Figaro scratched his arm around the control panel and hesitated. Ubik had already gone through the portal he had created and PT was about to follow.
Everything had gone far more smoothly than he had expected. With Ubik, you generally expected things to work out, but only after various complications. In fact, the more perilous the situation, the more dramatic the reversal of fortune required, the better.
Both he and PT had discussed this and had come to the same conclusion: Ubik deliberately made things harder than they needed to be, just for the flourish.
They had no proof of this, and no doubt Ubik would deny it, but it had happened too often to just be a coincidence.
But this time, both here on Romeo and even on Soros, they had quickly found their objective and Ubik had corrected the problem without any sort of brush with death.
Yes, he had destroyed the entire harvest and left the people of Romeo with a possible worldwide famine, but that really wasn’t the kind of disaster Ubik usually manifested. Crops could be regrown and the leaders of Romeo would find a way to feed their people, or they wouldn’t have anyone to do their drudge-work for them.
Using a term like slavery was misleading and pejorative.
They weren’t mistreated, for the most part, and they had food and shelter (except when a natural disaster or Ubik came along and made resources sparse). Despite the popular stereotype of overworked and underpaid victims of the system, the truth was that fit and healthy people were more useful and more exploitable than those that were starved and beaten.
The way Dr Fairway had framed it was how most people saw it, including the ones out in the fields. They were reluctant but willing labourers, resigned to their fate because of the perceived lack of better options.
It was that kind of mental suppression that was the real hallmark of modern slavery. And it wasn’t just people working in fields on small, out of the way planets like Romeo. Forcing people to do work they disliked and didn’t personally benefit from was a mainstay of most societies.
Figaro had seen it up close on his own world, where the vestiges of Enaya’s past were still present in a more dilute, palatable form.
He knew he was making excuses for a deeply unfair and unpleasant form of existence, but everyone had their own difficulties. It was regrettable, but it wasn’t like anyone had come up with a better alternative, other than to turn their backs on society and rely solely on one’s own ability to survive.
“He’s up to something,” said PT, standing in front of the portal.
The edges swirled clockwise, while the dark interior spun in the opposite direction.
“What do you think it is?” said Figaro.
“No idea,” said PT. “I guess we’ll find out in a bit.” He entered and for a moment his body blurred and seemed to stretch. Then he was gone.
Figaro took a look back at the doctor and her grandfather. She had put a blanket around his shoulder and was speaking soothingly to him. Her bedside manner around him was far more gentle than when she’d been dealing with her patients, but that was probably to be expected.
“You should take him back up,” said Figaro, “and don’t tell anyone about this place. It won’t be safe here.”
“Will it be safe anywhere?” said the doctor.
“Probably not,” said Figaro.
“Tell your friend I’ll be ready,” said the old man.
“Ready?” said Figaro. “For what?”
“The end of the world, of course,” said the old man. “We might not be able to defeat them, but we can take them down with us.” He seemed very positive about his envisioned mutual destruction.
“We won’t die,” said Figaro, fairly sure that there would be at least one human survivor. If you could call him human.
He entered the portal.
The moment Figaro arrived at the other end of the portal, once his head had cleared — which only took a couple of seconds now — he was accosted by the sounds of arguing.
He was back on Quazi, inside the core chamber. It could have been the core to any planet, but the large cube and the women surrounding Ubik and PT gave away the location.
There were three women, all dressed in Seneca battlesuits.
Even though they were helmeted with visors down, revealing only their jaws, he recognised two of them, and wasn’t very happy to see either.
“It was working fine when we left,” Ubik was saying. “You must have done something to it.”
“We didn’t touch it,” said Fermont. “We only just arrived.”
It became apparent that they were talking about the cube, which was dark and unilluminated by the silvery-white lights that usually streaked across its surfaces.
“Oh, you expect me to believe it was like that when you got here, I suppose,” said Ubik.
“I don’t care what you believe,” said Fermont, “where is Figaro Ollo?”
“I’m right here, Captain Fermont.”
All heads turned in his direction.
“You’re here,” said a voice filled with equal parts irritation and relief. “You’re coming with us.”
Figaro stiffened. “No, Captain Fermont, I’m not.”
“You know her?” said PT.
“Yes, she’s my mother’s head of security,” said Figaro. “She’s in charge of an elite task force who usually guard my mother, but she doesn't seem to have brought them with her.”
He was looking at the other two women alongside Fermont, only one of whom he recognised.
“That’s because this isn’t a hostile insertion,” said Fermont. “Or is it?”
“I’m not going with you.”
“It’s not up for debate, Figaro,” said Fermont. “I’m here under your mother’s direct orders.”
“You may be,” said Figaro, “but I’m not. You should leave. It isn’t safe here.”
“All the more reason you need to come with us,” said Speers, lifting her visor and fixing him in her eyes as though trying to impart some special message to him.
“Not really,” said Ubik. “He’s the reason why it isn’t safe here.”
“I don’t know who you are,” snapped Speers, “or what your involvement with him is, but I suggest you limit yourself to necessary interactions.”
“Oooh,” said Ubik. “I think she likes you, Fig. Wanna fight me for him?”
A crease appeared in the centre of Speers’ brow, which usually happened when she was sparring and finding it hard to break through a solid defence. She usually followed it up with a blitz of random attacks in an effort to surprise her opponent, a disguised attempt at finding an opening.
If she used that approach on Ubik, she would probably find the randomness being returned to her tenfold.
He understood why his mother would have sent a junior officer down here to fetch him, despite the obvious dangers; in particular, this junior officer who was still very inexperienced. She knew of their relationship, of course, since she was the one who had initially instigated it. You couldn’t stop a young man’s sexual desires, but you could try to manage them with the help of a willing accomplice.
It was the kind of involuntary micromanagement his mother considered normal, and which he found suffocating, even though he had knowingly submitted to it in the belief he could maintain some level of self-control.
“You can discuss all of this with your mother once we are back on board the Venerate,” said Fermont.
“What is this?” said Ubik. He was holding up a small black box with several wires hanging off it. It looked a bit like a tiny, limp droid.
“Put that down!” said Fermont, sounding a little frantic. “Otenu, disarm it.
“Oh, should I just drop it here?”
It fell out of Ubik’s hand, making Fermont and the other Seneca woman, Otenu, who Figaro didn’t recognise, jump back.
Ubik caught the wires so the small device didn’t hit the floor. “Looks like someone’s been trying to leave a farewell gift for Quazi.
“How did you find that?” said Otenu. “It isn’t…”
“Possible?” said Ubik. “You’d be surprised what’s possible if you put your mind to it.”
“What is it?” said PT.
“It’s a feedback surge amplifier,” said Figaro. “A bomb.”
“Yes,” said Ubik. “A sneaky bomb. Completely undetectable until it siphons off enough energy from a convenient power source, and then converts it to a massive amount of ka followed by a huge amount of boom.” Ubik slapped his hand against the cube. “It’s okay guys, you can come out now. Crisis averted.”
The cube lit up as lights began running across its surface.
Figaro was familiar with this kind of explosive, and well aware how insidious it was. It could lay dormant for years until someone turns on a power switch. And then its ability to convert one form of energy into another was astonishing.
The cube, however, had been shut down to prevent this happening.
“If it’s completely undetectable, how did you find it?” said Fermont. “Unless you put it there.”
Ubik looked at her like he couldn’t quite believe her gall, trying to put the blame on him. “You think I use bombs? What am I, a caveman?” He tossed the device at Fermont, who jumped back.
It hit the floor and fell apart.
“Shoddy workmanship,” said Ubik. “What happened to the others, by the way? Bunch of female robots, very attractive, self-cleaning, at least I hope so. Seen them?”
Fermont didn’t answer but Figaro could tell she knew what Ubik was talking about. Had they dealt with all seven of the robots already?
“We have to leave,” said Fermont, still on repeat. “I will use force if I have to.”
“Fermont, what’s your status?” said a voice from Fermont’s suit, one he recognised only too well.
“We’ve located the targets. Preparing for extraction.”
“We’re not leaving,” said Figaro.
“Figaro? Is that you?”
“Listen to me, Figaro, you must return to me, now. With your father gone, you are the—”
“He isn’t dead,” said Figaro.
“I have his life crystal, Figaro,” said his mother. “It went out.”
“That’s because it’s connected to his organic, which was removed.”
There was a moment of silence. “You know this, how?”
“Because I was there when it happened. When it was put in me.”
“You have your father’s organic? You have two organics? And the transfer was successful? Figaro, you must return immediately, this is—”
“Fermont, this General Freya,” broke in a new voice. “I’m giving you a direct order, override all previous orders. Execute command K-30.”
Fermont’s eyes began to glow red with such intensity it was visible through her dark visor.
“What’s command K-30?” said PT.
“It’s a thirty percent kill order,” said Figaro.
“What does that mean?” said PT.
“It means they can reduce you to thirty percent life signs — brain and spinal cord intact, everything else expendable. Usually, that means limbs amputated, organ failure, severe haemorrhaging are all acceptable. Makes it more convenient when transporting.”
“Makes sense,” said Ubik. “Easier to stack the bodies.”
“They use it when they want to investigate the targets before disposal,” said Figaro. “Don’t need to be conscious, just biologically viable.”
“Hmm,” said PT, a cold glimmer of light in his eyes. “So they can dissect us at their leisure, I suppose.”
“That’s only if you resist,” said Speers. “We don’t want to hurt you.”
PT took out the sword hilt from his belt, pointing the stub at Speers.
She frowned and didn’t look very impressed.
The stub grew into a blade in an instant, and kept growing until it was at her throat, which made it around two metres long. There was no bend in the blade.
She didn’t try to dodge or counterattack, but her eyes glowed green, ready to teach him what it meant to be an opponent of the Seneca Corps.
The light in her eyes went out, much to her obvious surprise.
“You think we need our organics to take you down?” said Fermont, her own eyes also back to normal. She lunged towards PT, moving at a frightening speed.
PT moved to the right and then swung his sword at the empty air in front of him. Fermont was in the middle of a feint but PT had seen through it. He didn’t attack where she was, his sword sliced through where she was going to be. She walked right into it and her arm was cut off at the elbow, but it looked like she had deliberately thrust her arm into the path of the blade.
She didn’t scream, she just let out a grunt as she stumbled back, already with an auto-tourniquet in her working hand.
“Is losing an arm a K-10 or a K-90?” said Ubik. “I really don’t get the whole numbering system you guys use. Actually, why don’t we make it a K-50, that way it’s right either way.”
The device that Ubik had thrown on the floor earlier, which was practically under Fermont, suddenly lit up.