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Preface from Mooderino
Cairo-3998 aka Planet Challenger
Daring City — Guest Hub
Point-Two found himself staring at the scoreboard again. The top three places hadn’t changed since they’d arrived but the other seven were in constant flux, the names of guilds and mercenary groups appearing and disappearing in quick succession. He didn’t recognise any of the names but Figaro had told him they were all top tier outfits that only accepted the best of the best.
There were excited faces around him. The Plu-Ton was like most other sports bars, full of noisy people drinking and staring at the action taking place on the many screens on the walls, making bets on how long it would take to get to a checkpoint, to defeat a group of droids, to take their first fatality.
Signs in between the screens reminded everyone that no weapons and no organics were allowed to be used outside of the Antecessor facility. The sounds of fights breaking out could be heard from every direction.
C-3998 was a bustling and raucous planet on the edge of the Second Quadrant, right on the border with the First Quadrant. There was very little to see on this barren rock, but it did have a very large and extremely dangerous Antecessor facility. One that provided excellent training opportunities at a variety of levels.
It didn’t attract only those intending to enter the site, a large community of gamblers, black marketeers and degenerates had also sprung up to service the needs of visitors, and make huge profits off the backs of those willing to risk their lives.
Point-Two’s eyes flicked over to the screen showing the number of the next party to be allowed entry — 172. He looked down at the small pad on the table in front of him. Their number was 175 which, if you didn’t know any better, seemed like it would be up very soon.
But it was unlikely that it would stay at 175. When they had first arrived, almost twelve hours ago, they had been assigned number 38. Back then, the screen counter had shown 30 as the next group going in.
Then, just before they were about to be called, the number had changed to 46. Then later it went up to 52. And so it had slowly climbed.
They had been issued an entry ticket, but they were low priority. New people were constantly arriving, and everyone seemed to have enough clout to jump the queue.
It was just the way it was. The large groups dominated the leaderboard and high rankings got awarded various prizes, including tokens that could leapfrog you to the head of the queue.
Which made it very difficult for newbies to get a foothold.
“We should just force our way in and get this over with,” said Ubik.
Point-Two yawned. “This was your idea. Low key approach, you said. Slide in, slide out. No point attracting any attention. Best way to get away with a crime is to do it legally.”
“Nice to see you were paying attention,” said Ubik. “But that was before I knew they were going to make us wait forever. Even the asteroid scuffers are cutting in front of us.” A group of men in matching filth-covered overalls headed for the exit as their number was called. “What kind of status does our guild even have?”
“None,” said Fig, fiddling with the control panel on his arm. “That’s why you were able to cheat your way in.”
“Yeah, well, not all of us have family connections we can rely on to get us into a top-ranking guild.”
Fig stopped fiddling. “I’m in the same guild as you.”
Point-Two tuned out as Ubik launched into an explanation of why his entry into the Free Volunteers Guild was entirely different from Fig’s.
They had come to C-3998 to acquire an Antecessor artefact. A key. Or a map. The Antecessors hadn’t been very clear on the physical appearance of the artefact, but it would tell them where the Antecessor homeworld was, and allow them to enter it. A key and a map.
Point-Two had asked how it was that the Antecessors didn’t know where their own planet was, but it turned out it wasn’t really a planet at all, it was a wandering planetoid, Class M in size, that was on a random trajectory somewhere in the First Quadrant.
All they had to do was enter the Antecessor site on this small, out of the way planet, go to a location on the fifth level and obtain the map-key.
The only problem was that the site was owned by a management company, Advanced Development Group, who used it as a training facility for anyone who wanted to hone their skills in a life-threatening environment.
Unlike a simulation, you could die here.
Sim-U machines could replicate everything except the genuine fear of death. How people reacted when they knew the worst outcome would be them waking up in a chair in a sim-U suite was very different from how they reacted when they risked actual death.
And unlike the live testing facilities of the major corporations, you couldn’t sue the owners here if someone died, which meant there were no safety features. It was very popular.
Which wasn’t a bad thing. They were wanted men in the rest of the galaxy but no one here gave them a second look.
But unlike the other visitors, they weren’t here to improve their skills or gain mastery over their organics. They just needed to get past the three training floors, through the staff restricted fourth floor, and access the strictly off-limits fifth level.
So far, they had managed to make it into the waiting lounge.
That part, at least, had been easy enough. They had found an office for the FVG and even more fortuitously, they were registered as full members. Point-Two wasn’t sure when they had graduated from training or why they had been cleared for membership, but he wasn’t going to question the first bit of luck he’d encountered.
The guild officer, a short, sloppy fat man, with a rosy nose and a flushed face, even paid for their entry into the Antecessor site. The Dungeon, as it was affectionately known.
Three months they had spent in transit, inside wormhole subspace, waiting for things to quieten down a little, trying to get information out of the Antecessors.
It wasn’t that the Antecessors, the strange globular balls of liquid metal, had been unwilling to answer questions, it was just that most of their answers didn’t make a lot of sense. There was a lot of cultural divergence between how humans conceived of time and space and how Antecessors viewed it. Or so Ubik claimed.
He had immersed himself in all things Antecessor and it was he who brought them here to claim the artefact. His plan, his methods. It wasn’t going to end well.
Point-Two saw one of the waitresses carrying a tray of drinks and signalled her to come over. She delivered the drinks to a table of rowdy men who were psyching each other up for what they seemed to think was a guaranteed record-breaking run of the second level, and then she came sauntering over with a world-weary look on her heavily painted face.
“Can I get a menu,” said Point-Two, deciding to try the local cuisine out of boredom.
“Sure, honey. Do you want the food menu, sex menu or the violence menu?”
Point-Two looked up at her. “What’s on the violence menu?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, pulling up something on her datapad. “Thought that’d be the one you’d go for.”
“What’s that mean? No, I was just curious about—”
“Just curious,” she said. “Sure.”
“Are you on the sex menu?” asked Ubik.
“Of course. And very reasonably priced.” She was a moderately attractive woman in her forties, dressed in a functional waitress’s uniform with her hair piled up into a tall mess.
“You’re a sex robot?” asked Fig, sounding a little surprised.
“You pay the fee and I’ll be whatever you want.” She winked at Fig.
Point-Two was a little surprised, too. No matter how accurate the replication, he could usually spot a robot by the body language, but not this one. Maybe it was because she was a little older that he didn’t pay close enough attention — they preferred something maternal around here, apparently — or maybe she’d been working here long enough to adapt to human movement patterns.
“You don’t look like a Mason & Muss product,” said Ubik. “Are you off-brand?”
“There’s no need to be rude. Here. I’ll be back to take your order.” She handed Point-Two a thin sheet of plastic and sauntered off to another table.
Point-Two watched her go. Her hips swayed in an artificial manner that could easily have been human.
“Hey, nice suit you got there,” said a sneering voice. The owner was one of the rowdy men who was eyeing Fig’s suit with an unpleasant leer. “It’s an Ollo, right? Real thing? Looks real. Why don’t you sell it to me? I’ve got a girl back home who’s about the same size as you.”
He was skinny and lanky, with one side of his head shaved and the other bursting with spiky purple hair. Metal rings and hoops studded his ears. Guns hung from his waist and full sets of Angstrom knives were strapped to each of his arms.
“It’s not for sale,” said Fig, without bothering to look up.
“What number are you?” said Ubik.
“We’re up next. Why?”
“Let us take your place and you can have the suit.”
“Haven’t we been here before?” said Point-Two.
“No, it was you he tried to use as a bargaining chip last time,” said Fig.
“What number do you have?” asked the man.
Ubik held up the pad. It said 82 now. The man looked tempted. From his perspective, it wasn’t much of a delay, more than a reasonable price for a genuine Ollo suit.
“No, no deal,” said Point-Two. He had enough experience with Ubik’s business methods to know there was no point trying to resist, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t make a few alterations. “But we’ll bet the suit against your place in the queue. Winner takes all.”
“A bet? What kind of bet?” Their whole table was interested now.
“A fight,” said Point-Two. “One on one. No weapons, no organics. First one to fall to their knees or lower loses.”
The man was grinning. “Which one of you wants to represent? You?”
“No,” said Point-Two. “Him.”
“Me?” said Fig, looking at Point-Two. He sighed. “Okay.”
The man turned to his table and they spoke in lowered voices that did little to hide their excitement.
“This doesn’t seem very low key,” said Ubik. “We have half the galaxy looking for us, you know.”
“Technically, it’s less than 3% of the galaxy,” said Fig.
“Yeah, but it’s the 3% with all the guns and warships,” said Ubik.
“You’ve got a deal,” said the grinning man. “I’m Zola, Fetch Group, third grade. I’m giving you my full information so you know we won’t back out of the bet. Your suit against our spot in the Dungeon. You’ll be fighting Klennon.”
“Hey,” said Ubik. “Just don’t make a ruckus.”
“Sure,” said Fig.
A man stood up and towered over the table. He was big, muscular, with a neck that was wider than his head, and he had an arm missing. In its place, there was a huge chrome cannon.
Ubik looked at the mountain with a gun for an arm and then turned back to Fig. “Minimal ruckus is okay but nothing more.”
Currently at three chapters ahead on Patreon, working on extending it to six.Afterword from Mooderino