Collection Zone E4-J
Ubik stuck his head out of a shaft he had discovered when he was twelve years old. It was a little snug now, but he had a scrawny body with hardly any fat, and muscles that weren’t the kind that bulged when he flexed, more wiry and taut, so he was still able to squirm through the myriad tunnels under the rubbish plains.
There was a layer of dust cloud in every direction, as there always was after a drop. It would settle down again in a few minutes. Overhead, the Merlin Vance’s engines screamed an ear-splitting farewell as it rose into the atmosphere. Ubik could just make out the glowing green and orange logo of the Rigogo Company, waste disposal professionals. He couldn’t quite see their slogan, which he knew was there, but it was famous enough for him to know by heart.
Another load off your mind.
Goggles affixed, Ubik heaved himself out of the shaft and scuttled across the surface, weaving between the mounds of scrap that had yet to be flattened by repeated impacts. As he ran, he threw out small discs that attached themselves to the nearest metallic surface.
Ubik had a thin gauze covering the bottom half of his face to prevent inhaling the dust but he could still feel the metallic particles in his throat. He had been using an industrial filtration mask until recently but it had broken.
That was the problem with living in an age where novelty was valued over durability. There was no point using the best quality components when you knew the usage expectancy of a device was far less than its life expectancy — it would get thrown out long before it fell apart. The customer satisfaction of secondary users like Ubik was not a factor worth considering.
Ubik wasn’t the only one who kept an eye on the arrival of shipments to the facility. He could already hear the buzz of drones hovering over the dust cloud, waiting for it to clear so they could target any unauthorised visitors in this restricted area.
Even if the authorities had no use for the broken and unwanted items that were dumped here, they had no intention of allowing anyone else to make a profit from what was now their property.
Occasionally, a sanctioned collection unit would come in search of particular materials that had been located and tagged by specialised drones, but by and large it was not worth the effort. It was always cheaper to buy new, unless you couldn’t even afford cheap and had to rely on what you could get for free. Free, assuming the drones didn’t make you pay in other ways.
Why they insisted on making life difficult for someone like Ubik, he had no idea. Did it really make a difference if he helped himself to the flotsam and jetsam others had discarded?
Whatever their reasons, they were committed to defending their property. But not as committed as he was to taking it.
Ships arrived on a regular schedule, every hour or so for the rest of the day. At night, they would move onto the waste facilities on the other side of the planet. Not to avoid disturbing the locals’ sleep — nobody cared about that — but because visual telemetry was a lot cheaper than trying to make accurate drops in the dark.
In the past, ships had been decked out with the most advanced electronics available. But electronics required maintenance and repair. Modern pilots for spaceships were augmented tech-fliers who relied on organics to navigate. The number of pilots who had multi-visual capability was limited, and they didn’t fly junk ships.
Small dark spots moved in the corner of Ubik’s vision. The drones were on the move.
Ubik knew every inch of this district of E4-J, knew where the best hiding places were, where the radiation was high enough to interfere with sensors, where the ground had turned to mush and wouldn’t support his weight.
He also knew that the morning ship from Darragut-492 was his best opportunity to claim high-quality electronic goods. Eden was the most technologically advanced planet in the sector, and also the most profligate.
Ubik had never been to Darragut — he’d never been off-world — but he had seen VODs. If Epsilon-416 was the dustbin of this quadrant, Darragut-492 was the precious oil painting, hanging in pride of place. It also had the highest number of registered organics.
What they threw away on Darragut-492, anyone else would have gladly paid good money for. The newest, the most expensive, and out-of-date by exactly one iteration. Every time a new model of anything came out, you could safely assume thousands of the previous model would appear on E4 within a few days.
The detector vibrated in Ubik’s hand. The black polycarbon tube was as long as his arm, even with most of the backend sheared off. It was meant to be mounted on the nose of a military frigate, able to withstand enemy fire and light-to-medium impact hits. Ubik had learned to tell the difference between military hardware and commercial. If it had come from a mining ship there would have been a lot more wear and tear. This one was in near pristine condition. Military ships were built for show, mining ships were there to work.
Ubik had set the device to detect a specific metal found in the latest generation of communicators. Latest bar one, that was. Ubik had no need of a new phone — he had no one to call — but the nanochip the phone contained was just what he needed to complete the repair of another item. Repair was perhaps the wrong word. Upgrade might be a more accurate term.
Ubik moved quickly, jumping over areas he knew to be unstable, landing lightly and constantly moving.
The dust was starting to clear and Ubik recognised he was in the right area by not being able to recognise his surroundings. The landscape shifted every time there was a fresh delivery.
The detector buzzed loudly, letting him know he was close to his target. He turned it off so as not to give his location away.
Up ahead, communication implants glittered in the light of the morning sun. They had conveniently landed in a pile, probably gathered from a single housing unit which were hundreds of metres high on Eden, and contained residents in the tens of thousands. Hundreds of implants, small discs with two wires on opposite sides, like a small pyramid of gems.
Electronic implants weren’t as good as organic ones, but then people didn’t throw away organics.
Ubik scooped up as many as he could fit into the bag clipped to his belt. There were other items lying close by, but Ubik ignored them. Now wasn’t the time to browse.
He heard the drones overhead. The distinct sound of their targeting mechanism was hard to mistake, especially after being targeted as many times as he had.
Ubik pulled out a short rod from a pouch strapped to his leg. He planted it in a hole in what looked like a mangled kitchen sink and flicked the top off the stick of red metal with his thumb.
The surrounding area became heavily ionised. Scraps of metal began vibrating and shaking all around him. Ubik waited. Any movement would alert the drones of his presence. The latest models didn’t have human controllers, relying on their own onboard scanners to identify targets. Newer models would be here by next week, maybe even able to detect his base under the rubbish. He planned not to be here by then.
The drones would wait, of course. They had infinite patience, as long as there were no other possible targets. Ubik waited for the ionisation to spread, slowly gently, working its way around the piles of trash until it reached one of the disks he had thrown out earlier.
A metallic scream to the left was followed by a small explosion. Then another, and another, forming a chain reaction. The drones shot off to investigate. Ubik grabbed the rod and ran in the opposite direction, throwing out more disks.
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