The White Palace.
Figaro took the other two to the green room, the large changing area next to the landing pad at the back of the compound. This was where his father’s employees prepped for space flight, either to go up to the asteroid or to make various other journeys to the many Ollo facilities in the system.
Usually, the place would be full of people coming and going, but today it was just the three of them. Figaro went to the storeroom and brought out Ollo flight suits for the two latest members of the Ollo research team. It was only right that they be dressed appropriately. The suits were white, very plain, and extremely light.
“What’s this made of?” said PT, as he put it on. “It’s even lighter than my greys.”
“It’s a material my father developed. He calls it flaxen, but I’m not sure what it’s really made of. Some chemical compound no one’s ever heard of before, probably. We only have six of them and they each cost a large fortune to manufacture.”
“Ah, yes,” said Ubik, stroking the suit, “I’ve seen this before.”
“I don’t see how,” said Figaro. “It isn’t commercially available.”
“I once broke into the rich guy’s house,” said Ubik, “during my wild youth — don’t worry, I’m a reformed character these days — and the toilet paper in his bathroom felt just like this.” Ubik sighed. “Best dump of my life.” He sighed again, a fond memory playing in his mind.
“We also have a range of weapons,” said Figaro. “I wasn’t sure what you’d want to take, though. They do have some up there, but I don’t know what kind of—”
“No weapons,” said Ubik. “We are men of science.” He lifted up his head and jutted out his chin.
“Aren’t you going to wear one?” asked PT, ignoring Ubik’s posing.
Figaro was wearing his regular flight suit. “No, I prefer this one. I’m used to it and it’s not quite as snug as those ones.”
Figaro pressed the pad on Ubik’s shoulder and the suit tightened, making Ubik gasp. Once it had shrunk to fit his body, the ribbing expanded and formed a black mesh.
“Environmental controls are self-regulated,” said Figaro. “It will adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in. It can withstand a blast of up to 118 gigajoules. Anything more than that will cause a breach.”
“It can take a direct hit from a mounted laser cannon?” said PT.
“Yes,” said Figaro. “A ship’s cannon is the upper limit, although the impact would probably shatter your skeleton and crush your internal organs. Sustained rapid-fire of less intensity may also kill you. We are going into an unexplored Antecessor site, we most likely will encounter some hostility. These suits will provide you with some protection but it would still be better if you try to avoid being hit.”
“I’ll do my best,” said PT. He hit his own shoulder and the suit conformed to his body.
“Couldn’t work out a shock absorption system to disperse the impact?” said Ubik. He checked himself over, twisting and turning to get a look at himself. Then he put his boots on over the top of the integrated footwear the suit provided.
Figaro considered telling him the boots weren’t necessary, but he was sure his words would be met with derision and an unabridged recital of the Delgado company manifesto.
“These suits will protect you better than anything else, under the circumstances,” said Figaro. The Ollo brand deserved some recognition, even if it would never meet Ubik’s high standards — that would require a D symbol embossed somewhere. “They still have to obey the laws of physics, though.”
Ubik stood up and stamped his feet so the boots fit better over his already padded extremities. He crouched down and began making adjustments to the boots. “You have to obey the current laws of physics. Once you change them, then it’s a lot easier to get things done the way you want.”
“How can you change the laws of physics?” said PT. “Are you a cosmic being, Ubik. Did you come down from the stars to show us mortals how to rewire our tronics on a budget?”
“No,” said Ubik. “You’re looking at it back-to-front. There are no laws of physics. There are only natural laws that operate on a universal scale that we can’t use. In natural units, all units are constant. At the birth of the universe, the amount of energy present was one unit. Now, the amount of energy present is also one unit. What we do to calculate changes and rise and fall of energy is meaningless.”
“While I agree that’s true on a universal scale,” said Figaro, “we only need to worry about what applies to us. Isn’t that what you do? Take what you’ve got in front of you and put it to the best use you can?”
“It’s what I do now,” said Ubik. “Tomorrow, maybe it won’t work.”
“As long as it works today,” said PT. “That’s all that really matters.”
“You’ll never progress beyond your limitations thinking like that,” said Ubik. “It works for now, in our limited space. Once we enter a larger space, or if we manage to make it into universal space, then it will stop working. Our laws are like if you went into someone’s house and they had blue paint on the walls, and when you chipped it off you found there was older, yellow paint underneath. What would people say?”
“They’d say, ‘How did you get in my house’,” said PT. “‘Get out you vandal.’”
“They’d say, Ah, behind every blue wall, there is a yellow wall. And then they’d go next door, where they also had blue walls, and try to scrape the paint off, but the homeowners wouldn’t let them—”
“I’m surprised they even let them in the door,” said PT.
“Don’t need a door if you have windows,” said Ubik. “But even if they can’t check, they’d say it was true for now and make it the universal law of painting and decorating and win awards and, you know, that’s science.”
“This is very specific,” said PT. “Is this also when you were breaking into people’s houses?”
“He’s right,” said Figaro. “Except that when they did eventually manage to find a way to strip the paint, they would find there actually was yellow paint underneath there, too. It’s not like there isn’t evidence for our theories to be true.”
“That isn’t science,” said PT. “That’s people living unimaginative lives. Eventually, they’ll find a home with blue walls without a yellow undercoat. Then what? It all falls apart?”
“No,” said Ubik. “Then we discover the science of quantum decorating.”
Ubik pulled what looked like a loose thread from his sleeve and the black mesh changed colour to red. “I think this colour goes better with my boots.”
PT carefully examined his own sleeve and found no thread to pull. “Did you know the suit could do that?”
“No,” said Figaro. “I’m pretty sure it can’t. My father has no interest in meaningless customisation. We only have white paint on the exterior of our house, to protect against the weather.”
“Let’s go,” said Ubik. “I can’t wait to see this ship. It’s going to be something special, I can feel it. A ship so advanced, Ramon Ollo hasn’t even tested it yet, because of the inherent danger.”
“Wait,” said PT. “What inherent danger? What kind of ship is this? Ubik, hold on, don’t you think we should take a normal shuttle or something?”
They left the green room through large metal doors that slid aside to let in a stiff breeze, and stepped out onto the landing pad. The three of them strode across the open area.
The ship waiting for them wasn’t very big — about the size of a regular shuttle — and gave no indication it was anything else. It was a grey box with no features, no armaments (not visible ones) and a noticeable lack of cosmetic modification. One thing did stand out, however. On the side of the ship, across the door that was halfway between front and back, was the ship’s name: POV Ubik.
“Bit of a coincidence,” said PT, “your father naming his new ship after Ubik.”
Figaro looked at the name with a slight frown. “He only ever gives his creations numerical designation for cataloguing purposes. If my mother hadn’t intervened, I would have been Ollo-37689.”
“Why not Ollo-1?” asked PT.
“Already in use,” said Figaro. “A self-replicating microchip. We don’t get on.”
“I put the name on it when I pulled it up,” said Ubik. “Give it a bit of character.” He walked up to the ship and patted it. “It’s not that your dad doesn’t do fashion, he just doesn’t have the time to jazz stuff up. If we had longer, I would have requisitioned a whole new look. Right, maiden voyage of the Private Ollo Vessel Ubik, ready for launch.”
The three of them stood there.
“Aren’t you going to open the door?” asked PT.
“I can’t,” said Ubik. “It’ll only open for Fig.”
“Ah,” said PT, “so you can’t override this system without permission. And only for a limited time. Interesting. I think I’ll make Ollo my brand of choice.”
“Obviously.” Ubik rolled his eyes. “Ollo systems are the most advanced in the galaxy. I’d need at least a couple of hours to crack them.”
Figaro walked up to the ship and the door opened, half flipping up and the other half forming a gangplank.
The interior lit up, starting at the doorway and spreading into the cabin in either direction. The interior was barebones, as Figaro had expected, with two seats and a control panel that was all knobs and wires.
Figaro took one of the seats. PT looked at Ubik.
“You might as well sit,” said PT.
“I’m fine.” Ubik tapped his heels and remained standing. “Delgados.”
“Okay,” said PT, sitting down and strapping himself in. “So what’s so special about this thing? Super-fast, is it?”
Figaro looked at the panel. There was no onboard AI and no assisted controls, but he was familiar enough with his father’s methods and practices to have a rough idea of what the knobs did. Most of them, anyway.
A screen turned on, showing the exterior, and a HUD lit up to provide readings and telemetry.
“From what I can tell,” said Figaro, performing the flight check, “seems to have a modified core. Hasn’t been tested, so this could also be the Ubik’s last journey.”
“How often do your father’s inventions explode on ignition?” asked PT.
“About half and half,” said Figaro.
“It’ll be fine,” said Ubik. “I checked the diagnostic logs. This ship, under controlled conditions, sixteen percent chance of exploding.”
“Good odds,” said Figaro. He activated the engine and fired the thrusters. The ship rose very quickly but there was no change in gravity or pressure inside the cabin.
“This is the smoothest acceleration I’ve ever experienced,” said PT. “I hardly felt us move at all.”
Within seconds, they were in the upper atmosphere. The HUD started to flash and blink, then stabilised once Figaro had twisted some knobs. He wasn’t sure what the telemetry meant, he just levelled it out and kept it within an acceptable range. It wasn’t a very long trip and the ship had all the basic systems in place. He wasn’t sure why Ubik had wanted to use this particular ship — it didn’t seem to be anything more than an advanced engine design that required very little fuel — but he was willing to be guided by Ubik’s instincts.
“We’ve got an incoming message,” said Ubik, pointing at the screen. He had a panel open and was doing something to the internal wiring Figaro was certain his father wouldn’t approve of.
“I don’t see anything,” said Figaro. Then the symbol appeared where Ubik had pointed.
“How did you know that?” said PT. “Are you psychic now?”
“No, just felt the vibrations in the air.” Ubik smiled in the way he did whenever he lied and knew you knew he was lying.
Figaro opened a channel.
“This is the Central Authority. This a restricted area. Return to your point of origin.”
“This is POV…” Figaro hesitated. “This is an official Ollo research vessel heading for the Tethari wormhole control centre. If you have queries, please contact Mackus.”
There was a pause.
“They’re scanning us,” said Figaro.
“Good thing we’re unarmed,” said PT.
The journey took eight minutes. There was no sensation of movement other than the change in size of the asteroid as they approached.
Then the screen went green and the interior flashed red.
“This doesn’t seem good,” said PT.
“We’re being targeted by the asteroid’s defence matrix,” said Figaro. “Don’t worry about it. My father’s systems all have two protocols in common. One is to never fire on me, no matter who’s in control of them. And the other is to use their full power against me without reservation, if I happen to have lost control of my organic. Since I’m currently in full command of my senses…”
The lights returned to normal.
No one contacted them as they came in across the rocky barren terrain. Either the comms were down or there was no one left to operate them.
“I’m going to bring us down on the secondary landing pad,” said Figaro. “It’s a short walk to the base from there but we’ll have a better chance to see what the situation is.”
“You think the site’s been compromised?” asked PT.
“I’m not sure,” said Figaro. “Better to be cautious.”
“Interesting concept,” said Ubik.
Figaro brought the ship down on a flat piece of tarmac with landing markings. It was a soft landing with no issues. He had made it to the asteroid after years of asking his father and being told not yet.
“The gravity here,” said PT, “it’s—”
The ship shook and the console lit up.
“We’re being shot,” said Figaro.
“From where? Are we damaged?”
“No, we took no damage,” said Figaro. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing. “And it’s from next to us. It’s stopped.”
The screen switched to a side view. There was a large molten lump on the pad that hadn’t been there when they came in to land.
“It’s a ship,” said Ubik. “Or was. Must have been cloaked.”
“What happened to it?” said PT.
“It opened fire on us. This ship is fitted with a reflector shield. If anyone fires on us it’ll send back the fire to the point of origin with roughly a one-thousand-fold increase in power. Their offence is our best defence. Not bad for a prototype. Let’s go have a look.” The ship door opened.
“Did you just open the door?” asked PT.
“Had a little time to work on it.” Ubik exited the ship.
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