by Sandra Woodruff and Jennifer Diane Reitz
© 2008 Sandra Woodruff and Jennifer Diane Reitz

 Chapter 13 - THE STATE OF YO


The rain hadn't stopped since the comets arrived. The downpour was thickest near the equator, especially along the eastern slopes of Aphrodite's tall volcanic rise.

The face of an entire planet was in the midst of its most rapid change since the dawn of time. Small lakes formed in the wake of flash floods in the lowlands. Streams scoured the surface and filled the new lakes with silt. When the lakes choked, rivers cut new paths to even lower ground.

Mountains felt the sting of rain on their faces for the first time. The high eastern slopes of Ishtar were a rain magnet. Ponds and lakes were born among the rocks and pocks of the highlands.

Perhaps the most unusual feature was the snow cap that had slowly started to build the peak of Maxwell Montes, several thousand meters uphill from the base. It was suddenly the highest glacier in the solar system, far above the puny heights of Everest and Kanchenjunga.

The snow on the mountain above wasn't a problem for the team of terraformers, unlike the water that surrounded them. 

Mallory stole a few minutes from Musselman's overbooked schedule for a short briefing.

"...And that's about the picture, Captain. Until the supply ship gets here with some sealant that doesn't dissolve in water, the repair crew's gonna be busier than a one-armed paper-hanger in a butt kissing contest."

"Uh, thanks, Mike. How long do you figure we can keep the exposed parts of the base intact?"

"With the supplies we have now, I'd guess about two weeks. That's assuming the rain don't stop."

"I'd say that's a fair assumption. Fortunately, the Bob Dobbs should be here sometime today with our first major cargo shipment. How long will it take to make permanent repairs with the right supplies."

"I figure it'll take about six weeks if we can keep up our pace. We can let a lot of power plants wait, since we don't need 'em until settlers arrive. The rest are important because they power TF equipment. With all the rain, we'll have to replace all the seals, not just repair 'em.

"Just keep doing the great job you've been doing, Mike. I know you can do the job if anybody can. Is there anything else you need?"

The nordic giant smiled at the captain's approval. "It'll sure make the work go faster when we get some groundhoppers. The runabout's okay, but we can only send one work crew out at a time. That's not enough with all this rain."

"I'll make sure your hoppers are on the first load down." Richard relaxed a bit as he continued. "You know, Mike, this planet is going to need people like you to get the settlements up and keep them running. When your obligation ends, you could have an excellent position here with the corp. That is, if you decide to stay."

"Thank you, Captain. If I get a few minutes sometime, I'll sure think about it."

"Understood, Mike," Richard smiled. "Now get out of here and back to work."

As soon as the big man cleared the hatchway, Tala swung around the frame and into Richard's quarters. A familiar dog was at her boot heels.

"You sent for me, Mallory?"

He leaned back in his chair. "Hi, Tala...actually, I wanted to see Chet, but you get so jealous that I figured I'd better invite you along too."

He patted his thigh, which was considered a formal invitation in the anthropup sub-culture. The brown and white canine bounced into Richard's lap. A thin, broad tongue licked at the captain's face.

Richard looked at Tala. "What, you're still here? Well, if you insist on hanging around, have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

"You mean get me anything other than the hell off Venus?"

"Yes, besides that."

"Okay, how about some of your private stash of fuzzy water and plenty of ice?"

"Stacy, you heard the lady's request. If you'd be so kind."

In seconds, Stacy's white gloved hand appeared from overhead. It offered a crystal goblet of clear bubbling liquid to Tala. "Your fuzzy water, Tala, on the rocks."

"Thank you, Stacy. I love the is new?"

"Not really, Tala. I just save it for times when the senator is being especially rude to a guest."

"Rude? Chet, did you hear that? Just because a man wants to spend a few minutes with his favorite dog, all sorts of females give him a bad time. It's unjust, unfair and uncalled for."

Tala dispassionately gave instructions to her anthropup. "You know the way home, Chet. Come back when you're through with the nasty man."

Chet was puzzled. He liked Richard and couldn't understand why Mama and the man never seemed to get along very well. But as long as Mama said it was alright to stay, the dog was determined to make himself right at home.

Tala rose from her seat to leave, but Richard interrupted her exit. "Tala, wait, I really do need to talk to you."

She glared so hard that it would have frozen a lesser man's soul.

Richard turned contrite. "All right, I'm sorry. I've been a real anus these past few days."

"Try weeks."

"Okay, weeks if you prefer. Maybe I'm just a little jealous of the way you seem to be able to lead this crew. I'm supposed to be the captain, remember."

Tala warily sat back down, clutching her bubbly glass of water. "Mallory, you've done a great job as captain. You picked an exceptional crew, and you were shrewd enough to blackmail me into being your first officer. Aren't you getting the results you want from this undisciplined bunch?"

Richard thoughtfully cupped his chin in his left hand. "Well, yes, I suppose so. It's just that I thought the crew would answer to me, not you."

"But they do, Mallory. Do you really want to hear all of their complaints about the food, the lack of creature comforts and supply shortages? That's not to mention the petty personal conflicts that make me think I'm directing a soap opera. I thought you were busy enough trying to keep this project headed in the right direction every time we run up against a new problem."

"That's all true, Tala, but I feel more like a planner than a leader."

"Mallory, you're a're not supposed to be a leader. You set goals, then find people to carry out your plans. You've done that perfectly...what's your problem?"

He sat forward as he scratched Chet's ears. "The problem is, this place is driving me absolutely, totally insane. I miss the senate, I miss the parties, I miss the deals...even the dirty ones. I can't face twenty-three more months of this confinement."

"So go back home."


"Go home, Mallory. You've done what you set out to do. No doubt, the PG will have a nice, cushy reward for you. You're not under contract like the rest of us, are you?"

"Well, no, but it's a moral obligation to stay with this crew until our two years is up."

"Screw your ruling-class guilt, Mallory. Let's look at it realistically, from a streeter's point of view. How many people in this crew didn't want to come here?"

"Everybody volunteered, you know that. Several people refused my offer and not one of them is here."

"Exactly...we all made a choice to come here. This may be the lesser of two or three evils for many of us, but it was still a choice."

"But I'm the only one who can go back if I want to."

Tala was about to spill her fuzzy water. "Look here, Senator. I don't know what it's like where you come from, but I've got some pretty clear memories of growing up in the streets. When life was handed to me, I didn't ask questions. Nobody I knew got the same breaks I got...some of them did better, most of them did worse. A few of them got bad breaks and died from it."

"Look lady, you took your lucky breaks and threw them away because you got into a snit with the people who funded your university research."

"That's partly true, Mallory. I nearly sold out my soul for a soft life, doing the most evil high-tech research I can imagine. Because of my decisions back then, I ended up here with you today. Whether that's good or bad doesn't matter's all been done. I took care of myself by doing things the way I thought they had to be done. And it cost me my hard-earned social position."

"You took the hard road, Tala. That takes guts."

"But that's exactly my point, Mallory...I didn't take the hard road, I took the easy road. The hard road would have been to sell out everything I believed in, then try to justify it every day for the rest of my life. When I look at myself on the viewscreen, I can respect the person I see. Even if she's poor and powerless, she's a person who did the right thing when it counted."

Richard was very confused and uneasy. "So you think I should stay here then?"

"Hell no! Aren't you listening? You've got to do the right thing for yourself. If you ask me, I think you've shot your wad here. You promised Ted Swanson a miracle and you pulled it off, so what's left?"

"I'll oversee the completion of the TF project, then help the settlers make homes here."

"And you have lots of experience in these matters?"

"Of course not, but who does?"

"Mallory, lots of people have those skills. How about the teams that developed the Sonora truck farms or the Yukon grain belt?"

"But the PG asked me to lead this team."

"Yep, and you did. You've saved Nafta's monopoly capitalist economy and enriched a bunch of corporate bloodsuckers...Goddess help me, we all have. You are exactly the person they needed to save Ishtar Terra. Well, guess what?  It's saved. Now go home to a heroic welcome, make lots of nice speeches about the brave team still at work here, then accept the high level cabinet appointment that will unexpectedly open up for you."

"And what about the crew?"

"Swanson will send us a new captain, hand-picked by you. We'll finish our 'assignments' here, then either go home or try to make a life on Venus. As always, it'll be our choice, not yours. Richard Mallory takes care of himself, we take care our ourselves, and everybody lives as happily ever after as circumstances allow. Now if our psychobabble session is through, I'd like to go get my lunch."

"Damn it, Tala, you make it sound so simple. All I have to do is walk away and turn over the keys to a new captain."

" do it. Hey, Chet, how would you like some lunch with Mama?"

Richard's lap was instantly relieved of its anthropup burden. Chet was at the door, ready to make tracks to the main kitchen.

"Mind if I join you two, Tala?"

She smiled and gestured nobly, "After you, Richard."

Tala was living by the same advice she'd given Richard. She was always happy to pilot the runabout on any mission, even on her own time. It helped the mission, but there was a more important reason. As she traveled, she used the Ares' sensitive scanners to record all details of the polar regions and the windward sides of mountains into her personal file.

With the help of her nanotronic agents on the shipnet, she built detailed private maps of promising stretches of land. In her spare hours, she tromped across every hectare of the territory in cyberspace.

"Come on, Chet. I got rid of all of those nasty oxyzeps. It'll just be you, me and the rocks, okay?"

Chet was a bit skittish. His exploration with Richard and Commodore had been rather short on fun, but he knew that when Mama said it was okay, it was usually pretty safe. He hopped into the projector and joined her.

"We're at the north pole, Chet. I'm sorry, but there's no life here yet."

Chet didn't care about finding life. All he wanted was a squirrel or a bird that would let him chase it across the flat, rock-strewn terrain.

"One thing nice about the poles of Venus is that there's always sunlight. Even in the winter, the sun's less than three degrees below the horizon. It's fairly cool here too. I think the north and south poles would make perfect resort sites for some clever entrepreneur, don't you?"

Chet happily wagged his tail as Mama babbled on. When she got excited, she used a lot of words he didn't understand. Worse yet, sometimes she'd use words he knew, but in ways that didn't make any sense. Still, about the only thing he liked more than a walk with his mama was dinner with his mama. And his mama always wanted dinner after one of these walks.

Chet found a place that smelled like dogs. He took a moment to add a bit of moisture to the barren spot. He didn't need to know that Tala had taken the time to install a PortaPuppy in the projector. It meant there was always a place where Chet could respond to nature's call, no matter which VR scenario was online. The PortaPuppy kept unwanted moisture out of the delicate workings of the VR unit.

Chet kept his keen senses keyed for the sudden appearance of a stray cat or even a large insect on the barren brown rocks. He'd been disappointed on earlier VR trips across Venus, but his doggie heart was always hopeful. 

He'd just finished a big loop around Tala when a Russian Blue darted from behind a rock. Chet yelped in surprise, then took off after the big tomcat.

The blue stopped unexpectedly and made his stand. Fur ruffled, he hissed venomously at Chet.

The dog stopped short to consider the situation. His nose had the scars to remind him of the danger of a cornered cat, even a domestic breed. He hadn't had a good-natured brawl with a street cats for such a long time that he abandoned caution.

Chet let out his throatiest growl and edged closer to the tom, ready to pounce. The cat turned and ran into the distance so quickly that the young spaniel couldn't keep up. He was an indoor dog, far from peak running condition.

The blue was soon gone. What's worse, the cat's scent seemed to be everywhere, but there was no trail to follow.

Tala chuckled knowingly. "I hope you enjoyed your chase, Chet. It's the best Mama can create for you until we get a few settlements going on this planet. You just chased the King of the Cats in the first made-for-dogs VR moviegame, complete with realistic cat smells." Tala knelt and tousled his long ears. "Who knows, some day you just might catch him too."

Chet kept a steady eye out for the king or one of his minions. He finally decided that he'd frightened them into lying low while he and his mama prowled the area.

"The main thing we need to find is water, Chet. Earth's poles are nearly deserts. Even though they used to be covered with ice, there's not much Arctic or Anarctic rain or snowfall. We just don't know enough about the topography of Venus to predict where streams or pools will form."

Tala saw a glint of light ahead. It might have been a reflection, but she wasn't sure. "The coordinates say we're almost at the north pole. What do you think about that?"

Chet barked his approval. He knew that if Mama thought it was good, then it was good.

The images were starting to lose resolution. She hadn't been able to scan the areas near the pole as thoroughly as she'd wanted. But at maximum enhancement, she thought she could make out straight lines and grids across the ground ahead.

No matter how hard she strained her eyes, she couldn't discern enough detail to be certain if what she saw was real or simply artifacts from the VR process. Even worse, the images were built from scans that were almost two weeks old. There was no way to know how the recent rain had affected that plot of ground. She knew she'd have to check it out realface to know what was there.

Mallory's image appeared at the edge of her field of vision. "Tala, the ship's here. I want you get the Ares and start bringing down cargo. I'll let you prioritize what gets delivered, but I did promise Mike that the groundhoppers would come down on the first load."

"That's what we need most anyway, Mallory. I'm on my way."

"Oh, Tala, remember to bring down the mail too."

"You can count on it,. I'm expecting some pretty important stuff from my agent."

Richard's puzzled image faded from her view as he logged off.

Tala grabbed Mike on her way to the Ares. Her voice had a slight echo in the carved rock passageway. "I know you're busy, but you're the best powersuit operator we have. It'll go a lot faster if I can borrow you for the first load or two. After that, there'll be a lot more maneuvering space in the cargo bay for some of our less experienced people."

"I wouldn't miss it, Tala.  I need the new sealant as fast as I can get it. And those groundhoppers have to be attached right when they come down."

"Do we have to fasten them down in the cargo hold?"

"Nope...they're too big. They'll have to come down piggy-back on the runabout. That's why I want to attach 'em myself and have you pilot them down. We don't want to burn them when we hit air."

Tala swallowed hard, "I've never done a maneuver like that before."

"Don't worry, I've seen guys who aren't half the pilot you are do it on earth. It'll be easy as fallin' off a dog."

"Speaking of which, where's Chet?"

He trotted right up behind them. Chet always knew when his mama was going to take a trip. No matter who was entertaining him, he'd bow out and catch Tala before she got through the hatchway where the Ares was docked. This time, he caught her just as she reached the hatch.

Musselman shouted, "Hi ya little fella."

Chet politely let the man give him a friendly scratch of the ears, then moved himself directly in front of Tala. 

She leaned down and looked into his watery blue eyes. "Hello my love, do you want to go up to the spaceship?"

Chet wagged his tail and did the happy dance. He didn't know the word spaceship. The words around it made him decide that it was a new place to explore. He'd already explored most of the base, except for the little room his mama took him to that always had new places to see. But even there, he didn't have anything new to smell, except for the occasional scent of that Russian Blue. He was eager to bravely visit this strange new spaceship place to keep his mama safe from whatever new dangers lurked there.

Chet lunged forth and gave Tala a serious doglicking right across the face. She was off balance and unable to escape his lightning slurp.

She gamely wiped the moisture from her face as she spoke to the hatchway's AI. "Taxi, hey taxi."

The hatch recognized her voice and slid open with a slight whoosh. 

Woman, man and dog hopped into the Ares and secured the runabout for flight. Woman and man handled the technical jobs, while dog guarded them from whatever dangers an anthropup might imagine could await them.

Musselman disconnected the docking hardware while Tala prepared the controls for takeoff.

"Rowanda, I need your help. We're headed into orbit for a rendezvous."

"Great, Tala, sounds like fun. It's been boring on this mission, hopping around like a skimmer."

"I know, Ro. But here's your chance for a few docking maneuvers while we ferry down some freight."

"It's not very challenging," the AI grumbled, "But I need the work."

"That's the spirit. The first job is to orient the antenna and find the Bob Dobbs."

"Roger Dodger, Tala. Here we go; I've got her datastream."

"Take us up for rendezvous, Rowanda."

"On our way, Captain Wolfe." 

When Tala saw the Bob's icon on her screen, she hailed the ship. "Greetings earthlings, this is Tala Wolfe aboard the Ares from the planet Venus. Prepare to be boarded."

The Bob replied without hesitation. "Prepare yerself fer the last battle of your life, ye mangy pirates." The Bob's AI was at the helm.

"Long John, it's me, Tala. You remember me from the Heinlein."

"Aye, of course I do lass, but ye wouldn't deny me some fun, would ye?"

"Oh, okay!" Tala cleared her throat and tried to sound menacing. "As I said, you, aboard the J.R. Bob Dobbs, prepare to be boarded. Hand over your cargo peacefully and nobody has to be hurt."

Long John was quick to reply. "I challenge ye to a duel, swabette. If ye win, we surrender our cargo. If ye lose...well, we'll just see about that when it happens." He laughed an evil pirate's laugh.

Tala had never heard an evil pirate's laugh before, but she immediately recognized it as the genuine article. She was powerless as her VR filled with a maritime pub scene. Some of the nastiest seadogs this side of a harbor pound suddenly surrounded her.

Silverberg stood across the room, his peg leg glistening in the lamplight. He was the perfect image of a pirate ready to defend his honor.

Tala realized there was a weapon in her hand. It was a wicked cutlass that oozed attitude. It also seemed to have a fair amount of fresh blood on it.

"Yer a fine lass, and old Long John would never let it be said that he took unfair advantage of a woman."

A chorus of guffaws and hoots interrupted the old pirate.

"Oh, alright. Never let it be said that old Long John ever took unfair advantage of a woman during a battle."

"Yeah, only men, you old cutthroat," barked one of the pub's denizens.

Silverberg continued. "As ye see, lass, ye hold me favorite cutlass. Her point is deadly, and her edge is as sharp as me own wit. Fer meself, I've chosen a foil. Only the point of me weapon is dangerous, but that's of no account fer I'm dangerous. Prepare to taste steel, ye slippery buccaneeress."

Tala had never enjoyed the swashbuckler genre of moviegames, but she was ready to humor the big ship's AI. After all, she had issued the original challenge, even if it was offered in jest.

Long John clumped toward Tala. His peg made a hollow thunk-thunk-thunk as it struck the compressed dirt of the pub's floor.

Tala believed that she could easily outmaneuver the old pirate, even if she didn't know how to duel. She moved in quickly, then lept behind him.

Silverberg surprised her by pivoting on his peg. He slapped her on the butt with his foil. "Come on lass, don't disappoint this old pirate. Show us yer grit."

The slap stung. Tala grabbed her cutlass with both hands and lashed out with the full force of her weight. Her blade bit hard into something solid.

She realized that she'd foolishly closed her eyes during the stroke. When she peeked, Long John was sprawled across the dirt floor. Her blow had severed the pirate's peg leg and thrown him off balance.

The pub filled with catcalls and cheers. Tala didn't know which part was meant for her as she leaned over Long John's prone form.

His good eye gazed into her face as he sternly asked, "Are ye gonna finish me off, or do ye just plan to stand there and gloat?"

A trickle of sweat dripped down Tala's smiling face. "Well, you salty old dog, I can't very well finish you off, now can I?"

"And for Davy Jones' sake, why not? Ye beat me fair and square."

"We have a deal. If I win, you turn over the Bob's cargo. If you're gone, I'll have to deal with your successor, then his successor, and so on."

"Bright lass. I knew I liked ye when I first saw ye."

The pub rezzed out of Tala's VR system and her view returned to normal. Long John reappeared online. His peg leg was lashed together with a red bandana. The idea of a temporary repair for an AI's prosthetic made Tala giggle.

