The White Palace.
Point-Two made sure to memorise the route they were taking through the lavish mansion they had been brought to. He had a strong suspicion a quick exit might be required at some point, and knowing which way was out might be useful.
The drone that had met them at the entrance led them through several long hallways. The car that picked them up outside the gift shop had been driverless and he hadn’t seen any people since arriving. It was a little eerie.
Ubik seemed oblivious to the odd emptiness, blinded by his excitement. He wandered aimlessly in front of Point-Two, stopping to examine light switches, backtracking to look at picture frames (not the pictures in them) and generally treating every common fitting as though it was a work of genius.
“This is just… exquisite.”
“It’s a door handle.”
“It’s so, so much more than than a door handle. It’s the door handle all other door handles compare themselves to.”
The drone, a sleek grey wedge that hovered at head height, stopped whenever Ubik became enamoured by a nail in the wall or a light fixture. The only thing it had said so far was, “This way, please.” It looked like an ordinary domestic drone to Point-Two. Ubik had practically started drooling the moment he saw it, but had restrained himself. If this was how he was going to react to the mundane features of the Ollo residence, Point-Two dreaded to think what would happen if Ubik was exposed to something genuinely remarkable.
Still, they had got here thanks to Ubik being Ubik. The risk of everything going horribly wrong was just the cost of doing business at the Ubik shop — every shelf stocked full to brimming, just don’t look in the basement.
“This is great, this is really great,” said Ubik, bouncing up and down. “The whole house is a giant interlocking machine. Everything’s connected — you can reach any part of it from anywhere, as long as you know which path to take. It’s brilliant. Brilliant.”
His eyes were wide with awe and all he was looking at was a wall.
“Isn’t that how all houses work?” said Point-Two. He didn’t have much experience with surface-attached dwellings, but it would be strange not to be able to access one room of the house from another.
“No, I don’t mean physically…” Ubik shook his head, horrified by Point-Two’s lack of wonderment.
Double-doors slid open ahead of them, allowing Point-Two to see Fig arguing with a tall man. As they entered, they both turned to look at Point-Two and Ubik, but the man continued to speak in a chiding tone.
“We don’t have time for this. If your father was here—”
“Then you wouldn’t be,” said Fig, his tone equally frank.
These two had tussled often, Point-Two could tell. They were not equals and yet neither was willing to admit which of them was the superior. The tall man had a lot of the same qualities Point-Two had seen in Fig the first time they met. The same exact confidence in movements, the same tight restraint, the same explosive potential.
“You must be Mackus,” said Ubik. He was talking to a stocky bald man with a beard.
“No,” said the man. He had a gruff voice and seemed a little tense, but there was no hiding his fighting prowess. Just one look was enough to tell Point-Two that this man could kill him without breaking a sweat.
“You aren’t Ramon Ollo’s second in command?” Ubik looked the man up and down. “But you’re wearing Delgados.”
“Of course,” said the man, looking down at his boots. “Why would I wear anything else?”
Ubik turned to look at Fig and the other man, neither of whom were wearing Delgados. “Then Ramon Ollo isn’t as smart as I thought. Hey, is that…” Ubik went running towards a console.
The room was outfitted like the flight deck of a fancy battlecruiser. Every available space had something high tech with flashing lights.
“Please don’t touch anything,” said the tall man. He already looked exasperated, and he’d only just met Ubik. He needed to pace himself or he’d have nowhere to go when Ubik really got going.
“Mackus, it’s fine,” said Fig. “He knows what he’s doing.” A phrase that was both ironic and true when referring to Ubik. “PT, you made it. Must have been a rough trip.”
“You have no idea,” said Point-Two.
“Stuck with Ubik without a break.”
“The Central Authority probably had no idea what they were in for.”
“No idea at all,” said Point-Two. It was nice to have someone who understood what he’d been through.
“I can hear you,” said Ubik, not looking up. “I’m right here and I have feelings. Ooh, this is an integration station, right? Fuses all the auxiliary systems into a super-system — unblockable. I’d have put it over there by the main board, would make it much easier to operate. Why did he put it all the way over here?”
“I don’t know,” said Fig. “You can ask him when we find him.”
“No luck, then?” said Point-Two.
“Not yet.” Fig glanced over at Ubik, who was looking at a board full of buttons like it was a tray of delicious cakes. “I’ve been distracted.”
“Figaro,” said Mackus, anxious and pushing his point hard, “I understand you have reservations, but we really need to proceed. Your friends are the ones causing the distraction.”
“Yes,” said Fig. “A welcome one.”
Mackus gritted his teeth and breathed out through his nose.
There was an impatience to the man Point-Two found suspect. He wanted to move things along and was using the impending arrival of a Seneca fleet as an excuse. He was being obvious. He was being deliberately obvious. Point-Two wasn’t sure why.
Fig was stalling, which meant he wasn’t sure what to do. Point-Two used the time to assess the situation. There was an obvious imbalance here. Fig was the son of Ramon Ollo, but Mackus was treating him like a tool. A tool that wouldn’t do its job. The other man, watching from the side, seemed conflicted. He was supportive of Fig, but not able to act for some reason.
“Why did the Corps turn up?” asked Point-Two.
“Don’t worry, they weren’t here for you this time,” said Fig. “It seems they made a deal with Mackus.”
“The Seneca Corps had an arrangement with a man?” said Point-Two. “He must have offered them something they really wanted.”
