The White Palace.
Figaro exited the ship on the landing pad at the rear of the house he’d lived in his whole life. The white building stretched out in front of him, the east and west wings running down the sides of the Dworkin.
Everything felt unfamiliar. He recognised it, of course — it hadn’t changed at all — but there was something unreal about it, like looking at a holover.
The air smelled different, the scent of something metallic, and the sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the arboretum seemed inordinately loud. These things had always been so, but he had grown accustomed to them, to the point where they no longer registered. Now they assaulted his senses all at once.
The rear of the Dworkin opened into a ramp. As Figaro walked down it, his legs buckled. His body was suddenly unaccustomed to the gravity he’d been raised on. He stopped to let his muscles remember.
“Nice house,” said Weyla. “Is your mother not home?”
“Weyla,” said her sister, following her down the ramp, “leave the boy alone.”
“What?” said Weyla. “I was just asking. Wouldn’t you like to see Armageddon in the flesh.”
“If she’s anything like her reputation,” said Leyla, “no.”
“She isn’t here,” said Figaro. “She’s in the care of the Corps until she gives birth.”
“She’s with child?” said Leyla, surprised.
“She’s pregnant, yes,” said Figaro. His feet now felt stable and he risked moving off the ramp onto the ground.
“Is it a girl?” asked Weyla.
“Weyla!” said her sister.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “I will have a sister.”
“Well, damn,” said Weyla. “They kept that very quiet. Armageddon junior. They’ll have her on lockdown, probably sent half the fleet to protect her.”
“Something like that,” said Figaro.
There was no one on the landing pad to meet them, which was unusual. Figaro had announced his arrival before they landed and had spoken to one of the flight control operators. He had been given immediate clearance to land and he has assumed the rest of the household staff would be notified.
The doors to the reception area slid open and a stocky, bald figure appeared, one hand stroking his beard, which was a habit of his when he was anxious.
“Figaro, you’re back so soon. I hadn’t expected to see you for a couple of years, at least.” The man embraced Figaro in a powerful hug.
“Ganesh,” Figaro said, once he’d been released by his fight trainer, “where is everyone?”
“Busy trying to sort out this mess. You must have left as soon as you heard your father’s message. You made excellent time.” Ganesh looked past Figaro at the two tall women. “And you brought friends.” The tone of his voice suggested he was using the term euphemistically. “Are you in the Corps now?”
Leyla frowned at the suggestion, which was obviously impossible.
“We encountered him by chance,” said Leyla. “Escorting him home was the least we could do, considering how much his mother has done for all of us.”
“Ah,” said Ganesh, “taking advantage of your mother’s reputation now, are you?”
It was Figaro’s turn to frown. “It’s a long story. What about my father? Is there any news?”
Ganesh took a breath and stroked his beard some more. “Ah, well, nothing concrete, as yet. You’ll have to speak to Mackus to—”
The door slid open again and a tall, thin man came striding out, a drone hovering over his shoulder.
“Figaro, welcome home,” he said, clasping Figaro’s hand with both of his. His thin, angular face was etched with worry-lines but his clear green eyes shone brightly. His tight curly hair seemed to have more grey in it than Figaro recalled.
“It’s good to see you, Mackus,” said Figaro.
Mackus was his father’s personal secretary but Figaro had known him since he was born and considered him more like an uncle. Nothing his father did happened without Mackus making arrangements in the background.
Mackus looked over Figaro’s shoulder and the smile on his thin lips flattened out. “What are you doing here? This isn’t Seneca business.”
“They aren’t Seneca, they’re with me,” said Figaro. “They gave me a ride, that’s all.”
Mackus looked the two women over, taking in their lack of Seneca-issue apparel. “Yes. I see.”
“Mercenaries?” said Ganesh, asking them but not needing an answer. “Whatever did you do to get thrown out of the Corps?”
“Nothing,” said Weyla crisply. “We took voluntary discharge.”
“Now that we have safely returned the child of Matton,” said Leyla with equal distaste for Ganesh’s lack of respect, “we will take our leave.”
“Thank you,” said Mackus, his tone softening now that he knew the women weren’t staying. “Your help is appreciated. If you incurred any expenses, we will be more than happy to reimburse you.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Leyla.
“Consider it a freebie,” said Weyla, her unimpressed eyes fixed on Ganesh.
Ganesh grinned. “How about staying for dinner? I believe we’re having Portobello sausages.”
“Good luck, Fig,” said Leyla, ignoring Ganesh. “I hope things turn out well for you and your father.”
“Take care of yourself,” said Weyla. “If the Central—”
“Don’t worry,” said Figaro quickly. “That won’t be a problem.” His run-in with the Central Authority could wait.
Both women turned without saying anything further to Ganesh or Mackus and reboarded their ship.
“Charming girls,” said Ganesh.
“Strange company you’re keeping, Figaro,” said Mackus. “Hopefully, it’s just a phase.”
“Ah-ah,” said Ganesh. “You forget whose son he is. I wouldn’t put it past him to become the first Grand Patriarch of the Seneca Corps.” Ganesh laughed loudly at his own joke as the ship took off.
“You got here very quickly,” said Mackus. “You must have left before you heard the news about your father.”
“Yes.” Figaro watched the Dworkin rise into the sky and then lowered his eyes to meet Mackus’. “My father, is there any news?”
“Let’s go inside,” said Mackus. “There is a lot going on right now, Figaro. Your father’s misadventures are only one pebble in an avalanche.”
He turned and led them into the house, the doors sliding open as they approached.
The foyer of the reception room was clean and plainly furnished, and empty. It was in constant use most days, but there as no one here, no household staff ready to receive arrivals or prepare departures. Figaro could sense the whole house was on edge.
“I want to go up to the asteroid as soon as possible,” said Figaro.
“We’ll have a team ready to go soon,” said Mackus, walking through the next set of doors. “But these ships surrounding the asteroid aren’t making things easy.”
“Then remove them,” said Figaro.
“I’m trying but it’s not that simple,” said Mackus. “We don’t want to get entangled in a cross-corporation dispute. I heard what you said to them from orbit, you did well, but they’re going to find a way to stall until they can bring in reinforcements.”
“Then destroy them now,” said Figaro, “before they have a chance to. We have the firepower.”
“I can’t do that without your father’s authorisation,” said Mackus.
“I’ll authorise it in his place,” said Figaro.
Ganesh barked out a short laugh. “You’re not quite the master yet. You know that.”
“Ganesh is right,” said Mackus.
“Then give me a small covert team. I can—”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go anywhere right now,” said Mackus. “Not until we have a better idea of what Ramon encountered up there.”
“I know what he encountered,” said Figaro. “Breathable air and a way to open the door to the lower level.”
Mackus stopped and turned to face Figaro. “And you know this how?”
“Because I encountered an Antecessor anomaly inside a simulation. It’s what triggered the change in atmosphere.”
Mackus’ brow furrowed. “A simulation? How could that affect the facility on Tethari?”
“I don’t know. But it wanted me to come here.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Ganesh.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “But it’s also true.”
“Even more reason to keep you away from the site,” said Mackus. “Do you think you were directed here for the good of your health? It has to have something to do with your condition. If you were to be compromised… Is your bracelet still active?”
“Of course,” said Figaro. “But I have to—”
“Good,” said Mackus. “We still should get Dr Yune to check you over.”
“I’m fine,” said Figaro. This wasn’t how he had wanted this to go. He was getting further and further away from his goal.
“And we want to keep you that way,” said Mackus. His voice softened. “Figaro, the only reports we’ve managed to get out of Tethari show massive damage and casualties. Your father’s battlesuit was destroyed, the self-destruct was activated.”
“He was in it?”
“We don’t know, but you know what he would expect of me in this situation. Your safety is my first priority.” Mackus put a hand on Figaro’s shoulder. “You know I’ll do everything I can, but you have to remain calm and think clearly.”
The small drone that was hovering over Mackus’ shoulder pinged. “Delegation has arrived.”
“Blast,” said Mackus. “Perfect timing. I have to speak with the representatives of the new Senate. The political climate here has been a little tense since your mother’s associates had the previous representatives and their families executed.”
Figaro nodded. He had expected some instability after the Seneca Corps had stepped in after the assassination attempt on his mother’s life. His thoughts turned to Ellie. What had made her do it?
“Listen, Figaro, go see Dr Yune and get checked out and then we’ll talk. I want to know more about this simulation. We’ll find your father, I promise you, but there’s no point running into this blind.”
Figaro knew Mackus was right. He was handling things the way his father expected him to, had trained him to. There was no point in him trying to redirect operations or attempt to speed them up. These people were far more experienced in these matters than he was.
Ganesh walked him to the doctor’s suite in the east wing, all the time reassuring him that everything would be fine, all the time stroking his beard. Doctor Yune, another member of the household who Figaro had known forever, gave him a speedy checkup and a clean bill of health. Figaro told him about the two times he had lost partial control over the organic seeded inside his body and the doctor nodded like he had been expecting this news.
“Frankly,” said Dr Yune, peering at Figaro through the spectacles he didn’t need but thought suited him, “the way you ignore my pleas for restraint, I’m only surprised you didn’t have an episode like this sooner. I want you to wear this.” He produced a bracelet that looked almost identical to the one Figaro was wearing, but heavier and with a different locking mechanism.
“The suppression is stronger and you can’t take this one off as easily,” said Dr Yune. “It removes temptation.”
Figaro put the new bracelet on and then tried to take it off — it remained in place.
“If you need to remove it, contact me and I can unlock it remotely,” said the doctor. “It’s very important you keep the organic completely suppressed. Your life is precious to me, but so is my own life. You know the potential for disaster that thing carries.”
Figaro rubbed his wrist. He understood the doctor’s concern but he still preferred his old bracelet.
He saw Mackus again at dinner. He looked tired after holding talks with the Senate reps for the last couple of hours. Figaro told him more about the Origin and the sigil he found there and the interest of VendX.
Another corporation joining the mob didn’t unduly concern Mackus but he didn’t seem to completely accept what Figaro told him as possible — a simulation was a simulation, after all. Figaro didn’t push the point. The immediate problem was the blockade preventing anyone getting to Tethari.
Figaro went up to his room, which was unchanged other than the absence of his chambermaid, and sat down on the bed. He placed Grandma’s soul cube on the bedside table.
There were only two forces strong enough to chase off the ships in his way. One was the Seneca Corps, who weren’t going to intervene. They had only done so before because of his mother.
The other was the Central Authority. Figaro hadn’t mentioned them to Mackus, not wanting to make things even messier than they already were, and not wanting to invite awkward questions about what Figaro had been up to while he’d been gone. But if there was a way to drag them here, that might get the ships to clear off.
Figaro fell asleep thinking of ways to use the Central Authority to his benefit, something he knew was as outrageous as it was unlikely. He woke a few hours later in a darkened room, sensing another presence, and hearing the soft whine of a laser blaster priming to fire.