Asteroid Inner Core.
Figaro had been taught to maintain control over his body and mind in extreme conditions. He could recognise his environment, the approximate geography and physical conditions, even when blindfolded and disoriented.
He could calm his breathing and lower his heartbeat in the most strenuous of circumstances, enabling him to isolate his senses and identify the tiniest details in his surroundings.
His tutors had put him through severe training, more akin to torture, to heighten his ability to read and analyse any terrain using whatever limited form of detection was available to him.
Touch, smell, sound, fluctuations in electrical impulses, the tastes of differently proportioned air — he had extensive schooling in how to make the most of all of his senses.
He had no idea where he was right now.
Alone in the vast darkness and moving towards something, that was about all he knew for sure.
He wasn’t falling and he wasn’t flying. His trajectory wasn’t downwards, although it was in the direction his feet were pointing.
He was aware of movement, of rushing in a distinct direction, but other than that he was blind and felt nothing.
PT had picked him up and sent him into an opening he had seemingly created in the Intercessors’ stronghold. An act that required PT to exert a profound level of influence on a domain under the control of an alien power for thousands of years, or an indication that the Intercessors had yielded their control for reasons of their own.
The force that had enveloped him and pushed him into the opening was now gone, as was any indication that PT’s influence was still present.
The force now controlling his movements came from below or beyond or whatever the direction was. Figaro had no way of affecting it. He was at the mercy of whatever was now directing his motion through the darkness.
PT had said there was an area hidden from his sight at the very centre of the asteroid and he assumed that was where he was headed. It was a big assumption considering how many times the asteroid had upended his expectations.
There were many intelligences vying for control here and they were all far more proficient at it than he was. He was well aware of how foolish it was for him to try and play these old masters at their own game, his father included.
But his father was here.
Figaro had stopped relying on what the sensors in his suit had been telling him, or what those who were vying for mastery of the asteroid wanted him to believe.
There was one place in the asteroid that PT could not see, and there was no sign of his father anywhere else.
Another trick, another deception? Possibly. Figaro was learning how easy it was to be fooled, and the lessons kept coming.
One of his earliest memories was the riddle of the Lady and the Tiger. An old fable about a criminal given the chance to earn his freedom by choosing one of two doors.
Behind each door there was either a lady or a tiger. One he would marry and be set free, the other he would be killed and eaten.
On each door was a sign, one true, one false. A simple logic puzzle to deduce what was behind each door. But that wasn’t the lesson of the story.
If you are given the option of two doors to choose from, know that there are always more than just two doors. They are hiding the others from you.
If one option seems much better than the other, know that both options benefit them and neither benefit you.
And if one option is death in the mouth of a tiger, then both doors will contain tigers, no matter what their signs tell you.
How to solve this thought experiment had consumed many hours of discussion with his tutors. But his tutors hadn’t taken one thing into account.
The Antecessors, the Intercessors, the Central Authority and the Seneca Corps, even his father, they might be able to carefully manoeuvre Figaro into thinking what they wanted. Trick him into choosing the path they wanted him to take — those sorts of manipulations had been familiar to him throughout his life and avoiding them was a fruitless task.
But this was different. This wasn’t Figaro having to choose between two options, both of which were planted to produce the same result, neither to his advantage. This was a path chosen by Ubik. And Ubik was immune to the whims of others. No matter how subtle, no matter how coercive.
Ubik would find a way to open both doors.
Tigers don’t like each other. And if you happen to be wrong and one door does have a lady behind it, then a tiger eating a girl isn’t eating you. Either way, new plans would need to be made.
Figaro had faith in Ubik. He had faith that no one had prepared for him. You couldn’t threaten him, you couldn’t extort him, you couldn’t bribe him.
When presented with an option that would give him what he wanted, cost him nothing, protected his interests and punished his opponents, Ubik wouldn’t even consider it as one of his top three choices.
There was no more stark example of this than Ubik creating a way to take over the Intercessor network and then putting PT in charge of it. Ubik simply had better things to do with his time.
Now PT had access to everything the Antecessors and Intercessors were fighting over, giving him the ability to see everywhere they could. Something he could never have done on his own, so there was never any reason to prepare a contingency for such an eventuality.
For Ubik, the lady and the tiger were just prospective partner and pet. And you didn’t even know which would be which.
Even if the Intercessors had allowed him to be sent here, choosing to let PT assume command of the asteroid, there would definitely be something of interest here.
And his father had a way of finding his way to the places where interesting things were happening. He was attracted to them just as they were attracted to him.
Even as a child, Figaro had recognised that being around his father meant being around the densest element other elements were drawn to. Whether it was powerful people, momentous events, or his mother. They all came to his father, driven to him by some invisible quality of the universe. Just as he was being drawn into the dark interior of the asteroid.
But he didn’t see himself as having any other choice.
The fate arranged for him was not one he considered palatable. Even if the fate of the quadrant hung on it, Figaro’s years of training in duty and sacrifice were not strong enough to make him willingly accept the wisdom of his elders and betters. His education had been too broad and all-encompassing to simply take the word of others on faith, his father included.
It did feel like a failure on his part. He couldn’t help the way he’d been conditioned. But the way he had come to terms with it was to prove he had a better way. A thousand people walking the same path made it a clear path, it didn’t necessarily make it the right way.
Figaro had rejected his assigned fate, but he would save his father and defeat the Antecessors. It seemed like the best way to prove his decision was the right one.
Even though he could see nothing, Figaro moved his head as much as the force gripping him would allow. His knowledge of the asteroid, its dimensions and construction, gave him a good idea of how far it was to the asteroid’s core. Judging his velocity was difficult without anything to use as reference, but he guessed by the tension within his body that it was at least 2G, possibly more. He estimated it would take two minutes at most before he encountered what was hidden at the dark centre of this rock.
The pull was increasing and the temperature was going up. There had never been a heat signature from this deep inside the asteroid according to the many readings taken by his father’s instruments. For all his deliberations about what he might find at the core of the asteroid, he might end up a shrivelled husk before he even got there.
The sense of movement ended and his feet touched a solid surface. The darkness continued to be absolute, but there was something obstructing his way forward.
Perhaps he had reached the centre? It didn’t feel any different in terms of power. He moved his feet, tapping gently, trying to get an idea of what he was standing on.
Smooth. Firm. Curved. Smashed.
It shattered under him and he fell. This was proper falling, accompanied by a rush of wind across his body. The air entered his mouth and nose. It was breathable, high oxygen content. He began to feel light-headed.
His body became hotter, from the inside. His eyes felt like they were burning. His entire skeletal structure increased in density. He was losing control of his organic. It was activating at a speed and intensity like never before. He would have burst into a billion tiny pieces if the bracelet on his arm hadn’t suddenly inflicted a terrific amount of pain into him, washing the organic back into the cells of his body.
It was like being brought to the edge of an explosion and then having it subdued in an instant so that there was nothing left. Dr Yune’s device had saved him from certain annihilation. He had helped Figaro throughout his life, taken care of him, and then turned on him. The man had betrayed him and saved him.
Figaro saw no conflict in the two sides of Dr Yune.
Betrayal was nothing personal. Both he and Mackus had seen it as the more prudent option to take Figaro’s birthright away from him. They had their reasons and they may well have been correct. Figaro understood that sometimes betrayal was justified. Even necessary.
“It won’t work,” said Figaro. “You can’t make me transform while I am wearing this.” He held up his arm in the darkness.
“It does not wish to,” said his father’s voice. Was it really his father, though? Figaro couldn’t say for certain.
Their ability to mimic was excellent. Figaro had been caught by surprise and failed to spot the differences. There weren’t many and those that there were, could be considered within abnormal parameters — extreme condition, a unique situation, huge mental stress, a mountain of variables. His father could have reacted the way the Intercessors played him. And Figaro’s own issues dealing with the situation were a valid excuse for his mistakes. But they were still excuses. Ubik hadn’t been fooled, and he had never met Ramon Ollo.
The wise move was to assume the worst.
“Where am I?” Figaro asked.
“At the centre of the asteroid. Or as close as you can get without being destroyed. There are several layers of protection around a microscopic black hole at the very centre. The asteroid was built around it, as a containment vessel. It’s a rather elegant design.”
It certainly sounded like his father.
“Where are you... Father?”
“You sound uncertain of who I am.”
“Who are you?” asked Figaro.
“I am no longer Ramon Ollo. Why did you come here, Figaro? You cannot save me.”
“Where is your body?”
“On the seventh level. It is nothing more than an empty receptacle now.”
“Is it alive?”
“But your mind is here?”
“Part of my mind is here. Other parts are elsewhere. But it no longer belongs to me. Everything I know, have ever known, is now part of the Intercessors. They have only allowed this small part of me to remain in order to communicate with you.”
“And the Ramon Ollo I encountered above?”
“That was also me. A more constrained version. They know me well enough to keep me on a leash.”
“But not here?”
“No. There is no need. Here, we can do very little. The power inside the black hole is not one that can be resisted. You will be kept here until they can find a way to unlock the power within you.” He sighed. “It will be my task to make that happen.”
“I thought they didn’t want the power to be released.”
“Not in the way it was meant to be used by the Antecessors. But if they can extract it whole, they have other uses for it.”
“I can get you out, Father. If I can return you to your body, we can leave this place. I have friends who can take control of the asteroid.”
“What you’re suggesting isn’t possible, Figaro. I am dispersed throughout the asteroid now. To remove me would create a void that wouldn’t be sustainable. It would destroy us both.”
“Isn’t that preferable to being kept as prisoners?” said Figaro.
“No,” said his father.
Figaro paused to think. He had come here to find his father and he had succeeded. He had expected to face obstacles to the rescue but the biggest obstacle was his father himself. He would need to tempt him with something he wanted even more than the knowledge he might gain by being the captive of the Intercessors.
“What if we replace you with an alternative, to fill the gap. You could retain a place in the asteroid but you would also be free to leave.”
There was a long pause before Ramon Ollo said, “What do you suggest?”
“Me. I could take your place. Isn’t that why they allowed me to come here?”
“The bracelet on your wrist makes you a worthless substitution. They thought they could break it here, where their power is strongest, but Dr Yune has confounded them.”
Figaro could almost hear the smile in his father’s voice.
“What if I replaced you with someone else?” said Figaro. “Someone who has also become part of the asteroid.”
“There is someone like that?”
This aspect of his father was not aware of what was happening above. He didn’t know that PT had already been inserted into the Intercessor framework.
Of course, PT would not be willing to simply take his father’s place. And after all they had experienced together, it would be an ignoble deed to force him to do so. But sometimes betrayal was necessary.
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