82: Stress Test

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain (orbit).

VGV Motherboard.


Gipper was off the bed and floating above the door, ready to dive down on whoever came in first. Ubik was impressed at how swiftly he had reacted, not showing any sign of panic. Clearly, he was a guy who performed well under pressure before. There was bound to be some job Ubik could use him for.

The noise outside grew louder — there were shouts and clanks and banging against the walls — and then it receded into the distance.

“What happened?” whispered Gipper. “Where’d they go?”

“I sent them around the corner,” said Ubik. He switched the screen to a shot of the security guards rushing away to the other end of the deck, using the signs that had misled them originally to direct them again.

“You used the same trick twice?” said Gipper, sounding impressed and appalled at the same time.

“Yeah,” said Ubik. “Should be good for at least another couple of uses. The lower decks are all identical, built like a maze.”

Gipper pushed himself off the ceiling towards the door and leaned against it to listen. “What do we do now?”

“We wait,” said Ubik. “Still need to set up a couple of things.”

“What about the others?” asked Gipper, still listening intently, sliding his ear around the door in case he could get better reception from a new position.

“I’m sure they’re doing fine,” said Ubik. “Taking care of whatever problems they encounter and, hopefully, if things turn out the way I think they will, they’ll come back with a sandwich. I would order something on Chukka’s account, but it might give away our location when the drone turned up with room service in a restricted area.”

“They have room service here?” asked Gipper, interested in this new information.

“Yep, available around the clock.” Ubik brought up the menu on the screen. “All-day breakfast, too. It isn’t cheap, though. And it won’t look like the food in the photos.”

The pictured dishes looked like they were steaming hot and shiny like they’d been waxed and polished. Fake or not, it still made Ubik hungry.

The quicker he sorted things out, the sooner he could get a bite to eat.

His main goal was to take over the ship but there was no point just nicking it. He could hardly file off the serial numbers and paint it a different colour. He needed Vendx to take him where he wanted to go, and the only way to make them do that was to make them think it was where they wanted to go.

Fig going offline wasn’t helping. He was meant to be the big reveal that would get them rushing across the galaxy. Hard to do if he was locked inside the sim-U with no way to contact anyone.

Should he just assume Fig would be in the right place when the time came and carry on regardless? It was risky, but what other choice was there? Admittedly, it was risky for PT, not Ubik, but that didn’t make the decision any easier. PT at least deserved a chance to come out of this alive.

Ubik switched screens to the commissary. PT was in position, looking a bit bored, eating a sandwich. It looked like chocolate and peanut butter. He had the security cameras do an analysis. It was chocolate and peanut butter! Eating Ubik’s favourite right in front of him. Brazen wasn’t the word. Time to go ahead with the plan, decided Ubik.

He reduced the screen in size to reveal the main access portal for the ship’s computer — black and red borders with a yellow field that was a little harsh on the eyes. The less important your business, the less pleasant the viewing experience. Ubik pulled down his goggles and started the launch sequence for the drone interceptor craft.

The activity in the hangars would certainly get noticed. What he needed was a distraction. With PT and Fig already doing their part, that left him with very few choices. He glanced over at Gipper. How to send him on a suicide run? Hmm...

The screen flashed, telling him he wasn’t authorised, and then flashed to tell him he was. The ship’s computer was the one entity on board that wouldn’t be easily tricked into looking the wrong way, but Ubik had the perfect countermeasure in place — Grandma.

As well as being a store of valuable information on the art of engineering and all things electronic, the soul box was a receptacle for the life story of a very long-lived woman. Grandma had stories and anecdotes that spun and swirled, connecting together to form elaborate tales from a world that no longer existed.

Ubik would sometimes leave her running when he felt alone and isolated in his junkyard, her voice the only connection to humanity he had left. Her stories were grand and encompassed the whole galaxy, revealing the truth of what it took to live in a society of greed, selfish little monsters exploring the infinite. They had been his fairytales before bed, endless and epic, and sometimes extremely dull. An excellent sedative.

The Vendx Galactic Vessel Motherboard was run by a very straightforward onboard guidance system. Everything that could be automated, was. Everything that could be scheduled to operate when it was the most cost-effective and not necessarily at a time that was user-friendly, had been. Every non-essential system that only needed to be turned on when it became essential, was left to the onboard system to switch over.

Grandma had been in conversation with the onboard system since the uplink. She had maintained a very firm grip on all of the ship’s processors as she related her full existential experience as a citizen of the galaxy, one byte at a time.

Normally, there would be a way to disengage from an aggressive chatbot, but she was a very absorbing conversationalist. The system was overwhelmed by her willingness to share, and the ongoing memory leak issues were very helpful in preventing the system from kicking her off the network. It had tried, but the request was stuck in a queue, and every additional request further bogged things down.

It was a thing of beauty, watching the entire framework buckle under its own weight. Ubik was quite interested to see how it would cope once she started going through her family tree, all the way back to the First Explorers. Ubik was usually fast asleep by that point. Computers didn’t have that escape route.

The lack of oversight gave him access to the entire network. But he needed someone on the other end, in the sim-U, to make this work.

“You said you’d get me a line out to my ship,” said Gipper. “I assume you can’t get an external line from here.”

“Mm? Oh, I can,” said Ubik. “I mean, you’re not supposed to be able to, they don’t want people making long-distance calls whenever they feel like it, but there are workarounds.”

“So? Patch me through.”

“No, not a good idea. You’ll be able to reach your ship, but they’ll be able to hear what you say. You need a direct line.”

“Okay,” said Gipper. “How do we do that? Via the communication station?”

“Okay, that’s one way. A bit tricky getting there at the moment. But… if you’re willing to take a risk, I can give you directions. I’ll be straight with you, it’s risky. If you bump into any of our friends out there, they might not be very hospitable.”

“This is why I told you we should have brought the weapons with us,” said Gipper.

Ubik shook his head. “The extra weight would have given us away. And we have all the weapons we need up here. Just take them from whoever you run into.”

“That would be great,” said Gipper, “only they’re bio-locked.”

“Only if you want to fire them. As a club, they’ll work just fine.”

Gipper put his ear back to the door and listened again. “Can’t we go through some air vents and avoid them completely. That’s how they do it in the movies, you know. I mean, I don’t really like enclosed spaces — what’s that called?”

“Hypochondria,” said Ubik.

“Claustrophobia,” said Gipper, acting like he hadn’t heard. “But it would be worth it. They’d never expect us to come out of the air vents. They never do.”

“You have a lot of leisure time on the Red Devil, do you?” asked Ubik.

“You have to rest and recuperate,” said Gipper.

“You’d need to after going through those vents.” Ubik pointed at the corner of the ceiling where there was a small grate in the wall. You could cover it with the palm of one hand.

“Oh,” said Gipper. “They’re even stingy with the amount of air they let you have.”

“Waste not, spend not,” said Ubik. “The alternative is to get you into an escape pod.”

“They provide them free do they?” asked Gipper sarcastically.

“Rental,” said Ubik. There was no irony to be had when it came to Vendx’s profit margins. “But they do have excellent communications systems installed.”

“Won’t they notice a pod being launched?”

“Not really. I’ve got drones all over the ship right now. Sensors are completely flummoxed. If you can get clear of the ship, you could contact the Red Devil once you’re out of line of sight. The signal would be masked by the planet.”

“How long would that take?” said Gipper.

“If you went in the opposite direction to the planet’s orbit, you’d be out of range in around twelve standard minutes. If they catch you, though…”

“Twelve? That’s not bad. I’ll take that chance.”

“Okay,” said Ubik. “You need to go here.” The screen switched to a map of the ship, decks stacked on top of each other. A red circle pulsed in the top right corner.

“And where are we?” Another circle flashed at the bottom of the screen, three decks down. “How are you supposed to get there in an emergency?”

“As fast as you can,” said Ubik. “I can guide you using the internal signs like with the Vendx boys, but you’ll have to be quick.”

“No problem.” Gipper grinned and gave Ubik a wink. “You send me the right way, I’ll get there on time.

Ubik nodded. This was turning out to be easier than he’d expected. Convincing Gipper to run through the ship had always seemed a hard sell, which was why Ubik had been putting it off, but he’d practically volunteered. Ubik smiled and punched up the route.



Gipper waited because the sign said to wait. There was no one else around, but if the sign told him to stay where he was, there was bound to be a good reason. He had got this far without incident, only a few metres more and he’d be at his destination.

So far, everything had gone incredibly smoothly. He had made it from the cabin to the transport chute without encountering any of the crew. The security detail had made their location very clear with all the noise they were making, and Gipper’s destination had been in the other direction, so that was fine.

At every corner, there was a sign on the wall, a black strip with numbers — Cabins 331-375 — to let you know where you were. The numbers would scroll across the black strip, followed by a short message, sometimes a reminder — ID must be worn at all times — or an announcement — Commissary closed for cleaning.

The signs around the cabin Trainee Ubik had taken as his base all said the same thing: Restricted area. Do not enter. Which was fine with Gipper. Nowhere did it say: Do not exit.

As he neared each sign, it changed to an arrow pointing in the direction he needed to go. He had more or less memorised the route — his ability to navigate manually being one of his best attributes — but it was nice to have the assist, especially when he was trying to get to the escape pod as quickly as possible.

The signs had occasionally taken him by a longer route than necessary, but he assumed it was to avoid personnel that Ubik was seeing on his screen.

At first, Gipper had thought the kid was a bit sketchy — his premonitions about that sort of thing were normally bang on — but he had proven his sixth sense wrong for once. The guild would do well with someone like him in their ranks. Once he got an organic in him, who knew where he might end up? Future Guild Master in the making.

Gipper peered around the corner. There was a long passage with multiple doors. The black strip outside one was flashing a message at him: This is it. The strip next to his head continued to say: Wait.

It was tempting to just go now. Someone might come along at any moment.

Go now. Now. Now. Now.

Gipper pushed off the floor and glided across the passage. As he reached the door, the black strip turned green and the door slid open. Gipper shot inside and the door closed behind him.

In front of him there were six large drones carrying trays. They were giving him a confused look. They didn’t have faces, but they still managed to convey bemusement.

Gipper looked around. It didn’t look like an escape pod. It looked like a ship’s galley. There were ovens along the walls and orders on screens.

One of the drones seemed to have a little turn, shaking like it had been electrocuted. It floated towards Gipper, tray extended. On the tray was a sandwich.

The little shit had sent him to fetch snacks. He should have trusted his instincts.

A siren went off and the drones all flew to the walls and stayed there.

“Warning, collision detection. Brace for impact. Warning…”

Gipper stayed where he was, holding the tray, wondering what the hell the little shit had done now.

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