Ubik had one foot on the wall next to PT’s ear and his back pressed against the rear of the compartment. A coupling device pressed into his bum crack in a threatening manner. By maintaining constant pressure on either end, his lodged position kept him securely locked in place as the transport shook and shuddered on its way back to the Motherboard.
PT was lying on the floor, his head folded towards his chest and his knees tucked under his chin. The lower part of his leg went out at opposite angles so the toes of his shoes touched a surface on either side of him. He didn’t look very comfortable, or very happy.
Gipper had his back on the roof, crouched over like he was playing at being an umbrella. His arms were stretched out, palms flat against the wall on the left and right sides of Ubik’s head. His feet were balanced on top of a junction box made of black carbonite that wasn’t made to support weight and could come away from the wall at any moment. If that happened, PT would be even unhappier.
Once they reached the upper atmosphere, though, the weightlessness would make it much easier to not knee each other in the groin, at least, not unintentionally.
“I don’t see why I had to come,” said Gipper, the words shaking out of his mouth. He had easily the most spacious location in the compartment. It took a little more muscle-tensing to be on top, but Gipper was the one who had chosen that position, so he had no one to blame but himself. “I blame you, Ubik. I blame you for everything that’s happened today.”
“They can’t hear us, can they?” said PT, struggling to get the words out and breathe at the same time.
“Why would they have listening devices on a robot transport?” said Ubik. “Robots don’t talk.”
“I could have stayed on the ground,” Gipper continued to complain, “stayed put and kept an eye on things while you two sorted out… whatever it is you think you’re going to do on their ship.”
“You have to contact your ship once we’re outside the drone net,” said PT.
“I could have given you the passcodes,” said Gipper, straining to stay wedged in place. “Ubik probably already knows them.”
“A familiar voice always helps,” said Ubik. “And you had to come so the weight wasn’t offset by too much.”
The three of them were in the battery compartment. In order to fit in, Ubik had taken the battery out. In order for the ship’s telemetry not to send incorrect data, they had to be the same weight as the battery, more or less. Readings were accurate to a very high degree, but bits and pieces were always falling off, debris was always getting stuck in cracks. Some fluctuation was to be expected, that was just an everyday fact of life in the orbital launching business.
“Are you sure we won’t need the battery?” said Gipper. “Looked like a pretty big one. It must have served some purpose.”
“It does,” said Ubik. “Backup, mainly. A little bit of maintenance stuff, but it’s very unlikely there’d be a malfunction requiring reserve power right now just when it would be most inconvenient. Highly improbable.”
“We’re going to die,” said Gipper. “I can feel it.” His voice trembled, possibly because of the shaking vehicle they were in or because of the intense emotional anguish that comes with the approach of death.
“No,” said Ubik. “I don’t think so. Not all of us.”
They stopped shaking. Their bodies began to float and they each relaxed the tension in their limbs.
“See?” said Ubik. “I told you it would be easy. We should probably stop talking now, to save on air.” He reached into his pocket and took out a small tube, which he placed between his lips.
“What’s that?” said PT.
Ubik removed the tube. “Oxygen inhaler. Mini oxygen tank that can keep you breathing for about ten minutes. Pretty nifty, huh? I made it myself.” He inserted it back in his mouth.
“Do you have any more?” asked Gipper.
Ubik shook his head.
“Can we share it?” asked PT.
Ubik shook his head again. “Germs,” he mumbled through the inhaler. “Dangerous.”
“More dangerous than flying into space in a tin can with no spacesuits?” said PT.
Ubik put out his hand and waggled it from side to side.
“We could kill him and take it off his corpse,” Gipper said to PT.
“He said it would take about a minute to dock once we’re in orbit. We can hold our breath that long if we have to,” said PT.
“And kill him then?” asked Gipper.
“It’s definitely an option,” said PT.
Ubik removed the inhaler. “You two should try to conserve your air. I’ve already given you my thirty-three percent of what’s in here, but it won’t last forever. And I said it was one minute to dock, we still need to get into the ship.” He put the inhaler back in.
They were still moving, but much slower. Realistically, it would take another three minutes to get docked. Another five before they could get inside the Motherboard. Both PT and Gipper looked like they had plenty of lung capacity. People always surprised themselves with how long they could hold their breath when they didn’t have any air.
PT rotated himself into a sitting position. It was amazing how easily he managed to move around in such a confined space. He made it look effortless, which was just as well considering how little air they had left. PT was also breathing very slowly, his face relaxed, his mouth slightly open.
Gipper had his eyes closed and was doing something similar. Both of them seemed perfectly at home in a low-air situation, which was good to know.
There was a jarring shudder to their small compartment and a loud series of clicks. They’d managed to get docked earlier than Ubik had estimated, probably a new protocol to speed things up.
“That took longer than I thought,” said Ubik. “Sorry about that.” It was always best to make the most of good luck, mainly by claiming it was your version of bad luck. It made people think things were going much better than they were.
“Now what?” said PT.
“We wait,” said Ubik. “The ship’s that way.” He pointed to his left. “The panel to this compartment opens on this side.” He pointed to the right.
“Then how do we get inside?” asked PT.
“They’ll rotate the transport once they think there’s a problem with the battery.”
“And how long will it take them to figure that out?” asked Gipper, floating above them. “I’m only asking because I need to air to breathe and I estimate we have less than two minutes left.”
“Not long.” Ubik raised his boot and slammed it into the left wall three times. He leaned across and put his ear to the wall. The other two did the same.
“Did you hear that,” said a barely audible voice.
“Yeah. Sounded like knocking.”
“Oh, no. You don’t think the coupler’s come loose again, do you?”
“Only one way to find out — full rotation.”
“But it’s nearly breaktime and we still have to reinstall the entire operating system. Can’t we just say we checked the battery connections and there was nothing wrong when we looked?”
Ubik leaned back and banged the wall again, harder this time. He swivelled around and put his ear to the wall once more.
“Shit, sounds like the thing’s falling apart. We’ll have to open it up.”
“Well, how about we don’t do the reinstall and say we did?”
There was a pause.
There was a whizzing sound, followed by a scraping of metal on metal. Then they were moving.
“What do we do when they open the panel?” said PT.
“Yeah,” said Gipper. “Not really in the mood to fight.” He looked a little light-headed.
Ubik tossed him his inhaler, sending it slowly spinning through the air that was left. “Here. Wipe it off first or you’ll catch whatever I’ve got.”
Gipper made a big show of wiping it thoroughly before putting it in his mouth.
Things had gone much smoother than he had expected, it was fine to be a little magnanimous. Plus, he still needed some help with the tricky part coming up.
The panel hissed as it was opened. Two surprised faces looked in.
PT was the first out, gliding through the opening and floating behind the two men. The swiftness of his movement left them both bewildered and slow to react. They were unarmed and dressed in simple overalls, not even suited-up. The lowest level of tech support, which was ideal for Ubik’s purposes.
“What were you doing in there?” said one of them.
“We’ll have to report this,” said the other.
“Don’t do that,” said Ubik, climbing out rather less gracefully than PT. He took a deep breath of recycled air, which tasted like you were sucking on a dead electrode. He held up a small device.
“Well, how about we don’t do the reinstall and say we did?”
It was a recording of their conversation from earlier, far clearer than it had been to the naked ear.
The two men looked startled, then horrified. They looked at each other with desperate expressions.
“Wh-what do you want?”
“Nothing, really. If you could just stay in here for a bit, that would be helpful.” Ubik pointed at the compartment he’d just vacated.
“Yeah, temporarily. Tell them we overpowered you and forced you inside. You’ll get the captivity bonus and you’ll be liable for the trauma credit rebate, if you play your cards right.”
“The captivity bonus only applies if the ship’s senior staff are responsible for the ship being boarded,” said the more nervous of the two.
“Don’t worry, they will be,” said Ubik. “They gave clearance for docking, didn’t they? That’s a command decision. And they don’t outfit you with weapons, right? So you don’t come under the ‘reasonable attempt to defend’ clause.”
“The alternative is we’ll have to kill you,” said Gipper, adding a growl to his voice, which was a nice touch.
The two men looked at each other again, this time with a hint of resignation and the very slight welcome acceptance of a pay bonus, and then climbed into the compartment. Ubik closed it, giving them a thumbs up as they disappeared behind the panel.
“Right,” said Ubik. “Time to take over the ship.” He hadn’t worked out exactly how he was going to do that, but a firm statement of intent was always a good idea.
“And then what?” said Gipper. “Fly away at full speed?”
“Of course not. We have to save Fig at all costs.”
“Really?” said PT. “Why?”
Both of them were treating him like he was only interested in saving himself, which was absolutely outrageous.
“Don’t you want to meet Ramon Ollo? The man’s a genius.”
“Did he really invent the sim-U?” asked PT.
“The prototype. Sold it to Vendx for a fortune, like, a couple of planets or something. He’s a great man. Sure, he’s done some terrible things, but who hasn’t?”
“I haven’t,” said PT.
“Nor me,” said Gipper. “Ill-advised is as far as I’ve ever gone.”
“Well, then,” said Ubik, “follow me. You’re about to get an upgrade.”
Chapters one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino