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A Friend In Need

Part III

Direct confrontation was not Elenor's forte. She had been programmed to use guns in combat, but only as a last resort, if the situation demanded it. Personal confrontation on an only social level was even worse. She was not suited to a verbal duel, especially with a ranking superior, even one she strongly disliked.

Nonetheless, she was also eager for the challenge. This was something exciting and new, investigating crime and bringing the guilty to justice, and she found that she liked it.

Elenor was sure that she could never have managed to approach Dr. Benton alone. She would likely cave in to his authority and to his blustering manner. Thankfully, she was not alone.

It took two presses of the bell before Benton's snarled "Come in!" caused his office door to slide open. Dr. Olo led the way in, followed by the android.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Benton."

The rail-thin older man scowled, making his thick white eyebrows bristle wolfishly.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this interruption?"

Olo smiled. Elenor could only guess that he enjoyed getting the better of their irascible superior as much as she did.

"We need to talk, Doctor, about one of your research projects."

The door hissed shut automatically behind Elenor.

"I don't have any instructions for either you or Dr. Montague's pet android to assist me on any of my projects."

"That's all right. You didn't have any instructions to do this project in the first place."

"Olo, you're making even less sense than usual," Benton growled. "If you can't explain what you're talking about in a clear and concise manner, then please leave and let me get back to my work."

"Master Olo is talking about what you've been doing with the Ragolian animal research data stored as file group 7G41-A," Elenor informed him, and had the immense satisfaction of seeing Benton freeze for the minutest instant before recovering his composure.

"I'm not doing any research on that data. Your ever-so-sainted Dr. Montague was assigned to head the analysis of the Ragolian creatures."

"I just said that I know you hadn't been assigned to this research, Dr. Benton," Olo pointed out. "This is something you took upon yourself to do, a private project."

"Do you realize what you're saying?" the older scientist snapped. "Tampering with classified data is a serious offense, and accusing me of doing so is an equally serious matter."

"Ah, then you are familiar with the data, since you know that it's classified."

"All data on Ragol is classified, idiot!" Benton sprang from his chair. "Now, if the two of you don't get out of here right now I'll report these insane charges to Internal Security!"

"Well, if you really want us to leave...Here, boy!"

There was a soft click, and a circular, four-legged robot floated out from under Dr. Benton's desk. It settled neatly into Olo's palm, and he put it away in his pocket. Just another one of Olo's robot toys, but equipped with advanced voice recognition software and a microtransmitter. Benton understood at once what it meant.

"You bugged me? You planted a transmitter in my office? I'll have your job for this, Olo! You'll be lucky to avoid a prison cell. As for that android, she'll be broken down for spare parts thanks to that obviously defective personality program Montague gave her!"

Elenor had expected him to say something like that, but Benton's threats made her very nervous. She knew that he meant every word of it.

Simons Olo, though, didn't seem overly impressed.

"Dr. Benton, shouldn't you at least ask what we happened to hear over this transmitter before you start making threats? You keep going on like you're in a position of strength, but the fact is that you aren't. You've been caught playing with classified data and, worse yet, dealing with criminals."

He held up a datadisk.

"If you'll allow me?"

Olo took Benton's incoherent sputterings as a yes, and went over to the computer, where he inserted the disk.

"Computer, please display image file Benton-1."

A still image of Dr. Benton passing a disk to Mujo appeared on the screen.

"Display Benton-2."

A second image appeared, a close-up of the men's hands clearly showing the disk being handed over.

"Display Benton-3."

This image was a close-up of Mujo's face. Elenor thought his eyes looked dark and sinister, although that might just have been her imagination.

"This man is a known member of a dangerous criminal syndicate, Dr. Benton, a convicted felon, and you were seen--and recorded--passing on classified laboratory files to him. Computer, close images and eject disk."

Olo put away the disk, then turned squarely to face Dr. Benton. He looked directly into the senior man's eyes, pinning him with a gaze Elenor hadn't realized the young scientist was capable of projecting.

"Now listen to me, Dr. Benton. This is not a bluff. This is not a game. You can't just bluster your way out of this. If you'd stop acting like you're still in control here, you'd realize that there's a reason we haven't just reported you to I-Sec already and left it at that."

Dr. Benton, however, did not back down. Perhaps it was ego, or maybe he really didn't believe Olo and Elenor were any real threat to him.

