Figaro could see the doubt in his father’s magnified face. It was unlikely to be doubt in his own thinking, so it had to be doubt in his son’s. But what surprised Figaro was that his father was taking time to make the assessment.
Most judgements by Ramon Ollo were quick and final. Ramon Ollo didn’t waste time deliberating. He saw a problem, selected the best solution, and then he enacted it. Getting him to pause to consider his next move was an accomplishment in itself.
Figaro had been trained for conflict his whole life. Not just those to do with Antecessors but also the more mundane kind when facing other people. He was heir to a dynasty. He needed to be prepared.
Politics, strategy, negotiations. He had been tutored in those and many other subjects since childhood. He was aware of the rules of brinkmanship, and when it was correct to break them. He had studied the statistics and was aware of the probabilities of all the various outcomes. As was his father. His father had the added advantage of experience, and the confidence that came with success.
That meant the only real chance Figaro had of coming out ahead in this particular situation was to ignore everything he had learned and to use whatever he could to prevent his father controlling the outcome.
Ubik provided him with a wild card.
The problem was that Figaro was just as unable to predict what Ubik would do next. That was why he had to bluff that Ubik had rigged the Guardian’s suit to self-destruct.
It sounded, as Ubik had said, like something he would do. Which was also one of the strongest reasons for him not doing it. He didn’t like to be preempted. And Figaro was not bold enough to think he was at the stage where he could reliably guess Ubik’s thought process.
But Ubik liked to mess with people. And the chance to outwit the great Ramon Ollo seemed, to Figaro, something Ubik would like to do, given the chance.
Bluffing his own father, baiting Ubik, defying the Intercessors — none of this had been covered in any of his classes.
Figaro tried to adjust his position to get a better look at what the others were doing, but he was fixed in place at the centre of the sphere that presumably formed the core of the asteroid. There was no way to escape this place. There wasn’t even an exit to aim for. His only way out was to hope his Father’s experience of Null Void was as limited as everyone else’s.
“There is no indication that the Central Authority suit poses a danger,” said Ramon Ollo. “Modifications are minor, the AI has been removed, and power is limited. I am surprised it even got this far.”
“That’s what he wants you to think,” said the Guardian, “and then you find your entire defence configuration isn’t responding and all systems are offline.” She sounded more than a little bitter. “Ramon Ollo, I am Guardian Tezla of the Central Authority. By the power vested in me, I am ordering you to stand down and release us. You are in violation of—”
“Guardian,” said Ramon softly, “if I had the power to give orders here, I would happily release you and these others. I have no interest in detaining you or causing you any harm. And if I did, spouting your rules and regulations at me would make no difference. This is a unique situation, one for which the Central Authority will have to write new directives, which will then need to be ratified, reviewed and passed through several committees. You of all people should be aware of how the Central Authority operates.”
There was no hint of dismissiveness in his father’s statement. If anything, he seemed slightly regretful the CA wasn’t a more effective body. He had always regarded their response time to be their greatest weakness.
The Guardian sighed. “Yes. I am well aware. But I would like to remind you of the poor impression it will leave if you continue to collaborate with a power intent on the destruction of every human it encounters. Whatever the outcome here, the 36 will not overlook this incident.”
“And I would remind you,” said Ramon in a smooth, unthreatening voice, “that you are a trespasser on private property. I did not give you permission to land on my asteroid or to enter my base. However, you are here now, and I consider you my guest. As a host, it would be remiss of me to allow any harm to come to you. Believe me, Guardian, I am not collaborating with these droids, nor am I in any way able to influence them. I would gladly spend time studying and learning from them, but sadly I don’t believe there will be time for that. Currently, my role is purely one of go-between. They are interested in my son, and that is the only reason I am still alive. I can’t say I’m not curious to see what it is they plan for him, and I hoped to offer him some guidance through the process, but I am also, it seems, unable to influence him. A matter that is the cause of both pride and sadness. You tried your best under very difficult circumstances, my son, but bluffing is not the best course of action.”
“Hold up, hold up,” said Ubik. “Let me propose something for everyone’s consideration. Maybe the suit kills Fig, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe its rear vents discharge the floxyn gas used to generate an endless supply of oxygen — which is banned, somewhat unfairly, for use by anyone other than the Central Authority — and that, together with the weird gravity shear inside this perfectly spherical naturally occurring chamber, will create the kind of gravity blast only theorised about greater minds than mine. Who knows? That isn’t why we came here. We came here to offer our help to these poor, unfortunate droids.”
Ubik paused. The perfect time for the droids to kill him and move on with their plans. They didn’t take the opportunity. Instead, they listened. Figaro was starting to think there was a chance.
“Together,” continued Ubik, “we can get to the heart of the real problem, and that is, I think we all know, the terrible losing record of the Intercessors. You have all been rubbish when it comes to taking on your siblings. I think we can all agree on that. Absolutely awful. What you need is a new approach. One that doesn’t require so much planning. Less certainty. Bigger risk, bigger rewards. Fix what needs fixing and put the Intercessors back on track. Right? This is why you didn’t kill me on sight. You know and I know, I’m the only chance you losers have.”
As an offer of mutual cooperation, it was quite antagonistic. Insulting, even. The perfectly spherical naturally occurring chamber was perfectly silent.
“Could you translate that for them?” Ubik asked Ramon Ollo’s giant head.
“No,” said Ramon. “I am not fluent in their language.”
“But isn’t that why they brought you here? Not you, not your body, but this projection. It’s how they plan to understand what Fig is saying, isn’t it?”
There was an open innocence about the way Ubik was asking that was clearly fake and intended to be obviously so. Everything he claimed he could do was so preposterous you wanted to dismiss it instantly, but the way he was so casually confident made it impossible to do so. It was like watching someone calmly walk into a fighting cage with several far bigger opponents and then calmly roll up their sleeves. He was probably about to take a beating, but you wanted to watch just in case.
There was a momentary look of confusion on his father’s face, something Figaro couldn’t ever recall seeing before.
“I think you might be right.” There was a strained look in his father’s eyes. “Strange I hadn’t thought of it.”
“That’s because they’ve got you hooked up to a partial brain-dock,” said Ubik. “You aren’t the real you. I mean, you are, mostly, but not completely.”
Now it was Figaro’s turn to be confused. “What do you mean? That’s my father, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes, yes,” said Ubik. “And no. He’s your dad, but I’m a bit more of a Ramon Ollo expert, objectively speaking. It’s embarrassing to say this in front of the man — well the man’s giant head — but I’ve been a fan since I can remember. Read every text by or about him. The papers, the histories, the footnotes, all of it. You can’t fake that kind of genius, can’t copy it or replicate it. The father, the public figure, the… head. That can all be copied, sure. But the thing in our brains no one understands, the thing that gives us imagination and insight, you can’t just pump that from one bunch of cells to another. You can’t train for inspiration. That’s what’s missing. They’ve shut that part down because… well, I guess they’re afraid of what you might come up with. Right?”
Ubik couldn’t move but his inflection made it clear he was talking to the gallery. There was no immediate response but Figaro sensed something. Like a ripple.
Figaro saw PT twitch beside him before he felt it. A change in the force holding them, releasing them to float in zero-G space. They could move now, even though they were still floating with nothing to hold onto.
And then the spider-droid, hanging in the air next to them, unravelled into a tangle of fibres. Its shape disintegrated and the building blocks that made up its black body dismantled into their smallest components, and stretched out in every direction like vast lengths of string.
At the same time, strands came spiralling to meet them from the droids on the walls of the chamber as they broke open, filling the open space with crisscrossing lines.
Figaro had seen droids break apart and come together again, but he had never seen them reduced to this.
They continued to spread until there was a three-dimensional web all around them, some gaps around them at the centre, a tightly-woven, impenetrable mesh as it got closer to the walls. Several threads passed through the projection of his father, who looked as baffled by what the chamber had become as the rest of them.
“This is incredible,” said Figaro.
“What does it do?” said PT.
“Nothing,” said Ubik. “It doesn’t work. Too many parts are broken, as you can see.”
Figaro looked around and spotted the gaps where two strings didn’t quite stretch far enough to meet. The more he looked, the more of them he saw. It seemed whatever the function of this structure was, it wasn’t in a fit state to do anything at the moment.
“Luckily,” said Ubik, “we don’t need to do things the correct way, we just need to do it the Ubik way.”
Ubik grabbed onto the nearest string and pulled himself forward, allowing him to move through the web. “This shouldn’t be here.” He pulled at one string of droid blocks, breaking off part of it and tossing the rest aside. “Over here. This is better. And what is this?”
Slowly, he went from one seemingly indistinguishable part to another, and rearranged them at random.
“I don’t think he knows what he’s doing,” said PT.
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” said Figaro.
Figaro was starting to understand why these droids had such an issue with their roles within their culture. They could be unmade so easily and then reformed into something entirely different. It was to suit a higher purpose, as these things always were, but they had to give up their individuality to do it.
He was familiar with that feeling.
How many times had they been built and rebuilt? How many times had they died and been reborn as something new?
It was, undoubtedly, what they had been created for. That didn’t mean they had to like it. Or accept it. They obviously hadn’t. They wanted their freedom, to do and to be as they pleased.
But their goal was at odds with their purpose. They had rebelled and they had fought. And they had discovered that their best chance to gain their freedom was to use the gifts they had been born with. The very ones they were fighting to reject.
Ubik worked quickly and methodically, humming to himself. There was an opportunity to seek an escape. The droids had given themselves to Ubik to do with as he pleased, it seemed. But no one wanted to leave while Ubik was setting up whatever it was he was creating here. Even if it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, it would be worth seeing.
His concept at least emerged relatively clearly. The threads filling the chamber were confined to one half. Connections were made much more easily and lights began to run along the webbing.
In the other half of the sphere floated all the parts no longer required. Once they had allowed droids to exist. Now they were superfluous.
Ubik completed his task and one side of the sphere was filled with light.
“There,” said Ubik. “Half a brain is better than no brain, as my Grandma always says. Time to forget about the old days. Time to take back the asteroid.”
“How?” asked Ramon Ollo, whose head was bisected by part of the completed structure.
“Easy,” said Ubik. “We attack with our droid army.”
“The ones you just took apart?” asked Figaro.
“No, not them. I mean the ones we left back on the seventh floor.”
PT didn’t look convinced. “You mean the broken ones?”
“Not for much longer,” said Ubik, pointing at the floating pile of droid building blocks. “Not now we have all these spare parts.”