Gorbol Training Academy.
Barracks: Group A
Ubik felt he had maybe five minutes before the guy with the flat nose decided to use his fists. He looked the type who thought a swift punch in the gut was worth a thousand words.
“Hey, I’m not trying to start anything,” said Ubik, at his calmest when there was nowhere to run. If he was going to get beaten up, so be it. Not like he would get killed so might as well play out the hand.
“Sure,” said the guy, tense and hands balled up, ready. He was taller than Ubik, they all were. He had an earnest expression on his face, though. Not someone who played games, not someone who was likely to fall for a bunch of fast-talk from someone he didn’t like. “You don’t want to start anything, but you like shooting off your mouth, think you’re smart and funny. Drop your pants and swing your dick around for a joke. Big kidder. I knew guys like you in prison. They’d stopped caring about what would happen to them, so they stopped caring about what would happen to anyone else. Bring the whole place down if they could, and then laugh their asses off.”
The three guys standing behind were picking up on his tone. They were slowly changing into a more righteous mindset, Ubik could feel their outlook sobering up because of this guy. This wasn’t a beatdown anymore, this was an intervention with a side-order of whoop-ass.
“You were in prison?” said Ubik. “Oh, wow. For how long? You don’t look that old.”
He did look a bit older than the other trainees, but not by a huge margin. Not yet thirty, but still someone who had managed to not get his CQ tested till late. Now he was in the FVG — looking for redemption?
“Never mind that,” he said. “This is my chance and I’m not going to let a smartass like you ruin it. You’re still a kid, you can probably screw up a couple more times before you start seeing things clearly. I can’t afford to do that. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt — one strike and you’re out.”
He spoke like he was an old man nearing the end of his life. Prone to feeling sorry for himself was Ubik’s guess. The universe had done him wrong, led him astray, put him with a bad crowd. Always someone else’s fault and bad luck. These sorts of guys were the easiest to work over. Not even a challenge. The FVG really needed to up their recruiting game.
“Okay, okay,” said Ubik. “I can see how serious you are. I respect that. My name’s Ubik, what’s yours?”
“Roddin,” said the guy, his eyes locked on Ubik, not reducing the threat level one iota. “Roddin Carmaj.”
“Okay, Rod, we’re on the same side. Look how they split us up. It’s obvious what they’re planning, right? Two teams of twelve, right? They’re going to run us through some exercises, and then it’ll be us against them. We have to win that final battle if we want to impress the people in charge. We have to work together. Remember what the Princep said, they’re watching us all the time and using what we do to decide if we deserve a shot at getting an organic. That’s what you want, right? A high-level organic and you’ll be set. How do you think they’ll judge a guy who attacks his own teammate?”
Roddin had a weariness about him that suggested he’d lived a bit, experienced things. He was wary of others, had probably been tricked and cheated. Not his fault, bad luck, bad crowd.
Roddin’s aggravated expression was interrupted for a fleeting moment with a more reflective one. He didn’t want to get in trouble on day one. Then the scowl returned. “He also said we’re expected to take care of our problems ourselves. Maybe the team would be better off without a disruptive member like you. Some guys don’t get it until they get a couple of teeth knocked out.”
Ubik had never been to prison, but this sounded like the kind of logic you would adopt when incarcerated.
“At least give me a chance,” said Ubik. “I want to do well out of this place. I’m out of options, too, but look at what we’re working with here. Our team has all the older guys, the scuffed kids… look at me. I’m not the pick of the litter, right? None of us are. Did you see the other team? Good teeth, good hair, six-pack abs, eight-pack abs. It’s obvious, right? We’re the ones they don’t think will step-up. They don’t rate us so we’ll be the punching bags for the special boys. We’re the runts, set up to lose.”
Roddin looked around, eyes narrowed. The three behind him looked slightly offended. Ubik took the opportunity to get them involved.
“Hey. Ubik. And you guys are…?”
“Nelso,” said the shortest of the three. “I ain’t no runt.” He looked like a fighter, lots of muscles, but his voice sounded like he’d taken one too many punches to the head.
“I don’t think you are, either. I was saying they think that.” Ubik pointed at the door. “About all of us.” He turned to the others.
“Chalz. My name is Chalz.” He had mean eyes but looked too worried to be scary. “I don’t want to be here.”
“Then why are you?” said Ubik.
“My wife says I have to. It’s our best chance to make some decent money. If I have an organic, I… I… everything will work out. I want to keep my head down and get through this. I’ve seen your kind before too. I think Roddin’s right about you.” He fidgeted and added, “My babies need me to do this.”
A wife and kids at such a young age. An overachiever.
“Deef Diller,” said the third man. “I got tricked into being here.”
“Tricked?” said Ubik. “How were you tricked?”
“They told me I’d get to see the galaxy with free food and free travel. Then they ran a test on me and made me come here.”
“Well, they didn’t lie,” said Ubik.
“This is my home planet,” said Deef. “I live around the corner from here.”
Ubik had to stop himself from shaking his head. None of these four were ever going to get very far in an organisation like the FVG. None of them were going to get very far in life. Was this the standard of applicant he would be competing against. He fancied his chances even if they were all stuffed full of organics and he had both his hands tied behind his back.
“You really think they’ve put us into the loser’s team?” said Roddin. His aggravation had transformed into genuine worry, not helped by the committee’s testimonials.
“It’s not so bad,” said Ubik. “If we do win with this much of a handicap, we’ll get extra points for pulling off such an unlikely victory. Then they’ll have to consider us for the good stuff. But in order to do that, we need one thing — a leader who can pull us together.”
“Oh, I see,” said Roddin, his concern snapping into unadulterated suspicion. “And I suppose that leader would be you.”
“Me? No, no, no. You’re kidding, right? Who’s going to follow my orders? Would you? No, no. You’ve been inside, you know how this work. We need to find the guy everyone thinks, Oh, shit, I better not piss off this guy off, and put him in charge. Who have we got that makes you feel that way?”
They all looked at each other, and then around the room, jumping at the chance to play the role Ubik was thrusting on them. Their searching gazes came to stop in the same spot, the bed in the far corner.
“Got to be him,” said Roddin.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Nelso, appraising the subject favourably.
The others agreed, there was no contest. Ubik didn’t even have to point him out.
The tough guy, the strong silent type who didn’t like to be bothered. He had put away his gear and was remaking his bed which seemed to be perfectly made already.
“Go speak to him,” said Roddin.
“Me?” said Ubik. “He’ll just punch me in the face. You go. Your nose is already broken.”
“This was your idea,” said Roddin. “Let’s see you take one for the team, teammate.”
“Alright, alright. Just remember, they put him on our team. That means he probably has some issues. Anti-social, I’d guess. Doesn’t like to do as he’s told, doesn’t trust the knobs in charge. Vicious without warning.”
They all stared at the guy tucking his sheets in.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Roddin. “I think you’re right. But we don’t want him to do as he’s told, we want him to do the telling.”
“You’re right,” said Ubik, his face full of surprise and admiration for the logic he had just slipped into Roddin’s head and received back by return mail. “That might work.”
“Go on, go on,” said Roddin.
Reluctantly, Ubik moved towards the far corner.
There was some squabbling but Ubik allowed himself to be persuaded. He went over.
“Hey. I’m Ubik.”
“Great.” He didn’t look up from positioning his blanket just the way he liked it. Guy seemed pretty anal.
“What’s your name?” asked Ubik.
“Nice. I’m just going to pretend to hold a conversation with you for a few seconds so ‘The Committee’ don’t beat the crap out of me. Okay?”
“Do what you want,” he said.
“Thanks. Okay that should do it. Good talking.” Ubik turned around and went back to the others who looked relieved it hadn’t been them. “Let’s talk over here, in the showers.”
“You’re not going to take a shit in front of us again, are you?” asked Chalz.
“No, I went already. I’m not a magician.”
They all went into the shower room, crowded into the corner furthest from the toilets, looking over the shoulders like they were worried they’d be caught.
“He won’t do it,” said Ubik. “Thinks he’s too good for us, we’ll just hold him back.”
“He said that?” said Roddin. “Bastard.”
“I know, stone cold, he was, looked me dead in the eyes and told me where to go. But I don’t give up so easy. He’s our best shot at this, agreed? He’s going to be our boss whether he likes it or not, and he’s going to lead us to victory.”
“How?” said Deef. “I don’t think he likes you.”
“That’s okay, no one likes me. It’s an advantage. We just have to corner him so he has no other option. We’ll get the others on our side, too. If we all insist, he won’t have a choice. We’ll just do what he says and he’ll be the leader whether he wants to or not.”
“I don’t know,” said Roddin. “You really think you can convince him?”
“I can’t say I’m sure, because I’m not sure,” said Ubik. “I can only try. I mean, what do you guys think? You think I should? Or one of you could. I don’t mind. Actually, it might be better if—”
“No, you’re the guy for this,” said Roddin, insistent.
The others nodded. Ubik had to be careful not to smile. “Okay. If you guys are willing to back me up, then let’s do this.”
They marched out of the showers, Ubik leading the way.