21: Launch Window

Fourth Quadrant.


Silon City.


Ubik’s application into the guild’s advanced training program was accepted almost immediately. Sergeant Pajyani’s pocket pinged a couple of seconds after he’d sent off the results and he took out his messaging device.

“Congratulations,” said Yani, still a little choked up. “You’re the newest student at the Gorbol Training Academy. I couldn’t be happier.” He wiped away a maternal tear.

“Gorbol,” said Ubik. “Is that on… where is that?” He had tried to research where they would send him but information about the guild’s facilities was hard to find. He hadn’t come across anywhere called Gorbol. It sounded harsh and unfriendly.

“Oh, it’s a wonderful place,” said Gipper, patting Ubik on the back. “We call it Grinder U, because it chews people up and spits them out in little pieces. They’ll make a man of you, or kill you trying.” He grinned, making it hard to tell how serious he was being.

“Is it on a nice planet?” asked Ubik, his nervousness starting to become more genuine.

“Beautiful,” said Gipper. “Picturesque Foxtrot-435. The views from your cell will be breathtaking.”


“Ignore him,” said Yani. “He’s being a troll.”

“A handsome troll with a sweet ride, let’s not forget,” said Gipper. “Speaking of which, we should get going. About six standard hours from here. You’ll be there in time for dinner.” He pulled a face. “Don’t try the tapioca. Never try the tapioca.”

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to go with you? I mean your captain might not want the extra cargo.”

Gipper waved away his concerns. “You hardly weigh anything, you’ll weigh even less in space. Got any luggage.”

“Not really. Just what’s in my backpack.“

“Perfect. I’ll let the captain know there’ll be one more for dinner.” He took out a handheld device and tapped a message into it.

“Don’t you use implants?”

“Not when we’re off-ship. The captain’s very old school, likes everything to be nice and secure. You never know who might be listening.”

Ubik found himself agreeing with the captain’s assessment. Implant broadcasts were easy to intercept. Not that anyone would care about a nobody like him catching a ride. At least he hoped not.

“He says no problem,” said Gipper, putting away the device. “Okay, Yani, shoot.”

Gipper put on a big, cheesy smile and stuck up his thumbs. Yani raised the screen in his hand and took a picture. Gipper’s face appeared on one of the large screens high on the wall. Numbers flashed across Gipper’s face and then the console produced a series of small cards.

Yani handed them over to Gipper one at a time. “Clearance for departure, tax exemption, receipt for landing fees, transmission permit.”

“Captain likes to have hard copies of everything,” said Gipper. “You can delete data off a computer system, can’t make these disappear.”

Ubik was liking the way the captain operated more and more.  

“Pretty nice, eh?” said Gipper, holding up one of the cards with his face on it. “Print out a copy for yourself, Yani, and I’ll sign it for you.”

Yani grimaced. “I have enough toilet paper, thank you.”

“Ooh, Yani with the comeback. Let’s go, newbie, before he launches another vicious attack. I don’t know if I can survive the post-apocalyptic wasteland he’ll leave us in — they never have good hair gel after the fall of civilisation.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Ubik had decided he was going to risk it. He could have wriggled his way out of the free ride, but why turn down such a convenient offer? He’d wanted to get off this heap of rubbish practically his whole life, and now he was a short space hop away from making his dream come true.

Even if the captain was the one who had chased him and had augmented optics that could identify him, it wasn’t like he’d be walking around the ship with his organic switched on.

It was only a short trip, and then they would leave him behind. Whatever they had come to E4 for, Ubik didn’t have it. The odds they had totally forgotten about him by now were pretty good. New clothes, new smell, he’d even had a shave so he looked completely different. It was a risk worth taking.

Yani went up to the roof with them. The shuttle, a very old hopper with no optional extras, was in a terrible state, covered in dents and scratches. The door was open and a short gangplank sloped up into the cabin.

“Good luck, Ubik,” said Yani, choking up again. “Good luck to us both.”

Ubik shook his hand and followed Gipper into the ship. Inside there was another scav, a woman with brown skin that was almost red. She was strapped into a bucket seat with a device in her hands that took all her concentration, her thumbs tapping wildly.

“Bev, this is—”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up. I’m about to break his high score.”

“Oh, please no,” said Gipper, mildly distressed by this news. “You’ll just piss him off.”

“Shut up and fly,” she said without looking up and without even noticing Ubik. “I want off this pile of shit ASAP. Go, go, go.”

Gipper indicated where Ubik should sit and left him to work out how to strap himself in while he went up to the front seat and prepared for take off.

It started to sink in that he was leaving. Ubik’s foot tapped nervously and his knee jiggled up and down. The door closed, the engines switched on and the cabin rumbled. He felt them pull away from the ground in a sudden but smooth motion. It was a strange feeling in his stomach, mostly.

He was doing it. He was making his escape after all this time and he couldn’t help smiling.

“Yeeeeaassssssss,” said the girl, raising both fists in the air. “This bitch just tripped the light fantastic.”

“Don’t tell him until after we launch,” Gipper shouted from the front.

“He already knows. He already knows!” she yelled back. “Who the hell are you?”

“Oh, hello,” said Ubik. “I’m—” The boosters kicked in and Ubik couldn’t speak.

