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A Friend In Need

Part I


"You don't have to stay so close behind me, you know," Android YN-0117 told the uniformed soldier who followed in her wake. The android had been sent to aid the military in installing certain analysis and targeting equipment designed by Dr. Jean-Carlo Montague, the eccentric genius of refugee spaceship Pioneer 2's scientific community. Montague had created YN-0117, giving her advanced emotional responses and communications equipment as well as the name Elenor Camuel.

"I was assigned to escort you from the laboratory complex to the military outpost and back," the soldier replied stiffly. "Now, if we could proceed to the aerocar dock, we can have you safely back within ten minutes."

Elenor's mechanical face couldn't quite pout, but she made a game try at it.

"I want to buy Doc a present. I don't get a chance to get out a lot, so my opportunities are limited."

She turned towards a nearby shopping district. Elenor thought it was mostly a psychological matter that they existed. The city in Pioneer 2 was large, but not so big that shopping would not have been more efficient by online selection and delivery. In-person shopping, Elenor believed, satisfied some need for "normalcy" in the lives of the population. After all, it had been a two-year journey from their homeworld to the planet Ragol, and even minor measures to comfort the population were important.

"YN-0117, my orders do not include a shopping trip!" the soldier protested. "I'm supposed to escort you directly to the outpost and back to the lab."

"Well, my orders didn't have anything forbidding side trips, and I'm not required to listen to whomever gave you your orders. And," she added archly, "my name is Elenor."

There really was no way for him to stop her other than physical means, which wouldn't have been at all wise, so the soldier followed along. Then, Elenor stopped in her tracks.

Dr. Thom Benton wasn't one of her favorite people. The gray-bearded scientist was a rival of Dr. Montague, which had gotten them off on the wrong foot, but he had gone and made it personal as well. Benton had sent Elenor down to Ragol's surface with an experimental weapon that had drained her power nearly to the point of death. She had lived only because a hunter had been sent down with an emergency power cell to save her.

Elenor did not know if Benton had actually been trying to destroy her, or if it had simply been a mistake brought on by incompetence and carelessness, but either way was enough to add to her dislike until she actively detested the man.

Benton wasn't shopping, Elenor realized. He was standing next to a rack of goods for sale, but he wasn't examining them. Instead, he was talking to a dark-haired man in an elaborate purple outfit. Elenor sighed--she really didn't want to encounter Dr. Benton now--but in an instant her mood changed from disappointment to shock as she saw the scientist take a datadisk from his pocket and hand it to the man.

"You're right," Elenor told the soldier. "I should get back to the lab at once."

The obvious person to tell about what she'd seen was Dr. Montague. He was Benton's superior in rank, and could take appropriate steps if need be. When the aerocar returned her to the lab and the soldier had left, Elenor went immediately to the doctor's office.

Unfortunately, even the best plans of an advanced-model android could go awry.

"I'm sorry, Android YN-0117, but Dr. Montague has been called away to oversee a top-secret research project for the Council," the scientist's trim blonde secretary told her.

"I see. Can I make a data-link connection to him?"

The secretary shook her head, a look of sympathy on her face.

"I'm afraid not. Pursuant to orders from the Council, the project staff is forbidden to receive personal calls or to have any form of private communication, even BEE simple-mail. Dr. Montague is completely incommunicado."

"Oh, my. How soon will he return?"

The blonde shrugged, spreading her hands helplessly.

"I can't say. He's been gone for thirty-nine hours now, but the project's expected duration and its location were both kept secret." She pouted and said conspiratorially, "I think the military and the politicians like to keep things secret just for the fun of it, like little kids with clubs, handshakes, and all that stuff. My six-year-old nephew talks just like some of the Council staff."

Elenor had heard Dr. Montague complain about the same thing a number of times before, so being kept out of contact with his staff was probably annoying him.

"Do you have a BEE account?" the secretary asked.

"Yes, Doc set one up for me."

"Well, when he gets back, I'll send you a message at once," she offered.

"Thank you."

Elenor walked away from the office nervously. She probably should wait until Montague returned, but that might not be for days. If Benton was up to something shady with the dark-haired man, that time might be enough to let him get away with whatever it was.

On the other hand, she couldn't take action alone. Most of the laboratory androids literally could not act against a ranking staff member without orders; it was part of their programming. Elenor was different; her eccentric creator had removed all of those inherent blocks in her obedience, making her a fully independent personality similar to the androids who belonged to the Hunter's Guild. Unfortunately, her independence also brought a sense of responsibility. For all her dislike of Benton, she was aware that what she'd seen might not be what it appeared. He might have been acting on orders, as part of a secret project--there were enough of those going on around the lab lately. If he was, then if Elenor went to the military police or the lab's Internal Security she might be disrupting something that Dr. Montague had a vested interest in.

"Oh, what should I do?" she murmured aloud. Elenor's problem was that as an android she was too far down the ranks to know what was going on. She needed guidance, and she needed it from someone she could trust. Dr. Montague was out, though. Elenor had another friend, a hunter from the Guild she had met and worked with a few times--the same one who had saved her life--whom she trusted, but the hunter would have no access to internal laboratory data and so could not help.

It took a few moments before Elenor came up with another possible name: Simons Olo. Olo was one of the younger doctors on the staff, but he liked Elenor. He was the one who had commissioned the rescue mission that had saved her. Perhaps he could help. In any event, she decided, it was worth the effort to ask.

Luckily, Dr. Olo was in. Elenor found him hunched over a computer console, his brown hair tousled from running his fingers through it while thinking, an intent expression on his boyish face. Old was young, but he looked even less than his true age.

A mechanical spider turned from the top of a bookshelf and said "Hello! Welcome to Dr. Olo's office, Android!" Electronic toys and miniature robots were Olo's hobby; this one was obviously activated by motion.

"What is it?" the doctor snapped a bit peevishly as he turned, then saw who it was. "Oh, Elenor, hi!" Olo was one of the first people to have dropped the "YN-0117" designation in favor of her name, something he'd done shortly following the rescue.

"I can come back if you're too busy to talk," she offered, but he shook his head immediately.

"No, no, please come in. I was just analyzing certain technical data from the robots found in No Man's Mines. It's confusing and contradictory and giving me a headache. Frankly, I'd appreciate whatever you had to tell me just as a distraction. The chance for friendly conversation is just a bonus."

Elenor stepped out of the doorway, letting the door slide shut behind her.

"I'm not sure how friendly this is going to be. I need your help, Master Olo."

His youthful face grew serious, and he gestured her to a chair. She didn't sit, though, being more comfortable on her feet.

"What's the trouble?"

"I saw Dr. Benton passing a datadisk to a civilian today."

"A civilian?"

"Yes. This was at a shopping district at 3019 Kendall, Level Four."

Olo blinked in surprise.

"Elenor, what were you doing at a shopping district?"

"I wanted to buy a gift for Dr. Montague." Her face fell with regret. "I never got the chance, though, because I saw Dr. Benton first."

Olo shook his head, baffled. Most androids that he knew didn't think about presents. Then again, Elenor wasn't like most androids.

"I wanted to tell Dr. Montague, about this, but he's working on a secret project and can't be reached. You're my only hope; I need to know what to do."

Simons nodded at her.

"I wish I knew. Dr. Benton is a powerful man and he's not fond of either one of us. With Dr. Montague out of touch, we don't have a lot of protection. Do you think he saw you?"

"No; he was looking away from where I was and didn't turn my way or show any signs of recognition."

"Okay."

Olo took a deep breath.

"Well, regardless of who Dr. Benton is, we have to do the right thing. Ever since Pioneer 2 arrived at Ragol, there's been a thriving black market in classified lab data. Everyone wants to know what's happening--businessmen, criminals, pirate journalists, even the military and other scientists who don't have the necessary clearance."

"People are curious. They want to know why, after a two-year journey, they can't start settling Ragol, and they want to know what happened to the people on board Pioneer 1."

"True, but we have to find out, first. Most of the data is classified because we don't have any real answers, and we don't want to start a panic. Plus, many of the people who want it don't care about solving the mysteries of Ragol. They just want to put the data to their own advantage." He paused, then added nervously, "Elenor, I don't know if you've seen this, but ever since we've reached this planet there have been a number of very suspicious things going on around the lab."

"I'm not sure that I understand what you mean, Master Olo."

He frowned thoughtfully, apparently trying to decide what he could confide in the android.

"Well, there have been projects with high security classifications being carried out at levels not ordinarily cleared for it. Data which vanished from the archives once collected. People who aren't supposed to be here having access to places they don't. I know it must sound paranoid to you."

