VGV Executive Order
Daccord stood on the bridge of the VGV Executive Order, looking at the huge screen that covered the wall. It displayed an image of subspace, a mesh of coloured streaks that seemed to merge and warp like a drug-fuelled trance. It was hypnotic and soothing, in a way. No indication that they were speeding through the fabric of space itself, crossing the galaxy via its underbelly.
An amazing achievement by mankind and also the slowest possible way to traverse such large distances other than donning a spacesuit and walking.
The Antecessors had created a means to cross the stars in a fraction of the time, and they did it before mankind had even set foot outside their own backyard. A network of wormholes controlled by means both mysterious and astonishing. The ability to open up a path to anywhere in the galaxy, and also to shut it down.
All in all, Daccord would have preferred to be back in his office, on the ground. Coming all this way to watch the Chairman pursue this obsession served no purpose. Not one of any value.
Daccord turned to find an officer in full dress uniform standing next to him. He was a young man with bright eyes. Eager to impress. No doubt hoping to get a chance to meet with the Chairman and win some kind of shortcut to the top. It was the right idea, but now was not the time. The Chairman was not in the mood to make careers. Ending them, though, was another matter.
“Yes? You have the latest reports?”
“Yes, sir.” He handed Daccord a pad. The information was off the record, no official file would exist outside of this secure data reader.
“The Tethari wormhole is still inoperative?”
“Affirmative. We’re seeing a lot of activity from other companies, though. They’re all making their way to Enaya via subspace from the nearest open wormhole. Mostly small squadrons. Central Authority ships are holding the perimeter. We don’t think they’ll allow anyone onto the asteroid before we get there.”
“Our arrival is still on schedule?”
“We should get there in the next three hours, standard.”
“Good. And the Captain? How is his recovery coming?”
“I…” The officer looked away. “He’s doing well. The M-Aid has reattached his arm. It should… the prognosis is for a full recovery.”
“Excellent.” Daccord turned off the datapad and turned to leave. “You have the bridge.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Daccord left the bridge without making eye-contact with the rest of the crew. They wouldn’t have met his gaze in any case. They were still on edge after the Chairman’s display of anger. Most of them were focused on not screwing up their jobs or they might get the same treatment as the Captain. And some were too busy pushing their performance to new heights, excited by the prospect of a possible vacancy at the top and a promotion for the person who showed they were made of the right stuff.
If only climbing the corporate ladder was that easy.
Daccord was a cautious man. He chose his goals carefully and only acted when he was completely sure of success. Until then, he was happy to provide the best service he could for his employer. It was a comfortable life and a very rewarding one, financially speaking.
Daccord took the elevator to the hospitality blister, a secure part of the ship reserved for the Chairman and his party. If Daccord didn’t handle this situation right, he might end up as a member of the Chairman’s party, and that would be the end of that. A mindless plaything to be used as and when required. He shivered involuntarily.
The elevator scanned him twice before opening its doors. Guards stood to attention on either side. A third stepped forward and scanned him again with a handheld device.
“Clear.” He stepped back to allow Daccord through.
Four attempts had been made on the Chairman’s life during Daccord’s time working directly under him. Probably several more before that. The guards on duty at those times managed to deal with the threat. Not all of them were considered to have acted quickly enough. They no longer served on this detail. They were in the Chairman’s party.
It was a precarious position to be in, the CEO of a major corporation like VendX. Some of the bigger Megacorporations were a little more secure and stable. Removing a leader wouldn’t change much. They had ways of ignoring death in the Heart of the galaxy. You had to do better than a hole in someone’s head.
But out here in the wild frontier — or the forgotten backwoods — there was still an unspoken code of conduct. You proved your worth by taking what you wanted to control. And then you defended it until someone better came along. It provided a natural path to the top for those who were capable of using that power effectively. You had to be a killer to lead. The other corporations would massacre you if you were anything less.
The doors to the Chairman’s suite slid open silently and Daccord entered into a darkened room with only the dimmest floor lighting providing any illumination — just enough to stop you stumbling over your own feet.
“We have entered the Third Quadrant, Mr Chairman.”
“What have you heard?” said the Chairman’s deep voice from across the room. It sounded like the voice of a large man, broad-chested, with a wide face. Daccord had no way of knowing how accurate his estimates were, having never seen him in the light.
“We are a little ahead of schedule, sir.” Daccord turned the datapad back on. “The other corporations in our strata have sent investigative teams as expected, but the Central Authority are holding them at the perimeter. Everything so far is within our projections.”
“You sound disappointed, Daccord.”
“In the projections being correct? Not at all, sir. I would expect nothing else. Your presence here, though…”
“I will be present to see the boy captured, or killed.”
“Yes, sir.” Of course he would. The Ubik boy had been an obsession with the Chairman since the incident on planet Epsilon-416. Planet Garbage. The boy had ruined the Chairman’s plans for a takeover of the planet. One that would have netted him a personal fortune. Instead, he was left blind. A fact known to only a few.
“Any superior threats?”
“No, sir. None of the megacorporations have moved troops out of the Heart. Either they don’t know about the asteroid or they don’t—”
“They know,” growled the Chairman.
“Yes, sir. We haven’t been able to break any of the secure channels but the chatter on open lines suggests they are dealing with issues of their own. All the major Antecessor sites have been acting abnormally and everyone’s scrambling to retain control of their investments.”
The Chairman made a rumbling noise. “And what about our investment? Any word from Major Chukka?”
“No, sir. Nothing from any of her team, which probably means they have been neutralised.”
“She should have taken the whole fleet down there. Ripped the place apart.”
“I have to say I think she chose the wise course. It is still under Ollo ownership and a large show of force would have produced its own problems.”
“She should have dealt with the Ollo issue first.”
“Yes, sir. I wonder why you allowed such an inexperienced operative to take control of the mission.”
“You question my judgement, Daccord? Has it come to that already?”
“No, sir. I am trying to understand your choice so that I can better support its success. The PR department have very little to say about her, which is unlike them. I don’t think she has done much so far to elevate her in your ey… estimation. Not the sort of person I would have selected, but then I’m not in your position, so I would suspect it’s my judgement that is lacking.”
“You haven’t read her files?”
“I have read all of them. The ones I was able to access.”
There was a pause. Daccord read it as a sign of smug contentment, the kind produced by evidence of one’s own superiority.
“She is a sly one,” said the Chairman. “Her psych evaluation — the real one — indicates she may one day be your new boss, Daccord. If you’re still around after my demise.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed that to be so,” said Daccord, genuinely surprised. Chukka had not seemed remarkable in any way, the short amount of time he’d been exposed to her. An intersection with events and riding her luck seemed to have been most of it.
“She is young and still far from the finished product, but she has the tool-set to deal with someone like our Mr Ubik. Or be cut down before her prime.”
He sounded very much like he didn’t mind either outcome.
“You came to take control of the mission personally because you expect her to fail?”
“I hope for her to succeed, but yes, it is unlikely she will manage to in the time she has left. The Priority Fleet will take action once we arrive and there won’t be an asteroid left to bother with.”
It took a moment for Daccord to understand what the Chairman meant, and then it all made sense at once.
Chukka should have used the fleet instead of just a small task force because that would have prevented the fleet being used against her. The Chairman had never intended to take control of the asteroid or to extract Ubik U Ubik in a quiet and stealthy manner. The fleet was there to rain down destruction, and Chukka? There to take the blame?
No, that was too obvious. Something else, then. Something he was missing. And the attack on the captain of this ship, was that also part of this?
“Won’t the Central Authority stop our ships?”
“The Central Authority will not only welcome our decisive action,” said the Chairman, “they will thank us for it. You will see how it all comes together, Daccord, and you will marvel at the elegance of it. The terrible brutal elegance of it.” There was a deeper rumble, one Daccord rarely heard. The Chairman was laughing.
Guardian Onla arrived on the Central Authority command vessel in a foul mood. She had had to cross the entire quadrant to get to the planet when there was a perfectly adequate wormhole practically on its doorstep.
Yes, it was closed down, but the Central Authority had ways to override those blocks.
But no, not when the asteroid that controlled the wormhole belonged to Ramon Ollo.
They didn’t have the authorisation. So she had to schlep it all the way here through subspace. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if she had travelled at regular speed.
But no again. They needed her here immediately, so her ship engaged its hyperdrive engine and disengaged the stabilisers. A thirty percent speed boost, and a thorough bruising of all her internal organs.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, now she was faced with the sight of Guardian Horne, naked and dripping translucent goo.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked him.
“Need to air dry, just got it out of the packet.”
“I thought you were dealing with some kind of planetary disaster in Second.”
“I was,” said Horne, proudly displaying his wet and hairless new body. “All dealt with. How do you like it?” He turned a little to the side. “They got it out of the freezer just in time for my arrival.”
Onla nodded. “You’re still an idiot, I see.”
“Be nice, Onla,” said Horne. “Or I won’t let you have a go on it later.”
“Thank you for that image I will now have to have wiped from my brain. Thankfully we have the technology. Keep two metres from me at all times, alright? Someone dumb enough to transfer into a new body when they don’t have to is clearly going to make some bad decisions in a pressure situation.”
“It was the only way to get here quick enough to save everyone. Beamed my engram through the communication array. Eighty percent chance of losing all short term memory.” He grinned at her. “I have the best success rate of all the Guardians, you know.”
“You keep mentioning it so how could I not.”
“Without me, you wouldn’t… wait, what are we talking about?”
“Nobody needs you to save them. Tezla’s probably got this wrapped up by now, right?” She looked around the empty white room. “Ops 1?”
“Welcome, Guardians,” said a smooth, unruffled voice. “My apologies, I am receiving an update from the Council. New information is coming in at an alarming pace and all Guardians are being deployed.”
Onla shook her head. “And yet three of us are in this one spot for no good reason.”
“This has been identified as the origin of the disturbance,” said Ops 1, its tone entirely neutral.
“And Tezla?” said Onla. “Where is she now?”
“Guardian Tezla’s whereabouts are currently unknown,” said Ops 1.
“Isn’t that impossible?” Onla was very familiar with the Central Authority’s obsession with keeping tabs on its Guardians. Her own body was full of tracers and tags sending out signals.
“They can’t get any readings through the storm,” said Horne, still naked and showing no signs of getting dressed.
“Now what are you talking about? What storm?”
“On the asteroid. Some kind of wild hurricane across the whole surface. High winds, lightning, the whole shebang.”
She stared at him to see if he was joking. Horne was known to think of himself as a comedian. Always pulling pranks and saying irreverent nonsense.
“It’s an asteroid. It doesn’t have any wind. Or air.”
“It does now,” said Horne.
“What’s going on, Ops 1?”
“You are to proceed to the asteroid and recover the Null Void. All other matters are to be considered secondary. This is a direct order from the 36.”
Onla shook her head again, but slowly and more to stall for time than anything. Something about this wasn’t adding up.
Antecessor sites across the galaxy were acting oddly and the only thing the thirty-six great minds of the Central Authority were concerned with was some mutation in a boy called Ubik. She had read the reports and understood the implications, but Tezla was already taking care of it. What could the two of them do that Tezla couldn’t? The boy might be unusual but he still responded to a punch in the face the same way as anyone else, and Tezla had always excelled in that department, as Horne knew only too well.
“Got to be a pretty special case if he’s giving old Tez the runaround,” said Horne, rubbing his chin. “Still shouldn’t take too long with all three of us. We go in, grab what needs to be grabbed, and get out.”
“If it was that easy, they’d just send in a couple of drones,” said Onla.
“What do you think we are?” said Horne with a wide grin.
“Well, let’s get going then. Maybe you could put some clothes on?”
“Sure,” said Horne. “We’ll have to take your ship. I parked mine about 50,000 light-years from here.”
“Put on a battlesuit, full armoury,” said Onla.
“For a snatch and grab? Bit overkill, isn’t it?”
“Ops 1, give me thirty seconds of privacy mode.”
“For what reason?” said Ops 1, emotion creeping into its voice for the first time.
“I have some things I need to say to Guardian Horne of an intimate nature before we go on this mission from which we may not return. It’s embarrassing. So, please.”
The room dimmed.
“So, what did you want to tell me?” said Horne. “Like I couldn’t guess.”
“Have you read the file on the last time a Null Void turned up?”
“No. Does it have an interesting plot?”
“Yes, it’s a horror story. They gave a no-kill order that time, too. Millions ended up dying. We aren’t going to make that mistake. I’m all for learning about things we don’t understand, but they can cut him open and read his entrails. We’re going to take him out, understand.”
Horne nodded. “Sounds like a plan. But you know, they’ll get suspicious if we come out of privacy mode without some indication of intimacy.” He raised what would have been eyebrows if he had any body hair.
“You’re right.” She kneed him in the groin.
Horne doubled over in pain, gasping for breath. “Actually, this is probably more believable. Good thinking.”