Daccord walked at a steady pace with the Chairman’s large hand firmly clasping his shoulder. This was their third tour of inspection around the hulk of the VGV Summer Sail since they’d crash-landed on this strange island inside the Tethari Wormhole.
An island that shouldn’t even exist.
The Chairman had decided he would take personal charge of the mission, even though for as long as Daccord had worked for him, the Chairman had taken every possible step to avoid being seen by his employees, let alone interact directly with them.
Protecting his identity, his location, those closest to him, was paramount. Corporate espionage was a constant threat. Corporate assassination even more so. And that was from within VendX. Once you included competitors and rivals, it was an act of sheer irresponsibility to ever go anywhere in person. Share prices were likely to plummet every time you were seen in public in anticipation of an imminent death.
He wore dark glasses, big oblong things that covered half his face, but once you saw the man, you were unlikely to forget him. No one would have trouble picking him out of a lineup.
He was tall and very wide. There was no fat, he was too solid and upright; like a walking wall. He was bald, which was obviously by choice when you could have as much hair as you wanted simply by sticking your head in a VendX Style Maker™. Not that anyone as wealthy as the Chairman would bother with something as cheap and tacky.
The dark glasses would normally supply a constant stream of data directly into his brain, enabling the Chairman to easily navigate without help, but tronics were dead here. On the ship, on their suits, all of their equipment.
“How is the mapping of the island going?” asked the Chairman. There didn’t seem to be any urgency to his question, but Daccord knew better than to fall into such a simple trap.
“Most of the lower half is complete. It is a little difficult coordinating without any communication devices but fortunately, VendX has always relied on small teams working independently to get results. I fully expect all teams to succeed with their missions, if a little slower than normal.”
“Hmmph,” snorted the Chairman. “I want pay docked at the usual rate if any team fails to return in the time allotted.”
It was a little unfair considering the situation at the moment — without the use of any tronics, teams would have to rely on themselves and their wits. Daccord knew exactly how many people on the Summer Sail could produce results under those circumstances and it was not a high number.
Nor did it help that they had lost so many of their crew. Not even a fifth remained, and it wasn’t like he got to choose who lived and who died. If he had, there would be quite a few faces currently in the area who would not be.
“Yes, Mr Chairman. We will not compromise VendX standards.”
“Good, good. I want the whole island searched thoroughly and any other survivors found. We need to know our environment if we plan on making this place bend to our will.”
“Stop, let me get my bearings,” said the Chairman, squeezing to indicate Daccord should pause here, the Chairman’s large, powerful hands crushing Daccord’s shoulder through his spacesuit which was meant to be able to withstand extreme levels of pressure. “The tower is in this direction?”
“Yes, sir.” Daccord looked up at the tall structure in the distance. “The tower is directly ahead at the top of a rise, about a kilometre in this direction.
“Hrrrr,” growled the Chairman. “The survey team you sent over there hasn’t returned yet?”
“No, sir. Not yet.”
Teams had been sent out in all directions to gather intel. Only a few survivors remained, moving gear and supplies from inside the ship to a makeshift base far enough away so that they would survive an explosion. The ship had half-buried itself in the ground and there was no telling if one of the systems was about to go critical or if the ground was about to give way. They had no sensors and no computer assistance. They were as blind as the Chairman.
The Chairman cocked his head to one side. Daccord peered at him over his shoulder, wondering what he was listening for. He trusted the Chairman’s judgement — he was contractually obliged to and had no choice in the matter, but he genuinely considered him an exemplary leader. Decisive, astute, ruthless. Those attributes were valued in all professions, from world leader to kindergarten teacher. But they were in a very problematic and challenging situation, with no means of communication and no way to escape.
“Someone’s coming,” said the Chairman.
“Oh?” said Daccord, looking around. “Which direct—”
“Coooeee!” called out a carefree voice. Daccord followed the sound until he spotted a figure bounding down a slope towards them, passing through teams of busy Vendx employees who just watched without making any move to intercept the man. It was understandable. Wanted men rarely walked into the enemy camp waving their arms and shouting ‘Coooeee!’ at the top of their voices.
“Is he one of ours?” asked the Chairman.
“No, sir,” said Daccord. The man wasn’t wearing VendX apparel, but that wasn’t what suggested he wasn’t on Vendx’s payroll. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s him. The man you’ve been looking for. Mr Ubik U Ubik.”
“You’re sure?” the Chairman’s normally composed voice betrayed a little excitement.
“Looks exactly like the photo we have on file.”
“Is he alone?”
“No, sir. He’s with our Stability and Maintenance Guru, Ogden Bashir.”
“He’s been caught?” The Chairman sounded even more excited.
“Not exactly. He appears to be coming to us of his own volition, with SMG Bashir in tow.”
