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A Friend In Need

Part IV


The Mirabel Arcade was closed for maintenance and deserted at twenty-twenty.

*elenor-nothappy?* chirped Elenor's Mag. Mags were biomechanical creatures, part robot and part biological, which had been created by a scientist years ago to assist hunters. Most people couldn't communicate with Mags, but Dr. Montague's experimental communications circuits permitted Elenor to understand and talk to the little creatures. They weren't fully sentient; they "talked" more in ideas and emotions than words, but Elenor was still able to carry on a fairly stable conversation with them.

*I'm worried,* she told her Bhirava. The Mag resembled a pair of metallic fairy wings hovering on either side of her back, but she'd found it to be an effective partner when she'd gone down to Ragol. *Since there's no one here, anything might happen.*

That was why she'd gone early, taking up a position on an elevated platform overlooking the arcade. In her hands she cradled a long-barreled Photon sniper rifle, the blue targeting guides beneath the barrel pulsing with stored energy. Elenor had also brought a handgun, if the rifle would have been too obvious, but at least with the arcade deserted she could carry the superior weapon without attracting anyone's attention.

Unfortunately, so could anyone else who had decided to resort to violence, and Elenor certainly wouldn't put it past hardened criminals like Black Paper to do so.

While Elenor had been sent ahead to the meeting ground, Olo had gone with Benton. That way, they hoped they could keep him from taking any unplanned side trips or making any PDL calls to warn Mujo.

Elenor saw Benton's aerocar arrive and slide into a docking slot. The thin, white-haired scientist got out and walked down the arcade towards the plaza. Olo let him get a fair distance away before following. So far, things were going according to plan.

The purple-clad form of Mujo emerged from the shadows of one of the doorways. His appearance startled Elenor; she hadn't realized that he had arrived first. Worse, her survey of the area had been quite thorough but hadn't spotted the man.

*elenor-fear?*

*I'm very afraid,* she told the Mag silently. *The only thing I can think of is that he was inside that building when I arrived, but that store was closed. Does he have a key, and if so, why? Is it his work that the whole arcade is shut down?*

She watched Benton walk forth to meet Mujo, slipping the disk from his pocket. Elenor activated her headset receiver and tuned in to the surveillance robot she'd set loose earlier. Dr. Olo was really very clever with the little toys; this one had a directional microphone which easily picked up on the men's conversation.

"I'm glad you could make it," Benton said. "I'm surprised. This area is usually crowded with people at all hours."

"Closed for maintenance," Mujo replied, adjusting his fancy purple jacket. "It was easy enough to arrange, and it suits my purposes to have it so." He spoke with an arrogant self-confidence that, combined with his air of danger, some easily impressionable women would probably find attractive. Elenor didn't really understand such relationship dynamics herself; she was not programmed for romance.

*purplebadman?*

*Very bad.*

"Here's the disk," Benton said, proffering the copied data. Elenor had been appalled, and a little impressed, at how easily the scientist had knifed through high-level computer security. It had taken some effort, but to do so at all while simultaneously disguising what he was doing from system security that was both advanced and aggressive was remarkable. It also told Elenor that the laboratory's security protocols were inadequate.

It reminded her of something Dr. Montague had told her: "Freedom and security are opposites; a gain in one always brings a loss in the other." With computers, it meant that if enough security was piled on to guarantee to stop hackers, the security code would take up so much memory and computer power that it would make the system cumbersome to use, perhaps even worthless.

The alternative was that people like Dr. Benton could exploit weaknesses for their own benefit. It was easier being an android, Elenor decided. Human greed and treachery weren't part of her core matrix.

"Not just yet," Mujo told Benton, refusing the disk. "There is one matter we must take care of first."

He raised a hand and beckoned. From a dark alley between two blocks of shops, Simons Olo came, stepping out of his hiding place into the open. His reason for doing so was immediately obvious; a Ranger in silvery-blue armor had a rifle pointed at his back.

Elenor adjusted her aim, turning her own rifle on the Ranger, feeling the Mag augment her Photon-energy systems, charging her to new heights of accuracy and strength. She was sure, with the Mag's help, that she could make the shot.

She never got the chance.

Even as she was reacting to the Ranger's appearance, Mujo himself was continuing his motion. His upraised hand pointed directly at her, as if he knew she was there.

*We've been trapped!*

Electrical energy ripped through Elenor's body. The Zonde technique hurt her, but it did more than that. The sudden jolt of lightning Mujo had conjured up overloaded her circuitry, causing failsafes to trigger and prevent damage to the android's core matrix and memory by temporarily disconnecting. Elenor was frozen in place, shorted out and unable to act. It was a cruel irony that this condition did not also cut off her senses; she could still see and--thanks to the surveillance robot--hear everything going on before her.

Mujo turned to Benton.

"Be very glad that we are aware you were blackmailed into this. Had you come down with an ill-timed attack of conscience, or been bribed into selling us out, I would most certainly have you killed."

The technique-wielded spoke smoothly and calmly, as if he had not just attacked Elenor with his power and if having one of his lackeys hold a government scientist at gunpoint meant nothing to him. Perhaps it did mean nothing; the lives of others weren't likely to be a high priority with the criminal.

