99: And the Winner Is

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain (orbit).

VGV Motherboard.

Observation Deck.


Ubik had expected to be yanked out of the sim-U much sooner. His threat to the two technicians had been feeble at best. And that was putting it kindly.

No one had managed to miniaturise cold lasers to a size that would fit on a drone. They might have been two simulation machine technicians but they were still scientists, technically speaking. They should have been up on the latest developments, or lack of.

Making the vase explode had been simple enough, a silly trick using one of his discs. It hadn’t even been very impressive, more shatter than bang. They’d swallowed the lie eagerly.

He felt sorry for the Vendx shareholders. How were they ever going to make good on their investment with this sort of personnel running things?

Drones with imaginary weapons trained to fire on anyone who tried to stop him — ridiculous.

When the helmet was removed from his head, Ubik yawned. He wasn’t surprised to see Chukka standing in front of him not looking very happy. Her being there was what he wasn’t surprised about. Her not being happy was a given.

“I surrender,” said Ubik.

“No one offered,” she said. “I’ll decide what your official response to being captured will be, after we’ve had a little chat. I have some questions for you.”

Her voice was controlled and devoid of emotion. Clearly she had decided to stop letting others dictate her state of mind. Very dispassionate, very professional, as you would expect from someone in public relations. You had to look the part. How you felt was immaterial.

“I don’t think you can decide if I surrender or not,” said Ubik, wondering if he could make her pop off.

Chukka smiled. “Nobody knows you’re here, you made sure of that. Nobody’s going to miss you if you disappear. Think about that, why don’t you?”

There were armed men all around them, but none of them were nearly as threatening as Chukka, the look in her eyes was devastating. Ubik was pretty sure she would do everything in her power to make sure no one came between her and her plans for him.

“The Central Authority,” said Ubik, “they know—”

“They know what we want them to know,” said Chukka. “They think they have control over our systems.”

“They don’t?” said Ubik.

“No. They have the control we gave them, and we can take it back whenever we want. Everything you did, every system you corrupted, it’s been purged. Our safeguards are back in place and our shadow system is running. What, did you think we wouldn’t have precautions in place to prevent the CA taking control? How many years do you think we’ve had to prepare?”

Chukka gave a signal and Ubik was yanked out of the chair, the needle in his neck slipping out painlessly, which was nice of them.

It was certainly true that Vendx had had plenty of time to come up with an appropriate response, one that the CA wouldn’t be aware of. It was all about how things looked.

“I managed to give you a pretty good run around, didn’t I?”

“Only because of how janky your homebrew code was,” Chukka said dismissively. “No one would expect something that amateurish, that’s the only reason you got away with it for so long.”

“Parts of it are actually very elegant,” said Ubik, “just a little old-fashioned. You probably didn’t even find all of it.”

“We found all of it. Manacle his hands behind his back.” The metal bracelets on his wrists were removed and reapplied once he put his hands behind him. “We found every single part of it and deleted every piece, byte by byte.”

“I bet you used that antiviral programme you guys bundle with everything you sell. Everyone uninstalls it, you know? Regulation 3.2V is a bit of a joke, to be honest.”

“We’ve upgraded to Regulation 3.3V, actually. And it kicked your Grandma’s ass, thank you very much.” She turned to the two technicians who were standing sheepishly to one side.” You two stay here until I send for you. Do not speak to anyone about anything until I’ve debriefed you.”

They both looked upset. The younger one, the chief technician, shot Ubik a dark look. Ubik smiled and shrugged in response. It wasn’t his fault the head of such a grand facility wasn’t up to date on his reading. With technology developing so quickly, you had to keep up.

“I want this place cleaned,” said Chukka to the two technicians. “Full wipe. No backup.”

The nervousness of the chief technician overflowed into babbling. “But we have to keep a—”

“No backup,” repeated Chukka. “We’ll have a team take care of the rest.”

“What about the simulation machine down there?” said Ubik, nodding up. In the corner of the dome, Planet Foxtrot-435 peeked into the room. “Don’t you have to still reclaim it? I could help you. I know how you can—”

“Be quiet,” snapped Chukka “I’m well aware of what you can do. We won’t require your assistance.”

“I understand,” said Ubik, nodding his head. “That’s what the boss is taking care of down there. Making sure it’s done right. Should be fun seeing how he deals with it.”

Chukka glared at him, he could see the questions in her mind forming. What surprise mechanic had Ubik left down there for Chief Supervisor Mayden to discover? But another part of her was resisting. She was starting to learn — you don’t ask questions that tell people what your weaknesses are.

“Let’s go,” said Chukka. “I want this done by the book. No screw-ups, make sure he’s restrained at all times, keep him in your line of sight. I want him treated as a category one prisoner.”

There were some surprised grunts from the security team. They apparently didn’t see Ubik as requiring such high regard.

“Thanks very much,” said Ubik. “I’ll try not to let you down.”

“I don’t like you,” said Chukka. “I don’t like men who are so full of themselves. It makes my skin crawl.”

“Have you tried using lotion?” asked Ubik.

“No,” said Chukka. “What I’m going to do is make your skin crawl, right off your body. I think that will help.”

“Okay,” said Ubik. “Getting some mixed signals here. Maybe we should pick this up at a later date. I do have a prior engagement, you know, with the Central Authority lady. I have a feeling she’s going to want to have a word with me about a slight misunderstanding about a declaration of war.”

“I’m sure she would, if she knew where you were,” said Chukka. “But she doesn’t, and she won’t. Trust me. This area has been sealed off. It doesn’t exist as far as her sensors know.” Chukka was smiling. Her confidence in the Vendx software was impressive, especially considering how prone to screwing up it was.

The men around Ubik shifted positions so they formed a tight escort around him. Their suits worked in synch with each other, another feature of Vendx suit design to increase efficiency and generally look cool.

“The special super-duper secret hidden code that underpins the overt architecture,” said Ubik as they turned him around to face the exit, “it’s very well put together. Not at all like your usual stuff, you know, the stuff you offer to the regular punters. Someone at your main office must be pretty good, huh?”

“Wait,” said Chukka. She inspected him closely, looking deep into Ubik’s eyes.

“You’re going to make me blush if you look at me like that,” said Ubik.

“Nice try,” said Chukka. “You don’t know anything.”

Ubik looked up at the glass dome. “That’s true,” he said. “Can’t argue with that. In an infinite universe, finite knowledge is practically nothing. About here, Grandma.”

A bright white beam of light shone down from above.

“Cold laser,” screamed the chief technician.

The security guards panicked and shot away from Ubik, spreading out like petals opening on a flower.

“Get back, you fools,” shouted Chukka. “It’s just a light from the drone.”

“She’s right,” said Ubik, bathed in shocking brightness. “Light from the drone, boosted a bit, that’s all. A drone I have no way of controlling because your stealth operating system can’t be penetrated, or detected, or absorbed. Right?”

Chukka looked up, squinting, then back down at Ubik. “It’s just one drone.”

“Yep,” said Ubik. “One very attention-drawing drone, above a glass dome. Very fancy but cold lasers aren’t its only weakness.”

The light turned off and it took a moment for everyone’s eyes to adjust. Then a dozen more lights came on. These were not so bright, but bigger. A host of new drones were now over the dome, looking in. They had the orange markings of the Central Authority.

“This is the Central Authority,” said a distorted voice. It was coming in through the glass, vibrating down metal pipes attached to the dome. “This area is not showing on our sensors. This is a direct violation of Article 3 of the Tranquility Concord. This ship is now under quarantine. If any of you little shits so much as blink, I will destroy every cell in your body. I’ve been wanting to try out this cold laser they gave me, but no one’s ever been stupid enough to use this much glass constructing a spaceship.”

“I think she’s talking to you,” said Ubik.

Chukka’s nostrils flared, her lips thinned to the point of invisibility and her eyes glowed, or seemed to.

“You may think this is over, I can assure you it isn’t. We’ll hit you with every infringement and violation there is. The CA won’t fall for your excuses. We have hard evidence against you — trespass, destruction of property, identity theft, invasion of privacy…”

“Hey, those CA drones look pretty cool, don’t they,” said Ubik, staring up at the strange constructions floating on the other side of the glass. “I’ve always wanted to get a closer look at one of them.” He grinned at Chukka. “Don’t be upset. You won’t go home empty-handed. Remember that Opportunity code you got?”

Chukka looked confused. “What are you talking about?”

“That cabin you registered under your name, it received an opportunity code for exemplary work. The draw was earlier. I think you won a major prize.”

Chukka shook her head, not following. “Why would you… I didn’t have a ticket.”

There was some murmuring from the men as they checked the draw on their ocular implants.

“He’s right. She won.”

“Wow, it’s the luxury cruiser.”

“She only had the one ticket. What a result.”

“Told you,” said Ubik. “Register a room down in the lower decks, have a ticket sent there instead of your actual cabin, win the big prize. Nice. Big earner like you getting a sweet bonus. One of these days the big prize will go to one of the lower-level stiffs, I mean, it’s all random, everyone’s got a chance of winning. Same for everyone — at the top, at the bottom. Just got to get lucky.”

There were uncomfortable looks aimed at Chukka. “You think this matters? You think this will make me look bad?”

“No. I think you’ll look great in your new cruiser. Wish I had one. You’ve probably got three or four.” Ubik sighed. “I aspire to have the kind of life you have. Must be great, huh?”

Ubik looked around at the men, who were all seeing Chukka as someone who kept them from getting what they wanted, keeping them from even having a chance. Not that it would make a difference. She would still give them orders and they would follow them. But… maybe one day, a time when a choice needed to be made, they would remember this moment. All you could really do was send out chances and then wait to see what the universe did with them.

“Get him out of here,” said Chukka. “Take him to shuttle bay three. Just get him off this ship.”

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