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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Main Hall.

Ubik moved surprisingly fast. One moment he was over by the main entrance to the hall, the next, he was at the other end of the room, exiting through the small door that led into the Academy’s back rooms and instructor-only areas.

Figaro watched him go from one end of the room to the other before realising Ubik was about to leave them all behind. Normally, Figaro would have been able to anticipate someone’s sudden flight, but with Ubik, it was never clear what he was going to do next. Probably not even to Ubik.

“Grab him,” said PT, running past Figaro.

Everyone had been caught flat-footed by all the sudden changes in direction. Attack, defend, run this way, run that way. Their collective faith in whatever Ubik had decided was their best chance of coming out of this alive had left them unable to think for themselves. Everyone was looking at everyone else.

What now? What should we do? Who’s in charge?

They’d fought Vendx to a standstill. Retreat seemed to be the opposite of what they should be doing. And where would they run to? The building was surrounded. The whole city was surrounded.

It was almost like this was what Ubik had been building up to — mass confusion that would allow him to pivot from one insanely unlikely gamble to the next. Perhaps that was giving him too much credit. Perhaps not enough. Figaro was just as confused as everyone else. Almost everyone else.

PT was already at the door. He seemed to be the only one keeping his focus on Ubik, instead of the chaos Ubik produced. “He’s going to do this solo if we don’t stop him.”

Was that bad? Figaro wondered. PT certainly seemed to think so.

“There’s three ships landing,” said Bev, who was nearest the open doors and leaning forward to see out.

“Close the doors,” Figaro shouted to whoever was willing to listen as he ran after PT. He reached the door and stopped before he ran into PT’s back. “What? Where did he go?”

PT turned around and shrugged. “No idea. We weren’t quick enough.”

Behind PT was a long passage with a roof but no walls. All around them were other similarly covered paths leading off to other parts of the Academy. On one side was the rear of the courtyard, on the opposite, a high wall. Figaro scanned the ground and walls but there was no sign of Ubik, no disturbance to indicate anyone had passed through here recently.

“Damn it,” said PT. “He’s going to do something incredibly risky, I can feel it.”

“Aren’t we relying a little too much on him?” said Figaro.

“Yes,” said PT. “But if we let him get any distance between us, he’s more likely to use us as bait or collateral. If he’s standing next to you, he’s less likely to call down an airstrike on your position. Slightly less likely.”

Figaro considered it a cold interpretation of Ubik’s actions — a willful disregard for anyone else unless they directly impacted Ubik’s chances of survival — but that didn’t mean it was wrong.

“Do you want to go find him?” said Figaro.

“No point. I’m not good enough to track him if he doesn’t want to be tracked. What about you?”

Figaro shook his head. “I need to study him more, and even then…”

They turned around and re-entered the hall. There were other matters to deal with, as Ubik only knew too well.

The Seneca women were barricading the main entrance with furniture they’d ripped out of their fittings. It probably wouldn’t make much of a difference but it at least gave them something to do.

Captain Hickory was standing with his crew, leaning over Jace who had his hand inside the drone he’d been working on.

“You’re the one who made it,” said Hickory. “Unmake it.”

“I can’t,” said Jace. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s too strong. We can’t break the shield with a signal, not with the equipment I have here.”

“But they can’t get through, either,” said Princep Galeli. “They can’t give their people instructions.”

“The Termination Team is autonomous,” said Figaro. “They’ll just make a clean sweep of everything in their path.”

“Then why haven’t they?” said Gipper, clinging to the large weapon he had come in with and refused to put down.

He was right, there had been enough time for the Termination Team — all three of them — to start their assigned task. Figaro looked around the hall.

“They might be waiting for them.” Figaro pointed at the eleven Vendx organics who were still lying on the ground in their underwear. “They represent a sizeable investment the company might not be willing to sacrifice.”

“Are you trying to think like Ubik?” said PT.

“I’m trying to think like Vendx,” said Figaro. “They can’t negotiate through their PR department, not with the drone shield still up, and the Termination Team only know how to terminate things. Someone needs to give the kill command and they haven’t. Yet.”

“What do we do once the rest of them regain consciousness?” asked Weyla, walking over to the Vendx assistant manager who was still in his suit and very dead. She prodded him in the stomach with her boot to make sure.

“Just knock them out again,” said Bev, holding one of the guns the assault team had dropped. She aimed at the ground, one eye closed, and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. “How did he get it to fire?”

“We should just kill them,” said Leyla, standing next to her sister. “They’ll only pose more of a problem if they wake up. They may be lousily trained, but they still have organics that can do a lot of damage.” She pulled out her own gun and aimed it at the nearest Vendx head.

“No,” said Figaro. “They might not be able to get a signal up on their ships, but the Termination Team will be reading their life signs from down here. It’s probably what’s stalling them, for now. You kill them and it’ll be like firing a starter’s pistol.”

“Then what?” said Weyla. “Tie them up and serve them meals twice a day?”

Figaro paused to gauge the atmosphere in the room. To his surprise, he realised every one of them was looking at him. Had he just become the leader? It didn’t feel like he had earned it. More that their reluctant acceptance of Ubik’s orders had left them in need of a focal point, and a strong desire not to be it themselves. Not so much leader as someone to complain to and blame.

“Let’s move them,” said Figaro. “They won’t be that hard to transport to the simulation room if we work together.”

“Why are we going to…” Hickory stopped mid-sentence. “Oh, I see. Yes. It will hold them for now.”

Between the nine of them, they were able to carry and drag the eleven surviving Vendx organics through the rear door and to the simulation room via a series of empty hallways.

Once there, the limp bodies were each put into a chair and hooked up to the machine. Princep Galeli operated the console. “They’ll wake up in a cell, unable to get out.”

“And once they realise they’re in a sim-U?” asked Gipper, still holding onto his gun like a comforter.

“They’ll know almost immediately. They can’t break out unless they have very specific skills, which they don’t seem to have.”

“But they could break out?” said Gipper.

“Yes,” said Galeli. “Anything is possible.”

“One problem solved,” said PT. “Now, how do we take care of the Termination Team?”

“I could hand myself over,” said Figaro. “I probably have a reasonable chance of escaping once I’m on their orbital ship.”

“Won’t they just kill the rest of us, then?” asked PT.

“If they knew who my parents are, then undoubtedly yes. They couldn’t afford to leave behind witnesses. But as long as they think I’m just a trainee who stumbled onto an anomaly, they will probably cut their losses while they still have the chance. Ubik did convince them there would be someone on the other end of his message. The longer they hang around, the more chance of being discovered.”

“I don’t think you should go alone,” said Weyla, glancing at her sister. “It is our duty to protect you.”

“No,” said Figaro, “it isn’t. Your presence would only make them suspicious about my true identity. This is the only way to make them think they have come out ahead. A net gain means a win to them. You’re welcome to contact my mother once you leave here.” He sighed. “I had hoped not to rely on my family while I was on my own, but it seems events have conspired against me. What I found on the Origin is too important to risk leaving in the hands of a corporation like Vendx.”

Figaro felt the sincerity of his own words and was convinced by them. His idea was certainly risky, but what other options were there?

One of the Vendx organics began shaking in his chair, his chest jumping.

“He’s fine,” said Princep Galeli, checking the readings. “Just trying to break out, not strong enough to override the system blocks I put in place.”

“I think I can hear something,” said Jace. He had brought his gear with him and had set it up in the corner, using some of the equipment in the simulation room to help boost his signal.

“Is it the Motherboard?” asked Hickory.

“No,” said Jace. “I think it’s…”

“Hello, hello? Anyone? This is Chief Engineer Ulanov.”

“Yes, this is Chief Supervisor Mayden.”

“How did he get a signal through?” said Hickory, in an accusing tone.

“He didn’t,” said Jace. “He’s speaking to someone down here. They must have sent down a mobile control unit so they could stay in contact with their teams.”

If they weren’t able to maintain a connection from orbit, they would come down here themselves.

“Did Trainee Ubik know this would happen?” said Galeli, sounding impressed. “He left us to hold off the Termination Team while he prepared for their leader’s arrival?”

It didn’t sound that far-fetched, to be honest. With the shield blocking all communication, how else was the Chief Supervisor meant to supervise?

“He’s got to have a plan, right?” said Bev, hopeful.

Figaro looked at PT, who didn’t look hopeful. He was straining to listen, like he was afraid he might miss something.

“Listen, Chief Supervisor, I think there’s something you should know. This trainee you’ve been sent to pick up, he isn’t just some kid with no connections. He’s Ramon Ollo’s son. You know who that is, of course.”

There was a pause but one that felt like it was being held by someone choosing their words correctly. “You’re sure about this.”

“Absolutely. You know what will happen if he finds out you took his son. You understand why your superiors want this kept very quiet. But you have to bring him in, you can’t just bomb the place to pieces from orbit. I can help you, for a price. I can give you the Ollo boy.”

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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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