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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain - orbit.

VGV Motherboard.

CS Robri Mayden was in the chair. It had taken him many years of relentless effort to become the chief supervisor of one of Vendx’s flagship vessels. There wasn’t another ship in the entire fleet that could match the specs of the Motherboard, and the only bigger ships were the ones used for transport.

“Extraction team has reached the target location,” said a sharp, excited voice in his left ear as the message scrolled across his vision. The voice belonged to his onboard text-to-speech application which could imitate tone and emotional content of a message as well as the words.

“Keep me apprised,” he said back. His message was converted to text and sent. Every communication between Vendx employees was recorded and filed for future analysis and training purposes.

He should have been overseeing the rebuilding of Genarys Prime, a world devastated by ecological disasters which was now correcting the mistakes of the past with a long-term contract with Vendx to completely reconstruct their infrastructure. Smart Sewer™, PowerGrid™, Oceanx™, HorizonTime™. Somehow, the sales team had convinced the civic leaders to accept the full catalogue option, the first time anyone had gone all-in across the entire range.

Having the Motherboard there to oversee the fitting would have added that extra touch of class. A sign to the customer that they were getting the premium experience, the huge ship in orbit visible to anyone with a magnifying device or to anyone in possession of a Vendx Super-I™ ocular implant — and even to those with a similar, inferior product from one of Vendx’s rivals.

Not that there would be any need to worry about the competition in the future with the non-competitor clause banning Genarys Prime from signing of any non-Vendx contracts for the next thirty standard years.

Yes, a very successful transaction for the company and a nice bonus for those involved. As the CS of the flagship, his cut would have been considerable and the demands on his time minimal.

But instead, he’d been sent to this tiny planet in the least interesting part of the quadrant to extract an FVG trainee. And it was not going according to plan. In fact, it was going somewhere entirely different, and nobody seemed to know where.

“Have you got a lock on the message’s destination?” he growled into the comm, his own ocular implant (Super-I plus™) isolating the message to the forward observatory with a glance to the top right of his HUD.

“No, Chief Supervisor.”

“Have you managed to block it?” He would have normally kept his voice low and calm, the comm microphone being able to predict the intended tone and apply the appropriate macro to his words, but he was far too aggravated to need the software to modify his tone. His irritation at having been redirected to this pick-up assignment, like some common delivery barge, was rapidly turning into anger because of the poor performance of everyone beneath him. And they were all beneath him.

“No, Chief Supervisor.”

“Why the hell not? Rip it out of the space stream it’s embedded in, brute force if you have to.”

“I’ve tried, sir. It’s unlike any signal encryption I’ve ever seen. The Headzup says it isn’t even a message.”

“Obviously it’s a message,” said Mayden. “That’s how we were able to read it.”

“I think… Sir, my guess is that we were meant to see part of the message.”

“Is that what Headzup told you?”

“No, sir.”

“Then where in the checklist did—”

“This configuration isn’t on the checklist. Nothing about the message observes standardised broadcast etiquette. Not even a handshake port for identification. It’s like someone cut off all the free optional extras available.”

“Why would they cut off the free extras?” said Mayden. “They’re free.”

“I don’t know, sir. It doesn’t make sense.”

None of this made any sense. The largest, most powerful, most modern ship in the entire fleet sent here to grab some miscreant who’d been fooling around with a simulation machine. It happened all the time, some eager machine-head trying to uncover some of Vendx’s secrets. If they were good enough, they got offered a very lucrative contract to come work for Vendx, not that they had much option but to accept. The alternative was termination.

And suddenly they were in the middle of some primitive declaration of war between technological cave dwellers. Or that’s what they were meant to think and back off. Who would even consider playing a bluff in such a tense situation? No strategy software he could think of would make such a low-scoring suggestion. What was the chance of success? One percent? Half a percent?

“Disrupt the stream,” he said.

“The whole stream? The data loss would be quadrant-wide.”

“Complete block, no signals in or out, make it dead, now.”

He glanced to the left, the chair he was strapped and wired into turning with his neck muscles. “Information Desk, have you found anything on this Ulanov character?”

“No, sir. Nothing. It’s like he doesn’t exist.” Nervous, hesitant. You couldn’t hide your true feelings on the Motherboard.

“What are you people even doing? Did you access the guild records?”

“Full archive access, sir.”

“And he isn’t listed?”

“No, sir. I’ve tried alternative spellings and cross-referenced by job title. No person with the necessary skills or certification to compromise our systems is on their roster.”

“Full archive dive?”

“Everything except the restricted section.”

