Muss Dome - Safe Room.
Smyke reached the safe room before the others and peeled off the mask he had quickly put on after leaving the broadcasting booth.
Sara Leeolo, employee of the Muss Dome, a character he had established early on to familiarise himself with the dome, its exits, its security limits.
His female mobility work was some of his best. He moved like a woman, he looked like a woman. He hadn’t expected to be identified so easily. He still should have been able to dodge the punch.
He growled to himself, a grating sound from deep under his false bosoms.
He wasn’t happy.
This was meant to have been a tempering job. The boys were green and needed real-life experiences. They had done fine back home, excelled in their training, but they had always been within their comfort zone.
You could only progress so far with a safety net. You would never be able to gain the kind of enlightenment that only came from true battle with everything on the line. The hardening of resolve that came with facing the consequences of your choices. And the growth of character that was the result of failure.
Failing was always going to be a key part of their development. But not like this.
This was too much, too overwhelming. They had been swept aside like they didn’t even matter. It was humiliating. And it would affect their confidence while they were still figuring out who they were and what they were capable of. The results could be disastrous if he didn’t do something about it.
Smyke rubbed and pulled on his nose, his real one. It stung and throbbed.
A punch! What kind of play was that?
Mr Ubik might be from the firm on Planet Garbage, but it was clear the others were amateurs, providing muscle and little else.
Which meant there was still a chance. Even if his crew were still a bit wet around the ears, they had more than enough acumen to work a dance around a handful of meatheads.
Smyke had chosen each of them specifically because he had spotted their talent, their potential. He had no intention of letting them fall short. And he had no intention of letting that little runt take off with his prize.
From right under him. The prize that was rightfully his.
There was a soft click as the hidden entrance slid open and Handsful crept in, giving Smyke an embarrassed sideways glance as he hurried to the far end of the room where there was a mirror and tools to take off masks quickly and cleanly.
The door opened again and within a few seconds the rest of the boys had all entered the small room, crowding around the mirror as they removed their masks, wincing as they touched their bruises but saying nothing, which was a clear indication of how badly they had been affected.
They all looked beat up. They all looked sorry for themselves.
Shorty was the one who finally spoke. His face revealed as smooth and shiny, his nose bent out of shape with clotted blood ringing his nostrils, his hair under a net, his fists tightly closed, he turned to Smyke with a face screwed up with anger.
“I know the rule is to bail immediately once the target is compromised, but… but I think we can still get it back. We, we, we aren’t too late. I know we can—”
“We aren’t bailing,” said Smyke.
“We aren’t?” said Quiet, eyebrows arching in surprise. The others had all turned around now, looking just as startled. “But the rules…”
They were right, the conventional wisdom was to cut your losses and evacuate the site immediately. No matter what the value of the target, it wasn’t worth getting caught for. And once you missed your first chance, the risk of capture rose exponentially.
That wasn’t to say it was impossible to adapt to changing circumstances and, in some cases, rely on a second or third chance, but the stories about claiming victory from the jaws of defeat, as exciting as they were, counted for only one in a hundred, if that.
They had planned their escape routes carefully, making sure they had backups and built-in redundancies. They could be off-world in under an hour.
In this game, you had to expect things to go wrong and be willing to run at the first sign of collapse.
Not the first sign of trouble — there would always be problems and difficulties to contend with — but when a plan started breaking down, when your man on the inside called in sick, or the security detail changed its schedule for the first time in years, you had to be able to recognise the change in odds. And you had to be willing to drop everything and run.
But this one left a sour taste in Smyke’s mouth. He had spent so much time prepping for this job. Not only making sure it was a legit gig, but also establishing numerous identities under numerous guises to get a full picture of life in Mason City.
He wasn’t just the foreman of the lighting crew, or the lady who organised contestants for the Early Show. He had built up a whole cast of characters who were now familiar faces around Mason City.
There weren’t going to be any screw-ups on this one. This was his crew, personally selected by him. They had the potential to become one of the best firms ever. He had started them young, working together since childhood so they would know each other inside out. He had taught them everything he had learnt, and everything he had discovered. They could rise to become legends of the underworld.
