IMPORTANT
In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.

User:Robotech Master/ggt nuevosan

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search
Icon
FreeRIDErs story universe


The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Two: Nuevo San Antonio

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck


Author's Comments

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


May 26, 157 A.L.

A few hundred klicks southeast of Nextus, the Jaguar convertible skimmer zoomed down the eastbound lane of the Coastal Ring Skimmerway, the skimmer bike carrying on riderless by its side. The Jag’s hardlight aeroshell was just permeable enough to let a slight breeze through to ruffle Joe and Socah’s hair as they watched the scenery roll by…and others watched them.

“That’s thirty fuckin’ floaters,” Julius growled, his projected eyes on the dashboard screen looking irritated. “Thirty! Let me pop ‘em, Joe. I want to try these aft pulsers…” A veritable school of media paparazzi trackers trailed behind the Big Jag after they’d left Nextus. They came in all shapes, with a number of fish and tiny twencen aircraft.

Joe shrugged. “If you want to, knock yourself out. But they can replace them remotely from rest stop fabbers as fast as you can take them down. They’ve probably got us on satellite tracking by now, so it’s not as if we can lose them. I usually figure it’s best just to ignore them so it doesn’t look like I’ve got anything to hide.”

“Argh.” Julius groaned. “Y’know, in some ways I fuckin’ liked it better back in the war days. At least then the newsies knew their fuckin’ place.”

“The only time something like that is permissible is wartime,” Socah said. “And even then, only enough to maintain opsec. Even on Earth freedom of the press is still sacrosanct. Or at least it was when I left.”

“Very happy to hear that,” Joe said. “I try and keep tabs on what Earth is doing through Mikey. But he’s been in deep cover for a couple years now.”

The verdant landscape passed beneath them as the Big Jag cruised at a leisurely 200 kilometers per hour. Faster traffic a kilometer above them were going twice as fast, but they were in no hurry. Socah spent her time looking out the window.

“East coast of Gondwana between Nextus and Sturmhaven was the first area terraformed, even before what became Landing,” Joe said. “Nextus basically had the best climate on the entire planet. But later they realized Laurasia was more practical for large-scale settlement.”

“Franklin found some interesting papers about that,” Socah said. “They tried to work their way inward from here until they saw what Q-dust could do, didn’t they? Then they just went around the coast in a ring and called it a day.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Joe agreed. “And between the two inhabited continents, we’ve got living space like you wouldn’t believe. More so now that Integrates are opening up with some of the techniques they use to build livable Dry Ocean habs.”

“Speaking of history, I was doing some of my own research on the Nextus-Sturmhaven War. I…don’t wish to bring up bad memories, honestly,” Socah said. “But I was reading about the early stages. We’re headed towards this little resort town that was caught in the middle, aren’t we?”

“No, it’s okay.” Joe sighed. “Nuevo San Antonio. They were like a little kid caught between a couple of bumbling high school bullies in a slap fight.”

“A little kid who fuckin’ meets Mister Miyagi and learns that fuckin’ crane move,” Julius put in. “With dinosaurs.”

“They quite literally ripped both sides a new one that day,” Joe admitted. “I gotta admire their spirit and ingenuity. Always been a hardy bunch. But they have some odd tastes, even by my low standards.”

“I am curious,” Socah said. “I wouldn’t mind a stop there before we get to Sturmhaven. That place I need to psyche up before we enter their borders. Or I’m gonna punch the first Valk I see.”

“I hope you like burnt orange and avocado green,” Joe said. “Because in Nuevo San it’s always 1977.”

“I’m sure it’s always 1977 somewhere,” Socah said. “Especially here.”

Julius sneezed. “Dunno what the fuck you ever saw in that decade. Fuckin’ stupid synthetic fabric suits, fuckin’ stupid epilepsy-inducing dance clubs…”

“It was a different time,” Joe said. “You had to worry about all kinds of things that aren’t a concern now. Like being able to keep up the standard of living you were used to in a time when the oil crisis and the politics of the day made it tricky. It was all about…y’know…stayin’ alive.”

“Don’t make me fuckin’ eject you. I’ll do it.”

“So, dinosaurs,” Socah said. “I wonder why they chose dinosaurs?”

“Well, even I admit dinos are fuckin’ awesome,” Julius said. “They got the raptors for fast attack, the huge carnies for tanks, pteros for air, brontos and trikes for transports and APCs. And that’s not even their civvie racing stuff.”

“It’s not just dinos,” Joe noted. “They’ve also got a well-deserved rep for building light RIDEs of all species. It seems to be a common thing among the major RIDE-using polities that you get most known for one type, even though you still make all types. Nextus is known for cats and dragons, Sturmhaven’s known for wolves and rocs, but they dabble in each others’ specialties too.”

Socah nodded. “Makes sense. If you stick to just one kind of anything, it makes the weaknesses inherent in that one thing more pronounced. And by making units of other kinds, you learn more about that kind’s weaknesses.”

“Lucky for all concerned I don’t have any fuckin’ weaknesses,” Julius said smugly. “Pronounced or otherwise.”

Joe opened his mouth, considered, then just smiled and nodded.

Separator k.png

The Border Checkpoint was a white stucco Spanish Mission-style building with a red tile roof and wrought-iron fences funneling travelers into the inspection area through an arch. There weren’t any fences to either side of the road, but a row of high-definition sensor posts was visible stretching away to either side. Anyone who tried to cross that border uninvited wouldn’t make it very far.

:Now I could fuckin’ go for some Taco Bell,: Julius sent.

Joe landed the skimmer in the space they were directed to and were met by a man in a Nuevo San Antonio Border Guard uniform who had saurian RIDE tags, and his dromaeosaur partner. “Hello and good morning,” the RIDE said. “Any fruit to declare?”

Socah looked at the man curiously. He didn’t have the everyday kind of tags. Normally they were rather obviously not supposed to be there, like Joe’s own jaguar ears and tail. The officer’s tags were rather more artfully blended, more like they had somehow evolved as a natural part of his body. He had a lengthy tail, snub muzzle, feather-hair, and a sharp-toothed smile.

Julius sent an emoticon of a snort. :‘Fruits,’ huh? Heh heh. I could name a few…:

:Shush, you. Humor isn’t helpful at border checkpoints.: Aloud, he said, “Nothing, officer.”

The officer pursed his lips—insofar as someone with that degree of saurian tags had “lips” that could “purse”—and glanced over Joe’s shoulder. Joe turned to look, and as expected, noted a couple of dozen media drones had caught up to them since they’d stopped at the gate. “Those aren’t ours, officer,” he said.

“They ain’t fruit, neither,” Julius put in. “If you wanna shred ‘em, ain’t no fuckin’ skin off our teeth. We’d thank you for it, even.”

The guard actually smirked. “I suppose that’s what you get when you’re Joe Steader, and suddenly traveling in the company of the grandmother of Rhianna Stonegate and a RIDE no one’s ever heard of.”

:Ha!: Julius sent. :Someone’s been followin’ the fuckin’ celeb gossip channels. Guess there’s not much else to do when you’re stuck in a fuckin’ border crossing booth all day, eh?:

Joe sighed. “I suppose it is too much to hope for a little privacy when you’re Joe Steader.”

“I know many people who’d be happy to trade away their privacy for that much money,” the guard replied. “But go ahead and pull through. We’ll take care of this lot for you, but you should be aware their in-polity affiliates will replace them fairly quickly.”

Joe nodded. “Thank you, officer.”

The guard shrugged. “It’s really none of my business, but if you do want to shed the media attention, you might consider holding a press conference. They’re only after you because of the mystery. Remove it and you’ll be yesterday’s news tomorrow.” He gestured for them to pull ahead as a small pulse turret mounted on the top of the booth started firing at the media drones behind them.

As they pulled the Jaguar ahead, Socah poked her head out the window. “You know, you’re right, officer,” she put in. “It really is none of your business.” Then the window rolled up and they were gone before he had a chance to respond.

