Central Authority Vessel Nirvana
Point-Two’s plans were in ruins. The next few years of his life were meant to be spent accumulating knowledge and experience. By the end of that time, he would have the ability to take part in low-level delves of Antecessor sites. He probably wouldn’t have an organic of his own, but he would know the type of organic he was best suited to.
His future would be mapped out, lines and pathways clearly set out. Hard work and focus would bring him closer to his goals. His brother had worked out the ideal route for him to succeed and Point-Two had gladly taken on the task of becoming someone worthy of helping his family using the skills he possessed.
That all seemed like a ridiculous fantasy after what had happened on Foxtrot-435.
If his brother could see him now, he would be in a state of shock. Not even the great strategist Hollet One could have foreseen these events.
Instead of studiously grinding his way up the ranks of the Free Volunteers Guild, he was speeding across the galaxy to a small planet owned by one of the most powerful families in the galaxy, their unimaginably gifted son the harbinger of some kind of galactic cataclysm.
Point-Two had no idea what role he was meant to play in all this, or even how to get himself clear of this mess before it got any worse. He was too busy thinking on his feet, trying to react quick enough so as not to be swept away in a flood of new problems. This was not the kind of education Point-Two had been expecting to receive when he left the Liberator Garu.
“Open the internal channel,” said Guardian Tezla to the large bank of monitors that covered the inside of the nose of her ship. “Lock down the signal.”
Watching her was similar to watching a great athlete playing a sport they excelled at. Her movements were smooth and elegant. Her physique, her musculature, it all suggested strength and agility. Not even the Seneca women he’d encountered moved like that.
“Can you stop staring?” she said without looking at him. “It’s distracting.”
Point-Two coughed and looked away, far too late to avoid embarrassment. He felt awkward in the guild greys he’d been wearing for far too long. He needed a shower — there was probably a swimming pool and a sauna on board.
The Central Authority ship was impressive, unlike anything Point-Two had ever seen. It was large enough for a crew of thirty but appeared to have only one person on board. Everything was automated, every surface was flat and smooth, and very white. But every surface hid a variety of functions that were only revealed when Guardian Tezla passed her hand over a wall or stepped on a particular area of the floor. The controls of the ship were everywhere.
“Ready to receive,” said Tezla, sitting down as a chair rose out of the floor to meet her. The white walls switched to a multitude of colours, small blocks of every shade flickering and swapping places. Tezla stiffened in her chair like she was being electrocuted.
Point-Two had been allowed up to the bridge to watch, or maybe to be watched. Ubik was being held in a separate part of the ship under guard.
Part of Point-Two had wanted to stand together with Ubik, defying the Central Authority, demanding a trial or justice or something. Ubik had that effect on people, making them want to challenge authority and riot in the face of intimidation, but Point-Two had another part of his brain, a smarter part that had witnessed what happened when you recklessly stood up to strength far superior to your own. Strength which considered you an insignificant cog in a machine. The machine needed to be protected, the cog was replaceable.
The lights on the bridge flashed in patterns that meant nothing to Point-Two. They were a little bright if you looked at them directly, but they didn’t affect him like they were the Guardian.
The lights went out and the room felt darker than before, even though it was the same white walls. He could hear Tezla breathing heavily.
“Are you alright?” he asked, not really knowing what he was supposed to do. She hadn’t told him anything — quite the reverse. He had told her everything that had happened on Fountain, at the Academy, the run-ins with the local mob, the Seneca mercenaries sent to capture him. His hope was that she would see he was an innocent bystander in all this. Once they reached Fig’s homeworld and his version of events were confirmed, maybe she would release him. And then where would he go?
“I’m fine. Receiving a communique from the Central Authority can be a little… intense.”
“That was a message?” He had only seen a wall of colours.
Tezla stood up, the chair sinking into the floor, and leaned her head from side to side, stretching her neck. “Yes. It’s a non-verbal information blast, bypassing the external sensory apparatus and hitting the language centres directly. I just processed the equivalent of six million words of text. The Central Authority can be a little verbose.” She smiled without humour and then winced as she stretched her jaw and moved it around.
“And you can understand the message through an organic?” asked Point-Two, surprised at how much she was willing to tell him, and keen to make the most of it while it lasted.
“No, I don’t have an organic, none of the Guardians do. They don’t operate in the First Quadrant.”
“You live in the First Quadrant? I thought it was a dead zone.”
She waved her hand at him dismissively. “Deadly, perhaps, but not dead. It has its advantages. It’s not a bad place, comfortable. A bit on the quiet side. Not that I’d miss it if they end up throwing me out over this debacle caused by you and your friends.”
He thought of protesting his innocence, but it was a little late for that.
“You’re not in any trouble, are you?” From Point-Two’s experience, a long message from your superiors was rarely a good thing. Commendations were brief and reprimands tended to go on and on.
“No, not really how the 36 operate,” she said.
“The 36?” said Point-Two.
“Central Authority Command is comprised of thirty-six brain stems, each a part of the neural network that decides our fates. If you saw it, you wouldn’t believe we let them control our lives. They are impartial and function on pure logic, but they are still machines and one day they will probably kill us all.” She smiled at him again, this time quite amused.
“I don’t think any machine is truly impartial,” said Point-Two. “They can be manipulated, if you know how they think.”
His own experiences with System, the computer that ran the lives of everyone on the Liberator Garu in a similar, if scaled-down manner, to the Central Authority, had taught him that impartiality was based on information. If the information was biased, so would the judgement stemming from it.
“Absolutely correct,” said Tezla. “Which is why there are thirty-six of the buggers, constantly checking and correcting each other. It’s a very finely balanced system and incredibly slow. They look at a problem from every possible angle and try to come up with the best reason to do absolutely nothing. That’s why they need us. A little human spontaneity to stop us all dying of boredom. Not that I envy them their role. It’s not easy trying to keep the population happy.”
“You can’t keep everyone happy, can you?” said Point-Two.
“No, but as long as you can manage over fifty percent.”
“How can you tell?” asked Point-Two.
“Easy,” said Tezla. “They send out questionnaires. How satisfied are you with the Central Authority’s domination of every corner of the galaxy. Five for very satisfied and one for deeply disappointed. What do you think? Did I make the right choice becoming a Guardian for our artificially created overlords?”
Point-Two had no idea how to respond, any answer seemed like it would prove his ignorance or cause offence.
“Ha! The look on your face is the correct answer. Sorry, I’m being a little too chatty. It’s just nice to have a human to talk to for once. The CA drone community doesn’t exactly offer sparkling conversation. Or know how to take a joke.”
She turned to the side and then walked up the wall. As she brushed the ceiling with her hand, it lit up — a black panel with dots of white light. A starfield appeared above Point-Two’s head.
Point-Two looked down at his feet and stepped up and down in place. He was used to all sorts of artificial gravity, but he had never encountered something like this.
“These are strange grav plates.”
“Not grav plates,” said Tezla, her body perpendicular to his. “Antecessor technology not available to the public.”
“Why not? Is it too expensive?”
“No, quite the contrary. Very cheap and easy to source. But what do you think would happen to the economy of worlds that rely on grav plates for their prosperity and wealth? The factories, the gerrum mines, the millions of people who work in the industry… all redundant overnight. Desperate people trying to survive, seeing others benefit from their demise. That’s how wars start.”
Pont-Two could see her point, although he didn’t see why it had to be introduced overnight. “I thought they started when one guy convinced a bunch of other guys they could get away with beating up some smaller guys.”
“That too,” said Tezla. “That too.”
The black screen changed as a red line appeared across it.
“Oh dear,” said Tezla. “Looks like the Tethari wormhole has been closed. That’s a little inconvenient.”
“How do you close a wormhole?” asked Point-Two.
“Well, you can’t actually close it, but you can deny access from the control site.”
“Can’t you override them? You’re the CA.”
“Yes, technically I could. We could force our way through and kick the door down, as it were. But they may actually have a good reason to prevent access. You know, like a space whale stuck in their end.”
