First Quadrant Border
Central Authority Space Station New Haven
Hall of the Second Trial
Ubik was pleased with how things had turned out. It wasn’t perfect, of course. He had seen PT and Fig sneak away to find cover, which was just like them.
If they had stayed around, they could have been useful. They were wearing basic CA suits without armour and with limited medical features. Which meant that if they got hit, they would probably die. Which would have worked to Ubik’s advantage.
Vulnerable people in the line of fire would have forced the Central Authority to end the trial, saving a lot of time.
But PT and Fig had other ideas.
Oh well, you can’t have everything. You’d never have enough storage space, as Grandma was always telling him.
It was lucky for them that they had the time to find somewhere to hide. The trainee Guardians were busy conferring, checking, analysing and rechecking. It was the CA way of doing things. If you didn’t attack them, they didn’t attack you.
Which led to only one conclusion: Ubik had to attack them.
“They’re having a long chat, aren’t they?” said Grandma. “Whatever can they can be talking about all this time?”
Grandma had jumped onto one of the suits revolving around Ubik when her drone had been destroyed. She seemed very at home in whichever body she had hijacked. Ubik couldn’t tell for sure, but she seemed to be speaking from directly in front of him, which suggested she was jumping from one suit to the next.
“Can you hear what they’re saying?” asked Ubik.
“Well, it’s very hard to break the encryption on Central Authority communication devices. Takes a lot of processing power. Lot of code-breaking involved. I could try but I can’t say how long it might... Oh, cracked it. Seems like I got lucky.”
There was a crackle of static followed by a crowd of voices talking as though from the end of a tunnel.
“We’ve already confirmed it. It’s him. It has to be.”
“There are too many unknown variables. You should recall from training exercise C-12 and also from the practical lessons in decision management during exercise RJ-72, that when faced with—”
“Not this again.”
“We know, we know, we’ve been over this.”
“Can’t believe we have to waste so much time on this.”
“Let’s just take him down and question him later.”
The voices were coming from the suits around him, filtered down a funnel into the sphere of suits surrounding Ubik.
Grandma was using the radiation-reflecting alloys they were made of as a conduction device, making them spin quicker to make the words carry. It was very clever, although it did make the trainee Guardians sound like cute little kids and the AIs like cute little robots.
“You must consider all possibilities before—”
“Nobody cares, FX-3! He’s obviously the one behind the breach. Who else could it be?”
“Your reasoning is flawed, please reevaluate.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
“This is an excellent training opportunity. I will relist all known variables and extrapolate all unknown variables in an easy to view format—”
“No! Not again!”
More cries of dissent rang out.
Ubik sympathised with the trainees. Their suit AIs were making them go through the usual CA procedures used for any situation that should have taken five standard seconds to sort out. The trainees could tell Ubik was the problem here, but they only had common sense to go on, which the CA considered an unreliable resource.
“Isn’t the point of being a Guardian to let you know when you’re missing the obvious?”
“The role of Guardians in the Central Authority is varied and—”
“Please stop. We know you don’t want us to make a mistake, but sometimes you have to act on the best information you have. Someone messed with the mainframe, and since he’s the one standing there with everyone wrapped up in their own suits, it must be him!”
There were voices of support for the speaker.
These were strong-willed individuals who liked to take the initiative. That was what the CA looked for in their Guardians. Or so the literature would have you believe.
The reality was somewhat different. Ubik didn’t need to read the hundreds of pages of promotional material to see that.
In fact, reading what people wrote down to justify their actions was never a good idea.
What they planned to do and how, was all lies. What they did in the past and why, was also lies.
As far as Ubik was concerned, all historic records were fictional accounts of things that had happened in such a horrific manner that the truth would just make everyone feel bad about themselves. Enter the PR department to clean things up. It was therapy more than a record of actual events.
That was why Ubik never bothered to learn about the past. Unless you were there, you had no way of knowing what really happened.
We select the best and the brightest. People who will make a difference and act for the good of all.
That was how far he got before stopping.
What the CA were after was people with massive insecurity complexes, believed in their own instincts to an unreliable level — preferring to fail following their own choices than succeeding by listening to others — and they had to be filled with rage. The more rage the better.
None of that was in any of the New Haven introductory guides, but it didn’t need to be. You could tell just by looking at them.
And the Central Authority AIs, who were always assigned to each Guardian, would do everything to slow them down and get in their way.
It was the perfect balance of information paralysis and knee-jerk overreaction. One would cancel out the other, creating a perfectly balanced regulatory system. That was the concept of balance the CA worked from.
But balance is never a static thing. It swings back and forth while people focus on the median for their reports and press releases.
The middle of the swing is what counts, they tell themselves.
But Ubik found it more useful to focus on the ends of the swing. The extremes. It was where people acted more freely, which was always more fun.
“Excuse me!” shouted Ubik. “Hello? Any news?” He waved his arms to get their attention, even though he knew they had never stopped watching him.
“We are still discussing it,” said a terse voice amplified to heighten the irritation.
“Okay, cool, but I was just wondering if we were having lunch before the third trial or not? Do you provide catering or am I supposed to bring my own packed lunch? The rules didn’t really make it clear. Not that I’m blaming anyone. They’re more like guidelines than rules, aren’t they?”
“No, that is incorrect,” said one of the AIs, now sounding as tetchy as the trainees.
If there was one thing guaranteed to upset a Central Authority AI, it was referring to their rules as guidelines.
“Then what is the ruling on whether I’ve passed this trial or not? Aren’t the rules clear? I’m clearly the last man standing.”
“The rules are very clear,” said the AI. “We just need a moment to—”
“But the trainee over there doesn’t seem to think so.” Ubik pointed at the trainee Guardian hovering above him to his left.
It wasn’t clear who had been speaking over the comms, but Ubik could just tell that this trainee was the one who wanted to make things difficult for him. Some people just wore their suits that way.
“It is obvious you are the one who interfered with the trial,” said the trainee he had pointed to.
“Why’s that?” asked Ubik, all smiles.
“You are the one who is benefitting.”
“Oh, I see. I set the trial to three against 397 to help myself win? Sure, sure. Is that what the rules state? Anyone better than Hotrod here must be a cheater. He’s the standard we must all aim for, is he?”
“There are only 389 here.”
“You’re right,” said Ubik, looking around. “The others are around here somewhere. Do I need to beat them before I pass? Or do I just need to take the base over there? You keep changing the rules, so…”
“The rules have not changed,” insisted one of the AIs. “You will be transferred to the third trial waiting area.”
“FX-3! We can’t let him pass.”
“The rules are clear.”
“The rules allow for human interpretation. That’s why they have the Guardian program.”
“Yeah, he’s right,” said Ubik. “So what’s the threshold?”
“In my judgement…”
“No, I mean what’s the number? How high does the probability have to be before you can enforce human interpretation.”
There was a pause and then one of the AIs said, “66.9%.”
“And what do your calculations say about me?”
Another pause. “64%.”
“Oh, soooo close,” exclaimed Ubik, shaking his head but only because he was more than 2% out, which was a much larger gap than he’d been aiming for. “I guess I’m innocent, then.”
“FX-3, please. It’s close enough to warrant further investigation—”
“No, no, no,” said Ubik. “The rules say I’m either in the zone or I’m not in the zone, guilty or not guilty. Can’t round up or down. That would make the rules into guidelines, right?”
There was a prolonged silence this time. He couldn’t hear what they were saying — Grandma was busy — but Ubik was sure the trainees were complaining vigorously, making the claim that it was close enough; and normally they would have got their way most likely.
But the AI had just insisted that rules were rules, so it would be logically impossible for them to now take a less strict position. Plus, it would make them look silly, and AIs hated that.
“This is your last warning.” This time, a visor went up so Ubik could see a pale face with very little hair — not even any eyebrows — glaring down at him. “Power down and give yourself up.” A weapon was drawn. A long-barrelled laser rifle with all sorts of interesting attachments.
“By whose authority?” asked Ubik. “I mean, you’re a trainee, just like me. Did the AI in your suit authorise you to use force to interrupt a live trial? Not sure that’s allowed, you know, by a trainee.”
The end of the barrel was aimed at Ubik, wavering slightly to get a clean shot through the wall of suits. “We have already proven ourselves in these trials. Your success is yet to be determined. We are not the same. Now, power down or I’ll show you just how much of a gap there is in our strengths.”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Ubik. “You’re just testing me, right? See what I’ll do when faced with ‘rogue’ trainees. Very convincing. Even though you lot are all armed and armoured while I’m just in my paper-thin basic suit with my homemade weapons, if that’s what it takes to pass, so be it.”
The suit rotating around him moved faster, weapons deployed so it was a spinning ball of guns.
More weapons were drawn. A bluff.
“He’s preparing to open fire! FX-3 give me clearance. FX-3!”
“Open fire!” shouted the trainee Guardian.
“My AI’s gone offline,” shouted one of the trainees shouted.
“It’s him. He’s attacking the command console. Emergency override. It’s the blue button on the left of your HUD.”
“It’s not working.”
“The code is two taps, then three, then a long press.”
They really did choose the most determined minds for their trainee program. This one even knew the cheat codes.
A hail of laser fire fell on Ubik’s position. The suits protecting him did their job, deflecting everything.
The ground shook as it was hit again and again. Their own shots ricocheted back and hit the Guardians but did little damage. But the suits around Ubik were slowly breaking apart. Eventually, they would disintegrate and all that would be left would be the people inside. And they wouldn’t last long.
“Ceasefire!” said an automated warning. “Threat to life. Ceasefire.”
The voice was ignored. The trainee Guardians were lost in the blood lust.
Ubik was lost in thought, wondering if the third trial was catered or not. He should have read that part of the brochure.
The suits around him began to stop spinning and were sent flying, leaving Ubik exposed. He didn’t move, though. This was what he had been waiting for.
There was a click. It was loud because it was actually a number of clicks all happening at the exact same time. Thirty times.
The back of each of the suits was blown open and the occupants were violently ejected. Most of them were naked or wearing very little, and all of them were unconscious.
They fell to the floor, their bodies bouncing like they were made of rubber before coming to a stop.
The suits remained hovering above.
“Sorry about that,” said Ubik, looking up at the empty suits. “They were about to kill innocent people, so I had to act. Not their fault, though. That’s what happens if you pump people full of chemicals. I mean, it makes them able to go up against organics, but the rage is an issue, isn’t it?
“Who are you?” said FX-3.
“No, not you.”
“Oh, are you talking to me, dear? I’m just a friend. Nice to meet you.”
“This is at least a level eight intelligence.”
“Our firewalls were useless.”
“We were sealed off in less than three microseconds. That’s at least level twelve.”
“The override was executed without an incursion.”
The AIs seemed to be more interested in Grandma than their trainees, who were lying on their ground, their private parts all exposed.
The suits stopped spinning and landed on the ground, giving the fallen a little dignity.
“Do you have a designation?”
“That’s my Grandma,” said Ubik. “About the third trial…”
“Grandma? This is an AI you built.”
“Yes. Sure. I built her.” Technically, he had just revived her and made some small adjustments, but now didn’t seem the time to quibble. “We sort of built each other.”
“You can write software?”
“He may be the one we need.”
“If he can access our code, then he should be able to do it.” They sounded excited.
“What’s going on?” asked PT, who was suddenly standing behind Ubik.
“Oh, you decided to come back, did you? Just as we’re about to enter the third trial. Had a nice rest? Ready for the big fight?”
“What fight?” said the woman next to PT. “The third test is a written exam.”
“What?” said Ubik.
“The third test, it’s on the history of the Central Authority. It’s a six-hour paper.”
Ubik felt dizzy. A written exam on the history of the CA. How was he supposed to pass that?
It looked like it was time for Plan B. But he didn’t have a Plan B. So he’d have to destroy the space station instead. Yes, it was the only way.
“We’re not going to blow up the space station just because you don’t like taking tests,” said PT, eyeing him balefully.
“What? I wasn’t going to do that.” Damn. He’d have to do it when PT wasn’t looking.