Gorbol Training Academy.
Princep Galeli didn’t like leaving Trainee Matton alone with Captain Hickory but this new development required his immediate attention. For the last few years, his life had been reasonably dull and comfortable. He liked it like that. The time he’d spent in the field leading a team into dangerous and sometimes desperate situations hadn’t really affected his mental state until he stopped, and then the sheer lunacy of it hit him all at once. He wouldn’t care to go back to that lifestyle, and neither, he imagined, would the men who had served under him.
Most of them, the ones were still alive at least, were still working for him, under less strenuous circumstances.
“It was quite fortunate I caught them when I did,” said Bern, walking in long easy strides next to Galeli, his metal hands flashing by his side. “But I knew something was off with the drones. I could just feel it, you know how it is when you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Reminded me of the old days, only without the threat of imminent death — haha!”
“Yes,” grunted Galeli. He wasn’t in the mood for reminiscing. At a distance, it was easy enough to romanticise their exploits and make the victories seem more frequent than the losses. In reality, though, they had been lucky to survive intact. Mostly intact.
“Wouldn’t have guessed Terrific was behind this,” continued Bern, sounding surprisingly chipper at the prospect of a run in with Fraiche City’s most notorious gangster.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Galeli. “We don’t know exactly what these two were up to, do we? Did they say anything?”
“Not a jot,” said Bern. “I didn’t press them — thought it best to let them stew a little. Probably be more talkative once they’ve had a chance to sweat a bit. I left one of the skyjacks watching them. Heh! That should give them something to think about.”
Skyjack drones were large and ugly things, used to cut through the walls of Antecessor fortifications — the most obvious entry points were well-guarded and slipping in through an impromptu entrance could bypass the security systems. Or not. The problem with cutting a hole in the side of an Antecessor ship or base was that you didn’t know what was on the other side. It could easily be something explosive or toxic or acidic. Skyjacks tended to look like they’d been through numerous firefights when in reality they’d punched a hole into a vat of acid more often than not.
They weren’t any real threat to humans and had no combat attack patterns, but you wouldn’t know that to look at them. As well as the dents and scars from opening up the wrong hole in the wrong place, they had an assortment of sharp attachments that could cut through a metre of steel with ease, and through Antecessor defence materials with some sustained effort. Any sort of intense heat was too risky, so brute force and something with a keen edge were their preferred tools. They looked like they would make ideal instruments of torture.
“And you’re sure they were behind this, the two of them, Ubik and Kabor? No one else? You’re certain?”
“As much as I can be,” said Bern. “There could be others, but it seems a bit much, doesn’t it? Why send so many people to infiltrate us? What are they after? Not this new discovery, they came here before that. They could be opportunists and not working for Terrific. Looking to sell him information, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” said Galeli. “But how did they learn about him so soon? They’ve only been here a few days and not even left the Academy. Something doesn’t add up.”
They reached the suite of rooms used to house guests and visitors of note. They were empty at the moment, the furniture in storage in the basement. Two skyjacks floated on either side of one of the doors. Each was a metal box two metres tall and a metre wide, with a small protrusion on top serving as a head, and six arms coming out of the torso, each topped off with a vicious cutting implement. They were both extremely battered — one had a large hole in its midsection — and in need of maintenance, but since they were unlikely to be used again there seemed little point.
“How do you want to play this?” asked Bern. “Read them the riot act? Threaten to let Dr Liebstein loose on their cerebral cortexes?”
It had been some time since Galeli had seen Bern enjoying himself this much. He had always been the kind of person who became more enthused the nearer the time came to take action, until, that was, his accident. Even with the prosthetics giving him back his full range of motion, he hadn’t regained his natural passion for a good ruckus. But all it took was one psychotic criminal cresting over the horizon and the old Bern was back.
Galeli was in danger of becoming nostalgic himself, and that was not helpful in the current situation.
“Let’s give them a chance to explain first,” said Galeli. “We’ll see what they have to say.”
“I left one of the skyjacks in the room,” said Bern, with a merry glint in his eyes. “They might need some reassuring we aren’t going to do something terrible to them.”
Galeli put on a suitably stern face and entered the room, turning the old-fashioned handle and pushing the door.
The sight he was met with was not one he had expected. One of the trainees, Kabor, was sitting on the floor, eyes closed, a slight frown on his lips, apparently meditating.
The other, Ubik, was sitting on the shoulders of the skyjack that filled up most of the rest of the room. He had his legs wrapped around the skyjack’s head like he was trying to suffocate it with his thighs. He was actually using his legs to maintain his position while he worked on the skyjack’s central processing unit, which was in the head and fully-exposed.
“Just a minute,” said Trainee Ubik, “almost done.” His tongue was sticking out the side of his mouth as he fiddled with some internal component of the skyjack that basic protection guards should have prevented him from doing.
“Please get down from there,” said Galeli. “That isn’t a toy.”
“Sure, no problem,” said Ubik, unintimidated by drone or princep. He stuck the skull casing back on the drone’s head and slid off its body. If Galeli was a more credulous person, he might have fancied the drone looked grateful.
“What were you doing to our skyjack drone?” Galeli demanded. He should have been more stern but he was actually quite curious.
“Nothing much. These old units get a bit limp down one side. The circuit boards are designed to wear out but they never do evenly — that would take too much time and consideration — so they end up leaning when they move. I just find it displeasing to the eye.” He smiled like he had made some mischievous joke.
“I have noticed they tend to list to one side when they move,” said Bern.
“Fine, fine, let’s leave the question of our limping guard drones—” he shot Bern a look “— to one side for the moment. Please explain, Trainee Ubik, why you were contacting the JonJo Surf and Turf restaurant.”
“Oh, that. Well, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the catering here, but to be frank with you, Princep Galeli, the food sucks. I know we’re supposed to stick to our carefully designed, individually tailored portions, but I really fancied something a little more interesting than pureéd vitamins in a range of pastel shades, and this place apparently offers free delivery.”
“Wait, stop,” said Galeli, realising he wasn’t going to get a chance to say anything if he didn’t insist on it. “Are you saying you were trying to get them to send you food.”
“I know, I know, it’s against the rules, but the thing is we don’t have surf or turf on my home planet, and it was only a small order. The taster menu. It’s my fault, I accept whatever punishment you see fit. Kick me out, wire me up to one of those machines that make you forget your own birthday, whatever you want, but don’t blame PT, he’s a good chap who was led astray by my appetite for an exotic hotpot. He’ll be a marvellous credit to the guild if you give him a second chance.” Ubik leaned towards Galeli and lowered his voice. “Poor boy was raised by a computer on a world ship where no one knows who their parents are.”
It took a moment for Galeli to realise ‘PT’ referred to Trainee Kabor, who was still sitting on the floor, still in the same position, although the frown had deepened somewhat.
“And what about you, Trainee Kabor, what do you have to say?”
Kabor stood up, his movement fluid and effortless. “I take full responsibility for my stupidity. He’s good with machines, as I’m sure you can tell, and also good at making people think he’s helping when he’s really just having a good time at their expense.”
“Wait, who are we talking about now?” asked Trainee Ubik.
“This is a memento someone gave me before I left home.” Kabor was holding up an unremarkable metal pin. “It contains a tracker, it turns out. An attempt on my life was made on the way here, I didn’t know how they found me until now. They’re probably still trying to locate me, so Trainee Ubik suggested we send them to this restaurant. A public place where they would stand out.”
“And why would anyone want to kill you?” asked Galeli.
“It’s complicated, but if they learned that I had the potential to become a high-level organic, I would be considered a threat to the balance of power back home. It would be easier to remove me before that happened.”
“I see,” said Galeli. “So you knew the restaurant was owned by a criminal conglomerate? That’s why you were trying to send your pursuers there, so they’d run afoul of them?”
“No,” said Kabor, his face souring. “I had no idea.” He glanced over at Ubik. “I wasn’t looking to start a war, just to find out if I was still in danger. If there were only one or two of them, I might have been able to take care of them myself.”
“I had no idea, either,” said Ubik. “What kind of place is this where criminals serve food to the public? The health violations alone must be outrageous.”
“You should consider yourself lucky we stopped you before you managed to make contact with the restaurant,” said Bern. “Terrific JonJo isn’t the sort of person who appreciates being used by others.”
“Terrific?” said Ubik. “He sounds quite fun. Are you sure he hasn’t been unfairly painted as a bad guy?”
“They used to call him Terrifying JonJo,” said Bern, “but whenever someone used that name within earshot of him — and his organic augmentation makes his hearing very acute — he killed them. So they shortened it.”
“Ah,” said Ubik. “Then it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to have accessed the restaurant’s internal security and taken control of their drones? Hypothetically speaking.”
“Why would you do that?” asked Galeli. “Hypothetically.”
“Well, maybe I got the signal out before you caught us, and maybe the restaurant boosted the signal with the ‘accidental’ inclusion of a partial transmission.”
“What transmission?” asked Kabor, a dark cloud colouring his disposition.
“Let me think… something along the lines of: I found it, we’ll soon be able to take over the ship. You know, give them a reason to hurry over and say hello.”
Kabor’s face suggested he did not approve of the accidental transmission. “This is going to get out of hand.”
“It’s fine,” said Ubik. “They’re all bad guys, they’ll take care of each other. It’s not like they know we’ve got anything to do with it.”
“I think you underestimate Terrific’s ability to listen,” said Galeli, his trepidation before the coming trouble calming him, just like old times. “He will know exactly where the signal originated, and chances are he won’t kill the people who are after Trainee Kabor, more likely he will find out what they’re after and join forces with them. He really is a very good listener.”