Unknown Antecessor Location.
Figaro looked at the panel on his arm. The readings were scrambled and none of the controls were responding. The Head had managed to lock him out completely, not just from controlling the suit Nifell was in but all other functions, too.
He raised his gaze to look through the red barrier at Ubik and PT. They were only a few metres away but could do nothing to help. They didn’t appear to be very concerned. They were in deep conversation about something. Ubik seemed quite happy. PT seemed mildly annoyed.
It was hard to tell how Ubik really felt, his body language was as much a mystery now as when Figaro had first met him. He looked over at the shaft that took up most of the space they were in. The silver liquid was covering most of one wall now and a rumbling sound filtered down from above.
Ubik claimed this was part of an engine. That the whole asteroid was actually a ship, powered by a hitherto unknown form of propulsion, hidden in the rock and undetected until now.
Figaro wondered if his father had any inkling about it. Growing up with the man had led Figaro to believe anything that was knowable was known to him. That was the impression he gave and nothing suggested otherwise. But if he had missed this…
Nifell’s body was much easier to read. The man was tense and fragile. He was not in a good mental state at all, but his posture was one of great intensity, strong determination to complete a task no matter the cost.
The rumbling was getting louder.
The shaft they were standing in was clearly about to become operational and the effects on anyone exposed to whatever force passed through this giant tube were not going to be good. They were looking at him now. Ubik was pointing and mouthing something. Figaro was trained to lip read, but Ubik was making such exaggerated movements with his mouth that it was impossible to work out what he was saying.
PT also pointed, past Figaro. They wanted him to stop the Head. They didn’t indicate how but the obvious answer was to attack him. So why was he so reluctant to do so?
It was an odd sensation to suddenly find that you doubted yourself. He had been trained to the highest standards to deal with situations where his life was in danger. Like this one. Hesitation could be deadly. Second-guessing yourself, likewise.
But there was a phenomenon encountered in skilled jobs called resolve fluctuation. People who were trained to do a high-risk, high-skillset job found that when they entered the field without supervision for the first time, they lost confidence in everything they knew.
They knew what to do, knew the correct action to take, but they resisted their own mind.
Medics were the most common example. A newly qualified doctor dealing with a patient with no one to tell them if they were making the right decisions was very likely to delay and delay, and then panic and make the wrong decision. The fatalities that resulted were an accepted part of the medicinal journey.
Training, no matter how extensive, no matter how rigorous, did not compare to the real thing. Even if you came first in all your classes and exams, when you have to make choices in situ, the vast majority of people vacillated.
Other professions were equally susceptible, although not all had the same risk of mortality. Some did. Soldiers, pilots, environmental engineers — they all faced a similar moment of truth.
Figaro had been taught about the phenomenon and trained to deal with it. Ironically, he had been trained to deal with situations where training wasn’t enough. But it had never occurred to him that he would find himself baulking when the time came.
And the main reason that he was doubting himself was Ubik.
Not only did Ubik act first and remove the need to take the initiative yourself, the actions he took were almost always the exact thing Figaro had been taught never to do in any given situation.
It was all very well telling yourself he was a special case, that what did or didn’t work for him had no affect on what anyone else chose to do, but it was still unsettling to Figaro that there was this other way of solving problems that no one had ever told him about. Probably because they were as ignorant of its existence as he had been.
And so the easiest thing to do was stand back and not get in the way.
That’s what he was doing now. He was waiting for Ubik to take care of the Head, of this shaft, this asteroid. Even save his father. Why try to take the steering wheel when the person driving manoeuvred around obstacles so smoothly? Even when he crashed, he came out of the wreck with no bruises and a sandwich in each hand.
Time was limited and the asteroid was all alien technology Ubik had no way of charming into doing as he wished.
Figaro was the one on this side of the barrier. He was the only one who could come up with a solution. Not because he was the best person for the job, just because he was the only one with access to the problem.
But if he waited long enough, Ubik would find a way at the last minute, wouldn’t he? Some impossible move no one expected or believed was possible, even after they’d seen it with their own eyes.
Figaro turned around and looked at Nifell sliding his hands across what appeared to be a wall with some grooves dug into it. Head was controlling him, keeping him focused. His body was ready to collapse but the two of them were working in tandem. The wall filled with silver here at the same rate as its much larger mirror that made up one side of the shaft. He could see the connection but he had no idea what it meant or how it worked.
Or how to stop them.
He looked down at the useless control panel on his arm. If he couldn’t use the suit against the Head, he would have to be more direct.
