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



The Vice General's waiting room was a squalid dump. 

To be more exact, his real waiting room was a dump. The room's only resemblance to the Virtual Reality version was the name.

The VR teleprez waiting room was an opulent, airy garden, fit for a sultan. It was a proper place for Nafta's second-in-command to accept calls from any head of state.

By contrast, the real waiting room was twelve feet by sixteen feet of apathy. Abandoned drywall crouched under a tenuously suspended ceiling. A permanent record of your visit could be made with a wet finger on any wall.

Richard didn't mind the filthy reality. His profession took him into the forgotten world off the network all the time. It was the sanitized pretense that annoyed him. What would it hurt to hire somebody to vacuum the crud out of the place once in awhile?

He activated his cellchip and made a note to himself. "Dump a load of virtual debris into the teleprez version of Ted Swanson's waiting room on the next visit."

The virtual waiting room was just a fancy version of the ancient telephone Hold button. In addition to the traditional bad music, a teleprez wait was enjoyed amid the finest virtual decor that the host might care to lease.

True to his habit, Mallory was fifteen minutes early for his appointment. Born a week prematurely, he never saw a need to change. He hated the thought that he might be late and miss something.

To fortify himself for the realface meeting, he sipped foul coffee from a beige mug, a mug stained to a coal color by lack of interest. It was the cleanest cup available.

He watched an emaciated rat stalk a pathetic cockroach across the furrowed concrete floor. "Nice place. I wonder what the poor folks are up to today."

His voice distracted the rat, who looked up at the stocky, thirtyish man with sandy hair. When the rat's attention slackened, the cockroach broke for a large crack and escaped into the crumbling floor.

As Richard's gaze followed the action, he noticed a box in the corner. It was the only artifact common to both versions of the waiting room. It held a pile of Time and Life magazines.

He walked over to them. They were all replicas of the ancient publications. Their age didn't matter though. Richard Mallory loved trivia, especially historical trivia.

He leaned down as he flipped through the stack with a glance at each cover. Wars, political crises and entertainers all blended together into a trivial blur.

A black and red cover grabbed his notice. The lead story dared to suggest humans would someday live on Mars. Not with pressure suits and air tanks, but just as if they were back on Earth.

He tossed the others back onto the cardboard table and sat down with his new prize. He flipped through the pages and quickly found the picture story about Mars.

The artist's early 1990's renderings of a future Mars gave him a chuckle. "Amazing what they could draw without computers back then."

Most of the article struck him as oldtime science fiction. However, he found several parallels with the actual Mars terraforming project. The Mars project wasn't working out, if he could believe his friends in government. And, the Mars project was exceeding all expectations, if one believed the newscasters.

Richard knew decided to stick with word of mouth descriptions and leave the newscasts to the great unwired masses. 

Tens of thousands of wealthy and well-connected European Union nationals were practically packed for Mars. They longed for spacious new estates on the new green planet. Most had lost patience with their corporation's uninterrupted line of excuses. People wanted their new life of ultimate luxury. Instead, they got apologetic vidbites from European Union corporate flacks.

Richard's reading was interrupted by a faint whoosh. Two doors slipped open across from his seat. A mousy young man in a blue suit and dark glasses scurried out. He hurried down a dismal hallway. Behind him, the seasoned, uniformed hulk of Ted Swanson emerged.

The big man's dark expression melted. He opened his arms for a bearish welcome. "Richard, you old reprobate, come on in. You're just in time."

Before Mallory could yelp, he was engulfed in a manly hug that almost made his blue eyes pop. "Vice General Swanson, it's great to see you realface like this."

Swanson smiled at the younger man's greeting. They'd known each other for almost a decade. Allies for most battles, occasionally adversaries, they shared a great mutual respect and affection.

"Knock off the Vice General crap, Richard. We go back too far for that. Besides, we're not on the teleprez net. Nobody can monitor us here."

Mallory knew from experience that Swanson was mistaken. He prudently chose not to fill him in on just how easily that very office had been bugged by people very close to both of them in the past. Instead, he accepted the hospitality.

"Thanks Ted. You know I hate the formal stuff, but a realface meeting at headquarters sounds official and urgent."

A bit of the pleasure drained from Swanson's face. "Yes, damn it, it is official. Fact is, too many people have too many ways to eavesdrop on the net. Come on in, let's talk privately." 

Swanson took Richard's shoulder and led him through the sliding doors. He motioned to a comfy-looking chair. "Park 'em there Richard."

The sliding door whooshed shut. "Care for a fuzzy water?"

The generous offer flattered Richard. "Sounds great! I take it this is company business then, not government."

The old man leaned forward and fiddled with a panel next to his term. "Actually, it's both. But for expense purposes, you're right, it's a company problem. For your information, this is real fuzzy water, from the ground in France. I test it here as it comes out of the nozzle. 100 percent pure. Or at least, close enough so you won't get a case of the French Fox Trots from it."

