Ubik sat on the roof of a hurtling mag train watching the lights from the train windows bounce around the tunnel.
The subway was solidly constructed, about 10 metres wide to allow trains to go in both directions, and had no stops for people to get on halfway through the journey.
Ubik had not simply jumped on the trains as it rocketed through the tunnel at blistering speed — that would have been suicidal. What he had learned to do was tap into one of the junction boxes which were regularly spaced throughout the tunnel, and send a signal to an approaching train that there was debris in the tunnel.
This on its own wouldn’t do anything — the trains were designed to smash any foreign objects into tiny pieces — but combined with an additional signal that there was a train approaching from the other direction, it would get the train to slow down just enough for Ubik to be able to drop onto the train’s roof from a maintenance shaft. His Delgados gave him excellent grip.
Back when he was just a kid, Ubik had made his way from the city to Collection Zone E4-Jericho through this subway. It had been a long walk, that was about all he could remember.
Since then, he had used the subway many times to hitch a ride to the city. Food and drink were not easily found in the junkyard and when they were, it wasn’t advisable to consume them. He usually made shopping trips to the city about once a month. This would be his last.
Lying on the outside of a mag train travelling at 500 km/h put him in a vulnerable position but it wasn’t the speed that worried him. He lay on his stomach, facing the rear of the train, keeping an eye out for pursuit. If the scavs caught up to him here, he had nowhere to go. Once he was in the city, though, it would be easy to disappear, he just had to hope the organic he’d encountered didn’t have a speed implant.
The train pulled into Silon Central. Ubik spread out his body and did his best not to slide down the smooth shiny roof as the rapid deceleration slowed the train. Then he slid off the side and landed on the platform, immediately heading for the exit. The first people emerging from the train gave him some curious looks, mildly surprised by his appearance ahead of them, but they had no time to worry about where he’d suddenly appeared from. They passed him and surrounded him and then he was just another commuter, lost in the sea of people, drowning out his presence with numbers and noise.
The barriers at the end of the platform scanned everyone, checking their chips automatically. Ubik didn’t have one, but that didn’t raise any alarm bells, the sensors just didn’t see him.
The station concourse was packed with people, none of them in the slightest bit interested in him, even though he was dressed like a mechanic covered in grease and dirt, while they were in clean casual wear, colourful and crisp. His look meant he was a menial worker — even more reason to ignore him. He felt invisible here, which made him feel safe.
The station exits were large archways with no doors, but it felt like he was passing through some kind of portal as he swapped the air conditioned atmosphere for Silon City’s warm, dry, tangy air.
It was the smell that hit him first. In his bunker, the air was simple and always the same. Here, there were a million different scents that combined to create the distinct smell that filled him with nostalgia whenever he came back. And always four or five brand new smells he couldn’t identify. It was the new smells he would find overwhelming for the first few minutes.
He moved quickly, crossing traffic without paying much attention to the warning honks. The vehicles were all automated, their passengers doing business or making calls behind tinted glass in the back. The fuel cells in any of these vehicles could have powered his entire setup for a week, everything turned up to max.
The buildings had grown taller and the streets cleaner. New politicians were always promising to clean and build. Sometimes they even kept their word. And then they would be caught in a scandal and a new guy would come in. Rinse, repeat.
Large electronic billboards high in the air flashed colourful advertising messages that meant nothing to Ubik. He kept his eyes at street-level, his few possessions closely guarded.
Even when it changed, the city was the same. It was still noisy and smelly and full of people who would walk over you without a second thought if you tripped and fell.
Ubik slipped through the busy sidewalks, ignoring the shops with their garish signs and shiny lights. You could buy whatever you wanted online and have it delivered to your home (as long as your address wasn’t under a giant heap of rubbish) but people still preferred to go shopping for some things.
Ubik preferred to shop at less showy places, where you could negotiate a price and pay by less traditional means.
His first destination wasn’t too far from the station, a small shop in an alley, next to his second destination, the recruitment office for the Free Volunteers Guild.
The owner of Drimbo’s Parfumerie looked up from behind his counter as Ubik entered.
“Ah, there you are, Ubik. Today’s the big day, huh?”
“Yes, Mr Drimbo. Today is the day.”
The shop had a very different smell from outside. Drimbo’s sold incense and perfumes. Heavenly odours with odd names. Ubik had no idea what jasmine smelled like or what the scent of the sea in autumn was, but you could buy it in a bottle or as a time-released spray. There were, however, no customers. There never were or, at least, Ubik had never seen one. Still, Mr Drimbo was at the counter every day so business had to be doing alright. Not necessarily the perfume business but business nonetheless.
“Well, this is all very exciting. Who would have thought little Ubik would one day grow up and go off-world on his adventures? To tell you the truth, I had my doubts you would even grow up.”
Mr Drimbo was a short man with a beautiful head of coiffured black hair that he had only acquired recently. It was hard for Ubik to not still see him as bald, just with a hairy hat.
“Do you have my stuff?” asked Ubik, making his way to the counter through an ever-changing miasma of sweet odours.
“Of course, of course. You think I don’t have my contacts anymore? I can still get whatever a man needs, no questions asked.” He brought out a long, thin box from under the counter, grinning with perfect teeth, also fairly new. “What do you need it for, by the way?”
Ubik smiled. “You know what I need it for. Question is, does it work?”
Drimbo rolled his eyes and opened the box. Inside was a short strip of translucent skin. It looked like something he’d peeled off the underside of his foot.
“Show me your arm.”
Ubik rolled up his sleeve to the elbow and held out his arm palm up. Drimbo carefully applied the strip to his forearm like a plaster.
“It doesn’t really match,” said Ubik.
“What do you mean? It’s flesh tone.”
“Not my flesh.” The strip was slightly darker than Ubik’s pasty skin.
“Better keep it facing down, then,” said Drimbo. “Would be safer to get it implanted.” He took a scanner out from the big baggy pocket on the front of his overalls. He ran it over the strip and then held up the screen.
“I doubt I’ll keep it that long,” said Ubik as he examined the screen. It identified him as Ubik U. Ubik. The picture of him was bland and unremarkable, an everyday drone of the Epsilon workforce. He had two thumbs up, but not because he was happy having his picture taken. All official ID photos required thumb prints, and showing them in the picture was the easiest way. “Nice.”
“I’m not sure about the name. The point of a fake ID is to be fake, not use the name you normally go by.”
“I like my name.”
“It’s a bit odd. You don’t want to stick out. People are going to notice a weird-ass name like that.”
“You’re the one who named me that.”
“As a joke. You just looked like a little ubik when you were a kid, all over the place, everywhere at once. You could have changed it.”
Ubik kept reading the screen. It gave a list of identifying features, which were mostly accurate, and some background information, which entirely wasn’t. “You put yourself down as my emergency contact. As my uncle.”
“Looks suspicious if you have no social connections. Makes you look like a bot. More realistic if there’s a regular bona fide citizen on there, someone who can vouch for you being a human.” He smiled generously, which made Ubik suspicious. “And you know how it is with the FVG, they could run a background check.”
“There’s no insurance payout if I die,” said Ubik.
“There is if you die with valour. I looked it up.”
“Fair enough,” said Ubik as he rolled down his sleeve. “If I die with valour, you can be my sole beneficiary.”
“Sole what?” shrieked a voice from the back. “He isn’t sole anything. Half is mine, whatever it is.”
A woman came waddling out from the room behind the counter. Her heavily-dyed blonde hair in rollers, her tatty housecoat open, revealing a thin frame in a short nightie stretched to its limit by two large breasts. They seemed to have grown since Ubik’s last visit. Same vendor as the hair plugs, Ubik guessed.
“Hello, Lexi,” said Ubik.
“Don’t ‘hello, Lexi’ me,” she said, puffing on the smoke stick hanging out of her mouth, the smell of legal drugs in an illegal mixture overpowering every other scent in the shop. “My back’s killing me. Eeeeh.” She winced as something clicked in her neck. Her eyes lit up and the tips of her hair stood up around her curlers. Then the lights fizzled out and her hair returned to normal, if a little frizzier. “Damn these bogus organics you put in me. Damn them, damn you and damn this pain in my back.”
“What do you mean? They’re one hundred percent bona fide real. Cost me a fortune. I wouldn’t give you counterfeits, darling.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going out to get some doughnuts. For me. All for me.” She waddled out of the shop.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Drimbo. “Eats like a pig and never puts on any weight.” He sounded very proud. “And still a demon in the sack.”
Lexi had been a stunningly attractive woman when Ubik worked for Drimbo as a child. Now all the work she’d had done was showing and the makeup to hide it was too thick to go unnoticed. He did believe she was a demon in the sack. She was a demon everywhere.
“That’s great. Here.” Ubik took out a bunch of debit chips in poor condition, some with blood and skin still attached, and dropped them in a pile on the counter. “There should be enough on all these.”
“Hey, hey, I’m a legitimate businessman these days. I don’t handle dead people’s chips. Strictly legal and by the book.”
The chips could be found all over the collection zones if you looked hard enough, usually empty or containing very little credit. The money was still legal tender if you could get it out (which was the illegal part).
“But we agreed! I don’t have any other way to pay you.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Calm down, this one’s on me, kid. I know, I know, getting soft in my old age. Just remember old Drimbo if you ever strike it rich.”
It was odd seeing this little old man be so uncharacteristically generous. He had been a smuggler, a thief, a gang leader when Ubik first met him, and a vicious thug. But he had retired and now he was a businessman. Although ‘legitimate’ was pushing it. This place was a front for something, Ubik just didn’t know what.
“Okay, thanks. One more thing. Can I use your shower? I need to look like a regular bona fide citizen for my interview.”
“Sure, kid. Just don’t make a mess. She hates it when I leave the toilet seat up, and she really hates it when I get so drunk I take a dump on the floor. He he, women, so sensitive.”
“Okay,” said Ubik, feeling a little sensitive himself. “I won’t do that.”
Drimbo let Ubik into the room behind the counter and gave him a pat on the back. “Don’t get the strip too wet. No, no, it’ll be fine. It’s water resistant, just not waterproof.”
The bathroom was up a narrow flight of stairs. It was small but clean. No sign of any surprises on the floor. Ubik locked the door, turned on the shower, opened the window and climbed out.
The FVG building had thick metal pipes running up its walls, bolted on by large rivets that made for perfect handholds. Ubik jumped across and began climbing.
The roof was flat and had markings to show it was a designated landing pad. There was also a power conduit to refuel any aircraft. Ubik took out his toolkit. Time to start his pre-interview preparations.