71: Choice Assignments

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Simulation Room.


Point-Two watched Princep Galeli’s hands dart around the console in a blur. He had a surety and calm when working the controls of the simulation machine that he lacked when dealing with the machine’s makers. He was the princep of the Academy, so it should have been him calling the shots.

The rest of the room was just as lacking in control over their own actions. If anyone actually took a step back and looked at the situation objectively, he had no doubt they would throw up their hands in despair and surrender to the first Vendx agent they could find.

Fortunately, no one had the time to do anything like that.

“This is ridiculous,” said Princep Galeli. “We can’t use their own machine to infiltrate their other machines. I’m fairly sure they have fail-safes against this sort of thing.”

It was the sort of thing everyone would be fairly sure of, and not bother testing. Which made it an excellent area to cut costs by not implementing any such fail-safes.

Ubik seemed to have a sixth sense about where Vendx had cut corners. Either that, or he had got hold of an internal memo outlining how much extra profit the company would make by taking which negligible risks. Who in their right mind would try to compromise one of their flagship vessels?

The problem with that sort of thinking was that it didn’t take into consideration people who weren’t in their right mind.

“Ready when you are,” said Fig.

“Wait,” said Captain Hickory. His eyes were glowing with a red light and strands of his tightly pulled back hair were breaking free and dancing around his head. “They’re moving towards us.”

“Who?” asked Galeli, his fingers jabbing at a different set of buttons and switches. “Where?”

“The Termination Team. They’ve been given clearance to enter the facility.” Hickory’s head moved side to side, like a scanner taking readings.

The screen above the console flickered as the inputs changed. Now it was a view of the landing area outside the main hall. Three metal cylinders, each as tall as the Academy upper floor, were planted like chrome tree trunks. They rotated, opening from top to bottom.

“Don’t let them get a bead on us,” said Hickory. The screen went black.

Point-Two was no expert when it came to organics. He knew they were powerful and that their abilities were varied, but everyone knew that. Those who possessed them were very wary of talking about them to people who didn’t. To avoid jealousy? To not reveal some kind of weakness? The etiquette was not to ask.

Captain Hickory’s ability seemed to be something to do with surveillance. How accurate he was or what kind of additional information he was picking up was impossible to say. Could he identify structural weaknesses? Isolate a vulnerability like a fracture or a worn joint? It was the sort of thing Point-Two would have loved to be augmented with. At this rate, however, he was unlikely to ever get that far.

“You need to delay them,” said Fig, his face covered apart from his mouth. “Send me in, now.” His voice was calm and reasonable, but also firm and insistent. He was the youngest in the room, younger even than the girl, Bev. But he was the one making the necessary decisions, and at instant-speed. He had to, how else would he keep up with Ubik?

“I’ll do it,” said PT. “I can give them the runaround.” Being a decoy was hardly a prestigious role, but he would rather that than sit around watching everyone else. It wasn’t like he was much use here, anyway.

“Okay,” said Hickory. “Gipper, go with him.”

There was a momentary look of dismay in Gipper’s eyes, the tall guild pilot thinking of objecting to the job assignment, but it quickly passed.

“Sure, send the two best looking dudes to face almost certain death. It’s a cruel way to get your own back for that night in Daramesh.”

Hickory half smiled. “She was spectacular in bed, by the way.”

“I know,” said Gipper. “I taught her everything she knows. Here, kid.” He threw the large weapon he’d been carrying since he turned up, and picked up the even larger one the princep had put down.

Point-Two caught it and looked it over. He wasn’t at all familiar with the brand or the many small knobs. It had a trigger, though, and six small rockets attached to the barrel. A seventh was inserted into the muzzle and poked out like it had got stuck halfway in.

“Make sure you point it the right way,” said Gipper, clipping the harness on and lifting up the rotary canon with both hands. The counterweights in the harness made it possible to move with the gun with a bow-legged gait. “Let’s go turn some heads.”

Point-Two followed Gipper out of the simulation room and down the passage back to the main hall. “What are we going to do when we find the Termination Team?” he asked, and then added, “What exactly is a termination team?”

“They send them when you want to terminate your contract,” said Gipper. “They’re very good at convincing you to change your mind. What’s your name, kid?”

“Hollet 3.2. Point-Two for short.”

“Oh, you’re a shipper.”

Point-Two frowned at the derogatory term, but it was hardly the right time to act offended.

“You’ve heard of the Liberator Garu?”

“Nope. Been to five or six colony ships, but never that one. Bunch of pirates, ready to kick anyone’s teeth in.”

They reached the rear door to the hall and Point-Two opened it so Gipper could waddle through. The main entrance was still barricaded.

“We aren’t all pirates,” said Point-Two.

“No offence, kid. Damn good fighters was all I meant. Hope you live up to their reputation.”

“We don’t have—”

The ground shook. It felt like footsteps coming closer. Point-Two rested the launcher on his shoulder. These antique weapons might not do very much damage to modern armour-plating, but they might create enough confusion to buy the others some time. If he fired at the roof, maybe he could bury the Termination Team for a while.

The main doors split apart like kindling and a metal giant stood in the doorway, too large to fit through. Hands reached out and grabbed the doorframe, ripping it apart to make the opening bigger. More hands appeared to help speed things along, these ones three-fingered, grabbing at the masonry, yanking it out and crushing it in the same move.

There were three of them, two just behind the one remodelling the entrance. They were humanoid robots, two arms, two legs, but then four more appendages snaking out from the back.

A large chunk of stone fell from the roof and bounced off the robot’s head, leaving no damage. One of the appendages reared up and opened its claw, firing a beam of white light at the fallen stone, instantly turning it into dust.

Point-Two glanced at the metal tube resting on his shoulder. What was this going to do against that?

“Don’t make a move until they see us,” said Gipper in a low voice. They were right at the back and none of the three robots seemed to have noticed them. They were too busy zapping the facade of the building to bits so they had a nice big opening to walk through. The ceiling in the main hall was just about high enough to accommodate them, but the only way into the rest of the Academy was to make more openings. The whole building was likely to collapse if they did that. At least they weren’t in a hurry.

All three were standing in a line, the front of the hall torn down. Their large chest plates were screens with the Vendx logo blinking and flashing in an eye-catching manner. Even when they were stomping you into the ground, branding was important.

Behind the robots were a flock of drones buzzing around, waiting for their chance to enter.

The three giant robots had suddenly stopped moving. Point-Two looked at Gipper. “Have they spotted us?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” Gipper whispered back. “Looks like they’re—”

The four snake-like appendages on each robot reached out to maximum length, claws positioned up above shoulders and down below waist. White light fired to intersect and combine into a thicker, more intense beam. Three streaks shot across the hall and struck the wall behind Point-Two and Gipper. The wall disintegrated.

Point-Two dropped his weapon and threw himself out of the way. He couldn’t bring the building down on them if there was no building left. Whatever Fig was up to, he hoped he was nearly done. There wasn’t going to be a way to delay the Termination Team.

The robots began moving forward. And then they stopped. They stopped in an unnatural way, mid-step. At the same time, the drones dove right into the ground.

A figure appeared on top of the lead robot’s head. It was wearing goggles and big boots which were wrapped around the robot’s neck.

“Hey!” called out Ubik. “What are you doing over there? It looks kind of dangerous.”

Point-Two got to his feet and looked around for Gipper. A pile of rubble moved and broke apart as Gipper got to his feet, clutching the gun in both hands, coughing and spluttering.

“Don’t shoot,” said Ubik, hands raised. “I give up.”

The three robots stood still as statues. Ubik slid off the shoulder, down the arm, and landed on the ground in a puff of masonry dust.

“I’m glad you’re here, actually. I could use a little help.”

“Where have you been?” said Point-Two as he walked towards Ubik.

Ubik lifted the goggles from his eyes to his forehead. “Had to get some stuff from my locker.”

“How did you stop them?” said Gipper, looking up at the robots and then down at the drones littering the ground.

“Hmm? Oh, the Termination Team? There’s a reset button in the back of the neck. You need a special tool to access it.” He held up a bent piece of wire. “Or you can make your own.”

“How did you do it to all three at the same time?” asked Point-Two.

“Oh, I had some help.” Two drones came flying down, wire sticking out of their front ports. They hovered above Ubik’s shoulders. “It’ll take them about ten minutes to cycle through the reboot protocol. Want to go on a trip?” He turned around and walked out the way the Termination Team had entered.

“Where are we going?” asked Point-Two.

“Well, the Chief Supervisor is down here — over there, actually.” He pointed to the far side of the city. “Which makes it the best time to go up there.” He pointed straight up.

The drones high above them formed a pulsing lattice, through which the two Vendx ships could be seen. Ubik didn’t appear to be pointing at either.

“You want to go up to the ship in orbit?” said Gipper.

“Brilliant, right? They’ll never expect it. I’ve always wanted my own battlecruiser.”

“How are you going to get into orbit?” asked Point-Two. There were also a bunch of questions about what Ubik would do once he got up there — hijacking a spaceship was no easy matter — but first things first.

“In one of these.” Ubik pointed to the cylinders the Termination Teams had arrived in. They were open, revealing an empty interior, like the packaging an action figure might come in.

“What about Fig?” said Point-Two. “What did you want him to do in the sim-U?”

“Whatever he wants. Just keep them busy. What? He’ll be fine. The boy’s a prodigy.”

Putting Fig in the sim-U with a bunch of irate Vendx organics had been the decoy. This was the real plan. Fly up to the Motherboard and take it.

A ramp led into the tall grey cylinder’s empty interior. There were no controls.

“Aren’t they fully automated?” asked Gipper.

“Sure. Up and down, that’s all they do. We just need to find somewhere to hold onto on the outside, and then we—”

“What do you mean, on the outside?” said Point-Two.

“Can’t be inside,” said Ubik. “They’ll see the life signs. Got to be outside.”

“But the ship's in space,” said Point-Two.

“Technically, it’s in the upper atmosphere,” said Ubik. “Just wrap up warm you’ll be fine.”

Point-Two suddenly wished he had switched places with Fig. A pointless mission with eleven organics trying to kill you sounded like a much nicer way to meet your end.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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