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User:Robotech Master/A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Wolves in the Fold, Part Two: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck


Author's Comments

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Contents

1

In the weeks that followed, Fenris and Svetlana saw each other a number of times, sometimes with Paul, Lillibet, and Guinevere involved, and sometimes not. During the week, Lillibet and Guinevere had to be involved by long distance. It occasionally caused problems for Lillibet during school hours, but they worked around it. As with most things, after the new wore off it became largely routine.

This turned out to be a good thing, because they soon had other things to occupy their time. Sturmhaven had been pressing its request for Fenris, Svetlana, and everyone to visit, and Bertha to come home. When they started making noises about what an appropriate time May Day would be for a visit, it would have been almost impossible not to take the hint. “Guess we better make sure Bertha’s ready,” Paul said wryly. Fortunately business had slowed down lately, with every Alpha Camp RIDE who needed service having already been taken care of.

The rest of March and all of April were spent in tinkering, testing, and tinkering some more, tuning Bertha and Hedy’s link (and Fenris and Guinevere’s, while they were at it) to work as well as it possibly could, with sufficient redundancy for use in military operations. Lillibet handled the documentation, with help from Brena who spent a lot of time over at the Walton house and came down for weekend visits a time or two.

Svetlana also spent time around the garage when she was not busy at the aerodrome or taking care of Integrate business. Paul and Lillibet continued tutoring her in RIDE maintenance. While she was not as adept at fine detail work at the others, she could nonetheless provide a great deal of assistance through directed lifter fields stronger than any smaller Integrate could generate.

It also gave her a chance to discuss the state of things in the Integrate side of Alpha Camp. Since Svetlana had arrived, the grumbling had by and large settled down, and stayed down long enough for the labor sentences to expire, one by one. Many Integrates left town the second their time was up. Others stayed on, continuing to work but on a salaried basis. They said they’d gotten used to it, made some friends there, they didn’t have any other job openings, and for the big ones it was nice being at a place that had cheap food in giant-Intie portions. Everyone seemed happy to be there now.

“It almost seems as though I am out of a job now,” Svetlana said one day, as they worked together on dismantling an armadillo’s DE shell. She held the complex arrangement of interlocking armor plates carefully positioned in relation to each other the air while Fenris and Paul worked on the components beneath. “With no more Integrate prisoners, there is less for me to liaise among.”

“Only all the enclaves on the one side, and all the polities on the other,” Fenris observed.

“Well…yes,” Svetlana admitted. “But they are all much more distant, and I do not encounter them personally every day.”

“It would be unwise to grow complacent,” Fenris said. “Perhaps a more proactive stance? I understand Wonderland has made a few invitations? They are near Sturmhaven, are they not? We might stop on the way there, or perhaps the way back.”

“Wonderland is nearly as meme-infected as Camelot used to be,” Svetlana said. “The Diet of Enclaves is considering a quarantine.”

“Isn’t that a little extreme?” Lillibet asked. “I thought the whole meme thing was about like dandruff—the real kind, I mean, not the Integrate telltale. Something that makes you look bad but doesn’t really hurt anything.”

“It’s more in the vein of a contagious mental illness,” Svetlana said. “Fortunately we now know that it is an infection and it can be treated, and frequently cured.”

“And Wonderland doesn’t want to be treated?” Paul asked. “Is this some Integrate political thing?”

“That is an apt description, Paul,” Svetlana said. “The Diet has even less power than Zharus’s own Planetary Advisory Committee, though. There is little it can do to enforce a quarantine.”

“‘We’re going to take our ball and…not come over to your house’?” Lillibet suggested.

“That is about the size of it,” Svetlana said. “To be fair, almost nobody wants an Integrate ruling authority with real power. Not after living under Fritz for so long. But it makes it harder to stage an intervention.”

“So we shouldn’t visit, then?” Lillibet asked. “Too much risk you might get infected?”

Svetlana shook her head. “No, generally the risk is only to those who are already inclined favorably toward the meme. I have always felt Carroll was rather too silly to be enjoyable.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” Guinevere put in.

“So what do you think? You giant wolves wanna go down the rabbit hole?” Paul asked.

“It might be moderately amusing,” Fenris suggested. “Perhaps we should visit on the way. Something tells me that after spending time in Sturmhaven, we might well wish to come directly back here and relax.”

“If I can convince them to undergo treatment, it could be a net positive all around,” Svetlana mused. “Very well, let’s pencil it in.”

“Do they make pencils that big?” Guinevere asked, and everyone laughed.

Separator k.png

May 1, 157 AL

The dragon-shaped super-suborbital canted over into its final approach to the Sturmhaven aerodrome. In the cargo/passenger section, Svetlana, Fenris, Paul, Lillibet, Guinevere, Bertha, Hedy, and Diana Fuerst watched through a large projection monitor on the forward bulkhead.

They were fresh off almost complete success at Wonderland. Over the course of their two-day visit, Svetlana and the others had managed to talk the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter into allowing the establishment of a meme-infection treatment clinic on a provisional basis, with treatment being strictly voluntary. Paul could understand the Wonderlanders’ concern at losing the thing that made them “special” through “brainwashing,” but suspected they might change their minds after seeing how the treatment actually worked.

That being said, Paul was still glad to have it out of the way, and he was now looking forward with trepidation to the new challenges Sturmhaven would bring. Can’t be worse than facing a pack of playing cards agitating for my decapitation, he thought wryly. But there I go invoking Murphy.

“I cannot believe I am finally coming home,” Svetlana said. “And they will be glad to see me.

“I know the feeling,” Bertha said. “And I am finally going to get my real body back!”

“I should warn you, Paul,” Fenris rumbled. “You will probably find our time in Sturmhaven…annoying.”

“Even with the ‘diplomatic immunity’?” Paul asked.

“Indeed,” Fenris said.

Paul shrugged. “Well, I’ve lived for months somewhere humans are second-class citizens. Now I’m visiting somewhere men are second-class citizens. Same dance, different tune. How much worse could it be?” And there I go invoking Murphy again.

“You will find out,” Fenris said darkly.

The sub landed and pulled to a halt, and the doors opened, and they emerged in order of importance—Svetlana first, of course, followed by Bertha and crew, and then finally Paul and Fenris, with Lillibet and Guinevere riding in the cupola on his skimmer tank mode. There was quite a crowd gathered outside, and Paul couldn’t help noticing that their cheers for Svetlana and Bertha were a lot louder than the one he and Fenris got.

Waiting to greet them were representatives of Sturmhaven’s governing body, the Zemstvo. There were three of them, Paul noted.

:One from each major Party,: Fenris commed to him. :See if you can guess which is the Valkyrie.:

Only one of the three wore interface specs. They were the old wraparound style, even covering her ears. She reminded Paul of every anime vision of a “solid woman” ever. Curvy, strong, one might even say “stout”, though not to her face. Her clothing was similar to a military-style dress uniform with a few hints of the polity’s past as a resort—what Nextus had derisively called a “brothel with political ambition” during the War.

:It has to be her,: Paul said. :Must be one of their really extreme believers. Those “see-no-evil” specs basically turn me into a woman in her eyes and probably change my voice, too, right?:

The second might have stepped out of a fresco from ancient Crete. Dressed as a Minoan woman, wearing an archaic blue robe with exposed breasts and hair done up in an elaborate coif. “I am Delegate Viveka Virgo. We welcome you on behalf of the Athenas,” she said.

:The Minoans were a matriarchy, best they could tell on Earth,: Lillibet said. :Aside from honoring that, there really isn’t much about the Athenas I’d call strange politics. Unlike that Valk, uh…:

:Bitch?: Svetlana supplied dryly. :I take no offense, Lilli. Sturmhaven is as associated with wolves as Nextus is with cats.:

The third representative was dressed more conservatively than the Athena, in a still recognizably feminine style. She wore a calf-length skirt and a nice blouse. She looks like someone’s mother, Paul thought. And probably is.

“Welcome to Sturmhaven, all of you,” she said. “I am Matriarch Mariam Daigneau and I speak for the Gaians.”

:She does more than that,: Fenris told the others. :The Matriarch is also the head of the Zemstvo, like a Speaker of the House or a Prime Minister. That she chooses to meet with us in person at the aerodrome is…impressive.:

“My silent sister to my right is Delegate Winifride Kurita, a Valkyrie,” Mariam continued. “We three together represent the vast majority of the political spectrum in Sturmhaven.” She smiled. “As most of you are already aware, of course.”

“We’re honored to meet you, Matriarch,” Lillibet said. “Thank you for inviting us to visit.” They’d agreed beforehand that Lillibet would act as the spokeswoman for Alpha Camp, being the only human in their party who was both female and not a native.

“You are very welcome,” Mariam replied. “Oh! And I have something for your lesser companions.” She held up a pink placard with a loop of cord attached to it, and offered it to Lillibet. “This is for the man, and the RIDE should replicate it in hardlight. They should wear them around their necks at all times to avoid…misunderstandings.”

Lillibet glanced at the placard, and dimpled as she bravely tried to hold back a smile before passing it on to Paul. “Ah…thank you, Matriarch,” she said.

Paul glanced at the sign. It read, in loopy feminine script, “HONORARY FEMALE.” Paul nodded his thanks to Mariam, not sure he trusted himself to speak even if they wanted to hear anything from him anyway. :Seriously?:

:I did tell you it would be annoying,: Fenris said, perhaps a touch smugly. A duplicate of the placard appeared in hardlight on the hood of the skimmer tank.

:Would you prefer a set of falsies? I’m sure they could find you a pair,: Lillibet quipped. Aloud, she said, “According to the agenda you sent, you wanted us to take part in your, uh, May Day parade?”

“Yes,” Mariam said. “It will serve two purposes at once: to show you our fine city, and to show you to said city. And it ends conveniently near your lodging for the visit. Tomorrow we will reunite Bertha with her original body, and you can ensure that the link works properly—and brief us on how it works, if you would be so kind.”

“Of course!” Lillibet said. “When does the parade start?”

“Just about now,” Mariam said. She nodded to one of the other airstrips at the aerodrome, where a number of vehicles and floats were already lining up. “Follow our car, and we’ll guide you to your place in line.”

The three Sturmhaven dignitaries seated themselves in a convertible skimmer, which lifted off the ground and trundled over toward the other airstrip. Bertha engaged her lifters and headed after it. Lillibet climbed into Fenris’s turret and followed Bertha, and Svetlana walked along behind.

“I can’t believe we’re going to be in the May Day parade!” Bertha said happily. “Only the best units got to be in it. And never any of our kind. We were the embarrassment of the entire army. I only wish they could put me back in my old body first.”

“I know just what you mean,” Fenris said. “And males generally only had a token presence as well.”

“You’ll find things have changed somewhat, Fenris,” Viveka said. “Mostly for the better, though some rather sharp differences remain.” She looked at the Valk pointedly.

“To have one of the Zemstvo speaking directly to me, some things must indeed have changed,” Fenris mused.

They pulled into a gap left at the front of the parade, and the Zemstvo representatives spoke among themselves for a moment. Then they nodded, gestured ahead, and pulled out.

“Just follow us and you won’t get lost!” the Gaian Matriarch called back cheerfully.

“That’s good advice,” Lillibet said, giggling. They followed Bertha and the convertible out of the aerodrome and along the street into the Sturmhaven city proper. Practically as soon as they left the airport, there were crowds lined up along both sides of the street—mostly women, though there were a few obvious men here and there. Some of them had reddish skin and were dressed in a masculine version of Viveka’s robe.

“…does that guy have a collar and leash on him?” Paul said.

“He’s that Valk’s…pet,” Diana Fuerst said. “I swear, some of those women cross the line into self-parody. Small wonder they’re losing their power base. Sturmhaven’s own little Tea Party, and I do not mean the Mad Hatter kind.” She grimaced. “Even the Gaians are softening up towards men more. I am a Gaian myself, you know. We are rather more flexible than the Valks. I believe they’ve tried to purge many of their own members lately for not being ‘pure’ enough. Hence our silent be-spec’d escort.”

“I always thought those glasses were an urban legend,” Paul said. “Something someone made up to make fun of Sturmhaven.”

“They can’t possibly do a better job than Sturmhaven does on its own,” Hedy said. “I can be smug about it given that I’m female on the one hand and by and large immune to human sexual politics on the other. Of course, I don’t have many civil rights, either.”

“That, at least, we know is changing,” Lillibet said. “Seems like the new ‘battlefield’ for the polities is RIDE rights, and everyone wants to be more progressive than everyone else.”

“I’m not really sure I like that,” Hedy said. “I kind of enjoy having my cake and eating it too.”

“I never got to see much of life outside the base,” Svetlana said, keeping her voice low enough not to carry beyond their party. “I am not so sure I like what I see so much now.”

“At least they mostly seem to like you, so that’s something,” Paul said. Svetlana got some of the loudest applause of any of them when she passed.

The parade wended its way through the town, and Diana and Hedy made sure to point out some of the most interesting sights—monuments to the fallen in the war, statues of famous Sturmhavenites, museums and churches and cultural centers of note. The architecture was very Russian.

“Oh, the parade is going through Valkyrie Circle. Look at this.” The circle was actually laid out in the form of a circle with a short line jutting out from it, and a short line crossing that one—the “Venus symbol” traditionally associated with women and female organisms. In the middle of a circle was a stone sphere with a stone cross jutting out of it, and on the sphere was engraved a quote:

“Whenever women have insisted on absolute equality with men, they have invariably wound up with the dirty end of the stick. What they are and what they can do makes them superior to men, and their proper tactic is to demand special privileges, all the traffic will bear. They should never settle merely for equality. For women, ‘equality’ is a disaster.”

—Roberta W. Heinlein

“Well, that explains a lot,” Paul said. Then he blinked and looked again in a textbook double-take. “Wait, ‘Roberta’ Heinlein?”

“It’s like those silly glasses of theirs,” Diana said, rolling her eyes. “Anything good has to have been said, done, or invented by a woman.”

“I…see,” Lillibet said. “Are they trying to fool themselves or just everybody else?”

“The jury’s still out on that one,” Hedy said.

“And you know what the stupidest thing is about those glasses?” Diana continued. “If everyone really looked like women to them, they’d treat everyone with equal respect. In fact, that’s what the glasses used to be for—they were a teaching tool of the Athenas. Then some Valk had the bright idea that if they could make them superimpose a scarlet ‘M’ over the foreheads of the edited men, they wouldn’t have to look at another disturbing male face but would still know who to sneer at or sleep with. And of course, the idea took off.” She snorted. “This is back when they were the majority. The Athenas quickly stopped using them altogether, because they didn’t want to be mistaken for Valks.”

“All the Athena and even some Gaian hacker kids used to love to make viruses that removed the indicators, flipped them, or made everyone look like men instead of women,” Hedy said. “Every few years, they’d find a security loophole that let them go pandemic. Eventually most Valks decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. That’s generally why only the hardest hardliners wear them these days.”

“For all I know, they may not even keep that feature turned on anymore,” Diana said. “It’s just about keeping up appearances.”

“And hiding your eyes so people can’t read your emotions in them, I’d guess,” Paul said. “Shades have been used for that for a long time.”

The parade traveled on through town, finally ending up at a sort of arena area, a stadium with high raised seats all around and a nondescript open area in the middle. Like most sports fields of the day, it used hardlight to create whatever game play area was necessary. Today it was configured as a parade ground, with a reviewing stand complete with podium at one end and the giant hardlight displays showing closeups of it.

“Looks like it’s show-and-tell time,” Paul mused, as Fenris, Bertha, and Svetlana were directed to take up positions of honor by the stand. The three Delegates left their car and proceeded with dignity to the podium, where they greeted the assembled crowd.

“Here comes the wolf and pony show,” Guinevere muttered.

“Women of Sturmhaven!” Matriarch Mariam said, her amplified voice echoing from the bleachers. “Today is a special May Day, for some of our prodigal daughters and sons have returned to us!” The crowd roared. “While they are not all here to stay, let’s give them a rousing welcome to remind them where they came from!” She made a lifting gesture with her hands, and most of the audience came to its feet and roared louder.

“It’s the Valkyrie sections that are staying seated,” Fenris murmured to Paul.

“Yeah, I sorta figured.”

“I will introduce them to you now. Svetlana, Sturmhaven’s largest Integrate! Bertha, formerly of our old Wolf Command Armor program, and soon to head up our new Wolf Command Armor program, and her partners Hedy and Oberstleutnant Diana Fuerst! Fenris, one of the last of the old Wolf Command units still in his original shell, and his partners Lillibet Walton, Guinevere, and Paul Anders!”

“Ah, top billing,” Paul muttered. He waved to the crowd, conscious of the pink placard he wore proclaiming him an honorary woman. He noticed that some of the men in the crowd apparently had breasts and laughed. :Lilli, I thought you were kidding about the falsies,: he sent to the group.

:This place is a living example of Poe’s Law, Paul. I don’t think most of those are actually falsies, either,: Lillibet said. Indeed, there were probably more men in the crowd than on first glance. Androgyny was a local male fashion and the breasts didn’t help.

:Gaian fathers assist in the nursing duties, and take on certain feminine aspects to honor the goddess even before then without truly crossing over,: Diana informed. :A man’s body is essentially the same as a woman’s in many ways, something we Gaians recognize and value. But let’s not dwell on it, shall we?:

:So I might lack tact, but Gaian fathers lactate. Got it.: Paul rolled his eyes and returned his attention to the pageantry.

“We are delighted in their return, not least because it represents the chance for our Wolf Command Armor finally to live up to its intended potential,” Mariam continued. The screens lit up with footage of Fenris in action—security camera footage of him taking down the dragon Integrate at the Waltons’ mansion, and footage from various RIDEs of the battle at Alpha Camp, including his going toe-to-toe with Svetlana. “If even one mere male unit from Sturmhaven can fight like this, imagine what a full division of female units under Bertha will be able to do!”

:Ouch,: Paul said. :There’s some damned faint praise for you…:

:It’s about what I expected,: Fenris replied. :I must say things have improved considerably if they’re even willing to give a mere male any credit at all.:

:Sorry about this,: Bertha said. :I promise, males will always have a place in my division, as well.: She paused a beat, then added, :After all, good cannon fodder is so hard to find these days…: with a wink emoticon in the sideband.

:Your understanding is…whelming,: Fenris said dryly. :Not overwhelming or underwhelming, but precisely…whelming.:

“They will all be with us for several days, during which we will try to show them all the very best Sturmhaven has to offer,” Mariam continued with no apparent irony, while the Athena, Viveka, at least had the grace to look uncomfortable. The Valkyrie, Winifride, stood like a statue that apparently wished it was somewhere else.

They were kept there for another hour or so, as the rest of the parade passed in front of them in review and the Delegates explained who they were and praised their various accomplishments. Many of the paraders were military units. Paul couldn’t help noticing the praise for the female units was genuine, while the few token male units rated more patronizing, “Isn’t that cute?” remarks—though if the men minded, they didn’t let it show.

At last, with the parade over, Bertha, Hedy, and Diana went off to the maintenance facility where Bertha would be restored to her original body. Svetlana tagged along, since it was also one of the only spaces nearby large enough for her to sleep. The remainder of the Alpha Camp delegation was shown to its quarters in the New Metropol, a luxury hotel which was modeled after a famous Art Nouveau hotel from Moscow on Earth, according to a placard by the door. Fenris parked in the garage, keeping a link open through Guinevere, while the others went up to their room.

The New Metropol was all very impressive, with a colorful tile mosaic of a woman surmounting the facade. But for Paul it was soured just a little by the receptionist’s warning to Lillibet not to let “her male” wander around without his placard, and it might be best if he didn’t leave their suite by himself even with it.

“Oh, come on, seriously?” Paul said when they were alone in their room. “I thought all that was just people making fun, and it couldn’t really be this bad.”

“It’s like I said earlier,” Lillibet said. “Poe’s Law. ‘Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.’ And, by the same token, sincerely extreme beliefs can easily be mistaken for a parody of said beliefs.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul said. “But I thought that was just for arguing on the ‘net. I never thought it would apply to real life.”

“I kinda like it!” Guinevere said. “Finally, somewhere men know their place!”

Lillibet snorted. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a man who knew his place.”

“Sure I would!” Guinevere insisted. “First he could tune my lifters and my hardlight projectors. Then he could polish my plating. Then…”

“But I do all that anyway,” Paul said.

“Yeah, but here you’d have to!” Guinevere said smugly. Paul threw a pillow at her.

2

The next few days were spent partly technically, partly politically. On the technical side, Paul, Fenris, Lillibet, and Guinevere assisted in the transfer of Bertha’s core to her original body, and in getting the link working properly to Hedy in Bertha’s new-old digs.

