85: Fork in the Path

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain (orbit).

VGV Motherboard.

Commissary 6C.


Point-Two looked up. The impact that shook the ship had come from directly above the commissary.

Why had Ubik sent him here?

Normally, you wouldn’t try to take over a ship via the cafeteria. Not even if you were peckish.

Point-Two finished his sandwich, released his foot from inside the vending machine’s mouth and floated across the room. No effort was required on his part, the vacuum of space was doing all the work for him.

Normally, this would be something to avoid.

The devices Ubik had given him had done a remarkable job of cutting through the ship’s hull. What kind of substance could cut through heavy-duty polymer plates that easily?

Point-Two removed his footwear as he pondered the strange technology Ubik had access to. The boots were the ones given to him by the guild and not that great for traction in zero-G. Not enough grip in the soles. He slipped them off and then threw them to redirect himself towards the edge of the cleanly cut hole.

He had lived long enough under the threat of being whisked away into the endless nothingness of space to show due respect to any venting ship, especially one where it was very unlikely anyone would come to his rescue.

The ship had just abandoned its own crew and declared them its enemy, so it went without saying that it wasn’t going to look too favourably on him.

In this case, however, he had created the hole in the side of the ship — something he could be executed for back home (and quite probably here, too) — and Ubik had plugged the hole with just enough drones to control the suction of space.

This was not a normal situation.

The crew, who had been notified of their pending unemployed status, were not taking the news well. Point-Two could hear them arguing and complaining and, in some cases, crying from inside the improvised blister on the side of the ship.

Their precarious position, separated from death only by a wall of drones, seemed to be less of a concern than their loss of earnings.

“But we haven’t been taken hostage. No one’s holding us here. Not a person.”

“Guys, listen to me.”

“Yeah, we don’t even know what’s going on. We were ordered in here. We’re here under orders.”

“Guys, I have an idea.”

“What if we say we’re prisoners? Isn’t that covered under the Extenuating Circumstances Clause?”

“That’s for serious injuries.”

“What if we injure ourselves? If we’re already hurt, we can’t be considered valuable enough to be hostages.”

“Read the small print. It doesn’t matter if we’re hurt, only if we’re dead. Dead people can’t be hostages, anything else is classed as us being compromised.”

“Guys, listen, we can get out of here if we—”

“Shut up, Benkson. Just stay put and don’t move. We’re still employees of Vendx if we aren’t literally under the control of the pirates.”

Point-Two reached the lip of the hole, which no longer had a human-lid on it, and put his feet on the surprisingly-thin edge and one hand straight up. Did Ubik know how thin the walls would be here?

By bracing himself in a three-point position, Point-Two was stuck in place. Had the hole been fully-exposed to space, it wouldn’t stop him being sucked out — a smaller hole and all four limbs would be required for that to work, and only as long as the air lasted — but the drones plus the added smear of people on top had greatly reduced the force to only partially irresistible.

“Any of you hungry?” asked Point-Two. “I could get you some food. It’s free.”

There was a pause as everyone stopped their bickering and looked up at him. They had managed to spread out so they weren’t all on top of each other, lying on their backs apart from a couple who had gone in face first and couldn’t turn around.

“We don’t want anything from you,” said a red-headed woman. “We aren’t your hostages.”

Some of the others voiced their agreement. Point-Two counted thirty-two in total. The dome they were lying inside was barely big enough to contain them all.

“Who are you?” asked a tall man who was getting a lot of annoyed looks from the people next to him.

“I’m from the Free Volunteers Guild,” said Point-Two. “We’re the ones you’re attacking down on the planet.”

“You must have done something to deserve it.”

“Shut up, Benkson. We aren’t attacking anyone. You don’t want to be on record saying we are.”

“We found a bug in the sim-U the guild bought off you,” said Point-Two. “Seems like it’s quite important no one finds out about it, so you sent in your clean-up crew. We all know what that means, right? But we decided we wanted to renegotiate our contract.”

“If you signed it, you have to live by it,” said the tall man. “That’s what legally binding means.”

“I didn’t sign anything,” said Point-Two. “And I don’t think your employers are acting in good faith. Sorry, your ex-employers.”

“Are you taking us hostage,” said a worried-sounding woman.

“Don’t do it. Please. Just kill us,” said another woman. “At least our families can claim compensation that way.”

“You’d really prefer death over losing your job?” Point-Two couldn’t help but be a little surprised.

“We lose all our benefits if we get taken hostage. Everything. Our families get nothing.”

There were some uncertain faces down there, some fearful ones, but no one was begging for their lives. No one thought there was any point to just trying to make it out alive.

“Why did you even sign on if the conditions were this bad?” asked Point-Two, genuinely curious about these people. He had lived a fairly sheltered life, the galaxy too vast to appreciate fully from a ship on a permanent orbit of two suns, but he had been to enough planets, seen enough cultures to think there were opportunities for people out there.

