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User:Robotech Master/ggt sturmhaven

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FreeRIDErs story universe


The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Three: Sturmhaven

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 28, 157 A.L.

“Well, that went about as well as could be expected.” Joe Steader leaned back in the driver’s seat of the Jaguar as Julius handled the driving. “All the same, I’m not exactly sorry to be looking at Nuevo San Antonio in my rear view mirror.”

“That makes two of us,” Socah agreed. “Are you sure Quinoa will be all right?”

“Overall, yes.” Joe shrugged. “They have to give her enough grief to make it clear they’re not going easy on her because we’re filthy stinking rich. Then they’ll go ahead and go easy on her anyway, because they don’t want to come off as backward in the midst of all this enlightened liberalism about RIDEs being people after all.”

Julius snorted. “Fuckin’ jerks. Why do humans have to be so fuckin’…human?

Joe grinned. “Hey, RIDEs can be just as human too, y’know.”

Julius’s eyes, on display in the dashboard panel, rolled. “There’s really no need to be insulting, Joe.”

“So what’s our next destination, then?” Socah asked.

“Well, the next polity clockwise from us is Sturmhaven, but I think we both agreed to give that one a miss.”

“Like Socah said, we don’t wanna give it a mister,” Julius said. “They don’t fuckin’ like misters, there.”

“Quite. Anyway, beyond that is the Carroll Mountains, then the Southeast Rift lake settlements, and Nautica. We might swing inward toward the desert and stop by Alpha Camp, too—it’s barely out of our way.”

“You know, to get where we’re going we still have to go through Sturmie territory,” Julius said. “’Less we want to dogleg through the Dry.”

“I’m not too worried about passing through their turf. The Skimmerway’s neutral ground, pretty much. As long as we don’t leave it for the polity proper, they won’t even care. Trust me, I’ve driven the circuit a half-dozen times, passed right through Sturmie turf every time, and never had any trouble.”

“You know what ‘famous last words’ are, right?” Julius asked. “Ya know, ‘invoking Murphy’?”

“I’m sure we won’t have any problems this time,” Joe said, waving a hand nonchalantly. “Really, what could go wrong?”

“You’re fuckin’ doing that on purpose,” Julius said. “Aren’t you.”

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“Well how was I supposed to know that invoking Murphy actually works?

“You, the SOB who brought all of Earth’s old shit here, didn’t pay attention to how it works every fuckin’ time it happens in the stories?”

“Those are just stories. This is real life.

The first day or so of their trip had been smooth sailing. The palm-and-saguaro vegetation gradually grew more prevalent as they headed toward the tropics. But the farther along the southeastern coast, the more the region became the battleground of two airmasses—cool and dry, and hot and very moist. As the air from the Dry rose in altitude, for much of the year it actually cooled enough to be cooler than the hot moist air coming off the southern Thalassic Ocean. Between the Dry and the Wet, no matter the time of year, there was always extreme weather. “Sturmhaven’s right on one of the main hurricane tracks,” Joe explained as raindrops the size of marbles pelted the car. “That’s why it’s called—”

“—the ‘haven of storms,’ yes,” Socah said. “Do we need to land and take shelter somewhere? A boomer this big could produce a number of tornados.”

“We’ll get a warning from the local weathernet if that becomes necessary, but it almost never does. The Coastal Skimmerway has a series of strong long-distance hardlight generators. They call it the ‘Mesocyclone Disruption Net’. It can disrupt any tornado that comes near—or, as an emergency backup, shield any nearby vehicles with a hardlight field as strong as Uplift’s outer wall. They can’t keep it up for very long, but an hour or two is usually enough. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to stay on the Skimmerway, especially in these parts.”

The trouble came when the Skimmerway made its closest approach to Sturmhaven proper, coming within about fifty klicks of the city’s outer limits. They’d been cruising along at speed, enjoying a rare stretch of fair weather, when an abrupt appearance of flashing lights in the rearview mirrors had coincided with a comm ping bearing a law enforcement code, demanding they set down immediately.

As they settled to the ground beneath a Skimmerway marker buoy, Joe took a good long look at the Sturmhaven Polizei prowl skimmer car behind them, and asked his rhetorical question about invoking Murphy.

“Joseph Steader, you are hereby placed under arrest for the crimes of war profiteering, perpetuating a patriarchal system—” The arresting officer—who was actually a man with floppy golden retriever ears—paused. “Wait. That law was stricken from the books ten years ago. Our apologies, none of this makes sense, yet the warrant is confirmed as valid.”

Joe sighed. “Of course it is. After all, it’s not as if it was any great mystery we were heading this way, is it?”

Socah pursed her lips. “This is a completely bogus warrant, officer. Probably politically motivated, unless I miss my guess.”

“It’s fuckin’ bullshit is what it is,” Julius agreed. “But I give ten to one it’s not bullshit enough that the nice man’ll just tell us, ‘sorry we bothered you, have a nice fuckin’ day.’”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come along back to Sturmhaven with me so we can sort all this out,” the policeman said apologetically. “This is all well above my pay grade.”

Julius snorted. “Especially with you being just a male and all, right?”

“Well, we don’t want trouble,” Joe said. “How is this going to work? Are you going to handcuff us and put us in the car?”

“I hope that won’t be necessary. If you’ll agree to peace-bond your vehicles’ onboard weapons, you can just follow us to the station and we can get matters sorted out there.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m sure whoever set this up would love those media drones up there to get footage of you being taken away in a prowl car, and I see no need to oblige them. But I can’t guarantee my superiors won’t overrule me when we get to the city proper.”

“Fair enough,” Joe said. “Jules, can you see to it?”

“If you fuckin’ insist,” Julius grumbled. “Fine. Handshaking with your RIDE and setting the fucking seals now. I still say this is bullshit.”

Joe smiled wryly at Socah. “Well. Looks like we’ll be giving Sturmhaven a ‘mister’ after all.”

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Soon after, they were on their way again, following the prowl car up the Skimmerway exit lane to Sturmhaven proper. “I guess this’ll be a new experience for me,” Joe mused. “I haven’t visited Sturmhaven since before the war. Stopped in a time or two with Mikel and Isabella while the Circus was planetside the first time, but never stayed very long. Even then we male-types weren’t exactly wanted.”

“I’m sure I can’t imagine why.” Socah frowned. “It’s a good thing this hardlight exterior doesn’t develop frown lines. I get the feeling I’m going to be frowning a lot over the next few days.”

Joe grinned. “The funny thing is, of any of us, you have the least to worry about here. If there’s one thing they respect, it’s strong women, and if there’s another, it’s women warriors. They’ll probably love you.”

“The feeling is most assuredly not mutual, I assure you.” Socah rolled her eyes. “But…now that I think of it, it might just be my turn to get us out of a sticky spot with a comm call. Julius, could you ring the Freeriders Garage for me? I seem to recall my granddaughter has highly-placed friends in Sturmhaven.”

“One comm call, coming up!” Julius said cheerfully.

Joe chuckled. “Hey, what happened to not being a switchboard operator?”

Julius sneezed. “Colonel Thermopylae is a special case.”

A moment later, the dashboard monitor switched over to a view of Lindae the Tigress. “Freeriders Garage, can we help you? Oh! Hi, Mrs. Gates! Did you want to talk to Rhi?”

“If she’s around, please. It’s mildly urgent.”

“Only mildly urgent? Just a sec, I’ll go get her.” The screen blinked to a “please hold” pattern for a minute or so, then Rhianna was there, wiping her hands on a grease rag.

“Hey, Nana Socah. How’s your trip going?”

“Right at the moment, it could be going better. As we were passing Sturmhaven, the local constabulary stopped us to arrest Joe on a decades-old warrant of questionable validity.”

Rhianna facepalmed, leaving a smudge of grease across her feline nose. “Of course they did.”

“I seem to recall one of your apprentices is now a person of some importance in Sturmhaven, and wondered if we might prevail on you to put us in touch.”

“Oh, sure! That’s Lillibet Walton and Guinevere. As it happens, they’re in Sturmhaven right now campaigning for next month’s election. I’ll let them know what’s going on and see if they can meet you at the police station.”

“I should have thought of that myself,” Joe said. “I was just chatting with her folks before we set out on this trip, and they mentioned the ongoing election thing. Thanks, Rhianna. We owe you another one.”

“Don’t worry about it. Any friend of RIDEs is a friend of mine. I’ll give her a call right now.”

“By the way, you need to wipe your—” But she dropped the connection before Joe could finish. “Oh well. She’ll see a mirror sooner or later, I guess.”

Socah chuckled. “That’s my grandchild.”

“I wonder if the election is why they dug that warrant up?” Joe mused. “Make it look like they’re Doing Something about old issues.”

“Wouldn’t fuckin’ surprise me. Probably those stiff-necked Valkyrie bitches. I’ll bet they still haven’t forgiven us for taking out their sappers that time they attacked your penthouse gun turret. Mebbe you should wear that fuckin’ Cracker-Jack prize while we’re there, just to rub their beaks in it.”

“Maybe you should wear it. You’re the one it really belongs to.”

Julius chuckled. “Y’know, I just might.”

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It was only a few more minutes before they fetched up to the exterior of Sturmhaven proper. The city was laid out inside a giant ring of hardlight projector emplacements, though unlike Uplift’s they were powered down at the moment.

“So they only put up their dome when it rains?” Socah asked.

“Not even then, mostly. They don’t mind a little rain, or even a lot of rain. But when it’s tornado or hurricane weather, that’s when the generators see a lot of use.”

“Or when there’s a fuckin’ air raid on, I’ll bet.”

“Well, that’s a fringe benefit. But they’ve actually backed off from their war stance considerably. I understand they used to have turrets all around, like the ones they tried to knock out on our roof, but they ripped all those out as part of the peace settlement.”

“Be still my fuckin’ beating heart.”

As they proceeded past the outer ring, they were met by an honor guard of four more cop cars who surrounded them on all sides, lights and sirens going. At least, Joe chose to regard them as an “honor guard,” rather than “making sure the war criminal can’t get away.” But at least nobody insisted that they pull over and submit to handcuffs, which was something anyway.

Finally, they pulled up in front of the station. Joe and Socah climbed out of the car, while Julius popped out of the hood and padded over to his motorcycle shell. A compartment on the side slid open, and Julius grabbed the rosewood box in his teeth. “Joe, can you help me on with this thing?”

Joe chuckled. “Really going through with it? Sure.” He took the box, opened it, and brought out the medal on its thick ribbon. He hung it around the neck of Julius’s minimus shell. “How’s that?”

“It’ll do, thanks.”

Joe put the box back in the compartment on the bike, then turned to the police officer and his golden retriever RIDE who were now standing in front of them. “All right, Officer; lead the way. Let’s get this over with.”

Polizeizentral had been added onto over the decades rather than demolished and rebuilt. At the southwest corner was what had been a little wooden hut for the then-resort’s security staff. There were six layers, all of which had their own style, culminating in a 27-storey glass office building. At another corner was what might have been intended to be a charming statue of the blindfolded Greek goddess of Justice—except this goddess was built like a Norse shieldmaiden, and Joe got the distinct impression she’d been captured just as she was about to start laying about blindly with her sword in one hand, while whirling her scales around her head like a mace and chain with the other.

A small crowd had gathered, apparently prompted by local news media. Most of them were women, though a handful of men were present, too. For a wonder, most of them didn’t seem to be wearing collars and chains or falsies. Much like the picketers in Nuevo San, the crowd seemed to be divided into separate groups—a small group looking somewhere between angry and smug, and a larger group hooting and jeering at the other one. Many of the members of the smaller crowd were wearing large eye-blocking goggles and body armor with Valkyrie stylings. The larger group tended more toward togas and midriff-baring (or breast-baring) dresses, and was the one that had most of the men in it in addition to the women who mostly made it up. Rather than escorting Joe and Socah into the station, the polizei from the cars that had escorted them through the polity now spread out to serve as crowd control. More media drones hovered overhead.

Some of the jeering portion of the audience were holding signs. Socah peered at them. “’Playtime is Over’? What does that mean?”

“We’re three for fuckin’ three for mobs on this tour,” Julius said.

“At least the first one in Longmire was friendly,” Joe pointed out.

“The one in Nuevo San was half-friendly. This one seems to be somewhere in the middle.”

The cop and his RIDE led the way up the steps and into the building, while the other officers kept the crowd back. The lobby looked much like police stations everywhere, form following function as it did. Several people were standing at the information desk, including a young woman in Valkyrie armor and a tiara whom Joe immediately recognized. “Lillibet Walton! Good to see you!”

Another woman, standing at the opposite end of the counter, glowered. She was wearing more impressively-ornamented armor and a stern expression, aided by the avian tags she wore—orange eyes, feathered hair, and rigid half-beak lips. “You!” she rasped. Her eyes narrowed as she took in Julius padding along at his side, Nextus Silver Medal of Bravery dangling from his neck. “I should destroy you where you stand for the dishonor you did to us!”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Have we met?”

“Well I’ll be fuckin’ flea-dipped,” Julius said. “I know that voice. Madame ‘Sacrifice,’ is it? You’re lookin’ well—the post-war tags agree with ya. How’s the birdie? Joe’s still got that carbine we took offa you mounted over his fireplace in Uplift. Never expected it’d be a real-life Chekhov’s Gun. You two put up a great fight!”

The sheer cheerfulness in Julius’s tone made the Valk open and close her mouth, speechless, her train of thought utterly derailed.

Lillibet looked between Joe, Julius, and the Valk. “You know…things suddenly seem a little clearer.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “You know, you could just have sent us an invitation and we’d have been glad to stop by to say hello. An arrest warrant seems a little much.”

“Wait a second,” Socah said. She’d heard the tale from Joe and Julius a few times by now. “This woman…she’s the one you two took down that night, the one who tried to blow up the building you were living in?”

“Apparently. Though she looked a lot different back then. Early avian RIDE tags were something else.” Joe shook his head. “Sturmhaven was in a hurry to field their air power and didn’t put a lot of effort into minimizing the effect. Nextus never actually had any air RIDEs of its own during the war, because our brass felt it was just too big of a trade-off before they worked out a way to minimize the tagging. Anyway, air RIDEs never had as much of an advantage over fighters as infantry units did over skimmers.”

“First field deployment for both sides. I remember what that reporter in Nuevo San said,” Socah said. She gave the Valk a hard look. “I’m sure she knew who lived in the building.”

“Joe Steader was a secondary target,” the Valk said. “Even now, he is a war criminal!

“Hold on there, Olivia!” Lillibet said. “Those warrants were cancelled as part of the Peace Treaty. I don’t know how you managed to reactivate this one, but this is beyond the pale. This isn’t going to help win the Valks any seats.”

“That cancellation was never properly ratified by the Zemstvo! It was imposed under duress and has no validity!” Olivia crossed her arms. “It’s long past time we did something about our old grievances!”

Julius shook his head. “Damn. And I thought I was good at nursing a grudge. She fuckin’ brought hers the long way around.”

“Valkyries are like that,” the ocelot by Lillibet’s side put in. “Guinevere, by the way. You must be Julius? Been wanting to meet you!”

Julius chuffed at the ocelot. “Charmed! Nice ta meetcha, fellow South American feline.”

“Is it considered SOP here for a member of the Parliament to use the apparatus of the state to settle personal grudges?” Socah said. “Because it’s clear that’s what’s happening here.”

Lillibet shook her head. “I don’t think she’d have gotten very far if it was just her. This smells like party politicking to me, what with the election coming up in a couple of weeks.”

“Sturmhaven is in a very weird spot,” Guinevere said.

Olivia glared at Socah. “Is he yours?”

“Oh, here we go,” Lillibet said, rolling her eyes. “Sorry about this.”

The policewoman behind the information desk cleared her throat. “I believe that will be about enough of that.” The matronly older woman had grey wolf tags and greying hair, and a stern expression on her face. “Whatever means she used to do it, the warrant still shows as valid in our system, which means we’ll have to carry it through to a hearing whereby your attorneys can move to dismiss it. On the bright side, trial by combat is no longer permitted except in very special circumstances, so it will be in a court of law instead.”

“Hey, I’d be fine with a trial by combat!” Julius said. “We fuckin’ beat her once, we can do it again—’specially with this new Donizetti shell I got.”

“The soonest we can schedule the hearing is the day after tomorrow, I’m afraid. So I’ll have to ask you not to leave the polity until then. You’re released into the custody of Col. Gates.” She gave Socah the nod of one warrior to another.

Joe grinned at Socah. “Hey, you hear that? I’m released into your custody. It’s just like old times! Man, if only Mikel were here to see this…”

Julius snorted. “This really is a fuckin’ nostalgia trip, innit?”

Socah chuckled. “Now let’s see, how did that go?” She cleared her throat. “‘Joseph Cassius Steader, what the hell damn fool thing have you gone and done this time?’”

Joe clapped. “Oh, very good. Only in this case, I actually went and did the damn fool thing thirty-five years ago.”

“Sometimes it takes that long for the chickens to come home to roost,” Lillibet said. “Or the owl.”

“Well, we’d love to hang around and talk about old fuckin’ times,” Julius said. “But I guess we better find a hotel or something.”

“Please, stay over at my place,” Lillibet said. “I’ve got a pretty big one, thanks to recent events. Bigger than I can use by myself, anyway.”

“And if the political fallout goes how we think it will, it’ll do us good to have you associated with us,” Guinevere added.

“Be happy to,” Joe said. “I hadn’t planned on getting involved in Sturmhaven politics, but it looks like I’ve been overruled.” He smirked at Olivia. “Thanks, really.”

“Yeah!” Julius said. “We oughtta get together for drinks, talk about the good old days or something. Give my love to the birdie!”

Olivia opened her mouth, but the only sound that came out before she closed it again sounded distinctly like a squawk.

Lillibet smiled wryly. “In Mother Sturmhaven, politics play you.”

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The crowds had largely dispersed by the time they left the station. “I’ve gotten authority to release the peace-bond on your weapons,” Guinevere said as they came back down the stairs. “Given that you’re not going to try to run or anything.”

“Thanks!” Julius said. “I feel fuckin’ nekkid without ‘em.”

“Besides, you never know…some Valkyrie might decide to challenge you to a duel or something.” Lillibet rolled her eyes.

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Is that likely to happen?”

“It happened to me. That’s how I ended up with all this.” She waved a hand at the Valkyrie outfit she was wearing.

Socah frowned. “I find it so hard to believe, in this day and age, that anyone can seriously expect to get away with this kind of behavior.”

“They’ve got a long tradition of it,” Joe said. “And you know, when you grow up somewhere like this, you tend to get indoctrinated into it at a young age.”

“We’re working on changing that, but it needs positive examples,” Lillibet said. “Through no fault of my own, I ended up one of those. It’s a bit of a pain, as I’d much rather be back in Alpha Camp tuning up RIDEs. But as a good little girl of Nextus, I was indoctrinated into the idea of always doing my civic duty. Some habits are really hard to break.”

“So, fill us in,” Joe said. “I’d heard there was a no-confidence vote, but beyond that, I have no idea what Sturmie politics is like.”

“Though something tells me we’re in for a fuckin’ crash course.”

Lillibet sighed. “Okay. Here goes…”

As Lillibet explained it, Sturmhaven had three major political parties, which were as much about gender roles as they were about politics. The Valkyries were the ideological descendants of the polity’s founding group, the former administrators of the resort. “They dominated how things worked here until after the War,” Lillibet said.

Socah frowned. “I’m not sure I quite understand.”

“To be perfectly frank, Sturmhaven started as a rather extreme sexual role-playing resort,” Guinevere said. “The original Valks considered men sub-human. They didn’t have rights. They were chattel.”

Julius smirked. “The women got to be on top.”

“When they organized as a polity they ended up having so many sanctions against them they pretty much had to be completely self sufficient,” Guinevere said. “Then Nextus Nano created sarium batteries…and, well.”

“War,” Socah said. “Joe told me about his and Mikel’s part in how that got started.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Julius added.

“After the War the Gaians were voted in,” Lillibet said. “A lot more moderate. The ‘Male Transgression Laws’ were mostly repealed. If you see a man with breasts, he’s probably a Gaian. They idealize the female form and change themselves after their ‘fatherly duty’ to share the nursing. But the Valks have remained a significant bloc.”

“Then there’s the Athenas, who Lilli and I represent,” Guinevere said. “Newbies. Matriarchal—we still have a ‘female primacy’ sort of view—but otherwise men are about as equal as in Nextus. Dress in a Minoan style. Bare-breasted women, svelte men.”

“We’d personally like to move the scale even further, but you can only do so much against the weight of a whole society.” Lillibet shrugged. “Maybe in future generations.”

“Honey, I’ve been alive long enough to watch Earth go from being largely free to the authoritarian hellhole it is now,” Socah said. “It didn’t happen overnight. And how old are you to be in the middle of this?”

“I’m old enough to drink…coffee.” Lillibet grinned. “But I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this place looks like when I get to be your age.”

“Thirty-nine?” Joe put in. Socah swatted him.

“Anyway, you guys follow us and we’ll show you to our penthouse.” Lillibet nodded to Guinevere, who dropped her hardlight and converted to skimmer bike form.

“Will do.” Joe returned Julius’s medal to its box, then the three of them got back into the car and followed, the Ahnuld bike trailing along behind on autopilot.

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The penthouse in question was located on one of the more impressive high-rise apartments in downtown Sturmhaven. After they’d parked in reserved spaces in the underground garage, and Julius had resumed his bike body and fetched their luggage in shell mode, they were met at the elevator by a black wolf Fuser. “This is my majordomo, Gloria,” Lillibet said. “Gloria’s the RIDE. The human’s Annalinda—the one who challenged me to that duel I was telling you about. But she doesn’t talk much.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Your prisoner?”

“Not exactly.

“She’s my thumbs,” Gloria said. “In the Alpha Camp tradition.”

“Considering what she was going to do to Lillibet if she won, I think it’s more than fair,” Guinevere said. “Anyway, she can leave any time she wants to—but she wouldn’t have a penny to her name since she lost the duel, so on the whole she figures it’s less embarrassing to stay and get four square meals a day instead of end up in a public indigents’ shelter. Isn’t that right, Annie?”

“You don’t have to rub it in,” the black wolf grumbled in a different voice.

“Besides, she means a lot to me,” Gloria said. “After she took care of me for so long, now it’s my turn to take care of her.”

“We figure once she’s had a few years to learn some humility, she might turn out to be almost human after all,” Lillibet said. “And at least it keeps her off the streets.”

“So anyway, c’mon, I’ll show you to the guest rooms.” Lillibet led the way into the elevator.

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“You know, we could have carried our own suitcases, Jules,” Joe said as the three of them closed the door behind them. “You’re not supposed to be my manservant.”

“Meh. I’m fifty times stronger than you are, and I don’t get tired. It’d be fuckin’ stupid to make you carry the heavy stuff when I’m better suited to it.” Julius put the suitcases on the bed. “But you can unpack them yourselves.”

“You know, I don’t get tired either,” Socah pointed out.

“Yeah, but you killed me with a fuckin’ flint spear. You, I show deference.” He paused a beat. “I’m still not unpacking for you, though.”

“So, how about this place, then?” Joe looked around. “I suspect Lilli redecorated, because this does not look like somewhere a Valkyrie would stick guests.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “The décor seems Germanic to me. All the trophies on the walls, paintings of hunters and hounds…”

“Yeah, but it’s Germanic masculine. It’s done up like a German hunting lodge. This is more what I’d expect to find in Cape Nord than Sturmhaven.” Joe grinned. “Well done, her. Anyone she has stay over will get a pretty pointed message just from spending the night in this room.”

“And all those trophies would make a great fuckin’ place to put cameras,” Julius mused. “Or just creative lighting effects. Make it look like they’re watching you.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Thank you, Julius, you and my imagination are going to give me nightmares tonight.”

Julius flicked an ear. “I think it’d take a lot worse than this to give you nightmares.”

Joe walked over to the glass door set in the wall and slid it open. “Well, good view from the balcony, anyway. Looking directly downtown. I think I can see the Zemstvo building from here.” He chuckled. “I must admit, this is one place I never thought I’d ever find myself, back in the day. Right in the heart of the enemy’s seat of power. Really, this place is pretty much equivalent to my own penthouse back in Nextus, just on the other side of things.”

“Yay, we’ve got fuckin’ box seats in crazytown.” Julius shifted back to Walker form and padded over to peer out the door. “Meh. Seen better.”

Joe turned back to Socah, who had her suitcase open and was peering into it. “Maybe all this was a bad idea. I didn’t mean to get you involved in all this…craziness that seems to be the default state of my life lately.”

Socah laughed. “This? This is hardly even an inconvenience. Before we left Earth, Roy, Arlene, their kids, and I spent weeks living hand to mouth in crowded corridors, under constant harassment by the local law. Compared to that, this is no hardship—and, in fact, it’s actually kind of fun.” She grinned. “I will admit, one thing life never was when you and Mikel were around back on Earth was ‘tame.’ I’m beginning to remember just how much I missed that once you two left. Though you couldn’t have gotten me to admit it for a good ten to twenty years or so.”

Joe chuckled. “Well, I hope you still feel that way by the time we’re done here. Who knows what that crazy bird-woman is planning to throw at us next?”

“Whatever it is, we’ll fuckin’ deal with it.” Julius snorted. “Man, would you believe it? Another piece of my past I thought I’d lost, and right there she is. I know that crazy-ass Valk bitch will do us any fuckin’ bit of harm she possibly can…but that doesn’t keep me from being happy to see her all the same.”

“If her RIDE’s anything like she is…” Joe muttered.

“I asked around on the sidebands, and it turns her name is Naomi. I’ve put out an invitation. If she wants to face off in Nature Range, I’m game for that.”

“Do you think she’ll go for that?”

“Oh, ya never know. But there’s a good chance. RIDEs have a different perspective from their partners, lotsa times, and don’t have so many hard feelings ‘bout wartime crap. We’ll see what she says.”

“Well.” Socah pulled a small pistol out of her luggage. “Got a feeling it might be best not to go ‘naked’ while I’m here.” A section of hardlight on her hip winked out and a compartment slid open. She slid the gun into it, then pushed it shut again.

Joe grinned. “Hey, just like in Robocop! Too bad I don’t have something like that.”

Julius snorted. “Well, you got me. ‘Concealed carry bodyguard,’ remember?”

“Yeah, there is that.”

“So, what are you planning to do this evening?” Socah asked.

Joe shrugged. “Dunno. After the exertions and excitement of the day, maybe just turn in early so I can be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed…well, as bushy as this tail gets…for doing tourist things tomorrow. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know. And I don’t much fancy wandering around after dark in a polity where part of ‘em hate my guts for who I am and the rest have a more equal-opportunity hate thing going on account of my chromosomes.”

Socah nodded. “Mmm. You won’t mind if I have a look around, do you?”

“Oh, no, by all means go out and enjoy yourself. At least you don’t have my handicap when it comes to the chromosomes. And you a warrior, too? They’ll probably love you here.”

Socah chuckled. “We’ll see about that. I’ll confess to harboring more than a little curiosity about this place, and given that I ended up here against all expectations, it seems only right that I get to satisfy it. I’ll probably start by asking our hostess and her staff a few questions before I go out.”

“Well, comm if you need anything. You’ve got Lillibet’s code, right?”

“Sure do.” Socah closed her suitcase. “I’ll be back later, then.”

“See you then.” As Socah let herself out, Joe peered at the vid screen at one end of the room. “So, let’s see what’s playing in Peoria…”

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It only took a few minutes of looking for Socah to find the first person she was looking for. “Ah…Gloria, was it?”

The black wolf Fuser was in one of the penthouse’s salon areas, supervising several male staff as they vacuumed carpets and polished furniture. She looked up as Socah approached. “Yes, Ms. Gates. Is everything all right with the room? Can I help you with anything?”

“Everything’s fine, thank you.” Socah smiled. “I was wondering if you had a few moments to talk?”

“Of course! Come with me.” She led the way to the next room over, a study with bookshelves, a desk, and several comfortable chairs. She turned one chair to face another, then closed the door. “Did you have some questions about Sturmhaven? Visitors from outside usually do.”

“As it happens, I did. And I was wondering if it would be all right if I asked some of…Annalinda her name was?”

Gloria tilted her head. “Certainly. I can’t promise she’ll answer, but you can ask if you want. In fact…” She stood up and split apart, de-Fusing and stepping to one side.

A moment later, a dark-haired woman with black wolf tags stood there for a moment, before sitting back down in the chair. She had the light coating of black fur and lupine nose that bespoke spending a lot of time in Fuse. Her clothes were simple and utilitarian—a plain spandex halter top and a thigh-length skirt. She also had a bright red sword scar on each cheek. She frowned at Socah, then glanced at Gloria. Then she shrugged. “Fine, ask. It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

“You challenged Lillibet to a duel. Why?”

Annalinda pursed her lips. “You can read about that in the news.”

“I’m asking you.” She considered. “Maybe this will make it easier for you to answer.” Her flapper-chic outfit blurred away, replaced by her mohawked and ribbon-bedecked uniformed guise. She backed her voice with military authority when she spoke again. “Well, missy?”

Annalinda’s eyes widened. “I…uh…” She swallowed. “Well, it was…politics.”

“Ah, yes. Politics. The one constant anywhere you go in the universe. Whose politics, and why?”

“Er…”

She waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry, this won’t be used for anything but to satisfy my own curiosity. I’m no inquisitor. But this is one of the strangest spots on the planet from my Earther perspective, and I want to understand it. Including understanding the ‘other side’ of it. And I have a feeling I’d more easily get answers out of you than that harpy Olivia.”

“You might as well,” Gloria put in. “You don’t owe them anything anymore. It’s not like any of them has tried to do anything to help you, even though they could have asked. But it’s your choice.”

“Of course they didn’t,” Annalinda said bitterly. “I failed. Goddess above, did I fail.” She snorted. “Fine. The Valkyries put me up to it. They wanted an interpolity incident they could use to embarrass Nextus and the Gaians who were in power. I was the ‘lucky’ stalking horse who got the cherry assignment.” She shook her head. “I was third in my fencing class at academy! How could I have imagined that…rich girl was trained by Tocsin?

Socah pursed her lips. “I…see. And they’re still up to it now?”

Annalinda shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. They don’t talk to me very much these days. And I don’t watch the news.”

“That harpy Olivia somehow reactivated an old arrest warrant against Joe Steader right as we were motoring by,” Socah said. “And so, here we are.”

Annalinda goggled. “She did? Really? Are they really that desperate for an incident now?”

“If you haven’t been watching the news, I have,” Gloria said. “The polls are going pretty badly against the Valks. Lillibet’s campaigning has been super-effective—especially with Bertha and Fenris helping.”

“I doubt there’s going to be much of an incident there, either,” Socah said. “Unless they decide to challenge me to a duel.” She smiled thinly. “I almost hope they do.”

“They won’t,” Gloria said. “Not since your service record was plastered all over the news a couple of hours ago. If anything, they’re more likely to ask you to join their party. Or, well, they would have if they hadn’t already blown their shot by arresting your boyfriend.”

Socah snorted. “Pity, that. Turning them down would’ve been nice.”

Annalinda shook her head. “You have to watch out for Olivia. She might be part owl, but she’s definitely a hawk. She feels like the brass made too many mistakes during the old war days, and the biggest one was surrendering.”

Gloria smirked. “Of course, if they hadn’t surrendered, who knows how long it would have been before the prisoner exchange got her out of jail and Naomi out of mothballs.”

“So noted.” Socah nodded. “Now for you, missy. What they said earlier—is it true? If you wanted to leave, you could?”

“As far as I know.” Annalinda shrugged. “I’ve never asked to. Don’t guess I will.”

“Why?”

Annalinda sighed. “It’s like they said. If I asked to leave, I wouldn’t have anything—not even the clothes on my back.”

Gloria shook her head. “Oh, Lilli would let you keep those.”

“I’ve never had a real job in my life, and if I were…out there in a shelter, after I failed my mission…I might even get crossride lynched.”

“By custom, she should have had to crossride after she lost the duel against Lillibet, but I asked Lillibet not to do it.” Gloria gave Annalinda a lick on the cheek, and Annalinda reached up absently to pat her head.

“It’s not too bad here, on the whole. The work’s not too hard, I’m safe from reprisals, and…Lillibet doesn’t even seem to hold a grudge.” She shook her head. “I don’t get it. I’d hold a grudge…and force me to do scut work all day and other embarrassing stuff…but she doesn’t.”

Socah smiled. “Some people are just like that. There’s an old book that says, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” She rose to her feet. “Well, thank you for answering my questions, Annalinda. Best of luck to you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Annalinda rose as well, then held out her arms and Gloria Fused back over her.

“What are you planning to do now?” Gloria asked.

“Oh, I think I’ll go out for a while and see a few sights. See what the local culture is like at street level.” Socah smirked. “Besides, after so many times bailing Joe and Mikel Steader out of trouble, it feels like it’s my turn to raise a little hell for a change.”

Gloria looked at her appraisingly. “Well…I guess you won’t get into too much trouble. Even in your other outfit, you’re definitely a woman, which makes you a first-class citizen around here.”

“Funny you should mention that. I was considering going like this.” Her body blurred, and she was replaced a moment later by a young man, in slacks and sweater. She glanced at herself in a hall mirror and frowned. “Hmm. I look too much like young Joe Steader this way. Let’s see.” Her hair color changed to blonde, and a moment later was joined by a bushy mustache fit to have come from a Miyazaki movie. “That’s better,” she said in a deeper, masculine voice.

Gloria blinked, ears flipping forward. “That’s…uh…unsettling.”

“There was another story from that old book about an angel showing up looking like a bum to see how ordinary people treated him. Seems like a reasonable idea to me. You wanna see what people are really like, see how they treat second-class citizens.”

Gloria frowned. “As a foreigner, you should be safe from the worst persecution regardless—tourism marks are important, and they didn’t want to discourage that tourism too much even when the Valks were fully in charge. Now, and especially since the No Confidence vote…I think you’ll be all right. But comm us if you run into any trouble.”

“I think I’ll be all right.”

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A light mist was falling and the sun was setting as Socah Gates stepped out onto the street, secure in her guise of a young man about the town. She looked around for a taxi stand. (She knew she should be trying to think of herself as “he” at this point, for verisimilitude, but she simply couldn’t do it. Her body didn’t feel any different; it just had a different coat of paint on it. Haven’t ‘gone native’ enough yet, I guess. Something else to try if I ever pull the trigger on a clone-bod.)

She’d checked the local yelp for nearby attractions, and found a few that looked potentially interesting. But first, she thought she’d see what passed for booze around these parts. In her long and broad military experience, she’d learned you could tell a lot about a place by what it had that came with alcohol in it. (Also, what came with caffeine in it, but it was the wrong time of day for that.)

The skimmer taxi waiting at the stand she chose was driven by a young woman with light brown hair in a pixie cut, wearing a fairly conservative tunic and dress. The woman glanced up at her uninterestedly. “Evening, sir. Where can I drop you?”

“I’m just in from out of town, and I’m looking for a good bar. What do you think of…uh…The Snare Drum?”

The woman frowned. “Not really the place I’d pick, if I were you. It can get a little rowdy there. I’d suggest The Loving Cup, instead. It’s technically a singles bar, but they don’t make a thing of it if you want to be left alone—and they’re more likely to let you have your drink in peace without something getting broken over your head.”

Socah nodded. “Good enough. Take me there.” She climbed into the cab. The driver started the meter and pulled away from the curb.

“So, I hear this isn’t the best place in the world for people like me.” Socah wondered if the line sounded anywhere near as cheesy and artificial to the driver as it did in her own ears.

Apparently not, as the woman answered, “There’s some of that, yeah. Not near as bad as it used to be. But I’d still not go walking alone down any dark alleys in some parts of town.”

“What about all that stuff about ‘male transgression laws’? Aren’t some of those still on the books?”

“Meh. Lots of stupid laws are still on the books. You know in Nextus it’s still illegal to use the wrong color e-ink on official forms?” The woman waved a hand dismissively. “Most of those laws are only still there to make a bunch of past-their-prime Valkyries feel better. Most of the cops these days are Gaia or Athena, and they’d laugh off any serious attempt to enforce them.”

“So I’m not going to have someone march up to me and say they ‘require my services’?”

The driver snorted. “That kind of thing only happens in bad melodramas and Iphigenia Rose novels. Besides, there aren’t a lot of women around who’d want to kiss someone with a mustache like that.

“Good to know.”

The taxi pulled to a halt in front of a bar with a neon sign featuring a big pink chalice. “That’ll be three mu fifty.”

“Here you go then.” Socah sent payment with a decent tip over from the anonymous cash wallet she was using for transactions tonight.

“Thanks.” The driver reset her meter as Socah opened the door and climbed out. “Oh, by the way. You’re not the first foreign woman to dress in male drag and ‘test’ the waters here to see if they get arrested or propositioned or whatnot. Especially since the no-confidence vote.”

Socah laughed. “Is it that obvious? I suppose I should try harder.”

“It’s the way you walk. Have a nice stay, ‘sir’.”

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The décor in the bar was feminine, but not overpoweringly so. There was a lot of pink in the signage and accent lighting, but otherwise it was a standard bar and grill establishment. There were a lot of couples, either male-female or female-female, with a few male-male pairings off in darker corners. It was moderately busy, but there were a few spare seats at the bar. Socah took one and asked for a beer menu. As expected, the beers on offer mostly had German names: hefeweizen, doppelbock, oktoberfest, dunkel, and so on. Socah ordered a pilsner, and it came in the tall, narrow glass named for the form.

Socah sipped it, and found it not at all bad as beers went. There were still plenty of good microbrews back on Earth, of course, but she hadn’t exactly been in a position to sample more than a thimbleful at a time of them for decades, until coming here and getting those new tech upgrades. It really was remarkable how well Zharus tech worked, in fact—she was able to taste this beer as well as any she’d ever had in the old organic bod. In fact, she suspected she could taste it better, as she didn’t remember ever detecting quite this many different hints of flavor before. Or maybe it was just a really good beer.

As she sipped, she looked around, using the mirror behind the bar to observe how the others in the room were behaving and see if any were paying any undue attention to her. (Him, she reminded herself.) So far, no one seemed to be. Most couples were paying attention to each other, and most singles seemed to be concentrating on their beers. Socah was almost disappointed. Realizing that, she frowned into her beer. After all, she wasn’t some kind of hormonal teenager, going out in search of a fight. If she could get through the night without someone picking on her, why, that was what she wanted, wasn’t it?

“You look like you’ve got something on your mind.” A woman with a pleasant tenor voice sat down to her right. “Doppelbock, please, Joan.” The bartender nodded and set a bulb-shaped snifter in front of her.

Socah shrugged. “Just thinking about things.” She glanced over at the woman, reminding herself again she was “supposed” to be a young man. The woman was dressed fairly conservatively, in a simple black skirt and cream-colored top. From what little she knew of Sturmhaven politics, she was inclined to suppose that might mean the woman was a Gaian. But on the other hand, surely not every member of the Valkyries clanked around in operatic armor and wrap-around goggles all the time, nor did every Athena wear Minoan robes everywhere. So perhaps that might be a risky guess to make.

Her hair was dark green and reached the small of her back, and her face had that ageless quality you saw on a world that had cheap nanotech bodysculpt clinics on every street corner. It was really hard to tell someone’s age around here if they weren’t giving off obvious cues. Of course, Socah could probably have made a fairly good guess using the Jane’s sensor package, even if she limited herself to just passive scan mode—but it felt too much like an invasion of privacy to do that except in dire need.

“Things. Now there’s a topic with potential. One-third of all potentially available nouns, leaving out people and places.”

Socah snorted. “Next you’re going to be asking me if I come here often.”

“Well, no. I do come here often, and hadn’t seen you around before. And your accent definitely pegs you as foreign. Probably extra-planetary, in fact. If I had to guess…North America, Earth?”

Probably should have picked another accent when I changed my voice. Guess I’m out of practice. “Pretty good guess, miss.”

She smiled. “Oh, not as good as you’d think. I’m interested in North America, so I’ve developed kind of an ear for the major accents.”

Socah nodded. “And I’m rapidly developing an interest in Zharus. Not looking to get picked up, though. Just in here for a drink.”

“Very well. I’m not looking for romance either, as it happens. But good conversation makes a good drink taste better.”

“Fair enough.” Socah sipped her own beer. She didn’t press the issue, and hasn’t tried to “neg” me either…so I guess she’s on the level. Once again, Socah reminded herself that it was a damn fool thing to go out hoping to run into trouble. “So, why North America? A lot of people I knew back there couldn’t wait to leave the place.”

“Oh, I don’t want to go live there. Spending a few months touring sites of interest was enough for me—though I might not mind going back for another look around sometime. Even if their attitude toward women is fairly provincial. But I’m kind of a history buff.”

“That’s about all the old place has left—history. The future’s being made out here.”

“Don’t I know it. There’s more future being made here practically by the hour.” She nodded at the vid screen over the bar, where a newscast was showing a story about the recent arrest of Joe Steader, complete with one of the most unflattering photos of him Socah had ever seen.

Socah smirked. Must remember to show that to him tomorrow. “The latest manufactured story. I guess the news media never changes no matter what planet you’re on.”

“It’s not entirely manufactured. The man did finance a large portion of his polity’s war effort, and doubtless indirectly cost many Sturmhaven lives.” She shrugged. “But then, his counterparts on this side of the fence did the same for us, and I understand one of his own family ended up playing both sides. I personally think arresting him was a mistake, but I stay out of politics these days. It’s been years since I agreed with my party’s leadership.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “You’re remarkably…civil, for a Valkyrie. I’d have taken you for a Gaian. But then, I’m not from around these parts.”

The woman snorted. “Don’t believe everything you read. We’re not all sword-swinging Brunhildes who believe the right place for all men is kissing our feet. There’s more of a spectrum than outsiders appreciate, but the squeakiest armor gets the grease—especially when our party’s leaders are mostly squeaky themselves. I’m more toward the left end of the spectrum, and probably would be a Gaian if it weren’t that I’m not fond of how their party leadership has been behaving either. Besides, we Valkyries have a proud history—even if parts of it have gotten a little tarnished.”

“Even so, I’m a little surprised you’re willing to talk to me at all.”

She shrugged. “As the old saying goes, I prefer to live and let live. Life is easier that way. I might personally believe your gender is inferior to mine—no offense—but if I had started out by rubbing it in your face, we would not be having this interesting conversation.”

Socah chuckled. “Well, at least you’re honest.”

“Travel broadens the mind. Can you imagine a Brunhilde trying to get along on an Earth tour? She’d stab some poor man for looking at her funny before the day was out. I understand the Sturmhaven contingent of the Zharus Embassy on Earth does a brisk business in diplomatic outreach to local law enforcement. Mostly Athenas there, I gather.”

“That sounds about right.”

“How long have you been in Sturmhaven? Seen many of the local sights yet?”

“Just got in today. Haven’t had much chance to look around—this was the first stop I hit after the hotel.”

“Ah. Well, one local attraction you should be sure not to miss is the Terran IDE history museum. We have one of the best on Zharus.”

Socah blinked. “Really?” Did she see through my disguise somehow? She decided to play it cool until she knew for sure.

“I know, it’s not the sort of thing you’d associate with Sturmhaven, but given the polity’s strong martial interest, it’s only natural some of us would turn to big iron as a hobby. Including me—I’m a co-curator. Iria Parzival, by the way.”

“Uh…” Socah hadn’t thought as far as when she would be asked to give a name. And she didn’t like to lie—any more than she was already, at least. “You can call me Scott. For now.”

Iria grinned. “Ah, a man of mystery. Very well, ‘Scott.’”

Socah chuckled. “As it happens, I do have some interest in big iron myself, but I hadn’t known Sturmhaven had a museum for it.”

“It’s not so much an ‘official’ museum as it is a few private collectors getting together and deciding to pool their collection for public display. For all that IDEs were never terribly useful here, a number of them were imported in the early days and the ones that weren’t lost in the desert tended to find good homes.”

“How many of them are yours?”

“Just three, at the moment. An N-1 that, nearly as we can tell, came over on one of the original terraforming ships, an XF-3 Block 1 that was used by the colony police in early days, and—the real jewel of my collection—an XF-3 Block 5 that some Keplerian mercenaries had to sell off about three years back to finance repairs to their ship to get them home. Well, those are all the originals with made-on-Earth stampings I have, anyway. I’ve had three or four models fabbed to design spec, but I don’t really count those. They’re just my play-toys for clomping around in so I don’t put wear and tear on the display pieces.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “You can afford upkeep on a fleet of mechs and you’re down here drinking with ordinary people instead of sipping fifty-year-old Scotch in a penthouse?”

Iria smiled ruefully. “It’s because I keep up a fleet of mechs that I am down here drinking with ordinary people. It’s where all my money goes.”

“I can sympathize. If I had that kind of money, I’d probably pour it into something like that myself. In fact, I’ve harbored the idea of shopping around if I decide to sell my—” Careful there, Socah. “—my investments I’ve been holding onto for a while.”

Iria nodded. “Thank you for not making the usual joke, by the way.”

“The usual joke?”

“Oh, you know. ‘IDE of the Valkyries.’ If I had a nickel for everyone who thought they were being witty, the upkeep wouldn’t be quite so personally costly.”

“Seems to me like applying that pun to all the RIDEs around here would be the more appropriate joke.”

“They get a lot of that, too.” Iria drank her beer.

“So what’s your interest in big iron?” Socah asked. “I can’t imagine you ever drove one professionally.”

“No, but I would have liked to.” Iria smiled. “More than once I’ve almost been tempted to join a mercenary company myself—I think I’d be pretty good. But I recognize that for what it is—a foolish daydream. I’d more than likely end up dead—and besides, I’d probably have to contend with taking orders from men. No offense. So instead I collect them, and stomp around in replicas and daydream.”

Socah chuckled. “At least you’re realistic. I actually did serve in a North American Army mech division—the 56th—shifting around the big iron. It wasn’t always fun, but now and then I do miss it.”

Iria’s eyes widened. “Really? So you would have used, what, the Block 6? The new F-7s?

“The Block 6, yes. Some of the older blocks, too, as trainers.” Actually, she’d mustered out before the 6 came into widespread use, let alone the entirely new F-7, but her disguise didn’t look old enough for that. “I’d be right at home in your Block 5, for sure.”

“Oh, really? Tell me…didn’t the fives have that faulty tokamak ignition circuit that needed manual firing half the time?”

Testing me, is she? “No, that was the four. Fives used the new polywell, which didn’t have that problem. So did the six, but by then the limitations of the overall design were becoming apparent, and they finally got around to opening bidding to design a new IDE type, which became the F-7. Dropping the ‘X’ since by then they’d decided the design class wasn’t experimental anymore.”

She drained the last of her beer. “Of course, by then most of the fighting was over—Earth had pretty much tamed all the uppity colonies and resettled all the wildcats—so they never did build or deploy a whole lot of them. But as far as I know, they keep tinkering with the design, just in case they should decide to look in this direction. Let that happen, and their industrial fabbers kick into gear, then boom—instant army.” She shook her head. “Which is why I got out when I did. No desire at all to go off and die on account of some REMF’s wish to add another star to a flag.” Of course, I got out about twenty years earlier than you probably think, but the reason was the same.

Iria’s eyes widened further. “You really do know your stuff.”

“Yeah. Like I said, it wasn’t always fun. But there’s just something about stomping around in big metal seven league boots you kinda miss.”

“Wow…” Iria breathed. “I really don’t want this to come off like I’m trying to pick you up—I don’t swing that way, anyway—but I’d really like to take you over to the museum and show you around. It’s closed right now, but as a curator, I have a key.”

Socah blinked, as her desire to prowl around and see what Sturmhaven was like after dark warred with her ever-present itch to fiddle with big iron. “I…do believe I’d like that.”

“Excellent!” Iria waved to the bartender. “Joan, check please—and I’m paying for his drink.” She nodded to Socah.

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Socah said.

“Personal policy. Any time I meet up with a real mech pilot, I buy them a drink, as a gesture of respect.”

Socah shrugged. What have I gotten myself into? How long can I keep up this fiction? “Well, I guess I can’t say no to that.”

“Excellent, Scott. Now, follow me—it’s just a couple of blocks down the street, which is why this is where I most often drink.”

“All right.” Mindful of what the taxi driver had said, Socah pulled up her Jane’s seldom-used options panel and adjusted a few sliders to try to make her walk more gender-neutral before she got up and followed.

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The streets were well-lit in this part of town, and a couple of blocks of walking brought them to a large glass-fronted building that bore some resemblance to Joe’s mecha garage in Nextus. A number of familiar shapes, lit by security lighting, were visible within.

“You have a few TX-series in there,” Socah said. “Fussy things, those.”

“So I’ve heard. The gal who owns those has some contact with the Munns—Aloha’s founders. They used them for years after they arrived.”

Socah nodded. “I’ve—” met them “—read about them. They were mech drivers back on Earth, too, in the old days.”

Iria pulled out a key card and unlocked the door. “Well, come on in and you can see our collection.” She held the door for Socah to enter, then followed her in. She did something to a panel on the wall, and a moment later bright spotlights overhead come on over each of the mechs.

Socah whistled. “Now this brings back some memories.” She walked from one giant robot to the next, glancing at the display plaques and examining them from all angles. “Now that isn’t this unit’s original arm, is it?”

“No—this one’s really kind of a chimera, made from putting together parts from several mostly unsalvageable units. The arm is the most visible cosmetic blemish. Lotta’s considered fabbing one to original spec to replace it, but the arm is an original Earth part. Just not an original part of this specific IDE.”

Socah nodded. “You saw that sort of thing a lot in field-expedient repairs, so keeping it like this actually is authentic, in a way.”

“Lotta will be glad to hear that.”

They walked on, discussing the various IDEs on display, including Iria’s own. She was especially interested to see the Block 5 from the Kepler pirates. “I wonder…can I see the serial number on the chassis? I’m curious whether it came from the 56th.”

“I’ve never been able to learn much about its background—the Earth embassy’s not really interested in helping mech enthusiasts with their hobby. Anything you could tell me would be welcome.” Iria wheeled over a ladder and leaned it up against the back of the IDE. “You know where to find it?”

“Of course.” Socah climbed up the ladder and took a good look. “Huh. I do believe this was originally from the 56th. If I remember the serial number prefixes right, this one would have been surplused out back in ‘65—that’s 115 A.L.—for the new Block 6 to come in.” Just a few years before I was “surplused out” myself. She chuckled inwardly. Funny. I could have been on maneuvers with this very IDE more than once. Even though I think this one was used in Kincaid’s company, not mine. “Uh…before my time, of course.”

“And Earth just…sold it to Kepler pirates-I-mean-mercenaries?”

Socah snorted. “I doubt it. They probably sold it to some scrap dealer in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt, who virtuously provided them with all the forged paperwork they needed to show it was melted down for recycling. Then they turned around and sold it in the colonies for three times what they paid for it. It could have gone through half a dozen owners before the Keplers got their paws on it.”

“Well. Anyway, that’s more than I knew about it before. Thanks for that. Do you think it ever saw combat? Under its original owners, I mean.”

“It might have. There were still wildcat mop-up actions going on back then.”

“Mmm. Possibly a real piece of history, then.”

“Very possibly.” Socah nodded. “So, what else have you got?”

There were relatively few original IDEs newer than the 100s, because the sheer machine toxicity of qubitite had made paying the cost to ship them all the way out here a foregone conclusion—and Ad-IDEs and RIDEs had come along to make them unnecessary anyway. However, the fabbed replica section did have a number of newer models, both from Earth and some of the colonies. The Eridanite law enforcement designs in particular were rather interesting.

“They’re very…shiny,” Socah said.

“Shiny and chrome, yes,” Iria said. “Can I ask a personal question, Scott?”

“Of course.”

“Are you a brainboxer? I know the higher brass wanted officers to switch. Looks like you’ve gotten some Zharusian mods if you have, though. Is that a Joe Eight you’re wearing under the hardlight?”

“You could tell?” Oh, of course. With a collection this valuable, the museum door would have had sensors in it, and as a curator she’d have access to their readings. Socah, my lass, you’re getting feeble in your dotage.

“The odd thing is, they stopped using Eights about the same time they surplused my Five.”

Socah sighed. “I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you, Iria. I disguised myself because I wanted to see for myself how Sturmhaven treated its second-class citizens, then there wasn’t any good opportunity to drop it once you struck up a conversation. The truth is, it’s not actually a Joe.” She dropped the disguise, once more resuming her Earth military uniform and mohawk. “It’s a Jane Eight. Colonel Socah Gates, 56th Heavy Mech Infantry, North American Army, retired.”

Iria stared for a long moment. “Well. That does explain how you know so much about the older models.”

“Afraid so. I’m a bit of an older model myself.”

“You do understand, there’s something of a question of honor involved.”

Socah sighed. “I was afraid you’d say something like that. If you’re going to challenge me to a duel—” Her hand moved close to her pistol compartment.

Iria smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. Not even most Valkyries do that kind of duel anymore. I am going to challenge you…but I think you won’t mind so much.” She did something to a panel in the wall, and the lights except those over four of the reproduction IDEs dimmed. “These are the ones I personally own. Pick one of those…” Then the wall at the far end of the room slowly slid open, revealing a giant elevator. “…and meet me downstairs.”

Socah blinked. “Are you serious?”

“Perfectly.” She smirked. “We can’t use real weapons this close to city center, and we really don’t want to do more damage than necessary to our museum pieces—but simulated weapons and physical contact will be good enough.” She rubbed her hands together. “There are so few real mech pilots of any real skill around, how can I pass up the opportunity to duel a decorated veteran?”

Socah grinned. “That’s the real reason you asked ‘Scott’ down here, isn’t it? You’ve got an arena downstairs where you do IDE laser tag.”

Iria matched her grin. “Of course! How could I let any real mech pilot escape? I was going to have to manufacture some offense for a pretext, but happily you took that out of my hands—and this should be even more fun than I expected.”

“So you know, I won’t be held accountable for any physical damage to either your or my mechs.”

Iria waved a hand. “That’s understood. Mechs can be repaired. But people can’t.”

“Actually, I can, mostly, but point taken.” She considered the IDE replicas. “And what will you be in?”

“What else? My Block 5. I bring it out on special occasions.”

There were possibilities, especially since Socah’s clever granddaughter and her equally-clever business partner had reactivated the hardpoints on her Jane 8. It was the entire point of being in a Full Body Replacement brainbox—direct connection to the mech’s systems to make it an extension of her own body, rather than using clumsy controls or cyber linkages of limited effectiveness (though they generally still had those as backup). This would be her first real opportunity to try out the new firmware.

But would that make it a fair fight?

Among the replica mechs was an N-1, which the 56th had faced in Cornwall. It was about two-thirds the size of the Block 5, which made it a smaller target. It was an ungainly beast with a humanoid torso stuck on four spidery legs, a cramped cockpit, and armed with simulated missiles mounted on the shoulders and a pair of autocannons on the arms. The Block 5s were superior in every way, but in the hands of a skilled pilot… Which that crazy Baron way back when certainly didn’t have. Well, why not make this a challenge? “Well, time to saddle up.”

Iria raised an eyebrow as Socah headed for the N-1. “Seriously? You’re choosing that?

“In addition to all my experience, I also have my Jane—with connect hardpoints fully active. I might beat you too easily in something else.”

“In addition to all your other virtues, you’re modest, too, I see.”

Socah smirked. “If you beat me in this, I’ll pick something better to go for two out of three. You could say I feel a little nostalgia for this model. I’ll tell you why after.”

“Oooh! A duel and old war stories! I really lucked out tonight.”

Socah laughed. “See if you still feel so lucky after the duel.”

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The elevator doors opened onto a fairly large empty space. The ceiling was about thirty meters high—ample for some minimal jump jet use if you were careful. The arena itself was about a hundred meters across. Fairly small as battlefields went, but still room to maneuver for a couple of mechs. At the opposite end, Socah saw the Block 5 emerging into the same space. Well, there’s a role reversal.

The controls for the N-1 were working exactly as well as they’d ever had under the old regime, before the Jane’s firmware had been wiped on her retirement. The system readouts were right there in her field of view, and she could sense every limb and system of the mech just the same as in the “good old days.” It was still every bit as weird as it ever had been, feeling like she had four legs, but the sense memories were coming back to her.

The N-1 had never been one of her favorites, due to the four-legged issue and a few other idiosyncrasies, but she’d logged hundreds of hours in the trainers and the simulators all the same, because it was a credo of mech pilots from that era to remember where they came from—and given how many of those units were still in use by other armies, it was helpful to know from the inside what they were capable of in case you ever came up against them yourself. Like that time in Cornwall—not that those had been any particular challenge. In any event, she was glad for all that practice time now.

Iria’s voice came over the comm circuit. “I’m calling up a terrain map now. Randomly generated, so I won’t get any advantages from familiarity.”

“Thoughtful of you,” Socah sent back. “Really, you should take any advantage you can get. This ain’t a Jackie Chan movie, where the handsome young hero can kick the ass of the older, more-experienced guy just ‘cuz he’s got script immunity.”

“Either you’re really that good, in which case it will be an honor to be trounced by you, or I shall enjoy making you eat those words. Either way, I’m going to enjoy this. It will be a learning experience. For one of us, at least.” She paused. “And just how ‘young’ do you think I am? But thanks for the compliment anyway.”

Between them, the air blurred, and then hardlight terrain features solidified into view. A burned out urban landscape, littered with rubble-strewn streets and halfway-demolished buildings. There was no longer a clear line of sight to the opposite side, where the Block 5 had been. And the N-1’s sensors were treating the hardlight terrain as if it was real, blocking off a reading of the enemy amid all the ground clutter.

Socah grinned, feeling the old adrenaline surge. Granted, she hadn’t actually had real adrenaline to surge since the Jane replacement, but she still felt that same heightened sense of awareness and the feeling that time was slowing down. She wasn’t sure what collection of bio-mimicking subsystems was responsible for that, and she’d never really inquired because she enjoyed the feeling too much. It was a feeling she hadn’t had in far, far too long.

But she didn’t allow herself to get lost in it. She ran a quick mental replay to see whether Iria had been holding her beer in her left or right hand as she drank it. Most people tended to have a prejudice toward their handedness when picking a random direction, so if she wanted to get in behind her it would be a good idea to go the other way. Right it is…so I should go right, too. Unless she knows about that and intentionally chose to go the other way to cross me up…but no, can’t second guess myself. Either she went that way or she didn’t, and if she didn’t I’ll deal with it when it comes up. Socah began scuttling to the right, picking her way amid the rubble with the sure-footedness of four legs, keeping an eye out to the left for any signs of movement between buildings and rubble.

She’d worked her way about 90 degrees around the space with no sign of her enemy yet. Let’s poke at something and see what comes back. Setting target coordinates approximately but not quite directly across from herself, she fired off a couple of rockets. She had plenty to spare, and it might just provoke a response.

The volley found empty air. Wait a second…the Fives had a silent running mode for urban combat…

Socah ducked just as Iria made a swing for her head with a battleaxe. The 5s were slower while in silent running mode, which gave her time to rotate the N-1’s torso around and fire the autocannons. Iria only just managed to get behind a building, but still took some glancing shots off the 5’s shoulder armor. “I think that counts as first blood,” Socah said.

“I think it does,” Iria replied. “Well played. But this isn’t over yet. I almost had you, Colonel.”

We’ll see if you can catch me. The N-1 had a partial transformation. Wheels extended from its feet, legs locking into place, and the torso sunk down into the chassis. Iria had chosen an urban environment, and despite the rubble around, there was more than enough good surface for the wheels to roll on.

What the N-1 didn’t have was any kind of silent running. So she’ll know exactly where I am. Very well, let’s use that. She glanced up at the buildings as she rolled, carat-marking certain spots as she passed while keeping half an eye on the rear cameras. She knows better than to follow me directly, which means she’s one block over, cutting around. The other side street’s blocked off by rubble, so it has to be that one. And at the five’s best silent-running speed, she ought to be right about…

Two quick bursts from her auto cannon took out the only remaining structural framework of a three-story building, and it canted over and collapsed. Socah jinked over into the other street just in time to see the Block 5 stagger under the impact of several large chunks of rubble. Never one to waste an opportunity, Socah launched several rockets and let her have it with both auto cannons before continuing past the intersection and putting more rubble between herself and her enemy.

“Ow!” Iria yelped. “How did you…grrrr!”

Socah grinned. “This really is just like riding a bicycle. Funny how quickly it all comes back.” Socah kept one eye on the sky and the other on the ground as she slid into a firing position. She can’t pick her way back through that building collapse, so she either has to come on straight ahead or use the jump jets. Either way, I’ve got her.

Instead, she heard another building collapse. Not one near her, but on the other side of the street. Making her own intersection. Clever. Socah lobbed a couple of missiles over there to bracket the positions on the next street over that she could have taken, and kept moving further away. The rubble in this section was relatively flat, so silent running or not, she’d see Iria approaching unless she went all the way around the outside of the area. Which she might just do…

Socah kept her sensors peeled. The thing about the Five’s silent running mode was that it overheated easily, which meant Iria couldn’t do it continuously—especially if some of the damage she’d inflicted had knocked out a heat sink or two. So if she listened, she might just get a clue or two which way Iria was going. Just to keep her guessing, she fired a couple more missiles to drop in the general area of where Iria would be if she were trying to work her way around.

There was a sudden bloom of heat from her nine o’clock. And there go the heatsinks. Socah turned to face the threat and unloaded her remaining ordinance. The Five fell to one knee and collapsed from simulated damage.

“I give! I give! That was amazing!” Iria exclaimed. The hardlight ruins started to dissolve around them and the Five got back to its feet. “I barely got a single hit on you.”

“And then you only scratched the paint,” Socah said. “Still, you did very well with the silent running mode. You just used it too long.”

“The others won’t let me use it at all when we play matches like this anymore. And you did all of that in a century-old N-1.”

“The benefit of being an old fogey. When you’ve been at it as long as I was…” She shook her head. “Sometimes I think the only reason the North American Army was willing to let me go at all was that there just wasn’t anyone worth fighting anymore.”

Iria whistled. “I’d ask for best two out of three, but I don’t believe my ego could take being beaten so badly twice in a row.”

Socah grinned. “You’re too kind.”

“Please, come back upstairs and we’ll meet the others. I let them know what was going on before we started the match, and they’ve been watching remotely. I believe they’re all on their way over to congratulate you in person now.”

That’s going to be terrible for my ego. I fear there’s a risk I might become insufferable for a few days.”

“I’m afraid they may beg you for lessons. I know I certainly want to.” The Five fell to one knee again. “Teach me, sensei!”

Socah laughed. “Well, you never know. I just might, at that. After I get bored with touring Zharus, I’ll have to find something to do with myself. Let’s go park these and meet your friends.”

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By the time they were finished parking the mechs, running post-combat diagnostics, and doing an orderly shutdown, a group of about a dozen women had gathered in the museum lobby. They’d brought out a table and chairs, and even bottles of prosecco and a cake decorated with a fair depiction of an N-1 in frosting.

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Well, now. This is something.”

There were women from all three of the major political factions—Valkyries, Gaians, and Athenas. Some of them were dressed formally or semi-formally, with ceremonial armor or the breast-baring Minoan robes, while others were in street clothes that would be equally at home in Nextus or Uplift. “Congratulations!” one of the Minoan-garbed Athenas said. “That was amazing. Iria’s one of our best pilots, and you took her out just like that.”

“Ladies, I have over forty years of experience in one type of mech or another. Given the same amount of practice, any of you could have done the same. Well, the same amount of practice and a full-body prosthetic—that counts for something, too.”

Iria made introductions all around. “Nobody’s more delighted than I am to have seen a true ace pilot in action. Please warn us if we start to get too annoying, as I fear we might be inclined to fangirl all over you.”

Socah chuckled. “So noted. But it is nice to be appreciated—especially as old and rusty as I am. If I hadn’t been so long out of the cockpit, I’d have remembered first thing about that silent running mode.”

“If that’s you old and rusty, you must have been fearsome in your prime,” a Gaian put in.

“Well, I don’t like to brag,” Socah said, taking a sip from a flute of prosecco. “But…yes. Yes, I was.” She grinned. “By the way, I’m a little surprised to see so many people from all different factions together like this. How on Earth—or Zharus, rather—do you all manage to get along?”

“Oh, we have a rule that we leave politics outside,” Mindy, the Athena who’d spoken earlier, said. “If we should want to argue politics, we’ll go to the Loving Cup or some other pub and have flaming rows. And we often do. But that’s for out there. In here, it’s all about the giant robots.”

“Not as often as all that, really,” Iria said. “Certainly not as often as in the early days. It gives me some hope for the future of the polity. If we could only get everyone interested in giant robots, we’d have enough in common that there wouldn’t be so much fighting anymore.”

One of the other Valkyries rolled her eyes. “Again with the ‘giant robots for peace.’”

“Well, it’s just an idea.” Everyone else around the table chuckled.

“We were…wondering,” Mindy said. “Is there any way we might ask you to give us lessons at some point? We could pay a fair rate for expert instruction. Next to you, we’re all just fumbling around in the cockpit.”

“Well, it is nice to meet some real enthusiasts. I’m sure once I make the full round of the supercontinent with Joe and Julius I can find some time.”

“Oh. Have you been to Cape Nord yet?”

“No, we started out from Uplift and headed clockwise. It’ll be a while yet before we work our way around to there.”

“Well, I have. And a little advice. Try not to laugh too hard. They’re only men, after all.”

Socah chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I’m certainly getting plenty of practice at not laughing too hard here!

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After that, they cut the cake and shared out pieces, and a number of them had questions about Socah’s G.I. Jane prosthetic. A few of them had considered buying a body replacement unit themselves, given how many of them were on the market from other veteran immigrants, but hadn’t quite managed to convince themselves that replacing their entire body for the sake of their hobby was a quite sane thing to do.

“I’d hold off on that, if I were you.” Socah shook her head. “There are a lot of things you can do with a flesh body that you simply couldn’t in this metal and plastic thing, and I kind of miss them sometimes. About the only thing that’s kept me from swapping back now I’m here is inertia. I guess I’m not in that big of a hurry to make a major change to things either.”

After the cake was gone, and they’d collectively emptied a couple more bottles of prosecco, Socah regaled them with some of her war stories—the time she’d fought N-1s in Cornwall while escorting Joe and Mikel Steader, and some of the other times she’d been in combat. The tales were from the early part of her career, before Earth had started shipping her out to roll up wildcat colonies and she’d gradually lost the taste for the military life. All the same, it was fun reliving some of them for a receptive audience.

By the time some of the mech collectors began drifting away, it was well after midnight. Socah got more than a few requests for another duel from the other collectors, but demurred. “Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day. Joe and I are in town for at least a couple more days, and after this warm welcome we might even see about staying on a couple more. By the way, I might bring him and Julius by tomorrow, if you wouldn’t have any qualms about letting a ‘mere man’ in your museum.”

“Oh, no problem at all,” Iria said. “I brought you here when I thought you were a man, after all. We’re absolutely an equal-opportunity establishment. We’d even be open to a male co-curator, if we found someone with the interest and wealth to join—which has been pretty hard around here until recent developments.”

“Joe’s almost as interested in the big iron as I am.” Socah chuckled. “Back in the day, I used to use the promise of cockpit time in one of our trainers to try to keep him and Mikel out of trouble. Occasionally it even worked. Of course, lately he’s been interested in building designs from some of the TV shows he uncovered, but I’m pretty sure you could still find some common ground.”

“We’d be pleased to meet him,” another Valkyrie said. “We even wouldn’t give him a hard time about the war days. Well…much of a hard time…”

“You’d have a better chance of taking him in a mech duel, at the very least.” She chuckled. “It might be interesting if he brought along one of the custom toys from his warehouse. Oh, that reminds me. Did I mention that my granddaughter Rhianna is now the main mechanic for Clint Brubeck’s old IDE Chauncey?”

Iria raised an eyebrow. “The one that could supposedly turn into a fighter plane or submarine?”

That led to another half hour of conversation and stories.

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By the time the last of them left, it was halfway to sunrise. The last to leave was Iria, who offered to escort Socah back to the building where she was staying. “It’s not that far to walk from here, especially for a ‘Vooman uf Zturmhaven’ and a G.I. Jane.”

“Sounds good to me. I’d rather work my own servos than someone else’s lifters anyway. But just a sec.” She shifted from the uniform back to her usual flapper chic outfit. “The uniform’s great for reminiscing, but this is how I usually dress these days.”

“Oooh! You’re so cute!” Iria squealed, before blushing and clearing her throat. “Er…I mean, that’s a very nice look for you.”

Socah chuckled. “Thank you. Just so you know, I am already spoken for right now.”

“So I figured, the way you talk about Joe Steader. Still, there’s no harm in looking!”

Now it was Socah’s turn to blush. “Thanks for the compliment, but there’s not a whole lot about this old metal body that’s really worth looking at in that way.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can appreciate a fine painting or pretty statue without wanting to cuddle up with it.” She blushed again. “Pardon me. I may have had a little too much to drink tonight. Not all Women of Sturmhaven have a high alcohol tolerance.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right. Apart from Joe, it’s been a long time since anyone thought I was worth getting excited over.”

That killed conversation for a few minutes, then Iria changed the subject. “So, have you made any plans for places to visit tomor—er, today? I can offer a few suggestions.”

“I’d be glad to hear them. We didn’t exactly plan this stop, so we didn’t look into an itinerary. Is there a lot to see from a cultural standpoint?”

“Absolutely! There are three museums just within two blocks, not even counting our own. Listen…”

They talked companionably as they walked the rest of the way to the skyscraper with Lillibet’s penthouse on top. As they approached, Socah said, “By the way, you should come and speak to Lillibet Walton sometime. She’s something like you—a ‘VINO’ or ‘Valkyrie in Name Only,’ she calls it, having won the wealth and trappings in her duel. Though her sympathies are more to the Athena than the Gaian side, you might have some things in common. If nothing else, you’re both gearheads.”

“I just might do that.” Iria smiled ruefully. “It’s not as if anything I do at this point can burn any more bridges with the Brunhilde leadership of the party.”

“Perhaps it’s time for new party leadership. If the Valkyries lose the upcoming election as badly as it appears they will from the polls, there might be room for a reform movement. Lillibet might have some ideas there.”

“Well, it’s a thought. Though I don’t know if I want to go into politics. It’d leave less time for messing around with giant robots.” Iria grinned. “Well, here we are, then. Have a pleasant rest of the evening.” She yawned. “It’s time for my beauty rest.”

Socah smiled. “Thank you for a lovely evening. We’ll come by the museum this afternoon.”

Iria nodded. “We’ll see you then…sensei.

Socah laughed. “We’ll see about the ‘sensei’ part, but I’ll definitely see you at the museum.” She nodded farewell and proceeded back up the elevator.

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The silent eagle owl giving Joe a Death Glare on the branch above had hardly moved since arriving in Nature Range. After a few attempts to make conversation had been met with icy silence Joe had given up and decided to take up as much room as he could—as was appropriate for a large jaguar like himself. He stretched languidly, eyes on the hovering scoreboard that currently displayed a tie between Julius and Naomi.

Joe yawned and tried to doze. His own body was technically asleep. So, if I catnap while I’m sleeping…ugh. No thinky too hard about this one.

The score was, so far, tied at twenty. The game was prey-hunting rather than trying to take down one another. There was a time limit on each hunt, with the environment appropriate for owl or jaguar. But no matter how many rounds the two RIDEs went, they ended up tied.

“They’re really going at it,” Joe said offhandedly. “You must be proud—not just anyone could keep up with Jules like that.” If friendly conversation doesn’t work, maybe a little needling will.

It was enough to get a rise out of Olivia. “Your Julius is…formidable in battle. Unlike yourself.”

“According to the people who built him, one of the purposes of RIDEs was to complement their partners. He’s the fighter—I’m the lover.” Though you should see me at the controls of a hovertank. There’s another big owl out there who’d disagree with you… Joe considered bringing up the matter of the medal they’d earned for fighting during the war, but decided against it. There was no point in needlessly antagonizing her.

Olivia hooted derisively. “I doubt that very much.”

Joe’s tail swished placidly. “You’ll never know.”

The scoreboard ticked over to 21 for Julius. Then, a second later, Naomi’s counter ticked over to the same score. Joe chuckled. “I get the feeling they could keep this up all night.”

“Okay, this is fuckin’ pointless!” Julius growled from his part of the arena. “I’m calling a goddamn tie.”

“I reluctantly agree,” Naomi said. She glided down from altitude and settled on the branch next to Olivia. “But I must again remind you, language.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault I have fuckin’ RI tourettes.”

“I wouldn’t have him any other way,” Joe added, getting to his haunches.

“Anyway, you’re good,” Julius said. “As I’d expect from a Harpy.”

Naomi dipped her head. “You are…better than I expected from a rich man’s bodyguard.”

“Hey, I gotta be in top form. There are crazy-ass Firefly fans out there, y’know.”

“So, they’ve reached a detente,” Joe said. “How about us? I don’t have any hard feelings, for my part. You were just doing your job as a Sturmhaven soldier; I was just doing mine as a Nextus citizen. It’s in the past. Why dig it up again?”

“It was our first mission together,” Naomi said. “While I spent the next few years in storage, she was in a Nextus POW camp.”

“I was hardly a green recruit at the time,” Olivia added. “We were all volunteers for the Harpies, all of us experienced airwomen of many battles. We were told just how extreme our bodies would have to change. I was more bird than woman. I volunteered, because that sacrifice was necessary, for the greater good of the Motherland.”

“And we were taken out by the likes of Joe Steader’s bodyguard,” Naomi said. “We honestly expected to kill you that night. How could Nextus be so stupid as to mount weapons on civilian buildings?”

“You’d have to ask General Latimer,” Joe said. “He was in charge of the Home Guard. Oh, wait. He’s dead.” He licked the back of his forepaw.

“Or maybe he’s an Integrate somewhere. Wouldn’t that be a fuckin’ hoot?”

Joe stopped licking to stare at him. “Don’t even joke about that.”

“Oh, c’mon, don’t tell me you never once thought it. Skimmer accidents were a favorite of the ‘jacks, weren’t they? I’m just sayin’…”

“Well, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Ugh.”

“You’re such a…child, even among Sturmhaven men,” Olivia huffed. “More than twice my age, and you act in this manner. We’ll see you at the court hearing. Naomi, we’re going.”

Naomi glared at Julius. “I don’t hold grudges. But don’t think for a moment that we’re friends now.”

“Yeah, that would be too fuckin’ much to hope for. You ever hit Uplift, be sure an’ stop in at the Brubeck museum. Maybe some people there you should talk to.”

With a derisive snort in stereo, the two eagle owls faded out of Nature Range.

“That actually went better than I expected,” Joe said. He turned his head to look at himself. “And I think I’m getting the hang of this bod.”

“Looks good on you, Joe,” Julius said. “Man. Just another fuckin’ day in the life of a G.I., Joe. Tell you what, though. She’s gonna be like that, next time I won’t hold back and give her a draw.”

I’m sure Naomi’s saying the same sort of thing to Olivia just about now. “What time is it in the Real, anyway?”

“Pretty late. Socah just walked in the door. All smilin’ and happy. Looks like she had a fuckin’ good time somewhere.”

“A good time? Here? That’s unexpected. Shall we go inquire?”

“Yeah, why the fuck not. Wakey-wakey comin’ up in the Real…”

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Socah opened the door and walked quietly into the room, using her Jane’s low-light vision so as not to disturb potential sleepers. But as she entered, she saw the bed was still unused. Then the jaguar Fuser standing statue-like in a corner stretched and opened his eyes. “Morning, O Mighty Huntress!” Julius said cheerfully. “Be just a minute for Laughing Boy to wake up here…you can go ahead and get the lights, I’ll filter my optics.”

Socah nodded, hitting the switch. “I’ve just had the most wonderful time tonight. I might have to change my mind about this place. Or parts of it, anyway.”

Joe yawned. “You sound happier than I’ve heard you in a while. What gives?”

“I went out for a drink, and I had the most wonderful random encounter…” Socah sketched it out for them, and transferred video footage of the battle across. Before leaving the museum, she’d downloaded the imagery from all the spectator cameras, including the ones in the cockpits of both IDEs, so there was enough to give an excellent view of what had happened.

“You were in an N-1 and she was in a Block 5? The reverse of Cornwall? That does sound like fun. I’d heard something about an IDE museum here, but never was more than mildly curious about it, given how unlikely it was I’d ever end up here. But now that I am, I think I would like to see the place.”

“Funny thing—Iria seemed a pretty decent sort for all she’s nominally a Valk. But even the other Valks were all acting like reasonable people. Not a ‘Brunhilde’ in the bunch.”

Joe chuckled. “Maybe we should have them talk to Olivia. I’ve never seen an owl with such a stiff neck.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Sounds like you had an interesting evening, too.”

“Watched Jules and Naomi’s Nature Range competition. Olivia was there spectating as well.”

Socah listened as Joe described their conversation. She nodded. “A ‘Brunhilde’ of the old school, that one. I don’t expect she and Iria would have much in common.”

Joe chuckled. “Maybe we should invite her to the museum and then I could face her in single mech combat. I’m not you, but I’m no slouch either. If she really thinks I’m no fighter, she might be in for a shock.”

Socah snorted. “Assuming she even knows anything about giant robots.”

“Haven’t you seen any anime? All warrior women know about giant robots.” Joe grinned. “Anyway…we can talk more about that in a couple hours, I guess. You’ll be needing your own beauty rest, after all.”

“I could think of a few interesting things to do during naptime, if Julius doesn’t mind lending us his VR.”

“Do I get to watch?” Julius asked innocently. “Oh yeah, sure, go ahead. Do your constantly-in-heat human things. I’ll just be, I dunno, screening old episodes of National fuckin’ Geographic or something.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Thanks for understanding.”

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A couple of hours later found the three of them sitting around a breakfast table with Lillibet/Guinevere and Gloria/Annalinda. Joe and Julius were showing off Julius’s minima shell, which also had the advantage of not needing a RIDE-sized chair for eating. Guinevere kept casting glances of undisguised envy in his direction.

Lillibet chuckled. “What are you so envious of? You’re not all that much bigger yourself, you know. I certainly wouldn’t have room to wear one of those and you too.”

“I know, it’s just…someone has a shiny new toy, and I don’t.”

“Have I shown you my bike bod’s shell mode?” Julius asked. “They’re gonna be all the fuckin’ rage, soon.”

“You’ve got shell mode? I think I’m gonna turn green. Bad enough the big guy gets to have it and I don’t…and one of the doggies back in Uplift…”

Lillibet chuckled. “I would like to see that. It shouldn’t be too hard to retrofit that into Guin, Donizetti that she is. I need to talk to Signor D. about that next time we’re in Nextus. ”

“It’s pretty fuckin’ not bad,” Julius said with a touch of smugness.

“So what are your plans for the day?” Lillibet asked. “I was thinking Gloria, Guin, and I could show you around some.”

Socah nodded. “That’s kind of you to offer, but we know you’re busy with local politics.”

“Oh, this is one of those rare cases where the personal and the political align. Not only would having us around help to head off any further incidents against you three, but it’ll also remind people of our strong opposition to Valkyrie policies.”

Joe shook his head. “The life of a political football. All right, we’ll help you make a touchdown or two. If nothing else, we’ll have something more to talk about next time we see your folks.”

“Ah, my folks.” Lillibet smiled ruefully. “I’m becoming such a stranger back there, what with Alpha Camp on the one hand and here on the other.”

“Have you been to visit the IDE museum?” Socah asked. “It’s not far from here.”

Lillibet cocked her head. “There’s an IDE museum near here? I haven’t lived in the neighborhood very long, and most of my work here’s been downtown.”

“We’ll have to show it to you. I met with the curators last night. I think you’d find them interesting.”

“I’ll look forward to it!” Lillibet grinned. “I’m not as crazy about those old monsters as some, but given that I work with someone that size myself, I do have an interest. Oh! That reminds me, I should be sure to take you by the training grounds where Bertha’s working up her new unit. We’ve restored two more original CSAs, and Fenris is in town helping with the training, too. The first new ones should be coming off the line next month.”

Joe nodded. “That does sound like fun. We’ll have to bring the car along so we can meet with them on an even footing.”

“One thing we’re happy about is Bertha’s decided not to segregate the new CSA division,” Guinevere put in. “Made the decision all by herself, too—no input from us or Fennie.”

“At the moment, it’s more from pragmatism than anything else,” Lillibet said. “They just don’t have enough CSAs yet for training them separately to be feasible. But Bertha’s not opposed to carrying the integration forward even when they have more units.” She chuckled. “Heh. We’re going to have to find a different word for that. It could be confusing.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting them myself, from what I’ve heard about Fenris,” Socah said. “It will be interesting to meet RIDEs who could go toe-to-toe with my old IDEs.”

Joe chuckled. “Maybe you should introduce them to that museum. Give those duelists a real challenge.”

“You know…what with Earth apt to invade one of these years, it might not be a bad idea, at that. Get them some practice going up against ‘the enemy.’”

“Like Top Gun,” Joe said. “You know, in the real life Top Gun program they’d use similar planes to the Soviet Union as ‘adversary’ aircraft for the pilots to practice against.”

Socah chuckled. “I’ll take your word for that.”

Soon enough breakfast was over, and servants came to collect the dishes. Lillibet shook her head as she watched them go. “I swear I’ll never get used to this.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Why? Didn’t your parents have a serving staff?”

“Well, yeah, but…those people worked for Mom and Dad. Having people working for me…that’s weird.”

“Not because it’s Sturmhaven and they’re all male?” Socah paused. “And attractive?”

“That’s not my fault!” Lillibet insisted. “Annalinda hired them; I inherited them. And I couldn’t just fire them because they’re too handsome! That wouldn’t be fair.”

Joe chuckled. “First world problems, Sturmhaven style.”

Socah glanced at Gloria. “And how often do you talk about her as if she isn’t here?”

Lillibet sighed. “Often enough. I suppose it’s a bad habit to be in, but if you’d met her the way I did…” She mimicked a Sturmhaven accent. “‘I’m going to stripe you like a tiger!’ I…haven’t really had the urge to interact much with her since then. But that makes it too easy to forget she’s around, I suppose. Especially since she doesn’t speak up much on her own.”

“When you get to be my age, you start to realize holding grudges can get in the way of things. If you really want to rehabilitate her, you can start by talking to her. Isn’t that right, Annalinda?”

“Don’t go doing me any favors,” Annalinda said. “I’m just fine with being forgotten about.”

“Which is all the more reason why I shouldn’t.” Lillibet shook her head. “Sorry, Annalinda. It’s not your fault how you were raised. I’ll try to do better.” The Valkyrie didn’t reply.

“Anyway, let’s get the fuck right out of here,” Julius proposed. “We’ll go get the car.”

Separator k.png

A few minutes of driving brought them to the outskirts of Sturmhaven, and to a checkpoint staffed by Sturmhaven military police. “Uh…are we sure this is such a good idea, bringing me here? Accused war criminal, et cetera?”

Lillibet smiled. “Don’t worry about it. Bertha’s the commandant of this particular base—one of the conditions we negotiated for her return to head up their CSA program. I’ve already cleared it with her, and she’d actually like to meet you. Plus, she’ll take great pleasure in thumbing her nose at the Valks’ latest episode of rank stupidity.” She nodded to the Sturmhaven she-wolves in military-police armbands. “Well?”

The wolf Fusers exchanged dubious glances, then the leader shrugged. “Go ahead.”

They pulled into a vast open area, enclosed on all sides by forty-meter tall walls. “This is their training area,” Lillibet explained. “They practice all forms of close combat here—martial arts, melee combat, target practice…” They rounded a corner to come upon…an immense ping-pong table, around which stood four six-meter-tall twin-tailed white wolf Fusers. Two male wolves were on one side, and two females on the other. Three light RIDEs—two wolves and a jaguar—hovered nearby on lifters at a sufficient height to observe the play. “Oh, and R&R, too. Hey, you bunch!”

“Welcome, Lillibet and friends!” Bertha said, not taking her eyes off the table as she returned a serve back over the table at Fenris. He returned it in turn, then her partner, then his partner, and so on. “Pardon me just a moment…there! I believe that’s game point?”

“As you say,” Fenris rumbled. “Well played.” The table, paddles, and ball disappeared as they all turned to face the newcomers. Joe and Socah climbed out of the car, and Julius converted to his immense Walker form to peer at the wolves curiously.

“Fuckin’ ping-pong?” Julius wondered. “Really?”

“It’s a great hand-eye coordination exercise,” Paul put in from inside Fenris. “Both for the RIDE and their partner. Helps blow the dust off after so much time out of combat.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Using hardlight gear?”

“It’s the only way we could get the physics right at this size,” Paul explained. “Otherwise, you have to deal with the question of a lot more air resistance, varying elasticity, and so forth.”

“Not to mention, this way we do not ignite the ping-pong ball from friction when we return a serve,” Bertha’s pilot, Major Diana Fuerst, added. “That did happen, when we first tried it with a real set.”

“Right, so, introductions all around,” Lillibet said. “I hope I remember everyone. Colonel Bertha, chief of the wolf CSA program, and her Fuse partner, Lieutenant Colonel Diana Fuerst. Their tailgunner, Lieutenant Colonel Hedy and her partner, Captain Carlotta Kinski. And there are Fenris and Paul Anders, no rank since they’re here as civilian consultants. Me and Guin, you know.

“And here we have our new recoverees and their program partners. As new inductees into the program, they’re all lieutenants. The other big she-wolf is Natasha, her partner Vicki Rutledge—another one of the original pilots. Their tailgunner is Selena, the jaguar, and her partner is Natalia Sousa. Finally, the other big guy is Gunther, partner Lewis North—he actually crossrode to get the pilot slot, I hear—tailgunner Wulfgang, partner Sasha Francks.” Lillibet nodded, satisfied, then went on.

“And as for you guys, here we have ‘Crazy’ Joe Steader, his partner Julius, and Colonel Socah Gates, retired.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” Fenris said. “That’s an interesting shell you have, Julius. A Donizetti, or I miss my guess.”

“I haven’t had much chance to really play with the Big Jag yet,” Julius said. He shifted it from Walker form to shell mode. “Not as tall as you all, but hey.”

“You’re a lot taller than I am!” Selena said. “I feel soooo inadequate right now…”

“You’re really all quite remarkable,” Joe said, shading his eyes to stare up at the wolves. “I read about you, but I didn’t imagine I’d ever get the chance to see any of you up close, the cold war being what it was—and then the line was decommissioned, which I was sad to hear. I’m glad you’re coming back.”

“Is goot to be back!” the one called Gunther said. “And to be included amongst mine female counterparts is indeed an honor!” Out of his field of vision, Fenris rolled his eyes a little. “At last we are whole!”

:We’re working on that,: Lillibet sent privately.

“Fewer exclamations if you please, Gunther,” Bertha said.

Fenris considered Julius thoughtfully. “How would you feel about a little wargame? We have been working on team coordination, but it’s hard to find worthy opponents in this size class. And an old soldier in a Donizetti shell would be about as worthy as they come.”

“I’m about as big as one of those ancient N-1s in shell mode,” Julius said. “Plus you’ve got that extra pair of partners on me. Huh. Still, I’d like to put this ‘zetti frame through some paces.”

“Hey, count me in, too,” Joe said. “After the mech combat Socah got to do last night at the museum, I want to get in a little field exercise myself. I’m just a little concerned, though, that four on one might not be a fair fight.”

“Meh. It’ll be okay,” Julius said. “We can fuckin’ go easy on ‘em.”

Natasha barked a laugh. “Oh, it will be fun making you eat those words!”

Julius smirked. “Or trying to, anyway.”

“Oh, goody,” Guinevere said. “Ready, Lil?”

Lillibet grinned. “Sounds like fun. Let’s ready up!”

“I’ll just find a good vantage point to observe,” Socah said.

“There’s an observation tower just over there with a good view,” Bertha suggested.

“Great! Then give us starting positions and let’s fuckin’ get it on!” Julius reached down and put out a hand for Joe to step on, then lifted him up to his shoulder and slid his head forward to expose his neck hatch. Joe climbed down into the pilot’s position and strapped himself in.

The wolf CSA RIDEs’ partners climbed aboard, and the RIDEs moved to operate ends of the arena as hardlight projection systems activated to create a simulated jungle environment. “Mmm, feels like home,” Julius said.

“Don’t get too cocky now,” Joe warned. “There’s still sixteen of them to the two of us. And if two heads are better than one, sixteen have to be a lot better than two.”

“Meh, four’s all we’ve got to worry about. And I’m not too fuckin’ bothered about those odds.”

“For the honor of Sturmhaven!” Bertha called out over the comm. “Begin!”

“By the power of Greyskull!” Julius sent back. “Comin’ ta get’chas!”

As they moved forward, Joe checked the displays. “You know, our sensors should be giving better returns than this. Even in a real jungle.”

“I think they’ve got some kinda stealth mode. Or else it’s something to do with the exercise. Wouldn’t be as much fun if you could tell where everyone was right off.”

“What kind of weapons do we have here?”

“Pretty standard Donizetti self defense loadout, but for the sim I’ve a pair of fuckin’ huge shoulder-mount beam cannons, too—nearly as good as the ones those CSAs have. Think we’ll four-paw it from here…” Julius dropped down to Walker mode. “Nice and sneaky-like.”

“Good plan. Present a lower profile for targeting.” Joe paused. “Are you humming ‘Run Through the Jungle’?”

The jaguar moved through the foliage, its patterning blending in with the sun-dappled undergrowth. “Now lessee…think Bertha was ‘round this way. As their leader, take her out first…”

“Natasha was a little further back, Fenris was in the opposite corner…” Joe said. “But…”

“Oh, no. Don’t fuckin’ say it. I can feel you fuckin’ wanna say it. Don’t you even…”

Joe put on a mock German accent, mimicking an astronaut from a long ago TV episode. “I vunder vhere Gunther vent?”

Julius sent an eyeroll emoticon across their link. “Arrrrrgh, you hadda go and say it.”

Joe chuckled. “You know me too well, buddy.”

“Yeah, to my fuckin’ chagrin.” He chuckled. “Lessee if we can work our way ‘round without getting spotted…”

“You know, I’m not really sure this is going to work out as well as hoped,” Joe said. “Donizetti or not, there’s still four of them, with four tailgunners.”

Julius sent a shrug emoticon. “Meh. You want the truth, thing is I’ve kinda caught the fucking diplomacy in my old age. I sorta figured from the outset they’re gonna win. But this way, they get to say they kicked butt on the dirty Nextus interloper, and I get to say yeah, but it took four of ya to do it. So it’s what they call a win-win.”

Joe chuckled. “Really.”

“Yeah. Also, I wanna see how many I can take down ‘fore they get me. I’m hoping for at least two.”

Joe shook his head. “You just keep surprising me.”

“Well, good! Means I’ve got fuckin’ hidden depths kinda thing.”

“I mean, I’d have thought you’d have held a grudge over the thirty-five years thing, if anything…”

“Maybe I did for a while…but it’s like you said. They were just doing their jobs, we were just doing ours. War sucks.” Julius sent an emoticon of a headshake. “Not too long after I woke back up, I did some thinking an’ figured out…this’s the kinda second fucking chance most people don’t get. What’s the good of wasting it by bein’ pissed off at people over shit that went down decades ago? I don’t got room for that crap in this new life. I’m gonna enjoy every second of it, and not stay stuck in the past.” He paused. “Well, ‘cept for maybe Fritz. He’s a special fuckin’ case, that one, an’ I’ll keep that grudge for a while. Now shush, we’re getting close…”

Joe grinned. Me, shush? You’re the one doing most of the talking… But under the circumstances, it seemed wiser to keep that to himself.

Julius poked his muzzle through the undergrowth. The information from his sensor package came up on the displays in the cockpit. Heat traces showed a very large RIDE had been here just a moment ago—

Abruptly, Julius sprang, just as twin energy beams pierced the position where he had been just a moment before. Releasing clouds of minimissiles from his shoulders, he continued to lunge forward, circling around and bringing cannons to bear. Dodging more blasts, he centered his crosshairs on the huge wolf-shaped silhouette and fired. Sensors registered a direct hit, just as the minimissiles homed in and explosions blossomed all over it. Julius kept running.

“Problem with these guys is they’re fucking big, but not so much fast. They’re not really meant for solo combat—they’re s’posta be command and control for a lot of smaller types who do most of the actual fighting.” Julius dodged again as another cannon blast pitted the ground nearby. “I wish I had a fucking grappling hook launcher, I’d do the whole Luke Skywalker AT-AT Captain America: Civil War thing. Oh well, that only works in the movies anyway.”

More silhouettes lit up on Julius’s sensors. “I’ve got positions on ‘em now…throwing up ECM, engaging random-walk dodging pattern—” Another pair of white-hot energy beams passed over his shoulder. “Whew, fuckin’ close! Some singed fur, there…” He centered one of the silhouettes in his crosshairs, and Joe felt the mech shift around him as Julius went from Walker to Fuser form on the fly, using the momentum from the charge to carry him forward into the next giant wolf. His shoulder slammed into it right at the waist, then he slashed with the monomolecular sword blade in his right hand as he moved past.

That’s vhere Gunther vent!” Joe quipped.

“I don’t have the attention to spare to fuckin’ smack you right now, so just consider yourself fuckin’ smacked.” Julius dropped back to Walker form and kept charging.

And suddenly, the simulation stopped. The jungle vanished and all the hardlight weapons blinked out leaving four wolves and a jaguar standing in an empty field. “What is this?” Bertha demanded.

“I almost had him!” Gunther exclaimed.

Julius snorted. “In your dreams!”

A huge eagle owl circled above the training ground. “By my authority as a Valkyrie MP, this exercise is over!” Olivia broadcast.

“Dafuq?” Julius said, looking up. “She’s really off her nut, Joe. Even I’m pissed off now.”

Lillibet sniffed. “She’d better enjoy that authority while she still has it, is all I can say.”

“You are overreaching your authority!” Bertha growled. “I am in command of this base and everything that happens on it.”

“So you can display our newest secret weapon to our enemies?”

“Oh, gimme a fuckin’ break,” Julius sneered. “The specs of the WLF-CSA line have been common knowledge for years, and the way the new link-up system performs in battle is a matter of public record thanks to the fuckin’ Alpha Camp dust-up. This ain’t no thing, ‘cept for you wanting to fucking make it one. Lady, what is your problem?”

The avian RIDE landed and changed to Fuser mode. Unlike their first encounter on the roof of Joe’s penthouse, Naomi had a full suite of hardlight feathers. She looked very impressive, even menacing, materializing full Valkyrie regalia, pointing her spear straight at Julius. “He should be taken to a prison cell, and the rest of you should be court martialed and scrapped!”

Julius stared at her, then burst into laughter. “Wow, lady, you sure you’re a bird? ‘Cause you’re like a dog who won’t let go of the ball.”

“I have contacted Col. Baines at CSA Division Command,” Bertha said. “She’ll push this up as high up the chain as possible. Absolutely intolerable!”

“I see kindergarten let out early again.” Socah Gates strolled up, in her own full military regalia. “Really, are you planning to follow us around all day out of concern we might possibly get to enjoy ourselves in your polity? This is really infantile behavior—not at all what the vaunted reputation of the Sturmhaven military would lead me to expect.”

“Conduct unbecoming an elected official, to start,” Lillibet said from Fenris’s turret. “You’re starting to rack up real ethical charges here. You’re just stacking the deck against yourself and the Valks with each stunt like this you pull.”

“I will have satisfaction, one way or another!” Olivia said.

“Satisfaction, huh?” Joe said. “Well, if you’re challenging me to a duel, I get to choose the weapons. Just you versus me—no Julius or Naomi involved.”

The Valkyrie snorted. “You? Duel me? Seriously?

“It should be good for a laugh, if nothing else,” Naomi put in.

“Meet us at the IDE museum downtown at…oh, let’s say 1900 hours,” Joe said. “I’ll have to talk to the owners to make sure it’s okay with them, but if it is…we can have our duel there, in their laser tag arena. If I win, you leave us the hell alone.”

Olivia smirked. “Oh, really? Well, then, when I win, you will submit to Sturmhaven justice!”

Joe nodded. “It’s a deal. Now get the hell out of here.”

“And don’t let the fuckin’ screen door hit you where you sit on the way out!”

“Very well. We shall see you soon.” The owl returned to Walker form and took off once more.

Socah watched her go, then turned to Joe and Julius, eyebrow raised. “Are you sure that was wise?”

Joe shrugged. “Is it possible to be both wise and crazy?”

“Sheesh.” Julius shook his head. “Joe, I hope your memories ain’t fooling you and you’re really as good as you think you are.”

“Hey, I had a great teacher.” Joe grinned. “Anyway, maybe if I give her a reason to think I’m more than just empty talk, she’ll back off.” He turned to face the wolves. “You folks are all welcome to come along and watch, if you want. I think there’d be room for you, in a building built to house giant robots.”

“We would not miss it!” Natasha said. “If our commandant agrees, of course.”

“I think it sounds like fun,” Bertha said. “Squad, prepare for a field trip this afternoon!”

Separator k.png

After that, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of point to resuming the interrupted exercise. Promising to meet the others at the museum later, Lillibet, Guinevere, Gloria, Joe, Julius, and Socah headed out. After a little discussion, Fenris and Paul decided to join them, too, so Lilli and Guin rode along in the tank turret.

They spent the rest of the morning touring various spots of interest. Lillibet showed them the Zemstvo building, Valkyrie Circle, and the arena where she’d dueled Annalinda. Joe had a hearty chuckle at the “Roberta W. Heinlein” quote etched on the Valkyrie Circle monument. “Well, someone certainly missed the point…”

They also visited a couple of museums dedicated to the war, and all the soldiers who had fallen on both sides. Joe took in the exhibits, and shook his head. “So much stupidity on both sides of the war. I’m really not proud of the part my family had in it. But it’s aggravating that some people are still clinging to old wounds.”

Finally, as afternoon rolled around, they pulled up in front of the IDE museum. “I just commed Iria, and she said she’d meet us—ah, there she is.” Socah climbed out of the car and nodded to the green-haired woman as she stepped out of the museum. “Iria, this is Joe Steader, and Julius. And there we have Lillibet Walton and Guinevere, Paul Anders and Fenris, and Gloria and Annalinda. Everyone, Iria Parzival, museum co-curator.”

Iria smiled. “I’m pleased to meet you all. Please, come in! I’ll open the mech doors for you all to fit.” A few moments later, a section of wall moved aside, leaving enough room for the Jaguar and the CSA tank to pull in.

Joe got out, and Julius shifted to shell mode. Joe looked around and whistled. “Quite a collection you’ve got here. I’m definitely impressed. Is that an Eridanite Patrolmech? Mikel had a customized version when he lived there.”

“I hope you’re not going to choose that one,” Socah said.

“Nah. I have another one in mind, but I want to let Olivia choose first. Uh…but we should probably ask Iria about it first thing.”

“Ask me about what?”

“Uh…well, Socah told me about your mech arena, and…I was wondering if we might borrow it and a couple of your mechs this afternoon,” Joe said. “I sort of challenged a Valkyrie MP to a grudge match.”

“He did,” Lillibet said. “I saw him. I could barely believe it myself.”

Iria stared at him, then laughed. “If you were anyone else but Crazy Joe Steader I’d say no. But in return, I’d like to see this legendary mecha garage of yours. I have a thing for Gundams.”

“Oh, sure. I hardly ever get the chance to show it off. You and your sister curators are all invited, next time I’m back in Nextus—though it may be a while, since we’ve got most of the Coastal Ring still ahead of us.”

“We can wait. Now, I expect the one you challenged is that harpy who’s been griefing you. If that’s the case, as a War vet I imagine she does have a decent grounding in big iron. Given that RIDEs were very new and hadn’t been used in warfare yet, IDE operation and battle strategy were taught to most officer candidates back then as the closest analogue. They may very well even have studied some of the actions Colonel Gates was in, given that the 56th was Earth’s most-combat-decorated mech division by far.”

“Well, that sets my mind at ease,” Joe said. “Good.”

Iria cocked her head. “Good?”

Joe nodded. “It would be a pretty hollow victory if she were a complete newbie.”

“Uh-huh.” Lillibet shot Gloria a meaningful look.

“It’s an open question whether she’s kept current with her skills, but odds are pretty good she has a thousand hours or so in simulators and at least a couple hundred hours in real IDEs from OCS days. The Sturmhaven Officer Candidate School had a few dozen, mostly fabbed reproductions. Some of those are right here in our museum, in fact. That Block Four there, and that VSF-25, off the top of my head. She might well take one of those, if their owners agree. If she wants to choose the N-1, though, I won’t say no.”

“I think I have an idea what Joe’s gonna pick,” Julius said. “I think I’m jealous.”

“Aw, you know I’ve only got eyes for you.” Joe grinned. “But I guess I have a lot of passing flings.”

“This is really impressive,” Lillibet said. “And Socah mentioned that you’re a fellow VINO?”

“I didn’t use that term, but given the direction the party has taken these days, it seems like a valid one.” Iria shrugged. “I suppose most of those who’ve felt as I do shifted over to the Gaians, but I like the shiny armor too much to give it up.”

“We should talk, later.” Lillibet grinned. “If the election shakes out the way I think it’s going to, a more moderate Valkyrie faction might be just the ticket down the road.”

“True enough, but first we should worry about that Brunhilde who’ll be coming by a little later.”

“This is intriguing,” Fenris rumbled. “I hadn’t been aware that this museum was here. I do believe it could be good training for us to match versus you in your arena, should you have no objection. It is hard to find other adversaries in our size class to train against.”

“I don’t know how fair a match that would be, but I would be up for the challenge, and I expect a number of the others would, too.” Iria smiled. “Just fighting each other all the time does tend to get boring after a while.”

“It might be closer than you think,” Fenris said. “One of our drawbacks in combat is that we tend to be slower to move and react than our smaller brethren. But against IDEs, we might be more evenly matched.”

“Hmm.” Socah considered the other IDEs thoughtfully. “I’ll confess I’m not fully aware how much you’ve practiced since I first gave you Block Five lessons back in the day, but if Olivia has had a decent amount of training, this could be an interesting fight, indeed.”

“Oh, I got in a good deal of piloting practice during the ‘30s and ‘40s. After I mostly recovered from my first bout of drinking to forget. It was something more constructive to throw myself into, as well as a way to get some fighting in without partnering some other RIDE.” Joe smiled thinly. “It proved useful enough in the end—I even managed to help take down a couple of Integrates in combat, well before DINsec made that easier. And then there was helping Clemmie and company lock down the Coffeehouse last year.”

“You were involved in the fight against Fritz?” Iria said. “I never heard about that.”

“Well, my days of self-promotion and bragging on myself are in the distant past. Mostly, at least.” Joe shrugged. “It’s one thing to make a big deal out of releasing a bunch of old TV shows, but it didn’t feel right to brag on taking part in something that really concerned everybody. And a lot of other people did more about it than I did. Especially since early on I was kind of on Fritz’s side, by accident.”

Julius snorted. “I still find all that crap I slept through hard to believe, even after reading Joe’s memories of it. It’s like reading bad fanfic starring all your bestest friends, and then learning it really fucking happened.”

Socah looked over Joe’s shoulder. “Well, don’t look now, but they’re here.”

Naomi’s Fuser shadow passed over the front glass as they descended to the front doors. Olivia stepped inside, dressed in more understated leather outfit instead of full armor, except for a slightly ridiculous winged headpiece.

Iria stepped forward. “Good afternoon. I’m Iria Parzival. As one Valkyrie to another, welcome to our museum.”

“Curious. I had no idea this was even here,” Olivia said, barely acknowledging Iria’s presence. “But then, the building is owned by a prominent Athena social justice warrior. I’m disappointed to see a sister Valkyrie involved.”

“Actually, nearly half of our co-curators are Valkyries, and only three are Athenas. But this is a museum, not a political debate club.”

“Hello!” Joe called cheerfully. “Glad you decided to show up. As you might have guessed, my weapon of choice is IDEs, in the simulated mech combat arena downstairs. I’ve been informed you probably know your way around the cockpit. So, those are the terms. No Julius, no Naomi. Just you and me, mano a…uh…womano. I’ll even let you pick first.”

“I can only offer the mechs or reproductions that I personally own, and I’ve beamed those to Naomi for your perusal,” Olivia said. “But if you have your heart set on one of the others, I can contact their owner and get permission. I’ve already let the other co-curators know what’s up, so I expect they’ll all be here before too long.”

The Brunhilde looked imperiously around at what she could see from the front lobby. “You have quite an impressive collection here, regardless.” She pointed at the Eridanite mechs. “Are those PM-25 Sonatas? I imagine they’re either replicas or all the celerite was stripped out before shipping.”

“They’re replicas with Q-based systems, of course,” Iria said. “Given the known compatibility issues between celerite and Q, it’s doubtful that an original model would even function on Zharus.” She smirked. “Which probably means we’re safe from invasion by the Eridani, no matter what else might happen.”

“Gotta watch out for those sneaky Eridani,” Joe said. “I should know, my brother’s one now.”

“I’d suggest choosing whichever model is most familiar to you from your OCS training,” Iria said. “If you haven’t put in much cockpit time since then, the familiarity will help. And if you want to spend a few minutes refreshing your memory before the duel, that can be arranged.”

Olivia sniffed. “I’m sure I have little to worry about regardless.”

Joe grinned. “Of course. After all, how much could a mere dilettante know about mech combat? Especially if he’s just a man.

Julius sneezed. “Don’t provoke her, maybe? Oh, wait. If you’re wanting her to get mad so she makes a bunch of mistakes, hey, fuckin’ provoke away.”

Lillibet crossed her arms. “Personally, I think this notion of dueling is a barbaric custom which should have no place in a forward-thinking polity. But I’m sure it’s none of my business.”

“Terribly gauche,” Fenris agreed.

Naomi glared at Fenris. “If your opinion is required, we will ask for it. Speak only when spoken to.”

“A law that was repealed just after the War ended. I don’t think so,” Fenris said. “Not that the law ever applied to such as us to begin with. Laws are for people to obey.”

“Besides, technically Fen and I are still ‘honorary females,’” Paul put in. “So we’ve got diplomatic immunity. And, optionally, falsies.”

“I believe I will choose the F-7,” Olivia said, gesturing at the unit.

“Block 5 for me, then! Great!” Joe said, rubbing his hands together.

“The IDE’s systems are compatible with your RIDE implants,” Iria said. “I still suggest you take an hour to refamiliarize yourselves with the systems. We’ll divide the arena off into separate areas for the two of you to stomp around in and get ready.”

“Very well.” Not sparing another glance for Joe and the others, Olivia headed for her chosen IDE. Naomi followed her as Iria pointed toward one of the mech elevators.

“Quite a chip on her shoulder, that one,” Socah said. “In terms of mech capabilities, the two models are pretty evenly matched; most of the improvements to the F-7 were in things like the power plant and hydraulics that won’t make much difference over a short-term fight.”

Joe nodded. “I seem to recall the Block Five was a little heavier armored, on the whole. Not many forces they came up against used that much themselves, so they saved a little weight on the F-7.”

“True enough, but it’s not going to make that much of a difference in this match.” Socah peered thoughtfully at the IDE. “What you’re going to need to try to do is take out as many of her weapons as you can while skirmishing. Sooner or later it’ll come down to a toe-to-toe slugging match, and the more of her weapons you can cripple by that point, while protecting your own, the better chance you’ll have in the end.”

Joe nodded. “Good point. But for now, what I need to do is get more practice in. I’ve had a lot of experience lately in the hovertank, which has some similarities, but it’s not quite the same thing.” He turned to Iria. “We all good to go?”

Iria nodded. “That elevator over there. Good luck!”

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Joe settled into the cockpit and looked around at the old familiar controls. It was the work of just a minute or so to key in the ignition sequence and power up the servos. His first few steps toward the elevator were halting, but by the time he’d stepped through the door he was more sure of himself and remembered better what to do.

A couple of minutes later, he strode out into his half of the arena, bisected along the middle by a wall with Olivia on the other side. He wondered how she was doing in her F-7, but put that out of his mind as he concentrated on putting the Five through its paces. “Boy, this takes me back,” he murmured. “I remember when Mikey and I were back on Earth, hunting for buried treasure. Wonder what he’s up to these days…”

Minute by minute, he worked on maneuvering the IDE, and refamiliarizing himself with the weapon controls. By the time an hour had passed, he was starting to feel at home in the cockpit again. He switched on the mech’s comm and dialed into the frequency listed for the museum. “Hey, you lot. How much time left before we light this candle?”

“We’re just waiting for the last few of our curators to arrive,” Iria replied. “We’ll be ready to start in a few minutes. How’s it going with you?”

“It’s coming back to me. Just like riding a bicycle.”

“Very good!” Olivia said over the comm channel. “It’s no fun to best an unprepared opponent.”

“Funny, I was just saying the same thing, earlier.” Joe grinned. “See, we’ve got something in common already. I just know we’re going to be best friends.”

Olivia snorted. “I will enjoy shutting that big mouth of yours.”

“Hey, something else we’ve got in common!”

Iria cleared her throat. “If the combatants will maneuver their mechs to the marked-off starting positions, we will initialize the arena and begin the duel shortly. Terms are to surrender or ten-count over fallen adversary—not to the death or maiming. Verbal acknowledgment from both combatants that this is understood, please.”

“I understand,” Joe replied.

“As do I,” Olivia said.

“Good. My fellow curators and I will act as judges in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Rest assured that we will render judgment without respect to any political bias. We’re all IDE drivers here, and we can always agree on that even if we don’t see eye to eye on everything else.”

“A fine thing to be indeed,” Joe said, walking the Block 5 onto the glowing yellow circle in one corner of the room. “Ready here!”

“Ready!”

“Very well. Initializing randomized terrain simulation and dropping the hardlight wall in ten…nine…eight…”

All around Joe, deciduous trees and conifers shimmered into being, blocking the view to the other side of the arena. At the same time, the wall bisecting the arena faded away.

“…two…one…begin! Good luck to you both, and may the best ground pounder win!”

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Joe spent a few moments thinking. He hadn’t had a lot of time to get to know his adversary, but from the few hours he’d spent chatting while their RIDEs hunted, he’d gotten the sense she was a very direct sort. (Well, actually he’d first gotten that sense when she had them hauled into Sturmhaven on trumped-up charges, but the conversation had reinforced it.) She wouldn’t beat around the bush or try for finesse, Joe decided—she’d come charging in, both guns blazing.

He could use that.

All it needed was the right sort of terrain—solid bedrock that wouldn’t show IDE footprints. And as it happened, there was a stretch of that right nearby, and a stand of pine trees that would do perfectly. Joe leveled one of the Block 5’s arm cannons and blew a hole through the trees, as he would if he were in a hurry to get through them. Then he retreated behind a nearby stone column and waited.

Sure enough, thirty seconds later he heard the rhythmic clanking of a heavy IDE running flat-out. She wasn’t making any attempt at stealth; she was just making for where she’d heard the shot go off. Joe stayed very still, hands and feet held wide of the controls to make sure he didn’t bump something by accident. The directionals showed her approaching, approaching…passing him as she ran through the hole he’d blasted.

Joe grinned and gripped the controls as he heard the steps falter and slow. He moved out from behind the pillar and raised the arm cannons. There she was, perfectly framed amid the trees, just starting to turn around. Joe squeezed the triggers and pegged her IDE right in the small of the back with twin cannon blasts. They wouldn’t be enough to finish her—F-7s had thick armor everywhere, including the rear—but she’d definitely have felt that little love tap.

As the F-7 staggered and reeled, Joe turned and ran, putting a few more clumps of trees between himself and her. He could probably have gotten a few more hits in, but only at the cost of letting her recover enough to tag him in return. And her mech was still just a hair tougher than his old Block 5. They were still too evenly-matched for him to want to risk it yet.

Joe’s grin broadened as he heard Olivia sputter over the match comm, “Come back here, you…you coward!”

Joe pushed the ‘talk’ toggle. “Sticks and stones, ‘Livy, sticks and stones.” After a moment’s consideration, he toggled the 5’s silent running mode on, and moved off to one side, behind a stand of cedars that looked to offer decent cover. He gave himself thirty seconds to get into a good position, then shut it down and vented heat.

A few moments later, he heard the sound in the distance of her moving closer as she started to come after him. She was moving slowly, more cautious now since she hadn’t quite seen where he’d gone. He could barely see her through the trees, and that only because she was moving, the patterns of light and dark changing. From her perspective, he would be just another patch of darkness in the darker forest because he wasn’t moving.

Of course, he couldn’t shoot her through the trees—not directly, anyway. But the Block 5 had those handy little indirect-fire missile packs on its back. Of course, firing would give away his position, so he’d better be ready to move as soon as he pulled the trigger.

Just a few more steps, and she’d be in the ideal position—a spot open to attack, but also at the exact opposite side of the forest from him. His finger tightened on the trigger…

Then the WHOOSH of jump jets warned him just in time to throw his IDE into a roll, as the F-7 dropped from the sky to land right where he’d been standing a moment before. Death from above, eh? Joe thought, as he came back to his feet. He fired a blast or two from his cannon, but was already turning to run again. It might be “cowardly,” but it was also prudent. He simply wasn’t ready to go nose to nose yet.

Fortunately, he had ample opportunity to run; his dodge out of the way had apparently caused Olivia to misjudge the landing and stumble, and once again he was moving by the time she could steady herself. The mesa on which they’d been fighting ended in a cliff ahead, and he jumped without hesitation, using his own jump jets to steady him as he landed twenty meters below. He turned in time to see Olivia’s IDE show up at the cliff’s edge, silhouetted against the sky, and it was just too good a target to pass up. He centered the reticle and mashed a thumb switch, loosing a dozen micro-missiles in her direction before he ran again. He didn’t wait around to see if they found their target.

“You bastard!” Olivia growled. Blasts from her energy cannons slammed into the turf around him, shattering boulders and lighting trees on fire, but by and large not coming near him. Must be tough to hit a moving target. Ain’t that a pity? As if in answer, the Block 5 shook as a blast hit him square in the back. The cockpit shook, and damage alarms blared. Ow. Me and my big mouth. Joe wobbled, but the big mech wasn’t finished yet. He barely staggered but kept right on running.

Behind him, he thought he heard jump jets again, followed by a large thud of impact. So she was chasing him, was she?

Joe frowned, as a thought struck him. I wonder if the sim will let me do this? He flipped open a keypad to his right and entered a quick series of commands. A moment later, several lines of code scrolled up on his display, highlighted in green, and Joe grinned. He tapped the button again, and half of the reloads for his missile packs tumbled out of the IDE’s rear ejection slots. Joe kept running until he crossed over a small brook and was able to find more cover in the thicker forests down here.

He heard the F-7’s footfalls growing louder as it ran after him. “When I catch you, Joe Steader—” Sounds like she’s really mad, now. So much the better—she won’t be looking where she’s going so much. Joe grinned. Wait for it…waaaaaait for it…

A moment later, the forest stillness was shattered by a series of explosions. “What—you—how did—the Block 5 can’t deploy land mines! You cheated!

Joe maneuvered the Block 5 back out into the open. Olivia’s F-7 was reeling, displaying scorch marks all the way up to its waist. The armor was blown clear off the legs in a few spots, and exposed cables sparked and fizzed. Joe leveled his cannons and started firing, as he moved the mech into a run. Olivia raised her guns and fired back, and Joe felt the mech shake is it took several good hits, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him now. Blast after blast slammed home, and then they were in grappling range. Joe didn’t slow down, setting the Block 5’s shoulder and slamming right into Olivia, throwing her backward on already unsteady feet.

But the F-7 rallied, firing its thruster pack to keep its feet. Olivia slammed a punch of her own into Joe’s armor suit. There was nothing wrong with the F-7’s hydraulics, Joe had to admit. But he still had the advantage. He hooked one of her damaged legs with his own and yanked, following up with a close-range beam cannon shot to the chest as she fell backward. “Enough! It’s over!”

“Never!” Olivia growled. The F-7’s shoulder missile packs opened.

“Oh, come on. You’d blow us both up if you fired those for real.”

“I WON’T LET YOU WIN!”

And then the Block 5’s sensors registered an unusual power build-up in the F-7’s reactor. Joe blinked. “What…seriously?” He was almost too surprised to react, but the old training took over and before he knew it he was firing the Block 5’s jump jets at maximum overload. The Block 5 streaked skyward, just ahead of an expanding fireball centered where the fallen IDE had once been. I really hope that was just a simulation, too…

And then the forested mesa shimmered and faded away, replaced by the broad expanse of the mech arena, and an undamaged F-7 flat on its back.

“We call this match…” Iria announced, “…for ‘Crazy’ Joe Steader.” She paused. “Who, apparently, has nothing on the other combatant when it comes to ‘crazy.’”

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“I’ll have you know that I did not cheat. The M-37 missiles used the same proximity detonation circuit as M-46 landmines,” Joe said. “It was a common practice among IDE jocks back in the day to flip them over into the sensor mode the landmines used, then eject them unfired. In that mode, they basically were field-expedient landmines.” He grinned. “Learned that trick from a certain someone I know who used to shove the big iron around for her day job. And I’m gratified whoever programmed the sims was a big enough mech otaku to know about it, too. But I’m guessing they never bothered to teach that in school when they really just wanted to get you ready to use the smaller iron.”

“He’s right, you know,” Iria said. Olivia just glared and growled.

“I, for one, can’t believe you seriously engaged the self-destruct,” Socah said. “Really? That’s just dumb, not to mention amateurish. A living pilot is one who can escape to fight again. But I guess you didn’t have to worry about that in a simulation.”

“I would have done it for real,” Olivia growled. “To be defeated by…”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “A man?”

“An idiot!” Olivia’s eyes shot daggers at Joe. “A rich civilian idiot who cares about nothing but his own pleasures!”

Joe sighed and shook his head. “I think you’ve been reading too much of your own propaganda. Seriously, lady, what is your problem? I’ve been trying to be as nice about all this as I can. I’ve told you, I don’t have any hard feelings, and neither does Julius. Nor, for that matter, does Naomi. Why can’t you get over it?”

Julius snorted. “Wasn’t there someone what said it’s hard to get someone to understand something if the way they make a living depends on them not? No big fucking surprise there. Just politics.”

Naomi the owl spoke up. “It pains me to say it, but they do have a point. As much as I have presented a loyal front in public, you know I have told you for years that you should get over it, as I did long ago.” Olivia glared at her.

“She might as well get over it now,” a quiet voice said, and all heads turned to look at the dark wolf standing just behind Lillibet. “She’s just lost a big fight against an ‘incompetent,’ so the Valkyrie party is going to drop her like a hot potato,” Annalinda continued. “Just like they did me.”

Olivia stared at her. “But that’s…you were…it’s not the same thing!”

“Oh, isn’t it? Wasn’t it you who promised me your full support when I challenged Lillibet Walton? Then I never heard from you again.” She shook her head. “And here they are, still willing to be nice to you. Just like they’ve been to me. More shovels full of flaming coals, I guess.”

“She’s got a point,” Lillibet put in. “It’s all over but the fat lady, now. The only thing left is that ridiculous arrest warrant, and it’s not gotten any more likely that thing’ll stick once the court gets a good look. All you’ve managed to do is make the Valks look even sillier than they already did.”

“Take it from someone who’s done a lot of living in the past,” Joe said. “It doesn’t get you anywhere in the end. Except occasionally drunk.”

“Occasionally?” Julius deadpanned. “Three fuckin’ livers, bro.”

“I’ve had a lot of occasions.”

“I’m still proud to consider myself a Valkyrie,” Iria said. “But I’ve had a really hard time with cognitive dissonance lately, as it seems like recent Valkyrie politics has consisted of a lot of chest-beating posturing as to who can be the biggest man-hater. And your performance has just been the most recent example.” She shot Olivia a meaningful glance. “It’s enough to make me wish for the old days of ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican.’ At least those old Americans didn’t have so much of their cultural identity bound up in their party affiliation.”

“Usually,” Julius said. “But then the whole deal happened with Donald fucking Trump winning in 2016.”

“Anyway, I’d change parties in a heartbeat if I didn’t still have so much ‘Valkyrie pride.’”

“Can we talk, later on?” Lillibet asked. “I want to find out what there is to being a Valkyrie besides being a man-hater. I hadn’t realized there actually was anything.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“Enough!” Olivia snapped. “Very well, I lost. Fairly.” She sighed. “That will teach me to underestimate my adversary, I suppose.”

“Admitting it’s a good start,” Lillibet said.

“What happened back in the war…being defeated by a pampered billionaire and his pet…it was one of the defining moments of my life.”

“But for me, it was Tuesday,” Joe said. “Seriously, I didn’t much think about it afterward.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Olivia growled. “You won. I…had plenty of time to think about it afterward.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Joe said. “Not sorry we beat you—we kinda had to, lives were at stake, not least of which our own—but sorry it hit you so hard. Again, we—Jules and I—don’t carry any hard feelings. All that stuff was mainly the fault of the politicians, and neither one of us ever had much to do with them. Or much nice to say about them, for that matter.”

“You shouldn’t oughtta let that stuff eat you up,” Julius said. “But it’s kinda too fuckin’ late to rub it in now, I guess.”

“Can we please just try to get past this?” Joe asked. “I realize we’ll probably never be friends, but we both have better things to do than go on living thirty years in the past. The war’s long past dead and gone. I don’t want anything but the best for Sturmhaven now. Hell, I’d even give you back that gun we took from you, if it’d make a difference to you.”

For a moment Olivia appeared to seriously consider that offer. “No. You earned that weapon from us.”

“I’ll say they did. I still get phantom aches in my chest plating when I think about that pounding,” Naomi added. The owl tilted her head and smirked at Julius. “That fucking pounding!”

Julius smirked back. “Hey, we’ve both got our specialties. I’m a pouncer…and you bird-types are built light so’s you can fly. Really, puttin’ one a’ you in any situation where a kitty can get to you’s a fuckin’ error in strategy, an’ that’s all on your brass from back then. But not their fault they didn’t fuckin’ know ‘bout me. I was all top secret and stuff.”

Olivia sighed. “I am…not good at letting go of things. As anyone who knows me can tell you.”

“She’s right,” Naomi said. “She still harbors a grudge against the next-year girl who used to snap her bra in grade school.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Naomi…

“What? It’s true,” Naomi deadpanned.

“This bird, I like,” Julius said.

“But I suppose…you are right.” Olivia sighed. “I had…fantasized about making you look foolish. But…I see now I was the foolish one. There is more to you than there appeared.” She shook her head. “I will withdraw that warrant myself. There will be no need for you to appear in court.”

Joe nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Olivia glared at him. “Why are you…being so nice about this? You’re not even gloating.

Joe shrugged. “I just find it’s more fun to be nice to people. There’s no percentage in intentionally pissing people off at you. You catch more flies with honey, and all that.”

Julius sneezed. “Not like I ever knew why you’d fuckin’ want to catch flies, but I’m just a RIDE, what do I know?”

Lillibet smiled wryly. “If you’re serious about quashing the warrant, then you’ve just shown more maturity than most of your party leadership. It’s a pity that they probably won’t see it that way.”

Olivia shrugged. “I lost to Joe Steader. Annalinda is right—once word of that gets out, my political career is effectively over regardless.” She sighed. “It probably would have been anyway, the way the polls are running.”

“Well, not necessarily. If you want to join my coalition aimed at reforming the Valkyrie party, I’m sure we could all benefit from your experience.” Lillibet grinned, glancing over at Iria. “That is, if it gets off the ground. I only just now decided to found it, and don’t actually have any other members yet.”

Iria chuckled. “Oh, I think you’ve got at least one member.”

“Two,” Annalinda said. “If I even count.”

Lillibet nodded. “We’ll talk it over later.” She glanced around at the others. “For now, though, maybe we should all go join the other curators and the rest for the post-duel party. Bertha and the others showed up just before you started, and I think they’ll all have a lot to talk about.”

“A number of news reporters have shown up, too,” Iria noted. “I wonder who leaked this to the media?”

Olivia sighed again. “Very well. I suppose I should go take my medicine.”

“We have no intention of gloating,” Joe Steader said. “As far as I’m concerned, you were a worthy opponent, and you got some good licks in, too. Why don’t we take the opportunity to show we’ve buried the hatchet? It’s an honorable way to conclude a long-term rivalry.”

“The rest of the Valkyries will not be too pleased…” Olivia said. “But, then, I doubt anything could please them less than my loss, so why not go for broke?”

“That’s the spirit,” Naomi said. “We will get through this.”

Julius smirked. “And we’ll all be fuckin’ stronger for it. So let’s go out there and get it over with!”

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May 30, 157 A.L.

Leaving Sturmhaven

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“Well, I have to admit, that was certainly…unexpected,” Joe mused as the Jaguar skimmer car pulled onto the Sturmhaven exit ramp. “I don’t know as I’d want to come back—by myself, anyway—but on the whole, I guess I am glad we stopped by.”

Socah nodded. “At the least, we made some new friends.”

“Uh-huh. It’s good to make new friends. Even if they’re old enemies.”

“And you’re gonna be coming back,” Julius said. “You’re gonna fucking have to. You can’t co-curate an IDE museum by remote.”

“There is that.” Joe waved a hand. “But, really, we just said we were going to talk about that, once we finish the tour. No need for any snap decisions.”

“Yeah, but you’ll end up saying yes. I fuckin’ know you.”

Joe glanced to Socah. “What about you? You weren’t exactly eager to stop here at first.”

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life I didn’t really want to do, but ended up being beneficial anyway,” Socah said. “And the place wasn’t entirely what I expected. Even some of the Valkyries turned out to be decent people. That was a surprise.”

Joe grinned. “Sort of gives you hope for Cape Nord, too?”

“Now I’m not sure I would ever go that far…”

As they cleared the polity limits, the skimmer accelerated to barely subsonic speed. “At any rate, if you’re feeling naughty, our next stop will be Nautica.”

On their screen on the dashboard, Julius’s eyes rolled expressively. “Don’t make me fuckin’ bite you, Joe.”

“You’re a car right now, you can’t bite me.”

“For something that bad, I’ll fuckin’ save it up.

Socah laughed. “Nautica sounds like fun. From the name, I’m guessing it’s on the coast?”

“Indeed it is. Sort of an east-coast equivalent to Aloha, but a lot less wild and crazy. Not much in the way of beaches, but a lot of aquatic tourism like fishing and scuba.”

“If we actually have time to do tourism, it’ll be a nice change of pace.” Socah chuckled. “It’ll be interesting to see if there’s somewhere you don’t draw a lynch mob.”

“I assure you, there are plenty of places where people are happy to see me.” Joe grinned. “I’m sure we’ll run into one sooner or later.”

“Well, by all means, let’s see if we can find one.”

The car and trailing motorcycle turned back onto the Coastal Skimmerway and turned south. Sturmhaven left well behind, they headed toward the next stop along the Coastal Rim.

Separator k left.png TO BE CONTINUED Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Two: Nuevo San Antonio
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Four: Nautica