CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
WHEREIN a Potential Problem is Unexpectedly Resolved
They spent the next week familiarizing themselves with the robots under their control and learning the ins and outs of their programming. Grif practiced controlling them remotely while Bennet studied their code, in hopes of using that knowledge to infect other robots as well. Velis was often on hand, though not directly involved with work, in order to stay informed of the latest developments.
The four robots with the receptors turned out to be very well chosen. One was a security robot, and while it had a very limited area in which it was permitted to patrol, every night it linked to the central security system and loaded what it recorded that day into a data repository. Bennet thought it might be possible to use this link to get into the security computer itself, and was working feverishly to do so.
The second robot was a messenger bot. Messenger bots were used when people wanted to send messages directly to someone in an area where voice to voice communication was not permitted, which gave them virtually unrestricted access to the entire complex. Grif spent a lot of time observing it travel to get a rough familiarity with the layout of the complex.
The third robot was a maintenance bot–specifically, a diagnostics bot that assessed potential problems before human technicians or repair bots were sent in to fix the damage. This robot also had free access to nearly everywhere, and had the added advantage that people weren’t surprised when it simply showed up and began to test hardware and computer systems.
“If we had enough time,” Grif said, “we could wind up running the entire complex.”
“How much time would we need?” Velis asked, clearly interested in the prospect.
Bennet shook his head. “A few years, probably.There are a lot of subsystems, hidden systems, secure systems. There are at least fifteen different secure areas, all of which require different kinds of clearance.”
The fourth robot was responsible for loading and unloading cargo in one of the delivery bays, located near all the garages and hangars in the outside areas of the facility. It, like the security bot, was limited in the areas where it was allowed to go, but it had full run of the garages and some parts of the hangars. It was not the most useful robot as far as exploring the complex was concerned, but it did give them an opportunity to learn how cargo was loaded and unloaded from Ur Voys on a day to day basis.
By the end of the week, Grif had a fair idea where everything in Ur Voys was located. The external part of the facility contained the hangars and transports, as well as the facilities for loading and unloading cargo. There were also five levels set into the mountain Ur Voys was built against. The highest, which opened out into the external portion of the facility, had a wide hallway–wide enough for a ground car to drive through it–which led to a lift, and then descended into the lower levels. The only rooms in the first interior level were bureaucratic offices and monitoring stations manned by security personnel.
The second level consisted of mostly research and development work at the front, and station power generators and waste disposal stations at the back. Security on this floor was present but light. On the third level, security was very tight–this was probably where the anagathics were made, Grif guessed, though he never saw any proof.
The fourth and fifth levels were a mystery.
At the end of the week, Grif was familiar with all the routes the messenger bot usually took, and was taking the diagnostics bot around the first two levels of the mountain, looking for terminals to “diagnose.” This gave Bennet a chance to nose around different parts of the Ur Voys network, to see what was there, and to gently probe for any gaps in the station’s network security.
Meanwhile, Bennet made some progress breaking into the facility’s security network. After analyzing a great deal of the security bot’s programming he announced that it looked like customized work.
“They probably wipe the robot’s programming clean, then install their own custom programming into it,” Bennet said. “Probably the first thing they do when it arrives. If they do that with everything, that pretty much guarantees that their robots won’t turn on them. Of course, they don’t seem to have planned for these receptors.”
“The Radiant Throne is arrogant,” Velis said. “They believe they control the market where telepaths are concerned, and don’t expect interference from other telepaths at all… and this ability of Ebur’s is very, very rare.”
“It’s true,” Grif said. “But the Swords do know about it, and they want it. They’ve tried to kidnap people like Ebur before. He’s very careful about who he does business with.”
“Odd,” Bennet said. “That he insists on staying independent, that is. I mean, it’s incredibly dangerous… has he ever thought about joining with any of the official groups that run about? The Trade Barons have a telepathic guild, don’t they? And the Order of Charlemagne–I mean, I know you lot aren’t terribly fond of the Alliance, but–“
“We like the Paladins even less,” Grif said. “I believe whoever came up with the term ‘goody two-shoes’ was thinking of those jokers at the time. Ebur’s not the kind of guy to convert to Catholicism just to get some protection from the Swords…”
“They’re not all Catholic these days,” Bennet countered.
“And,” Grif continued, “they wouldn’t take him anyway. None of them would. He’s already psichotic… he needs his medication to keep it together, and he can’t use his abilities when he’s on his meds. The only people who would have any use for him at all are the Swords…”
“Not that I’m complaining,” Bennet said, “but what does he have against the Swords, anyway? I mean, the Radiant Throne treats Swords like little gods, or, uh, prophets is probably a better word. And Ebur, well, he’s pretty powerful. He’d do pretty well as a Sword.”
“He’s not what you would call a pious man,” Grif explained.
During this time, Cyrus and Morgan slowly added to their cargo, playing the role of picky merchants to the hilt, and developing a very bad reputation with the businesses on the planet in the process. “This is the last time Migh Vox and Dobin Brans will ever be welcome on Varkav!” Cyrus shouted cheerfully one evening, as he and Morgan returned from another day of cutthroat negotiations.
“Good day?” Grif asked.
“You could say that. You know how last time we were here, there was that dealer in the Vodis district who got me steamed, and you guys had to pull me out of there before I said something I’d regret?”
“Yeah,” Grif said. “I remember him.”
“Well,” Cyrus said, grinning wider, “today I said all of it!”
By the beginning of the third week, Bennet broke into the first layer of the security subsystem. After the initial breakthrough everything was easier: by the end of the third week, the entire security subsystem was at his disposal.
“I owe you a drink,” Grif said, slapping Bennet on the back. “You pretty much just handed us the key to the station.”
Grif and Bennet were working well together. Grif’s exploration with the diagnostics bot allowed Bennet to get a fair idea of how the addresses on the network corresponded with the physical areas in the facility itself. And while Grif wasn’t a programmer, he knew enough about the subject to understand what Bennet was talking about when he described the problems he was running into.
One of the first things Grif wanted Bennet to do was to find out where the artifact was being stored. This, Bennet explained, was easier said than done.
“There’s something in here about that thing, I’m sure of it,” Bennet said. “Problem is, the security system doesn’t describe it as ‘the artifact.’ I don’t know what the security system is calling it, so I can’t tell you which room it’s in, what level it’s in, anything. I may have already seen it in one of the lists I was going through the other day. I just don’t know.”
“I see,” Grif said. “Any thoughts?”
“Well, that Sword–you think he knows you’re going after the artifact, right?”
“He…” Grif frowned. “Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty sure.”
“All right,” Bennet said. “I’ll try this from a different angle. I’ll look for any changes made to security that were authorized by the very top of the command chain. We can access the security monitor for each area until we find it.”
“Well,” Grif said, “it’s not a fast plan. But it’s better than the one I had.”
“Which one is that?”
“Start hitting buttons at random until something interesting happens.”
They found it the following day. It was late morning, after breakfast, and Bennet and Grif were the only two people in the general mess. Grif was watching the messenger bot deliver a message on level three when Bennet sat up in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and smiled.
“I think I’ve got it. Shortly after your dinner with Mavis they increased security in an area on Level Five.”
“Promising,” Grif said.
Bennet nosed around a bit. “The room has security cameras–want to see what’s in it? I think I can patch us in.”
“Hell yes,” Grif said.
Bennet keyed in a series of commands. “I think this is it. If I understand what I’m looking at, this will give us access to about six feeds.”
“All right.” Grif leaned forward in anticipation. “Let’s see the first.”
The terminal screen flickered, and showed a picture of a doorway, with a guard on either side.
“I’m less than impressed,” Grif said.
“Switching over to camera two,” Bennet replied.
The monitor flickered and they saw part of the interior of a large room. A large, square table rested in the middle of the room. Something flat and dark sat on the table–Grif couldn’t tell what it was. Hanging over the table was a large machine, a drill, or maybe a sensor. Figures in cleanroom suits moved around the table and worked on terminals set into the far wall.
“Hey,” Grif said. “Hey, that could be it.” He felt a rush of adrenaline as he leaned toward the monitor. “Can you get a better camera angle?”
The next three camera shots were the same angle, from different sides of the room. When they switched to the fourth side, Grif tensed.
“Stop.” Grif stared at the monitor apprehensively. “Bennet. It’s him.”
Standing in the middle of the monitor, blocking their view of the table, was the Viceroy.
He was standing close to the camera. Unlike the other figures in the room, he was not wearing a cleanroom suit. He was dressed in an elaborately patterned robe, very similar in design to a monk’s habit, but very expensive, high quality material. The hood was drawn back from his face, revealing his shaved head and dark, narrow eyebrows. His eyes were closed, his head bowed, as though lost in thought.
“Well,” Grif said, “that’s inconvenient, but at least we know where–“
At that moment the Viceroy’s eyes snapped open, and his head swiveled to stare directly at the security camera.
“Er…” Grif said.
“Hell,” Bennet swore. He keyed a series of commands into the terminal. “I’m turning this off.”
The Viceroy narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to one side.
“Any time now,” Grif whispered.
“Working on it,” Bennet said.
The Viceroy’s expression hardened. He closed his eyes, and his brow furrowed in concentration.
“Bennet, any time now.”
“It’s not letting me do it.” Bennet’s voice was tight.
“What do you mean it’s not–“
“I mean I key in the command and nothing happens. The connection doesn’t break.”
“Well switch to another camera!” Grif said.
Bennet keyed in a command, and the view immediately switched the camera across the room. They could see the figure of the Viceroy, hunched over and facing the camera on the far wall.
“Good,” Grif said, relieved. “Now try to break the damn feed.”
“What is he doing?” Bennet asked.
The Viceroy straightened, turned around, and gazed directly at the camera they were using.
“You don’t think he–” Bennet began, but his voice trailed off as the Viceroy ran to the new camera.
“Switch it again!” Grif hissed, but Bennet was already in the act. The view switched to an adjacent wall, and for a moment the Viceroy couldn’t be seen. A moment later, however, the Sword was in full view, staring directly at their camera, concentrating deeply.
“God damn it all to hell!” Grif shouted. “We’ve got to disconnect that feed!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Bennet shouted back. “Damned if I know how!”
Grif’s comm link beeped. Ktk announced that Ebur was behaving strangely.
Grif looked at the Sword staring at them through the screen and activated his link. “Strangely how, Ktk? What’s he doing?”
Ktk replied that Ebur was behaving as though he were having a bad dream. It added that Ebur never moved when he was operating as a slave circuit.
“It’s got to be that Sword,” Bennet said.
“Ktk,” Grif said, “we need you to disconnect Ebur from his rig.”
Ktk replied that Grif would have to end the connection first, or Ebur might be damaged.
“I’m changing the camera again,” Bennet said, and switched to the opposite wall. Again they saw the Viceroy hesitate, turn, and move directly to the new camera.
Ktk reported that Ebur appeared to be whimpering.
“We’re going to have to risk disconnecting him from the rig anyway,” Grif said. “Ktk, we’re viewing a room with the Viceroy in it. I think he’s doing something that keeps us from–“
The camera view changed. It was the sixth camera–the last camera in the room. It was, apparently, mounted on the machine hanging over the table, and it gave a clear, unobstructed view of what was on the table itself.
“That’s it,” Grif whispered. “There’s your damn artifact.”
It was round and black. The surface was so dark it was difficult to make out any details, but it was disturbingly circular: he kept trying to find an imperfection in the edge, a slip that would make it less a circle and more a very slight oval, but he couldn’t find one.
Suddenly it began to move.
The center of the circle rippled, then turned white, and tendrils of something like smoke seemed to dance over the part of the surface that was still black. The tendrils began to swirl in a clockwise direction around the center, making the disk look like the negative image of a black hole.
Over the comm link Ktk announced that Ebur was screaming.
Grif stared at his comm link, then back at the image of the artifact.
“Switch to another view!” he hissed.
The monitor blinked and switched to one of the side cameras. The figures were talking amongst themselves excitedly, pointing to the artifact on the table.
Ktk reported that Ebur had stopped screaming.
“Is he all right?” Grif asked.
Ktk said that it couldn’t tell.
“Get Cutter to take a look at him,” Grif ordered. “And Bennet, what the hell is that thing?”
“Got me,” Bennet said. “I can tell you that ‘tendency to turn white and get all swirly’ wasn’t in any of our reports.”
“Whatever it is, it didn’t make Ebur very happy,” Grif mused. “I wonder what’s going to happen when we get it on board this ship.”
“When?” Bennet asked. “Not ‘if’?”
“I’m a pessimist,” Grif said.
“Shut up a minute,” Bennet said. “Look over there. Looks like we have a casualty.”
Grif looked to where Bennet was pointing and noticed a group of technicians crowded around someone lying on the floor. “Who is that? Can you see who it is? See if you can get us a better look.”
The camera switched again, and they saw the Viceroy, writhing on the floor, clutching his head in pain.
Bennet and Grif stared at the image of the writhing man in silence.
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” Grif said finally. “Can we disconnect the feed now?”
Bennet typed in a command and the screen went black. “Yes.”
“OK… I vote we don’t try to look at the artifact anymore,” Grif said.
“Seconded,” Bennet agreed.
A few hours later Bennet used the security system to access the Sword’s medical records. They learned, much to Grif’s delight, that the Sword had suffered extreme mental trauma and would have to be shipped off-planet for treatment.
“One problem down,” Grif said.
Bennet looked unconvinced. “Is it? What’s going to keep them from sending another Sword?”
Grif shrugged. “Nothing. But this one won’t be telling anyone anything for a while. Now we just need to figure out exactly where those cameras were so we can hurry up and try to steal the damn thing.”
“The good news,” Bennet said, “is that I think I have enough information to find it on a schematic. I just need to find the schematics for level five.”
A few nights later, Cyrus announced that he was almost done buying the cargo, and that they needed to hurry everything along. Grif and Bennet slept less, bathed less, shaved less and worked more. A few days later, Bennet announced that he’d gained access to all the schematics for the Ur Voys facility, and they now knew where the artifact was.
“Now all we need is a plan,” he said to Grif cheerfully. “I reckon that’s your department.”
“What exactly does the security system access?” Grif asked.
“Almost everything, indirectly. Directly, it accesses everything that has to do with security.”
Grif snorted. “Thanks.”
“Well, there’s more to it than you might think. I mean, aside from the security monitors, locking and unlocking doors, generating security keys and validation codes–all of which we’ll probably find useful–there’s a database of protocols, regulations and procedures for things security has to do in the event of an attack on the station, or if there’s a fire, or…”
“Wait! Hold on a minute.” Grif was standing in front of the rig, staring at Bennet excitedly. “There’s a database of procedures and protocols?”
“Sure,” Bennet said. “There are a lot of them. Some of the procedures aren’t general knowledge, they probably change them from time to time, so that if an old procedure is leaked it won’t pose as much of a risk…”
“So stupid,” Grif said, laughing. “I am so stupid, Bennet–I should have thought of this before.”
“Well I’m not sure what that makes me,” Bennet said, slightly irritated, “because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s brilliant! This is going to put the artifact right in our laps. Think about it–they have security protocols that cover emergencies. Procedures that tell you what to do when, say, a moon crashes into the planet. Step by step instructions on how to evacuate the building in the event of mutant rat attacks… in short, procedures they don’t even know they have!”
Bennet’s eyes grew wide. “Or procedures they know they have but don’t look at until they’re needed.”
“Right.” Grif started to pace. “Look through those protocols and see if there are any that deal with the artifact–cross reference them with that number you mentioned earlier.”
Bennet typed furiously. “I’ve found a few. Mostly they’re guard shifts, how new members of the science staff will be screened… hold up. Here’s one we want, I think–what to do if the artifact needs to be transported off site.”
“That’s it,” Grif said.
“What do we do with it?”
“We’re going to change it a bit,” Grif said. “Add a few instructions, leave out a few instructions… a little shaping and fitting. Then we’ve got to get to work setting up all our, ah, decoys. That’ll take a while.”
“Then?” Bennet asked.
“Then,” Grif said, eyes gleaming, “we steal ourselves an artifact, and get the hell out of here.”