83: Special Delivery

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain (orbit).

VGV Motherboard.


The sirens were very loud. Ubik didn’t think it was the best way to alert a crew to their imminent destruction — more likely to cause panic and encourage mistakes, but what did he know?

He wasn’t a ship designer. Maybe when you built something that housed hundreds of people, you had to scream to be heard. Or perhaps, when your employees were reluctant to get out of their chairs unless they absolutely had to, it was necessary to light a fire under them to get them going. After all, movement in space was all about the inertia.

Whatever the reason for the ear-splitting level of noise currently filling every corner of the ship, it helped Ubik get the crew’s attention. As long as they were focused on not dying to a collision with a rogue asteroid, they would be less likely to bother him while he waited for Fig to sort himself out. Unless Fig had already failed, in which case, Ubik was just annoying the crew of the Motherboard for no reason, which wasn’t necessarily something he was against.

At least PT was in place, although how he would respond to the next part was hard to predict. Ubik considered contacting him to warn him, but there was a good chance the communication would be intercepted. And also that PT would refuse to do what was asked of him.

If there was one thing Ubik would say about PT, it was that he had a sensible head on his shoulders. Having to work around that was a pain, but then no one was perfect.

The screen in front of Ubik showed various parts of the ship with the corridors that had been empty now full as people rushed to their stations while lingering around the escape pods. Some of them appeared to be making reservations by putting down a deposit. Non-refundable, more than likely.

He tried to see what Fig was up to, but there was still no response on that end.

Ubik turned down the volume on the alarms — in the cabin, not the rest of the ship — and looked through the room service menu, again. His stomach rumbled. In future, he would make sure to pack a few protein bars along with his tools. You never knew when you were going to get stuck in a cabin with nothing to eat and the collision detection alarms screaming in your ears.

He yawned and flicked through the communication channels. There was a lot of chatter, mostly people panicking and trying to find whatever it was that was about to ram into the ship. The ship had defences against space debris, but something really big was best avoided altogether. Once you knew where it was.

No one could find it on the sensor array, which wasn’t very surprising since it didn’t actually exist. Ubik had expected them to have figured that out by now, but Vendx employees were not the sharpest bunch.

Gipper would just have to wait until they got to him. Hopefully, he wouldn’t wander off and miss his big moment. At least he was somewhere where he could get something to eat. That should make him less upset about being used as a decoy. He wondered what Gipper was eating right now, and sighed.

If Ubik had a weakness, it was that he was too considerate. Always thinking of others. Did anyone think to bring him a snack? No. Not a beverage, not even some popcorn so he could enjoy the mass hysteria going on around him. The galaxy was a cold, inhospitable place.

As Ubik idly switched from one panicky conversation to the next, he noticed there was one signal that was coming from the surface. The mobile unit commanded by Chief Supervisor Mayden, no doubt. Very gently, he intercepted the signal to listen in.

“I’m telling you there are no asteroids in this system, so how can the sensors have detected any?” Mayden sounded exasperated, but he was bang on the money. No wonder he was in charge. Just a shame he had decided to leave the Motherboard in the hands of his slow-witted crew, unsupervised.

“The sensor array says we’re going to be hit by something the size of a small moon in less than thirty standard minutes,” said a female voice. It sounded familiar, even with the additional tremor of fear incorporated.

“Pull yourself together, Major Chukka. There is no asteroid.”

So she was a major. The records had said she was a PFC and an engineer, both recently amended which had given her away, but a major was pretty high-ranking to be sent on a capture mission, and solo. She must have volunteered.

“Say again, the alarm system is deafening.” She was shouting to be heard over the sirens.

“Tell Derman to—”

“The acting captain is in the infirmary.”

“What? Why? What happened to him?”

“He fainted,” said Chukka. “I’m the ranking officer. How do I turn the alarm off.”

“Ask the computer to—”

“The computer isn’t responding. It’s buffering everything. We can’t clear the backlog.”

“Damn it. That memory leak was meant to be fixed by now. Get onto Code Integrity and—”

“I did,” said Chukka. “They said it isn’t a memory leak, it’s a hardware issue.”

“Not this again.” Mayden was starting to lose his temper.

All he had to do was figure out which alarm system was telling them there was an invisible asteroid bearing down on the ship and he’d know what was going on. Smart enough to be the captain, not smart enough to know his own ship. Ubik was tempted to break into the conversation and give them a hint. He resisted.