“There’s no such thing as space whales,” said Point-Two.
“No? Are you sure? It’s a very big galaxy. Who knows what’s out there?”
“You really haven’t spoken to people in a while, have you?” said Point-Two.
“Humour needs a little work? Message received. Looks like we’ll be taking the scenic route.”
“Don’t you have CA operatives out there who can tell you what’s going on?”
“That would be us,” said Tezla. “Despite what you may have heard, the CA doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. Certainly not out in the far reaches of the Third Quadrant where nothing of interest ever happens. Usually. No, we’ll have to go via Clarissa or… actually, yes. Let’s take a trip through the Genbazi wormhole. Local head office of the VendX Corporation. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to see me.” She grinned in a manner that could only be described as malevolent.
“Is that a good idea?” said Point-Two. “They won’t be very happy with you after you blew up their flagship.”
“No, they won’t. The 36 recommended I avoid contact with them for the time being, if possible. But sometimes a detour takes you places you’d rather not go.” She shrugged. “Can’t let personal issues get in the way of important matters, can we?”
She walked across the ceiling and began inputting instructions into the walls while standing upside down, at least in relation to Point-Two.
“Right,” she said once preparations were made. “You might want to strap in. We won’t be going through subspace so this might get a little rough.”
“Okay,” said Point-Two, looking around for something to hold onto. A chair rose out of the floor. “By the way, shouldn’t you check on Ubik?”
Tezla’s face turned serious. “Oh, I’m sure he’s fine. Secure.”
“But you left your drone to watch him,” said Point-Two.
“The drone he almost hijacked.”
“Don’t worry, Hollet 3.2, he won’t be able to play any more of his tricks from a holding cell.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Point-Two. “Just like you were last time.”
“That was only because people don’t usually attack the Central Authority. They have the good sense of not wanting to die. But now that I know he’s not normal, the appropriate precautions have been taken.”
She had called Ubik null void, but had refused to explain what that meant. Something that warranted strapping him down and preventing him from speaking. Not necessarily a bad idea.
“He has a way of getting around appropriate precautions,” said Point-Two. “Like those discs you took off him.”
Tezla pulled out a small brass disc from her pocket. “This is just a brass disc. It has no unusual properties, believe me. If he told you this was what blew a hole in the Motherboard, he was lying to you. He keeps his methods unknown to surprise people, that’s all.”
“You should check on him anyway. And the drone.”
Tezla looked at him for a long moment. Point-Two made an effort to not look away.
“Janks, are you there?”
“Yes, Guardian,” said a monotone voice. It didn’t sound robotic, it sounded bored.
“And your charge, what is he doing?”
“Currently,” said the drone, “he is humming.”
“I thought I told you to gag him.”
“He is gagged, Guardian. The gag stops him speaking, it doesn’t stop him humming, unfortunately. It’s quite a catchy tune, I expect I’ll have it stuck in my head forever.”
“And his hands and feet?” said Tezla. “Still bound?”
“Ask about his boots,” said Point-Two.
She gave him a curious look but did as he asked. “What about his boots?”
“I removed them as instructed,” said Janks. “They are in the corner of the room.”
“Could his humming be a way to communicate with his boots?” asked Point-Two.
“That’s a little farfetched, isn’t it? What are his boots going to do? Kick the cell door down?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him, Guardian.”
She looked at him, analysing him carefully. “Janks. Move the boots to another room.”
“You want me to put his boots in their own holding cell?”
“Just do it.”
Point-Two felt slightly relieved. He sat down in the chair. It was surprisingly soft.
“Don’t worry, Hollet 3.2, your friend won’t be causing anyone any more problems. The 36 are very interested in meeting him. They’re sending a ship to pick him up. Mr Ubik is going to get the kind of special treatment reserved for world kings and planet killers.”
Point-Two sank into the chair, not knowing if he should feel sorry for Ubik or for the 36. They were essentially thirty-six very sophisticated computers. And Ubik had a way with computers. He’d probably dismantle them for parts and build himself a jetpack.