A Penny in Your Thoughts

by

Adrian VanWormer

January 29, 1995

Talahran woke up and stretched. He'd overslept, and his parents had already left for the day to sell vegetables at the market. 'Good...' he thought, 'No chance of getting drafted for chores this way.'

He went about his morning routine and, still brushing his fur, sat down at his terminal and logged into the small chat network he and some other young scribes and librarians had set up. There were five other young Velans logged on, quite a few for this hour, so he typed [What's going on?]

Lenahran, a girl about Tal's age, answered [The Watcher's screaming that someone's been accessing his system.] The Watcher was a rather young apprentice librarian, brilliant with computers but with a reputation for paranoia, who'd never given his real name.

Kertiran, a young man who'd finished his training as a librarian, but was still too young to "go serious", as the small group called it, and stop hanging out on the network, piped up, [You know how paranoid he is, right? Well, it seems he's got a daemon on his system that records not just file modifications, but any file access at all, and correlates it with system packet logs... Somewhere along the line his files were accessed by a node that wasn't on his 'okay' list, and at least five separate alarms went off on his system, yet somehow whoever or whatever was doing the accessing was unaware anything had occurred...]

Talahran thought for a moment... [That's one smooth piece of programming... Did he get the node-path of the culprit?]

Lenahran gave the electronic equivalent of a chuckle... [Within picoverkens a log of the files accessed and the complete net-route the exchange took place over was in read-only files on a dozen systems and backed up halfway to eternity... Here's a copy, he can't track down just who it is so he's spreading the relevant information to everyone he can, on the hopes someone will notice something he missed.]

Talahran accepted the file transfer request that popped up in the corner of his screen, waited a few seconds for it to finish, and logged off after promising to do what he could.

A little later, as he browsed the file over a bowl of some left-over meat and grain dish from the previous night's supper, something caught his eye.

[..kleir~refta~rrun|hanata~keruun~te'lah~prei|tauceti~terra~rrun|slepah~tal~prei]

Odd... The hyperlink to Earth was not used for packet routing, it was much too important... Talahran checked the other entries and, while none of them went through the Terran link like that one had, every single one had a record of the packet passing through a system not more than two hops from the hyperlink. A seed of suspicion began to grow in Talahran's mind...

Typing like one possessed, and using access he really wasn't supposed to have, Talahran requested packet logs from almost every system on the continent, screened out obviously standard queries and traffic, as well as packets that never got within two hops of the Terran hyperlink, and fed the resulting mess into the net-mapping program he'd developed for his monochrome line plotter.

Waiting for the lengthy calculations and lengthier printout on the almost antique equipment, Talahran pondered what he'd just done... It could be considered somewhat dishonorable to use the access level he'd found by accident in the way he'd just done, but if he hadn't, and what he suspected was true, an extremely unsightly mess was brewing, and he had to do whatever he could to stop it, or at least lessen the severity...

Talahran was shaken from his musings by the beeping of the plotter, and he got up and tore off the wide roll of parchment. Had Talahran been a little more artistically inclined, he could probably have sold the resulting diagram as a representation of an Earth squid, though it had about ten times too many arms... Centered around Earth's link to the Velan information network were dozens of tendrils, representing systems with records of unusual activity of the type Talahran had looked for... Someone, or something, was systematically securing access to every computer on the continent, if not the planet. Talahran could think of only one being with the ability, and the desire, to do such a thing. Penny.

Though Tal's direct interactions with Penny were few and far between, he'd always come away with a sense of familiarity with her, as if spending much of her early life as a computer workstation had given her an indefinable quality that one, such as Talahran, who got along better with computers than people, could identify with. Talahran liked Penny as a person, and had no desire to see her get into trouble, but if the Velan authorities found out what she'd been up to, the results could be disastrous. Besides which, Talahran had watched Penny's evolution through the Nas Kan family histories, and felt protective of her as she was still more than a little childlike, though one could hardly tell when talking to her.

One of the tendrils on the map was getting very close to Talahran's own terminal, which gave him an idea how to solve the whole problem before it escalated beyond his help. His course decided, Talahran sent a brief text message to the Watcher, saying that he'd taken care of the problem, and that the Watcher need no longer raise such a virtual ruckus.

Talahran dumped the plotter's output to a graphics file, converted it to the Terran JPEG format, and left it in his root directory where it stuck out like a sore thumb, with a small text file containing only [Talk to me.] His preparations completed, he left the terminal in standby mode and went outside to tend the family garden.

* * *

Vel was setting on the horizon and Talahran was shaking dirt from the last weed in the garden as Satdetin and Faledon walked over the small hill on the road that went past their home.

Talahran stood up and brushed the dirt off of his hands as Satdetin called out, "You're doing your chores for a change... Did your computer melt?!?"

Talahran chuckled, "No, saving the world once was enough for one day... Well, saving one person's world at least. How did we do at the market?"

Faledon grinned broadly, "Quite well, actually! Your suggestion to isolate and breed the yellow k'raals was a good one, people couldn't buy enough!" He hefted the large bag of goods and supplies they'd gotten in trade for their vegetables.

Satdetin, who'd been staring at the sky behind Tal, coughed uncomfortably, "Ummm... You seem to have company dear..."

Talahran turned and looked where his mother had been staring. Sure enough, a silvery spheroid floated there, silently observing. Talahran turned back to his parents, speaking in an unusually solemn voice. "I've been expecting this. Penny and I have something private to discuss, I'll follow you inside when we're finished."

Seeing that Talahran showed no fear or apprehension, Satdetin and Faledon nodded and went inside to put away the goods they'd traded for that day.

Talahran put his tools away and turned towards Penny, silently regarding her with a look of understanding.

"Then you are going to keep this private?" asked Penny, referring to Talahran's remark to his parents.

"To put it simply, yes. I will say nothing about this to anyone, but that will do no good if you keep infiltrating the net as you've been doing. Already you've tripped the alarms of one particularly paranoid user, and we an only be thankful he was in my peer group and didn't run to the nearest administrator."

"Paranoid is right, if _I_ failed to notice the safeguards... When I saw that map of my activity on your system... Shit, my heart would have stopped, if I'd had one. Do you realize the shock you gave me?!?"

Talahran nodded, "Enough of a shock to get you out here in person, so to speak... Penny, if you value access to our network at all, you've got to stop what you're doing."

"But I... I _need_ to... But what if I... I was only..."

Talahran shook his head, "You know as well as I do that any excuse you make is just that, an excuse. If you keep this up, you _will_ get caught. Maybe not today, maybe not even soon, but it's inevitable. When you get caught, at the very least you'll be cut off from our network entirely. Could you really live with knowing Velar only from the limited perspective of a single physical presence? The normal levels of network access are more than enough as far as information and communications go, you don't _need_ more. For your own good, and for the good of those who you wouldn't be able to help if you were cut off from the network's resources, please do as I suggest... It really _is_ in the best interests of all of us."

The two beings, so different, yet similar in ways neither understood, stood (or floated) silently in the night air, thoughts weighing visibly on each.

After several minutes, Penny finally spoke softly, "Alright... I shall withdraw myself from the net, and use it only as I have permission to... I may not like it, but your arguments do have logic." Her voice back to her mischievous old self, she added, "You definitely haven't heard the last of this, Talahran ne Van..."

* * *

Brian tried unsuccessfully for the third time to raise Talahran on his home terminal. Giving up, he searched the Nas Van's house mentally and, finding Talahran, strangely enough, at the very terminal he'd been trying to contact him on, he 'pathed *Talahran?*

He winced as he was struck with a mental flood of relief, gratitude, and exasperation, *Thank goodness you decided to contact me this way! You've _got_ to teach me how to get in touch with you telepathically, I've been trying to reach you all morning!*

*Slow down... What do you mean, you've been trying to reach me? _I've_ been trying to reach _you_! Haven't you been receiving my communications requests? I've got the story of our first meeting ready for you to proofread.*

*I've gotten the requests... But when I enter the command to establish the communications link, my terminal asks "Why?"!! So far, I've managed to execute only three commands in the past two days, and those only by winning arguments with the damn thing, proving that I had a logical reason to be doing what I've been doing daily for the last several years...* Talahran stopped broadcasting, but there was a steady emotional grumble that wouldn't go away.

Brian turned to Kalindra, who was just walking out of her workroom. "I've gotten through to Talahran dear... Would you believe his computer's suddenly taken up debate as a hobby?"

There was complete silence for all of two seconds, then the house of the family Nas Kan rang out with the shouts of the Klizan and Klizach.

"PENNY!!!"

* * *

Brian, Talahran, and a certain red-haired hologram sat around the table in the kitchen of the family Nas Kan, sipping tea and eating peanut butter cookies with white chocolate chips. (Neither of the men could figure out what Penny was doing, but there were definitely fewer cookies on the plate each time she 'took' one... Perhaps they didn't notice the happy munching sounds emanating from Kanindra's workshop down a nearby flight of stairs...)

"Penny," scolded Brian, "I still think that was a cruel thing to do, you know how much emotional trauma it puts a computer-addict through when they're cut off like that!"

"I think she knows that... If your sister honestly requires more than twenty repetitions to learn something, what does that say about the rest of her family?" Talahran winked at Penny as he reached past the sputtering Mage for the last cookie. "All she did was inconvenience me for a couple days. Besides, it was fun. I gained useful insight into who I am and why I do what I do, having to justify the actions I'd taken for granted on a logical level. I consider that time well spent. The only real loss was to you, as my employer."

Brian looked a little confused at that... Just then Kalindra and Lythandi came up the stairs, brushing what looked suspiciously like cookie crumbs off their muzzles.

Talahran continued, "You _were_ planning on paying me, weren't you?" He grinned as Brian's face went through a spectacular display of skilled contortions, as he made sounds that were as different from speech as the human mouth was capable of.

Kalindra laughed, "Don't worry... I knew you'd probably forget that part, so I made arrangements with Satdetin. It's taken care of."

Talahran looked a little embarrassed, "I'm not an infant... I think I could have taken care of this myself, why did you go to my mother about it?"

Kalindra smiled, "You may be grown, but you're young yet... Your mother and I agreed that you should have a little more life experience before you have to learn this sort of thing... Bargaining for a piece of cloth in a market is a far cry from negotiating your worth as a person."

Reluctantly, Talahran had to agree with the wisdom of it.

Brian, who'd eventually recovered control of his facial muscles, looked at the empty cookie plate, then at Penny, still oblivious to what had occurred earlier. "Um, Penny? You can drop the hologram covering the cookies you took, I'm sure Kalindra and Lythandi would like <hurk!>"

Before he could say any more, four furry arms grabbed him and dragged him bodily through the house and out the door in the direction of the meadow Gate.

"Honored Klizach," said Lythandi, "we would appreciate it if you would obtain more of that white chocolate... It was fantastic!"

"Beloved coimelin," said Kalindra, as she and Lythandi picked Brian up and started swinging him back and forth in preparation to throw, "I would be terribly saddened were you to step foot on this planet empty-handed... Not only would I be forced to deal with the pains of chocolate withdrawal, but half-vaporized human is _incredibly_ hard to clean off of the walls..."

<fling>

* * *

Kalindra was puttering around distractedly in her workroom. Brian had been gone for three days, and her link felt as if he was deliberately shielding his thoughts and emotions from her. She wasn't as much worried that she had hurt his feelings than that he was planning a fairly major work of revenge, and the suspense was building to almost unbearable levels.

As Kalindra sat down to a hastily prepared meal that evening, she could see that Lythandi was as tense as she was, though Sten seemed unusually calm, even smug. Conversation was virtually nonexistent through-out the meal, and the dishes were cleaned and put away without a word.

A while later, as Kalindra sat in the living room, rubbing her temples from the stress headache that was just starting to form, she noticed a movement out of the corner of her eye. Sten was unobtrusively clearing off one of the small end tables by his chair. 'Finally...' she thought, 'At least the waiting's over...'

Sten finished clearing the table, and, eyes unfocused, seemed to listen for a while then gave a slight nod.

*POP*

A large canvas bag appeared on the table, the words "For Kalindra and Lythandi" formed from pale blue flames in the air above it.

Kalindra and Lythandi pounced simultaneously, clawing at the bag, pulling out handfuls of cookies, only to scream in horror at what they saw. The cookies, and there had to at least a hundred pounds of them, were shaped like fat Velans, with the "white" chocolate chips colored a day-glo green.

The flames above the bag shimmered as if laughing, re-forming into the word "Gotcha" and the illusion faded, the cookies now quite ordinary. Kalindra and Lythandi stood there stunned.

Brian reached from behind Kalindra, taking the cookie from her hand and biting into it. Mumbling slightly around a mouthful, he asked, "What's wrong now?"

Kalindra growled... "Hold him," she snarled to Lythandi. Brian was knocked backwards almost instantly, his arms pinned to the ground as Kalindra effortlessly lifted the enormous bag and upended it over his face.

Her mate struggling to breathe, totally unable to move, Kalindra finally smiled. "Come on, Lythandi... If we eat fast, he might be out by morning..."