Gorbol Training Academy.
Point-Two watched Ubik walk straight to his bed without saying a word. It was the quietest he’d ever seen him. He tagged along to see what had brought the boy here, and also to find out what had got Ubik so mad he’d dropped his usual mask of jolly indifference.
“Hello,” said the boy, getting off Ubik’s bed, eager and leaving innumerable openings. “I’m Fig Matton. Nice to meet you.” He stuck out a hand to shake, the cube held in his other.
“That’s mine,” said Ubik, very calmly. To anyone else, it would have sounded like a passing comment. To Point-Two, it sounded like the prelude to a storm.
Fig Matton flinched a little, clearly able to tell he’d made some kind of error in how he had approached Ubik and lowered his hand. He didn’t seem worried, though. More disappointed. In himself? It was hard to say. The boy was a complex maelstrom of conflicting intentions. Point-Two found him fascinating to watch. He couldn’t tell what either of them was going to do next.
Everyone else had gone to their beds, some standing and some sitting, all of them keeping an eye on the bed with the visitor but none of them coming any closer.
“Yes, sorry. Here.” Fig held out the cube. “Didn’t mean anything by it. It just started talking to me when I came in.”
Once Ubik had the cube back in his possession, his whole body seemed to change. The tension disappeared and his lightness returned. Now Point-Two could read him again, but it felt like he was being told what to see.
“You heard it talking?” said Ubik, his pitch climbing with the absurdity of the claim. “You heard it from inside my locker? How did you open my locker?” His voice was back to breezy and carefree, but the questioning was fast and full of unspecified accusations.
Fig scratched the top of his head. “I didn’t. It was on your bed, just sitting there. Honestly, I wouldn’t have broken into your locker, even if I had heard a voice coming out of it. Oh, actually, maybe I would. She sounds very lifelike.”
“Who does?” said Point-Two, deciding he should join the party. He was curious about this boy, his weird energy and his interest in Ubik. Of all people, Ubik?
Looking at him close up, there was a strange mix of innocence and power about him. It was hard to explain, he didn’t present any obvious danger. He was calm and relaxed. He wasn’t even evaluating any threats from anyone here. Because he didn’t need to? Because he already had? His manner was submissive, looking for help, looking for friends. But he had regretful eyes, for things he hadn’t done yet.
“My grandma,” said Ubik, holding up the cube between finger and thumb. The pose was casual like it was just a keepsake, but that hadn’t been how he’d reacted earlier.
“You keep your gran’s ashes in there?” asked Point-Two. It was what happened to the dead on the Garu, but people didn’t carry their deceased loved ones around with them.
“No, of course not,” said Ubik, rolling his eyes and looking around at the two or three people openly looking this way (the rest did it less obviously). “It’s a recording of her memories, you know, to pass on her wisdom to the next generation. Lots of very good recipes. You alright, Grandma?”
The box lit up along its edges. An old woman’s voice said, “Yes, my sweet child. How lovely to talk to you again.”
“See?” Ubik tossed the cube into the air casually, caught it and put it in his pocket. “But I left it locked in there.” He pointed to the locker at the foot of his bed. “So how did it get out?”
Ubik moved over to the locker, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Really, it was on the bed,” said Fig. “It just started talking as soon as I came in.”
“What did it say?” asked Point-Two.
“Just like it did now. Hello. Lovely to see you. That sort of thing.”
“And why are you here again?” asked Ubik. He was crouched by the locker, giving it a quick examination. It didn’t appear to be damaged. It appeared, in fact, to be locked. He unlocked it with his palm, looked inside, then closed it again.
“Oh, well,” said Fig, “I finished my medical examination early and I thought I’d come introduce myself. They split us up into groups but I don’t think that means we have to stay separated. We’ll be living together for a while, after all.”
Point-Two sensed a hopeful air about the young boy. Maybe he wanted to make friends, maybe something else. Why, was what Point-Two was wondering. He seemed no less calculating than Ubik, though maybe not quite as cold-blooded about it.
“What do you think, Boss?” said Ubik, standing up. It took a moment for Point-Two to realise he was referring to him. “Should we believe him?”
“Why are you asking me?” said Point-Two. He’d forgotten about Ubik’s plan to make him the de facto leader. “Make up your own mind.”
“You don’t think he’s here to scope us out, Boss? Making preparations for the final battle?”
“Stop calling me that. And there isn’t going to be any final battle.”
“What final battle?” asked Fig.
“Nothing,” said Point-Two.
“They split us into two groups, right?” said Ubik. “Stands to reason they intend to make us face off against each other at the end of the training.”
“I don’t think so,” said Fig.
“Why not?” said Ubik, ready with any number of counter-arguments, if Point-Two was any judge.
