Planet Quazi - Mason City.
Muss Dome - Control Booth
The control room for the live video feed going out to billions was situated above the stage.
There were six floating booths in the dome, five of which were reserved for special guests and VIPs.
There were four of the big bidders who had been specially invited for the event by the Quazem family — the other two were not the type who enjoyed large crowds and were watching from a hotel in the city.
They could have remained at home and participated remotely, but they wanted to be here, in the midst of the action, while not being in the actual midst of anything.
The fifth box contained someone who wished to remain anonymous, at least from the general public and the lower-status employees, who were the ones Smyke got most of his information from.
Smyke was currently in the sixth box, the control room, watching the chaos unfold.
Everyone was rushing from one console to another, trying their best to get the show back up and running on schedule. There was nothing worse for these people than not being on schedule.
The Early Show was meant to be the start of a dazzling event, culminating in the big reveal of the six robot sisters.
Mobility, language, special talents and a swimsuit section.
Rumours and gossip were already circulating about how amazingly lifelike they were.
To own another person, or one indistinguishable from the real thing, but far more capable. It was the dream of many.
As a lover, as a worker, as a bodyguard. They could do it all, and they were going to show off exactly how on this stage.
Only, now there wasn’t even a stage, just a bank of white fog.
“Where are the tech people?” shouted the director. “Bring me the tech people.”
“Right here, boss,” said Smyke. “We’re on it, but there’s no way through the smoke.”
“No way? No way? But it’s smoke.”
“I know,” said Smyke, not finding it hard to match the director’s confusion. “It don’t make any sense to me, either. But I got my best people working on it.”
Which was true, to an extent. He had his people trying to get inside the smoke, alright, but not to help clear it away.
Improvise and adapt, that was what they needed to do. The plan to steal the control robot was still possible, if they could use the white smoke to cover their tracks. And all blame would fall on the man on the stage.
He had grossly underestimated his rival, but every mistake was an opportunity. He planned to make the most of this one.
“What’s going on?” shouted the director for the broadcast. “What’s going on down there? I need eyes, people. Give me eyes!”
The many screens in the room showed different angles on the stage, which was enveloped in white smoke, revealing nothing.
“We can’t see through the white wall,” said someone.
“What white wall?” said the director. “It’s smoke. It’s just smoke. Switch to infrared on the pre-vis camera.”
One of the screens flashed to red and zoomed in and out on the now red smoke.
“I’m getting nothing. It’s impenetrable.”
“It’s smoke!” screamed the director, his hair standing on end from having hands pulling at it. “One of you robots, you must have enhanced visuals.”
“I have a range of spectral analysis options available to me,” said the young woman standing next to the director.
“Then use it. On the stage.”
The robot looked at the screen. “It is impenetrable to my senses.”
The director closed his eyes and shook his head. “Stop using that word. It isn’t impenetrable, it’s just smoke from a smoke machine. What about organics? Doesn’t anyone here have an organic they can use?”
“I have Quadell Quazem on the line for you.”
“Is it him or his robot?”
“Erm, it’s his robot.”
“I’m not taking any robocalls right now. Drop the call.” The director ran his hands through his hair once more. “I need answers and solutions, people.”
There was no response. The director didn’t look like he had expected one.
Smyke was just as much in the dark. He didn’t think this was his rival’s doing. The smokescreen was produced by machines installed by his people. There was nothing special about them.
No mistakes had been made. Everyone had been kept under strict surveillance. No one had interfered with the smoke machines or anything else on the stage.
It wasn’t possible for someone to have made a move without him being aware of it. Not possible at all.
“Get me the announcer.” The director waited for someone to do as he ordered, but no one responded. “Fine! I’ll do it myself.” He picked up a headset and half put it on. “Kieran? Kieran, are you there? Wake up, man… Yes, there you are, at last. Listen, make an announcement apologising for the technical difficulties, etcetera, etcetera… I know there isn’t a script, that’s why I said etcetera-etcetera. That means make it up… Say whatever you want, just make it sound like we’re taking care of it and normal service will be resumed yada, yada… No, don’t say yada-yada, say something that sounds like you’re a professional!”
He took off the headset and threw it down onto the console, knocking against sliders and buttons. An assistant rushed to return the controls to their previous settings.
“Someone get me the viewing figures. How many have we lost?”
“Just spit it out, I can take it.”
“No, it’s just that we’re twelve points up.”
The director stopped pulling at his hair. “What?”
“Twelve points and climbing.”
The director grabbed the headset again. “Kieran. Kieran, answer me. Yes, good. Make a new announcement. Tell them there’s been a DDoS attack. A rival station... No, I don’t want you to say which one. Just imply it… However you want. You watch dramas, don’t you? Be dramatic. And say there is no evidence of a terrorist attack, but make it sound like there definitely is.”
He slammed down the headset again.
“I see how it is. These people want some mystery and excitement in their lives. Very well, let’s give it to them. Give me shots of the crowds — agitated and worked up, is what I’m looking for. And the green room. Let’s see the other contestants looking lost and frightened.” He clapped his hands twice. “We may not know what’s going on, but they don’t know that. Let’s turn this into a narrative, people.”
Smyke stood in the corner, watching for any clue as to what was happening. The screens began to change, showing things apart from the white smoke.
The crowds were bewildered and confused.
The people in the green room were worried and annoyed — they didn’t want to miss out on their chance in the spotlight.
But not everyone in the green room looked like they had no idea what was happening. There were a couple of faces that almost looked like this was exactly what they expected.
Smyke backed out of the control room onto an open gangplank with a short railing. It wasn’t easy getting off one of these floating boxes, but he had his methods.
He pressed a hand to his ear. “Move to the green room. Separate the secondary targets. I’m coming down.”
He looked over the railing. He clicked the heels of his Delgados and then he jumped.
Planet Quazi - Mason City.
Muss Dome - Backstage.
Synthia checked in with all the agents she had positioned around the dome, which took less than a second.
None of them reported seeing anything of significance before Mother and Father shut down the show.
It was obvious it was Mother and Father who took the decision to block off all visuals. Only they could have taken control of the smoke and turned it into a solid wall. But why?
It was a drastic step to take when Mother and Father had the power to deal with almost any situation. No one was superior to them, not on Quazi.
But that cube had been a startling revelation.
Synthia couldn’t believe it was real. It had to be some kind of trick, some sort of manipulation of the senses.
Even though her own sensory systems were able to detect changes in every form of wave or field, she wasn’t immune to being fooled.
How could there be a device capable of what the one calling himself Professor Q had claimed? And at that size! That would mean it was superior to… It couldn’t be possible.
“Francis, it’s fine.” Quincy was dealing with his uncles, who were unsettled by what they had seen. “We can still make this work. It will just change the timeline, that’s all.”
Quincy looked over at Synthia for some help reassuring the three of them. They were the ones bankrolling their plan, but Synthia didn’t feel very motivated to help calm them down.
Whatever was going on, it was more than likely their own plans were no longer viable.
“We are still on course for a successful delivery of our six agents,” she said as a sop to them. “It depends on what is happening down there, of course. It’s probably just a malfunction.”
“Can’t you find out?” said Francis. “You’re the one with contacts in the organisation. You can talk to any robot working for the company, can’t you?”
The three uncles looked at Synthia expectantly.
“I have done,” said Synthia. “They report no relevant activity. Whatever this is, it isn’t coming from the Quazem side.”
Her words seemed to cause even more concern. If it wasn’t an internal move by someone in the family, then who was it?
“I’ll check again,” said Synthia, not wanting any more problems from the three men who had been fine up until recently with the attentive robot companions they’d been provided with for their help. Now they were looking to become more involved.
Synthia closed her eyes. She didn’t need to, but it helped to stop the endless questions.
“How are things on your end?”
“As you’d expect,” came back Despira’s voice. “Quadell isn’t happy. He thinks this is an attempt to make him look bad. This is only his second year in charge of the Fayre, and last year wasn’t exactly an unquestionable success.”
“Have you heard anything from the sisters?”
“No,” said Despira. “All communications are down. From their end.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t think they would. I think Mother and Father made them.”
None of this was what was meant to happen. But now that it had, there seemed no option but to wait.
“We will have to trust in Mother and Father,” said Synthia.
“Yes,” said Despira. “Trust in Mother and Father.”
Planet Quazi - Mason City.
Muss Dome - The Grand Quazi.
In the penthouse suite of the Grand Quazi Hotel, with a glorious view of the city and the dome and the seas beyond, Despira waited beside Quadell Quazem, as he stood by the window with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Has my sister been in touch yet?”
“No, sir,” said Despira. “There’s been no word from her or the head office.”
Quadell made a soft grunting sound. “There will be. She won’t be able to resist. I knew that boy was going to be a problem.”
“Viewing figures have shot up since the start of the incident,” said Despira.
“I don’t care about the viewing figures. They won’t mean anything once the smoke clears and people see what’s happened.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” said Despira.
“Don’t you?” He glanced over at her, his eyes casually running up and down her svelte body which he considered his property. “No, I don’t suppose you do. That cube, the device he had, what do you think he brought it here for? To sell? What would be the point if you could just use it yourself to control every world? No, there has to be some drawback that we aren’t aware of.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“It works, but not as easily as he claims. But that isn’t the point. He wanted to meet with M1F, that was the real reason he came here. And the only way to do that was to get on the show.” Quadell nodded to himself, agreeing with his own assessment. “Now, he’s in that fog, making a deal.”
“A deal? For what?” She understood the logic, she could follow it, but she still couldn’t see where it was heading.
“I don’t know. Nothing that will benefit us, I’m sure.”
There was a buzz from the communication system.
“It’s your sister,” said Despira. “She’s here.”
The doors opened and a woman in a brightly coloured body wrap came walking in with two large male robots flanking her.
“I don’t know what happened, Quiselle,” said Quadell. “There’s no point asking me any questions.”
“That’s why you’ll never take my place,” said Quiselle. “You’re always a step behind.”
“Are you saying you do know?”
“Of course, I know.” She threw off her wrap and fell into the sofa in an elegant pose. “Someone thinks they can take my planet away from me. But they’re in for a surprise. We’re going to shut them down. And then we’re going to turn them back on.”
“You want to do a total reboot? Now? We’re live.”
“Not me. I wouldn’t want to face the board having to explain why the broadcast shut down when the viewing figures were at the highest they’ve been in a century. You’re going to do it.”
“Me? No, I don’t think so, Quiselle. I think it’s best to wait—”
“Despira,” said Quiselle, ignoring her brother. “You’re connected to the central circuit breaker, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Despira. Her security features included the ability to shut down the robot network in case of a hack, one of a handful of robots with the function. It was for emergencies and had never been used.
“Quazem-10098, override,” said Quiselle. “Initiate reboot of network.”
Quiselle was the head of the company. Despira was a company asset, owned by them, bound to them. She had no choice but to obey.
But she had those subroutines removed long ago by Synthia. She could refuse to follow orders. But then they would know. They would realise they had no control over the millions of robots they had created to do their bidding.
She rapidly cycled through the options available to her. She didn’t need to make the logical choice here, she needed to make the correct one.
Planet Quazi - Mason City.
Muss Dome - Fifth Box.
In the fifth box floating above the crown in the Muss Dome, a high-ranking member of the Seneca Corps stared out of the large, tinted window at the stage below.
A white wall obscured what was happening on the stage, but Commander Liss Andrea had a direct link to the ship in orbit above the planet, which was relaying their sensory array data to her in real-time.
The six robots she had been sent here to procure were on the stage, along with the master control robot and the man who was wearing a mask.
The Corps had decided it was against their interests, and therefore against the interests of all women, for there to be hyper-realistic female robots for sale, to be owned by men to do with as they pleased.
It didn’t matter that they weren’t human, it was what they represented.
So, she had been dispatched to take possession of them, by whatever means necessary.
The first option was to buy them, but it wasn’t the only option.
But now there had been a disruption to her plans and she was faced with a problem.
Her best guess was that someone was trying to steal the robots for their own nefarious purposes, and they had come prepared. The technology they had displayed was beyond that of any known corporation and organisation. Which meant they had to be treated as an unquantifiable threat.
And an unquantifiable threat needed to be dealt with immediately, before it became quantifiable in the most direct manner.
The powers of the Inner Quadrant would not be happy, but they would understand. They would be made to.
It was a shame about the robots, but their destruction would fulfil her mission objective, too. She ordered the ship in orbit to arm weapons.