“Yes,” said Fig. “The plan was to open fire on the asteroid, activating the emergency defence grid, which is the only time the network will allow someone other than my father or me to take control of it. But the Seneca ship wasn’t quick enough and was destroyed. Now, Mackus wants me to assume control of the network to stop the fleet Seneca are sending in retaliation.”
“But you think he’s using it as a ploy to take control away from you,” said Point-Two.
“Right,” said Fig, smiling at their shared understanding of the situation. After dealing with Ubik, other people’s machinations were much more straightforward. “Although I don’t know how he means to do it. Once I take control, the system is designed to protect me at all costs. My father made it so nothing is more important than my survival, even if it means the destruction of all life on this planet. Mackus is well aware of that.”
“Aw,” said Ubik. “Sounds like your father considers you a very valuable asset.”
Fig looked at Ubik, his smile turning a little bitter. “You two would get on really well.”
“Thanks,” said Ubik.
“I don’t think that’s a compliment,” said Point-Two.
“Do you have to ruin everything for me?” said Ubik. “I’m pretty sure you don’t understand any of what this room represents. A great man can’t be expected to think like a normal human being. We should all wish to be more like Ramon Ollo.”
Point-Two turned to Fig. “Can you give control of the network to someone else?”
“Yes,” said Fig.
“Give it to Ubik.”
“What?” said Mackus.
“It seems I’ve underestimated you, PT.” Ubik had turned away from the buttons and switches, and was giving Point-Two his undivided attention. “Please continue.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” said Fig. “The network is extremely powerful.”
“Good,” said Point-Two. “So he can use it to find your father. That’s something he wants to do, so he might actually stay focused.”
“Please, stop,” said Mackus. “Stop, right now. Finding your father is hardly the priority here. We need to protect ourselves from the fleet.”
“Ramon Ollo’s presence will be enough to stop the fleet,” said Point-Two. “It will also stop you from doing anything to Fig. Even if you kill him, even if you take control of the network, the consequences will be catastrophic for you personally. I think that’s beyond question. It is the obvious way to block any attempt by you to acquire control of the network. And Ubik is the obvious person to do it.”
Mackus’ face looked more flustered than ever, although his body showed no signs of distress, which was telling.
“You can’t possibly be thinking of allowing a novice to take control of the network. The consequences could be catastrophic. It takes years of training to handle a system this complex. You know that, Figaro.”
“He’s really Ramon Ollo’s second?” said Ubik. “Are we sure he hasn’t been replaced by a faulty android?”
“He not acting faulty,” said Point-Two. “I’d say he’s behaving exactly how I would expect someone to when they’re presented with a once-in-a-life opportunity to achieve their dream. You’re doing everything correctly, Mackus. I’ve seen people manipulate a crisis for personal gain before, and your approach is flawless. Unfortunately, there is one outcome you haven’t prepared for.” He looked at Ubik. “None of us have.”
“Alright,” said Fig. “You don’t have a neural implant so you’ll need—”
“This?” said Ubik, holding up a metal band.
“How?” said Mackus.
“Found it over there,” said Ubik. “No idea what it is.” He placed it on his head. “Wear it like this do you?”
“Network, Figaro, identify.”
“Network recognises Figaro,” said a voice.
“This is a mistake,” said Mackus. But for all his protestations, his posture suggested he was more excited than upset. He thought this was his chance. Point-Two almost felt sorry for him.
“Transfer full control to neural band three. Confirm.”
“Control transfer confirmed.”
“Oh, wow,” said Ubik, his eyes lighting up with glee and a grin exploding across his face. “I can see everything. This is amazing.”
Lights on the consoles flashed and formed patterns, waves of colour running across the boards.
“Kill him,” said Mackus. The two drones hovering over each of his shoulders shot towards Ubik.
Then they flew past him and smashed into the wall. Ubik didn’t even flinch, he was too busy looking around the room like he was seeing the mysteries of the universe unravel before his eyes.
“You don’t use drones to kill Ubik,” said Point-Two.
Mackus looked confused. “But.. but they aren’t part of the network.”
“The house is the network,” said Ubik. “If you’re in the house, you’re part of the network. This is so cool. You should see what I can see.”
The screens on the walls began to show different shots of the city, the plains, the seas, rapidly changing as more and more scenes appeared and disappeared. Then it was the planet from orbit, the stars, the wormhole.
“Can you locate my father?” asked Fig.
“He’s not on the asteroid?”
“I can’t see the asteroid.”
“But it’s right in front of the wormhole,” said Fig.
“I can’t see the asteroid,” said Ubik, “because of the huge Seneca warship in the way. Yoo hoo, I see you.”
He waved at the screen, which showed nothing but stars.
“The ship’s cloaked?” said Point-Two. “They never destroyed it?”
Fig turned to Mackus. “I have to admit, you got me.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Mackus, now distressed for real. “Look for yourself, there’s nothing there.”
“Hey, ladies,” said Ubik. “If I blow up a ship that’s already been destroyed, doesn’t that mean I can’t be prosecuted for its destruction? Can’t destroy something that doesn’t exist, right? I’ve got all these blueprints showing me where to target your weak spots, it’s not even fair. Here, I’ll give you a chance. First strike will be aft, portside, third compartment, thruster vent two. Terrible place to put a vent, by the way. Too close to the condenser block. Okay, brace yourselves.”
The screen shimmered and a huge ship appeared as if by magic.