65: Top Percentile

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Main Hall.


Ubik had no idea what he was doing. Not that he ever did, but this time things were particularly chaotic.

He was in a room with a lot of dead bodies. Not the first time that had happened. Then there were the guild members, local and just visiting. His fellow trainees, Fig and PT, who he considered different enough from the rest of the guild to get a special mention. And, of course, the two Seneca ladies.

How was he going to mix all these ingredients into something easily digestible?

As a child, he had discovered a talent for thinking clearly in the midst of absolute bedlam. The main advantage of this was that other people had the opposite experience. The more convoluted things became, the harder they found it to keep track of everything.

This meant that even if he wasn’t the smartest person in the room, he could force everyone into being dumber than him by putting them in the middle of a maelstrom.

He could put the noise into the background and remain focused. Which meant he always tried to push things towards chaos, even before he had any concept of what to do once he got there. An answer would present itself. Probably.

His ability to remain unaffected by the madness probably came from his childhood fantasy that he was a machine, an old fashioned robot in the shape of a boy, alone and abandoned, probably replaced in the family home by some newer, more energy efficient model. He didn’t have to worry about not having anyone to look after him, machines only needed servicing, not parents. A firmware update every six months and you were good to go.

Machines, however, did not bleed, and they didn’t poop, either. It had been a handy way to cope with his early years when everything felt terrifying and overwhelming, but his humanity sadly asserted itself as he hit puberty. He still felt an affinity for machines, but more as a distant cousin than as a sibling.

He had managed to retain his ability to turn down the volume on his surroundings and keep working on a problem when everyone else was running around in a panic. He could even interact with them as though he was in the same situation they were. But he was always somewhere entirely different.

Even now, he was aware of himself telling people he would save them. How? He had no idea. Fifty percent of them? A number he’d picked out of the air. The real number was probably a lot, lot lower.

He was mocking one of the Seneca women while flirting with another. His words were coming out from some other part of his brain, no piloting required. He had no interest in aggravating or seducing either of the women, but everyone else seemed hyper-wary of them, so keeping them on edge served a purpose — it kept everyone else on edge.

Was that the answer to getting out of here in one piece? The Seneca Corps had such a threatening reputation, merely the mention of their name was enough to make people tremble in their boots. But would it bother Vendx?

The two women weren’t willing to use their Seneca connection as leverage, their pride holding them back. Ubik wouldn’t necessarily need their permission, but did he really want to bring a whole Seneca fleet down on them?

When faced with numerous opponents, he had brought them together to face off against each other, but it was more the uncertainty of the situation that held everyone in check. Once the fighting started in earnest, events would quickly get out of his control.

Ubik's mind was racing to find the best solution while his mouth operated independently to stall as long as possible.

“How could you possibly have declared war on behalf of the guild?” said an aghast Princep Galeli. “You don’t have the appropriate authority or identification codes.”

Ubik had not actually declared war on anyone’s behalf. He wouldn’t know where to even send such a declaration. But he knew that war was one of the things considered most taboo, and therefore the easiest way to short-circuit everyone’s thinking.

The outlawing of war by the Central Authority several hundred years ago was considered a key turning point in human civilisation. To break that accord was to invite swift retribution from the Authority. But like with most things, people found a way around it. Or got a special exemption.

Ubik’s declaration had just been a loud shout into the cosmos, on all frequencies. Perhaps someone would pass the message along to the appropriate department, perhaps not. The important thing was to make some noise.

“I got the codes from Captain Hickory,” Ubik heard himself saying. “When I was on the Red Devil, I hacked the ship’s computer. Because I was bored.”

Everything he said sounded plausible. It helped enormously that both Fig and PT had taken to building him up as some kind of mad genius. It had made the others more likely to believe his lies. Not that he couldn’t have stolen the captain’s codes if he’d thought of it at the time, but there hadn’t seemed any point since he’d made the ship’s computer recognise him as the captain’s superior.

“You declared war under my name?” said Captain Hickory. His eyes were glowing red. That probably wasn’t a good sign.