“They split us into two groups because the simulation machine can only handle twelve people at a time. They couldn’t have a twelve versus twelve contest even if they wanted to.”
Ubik looked like he’d just tried to unlock a door with the usual keys and it hadn’t worked for some reason. He obviously hadn’t predicted this answer. “How do you know?”
“The Princep showed it to me earlier. We have one like it at home.”
Point-Two wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “You have your own sim-u?” It was hard to believe, and also curious that he would be so open about it. If it was an attempt to impress, he would grade the attempt as effective.
“It’s a lot smaller and it isn’t really mine. It belongs to my father. He’s, ah, sort of a scientist. He uses it for his work. But it’s basically the same. Same construction, does the same job. Let’s you go into Antecessor sites without dying.”
“Okay, boys,” said Ubik, turning around, arms raised to get everyone’s attention. “Boss says the big battle’s off. Looks like we were jumping down the wrong sewer-hole there. What’s the new plan, Boss?” He turned back to Point-Two with a big grin.
“You don’t want to know,” said Point-Two.
“You, er, you’re in charge?” said Fig. “Already. How did you, er… manage that?”
“I’m not and I didn’t,” said Point-Two. “It’s all him.” He pointed at Ubik.
“I’ll tell you how it happened,” said Ubik. “He walks in like this, you know, with swagger.” Ubik walked up and down the side of his bed with his legs wide apart.
“I don’t walk like that,” said Point-Two.
“You could feel the dominance being asserted the minute he walked in.” Ubik continued his bow-legged walk which suggested imminent diarrhoea more than assertive dominance. “Right, boys?” he called over to the others.
“Stop winking at them,” said Point-Two.
“I’m not winking,” said Ubik, winking.
He was annoying but amusing, at least the others were finding it funny. Fig wasn’t though. He was taking it all very seriously. He’d have taken notes if he had a pad.
“Ignore him,” said Point-Two. “He’s a clown.”
“But they look up to you,” said Fig. “They follow your orders.”
“No, they don’t. You lot,” said Point-Two to the room, “in your beds, now, all of you.” He was about to turn back to Fig but everyone instantly jumped onto their beds and lay there.
Point-Two turned to Ubik, who threw himself onto his bed. He felt like he’d been outplayed and he didn’t even know the name of the game.
“When did you convince all of them to join in your idiocy?” he said to Ubik.
“Nothing to do with me, Boss. Parallel thinking,” said Ubik, getting his head comfortable on his pillow.
“Look, forget about them,” Point-Two said to Fig. “They like to pull pranks like this. You’ve been inside a sim-u, yes?”
“Yes,” said Fig.
“What’s it like? Similar to a Holover?”
“No, nothing like that,” said Fig. “It’s exactly like real life. You can’t tell the difference. It uses your own brain to create the simulation so you sense it the same way you sense reality.”
“What if you get hurt?” asked Ubik, sitting up.
“You feel pain,” said Fig.
“What if you die?” asked Point-Two.
“You feel a lot of pain,” said Fig. “If it weren’t for the safety protocols, your body would shut down and you would die for real.”
“You,” said Point-Two, his finger aimed at Ubik. “You do not mess with that machine.”
“We spoke about not intersecting, yes? This is where. I don’t know what is with you and machines, but this one is off limits.”
“As you command, Boss,” said Ubik, saluting from his bed while Fig watched starry-eyed. Both of them were going to be a pain to deal with. He had no real data to back up that conclusion, but his brother had always told him the mind operated on two levels. What you knew and what it knew. Luckily, he only had to put up with these two for a few weeks.
A drone rose into the air. “Dinner service begins in ten minutes.” Its voice was amplified by the drone in the doorways saying the same thing.
“Where did that come from,” said Ubik. He leaned over to look under the bed.
“It came with me,” said Fig.
“You have your own drone?” said Ubik.
“No, I just, ah, borrowed it. I better get back. I really enjoyed meeting you both. Maybe we can talk more over dinner? Drone C, take me to the dining area.”
The drone spun around and then headed towards the door, with Fig following.
“What a strange kid,” said Ubik once Fig had left.
“Really? You think he’s strange?”
“Yeah. He has his own sim-u. How many people can afford one of those? He must be loaded. Probably doesn’t have much cash on him, though. The really rich ones never do.”
“Are you planning to rob him?” asked Point-Two.
“What? Of course not. There’s cameras everywhere.” He grinned like he’d made some witty joke.
“So how did your grandma end up on your bed if you left it locked up?”
“Obvious, isn’t it?” said Ubik. “Guild did it. They have access to all our lockers. They built them, they can override them.” He got off the bed and kicked the locker. “The question is why? That’s what you’re wondering, right, Boss?”
Drone A beeped at them and floated out of the room. Everyone followed.
Six weeks, thought Point-Two. Only six weeks.