Figaro was the last of the three to enter the portal. He spared one last glance at the cube which dominated Quazi’s planet core — as well as the rest of Quazi — and stepped into the warped space the Fourth had created with the sigils. Or was it the Fourth’s helper that was making it possible? At least that would improve their chances of success this time.
He felt the now-familiar tug on every molecule of his being as his consciousness was elongated into an infinite thread. As his mind was stretched, he hoped there would be no permanent damage.
But that was just one of the problems they were facing. There were a lot of variables that had to work for this endeavour to be successful.
They were trusting the Fourth to send them to the correct place. They were also relying on the portal to not fail like last time.
And the Fourth and his new minion were the least worrying aspect of the plan (assuming there was a plan).
The real issue was Ubik. They were hoping Ubik knew what he was doing — no, there was no point hoping for that.
They were hoping Ubik would find a way to do what he claimed he was going to do — no, that wasn’t right either.
They were hoping Ubik would find a way to do what he claimed and that they would survive the process. It required a lot of faith, which was not the quality he had expected to be relying on when he left home to broaden his horizons.
Figaro knew from experience how hard it was to pull off one risky action. This was a whole series of them in rapid succession. Then there were the sixty-four planets they had to visit and reconnect to the network, and he had no idea what that entailed. A big plug that needed to be fitted into a large socket?
Whatever fate he was rushing towards, he knew for a fact that it would be preferable to staying here and dealing with the Seneca troops sent to take him to his mother.
Even if he was heading towards catastrophe, at least it would be one where he would make his own decisions and suffer their consequences deservedly. Up until recently, his whole life had been out of his own hands.
He had been a child, so it was understandable, but having experienced true self-determination where benefits and losses were all attributable to one’s own actions, he found that he no longer wished to relinquish control of his life.
His mother was certainly not going to acquiesce to his wishes.
The effects of travelling by sigil were disorienting and unsettling — blurred vision and partial deafness — but Figaro was starting to get used to them. When he came out the other end, he managed to stay on his feet and not throw up, so a definite improvement.
He was in front of a large building with columns and oversized doors that gave it the pompous look of a municipal centre, some sort of seat for government. As his vision came into sharper focus, he realised he was in the open. The sky above was blue and clear.
He couldn’t see the other two and suspected the transport had failed again, or at least had sent them to separate places. The first thing he had to do was establish if this was real or another simulation.
“Hey, Fig, over here.”
Figaro spun around to find Ubik calling him over. PT was standing next to him but facing in the other direction, which wasn’t surprising considering how much there was to take in.
The first and most obvious thing was the large monument made out of metal, about three metres high, in the shape of a sigil — three prongs coming out of an oval. It was the same sigil that had been the focus of the portal they had just come through.
If they had arrived through this structure, it wasn’t obvious how. It looked like a big statue made by humans, not an Antecessor-built portal.
But before he could make sense of what had happened and how they got here, there was the matter of the huge crowd on the other side of the monument.
They were marching away from where the three of them were standing, down a wide mall with buildings on either side.
Figaro quickly went over to where the other two were standing and looked down. The sigil statue was on a raised platform, giving them an excellent view of the (mostly) men with their backs to them, all headed in the same direction.
It seemed no one had seen them arrive, too involved in whatever it was they were doing to look up at the statue.
There were others in grey uniforms on the sides, shouting something as the procession moved past them, but they were too far away for Figaro to be able to hear what they were saying.
“Where are we?” said Figaro. “What’s going on? Is this real?”
“You tell us,” said Ubik. “Check the thingy on your arm. Grandma should have…” He waved at Figaro to just look.
“Doesn’t feel like a simulation,” said PT.
Figaro checked the control panel on the arm of his suit and found a new information stream scrolling across the screen, giving him access to detailed information about the planet Soros, designation Sigma-32, in the Inner Quadrant.
They were in the global capital, Jorge City, which was home to three million people; not very big. He quickly scanned through the pertinent details about conditions on the planet and what kind of society they had been dropped into.
There was a lot to absorb, but this world appeared to be a commercial centre, with its small cities inhabited mainly by the rich elite.
“Looks like they’re having some kind of rally,” said Ubik. “Can you tell what those guys are saying?”
“I don’t care,” said PT, who could probably lip-read, even at this distance. “Why are we here? Why weren’t we transported directly to the planet’s core?”
“If we could go directly to the core, we wouldn’t need to be here to connect the core to the network,” explained Ubik.
“Oh,” said PT. “I suppose that makes sense.” He looked up at the monument. “We arrived via that? How does it work? It isn’t an Antecessor device, is it?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Ubik. “I don’t know anything about art.”
“Hey, what are you doing up there? You three. Get down now, you hear, or I’ll have you thrown in the slammer.”
The three of them peered down at a portly middle-aged man with a large moustache wearing the same grey uniform.
There was a slight pause as the three boys tried to think of the best way to avoid getting arrested before Figaro decided to take matters in hand.
“Ah, ya, sure. Sorry, there. We only just arrived and couldn’t get to the gathering on time, like, so we thought we’d get a good view from up here.”
The other two looked at Figaro with questioning expressions due to the odd accent he was using.
“Ah, right, from the Wide Sector, are ya?” The man adopted a similar accent. “Just arrived, have ya?”
“Can ya catch us up, friend?” said Figaro. “Where’s everyone all going now?”
“Heading for the enlistment centre,” said the man, “where else? Got to sign up and get assigned their units for this silly war or whatever they’re calling it. Expect you’ve been conscripted too, have ya? Come on now, get down from there, you’ll get me in trouble if I let you climb all over the sacred sigil. They raise taxes on all of us every time they need to repair the damn thing.”
The boys jumped down from their perch.
“You better show me your orders, then,” said the man.
Ubik and PT said nothing and left it to Figaro to sort things out.
“Ah, right, no, actually we don’t have any official call up orders. Our Pa said we should come down and do our part now that we’re all under the gun, you know. Time for everyone to pull their weight, fight together, like.”
“Did he, now?” said the man with a sigh. “Sending the three of you out without a single brain cell between you. Sounds about right. I was the same when I first crossed the Barrier. Well, look, head over that way to the recruitment kiosk — it’s that green thing, looks like a giant pickle, see it? Get over there and ask for Sergeant Grant. Tell him Toba sent you and he should sort you out with everything you need.”
“Ah, thanks now,” said Figaro. “It was right lucky bumping into you.”
“Yes, well, take care now. And, if I can give you a little advice…”
“Sure, sure,” said Figaro, closing the gap between himself and the man. “Go ahead.”
“The plum jobs, the flashy stuff, it all goes to the nabobs, you know how it is. Don’t get involved with any of that. Take whatever assignment they give you and don’t make a fuss if it’s a little dull. To tell you the truth, better that way. This whole thing is just an excuse to get geared up, way to get around the accords.”
“The accords?” said Figaro.
“Neven mind. Nothing you need to worry about. You three get along now, and avoid climbing onto anything that looks expensive.”
They all nodded their thanks to him and headed off in the direction he had pointed out.
“Where did that accent come from,” said PT.
“Most of the rich cities have an underclass that does the menial stuff robots can’t, or aren’t trusted to do,” said Figaro. “They have their own culture, way of speaking, stuff like that. Not hard to pick up.”
In fact, Figaro had been taught the lingua franca of most worlds. They had a lot in common, even when their worlds didn’t, so it wasn’t hard at all to learn. And being able to blend into a city's underworld was a useful talent to have.
“You’ll have to teach me,” said Ubik. “Sounds like something I should know.”
“The accords he mentioned,” said PT. “Was he talking about the Seneca Accords?”
“Hmm, I think so,” said Figaro.
He had feigned ignorance in front of the man, but he had guessed the same as PT. The Seneca Accords banned any planet from operating a military force capable of interplanetary travel.
Only the Central Authority and the Seneca Corps were allowed to have such capabilities, and everyone else deeply resented it. But they had all signed up and knew the consequences of not keeping to the agreement.
But now, with the Inner Quadrant under a threat the CA and the Corps were not confident of winning, allowing the rest of the galaxy to arm themselves seemed like the obvious, if desperate, choice.
They quickly found themselves at the back of the crowds they had seen and could now hear the speakers shouting out instructions from the sides, telling them where they needed to go depending on their conscription ratings and to not worry because everything would be fine.
People with high-grade organics were being asked to head directly for the ports and docks where they would be assigned roles on the ships that had suddenly been made battle-ready.
Figaro suspected the ships had been secretly built some time ago, but kept in a state of incompletion to avoid breaking the accords. It was an open secret that most of the wealthiest planets had their private armies. As long as they weren’t brought out of storage, a blind eye was turned.
Now they had a legitimate reason to bring them out. Whether they would be willing to put them away again after the crisis was averted was another matter.
“The enemy will be here soon. We have been told to be ready within seventy-two hours. You will be given the training you need in that time,” a man with shouted at them. “You will be provided with everything you need. Head towards the building with the same letter as the one at the top of your conscription letter. Do not forget to have your orders on you at all times. For Soros!”
Some of the crowd shouted, “For Soros!” in response.
Similar messages were repeated by different men along the route as the crowd was moving slowly but steadily towards a group of domed buildings.
“Everyone remain calm, you’ll be at the front soon. Stay in your line, observe the edicts of the sacred sigil at all times. We are all people of Soros. Those of you who are true heroes, sign up for the Special Volunteer missions. For Soros!”
Figaro and the other two had to cut across the crowd to get to the green building they’d been told to report to. They hadn’t figured out how to get to the planet’s core yet, but it seemed wise to get hold of some official documents first to avoid any entanglements they might get into.
Snippets of conversation among the crowd suggested everyone was excited and eager to be part of this war. Having organics that made you tremendously powerful, but having no one to use them on was seen as a terrible waste.
The Corps had shown how much fun it was to bully the weak, but no one else was given the same opportunity. Now was their chance to let rip and they had come running once they received the call.
“I can’t wait to get on one of those ships.”
“This is taking forever. Don’t you know anyone who can pull some strings?”
“I heard the Antecessors and the Seneca Corps are working together.”
“Good, we can take them both out at the same time.”
“Hey, stop pushing.”
“Hurry up, will you!”
There was a lot of braggadocio in the air and the confidence of those who have never had to prove their mettle in real battle. Figaro was amazed at how naive they were being. There didn’t seem to be a single reasonable voice in the crowd.
They made it to the green building in about an hour, encountering only a few complaints when getting in people’s way, which was soon forgiven when it was realised the three boys were going off to the side and not taking up space in front.
The green building had an open facade and numerous men around it dressed in the same grey uniforms, but these men were armed with rifles and sidearms.
“Name?” said the man on the gate.
“We were told to report to Sergeant Grant,” said Figaro.
“He isn’t here. Name?”
“Toba sent us,” said Figaro.
“Never heard of him. Name?”
Figaro wasn’t sure how to proceed. Everything had been going smoothly and then suddenly there was no way forward.
“Name?” repeated the guard impatiently.
“Ognanongni,” said Ubik.
“Gongnaningni,” said Ubik.
“You’ll have to say it slower.”
“Ong. Na. Ge. Nigni,” said Ubik. “Nengnongani.”
The man looked down at the pad in his hand, shaking his head. “Ning… Gong… I’ve got nothing like that on here.”
“Are you sure?” said Ubik. “Let me see.” He took the pad from the confused man and scanned the screen. “Here it is.” He pointed to a name with an asterisk next to it as he passed the pad back.
The man squinted. “Carter?”
“That’s how it’s spelled, not how it’s pronounced.”
“This is you? Group of three, two men and a woman?” He looked from Ubik to PT to Fig.
“That’s right,” said Ubik without hesitation.
The man looked like he wanted to say something but was having a hard time getting it out. He looked back at the pad. “Here for the Special Volunteer mission.”
“Yep,” said Ubik.
“Hold on. I just need to check.” He moved back a bit and spoke into his hand.
“Special mission?” said PT. “What does that mean?”
“Wait and see,” said Ubik.
“Which one of us is the woman,” asked Figaro.
“You,” said PT and Ubik together.
“Okay, you can go through,” said the guard.
Figaro and PT exchanged a look. Only Ubik could get away with something like this. Or so they thought.
They were met by a thin man with dark hair and dark bags under his eyes who came running up as though he was delighted to see them. “You’re here. Great. Follow me. You’re going to be heroes, you know that, right. You won’t be forgotten for this sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice?” said PT.
“We didn’t think you were really going to turn up once you found out it was a suicide mission. You are true men of Soros. I salute you. Come on, the ship’s ready and waiting.”
“Hold on,” said Ubik. “Suicide? You’re saying we have zero chance of survival?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the man. He leaned towards them and lowered his voice. “But the Seneca Corps will be wiped out. Completely obliterated.”
“Then it will all be worth it,” said Ubik. “Lead the way. For Soros!”