The White Palace.
Figaro’s bedroom was dark, far darker than it would normally be, even in the middle of the night. There should be a clock showing the time, flashing sensor lights in the corner, some ambient light from the windows.
The power had been cut. This was clearly a well-planned attack.
Figaro couldn’t see anyone but he could sense them, a presence in his bedroom. He kept still and regulated his breathing to sound like a sleeping person.
Three questions passed through Figaro’s mind.
- How had they got in past the security systems?
- Why wasn’t he dead already?
- What should he do?
Question three was actually the first thing to occur to him but he didn’t have an answer, so he had pushed it down the list.
Normally, he would expect to be more reactive. Once he became aware of someone in his room, his instincts should take over. Normally.
But his body felt heavy and sluggish. He was still adjusting to the change in gravity and the switch to local time. His recent trips into the sim-U had also drained a lot out of him. His mind wasn’t operating at peak performance, to say the least.
Figaro closed his eyes and listened. The hum of the primed blaster filled the room, making it impossible to pinpoint. If he knew where they were in the room, it would make it a lot easier to fight them. They obviously knew where he was. They also probably had some sort of vision enhancement, which would make any movement hard to conceal.
They hadn’t fired, though. What were they waiting for? A perfect shot? Or maybe they wanted to use another method, something to make his death look natural or accidental, and the gun was just a backup.
Figaro sighed, a murmur in a dream, and turned onto his side, sliding a hand under the pillow. Assassination attempts were something he had been trained for, and was prepared for. There was an alarm just behind the headboard, as well as a small gun that could blow a hole through a cement wall.
His fingers felt along the underside of the headboard until he found the button. It was dusty. He pressed it.
Nothing happened. It was a silent alarm but it should have vibrated. It wasn’t on the same power grid as the rest of the house, which meant that if its power had been cut they had to have known about it. Which in turn meant that they had inside information. There were only a few people who knew about the alarm.
It was good to have a better understanding of the situation but that didn’t really help in the moment. He couldn’t summon help — not that it would have arrived in time — and he couldn’t warn the rest of the house that they were under attack.
At least Figaro’s body was reacting according to his training. It had only taken a couple of seconds to go from sensing an intruder to establishing the silent alarm had been rendered inoperable. Figaro turned his hand over and his fingers brushed against the wall.
There were weapons hidden all over the house, including his room. Fewer people knew about their location, so if what he was looking for wasn’t there, he would have a much better idea of who had betrayed him.
The knife embedded in the wall, the hilt disguised to look like stone, popped out and jumped into his hand. Only his father and Ganesh knew about it, so now he knew who he could trust. The next problem was how to locate the intruder.
“Oh, look,” said Grandma. “You have a guest. Hello, dear.”
A light shone out of the cube and put a spotlight on a figure by the window. Figaro didn’t hesitate. He rolled over and threw the knife.
Ganesh had trained Figaro in hand-to-hand combat, sticks and blades, firearms, and projectiles. Throwing things at a moving target while you were moving was the hardest skill to master. Ganesh had made him do it blindfolded but never while lying on his back. Grandma’s help made it one of the easiest throws Figaro had ever had to make.
The knife struck the intruder in the centre of the forehead. They were wearing a helmet and the blade tip was the only part that managed to pierce the armour plating. It was probably reinforced gabellite, light and strong, capable of deflecting most metals even at supersonic speeds.
Figaro couldn’t throw that fast but he didn’t have to. The knife was made of a gabellite alloy made by his father specifically to bypass regular gabellite’s most prominent feature, its impenetrable surface.
Once you got past the surface, however, the molecular architecture that made the outer-coating so impervious had a rather large flaw. It was an extremely good conductor.
The knife discharged a large quantity of electricity into the helmet-wearer’s skull, no sound, no flash of light, just the slight smell of frying brain. The head fell to one side and then the body followed, landing in a heap.
“Oh, they seem to have gone,” said Grandma. Her spotlight turned off.
Figaro slid out of the bed and lay on the floor. “Did they bring any friends, Grandma?”
“I don’t think so,” said Grandma, her voice incongruously cheerful. “It’s nice having people over, isn’t it? I remember the loveliest parties when I was a girl.”
Figaro crawled on his belly towards the window. It was too dark to see anything but he didn’t want to ask Grandma to turn her light on in case it attracted attention. Grandma might not have detected anyone nearby but that didn’t mean the assassin was working alone. And Figaro was familiar enough with his room to not need to see.
He found the gun first, examined it with his fingers and recognised the make. It was a locally-made weapon, good for close-quarter combat, quiet and powerful. It had been modified, though. The firing mechanism had been replaced and the modification didn’t seem to fit correctly. An unfortunate mistake or a deliberate one? Perhaps Figaro wasn’t the only one to be betrayed tonight.
The body was lying in a manner that would have been painful if the assassin had still been alive. Figaro removed the helmet and felt the owner’s face. It was male, smooth suggesting youth, and had multiple rings in one ear, a local custom among gang members. If there had been light, he would probably see an eyeball tattoo in one eye, also.
Most likely, this person had been sent by one of the ruling families looking for revenge. The visiting delegation who had come to see Mackus earlier could have used the meeting to gain access to the house’s security systems. Or at least that was how it was supposed to look.
The families who had died to the Seneca protocol had been excised completely, the entire bloodline — there was no one left to seek vengeance on their behalf. The new representatives had gained power and influence, so why would they wish to upset the new status quo? And if they had a reason, why send a young thug to do the job?
Figaro took the knife out of the helmet and put it in his belt. He had fallen asleep in his clothes, only removing his shoes. He made his way to the door in his socks and opened it.
The whole house was dark but that was fine. Figaro had been trained to move around in these conditions and this house was where he had been trained to do it. He exited his room and slid silently along the wooden floors.
Obviously, the lack of power should have been noticed by the other people in the house, which meant they were either part of the plot or incapacitated. Could someone really have taken out every member of the household staff? It would take a lot more men to do something on that scale. Then again, he hadn’t seen many staff members since arriving. He had assumed they were all busy dealing with trying to get his father back, but it was unusual for the house to be so quiet.
Figaro reached the stairs and stopped, listening for signs of movement. He heard no sounds but there was a very soft glow of illumination coming from the passage that led to the main dining room.
The stairs creaked but Figaro knew which steps to avoid. He made his way down in silence and peered around the corner. The doors to the dining room were open and the light was about the level of a couple of candles. He took the knife out of his belt and snuck closer.
There was still no sound. The whole house was silent, so he would have been able to hear breathing as he approached the room. He took a moment to prepare himself for a fight, and then looked through the doorway.
The dining table, which could seat a dozen people, was fully occupied. Twelve people sat opposite each other along the long table. The only light in the room came from each person’s communication devices — some worn on wrists, other on lapels or hanging from an ear — flashing to indicate an urgent message, just strong enough to illuminate the cut across each throat.
It was a simple incision, cleanly drawn, every corpse the same. To do that to twelve people while they sat at a table would require incredible coordination. No one had struggled, no one had moved from their chair, the cuts were too precise. A very unlikely scenario. They had been killed elsewhere, probably drugged first, and then used to stage this scene.
Figaro was still at the door, examining the bodies from a distance. He recognised some of them, local dignitaries from some of the more influential families. Most likely, they were the delegation that had come to see Mackus.
The throat-cutting was symbolic. It was part of a ritual from an ancient Enayan religion that very few people practised now. It meant they had been punished for their crimes, a judgement from their god. If this became public, there would be a public outcry. Even if no one observed the religion these days, it was still part of the culture, linked to all the public holidays. It would be taken as an insult by the majority of the population.
The ruling class of Enaya, which his family belonged to, had always indulged in various plots against one another, but nothing as blatant as this. And his own family made an effort to not get involved. They were definitely involved now.
“Mackus,” said Figaro into the silent room, “why?”
From the shadows on the far side of the room, Mackus appeared, his long face serene and unreadable, a gun in his hand.
It wasn’t surprising Figaro hadn’t been able to sense him. Mackus, apart from being his father’s secretary, was also a highly trained soldier. He had accompanied Ramon Ollo on most of his adventures into Antecessor sites, and he was an organic. His augmentation made it possible for him to make himself undetectable.
Once he activated his organic, none of the human senses were able to register his presence. Machines were also unable to do so, including those of Antecessor origin. It was a very useful ability to have on a delve.
“Figaro, I really wish you hadn’t come home.”
“I could hardly not,” said Figaro, still at the door, the knife in his hand. “Why did you kill them? And why do you want to make it look like I did it?”
Figaro had very easily been able to see the pattern. The failed assassination, the ritual killing of the people supposedly responsible, it was designed to point to him. There was already a lot of anger aimed towards his family, making him the focus of it wouldn’t be too hard.
“It won’t work,” said Figaro. “It’s too contrived. There’s no way I could have arranged all of this so quickly.” Figaro shook his head. “I didn’t expect you to be this sloppy.”
“Yes,” said Mackus, “it was a little hurried. I wasn’t expecting you to arrive so soon. But you’d be surprised how willing people are to ignore inconsistencies when they’re angry enough.”
“Now what?” said Figaro. “You kill me? Forced to put down the son who had gone crazy with grief over his father, pushed over the edge by rapacious senate members looking to mount some kind of coup? Something like that?”
“Something like that,” said Mackus.
There was no need to ask Mackus what his intentions were. He had always been driven, ambitious, a natural leader. All the qualities Figaro felt he lacked. He had always been a role model to Figaro whose own father seemed too far out of reach. He assumed Mackus felt the same but now that his father wasn’t here, throwing the General Assembly into turmoil would make it possible for a strong leader to take control. But none of that concerned Figaro.
“Do you really think my father is dead?” It was the only conclusion to be drawn from Mackus’ actions.
“I’m afraid so.”
“And killing me… You know what my mother will do. Even if you manage to avoid the blame, there won’t be much of a planet left to rule.”
“It will be in your name that I rule, in your honour. I doubt she will have time to investigate fully, in any case. I received news that she went into labour a few hours ago. Once your sister is born, she will be otherwise preoccupied.”
There was no point trying to reason with him. He was fully committed to this course of action. Even if his mother did uncover the truth, it wouldn’t do Figaro much good. His only option was to deal with the matter himself, and then go find his father. His hand tightened on the knife handle, waiting for an opening — he would only get one chance.
“Emergency override, Figaro. Reinstate all systems.” Lights came on throughout the house, illuminating Mackus’ surprised face. “I’m his son, Mackus. I have access to all his systems, even if he made me swear never to use them without his permission, not unless he was dead. I don’t think he is, but if he gets mad at me, I’m going to tell him you made me do it. The house is recording everything happening to me. My mother will know it was you and she will end you. You’re more reactionary than I thought if you think having a baby stops women from killing who they want.”
The two of them stood on either side of the room, a dozen corpses between them.
Mackus nodded. “Very good. Very good. He taught you well. But he taught me first. Doctor, please activate the bracelet.”
Figaro threw the knife. The bracelet on his wrist bit into him, the pain surging through his body. Everything went black.
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