Elenor Camuel was sad, which she was not supposed to be. That, in turn, made her even more sad. None of which made much sense until one took into account the fact that she was an android, the brainchild of genius scientist Jean Carlo Montague.
Elenor's official designation was Android YN-0117, but Dr. Montague had given her an extremely advanced emotional package and a normal name to go with it. The problem was, around the Pioneer 2 government laboratory, the majority of the androids were not programmed for emotions, and the scientists treated them that way--as robotic servants, not as people. Like a living person, Elenor wanted friends, but in her usual routine she wasn't likely to meet any.
There had been one incident recently which had brought her a bit of hope. She'd been down on the planet Ragol collecting data for Dr. Montague, when she'd encountered a Ranger gathering Mags. Using the advanced communication and data analysis circuitry she'd been built with, Elenor was able to communicate with the Mags. Unfortunately for the Ranger, this had caused the Mags to run off. Elenor had felt a little guilty, but also happy for the Mags, most of whom had wanted to return to their masters.
The Ranger's client had sent down another Hunter from the Guild, though, to correct the problem. It could have meant trouble, but instead the Hunter and Elenor had struck up a tentative partnership, working together to find one Mag who didn't mind being taken up to Pioneer 2 to the client; the trader Garon.
Elenor had liked the Hunter, and hoped that, if they were able to meet again, it might blossom into a friendship between them. That would be nice, a change from the cold and sterile atmosphere of the lab.
"YN-0117?" a voice said, cutting into her thoughts.
She turned to face the speaker. It was Simons Olo, a young man with short brown hair who had just been awarded his doctorate the week before the launch of the Pioneer 2. The only person on the scientific staff who was younger than Simons was Dr. Montague himself, but Montague was of much higher rank due to his undeniable (if eccentric) genius. Dr. Olo, therefore, was the low man on the totem pole, often assigned the job of carrying the instructions from the higher-ups to the assistants and overseeing experimental protocol.
"Oh! Master Olo!"
"I have a job for you, YN-0117," he said pleasantly. Dr. Olo was one of the few laboratory staff who seemed to genuinely like and respect Elenor, instead of viewing her as a kind of multi-function tool--a very fancy wrench.
"Oh? What is it?"
"Dr. Montague has completed a prototype of a new weapon which he thinks will be of great use in dealing with the situation on Ragol." The complete disappearance of the crew of Pioneer 1 from Ragol's surface was the most urgent topic on everyone's mind. Ragol was supposed to be the new home for the Pioneer 2 colonists, but if it was dangerous..."We want you to test it for us."
"I'd be glad to. What do I need to do?"
"Just use it in combat. Dr. Benton will explain in more detail, and give you the necessary equipment."
Olo led Elenor to Dr. Benton's lab. Elenor wasn't fond of Benton. The doctor was almost the exact opposite of her creator, a biophysicist who had risen through steady but undistinguished service until by virtue of seniority he was almost as highly ranked as Dr. Montague. He wasn't particularly likeable in any case, and his resentment of Montague spilled over onto Elenor.
"Dr. Benton!" Olo called as the laboratory doors slid open. The slender, white-coated scientist stood up sharply from the computer where he'd been running a program.
"Olo! Good, you've got YN-0117." Benton had a pointed gray beard and thinning hair; he was the sort of fellow who looked like a scientist and so was often called upon to represent the laboratory when it was necessary to broadcast messages to the public.
"Dr. Olo says that you have a mission for me?" Elenor asked.
"Here, take this." He picked up what looked like a long-barreled rifle from a table and thrust it in her direction. This version, though, had four cables extending from the stock, each ending in a universal connector.
"What do I do with it?" Elenor said, examining the weapon.
"Can't you tell?" he snapped pettishly. "You connect the cables to your internal systems in jacks A3, A4, C6, and D2." Impatiently, he grabbed the plugs and with the cold efficiency of a man operating a machine he slotted them into place, connecting two to the inside of Elenor's right arm, one to the back of her shoulder, and one to her side.
"This weapon interfaces directly with your sensory package while in combat. When you choose a target, your analysis of its Photon attributes is transmitted to the rifle. The weapon then adjusts the output of its Photon charge to best match the target type."
"That's an excellent idea! It's just like Dr. Montague to devise such a brilliant weapon," Elenor gushed. Simons nodded at once, while Benton just scowled at the mention of the younger man's name. An android had to take her opportunities when she saw them, after all.
"Why don't we wait and see if it actually works before proclaiming its brilliance?" he snarled.
Simons cut in smoothly.
"We've determined that the best site for carrying out the test will be the recently-discovered caves under Ragol, particularly the lower levels. You're less likely to encounter Hunters there and so should be able to carry out the test with a minimum of potentially compromising factors."
"All right. I presume that proper clearance has been obtained?"
