User:Jetfire/Spacer Oddity

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

A Spacer Oddity

Author: Jetfire

Colossus, 156 AL

Claude Barbeau floated in the observation dome of his mining ship, the ZMF Iron Maiden. The orange and red bulk of Colossus was growing slowly as the heavily laden ship dropped back from his stake in the Sporades, the forward trojans of the gas giant. He was still far enough out that the signs of man were invisible, unless he zoomed in on the equator of the planet. There, with the help of the Maiden's VI, he could just track one of the syphon stations, extracting hydrocarbons from the atmosphere and shipping them off in huge balloon rockets to the factories in orbit.

The rumbling that had been constant since he'd caught the first asteroid of this run stopped, and the ship VI popped up a final report in his view space. She'd finished crunching the last rock, and gave a final tally of what he'd extracted and which factories were offering the best prices on the markets. He let the real view get occluded with charts and prices, as he bartered and sold his haul to the ever hungry stations that were supplying the growing industries in the system. Most of the time he picked whoever was offering the best prices, but sometimes he went with others, paying off owed favours, or building on his own personal favour bank with the station owners. The Maiden calculated trajectories and offered a preliminary pattern to shoot the raw stock to the catchers. Claude reviewed it and authorized it, leaving it to the ship to negotiate with Colossus control to work out the exact paths.

A half hour later, he felt the ship shudder as the first load was released. He checked the planned launches once more, than left it in the VI's virtual hands.

"How long before I can leave for Rhodes?" he asked the ship.

"Two hours before optimal window."

"Sounds good. Wake me up in 90. I doubt I'll get much rest on station."

"Affirmative. Alarm set. Sleep well, Claude."

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The badger RIDE stepped through the airlock and onto Rhodes station. She was an older style RIDE, with little hardlight. Her armored body was in good shape, but showed wear signs around the edges of her armor panels. She was walking on two feet, fused around a partner.

:Gravity's at a quarter g. Standard for spacers. Just enough to keep things on the ground, while still putting a bounce in your step.: Digger said to her partner.

:Standard as you said. How do the locals seem? These guys have been in the wild since Zharus was colonized. Word on the space nets they don't take kindly to newbies,: April Morash asked back.

:A few things on the side bands. RIDEs are a bit sparse out this way, and Inties even rarer. But no one's doing much more than glare at us so far.:

:Well in that case…: April triggered a command and the badger opened up. Out stepped a woman dressed in a simple fuse suit. She had a stubby fluffy gray tail, and a slight muzzle, her skin dark with a white stripe going from the sides of her nose. Her fingernails were tipped with thick, sharp claws.

She took a few steps and breathed in deeply. The air was dry and had a slight oily taste, common to most well aged space stations. Rhodes had been the first station set up around Colossus during the early stages of Zharus's colonization. It was meant to coordinate the operations around the gas giant, to feed the needs of the new colony. It had grown ever since, becoming the main destination for Spacers in the Colossus orbital ring.

After a short hall, they stepped out into the core of the station, a grand promenade lined with shops and restaurants and bars. A few levels up, rooms were available for rent, and just visible over it all was a cleared roof that offered a view of Colossus itself.

"So is dad here yet?" April asked as they walked. They ignored the dirty looks cast their way by the natives. Unlike near Zharus space, RIDE pairs weren't common on the station, and the populace didn't care for what few were around.

"Checking… Nope. The Iron Maiden isn't due for a few more hours," Digger said after a momentary pause.

"So we have time. Can you find his normal haunts, or shall we bar hop?"

"I could probably find them, but it would involve a bit of cracking. Think I should?"

April shook her head and turned around slowly, arm outstretched. "Nah, we're here looking for dad, not looking to piss off Security. Let's see, Eeny Meeny Miny Moe!" She opened her eyes and started walking towards the bar closest to her finger.

The bar was almost literally a hole in the wall, with LED lettering over the door, pinned between a dispute negotiator office and a used parts seller. As the pair entered, the dozen people, fell silent and turned their way. There wasn't a RIDE in the group, nor an Intie, but there were plenty of artificial eyes. Everyone in the bar was borged out one way or another.

The pair ignored the looks and made their way to the steel-topped bar at the far end of the narrow room. April hopped onto a stool, while Digger nudged a couple more to the side to make room for herself. The barkeeper took his time heading their way; he had a replacement arm, skinned out in chrome.

"I'm 'fraid we don't have any Romulan Ale or Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters or any of those other fancy smancy drinks they serve planetside," the surly keeper said. "If you want that, there's a Planet Express down the hall."

April winced. "Ugh, not everyone likes those fake drinks. I'll just have whatever you call whiskey, on the rocks."

The barkeeper didn't move. "Gonna have to charge you double for it."

