Red Devil, Class 3 frigate, Orion model.
Grandma knew her stuff. Why she had downloaded it all into a soul cube, he had no idea. Which of her descendants was she hoping was going to be into antiques restoration? In any case, her instructions were both very clear and full of enthusiasm.
Her love for all things engineering always came through as her words emanated from the small speaker on the side of the cube. How could anyone not love the beauty of inverse synaptic relays? Ubik couldn’t help but smile as she gleefully told him of the various shortcuts she’d slipped past her supervisors to save on work.
She probably thought generations to come would be as fascinated as her by the finer points of solid state electronics. She must have been a massive nerd.
Reams of data appeared on the screen. Ubik gave himself full access to all the ship’s systems and hid his security clearance deep in the code so no one would know. It wasn’t like he planned to use it for anything, but it was nice to know he could take over the ship if he needed to.
The real purpose of breaching the ship’s security was so he’d be that much quicker next time he had to do it. There’d probably be more of a time constraint. Possibly shouting and banging on the door, too.
A couple of hours had passed since Gipper had left him here, and it felt a bit like he’d been forgotten, which was perfectly fine with him.
He had no idea what it took to fly a ship like this or how intensive it was for the crew. They could be sweating over getting their calculations right so they didn’t accidentally veer into an asteroid belt, or they might be crawling through access tunnels to make sure there was enough duct tape holding everything together. A ship this old was going to need to be carefully handled through every trip, he felt.
After he had finished messing with the ship’s software, he closed everything up and made sure nothing looked out of place. He had only made minor adjustments to allow him some control. If the captain did decide to throw Ubik out of an airlock, he’d be able to get the airlock to let him back in. He didn’t bother making changes to the ships main systems as he wasn’t familiar with the protocols. There were so many patches and bug fixes already in place, any small adjustment by him might crash the whole thing.
He waited for Gipper to come back but there was no sign of him. Ubik was getting hungry and there’d been mention of a mess hall. He could always grab something to eat while everyone was busy. Any vending machines would be happy to serve him, he was sure.
The door to the cabin was unlocked and slid open when Ubik banged on it as Gipper had. The corridor was empty and quiet apart from the constant hum that served as background music in all locations. It had a grimy feel to it. Not unclean — it looked like it was regularly mopped. What it needed was a couple of microns shaved off each surface with a high-velocity sander. That would bring back the shine.
Ubik stepped outside the room and then he was floating. It had happened instantly. He quickly pushed himself back into the cabin, thinking the rooms were different to the passages in terms of gravity, even though that was ridiculous. He floated about in the room just as he had in the corridor.
The absence of gravity meant the ship had stopped, he realised. There was no sense of inertia and no sense of movement. And no windows. They had gravity when they moved and none when the stopped, that was the only way to tell.
Ubik swam back out into the corridor and set off in the direction Gipper and Bev had been going last time he saw them. Had the ship already arrived at the training facility? He wouldn’t mind missing out on lunch if it meant he was already at his destination. Room and board came with the training. He would take Gipper’s advice and avoid the tapioca, whatever that was.
He kept moving forward, ignoring side passages. There were voices coming from up ahead. Gipper was the first person to come into view. He was standing in the corridor alone, staring at the wall.
As Ubik got closer, he realised it was actually a window he was looking out of. And as he got even closer, he realised it wasn’t a window, it was a screen that showed what was outside as though it were a window.
“Have we arrived?” said Ubik, bouncing off a wall and unable to stop himself rotating. Being upside down didn’t actually make that much of a difference.
“Ah, no,” said Gipper, glancing over his shoulder and not seeming very surprised to see Ubik inverted. “Sorry I didn’t come for you earlier. The captain decided on a slight detour. Turns out he did find something on your planet after all. Brought us here without mentioning it to anyone.”
“Where are we?” Ubik managed to face the screen and saw the ship that was alongside them, although alongside was a relative term. It was at least a few hundred kilometres from them. And it was still massive.
“No idea, he likes to keep things close to his chest. But we weren’t expecting anyone to be here, that’s for sure.”
The ship wasn’t just bigger, it was also newer. It gleamed and sparkled with newness. Everything about it screamed flagship, especially the giant blue letters along its side which said: Flagship of the Seven Seas Navy.
“Seven Seas? Don’t they run cruises?”
“Ya,” said Gipper. “That’s how they started out. Now they have their fingers in all sorts of pies. That there is the Crown Jewel, a Miranda class star carrier. Question is, what’s it doing out here waiting for us?”
Ubik recognised the ship type without needing to be told. It was the most powerful large battleship on the market, and filled to the brim with smaller battleships and fighters.
“You really think it’s here for us?” asked Ubik.
“Bit of a coincidence we both turn up at the same coordinates.”
“Doesn’t that mean they’re here for the same things as your captain?”
“What have you been telling him?” said a voice from behind them.
“Oh, Captain Hickory,” said Gipper, sounding guilty. “This is—”
“I know who he is. What I want to know is why you keep blabbing secrets told to you in confidence.”
Ubik was able to turn his neck but it took a second for the rest of him to follow. The tall man standing there was very clearly the man who had chased Ubik down into the tunnels under the junkyard. Without his mask, his features seemed oddly pronounced and pointy. He had similar red-brown skin to Bev. He showed no signs of having recognised his recent quarry.
“He didn’t say anything, really,” said Ubik. “Is there something we’re waiting for?” There didn’t appear to be any planets or moons or even a passing comet in the vicinity.
“No,” said the captain. “Just another wild goose chase.”
Ubik slowly turned back to the screen. Both ships on the same wild goose chase? That seemed unlikely. He watched as the metal panels glinted. His eyes narrowed. Something cold shot through him.
“Do you have any shields on this ship?” asked Ubik quietly.
“Of course,” said Gipper. “The best sh—”
“I think you better turn them on,” said Ubik. “They’re about to open fire.”
There was a click and even without looking, Ubik could tell organics had been activated. A wave of static pushed him from behind. Then Captain Hickory stepped forward. Even with only a side angle view, Ubik could tell the man’s eyes were burning a fiery red, although his long black hair hadn’t moved at all. He had extreme control over his augmentation. What could he see? Ubik wondered.
“Damn it, he’s right. Comms open. Wei, launch the distress beacon. Now!”
There was a squeak from somewhere, an objection or request for clarification dying in someone’s throat.
Ubik watched as a white beam shot out of the side of the screen, away from the ship.
“Captain, incoming message from the Crown Jewels. Putting it through.”
“This is First Office Grendl,” said a clipped voice full of superiority and condescension. “Are you in need of aid? We noticed your distress beacon.”
“Yes,” said Captain Hickory. “It contains an encrypted message that we’re under attack. By you.”
There had been no time to include a coded message, but the other side didn’t know that.
“What? Surely there’s been some kind of mistake. We were just running some exercises, testing everything was in working order. No harm meant.”
“First Officer Grendl, you know, of course, that arming blasters when in range of another ship is considered an act of aggression and illegal under maritime law.”
“Of course, of course. This is simply a misunderstanding. We didn’t even know you were there. I’m afraid your tiny vessel slipped our attention.”
“We’ve been trying to hail you for the last ten minutes,” said Captain Hickory, his voice calm and level, but still able to project an impressive amount of menace.
“Have you? I’m afraid we’ve been having a little trouble with our comms. By the way, what are you doing all the way out here?”
“Same thing as you, I imagine,” said the captain. He let it hang there for a second. “Realigning navigation.”
“Yes, yes, exactly,” said Grendl. Both men seemed to know the other was lying. “I’m afraid it will take us quite some time to get turned around, big ship like this is a nightmare to manoeuvre, as I’m sure you understand. Feel free to leave when you wish. And sorry again, no hard feelings.”
“None taken,” said Captain Hickory.
“I hope you’ll let the authorities know there was no malice intended.”
“I will inform them of the facts, what conclusions they choose to draw from them is their affair. I’m sure you’ll only warrant investigation if this turns out to be a pattern of behaviour.”
“That’s fine. Yes, I see your meaning. Very well, our sincerest apologies again for the misunderstanding.”
There was silence.
“Misunderstanding,” said Gipper. “Bastards were going to wipe us out before we could do anything.”
Captain Hickory’s eyes faded back to their normal brown. “Prepare for departure,” he said. He turned to Ubik. “You’ve got good eyes. I owe you.”
Ubik felt a little apprehensive. Even without his organics activated, Captain Hickory seemed to be able to see right through Ubik.
“You’re welcome,” said Ubik. “Glad my panic was of help. Do you think they’ve found whatever it is you’re after?”
“No. They know the coordinates, they don’t know what it is they’re looking for. We’ll drop you off at Gorbol and come back when they’ve given up and moved on.” He looked Ubik up and down with his penetrating gaze. “Nice Delgados.”
Ubik looked down. His shoes were the only thing he hadn’t changed. He couldn’t bear to discard them, they were Delgados.
“Oh, um, thanks.” He looked up but the captain was already striding away. In zero Gs, he was walking. There was something very unusual about this man, and Ubik made a note not to get on his bad side… again.
Chapters are one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino