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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

 

“They’ve cut off all the exits,” said Princep Galeli. He moved the slider manually to widen the field of view on the scanner; it was easier to do it that way and still be able to talk rather than use voice commands. More blips appeared on the screen. “There’s more of them closing in on our position. Any chance of reinforcements?”

“We’re working on it,” growled Captain Hickory. He was standing by the window looking into the courtyard, which was flooded with white light from the two ships hovering over the Academy. “Jace, how are we doing?”

Jace sat huddled over in the corner of the room, headphones on, an open suitcase full of knobs and buttons on the floor in front of him. “They’re jamming every frequency, even the sub-atomic ones.” He tilted his head and fiddled with the switches, lining them all up one way and then the other. “It’s going to take hours to break through unless we get lucky and find a hole in their coverage.”

“Well, get lucky then,” said Hickory, chewing on his words before spitting them out. He was angry and ready to do something foolish. Galeli felt the same. “I don’t like this, not at all, not one bit. I can see them out there, preparing an assault of some kind.”

“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have many options. The trainees are in lockdown, the other instructors are in the bunker.”

“What good are they in the bunker?” said Gipper, standing by the other window with binoculars to his eyes.

“They’re there under my orders,” said Galeli. “No reason to put anyone else at risk.”

“Well, haven’t we changed our tune,” said Hickory. “Risk Factor Galeli makes the safe play.”

“We all learn from our mistakes,” said Galeli, “eventually. We just have to hope they take what they came for and decide it’s not worth the effort to scrub the place clean.”

“This is Vendx we’re talking about,” said Gipper. “Of course they’ll scrub clean. No witnesses, no claims, no refunds. Letting them have the kid won’t change that.”

“I think you’ll be surprised,” said Galeli. “I wouldn’t have left trainee Matton behind if I didn’t think it would be to our advantage.”

Hickory snorted. “Then I hope you’re right about—”

“I can hear them outside,” said Bev. She had her ear pressed against the blast door. It was a metre thick and shouldn’t have allowed any sound in, but Galeli was willing to take her word for it.

The Vendx agents had dropped in from above, swarming over the building and in through security doors they shouldn’t have been able to bypass so easily. It wasn’t really a surprise. Not everything in the Academy was Vendx-built, but what wasn’t would have been reverse-engineered to find a neutralising solution by Vendx R&D long ago. Competition in the manufacturing field was fierce and relentless. All the major corporations were aware of what the others were producing and had found ways to copy, improve and negate anything popular in the marketplace.

In many ways, it was healthy for the consumers since keeping each other in check meant they had less time to use the aggressive sales tactics that had made them what they were today. Dropping in on a customer to discuss upgrading service contracts could prove very persuasive when you had a battle fleet in orbit. To be fair, it did help to expedite deliveries.

“I can’t believe you don’t have any anti-aircraft placements,” said Hickory. “How are we meant to defend ourselves against aerial bombardment?”

“Fraiche City has very strict zoning laws,” said Galeli. “The planning permission required for gun turrets is more trouble than it’s worth, I can assure you. If we could get word out to your ship and any other guild members in the quadrant, I think that would help, don’t you?”

“I’m trying, damn it,” said Jace. “Just give me a second. I can do this.”

***

Point-Two wasn’t happy with how things were going. He never should have allowed his curiosity to get the best of him. He had wanted to see who would be sent to take care of him, well now he knew.

Two Seneca Corps women meant whoever wanted him dead wanted him really dead.

Be proactive, confront his pursuers before they were ready, send a message. Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to be of like-mind. When everyone tried to take the initiative, no one had the element of surprise on their side.

Now he had to think of a way to extricate himself from this situation. Preferably without Ubik’s help — Point-Two was in enough trouble as it was.

“Ooh, I see we have company,” said Ubik as they jogged through the dimly lit streets of Fraiche City.

Up ahead was the Academy, and hanging over it were two ships pouring light onto the decrepit stone building.

“Why are they still here?” said Point-Two. “Shouldn’t they have taken what they came for and left?”

“You don’t know much about their operational guidelines, then?” said Ubik. “They promise never to leave a mess when they’ve finished the job. And they never do. Everything scrubbed clean. Sound familiar? I think our Seneca friends are going to have a lot in common with the Vendx crew.” Ubik looked over his shoulder. “I wonder if they’ve clashed before. Had to have, right?”

“Maybe they had the good sense to avoid getting into a pointless fight,” said Point-Two, wishing he could say the same thing about himself.

“Nah, has to be some other reason. Payments of some kind, I bet.” He was still looking behind as he ran. There had been no sign of either the Seneca women or Terrific’s men. Which would have been a good thing except Ubik’s plan seemed to hinge on the opposite.

Point-two wondered if he could make it to the nearest spaceport without getting caught. Perhaps if Ubik made enough of a commotion. For all his faults, or maybe because of them, he would make an excellent decoy.

“They will have locked down all spaceports,” said Ubik, like he could read minds.

“What about local law enforcement?”

“Ha!” said Ubik. “They’ll have applied for an emergency maintenance visa which will have been pre-approved as part of the city’s contract for whatever services they have with Vendx.”

The numbers weren’t looking very hopeful. “There’s only two Seneca Corps operatives.”

“Ex-Seneca,” said Ubik.

“What difference does that make?” said Point-Two.

“They can’t call in the cavalry.”

“Which is my point,” said Point-Two. “How many Vendx troops on those ships?”

Ubik looked up like he was taking a quick head-count. “Twenty reps.”

“Reps?”

“Customer representatives — goons with guns. Plus six auxiliary drones, multi-purpose. Two artillery drones — doubt they’ll deploy those. At least forty surveillance drones — they’ll already have deployed those. That’s for each ship. Lucky they sent the Mark 2s. Mark 3s carry twice the payload.”

“How will two Seneca women make a dent in that?”

“No idea,” said Ubik. “I’ve heard so much about the Seneca Corps lately, I wanted to see them in action. Got to carry out a field test if you want reliable data to work with.”

“This is all an experiment to you?”

“This is life,” said Ubik. “We gain experience, we gain wisdom. Right, Grandma?”

“Oh, yes, that’s right,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere inside Ubik’s greys.

“What do we gain if we end up dead?” asked Point-Two.

“A valuable lesson,” said Ubik.

The entrance to the Academy was ahead of them. The door was open but a large drone was floating in front of it, yellow lights flashing from its head.

“This area is closed for cleaning. Please find another route to your destination.” Its voice was impersonal and mildly bored.

“They make these sound depressed so no one thinks anything interesting is going on,” said Ubik. He put both hands on the drones midsection.

Two long gun barrels immediately popped out, one from each breastplate. The ends crackled with electrical charge.

Ubik grabbed one in each hand and twisted them so the ends just about touched. There was a large crack, an arc of white lightning between Ubik’s hands, and the flashing yellow light went out. The drone hit the floor with a clang.

“Bit of a design flaw with this model,” said Ubik, his hair sticking up like he was the world’s most powerful organic. “You have to be willing to suck up some juice to take advantage. Up we go.”

The doorway into the Academy was wide open, but Ubik scampered up the wall.

Point-Two was tempted to take the less vertical route, but there were probably more drones waiting inside and he didn’t much fancy using Ubik’s patented purple nurple method, not when it involved so much direct current feedback. He grabbed the nearest handhold and followed Ubik up.

On the roof, there were at least a dozen drones, like the ones used by the Academy but heavier-looking with thicker plating. Overhead was one of the two Vendx ships, light pouring out of the bottom of its hull.

“Aren’t we a bit exposed here?” said Point-Two.

“The one place they’d never expect us to be, you know, because it would be so stupid.” Ubik was crouched by the ledge Point-Two was climbing over. He seemed to be cradling a drone in his arms. It was the guild drone that kept watch on the roof, Ubik’s past co-conspirator.

“Surveillance array,” said Ubik, motioning his head towards the drones lined up along the opposite ledge overlooking the main courtyard. “Watching everyone inside.”

“Can’t they see us?” asked Point-two.

“Not while we’re in their blindspot.”

“Another design flaw?”

“Working as intended, on a budget. Hey, drones, over here,” Ubik called out. The drones ignored them. “They disable auditory function for long range scanning. Infrared’s very power intensive.” Ubik opened up the drone in his hands. It looked pretty dead.

“What are you going to do with that? I thought you said all our drones had been turned off.”

“They have, for now. But they reboot once you perform a factory reset.” He fiddled with the drone’s innards, grimacing as he tried to reach some hard to get to part. “There.”

The drone flashed a white light around its hub for a few seconds. “Reformatting complete. Select one for standby. Select two for reassignment. Select three for—”

“Select two,” said Ubik.

“Administrator permission required.”

“Locate nearest administrator,” said Ubik.

The drone rose into the air and hovered there for a moment. Then it flew off, rising into the air.

“Where’s it going?” said Point-Two.

“Home,” said Ubik.

“And what do we do?”

Ubik turned to face him. “Wait. Quietly without attracting attention.”

“Really?” It sounded like a very un-Ubik plan.

“No, of course not,” said Ubik. “Where’s the fun in that?”

The drone at the end of surveillance array broke formation and swivelled to look up at Ubik’s new hatchling. It made a whirring sound, something extended, then retracted, then extended. It didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind — just a fellow Vendx drone returning to base? It seemed to think so as it turned back to face the same way as the rest of the array.

Ubik looked up with his hands shading his eyes until the drone disappeared into the ship, then he turned his back to Point-Two and shouted “Run!” as he headed for the nearest drone.

“You’re going to get us killed,” Point-Two shouted as he followed, staying directly behind Ubik hoping he really knew where the blindspots were. “It’s your design flaw.”

“Working as intended!” Ubik grabbed the drone floating obliviously in front of him and jumped off the roof. Point-Two gritted his teeth as he did the same with the next drone along. The other drones in the array turned to look as the ship above them exploded.

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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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