"Full military cooperation will be assured due to the importance of our mission," Benton announced. "You will be permitted to use the transporter."
"Will you be installing a data retrieval module?"
"All data collection equipment has been built into the weapon. All you need to do now is go down to the surface."
"Yes, Dr. Benton."
"Good luck, YN-0117," Simons said. Elenor smiled and thanked him.
* * * * *
One thing Elenor could be sure of was that the surface of Ragol was by no means placid. Not only was the native life aggressive and violent, to the point that it interfered with their ability to eat and procreate, but the caves were filled with strange, mutated forms of those creatures which seemed to have no purpose other than to brutally inflict harm on whatever they encountered. The thought disturbed Elenor deeply; something was definitely wrong on Ragol, something that almost had to be tied in with the fate of Pioneer 1.
It was clear that these caves had at one point been explored by Pioneer 1's crew, given the presence of artificial lighting, security doors, and other measures designed to prevent intrusion. Unfortunately, these measures now worked against Elenor; more than once she had to destroy hovering antipersonnel mines that sprang up to block her way.
The test proceeded well for her, however, and she was able to defeat several monsters. She wondered how her friend, the Hunter, was doing in facing these same sort of creatures. Probably, Elenor was having a much harder time of it, since she had been created with a variety of purposes in mind rather than combat alone.
Pausing only to mow down a row of poison-spitting lilylike plants rooted in the cave soil, Elenor made her way to the transporter that led to the second level of the cave complex.
* * * * *
You didn't have to talk to Jean Carlo Montague to know that he was an eccentric. Looking at him was quite enough. His foppish, puffy hat, his shoes with their pointed, turned-up toes, his amber-lensed goggles, and his ornately-embroidered brocade coat were not customary for scientists on Pioneer 2 or anywhere else that Olo knew of.
"Deuce take it, Simons, have you seen the prototype for my new AZI-46L? I may be a genius, but I don't think I gave it the ability to move under its own power, ha ha ha."
"Um...which one is the AZI-46L?" Simons asked.
"The attribute-enhancing, self-adjusting rifle for androids. I need to make some adjustments to it, and I can't find the prototype anywhere in the lab. I say, Simons, you're looking a little green around the gills. Are you feeling well?"
"Um, yes, Dr. Montague."
"Well, I'd planned to have Elenor test out the AZI-46L, but there are some problems that need to be overcome first. The fact is that I've been having a bit of trouble with the power supply. It ought to link up with the enemy-analysis gear of a human or Newman Hunter, but it can't do that."
"Why not?" Simons asked nervously. If Dr. Montague was looking for the weapon now...
"Power! The stuff that our society feeds on, Simons. The prototype has a grotesquely inefficient use of power. It would drain both its internal source and that of the analysis gear within five minutes. The only way I've managed to get it to work at all was for an android to connect it to its internal power core. Even at that, it will completely drain the android's system in three hours, perhaps four in the android switches to sleep mode."
He paused, and peered closely at Dr. Olo.
"Simons, are you working on any experiments concerning skin tone? Now you look positively white."
"Er, no, Dr. Montague. I must have eaten something that didn't agree with me."
"Too many sweets, no doubt. There are good reasons why they're on the restricted list!" Montague cautioned, ignoring the fact that a half-eaten chocolate bar was sitting on his desk. Simons ignored it, too; he had too much on his mind to worry about irony.
"When you say, drain its power, do you mean...?" He couldn't find the courage to finish.
"Everything," Montague informed him. "That does include the emergency backup systems. The entire neural net, apart from the hard-coded portions, would be wiped. In essence: death. Simons, your digestion must really be giving you trouble for you to keep making those agonized faces, and the color simply is a nightmare next to your shirt. You should really go to the Medical Center for assistance."
"Um, yes, Dr. Montague. I'll...I'll go right now!" As he turned and scurried away, Montague's lips curled upwards in a knowing smile.
That's it, Simons; in a few more weeks I'll have you calling her Elenor.
A couple of staffers passing by heard him laughing out loud. They glanced in, shrugged, and then walked on. He was, after all, the eccentric Dr. Montague.
* * * * *
Elenor staggered as the claw of a sharklike monster crashed against her shoulder with titanic force. The thing was hideous, with scaly green skin and a triangular head that was all mouth with rows of glowing red eyes on either side. Although bipedal, it had no hands, instead possessing two-foot cleaverlike blades of bone extending from both wrists. She was certain that these could not be the product of natural evolution; it was almost as if the Boomas found on Ragol's surface had been mutated to emphasize their attack and defensive characteristics at the expense of all non-combat functions, as if some malign intelligence had shaped them for war.
As she fell back, Elenor raised the experimental rifle and, its muzzle not two inches from the shark-monster's belly, pulled the trigger three times. The monster fell, nearly cut in half by the photon blasts.
Warning! flashed in Elenor's mind. Power Level Critical. Shutdown Imminent. There was obviously some flaw in the design of the rifle; it was draining far too much energy from her reserves. In trying to keep up with the frantic pace of battle, Elenor had failed to monitor the situation, and now it was too late.
The only way to extend her life would be to switch over to sleep mode, shutting down all but the most basic data storage functions. It would leave her completely vulnerable to enemy attack, but it would give Elenor an hour of time for Dr. Olo or Dr. Benton to retrieve her instead of a mere ten minutes.
As she slipped into "unconsciousness," Elenor wondered if self-aware androids had a soul.
* * * * *
"This is urgent!" Simons all but screamed at the secretary behind the Hunter's Guild counter. "You must assign a Hunter to this mission immediately!"
The blonde woman shook her head coolly, not in the least impressed by the doctor's bluster or by the two military men that flanked him. The soldiers only knew that Simons was engaged on an "important secret mission," which was all the military mind seemed to require. It was probably more believable to them that the urgency was based on political need than on Simons' desire not to be tossed out an airlock by Dr. Montague for losing YN-0117...or for Dr. Olo's concern for the android as a person.
"That is not how the process works," the woman explained calmly. "Hunters are independent contractors, not soldiers or employees of the Guild. You offer a quest, and if a Hunter is interested, they will accept it, and we will arrange a meeting between the two of you."
"But we have less than an hour!" Simons cried. The sound of the Guild's doors opening caught his attention, and he spun to see a well-equipped Hunter enter the room. "Please, at least call attention to my offer!" he begged. "I'll give 4500 meseta for its completion."
"Four tho--" The amount caught even the poised secretary's attention. Simons had picked it because it looked to be about twice as much as anything else on the Quest Board. "Yes, I'm sure that I owe it to our members to emphasize this quest."
"Thank you," the doctor said, a heavy sigh turning his voice into a whisper. As the Hunter approached the counter, he sent up a silent prayer to any divinities who might be listening that, for just this once, the curse that seemed to shadow the Pioneer Project might be lifted.
* * * * *
"Hello, Thom," Dr. Montague said cheerily. Dr. Benton nearly jumped out of his shoes, which wasn't entirely unexpected. It wasn't every day that one returns to one's quarters, opens one's locked (but easy to override the security code to) door to find one's professional rival leaning insouciantly against the wall.
"What are you doing here, Montague?"
"Just paying a social call. I wanted to thank you for seeing that the AZI-46L got an adequate field test."
Benton shook his head.
"Me? You told Olo to have me assist him with your test, Montague. Or does a genius not have to keep track of things like that?"
"No, no, no," Montague shook his head sadly. "I admit that I am a bit absent-minded sometimes, but I'm sure that what you meant to say was that Dr. Olo received a BEE simple-mail message purporting to be from me instructing him to work together with you on a field test of the AZI-46L."
"He said you told him. He didn't tell me how."
Montague clucked his tongue at the older scientist.
"Thom, really now. While that may be the literal truth it certainly serves to give the effect of deception. Simons might not have told you how he was contacted, but you knew already, because you were the one who sent the message."
Benton drew himself up haughtily.
"In all my years as a scientist, I've never--"
"Ha ha ha! That's the truest thing you've yet said. No, you never were much of a scientist, were you? Always closed to new ideas, new thoughts--and new thinkers."
"You are insulting!"
Montague smiled thinly.
"Well, I am trying to be, so I'm glad that I'm having some success." He looked Benton up and down. "What was the idea? Kill Elenor, who's not only one of my finest creations but almost like a daughter, and discredit one of my prototypes at the same time? If I was really as absent-minded as people seem to think, I might even have believed I sent the order myself and forgot about it. That would have been an added bonus for you--not only taking something I cared for, but making me feel guilty about it as well."
"Curse it, Montague, you have no right to make these accusations!" blustered the older scientist.
Montague's smile vanished.
"Thom, do try to understand. No, I can't prove from the computer logs that it was you who tapped my simple-mail account and sent the message to Simons. I don't need to take this to the Council, though. I'm here to warn you right now, today, that from now on, while you may want to resort to certain stunts to advance your career, you will leave Elenor and any other innocent person out of your plots. If you don't, then you had best make very sure that you kill me."
His eyes, intense behind their amber lenses, fixed on Benton's.
"Do you understand?"
* * * * *
The designation code served as the command to rouse Elenor from sleep mode--in essence, getting her attention by going, "Hey you!" Her senses came back on-line, and she tried to adjust herself to the surroundings.
"Elenor, is that you? Hey, are you okay?"
It was the Hunter--the one she'd met before--carrying an enhanced power cell. Looking down at Elenor with a concerned expression.
With the worry of one friend for another.
Everything was going to be all right.