Paul was interested to discover that Bertha’s old body was actually not identical to Fenris’s as he had expected. The body styling was sleeker, even in her tank form, with definite feminine curves, and the transformation sequence was also more complex. Not so complex as to present a problem for field maintenance, at least relatively speaking, and most of it was just ornamental anyway. It was that whole “Men are simple and straightforward, women are complex and mysterious” thing Rhianna had always said of Sturmhaven designs. But he had to admit it looked even more impressive than Fenris when it Fused.

“Yes, that looks about right,” Svetlana said, watching the transformation. She sighed. “I remember those days. While I will not say I regret the good things Integration has brought, this does make me wish that my Marlena and I could de-Fuse and be separate together again, even just one more time.”

Bertha completed her first Fuse with Diana in the new body. They stood up, a slimmer, more feminine version of Fenris, and walked over to meet him and Svetlana. “I am whole again!” Bertha said happily. “Precisely as intended!”

Hedy trotted along next to her in wolf form. “And we’ve already gotten the list of prospects for my new human. Several of them look quite promising. We will be sure to pick one before you leave, so you can fine-tune the link before you go.”

“We military RIDEs now have a ‘Right of Refusal’ if we feel a human partnership will not function effectively,” Bertha said.

“And that is in addition to the other term we negotiated…that I will be the one in charge,” Hedy said smugly. “So far, none of the candidates seem to have a problem with that.”

“It’s a good list,” Diana Fuerst put in. “I have worked with several of those on it. But I will leave the decision to Bertha and Hedy.”

The other part of the time was political. Svetlana, Lillibet and Guinevere, and to an extent Paul and Fenris, were asked to address the Zemstvo, both in full and by committee, in matters relating to RIDE and Integrate rights. As Paul had said earlier, Sturmhaven was very interested in “keeping up with the Joneses,” especially if the Joneses happened to live in Nextus.

“We are living in a new world,” Viveka said, addressing the 199 other Delegates. “Yet we sit here, debating what is a very basic issue of sophont rights. Reticulated Intelligences even breed like all other living beings. Integrates are in a real way born of human and RIDE. A combination of souls—”

“That much is still in question, Viveka,” a Gaian delegate interjected.

“Funny, I’d think you’d know if anyone would,” Guinevere said. Then, as the expression on the Delegate’s face darkened, she said, “Oh, wait, never mind, forget I said anything…”

Paul facepalmed. “Guin…”

“Well how was I supposed to know? I thought they had ‘dandruff’ sensors everywhere now,” Guinevere grumbled.

As the Delegates next to the one who’d just spoken scooted their chairs further away from her, Viveka cleared her throat and continued. “How life begins hardly matters, whether in a simulated space, or between a combination of two souls—”

“Maybe even our own universe is a simulation?” one of Viveka’s Party added. “Who can say?”

“And maybe it’s turtles all the way down,” a Valk sneered.

Matriarch Mariam banged the gavel. “Order in here. Viveka has not yet yielded the floor. Please, go on.”

“The legislation the Athenas introduce into the Foresight Committee today will eliminate the gap in our founding Charter, removing human-specific references,” Viveka said. “All sophonts shall have all the rights and privileges accorded to humans. RIDEs and Integrates will be legally eligible for public office. This will put us ahead of Nextus and even Uplift in this matter.”

“Seems like they’ve got at least eight Integrates in public office already,” Guinevere muttered.

“That many? Really?” Paul whispered.

“I’d point ‘em out to you, but people might notice,” Guinevere said. “Two Athenas, three Gaias, two Valks. Dandruff doesn’t lie.”

“The Matriarch recognizes Winifride Kurita,” Mariam said.

“Curious that this proposed legislation also enables non-subject males to vote and to hold office,” Winifride said. “One might think that the Athenas are simply using a more important issue to push another agenda. You’ve wanted to repeal the last of the Male Transgression Laws for two decades. The Valks oppose any such agenda as antithetical to our polity’s founding principals! How dare you dishonor our Founding Mothers like this? How dare you? I yield the floor.”

“Response from the Athenas,” Matriarch Mariam said.

“If I had a mu for every time the Valks said ‘how dare you’ in that tone of voice in this chamber I’d be a very rich woman,” Viveka said. “Let’s be brutally honest. We all know how and why our polity was really founded, much as we try to dress it up in high morals. From the standpoint of what our Founding Mothers actually came out here to do—which is to say, play their…games without anyone else getting in the way—Sturmhaven has been successful beyond their wildest dreams. But we live in a different world now—a world where we have to play nicely with others.

“Sooner or later, playtime comes to an end, and we have to rejoin the rest of the world. Expanding men’s rights is a step in that direction. It doesn’t mean we have to go all the way to full equality, but it is a step in the right direction. Once we see how well that step works, we can decide if we wish to take another, or even to step back. And I would remind you, even if men are made eligible to hold office, they still have to win the popular vote to get in. I yield.”

“Response, Valks?” the put-upon Matriarch said.

A group of them huddled on the floor for a minute. “We have nothing at this time, Matriarch,” Winifriede said. “We will raise specific issues in committee.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Paul muttered.

“I am sorry about all this,” Viveka told them after the session had gone into recess for lunch. “We are making progress, but we still have some distance to go. The Gaians—the majority party—wish to be cautious about changes. They believe men have their place, which is somewhere between pets and ‘real’ people.”

“Men only gain full rights if they cross over,” Svetlana said from the open window.

“Makes as much sense as anything here,” Paul said.

“And of course the Valks are…the Valks,” Lillibet said. “Conservative to a fault.”

“‘If you don’t like it, move to Cape Nord,’” Svetlana quoted.

“This isn’t a time for conservatism or caution,” Vieka said, eyes sparkling with righteous passion. She clenched her fist and punched it into her other palm. “This is a time for bold action to correct the injustice codified in our Charter. I am so tired of my homeland being the laughingstock of Gondwana!” She sighed. “One of the two laughingstocks, I suppose I should say. Sturmhaven and Cape Nord, what a pair we make.”

“We’ll help however we can,” Paul said. “Though, it probably won’t be that much.”

“Just your being here is doing more than we Athenas could have hoped,” Viveka said. “You and Fenris are serving as a positive example to all Athenas, and perhaps swaying some of those Gaians on the fence toward our views.”

“The Valkyries do not seem terribly pleased, however,” Fenris put in through his link to Guinevere. “Have you seen some of their talk shows? A few of them have actually been advocating disregarding our diplomatic immunity and charging us under the Male Transgression Laws. Or even doing physical violence to us.”

“We and the Gaians have been watching those,” Viveka said. “For all our disagreements, none of us wishes to have a political incident occur on our watch. At its worst, it might even give the Valks sufficient ammunition to reverse their slow, inevitable slide into obscurity.”

“I’d be inclined to say at its worst we might end up dead, but I get what you’re saying,” Paul said.

“More likely they’d toss you into a crossover chamber and make a Woman of Sturmhaven out of you, like they did to so many young men during the War in the draft,” Viveka said. “For all that we and Cape Nord spit at each other over the fences, in some things we are more alike than different.”

“We’ll try not to let that happen,” Lillibet said. “I don’t have a big enough garage back home to park Fenris in. Well, my Dad does, but they’ve all got a bunch of fliers and suborbitals in them already.”

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The remaining few days passed quickly. After the contentious first sessions, the Zemstvo seemed by and large interested in what they had to say. Svetlana was even approached for a secret consultation by three of the Integrate Delegates, who wanted to know what sort of support they might be able to bring in from nearby Integrate Enclaves if they could get the Zemstvo as a whole to accept it.

They met the new partner Hedy had decided upon: Leutnant Carlotta Kinski, a four-year veteran of Sturmhaven’s non-RIDE armored division who had never had a RIDE herself. “So it means no bad habits to break,” Hedy said happily. “But her expertise in tanks should transfer over to working with Bertha.” With both human Fuse partners present, Paul and Lilli tuned and re-tuned the Bertha/Hedy link, and lectured the army’s technical corps on how it worked and what they could do with it.

“It seems to be a variant on DINsec,” one technician said.

“It is, without most of the encryption layer,” Paul replied. “It solves the network latency problem, enabling the two RIs and co-processors to correctly synch. Just a few femtoseconds makes a huge difference in our little Beowulf cluster.”

They also had time for appearances in Sturmhaven’s media. Lillibet in particular was a media darling, as her blonde looks fit with the Sturmhaven ideal of beauty, and the ocelot ears and tail lent her a certain degree of exotic charm—and that was leaving aside the fact that she was the daughter of one of the richest men in that section of the galaxy and a Nextus native. Between interviews and talk show appearances, she hardly had a free moment. Fortunately, she had a lot of help in the form of coaching from savvy Athena spinmeisters when it came to the political questions that inevitably came up. She made a few goofs, but for the most part was able to give as well as she got.

But there was a surprising amount of interest in Paul and Fenris, as well, though mostly from technical specialty shows such as Top Gear: Sturmhaven or Pimp My RIDE. Paul was called upon to talk about life in Alpha Camp, how he had salvaged and repaired Fenris, and how they had dealt with the Integrate “threat.” Politics almost never entered the picture—probably because nobody in these parts cared what a man thought about that anyway—but that was just fine with him.

They were beginning to think that the visit would go off without a hitch. Perhaps that led them to let their guard down, Paul thought later. Whatever the case, they had just pulled up at the Zemstvo for their final session, on the morning of the last day of their stay. Fenris had dropped Paul, Lillibet, and Guinevere off at the plaza in front of the chambers, and they were chatting as they walked toward the entrance…when a statuesque Valkyrie suddenly stepped out in front of them, practically out of nowhere. She had black wolf tags, and wore an outfit straight out of an opera: golden chainmail bikini armor with a winged helmet and a fur-trimmed cloak.

The woman raised her chin and looked haughtily down her nose at Paul. “I require the services of a man today. You will do.”

“Whoa, lady,” Paul said. “Not that I’m not flattered…” Though I’m not. “…but I’m not the droid you’re looking for.” He tapped the placard on his chest. “Honorary female, see? So if you’re wanting a man, better look somewhere else.”

“Do not try to foist me off with that rubbish!” the woman insisted. “That immunity was granted under false pretenses. You’re no diplomat!”

“Well, even if it was, I’m afraid he’s already taken,” Lillibet said coolly. “By me. So why don’t you just run along, and maybe put some real clothes on while you’re at it?”

The Valkyrie glanced over at her and sniffed perfunctorily. “Go home and play with your dolls, little girl.” Then she turned her back on Lillibet and said once more to Paul, “I require the services of a man today. You will do.”

Lillibet turned to Guinevere. “Right. Forepaw, please. Just need it for a moment.”

“All right…?” Guinevere said, puzzled. She raised her paw and killed the hardlight, and Lilli quickly released the catches to detach it. She worked the mechanism to convert it into a Fuser-form gauntlet, which she held by the wrist.

Then Lilli walked up to the Valkyrie and tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, bitch.

The Valkyrie stiffened and started to turn. “What—”

Lillibet swung the gauntlet in her hand with all her strength, smacking the Valkyrie across the face with it with a satisfying thud. “It’s on, bitch.”

The woman reached up to touch her broken nose, and her fingers came away red with blood. Nonetheless, she smiled, revealing lupine canines. “Then I will see you in the arena in one hour for a duel of honor—woman to woman, with no RIDEs on either side. The weapons shall be longswords. And when I win, you will crossride, and I will have you both as my new boy-toys.” She turned on her heel and marched off.

Paul watched her go. “…the fuck just happened?” he finally managed.

Lillibet reattached Guinevere’s forepaw to her leg. “I think we just got set up.” She nodded to the array of a half dozen media drones floating a few meters away, recording the scene. “So it looks like I’m fighting a duel for you.”

“No fucking way,” Paul said. “We’ve got diplomatic immunity, remember? We’re leaving.”

“The thing is, you do,” Lillibet said. “But I sorta don’t. And I’m the one who challenged her.” She turned to Viveka, who had just come running up out of breath. “Isn’t that right, Viv?”

“You can’t…can’t forfeit,” Viveka said. “Not unless you agreed to her terms, anyway. And if you don’t show up…that counts as a forfeit. You could probably leave safely, but could never come back…and it would play right into the Valkyries’ hands.” She facepalmed. “I have no idea how Annalinda got through our security cordon. She is a known Valkyrie extremist troublemaker. We were supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”

Guinevere sniffed the air, and sneezed. “I smell Integrate dandruff. Integrate dandruff that smells like one of your Valkyrie delegates. I hadn’t wanted to say anything, out of respect for their privacy, but after this…”

Viveka pursed her lips. “After this is over, I think I would like a name. But for now there are other things to worry about.”

“A duel with swords? Without a RIDE to help you? C’mon, Lilli, she’s gonna murder you!” Paul said.

“No…no she’s not,” Lillibet said. “She’s going to embarrass me. If she murders me, she can’t make me into her new boy-toy, now can she?”

“That’s beside the point,” Paul said. “I don’t want to see you murdered or crossed. We should get out of here. No offense, Viv, but right now I’m just not seeing being unable to come back to this loony bin as a major problem.”

“Nope,” Lillibet said. “Not gonna happen. A Walton doesn’t run. And if I did, it would probably give the Valks all they need to derail the RIDE rights legislation and maybe claw their way back into power. They’re the ones who started the whole war in the first place, y’know.” She shook her head. “But if I put up the best fight I can, I at least get some respect for trying. That might make it right for the Athenas even if I lose.”

“It’s very strange,” Viveka mused. “You don’t see so many duels ‘to the cross’ anymore. It’s still legally viable, but the last time it was really in fashion was when the Valkyries last ruled the roost a couple decades ago. Even most Valks only go so far as public embarrassment and token monetary forfeits these days.”

“Well, if it comes to that, and I do lose, I’m sure Annalinda would rather have a chunk of my Dad’s money than me,” Lillibet said. “She could buy all the boy-toys she wanted with that.”

Lillibet’s comm went off. “And speaking of my Dad’s money…’scuse me, I gotta take this.” She held the comm up to her ear. “Yeah, Dad?” She listened for a while. “Yeah, I know….yeah…yeah…right. Okay, I will.” She hung up, and grinned. “Dad says he has complete faith in me, and to give ‘er hell.”

“Really?” Paul asked.

“Well, something like that anyway,” Lillibet said. “And he and Mom will be here in half an hour.” She sighed. “Well, c’mon. Let’s go find that arena.”

Paul watched Lillibet and Guinevere start to walk back toward the street, and shook his head. Lillibet didn’t know the first thing about handling swords. Maybe she had some fencing classes—was that something rich people did?—but that didn’t prepare you for mortal combat in the real world.

“Don’t worry, Paul!” Lillibet said over her shoulder. “It’s gonna be all right.”

“Wish I could believe that,” Paul muttered, and followed. “But it’s gonna take some kind of a miracle to pull this off.” And Billy Crystal in pancake makeup is nowhere to be found.

3

In less time than Paul would have liked, they were gathered at the same arena where the parade had reviewed the first day they were there. The review stand was gone, and hardlight barricades had cordoned off a small round area for the duel. A number of Valks in ceremonial costumes were in the stands already, and they directed Lilli and Paul to a small locker-room area just off the field. Of all people, Matriarch Mariam Dagneau herself was there to officiate.

“Uh…hello, ma’am,” Lilli said.

Mariam nodded. “Surprised to see me, I’ll wager? The Matriarch’s honorary duties have always included presiding over duels. As originally written, it was all duels, though they soon became so prevalent it was expanded to the office’s staff. This one was…too important for that.” She cast a dark look at the corner of the room where Annalinda was ostentatiously holding a sword in the air and peering at its edge.

The Valk must have had her RIDE fix her nose, Paul realized, since it was no longer broken. For some reason, Paul found that amusing. Good something about this is, anyway, he thought.

“Do you really have to go through with this farce?” Paul complained. “This is stupid.

Matriarch Mariam lowered her voice. “For a man, you show a remarkable amount of sense. This is naked political brinkswomanship intended to fire up their base—I don’t know what they think will come of it. I sought after an excuse to foreclose on it. I have checked every law book I have, and unfortunately, Annalinda dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’. I have no choice but to allow this ‘farce’ to proceed.”

“You realize one of your stupid Valks just challenged the daughter of like the third richest man on the planet?” Paul said conversationally.

“Second-richest,” Lillibet said absently. “Mikel Steader’s still living on Proxima, last I heard.”

“Who happens to be from your polity’s old adversary, to boot?” Paul said.

“I have already begun damage control with Nextus, Mr. Anders. Thank you,” Mariam said tersely. “I realize how you must feel, but at least accord me the same respect you would give AlphaWolf.”

Paul snorted. “If you’d been to our camp, you’d know I have been.”

“He has,” Lillibet affirmed. “Alpha’s…well, he’s kind of a special snowflake. I don’t think Nextus ever got the hang of doing wolves quite as well as Sturmhaven.”

Paul glanced at her. “How can you be so calm at a time like this?”

“What good would worrying do?” Lillibet said. “‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ and all that.” Lillibet gave him a little smile, and whispered, “Underneath, I’m shaking like a leaf, but what good is it gonna do to show that? Let ‘em see me facing my trouble like a ‘Vooman uff Zturmhaven’ and even if I lose, I win something.

“You’re incredible,” Paul said, and meant it.

“The Herald will bring forth the weapons,” Matriarch Mariam announced. A blue-eyed white mare Fuser stepped forward with a case, which she opened to reveal two identical swords.

Annalinda stepped forward, then nodded to Lillibet. “Choose your blade. They should be identical to the millimeter, of course, so it’s not as if it should make any difference.”

Lillibet reached out to take the sword on the right and pulled it from the case. She held it up so it caught the light, and looked at it. The edges glittered silver—a liquid silver. “Hey, this sword has nanos?”

“They’re a modification of traditional medical nanos,” the Matriarch explained. “They heal almost any wound taken immediately…but with a very visible scar.”

“And the scar has a three-year cooldown, just as with crossriding,” Annalinda smirked. “I’m going to stripe you like a tiger.”

Mariam cleared her throat. “It falls upon me now to ask if there is any way this dispute might be resolved amicably, without recourse to weapons?”

“Hey, sure!” Lillibet said. “If this bitch apologizes to me publicly for trying to steal my man, I’ll be happy to let it go.”

Annalinda snorted. “Fat chance. You are not worthy of having a man to begin with.”

“Gonna make you eat those words, bitch,” Lillibet caroled, the end of her rosetted tail twitching in imitation of Guin’s before pouncing. The ocelot RIDE had fixed her typical smug feline gaze on the black shewolf across from her. The shewolf, on her part, had put her forepaws over her face in acute embarrassment.

“I look forward to seeing you try,” Annalinda said. “It should be cute, like a toddler taking her first steps.”

Mariam cleared her throat. “You understand that under the terms of the duel, the possessions entire of the loser are forfeit to the winner, including her very freedom?”

“I’m cool with that,” Lillibet said. “I don’t own anything except a bank account right now anyway. And that’s just money.”

Annalinda smirked. “That would only matter to me if I expected to lose. And if I manage to lose to one such as she, I should deserve whatever I got.”

“Gonna make you eat those words, too,” Lillibet said conversationally. “With ketchup.” Paul admired her show of confidence. He knew inside she had to be quaking like a leaf. She was a pampered rich girl facing a frickin’ Valkyrie—someone who fetishized being good with a sword. It looked like it made even Annalinda hesitate for a moment, but only a moment.

“As I have said, I look forward to seeing you try.” Annalinda took her own sword from the case. “Now don the ceremonial chainmail bikini and meet me on the grounds.” She strode off, whistling.

“Ceremonial chainmail bikini?” Lillibet said. “Really?”

“Poe’s Law,” Paul reminded her.

“I guess I’ll just go Red Sonja on her ass, then,” Lilli said, gripping the sword confidently. “And you get to be my Conan once I’m done, Paul.”

“Assuming you’re not being Conan to her Sonja at that point,” Paul said.

“Well, of course,” Lillibet said. “You have to start from a positive assumption if you’re going to get anything accomplished.” She held up the sword and swung it a time or two, as if testing the balance. “Let’s go get me sized for that bikini.”

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Paul watched nervously from the Zemstvo reserved box in the front row of the stands as Lillibet and Annalinda strode out onto the grounds. They both wore the expected chainmail bikinis, with loincloths at the waist to prevent too much from showing. The purpose, as Paul understood it, was not so much titillation as it was to provide the maximum surface area upon which a scarifying wound might be landed. Psychologically, the more semi-permanent scars one took, the more inclined one might be to surrender rather than face lethal consequences. Not that surrender seemed to be in the cards for either of them today.

He was not the only one watching nervously. In the next section over, Kenyon and Nigella Walton were clutching the rail, along with Brena—in humanoid guise for once, Paul noted. They must really have scrammed sarium to get here. Not that it would have been hard—Nextus was really just a short sub hop away. That was part of why the war had been so intense, come to think of it.

Paul had gotten his share of comm calls from people, too. Rhianna and Rochelle were watching the media feeds in their garage right now. They had wanted Lilli to know they were rooting for her, but thought it might be too distracting to have them there in person. And Alpha said he was sending a couple of “observers,” and Paul couldn’t talk him out of it.

Down on the field, Fenris, Svetlana, and Bertha watched from their own cordoned-off area, it being the only place big enough for them to fit. Well, if she loses, it won’t be for lack of cheerleaders, Paul reflected.

“Again, I must ask,” the Matriarch’s amplified voice boomed out. “Is there any way this dispute might be resolved amicably, without recourse to weapons?”

“No!” Annalinda replied. The word was amplified by the arena’s directional microphones, as was Lillibet’s response.

Lillibet shrugged. “Guess not.” She raised her sword bravely. “Bring it.”

“The duel will proceed until one yields to the other, takes too grievous an injury to continue, or is on the ground for a count of ten,” Matriarch Mariam said. “Begin.”

The Valk grinned. “I could almost respect your spirit.” She raised her own sword and began to circle.

“I could almost respect your figure,” Lillibet said. “But it’s probably all Fuser nanos, no real work involved. For all I know, you used to be a man.” She tried to hide the awkwardness of her motion, but couldn’t help stumbling just a little. Annalinda grinned, and lunged—just as Lillibet tripped on her own feet, falling right out of the way of the sword. She hurriedly scrambled back up as Annalinda recovered from the miss.

:I can’t watch,: Paul said, covering his eyes. :No, I have to watch,: he added, uncovering them.

Annalinda laughed, tossing her sword from hand to hand. “Nice footwork. You know, if you yield now, I won’t scar you up too badly.”

“I will wear any scars I get from this with pride,” Lillibet said. “As would any Woman of Sturmhaven.”

The crowd roared its approval. “Zat is tellink her!” a gleeful voice rang out in a familiar more-Sturmhaven-than-Sturmhaven accent. Paul blinked and turned his head to see Sonja of all people—the Sturmhaven red wolf RIDE from Alpha Camp—sitting there in the stands next to Brena, wagging her tail for all it was worth. Alpha’s “observer.” Of course. “Be givink her vun for me!

Annalinda looked cross. Despite the heart-stopping anxiety he was feeling just now, Paul almost had to chuckle. He could almost see the gears turning in her head as she realized she’d made a tactical error, turning herself into Goliath so Lillibet got to be the plucky David. The crowds always root for the David, Paul thought. Even if she wins, she’s lost.

Eschewing further repartee, Annalinda moved in again, swinging her sword. Lillibet just managed to get her blade up in time—more by blind luck than any intentional movement—just enough to deflect Annalinda’s sword and keep it from hitting. The crowd gasped.

“Go ahead and yield,” Annalinda crooned. “Go out while you still look good to the crowd.” Then she lunged again, swinging her blade, and Lillibet stumbled backward, just barely staying outside the range of each swing. She actually fell on her back, but rolled out of the way, back to her feet just as Annalinda stabbed down. “Pathetic,” Annalinda sneered. “You know it’s just a matter of time.”

“I’ve got nothing but time,” Lillibet panted. “Why, do you have an urgent appointment? Maybe you need to see your gynecologist?”

“I am going to wipe that stupid grin off your stupid face,” Annalinda growled between clenched teeth. “Then I am going to take your stupid male, over and over, while you watch. And then—”

“Hey,” Lillibet said, low and dangerous. “You take that back about Paul.”

Annalinda laughed. “Oh, did I touch a nerve? Are you going to make me?” She lunged again.

This time Lillibet quickly parried and the blades scraped against each other down to the hilts before they separated again. The parry could not have happened simply by chance. Lillibet had clearly anticipated her opponent’s move and countered it—and by the way her eyes widened, Paul could see Annalinda herself knew it.

“You know what?” Lillibet said conversationally. “I very well might.” She started circling, sword at the readay. Something had changed, and Annalinda was still trying to puzzle it out.

:Paul, do you see how she’s handling that sword? The ease and discipline of her movements?: Fenris sent. :This is not mere Olympic fencing, or trying to imitate Errol Flynn. In fact…I do believe I have seen that very fighting style before. So have you, in fact.:

Paul leaned forward. :You know what? I think this just got a lot more interesting.:

Annalinda circled, more wary now. “What…how did you—?”

“Stop toying with her and finish her.”

All heads snapped up at that distinctly grumpy, undeniably male voice. A gray hippogryph Fuser hovered in mid-air over the arena, casting a gimlet eye down upon the combatants, a hardlight feather-blade in each be-taloned hand.

Lillibet grinned up at him, and saluted him with her sword. “Hai, sensei.” She turned the grin on her befuddled opponent. “As the man said on TV, I’m not from Nottingham.” And her body language changed altogether.

Everything before had just been for show, to draw Annalinda out and take her measure. Lillibet’s movements lost the faux awkwardness all at once. She saw an opening, and lunged.

4

November, 156 AL

As the sun sank behind the western horizon, Lillibet and Guinevere made their way back across the desert toward the Alpha Camp dome. It had been a long but productive day. Paul and Fenris had several RIDE services lined up. That had left Lilli free to go assist a RIDE who broke down a few klicks short of the dome. Fortunately, it had been a quick fix, and they promised to come by the garage the next day for a more permanent solution.

It amazed Lillibet how quickly she’d been accepted by the camp in the few days since her “abduction” in the wake of the Integrate raid on the Walton mansion. Despite AlphaWolf’s speech about how she was there because she wanted to be, a number of the RIDEs still seemed to think she was there as a hostage anyway. A few even suspected her of being some kind of spy. But after a few days of helping to repair and refit everyone with DINsec, most of them didn’t care. Especially the ones she was able to help get back into working order.

At first Paul had been worried about letting her and Guin go off by themselves, but they’d managed to get him to see reason—largely by ignoring him and going off by themselves anyway. They weren’t too worried about any of the other RIDEs in the camp trying to harm them. Of the ones she hadn’t had a part in fixing, most of the rest respected Alpha too much to try anything.

As for those who didn’t, well, she kept the assault rifles she’d taken down those Integrates with racked to her back and ready for deployment. With Guin’s Donizetti-spec systems, Lilli expected she could handle just about any RIDE long enough for Guin to squawk to Fenris for help. About the only RIDE they really didn’t want to tangle with was…

“Lillibet Walton,” a cold voice said from above and behind them as they approached the dome. “I would speak with you.”

“Yeek!” Lillibet spun, the rifles leaping to their latch-on positions on her gauntlets. A Fuser-form hippogryph RIDE hovered silently in the air before her, watching her calmly.

“Excellent reaction time,” Tocsin said analytically. “Subtracting the expected response time from a Donizetti RIDE, your reflexes are quite fast for a human. Very good.”

Lillibet kept the rifles leveled at him. “What do you want?” They had a bit of a history with this one. Tocsin had, after all, come to destroy their garage and ended up kidnapping Paul to be Alpha Camp’s resident mechanic instead. Along the way, Lilli and Guin had attacked Tocsin with civilian pulse rifles, and gotten smacked into a wall for their trouble.

“As I said, to speak with you. Come.” Without waiting to see if she would follow, he glided away toward a rock formation just outside the dome.

Lillibet and Guinevere hung there in the air for a moment, watching him go. “What do you think?” Lillibet asked Guin.

“Gotta admit, I’m kinda curious,” Guinevere said. “And say what you will about the Tox, from what everyone in camp says he keeps his word. If he says he just wants to talk, that’s all he wants.”

“And if he wanted us dead, we’d be bleeding out already,” Lillibet said. “Ugh. Well, all right. Let’s go see what he wants.”

They touched down in the rock formation a moment later to find Tocsin waiting, standing at parade rest, wings mantled and arms crossed behind his back. “Good, you came.”

“You said you wanted to talk,” Lillibet said, keeping her rifles pointed at the ground but not removing them either. “We’re listening.”

Tocsin nodded an acknowledgment. “As you’re aware, I have excellent fighting skills. This is not a boast or a brag, simply a statement of fact.”

“I’ll grant that,” Lillibet said.

Tocsin paused, almost as if he were…embarrassed. “For some time, I have wondered whether it would be possible for me to…pass some of those skills on. It is one thing to know what I know, but can I teach it to someone else?”

“You mean, like taking on a student?” Lillibet asked.

“Yes,” Tocsin said. “To be a true master, after all, one must first have a student. And for the challenge to be complete, it would need to be a human student. RIDEs do not learn in quite the same ways.”

He paused and looked at her like a Drill Instructor appraising a new recruit. “In our encounter at the garage, and the information I have been able to review concerning your fight at your parents’ mansion, you showed plenty of fighting spirit and aptitude, which are good as far as they go, but little actual practiced skill. I can help you achieve that skill.”

Lillibet blinked. “Seriously? You want to train me?

Tocsin nodded. “Though of course I would teach Guinevere what she needed to know as well.”

:Wow. I guess we really must have impressed him back at the garage,: Guin sent.

“I have only one condition on my offer,” Tocsin continued. “Absolute secrecy. For two reasons. First, should word leak out that I am training a human, there are those in the camp who will believe I have ‘gone soft.’ Some of those might wish to test me, and I have little desire to expend the energy it would take to deal with them.”

“Fair enough. What’s the other reason?” Lillibet asked.

Tocsin’s beak seemed to grin. “So that once I have trained you, others will underestimate you.”

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It was surprisingly easy to find the time to train with Tocsin over the months that followed. One benefit of thirty-hour days was that there was always plenty of time to slip away. They trained mostly outside the dome. When temperatures required, Lillibet wore Guinevere as her survival suit, but there were a couple of hours at dawn and dusk when the temperature outside was right for unsuited work and Tocsin took advantage of them whenever possible.

It was surprisingly hard work, Lillibet soon found. The movies made it look so easy—heroes and heroines flinging swords around like they weighed nothing. In fact, the sword Lilli worked with weighed a couple of kilos, and just holding it took muscles she hadn’t been aware of before—let alone swinging it and blocking Tocsin’s lunges.

For the first month, Lillibet wondered if she would ever be any good. Tocsin was quite often frustrated with her, but he could tell she was at least trying so she was never in any danger of having parts bitten off.

After that, she started getting the hang of it. But by then, they’d had the final battle with Fritz’s forces, and done all the rebuilding, and finally Lilli and Guin had to go back to live with their parents again. But they were able to keep the training up nonetheless—Tocsin and his human flew out to meet them outside of Nextus. And since Nextus was in a more temperate area, they had longer periods to work unsuited.

It had been harder to keep it a secret after they started full-contact Fusing with Fenris and Paul, but Guinevere had known ways of blocking off those memories so they wouldn’t come out in the Fuse. Lillibet had been tempted to tell them, but she’d promised absolute secrecy to Tocsin and suspected he would be good enough at reading her to know if she’d broken the promise even just a little.

As soon as the plans to visit Sturmhaven had materialized, Tocsin had redoubled the training, and Lilli had discovered to her surprise that she was getting quite good. The practice duels with Tocsin were quite a bit more fun. He still won them all, of course, but it took him some actual effort now, and he seemed to be enjoying himself as well. (Lilli often wondered how much of his desire to train her had come from boredom at not having anyone decent to spar with. She didn’t ask, though.)

Lilli couldn’t say she had ever honestly expected to need Tocsin’s training…but right about now, she was extremely glad she’d had it.

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“First blood,” Lillibet said, her voice calm and cold like Tocsin’s. The young woman’s veins sang with adrenaline. She knew better than to let her guard down. Tocsin was a merciless teacher—a battle didn’t end until your opponent was disabled, dead, or yielded. Since the first two were right out, there was much more to come.

Annalinda’s wound barely had time to bleed before it sealed up into a nasty red scar along her left forearm. She backed off into a defensive stance as Lillibet advanced.

“Would you like seconds?” Lillibet quipped. “Oh, no, wait, they don’t use seconds in duels here. Besides, I’m gonna give you minutes anyway.” She easily parried Annalinda’s next two attacks, and responded with a riposte that carried through to give her another scar on her right arm.

“You can’t be this good!” Annalinda gasped. “You were taught by a male! A male RIDE!

“Oh bitch please,” Lillibet said, swinging her blade. Thrust and parry, parry and thrust…and then Annalinda’s chainmail top fell off, sliced neatly down the cleavage, with a faint red line already fading to a scar behind it. Annalinda squawked indignantly, backing away.

“What’s the matter? I thought you liked going topless around here,” Lillibet teased. “Or was that just the Athenas? It sure works for them.” The crowd roared with laughter now.

Annalinda’s face reddened. “You’re making me a laughingstock!” she hissed.

“Oh, it’s okay for you to try it, but not me?” Lillibet said. “OK, then here’s something that’s not so funny.” The tip of her sword flicked out, darting in past Annalinda’s guard.

Annalinda raised a hand to her cheek. Of course there wasn’t any blood there, but she felt the new welt of a raised scar. Lilli hardly gave her any time to register the shock before giving her a matching scar on her other cheek. “There, now you’re symmetrical.”

“Lillibet…” Tocsin chided from above.

“Aw, c’mon, sensei! This is for the honor of Alpha Camp!” Lillibet said without looking away from her opponent.

“I think you mean the honor of your boyfriend,” Tocsin said dryly. “No one likes a bully.”

“That’s why I’m putting this one in her place,” Lillibet said. “But okay, point taken.” She nodded to Annalinda. “Yield now, or I’ll stripe you like a tiger.”

“You’re…not that good…” Annalinda panted.

“Did you hear that, sensei? Your student’s not that good.”

Tocsin snorted. “Show her how good you are. End it.”

Even Paul wasn’t exactly sure what happened next, until he could replay it slowed down later. All he saw at the time was Lillibet’s sword going one way, Annalinda’s sword flying off in the other direction, and then the two were corps-a-corps with Lillibet kneeling on Annalinda’s chest, the Valk gasping for breath.

“Six…seven…eight…” the count rang through the arena. Once it reached ten, the crowd went wild. Lillibet made sure to stay kneeling on top of her adversary for a good five seconds more before getting to her feet and raising her sword in the air. The Matriarch nodded. “The victrix: Lillibet Walton of Nextus!” her voice boomed out.

Nigella and Kenyon jumped out of their ground-level box and covered the distance between their daughter and themselves before anyone else. Kenyon swept her into his arms. “That’s our girl!”

“You had us so worried!” Nigella sobbed. “Never do that again!”

“There isn’t a mark on me, Mom,” Lillibet said. “I’m actually a little sad about that. Kind of wanted something to remember this by.” She nudged her still-prone opponent with a toe. “Guess I’ll just have to settle for this souvenir. Oh, Fenris, could you come over here?”

“Gladly,” the giant wolf RIDE rumbled, padding onto the field. “I assume you wish for me to do the honor of crossriding your fallen foe?”

“If you would be so kind,” Lillibet said.

“No!” a new voice yelped. Lillibet looked up as the black she-wolf RIDE trotted onto the field and prostrated herself next to her rider. “…please? I know she’s an idiot…but she’s my idiot. Or I’m hers. But we’re both yours now.”

Annalinda looked up. “Gloria…”

Lillibet sighed. “I never could say no to a RIDE in distress. And I don’t much need another boyfriend anyway. Give me your root so I can lock her control out, and she’s yours. Hold onto her for me ‘til I figure out what to do with you both.”

“Yes, mistress,” Gloria said, Fusing over her human and then retreating off the grounds.

Guinevere slunk over next to Lillibet and rubbed against her leg, purring loudly. “I am so proud of you, Lilli.”

Lilli reached down to scratch her behind the ears. “Thanks, Guin. Appreciate that.”

Tocsin landed nearby in an area free of people and RIDEs, who were keeping a respectful distance. The bronzed Athena men admired him openly. He approached Lillibet. “You left yourself open on your third parry, but your opponent was too unobservant to take advantage. We’ll have to work on that overarm thrust, won’t we? More practice with a blade like the one you handled today.”

Hai, sensei,” Lillibet said happily. “But aren’t you worried the other RIDEs will think you’ve gone soft, now it’s out in the open?”

“Hardly,” Tocsin said proudly. “Now that they’ve seen what my student can do after only a few months of instruction, they should have all the more reason to fear me.”

“That’s Tocsie for ya,” Paul said, grinning. “Always got an angle.”

Nigella Walton fixed the hippogryph with a gimlet glare the equal of his own. “You and I will have words, Mister Tocsin. We might have offered Lilli more support for your little dojo had we known.”

“Mom, it’s all good,” Lillibet said. “Leave it. Really.”

:If Nigella and Tocsin go at it, I think the whole arena might not be big enough for the collateral damage,: Paul sent to Fenris, who responded with a laugh of agreement.

“I can hardly belieff it!” Sonja said happily, tail wagging. “You are a true Vooman uff Zturmhaven now—legally, yet! I can help mit ze accent, if you vish!”

“Uh, thanks, but that’s okay,” Lillibet said. “I think Sturmhaven ought to get used to Women Of who don’t have one.”

Sonja tossed her head in a lupine shrug. “Is your loss. Vell! Now zat I am beink here, I think to showink my Frieda vhere her heritage is comink from. Das vedanya!” She trotted off the field to where the blonde Califia girl with wolf ears waited for her.

“We really did offer to help her, you know,” Mariam sighed, watching her go. “But she turned us down.”

“She likes being the way she is now,” Paul said. “Took her long enough to get there, we’ll leave her be as long as she sticks to willing partners from here on out.”

The Matriarch put her finger on her right ear. “It looks like the Valks are already responding to their loss. Except…I don’t believe this! They’re calling for an immediate confidence vote in the Zemstvo!”

“Taking advantage of their moment of glory,” Paul said dryly. “Someone did tell them Annalinda lost, right?”

“I would stay to go over all that you have won from Annalinda—her property and title, as well as herself—but I must return to the Zemstvo to preside over the vote,” Mariam said. “What are they thinking?”

“Wait…her title?” Lillibet said. “She was nobility or something?”

All Women of Sturmhaven are nobility,” Mariam said, drawing herself up. “But in addition to that, yes, she had a minor title.”

“Have your staff beam Guin the details? We’ll go over it in virtual,” Lillibet said. She waved to Viveka, who had only just been able to make her way through the press to get to her. “I’m starting to get an idea.”

5

The Zemstvo was rowdier than Paul had ever seen it. It seemed like everyone was talking at once, and Matriarch Mariam had all she could do to keep things under control. Paul admired her restraint, though he regretted that what happened next was probably not going to do her any favors.

The Zemstvo had been hearing from a series of speakers as they ran up to calling the vote. Fenris and Guinevere had monitored them for Paul and Lilli as they quickly traveled over to Annalinda’s penthouse nearby and took stock of what they found there. Lillibet had taken one look in the closet and grinned from ear to ear. “This is perfect!” When Paul saw the final result, he had to admit she was right, though perhaps not for the same reasons she meant.

It had taken her a little time to get ready, of course, but they’d called ahead to hold her a place in the proceedings. As the inheritor of Annalinda’s title, she had the right to address the Zemstvo, and she planned to use it.

When Mariam came to Lillibet’s name on the list of speakers, she looked resigned, rather than surprised. “The floor now hears from Boyarina Lillibet Walton.”

Lillibet stepped up to the podium, resplendent in one of Annalinda’s best Valkyrie outfits—the armor bikini, the (fabbed) ermine cloak, the winged helmet, and the ceremonial sword. The room got very quiet—save for the loud jeers emanating from the Valkyrie section, but those quieted down under the Matriarch’s stern glares.

“Women of Sturmhaven,” Lillibet began. “Hi. Seems like I’m one of you now. I sure didn’t expect this a couple of hours ago! I bet none of you did, either. Least of all them over there.” She nodded toward the Valkyrie section. “But here I am. Funny how things turn out.”

She waved a hand at her outfit. “These wouldn’t be my first choice of duds…kinda drafty and not really all that practical. And they don’t really line up with my political way of thinking, either. But I won ‘em fair and square, and I’m wearing ‘em now to make a point. I might be a ‘fake’ Valkyrie, but I can’t be any more of a phony than the real thing. I mean, c’mon, how much death and misery have they been responsible for over the last thirty-odd years? They started one war back in the teens. Now they just tried to start another. Seriously, you think Nextus would have stood still if Annalinda had won? You think Alpha Camp would have?

“Now I’m sure there are decent people among the Valkyries, as there are anywhere, but you put all the Valkyries together and the decent people aren’t enough to turn the tide.” Lillibet shook her head. “Sturmhaven, the Valkyries are your past. You should look forward to a time when the only people you see parading around dressed like this are people like me—reenactors.”

She turned to face the largest section of the Zemstvo. “Of course, I can’t say much for the Gaians, either. Sorry, but I can’t. This whole thing happened on your watch, people. You’re trying to walk a line between the past and the future, and you just end up going nowhere. Maybe it’s time you tried standing aside for a while, too. Let the Athenas have the reins for a change and see how things run.

“So yeah. This is me, an outsider, telling you how to run things. Pay me as much or as little attention as you think I deserve,” Lillibet said. “Just remember this. I’m the one who your big bad Valkyrie picked a fight with, ‘cuz she thought I was a wuss she could stomp all over and prove how much better she was than some weak woman wanna-be. Well, guess who won that fight?” She bowed her head. “Thank you all.”

As one, the 54 Valks started banging rhythmically on their desks. “Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!

Matriarch Mariam slammed the gavel down a few times. “Order! I really  don’t know what you think a confidence vote will accomplish, Valk Delegates. But you’ve convinced enough of your colleagues to follow through with it. Let’s get this over with. The vote is hereby opened and will be tabulated in half an hour. So ordered.” She banged the gavel again.

“Someone should really tell them to be careful what they wish for,” Lillibet murmured as she took her seat next to Paul.

“Why should they worry? After all, they’re right,” Paul smirked. “They’re so right that the ‘rightness radiation’ they’re emitting will magically change the hearts and minds of anyone it comes into contact with. So they obviously have nothing to fear.”

They were seated in Athena section of the gallery. Viveka joined them after a few minutes. “My vote is cast. New elections are a certainty after what happened today,” Viveka said. “I have nothing but respect for Matriarch Dagneau, given the issues that have come up in her tenure. But after the stunt the Valks pulled today, enough in her own party know it’s time for a change.”

“So, your Zemstvo dissolves, there’s five weeks of campaigning, then a new one is convened after the elections?” Lillibet said.

“It’s your government too, now, as a Woman of Sturmhaven,” Viveka pointed out. “You’re old enough to vote—sixteen is the Age of Majority.”

“Really?” Paul said. “Can’t vote in Nextus or Uplift until eighteen.”

“May I ask a favor, Lillibet? With approval of your parents, of course,” Viveka said.

“It’ll be easy enough to ask ‘em, they’re right over there.” Lillibet nodded to the audience gallery across the room, where the Waltons had front-row seats. Nigella had Melissa the mink with her, but the only sign of AlphaWolf was Kenyon’s tags—for pretty obvious reasons. It would take a major state event for the leader of Gondwana’s newest polity to show his cold wet nose in another one.

Viveka nodded. “Quite. I was hoping you might be willing to come back to Sturmhaven over the next few weeks to campaign on behalf of the Athenas. We are already seeing public opinion polls come in that suggest you have managed to appeal to quite a number of young Gaian voters, and even a small but real percentage of Valkyries seem to grudgingly respect your speech.”

“Well, sure!” Lillibet said. “I’ll be glad to do whatever I can to help my new motherland find its way into the modern era.”

“Excellent. I’ll speak to your parents, and assuming they agree we’ll be in touch to arrange the specifics.” She went over to do just that, and from the nodding and agreeable expressions on their parents’ faces, it was a foregone conclusion what their answer was going to be.

A few minutes later, the Matriarch banged the gavel for silence and read out the results. “Votes have been tabulated. The vote of confidence has failed. This Zemstvo is hereby dissolved and elections are called for one month from today. So entered into the Chronicle.” Matriarch Mariam banged the gavel, then rested her head in her hands. She looked like she’d just aged ten years.

“Well, that’s that,” Paul said as the chamber erupted into another uproar that no amount of banging the gavel could silence. “End of one wolf and pony show, beginning of another.”

The Valks cheered and shouted taunts at their opponents. The Gaians were surprisingly stoic, leaving the chamber in an orderly fashion. If anything, the discussions among the Athenas were the most tense. They were still the smallest plurality of Delegates, 40 of the 200. The Valks still had 54, and the Gaians had only just had the majority at 102. If there was any Party that had an uphill battle it would seem to be the Athenas.

“Let’s get out of here before someone else can challenge me to a duel,” Lillibet said. They beat a hasty retreat as the session started to break up.

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It was a good thing they were on a flexible timetable to fly out, Paul reflected, since Lillibet’s parents had insisted on doing some touristy things with their daughter as long as they were in town. Lillibet had shepherded them around for a few hours before finally managing to get away. “I swear, if I have to see Mom point at one more Valkyrie leash-and-collar set and giggle at Dad, I’m going to blow a gasket,” Lillibet said. “Bad enough to have Sonja and Frieda along for off-color commentary…”

While her parents finished up their shopping, she, Guin, Paul, and Fenris had gone to meet with Svetlana, Bertha, and her crew out by the RIDE testing range. The two giant RIDEs and one giant Integrate sat companionably on the concrete observation bunkers which were just the right height for seats and looked out across the range as they talked. A storm was rolling in off the sea, with thunder and lightning rumbling in the distance—but then, there almost always was. The place was called “Storm haven,” after all.

After several days of practice, Bertha was quite comfortable in her original body again. The giant white she-wolf looked similar to Svetlana, though a couple of meters taller and a good bit thicker. To Paul, she looked great, in her hardlight or out of it. They sure knew how to build ‘em then. And they’re building ‘em again. No matter what I think of Sturmhaven’s politics, it’s great to see more WLF-CSAs in the world again.

“I did not get a chance to congratulate you after the duel,” Bertha said. “Nicely done! Even if you did learn your sword skill from…hmm. No. Not ever going to call Tocsin a ‘mere male.’ Not when there is even the smallest chance he might be close enough to hear me.”

“Wise of you,” Fenris approved. “I will admit to being rather surprised myself.”

“Tocsin insisted that we couldn’t tell anyone,” Lillibet said. “We weren’t sure if he’d make an exception for you guys, but we couldn’t take that chance.”

“Besides, it was more dramatic this way!” Guinevere said happily.

“Dramatic. Yes, there is a word,” Svetlana said. “You are going to have a very complicated passport, you know.”

“Can I help it if I collect citizenships the way some people collect coins or stamps?” Lillibet said. “I didn’t expect that to happen either. But hey, if it helps drag Sturmhaven into the twenty-sixth century, why not?” She shook her head. “I swear, I’ll never understand this place. For starters, why is it all German and Russian mixed up together? From the twencen history books, the Germans and the Russians hated each other.”

“You can blame the founders for that,” a soft voice said. It was Hedy’s new partner, Carlotta Kinski. “As hobby, I am student of history, including the history not shared as much. Back in the founding, was decades before Steaders recovered the old culture. Founders were silly game-players, with the…‘games’ they played being based on muddled ideas of long-lost history from surviving ‘classics’ that they had only heard about and not actually read. Mixed up many details. Even sprinkled bits of other countries in, like Switzerland’s cuckoo clocks and chocolate. Is like learning of ancient Greece from Xena: Warrior Princess.”

“Well, that explains a lot,” Paul said. “Germany and Russia both had traditions of, ahem, formidable women, so I can see how they’d get the details mixed up if that was their ‘thing.’”

“By the time we learned founders’ mistake, was too late. Could not remove elements of one or the other culture, so we pretended was intentional and mixed them both all the further,” Carlotta said. “Is not being remembered as much now, but most pseudo-historical trappings were retrofitted after Steaders gave us their pop culture treasure trove. ‘Zemstvo’ used to be just ‘Parliament,’ for example. ” She chuckled. “Still upsets some tourists from Europe and Russia on Old Earth, or places like Neorus with stronger real Russian tradition when they come. They think we are making fun of them.”

“For that matter, women from other colonies that developed more naturalistic feminist movements, such as Ibn Rushd, have also complained,” Diana Fuerst put in. “They see us as something like a bad parody of their culture—an adolescent male’s ‘straw feminist’ fantasy of half-naked domineering women.” She chuckled. “I would get in trouble if I told them, ‘Yes, yes, you’re exactly right!’ the way I have often wanted.”

“And I guess the Male Transgression Laws must have been the founders’ idea, too?” Lillibet wondered.

“More or less,” Carlotta said. “They grew out of the rules to their silly domination games. The thing you must understand is that, early on, Sturmhaven was not meant to be nation. It was…resort. Place for people of certain attitude to come, have fun in ways rest of world did not understand. Founders never seriously planned to start their own colony. They simply filed paperwork as if they did so land could not be colonized out from under them.”

“But then they got people who were actually interested in settling?” Paul asked.

Carlotta nodded. “Da. Funny thing is that enough people who either enjoyed or could tolerate such way of life for sake of climate eventually came that it became colony with no one ever trying, and without really growing out of silly game. Agreeing to and accepting it was Founders’ condition for first guest colonists, and it somehow never changed as colony grew. Everyone who came accepted it, and became used to it, and raised their children in it. Founders and some newcomers who were being most into this little game were first Valkyries; those less attached to it were soon being Gaians and Athenas.” She chuckled. “Last original founder died fifteen years ago, still scratching her head and wondering ‘Where did we go right?’”

“I’ve always thought the Male Transgression Laws were a trifle…poorly thought-out from the perspective of running a country, and that explains why,” Fenris said. “They seem to self-select for wimpy men, because any man who shows the slightest backbone is deported.”

“Cape Nord has certainly made out well from it, though,” Paul reflected.

Carlotta chuckled. “I am being doubtful Cape Nord would even exist without Sturmhaven’s Male Transgression Laws. Was founded by men we kicked out, who immediately start overcompensating.” She snorted. “I spent some time there, on leave, from curiosity. Was…more like Sturmhaven than I was expecting. The difference is the women let the men act out as much as they please…but still know that they are really in charge, just do not let it show. Like cats, I guess. Small wonder leader of Marshals is Cape Nord man married to Sturmhaven woman. They are not being from so very different worlds after all, despite how it looks.”

“Well, that explains a lot,” Lillibet said.

“I must admit, for all that it’s good to be back for a while, I’ve found that since I’ve been gone, I’ve actually lost my patience for all the pageantry of it,” Svetlana said. “I’m still embarrassed that I was honestly planning to found a Sturmhaven-style Enclave after taking care of Alpha Camp.”

“So I suppose there’s not any point asking you to stay?” Bertha asked.

Svetlana shook her massive head. “No. I feel like I no longer truly belong to this place. Now I am a citizen of all of Gondwana. Perhaps all of Zharus. I will visit…perhaps visit often, especially if matters improve in the Zemstvo. But I have a greater job to do.”

“Well, so do I, now,” Bertha said. “They are actually going to retool one of the old RIDE factories to make more of our shells! And they either have or will soon recover seven of our comrades’ cores, and believe they may know the locations of several more. And my partners and I will be heading up the whole project!”

“If we should run across any more, we will certainly recommend they seek you out,” Fenris said.

“And if things go south for you here and you should need an extraction, give us a call and we’ll come running,” Paul promised.

“Thank you, my friends,” Bertha said. “I don’t expect that to happen…but you never know. I will keep that in mind.”

“Just got a comm ping from my folks. They’re heading back to their sub and home,” Lillibet said. “And Baldwin’s flying Sonja and Tocsin back to Alpha Camp. I think it’s about time we headed out too.”

“It’s been fun!” Hedy said.

“Yes. Thank you for everything,” Diana Fuerst put in. “Look us up next time you’re in town.”

“Will do,” Lillibet said. “Don’t take any wooden mu!”

Svetlana and Bertha embraced. “So long, sister,” Svetlana said. “Take care.”

Bertha nodded. “And you. Das vedanya.

Svetlana stepped back. “Auf wiedersehen.” Fenris stood up and de-Fused back to tank mode, and Svetlana followed him back to the aerodrome.

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Gloria the black wolf was waiting stoically in Fuser form by the sub as they arrived. “What are you going to do with us?” she asked Lillibet.

Lillibet looked critically at her. “Hmm. You know…I had come up with all sorts of fun little punishments in my head that I could inflict upon Annalinda. But now that I think about it, I don’t want to see myself as ‘that vindictive bitch’ when I look in the mirror. So here’s the deal. You get to keep her. As we say at Alpha Camp, she’s your thumbs. Do whatever you want with her, but don’t take orders from her again. If you want to let her go, that’s fine, but she gets nothing but the skimpy bikini on her back. If I were you, I’d hold onto her for her own good.”

“O…okay,” Gloria said. “But…what will we do now?”

“First of all, you’re coming with us back to Alpha Camp for a while,” Lillibet said. “I’ll get you set up there; nobody will think you’re in any way odd for owning your human. Once RIDE rights come in, you can come back here if you want; the penthouse and all her other crap can be yours; I won’t need it except maybe if I come visit and want to sleep over.”

“I…see,” Gloria said. “Thank you. It’s more than we have any right to expect.”

“More than she does, maybe, but you seem like a nice enough person,” Lillibet said. “Not your fault she’s an idiot. See if you can make her into a better person, and we’ll be even. If not, well, at least you can keep her off the streets.” She nodded to the ramp. “Now c’mon. We’ll be back at Alpha Camp before you know it.”

Gloria nodded, and followed her inside.

6

June 7, 157 A.L.

“Sister Delegates of the Zemstvo,” the new Matriarch said. “I won’t pretend to be eloquent. Instead, I’ll begin my address by saying: beware unintended consequences. Our own Foremothers and Forefathers could hardly guess that their resort would become one of the most powerful polities on Gondwana. Nor that it would go to war—so far, the only one in the history of our world. Yet, that’s what happened.

“Unintended consequences.” Matriarch Viveka Virgo addressed the fifteen Valk Delegates who remained of their Party’s representation. “You wanted an election, sisters. You got it. Enjoy reaping what you’ve sown. Now, let’s get on to the business of governance.

“I would like to thank the members of the new Midgaard Party for their coalition with the Athenas to move us forward.” Viveka nodded at the ten women seated near the ninety-five Athenas. The Party had seemingly come out of nowhere to grab the few seats that had normally ended up with various fringe parties. Without them, the Athenas would have been just short of the majority they needed to do anything meaningful.

One of the Valks stood up. “Those…people are not real Women of Sturmhaven! They are from Cape Nord! They have barely bled once for their womanhood!”

:Take your pick of logical fallacies, because there’s a bundle of them in that single sentence,: Fenris sent to his partners.

:Some No True Scotsman and a dash of tu quoque,: Lillibet said. :Oh God, look at them! Bunch of whiny bitches! Viveka looks golden in the Matriarch’s robes, though.:

:Those Midgaardians gave up their Man Cards permanently for this,: Paul replied. :Pretty big sacrifice for them. They can’t really ‘go home again’ even after the cooldown.:

:Maybe we should visit Cape Nord next,: Lillibet mused. :Stir things up a bit.:

:Nuh uh! After the way you won that duel they’d give you a Man Card, Lilli,: Guin added. :I’m not ready to make a Paula yet. And what would we even call you? Lyle Bert? Lee Brett?:

:We’ll swap things around when we’re good and ready. Besides, I’ve had my fill of gender politics,: Paul said. They turned their attention back to Viveka to see her response.

“Nearly half the Delegates in this chamber began life as men,” Viveka said without a hint of disapproval. “The Midgaardians met all the citizenship requirements that your own Party set forth in Sturmhaven Law decades ago—including natural menarche. When was the last time you had your period, Henry? I will not tolerate such naked hypocrisy in this chamber. Sit. Down.”

:Especially from someone who’s only almost naked,: Paul sent, and the others chuckled.

Eighty Gaians, enough to hold a decent amount of power under Sturmhaven’s rules for minority parties, rounded out the Delegates. There were enough of them that they could put the brakes on any legislation they thought was too extreme. They had rebuffed all efforts by the Valks to form a coalition of their own. After what the Valks had pulled, there was enough bad blood between them to last decades.

Assuming the Valks lasted that long as a political party.

“And so we begin with important work,” Viveka said. “The Foresight Committee has put forth a bill very close to the original Athena proposal before the elections. We have given some concessions to the Gaians, and included clemency for minor crimes committed for the sake of survival by Integrates who were hiding from Fritz…”

Viveka went over the broad portions of the bill, more for the observers from other polities and Laurasia watching on the web feeds. The Uplift and Nextus ambassadors in the gallery were paying very close attention. The legislation was broadly equal to the Uplift RIDE Citizenship Act with the addition of a 60-member ‘Advisory Zemstvo’ until the changes could be voted into the Charter via referendum. They would be joined by men, who still wouldn’t have voting rights until the same conditions were met.

“This isn’t everything we had hoped for, but this is the nature of making law,” Viveka said. “It is a positive step. There is one more item I’d now like to reveal to the general public. This is something even I did not expect would gain approval in the Committee, but it has—unanimously.” She nodded at the Nextus ambassador, who stood.

The Matriarch composed herself. “As the head of government of Sturmhaven, I offer our official apology to Nextus for provoking the war between us. And though Nextus bore the brunt of our warmongering, there was a great deal of collateral damage. The entire continent was involved in one way or another. We will offer a separate apology to Nuevo San Antonio, for they were directly caught in the middle. We brought the horrors of war to Zharus, and a hundred thousand dead—human and RIDE—are blood on our hands.”

The Nextus ambassador stood up. “On behalf of my government, we accept your apology,” she said in a shaky voice.

:Holyeee….sheeeeeit,: Paul swore, leaning forward in his seat. :Did you know they were going to do this, Lilli?:

:No…no. They never said a word to me,: Lillibet said. :They must have told the ambassador ahead of time, wouldn’t do to back her into a corner and have her say no. But she still looks pretty shocked they actually did it.:

The apology set off a wave of muttering between Delegates but surprisingly no outburst from the Valks, who had apparently learned a little humility recently.

The rest of the session before adjournment was extremely anticlimactic, but Paul, Lillibet, and Guinevere stayed anyway to show their support for the new government. They met the new Matriarch in her new offices during the lunch break.

“Of course I don’t expect you to stay for the whole day,” Viveka said. “I just wanted to thank you again for everything.”

“We were just in the right place at the right time,” Lillibet said. “Or the wrong time, if you happened to be a Valk.”

“These issues have been festering ever since the War started,” Viveka said. When she got going about her polity’s political issues the woman’s passion made her very charismatic. “And a lot of history is made by simply being at the right place at the right time. You and your friends have already played important parts in the recent history of our planet. We couldn’t have done this without you, because of who you are.”

“Hey, going around getting ambushed from out of nowhere and ending up settling issues that go all the way back to the War is what we do,” Guinevere said. “It’s no biggie. We’re still trying to work out where we should go and be ambushed next.” Lillibet bapped her between the ears.

The Matriarch extended her hand to Paul. “Thank you, Mr. Anders and Fenris—I know he’s with you, too.”

“You actually want to shake my hand?” Paul said. “When was the last time the Matriarch of Sturmhaven shook any man’s hand?”

“More recently than you might think, Paul,” Viveka said. “But it’s still an important symbol. Our meeting here is being recorded, after all. I want the young Men of Sturmhaven to know that they will not be pressured by the present government to turn female for the sake of political power. Those days are over, at least for now. Anyone who crosses will do so by choice—.”

“I could hear that capital letter in ‘Men’,” Guin said. “You’re serious about this.”

“Equality for Men, Integrates, and RIDEs,” Viveka said, more for the camera than anything else.

Paul shook her hand firmly before she saw them out of her offices, then brought in the Nextus Ambassador. The harried diplomat barely even nodded at them as she went inside.

:Argh! Enough politics! Let’s do something fun!: Guinevere sent.

:Just got a call from Dad,: Lillibet sent, switching to speaking out loud as they got away from the offices. “He’s coming to pick us up in the Globemaster—NextusGov wants a chat with me tomorrow. Bleah! I’m already a stupid politician at sixteen.

“Maybe we can take your mind off things while you’re at home?” Fenris suggested through Guin.

Lillibet pondered. “You know, there’s a few fun spots in Nextus I haven’t shown either of you yet. I know where to look. They’re hard to find for outsiders—but, you know. That’s Nextus. There’s this little drive-in theater in the northwest quad Fenris would fit in.”

“Really? Get a lot of skimmer tanks there, do they?” Paul asked.

Lilli snorted. “You know what I mean.”

“Feeling homesick?” Paul asked, putting his arm around her waist.

“Oh, come on. You know Alpha Camp’s my home now, too,” Lillibet said. She paused, then relented under her boyfriend’s smirk.  “Okay, yeah. I’d like to see my own bedroom walls right now, just for a few hours.”

“You know, I do believe making out in your room while your parents are downstairs is one of the few clichés we haven’t hit yet,” Paul said. “The drive-in has potential, too.”

“Why not both? I’ll see if we can pencil them in,” Lillibet promised, kissing him on the nose. “Now c’mon, aerodrome’s a-waiting.”

Paul chuckled. “I’ll be right behind you.” They headed down the steps from the Zemstvo building. Fenris was already waiting by the curb. They mounted up and pulled away. This is the point where we should be riding into the sunset, but it’s still barely past noon, Paul thought. Still, you could say what we saw here today is the Valkyries’ sunset. And I think I feel pretty comfortable riding into that.

Separator k left.png THE END Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
Wolves in the Fold, Part One
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
None