Muss Dome - Green Room.
The music was overbearing and garish. Figaro was familiar with the sound patterns. They were from a sequence designed to disorient and confuse the targets, making them less likely to fight back.
It worked very effectively in large-scale battles, and also in marketing.
The visuals were similarly brash and tacky. Bright colours, flashing at the exact frequency to stimulate the occipital lobe and the primary motor cortex, leaving the victim stunned.
A viewer would be left astonished to the point of temporary paralysis. They would believe they were witnessing something extraordinary.
A soldier would be left wide open. They would be dead in the next attack.
Figaro had undergone extensive training to be able to block out both the aural and visual components of what was a very aggressive onslaught on the senses.
It had been a gruelling process for a toddler to undergo but he couldn’t deny the effectiveness of his father’s methods. Figaro sank his consciousness back into his head, giving himself tunnel vision. It was not an easy thing to do.
Most of the people in the green room were watching the screens that were hanging from the walls with mouths agape, willingly enthralled by the spectacle.
Weyla and Leyla looked ready to start a fight as they blinked rapidly to counter the effects, the Seneca method of avoiding sensory confusion. It was less traumatic to learn, but it also lowered reaction times, and you looked pretty silly.
“It’s the same as his cube,” said PT, turning towards Figaro with his eyes still on the screen, his arms folded, seemingly unaffected. “I mean, an exact copy in miniature.”
“Aren’t you affected by the psychovisuals?” Figaro asked.
“You mean that weird strobing effect and the buzzing? I’m just ignoring it. I can adjust pressure in my inner-ear.” PT unfolded his arms and pointed at his ear. “We learn to do it in water tanks when we’re born.”
Figaro didn’t know much about life on board a colony spacecraft, but their method of countering psychovisual assault, even if that wasn’t its purpose, seemed vastly preferable to his own.
“Why make his device look like the oldest robot on Quazi?” said Figaro.
PT was right. The giant cube that had risen out of the stage in the midst of swirling lights and dry ice to huge cheers was identical to the cube Ubik had built, down to the designs on the exterior.
It looked to be of Antecessor origin, at least from the outside.
“I wonder what’s inside it?” wondered Figaro.
“It’s a vault where they keep their valuables, apparently,” said PT.
“Oh,” said Figaro, not expecting the answer to be so mundane. “Ubik’s version can’t do that, can it?”
PT shrugged. “I think he made it look like that to suck up to the crowd.”
The music died down and the accompanying roar from the audience subsided at the same time.
The cube’s exterior flashed with white streaks of light that ran around its surface in all directions, very much like an Antecessor structure. Then the streaks changed colours, drawing ooh and ahs from the audience.
“Welcome to the 194th Trade Fayre Auction!” The voice of the cube was male, energetic and jovial. The lights on its surfaces flashed in time to the words.
The crowd erupted into cheers once more.
“We’re beaming live around the galaxy to more than seventy billion people.” The crowd applauded, a sea of clapping crashing like waves against the cliffs of Mason City. “And that’s not including the ones watching on illegal streams.”
Boos rang out.
“You know who you are... and so do we. So expect a knock on your door anytime now.”
Laughter and cheers exploded.
“I’m only joking. Everyone is welcome here. We’re happy to share the greatest show in the Inner Quadrant with you all. Life on Quazi is good, isn’t it?”
The crowd loudly voiced their agreement.
“Of course it is. I should know, I’m the one who controls it all.”
The lights coming from the cube grew more intense. The dome above them changed from silver to opaque to transparent, so that only a thin reflective glint revealed it was still there. Above them, the blue sky began to change as clouds gathered.
Rain fell, hitting the dome. It turned to hail, then snow. Then the clouds parted and the sunshine returned. The whole medley took only a few seconds to complete.
The crowd noise rose once more.
“Tonight, we will auction off the most spectacular lots you’ve ever seen. Lots and lots to astonish and amaze.”
A ripple of laughter ran around the dome.
“Trust me, folks, you won’t want to miss it. But first… the Early Show!”
Music began blaring again. The frequency was different now. People sat back down in their seats, ready for the next event.
Spotlights danced around the cube and more smoke poured onto the stage.
“Remember, anyone can make a bid as long as they have registered — those of you watching, you can join in by going to our net site. It’s not too late!” Details of where to register appeared on the screen. “But you do have to pay up if you make a successful bid. No exceptions. And if you fail to pay, you know what that means…”
In unison, thousands of people shouted, “All your bases are belong to us!” and then fell into laughter and cheering.
“What does that mean?” said PT.
“I think it’s some kind of catchphrase,” said Figaro.
Ubik, who was standing in front of them, staring up at the screen, turned around. “This is going to be even easier than I thought. Taking money from strangers… it’s what I was born to do.” His eyebrows rose and fell.
“It’s an auction, Ubik,” said PT. “That’s why they’re here.”
“I don’t think you appreciate how much of a feeding frenzy I’m going to create.”
“You’re very confident,” said Figaro. “Do you really think making your cube look like that one is going to help?”
“You have to know your market,” said Ubik. “No product ever got undersold by pandering to the public. They don’t even know how badly they want what I’m selling.”
“Maybe you should take Seneca one and two with you,” suggested PT. “Help keep the fans back when they rush the stage.”
Ubik nodded thoughtfully. “Not a bad idea, but we’re trying to keep this low key, remember?”
PT looked like he was about to say something but changed his mind and kept his mouth shut. Being reminded by Ubik to not attract unwanted attention was quite the bitter pill to swallow.
A robot employee in silver came over, clipboard in hand. “You are Qubik Q Qubik?” She had the looks of a very attractive young woman, and the perfect skin of someone not quite human.
“That’s me,” said Ubik. “You look like one of Synthia’s. Did she send you?”
The robot, which looked like all the other silver-suited assistants roaming the green room, showed no change in expression, but tilted its head slightly to one side.
“Synthia asked me to make sure you were well taken care of. Do you have any special requests?”
“Mmm… yes,” said Ubik. “I want the host to call me Professor Q.” He turned to Figaro and PT. “People respect a man with qualifications. More likely to buy his crap.”
The robot blinked hard a couple of times. “I have notified Mother and Father of your request.”
“Mother and Father?” said Ubik.
“That is how we refer to M1F. They are our origin.” She smiled in a mechanical way. “You will be announced shortly. Please come with me.”
Ubik grinned and followed the robot towards the doorway with the red cross over it.
“Seventy billion people,” said Figaro. “He doesn’t even look nervous.”
“I feel like I’m going to be sick,” said PT. “I don’t even know what the cube does and I’m already dreading it.”
The sign above the door turned green and the robot led Ubik through.
Figaro’s eyes returned to the screen.
“Now, I must warn you,” said M1F, “that this year there is a break with tradition. The first contestant on the Early Show is not Einlich von Pressburger.”
There were shocked gasps, followed by boos.
“Yes, yes, I know. I was surprised, also. Don’t worry, Einlich will be up soon, but just imagine how amazing this first person is to have replaced our beloved Einlich. What will he bring us? How amazing, how incredible, how absolutely preposterous? Let’s find out together. Keep those bidding thumbs ready!”
All around the dome, people raised their hands and wiggled their thumbs.
“That’s right. Let me see those thumbs.” The cube’s body flashed in all colours. “And help me welcome to the stage, the first contestant of the Early Show 1-9-4… Professor Q.”
The crowd roared.
Smoke filled the stage, making M1F look like the peak of some poorly-pixelated misty mountain.
And through the smoke, a small figure appeared.
Ubik had his arms raised, basking in the attention of the whole dome and most of the galaxy.
Looking at it rationally, this was the worst way of keeping a low profile. Even if no one knew his name, his face would be seen by billions. And the Central Authority. Maybe even by the Antecessors, if they had access to premium channels.
The smoke cleared and Ubik was revealed. With a different face. He was now a wizened old man with wrinkles and a receding hairline.
“When did he…” PT said with a confused look on his face.
“He can change his face?” said Weyla.
“It’s a mask,” muttered PT. “But I don’t know when… Smyke must have given it to him.”
Whatever the source of the mask, it was a good disguise. Even his clothing, which was the outfit Quincy had supplied, hung off him the way it would an older man.
“Welcome, Professor,” said M1F, their voice now soft and feminine. “Tell us a little about yourself.”
The crowd hushed to a judgmental lull.
Hello!” shouted Ubik. “It’s great to be here. I am from a small planet called Ligma.”
“Oh no,” said PT.
“I don’t seem to have any record of it in my data banks. Ligma?”
“Yes, that’s right. More of an asteroid, really.”
PT let out a breath.
“And what have you brought us.”
Ubik took out his cube and held it up in the palm of his hand.
The cameras zoomed in and the screens all around the stage showed it in close-up.
The crowd gasped as they recognised it.
“Oh my,” said female-voiced M1F. “It looks just like me. Maybe I should start the bidding.”
There were some laughs, some confused mumbling.
“And what does my little doppelganger do?”
“Everything you can,” said Ubik.
The level of confusion increased as people checked with each other to make sure they had heard correctly.
“Everything?” said M1F, their tone mildly mocking.
“Absolutely,” said Ubik.
The small cube in his hand began to flash with lights, just as the original had earlier.
Above them, the sky changed. Rain and snow fell.
The dome turned, rotating the whole audience, showing them the scenery outside from different angles.
The sea beyond the city rose up as a giant tidal wave lifted up like a mountain range, and then sank back down.
All the while, the little cube flashed and shone.
Everything returned to normal.
And then pandemonium broke loose as the crowd lost their minds.
“Wait, wait,” shouted Ubik. “There’s more.”
The crowd quieted down, unable to comprehend what more there could be.
Ubik faced M1F, his back to the audience and the cameras.
“Not only can my cube do everything you can do, only more efficiently and at a fraction of the mass, it can do the same on any planet with a core. With just a few adjustments, any of the planets in the Inner Quadrant are yours to control.”
The silence in the dome was deafening.
“He just put the entire Inner Quadrant up for sale,” said PT.
Figaro realised his mouth was hanging open and shut it.
“So, do I have any bids?” asked Ubik.
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino