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

 Chapter 4 - BREAK AWAY


Stacy sweetly summoned her human. "Richard, it's your important call."

"Okay, thanks. Put him online."

The image in Mallory's VR projector dissolved into a picture of the new President General, Ted Swanson.

"Richard, my boy. I haven't seen you milling about the senate the last couple of weeks. I trust you're well."

"I'm fine, Ted. Thanks for asking. Congratulations on the new job, Mr. President General. You deserve it."

"It's not like they had much choice. It's in the Articles after all. Still, I thank you. I hope I can count on your ongoing support."

"As long as you're right, I'm on your side, Ted."

"I'm always right, Richard. It's just that you don't always see it. Anyway, today's the day I promised to call and hear you say yes. How about it?"

"I've spent every waking minute in this VR projector for two weeks. One thing's for sure; the entire Ishtar Terra Program stinks from bottom to top.

Crooked government employees cut kickback deals with dishonest contractors. Unqualified workers built shoddily designed equipment from substandard material. Then, non-functioning systems passed inspection to be shipped in unprotected containers on ships that didn't meet safety standards. Whatever didn't disappear enroute to Venus was installed haphazardly by inexperienced crews without expert supervision. Hell, entire compounds were paid for but never constructed."

"I told you there was a bit of a down side to the whole thing, didn't I?"

Richard couldn't help but smile. "The only thing that wasn't a problem was pilferage. The black marketeers were so well aware of how lousy the equipment was that they wouldn't steal it on a bet."

"But how on earth did they make the kind of progress they made, then?"

"Sheer guts and determination on the part of a small core of talented people. There were about a dozen specialists on Venus at the peak of the terraforming venture. They automated every function and made it work."

"What happened then? The place has gone to Hell."

"Well, Ted, as near as I can figure, they burned out. One by one, they retired, transferred or died. Their replacements came from the same bunch of idiots who manned the rest of the project. As competence levels dropped, the project went on the rocks.

Every year that generated a negative report resulted in reduced funding. Early this year, the remainder of the surface team admitted defeat and cleared out. There was barely enough project money to hire a ship to bring them home."

Swanson pulled out a pipe and fiddled around lighting it. It gave him a chance to think while looking dignified. "It sounds like you're near the heart of it then. What's your verdict? Can the project be saved, and are you the person to do it?"

"Ted, if you can push a one billion Amero annual budget through the senate, I think we can save the investment. New technology can update the obsolete systems already in place on Venus, and I know how to find the brainpower to put it together. With a hand-picked team of about a dozen people, Venus could be ready for the first colonists within two years, with any luck at all."

"That's my boy, Richard. You have no idea how happy you'll make this old soldier. I'd like to work closely with you on this, but my new duties have really reduced the amount of time I can devote to the space program."

You've got my full support in the senate, Chief. What's more, I'll be happy to twist a few arms on our behalf. I think we can push a real space spending package through this time, now that there's support from the PG's office."

"Keep talking like that and I'll adopt you, son. How soon can you get underway?"

Richard scratched his head. "From the look of the planetary data you gave me, I don't want to waste a single day. I'd like to be at Maxwell Base within six weeks. I think I can pull the team together and get the equipment and supplies we'll need by then."

"You've got the job, Richard. Get your machine to send me a report that I can give to my aides. The space budget will be the first item when I reconvene the senate next week."

"You don't waste time, Ted. Send me a list of senators we need on our side, and I'll get busy."

"It's in your file already, Richard. You have carte blanche to recruit whoever you need in whatever manner you find expedient. There's an open executive account for your expenses. When we get a new space budget, you'll have the authority to pay for all the hardware too."

You're putting a lot of faith in just one man, Ted."

"By Bob, I know you can do it, Richard. You don't know how happy you'll make me to be the President General who put human colonies on another planet, and beyond."

"Actually, I think I do. I can't guarantee success, but you will have the best effort Nafta can put forth."

"If it doesn't work, we'll all see interesting times that made the collapse of the Roman Empire look like a Baptist picnic. But I don't have time to talk about the negative. I'm  betting on your success. Good luck, Richard."

"My pleasure. By the way, I guess you missed my message from the day we met realface. I was jumped by two Special Service goons in front of my condo. They weren't yours, they were Cadman's."

Swanson seemed concerned. "This is the first I've heard about it. Did they give you a bad time?"

"I'm fine, but I can't figure out what they wanted."

The new President General leaned forward toward the scanner. "Son, Cadman was a paranoid old bugger. He thought there was some kind of conspiracy against him, so he started to investigate anybody who had dealings with me. You've joined me against him on a few key fights, so he probably figured you were in on it."

"Was there a conspiracy, Ted?"

"Of course not," the old man barked. "Besides, the crazy old coot's real enemy was himself. Duty calls me, son. Let me know if you need my help with any of those undecided senators. I'll toss in a few million extra Ameros for space projects in their regions, if necessary."

Swanson's image dissolved from the projector, replaced by the file Mallory was working on when the PG called.

"Stacy, I need Tala Wolfe, nanotechnologist and weekend terrorist. Can you locate her?"

"I'll give it a try, my Senator."

"She worked with me at San Francisco Polytechnic. The way she can the network around her little fingers has cost several security designers their jobs."

"Tala Wolfe is apparently still in town, Richard. Corporate security is interested in her."

"Exactly how interested?"

"There's a 5000 Amero reward out for her arrest. They just doubled it two days ago. It seems she's playing Robin Hood in the Castro District, but nobody can find her."

"If I know Tala, she probably has the network looking for Gertrude Stein in her place. Of all the people I need on this mission, she's numero uno. If I can get her, I won't need three or four programmers and security experts to break into the systems on Venus. Not only that, she'd be able to replicate any system up there."

 "Oh, oh. Bad news bulletin from the datastream, my hero. Two corp security detectives picked up Tala Wolfe an hour ago. They have her at the Market Street police station."

"Has she been processed yet?"

"Not officially. The detectives refuse to do the paperwork until the reward is in their bank accounts."

"Smart boys! I've got to get over there right now. Can you cook up a diversionary tactic to buy me some time?"

"Surely, my genius. How about the criminal attorney routine? That should tie them up for an hour or so."

"Perfect, Stacy. Use the same dodge we ran when they busted Swanson's kid. Oh, and see what you can do to get my transit connections to mesh on the way up, okay?"

"Your merest whim is my command, my captain."

"Thanks, Stacy. I'll check in when I've got some news." He rushed out of his apartment without changing into regular street clothes.

The counter sergeant at the bright new Market Street Station was neither surprised nor impressed when a cowboy rushed in and took off his hat. It took a lot of different flavors to make the soup that is San Francisco. She looked him in the eyes. "May I help you, pardner?"

"I'm Senator Richard Mallory. I'm here about a prisoner you're holding."

"Senator Mallory? I've heard of you, haven't I," mused the chubby, short-haired woman in the brown uniform. "What's the prisoner's name?"

"Tala Lupa Wolfe. Naftacorp Security Detectives brought her here about two hours ago." 

She looked into her VR glasses and searched. "Hmm, it looks like she's here, but she's not officially charged yet. I can't let you see her until she's been turned over to us by the detectives."

Richard gathered all of his cowboy charm and leaned into the counter. "I'd consider it a personal favor if you could let the detectives know that Senator Mallory would like to talk to them."

The sergeant seemed to appreciate the show of protocol. She smiled and said, "No favors needed, cowpoke. I'll let Leon and Benny know you're here. Hitch yourself to that bench and hang onto the reins for a few minutes."

Richard donned his genuine Stetson and parked his Genuine Levis on the formed carbon fiber bench. He took a moment to study his surroundings.

The station house was built after the Daly City quake of 2042. It stood on the remains of an unreinforced brick apartment house where dozens had died. The new building's solid concrete walls and ceiling could withstand an 8.2 magnitude quake and a rioting mob. In fact, it could probably handle both at the same time.

Earthquakes were an ongoing concern to the authorities. Mobs hadn't attacked a San Francisco police station since the first round of food riots in the early part of the century. Municipal builders had learned from the security oversights of their predecessors, mob-proofing all government buildings.

Old fashioned cork bulletin boards dotted the white gray drabness of the concrete. Duty rosters and wanted posters hung haphazardly from pins. The paperless office was rumored to be just around the corner for all city departments. Of course, that rumor had been alive since the 1980s.

To match the designer's motif, the station's floor was concrete. It was buffed to a smooth surface, then sealed with a polymer. Years of traffic proved concrete to be tougher than the polymer. Scuffed concrete showed through the worn sealant to mark the most popular police trails.

Detective Leonard Smegman approached on one of those trails. "Senator Mallory?"

Richard stood up and removed his chapeau. "That's the name, and you must be Detective...."

"Smegman, Leon Smegman. I understand you want to talk to me about the Wolfe woman. Are you the one with the reward?"

