VendX Depot 4.
Central Authority Vessel Nirvana.
The amount of information Ubik was absorbing was phenomenal. He could hardly breathe. The coloured lights flashed and zipped and flickered across the cell, across the walls, over the ceiling, along the floor.
He knew how many ships were out there, how many crewmembers each held, what kind of weapons, what was in the cargo hold, what was in the stores.
It was fascinating and mesmerising. The depot contained 1412 ships, 602 of which were loaded and ready to leave. But they weren’t going anywhere, all departures were on hold.
The Genbazi wormhole was closed for repairs, that was the official declaration by the VendX control tower. There were more details but it flashed by so quickly Ubik didn’t have a chance to assimilate it before the next vital piece of information forced itself into his head. The VendX Priority Fleet…
Ubik was violently jerked around to face PT. “I’m talking to you. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Ubik blinked. “Huh? Nothing. It’s a lot to take in.” His head was throbbing on the inside. His brain felt like it was too big to fit in his skull. He put his hand into his hair to see if there was any swelling.
“What about the self–destruct?” said PT.
“Huh? What about it?” It had been easy enough to download the information from the ship directly into his cortex but for some reason, he couldn’t make sense of what PT was going on about.
PT slapped Ubik’s hand away from his head. “Stop fixing your hair and focus. You said the ship was going to self–destruct. We’re on the ship, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. I know. It’s fine.”
“How is it fine?”
“The ship can’t send a signal out of the immediate area so it’s sending a short–range blast to the ships in the area warning them that due to being compromised the ship will clear a path for itself under General Directive One which it didn’t explain or if it did I missed it. Am I talking really fast? Feels like I am.”
“Yes,” said PT, “you are. How will it clear a path for itself if it destroys itself first?”
“I told you, it’s a modular ship. Sections will separate and use themselves as explosive charges.” Ubik took a breath. His brain seemed to have stopped fizzing. “I really don’t know how the Guardians can use those lights and not go crazy. It’s like every part of my head is stuffed full of information, and that’s just from a quick scan of the surrounding area.”
“So we won’t blow up?” said PT. He seemed fixated on that part.
“I don’t know. Depends if we’re in one of the modules assigned to going boom.”
“But it won’t blow up Guardian Tezla,” said PT. “If we’re in the same module as her, we should be safe, right?”
Ubik shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe. If she’s in a protective cocoon, a correctly placed explosion could be used to fire her off in the direction of safety.”
PT looked frustrated. Ubik was familiar with the look, on people in general and on PT in particular. “Try not to let it upset you. No point worrying about things out of your control.”
“Ubik, I think these lights have affected you mentally.” He was speaking slower now. Maybe he was feeling a bit lightheaded, too. “The Guardians probably have training to deal with it, maybe even some kind of filtering implant.”
“I feel fine,” said Ubik. “Completely chill.”
“Yes. That’s what’s worrying me. When was the last time you felt this laid back?”
He had a point. When he stopped to think it suddenly became obvious that something wasn’t quite right. For starters, he never stopped to think.
Ubik put his hand to his forehead. It was boiling hot. “You’re right. I think my brain’s on fire. Good thing I’m Null Void or I’d probably have cooked brain dripping out of my ears.”
“Can you use the lights to tell the ship not to blow up?” said PT.
“You want me to cook my brain?”
“I’m not saying take more in, I’m saying send stuff the other way.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. Send not receive. I don’t know how, though. Did you see how Tezla did it?”
“She spoke to Janks.”
They both looked down at the remains of the drone Ubik had stamped flat.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” said Ubik.
“Prepare for separation,” said a voice.
“Janks?” said Ubik.
“Wait,” said PT. “Janks, don’t.”
“Separation must take place before detonation,” said Jank’s voice.
“You’re alive,” said PT, looking at the drone’s remains.
“Destroying my primary build activated my backup.”
“As expected,” said Ubik.
“You liar,” said PT.
“Hey, come on, man. Be cool in front of the AI that has our lives in its hands.”
“Systems had been compromised,” said Janks, “… again.”
“Wasn’t me this time,” said Ubik.
“Diagnostics were still active so I was able to instigate an immediate clean reinstall.”
“Ah,” said Ubik, “so what you’re saying is that because I made you run a diagnostic sweep the first time, you were ready to go when you had to run it a second time. You’re welcome.”
PT groaned but said nothing.
“The Guardian is unable to fulfil her duties. We will follow protocol and clear a path to the wormhole.”
“Won’t work,” said Ubik. “They can’t let you go when you know they were the ones who attacked you.”
“There is no proof it was a deliberate attack,” said Janks.
“Then why blast your way out?” asked PT.
“Probability of VendX being responsible is 4.3%. The probability of VendX being intentionally responsible is 1.9%. Since the possibility exists, the most prudent course of action is to immediately withdraw and assess the situation from an objective distance.”
“Your calculations stink,” said Ubik.
“They are within statistical significance.”
“They’re even more within stink significance,” said Ubik. “VendX didn’t accidentally disable this ship. If you start randomly blowing things up, they’ll use it as an excuse to destroy the ship.”
“VendX currently don’t have the capability to damage a Central Authority vessel of this class.”
“They don’t have the capability to disable a ship of this class, either,” said PT. “But here we are.”
“If you assume the possibility exists,” said Ubik, “you have to act accordingly. If they could have the technology to leave us adrift, they could have the technology to—”
“You are allowing your emotions to influence—”
“Do you think Guardian Tezla would agree with your assessment,” cut in PT.
“The probability of Guardian Tezla following my advised course of action is… 0.5%. But that is always the case.”
“I can prove VendX deliberately targeted us,” said Ubik.
“We don’t have time,” said PT.
“We do,” said Ubik. “The ships that just arrived are going to be busy for the next few minutes arguing with the control tower about who’s in charge of what. They’ll want to see all the paperwork first.”
“You are correct,” said Janks. “Currently, there is an open channel between the Priority Fleet’s command ship Summer Sail and Depot 4 control tower negotiating jurisdiction and bonus payments.”
“It’s the VendX way,” said Ubik.
There was a pause. “Very well,” said Janks. “I will delay the detonation countdown to give you an opportunity to present your case.”
“I don’t have a case. Open a channel and I’ll get them to confess.”
“Open a channel to which ship?” asked Janks.
“All of them,” said Ubik. “And don’t say anything. I want them to think the ship’s no longer under CA control. That way they’ll be more likely to admit their crimes. We have to play this smart and clever.”
A screen appeared on the wall showing Depot 4, full of cargo ships, and the wormhole behind the VendX priority fleet.
“Hello, VendX,” said Ubik. “This is the new commander of the Central Authority Vessel Nirvana. Prepare to die.”
“Smart and clever,” grumbled PT. “I thought randomly blowing things up was a bad idea.”
“It won’t be random,” said Ubik.
“Ah,” said a familiar voice. “Mr Ubik. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again.”
“Hey,” said Ubik. “Chukka. Small galaxy.”
“Where is the CA guardian?” she asked.
“You killed her,” said Ubik.
“She’s dead?” There was genuine surprise in her voice.
“You’ve scanned the ship already haven’t you? Did you find her life signs?”
“No. That is very sad news. But we were not responsible. We don’t possess the ability to penetrate the defences of a ship of the Central Authority. But somehow you do.”
“Yes, I’m quite handy with a screwdriver. I only have nominal control, though. It’s all a bit crude to be honest, limited control of a few systems, but I’m making the best of it. You have thirty seconds to get out of the way.”
“Or we blow ourselves up. It’s drastic, I know, but my friend here blames you. You see he was deeply in love with the Guardian and all he wants is vengeance.” Ubik gave PT a thumbs up. PT gave no response in return. It was often like that when you lost someone you loved.
“Okay…” said Chukka. “We have indinium shielding. You might leave a stain on our hull, but we have cleaning drones that can wipe it off in no time.”
“She thinks you’re bluffing,” said PT.
“I won’t be aiming for you,” said Ubik. “See those ships full of merchandise waiting to be delivered? They don’t have indinium shielding. Imagine how your customers are going to feel when they don’t get their packages. Customer Services won’t be happy. With any of you.”
There was silence on the other end.
Ubik turned to PT. “Smart and clever. They know they’ll be charged for any property damages.”
“A new order has been given,” said Janks. “The ships of the Priority Fleet are moving.”
“Yes?” said Ubik.
“Into attack formation,” said Janks. “You have yet to provide any proof of VendX’s culpability.”
“Worse than that,” said PT, “you’ve threatened them with destruction and made it clear the ship is no longer under CA control, giving them a legitimate reason excuse to blow us into dust.”
“They don’t possess the technology,” said Ubik dismissively. “Guys, please, this is just phase one. Are they forming a net between us and the depot ships?”
“Yes,” said Janks.
On the screen, half of the Priority ships had moved to form a barrier between the Nirvana and the depot.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” said PT.
“Through them. Look at all the gaps.”
“But we’re too big,” said PT.
“You’ve got to stop thinking so linear. Think modular. Janks, check the manifest for the ships around vector coordinates 17,19 of the net.”
“All details are present and correct.”
“Not the ships in front of us, the ones behind us.”
There was a momentary pause. “I see,” said Janks. “You had no intention of proving anything.”
“Proof is very overrated,” said Ubik. “It never changes anything that’s already happened. This is better, don’t you think? Less self–destruction.”
The ship began moving.
“What?” said PT. “What are we doing?”
“Watch,” said Ubik. “This is classic VendX sandwich manoeuvre. We’ll be squashed between debris–clearing fields. They won’t even have to fire a gun, just an accident.”
The wall of ships ahead of them moved forward. The rest of the fleet behind them closed in to pinch the Nirvana between the two fronts. “Janks, reverse and separate.”
The Nirvana split into three pieces, each a dodecahedron in shape, each capable of independent flight, including backwards.
The modules reversed through the gaps in the formation behind them, reformed facing the opposite way, and then headed for the wormhole.
“Why didn’t they stop us?” said PT.
“Nine ships didn’t have their service records updated. All of them had been stationed in the same region and all of them had severe debris damage to their hulls. I don’t know what they did out there but it left their clearing fields inoperable and they didn’t report it. They wouldn’t be allowed on this mission if they had. No bonus pay, no money to fix what they broke.”
“You’re talking fast again,” said PT.
“I know, but only because I’m having fun. Into the wormhole!”
“Ships have turned around and are in pursuit,” said Janks.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Into the wormhole really quickly.”