But now, looking at their disappointed and shame-filled faces, he knew they were on a precipice. The gentlest of nudges could send them over the edge, and it would be gruelling and punishing climb back up.
He refused to let them fall.
“We aren’t leaving, not yet,” said Smyke, crushing any doubt out of his words. “That crew, they aren’t after the same thing as us. They came in wild and sloppy, which works well at the start — everyone gets taken by surprise, shock and awe, no one knows what’s going on — but the endgame is down to luck and improvising. That’s where we can trip them up.”
Hope was slowly emerging on their small, battered faces.
What Smyke was saying wasn’t wrong. Playing it wild and loose was a definite tactic that could be effective in the short term. Smash and grab jobs. But he knew these weren’t your typical robbers. They were here for something bigger, and they had no intention of disappearing in the smoke.
“But we don’t even know where they are,” said Tidy, always the worrier. “They vanished into thin air.”
When the smoke had finally cleared, and the stage was once more visible, the large cube-shaped robot, M1F, was gone, leaving behind six female robots.
Six robots that weren’t supposed to be on stage until much later in the evening.
They were the highlight of the event, the big show stopper. So why had they suddenly appeared?
The audience had been confused. Was it some kind of magic trick? Misdirection followed by a big reveal? A joke? No one seemed to get the punchline and the stage was quickly cleared.
Announcements about malfunctions and errors in the lighting rig — which Smyke took personally — were made in a hurried and unconvincing manner.
It was all very well done by Ubik. To be able to turn such a large, solid lock with a tiny key was a feat worth admiring. But it was all offence and no defence. If you had known what was coming, it wouldn’t be very hard to guard against it.
There were no backups, no contingencies. All or nothing.
That was their weakness — the nothing part.
And now that he knew how they liked to roll, he would show them how he could also play that game.
“They went down, didn’t they?” said Microwave. “Only direction they could’ve.”
“How? In the giant robot?” said Smut.
“Yes,” said Microwave. “Supposed to be a vault full of treasure, isn’t it? Means you can get inside. They got inside the box and they went down into the stage, and kept going.”
“So, it’s an elevator now?” said Bigsy.
“Yes,” said Microwave. “Why not?”
“Where to?” said Handsful. “Centre of the planet?”
“Maybe,” said Microwave. “But they left behind those six super-expensive robots, which means they’re after something bigger. That Ubik guy, he said he could control the planet core, but anyone could fake something like that. What if he really does want the planet core?
“Classic misdirect,” said Tidy. “Say you’ve already got control of the planet, no one thinks you’re going after the core.”
“He’d need that robot to take him to it,” said Bigsy, on board now. “Probably.”
There was a moment of silence as they all considered the possibilities. What would you do with the planet core once you got it? How would you fence it?
“You could be right,” said Smyke. “But first, we need to find out where they are. I’m going to do some snooping, you all switch into your B characters and set up a perimeter around the dome, see what you can pick up.”
The mood had changed. Now they had something to do, they had no time to dwell on the mistakes of the past.
Smyke left them as they donned their new identities. He needed to hurry. There had been something else, just before the smoke on stage had cleared. A feeling of impending disaster from above.
Smyke had a sixth sense about these things. Not an organic — he’d never had the CQ for one of them — just his natural sense of self-preservation.
He had sensed his life about to end. No escape possible, no reason given. It was like he wasn’t even the target, just an afterthought, an insignificant bug to be squashed.
And then the feeling had passed. He couldn’t explain it, but he trusted his instincts. He was on borrowed time and he had to make every second count.
The first thing he needed to do was gather information. His usual sources wouldn’t be of much use right now. He would need to try one of the less forthcoming people he knew.
After leaving the safe room, Smyke made his way through the network of tunnels under the dome, to a small room fitted out with a range of tronic devices. He sat down on a wonky chair and pressed a crown of wires to his forehead. He really didn’t like this form of communication, but it was secure and it was also the only way he had of contacting his employer.
“What do you want?” said the helmeted figure the moment he appeared in the same desolate virtual world as before.
“To exchange information,” said Smyke, not wasting time on pleasantries. “We’ve both been robbed, and I think we can help each other put things right.”
“There is nothing more to be done. They have taken Mother and Father, and they are no longer within our reach. You can keep the money paid in advance. Our agreement terminates here.”
