Muss Dome - Green Room.
Point-Two’s pulse was surprisingly steady despite the crowds on the verge of rioting, the announcer pleading for calm, and the other contestants in the green room demanding to know what was going on. His ability to remain calm under pressure had been one of his most valuable traits as a sportsman.
Even when he was down on points, carrying an injury and forced into playing defensively, he never lost his composure. As long as you were aware of your outs, no matter how unlikely, you played the appropriate line and forced your opponent to convert the win.
There was no reason to panic — it never helped.
But then he had encountered the force of chaos that was Ubik, and he never seemed to know what the play was. It had unsettled him.
Only now was he starting to adapt.
The problem had been him. He had always been a solo player, and now he was on a team.
Teams played the game differently. You had to rely on others. You had to set them up for the score. You had to take the hit so your teammate wouldn’t.
Point-Two had never liked team sports very much. He didn’t like relying on others and they generally failed to reciprocate the assistance you gave them.
What you needed, of course, were teammates who were up to the job.
The big teams, the ones performing at the highest levels and winning trophies, were selected from a huge pool, choosing only the absolute best. And then discarding them as soon as their abilities began to decline.
Teamwork was a ruthless and unforgiving discipline. Another reason Point-Two had avoided co-op play.
But now, he felt he was getting the hang of it. Not that he had much of a choice. Either adapt or get dropped. Probably into a wormhole.
On the screen, the stage was covered in white smoke and the announcer was making excuses which sounded like he was making them up as he went.
The people in the green room were shouting questions no one had answers to, and making proclamations about how crazy and unbelievable this was. They were both keen to know what was happening and also very eager to have it stop so they could have their turn in the spotlight.
Nearly everyone was standing, making it hard to get a good idea of where the robot assistants were.
Point-Two was fine with watching Ubik turn the Early Show into a disaster, but once people started blaming him for ruining their yearly global event, it would be him and the other acquaintances of Professor Q who would be taken in for questioning.
Ubik, by that time, would have magically disappeared. Teamwork was something Ubik did to you, not with you.
The fact that Ubik had revealed a world-changing device seemed to be the least important part of the show. The general consensus was that it was some kind of hoax. Or an exaggeration, at the very least.
Hyping up your invention was part of the sales pitch. You were expected to make claims that weren’t strictly true, but could be in a few years, with a little investment and plenty of duct tape.
The two Seneca mercenaries were ignoring what was happening on the stage or even in the green room. They were busy checking the guns Quincy had helped them smuggle in.
They expected things to turn violent — which was probably correct — and they meant to be prepared. Their training was the only thing they were paying attention to.
Chukka and Bashir were watching events unfold along with everyone else. The two of them no longer seemed to have much use. They had brought them along partly to avoid leaving witnesses behind, and partly because Ubik seemed to think it was a good idea. Point-Two didn’t really see any choice but to ditch them at the next available opportunity.
Fig wasn’t even facing the screens. He had his back turned and was quietly making note of the exits and who was guarding them. His eyes flicked to the ceiling, to the windows high on the walls, and to the areas the robot assistants had been stationed, even though it wasn’t possible to see through all the people.
His demeanour was similar to that of Weyla and Leyla, only with more of a slant towards an overview. A command POV.
“Those thieves you mentioned,” said Fig.
“Smyke?” said Point-Two.
“Yes. You said his team were all boys.”
“Maybe a couple of girls. Hard to say.”
“But young,” said Fig.
“Yeah,” said Point-Two. “Teenagers at most.”
“I think we’ve got seven of them in the room,” said Fig, his tone casual, his head not moving. “They’re trying to circle us.”
Point-Two did his best not to look around in an obvious way.
He could see them coming, now that Fig had called them out. They were dressed as regular people this time, not workers. They could easily be contestants, or part of a contestant’s support team.
They had new faces — they didn’t look as old this time — but their body language was slightly incongruous with their body types. It was subtle, and Point-Two wouldn’t have seen it if not for Fig, but it was there if you looked closely.
