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

 Chapter 3 - Around The Corner


Chaotic screams blistered the hearing of friend and foe alike. The final confrontation was underway.

A stone castle's remains stood at the top of a small hill. It was of no offensive advantage, but its walls and the view of the battlefield below gave a small defensive edge to those who held it.

A small band had taken refuge in the ancient ruins. The hilltop view only emphasized the crushing odds against the tiny group's survival.

"As I see it, Tala, we can either stand and fight right here or try to hack through that wall of enemy flesh."

Her mind raced for a better answer. She wanted to take a vote among her people, but knew better. She had to make the decisions and hope that her followers would give their last ounce of will to execute her orders.

She stalled for time with a pep talk. "Alright teams, we can still come out of this in one piece. There are almost a thousand government security agents at the bottom of this hill. The only thing that keeps them from cutting our throats is the fifty rebels who surround this castle. If the rebels knew why we're really here, they'd probably kill us first, then fight the government agents.

We don't have the weapons to tangle with either group. The rebels won't be able to hold the government troops off more than a few minutes. That means we have only one exit...cut through the rear castle wall."

"But Tala, what if the legend's true? What if the nothingness really does start behind the wall?"

"I'm willing to risk it. The old myth may or may not be true. But I can tell you for sure that our odds are six against a thousand if we try to fight the troops in front of this place. If any of you don't want to follow me, I'll think no less of you."

Tala turned her weapon against the ancient wall. The hewn brown stone hissed and popped as water evaporated from its pores. The tortured rock soon glowed a brilliant red. She shielded her face from the yielding wall's intense heat. The glow dissipated as the rock flowed away in a molten rivulet.

A deep rumble shook the ground and Tala yelled, "Stand back, the wall's coming down." Stones the size of human heads crushed down into the fresh void as the rear wall collapsed into itself.

"Everybody who's coming, follow me." Tala turned to find herself alone. The others had apparently decided that certain death was a better choice than to follow their leader into the uncharted void of ancient myths.

"You losers are going to die in there. Follow me out," she screamed.

Tala hopped over the amalgam of glowing stones as if it was a stony brook. Fallen rocks from the wall's top protected her feet from the fresh lava her weapon had created. She felt the heat through her boots.

There was nothing to see on the other side of the wall. No new world, no strange lights, no sign of anyone or anything. It was no good to try to follow the back side of the wall either. There was no space, except where the wall had been melted away.

"Damn! Now I see why they didn't follow me." She turned and headed back through the wall to face her fate with the warring factions on the hillside.

As she emerged, she felt dizzy, as if she'd been whacked on the back of the head. The changing lights disoriented her. 

She looked around at her new surroundings. She'd seen everything before...the floor, the walls, the deluxe holographic projection chamber.

"Interesting technique, Tala. This is the first time I've ever seen anybody blast their way out of a business simulation." The voice was fatherly, but a bit stern. It matched the man who'd made the statement.

"Damn you, David. I'm trying to learn leadership skills, and you dump me into some dog eaten FRP. What the hell's the name of this program, Management Techniques of General Custer?"

"Actually, I call it Hostile Takeover. The point is to guide your key people through a situation that continually challenges their loyalty and presses your leadership ability to its limits."

"Well, it could have gone better."

"You started out great. You got your key people together and bonded with them. They were glad to follow you against great odds. Believe it or not, there are several ways you could have saved your entire group, even as far into it as the ruined castle."

"Are you serious? The rebels would have wiped us out if they hadn't been so busy fighting the government agents. As it was, the only reason the government attacked the rebels at all was to get their hands on the six of us."

"Listen, Tala, you're still too much of a loner. You underestimate the power of loyalty. The people in your group would have followed you onto the battlefield. They would have fought against either side, or both, if you'd only asked. Better yet, they also would have helped you reach a negotiated settlement. You could have become the leader of a coalition of all three factions if you'd been persistent. Instead, you went off into your own little world and told your people that you didn't value their loyalty."

"Listen, David, you're an excellent manager, but you need to understand my strengths. I raised myself on the streets right outside these doors. I scratched my way through the university when nobody wanted me there. I worked my way into a cushy job in the corp. Nobody ever helped me. Nobody even pretended to help me. I did it myself. What can I possibly gain by looking for help from other people now?"

"Tala, this isn't an attack on your independence. Frankly, I envy your determination. But as powerful as you are on your own, you multiply your strength every time you ally yourself with trustworthy people."

She put her weapon simulator back onto the console and stepped from the top of the projector. "Alright, David, I hear what you say. It might even be true, but what's your secret of knowing who I can trust and who I can't?"

"Okay, admittedly, that's the hard part. You have to take it one step at a time. First you take a canoe trip across a pond together. Then you cross a lake, then a river. The test of loyalty comes when you run the rapids together."

As she walked out of the VR chamber to the door, she listened and considered his metaphor. "What if my new associate stabs me while we're paddling across that first pond?"

He followed her into the hallway. "It's a risk, to be sure, but I think you're a better judge of character than that."

Chet heard his new mama's voice and scampered into the hall. His toenails clicked on the hardwood floor. He jumped once, then snuggled up against her legs.

Tala looked thoughtfully at her new partner. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I can trust somebody else a little. But I tell you, it's a new way to look at things. I'll take it slowly and carefully."

Chet led the gabbing humans down two flights of stairs and into an old-fashioned parlor. He was eager to go outside and smell the food and people of the Castro again.

"I'll have a couple more simulations for you on Friday, Tala. Next week, you can run the Hostile Takeover scenario again. This time, I want your team to end up in charge of the whole place. There's no need to destroy millions of innocent castle wall pixels either.

Now, I have to get to my office before the people I've entrusted stage their own hostile takeover. I'll see you Wednesday morning."

The break meant lunchtime for Tala and Chet. She gave her host a goodbye hug. David headed for the back door as she drifted down the stone steps to the sidewalk. She always hated to leave that friendly old house.

She lingered in front of the school for a moment. A beefy dark woman who looked like Isadora Liebman was headed up the street at a trot.

"Tala, hi. I'm glad I caught up with you." It was Isadora Liebman, a bit short of breath. "I wanted to get here before you left for lunch."

"You made it. What's up?"

"It's awful. I was just at the Castro Kitchen for my shift. They're out of food."

"Didn't the merchant donations come in?"

"I don't know what's wrong. They're out of everything. I had to turn away mothers and children this morning. It was first come, first served, and they came in after everything was gone. It broke my heart to send those little ones back onto the streets hungry."

"What can I do?"

"Tala, you always know what to do. You know know how to pull strings. You've got to see Julie. She knows a lot more than I do about it. I just don't know if I can take another shift like the one today. I'm not a bad person for turning hungry people away, am I."

"You're a good person, Isadora. Just think about all of the kids that you did feed today. I'll go over and talk to Julie."

"Thank you, Tala. Bless you. Everybody else talks, but you get things done. I know you'll figure out something." 

"I'll talk to Julie. After that, who knows. I'll do what I can do."

"I know you will." Isadora hugged her and darted up the school's steps.

"Come on, Chet. Let's go see Julie. It sounds to me like the government's screwing us up again."

The sun was warm overhead, but not hot. Just another pretty summer day. It was perfect walking weather. 

They soon reached Market Street. Slender new metallic highrises sprouted up among the vintage wood and brick buildings. Thousands of new middle class office workers and residents had moved into the area in the past decade.

Sleek chariots replaced the ancient MUNI trollies of Tala's childhood. Only chariots had the capacity to handle the number of passengers who now used the Market line. Still, she missed the friendly old orange trolly cars.

She picked Chet up and carried him across Market. Three streets met here, and she didn't know if the young dog was ready for that kind of stress. She held him even after they were safely on the other side.

Tala walked up to a large concrete building near the corner. "This is the kitchen, Chet." 

The Castro Kitchen was a food cooperative and restaurant. It supplied meals and snacks to the homeless. It was also a haven for many middle class people who would be homeless if they had to spend their rent money on food. Anybody who was hungry was welcome. In exchange, patrons were asked to donate time, services or food vouchers.

The former retail store was in the heart of the gay community that had thrived there for the best part of a century. There had always been a healthy mix of gays and straights to give the neighborhood a balance. Few people outside The City understood the area's gestalt. There was a true sense of community here.

Financial times were tough, but the neighborhood pulled together to operate the cooperative kitchen. Unlike similar efforts in other places, the Castro Kitchen never had volunteer shortages or lapses in service.

The government's universal foodcare program supposedly provided the basics. Local merchants and residents made up shortfalls, and added a few luxuries when they could. The food was always wholesome, varied, nutritious and, most important, filling.

Tala carried Chet around to the rear. They went in through the open door of the office.

Julie greeted them. She was the young volunteer who juggled the supplies to create a nutritionally balanced menu. Julie was just over six feet tall, with a wholesome Midwestern appearance, short blond hair and a perpetual look of wonder in her eyes. Her paid job was as a nutritionist at St. Francis Hospital.

"Hey Tala, good to see you. Who's your friend?"

"Julie, this is my new lover, Chet. Is it okay to have him in here?"

"A sweetheart like Chet is always welcome in this office. Just so he knows he has to stay out of the kitchen. You here for lunch or what?"

"I came to see you. I just talked to Isadora and wanted to find out how the supplies are holding out down here. Do you need anything?"

"Tala, we need everything. The government never sends enough of anything...except those goddamned canned chickens. I could build myself a house from surplus canned chickens if the tins didn't leak.

This week's shipments didn't arrive and neither did last week's. We're turning away people for the first time anybody can remember. I don't know what to do. Nobody's getting proper nutrition, and now people are leaving here hungry. I'm sure somebody's stealing our food and selling it on the black market. It's really, really wrong."

"I think I know how to get that food coming in again, and I need to talk to you about it. Is now a good time?"

"Sure. I pulled the breakfast shift today. I'm's time for my lunch. Have you eaten yet?"

"No. I wanted to talk to you before the rush. Tala reached into her backpack and produced a small package. "If you can scavenge a little bread, I've got some RealMeat."

"What are you doing wandering around with this stuff on your person?" 

"A rich uncle left it to me in his will."

"Hang on a second. I'll be right back." Julie slipped into the kitchen. 

She immediately returned with a plate of bread, a small slab of cheese, two glasses and a pitcher. "Help yourself. With a bit of French bread, we've got a main course. And there's something not entirely unlike orange juice to clear the palate."

Chet's big, sad eyes pleaded for his rightful share of whatever they were having. Tala offered him another grayish slab of food instead. It didn't have a smell, but he gobbled it anyway.

Julie absently scratched Chet's floppy spaniel ears. 

He quickly decided that Julie was a wonderful human being.

Tala outlined an idea as they ate. "It sounds like we've got to find some food for this kitchen like yesterday, or else a lot of people will go hungry."

"It's not just a matter of hunger. About the only thing we have plenty of is wheat and rice flour. There's no nutritional balance."

"Let me know what you need, and I'll have a few words with the appropriate people."

"So what do you have in mind? Did your rich uncle leave you a food warehouse by any chance?" 

"Maybe. If a few trucks roll in here with undocumented food, would you turn it away to avoid trouble?"

Julie thought for a moment. "Tala, I think we've already got about the worst trouble a kitchen can food. If a few trucks rolled in here with undocumented food, I'd assume it was the stuff they were supposed to deliver last week. I'd just use the documentation we already have. Nobody's that fussy about how food gets here, just as long as it gets here."

"Then let me download the shipping lists into my cellchip. I'll try to match them with a donation I'm expecting shortly."

Julie fished an optical storage card out of an apron pocket and gave it to Tala. "This is a list of missing deliveries for the past month. Anything you can get will help. The stuff in boldface is especially critical."

Tala swept her scanner over the card. Her cellchip acknowledged completion with a beep. "I'll try to get everything on the list. Let's assume your deliveries are lost, and that I just happen to know where to look."

"I can make that assumption. Don't worry if you can't get it all. We're lucky to get two-thirds of what the government promises us in a normal week. If it weren't for private donations, this kitchen would have closed a long time ago."

The last crumbs of bread disappeared with the final scraps of cheese and RealMeat. They shared the remaining drops of orange juice wannabe in sand-blasted glasses.

"Thanks for breakfast, hon," Tala said as she arranged her backpack. "Expect a delivery before breakfast tomorrow. I've gotta run now...there's a room full of students expecting me. Remember to make room in the pantry."

"Room is the only thing we're not short of. Be careful, just in case that rich uncle's not quite dead yet."

"We'll both be careful, won't we boy?"

Chet wagged his tail as he licked the last crumbs of breakfast from his face. He followed his mama out onto the sidewalk.

Tala turned and waved at Julie through the barred window.  

They got back to the school with minutes to spare. Fifteen students hurried in and prepared to study. Most of them had been at their public school classes all morning. They had to return when they finished here. The public schools were happy to give students credit for their classes at Harvey Milk.

Even though Harvey Milk lacked government funding, teachers and students had a strong bond and lots of enthusiasm. When equipment and supplies weren't available, they improvised.

Tala wasn't intimidated just because the job was impossible. She created her own teaching simulations that surpassed those of university courses.

Her students used VR glasses and learned under her personal care. Her classes had use of the enhanced facilities in the school's VR projection room once a week.

Only a couple of students owned their own VR interface. The rest of the class had to rely on a small pool of donated glasses and goggles. There were enough for a classroom, but never enough for every pupil. The equipment shortage made homework impossible. Tala and her students were forever frustrated by the lack of outside study time.

She knew her students were brighter than most, so she encouraged them to create solutions to the shortage of at-home terminals. "We have plenty of simware available, and I'd be happy to put it onto a private node for every student in this class, but then what?"

"I'd start using it tonight, Tala."

"That works for you, Bang, and for Robbi, but you're the only ones with your own interfaces. Everyone else has to share theirs with the rest of the students in this school."

"I've come up with the perfect answer." It was Lionel, Tala's most brilliant and conceited student. "We can use the pubterms. Everybody in here has access to at least one of them."

His nemesis, Candace, fired back imperiously. "And how do we convince everybody at a pubterm to watch us do our homework instead of the tackle roller hockey games?"

"We just take it over."

"Haven't you been beaten up enough this week, Lie?"

"Anything worth doing is worth suffering for."

Mae gave voice to an idea. "How many of us are within walking distance of the Macy's Mall?"

Every hand went up.

"The video store closes at six every night for security reasons. By seven, that part of the mall's pretty deserted. If a few of us gathered around the pubterm there, we could decide what to watch. And that's a true VR system, not a holotank."

Tala was curious. "How many people can it handle at once?"

"I've seen ten in there during the playoffs." It was Su, a thirtyish Asian woman who took the class despite a seventy hour work week in her father's store.

"How many of us would be willing to spend two hours at this term at least two nights a week?"

Every hand went up again, much more eagerly than the first time.

Tala smiled with satisfaction. "Everybody who can arrange it, let's meet there tonight at seven o'clock for a trial run. It's short notice for many of you, I know. If you can't all make it, that's alright. There's not enough room for everybody at once. If it's feasible, we'll work out a homework schedule around it."

There was an air of excitement in the class for the rest of the session's two hours.

After class, Tala loaded a few selections into a new file. She encoded it for access by her class list, then placed its icon on her public website.

She finished preparations for her homework experiment, then outlined the next day's class assignment. The net was ready, the students were ready, and with luck, the mall's pubterm was ready. It was just past six o'clock when she finished. Still too early to head for the mall.

She remembered Dirk's invitation to watch the Inaugural Banquet. The big projector in the lecture hall wasn't in use. She indulged herself with the luxury of a top quality visit to the net. It was easy to convince Chet to sit down beside her.

The commercial net icons always came up first. She went right to the Net News Network without missing a beat. 3N was already online from a glitzy hotel ballroom in DC.

The huge room was dimly lit, except for the area around the head table. There were hundreds of well dressed plump old people. They sat at round tables that were covered by purple linen tablecloths.

Chet cozied closer to Mama for a good ear scratching. He saw lots of food on the tables, and was unhappy that it had no smell.

"This marks the official start of President General Peter Cadman's third term of office." Tala tolerated the 3N commentator's voice only because she didn't know most of the faces at the head table.

She moved her point of view until she was a few feet from Cadman's rounded pink face. 

"The President General was reelected with the narrowest margin of victory since the formation of the Naftan Alliance. You wouldn't know it though, not from the carnival atmosphere in this room tonight. Seated near the President General are his top cabinet advisors. On his near right is...oh, excuse me...Ladies and Gentlemen, the President General is rising to address this Inaugural gathering."

Tala watched from her intimate vantage point. Another 50 million people stood in the same spot in their VR projectors. The beauty of VR is that nobody yells, "Hey, you in front, get down."

The bullet-headed old politician stood and cleared his throat. He reached down to his hip. Instead of notes, he lurched and came up with the military issue energy pistol he always carried.

A look of terror spread across his porky face. He pointed the weapon to his right. Even as he screamed, "Look out, I can't stop it," a red-orange bolt ripped deep diagonal trenches through the four closest people. They flopped in half like beef carcasses fresh from the killing floor.

Not yet satisfied, the blaster turned left and burned the trio nearest to Cadman, even as they dove under the head table. Two were decapitated while the third exploded from the instant expansion of superheated bodily fluids.

The weapon dropped from Cadman's hand as he dumbly stared at the disemboweled corpses of his cabinet. He'd literally cut seven people down in the length of two heartbeats.

"Oh my dear God, what happened? How could this happen?"

Four Special Service agents slipped in around the President General before he'd finished his anguished mutterings. The blaster immediately disappeared. It was never again accounted for on the face of the earth.

Cadman's quick-thinking press secretary grabbed the podium mike. "Ladies and Gentlemen, remain calm. There are reports of snipers right outside the ballroom. Security will protect you from them if you just stay in your seats."

Many gray old men reparked their fat butts next to their wives and mistresses. Nobody wanted to be the next victim of whatever was going on. Calm was restored long enough for the the Special Service to launch their next operation.

The President General's four shadows rushed him out of the hall. He was hustled into his limo in 47 seconds.

The 3N commentator was silent through the debacle. She checked with her producer before proceeding. She didn't want to make any statements that might put her back in small town radio for the rest of her career.

A new voice came over the net. It was Cadman's press secretary again. "Ladies and Gentlemen, President General Peter Cadman has left the building, protected by his Special Service bodyguards. There was some kind of a disturbance here. One or more members of President General Cadman's cabinet were apparently injured. The President General himself is safe. Stay tuned to the Network News Network for complete, in depth coverage." The view of the inaugural dinner dissolved into the 3N logo.

The 3N logo then dissolved to a serious-looking but informally-dressed man sporting suspenders. "Caller from Pocatello, Idaho, go ahead."

Tala sat stunned in the projector. She'd just seen the President General gun down most of his cabinet in front of a national VR audience.

Seven men and women were obviously dead at Cadman's hands. Nobody survives being sawed in half by an energy weapon. 

"You son of a gun, Dirk. I'm impressed. A coup d'etat by remote control...where were you anyway?" 

She replayed the scene from the buffer. Something made her suspect that recordings of Cadman's butchering spree wouldn't get much network play until they'd been toasterized for family viewing.

In order to have an 'unimproved' record of the historic event, she made a copy of the buffer. Then she stripped the ID code and put the copy into a private drawer off network. The net would try to recover all copies of the incident from buffers, so she left her original as the decoy for just such a search.

Her backup precautions complete, she turned her attention to a search of the Inaugural crowd. No matter what point of view she took, Dirk wasn't to be found. She moved to every visible spot in the room, but found no sign of the man who'd bought her nadget that morning.

"I give up!"

The terminal reminded Tala that she had an appointment at the mall in 25 minutes. She powered down the big projector and headed downstairs. Chet trailed her out of the school in the wonderful big house.

It was a short trip to the mall. Chet's feet slipped a little as he walked on the tiled floors. Everything smelled new and exciting.

It reminded him of his time with the other people before Tala. They'd never shown him much affection, but they dutifully took him to the mall twice a week. While this satisfied his need to explore, the people ignored him and kept themselves busy shopping. Chet got to sniff everything he chose to sniff. It was a lonely version of doggie heaven.

Tala walked slowly and patiently. She knew her anthropup would need lots of time for olfactory exploration. 

When they rounded the corner near the VR equipment store, Chet had explored the four winds and seven seas of mass merchandise.

The walkway near the VR shop was as dull as Tala remembered it. At closing time, the giant display window disappeared behind a solid steel shutter.

However, the pubterm was a different matter. Most pubterms were holotanks that measured two to six feet tall. The screens were twice as wide as their height. Everything was in 3D, but the viewer was outside the window instead of in the center of the action.

This terminal was better. It was a multi-user VR projector. A ten foot diameter hood was suspended over the floor. Its lowest edge gave seven feet of clearance from floor level. The hood's center swept up five and one half feet from the edge to form a dome.

The outside of the dome sported four foot by eight foot holotanks on four sides. Each showed outsiders what was playing under the dome. 'See HOVER VR Here' flashed from the top through laser projectors.

The VR projector was protected by an archipelago of padded benches. The area was indirectly lit. Stray outside light couldn't get in to detract from the breathtaking view.

The floor under the dome was a ten foot wide transparent polycarbonate disk. The lower disk was flush with the floor and ruggedized for heavy foot traffic. A person who stood under the dome could watch programs in full VR resolution. Few home units could match the realism of this pubterm.

It was nothing compared to the pubterm cafes of Shanghai, or even Times Square. But, it certainly demonstrated what good VR could look like. It had lured many a creditworthy customer into the store for one of their own.

The network's public terminal underwriting funds only covered a fraction of the cost. Signs on the unit's dome bragged that it was underwritten by the nearby VR shop. The mall itself had also tossed a few Ameros into the pot.

Local underwriting gave the VR shop the right to insert its own commercials into anything viewed on this terminal. Tala wasn't sure if the investment paid for itself. She was sure that she'd completely eliminated the commercials with a few commands on her cellchip. She wanted her students to have uninterrupted homework time.

To make up for a wholesale hijacking of the pubterm every night, Tala added a free commercial break for the store every hour throughout the rest of the day. The net's ad people would have screamed. Tala didn't plan to tell them, and she suspected the video store owners wouldn't find the time to report it either.

It was a few minutes until homework time, but several students had already taken over the terminal. Law and custom dictated that public votes ruled public terminals. The majority watched what it wanted. If you didn't like what was on, you went to another terminal.

Lionel shouted at Tala, "Did you hear? The PG went mental and shot the cabinet! Lots of blood and stuff. Dead bodies everywhere."

Tala nodded.

"Yeah, but now they won't even show an instant replay. Roller hockey's better. If somebody gets hurt, they show you again and again," Ed noted.

"The gore was okay, but Psycho Butcher does it better," Miguel observed.

"How does everybody feel about this? Should we postpone the homework?" She remembered stories of school children sent home in tears when President Clooney had been assassinated.

"Heck no, Tala. Our class is important."

"Yeah, who cares if some dumb politicians get burned?"

"Besides, the President General's not hurt...he was the trigger man."

She didn't see tears on any of her students faces, but Tala made one last attempt at propriety. "Anybody who doesn't feel we should continue tonight, raise your hand."

All hands remained firmly in pockets.

"Alright team, let's get organized then. We'll do this in two shifts. To be democratic, let's go alphabetically, starting with Z and working back to A."

 Everyone took their places. At precisely 1900 hours, Tala entered the network selection menu and switched off "Nafta's Most Wanted Funny Home Videos". Eight students crowded into the projection area with Tala. Seven others stuck their faces in from the edge.

She navigated through the net to Once inside, she moved to the special node that friends at the university had donated to the Harvey Milk Community School. In the upper left front corner of the school's public field, away from everything else, was a tiny hovering dot.

"This is our icon, class. It's not really a secret, but I doubt that anybody's going to notice it unless they know it's there. She zeroed in and selected it. The dot zoomed larger until the details of a nanite device became clear. The icon grew until it filled the field of view. Instead of stopping, it got bigger.

Tiny details became visible, then loomed enormous. The zoom didn't stop until an operating nanomotor filled the field of view. Every piece was shown, down to the quark level.

"Totally 3D, Tala."

"Thank you, Whitney. Everybody saw how we accessed that icon, right?" She checked the crowd and saw no blank faces. "Many of you have never remote-accessed the network before. We're changing that right now."

"My daddy says you can't go on the network unless you have a 'scription." It was Maria, the class's youngest student. 

"Your daddy's right. Most of the net that's worth visiting is only open to paid members. However, some schools and universities sponsor public nodes. That means the school pays the expense of the link, so students and the public can learn online. Nobody publishes a very good directory of these nodes, so people don't know many of them exist."

Bang stuck his hand up and asked, "So what if you've got your own term? Can I access my homework without coming to the mall?"

"Sure, and so can Robbi. That goes for the rest of you, if you can get your hands on a terminal. Let me know beforehand and I'll give you a keyword for this file. Now let's get busy."

Tala showed her mob how to access their individual homework files. When she'd done it once, she had the groups change places. She let the students navigate to the portal. None had any problems with the new venue.

"Now that you all know how it works, I want to see some homework getting done."

Chet had watched the group carry on, but saw no canine benefit in homework. Tala scratched his back, right at the tail end of his spine. Now that's what made homework worth Chet's time. Chet wagged his approval.

When Tala headed home, a good feeling expanded her soul like a hot air balloon. "You've really been patient tonight, Chet. Good boy!"

His tail wagged so hard that his butt swayed as he walked across the mall. There was only one thing could please him more.

"Let's go find some food, what do ya say?"

Chet was as happy as he could get without loss of bladder control. He let loose an enthusiastic and guttural woof.

"Shhh! Act your age, sweetheart." 

The Walnut Farms sign caught Tala's eye long after its merchandise had snagged Chet's nose. The store catered to people with a taste for special food treats and special food rations. Meats, cheeses and unusual foods lined the shelves.

Normally, Tala couldn't have afforded such luxury. The ongoing famine made the prices frighteningly high. Even if she'd had the money, she didn't have a special food ration that allowed her to shop there.

The creditwand Dirk had given her to pay for the nadget needed to be checked out though. The Cadman incident made her balk, but she remembered how carefully Dirk's projects were always carried out. She decided it was safe to use the creditwand.

Chet watched his mama talk to the store people. He was outside, they were inside. Unfair, but not unusual. The blab finally got around to something important...what would Chet like?

The store lady who smelled like good cheese held up several things for his approval. He approved them all, which seemed to amuse her. Each was carefully wrapped and added to the things his mama had already chosen.

The other lady, who smelled like smoked salmon said, "Tally," to the store's term, then spoke to Tala. "That's a wonderful dog you have, miss. You're so lucky!"

"I really am. He's a sweetheart too." She pulled out the creditwand and slid it across the store terminal's optical scanner.

The store terminal beeped and burped, then spoke. "Please enter your ID string."

Tala held her remote responder against the optical scanner. She pulled her cellchip up to her face and whispered, "Chowdown pool." A laser flash sent her data to the store term.

The store terminal burped again as its laser flashed a copy of the transaction to her cellchip's responder. A growling disk jockey voice barfed, "Thank you for shopping at Walnut Farms. Have a nice day."

Tala winced. "Where'd you get the voice?"

The good cheese lady blushed. "It's the manager. He thinks he's a VJ but nobody will pay to access his node."

"My sympathies to both of you." Tala smiled and walked out of the store. "Come on Chester, Mama's got the goodies. Let's go."

Chet and Tala feasted on exotic cheese and smoked meats that night. Their tiny concrete room had never hosted such fare before.

Chet was satisfied. Tala wasn't.

The luxury of her small excess haunted the young woman's streeter ethic. She felt guilty about her good luck and decided to dull her mind with a little net news.

She watched NNN for awhile, expecting some explanation of why the President General had gone on a killing spree. Surprisingly, there was no mention of the murders or of the Inaugural Dinner. She surfed the other news and business subnets, but didn't turn up anything on the massacre.

She loosed a demon on the network. It had instructions to find anything about Peter Cadman or the Inaugural Banquet from 1800 hours or later. The only thing that came back was the original broadcast she'd saved in her personal files. There wasn't even any VR coverage of the Inaugural on the net. The nets always had VR coverage of pompous government events.

Obviously, the spin doctors had their hands full. Somehow, 50 million people had to be convinced that they hadn't seen the President General gun down his cabinet in cold blood, even though that's exactly what they had seen.

She turned her terminal off and spoke to her new friend instead. "You know, Chet, maybe you should run for President General. You've got the looks, and goddess knows you're smart enough."

Chet wagged his docked tail and continued to chew his new smoked rawhide toy.

Tala's anger and guilt made for a fitful sleep that night. For hours, she flipped in her sleepsack like a landed trout. It was more like a workout than a rest.

Her alarm was still asleep when she got up. She activated her cellchip, booted up a special identity and got onto the network. She steered away from the commercial subnets, and into a special Nafta government supply area.

With the deft aid of her favorite demon, SKELETON KEY, she slipped through security rings and picked file locks much faster than they normally opened for their authorized users. One of SKELETON KEY's strengths was that it got smarter every time it broke a new kind of encryption or file lock. Tala liked to design tools that improved with use.

Because Nafta's files were second in size only to the corporation itself, it took a while just to navigate to the appropriate file area. She eventually made it into the Universal Foodcare drawer.

Hundreds of identical icons made it necessary to use alphanumeric file names. Letters and numbers took longer to comprehend than a hologram, but they reduced confusion about a drawer's function.

Tala found her way into the shipping reports and zeroed in on the Castro Kitchen. It was quickly apparent that the missing food had indeed been diverted, right into a restaurant supply company. Her demon easily uncovered the company's ownership. It was a publicly traded corporation headed by Peter Cadman and several freshly dead cabinet members.

"You bunch of filthy bastards. I hope it hurt a lot when you were hacked up at dinner last night."

Tala lost all fear in her anger. She rerouted every food shipment in the city back to its rightful owner. When she was done, several dodgier restaurants no longer had any food coming in at all.

Already sure of the result, she checked anyway. The only restaurants that relied solely on redirected food from the free kitchens were owned by one company. It was the same holding company that owned Cadman's restaurant supply outfit.

It took hours to untangle the misdirection and embezzlement on the books. When she was done, every free kitchen in Northern California was once again scheduled to get its rightful deliveries.

Tala was so excited that she was talking to herself. "A lot of corp pigs and their sows are going to find their favorite restaurants closed for awhile. Such a sad, sad thing."

She worked her way back off the net. She checked the time, hoping to catch a nap before she had to get up again. 

No such luck. It was five-thirty, so she wearily rousted her new ward. "Come on, wake up Chet. It's time for you and Mama to go to work."

Chet grunted as he lifted himself up onto all fours. 

"You get to go someplace new today. You'll like it. Lots of people are going to love you."

He really didn't care if a lot of people loved him, just as long as Mama loved him. If she was going somewhere, he wanted to go with her.

She sent Chet up to Virgil's door for his morning duties. They were both ready for the day when she heard his "let me in" squeak.

She packed all of her portable belongings into her pack and hefted it onto her back. 

"You were really a good traveler yesterday, boy. I don't think you need a leash anymore. You have your freedom, unless we're in a place that enforces dumb rules about dogs and leashes and such."

He wagged his tail in agreement. He didn't like a rope on his collar. It impacted his lifestyle. 

"Come on, boy, let's go." A quick check of the snooper and she was into the hall. 

Chet was out behind her in doggie time. She slid the lid shut and secured the lock.

They emerged from the tunnel into the foggy dawn air. She chased Chet up the sidewalk, he bounded back and circled her. 

He got down, front legs spread flat in front, head low and rump high, barking playfully. 

Tala got down and faced him. She put her arms out in front, held her head low, and barked right back.

The pair cavorted like a pair of pups until somebody shouted, "Knock it off over there! Some of us are trying to sleep."

Her face reddened, "Oops, I'm sorry. I forgot how early it was. Go back to sleep."

"I plan to when you pipe down!"

Chet wasn't embarrassed, and he barked again.

"Shhh! Quiet, love. Let people get their sleep."

He really hated to stop having fun, but Chet understood his Mama's request. What he didn't understand was why so many grouchy people lived on the streets. Why didn't they get a house like his old family had? He tried to figure people out, but they were just too illogical.

As they walked, Tala noticed things in the day's first light. She'd say, "Look at that, Chet." 

Whenever she pointed, he'd look right at her finger, but it wasn't doing anything interesting. Sometimes when she was waving her finger, he'd notice something happening way past the end of the finger. Mama was really a confused lady.

Chet started to recognize the neighborhood, but that didn't keep him from darting about, exploring. He found dozens of amazing smells on every block. He wanted to alert Tala so she could share the moment with him. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to be in touch with her olfactory sense.

He was also hampered by the fact that she usually misinterpreted his barks, tail wags and leaps. He slowly realized that his mama needed to improve her communication skills.

The sun was busy burning off the yellow fog when they reached the Castro Kitchen. 

Julie was just entering the office when she greeted her guests. "Hi, Tala. How's your rich uncle this morning?"

"He's still dead, and he took several friends with him. There's going to be a huge wake. I hope you've got lots of volunteers to unload the trucks."

"Excuse me? What do you mean, trucks? We get one partly loaded truck, three days a week when we're lucky."

"Today, you'll get three trucks. The first one will be here in a few minutes. Look for the second one at nine, and the last one at 1400. I didn't want to interrupt mealtime, but the first load couldn't make it any earlier than the start of breakfast."

Julie's normal look of wonder had turned to amazement. "How did you do it?"

"Let's just say my rich uncle wanted to make amends for the evil he'd done in his lifetime."

"Will I have to prepare a good cover story?"

"Nope, every scrap of food that's coming was supposed to be delivered here sometime in the past. Admittedly, some if should have arrived in the distant past. But still, it's all legal."

"That's great, Tala. I'll ration it so we can make it last a few more weeks."

Tala looked surprised. "No, you don't understand. You'll get the actual allotment from now on. Everything on the manifest, plus a lot of stuff that used to disappear in the network before you ever knew about it."

"I hope you're right, but the fact is, this place hasn't gotten more than two-thirds of its allotment any time in the past ten years. What changed?"

"Let's just say the wicked witch is dead and leave it at that."

"Cadman? Do you mean Cadman's the one who's been stealing our food?"

"Afraid so, dear. I hope it doesn't shake your faith in our government. The missing food is the very best stuff. The fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, you name it. It ended up at several rather nice restaurants instead of here."

"How much of the premium stuff are we talking about?"

"Well, it won't turn the Castro Kitchen into a five star restaurant, but you'll find it a whole lot easier to offer a balanced menu."

The deep growl of a truck engine approached.

"Showtime, Julie. I'm here to unload, but I'll need help. This driver's got a schedule to meet as always."

"Tell you what, Tala. You get some volunteers from out front. Just tell them what they can have for breakfast if they're willing to unload it from the truck. You may have to get Chet to scare off the excess."

Julie was right. Tala chose the six strongest looking, cleanest smelling volunteers and led them to the loading bay. She promised the ones she didn't choose that they'd also be allowed to pig out when the larder was replenished.

"Oh, Tala, we need you over here." Julie was having trouble with the truck driver. "He says he thinks there's a mistake."

Tala thought to grab an official-looking clipboard from the wall before she joined the pair at the truck's brown cab. "So, what seems to be the problem then?"

Julie introduced the driver. "Tala, this is Warren, he's in charge of the shipment. Warren, can you explain what your concern is. I'll go supervise the crew." She quickly disappeared into the kitchen's warehouse.

"Yeah, lady. My concern is that this isn't the normal order that comes to a free kitchen."

"Excuse me, but exactly what do you mean by normal. Do you have items here that aren't on the manifest?"

"No, nothin' like that. It's just that a lot of the stuff on the manifest never goes on the truck."

"Do you mean you've never seen some of these items?"

"No, I seen 'em alright. They're just not for the free kitchens, that's all."

"Are you saying that some items that are supposed to be shipped here go somewhere else instead?"

"Yeah...No! I just mean that there's stuff in here that you ain't suppose to get."

"Are you trying to say that somebody's pilfering food? Somebody in the corp warehouse maybe, or even some of the drivers?"

"Look, lady. None of us workin' Jays swipes this stuff. They're watchin' us every second. It ain't us drivers that's stealin' your stinkin' food."

"I know it's not. We both know who's doing it, and we both know there'll be a few changes."

"Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't seem to matter who's in charge, they're always stealin' it from us."

"You're probably right, but for now, let's just consider how we can make sure that the little guys get taken care of."

"Whadda ya mean?"

"What I mean is this. Your way bills match our shipping list, right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"So, what you've got on this truck matches what this place is supposed to get, right?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess, but somethin's not right."

"So what's in it for you to not deliver what's on this truck?"

"Well, if I don't deliver what's on this truck, I gotta do a bunch of explainin' and spend time filin' reports."

"So there's absolutely no benefit to you to screw us, right?"

"I'm not screwin' anybody. It's just that I've been at this job long enough to know what's what."

Tala was behind on points, so she tried a new tactic. "So I take it they watch you pretty closely then. You couldn't even grab a bag of flour out of the back, not even if your wife and kids were going hungry, correct?"

"You got that right! If a grape falls on the ground and I eat it, somebody would haul my butt up on charges."

"So what if you were made an official member of our food coop? You could swap your services for premium rations. I happen to know that we've got some prime beef coming that hasn't been spoken for. You could bring the wife and kids over here to the staff dining room a couple times a week for a little luau. How does that sound?"

"What's in it for you?"

"Let's just say that friends help each other out, Warren. The government approves our weekly list of food. You could help us make sure that it gets here where it belongs, instead of going astray due to clerical errors."

It was apparent that Warren was a man who understood his duty. "Uhh, I like the idea of me helping get the shipments out without no goofs. As long as the manifest matches the shipping order, you got a deal. The wife's name is Grace and we got five kids. You sign me up for membership and we'll see ya' here tonight."

Tala smiled down to her soul. "Great, I'm looking forward to meeting them all. Now let's get the paperwork reconciled and get you back on the road."

By the end of the day, the warehouse bulged and creaked with booty. Word got out in the neighborhood. That night's crowds were the biggest in recent memory. They all enjoyed the finest meal they'd seen in weeks.

Quite a few well dressed couples showed up too, grumbling about how their favorite restaurants were closed. They were allowed to make cash contributions to the kitchen, in lieu of volunteering time or services.

After the dinner rush, the staff dining room was beyond capacity too. Three truck drivers and their families enjoyed perfect, tender beef steaks. Tala led the crowd in a toast to the health of the President General Designate, Ted Swanson.