Central Authority Vessel Nirvana
Ubik’s head hurt. It wasn’t exactly painful, it was more of an irritating buzz. He found that if he hummed at roughly the same frequency, he could cancel it out, somewhat. A simple enough solution if it hadn’t been for the mask strapped to the bottom half of his face.
The mask covered his jaw, chin, mouth and nose. It prevented him speaking or opening his mouth. Yodelling was completely out. Whistling, too. However, it didn’t prevent him drooling from the corners of his mouth. Especially when he hummed.
He closed his eyes and kept humming. And drooling.
Ubik was seated in a chair. Really in a chair, like, inside it.
The chair was white and made of a smooth polyfibrous material, the same as the rest of the CA ship. It had armrests which encased Ubik’s arms up to the elbow. It had three legs — two at the front and one at the back. The two at the front encased his foot, ankle and calf. He could wiggle his toes a little, but if he got an itch, agony.
They had even confiscated his Delgados. It was taking things too far. They were bespoke, fitted to his exact measurements. Were they even looking after them properly? Humid conditions played havoc with the genuine lab-grown leather. Weren’t there conventions against that sort of thing?
Still, Ubik was glad to have ended up here. The ship itself was amazing. He would have gladly spent a few hours poking around, checking things out. A few hours? A few days was more like it. There was so much to see, so much he had never seen before.
How did it work? What powered it? What were the different systems and how did they interact?
His head buzzed again, right in the middle of his skull.
It was the strange coloured lights that had done it. They had appeared on the cell walls and flashed in some kind of pattern. He had assumed it was an attempt to read his mind or hypnotise him into revealing everything. Hardly necessary — they could have just asked and Ubik would have told them whatever they wanted to know. It wasn’t like he was trying to hide anything. Open-Book Ubik the kids used to call him, he decided.
But these big organisations preferred to act like everyone else was as shady as they were. Which, admittedly, was usually true.
But the strange lights hadn’t tried to extract information from him, they had inserted information into him. A lot of it.
The message, the very long message, had been from the Central Authority to Guardian Tezla, and it had been poured directly into the centre of Ubik’s brain.
He hadn’t been expecting it and the shock of the deluge had caught him a little flatfooted. He assumed it was a mistake. The drone in the cell with him, hovering in the corner, had activated the lights, Ubik was fairly sure. The drone, Janks, had seemed a little bored up to that point. Babysitting a prisoner was probably tedious work, far below what the drone was capable of. In fact, it had seemed a little annoyed with the assignment.
Not that drones were generally prone to exhibiting emotions but, like this ship, the drone was unusual. He wouldn’t say no to poking around inside the drone, either.
Ubik winced. Flashes of the message appeared in his thoughts. It wasn’t a language in the traditional sense, there were no words, but somehow he could sense a flow of ideas, concepts, instructions.
The missile that had been sent to destroy planet Fountain had been the most prominent part of the message. Even now, Ubik could see an image of it in his mind — long and thin, black and covered in white markings that streaked up and down its surface. Clearly Antecessor technology.
It had exited from the Gideon wormhole, the closest to Fountain, but the message had been more concerned with where the missile had come from. Nowhere.
It had exited at Gideon, but there was no evidence of it entering the wormhole from anywhere in the four quadrants. Did that mean it came from outside of the galaxy? The wormhole network was contained and finite. It had been fully mapped and only existed inside the four quadrants as far as anyone knew.
Did that mean the missile had been deployed from inside the wormhole? Were there more such missiles waiting to be launched? Ubik could see why the matter would be of concern to the CA.
He had also picked up flashes of the recovery operation, CA drones sent to investigate the debris left behind after the missile struck the VendX flagship — not that there was much left — and the VendX drones arriving. Some sort of altercation had taken place between the two parties, but it wasn’t clear to Ubik what the outcome was.
What he could feel very clearly was the pressure on Guardian Tezla to procure answers. The Central Authority wanted to know exactly what was going on and who to hold responsible. The emphasis was on evidence, the irrefutable kind. She had been given a limited amount of time to find answers, with the full resources of the CA available to her. But there were more Guardians being activated. Did the CA set their operatives in competition with one another?
Ubik opened his eyes and saw dark blotches everywhere. They weren’t in the cell with him, it was his eyes getting accustomed to the brightness of the white walls.
“Can you turn down the walls?” he said, which wasn’t easy without being able to open your mouth.
The drone, a circular tray about half a metre wide and maybe 10cm thick, blinked and turned to look at him. The drone didn’t have eyes, not in the traditional sense, but it was definitely looking at him. Glaring, even.
“Please don’t try to communicate, it will only make you more uncomfortable. We will soon rendezvous with a Central Authority collection vessel, the Hand of Friendship. It will transfer you to the nearest holding facility where you will be fully debriefed. You may make your protestations of innocence then. The Central Authority will take good care of you, no need to fear torture or a slow, agonising death, no matter how well-deserved.”
The drone was definitely irritated. Being stuck down here with him was a lowly task beneath its function. Punishment for allowing Ubik to nearly breach the ship’s security protocols? Did it blame him for its undoing?
His scalp twinged. There had been something in the message about his transfer. Null void, that was how he was referred to. More than his name or his identity as a person, that was how he was now classified. Ubik had no idea why that should be so important. His lack of CQ gave him no special abilities or power. Quite the opposite.
“I need the toilet,” said Ubik. It came out as a string of unintelligible noises.
“Whatever it is you require, know that your biological functions are all being observed closely. Nutrients, water and air are being provided at an optimal rate. Excretions and waste will be removed as and when necessary. Muscles will be kept stimulated to avoid atrophy. Your body is being treated better than it ever has been.”
The seat of the chair was wrapped around his thighs and groin area, but he had his clothes on. How was he supposed to relieve himself? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“Quite the merry dance you led us. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so bold in over a century. Quite the achievement.”
The drone was definitely pissed off. If Ubik could speak, he would have commiserated. It was never fun being unfairly treated by those in a higher position than you. It was why going into business for yourself was so attractive, despite the travails of the self-employed — no healthcare, no days off, scavs trying to kill you for picking up a 32K compressor unit off the shell off a retired refrigeration module.
The walls flashed. Not like the message before, this was an internal announcement. They had arrived… somewhere.
It was an interesting form of communication. The only thing Ubik knew about the CA was that they were based in the First Quadrant, the dead quadrant. Apparently, tronics didn’t work there. Was this how they got around that? Flashing lights at each other like some ancient semaphore. It didn’t explain why he was able to understand it. If he had some innate ability to learn this language, maybe it would be a good idea to do so. Once he picked up some headache pills.
A sharp sound cut through Ubik’s thoughts, in the most visceral way possible. If he hadn’t been attached to the chair he probably would have fallen out of it.
“VendX Depot 4 welcomes you to the Genbazi wormhole. How may we assist you?”
The voice was in Ubik’s head. Did nobody use good old fashioned radio frequencies to talk to each other anymore? The forced messaging probably meant they were making a point. This was their turf. But to act that way towards a CA vessel…
Ubik’s body went cold. This was a VendX facility. Did they know he was on board?
“Prisoner Ubik, why are your readings dropping?”
Ubik had no idea what the drone was talking about, or why it was asking him. He couldn’t reply even if he wanted to.
“Central Authority vessel Nirvana, we are complying with all Central Authority requirements. Please prepare for standard scanning for infected software.”
There was a conversation going on that he was only hearing half of. VendX were blasting their side at maximum level. As a passive-aggressive way of letting their displeasure known, it was a little light on the passive and a little heavy on the aggressive. As a means of covering whatever it was they were up to in the background… remained to be seen.
Back on the Motherboard, Ubik had tried his best to identify himself as Chief Engineer Ulanov, but PT had let his real name slip a few times. One of those times had been in front of Chukka. If she had included it in her report — and chances were high that she had — it could have got back to certain people. Certain people in the VendX executive who held onto a grudge.
Ubik had clashed swords with VendX a long time ago. He had been very young, very foolish. He wasn’t very young any more.
This was bad.
“Guardian Tezla, the prisoner is experiencing major fluctuations in biometric readings. Guardian, respond.”
“VendX control will comply with all requests, Guardian. As soon as scans are complete.”
The Guardian was busy arguing with the VendX dispatcher. They were trying to stall. This was very bad indeed. And there was nothing Ubik could do about it. He felt a bit dizzy.
“Override restraint protocols, open gag.”
The covering over Ubik’s mouth slid aside and he was able to breathe freely. “Ooh, that’s better. Thanks, Janks.”
“Why are your vitality readings crashing?” demanded Janks.
That had been in the message — keeping Ubik alive at all costs. They wanted a live subject to run their tests on. Janks didn’t want to screw up again. Not even drone’s had job security in this economy.
“Because I’m scared,” said Ubik. “They’re going to gank us.”
“Attack a CA vessel? That’s ridiculous.”
“Why? I did.”
The wall in front of Ubik turned into a screen. The wormhole was a pit of darkness surrounded by the glitter of stars and the VendX fleet. Thousands of ships, ugly and blocky, functional and nothing else. Overnight delivery to any part of the quadrant. Not standard overnight — that was only for X-ecutive members, a paid subscription service. But relative overnight was still pretty quick.
“Attack detection is zero,” said Janks. “No hostile intent.”
“They don’t attack openly. First they knockout—”
There was a blip. A white point of light that could have been a star at the opposite end of the universe quietly going supernova.
The white walls turned a dull grey. Janks’ light had gone out. The drone was silent. Ubik’s restraints opened and he floated out of the chair. The artificial gravity was off.
Everyone had been knocked out or was dead. The restraints would only automatically unlock if he was on a dead ship. Prisoners or crew couldn’t be left captive in a dead ship, there were laws against that sort of thing, Central Authority laws. The supplies would be open, too.
Pretty cocky of VendX to take out a CA ship. Obviously, they meant to hide what had happened, blame someone else. This was all planned in advance. But why hadn’t the knockout flash affected him? Was this the power of the null void?
Whatever it was, Ubik was on his own, on a ship full of alien technology. VendX would be coming for him. He had better get ready. But first, he would find his boots.