75: Stowaways

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain -orbit.

VGV Motherboard.


Ubik walked down the empty corridor with PT and Gipper floating behind him. His magnetised boots made a clicking sound with every step, but Ubik took care to keep each step as soft as possible.

“Don’t the magnets make them really heavy?” asked PT. He was swimming across the ceiling like he was underwater.

“Delgados,” said Ubik, listening intently for the sound of anyone up ahead.

The Motherboard was a large ship, with a complement of at least a hundred. If they were fully crewed, it could be far more than that, although the cost would increase exponentially. Ubik was hoping that Vendx’s legendary hatred of spending money would keep the number lower rather than higher.

“I used to have a pair,” said Gipper, kicking off the ground to glide forward a few meters and then kicking off again, his style more reminiscent of a skater. “They wore out.”

“Then they were probably fake,” said Ubik. “Delgados don’t wear out.”

“How do you intend to take over a whole ship?” asked PT. “Just curious.”

“There are hundreds of different ways. I won’t know which is best for this particular situation until I have a better idea of what software they’re running. I need to get into their system.”

“You’re going to hack into their state of the art computer and take over the ship’s controls?” PT didn’t sound like he believed it was possible. This was the pride of the Vendx fleet. Every security measure they had would surely be in place, without any of the bloatware they included when dealing with customers.

“Maybe I’ll set the ship to self-destruct and see who blinks first,” said Ubik.

“Could you try his idea first?” said Gipper. He stopped at an intersection and looked both ways. “Where is everyone? Shouldn’t we have been apprehended and taken to the brig by now? The sensors on the Red Devil would have spotted us the moment we set foot in the airlock and sent in a security detail. We’d be up to our eyes in muzzle flash by now.”

“The ship knows we’re here,” said Ubik. “It’s just that no one’s asked it.”

“What kind of security system is that?” said Gipper. “That makes no sense. It should be automated and sound the alarm whenever there’s an unauthorised boarding. What good is having to ask?”

“You’re thinking like a customer,” said Ubik. “They think like a showroom — highest spec features, all set to minimum energy consumption. They’ll whack it all up to max if they have guests on board, but who are they going to impress now?”

“But they’re in the middle of a fight,” said Gipper. “Now’s the time to use it.”

“And lose that crisp, just-installed smell? You’ll never make a good salesman. Their people are trained to check regularly, make sure there’s no need to turn anything up. Vendx hate using AI for anything if they can possibly avoid it, you know, because of what happened.”

“What happened?” asked PT.

“He’s talking about Deep Purple,” said Gipper, with a sigh at the end. “One crazy AI doesn’t mean anything.”

“It means something if it nearly ends all life in a whole quadrant,” said Ubik.

“I’ve never heard of Deep Purple,” said PT. “Was it a long time ago?”

“About three years,” said Ubik.

“What?” said PT. “I’d have heard about something that big if it only happened three years ago.”

“It was seventeen standard years ago,” said Gipper.

“Was it?” said Ubik. “Must be getting my calendars mixed up. Fairly recent, anyway.”

“Even seventeen,” said PT, “I’m surprised I haven’t heard of the name before.”

“Well,” said Ubik, “you were out in the middle of nowhere in your ship of kissing cousins. These catastrophic extinction level events mean nothing to you itinerant types. First sign of localised heat death, you can just pull up anchor and set sail for the next galaxy.”

“We don’t have anchors,” said PT, “and I don’t think you can have a local heat death. Entropy doesn’t work in isolation.”

“Entropy works wherever it wants,” said Ubik, “that’s why it’s called entropy. And everyone has an anchor of some sort.”

“True,” said Gipper.

“Down this way, I think.” Ubik turned left at an intersection.

“Are you just guessing or do you actually know where you’re headed?” asked PT.

“Why not both?” said Ubik.

The corridor was just as long as the previous one, with no sign of any people.

“No one at all? Is this a ghost ship?” said Gipper, like he was sorry not to have the chance to meet some new friends.

“They’re either on shift or in the break area,” said Ubik. “This looks like general accommodation, entry-level reps. I doubt they enjoy spending much time in their little cubicles.”

There were doors lining the wall on either side of the corridor, each only a metre or so from the next. Ubik stopped and put his nose up against a silver panel, examining it closely.

“What are you doing?” asked PT.

“Look at this,” said Ubik. “Look how elegant and simple it is.” He raised his hand and swiped the small panel with his finger. It lit up in red and green where he touched it. “Looks like metal, but it’s actually a completely new proprietary alloy with a special feature designed for space travel.”

“What new feature?” asked PT, leaning down from the ceiling to get a closer look.

“The only important feature — it’s very, very cheap.” Ubik pulled at the side of the panel and ripped it off the wall. Behind it was a grid of small lights. Ubik examined them carefully. “This one, this one, and like this and…” He prodded the small lights and the door slid open. “Let’s look in here. Might be a map of the ship or something.” He slapped the panel back in place and entered the room.

The three of them could barely fit inside.

“And I thought my cabin was cramped,” said Gipper.

“This is pretty spacious for Vendx,” said Ubik. “She must be doing well.”

“She?” said PT.

“The smell,” said Ubik.

PT sniffed. “I can’t smell anything.”

“Exactly. Female.”

Ubik opened a drawer next to the desk. Inside were many pairs of women’s underwear. Ubik looked up at PT floating above him as if to say, I told you so. Then he began rifling through the drawer.

“Is that really necessary?” asked PT.

“People keep important things in their underwear drawer,” said Ubik. “Haven’t you ever robbed a house?”

“No,” said PT.

Ubik shook his head and kept searching, quickly going through the next two drawers, throwing their contents into the air so that there were bras and panties floating around the small room.

Gipper had decided to lie down on the bed, which was more of a symbolic act in a weightless environment. PT zipped around above Ubik, collecting the underwear.

“Here we go,” said Ubik, pulling out a thin strip of white plastic. He slapped it against his wrist and it curled into a bracelet. “Temporary Vendx ID until they get their implant.” He sat down at the small desk and placed his wrist on the tabletop. A screen lit up the wall opposite him and the desk was covered in holographic buttons. “Let’s have a look inside the old mainframe. Looks like we’ve got a ship of 252 people — that’s a bit more than I was hoping for, might need to get rid of a few — and, oh, they have a swimming pool on board.”

“You’re in already?” said Gipper, sounding impressed.

“No, that’s the promotional guff on the login splash page. You have to remember, every hacker is a potential future employee. Now, then. Not really familiar with this setup, but Vendx is Vendx. Always a way to break your way in.”

Ubik’s hands began to dance across the desk as the screen changed from one configuration to the next, each making grand claims for the facilities available on the Motherboard.

The door to the small cabin slid open and a woman was suddenly standing in the doorway.

“Who are you? What are you doing?” She was tall and had broad shoulders, suggesting she made regular use of the ship’s pool. She had red hair, worn in a single thick ponytail and had freckles on her nose, which was sharp and pointy.

“It’s not what it looks like,” said PT, both fists holding items of underwear.

“Sorry about him,” said Ubik, “he was raised by an older sister. You know how that is.”

“Who are you?” repeated the woman. She looked cross, but not particularly scared. She wasn’t about to raise the alarm until she knew why three men were in her room, playing with her underwear. She looked the type who could deal with such matters without assistance, possibly had been through this sort of thing before.

“We’re new,” said Ubik. “Any chance you can log us in so we can register for our free breakfast?”

The woman pushed off the doorway and floated into the room, not the least concerned about the odds being three-to-one against her. She grabbed Ubik by the back of his collar and yanked him out of the chair, sending him floating towards the ceiling. She put both palms on the desk and the screen accepted her login instantly.

“Security,” she said in a firm voice, not even a little nervous. “I want to report a pervert.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” said Ubik. “He’s lived a very sheltered life, that’s all.”

“Is this part of your plan?” asked PT.

“Close enough,” said Ubik.

“Hello, dear,” said Grandma’s voice. “Can you hear me now?”

“Hello, Grandma,” said Ubik. “That’s my Grandma,” he said to the startled woman.

“Who are you people?” It just didn’t seem to register that they might be from the planet her company was in the middle of attacking.

“We’re the new management,” said Ubik. “Grandma, could you please activate the Ulanov protocol?”

“Of course, dear.”

The screen flashed and cut to a picture of the bridge.

“You have no idea how much trouble you’re in,” said the woman.

“Not as much trouble as you,” said Ubik. “You’re the one who logged me in.”

Her face fell. She looked like the rest of her would have followed if gravity had let her. The defiance in her face was completely gone. “What do you want?” She looked nervously at PT holding her underwear.

PT let go of the scrunched up material, but they remained near him. He swatted them away. “Are you planning to blackmail each crew member individually?”

“No,” said Ubik, “that would take ages. Now, Grandma, can you show me what Fig’s up to?”

“What?” said Grandma. “I don’t like figs, they go right through me.”

“No, Grandma, not figs. Trainee Matton, can you locate him?”

“Oh, the pretty boy. I like him. He’s very sweet. Not good for my blood sugar.”

“Yes, Grandma.” Ubik turned to the others. “I think she’s been in chatter mode a bit too long.”

“Ah, I see him now. He looks like he’s about to die.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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