It was a lovely evening and Ubik was feeling good, the wind blowing through his newly cut hair. The wind was coming through the many holes in the transport ship the guild was using to deliver him to the crime boss who was probably planning to turn him into a bloody smear.
The LV-J1 series — affectionately known as the Jalopy — was an old troop transporter that was little more than a frame. No pilot, no door, no windows. You grabbed on where you could and hoped the enemy were bad shots.
There wasn’t much use for them these days. Wars were a thing of the past and no one sent people to their deaths in huge numbers for the sake of their god or their desire for land acquisition. People would refuse to go if they did.
Ubik wasn’t entirely sure how the change had come about — people were still violent and greedy, so you’d think wars between them would be unavoidable — but there were still plenty of other stupid ways to get yourself killed.
Below him, Fraiche City twinkled and sparkled in all its bustling splendour. He could see it through the gaps in the floor. It was a lively place, full of activity and commerce. Advertising told you a lot about a place, and the brightly lit billboards displaying messages vertically and horizontally to catch all eyes, shone colourfully with clean, exuberant optimism.
Ubik wasn’t entirely satisfied wearing his FVG greys out on the town but he had a cool haircut and he was confident it was the right look for a sharp young man on the up. He had seen how the people of Fraiche City dressed on his last visit, and the most stylish of them had been lined outside JonJo’s Surf ‘n’ Turf. He wouldn’t want to look out of place, unlike some people.
“I didn’t think you would want to come along,” Ubik shouted to PT who was standing next to him in the transport, looking dour and unfriendly.
“What?” shouted PT. He wasn’t even holding onto anything, his balance was really quite impressive.
“I said, I didn’t think you would want to help me.” The thrusters were old and noisy and the empty window frames didn’t help the acoustics.
“I don’t,” PT shouted back. “I’m only going to see who they sent to finish me off. You’re on your own.”
Ubik grinned. “Hardly. Not with this big lug here.” He pointed at the skyjack sitting in the corner.
“You think they sent it to be your bodyguard?”
“I prefer to think of it as a sidekick,” said Ubik. The drone’s lights flashed.
“I think they just wanted to make sure you got delivered as agreed,” said PT.
“But they know how these little cuties feel about me.” Ubik moved towards the hulking machine, careful to not lose his footing and fall to his death, and gave the drone a pat on the head. “They wouldn’t have let me have this one if they didn’t expect me to come back.” A panel flipped open in the drone’s side and Ubik checked to make sure they hadn’t fixed any of the changes he’d made before shipping him off.
“You think they’ll want you back after all the crap you’ve pulled?”
“I think they’ll want me back because of all the crap I’ve pulled. For all we know, this could be part of their testing. This whole planet could be their training ground. Or maybe we’re still inside a sim-U, only thinking this is the real world and none of our actions have any consequences. You just wake up when you die.”
PT nodded and then leaned closer and shouted, “Did something traumatic happen to you when you were a child? It would explain a lot.”
“Only traumatic things happened to me when I was a child,” Ubik shouted back. He gave PT a thumbs up. “That’s what made it fun.”
PT shook his head. “Well, I can tell you this isn’t a simulation. It smells different inside a sim-U. It could be a test, though. They want you to take on this crime lord and they’ve given you a jerry-rigged robot and sent you off in an old bucket. Medium difficulty.”
“It’s not a Bucket, it’s a Jalopy. The Bucket was the LV-B2, also a classic. It might not look like much, but this ship can take a direct hit, get completely blown apart, and be back in working order in under an hour. All the parts are numbered and slot together without the need for welding or rivets.”
“Yes, but the people who were on board when it got obliterated will still be dead,” said PT.
“True,” said Ubik. “But you can make new people for free.”
“I hope you feel the same way when Terrific JonJo opens up your berth for the next occupant. I really have no idea what you think you’re going to gain from any of this.”
“I like meeting new people,” said Ubik.
“I assume you already have a plan in place for when everything goes horribly wrong,” said PT.
“Nothing is going to go wrong because there is no wrong way or right way. There is only the way.”
“This trauma when you were a kid,” said PT, “was it a heavy object that fell on your head?”
“Some advice if things get a bit crazy,” said Ubik. “Just leave. There’s no need to try and save me.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Don’t put yourself at risk on my account.”
“But if you need help with your assassins, let me know. I can probably distract them long enough for you to run away.”
“You’ll be able to take on a whole criminal organisation and the people sent to deal with me at the same time? I might not run away just to see how you do it.”
“My secret is to act like I’m in a sim-U even when I’m not,” said Ubik. “Here’s another tip for you. If you get into a desperate situation and need a diversion, just open up the back of the simulation machine back at the academy. Vendx will send in one of their maintenance teams and you can escape in the confusion. They have a shoot first, repair later policy.”
“You make them sound like the Seneca Corps,” said PT.
“They’re far worse, think they’re the only ones who know how to fix anything. I can’t believe the Seneca Corps are as obnoxious, or as well-armed.”
PT was looking at him oddly. “You really don’t know about the Seneca Corps?”
Ubik shrugged. “They’re some sort of trigger-happy militarised lesbian collective and should be avoided.”
“That’s an incredibly offensive and bigoted way to think, Ubik. And not at all accurate.”
“Really? I didn’t mean it in a bad way, it’s just what Grandma told me.”
“How can you know so much about machines and so little about everything else? You should look up the Corps’ history.”
“Nah,” said Ubik. “It’s not like I’m going to run into them out here. They can do their thing and I’ll do mine. They leave you alone if you don’t bother them, right?”
“Then I like the way they think and wish them all the best.”
The ship came to a stop with a jolt and began to lower. They were in the middle of the city, coming down on a designated landing zone bordered by flashing lights. As soon as Ubik, PT and the drone exited the ship, it took off again.
“How do we call it back?” asked PT.
“My friend has all the contact details,” said Ubik. The drone’s lights flashed. “This way.”
The streets were filled with people and a few drones. None of them were as large or carried as many sharp blades as theirs. No one took much notice, though. The occasional glance at their FVG greys and people moved on. Bright lights surrounded them, except for one dark corner.
“You knocked out their power,” said PT as they walked towards it.
Just as he said it, the lights came back on, showing a large sign in neon that said Jonjo’s Surf ‘n’ Turf, and then went out again.
“Rolling blackouts are quite common in these out of the way planets,” said Ubik. This was the first planet he’d been to other than his own, but it sounded like it might be true.
“It seems to only be rolling in the place we’re headed,” said PT. “They might assume you had something to do with it.”
“Yeah,” said Ubik, “but I’ve got this guy watching my back.” He slapped the drone hovering beside him.
The drone stopped, its lights went out and it fell to the ground with a clang.
“You shouldn’t have hit it so hard,” said PT.
“I didn’t. They turned it off.”
“The guild? Why would the do that?”
“Only one reason I can think of,” said Ubik. “It’s a Vendx drone. They don’t want Vendx using it against them. Which means there’s a maintenance team on the way.”
“Why?” said PT. “Did you do something to the simulation machine, Ubik?”
“Nope. Must be Fig. You can’t mess about with one of their machines and not expect Vendx to know. This could get messy.”
“Should we go back?”
“Definitely not. But we can maybe send help.” Ubik smiled. “Come on, this just got interesting.”