“Look,” said Mayden, “I can’t come up there until we have this simulation data. You’ll have to shut it down manually or put in earplugs. It’s just a malfunction. Have you secured the intruders?”

Ah, thought Ubik, here we go.

There was a pause before Chukka answered. “Not yet. We have them isolated on the lower deck.”

“Yes? So apprehend them.”

“One’s trapped in the commissary, and the others… we don’t know which cabin they’re in. They keep changing the numbers on the doors.”

There was a pause on Mayden’s end this time. Then a sigh. “Use the intruder detection system. The IDS is independent of the main system. It’ll tell you where they are.”

“Okay, yes, good idea,” said Chukka. “Wait, it won’t let me. It’s already active.”

“What do you mean?” said Mayden.

“The alarms going off, they’re coming from the IDS.”

“The asteroid’s in the ship?” said Mayden.

“No, I mean, of course not. It’s the alarm, it’s been switched with the collision detection system.”

“They swapped the IDS with the CDS so you wouldn’t notice them entering a sensitive area.” Mayden was starting to sound panicky now. “Quickly, check where the alarm originated. The first one that went off.”

“Uh, okay, wait, wait… the galley.”

“That’s where they are, then!” Mayden was triumphant, if a little slow.

“But why? What do they want—”

“Never mind that, go get them.”

Ubik hoped Gipper had finished eating because he was about to be interrupted.

It felt to Ubik like he was missing out on all the fun. That was the problem with being in the control position, you had to wait around for everyone else to do their thing, with no thing of your own.

Ubik stretched and yawned again. The security details would be headed towards Gipper now. That meant Ubik could finally leave the cabin and head to the ship’s simulation room. If Fig had managed to do his part, then the onboard sim-U would be where they could finally get back in contact with him.

Ubik wasn’t exactly sure what would happen when the ship, with its terrible memory leak, was suddenly linked to the guild’s wildly overclocking sim-U but, at the very least, it would be exciting. Fig always brought the action with him. Like father like son.

The screen, which had been showing how close to overheating the central processors were, went dark and the sirens stopped.

The ship’s computer had crashed, which Ubik had expected. It would reboot and the memory leak would be gone, for a while, and everyone would rejoice. And Grandma would be kicked off the network and Ubik would be locked out of the system.

If Vendx had just done that in the first place, they could have avoided a lot of bother, but it was too risky to go blind, even if it was only for a few minutes. They’d be completely vulnerable.

The lights were still on and there hadn’t been any gravity to lose — Vendx frugality proving its worth — but nothing else worked.

Ubik rose from the console, his Delgado’s sticking to the floor, and went over to the door. It was locked until the reboot was over. He could force it open, but it wasn’t that long of a wait.

Finally, the light around the pad next to the door lit up to indicate it was available for use. Ubik pressed it and the door opened. Two men stood there in full battlesuits, weapons pointed at him. Behind them floated Major Chukka. Her lips were pressed tightly together and she had a dark look in her eyes.

“Hello, there,” said Ubik. “You found me. Your turn to hide, Chukka.”

“That’s Public Relations Officer, Major Chukka to you.” She let the title hang in the air, like it would make Ubik flinch in its almighty glare. “I commend you. You led us a merry dance, but you didn’t consider the door numbers would revert after the reboot.” Her grimace turned very slightly smug.

“You’re right,” said Ubik, “I didn’t consider that. Does everything go back to factory settings after every reboot?”

“Yeah,” said the guard on the left. “It’s really annoying.”

“Clocks all get reset, too,” said the one on the right.

“Quiet,” said Major Chukka. “Don’t fraternise with the prisoner. You’ll come with us now. Public Relations would like to get to know you better.” Her lips spread into a thin, malevolent smile.

The alarm sounded again, making everyone jump, which was hard to do in zero-G.

“We’ve got a large object closing,” said a voice coming from Chukka’s wrist.

Chukka shook her head and raised her hand to her face. “Turn the alarm off,” she shouted.

“It says we have thirty seconds before impact.”

“Turn it off,” repeated Chukka, this time more emphatically. The alarm stopped. “Same trick twice? Really?”

“Wasn’t me this time,” said Ubik.

“Sure,” said Chukka. “And I suppose—”

There was a loud bang and the whole ship shook. The alarms started again, but different ones, louder and more urgent.

It seemed Fig had found a way, but Ubik couldn’t get there in time. Now it was up to PT to bring him home.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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