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User:Claude LeChat/Imperfect Coupling
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
Author: Claude LeChat
December 20, 157AL
Business was slow that day at the Freeriders Garage in Uplift, which as of late happened about as often as dry spells in Cascadia. So it was quite a special event when Rhianna Stonegate herself came out to meet the unusual pair in the waiting room: a black she-wolf accompanied by a bony woman, maybe 40 years old, with raven-black hair in a ponytail and clad in black denim. As they sat next to each other, the wolf on her haunches and the woman in a chair, their heads were roughly at the same height, which only made it more obvious they both had the same triangular, mobile ears.
"Hi there," she said a little uncertainly. "Welcome to Freeriders. I'm Rhianna Stonegate, how may I help you?"
"I'm Magnild, miss Stonegate," the wolf said with a surprising amount of timidity for her fierce looks. "I don't suppose you remember me..."
Rhianna's wide smile begged to disagree. "You're one of Diane's new girls! I gave you the Rip Van Winkle treatment a few weeks ago."
"That's me!" Magnild positively beamed. Her companion merely nodded gravely in greeting. "And this is my, um..."
"I'm Joanne Crawford," the other woman said. "Pleased to meet you."
"Likewise," the host answered good-naturedly. "What brings you back so soon, Magnild?"
The RIDE pointed her muzzle at her fore paws, which were devoid of fur to unequal heights, scorched metal showing underneath.
"Oh dear." Rhianna bent down to see better. "What happened to you?"
"Well... I was on a supply run..."
"Weren't you going to become a DJ?" interrupted Kaylee, padding lazily in from the back on her broad fuzzy lynx paws. She stopped next to Rhianna and gave her a gentle head-butt.
"Ostensibly, yes, but we all have to do a little of everything. There's no place for prima-donnas at a bar. Especially not Cheers."
Rhianna nodded. "Makes sense."
"And so it happens that I was over at Spirit Ed's when the fire broke out."
Kaylee froze for a second while she searched the mesh and sent Rhianna the most relevant results.
"I see." the host looked from Magnild to Joanne. "Let me guess..."
The other woman nodded. "Typical story. We were trapped in the burning warehouse. I needed shielding to reach the door, and Magnild here needed thumbs to open it."
Rhianna examined her more carefully. "You crossrode."
"And you're not happy about it."
"It was that or die there. Not alone, either."
"But you're partnered now?" Kaylee interjected again.
Joanne cast her an amused look that said, aren't you a curious kitty?
"More like roommates," said Magnild. She didn't sound very convinced. "Joanne has an apartment, and I have an income. At least until Eddie can rebuild."
"None of our business, really," Rhianna said quickly. "Come on, let's get a good look at that fire damage. Wait here if you don't mind, Ms. Crawford. We won't be long."
She waved the huge wolf into the back. Kaylee trailed behind for a moment.
"So," she asked with a complicit wink. "Did you have your crossriding party yet?"
"My friends know me better than to try," the woman answered stoically.
"You sound really unhappy about it. Going to cross back when the time is up then?"
"Ask me again in three years."
There was a moment of silence as Kaylee appeared to have run out of questions. Then Rhianna poked her head back out. "What's keeping you, kit-kat? We have work to do."
"Sorry!" the lynx said to both women, and bounced after her partner, humming the theme song from Spirited Away.
There was a stretch of bare ground behind the garage, right under the edge of a protective dome. Beyond that, the city ended; all one could see westward through the shimmering hardlight bubble was the Dry Ocean, reaching out to an impossibly distant horizon that tricked the eye, covered in nothing but perpetually wind-blown rock and sand. Not far from there, the road passed through a guarded airlock before turning southward to join the old desert-side skimmerway. Wolf and woman walked in the opposite direction, buildings on either side of the street growing taller as the rising dome made way, small businesses gradually replaced by apartment blocks.
"I don't understand," said Magnild as the pair entered a small park. They leaned against each other on the grass beneath an oak tree, tails wagging in tandem. "Why is everyone giving you grief over not wanting to be a woman? I mean, sure, back home in Sturmhaven we believe women are the superior sex, but here we're supposed to be in Gondwana's most progressive polity."
Joanne snorted. "Aren't you glad you made me a woman?"
"Of course I am. I'm programmed to be. But if it makes you so unhappy, it's not worth it. Even knowing we had no choice..."
"Well, we didn't. Never regret being alive, kiddo. That way lies madness." The woman sighed. "To answer your question, we can talk about 'people, not plumbing' until we're blue in the face, but the truth is, couples break up all the time because one of the partners crossrode. Can't even blame them. We've known for over five centuries that sexuality isn't a choice."
Magnild nodded. "Then I guess Zharus isn't that much more enlightened than Earth after all."
"No, we're not. Even seen a man wearing a skirt?"
"Now that you mention it... only as a joke, or for shock value. And that was before the twencen craze took over completely."
"There you go. Ask yourself, why not? After all, that man could have been a woman just moments before."
"Huh," said the she-wolf.
"Truth is," the woman explained patiently, "gender identity is a part of us. Imagine ripping out your paws and putting in parts from a tiger RIDE instead. They'd be bigger, stronger..."
"But not mine. Not myself anymore. Even if I installed the correct drivers."
"Exactly. Here we are, able to turn a man into a woman on the lunch break, with no side effects, and still have time to eat. The dream of transgender people since forever. But we never quite came to terms with it. So we throw parties, and act out gender stereotypes, in an attempt to make it feel like we didn't actually lose anything."
"You lose something, you gain something," pointed out Magnild.
"Yes. Except in life, unlike in math, a plus and a minus don't cancel each other out."
The wolf stared at the foliage above as if looking for her words. "Oh my," she said at length, "look at the time. My shift is about to start."
The woman got to her feet. "Go, kiddo. See you tonight."
"While not ride with me? I'll buy you a drink." The RIDE lifted half a meter into the air, unfolding into into a sleek skimmer bike with a pointed front, that seemed to be racing even when standing still.
"You have to let me pay for something one of these days," the woman chided, but she climbed on nevertheless.
"As soon as you have any money to pay with," countered Magnild. They drove on, weaving skillfully among the moderate traffic of the early afternoon.
As one of the most famous bars in Uplift, Cheers tended to surprise new patrons with its contrasts. On the one hand there was the rustic decor, all wooden beams and wrought iron. Then the fashions on display, a mix of styles from all over the 20th century, like a neverending reenactment fair. Last but not least, the clientele itself, from humans with their RIDEs through Fused pairs and mostly Integrates, their techno-organic nature proudly paraded. It all made the one woman alone at a corner table stand out even more.
"May I sit down?" asked a voice confidently. Joanne looked up... and up... at a fox Integrate with hardlight lenses poking through the fur on her arms and a scintillating jewel plugged into a socket right between her breasts. Her tie-dyed sundress looked real -- not a projection -- and expensive enough. It followed the ample curves of its owner's body, shifting and wrinkling with every move.
"By all means," replied Joanne, counting the empty tables from the corner of her eye. Rush hour wasn't even close to starting.
"I haven't seen you around," the vixen said conversationally. She gestured with a tall glass, filled with a liquid in much the same colors as her dress. "Cheers."
Joanne raised her own stein. "You wouldn't have." She drank calmly.
"Name's Noelle, by the way," offered the Integrate.
"Joanne," came the flat reply. "Nice to meet you."
The furred woman giggled, covering her pointy muzzle with a hand. "Don't worry, I'm not trying to pick you up. Just bored out of my skull."
"That's a relief." Joanne leaned forward and did her best to smile. "So, you come here often?"
"When I'm not haunting other haunts. Did I mention I get bored easily?"
"That's not a bad thing, if you do something about it. How come you picked me, though?"
"You look like a girl who likes girls. No offense." The vixen giggled again.
"Really!" Joanne's smile faded away. "The joke's on you. I like men. Always have."
"Have you tried? Crossriding does strange things to one's preferences." Seeing Joanne's face, Noelle added quickly, "Couldn't help but notice, with my sensors."
"I dunno. Have you tried minding your own business?"
The silence that descended between them was broken by a cheerful black wolf resting her chin on the table. "Is this person bothering you, Joanne?"
Joanne shook her head. "Nah..."
"If you say so. Listen, can I borrow you for a moment?"
"Sure thing, kiddo." She walked around the table and stood with her arms outstretched. Magnild reared up and enveloped her, woman and RIDE turning into a shaggy werewolf. Together, they were taller than Noelle. More curvaceous, too.
"Hot damn," said the Integrate. But the Fused pair was already walking away.
"Thanks for the save, kiddo," Joanne said as their combined form climbed down into the basement -- a cavernous space with one wall taken up by tanks of fabber matter, and the rest dedicated to shelves. Row after row of bottles crowded every flat surface. In a narrow recess, large crates had been untidily stacked directly on the ground.
"Someone hasn't heard of pallets," Magnild commented, eyeing the forklift parked nearby. She moved to carry one of the crates to the dumbwaiter in another corner, then a second one. "Was it true, what you told that woman?"
"Yeah. Just not the whole truth."
Magnild gave an inward nod. "Maybe you should give her a chance then? I've seen her before. She's nice."
"Don't you start!" Joanne's anger faded as quickly as it had come. "All right. Maybe I will. It's not like I have any better options."
Window shopping isn't much fun without company, but it beats sitting alone at home browsing the mesh. Or so Joanne told herself as she walked the aisles at Uplift Plaza Mall, an orgy of light and color assaulting her eyes. All around her, happy chatter mixed with the music and announcements from speakers as visitors milled about, often engaged in shopping sprees that made their RIDEs look like pack mules. Free from the pressure of buying, she wandered aimlessly from store to store, through doorways so wide they made the walls on either side almost symbolic. The diversity of merchandise was staggering; thanks to fabber technology, any outlet could carry an astronomical number of products and only make more of whatever sold, on the spot.
Electronics. Art and craft supplies. Books, toys and tea sets. Clothes.
She saw the young man from afar. He was on the short side, with a round face, dressed in gray slacks and a plain white shirt topped by a cardigan. He stood enraptured, admiring a very different outfit: very short shorts, a baggy blouse and canvas sandals, all in various shades of blue, pink and purple. The fact that it was displayed on a female mannequin didn't seem to matter.
"Excuse me," said Joanne, stopping behind him. "Are you going to buy that?"
He startled. "N-no. Please, go ahead."
"I don't have any money. Besides, it would look great on you."
"You-you think?" The young man's blush brightened the room.
"Very much so. Want me to order for you?"
The blush extended to his ears. "I don't care what people think."
"All right then." She turned to leave.
"Wait!" Something in his voice stopped Joanne in her tracks. "Wanna hang out?"
"I would like that very much," she stated quietly. "I'm Joanne, by the way."
"Yanis," he replied. They waited together while the store clerk packed the young man's wares, casting curious glances in their direction -- a girl in hispter-ish attire from the 'oughts. Joanne returned a serious look.
"The evening is still young," she said as they left the store. "How about we head up to the food court?"
Yanis nodded. "Sure thing. I'll buy."
"Oh, I can afford a burger and a beer. Probably."
"A beer sounds good. Don't worry, I'm 30. Everybody just says I look ten years younger."
"I didn't say anything." On a whim she added, "How old do I look?"
"Dunno... Thirty-five, at most?"
"Flatterer." She focused on riding the escalators, a broad dumb grin of happiness on her face.
They never knew when the sky finished darkening and stars began sparkling through the transparent cupola above their table. Like Joanne, Yanis only made minimum wage. Unlike her, he'd been paid recently. More importantly, he still lived with his parents. The young man was a librarian, and could talk forever about the ways colonial literature had diverged from its Earth ancestry during the centuries of interstellar travel.
She could have listened to him all night long, and then some.
"There's something you should know about me," he said as they crossed the mall's parking lot, skimmers and RIDEs taking off in the buzzing of lifters. He took a deep breath. "I like men."
Joanne tried not to cry. She tried really hard. It actually worked.
"Friends, then," she managed in the end.
"Deal." They shook hands.
Long after midnight, Magnild found her lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. The RIDE rested her big head on the sheets, and the woman petted her furry roommate without a word. They drifted asleep together at last.
It was a modest Christmas party, with fabbed steak and wine and a tree made mostly of hardlight. Joanne invited some friends over, a married couple who had arrived from somewhere in southern China with a shipment of luxury goods and hadn't gone back yet. They kept blaming the months-long return trip -- at interstellar distances, the "fast" in faster-than-light is relative -- but Joanne suspected they were increasingly just making up rationalizations to stay for good. On her part, Magnild invited a coworker from Cheers: a petite red wolf RIDE named Anya, who seemed unsure of herself at first. Yanis didn't have anyone to bring over, so after some deliberation they added Noelle to the list. It all worked out better than expected. The RIDEs shared stories from the Nextus-Sturmhaven war over 30 years before, longer than most of the humans present had been alive. Later in the evening, the Integrate entertained them with a show that mixed dancing lights, telekinesis and good old prestidigitation. Dawn found them singing carols around the tree, wine-powered enthusiasm more than making up for lack of skill.
For New Year they all went out together to Martinez Square to watch the globe slowly descend atop the old university building (better known as Miskatonic U to the students), and counted down along with the crowd before the tall facade erupted in psychedelic animations and the dome above them was splattered in virtual fireworks that lasted for half an hour. Temperature within city limits had been lowered for the holidays, not to the levels of a real winter, but enough to bring shivers in people used to eternal summer. Towards morning they split up. Yanis slept over, using Magnild for a bed. He didn't have a RIDE partner of his own, and Joanne didn't ask why not, but the black wolf was growing on him, and she could see the reverse was true as well. He returned to them later that day to try out his new clothes, for their eyes alone.
"You know," he told them, "there's an urban legend circulating among high school students. Supposedly there's this raccoon RIDE who rolled out of the factory with an unusual quirk: the part of his RI core that does gender identity was stuck in neutral. So he would make all his riders androgynous. Still fully functional, mind you, just not manly."
"I bet most men would rather be women," quipped Joanne.
"Right. So the poor raccoon spent all his life being sold anonymously, passing from hand to hand until RIDEs got their freedom. And he's still out there somewhere, looking desperately for a partner who would accept him the way he is."
"Would you?" Magnild asked gently.
Yanis took a good while to answer. "There aren't many other RIDEs I'd consider getting."
"Me either," said Joanne. "But for now I'm stuck with Magnild here."
"Stuck? How so?"
They told him the whole story. He was very quiet for a long while afterward.
"We don't have to be Fuse partners, you know," Magnild told Joanne one slow day, as they took the stock at Cheers. RFID tags tended to fall off or stop working, so there was no avoiding a manual inventory now and then. "It will make things that much harder in three years when you crossride back."
"Are you sure I will?"
"For Yanis? I'd crossride for him myself if I could. But I'm built to be female and nothing else. That's why a RIDE changes its rider, and not the other way around."
Joanne smiled sadly. "That's not the issue. Why would he wait for me? Sooner or later he'll find a nice boy who will make him happier than I ever could, then it will be over. No more reason for me to go back."
"Tsk," the she-wolf gently scolded her. "You should learn to trust people more. Yourself included."
The woman wanted very much to do just that. But how do you even grasp at straws when there's none in sight? She bit her lip and focused on the job at hand. It didn't really help.
With New Year behind them, business was picking up again. Auditors finally got around to doing their jobs, the insurance money came through, and halfway through the month Spirit Ed reopened its doors. The first thing Joanne did was to ask for a raise. As expected, she was promptly let go. It didn't take long until Yanis found her another job with a bookstore at the mall. For all the virtual reality and fast time, some people still enjoyed reading books the old-fashioned way, and thanks to fabbers a deluxe edition bound in imitation leather was no more expensive than a cheap paperback -- unless of course somebody wanted a genuine handmade book. If anything, with billions of titles always available, a bookstore was first and foremost in the business of curation. Why, just the serial novels detailing Clint Brubeck's imaginary adventures dwarfed the legendary explorer's already epic biography by two orders of magnitude.
A day like any other, Joanne carted a batch of books from the back and started arranging them on shelves. But for some reason she couldn't read the titles. She rubbed her eyes, and was surprised to find her fingers wet.
"It's only three years," she reminded herself. "Time flies. You won't even notice."
She couldn't even believe her own lie. So she furiously went back to work, putting all her mind into the repetitive motions.
"Only three years... Only three years... Only three years..."