There was an understanding between Vendx and its customers that from time to time access of files was required, but there would be some areas exempt. Everyone had their secrets. But this went beyond account numbers and financial records.

“Crack it.”

“Sir, that would violate our contract with—”

“You don’t think they haven’t already voided the agreement by employing this hacker to compromise our systems? Whoever he is, if they need to keep his details in their restricted files, it only proves they hired him illegally. Break it open.”

“I can’t do it without them being aware of it.”

“Do it.”

Whatever this Ulanov character’s background was, he was a person of interest now. His qualifications would reveal how he had done all of this, and how to counter him.

“Commander Creed of the Octanaria is hailing us, sir.”

“Put him through. Yes, Commander?”

“Chief Supervisor, did you see the message?”

“Yes, of course. It was a decoy.”

“A decoy, are you sure? We were able to decipher part of it and—”

“A decoy, Commander. Ignore it.” He wished he was as confident about it as he sounded. “Observatory, did you disrupt the stream?”

“Sending the code to the carrier ship now, sir.”

Mayden switched back to the Commander of the Octanaria. “Is the drone shield holding?”

“Yes, of course.” The man sounded offended at the question when he had no right to be. If he’d taken care of this as he was supposed to, Mayden wouldn’t need to clear up the mess he’d made. “We have the whole sky over the city, one hundred percent peak coverage, with a ninety-three percent median.”

“Only ninety-three?”

“That’s four points above the minimum requirement,” Creed responded tersely.

“Good,” said Mayden. At least the man had some pride in his work. “Make sure you keep it there. I expect them to try and brown-out the system.”

“What? How?”

“I don’t know yet, but keep on top of it. If they break through, it’s going to cost us a lot more than our performance bonuses. I assume you’ve put out the fire in your hull.”

“That was a minor fault.”

“Did you reauthenticate?”

“No, we didn’t have time. Why would we need to—”

“Do it. The explosion may not have been an internal malfunction.”

“Wh-wh… you think they… Who are these people?”

“I don’t know, but they wouldn’t have sent me if this was a regular pick-up.” He was only just beginning to realise that himself. “They may be keeping details from us for security reasons.”

“That doesn’t help us get the job done,” said Creed.

“No, but it does mean we can make a blind-entry claim, assuming we can take the target alive.”

“Yes, yes, you’re right. Is the extraction team on site?”

“They’ve just breached. Keep the sky clear for them.”

“Yes, Chief Supervisor. You can count on it.”

The man was a true professional and Mayden felt confident that the mention of a bonus claim had focused him on the task at hand. They had to take the target alive, that had been very explicit in the order. Personally, he would have liked to have bombed the city from orbit and made a slingshot around the planet to be back on his way, but there was clearly something special about this individual. He was looking forward to finding out what it was as soon as the package was on board.

“Chief Supervisor, we’ve lost contact with the extraction team.”

“What? The comms are down?”

“No, sir. They aren’t responding. Life signs aren’t showing.”

Mayden’s throat went dry. Who were these people? He couldn’t afford to let this assignment slip out of his hands, no matter what.

“Deploy termination team.”

“Sir?”

“Do it.”

“B-b-but which team?”

“All of them.”

***

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Main Hall.

Point-Two was almost sure he was going to die. As much as he admired Ubik’s ability to work miracles under pressure, even he would be hard-pressed to beat twelve organics with his dancing army of battlesuits.

As if things weren’t lopsided enough, the suit Ubik was in had an arm missing, so he could only synch up with the left arm of each suit behind him. What could he get them to do in the face of certain death? A synchronised wave goodbye?

To his credit, Ubik had managed to stop the invaders in their tracks. The sight of Ubik prancing around with twenty suits mimicking his every move would give anyone a moment’s pause. But they were about to resume their assault, Point-Two could see it in the shift of weight in their bodies.

Point-Two looked around to see what everyone else was planning to do, but they seemed to be as confounded by Ubik’s antics as the assault team. All except Jace. He was furiously operating his tools inside the drone that had been following Ubik around, with the soul box containing Ubik’s grandma sitting on top shaking and twitching.

Was it still connected to the network? Was Ubik just trying to buy time while Jace and the soul box tried to achieve some task Ubik had set them?

Point-Two had no way of knowing, but if buying time was all they needed to do, then he could help. He checked what Fig was doing but there was no sign of him. Was everyone in on the plan but him?

The Vendx organics were on the move, ready to bring the curtain down on Ubik for the last time. Point-Two ran forward, aiming to use one of the battlesuits to hide his movements, just in time to see Ubik fly past him in the other direction, a large hole in the middle of his chest.

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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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