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

 Chapter 8 - OVER THE FALLS


Tala instinctively sprawled on the ground when the lights went out. The timing was a little too coincidental for her peace of mind.

She checked her cellchip. Communication with the colony network was out too. There was no quick way to tell if the problem was colony wide, or just inconveniently local.

Not wanting to spend another moment alone, she reconfigured her terminal for point to point communication. Dirk and Richard came back online.

Another message from Dirk appeared in red on the heads up display. IR shows nobody in courtyard. Open BAT icon to regain scanner.

She didn't dare speak to her hidden companions, or even to her cellchip. Using only eye movements, she easily found an icon that looked like a bat. Once again, she had a view of the courtyard as seen from the fountain.

Even with computer correction, the infrared view made the colors ghastly. She could recognize everything around her though, which was a lot more important that aesthetics at the moment.

She noticed a glow in one of the pagoda style public terminal kiosks. She stared at it intently, trying to detect motion. The scanner was just too far from the kiosk to give enough detail. As she debated the next move, her cellchip signalled an incoming call.

She switched it on and saw Ted Huang. "I am pleased that you could make it, Miss Wolfe. Please go the the unoccupied public terminal kiosk and we will talk." Huang's face flickered into darkness.

Tala took a deep breath and walked to the little pagoda with terminals inside. The nearest one showed a dull orange Occupied light. It was the first sign of electrical power she'd seen since the area went dark. She jiggled the door handle but couldn't get in.

She went to the second terminal. The privacy door was open. She stepped inside and locked the door behind her. The courtesy light cast a dim glow on the equipment in the booth.

"Welcome to the Consulate of the People's Dynasty." Huang's voice came from the tiny counter top in the kiosk. It seemed tinny, hollow and one dimensional.

Tala's ears followed the sound to an ancient desktop intercom. The unit was plastic, the size of a cigarette pack. It was taped into place. A wire snaked out of it, down the wall, across the floor and disappeared under the door. It seemed to lead to the door of the adjacent terminal kiosk.

"Please excuse the elaborate precautions, Miss Wolfe. This is a very dangerous business we are involved in."

"Can you hear me? Do I have to push a button on this thing?"

"The device is an antique, but it is voice activated. I hear you quite well."

"What's so important that you have to go through all of this special agent stuff just to talk to me?"

Dirk's message appeared in red in her glasses. Hear u loud n clear. Few steps away. B lert!

"We are here to discuss assassination, Miss Wolfe. It is a very dirty business, but often necessary for the public good. Surely you understand this."

"I thought assassination involved powerful people or public figures. How do I figure into all of this?"

"Miss Wolfe, please do not pretend to be ignorant. It does not fit a person of your background and intelligence."

Tala took a close look at the area through her cellchip. The IR showed a glow in each pay terminal under the pagoda, but she saw no signs of anybody else.

"Then, Mr. Huang, exactly what is our business? Have you been sent to assassinate me?"

"Of course not, Miss Wolfe. We have important business together. I have no reason to harm you in any way. My most sincere apologies if I have done anything to make you believe that you are in any danger."

"Well, you have a hell of a convincing way of getting a person to a meet with you."

"I am most sorry if my techniques caused you stress. But now that we are meeting, let me be very direct. I need a nanite device similar to the one you built for Mr. Hacker. There is an important job that must be done for the good of my nation's people."

A lump suddenly formed in Tala's throat. There was the name Hacker again. She didn't know who Dirk had told about the Cadman nadget, but she wasn't happy.

Her heads up had a new message in red letters. Swear 2 God, I told NOBODY about you. UR  my secret weapon.

Either she'd caught Dirk in a lie, which she considered unlikely, or else she was dealing with forces well beyond her comprehension.

Tala swallowed hard and forced herself to speak. "I've built several devices for Mr. Hacker, each with special features. Which device, in particular, are you talking about?"

"Miss Wolfe, the petty vandalism and corporate espionage you and your friend Dirk have been behind is not of interest to me. I am speaking of the device you built to take control of Mr. Cadman's artificial enhancements. Something very similar could be of great benefit to my people. Indirectly, it will also benefit your corporate government."

A new message appeared in Tala's glasses, this time in blue letters. 'What in the name of Krishna have you and Dirk been up to? I can't believe I'm on a sortie with a pair of assassins.' It was the sometimes incredulous Captain Mallory. Tala knew she'd have to do some big explaining if she lived long enough to face him again.

"Miss Wolfe, are you paying attention?"

"Yes, sorry. I'm not sure what you're talking about, though."

"I was prepared for your skepticism. I find visual aids a useful tool in my business. Please look at the back of your intercom. I think you will find something familiar."

Tala picked up the beige box and turned it over. A nanotube was taped to the outside edge. She scanned it with the zoom in her lenses. Even in the dim light, it was obvious that this was the nadget she'd built for Dirk. No replica could be that perfect.

A red letter message from Dirk formed in the heads up area of her lenses. 'monitoring ur terminal. no police trap. may be real ted huang. do deal, 1 million+ Ameros. trust me.

Tala casually killed the audio she'd been feeding to her companions as she spoke. "You certainly have a knack for visual aids, Mr. Huang. I'm convinced that you know what you're talking about. Precisely what do you want from me?"

"A very similar device is what I require. I have tried to operate the device you built, but it was ineffective."

"It's keyed to the person it's intended for. You could use this device to harass Mr. Cadman again, but it probably won't work on anybody else."

"Our test results confirmed what you have just said, Miss Wolfe. May I assume that you need the biomedical records of the person for whom the device is intended?"

"Yes, that's essential. I can grow a new one in a couple of days if I have a holofile of the biomeds."

"Excuse me, but why does it take so long? You have already built one like it."

"The time isn't for me. This is a very delicate process and the nanites have a lot of molecules to rearrange. Construction takes about 37 hours. I would then put it through several hours of simulation before I released it to anyone."

"That would be acceptable. When can you start?"

Mallory's blue letters appeared in Tala's glasses. 'sound?'

Tala ignored it. Her instincts told her to maintain privacy. "Excuse me, Mr. Huang, but this isn't something a person just does as a whim. Especially on a colony ring, where the laws against unauthorized nanite production are strictly enforced."

"I am not her to haggle over prices. I know your friend Mr. Hacker can arrange a suitable work space for you. I doubt that you are so sloppy that your nanites would escape into the colony. I am quite willing to pay you 750 thousand Ameros. 250 now and 500 on completion."

"I am flattered at your trust in me, Mr. Huang. However, there are two problems."

"Please tell me what they are. I am sure we can deal with them."

"OK, first, I need the biomedical records of the person who is the target of this device before I can build it."

"You already have that information, Miss Wolfe. There is a clear micro romball in the end of the nanotube your device is packed in. Please take a look."

Tala turned her glasses onto the tube. She increased magnification and spotted a tiny transparent sphere. It was attached to the bottom end of the nanotube.

Another message came through in letters of Mallory blue. nod if u r ok.

Tala nodded.

"I am certain that everything you need is on that sphere, Miss Wolfe."

"I take it that the records will also tell me the name of this device's target."

"Miss Wolfe, I suggest that you not ask for names. This will help insure that you will be able to complete plans that you have made for your future."

"No problem. You're right," she sputtered. "There's absolutely no need for any names. You know my name, I know yours...that's plenty for any healthy business relationship." Reminders of her own mortality always made Tala's natural bravado slump.

"Now what is the second problem you mentioned, please."

"Huh? Second problem?" Tala's nerve hadn't decided whether to stay the course or not.

"You have the biomedical records you will need. What is the second problem?"

Tala visualized a dozen ways a professional assassin could make her die. Some were quick and clean, others were hideous and slow. But Dirk said she should ask for a million or more. If he was willing to be her agent, then she was willing to trust his advice.

"Oh, yes, the other problem. As I say, I am flattered by your faith, but as one professional to another, I must ask for professional rates...six hundred now and six hundred on delivery."

"Miss Wolfe, it is my pleasure to agree to your terms. I know you have duties here, and I do not wish to have your absence draw attention to you. Please have the device completed and tested by noon Thursday. This gives you sixty-two hours until delivery. Do we have an agreement?"

"I can do it. How do you plan to arrange payment. I don't normally keep less than half a million in my account."

"Please, Miss Wolfe. I am well aware of your financial history. You and Mr. Hacker have sold your services far too cheaply. Mr. Hacker is learning the financial end of the business very quickly, though. Contact him. The funds are being credited to a special account he controls, even as we speak. When you verify that you have received the agreed amount, consider our arrangements official and non-cancelable."

"Where do I deliver the device?"

"That will be taken care of. Your only concern is to have it ready and packaged for transit at noon on Thursday. I now wish you a good evening."

Tala jumped as something heavy smashed against the the kiosk. Through her cellchip, she saw two figures outside. One raised a club to bash the door of the adjoining terminal. The other turned toward the scanner. It was Richard. He held a dissuader.

She unlocked her door and popped out into the excitement. Dirk had just forced the other kiosk's door open.

Richard pointed his weapon into the small booth's gloom. "Come on out. We have you surrounded."

Every light that had gone out at 9:30 suddenly came back on. 

Even before their eyes adjusted to the brightness, it was obvious that there was nobody in the kiosk next to Tala's.

Mallory went in first and grabbed a large black plastic bag. It was five feet tall and filled with hot air. A small heater/blower at the bottom sustained a flow of warm air into the bag. "Well, that explains the infrared glow from of this booth. Pretty clever piece of work."

While Richard marveled at the phony IR target, Tala checked out the intercom wire. It was connected to a small RF transceiver. Ted Huang could have been anywhere within several hundred meters during their conversation. For that matter, that radio could have been patched to another radio almost anywhere.

No, not quite anywhere, Tala realized. There was no time lag in Huang's answers. He was within a few thousand miles. Logically, nothing was within a few thousand miles except the colony and perhaps a ship or two.

"Well, gang, we've been snookered by the best," observed Dirk. "This has all of the earmarks of Ted Huang, alright. There's no way we could ever have caught up with this guy tonight...he was here and gone before we arrived. Now, that's smooth."

"Speaking of smooth, I need some answers from you two," Mallory growled. "I don't know how much of this story to believe, but it's obvious that you two aren't the innocents you make out to be."

"Moi, Captain Mallory?" Tala put on her best guileless act. "Surely you must have me confused with some other person."

"Kindly stuff a cork in it, Tala. This isn't funny."

"Captain, this is definitely not the place to talk about it," Dirk noted, pointing to the consulate entrance. "Let's discuss it in the limo. We can have privacy there."

Mallory grabbed up the intercom system and airbag. It was a cold, tense walk back. The limo had waited for them through the excitement. It sat on a short piece of siding at the stop where Tala had gotten out a few long minutes earlier.

Dirk's voice opened the limo's hatch. Everybody was extremely polite as they belted in. The vehicle moved smoothly onto the track and started to make a circuit around the colony.

Tala ran a diagnostic on the limo's nanotronics. There was no sign of tampering. 

It wasn't likely that anybody would have found the vehicle, or have any reason to connect it to Tala. She'd been gone less than thirty minutes. Just the same, she wanted what small peace of mind she could create for herself. "It's clean, as far as I can tell."

"That's more than I can say for you two," Richard snarled. "Is it safe for me to ask about Cadman's killing spree, or would that make me your next victim?"

Dirk became indignant. "Excuse me, Senator, but do you expect me to believe that you know absolutely nothing about how your personal friend and mentor, Ted Swanson, became the new President General? Pardon me if I'm just a bit skeptical."

"All right, everybody knows the whole thing was pretty suspicious, but I never had any reason to believe Swanson would engage in political assassination. I just figured Cadman's dirty conscience finally drove him crazy."

Tala noted, "Mallory, you're so damned straight that I could use you for a toothpick. Maybe that's why I can almost trust you, despite the fact you're a Senator."

"If it's any consolation, Captain, Tala didn't know what we had in mind for her nadget. I'm sure she thought it would be something a little less embarrassing for Mr. Cadman."

"Not that I would have objected," Tale piped in.

"So Cadman was enhanced," Richard surmised. "I'd suspected as much, but there was never any way to prove it. Even the Intelligence Subcommittee couldn't get enough information after the shootings. It seemed as though even mundane information about Cadman had never been entered into the network."

"You can thank Swanson for that," Dirk explained. "It's obvious that he'd planned this since the election. Apparently he wasn't content to play second fiddle to that idiot bastard for a third term. Who could blame him?"

"I prefer elections to assassinations myself. Cadman won it fair and square."

"Get off it, Mallory," Tala argued, "The last election was as dishonest as Cadman's lawyer. I know a lot of people, and not one of them voted for Cadman. How did he he manage to carry the election without any votes? Crooked computerized tallies would be my guess."

"So you two decided to get rid of him?"

"Hardly, Captain," Dirk pointed out. "I was hired by friends of mine who also happen to be friends of yours. I was paid well, but I'd have done that job for free. Tala was merely my subcontractor. As you know, she has a reputation for excellent work. Besides, I've dealt with her before."

"What's your complaint, Mallory? Swanson is exactly what the space program needs. You and I wouldn't be on our mission if Cadman was still in power."

Tala's insight made something tick in Richard's memory. Now he understood how Swanson had the foresight to involve him in the Ishtar project while Cadman was still the boss. Swanson must have known he wouldn't have to fight Cadman for space program funding again.

"Technically, we didn't even break the law," noted Dirk. "The Supreme Court has made it clear that enhanced people are legally responsible for the actions of their enhancements, whether intentional or not."

Mallory sat silent. He was angry. He just didn't know who or what to focus his anger on. The little kid part of him felt betrayed by a big nasty world. The adult part knew it was a big nasty world, and that he was a willing bit of it.

Tala shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "If you two are through agonizing with your consciences, can I go to my room? I'm a little worn out."

Mallory's mean streak didn't miss the opportunity. "It's still early evening, California time. What's your problem?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was the fact that the flight out from earth cost me last night's sleep. Or perhaps it's getting used to the ups and downs of the artificial gravity here. Could be it's just something as simple as meeting with a man who kills people for a living, thinking I'm his next victim. Who knows, possibly I'm just slowing down."

Mallory allowed himself the luxury of a slight grin "So, Dirk, I think we have a couple of ships to haggle over. Let's drop Tala off with her friends and head over to your office."

The vehicle halted smoothly in less than a minute. 

Tala said her goodbyes as she hopped out of the limo. The image of Bullwinkle rezzed in at the condo's back door. He apparently recognized Tala or her voice. The panel slid open, so she walked down the carpeted corridor.

Eldenath welcomed her at the living room door with a strong hug and a warm, full kiss. "Welcome back, Tala." 

She happily returned the greeting.

Chet galloped into the room and jumped into Tala's arms. He snuggled right in and busied his tongue licking Mama's face.

That night, five old friends sat up talking. They caught up on history and revealed new hopes, dreams and plans. A few outrageous lies were also blended in for texture.

Tala eventually dozed off in her chair.

After a few minutes, Steve gently awakened her. "Come on, it's time to go to bed. Your snoring's keeping the dog awake."

She found her feet right where she'd left them and managed to climb the stairs with only a little encouragement.

Between the missed night's sleep and the switch from Pacific Time to the colony's Eastern Time, Tala's body was ready to mutiny. Her hosts had heard about some of the day's adventures, so they let her sleep into the next afternoon.

She awoke with the edge of a bright patch of sunlight in her face. The solar mirrors had repositioned themselves to approximate the afternoon sun on earth.

Chet heard her rustling. He slid the partly opened door away and greeted his mama.

"Good morning, Chet," she said, as she scratched the perennially itchy spot on his back. "Maybe it's good afternoon. I guess it doesn't matter does it?"

She stood and stretched. The sunlight's heavenly caress against her naked back made her melt. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been naked in the sunlight. Maybe never. Public nudity in California was illegal. Public places were the only spots that the street and middle classes could find sunshine.

As Tala luxuriated in the rays, Sandi stuck her head through the door. "It's good to see you're still alive. Chet and I were starting to wonder."

Tala was startled and visibly embarrassed by her nakedness. 

Sandi was taken aback. "Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot to tell you that it's a clothes optional house." She slipped in, revealing that she was clad in nothing but original equipment herself.

"I'm sorry. It's not that I'm shy. I've just never had the chance to shed my clothes outside of my little room before. I'm not used to it."

"Relax earth woman. You're among friends. I didn't mean to embarrass you. You can be as naked or dressed as you want. We always wear street clothes to greet visitors, since they have to be clothed in the public areas. Now that you're here, it's your call."

"What's the usual with the rest of the household?"

"Well, Jennifer says she was born naked, so it's unnatural for her to wear clothes. Sometimes I have to remind her to put something on when she heads out for shopping.

Eldenath is such a costume nut that she's either in garb or in the buff around the house. It depends entirely on her mood, and whether she has a new outfit to show off.

On the other hand, Steve usually wears a robe. Men are so modest!"

"And I assume you don't wear much either."

"It depends. I'm carrying more fat than Jenny and Eldenath. Sometimes I hide it out of common decency. Right now, you and I are the only ones here. The others are out foraging for dinner."

"This may sound like a dumb question, but is there anyplace a lady can do a little nude sunbathing without being arrested?"

"Sure, Tala, right out on the terrace next to this room. One nice thing about life in a torus...every house has a terrace."

"Then would you give me about ten minutes in the bathroom? After a quick shower, I'd like some sun."

"Are you hungry?"

"Is a bear Catholic?"

"I dunno. You take care of business and I'll pack a little picnic basket."

 Tala quickly figured out the unusual appliances. The amazing purity of the shower water revived her body and her spirit. It felt wonderful, but she cut it short. The terrace promised an even greater new sensation.

Chet carefully avoided the shower. He didn't want his mama to get silly ideas about bathing him without a nice, civilized bathtub.

As Tala emerged from the shower, Sandi popped through the door and wrapped her in a soft yellow beach towel. 

What's this?"

"I can't have a guest blow dry herself on her first full day here, can I?"

The terry cloth was the softest Tala had ever felt. "I guess you had to bring this up from earth too?"

"Yes, but a couple of artists have started a little cotton industry right here. It takes time, that's all."

"I'm ready for the sun if you are."

Sandi grabbed a sturdy woven basket. "I've got my favorite sun suit, and all the goodies for a picnic. Let's go."

They walked across the corridor and slid a metal door aside. Sunlight poured in.

"Goddess, this is beautiful." Tala noted the tiny park, complete with a perfectly manicured lawn and artistically trimmed bushes. A small creek snaked through it all. A pretty little arched stone bridge lifted the path over the stream.

"Welcome to Banglefadregar Orbital Park and Nudist Colony, Miss Wolfe. I hope you'll enjoy your stay."

"Is this yours?"

"Certainly! Eldenath finally has a garden of her own. She does most of the work up here. If you look around, you'll notice that we have complete privacy. All of Zero is arranged to give every home a private terrace. We can't be seen by prying eyes, except from our own windows."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Tala handed Sandi the towel and ran to the middle of the terrace. She scampered to the top of the bridge where she did a primal dance, arms skyward.

Chet followed his own trail through the tidy garden. His nose checked out every vertical surface it could find.

Sandi toted the picnic basket to the grassy spot and sat it down. After she'd carefully spread Tala's towel over the lawn, she arranged her own. She sat back and relaxed, watching Tala dance through the garden.

"Who's your choreographer, Tala?"

"Part of it's just made up, and part of it's a ritual I learned when I joined a study coven in college." She was starting to breathe heavily, so she sat down on her towel.

"I didn't know you were part of a coven. Was that before the crackdown?"

"No...right after. I figured if SF Polytechnic didn't want students doing it, there was probably something valuable about it."

"And was there?"

"For me there was. It was the first time I'd ever felt the spiritual side of myself. In coven was the first place that I ever felt like I belonged with other people."

"Are you still a member?"

A wistful look crossed her face. "No, it broke up when five of us died in separate accidents over the course of three weeks. The remaining eight got the message and stopped seeing each other. Goddess, I really miss those times." She stopped for a moment. "Ahh, well, I'm here now with my good friends and the sunshine."

"Here, have some lunch. I packed lots of goodies for us."

Tala gleefully rummaged through the basket. "How long is it safe to be out here in the sun?"

"As long as you want, why?"

"What about ultraviolet? Back in San Francisco, the government was always warning us not to go outside without shades and skin protection."

"Relax, you're safe here. The solar mirrors only allow a little ultraviolet in. Some of the neighbors are unhappy. They want more UV for tanning. I tell 'em to use a tanning lamp if they want to fry themselves. You can stay out here all day and not get a burn. Now eat your lunch."

Tala munched. "What's that wonderful smell? It's flowers, but I can't place it."

"That's wisteria. Eldenath planted it everywhere. It only started to climb the walls a few months ago, but it really likes the climate here."

"I think I could get used to life in Zero."

Bullwinkle's voice interrupted. "There's a fella on the line who claims his name is Richard Mallory. He says he wants to talk to Tala.. Do we want to know about this?"

"Damn, it looks like I'm back on duty." Tala got up and grabbed her towel. "Mr. Moose, tell Mallory I'll call him right back from my term."

"Okey dokey."

"Sorry, Sandi. I'm a corpslave again. My time isn't my own." She reluctantly padded past the row of tiny white rose bushes and into the corridor.

Once securely into a robe, she called Mallory. "What's up, Captain? Have you just met a psychotic killer that you'd like to introduce me to?"

"It's good to see you too, Tala. Dirk tells me that the ownership transfers are complete. We now have two ships for the mission. Also, the rest of the crew has started to arrive. I've scheduled a meeting tomorrow at 0900 on the Ares. The crew should almost be complete by then."

"So what do you need from me right now?"

"I need you to check out the Bob Dobbs. I know she's already been approved by the port inspectors, but they're not the ones who'll be on her to Venus. Go through all nanotronics for function and get a lifespan projection on each system. Then double check structural and drive readings against specs. When it all checks out, you'll need to start to provision her."

"What about the Ares?"

"I'll do the same on her while you do the Bob. I want you to double check my results when I'm done."

"Aye, aye, Captain. I think I can handle that. How soon do you want me on it?"

"I want you there already."

"Is it alright if I finish my lunch first, then get right on it?"

"Whatever gets the job done. If you need me, I'll be on the Ares, getting acquainted. Message off."

Tala grumbled as she took off her VR glasses.

"Bad news, love?" 

"Jenny, I didn't know you were back."

"We just got home with the shopping. I'm glad you're up."

"Well, I'm not glad. I've got to go back to work as soon as I finish lunch."

"Let me get you some, then."

"Thanks, hon, but Sandi already has a picnic basket full of things. I just have to find her."

"Here I am." 

Chet walked in right behind her. His nose was fixed on the smells inside the picnic basket.

Jenny said, "I'll go get some more food and meet you on the terrace."

Tala brightened. At least she'd get a few more minutes of famly bliss before reality's jaws once again snapped shut on her soul. "I need to ask you folks if you could keep Chet entertained again. Please."

Jennifer was glad to make the sacrifice. Not only did she enjoy Chet's company, but watching him gave her ideas for a character she wanted to include in her next moviegame.

Tala made it to the port after lunch. She was pleased to note that Dirk had already added her ID string to the access list on the J.R. (Bob) Dobbs. She used her cellchip to find appropriate transportation out to the sprout. A small work car showed up and called her name.

Tala squeezed herself through the open hatch and adjusted herself into the only seat. She fastened the twin shoulder harnesses. She couldn't see much need for the restraints. The cockpit was so crowded that there was no place to bounce if the car jolted.

There was a rack on the front that apparently served as a carry all. That was the only place she saw that could carry tools or supplies.

"Hello, car. Do you have a voice?"

"Certainly, Miss. My name is Rowanda. Are you headed for a sprout?" The voice was as sultry as a summer swelter in a Saudi sauna.

"Hello, Rowanda, I'm Tala. Yes, I'd like Sprout 5 please, the J.R. (Bob) Dobbs."

"Oh yes, a fine ship. I see from the record that you're part of the new crew."

"That's right, I'm the first officer, whatever that means." Tala felt a rumble as the work car started to move toward the beanstalk entrance.

"I'm not familiar with the company name though. Is Hoffman-Beatty Enterprises a new outfit?"

"Sorry, Rowanda, I don't really know. I just work for these guys."

Tala saw a dozen tubes looming ahead. There was a quick jolt as they entered one. It was dark in the sprout.

"We have just left the beanstalk. We are now in Sprout 5, Tala."

The tiny vehicle bumped to a stop.

"This is your destination, Tala, Sprout 5, the J.R. (Bob) Dobbs. Would you like me to stay here until you're done? There's not much demand for cars this afternoon."

"Thanks, Rowanda. I'd really appreciate it if you would stay. If you do have to go, just signal me."

"It would be a pleasure." 

The work car's pressure lid popped open as Tala unbuckled. 

She spoke to the access panel at the sprout's airlock. "Hello, Long John, let me in, it's Tala."

"A fine day to you, lass. It makes me ol' eyes glad to see y'er sweet person again."

The cargo hatch slid open in unison with the sprout's airlock. Tala carefully made her way through the zero gravity environment unaided.

 Once safely aboard the Bob, she carefully launched herself across the cavernous cargo bay. She made it to the control cabin without injury or incident.

The ship's viewscreen showed most of the port. Directly across the way was the sleek white beauty of the Ares. Then she noticed an identical ship docked two sprouts down. The freighter that had blocked the view of the Tyr the night before was gone. Except for the name and registration number projected on their sides, it was impossible to tell the two runabouts apart.

She decided to check in with Mallory before she started the ship's diagnostics. "Hey, Mallory, how's the checkup going over there?"

"Hi, Tala. It's not going well at all. The mass in the structural readings doesn't match the given values. I've checked it and rechecked it and the equipment seems to be perfect. Any ideas?"

"Put it online and let me give it a look." A new icon popped into the freighter's command terminal. 

Tala opened it and ran through the data with her correlator demon. "You've done it exactly right, Captain. According to these figures, there's a 2 kilo mass attached to the outside of the drive housing. It might be an undocumented modification."

"Maybe some idiot left his tool kit stuck to the side after they serviced this ship. I'm going to get into a powersuit and go out for a little look. I want this ship 100 percent when we shove off."

"Good luck, Mallory. Be careful out there."

"It's not like this is a remote asteroid mine or something. It's a training run. Hey, I've got a good idea. Come over here and do it with me. It'll give you some powersuit experience."

The idea tweaked Tala's sense of adventure. "I'll be right over, Captain."

She shot back across the freighter's main cargo bay to it's main hatch, making a graceful hands first touchdown. Safely back at the airlock, she buttoned the Bob up until her return.

"Hello, Rowanda. The boss wants me to join him at Sprout 6."

"Alright, Tala, it's my pleasure to get you there. Please sit down and strap yourself in for the ride."

Tala was becoming an old hand with the shoulder straps and spoke as she buckled herself in. "Rowanda, do you have headlights or work lights that you could turn on in the sprout?"

"Of course, Tala. Here you go." 

The carbon fiber didn't reflect much of the light, but there was enough texture to reveal how quickly they were moving.

"Here comes the split again, hang on."

The work car bumped, then stopped.

"We're going back in, this time on Sprout 6. Next stop, the Ares. Captain Richard Mallory is already aboard. Is he your boss, Tala?"

"He's the captain. Who knows who's anybody's boss these days."

"That's for sure. I see the same ships come and go, year after year. Some of them have a new name and a new owner every time they come through. Here's your destination, Tala."

"Thank you again, Rowanda." 

Tala unbuckled her harnesses and was ready to get out. "Excuse me, Rowanda, but I'd like to get out..."

A jarring whack snapped Tala's head back against the seat. She watched the end of the sprout unravel as the airlock ripped loose. The tiny work car was spewed out through the end of the sprout as the air behind it shot into space.

Tala choked down the raw terror as she spoke to the car's terminal. "Rowanda, status report please."

The car's voice was mute.

"Rowanda, are you there." Tala swallowed hard with a sudden terror that she might not be able to get back into port.

A set of idiot lights flickered on the car's instrument panel. "Tala, I'm sorry for the lapse. I've switched over to vehicle power. We've lost our umbilical."

Tala was consciously calming herself now. "What's our status? Can you maneuver us back into the colony?"

"Certainly. Just be glad you're with me instead of one of the limos. We can operate outside the station for an hour on internal power. There's emergency air for two additional hours if necessary. Take it easy, you're in good hands. I'll get you back in."

"What happened?"

"There was an explosion on the Ares. The shock wave ripped the ship loose from the sprout."

Tala's blood froze. "What about Captain Mallory? He was on board."

"Let me turn around so we can both see the Ares."

The car nimbly pivoted around an imaginary axis. It stopped when the Ares filled the field of view through the front window.

Tala was stunned. "Oh, my god. One whole side of the ship is gone. Rowanda, try to raise Captain Mallory. I'll use my cellchip.

Fortunately, the explosion hadn't affected the colony net. Tala got network icons on her cellchip immediately. Mallory's icon wasn't taking calls though.

"Any luck, Rowanda?"

"I'm sorry, nothing."

"Okay, keep scanning. In the meantime, can you take us in for a closer look?"

"It would be my pleasure." 

Jets of hydrogen moved the work car toward the wrecked ship. A trail of debris spread from the huge breech in the runabout's hull. The work lights easily illuminated the crew compartment and cockpit. The whole runabout lay naked to the hard vacuum.

"It looks like his only hope was if he was in the head with the door sealed."

"I'll go in closer, Tala. Maybe we can see something if I can stick my nose through the breech."

"Carefully, please. One dead is enough for this afternoon."

"Tala, there's a call on the network. It's on the 911 frequency."

".....I repeat, this is Captain Richard Mallory of the Ares. My ship has exploded in dock. I'm floating in the debris in a powersuit."

"Mallory, I'm here. Where are you?"

"Tala! I assume you're the one in the work car. Go and get me some help."

"Thank Goddess you're still alive. Where are you?"

"I'm about 200 meters from the ship and still moving. I'd estimate that I'm on a bearing of about 120 degrees, mark 45 as viewed from the pilot position of the Ares."

"Rowanda, relay that to the port authorities on as many datastreams as you can. Then get us over there please."

"Done and on our way, Tala. The port acknowledges receipt of the distress call."

The tiny car pivoted as it slowly started to move toward Mallory's estimated position. In a few stretchy seconds, Tala could see in her direction of travel.

"There's a flashing light ahead of me, Mallory. Is that you?"

"Could be. My work light's on, and I'm spinning"

"This light's flashing about every three seconds. Are you spinning that fast?"

"Uhh huh. Get me some help fast, this suit's losing air."

"Hang on, we're coming."

"Tala, thanks, but you can't help. Those work cars don't have airlocks, and even if they did, there's only room for one person. Use your head."

"Listen, Mallory. We've relayed your message to the port authorities. Apparently your transmitter's on the blink. Your signal strength is almost zero. I think you're only getting out on the local oscillator. Just sit tight, I'm on my way. Hopefully, the port authorities are aware of the situation now, too."

"I've tried my jump jets, but all that did was start me spinning. This powersuit must have really gotten bashed."

"How did you happen to be in a powersuit?"

"I was getting familiar with this model while I waited for you. I was walking across the cargo bay when there was a sharp jolt. I was blasted through a rip in the hull. Every loose piece of gear in the runabout came out with me."

"How's your air supply, Captain?"

"Not good. There's a leak somewhere. I'm glad it survived the blast...good engineering."

Tala queried her car. "Rowanda, how's my air?"

"At least fifty-five minutes of normal breathing. There's an additional two hours of hibergas. When that comes online, you go to sleep to save oxygen."

"Thanks, Ro, but please save the hibergas for later. I don't want to sleep until this is over."

"I'll keep an eye on your air time, Tala. Also, I have a suggestion that might help Captain Mallory."

"Yes, please."

"His powersuit is small enough that we should be able to scoop him onto the front luggage rack. We could push him back to the beanstalk's emergency airlock."

"That's a great idea. I didn't even know there was an emergency airlock. I hope you can do the piloting, though, I'm still pretty new at it."

"I can do it under your direction, Tala. My program doesn't allow me to initiate that kind of action."

"Of course. Alright, let's do it together. Please ask the wharfinger to rush a rescue team to the emergency airlock."

The flashing light was much closer. Tala could see the outline of a spinning powersuit in the car's work lights.

"Hang tough, Mallory. We're going to push you back into port."

"Careful. Suit damaged," Richard slurred.

"Is there any way you can slow your spin?"

"Jets make me spin faster."

Tala was only a few feet from the spinning powersuit now. "What do you think, Rowanda? Can you scoop him up?"

"We have to exactly match his velocity or we risk damaging his suit when it impacts the rack."

"Mallory, I've got an idea. I saw it in the Winter Olympics. Stretch your arms out as far as you can."

"This isn't the ice show."

"Just do it, Captain."

He gently extended the suit's arms. As he did so, his spin slowed. "Nice trick. Too dizzy to think of it."

"How's his spin now, Ro?"

"He still has a pretty good torque, but we can match it. It means we have to spin at that speed too. Are you up to it?"

"I don't have much choice. Let's do it."

Hydrogen jets maneuvered the car until its forward travel was directly in line with the axis of Mallory's spin. Rowanda then put a torque on the work car. The vehicle was soon perfectly matched to Mallory's motion and inches behind him.

"Okay, Mallory, we're about to scoop you up. Get ready."

"Uhh huh. I'm all fine...okay." Richard's voice was stupefied from air loss and dizziness.

"Rowanda, does your system have provisions for airsickness. I'm afraid I'm about to blow chow."

"Pardon me?"

"I ate just before I got onto this amusement park ride. What happens if all this spinning makes me vomit?"

"Please don't do that, Tala. The equipment isn't designed to handle that kind of abuse. Keep a steel jaw. Ready to grab him?"

"Yeah, let's do it now." Tala concentrated on the task instead of her queasy stomach. She wished she had her pills for this unscheduled flight.

Rowanda skillfully boosted the work car until it was snug against the visibly damaged powersuit. "We have him, Tala."

"Captain Mallory, docking maneuver completed. We're headed back in. Can you hook an arm and a leg over the rack? I don't want you to bash against the airlock door when we slow down."

"Uhh huh." He slowly wrapped his suit's extremities around the car's carry all.

"Rowanda, gumboot us back to that airlock. I don't think he has much air left."

Rowanda's expert piloting slowed the spin of powersuit and work car as a unit. It stopped altogether in a few seconds. When things stabilized, Tala opened her eyes and watched the vista change. She hadn't even noticed the magnificence of the Heinlein in the viewscreen before. Her attention had been aimed at one little speck of space that held an important powersuit.

"Tala, I'm in an arc that will get us to the airlock in about two minutes without slowing down. That's the best time we can make. My propulsion system is made for detail work, not speed."

"You're doing a great job, Rowanda. Thank you."

"It relieves the boredom of shuttle work."

"Hey, Mallory, two minutes to the airlock. How does that sound."

There was no answer.

"Captain, we're almost there. Are you alright?"

No response.

"Damn it, Richard, please let me know you're still alive out there."


"Okay, we're nearly home free."

The car swooped past the junction where the first sprouts left the beanstalk. The airlock's outer door loomed ahead. It was a square with rounded corners. Eight metal supports radiated from its center. One to each corner and side. It was impossible to estimate its size in such an alien context.

"Rowanda, will this thing fit through there?"

"Easily. It's made to hold a limo."

"Open it as soon as it's ready."

"I'm already on it. There she goes."

The gray metal door opened at emergency speed. It was hinged along the edge that seemed to be the bottom from Tala's position. It looked like a drawbridge opening over a moat of deadly vacuum.

As soon as the crack was wide enough, Rowanda swooped the little car into the airlock. The door started to close as they cleared it.

"How soon before there's air in here?"

"I've started the emergency repressurization cycle. It'll be up in a few seconds. Unstrap and I'll pop the hatch as soon as it's safe for you."

Before Tala was completely out of the harness, the hatch opened up. Air hissed out, but not enough to make it uncomfortable. Tala felt her ears pop as she pulled herself out of the car. She handwalked to Mallory along the car's many grips.

"Captain, are you okay?" She tried to shake the suit, but it was still wrapped tightly around the car's carrying rack.

The airlock's inner hatch opened and an team of pressure suited paramedics rushed in. Dirk was right behind them.

The medics popped Mallory's suit open. One put a oxygen mask on Richard's face while another fed an oxygenator solution into his neck at the carotid artery.

Mallory made a few guttural sounds and moved his head as they worked. At least he was still alive.

Dirk was visibly shaken. "Tala, what happened to you two?"

"I don't know. Mallory found something attached to the outside of the Ares. We were going to go out and look at it in powersuits. He was already suited up when I got there. The end ripped off the sprout just as I arrived in the work car. My car helped me find him in the debris and push him back here."

"From the look of that suit, he's lucky to be alive. Looks like you just saved the life of Senator Richard Mallory. You'll be a media star all of tonight and half of tomorrow."

"Do you think he'll be okay?"

"No doubt. He's still conscious, more or less. There hasn't been enough oxygen deprivation to cause damage. That thing on his neck is pumping oxygen directly into his cerebral blood supply. He'll be up and around in a couple of hours. He's lucky you were here. There's no way search and rescue could have snagged him in time."

The medical team pryed Richard from the car's rack and loaded him into their vehicle, powersuit and all. They were gone in seconds.

Dirk's cubic vehicle sat alone at the hatchway.

Tala looked Dirk in the eyes and asked, "So who would plant a bomb on the Ares?"

"How do you know it was a bomb?"

"The diagnostics showed 2 kilos attached to the outside of the runabout that didn't belong there."

"Maybe a worker left a tool kit or tote case out there during the overhaul. It's really sloppy, but those things happen."

"Sure, and the side of the Ares blew out right after we bought it because those things happen too. Come on, Dirk, if it isn't sabotage, give me a better explanation."

"I can't. I'd prefer any other explanation, but there isn't one. I only filed the ship's transfer papers this morning. Whoever did it has to be stationed here. There wasn't time to shuttle somebody up that quickly."

"Maybe it was Ted Huang."

"I thought of that, but why? His people put the money into your account as promised. The funds were verified this morning and the clock's ticking on your nadget contract."

"Then how about Ted Huang's opposite number. Maybe they got wind of what I'm up to and they wanted to scare me or kill me."

Dirk considered it for a moment. "Maybe, but if so, they'd be smart to take credit for it. Unless you hear from them in the next few hours, I'd say they didn't do it either."

"Alright then, Mr. Hacker, who then?"

"Please don't call me Hacker...that name's just for the rubes. We've been through too much together."

"Sorry if I offended you. Is your real name Ford then?"

"As far as you know. Let's just let it lie, okay?" He smoothly returned to the subject at hand. "Maybe another government or transnational wants to keep you from completing the Ishtar Project."

"Hey, wait a minute. That's supposed to be a secret. As far as you know, we're headed for the asteroid belt."

"Half of Nafta knows that Senator Mallory has hand-picked a team to help him save the Ishtar terraforming project. Don't you ever watch the tabloid subnets?"

"Are you serious? That stuff's garbage. I thought you knew better."

"Listen, Tala, in my line of work, I pay attention to all news sources. The tabloids have just enough lies in them to keep the government off their backs. I have sufficient contacts to know when a story's legit and when it's not. I can even tell you about the rest of your crew if you want."

"If this is true, every government, corp and spy on the earth knows we're up here and why. So any number of people could want to stop our mission."

"I doubt that more than one or two groups care too much about your mission, Tala. However, Nafta's allies are pulling for you, even the EU. They know what'll happen to the Western Economy if Ishtar Terra goes belly up."

"This is starting to sound like that old 2D, Casablanca."

"Great film. It inspired me as a teen."

"Yeah, I can tell. So who are the usual suspects then?"

"In order, I have three guesses. First, the current People's Dynasty leadership, followed by the White African Coalition. In third place, some private investment syndicate that stands to make a fortune if Nafta defaults on its Ishtar Project loans. I can think of a couple of financial houses that fit the final category."

"Hell, on that basis, you could have done the job yourself on contract."

"Stipulated...but I wouldn't. This isn't something I'd do for any amount of money. Frankly, I don't even know who would take a contract like this. I really want your mission to succeed. We've almost perfected a star drive. We're within a couple of years of galactic exploration. You and Mallory have to pull through or our space program dies, maybe forever. If you ask me, the job was probably done by some dirtbag satellite jock who needs cash to feed his gossamer habit."

Tala changed the subject. "Speaking of cash, I've got a little project of my own that has to get started. I'd feel badly if I disappointed an internationally known killer."

"I've found a lab for you. It's fully equipped and it's discrete. But you have an even bigger deadline than Huang's."

"What's more important than a deadline set by someone who could kill me?"

"Listen, Huang's not psychotic. If you absolutely can't make the deadline, I'll get him to extend it a few hours. You have a bigger project that has to be done right now."

"Just how well do you know Ted Huang, Dirk?"

He glanced cautiously to the inner door. It was deserted. 

"I am Ted Huang."


"Listen, I know you're smart enough to keep this between us. Ted Huang isn't a single person, he's a society. I'm a member. In a way, you're an associate member."

"So you placed the call that scared the hell out of me last night? You bastard!"

"Hey, that wasn't me. It was another Ted Huang. There are about two dozen of us. I really don't know who it was or who's paying for it. Believe me though, you're needed. Nobody will hurt you. Several of your nadgets have helped right some serious wrongs. Trust me when I say you can have a few extra hours to finish the nadget if you absolutely need the time."

"Why shouldn't I start on it right now then?"

"Because you need a ship. The Ares and the Tyr are the only available runabouts that can do the job on Venus. Nothing similar is headed here for at least two months. You're scheduled to ship out in three days."

"Three days? Mallory said we'd be here for two weeks."

"That's what he thinks. Swanson himself just changed your orders. He already knows what happened here."


"I told him. He's kept close tabs on this whole mission. He wants to make sure you get the runabout you need with no questions asked."

"So why don't you just sell it to us?"

"It's already sold. I told you, the SIA owns it. They've got a commando unit headed up here tomorrow to take possession."

"I'm not following this then."

"With a lot of help from you, I can make the SIA believe that the Tyr exploded instead of the Ares. You get the runabout you need, the SIA gets screwed, and I still collect my commission. It's a great arrangement, no matter how I look at it."

"Do you have enough data to swap ID's so the SIA doesn't suspect?"

"Fortunately their security people haven't been here yet to secure the Tyr's systems. There's nothing special about her current nanotronics. Everything's the same as the Ares. I can get you aboard if you're game to try it."

"I guess I have to, don't I?"

"That's the SF Poly spirit. You'll make old man Swanson proud...unofficially of course."

"Of course," Tala sighed. "I'll be a top secret classified legend in my own time."