Separator k.png

As they proceeded further along the winding road into the polity, Joe mused, “He did have a point, y’know. The more you try to keep a secret, the more people will pry into your business until they find out what it is. And given how famous I’ve been, and your granddaughter’s lately gotten, I’m afraid we may be waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

“Well, you’re looking at a prize media bullfighter. Before they up and tossed us off Earth for what Arlene and Roy did, we were dealing with this crap on a daily basis.” Socah shook her head. “Can’t say I ever expected to run into the same thing all over again when we got here on account of one of their kids. Sometimes I wonder if breeding was a mistake.”

“At least here it’s a good famous.” Joe grinned. “To be honest, I’ve been famous for so long, I kind of don’t remember what it’s like not to be.”

“Not like he’s fuckin’ let it go to his head or anything.” Julius snorted, eyes on the dashboard flicking from one to the other of them. “Long as we’re bein’ honest, it still kinda surprises the crap out of me to see just how famous. Back the first time ‘round, he was rich an’ all, but that was that. Now he’s known for bein’ fuckin’ crazy, too. And apparently I’m the one who drove him to it.”

Joe patted the dashboard. “All in all, I can’t complain.”

“What all is there to do around here, anyway?” Socah asked. “I could google something up, but I’m not here for book travel.”

“Oh, it’s a popular vacation spot, for one. Though I remember it used to be more so back in the day, before Aloha really got going and Sturmhaven was still for more ‘exotic’ tastes. As cheap as suborbital travel is, most people just go to Aloha now for Spring Break, but folks who don’t like to fly or go that far from home still like to come here instead.”

Socah glanced out the window at the palm trees they were passing. “They’ve certainly got the climate for it. Were those imported from Earth?”

Joe nodded. “The seeds were, I think. They’ve got some terrific saguaro cacti on the Dry Ocean side, too. So anyway, once the tourism mostly dried up they had to find something else to bank on to keep the money flowing. Which…turns out to be banking. They’re pretty good at it, but they’re still the smallest recognized polity on Gondwana. Just not a whole lot of draw here otherwise.”

“They sure handed us and the Sturmies our asses back in the fuckin’ war,” Julius added. “Not such a fuckin’ surprise, really. When you’re a runt and bullies trample you all the time, you go find Mr. Miyagi an’ take a level in ass-kickin’. And that’s just what they did.”

As they proceeded further down the highway, gradually more houses and other buildings started to appear—mostly roadside diners, skimmer charging stations, and convenience microfabberies. The architecture had a very specific flavor of its own, generally involving lots of stucco and (often fake) red tile roofs.

Socah raised an eyebrow. “This place feels like Texas.”

“Well, I’m partly to blame for that. Nineteen seventies, remember? I mean, look at the size of these skimmers! You could land airplanes on those hoods.”

“I don’t think you forced them to use that style of architecture, though.”

“Well, no. That’s the original settlers from the Santa Maria. A bunch of Texans and Mexicans who managed to scrape together the cost of their own colony ship, and hit Zharus about four years after Nextus opened Gondwana. Just in time to lay claim to a choice bit of real estate that reminded them of home—and put up buildings that reminded them of home, too.” Joe grinned. “Of course, all that stuff eventually went out of style…but then it came back in again once all the old movies Mikey and I dug up set in Old Mexico came into vogue. Zorro was very popular down here for a while.”

Julius snorted. “Ain’t no accounting for fuckin’ taste. Or lack thereof.”

The further they drove, the more buildings they started to encounter. “Shouldn’t be too much farther before we hit the city. I’ve got a small bungalow in one of the nicer parts of town, or we could stay at a tourist hotel if you prefer.”

“After seein’ your ‘little places’ in Nextus an’ Uplift, I gotta see what you consider a small fuckin’ bungalow.

Joe chuckled. “Really, it is. I don’t tend to spend all that much time here, so it’s just a place of my own to sleep while I’m in town.”

“Uh-huh.”

Socah glanced out the window. “I see our ‘friends’ are back.” A couple more drones had drifted in from the side of the road, and were now trailing along behind them.

Joe nodded. “We’re not exactly hard to spot.”

“I can pop ‘em if you want,” Julius offered. “For that matter, if you’re really pissed off, I think this thing has a nearly-fuckin’-military ECM suite. I might even be able to get rid of ‘em permanently, though I might also blow out every traffic light we stop at.”

Joe shook his head. “If you tick ‘em off too badly, they’ll just escalate. Better just to put up with ‘em.” He glanced to Socah. “Sorry about this. It’s something I’m used to living with, so I hardly even notice it anymore, for myself.”

“Huh,” Julius said. “Joe, you’ve got a call from the local Steader Ent office here. Guess they know you’re in town. Not as if that’s a great fuckin’ mystery at this point.”

“My adoring…well, not ‘public’ exactly.” Joe considered. “My adoring private? Sounds like some soldier has a crush on me.”

“Your adoring colonel,” Socah corrected. “Some soldier does have a crush on you, but a bit higher rank than that.”

Joe was abruptly glad Julius was handling the actual driving, and that Zharus didn’t use telephone poles, or else he was sure he would have wrapped the car around one at that point. “Er…yes. Well, I’ll comm them from the bungalow, I guess.”

They pulled off the main street and onto a side road just before the scattered buildings turned into a full-fledged city, and took a scenic route that kept the city on one side and open country on the other. The road gradually sloped upward as they headed uphill toward a small suburb with a good overlook of the city proper.

Socah looked around thoughtfully. “You choose a good vantage point, I see.”

“Well, I liked the view. So do all the other rich snowbirds who buy houses in this neighborhood. I think the Waltons have one just down the block.” Joe chuckled. “I had the money, so why not.”

Socah glanced out the window. “Not a gated community, though.”

“No, they don’t tend to go in for those around here. Why?” Then Joe glanced where she was looking, and groaned. “Oh, no.”

On one side of the street was a group of people holding signs that said, in large flashing letters, “GO HOME, JOE!” On the opposite was another, friendlier group with “Welcome Back, Steader!” signs and cheering. Some of the especially creative signs from the latter group used the title card from the Steader-released sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter with the last word scribbled out and “Steader” scrawled in handwriting beneath it. Even more media floaters hovered over them, as if half of the crowd were holding carnival balloons as well as signs, and a good dozen or so Nuevo San Federales in light RIDEs were scattered out on the edges, trying to keep order.

“I sense a touch a’ fuckin’ ambivalence here,” Julius mused. “At a guess, this is why you don’t get out much lately?”

“There are reasons. Some vets still blame me for sparking off the War they were caught in the middle of, after all. Even if it was Ophelia’s fault, by and large. Ah well.”

“An’ some blame you for makin’ us the fuckin’ laughingstock of the galaxy, I see.” Julius snorted. “I guess nobody ever explained it to ‘em.”

“Well, unless we want to turn around and go back, I guess we’ll just have to bite the bullet and face them.” As they got closer, Joe blinked. “Well, this is new. What’s she got to do with anything?” Some of the angry crowd’s signs actually seemed directed at Quinoa Steader, featuring photos of her with the traditional “no” crossed circle over her.

“What the fuck is this supposed to be about?” Julius wondered. “Quinoa-busters? They ain’t afraid of no Quinoa?”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Did your niece do something to anger them?”

Joe frowned. “If she did, given that the photos on the signs all show her as an Integrate, it would seem to be something fairly recent. And I still don’t even know all the things she did in that time—for the first few months of it, anyway.”

“From what you said, she wasn’t ‘zackly playing with a full fucking deck.”

“That’s one way of putting it, yes.” Joe rolled his eyes. “Knowing Quinoa, it could be practically anything.”

As the car approached, the “go home” crowd started to spill out into the street in front of it, waving their signs and yelling angrily. Then the “welcome back” crowd started to move in front the other side. As they met, fistfights started breaking out, and some members of the crowd started hitting each other with their signs. The police RIDEs moved in to try to separate the two factions.

Joe facepalmed. “Oh, hell. That’s sure going to make Nuevo San happy to see me.”

“Cops calling, Joe. I’ll put ‘em on,” Julius said.

A cheetah-tagged man’s head wearing a Federale motorcycle helmet appeared over the dashboard. “Move forward slowly into your garage, if you please. We’ll handle the crowd. Then we’ll have words.”

“Will do, officer,” Joe replied.

