Gorbol Training Academy.
The vibrations settled down but Figaro’s skin continued to pulsate in time to the low-level hum permeating the air all around him.
“Is that a ship?” said Gipper, staring up at the ceiling. “Never heard an engine like that.”
“No, not an engine,” said Ubik, still dangling in the air from Weyla’s grasp. “That’s a Gordian Net. 46,656 drones forming a hexagonal shield over the city, preventing any signal getting in or out.”
“I’ve never even heard of it,” said Captain Hickory.
“It’s proprietary hardware Vendx don’t sell to anyone,” said Jace.
“You know about this?” said Hickory.
“I’ve heard it spoken about, rumours, gossip,” said Jace, his face paling. “The other rumours are less comforting.”
“What other rumours?” asked Hickory.
Jace looked like he was fighting to find the right words.
“Well,” said Ubik, cheerily taking back the floor, “they only use it when they plan to wipe out a large population and don’t want anyone to know about it. Sort of like a giant rug to sweep dead bodies under. Afterwards, they’ll blame some faulty wiring or something, make a formal apology through their PR department and claim to have implemented new safety features in the latest model, ten percent off if you pre-order now. The price of doing business, eh?” He slowly twisted in the air to face the Seneca woman holding him. “Do you think you could put me down now? As a man, I’d rather die on my feet than while suspended by the neck by a large woman. Large in the voluptuous sense, of course.”
She pulled a disgusted face and looked like she was about to drop kick him.
“Put him down, Corporal,” said Figaro. She looked stunned by his use of her rank, but let Ubik go. He landed in a heap, intentionally not staying upright and making a big show of his painful landing.
“How did you know my rank?” she asked, her face pinched with consternation.
“The way you move,” said Figaro. “I grew up surrounded by the Corps. You move like a corporal, she’s obviously a sargent.” He nodded towards the other woman who was sitting on the ground, still recovering from the stranglehold he’d put her in.
“Interesting,” said Ubik, lying on the floor. “PT could tell they were Seneca by the way they were standing, and you can tell their rank by the way they move. You’re both pretty freaky about the whole body movement thing. Did you take a lot of dance lessons when you were younger?”
“Yes,” said Figaro and PT together.
“Okay, then,” said Ubik. “That explains it.”
“How did you sneak up on me like that,” the woman on the ground asked in a hoarse whisper.
“If I told you that,” said Figaro, “I might not be able to do it again.”
Ubik got up smiling as he brushed himself off, easily the least perturbed person in the room. What did he know the others didn’t? Quite a lot it would seem. He was just so hard to read. You had to assume he was smart enough to know how his antics would be taken, and also that the reactions he received were the ones he expected. The question was, why did he want to create so much antagonism around him?
Without the ability to read his body movements, it became a lot harder to work out where he was headed, physically or mentally. Instead, you had to observe his actions, match them to the response from whoever it was he was toying with (often without them even realising) and reverse engineer his motivation. It was exhausting but also fascinating.
“Nice to meet you, by the way,” Ubik said to the sitting woman. “I’m Ubik. And you are?”
Her eyes narrowed, a moment to consider killing him, then a stay of execution. “Leyla.”
“Leyla and Weyla? Are you sisters?”
“Twins?” said Ubik with a completely unnecessary leer.
“You’re being creepy,” said Leyla.
“Says the woman surrounded by the bodies of the men she just murdered,” said Ubik with speed that suggested he’d just been waiting for the chance. “I think you win the creepy crown this time, Leyla.”
She seemed a little thrown by the sudden reversal. “It was in self-defence.”
“I imagine they have that written over Seneca HQ in giant letters,” said Ubik. “Anyway, no time to chat about mass murder when we’re about to be killed by the suits of the men you just executed.”
He was pushing it, and obviously on purpose. Figaro looked over and exchanged a look with PT. They both knew Ubik was up to something, and neither had any idea what it was.
“And these suits are now primed explosive devices?” said PT, pointing at the suits lying all around them, lights flashing ominously.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “All Vendx suits are rigged to self-destruct — prevents them falling into the hands of corporate rivals — but they can also be used to create disruption waves. It’s in the contract, small print, very small, need an electron microscope to find it. Good blast radius though. Gives the corporate rivals a surprise when their organs all explode. And the beauty of it is that only biological constructs are affected, so then the clean-up crew can come in and take their gear still in perfect condition. Although that will also be booby-trapped, so round and round we go.”
“That’s why you didn’t just run off,” said PT. “This many suits, the disruption wave will just keep going until it catches you.”
“What?” said Ubik, sounding offended but clearly not. “I wouldn’t abandon you guys. All for one and no man left behind. It’s the guild motto.”
“It is not the guild motto,” said Princep Galeli.
“Oh,” said Ubik. “I must be getting my mottos mixed up.”
“If they’re going to wipe us out,” said Bev, the only non-Seneca female present, and keeping her distance from the two who were, “then what are they waiting for?”
“They want him,” said Hickory, pointing at Figaro. “Alive.”
“Yeah,” said Ubik. “They could just make all our hearts and kidneys go pop and take their machines away, but they need Fig for experimental purposes, so they’ll be in touch with an offer wrapped in a threat, coated with sprinkles and poison. But the Gordian Net stops any signals getting in, so they have to set up a pulse field to leave tiny gaps just big enough to squeeze a few menacing words through. Hey, did one of you guys set up a bypass in the Vendx communications array?”
“Yes,” said Jace, “that would be me.”
“Nice work, man, really enjoyed what you did there. Very smooth, cutting through the second and fourth relays to create a feedback loop, loved it.”
“Thanks very much,” said Jace, blushing slightly. “Had to bounce it around though. Couldn’t make it stick because of the reson—”
“—ating sphere coupler,” Ubik finished for him. The two of them were grinning at each other like flirting lovers.
“This is all very interesting,” said Captain Hickory, “but perhaps we can focus on the matter at hand — our imminent deaths. If they’re going to open a hole in this net to negotiate with us, can’t we use the same hole to get a signal out?”
Ubik and Jace exchanged a disparaging look, two pros surrounded by noobs.
“They know when and where the pulse will appear in the net,” said Jace, a sad lilt to his voice, “we don’t. Fifty thousand drones, remember.”
“But there’s a way to make our own hole, isn’t there?” said PT with a cold certainty that made Figaro think this was someone who had a much better idea of how to read Ubik than he did. “And you know how to make it, don’t you, Ubik?”
“I might have an idea or two,” said Ubik. “I’m still ironing out the details, running a few tests, you know how it is. Maybe our Seneca friends could take point on this one. If they speak to Vendx when they get in touch…”
“We are no longer with the Corps,” said Weyla.
“But they don’t know that,” said Ubik.
Weyla looked as horrified by the suggestion as Fig would expect her to be. “I would never misrepresent the Corps like that.”
“Even after they kicked you out?” asked Ubik.
“Who said they kicked me out?” said Weyla, her jaw tightening.
“That thing you said about a broken heart, did you leave because they didn’t approve of who you chose to love? I thought that kind of thing was approved of in the Corps. Obligatory, according to my Grandma. Wait… was it a guy? You left the Corps for a guy?” Weyla looked away. “Holy crap, it was. And where is he now? You didn’t eat him after mating, did you?”
Weyla looked upset, her shoulders down, her eyes tearing up.
“Sometimes these things don’t work out,” said Leyla gently.
“He dumped her?” Ubik burst out laughing. “She sacrificed everything for him and he dumped her. What a player.”
“How can you be so cruel?” said Leyla.
“How can you have such poor judgement?” said Ubik.
“No,” said Weyla, putting out an arm to stop Leyla attacking Ubik. “He’s right. It was my failure more than his.”
“It takes two to tango, as my Grandma likes to say. That’s a dance, the tango.” He turned to PT. “You and Fig probably know it, huh?” He snapped back to Leyla, suddenly straight-faced. “So that means you’re both single, right?”
“You’re being creepy again,” said Leyla.
“Still with the creepy jibes. I can take a body count if you want. We can post it on one of those advice sites and see who they think is the more creepy.”
“What exactly are we doing here?” said Captain Hickory, at about the end of his patience. “Can’t we at least move away from all these bombs.”
“Won’t make a difference,” said Figaro. “Distance means nothing.”
“We’re waiting for Vendx to get in contact,” said PT. “Then we’ll see what Ubik will do.”
“He will put his plan into action,” said Figaro, “but we probably won’t be able to tell what the plan is. It could be a way to save all of us.”
“Or,” said PT, “it could be a way to sacrifice all of us so he alone can escape. In which case, we’ll have to try to kill him first.”
“I doubt we’ll have time,” said Figaro.
“I’ve been working on ways to stay ahead of him,” said PT.
“And how’s that been going?” asked Figaro.
“Not well. I need more time. His movements are all over the place.”
“I know,” said Figaro. “It’s like watching an amoeba having an epileptic fit.”
“Guys, I’m right here. I can hear everything you just said, and quite frankly I’m hurt that you think I would only save myself. I reckon at least half of you will make it out of this alive.”
“Which half?” asked PT.
“Hopefully the bottom half, right ladies?” He winked at the Seneca women, which Figaro had never seen anyone ever do.
“This is Chief Supervisor Mayden,” said a crackly voice coming out of one of the suits. “I understand you’ve been having some issues with our equipment.”
Everyone looked at Ubik.
“So,” said Ubik, “who wants to speak to them?”
“Aren’t you going to do it?” said Weyla.
“Me? Oh, I’m more of a background character, here to watch and learn. You guys go ahead.” He grinned and threw in a mildly psychotic laugh.
It was hard to pin down exactly what he was up to but Figaro was sure Ubik wasn’t worried at all, which meant he had a way out of this. And also, which Figaro found a little worrying himself, Ubik was having fun.