Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.
Gorbol Training Academy.
The laughter was not what Ubik had expected but being able to adapt to unexpected events was a vital skill, and one Ubik was well-versed in. His entire journey since he’d left the safety of his bunker had been a leap in the dark. He had managed to find his way.
He rolled with it, laughing along with the others, but clearly there was a gap in his knowledge — he had no idea what was so funny.
Living alone surrounded by ten trillion tons of junk helped to keep you focused on your technical goals, but it also encouraged you to block out most other information as needless trivia. How would knowing what the president of planet La-La was up to or how the king of planet Ding-Dong intended to revolutionise orbital housing make him any better at coupling retina leads together?
But now that he was out of his hermetically sealed home of the last ten years, he needed to catch up. Knowing too little would leave him vulnerable to being taken advantage of, and it would also make him stand out.
The Princep had given him a dark look when he had asked why there were no girls here, hopefully because he didn’t like jokers. Captain Hickory had looked at him in a similar fashion on board the Red Devil, but he’d been too busy to follow it up. The Princep might have more time on his hands.
“Please remember,” continued the Princep, his tight face even tighter, “you are not here to make friends and have a good time. The next six weeks will be the most important of your life and the foundation for how you will be treated in the future.”
There were threats and lures, carrot, stick, carrot, stick.
He should have made more of his time on the Red Devil, but as soon as they left the SSN Crown Jewel to carry on with whatever dubious business it had deep in the middle of nowhere, Gipper had taken Ubik to a small room and locked him in.
There was a platform that served as a bed (no sheets or pillows) and a toilet without a seat. And no console. It was a cell, but Ubik hadn’t been particularly worried. He had already doctored the ship’s computer system to obey him so he could have easily let himself out.
They didn’t see him as a threat. He hadn’t sensed panic in the crew or even concern. What he had sensed was excitement. They were planning their next move and their passenger was an unnecessary distraction, so they put him where he wouldn’t get in the way. Which was fine by him.
Ubik did end up getting a bit hungry, but not so much that he wanted to remind anyone he was still here. There had been a look in Captain Hickory’s eyes that suggested he would have had a few questions for Ubik, if he hadn’t been so preoccupied.
Let him stay busy. The crew had their business to occupy them and Ubik had his.
It took about four hours after that to get to Foxtrot-435. Gipper came to get him with a sandwich from a vending machine in his hand and an apology for not being a more attentive host. Ubik accepted both eagerly and asked nothing about the crew’s intentions regarding the other ship. None of his business.
Gipper had to fetch supplies from the FVG facility on the planet — food? guns? Bombs? — which conveniently also housed the training academy. Ubik got the strong feeling that had his destination and the ship’s not aligned so perfectly they would have thrown him out of an airlock with a tank of oxygen and their best wishes for a safe journey.
“You’ll like it here,” Gipper had told him as they flew down to the surface. “Beautiful place, not that you’ll see much of it while they drill some sense into you. City’s fun, though. People are real friendly, especially the girls. They like the idea of hooking up with a guy who might take them off to another world. Same as everywhere — no one knows how good they’ve got it until they get a few light years away from it.”
Ubik could tell Gipper was talking on auto-pilot, his mind probably busy with whatever big plan his captain had cooked up.
No one had noticed Ubik come on board, no one had noticed him leave, and he hadn’t seen the captain again. The perfect trip.
They touched down on the landing pad where there were two other shuttles already emptying their cargo of bewildered young men. Gipper had given him a pat on the back and a nudge towards a man with a clipboard, and then he’d run off to take care of more important matters.
Ubik was familiar with the nuances of existing within a large group. He had grown up in a street gang and had developed a keen instinct for the politics and survival tactics necessary to not end up a corpse in a ditch. He had been very young at the time which made him vulnerable despite his sharp mind and quick feet. Dropping out before others perceived him as a threat and decided to take care of him while he was still too weak to fight back had seemed the smart choice.
As he stood by the man taking names, Ubik sized up the other recruits and wasn’t unduly concerned. No one seemed like they were going to be a problem. Not a huge problem, at least. There was one genuinely tough looking piece of work — not like the ones flexing and trying to intimidate each other with mean looks — who Ubik wouldn’t want to mess with, but he was the strong silent type. Leave him alone and he’d leave you alone.
What Ubik did notice after Gipper’s recommendation of the local girls was the total and utter absence of any females.
It had struck him as odd. There had been girls in his gang — very tough girls who knew how to land a punch and wore jewellery with integrated tasers. He didn’t imagine all girls were like that, but the ones who weren’t didn’t last long on the streets.
He had seen girls on the ship that had brought him here, so the FVG obviously had no issue recruiting them. It was all a bit curious.
The Princep was still going on and on. It was all pretty meaningless. Ubik had absolutely no intention of going to any of these death traps the Antecessors had left behind. He was all for digging through junk no one wanted, but these aliens were clearly the possessive sort. Communal living had taught him to stay clear of the people who put labels on their stuff. They were the ones most likely to snap.
There was a challenge to it, for sure, but the rewards were organics, which weren’t much use to Ubik. When he’d been younger, the idea of obtaining amazing powers had been very appealing, but once he found out his CQ was a big fat zero, he lost all interest. Unlike electronics, there weren’t even any modifications or changes you could make to organics. Take it or leave it.
“Tomorrow you will be split into two groups and given your schedules,” said the Princep. “Until then, familiarise yourself with this place and ask your designated supervisor any questions.”
The Princep left the stage looking unhappy. Maybe he always looked like that. Ubik made a mental note to not bring himself to the man’s attention again.
Ubik was in Group A. Their supervisor was a man called Jodan Varruk, a middle-aged man in his thirties or forties, it was hard to tell. He had a face like a guard dog, watchful and hiding lots of teeth.
The sleeping arrangements were twelve beds in a long room. A door at the end led into a shower room, with three toilets against one wall. It was all very open-plan. After years of living on his own, the lack of privacy was going to be hard to get used to. These things were better ripped off like a plaster, get it over all in one go.
Ubik dropped his trousers and sat down on one of the toilets — at least these ones had a seat on them. The eleven others stood at the other end of the shower room as the supervisor finished explaining the times they would have free to take care of their personal hygiene needs and then everyone quickly exited without making eye contact with Ubik as he strained to relieve himself.
Alone again. He still had his bag with him and took out the soul cube.
“Hey, Grandma,” he said quietly.
“Oh my sweet child,” she responded equally quietly, an intuitive protocol built into the machine. It was impressive how good it was at mimicking actual speech.
“Did you have an organic implant?” He had never asked her before. There had never been a reason to.
“No, no. Couldn’t stand the idea of having some cold alien tech inside me. Oooh no.” The box seemed to shudder in his hand. “And I didn’t want to leave my family and go off with those crazy Seneca women.”
Ubik had heard of the Seneca Corps, of course. Ruthless nutjobs you had to stay clear of. Robbing one of them by mistake could ruin your whole day, because you’d be dead.
“Why would you have to go with them?”
Ubik learned for the first time about the reason for the Corps creation, and also about Grandma’s deep distrust of their true objectives.
“I have no problem with a woman loving another woman, but nobody should be forced into that sort of thing. It’s disgusting.”
Ubik was familiar with Grandma’s somewhat dubious political beliefs and had learned to take her views on society’s ills with a pinch of salt. As well as being a phenomenal engineer, she had been very religious when she’d been alive, and had transferred that zeal into her soul cube. Many of his non-technical questions ended up in a sermon about the searing fires of Hell. Fortunately, the box had an Off button and no short term memory.
Female organics all went to Seneca, at least they did in Grandma’s time. Was that still the case? It seemed so. Surely there were some who didn’t want to be constrained by the Seneca way of doing things. There really was a big gap in his education that he would have to fill now that he was a citizen of the galaxy and not just a boy hiding in a junkyard.
By the time Grandma had finished explaining the evils of girl on girl action (with some surprisingly detailed descriptions) his bum was cold and his legs were numb. He cleaned himself up — procuring his own supply of soft toilet paper went to the top of his to-do list — and returned to the dormitory. He planned to shower and get changed into the grey overalls left for each trainee on their bed. For the next couple of weeks he would be playing the role of Space Cadet Ubik.
The others were unpacking their gear. Everyone had their own locker with palm-print lock. Hardly secure and the guild instructors would have override access. He would make some adjustments.
“Who were you talking to in there?” said a flat-nosed thuggish man already in his greys. Ubik had marked him as trouble earlier, so he wasn’t surprised by the confrontation.
“Me? No one.”
“We all heard you whispering in there. You mental? You got some kind of illness?”
“No, man. I’m as sane as you.”
“Sure you are. Just dropped your trousers in front of everyone and took a dump. Power move, was it?”
“Hey, I had to go. It was a long flight here and the restrooms weren’t working. Can I get by? I need to take a shower. I’ll be doing it naked, but not because I’m trying to intimidate anyone.”
Three others came and stood behind Flat-nose. The committee. A weak play.
“We don’t need a weirdo in our group,” he said. “We have to live together, work together. You need to stay in line.”
Ubik smiled. He had wanted to get things moving along as quickly as possible and here were these nice boys helping him to get started. Taking control of this group was going to be easier than he’d thought.
Chapters are one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino