Figaro Ollo Spaceport.
Point–Two hadn’t expected Fig’s homeworld to be so backward. Female–only fighting competitions showed a distinct lack of regard for equality of the sexes. Suggesting zero–G battles were better suited for women made no sense at all. He was stuck on this leaden, outmoded planet for the time being and forced to follow their archaic concepts of gender roles, but he wasn’t happy about it.
“Keep your head angled down,” said Ubik. “They’ll have face recognition software, probably. They might have started looking for us. We don’t want people trying to claim the bounty on our heads.”
“You might want to not shout about it, either,” said Point–Two.
“It’s fine,” said Ubik, as they zipped in between frustrated, complaining people staring up at the screens. “None of these plebs are listening to us. They’ve all got rage–deafness. Over here, this way.”
He was being unnecessarily careless, but he was right. It was obvious no one had any interest in them or their conversation. Point–Two picked up bits of chatter as he followed Ubik, doing his best to keep him in his sights.
“What kind of technologically advanced society can’t even cope with a small meteor shower?” complained a large man dressed in a high–quality but very worn flight suit.
Very few of the people looked like tourists. They were dressed for work, standing in small groups, ignoring the brightly lit shops and restaurants along the concourses that vainly flashed adverts for gifts and meal in an attempt to attract business. Everything was priced in standard currency and very expensive, as you would expect in a spaceport.
“Latest reports say it should be over soon,” said a short, bald man operating a tronic device in each hand, their screens showing different news reports. “They think a delivery barge exploded in orbit.”
The shops were all automated, their items displayed in clear cases. Enaya seemed to specialise in small tronics and gadgets. An oversized holover hand thrust a cylindrical object at him as he ran past.
“Clean your teeth, shave your face and polish your shoes with one handy device.”
Point–Two burst through it and hurried to catch Ubik.
“I thought you said they’d open the asteroid to independents,” said a gruff woman with very short hair. “Have they said what the discovery is?”
There was a lot of chatter, a general impatience with being stuck here, no flights allowed in or out, and curiosity about what was happening up on the Tethari asteroid. A lot of the people appeared to have arrived recently, hoping to investigate the asteroid.
Opportunistic to say the least. It was a privately–owned site and any source of organics would be jealously guarded. But like any sort of gold rush, prospectors always turned up to chance their luck.
“They’re mostly delvers,” said Point–Two. “They want in on the wormhole station.” He had caught up to Ubik under a large screen that showed a map of the building layout.
“Yep,” said Ubik. “They’ll probably try to sneak up there once the flight ban’s been lifted.”
“How? It’s only a tiny asteroid, isn’t it?”
Ubik shrugged. “This way.” He headed to the right.
Point–Two looked up the screen. The only thing in that direction were the public bathrooms. At least he’d get a chance to relieve himself.
Ubik rushed past the toilets and Point–Two reluctantly followed. He would probably need to use the facilities once he found out what Ubik was up to.
Ubik’s target, it turned out, was an alcove set back from the main hallway, where six different vending machines were lined up looking forlorn and forgotten. Point–Two was quick to notice the VendX logos on their sides. This was apparently the VendX account from which Ubik intended to make a withdrawal.
Ubik looked around and then up. There was a small glass dome in the ceiling, a camera of some sort inside.
“Probably no one watching, but better safe than sorry.” Ubik licked the palm of his hand and then ran up to the wall. He kicked off it, sailing past the dome, wiping his hand across its surface, and then landing lightly. The dome now had a smear across it. Not exactly the most sophisticated way to avoid identification.
“Won’t someone notice?” asked Point–Two.
Ubik scrunched up his nose. “A dirty lens? I doubt they’ll send over an emergency cleaning crew to make sure the snack machines are safe.” He sized up the machines, big blocks of black metal with shiny buttons and screens.
There was plenty of dust and grime on them, suggesting Ubik was right about the lack of care.
“VendX started out making these, it’s how they made their fortune. Everywhere in the galaxy wanted cheap food that they could trust. Don’t see them much anymore, but every spaceport, near the bathrooms, without fail.” Ubik pointed at the machine in the middle. “Stand here and make it look like you’re deciding what to buy. Let me know if anyone’s coming.” He slid in between two machines, the gap looking far too thin to accommodate a whole person, and yet he slithered out of sight.