"Get out of here," he hissed, his face only inches from Olo's. "Get out of my office, and take your toys with you," he continued with a glance towards Elenor. "Do you think I'll pay blackmail? That I'll give you meseta or favors to keep myself out of trouble? There's no way in the world that I'll give a whelp like you the satisfaction."

Benton gave Olo a hard shove, sending him staggering a couple of steps back. Elenor at once stepped forward, her metal arm thrusting between the two men and grabbing Benton by his lab coat.

"Android YN-0117! Release me at once!"

"I can't do that, Dr. Benton."

"You are nothing but an android! Obey me!" he roared.

"No!" Elenor exclaimed. "I won't let you hurt Dr. Olo!" She steered him over to his chair and pushed him into it. "He's not trying to blackmail you! Just because you're a mean crook who lies, steals, and hurts people to get what you want doesn't mean that everyone is, too!"

Both men stared at her, surprised by her outburst. For that matter, she'd surprised herself. She hadn't realized that she could be so forceful if she had to be.

Benton looked back and forth between the two of them, it finally sinking in that he wasn't going to be able to get out of it by force of personality alone. He'd played too deeply, and they had caught him at it.

"If it's not blackmail, what do you want?"

Olo's answer was simple.

"Black Paper."

This time, Benton didn't try to bluff or hide.

"You're crazy," he said, astonishment obvious on his face.

"You're denying that you've heard of them?"

"You're crazy if you think the two of you can do anything against them. No one can, not even your high and mighty genius, Dr. Montague."

Olo frowned at the older scientist.

"You're refusing to tell us what we want to know even now?"

"You don't understand anything. These people are wired into the highest corridors of power. Do you think I'm the only contact they have in the laboratory? I'm nothing to them, a handy tool they can hire to get information. To Black Paper, the two of you are less than nothing."

He seemed to get a perverse pleasure out of telling them that, perhaps from thinking about his enemies' downfall. What he was saying, though, did seem to agree with what Dr. Olo had told Elenor about Mujo and Black Paper. The kind of people Benton described sounded exactly like the type who could arrange for Mujo's release from prison.

"That may be true, but for you, we're the only thing between your career and the nastiest questions I-Sec can ask. You'd better hope that we're more than nothing."

Benton glared at them sullenly.

"This is your show, Olo. Don't let me get in the way of your recital."

"You took the data for money. That's simple and easy. What's not so easy is why Black Paper wants it. To sell it? If so, to whom? To use? How? The only way--the only real way--to stop the theft of data is to cut off the demand."

"You think you two are going to root out Black Paper's influence from this laboratory? Are you really so naive?"

"That's our problem, not yours, isn't it? We want to know about Mujo. How did he approach you, how did you decide what data would be passed on, what other members of Black Paper do you know; we want everything."

"There's not much to tell," Benton said. "I was approached by them while off-duty. No doubt one of their members had noticed my...dissatisfaction with current management."

By which, no doubt, he meant the fact that he wasn't the one doing the managing and specifically that he was subordinate to the much younger and much more brilliant Jean-Carlo Montague.

"So you accepted this Mujo's offer."

"No, no, it wasn't him," Benton corrected Dr. Olo with relish. "The one who approached me was a Ranger named Doronbo. I didn't meet Mujo until I accepted the job and delivered the first disk of classified data. I suppose they wanted to make sure that I would follow through on my end before letting me meet the man in charge. Mujo is a trader, with a thriving interest in textiles produced on one of the factory ships."

"No doubt a cover for his real trading interest, on the black market. Go on."

"Mujo told me that from then on, they would request specific data from me and I would deliver it. I was given four thousand meseta for each job, half in advance with the request and half when I turned over the disks. It was always turned over in the form of cash, not by Mujo himself but left for me. That way no one could see me taking a payoff in public."

"So whom else do you know?"

"That's all I ever knew. I didn't want to know more, Olo, and if you're brighter than you look neither will you."

Olo ignored the remark.

"How do you contact these people? There must be some method you can use. If Mujo is a trader, he must have a way for his contacts in his legitimate business to reach him."

Benton shrugged.

"From what I saw, he does his aboveboard business by computer, PDL, and in person; he doesn't have a fixed office."