Richard made a show of looking around the station lobby cautiously. "Better not talk here, Detective. You know what I mean."

"Say no more, Senator. Come on back to the interrogation room. You can talk to me and my partner in private."

They wordlessly retraced Leon's patch along the concrete trail. The bleak hallway was dimly lit. They passed several gray cops and sorry prisoners before they reached an unpainted metal door. A murky rainbow of stains and gobs decorated it in bas relief. Leon pushed it open and let Richard through first.

A pudgy young man and an attractive young woman were seated at a plain table, facing the door. The man wore jeans, a tee shirt and a blue sports jacket. The woman was dressed in a sensible teal jumpsuit.

Six chairs and the table completely filled the stifling room. An even smaller room was visible through a door behind them. VR scanners were affixed to each corner of both rooms at eye level.

Tala recognized Mallory, but was wily enough to let him make the first move. Her caution wasn't lost on Richard. It reinforced his memories of her cool attitude under stress.

"Senator Mallory, this is my partner, Benny Vo. The lady is our prisoner, Tala Wolfe."

Richard tipped his Stetson. "Ms. Wolfe, Detective Vo." 

Mallory turned back to Leon. "Our business is official. Is there a place you could keep the prisoner comfortable for a few minutes?"

Benny stood. "Come on, Miss Wolfe, you can have some privacy in the other room." He led her in, waited for her to be seated, then closed the door."

"It's soundproof, Senator," Leon assured him. "We can talk now."

"Gentlemen, you have done a great service to the Naftan government and I want to thank you on behalf of President General Swanson."

Benny's body language took on a proud look.

Leon snarled, "This is a tobacco-free zone, so don't try blowin' smoke up my ass, Senator. I'm sure we're glad to serve the new President General, but there's a 5000 Amero reward involved here. We need more than a thank you on this one. The feds have screwed me outa' one too many rewards for prisoners I brought in fair and square."

"I understand, Detective Smegman, and I'm authorized to transfer the funds to your account right now."

"You got my interest, Senator."

"However, I have a proposal for the two of you that I believe you'll find even more interesting."

"And that would be?" Leon was finally curious.

"First of all, may I assume that you haven't actually charged Ms. Wolfe yet?"

Leon answered, "That's true. We're holdin' her for questioning until the reward gets paid. The paperwork's done, just waitin' for Benny to hit Enter."

"In that case, the Nafta Treasury is ready to double the reward if you don't file the paperwork. Instead, you turn Ms. Wolfe directly over to me."

Benny was suspicious. "Is this on the up and up?"

Leon wasn't as concerned about the propriety of the deal as his partner. He was thinking of what he could do with his half of ten K.

"I can assure you both that it's all real. Your counter sergeant must have double checked my ID before you came to get know I'm who I claim to be."

Benny continued his questioning. "So what makes this Wolfe woman important enough to Nafta that they'd double the reward the corp is offering?"

"Detective Vo, I can't give you a lot of details on that. Consider what you know already. She is a very slippery character who seemed to know what you were doing, almost as fast as you thought of it, isn't that true?"

"You've got that right. It was almost like she was listening in on us somehow."

"Exactly. Let's just say that there are some very well placed people in Nafta security who want your prisoner to spend some time talking to them."

Benny looked concerned. "You don't mean they're going to squeeze her do you? I don't like that kind of stuff, it's not good police work."

"Shut up Benny," Leon snapped.

"It's nothing like that, I assure you. Ms. Wolfe will be given the option of sharing her unique talents with the government, or spending her sentence in a Nafta facility instead of a regional one."

Leon spoke up. "So we turn her over to you and the government instead of the corporation?"

Mallory tipped his had back and smiled. "Exactly. All legal, and you get double the reward you were expecting."

"That sounds real fair to me. We like your offer, right Benzo?"

"Yeah, I guess so, Leon. It seems kind of strange, but just as long as our prisoner is handled legally, that's what counts."

"You've gotta excuse the kid, Senator. He's still a little idealistic. Let's do the deal. You transfer Ameros from an official Nafta treasury account and I'll officially turn her over to you."

Mallory fished out his optical transponder and VR glasses. He went to his newly assigned administrative account and cleared ten kiloAmeros for transfer.

Leon noticed that the deal was being set up by cellchip and called to his partner. "Hey, Benzo, you can do the money transfer this time. You got your term?"

"Sure, Leon." He hopped up and walked over to Mallory, as he searched the pockets of his awful sports jacket. He came up with his VR glasses and put them on. As he navigated to his bank account, he found his optisponder.

"Are you ready, Detective?" Mallory held out his own optisponder.

"All set. Leon, is it okay if we put it all into my account and sort it out later? I don't have access to your account."

"Good thinkin' Benzo. I've got no problem with that. Besides, I know where you sleep."

Benny held his interface near Mallory's. A laser strobe flash marked the money transfer. Both cellchips beeped their approval.

Mallory smiled at the detectives. "And now, the adoption papers please, gentlemen."

Benny went to a different file and activated it. "All set, Senator."

The interfaces again met and agreed that their ones and zeroes matched. Two more simultaneous beeps meant business was complete.

"She's all yours, Senator. Come on, Benzo, let's get outa' here. We've missed half a day's work already."

"Nice meeting you, Senator. Thanks!" Benny was so excited, he nearly skipped out of the room.

Leon glared at his junior partner. "C'mon kid, let's get lost before you embarrass both of us.

Richard was amazed at how easily the detectives abandoned their prisoner. At least it made his job easier.

He opened the door to the tiny room in back. "Hi, Tala, how's it going?"

"Senator Mallory, I presume?"

"Come on, you're with me. Let's get out of here and away from the police scanners."

She followed him meekly down the grim hallway. The door between her and the three men was indeed soundproof. She had only been able to make out part of the conversation through lipreading. "I take it I'm in your custody then?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Let's check you out of here. Are they holding any of your possessions?"

"Yeah, they grabbed my cellchip and a few things."

"Okay, we'll get it all on the way out. I had to bargain to spring you out of here. I have to trust you not to bolt as soon as we get out the front door."

Tala thought for a moment. Even if she planned to make a break for it, there was no good reason to reveal it to him. Even when Richard was her boss at the university labs, he had always treated her fairly. "What the heck, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Mallory. Your neck's probably on the line too, or you wouldn't have rescued me in the first place."

The counter sergeant got Richard to acknowledge receipt of the prisoner. "I don't know how you managed it, Senator. Leon Smegman just left here with a grin on his least I assume it was a grin. I've never seen him look like that before. It must have been a juicy chunk of cash."

"All I did was compliment him on his lovely smile. I guess it must have cheered him up."

"Yeah, I'm sure you did. Here's Ms. Wolfe's stuff." The round woman handed an aluminum box to Tala. "Check it out, dear. If it's okay, you can go. If not, file a claim up on the third floor."

Tala checked the contents. Everything was there except the food creditwand. She'd almost exhausted it anyway, so she approved the receipt.

"Keep an eye on her, Senator. She's slicker than a snail's snot rag."

"Thanks, Sergeant. I know how to handle this one." Then he muttered, "I hope."

Once clear of the police station, Tala pointed to a bench. "That's a good private spot to talk."

"Okay, let's use it."

Mallory waited for Tala, then seated himself an appropriate distance from her. "I know the whole thing seems pretty strange. You were just lucky to get arrested when you did."

"Pardon me, but how do you see getting arrested as good luck, pray tell?"

"Just good timing, Tala. I've just been assigned the most important mission of my life, and I want you to be my second in command."

"If I might offer a bit of constructive criticism, your bosses might find it a little eccentric to begin your recruiting drive in jail."

"Let me put you straight, lady. My bosses have given me a free hand in the matter. What's more, most of the people I want on this mission are either in jail or headed there. And as for the eccentric part, you're right...I am."

"So am I under arrest or what?"

"Technically, you've been transferred from California Regional jurisdiction to the Nafta Alliance level. I'm ready to make you a deal becuase I really need you on my team."

"What's the deal?"

"If you sign an employment contract to be my second in command for an off-planet mission, all charges against you will be dismissed. It's a two year agreement and there's no worming out. If you default, you'll have the Nafta dicks on your trail instead of the local yokels."

"Some deal! Is this one of those experimental star drive missions where nobody comes back?"

"Not exactly. I'll be right there with you the whole time.. There's some risk, but it's definitely not a suicide mission."

"So what is it?"

"Are you in or out?"

"Tell me what it is and I'll tell you if I'm in or out."

Mallory sighed. "Okay, fair enough. You've got to keep it crypted between us only."

"Fine. Just between us."

"It's the Ishtar Terra Project. The new PG has made Venus a top priority. I need a small team of the very best people to make it work. You are my first and most important choice."

"Me? But why? If you work for Swanson, you can hire the top people in the country. There must be scientists at Stanford and MIT who would kill to help finish the Ishtar project."

"Listen to me, Tala, you are one of the top people in the country."

Tala was stunned.

Mallory continued. "Most of the top people you're talking about are the ones who screwed things up in the first place. I wouldn't trust the lot of them to pee without wetting their shoes. Now you, on the other hand, were always brilliant and ethical when you were at Poly, despite your youth. Why you ever quit the university and went back to the streets is beyond me."

"Are you kidding? The only thing that mattered to SF Poly was doing research and development that the corp liked enough to keep handing out grants. Anybody with a brain of their own was considered a threat to the future of the department. It was pure evil. But since I disagreed with a lot of it, they thought I was evil."

"But you made a good living and had a brilliant future. Now you're back on the streets where you started. I don't understand how anybody could do that. I'm giving you a second chance to pick up your career and make something of yourself."

"Mallory, please don't misunderstand what I'm about to say. You're one of the few assholes in the Senate who usually stand up for the rights of the people. Your liberal guilt serves you well."

He winced as she analyzed him, but realized it was the first time she'd ever talked openly about herself to him. He let her speak uninterrupted.

"I sacrificed every free minute of my life for ten years. I busted my ass in high school to get a scholarship. I worked two jobs to get through college, keeping a 4.0 grade point average so I could earn a fellowship to get me into grad school. When it was over, I landed a good, solid job in the university's nanite research labs. It was a lifelong dream of mine and the reward was worth the sacrifice."

"Yes, I know. I was there."

"But what you don't know is that a few months after you left, the corp decided that it wanted to fund new types of research. They wanted a nice, clean way to convert street people directly into digestible protein."

"Hold it, Tala. What are you talking about?"

"NaftaCorp figured they could turn a profit by converting unwanted homeless people into food for the rest of us. They had it all laid out, and they wanted my lab to perfect the technology."

"Get off it, Tala. The whole thing would be illegal. There's no way they could have done it."

"Don't BS me, Mallory, you know're a senator. Illegal becomes legal if you just have the muscle to change the law. And even if you really don't know about it, I was there at the early planning sessions.

The corp pigs saw no problem with telling me to figure out how to kill people in a way that lets other people eat them without feeling guilty. Since corp pigs don't have souls, they couldn't understand how I could refuse to take part in the project."

"And they wouldn't take no for an answer?"

"When I refused to be associated with it in any way, they had the Poly Board censure me and revoke my certification. No university in the country could hire me and not lose their corp funding.

After my pig-headed refusal to commit atrocities against humanity, I was no longer employable in my life's work, my life's dream. I didn't have much choice but to go back to the streets and live with the rest of the world's unemployables."

"Ironically, your battle was academic anyway, Tala."

"How do you figure?"

"Well, I mean that the entire lab was destroyed in that accident and never rebuilt because of nanite contamination."

"What's so ironic about that?"

"Come on, Tala. If you'd just compromised a little, you'd still have your academic standing, and the project would never have gone ahead anyway."

"Mallory, the project did go ahead. They just moved it to a different school. From what I hear, they're already doing test runs in Salt Lake City.

Now, as for my lab being wiped out, I can assure you that it wasn't ironic."

Richard chose not to hear Tala's confession, so he moved along to more palatable topics. "One thing I know about you is that you get results. You know your way through the net better than an electron. And what I've seen you do with nanites impresses me to the point of nervousness, with or without ironic twists."

Tala was nonplussed. "So, if I sign on, is it the same deal as a prison gig, or do I get paid as if it was a job."

"It is a job. Probably the most important job since Nafta was formed. If you sign on, I'll tell you just how important it is."

"You're serious aren't you, Mallory." She gave it a few seconds of consideration. "Well, since your offer sounds marginally better than a Nafta workprison, I'll take it. But you have to let me wrap up some loose ends."

"Such as your teaching duties and your involvement with the Castro Kitchen?"

"Yeah. The kitchen won't miss me, they have plenty of volunteers. It's the school that I feel badly about. There's nobody to teach my nano class."

"Let me take care of it. I know somebody at Berkeley who can be induced to step in for you. She doesn't have your credentials, but I can funnel some corp grant money through her. That'll get your students individual terminals and access to the UC cybereducation curriculum."

"You've really kept an eye on me, haven't you."

"Actually, no. I didn't know where you were until today when they arrested you. Once I got a fix, I just sent my agent onto the net for the rest."

"Then you're aware that I have a dependent."

"What the Hell? No, I wasn't. This puts a cramp in it. I can't accept the risk of taking a child to Venus."

"Relax, Mallory. It's not a child, it's an anthropup."

"Wait a minute. You mean the dog the detectives sent to find you?"

"Yeah, one and the same. His name's Chet and he's my only family."

"Thank Bob for that. I can handle an anthropup. Who knows, he'll probably even be an asset if he's good with other people. A pet's a good morale builder on long missions away from home."

"Chet's friendlier than a five 'mero hooker, and lots cleaner. You'll love him."

"Do we have a deal then?"

"You're on, Mallory. I'll need three days to settle my accounts. Can you get my replacement aboard?"

"You've got it. I'll set it up with Berkeley today." 

He dug out his VR glasses and activated his cellchip. "If you'd be so kind as to approve the work contract, I'll release you into your own custody."

"I hope I can trust me to keep an eye on myself." She activated her own term and got her optisponder out. In a flash, she was again a corpslave.

"I've put a couple of gigs of relevant information into your public address on the net. My home address and access numbers are in there. Meet me at noon this Sunday at my place. I'll provide lunch and current details when you show up."

A similar arrangement from another single man would make Tala suspicious. However, she'd known Richard for two years at SF Poly. He'd never shown an interest in relationships with people of any sex. His consuming hobbies were research, government and piloting. He was a man who could sway the opinions of millions, yet he was uncomfortable with intimacy.

"May I walk you anywhere, Tala?"

"Thank you, but this is my neighborhood. I'm safer here than you are."

"Then can you walk me anywhere?"

She sensed that he hadn't quite finished his business with her. "Where are you headed?"

"Just as far as the BART Peninsula Bullet stop."

"It's on my way," she lied. "Let's go."

They walked along concrete sidewalks to Market, oblivious to foot traffic. Short-sleeved or business-suited pedestrians mingled with streeters. 

Mallory didn't have any more business with Tala. Instead, he was worried about his new ward's reaction to her arrest. "Do you want to know how they caught you?"

"Goddess yes. I thought I'd covered my tracks. Nobody in the Castro turned me in, did they?"

"No, it wasn't that. Apparently it was a lot of luck and some good police work by Benny Vo."

"I didn't figure Smegman was behind it."

"Benny was at the mall last night. He saw your face on the screen of a pubterm."

"Damn, that must have been the homework group. They didn't weasel on me, did they?"

"Not as far as I can tell. Benny was very discreet. He watched the rest of the homework assignment to make sure it was you on the screen. When your students left, he caught up with one of them separately and found out she goes to school at Harvey Milk. This morning, he and Leon staked the school out. They sat there all morning, then grabbed you as you went inside. I think you know the rest."

"Damn, I guess I underestimated the little guy. I figured he was almost as dumb as his partner."

"Rule number one...never underestimate your opponent."

"I know that, but still, it's easy to be arrogant when you deal with idiots all the time."

The escalator down to BART was only steps away when Richard stopped and looked into Tala's pretty young face. "I'll enjoy working with you again. You're an inspiration to me. Now stay out of trouble until Sunday." He turned and rushed onto the moving stairs.

Tala hurried back to the Harvey Milk School. She never got the chance to make arrangements for Chet's care when the detectives picked her up. She called ahead and was assured that her little boy was just fine.

When she arrived at the old Victorian, little clicking footsteps rushed her way from the hall. Chet ran around her several times as he jumped up on her legs.

Tala bent down and snagged him on the fly. "My little boy. Mama's happy to see you."

He gleefully sanitized her face with his tongue and didn't stop until it met canine standards.

She carried him into the downstairs great room. 

Laurier stood near the bay windows. He was waiting for her. "I'm really glad to see you. I feared you'd never be back."

"David, I've got to talk to you," she answered somberly. "I've got to leave the school. I've been given two options and both of them take me away from home for a long time."

"I was afraid of that. Isadora called me right after they picked you up. I found out that Richard Mallory got you a conditional release."

"I'm sorry I've let you and the school down, David." She allowed tears to fill her eyes for the first time since her parents had been killed.

The gentle man enfolded her in his arms and held her like a delicate treasure. "My dear, you've always helped this school. You've always helped this whole community. What you've started here has such a solid foundation that we can carry on. We'll miss you as a friend, desperately. But the school is a monument to your vision and hard work, whether you're helping people here or somewhere else.

By now, Tala was crying uncontrollably.

Chet was very worried. He'd never seen his mama like this. He started to whine.

Tala looked down at his quizzical expression. "I'm okay, Chet. I'm just crying like a fool." She scratched his ears and he relaxed a bit.

"You can't avoid helping people, even if it gets you into serious trouble. It's just your nature. We all love you here. You know that don't you?"


"Damn it, woman. It's true. Everybody in this family, every teacher in the place, and all the students. You're an inspiration to people who've had their hope taken away. You've always done your best improve things, even when others turned and ran from their responsibility."

Tala's sobbing hiccups slowed. "I guess I try to do the right thing. But that's all anybody can do is try."

"You amaze me sometimes. Tell me about the people at the university lab, or the people you meet on the street. How many of them do you think try to do the right thing?"

"Most of them?"

"Wrong answer. Most of them don't have the spine it takes. They're rather crawl off and watch VR or chicken out and shut up so they don't annoy anybody. You have the strength of character to do the right thing, no matter how much you risk. I've never met anybody like you."

"Then it's okay that I have to leave?"

"I'd say it's past time. Maybe this school and the neighborhood are a little too accustomed to allowing you fight our battles. I think some of us have to get up off from our comfortable behinds to take up the slack."

Tala was visibly cheered. "You know what, I think you're right. Julie and the others can probably fight for the kitchen on their own now, and I know you and the family will keep this school open."

"This is part of what you and I have worked I think you've set the example. Now, you must trust other people to continue the work."

Tala straightened up and hugged her mentor for all her worth. "Thank you, David. I guess you've taught me more than I gave you credit for."

"The sign of a good teacher, love. If you're up to it, I'd like to treat you to a late lunch and maybe a trip to Just Desserts for a snack."

"What about the loose ends at the school? There's a million things to take care of."

"We can discuss that after we've had a couple of eclairs. You'd be amazed at how competent some of us are if you give us half a chance." He handed her a handkerchief.

Tala dried her eyes and cheeks as she spoke to Chet. "Come on, little guy. It's time to go walkies again."

Chet gleefully agreed.

Late Sunday morning, the San Tomas chariot dutifully delivered Tala and Chet to Richard's condominium. 

Neil pleasantly said, "Thank you for ridin' with me, Tala. Senator Mallory says to go through the first doors and right up the elevator."

"Thanks for the ride, Neil. I guess I'll see you later."

"I wouldn't be surprised."

Doors automatically opened for her as she approached Mallory's home. 

At the front door, Stacy did a quick scan and let her in. "Tala has arrived, my senator."

"Thanks, Stacy. Come on in, lady. Tala, I'd like to introduce my AI and better half, Stacy. Stacy, you obviously already know Tala."

"Yes, I do, my senator, but I thank you for a proper introduction anyway."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Stacy. Let me introduce you both to my friend. This is Chet."

She approached Richard and let Chet take a get acquainted sniff. "Chet, this is Richard. We'll see a lot of him from now on."

Chet took the measure of the man with several serious sniffs. Mallory smelled okay.

Stacy spoke up. "I've got a little something for Chet, if you don't mind, Tala."

Tala was surprised by the AI's offer, but agreed. "Sure, if you want to, but Chet likes everybody anyway."

Several tiny fingers reached from the ceiling and offered a small chunk of meat to the dog.

Chet sniffed it curiously. He'd never had a disembodied hand offer him food, but it smelled even better than a new doggie butt. He eagerly accepted the offering.

Tala watched him chew the morsel. "I think you've made a friend, Stacy. You're the first AI who has ever taken the time to meet Chet. I think that's wonderful."

"I've never met a real dog before, Tala. I think he's quite interesting."

Chet's tail started to wag from the pleasant tone of Stacy's words.

Richard stood in his tracks, amazed. "This may be some kind of first. An artificially intelligent computer has just made friends with an artificially intelligent dog."

"You see it on the tabloid sites all the time," Stacy teased.

"Anyway, Tala, I promised you lunch and a complete briefing, so let's get to business. Stacy, please prepare the table."

"Your feast is being laid out as we speak, my prince. Please escort the lady fair to the dining room."

It wasn't a long walk. The dining room was inside the VR projector.

When Tala stepped onto the projection dome, she couldn't see the line between reality and projection. "I hope the food's made out of more than pixels, Mallory. I brought my best appetite along."

"We'll see. Sometimes Stacy likes to have a joke or two of her own. Please sit down in the closest chair. If you don't end up on the floor, there's a good chance that the food's real too."

The food was real, alright. Chet was pleased to find the bowl that Stacy had set out for him. It was thoughtfully placed on the floor where he could easily get at it. He let his human friends struggle with chairs and silverware and such. He preferred to put his mouth right into the middle of the action.

After lunch, Chet sniffed around the condo for a few minutes. He eventually found what seemed to be the best spot for napping, so he got comfy and started testing it..

While Chet snoozed, Richard gave Tala got a rundown of the Ishtar Terra project. 

"Now that you see how totally screwed up it is, I want you to find ways to fix it. A lot of the technology is twenty years old. I know you can improve it with nanite constructs. Also, the communications net is a polyglot of proprietary systems. You'll have to have to pop a lot of locks just to make mundane equipment operate."

"With enough nanite medium and enough time, I can rebuild the entire surface of Venus."

"You probably will, eventually. Unfortunately, the place is reverting too fast for that right now. We've got less than three months before it's so hot that we can't work on the surface anymore. After that, it'll quickly become worse than it was when we started.

"At least we'll be rid of the acid rain."

"Yes, but only for a while. It won't take long for the rising temperatures to change the surface chemistry back to what it was in the first place. There are hundreds of artificial water comets on their way from Europa. If it's too hot when they arrive, their added water vapor add an uncontrollable amount of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. We've got a big job ahead, and not a lot of time to do it."

"In order for me to be effective, I'll need to know how to operate powersuits, and possibly pilot a shuttle."

"You're exactly right, Tala. That's why you're been enrolled in Pilot's Academy."

"Wait a minute, that's a four year course."

"Yes, but you've already done most of it. You'll just take the classes that relate to operating off-planet equipment. It'll be the most stressful month of your life, but you can do it. And before you ask, yes, you can take Chet with you."

"How soon do I start?"

"Tomorrow. Get to bed early tonight. I've arranged for a long range bullet train seat to Colorado Springs. Be at the SF station by 0600 with everything you own."

"You work fast, Mallory."

"I have to. How was lunch?"

"Excellent. My compliments to your chef."

"Thank you, Tala," Stacy politely responded.

"I hate to rush you, Tala, but I've got more people to see this afternoon. Besides, you probably need the time to finish packing."

"Yeah, it'll take all afternoon to put my sleepsack into my backpack. But then I'll just have to unpack it so I can sleep tonight."

She looked for her dog, but couldn't see him. "Come on, Chet. Time to go."

A furry form slowly walked around the corner, stretched and let loose a good yawn. That's when Chet realized that he really wanted to go out.

"Thanks again for lunch, Mallory. And you, Stacy."

Her host got up and walked her to the door. "I'll be in touch with you in Colorado Springs, Tala. Watch for updates on the net."

"Fine, I'll keep my eyes open. Before I go, do you have a pet area around here?"

"You know, I'm not really sure. You'd think so, wouldn't you. Maybe I can call the building manager and find out."

Chet was eager to get out the door. He started to squeak.

"Okay, Chet, Mama hears you. Never mind, Mallory. I'll talk to you on the net." She slipped out the door with Chet on her heels.

"Remember, 0600 tomorrow at the SF bullet station," he shouted after her.

The elevator ride down seemed to take forever. At least, that was Chet's take on it. When the doors opened, he shot out, only to find himself still indoors. He squeaked some more.

Tala scanned the lobby for ideas. She settled on a literature rack near the leasing desk. Fortunately, the office was closed. 

Tala carefully undid the multiple folds. It was a beautifully rendered 3D display of every floor plan and every view in Mallory's condo complex. The plastic alone must have cost a fortune.

She called out, "Over here, Chet. Do your business."

Chet appreciated the luxury, and took careful aim to drop his payload directly onto the lifelike photo of the beautifully manicured rooftop grass tennis courts.

Tala was impressed by the little dog's ability to comprehend spatial relationships. Particularly since the data on the ability of dogs to interpret printed 3D photos was still inconclusive.

She carefully wrapped Chet's fresh offering in the brochure and looked for a trash can. There wasn't one, so she dropped the whole thing into a suggestion box with a note. "Dear San Tomas Estates leasing agents. My dog was not entirely satisfied with the pet facilities you offer."

When they reached the outer lobby, the San Tomas chariot was waiting, so they hopped on.

"Hi ya, Tala. You weren't here, so I waited for you. Let's get you back home, what'a ya' say?"

"Thank you, Neil. It'll be a long day tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after..."