The bungalow turned out to be as small as Joe claimed—just less than a couple hundred square meters of living space. The garage was larger than the rest of the house. It was a red adobe building with a flat roof and cacti in the front yard.

“Reminds me of Norte Mexico, actually,” Socah said. “I like it.”

“The question right now is whether it fuckin’ likes us. I got the house systems booted, Joe.”

There was about a car and a half worth of room, which left just enough space for the Jaguar to park and the skimmer cycle to pull in alongside as the garage door closed behind them. As they got out, Julius’s mini-shell rose from the hood, then jumped over to the ‘cycle and sank in, converting it back to his usual jaguar Walker form. He took a stretch. “Ahhh! The Big Jag’s fun, but I gotta stretch my fuckin’ legs.”

“So do we all, I think.” Joe glanced back in the direction of the garage door. “Though not out there.”

“Perhaps that police officer will be able to fill us in on what the problem is.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Yeah. And given the kind of messes Quinoa tends to get involved in, I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that. She was just a bit of a problem child, and that was before she got Integrate super-powers.” He chuckled. “Not that I can actually be too upset with her anymore, after…well, you know. But I can still be exasperated by the situation.”

Julius padded over to the garage door, which opened before him. “Well, let’s go be exasperated in here. It’s more comfortable.” He sneezed. “At least, for some fuckin’ 1970s value of ‘comfortable.’ Gah! Brown shag carpeting? This shit’s getting stuck on my claws!”

Joe grinned. “Sorry about that, pal. Didn’t exactly have you in mind when I furnished the place.”

“Okay, I have to see this!” Socah said. She quickly went inside, followed by Joe.

Julius shook his head. “It’s amazing. It looks absolutely hideous no matter what color filter I use. Even fucking monochrome. Tell me, Joe, was the idea that it was supposed to look so awful you’d actually be glad when your vacation was over?”

“Eh. How horrible everything looked is part of the decade’s charm. It was not a nice decade in the United States. Energy crises, stagflation, Nixon, Vietnam. It’s like the ripe fruit of the 60s Jet Age and Psychedelic styles turned rotten and burst.”

“‘Charm,’ huh? One of us’s fuckin’ nuts, and I don’t think it’s me.”

Socah was all smiles. The living room had a giant wooden console TV that hummed to life when she turned it on via a corded remote control sitting on the coffee table. “Is this a full replica or just emulation?”

“Sears Catalog, 1979,” Joe said. “Vacuum tubes, CRT, and all. Put it together myself one afternoon—fabbed the cabinet and some of the parts here, but had to send away for the innards. Some of the electronics still require the extra precision of an industrial fabber.” He waved a hand around at the room. “Just about everything in here is Sears. Got a groovy 8 Track Hi-Fi stereo, too. How about some Bee Gees?”

“Maybe after we take care of this thing with the police and that mob outside,” Socah said.

“Oh yeah, them.” Joe went to the front window and drew back the curtain enough to look out. “Well, the crowds seem to be dispersing, anyway.”

“Which means the cops should be callin’ us any time. That one didn’t sound all that fuckin’ happy ‘bout it, neither.”

Joe nodded. “Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve ticked off authority figures.”

Socah snorted. “Really? You? I’m sure I can’t imagine how any reasonable authority figure could ever be upset with you.”

“You’re layin’ it on just a leeeeetle fuckin’ thick there,” Julius observed. “Have I told you how much I fuckin’ admire you?”

“Oh, here they come up the walk.” Joe dropped the curtain and moved to open the front door. “Good afternoon, officers.”

The Federales rode Harley-style skimmers modeled after a few decades’ newer vintage than Socah’s Softail. One of them turned into a cheetah Walker and the other into a small ceratopsian with a single nose horn. The officers themselves wore light brown and green uniforms. Like the Border Guard earlier, the ceratopsian’s female partner had evolutionary-style tags. “You,” the cheetah-tagged officer observed.

Joe knew it probably wouldn’t do any good to escalate the situation, yet some imp of the perverse took over when it came to responding. So he simply nodded. “Me.” He waved a hand at Socah and Julius. “Us.” He paused. “You?”

“Calm down, Jerry,” the other officer said. “Mr. Steader, this isn’t so much about yourself as it is your niece.”

“I gathered that much, but I’m still at a loss as to why, exactly. She and I haven’t talked much about the time right after she Integrated, yet—emotions are still a little raw, so we’re working up to it. But please, come in. At least we can talk about it.”

“Overdoing it a bit on the period décor, aren’t you?” Jerry said, looking around the living room. “Shag’s been out of style for almost a decade.”

“I haven’t been in this house in years. Haven’t had time to update anything.”

“Besides, what’s a decade or two when you built your fuckin’ life on stuff that’s been outta style for centuries?” Julius asked.

Jerry’s RIDE partner stared at Julius. “Kind of a potty mouth, ain’t he?” the cheetah said.

Julius gave him a narrow-eyed glance in return. “You gotta fuckin’ problem with that, puto?

The cheetah bared his teeth. “Keep at it and we’ll have to cite you for swearing at Federales, pendejo.”

“Swearing? You ain’t fuckin’ heard swearin’. I could tell you—”

Julius.” Joe rolled his eyes. “Guys, he’s an honest-to-God ought-one-A, military, one of the very first lines from the early days of the War. Like many vets from those days, his core has the odd quirk or two, but I like him that way. Please don’t bait him, or we’ll be here all night.”

“I see,” the cheetah said. “Forgive me. I didn’t realize you were a War vet, in that shell.”

Julius seemed mollified. “Eh. I got fuc—furloughed into bodyguard duty, so I didn’t see the front lines. So I wouldn’t say I’m a vet vet. And there was the little matter of thirty-five years I spent dead, and my pard got me this monkey suit as a welcome-back present. Forget it.”

“Moving on, I’m Officer Reynolda Valdez, my ‘saur partner’s Rosie. Jerry?”

“I’m Lt. Jerry Correa,” Jerry said.

“Chester,” the cheetah added. “Yes, yes, I know, don’t rub it in.”

Julius snorted. “And you had the balls to give me a hard time?”

Joe cleared his throat. “Me you know, Julius you’ve now met, and this is Colonel Socah Gates, ex-Earth military, retired. Nice to meet you all.” He waved them toward the sofa. “Please, have a seat. I promise the décor won’t rub off on you.” He went to pull up a couple of fur-covered chairs to sit across from the police officers.

“Down to business, then,” Correa said. “Mr. Steader, last year your niece committed a number of…offenses against the public decency. Corrupting the morals of the youth.”

Joe sighed. “Of course she did. She’s not terribly impressed by the ‘public decency’ of anyplace that has a ‘public decency’ law on the books. Neither am I, for that matter, but I’ve learned to have more of a sense of decorum. I can only imagine what she could do with superpowers. As for the ‘morals of the youth,’ well, that’s a remarkably loaded charge. Exactly how did she choose to thumb her nose at authority this time?”

Correa sighed. “She…it’s hard to talk about.” Officer Valdez reached across to pat him on the shoulder, and he smiled gratefully at her. “As I understand it, she…had a habit of…approaching attractive young men who wished to have RIDEs but couldn’t afford them. In return for…spending the night, she would buy them a RIDE.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound so bad. A little mercenary, perhaps, but given that she had the money to spare…”

Correa glared at her. “She would buy them a RIDE of the…wrong sex.”

Joe frowned. “Oh. I begin to see.”

I don’t, but I’m new to this planet,” Socah said. “What’s so bad about that?”

“It’s just…wrong,” Correa insisted vehemently. “Not to say, sinful.”

“Nuevo San has a bit more conservative culture than the rest of the continent in some ways,” Joe explained. “Different cultural values, probably arising from the way all its founding citizens hailed from the same cultural background—particularly given that most of them were, and still are, Catholic. Pretty conservative religion, that, and slow to change—it was the twentieth century before they apologized about Galileo. They only started allowing married priests again a hundred or so years ago, and it’s still strongly discouraged. As for crossriding…well, suffice it to say ‘casual’ crossriding is anathema here.”

