47: Nighthawks

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Barracks A.


Point-Two sat cross-legged on his bed in the corner of the dorm. He had gone up to the roof to get some fresh air, clear his mind, but it hadn’t helped. He didn’t really like fresh air, it tasted cold and impersonal. He was used to air that had been through the Garu’s filtration system twenty thousand times and smelled like the ship.

Ten sleepers kept him company while two drones watched over them. The drones were there to makes sure no one revealed the guild’s secrets to any interested parties. A neutral observer might have considered the level of surveillance excessive for a group of trainees who could barely get their spacesuits on without assistance but Point-Two knew it was nowhere near enough.

Ubik had managed to walk past drones like he was a ghost. No alarm sounded, no search party rushed to drag Ubik back. Fortunately for the guild, Ubik seemed spectacularly uninterested in their sim-U discovery. He had a very prejudiced view on all things sim-U.

What worried Point-Two more was the implication of Ubik’s smooth exit. If he could bypass the guild’s security so easily, couldn’t others also? He reassured himself that Ubik was a special case, but he was also unassisted and self-taught. Someone with training and the organics to get the job done could probably also circumvent the guild’s security. They weren’t really set up to deal with assassins.

The rest of his group had shown little concern for their personal safety. Why would they? No one was trying to kill them. They were all out cold, exhausted after a day of events they didn’t really understand, not even Deef’s snoring able to penetrate their slumber.

The sound reminded Point-Two of the evacuation alarm on the Garu. Once a month, there would be a drill. The alarms would go off and everyone would hurry to their designated escape capsules in a civilised and orderly fashion. Everyone who had a capsule to go to.

Only the top families had access to the pods, and even they didn’t have room for everyone. Ubik’s disregard for simulations was a valid one. People wouldn’t calmly make their way to their assigned seating if the evacuation was real. And the ones without a place wouldn’t be quietly watching them leave.

Point-Two rubbed the pin in his right hand, sliding his thumb over the smooth metal. It was nothing special, a symbol of a minor achievement in a game no one really took seriously. On the Garu, it was easy to make small things feel important because you were confined and restricted. Every moment spent doing something you chose to do — weren’t ordered to, weren’t relied on to ensure the continued safety of the giant vessel you all called home — took on a significance that was probably out of proportion.

The pin, shaped like a V, golden in colour, had a tracker inside it. That would explain how those people had found him on Lenworth and nearly blown him up. It hadn’t been a surprise that someone from the Garu would try to eliminate him. Once he was off the ship, the task would actually become easier, but they would have to find him first.

Point-Two had been careful not to leave an obvious trail. His brother had arranged a route for him that would not be traceable through normal channels. But that was hardly going to be an issue if he had been carrying a tracker on him the whole time.

Which brought him to the matter that was the true cause of his discomfort. Had Geezy been aware of what was in the pin when he insisted Point-Two take it with him as a reminder of their friendship? It would seem unlikely that he hadn’t known, but it was possible.

He could have been duped or coerced. There was a certainly a naive side to Geezy that made it plausible that he had been tricked into sticking a bullseye on Point-Two’s back.

But maybe the naive one here was Point-Two. From the moment they first met, Geezy had been very keen to be friends. Despite Point-Two’s reclusive nature, Geezy had always been there to insist they hang out and do things together. Had it all been a sham, a way to keep tabs on his family?

It was disappointing to think about. More so because Point-Two felt the camaraderie between the two of them had been genuine. Geezy hadn’t faked that, Point-Two was sure, it was just that he had an additional objective. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a job that requires you to cheat and lie and no reason you can’t be fond of your victim.

It made Point-Two doubt himself, though. How much of Geezy’s clumsiness had been an act? And why hadn’t Point-Two been able to see through it?

As tempting as it was to dwell on the disappointment, it served no purpose. The Gorbol Academy building was shielded to prevent signals going out, even before the recent lockdown. As soon as Point-Two had entered the premises, his trackers would have lost the signal, but that would hardly make a difference if the signal vanished outside the Academy’s front door. It wouldn’t take an expert to figure out where he was.

He had to assume they already knew he was here, and if they were willing to attack him openly on Lenworth, they were bound to try again.

Hollet One had foreseen the possibility of something like this happening, their rivals tracking Point-Two to remove him far from the ship where no one would raise too many questions or try to find answers. They would have hired independent contractors and deny all involvement.

Point-Two had no idea who ‘they’ were, but only because there were so many possible candidates.

Hollet One had put a contingency plan in place in case Point-Two needed to abandon his place at the Academy and make himself disappear. It was a rather drastic move, though. He would basically have to take up a nomadic lifestyle with no particular objective other than to survive. At least at the Academy he would gain some skills and knowledge. On the run, he would only improve his stamina and endurance.

There was a smooth gliding sound as one of the windows opened. Point-Two stiffened, uncrossing his legs silently.

The drones made no moves. It seemed unlikely they hadn’t noticed — Deef’s snoring was loud, but it shouldn’t interfere with the drones’ ability to detect a forced entry. This could be assassins coming to finish the job they’d botched on Lenworth.

But more likely it was the person who had left earlier by the same method.

Ubik slipped into the room, fell to the ground and rolled under the nearest bed. Point-Two watched him slither along the floor towards his own bed. There wasn’t much light but Point-Two could see Ubik’s shape move like a blot against the darkness. The sensors on the drones should have been able to do a much better job than he could, but they ignored the shadow.

Ubik had a way with machines, that much was obvious. Whatever he had done to make himself invisible, it was effective. The very system put in place to keep track of the trainees was what Ubik had used against his watchers. That seemed to be Ubik’s preferred method, to take whatever his opponent felt most comfortable with, and to use it against them. He didn’t just go for the win, he went for the most demoralising form of victory possible.

Point-Two rose from the bed without making a noise. Both drones instantly repositioned to focus on him. He was sure he had made a great deal less commotion than Ubik had sliding around the floor, but they didn’t seem able to detect him at all, or the supposedly locked window he had just opened and closed.

“Had a nice time?” he said as Ubik emerged from under his bed, back in his grey fatigues.

“What the… Boss, please, don’t sneak up on me like that, you nearly gave me a heart attack.” Ubik rolled onto his bed and lay there with a hand on his heart like he was recovering from shock.

The reaction was a little overstated. Point-Two had spoken quietly and he was almost certain Ubik had known he was there. But Point-Two took a certain amount of pride in his movement, so of course that was what Ubik would encourage him to continue thinking, no doubt right up to the point he turned it against Point-Two in the most cruel manner possible. Being aware of it provided little comfort; understanding without an appropriate counter would still lead to a vicious beating.

“Have fun?” Point-Two wasn’t usually one for small talk, but Ubik was a variable Point-Two was willing to bet the people tracking him hadn’t accounted for. He might actually be useful.

“Not bad, not bad. Made a few new friends, saw a bit of the nightlife. There’s a girl who I think likes me, works in the local fishmongers. Pongs a bit, but nobody’s perfect. We’ll see how it goes, you can’t rush these things.”

“Sounds like a perfect match,” said Point-Two. “The drones missed you while you were gone. They were moping around like someone had torn out their hearts.”

“They get like that sometimes,” said Ubik, stretching out on his bed. “Very emotional, drones. It’s all that floating about.”

The two drones had settled back into standby mode.

“You don’t think they’ll be upset when they find out what you did?”

“The drones? No, they’re not very judgemental. Unlike some people.”

“I’m talking about the guild,” said Point-Two. “They’re on high alert right now.”

Ubik propped himself up on his elbows. “They don’t care about me, not when they’ve got their golden boy. You know what really happened in the sim-U? Nothing to do with unlocking the secrets of the universe. Business happened. Little Fig made the discovery of a lifetime and the Princep heard a giant kerching sound. That’s all this is, just business.”

“They want to keep it quiet, though,” said Point-Two.

“True,” said Ubik. “What they should do is kill everyone who knows about it and call in every team they have to investigate this stunning new development that could change the future of the galaxy.” It was hard to miss the ridicule, both for Point-Two’s concerns and the galaxy’s obsession with all matters Antecessor.

“Is that what you would do?” asked Point-Two.

“Me? No. I wouldn’t waste my time on what comes out of a ‘let’s pretend’ machine.”

“You don’t think what Fig found is real?”

“No, I think it’s real,” said Ubik, “but totally scuffed. The sim-U crashed because it can only show you what it copied. It copies everything so accurately it can replicate a thing’s actions without knowing how it works. If it copies a door, the door can open and close. But if they never copied what was on the other side of the door, opening the door won’t tell you.”

What Ubik said did make sense. If the reason the sim-U crashed was an absence of relevant data, it wouldn’t do any good to look harder. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.

“You’re not saying they shouldn’t bother, are you?” said Point-Two. “They could probably still learn something new.”

“Oh, I definitely hope they try using Fig’s new approach to delving. Surrender to the Antecessor tech and hope they’ll lead you to the treasure room. What could go wrong?” He lay there grinning.

“You know,” said Point-Two, “a sceptic like you could actually help them out quite a lot. I bet you’d see a lot of things they would miss.”

“No thanks,” said Ubik. “I prefer my tech to obey the laws of physics.”

“Like this?” Point-Two held up the G-tag pin.

“Exactly,” said Ubik. “That’s a solid piece of tech you’ve got there. Beautiful clear signal with no quantum nonsense to deal with. Not cheap, though. Someone invested a ton to keep you in their sights, Boss. They must be going crazy wondering where you disappeared to.”

“You don’t think it’ll be obvious where I am based on where the signal went dead?”

“Depends how far behind you they were when you got here — this city, this planet, this quadrant. They need to triangulate before they can get a fixed location, might not have been quick enough. You could sell it for a decent amount, if you know where to find a buyer.”

Point-Two thought he caught a glint in Ubik’s eye. Making a professional evaluation? About to offer his brokering services?

“I don’t think the buyer would appreciate what it brought to their door.”

“You can always turn it off,” said Ubik.

“What about boosting the signal?” asked Point-Two.

“You want to make it easier to find? Oh… I get it, you want them to come to you. I like your style, Boss. There’s that leadership quality I keep telling everyone about. Only, you can’t send it from here, the guild would see it. However…” Ubik’s lips curled into a malicious smile. “I know just the place.”

The glint in Ubik’s eye had returned.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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