Planet Fountain (orbit).
Hollet 3.2 had started out with a plan. A clear strategy that would get him to his goal by the most direct route. Point-Two liked to keep things simple and straightforward. He sighed nostalgically for the good old days when only his enemies tried to kill him, and kept an eye on the door. Any moment now, armed Vendx security personnel would burst in and slaughter all of them.
Everyone except Ubik, of course. Somehow, he would dodge every bullet, make one of the drones his new best friend, and ride a passing comet to safety.
“He’s fine,” said Ubik, sitting at the console with his knees under the desk to keep him in position. “Might take him a little longer to get to the rendezvous point, but he’ll be fine. I have a lot of faith in the kid.”
The screen was black. A moment ago, it had shown Fig dealing with eleven experienced organics like they were novice grunts on their first day of boot camp. He had a little assistance from the Antecessor droids, which in itself was astonishing, but they were just as much of a hindrance as a help. The kid, as Ubik called him, was extremely impressive, but in a methodical way Point-Two felt he could understand and maybe even learn from.
The same could not be said of everyone.
“Not sure what happened there, can’t seem to get the connection back. Any luck, Grandma?”
“Ooh, no,” said Grandma. “Not through the suits. All dead. From the primary simulation machine, maybe.”
The suits worn by Fig and the others weren’t real. They were digital constructions that could be changed to a different type, a different colour, whatever you wanted. But they were real within the simulation. When the suits went offline, the hack Ubik and his granny had put into the simulation via the internal comms (going in through the actual sim-U would have been too easily noticed) also went offline.
“Let’s see what they’re up to on the bridge,” said Ubik.
The screen flickered and then showed the bridge, the crew members strapped into their chairs, wires plugged into their helmets and directly into their head ports in some cases.
There didn’t seem to be much going on, but it always looked like that from the outside. Each person on the bridge was dealing with multiple inputs, a balancing act of, if not global, then hemispherical proportions. The Vendx Galactic Vessel Motherboard was controlling every piece of infrastructure on Planet Fountain. The infrastructure Vendx had installed.
Gipper, who was lying on the bed — floating just above it, really — turned his head a little so he could see. “Are they launching anything?” He sounded a little depressed. He hadn’t actually said anything, but Point-Two could tell he was expecting this all to end badly.
“Nope,” said Ubik. “Just getting ready for the next push. I’m going to enjoy seeing their reactions when head office calls in to check on them.”
“What?” said the woman huddled in the corner. She hadn’t said much since entering her cabin to find three strangers in it. Ubik’s indirect threat to make her responsible for the hack into the ship’s mainframe had completely shut her down. She wouldn’t give her name and kept one hand over the tag stitched onto the breast of her uniform in an attempt to keep from being identified. The name on there was Chukka, as they had all seen when she first came in, but she refused to answer to it. “Why would head office… it’s only been a few hours.”
“Come on, Chukka, you know the score.” Ubik grinned at her, which made her flinch. “Big job everyone thinks is going to make them rich, all the execs come out of hibernation coffins to get their bite of the pie. Where’s the commissary, by the way.” He turned to Gipper. “We should eat something before things get going.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” said Gipper. “I have an affinity for spotting patterns, you know — it’s why I don’t have an organic, they’re the hardest ones to find — but I don’t need any help to see where this is headed.”
Gipper had slowly been getting more anxious since they arrived on board the Motherboard. He had been fine when they were on the move, but sitting around made him nervous. He was the sort who liked to have a plan to work with. Point-Two could sympathise.
Point-Two’s own plan had taken several years to put in place.
Leave the Liberator Garu under a cloud of his brother’s devising so as not to be considered a threat. Learn everything he needed to know about working with organics at a small out-of-the-way facility. Slowly gain experience of Antecessor technology and start exploring some of the smaller, less popular sites. Eventually, gain access to a compatible organic augmentation and return to the Garu as a fully-fledged organic.
Hollet One had estimated it would take five years, but his brother had always been a bit of an optimist. Within ten was probably more realistic.
Point-Two had mentally prepared himself for a long, slow slog. There might be opportunities for quicker advancement, and he would make sure he was ready for them, but it was by no means a given. He had to be prepared for many years of hard work to make his way towards his ultimate goal.
The problem with having a plan was that other people also had them, and theirs often got in the way of yours.
This was something you had to take into account. When Point-Two’s departure from the Garu turned out not to be an effective way to convince the other families that he wasn’t worth bothering with, Point-Two hadn’t been taken by surprise. He knew there was a possibility this would happen and that he would need to find a way to deal with it. Which he did. More or less.
As you shift your strategy to counter the obstacles you face, so too do your opponents. He hadn’t expected them to send ex-Seneca soldiers after him. The expense was a little flattering, but also showed how serious people were taking the future leadership and direction of the Garu. His home was under threat of being usurped by the most overbearing and intolerant factions, setting the tone for the next who-knew-how-many years.
If past regime changes were anything to go by, once the huge effort to switch paths was made, the force required to change it back, or to something else, would take several years to build up. Decades, in some cases. Everyone would put everything into this moment, win or lose, because they knew this would be their last chance for quite some time.
There was nothing wrong with this. It was just how things were, how they’d always been. Not just on the Liberator Garu, but throughout human history.
But you came into it with certain expectations.
You trained and fought and tried your best knowing the other side was doing likewise. When the obstacle you had expected changed into something else, you quickly identified the new stratagem and devised a countermeasure. Your changes would provoke a response from the other side, and you would likewise respond to that. Experience brought with it a store of knowledge so you would gradually be able to predict a reaction, recognise an approach, and be able to swiftly make adjustments. That was how Point-Two had been trained. For the most part, it had proved to be effective.
And then came Ubik.
It made Point-Two wonder if he had been wasting his time. Under analysis, there was no way Ubik should have been this successful with his wild, seemingly off the cuff approach to every problem.
Sure, once or twice he might get lucky and pull off a surprise win, but they were on a battlecruiser in orbit around a small planet that quite frankly had funny-tasting water, a sure sign of a stagnant culture. People living in this environment shouldn’t have been able to overcome the quadrant's most advanced entities so easily. Or at all. And from what he had picked up about Ubik’s past, the planet he came from was even more backward than this one.
There had to be more to it. Something Point-Two wasn’t seeing. Fig had noticed it too, was just as captivated by it. Not an organic, that much he was sure of. But then what?
“Hey,” said Ubik, “you gonna spend all day daydreaming or you gonna help.”
Point-Two looked at Ubik. “What do you want me to do?” It came out sounding a little defensive, like he wasn’t expecting it to be anything he would happily volunteer for. Which was an accurate representation of how he felt, but he was usually more adept at hiding his feelings.
“Take it easy,” said Ubik, “nothing crazy.”
“I absolutely guarantee he’s going to ask us to do the most insane thing ever suggested on board a battlecruiser,” said Gipper. “We’re on a Vendx ship with no way to get off and hundreds of people who are going to want to kill us.”
“We aren’t all murderers,” said Chukka, her words tense and brittle.
“They’ll probably put a kill-bonus on our heads,” said Ubik.
“How much?” asked Chukka, not quite so indignant.
“Crazy is the only possible answer,” said Gipper. “We have no other choice.”
“I don’t necessarily agree,” said Ubik, “but I like the way you think. First, though, we need to get hold of someone from Public Relations.”
“No, please no,” said Chukka, showing signs of panic for the first time. “I’ll do whatever you want, I won’t tell anyone you were here. Please, don’t involve PR in this. Please… just let me go.”
“Door's right there,” said Ubik.
“I can leave?”
“Sure. Just choose your words carefully when you report us. Don’t incriminate yourself.” Ubik’s face was a picture of cautionary concern.
Her face dropped again as the hopelessness of her situation struck her anew. She was well aware of her own company’s policy in matters such as this. She was far too convenient a scapegoat to be let off the hook.
Ubik was at his best, if it could be called that, when he was reminding people why they needed him. It helped that Ubik had made himself the cause of, and solution to, every problem.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Point-Two. He might as well get it over with, whatever it was he was going to be asked to do.
“No big deal,” said Ubik. “Just take these and place them in the cafeteria or the canteen or whatever they call it.” He tossed a string of shiny buttons towards Point-Two.
“We call it the commissary,” said Chukka. “You already knew that.” She was starting to sound suspicious, like she was being toyed with. A common reaction.
“Oh, is it? Lucky guess. Put them on the outer hull.”
Point-Two caught the buttons as they drifted towards him. “Why in the commissary?”
“No reason. I just thought you could pick up some sandwiches on the way back. Gipper’s looking a bit peaky, low blood sugar. Take FCP Chukka with you, she’ll know where it is.”
“How did you know my rank?” said Chukka.
“Another lucky guess,” said Ubik. “Hurry it up, though. Fig will be done soon.”
“You sure it’s a good idea to take her?” said Point-Two.
“Yeah, of course,” said Ubik. “I think she likes you, actually.”
“No, I don’t.”
“First date jitters,” said Ubik.
Point-Two looked at the buttons in his hand and made a decision. “Okay, let’s go.” He pushed off the ceiling and rolled into a ball. He straightened up as he reached the door.
Chukka also seemed to have made up her mind. Probably that it was best to get away from these madmen. Why exactly Ubik wanted him to take her, Point-Two didn’t know.
They entered the corridor and the door closed behind them.
“Which way?” said Point-Two.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said.
“And I don’t want to blow up the ship.”
“The ship will be undamaged, I promise you.”
“How do you know? That guy’s nuts.”
“Yes, but he wouldn’t damage a ship he intends to steal.”
Chukka laughed for a moment, and then stopped. “Wait, are you serious?”
Point-Two nodded. He could completely appreciate the look of utter disbelief on her face. Another common reaction. She would get used to it.