Gorbol Training Academy.
The room’s attention was on Ubik. Ubik’s attention was on himself. He needed to think of a way to get everyone to do what he told them. Obviously, he couldn’t just ask, that would never work. He had to convince them some other way. He was making a mental inventory of everything he had on him that might come in useful.
“What are we doing?” said Captain Hickory. “We need to get out of here.”
“There is nowhere to go,” said Princep Galeli. “Once we leave the building, we’ll be even easier targets.”
He seemed resigned to making some kind of last stand. Ubik would have to keep an eye on him. People who thought they were doing the heroic thing were the ones who usually screwed it up for everyone else. There had been many times when one of his carefully worked plans had fallen apart because someone else decided to go out in a blaze of stupidity.
“There’s always a way out, Gal,” said Hickory. “You know that.”
Galeli looked at Fig then back to Hickory. “I’ll take my chances here. You are free to make your own decision, of course.”
“And the rest of the Academy?” said Hickory. “The trainees and the instructors — what about them? Shouldn’t you at least give them a fighting chance?”
“They are safest where they are now,” said Galeli.
The two men were on the verge of getting into a fight over the best way not to end up dead.
“Okay, alright, let’s not give up hope quite yet,” said Ubik.
Hickory turned to face Ubik, his eyes glowing red and his hair crackling with static. “I don’t know what you are or what makes you think you can take on the whole Vendx corporation alone, but you aren’t in your junkyard now. You can’t run and you can’t hide.”
Ubik felt like Hickory’s gaze was going right through him. He didn’t mind it. He had nothing to hide.
“I’m not the person Vendx are interested in,” said Ubik. “He is.” He pointed at Fig, who didn’t react. “We’re just lucky they haven’t figured out who his father is.”
“Wouldn’t that make them more likely to back off?” said PT.
“Would it?” Ubik said, passing on the question to Fig.
Fig frowned. “I don’t know. They should… but something tells me they would seriously consider the other option.”
“What’s the other option?” asked Bev. She was clearly the most junior person in the hall, but undaunted by the situation. Ubik wondered if that could be of some use to him.
“To vaporise the city and leave no evidence behind,” said Fig.
Ubik was impressed. He hadn’t thought Fig would be so astute about such matters.
“But if they knew who your mother was…” said Weyla.
“Oh,” said Ubik, “is your mother famous, too?”
“She has… a reputation,” said Fig.
“They wouldn’t dare touch you,” insisted Weyla. “The whole Corps would—”
“I am not a woman,” said Fig. “And my mother would only be able to blame the personnel here right now, who I’m sure Vendx consider expendable.” He turned to Ubik. “They’re going to go into maintenance mode, aren’t they?”
Ubik nodded, finding it harder and harder not to be impressed. But then, if Fig really was Ramon Ollo’s son, he grew up with access to all the information in the known worlds, even the artificially constructed ones.
“What does that mean?” said Bev.
“It means,” said Ubik, “full automation with no input from the control ship — no human involvement. That’s how they avoid taking responsibility for their crimes. They don’t order anyone’s death or destruction, they leave their systems to decide while they’re undergoing their regular updates. An algorithm decides if a threat needs to be neutralised while normal readings aren’t available to the bridge.”
“Isn’t it obvious what they’re doing?” said Bev. “If they turn on auto-pilot every time things get messy, and everyone winds up dead, someone has to notice.”
“They go into maintenance mode all the time,” said Ubik. “Every day. Several times a day. No one dies, usually. Maybe point five percent of the time there’s a need to open fire while there isn’t a human hand on the controls. That’s well within acceptable limits for statistical variance. And the Central Authority is hardly likely to find issue with it since they operate in the exact same manner.”
“That isn’t right,” said Bev. “It’s abusing the system.”
“You should read their promotional material. Ninety-nine point five percent of Vendx customer interactions are rated four stars or higher. Those are good numbers.”
Bev’s face twisted as she matched up the numbers. “And they only end up killing people point five percent of the time.”
Ubik smiled. “Now you’re getting it.”
“At least tell us what you plan to do,” said Hickory.
“Nothing,” said Ubik. “We’re waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” asked Hickory.
“The resurrection protocol. That’s how we’ll know we’ve entered maintenance mode.”
“And what is—” Before Hickory could finish asking his question, there was a buzz of sudden activity all around them. The suits lying on the ground began to move, awkwardly twitching and bumping against each other. Then they one by one got to their feet, their limbs moving like puppets with strings attached.
“I thought they were dead,” said Bev, backing away towards Hickory, which was the only direction not containing a battlesuit.
“They are,” said Ubik. “The suits are being controlled by the drone shield above us. No signal gets past them, but they can send their own signals. It’s us against the machines now.”
He walked in between the suits, all standing still like statues, inspecting them closely.
“What are you looking for?” asked PT.
“No idea,” said Ubik. “I’ll know it when I see it.”
The suits all took a step forward. It was strangely hypnotic because of the way they moved exactly at the same time. They began marching to different parts of the hall, but every movement was crisply synchronised so they all moved at the same time and paused at the exact same moment.
The reached the walls and turned around, forming a perimeter around everyone.
“They aren’t armed and no one is controlling them,” said Weyla. “We can destroy them before they can do anything to us.”
“No don’t do that. They still have disruptors,” said Ubik, “although they may let you go, since you’re Seneca. See if they stop you.”
Weyla approached one of the suits. It didn’t react to her. “We can leave?” she said to her sister.
The two women began slowly moving towards the main door.
“Hey, wait,” said Ubik. “Take her with you.” He pointed at Bev.
“I’m not leaving,” said Bev.
“I’m not trying to save you,” said Ubik. “You can go to your ship and get help.”
“Oh,” said Bev, looking at Captain Hickory for approval. He nodded and Bev moved to follow the other women. The suits instantly shifted to focus on Bev.
“I don’t think I pass the test.”
“Can’t you act more Seneca? Be more assertive and full of anger. PT, can’t you give her some tips on how to move like a woman?”
“Hey, I already move like a woman,” said Bev.
“I know that,” said Ubik placatingly. “I mean a real woman.”
“I can’t train her in five minutes,” said PT. “Her whole body is wrong.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Bev.
“Okay,” said Ubik, “we’ll just use them to help us instead.”
“Help us do what?” asked Galeli.
“I’ll show you, just a sec.” Ubik ran to the part of the gallery he and PT had come down from. He climbed up the support column back to the suit PT had been inside of.
“Don’t start any fights,” he called down in case anyone was considering a final showdown. The two Seneca women still hadn’t left, which was interesting.
The empty suit was just as they’d left it. The lights were on indicating power but this suit had not joined in with the others, which was just what Ubik had hoped. This suit was already outside of the network when they first came across it. Whatever the issue was, the connection to the network had been compromised. Ubik climbed inside. The right arm was missing, but otherwise it seemed to be in good shape.
“By now,” he shouted down, “the Vendx researchers will have evaluated the situation and decided if it’s worth pursuing.”
He began running through the onboard software as he continued to speak. The others were less likely to do something if they thought he was going to tell them something they needed to know.
“Resurrection mode,” he continued, “suggests they’re still interested in harvesting Fig for their R&D department. They can scrape up his DNA after we’ve all been shredded, but that’ll be very messy and won’t provide all the answers they need.”
The suit’s systems came back online and he felt the magnetic anchor lift. He could move.
He walked the suit to the guard rail and jumped over it, landing on the ground with a loud thump. The other suits ignored him.
“I’m just one of them now.”
They were all giving him dubious looks, which was understandable. The suit had an arm missing and was a generation older than the other, more polished suits standing sentry around the hall. They weren’t seeing the suit through his eyes.
He began to move the left arm in a waving motion while stepping back and forth, back and forth.
“What are you doing?” asked Fig. He didn’t seem quite as dubious as the others, just curious.
“Connecting to the network,” said Ubik.
“By dancing?” asked PT.
“No. I’m establishing an uplink but trying to avoid releasing control at the same time. Commands are given at the start and stop of movements. Every step has a tiny pause at the beginning and end, which is when the command code is entered. If you never stop or start…”
The readout on the HUD was showing an attempt to find a local server. Three dots blinked at him endlessly.
The room was just watching him step to the right, step to the left, twist and turn.
“But why?” asked Bev. “What good is being on the network going to do? Can you hack into their command system?”
“Nope, it’s isolated during maintenance mode.” Turn and turn, arm round clockwise and point to the side, round in the opposite direction and point to the other side. The important thing was to keep moving.
“Do you think he knows what he’s doing?” asked Hickory, his anger softened now by mild confusion.
“Who knows?” said Galeli.
Ubik liked it when people were too confused to hit anyone and in particular him. “Like I was saying, they probably still want Fig, so that means an extraction unit sent in to find out why the network went down, or at least that’s what the report will say. They arrive just before the rest of us die and Fig gets yoinked, records show they arrived just after all of us died, no survivors. Not hard to fake.”
The suit next to Ubik dancing twitched.
“The way the network functions, by the way, is on a sympathetic neural link. It’s much more efficient to all move at the same time, so everything on the network will snap to the grid whenever possible. Like this.”
The suits on either side of Ubik stepped forward and began copying his movements. As odd and clunky as they looked, with three of them performing them in perfect synchronicity, it took on a bizarre elegance.
Ubik moved around the hall, collecting more and more suits until he had a whole dance troupe at his back.
“The team they’ll send will be organics, by the way. Six, probably. Selected to deal with us as quickly as possible. No point fighting them. They’ll be here in an hour or so, we have time to—”
The main door burst open and twelve red-eyed soldiers stormed in. They were early.