"I suppose ye think it's funny to see a man cut down in his prime, do ye?"

Tala forced herself to behave. "I'm sorry, Long John, I'm a rude brat sometimes. We have business to do. I promise to mind my manners."

"It seems ye beat Long John good and proper, so prepare to dock and plunder the old Bob's cargo. Ye earned the booty."

"Thank you, Long're a real pussycat."

"Aye, that's the thanks I get for all me pain. Docking in five seconds." He winked his good eye. "Thanks to ye for the excitement, lass."

Two groundhoppers were already tethered outside the big ship when the Ares and the Bob's airlocks kissed. 

Although a formidable tool, a powersuit was clumsy on rough ground. When coupled with a groundhopper, the suit provided a safe environment for the operator while controlling the hopper's propulsion system. With a groundhopper, a powersuited person could make huge leaps across any terrain, no matter how rugged.

A hopper could carry several tons of cargo moderate distances. It could also carry a powersuit and good supply of tools thousands of kilometers in a day.

Sunlight powered the device, but backup batteries made it possible to operate in the dark for several hours. Turbofan jump jets provided an emergency boost for a hopper headed into disaster.

Groundhoppers had made it economical to strip mine earth's polar regions, deserts and ocean floors. When humans went into space, groundhoppers went with them.

A powersuit was formidable, but when teamed up with a hopper, it was a miner's license to make money. Since they were so expensive, most groundhoppers were leased, not owned. This funneled most of any venture's profits back to the corp, as nature had apparently intended.

Several determined miners had made personal fortunes on earth's moon. Many more had disappeared on their first trek out, accidentally discovering the power of their groundhoppers by launching themselves irretrievably into low lunar orbits.

NaftaCorp cashed in on the fiasco, putting the handful of survivors on the commercial subnets to advertise the power and reliability of powersuits with groundhoppers.

As soon as the Ares was docked securely, Musselman and his powersuit went to work to transfer the groundhoppers to the runabout's hull.

"Hey, Tala, somebody likes us. The artificial gravity on this ship's about half of normal." 

Tala took a moment to get used to her new weight as she walked carefully across the Bob's cargo hold. She had to get the mail, which was traditionally placed in the care of the ship's captain.

As she walked, she hailed the Bob's captain through the shipnet. "Hello, Captain, this is Tala Wolfe of the Ares."

A grouchy pink face with wild black hair and two days of beard rezzed in over the net. It was a recording. "This is Travis Gravis. I'm busy right now. Whoever you are, go away and don't bother me. Don't leave a message, cause I won't get back to you." His image snapped off and was replaced by a happy face icon with the name Travis Gravis beneath it.

Tala tried to vandalize Gravis' icon, but found it impervious to her normal technique. "Amazing...this old fart's good."

She went directly to the ship's office to pick up mail in person, captain or no captain. Even though mail could be downloaded directly between shipnets, the really private or important items went into romballs that were hand-delivered to their addressee. That's how it was done on earth, and it made even more sense to use the same method in space. Off-planet radio links were unreliable and even less secure from prying eyes than the continental net.

As Tala's official guard, Chet started to follow along. The half gravity made him feel funny when he walked, but he didn't know why. He liked the sensation, though.

The smells were all new and intriguing to a curious anthropup. The Bob didn't seem very dangerous, so he let Tala go ahead without him. Chet decided to do some serious sniffing throughout the supply ship before it was time to leave.

The Bob's empty office coldly greeted Tala. She went online and queried Long John. "I take it your captain is the shy type. I thought it was normal protocol for an official greeting to the captain of a visiting ship."

"It is, lass, but ye have Captain Gravis on this journey. He keeps to himself; he's a busy man ye know."

"Too busy to have manners, apparently. So where's the mail that's normally entrusted to a ship's captain?"

"He's entrusted it to me, lass. I have orders to hand it over to ye, and ye alone."

"Will you be using your good hand or your hook?"

"Ye have a sly tongue in ye today. There's a case o' romballs in the top draw of the desk. It's locked to everyone but ye. Go ahead and open it."

Tala pulled out the wooden drawer and removed a carbon fiber packet. She shook it deliberately. It sounded and felt like romballs.

"That's not how romballs work, me lass," he teased. "There's at least one in there for everybody on yer crew. I've kept 'em safe for ye."

"Thank you, Long John. I'd sit here on the poop deck with you for a spell, but I have my own duties to get at."

"Old Long John's here when ye need 'im, lass."

 She gathered herself back into a more visceral reality and headed for the cargo bay to check in with Musselman.

"How's it going out there, Mike?"

"Everything's right on schedule, Tala. I'll be back inside as soon as I double-check the lashings."

"10-4 Mike, I'll meet you at the airlock so we can get the rest of the cargo loaded."

"Roger, Tala. I'll be there in about five minutes."

Tala fastened herself into a powersuit and loaded her priority cargo list into its autostock node. The suit sought out the code embedded in each package while an AI program plotted out the most efficient way to move every piece of freight. Tala had the transfer well underway when Mike came back inside.

"Hey, Tala, save a little for me, will ya?"

"There's plenty of glory to go around, Musselman."

Mike chuckled as he linked his suit to Tala's autostock circuit. The AI divided the tasks between both powersuits to keep the operation moving smoothly.

The work proceeded for about 20 minutes when Tala announced, "I think she's full enough. We could waste time packing all the nooks and crannies, but I don't see the point. Let's peel down."

Tala was out of her powersuit in an instant. It took Musselman a little longer to move his hulk through the suit's front hatch. 

"Mike, If you'd do me a favor and round up Chet while I try to contact Captain Warmth, we'll be out of here a lot faster."

"You've got it, Tala...time's a wastin'."

Tala found the office door open, just as she'd left it, half an hour earlier. "Hello, Captain Gravis...anybody here?"

"Ahoy, lass. I suppose ye've come to give us an accounting for the loot ye swiped from our hold."

"Something like that, Long John. I have an automated receipt here for everything we've transferred onto the Ares."

"Just stow it in the shipnet and we'll be done with it."

"Wait a minute...doesn't Gravis want to know what we've taken?"

"As Captain Gravis said when I brought up the subject a few minutes ago, 'To Hell with cargo receipts. I brought what I brought. It's up to those idiots to unload it or leave it. If somebody figures out a way to steal any of that crap, I'll eat my own scrotum.' That's an exact quote, lass."

"This Gravis is a real charmer, Long John. If you manage to get through to him, please inform him that Tala is keeping a log of everything that enters and leaves the Ares. If anything shown on the Bob's manifest turns up missing, Gravis would be smart to start eating his own scrotum before I get my hands on it."

Long John was visibly pleased. "Ye have the charm and business sense of a true pirate, my dear. Ye can be sure yer message'll get to the captain. In the meanwhile, your friend Mike tells me he has yer pup in hand. They be ready to shove off."

"Thanks Long John. I'll be back to test your steel again, probably tomorrow. Meanwhile, be prepared to be boarded by the relief crew. We have a lot of cargo to move."

"Plunder, ye mean! Out of here with ye, before I show ye the dark side of me nature."

Tala's cyberself raced into her cellchip and planted a kiss on the old pirate's weathered cheek. "You're a mean, wicked old teddy bear, Long John."

The pirate's image blushed visibly as he winked at Tala. "Go on, now, stop wastin' me time, child."

Tala's realface version marched gleefully out of the office and back to the Ares, where Mike and Chet were already belted in.

Long John oversaw the Ares' departure, then quietly played back Tala's kiss so many times that he eventually had to recalibrate his file scanner.

When the Ares docked, Tala put Mike in charge of drafting a cargo crew from the base personnel and spoke to the Ares' AI. "Nice job, Rowanda. Even if you didn't get a challenging workout, I appreciated your help. Airlock mishaps can be so messy when one is docking."

"It was my pleasure, Tala. Will we be making more trips today?"

"You will, but I'm hoping somebody else will step forward and pilot the next trip or two."

"I prefer your touch at the controls, but I'll give my best assistance to whoever you choose to pilot this ship."

"I know you will, Ro. You're a good girl." 

Tala took a moment to transfer the netmail from the runabout's system into the main net in the base. In a few seconds, she was through the airlock with a package of romballs in hand.

Chet got his quota of petting and hugs by reaching each crew member before Tala showed up with their mail.

Rounds complete, Tala retired to her quarters to check her own communications.

She popped the romball into the drive and her view filled with file icons. At the top were several notes from Dirk, several big files from Sandi, Jennifer, Eldenath and Steve, as well something from Harvey Milk School. Over it all hovered the NAFTA Official Business icon. She cracked the NAFTA icon first.

An officious looking AI broke into a long-winded introduction. It took about twelve sentences for her to say that she was from the Nafta Claims and Enterprises Division. Although Tala took in every word and facial expression, the missive made no sense until she set a law demon loose to decipher it.

The translation enraged Tala on a deep moral, political and financial level. In a nutshell, Nafta had decided to deny her company's claims to any property on or near Venus, or any satellites, natural or artificial, thereof.

As she leaped from her projector, she loosed a primal scream that terrified Chet and hurt her own ears. "Mallory has to let me off this rock to straighten this out."

She stormed down the passageway toward Mallory's office screaming, "Those bastards aren't going to steal this out from under me. I'll hire Ted Huang if I have to. Hell, I'll do the job myself."

Richard had no trouble figuring out that Tala was headed his way. She'd delivered his mail first, so he was through the most important files when she showed up.

"Hi, Tala. I've got a feeling you want to talk to me."

"You're damned right, Mallory. You've got to find a way to get me back home for a few days. I have some business to take care of with the sons of bitches that claim to be our government."

Richard calmly sat back in his office chair. "Well, as your senator, you can talk freely about it with me. No need to keep holding it back."

"Holding it back?! Look, Mallory, my subsidiary filed a legal claim for property it's developing here on Venus. Now some bunch of morons in the Claims and Enterprises Division says we're not qualified to lay a claim here because a prior claim has already been registered. I want to know who could have registered a prior claim, little green men?"

"Hold on a minute, Tala, I think I can straighten this out for you."

Tala stopped shouting and started pacing the office. "Go ahead," she muttered, "But make it good."

"I don't know how your subsidiary is developing land here, but I'll take your word that it is."

"It's all on my off-duty time, Mallory. I've got a right to a hobby, don't I?"

"You'll get no argument from me. Anyway, I got a personal file from President General Swanson that's less than three hours old. One part of it says that his office has overruled the idiots at Enterprise and've got your permits and title through a subsidiary named Chetco Limited...cute name."

"You mean it, Mallory? So the rejection I got was incorrect?"

"No, it was a legitimate claim rejection. However, one or two of your business partners have a bit of pull with the government."

"Yeah, Dirk mentioned that."

Richard continued, "Apparently, Swanson himself was alerted by a concerned citizen of Heinlein that your claim had been unfairly rejected. The PG made a call and things were quietly handled the way such things are handled in DC. The rejection was reversed and Chetco Limited is now the proud owner of whatever land it can develop on Venus in the next ten earth years."

Tala started to cry openly, catching Richard completely unprepared. 

"Stop that, you'll destroy your image as the iron woman. You'll probably rust too."

Chet was also nervous. He'd slipped in to check on Tala while Mallory was talking. He didn't know why his mama was crying. It made him start to whine.

Tala leaned down and soothed him. "It's okay little boy. Mama's just being crazy right now, but she'll be fine in a minute.

Her words helped to relax the young spaniel. 

The somewhat older senator was less tense too. "I also found out that I've somehow become a business partner in all of this...through no fault of my own, I hasten to point out. Before I turn this place over to you, I'd like to see what you've gotten me into."

Tala was really confused. "Excuse me, Mallory...did you just say you're leaving?"

"That's right, and Swanson himself has asked me to turn the keys over to you."

Tala's jaw nearly bounced off the floor. "Wait a minute, something doesn't add up here. Swanson wouldn't recall you so soon unless he knew you'd saved this project."

Richard grinned and clasped his hands behind his head. "That's exactly right!"

"But there's no radio contact between here and anywhere, and the Ares hasn't gone back, or I'd know about it. So how did you do it?"

"I can't tell you. Let's just say that it's an outgrowth of the Gravis-Worpelmann research. A senator can't afford to be out of touch for you long, you know."

"So what're they going to do with you? National Hero? Celebnet Star?"

"Worse, Swanson has appointed me to replace him as Vice General to fill his unexpired term."

Tala seemed genuinely impressed. "Wow, Richard, I guess I've underestimated you."

"I think I've underestimated myself, Tala. Maybe he figures I won't sic Ted Huang on him for a few years, unlike several other active candidates for the job."

"But why put me in charge of this zoo? There have to be other people who'd jump at the chance to suck up some glory as head of this project."

"It's simple, Tala. I told Swanson to avoid the glory seekers and hire somebody who'd do the job Your Chetco Limited swindle may have impressed him even more than my recommendation. Anyway, when we've transferred everything down here from the Bob Dobbs, I'm heading home with Gravis."

Tala suddenly remembered her upbringing. "Hey, wait a minute here. What makes you think I'll accept this job?"

Richard sat up, surprised. "What do you mean? Of course you'll accept this job. Why wouldn't you?"

Tala thought for a moment. The way Nafta was set up, she'd be in the best possible position to safeguard her claim. She'd also have some say in the direction the future of an entire planet would take.

But she was a streeter, with a stubborn pride in her refusal to endorse or participate in government. She'd always know the evils of Nafta, yet now she was being drafted to become part of it all.

She looked somberly at Mallory and said, "I reluctantly agree to your terms."

"Tala, this isn't a surrender. You've just been named de-facto Governor of Venus."

"Yeah, and I'm gonna hate myself in the morning too. All in all, I guess it's better to have a little power in the scheme of things than to be always be the victim. I just hope Swanson knows what he's letting himself in for."

"He knows, Tala. Either you'll be a fair and intelligent boss who will benefit the entire project, or you'll be a crook, lining your pockets, and in the process, those of your partners. Swanson wins either way...that's why he's the PG and we're not."

The logic's simple beauty bothered Tala, but she couldn't refute it. She bend down toward her dog and said, "It looks like they just bought us, Chet. Goddess help us if I'm making a mistake."

Chet leaped up and gleefully licked her face, waggling his bobbed tail so fast that it blurred.

"I'll clean out my office tomorrow. It shouldn't take long...I really haven't had much of a chance to get settled in."

Stacy interrupted. "Excuse me, my Vice General, but before you uproot me again, I'd like to congratulate Tala on her promotion. Tala, you deserve it."

"Thanks Stacy, that means a lot coming from you."

Richard twigged. "Hey wait a minute here, Stacy's my AI. I'm the captain, remember?"

