Planet Fountain (orbit).
When the collision siren went off for the second time, Point-Two thought it was another false alarm and ignored it. Alarms had been going off since he took up position in the commissary and nothing had happened, so it seemed unlikely this one was going to be any different.
He had his own problems to contend with, namely trying to get food out of the vending machines. He didn’t have the necessary ID chip implanted in his wrist to pay for anything, and nothing came free on a Vendx ship.
And then the alarm stopped and the vending machine spat out a sandwich. It was the one he had tried to order but had been refused. And now here it was. Which meant the ship was now under emergency orders.
Once a ship was deemed to be in distress, all foods and drinks were required to be made freely available. This was spacetime law and punishable by death in the most severe cases. Humanity had managed to survive in the merciless expanse of outer space by obeying some basic human laws and not even Vendx could contravene them. A marooned ship could not withhold its stores from the crew. Which was why corporate warships rarely declared an emergency, except in the most dire situations.
It could only be because of Ubik.
Point-Two’s guess was that Ubik was using the alarms to cover for what he was really up to, and putting the ship under emergency orders was also part of it, along with placing Point-Two in this commissary and blowing a hole in the wall. These things required diversions and what better diversion than to make people think the ship was about to be hit by a passing asteroid.
It still wasn’t clear to Point-Two why he was in the commissary or what the emergency was, but there had to be a reason for all of this. Possibly to also provide another diversion. Ubik’s preferred form of chaos was multi-layered.
The members of the Motherboard crew who had been in the commissary now formed a sort of wall — more like a human cobweb — that covered the hole, and behind them a host of drones prevented them from flying out into space, but the whole thing had a very impermanent feel to it.
The structure could fall apart at any moment and the people in the web knew it. They could have let go and allowed the drones to catch them, but they seemed to know that they would then be in an even worse situation than their current one. And the current one wasn’t great.
The small gaps between the drones drew air out of the room and pulled everything else along with it. The furniture which Point-Two had unbolted was caught up in between the people, making things even more awkward for them.
It had been an interesting thing to watch from the perspective of bystander and student of all things Ubik, as Point-Two now considered himself.
At first, they had simply tried their best not to get sucked out into space and their reactions had been what you might expect — grabbing onto things, grabbing onto each other, trying to avoid getting hit in the storm of limbs and furniture headed for the sudden hole.
Some people had tried to help others, some had fought their colleagues to gain a better chance of survival, some had given up or were in shock and just let themselves be drawn towards the gaping hole.
Then, as they were caught in the opening because of the clogging effect of everything not being able to fit through the hole at the same time, they had a little more time to figure out what was going on.
They couldn’t figure it out completely, of course — not even Point-Two could do that, and he was part of the team causing it (perhaps ‘team’ was too strong a word) — but they saw the drones preventing them from complete annihilation, and they saw Point-Two, watching while eating a sandwich.
It was the flavour of sandwich Point-Two guessed Ubik would enjoy the most, and he planned to eat as many as the vending machine held, even if it made him sick. Petty but satisfying.
Some of the crew had spotted him earlier, had seen him releasing the furniture and sending those people clinging to chairs and tables to join the rest, and had surmised that whatever was going on, he was in some way involved. Those who had tried to confront him directly had not come off well.
They weren’t wearing their Vendx suits — which made Point-Two think they were off-shift when they had been ordered here — and weren’t comfortable being in a zero-G environment without them, at least not when it was thrust upon them without warning.
From what he had seen, Point-Two guessed maybe half a dozen of the crew had some sort of training or previous experience (probably sports when they were younger) in zero-G suitless mobility.
Chaos was the real enemy. No one could think straight with so much going on at once and death seemingly looming from the void. It was an unusual way to gain control over a room full of people — by giving up control entirely.
Point-Two had his foot caught in the front flap of the vending machine. It was a convenient way to hold his position without effort, just hook your toe under the flap and you’re anchored, floating a little from side to side but otherwise held firmly in place. Even if the hole in the side of the ship was fully opened, Point-Two wouldn’t get sucked out.
Once the alarms stopped and some equilibrium had been achieved and the crew felt a little less in danger, they started squabbling. This was due to there not being a leader among the group, at least not an officially recognised one. Everyone was low-ranking and not used to giving orders.
“What the hell’s going on?
“We’re going to die, we’re going to die.”
“Stop crying. Your shaking is going to make me lose my hold.”
“How do we get out of this?”
“They’ll send a team.”
“What about these drones? Why are they just sitting here?”
“Listen, everyone, shut up and listen to me. We have to—”
“You shut up, Benkson. No one cares what you think.”
“Just listen to me, will you? I have—”
“No, I won’t, and neither will anyone else. We all know what you did last assessment and appraisal. Screw you.”
“You’d rather die than listen to me?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“No one’s going to die,” said a firm voice, someone who had been thinking things over while being a human cork. “It’s him. Over there. He’s doing this. Hey, you!”
They all looked over at Point-Two. He ignored them. He had a lot of sandwiches to get through.
“What department’s he with?”
“Look at his clothes. He isn’t one of ours.”
“Then how is he eating from our vending machine? Those things won’t give you a crumb without paying. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
“Emergency orders. We’re under emergency orders.”
“We’re going to die, we’re going to die.”
The realisation all of this had given Point-Two was that he did not like having his life dictated by others.
It was a strange realisation since that had been his experience since childhood. Whether it had been his sister or his brother or System, someone was always laying out his path.
He got to choose his pace, make decisions about how to proceed, but the overall direction had always come from someone else. And he had been fine with it. He was always given an explanation, shown the reasons why this was the best of all the available options, and given encouragement and motivation. Working together towards a common goal. What was right. What was best.
Only now was he starting to see how ridiculous that was. These people were one part of it. The way they fought and struggled to not die, they would do anything they had to — work together, fight one another, lie and cheat and betray each other. People did what they had to in order to get what they wanted.
They might try to do what was right, what was best, but in the end, a desperate situation threw all that out of a window, or out of a crack in a wall. How people saw themselves under the best conditions was not commensurate with how they acted under the worst.
Ubik didn’t bother with any of the niceties, any of the soft manipulations you needed to convince, to persuade. They acted how he wanted them to act because the alternative was to risk death. They stayed put, they didn’t bother anyone, they played no part in the proceedings while Ubik did… whatever it was Ubik was doing.
As galling as it was for Point-Two to be in the same position as these flailing people of no consequence, there was something far more galling on Point-Two’s mind. This was how he had always been treated, he just hadn’t seen it. While doing his damndest not to be used by those he saw as the opposition, he was being used all the same by those he saw as his allies, as his family.
Perhaps that was how life was meant to be lived, as a cog in a machine you had no real control over. Work your way up the chain of command and you could get to be a more important cog, get to have a say in proceedings. In the meantime, do your best to prevent the cogs in the other machines from getting in your way.
Was that really what life amounted to? He found it a disturbing thought.
This was all going through his mind after the second alarm went off, the one he ignored. The crew panicked for a second and then grabbed onto one another more tightly, braced for impact. They eased slightly when the alarm stopped. And then lost their minds when it hit.
Whatever it was, it shook the entire ship. People screamed and lost their grip. They tumbled out through the hole, getting caught in the drone wall like it was catcher’s glove. They were all piled on top of each other in a jumble, but they were unharmed. For now.
The impact had felt like one solid strike somewhere towards the top of the ship. Point-Two knew what it was like to go through an ion storm. He had been through an asteroid field. He had been inside a ship during a meteor shower. Each felt different, each had its own signature strike pattern.
What had just happened to the ship had not been a single hit. It had been a series of smaller impacts coordinated very carefully. A weapon of some sort.
Point-Two’s first assumption was that Ubik was responsible, but where would he get the weapons from? And how would he organise them to hit the ship without the ship defending itself? There had even been a warning alarm.
Then the speakers came on and an automated voice said, “Warning. Crew of the Vendx Galactic Vessel Motherboard. Warning. This ship has been seized by hostile forces. Systems have been compromised. Warning. In accordance with spacetime piracy laws, this vessel has been classified as a hostile entity. Warning. Any attempt to aid the hijackers will cause you to be designated as an enemy combatant. Warning. Accepting hostage status is considered aiding and abetting the enemy. Accepting hostage status is a breach of contract. All hostages are exempt from bonus payments, including death severance pay. Warning.”
The message began to repeat from the beginning.
The crew had stopped screaming and were very quiet. They had just been fired with all benefits removed for being taken hostage. But more than that, Point-Two was starting to see Ubik’s plan. He had convinced the ship to attack itself, like the body’s immune system turning on itself to fight off an infection.
Point-Two was familiar with spacetime piracy laws. If the ship was declared a hostile entity, the original owner could attack it without concern of reprisals, in particular legal ones. The crew couldn’t sue the company for attacking them because they were now considered members of the boarding party. They were all pirates.
The thing was, though, Vendx were not here to attack their flagship. Only Ubik was here. He was using the ship’s own defence drones to attack the hull from outside to trigger the legal safety clause.
Why would he do that if he already had control of the ship?
The renewed shouting of the crew members told him the answer. They had just been let go of in the most brutal way possible, released from their contracts to be cannon fodder. They would be looking for employment, assuming they didn’t die. Preferably as crew of a large ship. And it just so happened Point-Two knew of a ship that had a few vacancies.