He poked at the controls some more. "You want ice with that? It's tested too."

Richard nodded warily. "You've gotta be setting me up for something big." He squirmed his butt into a comfortable part of the chair as he felt out his host. "Now don't misread me, Ted. I'm a big fan of the good life. But you and I both know there's no such thing as a free launch."

Swanson grinned grimly as handed the glass of cool bubbly water to his friend. "Have you kept up with the Ishtar Terra project?"

"Sure, it's on the subnets every day."

"No, I mean, have you really kept up?"

Richard's mind went into seek mode. He'd followed the Venus terraforming project quite closely. "I've read as much as my access level permits. I suspect we've got serious technical problems causing subnormal profits."

"That's a mild way to put it. The fact is, we're dead in the water. What's worse, the whole damned planet's started to revert to its original state. The corp and the government have a year to fix it or write off every Amero we've invested. The Europeans have it easy on Mars, compared to the crap we're gotten ourselves into on Venus,

Richard shifted in his chair. "That means a lot of money has been poured into a black hole. Some bright boys in Finance are gonna be out on the job hunt lines."

The old giant sighed and leaned back into his wonderful chair. "Yeah, that's the official story. The fact is, those bright boys in Finance went crazy before anybody on top found out how deep they had us into it.

The bottom line is this...Ishtar Terra's completely offline. If we can't get it back in operation, the government has to default on dozens of huge bonds. It would bankrupt the economy. The corp and government will go down together on this one. I'm talking total financial ruin for just about everybody on the continent. It'll probably suck down the Asian Rim and the Europeans too."

The scale of the disaster was beyond Richard's comprehension. The collapse of the social structure of a third of the world's population bounced through his brain. There was no way he could wrap his dendrites around it. He sat poleaxed, waiting for his host to announce he'd just made a clever joke.

"Look Richard, I'm serious here. I know it's a lot to believe in one swing. That's why you're here realface. I wanted to catch you before you fell over. We need you in charge of fixing whatever's wrong with the terraforming project on Venus. You'll have carte blanche. I want you in charge because you're the only person I can trust who has a shot at success."

As he looked into Mallory's stunned face, he saw some sentience emerge, so he continued. "You're one of those rare birds, son. Your attention to detail gets the job done and gets it done right. Whether you're scrapping in the senate or assembling a system, you've already got it worked out. At the same time, you're always happy to look an idiot in the eye and tell him to get stuffed. I don't have to tell you how few people there are who can combine both traits and still stay in office."

The praise brought Richard warily back to reality. "Now wait a minute. You're telling me that in all the civilized world, I'm the one person who can save the Venus project and prevent a total Naftan economic collapse? It's a little patronizing, don't you think?"

The Vice General looked hurt. "It's not quite like that, Richard. First of all, we can't hire some foreigner. Can't trust 'em with something this, ummm, sensitive." 

Swanson sat up straight and went on. "The other problem is our own yes men. This project's in the dumper because too many people who know better wouldn't risk their careers. They didn't squelch stupid ideas. They approved shoddy work."

The big man looked at the floor. "It disgusts me to admit it, but several people in my own office took bribes while they were accepting paychecks from me. And too many overseers on this project got so caught up in good public relations that they stopped finding problems that were biting them on the tender bits. Problems got completely out of hand, and now we've got a dead base up there."

"Dead? What do you mean dead?" Mallory could imagine too many ways for the word to apply to the Ishtar Terra Project.

"I mean dead nanites, dead power station, dead crew. You know, dead. There's nobody alive up there at the moment. That's why the planet's reverting to the hell it was before we started.

What's worse, we've got millions of artificial ice meteors on their way. If those things go in before we get a handle on it, they'll evaporate in the atmosphere. That means a runaway greenhouse effect we'll never be able to control."

Richard became very somber. "I'll need a lot more information than I've got, then. Can you get me Sysop 1 access to the net?"

The older man started to smile a little again. "I'm glad you're interested in this. I'll give you the full story, then let you decide if you want to take on this job. You can't get this stuff from the net though, even with Sysop 0 access."

Mallory shifted uneasily. "So what're you gonna do then, hypnotize me and laser it onto my retinas?"

A grin finally took over the Vice General's mouth. "Far as I know, that only works on Space Trek." He reached into a pocket and pulled out an iridescent tube. A twist popped the top off to reveal two dull romballs.

The significance of the moment wasn't lost on Richard. Despite the rarified level of classified data he'd already digested, he was about to be elevated to the ultimate security level. The tube contained data so secret that it couldn't be safely kept on the net. Officially, it didn't even exist.

Richard was nervous. "I'm, uh, honored, sir."

"Said the king's valet as he wiped the royal bottom." 


"Look Richard, you've just been handed the dirty end of the shovel. No need to thank me for that, at least not today." 

The Vice General again became uneasy as he brandished the romball tube. "Everything there is to know about Venus and the Ishtar Terra Project is on here. You'll also find everything that relates to everything there is to know. Maybe a couple of hundred Terabytes. Most of it's video, but too much of it's tables, charts and boring reports. A lot of it's inaccurate and self-serving. It's your job to decide what you can trust and what you can't."

"So that's why you sent for me. It doesn't matter if I'm an engineer, a member of the government or even a great dancer. You wanted the three time champion Naftan Trivia Grand Master!"

"Bright fellow! But actually, I need you for all of those traits and more. And this is the first time I've heard you could dance." 

Swanson stood up with the packet in his hand. "Come over to the term and let me acclimate these things to you."

Mallory got up and around the desk in short order. Acclimation of romballs was a clandestine ritual, an induction into a modern secret order. A technological Skull and Bones ceremony.

Swanson rolled one of the two marble-sized balls out into his palm. "They look old-fashioned and clunky, I know. But there's a reason. Most of the material's inert. It's really just molecular storage in a big glass case. If we make 'em any smaller, they might slip out of here as a pimple on somebody's butt. But at this size, they don't leave the building without triggering a major security alert. They're designed so you can't crack them open without destroying the data patterns."

Richard eyed the marbles suspiciously. "Some people claim that's a cover to hide the fact that our security people aren't bright enough to make 'em any smaller."

The old man groaned. "Yeah, I know what they say...the corp can't do anything right, leave it to the independent labs to innovate. But that's bull. Fact is, these kittens will run on the ox drive in any term, but only for the person they're acclimated to. Sit down in my chair. It's time you and your balls got acquainted."

Richard snickered and sat himself down.

Swanson leaned in and rattled a bunch of commands to the terminal. "Got that Helen?"

"Got it sir," answered the term in a warm, motherly voice. "Please insert the medium into the ox drive."

The older man pressed the romballs into his guest's hand. "Here, roll the romballs around in your hand."

Richard was puzzled, but obeyed his superior.

"Okay, that's enough. Now, stuff them into the port." Swanson pointed to the end of his keyboard.

The balls rolled down the tube to an optical chamber where a cushion of air supported them. They could be scanned to any depth by a ring of sensors. It was high-density three-dimensional storage with minimal seek time.

The term spoke up again. "Thank you. Now, engage alpha wave recognition sequence."

Swanson became somber, as if he were the grand master at a lodge initiation. "Richard Mallory, I now include you in the center circle of data access."

The Vice General turned his head and said, "Look at me."

When Richard turned, the older man cut loose a massive yawn. It triggered an ancient response and Richard wanted to yawn too.

"Now say cheese."

"Cheeeese." Richard yawned the word as the term recorded several cycles of Alpha waves.

"Perfect," said Swanson.

"Thank you Richard," responded the terminal, pleasantly.

"Now wait a minute. Won't my yawning affect the results?"

"I certainly hope so. Now relax and let's see if you've been validated." Swanson turned back to the terminal and asked, "Helen, did it take?"

"Yes, sir. The medium is valid for Richard Mallory. There is a .00000042 percent chance that somebody else with compatible DNA might also have a sufficient alpha wave match under acclimation conditions."

"And we're not about to go blabbing about our acclimation ritual to outsiders," bragged Swanson. "Okay, you're one of us now Richard. There's a lot riding on you."

Though he wasn't supposed to, Mallory already knew who the Vice General meant by us. He didn't mind the company, but he objected to the feel of Swanson's masterful arm-twisting. "But I haven't said I'll take the assignment yet."

"True, but I know you. You won't let this one go to anybody else. I'll call you in two weeks to hear you agree." He popped the romballs out of the drive and rolled them back into their tube. Then he tossed them to Richard, who stashed them in a pocket.

"Do you honestly think I can digest this in two weeks, Ted?"

"Hell no, but you'll have enough of a grasp of it to tell me yea or nay. Even if it's nay, I want your assessment of the files you've read. Triple your standard consulting fee, report in two weeks. Deal?"

Richard stood and grabbed his fuzzy water. "Damn, I haven't even had a chance to sip this stuff."

"Take it with you. Compliments of NaftaCorp. Remember, there's plenty of luxury for all of us when you succeed."

Swanson stood and herded him toward the door. "Sorry I've gotta hustle you out, but four Special Service boys will be through these doors in less than a minute if I don't come out. They just about had puppies when I told them I was meeting you in realface. They don't like the second-in-command to expose himself to the risk of contact, even with a friend." The Vice General shook his head sadly. "This job's like living in a bloody aquarium." He snapped his fingers and the doors whooshed open.

Four gorilla-like creatures in identical suits and sunglasses appeared at the opening. Swanson waved at them. "Hi, boys. I'm still alive and I took a hostage."

The four closed ranks across Richard's path.

"That's a joke, men. Senator Mallory's an old friend."

The bodyguards spread out slowly, to demonstrate their absolute control of the situation. Richard slipped past the pseudo-simian quartet before they had a chance to smell fear on him.

Richard turned back to Swanson and asked, "Will we see you at the Inaugural Banquet tonight?"

"Not bloody likely, not with them confirming that SOB Pete Cadman. He doesn't need a swearing in, he needs a cussing out." Swanson suddenly stiffened and quietly added, "They'll do fine without me, I'm sure."

Richard was taken by surprise. He'd never heard Swanson openly attack a political foe in the decade they'd known each other. "Uh, okay then, talk to you soon."

Mallory dismissed the unusual comment as he headed for the elevator. A quick pat of the romballs in his pocket assured him they hadn't somehow escaped.

He hopped out in the transit lobby and dashed to the arriving BART Bullet Train. He activated his cellchip to clear up the rest of the day's schedule..

Basic cellchips have a rudimentary user interface, but Richard Mallory was not a person to settle for anything basic. His cellchip sported a complete Artificial Intelligence Interface. The AI saved him lots of time by presorting all incoming files. But it was more than a network demon. It also had an enjoyable personality.

He put on a special pair of VR glasses and rapidly blinked his eyes three times. The term sprung to life.

"Hello, Richard. I hope your day's going well so far." The cellchip's AI spoke in a husky feminine voice.

"Afternoon, Stacy. Do I have any important calls?"

"Yes, I think you might want to check out numbers two and five. The other three are salesmen and lobbyists."

"Thanks, Stace. Let me see two and five, then."

Mallory dealt with the important callers as the peninsula's checkerboard of high rises and pushup concrete low rises flashed past.  He dispatched the other calls to data heaven somewhere in Sunnyvale. By the time he reached the super-high rises at the San Tomas connector, the day was his.

Mallory itched to take a look at the classified data about Venus. Unfortunately, the romballs were far too dense to run on a cellchip. Even if they could, it was crazy to access classified data on public transit.

As a kid, Richard had seen the start of the Ishtar Terra Project. The drama and romance of it still excited him, over twenty years later.

Mars was first explored in a series of joint European-North American manned missions. But before terraforming got underway, the North Americans gridlocked in an internal power struggle.

It took three years before a peaceful merger was consummated between the former government and the nation's ten largest corporations. By the time it was agreed that a central government again existed, the EU already had two construction teams prepping the Martian surface for terraforming. The Europeans had lost interest in shared efforts with the unreliable North Americans.

Several unhappy Nafta politicians made noises about enforcing the century-old international treaty on space. They didn't think the Europeans should claim an entire planet for themselves.

However, cooler heads inside Nafta's legal department prevailed. They pointed out that the European Union ran the operation through a transnational subsidiary. Under several previous rounds of GATT trade treaties, the Right to Profit had gained top priority over all others. There was no legal question that the EU subsidiary had a right to profit from its exclusive development of Mars.

With Mars taken, the Naftans dropped back to the default position, Venus. Although seemingly less of a prize than Mars, Venus had much to recommend it.

Two factors that had long worked against development of Venus could also be considered bonuses. The original atmospheric pressure was ninety times that of the Earth. But it was rich in carbon and oxygen, the basis of nearly all life known on Earth.

Computer models had shown that if all of the Earth's trapped atmospheric chemicals were released from its crust, earth would become very similar to Venus. In effect, life had made earth livable.

The solar intensity that made Venus an inferno was also a plus. Energy satellites built for the Earth would be 40 percent more efficient in orbit around Venus.

Energy is the basis of every civilization that ever pulled itself out of the muck. The Ishtar colonies would be embarrassingly energy rich. Her ore deposits could be the foundation of massive resource based industries. With modern technology, Venus could easily explode all profit projections ever made for NaftaCorp.

In the third decade of Century 21, Nafta's first President General, John F. Shrubber, boldly promised to terraform Venus, then build colonies there. He billed it as "Mankind's stepping stone to the stars."

In his first inaugural speech, Shrubber fired the Naftan imagination with visions of space exploration and colonization. At the end of his speech, he made a declaration. "We choose to settle Venus and do the other things, not because it is easy, but because it is there."

Detractors ridiculed the idea of terra forming Venus as a total waste of tax money with no immediate benefit to anybody. This revealed a thin grasp of economics that was apparent to anyone with an entrepreneurial bent.

Shrubber had a clear vision of the Ishtar Terra Project's immediate benefits. It would open the resources and living space of a planet with nearly four times the land area of the Earth. It would start the spread of mankind's seed across the galaxy. What's more, it would spread huge amounts of government money across the palms of several hard-working industrialists.

Many needy NaftaCorp subsidiaries and a handful of independents wanted aid and succor. They found their succor in the Naftan government.

With two-fisted, manly public spending on the Ishtar Terra Project, corporate shareholders would get to grab part of the remaining sliver of money still in the hands of the middle and homeless classes.

To give voters the necessary positive outlook, a huge public relations push was mounted. News programs, commercials, gushy space moviegames and impassioned, well-paid political commentators rallied the Naftan People to a fevered frenzy of support.

In just 45 days, the Ishtar Terra Project enjoyed the high popularity usually reserved for tax cuts and quick overseas wars. The program's public opponents were quickly branded as enemies of progress and even Nafta itself. The most powerful of the bunch were quietly knocked on the head. Unreliable reports had many of the traitors being served up as mystery meat in homeless soup kitchens.

Richard remembered his childish excitement when he first found out about the Ishtar program. He decided right there in grade three that he'd be a space cowboy. His ranch would be, "The biggest and bestest ranch on all of Venus."

Somewhere along the way, the gray of adulthood faded his boyhood dreams. Maybe Ted Swanson was right, maybe Richard wouldn't let this chance go by.

The San Tomas local transit tube led into the rounded concrete simplicity of the El Camino exchange. Richard got off. In under a minute, the blue and white local Los Padres chariot whooshed predictably into its bay.

A few of his neighbors robotically joined him in the single car's sleek beige cabin. He recognized a face or two from other meetings at the tube station. He knew better than to offer a friendly greeting. Such public displays were often misconstrued. Friendliness was wisely saved for the intimacy of the teleprez net.

The seat bent slightly at its joints to fit his body as he gave his home address to the chariot's terminal. 

This term answered to the name Neil, as did every terminal on the seven chariots on the Los Padres loop. Neil decided to chat him up in an animated Bronx accent. "It's good to have ya' with us, Richie. Haven't been out much lately, have ya'?"

As he exchanged platitudes with the AI, Richard felt as if someone was eavesdropping. With a slight turn of his head, he noted the frozen gaze of a large man seated one row back, on the opposite side of the aisle.

Richard discreetly turned his face completely forward again and continued with Neil. "So, seen any interesting new faces today?"

"Oh, sure. Got three aboard with ya' right now," chirped the chariot's nanotronic host and pilot. "One's a nice lady who just moved down from Oakland. I'm talkin' to her right now. She says hello to ya'. She recognizes you from the newsnets."

"Well, say hello back and welcome her to Santa Clara for me."

A gray-haired, dark skinned lady in the front turned and smiled. She gave a petite wave.

Richard nodded, smiled and kept on with the terminal. "She seems nice. We could use a lot more nice around here."

"That's for sure," agreed the chariot's AI voice. "For example, there's those other two newcomers. They're not locals. Tourists, I'd say. Both from DC. Came in together and hung around at the tube stop like old chums. They won't sit together, though. Not very friendly, no sirree!"

"Oh, yeah? DC you say? You know that I spend a lot of time in DC myself. Maybe I know them."

If you do, you'll have to ID 'em yourself. They didn't give names to me or the term in the transit tube. One's in the jump seat next to the front door. His buddy's one row back from you, across the aisle."

Richard tried to sound calm as he answered. "Thanks Neil. Maybe I'll say hello to them on the way out."

"Okey dokey Richie. I've gotta get busy and pilot this rig." Actually, the AI had enough gigs to do everything at once, but it was a polite lie he'd learned from humans that allowed him to get back to duties that were more comfortable to an AI.

The shuffle of people at the first stop gave Richard a chance to take a discreet look at both of the men. The one in back was the guy who'd tried to listen to Richard's conversation with Neil. The one in front could have been his uglier twin.

The pair looked like half of the goon team he'd met in Swanson's office. There was enough difference for Richard to be fairly sure that these guys weren't from the Vice General's bodyguard. They did look like part of the set though.

"Excuse me, Neil. Got another second?"

"Sure, Richie. What's up? Wanna' change your destination?"

"Maybe. Can you tell me where those two DC boys plan to get off?"

"Sorry, Richie, they didn't say. Hold on and I'll check."

Mallory understood the value of being friendly with the local terminals. They saw and knew more than an old fashioned doorman or concierge. Besides, he liked to gab with them.

"Some people's kids, I tell you," griped the terminal. "Ask a simple, job-related question, get verbal abuse."

"Pardon me?"

"Your two buddies told me that it's none of my damn business where they get off. Can you imagine? An' I'm the one givin' 'em a ride!"

"Okay, thanks for checking, Neil. You're a pal!"

"You owe me one, chum!"

The hairs were standing up on places Richard didn't remember having hairs. He needed a fast background check on his new playmates. He slipped his cellchip lenses back on and navigated his virtual self into the network.

First, he got a net link to the chariot. Without verbal commands, he asked Neil to get mug shots of the two goons from the security cams. Digitized versions of both men's faces instantly went in Richard's files.

He thanked Neil again, then navigated the network until he was in his personal security node. He asked the system to correlate the pictures against government files.

He had two matches within seconds. The boys were Special Service, assigned to the President General. These were Cadman's apes, not Swanson's.

He slipped over to the duty room icon and checked their orders. "Special Assignment - San Francisco Region," was all the system would admit.

Mallory entered his own name and ID into a search string. There were no outstanding wants for him from any law enforcement agency on the continent. If somebody was tailing him, they didn't have a freshly issued and convenient warrant as an excuse.

He put his cellchip back to sleep and rolled things over in his head. 

Maybe these boys were along on a ride that just happened to coincide with his trip home. But if so, why were they loitering at the tube station? Los Padres chariots stopped at the exchange every three minutes. No matter how he added up the evidence, the answer was an irrational number.

There wasn't time to explain the scenario to his cellchip for analysis. His stop was near. He decided to force the men to show their intentions.

Richard got up and stood next to the sliding rear door.  He projected an impatient look. The gaze of both strangers tingled on the back of his neck.

The chariot hissed to a halt and the doors slid open. Mallory leaned out the exit. He pulled back in to allow a woman with a baby to board. He turned to see both strangers on their feet.

"Darn, wrong stop!" 

When he got back to his chair, both goons were already seated again. They were busy not noticing him.

Okay, so the Special Service was on his trail for some reason, but what? His address in a nice part of town was hardly a secret. He occasionally entertained a widely varied crowd of politicos, artisans and free thinkers. His parties were considered a failure if they didn't spark at least one squabble that led to a police visit. Mallory's habitat was simply too well known to be considered a hideout.

When it came to rivals, Mallory had his share, plus a portion of somebody else's. But he couldn't think of anyone who would actually try to harm him. His independent views made him just as likely to be a useful ally as an annoying foe. His political and corporate connections made him a valuable contact.

It was unlikely that the average power game player could use the Special Service against him. That kind of muscle only came from the President General's office.

Maybe it wasn't Pete Cadman himself, but it could be somebody in his office. Cadman didn't like Mallory, and the sentiment wasn't a secret from the staff. Richard had sided with Vice General Swanson against Cadman on too many important votes.

Cadman represented the business bloc. This meant government help for quick profits from short term projects. Those profits usually ended up in the pockets of Cadman's friends and allies, with a bit sticking to Cadman's fingers on the journey. Funding for social programs and the nation's physical infrastructure was often shortchanged in the name of economic progress.

By contrast, his number two man, Ted Swanson, was a moderate. He'd parlayed a military career into a good corporate position. He slowly acquired corporate shares. As his holdings grew, his alliances grew. Eventually, he controlled enough votes to challenge Cadman's hold on the position of President General.

Cadman had managed to beat Swanson in the last three elections. Under the Naftan Charter, the candidate with the most votes became President General, while runner up was named Vice General.

Unlike his rival, Swanson understood government's need to toss a few crumbs to the populace to keep them in line. He had the conscience of a great humanitarian, but was able to balance it against a healthy dose of greed.

Mallory was a pragmatist. He pushed for reforms that would be needed to keep the future working population clothed, housed, fed and educated. He would often champion programs that helped people while they led to long-term corporate profits.

Mallory saw the seeds of another great societal collapse being sown by short term planning. As a pilot and engineer, he toiled alongside the people who did the real work. He could see their financial power slip backwards a bit each year. He feared that a population too alienated by their government would eventually turn ugly and devour it. From his viewpoint, chaos and ever worse conditions would follow.

Richard wasn't a power player in the government, but he was a respected member of the Senate. Although he only controlled his own personal voting shares, he was a persuasive speaker when passion moved his heart. He was often the conscience of the Senate, and had won scraps of funding for social programs on several important votes.

This earned him the label of liberal from the business sector, and traitor from social activists. He wasn't always liked, but he was generally respected.

If he'd been unknowingly sucked into some new flavor of political intrigue, he'd have to survive long enough to untangle things. Richard swallowed the lump in his throat and stood up in the slowing transit car.

His stop was coming up, for real this time. He slipped his cellchip glasses back on and stepped out of the chariot. The heads up display superimposed transparent icons over his direct view of the lobby.

He accessed his personal node with visual cues and eye movements. The lobby's security cameras came online. They showed the towering strangers right behind him in an otherwise deserted lobby. He kept on course toward the security doors.

As he opened an almost forgotten file, the two shadows sidled in around him. 

There was only one trick in his defense repertoire, and it was fairly low tech.

"Excuse me, Mr. Mallory. Please come with us." It was the more sinister agent. He pressed his beef against Richard's left shoulder.

Mallory shifted right. 

The dexterous half of the pair blocked him from that side as well. The three began to move as a unit. Richard was herded away from the security doors, toward a service tunnel.

"Please remove your interface glasses, sir," ordered Dexterous.

Richard lifted an arm, seeming to comply. That's when a 150 decibel horn screamed from both sides of his glasses frames. The noise was a magnitude louder than an old style jet engine at takeoff, and at a more damaging frequency.

The goons grabbed their ears in agony and dropped to the floor. 

Richard swayed woozily as he dogtrotted to the security doors. He'd readied them as he left the chariot and they slid open at his touch. He silenced the mind-piercing horn as the doors slid shut behind him.

The throbbing in his head kept time with the ringing in his ears, but Mallory had been spared the brunt of his own defensive device. The audio transducers in his cellchip glasses were of the noise cancelling type. He'd gotten them to reduce the din of a train full of people, all babbling into their terminals.

The noise canceller used a simple phase reversal principal. Each earpiece had two transducers. The outer segment picked up background noise. Its nanotronics then flipped the electrical phase of the noise 180 degrees and fed it to the inner transducer.

The out-of-phase noise from the inner transducer exactly cancelled the noise from the outside world. The result was virtual silence in the wearers ears.

It was easy to add the normal cellchip audio to the inner transducer's signal. The wearer could hear the terminal's audio with no distractions.

A simple enhancement allowed Richard to send a deafening shriek from the outer transducers. It would be nulled by the noise cancelling circuits. The noise was potentially lethal to bystanders, yet almost unheard inside the earpieces.

The two Special Service agents had obviously heard it quite clearly, at least for a moment. 

Richard didn't know whether their hearing loss would be permanent or not. Bit it wasn't his most pressing concern.

His audio defense had an unpleasant side effect. There was no way to completely protect himself from sound that reflected off the walls, floor and ceiling. Sound that arrived from anywhere but left or right wasn't completely cancelled. The audio shock wave was apparently responsible for the gush of blood that streamed from his nostrils.

He pinched the sides of his nose and ordered the elevator to take him home. Behind him, the security doors blocked the advance of the two injured agents. The pair did their best to dismantle the solid alloy panels.

Unsuccessful and exhausted, they gave up and staggered off to catch the outbound chariot.

The elevator deposited Mallory in his outer foyer. He spoke to his terminal and was immediately inside.

Once in his home, there was no way for anybody to quietly snatch him if he didn't want to be snatched. He locked the door and set the sensors for his DNA exclusively. If there was so much as a stray hair from another human, he'd know it.

"Rough trip past Mountain View, my prince?"

"Had sub trouble in da lobby, Stace. Please ged be subthing to stob a bloody doze."

A warm, moist towel dropped into his hands. "Clean up with that first, then I'll give you a cool one to stop the bleeding, you poor dear. Was it muggers?"

"Unn uhh," he grunted as he shook his head, "Gadman's goons."

"Gadman?" Stacy's nanotronics pondered for a moment. "You mean Cadman?"

"Yeah, Gadman." He put his head back as a cool towel appeared from overhead.

"That seems a little unusual. Does the President General usually send goons out to beat you up?"

"No, not as a rule. But I don't think they were supposed to beat me up. My guess is that it's something more felonious."

"My poor hero! Relax and let me give you a massage."

A chair slipped up from behind, so he sat.

In moments, the tension of Richard's encounter with the unruly agents had drained off into Stacy's beyond-human fingers. More than an AI interface, Stacy was the brains behind Richard's entire automated home.

Once his head cleared, and his nose gave no further signs of blood, he decided to call on Vice General Swanson again. Mallory had never been attacked unprovoked. He wanted to know if there was any connection with his visit to Swanson's office. This time, the teleprez net would have to suffice.

"Stacy, my love, please put me on the net. And while you're at it, put the intruder defenses on full security alert. Stun anybody or anything that tries to get in."

"Certainly, my warrior."

The living room's lighting changed and Richard's interface rose from the floor. It was built into a twelve foot diameter pedestal that seemed to be the top surface of a huge sphere.

The chair he sat in could configure itself to any type of seat or support, depending on the program.

Sound was projected from 360 degrees by a phase corrected surround audio system. Unlike lower quality units, Richard's system made it easy to pinpoint any sound, even from behind or overhead.

The video projection was a standard VR system. An electronic shutter projected lasers from front, back, sides, top and bottom. The high resolution 3D put reality into Virtual Reality.

Thanks to advances in human understanding of optics, it was no longer necessary to project three dimensional scenes into a holobox or misty room. Psychovisual testing at the start of the digital video era had led to ongoing breakthroughs.

Much insight was gained about the way the human eye perceives color, light and motion. Researchers slowly built up models to demonstrate how the eye could be fooled into accepting video that lacked a large amount of unnecessary data.

At the start of Century 21, it was common to transmit as many as ten TV signals on a single channel. Five decades later, psychovisual research had brought full 3D video and surround audio into the average home on that same single channel.

Holotanks and geek goggles had come and gone as technology advanced. An improved version of the goggles had become standard with decent cellchip systems. The current version looked like standard eyeglasses. Their lenses could instantly black out the local reality if desired.

Many people didn't use cellchips. Virtual Reality had slashed the amount of time many people spent away from home, at least those who had homes. Some folks had actually evolved lifestyles that let them stay in their house, apartment or squat full time. Employers quickly accepted the idea of not paying for office buildings to house hundreds or even thousands of workers.

Advanced cybertechnology also made it possible for VR jacks to be spiked into the brain of anyone who could afford and stand it. Tens of millions of wireheads were on the net at the peak of the craze.

Unfortunately, too many cyberpunks developed too many ways to crash the wetware of paying network customers. Lawsuits by the families of thousands of brain damaged victims bankrupted more than a few online services.

The marketplace soon drifted to less intense technologies with lower risks. Many brain damaged VR victims drifted into careers in government service. The wealth of the VR market spurred research into more realistic interfaces.

Still, a dedicated few craved the intense experience of direct neural connection to the net. It wasn't actually illegal, except in Deseret and Quebec, but the bad press made it socially taboo.

The tabloid subnets boiled with gruesome stories of jackhead suicides, serial killers, and worse. Unexplained UFO sightings, incidents of indecent exposure and appearances of the 120 year-old Elvis Presley were all attributed in some way to people with VR implants in their heads.

Many wireheads found out about other negative side effects of their neural jacks. Terrorists discovered the chilly effectiveness of a single drop of liquid nitrogen on a neural jack.

In other cases, wireheads had dropped dead for no explainable reason. Intense forensic work on dozens of corpses pieced together a common thread. Many had died in a carpeted room during dry weather..

Apparently their shoes created static electric charges that eventually discharged through their cyberjacks into nearby metal objects. They had been found near door frames, steel desks or large metal doorknobs. All looked very dead and very surprised.

In view of the drawbacks, Richard Mallory preferred to get his peak experiences realface. However, his work demanded a good VR link. Many of his clients and constituents were easily impressed by a show of high tech, so his teleprez was always the finest available. He even installed enhancement circuitry to improve the resolution on the other end of his calls.

The effort wasn't lost on business associates. He often got juicy engineering projects that required his unusual attention to fine detail. The special jobs drew the double and triple rates that paid for his lifestyle.

Right now, he definitely had a good reason to use his teleprez link. "Down Home metaphor, Stacy. Local net, Ted Swanson's office." Mallory wasted little time and used hot words to go directly to frequently called numbers on his phone list.

As he went online, Richard's chair gently changed shape under him. He was soon astride a western saddle on his favorite horse, Commodore.

The proud-cut quarter horse stallion had Appaloosa markings and a mellow outlook. Man and beast made a very attractive pair.

Mallory's transmitted image wore traditional movie cowboy outfits when he was in the Down Home mode. Today's ensemble featured a muted tan shirt with leather fringes along both sleeves. The obligatory red bandana replaced a tie, while a powder gray Stetson topped his wild, mousy mane of hair.

Suddenly, he was joined by the vision of Vice General Swanson on horseback to his right.

"Sorry to bother you Ted, but I've got a problem."

"Thanks for calling...Richard Mallory... I'm out of the office right now. Please leave a message and someone will get back to you."

"Damn your message machine." 

Richard gathered his wits and changed mental modes. "Uh, okay Ted, something happened to me after I left your office. We need to talk right away. Please call me when you can. End Message."

The phrase "End Message" automatically dumped Richard back into the Vice General's beautiful garden waiting room. 

"Oh, yeah, I almost forgot." Richard's face brightened as he leaned forward and whispered into his horse's left ear.

Commodore was virtually always willing to obey his friend. He nodded agreeably.

As the pair trotted out of Swanson's virtual waiting room, Richard looked back on the warm, steamy load his horse had dumped onto a garden walkway near the reception desk.

"That's my idea of enhanced realism in virtual reality, Commie. It should keep the roses in bloom too." He turned the horse and headed offline.

Just as the connection broke, Mallory noted the horrified look on the face of Swanson's personal secretary. Apparently he wasn't accustomed to that much reality in his virtual reality.

"Shall I end program, Richard?"

"Mmmm, naww, not yet, Stace. I think I'll ride a bit. Give me some more motion on this saddle, and pump a little Meadow and Manure essence in here."

As he shifted in the saddle, he felt the bulk of the romballs in his pocket. "Oh, yeah, I've got data, Stacy. Shoot me the ox port, will you?"

A round tube appeared above Commodore's neck. Mallory flipped the container open and rolled the balls around in his hand for a moment. Then he popped them down the hatch.

"Excuse me, Richard, but what did you just stick in there?"

"Special romballs, Stacy. They're keyed to my DNA and alpha waves, and Bob only knows what else. Is there a problem?"

"Oh, no problem. They just looked weird coming in. Also, they got a little snotty when I tried to access them. They're okay now, though."

"Excellent. Let's see what they have to say. Financial information first, please."

"Boss, I don't want to upset your afternoon any further, but there's over a gigabyte just of financials on these things. How about I show you a menu and let you order?"

"Alright, give me the house special."

Icons flashed across his entire field of view. The clogged display ahead actually spooked Commodore. Richard managed to right himself before his interface threw him to the floor.

There were nearly four dozen different headings in the financial area alone. 

Richard double checked his security system, then settled into the saddle for a long, lonesome read.