Ubik came down washed and clean, and dressed in the new outfit he had bought and kept for this day. It was very simple — a pair of blue trousers and a white shirt with a high collar. It was what he had seen people wearing last time he was in the city, although no one was wearing it this time. The material was thin and felt like it would fall apart after a single wash, which was the fashion.
Drimbo was still behind the counter, watching some sort of news program on a screen built into the wall. “Look at this. New thruster engines that don’t make any noise. Completely silent. Now you won’t even hear them coming until they land on top of you and squash you into the ground.”
“Why do they need them to be silent?” said Ubik.
“Progress,” said Drimbo. “You look very nice there, Ubik. Fresh and shiny. Here, try a splash of this.”
He passed Ubik a small bottle. The label said Succulent Mandarin Orange. Ubik opened it and sniffed tentatively. He didn’t recognise the smell but it was fruity and made him lick his lips. He wasn’t sure that was the reaction he wanted from his interviewer.
“Thanks. I’ll try it later.”
“No, no,” said Drimbo, snatching the bottle back. “It’s perfect for your interview. Make the whole thing a more pleasant affair. It’s the aroma, it makes people receptive and relaxed. Here you go.”
He poured out a large dollop into one palm and slapped it onto Ubik’s face and then smeared it around. The sharp smell made the hairs in Ubik’s nose curl up.
Drimbo inhaled deeply with his eyes closed, transported to an orchard on some other world. “They’ll find you irresistible now.”
Ubik would have liked to have washed his face but there wasn’t time. He checked himself over once more, took a deep breath (which he immediately regretted) and then left the shop.
“Be careful,” Drimbo shouted after him. “Those FVG pricks will sign you up as cannon fodder if you don’t watch out.”
Ubik waved from the door and was back outside where people were going about their business, still ignoring him.
The entrance to the FVG building was only a few strides away. Ubik looked up at the roof and hoped he’d connected his device correctly. Then he walked up the steps and entered the building.
The foyer was glass and concrete, and sparsely furnished — an unmanned desk, concrete benches for people waiting, a metal door. Everything looked clean, but like someone came in regularly and hosed the place down. The aesthetic was plain and minimalist. If they were setting a tone, it was one of austere functionality.
No cameras that he could see, but it felt like he was being watched. Scanned, maybe? There’d be some security measures, some kind of detection protocol in case of hostile intentions. The FVG operated throughout all four quadrants. They must have upset a lot of people. It was part of their business model.
Ubik headed through the door, which slid open as he approached. There was a single person inside the large room. He sat behind a small desk with a blank look on his face like he hadn’t fully woken yet, or like he had learned how to sleep with his eyes open. He was big, as in broad, with a large head that seemed narrower at the top and a flat chin, giving him a triangular look. He also had only one arm, the sleeve pinned to his shoulder. His eyes snapped into focus.
“Come on in, son. Come on, no need to be nervous.” He waved Ubik to come closer. “You’re here to sign up, right? I recognise the look in your eye. That right there is a yearning for adventure, am I right?”
Ubik nodded. The man was dressed in green and khaki, giving him a vaguely military appearance, but there were no insignia or markings. Plain and functional.
“Hey now, don’t be shy. You’re among friends here, fellow adventure seekers. Come on, come on, take a seat. I’m Sargeant Pajyani, but call me Yani, all my friends do. How old are you, son?”
Ubik didn’t really know how old he was, not exactly, but the ID he now carried said he was twenty-two, so that’s what he went with. “Twenty-two, sir.”
“Grand. That’s perfect.” He was practically licking his lips. Ubik hoped it wasn’t Drimbo’s perfume affecting him. “Tell me, son, what brings you here today? Something in particular made you want to sign up with the Free Volunteers?”
Ubik had prepared for this. Not too keen, not too apathetic. Just another kid trying to leave a tedious home life behind. “I’d like to see what’s out there, on other worlds. I want to be part of something bigger. I want to see some action.”
“Of course you do,” said the sergeant. “Who wouldn’t? And you will, you will for sure. Let me just make sure you understand what you’re signing up for. We like to be up front with all new recruits. This won’t be a joyride through the stars. This will be tough. Hard work. Danger. But I can see a young man like you doesn’t shrink with fear because of a little hard work and danger, am I right?”
Ubik nodded. He was having a hard time taking this man’s over-exuberant manner seriously. “Can I ask… what does the guild do, exactly?” Innocent, naive, another clueless kid here to sign away his life.
“What do we do? What don’t we do? We travel all over the galaxy protecting humanity. Not just one group or one type of person like some of those other organisations out there. We protect everyone.”
“If they pay the guild,” said Ubik.
“Of course, they have to pay the guild. There are expenses to cover, bills that need to be paid.”
“And the guild pays us?” A little everyday desire for money, very normal.
“That’s exactly how it works. The guild takes care of its own, always. You’re in the FVG for life. You’ll always have somewhere to put your head down and a meal in your belly. Look at me.” He banged himself on his chest with his fist. “Lost this arm in a firefight on Segur, Third Quadrant. Did the guild leave me behind? Did they cast me aside? No, sir. Gave me a job, kept me busy, kept me sane. Not many organisations will do that for you.”
“Couldn’t they replace your arm?” asked Ubik. He was genuinely curious. Prosthetics weren’t that expensive.
“Absolutely, they could. They have access to all the state of the art equipment you could possibly imagine. You’ll always go into the field fully armed. You might not come back that way. Ha ha ha. No, I’m just joking, got to keep a sense of humour. The way it works, you do a good job, you follow orders, you put your training to good use — you get fully trained, all free of charge — and you get more than just medals and commendations — I mean, you get them too — you get reputation points. Collect them up, you can trade them in at the guild shop. I’m just a few points away from getting a top of the line cybernetic arm. Better than the real thing. Literally! You ready to sign up, then? You ready to become an adventurer?”
“And I get my CQ tested as well?” said Ubik.
“Ah, I see.” Pajyani wagged a finger at him. “I’m on to you. Done your homework, haven’t you? You’re a smart one, eh? Fancy getting yourself onto the advanced program. Well, let’s be absolutely clear, yes, you get tested for free, and if you do have the required CQ count, you also get full compatibility training, paid for by the guild. But — and listen up, now — you only get the test if you sign up first. And if it turns out you don’t have a high enough CQ — and let’s be perfectly frank, most folk don’t — there’s no backing out. You invest in us like we invest in you.”
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Where do I sign?”
Sergeant Pajyani took out a small scanner similar to the one Drimbo had used and ran it over Ubik’s arm. Ubik controlled his nerves and kept the strip facing down.
“Ubik U. Ubik,” said Pajyani, looking at the screen. “Does the U stand for what I think it stands for?”
“Parents these days.” Pajyani shook his head. “Ah, I see your address is the shop next door.”
“Yeah, I live with my uncle.”
“That’s fine. Good. He will be liable for any damages, you understand. I’m legally obliged to make you aware of that.”
“Damages?” said Ubik. “What kind of damages?”
“It’s really nothing, just a legal requirement. If you run off with guild equipment, desert on a mission, commit a war crime while employed by the guild — all very unlikely, very, very unlikely — we reserve the right to collect reimbursement from the next of kin. Is that alright?”
There was a high likelihood that Ubik would end up deserting at some point. He had no intention of leasing out his life and limbs to a mercenary group once he got what he wanted. But it wasn’t like he had forced Drimbo to put his name down as a relative.
“Exactly. A technicality, that’s all.”
There was no actual signing. He had to give his consent on video, two thumbs up.
“Say ‘yes.’ We need a voiceprint of the actual word — this is being recorded. Otherwise, it isn’t legal.”
Ubik did as asked. He was in, now he just needed to get himself an upgrade to a better seat on this ride.
“Do you get reputation points for signing me up? I’d like to think I’m helping you get that arm.”
“Of course I do. Everything we do as guilders gets us reputation points. Get a good night’s sleep, reputation points. Eat all your greens, reputation points. You’ll see.”
“And if I pass the CQ test? Is that more points for you?”
“Ah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s very unlikely to happen. Nice if it does, for both of us, but you have to manage your expectations. It’s all part of the training. Let me show you the CQ testing machine. It’s the latest model.”
He went to a cupboard against the back wall and took out a large metal box, carrying it back awkwardly under one arm. Ubik would have needed two hands to carry it and been unable to see where he was going. The grey metal looked smooth and slippery, but there were curves and holes that provided the sergeant’s large fingers places to grip.
Ubik had expected them to have the latest model, but he’d never seen a machine like this. A mild surge of panic went through him. Would his device work with this version?
“It looks very new.”
“Of course it does. I told you, only top of the line equipment.” He leaned to the side, nudged the bottom of the machine with his hip and dropped it onto the desk. “Just place your hand in there, rest your chin here.”
Ubik put a hand on either side of the machine and tried to get a proper look at the machine. “It won’t hurt, will it?”
“No, no, nothing to be afraid of, completely painless.”
Ubik examined the machine like a nervous new recruit might. He would only get one shot at this. “Um, before, when you said we protect humanity, who is it we protect humanity from?”
“That’s a very good question, isn’t it? Often from itself, to be perfectly frank with you. But there are many dangers out there, many problems that need solving. That’s what we are — problem solvers. And then there are the really strange cases, out on the rim where no one has any idea what people are up to.”
“You’ve been out that far?” asked Ubik, awe gently injected into his voice as he slid the CQ tester around so he could see the back.
“Even further than that. I don’t want to sound arrogant, because I’m not, but I’ve seen everything. You know the biggest threat to humanity? I’ll tell you. It’s aliens.”
“Really?” said Ubik, taken by surprise. “You mean like the Antecessors?”
“No, no, not them. They’re the good kind of aliens, dead ones. It’s thanks to them and the organics they left behind we have any hope of surviving out here. No, I mean alien life created by us. Animal-human hybrids, completely alien lifeforms that shouldn’t exist.”
“Hybrids?” said Ubik. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. They grow them in vats. The grow them to harvest tissue and organs, big market, big money. Also, slave labour. They aren’t covered by human rights, not covered by animal rights, you can do what you like to them, completely legal. Barbaric. And then, there’s the other obvious use for alien life forms — the door to eternal life. Download your consciousness into a new body, live forever. Immortality as an alien abomination.” His eyes were wide and unfocused, utterly convinced by his own dire warnings.
Ubik was less convinced, but the diatribe had given him time to find the flap on the side of the casing that revealed the main circuit board. It was the same as the previous model, the housing was just different so they could sell more units as version 2.0. Progress.
“Anyway,” said Ubik. “Where do I put my chin again?”
“Here. That’s right, just like that. I can already tell you’re going to make an excellent guilder. Those aliens won’t stand chance against the likes of you, Ubik.”
“Hey, come on, Yani. Don’t fill the kid’s head with your nutty ideas.”
Ubik turned to see who had spoken and froze. He recognised the man, his outfit, his hair. He had been wearing a face mask at the junkyard but Ubik could tell he was one of the scavs who had been chasing him earlier.