55: Focus Group

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Fraiche City.

JonJo’s Surf ‘n’ Turf.


Ubik checked the drone, removing part of its skull and pulling out a thin rod which he held up and examined like it was a thermometer. The readings showed no signs of life but only because the drone had been cut off from its source signal, which left it unable to function.

Ubik had seen this sort of thing before. It was what would happen to the drones back in Collection Zone E4-J when they lost their connection to their control centre. That was usually by accident due to the various types of shielding material lying around the junkyard causing interference. They would occasionally fall out of the sky for no apparent reason, which would be a pleasant bonus. The internal workings were very useful.

But this drone had been intentionally cut loose. Ubik tried to get it back online but it was no use; it hadn’t lost its connection, the connection was gone. With no primary source signal, the drone wasn’t much more than a large metal box with sharp knives sticking out of it.

“We can’t leave it lying around here,” said Ubik. “Help me move it into that side street.”

“Why?” asked PT, unfairly suspicious of Ubik’s intentions. “Are you afraid some kids might find it and hurt themselves.”

“I’m afraid they might nick it and sell it off for parts.”

“Like you would?”

“Of course not,” said Ubik, dragging the hefty lump of metal to the side. “I don’t sell off my friends’ body parts for profit. I cannibalise and find a good use for them. I’ll come back for him after I’m done with JonJo.”

PT reluctantly helped him drag the dormant skyjack across the street as the passing pedestrians ignored them. Ubik was starting to get the impression the locals didn’t think very highly of guild members.

“You seem very confident you can take care of JonJo,” said PT.

“It makes no difference to me,” said Ubik, doing his best to keep his end off the ground. “It’s only worth considering the options you aren’t dead in.”

They dumped the drone into the side street where it looked a lot more menacing emerging out of the shadows.

“That should be fine,” said Ubik, brushing off his hands on his greys. “They might even reactivate him once the issue with Vendx is dealt with. If anyone’s left.”

“Do you really think Vendx have gotten involved?” asked PT.

“I can’t say for certain, but I think it’s pretty likely. To be honest, I expected them sooner. Once Fig crashed the sim-U, they would have known something was up.”

“You’ve run into them before, have you?” asked PT.

“Once or twice,” said Ubik. The recollection made him shudder. It was Vendx that had forced him to leave the city behind and take up residence in a junkyard. He didn’t hold a grudge against them for his sudden relocation — sadly, he doubted the same could be said for them.

It was unlikely anyone sent to investigate a minor malfunction on an unremarkable planet would recognise him, but it would probably be best to wait until they left before going back to the academy. Assuming it was still standing.

They left the drone behind and headed towards JonJo’s establishment, the sign lighting up and dying helped remind them where to go.

“I don’t like this,” said PT, turning his head this way and that. “There’s too much going on at the same time. It’s impossible to cover every angle.”

“I know,” said Ubik. “But if we can’t, neither can anyone else. The more variables you’re working with, the less likely you are to take a direct hit — too many targets. Just remember to keep your options open.”

“What does that mean?” said PT.

“If the Academy goes under, we might need to ask Terrific JonJo for a job,” said Ubik, grinning at the idea of pulling off something so outrageous. Most people who wanted you dead didn’t hire you to work for them. It would be foolish to let someone like Ubik past your defences where they could check out your entire operation from the inside. Which was what made it such an attractive proposition.

As they neared the restaurant, Ubik noticed the place opposite — Dai’s Curry Palace — had undergone some changes. A big sign in the window said ‘ Under New Management’.

It seemed Dai had taken the fall for Ubik’s transgressions. He didn’t know how Terrific had found out about Dai’s involvement, but Dai had been the one who sent Ubik over to JonJo’s place, so technically he was responsible for any issues that resulted. Ubik felt no sympathy for the man, whatever his fate might be. Once you put a plan into motion, you had to be prepared to deal with the fallout.

“I don’t think business is doing well,” said PT.

The place was much quieter than when Ubik last visited. There was no long line outside waiting to get in. There were only dim lights inside the building; they had managed to rig some sort of temporary set-up, but it just wasn’t the same. The whole street was full of fancy shop fronts with enticing displays to attract customers. The Surf ‘n’ Turf was a black hole, by comparison.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” said the doorman as Ubik and PT approached. He was as big and as ugly as before, but he seemed tense. He had several other men with him, all wearing the same branded JonJo jackets that barely contained their bulging muscles. They looked ready for trouble. Ubik found it very flattering. “We thought you’d do a runner. You’ve earned some credit for not making us chase you down.”

