98: Exit Strategy

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

VGV Motherboard (orbit).

Simulation Room 3A.


The screen had gone blank. Point-Two couldn’t tell if things were going well or if they were going badly. They definitely weren’t going to plan because he was pretty sure there had never been one.

“What’s going on?”

“What’s happening now? Is it over?”

“I’m getting a message, are you getting a message?”

The Vendx crew were in a state of anxious confusion. They were alive and in no danger, for the time being, so now should have been the time to consolidate and organise. The problem was, they had no idea what they were going to have to prepare for.

“Quiet, please. Quiet.” The lead technician of the simulation facility they were all crowded into was trying to establish order, but he didn’t have the rank for it. The Vendx hierarchy was very strictly built so everyone knew who they had to listen to, and who they didn’t. “I need quiet. Please!”

The chatter continued as the technicians tried to find out what was happening and if it was worth panicking over. The good thing about not knowing was that it gave people a false sense of security, which at least meant they weren’t screaming and crying.

Point-Two calmly noted the exits. He didn’t want to have to climb back down to the commissary. It was a way out, but leaving the ship via a large hole in its side wasn’t the sort of escape route he was looking for.

Whatever had happened, it was clear to him that his role had been minimal. Not even a diversion, as far as he could tell. Ubik’s approach seemed to be to send as many people off in as many directions as possible, and then wait to see if anyone got lucky. If they did, he would follow up. If they didn’t, well, they were on their own.

Maybe it wasn’t quite as callous as that but there was no point offering support to people who had no chance of making a difference. Point-Two could see the sense in it. A chillingly practical sort of sense.

He noticed it had gone very quiet. He looked around. Everyone was staring into the middle-distance, a hand on their cheek, their earlobe, their temple. They were using their ocular implants to view a message. The implants were small and attached to the surface of the eye, a very common device that didn’t require surgery.

Point-Two used to have one when he was on the Liberator Garu but he’d removed it when he left. For all their usefulness, they were vulnerable to being hacked and an easy way to be tracked. Vendx employees probably had to wear them, which wasn’t really a problem. Why wouldn’t you want to be connected to the system you worked for? Easy communications and messaging, all in the blink of an eye.

But it became a different matter when the company decided you were no longer part of the Vendx family.

“This can’t be right,” said someone. “My annual appraisal isn’t due for months.”

“It’s all of us,” said someone else. “We’ve all got to go in for evaluation.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it,” said a nervous-looking woman. “It means they haven’t decided to can us… yet.”

She received some sad looks. They all seemed so defeated. Life as part of a huge corporation provided security but the loss of that life left you floundering. They knew no other life. Point-Two could relate to their predicament. Life on a colony ship was also all-consuming. It was hard to stand on your own two feet in a gravitational field that wasn’t your own.

“Please, please, remain calm,” said the lead technician, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I’m sure this will get sorted out once H&R have had a chance to review the files. Everything’s on record. None of you have done anything wrong… have you?”

His attempt at placating the crowd was met with dark looks.

“Did you get a message?” someone asked him.

“Er, I haven’t... I haven’t checked.” He stepped back, uncomfortable at being confronted. If he hadn’t been summoned to account for his actions, he was in no position to advise others. Point-Two had seen this sort of divide before. Those who were unaffected trying to tell those who were how to act. It never ended well.

“I think you’re forgetting who’s in charge here,” said Point-Two. He had come to a decision. The general atmosphere was suppressed and morose — the perfect time to manage a large group of people. “And who management will want to talk to.”

All eyes were on him now. They might have been grateful towards him a moment ago, but things changed rapidly when people were under pressure. No one wanted to give up their second chance. They could quite easily decide that their best bet was to take him prisoner and tell their employer they had fought back to save the ship. That was the sort of thing an employee would assume the top brass would be pleased about.

Point-Two saw it differently. Once control had been lost, someone had to take responsibility. Someone had to take the blame. And in most cases, it wasn’t the person in charge. It wasn’t ‘the buck stops with me’, it was ‘the buck stops here’ — and ‘here’ was a very loosely defined term.

These people didn’t know that, though. Or maybe they did, deep down, but they were desperate not to accept it. They would gladly push someone else into the firing line, if they could.

Point-Two, however, still had options. Ubik may have left him to fend for himself, but since when had that been a problem?

“The drone-net is down,” said Point-Two. “That isn’t Vendx’s doing. The Central Authority is in command now, whether your people like it or not. The planet down there can contact the CA and tell their side of the story. So can you. Vendx are going to want you to back up their version of events, so they’re going to make you a deal.”

There was hopeful muttering — maybe the appraisals they were being called in for were to make sure they kept to the official line. Point-Two had no idea if that was actually the case, but he knew it sounded plausible. Bribe the employees and they’d play ball — everyone recognised that as standard business practice. They might even come out ahead in the deal.

Now all Point-Two had to do was wait for the CA to take over, hopefully before Ubik did anything else to sour relations.

