Delivery Ponyboy

by Xaltatun of Acheron

This work is copyright 2000 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 and forced sexual acts. 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 -------

Freehold is a study in contrasts. Informed rumor has it that if the world does something one way, they do it a different way. The rest of the world got rid of its nobility some years ago. Freehold has a full set. The historical record of aristocracies is notoriously poor; Freehold’s aristocracy seems to do its job in exemplary fashion.

There is a relatively small tourist trade, composed mainly of people with peculiar tastes, or inveterate travelers that can’t bear to leave any destination unvisited, regardless of hazards.

Their main export is spare parts for obsolete machines. They have an enviable reputation for the ability to produce anything at reasonable cost, regardless of the materials or manufacturing technology. They are the sole world supplier of vacuum tubes, an incredibly obsolete technology beloved of extreme audiophiles. Informed consumers will not make any major purchase unless the warranty states “Engineering and Manufacturing Specifications in Escrow on Freehold.”

The traveler is well advised to practice rigid honesty in all things while on the island, or he or she will be at risk of entering the human livestock program for a time. Freehold’s legal system, like the remainder of its culture, is utterly unlike anything seen anywhere else. They state that punishment is inefficient, they reeducate. This is unlikely to provide much solace to the unwary traveler who finds himself or herself in front of a pony cart, trying to maneuver it through traffic.

The traveler can depend on the material put out by the Freehold Customs and Immigration service, available at most major embassies around the world, and provided gratis on cruise ships that are the only way of reaching the island. Particular attention should be paid to the orientation lecture and examination at the Customs and Immigration building. Other than those information sources the old maxim applies with a vengeance: those who talk don’t know; and those who know, don’t talk.

Globetrotter's guide to Unusual and Unlikely Places, London, 2150

Chapter 1. We arrive.

Bertie and I stood at the rail of the Queen Phillip, watching the mountains in the interior of the Island rise gently from the horizon. Bertie held his empty glass out, and I made it vanish.

“Himie, I did want another drink, you know,” he said, as I didn’t move.

“I know, sir,” I replied. “They shut the bar down an hour ago.”

“Now why would they do a silly thing like that?”

“The purser said the company did not want to take a chance on anyone going through Customs drunk, sir. He was very inflexible about it.” Bertie turned back to the view of the mountains with a long-suffering sigh, and I dropped the glass into a bin carried by a passing bus boy.

Bertie is one of those inveterate globetrotters mentioned in the guidebook. He’s one of those people of whom it is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. At least, his family’s fondness for him seemed to grow the longer he was absent from the heart of their industrial empire. My job is to keep him far away, out of trouble, and report on his deeds and misdeeds. Not incidentally, I am also his valet.

Our ship eased up to the dock, and came to a stop with deceptive ease. The dockworkers made the ends fast with cables and rolled up the portable stairs. I gave the steward his gratuity as we debarked, our luggage trailing behind.

As we moved up the dock, I could hear the cranes behind me picking the cargo containers off the ship, and dropping them on the rail cars on the other side of the barrier.

Customs and Immigration was a wide, low marble building at the head of the dock. The only way of avoiding it would have been to swim. The signs in the lobby pointed visitors to the left, immigrants to the right, and staff and crew in the center. The gentleman at the visitor’s counter fed our declarations into his scanner, and asked if we had anything else to declare. We didn’t; I’d been very meticulous in filling out the forms. He looked at his screen.

“You’re only going to Lady Chase’s? You won’t be making any stops in Freehold proper?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. Go directly to the tram. You don’t need to take the orientation and examination if that’s your only destination on the island.”

We walked directly out, towing our apparently unexamined luggage. The tram to Lady Chase’s Ponygirl Ranch was an open-air covered carriage with ten rows of four seats, two each on each side of a central isle. Bertie stopped dead when he saw the ponygirls. I must admit it was a totally stunning sight. Lady Chase’s tram had four ponygirls hitched to the front, two abreast. Then there was the clearly marked taxi stand, which had a couple of dozen standing placidly against a rail, occasionally swishing their tails.

Over to the left, I saw rows of wagons waiting, each with its mixed team of ponyboys and ponygirls. The first containers had reached the head of the line, and stevedores were loading the cargo from them onto the carts.

We both came to, and found a pair of unoccupied seats. It didn’t seem wise to start sightseeing right now. While we were waiting, a ponyboy pounded up towing a cart full of packages and mail. One of the curbside stevedores unloaded it, loaded it up with more packages and mail, and he pulled out and pounded down the roadway on the way back to wherever he’d come from.

Once everyone got their luggage stowed and got settled, the driver cracked his whip over their heads, and they pulled the tram smoothly away from the curb into the street. The tour guide settled herself in front, and began describing the sights. The road from the port went up a gentle slope to an elevated roadway, where we got ourselves nestled in between what looked like two freight wagons. The ’girls just pounded stolidly on, maintaining an exact distance from both wagons.

Eventually, we reached the main island roadway, where we descended another ramp and merged in with more freight traffic. The countryside was dotted with farms. Part way to Lady Chase’s, we passed an installation with large “Restricted Area” signs. Ah, tourists. Someone had to ask.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know,” was the answer.

“Well, can you find out?”

“No. One term as a ponygirl is quite enough for me, thank you. I don’t need a second to understand that when they say restricted, they mean restricted.”

That got them started. I watched the installation as we went past. So far, it matched my Departmental briefing.

Chapter 2. At Lady Chase’s Hungry Tiger Ponygirl Ranch

Eventually, our tram pulled out of the roadway down a shallow slope, cut back under the main road, and headed toward the coast. The road ran under an arch supported by two ponygirl statues. The words on the arch said “Lady Chase’s Hungry Tiger Ponygirl Ranch”.

After we pulled up, our guide invited us to inspect the ponygirls; just keep hands off, please. We joined most of the other passengers in availing ourselves of the opportunity. The ponygirl’s basic harness seemed to be a leather belt around the waist. It was cut to fit snugly over the curve of her hips, and under the curve of her ribs. A sheath of some kind came down from the front and curved between her legs, coming up the back in a single leather strap that split in two just under her tail, and then buckled to the belt in back. A pair of padded leather straps came down from her shoulders into a network of straps around her back and between her breasts, finally being buckled to the top of the waistband.

Her bridle seemed to focus on two metal rings, one on each side of her mouth. From there, straps ran under her chin, up the sides of her nose to meet above her brow line, up the side of her head, and around the back. The ring in the center of her forehead had another horizontal strap, and a pair of vertical straps, one on each side of her mane. Most of her head was covered by short hair, very like a real horse’s. Her mane was about an inch wide and started at her hairline, and came all the way down her neck, ending somewhere between her shoulders, although the hair cascaded another six inches down her back.

The bridle attached to the shoulder straps with short reins so that she could not move her head. A pair of blinders completed the ensemble.

Her arms were pulled back behind her, and held by a metal rod that held her arms folded crosswise. Her hands fitted in some kind of sheath that extended to a hoof shod with a horseshoe. She wore midcalf black boots that had her foot in a full extension, as if she was standing on her toes. The boots ended in a horseshoe on the sole, and had a five or six inch heel. They ’girls were buckled to the shafts with four belts, one on each side from the front and the back. While I couldn’t tell for sure, I thought the waistbands had to have some kind of load distributing mesh so that they wouldn’t be cut in two!

She had this lovely blond tail that matched her mane. At first, I thought it was a regular horse’s tail, but then I saw that it came down to ground level and curled back for another foot or so, more like a monkey’s tail than anything else. I wasn’t sure why they did it that way, although I could imagine that it might be useful if it was actually prehensile.

When I backed off enough to see all four together, I discovered I had missed something. One of the four ’girls didn’t have boots. She had real hooves instead of hands and feet.

“Uh, miss?” I asked the tour guide. “Real hooves?”

“Why, yes,” she answered. “She decided she wanted to be a ponygirl always, so they gave her hooves.”

“What if she changes her mind?”

“They can regenerate her hands and feet. But they’ll only do it once. I understand it’s a difficult regeneration because of the brain area needed for hands. She won’t get a second chance to have real hooves.” I stared at her for a moment before I regained my aplomb. Real regeneration?

Bertie came up for air about then. “Hymie, let’s find our rooms and get settled in,” he said. OK by me. There was a guy with a clipboard standing near a gaggle of girls, each of which was dressed in a short-skirted dress and a leather collar with a nameplate on the front. He took our names and checked his list.

“Hey, Candy, here’s your party,” he called toward the girl herd. One of them trotted out toward us.

“Hi, Bertie, Hieronomous? This one is your slave girl for your stay here. Welcome to the Hungry Tiger ranch.”

“I’d prefer you call me Hymie,” I told her. “Everyone else does.”

“Your wish is this one’s command,” she grinned. “Which ones are your bags?”

I went to grab them, and she slapped my hand gently. “This one’s job is to do the work. It’s in this one’s contract.” She grinned.

“But ...” I stuttered.

“This one knows you’re his valet. Relax, it’s still this one’s job.” She maneuvered the bags onto a handcart. “We’re in suite 305, this way, please.”

Suite 305 was part way around a very pleasant little green. When we got there, a gardener was guiding a ponyboy pulling a mower around the lawn, cutting it.

She was baffling me. I needed to get to know her better.

“Candy is a pretty name.” A complement is always a good start.

“This one thinks so too. She’s happy it’s the name of this suite’s slave girl.”

Huh, what? “What did you just say?”

“Did this one mess up the explanation? Candy is the name assigned to the suite. Since this one is assigned to the suite, she’s Candy. If you decided you wanted another slave girl, she’d be Candy, and this one would be called something else.”

This one’s head felt like it was spinning. “Don’t you have a name of your own?”

“Oh, this one gave that up when she came here. What does this one need with a name when she’s got a number?”

“A number?”

She lifted up her skirt. There it was, tattooed just above her thatch. “A bar code?” I wish my head would stop spinning.

“Lady Chase calls that her little joke. Since she spends a lot of work training us properly, we should have product codes.”

I decided on one last gasp. “How do you manage to say who you mean if you don’t have a permanent name?”

“Oh, we’ve got a way of pronouncing our number. But we’re not allowed to use it with guests.”

I could tell when it was time to give up.

By this time, she had gotten our suitcases unpacked, gotten Bertie a drink and shown us the suite. One little whirlwind. “Could you slow down enough for us to catch our breath?”

She looked contrite. “This one tries. This one’s supervisor calls it power mode, and says it would not be good for this one to stifle it. This one has to learn to use it appropriately.”

It felt like we’d been at the wrong end of a power something, anyway. I took a breath. Curiosity was always my weak spot. “Power mode sounds like a technical term.”

“Oh, it is,” she smiled. “It’s part of a way we have of describing someone’s personality.”

“There are some other words for you?” As I said, curiosity.

“This one is a server with a survival perspective,” she replied. “That means she likes to do what needs doing, and she has a lot of difficulty seeing beyond right now.”

That explanation actually kind of made sense. “What about our tour guide?”

“Oh, her. She’s a sage with a goal of submission and a perspective of security.” She must have seen me looking puzzled. Bertie looked confused, but that’s his normal expression. “Sage means she likes to talk. You have to gag her to shut her up. You’re in luck if a sage knows what she’s talking about. Submission means she tries to support someone or something else, and security means, well, she likes being part of something stable, that’s going to last, that’s going to keep her safe.”

“Fascinating,” said Bertie, flatly. “When do the races start?”

Chapter 3. Ponygirl Races

The track was maybe an eighth of a mile long, with extensions for starts and finishes. The first race was a mile erect sulky for classic fillies; that is, ponygirls 5’7” or taller. Eight ponygirls came out of the entrance gate pulling sulkies and went into their position at the starting line. As far as I could tell, they were harnessed exactly like the ’girls on the tram. Their starting position had one knee and one hoof on the chalk.

“Which one do you like?” Bertie asked Candy.

Candy looked at the field. “This one is horrible at picking winners. She kind of likes Flying Diamond, which probably means you would be better off betting on any of the others.”

Bertie put five on the Diamond. If what she said about short-term thinking was accurate, she was probably completely random, which was better than Bertie most days.

Then the starter’s gun went off, and the ponies leaped off the line. Well, leaped isn’t quite the right word; a fast start with a hundred and sixty pounds of sulky and driver behind you isn’t in the cards. However, they did get started fast enough that I feared for the driver’s safety; hopefully, none of them would get whiplash. That entire start looked like a chorus line. After that, it looked more like a horse race than otherwise. The outside ponies headed for the fence, the ones inside tried to keep ahead until the first turn put the others behind. I watched as the initial sprint just continued, and continued. It didn’t look like they were going to slow down. The race ended with a winning time of about 2:33. Flying Diamond came in fifth.

The next race was a half-mile for pony mode miniature fillies. What that translated to was that the ponygirls would be running on all four hooves, and would be under 5’7” tall. This time, when they trotted out on the field, you could tell the difference. The girls were definitely horizontal, breasts swinging free and tails curled up so they didn’t drag the ground. They looked out of proportion somehow; the legs were much longer, or the torso much shorter than it should have been. This time, they lined up with front hooves on the chalk, and both back legs bent at the knee for a power start. When the starter’s pistol went off, they shoved off into a trot and then shifted to a canter and gallop quickly.

Half a mile was two turns around the track. The ’girls ran head down, letting the drivers have complete control of their movements. The leader crossed the finish line in 1:15, and then brought her head up to make the turn to the judge’s stand, where she stopped with both front hooves planted on the line. The other fillies lined up beside her, straight as if a surveyor had laid it down. When the judges announced the win, they peeled off to the right and left the field, single file.

We watched the fillies, and sometimes the stallions, through all ten races on the card. They kept turning in times that would have been credible for real horses, but with completely unreasonable weights.

“Candy, something I’ve noticed. The stallions seem to be running faster then the fillies. Is that true?”

“They do,” she said. “They tell this one the stallions have fast twitch muscle, and the fillies have slow twitch muscle.”

We had dinner in a very nicely understated restaurant done in a bondage motif. Bertie and I sat around a low table. The restaurant didn’t have any servers; Candy served us. She did it beautifully, I could only wish I got that kind of service from most restaurants.

Chapter 4. Reconnoiter

Bertie took Candy to bed with him, and closed the door firmly. Just as well. I waited for the activity to die down and for them to fall asleep, and then eased out the door. The installation I had come to check out was not too far down the road. It looked like this should be a piece of cake.

The sneak down the road went without incident. I studied the gate closely. It didn’t appear to be locked, and there wasn’t a guard post. I hadn’t seen any guards, either. Either this was the most arrogant bunch of bastards I had ever heard of, or they had never heard of security. In any case, just go in the gate and look around. That should be enough for one night.

I was coming back up to the gate when I heard a noise behind me. I froze, trying to blend in with the shadows. The noise repeated, and I heard someone clear their throat. BOO! I jumped to start running; I couldn’t help it. A big guy just appeared out of a deep shadow and grabbed me as I went by. The other guy pulled some kind of sack over my head and all the way down. I heard a hiss, and rods in the sack stiffened with compressed air. He put a hood over my head, and then lifted me, sack and all, over his shoulder.

After a moment, he dumped me on something level. I felt a shift, and then listened to the clip, clop of horseshoes on concrete. After a while, night noises were replaced by the clip, clop of more horseshoes. Whoever was driving certainly wasn’t a talkative character.

After another while, the clip, clop stopped, and someone picked up my cocoon. I got jostled around a bit, and then the cocoon collapsed in on itself with a hiss of escaping air. I felt myself dropped on a pallet of some kind as they took me out of the sack, and took my hood off. I couldn’t see a thing. A door closed with a very solid sounding thud.

The next afternoon, I met with the Ambassador. I expected him to bail me out; the Department wields considerable, if secret influence. It was immediately apparent that he didn’t know anything. I clammed up. He simply shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Let’s see the judge.”

The judge sat behind a low table next to his clerk. I sat in one chair, with a pair of walking mountains standing behind me. The Ambassador sat in a second, well removed from mine. The clerk called my case. The judge opened the proceedings.

“Mr. Fogcutter. The record shows that you left your suite at Lady Chase’s last night after your companions were asleep, proceeded to the restricted installation nearby, entered and spent some time examining the place before you were apprehended. The analyst who reviewed the surveillance scan states that your skulking technique could possibly be improved, but not by much. The record also shows that you stated at Customs that you were going to Lady Chase’s only, and that you did not declare the special clothing you wore to reduce the possibility of detection. Do you have any comments?”

I denied it, of course. I needed to set up some kind of legal tangle to give the Department time to react.

“Let’s see the surveillance record, then.” Their record was impossibly good. They had me from the moment I left the door to when they bagged me. It wasn’t the highest quality picture, but it was quite good enough. “Before you deny it, I should point out that in Freehold law, the next step will be an interrogation. Our interrogators are quite good. They generally leave the subject in excellent condition, occasionally better than they began, but being forced to disclose something that you intended to keep private leaves its mark. And there is, of course, the occasional accident.”

They had me. I admitted that it was me in that record; there was no longer a point in denying it.

“Very well. The charges are 1. Making a false statement at Customs. 2. Neglecting to declare special clothing at Customs. 3. Entering Freehold proper without taking the orientation course and passing the examination. 4. Entering a clearly marked restricted area. Do you have any issue with the charges?”

I looked at the ambassador. This seemed to be backwards. All courts I knew of read the charges first, then presented evidence. He said: “The charges seem to match the record, you honor.”

“The judge said, “Mr. Fogcutter. The record shows a sufficiently low level of social responsibility to warrant reeducation, beginning with the livestock program. You have seven years to raise your responsibility levels to Citizen (Foreign Equivalent).” He nodded to someone behind me.

One of the walking mountains yanked me out of my chair and held me up. The second one pulled my pants off, removing my shoes in passing. He then grabbed my waist, and the first bruiser removed my shirt the short way, to the sound of ripping cloth. He then twisted my arms behind me and locked them with some kind of restraint. My open mouth collected a very efficient gag. They finished up with a collar and leash. The whole procedure was so fast it left me stunned. They’d clearly had lots of practice. One of the mountains tugged on my leash, and led me out the other door.

Chapter 5. I become a pony (second class)

They led me down a corridor into a large room with a number of other naked guys wearing gags with their arms chained behind them. They cinched my leash over a ring on the wall and then walked out. The ring was just above my head; there was no way I could twist around to work at it with my hands. In any case, there didn’t appear to be much point. Trying to escape buck naked in the middle of Freehold City didn’t seem like it had much chance of success. Especially with what that surveillance record told me about their capabilities. My training was quite clear on the next step. Grit my teeth and take the fall.

After a couple more naked guys got added to the rings, another couple of guards came in and arranged us in a coffle. That is, they unhitched us from the wall, and hitched our leashes to the collar of the guy in front of us. Then they marched us out to a courtyard. One of the guards hitched the first guy’s leash to a chariot, climbed in and we were off.

Walking in coffle isn’t easy unless you’re used to it. It’s kind of like army close order drill; everything works right if you keep yourself exactly synchronized with everyone else. Of course, the army doesn’t train you like that; they train you to do your part of the drill, and it works because everyone else is doing theirs exactly the same. After getting yanked around by the neck too many times for comfort, I decided to concentrate on the guy in front of me and ignore everything else. The guys behind me must have figured the same thing, because things became much smoother. There were still a couple of jerks in front of me that couldn’t figure out how to walk properly, but we managed to get there without too much additional damage.

There was a yard in front of a big, brick building. The guard just hitched the first guy’s leash to a post, and walked off. We stood there in the sun, baking. Every once in a while, someone came out of one of the doors, took the end guy off the coffle, and led him away. Eventually, it was my turn.

The room contained several people and a long, very narrow table. I was marched up to the table, and shoved down on it. They attached a couple of straps so I couldn’t move. The table rose so my feet left the floor. Then they got to work.

One team grabbed my legs and stuffed my feet into boots. Another team unhooked my arms from their restraints and shoved my hands and forearms into some device. Both of them hurt like hell. At the same time, someone else replaced my collar, and another someone put a bridle on my head.

Suddenly, all of the activity stopped for a moment, and then the table dropped away from under me. I came down on my hands and feet - except that I didn’t. Somehow, the boots on my feet, and the whatever on my hands, made contact with the ground and supported me. I got my first good look at what they had done to my hands. They were HOOFS! I had a set of front feet, rather than hands.

A hand grabbed my bridle, and urged me forward, crooning something like “come on Steel Rivers, just relax and move out.” I let my body flow into it, and found I could walk on all fours. As long as I didn’t think about it, I just put a front hoof forward, moved my body, and the hind legs followed. This was a total shock. I didn’t know that people could walk on all fours.

Then the next shock hit. He had called me Steel Rivers. That wasn’t my name! It was a pony’s name. However, it was a vast improvement on either Hieronamous Fogcutter, or even Hemie. He led me out of the leather room up a bit of a path, crooning my new name to me so that I got used to it. We came to a gate. He opened the gate and led me inside. Then he took off the bridle, and gave me the first real instructions anybody had done here.

“Steel Rivers, you are going to be turned loose in this meadow for a while. You can walk around, run, talk to the other ponies, lie down, sleep, whatever you like. Come when someone calls your name. Don’t try to go up on your hind legs; you will be severely punished if you do. You will learn what you need to do when you need to know it. Don’t try to leave the meadow unless someone has bridled you and is leading you out. Have fun.” He gave me a little shove up the hill, left the meadow and closed the gate behind himself.

I craned my head up to look around. I was in an open field, with a fence around the part I could see. There was a little hill, and what sounded like a brook in the distance. I could see several other ponies standing or lying on the ground. They were all wearing hooves, and the ones standing were on all four legs. Quite a few of them had tails, or the beginnings of tails. No one was standing up erect. So much for evolution.

I was getting the feel of being on four legs. The first thing was information. I trotted over to the nearest group, which had two stallions and three fillies. One of the fillies, with a beautiful chestnut mane and tail, said, “Hi, you look new. I’m Dancing Wind, what are they calling you?”

“Steel Rivers. What is going on here? And how do I take a crap?”

One of the stallions answered my second question. “Technically, anywhere you want. But do us a favor, there’s an area on the other side of the hill where everyone goes.”

Dancing Wind jerked her head in the direction of the hill, “Come on. I’ll show you.” She trotted up the hill without looking back. I followed. The crap area was real obvious. She simply squatted down, flipped her tail up over her back, and let loose. Then she trotted over to a small fountain, and let it clean her off. Well, when in Rome. I squatted. My guts decided to empty themselves at the same time. I walked forward a bit gingerly and looked behind. Yup, a new pile of shit. The fountain must have been someone’s bright idea; it tickled.

We walked back. “What is going on?”

Dancing Wind laughed. “I can’t tell you. Your trainer will handle everything you need to know. Either I don’t know, or my trainer would have my hide.” Then she looked at me curiously. “You’re from outside, aren’t you?”

“Not from Freehold. Yes. I was at Lady Chase’s yesterday, now I’m here.”

“I’m not going to ask, and it doesn’t matter anyway. There’s one thing you do need to know. Freehold is absolutely adamant that everybody has a chance to advance as far as they can. The next couple of weeks are going to be very strenuous, but after that, ask your trainer or any of the grooms for access to the advancement system. They’ll get you on it, and the system will tell you everything else you need to know.”

Right. My briefing had been absolutely clear on why I didn’t want to fall into that trap.

Chapter 6. Interlude

Bertie walked into Lady Chase’s office. “Do you have any idea what happened to Hymie?” He sounded quite worried.

“Yes, I do. Sit down, this is going to be a shock.”

“He’s dead?”

“No, he’s quite alive, at least the last I heard. The Freehold authorities picked him up last night while he was prowling around a restricted installation. He’s just been sentenced to seven years reeducation. You’re not going to see him again.”

“But, I need him,” Bertie stuttered. “I’d be lost without him.”

“Quite possibly,” she said dryly. “However, according to the report, he was reporting to your relatives, and he was also working for a national intelligence agency. That’s why he was in the restricted area where he was picked up.”

Bertie sat for a moment. “Oh, god. He was such a good valet.”

“He undoubtedly was. He probably liked doing it, people seldom become really good at something they don’t like doing.”

He brightened a moment. “Could I buy Candy from you?”

“You could, but I wouldn’t advise it. She’d fall apart on you as soon as you left here. You need someone to take care of you, and you’d have to take care of her.”

“Is that something about what she said yesterday? Perspective something or other?”

“Exactly. It’s a personality description system we use so we can talk intelligently about people. It’s about as accurate as calling someone a blonde; that doesn’t tell you what shade of blond hair she has, or whether it matches her eyes. However, it’s a great deal better than anything else we’ve ever run across. Survival perspective means that anything past right now doesn’t mean very much to her. She functions here because we trained her in exactly what she has to do, and she’s lost outside of that structure. She’d probably function fairly well as a household slave in Freehold society, but she’d be totally bewildered anywhere else.”

“On the plus side, she’s actually quite intelligent. She learned our personality system, which is fairly involved. She’s just got absolutely no common sense.”

“I still want her,” he said resolutely. “Even if I have to take care of her like a puppy, I want her.”

Lady Chase sighed. “See the purchasing office to have the papers drawn up. We’ll ask her pro forma, but she’ll agree to anything anyone suggests. It’s one reason why she needs strict rules to live under.”

“Strict rules,” he said. “That reminds me. I used to like playing the master/slave game with my girlfriends. You think that would work with her?”

“It should,” the Lady said. “Well, I think that wraps up what we had to talk about. Enjoy the rest of your stay at the Hungry Tiger.”

Chapter 7. How the F*** did I get here?

How the fuck did I get into this? And how do I get out? I asked myself that for about the thousandth time as I settled down for the night. I knew it had to be about a thousand, because I’d been pulling this fucking wagon for three years, and I had another four to go before they kicked me off this fucking island.

Actually, how I got into it was easy enough. They caught me dead to rights where I shouldn’t have been. I’m supposed to be a top operative for one of those spy agencies that don’t exist. I shouldn’t be lying here, with horseshoes on all four corners and a tail on the end, waiting to go to sleep so I could be harnessed again tomorrow morning to pull this fucking wagon for another day.

How I got there was even easier. My boss told me to check out this installation on Freehold. Go there, look, come back, report. Should be a piece of cake. If you got caught, clam up, and for God’s sake, don’t fall for that “Advancement System” crap. If you do, you’ll wish you were dead.

So now I was here. Here was a ponyboy, one of a team of five ponyboys and three ponygirls pulling this wagon from point A to point B. Or maybe from point B to point A. Nobody ever told us, and I had quit caring. The daily routine was invariant. Bastard (that’s what I called him, I never did learn his name, if any) would bellow at us to wake up and get our lazy ***** asses over to breakfast. Struggle to feet before he provided some additional motivation with whip. Eat bowl of ponygirl chow. That’s what it said on the bag. Why it was ponygirl chow rather than ponyboy chow or just pony chow was never explained. Drink water. Wait until he switched me to two footed mode and harnessed me to my position. Go when he said go, stop when he said stop.

Get unharnessed and switched back to four footed mode. Eat, drink, and make merry. The latter was Bouncing Rabbit, and did she ever. Bounce, that is. She did all of us, one after the other. I got her last, and got her off. Bastard got Swimming Faun, and as far as I could tell, Dancing Wind never got any. Then he settled us, and put helmets on five of us. I stewed for a while, and then went to sleep. Repeat for seven years; three down, four to go.

“Steel River, get your fucking ass over here,” yelled the Bastard. “I want to talk to you.”

Huh? I pulled myself to my feet and trotted over and looked up at him. Not hard when your head is about level with his hips.

“What part of talk don’t you understand?”


“It’s a word,” he said. “Now, what did they tell you about the advancement system?”

“Uh, I wasn’t allowed to use it. I’d be punished for asking.”

“Shit. Well, you were lied to. The advancement system is the only way you are ever going to get your fucking ass off this train before they throw you out on your fucking ass. Got it?”

“Uh, yes.” Confusion rampant.

“You’re supposed to ask me a question. Either ask it, or I’ll cram your head into one of the helmets anyway.”

“Uh, may I use the advancement system, boss?”

He smiled. Well kept up set of teeth. “Good. Go back, and I’ll show you how to use it.”

I went back and lay down. He came over with a helmet. “First, I put it on your head. Then, I take it off at the end.” His instructions, at least, lived up to my expectations.

Steel Rivers, I see you are finally with us tonight.

Hey, a display. Things were looking up.

The first task is to learn how to move the cursor. This helmet reads the brain waves from your visual cortex. Look at the cursor, and imagine it moving somewhere else.

I looked and tried to move it. By the end of the session, I could actually get it into a box and click. Most of the time. It helped that the machine put up real big boxes. By the end of the week, I was moving it around with aplomb.

I’d also gotten through most of the “Introduction to Freehold” course. I’d quit keeping track of where it differed from my briefing. One or the other was highly imaginative fiction. Given where I was, and the ease with which I’d wound up here, I had my suspicions.

Point and click only gets you so far. The next task is to learn how to input.

That turned out to be something called a “simulated chord board.” It was still reading my mind, or at least my visualizations. Now there was a row of ten dots. I could press any combination of up to eight. It took another week to make my visualization sharp enough to press the ones I wanted.

By the time I had enough facility to work the thing, I was done with “Introduction to Freehold,” and well into “Introduction to Online Facilities.” There was a lot more than Citizen Training, most of which I wasn’t authorized to use.

Let’s see what happens. “How do I file an appeal?”

We thought you would ask. You need some background first. You need to send a message to a person named Sandra Stone at your embassy. We've put the course for using the message system on your curriculum.

Hey, a relevant answer. The course was there, and I took it. Looked like just about every message system I had ever seen.

To: Sandra Stone @ US Embassy, Freehold

From: Steel River @ hlp.Freehold

Re: Appeal

What do I need to do to get out of this mess?

The next day, there was an answer. More efficiency than I expected.

To: Steel River @ hlp.Freehold

From: Sandra Stone @ US Embassy, Freehold

Re: Appeal

By now, you’ve figured out that the briefing from your late supervisor was well disguised disinformation. As far as we can tell, he was using this assignment to get rid of agents that threatened his position. We’re still cleaning up loose ends.

## Late supervisor? Oh, shit. Well, I can see the bastard doing just that. ##

I filed an appeal on your behalf when we discovered the problem. Your current supervisor’s action in getting you onto the advancement system is one of the responses.

## Oh, my. Somebody actually took action. I think I like her. ##

The justice system denied the appeal with leave to refile. This requires an explanation. There are only two things they could have done. They either could have voided the conviction, which they didn’t do, or they could have extended the time allowed to ten years from seven, which they also didn’t do.

## Huh? Extend my sentence because of an appeal??? This makes no sense. ##

You might be puzzled about why they would extend the time. This comes out of Freehold’s rather unique view of things. They do not view your presence in the human livestock program as a punishment, and the seven years is not a sentence.

## Huh? Again. ##

The human livestock program is the standard destination for people who cannot be trusted to behave in a socially responsible fashion. If you were a resident of Freehold, you would remain there until you raised your social and personal responsibility ratings to the next level. Since you are not, you have been given seven years to raise your responsibility levels to the equivalent of citizen. If you do it before then, you’re done. The seven years is a deadline, not a determined time.

An average person should be able to make it in about six years. Seven gives an adequate margin. Since you have lost over three years, there is no way you can make the deadline. “Leave to refile” means that they will reevaluate your case, and may elect to extend the deadline depending on your performance.

## That almost sounds rational. ##

There are two reasons why you should care. One is just personal style. If I were in your position, I would prefer to wave goodbye from the deck of the ship while holding a drink, rather than exit naked in a cell in the hold, facing a term for indecent exposure when I am slung off the ship naked.

## My god! They do that? ##

The other is that Freehold does not hold grudges, even unofficially. You make the equivalent of citizen, you can come back. They won’t give you the responsibility rating unless they mean it.

## Another good point ##

One final point. Trusting what your superiors tell you without checking is what got you behind in the first place. The justice system will not extend your time until you show that you have learned this lesson.

## Shit. ##


Sandra Stone, attaché without portfolio.

To: Sandra Stone @ US Embassy, Freehold

From: Steel River @ hlp. Freehold

Re: Appeal

>One final point. Trusting what your superiors tell you is what got you behind in the first place. The >justice system will not extend your time until you show that you have learned this lesson.

Damn. I’ve had this problem a number of times. Any suggestions?


Steel River

This time, the answer took several days.

To: Steel River @ hlp.Freehold

From: Sandra Stone @ US Embassy, Freehold

Re: Appeal

>>One final point. Trusting what your superiors tell you is what got you behind in the first place. The >>justice system will not extend your time until you show that you have learned this lesson.

>Damn. I’ve had this problem a number of times. Any suggestions?