He said it like he would make Ubik’s death quick and painless, rather than the protracted affair he offered others. A special deal for not making guys with big muscles have to jog.

“This is the guy who wouldn’t let me in when I asked to see the manager,” said Ubik. “Told me to buzz off. Now he’s delighted to see me. How things change, eh?”

“Sounds like he was just doing his job,” said PT.

“You’re taking his side?” said Ubik.

PT nodded at the doorman. “You did the right thing.”

The doorman nodded back.

“Hey,” said Ubik, not liking the way the two of them were bonding over their common distrust of an innocent man who had done nothing to warrant it. Nothing provable, at least. “I’m expected, remember? Shouldn’t we go in or something?”

“We were told you would be escorted by a drone,” said the doorman, giving PT another look.

“It’s not me,” said PT. “I’m just a trainee at the academy, here to make sure you acknowledge we’ve done our part. One annoying troublemaker, as per your request. We did have a drone, but it broke down on the way. He has that effect.”

“Yeah,” said the doorman, his gaze turning back to Ubik. “We’ve noticed.”

“Slander,” said Ubik. The lights came back up over the restaurant, glaringly bright. Then they blinked out again. “You should call someone in to fix that. Faulty wiring, probably.”

The doorman looked a little peeved at the advice. He put a hand to his ear and said, “Tell him he’s here. Does he want us to bring him in?”

PT was glancing around, looking for the people who had been sent to find him. They were too far away to see the interior of the restaurant clearly.

“You’ll have to get inside,” said Ubik under his breath. “You can’t see anything from here.”

“I can see fine,” said PT. “I don’t think I want to go in there. Everyone’s heavily armed.”

“Yep,” said Ubik. “Catering’s a tough profession.”

“And they’re very nervous,” PT added. “Not a good combination.”

“I have that effect,” said Ubik.

“Only on innocent drones. I don’t think they’re nervous about you.”

The doorman put his hand to his ear again, nodding. “He’s coming outside to meet you.”

“Oh, is he?” Ubik hadn’t expected that. A cautious man. Most people didn’t treat Ubik like that until after they met him, and by then it was too late. This man was an organic, though. Perhaps he had the ability to know when to take extra care. A pretty useless ability as far as Ubik was concerned.

“He probably doesn’t want bloodstains on his carpets,” said PT.

There was scream above them as two streaks of light shot across the sky. The doormen all stepped back, hands reaching inside their jackets.

“What was that?” said PT, looking up.

“Vendx,” said Ubik. “Mark 2 Harrier Hawks. They make them noisy on purpose. I told you, very obnoxious.”

“Vendx?” said the doorman, his mask of confidence slipping. “You sure? That’s all we need.” He was the same as PT — didn’t like too much going on at the same time. He turned to his men. “He’s coming out. Watch yourselves.” He really was very jumpy, they all were. Did their own boss scare them that much?

Or maybe it wasn’t their boss who had them so rattled.

“You could ask them,” said Ubik. “Want me to ask for you?”

“Ask what?” said PT, confused.

“My friend’s a bit shy,” Ubik  to the doorman. “He wants to know if you’ve got any assassins visiting from off-world. Or mercenaries, or guns for hire. He collects autographs of evil people. It’s his hobby. He’ll probably ask for yours, one day.”

The doorman looked like he was about to say something unkind, but the doors to the restaurant opened and a man exited flanked by a small coterie.

He was tall but moved very gracefully. His clothes seemed to flow around him as he walked down the short flight of steps.

“This is him,” said the man, his voice a gentle purr. “Ladies, the man you’ve been looking for.” But he wasn’t looking at Ubik, he was looking at PT. He moved aside and two stern-faced women were behind him.

PT took a step back. He seemed off-balance, for once.

“Nice,” said Ubik. “They’re very pretty for hired killers.”

“No,” said PT, his voice a little strangled in his throat, “they aren’t.”

“Not pretty?”

“Not hired killers. They’re Seneca Corps.”

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