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User:Robotech Master/A Wolf at the Door

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Wolves in the Fold, Part One: A Wolf at the Door

Author: Robotech_Master (with JonBuck)


Author's Comments

This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website.


Contents

1

January, 157 A.L.

“A little higher…higher…come on, people, we want it above her head, not at waist level. This is a banner, not a finish line!” Guinevere exhorted the hovering Integrates who were hanging a huge “WELCOME HOME, SVETLANA” banner over Alpha Camp’s main street.

“I still don’t get why we’re doin’ this,” Baldwin said as he fastened his half of the banner to a utility pole. “She was the leader of the army that tried its best to wipe us out. No offense, hon,” the bald eagle Integrate added to the pink flamingo Integrate who had the other end of the banner.

“I think it’s because the people here are such gracious winners,” Felice said, fastening her end of the banner to a pole across the street. “They were quick enough to make even me feel at home, and I’m also a member of that army and an Integrate. Goodness knows you should have plenty of reasons to hate me for both.”

“Well, yeah, but you’re a lover, not a fighter,” Baldwin said, beak open in as close to a grin as his avian face could manage.

“I think it’s really sweet,” CinTally the dark-feathered cooper’s hawk said. She was hovering a few meters off, examining the hang of the banner from the same level. “It’s like, you couldn’t have won the battle without having someone to fight against. And it wouldn’t have been the kind of story people want to tell over and over without her being so tough. So in a way she did you all a big favor, by being so bad-ass that it took knocking all her limbs off to take her down.”

“Looking at it like that, I guess you’ve got a point, hon,” Baldwin acknowledged. “And I guess if we can forgive anyone for it, we can’t really blame anyone else for what they did when Fritz was pulling the strings.”

“Thanks for helping out, you three,” Lillibet said from within Guinevere’s Fuser form. “That should be the last of the banners.”

The three avian Integrates touched down in front of them. “Glad to help,” Baldwin said.

“Is there anything else we can do for you?” Felice asked. She and CinTally stood close to either side of Baldwin. The threesome had been inseparable since shortly after the battle. When they’d met in the aftermath, something had just clicked, and they’d spent as much time as they could together ever since. It was a nontraditional relationship by some standards—but then again, compared to the structured group marriages in Aloha and some of the other polities, it was positively tame.

“I think that’s the last of the preparations here,” Lillibet said. “Could you check up on the party prep in the Graveyard if you’re heading that way? We’ll be along as soon as ‘Lana and the others get here.”

Baldwin nodded. “Ma’am,” he acknowledged.

“See you later!” CinTally said. The three avians took to the air and flew back uptown.

Guinevere watched them go. “Well. Glad that’s done.”

“Indeed.” Fenris’s big bass voice sounded from behind them as he came walking up the street. “It should only be a few more minutes before Svetlana and the other Integrates arrive.”

“Hope they like it,” Lillibet said. “Svetlana’s still kind of…prickly, you know.”

“Not exactly a surprise, Lilli,” Paul said from inside Fenris. “We did give her the mother of all smackdowns. Even if she’s repudiated the cause she was fighting under, that’s still gotta sting. A lot.”

“Hopefully she will be able to relax once she sees there are truly no hard feelings,” Fenris rumbled.

“For most of us, anyway,” Lillibet felt compelled to admit. “There are still a few who don’t see it that way. What’re we gonna do if the protesters show up?” A small faction of camp residents, led by the failed Council candidate Ohm the skunk, had pledged to picket the celebration of Svetlana’s return. And with the newly-formed polity’s emphasis on free speech (for RIDEs, at least), there wasn’t a whole lot they could do to shut it down.

Fenris shrugged. “Ignore them as best we can, I suppose. We must take the bad parts of freedom with the good.”

“Besides, if we do try anything to stop ‘em, we’re playing right into their hands, giving ‘em ammunition to try to claim that the new freedom is all a sham,” Paul said. “Let ‘em yap. Nobody important pays them much attention anyway.”

“Hopefully Svetlana won’t either,” Lillibet said doubtfully.

“Ah…there’s the comm signal,” Fenris said. “The suborbital is on final approach to the aerodrome. Shall we go?” He sank back down into his skimmer tank form, and Guinevere goosed her lifters to leap into the cupola on his back.

A few moments later, they were waiting at the edge of the tarmac with a crowd of other well-wishers, including a number of important visitors who’d flown in themselves to be present for the occasion. “Hey, Dad! When did you and Mom get in?” Lillibet called over to AlphaWolf, who was standing at the front of the crowd Fused with Kenyon, with Melissa/Nigella at his side.

“Just an hour ago,” Kenyon replied. “You seemed busy with the preparations, so we thought we shouldn’t joggle your arm.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Lillibet said. This wouldn’t be their first time meeting Svetlana, of course. AlphaWolf and the Waltons had been to visit her a few times in the healing tank during tours of Camelot. Lilli and Guin had been with them one of those times. Svetlana had been a bit nonplussed at first, but relations had ended up more or less cordial. It remained to be seen how she would react to being met by a crowd, however.

Bertha was also at the front of the crowd, in her light tank form with Hedy the scout RIDE and their shared human Diana leaning against her in Fuser. Hedy nodded to Fenris. “Hey, big guy. You got here just in time. There they come now.” She pointed to the silver speck in the sky of the approaching sub. It was one of the new ones of Camelot make, all sweeping curves resembling a stylized dragon in flight.

“Oh no,” Guinevere muttered. “Look.” She pointed across the tarmac, to a small group of RIDEs further down the runway. With a skunk at the lead, they were holding up hardlight signs with slogans like, “2 4 6 8 WE DON’T WANT MORE INTEGRATES!” or “INTIES NOT SO GREAT!”

“Let them yap,” Paul said again. “There’s over twice as many people with us, and we’re just the ones who could meet them at the aerodrome. Anyway, the Marshals look like they’ve got everything under control.” A number of them were standing close to the protesters, keeping a watchful eye just in case they attempted to do anything more than stand and chant.

The sub made its approach and landed, rolling up to the portion of the runway where the crowd had gathered. Seen close up, it was a very large ship, even bigger than one of Zane Brubeck’s Starmasters. Of course, for carrying Integrates of Svetlana’s size, it would sort of have to be, Lillibet reflected. In fact, given that a significant number of Camelot’s Integrates were large dragons, it made sense they would build ships large enough to carry several of them.

After a few moments, the giant cargo doors on the side of the sub opened, folding down into a ramp, and a giant white she-wolf stepped down them, blinking in the sunlight. Fenris Fused back into his full height and stepped forward to meet her. “Svetlana! Welcome to Alpha Camp. We’re pleased to have you here.”

Svetlana looked up to the taller Fuser—one of very few beings, RIDE or Integrate, she had to look up instead of down to face. “Thank you. I am…pleased to be here.” She looked behind him to the gathered crowd. “I did not expect such a welcome. I thought…you would see me as a monster.”

“Well, maybe,” AlphaWolf said, striding forward. “But you’re our monster, and that makes the difference. We hope you’ll stay with us a while.”

“I will rather have to, will I not?” Svetlana remarked. Her trial had been held weeks before. She had attended via telepresence. She had received the standard 90-day community service period, scheduled to start after she was released from medical care.

“I meant after that,” AlphaWolf said. “It might be a bit presumptuous given that you’re technically our prisoner at this point, but you’d be more than welcome to be a citizen after that.”

“Boo! Intie go home!” an amplified voice called from the direction of the crowd of protesters. It was Ohm the skunk, waving his placard angrily. “We don’t want your kind here! Nearly destroying us once was enough!”

Svetlana turned her head to regard the protesters. “Ah. Now that is the sort of reception I was expecting.” She smiled, wolfish tongue lolling. “It’s so nice not to be disappointed.”

“They do not speak for the rest of us,” Fenris insisted. “But we have to let them speak.”

“And that speaks well of you,” Svetlana said. “In Sturmhaven, they would have been sent right off to the kulak.” She chuckled. “In a way, it is nice to know some people still fear me, even as the rest of you welcome me.”

“We’re not afraid of you!” Ohm yelled again, his RIDE audio sensors having been sufficient to hear what was said. “We beat you once!”

You didn’t beat me, little skunk,” Svetlana replied cheerfully. “Fenris and AlphaWolf did, and they’re happy to see me.” She laughed. “I’m not going anywhere. But any time you would like to come speak to me, I’m not hard to find, and I do so enjoy a good argument.”

Ohm opened his muzzle, then shut it again, apparently uncertain what to say. AlphaWolf chuckled. “Poor guy, he just doesn’t know when not to open his mouth in public.”

“It’s a common problem,” a giant peach-colored dragon said, emerging from the sub behind Svetlana.

“Mr. Peaches! It is good to see you, too!” Fenris said, offering his hand.

The dragon grasped it with a foreclaw. “And you, my friend. There are several others waiting within. The last of the recuperators from the attack, and all of them delighted enough to be out of the tank that I doubt you will see many complaints from them over being put to work.”

“We’ll be glad to have them,” AlphaWolf said. “And I don’t think they’ll be all that unhappy, in the end. Only a few of our laborers have had problems.”

Svetlana frowned. “Problems? I will have to speak with them. From all the reports I have received, you have treated all your prisoners far better than I would have if our positions had been reversed.”

“It’s nothing serious. They’re just grumpy about being forced to work for their sins,” Paul said. “But they do their job anyway.”

Svetlana nodded. “I can’t say I’m entirely pleased to be sentenced to involuntary servitude myself. But I am glad enough to be out from under Fritz’s thumb and not dead that it is ridiculous to complain at a three month slap on the wrist.”

“Uplift did much the same with their amnesty program. And they had protests in front of Government Center for weeks,” Paul said.

“Anyway, we’ve got a little welcoming party set up back in the Graveyard, for you and all the others,” Lillibet put in. “You won’t know where that is, but—”

“I have seen it in the maps and videos you sent,” Svetlana said. “Please, lead the way.” She nodded to the sub, where a number of more human-sized Integrates were emerging down the ramp. “We will follow.”

2

Svetlana walked slowly through town with the others, in a parade. She felt an odd sense of not quite deja vu. What’s the opposite of deja vu? she wondered. She’d replayed this scene so often in her head while she floated in the healing tank: being marched captive through the streets of Alpha Camp as noisy crowds looked on. Only, in her head she’d been a captive prisoner, and the crowds had been jeering and pelting her with rotten fruit. (Where would they have gotten rotten fruit from in the middle of the desert? her traitor common sense insisted on asking.) In reality, they were cheering excitedly and waving “Welcome, Svetlana!” signs. It was terribly disorienting.

It would also have been disorienting just how much Alpha Camp had grown over the last few weeks, if she hadn’t seen all the videos and photos Paul, Fenris, and the others had sent along. It seemed like an entirely different place from the fortified but barren enclosure she and her Integrates had fought so hard to destroy. Far from being destroyed, this place had blossomed—largely as a matter of the prestige that had come from defeating her. No wonder they were so happy to see her.

She looked down at AlphaWolf, who was leading the parade. He seemed entirely comfortable presenting her with his back. Of course, Fenris was bringing up the rear, so he had a clear shot at hers if it became necessary. Not that it would be in either case. I should stop thinking like this, Svetlana told herself. It will only drive me crazy. Crazier. But she was still deeply conflicted about the battle, and her role in it, even now.

It wasn’t so much that she had been defeated by a man. By men, counting Paul and Fenris’s leadership of the battle as well as AlphaWolf’s sniper rifle. (They couldn’t have led the battle without being supported by Guinevere and Lillibet, though! she insisted to herself, though she was pretty sure that was only a sop to her Woman of Sturmhaven conscience.) What bothered her most was that she had been in the battle at all.

She’d had plenty of time to kill recuperating in the tank afterward, and after they’d granted her limited network access she’d been able to catch up on news and current events from all over Zharus—stuff that Fritz had carefully filtered before passing on to “his” Integrates. She’d never realized exactly how carefully—or the true extent of Fritz’s depravity—until she’d had the opportunity to read about the other attacks, or the things that the Clementine had found on securing the Coffeehouse, Fritz’s own personal enclave and house of horrors. Why did I ever let myself listen to him?

She knew the reason, of course. He’d “rescued” her when she was most vulnerable—and he’d had enough power to make threats and make them stick. The very worst kind of paternalistic man the Valkyries warned against—and she’d fallen right into his clutches.

She supposed she should have been more upset about all the other men who had defeated her, then healed her, saving her from those clutches: Fenris, Paul, and AlphaWolf, then Peaches and all the others from Camelot. Only…she couldn’t. They had treated her with respect, even after she’d tried to destroy their home. Not the obeisance due a Woman of Sturmhaven, maybe, but not the contempt a fallen enemy leader who had tried to destroy their home surely deserved either. It was terribly confusing. She thought back to the days when she had planned to found a “New Sturmhaven” enclave, run by and for female Integrates, and realized it all felt so childish now. Not least because she’d had time to read up on Sturmhaven, too.

When she’d been in the service of Sturmhaven, she had accepted without question the indoctrination that males were inferior. You had only to look around to see it was true—all the simpering, henpecked men who didn’t stand up for themselves. But she’d never seen men from outside Sturmhaven. And the more she did, the more she was beginning to wonder if Sturmhaven didn’t perpetuate its own omega-male stereotype with its Male Transgression laws. Anyone who didn’t fit in was imprisoned or expelled, or left voluntarily, so Sturmhaven was left with the kind of men it wanted—or deserved.

And there were those clear examples of Valkyrie excess who turned up from time to time—examples such as Sonja. Svetlana glanced down at the smaller Sturmwulf, who was trotting proudly alongside her in the parade. She was a nice enough person, to be sure, quite likable, and very patriotic…but any girl who didn’t fit the Valkyrie ideals who wandered within reach was likely to spend a few months inside her learning how to act the part of the perfect Woman of Sturmhaven, right down to the accent—whether she wanted to (at first) or not. Hedy and Oberstleutnant Fuerst had commed about her a lot.

In the wake of Alpha Camp going public, Sturmhaven had reached out to offer Sonja the same readjustment counseling and VR therapy as others of her line had gotten, to bring her back to something closer to what most would consider sanity. But Sonja had declined, saying she was perfectly happy as she was right now. She had agreed to confine her future brainwashing activities to the willing, however. Apparently there were many young women in Sturmhaven who desperately longed for someone to show them how better to fit the Valkyrie mold—badly enough to let Sonja cram them into it and vacuform them. She actually had a waiting list.

Svetlana shuddered. The worst of it was, even now that the scales had come off her eyes and she could see Sturmhaven culture for what it all too often was, she had still been inculcated in that culture, and still carried some of those attitudes bone-deep—even the ones she knew weren’t built on solid foundations. She knew all the obnoxious things the Valkyries had done—including starting the war between Nextus and Sturmhaven in the first place—but was still proud to call herself a Woman of Sturmhaven with all the baggage that carried with it.

Looking past a man’s male gender to consider his qualities and accomplishments in a more neutral light still required an act of will. She’d gotten plenty of practice since AlphaWolf had amputated her extremities, but it didn’t seem to be getting much easier. Am I meme-infected, is that it? she wondered. Something about Integrates’ neural structure rendered them susceptible to incorporating memes, often pop-cultural ones, into their psyches at a deep level—turning them into rabid otaku who couldn’t resist quoting or reenacting the object of their affection at every turn.

It didn’t matter if that was the nature of her problem, of course. Either way, it could be fought. And it was a battle she was probably going to have to keep fighting for years, if not the rest of her life.

That line of thought, and a good deal of amiable-if-slightly-poleaxed waving, carried her all the way through the settlement, to the big rock wall with the openings that had been blasted by a terrorist RIDE’s attack before Fritz’s assault ever happened. In the wide open area on the other side, tables had been set up, and bandstands that were already filled with cheering crowds.

There was also a podium at one end, to which AlphaWolf was ascending even now. He was joined by the other members of the settlement’s council, including the ankylosaur who’d been responsible for a number of the other new arrivals’ protracted stays in the healing tank. Svetlana noticed her broad smirk at the flinch reactions the other Integrates were exhibiting, but didn’t bear her any malice for it. Any woman who fought like that was worthy to have come from Sturmhaven.

“Hey, everyone!” AlphaWolf said, waving. The crowd cheered louder. AlphaWolf raised his hands for silence. “Okay, okay, quiet down! So sayeth me!” Then he grinned a toothy grin as the crowd roared at his famous catchphrase before acceding to his request for silence. “First off, I’d like to apologize to Svetlana for embarrassing her like this. I’m sure she didn’t expect this kind of reception when she got out of the tank.”

He grinned at her, and Svetlana, moved by some playful impulse, bellowed back, “You’ll apologize for embarrassing me, but not for blowing my limbs off?”

As the crowd roared again, with laughter this time, AlphaWolf waggled a finger. “Now now, you brought that on yourself. But this is another story. I’m sure you’d have been happy just to show up, get your work assignment, and settle into three months of quiet hard labor. But that is not to be…” He paused and looked at the bandstands, and as one the crowd chanted, “SO SAYETH ME!” AlphaWolf chuckled. “Quite.”

“So what ‘brave punishments’ have you devised for me?” Svetlana replied. “I take it I’m not going to be unloading heavy cargo at the aerodrome, then?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” AlphaWolf said. “Well, not unless you want to when you don’t have anything else to do. Lots of people still pitch in around here on a volunteer basis, and I’m sure they’d be glad for the help. But as for your real job…if you’re willing, we had more of a, well, leadership role in mind for you.”

Svetlana cocked her head, her lupine ears now pointing fully forward. “Really? Why? I tried to destroy this place!”

“Please,” AlphaWolf said. “You were as much a victim as we were. In fact, you know better than most how Fritz kept people in line. We saw that in what came out at your hearing.”

Svetlana winced a little at the reminder. As with all captured Integrates, she’d been thoroughly mentally probed as part of the discovery process for her trial. The RIDEs and Integrates who viewed her memories had only copied out those memories selected as evidence, and wiped the copies when the hearings concluded. Still, it didn’t erase the sense of violation, no matter how deserved it had been.

“And you are the highest-ranking of Fritz’s immediate lieutenants to have been so used,” AlphaWolf said. “Most of the others were willing participants. Sociopaths. They didn’t get off so lightly as 90 days’ forced labor, I can assure you.”

Svetlana nodded. In fact, she had kept up with the sentences for Fritz and all his cronies. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about Fritz’s perpetual labor sentence, after all the people he’d slaughtered, but she couldn’t deny that many of the others had been more than justly punished.

“So what did you have in mind?” Svetlana asked cautiously.

“We would like to appoint you as kind of an ambassador from us to other Integrates, and on behalf of Integrates to everyone else,” AlphaWolf said. “Someone in charge of greasing the wheels of diplomacy, making sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes. Mr. Peaches and others from Camelot have helped a lot, but…we really need someone all our own if we’re going to be taken seriously. And you’re about as close to ‘our own’ as it gets.”

Svetlana blinked. “Me? Really?”

“You are a leader, and a damned good one,” AlphaWolf said. “Take it from the guy who had to blow your limbs off to stop you. And your reputation’s already tied up with ours—we basically gave it to each other.”

“But my sentence is only 90 days,” Svetlana pointed out.

“Enough time to make a start,” AlphaWolf said. “If you want to stay, stay, otherwise help us find a replacement. Anyway, you don’t have to say yes or no right away. Think about it for a while, let me know.”

Svetlana nodded. “Very well.”

“Anyway, now that I’ve got the embarrassment out of the way…let’s get this party started!” AlphaWolf said. He paused, grinned once more, and added, “So sayeth me!” The crowd applauded again, then broke up in favor of party time.

Fenris stepped up and led Svetlana over to one of the large tables in the center of the open area. “I expect you are rather surprised,” he observed.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Svetlana said. “I had expected simply to serve my time and then…I don’t know. Return to Sturmhaven, or retire to some Enclave, I suppose.”

“Sturmhaven would still like for us to visit,” Fenris noted. “With no obligation to stay, but hope of a closer relationship. Bertha, Hedy, and Oberstleutnant Fuerst will be returning in a few weeks or months, to repatriate Bertha into her original shell and provide Sturmhaven with Rhianna’s DINlink as was promised. We will be going along for Paul to supervise the transfer. You could come as well, if you wished.”

“I will…consider it,” Svetlana said. “This is all rather much to process all at once.”

Fenris chuckled. “It is, is it not? This might help.” He offered her a twenty-liter tankard from the big Integrates’ refreshment table.

Svetlana took it, flipped up the muzzle-cup lid, and peered dubiously at the fizzing beverage within. “What is it?”

“It is…” Fenris considered for a moment. “…green.” He chuckled. “It is an alcoholic and nanite-laced beverage passed along via some of Rhianna’s friends from Aloha. It seems to be a mild intoxicant for humans, RIDEs, and Integrates alike.”

“I see,” Svetlana said. “And you are having some, as well?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Fenris said. He chuckled. “I cannot quaff a tankard, or I might drown Paul. But I’ve slotted a module containing just the nanites into my auxilliary Fuser intake, and Paul and Lillibet will be having smaller glasses themselves so we will feel the effects in unison.”

Svetlana nodded. “They are inside you now, aren’t they? All three of your companions?”

Fenris nodded. “They are. Paul and I are seldom far apart—and as you observed during the battle, Guinevere and I are linked wirelessly so we are always together even when we are separated. Does that…bother you?”

Svetlana shook her head. “Of course not. My Marlena is always a part of me. I only wondered what it was like, to have three other minds within you instead of only one.”

Fenris chuckled. “Sometimes, very noisy. But…fulfilling. I only wish you could have had the chance to experience it for yourself.”

“As do I,” Svetlana said. “For all that I can think clearly all the time now, there are times I miss my old bodies. Being able to drive, or prowl on all fours. Being small enough to…” She paused, glancing over at Fenris for a moment, then finished lamely, “…drink alcoholic beverages.” She flipped the mug closed, raised it to her muzzle, and sipped to cover her embarrassment. Then her eyes widened at the flavor. “This is…remarkable.”

“Indeed it is,” Fenris agreed. “I would suggest taking it slowly. The effects can be quite significant if you are unused to them.”

“I will bear that in mind,” Svetlana assured him, sipping again. The flavor was not unpleasant. A little fruitier than the drinks Marlena had preferred, but then she’d always been more into beer than mixed drinks. Svetlana had, of course, had no direct experience in the matter as a RIDE. She felt a cozy warm glow starting to spread outward from her stomach.

“Wow, you’re a big girl!” a woman’s voice squealed behind her.

Svetlana glanced around for the speaker, and saw a rather busty fox RIDE hovering in the air before her in Fuser mode, with a serval Integrate Svetlana recognized from the camp assault floating next to her. “Tom!” she nodded to the Integrate. “I am glad to see you are doing well.”

“Thanks,” Tom said. “Glad to be doing well. Funny how getting captured turned out to be the best thing to happen to me.”

“To us both,” Svetlana said. “And since mine involved a quadruple amputation, that is saying something.” She looked to the fox RIDE. “And this must be…Nora?” She’d reviewed the placements of each of the captured Integrates during her recuperation, and Nora’s single-handed capture of seven of them had caught her interest.

“That’s me! And my thumbs, Rose,” Nora said. “Nice to meet you! They sure do know how to build ‘em in Sturmhaven, don’t they?”

“We do like to think so,” Svetlana said.

“If the ambassador thing doesn’t work out, you should come work for me!” Nora said. “I get a lot of customers with giantess fantasies. You could bring them out of VR into real life!”

“Ah…thank you for the offer,” Svetlana said politely, taken slightly aback. She cast about for something else nice to say. “I do like to see a successful woman entrepreneur,” she added. “But I do not believe my temperament is best suited to your line of work.”

“Fair enough!” Nora said agreeably. “Enjoy the party!” She took Tom by the arm and they zoomed off to speak to someone else.

The open area was starting to fill up as the bleachers emptied out. The party had been arranged with two major areas, one for the larger RIDEs and Integrates and another for the smaller, with railings separating them so that people could mingle at the edges or, with lifters, in the air without worrying about anyone getting squashed.

A number of Svetlana’s fellow large Integrates had arrived to the party since the end of AlphaWolf’s speech. While some of them, such as Mr. Peaches, were chatting amiably across the railing with their smaller brethren, a knot of them were keeping to themselves at the back of the area, and Svetlana recognized several as dragons from the aerial wing of her attack on the settlement. She frowned as she noticed that they looked distinctly grumpy.

Fenris noticed where she was looking. “Ah, I see they came after all.”

“I remember you wrote me that some of my Integrates were acting…sullen,” Svetlana said, sipping her drink again. “Are these they?”

“Indeed,” Fenris said. “To be honest, I am not surprised. You were a little ‘sullen’ yourself when I visited you in Camelot after the event.”

Svetlana snorted. “My limbs had been blown off. I had a right. What are they complaining about? Having to get their hands dirty at the behest of the ‘lower orders’?”

“Well…” Fenris said.

Svetlana placed the hand not holding the tankard over her eyes. “Oh, bozhe moi. Seriously? I thought I was only joking.”

Fenris shrugged. “Not all of Fritz’s ‘true believers’ did enough harm to merit heavy sentencing. We could not punish people for simply holding an opinion.”

“And undoubtedly they will have been expecting me to agree with and advocate for them on their return,” Svetlana groaned. “Weren’t they paying attention?”

“It would appear that navel-gazing is something of a universal condition,” Fenris mused.

Svetlana bared her teeth. “Best to get this out of the way quickly, then. Excuse me.” Tightening her grip on her drink, she left the table and walked toward the group of grumpy Integrates. As she approached, the first of them to meet her was a green dragon. “Hello, Jeremy. Good to see you again,” Svetlana said neutrally.

“I’m going by Jeranth now,” the dragon said. “But I’m glad you’re here. Now maybe we can get out of here.”

Svetlana raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you still have 37 days left on your sentence?”

“On my…” The dragon snorted, puffs of smoke coming from his nostrils. “You’re not serious! This is a joke!

“Do you see me laughing?” Svetlana asked coolly. “What is your major malfunction, Jeranth?

“Oh, I don’t know, being the slave of mech and meat, maybe?” Jeranth exploded. “This goes against everything we stood for!”

“Oh. Really.” Svetlana sipped her drink, savoring the tingly warmth spreading through her and trying to hold onto that good feeling as a shield against a rising temper. “In case you forgot, that ‘mech and meat’ kicked our furry Integrate asses, not just here but all over Gondwana. Don’t you think that could be an indication Fritz was just a little bit…mistaken in his beliefs?” She smirked. “For all your complaints, I can’t help noticing you’re still here, rather than trying to flee or rebel alone. What happened to that Integrate superiority of yours?”

The dragon stared at her. “But what…you…you led us! How can you be taking their side?”

Svetlana took a deep breath. “Jeranth…Jeremy…I led you because Fritz outright told me that if I did not do exactly as he said, the Coffeehouse was going to get a set of very large white rugs. And then, in a few weeks, another set. And so on.” She shuddered. Despite himself, Jeranth did the same. Even among his own supporters, Fritz’s temper had been legendary. But, ironically, it had also served to draw his supporters closer to him—not just because they were afraid of him, but because of cognitive dissonance. If they were following such an asshole, they convinced themselves, they must have had a very good reason.

“But this…it’s undignified!” the dragon insisted.

Svetlana drew herself up—which at her height was even more impressive. “What is undignified? Physical labor? Are you forgetting? I am a Woman of Sturmhaven! We do not shirk from hard work of any kind, in support of our families!”

Jeranth blinked in confusion. “Your…families? But…these aren’t your family, they’re mech and meat!”

“We are made from mech and meat,” Svetlana said. “Humans and RIDEs are our family. One day, they too will be Integrates. For God’s sake, man, if we make them hate us now, how can we expect them to love us—or themselves—once they join us?”

“But…but what about what you said before?” Jeranth sputtered. “You said all the same crap Fritz did!”

Svetlana inclined her head in acknowledgment. “True. But I have had a great deal of time to rethink things in recent weeks, after it became clear to me just how much of Fritz’s rhetoric was wishful thinking.” She held up the arm that wasn’t holding the drink tankard, and looked pointedly at the cicatrices still surrounding the area that had regrown. “Do you think this would have happened if we were as ‘superior’ as Fritz thought?”

Jeranth eyed the scars and sighed. Svetlana chuckled. As aggravating as her quadruple amputation had been, she had to admit it made it hard for most Integrates to claim they had more right to complain about how badly they’d been beaten up. “I can still respect Fritz’s desire for Integrates to have their own place, and perhaps he was even right in how he went about it at first, when we were few and weak,” she continued. “But now we are many and strong, and we must now take our place alongside our less mature brethren and set them a positive example. If that means working to expiate our sins, so be it. We made mistakes. We are fortunate they set our punishment in terms of months, not years. Or worse. Have you asked yourself where you would be if you had been captured by the Loose Cannons? They could have had fun with a dragon of your size for days.

Jeranth shuddered again. “I…guess you have a point there. Kind of.”

Svetlana came to a decision. “In fact, tomorrow, and as often as my new duties permit, you will find me right there at the aerodrome by your side, helping you in your work. It is the right thing to do.”

“Your new duties?” one of the other large Integrates, an apatosaurus, said. “You’re really gonna let them make you their pet Intie?”

“I choose to make them my ‘pet RIDEs and humans,’” Svetlana said, her resolve stiffening. “As one of Fritz’s top Integrates, willingly or not, it falls to me to help repair the damage he did to Integrate/human relations. If AlphaWolf is willing to give me a platform to work from in that, who am I to spurn his support? This is not a punishment, this is an opportunity.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, I really should not preach at you. Perhaps it is this drink talking, you should try some.” She chuckled. “But look at this place. They are willing to forgive us trying to destroy them. This is a place where we can make a new start.” Svetlana shrugged. “Or, of course, you could run off to Rodinia with the rest of the isolationists once your sentence is up. For all the good it will do them in a few years.”

“Not everyone wants to get all lovey-dovey with mech and meat,” a tyrannosaur grumbled. “When Appa comes back, you’ll all be sorry.”

Svetalana felt her temper threaten to rise again, but viciously fought it back down. “That could be. Or it could be he will. After all, Fritz was once certain he was the most powerful being in the world, and look where he is now. Enjoy the party.” She nodded to the group, and turned to walk back to the table where Fenris waited.

“I see you have begun your new job already,” Fenris observed. “Very well said, all of it.”

“That? Oh, that was on me,” Svetlana said, taking a long pull at her drink. “I led those idiots. My responsibility. And thank you for the kind words.” She shook her head. “This place is suddenly too crowded. Could we find somewhere more…private?”

“I believe that would not be a problem,” Fenris said, leading her between two grandstands back out to the main street. “Shall we fly? There is plenty of privacy just outside the dome.”

“A very good idea,” Svetlana agreed. She gulped down the rest of the drink and set the tankard aside. It would swiftly have boiled in the heat out there anyway. She wobbled only a little as she lifted into the air with Fenris. That drink is stronger than I expected!

A few minutes later, they stood outside the dome on a high ridge of stone overlooking the settlement. Svetlana chuckled. “This is the very spot from which I commanded the attack, before coming to find you. Alpha Camp has certainly grown.”

“Indeed it has,” Fenris agreed. “Our population has grown by leaps and bounds as RIDEs have come in search of freedom, humans in search of opportunity. Some of the old-timers have…not dealt well with the change. Some even left to form their own bodyjack camps. I fear they are in for a rude awakening when the Marshals and polities do not deign to leave them be the way they did AlphaWolf.”

“And the Integrates? What do they come for?” Svetlana asked, moving closer to Fenris. She felt pleasantly warm all over, but did not believe that had much to do with the ambient temperature in the Dry.

“A place where they will not be stared at as much, perhaps,” Fenris reflected. “Some of the polities are still having a hard time with, if you will pardon the pun, integrating the Integrated into their society, from both side. We can serve as a sort of halfway house, showing both Integrates and polities that it can be done. This is why having your help is so important.”

“Mmm,” Svetlana acknowledged. She reached out to take Fenris’s hand.

The larger wolf glanced over at her, but gave her hand a friendly squeeze. “Are you well?”

“I believe I may be a little tipsy,” Svetlana confessed. “As you say, that drink is powerful. But I am quite enjoying the sensation.”

“As am I,” Fenris said. “It is strange, is it not, that it can be pleasant to be mildly impaired? It is counterintuitive from a system status perspective, but feels quite…human. Or so I imagine from the memories I have sampled.”

“Mm. It is quite human,” Svetlana agreed. “So the human half of me knows.”

“In some ways I envy you that closeness,” Fenris mused. “Not that we would wish to be Integrated prematurely, mind you.”

Svetlana nodded. “Of course not. These things should happen when they happen, and not before.” She chuckled. “And as I’ve said, I envy you the chance to be what we were meant to be. I must admit, I wonder how you’ll Integrate, if you do. Will the four of you become one or two?”

Fenris chuckled. “Meaning no offense, but we hope we will not find out for a good long time.”

Svetlana leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. “I hope so, too. I’ve hardly even had the chance to get to know you yet. I’m looking forward to that.”

Fenris glanced down at her, and chuckled, putting an arm around her. “As am I. Strange as it is to say, I rarely met a female of our kind until I encountered Bertha.”

“I know,” Svetlana said. “They kept us apart intentionally, I believe so as not to…confuse matters. They did not want a situation where a man might accidentally outrank a woman. Either that, or they were concerned about the possible effects of…fraternization. I believe, historically, many of our units have been segregated that way.”

“The Valkyries have much to answer for,” Fenris rumbled.

“I am not opposed to fraternization, myself,” Svetlana declared.

“Even though you are an Integrate and we are mere ‘meat and mech’?” Fenris asked.

Svetlana snorted. “Don’t confuse me with Fritz. I can recognize when I was wrong.” She shook her head. “AlphaWolf may have shot off my limbs, but you were the one who defeated me in battle. Fritz would be horrified that I was defeated by a mere RIDE. All of my Sturmhaven indoctrination would have it that I should be ashamed to have been defeated by a mere man. But there is nothing ‘mere’ about you. About any of you.”

Fenris nodded. “You were a worthy adversary. You will be an even better ally. And friend.”

“Not just friend, I hope,” Svetlana said, tail wagging.

Fenris chuckled again. “That remains to be seen. I will say I would…not be opposed. But we have time enough, and are all mature enough, not to rush into anything.”

“True.” Svetlana considered that for a moment, watching the dome as she leaned against Fenris. “I hope you will not consider this rushing.” She reached up to turn his muzzle toward her, and met it with the end of her own. Canine muzzles weren’t quite made for what humans would consider a kiss, but they could touch lips and tongues, and then Svetlana licked Fenris’s nose.

Fenris was silent for a long moment, and Svetlana began to worry she’d offended him. But he didn’t make any move to pull away, and after a moment gravely returned the nose-lick. “I think that is just about the right speed,” he reflected.

“Good,” Svetlana said, relaxing against his shoulder again. They stood there together, enjoying each other’s company, as the sun slowly sank behind the dome.

3

The rest of the evening was a little fuzzy, but Svetlana remembered bidding farewell to Fenris and finding a spot to lie down. She wasn’t really too bothered about where, nor were most of the other Integrates her size who were still on work probation. The Marshals had already demonstrated that they could track the Integrates down wherever they went, and placing “guards” on them would just have been a drain on Marshal manpower. So most of them just dossed somewhere within a klick or two of the dome, out in the desert where there was plenty of open space. Some of them required a few extra lessons, but they’d all learned sooner or later to show up up on their own when their shifts began. It was just less annoying that way.

When she woke up the next morning, Svetlana felt a little tightness behind her eyes, but not the splitting headache characteristic of hangovers. Of course not. I only had twenty liters of booze last night, it is not as if that was a huge amount… She chuckled wryly and made her way back under the dome, to the open area near the aerodrome that had been set up as a commissary for Integrate laborers. Industrial fabbers were turning out fried “rocs’ eggs”—actually just chicken eggs scaled up in size—and immense sausages, bacon, and other breakfast staples. Biscuits the size of dining room tables swam in decaliters of gravy. It was fortunate, Svetlana reflected as she took a plate, that fabbed food was so cheap. Feeding even a few Integrates her size on natural food could have bankrupted Alpha Camp.

As she ate, she opened a comm line to AlphaWolf’s office. Alpha himself picked up. “Morning, Svetlana. Noticed you and Fenris left the party early last night. Enjoy yourselves?”

“Yes, we did,” Svetlana said. “Strictly platonically, not that it’s any of your business…”

“Hey, take it easy, was just asking,” AlphaWolf said. “So what can I do you for?”

“As it happens, your rather unexpectedly public job offer intrigues me,” Svetlana sent through the comlink as she brought a pitchfork-sized forkful of biscuit to her maw. “So I would like to know more about what you had in mind.”

“Fundamentally? Talk to the Enclaves for us. I’ll be the first to admit I’m…not the best one to be doing that, after some of the things some of ‘em did.”

“By ‘some of them’ I assume you mean Marshal Munn?” Svetlana asked. “Seems to me that Camelot has more than made up for that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that,” AlphaWolf growled. “Look, I know myself. I’ve got a bad temper sometimes. And I don’t understand you Inties as well as I ought to. So now that’s your job—if you take it. Understand both of us and help us play nice with each other.”

“What if I don’t understand you non-Inties as well as I should?” Svetlana asked.

AlphaWolf snorted. “You’ve been flesh and metal. I’ve never been an Intie. That puts you one up on me already.”

Touché,” Svetlana admitted. “Very well…I might as well take the position, at least provisionally. It will give me something to do while I shove crates around.”

AlphaWolf sent an eyebrow-raised emoticon. “You’re serious about that? Doing manual labor?”

“I might as well,” Svetlana said. “It will be nice to have something to do with my hands while I burn up the comm lines. And it will show solidarity with the other forced laborers and put me in a position to keep an eye on them.”

AlphaWolf whistled. Or at least sent a whistle sound, since the term “wolf whistle” aside, wolf lips were made for whistling about as well as for kissing. “So you’re doing your job already. Impressive.”

“Not my job, my duty,” Svetlana said. “This much, I would do anyway. I led these people, and have a responsibility to them. Which includes the responsibility to keep them from doing anything stupid.”

AlphaWolf nodded. “Sister, you’ve just described the whole philosophy behind why I let myself get sucked into running this damn show in the first place. I’ll beam over your credentials and the reports on the latest incidents we need straightened out. Let me know if there’s anything you need. So sayeth me!”

Svetlana snorted. “I will bear that in mind.” She accepted the data packet, but put it aside to look at later, once she’d begun the heavy lifting. Right now, she concentrated on her breakfast.

“Good morning!” a jovial voice boomed behind her. Svetlana glanced over her shoulder to see Mr. Peaches the dragon happily levitating a plate full of mattress-sized French toast smothered in peach syrup and immense peach slices to a table.

“Isn’t that technically cannibalism?” Svetlana asked, tongue lolling in a lupine grin.

“What do you—oh!” Peaches chortled as he got the joke. “I was named by my first pilot for the color I chose for my hardlight hide. Quite fetching, I thought at the time. I only found out later how unusual that color was for a driggin. Since Integrating, I tried my namesake and found I rather liked them. Though whether I would have done had it not been for my name, I cannot say. It became rather a self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose.”

“I think I’ve seen dragons of nearly every color,” Svetlana said. “Nothing about yours strikes me as especially unusual.”

“Thank you, my dear. That might be true now, but at the time, there were considerably fewer options.” Mr. Peaches chuckled, levitating a fork full of food to his mouth. “And might I just say how nice it is to see you able to eat with your hands once more, rather than your lifters? Sometimes I do rather wish I were a touch more anthropomorphic.”

“It’s nice to be able to,” Svetlana said, suiting word to deed and taking another bite. “Thank you again, by the way, for the care you took of me and the others while we were recovering.”

“Please, think nothing of it,” Peaches said around a mouthful of French toast. “It was simply our duty.”

Svetlana nodded. “I understand duty. But not everyone would see it that way.”

“Fortunately, my dear, we are not everyone,” Mr. Peaches said cheerfully.

They ate in mutual silence for a while, then Svetlana finished cleaning her plate. “I suppose I had better get to the aerodrome. There will be much work to do.”

Mr. Peaches cocked his head. “You still plan to assist with the manual labor?”

“Yes!” Svetlana said. “Why does everyone find that so surprising? I am a Woman of Sturmhaven. We do not shirk from work!” She subsided, embarrassed, as a few of the diners at other tables glanced her way.

Peaches chuckled, finishing up the last of his French toast. “Then I think I will join you, at least for a while. I do not shirk from work, either. Did I ever tell you, I had to crank the main gates for almost a year after I first came to Camelot? I rather came to enjoy it, after a while.”

After dumping their trays into the recycler, the two of them headed over to the aerodrome, along with a few other Integrates who had just finished their breakfasts. The new polity was still growing, and still seeing a lot of traffic as subs and fliers brought in construction materials and fabber matter in bulk. There were cargo cranes and the like for unloading it in a pinch, but a giant person who could actually use hands or lifters to position it was much more efficient.

Svetlana listened to the work supervisor’s comm frequencies and went where she was directed, helping carry huge tanks of fabber gel out of a shuttle and arrange them in rows to one side of the landing strip. Mr. Peaches worked alongside her, straightening the rows with his lifters or hooking onto loops of cable with his talons and flying full pallets to where they needed to be.

As she worked, Svetlana reviewed her credentials and the briefings on the various incidents she would need to handle. She frowned as she studied them. AlphaWolf had not been kidding about how much he needed someone to straighten things out. Some of these situations were going to call for some fancy footwork. And here I am with my size ten thousand feet, she thought wryly.

Well, best to get started. The first matter Svetlana decided to look at had to do with a young cheetah Integrate named ProsperoSteve. (“Prospero” had been a popular name for Cheetah RIDEs for a while, because of Shakespeare, that old saying about what cheaters never do, and people who thought puns were funny.) It didn’t appear he had anything to do with Fritz’s Ascendants; he was one of the fortunate few who had been able to escape from the Enclaves and live by his wits for years among humans.

The problem was that once Watchdog and DINsec had gone into Nextus’s systems, he’d been caught trying to lift money from an ATM, and subsequent investigation revealed he’d been doing it for years, to the tune of tens of thousands of mu. He’d fled to Alpha Camp just a few steps ahead of the Policia, and was now requesting political asylum. Meanwhile, the Marshals had passed along an extradition request from Nextus. Now AlphaWolf had to decide how to deal with that.

We can no longer walk through any system unseen, she thought. Even before DINsec, Watchdog had been active for years, though mostly in Aloha. It still hadn’t sunk in. Svetlana sighed. I suppose first I’d better talk to him. The documentation included his comm code, so she gave him a call.

“Heyooo?” the voice at the other end said cautiously.

“ProsperoSteve, this is Svetlana,” Svetlana sent. “Do you have a moment?”

“Um…yes ma’am!” Through the comm, she practically felt ProsperoSteve snap to attention.

“I have been reviewing your case,” Svetlana said, as she hefted another tank of nano-gel onto her shoulder. “I would like to hear what you have to say.”

“It’s a bloody crock, ma’am,” ProsperoSteve said indignantly, slight British accent coming out with his irritation. “I didn’t do anything that we lone-wolf Inties haven’t been having to do to survive all this time. Only difference is they caught me the last time. You know what happened if we tried to, y’know, earn money in a job, out in the open? Fritz’s Candlejacks, Snatchers, and Loose Cannons, that’s what. I never took any more than I needed, and I spread it out ‘mong different banks so I wouldn’t hit any one of them too hard.”

“I see,” Svetlana said. And she did. While she’d never lived outside the Enclaves herself, she’d talked to plenty of people who had, and she knew all about how the Candlejacks and Snatchers operated. ProsperoSteve’s story was entirely plausible. Except…

“But they caught you two weeks after Fritz was defeated, didn’t they?” Svetlana asked.

“Well…yeah.” ProsperoSteve sighed. “I was a stupid git. I’ll admit that. Wanted to get myself just a little bit more cash to live on while I started looking for legitimate work. I guess I shoulda known better, after how Fritz was whupped and all. But…they’re not after me for just that, they want to pin every bit of money I took in the last five years on me, too! I mean, what was I supposed to do, starve?”

“Ah.” Svetlana sent a “nod” emoticon. “I see the crux of the problem. Would you like me to see what can be done about it?”

“You’d…you’d do that for me, ma’am?” ProsperoSteve asked.

“It seems only fair. I was part of the problem, I should be part of the solution. But I may not be able to get you off scot-free. Will you honor any deals I am able to make?”

“I’ll…sure listen to them,” Steve said after a moment. “I just want a fair shake, that’s all.”

“Of course,” Svetlana said. “I will comm you again when I have more to tell you.” She broke the connection, and considered her options. I should speak to whoever is handling his case in the Marshals, first. Perhaps they can direct me to where to call in Nextus. She looked up the contact information she’d been given for her Marshals counterpart, and put through a call.

“Marrrrshals Alpha Camp liaison office, Katie speaking!” a cheerful, feline voice said on the other end. A moment later, a VR forest clearing sprang into being with a non-anthropomorphic lynx and a human-sized anthropomorphic wolf in it. Svetlana easily split her attention to keep working in the real world while speaking in VR.

“Hello, Katie, I’m Svetlana,” Svetlana said. “Alpha Camp’s Integrate ambassador,” she added.

Katie nodded. “I know. I saw the speech. What can I do forrr you, Svetlana?”

“I’m calling about ProsperoSteve,” Svetlana said. “I have been looking over his case, and it sounds like Nextus wants to pin all the hacking he did over the last five years on him, instead of what he was only just caught for.”

“Ah.” Katie nodded. “To be honest, that does not sit too well with the rrrest of us, either. It was a different time when Frrritz was rrrunning things. There is a bill prrrohibiting that kind of charge—essentially, placing a statute of limitations cap for any Integrrrate crime short of murrrderrr committed durrring Frrrritz’s rrreign by those rrrunning away frrrom Frrritz—but it is stalled in committee in Nextus’s legislaturrre, and for now the prrrrosecutorrrs are frrree to act as they will.”

“What can we do about this?” Svetlana asked.

“Shorrrt of getting the law passed? Verrry little.” Katie shrugged. “I will pass along the comm codes for the prrrosecutorrr. You might be able to cut a plea deal—especially if you tell them you are prrreparrred to advise Alpha offerrr political asylum if they don’t drrrop the charrrges, at least until the legislation passes. I doubt this petty crime is enough of an issue forrr Nextus to make a great fuss if you do.”

“That is certainly one option,” Svetlana agreed. “I will comm and see what we might work out.” She grinned. “I expect I will be talking to you again, possibly a great deal.”

“Prrrobably so,” Katie agreed. “Good luck with it.”

The prosecutor, a stern-looking, untagged older human woman named Mrs. Hargraves, was not inclined to be helpful, especially when she observed Svetlana’s Integrate appearance, and heard her Sturmhaven accent. I should have used a human avatar and an accent filter, I guess, Svetlana reflected. Well, too late now. The woman was quite resistant to the idea of dismissing all but the actual charge on which ProsperoSteve had been caught. Reading between the lines, Svetlana suspected that a significant number of Nextus’s stolid pro-humanist citizens were terrified by all the changes that were suddenly coming, and the prosecutor was trying to show them she could be “tough on Integrate crime.”

“I see,” Svetlana finally said. “Well, in that case, I will have to advise AlphaWolf to grant the asylum request. It doesn’t sound like ProsperoSteve would be able to get a fair trial there.”

It was interesting to see how quickly the prosecutor backpedaled when the chance to demonstrate her tough stance at all seemed ready to evaporate. “Now, wait, something that extreme may not be necessary after all,” she added. “We shouldn’t be hasty. Maybe we can work something out.”

Svetlana chuckled inwardly. Half a loaf, ja Mrs. Hargraves? Outwardly, she said, “I would certainly be open to discussion.”

In the end, they settled on Hargraves dropping all but the most recent charge if ProsperoSteve agreed to plead guilty to that—and urging the judge to assign probation rather than a harsher sentence. “I will run that by him and see if he finds it agreeable, as soon as you send me the notarized offer papers,” Svetlana told her.

“You’ll have them in a few hours,” Mrs. Hargraves grumbled.

ProsperoSteve was not entirely thrilled either when presented with the offer. “You realize this is Nextus, right? Where they think we’re inhuman freaks? Just ‘cuz she ‘urges’ the judge to be lenient doesn’t mean he will.”

“It is a better chance than you had half an hour ago,” Svetlana pointed out. “In all honesty, I would advise finding a lawyer and consulting them before you decide whether to accept or decline the bargain. If you choose to decline, let me know.” She probably would still recommend him for at least temporary sanctuary if he turned the offer down, but no need to let that influence his decision.

“I—um—all right,” ProsperoSteve said. “Thank you.”

Well, there’s one fire pissed on, Svetlana thought wryly. Let’s see what other challenges lie in store.

Separator k.png

“It occurs to me that I may have been mistaken in something,” Fenris rumbled thoughtfully. He stood at the edge of the aerodrome’s tarmac just after lunch, watching Svetlana and the other Integrates at their stevedore work. Paul, Lillibet, and Guinevere were also on board.

“You didn’t think Svetlana was going to be able to settle in like this?” Paul asked.

“It is something more fundamental than that, actually,” Fenris said. “Something I said when you first woke me up.”

“Oh?” Paul asked. He had a pretty good idea what was coming, actually; he’d noticed it was on Fenris’s mind a lot of late during Fuse but they hadn’t directly discussed it. Sometimes it took the big guy some time to think things through to where he was ready to put them into words.

“At the time, I spurned your offer of a partnership, because I wished to be in charge of all aspects of my life,” the big wolf mused. “I will confess, I even harbored less-than-rational thoughts of intentionally making you…uncomfortable, simply to watch your reaction. And yet…I have since come to realize that I do not want to cause you any anguish.”

Paul chuckled. “Yeah…that’s called a partnership. I don’t want to make things hard on you, either. Never have.”

“I am aware of that,” Fenris acknowledged wryly. “Essentially…I wished to apologize to you. And to Lillibet and Guinevere, about whom I feel the same way.”

“Hey, no problem!” Guinevere said. “You never have caused us any anguish. Or any French or Spanish, either!”

“Same here,” Lillibet said. “After what happened to you, you needed to feel in control. We knew from the first time we Fused you weren’t actually gonna do anything bad with it.”

Fenris chuckled. “That’s not quite what I remember reading from your mind at the time.”

“Eh, well…that was before we spent time in the camp and saw what the real control freaks were like,” Lillibet said. “Next to, oh, Tocsin or Sonja, you were just a little kid calling ‘dibs!’”

Months of Alpha Camp’s new status as a legit polity hadn’t softened Tocsin’s attitude towards humans very much. The hippogryph had a small retinue of humans who wore his tags like a uniform—in addition to his “main” thumbs, Joseph, who steadfastly refused to leave him permanently even after Tocsin had released him. And for her part, Sonja was still the same domineering lupine Mary Poppins she had ever been; she’d simply agreed on a more restrictive selection process.

“No apologies needed, ‘boss,’” Paul said, using the title ironically for the first time. “I’m an easy-going kind of guy, and you’ve always been reasonable, so I wasn’t going to try to throw my weight around anyway. You’re so much heavier than I am, it wouldn’t have done much anyway.”

“Thank you,” Fenris said. “All of you. From now on, I will try to be less domineering.”

Paul snorted. “You’ve never been domineering. You just reserved the right to be if you ever wanted to.” He grinned. “So anyway, what brings this up now?”

Fenris cast another look toward Svetlana. “It occurs to me that my relationship toward Svetlana could have…repercussions for you. As I said, I do not wish to make you uncomfortable. But…”

“But on the other hand, we’re part of what makes you who you are,” Lillibet said. “And as closely as we’re linked to you, we sort of can’t help being affected by anything you do.” She giggled. “That kiss last night…wow!”

“I know I have no right to impose this upon you,” Fenris said. “But…should our relationship progress…I have no experience in these matters. I will need your help, as much as I ever have on the battlefield.”

“Didn’t Pat Benatar say that love is a battlefield?” Paul said. “You can count on us. I kinda like the big girl myself. And since my main squeeze is part of you, too, it’s not like jealousy’s gonna be an issue.”

“Yeah. For a ‘Voman uf Zturmhaven,’ she’s remarkably not an asshole,” Guinevere said. “I’m kinda surprised, really. I expected something like a great big Sonja. I mean, even Bertha and Hedy are a little…well, you know.”

“I do know,” Fenris said. “I intentionally purged my own accent after I left, but I am from Sturmhaven, after all.” He chuckled. “Sturmhaven women are…complex and mysterious creatures.”

“And men are simple and straightforward?” Paul said, grinning. “I see what you did there.”

Fenris laughed. “I did not mean it that way. Or perhaps I did. The simple fact is, the Sturmhaven women most outsiders see are often Valkyries—the altogether most strident branch of Sturmhaven political philosophy—simply because they are the ones who most believe in putting themselves forward. The squeaky lifter gets the nano-lubricant.”

“‘Putting themselves forward’?” Guin said. “Is that what you call it? That isn’t what I’d call it.”

“For the last couple of decades, the Valkyries’ power has been dwindling in the Zemstvo—what you would call the Parliament,” Fenris said. “They used to be the dominant force in our culture and politics. Indeed, it was they who sparked the Great War that led to RIDEkind’s creation. Now they are…I suppose you might say, compensating. The less real power they have, the noisier they become.”

“Why doesn’t anyone else ever speak up?” Lillibet asked. “Or even, like, leave Sturmhaven and be seen elsewhere? Why is every Sturmie you meet an ‘on your knees, male worm!’ Valk?”

“Uh, Lilli? Hate to say it, but worms don’t have knees,” Paul said.

Lillibet rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

Fenris chuckled. “The odds are, you have met many Sturmhaven women on the street, or passed them in the park, without even knowing it. Athenians and even many Gaians do not feel as inclined to call attention to themselves by dressing or acting provocatively abroad. ‘When in Rome,’ as they say. But because Valkyries do, they have associated themselves most clearly with Sturmhaven in others’ minds, even as they least represent it within its own borders any longer.”

“So, what, Sturmhaven’s actually a land of all sweetness and light?” Lillibet asked. “What about the stories I’ve heard? The Male Transgression Laws where a man can get stoned for looking at a woman funny?”

Fenris sighed. “The Valkyries do tend to have an influence on culture out of proportion to their legislative influence. As extremists, they skew the center of the political spectrum in their direction simply by existing. As for those laws, the Valkyries passed them while they were in power, but enough Gaians and even Athenians still, deep down, believe them to be a good idea, an integral part of Sturmhaven culture and all that, that there is never quite enough of a majority to repeal them.” He shrugged. “Inertia, I suppose. Even the most ardent male suffragist grew up in a world where those laws had always existed, and has a hard time imagining life without them.”

“So, getting back to ‘Lana…” Guinevere prompted.

Fenris sighed happily. “She embodies most of the positive qualities of a Woman of Sturmhaven, with few of the negatives. I have little doubt she still believes women to be the superior gender, but she is more interested in proving it through her actions than asserting it through empty words. Which includes not going out of her way to pick fights over it.”

“Whereas for a Valk, it’s a wasted day if you haven’t had at least one good scrap before brunch,” Paul said.

“Indeed.” Fenris chuckled. “If they only turned all that energy back toward their politics instead of punishing whatever man just annoyed them, they could be a dominant force again. In a way, it’s best for all concerned that they don’t.”

“Does still make life hard for any guys in Sturmhaven, though,” Paul reflected. “So anyway…yeah. If you want to court her, we’re with you. Should be an interesting experience.”

“Yeah,” Lillibet said. “I like her. Want to get to know her better.”

“Ditto!” Guinevere agreed.

“Thank you, my friends,” Fenris said. “Bearing that in mind…well, we shall see what happens.” He glanced in her direction one more time. “But at present, our lunch break seems to be over. We should get back to work.”

“Fine by me,” Paul agreed. The giant wolf lifted into the air and floated back uptown.

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By the end of the work shift, Svetlana was tired both mentally and physically, but satisfied. She’d managed to get a lot of cargo moved, and she could tell that just by being there, she’d been a calming influence on the others. It was harder to grumble about your lot when your former commander was right beside you pitching in without complaint, and doing other work virtually besides.

And also, just through the comms, she had opened dialogues with three Integrate Enclaves that had been on the fence about the new changes in the world. She was beginning to see why AlphaWolf had wanted her for the job. Simply by being a member of Fritz’s old guard who had been able to adapt, her mere existence sent a powerful message to any Integrates who spoke to her. And being a former outlaw haven itself, Alpha Camp seemed a touch less threatening to isolationist Enclaves than the established polities did.

AlphaWolf felt that his settlement could be an important “baby step” on the way to getting all of Integrate society back in touch with the human world, Svetlana realized. And being the one tasked with making that happen was a lot of responsibility.

But I am a Woman of Sturmhaven, she thought happily. We are made for responsibility.

She stopped off at the commissary for a quick dinner and recharge, then drifted downtown to see the sights. She hadn’t had much chance to explore outside of the parade. She did have to be careful where she put her feet from time to time, but she was used to that, and if necessary she could take to the air. Most of the buildings weren’t scaled for someone her size to enter, but it was still interesting to look at them from the outside.

Most of the people she met were friendly. Some would wave and call her name; a few would ask how she liked Alpha Camp so far and she’d reply that it was certainly friendlier than she’d expected. A few ran and hid. She couldn’t really blame them, but she did feel sorry for them. And one or two actually did yell epithets at her. That made her giggle. What, did they want her to try to step on them? Even if it proved them right about her, they’d still be squashed.

Without knowing exactly where she was going, she found herself drifting into the old Graveyard area. The bandstands and other party fixings had long since been broken down and cleared out. The empty area that remained was part park, part parking lot for the RIDE garage and house of ill repute that shared space here. It was one of the few places within the dome that someone her size could relax and move around freely. By some unspoken agreement, Alpha Camp had left this space undeveloped save for the two businesses that had prior claim.

Svetlana walked carefully up to the main garage annex of the FreeRIDErs Garage and squatted to peer through the open bay door. Lillibet and Guinevere were Fused up, working on an armadillo RIDE. They glanced up at her arrival. “Oh, hey!” Lillibet said cheerfully. “If you’re looking for Fennie, he and Paul are around back in the open-air bays.”

“Thank you,” Svetlana said. She stood back up and walked around the building. On the other side, a set of mech cradles were set up in a row, like beds in a hospital, with no roof or other structures around them save for some utility-pole like structures from which lights and other equipment dangled. Fenris was standing over one of them in Fuser form, waldos and servos extended from his gauntlets to work within a dolphin RIDE’s access compartments.

He glanced up at her approach. “Hey,” Paul said. “Just a sec, we’re nearly done.”

“Do not rush on my account,” Svetlana said. “So, you do most of your repair work in the open air?”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “We couldn’t fit into one of the bays like the central building has. And since there isn’t any weather around here anyway, we figured putting up extra bay modules was kind of a waste.”

“Paul has expressed a singular unwillingness to consider time-sharing with a smaller RIDE for in-bay work,” Fenris said.

“Hey, I am time-sharing with a smaller RIDE. Her name’s Guinevere, maybe you met her.” Paul chuckled. “She and Lilli get the in-building bay, and we’re happy back here, the way we’ve always done the repairs since I first woke the Big Guy up. Our equipment’s just better now is all.” He retracted the manipulator arms and stood up. “When I picked Fenris for my repair partner, I knew at the outset working inside buildings was gonna be a problem. But he had what I wanted, and he still does. He’s my main man.”

“And I am indescribably grateful,” Fenris rumbled. “I had never imagined I could repair others. I find I like it much better than trying to destroy them.”

“I’ll confess, I had not imagined a WLF-CSA could ever be fitted for repair either,” Svetlana said. “But you make it work.”

Fenris nodded in acknowledgement. “How was your first day at the aerodrome?”

“It went well,” Svetlana said. “The work was really not hard, and it occupied my body while my mind went elsewhere. And that work was satisfying, too. I was able to make a start on untangling some issues of Integrate relations without ever leaving Alpha Camp. I expect the aerodrome shall be my office, most of the time.”

“How’re the other Integrates doing?” Paul asked. “I know there was some grumbling.”

“Grumbling, yes, but I doubt they will do anything about it,” Svetlana said. “Apart from feeling bound by my example, they know how much better off they will be if they stick it out to the end of their sentence than if they make the Marshals have to hunt them down. Most of them don’t stop and think about the chance they’re being offered for a fresh start.” She shook her head. “Integrates? I say they are Ingrates.”

“They will come around,” Fenris predicted. “Or they will finally leave after they finish their sentences. Either way, we should not have to worry about them too much longer.”

Svetlana nodded. “Though that will leave your aerodrome with fewer stevedores.”

“We won’t have this level of traffic for too much longer anyway, now that we’re just about all built out,” Paul said. “I expect we’ll make do with the cranes and volunteers after that, or else we can actually hire some people.”

“I see,” Svetlana said. Then she continued, “I was wondering…now that the work is out of the way, would you care to come for a walk with me?”

“Give us a few minutes to finish up, then we shall be delighted to,” Fenris agreed.

Svetlana nodded. “I suppose I will see you shortly, then.”

“Actually, would you care to help?” Paul asked. “I’ve known some Integrates who were pretty handy with RIDE maintenance with their powers.”

Svetlana raised an eyebrow. “I only know the basics, but…if you think I can be useful, I’ll be glad to lend a hand.”

“Certainly! We can teach you,” Fenris rumbled. “I did not know much about it myself, before Paul showed me. And your Integrate abilities should prove quite useful.”

“C’mon over here, I’ll show you what to do,” Paul invited.

“Very well,” Svetlana agreed, stepping forward to join them by the maintenance cradles.

Paul nodded Fenris’s head to her. “Now, the first thing you need to know about fixing RIDEs is…”

4

Life at Alpha Camp settled into a routine over the next few weeks. Lillibet and Guinevere returned home to school but came back on the weekends and sometimes more often than that. The first few Integrates with the lightest sentences reached the end of their forced labor and were released. A number of them chose to stay on, or to take up residence in a nearby Enclave such as Camelot and commute to continue working in Alpha Camp for modest salaries.

Not all of them were cargo shifters, either. The giant Integrates were the most visible, but there were plenty of smaller ones working at other jobs within the polity at any job where levitation would be useful. Pulling hot trays from the oven at an artisanal bakery, carrying laden food trays to the table at restaurants, and putting together prefabbed buildings were all things Integrates did well. One of those Integrates was ProsperoSteve, for whom Svetlana had managed to broker a better plea deal. He was now working a job in Alpha Camp to make partial restitution to the Nextus banks from whom he had “borrowed” money. If the labor seemed menial, at least it was honest.

And speaking of labor, Svetlana soon settled into assisting Fenris and Paul in back of the garage in addition to her cargo-moving duties. It was something else she could do with her hands and her Integrate powers while committing diplomacy by comm, and with the processing power in her giant body she was easily able to devote her full attention to both tasks at once. And it lets me stay close to Fenris, Svetlana thought happily.

It was strange to say about a man, but the more time she spent around him, the more Svetlana found she could respect the giant wolf RIDE and his partners. She certainly didn’t agree with him about all things, especially about all things Sturmhaven, but that was to be expected—and the fact that they had both essentially fled from Sturmhaven in disgrace was another bond between them.

She also got along well with Bertha, Hedy, and Diana Fuerst, whom she saw fairly frequently as Paul was still spending a lot of time fine-tuning and troubleshooting their linkage in preparation for sending them home to present the technology to Sturmhaven. It helped that she and Bertha had been in the same squadron back in their military days. They had a lot of old times to catch up on.

Sonja also came by from time to time. She happily showed off her current charge, a girl from Califia named Frieda, who Sonja had paired up with during Svetlana’s Integrates’ attack. By now, Frieda had almost entirely lost her old accent and spoke Sturmhaven’s German dialect like a native. Svetlana found this more than a little creepy, but Frieda seemed happy with what had been done to her, so Svetlana tried to be happy for her.

“Am I a bad person?” she asked Fenris on one of their many evening walks. “I am not sure whether I feel worse that I dislike watching Sonja work…or that I can live with the results. I am supposed to be a patriot of Sturmhaven, after all.”

“I gather that even Sturmhaven now regrets what it did with Sonja’s kind,” Fenris said. “And say what you will, but unlike so many others Frieda at least chose to give herself over to Sonja.”

“In order to defend against my attack, which makes me feel responsible,” Svetlana said.

“I am given to understand that she was something of a Sturmophile even before that,” Fenris said. “She might eventually have made that choice anyway.” He chuckled. “Besides, I see at least one example before me showing that a Woman of Sturmhaven is not such a bad thing to be.”

Svetlana smiled at him, and leaned in for a kiss and nose-lick. Fenris replied in kind. He’d been very good about letting her take the initiative, Svetlana noted. And he had not indicated at all that her attentions were unwelcome. Perhaps it was time to take the next step.

Svetlana stepped closer to Fenris, and spoke the words to an old Sturmhaven courtship ritual. Some said that it pre-dated the polity itself, and had been set down by the polity’s original founders. Only Valkyries and those even farther to the right used it in its literal form anymore—a peremptory order that brooked no insubordination—and even then, not all the time for them either. These days it was more commonly spoken coyly and suggestively, as Svetlana said it now. “I require the services of a man tonight. You will do.”

In the original formula, the man now had the chance to show proof that he was already vowed to another. If he could produce it, the woman would accept that he was unavailable and look for another man to requisition. But if he couldn’t, or if the woman judged it to be fraudulent, or the other person to be unworthy, she would press her claim. This was a bit risky, as the other woman, if she existed, could challenge her to a duel over this slight. In fact, historically, this ritual had often been used as an intentional incitement to duel, though that happened less often now.

If the man declined to submit willingly…legend had it that, originally, the woman could then take him anyway, but that hadn’t happened in at least as long as Svetlana had been functional or, for that matter, as long as Marlena had been alive. These days, he was more likely to be jailed under the Male Transgression laws (or possibly dumped at the border after a mild beating if a tourist). At least, if it was a Valkyrie asking and she took the ritual seriously. Everyone else tended to treat the ritual somewhat like a marriage proposition—only using it when they were already pretty sure the answer would be “yes”. In those cases, the worst that happened was bruised egos…usually.

There was a separate courtship ritual for women to women, which was considerably more voluntary. Men seeking men sometimes used a modified version of that ritual, but it didn’t have the force of law it did when women used it—and they had to be careful no matter what they did because the women of Sturmhaven did not look kindly on that kind of thing. There wasn’t a ritual as such for men seeking to court women—for obvious reasons.

In Fenris’s case, worries over rejection were academic, because he gave the proper countersign, just as slyly as Svetlana had offered the challenge. “Madam, you honor me beyond all my worthiness. I am at your disposal.” They stepped into each other’s arms and kissed again. “Shall we go somewhere more private? I know just the spot.”

“I will permit you to show me,” Svetlana said with a wink. Fenris stepped back, took Svetlana’s hand, and lifted into the air. Svetlana followed suit, and he led her away from the Alpha Camp dome.

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In his compartment within Fenris, Paul floated, eyes closed, and grinned. He’d planned to drop back into VR to give Fenris some privacy, but that didn’t seem to be in the cards. Fenris had drawn him heavily into their link, as he usually did at stressful times when he needed his partner’s guidance. It was actually a little hard for Paul to think for himself, as much of his mind as Fenris was using. He could sense through the link that it was the same way with Lilli and Guin. Of course, Paul thought wryly. Ol’ Fennie doesn’t have hormones of his own. He needs to borrow ours.

And was he ever. Up to now, Paul had been interested in the affair only in an academic sense. Svetlana was nice, and all, but he didn’t have a crush on her. But now, awash in Fenris’s libido, he couldn’t help noticing how utterly gorgeous Svetlana was, seen through Fenris’s eyes. That curvaceous body, those bright eyes, those well-toned muscles…she was really everything a wolf could want.

:Better be careful or I’m gonna get jealous,: Lillibet teased through their link.

:Er…sorry, Lilli,: Paul sent, a little embarrassed. Naturally, she could sense his thoughts through the link when it was this strong between all of them.

Lillibet giggled. :I’m kidding, silly. I feel it too. Which is really a bit weird, because I thought I only had eyes for you!:

They touched down in Fenris’s “secret spot”—a cozy little sand pit that they’d run across during one of their patrols. The soft, inviting sand was a pale blue in color, bespeaking a higher-than-usual qubitium count. Not that it would be a problem for either the RIDE or the Integrate, but any unprotected gear would be breathing its last after just a few minutes of exposure.

As Fenris and Svetlana stepped into each other’s arms, Paul was startled as the hatch beneath him opened and he dropped into Fenris’s other interior compartment. “Hey, what—?”

In the dim light of the Fuse chamber, Guinevere’s eyes glowed as she and Lillibet regarded him hungrily. “Why should Fennie and Lana be the only ones who get to have any fun?” Guinevere purred. “We hope you like furry girls!”

“I like any girl, as long as they’re you. But are you sure about this? It’s a big step forward for us to take, and your Mom and Dad…”

“You heard them at the park. They knew this was coming. They even knew this—” she waved a hand in the general direction of outside “—was coming. They just want me to be happy. Well…” She pushed back Guinevere’s helmet to regard Paul face to face. “This will make me happy,” she said simply.

Paul looked into her eyes. It was amazing just how compelling they were, he reflected. Even more so than a cat’s, for all that they seemed to have caught some of Guin’s eyes’ luminescence. Or maybe that was just his eyes playing tricks. “Well…if you’re sure, then sure. Can’t exactly say I’ll regret it myself.” He grinned to emphasize his understatement.

“I know. Not that you ever, y’know, did anything about it.” Lillibet smirked. “I finally had to ask Fenris to arrange things, just now. Just like Svetlana had to go after him herself.”

“Well hey, Fennie and me, we’re just a couple laid-back kinda guys,” Paul said casually.

Lillibet snorted. “Fenris is from Sturmhaven. What’s your excuse?”

“Well, I’ve kind of been in awe of you since I first met you,” Paul said more seriously. “I’ve liked working with you, just being near you enough that I didn’t want to do anything to maybe screw it up.”

Lillibet smiled. “Oh, Paul…trust me, this won’t screw anything up.”

“Oh, I trust you, Lilli. You and Guin. And she’s okay with this, too?”

“Sure am!” Guinevere said, bringing her head-helmet back up to enclose Lillibet’s face. “We share pretty much everything already; why shouldn’t we share you?”

Paul leaned forward to kiss the ocelot-girl firmly on the furry muzzle. “Then share away.”

Paul was dimly aware of Fenris and Svetlana kissing again as Lillibet and Guinevere drew him into their arms and completed the symmetry.

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The period that followed was a little confused for all participants. With all the data interchange links that were open, sometimes it was a little hard to tell who was kissing and being kissed by whom, who was touching where, or even what body they were feeling from. It got a little more confusing when Fenris and Svetlana opened a link of their own.

:So this is who you are…: Svetlana mused as she explored Fenris’s memories. :And this is what it was like being a male CSA…I’m sorry they treated you so badly.:

:I’m sorry your experience wasn’t much better than mine,: Fenris sent. :I would have thought being a woman was supposed to count for something in Sturmhaven. But they treated you with the same contempt as me.:

:And yet, you’re the one who had the last laugh,: Svetlana replied. :You alone became what we were all supposed to be. I am…happy for you.: But Fenris also tasted her envy, and her self-recrimination at being so envious.

:I came by that in one way, yes. But you are now a fine commander yourself. Integration is simply another path.: He kissed her again. :Shall we look in on my partners?:

Svetlana nodded. :I would like that.:

Fenris sent gently, :Paul? Lillibet? Guinevere? May Svetlana touch your minds?:

:Well, sure,: Paul replied amusedly. :She seems to have touched just about everything else.:

:If we can touch hers back!: Lillibet said.

:Uh-huh!: Guinevere affirmed sleepily.

Fenris offered a link to them to Svetlana, and she browsed carefully through their memories to learn what had made them who and what they were, while they did the same with her. She was especially interested by Lillibet’s transformation from self-centered rich girl to considerate RIDE partner, and exclaimed with delight on watching their memories of the garage attack, in which Lilli and Guin took on the dreaded Tocsin with just a couple of civilian pulse rifles. :Worthy to be Women of Sturmhaven, both of you!: Apparently even Tocsin respected their bravery, since he had not taken the opportunity to finish them off—as he could have with a single shot from his feather blades, even before Katie had made her dive.

:Thanks…: Lillibet sent drowsily. :Not so bad y’self.:

:You know, not every brave woman has to come from Sturmhaven,: Fenris pointed out, a bit nettled. :Nor is every man from Sturmhaven a coward.:

:I realize that,: Svetlana admitted. :But I do still have the ideals that were imprinted into me. I certainly would never make that mistake about you.: She chuckled ruefully. :Not a second time, at least.:

:Enlightened of you, I’m sure.: Fenris said dryly.

Svetlana hugged Fenris closer to herself. :Speaking of enlightened…you know, if I were a Valkyrie, I would now declare you officially belonged to me forever.:

:Mm-hmm?: Fenris said. :And since you’re not?:

:I think I shall simply act as if you did, but never actually say anything about it,: Svetlana said.

:That seems a reasonable compromise,: Fenris agreed placidly. :So what will you do first?:

:I think…I will demonstrate once more exactly why I want you,: Svetlana decided, pulling him even closer again. :You are, in all respects, the most magnificent man I have ever seen.:

:I do my best,: Fenris replied, with not a little smugness.

Afterward, as they lay snuggled together in the sand, Fenris felt…satisfied. He felt recursively satisfied, with Paul and the Fused Lilli/Guin lying snuggled together inside of him, their emotions echoing and feeding into his own and Svetlana’s, as the link among them all was still open. They lay there for a while, not sending any coherent thoughts, but all exploring the others’ recent memories, reliving what had just happened from each others’ perspectives. Fenris was a little surprised at how…universal the experience was. There was little difference in what Paul had felt with Lillibet and Guinevere to what he had felt with Svetlana. We RIDEs seem to be much more human than even we knew, he mused.

Within him, Paul and Lilli stirred in each other’s arms, drawing closer, murmuring to each other, and beginning to kiss again. Fenris and Svetlana watched, bemused at his smaller partners’ energy level.

Lillibet giggled. :Silly wolfies! Don’t just watch, join us!: She and Paul extended an invitation.

:Shall we?: Fenris asked Svetlana.

:Let’s do.: The two megawolves slipped their minds into Paul and Lillibet’s, and rode along with them until the dawn.

5

Work the next day seemed strangely…normal after what had happened the night before, Paul reflected. Fenris and Svetlana had gone back into the desert after dropping them off, either to continue their amorous experiments or just to have more long conversations. Guinevere had announced a dire need to “defrag” and disappeared upstairs. At the moment, it was just he and Lillibet, working inside the garage bay with old-fashioned hand tools. And Paul was pretty sure her thoughts were running along the same lines as his.

“Wow,” Lillibet said at last. “I’m amazed we didn’t just…Integrate, right then and there.”

Paul chuckled. “People and RIDEs have been having sex together for years now, and far’s I know no more of ‘em Integrated doing it than doing anything else. Hell, just look at Rose and Nora.”

“Yeah, but usually not quite so many of them at once,” Lillibet said.

“You disappointed it didn’t happen? We can always try again,” Paul teased, passing her a socket wrench.

Lillibet snorted. “I’m not disappointed about anything. And I’d be just fine with holding off on Integrating for another few years, thanks. Even if Mom did make me bank my eggs.” She rolled her eyes with the recollection. “But what I would like to try is just you and me sometime. No Fenris, no Svetlana, and no Guinevere. Doing something just for us, just to see what that feels like.”

“They’ll still be able to see it afterward next time we all Fuse,” Paul pointed out.

“Yeah, but they won’t be experiencing it as it happens, which means it’ll be special for us,” Lillibet said. “Besides, if it was really important, there are ways to block off memories from Fuse partners. I have a few personal memories I still kept private, and so does Guin.” She shrugged. “For most things, though, I don’t mind sharing. Too many problems in the world were caused by poor communication. If Romeo and Juliet could have read each others’ minds, they probably wouldn’t have offed themselves.”

“I expect you’ve probably got a point there,” Paul said, chuckling. “It does amaze me sometimes, though, the things we’re willing to put up with. Giving someone else read access to every fiber of our beings like that.”

“You ever regret it?” Lillibet asked, fiddling with some interior component on the RIDE on the cradle.

“Can’t say as I have,” Paul said. “Ol’ Fennie and I, we annoy each other sometimes, and sometimes we pull back for privacy for a while. But we know each other too well to stay mad for too long.” He shook his head. “Of course, you know all that, you’ve seen inside my head same as Fennie. And I know you and Guin have a similar relationship.”

Lillibet nodded. “I know. But it’s good to verbalize sometimes, even when it’s things you already know. Just a part of the thinking process.” She shook her head. “One thing I kind of do regret is I never did that with Uncia. I was such an idiot. Scared of Fusing, happy just to use her as my personal phone booth. I love Guinny to pieces, but sometimes I do wonder what it would have been like with Uncia instead.”

“I’m sure she’d let you Fuse with her sometime if you asked,” Paul said.

Lillibet nodded. “I know. She’s big that way. But it wouldn’t be the same. I was such a stupid idiot moron.”

Paul shrugged. “We all make choices. Sometimes they’re not the best ones. If you hadn’t been so stupid then, Shelley would still be Roger. Who knows, Fritz might even still be ruling the Integrate scene. And I prob’ly wouldn’t have ever had any reason to meet you, an’ that would be the biggest tragedy of all.”

Lillibet chuckled. “Well, nice to see you’ve got your priorities straight.”

“I’m just bright that way,” Paul said modestly.

“I know,” Lillibet said. “When you get right down to it, I know pretty much everything about you, and you about me. Does kind of simplify things, doesn’t it? I suppose it’s pretty much inevitable we’re gonna end up getting married sooner or later.”

“Is that your idea of a proposal?” Paul teased. “That’s what I like about you, Lilli. All the poetry in your soul.”

Lillibet snorted. “You get right down to it, we already know each other better than a lot of married couples ever get to. We’re pretty much next best thing to married as it is.”

“Seriously, depending on how Fennie and ‘Lana get along, we might just end up all marrying each other,” Paul said. “All five of us, or six if Svetlana counts for two.”

Lillibet blinked. “A group marriage? I hadn’t thought about that.”

“They’ve been a thing in Sturmhaven for a while, what with the harems, and Aloha has its party clans,” Paul said. “But they’re becoming more common everywhere now as people start treating RIDEs as people instead of possessions. I hear there’s legislation in Uplift to give wedded RIDEs full spousal benefits.”

“Really? Sweet!” Lillibet said. “We really are kicking this social equality thing into high gear now that Fritz is out of the picture, aren’t we?”

“Of course, it’s still pretty early to talk about that kind of thing for us yet,” Paul said. “Leastways not ‘til we know whether Svetlana’s just a passing fling. But it’s something to think about, anyway.”

“Yeah.” Lillibet paused, then leaned over to kiss Paul on the lips.

Paul blinked. “What was that for?”

“Oh, nothing,” Lillibet said. “I just really like it when you’re analytical.”

Paul grinned at her. “If you like my analysis, you should see my criticism.

“Mm-hmm?” Lillibet prompted.

“I can be very…incisive,” Paul supplied.

Lillibet snorted. “Your innuendo, on the other hand, needs work.”

“All right, then I’ll just try speaking plainly,” Paul said. “So, you wanna go upstairs and try doing that ‘something just for us’ you were talking about earlier?”

Lillibet grinned, putting her wrench aside. “You know what? Why not. Let’s go tell Guinny to defrag somewhere else.” She took Paul’s hand and led him upstairs.

Separator k left.png TO BE CONTINUED Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
None
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Wolves in the Fold, Part Two