The White Palace.
It was the first time Figaro could remember being in the main control room without his father being present. The room looked oddly unfamiliar to him now. The consoles, the screens, the rows and rows of buttons and switches — he knew what they all did, had been trained in their use, but it was like someone had replaced each thing with a not-quite-exact replica.
His time away had given him a new way of looking at things. It was disorienting.
The main control board was too far from the integration station, it would be easier if they were side by side.
The defence matrix controls were on a shelf above the main panel, which was an unnecessary obstruction. Useful for an immediate response if there was a dire emergency out of the blue, but that had never happened in all the time they had lived here.
He would also have added some chairs. And voice control. His father didn’t consider it reliable. The control room tended to get noisy in a critical situation, and too many sounds could confuse an AI into carrying out the wrong instruction. Not a problem if it plays the wrong song request. Sightly more of an issue if it fires a missile by mistake. His father’s network could do both, and a lot more besides.
He was, he realised, thinking how he would tailor the room to his preferences. He’d never even considered it before.
“Wake him up,” said Mackus, looking up at the screen and speaking over the communication channel to Tritan, who was up in the observatory.
“I can’t,” said Tritan. “You know what he’s like when he goes under. We don’t even know what he took. He set the cycle on a seventy-two-hour clock.”
Mackus turned to Figaro and Ganesh who were standing by the door.
“With the doctor indisposed, you’ll have to keep it on for now.”
“No,” said Figaro, rubbing his wrist below where the bracelet dug into his skin. “I won’t intervene otherwise. Take it off.”
“Figaro,” said Mackus, “this is hardly the time for ultimatums.”
“I agree.” He lifted up his arm. “So the sooner you take off the bracelet, the sooner we can get started.”
Mackus frowned. He was on the other side of the control room, flanked by two small drones, fist-sized cubes with one side elongated into a point, like an angular bullet. Figaro had never seen them before. New and not part of his father’s network.
“Only Yune can do that safely, and you’ve seen for yourself the condition he’s in.” Mackus glanced at the screen, which showed Dr Yune’s laboratory. The doctor was lying on one of his operating tables, tubes in each arm and a helmet over his face.
Figaro was familiar with Dr Yune’s taste for narcotics, the more exotic the better. He was the kind of person who enjoyed the thrill of pushing his mind into areas no one else had explored. No sane person, anyway. It wasn’t unusual for him to take a break from his work by taking a break from reality.
“This whole thing has taken us by surprise,” said Mackus. “We weren’t expecting the Corps to get blown up by your father’s preemptive measures. When did he even upgrade the asteroid’s defence grid?”
“He didn’t,” said Figaro.
“You’re saying the Antecessor system activated externally? That isn’t possible. This idea you have about the asteroid, it makes no sense.”
“The network will tell us what happened,” said Figaro. “I can access it as soon as you take this off.”
“I understand that,” said Mackus, “but we don’t have the luxury of time. The fleet is on its way. I will happily instruct the doctor to remove the bracelet when he is able, but if I do it myself, you know the consequences.”
“I do. Far better than you,” said Figaro. “We will both be under a threat neither of us will be sure we can contain. I don’t know exactly how you plan to appropriate the network from me once I assume control, but it’s obvious that’s what you have in mind. I’ve made the risk assessment the way you taught me, Mackus. I’m in a very disadvantageous position, even if I don’t know the specifics of what you plan to do. There’s no way for me to face you as an equal, you never would have let me out if that were possible. The fact you let me out is ample proof of that. But we can both be equally helpless in the face of my losing control. It’s not much of a guarantee, but it’s the only one I can be sure you won’t be able to counter. If you do anything to hamper or obstruct me, I can release the small amount of control I have over it. There’s nothing you can do to stop me, and nothing you can do to reverse the effects once they go critical. Not unless you’ve been able to develop a protocol that even my father hasn’t been able to.”
“That’s a ridiculous position to take,” said Mackus, shaking his head with frustration. “Your risk assessment must be off.”
“I don’t think so. You’re the one who trained me to analyse a negotiation. I used every algorithm you showed me. This is the best play I have.”
Ganesh stepped up beside Figaro. He had been standing back, letting them have it out. If they were going to kill each other, this would be the time. If they came together to face their mutual enemy, this would also be the time. He hadn’t quite expected this stand-off, though.
“I don’t know why you’re arguing with him, Mackus. He’s grown up watching you make tactical decisions. He knows how you think. How could you possibly imagine he would not see through whatever it is you’re trying to pull? Even I can hear the gears grinding in that head of yours trying to work this to your advantage.”
“Of course I’m trying to find a way to make this work, that’s what I do. But I’m also trying to come to an arrangement that doesn’t see us all dead. They don’t stop to ask what happened in these situations, you know that. If we could get in touch with Nigella, things might be different, but I don’t even know which planet they’ve got her on. Whatever we do here, there is no way letting you off the leash is a good idea, Figaro. Putting the whole quadrant at risk is not a good bet. At least with the fleet, we can still run. If you lose control, there won’t be anywhere to run to.”
It was an impassioned and earnest speech. Figaro believed every word of it. He just didn’t believe Mackus believed it.
Figaro looked at the control board. Lights flashed and needles registered activity in a thousand different circuits. He had stood watching his father operate the board countless times. He had operated it himself, under careful observation. Now he had the chance to take command of the whole thing.
Even if Mackus had a strategy to wrest control from him, would he be able to? He wouldn’t be able to from his father, so the network had the potential to protect him no matter what Mackus had planned. The network wasn’t the weak link here, though. He was.
Rushing into this would be the foolish move, no matter how confident he might be in his own abilities. Mackus was better at thinking ahead than anyone, apart from Ramon Ollo. Even if Figaro put himself in third position, it was a very distant third.
“We have a situation,” said Tritan over the console speaker.
“Then handle it,” snapped Mackus.
“I don’t know how,” said Tritan. “It’s not the usual sort of problem. We have intruders. In the Exhibition Hall.”
“Everyone’s gone. There’s mass panic, in case you weren’t aware. The Hall’s been abandoned.”
“Then send drones to deal with the looters. How many are there?”
“Two, and I did,” said Tritan. “I sent six drones. They’re no longer responding to my commands.”
“No. They’re online. They’re also… singing.”
“Singing. Songs of an… erotic nature.”
The room went quiet. This certainly wasn’t the usual sort of problem. Figaro smiled. “Who’s the song about?”
Mackus glared at him. “What has that—”
“It’s about the Seneca Corps and what they, ah, get up to in private. With, uh, various tools. I’m pretty sure if the fleet hear it when they arrive, they’ll make us a priority target.”
“Can you put the security cameras on screen?” said Figaro.
“Yes,” said Tritan. “They’re in the gift shop.”
A second screen on the wall turned on and showed a high-angled shot of the gift shop in the Exhibition Hall. The Hall housed most of Ramon Ollo’s most famous inventions and discoveries, or facsimiles of them. The gift shop sold smaller facsimiles of the facsimiles. Your own mini starburst laser to superheat eggs for breakfast. Or a toy Grand Droid, infamous for taking the lives of hundreds before it was eventually dismantled, currently displayed in the Monsters of the Antecessors room. The toy version poseable in six different attack poses.
There were two people in the gift shop, currently. One was rushing around pulling things off shelves and putting them in a very full basket. The second was following the first, his body language suggesting he was bored and ready to leave.
“Open a channel,” said Figaro.
“I tried already,” said Tritan. “The audio isn’t working.”
“It’s working fine,” said PT, looking up at the camera. “We were just ignoring you.”
“Wait, what?” said Tritan, flustered. “How did—”
“Is it okay if I run a tab for all this?” said Ubik, putting a plushie of a Rirodan galvaniser beast under his arm. It was the most poisonous lizard in the quadrant, and the synthesised version of its venom was a key ingredient in many medicines. Unlike the plushie, it wasn’t pink.
“Sure,” said Figaro. “You haven’t seen six drones by any chance, have you?”
“You mean them,” said Ubik, pointing to the other side of the shop. The camera panned around on command, which it shouldn’t have.
Six drones were lined up in two rows of three. “Hit it, boys,” said Ubik.
“All the girls from Seneca,” sang the drones in matching falsetto. “Will bend over backwards for the Corps. And if you’ve ever travelled through a wormhole, then you know their Protocol.”
“Can you please shut them off?” said PT. “I want to ask a question.”
The drones stopped singing.
“If it’s about how I got them to harmonise so well,” said Ubik, “then my lips are sealed, patent pending. I’ll give you a hint, it involves a lot of auto-tuning.”
“I don’t want to ask you anything,” said PT. “Fig, Ubik said if we made enough noise, you would hear about it, but I said, what if he’s locked up in some cell and can’t get out, and Ubik said, no, now that the Seneca ship exploded, some idiot will let him out thinking they can use him to divert attention. For my own peace of mind, how close was he?”
Figaro looked across the room at Mackus — who looked shaken by the unexpected direction events had taken — and then back at PT on the screen.
“More or less exactly right,” said Figaro.
“Damn,” said PT.
“I told you!” said Ubik.
PT covered his face with his hand. “He’s not even human.”
Ubik began collecting more soft toys, singing, “Prizes for being right, prizes for being right.” The drones joined in like they were his backing singers. Then he stopped and looked up. “Hey, have you seen Grandma? I seem to have misplaced her.”
“She’s fine,” said Figaro. “She’s in my bedroom.”
Ubik’s mouth dropped open. “Fig, I had no idea. You rascal.”
Figaro bit his lip to stop himself laughing. “I’ll send a car to pick you up.”
“We had a vehicle,” said PT with a sigh. “Ubik parked it in the gift shop window. You might need a crane to get it out.”
“Who are these people?” said Mackus, finally finding his voice. “How do you know them?”
“They’re from my guild,” said Figaro. “Trainees, like me.”
Mackus’s eyes narrowed. He was trying to analyse this new information and fit it into his plans, and it wasn’t working. Figaro kept himself from smiling. He was familiar with that feeling. It would be interesting to see how a master tactician handled Ubik.