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A Friend In Need

Part II


They looked at each other for some time, the scientist and the android, trying to understand what this new revelation meant.

"Could it be a mistake?" Elenor wondered.

"No; it's the same man, all right. I can tell that just by looking, and the computer confirms it."

Elenor had to agree. Her own electronic brain compared the video image from the archived broadcast and the one in her memory and found them identical to within a 98% level of confidence. It had been Mujo she'd seen.

The question was, how? Prisoners serving life sentences did not receive leave to go on shopping trips.

"Do you think he could have been released from prison? Perhaps he was innocent and the truth only found out after he'd been tried."

"Maybe," Olo said, "but I don't recall getting any bulletins about that." He frowned. "The cynic in me wants to say that the government doesn't like to brag about its failures--arrest him with fanfare, then let him go out the back door. Except, the arrest itself was only announced to government offices in the first place. We're supposed to be the people who need to know what's happening with this investigation. Why hold back the news from us?"

"I don't know."

Olo shivered.

"Elenor, I'm starting to get that feeling of paranoia again. Someone had to let Mujo out of prison, and if they didn't do it because he's innocent, they probably did it because he's guilty."

Elenor didn't quite understand, which wasn't surprising. Life and loyalty were simple and direct for the android: she served her creator, Dr. Montague, and to a lesser extent the rest of the laboratory hierarchy, obeyed the law, and stood by her friends. She had no ambition for wealth, power, or fame and did not understand the convoluted efforts so many people went through in seeking them.

She could tell, however, that Dr. Olo was frightened by what he had learned. Whatever the implications were, they could not have been good ones. Perhaps someone important owed money or favors to this Mujo and had arranged his release.

"Elenor, have you ever heard of Black Paper?"

"Not in anything but the obvious sense."

Simons took a deep breath.

"The fact is, no one really seems to know much about it, but there have been rumors, which have been making the rounds more and more ever since Pioneer 2 reached Ragol. I didn't hear of them myself until a couple of days after that time when Dr. Benton and I nearly...nearly got you..." He broke off stammering, unable to finish the sentence.

"It's all right, Dr. Olo," Elenor hastened to reassure him. "You had no idea what would happen, and you did get to the Hunter's Guild in time to save me."

"Thanks," he said ruefully. "I still feel like I could have done something more. If I hadn't been careless, you would never have been put in such danger." He sighed, then continued. "Anyway, it was soon after that when I first heard about Black Paper. Some people say that Black Paper is a trader, a criminal with a bad reputation. Other people say that it is actually an organization, a criminal syndicate dealing in weapons, android parts, slaves...whatever black market goods can be sold at a price."

"These people have been operating on Pioneer 2?" Elenor was astounded.

"That's what they say--and they also say that the missing-hunters case was masterminded by Black Paper."

Elenor thought that through and smiled.

"Well, that makes sense!" she said brightly.

"Elenor, what could possibly be making you happy about that?"

"I understand it now," she explained, a but hurt at Olo's sharp tone. "Black Paper is a big criminal network and Mujo is a member of it. They have power and influence which got him released from prison. A group like that would be sure to want whatever laboratory data Dr. Benton could get for them, both because of their connections to people in power and because of the data's value on their black market!"

Elenor looked at the scientist, concerned.

"I suppose that you had already thought of that," she murmured.

Olo rubbed his hands together fretfully.

"I'm sorry, Elenor. I was worrying about something else entirely and you were just trying to work out what might have happened. I'm sorry I snapped."

"What were you worried about, Dr. Olo?"

"Our safety," he said ruefully. "I wish Dr. Montague was here. He might be eccentric, but I'm sure he'd know what to do."

"I wish he was here, too," Elenor admitted.

"We can't go to the milipol," Olo told her. "They arrested and locked up Mujo once already, but he got out. That's no solution. I don't mind locking horns with Benton, but Black Paper is another matter entirely. We can't let Benton get away with taking data, either."

"What do we do, then?"

"We have to look into it ourselves, without calling the police or alerting Black Paper. Maybe our own investigation will turn up something we can use, some kind of leverage that could blow open this network."

"Won't that be dangerous?" Elenor said, thinking of words like "slaves" and "android parts."

"Probably," Olo agreed. "What's more, we don't have any authority to investigate this matter, so if we're caught before we find key evidence, we could be in serious trouble. Even if the criminals don't do anything, our own lab might demote or reassign us as a punishment for overstepping our bounds."

"I'm willing to risk it if you want me to, Master Olo."

He smiled wanly.

"I know you are, Elenor. It's more myself that I'm worried about. I don't know if I have the courage to go through with my own idea."

"I'm sure you do, Dr. Olo," Elenor encouraged. "Why, in the past you would never have suggested going this far. You definitely have more courage."

It was true; his experiences since coming to Ragol had definitely changed the young doctor. He had always been willing to take responsibility for his actions, but when his ideas were new he had hesitated to put them forward; Elenor had believed it was due to his youth and inexperience, making him distrust his abilities in the face of older, supposedly more knowledgeable minds. A month ago, she was sure that Simons Olo would never have suggested investigating a superior.

Then again, she'd changed too. Dr. Montague had told her once that he'd designed her personality matrix to learn and grow, because taught knowledge couldn't compare to real experiences.

"It's the whole point of being alive," her creator had said. "If you stop discovering new things, you might as well be a rock or a tree--or a soldier, ha ha ha. Your personality will round itself out, in the way best suited for you, just like what happens to the rest of us." Talking to Olo, she thought that she finally understood what he meant.

"So what should we do first?" she asked.

"We'll start with Dr. Benton," Olo decided. "I don't know if we can do anything at all to bring these members of Black Paper to justice, but Benton is a laboratory problem and we can at least clean our own house. Not that either one of us would mind giving him a hard time..."

Elenor smiled at that.

"I think the first thing," he continued, "is to find out what was on the disk. We'd look fairly silly if Benton was just loaning Mujo his copy of the collected romances of Millicent LaFaire."

"Dr. Benton reads romance novels?"

"Um, no, I was just using that as an examp--oh, never mind," he sighed. "Sometimes I forget that as an android you're more likely to take things literally. Anyway, the problem is, how do we find out what data he took? He'd have covered his tracks, disguised the records of his use."

"Would he have used his office computer?"

Olo nodded.

"He'd have to. The labs are in use by people round-the-clock; someone could catch him. At his office unit he'd have the privacy to search for important data and the time to hack through security encryption and copy blocks."

"That would leave evidence against him, though. I know that regular security sweeps are done to stop the loss of classified data."

"Right, so he'd have to hack the system again to hide the traces. He's not a fool; he'd know enough to cover his tracks."

"If he's covered up, then how can we do anything against him?"

Olo frowned. Obviously, the same question had been bothering the scientist even while he was reasoning his way through things.

"We might be able to get at it from another angle. Altering the computer records is hard work, so Benton probably wouldn't do more than cover the fact that security had been broken and that a copy had been made. I doubt he'd conceal that data had been accessed, since that would involve hacking the mainframe as well as his own personal unit."

"That makes sense," Elenor said.

"So, what we need to do is find an anomalous dataflow from the mainframe's data transfer records, to see what it is he accessed. In other words, what was he looking at that he could copy?"

"How are we going to do that?"

Dr. Olo grinned.

"With a little help from Benton himself."

*     *     *      *     *

"Hey, Thom," Dr. Lastwell said as she passed Benton in the corridor. "Did you hear? They're doing a full-on security sweep of the lab computers tomorrow. Internal Security pigs are almost as bad as the army. How are we supposed to get any work done?"

"I didn't hear any announcement about that."

"I don't think there's been one, but someone let it slide. Everyone's talking about it, from Croehl and Pelfrey all the way down to that kid, Olo. I think even the androids know."

Benton looked at the medical doctor curiously.

"Does anyone know why?"

"The usual I-Sec garbage," Lastwell told him. "Missing data, information leaking to the black market, that kind of thing."

"I wonder how much mainframe memory they'll eat this time?" Benton said. "I have a series of important tests to run."

"Heaven forbid science come before I-Sec paranoia. If there's any truth to the rumors, this will end up being the biggest yet."

*     *     *      *     *

"Magruder," Dr. Benton said over his Personal Data Link, "I need the plant samples from the C3 recovery set for tests tomorrow."

"Okay," said the smiling young lab technician, his freckled face looking exceptionally boyish on the PDL's small screen. "Are you sure you'll be able to go through with it? I hear that big sweep I-Sec is running tomorrow is going to really limit available memory for most of the day."

"I've heard rumors about that, but no official announcement of any security sweep."

"Yeah, well, but it stands to reason, though. After all, they don't want to give the bad guys a chance to hide what they've been up to, do they?"

*     *     *      *     *

"I must say, Thom, that I am seriously considering sending a formal letter of protest to the Council about Internal Security's operations," Dr. Pelfrey told Benton. The Grand Old Man of the science staff tugged at his long, white beard in agitation. "Security is vital, of course, but not when it comes at the expense of laboratory functionality."

*     *     *      *     *

"I'm sorry," said the I-Sec receptionist, her tone more expressionless than any android's, "but I can neither confirm nor deny that any Internal Security inspection is planned for tomorrow, Dr. Benton."

*     *     *      *     *

"Computer, enter diagnostic mode," Dr. Benton ordered his machine. "Review file activity record for data group 7G41-A."

"Access record displayed."

"Reverify: read-only security on this file group is intact; no copies or data transfers were made of any file or file segment from specified group."

"Working...File group security is intact. No such operations have been performed."

"Excellent. Resume standard operating mode."

He sank into his chair with a deep sigh. Let I-Sec run their sweep! His work was undetectable by anything short of a full-on pinpoint analysis--and he'd be willing to bet on his cover-up against even that, if he had to.

*     *     *      *     *

"File group 7G41-A," Elenor said, removing her headphones. "Your idea worked perfectly."

"I just hope that no one gets the idea to trace back those rumors to where they started. We've probably caused a fair amount of bother for people."

"You had to make sure the news got all over the lab so that Dr. Benton would hear about it from several sources."

"Yeah, he had to believe that it was true. Oh, well, there's no point in worrying about it now." He turned to the computer and started to look up file group 7G41-A. "That's interesting."

"What is it, Master Olo?"

"7G41-A is a selection of biological data concerning the native animals of Ragol's forests collected by a Hunter's Guild team. What's more, the system won't even let me access it."

"Do you think that Dr. Benton sabotaged our file access?" Elenor asked.

Olo shook his head.

"No, I doubt it. I just don't have a high enough security clearance. Benton is much farther up the chain than I am. Classified data about Ragol, though--that's exactly the kind of thing that the black marketeers want to get their hands on. It looks like you were absolutely right about what Benton was doing."

Pride filled the android at Olo's praise.

"Now, how do we stop him?"

"Stopping him won't be the hard part, since we know almost everything about what he's up to. The question is, where can we go from there?"

He rubbed his hands together briskly. Obviously, their first successful gambit had calmed his fears somewhat and whetted his appetite for more.

"Do you have an idea?" Elenor prompted.

"Well, Benton has been so helpful thus far, why don't we give him the chance to help some more?"

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