Book 2 – 9: Slow Motion

Fourth Quadrant.

VendX Depot 4.

Central Authority Vessel Nirvana.

 

Ubik rubbed the bridge of his nose and blinked hard to get rid of the stars spinning around his head. Not real stars, just the aftermath of slamming into the wall. Breathe out, PT had told him. Now that he thought about it, you’d have to breathe out very hard to stop yourself in weightless flight down a corridor.

“You okay?” said PT.

Ubik managed to swivel around and found himself facing a pair of knees. He flapped his arms to try and right himself, but only managed to swivel around to face the wall again.

This whole ‘moving under your own power’ concept was turning out to be very tiring. Humanity had evolved beyond this, surely. Machines made it possible for people to go beyond the limitations of hands and feet. He would have to build something to avoid this sort of thing happening in the future.

He was suddenly moving, unceremoniously kicked by the king of the space swingers. PT stopped him spinning with his foot, a smug look on his face.

“I blew my lungs out,” said Ubik. “I still crashed into the wall. Is my nose bleeding?”

“No,” said PT. “I was kidding.”

“Ohhh,” said Ubik. “You were kidding. We’re in the middle of a fight for our lives, and you decided it was time to debut the Point–Two comedy show. Nice.”

PT smiled. “You get quite grumpy when you can’t cause any trouble.”

“You think I can’t cause trouble from here?” said Ubik, pleased to see PT flinch.

The ship shook again.

“Now what?” said Ubik.

“That’s a clamp,” said PT. “Means we can’t run off while they try to open the doors.” He was the spaceman here, so he would know how you boarded a ship.

“They won’t do that until someone higher up arrives to take the credit,” said Ubik. “VendX never let lowbies collect the big prizes. They’ll send someone in a nice suit to come pick us up.”

“Okay,” said PT. “More time is good, right? Which way now?”

Ubik looked around. There were three passages in a Y–shape, all looking exactly the same.

“I got a bit turned around, which way did we come from?”

“We came from there. It’s either this one or that one. “PT pursed his lips. “How can you spot a hidden access panel with your eyes closed but you can’t remember which way you just came from?”

“How is that the same?” said Ubik, turning and pushing off the wall.

“Are you sure this is the way?” said PT. “Or are you guessing.”

“Why can’t it be both?” said Ubik, although the main reason he chose this direction was because he happened to be pointing in it and it would be too much effort to turn around. “Anyway, it’s not about how things look, it’s the vibe they give off. There’s no…” He made circles with his fingers but he could see from PT’s blank expression that he wasn’t getting through. “It’s all even and balanced here.”

“Sorry,” said PT, shaking his head as he soared past Ubik bouncing off the walls. “I can’t fathom your Null Void ways.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, there’s nothing special about being null and void. The clue’s in the description.”

“You managed to work out the alien tech on this ship without breaking a sweat,” said PT, turning to face him as he continued to float along backwards. “Don’t tell me there’s nothing weird about that.”

“There’s isn’t. And it isn’t alien tech, it’s hybrid, mixed with ours and built by the Central Authority. It wasn’t that hard to figure out, at least not the basics. It follows the same progression all tronics do. You know, one, two, four…”

“What happened to three?”

“Ignore prime numbers, they’re just attention–seeking trash.”

PT’s forehead creased. “And what’s after four? Sixteen?”

Ubik rolled his eyes. “What did they teach you on that ship of yours? On-the-go astrology? It’s a wonder you didn’t end up diving into the nearest star. What I’m saying is that the CA had to dumb it down to use the Antecessor tech. I’m sure the original version would be incomprehensible, but this version is just patched together with duct tape, relatively speaking. The problem with letting AI run the show is that they lack imagination.”

“Yeah,” said PT. “Tezla said something similar.”

“Oh, whispering galactic secrets into your ear, was she? Poor woman must have got very lonely out in the First Quadrant. Look at this.” Ubik pointed at the wall.

PT stopped and came back to where Ubik was pointing. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”

“The wall. The panels.”

“Yes. I can see them.”

“They don’t look different to you?”

“Different to what?”

There really was no helping some people. “These panels have been neutralised. The colour’s different from this side, isn’t it?” Ubik pointed at the opposite wall.

“They’re both white,” said PT.

“No, they’re not,” said Ubik. “This side must be the outer wall of the ship. It took the brunt of the energy beam VendX used. They used the fact the ship works as an integrated module to cascade the effect.”

“What effect?” said PT.

“The ship, it’s not working, but we’re still okay. Breathing, seeing. They must have spent a lot of time and money researching the CA so they’d have the perfect weapons to deal with a ship like this. It’s very impressive.”

“I have no idea what you’re going on about, Ubik.”

“They can’t destroy a CA ship, it would set off all sorts of alarms. But they can turn everything down.”

“Tune it down?”

“Yes, not turn it off, turn it down, like with the volume on a radio. You can’t hear it, but it’s still on. They reduced the ship to its lowest operational level and slowed it to what looks like a full stop.”

“But it’s still going?” said PT, looking around like he was seeing something new. “You’re right. If the ship was dead we’d see a lot more open doors. I should have realised…”

At least PT was quick on the pick–up. He knew what happened on a ship once systems went down. The CA’s own rules came into effect. Access to all vital supplies. But this ship was still closed and private.

“And because the ship is a series of symbiotic cells,” said Ubik, “affect one, affect all. You’ve got to hand it to VendX, it’s a beautiful job. Not like them at all. They must have been researching this stuff for years. Decades. And then they use it now. On us. It’s impressive and flattering.”

“Don’t look so pleased with yourself. They’re just very keen on killing you.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Ubik. “They wouldn’t go to these lengths to kill someone. No, this is more important than life and death, this is business. They know Fig found something that could revolutionise their business model, change the face of galactic commerce. Only, he’s Ramon Ollo’s son, so they can’t get to him. But they know I was in the simulation, too. They want to get hold of me and then rip the information out of my brain. Probably do it at their new complex in the Second Quadrant. That’s where they have their R&D facility. I’ve always wanted to visit but never had the time. Plus, they rank first in evil among the top one hundred corporations, there was a poll. Won by a landslide, mostly due to their shockingly bad customer service. Ever tried getting a refund out of them after the thirty–day limit? Good luck!”

“You seem to know an awful lot about VendX,” said PT. “What’s your history with them?”

“Just some minor brushes with them in the past. Nothing noteworthy.”

“So they just want what’s in that brain of yours? If I hand you over, maybe they’ll let me go free.”

“Don’t think so,” said Ubik. “Don’t think they’ll want to leave any witnesses. They might mind–wipe you, if you’re lucky. They’re not very good at it, though, don’t own the patent and won’t pay for a licence. Use their own version — most of their clients come out dribbling and rubbing themselves inappropriately in public. No, me they’ll stick in a torture box — ever been in one? Very cramped — you, they’ll just shoot in the head.”

“Please don’t smile so much when you say that,” said PT. He spun around, kicked off a wall he’d seemed too far from to reach, and floated past Ubik with irritating ease and grace. He stopped — Ubik had no idea how — and inspected the wall more closely. Then he turned around and squinted at the one opposite. “Can’t see any difference.”

“It’s simple,” said Ubik. “This one should be the mirror of… Oh, this is it.”

“What is what?” said PT.

“The armoury. It’s here. Look.” Ubik could see it now, clear as anything. The panel PT was looking out stood out like it had a red line drawn around it. Only not red, and not a line.

“I thought you said you opened it?” said PT.

“Unlocked it, opened it, same thing.”

Ubik struggled to get himself nearer, kicking his legs behind him. “Okay, I don’t know what kind of weapons will be in here, but there’s a good chance we won’t be able to use them.”

“Great.” There was a sarcastic edge to PT’s voice that Ubik didn’t appreciate.

“We may have to bluff the boarding party, which may be tricky if they send drones in first. Kind of hard to bluff drones. Not impossible, though.”

“Maybe it’d be quicker to just shoot myself,” said PT.

“If the guns work, shoot them first.” He assumed PT was joking but he couldn’t really tell.