The Chairman growled again, the rumbling passing down his arm and into Daccord’s shoulder blades.
“Does he look dangerous?”
“He looks… enthusiastic.”
“Be careful, it may be a trap. Call for a security detail.”
Daccord quickly looked around. They were severely limited on manpower, even more so when it came to specialist teams. He waved over a few people he recognised from the ship’s Protect and Serve Department.
“Weapons are all inoperable,” Daccord mentioned in case the Chairman had forgotten.
“Tell them to use their rifles as clubs if they have to. I don’t want him getting away. Hrhrhr.” His growling turned into a grim guttural laugh. “No tronics turns out to be a good thing for us. He can’t use them against us. Still, be on your guard, he’s a crafty one. Act like we don’t know it’s him, he’ll be much easier to capture alive. It has to be alive, Daccord.”
Six men came over. Daccord’s quick hand signals told them what to do. They produced their weapons and held them like the blunt instruments they now were.
“Hey there, fellow maroonees,” said Ubik, jogging into the midst of them with no concern for his own safety.
Bashir ran in behind. “SMG Bashir,” he said slightly out of breath. “VendX PF345, reporting in.”
“Good work, Bashir,” said Daccord. “I take it the rest of your team’s been decommissioned.”
“Yes, Mr Secretary. I think Major Chukka might have survived, but I’ve lost touch with her.”
“You,” said the Chairman. “How did you get here?”
“I was in freefall,” said Bashir, “but Mr Ubik had his own—”
“My own brush with death,” said Ubik, putting his arm around Bashir, who flinched and looked frightened of the friendly hug. “This is certainly not a place to take lightly. If we don’t watch out for each other, we’re all dead, isn’t that right, Ogden?”
A look passed between the two of them that Daccord didn’t miss.
“Ah, yes, of course,” said Bashir, beads of sweat forming on his temples and trickling down the sides of his face like misplaced tears.
“You want to look after this little guy,” said Ubik, looking up at Bashir. “Not his fault he lost teammates and equipment and his will to fight. You guys aren’t going to charge him for all that, are you? You’ve lost so many people, you’ve already saved a bucketload of wages for this financial quarter.”
“He will be treated fairly, by the rules of our company,” Daccord said to Ubik. Bashir inwardly groaned. “But you, Mr Ubik. You owe us a great deal according to our records..”
“Oh, I owe you a lot more than that,” Ubik said cheerfully. “Hey, Mr Chairman now is it? They promoted you, did they? Hard to believe after the balls up you made of that job we did together. You must be a hell of a brown-noser to come out of that fiasco with the keys to the executive bathroom. A master.”
Daccord could feel the trembling transmitted from the Chairman’s hand to Daccord’s shoulder. He was ready to release the full extent of his pent up fury after a couple of minutes in front of this human red flag, but he was holding back. Daccord was sensitive to the Chairman’s killing intent — he had to be to survive in his employ for so long — but he had never sensed it this strong.
If the Chairman blew his top right now, the results would not be helpful. Daccord was fairly certain of this. And the clean up would be a pain. So much for acting like they had no idea who he was. Mr Ubik was apparently only too happy to jog everyone’s memories.
“We have a grand opportunity to cooperate, here,” said Ubik, smile unwavering. “We’ve done it before, and everything went smoothly, as I recall.”
“Yes,” said the Chairman, chewing on the word. “For you. I lost my eye and the merchandise you agreed to hand over. You… what did you do with it?” The Chairman’s voice was ice cold.
“Do with what?”
“The merchandise,” the Chairman said through gritted teeth.
“Eh? I thought you guys took it. I was proper mad, I can tell you. Absolutely livid. All that work, all the planning, the training, the risk assessment forms you insisted on filling out… and then your guys mess everything up. Very unprofessional. Still, I don’t mind giving you another chance. Clean slate, what do you say?”
“Clean slate,” the Chairman said, the parts of his face visible around the dark glasses rapidly turning crimson with rage. “Clean slate? You stole the cube and disappeared. And left me blind! You will give it back immediately. Where is it? Where!?!” He had lost it. Only death would follow now. The man had made a valiant effort to tolerate the brat who had robbed him of his sight, but in the end, he was still only human. Daccord prepared himself for the inevitable, and hoped the blood would splatter away from him.
Ubik shrugged. “No idea. Search me if you want, but I think we’ve got bigger problems right now. And bigger rewards, if you know what I mean.”
The Chairman went from steam-spewing boiling kettle to a pot of mildly bubbling confusion. “No, I don’t know what you mean.”
“This place, it’s a vault. A treasure trove. Somewhere hidden and hard to get to where the Antecessors kept their most valuable and prized possessions.”
Silence descended on the small group surrounded by a slightly bigger, armed-with-inoperative-weapons group.
“And how do you know this?” asked Daccord.
“How do you not?” countered Ubik.
“He believes this is a prison facility,” said Bashir, his voice squeaky with nervousness. “That’s what he said earlier.”
“Of course it’s a prison. A prison for treasure. I mean, what kind of things do Antecessors keep locked up? Droids, organics, weird alien lifeforms that dig into your flesh and suck out your lifeblood.” Ubik scratched his arm, which Daccord noticed had a strange and very ugly bracelet attached to it. “They never threw anything away, right? The weapons they feared the most, the technology they couldn’t control, the secrets that ripped them apart, it all had to go somewhere.” Ubik spread out his arms. “Welcome to the Island of Lost Wonders.”
“And what do you intend to do with all this wealth you plan to liberate?” asked Daccord. “We have no power source and no way to leave this place.”
“No problem. The technology jamming tronics here has to have a power source, can’t operate for free. Once we find it, we can use it to power whatever we want.”
The hand on Daccord’s shoulder loosened its grip. Then the fingers began drumming restlessly. The Chairman was considering what Ubik had said. He was weighing up the chances of there actually being a huge payout of some kind here somewhere, even though they had no way to leave this place.
If it was a prison, then they too were prisoners.
“And you want to work together,” said the Chairman.
“It’s a big place,” said Ubik. “Be a lot quicker to explore everything, if we had more people.” He looked past the group at the people scattered about. “This all of them, is it?”
“We have thirty-two people currently on standby,” said Daccord. Most of the VendX survivors were off exploring this new land under the Chairman’s orders. There was no need to give away exact numbers. There were thirty-two here now, and the Chairman was apparently willing to let Ubik have them. What was he thinking?
“You must have some decent stuff on the ship,” said Ubik. “We could use some defensive gear — the good stuff, not the prefab bargain basement stuff you knock out for the rich and gullible. Even if they don’t power up, the extra protection will come in in handy for the lower levels.”
“The lower levels?” said the Chairman. “You don’t even know how to get to the first level.”
“Oh, that’s easy enough to work out.” Ubik looked around. “Yes, I agree”
“Agree to what?” asked Daccord, a little confused.
“Didn’t you just say we should check out that tower?” said Ubik.
“Me?” said Daccord. “No. I said nothing.”
“Really. I was sure…” Ubik looked at Bashir. “You heard him, right?”
Bashir shook his head.
“Hmm. Maybe I’m sending myself messages from the future. Sounds like the sort of thing I’d do. I need a small team, that’s all, help me check out what we’re dealing with. My old friend, Ogden, of course. Can’t go anywhere without him. And a couple of buff fellas would be nice.”
“Aren’t you just looking for fodder to use as meat shields?” asked Daccord.
“No, certainly not. The tower will let us in and then we’ll scope out the place pronto, and then we’ll get out with whatever we can carry. Piece of cake.”
The Chairman growled again but a lot quieter this time. “Very well. Until we find a way off this pile of trash, we will work to our mutual benefit. You will repay what you owe.”
“Sure, fifty-fifty split. Got to be fair, right? That’s your company motto, isn’t it? VendX — A fair deal for everyone.”
“No,” said Daccord. “That phrase has never appeared as part of our marketing strategy.”
“Oh, my mistake. Must be I’m thinking of something else.”
“Mr Secretary, Mr Secretary.” A man in VendX uniform came running towards them, urgency in his voice. “Sir, sir, we’ve located a group of Seneca women, six kilometres in that direction, on the other side of the tower structure.” He was very excited and breathing hard.
“How many?” asked Daccord.
“Seventeen, that we were able to see, but, but…” He was bent over trying to catch his breath. “Sir, we also spotted Ramon Ollo with them. He… ha, ha… he entered the tower and disappeared. Looked like he found an entrance to some sort of underground facility.”
“Aha,” said Ubik. “Looks like Ramon’s already a step ahead of us. Do you still want to stand around quibbling? Come on, let’s go. If we don’t hurry, all the loot will be looted.”
“Daccord,” said the Chairman. “Give him six men and send a second six-man team as back-up.”
Daccord quickly organised the VendX employees who were best suited to the task and gave them instructions, some overtly, others through hand signals. A few minutes later, Ubik was being led to the external armoury to choose appropriate gear. He was being given a free hand and very favourable terms; for now.
“Do you think we can trust him, sir?”
“Of course not,” said the Chairman. “Start building a confinement room in the middle of the base and move all the mental realignment equipment there.”
“But we have no way to power it,” pointed out Daccord.
“Didn’t you hear Mr Ubik? He’s going to find us a power source. And then we’ll use it to power the ship he’s hiding to leave this place, but not before we extract every last scrap of information from that warped brain of his. After which I will very gladly kill him. A prison full of treasure, hmmph. This will be his prison forever.”