Figaro quietly squirmed in the mildly uncomfortable chair and scanned the room.
There was a guard sitting opposite him, legs crossed, reading a magazine, and two more guards outside the door.
The guard didn’t seem very concerned about his two prisoners, paying them very little attention while being engrossed in whatever article he was reading in The Monthly Gazette. The cover had a faded picture of a smiling woman in a field of golden corn.
The room itself was clean and sparsely furnished with eight chairs, all lined up against the walls. A table had several more copies of The Monthly Gazette, all showing their age. Figaro would have picked one up, but his hands were manacled behind him, which was one of the reasons he was uncomfortable. The other was that it was just a very poorly made chair, cheaply constructed and with a slippery seat cover that made it hard to stretch your legs without risking a sudden slide onto the floor.
The walls were painted a sterile white and bare apart from a poster of a kitten clinging to a ledge with the phrase ‘Hang in there!’ written along the top.
There were two doors, one they had come in through and the other one, the one Ubik had been taken through. The one that led into the ‘torture chamber’.
Which meant what he and PT were sitting in was the waiting room for the torture chamber.
That wasn’t what he thought it was, that was what the man called Levitan had called it.
“You will stay in the waiting room while we extract what we need from your friend.” He had a sadistic look on his face when he said it, confident in whatever machine they were going to use on Ubik.
There was a loud whirring noise, like a buzz saw.
“I don’t think it’s really a torture chamber,” said PT, sitting with his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles but managing to somehow remain on his seat. “Nobody actually calls their torture chamber a torture chamber. It’s always something like the Ministry of Reeducation.”
“Department of Corrections,” said Figaro.
“Exactly. If it’s called the torture chamber, it’s probably an ironic nickname given to it by the people who work here. And this waiting area is too nice. It doesn’t exactly inspire fear.” He was looking at the poster of the kitten.
“You were expecting damp and mould?” said Figaro. “Chains hanging from the ceilings?”
“It’s a castle with a dungeon,” said PT.
“You’re disappointed,” said Figaro.
PT made a snorting sound. “I wouldn’t say that. I just think the cat poster doesn’t create the right atmosphere.”
Figaro tried to reposition himself so there wasn’t something hard digging into this left buttock. “These chairs are quite irksome.”
“Yes, but not exactly the level of depravity I was expecting,” said PT.
Figaro looked at the poster again. It did feel a little incongruous. “Is it supposed to be ironic, too?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s there because the staff hate working here.”
“The torture chamber staff are unhappy with their working conditions?” said Figaro.
“A job’s a job. If you end up having to support yourself by doing something you find unbearable but unavoidable, you start to go slightly crazy. This whole planet has that feel to it.”
The guard casually looked up from his magazine. It was printed on glossy paper which made three different sounds every time he turned a page — the slide across, the flick up, the slap back down. His eyes returned to the magazine without comment.
“You’ve never had a real job, have you?” said PT.
“I can hunt and fish,” said Figaro. “I spent several months alone in the wilderness to learn how to survive, although that was in a sim-U. I know how to cook pretty much every type of edible flora, fauna and fungus, but most of the time it doesn’t taste very good. And I can pilot most forms of transport. I think I could get a job on most planets.”
“I’m sure you could,” said PT. “But that’s not what I meant. Being able to do a job is very different from doing it over and over, every day, with no end in sight, no way to turn off the simulation. You probably don’t know what it feels like, waking up every day with a mixture of dread and resignation because your life is controlled by people who intend to use you for their own benefit. It’s a kind of soul death.”
PT let out a sigh and stared up at the ceiling.
“Sounds very much like being Ramon Ollo’s son,” said Figaro.
PT turned his head slowly. “Maybe you do know what it’s like.”
“If they’re not torturing him in there,” said Figaro, “what are they doing?”
The whining of the saw, or whatever it was, suddenly increased in pitch, like it was finding some resistance, and PT had to wait for the noise to subside before responding.
“Oh, I think they’re torturing him, but inside a sim-U or something like that. Trying to download his memories onto a flash drive, maybe.”
“I’m not sure they have that sort of technology,” said Figaro, looking at the magazine cover held up by the guard.
“They had the ship we came on,” said PT. “They probably keep the advanced technology for their own use. Let the peasants run around on foot.”
Figaro nodded. It was certainly possible. But everything he had seen so far suggested a basic level of technology. They hadn’t seen any machines out in the fields, either.
He knew from his studies about his own planet, that keeping a large population of forced labourers was best done with as little advanced technology as possible. They would end up using it against you at some point.
But what was more perplexing was that despite the loud noises coming from the other room, there hadn’t been any screams or shouts. If Ubik was being tortured, by whatever means, he was handling it very well.
The sound of the saw stopped and the door opened. Levitan was standing there, looking irate.
“Send for the engineers,” he said.
The guard shot to his feet, sending the magazine flying back to the table with a snap of his wrist.
“Engineers, sir?” He seemed unprepared for the request. “What should I tell them?”
“Tell them to come fix this blasted machine. It’s stopped working for some reason, and we can’t get it started again.”
The guard looked across at PT and Figaro.
“Leave them here,” said Levitan, scowling. “I’ll keep an eye on them. They aren’t going anywhere.”
The guard rushed off, slamming the door behind him.
“How’s he doing?” asked PT. “Haven’t heard any screams yet.” He sounded very much like he was making a criticism.
“We haven’t started yet,” said Levitan, sneering. “The machine has to be calibrated first. Different settings for different people, depending on their threshold for pain. We wouldn’t want him dying before we got what we needed.”
“Oh, he won’t die,” said PT. “We’ve tried everything, but he always finds a way to get out of it.”
“Hmm,” said Figaro. “We’d be interested in your results, when you get them. How much pain he withstood, what areas of his body were the most sensitive.”
“Yeah, could prove to be useful for the next group,” said PT.
Levitan looked at them suspiciously.
There was a triumphant cry from the room behind him.
“I think I’ve fixed it!” shouted Ubik.
Levitan spun around. “Why is he out of the chair? Put those straps back on him.” He rushed off, presumably to put Ubik back into the torture machine.
“I don’t think he fixed it,” said PT. “I think he broke it, then he modified it, and now it works for him.”
Figaro nodded. Trying to use a machine on Ubik was definitely a mistake. A simple wooden stick was probably your best bet. A few iron nails stuck in the end and you were already tempting fate. Anything magnetic was going to give Ubik an opening.
The outer door opened and the guard returned, followed by two men in overalls and grim looks on their faces.
They didn’t even notice PT and Figaro as they briskly marched through the waiting room and into the torture chamber, while the guard hung back, tentatively leaning to look through the open door.
“What have you done?” cried out one of the new arrivals, sounding horrified. “This is a state of the art extraction unit. Why is it covered in… is this blood?”
“Ah, yeah,” said Ubik’s voice. “Poor guy nicked himself, didn’t you? That blade’s really sharp. It was an accident waiting to happen.”
Figaro couldn’t see who Ubik was talking to, perhaps the operator of the ‘extraction unit’.
“Be quiet!” That was definitely Levitan. “Someone put the gag back on him. What were you thinking? He’s a prisoner, not a guest.”
“We were just consulting,” said a surly voice that hadn’t spoken until now.
“He’s not a consultant, he’s a criminal who’s responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres of crops, and the reason why you and your family will starve this winter. Now prep him for labotimisation.”
“I can’t fix this,” said one of the engineers. “I can’t even tell what’s wrong with it. I’ve never seen it this colour before.”
“Looks like the manifold on the belt’s gone,” said Ubik. “Try tightening the nut under the lever arch.”
“Gag him now!” screamed Levitan.
Everything went quiet.
“Did you take off your cuffs?” Figaro asked.
“Mm? No, still got them on. Not like we need to escape anytime soon.”
“Wouldn’t it be quicker to find the core ourselves?” said Figaro. “Ubik is going to take his time. I think he’s enjoying himself.”
“You aren’t going anywhere,” said the guard, who had turned around to face them. “And you won’t get out of those cuffs. They’re tempered planean steel. You’d need a mechanised cutter to even make a dent in…” His voice trailed off.
PT had brought out his hands. The cuffs were still around his wrists, but the chain between them was gone.
“How do we get to the planet’s core?” Figaro asked the stunned man, hoping his distracted mind would answer without thinking.
The guard slowly took out his weapon, a pistol with a long barrel. “How did you do that? You’re one of them, aren’t you? You have one of those things inside you.” His voice was weak and timid. He seemed very frightened, so much so that the gun was shaking in his hand, making it hard to tell which of them he was pointing it at.
“One of those things?” said Figaro.
“A demon,” said the guard, his eyes filled with horrified realisation. “You’re a sorcerer. I heard the stories. Make a deal with a demon and have magic powers. When you die, your soul will be consumed.”
Figaro had not expected the man to not know about organics. And he certainly didn’t expect him to believe in magic.
“No, he isn’t a sorcerer,” said Figaro, trying to keep the man calm. “He’s just very, um, strong.”
“No one’s that strong.” The guard looked over at the door to the torture chamber. He seemed to be in two minds about disturbing Levitan. His prisoners were still where they were supposed to be and showing no signs of trying to leave. He seemed the type who didn’t want to be accused of not being able to handle his assigned task.
“Do you really like working here?” asked PT. “Forced to do horrible things to innocent people — is that what you wanted to be when you grew up? A thug?”
“I’m not a thug,” said the guard, offended. The insult had a steadying effect on him. The gun was pointed at PT. “I’m in a very respectable profession.”
“The core,” said Figaro. “Of the planet. How do we get to it?”
The guard switched targets. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The dungeons,” said PT. “They go down, right? Deep underground.”
“Yes,” said the guard. “So?”
“So, they lead to a room at the bottom, don’t they?” said Figaro.
“I suppose. There’s a cell…”
“Yes?” said PT.
“I don’t know who’s down there. Maybe no one. We don’t go down that far. If you try anything funny, I’ll shoot you.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” said PT. He held up his hands which were now chained together. It was like they had never been apart, except that his hands were now manacled in front of him instead of behind.
Figaro felt envious. It looked a lot more comfortable that way.
The guard looked even more confused. “That was a trick. You tricked me.”
“Yes,” said PT. “There’s no such thing as demons. I was just messing with you.”
The door was pulled wider and Levitan reappeared, his face full of fury. “Take them to the dungeons. Him, too.”
Ubik came into the waiting room, pushed from behind, his hands tied together around his neck, and his mouth gagged with a leather strap.
“Mmm hmm mmm,” said Ubik. “Mmm ngh ung.”
“What did he say?” said PT.
“I think he said they have no idea what they’re doing,” said Figaro.
“Mmm hmm ah uh oh.”
“And they refuse to let him help.”
PT looked at Levitan. “First time one of your victims has tried to assist in his own torture?”
Levitan gave Ubik a hard shove. “The team from Rome will be here in an hour. We’ll see how helpful you are then. Get them out of here! Let’s go. I want them processed and in full shackles in five minutes. ”
The guards from outside came running in at the sound of Levitan losing his temper, and there was more pushing and shoving. An unnecessary amount, but frustrated people were prone to needless violence. The cat on the wall was the only one maintaining a level of professional calm.
Figaro found himself bundled off the chair and ended up on the floor. He stood up with his manacled hands in front of him.
“How did you do that?” asked PT, looking at Figaro’s hands.
“Magic,” said Figaro.
They set off in single file to the dungeons.