39: Showman

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Simulation Room


Point-Two watched the screen surrounded by fellow members of Group A, and alongside the other group. It was the first time they’d been gathered together like this since the speech by the Princep yesterday. It felt like that had been weeks ago.

Group A had been sent back to their dorm after Point-Two’s rather short-lived tenure as leader. There had been a short debriefing, mainly to assure them there was nothing unusual about their sudden and complete evisceration at the hands of the Antecessor ship, but there had been no explanation of what they’d done wrong or what they should have done instead. He could tell this was going to be a trial and error approach to learning. More deaths would no doubt follow. It was a perfectly viable method of teaching.

As soon as they’d arrived at their barracks, the drone leading them had announced they had been summoned back to the simulation room. There was some confused speculation about what the point of sending them away was if they were immediately made to return — some kind of weird hazing ritual was the most popular guess — but it wasn’t like they had much else to do.

The mood was generally a bit pissy, no one felt good about how easily they had died.

Point-Two was universally considered to be at fault for their disastrous run.

No one actually said that to him, but he could see the change in their attitude towards him, heard them moaning about the stupidity of charging into the unknown like that. He didn’t mind. He was perfectly happy with how things had gone.

He was surprised to find so many people in the simulation room on their return. Not just the other group, but also many of the instructors and the Princep. They were all fixedly watching the large screen on the wall where Fig was floating through the ship alone.

No one bothered to explain what was going on or how he had ended up like that, but nobody really cared. They were all too hypnotised by the boy making his way through the dark.

“See?” said Ubik, eyes on the screen, mouth pulled to the side so only Point-Two could hear him. “We should have gone up and around, not straight into the middle. You could learn a lot from this kid, PT.”

Point-Two smiled to himself, pleased by the loss of his high-status moniker. Now he was just another member of the team. “That’s easy to say in hindsight.”

“It’s got nothing to do with hindsight,” said Ubik. “It’s just obvious when you look back at it.”

“Yes. That’s what hindsight means.”

Ubik glanced at him, a doubtful look on his face. “No, I don’t think you’re right.”

On the screen, Fig was exploring the strange room he had found, with large glass containers filled with liquid. Everything was bathed in red light, making it look menacing, but Fig pottered around like he was looking for a pair of socks he had misplaced, commanding his suit around the room with ease. Why hadn’t their suits had voice commands?

The instructors seemed to be as enthralled by what he was doing as much as the trainees. Clearly, this was not what people usually did once inside the Origin.

“Look how calm he is,” said Ubik. “So sure of himself. Impressive for a kid, huh?”

“Yeah,” agreed Point-Two. Watching Fig move around with the suit like it was second nature to him was indeed very impressive. “You should make him your new leader. All that ability and still so young. Much easier for you to manipulate.”

“What you talking about, Boss?” said Ubik, slipping back into obsequious mode. “You’re the only leader we need.”

“Not sure the others feel the same way,” said Point-Two. “They don’t look at me the same way anymore.” He sighed, not altogether sincerely. “If you keep pushing a dud, they might stop having faith in you, too.”

Ubik turned away from the screen and looked at the side of Point-Two’s face with narrowed-eyes. Point-Two could practically hear the eyelids shutter-down with suspicion.

“You didn’t lead us into the arms of certain death just to make everyone think you weren’t the right man for the top job, did you?”

“How would I know we were heading into certain death?” said Point-Two.

“You did wait for us to all go ahead, first.”

“That would only make a difference if we had been attacked from the front.”

“There was a good chance we would be attacked from the front,” said Ubik.

“No, only about seventy percent, I’d guess, if you forced me,” said Point-Two. “Look at him, though. He really knows what he’s doing.”

“He does have one of these machines at home,” pointed out Ubik. “This is probably how he spent most of his evenings, relaxing stroll through the haunted ruins of a dead civilisation. Posh people like that sort of thing, don’t they? History and tourism. Build whole empires just for the museums.”

“It’s more than that. Give him a few years and he’ll be ruling the whole galaxy. You should get your claws into him now, get in on the ground floor.”

“You think he’d wipe the floor with me, don’t you?” said Ubik, dropping the cheeky chappy tone. “You could be right.” The tone came flooding back. “He gives me the creeps, to tell you the truth. He’s got those eyes that seem to see right through you. He’s got the hindsight.”

“I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

“Sure it does. It means whatever I want it to mean.”

“You can’t just add new meanings to words,” said Point-Two.

“Of course you can. How else would a lexicon evolve?”

Point-Two started a little and turned to look at Ubik. How much of an act was all this? If you stripped away all the artifice, exactly what would you be left with?

His attention was brought back to the screen by the commotion going on around them.

“What’s he going to do?”

“Are they armed? Are they going to kill him?”

Things had taken a turn for the confrontational for Fig, the intrepid explorer. Five star-shaped creatures had peeled themselves off the wall and were floating in formation in front of him.

“He should run.”

“Why doesn’t he use his gun? Wait, why is he putting it away.”

The noise around him rose as the audience couldn’t quite work out what Fig was going to do next.

“Look out!” called out someone heavily invested in the drama.

On the Garu, there were shows that were broadcasted weekly, actors putting on a story of love and adventure. It was all done with holograms that were easy to spot as fake. System would add special effects, explosions and weird monsters but it never looked convincing. No one was ever in any danger.

It was different watching Fig. Even if it was just as fake here, there was a genuine sense of peril. This was what it would be like inside a real Antecessor site.

The star-shaped creatures attacked. Fig offered no resistance, capitulating completely.

“Why did he do that?”

“Is he dead? Where are they taking him?”

The captured trainee, collared and contained, was being led through the wall. A wall he hadn’t been able to penetrate before.

“They aren’t killing him. Are they going to torture him?”

It was obvious to Point-Two that Fig had allowed himself to be taken. Now he was being carried by someone else’s power, meaning he could conserve his own. He had no control over where he would be taken but he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he knew where they were headed. Maybe it was where he wanted to go. He would still have to get himself free once he got there, but he probably had a way to do that, too.

It was fascinating to watch, a boy against a millennia-old defensive array. Felt like even money.

He turned to look at Ubik, interested to see his reaction.

Ubik wasn’t even looking at the screen. His head was tilted down, examining the device on his wrist. Point-Two couldn’t recall seeing it before.

“Not interested in watching the show?”

“Your problem,” said Ubik, eyes firmly fixed on his wrist, “is that you’re too easily impressed. You see a kid flex a bit and you go all lovey-dovey with hearts in your eyes. He’s done this, what, maybe a million times? Doesn’t even raise his heartbeat anymore.”

Ubik nodded his head towards the screen without looking up. Fig’s life signs were shown on the side. His heart rate was low and steady.

“What do you think he’s going to be like outside of a simulation?” Ubik kept on muttering. “I’ll tell you, nobody knows, not even him. It’s all very well pulling off the million-to-one shots when you know there’s no real risk and you can’t die. Not the same when you face off against horrible odds and an opponent who was abused as a child and is looking for some payback. Can’t play the cool guy when sweat’s dripping in your eyes and your sphincter is desperate to let out a fart that might not be all gas. Closest that kid has ever got to a squeaky bum is when his personal maid polishes his buttocks with Brasso. What you’re seeing up there, in between the meaningless pixels, is a momma’s boy. I guarantee it. Wants to impress mommy, get her attention away from all the things more important to her than him.”

Point-Two was a little taken aback by the character analysis, bordering on assassination. All while not even modulating his tone. It was like he was reading from a list written on his wrist, a litany of the flaws of poor Fig Matton.

“How do you know it isn’t his father who drives him?”

“Nope. His father’s his friend. They get together to moan about Mother, and work out ways to keep her in check. You know her type — thin, elegant, icy. Strangles puppies if they give her a cheeky look.”

“I think you might have a bit of the hindsight, yourself,” said Point-Two.

Ubik grinned. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means. Hey! I think we caught one.”

“What are you doing?” said Point-Two.

“Hm? Oh, I made a special alarm system for lockers that can be used to warn you if anyone tries to get inside. Seems like someone’s having another rummage around. He’s in for a surprise when the taser goes off.”

“Why bother? Haven’t they already seen what you’ve got in there?”

“I didn’t put it in my locker,” said Ubik. “I put it in yours.”

A chill went down Point-Two’s spine, quickly heating up to a fire in his temples. He turned and pushed through the crowd.

“What’s he doing? He’ll die.”

From the doorway, Point-Two turned to look at the screen. The back of Fig’s suit had opened and Fig was climbing out of the rear, into a freezing, airless vacuum.

He would have liked to have seen what Fig’s next move was going to be, other than dying from exposure and suffocation, but he had matters of his own to take care of. He slipped through the door and ran towards the barracks.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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