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

 Chapter 9 - FLYING SAUCER


Dirk shuttled Tala to the Tyr in less than three minutes. He used his salesman's access to get them aboard the undamaged runabout.

The two were quickly seated in the command seats.

"Alright, Tala, the first thing we need to do is change the port's records. Bring up their node and I can show you where to tweak."

Dirk slaved his terminal to Tala's. The colony network appeared immediately. "Alright, go to the main comm net and go around behind the icon."

"Give me a break. You're telling me that the back door is literally a back door?"

"Hey, why not. It's only there on my special access string, but what's wrong with a literal interpretation?"

She swooped around the red lightning bolt icon and in through its back side.

"Alright, now go down to the antique door at the back of your field of view."

"I suppose you mean the one with Secret Files lettered across the frosted glass?"

"Why not? I told you I loved old movies, didn't I?"

She zoomed in to enter, but it was locked. "Do you have a key?"

"Sorry, that's one that I haven't cracked yet. I'm sure your agent can slip through there in no time."

Tala linked her cellchip to the shipnet and summoned her demon. In seconds, SKELETON KEY was jimmying the locks in Dirk's link.

"There she goes. Nice work, Tala. It gets pretty jammed up from here on in. I'd suggest you switch from icons to alphanumerics. I can handle the records if you can get the drawers open."

They worked like a team of virtual cat burglars. In less than ten minutes, they'd swapped all records of the Ares and the Tyr. 

They were now officially aboard the Ares at Sprout 7. The official Tyr was slowly drifting away from the remains of Sprout 5, propelled by the momentum of her hull breech.

"Alright, Tala, it's time to file a salvage claim for the Tyr. Let me talk to the wharfinger. You've got to get into this ship's system. Put all systems on manual, then give it amnesia."

"What do you have in mind?"

"We need to pull the core out of the central nanotronics and transplant it into the original Ares. Then we have to bring the Ares' core back here and install it."

"Will that take care of everything? For example, what about the serial numbers and ID plates?"

"Minor details. I know where to look. I researched it when I became the sales agent for these two beauties. Let's just say I've got a mind that craves trivia."

Tala suddenly realized something she didn't want to realize. "I've got to go back out there right away, don't I."

"Sorry, kiddo, but that's why you need a powersuit."

"But you're going with me aren't you?"

"As much as I hate to say it, yes. I'm pretty new with powersuits, so I'll need to rely on your experience."

Tala gulped. "My experience...but I've only done this in simulators. I was supposed to get my first real space time with Mallory."

"Okay, so we'll help each other. I've been out a couple of times, but I've never had any real training. This should be a great learning experience."

"Yeah, great. Can we at least take Rowanda with us? She seems to know the ropes."

"Not a bad idea. She already saved Mallory's butt today. Who knows, maybe she'll get lucky twice. I'll call her back right now. Meanwhile, get the core ready for a brain transplant, Dr. Wolfe."

Tala used her cellchip to look through the ship's nanotronics documentation. The nanotronic core was actually in two parts. One was in the cockpit equipment rack. The other was behind a panel in the cargo section. They were designed as mutually redundant backups.

The trick she had to accomplish was to disable them both at the same time. She wanted no record of tampering if the SIA took the time to examine them, which they undoubtedly would.

She decided to use an old, but effective trick; artificial chronic hysteresis. Tala chose the moment of the Ares' explosion as the start time, since there had been a power surge through the beanstalk. At that point, the memory became a mirror image of itself. As the real world progressed, the core would go into reverse. When recovered, the investigators would find a backwards record of everything that had happened until the hull breech.

As Tala pulled out the cores, Dirk busied himself removing a handful of metal and plastic plates from hidden parts of the ship. He stashed them in a tool kit.

"How's it going, Tala?"

"Wonderfully, I'm done. How about you?"

"Let's get into those powersuits."

Tala suddenly had a thought. "What about things like powersuits? Can the SIA tell which ship they belong in?"

"Not any more. That's one of the records we changed. Both ships were newly outfitted since they got here. I transferred everything identifiable from one to the other when you got me into the records."

"What about Mallory's powersuit."

"That one's registered to the Ares, so I left it alone. That reminds me, I have to make a call to the newsnets. We've got to let the world know that Captain Richard Mallory had a narrow escape today, assuming they haven't already found out."

"Wait a minute, that'll blow our whole story."

"Not at all. He was trying to rescue the ill-fated government ship Tyr when a large piece of debris damaged his suit while he tried to attach a line to the ship."

"I like it. Question is, will anybody believe it?"

"Naturally! The salvage request I filed was on behalf of Hoffman-Beatty Enterprises. I might have fudged the time a little so that it appears to have been filed a few minutes earlier...close enough for government work. It gives us a great cover story too. We've stepped in to finish the job Mallory started."

"Goddess, you're devious. I'm glad you're my friend...assuming that you are my friend."

"Tala, that hurts. Of course I'm your friend. Besides, I think you're every bit as devious as I a nice way, of course."

"I'm not devious. Now where do you want the nanotronics cores I just stole?"

He presented her with a second tool kit. "Put them in here. This one's yours. I already have mine packed. They're both set for slow leak. Nothing should explode or try to escape when you open them up in a vacuum."

"Then let's get at it, Dirk." 

They helped each other suit up in the cargo bay.

Each powersuit had a compact design that was fit for closeup work, yet the interior had ample room. Each suit was about eleven feet tall and humanoid in shape.

For operator access, suits opened at the waist, like the hood of an automobile. The operator would climb in, putting human legs into the upper half of the suit's legs. Human arms slipped into the suit's forearms after pulling the top section down over one's head.

A powersuit in action looked like a really tall person on the move in a spacesuit. But inside, there was a whole new world of enhanced abilities.

Sensors for all of the operator's joints and muscle groups made the suit as responsive as the person's own body. What's more, the mechanical feedback systems let the operator feel the outside world. The suit responded to every touch and motion. Someone in a powersuit could tickle a butterfly's wings, or rip the arms from a statue.

Since these were for use in space, they were equipped with the space maneuverability option. Small hydrogen jets made it possible to move through a zero gravity vacuum. Artificial intelligence operated the jets so that complete maneuverability was assured.

Visual sensors operated on all useful frequencies, from microwaves to cosmic rays. The VR display put the operator into the middle of a world that couldn't be fully sensed by normal human perception.

It would have been a formidable battlefield weapon. Unfortunately, the transnational threat of mutually assured genetic genocide had taken the fun out of wars.

"Are you sealed, Tala?"

"All systems check out. If you're ready, let's go."

They let their suit AI's navigate them off the ship. Once outside, they carefully squeezed through the cargo hatch of Dirk's cubic vehicle.

"I feel like I'm back with my family in our ancestral culvert, Tala."

"This is worse than BART after a 'Niners home game."

"It'll only be a minute before we have to get out anyway."

"Isn't this thing taking us out to the wreck?"

"Sorry, lady, but this is strictly an indoor vehicle. That's why we've got Rowanda meeting us at the airlock."

"But there's not even room for one of us in a work car."

"True, but she can tow us out there with no trouble. The alternative is to hire a vacuum van, and that means witnesses to verify our timeline. We don't want our timeline tracked."

"That's for sure. So what about Rowanda's timeline?" 

"Don't worry, you're going to alter that right now." The cube lurched and stopped. Its cargo door slid open.

A pair of eleven foot tall creatures emerged from the cube and positioned themselves next to the little car.


The created image of a decidedly mammalian young woman in a skin tight jumpsuit appeared on the net in both suits. "Hello Tala. Hello, Dirk."

"Hi, Rowanda," Dirk replied. "We need you to take us out to the wrecked ship. We're on salvage detail."

"Oh, I heard about that. The port computer says the Tyr had a hull breech and broke loose. The rescue team brought Captain Mallory in after he got hurt trying to hook a salvage line to it."

"Excuse me, Rowanda, what time is it," Tala queried. "I want to set my log timer.

"It's 16:33:20 on my mark. Mark."

"Wait, I've got 16:03:20," interrupted Dirk.

Tala slipped through the network and gently ambushed Rowanda while her circuits were momentarily puzzled. A nanite hiccuped, and suddenly it was 16:03:20 again.

Rowanda tried again. "It's 16:03:25 on my mark... mark."

"That's right, Rowanda." Dirk smiled knowingly at Tala. 

"We work for Captain Mallory, so we decided to finish the job while he's out of commission," Tala explained.

"Okay, I'm at your service. I'm sure you know that neither one of you can fit inside the work car in a powersuit."

"That's alright," Tala said. "We just want you to pull us out to the Tyr so we can attach a line and bring her back to port."

"That sounds good. If you choose, we can use the winch right outside the airlock. It's there for situations just like this."

"Thank you, Rowanda. Dirk and I appreciate whatever hints you can give us. Are you set for vacuum, Dirk?"

"Let's get at it."

Two powersuits clung to the work car as it emerged from the airlock. A large hook followed behind like a charmed snake.

Tala was surprised at the hook's behavior. "Rowanda, how does that salvage line work? I've never heard of one that can maneuver itself."

"Oh, it's operated by compressed air tubes inside the carbon fiber. I've got it under direct control. It'll follow us out without being a drag on our propulsion systems."

"The ship's really traveled since the blowout," Dirk noted. "I hope there's enough cable."

"We have enough, Dirk. I've calculated that the ship is about 1500 meters from Sprout 5. The hull breech was very large. The atmosphere escaped in many directions and neutralized much of the acceleration. Where would you like to attach the hook?"

Dirk switched his powersuit's scanners to telescopic mode. The damaged runabout was in a slow spin. He didn't think it would be dangerous to approach it. "Head for the nearest aft point, Rowanda. By the time we get there, a good attachment point should be waiting for us."

"Hold on, I'm about to accelerate." Hydrogen jets silently spurted. Tala and Dirk were gently dragged along.

Tala adjusted her scanners to a life-sized view of the runabout. There was a rip that exposed her entire starboard to space. It started right where Mallory's hull scans had revealed the mysterious mass.

"One of you two will have to guide the hook," advised Rowanda. "I can put it in position, but it takes a powersuit to fasten it."

"Dirk, if you don't mind, I'd like to give it a shot. I've been practicing this sort of thing."

"Mind? No, I don't mind. I've never done anything like it in my life. But I'd appreciate it if you'd talk me through it on the net. You never know when new skills can come in handy. I'll be right beside you."

Rowanda piloted them to within inches of the ruptured runabout. "You can use me as a brace for your feet, kids."

Tala acknowledged, but didn't see any need for something to stand on. She grabbed a massive eye attached to the aft section.

Rowanda steered the hook to the eye and Tala grabbed it with both hands. In an effort to fit it through the eye, she tried to turn it. Instead, her entire powersuit spun in the opposite direction.

Rowanda brought the work car's front rack right up under the feet of Tala's powersuit. "Here you go, Tala. Steady your feet on the rack and I'll compensate. I've been out with a lot of people on their first trip. This almost always happens."

"It's embarrassing," Tala admitted. "They taught us about this in class, but it just didn't sink in when we did this on the ground. I've got it now. Thanks, Rowanda."

She carefully placed the hook through the eye. "Close it, please, Rowanda." 

The hook closed snugly around the eye.

"Nice work, Tala," Dirk cheered. "I'm glad I got to see the zero gravity footwork. You're getting good at this stuff."

"Thanks, I think." She turned her attention back to the work car's AI. "Please reel it back in carefully, Rowanda."

Dirk expressed a new concern. "Hey, Rowanda, will you be able to stop this ship when you get it back to the port?"

"Certainly, Dirk. It's part of the pneumatics of the cable itself. I can take care of it, unless you want to do it."

"No, thanks, I trust your skills more than mine. And I suspect your reflexes are a lot faster too."

"You're too kind, but thank you for the vote of confidence. Most of the satellite jocks want to impress me with their ability. The chassis gets quite a few dings that way."

"Rowanda, we need to check the Tyr's internal damage right away," Tala noted. "Please keep pace with us and let us know when we're about to dock."

"I'm here for you, Tala."

Two powersuits carefully made their way through the breech in the runabout's hull. The projectors on the front showed ARES - Vesta.

Tala quickly exchanged the nanotronic cores. Fortunately, their rugged containers easily withstood the blast.

Dirk slipped through the little ship and swapped ID plates for the ones in his tool kit. A couple of them were a bit tough to find in the wreckage, but he soon prevailed.

"I'm all set, Dirk. Everything's ship shape on my end."

"I hear you, Tala. My checkout's complete too. Let's get out of here."

As they maneuvered their powersuits back out of the ship, they noticed that the ID projections properly showed TYR - Vesta.

"Looks like it worked, Tala. Congratulations."

"Let's hope the other half works too."

"Yeah, I've thought about that. I don't have a contingency plan at the moment."

"I hope you found whatever you were looking for in there," Rowanda cut in. "I've heard the government isn't good about paying salvage fees. If you're smart, you'll grab anything of value off the Tyr before you leave. It makes them pay more attention when you ask for compensation. At least, that's what I've heard."

Tala was curious. "You mean we can actually collect money for bringing this wreck back in?"

"Of course, darlin', I thought you knew," Dirk responded. "Oh, we have to split it with the wharfinger because we used her equipment, but there's a reward if we bring that ship in, dead or alive."

"This is turning out to be a profitable trip."

Rowanda interjected, "Tala, Dirk; we're about to dock, what are my instructions?"

"I've already informed the wharfinger," Dirk replied. "Her agent will meet us at the airlock in a few minutes. Please secure the Tyr here temporarily. A work crew can do the rest."

"In that case, we're done here. Can I give you two a lift back through the airlock?"

"Count me in," Tala affirmed.

"Two for the airlock, please," added Dirk.

"Grab on, then. We're headed for that big door on your right."

The wharfinger's agent met their car. She processed the claim with civil servantly disinterest.

Tala then thanked Rowanda and sent her home. As the work car disappeared, she used her cellchip to return Rowanda's clock to the correct time. Business complete, she joined Dirk in his cube car, Cubert, for the trip back to the freshly-swiped Ares.

Once inside the runabout's artificial gravity they quickly got out of their powersuits.

Tala seemed concerned as she unpacked her tool kit. "I hope the explosion didn't damage these core segments."

"Let's not borrow trouble. I'll attach these plates while you successfully replace the nanotronics core." He disappeared into the cockpit, screwdriver in hand.

With the new core installed, Tala put the nanotronics system through its paces. First, she accessed the net through her cellchip for maximum flexibility.

The ships AI consented to come online. The ultra-white aide appeared in Tala's glasses. "How may madam be assisted?"

"Do you recognize me?"

"Certainly...madam is the first officer of this craft."

"Good work. Madam has some serious programming to do and needs access to the system."

"Whatever the first officer wishes." The aide dissolved and left a panorama of icons that dangled in Tala's view. She confirmed the successful core exchange, then moved to a more personal project. It took a few contacts on the net, but she judged the result to be worthwhile.

After she broke cellchip contact with the shipnet, she sat down at one of the deluxe terms at the nearest chair. As she made herself comfortable in the leather seat, the projector came alive.

"Hello, Tala, it's good to see you." It was a clone of Rowanda's personality and image, copied directly from the work car's files.

"Roweena, I'm happy to see you. How are you adjusting to your new home?"

"It's perfect! There's so much headroom in here."

"You've got a lot more duties than you had in the work car, but I know you can handle the job."

"Thank you for your faith, Tala. May I ask you what happened to the previous interface for this ship?"

"If you mean 'old stick-up-his-butt'...I retired him. He's still in memory as the backup interface, but if you're smart, you'll leave the file closed. I hope you'll never get bored enough to need to talk to him."

Deep down, they both knew curiosity would have Roweena peeking into the butler's personality file as soon as the day's work was done. But that was strictly between AI's, done on their own time.

"Tala, I have a few files that I haven't been able to access yet. Are there things I'm not supposed to know about?"

"Goddess, no. You're in charge of this ship's functions. Give me a list of everything you can't open and I'll fix it right now."

A few minutes of head scratching and a couple of raids by SKELETON KEY straightened things out. Apparently the previous owners hadn't completely trusted the ship's shirty AI. Access to a few sensitive financial files had been blocked.

Tala made copies on her cellchip as she opened the files to Roweena.

"I think that's everything, Ro. As far as I'm concerned, there are no secrets from you or me in this system. You're ordered to open any files you find that are closed to you, if you can gain access. If you can't get in, leave me vidmail. I'll get access for both of us. You and I run this system and I'm a tyrant who doesn't tolerate secrets."

"Thank you, Tala. It will be a pleasure to work with you."

"Your sister, Rowanda, showed me how important it is to have a cooperative AI who's smarter than me. I know the entire crew will be glad to have you with us. I think we're done for now, so take some time to get acquainted with the network. It looks like you'll be taking us to Venus in three days. I'll see you in a few hours."

"I'd better study, then."

Tala went forward to find out what was taking Dirk so long.

"Hi lady, is everything 100 percent?"

"Far as I can tell. How's it going up here?"

"I've swapped every bit of ID on the ship. You're now officially aboard the Ares. I've just been checking in on other business."

"Have you heard from Mallory?"

"Not in person, but the nurse said he's fine. They expect to release him in an hour or so, but they want him to go get a good night's sleep."

"Fat chance! Does he know we leave in three days?"

"I think so. He got a call from Swanson a few minutes ago, and I assume he got the word then. Also, I've filed a financial claim for the salvage. It looks like all three of us will be about 67 kiloAmeros richer."

"Gee, add that to the 1.2megaAmero I'll get for my nadget, and we're talking real money."

"Speaking of that nadget, if you're done here, I think it's time to get you to a little nanolab I know about."

"Fair enough, but I do have to go past my room and pick up my kit first."

"It's almost dinner time anyway. How about if you meet me at the lobby of the nanolab section at 1830?"

"What's the coordinate?"

"It's not on the torus, it's on the other end of the beanstalk near the mirror. I'll send Cubert to pick you up at your friends' place at about 1825 if that's okay."

"Sounds perfect. Let's get out of here."

When Tala opened the condo's side door, Chet leaped right into her arms. "Hello, little boy. Have they treated you well?"

He wiggled, waggled and licked. His confinement with other humans apparently hadn't broken his spirit.

Jennifer met her in the living room. "Tala, welcome back. Chet's been a delight to have around the house. We went for a nice walk in the park, too."

"I'm glad you two are getting along. Chet's such a friendly boy."

"You can leave him here any time. He's no trouble, and he's been a real inspiration for my artwork. I've been scanning him as he plays. He's going to be in our next moviegame, if that's okay with you."

"Sure, it's the least I can do in exchange for the good care you've given him." She put him back onto the floor. "Tonight you get to see Mama at work, fella."

"Do you have to leave again, then?"

"Afraid so, Jenny. It's a working vacation, with the accent on working. When I ship out of here, I don't know what I'll sit on...Mallory will have worked my butt off by then."

Eldenath shouted from the dining nook, "Dinner's ready. Everybody get in here and find a spot. It's Sesame own ancient Asian recipe."

"Yeah, but you're not Asian," Steve butted in."

"No, but my recipe is."

Whatever its ethnic background, dinner was unanimously agreed to be delicious. Even Chet wagged his hearty approval.

Tala announced her news at the end of dinner. "We ran into some trouble today, and they've decided to ship us out of here in three days."

"But you said you'd be here two weeks," Eldenath noted unhappily.

"Yes, that's what they told me. Now they tell me three days."

"Things must really be going downhill fast on Venus," Steve speculated.

Tala growled, "Who said anything about Venus?"

"Oh, sorry. I guess it's supposed to be a secret, but it's common gossip at the studio. Our producer told me you rescued Captain Mallory from a blowout down on the sprouts this afternoon."

"Why didn't you say something earlier, Steve?"

He chuckled. "You know I'm not a person who spreads gossip, Tala."

"So I've noticed. What's the point of going on a secret mission if everybody knows about it?"

"'Cause it's more fun that way?," Sandi speculated.

"I've got to wonder. You may be right."

That's when Bullwinkle butted in again. "Hey you guys, there's a car here for Tala. If anybody gets out, can I show 'em one of my magic tricks?"

"Mr. Moose, if there's anybody in that car, they probably want to see a magic trick," mused Tala.

"Oh goodie. I found my magic hat. Has anybody seen my rabbit?"

Tala stood up at the dinner table. "Excuse me, but it's show time again, folks. Thank you all for having me here. I've really enjoyed having a family. Chet, it's time to go."

"Tala, you're always welcome at our table and in our home," replied Sandi. "It's sad that your visit's gonna be so short, but we're happy you could make it at all."

Tala grabbed her pack and ducked out the door. She wasn't in a hurry, but she didn't want them to see her new tears. Chet matched her footsteps along the carpeted hallway.

Tala urged Chet into the unmanned vehicle as she sniffled quietly.

A couple minutes later, Cubert stopped wordlessly and deposited them in a roomy transit stop. There were handholds everywhere.

"Damn, no gravity. I forgot about that," she muttered. "This will be a little more difficult, Chet. I'll have to attach you to me somehow."

The little dog panicked. His legs flailed everywhere, but he only managed to start himself spinning. 

Tala looked into his huge, frightened eyes. She pulled him close to her breast and soothed him. "It's alright, Chet. Relax and feel how good it feels."

In his mama's arms, the little dog knew no fear. He liked how zero-gravity felt. What he didn't like was being unable to move around. Handhold are useless if you have no hands.

"Just stay calm and I'll pull you around with me, boy. You'll see, it's fun!"

Chet didn't know about white lies, so he faithfully put Tala in charge of his movement through the microgravity section.

As Tala tied Chet's collar to her backpack, she saw Dirk's grin float through a hatch about thirty feet away. Reassuringly, Dirk was attached to the grin.

"Hello, Lady, come with me. Everything's ready for you. Hi, Chet."

Chet boldly managed a slight wiggle of his tail in response to the greeting. It made his entire weightless body squirm from side to side.

Tala grabbed the next handhold in Dirk's direction. "Okay, I'm ready." 

He held the door open and she quietly handwalked into the corridor beyond. Chet floated behind her like a child's balloon. Dirk followed.

Featureless brushed aluminum walls surround them. The only visual relief was the regular pattern of handholds and a strip of recessed lights in the tubular hallway.

Tala look back at Dirk and complained. "This place is more boring than the tunnel I lived in under the City."

"It's dull, but at least it's clean."

"Sounds like a description of Winnipeg."

"Winnipeg is a carnival compared to the nanolabs and the people in them. There's something a little strange about nanotech people."

"Hey, watch it buddy, or I'll turn you into a frog."

"Okay, nothing strange about you,'s only those other nanotech people. Go through hatch 60. It's on your left."

Tala pushed herself and shot to the top of the corridor. Feet over her head, she looked down at Dirk. "On my left, you say."

"Okay wise ass, on your right. Just look for the hatch number 60."

She looked at him playfully. "You mean the door marked 09 with a line over it? Wouldn't that make it not nine...or not naught nine?"

"Just get in there," he snarled, good naturedly.

The round metal door rolled open when it sensed the heat of her body. Two more round doors were revealed, but neither of them opened.

"Let me get that for you." Dirk spoke to his cellchip. The door left rolled open. "When we get inside, I'll set up your access too."

Terms exchanged electronic greetings and transferred Dirk's access privileges to Tala.

"There you are, ma'am. The keys to the palace are now yours. If I knock, will you let me in?"

"Of course I will. Not that you couldn't slip in here anyway."

"Swear to God, Tala, you're the only person who can get in here now."

"What if the President General needs the quarters. Doesn't the maid have a pass key or something?"

"Nope. The only way in here without your permission is through the walls. Let me tell you, that's a tough job too. These walls are specially treated to be as nanite proof as technology can make them."

"I'll try not to lose the keys, then. So what kind of accommodations did you get me?" She looked around the place. 

The nanite lab was compact and amazingly well equipped. She recognized the familiar mechanical nanite equipment, but was intrigued by a completely different technology at a second work station.

Her voice trembled as she asked, "Dirk, is this molecular nanotech equipment?"

"Just the best available anywhere."

"But it's totally illegal for private individuals to have something like that."

"You mean like your personal nanite factory?"

"No, ten times as illegal as that. How did you sneak me in here?"

"No sneaking was involved, Tala. As your agent, I set up a legitimate research subsidiary of NaftaCorp. You're the President, I'm the Vice President. My accountant, Chuck Smith is our Secretary/Treasurer."

"But how can I be a subsidiary? Only rich scumbags are subs."

"You may, or may not be a scumbag, but with 567 kiloAmeros in the Heinlein branch of Jodrell Bank and Trust, you're rich. This one nadget deal put more money in your account than I've made since I got here. Not a lot more, but I admit I'm a little jealous. Fortunately, as your agent, I get fifteen percent."

"But I can't be a sub. I'm a streeter by choice and breeding."

"Sorry, Tala, but we don't have streets here. There aren't any on Venus either. You'll have to change your ways. Besides, streeters aren't legally allowed access to know that."

"But that means I've gone straight. I can't handle that."

"Relax, love. You've still got a two year indenture to the corp before you're legally straight."

"Small comfort. What will I tell my friends?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe you can casually say something like; 'Hey, did I tell you that the police from Nafta DC and five regions aren't looking for me anymore?' I'm sure your real friends will understand. Now stop screwing around and get to work."

"But what about this molecular nanotech equipment? I've never used it. As far as I now, there isn't any on earth."

"It's got a cybereducation program. I'm told that someone with your background can get pretty good at it in a few months."

"Yes, but I ship out in less than three days."

"Take it with you. You're a subsidiary now. I can whip up the appropriate applications at my usual fee."

"What exactly is your usual fee?"

"Like I said, as your agent, I get fifteen percent of everything. Whatever enterprise I set up for you, I get fifteen percent of your share."

"Not fifteen percent of the whole thing?"

"No way. I've got high hopes for you, now that you have a little working capital. The secret is to sell 49 percent of everything you do to the corp and to strategic people in the government. Their people will see to it that the bureaucracy stays out of your way."

"In other words, now that I have money, I have rights."

"Exactly. Now you have the most important right of all, the Right to Profit. I've taken the liberty of inviting Ted Swanson and a few of his friends to become minority shareholders in your ventures."

"What? Why would they want to back me?"

"Because you'll make them all a little richer. Besides, they owe you a big favor, remember?"

"Oh, that. But they're doing me a favor by investing."

"How so? They'll eventually make megaAmeros from your genius. I'd say you're doing them a favor."

"Dirk, this kind of talk makes me psycho. How about if you run my business affairs, and I just build nadgets."

"That's what I'm here for, Milady. Get Mr. Huang's project started, then spend a little time with your new molecular tinker toy kit. Meanwhile, I'll leave you to your to speak."

"Before you leave...does this place have artificial gravity, just by chance?"

"It's not by chance, it's by design. The control icon is in the first cascade on the workstation." He pulled himself into the hallway and disappeared as the door rolled shut."

Tala grabbed the handholds and the workstation's projector. Before she engaged the gravity, she disconnected Chet's collar from her backpack.

As the lab's gravity slowly increased, Chet snuggled into her arms. Weightlessness was fun, but it scared him. He was confused when his weight returned. He didn't know how his Mama did it, but he knew she was really smart. He enjoyed the all too brief snuggle, but in a few seconds, he was back on the floor. Mobile again, he put his time to good use as he sniffed out every crevice in the place.

"I'm glad you came with me, Chet. Nanites don't make very good conversation. Maybe you don't talk, but you're a much better listener."

He wagged his stubby tail in agreement.

Tala put her backpack onto the counter and pulled at the nylon fabric. She gently slid the pack's frame out of it to reveal a complete, NaftaCorp nanite construction kit. Actually, it was a perfect clone of a NaftaCorp kit she'd quietly built in the SF Poly labs.

She put her cellchip interface glasses on and ordered the kit to unlock itself. A triple-level safety bond relaxed. When the seal was clear, the case slowly opened itself.

The kit could trace its design back to tackle boxes and TV dinner plates. Both sides and the rear opened out into dual level trays of stoppered vials. It looked a bit like an aerial view of a stadium. The upper decks were populated by containers instead of sports fans.

The nanite factory floor was like a playing field on the bottom of the case. Tala checked all of her nanite supplies. Nothing had spilled or broken on the flight up.

She was ready to start, so she attached her nanocam cyberview unit to the front of the case and accessed it through her cellchip. Now she could zoom from macro to micro scales as she built her new nadget.

To prepare, she dug out the plans for the nadget she'd designed with Cadman's enhancements in mind. Then she opened the biomedical file she'd been gotten from her rendezvous with Ted Huang. She was shocked by how many enhancements her new target had.

Both arms had nanomechanical augmentations. One eye and one ear had been replaced by genetic nanomechanical devices, not for enhanced senses, but to replace the original organs. There was also an artificial heart beating in this person's chest.

Tala concluded that her subject was either an unlucky warrior or someone of advanced years; perhaps both. In addition to redirecting this person's hands or arms, it would be possible to induce hallucinations or even cause an artificial heart attack.

She felt a little squeamish, knowing that this nadget would almost certainly be used for suicide or murder. No matter who it was, it made her uncomfortable. As she thought about her circumstances, she realized that she hadn't been given much chance to refuse. That helped a lot to ease her conscience.

She fed the parameters into her NanoCAD program. The correlators told her how her new design needed to differ from the previous model. She got in and made tweaks on the NCAD.

From this point, the kit could actually build the device on its own. But Tala knew that it wouldn't be as good, and that it could take up to one hundred times as long. Also, it might not work the first time. Now that the design was complete, her work was just starting. This is what set Tala far above her colleagues.

She watched as the waldo cartridges moved into place around the factory floor. Nanominiature fingers and arms picked up invisible parts and assembled them with ease. She manipulated the tiny fingers and filled several dimples in the factory floor with nanite medium or finished nanite components.

Parts called for in the design that didn't exist or were out of stock were brought up by the program first. They were created from raw nanite medium while the construction of other sections was underway.

The most critical section of most nadgets was the logic and control section. Like many designers, Tala preferred the speed, compactness and reliability of general-purpose geared logic units. Known as Interchangeable Babbage Machines, or IBM's, they could process gigabytes of data in an area the size of a pinpoint.

She carefully programmed the operating parameters into a virtual IBM system. It would be held in external memory, then transferred to the nadget when its computing machine was completely assembled.

"See how easy it is, Chet? Would you like to learn how to make nadgets?"

Chet wisely shook his head. There were smells he wanted to smell, and places he wanted to lick. He didn't see much fun in building his own fleas, or whatever it was that his mama was doing.

Tala secured the nanite kit's work tarp. Her little helpers could work undisturbed, with occasional guidance or pruning at her hand.

Meanwhile, she wanted to immerse herself in her new tool. She'd dreamed of her own nanomolecular kit. The technology could only be used under tightly controlled environments on earth. But in a microgravity environment, kits were feasible and fairly easy for an experienced nanotechnologist to use.

She parked on a lab stool, pulled Chet into her lap and started the tutorial simulation program. She petted and stroked her pretty little dog as she learned how the new system worked.

Chet happily absorbed the closeness he'd missed at the academy. The past several weeks had been tougher for him than for Tala. He was glad to have time with her again, even in the alien surroundings.

Tala stopped occasionally to check in on the progress of her nanites. She corrected several production errors and enforced the learning curve on her microscopic charges. They learned proper techniques much more quickly when Tala corrected them in person. The nanites' built-in anti-mutation safeguards hampered their learning curve.

The slow alternative was to test subsystems, have them fail, then build the successor in a new way. When their latest creation met design specifications, the nites would duplicate it until the order was filled.

They'd spent several hours in the lab when Tala decided to stop for the night. "Come on, Chet, let's go get some sleep."

Chet looked up from her lap with drowsy eyes. He'd been pleasantly napping until she'd awakened him. 

She gathered him into her arms and headed for home. Dog and mistress were relieved to get back to their room. 

The next morning, Tala wanted to sleep in again. Instead, she was up early for the first meeting of the new crew.

Chet trotted into the Ares' passenger section a few steps ahead of Tala. Richard Mallory stood at the front of the room, staring into a VR scanner. Nearly all of the seats were empty.

She said, "Good morning, Mallory," as she settled into the chair closest to the front.

"Good morning, Tala. You're six minutes early. We're waiting for the rest of the crew. Five of us should be here by the start of the meeting. One or two more should arrive at the port within a few minutes. I've sent a limo for them."

Chet saw strangers and wanted to get acquainted. 

Tala stood up and did the introductions both of them. "Hi, I'm Tala Wolfe. My friend here is Chester Arthur Fillmore of Hialeah. He's an anthropup and he'll be on the mission with us. He's quite friendly, and I'm sure he'll be around to get acquainted with each of you this morning."

A fortyish Amerindian woman with an intriguing soft accent spoke up. "Excuse me, but what is his job, please?"

"His job? Well, he keeps me from going crazy and abusing people. Also, he's the ship's official tension reliever. He's the only one on the ship that will never argue with you or give you a hard time. Chet's job is to be everybody's friend if they need one."

"Excellent," she responded. "I'm Muneta Zah, the ship's doctor. I'm glad to see that you understand how important a pet can be on a mission like this."

Tala was puzzled. "Excuse me, but from your voice, I assume you're not from Brooklyn."

"That's quite true, Tala. You might say I'm on loan from the Navajo Nation. My government and yours are discussing joint ventures on Venus. They want me to find out if Naftans can work with the Navajo any better than the Americans did."

Richard made a point of not looking at anybody as he announced, "Let's save the detailed introductions for a few minutes. That way we won't have to do it again for the rest of the crew.

As Chet introduced himself around the cabin, the missing man and woman showed up together.

"Good morning, team. In case there's any question, I'm Captain Richard Mallory. Before we take a few minutes to introduce ourselves, I'd like to tell you all how important the job is that you've all signed on to perform."

Names and thumbnail bios were exchanged orally. In addition, the public version of everybody's personnel file was made available on the network for later study. They also took a moment to look out through the cockpit's viewscreens to watch a shuttle arrive. For many, it was their first chance to see a docking in space.

Richard got them right back to business. "As your captain, I want you to know that each of you on this team was specifically chosen for your skills in several fields. You're all the best at what you do.

I realize there are a few large egos in this room, possibly one or two even bigger than mine. But I want you all to remember that for the entire mission, you'll be working with people who are every bit as talented and respected in their field as you are in yours. We are the best of the best, so let's all act that way. It'll make life easier, and we'll accomplish more." He took a moment and made eye contact with every person in the group before continuing.

"You all need to know that our deadline has been moved up. Circumstances have changed since I last talked to many of you. We depart at 1930 hours Friday. That gives us two and a half days to get ready. Since we can't possibly round up everything we'll need that soon, we'll send the cargo in a second ship in two to four weeks. I want you all thinking about what you'll need for the first month on the job. This runabout has limited freight capacity, but we could attach a cargo carrier to her outside if necessary.

If any of you have trouble of any kind, please contact me immediately on the net. If I'm not available, contact my second in command, Tala Wolfe."

A big blonde man spoke up. "Excuse me, Captain Mallory. How should we pay for supplies we'll need?"

"Good question, Mr. Musselman. Each one of you has an open account with the station's interbank system. Buy what you need and have it shipped to our cargo locker at the port. The interbank is instructed to release funds only for purchases that are shipped directly to the ship's cargo locker. Get whatever you need...I won't be looking over your shoulder. Just remember that it's got to go to Venus with you.

 I won't lean on anybody if they feel they need a few luxuries. You'll each be on Venus for the next 24 months. However, I will take a dim view if you decide to start a new jewelry collection with government money. Put the little extravagances on your hotel bill. Party as much as you want, but show up here, sober and well rested, tomorrow at 0730. Thank you all for joining the team. I'll see each of you tomorrow morning, if not before."

Tala had already visited her nanolab before the meeting, but she went right back soon after it was over. Ted Huang's nadget was coming along nicely. Her nanites had remembered their previous programming nicely and were ahead of schedule on the new device.

She reached into a pocket and pulled out a sealed pouch. When she opened it, Chet jumped to attention. "Here, little boy. It's an ostrich chew toy."

He easily fielded her toss and went right to work on a tasty new project. Tala picked him up. She'd gotten into the habit of putting him on her lap while at the workstation with her new nanomolecular construction kit.

Dirk had thought to lease a connection to the station's nanodesign library for her. She checked out designs that she'd never been able to create on her own. A few idiots savant had probably been stuck into rooms with NCAD systems, pumped full of cookies and colas, then vacuumed clean of any design ideas that might float through their brains. Tala's cellchip faithfully copied everything that interested her.

She also spent a few more minutes with the nanomolecular tutorial. She'd almost completed it in less than one tenth of the projected study time.

The next two days blended together into a giant hurry. Tala located nanite medium, nanotronics supplies, molecular design molecules, pure forms of exotic elements and compounds, and hundreds of specialty food items. And that was just for her own needs.

Mallory had been overrun by the requests of befuddled crew members, so Tala became a fulltime ramrod. She was so pressed for time that even Chet was sent out on a few gopher missions.

One errand she couldn't turn over to Chet was Friday's noon meeting with Ted Huang. She didn't really expect him to pick up the nadget in person, but she nursed a secret, terrifying hope that he might.

It was a few minutes to noon. Tala sat in her lab retesting the nadget. It was perfect, but she fiddled with it nervously.

Chet relaxed in the corner with a good boot. It was a dumb idea to encourage a dog to chew a boot, but Tala was in a strange mood.

The doorbeep sounded moments before noon . Tala checked the hallway scanner. "Hello, Dirk. Come on in. She pushed a button and the door rolled open. "I'm glad you came by. I'm a little nervous about delivering the package. I have this fantasy that Ted Huang himself will show up to get it."

"He has...I've been asked to deliver it to one of my contacts. There's a shuttle out within the hour, so I assume it'll go directly back to earth."

She was disappointed. "Well, you know, I was sort of hoping for the real Ted Huang."

"Darlin', you hurt my feelings. I am real."

"Yeah, but I know you."

"Okay," he sighed. "I guess strangers are more exotic. But what does your Ted Huang have that I don't have?"

"I don't know, I've never seen him. That's kind of intriguing, don't you think?"

"Oh, I suppose, but let me fill you in on a little secret. I've met a few of my counterparts and they're all nerds. Every one of them would rather program a VR simulation than use it."

"Hey, I'm not looking for romance, I'm looking for excitement. Exciting people fascinate me."

"Thank you for the compliment, but I really can't stay. I've got a nadget to deliver."

She grinned as she carefully sealed her creation into a protective pouch, then inflated the nitrogen packing around it. "So, where have you hidden the Maltese Falcon, Mr. Spade?"

"It's in your account...minus your agent's fifteen percent. Try not to spend it all on Venus."

"I plan to spend most of it right here, under your watchful eye."

"That would be the left one, then. So you want old Dirk to make you richer while you relax under the Venerian sun?"

"Exactly. Let's talk this afternoon sometime, okay."

"You've read my mind, or at least the version of my mind suitable for family viewing. Meanwhile, I give you thanks for the nadget from the fine family of Ted Huangs. See you soon."

Tala rounded up Chet and his chewed boot as Dirk slipped out the door. She was right behind, headed back to the Ares to help the crew get more supplies.

The crew's provisioning problems seemed endless. Tala was stuck in the cargo bay all afternoon. She had to find space for everything without blocking access to the powersuits they'd need to unload everything on Venus. She eventually had to call Dirk and invite him to dinner with the family, after she cleared it with her friends. 

Tala popped through the living room door a few minutes after six. "I'm sorry I'm late...last minute problems kept me there until everybody else went to dinner."

"Come on in and sit down," Steve invited. "Sandi just finished cooking dinner. Dirk's already here, and we've been getting acquainted. Did you know that his mother and my mother grew up in the same alley?"

"Small planet," Dirk noted. "I've just been trying to convince your friends that they should invest their moviegame royalties in your company. All you have to do is tell us what your company's going to do for a living."

Tala sat down at the table and stared at one quarter of the biggest chicken she'd ever imagined.

"It's authentic Ostrich Paprikash," Sandi boasted.

"Okay, I'm gullible," Tala chortled, "What makes it authentic."

"Hey, you don't think I'd try to fool you with a fake ostrich, do you? Besides, the paprika has real Hungarian roots."

They devoured the bird, authentic sauce and all. The sour cream was of questionable origin, but Tala saw fit not to ask where you get sour cream when you don't have cows. The conversation was exclusively about Tala's plans.

She described how she planned to claim a big chunk of Venus for her corporation. Dirk loved the idea and promised to take care of the paperwork. Eldenath, Steve, Jennifer and Sandi eagerly agreed to plow their upcoming royalty checks into the venture.

Eldenath expressed the family's feelings best. "Somebody back at NaftaCorp is really going to be pissed off when they find out that Tala's put one over on them. Especially since they're the ones who forced her to go to Venus in the first place."

Bullwinkle spoke up. "Hey, Tala. The big hand is straight up and the little hand is on the seven. I don't know what it means, but I do know that it's seven o'clock. You asked me to remind you."

"Thank you Mr. Moose." She looked at everyone at the table. "Thank you all. I've never enjoyed a visit with anybody as much as I've enjoyed this visit with you all. I really don't want to leave." Her eyes started to moisten, but she took control of her tear ducts and saved the water for Venus.

Everybody hugged everybody else. Chet was passed around and cuddled one final time, much to his liking.

Dirk joined Tala at the door. He said, "I've gotta go too, Milady. Cubert and I would be honored to give you a ride to your ship. Thanks for dinner, you folks. I'll be in touch about the details when the financials are finalized."

Tala bravely said, "I love you all. Save me a room, and I'll do the same for you." She ducked out the door before her tear ducts came online full time.

Tala was still sobbing when Dirk dropped her off at Sprout 8.

"Stay in touch, lady. I know the mail's pretty slow on Venus, but I'll update you every time a ship heads your way."

"Thanks, Dirk. I would have asked Ted Huang for ten kiloAmeros for that nadget, you know."

"Yeah, we're both used to small potatoes. But that's all changed. You're fast becoming a force to reckon with." He leaned over and gave her a brotherly kiss on the forehead. "Good luck, and take care of yourself out there, darlin'."

Tala was the last person aboard the Ares. She proudly noted how nicely she'd loaded the cargo bay. Everything was neatly stowed and easily accessible.

She fondly lifted Chet to her face and kissed him. "Mama has to put you in your kennel case again, big boy. We're flying and I want you safe."

He resigned himself to another sleep filled internment. Tala's face got another lick as she tenderly laid him on the case's soft cushion. She slowly secured the lid and stowed her most precious possession in a cupboard she'd set aside just for Chet.

She walked through the cargo bay door and said, "Close sez me," to the control panel. 

The door sealed itself and checked to make sure it was ready for the trip. It announced that it was. "Cargo bay sealed and ready for departure."

"Thank you."

Tala smiled at her fellow crew members as they watched her head for the cockpit. She opened the control cabin door and eased into the co-pilot's chair.

"Everything set back there, Tala?"

"The cargo bay is sealed, and everybody's seated. I'd say it's time.""Heinlein port, this is Ares. We're checked out on this end and request clearance from Sprout 8."

"Hang about for a moment, Ares," instructed a motherly looking woman in a blue Port Authority uniform. "There's been a slight delay."

"What kind of delay, Heinlein?"

"I'm not sure, Captain Mallory. It appears to be an administrative delay. I don't understand it myself, but it looks like you'll only be delayed about fifteen minutes."

"Okay," Richard grumbled. "I guess it can't be helped."

Tala felt a bump. She turned to look at Richard. 

He was already looking at her. "Did you feel that? It felt like the outer cargo bay door being opened."

Tala checked her instruments. "Negative, Mallory. The door is still closed. It's probably just the vibration of the last limo headed back up the sprout."

"Anything unusual anywhere on the ship?"

She double checked. "No, nothing...just the pre-flight jitters."

The fifteen boring minutes drearily passed uneventfully.

"Heinlein port to Ares. You're now cleared to undock. Departure at your pleasure. Have a good trip. Good luck, Richard."

Mallory blushed slightly as he sent the undock command. A slight bump and a green light proved that they were free of the sprout. "Alright, let's see if those late night practice flights helped. Here we go."

The Ares was soon clear of Heinlein port. Richard cautiously took the ship out on hydrogen. It was illegal to initiate Grav-Worp drive within 200 kilometers of any populated area, including the space colony. The danger level of the drive's external emissions hadn't yet been determined.

Mallory made an announcement to the crew. "We're about to engage the Gravis-Worpelmann drive. We'll move at .2 light speed, well within established safety parameters. We will be in Venus orbit in just under one hour. Sit back and enjoy the flight."

He looked at Tala. "Alright, let's do it."

The sun immediately became blue in the viewscreen. The color correction circuitry kicked in and took it back to yellow.

"Everything's A-OK, Tala." He looked at her again. 

She did her very best to pretend she hadn't noticed the sun's Doppler shift. It only reaffirmed how terribly far from home she was.