Point–Two did as asked, leaning forward to look at the selection of snacks on offer. None of which looked particularly appetising, but all of which made him hungry.
“What’s the plan? Steal all the Curried Bean Paste Rolls and Crispy Honey Choco Bars and sell them on the black market?”
“We’d make a loss,” said Ubik’s voice from somewhere behind the machines. “Stuff’s disgusting. Never goes off, never rots, sits in your stomach with the same half–life as uxanium.” There was some grunting and the sound of metal grinding on metal. “But they accept cash. They accept standard currency, too, but that gets transferred digitally. The coins get collected once they get to a certain amount, which they rarely do. Should be enough for our purposes.”
The screens showed the prices for the items in local and standard currencies. They also offered credit.
“It says it’ll give me a pre–approved loan if I want,” said Point–Two.
“Yeah, in exchange for your biometrics and DNA profile. And then five years later you’re in the outer rim fighting an animal–human hybrid with your face.”
“Why would I be fighting hybrids in the outer rim?”
“Because that’s where they make them,” said Ubik. “Hybrid heaven. Jackpot.”
Coins started tumbling out of the machine in front of Point–Two. He scooped them up in his hands, looking around to check no one was coming.
Ubik came back out and checked the haul. He took one coin and held it up. It was copper with a gold edge, and white circuitry on one side.
“Wow,” said Ubik. “This is Ramon Ollo’s work, no doubt about it. The detail’s amazing.”
“It’s a coin,” said Point–Two.
“No, no. It’s much more than that. It’s part of a huge network. All these coins are.” He took the coins from Point–Two, counting them as he stuffed them into his pockets, examining each with reverence before tucking them away. “Should be enough. Nice; thought we’d have to crack open a few more of these old monsters.” He gave the vending machine a friendly thump on the side.
It made a rattling sound, then something slid around inside, rolling down until a can fell into the basket at the bottom.
Point–Two was pleasantly surprised that something fortunate had happened for once. He picked up the can, which was labelled as Fortnoy’s Spicy Percolade.
“No, don’t…” said Ubik.
The screen on the machine flashed. “Please return unpaid item to the collection tray.”
“Run,” said Ubik.
“What? Why?” But Ubik was already gone.
Point–Two dropped the can and chased after him, and caught up almost immediately. He was leaning against the wall, looking at a screen that was showing times of departure, all with ‘DELAYED’ next to them.
He glanced over at Point–Two and indicated him to do the same next to him. Point–Two put his hand on the wall and one on his hip as a stream of small drones flew past, over the heads of the still–waiting crowds who threw out questions as the squadron buzzed them.
“Hey, when can we…”
There were six of them, in formation and too busy to provide flight information.
“You can’t just take stuff from a VendX mobile dispensary like that,” said Ubik.
“You just robbed it,” said Point–Two.
“That’s different. I accessed the engineering panel, like a professional. Your amateur shenanigans will get us locked up for petty theft. Petty theft! I’ll never live down the embarrassment.”
Ubik reached into his jacket and took out a half–eaten bean paste roll and ate the rest of it in two bites.
“Do you have any more of those?” asked Point–Two. It smelled pretty good.
Ubik let out a long breath and then took out a small candy. “Here, suck on that.”
Point–Two unwrapped the sweet and put it in his mouth. It tasted bitter and furry, but it was better than nothing.
“We’ll have to get out of here,” said Ubik. “They’ll check their cameras and ID us.”
“Oh, your spit on the lens approach not going to protect us, then?”
“That was a short–term measure,” said Ubik. “What we really need is a bit of a distraction.”
Point–Two stiffened at the prospect of Ubik trying to cause a distraction. He hoped the building was up to code and had plenty of fire exits.
Ubik was about to say something when an announcement over the public address system silenced the whole building.
“Travel Update. Please be aware that the restrictions to departures and arrivals have now been lifted.” There was a sigh of relief that rose into the air. “Normal services will resume tomorrow morning at—”
Pandemonium broke out.
“Perfect,” said Ubik, as though he had planned the whole thing. “Head for the exit over there.”
They made it out past the security drones stationed on the doors, along with a crowd of angry people looking for the nearest pitchfork emporium. There weren’t any, but there were capsule hotels that offered overnight accommodation, and an entertainment complex that offered other ways to pass the time. And a shuttle terminal that provided a free service to and from the city.