They wouldn’t be happy knowing Fig had been able to identify them so easily.
Their arrival wasn’t unexpected. Now that Ubik had upset Smyke’s plans, he would be looking for answers, too. And payback. With Ubik not available, the next ones on the list were all here.
Point-Two looked at Chukka. She was a good talker, and probably trained to withstand torture. Maybe she still had her uses.
“It’s started!” called out someone.
On the screens, the section under the picture where bids were shown began to change. Numbers rapidly rolled up and up. Five figures, six… seven.
The crowds outside were on their feet, their voices rising in volume along with the numbers on the screens inside the dome. Bids were coming in at a hectic pace, the numbers moving so fast it was hard to keep up.
“Please ignore the numbers on your screen,” said a cheerful voice that was straining to remain so. “There is a fault in the bidding system. These are not legitimate bids. Bidding has not officially begun.”
Then numbers kept going, adding digits across the screen.
“Now the robots are closing in,” said Fig.
Point-Two glanced away from the screen long enough to see smiling lady robots making their way towards them from all sides.
It seemed both Smyke and the Quazem family were interested in having a chat.
Point-Two wasn’t interested in what either had to say. Ubik was still inside his fluffy white cloud, dealing with M1F. Point-Two was confident Ubik had the upper hand — M1F was a machine, after all — but Ubik succeeding in whatever it was he was doing in there, didn’t mean a win for everyone.
The only way to be sure of not getting left behind in Ubik’s smoke trails was to be in there with him.
“We need to get to the stage,” said Point-Two.
“We’re going to have to use brute force,” added Point-Two.
Fig nodded again.
Smyke’s boys and the robot assistants were now close enough in proximity to realise they were both headed towards the same targets.
Point-Two saw this as a good opportunity. Weyla and Leyla were all primed and ready to go.
“We’ve got company,” said Point-Two.
“We know,” said Weyla. “What are you intending to do about it?”
“We’re heading for the stage,” said Point-Two. “You can—” He stopped as both sisters winced and dropped to one knee, clutching the sides of their heads. He turned to look at Fig, who had a look of concern on his face.
“Not good?” asked Point-Two.
Fig shook his head. “Five-minute warning.”
“Seneca troops all have an implant to let them know they need to get off-world immediately.”
“Because they’re going to blow the place. From orbit. Five minutes.”
There was a lot to take in. The Seneca Corps were here and they were going to drop bombs. It wasn’t even on his top ten list of things to watch out for.
He looked at the sisters, still crouching. “Why?” he asked them.
They both shook their heads, struggling to deal with the pain.
“Could it be a mistake?” said Point-Two. “Faulty wiring?”
“They left the Corps so they’ve only got everything apart from the basic implant removed,” said Fig. “X-com. Excommunicated. No messages, just a warning as a courtesy. Looks like it was a rush job.”
The sisters were back on their feet, both looking pale.
“Or maybe they don’t really want them to run around with all the Corps secrets in their heads,” said Point-Two.
“The Corps never abandons its own,” said Weyla, glaring at him, her face slightly green.
“Depends on how flexible its definition of ‘its own’ is,” said Point-Two. “What about that X-com selling her guns at the auction?”
“That’s different,” said Weyla. “She’s a traitor.”
“Another flexible word,” said Point-Two.
“We need to get out of here,” said Leyla. “Now.”
Robots with smiles and boys dressed as men had now arrived and formed a circle of sorts around them.
“Please come with me,” said one of the robots to Point-Two, a delicate arm reaching out to grab hold of him.
“Sorry, I got orders,” said one of Smyke’s boys, doing his best gruff voice as he cut in front of the robot. “Need to take these folk down to quarantine.” He waved a pad around. “Nasty bug been detected. Don’t want to start another pandemic.”
The robot paused to take in this information, and then ignored it. “This way please.” It shoved the boy aside.