“Crossriding without a finding of medical necessity by professional psychological counsellors or other medical recommendation as a therapeutic treatment is a minor misdemeanor here,” Officer Valdez said. “Not subject to jail time, mind you, but the fine is scaled based on the convicted’s ability to pay.”

“Even that’s not the worst of it,” Joe said. “As I understand it, it’s considered very shameful and reflects badly on the family of the one who did it. Which…would probably make it irresistible to Quinnie, the power-tripping frame of mind she was in with those new Integrate powers. Nose, thumbing, et cetera. I may have to ground her for a while when we get home.”

“She still has charges pending against her,” Valdez said. “Not of a sufficient severity to allow us to seek extradition, but should she ever show her face here again…well. A number of the families and their friends are up in arms over the matter, and there has even been some talk of attempting to kidnap you to force her to come and turn herself in to face justice.”

“Kidnap Joe? Ain’t that fucking rich!” Julius said.

“I seem to recall there were two mobs outside,” Socah said. “What of the other one? They were willing to get into a fistfight over this.”

“It seems to be composed largely of loyal fans of the various shows Steader Entertainment has released,” Valdez said. “They disagree with the blame the other mob places on Joe for the actions of his niece. And there are also those who wish to know more about your new companions.”

“My sympathies are with that first mob,” Correa growled. “One of the boys she chose to toy with was my nephew. Now my niece.

“Ouch.” Joe winced. “As her legal guardian, let me just say I’m really sorry about that.”

Correa shrugged. “Unlike those out there, I will not let it affect how I do my job. So I have a particular reason to want to see you safe.” His lips twisted in a grimace. “If I can’t do anything about it, there is no reason why they should be able to.”

“We’re just here to do the tourist thing,” Joe said. “Didn’t mean to stir up any trouble.”

“Be sure and visit the Nuevo Alamo while you’re here,” Correa said with a hint of sarcasm. “It’s right under the airspace where we ambushed you folks back in the War.”

“Oooh, even I felt that burn,” Julius said.

Joe nodded. “Sure. We’ll remember the Alamo.”

“I suppose that’s everything,” Officer Valdez said. They stood up. “I hope you enjoy your stay in Nuevo San.”

“Spend money,” Correa added. “Nuevo San should get something out of this.”

Separator k.png

“I believe the current fine in the event of a conviction is three percent of income for one year?” Socah said. “I’ve been doing a little legal research. My daughter was a judge, remember. I know a few things about jurisprudence.”

“Whose income? Hers or the crossrider’s?”

“It’s the penalty for misdemeanor crossriding. So the crossrider would pay it.” Socah peered at the media tablet she was using to review Nuevo San legal records. She could have done it internally, but this gave her something to show Joe at need. “Though the public record search says Quinoa paid those, too.”

“Of course she did. She was buying them a RIDE anyway, so why not?”

“Most of them left Nuevo San shortly afterward.”

Julius snorted. “Imagine the fuck that. I always thought this place was a little fucked in the head.”

Joe chuckled. “You just say that because they managed to kick both our and the Sturmies’ tails back in the War.”

“Well, duh! Seriously, what the fuck? They came outta nowhere with an army, and they didn’t even wanna join our side with it. Us, the good guys! I mean, what was wrong with ‘em?” Julius shook his head, and sneezed. “And here they are, acting all horrified and stuff about one of the things my kind were built to do. They don’t like it, maybe they should just fuckin’ leave the planet or something.”

“That’s rather uncharitable, Julius,” Socah reproved.

“I’m not feeling very ‘charitable’ towards these mooks. I wanna hit ‘em with a chair and a table. Especially Officer Punchface and his pendejo newb cheetah.”

Joe shrugged. “He’s had a trying time, given what happened to his kid and all. Given Quinoa’s recent history with Fritz, I can kind of sympathize.”

“That still doesn’t excuse cheesy Cheetos-breath.”

Socah sighed and put the tablet aside. “I don’t think there’s a great deal we can do about this situation, except to be aware of it.”

“I suppose I could call Quinoa and ask if she’d be interested in returning to face justice.” Joe snorted. “Like that would happen.”

“The worst she could probably expect would be a fine and probation, anyway. Certainly wouldn’t have any problem paying for a decent lawyer.”

“Oh hey.” Julius cocked his head. “Someone’s sneakin’ around behind the house again. Think it’s more fuckin’ paparazzi. They’ve already tried to comm half a dozen times.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “If it’s not one thing it’s another.”

“You want I should go bite ‘em on the butt for ya?”

“Not if you don’t want to give those cops an excuse for something.”

Julius snorted. “Terrific.”

Joe sighed. “Sorry about this, you two. Usually I find being famous more amusing than irritating.”

Julius sneezed. “It’s a new fuckin’ experience for me. Back in the day, nobody knew who the hell you were, ‘cept for being some rich guy whose cousin kicked off the war. And nobody wanted to fuckin’ mob you for that. Well, ‘cepting the Sturmies, and they couldn’t usually get to you. Except that one time, and then they weren’t even trying for you, just the big fucking gun.”

Socah nodded. “At least some of your mob are actually your fans. For us, it was all of the other kind.”

Then the doorbell rang. “They’re getting more fucking brazen, I see. Let me get it.” Julius pushed himself up and changed to shell mode.

Joe raised an eyebrow. “I’d say that actually ringing the doorbell is an improvement. So try not to be too rude, unless they deserve it.”

“Fair enough.” Julius stalked over to the door, tail switching back and forth in agitation. He yanked the door open. “Can I fuckin’ help ya?”

“Uh…” The person on the other side was a fairly young woman with glasses, raccoon ears poking through a battered fedora with a “PRESS” card tucked in the brim. A light raccoon RIDE sat on her haunches behind her. “Nicki Conway, Baltica Herald. I was wondering if I could ask a few questions?”

Julius peered down at her. “That’s a fuckin’ question already.”

Joe glanced out the window. “You’re alone? Just you and your partner? I’d have expected a crowd.”

Nicki blushed faintly. “We all thought one of us might have a better chance than a mob, and I drew the short straw. The deal is I have to share anything I get with the rest, but I get a ten-minute exclusive.”

Julius sniffed. “Yeah, sure you drew a fuckin’ straw. They picked you ‘cuz you’re little and cute, didn’t they. Thought they’d play on Joe’s sympathy. Well, I don’t have any sympathy, so you can just—”

Joe cleared his throat. “Ah, Nicki, could you wait outside for a bit? My friends and I should probably discuss whether we’re in the interviewing mood right now.”

The woman blinked. “Ah. All right. We’ll just be right out here, then…” She took a step back, and Julius closed the door firmly.

“‘Scuse me a sec.” Julius stepped to the back door, opened it, and yelled out, “You bums got thirty seconds to get off our property, or I come out there and start fucking tazing you. Starting now.” He closed the door again.

“That probably won’t do us any favors in press coverage, you know.”

“Maybe not, but it made me feel better.”

“I’m not spending our time here cooped up in this little house. We’re going to have to do something better than just shutting doors on people,” Socah said.

“Okay, Socah. We’ll try it your way,” Joe said. “Jules?”

Julius went back on four legs. “Fine. I’m game.”

Socah opened the door again. The reporters had Fused and were just at the end of the walk. “Ladies, please, come back inside. Provided you don’t practice sensationalist journalism the way some of the trashy tabloids do, I believe we can have a conversation.”

We don’t at the Herald, ma’am,” Nicki said, her voice echoing a trace from the Fuse. “I, uh, can’t vouch for some of the others once they pick up the story. Some of them are known for being, ah, inventive.”

“Well, we can’t control what they do, but we can control what we do.” Socah stepped aside for the Fuser to enter.

“Thank you, ma’am.” The raccoon Fuser stepped inside, and moved to sit down on the couch at Socah’s gesture.

“You’re going to record the interview, of course,” Joe said. “You’re a RIDE, how could you not? By the way, could you introduce us, Nicki? But no rebroadcasts of those recordings without our approval of the final copy, if you don’t mind. It’s far too easy to manipulate context in those.”

“No sir. I mean, yes sir. I mean—”

“She means, we agree to your terms,” the raccoon said in a slightly deeper voice. “I’m Fuji, by the way.”

Joe nodded. “Nice to meet you both.” He pulled up a furry chair and had a seat. “So, fire away.”

“Okay, first question,” Nicki said. She pointed at Joe and Socah. “You two…well, you have a familiarity with one another, which tells me you haven’t simply just met. But we know for a fact that Col. Gates—”

“Just Socah, please,” Socah said crisply.

“—Socah has been on Zharus a matter of months. And Joe himself hasn’t left the planet in decades. But we know you’ve been to Earth, in particular to retrieve the cultural records that formed the core of Steader Entertainment. There must be something there.”

“Well, we’re not gonna give you the whole story of our lives,” Joe said, grinning. “I have to keep something back for the movie rights, after all. But I expect the Earth embassy has Socah’s complete personnel files, and I’d be very surprised if some bright boy hadn’t already put in a request for ‘em. Hell, I’m surprised they didn’t leak already when she got here, what with who her granddaughter is.”

“I have them already,” Fuji said. “Decorated veteran of the North American Army. Participated in the Aleutian Wars and subsequently sent to uproot several wildcat colonies roughly fifty years ago. Including, we note, the infamous Endurance incident. Reassigned to Earth after disagreement with—”

“Yes, yes. Retired soon after I got all my points,” Socah said, waving her hand dismissively. “They even let me keep my Jane-8. I understand they’re up to Jane-12 now anyway.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “And they don’t mention her time shepherding me and Mikey around while we dug for buried cultural treasures? At all? Geez, now I feel insulted. Jules, remind me to file a complaint when we’re back in Nextus.”

Julius nodded. “Noted.”

“The records were, ah, redacted in places,” Nicki said. “Including pretty much all the time you were on Earth. That’s one of the reasons I was curious, actually.”

Julius snorted. “Ain’t that them to a fucking T? And if you asked, they’d say they were all trying to respect your fucking privacy, when actually they just didn’t wanna give you any free publicity. Fucking dipshits.”

“So, yeah,” Joe said. “She and her Detached Company were assigned as our minders and bodyguards while we did our digging.”

“When my family touched down here, I looked him up, and we’ve been reminiscing about old times ever since,” Socah said. “And he’s showing me the supercontinent while we do. Nice supercontinent, by the way.”

“Mmmm, well, less detail than I’d like, but it’ll satisfy my editors,” Nicki said. She turned to Julius. “Now, you’re a bigger mystery, Julius. From what we’ve been able to piece together, our guess is that you and Joe were part of the RIDE Bodyguard Program during the War. Yet there are no official records of that—even the Herald’s experts at the Game can’t pierce the Nextus bureaucracy yet. But it’s the only thing I can think of that makes sense. There are just so many missing facts here I don’t know where to begin.”

Joe chuckled. “Well, as it happens, that might make a good human interest story. But it’s Julius’s story to tell, if he wants to. But fair warning, he’s pretty modest. Very polite, too.”

“Mark 1A core, right?” Fuji said. “No offense, but those had some design…quirks.”

“None fuckin’ taken,” Julius said amicably. “That’s me. Quirky as a fuckin’ seventies sitcom.”

All in the Family, probably,” Joe put in. Julius favored him with a loud Bronx cheer.

“My story, is it? Shit. I don’t want a fuckin’ pity party, and I don’t think Joe does either. But that’s what we’ll get if and when it comes out. Brave RIDE, noble sacrifice, back from the fucking dead, et fucking cetera. But I guess it’s fuckin’ gonna happen sooner or later, so I guess I might’s well let it on my own terms. Look.” A hardlight panel winked out on Julius’s chest and a slot opened, and he pulled out the small rosewood box. Seeing it still brought a lump to Joe’s throat when he thought of all those years alone…

Julius opened it and thrust it at the reporter. “Lookie. Here’s where I keep my old brain. And a little something-or-other they pulled out of some Cracker-Jack Box and stuck on him. Never mind it was me what did all the actual fuckin’ work involved.”

“That’s…wow, Nicki, look at the crack in that core!” Fuji said.

“And look at that medal. That’s…not a Cracker-Jack prize.”

“You must’ve had to crash-shutdown,” Fuji went on, voice full of respect and wonder.

“No fuckin’ duh.” Julius closed the box again and returned it to its storage slot. “On the bright side, I got a nice thirty-five year nap out of it, and thirty-five years of interest on my bank account, while someone else took the long fuckin’ way ‘round.”

“One of the first Fritz incidents during the War involved a squadron of Sturmhaven Harpies attempting to sabotage the city’s anti-air defenses,” Nicki said. “They only partly succeeded, and would have been completely thwarted had Fritz given NextusMil the right intelligence.”

“That was also Sturmhaven’s first operational deployment of RIDEs in the field,” Fuji pointed out. “Now, we understand that one of those ack-ack guns was placed atop the Gilmore Building—at your residence, in fact.”

“Idiotic fuckin’ place to put guns, endangering civvies like that,” Julius said. “If I hadn’t been there it woulda killed Joe and half the building. Sturmies didn’t care. We took down the Harpy before she kaboom’d the place. Well, I did anyway.”

“I helped,” Joe said. “Anyway, if you want the last piece of the puzzle, take a closer look at the records around the Armistice Day ceremony. Not a red-letter day for either of us, and that’s all I’ll say there.”

“There was an assassination attempt—” Fuji mused. “Oh. Oh! Oh my.”

“Then Quinoa Steader found the box with me in it, the Freeriders gave me a wake-up call, Joe spent way too much money at Donizetti RIDEworks, and here we all fucking are.”

“Our editors are going to love this,” Nicki said.

“I hope so, because that’s all we’re going to give them at this point,” Joe said. “We’ve pointed you at where to look for the rest, and to be honest I’m kind of looking forward to reading what you manage to pry out of the Nextus bureaucracy.”

“But please don’t bother my granddaughter too much,” Socah put in. “She’s rather fed up with the attention she’s gotten already.”

“I, ah, can’t make any promises on behalf of everyone else, ma’am, but we’ll do our best.”

“Anyway, if you and your fellow press will leave us mostly alone for the rest of our Coastal Ring Tour, I’ll see about putting together a press conference or something when we’re all back in Nextus, and share a few more details or something,” Joe said. “That means no more skulking around our house or playing 99 Luftballons with all those drones. Though we get that a few are inevitable. But if they’re willing to share you, maybe they’ll be willing to share some drone feeds, too.”

“Tell your little jerkwad friends outside they better take care if we find they been creeping round our fuckin’ back stair.” Julius chuffed. “This is supposed to be a fun fuckin’ trip, so stop being ants at our picnic.”

“I’ll make sure they know they’ll burn through the drone budget in days if they keep at it,” Fuji said. “Thank you all. We’ll be going now and not darken your doorstep again. We appreciate this opportunity.”

“You’ve been considerably more polite than most of the newsies we’ve encountered,” Joe said. “Probably because you’re new and relatively uncorrupted yet. So, if you want to darken our doorstep a time or two, as long as you don’t wear out your welcome, we won’t be too upset. And you won’t have to share us with the others next time. Meanwhile…there’s your scoop for now.”

“It’s a good scoop. Don’t waste it,” Socah said.

Nicki noded. “We’re already writing it up. Thanks again.” The Fused reporters slipped back out the door. Fuji converted to skimmer mode and they flew away.

Julius closed it behind them. “Well, that’s fuckin’ that then.” He picked up one foot to unsnag his claws from the shag carpeting. “Fucking damn it!”

Joe sighed. “Nice we could put out one fire, at least.”

“Let’s go see some sights,” Socah suggested.

“I’m calling someone to replace this carpet while we’re out,” Julius said. “I’m not walking on this shit.”

“Have you considered maybe wearing hardlight galoshes?” Joe suggested. “Oh, nice, you’re really getting good with the manual dexterity there. I think that was your most elaborate gesture yet.”

“I meant every fuckin’ movement of it.”

Separator k.png

After waiting about half an hour to make sure the crowds had dispersed, Joe and Socah pulled out of the garage riding pillion on Julius’s bike form. They’d opted to leave the car at home in the hope of attracting less attention that way, and besides, the weather was perfect for riding in the open air.

As they proceeded down the hill, Joe still caught the odd glimpse of a balloon-like drone hovering along behind, but for the most part they remained circumspect. And that was fine with Joe.

“Been doing a little historical research,” Socah said. “The founders were from Norte Mexico just after it joined the North American Union. They didn’t agree with the unification, so they bought their own colony ship and headed for Zharus.”

Joe nodded. “You’d know more about that end of things than I would. But my understanding is, it took in an awful lot of people from the Texas side of the union, too. Friends and family from across the border, and other people who didn’t agree with the unification. Apparently they were unified in being disunified.”

“Yeah. The Third Texas Republic was next to join the Union. Or rejoin. The old USA broke up and reunified a couple times the last five hundred years or so. They must’ve seen the writing on the wall.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t go wildcat on us,” Socah said. “But I suppose their founders were pragmatic enough to know not to buy extra trouble. Why try for a whole planet when you only have enough of you to populate a chunk of one, and there are plenty of chunks for the taking on the newest ‘official’ colony? So, a hundred thousand Nortemexicanos and Texans set themselves down here and managed to keep most of the independence they wanted.”

Joe nodded again. “Lucky for them, and us.”

“Not so fuckin’ lucky for us during the War.”

“Well, you never know. If they hadn’t made us take our fighting somewhere else, it could have led to even more casualties.” Joe shrugged.

“I’ll just console myself that they kicked as much Sturmhaven ass as they did ours,” Julius said. “Speaking of ass-kicking, Alamo Battlefield Monument coming up in a minute.”

Joe chuckled. “Gotta love it. Fled halfway across the galaxy to get away from an oppressive regime, and the first thing they do when they get here is build a replica of a building famous for its occupants dying because they wanted to stay in that one place.”

It was an arid landscape, a mixture of Earth and native Zharusian plant life. The Dry Ocean itself was still several hundred kilometers to the west, but its influence was felt here. The homes and ranches in the area they passed by often had climate domes to keep too much water from evaporating. There were billboard ads for CascadiaPūr Water, advertisers having long since learned the value of targeted marketing.

Joe grinned. “‘All day I face the barren wastes,’ huh?”

“Y’know, you’re the only one of the three of us who actually needs much water.”

“Oh, gee, thanks for reminding me. Now I’m thirsty.” Joe chuckled as they passed through a residential neighborhood on the way to the park district. “Have you ever been to the ‘real’ Alamo? It’s been so long, I forget whether Mikey and I visited that place before or after we joined up with you in DalWorth. We did some of the standard tourist stuff while we were still waiting for the permits to come through.”

“I don’t think we did,” Socah said. “But I’ve been there. The real building collapsed a couple centuries ago from age and fracking quakes.”

Joe nodded. “I think it’s actually collapsed and been rebuilt two or three times by now. Limestone’s not the sturdiest building material, long-term, and it didn’t help that they spent a hundred years or so feuding over exactly who was responsible for its upkeep. By comparison, this version of it’s all shiny and new—or would be if it hadn’t been artificially weatherbeaten.”

“You humans are fuckin’ nuts. If you’re gonna build a new building, why make it look like an old one?”

“Just one of those great mysteries of life you’ll never understand.”

“Sometimes I don’t think I want to. But it does remind me of something.”

“What’s that?”

“That fucking mansion you used to tell me about. The one you gave up as part of the war effort. I saw it in the ‘pedia while I was doing my thirty-five years of catch-up.” Julius’s eyes peered at him out of the dash. “It was Spanish Mission style. Like half the fucking architecture around here. Why build something like that in fuckin’ Nextus?

Joe laughed. “You really have to ask? You remember how utterly same-like all the rest of the place was. How completely bland? Mikey and I felt that as citizens of Nextus, it was our solemn obligation to bring a little more color into that place. So we had it built as soon as we got back from Earth, where we got the inspiration for it after seeing the originals they modeled this place after. Then when I had the opportunity to hand it over to NextusGov, in the middle of a war so they didn’t have the resources to raze and rebuild it…so they had to use it as it was, ridiculous red tile roof and all…” Joe grinned. “I counted that as one of my all-time favorite wins in the Game. And the fact that Nuevo San then came along and made both sides look stupid, and here was this reminder right in the middle of town, was just icing on the cake.”

“I guess I can see that, you being you and all.”

Socah chuckled. “That does sound rather like the young men who delighted in causing me so much exasperation.”

“We didn’t delight…” Joe began. “Well, all right, maybe we did. A little. I was barely in my thirties. A callow stripling, me.”

Julius snorted. “Yeah, like you’ve fuckin’ changed any since. You just got more ambitious. Instead of thumbing your nose at a few people here and there, you made it your life’s work to do it at an entire fucking planet.

“A man has to have a hobby.”

At last they pulled into the park district, home to a number of green, grassy expanses with sparkling brooks, where a number of people, RIDEs, and natural animals could be seen at play. In the center was a familiar building of old-Earth Mission-style architecture—an old-style Spanish mission, seeming only a bit incongruous on a planet eighteen light-years from home.

“Well, here we are, then.” Joe pulled to a halt in the parking lot, then climbed down. Socah followed a moment later, then Julius converted back to Walker form. “What do you think?”

Julius peered at it. “I think it’s a building. Got a hard time seeing what’s so fucking special about it. It’s not even the building people died to protect—it’s a carbon copy, and that one’s on the other fucking side of human space. And even that one isn’t even the original building, either, as many times as it’s been rebuilt because limestone.

Joe waved a hand. “It’s a symbol.”

“It’s a fucking tourist trap.” Julius sneezed. “But hey, if this does it for ya, don’t let me rain on your fucking parade.”

Socah cocked her head as she regarded the building. “Going by my own memories, they did a good job copying the original—or at least, the original as it looked when I saw it.”

“And I have my doubts about what that cop said, that this is where the fucking battle happened.” Julius sneezed again. “This is in the middle of their settlement. Didn’t the battle happen out in the fucking desert somewhere?”

Joe shrugged. “That guy wouldn’t have been alive when the battle actually happened. Who knows what they teach in the history classes here? Anyway, like I said, this place is a symbol—of independence. Maybe not the same independence as the original, but it’s their independence. Symbolically, you could say the battle did happen here.”

Julius rolled his eyes. “Symbolically, I think your head’s up your—”

“Hey!” The angry shout came from a woman at the other end of the parking lot. She was standing by a skimmer truck with a small crowd holding more of the anti-Quinoa protest signs that had shown up outside Joe’s bungalow earlier. “We don’t want you Steader gringos here, after the disrespect you’ve shown us! You need to leave!”

“Looks like another fuckin’ battle’s shaping up,” Julius muttered.

“We’re not here looking for trouble,” Joe said. “We’re just taking in the sights, same as anyone.”

“Not looking for trouble? Tell that to my son—who is now my daughter. It’s chaos in my family because of your niece!”

“I’m sorry about that, ma’am,” Joe said. “It’s often chaos at home with her around, too. She’s just like that. But is your daughter unhappy about it?”

“Her feelings are beside the point,” the woman continued.

“‘Scuse me, but if she’s legally an adult, they are the fucking point,” Julius put in. “Adults get to make up their own fucking minds ‘bout things on this planet.”

Adults also realize how their choices reflect on the rest of their family! I raised a son, not a daughter!” There were a few shouts and mutterings of general agreement around her.

“Let me guess. You think because your son ‘switched teams’ as they say here, that means you’ve somehow failed as a parent?” Socah said.

“It’s not just what I think. Everybody thinks it! Old family friends will not talk to us anymore! We were kicked out of our church! His niece has ruined our lives!

“If your friends won’t talk to you anymore, how good of friends can they have really been?”

As Socah continued to argue with the woman, Joe turned to Julius and pulled out his comm. Lowering his voice, he said, “Time for me to use my annoying rich guy powers for good. Or maybe evil. Can you use image recognition to work out who that woman is, and find out how to get in touch with her daughter?”

“No fucking sweat. The police records are pretty complete, including forwarding addresses.”

“I thought they didn’t usually make that information public.”

Julius smirked. “They don’t. Annoying rich guy powers, remember?”

“Touché. Can you put me through to her on my comm?”

“What am I now, your fucking switchboard operator?”

Joe grinned. “Nah, just my part time secretary.”

“Tou-fucking-ché yourself. Okay, looks like she’s in Cape Nord. Seeing if I can get through now.”

“Cape Nord? Why not Sturmhaven?”

“Ask her yourself. Here she is. The name is Malaguena Ramirez. The mother over there is Juanita.”

The woman who appeared on the screen on Joe’s handheld was a raven-haired Latina beauty with matching dark feline ears, as expected from a crossride—with perhaps a little extra Cape Nord styling added on. She was wearing a nice dress and seemed to be sitting behind a desk. “Can I help you, sir?”

“I hope you can, Miss Ramirez. This is Joe Steader.”

The woman’s eyes widened. “Oh! Señor Steader! One moment, please.” She muted the audio for a moment and turned to speak to someone offscreen, then got up, pulling out a comm of her own. A moment later the image source switched from the desk pickup to her handheld as she stepped away—into what seemed to be a powder room judging by the background. She bit her lip, then spoke again. “I was expecting you to call sooner or later. I want to assure you I did not take advantage of your niece’s generosity—”

Joe smiled. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t. If anything, she was taking advantage of you. Or maybe you both took advantage of each other, in which case it evens out. But that’s not why I called.”

She blinked. “It’s not? Then…how can I help you?”

“Well, I came down to visit Nuevo San and do a little tourism, but it seems my niece’s reputation precedes me. I don’t know if you can hear the argument going on behind me, but I’m currently being picketed by your mother.” He held up the comm and tapped the “flip camera” button to give her a view out the rear camera, where the woman with the sign was still angrily arguing with Socah Gates.

Malaguena facepalmed—carefully, so as not to disturb her makeup. “Caramba. She will not let it rest, will she?”

“I should, and do, apologize that the only reason I’m bothering to get in touch with you is a personal inconvenience. But this incident has brought it home to me that I should probably take more responsibility for what my niece has done, so I guess I’ll be making a call like this to a lot of ‘new girls’ in days to come.” Joe sighed. “I take it your relations with your mother haven’t been cordial since the change?”

Malaguena frowned. “They have not. I finally had to stop taking her calls.” She rolled her eyes. “I had thought she had finally simply disowned me and gotten over it, but I suppose that was too much to hope.”

Julius sniffed. “Seems a little fuckin’ cold to me.” His comm image appeared inset in the screen as he spoke.

“Believe me, I tried everything to reconcile, but she was simply not interested. I do not plan to change back; she does not plan to change her mind. So I stopped taking her calls—there was nothing more to say. I love her, but there was just no point to the frustration. I really didn’t want to have to deal with it again—at least not for a few years, by which time she might have cooled down.”

“Feel like trying one more time? As a personal favor to me? I know it’s an imposition, but I figure maybe it’ll mellow her out toward me just a little if I’m able to give her another chance to talk to you.”

Malaguena smiled wanly. “Ordinarily, I would not. It will probably spoil my mood for the rest of the day. But…how often would I have the chance to do a personal favor for the wealthiest man on Zharus? Besides, my life is so much better since your niece, ah, changed my situation that I almost feel I owe you a favor. Just let me make sure I will not be disturbed.” She turned and locked the door.

Curiosity got the better of Joe. “If I could ask…why did you choose Cape Nord? Why not somewhere like Sturmhaven?”

Malaguena’s smile widened. “Quinoa suggested it. She said it was a place where they would pamper me as a woman without demanding more than I wanted to give in return. And she was right. After growing up in Nuevo San, it was just the change I needed.”

“Ah. Well, just a sec. Jules, get ready to switch this to your hologram projector, okay?”

“Check!”

“—then that’s a problem with your society,” Socah was saying. “It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt, but someone would like to speak to you, Mrs. Ramirez.” He nodded to Julius, and a moment later Malaguena flickered into being in life-sized holographic form.

Mrs. Ramirez lowered her sign, her mouth falling open. “Martin!”

Malaguena sighed. “It’s Malaguena, Madre. I keep telling you.” She put her hands on her hips. “Why are you bothering these people?”

“How could you bring shame to our family like this?” Juanita retorted. “I raised a son! A good boy! Not whatever you pretend to be!”

“It was my choice to make, Madre. And you know it was the only way I could ever have afforded a RIDE. Felicia and I are very happy together, and happy in our new life.” She shook her head. “You used to say that all you ever wanted was for me to be happy. I am sorry that turned out to be a lie.”

“You were never good at making you own decisions, Martin. You could barely choose what to wear in the mornings.”

:Fuck, really?: Julius sent. :Dafuq is this?:

:It’s not a pretty thing when families air their grievances in public,: Socah sent. The small crowd that had been supporting Juanita had put some distance between them and her—while an entirely new crowd was taking shape to watch the drama, and the newsdrones were closing in again.

:I’m not proud of making it happen,: Joe sent. :But we could have been here all night.:

“I made one I’ve really been happy with. The first big decision for myself I was ever able to make,” Malaguena said. “So please stop being outraged on my behalf.”

“You slept with a common floozy and bartered away your manhood for a cheap trinket!” Mrs. Ramirez insisted.

“I’ll have you know that Felicia was hardly cheap,” a new voice put in. “She was the best shell on the lot, in fact. Nearly ran to six digits, but I was able to haggle him down. And I may be a floozy, but hardly a common one.”

“Quinnie!” Joe said, as the air shimmered next to to him and a red sphinx stepped out of nothing.

Malaguena blinked. “Leonita!

“Hey, Unca Joe, hello again Mallie. How’s life among the he-men treating you? Here to clean up my mess—after that time Uncle Joe made me spend in orbit, it’s getting to be a habit.” Quinoa saluted. “I’ve been keeping tabs on the newsfeeds. I put the juice on when I saw this.”

You!” Mrs. Ramirez tightened her grip on the sign. “You did this to my Martin!”

“Yes, Mrs. Ramirez, I did. And I’m very sorry for the pain it caused you. I was…somewhat immature back then.” She glanced at Malaguena. “But I’m not sorry that your daughter is happy as she is. I always try to choose people who honestly want the change. I have never forced anyone.”

“You just appealed to their avarice!” Mrs. Ramirez fumed.

“Maybe so, but I delivered on what I promised. And I’ve rarely had an unhappy customer.”

“I’m certainly not unhappy!” Malaguena said. She smiled at Quinoa. “When are you coming by Cape Nord, Leonita? We can have a party!”

“It may not be for a while. If you think I’m in trouble here…” She grinned. “Anyway, I came to try to make amends if I can, and to turn myself in and face whatever they consider justice here. At least I know that, unlike Cape Nord, they won’t try to make me crossride myself. That would be messy.”

“You… But…” Mrs. Ramirez sputtered. “They will do nothing to you, except make you pay money you have plenty of!”

“I suppose you’d rather see her fucking drawn and quartered?”

“Mrs. Ramirez, is there anything I can do that would make things easier for you?” Quinoa asked. “Bearing in mind that Malaguena is probably not going to change back even when she can.”

“I’m happy as a mujer, Madre. For the first time I have control of my life. Even the silly ‘Men’ of Cape Nord can’t change that,” Malaguena said.

“Trust me, getting upset about it isn’t going to help,” Socah said. “I’ve been through it with two grandsons turned daughters myself. She’s going to go on with her life whether you’re in it or not. If you want to know your grandkids, don’t burn any bridges.”

Mrs.Ramirez was taken aback. “But…I don’t…she can have children?”

“Yes, I can. Thanks to modern nanotechnology, I have a womb like every other woman does,” Malaguena said. “What did you think really happened? I’m not just woman-shaped, I’m a woman completely. Like you, Madre.”

“Are you planning to?” Quinoa asked slyly. “Have a young man in mind, perhaps?”

Malaguena blushed. “Well…there is a boy…I’m still figuring things out, but it’s fun to find myself.”

“You see? You’re already missing important developments,” Socah said. “Madam, trust me on this. It’s a lot better to have family than not to have family, whichever restroom they end up having to use at the end of the day.”

“How about this?” Quinoa said. “I’ll establish a trust fund for any potential kids of everyone I bought a RIDE. In addition to whatever fines they impose here. Something to cover their education, and the cost of the shell for a RIDE when they’re ready to partner up. It wouldn’t do for them to have a hard time because they have less family support.” She glanced at the other protesters, who had fallen silent as Mrs. Ramirez and her daughter had their conversation. “How’s that work for you?”

“If you think you can buy all us off, Señorita Steader, you’re sadly mistaken,” one man said. “We want you held accountable for what you’ve done.”

“Just hold on there, Carlo,” a woman next to him said. “Money would not be unwelcome to some of us. Even if it’s only for the third generation, that would be a help. We’ve considered moving out of the polity since this happened.”

“It’s not a bribe,” Quinoa said. “It’s…reparations, and I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do—not because anyone’s forcing me to. I might be able to help with family relocation expenses, too—at least on an individual basis—but I’m not going to buy people yachts. I’ll also get back in touch with the ‘new girls’ and do what I can to ease their relations with their parents. And if any of them do want to change back, I’ll pay for that once the cooldown expires.”

“You would do that for me? For us?” Malaguena asked. “But you have already done so much for us…”

“It’s not just for you.” Quinoa looked back at Mrs. Ramirez. “Well?”

“I need to think about this,” Mrs. Ramirez muttered.

“Don’t take too long, Madre,” Malaguena said. “Here’s my comm, when you make your decision. If you are willing to accept me as I am, I will speak to you again.” She nodded again to Quinoa. “It was good to see you again, Leonita! Please do look me up sometime.” She winked, then disconnected.

“This won’t fix everything!” The protester behind Mrs. Ramirez said. “Many of our children won’t even talk to us anymore, after you corrupted them!”

Quinoa shook her head. “That’s not on me. I never tried to persuade anyone who wasn’t interested after the first ‘no.’ Lots of your young men turned me down flat. The ones who didn’t…well, they were probably going to go that route anyway, sooner or later. Like I said, I’ll try to get them to talk to you again. Where it goes beyond that is up to you.”

“Well, I guess that’s that!” Joe said cheerfully. “Why don’t we all just head off over that-a-way, and you can talk about this among yourselves.” He nodded to the protesters, half of whom seemed to have forgotten they were even carrying signs, then put an arm around Socah’s shoulders and the other around Quinoa’s as they walked back away from the Nuevo San Antonians and their truck. Julius padded along beside.

As they walked, Julius cocked his head, ears flicking forward. “Hey, what’s that? I hear sirens. Shit.”

Quinoa smirked. “I guess they’ve finally noticed I’m here. Looks like it’s about time to turn myself in.”

“Do you need me to call you a lawyer? Come by the police station for moral support?” Joe asked.

“Thanks, Uncle Joe, but I’ve already checked with Steader Ent’s legal division and they recommended a good local solicitor. He’ll be meeting me down at the station. You two enjoy the rest of your trip. Hopefully this’ll take the pressure off you.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “I can’t say as I meant our sight-seeing tour to get you arrested.

“Usually, that was Mikel’s and my job. You remember that night in Tijuana, when you had to come down and bail us out in the middle of the night?”

Socah snorted. “And when I got there, you were watching Mexican wrestler movies from your comm with the jailer.”

“Hey, he was a fan. And he gave us a good steer on where to find some more stuff, remember?”

Quinoa smiled. “It wasn’t anything you did. It was old-me. I’d have had to take care of this sooner or later anyway. I really should have given the local culture here more thought.”

“So you’ve learned your lesson now, Quinnie?”

“About messing with people who care about something so deeply? Yes.” Quinoa shook her head. “I did what I did here in part because I knew the prevailing culture didn’t like it—and I wanted to rub their nose in how wrong they were about it. Just like with Cape Nord. But I forgot that unlike with Cape Nord, here it was people getting hurt by it, because of their genuine beliefs—not some abstruse nonsensical system of rules and regulations.”

“So, no more ‘helping’ people crossride?” Joe prompted.

“Well, no more doing it here. Not where it would really hurt people.” Quinoa smirked. “In the rest of Zharus, people are more acclimatized. Well, except for maybe Cape Nord. A girl has to have a few harmless foibles. It’s just a question of exercising them where they are harmless.”

“I see.” Joe favored her with an old-fashioned look. “We’re not going to run into more trouble on your behalf when we get to Cape Nord, are we?”

Quinoa shook her head. “Oh, no. Their ‘problem’ with me is more on the order of a governmental thing, and it’s with me only. No actual feelings involved. They might not like to admit it, but Nordies are rather more flexible on gender roles.”

“‘Flexible,’ huh? That and a mustache will get you a Man Card in those parts.”

Quinoa giggled. “Well, not me. That’s the whole problem.”

Socah frowned. “Do I even want to know ‘what problem’? Or am I just going to end up rolling my eyes and muttering about a planet of lunatics again? Lunatics I apparently can’t even blame you for, this time.”

“Actually, you kind of still can blame me…sort of. It’s complicated. We’ll get to Cape Nord in a few weeks, you can decide for yourself then,” Joe said. “I need to change my Eternal Bachelor status when we get there anyway. That’s going to cause a ruckus. Or maybe a kerfuffle. I can’t decide which.”

“What’s this, then?” Socah said. “I’m not going to research, because I don’t want to spend the rest of the day as an irritable hag.”

“Tell you later, maybe. For now, let’s go see the Alamo.”

“Oh, look. It’s fuckin’ Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Or Cheetah Boy and Dino Girl. Whatevs.” Julius nodded toward the two skimmer bikes that had just pulled up with their lights and siren going. A prowl car was right behind them.

“I’ve got this, Uncle,” Quinoa said. “My mess. I’ll clean it up. You three enjoy yourselves.”

Joe nodded. “Comm us if you run into trouble.”

“I’ll do that.” Quinoa turned and walked toward the Federales, holding her arms out. “Hola, officers. I surrender; take me into custody, por favor.

“Gladly!” Officer Correa said, going into Fuse with his partner. “And none of your Stupid Intie Tricks. We’re wise to them.”

“Yeah!” Chester added.

Joe cleared his throat. “Well, Officers, you seem to have what you wanted. I don’t want any police brutality, now!”

“We’ll do our jobs,” Correa replied. “We couldn’t be ‘brutal’ if we wanted to, what with all this media attention. Thank you so much for that, by the way.”

“Just our way of keeping you honest, Officer. Take care, now.”

The flotilla of media drones closed in around the Federale cruiser where Quinoa was being taken. With Correa reading her her rights, she waved at the crowd and got inside. Every drone but one followed the cruiser when it left.

“The poor little fucker doesn’t know what to do,” Julius said. “Go on, git! Story’s over! Done with! Finito! Completed! Go the fuck away!”

Joe waved a hand at it. “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks. Move it or lose it. And we do mean lose it.”

The drone hesitated a moment, then drifted away.

Joe sighed. “Well, there we go.”

Socah chuckled. “Well, I can’t say the day’s been uneventful thus far.”

“Hopefully the rest of it will be. Come on, let’s look over the tourist trap and see what we think, and perhaps look at a few more local attractions. Then maybe I can call an old friend from the circus days who settled here after the last time the tour made it this far. I think you’ll like him.”

“Fuckin’ A.” Julius scratched briefly behind an ear. “Now we’ve got the annoying part out of the way, let’s fuckin’ enjoy ourselves.”

Socah nodded. “I’m always glad to meet new people. Especially well-traveled ones. And after we finish here, what then?”

“I expect we’ll give Sturmhaven a miss, considering. You didn’t sound too interested in the place, and there might still be some hard feelings about me helping bankroll our side in the War back in the day.”

Socah chuckled. “Besides, they probably wouldn’t like it too much if we gave them a mister.”

“So we’ll just keep going around the Ring. Works for you two?”

Julius nodded. “Sounds like a plan!”

“I’m looking forward to seeing somewhere you’re not either mobbed or reviled.”

“We’ll hit that one of these stops, I’m sure.” Joe grinned. “C’mon, let’s go get some souvenirs.” He led the way in the direction of a nearby souvenir booth, and the other two followed along behind.

Separator k left.png TO BE CONTINUED Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter One: Uplift and the Tunnel
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Three: Sturmhaven