Planet Quazi - Orbit.
Leyla knew something wasn’t right. She couldn’t put it in words, she had no specific thing to point at, she didn’t even have any evidence to support her suspicions, but she had experienced this feeling before.
It was the icy chill that crawled up her spine every time she stepped in front of one of Ubik’s concoctions.
Whether she was fighting with him or against him, when he put his plans into action — while acting like they had nothing to do with him — there was always the odd sensation that whatever you did was exactly what he wanted you to do.
At first, she had brushed it off as an irrational fear of someone who seemed to take ridiculous risks that somehow always paid off. Being lucky was better than being good, and far more dangerous.
But experience had taught her that luck had nothing to do with it. That was just what he wanted you to think.
That was why he always chose the path that seemed the most unlikely to succeed. So that when he did succeed — by methods she still wasn’t sure of, he hid them so well — it would look like he had once again been blessed by the universe.
Who could hope to defeat someone with fate on their side?
He was like a gambler who made such large bets that he couldn’t possibly be bluffing. And those that thought he had to be, lost everything to him because of course he never was. He was cheating.
“Well, Freya, what are you waiting for?” asked Nigella, sitting in the captain’s chair with her cloak overflowing over the arms, making it look like an obsidian throne.
General Freya appeared to hear her and not hear her. There was a distant look in her eyes, as though she was making calculations.
“I asked you a question, Freya.” Nigella’s voice was hard and demanding.
“I don’t understand,” said General Freya, lifting her head slightly to face Nigella. “You want to extract the one called Point-Two, but not your son?”
“Of course I want my son,” said Nigella. “He is the reason I am here. But this Point-Two, he must be brought in. He has the answers we’ve been looking for. The others are dispensable.”
“Very well,” said Freya. “We can send in a small extraction unit. What’s it like down on the planet?”
One of the bridge crew came running up with a datapad in hand. The woman was excited and spoke quickly, happy to be sharing her findings. “Severe storms are escalating across the planet. It can’t be natural. The whole globe is experiencing a rise in temperature and winds that are breaking the sound barrier. Waves are hundreds of metres high and staying at that amplitude in a regulated manner. It’s uncanny. There isn’t anywhere that’s unaffected. And every reading is consistent across the board. Zero variation. It’s like the planet is being brought to the boil.”
Freya nodded. “Looks like it’s being prepped for some kind of transformation.” She turned back to Nigella. “Sending people down there is tantamount to a suicide mission.”
“Then I’ll send my people,” said Nigella. The chair rotated so she faced the team of guards around the cradle. “Captain Fermont. I want you to take a small team down to the planet.”
“Understood,” said the shortest of the women. She may have been less physically imposing than her compatriots but she more than made up for it with the intensity of her presence. She was like ten people condensed into one taut, sinewy body.
She looked at the women beside her. “I’ll take Speers and Otenu.”
“Good,” said Nigella. The chair swivelled back. “You,” she said to Leyla, “we’ll need all the information you have on Point-Two.” She nodded at the psych who stepped forward.
Leyla stepped back, tensing. Weyla moved to stand beside her, ready.
“Are you refusing a direct order?” said Nigella.
“I don’t have to follow orders,” said Leyla. “I’m not a member of the Corps. And neither are you.”
“Do you really think that makes any difference?” said Nigella, her voice softening to almost a lullaby.
“I have no doubt you can have us both killed,” said Leyla, remaining focused on the women poised to attack from all directions, “but that won’t get you the information you want. And if you think you can capture us alive, we still have our seppukill inserts.”
“And we won’t be going out alone,” added Weyla, her eyes fixed on the Psych, who would clearly be no match for her in a physical confrontation. “The psych’s a certainty. I’d say I’ll be able to take down at least two more before you get anywhere near stopping me. Three times Corps combat-ranking champion, in case any of you forgot.”
Hate poured towards the sisters as Weyla deliberately goaded them, while Leyla braved the steady stare from Armageddon.
“I understand your concerns,” said Nigella, “but there is too much at stake here. Things you aren’t aware of. If we’re to survive, sacrifices must be made, by all of us.”
“For the greater good?” Leyla sneered.
“There is no greater good,” said Leyla, “only greater power. If you think you can make us do what you want, then go ahead. But you’re the one who isn’t aware of what’s at stake here. You send in these girls and Ubik will send them back in pieces.”
“You seem to hold the boy in very high regard,” scoffed Nigella.
“You haven’t seen him in action,” said Weyla. “He doesn’t hesitate and he doesn’t get taken by surprise. He’s probably already prepared a welcome for you.”
“I’ve read your files. Have you developed feelings for him? Is that the reason you’re willing to betray your own?”
“He isn’t my type,” said Weyla. “And as for what’s in my file, don’t we have that in common?”
Nigella’s face darkened at the mention of her own exit from the Corps and the reason behind it. “I didn’t leave over a fling.”
“I don’t regret my decision,” said Weyla.
“How noble of you.” Nigella stood up. “You are still true to the Seneca ways, I’ll give you that. You refuse to back down against any opponent, as it should be. Very well. Take them with you.”
Captain Fermont was visibly startled. “Sir?”
“You heard me, Captain. They can provide you with intel in situ.” She glanced over at Weyla. “And a little extra muscle never hurts.”
“What makes you think we want to go back down there?” said Leyla, still tensed and ready for an attack.
“Don’t you?” said Nigella, her tone much more agreeable all of a sudden. “Isn’t that what all this posturing is for? Force me to grant you access back to your friends.”
Leyla relaxed, just a little. “We’ll go, but only because it’s the best chance we have of coming out of this alive. Figaro is who they want. They’ll kill anyone in their way, but they won’t kill him.”
“Incoming message from the High Council,” called out someone from the comms station. “Priority one.”
“We’ve got contacts entering the quadrant,” called out another voice. “It’s the First Battalion.”
“Second Battalion is hailing us,” said a third.
The three most powerful fleets in the Seneca Corps had gathered to face the threat of the Antecessors. Nothing on this scale had been seen for over a hundred years.
“Go,” said Nigella. “I’ll hold them off as long as I can, but they will undoubtedly decide to destroy the planet rather than allow it to destabilise the entire quadrant.”
Captain Fermont, still looking like she thought she had been handed a massive handicap to an already difficult mission, spun around and headed for the elevator. “With me,” she snapped at Leyla and Weyla as she marched past.
The baby began crying as they left the bridge.
The five of them exited on the hangar level and headed towards Nigella’s sleek, silver ship which looked like no other vessel Leyla had ever seen. The designation on the side read: POV Cygnet. An Ollo-made craft.
Leyla and Weyla brought up the rear, ignored like unwanted step-siblings.
“You really want to go back down?” said Weyla. “We only just managed to get out of there.”
“You have somewhere better to be?”
“That broadcast we saw,” said Leyla, “did you ever see Ubik surprised or caught off-guard before?”
Weyla thought about it. “No.”
“And he knew exactly who was watching on the other end.”
Weyla nodded. “He sent the broadcast here. So?”
“So he had a reason to do it. I don’t know what it was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this boat has already been compromised.”
Weyla looked around the massive hangar. “You think he’s taken control of the entire ship?”
Leyla shrugged. “If he has, he won’t be using it to take a pleasure cruise. I know we’ll have a better chance of surviving if we don’t get flown into the nearest star or black hole.”
Weyla began to move quicker.
They caught up with the others and entered the Cygnet. Just as they were about to enter the cabin, Fermont turned around and pushed her face nose-to-nose with Leyla.
“Listen carefully. I don’t care what essential knowledge you have or how tough you think you are now that you’ve been on the outside a few years, when we leave the Venerate, you’re under my command. You do as I say and follow orders to the letter.” She turned her head to look at Weyla. “We haven’t been introduced. Captain Luci Fermont, current Corps combat-ranking champion.”
She didn’t wait for a response and headed towards the pilot seat.
As soon as she sat down, the instrument panel lit up and the ship’s door closed. The engines began to hum.
“Fermont, are you ready?” said Nigella’s voice over the speakers.
“The High Council has ordered us to combine our attacks and neutralise the planet.”
“How long can you hold them off?” said Fermont.
“Hard to say. The Central Authority have also arrived. That should help with stalling things for a few hours at least.”
“Nigella, are you sure about this?” Fermont’s tone was much more casual now that they weren’t in front of anyone.
“You know there’s no other way. I’m counting on you to bring my son back.”
“And this Point-Two character?”
“We’ll be in a much stronger negotiating position with him than without him, but Figaro is your priority.” Her ambivalence towards her son had also disappeared now there was no audience.
“And keep an eye on your guests. They may have plans of their own.”
Leyla had no doubt she was speaking over the speakers with the intention of being overheard.
“You can count on it,” said Fermont.
The two others in the cabin — Speers and Otenu — sat opposite the sisters, glaring at them.
Weyla took out her gun and began to clean it.
“Private Ollo Vessel Cygnet, this is flight control. You are cleared for departure. Be advised, weather conditions on Quazi are reaching critical. Recommend you maintain full shields at all times. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” muttered Fermont.
As they left the hangar, screens at the front of the ship showed the wreckage floating around them, the planet ahead of them, and the Seneca Corps First Battalion: hundreds of ship arriving like an unfurled carpet,
The Cygnet veered off, picking its way through the debris, heading for the planet.
Leyla’s hearing was good enough for her to be able to hear Fermont speaking bitterly to herself: “What a mess — the Affectionate’s hull, know it anywhere, tsk — all for a boy. Should’ve kept the placenta and thrown him away, I would’ve done it happily. Happily. Told her she should have only had daughters. Wouldn’t listen.”
The planet quickly grew to fill the screen. They began the descent.
The blue oceans were obscured by thick white clouds. As they entered the atmosphere, the ship began to rock and shake.
“Strap in,” Fermont called out. “I think—”
She didn’t get any further before the Cygnet’s engines went dead and the ship was thrown into a spinning dive.
Leyla activated her organic but it only allowed her to avoid the bits of the disintegrating ship that were flying around the cabin.
They had seriously underestimated the storms on Quazi. The ship was not going to be able to cope, not unless Ramon Ollo had installed some kind of ultra-impregnable safety feature. She hoped her seat could be used as a flotation device.
Then they were tumbling and spinning so fast she couldn’t even think.
The ship stopped spinning and levelled out. It was still being buffeted but the pilot was compensating somehow. Only, judging from how she was sitting slumped to the side, the pilot had been knocked unconscious.
“This is a lovely little ship,” said an elderly voice.
“Who is that?” said the one called Speers, her face cut and bruised.
“Grandma?” said Leyla.
“Oh, hello there. You alright, are you? Keeping well?”
“Why are you… Did Ubik send you?”
“That’s right. He’s such a terrible boy, always sending his poor old gran off to do errands. Go here, go there, get me a way off this planet before the Corps blows it up. Never ends, I tell you.”
“Who is she?” said Otenu. “And how did she take control of the ship?”
“It’s fine,” said Weyla. “She’s with Ubik.”
“The guy you said was the biggest threat to the quadrant?” said Speers.
“Oh, he’s not a threat,” said Grandma, “he’s just a naughty boy sometimes. He thinks very highly of your Corps, though, even if he won’t admit it. Doesn’t mind your alternative lifestyle at all. Personally, I don’t really hold with it, but who am I to judge? Just an old, old lady. I just hope you all wash your hands regularly. Ooh, looks like we’re breaking through this nasty business.”
The clouds covering the screen cleared, revealing water. Lots of water, all of it enraged.
Giant waves rolled across the surface like mobile mountains. The ship rocked from side to side but kept its altitude.
“We have to take back control of the ship,” said Speers.
“Calm down,” said Leyla. “It’s not like she’s going to jettison us.”
“Of course I won’t,” said Grandma. “Not while I need you for ballast.”
The ship suddenly went into a steep dive and they flew straight into the water.