"Double? Why's that?"

"Cover charge for your robot there. It's taking up valuable bar space."

Digger and April looked along the bar, then at the rest of the room. It was barely half full, and there was only one other person sitting at the bar itself, leaving plenty of room for more people. April leaned in over the bar and locked her eyes with his. "Look bub. I may have just gotten off the shuttle from Zharus, but I ain't stupid. Get my drink, NORMAL price, or I'll call in all my RIDE and Intie friends what a wonderful bar you have, and you'll have more robots than you'll know what to deal with."

The staredown continued for a longer moment, before the barkeeper looked away first. He poured the amber liquid from a bottle into a glass with ice cubes and passed it over. "Can I get you anything else?"

"I'm good. I'll shout if I need anything."

April waited for the man to move away before sipping her drink. She shivered and grinned. "Mmm nothing like station stills. Better than the fabbed crap they sell back home."

"If you say so. You realize he's still charging you more than normal?" Digger tapped part of the bar near April, and it lit up with her current tab. "Not quite double but more than the usual markups."

She finished her drink and waved to the bartender. "That's fine. It's worth it. Another one good sir. And could you tell me, do you recognize this miner?" Digger projected a holographic image of the head over the counter between the three people there.

"Never seen him before." the bartender answered, setting another glass down.

"What do you want with Claude?" a new voice said. The RIDE pair turned to see a woman sitting at a table with a couple of bottles of beer and the remains of a platter of fries. Her eyes were metallic orbs in a head that was half flesh and half metal.

April slipped off the stool and walked to the table, Digger following behind her. She sipped her drink. "It's for personal reasons. We just want to meet him, and talk to him. You know where he tends to hang out?"

"I might. What's it worth to you?"

Without asking for permission, April pulled the chair out opposite her, and sat down. "Well, I could probably cover that meal there. And depending on how much you can tell me about Da, there might be more."

The woman snorted and laughed. "Da? You think Old Claude is your father? Someone's got a loose wire here, and it sure as hell ain't me."

"Yes, he's my father. It's taken a long time to track him down, but it is certain."

"No way girlie. Only thing Claude loves is his ship. No way he has any children. He doesn't even have any girlfriends."

April tapped her claws impatiently on the plastic table, creating small holes with her claw tips. "That's between him and me. Now, can you tell me where he might hang out? Or would you rather pay for your meal yourself?"

She thought about it, and waved to the bartender. "Fine, I still think you're nuts to think you're his daughter, but it's your buck. He always heads to Quark's first off when he comes in."

Digger smirked, "Quark's? Thought you guys didn't go for that TwenCen stuff out here."

The borged woman glared at the RIDE a moment before ignoring her. "Doesn't matter anyway. If you're his blood or not. He don't give a damn for family. Just for his latest hauls. And you're not gonna get a cut of that no matter what."

"Not looking for a cut. Just looking to meet the guy." April signalled to pay off her tab and the woman's tab. "Thanks for the info. Be seeing you 'round."

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The pair walked back onto the promenade and started wandering, staying on the edge of traffic.

"Well his shuttle isn't due for a few more hours still. What do you want to do next?" Digger asked.

April shrugged, looking around. "No clue. No point in looking for a room, or going into Virtual. We just got here after all, I want to see this place. What does Quark's have?"

Digger projected a directory page in front of them. "Standard fare. Alcohol, food, alcohol, games, alcohol, entertainment, alcohol and oh yes, alcohol. I'm picking up a theme for most of the places on this station."

April laughed and dismissed the page. "Well, it is a mining settlement. It's pretty common no matter where we go. Remember that place out in the Dry? Colossus just doesn't have the critical mass of people to offer much beyond refreshments and entertainment."

"I'm trying to forget those Dry dives to be honest. So I guess we're off to Quark's?"

"That we are."

Quark's, despite it's twencen namesake, was little different than any other place on the promenade. It took up multiple store slots across multiple floors, but its front was generic spacer. Most of the level they were on was taken up with tables, served from a big bar towards the rear of the room. A big hole in the centre gave a view of pool tables and other bar games the next level down. Faint music echoed down a staircase from a dance floor higher up. They claimed a table near the railing, giving them a view of the pool tables below, as well as letting them watch the doors. A waitress took April's order with minimal attitude, and the pair settled back to wait.

About an hour later, April was half zoned out, tapping her foot to the beat of the music upstairs, when she sensed her partner tense up. Digger was looking down at the pool tables. If she had a hardlight fur coat, April knew the badger's fur would be bristling.

"What is it?" she asked, following Digger's gaze. She saw a pair of Integrates backing away from a pool table. One was a lizard, while the other was a dog, both anthros. They were being confronted by a half dozen borged out locals.

"The guy in the lead is saying they hacked his systems, making him miss a shot that would have won the game," Digger said quietly. The Inties were surrounded, pinned against a table.

"Did they do anything?" April asked, pushing back from the table.

"Not that I could tell. They were having a friendly game by themselves and not even paying attention to those guys." The lizard yelped in pain as one of the aggressors grabbed his tail. He pulled away, the tail snapping off in the woman's hands, leaving a trickle of silvery blood.

"Why aren't they doing anything? Those guys are so borged out, any Intie should be able to have them dancing Riverdance with ease. Do they have DINSec?"

"Unlikely. It isn't common outside of Z-space yet." Digger winced as the lead fighter swung a poolstick at the canine Intie. It shattered on the dog's skull, drawing blood and causing the Intie to yelp in pain and cringe back.

"That's it. I've had enough." April swung over the railing and started slowly dropping down to the gaming level. "Hey idiots! Leave those poor guys alone!" she shouted, landing on the table behind the Inties.

"Stay out of this, Animal Fucker. This is between us and them," one of the fighters shouted back.

April saw red and flexed her fingers. "What did you call me?" she growled back.

The lead one shifted his grip on the shattered stick and glared at her. "You heard him. Animal fucker. You've got the fur and claws and tail and stuff. We don't want your kind out here, and we especially don't want your screwed up aniborg children either."

"It's a free station. We can go where ever the public can. Now go back to your game and-" April didn't have a chance to finish her threat, as something struck the back of her neck, making her see stars. Instinctively, she spun around on one foot and slashed out with her hand, feeling her claws tear into flesh and skid across metal under it.

The next few minutes passed in a red hazed blur. Instead of helping her, the Inties took advantage of the distraction to bolt towards the ramp upwards. It left her alone to deal with the remaining fighters. She kept the high ground as much as she could, staying on the table and kicking and slashing at anything that reached for her. Her claws scratched metal and tore flesh, while her boots crunched hands and noses alike.

Still, she was outnumbered and she knew it. Her advantages of surprise and high ground quickly gave way under the cybernetically enhanced masses of her opponents. She would slash at one guy, only to take a blow to her back, or her kick would be thrown off by a grabbed tail. She felt a stab of pain from her belly that forced her to fall off the table, buying her a second of painful recovery. It was just long enough to see the remains of a cue stick sticking out of her side.

The attackers loomed over her as she tried to recover enough to back away. She braced herself, for the final blows, but they never came. Shouts cut through the ringing in her ears, and some of the attackers were pulled back violently. She heard the whine of stunners, and another fighter fell to the side. April just saw someone in a Rhodes Security uniform before she blacked out.

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Claude walked into Quark's and looked around curiously. The atmosphere of his favoured watering hole was tenser than he was used to. He claimed his usual table at a window with a view of Colossus and noted the gaming floor was closed off.

A waitress stopped at his table, leaving a mug of beer. "Hey Claude. The usual? How's she hauling?"

"The Usual indeed. Hauling's great, Jeanette. Cracked some great rocks, letting me come back in early." He took a sip and nodded to the nearest ramp down. "What happened downstairs?"

She followed his gaze. "That? Just some groundpounders messing with a factory crew. Security's sorting it out upstairs with the ones that aren't in the hospital."

"The hospital eh? Must've been quite the brawl."

"For a six on one, it was. Three of them are in beds, and another should probably be with them."

Claude sipped his beer and scratched his chin. "Six to one? But you said groundpounders. Didn't the rest of them fight?"

"Nah, two of them were those strange borg types, Symbiants? Integrals? Whatever. They didn't lift a hand and skedaddled upstairs as soon as they could. Don't think the fighter even knew them. She came in with her robot and jumped right in to save them. She's one of the ones in the bed now."

"And the robot didn't help her? That's strange. Thought that was the point of them."

"No time for it. We'd already signaled security. By the time the fight started, we were already isolating. And the 'bot was on the wrong side of the fields."

"Well, glad I missed it. I'd rather not have my downtime mixed up in fights."

Jeanette smirked and started back to place the order. "You and me both. I'll have your plate out in a jiff."

Claude leaned back and put a foot up on the windowsill, watching the planet and the lights of ships go by. He sensed someone beside him, without the smell of fresh food. He turned and recognized the miner.

"Lynn, what do you want?" he asked the woman. They weren't quite friends, but were slightly more than passing acquaintances; they would share the time of day, but little more.

"Did she find you yet?... No of course not. She was in that fight. She's too busy to find you."

"Did who find me? Why would anyone want to find me?" Claude nodded to Jeanette who slid a plate onto his table.

"The crazy ground pounder with the robot. She was at my place earlier, looking for you. Had a crazy story, 'bout being your daughter."