The screen above the consoles flickered into life and a face appeared. It was a man, slicked-back hair and a tight face.

“Crew of the Motherboard, this is Chief Supervisor Mayden. I am making a shipwide announcement to all hands.” He had small beady eyes that stared intensely out of the screen. “This is a priority message, all frequencies, do not redirect.”

The people in the room all stopped talking and stared at the screen.

“The Vendx Galactic Vessel Motherboard is once again under my command. Systems have been purged and all computers are responding. I repeat, we are in control of this ship. Intruders are still on board, but they have been isolated or captured. There is no further danger to the ship or the crew.”

The crew in the room looked around at each other, and then at Point-Two. They were in a unique position to doubt the Chief Supervisor’s assurances.

“To ensure there are no lingering foreign elements inside our internal system, I am ordering a full purge. This will begin immediately, all departments. Commence… now.”

There was a surge in muttering.

“He wants us to delete the files.”

“We won’t be able to prove what happened.”

“It’s to protect the company, isn’t it. They won’t use it against us.”

“Grow up. Of course they will.”

“Hey, they’re beginning the wipe. Stop them.”

The technicians had all rushed to their consoles, hunched over and running their checks before beginning a removal of data. The CA worked off of hard evidence. If it came down to conflicting witness testimony, the norm was to do nothing. That was how it had always been.

Some of the crew pushed off the walls and swarmed the technicians.

“Please,” said the lead technicians, “we’re just doing our job.”

Point-Two couldn’t see the point of stopping them. This was just one small database and nothing very much had happened here. But the crew were lost to their paranoia. They wanted to take some kind of action, even if it made no difference.

The screen flickered and Mayden’s face was replaced by a female one, framed by red hair and containing angry green eyes.

“This is Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority. I am now in command of this vessel. I repeat, all administrative privileges reside with me and only me. What? No, Janx. I said no. Yes, I am implementing executive order six. I just said so, didn’t I?”

She seemed to be having a heated exchange with someone off to the side.

“As of now, you are locked out of all systems. Any attempt to interfere with files, data or backup systems will be considered a violation of article three of the Central Authority Treaty, 256-299. Shut up, Janx, I was about to say that. The full text of the treaty is available online at the Central Authority main hub. Although, all access to the net is now restricted, so you’ll have to wait before checking out that particular thrilling read.”

“I must object,” said Mayden’s voice. “It’s absolutely necessary for the security of our—”

“You listen to me, Chief Superintendent.”

“Chief Supervisor,” said Mayden in a whiney voice.

“One more word out of you, and I’ll blow that command module of yours into the next quadrant. Yes, I can Janx. I’ll fill in the paperwork later.”

She leaned in towards the screen, her face filling almost all of it.

“Now, listen carefully. You may have heard things about the CA, startling things about how we get things done. They’re all true. I know you’re all professionals just doing your own job, so you’ll be able to relate to this, I’m sure. I do not like people making life difficult for me. I especially don’t like jokers who think they can make me look foolish. I’m going to find out who did it, and I’m going to show them how CA justice works.”

She looked quite upset. There was only one person who could have upset her that much.

“I know who it was,” said Point-Two.

“Who said that?” Her head bobbed around as though searching for the speaker. “Janx, put it on my main screen.”

Her eyes stopped moving and came to a rest on Point-Two, although there would be a number of people on board who would think she was staring at them from their screen.

“I know who compromised your systems,” said Point-Two.

“And who are you?”

“I’m a trainee from the Free Volunteers Guild in Fraiche. Vendx sent in an assault team to eradicate us.”

“That just isn’t provable,” Mayden’s voice squeaked.

“Fire a missile on his location,” said Tezla. “Fine, a warning shot first. Make the ground shake under that idiot. You, you’re behind this?”

“No,” said Point-Two. “I’m just a trainee. But before I tell you, I want to apply for asylum.”

“You want what?”

“Under article nineteen, paragraph four. I am under immediate threat from hostile forces and require extraction.”

“What hostile forces? The only hostile person here is me.”

“These people,” said Point-Two, pointing at the others in the room. “They took me prisoner and are planning to execute me to stop me from talking.”

There were a few denials that were quickly silenced as the Vendx crew whispered at each other to say he was right. The ones who were quick on the uptake sent grateful looks in Point-Two’s direction. He ignored them. He wasn’t doing it to help them, it was just the easiest way to get himself off the ship.

“Can you prove it?” said Tezla.

“No,” said Point-Two. “Can you take the chance I might accidentally disappear?”

“Very well,” said Tezla. “I’m sending a shuttle. Any attempt to harm this individual will be met with lethal force.” She became distracted again. “Fine, fine, semi-lethal force. Is that even a real thing, Janx? Oh, well, as long as it hurts.”

Point-Two let out a breath. At least he had managed to secure safe passage for himself. He wondered how Ubik would ruin it for him.

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