Central Authority Vessel Nirvana.
“Start the self-destruct timer,” said Ubik. “And make sure everyone knows about it.”
“You want to blow us up before they do?” said PT.
“No, I just need to buy some time. Janks?”
There was a pause. “Putting the ship at risk—”
“Don’t actually activate the self–destruct,” said Ubik, “just put up a counter they can all see. And use one of those emotionless, sexy end–of–the–world voices.”
“Oh,” said Janks, followed by a pause. “We are going to misrepresent the facts.”
“Yes, Janks,” said Ubik. “Make it a five–minute counter and give them the exact distance they need to be to avoid getting caught in the blast.”
“Countdown has begun.”
“Central Authority Vessel Nirvana, this is the Regional Manager Carl Yulang of the roaming network support carrier Three Bars,” said the crisp male voice common to most senior management–types. “Halt the self–destruct timer immediately or we will open fire.”
“Open a channel, Janks.”
“I don’t think—”
“They’re about to open fire, Janks.”
“Manager Yung, this is Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority,” said Ubik, making his voice sound extra-serious. “If you fire on this ship it will detonate the self–destruct ahead of schedule and destroy your vessel, you fat idiot. Close the channel.”
“Why did you insult him?” said PT, a bewildered look on his face.
“I just said what I thought Tezla would say. Do you think my voice was deep enough? She’s got that growly thing going on but it kind of hurts my throat.”
“Impersonating a Central Authority office is an—”
“Not now, Janks. We don’t have time to worry about CA bye–laws. Send a message to the nearest CA point of contact and inform them that you were attacked by a VendX weapon that disabled your primary systems and put the guardian in stasis.”
“Technically, that is not a verifiable accusation at this juncture,” said Janks. “Misrepresenting ourselves to these ships is one thing, but it is against Central Authority—”
“The message isn’t for the Central Authority, it’s for everyone else,” said Ubik. “The more details we can reveal about what VendX is after, the less chance they’ll have of getting what they want. Also, inform Central Authority that we have information on the changes in Antecessor sites and that VendX are trying to kill us for it.”
“Won’t that just make the rest of them just as desperate to get hold of what we know?” said PT.
“Yes,” said Ubik. “Now will you please stop trying to parse every tiny thing I say and get on with it. Thank you.”
Lights started flashing around the room. Ubik winced. He was doing his best to stay positive in what was clearly not a promising situation, but the lights were making it hard. They were making him quite tetchy. Angry, even. He was especially angry at himself for not seeing this outcome from the outset. Where was his head at?
Of course there would be other corporations waiting here for them. Of course they would know this Central Authority ship was under new management. Of course that would give them the perfect excuse to open fire on a CA vessel with impunity.
The first thing Chukka would have done once she realised she couldn’t stop them entering the wormhole was send out an all–quadrants bulletin informing the rest of the galaxy that some reprehensible delinquents had somehow managed to slip through prenatal screening and were now threatening the safety of the entire galaxy with the Central Authority’s own peacekeeping machinery. The outrage would be enough to bring these intransigent adversaries into a temporary alliance with one objective — save the galaxy.
Informing their competitors about the CA ship would make it much harder for VendX to keep their real goal a secret, but that was secondary to not letting it get out that they had been the ones who had attacked the CAV Nirvana in the first place.
Making it public that the CA vessel had been compromised would lend credence to their own cover story — that they had only tried to wrest back control of the hijacked ship — and they still had a good chance of keeping the details of the Origin simulation under wraps.
The company would want recovery of the simulation machine and any adjoining matters to be Chukka’s first priority, but Chukka would want to make sure she wasn’t executed for high sedition. She would be under a very lucrative profit–sharing contract, but you could only share profit if you were alive to claim it.
Chukka was following a very obvious line, straight out of the VendX playbook (which Ubik had downloaded from the official VendX website and was very familiar with). It was a high–risk strategy, but that was how all the big corporations acted. When you operated in a highly–competitive market, you aimed for the largest return on investment possible, and then relied on your highly–augmented operatives to defy the odds.
Ubik should have been able to foresee all of this the moment they gave VendX the slip, but he hadn’t been thinking clearly. He hadn’t been thinking clearly ever since he’d stared into the pretty lights.
What kind of a communication system turned its communicators into drooling halfwits? It was ridiculous. Had the Antecessors been obsessed with shiny objects and sparkly lighting? Their ships were uniformly drab and monotonous in design but perhaps when the Antecessors were alive, their ships were wildly colourful interstellar nightclubs zipping around to a funky soundtrack.
“How much is the bounty?” asked Ubik, rubbing his temples.
“What bounty?” said PT.
“Chukka will have put up a generous reward for our capture,” said Ubik “as a way to show VendX’s support for the Central Authority, payment dependent on handing us over to them. The big companies won’t be interested but independent contractors might get interested. Janks, how much is it?”
There was a long pause, lights rushing around the walls, before Janks said, “Twenty-five VendX tokens.”
Ubik let out a whistle. “What’s that in standard currency? About 1.3 million?”
“We’ve called for help,” said PT, “and the ships have backed off. We’re okay for now, right?”
“No,” said Ubik. “These lights, they’re scanning the ships and the planet and the asteroid. Also the wormhole, which is shut–tight, thankfully. Don’t want someone sneaking up behind us and ramming us right in the—”
“Ubik, you’re rambling.”
“Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yeah, the ships are backing off so they can avoid the blast when we explode but not so far we’re out of firing range. We’re stuck here for a bit. Janks, can you do something about these lights?” Ubik was getting a pain in his temples again.
“Modulation is not poss–poss–possible for—”
“Blast it, Janks, do I have to rip out…” Ubik squeezed his eyes shut to stop the pain. Lights flashed across the insides of his eyelids. He couldn’t even get away from the irritating glare with his eyes closed.
Only, the pain was gone now. He could see the lights as streaks of pulsing flashes in the darkness, but they no longer drilled into his head. It was a lot easier to read them this way, too. Information flooded his senses, washed over them, flowed away, leaving behind only what he wanted to keep.
Ubik opened his eyes. “Janks, why didn’t you tell me I could…”
Janks made a strange grinding noise.
“Oh,” said Ubik.
“Oh, what?” said PT.
“Ships are backing awayyyy,” said Janks in a slowed-down voice. “Perimeterrrrr.”
“How did you remove the infection in the system, Janks?” said Ubik. There was no response. “You absorbed it into yourself so you could provide us with limited access, didn’t you?” The anger and irritation he had felt a moment ago were gone now. “How long before you have to shut down?”
“Fourteen minuuuuuuu.” Janks’ voice sounded like two metal disks spinning against each other. “Central… notifiiiiii… assistance is on the…”
“What’s wrong with him?” said PT.
“Too late for youuuuu…”
“He redirected everything he couldn’t eliminate into his own systems and isolated it.”
“Are you alright?” said PT. “You don’t look alright.”
“I’m fine. No more mood swings,” said Ubik.
“Then why are you so upset?” said PT. “You’re the one who stamped him to death.”
The broken pieces of the drone’s body were floating around the room, the evidence of Ubik’s heartlessness.
“Breaking a drone’s casing doesn’t kill it. But allowing a virulent algorithm into its processors will. Tear his coding apart. Explains why he was having difficulty remembering things, and why he let us tell him what to do. He knew he couldn’t make decisions anymore. And I’m not upset, I’m annoyed. VendX…” He shook his head. He should have seen this coming. “I’m sorry, Janks. If I hadn’t been so out of it, I’d have come up with a way to fix you.”
“Escape… pod. Reeee… ”
“I know,” said Ubik. “I saw it.”
“There’s an escape pod?”
“Yes. I figured out how to read the ships internal messaging without losing my mind. The ship can separate into an infinite number of parts, to a quantum level, and then reform itself. Not that we’d survive. But we can make enough decoys to give ourselves a chance of getting away.”
“And you know how to do this?” said PT.
“No, but Janks does.”
“Self-destruct in thirtyyyyyyy…”
“Janks, before you log out, send out an all-channel info–blast. Reveal all details of what happened on Fountain. All details of Antecessor anomalies in the simulation of the Origin. Make it public, Janks.”
“What good will that do?” said PT.
“If there’s one thing big business hates, it’s open competition,” said Ubik. “The more they fight with each other, the easier it’ll be for us to get ready.”
“Get ready for what?”
“Oh, I have some ideas,” said Ubik. “Some big ideas. But first, we have to get out of here. Better brace yourself, might get a bit rough.” Ubik closed his eyes and looked into the lights one last time. He saw Janks’ final message.
PT didn’t have a chance to voice his concerns about the plan before the ship exploded. It fragmented into numerous pieces, all different sizes, that went flying in all directions.
The ships that had been blocking their path had moved far enough away not to get caught in the blast but still temporarily lost their sensors as parts of the Nirvana hit the atmosphere over Enaya.
Meteors rained down in streaks, filling the Enayan sky with firey plumes of smoke for several minutes. An event that didn’t go unnoticed by the locals.
One of the sections landed in a barley field, the crops charred and vapourised by the impact. A panel in the side of the dodecahedron opened and two figures scrambled out of the crater.
“Look, mud,” said Ubik. “Lovely, squelchy mud. Land and sky and gravity. I missed you all, I missed you all so much.”
“Where are we?” said PT.
“No idea,” said Ubik. “But we’re alive. And somewhere, Fig is in a lot of trouble.”
“How do you know that?”
“Grandma told me.”
“She’s here? Or did she speak to you in a dream?”
“Kind of. She’s been broadcasting since she got here. I saw the message on the Nirvana, once I managed to close my eyes. Seems things aren’t so rosy down here, either.”
“What about Tezla?” said PT.
“Safer than us. They’ll come pick her up and crack her open like an egg.”
PT looked up at the debris still falling from the sky, and then at the wide-open fields surrounding them. “No dinner waiting for us at the Ollo residence, then?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Do you have any money, by the way?” He peeled the skin off his arm. “I did have some but I don’t think it’s working anymore. Smells a bit off, too.” He sniffed the strip of fake skin and made a face. It had lasted surprisingly long, for one of Drimbo’s hack jobs. He threw it away.
“If I hand you in for the reward,” said PT, “I’ll be a millionaire.”
“They’ll pay you in VendX tokens, and then ban you from their shops,” said Ubik. “But I like the way you’re thinking. This way.”
“How do you know it’s that way?” said PT.
“We’re on the ground now, space boy. Just follow my lead and you won’t go wrong.”
PT shook his head and grimaced. And then he followed.
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