Ben Stark put the finishing touches on a lengthy summary of Day Three, tagged it for publication, and got up from his desk, intending to head back downstairs and see what sort of unscheduled workshops people might've put together this evening. He'd made it plain at the outset that the workshop rooms would be left open at all hours, in case anyone wanted to just get together and knock some ideas together, and so far several groups had done just that—in at least one case to very promising effect, as the guys from the Yinsen Center and a couple of people from the Ministry of the Interior seemed to have cracked the problem of desalination in the Sea of Japan the previous night.
That was just the kind of thing he'd been hoping for, and he was very well-pleased with the conference as he rode down in the elevator. The feeling grew as he looked into Conference Room 1 and found the team from Solarsoft heads-down with a couple of the Microtopia engineers, intently discussing who knew what advances in gaming visualization (with probable knock-on benefits for the visually handicapped). Room 2 was vacant, but in number 3, one of the "heavy industrial" rooms, he found Anton Vanko putting a few finishing touches on OKB-393's main exhibit.
The Model 1240 exoskeletal load lifter—the famed "Tireless Worker"— was as ubiquitous in the Soviet bloc as boomers were on the Pacific Rim. A heavy powered exoskeleton operated by a pilot, it was generally thought of in the West as the Russian answer to the K series of powered suits, and for all that it was officially called a load lifter, the 1240 had as many armed and armored variants for police and military uses as did the K-suit. This one was environmentally sealed, its operator fully enclosed, but not armed—though Stark's practiced eye had little trouble spotting the hardpoints.
"Ah, Mr. Stark," said Vanko, wiping his hands on a rag. "How are you this evening?"
"Not bad, Professor Vanko, not bad at all," Stark replied. "Very pleased with the way the conference is going."
"As am I," Vanko concurred. "It has been most stimulating. I wish more of my team could have experienced it, but..." He shrugged meaningfully.
Stark nodded. "What can you do, right?" he asked philosophically, then stood and looked up at the 1240. "They always seem bigger in person," he mused.
"Ah, of course, you'll have seen them before," Vanko said; then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, "I seem to recall the Ministry was quite annoyed to find that you'd purchased one through a shell company in Transbelvia."
"Well, lest they assume espionage was our only motive," said Stark with a grin, "you can tell them we're still using it for its originally intended purpose at the Flushing plant. Nothing tops it for moving around the big castings in our industrial turbine production line."
Vanko laughed his big, booming laugh. "Perhaps you should take out a larger order!" he declared. "Come, step aboard this one and I will show you how we've improved the user interface since yours was made."
Stark glanced sidelong at him, then said, "Sure, why not," and climbed onto the 1240's operator gantry. Vanko showed him where to put his feet and hands, then cabled up a portacomp to the external maintenance port, powered up the suit, and buttoned it up. Stark feigned nervousness as the helmet came down on its armored gorget and locked into place, sealing him off from the outside world; he wasn't, after all, supposed to be very familiar with this kind of environment.
He was impressed when the helmet's holoarray powered up; he'd been expecting direct-observation instruments and maybe some simple vector holos, as the model his company owned presented its data to the operator, but instead it was very similar to the environment inside Iron Man—although, he noticed with faint satisfaction, somewhat lower-resolution. The color transmission was a bit off, too; everything in the world outside the helmet seemed to have a slight tilt toward orange, as though the room were lit with sodium lamps.
"There we are," Vanko declared. The audio reproduction wasn't crystal-clear either, Stark noticed, but it would do. Certainly better than the Mark I Iron Man suit's. "Are you comfortable, Mr. Stark?"
"It's not too bad," Stark replied. "I see what you mean about the improved UI."
"Indeed. Let me run some of the demonstrations I usually give to officials back home," said Vanko, sounding thrilled to have the opportunity.
Then, to Stark's mild surprise, a line of glowing amber text appeared in his field of view, right around where the current rev of StarkOS put the time-and-temperature readout.
PLEASE DO NOT BE ALARMED. THIS CONVERSATION MUST REMAIN PRIVATE.
ACTIVATE THE PRESSURE SWITCH AT YOUR RIGHT INDEX FINGER IF YOU AGREE OR LEFT IF YOU DO NOT.
Stark looked down the slope of the 1240's chest armor and saw Vanko typing away at his portacomp as if nothing odd were going on. He was nattering away with what sounded like a well-polished spiel about the Tireless Worker's specifications, while all around the text message in his HUD, Stark saw various simulated readouts come and go. Shrugging internally, he pressed the right-hand switch. A moment later the message vanished and another replaced it, surrounded by the scrolling numerals of a simulated actuator stress test:
I WISH TO DEFECT TO THE WEST. CAN/WILL YOU HELP ME?