Ubik did his best not to look guilty. It was a hard thing to do and usually made you look even guiltier, but Ubik had grown up in this city, at least partially, and knew a thing or two about surviving under duress.
“Oh, wow, are you a guilder? Do I get one of those outfits when I join? Are you on a mission on E4? Are you here to—”
“Hey, hey, hey, chill out, newbie,” said the scav, grinning as he lapped up the adulation. “What have you done to the poor kid, Yani? Got him all pumped up about joining the guild and becoming a hero?”
“Course not,” said Yani, affronted by the accusation. “He’s just got the fever. We were all like that once, weren’t we? Do anything to get off our own rock and go see what the other lights in the sky looked like.”
“True enough,” said the scav. “Try to calm yourself, kid. At this rate, first time you go through a wormhole, you’re liable to explooode.” He wiggled his fingers as he pulled his hands apart to simulate a big bang.
The best way to hide an emotion wasn’t by suppressing it, it was by masking it with another one. This guy liked to be flattered and feel like he was special. It was obvious in the way he strutted around. Ubik was happy to play the giddy fanboy if it kept him from being recognised — he’d had his goggles on in the junkyard and the change in clothes and the slicked down hair probably helped. He certainly didn’t smell the same.
“Your gear,” said Ubik, keeping his excited tone but dropping the volume a bit, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
His eyes ran up and down the scav’s flight suit which was practically moulded to his body. In this case, he didn’t even have to act, it really was an impressive outfit. There were copper-coloured strips running all over it, most likely to power attachments. What did it look like fully decked out? This man wasn’t the organic who had followed him into the tunnels but he probably had a bunch of tronics implanted. He could probably take down an entire city block by himself, as long as no one pulled the plug on his power source. Ubik fingered the small discs in his pocket.
“This old thing?” said the scav. “This is basic. You can pick one of these up in the guild shop for next to nothing.”
“Hey, come on, Gipper,” said Yani. “Don’t give him misleading information. That’s an S-grade suit. You won’t be able to afford one of them for a while. A long while.”
The scav rolled his eyes. “Yani, how do you ever expect to get off this pile of garbage if you don’t learn the art of salesmanship?”
“No thank you, I’ll stick to the facts and rely on common sense. Salesmanship won’t help anyone when they’re being shelled from orbit while trying to take the next ridge.”
The scav shook his head. “You lucked out, newbie, managed to find the last honest man in the quadrant. He’ll be straight with you, no worries.”
Ubik had noticed the sergeant’s tendency to keep his recruitment pitch grounded in facts, giving Ubik a realistic appraisal of what he could expect. It wasn’t how he thought he’d be treated, the guild’s reputation being rather more mercenary since that’s what they were.
“This man,” said Gipper, “best quartermaster in the guild. When you’re out there, in the thick of it, you need someone to run logistics, make sure you have what you need, when you need it. They try to give us software to take care of that stuff, but you always end up running out of supplies just at the worst possible moment. Not this guy. He could do it better than anyone with one hand tied behind his back. Just as well, huh?” He laughed.
“Very funny,” said Yani, but he didn’t seem at all offended. “You wait until I’m back to full health. Then you’ll be back to begging me for favours. Yani, can I have some booster pills. Yani, have you got a spare medpak. Yani, let me borrow that shield charger for a sec.”
Gipper laughed again. “Too right I will. Until then, Yani, can I get the ship booked for an exit window?”
“You’re leaving?” said Ubik. “You finished your mission?” He was still playing up the fanboy angle. It seemed to put the scav most at ease.
“No big deal, just a minor drag and drop job, not everything we do is glamorous and worthy of a viral video, although I’ve been in a few of them in my time.” He seemed to puff up whenever he spoke of his exploits. “You’ve probably seen me in one. No? Well next time you do, make sure you hit that like button. I run my own channel, nice way to supplement the income. Got to keep busy, even when there’s not much going on in the universe.” He made it sound like anything not involving him didn’t count.
“Can you wait a minute? I was just about to give this young man a CQ test.”
Ubik raised his hands, anxious to please. “I don’t mind if you want to take care of Mr Gipper first.”
“No, no,” said Gipper. “Go ahead. You never know, this could be the big one, the hundred percenter people have been predicting for the last millennium. I wouldn’t want to miss that.” He folded his arms and looked full of anticipation.
“I’m sure that won’t happen,” said Ubik, completely certain it wouldn’t.
“Don’t be so negative,” said Gipper. “That’s the great thing about CQ, it doesn’t discriminate, anyone can be a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.”
“Yes, but not a hundred percent compatibility,” said Ubik. “That’s impossible, isn’t it? What’s the highest CQ in the guild?”
“Commander Shukler,” said Yani. “Sixty-two percent. Let’s get started then, if Gipper here says it’s alright.”
“Sixty-two?” said Ubik, stunned. The highest he’d heard of were in the thirties.
“Sixty-two point four. The man’s a beast,” said Gipper. “Absolute monster. Whole planets shit themselves when he looks in their direction.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Ubik. “What organics does he have?”
“You think we share that kind of information?” said Gipper. “You get through the training and get security clearance and then you’ll find out. Needless to say, the man can integrate himself with just about anything.”
Ubik placed his chin on the rest halfway up the machine and put his hand in the slot at the bottom.
“Right, keep still,” said Yani. “Oh, wait, the damn things out of juice. I could have sworn it was fully recharged…”
“Losing your touch, Yani?” said Gipper.
Ubik casually returned the disc to his pocket. It was risky carrying out ‘adjustments’ on the testing machine with two people watching, but neither considered him someone capable of the things he was capable of, and people were good at not seeing things they didn’t think were possible.
“Can’t you just plug it in?” said Ubik, doing his best to sound like someone who had no idea what they were talking about.
“I suppose,” said Yani. “Not sure I have the right cables, though. The recharge port is different from the power port on this model for some reason.”
Ubik hadn’t expected them to not have a power cable, or for the new model to have different ports for recharging and power supply. Ridiculous, although something he should have predicted. It was a common ploy of manufacturers to sell more accessories.
“What about this?” said Gipper, pulling out a cable from the pocket on his leg. “Universal adapter.”
“It’ll void the warranty,” said Yani.
“So? We’ll just get a new one if it breaks. Come on, Yani, the boy’s got something special, I can feel it.”
Yani snatched the cable and plugged it into the machine and the other end into the power point in the floor, grumbling to himself the whole time. Ubik was glad the scav was here now. It would have been awkward if Ubik had suddenly had just the right cable on him. Which he did.
The machine hummed into life as it connected to the building’s power supply, which in turn was connected to Ubik’s device. Hacking the machine wirelessly would be easily detected, but it would be much harder to spot foreign code piggybacked on a live electrical feed. Most people wouldn’t even know it was possible.
Ubik placed his body parts back in position and waited for Yani to activate the tester. There was a gentle hum, followed by a sharp prick in his finger. His left eye filled with light and the room suddenly fell away from him, like he’d been thrown across the room, and then came rushing back. The entire process only took a few seconds.
Yani was holding a small screen in his hand, looking at the result, his mouth slightly hanging open.
“What is it?” said Gipper. “Have we hit the jackpot?”
“Um, no. Not exactly.” He held up the screen. The result was 14.8%.
“Nice!” said Gipper, sounding genuinely pleased. “I knew it. I told you. Well done, kid. You better notify Command.”
Ten percent was the cut-off. Fifteen was considered something special, but Ubik had decided to come in just under. He wanted to be welcomed with open arms, but not kept in a watchful embrace. Twenty plus, and they would have thrown him a parade.
His score was enough to get him into their training facility. There would be a retest at some point and they would learn the truth, but he planned to be long gone before then. He knew what his real score was, and it was well below the threshold. It was below every threshold. It was zero.
Gipper had been right, he was special. Zero was the most rare result of all.
Everyone had a trace of CQ. Most people had under one percent, but even they could partially integrate, if they wanted to experience constant pain for the rest of their lives. He wasn’t sure, but Lexi probably had a CQ of six or seven. Enough to run a weak organic. Hers wasn’t weak, though, when it worked. It enabled her to move objects from a distance — useful for a thief, especially if the target was otherwise distracted, which they usually were when she was in her prime. But as time passed, a weak connection became harder to maintain. It was unwise to force it, and better to use simpler organics if you wanted to avoid suffering later in life.
Zero percent was incredibly unusual. If Ubik tried to integrate with an organic it would kill him immediately.
“Does that mean I’ll get accepted to the advanced training course?” asked Ubik innocently.
“Yes, yes.” Yani had his fist in his mouth, biting on the knuckle. He had tears in his eyes. “If you graduate the course, I’ll… I’ll be able to get a new arm.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Ubik. There was no way he was going to graduate. He didn’t expect to be there for more than a week or two. “Is it far? The facility, I mean.”
“No,” said Gipper. “Not far. Practically round the corner. I went there, myself.”
“You have an organic?” said Ubik.
“Nope. On the waiting list. Need to find just the right piece. The better suited you are, the higher the chance of full integration.”
Ubik nodded like this was all new and exciting information. In reality, he had no interest in any of it.
“Through here, through here,” said Yani, jumping up and leading the way through another door that slid open to let him by.
Inside was a large room full of screens and consoles and a plethora of other advanced technologies that made Ubik’s mouth salivate. This was what the FVG was really about — total control of every situation. Cameras watched the street, the skies, the heat signatures of people in a block’s radius. Only one screen was blacked out.
“Damn,” said Yani. “The camera on the roof’s not working. Did you guys knock it over?”
“Of course not,” said Gipper. “Perfect landing as always.”
Yani hit some buttons and the screen came to life, revealing a small ship covered in scorch marks, wings folded vertically, sitting on the roof. Ubik swallowed hard. If the ship had arrived a few minutes earlier, disabling the cameras would have not saved him from being spotted.
“What is going on today?” said Yani. “Whole place is on the fritz. I’ll send off the results to your test. Should get an immediate answer, but you’ll have to wait for a transport to come pick you up. Might take a few days. Depends what’s available.”
“We’ll give him a lift,” said Gipper. “It’s on our way.”
“You sure,” said Yani.
“Course. Have to ask the captain, first, but I’m sure he won’t mind helping out a fellow guilder.” He put an arm around Ubik’s shoulder and then hooked his around the neck. “One of us now, eh? You’ll like the captain. He’s got a good eye for talent. He’s got really good eyes. He’ll recognise your talent right away, I bet, know exactly what kind of organic would suit you best.”
Ubik didn’t know what to say. If the captain was the organic from before, and his implant was attached to his eyes, would he be able to recognise Ubik? Would he know his CQ score was a fake? How was Ubik going to turn down a free ride without raising any suspicions?
“That’d be great,” said Ubik, his mind racing. “I’ve never been in a spaceship before.” Think fast, Ubik, think fast.