Chapter 6 - WALK THE DOG
Dirk hopped through the cubic vehicle's hatch and Tala followed. They landed in some kind of cockpit.
Nobody was in either of the command chairs, or anywhere else for that matter. Control panels, view screens and lockers covered the walls. There were no windows.
"Come on in and sit down," ordered Dirk as he hopped into the far seat. He patted the chair closest to Tala and said, "This one's yours."
Confused, Tala obliged.. "So where's the crew of this thing?"
"Manpower shortage. There used to be a driver and an assistant, just to create jobs. These days, there's such a demand for workers that they've automated everything."
"So, can we talk here?"
"Sure, they don't monitor empty cockpits...at least not yet. Especially with the precautions I've taken with Cubert, here. Strap yourself into the harness good and tight. You'll be glad you did by the end of the ride."
She snugged the two shoulder harnesses uncomfortably over her breasts, then loosened them slightly. The vehicle went over a small bump, then stopped.
There was a whoosh outside. The smooth, but unexpected acceleration caught Tala by surprise.
Dirk smiled. "Not to worry. The elevator just started. Compressed air shoots us up the tube to the colony's hub like a popgun. It takes under three minutes to get there. There's no spin on this section, so there's no gravity. The only sensation of weight is from acceleration. That's why I had you strap in."
She relaxed a little. Secure in her seat, free fall felt exhilarating but unsettling.
"Alright, we're alone and there's no monitor. So tell me how you got away with it?"
"I watched the Inaugural Banquet, at least what there was of it. I assume you're the one who planted my nadget near Cadman's seat."
"At your service, Milady. Let me add that it performed flawlessly."
"Naturally, although I didn't follow the strategy at first. Are you brilliant, or just really lucky?"
Dirk blushed. "Well, both, actually. But the real credit goes to people I can't even mention. Distant acquaintances of mine, you might say."
"Then I can safely assume that these distant acquaintances of yours had enough pull to get you out of DC and up here without eyebrows being raised."
Dirk relaxed in his seat. "Officially, I've been at Heinlein since a week before the incident of which you speak. Check my term records for all the work I processed at my office up here."
Several loose ends suddenly knotted themselves together in Tala's head. "Hmmm, then that means I have you to thank for my new job."
Dirk thought for a moment and answered, "Assuming that I have any idea what your new job is, you could be right, at least indirectly. "
"No, not indirectly, directly. Now that Swanson's in charge, he's made it a priority to finish the Venus project. I think it's the main reason he promoted himself to the top spot."
"With a little help from his friends."
"Naturally! Nobody could pull off such a beautifully engineered coup without some pretty slick help."
"Is this where we both take a bow? I doubt that anybody else could have built such a perfect nanite device without being traced."
It was Tala's turn to blush. "But why didn't you just have him shoot himself in the head? It would have been quick and permanent. Swanson would have moved into the top spot automatically."
"Ahh, but the subtlety, that's the beauty of it. There was no guarantee that any device could actually get Cadman's enhancements to turn on him. There's a lot of failsafe circuitry built into those things."
"OK, stipulated. I remember discussing the theory with you once."
"There's no reason to try to make somebody kill himself when you can get him out of the way by other means. Especially when the death penalty only applies to assassination of the President General. Elimination of cabinet members is such a minor crime that you'd think they encourage it."
"But how did you know Cadman would resign afterwards?"
"He had no choice."
"Millions of people saw it realtime, so there was no way to toast the video. With that many eyewitnesses, no spin doctor on the planet could deny that President General Pete Cadman had gunned down several of his closest friends and advisors. Believe me, his flacks tried every fix in the directory.
There were really only three possible explanations.
If Cadman claimed self-defense, he'd be locked up as a delusional psychotic.
He couldn't very well admit that somebody had taken over his artificial enhancements by remote control. If he did, he'd be admitting that he had artificial enhancements. In the current social climate, he'd be better off to tell the world he kept cloned sheep as sex toys."
Tala pictured Cadman bent over a sheep, but kept the conversation on track with another question. "So, what was scenario number three?"
"Cadman could claim it was a hunting accident. He thought the cabinet was a charging pack of moose, so he burned them down. It might have worked if he'd been in the Yellowknife airport, but they're more cynical in DC."
"So instead, he resigns and uses the immunity of his office to avoid prosecution. Most of his senior advisory staff is dead, so it'll take years for his pals to form a power bloc again."
"Give the lady a cigar! Cadman quietly retires and tries to figure out how to spend the billions he embezzled while in office. Meanwhile Vice General Swanson moves up to the top spot. When the dust settles, the space program goes back on the fast track."
"But how did you get involved? I thought you were an anarchist!"
"Me? Hell no! I know people aren't civilized enough to run a decent anarchy. I just wanted to get rid of Cadman and his lousy crook pals. There's no excuse for them to become billionaires while the rest of us live like animals.
My grandparents and parents were homeless. I was raised in an alley. You know what it's like. Government doesn't run cities anymore, gangs do.
Our tax rate is 80 percent. Where the hell does the money go? No, don't answer, I'll tell you...big league criminals like Cadman suck it up through government contracts. Contracts they award to each other's companies. The crumbs left over are stolen by subcontractors. Well, now there's a new bunch in charge."
"You don't really think this will end the corruption do you, Dirk?"
"Not bloody likely! These people are power-starved crooks too, but at least they're new crooks. It takes a few years to become entrenched enough to be a top rate graft king like Cadman. Meanwhile, politicians like your new boss Mallory can get the government to throw a few scraps to us peasants."
"Logically, this means you're one of the new crooks too," Tala snarled.
"We both are, Tala. If things go our way, people will call us heroes. If not, we'll be written up as traitors. Right now, neither one of us can admit that we know anything about it. In the end, history will give Swanson all the credit or the blame anyway."
"If you're so well connected, how come you're selling junk to tourists on this space ring? Don't the new bosses take care of their friends?
"Hey, I'm expendable...very expendable. I can either lie low here, or dead in a ditch somewhere else. But what the hell, this job's perfect for me. It may seem like dummy work, but I just made 120 tax-free Ameros in five minutes selling Space Rings. They make millions of 'em up here...they go into power satellites. I get 'em free as surplus.
What's more, this is a strategic location. I can get a look at almost everybody who comes into the colony. Even if they go on to the moon, they almost always transfer through here. You'd be amazed at how much I learn just by knowing who's meeting with whom. That's why I'm here...to keep my eyes open and discreetly pass along bits of useful data. Which brings me to my sideline."
"In my spare time, I run my own business. It's part detective agency, part brokerage house. I have demons cruising the net full time for news and rumors on future business deals. When I spot two or more main players together here, I invest accordingly. A lot of other people will pay me for that information too."
Tala was puzzled. "But why do people meet here for deals? It seems faster just to use secured nodes on the net like everybody else does."
"They can't...you should know why. It's because of people like you who can crack the network like a knuckle. The kind of stuff they're cooking up is too sensitive to risk online. If some of these negotiations leak out prematurely, a third party unexpectedly goes home rich."
"But why meet in a space colony, Dirk?"
"It's really hard to eavesdrop on the secured rooms up here. It's even harder to send the information back to earth realtime without being discovered. Unless, of course, one has the right connections and equipment."
"And who might have such connections and equipment, I wonder?"
"Yeah, I wonder too. Anyway, if such a person or persons existed, they could profit nicely from such knowledge." Dirk leaned toward Tala. "Personally, I dabble in the stock market."
"If you're living up here, I take it you're hot."
"Not as far as I know. I just like keep my head down."
"What about your previous occupation back on earth?"
"Nobody linked me to the event you're referring to. I ran your nadget from a public pay term and monitored it on the net. The interface was perfect. Thank Goddess for live teleprez."
"So you're telling me you made Cadman's physical enhancements gun down the cabinet while you controlled it in VR?"
"You do great work, Tala. I hear it took the Special Service two days to find your nadget. Some unknown person had hidden it in the podium mike. They took it apart, molecule by molecule."
"They decided that it was too advanced to be local. There's a lot of diplomatic tension between Nafta and the Asian Rim over it. The corp's top dicks figure somebody in Hanoi or Bangalore built the thing. Rumor has it that some bright boy reverse engineered it. If so, the corp will probably turn out copies for spook work."
"I don't believe it! Those bastards can make a profit on anything."
"I'd be glad to act as your agent in the matter, but I don't think it's in your best interest to press your patent rights on that particular invention."
"I know, but it irritates me. The damned corporation can make money from anything, even assassinations."
"Lady, the dirtier it is, the better the markup. But don't get mad. You and I made money from it too. Believe me, there's still plenty of loose cash, especially off planet. Space is too new for all of the angles to have been played yet."
"That might work for somebody like you...you've got connections. But I'm just a working woman with no powerful friends.
"You've got more friends than you suspect. They owe you, too. Get in touch with me anytime you want to collect."
Tala became thoughtful for a moment. "I have some real friends who don't owe me anything. I haven't seen them for a long time. They moved up here a couple of years ago. They've invited me to stay with them while I'm here."
"I'm sure they're not satellite people, so they must be nanojocks, right?"
"Not as far as I know."
"Artists then, huh?"
"That's right. How did you guess?"
"Heinlein has a pretty sizeable group of artists. The smart ones wangled contracts to turn out software for the VR outfits up here. From what I hear, it beats the heck out of working for a living."
"I'm not sure they'd agree with you on that last point. Even a good job is still wage slavery."
"And you accused me of being an anarchist."
"Listen, if this place only has ten thousand people, maybe you know them...Eldenath, Steve, Sandi..."
"You do know them!"
"Never heard of them. Is that where you're headed right now?"
"They're expecting me. They have a spare room. I'm on an expense account, but I'd rather stay with my friends."
"Then let's go. Let me program our personal taxi to take us directly there."
"Wait a minute. I thought this was a cargo shuttle of some kind."
"That's what the corp thinks too. However, it thinks it's my pet taxi."
Dirk spoke a few commands to his term and nodded. "OK, Tala, we're on our way with a special delivery of cargo...us."
"Do you know where they live?"
"Actually, no. I've met them, but I've never visited them. Their address is on the net though, so I entered it as our destination. I also sent mail to warn them that we'll be there in a few minutes."
There was another whoosh outside the vehicle. Their deceleration was smooth and firm.
"We've cleared the tube. In a minute, we'll roll into the elevator in Column 0. The artists and designers all live in Section Zero."
"What does that mean? What's Section Zero?"
"Zero is zero degrees on the ring. We need some kind of address scheme to find things. Everything in the colony has a coordinate in degrees. One degree is roughly 46 feet. Numbers increase spinwise from Column 0. Addresses are in tenths of degrees.
For example, your friends live at 340.0. That puts them anti-spin, or west from Column 0, on the north side of the path. The address directly across The Loop would be 340.1. South side addresses are even, north side odd."
"How did they come up with north and south?"
"The ring spins, just the way earth does, but at one rpm. Centrifugal force gives the feel of normal earth gravity along the edge of the rim. Earth spins anti-clockwise when viewed from the north pole. They just adopted the same conventions here.
When you walk against the spin, you're headed west. Move with the spin and you're eastbound. Once you've got that, north and south are simple. Just in case you forget, look up at the ceiling. Sunlight comes in on the south side, just like back home."
"Uhh, OK, I'll try to remember all this while I'm here. Do I need to rent a car or get a taxi or whatever to get around?"
"You can walk anywhere in a half-hour. If you're in a hurry, take the track. It makes a complete loop around the ring every ten minutes. Two tracks run through every building on the station. The upper track goes spinwise and the lower track goes anti-spinwise.
You can use it to visit the neighbors or to shuttle to the nearest elevator. If you're really bored, you can ride it around the ring all day."
"Does anybody have their own vehicle?"
"No, actually it's all public transit. A chariot passes each stop every five minutes. Just signal, and the next one stops at your back door."
"So how does this rolling coffin of yours fit into the big picture?"
"There's plenty of room for Cubert between the regular chariots, freight cars, limos and what not. They all go interstitial. The computers send us onto the track and mix us in with the transit traffic. Once we're on the track, the net controls our car."
"Why not just take public transit?"
"I do, most of the time. A person can make a living from the information they pick up on the tracks in a place like this. I spend so much time in chariots that some people probably think I'm a mental case. When I'm not working, I travel incognito in my pet taxi here. This is a side of colony life that tourists never see. By the way, will your luggage be at your friends' place?"
Tala considered it. "I'm not really sure. Somebody else took it on ahead, but didn't really say where he was going. I have to catch up with it soon...my dog's in there."
"You travel into space with a dog? You're full of surprises, lady."
The cube slowed for a moment or two. Tala felt her weight drop, then rise again.
"What the hell's going on?"
"Gravity shift. The ring spins at about 180 miles per hour at this radius. We're on the anti-spin track. When we accelerate, we reduce our relative speed around the hub. Our apparent weight changes as we slow down and speed up. If you take the spinwise track, you get heavier when you accelerate."
"It takes some getting used to."
"Some people never get used to it. A few claim the change makes them carsick, so they walk everywhere. This colony isn't big, so it doesn't take long to get where you're headed on foot. I've even met a few colonists who only travel spinwise, and others who take the anti-spin route exclusively. So far, the two factions haven't faced off in violent confrontations. Probably because it's tough to get them together in one place."
"How far is it around the whole colony, anyway? It looks pretty big from the viewport."
"You could lap it on foot in an hour. It's just over three miles. But it's quicker to walk to the nearest spoke and take an elevator to the hub.
There are six columns, each one is a support spoke for the ring. There's a spoke every sixty degrees.
Nothing is more than a quarter mile from a column. The longest walk you'd ever have to make would be half a mile, plus one elevator transfer at the hub. Maximum travel time on foot, fifteen minutes. And that's if the elevators are busy."
"My stomach tells me that walks are quite popular up here, at least with newcomers."
"Sorry about that. Don't worry, though, this is our stop."
The car slowed again. Tala's stomach felt light, then dropped back to something akin to normal gravity.
"Unbuckle your harness, Milady. Your coach has arrived."
"I've gotta run. Call me you when you get settled in. I'm on the net."
"Thanks a lot Dirk. I can't tell you when I've had a more memorable time."
The front hatch slid open. Tala looked out into a brightly lit foyer. It was decorated with a woven gray wall covering. An unusual dark brown fabric covered the floor.
A door slid open across the way and a chunky woman with long mousy hair bounced into sight. "Talaaaaa! Welcome to the satellite of love!" As quickly as Tala cleared the hatch, she was engulfed in the woman's eager hug.
Dirk waved a stoic goodbye as the hatch closed. A safety door slid shut right behind Tala. It closed the tunnel off from the foyer.
"I see you've met Dirk already. He's quite a character around here."
"You don't know the half of it, Sandi. But you know what? It's good to see you!"
"It's good to see you too...no, it's great to see you! Captain Mallory dropped your stuff off a few minutes ago. He told us you were on your way. Give me a complete report on everything you've done since we saw each other."
"It's been a while hasn't it?"
The two walked down a long corridor. "Right here." She slid a textured aluminum door aside and led her guest through a small anteroom. It opened into a comfortable living area. Almost everything was made of metal, glass or woven carbon fiber.
"I love your skylight, Sandi. This place is much bigger than I expected."
"Well, overall, it's only about 1800 square feet, but the four of us share it well. We each have a room of our own, which keeps us from killing each other."
"Come on, that much space back home would have forty people living in it. You should have seen the hole I was in."
"I have, remember? Our old place was worse...yours had a roof. We were really lucky to escape and end up here."
"Listen, I have a dog with me. I can keep him in his kennel case if I have to, but I'd really like to let him out and take him for a walk somewhere."
"He's already out. Captain Mallory unpacked him when he brought your luggage." She turned and yelled upstairs. "Jennifer, stop harassing the dog and bring him downstairs. Tala's here."
There was a loud series of stomps. A smallish dog with white and brown fur bounded down the stairway. A tallish woman with a lionesque mane of blond hair was hard on his heels.
Chet jumped up and tried to kiss his mama. Tala picked him up and let him do his worst. He was a mass of wagging, wiggling excitement.
"Hello, good baby. Did you miss Mama?"
She had to ask? He licked her face a few more times to restate his point.
"Hi Jennifer...I see you've met Chet. I know it's rude, but I'd really like to take this little monster for a walk somewhere. There aren't any rules against dogs are there?"
Jennifer spoke up. "Lots of people have dogs here. There's a great place for them right across Mobius Loop. I'll go with you and Chet. I love dogs."
Sandi agreed. "I think Chet and Jenny could both use a walk to calm them down."
The foursome slipped out through a side door to an escalator. Chet hesitated at the top of the moving stairway. Tala gathered him up and carried him downstairs.
Their conveyance emptied onto The Loop. It was a neat gravel pathway that separated the buildings on the south from a beautiful wooded park on the north. It was the only surface route through Section Zero.
Tala put Chet back down. His legs were already running when he touched the ground.
Jennifer produced a small red ball and tossed it across the park for Chet's entertainment. He decided to amuse her by chasing it around a grassy clearing.
Tala expressed her amazement as they walked. "How can the corp justify such a beautiful park? Where's the profit?"
"The park's essential. Without it, we wouldn't be able to breathe. Every plant you can see is genetically designed for maximum oxygen release. That's why we have so many tall bushes."
"But I thought the food crops did that. Why would the corp build parks when the cash crop makes air for free?"
"We don't grow that much food here. The food plants are designed for maximum food yield. Apparently, that doesn't make them the best oxygenators. Besides, the residents had a lot to do with the new design. We've rebuilt this whole section over the past five years.
You should have seen it before. It was the usual mundane corp battleship design. The Zero government drew up a plan that makes better use of the floorspace. Our homes take up a lot less ground...we built up instead of out.
There's a little more personal floorspace than before, too. We needed room for private studios. The new design left half of this section as open space, so we turned it into a giant park. Every home in Zero has a view of the greenery."
"But where did the big trees come from?"
"There was already a small park here. Those are the original trees. They're almost twenty five years old, designed for full maturity at thirty.
This section still has 2000 residents, but the new space was designed by artists instead of bean counters. For my money, this is the best living space known to mankind. They'd go crazy down there if they knew about it."
"Don't you feel guilty about living here Sandi, knowing what it's like on earth?"
"Sometimes, but then I remember my life back there. I worked a normal fifty hour work week as a Technical Writer for a nantronics outfit. I lived in a culvert with Jenny, Steve and Eldenath because the job didn't pay enough for rent. I gave my all my foodcare vouchers and ten hours a week to the Castro Kitchen and they fed me. I bathed three times a week at the public showers.
Occasionally, I'd watch something on a pubterm, but you know the garbage that's always on those things. To stay sane, the four of us talked to each other a lot. That was the whole of my life.
I worked hard for my education and I've always worked hard at my job, but there was just no way to get ahead down there. The corp owns everything, and they won't part with any of it. It didn't matter what I did...I couldn't make a difference in anybody's life, especially my own."
"So how did you all get here, of all places?"
"Pure blind luck. A woman in Eldenath's dance troupe worked for Bonneville Pacific Power, which owns a share of this colony. She heard about a contract at Locus Gameworks. They were about to launch a new science fiction series and needed a complete production team here at Heinlein right away."
"Wait a minute. I've heard that Locus doesn't hire outside teams."
"They don't, but their own team was ferrying here on the Challenger II when it blew it up."
Jennifer butted in, "Yeah, it went boom, splat-o-matic. Guts all over the spacelanes!"
"Thank you for sharing that, Jenny. Anyway, the studio was in a superheated expansion phase."
"The space ferry was in a superheated expansion phase too."
"Jennifer, do you know what time it is?"
"No, what time is it Sandi?"
"It's time for your slapping. Come a little closer, I don't want to disappoint you."
Tala let out a little laugh. "I see you two haven't changed much."
"As I was saying," Sandi went on, "The studio didn't have anybody on staff to spare, so they let out a contract. It had to be an existing company with industry experience.
Steve's a top software engineer. Eldenath is a natural virtual actor. Lots of moviegames owe their success to the way Jennifer translated Eldenath into VR. And me, I'm a passable story hack.
The lady who tipped us had a second career as a 3D renderer, and her husband knows everything there is about the hardware. We just merged our company with theirs to qualify for the contract. We were in the right place at the right time for the first time in our lives."
"And you didn't ask me?"
"Tala, we all wanted you. Everybody agreed to bring you in. Your talent with advanced nantronics could keep us at least a year ahead of the other producers. We looked everywhere for you. Even David Laurier didn't know where you'd gone."
"That's true, Tala," Jennifer interjected, "I really wanted you for spatial effects. With the stuff you know, we could create visuals to blow these other losers out of the water. We asked everybody, but you just disappeared."
"Well, I was...on vacation. You couldn't have found me, nobody could. When I saw David, he told me you wanted to see me. You were already gone when I went over to your squat."
Sandi looked at her sincerely. "The position's still open. Nobody else can do the job, so we do without. We really feel it when Jenny thinks something up and we can't make it look convincing in VR.
That's not to say we're in trouble. The public really loves our stuff. For every two bestsellers we make, the studio lets us turn out one good product. The good ones usually don't make any money, but it gives us a chance to introduce new ideas."
"And somebody always steals our best ideas within a few months," Jenny noted. "With Tala Wolfe on our team, they could try to rip us off, but they wouldn't succeed."
"I would have jumped at the chance to join you all two years ago. Right now, I can't. Nafta owns my soul until I finish a project for them. That'll take me a year. After that, I don't know."
Sandi looked sad as she spoke. "We'd better head back to the house. Steve's whipping up something special for dinner."
"Jennifer, please make sure that dog of mine follows us. Where is he anyway?"
A multi-faceted pounding sound drew up behind Tala. Chet was running as fast as his doggie legs could move him. He jumped up in front of both women, startling Sandi.
"It's OK, Sandi. He's just my playful little boy. I've gotten used to him popping up out of nowhere."
Jennifer led them back to the house. It was a strange view for Tala. The Loop disappeared ahead of them and behind them. It seemed to lead up a hill, then vanished into a group of V-shaped mirrors along the ceiling.
The buildings had the familiarity of huge earthside condominium apartments. It was easy to imagine 2000 people living along a one-half mile stretch of the torus. With the crowding Tala was used to, it was easy to imagine 20,000 Californians in that space.
A polyglot of strange building materials in dull colors bothered Tala. The overwhelming earth tones would have been oppressive, except for the varied designs. Every building's facade had a different selection of geometric patterns.
A wall that seemed gray from the distance resolved into black and white zebra stripes as they neared it. Another was brown with crescent moons and six-pointed stars. One unit had textured sand and carbon siding that imitated flagstones.
"So, Jennifer, did the artists living here choose the materials and color scheme too?"
"In a way. We have to use available materials when we make anything here, especially something as large as buildings. Anything natural has to be shipped from earth. It costs a fortune, so we don't have much. What we have plenty of is aluminum, silicon and carbon.
We informally agreed that use of aluminum siding was punishable by accidental ejection into space when no one was looking. Most of us chose glass and carbon fibers to finish the outside. I know it looks kind of funky at first, but it's really quite elegant. Besides, you should have seen it before."
"But you guys only got here two years ago."
"That's true, but I have old pictures of this place that would make a marine homesick for boot camp. You can see it for yourself if you're at Halfway. That's 180 degrees, where the satellite jocks live. This section used to look exactly like it. Those zeebs have no imagination."
Chet stood next to Sandi. He was staring at the end of the upbound escalator. He'd lean his head in for a second, then pull back. He hesitated a few times.
Sandi became impatient. "Excuse me, Chet, but I'm headed up. You can follow me or catch a ride with your mama."
Chet watched how she did it, then leaned his head toward the moving steps one more time. He suddenly jumped on. The little spaniel skittered uncertainly for a moment, then found his footing.
Tala hopped on right behind him. "Good boy, Chet. You're really a smart fella aren't you?"
Jennifer got on the moving steps behind Tala. "I've been watching that dog of yours, Tala. He's too smart to be a mutt, isn't he?"
"You're right, Jenny. He's an anthropup."
"How could you afford one? Those things are worth more than Sandra."
"Thank you very much, old friend. Remind me to administer your afternoon whacking when we get home."
"Chet adopted me back in The City one night. A pair of corp snoops kidnapped him and gave him pheromone therapy, with my pheromones. The original owners didn't want him back. And he was so cute that I decided to keep him.
He won't let anybody else take care of him, so he travels with me wherever I go. It's a lot easier, now that I've gotten him potty trained."
Sandi stepped off the top step. "Damn, I've heard you could toilet train them, but I never believed it. It's one of those things I'd have to see to believe. However...in this case, I can do without seeing it. I only hope doesn't read the paper while he does his business."
Chet watched the top landing close in on his step. He made a valiant dash and hopped well past the end of the escalator. He hit the smooth floor in a controlled, orbiting skid. When he stopped, he ran back and greeted Tala's arrival with a hop and many tail wags.
"Good boy, Chet. Mama's proud of you. Let's go inside and see what Steve's cooking up for all of us."
Sandi slid the condo's side door open. The others followed her in.
Steve was waiting for them in the kitchen hallway. He was a large, blond man who might have passed for Jennifer and Sandi's brother, except for the fact that he wasn't. "Tala, a Captain Richard Mallory wants you to call him right away. He said your cellchip won't accept his calls."
"My cellchip's smarter than I am." She moved in for a hug. "So how are you, Steve? I hear you're doing great work these days."
"Can't complain. We miss you though."
"So I hear. Sorry I can't join your group just now. You do well without me, though."
"Maybe. I've got some sauce on the stove that's about to go critical. Let's talk some more during dinner." Steve turned and trotted to the back of the kitchen.
"Sandi, is there a private place I can use my term?"
"Sure, Tala, let me show you to your room. It's right at the end of the upstairs hall. We've got it reserved for when you finally join our production company. Until then, it's an office."
Tala surveyed her accommodations. Her bags and Chet's kennel case were in the walk-in closet. The spacious bed seemed unearthly. The ceiling in the front of the room had a skylight. It blended into a picture window in the wall. Its elegance made it seem like the set for a VR production.
She opened the upper and lower curtains to expose a glorious view. The park across the way stretched up a steep hill. She had to look through the skylight to see the trees along the top of the ridge. They seemed to reach into a blue expanse that almost could have been sky. It was the curved aluminum of the ring's north wall, about 200 feet away. Below it was a false perspective VR projection of fluffy white clouds.
After a few minutes of gazing, Tala activated her cellchip. A few simple commands initialized it on the colony's local net.
She navigated through a sea of unfamiliar icons until Richard's distinctive logo appeared. She stuck her VR self through the image of a cowboy astride an Appaloosa. "Hey, Mallory, can't a lady even have dinner around here without some caballero bothering her?"
"I'm sorry, Tala. I didn't plan to disturb you so soon, but I've turned up a lead on a ship. We need to meet a man at the spaceport at 1800 hours. Can you join me there, or should I pick you up on the way?"
"Thanks for asking. Yes, I'd be delighted to join you on a ship-buying safari before I've even unpacked my luggage. But if you insist on dragging me away in my first few hours here, I'll feel a little more confident if you pick me up. You know your way around this big bicycle wheel and I'm just a tourist.
"Alright, I'll swing by at 1740 and get you. Make sure you've already eaten, this isn't a dinner date."
"Yes, sir, Captain Mallory. You're a load of laughs when you're on government time."
"We can laugh later. Right now, it's time to work. Enjoy dinner with your friends. According to the reports, they seem to be okay people."
"They are. I'll see you at 1740, don't be early. Bye."
She loved dinner. Her hosts hadn't skimped on anything. "Do you folks always eat like this?"
"Pretty much," Steve answered. "Fruits and vegetables are easy to grow here. The soil's brand new and the sun shines 23 hours a day in the agricultural section. We've learned to work around the things we can't produce."
"What can't you produce?"
"Beef and pork are the big ones. A pound of good beef goes for 200 Ameros when you can get it. It doesn't really bother me...I don't like beef. I do miss chicken though."
Tala looked worriedly at her plate. "So what was in the Chicken Cacciatore then?"
"It sure tasted like chicken. My compliments to the chef."
"Thanks, but the genetics labs at Michigan Agricultural University did the hard part. They created the ultimate rabbit just for this colony. North Americans don't like the taste and texture of rabbit. We love chicken though. The MAU geneticists doped Angora and Patagonian rabbits with chicken genes. The result...oryctolagus okemos, the East Lansing Rabbit Chicken.
They give great wool, and there's plenty of meat on one...fifteen pounds on an adult. The one we had tonight was only a fryer...that's why it was so tender. We grow 'em by the ton up here."
"Why don't they breed these things on earth?"
Sandi jumped in. "They do, millions of 'em. They never make it as far as the free kitchens, though. By the time the government and corp pigs get their ration, there's nothing left for the foodcare system. Just another fine example of our government at work."
"You should see the ostrich ranch," noted Eldenath. "Those things are mean, but they're beautiful."
"Yeah, and they taste like beef," Sandi added. "They're genetically designed to be efficient, the meat's okay, the eggs are enormous, and their hides make great leather."
Jennifer interjected, "It reminds me of the time we all went out to the Wildlife Safari game preserve. Remember that, Tala? The ostriches tried to eat the trim off the tour bus."
Their conversation was cut short by the droopy voice of Bullwinkle J. Moose. "Hey, Rocky, there's somebody at the door. He claims his name is Captain Richard Mallory. Should we hide?"
"I think your mystery date's here, Tala," interjected Jenny in a silly, dreamy voice.
"Thank you all for a wonderful meal and the good company. I'll let myself in when I get back. It'll probably be late, so don't wait up."
Eldenath jumped up. "You don't get out of here that easily." She threw her small frame at Tala and gave her a large hug.
The others took a turn at squeezing their guest.
Chet started to leap in a circle around Tala.
She bent over and softly said, "You stay here for a little while, sweetheart. Mama will be back soon. Now you be a good boy and keep Jennifer company.
A small red ball bounced Chet's way and Tala slipped out through the door while he was distracted.
Mallory led Tala through the colony like a native. They were five minutes early for their appointment.
As they left the spaceport's public elevator, a single figure approached them.
Tala smiled keenly. "Hey Mallory, you know this man?"