"My daughter? Ha! That's impossible. Probably some scam artist. Don't worry about it Lynn; I'm not about to sign anything over to some wannabe child."

Lynn swiped a chip from his plate, "You sure 'bout that? She seemed pretty certain about it. I told her it was impossible, but she didn't believe it."

"Positive. The only lady in my life is the Maiden. Thanks for the warning, Lynn. Now git! Let a man enjoy his meal in peace."

The woman looked at him warily, then left quickly. Claude munched his sandwich slowly, thinking over her information and trying to figure out what angle the scammer was trying to pull. As far as miners went, he was firmly middle of the pack, not rich, but making enough to be stable. His claims similarly were purely average, with nothing of particular interest. Still, a memory of something nagged at the back of his mind, not quite coming into clarity.

"How's your meal? Can I get you anything else?" Jeanette interrupted his thoughts. "You're looking extra thoughtful today."

"Just another beer please. I'm thinking about what Lynn said."

"You're not putting much weight on her story are you? It's probably just some scammer from the rock, trying to pull one over."

Claude nodded and drained his mug. "Probably, but still. I'm not entirely celibate, Jeannie; we both know that. I'm just trying to figure out if it is even remotely possible. Would you mind sharing the surveillance feeds? I'd like to take a look at that fraudster."

"Coming right up honey."

The miner closed his eyes and shifted to a virtual view. He quickly received a message from the waitress with the surveillance record links.

Jeanette had helpfully queued the first links up to when the Zharusian had arrived. The view was one of the cameras over the door. It showed the woman with black hair walk in with a robotic animal as big as she was. The woman had a pair of stripes in her hair, that matched the colouring of her face, like she was tattooed, and she had a short tail with gray fur on it, though the view was too far away to get many more details. The robot looked old, even to his eyes; with almost no hardlight. The metal panels that made up its skin were well worn around the edges, and enamelled for further protection; gray on the body, white on the head, with a pair of black stripes that started at the nose and went over the eyes and ears.

He tracked her to her seat and watched the pair settle at their table. None of the camera angles gave a clear enough view of her face for him to study, but the memory was getting louder. Finally, he watched her leap over the railing, and the next camera caught a good shot of her head as she dropped down. He paused the image and zoomed in on her face.

The eyes drew him in, now that he could see them clearly. Spacers tended to augment their senses, especially their eyes, so unauged eyes were enough of a rarity to be noted. These eyes, set in a slightly pointed face, brought him back to another pair of eyes that snared him decades before.

He'd just been starting out, working a small claim in the Cyclades, the trailing trojans, and his first few runs had been less than stellar. With the threat of losing the Maiden and having to work in the factory stations looming, he had sought out a financial partner to stabilize with. Instead, he found a different sort of partner to spend time with, while putting his troubles to the side. They'd only spent a few weeks together, before breaking up; she returning to the planet, and he taking the Maiden out for what might have been her last haul, and life had rolled on.

"She does have her mother's eyes," he mumbled in VR to himself, letting the scene proceed. He watched her fight, noting how easy she moved in the lighter gravity of the station; she may be Zharusian, but she wasn't just a ground pounder.

Once security and the medics arrived, he shrunk the scene and did what he should have done in the first place. He looked up her name. "Morash. May's daughter. It all fits," he mumbled shaking his head. The realization was slowly sinking in, even in quick time, and he wasn't sure what to make of it. It was either the most extravagant fraud attempt he had ever seen, or he really did have a daughter he never knew he had.

Dropping back to the Real, he found a fresh mug of beer waiting, and Jeanette watching him, looking concerned. "You good, Claude? You look like you saw a ghost."

He took a swig and shook his head, trying to figure out his feelings. "I may very well have. You know where she was taken?"

Jeanette looked puzzled. "You want to see her? You think there's something to that story?"

"Maybe. It's quite the story. At the very least I want to find out why someone's going through all this trouble."

"Well, last I heard, she was taken to Deck 5's med bay. Our guys and Security have already checked those videos and decided she won't be charged. She was clearly defending, and didn't throw the first punch, or claw or whatever it is she has."

Claude took another long gulp to finish his mug and set it on the table before standing up. "Thanks Jeannie. I'll let you know what I find out."

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Awareness returned slowly to April. She felt that she was laying down, and her skin and body tingled like the start of a fuse. She opened her eyes slowly, and discovered she was laying in a bed, within a golden hardlight cocoon. Silvery speckles filled the air around her, only noticed at the edges of her vision.

She did a self check. Her implants came back green, though powered down to standby. Her head ached, but not painfully so. There was a big numb spot in her side that she resisted the urge to touch. Otherwise, her hands and feet and tail seemed to work properly with no other pain.

A black and white head popped up over the edge of her bed as she finished the self inspection. "Good! You're awake! How do you feel?" Digger asked.

"Considering I was beating up six borgs, surprisingly alive. What's the damages?"

Digger snickered, the bed shifting and easing her into a sitting position. "Not as bad as you might expect. No charges, and you came off mostly untouched. A minor concussion and some implants were knocked around a bit but they're back where they belong now. They're baking you up a new liver now, since your old one had a bad case of cue-stick."

"A new one? The old one was still under warranty." April looked down at her side, seeing a bandage and a few thin tubes coming from the numbed spot.

"Yes, but it doesn't cover stabbing damage. Don't worry, it'll be done within the hour and you'll be good to go."

"Surprised you didn't fuse around me to bring me here."

Digger sat down in front of the bed. "I tried, but they wouldn't let me. Said I wasn't qualified or something. Capable of changing a guy into a girl without thinking hard, and they say I'm not qualified to handle my partner from a normal bar fight. Oh well, that's spacers for you."

April nodded and closed her eyes a moment. "No charges? That's good. What about those Inties? Are they okay?"

"They're fine. The lizard's tail is almost grown back… But they're a strange pair."

"Strange how?"

Digger looked towards the door. "I'll let them explain. They wanted to say thank you in person."

On that cue, the door slid open, and the lizard and dog integrate walked in. As Digger had noted, the lizard's tail had already partly grown back.

"Hey you two. Good to see you walking," April called to them. "Course three to six would've been better odds than one against six."

The dog clasped his hands and bowed slightly to her. "Thank you for rescuing us. I'm not sure if we would have survived long enough for security to show up. I'm sorry we could not have done more to help you."

"Lots of pool sticks around. Even an untrained fighter can be surprisingly dangerous with just a stick."

The lizard shook his head. "That is true. But we could not have even done that. I am Seng, and this is my friend Luka. We have taken vows of pacifism. That is why we left Zharus in the first place, hoping to find peace and tranquility in the space between planets."

April closed her eyes and leaned back, hiding a laugh with a soft groan. "Pacifists. Great. So you probably didn't even hack them."

Seng looked shocked, his eyes widening. "No! Not at all! We could not have hacked them if we wanted to."

He stepped closer and tilted his head. April could see a green blob next to his ear hole, almost matching the colour of his scales. "Our DINSlots are plugged, on purpose. You can connect to these machines better than we can."

April decided to switch the subject. "Right, I see. So what brings you to Rhodes?"

"The same thing that brings most people to Rhodes. The desire for contact with others. And supplies," Luka explained.

"There aren't many Intie enclaves out here yet, and most of the groups are ones we'd prefer not to associate with. But we don't want to spend the rest of our lives in a shuttle. So we stopped here to have a visit. We did not expect our presence to be so hostile," Seng added.

"Spacers are a tight bunch, especially way out here. They've been growing mostly independently of Zharus since the system was colonized, and they aren't exactly friendly to newcomers," Digger said.

"We've noticed that. Still it was a nice enough trip before then." Luka sighed.

"You just have to keep your wits about you. And maybe think about heading back in system. Z Space and the Inner planets do have a lot to offer too," April suggested.

Seng nodded, "We'll think of it. But thank you for your help. I'm sorry you got so hurt on our account."

"Sure, no problem. I don't like bullies, and those were the classic types. Good luck, and be careful out there."

The integrates left, and April relaxed in her bed, the itching of the medical nanites beginning to annoy her now that there weren't any distractions. She checked the time and sighed. "I guess dad's already gotten in. So much for meeting him."

"He did arrive a short time ago. Judging by his records, he had a good haul this time. He should be here awhile at least. More than enough time to recover." Digger looked up and moved out of the way as a medic entered.

"Your new liver is ready, Miss Morash, if you are ready to receive it."

"Sure. Let's get this over with."

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Claude approached the med bay for the second time, trying not to seem nervous. He'd gone over right after Quark's, only to find his quarry had just gone into surgery. Not wanting to wait, he'd wandered around, lost in thoughts and memories. He'd queried for more information on her, but other than the basic IDs for her, her RIDE and her ship that she'd registered when she docked, there was nothing local. Her entire life was in the Zharus data sphere, which, given orbital dynamics, was about a ninety minute round trip to access from Colossus at the moment.

The medics confirmed she was out of surgery and awake when he returned. He debated waiting for his search agents to return, but decided he wanted to see her uninfluenced. As he walked down the corridor to her room, he could hear voices from the open door. One was human, and the other had a robotic accent.

"Take it easy, April. You're just out of surgery. No need to go rushing out too quickly," the robotic voice was saying.

"I'm not rushing. I just don't want to stay here any longer than I need to." The human voice faded in and out as if she was moving around.

Claude got close enough to see in the room. The back of the robotic animal was to the door, watching the young woman who was changing out of the hospital robe.

"Sooner we can leave, the sooner we can track dad down and figure out what we want to do."

The miner stepped forward so he was fully in the doorway and tapped on the frame. "Well I'm not sure if I'm your father, but you have tracked me down."

He had never seen a robot jump in surprise before, until now. The robo-animal leaped a couple deci's into the air and turned to face him in mid air, drifting down to land lightly on its feet. April also turned in surprise, her coveralls only pulled up to her waist. The three faced off for a second before April started half running towards him. She stopped short and hesitated, arms lifted, uncertain whether to offer a hand or a hug.

Claude lifted his own hand and took hers in a handshake. "Hello, April. I'm Claude. I understand you've been looking for me?"

April stood there tongue tied, her hand dropping back down when he released it. "Hi uhm… erm… .dad… I'm sorry, that's presumptuous of me. But I'm almost positive of it. Mom told me about you since I was a kid and…"

He held up a finger to silence her, while he looked her over. In person, he could see a lot of signs of May in her, partly hidden by the strange animal traits she had. He also recognized a few of his own habits and twitches already. He pointed to her bare chest after she fell quiet.

"What? Oh right, I'm sorry…" she babbled, pulling on the sleeves of the unitard and pulling it up. It sealed up behind her, and she tugged a shirt on over it.

"It's no problem. You suit up in enough air locks and modesty tends to go out the window. Now, I know you think I'm your father, but that's not a given. Even if it was true, you're old enough now that I wouldn't owe you anything. Not that I have much for you to claim."

She nodded, "I know. I just wanted to meet you. I'm not looking to get money or anything. I'm sure there's a place we can get some tests done, prove it one way or another right?"

"Just down the hall. It's part of the services the med bay offers," Digger said. She nudged Claude's hand. "Good day, I'm Digger. Formerly a Sturmhaven Armed Services RIDE. Now civilian and partnered with April here."

He hesitated then rubbed Digger's head. "Hello uhm Digger." He pulled his hand away from the warm metal and turned his back to the pair. "Right then, no point in waiting. Let's go get this over with."

A few minutes later, they were waiting in a small lounge just outside the main med bay. A technician had taken numerous scans and samples of the humans, and they were waiting for the results. Claude sat on a couch while April paced.

"What's taking so long? We brought all the records they should need to verify it," April grumbled as she paced.

"Patience, my dear. They have to validate the records, make sure they weren't modified. At least this isn't a Springer Clinic," Digger consoled her.

"What's a Springer Clinic?" Claude asked.

"The latest fad basically. They mainly do family tree consultations. But they bring you on a stage in front of a live audience, have you go through your history. Then they make a show over announcing the guy is your mother, or your sister, or uncle or whatever it was you were supposed to know. It's fairly popular in Aloha and Uplift back home," Digger explained distastefully.

Claude considered it, and chalked it up for another groundpounder weirdness item. "Yeah, we don't do that sort of thing here. Hell this place is just a radiation clinic, to check and see if you need to go in for some rad-repairs. Genealogy is just a side business of theirs. They probably had to look up the HowTo's for what we want to do."

"Exactly. Speaking of checks…" Digger walked over to April and reared back. Claude watched as the robot's metal skin cracked and slide open, revealing a silvery chamber inside. April's pacing turned into a small jump that twisted in midair, letting her fall into the chamber. The robot closed in around the woman, even as its limbs extended to accommodate her limbs. Its neck stretched enough to tilt the head forward, leaving the humanoid robot animal standing on two feet near the miner.

Claude shook his head; he knew of RIDEs and how they fused with humans, but this was the first time he saw it in person. The fused pair in front of him were robotic, without even the hardlight fur that was common with modern models. She was feminine, but not sexual, as far as he could tell.

"You're clear, April. The meddies did a good job on you, and your new liver's connected well," Digger said, her voice losing most of the robotic accent it had before.

"Good. Always preferred your meddies to the public ones." April said, her voice almost matching what she sounded like before, but having hints of artificial enhancement. Claude realized they were speaking aloud for his benefit.

"Do you do that often?" he asked.

"What fuse? Not all the time, but often enough," April replied.

"But why?"

"Freedom mainly. The ability to do things we can't do separately," Digger said.

"With Digger, we could walk out the airlocks without missing a beat. Radiation won't get to me, and other things," April added.

Claude thought for a moment. "You'd've blown through those guys with ease if you were paired up. Why did you confront them alone?"

The fused pair shifted their stance slightly, a trait he was quickly recognizing as a way to tell who was in control. "I hadn't planned on confronting them alone. I didn't expect the Inties to be a pair of sissifists. Vow of nonviolence or something like that," April grumped before Digger took over.

"By the time I realized she was truly alone, security fields had isolated the gaming area, so I couldn't get down there."

"Three against six was a fair fight in your eyes?" Claude asked.

April shrugged, "One intie against six borgs should be a cinch for the intie. I'm just a busy body who doesn't like bullies. I'm less happy with them, but that's their beliefs."

They all turned as the door to the labs opened, and a technician came out with a tablet. He looked started at the large badger waiting in the room now, but he recovered quickly.

"We've finished the tests, and while we can't know for certain without more info from Zharus, we're pretty confident in the results.

"There is a 85% chance that Miss Morash is related to Mister Barbeau. And a 67% chance that the relation is parent child. Congratulations…" He looked at Claude, "I think?"

An armored hand lightly thumped the stunned miner on the back, causing him to stumble. "You hear that Dad? I'm really yours. Let's go celebrate. Think Quarks will let us back in? I've got a new liver to test the warranty of." April asked, grabbing Claude's hand and pulling him from the clinic.

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It took some talking, and reassurances to get April back into Quark's, but eventually they were sitting at a booth looking out into space. After the initial awkward silence, Claude asked about her mother and her life. April described growing up at the upper end of the Alohan elevator, and her half brothers and other parts of her life. She let Claude do the asking, to give him time to adjust to the idea of having a child.

Finally, he got around to asking about the badger in the room. "As you've noticed, RIDEs aren't all that common out here. But even I can tell that it- she's an older model RIDE. What made you pick it-her up?"

April put a hand on Digger's head, scratching lightly with her claws. "She's old, but she's sturdy. She was Grandma June's RIDE during the war. Mom didn't want to have anything to do with her; that's what pushed mom all the way out here in the first place. But I got along with her well enough. When Grandma June died, she passed Digger on to me and we've been together ever since."

"Ah, I see," Claude noted. The table fell quiet as each pondered their situation. Finally, Claude broke the silence. "I guess there's only one other thing to ask. What the hell are you doing out here? You already said you don't want anything from me."

"I don't. Other than to meet the man who fathered me. Mom may have married Frank, but you still left quite the impression on her, not that she would show it much. I just wanted to see who you were, to meet you. That's all."

"Well you've met me. Now what do you plan on doing? Back to Zharus?"

"Dunno. We don't have anything tying us back there. Well family I guess, but I'm an adult now, trying to figure out what I want to do."

"And what is it you want to do?"

April suddenly got bashful, looking out at the gas giant just swinging into view again. "Well, uhm… well we… I was half hopeful we could go on a mining run. Just one run, a father and daughter trip, to see what it's like."

"No. Hell No! I'm a solo miner. I don't bring passengers, even if they are family."

"I wouldn't be a passenger. Digger and I are skilled. We've free mined out in the Dry. Unsuccessfully granted, but we did do some prospecting out there. We aren't pure noobs."

"Mining on a planet is a lot different from mining space rocks," Claude pointed out.

"Well we've also worked on Gamma-4, working some of the veins on that rock. And we explored on Alpha a bit, not that Alpha has anything worth a damn on it."

"I also contain a full geological analysis package, for analyzing and identifying types of ore. My software packages are top of the line, with a few tweaks I've added based on my own experiences," Digger added.

Claude sighed and shook his head. "Look, I'm just in from the field as is. And I don't need to go back out for at least a month. Go do your own thing 'till then, and I'll decide one way or another then."

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The weeks that followed proved fairly uneventful. April and Digger met with Claude occasionally, as he got used to the idea of having a child. Otherwise, they took their ship out to visit other stations and sights around Colossus, and met with the small RIDE and Integrate population.

A month in, they were hanging out at a Zharus-friendly club, when Seng and Luka stopped at their table.

"We're glad we found you before we left," Seng said after they exchanged greetings. "I would have hated to leave without saying goodbye and thank you one final time."

"Enough with the thank-yous. I was glad to help," April said. "But you're leaving?"

Luka nodded, leaning against Digger and rubbing her head. "We are. Going back insystem. Possibly to Minos. We've heard some chatter of an Intie group wanting to start up down there, so we're going to check it out."

"That hell hole? Good luck. Even with Hardlight it's gonna be tough," Digger said.

"That it will be. But at least we'd be among Inties, so it should be a friendlier bunch than here," Seng countered.

"Besides, we've heard someone may have found a big Q deposit down there. If we can get in at ground zero, we'd be set for life," Luka said eagerly.

"Honey, they've been claiming they found Q everywhere in this system. From the atmosphere of the star to the farthest reaches of the Oort cloud. None of them have panned out," April said.

Luka shrugged, "It only takes one lucky find to set you for life."

Digger signaled and soon a waitress was bringing a tray of drinks their way. "Well, let's celebrate a fond farewell at least. I'm sorry you couldn't find what you were looking for out here."

