Orbital Station VendX 4.
Major Valeria Chukka stood in front of the elevator door waiting for it to open. The elevator was currently descending to pick her up. The symbol above the door was an arrow pointing down. Hopefully, it wasn’t a sign of things to come.
She looked at her reflection in the closed metallic doors and smoothed down her tightly pulled back red hair. Her hair required constant supervision to stop it turning into a chaotic mess. Fortunately, constant supervision was what she was good at, what she was known for. She reminded herself of this as she checked her mirror–image for signs of nerves. They would be looking for any weakness they could exploit.
Things had not gone well for her on board the Motherboard. Even though she had performed adequately — under difficult conditions — she was well aware of the kind of reception she was in for. Everyone would be keen to find someone to blame, and as the senior representative on the scene, she was the prime candidate.
Chukka tightened her mouth into an inexpressive straight line. No frailty, no emotion. She had been through this before, although not from this end. The process and the pitfalls were known to her. There was a way to get through this, maybe even to come out ahead. She might not have successfully recovered the simulation machine everyone was after, but neither had anyone else. In fact, they had no idea where to start looking. They needed her — there was a deal to be made here, she just needed to provide the incentive and then not hesitate when the time came to close.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid aside. The small cubicle was large enough for one person. No one went up to the Boardroom with others. You lived or died by your own efforts.
Chukka stepped in and the door closed behind her with a soft hiss. She exhaled, timing it with the door so it didn’t sound like she was anxious. She had no doubt they were already observing her.
The elevator rose to the top of the central spire of the orbital station. Gravity increased as she went up, the pressure pushing her down. She tensed her muscles to compensate. Standard business practice; nothing personal.
There were numerous VendX facilities all across the quadrant — way stations, service hubs, storage depots — but only one orbital station; the heart of VendX’s operations for this sector.
She had been summoned to VendX 4 as soon as Head Office became aware of the fate of the Motherboard. The loss of a company flagship was bad enough, and worthy of a severe demotion. The complete destruction of the ship, an investigation by the Central Authority and hundreds of insurance claims submitted was employment suicide. At least that’s how it would look on the death certificate.
The elevator stopped moving and Chukka opened her fists. Be relaxed, be confident, admit nothing. There would be a moment, just one, and she needed to be ready. She let out her breath as the walls around her lowered and she was standing in the middle of the Boardroom, lit by a single spotlight above her, and surrounded on all sides by the Board of Directors.
Chukka moved her feet a little wider, put her hands behind her back, and waited. They would be asking the questions.
None of the directors were physically in the room. They were in various parts of the galaxy, dealing with their own important affairs, but they had convened an impromptu meeting via holover especially to speak to her. They rarely did such a thing. Even less often for a pleasant reason.
“Major Chukka,” said a voice from her left, “we have read your report and we have many questions.”
Chukka had not filed a report. Her supervisors would have passed along her preliminary account of the incident, adjusted to make their own involvement minimal. Standard practice.
“We also have many concerns,” said a voice from Chukka’s right.
Each of the twelve directors, thirteen including the Chairman, sat in darkness on top of their individual plinth about two metres high. They sat in a chair, only their hands and feet visible, their faces hidden in shadow.
The identity of these people was a closely guarded secret. Being known publicly would make them targets for other corporations, and also for ambitious members of their own firm. The first thing you needed for a promotion was a vacancy above you.
Chukka had thought through how to present her case in the least damaging way possible. It was important to make it clear there was an upside. And that integral to that upside was her continued employment.
“I am here to answer your questions and to provide you with the information not contained in my report.”
“You have withheld information?” said a deeply unimpressed voice from behind her. “Disturbing.”
“Sensitive information that mustn’t be allowed to leak.” Whatever her superiors in the PR department had put into the report she had supposedly written, turning it into a smokescreen for the real report would invalidate any dereliction of duty they might have implied.
“Why was I not informed of this?” This voice she recognised. She had heard it many times before, the Director of Public Affairs, the man ultimately responsible for her own department.
“Director, I didn’t have the chance. I was summoned here from on–site. I came here directly and haven’t spoken to anyone.”
“And what is this sensitive information?” asked the Director. His tone suggested he already doubted her appraisal of what was considered sensitive.
This was the moment Chukka had prepared for. She had to make it count. “The simulation machine the Motherboard was sent to recover has not been retrieved. In addition, the Central Authority have become aware of the incident and have taken control of the ship’s debris and put planet Foxtrot–435 under quarantine.”
“Yes,” hissed her Director. “We know this already.”