But Figaro didn’t have a weapon — another of Ubik’s unintuitive ideas. He knew how resistant the suit was to physical attacks. If the Head had not only locked Figaro out but had also found a way to access the suits functional matrix, it would easily be able to withstand any damage Figaro was capable of inflicting. He couldn’t penetrate the material, couldn’t suffocate the occupant, couldn’t shut down any active processes.
His training told him he had options. Even if he was at a disadvantage, he still had access to knowledge the Head didn’t. What it didn’t tell him was how to use that knowledge.
The asteroid, the Antecessor technology, whatever the Head was, he couldn’t become an expert on any of that. But the suit, the nanodrones, the suit he was wearing, that was Ollo technology. Technology he had a deep, deep understanding of. His father had made these things. He had made them with Figaro in mind. Everything he made, he made with Figaro in mind.
That was something he had learned early on. No matter how his father had treated him growing up, no matter how brutal his lessons and his treatment, there was nothing his father did that didn’t first consider:
What would Figaro do with this if I wasn’t here?
What would this do to Figaro if misused by others?
Ramon Ollo wasn’t paranoid about his son, he was meticulous. Everything in their home, in their vast collection of vehicles, everything on their planet… had some sort of Figarotech implanted in it. There was no ship manufactured by Ollo technology that wasn’t accessible by Figaro, no matter who the current owner was. No Ollo device that would harm him. No Ollo instrument he couldn’t override.
Only, his father hadn’t told him exactly how to take control of each and every one of those thousands of Ollo products spread throughout the galaxy, both far and near. Very near in some cases.
He looked at the suit Nifell was in. Without direct control through the panel on his suit, how else could he gain access?
His father was a big believer in working things out for oneself. He had Figaro trained to the highest standards in all aspects of life, and then he sent him out into the wilderness, alone, to a far-off corner of the galaxy where there was no one else to rely on. And now here he was. Proving himself to be a worthy successor to the greatest mind alive. Or not.
“If you activate this mechanism, you’ll kill them,” said Figaro.
The Head appeared on the back of the bubble-helmet as Nifell continued to work. “They are superfluous to my needs.”
“And I’m not?” The answer was obvious — his value was as a hostage — but he wasn’t interested in the answer, only in finding a way to get access to the Head’s systems. It was able to operate the asteroid’s internal network, which meant so could Figaro. If he could figure out how.
“You will remain alive until you are no longer needed. There will be no discomfort in your death, as there will be no discomfort in theirs.”
Figaro looked over his shoulder. Ubik was grinning while PT shouted something at him. They were both assuming Figaro would take care of things. Their blind trust in him was both heartening and shaming.
Or maybe Ubik had this whole thing in hand and was waiting for the right moment to show off his superiority.
No, he couldn’t think like that. Even if Ubik did have a plan — some ridiculous idea that made no sense — Figaro had to stop allowing others to take the initiative. From now on, he would act to secure the goal he would set for himself. Others might have their own plans, that was fine. They might even succeed before he did. Such was life. But he wouldn’t be a bystander any longer.
And if he failed, he would suffer the consequences. When someone’s life was in danger, a surgeon acted. First time, thousandth time, it made no difference. The death of the patient was something you had to be willing to accept, even if the patient was yourself.
Figaro crouched down and lifted the flap just above Nifell’s right foot.
“I have overwritten all security protocols,” said the Head. “You will not be able to access any systems in this protective container.”
“We’ll see,” said Figaro. He didn’t expect to gain access but he hoped to force a reaction. If the Head tried to attack him while wearing an Ollo manufactured spacesuit, there was a good chance it would short the suit out.
But the Head did not consider Figaro enough of a threat to take any action. It ignored him completely. He would actually have to show he could affect the suit’s operation in order to provoke a reaction. If he could do that, he wouldn’t need to provoke the Head in the first place.
Figaro stood up. He needed another way to get a reaction. Or another person.
“Nifell, can you hear me? You have to stop helping this alien. It is putting your life in danger.”
There was no response, not even a glance.
“I’m ordering you as a member of the first family of Enaya.” A mild twitch, a tremor in the side of his face. “You owe it to my family, my father. Without him, Enaya would be no more than a worthless ball of mud.”
“It isn’t much more than that now,” said Nifell without turning his head away from the wall.
“That isn’t true,” said Figaro. “It is a safe and comfortable world for you and your kind.”
“My kind?” snapped Nifell, turning his head to glare at Figaro. “That’s what we are to you, cattle, livestock, comfortable in our pens, let out when you require menial labour and servicing.”
“It is all that you are capable of,” said Figaro. “But you can be more with my help.”