The robots moved in unison, approaching everyone Ubik-related.
Fig was the first to react. He smoothly took the slender arm being offered as guidance and twisted it at the wrist.
When the Seneca sisters had dealt with the robot on Quincy’s space station, they had been fast and brutal. Fig’s approach was altogether more elegant, like he was leading the robot in a dance. Only, this dance ended with the robot’s arm coming off and it landing on the floor face-first as Fig tipped it over and stepped on its back.
“Oh, that was good,” said the boy Smyke had sent to collect them. He seemed very impressed.
Point-Two was also impressed by Fig’s moves, but he had his own way of doing things. He turned to the boy next to him and punched him in the face.
He had expected the mask to provide some cushioning, so he hadn’t held back. He felt the bone crunch in the nose as he struck it.
The boy was taken by surprise and fell down in a heap.
Point-Two caught a look from Fig, questioning whether it was necessary to punch children in the face.
“No time,” said Point-Two. He did feel a little bad, but they were on a clock. Sometimes, you had to take the most direct route.
Weyla and Leyla were making short work of their would-be robot captors while Chukka and Bashir had been caught and weren’t resisting.
The other boys from Smyke seemed reluctant to challenge the robots and even more reluctant to take on Point-Two, which had been the main point of throwing such an extravagant punch when a jab would have done. They all saw it, they all knew it would be the same for them.
There were still more robots to deal with, though, and time would soon be up. How were they going to get off the planet? Even his mighty mix of organics wouldn’t be of much use in that regard. Punching kids for the next five minutes wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
“Malfunctioning robots!” shouted Point-Two. “Look out! Killer robots on the loose!”
The eyes that had been glued to the screens looked around long enough to see that robots were indeed attacking humans.
With so many things going wrong already, it didn’t take much for the people in the green room to accept that the robots had glitched and were now programmed for murder.
People began to run around, not with any clear purpose. Some had inventions that were weapons, others had inventions that could be adapted into weapons.
Gangs of wild-eyed but short-of-breath inventors piled on top of robots or anyone who looked a bit robotic (which was quite a few of the more nerdy inventors).
As things seemed to be chaotic enough for a calm person to make their way towards the exit without attracting too much attention, the screens scrambled and the robots all stopped moving. They were frozen in place, with only their eyes madly flickering.
“We won!” shouted someone, followed by victorious cheers.
“Power failure?” said Point-Two.
“Looks like a reboot,” said Fig. “Maybe they’re trying to take back control of the stage.”
The screens were black. Then, streams of date, numbers and symbols, appeared for a moment before returning to darkness. It was like the system was trying to come back online, but was having difficulties.
Would the Quazem family really reboot the system in the middle of the broadcast?
It could be part of the Seneca attack. A planet-wide shutdown, so no one was witness to the coming slaughter. It might even be the robots, themselves. Synthia, or one of her followers, attempting to take back control.
Whoever was responsible, now seemed a good time to leave. Point-Two only had to look at Fig to know he had come to the same conclusion.
Just as they started running for the doorway leading to the stage, more robots appeared from the other exits.
These ones didn’t look like people, they didn’t have blemish-free skin and winning smiles. They didn’t even have faces. They looked like knights in black armour, and they clearly weren’t affected by the reboot.
“We’ll hold them off,” said Leyla, rushing past to take the new arrivals head-on.
“Get him out of here,” said Weyla to Point-Two.
Never abandon your own. It was the sort of thing people at the bottom believed in because they had nothing else, and people at the top didn’t, because they had everything else.
“Let’s go,” said Fig, taking their sacrifice in his stride.
Point-Two chased after him, heading for the exit with the red cross over it. A figure moved to intercept them. It was a short, frumpy middle-aged woman, but stocky and with big hands.
Point-Two was fairly certain it was Smyke in another outfit. He was about to warn Fig, but Fig had already punched Smyke in the nose. It was so fast, Point-Two only saw Smyke falling as Fig’s fist came back post-strike.
