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



Dirk grinned broadly. "Hi, Tala...Captain Mallory, I see you're as punctual as your reputation says."

Tala turned to Richard. "You know each other?"

"Of course. A friend of mine told me to find Dirk Hacker next time I got to Heinlein. I was here on business a couple of months ago and looked him up. Dirk is one of the best space equipment brokers in the business. So, how do you know Dirk?"

"Mr. Hacker gave me a very thorough tour of the colony this afternoon."

A smirk formed on Mallory's face. "Oh, I see. Well, my relationship with Dirk is purely business. Speaking of which, Dirk, I understand you have a ship for us to see."

He didn't notice Dirk's wink to Tala. "Well, Captain, when I heard you needed something that can make a flight to the asteroid belt, I remembered a freighter that's been here since the Chiron Company's assets went on the block. Nobody bid on it...they probably won't until the mineral market panic calms down. She's built for ore or package cargo. The rocket jocks had just installed the Grav-Worp drive conversion when the marshal seized her."

Mallory's interest was piqued. "I'll want Grav-Worp drive. Has this one been tested yet?"

Dirk hesitated. "Well, no, but that's not a problem. Worpelman himself supervised the installation. And part of the cost includes Gravis on the maiden flight."

"What if I don't want Gravis on the maiden flight."

"A captain would need a pretty good reason to refuse to have Gravis along when he's available. He's the top drive man alive. You know he'll make your drive purr like a kitten by the time you get back."

"Can I assume that his going with us improves the odds that we will get back? I really hate it when a ship unexpectedly winks out of the known universe...especially if I'm on it.

Tala became very interested. "Mallory, you seem to have neglected to tell me a detail or two about this trip. For example, I'd like to hear a tiny bit more about the risk of permanently disappearing from the known universe."

"We need all the speed we can get, Tala. You know how tight our schedule is. The Grav-Worp drive will get us there in a few hours instead of a few months. That's assuming they've gotten the bugs out."

Mallory turned his attention back to the bearded agent. "So, Dirk, is this ship's drive state of the art? I'd like a bit of assurance that we won't send a radio message that everything's A-OK, then disappear like the Roth and the Hagar.

"Captain, those two ships were experimental and the crews were all volunteers. What was learned from those tests helped to perfect the technology. We've made hundreds of safe sub-light flights with this technology. Besides, there's no reason to think the missing ships won't reappear in our universe at any time."

"Who says they haven't already done exactly that? The solar system has traveled at least half a light year since they disappeared. I hope they took along plenty of rations for the trip home."

Dirk was getting a bit annoyed. "Captain, if you want Grav-Worp, I'll get you Grav-Worp. I'll even throw in Travis Gravis himself...or not, if you really insist that he not go. It's what you asked for and it's available. Let's go take a look at her, okay?"

"Relax, Hacker. I'm a little nervous about the state of Grav-Worp technology, but I definitely want to see this ship. Is she gassed?"

"Certainly, no need for pressure suits. When I show a ship, you get to feel it and smell it. Follow me. She's docked on Sprout 5."

The tubes that serviced each docking bay looked like sprouts that shot out from the big beanstalk of the port's axial tube. People at the port liked the name sprout. It sounded better than umbilical tube or access tunnel or other impersonal technical terms.

Dirk hustled them into an official-looking black limo. It was about twenty feet long and almost cylindrical. "Strap yourself in, and we'll head out the sprout." He checked his panel. All belts were fastened, so he powered up the compressor.

Compressed air pushed the limo up the sprout like a pea through a straw. There was no gravity and no centrifugal force to interfere with their short trip. In a few seconds, the limo gently air-braked to a stop at sprout's end.

A slight jiggle marked the limo's mating with the the airlock. Dirk flipped a few switches to operate the atmosphere safety system. "Alright, the pressure's equalized, let's go over. Tala, remember the gravity."

They unbuckled and Tala pushed herself out of her seat. Her weightless mass kept moving until she gently bounced off the ceiling.

Dirk held onto his chair as he grabbed her left ankle to pull her back down. "Stop screwin' around, will ya?"

Tala blushed. "Sorry. This trip is my first time away from earth's gravity. The academy taught me what to do, but I need to practice in actual weightless conditions. Have a little patience with me."

Mallory blustered, "Rookies! What good are they?"

"Excuse me, Captain," Tala piped up, "But you ordered me to come along on this zero gravity skip hunt."

"Stop complaining. I need your input on the ship. You need the hours in weightlessness. It's a fair deal."

Richard and Dirk each grabbed a hand and pulled Tala along with them. They gently maneuvered her into the airlock. 

Dirk checked the display. "The air's fine on the other side." He pushed a large round button that sat recessed behind a safety ring. 

There was a soft puff of air on their faces as the ship's cargo door opened. They looked in. There were lights in the blank metal hold beyond the hatchway.

Mallory stepped through. "Tala, watch me, then do the same." He effortlessly lifted himself on the handholds just outside the airlock. He used his legs and feet to launch toward a closed hatch on the opposite end of the hold.

Dirk looked at Tala with some concern. "Are you ready for this? I can help if you want."

"It's now or never." She raised herself up and launched in the same general direction as Richard. Unfortunately, she'd pushed harder with her right leg than her left. She felt herself move into a slow spin as she crossed the hold. Her feet passed her head as she sailed over the halfway point.

She'd turned enough to see Dirk's face. He was shouting, "Just relax, darlin'. It looks like you're going in feet first."

Mallory's voice was close now. "Just let your feet and legs absorb the weight. Contact in 3...2...1."

She felt the wall under her boots and landed instinctively. It was as if she'd just jumped into the air and landed in normal gravity.

Richard caught her on the rebound from the wall and helped her steady herself. "Easy does it, Tala...I've got to admit that was pretty fancy footwork for a rookie."

In seconds, Dirk joined them. "Nice maneuver, Lady. I can't do that trick myself. I usually go into walls head first. Are you okay?"

Tala did a quick inventory. "Everything seems to work. I feel a little light-headed though."

"You and me both," joked Dirk. "This is the cockpit. It's the first place everybody wants to check." 

He popped the hatch open to reveal a full complement of displays and control devices. Beyond the technology was a more amazing sight. The screen gave a panoramic view of every ship docked at the spaceport. It was a VR projection, but it seemed like a huge picture window.

A stationary black tube reached straight back through the axis of the spinning cylinder of the port. A dozen smaller sprouts snaked off the main black beanstalk. A single ship was docked with each sprout.

Tala could see from the designs that different ships served different purposes. There were winged craft with dozens of windows. She recognized them as earth passenger shuttles. Similar ships with no windows were probably earth cargo shuttles.

Space freighters were the huge balls with few features. They couldn't operate in an atmosphere, but had the highest volume to surface ratio of any design. With less mass in their hulls, more engine power could be allocated to cargo. Although she hadn't seen its exterior, Tala was certain that the ship she was aboard shared this design.

One ship stood out from the others. She was sleek, white and beautiful. Smaller than any of her companions, she looked like a sports car amidst vans and trucks. Her nose almost came to a point in front of a swept windscreen. Her middle was pleasantly rounded, and the tapered, flattened rear seemed to be designed to reduce air drag.

Tala pointed to her. "Dirk, what's that pretty white ship over there?"

"My dear, I see you have an eye for the exotic. That's the Ares. She was designed for the joint EU-Nafta Mars terraforming project."

"But could you really get to Mars in that ship?"

"You could now. They've fitted her with Grav-Worp drive. But originally, she was designed as a shuttle. They planned to attach her to a freighter, then take her along to Mars as extra cargo. Once in orbit, they could use her to ferry people and cargo to the surface. She became an orphan when Nafta got shut out of the Mars project."

"Two were built," Mallory added. "They were identical, the Ares and the Tyr."

"They're both here," Dirk noted. "The other one's hidden behind that freighter across the way. I'm the agent for them. The Ares is on the auction block. The Tyr's been sold to the SIA...a real hush-hush unit too. But you didn't hear it from me."

"We'd like to take a look at her when we're done here, if you can arrange it, Dirk." Mallory had an unfamiliar childlike enthusiasm in his voice. "We'll need a runabout if we choose one of these giant soccer balls as the main transport."

"Not a problem, Captain. I've got full access to her. The stats are on the net. In the meantime, I want you to note how clean the engineering is in this cockpit. You can see that the Grav-Worp installation was done with the best materials. It's solid and reliable.

She can make the near asteroid belt with a full load in under two hours...five hours to the far side. And that's with 100 percent safety. If you have an emergency, you can override the protection circuits and cut that time to under half an hour."

Tala became uneasy. "I don't think we're in that much of a hurry. I'd say it's more important to arrive in one piece than save a few hours, right Mallory?"

"Most likely, Tala. I'll trust Grav-Worp drive a lot more if they ever find the Hagar or Roth, though." 

Dirk became defensive again. "I told you, those were experimental flights. The crews were volunteers. Every one of them was recruited right out of prisons. Who really cares what happens to a bunch..." He suddenly looked embarrassed, but went on without skipping a beat. "Anyway, I think it's time to check out the rest of the ship, unless you have questions about the cockpit."

Richard and Tala both shot a few reference vids as they investigated separate parts of the ship's interior. Mallory looked into the structural stability, as well as the control and propulsion systems. They met his standards as an engineer and as a crew member.

Tala plugged her cellchip into the ship's nanotronics net. When both systems synched, an anachronistic image popped into her VR glasses.

"Ahoy, lass. Good to have ye aboard. I'm not one to believe those old tales about women bein' bad luck aboard a ship. The name's Silverberg, Long John Silverberg. I keep an eye on the ship between expeditions." He pointed to his black eyepatch, just in case his weak shot at humor passed over her bow unnoticed.

His was the face of a seagoing pirate, but the features weren't stereotypical. The skin was heavily lined, even darker than one would associate with a deep sailor's tan. His nose was strong, if a bit hawkish. His long black hair was quite curly. The peg leg was an interesting affectation. He cut a handsome figure in his awesome garb and boots.

"Greetings, Long John. You're the single most impressive person I've ever had host me on the network. If your ship is as impressive as yourself, this will be a most enjoyable visit."

"You'll turn me head with such talk, Miss. A fine one such as yourself must have a name; what might it be?"

"I'm Tala...I'm a friend. I'm here to check out your good vessel for a long mission."

"Lass, it would pleasure me to have ye aboard for me next adventure."

"I know you sailors have quite a reputation for charming the ladies, but I need your perfect honesty. I'll answer all your questions truthfully, and I trust you'll do the same. okay?"

"Pirates honor, Lass. I'll save me best sea stories for when we've set sail."

Long John liked the intelligence and respect he saw in his human guest. He gave her every detail she asked for without edits or embellishment.

Tala had training, experience and instincts to tell her when an AI was lying. She was certain that Long John was the most honest pirate she'd ever met.

Long John's ship, the J.R. (Bob) Dobbs had never seen unusual service. She made regular runs, ferrying supplies to the asteroid miners. As she unloaded supplies, she was refilled with refined ores. She always returned from asteroid runs with a full belly.

The Long John AI was probably the most interesting thing about her. She'd never had any major malfunctions, and would probably still be making the run if her owners hadn't run afoul of a powerful and crooked bureaucracy.

Whether by design or accident, somebody at the Chiron Company stopped sending payments to the appropriate Spaceport Authority officials. Within a few weeks, every ship on the line was found to have severe safety problems as soon as it docked. Flaws common to every ship in space suddenly became "Major violations that threaten the profitability of shippers."

Chiron was ordered to make costly and unnecessary repairs. Before apologies could be forwarded to the appropriate bank accounts, marshals had impounded every ship in the Chiron fleet.

The only reason the Bob was in port was to be fitted with Grav-Worp drive. Rocket jocks had finished the installation only hours before she was seized by government marshals.

Grav-Worp drive was developed by one of the unlikely pairings that fill the history of innovation. Wendell P. Worpelmann was a theoretical physicist who was so close to the cutting edge that his theories were often considered more metaphysics than physics.

Travis Gravis was a quantum mechanic with an uncanny instinct for how things work. If he understood the principle behind a technology, he could build it from scratch with baling wire, chewing gum and nanite medium.

A chance meeting had thrown the two together, and their collaboration produced a radical space drive concept. Its implications made Fundamentalist Relativists very nervous.

There was no question that the Grav-Worp drive worked. The question was how fast it could be pushed. The missing Roth and Hagar missions proved that the drive had undocumented features that came into play at, or near light speed.

When the info session ended, Tala was at ease about a trip on the Bob anywhere this side of Pluto. She had a hunch that the ship's Grav-Worp drive could easily maneuver beyond the solar system too. She kept that opinion to herself.

Tala compared notes with Mallory. Their cellchips exchanged data for later study.

Dirk was obviously ready to move on. "You two are the most thorough buyers I've ever come across. But you've got to admit that this is a good, sturdy ship."

"That she is, Dirk," Mallory conceded. "I'm interested in talking money. But first, I want to take a look at that little runabout across the way. If she's up to specs, maybe we can do a package deal."

Dirk cheered up considerably. "Let's get to it then. Tala, would you do another one of those mid-flight 180's for us on the way out?"

"Maybe next time, Dirk. You know what they say in show biz...always leave 'em wanting more." 

She carefully launched herself toward the open hatchway. Her landing wasn't quite perfect, but the handrail saved her dignity.

The men landed without incident, although it seemed to Tala that their movements were somewhat more deliberate this time.

Dirk's fancy sales limo returned to the spaceport, then swooshed back out the beanstalk. It shot off the main tube to a different sprout this time.

When they stopped, Mallory jumped up first. "Mind if I do the honors this time, Dirk?"

"Not at all, Captain. You've probably done it a lot more times than I have anyway."

Mallory pushed himself to the airlock and checked the atmosphere. "The ship's normal and her airlock's engaged."

The threesome huddled at the end of the sprout. Tala felt a puff of air on her cheeks. She expected to see the inside of the runabout as the hatch opened. Instead, there was another airlock. She looked puzzled.

Mallory answered her expression. "If you're wondering why there's another airlock here, it's simple. We entered through a cargo bay on the freighter. Her airlock is near the cockpit. On the other hand, this runabout doesn't hold much freight. Everything loads through here. It's a sealed storage space that doubles as an airlock."

Dirk eyed him quizzically. "You sure know a lot about this ship. Have you been aboard before?"

"This is the first time I've laid eyes on her in person. I studied the plans and video of her in engineering school. Excellent design, fine ship. Let's see how they've treated her these last thirty years."

They grabbed handholds and swung toward the runabout's inner door. Richard hit the safety lock. The cargo hatch slid open and the lady lay open to their inspection.

Grabbing strategically placed carbon fiber handholds, they handwalked their way across her main cargo deck. Compared to the Bob, the runabout wasn't built for much freight. It was apparent that no expense had been spared in her design, though. Even the cargo section's metal bulkheads had heavily grained wood insets.

All three pulled their way down a short corridor to the passenger cabin. Fourteen lusciously padded black leather seats awaited. Dark walnut adorned the armrests. It was real walnut too, not the photo-perfect material that's 100 percent forest safe.

Although thirty years old, the runabout was still a proud piece of Naftan space technology. Other than the Grav-Worp drive, little had been spent on research and development for space travel in the last three decades. However, the little ship was a showroom for current consumer technology. She was at the cutting edge of new tech, from the sophistication of her system's nanotronics to the VR projectors at each seat.

 The image for each terminal was projected three dimensionally from above and ahead. Each terminal was of work station sophistication, well suited to high level scientific analysis. Even the seat design allowed for a snug, but comfortable sleep.

Richard was appropriately impressed by the creature comforts of the craft. A crew could be quite content onboard for an extended period, except for a lack of privacy. Overall, the runabout could be handy backup if the main base on Venus turned out to be uninhabitable.

Tala sniffed the pungent aroma of leather and fastened herself into the nearest seat. As she gazed out the viewport, she knew she was in love with this ship.

She docked her cellchip to the seat's terminal. The VR projector instantly came online. The visual resolution was the best she'd seen anywhere, and the sound was spectacular. No glasses or headphones were required. As an experiment, she leaned her head into the aisle. The video disappeared and the audio faded away. Somehow, they'd designed each terminal so that it wouldn't annoy nearby passengers.

She punched the SERVICE button on the back of the seat ahead of her.

"How may Madam be assisted?" The runabout's AI was very white, completely bald and vaguely British. His perfect white uniform didn't even crease as his artificially created form bowed to Tala.

"Well, yes, I believe you can assist me. First of all, kindly pull that stick out of your butt and act like a person...or at least an AI version of a person."

"Very well, Mum. Is there anything else? Perhaps some entertainment? There is a wide selection of moviegames that was only recently downloaded."

"No, thank you, but you could help me with information."

"At your service. What information is desired?"

"I desire maintenance and service records for this ship. I would like to determine the level of care she has received, and the type of duty she has seen."

"Surely Madam is joking. That information is available only at the master's pleasure. There are no instructions to allow access to another person. Surely Madam understands. Perhaps some hot tea would suffice instead?"

"Thank you, that would be nice." 

Tala donned her own VR glasses and navigated the shipnet through her cellchip's connection. 

It took a minute or two to sort through the haze of unfamiliar symbols. A flotilla of runabout icons appeared on the horizon. Each had a different color scheme or size. She scanned them...all were locked files.

She switched to alphanumerics and found a file named SHIPS MASTER. She jiggled the doorknob, but it wouldn't open. 

There were no obvious booby traps, so she called up her SKELETON KEY demon. The file quickly popped open under the agent's touch.

Tala slipped into the file and temporarily replaced the Master's ID with one of her phantom identity strings. It took only a few seconds to rename the AI, refresh the file parameters and the close the door. As she navigated out of the shipnet, a cup of tea appeared from a previously unseen nook in the seat ahead of her.

"Your tea, Mistress. Earl Grey, hot. Would you care for lemon or sugar?"

"No, thank you, Tallywhacker."

"Very well, Mistress. Is anything else needed?"

"Yes, Tallywhacker, there is. I need complete access to the maintenance and service records of this ship."

"Certainly, Mistress. I have placed them at the front of the cue. They are confidential, your eyes only."

"Thank you, Tallywhacker. You're dismissed, but I might need you at any moment. Please stay on hot standby, would you?"

"As you wish, Mistress," the prig sighed. Hot standby meant the AI was not free to roam the net at will. He had to stay constantly linked to Tala's terminal, ready to recall any data that had overflowed the buffer.

Tala didn't need that kind of backup for a few simple files. It was just that she didn't like the AI's attitude and wanted to remind him that she was the boss.

He did make good tea though. She sipped the dark steamy brew. Its spicy aroma reminded her of the moss in Golden Gate park. It made her file search go more enjoyably.

Richard and Dirk had moved past her to the front of the ship. Handhold to handhold, they pulled their weightless mass along to the the control cabin.

Dirk steadied himself at the cockpit's closed hatch, then spoke the command code. "Open cockpit hatchway."

The hatch hissed as it slid left, into the wall. Dirk motioned to Richard. "After you, Captain."

Mallory was in like a rocket. He eased himself into the captain's chair without hesitation. "Is she safe for a dry run?"

"Should be," Dirk agreed. "Just don't take her out for a spin. We need to make arrangements ahead of time for that."

"Gotcha. Now you said the Grav-Worp drive on this ship works?"

"Purrs like a kitten. Gravis tweaked her up last Wednesday."

"Alright, I want to turn on the RealGrav then. I can tell how well the Grav-Worp works by the feel of the gravity."

RealGrav had been discovered about two years earlier. It was a natural byproduct of drive physics. Gravis had figured out how to harness the drive's graviton emissions. He'd put nanotronic graviton radiators under the ship's floors. When the drive was running, it made gravity, even if the ship was docked.

Dirk wasn't convinced that Richard could rate the drive by the feel of its gravity. However, he'd heard that a few engineers really were that good. "Let me get seated before you turn up the G's."

Mallory spoke to the pilot's terminal. He was only slightly bemused to note the new top name on the ship's roster was Master - Tala Wolfe. He spoke the proper commands, and the runabout's engines started to hum a song of joy. "Initiate standard GRAVITY ON sequence."

A cheery bell sounded from the intercom speakers. The 10 SECONDS TO GRAV ON warning flashed in big red letters at each terminal.

Tala noted the gravity countdown on the term and settled into her seat. When the numbers hit zero, her weight started its return to normal. In five seconds, she was back to her usual 50 kilos. The plush leather seat gently sucked her in as she continued her VR journey through the ship logs.

Mallory had a small smile on his broad face. "I like the feel of the drive. When was it installed?"

"This is one of the two prototype Grav-Worp units. It replaced this ship's original drive ten years ago. This ship and her twin sister, the Tyr, were the original test fleet."

A less sunny look came across Richard's features. "The early units had more bugs in them than an anthill. I'm not about to risk myself and my crew with an experimental drive."

"I knew you'd have some concerns, Captain, but you need to know some of the real history of this drive."

"I'm listening...but you're going to need some pretty good details that I haven't heard before."

"Fair enough. Tala should be able to verify everything I'm about to tell you. I notice from the net that she's already made herself Master of this ship... smart lady."

"That's why she's on my team."

"I have no doubt about that. Anyway, the original tests of the Grav-Worp drive continually pushed to beat the previous speed record. Every hotshot pilot alive wanted to be the first to break the light barrier.

Fortunately, the prototype on this ship was built with a governor. It won't go past 95 percent, no matter how a pilot juices it. That's the main reason it's still accounted for in real space, instead of wherever it is these babies go when they hit the Einstein Barrier."

"I'm aware of the problems. So why should I trust the prototype more than a later unit that's been perfected?"

"Because, Captain, the prototypes are the finest units ever built. They were hand-crafted by Gravis and his team, and personally overseen by Worpelmann at every step. The Grav-Worp units that came after it were rushed out on an assembly line as fast as they could be built. Many of them developed serious, even fatal flaws. Of course, that information became a corporate trade secret.

The only thing that kept the Grav-Worp venture alive was the fact that both prototype units worked flawlessly. Neither ever had a major problem of any kind. Their service records convinced the corp that the problem was in the manufacturing process, not the design."

"And what about the hotshots who went for the light speed barrier?"

"They had much smaller ships, equipped with later production models of the drive. As far as anyone knows, they're still out there somewhere, moving impossibly fast. No matter what anybody says, I still think we'll hear from one of them one of these days."

"I hope you're right, Dirk. What we could learn from any of them could get us out of this system and out into real space."

Dirk smiled knowingly, "Trust me, Captain, I know you'll have your shot at the stars whenever you say you're ready. That's assuming your asteroid mining project goes smoothly, of course."

Mallory smiled back nervously. "Of course."

"Anyway, Captain, you can trust the drive on the Ares, as well as her sister, the Tyr. I'd offer you a look at the Tyr too, but the deal's already done on her. They're just finalizing the transfer. But the Ares is practically identical. They're both fine ships."

"And when did they add the RealGrav? I know that wasn't part of the prototype design."

"This was the first ship to be fitted with it, then they did the Tyr. That was two years ago."

"Would you fly on her yourself, Dirk?"

"I would and I have. Believe me, she's logged over a light year with this drive. This is the ultimate small ship. I'd be proud to own her if I could afford her."

"You tell a convincing tale, Mr. Ford. If Tala tells me what I want to hear, you've sold me a thirty year old ship with a ten year old prototype drive."

Mallory spent a few minutes on the pilot's term to familiarize himself with the ship's quirks. He was sure that he could handle her like a pro after a few hours.

Dirk guided him through the ship. Her interior was about sixty feet from fore to aft and about thirty three feet across her widest expanse.

There was room for a crew of sixteen, with plenty of cargo space for any foreseeable shuttle mission. She'd make the perfect mate for the freighter they'd visited on the other side of the spaceport.

As Tala cruised through the ship's records, she was impressed with its service. Although never directly put to work on the Mars terraforming project, she'd been continually adapted to new jobs as they came along.

She'd shuttled crews during the Tranquility rail gun construction. She'd towed the giant mass catchers full of lunar dust between the Lagrange 2 point behind the moon and the Lagrange 1 point in front of it. She'd also moved the first three power satellites from the Heinlein's factory to geosynchronous orbits. Then she'd become a VIP shuttle between earth and the space rings.

Her glory days began when she was acquired by the Gravis-Worpelmann Design Group. Her outdated conventional drive replaced with a more compact version. Crews carefully fitted a prototype of the newly created Gravis-Worpelmann drive into the extra room.

The first tests didn't exceed the speed limits of conventional drives. Worpelmann wanted to compare all possible performance parameters with current technology. He was a careful scientist who wanted no surprises.

His partner, Gravis, was not strictly a scientist. He was a tinkerer with a mechanical knack that was just short of godlike. He was more eager to push the theoretical performance envelope. However, he bowed to his physicist partner's need for a scientific approach.

Once the drive had been fully documented at standard speeds, Worpelmann agreed to let the test pilots push the throttle a little harder each time. No unexpected effects could be measured. Test flights soon neared lightspeed.

The Ares had a governor that limited her to .95 lightspeed. The Tyr had no such governor, but her pilots were never allowed to exceed .95 under any circumstances.

Smaller experimental ships were also equipped with the drive. Their pilots had no unexpected problems, even at speeds of .9999.

Then it happened...the inevitable result of man pushing the envelope. A young Naval officer, Capt. Scott McCloud, decided to give the Grav-Worp an extra goose. His final communication was that he was ready to try for the Einstein Limit. Nobody knows if he made it or not.

There was a moratorium on further attempts at light speed until tracking data could be turned into useful information. But even as the investigation was underway, military Grav-Worp flights began to have major malfunctions. Five ships were severely damaged, two others were destroyed.

The Ares and Tyr were pulled off asteroid prospecting duties until their drives could be checked for faults. Unlike factory versions of the drive, both prototypes were found to be completely free of defects. They quickly went back into service to take the place of ships that required extensive repairs to their poorly built drive units.

The Gravis-Worpelmann Group used the Ares and Tyr to give demonstration rides to any and all interested corp and government officials. When everyone with any political or financial pull was bored with the novelty, the ships were sold again.

Their final duties were as executive shuttles for the Chiron Company. They'd been outfitted to allow management to slip out to the asteroid belt and annoy mine supervisors in realface. Every attention had been given to the comfort of harried executives while onboard.

Unfortunately, Chiron's problems with the government brought an end to the days of luxury executive travel at somebody else's expense. Both speedy runabouts were docked at the Heinlein while the marshals sought buyers.

Tala was satisfied that this ship and her twin had served admirably. They had been superbly maintained throughout their service life. She downloaded the files into her cellchip and erased all record of her entry into the system. She then navigated back out of the shipnet.

The activity regained the attention of the ship's AI, which had already forgotten its short term mistress. "How may Madam be assisted?"

"I thought you were going to get me some tea. This cup's empty."

"Many apologies, Madam. Please wait a moment for a fresh batch."

"Forget it. If that's the way you treat a guest, I'm leaving." She unbuckled the seat harness, gathered up her cellchip and stormed up the aisle to the back of the runabout. "See you later, sucker."

She found the two men on all fours, pounding on the floor plates of the main cargo bay. 

Talk interrupted the pounding. "I've given this ship the once over. If you can believe her official logs, she's been taken care of like a royal infant. I didn't find any evidence of major tampering, either. Oh, a few of the usual fudges that mechanics make to cover their nap time, but that's about it."

Richard looked up at her. "The biggest question I have for you then, is this...would you feel safe taking this ship on an interplanetary flight."

"Sure, long as I'm not the pilot."

"I think we can arrange that." He turned his head to his inspection partner. "Mr. Ford, let's talk numbers. I want a package price on the freighter and this runabout." He stood up and offered his right hand to Dirk.

Dirk followed the cue. As he shook hands with Richard, most of his brain was counting the commission on this sale. A small part of the rest of his mind spoke for him. "Excellent choice, Captain Mallory. I'll register the agreement tonight. Let's go work out terms between your company and my client."

The trio secured the ship and made their way to Dirk's limo. The car spurted smoothly up the sprout and back to the port offices.

Tala's cellchip signalled an incoming message. "Who the hell could that be? Who knows I'm here?"

She put her lenses on and called up the teleprez net. The image of a slender Asian man appeared. She didn't see a video scanner in Dirk's limo, so she projected her virtual image instead. Not only was it an incredible simulation of her, but it had perfect hair...something she still aspired to in realface.

"Hello, this is Tala."

"Good evening, Miss Wolfe. Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Ted Huang. I am attached to the Consul of the People's Dynasty. It is important and urgent that we talk. Please forgive the short notice, but we must speak face to face, just the two of us, tonight."

She checked the caller information in her heads up display. His ID and node location matched his introduction. He had some connection with the consul, and the call was from inside or nearby the consulate building.

She made sure her term was storing the call. She pondered how to deal with the man. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Huang. But you have me at a disadvantage. This is my first visit to this colony. To my knowledge, I have no business or personal ties with your nation. What makes it urgent that we get together?"

"I am afraid that I cannot speak of it on the public network. You can be certain that it affects you. If you would meet me at the entrance to the People's Dynasty Consulate at 2130 tonight, I can speak to you about it then. You must be alone as it is very confidential."

"This is pretty short notice. I don't know if I can be there. Can I call you back in a few minutes?"

His teleprez face didn't flinch. "I will call you again in ten minutes. You must say yes at that time. It is important. Thank you and good evening." He disappeared from Tala's terminal.

Her VR glasses went transparent, so she looked to her companions. They were obviously interested in the call, but busy not noticing.

"I just got a really weird call. I'd appreciate it if you'd both take a look at it and tell me if you have any idea of what it's all about, or who Ted Huang is."

"Weird's my middle name Tala. Let's take a look," answered Dirk. 

Richard was interested too. "I'm somewhat familiar with the name Ted Huang. Let's see the playback."

She fed the message into her net receptacle in the limo. The two men jacked their cellchips into the receptacles in their armrests.

Dirk became agitated as he watched the message replay.

Richard started to get angry, then checked himself.

Tala saw new things she hadn't noticed the first time she watched. 

As the message ended, Tala said, "That's it. What do you two think?"

"It's a setup. Somebody may be out to hurt you, Tala," Dirk blurted out. "The entrance to the People's Dynasty Consulate is the closest thing to a dark alley that you'll find on this station. By 2130, it'll be completely abandoned. You'd only have to diddle two security cameras to blind that whole area."

"This Ted Huang's probably not even a real person," noted Mallory. "The teleprez was an artificial image. I'd expect that from a cellchip call, but he was at a terminal that has a working VR camera...check the data on the heads up display."

Tala had checked the heads up data. She'd already spotted the phony image. She also noticed another problem. "He wasn't calling from an office...he was on a pay terminal outside the consulate!"

"Or maybe it wasn't even a he," Dirk added. "With audio and video manipulation, there's no way to know who placed that call. It's probably a fake ID string too."

Tala dove back into the net and did some quick research. The others did the same.

"It's a phantom!" All three said it in unison.

Mallory looked at Dirk's face and started speaking. "I recognized the name Ted Huang as a code word from a series of Intelligence Subcommittee meetings about two years ago."

He saw the subtle twitch he expected on Dirk's face and continued. "It was used as a recognition signal by an assassination group operating inside the corp's top level. They'd accidentally come to the committee's attention. I wanted to investigate the group more throughly, but was outvoted. It was all done behind closed doors, so it's possible the assassins never knew that they'd almost been outed."

Dirk seemed a bit uncomfortable as he spoke. "If Ted Huang is a code word for assassins, then somebody fairly stupid is after you, Tala. Either that, or they're using the name to warn you, knowing you're with Captain Mallory, and that he would recognize it. Either way, I'd say you're up to your lovely neck in trouble."

"So what do I tell this person when he calls back?"

"Tell him NO!" Richard was adamant that his top aide not get herself killed a few days before departure. He knew that Tala was even more important to the mission than he was.

"Tell him you'll be there," disagreed Dirk.

"You're got to be kidding," Tala shot back. 

"Listen, Lady. Whoever's behind this obviously knows you're here. It's impossible for a newcomer to hide in a colony this small. He knows what you look like, but you've never seen his real face. You're a sitting duck. Even if you try to leave on the next departure, there's a good chance he'd find you before you're out of port."

Richard was quite annoyed and very concerned. "So you suggest she walks right into a trap? Are you crazy? If we smuggle her out of here tonight, she could be safely back in San Francisco before sunrise."

"Excuse me, Captain, but her cover's blown down there already, if I'm not mistaken. If the police found her and you found her...that means Ted Huang can find her too. On the other hand, if she meets him tonight, we can probably protect her."

Tala hadn't shared her legal problems with Dirk, but his inside knowledge never surprised her. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I'm involved in this too. I'm pretty fond of this skin of mine, and it sounds like somebody wants to separate me from it. Sorry Mallory, but I have to agree with Dirk. We've been through a few scrapes together and I trust his instincts. I don't see that I have any choice but to go to this meeting tonight. That means I'll need help from both of you."

"I don't like it at all, Tala," Richard interjected, "But I guess Dirk does make sense. Let's see what safety measures we can put together between now and 2130." He checked his watch. "That's 43 minutes from now."

Tala's cellchip signaled an incoming call. She reactivated the outbound feed to Richard and Dirk's terminals. "Hello, this is Tala."

Ted Huang's phony cyberimage appeared again. "Miss Wolfe, what is your decision please? Will you meet me alone at precisely 2130 at the People's Dynasty Consulate?"

"I've considered it carefully, and I would be honored to be there. Do we meet inside the consulate lobby, or in front of the building?"

This caught the voice unaware. "Uhh, in front of the building, please. I do not wish to be observed by other employees of the consul."

"Then why don't we meet someplace else, to reduce the risks to you?"

"Thank you for your concern, but I really must insist that the meeting take place as I have described."

"Very well, I'll look for you at 2130 in front of the People's Dynasty Consulate."

"Thank you, Miss Wolfe. I will see you at that time." His created image disappeared from the network.

Tala wondered out loud, "So how will I recognize this man if the only face I've seen isn't a real face?"

"We'll have to find out as it happens," Dirk responded. "Our first order of business is to hide our own video scanner in front of that consulate before your meeting, just in case they knock the security scanners out somehow. Let me make a call or three."

Tala went back into the network. It wasn't hard for SKELETON KEY to bypass the locks on the security scanners.  She found the two cams that had views of the consulate's front door. Both seemed to be working for the time being, so she put them to use.

She directed the net to combine the images from both scanners and display the result at her cellchip. With some deft correlation, she created a walkaround simulation of the courtyard in front of the People Dynasty's Consulate.

Then Tala went on a cyberspace walking tour of the area. Under the circumstances, it seemed more prudent than showing up a few minutes early to browse the consulate courtyard realface.

The area didn't look like part of the Heinlein. Instead of the sensible lunar materials in use everywhere else, the building, courtyard and garden might have been transported intact from Beijing.

Golden lion dog statues sat on carved stone pedestals. They guarded each side of the marble steps that led to a polished stone landing. Massive wooden doors protected the consulate lobby from the prying eyes of passersby. The building itself seemed to be made of huge blocks of stone that fit together with airtight precision.

Immense airy windows appeared to adorn the entire edifice. Tala inspected them at non-visual frequencies and found that they were really VR projections of windows in front of blank stone panels.

Tala's cyberself checked the building's visible exterior. She found absolutely no real openings anywhere, except the front doors. Apparently the People's Dynasty didn't want browsers to pop in through windows and skylights at odd hours.

Tala toured the perfect garden that surrounded the stone fountain in front of the consulate. Other than a few small shrubs, there was no place for a person to hide. She noted that someone could crouch behind the fountain and not be seen from the consulate's doors. However, they would be exposed to anybody who passed by on the walkway. Other than the noticeable lack of foot traffic, it wasn't a particularly inconspicuous place to meet.

As she surveyed the consulate's small courtyard for any more nooks and crevices, she noticed a quietly dressed woman walking toward her. Tala tried to look inconspicuous, then remembered that she wasn't actually there anyway.

The woman looked around discreetly, then stretched her arms and yawned. Her right hand brushed against the rim of the fountain. When she walked away, Tala noticed a small ball stuck to the stone where the woman had touched it.

"So which team are you on, my dear,?" Tala wondered aloud.

Dirk disturbed her concentration. "She's on our team, Tala. She's a friend of mine with a backup scanner. It's on a very secluded part of the net. I just dropped the access icon into your private drawer. Fasten your belts and check it out while I shoot us back up to the colony."

The limo trundled up the path to the tube. It rolled into the elevator with a slight jolt.

Tala noted that Dirk and Richard were both talking to their cellchip interfaces. She went back online to check out the new scanner. It had excellent video, and binaural audio that let her zero in on the location of a sound with her eyes closed. It was also in a spot that made it impossible for anybody to hide behind the fountain.

She added the new scanner to her cyberview of the consulate and found that she no longer had any blind spots. The enhanced view showed her a new hiding place of sorts.

Two public pay terminals were just out of the gaze of the consulate's guardian lion dogs. She tried a call into each of them. Both gave an Out of Order signal. She walked as close to them as her telepresence allowed, but she couldn't see into the terminal kiosks.

As she strained for a better look, her entire field of view shifted. The cyberfield momentarily made her dizzy. She woozily watched somebody in a uniform walk across the courtyard. It didn't look right at all. Then she realized that she had a three dimensional view of everything but the person's image.

She separated the images and checked the view through the two regular security scanners. They showed an empty courtyard. Dirk's backup scanner showed the same courtyard with a person in it.

"Dirk, Mallory...the game's afoot."

Mallory stopped talking into his term to face Tala. "What's up?"

Somebody has diddled the security scanners at the consulate. Both of them show an empty courtyard, but I can see somebody there in Dirk's scanner."

Dirk joined the conversation. "There was sudden bit error spike on the security scan network a moment ago. Our friends must have slipped recordings from both scanners into the net at that point. Knowing our local security force, it won't be noticed until tomorrow when the day shift takes a look at the overnights."

Tala asked, "Is your scanner secure?"

"It should be. I don't think anybody saw it being installed, and it's not likely to be found until the consulate nantronics boys do their daily sweep of the grounds tomorrow afternoon. By then, it'll be gone."

Compressed air gently slowed, then stopped the limo. It rolled out of the elevator and waited for instructions.

Mallory noted, "We're obviously not dealing with rookies here. They knew how to find Tala, and they had no trouble taking over the security scanners. I really want to be there with you tonight, Tala."

"I want you there, Mallory, you and a whole army. But Ted Huang wants to meet me alone."

"Be brave, Milady. I know that area quite well. Captain Mallory and I will be less than 200 meters from you at all times."

Richard checked his watch again. "It's 2110...we'd better get into our places."

Dirk took control. "Captain, you come with me. I know a back route that can get us to the consulate unseen. 

Tala, you stay with the limo. I'll program it to go two stops past the consulate, then come back after a few minutes. Get out and walk up the corridor to the front exit. Turn left and you'll see the courtyard right ahead of you. You'll be on your own, but I'll have you in sight on my cellchip. I'm sure they won't try to harm you in the's too public. If somebody tries to grab you, use every trick you know to stay in that courtyard. We can be there to help you in twenty seconds or less."

"I've got it, Dirk. Thanks, both of you."

Mallory tried to be reassuring. "You'll be just fine. We'll be right there if something happens."

Dirk ordered the limo door to open. He and Richard handwalked out into the elevator bay.

Tala shouted to the pair as they moved away, "I guess this will teach me never to try to duck out on my Internet bill again."

A nervous laugh floated back in, but was cut in half as the limo door sealed shut. There was a bump as the vehicle moved itself into the Spoke 120 elevator. She felt her weight gradually increase as the elevator moved out from the hub.

Tala normally waited until after an emergency to become agitated. That's just how she handled things. Maybe she was affected by the unfamiliar environment or the constantly shifting gravity. Whatever the reason, she felt herself getting rattled before this nerve-wracking encounter.

She did a few deep breathing exercises as the limo moved onto its track past the consulate. They kept the tension tolerable, but she was still as anxious as a pregnant nun.

In less than a minute, the limo came to a smooth stop. The door opened and Tala peered out cautiously. The stop was empty. She gingerly got out of the limo and looked carefully in all directions.

She was in a rather boring track stop at the end of a long aluminum corridor. She saw the exit sign and walked toward it. Her boots made a lonesome thump - thump - thump on the strange gray carpet.

There was a sudden sound. She swept around quickly to take a look behind her. Nobody was there, it was just her limo moving on to the next stop.

Tala kept walking to the sliding door under the exit sign. She paused at the door to gather her courage. The mechanism didn't understand her hesitation and automatically opened the door. On the other side, the Loop passed within a few feet.

She looked down the pathway and saw the courtyard she'd visited in cyberspace only a few minutes earlier. She could see nobody. Her VR glasses were still on her face, so she called up Dirk's scanner on the fountain. She put it in half display mode so she could also monitor her surroundings in realface through a clear portion of her lenses.

Tala saw herself from the fountain scanner's perspective. The network view didn't show anybody else. 

Her heads-up display had a red text message coming in from Dirk. 'Mallory and I in position. I C U. Nobody else out here.'

She checked the time. It was 9:29:30. 

Her boots clicked as she slowly approached the huge, ornately carved front doors of the People's Republic's Consulate. 

She started to pet one of the ornate lion dogs for luck. 

It didn't work. 

As her hand stroked the figurine, power in the whole section went offline. It was well past artificial sunset. Tala was alone in the dark, at a mysterious rendezvous that promised danger and hinted at death.