He turned his gaze to Simons Olo.

"Now you, Dr. Olo, are another matter entirely. My information or you suggests that you are weak and lacking in personal initiative. Obviously these assessments were wrong."

"I'm always glad to improve people's opinion of me."

"Not this time, I'm afraid. You see, I very much desire to know why our assessments were so erroneous. Is it simply a case of a man with hidden depths, or is there another explanation? Perhaps you are a government agent, planted in the laboratory? In any event, we shall get the truth out of you."

No! Elenor wanted to scream, but she could not make her audio system work. He's just a friend who wanted to help me! Just let him go!

"Bring him, Doronbo," Mujo told the Ranger. "Dr. Benton, I would appreciate your assistance as well. My knowledge of your actions is not complete, and I want to fill in the details so that I can insure that this sort of thing never happens again."

"Of course; I'll be glad to help," Benton said, as if he had a choice.

"What about the android, boss?" Doronbo asked.

"She's Dr. Montague's pet, YN-0117," Benton said. "She probably has all kinds of experimental hardware which you might be able to sell."

Mujo frowned grimly.

"If that is so, she probably also has homing tracers and similar communications equipment. Montague would hardly let his prize creation without some means of retrieving her in case of trouble." Elenor wasn't sure whether that was true or not. "Better to kill her now and not risk revealing our base camp on Ragol."

"I'll take care of it."

Doronbo shoved Olo to the ground, then raised his rifle. The motionless Elenor was an easy target for the skilled Ranger; he put three Photon rounds through her head and torso. It was more than enough damage to kill. Blackness swallowed her, and she went down hard on the roof.

*elenor-hurt!*

*...*

bhirava-help-elenor!

The Mag began to spin, and a golden radiance exploded from it, bathing the android in its light. The Reverser effect undid the damage from technique and gun, restoring power, repairing holes in circuitry and body frame.

Bringing her back to life.

*elenor-well!* the Mag thought, and chirped happily.

Elenor picked up the sniper rifle which had fallen from her grip and looked down. The plaza was empty. She checked her internal clock and found that three minutes had passed since Doronbo had shot her.

*elenor-nothappy-alive?*

*Oh, little Bhirava, I'm sorry. I'm very grateful to you for saving me, but they've taken Dr. Olo!*

*elenor-findfriend?*

*Yes, I will. I have to!*

Her only problem was, she had no idea how to go about it.

*     *     *      *     *

He's back! was Elenor's ecstatic thought as she returned to the lab. Not Olo, that would have been a miracle, but someone whose appearance made her almost as happy: her creator, Dr. Montague.

Montague did not look like the genius in biotechnology and leading scientific mind he was. His slender frame was common in male Newmen, and his facility with techniques was equally common to most members of his point-eared race. In fact, he was trained as a Force, in the best methods of using those techniques. He was actually younger than Olo, but due to his brilliance one of the highest-ranking scientists in the entire laboratory. His elaborately embroidered brocade jacket, turned-up shoes, puffy turbanlike hat, and amber-lensed goggles, though, were far more frivolous than any scientist could be expected to be. The phrase "eccentric genius" told most people all they needed to know about Montague.

"Oh, Doc, I'm so glad you're back!" Elenor burst out as soon as she entered his office. "Everything's all gone wrong, and I need your help!"

Montague leaned back in his chair, feet propped up on the desk.

"Well, it's only logical you would come to a genius like myself for help--ha ha ha! Tell me all about it."

"Master Olo has been kidnapped by Black Paper, and it's all my fault!"

The jesting expression vanished at once from Dr. Montague's face.

"Elenor, what are you talking about?"

"I saw Dr. Benton had a disk to a man, and I wanted to ask you what to do, but you weren't here, and I went to Dr. Olo instead. Only, the man turned out to be Mujo of Black Paper and he kidnapped Master Olo when we investigated him!"

Elenor was aware that she wasn't making a lot of sense, but her concern for Simons was overwhelming her reason--a very human trait, but not a productive one.

"Slow down," Montague told her calmly. "You've had a bad shock, and it's confusing you. If I'm going to be any help to you, though, I need you to be precise and orderly. I want you to tell me everything, both the facts and your own feelings. I'll ask questions after you're done."

Elenor managed to collect herself, an easier task for the android than it would have been for a living person despite her strong emotions, and told Dr. Montague everything, from beginning to end. As he had promised, he said nothing until she was finished.

"So," he concluded, "more than likely, this Mujo has taken young Olo down to a hideout on Ragol for questioning. Once the interrogation is over, he'll either kill Olo and have a story planted to explain the death--a convenient aerocar crash, perhaps--or instead simply make him disappear like the missing hunters."

"That's right. I have to find him as fast as I can, but I'm not strong enough to fight through the monsters on the surface to get there, let alone to take on Mujo and Doronbo. I'm not even sure where to look!"

"Oh, that's easy. They'll be in the caves under the surface. That's where he was before, and Ragol is too wild for him to have thoroughly explored a new area in the time since he's been released from prison. Plus, the Hunter's Guild never found his original base of operations, so it should still have been available to him."

"Then...then we might still be able to save him!" Elenor exclaimed. "If you'll contact the army, they could send down a detachment of soldiers."

Montague shook his head sadly.

"Elenor...I'm afraid that I can't help you."

She stared at him in shock.

"What? But...but why, Dr. Montague?"

The foppish genius took his feet down off his desk and looked squarely at his creation.

"Not many people know this, but Black Paper, the secrets of Ragol, and the fate of Pioneer 1 are all linked together, although the how and the why of it are still unknown. Black Paper's operatives have made a number of attempts, some successful, to interfere with legitimate efforts by the government to piece things together."

"Then how...why are they tolerated?"

"Because, as you and Simons have become aware, Black Paper has connections in every important arm of Pioneer 2's government, some very high up. It also doesn't help that the Council and the army don't agree on the best approach to the problem, so they keep tripping over each other's feet." He snorted, showing his contempt for the soldiers and politicians who were too caught up in their own power games and lack of trust to do what needed to be done. "Black Paper is able to slip right through the cracks in our armor."

"So why won't you help me save Dr. Olo? What does what you told me about Black Paper have to do with it at all?"

Montague steepled his long-fingered hands together.

"I've been given some very sensitive data from the files of Pioneer 1's Dr. Osto Hyle. Really, I don't know how Mome managed to get his hands on such provocative information. Usually this kind of coup would be well beyond him. Still, he succeeded, and with some work it should reveal many valuable clues."

Montague paused, and there was an earnest appeal in his eyes as he looked at Elenor.

"Unfortunately, it also puts me in a very precarious position. I can't be seen as taking any kind of action against Black Paper, not until I'm ready. It's bad enough that you were involved in this. Luckily, you and Simons bungled the matter sufficiently so that Black Paper will, believe, correctly, that I was not involved."

"But--Dr. Montague! I know that it was my fault"--She'd have been crying if she could shed tears.--"but you can't just let Master Olo die. I'll never be able to rescue him by myself!"

"I'm sorry, Elenor, but there's too much at stake, thousands of lives, to risk it all for one man."

"No..." Elenor whispered.

"Besides," Montague said in a remarkably offhand and cheerful voice, "Simons Olo is a bright young man. I'm sure he took steps to insure that he'd be protected if something went wrong. Why don't you check his office?"

"How can you be so heartless?" she screamed. Ordinarily, Elenor would never have been able to say such a thing to Montague, but her frustration and her belief that she was responsible for Olo's kidnapping pushed her to new levels of independence.

Montague shrugged.

"Perhaps some day you will understand. In the meantime, if you intend to make any rescue efforts, I'd suggest that you hurry. Time is not on your side."

Elenor made a wordless squeal of frustration, turned, and ran out of the office. She couldn't believe that Dr. Montague could be so cold-hearted and uncaring. He was acting like he was no better than Dr. Benton!

*     *     *      *     *

Montague smiled at the closed door through which Elenor had retreated. Her personality program still needed a bit of fine-tuning, but really, she was showing a remarkable sensitivity to emotional stimuli.

"Well, it's not surprising. After all, she was designed and built by me, ha ha ha!"

*     *     *      *     *

How long Elenor ran through the corridors she had no idea; she was so caught up in her emotions that she made no effort to check or maintain any awareness of time. After a while, though, she realized that she was doing neither herself nor Dr. Olo any good by having an emotional breakdown. She had to try something, even if it cost her life. Elenor could not let Olo die because he had agreed to help her with a problem.

Getting to Ragol's surface without an escort might be difficult, she thought as she fetched her Bhirava and sniper rifle. Access to the planet was restricted, but she suspected it might be possible to convince the guards that she was working on a secret mission for Dr. Montague. It wouldn't be the first time, and if she involved high-ranking names the military mind's conditioning to follow orders might keep them from checking up.

Thinking of Dr. Montague brought to mind his suggestion that Olo might have foreseen events and made contingency plans. Elenor didn't understand why he wouldn't have told her, if this was so, but if Montague really thought it could be, then perhaps she should check it out after all.

Since she couldn't afford to overlook anything, she went to Olo's office. The door was locked, in and of itself a surprise, but then the surprise went one step further when the sec-system identified her as being authorized for entry.

The surprises continued as Elenor investigated the desk. In the central drawer she found an envelope of stiff paper, printed with her name. She opened it and spilled out three items. One was a pass for single-trip access to Ragol by transporter. Another was a wrist unit of the kind used by hunters, containing a bioscanner. A quick check showed that the unit was preprogrammed with Olo's biological information like the way hunter teams did in case they had to split up, so that they could track each other's location from several rooms away even in areas not available on their radar automap. The device would not show her what tunnels in the caves would need to be taken, but it would show her where Olo was held if she got anywhere near him.

The third item was an access key to Laboratory Armory 7, authorizing Elenor to enter and to remove weapons and equipment, including experimental prototypes. It seemed as if Olo had been very thorough in preparing for his rescue.

Of course, Elenor knew that he hadn't.

Thank you, Doc. I'm sorry I doubted you.

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