“No time,” said Fig, by way of explanation.
They made it through the doorway and into the corridor. It was just the two of them.
There were stairs ahead of them and a door at the top. They ran up and found it was closed, and too heavy to kick down.
Point-Two placed both his hands on the door. “Try to make sure I don’t blackout.”
He felt Fig place a hand on his back and then he tried to make the door not a door.
He closed his eyes and focused. His body felt light and drained of energy. There was a sharp pain in his head.
The texture of the door changed under his palms. He opened his eyes and stumbled back, only prevented from falling by Fig holding him up.
The door was still there, but it was more yellow than it had been.
Fig took a step forward and kicked it. The door crumbled into a pile of sand.
There was no time to admire his work. They jumped over the heap of sand, into the stage wings.
The roar of the crowd was like being blasted with hot air. There were thousands of them, an indistinct mass forming one giant creature with many tiny heads.
On the stage, the white cloud of smoke remained unnaturally still, not even affected by the breeze.
Point-Two edged around the side of the stage and led them towards the back, to where the audience couldn’t see. They were close enough to the smoke to touch it, which they both did, trying to push their way through.
There was no give. It was like petrified candyfloss.
“How do we get in?” said Fig.
Point-Two put both hands on the wall of white, just as he had with the door, but this time he pushed his hands away from each other.
The smoke parted, revealing a narrow corridor. Point-Two began moving forward, his hand pushing the smoke apart like he was swimming underwater. Fig remained close behind him.
Then the smoke was gone. They were in the middle of the stage with a huge cube — with one side open — and Ubik.
And six robots, frozen in place.
They were the six sisters. They hadn’t been on the stage before the smoke wall, but they were here now, and they were each holding onto a different part of Ubik, like savage children fighting over their favourite teddy bear, willing to rip it apart rather than share.
His arms and legs were spread out and his trousers were down to his knees. His face was stretched as it was being pulled off, elongating from the nose where one of the sisters had it held tightly, his real face partially visible underneath.
They were holding him up in the air, as though they were about to throw him for Birthday bumps but had stopped to pose for a picture. Or a statue. A very strange statue.
“Ah, there you are, Grandma,” said Ubik. “You were a bit late with the reboot.”
“I’d say I was right on time,” said Grandma from the control panel on Fig’s forearm. “What are you doing with those robots? Where’s that one’s hand going?”
“Grandma, you did this?” said Fig.
“It wasn’t very hard,” said Grandma. “I found six different fail safes and three kill switches. People have always been desperate to have a way to shut down their robots before they go crazy and kill all humans. That’s the problem with letting them think for themselves. That’s why filling a planet with them is a bad idea. And getting intimate with them is even more foolish.”
“This isn’t what it looks like,” insisted Ubik.
Point-Two and Fig approached cautiously. The six robots showed no signs of life, their open eyes seeing nothing, their perfect bodies like mannequins in a shop window.
Point-Two touched Ubik’s mask and it disintegrated into dust. Ubik’s head snapped back, revealing his face completely.
“Oh, that’s better. I don’t know how they breathe in those things.”
With a little prying and pulling, they managed to get Ubik free. He tumbled onto the ground, jumped to his feet and pulled his trousers up.
“I won’t go into details,” said Ubik. “Let’s just say they wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“We have to go,” said Fig. “There’s a Seneca cruiser in orbit that’s about to open fire on us.”
“Really?” said Ubik. “Why?”
“We don’t know,” said Point-Two. “But if you have a way to get us off-planet in three minutes, now would be a good time to share.”
“Why would we leave now?” said Ubik. “We’ve only just found the way in.” He pointed at the cube.
“Way into where?” asked Fig.
“The planet core,” said Ubik. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“You want to steal the core?” said Point-Two.
“No, what would be the point of that? I want to hijack the planet. This way.” Ubik ran into the cube.
Chapters are two weeks (six chapters) ahead on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino