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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Machine Awakes

Spider War (Volume 2)

Adam Christopher

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1



The robot servitor bay was cramped, the air rich with the chemical tang of ozone and disinfectant. Von Kodiak did his best to ignore both discomforts as, balanced on one foot to reach the open access panel in the bay's back wall, he delicately touch-soldered an exposed circuit board while holding a bundle of wires between his teeth. The service bay was almost completely dark, but the HUD in his AI glasses amplified what little light there was, allowing him to get on with his work.

Kodiak was squeezed awkwardly in one of two channels, each a meter deep and a meter wide, that ran the full length of the bay on either side of the central platform. They were designed to allow humanoid crews-vertically challenged humanoid crews, Kodiak thought with a sigh-a minimal amount of space to work on the cube-shaped maintenance robot that would be parked in the center. There was just enough room to stand upright in the channel, but the space was narrow and Kodiak had to lean out awkwardly to reach the access panel at the back of the dock-the alternative being to crouch in the center of the bay itself, risking life and limb if the servitor should return to port, crushing him between it and the back wall.

Kodiak had been working for two hours now, according to the counter in the corner of his glasses. He had a sore back, and he had already paced the tiny channel twice to walk out a cramp. He was almost done, but the last couple of connections were a son of a bitch. But the work, the effort, would be worth it.

Because Von Kodiak's new plan was a damn good one, even if he said so himself.

The service levels of Helprin's Gambit, and the dozens of servitor docks they contained, were not on the usual visitor's docket. The station was a leisure facility, pure and simple, packed with spas and entertainment complexes, offering sensual delights both real and virtual, ranging from the family friendly to the borderline illegal as the facility lazily orbited a star just close enough to a major quickspace transit point to make it a tempting destination. But the station was famous for one thing above all else: the Grand Casino, which occupied almost the entire central spire of the torus-shaped pleasure palace. It was the biggest such enterprise in all of Fleetspace, privately owned and operated, a destination for the rich and famous and the poor and desperate alike.

It was also a front for one of the biggest criminal organizations in Fleetspace.

Kodiak tried to put out of his mind what they would do to him, and for how long, if he got caught. The new plan was a risk, but circumstances and the parameters of his mission had changed, and he'd had to come up with something else. And, really, the new plan was quite, quite clever. Okay, so it wouldn't have the same outcome as the original, but it was better than nothing. He was pretty sure the team would be pleased with the results.

Kodiak extracted one of the wires from between his teeth. As he held the bare end against the contact of his microsolder, there was a tiny puff of blue smoke, and the connection was in place.

The city-sized station needed cleaning robots. A lot of cleaning robots. The machines-servitors-were perfect cubes a meter and a half across, designed with the same aesthetic touch as the rest of the station. During the day, the army of machines was docked in their bays where they charged up, underwent maintenance, and, importantly, re-synced with the station's central computer via a hardwire link.

A hardwire link Kodiak was busy modifying. He hissed in annoyance as time ran on in the corner of his eye. He pulled another wire from his mouth and soldered it to the exposed circuitry on the panel in front of him. Just one more to go.

The service sublevels of Helprin's Gambit, sandwiched between the public levels, were monitored like every other part of the station-except for the inside of the servitor docks themselves. It was a security flaw that Kodiak had discovered months ago, soon after arriving and getting the lowly servitor technician job.

Of course, that wasn't the plan, but working as an anonymous tech was a great way to hide, especially after discovering his pre-arranged contact had been thrown out of an airlock by Helprin himself. Well, so the story went; he'd only got word secondhand, cycles later, while laying low and considering his options in one of the dive bars that dotted the outer rim of the platform, the less salubrious regions of Helprin's pleasure palace generally avoided by tourists but frequented by the poorer of his employees. Word was Helprin was looking for someone else too: a new arrival from Earth, his executed employee's co-conspirator.

Hello, Von Kodiak.

Every instinct in him had screamed to get the hell out, abandon the mission and make for the stars. Except he couldn't risk it, not until things had quieted down. Getting the tech job had been easy-now that the original plan had failed, Kodiak had an unfeasibly large amount of money on him with which to bribe the service controllers, who gave him a position, no questions asked. And, Kodiak told himself, it was just temporary. A few weeks, perhaps. He could use the job to hide in plain sight, and then when the coast was clear, catch the next transport off.

And then-thanks to his accidental employment-he'd found the security flaw and hatched a new plan. Because the servitor docks, which he was assigned to on a regular maintenance schedule, turned out to be the perfect place to discreetly hack the station's computer without being seen.

Last wire. Last connection. Job done.

Responding to his thoughts, his AI glasses ran a diagnostic over his handiwork, highlighting the solder points with a green indicator and matching the changes against a circuit diagram Kodiak had spent three cycles preparing. All good. Just another little touch-up here and there needed. Which just left another three cycles to continue his cover as the servitor tech, until the Grand Casino began its next Sentallion contest-his game of choice-and then he'd be off Helprin's Gambit in a shuttle loaded with credits before anyone, Helprin included, knew what had happened. And about time too. Six months of station maintenance was more than long enough.

It seemed that buying your way into anonymous employment within Helprin's organization was a fairly regular occurrence. His colleagues were a mixed bunch, to say the least. Some were fine, happy in their work and friendly enough. They included refugees and those forced by the war or circumstance to start over for all kinds of reasons. Helprin's Gambit was famous for second chances. If you had enough credits, you could buy a job, starting at the bottom and, with a lot of hard effort and a touch of luck, work your way up. No questions asked. No ID required. For those with an uncertain future, Helprin's Gambit was often the only option left, short of trying your luck in the lawlessness of a place like Salt City.

But there were others who took advantage of Helprin's unique hospitality. Deserters, criminals, outsiders. People on the run from trouble. People looking for it. Start at the bottom, get yourself-and your exploits-known by the right people, and maybe Helprin would recruit you to the somewhat less legal side of his organization.

Kodiak had done his best to avoid that crowd, but working at the bottom of the ladder wasn't quite a cakewalk. But at least it would be over soon.

And the new plan? Kodiak smiled to himself. The new plan was good.

All he had to do was win at the Grand Casino, and win big. Normally, this only happened to a very few lucky players-less than natural odds, given the games were all controlled by the station's AI, carefully maintaining a balance of wins versus losses that kept the rich and famous coming while lining Helprin's coffers rather handsomely.

But if he could somehow throw the odds-if he could win, and win enough, then it would hurt Helprin. In fact, with a little computer know-how, he might even be able to win so much that Helprin's whole organization would be crippled. Okay, so maybe the result wasn't quite as final as it had been with the original plan, which would have ultimately handed Helprin over to the authorities, but for second best it wasn't half bad.

Kodiak completed the last touch-up to his work, flipped a row of switches to reconnect the system to the main station computer, then closed the access panel. As he replaced the microsolder in the belt of his maintenance worker's uniform, he touched the side of his glasses. Scrolling text spun across the HUD, too fast to read, but all in green. The tiny device he had wired into the terminal was a work of art, even if Kodiak said so himself. It had taken him three of the six months aboard the station to build it, although most of that time had been spent discreetly pilfering the components he needed from the maintenance stores.

Kodiak concentrated, and a new display appeared in his glasses as his system hack came online. A simple indicator appeared, showing a red cross icon, and he heard a tone, transmitted directly through the bone of his skull from one arm of the glasses.

All good. The hack simply interrupted the games computer's algorithms, introducing a new element that would throw a round of Sentallion in Kodiak's favor, the tone-inaudible to anyone standing next to him-giving him the heads up if he didn't catch the cross indicator in his vision. It was so simple, Kodiak wondered why nobody had tried it before.

Because, Von, he thought, you're a bona fide genius. Tales, my friend, will be told of your death-defying and quite possibly erotic exploits across the ... well, across however many systems there are.

Another tone sounded in Kodiak's ear.

"Shit!"

Kodiak ducked back down into the channel as the service bay door slid open and the maintenance servitor returned, flying into its nest with enough speed to crush Kodiak's arm against the back wall had he not moved fast enough. Just a few centimeters from his face, heat wafted off the side of the servitor, the whine of its antigrav piercing in the enclosed space.

Peering into the tiny gap between the cube-shaped robot and the back wall of the dock, Kodiak watched as a small, pencil-like connector extended from the servitor and mated with the port in the computer panel. The panel's LED display changed from red to green; then a white indicator flickered as the machine synced with the station computer and entered its dormant, daytime phase.

Kodiak smiled to himself and stood in the tight space of the service channel, quickly packing the rest of his tools up and stowing them away in the utility pouches on his uniform. Careful not to touch the hot surface of the servitor, he crabbed sideways to leave the bay. With a quick glance around the lip of the docking bay's door, he pulled himself out into the service corridor.

The service corridor was itself much narrower, the ceiling much lower, than the guest facilities over his head and below his feet, but the sudden feeling of space after working in the cramped servitor bay was a relief. He glanced up at the surveillance lens he knew was ten meters to his left-there was no point in trying to hide from it; if anything, that would look even more suspicious. For anyone watching, he was just one of the hundreds of station techs going about his duties.

As he walked down the corridor, he whistled to himself, watching a new timer in his glasses as the HUD counted down to the start of the Sentallion contest. Two point seven cycles-or sixty-four point eight hours, as a smaller line of text helpfully suggested.

Perfect. All he had to do was lay low, be his anonymous self, carry out his menial tasks as normal.

And then ... well, then it was time to take down Helprin's Gambit once and for all. And if things worked out, more than just the facility. Helprin's entire operation would be crippled, hurting him in his most sensitive place-his wallet.

Smiling, Kodiak rubbed his hands. There were a few hours before he was officially due back on shift. Time enough for a shower and something to eat and to consider how everything was going perfectly according to the new plan.



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