In his mind, Point-Two was sure that Ubik wasn’t going to lead them on a suicide mission on behalf of the people of Soros.
The problem was that what seemed like a fact in your brain did not always translate into actual facts in the real world.
You head off into a den of frenzied women-haters, pretending you’re on their side and willing to die for the chance to see the brazen hussies eat the big one, fully intending to slip away and do your own thing... but before you know how it happened, you find yourself strapped to a rocket with twenty thousand megatons of explosives stuffed into your jockstrap. Seneca HQ, one-way ticket, please.
The real world had a way of interfering with the best of plans — even those designed to save it from destruction — and this was definitely the real world, he was certain of that.
Antecessor simulations were far superior to the human ones he had experienced but they still had a different feel from reality. Now that he had experienced them a couple of times, he was becoming attuned to that difference.
This was real and if Ubik got them killed — he would obviously find a way to save himself, that went without saying — then they would be dead for real.
“This way, this way,” said the man who was taking them to meet their doom. He was walking briskly ahead of them, occasionally glancing back to make sure they weren’t having second thoughts and smiling delightedly every time he saw they were still with him.
“He said it was a suicide mission, Ubik,” Point-Two said, just to make sure Ubik was aware of it.
“I know,” said Ubik. “They’re my favourite kind. I’ve completed dozens of them.”
There was a moment where Point-Two considered asking him what he considered to be a successful suicide mission, but he would probably only be upset by the answer. He turned to Fig, who had his eyes glued to his control panel as he tried to gather as much information on the planet as he could while there was still time.
“Do you have any information on how to get to the planet’s core?” Point-Two asked him.
Fig shook his head. “Nothing on here, just lots of news reports and gossip. Grandma has some odd tastes. I assume it has to be underground, but how to get there…”
They were led up some stairs, passed various offices full of frantically busy people, and towards an elevator guarded by a squad of men in grey uniforms, all armed and using small clicking devices to take readings.
The man, who still hadn’t introduced himself — probably because there was no point — waved at the guards who immediately brought out what looked like a silver lab coat and held it for him to put on.
They had more shiny coats for the men with him, but they were waved away.
“They won’t need them.”
“Yes, Director,” said the lead guard, handing the director a datapad. The silver coats were taken away.
“Here,” said the director, putting white stickers on each of their chests. They had the word: ‘Guest’ printed on them. “That should be all you need.”
Then he walked straight into the elevator, which was waiting with doors open, turned around and stood erect with a satisfied smile on his face.
Once the three of them were inside next to him, the doors slid closed.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said the director. “Years we’ve been planning this. I thought we’d have to wait even longer for an opportunity, but here we are… You’ll have everything you need before you go. Full training, time allowing.”
“Robot helpers?” asked Fig.
“Oh, no. Won’t need anything like that.”
“AI-assist?” asked Point-Two.
“Bad idea. We don’t want the Antecessors or the Seneca Corps hijacking our systems. That’s how they operate, use your own tech against you. No, we need men controlling this mission. The only way.”
“Last meal?” asked Ubik.
“Sure. Of course. What would you like?”
Ubik smiled and proceeded to list a range of different sandwiches, many of which Point-Two had never even heard of.
“Ah, okay, no problem. We could offer you something more substantial.”
“No, sandwiches should be fine,” said Ubik. “Could you cut the crusts off?”
“Yes, of course.”
The numbers over the lift doors went all the way to ninety-seven. It was an express elevator and they reached the top floor quickly, and then kept going.
The doors opened onto the roof, where a large scaffold had been erected around a rocket ship that looked more like a missile. A host of people dressed in heavy protective gear made out of the same silver material the director was wearing, but covering their head, hands and feet, scurried around it, moving machines into place, attaching pipes that spewed out plumes of white smoke that quickly evaporated.
Around them was the city, every other structure dwarfed by the one they were standing on top of.
The rocket was around thirty metres in height, with a plain silver outer skin and four fins near the base. A small opening at the bottom was just about big enough for a grown man to crawl through.
“There she is,” said the man, his eyes glittering. “Completely undetectable and packed with enough explosives to destroy a small moon.”
“Hmm,” said Ubik, looking the rocket up and down. “You’ve coated it in lidanium nitrate.”
“That’s right,” said the man, his eyes widening and his voice going up. He looked at his datapad. “It doesn’t say in your notes that you were a chemist. Just an excellent pilot.”
“Oh, I dabble a little, that’s all,” said Ubik. “Must have taken a long time to collect that much lidanium. It’s super rare, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right. But it didn’t take long at all. It just took a lot of money.” The man chuckled to himself.
“So you want us to fly that thing into the middle of whatever’s going on up there and blow ourselves up?” said Point-Two.
“More or less,” said the man. “You agreed to it, yes?”
“Oh, definitely,” said Ubik. “Anything for Soros.”
“Good, good. I could understand cold feet, but this really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to strike a blow for our liberation.”
“Once in a lifetime for us,” muttered Point-Two.
He was still waiting for Ubik to reveal how being on the roof of the tallest building in this city was going to get them to the core, which was presumably somewhere under the planet’s crust.
“And how are you going to power it without using any sort of ignition?” asked Ubik. “Even with the lidanium coating, any launch will be detected by the Corps’ sensors.”
“You’re absolutely correct,” said the man, beaming. “I can see you’re the right men for this job. You ask all the right questions. As it happens, we’re standing on top of the solution to that problem. Come with me.”
He walked confidently through the people in protective clothing towards the rocket. More white smoke wafted around them. It had a distinct aniseed smell to it that made Point-Two feel hungry. At least Ubik had ordered some sandwiches — not that he would share any of them without a fight.
As they neared the rocket, it became apparent there was a hole under it. They went right up to the edge and looked down.
“This shaft goes right through the building and down to the planet’s core,” said the man, enormously pleased to be sharing this information. “It took us the best part of a decade to dig it.”
“You’re going to drop the rocket into the hole,” said Ubik. “The lidanium will repel the magnetic core.”
“That’s right,” said the man. “It’s going to bounce right out again and whoosh!” The man sent his flat hand soaring into the air. “Won’t appear on any of their systems. You’ll have a free shot at the bastards. They’ve kept us all down for too long.” His chest was swollen with pride.
He proceeded to tell them about the marvellous cloaking effects of lidanium; the special attributes of the explosives they were using and how they were designed to get past the Seneca Corps’ shielding; and the huge financial implications when other planets realised the power Soros now held over the rest of the quadrant.
The focus, Point-Two noted, was very much on the Corps and not really on the Antecessors. It was a focus bordering on obsession.
The director conveyed all this with a sad, grateful smile indicating how unfortunate it was that none of the three pilots would be here to see the fruits of their sacrifice.
Point-Two would have been quite concerned about the mission, if it hadn’t been for the mention of the planet’s core. That was where they needed to get to, and here was a direct flight, no ticket required.
He wasn’t sure how they were going to stop the ride to get off, but he was confident Ubik would have a way. He caught himself being too relaxed in his confidence, and doubled his vigilance.
It wasn’t enough for Ubik to find a way, he had to make sure he also got off the rocket at the same time. He certainly didn’t want his last memory to be seeing Ubik through the ship’s window, waving goodbye.
“Anything else you’d like to know? We’ve got about an hour before launch.”
“Yes,” said Ubik. “You said something about sandwiches?”
“Of course, of course. The least we can do for our heroes. This way.”
They were taken to a small building, not much bigger than a shed, with a window framing the rocket. Numerous consoles and screens filled up one half of the small room.
There were also some seats towards the rear, and some grey spacesuits covered in transparent film, as though they had just been returned from the cleaners.
“If you’d like to get changed into these, I’ll see to your last… to your lunch.”
Once they were on their own, Ubik started looking around, taking off covers and unscrewing knobs.
“You have a way to stop the rocket flying out of the core, right?” asked Point-Two.
“No,” said Ubik as he peered into a bunch of wires he had just pulled out of a console. “But I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
“It’s a pretty good plan they’ve got here,” said Fig, looking out the window at the rocket. “I think it would have a decent chance of success, if they weren’t completely overlooking the presence of the Antecessor fleet.”
“I don’t think they really care about that,” said Point-Two. “Their only concern is your mother and her friends. People really hate the Corps.” It was something of an understatement, but it was still impressive how violently opposed people were to being told what to do by a bunch of militant women.
“Yeah, but—” Before Fig could finish his thought, there was a loud commotion from outside.
“I tell you, I’m Gibson Carter. Look, here, read it on my pilot’s license. You can read, can’t you?”
It sounded like someone was very angry and also not used to being treated with anything other than the utmost deference.
“I’m sorry, sir, there must have been some kind of mistake…”
“Of course there’s been a mistake. And when my father learns of your incompetence, you’ll all be reassigned to the Wide Sector for retraining. Now, get me the director while I deal with these impostors. Now!”
Ubik slammed back the covers he’d prised open and leaned on a console in a casual manner.
The door to the shed opened and a large, muscular man with golden hair and blue eyes came storming in, his fists clenched by his sides, with two more men who looked to be about the same build but one with dark hair and the other a more mousey blond.
“So you’re the ones trying to steal my glory, are you?”
“Us?” said Ubik. “No. We’re here for the free sandwiches.”
“Very funny,” sneered the new arrival. “Very amusing. Trying to steal my thunder. I won’t allow it! Do you have any idea who my father is?”
“Hey, don’t feel sad,” said Ubik. “I don’t know who my father is, either. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means our mothers were probably very drunk at the time.”
The real Carter leaned back to get a better look at Ubik. “Did you just cast aspersion on my mother’s character?”
“No, I don't think so,” said Ubik, smiling. He turned to Point-Two. “Did I?”
Point-Two did not want to get involved and shook his head in as non-committal manner as possible.
The blond man’s eyes flared up and turned red.
“Hey, hey, no organics inside city limits,” called out the director, arriving carrying a large platter of sandwiches. “Not near the explosives.”
The glow from the blond’s eyes faded. “You’re lucky this time.”
“People keep saying that, but I don’t really see it,” said Ubik.
“Director,” said the real Carter, “why are these men here? I was assigned this role, I have the documentation to prove it.”
The director waved his hands in a conciliatory fashion. “A simple misunderstanding, I’m sure.” He put down the tray and checked his datapad.
“Yes,” said Fig. “Computer error, I think. Our Carter is also an excellent pilot and volunteered for this role. I would guess the central processing department messed up, like they usually do.” He nodded in a knowing manner at the director, who began nodding back.
“Yes, there was that scandal… it is entirely possible, if you have similar names and abilities.”
“What similar abilities?” shouted Carter. “I’m the best pilot in the quadrant, ask anyone. And between us, we have the most powerful organics on Soros. Including one that creates short-term invulnerability.” He looked at his mousey friend, who nodded back confidently. “You think you can match that? What does your organic do?”
“Me? Oh, I don’t have an organic,” said Ubik.
“You don’t… Director, please!”
“Ah, no, it isn’t really…” The director seemed to be having an awkward moment.
“Oh, I get it,” said Ubik. “You think you’ll be able to survive by using his organic when the rocket explodes.” Ubik shook his head sadly.
“Of course,” said Carter. “And we’ll return as heroes, revered by all.”
“No,” said Ubik. “Director?”
“Ah, probably not,” said the director.
“What do you mean?” said Carter. “You have no idea how powerful—”
“The explosives on the rocket are designed to take out the Seneca Corps, who have some of the most powerful organics in existence,” said Ubik. “You don’t think they’ve got a few invulnerability-type organics among them?”
Carter looked at the director, who nodded sombrely.
“We wouldn’t survive?” said Carter.
The director shook his head in equally sombre fashion.
“Er, Gibson, maybe we should let them do this,” said Carter’s dark-haired companion.
“Erm, yes, maybe you’re right,” said Carter, his attitude making a sharp reversal.
“Great,” said Ubik, taking as many sandwiches as he could hold in his hands and mouth at once, leaving behind exactly two. “We should get going, shouldn’t we? The planet’s rotation won’t be in the right position for long.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the director, looking amazed.
“And I need to make a few adjustments,” added Ubik in between munches.
“To the seats. Make them comfortable for the trip.”
“Oh, right, of course. Absolutely. You haven’t put on your spacesuits.”
“Hmm, no,” said Ubik. “Won’t really need them, will we?”
“No, I don’t suppose you will.”
“You’re really going to do this with no chance of returning?” said Cater, somewhat awed.
“Of course,” said Ubik. “For Soros!”
“For Soros!” responded the three ex-volunteers.
Point-Two stopped himself from saying anything and grabbed a sandwich before Ubik took a second helping.
Within the hour, the rocket was ready to be launched. The director watched the ship disappear as it was dropped into the shaft.
This was the culmination of his many years of work. His legacy would be eternal — the man who ended the Seneca menace forever.
The launch went off without a hitch. The volunteers — whether they were here by mistake or not — really were the ideal candidates. Their Carter was not only incredibly knowledgeable but also helpful in ironing out a few details that had been left unsolved. Nothing major, but it was good to know the chances of success were even better now.
Everyone on the roof waited for the rocket to come hurtling back out of the shaft.
They waited and they waited, but the ship never reappeared.