Ubik managed to get to the panel he’d been reaching for and put his hand against it. Once he was touching it, the way to open it seemed obvious. The combination of Central Authority and Antecessor technology came down to putting the front in front of the back. It was simple on the outside, even if it was completely baffling on the inside.

He pushed and slid his hand across. The panel slid to the side, revealing a room with no weapons in it. In fact, what it contained was far better than any weapon.

“My Delgados!” said Ubik, pulling himself into the room.

“Boots? We came here for your boots?” PT didn’t sound as thrilled as he should have been.

Ubik grabbed the boots from the floor as he floated past. He didn’t even care about smacking into the wall. He put them on. He straightened up and sank down to the floor. He was able to walk again. “You know, I was actually not very confident about getting out of this, but things are looking better already.”

“We have the might of one of the largest corporations about to descend on us, but as long as you’ve got excellent arch support…”

Ubik couldn’t stop grinning. The boots felt great, like having his limbs restored after a terrible accident. He stomped about the small room.

“Why the hell did Janks put them all the way over here?”

PT’s question was a good one. Why go this far to store a pair of boots? When Janx had taken his boots, he hadn’t been gone for very long. He could have boosted his way here and back, but that didn’t seem likely.

Ubik looked at the wall. “Of course. He didn’t go that far.” He put his hand on the wall and it slid aside. Through the opening, Ubik could see the chair he’d recently been attached to, and a floating drone. “We went the long way around.”

PT floated past him even though there was barely any room. He went straight to the drone. “You said he isn’t dead, right? Just slowed down.”

“Not quite, but the science is complicated.” There seemed no point explaining the finer points of quantum–tronic physics. It wasn’t like he was an expert on the subject. Yet.

“Can’t you boot him back up?” asked PT.

“I’d love to,” said Ubik. “But if I knew how, I’d get the ship back online and send us through the wormhole.”

“The wormhole controlled by VendX?”

“This is a CA ship,” said Ubik. “Probably has an automatic doo-dah that forces wormholes open on approach.”

“That the scientific term is it?” asked PT. “I don’t really fancy playing chicken with a closed wormhole. Maybe being taken prisoner won’t be so bad.”

“It’s not that risky,” said Ubik. “If you understood the underlying science—”

“I understand,” said PT. “The ship isn’t dead, it’s just comatose. Every part is linked to the rest so it’s all affected, like this drone. But the ship must have a failsafe for near-death so it can take action, like it did with Tezla. She was the first priority so it got that off before everything slowed down.“

“Okay,” said Ubik. “So you were paying attention.”

“Yes.” He grabbed Janks and handed the drone to Ubik.

“What do you want me to do with it? I can’t fix what isn’t broken. We just went through this—”

“Kill it,” said PT. “They didn’t because they knew what would happen. So we have to. Every part is connected.”

Ubik looked at the drone and he knew PT was right. VendX had gone to great lengths to avoid triggering any kill switches. There had to be a good reason for them being so cautious.

“Sorry, Janks,” said Ubik.

“Is that… regret?” said PT, an exaggerated look of shock on his face.

“No. But the CA will do an investigation and this will be recorded.” He looked at the drone again. “This was his idea.” He turned the drone towards PT. Then he placed it on the floor and stamped on it.

The drone looked very sturdy, but the Delgados had gravitational booster plugs. Not cheap. One stamp at full power for only 5 microseconds, was enough to flatten the drone’s casing.

The room changed as coloured lights flashed along the walls.

“What does that mean?” said PT.

Ubik looked at the lights flashing around them. “It’s an emergency signal. Probably won’t get out but it’s the first phase.”

“Of what?”

“No idea. Wait… the wormhole’s activating.”

“How do you know?” said PT.

Ubik’s eyes followed the lights which were moving even faster now. “It’s providing a running commentary.”

“Is it going to take us through?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so. We’re not the ones who opened the wormhole. It’s an incoming activation.”

“Who is it?”

“Um, one, two… ah, it appears to be the VendX Priority Fleet. Wow, the big guns. And… yep, thought so. We’re about to attack them using the only available weapon — the self–destruct.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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