridiculous. It’s amazing how he manages to out-do himself every year.” He turned back to Fig. “How about a trade. I can let you have one of these self-replicating nanobots I’ve invented.” He opened his hand to reveal a black disc the size of a thumbnail. “Now there’s one, now there’s two.” He closed his hand and opened it again to show there were two in his hand. “Now there’s… Ow!” He closed his hands and something exploded in his fist, making him run off, yelping.
“Wait here a moment,” said Ubik.
“Not for sale,” said Fig as Ubik wandered over towards where the man Einlich was slouched on a bench, taking up enough room for three.
Ubik stood there, chatting for a while. Ubik pointed towards the group. The man seemed interested. Very interested. A silver-suited robot assistant came over at the man’s beckoning. Some sort of business was conducted between the three. Then, Ubik came back, smiling.
“We’ll be on first.”
“What did you offer him?” said Fig, concern etched into his face.
“Not your suit, don’t worry.”
Point-Two looked over and caught the man looking at him. He had a bad feeling. “I’m not doing it. Whatever you promised him.”
“Hey,” said Ubik. “How do you know you won’t enjoy it until you try it?”
“I’m definitely not doing it,” said Point-Two.
The screens around the room, showing the empty stage above them, went black. Then they came back on. Blaring music and various logos appeared while an announcer welcomed everyone to the start of the Trade Fayre Auction.
The Early Show was starting. The intro went on for a long time. Then the stage reappeared on-screen and the curtain of light obscuring the stage from the audience fell away.
There were thousands of people on raked seating, and floating boxes hung above them for the VIPs. The noise rose considerably, both on the screen and in the room.
Lights flashed and something rose out of the middle of the stage. It was a large cube, about the size of a house.
It looked familiar. It looked exactly like the cube in Ubik’s pocket.