Stacy snapped back, "And behind every successful man is a superior AI, doing his work and making him look competent. Tala, I have to tell you, sometimes the things this man does would..."

"That's enough Stacy, save the dirty laundry for some other time. I'm sure Tala has a lot of mail that she hasn't looked at yet. I know I do."

Tala was suddenly embarrassed. "Oh, yeah, I guess I did kind of barge in here uninvited, didn't I?"

Richard asked, "Is it all better now?"

"Yeah, mostly anyway, Mallory. But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure my Nana Wolfe would approve of this new job."

"People have a way of adjusting to power. You'll do a great job. Now if you'll excuse me, my horse and I have a saddlebag full of mail to deal with."

Tala gave Richard an unexpected hug, then shook goodbye with Stacy's gloved hand.

Chet took a moment to be caressed by everybody, then marched into the hallway with a timber wolf's regal flair. 

Two days later, Tala personally flew Richard to the Bob Dobbs for his flight home. It was awkward for both of them. No words were exchanged. They hugged briefly and Richard slipped through the Ares' airlock for the final time.

It took nearly a week for Tala to get on top of her new job enough to leave the base for a few hours. The reports and routines of the new job made her wonder if her grandmother hadn't been right about power.

With virtually no help from the rest of the crew, she finally managed to clear five hours in her schedule, stolen mostly from her sleep time. Turning the reins over to Marvin for the duration, she grabbed Chet and headed north in a groundhopper.

The slopes of Maxwell Montes were treacherous, but the groundhopper covered the terrain with ease. Several times, the jump jets pulsed on to save her from a deadly tumble.

The unceasing hops made Tala queasy at first, but she eventually got used to it.

Chet loved every minute. He closed his eyes and visualized himself being bounced on a giant's knee.

Maxwell Montes' volcanic slopes eventually gave way to the northern highlands of Ishtar Terra. If Venus had oceans, Ishtar Terra would have been the large northern continent. As it was, there was only flat land that was higher than the rest of the flat land that surrounded it.

Each hop took her further north. Tala noticed that there were no more small pockets of rain water trapped in the rocks. The north polar region of Venus was a very dry place that would need a source of water if it was going to support human habitation.

When the sun was barely above the horizon, Tala checked her maps. She was within one degree of the north pole now. The area she'd studied in her VR system was almost within sight.

Before she reached the area she'd already mapped, Tala saw something that nearly made her lose control of the groundhopper. A new city had sprouted up from the barren land. Fresh streets and partly finished buildings crisscrossed the area. She realized that the vague lines she'd seen in VR were the earliest stage of nanite ground breaking.

She studied the scene for a moment, trying to understand something so alien to her sense of reality. When she was sure it was real, she shouted, "Thank you, Goddess."

She detached her powersuit from the land hopper's frame and took her first walk through the new city.

Tala was impressed at how well her nanites had followed the VR CADprint. It was a design she'd downloaded from the Heinlein net. The imaginative plans for a self-contained desert resort city had delighted her. Now her nanites were bringing it to life in a most unexpected place, the north pole of Venus.

"Good work, my babies. Keep crunching those rocks. Build Tala the best city Venus will ever see." 

Tala's voice alerted Chet, who strained to see into the suit's VR projector from his seat in front of Tala's stomach. He didn't notice anything of interest to an anthropup, so he got comfortable again, snuggling up close to his mama.

"Chet, this is going to be our new home."

The dog didn't seem particularly excited by her news.

"Okay, I know it looks pretty dismal right now, but with a lot of work, it'll be the showplace of Venus."

Chet didn't like the sound of that one four-letter Work wasn't part of his nature, and he would have no part of it. Mama could work as much as she wanted to. He'd help her by being there when needed. His job was to be close to Mama while she worked. He knew he could do that job quite well.

Tala put her cellchip into record mode and made an official proclamation. "On behalf of Chetco Limited and the thieves of NaftaCorp, I name this place The State of Yo. When I was little, my nana would tell me, 'Tala, life's full of ups and downs; but there's a place that isn't too high and isn't too low...that's the State of Yo.' From now on, this part of Venus will be just that...not too much, not too little; just right...the State of Yo."

She stopped to replay her message, nodding happily as she watched herself add the area to the claim held by Chetco Limited. She added the coordinates and overhead scans so there'd be no doubt. This was her land. She'd made plans to turn over most of her claim to NaftaCorp to buy out their share of the venture, but Yo was hers...hers and Chet's.

As she crossed the colorful tiles of the city's main mall, she noticed that a slender, tree-like growth had taken root in a small plot of loose sand.

"You know, Chet, I don't remember any tree sculptures in the original plans for this place." She shrugged as she walked on, "It looks good there, though. What do you say we get some good scans before we head back to the base."

Chet was asleep inside his mama's powersuit as the organic cyberspace inside his skull ran its own program. Chet chased that big Russian Blue through the food-scented streets of Yo. Part of him had already decided that Mama had a pretty good plan. And that was before he'd even seen the only tree on Venus.