I’ve set up a possible solution. I should emphasize the term possible strongly; it’s not a guarantee. You will find a course called “Personal Use Psychotherapy” on your curriculum, with a list of prerequisites that look pretty impossible. There will also be an override request from me. Look at the course content, and if you want to go for it, request an override. There’s already an override approved so you can look at the course description.

You may have to pause in the middle until you get your promotion to package delivery. Your current supervisor is not in a position to render the support needed by later parts of the process.


Sandra Stone, attaché without portfolio

Personal Use Psychotherapy? I stared at that for quite a while before the light dawned. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action. And if the enemy is inside, then what?

Package Delivery?

Yes, that's the next step up. In fact, it's where you would have started if you had used the system while you were in training.

What do I need to do?

I've put the courses on your curriculum.

There were three new courses when I looked. One was “Using the Freehold Map for Package Delivery,” the second was “Package Delivery System for Ponyboys.” The third was “Personal Use Psychotherapy” with a humongous glob of prerequisites. The list ended with “Override Requested: Sandra Stone” and “Overview approved: Princess Jeanette.”

That overview was an eye-opener. It was all mental exercises, which I should have expected. What I didn’t expect was that I had absolutely no idea what most of them were for, let alone how they worked. Some of them, I couldn’t even understand the descriptions. The only good thing was that the time requirement wasn’t that heavy. All the exercises were fifteen minutes a day, until they could be done reliably. Then I was to go on to the next one. I backed out hastily.

“This works?”

Frequently. In fact, it's practically impossible to get past Supervisor without using it.

“Well, let’s do it.”

A line appeared. “Override Requested: Steel River.”

A moment later another line appeared: “Approved: Princess Jeanette.”

One of the gods of Freehold had spoken. Twice. I took that as a marching order. Might as well get started.

The first exercise was a relatively gentle calming routine, designed to put the day’s troubles behind me and create some clear space. I wouldn’t have thought it would be that difficult. Trying to hold the space for more than a couple of minutes was almost impossible. Fortunately, the exercise came with it’s own adviser. It took weeks to work through layers of self-criticism to a relatively clear space.

The Freehold map was incredible. Learning the basics took a while. It not only had the usual lines, pictures and names, but you could drill up, drill down, check road conditions, check traffic conditions, see trouble reports, get routings, and dozens of things I had never heard of. Well, Freehold was supposed to be efficient. They obviously had just the one map, and had loaded everything anybody needed into it.

The package delivery course guided me through the parts of the map complex I would need. One of the interesting things I discovered was that there was a transportation and road condition chat. Message streams from it had showed up at problem points.

I thought about it. Not only looked interesting, but it also looked like a way to suck up to the system. Oops, show more responsibility, need to get the wording straight.

“Can I join this chat?”

Of course. I've put the appropriate course on your curriculum.

There it was. “Using the chat system.” It included does and don’ts, and rules of politeness.

The package delivery system was interesting. I’d always just handed packages off to a messenger, and they got to the other end. Somehow. In this system, there were two tiers. The bottom tier was for volume, point to point delivery; it was essentially a single pony version of freight. The harness was the same as freight, hands (or front hooves) up behind you.

The top tier was for general pickup and delivery. For that, you got a load at the package center and a map. You had your hands free, and could unbuckle yourself from the cart, if necessary. It was fairly obvious that the bottom tier was for ponyboys that weren’t too bright, but could be trusted to do as they were told without someone standing over them with a whip. There actually wasn’t a whole lot more freedom on the top tier; they laid the route out for you. There was more of an opportunity for screwing up.

Stabling wasn’t that different from training. Package delivery shared a stable with taxi so there was always a mixture of ponyboys and ponygirls. You had sex with whomever the stable lads shoved into your stall, or vice versa. It wasn’t actually that bad; you could post an “I want” or a “no way” on the system, and the stable lads would usually respect it. The unfortunate part was that if you were new, you tended to get the sluts and the dogs. Fortunately, the dogs tended to get shipped to freight; the stable masters didn’t like ponies of either sex who were either too choosy or who nobody would screw with. Some of the sluts were quite good; they may have been practicing for going professional.

Chapter 8. Delivery

One morning, Bastard showed up towing a stable boy. “OK, River, think you can haul a taxi to Freehold City in two days?”

Huh, what? “Should be able to. What’s up?”

“You’re being reassigned to package in Freehold City. Stable master tells me he’s got a messenger that needs to get there yesterday, and no long haul ponygirl. You’re it.”

The stable lad got me harnessed in two foot mode, and hauled me over to the stable. There was a taxi, and a messenger standing there, tapping her foot. He hitched me up.

The messenger took my bit out and said, “Think you can do it?”

“Sure try, ma’am. I’ve just never worked taxi before.”

“I know that. I’ll drive until we hit the main road, then you just go.”

“Got it.” We consulted the map, then she put the bit back, and we were off.

One young woman, a taxi and some light luggage were nothing compared to the freight wagon. Once we hit the road, she adjusted my speed until she liked it, and then I just kept going. Freehold roads are all four lane, and as flat as a pancake for the most part. Wagons take the outer strip; passenger vehicles take the inner strip. Freight goes at a flat eight mph. Period. The planners are adamant about that. If you started out 100 yards after a given wagon, you had still better be 100 yards behind it 50 miles down the road, or have a good reason why.

Passenger and package goes at 10 mph, unless there is a reason why. They don’t monitor it quite as closely, but then, single pony rigs are fairly maneuverable, and the passing rules are trained into us just as thoroughly as the rest of the routine. It’s just about impossible to screw up, especially since ponies that screw up frequently tend to wind up in front of a wagon and a drover with a bad temper.

We turned out every couple of hours for a fifteen-minute break. She made certain I got water, and then we were off again. We hit Landover not too long before sunset, and boy, was I glad to see it. That extra 2 mph had taken its toll; I just wasn’t used to it.

My assigned filly was a sweet little thing named Summer Dream. She turned out to be a tiger when I got on top of her. If I were going to be staying here, she would be going onto my most wanted list.

Since this was my first stop in a stable, I had to ask the stable lad how to work the system. He was surprised; usually we learned that in training. He had to bring a pony over to show me. It turned out not to be too complicated; the helmets were hidden in the front wall of the stall, and slid on and off with a specific twist of the head.

I checked the route from here to Freehold City, and then checked my course work. The 80 miles to Freehold City was easier. We hit the stables in late afternoon, and she took a ponygirl taxi to wherever she was going. The stable master was waiting for me when the boy got me to my stall.

“What’s this about a ponyboy taking Personal Use Psychotherapy with a Princess approving it?” He didn’t look too happy, so I explained.

“That almost sounds reasonable. Thing is, I have no idea what I might need to do for support.”

“Talk to Sandra. She probably knows; she told me I might have to stop in the middle because my previous supervisor couldn’t handle the required support.”

He looked less unhappy.

The next morning, he showed up with a young woman and an older woman. The young woman was Sandra Stone. The older woman was his chief trainer.

“The way we’re going to work this out,” said Sandra “is this. I’m now officially your supervisor. That’s less important than it sounds. The stable master and chief trainer are still responsible for your life as a ponyboy. I’m only responsible for your training curriculum for the next step. What it mostly means is that you now have three people looking over your shoulder instead of two.”

The training staff was enchanted by a ponyboy that had done taxi, if even for only two days in a straight highway run. We spent several days on traffic. Freehold City traffic looks light in comparison with most major cities, but you still have to deal with other ponies and their carts or delivery wagons, pedestrians, corners, kids on skateboards, trees and other stuff. As well as ponygirls that are being driven by their passengers. Freehold city is beautiful, but it also doesn’t have sidewalks or traffic signals, and they seem to plant trees wherever it looks good.

The delivery routine just isn’t that difficult. You find the address, unhook yourself, ring the doorbell or whatever and yell “Package.” Someone comes out and gets it. Hook yourself back up between the shafts and head for the next destination. The only hassle is picking up packages. People will flag you down just like a taxi, then you’ve got to find somewhere to stow the package until you get back to the center.

After a few days, I had one real question.

“Why are the ponygirls more restricted than the ponyboys? It seems unfair to them.”

It's more apparent than real. City taxi has the same mental requirements as the upper tier of package. Long haul taxi is intermediate between freight and city taxi; the really stupid girls go to freight. There are a number of specialty categories, like ambulance, where the girls have the same mobility as the ponyboys in package delivery. They just aren't in the overview.

It actually matters less than you would think. You don't actually get to do anything significant with that mobility. It would vanish tomorrow if you didn't have to check the delivery list and ring the doorbell.

Well, it still seemed unfair. But then, Freehold never claimed to be fair. Just efficient.

As soon as I got settled, the coursework for Personal Slave came up. The system was beginning to come a bit clear; the next step was just that. There would probably be several more, at increasing levels of responsibility. The courses looked like very low level scut work, oriented to household and yard maintenance. Shouldn’t be much of a problem. I filed occasional notes on the transportation and streets chat about problems, and worked on improving my delivery style as much as possible. Level 1 citations were standard; I got several level 2’s for helping with difficult packages “above and beyond expectations.”

My “personal use psychotherapy” course simply chugged along. The first exercise took two months to do satisfactorily. To the advisor, at least. I didn’t think I was doing well at all; I still got knocked out of the relaxed state frequently. The advisor had a very different view of my progress.

You now know what physical relaxation feels like. You can maintain the state for several minutes at a time, and you come back quickly after distractions. That is satisfactory at this point.

There was a parallel section on “non-directive intervention.” This was almost harder than the relaxation. The course was all about how to get someone to do something without intruding on his or her ability to decide how it should be done, or even whether it should be done. The frustrating part of it was that it was similar to some of my spy training, but it was different enough to confuse me utterly for a while. Once I got the hang of it, I could see how it would be useful with other people. What it was doing here was something of a puzzle.

Once I had both of those down, the course started me on “establishing internal communication.” This almost blew me away. I discovered that all of the random tics, twitches, and oddball sensations weren’t so random after all. They were mostly connected with something called a “sub personality” which was a specialist in some kind of behavior, and was simply doing its job the way it had been programmed.

“Do sub personalities really exist?”

Whether "sub personalities" really exist is something that psychologists are still arguing about. From the practical point of view, you can assume they do, and it works the vast majority of the time.

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of this. From there, it went fairly fast. I found the sub-personality that believed that checking out what an authority figure told me was going to be very dangerous to my survival, and got it to reprogram itself, based on new data.

The result shocked me utterly. I found I had conveniently forgotten literally hundreds of times where I had bought a load of you know what instead of questioning what I had been handed. Some of them didn’t seem that serious. I mean, I really didn’t care if Aunt Millie had been a virgin. She was dead, and there was no legacy to contest. On the other hand, I found lots of stuff with my old spy agency that suddenly didn’t make much sense.

I started making lists and pestering my advisor about how to find out certain stuff. I got a few things checked off, including several eye-openers. My opinion of my performance ratings took a sudden nosedive; I couldn’t have been doing that well if I hadn’t been asking the right questions.

Then Sandra showed up.

Chapter 9. Promotion

“Steel River, I’ve got an opportunity for you,” she said as she leaned over the front of my stall.

“Should I be overjoyed, or look this gift horse in the mouth?” I asked.

She clapped her hands. “Very good! You should definitely look at this one skeptically. Let me give you some background. You know that Freehold has a couple of dozen semi-independent enclaves?”

“That was in your introduction. I’m afraid my original briefing didn’t mention it.”

“No real reason it should, I suppose. They’re left over from when the Island was a hodge-podge of splinter groups. Some of them are important to us for the tourist trade. We keep the rest partially because of the original agreements, and partially because it allows us to observe how different social organizations work out in practice. That’s important to some interests that are important to Freehold.”

“This sounds a bit Byzantine to me. I don’t see how it applies.”

“Well, Freehold has several roving ambassadors that circulate among the enclaves. How do you suppose they get around?”

“Ponygirls, obviously. Don’t tell me,” I said slowly, “that one of these roving ambassadors wants a ponyboy?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. The thing is, the usual run of ponygirl has her limits. The ambassadors could use a pony that doubled as a valet and as a general assistant. Ponygirls that are up to the challenge usually want out quickly. The ones that want to stay career don’t want the responsibility. There are exceptions, but they are in critically short supply.”

“I can see that. Why me?”

“Your background as a spy, plus your record in delivery. You’re so far over requirements on personal responsibility that the board needs to give you a challenge.”

“So, what’s the schedule?”

“The ambassador in question isn’t due back for about three months, and he’ll stay here for another three. That gives you time for the personal slave training course and for him to start training you as his assistant. You also get a perk.”

“Should I be happy or suspicious?”

“Darned if I know. You get to keep your tail. You’ll need it for when you go out as a ponyboy again.”

“What happens if I refuse?”

“Refusing additional responsibility doesn’t look good on the record. It has a tendency to impact your responsibility rating adversely.”

“Are you sure this place wasn’t settled from Sicily? When do I start?”

“You’ll find out when it happens. Tell me why.”

“Policy. They never tell us anything until we need to deal with it.”

“Close. Why the policy?”

“Um.” I had to think a bit as she stood there. “Too low a level of personal responsibility? There’s nothing a pony could do with the information except stew?”


Chapter 10. Personal Slave Training

It happened two days later. Instead of being taken out and hitched to my delivery wagon, I got tied to the back of my trainer’s chariot and taken to another building. There they shucked me out of my pony getup and issued me a tunic and sandals. The thing that surprised me the most was that my feet went back to flat without any problem. I’d been expecting to have to adjust; the original adjustment to walking on my toes had been excruciating.

Army training helped. They make jokes about the drill instructor’s first lecture. “Now, men, there’s four ways to do something. The right way, the wrong way, the Army way, and MY WAY. Got it?” The thing is, there is a lot of truth to that. At least on Freehold, there didn’t seem to be a “do it my way” mentality. It was “do it the way the training system says.”

Personal slave training was quite a bit different from ponyboy training. In ponyboy training, they drilled me on each motion until it was automatic. I had absolutely no responsibility for thinking about anything except how to get through traffic efficiently. And even that was drilled until it was automatic.

With slave training, they didn’t drill at all. The training system showed us how to do each task, and then we practiced until we got it right. The instructors would stand there with their arms folded, watching us screw up time and again. It didn’t take me too long to get the point. I wouldn’t pass this course unless I could learn how to do something from the instructional system.

Not being drilled wasn’t quite true. They did drill on one thing - movement. We learned ten postures that we were expected to be able to hold indefinitely. They included sitting cross-legged, sitting on heels, sitting on a chair, kneeling and several variations of standing. The drill was in very subtle muscle movements that kept the blood and lymph flowing. Some of it was similar to Army training, where we had to stand at attention for long periods of time. The Army didn’t drill on how to do it; you had to pick up the tricks from the sergeants. Freehold drilled until we could do it properly. I suspect that they didn’t want to compromise our health, which was quite reasonable.

By the time they were done with me on that, I could do any task in the curriculum with minimum movement, staying in perfect balance at all times. They took me a lot farther than they took most of the other students. Part of it was aptitude, but part of it was my personal responsibility rating. They expected more of me, and I had to live up to it.

The hardest thing to learn was to do exactly what I was told, no more and no less. I had a lot of problems with it. Parts of me balked, objected, wanted to show off, didn’t want to do what I was told, or wanted to do it my way, or at least, some other way. I noticed them working with some of the other students to get past these problems. They didn’t work with me on it; I was just punished for goofing off. Eventually it dawned on me. They knew I had taken Personal Use Psychotherapy; they were expecting me to use it.

I pondered that for a while, and then dove back into the course.

What can I help you with tonight?

That was the shrink’s standard opening. “I’ve got some problems. How do I find what’s causing them?”

Describe one of the problems.

“I was told to clean a room, and I tried to change the procedure.”

"What was the objective of the change?"

“Efficiency. I thought it would be faster.”

Did you discuss it with your supervisor?


Did you think about discussing it with your supervisor?

I broke out in a sweat at that question. “Yes.”

What specifically happened when you thought about it?

I broke out in a sweat again. “I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

Do you think you can take it from here?

I stared at the screen for a moment, and then realized what had happened. “I think so.”

Good. Report back tomorrow night. And it kicked me right back to the main advisor.

I put it on top of my main study list, and checked my schedule. There was nothing I needed to do immediately, so I signed off of the system, and started doing the exercises I had been taught. Eventually a key phrase popped up: “It’s easier to apologize afterwards than to ask permission.” I managed to locate the sub personality that was holding that attitude; it firmly believed that all authority figures were idiots, and were out to keep me from getting the job done or get me in trouble.

I was in the process of getting it to reevaluate the word “all” when we got the lights out. The backlash from that almost blacked me out for a moment. When I came to, I figured I’d better keep going while I had momentum. After a moment, I thought I had three options: stop, pretend to be asleep and continue, and ask for permission. That stewed around for a moment, then I realized there were only two: keep doing what I had been doing, or do something different. That didn’t seem worth discussing with myself.

I stuck my head out the door, “Sir?”

“Whatcha need, Steel?”

“I’m in the middle of chasing down this authority problem that’s got my ass booted the last six times. I need more time.”

“Sounds good. What’s the key phrase?”

Key phrase? Oh, yes. “All authority figures are idiots. It’s easier to apologize than ask permission.”

“Sounds about right. Take another half hour, and then suspend it if you haven’t finished. Report to your supervisor in the morning.”

“Yes, sir!”

When I came back to it, that subpersonality was in a state of shock. It had been expecting the worst. I hit it while it was still reeling, and we got several new directions set up. Then I relaxed and went to sleep.

In the morning, I reported to my supervisor, as ordered. She went over it, in detail, with specific attention to my last few screwups. That solidified things nicely.

Chapter 5. Murphy Meets the Fairy Godmother Department

One of those odd little facts of life is that Murphy works for the Fairy Godmother Department. Most people absolutely don’t believe this, but it’s true - at least, if you can react fast enough, you can usually pull something good out of the screwup.

I’d spent a month getting integrated into Prince Andy’s household when the curve ball came.

“Steel,” Prince Andy said, “I’m going to assign you to Sandra Stone for a month. She’s got a special assignment coming up, and needs an assistant. Think you can handle it?”

“What do I need to do?” I asked, cautiously. Being assigned to Sandra wasn’t on the bottom of my expectation list for the simple reason that it had never occurred to me.

“She’s going to be our delegate to a technical conference on integrating police records. She’s also the US delegate, strange as that seems, and she’ll act as contact for the Dodecahedron if that comes up, which it will. So she’s supervising two sets of workers and juggling three different, and possibly conflicting, policy portfolios. She needs an assistant.”

I knew Sandra was up for integrator status. She occupied a completely anomalous position. Formally, she was still in the US diplomatic service, but she was advancing up the Freehold hierarchy rapidly, and was expected to make Princess in a few years. Integrator was high enough that she needed a household staff that got things done without detailed supervision. The assignment meant Prince Andy thought I could handle it.

Something occurred to me. “Am I going as Freehold or US?”

“What do you think?”

“Freehold, sir.”

“You need to formally immigrate for that.”

“Sounds good. What do I need to do?”

“I’ll take care of it. You complete the immigration course as soon as you have time. Meanwhile, the boat leaves in three hours. Pick up the tickets and paperwork at immigration.”

Sandra, of course, got a stateroom with her sister, who was acting as her maid. I got to share a cabin with our working delegates from Customs and Immigration, Justice, and Infrastructure, one each. At the Professional level, they all outranked me terribly. I got busy locating all the shipboard services and making certain my cabin mates could concentrate on either sightseeing or preparation. Meanwhile, I got to know Sandra’s sister, Amy. She was a cute kid, but had never been through the executive service polish course, and wasn’t really interested. She was either on her way up or out, and hadn’t made up her mind about which.

Freehold protocol is mildly complicated. There’s a formal title for every rank above professional, but they are never used in normal affairs. The exceptions are that the administrative head of a territory, and anyone on diplomatic business always uses their title, and, of course, Prince and Princess are always used. She was Countess Sandra to us, and Envoy Sandra to Amy. The ship’s crew preferred Countess; Freehold was closer, and they had the somewhat exaggerated respect for titles that is common among citizens of a democracy where there aren’t any.

We took a US military jet to the capitol of the country that was hosting the conference, and then a local jet the rest of the way. Sandra’s letter of credence from the Dodecahedron got us through customs like a greased pig. I was just as happy it was genuine; someone would be calling someone on up the line; and if it had been forged, we’d all be talking to the Guardian of the Gate before the hour was out.

No country has the diplomatic resources to maintain a consulate everywhere they’d like. The US is the only country that even makes a pretense of trying, and they don’t succeed. Every place worth it does have a consulate from one of the major powers, or at least a regional power, and they share diplomatic duties for everyone else. In this case, the major consulate was Great Britain, and they’d set us up with apartments and meeting rooms in one of the hotels used by other diplomatic legations. Amy and I spent some time getting to know the hotel staff.

Hotel security was very professional. I gave the security chief up to date ID pictures and profiles on each of us, and warned him that our three working members were from Freehold; please treat them as if they were from back country Mars. If he ran into a situation, he should please call Amy or me first, the Countess second. That brought up the obvious question; the Countess wasn’t? I reassured him that all three of us were originally from the US; I’d appreciate his security briefing. He didn’t seem too happy about that. I pumped him, and found out that the US had put its foot into something, or maybe just tripped over a mess, and there were some rather unhappy people locally, and rumors of a couple of terrorist groups looking to create trouble.

Expletives weren’t part of my executive servant persona. I grabbed my phone and punched in the Countess’ emergency number. She hadn’t been briefed either. I looked at the phone for a minute. Ask first before tripping over something. I punched in Prince Andy’s emergency number. He wasn’t real happy about being woke up, but when I explained, he said to hang on, he’d take care of it. Five minutes later, my phone rang. It was Princess Jeanette. She hadn’t heard either, and she was not happy about having her personal representative in that kind of situation. She was going to have an automated security blanket set up, with Dodecahedron security on call. It should be able to yell for help for riots, explosives and that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, get myself into the local security loop. I asked if I should tell the hotel security chief the magic word, I had an impression he knew more than he was telling. She thought for a moment, and then said to go ahead. The results should prove enlightening.

He was looking at me like I’d grown a second head.

“We’re taking care of it, Farad.” I said. “We’ve got an automated security blanket on the hotel, with a supersecret international security agency on call. It also covers all members of the Freehold and US delegations.” His eyebrows went up at that. “Well, Countess Sandra is also the head of the US delegation. I’m going to recommend she stays here and lets me pick them up at the airport.” Then I added, as if it was an afterthought: “She’s also the Dodecahedron representative, if it should come up at the conference.” He went white. Right, he was into it up to his eyebrows. I thanked him for his cooperation, and suggested that a conference with the police would be useful.

They’d set up a pair of diplomatic cars for us, with drivers. My driver was a nice kid who knew just enough English to be dangerous. Fortunately, airport and hotel were included in his vocabulary. I held him up for a moment with a question he didn’t understand before we got in. My phone rang. It was Dodecahedron security with the news that there was a bomb attached to the ignition. I asked if it would go off if I tried to remove it. His eyes bugged out at the question. He clearly knew more English than he was letting on. Security said no, they’d disabled it. I opened the door, pulled the hood release, and removed it while a rather obvious undercover policeman stood by. I handed it to him and watched him shake.

I met the British attaché at the airport, and we watched the plane come in and taxi to the gate. I told him that Envoy Stone apparently hadn’t been briefed on the local security situation. He said she was going to be surprised when she got off, then. I told him she already knew. His eyebrows went up. Right, someone had really gotten their hands in somewhere. I told him that Countess Sandra and Envoy Stone were the same person, which was why I was standing here chatting with him. His eyebrows tried to merge with his receding hairline. He said she was on the plane. I pulled out the phone and called Princess Jeanette again.

We watched the passengers come off the plane. The three representatives I knew about were there, but I recognized two others. One was an operations agent I happened to know; the other was a fair double of Sandra. At least, she looked close enough to be her sister. I called Princess Jeanette again with the information. She’d already spotted the double. In a moment, I had their names. Apparently, she was online to the Dodecahedron, or else Freehold security had facilities I didn’t know about. I decided it didn’t matter. One was a ringer, the other we didn’t know, but his passport didn’t have his proper name, and he was carrying some kind of weapon. Her instructions were simple. Do something. If this were Freehold, she’d be a ponygirl. Princess Jeanette would have to wait to see what the agent did.

I turned to the British attaché. “I’ve got an interesting legal problem. Countess Sandra has dual US and Freehold citizenship. The double on that plane is trying to impersonate a Freehold diplomat on official business, but this is foreign soil. I’m not certain what I can do legally.”

He thought a moment. “Your apartments have extraterritoriality. They are legally Freehold.”