Maybe he was wrong and what he’d seen was the exception. Maybe in the rest of the galaxy people were desperate for work and would take whatever they could get, willing to give up their rights to decent treatment in exchange for a guaranteed wage.

“Kid, you’ve got no idea,” said the tall man. “No one offers benefits like Vendx. Medical, dental, implants at cost price, eye surgery after only one year’s service. I applied to all the big shots, Rigogo, Fentway, Neswam — some of them might pay more up front, but no one gives you the kind of full cover Vendx gives you right out of the gate.”

“They make all the medical machinery,” said the redhead. “Means it costs them a lot less than the others. I got my arm replaced for practically nothing.” She waved her hand which looked real until you looked closely.

The others were all in agreement about the advantages of joining Vendx and were momentarily distracted from their panic by the good sense it had made to sign their draconian contracts. The drawbacks were evidently worth it, as long as you were careful and didn’t fall foul of any of the punitive fine print.

“By the way,” said PointTwo, “what’s in the decks directly above here?” He pointed over his head.

No one said anything. Some nervous looks were exchanged.

“What if I declared all of you my hostages?” said Point-Two. “Would that make it easier for you?”

A burst of enthusiastic ‘No’s blasted him from below.

“How about this, then?” said Point-Two. “What if you’re not my hostages, what if I’m your prisoner?”

The faces all turned confused.

“I’ll give myself up to you if you just answer my questions. They can’t fire you if you overpower me. You might even get a bonus. ”

“They won’t believe you’re our prisoner just because you say it,” said the tall man.

“Okay, hold on,” said Point-Two. He pushed off the wall and shot across the room. By the time he reached the condiment station next to the vending machines, he could already feel the pull drawing him back. He grabbed some cutlery in both hands and went floating back.

He twisted and turned so he ended up in almost the same position as before, and tossed the cutlery at the Vendx crew.

There were knives, spoons and forks, all made from some sort of fibrous material, barely strong enough to cut through overcooked vegetables. They had similar utensils on the Liberator Garu, at least in the public areas. They could be broken down into cellulose blocks, and then reconstituted once they’d been sterilised.

The crew grabbed at them as they floated towards them, just about enough for one each, two for a lucky few.

“What are we supposed to do with these?” asked a man who had managed to snag three, one of each.

“Technically,” said Point-Two, “you’re now armed. You can take me prisoner by threatening to stab me.”

“With a tiny fork?” asked the tall man.

“Depends,” said Point-Two. “Could you make a case for it if your contract went to arbitration?”

The point wasn’t if they could overpower him with cheap disposable eating utensils, it was whether they could use them to defy the contractual stipulations they’d agreed to follow. If they could prove they weren’t hostages, they couldn’t be fired, at least not without some sort of recompense and their benefits intact.

Point-Two raised his hands in the air. “See? I give up.”

“How are you doing that?” asked a slightly chubby, curly-haired youth. “How are you standing like that without getting sucked in?”

Point-Two put a hand back onto the wall and looked down at his bare feet. “Pressure from the insteps. You have to angle it right, but you can create enough friction to stay in one place. So, what do you say? You’d hold onto your benefits. Maybe discuss it and take a vote?”

“No,” said the tall man very firmly. “We can’t engage in collective bargaining, that’s prohibited.”

“Isn’t that just in negotiations with Vendx?” asked Point-Two. He could easily imagine the company, like most companies, having a zero-tolerance policy towards any sort of unionisation, but they weren’t dealing with Vendx now.

“I wouldn’t want to risk it,” said the tall man, throwing away his spoon. “They take that sort of thing very seriously.”

“I’ll tell you what you want to know,” said the curly-haired youth.

“Benkson, no!” shouted someone.

“I can do what I want,” said Benkson. “You never listen to me anyway. You think I care. Do you know how much in debt I am to the company already? If I get fired, I might lose my benefits, but they can’t dock my wages anymore. It doesn’t even make sense — I work for them and I owe them money. The whole thing’s a scam.”

“Shut up, Benkson. They can hear you.”

“Is he right? Can we clear our debts this way?”

People started babbling all at once.

“I don’t care,” said Benkson. “Above us is the simulation room. I can take you there if you want. There’s a service hatch to send the technicians food — they don’t get lunch breaks.” Some of the others were shouting at him to be quiet, trying to reach over and grab him, but he shouted over them. “It’s horrible working in there, it’s always operational, always busy. The only break from reality any of us get. You promise to take me with you when you leave this ship and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

The simulation room was directly above them. Point-Two was sure that wasn’t a coincidence. That’s where Fig would be, or at least his sim-U avatar.

“Okay,” said Point-Two, “I’ll get you out of there. Anyone else?”

Hands started going up.

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