Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.
Gorbol Training Academy.
Group A Barracks.
Ubik headed back to the corner of the room where his target was lying on his freshly made bed, hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. The bedding was flat and unwrinkled, even with someone on top of them. Here was a guy who knew how to tuck a sheet into a corner. The only time Ubik had seen a sheet was when he was robbing houses in the old days. Small boys made excellent burglars; they could fit into a lot of tight spaces.
“Hey, it’s me, Ubik.” He stopped about a metre away from the bed, the other four behind him. The rest of the room were also watching, sitting up to get a better view, some of them standing and edging closer. Eleven versus one —that probably made the odds about even. “We have a proposition for you.”
The room quietly waited for a response.
“I’m busy,” said the guy, his voice neutral and showing no signs of being particularly annoyed, which in itself was a sign of being annoyed. He continued to stare at the ceiling and breathing deeply. He seemed the type who either refused to do something or did it at a relentless hundred percent, and he had been going at the bed-making pretty hard.
“Great, me too,” said Ubik. “Anyway, me and the boys have been talking, you know, knocking around a few ideas about how to organise ourselves going forward. We think we’ll do much better if we have someone leading the way, giving us a focal point to, you know, focus on, and long story short, we think you’re the perfect candidate for the role. What do you say? We’re open to discussing the terms of your leadership — our opening offer is you call the shots and we’ll do whatever you say.”
It was, Ubik felt, a proposition that even a sour-faced brooder like this one would have a hard time finding fault with.
The brooder sat up on the bed and looked at Ubik with very flat, unemotional eyes. “What do you need a leader for when you already have one.”
“What do you mean?” said Ubik. “What leader?”
“I mean you. They followed you here, didn’t they? This was your idea, wasn’t it? I’m pretty sure that’s how leadership works. Congratulations, you got the job.” He lay back down again.
“Wait, you’ve got it wrong. I’m just the speaker for the committee. We need someone with proper leadership qualities to, you know, lead us into battle.” The guy was playing hard to get, but that was okay. Ubik hadn’t expected it to be easy. Throwing the leadership offer back in his face had been a nice move, though. He was observant, could read the mood. Not just muscle, also a thinker. “Look, talk to one of the others. This is Roddin, Nelso, Chalz and Deef.” Ubik pointed them out as he spoke their names. “Go ahead, ask them what they think… what is your name by the way?”
He sat up again and then swung his feet off the bed. He stood up.
He was only slightly taller than Ubik, but somehow his ramrod posture made him seem like he was towering over everyone.
“You,” he said, looking at Roddin. “I saw you speaking to Ubik earlier. You were going to give him a couple of slaps, weren’t you? Make sure he behaved himself.”
Roddin nodded. “That’s right.” There was a tiny hint of admiration in his voice.
“What changed your mind?”
“Nothing. I mean, he started talking about how we needed to work as a team, how we had to make sure we beat the other team if we wanted to impress the guys in charge. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t. What other team? Group B? What makes you think we have to beat them?”
“Well,” said Roddin, not sounding so sure of himself now, “it stands to reason, doesn’t it. Why else did they split us up into two groups?”
Ubik observed without saying anything. It would only make him look like he was trying to control the outcome, and it was more interesting watching how this guy operated. It was always worth sticking around to see if you could pick up a few tips from someone with a different approach.
“There could be lots of reasons,” said the guy. “Might be more efficient, might be easier for the instructors, might be they don’t have a room big enough for twenty-four people. Whatever they’re thinking was, how likely do you think Ubik knows what’s going on? He’s pretty sharp but these people have been running this operation a long time. How many Ubik’s do you think they’ve seen come and go?”
“Are you saying he’s wrong?” said Roddin.
“I have no idea, but if you want my opinion, I’d say you should have stuck with your initial idea. First instincts usually don’t lie.”
They all turned to look at Ubik.
“Hey,” said Ubik, happy to catch the hot potato and juggle with it, “I’m only doing this because you all insisted. I still think I’m right but whatever they’re planning — and he’s right about one thing, I don’t know any more than you do — it will go better if he’s in charge. Not me, him. You can sense it when you look at him, right? Was I wrong about that?” The jury was in deliberations. “He’s right, I’m not someone you want to rely on. I’m sneaky and I don’t fight fair — look at me, what choice do I have? — but I want the best chance to do well and the best chance we have is if we put Captain Reluctant in the pilot seat. You know I’m right.”