“I think I’m needed back at the hotel. Good luck, and thanks for the assistance.”

I found my driver, and headed back. He’d apparently gotten new instructions, and got me there politely and efficiently.

I stuck my head in Farad’s office. “Farad, old chap. There is a second US envoy and a gunman coming. There seems to have been a mix-up. Send her up to Countess Sandra’s rooms, please. We locked eyes. He suddenly looked away, with the air of a man consigning his soul to Allah. He looked up. “Extraterritoriality, right?”


Now I needed to organize things with Countess Sandra, and wait. The hotel’s television system had a camera in the lobby. It wasn’t good enough to tell what the desk clerk was doing, but it would show our party coming in. They came, they got keys, and they headed up the elevator. A minute later, the door to Countess Sandra’s suite opened. They swept in with perfect aplomb. The servants left, and they discussed how they were going to get rid of us. They’d been expecting the hotel to have been demolished, due to terrorist activity. This had thrown their plans into chaos.

Sandra and I walked in. “Jim, long time no see,” I said. “Lucy Smyth.” They froze. “You’re on Freehold territory, and you’ve been discussing murdering a Freehold citizen. I hope you like wearing horseshoes.” I waved my hand, and they vanished.

Sandra said “Whew. I’m glad that piece is over. I think a conference with Princess Jeanette is next on the agenda.” The princess promptly appeared on Sandra’s system. I’d expected she’d be monitoring us closely. She discussed next steps with Sandra, and then turned to me. “Steel, what do you think needs doing next?” I’d been thinking about that. It was clear she wasn’t asking me about Sandra’s agenda.

“I think I can put the rest of the US delegation into the picture, and then shake up the local police to see what falls out of the tree.” I thought a second. “I need to know if those two are in a holding tank in the Ministry of Justice, or somewhere else, also, who I can use to confirm what happened. They’d have to be idiots to take my word for it. I also need the scan record on my laptop.”

“Good idea for the scan record. They are in the tank, and the ambassador is being notified. Use the British consul.”

I said: “Princess, Countess,” picked up my laptop and headed for the door.

I announced myself at their door, and they let me in. Clearly, they were totally in the dark about what had gone on. I introduced myself as Countess Sandra’s personal assistant, identified each of them from memory, and told them to sit down; there was something they needed to see.

“This is a scan record of something that happened just after you came in the building.” I let it roll on my screen. They were appropriately stunned.

Ann spoke up first. “Can you put the two women up side by side?”

“It probably could be done, but I don’t know how. I’ll put up their public dossiers, that should give you a good picture.”

They studied it for a while, then Ann said: “This is a royal mess.”

“This says the Freehold Sandra is Senator Stone’s daughter,” Stephen commented. “I think I heard something about that a few years ago. I know someone who knows the senator. I think we can settle this right now.” He picked up a phone and punched in a couple dozen digits. I only heard his end.

“Hey, Jimmy, Steve here, how you doing, guy?”

“Yeah, I’m out here at that police records conference. I’ve got a problem, and I need to speak to Senator Stone.”

“Right away, this won’t wait.”

“No, I can’t tell you. Just tell him it’s a royal mess, and I need him and no one else.” He listened a moment, and then wrote down a number and hung up.

“I need to wait while he calls the Senator.”

“Actually,” Jim put in, “I believe Steel Rivers here. There was something wrong with both of those two.”

“Huh,” Ann said, “What?”

“Well, it’s pretty well known in the Department that Sandra was posted to Freehold. She’s on the list for that embassy. She’s been there several years, and she’s the Ambassador’s general assistant. I’ve known several people that were there. They are the most meticulous, rigidly honest people I know. They would not cut corners or try to bull their way through. Freehold leaves its mark, and the Sandra we came with didn’t have it. Steel Rivers does.”

“That certainly fits with the front page, here.”

“What also fits is that she seems to have more pull on the Freehold side than the Ambassador. You want an answer; she can get it faster and usually more accurate. She never steps on the Ambassador’s toes, but the word is that she has more, and higher level, connections. Nobody seems to know why. That’s the answer, there.”

“That corresponds with my feeling,” said Ann, as Steve nodded agreement. “Now, how do we nail it down so we can be certain?”

“Should be time to call the Senator,” Steve said, reaching for the phone again. “Hello, Senator Stone? Steve Jones here. I’m calling from the police records conference, and I’ve got a problem that you can help us with.”

“There seem to be two of your daughter, Sandra Stone.” He listened for a moment.

“We came out here with one. The other one’s general assistant is here, name of Steel Rivers.”

“Yes, that’s right. She came out with us from Washington.”

“She was there for at least three days.”

“I see. Five days by boat, one more by plane. You talked to her in Freehold six days ago. I see. She wouldn’t have had time to get to Washington using the boat.”

“I see. That seems to be conclusive. You want to talk to Steel Rivers?”

“Yes, Senator. What can I do for you?”

“I met her on the boat. Before that, I’d exchanged a few e-mails, and saw her twice in her official capacity. They assigned me to her because she needed an assistant with executive level training, and I was both available and had experience outside of Freehold.”

“She told me on the way here. Do you really want me to repeat it in front of other people?”

“I thought not. To your other question, she tried to rescue Amy from the consequences of her misdeed.”

“I’ll ask the Countess if she’ll release the data to your office, sir.” I pulled the laptop over and stroked the board for a moment. The reply came quickly. “It should be in your office when you arrive. You can distribute it wherever you see fit.”

“Thank you, sir.”

She’d also told me not to bother shaking the police tree, and to see these three up in the conference room in fifteen minutes. The consular ball was in two hours, which was cutting it fine.

The rest of the conference passed without major incident. Sandra negotiated Freehold into the worldwide criminal records network on the exact terms Princess Jeanette wanted, without having to sign on to the extradition treaty. The working staff got the data protocols worked out, and tested on our side. Amy and I took care of all the details needed to let the rest of our two delegations concentrate on what they really came for.

I managed to complete the immigration course on the way back. When I hit Prince Andy’s apartment, I was more than ready to get back into the whirlwind of preparing myself to accompany him on his diplomatic rounds. What I found was Princess Jeanette waiting with Prince Andy.

“Good work,” she started out with. “The review board has kicked you all the way up to household slave; you’re out from under both the ponyboy and personal slave levels.” I stared at her. I hadn’t expected that for at least a year. “You also seem to have lit some kind of fire under Amy. She’s got her brain back in gear, and is asking what she can do to support Sandra better.”

“Isn’t she cutting her sentence awfully fine, Princess?”

“I’m inclined to cut her quite a bit of slack if she gets herself up to executive level support. Sandra is at a level where she needs it, and I don’t see a good way to put one of our people in the Embassy just to support her.”

“I take it you want to stay with Prince Andy?”

“Yes, Princess, if he still wants me.”

“Oh, I want you, all right. I liked what you did for Sandra, and someone who can handle multiple environments is exactly what I need. The thing is, you’re no longer a ponyboy, and so I need two - one for each of us. Or a team for a carriage; I’m not certain yet. That would let you drive while I get some work done.”

“By the way,” Princess Jeanette added, “you may not realize it, but executive level support is actually a professional ladder that goes all the way to Professional grade. If you want to stay in that profession, you might make it; you’ve got the intelligence and drive. You might want to switch over to politics or security, but I think executive support is actually your calling, now that you’ve got the idea that good support is whatever the situation needs, not whatever you care to provide. And we don’t really have a slot for an assassin.”

I’m afraid I blanched. She knew about that?

“We knew. The board was keeping you under very close observation until it became obvious that you weren’t going to go out of control. The final on that situation came two weeks ago when you didn’t ask for any kind of a weapon.”

I let out my breath.

“I’ve had it with your old department. I’m not certain what to do about it. I hope it doesn’t come to sending an assassin or two around to liquidate it.”

I stared.

“Well, if it comes to that, I know where to put my hands on three people with experience. If Andy decides to use a carriage, you’re going to get the two of them as part of the team. We can train them enough to pull a carriage by then, but they won’t be ready for anything else. If they can’t figure it out, you are not, and I emphasize not, to tell them they are allowed to use the advancement system.”

“Yes, Princess.” Then I’m afraid I burst out laughing.

“What’s funny about that?” I’m afraid she didn’t have much of a sense of humor.

“The irony. This started out with my pulling a wagon, now I’m the one driving it.” She stared, and then burst out laughing as well.