As Ubik exited the ship, a bubble of light appeared around his head, quickly becoming transparent. He breathed in the air seeping in through the collar of the suit. The air was very cold and made his nose itch. As he looked around the landing area, the bubble-helmet created a slight distortion at the edges of his vision. He had expected the suit to keep him alive, but not quite like this.
There was a wall of rock on one side of the landing pad and a ramp that sloped down on the other. About two-hundred metres from them was a structure that looked like it had been carved out of a cliff face. It was angular and spiky, a series of towers linked together.
In front of it, there were a number of ships lined up in an orderly fashion, all of them with no obvious markings.
Ubik took a deep breath and smiled. He had made it. His whole life, he had wanted to get off-world and see the universe as it really was. Not travelling between places, not visiting planets that were just a variation of his own, not going over old ground others had already thoroughly explored and inspected, leaving nothing new to be discovered.
Something truly adventurous was what he had been looking for. And here it was.
Above him was the wormhole, which took up most of the sky. It had a foreboding appearance from here, as though it was about to swallow the asteroid. The longer he stared, the more certain he was he could see it moving closer.
He twisted his head, able to move inside the bubble freely, and looked back at the ship. Enaya was a large orange and green half-circle cresting over it. He raised a gloved hand and tried poking a finger through the barrier now surrounding his head. The finger went through, allowing him to scratch his nose.
“Interesting,” he said to himself.
“It’s an adaptive force field,” said Fig’s voice through a speaker also in the collar of the suit. “Forms a seal around anything covered in flaxen.”
Ubik pulled his finger away so only the tip was inside the bubble. The force field clung to the material, allowing him to move his finger up and down without breaking the seal. As he pulled his finger out, the force field reformed like it had never been breached.
“If it lets light in,” said PT, his head also on a bubble of bluish light, “won’t it let in laser fire?” He was standing over by the ship that had been destroyed by its own blasters. It was impossible to tell who it belonged to or if there had been anyone on board. What was clear to them all though was that they had managed to evade the defence matrix, they had access to advanced stealth tech, and they had got here first.
“Like I said, it’s adaptive.” Fig pressed buttons on the control panel that covered his left forearm. He grimaced, his face visible through the visor of his more ordinary helmet. “I’m not getting any response from the base. The network seems to be offline. Or ignoring me.”
PT came bounding across, moving in large steps that kept him in the air for seconds at a time. “I think we can assume someone got here before us. And got past your defences, too.”
“That… doesn’t seem possible,” said Fig, his frown expanding.
Ubik jumped up and down. He didn’t stay in the air (not that there was any) for as long as PT had. Gravity was less than on the planet, but not so great that you might float away. “What’s the gravitational pull here?”
“I’d guess around 0.85,” said PT.
“It’s 0.86G, standard,” said Fig.
“Not a bad guess,” said Ubik. “Might want to fine-tune your internal sensors.”
“I was point-zero-one out.”
“Have you any idea the damage I would cause if I was point-zero-one out in any of my calculations.”
PT looked at him with a deadpan stare that suggested he had a very good idea. “Isn’t 0.85 kind of high for a small rock like this?”
“Yes,” said Fig. “The asteroid has a very dense core but it’s shielded, so we have no idea what it’s made of. It’s one of the asteroid’s many unsolved mysteries.”
They began walking down the ramp towards the base. Ubik took long, easy steps, bouncing as high as he could go. PT floated above him, doing tumbles and landing cleanly. He wasn’t showing off, he was getting used to the gravity so he would have better control over his movements and better range of motion.
Fig moved the most smoothly of them. His steps were almost the same as if he’d been on Enaya, he just moved quicker and with less effort. His eyes were glued to the panel on his arm.
There were eight ships lined up outside the base. There were no signs of life, not even drones.
“Are these all your ships?” asked PT.
Fig glanced up. “Yes.”
“Anyone else get the feeling we’re being watched?” asked Ubik. He had the odd sensation on the back of his neck he only got when someone was keeping tabs on him. He’d learned to ignore it most of the time — in a city, everyone was keeping tabs on everyone else — but it was definitely sending him a small FYI at the moment.
“They probably have cameras all over this place,” said PT.
“Not right now,” said Fig, looking down. “I can’t access anything.”
“Not from the base,” said Ubik. “One of these ships.”
They stopped, four ships on either side of them, and looked around.
“Which one?” said PT.
The eight ships looked more or less identical; basic shuttles, probably able to transport a dozen people each. They had minimal weapons on the exterior — two cannons at the front, a turret on top — more useful for clearing debris and small objects that might wander into a flight path than posing any kind of serious threat to another vessel.
“I think it’s the last one on the left,” said Ubik out of the side of his mouth. “Don’t look, don’t look. Act normal.” He walked towards it, hands behind his back, twirling around and around like he was enjoying an evening stroll.
“Acting like a normal lunatic isn’t acting normal,” said PT.
“I’ll use the sensors on the ship,” said Fig. “Yes, you’re right. General sweep reveals nothing but a targeted probe of that one ship shows two life signs. And it isn’t one of ours. It’s a Holover. A good one — dispersal field, mirrored sensor array, wide bandwidth absorption.”
Ubik stopped. “Oh. Is that all. Forget it then.” He started walking towards the base.
“What do you mean, forget it?” said PT. “There’s obviously another ship under the Holover.”
“Yeah, but only two people. Must be the lookouts. They’ll be ready for us if we try anything. As long as they think they can see us and we can’t see them, they’ll just watch and report our position to the rest of their team.”
“And that’s fine with you?” said PT.
“They’ve already seen us, not like we can reverse that. You have to accept what you can’t change, and use it later to show people they can’t even win with a head start. It really annoys them.”
“I think I have to agree with him,” said Fig. “When it comes to annoying people, he is the master.”
“Thank you,” said Ubik.
“That makes two ships that shouldn’t be here,” said PT. “Security is pretty lax.”
“Yes,” said Fig. “My father would have everyone flayed alive. Figuratively speaking.”
The entrance to the base was through a hooded alcove leading to an inset blast door that was ten metres high. It looked very solid and thick. Hard to get through if it hadn’t been raised above the ground by about half a metre.
It was stuck in that position, the control panel on the wall, smashed and releasing showers of sparks.
“At least there’s a way in,” said PT.
“It’s a trap,” said Ubik. “My many years of experience entering places I’m not supposed to have given me an acute awareness of when someone has left an obvious entry point in the hope of catching a would-be burglar and then holding them in a cell in the basement to torment them at their leisure.”
“That’s very specific,” said Fig. “Is there something you want to tell us?”
“Don’t say that,” said PT. “He might take you up on it.”
Ubik got on his knees and looked under the door. He could see a tunnel that stretched into the distance, strip lighting on either side. There was no movement and no feet, which he’d been hoping to see. These people were playing it smart. He would have to up his game.
He stood up and looked back at the ships they had walked past. Then he set off towards the last one on the left.
“He’s going to somehow break into a disguised ship, origin unknown, without any weapons,” said PT, watching Ubik depart. “How do you think he’ll do it?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” said Fig. “I’m sure it will be educational to observe.” The two of them stood at the opening of the alcove, waiting to see the Ubik method at work, from a safe distance.
The Holover was good. It wasn’t up to the standard of the one of Mackus — that was remarkable — but this one could pass, if you didn’t examine it from up close. He could see the slight imperfections, the odd way it didn’t quite sit with the background correctly. But it was designed to fool sensors more than actual people. Who even used the naked eye to see anymore?
Ubik raised his hand and reached out. It passed through the projection. He felt around until he found something solid. Then he pulled back his hand and began pounding with his fist.
“Hello? Anyone home?”
“Are you sure you don’t need a screwdriver or something, oh master of the tronics world?” said PT through comms.
“Wait, he is using an ancient technique we aren’t aware of,” said Fig.
“Open up. Special delivery.” Ubik ignored the doubters and kept banging.
There was a shimmer as the image of the ship vanished, revealing not a ship at all but what looked like a shed. A very simple, prefab hut made of sheets of metal.
A door hissed open on the side and a long gun barrel appeared, followed by a man in a battlesuit that had seen better days. Behind him was another similarly dressed man, also carrying a rifle. They pointed their weapons at Ubik, who tried to look past them into the shed.
