The White Palace.
Mackus controlled his impatience and dismissed it as he waited for Dogtooth to finish. Dogtooth was the best engineer they had. If he was having issues breaking through the internal barrier they’d found when trying to access Ramon’s private server — the barrier no one had been aware of until now — then others would be even more stymied by this latest obstruction.
He had known going into this that there would be complications. It was to be expected. They would deal with it and then they would deal with the next problem, until there were no more. Eventually, there would be no more. There was no way that wasn’t true, even if it didn’t feel true at the moment.
“Can’t be done,” said Dogtooth as he slid out from under the main console. He had instruments in both hands and grease across his face, but then he always did. “Ramon made sure no one was going to sneak in the back way except him. Or the kid.”
Mackus folded his arms and nodded, waiting for his irritation to pass before speaking. He had to maintain the correct attitude in all this if he wanted to make the transfer of power smooth and painless. Dogtooth was too valuable an asset to lose.
“Figaro can’t help us,” said Mackus. “There has to be a way. You’ve been with him longer than any of us. Surely, you can—”
“That’s right,” said Dogtooth, getting to his feet and pulling out a cloth from the back pocket of his overalls. “I’ve been with Ramon longer than anyone, which is why I know the difference between something he intended to be bypassed in an emergency, and something he didn’t.” He began cleaning his tools, as was his habit when he wasn’t using them. “And judging by the layers of redundancy he used, this one he had no intention of letting anyone else anywhere near.”
“But if you—”
“Mackus, I’m good, I’m really, really good. But I’m not Ramon Ollo. The man is… was a legend for a reason. There isn’t a person alive that could break into that thing without his consent. There’s only his son, and he wouldn’t need to break into anything. He’d just have to say, ‘Open sesame,’ and bingo. He’s the only one who has the authority over the entire system now. Only him.”
There was no avoiding it. The only way to gain full control of the Ollo network was to force Figaro to hand it over. That wasn’t going to happen. Ramon had made sure no one would ever be able to coerce his son into doing something he didn’t want. Mackus knew that because he had been the one tasked with implementing the order. If only he’d done a less thorough job… but then Ramon would have immediately recognised any inadequacies.
“We’ll have to wait until the kid regains consciousness,” said Dogtooth.
“That may take some time,” said Mackus. “The doctor is doing his best, but it isn’t clear what happened to him.”
“And you really believe he killed those people? I mean, it’s not… I can’t...”
“You saw the deleted files. You said it yourself, he’s the only one with authority over the system.”
“Yeah, but missing evidence isn’t proof.” Dogtooth breathed on his tools and then buffed them some more, which he did when he was agitated. “Until I see crystal–clear footage of him offing those poor bastards… I’ve known him since he was a baby, Mackus. He wouldn’t do something like that. He’s the last one of us capable of it.”
“I know,” said Mackus. “He’s never had the stomach for it, but we don’t know what he experienced while he was gone. And then news about his father… on top of which there’s that thing they put in him. We just don’t know what state of mind he’s in.”
“But his first night back? Something doesn’t feel right. Smells off, I’m telling you. Not Figaro, not his style, no way.”
Mackus was a little taken aback by the conviction in Dogtooth’s voice.
“You think someone forced him to do it? I can assure you the training I gave him was flawless. No one could have—”
“No, no, I know that, Mackus. Whatever it is that happened to the poor kid, you aren’t to blame, old friend. He’s all of ours, we’re all responsible, we think of him as our own child. You did the right thing getting him to safety. If you’d let those Judicature fools get hold of him…”
“Well, that’s never going to happen, you can be sure of that.”
“I know. The doctor will get him back on his feet, that’s all there is to it. No one better to take care of him.” Dogtooth put his tools into the slots in the heavy belt he always wore around his rounded belly. “Never should have sent him away. None of this madness would have happened if we’d just kept him safe with us.”
“I agree,” said Mackus. “But it wasn’t our decision. Ramon Ollo isn’t someone to tell anything.”
“True enough,” said Dogtooth. He looked at the console, the panels open and the innards flashing and blinking with the confidence of their impenetrability.
“But without full access,” said Mackus, “it won’t be easy keeping everyone out. Eventually, we’re going to provide some answers. The Assembly are in shock right now, but they’ll start regaining some coherence and then they’ll start pushing us into a corner. It might get messy.”
“Then we clean up the mess,” said Dogtooth. “We owe Ramon that much. Whatever it takes, I’m with you.”
“Thank you,” said Mackus. He was relieved. The mess was guaranteed, and he only intended to make it messier until he got what he wanted. “In the meantime, perhaps you could give the matter a little more thought? There might be something he left hidden just for you, no? He trusted you like no other.”
Dogtooth rubbed his grizzled chin. “Aye, he might have left me a little puzzle. That was always his way, the annoying old git. Let me think on it.” He took his tools out again and sank to his knees. Then he was back under the huge machine.
“Good,” said Mackus. Dogtooth didn’t hear him, but it was more to himself. Keeping the Ollo infrastructure in place was only part of what he needed to accomplish, but it was a vital part. Ramon had spent too long building up his dynasty to allow it to fall apart. Mackus wouldn’t let that happen.
“We have new arrivals up top,” said a voice in his ear.
“More corporations?” he said. His next objective was to get rid of all the vultures circling.
“No, they’re all leaving. So are the Central Authority vessels who just turned up.”
“They’re here, then?”
“Yes. Right on schedule.”
The Corps. Now he would see just how good at this leadership business he really was. Ramon always made it look easy, knowing exactly what move to make and when to make it. Now it was his turn to show he was up to the task of assuming the mantle.
He used his ocular device to switch channels. “Okay, everyone, you know what to do. Remember, Ramon’s watching. Don’t let him down.”
The White Palace.
Figaro sat on the edge of the bed, breathing slowly and letting his thoughts settle. It was a technique Mackus had taught him, one that put his mind out of reach. Deep inside his brain, there was a place only he could reach, where it was just him, and the organic.
It was dormant but always present, waiting. He could suppress it, ignore it, isolate it, but he couldn’t get rid of it. It was part of him, integrated with his DNA. He just couldn’t control it.
He opened his eyes and looked at Ganesh, who was sitting cross–legged on the floor on the other side of the room. They were both prisoners here, but Ganesh was the one in greater danger. As soon as Mackus got what he wanted, Ganesh would be eliminated. Which was not something that would concern Ganesh, he should have died a long time ago, as he was happy to admit. But his family were at risk, and he would do whatever was necessary to keep them safe.
He wasn’t naive enough to believe Mackus would keep his word, though. If Mackus had promised to let them go or not kill them, there was no way to guarantee it. Which meant Ganesh would have to do more than simply cooperate and die quietly to save them.
There had to be something he was planning. But he wouldn’t be able to share what it was, not in here. They were being closely watched, Figaro was sure, even if he couldn’t see the cameras. That was the problem with being betrayed by the people who trained you. They knew what your limits were and how to exceed them.
Ganesh looked up and their eyes met. There were numerous codes they both knew — hand signals, blink–semaphore, breathing patterns — but they were also known to the rest of the household staff. He should have developed private methods with each of the people he was closest to, but he had never thought this situation would arise. A lesson learnt.
“How long had Mackus been harbouring these ambitions?” he asked Ganesh.
“It never works like that,” said Ganesh. “If your father hadn’t met with an untimely end, I’m sure Mackus would never have made a move.”
“So he never coveted my father’s position, he coveted mine.”
“I don’t think he even sees it as yours. He was there before you. He was the one your father trained to lead in his stead. You never showed the same willingness, the same...”
“Ruthlessness?” Figaro nodded. He knew Ganesh was correct in his assessment. Mackus acted because he didn’t believe Figaro was up to the task. He might even be right. Sizing up a situation and formulating the correct strategy was what he was best at, after all.
“Is he wrong?” asked Ganesh.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “Not about my temperament, we all know I don’t think the way my father does. But in terms of leading in his place, there isn’t even a need to debate the point. The only voice that counts is Ramon Ollo’s, and he chose me. I’ve never been able to prove him wrong before, despite trying my hardest, I doubt I will be able to now.”
“That is good to hear,” said Ganesh. “You are at a disadvantage and you do not have a full picture of the environment, while your enemies are able to make and remake your surroundings as they will. What are you going to do?”
Figaro smiled. Even now, Ganesh was treating him as the student Figaro would always be in his eyes.
“Nothing,” said Figaro. “We wait.”
“For what? There is no hope of him changing his mind.”
“I don’t expect him to,” said Figaro. “But my time away wasn’t wasted, Ganesh. I learned many new things, new ways of seeing the world, the stars. They are only the doors we have yet to open. The Antecessors spoke to me, directed me here. They need something from me and they won’t allow Mackus to stand in the way. He isn’t nearly as prepared as he thinks he is.”
“Whatever you saw,” said Ganesh, “it was millennia old. A message from a dead civilisation.”
“No, not dead,” said Figaro. “They took my father to let me know they are waiting for me. He isn’t dead, either, he’s a hostage.”
Ganesh had a startled look on his face.
“No, I’m not crazy,” said Figaro, pleased he could surprise the man who usually guessed his every move before he even thought of it. “My mind can’t be fooled so easily. You know why? Mackus made sure of it. He ensured I would always be able to trust one eye–witness account beyond reproach — mine. I’m sad that I will have to kill Mackus, but I will do it anyway. There will be some who I won’t be able to tell if they were complicit in this or merely deceived. I will kill them also, which will be painful, but there is no other option. But whatever happens, I promise you this, I will make sure your family get to safety, if I am able. I may not be my father, but neither am I my mother.”
Ganesh let out a snort. “It seems you’ve grown quite a lot since we last met. Ha! I never thought I would be surprised by you of all people. I thought I knew all your moves, including the future ones. Who has been influencing you, hm? Don’t tell me you have replaced old Ganesh with a new teacher.”
“No,” said Figaro. “But new friends can also teach you things. I hope to introduce you to them one day soon.”
“I look forward to it,” said Ganesh. “But first, you have to find a way out of here. A room your father made to keep you prisoner in the event of you losing control of yourself.”
“Only if I lose control of myself.”
Ganesh pointed at the bracelet on Figaro’s wrist. “With that, they can force you into that state whenever they wish. Your father’s precautions will activate to their fullest level and not even I will be able to do anything about it.”
“True,” said Figaro, looking around the room where he had spent many days and nights during his childhood when he had been at the mercy of the organic inside him. It looked much smaller now. “But what Mackus and Dr Yune don’t understand is that the organic was not what my father wanted me to master, it was only ever a catalyst.”
“A catalyst? For what?”
“It took me a while to realise why I would stumble onto an Antecessor secret in the middle of nowhere. My father is Ramon Ollo, Ganesh. He didn’t send me away to learn something he couldn’t teach me, he sent me to fetch it.”
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