Sundeep Patek burst through the doors to the amphibicopter bay and clattered down the short flight of wide steps with Alicia Gordon and Benjamin Kzeka at his heels, only to be checked in his progress by the look Joe turned on him when the mecha, already halfway to the nearest flying machine, paused and spun on his heel to regard them all with unblinking eyes full of fiery determination.
"Don't try to stop me," he warned sharply, but Sundeep held up both hands in a gesture of conciliation, speaking rapidly and a little breathlessly.
"We're not — believe me, we're not! — we just…" He glanced at his fellow grad students, who had come to a halt one on either side of him, for support.
Alicia took up the conversational thread: "We're here to help, Joe. You can't go out there completely unequipped. We've found some equipment in the Vault that might —"
"The Vault?" Joe's gaze grew even sharper and his sleek head tilted a fraction of a centimetre to the left, manifestly skeptical. "How did you manage to get in there?"
Ben chimed in: "By doing some things that Professor Hobby wouldn't approve of, if he were here. But he's not, so we managed to dig up a prototype for a cube shielding device, as well as a skill chip full of all kinds of black ops software."
"Now we know you usually wouldn't want anybody but the Professor near your cube," Alicia continued, "but under the circumstances we —"
Joe got straight to the point. "How long would they take to install?"
Another shared glance. "An hour," Sundeep concluded. "Maybe an hour and a half."
The mecha's finely drawn black eyebrows drew together. "Allen might not have an hour."
Ben grinned without much humour. "And you won't have two seconds if some goon turns an EMP gun on you. C'mon, Joe — being able to dance like a dream won't do you much good in a fight, but a combat skill set or ten definitely will."
"Not to mention all the code-cracking and infiltration subroutines included in the chip," Alicia added.
For a couple of heartbeats Joe considered that, his bright gaze scanning back and forth between the hand-picked students of his owner. Sundeep held his breath. If Joe elected to reject their offer in favour of going to help Professor Hobby immediately, there wasn't much they could do to stop him short of EMPing him: Sundeep, for one, had no doubt that the imprinted mecha would do anything necessary, including leaving them all in bloody broken heaps on the ground, to make his way to Professor Hobby's side. Even a lover-mecha like Joe was capable of tremendous feats of strength, and with the imprinting protocol driving him with such compelling force…
"All right," Joe conceded, and approached them at a businesslike clip, his elegant shoes clicking crisply on the marble floor. "But do it quickly. There's no time to lose."
Alicia put her hand on the small of his back as he passed and walked at his right back to the double doors, with Ben falling in on his left and Sundeep bringing up the rear, glancing nervously around in case a security guard should make an untimely appearance. They were going to be in bad enough trouble as it was once the fact that they'd raided the secure and forbidden Vault came to light… but it wasn't like they'd had any other choice. Professor Hobby's life was on the line, and none of them could just sit back and just watch events unfold, any more than Joe could. Sundeep was just grateful for the small mercy of having caught Joe before he'd hared off to the mainland completely unprepared, armed with nothing more than the unquenchable power of his imprinted adoration for the Professor against the forces of the Anti-Robot Militia.
The shield and the black ops chip might level the playing field enough to make a difference, but still, Sundeep couldn't shake the lingering dread that they'd seen Professor Hobby alive for the last time, and that all they were doing was buying Joe a few more minutes of existence before the mecha was destroyed, a valiant but futile sacrifice on the altar of a love as all-consuming as it was artificial.
If Joe is destroyed, and the Professor gets out of this alive, when he finds out what we've done…
If Hobby survived and Joe did not, their mentor would never forgive them for letting Joe go. The Professor had never revealed his own feelings on the matter, not in so many words, but it didn't take a genius to decipher the quality of his gaze when he looked into Joe's eyes, or the warm emotion behind every word he spoke to the mecha.
But maybe… just maybe…
In the heart of Sundeep's darkest fears a tiny flame flared to life and burned like a votive before the icon of a saint. Hobby's dedicated work had turned Joe into something more than any other mecha Sundeep had ever encountered, capable of amazing behavioural twists and turns, and of startling improvisations. Equipped with that unique brilliance, along with a pulse-protected cube and his durable skeleton of unyielding steel, he might actually be able to get to his master — and to rescue him from wherever he was being held.
The sight of the blade-straight line of Joe's slender back as he walked briskly toward Hobby's private workshop sent a sudden chill down Sundeep's own spine. He'll do whatever it takes to save the Professor, and we're giving him a whole suite of military combat skill sets… Memories surfaced of video footage taken almost five years ago ago, of the David 2 prototype savagely destroying another mecha which it had perceived as a threat to its unique bond with Monica Swinton. We'd might as well turn a rail gun on those poor bastards he's going up against and set the trigger on auto.
But the alternative, if it meant Professor Hobby's death, was even worse.
Sundeep closed his eyes briefly, offering up a silent prayer: Please, God, let him encounter only other mecha! And if any humans get in his way, don't let the blood he sheds be on our hands…