Field Ecologist’s Ponygirl

By Xaltatun of Acheron (A Pseudonym)

This work is copyright 2001 by Xaltatun of Acheron (A Pseudonym). It may be posted on the Internet to any free forum, provided it is not modified in any way, and provided that this notice is included in its entirety. It may not be sold, or included in any compilation that is sold, or posted on any forum that requires a fee for access, without my written permission. My permission will require payment, terms to be negotiated. For purposes of this notice, sites guarded by Adult Check or similar packages are considered pay sites. Posting on any site must include this copyright notice.

Adult Content Warning - this story contains adult themes, including non-consensual bondage/slavery. It could also prove highly disturbing if you think our current socio/political worldview is the only one that exists. If you are under the lawful age for such materials (18 in most jurisdictions) or if you would find such material offensive, please go elsewhere.

There are currently four stories in the Freehold series:

1. A Slave Girl of Freehold

2. A Ponygirl of Freehold

3. The Field Ecologist’s Ponygirl (sequel to A Ponygirl of Freehold)

4. Delivery Ponyboy

Some additional background on Freehold, in particular, how it happened, is in the story “The Curtain Falls, The Curtain Rises,” the end of the Ponygirl Transformation series.

The name Freehold has no relationship to any other use of the term by any other author. No connection should be assumed, either derivative or as a base for parody.

Safety Warning. This story may contain descriptions of practices that are decidedly unsafe, either in general, or if performed by someone without adequate training. There are a number of good books available on safety in the BDSM scene. Most large cities, and some not so large ones, have organized BDSM groups that will usually welcome a newcomer. I’m not going to point out which practices are safe, and which aren’t. Any practice is unsafe if performed by someone with inadequate training and experience, or if performed when not paying attention. Please think before you act. Don’t make yourself a candidate for a Darwin award.

OK - now on to the story -------

Authors Note. You might want to read A Ponygirl of Freehold first, as it explains how Auburn Flame got to this point.

Chapter 1. Auburn Flame.

Hi. I’m Auburn Flame. I’m Nancy Steven’s personal ponygirl. She gets one because she’s a field ecologist, and needs one to do her job. Her old one broke a leg, and she needed a new one in a hurry. There were no volunteers. Not that surprising; working with a field ecologist has got a reputation of being very difficult work, at least from a ponygirl’s viewpoint. So they asked me to volunteer.

I jumped at it. Not that I didn’t like the municipal taxi service. I loved it. All the physical activity beats a desk job hands down. You know exactly what you’re expected to do, and it’s practically impossible to make a mistake if you pay attention. I like bondage. There’s something about the combination of strict bondage and controlled movement that sharpens the experience almost to the breaking point. But staying there leads nowhere. And this carried a triple jump to supervised citizen.

If you haven’t seen my pervious memoir, I expect you’re totally confused about what’s going on. This is Freehold. Back on the mainland, my specialty was identity fraud. Doing it, not chasing it down. Since I like to do what my boyfriend is doing, I took up armed robbery as a sideline. He died in the last shootout, and I killed one of the cops. I headed for the one place on the planet that doesn’t have extradition treaties with anyone else. Freehold. Boy, did I learn better fast. They don’t waste time here. Or anything else, for that matter.

I got snatched right out of Immigration. By the end of the day, I had four hooves, a tail, and I had been trained on how to get from the training stables to the meadow and back.

Freehold is different. They didn’t regard killing a cop as something to be punished. They don’t do long term punishment; its wasteful of resources, and doesn’t usually accomplish anything useful for the miscreant. They also don’t execute for anything other than demonstrated inability to either learn to act in a socially appropriate manner, or at least adapt to restrictions that insure acting in a socially appropriate manner.

Which is why they put me down to ponygirl. Killing a cop demonstrates a social responsibility that is barely distinguishable from zero. Identity fraud is not much better, but at least it demonstrates that you can handle reasonably difficult tasks. Paradoxically, killing the cop also demonstrated that I could use my tools effectively, which didn’t hurt the personal responsibility rating at all. So that, plus my training record got me assigned to the municipal taxi service when I finished training. Keeping my nose clean, a level two citation, a really good training record and some relevant prior life history from the mainland got me this opportunity.

Chapter 2. The stables.

This was my first day with Nancy. I’d just gotten her from Freehold City to an outlying town in her area that had a ponygirl stable. It was 80 miles in just under nine hours, counting three fifteen-minute breaks. Her, her cart, and the equipment were slightly more than I had done before, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Probably between 500 and 600 pounds. What freaked me out was the time and distance. I didn’t think there was any possible way of doing it. And I was feeling reasonably good afterwards. Not wiped.

When we got in, the groom got me unhitched, put me down on all fours and took me to my assigned stall. It was the same as the other two stalls I’d been in. It’s a long, narrow box with floor to ceiling walls. The inside is about two meters long by less than one meter wide. It’s barely possible to turn around, if you sit and bring your legs up. You can’t do it standing on all fours, and you aren’t allowed to stand. Turning around doesn’t have any point, because the back gate is too high to see over. The front of the stall is a built in table, maybe a third of a meter deep, with a sunken water dish and food dish at exactly the right height to get your head into the job. You can see out the front, but all you normally see is the closed back doors of the next row of stalls, and the occasional groom and trainer.

The unusual thing about the cells is that there’s a storage cabinet just under the food dishes. It contains a VR helmet with some kind of brain wave scanner. It’s got access to all the news and entertainment channels. It also has the best on-line training system I’ve ever heard of, complete with an AI advisor. At least, I presume it’s an artificial intelligence – it won’t tell me. My access to most of the net is restricted to what I needed in taxi, but that includes the map and a wide variety of chats and other things related to what I do, which is pull carts.

We’d gotten in early. Nancy had some stuff to do, so I had a lot of stall time. I checked with the computer. It told me they had done a whole bunch of physical modifications as part of the ponygirl adaptation. I was noticeably stronger. That was partially improvements in the muscles and partially improvements in the bone structure and muscle insertion points. I wasn’t as strong as a horse, girls just don’t have the muscle mass. I also had more stamina. In fact, it was essentially impossible for me to get tired! They had made some subtle changes to the bone structure of my hands, wrists, feet and ankles so that they could take the hoof boots without problems. I could still use them normally. All this stuff had started when I became a ponygirl. They’d phased in gradually enough that I’d attributed it to advanced training techniques.

The thing I had noticed was my mane and tail. The hair on most of my head is more like a horse’s coat than normal hair. My mane is about an inch wide. It starts at the hairline and continues down my back to just under the shoulder blades. It grew to about six inches during training, and then stopped.

My tail looked like someone couldn’t make up her mind. Mostly, it was a cat’s or monkey’s tail, that is, long, flexible and furry. The top had thick hair like a horse, but that stopped halfway down. It was supposed to be detachable, but I’d never had occasion to test that out. It was definitely prehensile. I got good enough with it to knock a fly out of the air. I never got good enough to drape it over the back end of the stall and unlatch the door. I knew a couple of ponies who had; the grooms simply put a lock on their stall doors.

One of the major reasons they didn’t have any takers for the assignment was the other physical modifications that came with. They were sensory extensions to my eyes, ears and nose. I had a lot of problems while they grew in, but I figured they were worth it. They’d added infrared sensors so I now had four-color vision and a perfect memory for color shades. I understand it’s a rare mutation, but it’s incredibly useful for an ecologist’s assistant. It’s truly startling to be able to walk through a forest at night in the dark of the moon and see where I’m going. Add a full moon so the rods kick in, and it shifts to color, although the colors are not at all what you’d expect.

Likewise, my sense of smell had improved out of all recognition. That was another highly useful trait for someone living full time in the wilds although it had a downside. I can no longer mask one scent with another. I smell both of them, separately and distinctly.

My hearing improved slightly as to what I could hear, but the frequency cutoff is way up, and so is the processing. I can do echo location. Not only that, but the information adds itself to my visual field somehow. Nancy and I can talk about it, but anybody else just gets confused.

Once I got straightened out on the physical stuff, I checked on my course work. There were three new courses listed: “Block and tackle for ponygirls,” “Making and breaking camp,” and “Lesbian Sex.”

The first two were fairly obvious. In fact, we’d covered block and tackle in training, but then the expectation was that someone else would be doing the hookups, and all the girl would be doing would be pulling when told to. This was more. This was a level straddle. I was eventually expected to learn how to do the entire process, from picking a suitable attachment, setting it up, and getting the cart where it was supposed to go. Nancy would, of course, supervise. I didn’t expect any surprises; I’d used one a few times on camping trips. I did a quick check of the content. I was right, no surprises. I’d review it later in depth. It never paid to be slapdash here.

Making and Breaking Camp was equally obvious. One of the reasons I had the assignment was that I had done a bit of camping. This one, however, was much more detailed than what I had expected. Back home, people talked about camping safety. People died every year, they set fires every year and they ruined quite a bit of countryside every year. Freehold was not that blasé. This was going to take quite a bit of study to complete. And probably a fair amount of talking with Nancy, since one of the prerequisites was “an experienced tutor.”

The real surprise was Lesbian Sex. I was surprised it even existed on the citizens training menu. Then I reconsidered. This was Freehold. If people did it, there was probably a course on it. Being curious, I checked on whether there was one on breathing. I already knew that there was one on using the crapper. And I hadn’t had it yet.

There are several courses on how to breathe properly. One is for asthmatics. One is for athletes. One is for practitioners of some of the more rigorous forms of Eastern spiritual self-discipline.

I thought it was on there because Nancy liked to get laid frequently. I was right. In fact, I like the fillies, although I prefer a good stud most of the time. I suspect that I’d never have heard of this opportunity if my record didn’t show that I enjoyed it.

It was another eye opener. It was crammed with information on female sexual anatomy, and with positions I had never even heard of. Take it slow, let her lead.

Then it was time for sleep. The top part of the front and back of my stall came out, sealing me in, and then the lights dimmed through the sunset sequence. We went out simultaneously.

Chapter 3. Base Camp

Next morning, after having my morning feed and going though the milking machine, the groom switched me to two-footed mode, and hitched me to something that looked more like a wagon than a cart. I stared at it in shock. I’d thought yesterday was heavy. This thing must weigh a ton!

Then Nancy came out. She took out my bit, and held up a map. We discussed the route and the destination. She put the bit back in. The wagon wasn’t quite as bad as I thought. It was heavier than the cart had been, but it wasn’t heavier than the cart plus Nancy. Nancy had her pony boots on, and was going to walk.

I had done 80 miles yesterday in less than a day, and without any significant problem. Doing the last ten miles took close to half of the day. I wasn’t wiped at the end; that’s practically impossible for a ponygirl unless we run out of some nutrient. But I sure knew I’d had a workout.

Our destination was up on the plateau, fifteen kilometers in toward the center of the island. It wasn’t anywhere near the tops, but neither was it on the coastal plain that held most of the population. Nancy’s territory was roughly a fifty kilometer square, from the tops of those mountains to the coastal plain. Our base was a bit back from the edge of the central plateau. The path up was well maintained; it was just steep in places. About half of it was level, but none of the segments were long and straight enough to get up any respectable speed. The rest were set up with traction cables, exactly like the main roads. Unlike the main roads, the winches didn’t have permanently assigned ponyboys to provide the motive power.

The first thing I had to do was use the hidden quick release to get rid of the pony hooves on my arms. It was just too inefficient to keep taking them off and putting them back on as we shifted from pulling, to operating the winch and back to pulling. Nancy could have set up the pulls herself and kept me in pony mode the whole time, but she didn’t. The point was real obvious; it was my responsibility to get us there and back. If she had needed to unhitch me and rehitch me, I’d have been back in the stables the next day.

That was the trip up. Hitch myself to the wagon and pull it a few hundred feet, usually around several curves. Stop and connect the wagon to the traction cable. Go to the windlass and turn as the wagon slowly moved up the slope. Get myself hitched back up to the wagon and take it another few hundred feet on the level before having to winch it up another slope. The longest flat stretch was about two miles. There were a dozen slopes where I had to operate the winch.

Our base camp had a cabin, an equipment shed and a fire pit. The shed had a shower and a ponygirl stall that didn’t look like it had been used recently. I was right, she expected me to sleep with her. Not that I minded.

I parked the wagon, and helped unload. She was very specific, which I expected. Most of it went onto the table in the cabin; she put it away. Some of it went into the shed; some of it went into a cabinet by the fire pit.

Then I got to make dinner. She gave me the menu, and supervised. I learned a lot about that fire pit. I found out she didn’t cook inside unless it was really bad weather, which we very seldom had. Dinner was reasonably good. The thing that set me back on my heels was when she poured her coffee, she put the cup under one of my breasts and squeezed.

Then she laughed. “Girl, the look on your face when I did that was priceless. Same thing with the last couple of ponies I had. But I’m making a point. Care to tell me what it is?”

I thought a while. “I don’t see it. I’m in milk, so I have to do something. In fact, I need to be milked pretty soon. But using me as a milk dispenser for your coffee is kinky.”

“I suspected you might not. It’s part of slave training. The actual topic is obedience. Quite a few supervisors find a limit and push it to get the point across. I find this works just as well. At the ponygirl level, if it’s required, you’re trained in it. If you haven’t been trained in it to the point it comes automatically, its forbidden.”

“At the personal slave level, it’s completely the supervisor’s responsibility to know what you can and can’t do, and to be appropriate in giving you orders. If I say jump, you’d better be in the air before you ask how high. If I didn’t tell you, and it wasn’t obvious from context, then it’s my responsibility if you don’t hit the correct height. It’s not your responsibility to decide whether to do it.”

“At personal slave training academy, they start each task as if you had never heard of it before. Some of the things you’re going to learn will be that way. I can’t afford mistakes on handling biological samples. But I know you’ve done camping, so I expected you could do that dinner without causing a disaster. You did it acceptably, but not up to standards, and we’ll correct that. But there’s just too much to train on one task at a time before going to the next.”

“And yes, I’m going to use you as a milk dispenser. You’re in milk, and you’ll stay that way for reasons that don’t concern you. It’s available. In fact, we’ll save some of it for when a recipe calls for milk.”

That just totally floored me. Then the essential absurdity of the situation hit home. I laughed. Then I sobered up. “Freehold really means it when they classify ponygirls as livestock.”

“We do indeed. You know what happens when a career ponygirl can’t function efficiently any more?”

“Yes. They put her down.”

“Mostly. There are a few that have made a name for themselves as poets, writers, or whatever on the net. They just get a stall and a place in the meadow until whenever. Most of them don’t, so they are no good to either themselves or anyone else.”

“Um… Where do you want me to go?”

She looked at me quizzically. “Latrine over there. Paper in the box next to it.”

I went. I wiped. I came back.

“Good, you passed that one.” I must have looked blank.

“Girl, before I let you sleep with me, in fact, before I let you stay in the cabin with me, I have to know if you’re housebroken. I had one pony that shit while she was eating dinner. That was the first day. She spent her nights in that stall until I housebroke her. And she didn’t get her computer time; that stall doesn’t have a headset.”

“Clean up.” That sounded like an order.

“Dishes or fire pit first?”

“Dishes in the sink to soak, then fire pit, then finish the dishes.” I should have known that.

It took an hour before she was satisfied. Those dishes could have passed a food service inspection by a martinet who was pissed about not being paid off.

After that, it was study time. Formally. Before, I’d usually had a couple of hours in my stall before lights out that I could use for study. I’d never seen anyone else studying, but then, I’d never had the opportunity. The municipal taxi service kept us fairly solitary, and you didn’t share your stall. However, tonight was another bit of training.

Her workstation was a bench that stretched along one side of the cabin. Mine was a low desk that stuck out of the front wall on the other side of the door from her workbench. I had been told to put my computer hookup on that desk, so I did.

“Time for your first official bit of personal slave training. One of the things they teach you is ten positions that you are expected to be able to assume and hold in the appropriate circumstances. The first one is kneeling. The thing you need to know about it is that when you don’t have anything to do in the cabin, you should be kneeling at your workstation.”

So she showed me how to do it. It wasn’t quite the drill that the ponygirl trainers used. There, they were responsible for everything. There was only one time I had to point out anything to them. Here, she put me in the position, but then she expected me to report back on my balance. She would suggest a correction, or I would. I’d try it out, and then report back again. It took a while for the lesson to sink in. Being able to maintain that position indefinitely, without fidgeting or other distracting behavior, was not going to be easy.

Actually, there were three lessons. One was on the position. One was on how my muscles actually worked, from the inside. And one was on personal responsibility.

Then we set up the workstation. It was actually fairly easy. There were two vertical rails on the wall, and the desk would move up or down them. A knob locked it into position. My board went on the desk. She looked at me. I looked back, and then at the desk. Then I tried the board. Oops, that didn’t match any of the ergonomics posters I had ever seen. Wrong height. So I adjusted it. She said only one word.

“Good.” She kept looking at me.

So I went back to work. The flat panel display was next. That was fairly obvious. There was another arm sticking out of the track. So I looked, and the fittings matched. They mated perfectly. Then I adjusted it to be at eye height.

“Mistress? This doesn’t seem right. The manuals all say this is correct, but then I won’t be able to see you at the bench.”

“Exactly right. Bring it over to your left.”

So I did.

“Enough for tonight. Strip, take a quick shower in the shed, and be back here in ten minutes. Then you’ve got a half hour to check in on the computer. After that, bed. I expect you to be aroused when you hit the bed.”

God, she was explicit. I headed out the door to the shed. The pony stall was only one thing in it. There was a shower, and a cabinet with towels. It had been almost two years since I had taken a shower. The taxi stables used an automated line to wash its girls. I suppose that made sense. Since we substituted for cars, we got washed like cars. Ten minutes? Do it fast, but do it accurate. I showered, soaped, rinsed and got out. Then dry off with a large terry towel. I was back in time.

She followed me out the door, and took her shower next. I tried to check in with the computer. Oops. I had never used a physical chord board, only the one in the brain wave scanner. Fortunately, the computer noticed, and brought up a training program. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

I thought that the training program would be on the same strokes for hands. No way. What it did was bridge what I already knew to my hands. It put a picture of the board up on the screen, and a picture of my hands just below it. Then it put what it wanted me to enter just above. I had to make my hands move the way the screen showed. I just let the exercises work. Eventually, the associations took off, and my hands started moving automatically.

Enough for tonight.

I signed off. It was time for bed.

I remembered my instructions. Arousal was easy. While I prefer a fairly extensive amount of foreplay, I had several boyfriends, and one girlfriend, that didn’t turn on until they could smell me. Then they turned on, and we had fun. So I just pulled up the picture of the video heartthrob of my teenage years, stepped into it, and kissed him. Just like automatic, my body came up. Then I saw Nancy sitting on the bed. Common sense exerted itself mightily to make me notice. She had not given me leave to attack her.


She bounced up, grabbed me, and we kissed. It went on from there. She was a passionate lover. But then, so was I. We came at the same time, and then we snuggled. She reached into the headboard, pulled out a mouthpiece and showed it to me. “Warm milk makes me sleep better.” She popped it in, grabbed one of my breasts, and began nursing. I held her while she finished it, and switched to the other breast. She fell asleep with the mouthpiece still in place.

I looked at her curiously. This was my effective owner? Kinky. But nursing felt good, so I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned bright and early. Nancy stirred. She grabbed me, and then started nursing. She emptied both of my breasts, gave me a big hug, and bounced out of bed. The mouthpiece wound up in the sink.

The next week was more of the same. We stayed around the cabin, and she drilled me on everything needed to keep our base camp up and running. Most of it was what I could have expected from camping trips I had taken before. The one thing that surprised me was that we had electricity. I hadn’t seen any power cables, and I hadn’t noticed the windmill. It turned out that we had a very efficient power system. It was a standard package that Freehold used for all out of the way places where it was inefficient to hook up to the power distribution grid. Input was a solar panel array and the windmill. That went to a unit that turned water into hydrogen. The stored hydrogen went into a fuel cell that generated electricity as needed. The package was self-monitoring and hooked into the Freehold data system. If anything went wrong with it, there’d be a repair team on its way probably before we noticed the problem ourselves.

Eventually, Nancy was satisfied with how I did camp maintenance, and we headed out for our first field trip.

Chapter 4. Field Trip

The only clothing I’d been wearing around camp full time was my pony boots, and, of course, my collar. Nancy didn’t want me to bother with a harness unless I needed it to haul stuff around, and if I didn’t wear my slave girl uniform, I didn’t have to wash it. Besides, as she put it, she liked the scenery.

Our first field trip was going to be a relatively leisurely circumnavigation of her territory. We had a small equipment cart, about two hundred pounds, and two packs. My uniform was boots and a working harness. I expect I should describe it, since I haven’t done that yet.

The harness started with a wide black and yellow striped leather belt around my waist. The belt curved around my hips enough so it wouldn’t slip sideways. Then there was a front piece that came down between my legs, with a strap that came up between my ass cheeks and forked just under my tail. The two straps attached to the belt in back. Three black leather straps came up from the top of the belt to a ring just below my breasts, and another set of three came up the back to a ring behind the first ring. From there, a narrower belt came around horizontally, and another came up vertically between my breasts to a ring just above them. Straps came off of this ring to fasten to the shoulder straps and go around my body again. The same pattern repeated on my back. The whole assemblage kept most of the weight of a cart focused on my shoulders, where it belonged, rather than on my waist, where I was weakest. The fact that it showed off my breasts nicely was supposed to be incidental. Hah.

The cart hitched to D-rings on my waistband so that there was no slack. If I moved, it moved, and vice versa. For this trip, I had an additional fifty pound field pack. The things missing from my taxi harness were the front pony boots and the bridle and bit. Instead of the boots, I simply rested my hands on the shafts. Besides, if I’d been wearing the hooves on my hands, and they’d been in the proper position behind me, I couldn’t have carried the pack.

“Here. Catch.” Nancy threw something at me. It spun lazily in the air as I reached out and caught it. Good thing I was already hitched to the cart or I would have been tempted to bolt. It was a holstered pistol! Using one of those things is what had landed me here in the first place.

“Let’s see you put one in the target.” She pointed. I pulled the pistol out of the holster and looked at it. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. The barrel had holes in it! The grip fit like it had been custom designed for my hand. There was a lever near my thumb, and a trigger in the obvious place.

I let the weapons drill take over. Both arms came up to where the sights lined up on the target. I had no idea how far the bullet would drop in that distance, so I just aimed as if it was the last pistol I’d actually practiced with. I settled on target and squeezed the trigger, nice and easy. It had a very consistent pull; no little places where the pressure changed. The shot happened. The kick felt subtly different, and there was very little noise.

I looked at the thing again. No smoke, no muzzle flash, and the part of the inside of the barrel I could see through the holes didn’t look like it had any powder residue. Also, no cartridge had ejected, but it rather obviously wasn’t a revolver.

Nancy walked up to the target and looked. “Good shot, girl. About an inch high. Clip on the holster and let’s see you draw.”

At this point, confusion would have been an understatement. However, confusion gets you dead in a firefight. I had an unholstered weapon in my hand. Put the safety on, holster it and find someplace to attach the holster to my harness. Concealing it wasn’t an issue. Getting at it fast was. I decided on a cross-body draw, and found a pair of unused snap-on rings on my waistband in the appropriate place, just above where the traces attached it to the wagon shafts.

Nancy had moved out of the line of fire, so I tested the draw. Good to see I hadn’t lost too much edge there. The restraining strap came off with a flick and it came out and up properly. This time, I dropped about an inch on the aim.

“Right on target, Flame! We’ll talk on the way.” I holstered the pistol and leaned into the harness to get the cart moving. Once we were on the road, she dropped back.

“I expect you’ve got questions.”

As usual, physical movement had helped settle my mind. “Several. What do I need it for, why do you trust me with it, and what is that pistol anyway? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You tell me why you need it.” She was serious?

“There must be dangerous animals around here?” I was guessing.

“Exactly right. Almost everyone that’s authorized to be in this sector goes armed, at least if they’re not a tourist or part of a larger group. You’d be pretty useless to me if you couldn’t defend yourself against some of the predators around here.”

That made sense. “How am I going to know?”

“That’s the next part of your training. There’s a lot of material on the computer, but it’s not organized into a formal course. There’s too much material for the relatively few people that need it, and it changes too fast. Besides which, most of the people don’t have the sensory extensions.”

“I can see that,” I said. “Next question. How did you know to trust me with that pistol?”

“We didn’t. The only way of knowing whether we could trust you is to see you in action. The job description says we have to, and there were enough anomalies in that police report and your background to make losing your head and going out of control doubtful as an explanation. There are several safeguards that you don’t know about, and you won’t know about.”

I thought about that for a minute. “In other words, if I had gone berserk, I’d have been dead?”

“Not exactly. You’d have been stunned, and then on your way back to the municipal ponygirl stables. You’d never have left them, at least without extensive therapy.”

That made too much sense. “What about the weapon? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I can’t tell you anything about the technology. I simply don’t know, and I doubt if I’d be allowed to say if I did. I do know they came into use about ten years ago. The explanation was that the ammunition was easier to make, and safer since there isn’t any explosive. The one thing you need to know is that it does need to be recharged regularly. It holds enough charge for about a hundred rounds. It’s also a stunner; shove the safety the other way to change mode.”

I sighed. I had a hearty respect for security, even if people went overboard on it regularly.

“Now you tell me one.” I had this funny feeling I knew what was coming. “How did you get that good with the pistol? There was nothing in the dossier I saw that explained it.”

That was the question. Might as well tell her at least a little. “I used to be Special Forces.”

“What’s that? I don’t know much about the world outside Freehold.”

“That’s a special Army unit with advanced training. Then I was in a computer warfare unit for a while, before security found out that I liked bondage and was somewhat of a masochist. They didn’t want me after that, but they thought I was too dangerous to let loose. I shook them for long enough to buy an identity change from the Dodecahedron, and went to ground.”

“That explains a lot, but now I don’t understand why you killed that police officer in the first place. I’d think you could have disabled him instead.”

“I tried. Being able to use a pistol was totally out of character for the identity I’d built. The boyfriend got it for me. I’d never practiced with it. It was too heavy, and the ammunition would have killed him from hydrostatic shock wherever the bullet hit. The cop was out of control, shooting wildly. His partner got mine on the way out.”

She looked at me strangely. “That explains part of it. What it doesn’t explain is why you were hitched up with a bank robber in the first place.”

“Trying to stay in character. I was living off my computer warfare skills, but I couldn’t afford to let anyone know enough to wonder about them. Having a reputation as a deadly street fighter kept me safe enough, and it’s common enough so it doesn’t raise eyebrows. He was interesting, and I thought that robbing a few banks would be a nice change of pace. I’d seen enough of how the financial system screwed the people I lived among that poking them a bit didn’t seem all that wrong. If I’d have thought it through, I’d have stayed away from it like the plague.”

She thought about that for a while as we trotted down the road. “Well, I don’t see anything in there that says we can’t work together. The Justice system will do whatever it does with the information.”

I hadn’t thought about that. “What are they likely to do?”

“Not a whole lot. They may add a few items you have to pass evaluation on before you can make supervised citizen. If they decide to change their original assessment of your social responsibility rating, you’ll probably get more frequent evaluations, and rise up the ladder faster. I doubt if they’ll bounce you out of here. There’s no point until you settle on a career.”

That seemed to be that for the moment. We trotted along silently for a while.

That wide, white gravel covered road puzzled me. It just looked like too much for a twenty-five hundred square kilometer sector with less than a thousand people. It turned out to have a simple explanation. It doubled as a firebreak. As Nancy put it, Freehold was not immune to lightning strikes. Nor was it immune to common stupidity, especially at the hands of tourists. The logging teams cleared the path, and special road building machinery built them. Once built, they were close to indestructible by normal wear and tear. And they also meant we could do controlled burns when and where we wanted, without worrying about them getting out of control.

Eventually we came to a clearing by a bridge over a stream.

“OK, Flame. Turn out here.” I pulled the wagon into the clearing and stood in place. “Get yourself unharnessed and take a drink.”

She walked over to a six foot tall black cylinder that sat on a concrete base a bit upriver from the bridge. When she got there, she touched it in a couple of places, and the side opened out, showing that it was packed with equipment.

“Come on over and look at this.” I came and looked. It still looked like equipment. She seemed to want me to comment.

“Are those things on top cameras?”

“Yes, they are. This has got a complete hemispherical view. These are environmental monitoring units. You need to know about this, standard maintenance is part of the job. This one has been sending in a trouble report for a while.”

“How do we fix it?”

“First we find out what it’s complaining about. Get your board and screen out.” I pulled them out of the cart and set them up on top. “You want ‘Infrastructure Status’.” I keyed it in and a map popped up. As usual, the “you are here” icon was in the center, and it was oriented in the direction I was looking. The black cylinder was there, along with the road, the bridge, the picnic table and the fire pit in the clearing. This was a lot more detailed than the ‘road condition’ map I was used to seeing. I clicked on the cylinder.

It came up with a screen headed with “Environmental Monitoring Unit Status” and a bunch of numbers I assumed was the unit number. Underneath, there were messages, some in red, some in orange and some in black. The first red message said “Camera number 6 non-functional.” The orange message below it said “Replace Camera number 6.” That seemed to be clear enough.

I looked at Nancy. She just stood there looking at me, arms crossed under her breasts. Right. I clicked on the orange message, and a “step by step” list of things to do popped up. The first thing was “Open the unit.” It had a check mark beside it; she’d already done that. The next step was “remove malfunctioning unit.” I clicked on that, and another “step by step” popped up, this time with a diagram. I replaced the unit, with Nancy checking me every step of the way. She never actually touched a piece of the equipment, however. When we were done, the status screen no longer had the trouble message. Instead, there was a message in black on the bottom. “Camera #6 replaced by Auburn Flame,” and the date.

“Pretty good for a first time through,” she said. “Here’s the background. Every resident from Household Slave status on up through Prince Gregory is expected to be able to assemble, service, repair and disassemble any piece of equipment that doesn’t require a craft apprenticeship or advanced technical or safety training. Every piece of equipment in common use is designed so that it can be serviced by anyone, and the instructions are all in the system. We have a very complicated infrastructure, and we simply don’t have the manpower to have specialists in every last, little piece everywhere they’d be needed.”

“That’s different,” I said. “It makes sense.” I paused a moment. “I’m expected to be able to repair that camera I just replaced?”

“No, that goes back to the factory, where the robots will strip it down and either fix it or scrap it. The camera assembly itself is the field replaceable unit.”

“That’s a relief.” I paused again. “But what if the engineers wanted to do it differently?”

“Their social responsibility would take a serious hit. Freehold does not reward individual initiative when that creates difficulties for other people. The system not only can change, it has changed, but it’s not one person’s responsibility to do that kind of thing. If a designer can come up with a way of doing it better, it’s still going to take a lot of work to implement.”

I shut up the wagon, hitched myself to the shafts, and we headed over the bridge and down the road.

My first field trip ended successfully, with my head totally stuffed. Now that I’d admitted my Special Forces background, I no longer had to pretend I didn’t have wilderness training. What Nancy expected me to be able to do started from there and went on. Managing 2500 square kilometers containing a dozen different ecosystems took totally different skills. Our job was to make certain we didn’t get caught by surprise, and also to make adjustments, when and where needed.

Chapter 5. The Stocks

“Hey, Flame. You were serious back there about liking bondage?”

That took me by surprise. “Yes. Now that I’m not in fulltime pony bondage, I’m beginning to itch a little.”

“Well, let’s scratch it. There’s a set of stocks in the storage shed. Get it and set it up.”

Stocks? Oh, my. I’d never been quite that serious. I headed for the shed and started poking around. Now that I knew what I was looking for, they were fairly obvious. There were two flat pieces of wood, about three feet long, a foot high and an inch thick, with a semicircular cutout lined with all weather foam. One of them had a lever and two spring-loaded fasteners connected by a wire. There were also two five foot high posts, about two inches by three inches, with a cutout and some hardware. I hauled them out and looked around. Nancy pointed to a concrete slab in the back yard. When I looked closely, there were two covers for what looked like postholes. The posts fitted and held the top board solidly. The bottom board moved up and down in a slot in the posts. The spring loaded fastener held it closed.

Nancy looked it over. The bottom board moved up and down smoothly, fastened tightly with a definite sounding snap, and fell with a push of the lever.

“Nice job, girl. Now get your front hooves.” I retrieved them from where I’d stored them, and she put them on me. From all fours, that set of stocks looked awfully solid. I walked up and stuck my head in. Nancy shoved the bottom board up. THUNK! It snapped in place. The foam snuggled around my neck. That delicious scared feeling came up like my guts would turn to water if someone just said BOO!

Nancy walked away and then came back. She put something cold on one shoulder, and then the other. Then she put something on each of my ass cheeks. I heard her walk off a few steps.

SWISH! CRACK! TIIING! I jumped. CLANG. THUNK. THUD. A tin can rolled into my line of vision.

“Startled you, didn’t I, girl?” She sounded amused. “Let’s see if you can keep them on next time.” She put them back on. SWISH! CRACK! Tink! Clank! The one on my left shoulder fell over and then rolled off. She picked off the one on my right ass cheek next. Then she knocked one of the remaining ones into the other.

Back they went. SWISH! CRACK! TWANG! THUNK! THUD! This time it bounced off the stocks before hitting the ground. SWISH! CRACK! OUTCH!!! THUD! THUD! THUD! She laughed. “Got you again, eh?”

“That hurt,” I said, plaintively.

“I thought you said you were a bit of a masochist.” This time she sounded concerned.

“I am. I’m usually gagged for pain play.”

“I don’t think I want to do that. Let’s see if you can take this without flinching next time.” She put the cans back on my back.

SWISH! CRACK! TWANG! CLUNK! Another can bit the dust.

She went on like that for a while. I never knew which SWISH! CRACK! was going to hit a can, and which was going to hit me. After a while, I quit flinching and the cans stayed put.

Then she ran in a variation. “Put them on your back, dear.”

Put them on myself? With what? My tail? I guess that’s what she meant, all right. I started feeling around for a can, and then tried to pick it up. No luck; I couldn’t get a grip.

She chuckled at my frustration. “At least you’re pushing them around. A couple of my girls couldn’t even manage that the first time. Here, try this.” She guided my tail around a can. Eventually, I got the feeling of wrapping it around the thing, and moving it without dropping it.

Then she went back to popping the cans off my back with her whip, and tracing designs on my body in between times. The tension between trying to stay upright, hold still and not melt in a puddle started building. She walked away and then came back and drew her finger down my spine, starting at where my neck came out of the stocks, and continuing down my tail. I moaned; I just couldn’t help it.

“My, you’re ready, girl.” I felt her wrap a belt around my waist, and then reach between my legs. She slid something large and hard into my pussy, and then brought a belt between my ass cheeks. Click! The vibrator started pushing in and out in time to my gasps. Or maybe my gasps were in time to its thrusts. It’s hard to tell.

She walked up front and dropped her jeans. I didn’t need any prompting, I could smell her. That damn vibrator had a mind of its own. It brought me up, let me down, and brought me up again and held me until she came. Then it shoved me over the edge in a blaze of sparks. When I came to, she was still standing, but it looked like she had hold of the top of the stocks.

She let her breath out in a whoosh. “Wowser! When you come back to earth, take a shower and meet me in the cabin.” She walked away, not quite steady.

Eventually, my scattered wits came back and rejoined what was left of my mind. Take a shower? While I was still in the stocks? A few more wits came back. I brought my front hoof up and hit the release lever. The bottom fell out of the stocks.

“Here. Catch.” This time it was long and spun lazily through the air before I caught it. It turned out to be a sheathed knife. I unsnapped the restraining strap and drew it out. It was a dull steel color with some kind of wave pattern. I looked closer. Damascus! Oh, boy! I’d seen them, but I’d never owned one. They were right out of my price range. I bent down and sliced it at a weed. It went right through.

The grip snuggled into my hand like it belonged there. My eyebrows went up when I tried the balance. “This is a throwing knife?”

“So they tell me. I’ve never needed to learn how.”

I juggled it a moment in my hand, and then threw it at the target. Light glinted as it rotated lazily in the air. THUNK! It buried itself a good inch into the solid wood. I walked over and pulled it out.

Chapter 6. Party Time

All work and no play makes Jill a colossal bore. It doesn’t do much for Jack, either, but Jack wasn’t present. I’d just made the monthly supply run by myself for the first time, and thought there might be something in the offing. Our play with the whips and the cans was not only settling into a set routine, she had done several sessions without either the stocks, the pain or the sex.

After breakfast, she told me to get out the long distance chariot and get into full harness. Full harness meant front hooves, bridle, bit and reins. I hadn’t worn those for the last four months. In fact, since I’d hauled that supply cart up the road the first time.

Nancy came out wearing a brown buckskin dress! This was the first time I’d ever seen her dressed up formally. She really did have a great figure, and that dress made the most of it, without even the hint of issuing an invitation. A fairly modest lace trimmed neckline, topped off by a single strand of pearls arranged in a choker, a full bust and a V fall to a narrow waist adorned with a contrasting black leather belt. From there, it flared out over her hips and fell in graceful folds to just below her ankles. The arms were tight, but both the shoulders and elbows flared out in a pouf of scarlet and blue. More white lace sprayed out at her wrists. She had her whip, pistol, sheath knife and phone on her belt.

She checked the harness, and then brought my front hooves back behind me in standard position, elbows together, hooves pointed up. We really were being formal today. She got into the chariot and twitched the reins. I leaned into the harness, and we were off.

Wherever we were going, there sure were a lot of others headed there. The road got crowded enough for a traffic jam. I hadn’t seen this much traffic even in Freehold City! After about an hour, I started hearing crowd noises ahead. Since everyone seemed to be in fancy dress, I figured I might as well join the fun, and started doing my high step. They don’t normally train taxi ponygirls in fancy steps, but my trainer had an idea I might become a circus performer, and had trained in several show steps. It was good for an extra level 1 citation whenever I took a passenger to a major party.

Nancy alighted with a twirl, showing off her outfit. “Have fun until I call you. We’re going to put on a bit of a show for the crowd later.” She walked off, and I pulled the chariot where the guide pointed. I got it positioned in line and stood until one of the slave girls came down the line and unharnessed me, brought my hooves down and took out the bit. Then I followed the rest of the ponies to a large, green meadow.

First things first. Check out the buffet. There was a shallow trough set up in the center that held a good assortment of greens and roots. I nosed out a celery stalk and proceeded to demolish it. A cheerful babble led me to a stream and a drink. Then I started trying to work the crowd and see if there was anyone friendly.

This crowd simply wasn’t like the municipal taxi. Back there, we had one day off every seven, and the meadow behind the stables always held a good mix of taxi ponygirls and delivery ponyboys, as well as a few specialists of one sort or another. It was about half career and half short-timers. Most of the short-timers were young adults that had to start in livestock because they hadn’t paid enough attention to preparing when they were growing up, and couldn’t pass the exams for supervised citizen when they reached their majority. The conversation wasn’t the greatest in the world, but there was always someone to hang out with, and you could bitch about the grooms, the trainers, the facilities, the food and the traffic to your heart’s content.

The career ponies either lacked ambition, weren’t too bright, or didn’t have enough sense to stay out of trouble without ironclad restrictions. Of course, there were always a few oddballs that thought that being a ponygirl was exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.

These ponies were not the same. Not only did most of them not get regular days off, most of them didn’t know each other. They never got together except at one of these bashes, and that was only a few times a year. The other major difference was the high proportion of losers. There were more career than short-timers, and most of them couldn’t hack taxi or delivery. The short-timers were all farm kids that asked for farm work as part of their career path. I suspected that most of these regretted the choice. Farm was supposed to be worse than freight, but from talking to the few that made it back to taxi from there, I wasn’t sure which I would call worse. Now I knew why. Freight was mindnumbingly boring, but at least they got their one day in seven, and the drovers were professional.

I smelled trouble, and I was just as glad Nancy had insisted I bring weapons.

I noticed a couple of stallions that had a patch of high ground to themselves. They had that indefinable air that said they were expecting trouble, but weren’t looking to make it. The more obvious troublemakers seemed to be avoiding them. I trotted over to say hello.

“Hi, guys. I’m Auburn Flame. Who’re you?”

The larger of the two answered. “Eight Birds. He’s Road Runner. You’re not making friends talking to us.”

“Didn’t figure I was. You two looked like you used to be some kind of professional. I was in Special Forces before I came here.”

“You don’t say.” We talked military for a while. They were the kind of troops you wish you didn’t have to deal with. Constant trouble until it came time to deliver, and then they came through for you. I found out their stalls didn’t have headsets. They thought they’d been here for ten years, and their sentence was seven. They hoped they’d be out soon, but had a suspicion the system had screwed up. I made a mental note to follow up.

The only trouble was when a couple of big stallions started pushing one of the kids. He looked like he was trying to avoid them, and they weren’t letting him go. I intercepted them.

And what do you fuckups think you’re doing?“ That sergeant voice comes in handy. They stopped dead while I stared them down. They lost it first, and trotted off looking for something else. I went back to my two stallions.

“Auburn Flame. Get your ass down here!” That was Nancy. I trotted down and decided to show off by leaping the fence. I must have been out of my mind, but the reflexes from training were still there. Nancy just looked at me and shook her head. I stuck my head in the rope bridle and let her lead me off. We’d worked out a skit leading up to the main act.

She led me up towards the stage, and then I balked. Plant feet, tail straight out, her pulling on the halter rope. She threw down the rope, put her hands on her hips and cussed me out for a couple of minutes without repeating herself once. At the end, she threw a can. I picked the can out of the air with my tail and threw it back. SWISH! CRACK! THUMP! She batted the can out of the air with the whip. Then I trotted into the ring, and we started making the cans fly.

The audience loved it.

I trotted back to the chariot, took off the bridle and put on my slave girl tunic, and joined her.

“How was the meadow?”

“There’s real trouble brewing somewhere.”

“I thought there might be. That’s where Golden Stream broke her leg. She refused to say how it happened. She was too much of a city girl to work out, so I didn’t push it.”

The rest of the agenda was pure party. Dancing, singing, more shows. It was a great party.

Chapter 7. Punishment

The next morning, right after breakfast, she fixed me with a glare and pointed at the ground with her index finger. Oh, oh. I sat on my heels in the prescribed posture.

“What did you think you were doing when you jumped that fence yesterday?”

“Showing off?” I tried to look contrite.

“I have to say, that leap did look good. Tell me two reasons why it was a stupid thing to do.”

“I haven’t practiced since I left training?”

“Are you asking me a question, or telling me?”

I took a breath. “I haven’t practiced since I left training, ma’am.”

“That’s better than I expected. I wasn’t aware that you were trained on jumps at all. What’s the other one?”

I thought for a while. “It’s against the rules?”

“I could ask you which rule, but that’s not it. Giving that herd of losers and fuckups ideas is criminally stupid.”

Oh, shit. She was right, of course.

“I’m sorry, mistress. I didn’t think.” I shrank back a little.

“That’s obvious.” She looked at me. “Get your front hooves on and meet me by the stocks.” I got up and headed into the cabin to get the hoof boots.

I trotted out on all fours and went around back. She was standing there with her hands on her hips next to the stocks. I stuck my head in, and she slammed the bottom board up. THUD! CLICK!

“Six hours. Then take a shower and see me. And don’t try to get yourself off.” She walked away.

Six hours? That should be easy. Standing and waiting was one of the things they had trained me on. I’d barely be aware of time passing until she came to release me. Then it dawned on me. She hadn’t said she’d release me; I was supposed to release myself at the end of six hours. There was nothing in my training that let me set a time limit. Six hours was going to be a looooooong time. My tail drooped as I watched the shadows slowly cross the lawn, grass blade by grass blade. I learned more about ants than I’d ever wanted to know. Eventually, the shadows arrived where I thought they should be, and I hit the release lever.

She pointed in front of her chair with two fingers. I walked up and dropped to my knees.

“All right, Flame. What was that about?”

“I wanted to please you.”

“Not the jump, idiot. The last six hours.”

“I screw up, I get punished for it?”

“Almost. There’s a piece missing.”

“I screw up, I get caught, I get punished for it.”

“Exactly right. Tell me what’s wrong with it.”

Wrong with it? “Huh? That’s the way it works, isn’t it?”

“That’s the way your process works. The fact is, punishment is the least efficient way of correcting behavior. The only reason I put you in the stocks for six hours is that you expected it. If I hadn’t, you’d have been waiting for it, and that would have gotten in the way. I’ll bet you learned exactly nothing in those six hours that applies.”

“Well, I learned a lot about ants.”

“Right. Punishment is about power. When someone has the power to punish you, it does several things. One is it makes you want to behave the way that person wants. It doesn’t mean the behaviors you learn are optimal, rational or even effective. But that doesn’t last when the person is out of the picture. It also makes you want to avoid the person, or get rid of them. When you can’t, it’s simply abuse, and it builds in abuse patterns.”

She seemed to want a response. “But…?”

“Exactly. That’s the way you were brought up, and that’s a very common pattern in your culture. I’m going to try something.” She got up and walked behind me.

“Remember exactly how you felt when I told you that you screwed up.” She walked me through it until I felt the shame and panic. She touched me a couple of times. For some reason, it came back when she touched me again.

“Did your ponygirl trainer ever punish you for not doing it right?”

“No, ma’am.”

“And how did that work?”

“I learned it perfectly.” She walked me through some of my more memorable screwups in training and touched me somewhere else. Finally she seemed satisfied. She touched both places. I almost fell over in shock. I simply can’t describe what happened. After a while the confusion cleared and I took a deep breath. Then she walked me back through when I realized I screwed up with that jump. This time, it felt more like training – kind of looking forward to what Nancy was going to do to fix it.

“Well, I think that’s got it. There are two things we’re going to do to finish this off. Care to tell me what?”

“Uh, I haven’t a clue.”

“OK. One is we’re going to work on seeing the likely consequences of your actions on the people around you. This is actually part of the training for supervised citizen, although it doesn’t get intense until supervisor.”

Oh. “That sounds interesting. I don’t have any idea how people do that.”

“I know you don’t. That’s why we need to work on it.” She paused a moment.

“The other thing we’re going to work on is our party act. I reviewed your training in detail, and there are some things I’ve never seen outside of the shows at the Hungry Tiger. I think our audience will love it.”

Talk about mental whiplash! This was supposed to be about a screwup.

She laughed. “Well, it looks like we’ve got some more work to get the rest of that Crime and Punishment scenario out of your head. We can take our time on that.”

I took another deep breath and relaxed. “What did you do?”

“I’m not going to tell you the detail. You’re not ready. You’ll learn about it when you study for your Supervisor rating. It’s kind of a first aid kit for the mind. I reviewed the course and planned out what I wanted to do while you were out there stewing in the stocks.”

Chapter 8. Justice?

“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, give me your impressions of how they were acting in the meadow.”

“There are too many ponies that have been there too long that don’t look like they should be. There’s several bullies running the meadow, and nobody’s doing anything about it. And to top it off, the two I talked to the most have been there ten years, and they say they never immigrated. They’re waiting to be tossed out. And their stalls don’t have headsets.”

“Damn. Several of us think there’s something off kilter, but nobody’s been able to put a finger on it.”

“Pity we can’t get access. I’d love to do some digging.”

“Why not? Ecology covers a lot of territory. I just don’t know where to start looking.”

“I’ve got some ideas. I used to be in Info Warfare.”

We started out with Eight Birds and Road Runner. The system didn’t seem to have them at all. Eventually, we found them in the dead files. They’d died five years previously.

If it wasn’t them, the similarity was startling. I started plugging in more names I’d picked up. More dead ponies turned up. Several were supposedly somewhere else, but the pictures didn’t match. We had to dig to find the prior owners of the names, and then the pictures did match. Nancy remembered several from the party.

After thinking a moment, I asked for a plot of farm output versus staffing. The outliers were the ones that had ghost ponies working their farms. Then I asked for how many registered ponies weren’t using the helmets. Most of the same owners popped up.

“That looks pretty conclusive,” Nancy said.

“I wouldn’t call it that. It’s certainly enough to send to the prosecutors. The question is, who do we send it to?”

“Baron Vladimir.”

“Oh? How can he not know?”

“Good point. You think he’s corrupt?”

“Or stupid. Or just too busy to notice. Or possibly running an investigation. There’s no way to tell.”

We put together a cover letter and sent the whole file to the Baron, the corruption prosecutors in Justice, the next level in Ecology and several of Nancy’s personal friends, the latter encrypted. We neglected to tell anyone that it was going to multiple places.

Prudence is one of my favorite chicks. I had no idea if we’d stirred anything up, but I didn’t want to take a chance, especially since I wasn’t at all certain about the Baron. We decided to spend the night in a tree house that doubled as a bird watching blind.

They attacked at one in the morning. Listening to them make their way through the woods was a trip. It’s hard enough to avoid noise when you can see what you’re doing. At one a.m. on a moonless night it’s simply impossible, even with infrared goggles. Our enhanced eyesight let us watch them try to hide as they surrounded the cabin. I’d been really curious about how they’d do it to make it look like a random accident. The only possibility I’d come up with was to try to blow our hydrogen storage tank. Apparently, that’s what they came up with, too. Eventually, the guy with the bomb got close enough to the hydrogen tank to trip the wire I’d left. The floodlight caught him nicely for the moment before he silently vanished away.

As I found out, they never had a chance. One of the things that the corruption team at Justice does as a matter of routine is put a spy-eye on anyone who reports corruption, with a computer checking for anything that looks like an attack. I only found that out later, of course. They’d tripped the automated alarm at least fifteen minutes earlier; the Justice team was waiting for them to make their intent blatantly obvious on the recording.

“That’s that, I hope,” Nancy said.

“That’s one. There might be another,” I replied.

“Auburn, you’re paranoid!” she said.

“I’m also alive,” I responded.

She didn’t say anything. We stayed in the blind.

The next attack came at around two thirty. These guys were nowhere near as good at skulking as the first group. They were obvious enough to silence the wildlife. It looked like they were going to set a forest fire. They actually got it started before Justice clamped down on them. We had a brisk scramble putting it out.

Justice hadn’t wasted very much time wringing the story out of the two attack groups. One of the groups looked like a smuggling ring that shouldn’t have been on the island at all, the other was from several of the farmsteads that had ghost ponies. We got the story from the Baron’s secretary. The Baron wanted someone out to the farms on the list Nancy and I had put together, beginning with the ones whose owners were in custody.

“Glad to help out,” said Nancy, “but why me?”

“Actually, he wants Auburn Flame. Not that I’m putting you down, but we’re light on troubleshooters. She’s got military command training, and he figures anyone who could put on that show a couple of days ago isn’t going to lose her head. Several of those farms don’t have any adults left – they’re all in custody.”

“That’s a relief – I’m not certain I’d know what to do.” Nancy nodded to me. Right. Do it.

“Please show me the map, and who’s assigned to which farms.” The map came up. I studied it. Her assignments didn’t look at all optimal, but this wasn’t the time to discuss it – and she could well have been right. I didn’t know the territory or the people. Two of the farms on my route looked familiar.

“If it’s acceptable, I’m going to co-opt Eight Birds and Road Runner when I get to them. They’re both military and they felt like they’ll follow orders. I need some muscle to back me up.”

“Why those two?” She looked at her display. “I see. Do what you need to with them. The Baron will approve anything reasonable.”

“I don’t know what’s reasonable, so I’ll go light on the promises.”

A good pair of blue jeans, denim shirt and field pack makes all the difference to morale. I pounded up the road at my standard twenty kph to the first turnoff. When I slowed down, I could hear the argument. It sounded like the boy was trying to give orders, and his sister was having none of it. Teenagers. I sometimes wonder if teenagers are Gaia’s revenge for our effrontery in trying to continue our species.

They didn’t notice me arrive. “Pipe down. Now.

They stopped in mid sentence and turned. Then they both tried to explain.

Stuff it. One at a time. You first.” I pointed at the girl.

She tried to explain. She was Jeannie, he was Tom. When they woke up, their parents were missing. They’d been yelling at each other ever since. They hadn’t had breakfast or fed the livestock. His story was the same.

“First things first. You’re not going to see your parents again. They did something incredibly stupid last night, and they’re in confinement in Freehold City waiting for an adjudicator. If they’re lucky, they’ll spend the rest of their life in a pony stall, pulling a plow.”

“Thank God.” The girl looked incredibly relieved.

“Thank God?” She told the story. People like that shouldn’t be allowed to have kids.

“Now that you know your parents aren’t going to be coming back to knock you around, do you think you can work together until the Baron gets things straightened away?”

“If he quits telling me how our father wants it done.” She practically spit the word father.

“I can do that. The old man couldn’t think for shit anyhow.”

“So what’s next?” I stood there looking at them, hands on hips. “Feed the livestock?” he said. “Breakfast?” she said.

“Sounds like a plan. While you’re at it,” I looked at the girl, “See if you can find something to fit Eight Birds. I’m probably going to take him with me, and he needs to be dressed.”

I headed toward the barn with the guy. “Do you know where the VR helmets are?”

“VR Helmets? What are those?”

“Each of the ponies is supposed to have one. They look like helmets with drop down screens over the eyes and some buttons and a power cord on top.”

“I think I’ve seen something like that back in the storeroom.” He pointed. I headed for the storeroom while he fed the ponies. I found the helmets. They’d been broken. Damn. I got back. He headed off to deal with the cows. I found Eight Birds munching on his feed.

“Eight Birds.”

He looked up and swallowed. “Holy shit. Auburn Flame. You did it!”

“The owners did something incredibly stupid. The brass is investigating in force, but you know how long that takes.”

“Yeah. Forever.”

“Not quite. Freehold doesn’t shuffle paper while trying to avoid making up its mind. I’d be surprised if it takes two weeks. Meanwhile, I need some muscle that can take orders. You can leave the hooves behind and get some brownie points if you’ll follow orders without bitching.”

He looked at me for a moment, and then made up his mind. “Yes, Sarge!”

“Good enough.” I walked back, let him out of the stall and took off the front hooves. “Lets go see if she managed to rustle up some clothes.”

She had. Her mother’s jeans and father’s shirts weren’t too bad on fit. The jeans were wide in the hips, but his tail compensated.

“Good deal. Report to the Baron’s secretary. She’ll keep everything coordinated.”

She looked scared. “I can’t.”

“Hey, I’m not going to bite your head off, girl. Why can’t you?”

“They locked the system against us. It won’t respond.”

“Show me.”

She got out the board, and tried to enter a command. “Authorization Required.”

I took the board and chorded my ID.

Good Morning, Auburn Flame.

“Authorize access for Jeannie and Tom.”

Insufficient Authority.

Oh, shit.

I called the Baron’s secretary. We talked for a while. Then she told me to go to Citizen Training. I did.

Your authorization for Deputy Supervisor has been approved.

I looked. There was a new course heading, Deputy Supervisor, with approvals from Nancy and the Baron, and a Course Complete emergency override from the Baron. There was a boatload of courses under the heading. They looked interesting, but now wasn’t the time to check them out. I went back to the main area.

I tried again. “Authorize access for Jeanie and Tom.”

Minimal Authorization Granted.

I asked it for details on the restrictions and reasons. The only one that seemed to mean anything was excessive resource usage. Tom had come back in, so I asked what it was about. They’d both gone overboard. It looked more like typical teenage rebellion than anything serious, but I wasn’t about to take chances. I told it to verify any resource requests outside of the normal required for running this farm with the supervisor, and forget the rest of the restrictions.

This time the system gave them access. Good enough.

The two of them were discussing something over breakfast when Eight Birds and I headed up the road. The Jukes’ farm was next on the list.

We headed up the access road and then I stopped dead. Everything was too quiet. I shifted in the infrared cones and looked around. This time I saw him, or rather, the reflections of his body heat. Humans are the only ones with quite that shade. He was up in a tree behind the bend of the road. The map said he should be visible from the house. Take him out and I’d raise the alarm.

We hadn’t come here for a fight. After last night, I figured Justice had a spy-eye on me. I called the Baron’s secretary and asked to be put through. She told me Justice was on my command circuit. Damn, I should have thought of that first. I shifted and asked for status on the Jukes farm.

The Justice guy took a few minutes to get back. He sounded shook. When he described the setup, it looked like they were prepared for a standoff, with hostages. I didn’t want to get into a firefight. I most especially didn’t want to get into a firefight when the other guys had hostages. I thought for a while. This was Freehold, and I’d already been surprised by their capabilities. The worst that could happen if I asked for something they couldn’t do is that they’d tell me they couldn’t do it.

“Can you just snatch them?”

“I’d hate to have them loose in confinement with weapons.”

“Can you stun them and then snatch them?”

“Great idea.” A moment later, the infrared glow from the sentry vanished.

Getting the remaining people straightened away took a good part of the day. They had pulled the people off of five farms and combined them here. I checked with Justice, and they verified the other four farms were empty, except for livestock. They’d just left them in their stalls.

I finally decided to shut down two farms completely, and move the people and livestock onto the other three. Tom and Jeannie agreed to take two of the teenagers that they knew and liked. I pulled Road Runner out of the mess, and we headed home.

I put Eight Birds and Road Runner back in harness and took them to the stable in town. They’d be in Freehold City in two days. I figured that should give Justice enough time to decide what to do with them when they arrived, and at least they were out of my hair.

Chapter 9. Altercation

Time passed, as it usually does. I was slowly getting through the courses in the Deputy Supervisor curriculum. I figured that since the Baron had given me the rating, I’d better make up the course work. The administrative side was straightforward. Paperwork is, after all, paperwork. Administration hasn’t changed that much since Hammarabi’s secretary invented it. Supervisory psychology, on the other hand, took a while. “Personality Description System” was an eye-opener. What I’d learned in college and Special Forces was count on your fingers in comparison. I learned that Nancy was a Scholar with a security perspective, while I was a Warrior with an achievement perspective. There was a lot more, but the descriptions fit better than anything I’d used before.

It explained a lot about Nancy’s approach to ecology. I’d wondered why she just didn’t seem that interested in protecting endangered species or any of the other stuff the ecologists back home were hot on. She didn’t care at all about it because of itself. She cared because it was important to Freehold, so she was going to do her best to keep it functional. Higher authority in Resources told her what needed protecting. Being a Scholar, she knew the subject in depth.

Achievement meant I wanted to make my mark on things. Who doesn’t? According to the course, lots of people don’t. Nancy certainly didn’t. She figured she was doing her job properly if things worked and nobody complained. I didn’t understand it, but at least it let me know what I could expect and what I shouldn’t expect. Warrior meant I wanted to get things done. Efficiency and productivity were the watchwords. Again, it showed why Nancy was more interested in how it worked rather than in making it work better.

I’d come up to Nancy’s expectations on all the support tasks around the cabin, and was pretty much handling infrastructure maintenance on my own, with her occasional supervision and plan approval. Once she felt comfortable sending me out by myself, I made a suggestion for a process improvement. It got approved; that let me get maintenance caught up, which was the first time in a decade that had happened. The level three citation decorated the wall behind my workstation very nicely, thank you.

I did it the easy way. I had my spare parts orders delivered to the sawmill and brought up by the logging teams operating in our territory, with their permission, of course. The sawmill was handy to the package center and the teams had spare haulage capacity; their ponyboys were taking timber down, and coming back up with light or no loads most of the time. That let me leave the spare parts wagon at home much of the time and operate out of their camps, using just a backpack.

Those times, I wore what she did: blue jeans and flannel shirt. It was still easy enough to tell I was a ponygirl; the mane was enough. The tail wasn’t quite the giveaway you would have thought, a lot of the people around here kept theirs after they had graduated. It was simply too useful to have a reasonable approximation of a third hand.

The logging teams not only kept their tails, they kept the rest of the physical modifications. Back in my Special Forces days, we regarded a little dust-up with a logging team as just the thing to get the blood flowing and work the kinks out before tackling the Seals. These guys, I didn’t want to cross. Some of the stories about them and the local wildlife were true.

I was doing my usual 20 kph up the trail to where logging team five was currently working when I heard the shouting. I recognized the supervisor’s tenor right off; the alto was a stranger. Hopefully they’d resolve it in the twenty seconds before I got to the clearing. No such luck.

When I trotted into the clearing, Davo was facing me and the girl he was shouting at wasn’t.

“Hey, Auburn. Will you get this **** tourist bitch off my ***** back so we can get back to work!”

She was apparently too worked up to recognize the situation had changed. I needed to take control, fast. “SHUT UP! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?”

I hadn’t used that parade ground voice since I was a Special Forces sergeant, but it still worked. She shut up and spun around to face me.

“Davo first.”

He took a deep breath. “She’s claiming there’s a protected bird up in that tree.”

“Is there?”

“It isn’t on our list of protected species. Cudo checked.”

The woman opened her mouth to speak. I cut her off. “Keep it stuffed until I’m done with him. You’ll get your turn.” She turned bright red, but shut her mouth. Good.

“Cudo. Did you check if it even belonged on this island?”

“No. Should I have?”

“It’s the next obvious question. Nancy tells me that the protected list you use only includes species you’re likely to run across here.”

“How do I check?”

“No real reason you should know. Let me at it for a minute.” She moved aside, and I punched in my code. Then I played tunes on the board for a couple of minutes. Oh, shit. Well, call Nancy and ask her what to do. I did.

“Here’s the deal,” I said. “There’s three different species of bird that look like that. I can’t tell which of them it is from here, or if it’s a new, unrecorded species. The Field Ecologist has told me not to try. She’ll be here in a couple of hours to ID the species for us.”

“The critical issue is that none of them are known to be on Freehold. Two of the species are on the worldwide endangered list, and one is supposed to be extinct. There’s actually a surviving population on the Dodecahedron, but,” I turned to the young woman who had been doing all the yelling, “you are not to repeat that. Understand?” Her eyes went wide, and she nodded.

I looked at Davo. “We need to treat it as a protected species until we get a decision on it.”

“Good enough. Is logging around it going to cause a problem?”

“Darned if I know. It’s a new one on me.”

“OK. Hey, guys. Concentrate on cleanup before starting any new trees.”

Now that the fuss was over, I had time to look around. The young woman whose name I still didn’t know walked over to where an older man and a couple of teenagers were sitting on the sidelines. They looked like tourists. The easy way to tell who’s who is that Freeholders’ clothes fit like they were hand tailored, tourists’ usually don’t. They got up to leave.

I walked over. “You’re staying here until my boss gets here. She wants to talk to you, and it’s easier if you’re still here with the bird.” I brought my tail up in a little flick to emphasize the point. The kids were having trouble keeping their eyes off it.

“Now what?” she asked.

“Just stick around. I need to get some stuff for my own job organized, then I’ll come back and we’ll talk.” I picked up the spare parts they were holding for me, and then walked back.

“Let’s get introduced. I’m Auburn Flame. I work for Nancy Stevens, who’s the field ecologist for this sector. She’s the expert; I’m the cheap help. You are?”

The woman who had been yelling was Emmy, her husband was George. The kids turned out to be twins named Sylvia and Forest. I hoped that didn’t mean what I thought.

I asked exactly what they thought they were doing so far from the tourist trails. Those things are clearly marked, not that idiots didn’t wander off and get lost with fair regularity. She tried to explain. I asked a few questions and listened to her dig herself in deeper. Finally, she was the only person who hadn’t figured out that I hadn’t bought any of it.

“Emmy. You shouldn’t try to lie. You’re no good at it. You knew exactly where that bird was, and we didn’t. How did it get there, and how did you know about it?”

She tried to huff a bit.

“Emmy. If you tell me now, you may be able to enjoy the rest of your vacation and leave on schedule. If you don’t, you’ve got an appointment at Justice with the interrogators. They’ve got the reputation of being able to make a stone talk without leaving either physical or emotional scars, but there are always accidents. Your choice.” She stared at me. I let the tip of my tail twitch like a cat that’s just about to pounce.

She stared at me some more and then sagged. It turned out she was a member of an ecological activist group that was engaged in transplanting endangered species in other areas of the globe. They’d transplanted three species here a couple of years ago, and she had been told what and where to look to see if they were doing all right.

“You’ll need to talk to the interrogators. I doubt if you’re in any kind of trouble yourself, since you didn’t smuggle them in and plant them, and you didn’t know about it when they did. I can’t guarantee that, however. I’ve got enough to deal with raising my own social responsibility rating to worry about someone else’s.”

She tried to keep talking. “Hey, look. I happen to agree with you, mostly. Getting me on your side does you absolutely no good, because I don’t have any influence. What Freehold will object to is that a proper study wasn’t done, and that the transplant was done illegally. Also that it’s interfering with legitimate operations.”

She tried again. God, was she a talker. “The subject is closed. If you keep trying to argue it, I’m going to gag you.” I stared her in the eye. She looked away first.

“That’s better. I bet you’ve got several dozen questions. I might be able to answer a few of them.”

Sylvia jumped in right away. “What’s with the tails?”

“I’m still a ponygirl. You can tell by my mane. Tails are part of the setup, they come with. I’m told there’s a lot of very fancy bioengineering built in, and we inherited it from one of the organizations that helped set up Freehold. A fair number of people keep them when they graduate from pony status; it’s just too useful to have a third hand, even if it’s limited.” I used my tail to pull my knife out of its sheath on my belt.

“May I?” Forest looked at it. I had my tail wrapped twice around the handle, with the blade outward. “Real Damascus.” He seemed awed.

“Knife and stick fighting with your tail is actually a recognized martial art around here.”

“How would I get one?”

“The knife or the tail?”

“Either. Both.”

“You might be able to buy a knife. Check on the shopping menu when you get back to Freehold City. Since you’re probably not approved to use one, it would have to be delivered to the ship in a sealed package.”

“It’s probably horribly expensive.” Emmy didn’t sound all that enthusiastic about her son having a real knife.

“Shouldn’t be that bad. Damascus is standard issue around here if sharp is more important than corrosion resistance. The factories turn them out by the thousands.”

“As far as the tail goes, just screw up badly enough while you’re here, and you’ll get one. Also four hooves.” I pointed the knife at the three ponyboys that were just beginning to get a load of logs into motion to go down the trail. Then I sheathed it and held up one of my boots. “See the horseshoe?”

“That doesn’t look like fun.” Forest clearly didn’t like what he was seeing.

“It isn’t. These are here because they’re either stupid or incorrigible. Even though I enjoyed my spell as a taxi ponygirl, I jumped at this opportunity when it opened up. Pulling a taxi was a nice couple of years experience, but as a lifetime task, no way. Anyone with the potential to make citizen works at it until they make it.”

It looked like he’d figured it out.

“It still looks like fun,” Sylvia said.

“There are a very small percentage of people that want to do it. Most of our career ponies would rather do something else, but they either couldn’t pass the level exam, or they decided to go career because they knew they couldn’t get up to supervised citizen.”

Emmy managed to think of something besides ecology. “Where are the clothing stores? I tried to find some in Freehold City, and there weren’t any.” She sounded aggrieved.

I laughed. “There really aren’t any. If you want new clothes, you order them on the computer. You need to let it measure you, and then you specify style, use and fabric, and the automatic tailors build it for you.” I got up, stretched and twirled around. “As you can see, they do a very good job on fit. Since you’re tourists, they’ll quote you a price. For us residents, it’s part of standard maintenance. They deliver the next day.”

“How does that work?” George asked. “What I’ve seen looks rational on the surface, but when I try to figure out how it works, I can’t.”

“All I know is the immigration lecture. They told us that a couple of centuries ago, a social philosopher came up with ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ Some countries tried to implement it in the twentieth century, and they collapsed when the populace figured out that the leadership knew less about how to do it than the general population did. Clothing is a good example. Before I came here, I had a boyfriend in the garment industry. You wouldn’t believe the number of steps clothing goes through from raw material to rack, and the distance intermediate products are transported redundantly. Here, clothing factories are completely automated, and there are enough of them to handle the demand close to where the demand occurs. Raw material is stockpiled on site and used and restocked as needed. Transport is minimized, and there is no wastage of finished product.”

“What about someone who just splurges?”

“Like Imelda Marcos?” They looked puzzled at the reference. “A politician’s wife who had several thousand pairs of shoes.” Everybody laughed.

“That’s social responsibility. Everyone screws up occasionally, and it’s no big deal. A certain amount of wastage is planned. Usage is monitored, and deliberate wastage of resources is dealt with.”

“Even for the rulers?” He sounded skeptical.

“People don’t get beyond supervised citizen if they’ve got a habit of wasting resources. Take clothing. If I wanted a new outfit every week, the system would catch it, and I’d have to explain. If I couldn’t, they’d lock the system so I couldn’t order clothing without my supervisor’s approval. That would piss her off enough that she’d insist I get therapy to resolve my desire to do such a stupid thing.”

“Part of what makes it work is that Freehold does not have money or private property. There’s no way of hoarding it; it doesn’t exist.”

George’s eyebrows tried to merge with his hairline. “How does an economy function without money?”

“I’m told it took a lot of hard work to make the system functional, and they’re still working out occasional problems. Take farms as an example. I said we didn’t have private property. A family working a farm has the right of possession. They can work it as long as they can make a go of it. They don’t have the right to dispose of it to someone else, or take it out of production as farmland. Their children can’t inherit it, but they will have priority if they want it.”

I heard someone wearing pony boots trotting up the path. “Enough chatter. That’s probably Nancy arriving now.” She trotted into the clearing a moment later and stopped to look around.

“That’s the bird?” She pointed at it.

“That’s what they tell me,” I said. “Colorful sucker.”

She studied it for a while using her binoculars. “Yep. It doesn’t belong around here at all.” She put the binoculars away. “Let’s go, folks.”

Chapter 10. Rescue

Winter in the mountain range is a white splendor. It’s high enough to get snow, even in Freehold’s semi-tropical climate. Between the mountain climbers and the ski enthusiasts, it keeps the guides and rangers busy. Nancy and I mostly avoided it. While the ecology of the mountaintops is supposed to be fascinating in its own right, we didn’t do much with it since it never caused any trouble. I was up here to service the monitoring stations and see if I could locate a cave bear that had unaccountably vanished from its normal range. We kept close watch on the major predators, because a population explosion could shove them down into farming country, and nobody wanted that.

I’d just finished closing up one of the environmental cylinders when my buzzer went off.

It turned out to be the tourist coordinator. A mountain climbing party had gotten into trouble, and he had all of his people out on search and rescue already. Since I was in the vicinity, would I go look for them and rescue them?

Right. Turning it down wouldn’t do my social responsibility rating any good. There was a certain amount of logic to sending me; as a ponygirl, I was pretty much weatherproof down to thirty or forty below. They weren’t. I knew one of them had a broken leg. I got their contact number and called.

“Auburn Flame here. Tourist Services says your party needs rescuing. What’s the situation?”

The guy on the other end was incoherent. I did my drill sergeant imitation, and got someone who could put several words together so they made sense. It turned out the party hadn’t expected the snowstorm, and when they tried to hole up in a cave, there was already a bear in residence.

“That’s good news, anyway.”

“Good news?” He sounded on the edge of hysteria.

“I was looking for that bear. Don’t worry about him, he’s just about to start hibernation.” I considered the terrain. “Figure about two hours in this weather.” I hung up.

Making speed above the tree line with snow on all of the paths isn’t a real good idea. Once I got in range, they were fairly obvious. One of the adaptations they’d done to my eyes was a complete set of infrared sensors. They shift in automatically when the light level falls too low for normal color vision, which gives me two color vision instead of black and white. I can also shift them in consciously instead of blue. They change the way everything looks, but body heat stands out like a beacon.

Two hours turned out to be just about right. When I came walking out of the snowstorm, they almost freaked. I suppose I would have too, if I had never seen me. It wasn’t so much the mane and tail as the fact that all I was wearing was a light, transparent rain cape over my plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. That just didn’t go with subzero weather in a snowstorm. From my point of view, the snowstorm was the reason for the rain cape; I didn’t want to get wet.

They were in bad shape, partially because they’d panicked, and partially because they couldn’t move the guy with the broken leg. He was in pain, and wasn’t handling it at all well. That was easy enough; I shot him with the stunner. He twitched, and then relaxed, out like a light.

Then I shifted into my Special Forces sergeant mode, and got them moving. I’d noticed a niche in the mountain wall a dozen or so meters back. I got them busy putting a snow roof on it while I splinted their casualty so we could move him. I figured most of the party could handle another day or so before search and rescue could get to them. The casualty couldn’t.

I called Tourist Services again, and gave them the status, including my estimate that the casualty couldn’t wait. The coordinator didn’t like to hear that. We could request a teleport, but there would be a full dress inquiry afterwards. Even though most of them ended with approval for all concerned, nobody liked them. We decided on the teleport anyway. Ten minutes later, he silently vanished away.

That spooked them again. I told them to pipe down; teleports were reserved for medical emergencies, and they really, truly didn’t want to see the board inquiry if we teleported someone who didn’t need it. Eventually, they got settled in, and I could go check on the bear. He was the one we were missing; the smell was distinctive.

We survived the board inquiry handily. Medical was in absolute agreement that waiting a day for a fully equipped rescue team would have been foolhardy. Staffing for Tourist Services came in for some criticism, but the board didn’t find that there was any pattern of understaffing that needed to be remedied. The climbing party got raked over the coals for having too many junior members that had never had to face a real emergency.

Chapter 11. Baron Vladimir

Winter ended, as it always does, and spring broke out in its usual burst of color and birdsong. Something about spring always makes the world seem new, and everything possible. By this time, I knew enough of the ecology that I could appreciate things I’d never have noticed before.

I’d finished up about half of my coursework for supervised citizen. Unfortunately, it was the half that told me what I needed to know about how Freehold worked on a day-to-day basis. I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do for a career. Special Forces was great for the adrenaline surge, but I wasn’t real happy with the idea that there was a round of ammunition with my serial number on it. Besides which, Freehold didn’t have any armed forces. Cyber warfare had been engrossing, but it was too much of a desk job for me. I needed the movement. I had no desire to go back to pulling a taxi. The ecology business was fun, kind of like cyber warfare in a way, but it didn’t have the people interaction I liked. In any case, I didn’t figure there was that much of a hurry; it wasn’t like I hated the job.

Spring brought the first of the year’s parties. Nancy and I had spiffed up our muleskinner act a bit, and I’d made a suggestion for the problems in the meadow. We were enjoying the rest of the show when the Baron walked up.

We said hello for a while.

“Auburn, it looks like your latest brainstorm is working out.” He nodded to the railing with ten ponyboys hitched to it. You could tell from their posture that they were not particularly happy. Well, it was their choice. I’d suggested giving them the alternative of behaving in the meadow, or waiting out the party on four hooves, hitched to a rack. They’d decided to misbehave.

“It sure looks like it.” I’d done a couple of hours on meadow monitor earlier. It was another part of the idea. Things were just more relaxed. The soccer ball I’d tossed into the mix didn’t hurt either. I wasn’t certain whether using your tail was cheating or not, but they were sure having fun.

“If it keeps working, you’ll get a level two citation.”

“Thank you!”

“That’s what they’re for – recognizing action that improves it for everyone.” He paused.

“What I wanted to ask, though, is this: have you decided on a career yet?”

“Not really. Nothing seems to be calling, and I thought I had time.”

“You’ve got the time. You might consider politics.”

“Politics?” I know I sounded skeptical. My opinion of politicians is somewhere between my opinion of lawyers and the more cocksure priests. That is, there’s got to be a difference, but I don’t want to stoop low enough to figure it out.

“Well, yes. You may have noticed we’re not quite as bad as the ones outside of here.”

True. “Why me? Politics is why I turned down promotions when they were offered.” Also why I had to leave Special Forces, but let’s not mention that. He probably knew anyway.

“I need a troubleshooter up here. Your level estimate says you could make Professional if you worked at it a bit, but you probably won’t rise any higher.” That made me think. Baron was another step above Professional.


“Like what you just did with the ponies and the meadow. That’s been stewing for years, but nobody did anything. There’s undoubtedly dozens of things that need action.” Too true. Both Nancy and I had our lists.

“That does sound interesting. Do I have to make a commitment to start taking the courses?”

“Not at first. Most people try two or three things before something clicks. Anyway, it never hurts to know several fields in depth. Anything beyond Professional requires it.”

“Sounds good, Baron. I’ll take a look at it.”

“Great.” The Baron walked off.

Nancy told me “I think you’ll be good at it. Most of your bright ideas sound like they have a solid foundation under them.”

“Yeah. The more I look at it, the better it sounds.”


The woman in the mirror looked back at me; cool, calm, competent, self-possessed. Then why was her tail twitching? The last time I’d been this nervous, my platoon had been about to launch an attack against a terrorist training base. And that had been adrenaline.

I looked at myself once more. Auburn hair cascading down to my shoulder blades, sky blue dress in the latest style, high heeled calf length black boots and matching accessories. I’d been hoping I wouldn’t have to come to Freehold City while this was in style; keeping the skirt properly draped without fouling my tail took some practice.

Quit dawdling, girl! Another look was only going to improve the nerves. I clipped my bag on my belt and closed the door of the transient apartment behind me. Now that I was committed, I steadied down. I took the first ’girl at the taxi stand, gave her the address and settled on the seat. She backed the cart out and turned it into traffic, legs pumping rythmatically, chestnut mane and tail playing with the morning breeze. Ah, memories. A decade ago, that could have been me. Freehold City had changed, but not by that much.

When I arrived, my party was just being shown to a table for five.

“Good morning Captain Dahl, Mrs. Dahl, Terry, Linda. I used to be Auburn Flame. I believe you were looking for me?” I got myself seated while they recovered. A well executed surprise attack, if I did say so myself.

Jennifer Dahl recovered first. “Why did you murder my husband?” Her knuckles were so white, I was afraid the edge of the table would splinter.

“Slow down, lady. That’s what I’m here to discuss.” She took a deep breath and relaxed a bit. At least, the table wasn’t in any more danger.

“Lets break it down into three questions: Why did I shoot him? Why did he die? What was wrong with the whole thing?”

“So why did you shoot him?” Captain Dahl was made of sterner stuff. Well, he should be – he’d made captain in a major municipal police force.

“He was out of control. He’d already hit two bystanders.”

“That’s a goddamn lie! I don’t believe it!” She was getting hysterical again. The Captain put his hand on her arm, and she calmed down.

“You haven’t seen the investigation file. I have. A martyr to the cause of protecting our fair city against the forces of crime and disorder plays a lot better in the press than a rookie cop going out of control and killing several bystanders.”

“And how did you see that file? I haven’t even seen it.” The captain’s voice had that stillness of a good interrogator just before he strikes.

“There’s a bit of background there, Captain. You remember the discussion of our genetics programs in the visitor’s orientation?”

“Yes. What’s that got to do with it?”

“I’ll bet you came away with the impression we invented the process.”

He frowned and drummed his fingers on the table. Terry caught it first. “Which means you didn’t invent it. You must have gotten it from the Dodecahedron.”

“Exactly right.” I smiled at him; kids need all the encouragement they can get.

“So,” the Captain said, “you’re leading me to the conclusion that you also have the Dodecahedron’s surveillance system.”

“Correct. We do. One of the reasons for that long boat trip is so they can assemble a background dossier on all visitors. They knew about me before I ever set foot off the boat. Some robot had the task of keeping track of the investigation. When the review committee looked at my case, they found the report on which bullets came from which gun.”

“Damn.” His lips compressed in a thin line. “The DA is not going to like that. He’s getting pressure to do something.”

“Someone needs to tell him the facts of life, Captain. Freehold is not going to extradite anyone, for any reason. The leadership might change their mind on that some day, but the more I learn about the thinking behind this place, the less likely it seems.”

“Well, that’s my problem, not yours. Which brings up the next question. Why did you shoot him?”

“Reflex, mostly. I’ve had pretty serious combat training. I know it’s not in your dossier, but when someone is shooting at me, I shoot back. And I generally hit what I shoot at.”

“Which doesn’t explain why he died,” I continued. “The persona I’d built didn’t have any familiarity with guns. She was pretty good with knives and hand to hand, but not guns. My partner got that pistol for me. That thing was built to kill, not to wound. I didn’t have a chance to sight it in and practice. If I had, he’d have had a bullet in the arm and a stay in the hospital.”

“That’s not an excuse. The fact is, I painted myself into a corner, and your husband,” I looked at Mrs. Dahl, “your coworker,” I looked at the Captain, “and your father,” I looked at Terry and Linda, “died as a result.” I paused again.

“The review board’s root cause analysis showed I simply didn’t think about the possible consequences of hooking up with a bank robber, or of accepting a weapon I knew was going to cause major problems if I ever used it. I had to deal with that to their satisfaction before I got my jump to supervised citizen.”

Jennifer still had white knuckles and a strained expression. “That doesn’t explain it.” She looked like she wanted to say more.

“Well, it doesn’t explain it so you can accept it. Logical explanations seldom carry much weight in affairs of the heart.”

She relaxed a bit. At least I understood. “I expect it’s all I’m going to get.”

“I’d suggest you see a therapist while you’re here. Ours are very good. One of them can get you through the emotional morass to where you can formulate any questions you need answered to finish the matter.”

She winced. “I gather you’ve tried that already.”

“Yes. It didn’t work.”

“I’d say the therapist was probably incompetent. I knew a couple before I came here, and frankly, I can do better than either of them, and I’m not a certified therapist. All I’ve got is the emotional first aid package we call ‘Emergency Psychotherapy for Supervisors.’ It works well enough that we rarely have to send anyone in for a professional. Besides which, it’s on the house. You won’t be billed for his time.”

The captain raised his eyebrows at that. “I’m surprised. Freehold is not cheap.”

I smiled. “That’s true for a tourist. Internally, our economy is not based on money in any manner. That makes it very difficult for some of our people if they have to go abroad; money just seems like a very roundabout way of doing things.”

“The reason it’s on the house is that your distress was caused by a citizen of Freehold, even though it was done before I came here. Freehold feels some responsibility for correcting the problem. In fact, that’s why I’m here talking to you. I messed it up; I can’t simply shrug my shoulders and walk away from it. If I tried that, I’d be back down to supervised citizen so quickly I’d splatter.”

That drew a shaky laugh. Good.

Terry jumped into the silence. “I thought you need money to run an advanced economy. Otherwise, you’re down to barter.”

“Barter is simply the same mess without money. The way to look at it is this: do you use money within your family?”

“That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is no. You use money to interface between your family and the rest of society. You don’t pay your parents for the cost of raising you. You allocate resources within your family on the basis of need and availability. We do the same on an island wide basis.”

“That’s certainly different.” The captain sounded impressed.

“I’m told it took a lot of work to set up, and the early years were quite interesting. Now, the basic principle is that there is enough of a surplus everywhere it counts that it simply absorbs shocks and fluctuations. People simply don’t think of how much anything costs. There are monitors. If someone starts hogging resources, they get talked to. Otherwise, it pretty much works smoothly.”

“How do you keep people from wanting things?”

“We don’t. I can only eat so much food a day without getting fat. I can only wear one outfit at a time. Food is delivered as needed; clothing is built to order. So is just about everything portable.”

The distraction had been useful. Jennifer looked like she had come to a decision.

“I think I will see that therapist. How do I set up the appointment?”

“Go to ‘Special Services’ on your room system. I’ve put it on your menu. The concierge can direct you.”

Captain Dahl pushed his chair back. “Thank you. This has been a quite enlightening discussion.”

The rest of us got up. “Good. I’m happy it helped. If you want to come camping in my territory, we’ll probably run into each other.”

That ended one chapter of my old life. Being the Baron’s troubleshooter fit me like a glove. It even went with my real name: Jill Friday.