The White Palace.
Mackus was seated in Ramon Ollo’s chair. It was large and comfortable, but it had hardly ever been used. Ramon liked to stay on his feet. When he worked, when he studied, even when he took a break, although that didn’t happen too often.
The arms of the chair were wide with many buttons. Ramon disliked relying on intermediates. Giving orders, vocal commands, assigning duties, none of it was quick enough for him, or good enough. He had always preferred to do it himself. Which made him a frustrating person to work for.
Mackus felt small in the chair. Even though he was physically bigger than Ramon, the times Ramon had used the chair, he had seemed to dwarf it. Mackus slid around in it like he was a baby in a cot.
“Have you got them online yet?” he said into the open channel with his team. It had been Ramon’s team, but now it was his.
“No, they’re stalling,” said the voice on the other end. Tritan was the communication centre analyst and Ramon’s favourite. Mainly because he did jobs before needing to be asked. “I think they’re probing us.”
Not surprising but not something that was going to yield any results. The Ollo network was designed to be impenetrable, and so far it had proven to be just that, as Mackus knew only too well.
The Seneca warship Tenderness had arrived a few moments ago and threatened the entire population of the world, including those just visiting. Standard operating procedure, nothing to be too worried about. There was just one ship. More than enough to reduce Enaya to a desolate rock, but if that was the intention, the whole First Battalion would be here. Overkill was also standard operating procedure.
“What about the ships in orbit around the asteroid?” Mackus asked. On the wall in front of him, the huge warship filled one side of the screen, and the yellow and green globe took up the other.
“Private vessels have left the area. The Central Authority ships have retreated to the Ruben-Sadar line.”
“That far back?” said Mackus, mildly surprised. “They must be expecting a big bang. Try the Tenderness again. Make it polite, though.”
Even with Ramon’s defence system shielding them, it was better to be tactful. Mackus was prepared for this encounter but there was no guarantee things would go the way he hoped. The Corps were temperamental, to say the least.
It was something they were known for, and which they actively promoted as their official position. It encouraged people not to approach them with any kind of duplicity in mind. If they were ready to attack for no reason, what difference would it make to have a hidden one? It was as effective as it was unreasonable. No one sweet-talked the Corps. If you caught them in a bad mood, they could easily decide to employ lethal force for the crimes you and your descendants were yet to commit.
“Okay, they’ve decided to grant us an audience,” said Tritan, his sarcasm an indication of how he felt about the Corps’ arrival. Signals were being jammed worldwide, making most of Tritan’s toys redundant.
“Put it through, and then block out any interference.”
“They’re already blocking out everything,” said Tritan. “It’s us and them, two lovers in the dark.”
“I want you to shut down the internal monitoring, too. I don’t want anyone contacting them from our side, either.”
“Our side? You’re kind of paranoid, Mackus. I like it. I’ll lock everything down. Speak freely.”
The screen changed and a woman appeared in front of him. She had very short hair and a large scar across her face.
“General Sway,” said Mackus. “Nice to see you again.”
“Yes.” She didn’t look particularly pleased to be back. She had been the one in charge for the extermination of five families who had dared to threaten the Ollo household, or the one member of the family who was a member of the Corps. It was not how he had wanted that operation to end, but it hadn’t been entirely a failure. You had to make the best of the situation, not your preferred outcome. Although, if the maid had activated the bomb correctly, he wouldn’t be able to call on a battalion general like this.
The general glared at him through the screen. “This had better be worth my time, Mackus.”
“I hope so, too.” He kept his face serious, even though these high-stakes situations were what he enjoyed most. It had been a long time since he’d felt this invigorated. “When we spoke last time, I said I might have an opportunity for the Corps to gain access to the Ollo blueprints, you remember?”
“I wouldn’t be here, otherwise.”
“Yes. Well, I had expected it to be a long-term proposition, something to work towards. But now it seems the schedule has been moved up.”
“Is he dead?” asked General Sway. “I can only imagine you making this offer if you were sure he was dead.”
Was Ramon Ollo dead? It was hard to be sure. Too many times, Mackus had seen Ramon go down against impossible odds, only to miraculously rise again. Those were their glory days, when they had travelled across the galaxy, looting and plundering as they pleased, taking on Antecessor sites no one else dared approach.
Then, it had been easy to accept being the great man’s flunky. The whole team was sharpened to a brilliant edge, cutting through wave after wave of opponents, closing in on treasures of unimaginable value.
They could still be sweeping through each quadrant now, but Ramon had decided to retire, to settle on this planet in the back of beyond, where nothing much happened, to tinker with a tiny asteroid that was a locked puzzle.
Ramon loved a good puzzle. He cracked them all, usually within a few minutes. That’s what Mackus had expected. And suddenly twenty years had passed.
“Yes. He’s dead.”
“And you have access to his network?”
“No. Not full access.”
“Then why am I here?” There was a twitch in one eye, possibly her giving the order to open fire through an ocular implant.
“I don’t have full access, but I can get it with your help.”
“For the blueprints?”
“Yes. And the full analytics, the defensive breakdowns, all of it.”
“You’ve seen the files, I take it.”
Mackus smiled. She was trying to goad him into admitting having seen Ramon Ollo’s evaluation of every Seneca ship and construct. The weaknesses, the flaws, the quickest ways in and out without a key. If he said he had personally seen them, he was dead.
“Obviously not, General. Only Ramon himself was privy to those files, although I believe he did share some of them with your High Command, to prove a point.”
“He only showed us a small sample.” General Sway’s lips thinned and her jaw tightened.
“And the point was proven. I don’t know the contents of the files, General, but he was Ramon Ollo. If he said he could penetrate your defences whenever he wished, I would believe him. Your High Command certainly did.”
This was going better than he’d expected. She was talking herself into aiding him. Her plans for him after that would probably not be very pleasant, but he would deal with that after she had helped him secure access to the network.
“What is it you want me to do?” said the general.
“Open fire on the asteroid.”
“And what will that achieve?”
“It will trigger the automated defence grid. Once you activate the grid, I will be able to gain full access to the entire network.”
“Why can’t you trigger the grid?”
“It has to be an emergency deployment. It won’t be an emergency if we attack it — the system will see it as a training exercise. But if a Seneca warship opens fire…”
“Yes, I’d call that an emergency. What’s to stop the grid destroying us?”
“The first thing it will do is deflect your attack. Then it will destroy you. Between those two, there will be a small window. We will assume control in that time.”
General Sway’s eyes narrowed. “And if you aren’t quick enough?”
“Then the entire Seneca Corps will come knocking. I can assure you, I have no interest in entertaining the full fleet in attack mode, even though I’m sure it would be a very short visit.”
The general snorted. She was right to consider the possibility of failure but she knew the consequences as well as he did. He would be a fool to allow her or any of her crew to perish. A dead fool.
It was going to be difficult but it was the only way. The one emergency measure that would allow one of the team, someone not related to Ramon, to assume control in his absence. Every other avenue had been explored and found blocked. This was the only way. One chance to claim victory. It was what Ramon had trained them to do, before he had brought them to this dumpling of a planet to rot. Time to put their training to the test.
“Very well,” said General Sway. The chance to obtain the blueprints was too tempting for her to say no, just as Mackus had known it would be. “I hope for your sake you can—”
The screen went black.
Mackus stared at it for a moment, unsure if the problem was on their end or his. He flicked a switch on the armrest. “What happened?” There was no reply. “Tritan, what happened?”
“The asteroid. Tethari. It activated the grid. It destroyed the ship.”
The White Palace.
Figaro closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind, but the pain from the bracelet was too distracting. They had increased it for some reason. Doctor Yune had never been able to leave anything alone. He was probably conducting more tests.
“You should rest,” said Ganesh, still sitting on the floor in meditation pose. “He’s bound to come for you at some point.”
“You don’t think he’ll gain access to the network?”
“Not without you.”
“I don’t think so either, but you have to be prepared to be proven wrong. Isn’t that what you—” Figaro stopped and sensed a twinge in the back of his neck.
“What is it?” said Ganesh.
“The Seneca Corps are here.”
“Here? In the Palace?”
“No, I don’t think so. In orbit, I think.”
Ganesh looked doubtful. “You can sense them in orbit?”
“Yes. It’s a… knack I have. I’m not sure how. Father used to say I was imagining it. That there was no scientific explanation for it.”
“Doesn’t sound like your father to dismiss something because he didn’t understand how it worked.”
“Oh, I think he understood how it worked, he was just lying to me. He always resorts to parental chiding when he doesn’t want to answer my questions.”
“What do the Corps want? Assuming they’re actually here.”
“I don’t know. I can only detect presence, not motive. Maybe they—” He stopped again, head tilted to the side.
“Just dropped in to say hello, did they?”
Figaro shrugged. “I expect Mackus—”
“Figaro,” said Mackus’ voice. “We have a problem.” He sounded rattled, which was unlike him.
“Okay,” said Figaro.
“There was a Seneca warship here a moment ago.”
“The Tethari grid just destroyed it.”
“That doesn’t sound very likely,” said Figaro. “Why would it do that?”
“The ship was about to open fire on the asteroid.”
“You wanted to activate the grid,” said Figaro, understanding Mackus’ plan. “Use the emergency deployment protocol to take over the network.”
“Yes,” said Mackus, sounding terse. “But the grid fired before they’d even primed their weapons.”
“Of course. It knew what you were planning.”
“But it was a secure signal,” said Mackus.
“Did you use our network to secure itself against itself?”
“The attack didn’t come from here,” said Mackus. “It came from the asteroid.”
“Mackus, where do you think Father’s private network is located?”
“He put it in the asteroid?”
Figaro wasn’t sure what Mackus was trying to do. He had to know this already. “Yes. The Antecessors provide excellent security. If the warship really has been destroyed, they’re going to send more. They’re going to send a lot more. And then they’re going to destroy the planet.”
“Yes. What do you suggest I do about it.”
Figaro was also sure Mackus had considered this. He scratched at the bracelet cutting into his wrist. “Well, you could set my organic off and let the grid activate to contain me.”
“That would also destroy the planet,” said Mackus.
“Yes, but it would take out the Seneca fleet at the same time. A little petty, but they would certainly add you to their Hall of Infamy. You would not be forgotten, Mackus.”
“Thank you for that suggestion, Figaro. I always wanted a dramatic ending.”
“I know, that’s why I suggested it. Alternatively, you could admit it was your fault and lead them away from Enaya, sacrificing yourself to save the world.”
“I liked your first idea better,” said Mackus. “Give me control of the network. It’s the only way to hold them off.”
Did Mackus destroy a Seneca warship and put an entire world under a death sentence, just to leverage Figaro’s compliance? If so, it was an extremely drastic measure. Not out of the question for Mackus.
“No,” said Figaro.
“You will die here, too.”
“My prospects were looking quite bleak anyway,” said Figaro.
“Then assume control and save us all,” said Mackus.
“You’ll remove the bracelet?”
“You know I won’t allow you to take me captive again once the Corps is dealt with.”
“I know. We can deal with that when the time comes.”
Clearly, Mackus expected to be able to acquire the network from Figaro at some point. He was confident enough to use the Corps to act as bait. It was dangerous to use bait that could kill you, but he had grown up watching his father and his team run Antecessor maps. Risky plays were what they had excelled at. They were what Mackus loved most. Using the Corps like this was exactly the sort of thing Mackus would do.
“Okay,” said Figaro. “Let me out.”
The door slid open.
Figaro also loved risky plays, it was just that his father would never allow him to be part of them. Well, he wasn’t here now and Figaro had one in mind that would make Mackus mad with envy.
Ganesh stood up in one smooth motion. “Looks like you won’t be needing your friends to rescue you after all.”
“No,” said Figaro as he walked out of the room, “I think we’re all going to need rescuing.”