Ubik never turned down a hot potato. They were delicious.
“You,” said Roddin. “What is your name?”
“You can call me PT. It’s what my family call me.”
“Okay, PT. I agree with you, with both of you. Ubik here is going to be a nightmare to handle. If the people running the show keep us working on our own or in small groups there shouldn’t be a problem for anyone apart from whoever gets stuck with him.”
“Hey, team, remember?”
“But if he’s right about pitting us against the other team, then he’s also right about you being our best shot at getting something out of this. I saw the other team’s line-up. They got all the best picks.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said PT. “Sure, they’ve got some strong contenders. If it was a brawl we were going to get into, then they’d probably have the upper hand. But no one goes into an Antecessor site looking for a bust-up and that’s what the guild’s preparing us for. They’re looking for other qualities. There’s no point trying to trick them. And if you did, it would be a bad idea to let them fit you with an organic you weren’t right for. You really don’t want to get an upgrade you can’t handle.”
He had them, Ubik could tell. Even if they hadn’t admitted it to themselves yet, they would end up agreeing with him. Which kind of proved Ubik’s point — this was the guy to lead them. He was slippery, though. Probably just as hard to pin down in a fight. Unhurried, secures his position, digs in. Still, there was an opportunity for Ubik to do some digging of his own.
“You really don’t think the other team are going to walk all over us?” said Ubik. “They looked pretty sharp to me. Not just strong, but savvy, too.”
PT smiled. It was cold and humourless. Respect for a valiant effort to screw him over? Probably not.
“I’d say there was one person on that team worth worrying about. The rest of them, no one really stood out.”
“Which person?” said Roddin.
“The kid with the shaved head?” said Ubik.
“Yeah,” said PT. “You saw him too, huh?” He sounded mildly impressed that Ubik had spotted the boy with the uncomfortably penetrating gaze, which was mildly annoying. “You probably saw he was checking everyone out, and that the person he was most interested in was you.”
Ubik flinched despite himself. This guy. Turning it around on him so smoothly. “Why would he be interested in me?”
“I have no idea,” said PT.
“The kid, he’s that good?” said Roddin.
PT shrugged. “Hard to say without seeing him in action, but I think so. I’ve never seen anyone with flow like that. He hardly used any energy to move. If I had to fight him, I’d run.”
“So, what do we do?” said Nelso, looking totally lost. “We make the bald kid our leader?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” said PT, talking gently to the dumb fighter. “The guild know what they’re doing. They really want to find out what your best option is. Just follow their instructions and do your best in the exercises. Now, please, I had a very rough trip to get here — going through a wormhole in a ship with no grav plates is no joke — let’s wait to see what they want us to do before any more committee meetings.” He lay back down on his bed.
There was a moment of mutual hesitation, and then everyone wandered off, no longer united by a common cause, leaving Ubik alone with PT, who had his eyes closed.
“You seem to have a lot of faith in this guild,” said Ubik. “I’m not sure I have such a rosy view of them.”
“I have a lot of faith in my brother,” said PT.
“Yeah? He part of the guild or something?”
“No, he’s a history buff. Likes to do research, find out what an organisation like this is really about.”
“Right, right. Good idea. The FVG doesn’t exactly have a good reputation, though, does it?”
“Did they try to hard sell you when they signed you up?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik, “but, you know, reverse psychology.”
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” said PT.
Could the Free Volunteers Guild be an organisation that actually intended the best for its members and treated them fairly? If so, they did an excellent job of keeping it a secret. The FVG were generally thought of as bully boys for hire, but the crew of the Red Devil had seemed friendly enough. Then again, it might have been different if they knew he was the one who had given them the runaround earlier.
Ubik didn’t really have time to wait and see. No one was going to be fitting him with an organic anytime soon, but he was curious how the guild intended to treat their newest recruits, especially if the kid on the other team was as special as PT said he was. It would also be interesting to see how the people on the other team were going to react to him. He was the youngest person here and Ubik had a good idea how that would be viewed by the rougher elements present. It might be worth sticking around a little longer than he’d planned just to see how it worked out.