Gorbol Training Academy.
Barracks: Group A.
Something had changed, Ubik could tell. Where before, Drone A had led them to the dining hall like a butler showing them to their seats, now they were escorted by four drones. The sudden change had made Group A nervous and unsure of itself. They looked to their leader for reassurance, much to the leader’s annoyance. Even though he had got them killed in record time, they still saw him as the man to turn to in times of trouble. Which he hated, but which Ubik was very pleased about. Which he also hated.
The three additional drones didn’t have Drone A’s soothing demeanour or colourful paint job. Their casings were scarred and pockmarked from battle damage, and they weren’t named after letters in the alphabet. They had bland serial numbers printed on their sides. Ubik suspected they carried more than the little zappers the user-friendly drones had. The fun drones were here to help, and do a bit of spying on the side. The new drones looked like they kept watch while a man in a white coat removed your fingernails to get you to talk.
Ubik wasn’t the cause of the increased activity. If his drone tampering had been discovered, they would have been a bit more direct. And they wouldn’t leave Drone A on duty, not with half his brain missing. It did, however, make it harder for Ubik to leave the guild while they were in a state of soft lockdown. Not impossible, though.
The drones dropped down to the floor as they ate, unobtrusively snooping around and sucking up litter at the same time. They were versatile.
Dinner was the usual precisely measured balls of soft mash. As they ate, Ubik heard from the others about what had transpired after he left the simulation room. It was a bit muddled, multiple different versions and wild theories. People gave contradicting reports while simultaneously agreeing with each other.
Fig Matton, it seemed, was at the centre of these new developments. He had a rosy future as a diversion tactic, Ubik felt.
The boy had gotten his team killed; he’d been left behind by them. He’d relied on dumb luck; he’d turned his team into targets. He was a guilder who knew the map already; he had been sent by another guild to find out what kind of maps the FVG had.
Two things remained consistent. Something unexpected had been found inside the map that none of them understood and which the Academy staff refused to elaborate on. And the sim-U had turned Fig Matton into some kind of a monster.
From what the others had said in their rambling, over-excited way, it seemed a secret room no one had found before had been discovered. A secret room inside a replica in a computer. Exactly how was that of use to anyone?
The original ship didn’t exist anymore, at least not in an assembled state. And any secrets would have been found when they took it apart.
As for the boy turning into a monster, that part didn’t really surprise Ubik. His fellow trainees were shocked that the sim-U could cause a real, physical reaction outside of its artificial environment. They were naive to think they were safe just because there was a plate screwed to the side of the simulation machine with the date of the last inspection printed on it and a large ‘PASSED’ stamped over the top.
The only reason insertion into a sim-U environment didn’t make people writhe around in agony and have seizures was because of the safety protocols preventing their brains from going haywire. That much stress applied to the cerebral cortex was an instant death sentence without restrictors in place.
Ubik would have loved to take off the back and have a good look at the proprietary circuitry inside the simulation machine, but there was no way he knew of to get in there without getting caught. Not by the guild, by Vendx Intergalactic, the makers of the machine. Every machine was rigged to alert them of any interference with their product, anywhere in the galaxy, it was a key part of their marketing. They took the integrity of their brand very, very seriously.
Instructor Varruk eventually told everyone to stop making so much noise and finish their meal. “This is normal protocol for a new discovery,” he said, which Ubik doubted. “Just in case it turns out to be actionable intelligence. We don’t want our competitors finding out. The extra drones are just here to prevent leaks.”
“I think this one is leaking already. Seems dead.” Ubik held up the drone that had wandered a little too close to his Delgados, attracted by the proximity detector Ubik had stashed in the heel and set to call-assist. One fuel cell obtained.
After the post-dinner training session, they were led back to their dorm by their escorts (minus one), who took up position in opposite corners of the room, with one in the wetroom.
Being under surveillance didn’t bother Ubik as much as it did the others. He showered and got into his fresh greys, and then went straight to bed. Or rather, he got under his bed and lay on the floor.
“What are you doing?” asked Roddin, his bare feet at eye-level.
“The bed’s too uncomfortable. Can’t get used to it.”
There was a mumbled acceptance of this answer, and then a continuation of the conversations from dinner among the group. It was important Ubik not let himself become a father figure for the group. PT was smart enough to use that to his advantage. Odd uncle was about as far as Ubik was willing to go, and some questionable behaviour would help keep him off the top of the pecking order. Plus, the bed was way too soft.
Ubik was able to sleep despite the noise. He was used to sleeping while tons of garbage dropped from the skies, a little anxious chatter was practically a lullaby. Two hours later, he woke fully refreshed.
The room was dark and quiet apart from the sounds of settled breathing mixed with Deef Dilla’s intermittent snoring. Ubik’s boots and regular clothes were next to him, placed there earlier. He put the clothes on over the greys and eased his feet into his Delgados. The escape plan was already feeling like a success.
He put his hand on the bottom of the bed frame above him and felt for a pulse.
Grandma’s cube was lying on the bed. He had synched his life signs to the soul cube which now had a two-hour recording of his sleeping heartbeat to loop. He had also trained Drone A to recognise the soul cube as him.
Drones didn’t see the way people did. They didn’t have eyes. It would be far too processor-intensive to make a drone able to identify visual objects on the fly. You could easily put a camera on a drone and send pictures back to a controller, but that meant paying someone to sit and watch pictures. Advanced AI could do it, but who would waste that on basic drones?
