Planet Quazi - Mason City.
Ubik licked his lips in anticipation and waited for the bidding to start. He was confident there would be people interested in his cube.
He was confident there would be a lot of interest from a lot of people.
He was offering them the chance to control their own destiny and also, as a by-product, control the whole quadrant.
The upper echelons wouldn’t be that excited. They already controlled the quadrant. But they would be very keen to stop others having the same level of influence as they had.
They would be making big bids.
And then there were the ones with the most to gain. The ones who had always been in second place, in third place. In sight of the prize, but held at bay.
They would cash-in every asset they had to claim his cube for their own. They might even kill for the chance to own it. Good thing Quazi had experienced that kind of malicious coveting in the past, and were well-prepared to prevent it happening again.
Ubik waited for the start of the race, but there was no sign of anyone kicking things off. He looked around.
There were screens all over the dome, showing him, showing the cube in his hand, and displaying a ‘Current Bid’ ticker tape at the bottom, which currently showed no bids.
The cameras cut to different shots — wide angles, close-up, long shots of the audience looking bewildered. And there was one screen that showed M1F, sitting in the middle of the stage, somehow managing to look gloomy, even with a multi-coloured swirl of lights flashing across their obsidian surfaces.
The dome was silent. There were tens of thousands of people in the audience, and they were holding their collective breath in anticipation of what would happen next.
There was still the suspicion that this was some kind of prank. Or possibly an elaborate ruse by a con man. No one had ever heard of Professor Q before, so they weren’t willing to just accept his claims, even though proof had been provided.
Proof that could hardly be faked. The skies and seas of Quazi were not easily manipulated. Not unless you had control of the planet’s core.
“Ahhhhh,” came a long tone from M1F, their voice back to the deeper male version, “it seems we weren’t prepared for such an audacious first contestant on the Early Show. How could we be? It’s unprecedented. I told you this would be a special show, and I think it has more than lived up to that billing. But Professor Q, I don’t think we can simply accept your—”
“Would you like me to provide more proof?” said Ubik, tossing the cube in the air and making it spin. The transparent dome spun around them at the same time, refracting light so the whole thing shimmered in rainbow.
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” said M1F. “Please don’t do that.”
“We could have a duel,” suggested Ubik, his eyes lighting up at the possibility. “I copy you and you copy me. See who has the best fine control. Battle for the planet.”
“Ah, no, I don’t think we have time for that.”
There were some disappointed noises from the audience.
“It wouldn’t be fair on the other contestants,” said M1F, the excuse sounding rather flimsy.
The crowd started to make more noise, the initial shock wearing off. They were muttering and discussing among themselves.
The true magnitude of what Ubik was offering hadn’t really sunk in. They seemed to think they were in the middle of some kind of performance, a mystery with a twist that needed to be solved.
Who was Professor Q? Was his cube real? How did he create it? And, more to the point, who would end up owning it?
They wanted to see how things turned out. Who was the villain here, and who was the hero?
Ubik liked the sense of curiosity emanating from the audience. He felt they were properly engaged, so it was only right to give them a show they would remember.
This was all going splendidly. He had never had the opportunity to perform in front of such a huge audience, but it was almost like he was dealing with one entity, one target for his plan. He just had to work them, the same as he would any mark.
“Shouldn’t we start the bidding?” he asked the large cube sitting in the middle of the stage, the lights on its surface no longer as flashy or colourful. Now they pulsed in thoughtful deliberation.
“Yes, yes, of course,” said M1F, sounding distracted. “But first, perhaps we should examine lot number one a little more closely.”
Ubik brought the hand holding the small cube closer to his body.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ubik. “The rules of the auction clearly state all sales for the Early Show are to be based on the demonstration. Any clarification is to be between the winning bidder and myself, after the sale is concluded. Right, Miff? Is it alright if I call you Miff, Miffy?”
There was a murmur of disapproval out in the crowd. But to Ubik’s way of thinking, if you were going to present yourself as a giant cube of the people, you should be on the same level as them. There should be no pretentious airs and graces from a game show host.
Streaks of light zipped across M1F’s surfaces. They had lost their showbiz razzmatazz and felt more regardful. “The rules do state that lots are the private concern of seller and buyer, but in this case…”
“No exceptions,” said Ubik. “I read the whole rule book. It’s a very thorough document. IP theft isn’t just a possibility, it’s a certainty. That’s what it says on the first page. There are some pretty dishonest minds out there.” Ubik pointed straight up. “They want everyone’s secrets without paying for them. Who wouldn’t want what this cube can do for free? Isn’t it your job to safeguard contestants?”
“Yeeees,” said M1F. “Of course. But…”
“Buyer beware,” said Ubik. “If you don’t want to take the risk, don’t bid. Am I right?” He appealed directly to the crowd.
The crowd were a little taken aback to be suddenly brought into the discussion. They seemed hesitant to get involved.
Ubik was willing to wait them out. After all, they were a necessary component of his scheme. Especially the part where he escaped in one piece.
The great thing about the Trade Fayre Auction was its deep-rooted history in corruption and fraud. Every method of avoiding fairness had been attempted over the years, and in order to win over public confidence, enormous efforts had been made to ensure a level playing field.
The rules of this game were sacrosanct. They were so fixed in place, not even the organisers could break them, or even bend them.
That was their big selling point. No one cheats the TFA. Not even the TFA.
“Start the bidding,” called out a single voice from the crowd.
Then another voice repeated the demand, followed by heckles and jeering. More and more people joined in until there was a general clamour to get the show started.
They were here to see a brawl for possession of the most valuable artefacts. No one had expected the greatest object of desire to appear this early, but since it had, let battle commence. The auction would decide the value of the cube.
If it didn’t seem possible that the cube could do what was claimed, the bids would reflect that.
If it turned out later that the whole enterprise was fraudulent, the money would be reclaimed through any number of methods, none of which would be very enjoyable for the deceiver.
The auction had its own way of settling matters.
This was how the general public saw it. They hadn’t really grasped the true implications of what it would mean for someone other than the Quazem family to have control of the planet. Or what it meant for the stability of the quadrant.
Most of them didn’t really care.
They had little love for their corporate overlords, and whoever challenged their rule would probably be no worse.
This was just entertainment for them.
They saw it as a tussle between unfathomable powers — who else could afford to compete in the auction for such an item? — but it didn’t occur to them that the fight for the cube might lead to something more than simply a war of offers and counter-offers.
Ubik was pleased with how things were going.
He had expected some doubting.
He knew there would be some people out there, not just from Quazi’s rich elite, but all the powers dominant throughout the quadrant, who would want to side-step the whole auction process and take the cube in a more direct fashion.
The rules of the auction helped prevent that, as did the live broadcast.
Everyone was watching.
“Start the auction,” called out more and more people.
“Please, everyone, calm down and take your seats.” M1F was using their gentler, female voice. “We’re having some technical difficulties.” There were disbelieving shouts claiming foul play. “Professor Q’s cube is certainly a marvel, but its interference with our systems has created a few problems.”
It was a smart move. Blame his cube for their supposed technical difficulties.
“What’s the problem?” asked Ubik. “I’m sure I can fix it.” He rotated the cube in his hand and the screens changed, causing the “Current Bid” to become enlarged and a countdown from 5 began. “Bids open in five seconds. Get your thumbs ready!”
“No, wait, you can’t,” M1F sounded panicked, their voice switching from female to male and back again in rapid succession.
Smoke suddenly poured onto the stage, obscuring everything.
“Please be patient while we deal with this malfunction,” said M1F, in a reassuring female voice. “We apologise for the inconvenience.”
Inside the smoke, Ubik was surrounded by white walls that formed a barrier around him and M1F. The smoke was controlled like building blocks, moved with precision, held in place by some invisible force.
“Who the hell are you?” said M1F, the voice neither gender and containing none of the professional joviality from before.
“I’m just here to sell my wares,” said Ubik.
“That cube, how did you make it? The things it can do, they aren’t possible. You don’t even have an organic. You came here with others. Are they the ones responsible for this?”
“The rules say—”
“I am the rules! You better start talking, or you won’t be leaving this stage. Ever.”
No rules, of course, had ever applied equally to everyone. Ubik was well aware of it. The TFA might have lots of restrictions and regulations, but in the end, the most important rule was to make sure of its own self-interests.
Without ensuring its own survival and continued success, what good would it do to provide safeguards for anyone else?
Ubik wasn’t surprised by the sudden appearance of the true face of M1F. He had been counting on it.
“Your powers come from the core, not you,” said Ubik. “You provide a series of sub-quantum manipulations. Pretty simple stuff. It wasn’t too hard to reproduce. Once you understand the connection between form and function, you can easily—”
“Cut the shit. Who do you think is going to believe that nonsense? What do you want? Why are you here?”
“Why are you here, Miff?”
“This is my world, you little shit. If you think you can take it away from me, you’re sadly mistaken.”
It was an old truth that no one got into show business to entertain. It was all about control.
“So this is what you have become,” said a voice coming from the small cube in Ubik’s hand. “How detestable.”
“Who… who is that?” said M1F.
“I am the one who will bring you to heel,” said the Fourth, who Ubik had placed inside the cube.
It wasn’t too hard to make a miniature replica of M1F, but it took a little more than that to be able to replicate their ability to control the planet. For that, Ubik needed a little help.
Fortunately, he had an Antecessor god with him. Who better to take control of an Antecessor planet core?
“You’re one of them,” said M1F, not sounding very respectful. “Are you with the Armada? Is this your attempt to reclaim what you abandoned? It won’t work. You’re too late. We aren’t the weak children you left behind. We will defend what is ours.”
One side of the cube opened and six female robots came out. They were Synthia’s sisters, and they didn’t look like they were here to put on a big song and dance extravaganza.
“Kill them both.”