Chukka paused. She wouldn’t be hurried. If anything, his prompting told her to take her time. She was familiar enough with his mannerisms to be able to tell he was the one under pressure here. Even if she had failed to retrieve the simulation machine and the Ollo boy, he was ultimately responsible. Unless he could shift the blame onto someone else.
“Yes, Director. Also, the guild trainee responsible for the malfunction of the sim–U has been identified as the son of Ramon Ollo. As such, the possibility of detaining him for questioning is beyond the current board’s power.” There was an uncomfortable shifting in seats all around her. Even though they weren’t present in the room, they were projecting their presence in real–time.
Stating the board’s lack of effectiveness would make her involvement all the more vital. Or end up costing her everything.
“In addition,” she continued, careful to present a serene but confident demeanour, “the surviving members of the assault team we recovered had been mind–wiped. The guild insist it was due to the simulation machine’s malfunction but we all know that isn’t the case. It was a smart move on their part, but only emphasises how important knowledge of what transpired inside the sim–U really is.”
“Are you close to reaching your point?” asked one of the other directors, mildly bored. “Or should I order in food.”
Chukka could afford to antagonise her direct superior — he had already selected her to be his scapegoat — but she needed to keep the others on her side.
“There is however one other person who accessed the simulation of the Origin.” She sensed the digital apparitions around her sit up and take notice. “A person not protected by the Ollo name. His mind is intact, relatively speaking, and he can give us the information we need.”
“Who is this person?” asked her Director, his interest overcoming his personal vendetta. If there was a way to still obtain the information inside the simulation, then the mission would be considered a success, and his department would take the credit. Chukka would be happy to allow him to extoll her virtues.
“He identified himself as Chief Engineer Ulanov, but such a person does not exist on the Freedom Volunteers Guild’s books. He was the one who boarded the Motherboard and compromised her systems, easily circumventing our firewalls.” She let this hang for a moment, knowing minds would involuntarily turn towards the Director of System Security. She didn’t need them all on her side. It was always a good idea to keep your options open. “I’ve learned that his actual name is Ubik U Ubik, a native of—”
“Planet Garbage,” said a thundering voice from the far end of the room.
Chukka froze, her carefully crafted demeanour falling apart at the sound of this voice. “Y–y–yes, Chairman.”
Two blue orbs crackled from the dark. Old Blue Eyes was what they called him, a term of affection but mostly a way to manage fear. He was an old monster, notorious for his savagery in dealings with allies and competitors alike. Even through a projection sent across millions of kilometres, she could sense his intimidating authority.
“Are you sure that is the name, Major Chukka.”
Hearing him say her name sent a thrill through her.
“Sir, yes, I investigated the matter personally, using advanced techniques developed—”
“Don’t try your PR tricks on me, girl,” he bellowed, the blue orbs glowing with frightening intensity . “I wrote the book on them.”
“Yes, sir, I know.” Her hands were balled into fists as she fought to keep her voice steady. “I read it every day.” She had to stop herself from gushing. Asking him for a signed copy of The Art of Taking Everything would make her look like a silly fangirl.
“It’s him,” said the Chairman, but not to her. “The child lives.”
“It can’t be. We had eye–witness verification,” said a softer voice, someone with him but not part of the holover projection.
“You never gave me a body. I always knew he was still out there.” There was a bitter edge to his words now. “It’s him, Daccord. Finally… Major Chukka.”
“You will take the Priority Shipping Fleet and you will find this Ubik.”
“The whole fleet?” said one of the directors, his voice shocked by the idea. “But Chairman, the Ollo boy…”
“You will continue as planned,” said the Chairman, “but Ramon Ollo is no fool. We’ll get nowhere with him by using force. In the meantime, Major Chukka will apprehend this other informant.”
“Yes, Chairman,” said Chukka. The whole of the Priority Fleet hers to command. She could take over half the quadrant with a force of that magnitude.
“Wasn’t Mr Ubik U Ubik taken by the Central Authority?” said a voice that hadn’t spoken until now. A slow, slippery drawl that was easy to recognise — the Director of Quality Control. A shiver ran down Chukka’s spine.
“Yes, Director,” she said. “But I know where he is, and the Central Authority won’t stop me.”
“Oh?” said the Director. “You guarantee his capture, do you?”
He was forcing her into a corner. “I do, Director. I take full responsibility.”
There was a strong reaction to her declaration. The directors were unsettled by her boldness, she could tell. No one with any sense took full responsibility, not before success was assured.
But Chukka had seen the Chairman’s personal attachment to this matter. If she succeeded, she would win his favour. She wouldn’t need anyone else after that.
“I want him brought in alive,” said the Chairman.
“I absolutely guarantee it,” said Chukka. This was her one chance and she was going all in.