The more efficient way was to take readings and assign numeric values. Patterns and deviations told them everything they needed to know. Ubik was a range of stats to the drone. The cube held the same stats — his weight, dimensions, electromagnetic signature. It helped that the drones were carrying dated operating systems that weren’t supported anymore. Someone was trying to encourage the guild to upgrade to the new package, Ubik was willing to bet.
The good thing about machines, what often made them preferable in Ubik’s eyes to humans, was their dependability. Not their physical durability, which was just as likely to fail you at an inopportune moment as people were, but their dependence on each other.
When a machine signalled to another machine, the information was accepted as truth. Nothing detected meant just that. No fretting, no double-checking just to be sure, assurance was absolute. If there had been something there to be detected, it would have been detected. It wasn’t, therefore everything was clear. Peace of mind all the time.
Ubik had convinced Drone A he was a small cube. Drone A would do the rest. When it reported his position, there would be no proof needed, no suspicion of its reliability. Numbers had been recorded and were on file.
Ubik was waiting for the next system update. He could tell when it happened by the device on his wrist which had come from Drone A and which was still part of the drone network. He had given Drone A a little brain surgery, that was all. He had left enough of the mechanism inside the drone for it to be able to avoid bumping into walls or people, but it had no awareness of other drones. That didn’t mean it would bump into drones, though. Not unless the other drones had had their proximity detectors messed with, too.
The drones were continuously taking readings of their surroundings, but the company that made them wasn’t about to waste money so the drones could report that nothing had happened in real time. There were a number of triggers that would cause an alarm to be set off, but if nothing worth reporting happened, then nothing got reported.
Ubik totally understood where Vendx were coming from. The same Vendx that made the simulation machine also made the drones. They probably came as a twofer. Maintenance and upgrading charges was where the money was, not hardware.
Of course, Vendx were not quite so frugal when it came to protecting their own interests with regard to the simulation machines. That shit was under long-distance observation around the clock.
The device on his wrist flickered. Drone A was on Ubik’s side. Drone A was also responsible for watching this window. Ubik had already relieved Drone A of that responsibility. The window was closed, permanently. The data was clear.
The problem was the drone on the opposite side of the room which was watching the area between the window and Ubik’s bed. The system update took less than three seconds.
Ubik slid out from under his bed and slid under the next one.
He poked his head out on the other side. The window, the glass darkened to show nothing, was above him.
The drones were back online. Drone A had filed its report, confirming everyone was in bed. Now came the moment of truth. Ubik’s test of faith.
Ubik crawled out from under Deef’s bed. The snoring provided decent cover but Ubik tried to be as quiet as possible. He stood up. No reaction.
Drone A said he was in bed. Drone A said no one was at the window. If Drone A said there was no problem, the other drones believed it. They had their own shit to worry about. They were happy as long as Drone A was happy, which it was. That was the beauty of a lobotomy.
Ubik placed the signal emitter from the wave gun on the window frame and fired it using the fuel cell he’d filched earlier. The window went clear, indicating the power was off. He pushed it open and climbed out onto a ledge. He closed the window behind him. Below was the courtyard. He would have to get to the roof and cross over to the other side to get to the street.
Most of the buildings here had smooth facades, but the Academy looked like a consignment of bricks had fallen out of a passing spaceship. There were more than enough handholds. The problem would be the security on the roof.
He climbed up, easily finding his way, and clambered over the parapet onto the flat roof.
“What are you doing?” said a familiar voice.
“How did you get up here, Boss?” responded Ubik, relieved it was only PT.
“The door.” PT pointed at the door behind him.
“They let you out under lockdown?” It hadn’t occurred to Ubik to simply take the stairs to the roof. What kind of lax security was that?
“Why not?” said PT. “Nowhere to go from here. And it’s not like we’re alone.” He looked the other way where a drone was hovering, minding its own business. “I see you’re all dressed up. Going somewhere?”
“Just came up to get some air,” said Ubik. “Same?”
“Actually,” said PT, “I was feeling a bit homesick. I’m used to being surrounded by that.” He looked straight up. Above them was a sky full of stars. “You didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Fig, did you?”
Ubik was surprised by the accusation. “No. Pretend doors that open into secret rooms in imaginary ships don’t interest me.” The sky was totally different from the one back on E4, not that he had spent much time looking at it. A colourful smudge was smeared across this one, like drops of paint on wet paper.
As they both stared silently into the unending cosmos for a moment, one of the stars grew bigger. It was soon noisily approaching their position.
“Were you expecting someone?” asked PT.
“It’s a shuttle from the Red Devil, a guild ship,” said Ubik as the shuttle came into land behind the Academy. It was the same beat-up ship that had brought him here.
“Is that some kind of party trick? You can name any spaceship by sight?”
“Sure,” said Ubik with a smile. “You can’t? Anyway, can’t hang around here. Thought I’d check out the nightlife in the city, maybe hit a few clubs., you know, do it up.”
PT raised an eyebrow. “And how do you intend to get out of here?”
“Easy,” said Ubik, walking up to the drone while pulsing the proximity detector at it, just another drone passing by, “I was never here.” He walked past the drone without reaction and stood on the ledge. The city was full of lights brighter than the stars. PT might feel at home up there, but Ubik belonged down here, on the ground or under it.
“Hey, are you coming back?” called out PT.
“Sure. Back before breakfast.”
“We don’t have breakfast,” said PT.
“I can’t be late, then.” Ubik began climbing down the front of the Academy.
Patreon is two weeks ahead, so an extra six chapters. Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino