The White Palace.
The pain woke Figaro. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious and maybe he would have woken at this moment anyway, but the pain helped bring him out a little more sharply.
His right arm, from wrist to shoulder, was on fire. Figaro gritted his teeth and inhaled/exhaled through his nose in short bursts. He had been taught how to manage pain by his father. The method had involved hooking up his nervous system to an unpleasant machine that delivered agony to order, and building up a tolerance. He hadn’t enjoyed the learning process.
But now it came in useful, just as his father had said it would, over young Figaro’s screams.
He opened his eyes and looked up at a featureless white ceiling. He was lying on a bed, not a particularly comfortable one.
“You’re awake. Good.”
Figaro turned his head to the side and the pain shot across his shoulder to his neck, and them down his spine, making his back spasm. Figaro expelled air and forced his shoulders and hips back down.
“Are you prisoner or jailer?” he asked Ganesh, who was sitting on the other side of the room.
“You really have to ask?” said Ganesh. “I thought I trained you better than that.”
Figaro swallowed and then slowly shifted and turned to sit up. Lightning struck him in the elbow, in the wrist, in the small of his back. He ignored the sharp crack of pain that accompanied each movement and swung his bare feet onto the ground.
“I thought I would have seen it in Mackus’ eyes, but I saw nothing,” said Figaro.
Ganesh had trained him to read people. From their posture, from their faces, from the change in their eyeline. It was how you could fight someone and always be one step ahead. He had always been good at it, able to see what was coming. But with Mackus…
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Ganesh. “Mackus isn’t easy to read. I trained him too, until he became better than me. You only ever knew him as the efficient administrator, he was much more than that, once.”
He pushed aside the haze in his mind and looked at Ganesh, at his bruised face and bloody knuckles. “He isn’t that much better than you, is he? Did he drug you?”
Ganesh followed Figaro’s eyes down to his hands. “No, this was my own fault. Self-medicating at the wrong time.”
Figaro didn’t pry any further. He knew all his father’s employees left over from the old days suffered various ailments and coped with them to different degrees of success.
He looked around, sipping air as he turned his neck. “Where are we? Is this… the safe room?” He recognised it but it was greatly changed. All the consoles and equipment that should have been here to enable access to the outside world and provide control over the house’s internal and external security systems had been removed.
“Yes, the safe room. They’re hoping to keep themselves safe from us. From you, mostly.”
Figaro nodded and winced. He looked down at the bracelet on his right wrist. The skin around it was flaming red. Dr Yune had insisted Figaro use this updated version, and now he knew why. Another betrayal.
He closed his fist and turned it, turning up the pain like he was turning a dial.
“I don’t understand why…” Exhale. “Why he would do this.”
“I think you do,” said Ganesh, the teacher in all circumstances.
He was right, it was obvious. If his father was dead, the person set to inherit control of everything was Figaro. A child. A waste. Far better to put it in the hands of someone who knew how to make full use of the Ollo legacy. And the Ollo technology.
It was ruthless but pragmatic, which was Mackus to a tee. There were still obstacles to overcome — he couldn’t simply make Figaro disappear and not expect anyone to ask questions, demand answers — but his actions so far suggested he had prepared responses that he felt would be adequate. He was a very efficient administrator, after all.
“Why aren’t we both dead?” asked Figaro.
“You’re taking this too personally,” said Ganesh.
“You don’t think I should? He tried to kill me?”
“I don’t think you should take anything personally, when it comes to fighting. Emotions will only get in the way. Mackus knows that. He would only kill you if there was something to gain from your death.”
“He would only keep me alive if there was something to gain from my life,” said Figaro.
“Exactly,” said Ganesh, smiling. His partially healed split lip began to bleed. He dabbed it with his tongue.
Figaro considered what he might be worth to Mackus alive. If he wished to take his father’s place, to reclaim the position Ramon Ollo used to have in this world he would need more than the backing of a few of the more easily-cowed politicians.
What he would need, thought Figaro, was the backing of someone who could terrify an entire planet into thinking it was fortunate to have a man like Mackus Karn protecting them from Armageddon.
It would be a delicate balance to get his mother just angry enough to put the locals in just the right level of susceptibility. How would he do it? Not kill Figaro, but maybe save him? Rescue him from an assassination plot? A kidnapping? Present himself as the saviour to both sides. Returned the son only slightly harmed, prevented the destruction of the indigenous population by offering totalitarian rule as an alternative. Sounded plausible. But how to stop Figaro from revealing the truth? If not dead, maybe mindwiped? Did Dr Yune have a method to leave Figaro well enough to placate his mother, but with key memories removed?
Anything too drastic would be grounds for annihilation, anything impermanent would eventually end up incriminating them, and his mother had no statute of limitations.
A delicate, delicate balance.
Figaro forced himself to his feet and shuffled across the room.
“They’ve removed everything,” said Ganesh. “I checked.”
This room was meant to be the last stand in case things went catastrophically wrong. Unbreachable and undetectable. Food stores and water to last years.
“Not everything,” said Figaro. “They’ll have installed observational devices to keep an eye on us. Signals don’t go only one way.”
He went to where the main console used to be. There was no evidence of anything other than flat, featureless walls and clean, dust-free floors. He checked the whole room, anyway. Every step was horribly painful.
“You should move less,” said Ganesh. “Yune did a real number on you. They know how dangerous that thing is, they don’t intend to take any chances.”
“I think you’re wrong,” said Figaro, continuing to shuffle along the wall, inspecting every centimetre. “They clearly intend to take a lot of chances, they just think they will work in their favour based on skill, experience and strategy. However, I have learned a few new tricks while I’ve been away.”
“You have?” said Ganesh, always eager for news of novel methods and original techniques.
“Yes. I learned that sometimes the best way to overcome a stronger opponent, a more informed and better-prepared opponent is not to challenge them but to challenge yourself.”
“I don’t follow,” said Ganesh.
Figaro paused by the opening to the bathroom, the door missing. What use could he make of a toilet bowl?
“If, instead of putting your strength up against theirs,” continued Figaro, “you bring down the walls on everyone, then the challenge becomes one of survival rather than domination, a wholly different set of rules comes into play.”
“I suppose so,” said Ganesh, not sounding convinced.
“I have always been more reactive than proactive,” said Figaro. “It’s been one of my greatest weaknesses, as you’ve often pointed out.”
“True,” said Ganesh. “You’ve never been very keen to instigate a fight. You have to know what you want, first.”
Figaro smiled ruefully, his arm limp at his side, still looking, searching every nook he could find. “But you throw a punch at me and I know exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want to get hit. I’m good at that.”
“One of the best I’ve ever seen.”
“So bringing the walls down around me is playing to my strengths.”
“But how will you do anything of that sort from in here?” said Ganesh. “That’s why they put you in here, so we can’t cause any trouble, for them or for yourself.”
Figaro lifted up his throbbing arm with some difficulty. “You know the story of Aurelias Ollo and the death of the First Quadrant?”
“Of course,” said Ganesh. “Not that I think it’s very accurate.”
“No, probably not. But if he did cause it, that would suggest his organic was more powerful than any organic discovered since. The same organic that now resides in me.”
“Yes,” said Ganesh. “That’s why Yune went to the trouble of putting that thing on you.”
“But Dr Yune has an incomplete understanding of how this organic works. I mean how it doesn’t work. It takes more than a bracelet. It certainly helps, but it needs me to actively suppress it. Something I have practised and worked on my whole life. I desperately wanted to be able to master it the way he did, but I am still a long way from reaching that goal. Releasing it, however, is easy. I just let go.”
He felt the power surge up inside him. The discipline, the constant containment, it was easy to relinquish. It was almost a relief.
The pain in his arm increased but now it was the same as the pain everywhere else, so what difference did it make.
Light filled him up, burst out of him. He had never released his control to this extent, he felt like he was going to explode like a dying star. Is this how Aurelias Ollo had killed an entire star system?
He was barely able to sense the arm around his throat. Ganesh had cut off his air passages, expertly blocking his access to oxygen, exactly the right amount of pressure. Exactly.
Organics couldn’t exist alone, they needed a body to function, a conscious one. Not on his best day could Figaro break one of Ganesh’s holds, and this was not one of his best.
The surge faded and he felt himself lowered to the floor.
“You left it a little late, old man,” said Mackus over the speaker hidden behind the wall.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ganesh.
“You need assistance?”
“No, he’ll be fine.”
“You know what will happen if you don’t keep him under control.”
“There’s no need to remind me,” said Ganesh. “Just hurry up and get it over with.”
Figaro lay very still, regulating his breathing so whatever sensors there were would read him as unconscious. Ganesh was a master, he wouldn’t accidentally allow Figaro to remain awake if he hadn’t wanted. Clearly, he was working with Mackus but under duress. What had Mackus used against him? His family?
It didn’t matter, at least there was still some defiance there, if a little forlorn and desperate. Figaro would need to find the right time to put it to good use. He’d have to be patient, though. The room was not as empty as they believed. His father was not one to only put in one or two levels of redundancy. He still had to find his father but he had to wait for the right time, the right distraction. Not reveal his advantage.
They thought he was alone, but he wasn’t. There was Grandma. And where there was Grandma, the dutiful grandson would follow. And then Mackus would find how useful a good, well-thought-out plan really was.