Nifell’s face grew red, even with the red light from the shield surrounding them and the pinkish tint of the helmet, his rage was incandescent.
“I don’t need your help.” The words were spat out one by one.
“You think your god will help you? It isn’t even real, just a program left behind by a dead alien race. Your kind created a god to hide behind, to blame for your inadequacies. Someone to save you because you can’t save yourselves. It’s a pathetic sham.”
Figaro wasn’t proud of what he was doing. He knew Nifell was already on the verge of a breakdown. He was intentionally pushing him closer to the edge because it would force a physical reaction.
“If my god is a sham,” said Nifell, “why is he here, about to initiate this weapon that will wipe out your kind. Yes, a weapon. Unlike any in the galaxy. Not made by Ramon Ollo. More powerful than anything he could imagine.”
Interesting information but not that surprising. It didn’t really matter if it was a weapon or a ship or both.
“You are a fool. You are in the position you deserve to be. Every one of you Enayans are nothing more than primitive serfs who—”
Nifell swung around, jerked out of place like a dislocated joint. He threw a punch. It wasn’t much of a threat. Figaro could have easily dodged it. He didn’t.
He let the suit’s gloved fist come straight at his face. He opened the visor to his helmet and said, “Figaro Carmen Ollo.” He didn’t know if that would make a difference but he wanted the suit to know who it was about to strike.
The fist snapped down to Nifell’s side and his body went taut. The bubble helmet disappeared, leaving Nifell’s head exposed, his face surprised to be in the open.
Figaro moved with precision and speed. He caught Nifell’s around the throat with his arm in a chokehold. Nifell was slightly taller than him, slightly more muscles mass. He was a seasoned soldier, at peak physical fitness for a man of his age, the years he had on Figaro putting him in his prime. He might not have been able to cope with the mental stress of being stuck on a rock for so many months, but his body was still in good shape.
Figaro had been trained to handle men twice his size.
He didn’t hesitate, didn’t wonder if he was doing the right thing. Muscle memory in a fight was the one unloseable thing training did give you. He didn’t have to think through his doubts to avoid getting hit. His teacher never pulled his punches as the many broken bones Figaro had suffered as a young boy proved. Ganesh’s idea of sparring had always been to give him a good beating. Not fun but an excellent motivator.
Nifell passed out from a mixture of lack of oxygen and pressure to the right pressure points. It was over in seconds. The Head hadn’t even made a sound. Until now.
“My gods need me,” said a voice from Nifell’s throat. “You will have to die. I apologise for the discomfort.”
Nifell’s mouth opened as though pushed apart from the inside as nanodrones came pouring out. They crawled over Nifell and climbed up Figaro’s arms.
As they reached Figaro’s face and his bare skin where they could easily eat through his flesh, they dropped off and fell to the floor, inert and unmoving.
There was a moment of silence. “They self-terminated,” said a confused warble. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” said Figaro. “This suit, these drones, they were made by Ramon Ollo, my father. Nothing he makes will ever harm me. Not unless he thinks it will do me good.”
“Your father. He is your creator, your god. He protected you.”
“No, he isn’t my god. And the Antecessors aren’t your god. Gods are infallible. Parents are not.”
Nifell’s body jerked and shook. There were still some nanodrones left. They started to come out of Nifell’s mouth and fall to the ground. They were continuing to self-terminate without the need of a direct threat to Figaro.
“You’re going to die,” said Figaro. “I wish I could think of a way to save you but I don’t know how. I know you wouldn’t stop anyway. It’s how they made you, with a singular purpose. It wasn’t very kind of them.”
“Kind?” said the Head. The body stopped moving, the nanodrones stopped appearing.
The red shield came down. There was no more rumbling. The silver on the walls had stopped spreading.
“Well done. I knew you could do it,” said Ubik. “He kept saying, ‘We have to save him, he can’t do this alone,’ but I knew you just needed the right motivation, big enough stakes.”
The look on PT’s face was enough to tell Figaro how much of that to take seriously.
“What he needed was for you to stay out of his way,” said PT.
“Wrong,” said Ubik. “His problem is he’s too polite. Always letting others go first. He needs to be more assertive, like me.”
“No manners whatsoever?” said PT.
“Now you’re getting it,” said Ubik.
Figaro looked down at Nifell. “Ubik, did you intentionally push him to the brink of madness just in case we needed him to have a breakdown?”
“What a terrible thing to accuse someone of,” said Ubik. “Not a bad idea but a bit blunt force trauma for my tastes. I prefer a little more finesse. Tickle them when they’re off-balance, that’s more my style. Come on, we need to find a way down to the next level.”