Ur Voys had a definite rhythm to the way it was run. People who worked there long enough developed a feel for when the cargo shipments came in, when the doctors and scientists arrived, when the shifts changed over... a general sense of who was supposed to be doing what, and where, and at what time.
Hallek Andros had been the overseer at Ur Voys for thirteen years. He knew how everything fit together, and he knew most--though not all--of the secrets within the complex.
He'd been placed in charge of Ur Voys because he served his Emperor with distinction. This stewardship had been validated when, after a common smuggler had stolen a large shipment of anagathics, the Viceroy poured God's wrath upon him, and his soul had been found blameless, and he was deemed worthy of his position.
A month ago, when he was summoned before the Viceroy and was informed that someone was going to try and steal Special Project 51273, Andros could scarcely believe his ears. This was Ur Voys, after all--the Alliance had tried for years to infiltrate this facility, and had failed every time. But Andros was an obedient and faithful man, and he trusted in the wisdom of the Swords. When this one told him the facility was in danger, he increased the guards on Level 5, added more security measures to the rooms where Special Project 51273 was stored, and warned the security forces that specialized in that project's defense to be on the alert, and to inform him of every irregularity.
When he reported his steps to Commodore Mavis--a man he respected, and whose authority he did not begrudge--Mavis was satisfied. He later informed Andros that the Viceroy, also, was satisfied, which pleased him very much. He was certain that any attempt to steal Special Project 51273 would be discovered and neutralized well before it got to the additional security measures, but he didn't question his superiors for insisting on them. It was a rarity, after all, and paranoia was healthy in these matters.
For weeks everything went smoothly. It wasn't until nearly a month had passed that things began to go wrong.
On that day one of his subordinates entered his office, looking concerned. This was enough to make Andros cautious. This particular subordinate was a very calm and confident man.
"Sir," his subordinate said, "I believe we have a security breach."
For a moment, Andros didn't understand what the man was saying. "A what?"
"Security breach," the subordinate repeated. "I very strongly feel there's been an intentional and deliberate attempt to disable or sabotage equipment on our facility."
Andros motioned for the man to close the door behind him. "Explain."
The subordinate took a deep breath. "Security for Special Project 51273 became aware of a message bot near the entrance to the main room. Message bots aren't often used on Level 5, so that was unusual... but not unheard of. What made them suspicious was that it was wandering aimlessly. A message bot is programmed to deliver its message and immediately return to its queue. This one… wasn't."
Andros nodded. "That is strange."
"Yes," the subordinate said. "What's even stranger is that when one of the guards approached the message bot, she noticed its message carrier was empty."
Andros blinked. "Empty?"
The subordinate nodded. "In short, there was no reason for it to be there. The guard promptly deactivated the bot and alerted the shift commander, who ordered the bot sent to maintenance to have its programming studied."
"That was properly done," Andros said. "See that the shift commander is given a commendation on his or her record."
"I will," said the subordinate, "but it doesn't end there. When the maintenance crew attached the bot to a diagnostics station and restarted it, the bot deactivated itself immediately."
Andros stared at the subordinate in disbelief. "What?"
The subordinate nodded. "It had wiped its own programming, sir."
Andros' eyes widened. "It's not supposed to do that."
"Could the programming be recovered?"
"Maintenance attempted to use the standard recovery tools, but determined that the programming could not be recovered. They've classified the wipe as 'deliberate and thorough.'"
Andros sighed. "It is a breach," he agreed. "The question is, how did someone--"
The terminal on his desk beeped. "Excuse me a moment," Andros said, and turned the terminal on. "This is Hallek Andros."
It was another subordinate, looking just as worried as the first. "Sir, we seem to be having a problem with the diagnostic bots in the Special Project 51273 areas."
"What?" Andros' eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, a problem?"
"Sir, there are at least ten of them in the room housing the item. They seem to be running diagnostics checks on various terminals but no one is quite sure why they're all doing it at once."
"Turn those damn things off!" Andros roared.
"They're trying, but the diagnostic bots are actively interfacing with the equipment in the room and--"
"Do what you have to do! Shut down the equipment if you have to! Consider those bots a security risk!"
He turned to the first subordinate, listening to the exchange in alarm. "Go below and assist in the investigation," Andros commanded. "Tell me when you learn what's going on."
Just as that subordinate left, another came in, wearing a sickening familiar expression of worry. "Sir..."
"Is this about Special Project 51273?"
The subordinate looked confused. "Er, no sir..."
"We had to disable a workbot in Hangar 5. It was tearing a hole in one of the grav sleds."
"It... what?" Andros kept waiting for someone to wake him up.
"Yes sir... when maintenance tried to run a diagnostics check on it..."
"Let me guess. It erased its own programming."
The subordinate looked surprised. "Yes sir, that's it exactly. And we've had reports of other workbots leaving their authorized work zones, and having to be deactivated by security."
Andros breathed deeply. "Have any of these workbots attacked any station personnel?"
"No sir. They stop moving as soon as anyone comes within two meters, and don't react when deactivated."
Andros scowled. "This makes no sense."
At that moment, an alarm sounded.
"That's a security alarm," Andros shouted. He opened a desk drawer, pulled out a pulse pistol, and turned on his monitor. "Get me security!"
The chief of station security appeared on screen.
"Chief, what in God's name is going on?"
"One of the security bots attempted to leave its patrol route," the Chief said, looking troubled. "It seemed to be heading for the lower levels."
"Did it attack anyone?"
"No..." The Chief hesitated. "It came close. A technician tried to deactivate it, and the security bot trained its weapon on the man. One of our guards deactivated it."
"Have you run diagnostics on it?"
"We're sending it to maintenance now."
"DON'T. Do not run any form of diagnostics on it at all, until I give the order. Do you understand?"
The Chief nodded. "Understood."
"All right." Andros sighed. "Turn off the siren, but stay on alert."
He turned to the subordinate still in the room. "I am going to authorize a kill command for all bots on the facility grounds," he said. "Ten minutes."
The subordinate gulped, nodded, and turned to spread the word.
* * *
Commodore Hu Mavis stood on the deck of the Centurion, worrying about things he could not control.
The Sword had pulled him out of what had turned into a very agreeable dinner to tell him that Grif Vindh was planning to steal something Mavis knew very little about. Since then, Mavis had been trying to rack his brain to determine how.
He coordinated the increase of security measures in Ur Voys with that facility's commander, a competent man who put every available resource at his disposal. And he'd kept a careful eye out for Captain Vindh and that ship.
The problem was, the Maximilian class was a very popular model, even in the provinces of the Radiant Throne. On Varkav, at this moment, there were no fewer than ninety-seven Maximilian class starships visiting the planet. This didn't include those Maximilian class ships that were owned and used by agencies local to the planet itself.
Of the ninety-seven Maximilian class starships visiting the planet, none of them appeared to be the Fool's Errand. Or, rather, while none of them appeared to be that ship, they all had the potential to be that ship, even the Alo Minh--but there was nothing definitive about any of them that gave it away. Destroying all of them was out of the question. The Viceroy had suggested that very course of action, but Mavis cautiously reminded him that the Emperor required far more compelling circumstances for such a display of divine wrath, and the Sword, upon reflection, had agreed.
So a month had passed, and Mavis was at an impasse. There was nothing in the facility that suggested anything untoward or out of the ordinary, and there were no ships on the planet that appeared to belong to Captain Vindh. There was, at the moment, nothing more he could do.
And then the Sword had been grievously injured by the very thing they were trying to protect. He immediately informed his superiors of the event, but had received no reply as of yet. He hoped they would send another Sword to investigate, but it appeared that, at least for the moment, no more aid was forthcoming.
"Commodore." Katryn Valdyrs stood up from her comm station on the deck below, calling up to him in a clear voice. "Hallek Andros is on a secure channel and wishes to speak with you immediately sir. He says it's important."
Mavis nodded, and pointed to the direction of his private office. Valdyrs nodded in return, and routed the communication there.
Mavis sat down at his desk and turned on his terminal. After recognizing his retinal scan, the terminal shifted, displaying a picture of an unusually agitated Andros.
"Commodore," Andros said, "we have trouble. Ur Voys security has been compromised."
Everything Mavis had been thinking the moment before was instantly cleared away: the only thought in his head was about Andros, and what he was saying. "Go on."
"It's the robots, sir," Andros said. "They're... they're going crazy. It seems like they're trying to get into where Special Project 51273 is being held. So far the breaches have been mostly minor and non-lethal, but there have been a lot of them, and one was nearly lethal. Some of the security bots are affected by whatever is going on.
"The security bots?" Mavis' voice didn't betray the alarm he felt.
"Yes sir. A few started moving toward the lower levels. They don't resist when security personnel deactivate them, but if other personnel get too near they train their weapons on them."
Mavis steadied himself. "Is anything else affected?"
"Other bots," Andros said. "Some worker bots, some diagnostics bots, and at least three messenger bots. Some of the diagnostics bots actually got into the room itself."
"Strange," Mavis muttered. "Do you know why?"
"No sir," Andros replied. "Whenever we try to run a diagnostic on the robot, it immediately wipes its own programming. Deliberately, from what little we can determine."
"I see," Mavis said. "What is being done?"
"I've ordered all the robots on station deactivated, sir. But it's obvious security has been breached. I intend to activate the transport protocols, if you agree it's proper. We will move all our classified material--including Special Project 51273--to secure areas in other facilities."
"That may be what they want," Mavis warned.
"May be," Andros said. "But we don't know the extent of the breach here. We've shut down all the robots, Commodore, and some of them do things we can't. Especially in our reactor. If we can't guarantee they're not a security risk, we may have to bring the reactor off line..."
"Yes, I see your point," Mavis said. "It seems wise to proceed. Mavis out."
The picture of Andros nodded, then disappeared.
Deeply troubled, Mavis walked out of his office and on to the deck of his ship.
* * *
Sgt. Mollaek Firs gripped his pulse rifle tightly as he sat on the back of the ground transport, watching the rest of his platoon as they raced through the barren Varkavian landscape. It was a small contingent of men, considering the rumored importance of the cargo they were guarding, but they were well armed and armored.
Armed well enough to fight off an ambush, Firs thought. Especially here, so close to the light of the Throne.
The only deviation from protocol had been the order to leave the robotic gunner behind. Firs felt uneasy about this--they'd trained with it and would be off balance trying to work without it. Still, what with all the problems they were having with robots lately he supposed it was a good idea.
One of his corporals waved to get his attention. Sergeant Firs leaned forward, so he could hear the man over the roar of the wind.
"Where are we going?" The corporal shouted.
Sergeant Firs looked at the instructions the lieutenant gave him before they set out. "A rendezvous point, somewhere," the Sergeant shouted back. "My protocol doesn't give a location--that's for the driver to know, and the LT."
The corporal nodded. "What are we supposed to do?"
Sergeant Firs pointed at the long, thin, sealed box lying on the base of the transport. "Guard that. We hand it off to another team when we reach the destination."
One of the privates pointed into the sunlight. Sergeant Firs looked, and saw something metallic gleaming beneath the sun. He pulled out his magni-visor and zoomed in on that location. He saw another ground transport--civilian model, it looked like--and a number of heavily armed soldiers in unmarked commando uniforms.
Civilian transport. Odd.
Sergeant Firs put his magni-visor away and frowned, staring at the speck as it grew larger and larger until, finally, he could see the group on his own. They certainly carried themselves like the military, but they weren't wearing proper uniforms, and that civilian transport was fishy.
The Corporal leaned forward again. "You reckon they're special ops?"
Sergeant Firs shrugged.
Their ground transport slowed to a halt, and the Sergeant ordered the men to take their positions on the ground. They jumped off and staggered themselves, watching the dark-clad soldiers in front of the civilian transport warily.
One of them--an officer, Firs guessed--stepped forward. "Who is in command here?"
The LT got out of the passenger seat and walked toward the man. "I am," he said.
The stranger nodded, and produced a datastick.
"Sergeant," the Lieutenant called out.
Sergeant Firs ran up next to the Lieutenant, who was also holding a datastick.
"The key, sergeant."
Sergeant Firs held out a fist-sized cylinder. The Lieutenant put his datastick in one end, and the stranger put his datastick in the other.
A second passed, then the light on the cylinder turned green.
"It's approved," the Lieutenant said. "Sergeant, have the men load our cargo into their transport."
"Aye, sir." Firs turned to the platoon. "You heard the man," he roared. "Get OFF your asses and MOVE THAT CARGO, NOW!"
* * *
"They're all on board, Grif," Amys said.
"Do they have it?" Grif asked.
"Yes," Amys said, grinning. "Went off without a hitch."
"Hell," Morgan muttered, "we actually did it."
"Not yet we didn't," Grif said. "We have to get out of here first." He punched the intercom. "Ktk, is Ebur back in stasis?"
Ktk replied that he was, though he still needed to purge the medication from his body before he could get back on his standard meds.
"I know," Grif said. "We'll deal with that later. I just don't want him awake with that thing on board."
Grif hit the intercom again, this time broadcasting to all decks. "This is your captain speaking. Cargo has been secured, and we are now getting ready to lift off. All crew, man your stations."
A minute later, Bennet appeared on deck, still dressed in a simple black commando outfit, and sat at the comm station.
"Welcome back, Bennet," Grif said. "I hear you had a nice trip."
"Very nice," Bennet replied. "Trouble free. The locals were cooperative."
"Excellent. Radio Port Authority and tell them we are ready to take off."
Bennet began negotiating their clearance as Grif ran down the pre-flight checklist.
"Uh... Grif," Bennet said, "there might be problem."
Grif froze. "You're killing my mood, Bennet."
"Sorry," Bennet said, "But Mavis is hailing us from Centurion."