Cairo-3998 aka Planet Challenger
Daring City — Guest Hub
The Plu-Ton bar became very quiet once the guards arrived. They were all eager to see what would happen to the violent offenders who had broken the city’s very strict code of conduct. In Ubik’s experience, the more corrupt the city, the bigger the deal they made about law and order.
The screens on the walls flickered as someone new broke into the top ten, their achievements ignored. Everyone was too focused on the real action. Ubik guessed they were hoping to witness some form of resistance, followed by some sort of beating.
“Come on, let’s go,” said the lead guard. “I don’t want any trouble. Let’s keep this nice and friendly.”
“I want justice,” screamed Zola in an unfriendly manner. His buddy was sorrowfully nursing his severed metal limb like it was his dead child.
“And you’ll get it once we put them in front of a magistrate. Now please step back.” The guard waved his rifle in a brushing motion, like it had a broom attachment on the end.
“It’s one of the automated magistrates, isn’t it?” said Ubik. “You’re not denying it. Why can’t we see a human magistrate? We’re allowed to request a human, I saw it in the guidebook.”
Ubik had no idea if there was a guidebook for a place like this, but he wouldn’t have read it even if there was. The pages would probably be stuck together.
“They’re absolutely impartial,” said the guard.
Ubik threw up his arms in dramatic fashion. “We’re doomed. They’ll lock us up and toss away the key. We might as well fight our way out and take our chances.”
The guard seemed a little nonplussed. “It’ll probably just be a fine.”
“See?” said Ubik, fingers thrust into his hair, eyes as big as possible. “You know we’ll be found guilty already. What’s the penalty for killing the guy? I mean, if we’re going to do the time, might as well do the crime.”
The crowd were starting to get excited as they saw a potential clash between the three nobodies and the might of the city guards. Who didn’t love an underdog in way over its head? A flurry of bets were being made.
“You’re overreacting a bit, aren’t you?” said the guard.
“Overacting, more like,” said PT, but under his breath. Ubik heard him, though. Always a critic.
“Alright, that’s it,” said the guard. “All of you, back to your tables.” He waved a hand and the drones flew over the crowd, releasing a fine mist.
Everyone rushed back to their seats, hands over their mouths, coughing and choking, but also smiling and hugging each other. Whatever was being sprayed, it was an effective way to defuse the situation.
“Where did you get those from?” said PT as they were escorted out of the bar.
“What?” said Ubik.
“The goggles and the mask.”
“Came with the suit,” said Ubik, uncovering his mouth. No point swallowing happy chemicals when he had stuff to do.
They were both wearing gear they’d got from the guild, with the guild insignia.
“Maybe you got a duff one,” said Ubik. “Should have been nicer to the guild officer. Costs nothing to be polite, you know.”
“I was polite,” said PT.
“You were a bit short with him,” said Fig.
“Whose side are you on?” said a dismayed PT.
“Ubik’s,” said Fig. “For the health benefits, same as you.”
Outside the bar was a square surrounded by other bars and eating establishments. They were in an enclosed artificial environment for off-worlders. A mixture of tourist accommodations and facilities for pleasure-seekers. Vice for a price.
There was a reddish tint to the light that made it very hard to use any sort of laser-guided targeting system. Ubik liked the ambience. It was his kind of town.
Across the square, there was a large, official-looking building. Lots of columns and statues of famous people Ubik had never heard of. It was where the magistrates resided. It was where Ubik wanted to go.
The four guards very smoothly guided them through a set of automatic double doors and onto a moving platform which carried them forward along a pinkish corridor to another set of doors. No effort was required.
“Wait in there until you’re seen,” said the guard.
Before he had finished speaking, a second set of doors opened in front of them and the guards moved to the side as the three of them carried on. It deposited them into a narrow room where a transparent, faintly pink shield of light appeared on each side of them, including behind, blocking their way out.
They were squeezed together in a very small area, with Ubik in between the other two.
“Do you think this is where he meant to put us?” asked PT.
“Definitely,” said Fig.
On the other side of the light in front of them was a raised plinth. It looked like a square block of stone. Beyond it, there was a large metal door that looked very secure.
The top of the plinth opened as a bronze sphere rose out of it. It looked like a featureless head.