“Stick your hands up,” said the first man, jerking his weapon at Ubik. The voice was coming over the comms even though Ubik hadn’t activated anything. Did the suit do it automatically or had Fig patched him into an open channel?
“Stick my hands up what?” asked Ubik.
“In the air, stick them in the air.”
“Strictly speaking, there is no air. We’re in the vacuum of space.” Ubik looked at the suits the men were wearing. “Who are you guys? You’re not VendX. I thought you’d be here with Chukka, but your gear, it’s not VendX, is it? No. And you aren’t Central Authority. Is the Seneca Corps having recruitment issues?”
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“We’re here for the base commander’s birthday,” said Ubik. “We’ve brought a special guest for the party. Over there, maybe you know her? The lovely Janeane Ingwe.”
The two men looked at each other, guns still pointing at Ubik.
“Never heard of her.”
“Don’t say that. You’ll hurt her feelings. She’s a star of the Battle Arenod.”
“Oh, yes,” said the man standing in the rear. “I think I might have heard of her.”
“There you go. You can meet her if you like. Just remember she looks a lot better once she’s got her makeup and costume on.” Ubik half-turned and raised a hand. “Janeane, over here.”
PT remained where he was and shook his head.
“Sorry, she’s very shy off-stage. Which is surprising considering what she’s willing to do for a glass of white wine and fifty scurs, if you know what I mean. You boys been up here on this rock for a while, have you? Must get lonely. Janeane could cheer you up a bit. I know she’s a big girl, but some men like to be put in their place. The base commander’s that way, apparently. Maybe your commander is, too?”
The one in the rear lowered the tip of his rifle. “Actually, I think he might b—”
“Shut up,” said the one in front. “He’s lying. They’re here for the loot. They’re scavs.”
“Scavs?” The one in back raised his gun hurriedly. “What do you want to do? There’s three of them and two of us.”
“Then let’s even the odds.” The one in front brought his gun up to his shoulder and fired it at Ubik.
The shot didn’t hurt as much as tingle. Ubik looked down and put a hand on his chest, which was warm. “I think you made my heart skip a beat.”
The man shot again, twice. The charge hit Ubik both times, and then dissipated through the suit.
“Try shooting me in the head,” said Ubik. “I’m curious to see what that will do.”
Both men aimed their weapons higher and blasted Ubik point-blank in the face.
He saw the light from the muzzles, but the bubble around his head absorbed the blasts and expanded. They kept firing, looks of confusion on their faces, as the bubble grew and grew.
It was a very unusual way to disperse energy.
“Look at my giant head,” said Ubik. His voice sounded loud and echoed inside the helmet. “Did you hear that? Do I sound weird?”
The two men had stopped shooting. They looked at their guns. The one on the right turned to his colleague, raised his gun, and fired it. He seemed to have concluded the gun wasn’t working properly, and the best way to test it was on a second target. His colleague didn’t agree, judging by the scream he made when he was knocked to the ground.
“Sorry, sorry. I thought…”
“Doesn’t look good,” boomed Ubik. The man on the ground wasn’t moving. “Hold on. I don’t think he’s dead. I know what to do.”
Ubik bent down and grabbed the body by the right foot.
“Hey, let him go,” said the shooter.
“It’s fine, don’t worry. My friends can help. Come on.” Ubik began running back towards the others, the giant bowl on his head making him feel like he was about to tip over, even though it didn’t feel any heavier. He dragged the body behind him, the reduced gravity making it quite easy.
The other man followed, his gun still in his hands, his face showing a lot of conflicting emotions.
Fig and PT also displayed conflicting emotions on their faces as giant-headed Ubik came bounding towards them, dragging a body and followed by a man with a rifle. They did the sensible thing and got out of his way.
Ubik loped past them, got to the blast door and swung his arm forward, sending the body sliding along the ground, through the gap.
A scream came through the comms, modulating in the manner of someone getting hit fast and hard. The pattern suggested to Ubik the man was taking blaster shots to the chest, rapid-fire, at least a thousand kilojoules per shot. The screaming ended abruptly.
“See,” said Ubik, “I told you he wasn’t dead.”