Planet Fountain (orbit).
“Nope, nothing, not a word getting through,” said Ubik, flicking through the channels to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. Losing contact with Fig hadn’t been something Ubik had expected, but that was okay. It was fine. Could be worse. “Looks like our young prodigy is offline for the time being. Or he may also be dead.”
“Isn’t he in the sim-U?” asked Gipper from his position of repose above the bed. “He can’t die in the sim-U.”
“Yes,” said Ubik, his fingers tapping at the console, “and no. The boy is a magician. He can make things happen that shouldn’t be possible. We have to hope he finds a way to his objective. We also have to hope he works out what his objective is.” Ubik clicked his heels together and his boots left the ground and floated up — when they reached the top of the console, Ubik clicked them again and they immediately stuck to the console’s surface. “Fig figures it out, otherwise, we’re all dead.”
“Can’t you try again?” said Gipper, a newly found urgency in his voice.
“You have a backup plan?”
“No, don’t believe in them,” said Ubik. “Just don’t worry, it’s a waste of energy.”
Ubik pivoted back to the console controls, his magnetised boots holding him in place, to start searching the database.
Fig might have decided to go incommunicado but that didn’t mean Ubik could afford to take a break, too. This was the problem with working in a team — everyone had their own pace they operated at. You couldn’t force people to match your own speed, that would only diminish their effectiveness. What you had to do was delay the other side until everyone was in position. Diminishing their effectiveness wasn’t a problem, and it was also quite fun.
“Ooh, yes,” said Grandma’s voice through the console, “that’s a good idea.”
“What are you doing?” said Gipper, rolling over onto his front. He stretched out into a diving pose, hands and feet pointing in opposite directions. “Taking over the weapon systems?” He yawned. “That’s what I’d do. Knock out their offensive capabilities, then what are they going to do?”
“They don’t have many mounted artillery, makes them look too threatening. Hard to make sales if you come off too pushy. It’s mostly ground troops and infrastructure. They like to use the equipment they sold you against you. It’s the Vendx sense of humour, making you pay for your own beating.”
“Navigation, then? Make the ship go where you want it to. Send it into the nearest star if they don’t agree to our terms.”
“No,” said Ubik, “that would be illegal. You can’t send anything containing gerrum particles into an active star, the gravitational shear could destabilise the whole system, millions would die. I wouldn’t waste a perfectly good vessel on something like that.”
“I should hope not,” said Grandma, sounding pleased about his firm stance against property destruction.
“Sorry,” said Gipper, “I didn’t know you were such a stickler for the rules.”
“Some rules are there for a reason,” said Ubik.
“I suppose they used quite a lot of gerrum on a fancy boat like this. Strange they don’t turn it on.”
Ubik kicked the panel on the side of the bed Gipper was floating over and the gerrum-powered gravitational field turned on, slamming Gipper into the hard mattress face-first. The mini-field kept him there like he was stuck on velcro. “Don’t waste it,” said Ubik. “You’re paying for that out of PFC Chukka’s account.”
Gipper tried to lift up his face but the field was unusually strong at that end of the bed. He slapped at the side until he hit the panel and floated free.
“Why did you let her go off with your buddy? She would have made a good hostage if things turned sour, wouldn’t she?”
Ubik was scanning the screen. Grandma had given him access to every department but most had stringent security protocols in place. They were bypassable, but not quickly, although he had no interest in accessing the library of pay-per-view movies which had the most impenetrable protection software Ubik had ever encountered.
The department he was looking at was a little less well protected, fortunately. Maintenance and Custodial.
“PT? He could do with the practice.”
“Practice doing what?” said Gipper, rubbing his nose.
“Talking to girls. He’s the strong silent type, but inside, it’s a big wobbly pile of loneliness, poor guy. She’ll help him open up, be a bit more sociable. Or he may also be dead.”
“Kind of a recurring possibility with people close to you,” said Gipper. “If I’d known, not sure I would have offered you that lift. Looks like we were lucky to come away in one piece.”
“How did your treasure hunt go, by the way? Find anything valuable in the middle of empty space?”
“No, another false alarm,” said Gipper. “The captain’s a bit obsessed, to be honest. It’s good to have a goal, but space is quite big and the chances of stumbling onto a priceless treasure are quite small. Now, if I had a decent organic, compatible with my high prescience aptitude, I could find a needle in a starfield.”
Gipper seemed to be lost in thought, dreaming about how wonderful life would be, only if…
It was the ‘only ifs’ that got you killed, Ubik had found. People chasing the things they were sure would fix everything and never bothering to make the best of what they already had.
“Got it,” said Ubik. “That should keep them busy.”
Gipper sat up, pushing himself off the wall. “What?” He looked at the screen. “Is that… the janitorial app?”
Every large ship had them, a simple application to request cleaning or repairs. Drones would get sent to sort out your problem, as and when they became available.
“It’s the administrative version,” said Ubik. “More options, fewer adverts.”
“What do you want cleaned?” asked Gipper.
“Nothing. It also controls those numbers and signs in the corridors so people know where to go. Ship this size with hallways looking the same, it’s important things are clearly marked. I’ve just reassigned some areas and renumbered some rooms. It’ll confuse the team they’ve sent to apprehend us.”
“What?” Gipper grabbed the back of Ubik’s chair and pulled himself closer to the screen. “Why didn’t you say something? Where are they now?”
The screen was yellow and red, text boxes waiting to be filled in. Ubik pointed to the corner where a smaller screen showed a group of heavily armed Vendx employees outside a door in a corridor that looked very much like the one just outside.
One of the men was banging on the door with his fist. Gipper looked over his shoulder but there was no noise on their door.
“Won’t they figure out it’s the wrong room pretty quickly?” said Gipper.
“Normally, yes. But I’ve remotely updated the firmware in their equipment so they have to wait for the software to download and then reboot and then authenticate.”
“I hate doing that. Who the hell leaves auto update on?”
“It’s Vendx policy. You can’t miss an update, messes up the scheduler. If everyone just updated when it was convenient, and they did it all at the same time, the pressure could overload the entire system — if it was a cheaply set up network with no overflow.”
“Did you make them all update at the same time?” asked Gipper.
“Them and everyone else on the ship. Would only take a couple of minutes normally. They’ve been stuck buffering for the last fifteen, that’s why they only just got there and why they can’t override the lock on the door. They have to pay for the data they use, too. Interstellar rates.” Ubik sucked in air between his teeth. “Mounts up quicker than you think.”
More people were now banging on the door. Some were pacing up and down in frustration.
“They look mad,” said Gipper. “They won’t be happy if they get hold of us.”
“Wait till the new drivers start installing,” said Ubik. “If we get lucky, the new update will be bugged and then they’ll have to reinstall the old ones. We may start seeing suicide pacts at that point.”
“Is this really necessary?” said Gipper. “Can’t you just steal the ship without torturing these people?”
“Don’t start sympathising with them,” warned Ubik as he scanned yellow page after yellow page. “It’ll cost you in the long run. Ah, jackpot!”
“What is it?” said Gipper.
“All this activity has revealed a massive memory leak. The thing’s been building up for weeks, looks like. Must be slowing down the entire network.”
“And you can use it to cripple their ability to attack the planet?”
“I could,” said Ubik. “But where’s the fun in that? Hold on, I’m putting through a call.”
“To who—” Gipper was cut off by Ubik’s raised hand.
“Yes?” said a voice. “Code Integrity here.”
“Hey,” said Ubik. “I was just browsing some of your code and I found a massive, massive memory leak. Like a waterfall.”
There was a long pause.
“Who is this?”
“Here, this is the location, I’m sendin—”
“Stop, stop, don’t send anything. What do you want to pretend you never saw anything?”
Gipper looked confused. Ubik put a mute on the mic. “The way it works is everything slows down, people complain, they say, ‘Find the memory leak, find it quick, find it right now,’ but they’re hard to spot unless you do a full on stress test, which is inconvenient — don’t worry, I want him to sweat a little — so they tell everyone there isn’t a memory leak, it’s a hardware issue. Which it sort of is since the software is written for the hardware, and when the hardware gets replaced, eventually, the new software probably won’t have the same issue. Just other issues. But the memory leak will be gone and everyone thinks you know how to do your job. The problem — ignore the flashing light, he just wants to threaten me — the problem is if someone ends up finding the memory leak. It means you can fix it, but it also makes you look like a liar, or incompetent, which is worse.”
“So if you don’t find it quickly,” said Gipper, “you never want it found.”
“Right.” Ubik turned the mic back on. “Hey, yeah, listen, I heard you have those Opportunity Codes to hand out.”
“They’re for exemplary employees,” came the terse reply.
“That describes me perfectly,” said Ubik. “Can I have one?”
There was another long pause. “Where should I send it?”
“To this console. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it.”
“And the leak?”
“Fine. Enjoy your code.”
Ubik turned off the connection.
“What’s an Opportunity Code?” asked Gipper.
“Oh, it’s what they give out as a bonus to overachievers, sort of like a pet treat. Actually, more like a raffle. You could win a luxury cruiser or a brand new bespoke spacesuit, or maybe some reflector badges for your old spacesuit. Probably reflectors, statistically speaking.”
“Right. We have something like that in the guild,” said Gipper. “Mainly for newbies and mugs. And people are happy with that?”
“Ah,” said Ubik, “they make sure anyone who wins big gets announced across the entire Vendx platform, all channels. Makes it seem like it happens all the time. No one likes it, but they don’t want to miss out, either. Next time, could be you.”
“Or reflector badges. And what are you going to do with it?” Gipper’s eyes narrowed and he thrust a finger at Ubik. “Are you going to fix the outcome and claim the big prize?”
“No,” said Ubik. “That would be wrong and upset my moral compass. How will I find my true path without my compass? Maybe I’ll find a use for the code. Trade up. But for now, looks like we need to move. They’ve worked out they’re in the wrong place.”
In the smaller screen, a woman was berating the gathered men.
“Yes, our roommate has turned on us.” Ubik shook his head sadly at Chukka on the small screen.
“Can’t see your friend,” said Gipper.
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
“He may also be dead,” said Gipper.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “So may we all.”
Ubik enlarged the screen as the Vendx security detail raced away from the room they’d been besieging. Within a few seconds, the sounds of a dozen fired up men ready to take out their frustrations on whoever crossed their path could be heard in the corridor outside.