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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

 

Ubik climbed the stairs back towards the Group A dorm. He was alone and his attention was mainly on the device attached to his wrist. Occasionally he would look up to check how much further he had to go and to avoid bumping into the wall.

Walking up steps and opening doors with handles — it was all very quaint. It felt like he had emerged after a decade of hibernation to find time had gone back several thousand years.

It was only a quirk of the guild, and a superficial one at that. The Academy was not as simple or as antiquated as it looked. He paused by a large window that looked like it would shatter if you breathed too hard on it. Looks were deceiving. The frame was reinforced with some kind of high tensile metal embedded inside the wood. The glass was an unbreakable polymer; you’d have to vaporise it with a laser if you wanted a little fresh air. The simple latch was for show and unlatched nothing; an electronic signal was required to open it.

Even the views were carefully regulated. All the windows faced inwards, showing the courtyard. None of them faced the street, even though from the outside the building appeared to have several windows above the doorway.

Security might seem lax — he had walked out of the sim-U lab without anyone objecting or even appearing to notice — but they were all under constant observation. The guild knew where he was at all time. Or at least thought they did.

He checked his wrist again. It showed no activity in his vicinity. Carrying a device like this would probably get him in trouble if the sensors picked it up, but he was confident they wouldn’t. Why would they? It was one of theirs.

Ubik had ‘borrowed’ a few components from Drone A. There wasn’t much else to do at night once he’d grabbed his two hours of solid delta waves. The drones operated independently, only reporting in if necessary. A little tweaking by a friendly trainee was nothing to get excited about, especially if the trainee knew how to sneak up on a drone without triggering a response. Junkyard training beat sim-U training every time.

The hovering disk responsible for keeping an eye on Group A was still able to function completely fine, it just had a slightly higher chance of mid-air collisions if it happened to be in the same room as another drone. Its proximity detector was now under new ownership. Shame the drones didn’t have the appropriate transmitters to open the windows.

He carried on climbing the endless stairs. Down was fine, but going up was a pain. He could have built them a workable elevation tube if they gave him access to a few components. Stripping the simulation machine could provide him with what he needed and still have enough left over for a portable popcorn maker. A far better use of the technology, in Ubik’s opinion.

Ubik had left the others watching Fig Matton floating through the empty corridors of the simulation machine’s imagination, doing a wonderful job of outwitting dead alien machines. The whole thing had bored him. The boy was clearly well trained for the task, no doubt about that. It would be fair to call him an expert, even. When it came to negotiating the tricky levels of a video game, Ubik could think of no one better.

Real life was something else, though. A real Antecessor encounter would not be so easy to deal with. The threat of harm was as much a factor in any fight as actual damage. Knowing your opponent had a knife made you act differently, they didn’t need to pull it out. The simulation machine couldn’t replicate that. It couldn’t make you piss your pants because of a threat you couldn’t see.

That wasn’t even the part Ubik was worried about; he had no intention of going anywhere near any Antecessor sites. Real life meant something far more prosaic in his case. It was living in a society and not sticking out for all the wrong reasons. It was something Ubik was not well trained for, and he needed to get familiar with such things quickly.

He was doing okay. He had managed to get himself onto a new planet, with a reasonably believable identity and a standard currency account. Now he just had to fill it with money.

On Epsilon-416, it was possible to survive without access to standard currency. You could exchange goods and services. You could use the local currency, which was an assortment of narcotics. You could transfer funds from accounts recently liberated from their owners and not yet shuttered (within a window of around thirty standard minutes, if the liberation had gone smoothly).

All those methods could sustain you from day to day, but they couldn’t sustain you off-world.

Ubik had landed on Foxtrot-435 without problem. Now he had to find a way to make money and then use that money to get to his next destination. One where the Free Volunteers Guild wouldn’t be able to track him. Not in a cost-effective manner, at least.

The guild had so far made only a small investment in Trainee Ubik U. Ubik, but if he waited for his paycheck to gradually trickle into his account, he would be missing a couple of limbs or sitting in a stockade by the time he’d have saved up enough for an unauthorised trip into the more interesting parts of the cosmos.

Guild pay wasn’t good. You could supplement your wages with a cut of any successful runs your team made — assuming the organics weren’t all common trash — but as a junior member, your share would be small to tiny. He’d read the small print, he’d run the numbers.

It wasn’t all bad. You could earn reputation points through good service and buy yourself replacement limbs from the guild shop, just like Sergeant Pajyani hoped to do, one day.

Reputation points weren’t considered legal tender outside of the guild, though.

No, if Ubik wanted to make money without attracting any undue attention, he would have to do it legally. He would need to get a job. He wasn’t well trained for that, either.

The hallway outside the barracks was empty and quiet. PT had gone running off to apprehend the trespasser going through his locker but there was no sound coming from inside. Hardly surprising.

PT was on his knees, searching through his locker.

“Did you catch them?” asked Ubik as he walked in.

“No. There was no one here.”

“They definitely opened your locker.”

“I know,” said PT. “I left a marker of my own. Someone went through my things.” He stood up and turned to look at Ubik. “My chief suspect would be you.”

“Me?” said Ubik, not at all offended by the accusation. “Why would I go through your things? Shirt, pants, socks, a gold pin — participation award, I’m guessing — and some very cheap shoes. A good pair of shoes will change your life, trust me.”

PT’s eyes narrowed, now suspicious of the confession. “So it was you?”

“I already told you I rigged your locker, but not because I have any interest in what’s inside. And if I did want to see what brand of underpants you preferred, why would I bring it to your attention?”

“I have no idea,” said PT. “But it seems like the sort of thing you would do.”

Ubik considered how best to defend himself against the aspersion, but it seemed the best approach was not to. “True, if I did have a reason, I can see me making it look like my locker had been broken into first to throw off suspicion. But you should know by now that I don’t like things to be too chaotic. People are easier to manage when they’re all focused on the same thing, all looking the same way. That’s why you’re in charge. No in-fighting, no arguing, no rivalries. Nice and peaceful so we can all get on with what’s important.”

“Which is?”

“Whatever you want it to be. I’m not interested in telling you what to do, I only want to be left alone to do my own thing unmolested. Rifling through your gear is not on my schedule.”

“If it wasn’t you, then who?” said PT.

“The culprit’s a drone,” Ubik. “That’s all I can be certain of.”

“One of the guild drones?” said PT.

“Not as big as the ones that show us around. A lot smaller. I can only detect it when it moves, though. As soon as it stops, it goes dark. Might still be in here, somewhere.” Ubik glanced around the empty dorm.

“And why would the guild want to check my underwear?” asked PT.

Ubik shrugged. “Looking for contraband? Hoping to find a soiled pair of shorts for their collection? Who knows?”

“Still feels like something you would do more than they would.”

This guy, always seeing the worst in people.

“Just because you don’t know what they’re up to doesn’t mean I’m behind it. My plans are a lot less clunky.” He had standards — if he was going to be accused, at least give him credit for that.

“Don’t you think it was odd for them to leave your soul cube out on your bed?” said PT. “Why would they want you to know what they’d been up to?”

“I wondered about that, too,” said Ubik. “Not sure if it’s a warning or some kind of psychological test. No doubt they’ve honed these techniques over the years, perfecting their ability to find the perfect idiot who does what he’s told. It’s as much an art as a science.” Ubik took the soul cube out of his pocket and put it on the cabinet next to his bed. “Or maybe the drone took a liking to Grandma and they’re an item now.”

“I suppose the bastards are watching us now, too,” said PT, perturbed by the idea of being under observation, or possibly by the thought of what the drone and Grandma were up to on Ubik’s bed.

“Do you mind not using that kind of language when there’s a lady present.” Ubik indicated the cube. “She’s very old-fashioned.”

“My apologies,” PT said to the cube.

Ubik moved over to the window. It looked down on the courtyard, but at an angle that made it hard to see very much. The windows in the dorm were just as impenetrable as the ones on the stairs.

“What happened to Fig?” asked PT.

“I don’t know,” said Ubik. “I left before the thrilling climax.”

PT sat on his bed and stared into the middle-distance. Probably reviewing the life choices that had led him to ending up here.

“By the way,” said Ubik, “that participation award.”

“It’s a promotion pin for a G-Tag professional league.”

“Promotion, participation, all the same thing. Whatever it is, there’s a tracking device inside it.”

“What?”

“A powerful one, although the Academy shielding should make it hard to find. Of course, they may have already tracked you to the city before they lost the signal; wouldn’t be too hard to figure out which building you disappeared into. Have a lot of rabid G-Tag fans, do you?”

PT didn’t say anything. More reviewing of life choices.

Ubik had meant it when he said he didn’t like to be surrounded by a chaotic environment. He preferred to operate in peace and quiet, with everyone busy doing their thing, not bothering him doing his thing. But sometimes a little chaos helped. A distraction during an escape, for example.

Not wild chaos, though. Controlled chaos. Lots of little chaos bombs lined up to go off in a chain reaction.

He put his hand in his pocket and closed it over the signal emitter from the wave gun they’d been given to mess around with earlier. It wouldn’t work without a firing pin, but they were welded into the casing. He had only been able to liberate the emitter so easily because it needed to be replaceable in the field. Popped right out. It needed a power source to send out a sustained signal. Poor Drone A was in for a bit of a rough night.

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mooderino

Bio: Moody writes: 'How to Avoid Death on a Daily Basis', 'The Good Student' and 'Deeper Darker.' How does he do it? Where does he find the time? Is he just a better person than me? All good questions.

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