Especially not now that he was a convicted criminal, Elenor reflected, although most of Pioneer 2 probably had never heard of the arrest and conviction or even of the missing-hunters case, due to the way it had been kept from the public.

"So what about his under-the-table business? You're not an innocent, Dr. Benton, or a fool. You'd know that in dealing with people like this contingencies could arise. At the very least you would want a way to contact them in case something happened to throw off your plans, such as a delay in getting certain data copied, or if I-Sec made investigations and you had to lay low for a while. You can't tell me that you didn't take some basic precautions against them thinking you were doublecrossing them."

Benton paused for a moment, then gave in and nodded.

"Yes, you're right. I can leave a message for him to retrieve."

Olo glanced at Elenor thoughtfully.

"All right, then, you can draw them to another meeting. We'll take it from there."

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"You gave Mujo the data today, didn't you? Black Paper can't have had time to analyze it all yet. Why don't you tell them that it's them that you're afraid there might have been some data corruption. No one can prove that's a lie."

"No, but they can certainly find out that there was no corruption in due course." Benton seemed to take a ghoulish pleasure in pointing out the flaws in Olo's reasoning, though ironically it helped the young man to form better plans.

"You have to request a meeting now, so you can give them a fresh copy."

"Why now?"

"You may not be able to copy the data later--there are strong rumors that Internal Security is cracking down." Olo grinned with pleasure. "If, as you say, they have other people in the lab, they can easily verify that those rumors are everywhere. You'll need to make a new copy fast."

"So, why don't I just make a copy now and keep it if they need it. Why do I have to deliver it immediately?" Benton sneered.

"Are you stupid?" Olo asked pleasantly.


"A simple question: are you stupid?"

"I don't have to sit here and listen to your insults, and it's you who's the stupid one if you think I'm going to take that."

"It wasn't an insult. Would you really keep a disk copy of classified data you're not supposed to have just in case it's needed later? Especially if you expect I-Sec to come sniffing around? That would be stupid, and I don't think you'd do it, Dr. Benton. You would want to get that disk out of your hands as fast as possible, so there wouldn't be any evidence against you."

Elenor was impressed by Dr. Olo's reasoning. She hadn't been aware he had such a tricky mind. Dr. Montague must have realized that long ago, which was why he regularly used the young man on his projects. Even Benton grudgingly accepted that there was some merit to the idea.

"It could work," he muttered.

"Now all you need to do is to generate a fresh copy of the data, and they'll have no reason to suspect you."

"Why should you care if they suspect me?"

"Two reasons. One: if something seems wrong about the meeting, they might guess that Elenor and I are using it to set them up, which would pretty much defeat the purpose. Two: if you double-cross people like that, they'll probably do something unpleasant to you, so you don't want to do anything that would make them think you had anything but their best interests at heart. If we protect your alibi, it cuts down on the chance for betrayal."

"It will take a few hours to get the new copy made."

"I'd suggest that you get started, then."

*     *     *      *     *

Mujo opened a PDL connection to Dr. Thom Benton, chuckling as he did so at the laughable ease with which he could render the call secure against being tapped, or indeed even being logged in the communications system of Pioneer 2. It was all a matter of having the right technology, and the right contacts.

"Dr. Benton?"

"There you are."

"You left a message saying that you had discovered a problem with your last...shipment?"

"A potential problem," Benton hurriedly corrected. Really, Mujo thought, the man was so delightfully arrogant.


"There's a possibility of data corruption which could render the files flawed or useless. I've made a fresh copy which eliminates any chance of that, but I need to get it to you soon."

"May I ask why?"

"Because the word around the lab is that Internal Security is going to come down heavy in the next couple of days. I don't want to be left holding the bag."

Mujo frowned.

"This is most unlike you, to be so charitable. Why go to such trouble on my behalf?"

"Because I don't want you to find out that the files are corrupt the hard way."

"Quite wise. Very well, you shall have your meeting. Shall we say at twenty-twenty, for amusement's sake? The plaza at the Mirabel Arcade, 1139 Zaphiros, Level Seventeen."

"I'll be there."

"Excellent. Goodbye, Dr. Benton."

Mujo canceled the connection. It was odd, Benton's offer, although certainly plausible on its face. Still, being arrested and imprisoned, for however short a time, had bred caution. He would make inquiries in the hours before the meeting, and heaven help Benton if he proved to be a liar.

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