The shuttle was a series of carriages floating over a rail. Each car could seat about fifty people but there were far more than that as Ubik and Point–Two got on board.
“See?” said Ubik. “Easy. From the city we go to the Ollo museum, and from there, we find Grandma.”
Point–Two held the grab–handle over his head as the shuttle smoothly exited the station and hovered through the picturesque countryside. Their destination, Elect City, according to the screens on the walls, could be seen in the distance, a crown of towers.
“There’s no way it’ll be that easy,” said Point–Two.
“No,” said Ubik, his hands folded across his chest, his boots firmly rooting him to the floor. “But difficulty is nothing to be worried about. I mean, look at it.” He pointed out the window at the city skyline they were approaching in a wide curve. “Obviously, it’s a bed of corruption and depravity. That’s city life for you.”
“Excuse me,” said a man sitting near them, dressed in overalls with the spaceport’s logo on the breast. “I happen to live there and it’s actually quite nice. Very clean and safe.”
It was noisy in the car but he had been close enough to hear them talking and have his civic pride a little dented.
“Yeah,” said Ubik. “That’s how they keep you docile. See that tower, the one with the fan–shaped thing on top?”
“That’s the Ollo Communication Array,” said the man proudly. “Covers the whole city, makes all messaging free.”
“Yeah, well, there’s no need for an array that size for messaging, not even for the whole planet. What that is is a surveillance tower. Keeps an eye on all of you while you message each other.”
“Ha,” the man scoffed. “I don’t know what planet you’re from, son, but we don’t allow that sort of thing here.” He pointed at the wall behind him where the screen said:
Welcome to Elect City. Powered by the People.
“You got a communication device on you?” asked Ubik.
“Of course,” said the man, holding up his right hand. The bracelet on his wrist glittered with lights, and a small holover–screen popped up.
“Okay, great,” said Ubik. He grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled the top of the screen so it enlarged. Then he pulled on the side of the bracelet and pulled out a holover–keyboard that took up most of the man’s arm.
“Hey, hold on… What are y—”
Ubik’s fingers tapped quickly along the forearm and the screen, which had some buttons and folders on it, turned into a stream of code moving incredibly fast, and then a picture appeared.
It was a picture of a group of people crowded into a shuttle car. A closer examination revealed it to be the car they were in.
“How… That’s me.”
“Yep,” said Ubik. “They’re watching you all the time.”
The car had grown quiet as everyone’s attention had been drawn to Ubik’s actions. They could all see the screen, which Ubik had helpfully enlarged for them. Point–Two tried to distance himself from the show but everyone else was pushing the other way.
“That’s just transport security,” said someone.
“Yeah, for safety, in case there’s a problem. That’s all.” There were murmurs of agreement.
Ubik, still holding the man’s wrist, tapped a few more virtual keys.
The picture of everyone staring at themselves changed. Their bodies were suddenly transparent, showing their underclothes, the contents of their pockets, their bags. Tags appeared next to them, showing names, addresses, vital statistics.
Pandemonium broke out. Again.
Point–Two kept back but wondered what Ubik was up to. He was drawing a lot of attention to himself, which wasn’t the best way to avoid the authorities. He had noticed that the tag above his own image on the screen had no name, just ‘Searching…’ blinking. At least that meant they hadn’t been tagged yet.
“Who are you?” said the man, confused and bewildered, his wrist still in Ubik’s hand.
“Me?” said Ubik. “I work for Ramon Ollo. He asked me to check the city’s security systems. Seems like someone’s been abusing their power. I can’t say any more than that.”
“Who? Who is it?” demanded someone
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said someone else.
A series of names were thrown out, dismissed, backed up and argued about. Everyone seemed to have a candidate for the role of power–abuser, each different.
“City life,” said Ubik, grinning at Point–Two.
Ubik tapped the man’s forearm again and the screen flashed. He let go and the screen disappeared, but not before Point–Two had seen that all of the names next to people had switched, including his own. He now had a new identity, it seemed. He was Janeane Ingwe.
Point–Two looked at his reflection in the glass window. He clearly did not look like a Janeane, but he had the feeling Ubik had picked the name for him on purpose. It wasn’t a good feeling.
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