The ship shook and rattled as they flew towards Castle Corum. The noise of the jet engines, and the air screaming around the hull, made it hard to hear anything under a shout.
“You want us to commit a crime so they’ll put us in their dungeon?” said Point-Two.
“Not just any crime,” said Ubik, grinning from ear to ear, “something so terrible, they have to put us in their worst possible cell, deep, deep under the castle. The one reserved for degenerates and psychopaths.”
To be fair, he had every right to be confident in his plan. If anyone could arrive on a new world, not know anything about the people, and violate their sense of decency purely by instinct, it was Ubik.
The three of them were sitting close together on a plain bench inside the small jet vessel while the soldier, who was the only other passenger, stood at the other end, holding onto a strap hanging from the ceiling.
The soldier hadn’t said much. He was acting like an escort who had no personal investment in his mission, more interested in whatever was going on the inside of his helmet.
Point-Two expected he was in constant communication with the pilot or maybe his commanders at the castle. The big, stone castle that had looked like something out of a fairy tale.
And with a dungeon under it that Ubik was convinced would lead them to the planet’s core.
“They might just lock us up in a regular prison,” said Fig.
“It would have to be something they’re going to find truly unacceptable,” said Point-Two.
“Guys,” said Ubik. “Guys, this is me. I’ll make sure they won’t just find it unacceptable — they’re going to have to put us in their deepest, darkest cell so that the lynch mob can’t get to us before the public execution.”
Point-Two had a moment of discomfort as the possibility of Ubik accomplishing this task too well flitted through his mind. They wanted access to the dungeon, not a swift burial in an unmarked grave.
“Well, you better get started,” said Fig. “They knew where to find us, which probably wasn’t by accident.”
Point-two looked over at the soldier, who was all but ignoring them. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a firearm on his waist, but neither was positioned for quick use.
The ship had turned up pretty quickly, though. They may have noticed a fluctuation when the three of them arrived. Which meant they would have questions.
“You think they’re going to give us a hard time?” said Point-Two.
“Yes,” said Fig. “The low key approach was to check we weren’t a threat. They can afford to lose one ship and a couple of guys. They’re going to have a lot more questions once we land.”
“No worries,” said Ubik. “I’ve already thought of something. Leave everything to me.”
Point-Two couldn’t help but tense up as Ubik stood and made his way towards the soldier.
The soldier swivelled his body and casually put a hand on the butt of the gun on his belt. It wasn’t a threatening move, just a place to rest his hand.
“Hey,” said Ubik. “Thanks for the ride.”
The soldier nodded. “Just doing my job,” his distorted voice filtered out through his helmet.
“Lucky you found us so quickly,” said Ubik, grabbing one of the straps, which was a little high for him and forced him up onto his toes.
“This ship, is it liquid fuel?”
The soldier’s visor went up, revealing a pale, freckled face. “What?” Without the visor in the way, his voice was high-pitched and slightly whiny.
“This ship,” said Ubik, pointing down at the floor, “it runs on liquid fuel.”
“Yes,” said the soldier, nodding. “Why?”
“I think there’s a leak.”
The soldier shook his head vigorously. “Leak? No, no. No leak.”
“I have a very sensitive nose. I can smell…” Ubik sniffed at the air. “Napthosene?”
The soldier looked alarmed. “Napthosene, yes, that’s what we use.”
Ubik sniffed the air again. “Just a whiff, but it’s getting stronger.”
“Are you sure?” said the soldier, sniffing left and right.
Point-Two and Fig had slid along the bench to get closer, so they could hear, but the soldier was projecting his voice enough for them to see how panicked he was.
Point-Two had never heard of napthosene. Most ships were solid-state and didn’t require refuelling. He had little knowledge of fuels made specifically for atmospheric flying, but judging from the soldier’s reaction, it wasn’t something you wanted leaking out of your fuel tanks.
“Yeah,” said Ubik, swinging from side to side. “I used to run a rig with a nappy engine back home. It eats away at the tubing, that’s the problem. They don’t like to make it public, bad for sales. You better tell the pilot to check.”
“No pilot,” said the soldier. “Automated flight controls.”
It seemed they hadn’t wanted to risk losing a pilot, so they had sent out an automated ship with one man who they considered expendable.
“Run a diagnostic,” said Ubik. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
Point-Two had never heard Ubik sound so calm and reasonable, but for some reason it was making the soldier more flustered.
“I… I don’t know how. I only joined the Air Force last week. This is my first flight on one of these things. I better contact—”
“No, no,” said Ubik, sounding flustered himself, “don’t activate your comms. The smallest spark could cause autoignition. Lucky we haven’t been blown to bits already.”
“Ah, sorry, sorry.”
“No problem, no problem, you’ve probably got a…” Ubik began to turn the soldier around, prodding and patting his clothing. “There should be… Somewhere around… Ah, here.”
Ubik suddenly produced a battery pack from a pouch on the back of the soldier’s belt. He pulled out a wire.
“We should be okay for now. But if we don’t do something, we’re going to turn into a fireball on landing.” He sniffed again. “It’s getting worse.”
The soldier sniffed too. “I think I can smell it now.”
Ubik looked around. “What we need to do is… ah, there.” He moved to the wall behind the soldier and pulled at a section so a panel came off, revealing a board of wires, switches and lights.
It looked quite primitive to Point-Two. Castles, antique wiring, liquid fuel — this was a very strange planet.
“No, no, no, this isn’t good,” said Ubik, pulling out wires. “We have to minimise everything.”
“We aren’t supposed to touch that,” said the soldier.
“I know,” said Ubik. “But this is an emergency. We have to dump the fuel.”
“Dump the fuel? But—”
“Do you want to blow the castle up? The auto-pilot is going to come in like normal, and everyone on the landing pad is going to be incinerated. And once it gets ignited, the tanks will go next, then the whole castle.”
“The whole castle?” said the soldier.
“Very low flash-point, napthosene,” said Ubik. “Don’t worry, I’ve done this before.”
He began pulling out more wires and unscrewing knobs.
The side of the ship slid open, letting in more noise as the air whistled in and out of the cabin. The ship tilted to one side, making everyone except Ubik grab onto something so they wouldn’t be thrown out.
“What are you doing?” screamed the soldier.
“Have to make sure we don’t drop the fuel on any civilians,” said Ubik.
Point-Two stood up and grabbed a strap so he could see down at the fields below. They were a sea of gold, the tops of the crops rippling as the ship rushed past. There were no people he could see.
“Looks clear,” shouted Fig, who was standing next to Point-Two.
“Okay, here we go.” Ubik pulled a small lever and ran his hand down the board so every switch was flicked down.
Twas a loud whoosh, that turned into a roar.
Below them, everything looked distorted for a moment, like they were looking through a heat haze, and then the ground ignited.
It was sudden and extreme, a wave of blue flames that rushed out and across the land, moving incredibly fast in every direction, consuming everything in its path.
The golden fields were vaporised in an instant, and then the next field, then the next. The destruction showed no signs of stopping. There was some sort of chain reaction going on, and even fences and small groups of trees were instantly turned into ash.
The soldier’s mouth was open in horror. “What… What happened?” he managed to ask in a strangled voice.
“Looks like those crops were modified for high-yield alcohol production,” said Ubik. He leaned forward — his feet seemingly glued to the floor — and peered out of the open siding. “Looks like this year’s harvest is going to be a little light.”
There was nothing but charred ground as far as the eye could see.
“Ahhh, ahh.” The soldier was having trouble breathing. “Corum Control, come in.” He banged on the side of his helmet. “This is Corum-five-two, do you read?”
“You might need to reconnect this,” said Ubik, holding up the battery pack he had removed earlier. “Should be safe now.”
The soldier grabbed the battery and made a meal out of reconnecting it, almost dropping it out of the open door. As soon as he got it plugged back in, an irate voice came booming out of his helmet.
“Corum-five-two, come in. What the—”
The visor came down sharply and a heated conversation appeared to be taking place.
“Do you really think burning a few stalks of wheat will do it?” said Point-Two.
“A few stalks?” said Ubik. “That heat-flash isn’t going to stop until it hits a mountain range or the sea. And if they genetically modified the fish like they did the crops, all there’s going to be is an ocean full of barbecue, no need to add salt.”
The soldier quietly slumped to the floor and didn’t speak again.
They reached the castle a few minutes later. The soldier was still silent, his visor closed.
Close up, the castle looked exactly how you might picture a castle, with battlements and towers, flags and turrets.
And a crowd of uniformed people waiting on the roof.
They came into land with a hundred guns pointed at them. The gun barrels followed them down and were kept pointed at them as they disembarked.
Ubik stepped off first, hands raised.
“I surrender. It was my mistake, I accept my punishment.” He lowered his arms and held out his hands. “Lock me away.”
The landing pad was completely surrounded and the atmosphere was hostile. Basically, a normal reception for Ubik.
No one made a move towards them, but as soon as the soldier exited the vehicle, he was pounced on by four men and dragged off, screaming and shouting, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.”
Then a tall, angry-looking man came through the crowd, in a slightly fancier outfit — shinier with bigger buttons down the front, but no weapon drawn. “Who are you? Who sent you?” he barked at them.
“Quiet, Levitan,” said another, shorter man, giving the first man a stern look. He was older, with a white goatee beard and long white hair coming out of a green helmet, wearing an even fancier uniform. “I’m General Hobbes, commander of this fortress. There’ll be a team from Rome here in an hour to question you, until then, you are our guests.”
His presence had a calming effect on everyone else, but his eyes were piercing and Point-Two was sure he suspected them of not being what they seemed. He was being cautious and would be hard to fool.
He didn’t order anyone to lower their guns, so Point-Two took ‘guest’ to be a euphemistic term. Which was what they had hoped for.
“Rome?” said Point-Two, out of the side of his mouth.
“Capital city,” said Fig.
“Once they arrive,” said Hobbes, “we’ll find out exactly how this accident happened. Take them to the guest quarters.”
It seemed like they were going to be treated carefully, just in case they were important people or had a powerful backer. Point-Two wasn’t surprised — a planet like this couldn’t afford to get on the bad side of the really influential forces in the quadrant.
But that wouldn’t get them to the core.
“Oh, it was no accident,” said Ubik. “It was all planned.”
“What do you mean?” said Hobbes, eyes narrowing.
“The destruction of your crops is only phase one,” said Ubik, sounding menacing and diabolical. He was overdoing it a bit, in Point-Two’s estimations. “Yep, all part of the rebellion.”
“What are you talking about?” said the irate man called Levitan. “This is Romeo. We are the breadbasket of the quadrant. There’s no rebellion here.”
“There is now,” said Ubik. “We’re here to end your thousand years of slavery and corruption. Wealth should be shared. Long live the revolution!” He shouted it like he expected a chorus to join in. No one did.
“Take them to the dungeon!” said Hobbes, his mood souring noticeably at the mention of shared wealth.
“Perfect,” said Ubik, spreading out his arms in welcome as the crowds closed in and pushed the three of them to the ground. “Make me a martyr. See how that plays on the galactic broadcasts.”
“We aren’t connected to the galactic broadcast network,” said Levitan. “Take them down.”
Their hands were bound with what felt like manacles — not tronics, actual metal bracelets. Then they were lifted up and carried off.
Ubik had been as good as his word. He had got them thrown into the castle’s dungeon. Now they just had to hope the core was down there somewhere, but things had gone surprisingly smoothly so far.
“Stop,” said General Hobbes, his frown deepening as he tugged on his beard. “Not the dungeon. Take them to the torture chamber.”