“It’s fine,” said Ubik. “No one’s going to do any warring. It’s just to make Vendx wet their pants a little. They hate this kind of publicity. The whole PR department will be screaming at Chief Supervisor Mayden, poor guy. This is no easier for him than it is for us.”

Hearing this reasoning was as surprising to Ubik as anyone. That’s how it had always worked. He would push himself deeper and deeper into a corner, taking everyone along with him and then, from somewhere deep in his brain, answers would flow.

One day, he was sure, his luck would run out and the solution he came up with would not work. So far, that hadn’t happened, but that only made it more likely that the odds were about to be balanced out.

He relied far too much on his instincts, waited for them when they were late, acted on them as soon as they arrived. It was a foolish approach but surprisingly effective.

He looked around the hall. They were all staring at him, mad at the position he’d put them in, desperate for his help to get them out of it. The fact they were already in an impossible predicament only helped him. They could hardly blame him for putting them at risk — he’d already got their odds of survival up to fifty percent!

“Why is he grinning like that?” said Leyla. “It’s freaking me out.”

“This is Chief Supervisor Mayden.” The voice was weaker, more static, and it was coming out of a different suit. They’d started thinking more clearly, but far too late.

“Hello,” said Ubik, brightly. “Chief Engineer Ulanov here. How can we help?”

“What did you just do? That message…”

“Oh yes,” said Ubik. “Sorry, you caught us at a bad time. We’re in the middle of an unresolvable dispute with the local government over planning permission for a new gazebo. It’s gotten a little out of hand, you know how it goes.”

What was a gazebo? He vaguely recalled Grandma mentioning it, a building of some kind. He was desperately trying to think of a fix and saying anything he could think of. Something to make Vendx back off. They had two cruisers over the Academy and the Motherboard in orbit. And, of course, the fifty thousand drones. Could he use any of them?

“Don’t worry,” he rattled on, “it’s nothing to do with you. I expect the Central Authority will send an investigation team and you know how unbiased and unswayable those guys are. They’ll be able to see what role you played here. I’m sure you’ll be completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. Although, I’d check with your public relations officer, if I were you. I expect they’ve been in touch, have they?”

Bad publicity. It wasn’t much of a gambit, but it was all he had for now. Every Vendx employee hated the PR department above all else. Their eyes would shrink with fear at the very mention of the name.

“Yes, I’ve spoken to my PR officer. “ Mayden sounded shaken at having been reminded of the conversation. “She tells me the Authority are very thorough in their approach.”

“What are you stupid?” hissed Weyla. “They’re going to wipe us out before the Authority can get here.”

She had a point. Ubik’s grand scheme could have encouraged Vendx to abandon their designs on young Fig and cut their losses but that wasn’t how Vendx operated. Never cut your losses, always come away with a profit. Net gain was the Vendx way.

“Go on,” said PT, “you might as well.”

“Might as well what?” said Ubik.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. We’re in too deep to back out now.”

PT was surprisingly calm, watching Ubik with analytical eyes. Ubik wasn’t used to that kind of confidence aimed in his direction. He turned to face Fig, who had a similarly sanguine expression.

“What about you?” said Ubik. “Any bright ideas?”

“Yes,” said Fig. “I need to get home and talk to my father about something. You should come. You’ll like him, he’s a bit of an engineer as well.”

“Organics?” asked Ubik. That was where the money was, after all.

“Yes, but also tronics,” said Fig. “He invented the sim-U, well, the prototype.”

There was a minor explosion in Ubik’s brain, shifting his attention onto Fig, dragging even the part focused on finding a solution into this far more interesting conversation. “Your dad is Ramon Ollo?”

“Oh, you’ve heard of him?” said Fig, as though Ubik might not have been aware of the greatest engineer alive.

“I think I might have read an article or two about him. Can I really meet him?”

“Absolutely,” said Fig. “As soon as you get us out of here.”

Ubik smiled. He could feel the cogs turning. Now that he had a proper reason to leave, there was no way he wouldn’t come up with an exit strategy. And the answer came to him almost immediately. Not just a fifty percent survival rate but a ninety-nine percent survival rate. The only problem was the one percent. Who would it be?

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Afterword from Mooderino
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