Gorbol Training Academy.
“Hello?” said the voice from the Vendx suit. “Anyone there? Jesper, why can’t I hear anything? Well, fix it. Come on, we’re supposed to be professionals. Wait, they can hear me? Are you sure? Well turn it off, tur—” The suit went quiet.
“You don’t want to talk to them?” said Figaro.
“I’m not good with new people,” said Ubik. “Always been very shy around strangers.”
Figaro turned to PT. “Why doesn’t he want to talk to them directly?”
PT’s headed bobbed up and down as he thought about it. Figaro was finding PT a handy sounding board and a useful source of alternative opinions. At least he had a logical way of thinking that was easy to follow.
“I think,” said PT, “he doesn’t want the blame for whatever he’s planning to fall on his own shoulders. Even if he gets away with it, if people know he was responsible, they would come after him.
Figaro found his own head bobbing in time with PT’s. “Yes. Sounds about right.”
“Aren’t you two the insightful couple?” said Ubik. He was dragging the suit that had been speaking to them over to Jace, lifting and scraping it across the other bodies. “You should, ugh — damn these guys are heavy — should open up a therapy practice for, eeeh — nobody’s going to help, huh? — okay, big push, one, two, heave — your own practice for troubled souls.” He dumped the body at Jace’s feet, arms and legs clattering on the floor.
“Hi. Ubik.” He put out a hand.
“Jace.” Jace took the offered hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you.”
Ubik pointed at the body lying between them. “Can you patch into the suit and piggyback on the signal?”
“Sure,” said Jace, rolling the bag off his back, “but they’ll have a valve clamped on it. We won’t be able to send anything out.”
“Not yet,” said Ubik. “You’ll need to take this off first.” He ripped a bunch of wires off the suit like he was pulling out weeds.
Jace’s eyes widened. “You blocked their incoming message so they couldn’t listen in on us. How did you know they’d choose this suit?”
“They didn’t,” said Ubik. “I made this suit more attractive so the signal came here first. Magnetised the frequency.”
Jace’s mouth fell open. “You know how to do that.”
“It’s an old trick my Grandma taught me. I’ll show you sometime, after we get out of here.” He leaned closer to Jace and spoke in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re in the fifty percent that survives.” Ubik turned and looked startled, like he just realised the two of them weren’t alone. “That, ah, goes for the rest of you, too, of course. You’ll all be in the fifty percent.”
The knowledge and manipulation of tronics were impressive while the buffoonery was confounding. The combination of the two was clearly designed to keep everyone off-balance and under Ubik’s control. Figaro had never seen leadership like this. Everyone here was dependent on him, whether they wanted to be or not.
Jace had opened his bag and was using his tools on the suit. He seemed to be the only one unfazed by Ubik’s antics.
“Okay,” said Ubik, “Princep Galeli, I think you should speak to them.”
“Me?” said Galeli, slightly flustered. “What should I say?”
“Oh, you know, greetings and salutations from Fraiche, city of the spars. I don’t know, be friendly, find out what they want, make up some excuse why you can’t give it to them.”
“And what will you be doing?” Galeli, his tone switching to suspicious.
“Nothing. Observing from a distance, bothering no one. Official innocent bystander, that’s me.”
The suit crackled and whined.
“They’re back online,” said Jace.
“Why is the reception so bad?” asked Bev, who was watching Jace work.
Jace looked to Ubik, like he was seeking permission to talk. The slightest of nods passed between them.
“They’re squeezing their signal through a very small opening,” said Jace. “t’s barely the width of an atom. The amount of power it takes to broadcast… pfft, don’t even.”
“Luckily,” said Ubik, “the amount of power it takes to hitch a ride is a lot less once they’ve done all the hard work.”
“I still don’t see—” Jace’s words were cut off by another voice.
“This is Chief Supervisor Mayden of the Vendx Galactic vessel Motherboard, here to offer our assistance.”
He sounded like he’d practised his opening remarks while he’d been waiting.
“This is Princep Galeli of the Gorbol Training Academy. Thank you for coming so quickly. I’m afraid the mechanics you sent to, uh, assist us seem to have suffered some kind of catastrophic failure. Their suits, I think. Can you determine if they’re faulty from your end?” The princep sounded very calm and reasonable. It was a good thing the Vendx officer couldn’t see the enormous antique grenade launcher he was currently carrying.
“Yes,” said Chief Supervisor Mayden. “That’s what we’re seeing here. Faulty suits.”
Ubik was bent over Jace, his hand sticking out to the side, waving the princep to keep going.
“It may not be advisable to send any more of your people right now,” said Galeli, “until you’ve identified the fault or the same thing might happen to them. For all of them to fail at the same time, it could mean they reacted to something here. Our simulation machine has been acting a bit odd of late.”
Figaro was impressed with the princep’s coolness under pressure. Neither side wanted to make overt threats that might come back to bite them. The rules of engagement for any kind of conflict were very stringent. Punishment by the Central Authority was severe for the aggressor, which was why everyone tried to show the least amount of aggression possible while trying to kill each other. Well, nearly everyone. His gaze fell on the two ex-Seneca who were watching along with everyone else.
“We think we may have isolated the problem, Princep Galeli,” said Mayden. “It seems the trainee who last used the sim-U is the cause of the problem. If you send him out to the landing pad, we can have him checked and cleared in a jiffy.”
Ubik was shaking his head at Galeli and waving his hands across each other. Apparently, Ubik wasn’t ready to sacrifice Figaro. Not yet, anyway.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said Galeli in an apologetic tone.
“Why is that?” asked Mayden, equally polite, merely inquisitive.
Ubik made a cutting motion across his throat.
“Because he’s dead?”
Ubik waved no, no, no.
“Dead tired. Exhausted. Sedated. We had to sedate him. Can’t be moved.” Galeli glared at Ubik who put on an air of total innocence.
“I see. This is a problem. Perhaps we could send in a hazard team to investigate. They should be safe from any… unusual effects of the machine.”
Ubik was waving no again.
“Sorry, no, my chief engineer is telling me that isn’t possible.”
“Your chief engineer?” said Mayden. “Perhaps I could speak to him directly.
“Certainly,” said Galeli. “I’ll put him on.”
Ubik started miming all sorts of refusals. Galeli mimed back that this was his show and he should be on stage, at least that was how Figaro interpreted it. Everyone else followed the princep’s lead, encouraging Ubik to speak up. The consensus was that Ubik would be less of a threat to everyone else if his own life was as much under threat as theirs. Figaro suspected this might have been part of Ubik’s plan, too.
“Hello, Supervisor,” said Ubik. “This is Chief Engineer Uuuulanov.”
“Just Ulanov. Sorry, I have a cold. How are you? Nice weather up there?”
“We’re in orbit.”
“So… quite sunny?”
“Listen, Chief Engineer, can you establish an uplink on this trainee’s sim-U recordings? I think that will help us get to the bottom of this.”
“I can do better than that,” said Ubik. “I have a recording right here. Just scan me.”
“You have the whole recording on you?” Mayden sounded dubious about this claim.
“Yes, on a portable recorder, it’s one of the new wireless models.”
“I wasn’t aware we made one of those,” said Mayden.
“Oh, it isn’t Vendx,” said Ubik. “It’s from Grossman-Rays.”
“You bought it from a Rigogo subsidiary?” Mayden sounded less than impressed. Rigogo were one of Vendx’s major competitors. As Ubik would well know.
“It was on sale,” said Ubik.
“I see. And you can upload the data?”
“Yes, one second.” Ubik took out the soul box of his Grandma and put it up to his mouth. “Grandma? Can you show me the blueprint I gave you earlier.”
“Of course, my dear.” The box emitted a blue light in several layers, forming a small replica of the simulation machine.
“Did you make a copy of the sim-U?” said Galeli.
Ubik put a finger to his lips.
“What was that?” said Mayden.
“Ah, nothing,” said Galeli. “I also have a cold.”
“Okay, start the scan,” said Ubik.
The ever-present background hum dipped in volume. Figaro’s skin stopped pulsating quite so noticeably.
“Grandma, please tell them all about yourself. Don’t stop till you finish.” The hologram of the simulation machine began flickering.
“Got it,” said Jace.
“Send,” said Ubik.
There was sharp, high-pitched scream that faded as quickly as it appeared.
“What was that?” said Galeli.
“Cut it,” said Ubik. Jace nodded. “Okay, I think that went quite well.”
“What did?” said Galeli.
“Jace,” said Captain Hickory. “What did you do?”
“It was brilliant,” said Jace. “Their signals designed to lock on and not let go. No one wants to be scanned, they have all sorts of ways to shield themselves and get free. What they don’t expect is someone to grab on and not let go.”
“That’s what you did?” said Galeli. “Grabbed onto their signal?”
“Forced them to stay connected long enough to send out a message,” said Ubik. “Once Grandma starts talking, there’s no getting away from her. Very chatty.”
“What did you send?” said PT, not sounding at all optimistic.
“A message to the ship, yes?” said Hickory.
“They wouldn’t be able to do much,” said Ubik. “We sent out a declaration of war.”
“That’s illegal,” said Weyla.
“Vendx will just deny sending it,” said Figaro, also not understanding. War had been outlawed for centuries. Any act of war was considered a war crime.
“Oh, it wasn’t them declaring war on us, it was us declaring war on the rest of the planet. That should bring everyone running.”
“When you say ‘us’?” said Galeli.
“The Free Volunteers Guild,” said Ubik.
“You committed a war crime,” said Weyla.
“Hey, it’s better than being killed,” said Ubik.
“The penalty for a war crime is death,” said Hickory.
“Only if you’re convicted,” said Ubik.
Figaro looked at PT. He was the only one who didn’t look panicked.
“What now, Ubik?” said PT.
“You think there’s more?” said Figaro.
“Oh, yes,” said PT. “Things are about to get a lot worse. Look at him. He can’t wait.”
Figaro looked at Ubik. He couldn’t read Ubik’s body movements but there was no mistaking that grin.