33: Lessons Learned

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Medical Bay 2.


Point-Two’s patience was beginning to wear thin. They had been summoned to the medical bay by a drone, and a thin bony man in a white coat had lectured them on the need for data. Their data. He had made it sound very important and rather antiseptic.

The guild needed clean data. Whole data. Data without impurities. The trainees were implored to practice statistical hygiene by the man who called himself Dr Thimble but had more of a mad scientist air about him rather than that of a caring medical professional.

None of that had annoyed Point-Two. They were welcome to take as many readings as they deemed necessary. There was no problem as far as he was concerned, or as far as the other trainees were concerned. All apart from one: Ubik.

If it weren’t for that little nuisance, they would have received their lecture on how their measurements would help make them better members of the guild and better men in general, then they would have slotted various parts of their bodies in different machines and carried out some simple instructions. Run around, held their breath, tried very hard not to blink, and that would be that. It would have been all over in under an hour.

Thanks to Ubik, though, they were still waiting to have their heights and weights confirmed.

He had insisted on being told what each machine did and how it did it. The mechanical construction, the theoretical basis, the voltages used. The doctor had obliged, proud to show off the academy’s range of state of the art equipment.

Ubik had not been satisfied. He had asked to see the circuitry next and then the fuel cells. He had asked very specific technical questions, some of which the doctor had had to look up, which hadn’t pleased him.

The rest of the trainees had waited and grown restless. Until, that was, Ubik declared two of the machines to be dangerously unstable. Which would have been a wild claim to make if he hadn’t gone on to prove it using a glass of water in one case and a strand of hair in another.

The glass of water had begun bubbling when placed in the recess meant for the subject’s hand, even though the genetic spectrometer wasn’t turned on. And the single strand of hair taken from the shoulder of one of the trainees (who was shedding hair at an alarming rate) had started smoking when it was inserted into the opening in the ‘perfectly safe’ testicular resonance imager. That one had started to turn the tide in Ubik’s favour.

“I assure you these machines are all regularly tested and maintained,” insisted Dr Thimble, visibly flustered by the revelation of defective machines under his management. “I don’t know what happened here, but we have more equipment in the other medical bay. We’ll use them instead.”

“I’d rather not,” said Ubik. There were some murmurs of agreement.

“This isn’t optional,” said Dr Thimble. He was trying to regain some measure of control but it wasn’t going very well. There was a sheen of perspiration on his large forehead that wasn’t helping his cause.

Point-Two took a slow breath. He was at the back of the group, with a clear line of sight on the door as was his habit. There was no threat here, nothing to be alarmed about, but it was a waste of time to just wait for Ubik to get tired of whatever game he was playing. He exchanged a look with Roddin who had tried to curb Ubik’s tendencies earlier. Roddin gave him an apologetic look and turned away. Too late now.

“The Princep said we were going to be judged on every aspect of our behaviour while we were here,” Ubik was saying to the doctor. “This is me giving you an idea of the kind of behaviour you can expect. If I see a problem, I’m not going to keep quiet about it.”

“Yes, yes, I see, very good,” said Dr Thimble, right at the edge of his tolerance. Point-two sympathised. “That’s all well and good for once you begin the program, but this is the pre-program part of the training. There’s no need to make your stand for personal freedom yet.”

“The program began the moment we signed up, isn’t that right Supervisor Varruk?” Ubik was looking at their group’s supervisor, who was standing behind the doctor. He hadn’t stepped in to prevent Ubik’s attempt at pre-program insurrection. Which led Point-Two to think Ubik was right.

“That is the case, yes,” said Varruk, confirming Point-Two’s suspicion. If anything, Varruk seemed amused. Point-Two also suspected this was intentional on Ubik’s part.

Point-Two was about ready to step in himself, but he knew it would only delay things longer. The only viable play here was to wait. Or a choke hold.

He did wonder why the little shit was making such a fuss. It was already clear his habit was to run numerous scams at the same time, keeping the various people too busy and off-balance to respond adequately — you had to admire his handling of a multi-target approach — but how was this going to win him any favours?

It was a question worth considering. Point-Two expected Ubik to use this methodology as his main form of engagement. Given time, he would employ it against Point-Two. Now was the best time to analyse how he operated.

“All I’m saying,” said Ubik, “is that there is no purpose to taking any readings. They tell you nothing beyond various measurements that have no bearing on performance in a real setting.”

“But what harm does it do to humour us?” asked Dr Thimble, teeth barely parting as he spoke.