He felt like his face was trying to slide off his face. He’d read up on what it was like to fly into outer space, but the reality of it was a much more physical experience. All his organs were reporting their locations.

And then it stopped and he felt himself floating out of his seat, just a little bit. The straps held him in place as his legs rose up in front of him.

The girl snapped the buckle open and pushed herself into the air, bouncing off the side wall towards the cockpit. Ubik stayed where he was, enjoying the otherness of it. He was no longer in a hole underground. He was in the sky. He was in the whole sky.

There was chattering from up front, mostly the girl’s voice. He assumed Gipper would tell her who he was. He unbuckled himself and turned, spinning into the air. It was hard to get used to flying.

Through the window he saw his world, an impossible ball of yellow and green with swirls of white painted across it. He’d seen images of it like this but not like this. And he’d never seen it with so much junk in the way. Satellites and orbital platforms blinked lights at him. Debris floated past.

Then the world slowly drifted to the side as the ship turned, and he saw a larger vessel waiting for them to dock. The hull was heavily scarred and showed signs of temporary repairs that had been left in place too long to be called temporary anymore. It looked like it might fall apart at any moment.

“That’s the Red Devil,” said Gipper, floating up next to him. “Biggest pile of junk in the quadrant, but she gets the job done.”

“She looks amazing,” said Ubik, and meant it. “I’m lucky you guys are here. I can’t think of a single reason anyone would come here apart from dumping their rubbish.”

“Yeah, well, our captain has something of an obsession. He’s got part of this map to an old Antecessor ship, untouched, that’s the story. Whoever finds it first is going to be knee-deep in organics, assuming they don’t die.”

“A treasure map?” said Ubik.

“Something like that.” He sounded doubtful. “You can see the appeal, right? Got a tip there was a clue here, but it turned out to be bogus, just like the others.” He sighed. “Okay, heads up, there’s about to be some heavy turbulence.”

“In space?”

“I seem to have lost a small wager and Bev is going to be bringing us in to dock. She isn’t great at it, but inexperienced flyers need practice or how else are they going to improve?”

“How bad is she?” asked Ubik.

“Better get strapped in,” said Gipper.

Ubik did as he was told. It was a lot trickier when he was weightless.

There were several bumps and clangs. Something floated past the opposite window, but that could have been broken before they got here. Eventually, things stopped moving and making screeching noises from metal rubbing against metal. Space was meant to be silent, but not inside this tub.

Once they were fixed in place, nestled against the Red Devil like a chick under its mother’s wing, Gipper opened the door and floated through a tube. Ubik followed with Bev coming up behind, large headphones on and humming to herself, acting like he didn’t exist. He hoped the rest of the crew would treat him the same.

The corridor he exited into was grey and blue with lights running in strips along the floor and ceiling. No windows.

“Attend to stations, prepare for launch,” a voice barked through speakers. “You’re all lazy scum and I deserve better.”

Gipper shook his head. “I knew he’d be pissed off. Here, wait in my cabin.” He banged on a door and it slid open. There was a bed and a small table with a console, and a screen on the wall. Gipper banged the screen and it flickered into life. Banging was apparently the On button around here. “Amuse yourself with this while I get ready for launch. We’ll be busy for a few hours, but then I’ll come back and get you fed in the mess. You can meet everyone then.”

Ubik nodded. He liked this plan. He could stay hidden away until they were nearly at the academy. He wouldn’t need to talk to anyone.

With that, Ubik was left floating around on his own. The room was sparse and the bed was hard to lie down on. There was a constant fizzing sound in the background that he got used to after a few minutes and didn’t really notice. Then he fell as gravity returned. Luckily he was over the bed at the time and only bruised himself slightly on the rock hard mattress.

He stood up and practised moving around. It wasn’t quite the same as being on the ground, but it was manageable. He spent a good twenty minutes loping around the room.

The console had restricted access. The only thing he was able to do was look at Gipper’s video channel, which was mostly him flying very fast through asteroid fields, getting hit by just about every asteroid. None of the videos had more than a hundred views.

Since he had time to kill, Ubik took out a small laser screwdriver and opened up the console. Inside was a circuit board that had been built before he was born. He only recognised it because there were areas of the junkyard, deep down, where you could find antique stuff like this. He took out Grandma’s soul cube and flicked it on.

“Hey Grandma, it’s me.”

“Honey child!” she sounded delighted to hear from him.

“Did you ever work on a Class 3 frigate? Orion build.”

There was a slight pause as the appropriate files were accessed. “Work on it? I practically designed the comms system on my own — what a waste of an afternoon that was. Terrible, terrible ship. The SS Deathtrap, we used to call them. Never board one if you can avoid it.”

“Hmm.” He poked around inside the console. He would need to get hold of a ship when he wanted to leave Foxtrot-435. Might as well use this old rust bucket as a dry run. “How do I bypass the security protocols?”

“Oh, that would be illegal,” she said.

“I mean hypothetically.”

“Oh, hypothetically. Well, do you see a Y-shaped conductive strip on the left side of the board? You need to make it X-shaped.”

Ubik opened his backpack and pulled out his toolbox. Good thing he’d remembered to pack the essentials.

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