Smyke was not satisfied with half the money — which was his already and not to be offered as some sort of compensation — and he didn’t like the manner in which he was being dismissed.
“We can’t be held responsible for what happened,” said Smyke.
“No one is blam—”
“We can’t be blamed. You brought them here, Synthia. For some unknown reason, you gave them full access to everything you claimed was important to you, and then you act shocked when they steal it away from you. Well, I don’t intend to let them get away with it. I will take what’s mine. Nobody takes my prize from me.”
There was a momentary pause.
“My advice is for you to leave Quazi as soon as you can. There is a Seneca warship in orbit, and they don’t seem very happy with the Quazem family selling off lifelike female slaves, so I expect there will be some awkwardness in the coming hours. You may do as you wish. Our relationship has ended.”
“Seneca—” The transmission was cut off from her end before Smyke could ask anything else.
He ripped off the headpiece and climbed off the chair.
The Seneca Corps was not a welcome intrusion. More players meant a messier battleground — something that would suit Ubik’s style of play. He was beginning to develop a begrudging respect for the young man. His chaos wasn’t quite as wild and thoughtless as it first appeared. It was just cultured to appear that way.
But more players also meant fewer exits that remained unguarded. When your prey started digging down, there was no point jumping into the hole. All you needed to do was figure out where they were going to come up again, and wait there.
Muss Dome - Area J.
The Genoshum Tactical stand in Area J of the Trade Fayre was not doing a lot of business.
The events of the Early Show had disrupted the whole Fayre and the crowds had been reduced to a trickle. No one was quite sure what was going on.
Milly Fenlize, ex-member of the Seneca Corps, was in the back, making sure the display model of the Senecot All-Purpose Eliminator R-15 was in the best possible condition. If someone did come by to inspect the product, they would at least expect the sample to be in good working order.
There were two Genosha sales agents out front. There was the auction later in the evening, assuming it was still on. You played the hand you were dealt. An old soldier like Lance Corporal Fenlize just needed to keep herself busy.
She sensed the movement behind her but didn’t bother to react.
“What do you want?” she said, without looking around.
“We just want to talk.”
Fenlize casually looked over her shoulder at the two women, clearly ex-Corps.
“I’m not with the Corps anymore,” she said, continuing to clean the gun.
“Neither are we. You felt the five-minute warning, too, didn’t you? You know what that means. But they called it off. Why?”
“I told you, I’m not Corps. They can do what they want, like they always have. Nothing I can do about it even if I wanted to.”
“We need to contact the cruiser in orbit.”
Fenlize stopped polishing the rifle barrel. “Are you two dense or something? I told you, no longer with the Corps. X-com. Understand?”
“There has to be an agent on the ground, relaying with the cruiser. We thought it might be you.”
“Ha!” said Fenlize bitterly. “No. Not me. And there’s no point trying to contact the ship. They don’t care about us. If you don’t fight their way, their rules, you mean nothing.”
“We might not, but there’s someone here who does. A boy.”
Fenlize shook her head. “You two must have taken one too many punches to the head. There’s no boy the Corps gives a damn about.”
“There is. Armageddon’s son. He’s here. You’re a tech. You must have a way to rig up a comms device.”
Fenlize was frozen in place. “I knew I recognised him,” she muttered to herself. “Ramon Ollo’s son. Of course. Stupid of me.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with you.”
“Wait, she isn’t Corps. Look at her.”
“Who are you?”
Smyke heard the sound of weapons being drawn. From behind his mask, he felt relieved.
He had his prize taken away, but now here was an even bigger prize. And it would be his, as soon as he got away from these two Seneca dropouts.
He turned around to face them. He wouldn’t be able to beat two Seneca mercenaries, but he was confident he could escape. He had his exits all worked out.
The two women’s eyes lit up, ready to fight. Smyke reached into his pocket to trigger the bombs he had planted weeks ago. One under each of them.
Before he could trigger anything, the ground began to shake.
It was impossible to stay upright, organic or not, unless you were wearing the right footwear.
The two women fell as the dome began sinking, the violent shaking making all structures collapse.
Smyke ran through the falling debris, a smile on his face. He had a prize to claim.