User:Robotech Master/Skunked

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Separator k left.png March 28, 157 AL Separator k right.png

“Hello, is anyone here?” Olivia stepped into the waiting room of the Uplift RIDE creche, to find it empty. The reception desk had a “Back in 5 minutes” sign, but the door behind it to the rest of the building was ajar. Olivia considered sitting and waiting, but not for very long. She was too excited and eager to wait. Today was the day she began her search for the perfect RIDE partner, and she couldn’t wait to get started.

“I’ll just take a little peek…that can’t hurt anything,” Olivia decided. She pushed the door open and walked down the hall, pausing to look through the doors to either side. There were rooms full of the small Laurasian RIDE shells that Ris got when they were fresh out of the virtual creche, scampering around and playing with each other. Nice, but a little too young to bear consideration. She moved on.

Further down the hall, she came upon a room that actually had a few full-sized RIDEs in it, chatting with each other or with human or Integrate attendants. In fact, at the other side of the room Olivia saw Mary-Anne, the fossa Integrate she’d met when Rhianna had first brought them here. She seemed like a good person to start with. “Hey, Mary-Anne—” Olivia called, stepping into the room.

Then, between one moment and the next, Olivia was engulfed from head to foot in warmth. Everything went dark for a moment, then when she could see again her vision was subtly different. The color balance was odd—and her own balance was off. She felt…bulkier, and there was an odd sensation of weight on her lower back.

“What in—?” Olivia wondered. She looked down at her arms—which were now covered in thick fur of a light lavender and white hue. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a bushy tail of the same colors rising behind her back. “…oh.”

Then Olivia heard an anxious young voice in her head. :Hi! Can I have you?: A moment later, her field of view flickered and she was standing in a slightly-cartoony VR clearing, face to face with a skunk in the same color as her body’s new fur. The skunk’s paws were on her shoulders and her face was only a few centimeters away. As Olivia accustomed herself to this sudden change, the skunk reached out and licked her on the nose.

“Hey!” Olivia protested. “I only just got here.”

“Oh,” the skunk said. “Well, can you have me, then?”

“No!” Mary-Anne’s voice broke through, and the VR flickered out. “No, no, no! Bad Lilac! Bad!” The fossa hurried over, staring clinically at the now-enFused Olivia. She sighed. “Argh. I’m sorry about this…I can’t force her to de-Fuse safely until she’s finished tagging you.”

“That’s…all right, I think,” Olivia said. She turned to glance at her reflection in a mirror on the wall. She was a light-lavender—lilac, she realized—colored anthropomorphic skunk, similar to the one in her VR. She had matching curved metal modesty plates over her hips and a generous bosom. She twitched their tail experimentally. “This feels…so funky.”

“Is this your first Fuse?” Mary-Anne asked. “I am so sorry—Lilac has been somewhat…willful lately.”

“Nobody wants me,” Lilac whined, startling Olivia just a bit as “her” mouth moved to the RIDE’s speech. “Cartoon skunks are out of fashion right now. So I swore I was gonna grab the next human I saw…and so I did!” She giggled. “And it feels so nice to have one!” Olivia watched her arm move all on its own as Lilac raised it and experimentally flexed her fingers. “I’ve got a real thumb! I always wondered what that would be like!”

“We’ll pay for the tag removal, of course,” Mary-Anne said apologetically.

“I dunno,” Olivia said. “The reason I came down here is to find a RIDE anyway. Now it looks like one’s found me.” She considered her furry arm again. “But why lilac?

“Her parents thought it would be cute,” Mary-Anne said, rolling her eyes slightly. “They saw the look in an old 20th-century cartoon. Most skunks tend to take flowery names. I blame Bambi for that.”

“Everyone in AnthroVille kept calling me ‘Fifi,’” Lilac grumbled.

“She can tune her hardlight to normal skunk colors, too,” Mary-Anne said.

“It doesn’t help. No one wants me even as a regular skunk,” Lilac said. “Stinky ol’ me.”

“You’re not stinky,” Olivia said. “In fact, you smell like…” She sniffed the air. “…lilacs?”

“It’s programmable,” Lilac said. “I can smell skunky, too. But people seem to like this better. Not that it’s helped…”

“Hmm,” Olivia said. “Tell me about this shell?”

“Lilac's parents are somewhat…ambitious about their daughter's prospects as an artist,” the fossa Intie explained. “Her customized shell is intended to enhance and extend this. She has a microfabber that can create any number of physical media—paints, canvas, pencils, and the like. Including nano-active ones. She also has quite the ear for music, with basic skills for many instruments, which she learned to play in AnthroVille rather than a skill chip. She also has good singing voice, basic dance skills…and a great deal of other things.”

“And like all artists, she’s temperamental,” Olivia said, grinning.

“Heeeey!” Lilac protested.

“Apart from that, it’s pretty much a standard consumer-grade Medium shell,” Mary-Anne said. “Solid B+ batteries, decent lifters and impellers, stylish art-deco skimmer cycle form. With the first-year adoption subsidies, the cost to you would be 5,000 mu.”

“How would I pay that off?” In the back of her mind, Olivia sensed Lilac’s increasing excitement at the prospect that Olivia might actually be interested in her.

“The standard installment indenture contract would have you pay 500 mu per month, which means that you’d pay it off in a year,” Mary-Anne said. “We’re not charging interest in this first year, as another incentive to promote adoption. Or you could pay the whole 5,000 mu lump sum and make your own arrangements with her for paying it back to you,” she added.

“Hmm.” Olivia closed her eyes and slipped into Lilac’s VR again. The skunk was there, waiting for her. “So.”

“Uh…hi,” Lilac said, looking down at the ground and scuffing a forepaw. “Er…sorry I glomped you like that. I just…it’s so frustrating being passed up all the time.”

Olivia smiled. “Believe me, I understand. I have older brothers.” She knelt to meet Lilac more face-to-face. “Still…if you want us to be partners, I think we’re going to need to know a little more about each other. I’ve been told RIDEs can share memories?”

“Oh, sure!” Lilac said brightly. “Here you go!”

And suddenly Olivia was “remembering” a life spent in the brightly-colored cartoon-like virtual world of AnthroVille, growing up in the life of a pampered, privileged furry debutante whose parents made her take all sorts of art and music lessons. It was so like the plot of one of the 1950s sitcoms she’d been exposed to since moving here that she almost giggled.

Then she felt a cold wet mephitine nose poking into her own memories. It was a strange sensation, being nosed in the memories by a skunk.

“Ooooh, you’re from Earth!” Lilac said. “What was it like? Oh, never mind, I’ll just look!”

“Go ahead,” Olivia said, amused by the skunk’s enthusiasm.

“You've been a vixen before?” Lilac asked. “You dated a tiger? I don't understand this.”

“I think you’re skimming,” Olivia said. “It works better with context. I’m afraid I don’t come with Cliff Notes.”

“Well, that kinda takes more time, and I…I…ohhhh…” Lilac froze, then whimpered a little. “You’re…Rhianna Stonegate’s sister? I’m…I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to…” The VR flickered out. A moment later, Olivia was standing in the real world again, in her own body. Lilac had de-Fused, and was now huddled on the floor with her paws over her head.

Olivia looked down at her bare arms, then glanced up at her reflection in the mirror. Her blonde hair now had a decidedly lilac tint, she noticed. And she also bore lilac-colored skunk ears and a smaller version of Lilac’s bushy tail behind her. And…she felt something else just under the tail. Like an alien set of muscles she’d never had before. She experimented with clenching and unclenching them, and suddenly the air was full of a strong scent of lilacs. “Ack!” Olivia said, coughing. “Did…I just do that?” She rubbed her stinging, watering eyes.

Mary-Anne wrinkled her nose, though whether that was against the scent or to hide a grin Olivia wasn’t sure. “Skunk tags are a little…special,” she said.

“Once Ivor finds out, I’m never gonna hear the end of this,” Olivia said. Then she looked down at the prone Lilac. “Hey,” she said, reaching down to rub the skunk’s head. “It’s all right. I’m not mad at you.”

Lilac uncovered her eyes and peered up at her. “You’re…you’re not?”

“No, I’m—” Olivia cut off as she was suddenly engulfed in warmth again. “—not,” she finished, looking down at her once-again-furry body. “Rather…enthusiastic, aren’t you?” she said dryly.

“I’m afraid she is,” Mary-Anne said. “Many of the younger ones’ emotional growth is more organic, you see. They don’t get the benefit of the templated behavioral programming that came with the old-fashioned way of doing things. But we feel there are other benefits, of course. Like, for instance, artistic talent and creativity.”

“I’m a special snowflake!” Lilac said brightly.

“But that also means they can sometimes…overwhelm their human partners,” Mary-Anne said. “And with the…dominant position Fusing puts them in, that can be a recipe for trouble. So we have implemented very mild ‘training fetters’—a way to override or force de-Fusing if necessary. If used very often, they will trigger a review by our caseworkers, so it’s better that you work things out between yourselves if you can.”

“Well…I think she’s actually pretty cute,” Olivia said. “And really comfy to wear, too. Can she come home with me for a while and we can see if we get along?”

“Sure,” Mary-Anne said. “I’ll draw up the paperwork for a week-long placement. We’ll see how it goes from there.”

“Yay!!!” Lilac said happily. “I’m gonna leave the Creche!”

Olivia chuckled. “And if this works out, I think you’ll save my family a fortune in air freshener. I just hope they like lilac scent.”

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An hour later, Olivia walked out of the creche building, still encased in skunk. She paused as they stepped out on the sidewalk and looked around. “Wow!” Lilac said. “Everything looks so…real!

“Everything is real,” Olivia said, chuckling.

“That’s probably why it looks that way!” Lilac said, logically.

“So…how about you show me your skimmer bike form?” Olivia asked.

“Oh, sure!” Lilac said. She peeled away from Olivia again, folding up beneath her into a fairly large art-deco-curvy skimmer bike with a furry hardlight backrest formed from her tail. Lilac-skimmer was all smooth lines and curves, streamlined perfection with silver strakes suggesting speed lines. Her lifters underneath glowed lilac.

Olivia glanced forward and back at the bike underneath her. “Oooh, you’re lovely!”

“Thank you!” Lilac said. “I’m…not very fast, though.”

“That can be fixed later,” Olivia said. “I’ll be happy if you just get us where we’re going.”

“Okay!” Lilac said. “Where are we going?”

“Home! I’ll show you.” She took the handlebars and revved the lifters, then pulled out onto the street and headed west toward the Stonegates’ rented home. “You might not be as fast as you want to be, but your ride’s really smooth,” Olivia said. “I really like that.” Like most insecure people, Olivia suspected, Lilac would respond well to a little stroking.

“Thank you!” Lilac said happily. “I was made to be comfy.”

“And here we are,” Olivia said a few minutes later, pulling into the driveway. She started to dismount—then she was furry again as Lilac Fused back around her. “Oh, right,” Olivia said, chuckling. “Well, let’s go in and meet the folks.” She pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Hey, everyone, I’m home, and I’ve brought a friend! Or she brought me.”

“What is that heavenly lilac…smell,” Socah said, looking in from the living room.

“I’m glad you like it now,” Olivia said. “It may just be a permanent fixture. Especially if we have any little…accidents. But anyway, everyone, I’d like you to meet Lilac the skunk RIDE.”

“Hi!” Lilac said.

“Well, hello, Lilac. You’re certainly pretty,” Arlene said. “That’s an unusual color for a skunk, but that just makes you special.”

“Thanks!” Lilac said happily.

“Where's Ivor? He's not answering his text right now,” Olivia said.

“Oh, he and Cira went dark for a while at the garage to work on that shell of theirs. You'll just have to surprise them when they get back,” Roy said. “Nice to meet you, Lilac.”

“I’m gonna go show her my room now,” Olivia said. “We’ll be back down for lunch.”

“All right!” Arlene said. “Hmm. I think we’re going to need to fab some of those ‘tails-free’ chairs for the dinner table. I’ll go get one started.”

Olivia and Lilac climbed the stairs to the second floor where Olivia had her room. “Well, here it is,” Olivia said.

Lilac peered around the room, taking in the stark white, decoration-free walls. “Ooooh…” she said, rubbing their hands together. “It’s…like a blank canvas!”

“Um, it is a rental…” Olivia pointed out.

“But it’s got nano-pigment wallpaper,” Lilac said. “It can be reset. Oooh, you gotta let me paint it! You just gotta!”

“Well…all right,” Olivia said. “What do you want to paint?”

“What do you want me to paint?” Lilac asked. “It’s your room. I'll do it as a commission!”

“Huh.” Olivia considered that. “Let me think about it a little, okay?”

“Sure!” Lilac said. “Just tell me what you decide when you decide it! Oooh, is that a RIDE charging station? Nice!” She hopped up into it and engaged the charging circuit. “Oooooh, that feels good! All tingly!”

Olivia chuckled. As flighty as Lilac seemed, there was nonetheless something infectious about her enthusiasm. Olivia looked around her room again, seeing it through Lilac's eyes (literally!). It really did seem like a canvas of possibilities when she thought about it. Not to mention a more cozy place than the somewhat sterile creche. And the charger did feel nice and warm and tingly.

She must have fallen asleep for a moment, because the next thing she heard was the strident dinner bell ringing out from below. “Oooh!” Lilac squealed. “A bell! What's that for?”

“That means it's time to eat,” Olivia said.

“Oooh, we get to eat?” Lilac gushed. “I've never eaten before! Real food, I mean.”

“I've never eaten wearing a skunk before,” Olivia said. “I think it'll be a new experience for both of us.”

A new reinforced chair awaited at Olivia's place at the table, made with a gap for her tail to slide in when she sat down. “Hey, everyone,” Olivia said carefully sliding into it.

“Hello Olivia, Lilac,” Arlene said. She, Roy, and Socah were already seated.

“This is going to be interesting,” Olivia said, picking up her fork and contemplating the plate of tuna noodle casserole on the table before her. She was so intrigued by the challenge posed by eating in Fuse that she didn't even worry about whether any of it had been fabbed. “Well, here goes.”

It was a little tricky at first, but Olivia soon got the hang of it, especially with Lilac helping on the coordination a little. “Mmm, this is really good!” Lilac said. “I never knew what I was missing with the simulated food in AnthroVille.”

“It does help to have real taste buds, doesn't it?” Socah said. “For some value of real anyway.” She ate with gusto as well.

Arlene chuckled. “It's nice to see everyone enjoying their food so much.”

Olivia finished her plate and leaned back in her chair, letting the dinner settle. She burped, though she wasn't quite sure whether it was natural or Lilac had forced it. “'Scuse us!” Lilac said happily.

“So what are you going to do now?” Roy asked.

“Dunno,” Olivia said. “Maybe go outside, wander around a little. Try Lilac's skimmer mode a little more. Maybe go down to the garage and surprise Ivor.”

“Have fun, dear,” Arlene said. “Be sure and remind him to come home for supper, if you see him.”

Olivia nodded. “We'll do that. Bye!” She pushed back their chair, hopped up, and sauntered out of the house.

The others at the table watched them go, then chuckled. “Well, this is going to be an interesting experience, isn't it?” Arlene mused. “Regular dining with Disney mascots.”

“Just wait 'til Ivor has Cira complete. To say nothing of if we find partners ourselves,” Roy said. “When Ferris is over with Franklin, and Rhianna brings Kaylee, we’ll be outnumbered.”

Arlene chuckled, and began clearing away the dishes. “I guess if we can’t beat ‘em, we’ll have to join ‘em.”

“We’ll see,” Roy said, helping.

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“Wow, would you look at that view!” Lilac gushed, standing behind the Stonegates’ house and peering to the west at the Dry Ocean spread out below Uplift’s plateau. “Hang on, I gotta paint that!” She reached behind her and pulled a flat metal plate from her back and hung it in the air before her. It had tiny lifters in it that kept it suspended, and several empty cups were built into a flange that made an L-shape at the bottom. A blank canvas was already in place, and Lilac poked a finger into each cup, filling them one by one with different pigments.

“That’s kinda neat,” Olivia said, watching.

“Thanks!” Lilac flicked her left wrist, and a paintbrush appeared in that hand. She dipped it in one of the cups and began painting with swift, sure strokes. In fact, she painted considerably faster than a human, but with no wasted motion. It was like watching an old 20th-century computer plotter at work. The scene quickly took shape—a quite passable interpretation of the landscape before them.

“There,” Lilac said a few moments later. “Huh. It looks kind of different than it did in VR. More…real somehow. I don’t know if I like it.”

“It’s great!” Olivia said. “We gotta get it framed. I wanna hang it in the living room.”

“Really? You think it’s good enough for that?” Lilac asked.

“Uh-huh,” Olivia said. “You’ve got a good eye for detail.”

“I dunno. Not sure if it’s my best work. But then again, it’s my first real-life painting, so I don’t know if I have a ‘best work’ yet.” She slid the easel and canvas back into the slot on her back. “I can fab a frame for it later. Right now…let’s cruise around some! We can even go out there if you want.” She waved a hand at the vast expanse of the Dry before them.

Olivia blinked. “Really?”

“Yeah, I’m fully environmental,” Lilac said. “Or maybe just fully mental—that’s what Mary-Anne always said. No, wait—I’m fully environmental, too!”

“Hmm…maybe later,” Olivia said. “Right now, I wanna go down to the garage and surprise my brother.”

“Okay!” Lilac lifted into the air and hovered around the house to the driveway, where she unfolded into her art-deco skimmer bike form again. “Let’s go!” They cruised off up the street.

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A few minutes later, they Fused back up outside Rhianna’s garage and wandered in to Ivor’s assigned module. As they came in, he was bent over a workbench in the back of the room, fiddling with something. Cira stood on the workbench, peering curiously at it. “Hey, Ivor, guess what?” Olivia called cheerfully.

“Yeah, sis?” Ivor asked, straightening up turning around—revealing that he was wearing a skeletal metallic fox head over his own. Lilac gave a little shriek and hopped backward—and Ivor coughed and gagged. “Ack! What’s that smell!” he choked out. Cira sneezed over and over.

“Um…oops,” Lilac said.

“Lilac!” Olivia scolded.

“I’m sorry! He startled me! It’s not good to startle a skunk!” Lilac protested.

Cira padded over to a control panel above the workbench and bopped it with her nose. The module’s ventilator fans kicked in. Ivor leaned against the bench, pulled the Fuser head off of his own, and gasped for breath as the air cleared. “I…take it you…found your new RIDE, huh sis?” he said when he could talk again.

“Er…yeah,” Olivia said. “This is Lilac.”

“She certainly is,” Ivor agreed. “Uh, hi. Nice to meet you.” He considered. “I’m going to have to be really careful about startling you from now on. Aren’t I.”

“Er…” Olivia said, remembering what had happened at the creche. “I guess so, yeah.”

“Wow!” Cira said. “Hi, Lilac! I’m glad to see you found someone at last! And my partner’s sister, too! It’s like we’re sisters-in-law now or something.”

“I’m going to need to hurry up and get you finished just so I can filter my sense of smell,” Ivor said, grinning.

“Then we can be bushy-tailed girls together!” Olivia said happily.

“Er, yeah,” Ivor said. “Seriously, she’s starting to take shape now.” He nodded toward the mostly-finished RIDE frame on the cradle in the middle of the bay. It was starting to look more like a fox (albeit a currently-headless one) than not. “It shouldn’t be too long before she’s done.”

“If you can just stop tinkering and actually put it together!” Cira grumbled.

“I just want to make sure it’s perfect before I finish,” Ivor insisted. “The support systems are next.”

“You’re having more fun fiddling with it than finishing it,” Cira accused.

“Well, all right, maybe I am,” Ivor said. “Sorry. It’s a project for me, but I know it’s more than that for you. There's just so many design tweaks I want to do. I'm sure your patience with me pay will off once it's ready. I’ll try to finish up soon.” He grinned. “I can always tinker more after it’s done, after all.”

“Speaking of tinkering, I’m gonna want you to help me soup up Lilac here when you can get around to it,” Olivia said. “Assuming we decide the partnership’s a go, anyway.”

“Oooh, you’d do that for me?” Lilac asked. “Sweet!”

“Sure thing, sis,” Ivor promised. “If she’s got the kind of frame I think she does, her skimmer mode’s probably just using commodity parts. We can do better than that pretty cheaply if we find some good second-hand parts.”

“Wow, you sound just like Rhi! Only male!” Olivia said.

“He does, doesn’t he?” Rhianna said, stepping through the door from the adjoining module. Kaylee was right behind her. “Hey, sis. And hello…Lilac, is it? I wondered why the entire garage suddenly had a floral scent…”

“Um…sorry?” Lilac said. :Omigod is that Rhianna Stonegate? The one who freed the RIDEs? And I stunk up her garage?: She whimpered a little mentally.

:It’s all right, Lilac,: Olivia said. :She’s just a person same as anyone else.:

“Between you and Shelley, I might have to start a gas mask concession,” Rhianna said, chuckling. “Good thing it’s not regular skunk musk; that would be nasty.”

“It was bad enough at ground zero,” Ivor said.

“You startled me!” Lilac protested again. “Going around wearing fox skulls at people like that…”

“She’s got a point there,” Cira said.

“There's an override mod called 'shooting blanks' you might want to look into,” Rhianna said. “Or you could learn some self-control instead. You have complete control of your shell's systems, Lilac.”

“Well, theoretically I do,” Lilac groused. “Just tell that to whoever programmed the firmware. I can’t even find where the override is.

“Sometimes those consumer shells are kind of a mess, Rhi,” Ivor pointed out pedantically. “Someone gets a little too cute with being ‘just like’ the real thing without considering the consequences.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Rhianna admitted. “Why don’t you have Shelley take a look at it? She can probably get it straightened out for you.” She grinned. “Or better yet, Ivor, why don’t you have her walk you through doing it? She’s been wanting an excuse to do some OS work with you anyway.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Ivor chuckled. “You see how it is ‘round here, Livy? Everything’s a Learning Experience.”

“Sounds like a good way to learn,” Olivia said. “How ‘bout it, Lilac? Wanna go see about getting some self-control?”

“Please!” Lilac said. “I don’t want people to start calling me ‘Stinky.’”

“Of course, that’s not going to help you much, sis,” Ivor said, grinning. “You don’t have firmware or overrides, but if your tags are skunk-normal…”

“They are,” Olivia said ruefully. “Already had that experience. At least I smell like flowers too.”

“I am going to have to start a gas mask concession, aren’t I?” Rhianna said, grinning.

“C’mon, stinky-sis,” Ivor said. “Let’s go see Shelley.” He placed the fox head on the workbench and led the way past Rhianna into the next module. Cira jumped down and trotted along at his heel, and Olivia and Lilac followed them out.

Rhianna chuckled, watching them go. “Well, one thing about my family…you can’t say it’s not interesting having them around.”

Kaylee wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, that’s for sure. You do realize this whole place is gonna smell like that for days?”

“There are worse things for it to smell like,” Rhianna said. “Lust-provoking pheromones, for one.”

“Okay, gotta give ya that,” Kaylee said. She glanced around one more time, then followed Rhianna out of the module.

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“Well, that was remarkably painless,” Olivia said to Lilac as she rode the skunk’s skimmer form up the street.

“Yeah,” Lilac said. “Wow, Rochelle’s really good! I’ve got access to functions I didn’t even know I had now. Did you know I can spraypaint with my butt?”

“I…don’t think I needed to know that,” Olivia said.

“That’s for wide-area painting, like doing a whole wall or car or whatever at once. I can do fine detail work with my fingertips, too, like how I fill my paint jars,” Lilac said. “When your brother gets Cira’s shell finished, I’ll do some custom detailing for her on it.”

“Sweet!” Olivia said. “You know, we could probably make some extra spending money that way if you wanted to do that for hire.”

“I dunno about that yet,” Lilac said. “I mean, I’ve only done this stuff virtually. I don’t know if I’m really any good yet. But maybe.”

“So what now?” Olivia asked. “Wanna cruise around some?”

“How ‘bout we go out to the Dry now?” Lilac suggested. “I’ve only ever seen it in the sims, I wanna go there in person!”

“Works for me,” Olivia said. “We don’t need anything special like a suit or anything?”

“Nope! I’m your suit,” Lilac said. “C’mon, I’ll show you!” She took the road toward the dome exit, throwing up her hardlight enviro-shell as they went. A few minutes later, they emerged into the bright sunlight of the outer world, swerving off the road to the tunnel and heading downslope to the desert plain. Overhead, mining skimmers and fliers headed out, and the occasional suborbital streaked skyward. They streaked out into the open away from town, raising a huge cloud of dust and sand behind them.

“Wow!” Olivia said. “Look at all that wide-open space.” She shivered a little. “I think I have a touch of agoraphobia. We didn’t have this much room on Earth.”

“Maybe this’ll help.” Lilac Fused up around her at speed, still streaking forward on lifter power, then touched down at the top of a small sand dune. “Ahhh…feel that sand in our paws!” She wriggled their toes.

“It’s like 70 out here and I don’t even feel too warm,” Olivia said. “I know that’s what you’re for, but it’s still funny to experience it.” She knelt and scooped up a handful of sand, let it trickle through her fingers.

“Watch this.” Lilac scooped up a handful of sand and spurted some liquid from her fingertips into it, then worked it with her fingers to produce a small, rough sand sculpture of a skunk. She blasted it with a jet of hot air from her fingertips to solidify it. “Pretty neat, huh?”

“Cute,” Olivia said. “Maybe we should get a booth at a flea market.”

“Maybe!” Lilac said. “Still trying to figure out what I want to do.” She lifted into the air again and set down on a rocky promontory, where she put the sculpture down. “There. Let someone find that in a few years and wonder where it came from.” She took off again. “Oooh, it’s just so much fun being like this! Having hands—hands I can do stuff with! I just want to stay this way forever.”

Olivia chuckled. “It’s fun being in a big ol’ skunk suit, too. I don’t know about ‘forever,’ though. It’s not healthy to stay Fused for too long, y’know.”

Lilac sighed. “Yeah, I know. Really, I’m grateful to you for giving me this chance…especially after what I did when we met.”

“No problem. I’ve done some pretty dumb stuff myself in my time.” Olivia grinned. “Now c’mon…enough flying. We’ve got all this wide-open land, and I wanna stretch our legs. Let’s run!

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Olivia and Lilac spent plenty of time together over the next couple of days. Lilac painted more pictures, including portraits of the rest of the Stonegate family, and also experimented with playing and singing music. They also went various places in town, with Olivia showing Lilac sights she’d only seen recently for the first time herself.

Lilac wanted to see everything, but she often wanted to see it very quickly and then see something else that had just caught her attention. She frequently changed her mind in mid-sentence—and was prone to go from peering at something in her Walker form to pounce-Fusing Olivia with very little warning.

After protesting a few times, Olivia had sighed and given up trying to break her of it. It was sort of endearing, in a way. At least she hadn’t yet tried to prevent Olivia from moving the body herself, or de-Fusing when she needed to. Olivia wasn’t sure if she would ever use the fetter override Mary-Anne had mentioned, but was still glad it was there just in case.

On the third day, Olivia sat on the living-room sofa reading a book on a tablet while Lilac snoozed in a corner. She’d found that even with her implant, having the material on a separate display surface helped her internalize it in her meat-brain better. Then suddenly she was an anthropomorphic skunk holding a tablet. “Liiiilac?” Olivia said.

“Sorry!” Lilac said unrepentantly, dropping the tablet. “But we gotta go! There’s someone you gotta meet!” She lifted off the ground and hovered out the front door of the house, and then she was a skimmer bike zooming up the road with Olivia clutching at the handlebars.

“Whoa! Hey, what?” Olivia said. The navigation display said they were heading for Bifrost Park. “Unpack a little, Li?”

“A, um, friend of mine, from the creche!” Lilac said. “I just heard he’s in town!” They zoomed up to the park and Fused again, hardly even slowing down. Lilac careened through the air over pedestrians’ heads, touching down near the emitter and trotting around it to run right into the arms of another skunk Fuser, this one in a more traditional black and white shade. Before Olivia even understood quite what was going on, Lilac and the other skunk were kissing. With tongue. Lots of tongue. And, for whatever reason, “mmm-wah!” noises right out of the old cartoons.

:Whoa!: Olivia protested.

:Hey, what the—?: a male voice said over the comm, sounding equally confused. :Not that this isn’t pleasant, but a little warning maybe?:

The skunks broke off, a little abruptly, as their humans took over. “Um, Lilac? What was that just now?”

“Uh, yeah,” the other skunk said. “Hawthorne?”

“Sorry!” the other skunk said in another, much younger voice. “Uh…this is Lilac! Back in the creche we were kinda…you know.”

“Uh…yeah,” Olivia said. “He didn’t tell you either, huh? I'm Olivia Stonegate.”

“Deke Lawson,” the other skunk’s human said. “Nice to meet you. Can’t say I usually kiss on the first date…”

“We haven’t even had a first date yet, so I think that makes it all right,” Olivia said dryly. “Lilac? You got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

“Uh…sorry!” Lilac said. “I thought…um…if I said anything, you wouldn’t let us kiss. And I’d never got to kiss before.”

“Me too,” Hawthorne said, shuffling his foot after the time-honored manner of naughty children everywhere.

“Well, this is pleasant,” Deke said. “Sorry, did I hear you say your name was Stonegate?”

“Uh, yeah,” Olivia said. “I’m Rhianna’s little sister. You’d probably recognize me from the news footage if I weren’t buried in skunk right now.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Deke said. “Happens I actually work for Zane Brubeck, or his company at least.”

“Oh yeah? What do you do?” Olivia asked.

“You’re going to laugh,” Deke said.

“Maybe so, but I can’t if you don’t tell me first,” Olivia said.

“Well, I’m in public relations,” Deke said.

Olivia giggled. “A skunk in public relations?”

“See, I told you you were going to laugh,” Deke said, grinning with Hawthorne’s muzzle. “I’d say something about having wanted the challenge of overcoming skunkiness, but the fact is we just met at the creche and hit it off without my job even mattering ‘til after the fact.”

“That’s kind of how it was with me and Lilac,” Olivia said. “She kinda snuck up on me.” She chuckled. “Looks like they snuck up on both of us just now.”

“Sorry!” Lilac said.

“You don’t sound very sorry,” Olivia said.

“It was a great kiss!” Lilac said. “Can we do it again? Please?”

“Er…” Olivia said.

“I’m not going to say flat-out no to that, but we humans would kind of like to get to know each other a little better first,” Deke said, chuckling. “We’re just funny that way.”

“Er…yeah,” Olivia said. “What he said.” She glanced at the other skunk. “Um…wait. Did you just ask me out?”

“Well…sort of?” Now it was Deke’s turn to sound a little embarrassed. “Um…how about you at least let me buy you an ice cream?”

“I won’t say no to that,” Olivia said. She rubbed her muzzle thoughtfully. Now that the shock had worn off, it had been a rather pleasant kiss.

“Yay, ice cream!” Lilac said happily. “That’s almost as good as kissing.”

“Yeah,” Hawthorne agreed. “The ice cream they make here may be even better than kissing.”

Olivia chuckled. “We’ll just have to compare it and find out.” She followed Hawthorne and Deke over to the Milkbottle, where he ordered two large vanilla cones and handed one across to her. They sat across from each other at a table and worked on the cones in silence for a while, though Olivia felt the tickle at the back of her mind that told her Lilac and Hawthorne were having a conversation of their own in a sideband.

Olivia considered the other skunk, and the man inside. She hadn’t seen anything under the fur yet, of course, but his voice sounded nice. She didn’t expect Zane would have an ugly PR man working for him. And he must have been single, or he would have protested more at being made to kiss some strange woman. It had been a while since her last date…and if their RIDEs were compatible, it might just mean they were too.

“Centi for your thoughts?” Deke said after finishing his cone.

“Just thinking it’s a funny way to meet someone,” Olivia said. “Usually you meet then you kiss, not the other way around.”

“Yeah,” Deke said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to see me again.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Olivia said. “If nothing else, it wouldn’t be fair to Lilac and Hawthorne. Besides…” She grinned. “How could I not see you again? I haven’t even ‘seen’ you a first time yet.”

“Well, that’s true.” He stepped back from the table and bowed, then Hawthorne de-Fused away as he straightened back up—a fairly handsome clean-shaven young man in his twenties with skunk ears and tail and a streak of white through the middle of his dark hair.

“Mmm,” Olivia said appreciatively.

“So, I showed you mine…” Deke said, grinning.

“Right, right.” Olivia chuckled. She stepped back from the table and held out her arms, then asked Lilac to pull away. A moment later she stood de-Fused again, and nodded across the table to Deke.

“Very nice to meet you, Miss Stonegate,” Deke said.

“And you, Mr. Lawson,” Olivia said, smiling. His aroma smelled…rather nice, actually. She couldn’t fit a name to it—not surprising since the hawthorn flower didn’t really have an aroma—but it smelled pleasantly masculine and a bit spicy. The only hint she had that it was more than just a cologne was that it was stronger than she’d expect a cologne to be. Well, that and the fact that he was part skunk, she reflected wryly.

Off to the side, Lilac and Hawthorne rubbed noses, then scampered off to an open area to play together. Deke grinned. “Well, they get along pretty well, don’t they?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s nice to meet an old friend again,” Olivia said.

“Nice to meet a new one, too,” Deke said. “So Lilac’s your first RIDE?”

“Yeah. We’re still pretty new to the whole RIDE thing, since we’ve just been on the planet a couple weeks, but after meeting the ones paired up with all my friends, I couldn’t resist any longer. You?”

“I’ve known three or four in my time, but I never really hit it off with one ‘til Thorny there,” Deke said. “He’s kind of like, I dunno, a younger brother, I guess.”

“That’s kind of what Lilac’s like for me,” Olivia said. “Like a little sister.” She grinned. “I was an only sister, ‘til I got here and found I was suddenly down one brother, up one sister. I’d always wanted one…now it looks like I might end up with several of ‘em.”

“I had a big family, but most of them are still back on Proxima,” Deke said. “Which I guess puts me in the same shoes as your sister Rhianna until a couple of weeks ago. Thorny…well, it’s nice to have someone.”

“I hear that,” Olivia agreed. “So how’d you come to work for Brubeck?”

“Not much to tell there,” Deke said. “They had an opening after I graduated Martinez U, so I applied and worked my way up. I’m not really even a passing acquaintance with Mr. Brubeck, though I see him from time to time in conferences with the department. I like working for him a lot better than the old board, I’ll say that. There’s always more to do.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Olivia said. “From what I read, his decisions over the last couple years haven’t always been the most popular.”

“Yeah. But that’s job security for you.” He chuckled. “What about you? Have you got a job yet?”

“Not yet,” Olivia said. “But I’ve been thinking about it. Palling around with Lilac and Cira—my brother’s creche-born RIDE, who doesn’t have a full-sized shell of her own yet—has shown me I really like working with young creche-borns. So I’m thinking I might apply for a job there.”

“Mm.” Deke nodded. “I could see that. I’ll bet you’d be good at it.”

“And I’ll bet you’re a great PR man, you smooth talker you,” Olivia said.

Deke chuckled. “Touche. So, tell me more about yourself. Did you go to college on Earth?”

“I have a pretty useless Masters degree,” Olivia admitted. “What the degree is in…doesn't really matter. It's even less applicable on Zharus than it was on Earth.”

“I know what it is!” Lilac said brightly. She had Hawthorn pinned by his shoulders. “But I won't tell, either.”

Deke chuckled. “You never know. Some degrees that are useless on Earth are actually pretty useful here. 20Th Century History, for one thing, and even English Lit.”

“Noooot this one,” Olivia said, remembering back to the day she had proudly handed in a 3-cm-thick bound volume entitled New Kingdom Hittite Basket-Weaving Techniques: Egyptian Influences from the 19th Dynasty. There was the second Masters in Virtual Intelligence, but that had been barely started before the family had to leave Earth. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Well, you’ve got time, you could always take another,” Deke said. “Martinez U has a pretty good humanities program. And RIDE studies, too. Used to be just design and maintenance, but now they’re adapting a whole bunch of child psychology and education courses into a teaching track, too. Sort of learning as they’re going.”

“Huh. I’ll bet working in a creche would be good for internship credit,” Olivia mused. “Well, you’ve certainly given me something to think about, Mr. Lawson.”

“You can call me Deke, if you want,” Deke said. “It’s hard to be formal with someone when your skunks are rolling around together.”

“You can call me Livy, then. Or if you want it even shorter, just Liv.”

Deke chuckled. “Thanks, Livy. Hmm. My lunch break’s about over. Thorny and I are going to have to get back to the campus.”

“Awwww!” both Lilac and Hawthorne chorused.

Olivia chuckled. “We’ll have to get together again soon. It doesn’t seem fair to keep two good friends apart.”

“I’d like that,” Deke said. “Here’s my V-card.”

“Here’s mine,” Olivia said, passing hers over. “Call me sometime.”

“Okay…or you can call me,” Deke said. “We’re pretty egalitarian about that sort of thing in these parts.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Olivia said, chuckling. “C’mon, Lilac. Let’s go home.”

Lilac gave Hawthorne a farewell lick on the cheek and then padded over to Olivia and Fused up with her. They lifted off the ground and floated out of the park, then Lilac flipped back over to skimmer form and they scooted for home.

“So what was that, huh?” Olivia said. “You know, when you kiss someone, it’s usually polite to ask first.”

“I did!” Lilac said. “Hawthorne said yes!”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Olivia said.

“Well, it’s like I told you. I was afraid you'd say no,” Lilac whined.

“Apparently so was Hawthorne,” Olivia said dryly. Then she paused as a thought struck her. “Waaaait a minute. You’re a RI. You don’t even need to meet in person—you can hang out in VR. So what’s with the whole acting like you haven’t seen each other forever Romeo-and-Juliet-theme kiss thing? Is this some kind of a fix-up?”

“Er…” Lilac said.

“BUS-ted…” Hawthorne said over the comm.

Olivia facepalmed. “You could have just told me, Lilac. We’re supposed to be a team.”

“But it worked for Hayley Mills!” Lilac protested. “You have to do it like that ‘cuz just telling people to meet each other doesn’t work, but being sneaky works every time!”

“This isn't the Parent Trap,” Olivia said, after a quick context search through her implant. Since she’d lacked the time so far to immerse herself in twencen culture the way everyone else here had, context searching was fast becoming a survival skill. “The real world doesn’t work like that.”

The problem with creche VR raising was that creche-born came out only nominally adult, with some occasionally very strange preconceptions of how things were supposed to work in the “real” world because that was how they worked in all the movies. It was like one of those old 20th-century sitcoms where an alien learned how he thought the world worked by watching Earth TV. In fact, that was exactly what it was like. “I know you meant well, Li. I do. But you could have stopped at 'there's someone I'd like you to meet' and introduced me to Deke and Hawthorn. I can honestly say it would've had the same result.”

“Sorry…” Lilac said. “I’ll know better next time.” She giggled. “But wasn’t that a great kiss?”

“It was better than some I’ve had,” Olivia admitted.

“I know, right? Like that boy in 8th grade who didn’t know where to put his nose…” Lilac said.

Olivia snorted. “I hadn’t thought about that in years.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about Lilac poking through her memories, but she’d known at the outset that was going to happen before she even found a RIDE. And fair was fair, she had gotten to see Lilac’s memories, too.

“So will you call him?” Lilac prodded. “Please?”

“I might,” Olivia said. “He seemed like a nice enough guy.” She chuckled. “After the luck I’ve had with dating on Earth, I might as well. I guess you guys couldn’t do any worse picking out a guy for me than I’ve done by myself.”

“Well, what else are sisters for than matchmaking?” Lilac asked. “Because that's what we are, soul-sisters.”

“And this is where all my years of wanting a sister comes back around to bite me in the ass, isn’t it?” Olivia said wryly. “All right, Li. I’ll give him a chance. Just…don’t spring anything else like that on me again, all right?”

“Never again,” Lilac promised virtuously.

Olivia snorted. “And don’t think I didn’t hear that unspoken, ‘at least not until after the trial period is over,’ young lady.”

“Hey, now you’re making stuff up!” Lilac insisted.

“Suuuuure,” Olivia smirked, rubbing the top of Lilac’s dashboard. “Now let me get back to my book, huh? It’s hard to finish anything if you keep grabbing me all the time.”

“All right, all right…” Lilac said. “Sorry…” They pulled into the driveway, and then a giant skunk followed Olivia back into the house.

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“I thought you were supposed to be done by now?” Ivor said. “I have to get to work.”

“You can’t rush art!” Lilac insisted. The microbus was sitting out in the open in the driveway, and the skunk Fuser was, for lack of a better word, dancing around it—twirling around and spraying areas with large clouds of paint from beneath her tail, then following up with smaller squirts here and there from her claws. The design was starting to take shape—a very detailed depiction of a castle on a hill in the background, silhouetted against a full moon. In the foreground, framing the castle, moon, and hill, was an arch of stone, with a metal portcullis—a stone gate. The other side showed a grassy path to a lighthouse with another stone gate in the foreground.

“You can take my scooter, if you want!” Olivia said. “I don’t need it anymore. I know it’s a little ‘girly,’ but you could just look at it as getting in practice, right?”

“Woo, that’s looking awesome!” Cira cheered, scampering around to the other side to peer at the scene there. “Just wait’ll the next cruise-in! Everyone will be so jealous! I can’t wait’ll my bod’s done and you can do it, too!”

“It is looking really good,” Ivor said, fingers on his chin.

“Yeah, it is,” Olivia said. “Pity the neighborhood association would get upset if she did the house this way.”

“Buncha spoilsports,” Lilac griped. “Don’t worry, I’m nearly finished. And it’s fast-drying paint.”

“I’ll go ahead to the garage and let ‘em know you’ll be a little late!” Cira said. “And that they should all come out and see what you’re driving when you get there!” She converted her Laurasian DE shell into a tiny little art-deco-rocket-shaped flier form and zipped away.

Ivor chuckled as she left. “Well, that settles it, I’m going to have to wait now. She wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t make a dramatic entrance.”

“Thanks for letting me do this,” Lilac said. “Your skimmer makes a great canvas.”

“Thanks for doing it,” Ivor said. “Custom paint jobs like this usually cost a fortune. Have you considered doing this professionally?”

“I have, but…I dunno,” Lilac said. “Seems a little like cheating somehow. I mean, I got a computer in my head, and precision-controlled servos. I can make exactly what I see in my head, while most human artists are always disappointed. Am I really a painter, or just a fancy printer that thinks?”

“This is better than that first painting of the Dry you did,” Olivia said. “You're learning. In fact, I think you've started to develop a personal style. You have to be able to see something in your head before you can make it.”

“And I’m glad to see you two are getting along,” Ivor said. “I was a little worried at first.”

“Well, she knows better than to try to trick me into doing things now,” Olivia said.

“Like you said, I’m learning,” Lilac said, switching to just one finger for detail work on the stone gate.

“And Deke really is a nice guy,” Ivor said. “Not a creep like that Raymond guy from high school. I told you he was slime.”

“Yes, yes, I knooooow,” Olivia said. “We've been out a couple of times. Nothing major—ice cream again in the park, barbecue at St. Joe's—but it's been going pretty well so far. Maybe we'll kiss for real one of these days. I guess that’s one benefit of RIDEs…they can read memories, so they can tell when someone’s not a creep.”

“Of course, it also helps to know Deke’s boss,” Ivor said.

Olivia turned Lilac’s head to look at him, and blinked. “Know Deke’s…Ivor, tell me you didn’t ask Zane about him?”

Ivor blinked back. “Why shouldn’t I have asked Zane?”

“Oh, no reason, maybe that neither one of us would really like him to know that one of his sub-sub-subordinates is dating his girlfriend’s sister?” Olivia groaned. “How’s that gonna look?

“I doubt he's the type to micromanage the personal lives of his employees, Livy.”

“Yeah, but tell me he’s not gonna wonder if Deke’s trying to do a little corporate ladder climbing,” Olivia said. “You know, ‘how to succeed in business without really trying,’ and all that.”

“He was gonna find out sooner or later,” Ivor said. “I just wanted to be sure, is all. That’s what big brothers do.” He chuckled. “And if I’m gonna be your big sister soon, I gotta get my big brothering in while I can.”

Olivia sighed. “All right, fine. So you asked him. What did he say?”

Ivor considered. “I’m not sure if I should tell you. It might be a violation of the Big Brothers’ Code.”

Olivia rolled Lilac’s eyes. “Iiiiiivor!”

“This is serious stuff, Livy,” Ivor told her, deadpan. “They could revoke my big brother’s license if I screw up.”

“And what’re they gonna do when you’re my big sister, huh?” Olivia pointed out.

“Oh, yeah. I guess there is that,” Ivor reflected. “Um…I mean, then it gets grandfathered under the Big Sister’s Code. Grandmothered, I mean.”

“Ivoooooor?” Olivia said. “Lilac knows some reeeeeally creative ways of pranking. Just sayin’.”

Ivor chuckled. “All right, all right. He didn’t know Deke personally, but looked him up and found the guy had a decent enough work record. Not perfect enough to look fakey, but decent. He said he’s gonna keep hands off so he doesn’t screw anything up between you, but to let him know when and if you think it’s safe for him to buy Deke a drink sometime.”

“Huh,” Olivia said. “I’m starting to see why Rhi likes him so much. If we weren’t both already taken I’d date him myself.”

Lilac traced one last line of mortar between two stones, and stepped back, blowing imaginary smoke off her finger. “Voila! Zee masterpesa, she ees compleet!”

Ivor gazed at the completed work. “That is really impressive. Good job, Lilac. Now, I'd better get going or the boss is going to dock my skimmer repair jobs.”

“Please, go show it off, by all means!” Lilac said. “Zee arteest, she is, how you say, feeling deemonstrateev.”

“I think you mean you want to show off,” Olivia said, giving her Fuse-partner a VR petting.

“That, too,” Lilac said.

Ivor waved and hopped into the VW, then zoomed off to work at a clip.

“That reminds me, I still have that Silverwing replica,” Olivia said. She strolled over into the garage. It was a sleek “maxiscooter” from the early 21st, and she'd barely had a chance to use it before Lilac had so enthusiastically claimed her. She'd only ridden it once since—when Lilac had driven her back to the crèche so she could pick it up.

“It's a nice bike,” Lilac said diffidently, with an unspoken, “Not as nice as me, of course.”

Olivia chuckled. “So would you like to make it nicer? I'm thinking that once the adoption goes through, I'll sell it…and if I make anything more on it than what I paid for it as a result of your art, the profit can go to you.”

“Oooh! Art for money!” Lilac pondered. “Oh dear. Should I sell out? Pimp out my talent as an artiste for feelthy lucre?” She paused. “Oh sure, why not?”

Olivia chuckled. “Go for it, Picasso.” They rolled the bike out into the open, Lilac considered it for a moment, then went to work.

Olivia observed with interest as the airbrushed art took shape. Being within Lilac as she did it, she had some access to the skunk's thought process, though it was mostly clipped shorthand. “Must do this here…no, no, that there…because this…no, that…” It was a little distracting, and she tuned it out after a while, thinking her own private thoughts.

Those thoughts drifted back to what Lilac had said earlier about being “soul sisters”. She hadn't thought about it that way before, but now that she did she realized Lilac was right. The skunk felt a lot like an immature, slightly bratty little sister she was keeping an eye on—and who would get away with whatever she could if Olivia wasn't careful.

She could chuckle now at the abruptness of that first Fuse, or Lilac's presumption in dragging her into that kiss with Hawthorne and Deke, and Lilac knew better than to try something like that again…but there was no telling what mischief she might come up with next, and Lilac's point of view was that anything that hadn't been explicitly forbidden was expressly permitted. (For example, covering her entire body with temporary Fuse-tattoos of cartoon skunks doing various risque things while she slept.) But there wasn't anything malicious in it, and Olivia actually found she rather liked the way Lilac kept her on her toes.

She especially liked it because she hadn't had anything even remotely like it while growing up. Oh, she'd had oodles of brothers, but it hadn't been the same. There were some things that brothers just couldn't share. Ways they were different. For all that the genders were supposedly equal now, there was still a component of “separate but” to it. Some behaviors were still explicitly “girly,” and there was still implied permission for girls to do boy things but not the other way around.

So she’d made do with the companionship of cousins and girlfriends, but had always felt something was missing from her life. Then here she landed on Zharus and discovered technology had retroactively corrected one of nature’s great injustices. Yet, Rhianna didn't quite fill that massive gap in her life. Yes, she was her sister now, but she didn't have that “growing up female” experience to go along with it. Olivia couldn't even show her the hows and whys of being a woman. She already knew. (There was more hope in that area with Ivor, of course, though even that would still lack the growing-up-sisters vibe.)

Lilac, on the other hand…

The skunkette had given her access to her memories growing up in the Creche's VR environments, Nature Range, Bambi's Forest, and AnthroVille. To Olivia it was like growing up in a storybook, where all the animals could talk, wore clothes, lived in houses, went about the motions of human society while also retaining distinctly animal characteristics. Even the furry corners of Virtual Life didn't feel that genuine.

This approach created problems when the new Ris transitioned out to the Real World—Lilac herself was a good example, as was Ivor's silver vixen Cira. But the Creche-borns were such a New Thing nobody quite knew what would work, so different Creches and RI parents were trying wildly different things. AnthroVille was one, but the bears—Queenie and Big John—had taken their three cubs out of it to grow up in Real Life instead. An Alohan Creche had no VR environments at all. The freshly-birthed RI was installed into a baby-sized DE shell and transferred as they grew older. It was easily the most expensive and slowest approach.

It all fascinated Olivia like nothing else had in her entire life. And she was starting to realize that Lilac was probably the closest thing to a real little sister that she’d ever had—and she loved her fiercely.

A cartoon lilac skunk popped into Olivia’s reverie, and licked her on the nose. “Heeey!” Olivia protested.

“You’re thinking again!” Lilac accused her. “Gettin’ all mushy.” She wrinkled her mephit nose. “But it’s okay! I love you too.” She licked Olivia on the nose again, and vanished. “Now c’mon and look what I did to your bike!”

Olivia chuckled, and opened her eyes back into the real world. “You know, some little sisters just put fingerpaintings up on the fridge…”

“Ta-dah!” Lilac said. The skimmer bike looked an abstract impression of speed, all lines and angles that blended perfectly with the bike’s natural curves. Even sitting completely still in the garage, it looked like it was going a hundred kilometers per hour.

“You’ve outdone yourself yet again, Li,” Olivia said. “That’s amazing.”

“Yeah, well, just a little thing I do,” Lilac said modestly. “Oh, hey, look what time it is! We’re supposed to meet Rhianna and Kaylee for shopping in a half hour!”

Olivia grinned. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

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The Uplift Plaza Mall was the biggest shopping center in Uplift, and from Olivia’s perspective it was also one of the most beguilingly archaic places she’d ever seen. Back home, shopping wasn’t done this way anymore. The malls there were more on the order of showrooms for products that would then be fabbed while you waited, home-fabbed, or delivered. The mall “hangout culture” didn't really exist anymore—it had moved on to Virtual Life.

But like so much of Zharus, this mall was straight out of the twentieth century. It felt like a theme park, one of those places that pretended to be some ancient Brigadoon returned to life from a bygone time, except that instead of being fakey like one of those places it was real. Olivia half expected to see Kevin Smith or Shannen Doherty around every corner.

She’d come to the place a few times on specific missions, to visit one particular store or another, but hadn’t yet found the time to immerse herself in it. She’d been saving that for a special occasion. And that occasion came today—Rhianna had finally gotten ahead on her work enough to take the afternoon off for some shopping.

Rhianna and Kaylee were waiting by the entrance as Olivia and Lilac pulled up. “Hey, sis!” Olivia squealed, still feeling that little frisson of excitement at being able to call Rhianna “sis.” She wasn’t sure when it would wear off, but she was going to thrill to it for as long as she could.

Rhianna chuckled. “Hey, Livy. Ready for some shopping?”

“I am!” Olivia said excitedly. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life! I can’t say I ever expected it would come quite like this, though.” They walked into the mall together, Lilac and Kaylee ranging ahead to give the human sisters a little space.

“Eh, turnabout is fair play,” Rhianna said. “Rufe and I have been rather sisterly since I crossed, then there's Shelley…”

“Boy, is there Shelley,” Olivia said. “She’s so glamorous…I still can’t believe she used to be a guy, too.” She giggled. “I don’t think Ivor actually knows yet. Of course, when it comes right down to it, I’m still amazed at you.

“It's not like we never went shopping when I was a guy,” Rhianna said. “At least, the way they do things on Earth. I never shirked babysitting you and Ivor when I wasn't off in Lhasa or Milan.”

“Yeah, but guys and gals shop for fundamentally different reasons,” Olivia said. “Guys go for specific things. Gals shop to, well, shop.

“That’s just a cliché,” Rhianna said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of truth to saying either gender only shops one way or the other.”

“So maybe I'm just a stereotype.” Olivia shrugged. “I guess what matters is that I'm here doing something with my sister.” She shook her head. “So…um…how was it?”

“‘It’?” Rhianna asked.

“The…change,” Olivia said. “Becoming Rhianna. I mean…back on Earth, I couldn’t have imagined you being anyone but who you were. Big bro Ryan—more approachable than Mr. Ivory Tower Ferris, but all prickly about family matters every time you got anywhere near us…” She smiled. “By the time you left, I remember how it was like pulling teeth to get you to do anything with the rest of us, but you seemed to enjoy yourself once we did.” She shook her head. “You’ve changed a lot more than just guy-to-gal. I mean, Rufia’s still largely Rufus, but you…well, I guess what I want to know is how much of it came from that, and where the rest of it came from.”

“This planet…forces you go grow up faster than Earth does,” Rhianna replied thoughtfully. “Maybe it's the hardscrabble frontier culture. In fact, I'd say that's definitely it. Age of majority's still eighteen here, most places. Except for Aloha where it’s sixteen.” She chuckled. “Causes some interesting culture clashes with the tourists. Which is how Rufia makes her living, come to think of it.”

“I'm still a kid by Earth standards,” Olivia grumbled. “I have a Master's degree, and I was on the way to a second one in a more practical subject. Then the thing with Mom happened.”

“Really? I hadn’t heard about that. What subjects?” Rhianna asked.

“First one's in ancient Earth history,” Olivia said, waving her hand vaguely. “I was going for an MS in Virtual Intelligence engineering…then we had to leave.”

“You can probably transfer your credits to Martinez U, if you want to continue,” Rhianna said. “Most universities on Earth send their transcript records to the embassy here every trip. As long as your voyage took, I’ll bet it’s all here on file.”

“I brought mine with me,” Olivia said. “But I don't know anymore. I was so aimless, and Mom always spoiled me.”

“Yeah, I know,” Rhianna said. “But she didn't drown you in it like she did me. You didn't really know me in my Spoiled Brat phase. By the time you were old enough I was pretty much out of it.”

“I think you’d make a great Virtual Intelligence engineer!” Lilac said loyally. “I’m sure there are a lot of Virtual Intelligence trains that need drivers!”

Olivia laughed and petted her skunk on her head. “I'm more interested in what makes you and Kaylee tick, soul-sis. I've read some of the wikis, and the principles are different enough I think I need to start from square one again.”

“If you need a tutor, I’m sure Shelley will be happy to help,” Rhianna said. “She’s the best RI hacker I’ve ever met, with the possible exception of Drs. Patil and Clemens. And they invented the whole thing.” She chuckled. “For that matter, I’ll bet they’d be happy to help out, too, when they have the time.” She paused. “Oh, here’s the first store I wanted to show you. One of Rufia’s favorite places.” The lit sign above the entrance read “Uplifting Fashions.”

“Oooh!” Olivia squealed. “Looks promising!” She stepped in and looked at all the racks of dresses. “Wait, these are made with real fibers?”

“You’re not gonna start that again, are you?” Rhianna said. “You’re not going to be eating your dress.”

“Well…I guess that’s true,” Olivia admitted. “It’s just surprising. I mean, you’ve got this miraculous nano wonder tech, and you still do so much stuff the old-fashioned way.” She chuckled. “And speaking of old-fashioned, all your fashions are right out of the 20th century, or one of the subsequent revivals.”

“I like the Rosie the Riveter look. It suits me,” Rhianna said, adjusting her red bandanna.

Olivia nodded. “I think so, too. It’s just weird to see people doing all this non-ironically. Instead of ‘Oooh, look how twencen I am!’ it’s like, this is how you all just live.

“Wait long enough and you'll see the 'stackers'. They start at 1900 from their feet and end up at 2000 on their heads, or the reverse,” Kaylee said. “Doesn't really make any sense to me.”

“Remember that outfit Quinny had on when she showed up the day after Zane Integrated?” Rhianna chuckled. “‘What’s wrong with that? It’s all from the 20th century.’” She looked at Olivia critically, then at Lilac. “You look like an 80s girl, maybe, with those tags and that hair color.”

Olivia held out her arms. “You’re the Zharusian. I bow to your superior native fashion sense. Eighties me up!”

“Righto!” Rhianna said. “The racks we want should be right back here…”

“Cue the music!” Kaylee said. An eighties synth-pop rhythm came over their private group comm frequency:

I'm gonna get dressed for success
shaping me up for the big time, baby.
Get dressed for success
shaping it up for your love yea yea yea.

“You want to know the real reason eighties fashions are so big here? Apart from the whole pop culture thing?” Rhianna said as she rummaged through the racks of leather jackets. “If you can believe Quinoa Steader, who ought to know, it’s because for most of Zharus’s history, the FTL travel times back to the core worlds took longer than local fashion cycles. Zharus was at least a couple of years away from anywhere else until pretty recently. Which meant by the time you got somewhere in the old days, if you tried to dress by the very latest standards you knew about, you arrived at least four years out of date.”

“I can see how that would be a problem,” Olivia reflected.

“So they decided to make a virtue of necessity, and go with a timeless look that would be equally out of place anywhere,” Rhianna said. “The local fashion still does move in cycles, of course, but they tend to stick mostly with twencen to mid-twenty-first century elements.”

“Of course, given how cyclical fashion is in general, that’s not so much of a restriction,” Olivia said.

“Humans and clothes,” Kaylee said, rolling her eyes.

“Hey, I like clothes!” Lilac said. “It's another form of art. I even learned to sew.”

“So what?” Kaylee said.

“Sew anything!” Lilac said. Kaylee rolled her eyes and played a rimshot.

“Anyway, with that plus the way we’re all crazy over twentieth-century pop culture here, the whole thing does tend to make us look ridiculous to the rest of the human civilized galaxy,” Rhianna said, taking another dress from the rack. “Which is where it turns out ol’ Joe and Mikel Steader might have been crazy, but they were crazy like foxes.”

“Oh yeah?” Olivia said.

“You heard what Nana Socah said about what Earth did to people who had what they wanted?” Rhianna said. “To hear Quinnie tell it, her Dad and Uncle Joe figured that the best defense was to make us out to be the cloud cuckoo landers of the universe. If everyone else thought we were all nuts, they’d be less likely to trust any of the reports of wonder tech coming out of here.” She chuckled. “And the Steaders found natural allies in RIDEs, who had the fast-time to watch everything a twencen human might have had to spend his entire life assimilating in just a year or two, and who had enough of an urge to try to understand the people who created them to want to do just that. And then there’s the Integrates, who as often as not go pop-culture crazy. Between them all, we figure they probably bought us at least forty years.”

Olivia paused in looking at a miniskirt. “But you can’t expect that’s gonna last forever.”

Rhianna glanced over at her. “No, you’re probably right. Honestly, I’m surprised Earth has left us alone as long as it has, and I expect that might just change in a few more years.” She shook her head. “But that’s something to worry about some other time. Earth isn’t going to invade our shopping trip!”

“Right!” Olivia said.

“So here…take these and get started trying them on,” Rhianna said, handing over three dresses to Olivia.

“What about you?” Olivia asked.

“Well, this is your shopping trip, so—” Rhianna said.

Olivia grinned at her. “You never liked trying on clothes when you were a guy, either. Nice to know some things never change.” She considered Rhianna critically. “Hmm. Now what are your measurements…?”

“I know!” Lilac piped up. “They’re 36-24-38! Like those pinup girls on a B-17 bomber noses, right?”

“That never did sound right in metric,” Kaylee said.

“Then you should try on…this one, and this one, and this one,” Olivia said. “Turnabout is fair play!”

Rhianna's little sister piled dresses and tops into her arms, then the two of them trooped into the fitting room in separate stalls. Kaylee sat on her haunches next to Lilac and waited.

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A half hour later, they left the store with both Lilac and Kaylee toting shopping bags in hardlight saddlebags. “I never realized how amazingly convenient RIDEs are,” Olivia mused. “No wonder you guys can have malls here.”

Rhianna chuckled. “They do come in handy, don’t they?”

“Just you wait,” Lilac said, giggling. “When we go the art shop, I’ll make you carry my purchases! I need a few meters of canvas…”

“Heeeey,” Olivia protested.

“You said it yourself—turnabout is fair play!” Lilac insisted virtuously.

Olivia snorted. “If you really believe that, then next week I’m gonna look for some RIDE I can ambush-matchmake you with.”

“Touche,” Lilac conceded.

Rhianna chuckled. “The two of you seem to be getting along.”

“Yeah, like a house afire,” Olivia said.

“Lots of fire, smoke, screaming, and people running around in panic and confusion,” Lilac supplied helpfully.

Kaylee snorted. “So, think you’ve got enough sisters yet?”

“I think I’ve got about twice as many sisters as I anticipated,” Olivia said, grinning. “I hadn’t realized I got to count RIDEs, too.”

“What am I, cat food?” Kaylee quipped.

“Make that three times, Kaylee,” Olivia said. “Then, assuming Ivor follows through…oh, I think I'm a little dizzy now.”

Kaylee played another sound clip over the private frequency.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing

Olivia grinned. “So yeah, Li and I just sent the formal adoption paperwork in to the creche. The beginning was a little strange, but I just can’t imagine life without her now.”

“Hey, that’s great!” Rhianna said. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.”

“Once you’ve gone skunk, there’s no going back!” Lilac said happily. “Cuz it’s just so hard to get the scent to wash off, ya see.”

“As slogans go, that one needs a little work,” Olivia said.

“Go skunk, for more junk in the trunk?” Lilac suggested, flirting her fluffy tail.

“Don’t quit your day job,” Kaylee said. The group shared a laugh, and headed deeper into the mall to find the next store.

Separator k left.png THE END Separator k right.png
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Aloha, Stonegates!
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Paws Up!