Sorry for going AWOL. Just couldn't concentrate because of this and that. Okay now, more or less.
Preface from Mooderino
First Quadrant Border
Central Authority Space Station New Haven
Hall of the Second Trial
The lack of cover was a problem. Point-Two could only think of one place that would be safe from whatever Ubik planned to do to the trainee Guardians gathered overhead, and that place was back in the waiting room.
There was also the question of what the trainees planned to do to Ubik that needed to be considered.
There was no way Ubik would allow himself to be harmed, there was no need to worry about that (there was never any need to worry about that), but whatever method he used to deflect any shots fired at him, he would have little regard for where they ended up.
“Is he intending to fight them all?” said the woman who had taken off her helmet, which wasn’t a great idea. She didn’t seem to understand the situation, not that she could be blamed for that. It wasn’t something you saw every day, someone deliberately taunting the Central Authority.
There were at least thirty trainee guardians hovering over them, all holding their positions as they analysed the situation and made reports and ran the numbers. The CA were not known for their speedy reaction times.
“He’s going to annoy them first,” said Point-Two, turning to look at her, “so we have a little time before the shooting starts.”
The woman’s short hair gave her an elfin look but the heavily armoured suit she wore made her seem anything but fey. “You worry too much.” She thumped her chest plate. “These suits were made to withstand meteorite hits in the Felluan asteroid belt. A few laser hits won’t do anything.”
Point-Two carried on looking around and realised the rest of her team had quietly formed a circle around them. He also noticed that Fig had moved closer to him so that the circle surrounded them more evenly. A wall to keep them in would also keep laser blasts out.
“Would you mind, just…” Point-Two gently pushed the woman to one side so that she was in front of him, blocking his view of Ubik.
“A V-formation would be better,” said Fig, “but this isn’t bad.”
“Are you using us as a shield?” said the woman.
“Your suits can withstand meteorites,” Point-Two reminded her.
“Applicant 00728293736, you have breached the trial safety regulations and will be required to file a—”
“Oh, be quiet.” The first voice, which had been serene and unemotional, was interrupted by a shrill, tetchy one. “You, down there, what the hell are you doing? This is a trial, not a workshop for your stupid inventions. Do you think we don’t have anything better to do? Why have you shackled all these applicants?”
Trainee Guardians, it seemed, were just as bad-tempered and irritable as their graduated counterparts. Then again, Point-Two had only encountered Guardians in the wild while with Ubik, so maybe that had something to do with it.
The other applicants, entombed in their own suits, orbited Ubik in perfect synch, criss-crossing each other without colliding. It was quite hypnotic.
“I’m sorry,” shouted Ubik. “I can’t hear you over the sound of my very cool multi-tiered, rotating gun platform. Could you repeat that?”
The human-shaped pods circling him began to rotate faster, making clicking, whirring, buzzing sounds as flaps opened and closed and guns and other weaponry came out and went back in for no particular reason other than to provoke people who were already very much provoked.
“Why have you done this?” was the terse second attempt at getting an explanation. It was amplified to an ear-shattering volume.
Ubik was not fazed. Perhaps his spinning bodyguards also provided a sonic shield.
“We’re having a battle,” said Ubik. “You know, for the second trial. These are my prisoners.”
“All of them? Even the people on your own side?”
“What do you mean?” said Ubik. “There are only three people on my team. These are all enemy combatants.”
There was a pause and then a slight shift as the trainee Guardians looked at each other. They seemed to be checking something.
“Maybe this won’t come down to a fight,” said Fig. “Maybe he wants them to—”
“No, it will,” said Point-Two. “We need their suits, remember. He’s setting them up. I can feel it. We need to find better cover.”
Any normal person seeing this stand-off might think there was a good chance of a peaceful ending. This was just a training exercise after all. But anyone who had spent enough time around Ubik, as Point-Two had, would know that if Ubik had spent all that energy in preparing his multi-tiered gun platform, he was going to find a way to use it.
Point-Two looked around, peeking between the suits of the wall around them.
There was no cover and nothing to use as protection. The suits he and Fig were wearing, provided by the CA, wouldn’t stop any kind of energy weapon, and he had strong doubts about the mining suits currently surrounding them.
But there were no exits and the edges of the platform, which was a large square, were too far away from their current position. Even if they had strong boosters in their suits, they wouldn’t be able to reach the edges, and that was assuming there wasn’t some sort of force field fencing them in.
“An aberration has been found in this trial’s incorporation,” said one of the other trainee Guardian.
“What?” said Ubik, acting shocked and overdoing it. “Someone on your end messed up? I didn’t think the Central Authority was capable of such a thing. What will it do to your reputation?”
“It was unauthorised,” said another trainee. They sounded different but all had the same impatient tone. “Someone broke through the firewall.”
“That’s even worse,” said Ubik. “Central Authority security is meant to be the best. Now what will people say?”
“We’re tracking down who did it, right now. We should know shortly.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” said Ubik. Point-Two could hear the grin in his voice.
“Deactivate your gun platform and power everything down.”
“Have I passed the trial?”
“You will be informed of your status after —”
“Not until you pass me. I know the rules. Look it up.”
Point-Two doubted Ubik had any idea what the rules said but he knew how the CA operated. Rules for everything.
“We need to get in the elevator shaft,” said Fig. “It’s covered, but the shaft must still be there.”
Point-Two nodded. “Where was it?” The platform was flat and featureless. But Fig was always compulsively making note of his surroundings.
“Over there,” said Fig.
Point-Two pressed his thumbs into the pressure pads on his gloves. The piddly little nozzles on his boots fired tiny jets of compressed gas to get him moving. They were more for stabilisation and orientation, but at least they provided a bit of momentum. He used his own skills to speed things up but it wasn’t exactly a high-velocity departure.
“Where are you going?” said the woman.
Point-Two ignored her and moved between two of the suits in his way. One raised an arm to stop him but he easily slid past.
The woman said something to the others and they let the two of them pass, and then followed behind.
Point-Two headed for the empty area where they had arrived via elevator. There was only solid metal flooring there now.
It was possible Point-Two could use his organics to punch a hole through the floor and close it up after jumping through, but that would give away his ability, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Although, he couldn’t quite recall why that was important now.
There had definitely been a reason, and Ubik had been the one to emphasise its importance, but now Ubik had very clearly decided that passing through this place in an inconspicuous manner was no longer necessary.
“I could make a hole,” said Point-Two.
“We can’t,” said Fig.
“Does it make a difference at this point?”
“I don’t know. But we’re in the heart of the CA, here. If we reveal ourselves…”
“What if he reveals himself,” said Point-Two, looking over at Ubik.
“Then they’ll be focused on him and we can slip away.”
“Okay. I like that plan.” What Fig made sense. There was no need to outshine Ubik when shiny things drew attention. “Grandma?”
“Haven’t heard from her,” said Fig. He looked up. “They’re going to open fire.”
“Who? The Guardians?” asked the woman
“Yes,” said Fig. “They’re arguing with their suit AIs to get permission. You can tell from the way the suits have gone from stand-by mode into blocked-fire mode.”
Fig was saying the trainee Guardians had attempted to fire on Ubik but had been prevented from doing so by their onboard AI counterparts. Point-Two understood but he couldn’t see any change in the suits. To him, nothing had changed, but he was willing to take Fig’s word for it. He had been trained to deal with the CA by his father, so he would know.
“You can tell just by looking at them?” said the woman.
“Hey,” said Point-Two, getting the woman’s attention. “Can any of you peel open the top of the elevator shaft?”
She looked from Point-Two to where he was pointing and then over at Ubik. “Aren’t you going to help your friend?”
“No,” said Point-Two. “He doesn’t need any help. Can you open it?”
She thought about it for a second, and then turned to nod at two of her team.
They immediately boosted down to the floor, unclipped what looked like mining equipment from their suits and started cutting open the floor.
Point-Two was impressed. She had made her decision quickly and they’d followed her orders without question. He could tell they had been together for some time and knew their business. Applying to join the Central Authority seemed a very odd choice for people who had real skills.
“You’re wondering why we’re helping you,” said the woman.
“No,” said Point-Two.
“My name’s T—”
“I don’t care,” said Point-Two.
“My name’s Trace,” she said. “I don’t know wh—”
The sound of laser fire erupted. All of it was aimed at Ubik, and all of it was sent ricocheting. The guardians were hit but their suits protected them, but the laser bolts continued to bounce around.
The bolts that hit the platform exploded and caused a lot of smoke. Laser blasts shot past Point-Two as he moved down.
“Hurry up!” shouted the woman.
The floor was ripped open, revealing a shaft going straight down.
Everyone rushed into the shaft. The top had been entirely removed but was dragged back with cables. The hole above them was covered.
The sounds of laser fire continued. Lights came on as ten people hovered at the top of the shaft.
“Who are you people?” said Trace. It didn’t sound like a friendly inquiry.
“You don’t want to know,” said Point-Two. He certainly didn’t want to tell her.
“Look, I think we should talk,” said Trace, a serious expression on her face. “I think we can help each other if you’re who I think you are.”
Point-Two had no idea who she thought they were but he was trapped in here with her, so it was hard to find a way to not hear her out.
The sounds of explosions above them stopped.
“Grab onto the sides,” shouted Point-Two.
Everyone did as he said just as gravity returned. They would have fallen down the shaft but they had all managed to hold onto the walls, which had girders all the way around to provide support.
They all looked up.
“Is it over?” said Fig.
“I’m afraid to look,” said Point-Two.
They both climbed up to the top of the shaft, the others doing the same. Together, they all pushed up the cover just a bit and peered out.
Ubik was standing there, his gun platform now a pile of bodies on one-side. He was surrounded by the Guardians. They had all landed and were standing around Ubik in a casual manner, no indication of hostilities, having a chat.
“Did he make friends with them?” said Point-Two.
“Not with the Guardians,” said Fig. “Look.”
Over by the piled up suits that contained the other applicants were bodies. Nearly naked, clearly unconscious. They were the trainee Guardians, no longer suited-up.
Ubik wasn’t chatting with the Guardians, he was talking with their suits.