Figaro was surprised and relieved to see his father, even if it was only a projection of him. It at least meant he was still alive.
“Are you safe?” asked Figaro.
“I am unharmed and not in any immediate danger,” replied the image of Ramon Ollo’s head. Figaro stared up at it intently, trying to confirm that it really was his father. The Antecessor technology could easily replicate his features, but the look in his eyes and the sheer weight of authority in his tone were not things easily imitated. It was his father speaking to him.
“Where are you?” said Figaro, looking up at the image taking up most of the chamber. His eyes seemed to stare directly at Figaro, as calmly as though they were talking over the communication network back home. Even at this scale, his face was hard to read.
“I can’t say for sure,” said Ramon Ollo, his voice emanating from his mouth in the unhurried manner Figaro was used to. “It isn’t important. You look well. I am glad to see you here.” A small smile formed on the stern face. “We have much we need to do and time is limited.”
Figaro nodded. His father was never one for displays of emotion, and always eager to complete the next task on his list. And he always had a list. “You don’t want me to get you out of here?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Ramon. “It would be a waste of time in any case. Is Mackus here with you?”
“No,” said Figaro.
“You’re in contact with him?”
“No. Mackus is dead, Father. He thought you had been killed and tried to take control of the household. He left me no choice.”
“I see.” His father didn’t seem all that surprised. Had he always expected Mackus to make a challenge once he was gone? Perhaps he had considered Figaro only worthy of his birthright if he was able to meet such a challenge. “Regrettable.” There was no hint of regret on his face. “I would have hoped he’d look for confirmation before making such a move. I trained him better than that, I thought. I am pleased you were the one to survive.”
“I had help,” said Figaro, reluctant to let his father think he had somehow outfoxed Mackus alone. Claiming more for himself than he had earned felt wrong.
“That makes it no less impressive,” said Ramon Ollo. “But our options are somewhat limited now. Nevertheless, we must act and act immediately. I have learned much from my captors. The answers I have been searching for my whole life are within reach and I am loath to let the opportunity slip away. This facility is occupied by two separate groups of Antecessors. They are at war with one another — a war that lasted for several millennia, and then came to a sudden standstill. Until now. I believe you are the catalyst that reignited this conflict, and you will be the one to end it. And the entirety of the human race will benefit. A new age is upon us.”
Figaro watched his father speak with a fire in his eyes. It was the nearest to unbridled enthusiasm he had ever seen from him. His passion was usually compressed into a hard point and aimed at his work. This was clearly a big moment for him. The culmination of his life’s work.
“What do you want me to do?” said Figaro, his stomach tightening.
“Follow the droid they will send for you,” said Ramon. “It will bring you to me.”
“Yes, Father,” said Figaro. His head felt light and a wave of nausea swept over him. He was rushing towards a precipice, it felt like.
“Wait,” said PT. “Do you think you might want to tell us what it is you’re planning?”
“It’s fine,” said Figaro. “This is why I’m here.”
“No,” said PT, “it isn’t fine. It’s great that you’re happy to do as you’re told, Fig, but whatever your relationship with your father, he isn’t the only one reliant on you here. You are the only thing keeping us alive, remember?”
“Ahem, hello,” said Ubik. “I think you’re forgetting this season’s MVP. “
“You’re right,” said PT dryly. “Nifell also played a part. But he’s out of commission now.” He yanked on the collar of Nifell’s suit which was in his clenched fist.
“Funny,” said Ubik. “Mr Ollo, hi there. My name’s Ubik, nice to meet you.” He waved his hand in a wide sweep over his head. “I can see this is a family matter, so please don’t mind my young friend here. He was raised on a colony starship, so he isn’t used to being surrounded by people who don’t all look like him and share an abnormally high percentage of each other’s DNA.” Ubik cupped one hand around his mouth and leaned forward as though that would make the rest of what he had to say to the enormous projection of Ramon Ollo’s head more intimate and private. “Inbreeding and plenty of it, if you get my drift,” he shouted in a hoarse whisper.
For someone who professed to idolise his father, Ubik wasn’t exactly being deferential.
Ramon Ollo’s face contorted ever so slightly. Figaro couldn’t help but wince. He was well aware of what that meant. It was probably a good thing his father wasn’t here in person for his first meeting with Ubik.
“These are two members of the Free Volunteers Guild,” said Figaro. “They helped me get here.”
Ramon Ollo’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Just the three of you?”
Figaro could tell his father’s curiosity was piqued. Even if this was the dawn of a new age, that wouldn’t stop Ramon Ollo from wanting to solve a seemingly inexplicable mystery.
“Plus a Guardian from the Central Authority,” said PT. “Any idea what your new friends have done with her?” His tone wasn’t very respectful, either. He seemed quite belligerent, in fact, which was unlike him.
“No,” said Ramon Ollo, betraying no emotion. Which wasn’t a good thing. “It isn’t something we have time for right now. Figaro…”
“Mr Ollo,” interrupted PT. “I don’t think you understand the situation.”
“I understand perfectly,” said Ramon.
“No, I mean our situation,” said PT. “We helped your son to get here to rescue you, his father. In return for which, we expect to be rewarded in good faith.”
Figaro was surprised. PT had not indicated he expected anything of the sort. Ubik, yes, obviously. But PT had seemingly been happy to help as a friend.
“And when I say rewarded, I primarily mean not being left to die while you make a deal with the Intercessors to strip the organic out of your son’s body. That would make it very hard to collect all the other rewards we’re expecting.”
Not only was it strange that PT was making such a brazen claim at this moment, but even stranger was Ubik letting him do so without comment, just standing there with a large grin on his face. Figaro really had no idea what the two of them were up to. But he was, however, very sure that they were up to something.
“Ubik,” said Ubik again. “Junior partner. He’s the boss.” He pointed at PT. “I’m just the dogsbody. Soon to be looking for new employment, I’m guessing.”
“Point-Two,” said Figaro as reassuringly as he could. “I’m sure you will be allowed to leave this place now that you have delivered me here.”
“Are you?” said PT. “Like Tezla, you mean? It’s fine if you’re happy to let your father use you to impress his new friends, but that wasn’t our agreement. And if the Intercessors or your father or anyone else wants to step in and renegotiate, then I will have to ask my chief Antecessor analyst and Insanium droid expert—” he pointed at Ubik “—to reduce this place to a pile of rubble so no one gets to enjoy the new age of enlightenment.”
It was clearly a bluff. PT was counting on everyone involved being so invested in their plans for a brilliant future that they wouldn’t want to risk losing it all for the sake of upsetting a mercenary young guilder.
Figaro guessed that was what PT was doing. And if he could tell, no doubt so could his father. But what made Figaro think that maybe he wasn’t completely correct in his assessment was Ubik.
Ubik was far too happy with the way things were going, happy to let PT take the lead and ready to join in. And if Figaro’s studying of Ubik had revealed anything, it was that Ubik could see things no one else could. What was he seeing now that Figaro wasn’t?
For half a dozen heartbeats Figaro stared at the two of them. Then he turned his head towards his father, waiting to see how he would take PT’s impudence.
Ramon Ollo remained impassive. It took a lot to make him show his irritation with someone. “What is it you want, exactly?”
“Our Guardian back, for a start,” said PT. He seemed to have a clear idea of what he was doing, a plan of some kind. Not that it would do him much good, but Figaro was interested in seeing how far it got him. “And a way back to our ship.”
“And a cloaking device,” said Ubik. “One that works.”
There was a slight flicker across PT’s face. His ability to hide his irritation wasn’t so good.
“Do you understand that I am as much a prisoner here as you?” said Ramon.
“I understand we have something the Intercessors need,” said PT, “and it’s important you get it in one piece. If we put up a fight, something’s liable to get broken.”
The large head remained still but the eyes shifted towards Figaro. “And what do you think?”
His father never shied away from hearing the opinions of others. He was unlikely to agree or take advice, but he liked to have a clear idea of where everyone stood. He had taught Figaro to do likewise. The main reason for doing so was knowing who was likely to let him down and how they would go about it. You could force someone to do as you told them, but there were always some who would rather sabotage the group than have to play second fiddle. Identifying them and being prepared for their petty betrayal was one of many command strategies Figaro had been taught. Now his father seemed to be testing him.
“I owe them both my life. I couldn’t have made it here without them. I don’t think I could force them to do anything other than what they’ve already decided. Ubik is a Null Void, we’ve discovered, and it’s allowed him to achieve things I’ve never seen before.”
There was a slight cock of one eyebrow. His father had taken note.
“Is that so?” mused his father. He didn’t turn to look at Ubik, who was waving again, still grinning. “That is… unexpected. I would have liked to have looked into that a little more, but we lack the time.”
“I could come back later,” suggested Ubik.