Elenor shook her head.

"I don't have enough information to either confirm or deny your suppositions. I do know about the trade in black market data, though, which is certainly criminal activity here at the lab. Other crimes might easily be possible."

Olo smiled wanly at her.

"Thanks. I appreciate that."

"If you're nervous, I'm sure there's a reason for it."

The young man rubbed his hands together.

"We need to put this information in the hands of the authorities. If Benton is really passing on contraband data, the milipol or I-Sec can plug the leak."

"Do you think that's a good idea? I was worried that Dr. Benton might have some good reason for passing on the disk."

"If so, there's no reason the authorities would hold it against us for being vigilant."

"Dr. Benton might."

Olo's face grew hard.

"Elenor, if Benton's going to get mad, I can live with it--especially if he's had a few hours in an interrogation room because of it."

Elenor could sympathize.

"It's too bad we don't know what was on the disk, or who it was Benton gave it to," Olo mused. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers, his face lighting up. "Wait a minute. You're an android; your memory is actually electronic data storage. We can download the image of Benton's contact to a computer as a video file!"

"What do you need me to do?"

"Well, just wait for now..."

Olo searched through several desk drawers and came up with a cable. He plugged one end into the computer and slotted the other into a port in the back of the android's neck, just underneath her hairline.

"All right; you're linked up. Computer, please access memory directory of Android YN-0117."

"Accessed."

"Elenor, about what time was it that you saw Benton?"

"Around...um...fourteen-thirty-two."

"Okay. Computer, replay visual memory file for time mark fourteen-thirty through fourteen-thirty-five, current date."

A window opened on screen, and Elenor watched with surprise as everything she'd seen for those five minutes was replayed precisely. She hadn't realized it would be so easy to access her memory files, and the thought was somewhat unnerving. Could someone just as easily hack her memory to add false recollections--or worse yet, access her core matrix and make basic changes to her personality? The idea frightened Elenor more than anything she'd ever faced before, even more than the threat of death when she'd fought the monsters of Ragol.

She didn't confide any of this to Dr. Olo, however. It was better not to worry him with her personal fears while he was working, the android thought.

"That's it!" she exclaimed as the image of Benton and the purple-clad man appeared.

"Computer, stop playback; display time index. Resume playback."

They watched the entire scene until Elenor saw the dark man leave."

"Computer, copy time index fourteen-thirty-two through fourteen-thirty-four to internal memory."

"Task completed."

With that done, Dr. Olo unhooked Elenor from the unit, which sent a spike of relief through her.

"We'll just work with the file," he said. "That will prevent any feedback from reaching you in case of trouble."

"I appreciate it!"

Working swiftly, Olo isolated and magnified the image of the datadisk. Unfortunately, it was unlabeled and bore no other distinguishing characteristics. Then, he turned to the man, and generated an excellent image of a male Newman, the sharply pointed ears of his race largely having been hidden by his long hair. A thin mustache seemed to lend him an almost sinister mien, although that may just have been due to Elenor's assumptions about his activities.

When he was done, the screen contained a holo-image of the mystery man which slowly turned in place for a 360-degree view.

"I'm impressed," Elenor said. "The computer was able to build this model just from my video memory?"

"That's right, and now this image can be compared to those in the citizenry database. Unless they're wearing an elaborate disguise, the milipol can identify anyone this way with a high degree of confidence. It's one of the advantages with a closed environment like this spaceship; there's a limited number of possible suspects and everyone has a data record, not just known criminals."

He paused thoughtfully, looking at the image.

"Wait a minute. I know this guy."

"You do?"

"Yeah, but I can't remember from where it was."

"Is he involved with the laboratory, or a government agency?"

Olo shook his head.

"No...well, maybe, but I don't think that's how I know him. Computer, cross-reference image against archived media files."

"Working...One match found."

"Display."

The file match was a broadcast bulletin sent to government agencies only, unlike the InfoNet online news broadcasts for the general public. This one detailed the arrest of two individuals involved in the disappearance of certain hunters on Ragol.

"That's him!"

"What?"

"There--the trader named Mujo. That's the man Benton passed the disk to."

"Master Olo, that's impossible. According to this broadcast, Mujo is supposed to be serving a life sentence in prison for the kidnappings."

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