68: Comprehensive Cover

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Main Hall.


Figaro was mostly convinced that being blasted in the chest was not part of Ubik’s plan. Mostly. With Ubik, you couldn’t be completely certain about anything.

There was smoke coming out of Ubik’s suit. It was too far away from Figaro to be able to tell if he was dead, but even if he wasn’t, he was going to be badly injured. How was he going to complete his plan from over there on the floor? Was being over there on the floor a key component of the plan?

Figaro returned his attention to the newly arrived team of twelve organics, all dressed in battlesuits vastly superior to the ones worn by the regular Vendx grunts.

These suits were form-fitting, lightweight and individually coloured to express the wearer’s personality. Bespoke armour for the elite Vendx forces, with their logo emblazoned across the chest piece.

Six of them were facing front, three of them armed with guns, the other three not needing them, presumably.

The other six were facing in the opposite direction, back the way they had just come from, all six of them with weapons raised and aimed at the two Seneca women and the guild girl with them.

Their positioning made it look like they were the ones who were surrounded.

How had Ubik managed that?

It had seemed odd that he wanted the Seneca women to leave, a very gallant and noble gesture on the surface, which should have set the alarm bells ringing. From what Figaro had determined about Ubik’s methods through careful observation — and it was a constant learning process — no available resource was left unexploited.

The Seneca women were two of four organics available to him, Captain Hickory and Princep Galeli being the other two. Encouraging fifty percent of your possible defence force (or more likely attack force in Ubik’s hands) to leave the field of battle would be very imprudent, and also very unUbik-like.

But could he really have manoeuvred them into place so perfectly that they would cleanly split the assault team in half, forcing them into a defensive posture with their backs to each other?

Pure luck? Figaro couldn’t accept that. There were rumours that organics existed that could affect statistical outcomes, but there had never been any documented proof; just an excuse made by people who lost when they should have won. And Ubik wasn’t even an organic, that much was very clear.

How could he predict movements so precisely when he only had limited data to work with? Unless Ubik had been able to pull information out of the Vendx suit at an astonishing rate, while dancing.

It would have been nice if Ubik had let the rest of them in on whatever he had in mind, but that wasn’t the Ubik way. He had obviously seconded Jace into the inner-circle, but only because he had the requisite skills. Everyone else was running interference, whether they liked it or not.

“Nobody move,” said the unarmed man at the front of the assault team, “and we won’t have a problem. That especially goes for you two.” He pointed a finger at the Seneca women, a firm, aggressive point to indicate he wasn’t intimidated, which only confirmed that he was. “We aren’t here for you. We’re an extraction team, pick-up and go, that’s all. These weapons are vectored for organics, please don’t make us use them, we have to pay for the ammo ourselves on a per-bullet basis”

The fact he was standing there explaining his job rather than doing it gave a much clearer idea of the situation than his speech.  The whole team looked uncertain and hesitant. If Figaro’s tutors were here observing their performance, they would have plenty to say about it.

“Don’t get involved,” Figaro said over the heads of the team between him and the two ex-Seneca. “I don’t want this getting any messier than it is already.”

Weyla nodded, slowly and without any enthusiasm. Figaro got the feeling she would have liked to go down fighting, a dangerous state of mind to be in, especially for the people around her. The sister, Leyla, looked to be aware of it. Concerned enough to stay close, too guilt-ridden to prevent herself from being dragged down. He would have a sibling soon. How would that change the way he thought and functioned.

“You,” said the nervous leader. “We only want you. Come with us and everyone here can be spared any unpleasantness.”

They weren’t approaching him, though. They were like the previous team, wary and fearful. What had they been told about him to make them act like this? Whatever it was, it had to be an operational blunder. It only made them worse at their job.

What kind of training did Vendx give their people? Figaro glanced over to where Ubik was still lying flat on his back not moving. He probably knew exactly what kind of training they had undergone, and how best to use it against them.

“Do you have a medic?” Figaro asked the Vendx man.

“What? You’re hurt?” A shot of panic danced across his eyes. The visor on his helmet showed his whole face, a clear bubble that held his head like a fish in a bowl. Red and green lights flashed as readings were displayed on the inside.

“No, not me. Him.” Figaro indicated Ubik. “Do you have a medical organic on your team?”

“No. Our suits are self-healing. He’ll be fine. He’s in one of ours, he won’t die — the suit comes with a two-year money back guarantee. The life support system takes care of you until help arrives.”

Since Ubik hadn’t bought the suit, the guarantee was unlikely to apply, although how you were meant to make a claim if you died was a mystery.

So, it seemed Ubik had meant to get blasted in the chest. Why? What advantage was there to lying on the ground?

“What’s your name?” asked Figaro.

“That doesn’t matter. Move towards the exit, slowly.”

“I’d like to speak to the manager.” Figaro had observed his father deal with Vendx enough times to know how the chain of command worked.

“He’s away on a training course. I’m Assistant Manager Larep. I’m sure I can help you with whatever you need. Just come with us and there won’t be a problem.”

“Assistant Manager Larep, why are you so nervous?” said Figaro. “You can open your visor. Look around you, no one else here is suited up like they’re in a contamination zone.”

Larep’s eyes turned red, making the inside of his helmet look like it was full of blood. His eye-colour returned to normal. “There’s something showing up on our scans, origin unknown. That means a possible contagion. You may not even be aware of it, any of you. We can help. Our equipment is state of the art and used by eight out of ten medical facilities in this quadrant. You can trust a Vendx scan to be ninety-nine point nine percent accurate.” He reeled off the company spiel like it had been drilled into him.

It seemed the idea of an unknown substance on their scans was so unusual, they could only assume the worst.

“What about him?” said Figaro, pointing at Ubik. “What does he show up as?”

“He doesn’t register as anything. Forget about him. Move towards the exit, please.”

Three guns were aimed at Figaro, all from the same angle of attack. Sloppy.

Figaro took a breath. No one wanted to make the first move, which gave him a little time. To do what, he wasn’t sure.

Any move he made might interfere with whatever Ubik was up to. Was he giving him too much credit? Figaro had already stopped Weyla from instigating a fight, but that could have been what Ubik had predicted. Was he supposed to do nothing and wait? For how long?

Figaro hadn’t wanted to involve his family in any of this — that was the whole point of being sent to such an out of the way place. When it came down to it, he was responsible for bringing all this attention on himself, he was the one who had triggered the sim-U to act weird and it was up to him to get back home and test the key he now had for the lower levels of the Tetheri complex. That was his primary objective. But he was also keen to bring Ubik back and get his father to run some tests.

“I’ve done it,” called out Jace, sounding elated.

“Grandma, now,” called out Ubik from flat on his back, his bare arm raised triumphantly.

The twelve organics suddenly shifted their stances, all of them turning their focus inwards.

“What’s going on? I’ve lost contact with the ship.”

“Me too.”

“Are you seeing this?”

“What’s this timer?”

Their voices were clearly audible outside their suits even though they were speaking on internal channels. Their visors each had large numbers imprinted on them, in reverse from Figaro’s perspective, counting down rapidly towards zero.

“Eject, eject,” screamed someone.

All twelve shot out of the back of their suits in their underwear. The suits fell to the ground like dirty laundry, along with the weapons they had been holding.

“Now,” shouted Captain Hickory, his eyes ablaze with a red light. “This is our best chance.” He ran forward with Galeli and Gipper beside him.

Larep was the first back on his feet, in white shorts and a vest, and a sneer on his face. “You think we need our suits to deal with you?” His eyes were glowing and his dark hair stood up. “Green team, take the—” And then he was gone.

One moment he was standing there, the next he was across the room, his throat in Weyla’s fist as she slammed him into the wall. The wall withstood the impact, Assistant Manager Larep did not.

It seemed there was no avoiding a fight. Figaro surged forward, took the arm of a shocked Vendx employee and snapped it at the elbow. He was an energy user, the one who had blasted Ubik. The pain would keep him from being able to activate his organic any time soon.

Leyla had grabbed the nearest Vendx man by the back of his hair and kicked him in the chest. He went flying across the room. She kept the kick going, landing her foot in the next man’s face, the force sending him skidding along the floor.

The other Vendx men were on their feet and activated. They weren’t organised and looked desperate for orders to follow, but there were still eight of them.

PT came sliding in and grabbed a gun off the floor. He didn’t use it — how could he? — he threw it at Ubik.

And then there were seven, six, five…

Ubik was sitting up firing the gun, hitting them in the order Hickory called out, his own organic ability identifying them in order of threat. They fell screaming in agony and then either passed out or lay shivering on the ground.

Ubik shouldn’t have been able to use a gun imprinted with someone else’s biometrics, but that was hardly the most surprising thing he had done today.

As Larep had said, they were vectored for organics. That meant they would inflict a great deal of pain to anyone with an organic augmentation, making it very hard to maintain activation. But not impossible. It only really worked on novices and the poorly trained. Perfect for using on Vendx employees.

“We’ve got a few minutes before they can break through,” said Ubik, pointing up.

“Break through what?” asked PT. He had known what to do without knowing any more than Figaro had, but he was no less frustrated by Ubik’s approach to teamwork than everyone else.

“The drone shield. Jace and Grandma upgraded it so it’s even better, stronger, tighter. So good, not even their own signal can get through. They really shouldn’t leave it on auto-update, makes it too easy for someone with bad intentions. Luckily, I only improved their service.”

Ubik was out of the suit and on his feet. There was a large tear in the front of his greys, showing off the nasty purple bruise across his chest.

“What if they’d shot your arm off?” asked PT.

“Actually,” said Ubik, “I’ve been working on a design for a prosthetic arm, would’ve been a nice chance to test it out.”

There was a loud rumbling and the sound of thrusters firing very close by.

“Sounds like our ride’s here,” said Ubik.

“Ride?” said Princep Galeli. He turned to Hickory. “Yours?”

Hickory shook his head.

“No,” said Ubik. “Termination team from Vendx. The clean and wipe down squad. Now, just a heads up, these guys don’t play nice.”

Everyone just stared at Ubik.

“But nothing we can’t handle, right?” Ubik grinned and winced. “Really smarts when you get shot in the chest.” He jogged towards the entrance without any further explanation of what to expect or how to handle it. The Ubik plan was not an all-inclusive one.

Ubik stopped in the doorway and turned around. “Unfortunately, I assumed they would only send one team, not three. New plan — run!” He shot past everyone, sprinting towards the rear of the hall.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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