“One moment.” His father’s face disappeared, leaving them alone in the large chamber.
“What was that about a cloaking device?” said PT.
“They’re very useful,” said Ubik. “They don’t actually work, I mean the ones you see advertised. Once you put up a shield that’s impenetrable to sensors, your own sensors can’t see out. Invisible but blind. And you can hide your engine’s signature, but as soon as you move, you leave a trail of drive emissions behind you, making it obvious where you are. So, blind and immobile.”
“Then why do you want one?” said PT.
“Because the one the Seneca ship had wasn’t like that. They had something that worked a lot better. No idea where they got it, but I don’t think they came up with it on their own. And the way everyone seems to have secret Antecessor tech, I figured they’ve been snagging the good stuff for themselves for who knows how long. This place must have something like that, so I thought it’d be worth taking a punt.”
“We do have other problems right now,” said PT.
Ubik pulled a face and waved away PT’s concerns. “You can’t let a few minor obstacles get in the way of cool item acquisition. Get your priorities straight, PT.”
Figaro watched the two bicker as they had always done. They seemed unfazed by their current predicament.
“What are you two doing?” he said. “My father isn’t going to be fooled by your bluff.”
“What bluff?” said PT. “I’m just trying to get out of this in one piece.”
“And I’m just waiting to see how badly he screws this up,” said Ubik. “Everyone thinks they can pull off an Ubik, but it’s not as easy as I make it look.”
“An Ubik?” said PT. “Really? That’s what you’re calling it?”
“He’s my father,” said Figaro. “I know you’re trying to help, but this is what he made me for. I was built to come here and unearth the truth behind the Antecessors. I’m probably the only person who can. I actually want to know myself.”
“You won’t get to be part of this,” said PT. “They just want your organic. That’s the deal your father made.”
“I’m the only one who can use it,” said Figaro.
“The only human,” said PT. He looked around. “See many of them around here?”
Figaro shook his head. “No. It’ll be dangerous, I know, but he wouldn’t...“
But he knew he would. Not as a first choice, but if that was the only way, or even if it was the best way, it would be worth it to him. He had spent his whole life getting to this point. Every day spent training Figaro was for this one purpose. He wouldn’t be happy about it, would mourn the loss of his son, but…
“You don’t know for sure,” said Figaro.
“No, I don’t,” said PT. “But you have a sister, just born. He doesn’t care. He will value her and raise her and spend time teaching her, but he will never love her. Just like he doesn’t love you. Not because of anything you’ve done, he just isn’t capable of it.”
“How do you…”
“I knew the moment I saw his face,” said PT with a bitter smile. “My father is also a brilliant psychopath. They learn to hide it well. They can’t hide it from their children.”
“I’m jealous,” said Ubik. “All this bonding over daddy issues. Not all of us were lucky enough to have a psychopath in our lives.”
“You are the psychopath in your life,” said PT.
“Oh, I get it. That’s why you look up to me. I’m a father figure to you.”
PT shook his head and said nothing.
Ramon Ollo’s face reappeared. “I have tried to communicate your needs to my captors. I think they understand the position.”
The floor shifted beneath them and Junior rose up, the Guardian in his black embrace, almost merged with him, it seemed.
The walls of the chamber began to glow. The broken droids in their cubicles showed signs of life, falling out and landing on the floor. Slowly getting up and shuffling towards them like the living dead.
“I am sorry, Figaro,” said Ramon Ollo. “They feel this is the more expedient route.”
“Okay,” said PT. “Your turn.”
“What do you mean?” said Ubik. “This is your idea.”
“Yes,” said PT. “Part one was me, now it’s all droids, it’s over to you. This is your wheelhouse, so take the wheel.”
“This is your plan?” said Ubik. “Leave everything to me? Actually, that’s not a bad plan.” He took out two items from somewhere. A long stick and short stick. He threw the smaller one to PT.
“What’s this?” said PT, catching it.
“Rex. Don’t ask and don’t tell Tezla.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“You saw where Junior took it from. Put it back.”
“How? Junior’s kind of in the way, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“One moment.” Ubik raised the stick in his other hand. Figaro recognised it. It was the gravity spike. “Now, Junior, you know I love you, but Daddy needs to be a psychopath to fit in.”
He threw the stick like a javelin. It left his hand at normal speed and then suddenly shot forward, slamming into Junior’s head.
Junior went flying back, leaving the Guardian exposed. PT was already moving.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (six chapters). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino