Ubik landed softly on the ground, the small jump down from the last handhold on the weathered facade not causing him any issues. Delgados had excellent shock absorbers built-in.
The Academy was situated in a residential zone. The other buildings were newer and locked up tight with darkened windows and smooth fronts you would have a lot of trouble free climbing. He quite fancied challenging himself at some point.
He moved quickly, toward the lights. There was a good chance his absence would be discovered so it was important to get as much done as possible on this first trip. If he was found out, it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. He had already established himself as a bit of a handful, the maverick who didn’t play by the rules. The reaction from the guild had been what he hoped for — they showed tolerance and enough interest to suggest this was not unworkable for them.
It seemed obvious to him that an outfit like the FVG would value those sorts of characteristics. They wouldn’t want them to be too pronounced — they didn’t want madmen on the team — but when you were sending people into the jaws of moderately-certain death, you needed them to have a bit of spark. You wanted a scrapper, a smart ass, a risk taker. You could always beat down those qualities to more manageable levels later.
By playing it a bit on the fast and loose side, getting into arguments with the instructors, taking a stand over the most trivial things, he had set a precedent. They had expectations of him. They had seen it all before and they knew his type. The type who would sneak out to go on an illicit jolly in the middle of the night. Guild material, no doubt about it. If the crew of the Red Devil were anything to go by, he may even have low-rolled his character.
The noise slowly increased as he neared the oasis of light in the middle of the sleeping city. There was no traffic, no vehicles in the sky, either. Judging by the clean, narrow roads, automated transport wasn’t allowed in the city. There had to be a way to get around, but not an obvious one. Possibly a subway system.
Ubik didn’t know very much about Foxtrot-435, other than it was nicknamed Planet Fountain on account of some natural springs you could bathe in and that he was currently in Fraiche City. The water was supposed to have restorative qualities, but what water didn’t?
The guild had a number of facilities like the Academy they could have sent him to. This one happened to have an opening and a free ride, so he had no complaints. What he needed to do was get some information from a reliable source. Something a little more in-depth than the opening and closing times for the city’s major spa (Oneday to Fiveday: 0600 to 2200 standard, Sixday and Sunday: 0600 to 0400 standard, fully staffed for your convenience).
He also needed to start saving up some money. He rubbed the strip on the underside of his arm. It had remained in place surprisingly well. Probably too well — he expected it to rip the skin off his arm when he tried to remove it. He had the ID chip of a legit citizen of the galaxy. It gave him access to a brand new, almost legal account to put money in, now he just had to fill it with real currency.
A slow but steady trickle was all he required for now. He wouldn’t know how much he needed until he made a few inquiries. He wouldn’t know how feasible it would be to employ more illicit methods, or which methods were available here, until then, either. He also needed to know how effective the law enforcement entities were. Or what kinds. Fully automated would be too much to hope for.
His first goal was to get a low-paying job in an unremarkable business of some kind. He had some experience doing menial work, mostly when scoping out a place for a future scoop. The best way to understand an operation was to get a job at the bottom of it. That’s where the least effort was made to hide any issues, and also where the other employees were most likely to speak their minds. No one made their complaints louder than the people who worked the hardest and got paid the least.
He wouldn’t be noticed, no one would care why he was there, he would be able to collect a little seed money and get a feel for this city. It was just a matter of finding the right sort of place.
The streets got wider and started to fill up with people. As the lights got brighter, the people swarmed around them in greater numbers. Lots of couples, lots of small groups. Chatting, laughing, young and old. It created a pleasant atmosphere, with a sense of excitement. Ubik looked around for the criminal elements who always hung around these sorts of crowds. He couldn’t see any. Perhaps Fountain was a crime-free utopia.
There were clubs and bars and restaurants, mainly. Visiting communal areas to share food and drink was one of those things that didn’t really work over the net. You could sit in front of a screen with a glass in your hand, talking to other people in front of their screens at home, but it lacked atmosphere. Many companies had tried to make it work but it had never taken off. Humans were social animals, apart from the ones who weren’t, and even they tried their best to fake it.
A job in a kitchen seemed ideal to Ubik. He had worked grills and worked dishwashers before, not that he would need to prove he had experience. He would just need to be willing to keep moving. There was the slight issue of him being an off-worlder, and he had no idea what the job market was like here. They may not need a drudge if people were desperate enough. The laughing couples around him suggested things were going relatively well. Regular spa days probably helped.
Ubik walked the length of the main thoroughfare and back. He chose a small but popular establishment that looked like it was a fairly low-rent enterprise. It was called Dai’s Curry Palace and had a large glass front that showed the people enjoying their food inside.
Curry was good. He didn’t want to work in some posh restaurant where everyone had an attitude. He was pretty sure he would be able to get all the info he needed in a place like this. Plus, he liked curry. He liked any food where the spices covered up any age-related deficiencies in the ingredients. He had been brought up eating what other people left or threw away. The spicier it was, the less likely you were to notice how disgusting it was.
Ubik slipped into the alley down the side of the building. There were garbage carts lined up, ready to be taken away in the morning, probably mostly food to be recycled. It brought back memories of dumpster diving for him. Delving the ancient sites of aliens held no fear for him when compared to jumping into the trash behind Sloppy Jim’s back in Silon City.
It was something Drimbo always encouraged. Expose yourself to the worst there was, in manageable amounts, and you would build up an immunity. Prevention was better than cure, but both sucked ass compared to invulnerability. Eat other people’s food, swim in their filth, make them chase you through the most disgusting areas you can find. Ubik had lost many an irate law enforcement officer because sewage overwhelmed their sense of duty, as well as their sense of smell. An untrained gag reflex was much harder to escape from than a pair of handcuffs.
Ubik looked around for where the power supply entered the restaurant and found a locked box where the power company could make adjustments and take readings. It wouldn’t let you do much more than that, unless you took a hatchet to it. Ubik would never do something so crude. It took him about ten minutes to get the panel open, set up a timed event, and then close it again.
He went round the front and got in line for a table. It was a popular place, with people willing to wait. Not as popular as some of the other restaurants — the place opposite had a line that came out onto the street — but they turned a profit here. A tight margin would be his guess. Ideal for Ubik’s purposes.
Ubik got to the front and said, “Could I have—”
The lights went out and the room was plunged into darkness, or the edge of it. Light from the street and the other still well-lit premises came in through the large window facing the street.
There was mild alarm and consternation, the staff asked for calm and claimed everything would be taken care of in a few moments. Candles were brought out, small and suitable for birthday cakes. The manager appeared, a short, thin man. That was about all Ubik could tell in the glow of the candles.
“No cause for alarm. It’s all good, minor malfunction, electrician is on his way. Please, continue, enjoy. Free water, from the springs.”
Free water was not the greatest compensation but people didn’t really seem to mind that much. It was a bit of an adventure, the sitting kind. The line behind Ubik had disappeared, though, off to find a less adventurous place to eat . The young man in front of Ubik had turned to speak to the manager; both seemed worried.
“At this time of night… Do you know how much that will cost… Don’t you know someone....”
He caught enough to know he had chosen well.
“Excuse me, I have some engineering knowledge, would you like me to take a look?” Engineering sounded good, made him seem educated.
The manager was desperate and took him up on the offer. He led him into the back, past the kitchens where people were standing around confused.
“Do something, chop something up,” he shouted at them. “No, shut that. Don’t open any refrigeration units until the power comes back.”
He presented Ubik to the fuse box. The switches showed everything was fine.
“I can’t make sense of it, Ubik. Where’s the problem?”
“Don’t worry, Mr Dai,” said Ubik. “If it isn’t here, it’ll be the junction box outside. I’ll go take a look.”
Mr Dai went back to calming his customers and assuring them everything was being taken care of. Ubik went into the alley, waited long enough to make it seem some effort was being made, and turned the power back on. There was a loud cheer as the lights returned.
“Thank you, thank you so much. Allow me to offer you a full three-course meal, half-price.”
Ubik was impressed at the manager’s ability to remain sensible in the midst of crisis. No need to go mad over a little assistance. Here was someone who appreciated a fair deal.
“Actually, I was wondering if there was any chance you were hiring. In the back, I mean. The kitchen or something? I’m a hard worker and I can help out in other ways.”
“Well, okay,” said Mr Dai, smiling big and surprised. “Why don’t we step into my office and discuss it?”
Easy as pie. Curry pie. You could put anything you wanted in it and it still tasted good.
They entered the manager’s office, which was small and cramped. Ubik sat down as Dai closed the door, and then locked it.
“You must think I’m some kind of idiot.”
“Sorry?” said Ubik.
“You queer the tronics and then offer your services. Lucky, isn’t it? Very lucky.” He came around Ubik and sat down behind his desk. “Who are you, my friend? Who sent you? Was it Gerry? Was it?”
There had always been a risk that he would get caught. Now he was in a pickle, but that was okay. He was quite enjoying it. His heart was beating faster and his mind was flashing options at him. This was what the sim-U could never do. There was no prefab version of this to practise on — first time could be your last time. Who needed a machine to replicate life on the precipice of disaster? He had the real thing right here.
“I don’t know who Gerry is,” said Ubik. “But maybe I can help you with him.”