The White Palace.
The metal band Ubik had placed on his head like a crown tingled. There was no direct neural connection, but Ubik could feel the pulses of electricity firing through his temples into his brain. It allowed him to see the room as it was meant to be seen.
An overlay indicated what every button, switch and readout was for, how to use it and what its current status was, updated in real-time.
Blue text filled up Ubik’s vision, and then faded when he shifted his focus. Red text flashed to call his attention to something. Green text informed him of active systems. Orange text warned him of operations coming to an end. Purple text alerted him to countermeasures that were ready to deploy.
All this hand-holding probably wasn’t necessary once you were familiar with the network, but it made it a lot easier for a first time user. There was still a lot to take in. But unlike the Central Authority infodump he had endured, this was designed to be mastered over time. The metal band was a training tool. The network had been built so a child could learn it.
The Seneca ship on the screen was impressively outfitted. It was heavily armed and shielded. It would take a serious amount of firepower to put even a small dent in its side, unless you happened to have a detailed breakdown of every onboard system and component.
As it happened, Ubik had exactly such a breakdown. Just by looking at a part of the ship, the network gave him exact data on what it did, its current condition, and its weaknesses to attack.
“I love this,” said Ubik. “I am so going to make one of these.”
“You faked the destruction of a Seneca warship,” said Fig. “You put the whole world under a death sentence. You misled the Seneca High Command… or were they part of this?”
Mackus said nothing. His face was a blank slate, calculating his options. Ubik found it very funny. He had already calculated the available options, he knew Mackus was seeing one dead end after another.
“It’s a good thing I’m here,” said Ubik, grinning. “You two would have strung this out for days. You set up the Seneca explosion to trick Fig. But Fig’s known you since he was born, he knows how you think. No way would he believe you were going to hand over control to him, no matter what the threat. But you knew Fig would be suspicious, so obviously you would take that into account and give him something to latch onto. But Fig would be expecting you to—”
“Alright, alright,” said PT, “we get the idea. You’re giving me a headache.”
“Your problem,” said Ubik to Mackus, “is you think too simple. You’re one of those ‘shortest distance between two points’ kind of guys.”
“You think the problem was his plan was too simple?” said PT. “What am I saying? Compared to one of your plans, it’s completely transparent.”
“Who are you people?” said Mackus, his voice quiet and controlled.
The main screen changed from a view of the Seneca ship to a view of a very grim-looking Seneca officer.
“What have you done, Mackus?” she said. She didn’t seem very happy.
“Hello,” said Ubik brightly. “I wouldn’t prime those forward artillery placements if I were you. If I hit them between the third and fourth segment breaks, your whole front section will detach. We should talk later, I can fix most of the issues for a very reasonable price.”
The woman’s face became grimmer, which Ubik hadn’t thought possible.
“General Sway,” said Mackus, “this is unfortunate, but not irreparable.”
“Indeed,” said General Sway. Her gaze switched to Fig. “Unfortunate.”
“You have broken several Seneca statutes,” said Fig. “Even if they gave consent for this mission, they’ll never admit it. There is no fixing this for you, Devora.”
There was a slight twitch in the general’s left eye. “You are correct, Figaro. But I can clean up this mess. For the Corps.”
“No,” said Mackus. “This is salvageable!”
The consensus seemed to be that General Sway intended to wipe the slate clean. No one would know what happened here, no one would know who was to blame. A noble sacrifice by the Corps, for the Corps.
Ubik started giggling. “I like your confidence, Devora. You really think you can still achieve some kind of victory.”
General Sway scowled. “Has he gone mad?”
“It’s hard to tell,” said PT.
“It’s under consideration,” said Fig.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m the loony one,” said Ubik. “Could a crazy person do this, though?”
Everyone stopped and waited. Nothing happened, or at least didn’t appear to.
“What did you do?” said PT.
“Really? Do you even have eyes? Look around you.”
Everyone looked at their surroundings, apart from the bald, bearded man. He was staring intently at Ubik.
“Oh,” said Fig. “There’s a forcefield.”
They looked closer and saw the slight refraction of light. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, they were covered in a gloss that hadn’t been there a moment before.
“Exactly,” said Ubik, looking back at the bearded man and giving him a thumbs up. “This is what your dad called the Figaro Protocol, specially designed to counter the Seneca Protocol. There are sixteen billion executables in the network with one common factor — in each of them, Figaro Carmen Ollo is prevented from dying.” He turned his head to look at Fig. “Carmen, huh? Bet your mother came up with that. Anyway, this room is now sealed inside an impenetrable bubble. Nothing gets in or out. The universe could end and we’d still be here.” He turned his attention to the screen. “Open fire on us and the network on the asteroid will destroy you. Attack the asteroid first, and the planetary defence grid will destroy you. Attack both at the same time, and the nearest moon will open fire on you. And that’s just three of the sixteen billion options. I really, really love this. I’m gonna build two of them. Two feels like the minimum you need.”
“You seriously underestimate what the Seneca Corps is capable of,” said General Sway.
“You seriously underestimate what I’m capable of,” said Fig. “The person who trained you also trained me, Devora. Except, she didn’t go easy on me. You will take your ship and leave. Call off the fleet and make up whatever explanation you want — I won’t contradict it. But refuse my offer, and I will release data on your ships and installations. Everyone will know your weaknesses. You will personally be responsible for the end of the Corps.”
“I don’t think so,” said General Sway. “There is no way for you to send out a signal. When we collapse this region of space, nothing will escape. I will be proud to give my life and the life of my crew for the glory—”
She was interrupted by Ubik’s laughter. “There she goes again. Lady, you can’t stop us sending out a galaxy-wide signal, even if you collapse the wormhole and every star in this cluster. You know why? Sixteen billion solutions. Yes, Ramon saw this one coming, too. You know what he did? He set up a corporation. It’s called Node PLC.”
“My father owns Node?” said Fig.
“Founder and sole owner.”
“How did you find that in sixteen billion lines of code?” said PT.
“Oh, it’s more than sixteen billion lines. Anyway, he used it to create a huge broadcasting franchise across the quadrant, built around wrestling, among other things. Didn’t even bother to supervise its growth. Just gave it a mission statement — maximise the pay-per-view revenue stream. That was enough to create the most sophisticated subspace communication array every built. Doesn’t need space to exist to work. I can reach any point in the quadrant in under 0.1 milliseconds. Actually faster than the speed of light, although not really. Mostly shortcuts.” Ubik looked up at the screen and saluted. “Ramon Ollo sends his greetings.”
There was a fury in her eyes that could have laid waste to entire worlds, and probably had. “You have made an enemy of the Corps today.”
“Wait till you see what I’ve got planned for tomorrow,” said Ubik.
“Leave now, Devora,” said Fig. “You were always my mother’s favourite. I don’t want to upset her.”
The screen went blank, then showed the ship again. It turned around, thrusters firing on one side, and then it blasted off.
“You did well, Figaro,” said Mackus. “But you had her completely at your mercy and let her go. She won’t be as forgiving. This is the reason why you aren’t fit to take your father’s place.”
“Mackus, no one is fit to take my father’s place. But the position still belongs to me. Your attempted coup has failed.”
“Unlike you,” said Mackus, “I am not afraid to cross the line when necessary. Ganesh. You know what will happen if anything happens to me...”
Eyes turned to Ganesh, who had been watching quietly. His looked like he was in pain. He took a step towards Fig. Then stopped. He grunted but couldn’t move his feet.
“I apologise,” said Ubik. “Your Delgados are now part of the network.” It was an underhanded thing to do. No man should have control of his Delgados taken away from him.
Ganesh looked down at his feet. Then he pulled his feet out of the boots. He stood there in his socks.
“Didn’t you consider he might do that?” said PT.
“He voluntarily took off his Delgados,” said Ubik. “Why would anyone… Can you beat him?”
“No,” said Fig, backing away. “Mackus is the only one who ever could”
“What about you?”
“Not even close,” said PT.
“Guys, come on, have a little faith in yourselves.”
“Isn’t he in the sixteen billion?” said PT.
“He is,” said Ubik. “But I think I have a better idea.”
“Better than Ramon Ollo?” said PT. “Are you—”
The lights on the boards flashed once. Everyone floated into the air.
“Okay,” said PT. “I like this plan. Can you switch the gravity between zero and point six. Make it a three-second interval.”
Gravity returned, gently bringing everyone down, and then cut out again, sending them bobbing up.
PT tucked in his legs and rotated in mid-air. As gravity returned, he kicked off the floor and ended up standing on the ceiling just as weightlessness returned.
“Nice moves,” said Ganesh.
“Born on a colony ship,” said PT. Gravity kicked in again and PT used it to launch himself at Ganesh.
Ganesh fell backwards, tucked into a somersault, kicked off the wall and flew over PT. “So was I.”
“What?” said Ubik. “That wasn’t in the database?”
Ganesh hit the ceiling with his stockinged feet and pushed off, throwing a small strip of metal ahead of him. He wasn’t aiming at PT or Fig. He was aiming for Ubik.
Ubik was distracted. What distracted him was the metal projectile coming towards him. It was the Delgado logo, taken from the side of Ganesh’s boot. He was about to be killed by the Delgado insignia. The idea of it was just too traumatic for Ubik to react.
The insignia struck him on the head, sending the headband flying off. Ganesh came hurtling in behind it.
“No, no, no,” shouted Ubik. “This isn’t one of the sixteen billion.” He tried to get out of the way but he had fixed his own Delgados to the floor for stability and couldn’t move.
Point-Two struck Ganesh from the side, sending him spinning away before he could reach Ubik.
“Nice moves,” said PT. “A little outdated, though. I don’t think you’ve been keeping up with developments in zero-G tag.” He put a foot on Ubik’s chest and hurled himself upward. He hit the ceiling, bounced off and came down heading away from Ganesh.
As Ganesh repositioned to try for Ubik again, PT twisted so his trajectory curved. He came at Ganesh from behind.
Ganesh tried to shift his weight but he was out of position and could only push PT away, shoving both hands at him.
But PT was expecting the move. Rather than try to block or evade, he grabbed Ganesh’s wrists and pulled him in. He rolled backwards, threw Ganesh over him, and kicked him in the chest, sending him flying across the room.
Mackus was trying to get hold of the metal band. Fig kicked off a wall but the variable gravity was hard for him to manage with any accuracy, and Ganesh was coming directly towards him. Fig held his position above the integration station and waited for Ganesh.
Gravity kicked in, Fig dropped, Ganesh’s momentum kept him flying. Fig planted one foot on the top of the console and sent a sweeping kick at Ganesh. It struck him on the shoulder.
Ganesh twisted in mid-air, copying the move PT had made earlier, and curved through the air, slamming into Mackus who had the metal band in his hand.
Ganesh grabbed Mackus by the waist, spun around him and closed his arms around him from behind, his arm around his neck. There was a sharp snap and Mackus’ head went limp.
Ganesh let him go and Mackus’s body floated in the air for a couple of seconds, and then fell to the ground in a heap.
Everyone else also returned to the ground as Ubik’s hand darted across the main board.
“Good,” said Ubik. “That went very well.” He looked at PT. “You were a bit slow to get it”
“I was acting,” said PT.
“Very convincing,” said Ubik.
“Are you sure the room is sealed?” said Ganesh, looking anxious.
“No signal in or out,” said Ubik.
PT had picked up the metal band and offered it to Ubik.
“Don’t need it anymore,” said Ubik.
“Took me twelve years to get to that point,” said Fig with a sigh. “What now? As soon as you unseal the room, Mackus’ death will trigger whatever failsafe he set up. Ganesh’s family will be killed.”
“Nah,” said Ubik. There was a glimmer across the walls as the forcefield came down. “Out of sixteen billion possibilities, this was actually number nine.”
An image of Mackus appeared in the middle of the room. It solidified so it looked entirely real. The screen showed life signs, all healthy.
“Fake Mackus,” said Ubik. “In case he went rogue and used a dead man switch. This Mackus will live forever.”
“He suspected Mackus all along?” said Ganesh.
“Just a precaution, I think,” said Ubik. “You’re down as number eight.”
“What about my father?” said Fig. “Can you locate him now?”
“No,” said Ubik. “It wasn’t just the warship blocking me, the asteroid isn’t accessible from here. We have to use the network up there.”
“Can’t you use the Node communication array?” said PT.
“Hmm? Oh, I made that up.”
“My father doesn’t own Node?” said Fig.
“No idea,” said Ubik. “Maybe. Sounds possible, doesn’t it?”
Ganesh shook his head. “How does anyone fight him? I can’t tell what he’s going to do next. He’s unreadable.”
“I know,” said Fig.
“Just remember, it’s safest near him, as crazy as that sounds,” said PT. “Although, it still isn’t very safe.”
“Right,” said Ubik, flicking switches across the board. “I’ve called up a ship. A Ramon Ollo prototype — should be fun. Should be waiting on the pad for us.” He stepped over Mackus’ body. “Now, who do I have to kill around here for a sandwich?”
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