“The harm is done in creating a false hierarchy which will be used to judge us,” said Ubik. “You might be able to work out who is objectively the fastest runner, but in a race to the last seat on a ship leaving an exploding planet do you think someone’s going to fire a starting pistol and everyone will keep to their lane? No. A clinical setting provides the opposite of an objective environment for these tests. There are a whole bunch of factors that need to be taken into account, and different ones for each specific situation.”

Dr Thimble was hanging on by a very thin string. If he snapped, what then? Ubik no doubt had a contingency plan in place already. Point-Two would have chosen to avoid that outcome, but Ubik was apparently deliberately heading in that direction.

“But we aren’t using these readings to compare you to each other,” said the doctor, “we’re using them to compare your own personal growth over time. You see? We’re testing to see if you’re improving.”

“And what if I don’t improve? How I perform in a test run, under sterile conditions, doesn’t have any bearing to the real world. Or the Antecessor’s world.”

It wasn’t a completely illogical point he was making, it was just irrelevant. But Point-Two didn’t think he was quite as arbitrary in his actions as his behaviour might suggest — as his behaviour was designed to suggest. He had an underlying purpose. He messed with people for a reason.

Point-Two had been raised to think in terms of play and counter-play. The chances these machines had failed just now, under a trainee’s surprisingly thorough inspection, were very small. The chances that Ubik had deliberately sabotaged the machines was much, much higher. Point-Two hadn’t seen him do it, but it was too likely to be dismissed for such a flimsy reason. Ubik didn’t want to have his readings taken. He was either very shy or he had something to hide.

It was interesting up to a point, but it was also time-consuming. Point-Two didn’t think he would learn much more from the current stand-off. He had already learned quite a lot.

“Can I make a suggestion?” said Point-Two. Heads turned as a new challenger entered the fray. “Why don’t we use the equipment that is working and decide on the broken two at the end? At least allow those of us willing to take the risk to do so. I understand we start early tomorrow and we still have dinner to eat. Supervisor Varruk was saying earlier how important it was we don’t miss any meals.”

Point-Two hoped to cut through the stalemate and at least move things along a bit. Since only two of the machines had shown signs of needing repair — the genetic spectrometer and the testicular resonance imager — it seemed reasonable to assume only those two would reveal Ubik’s secret. What did DNA and testicles have in common?

“I don’t mind going first,” Point-Two added. He headed towards the first machine.

His readings were taken painlessly. The others followed his lead. Even Ubik allowed himself to be scanned.

When there were only the two broken machines left, Dr Thimble made a decision to delay the measurements from being taken until a maintenance crew had overhauled the internal workings. Nothing mattered as much as the health of the trainees, was what he said. I’ve had enough of this crap, was what Point-Two was fairly sure he was thinking.

As they followed their droid back to their barracks, Point-Two moved through the group until he was walking alongside Ubik.

“Interesting reluctance to sharing your private information you have,” he said.

Ubik looked up, a little startled. “You move very quietly. You have to show me how you do that.” He looked down at Point-Two’s feet. “Delgados?”

“I don’t know what that is,” said Point-Two. “I thought whatever you’re trying to hide has to be something that the DNA machine and the testicular imager would both detect, but I think maybe it’s more likely you’re using one as a smokescreen so you won’t be too obvious. That’s what I would do, if I thought about it. And I had to think about it, which I don’t think you do.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” said Ubik. “I was looking out for my health. My testicles and my DNA are both very important to me.”

“I don’t really care what you’re up to or why, just make sure your interests and mine don’t intersect and we’ll be fine.”

“No intersecting. No problem.”

Despite the threat, Point-Two was steadily projecting, Ubik seemed positively amiable. Nothing Point-Two had said had upset him in the least. He was a very hard nut to crack.

“Like you said,” continued Ubik, “I’m not one of the people you need to think of as competition. It’s just the bald kid, right? You have nothing to worry about from my end. I like to keep things nice and peaceful and my balls healthy.”

“Sounds like a philosophy to live by,” said Point-Two.

“I’m thinking of having it tattooed across my lower back,” said Ubik. “Speak of the devil…”

Something changed in Ubik’s cheerful demeanour. It had totally vanished. In its place was a dark look that sent a chill down Point-Two’s back, and it wasn’t even aimed at him.

They had just entered their dormitory. Point-Two followed the direction Ubik was looking. His cold eyes were on the shaven-headed boy sitting on Ubik’s bed, a cube held in his hands.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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