“Case 2-3-6-9 in session,” said a calm, neutral voice. “Disorderly conduct, unauthorised use of an augmentation organic, destruction of private property. Video surveillance footage has been examined. Legitimate use of force acknowledged.”
“Objection,” said Ubik, raising his hand.
“Objection against what?” asked the sphere. “These are just the evidentiary findings.”
“The evidence is inadmissible,” said Ubik. “Illegal surveillance. Privacy laws take precedence over safety concerns.”
“One moment,” said the sphere.
“Ubik,” said Fig, “I think he was about to find us innocent.”
“I know,” said Ubik. “See the door back there? It leads to the Antecessor site. This is our ticket in.”
“I have reviewed your objection. Objection overruled. No audio was captured, privacy laws were not breached. Your fine will be restricted to administration charges for—”
“Wait, hold on,” said Ubik. “Do you have the original software architecture for a RZ-8 or the second generation upgrade?”
There was a slight pause. “Original.”
“Identify serial number.”
“What are y—”
“390 dash 404 dash 711.”
Ubik nodded. “Good. 675 dash 322 dash 121. Respond.”
The cube shook. “Entering maintenance mode.” The cube sank back down into the plinth.
The three of them stood in the pink box of light.
“How does this help?” asked PT.
Fig tentatively put out his hand and touched the pink wall, then knocked on it with his knuckles. It was solid.
“This is interesting. Don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of material before.”
“It’s called dwarfcum,” said Ubik.
“There’s no way that’s what it’s called,” said PT.
“Don’t be childish,” said Ubik. “It’s just a name. It’s unique to this world. Produced by the special electromagnetic field generated by the planet’s core. Indestructible, supposedly.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” said PT.
“Of course. I do my research. You’ve got to be thorough and precise if you want to avoid mistakes.”
“Yes, well, you really seemed to have immersed yourself in dwarfcum,” said PT.
“I have,” said Ubik. “The Antecessor site here is almost entirely made of it. It’s what enables them to change the difficulty level of the Dungeon. They can lock off certain parts and make it different every time you enter. Infinite configurations.”
“They can control it?” said Fig.
“Only down to the fourth level. The fifth is impenetrable. They’ve been trying to break through to the next level for years.”
“Don’t we need to get past the fifth?” said PT.
“Yeah, but we have you two.” Ubik pointed at the glimmering pink wall. “Try opening a gap.”
PT looked where Ubik was pointing and then put his hand on the pink wall. His eyes flickered with gold light. A second later, the wall shattered into pink dust.
“What the hell happened?” said PT, sharply pulling his hand back.
“Wasn’t me,” said Ubik. “I didn’t touch anything. You’re the one in trouble. Pretty, isn’t it? Like fairy dust.”
“Shouldn’t we leave?” said Fig.
“No,” said Ubik.
“But the door…” said Fig, pointing at the door leading to the Antecessor site. “Isn’t that where we need to go?”
“Yes, but he’ll be here in a minute.”
“Who?” asked PT.
“The boss. Head honcho. Guy that runs the place. Mister Big—”
The door was flung open, slamming into the wall, and a very, very short man, flanked by two security guards with rifles drawn, stormed in.
“How did you do that?” he bellowed. “How did you do that?”
He was glaring furiously up at PT.
“Um, it was an accident?” said PT. “I thought the dwarfcum was indestructible. Sorry.”
“What did you call me?” The short man’s face grew bright red.
“Oh, wait, it was elfidium,” said Ubik. “Can’t believe I got that mixed up.”
“You did that on purpose,” said PT.
“Tell me how you destroyed the elfidium right now,” said the short man. “Right NOW!”
“We can’t do that,” said Ubik. “But, if you take us down to the fifth level, we can open the way for you so you can get to the next level. Be nice after all these years, no? Our fee is very reasonable.”
The man stopped shouting and even stopped glaring. “I see. You don’t want to give away your leverage. I understand. Very smart. Kill them. Use your elf sticks.”
The two guards stepped forward, dropping their rifles so they hung over their shoulders, and pulling out short rods.
The rods lit up as long pink blades emerged from them.
“If you won’t tell me how you did it, I’ll make you show me.”