"Colossus is a nice space to visit, but it turns out, it isn't for us," Seng said, plucking a drink off the tray.

"Speaking of people Colossus wouldn't be for, there's some chatter on the Intie channels you might be interested in; being from Aloha and all that," Luka said after they had a quick toast.

"What sort of chatter?" April asked.

He glanced around a little, then shook his head and snickered. "Sorry. This just feels like the sort of thing that should be whispered. Word on the mesh is that some Appalytes are heading this way. A small group, but they could be trouble."

"Appalytes? What the hell is an Appalyte?"

Digger answered her. "A group of Inties from the Cave of Wonders enclave before it went public. They want to set up an Intie homeland or something like that. Tend to make waves in Aloha every so often but they've been quiet lately."

April shrugged, "Never heard of them. Sounds like a planet issue to me."

Seng nodded, "It's just rumours. Probably nothing to worry about, but you might want to keep your own receivers on the alert. Your DINSec up to date?"

"Got the latest patches a few days ago," Digger said.

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"I wonder what dad wants?" April asked. She and Digger were walking through the corridors of Rhodes, near the upper level of docks.

"Not sure, but I suspect he might tell us if we can come or not. There's been some cargo delivered to his shuttle that looks suspiciously like supplies for the next trip out. I've already made orders to resupply the Crescent if that is the case and he's bringing us along," Digger answered. "Have you thought about what we might do if he doesn't let us come?"

April shrugged, "I figured we'd cross that when we got to it. Probably try to hook up with a sponsor and go it alone. Our ship can attach to a basic mining rig. But it would all be a lot easier if we had dad's guidance and could piggy back on him a bit."

They walked into the room and found Claude standing at the far end, near a hardlight window. He was already in a space suit, a motive pack on his back.

"I assume you are space rated?" he asked without greeting.

Digger nodded. "Completely. We've spent as much time in vacuum as in atmosphere."

"That sounds like a slight exaggeration. Suit up, we're going outside."

The pair fused up and took a step towards Claude. "What's this about, Claude?" April asked.

He didn't answer as he turned to face the shield. The shield pulled inward, flickering around him and then the fused pair, leaving them in vacuum. He motioned them to follow him and took off, out of the station.

A half hour of silent flight brought them to an isolated sector away from the main travel paths. Claude held up his hand to stop them and finally spoke.

"Right. You want to be a miner. Colossus is pretty mined out to be frank, but it still has some decent spots, if you know where to look. For now, I'm willing to bring you with me… IF you won't be a dead weight."

April crossed her arms and purposefully oriented them so they were horizontal to Claude's vertical. "Fine, guess it's to be expected. Whatcha got in mind?"

"Receiving data… Displaying it now," Digger reported, popping up a side window for April, showing their positions and four rocks relatively near by.

"Your… Digger should have just received my data burst. While the rocks are real, they have simulated trajectories you're to treat as real, as well as the specs for the Iron Maiden. Your job is to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck before they leave our claim sector…. Starting now."

"Just four? Piece of cake," April said, as Digger went to work. The RIDE took over and flipped them around, finding each rock.

The RIDE's eyes glowed, filters and other sensors activating. Low powered lasers shot out, ablating a little of each rock and sending feedback.

:First rock, cometary. Lots of ice and volatiles.: Digger reported. :Second one, a rocky one. Looks like a good supply of rare earths, and titanium and other good metals. Third one, very interesting. A high amount of raw cavorite. And the final is another rocky, about the same makeup as the first one.:

:Check the markets, and rank them on how much we can get for them.:

:Within the limits Claude's set up, we have time to capture any two of the four. One of the rockies and either the cavorite or the comet one would be most profitable. Looks like there's a surge of ship upgrades being done around Zharus, and that's spiking a lot of prices in our favour. The Cavorite rock would be worth the most, especially with the metals…:

:I'm sensing a big But coming….:

Digger emoted a nod. :But raw cavorite needs specialized handling to process properly, handling the Iron Maiden doesn't have based on her stated specs.:

April signaled Claude, marking the two rocks they would grab. "These two. First the ice then the rocky one."

Claude didn't react. "Why those two? The other rocky one is bigger."

"Bigger yes, but if you go for that one, you'd only have time to grab the cavorite one. And that's more hassle than it's worth. You'd be spending half the profits you'd make from it on repairing your mining rig. Those other two together are worth more than the rocky one alone, or the rocky one and the cavorite one with repairs factored in."

He stayed quiet before starting back to Rhodes station. "We leave at 0800 tomorrow. We can fuse your ship up to mine and go get the rig. You're covering your own supplies, and I'll pay you both standard apprentice pay."

April let out a whoop of joy within Digger, which the RIDE kept muted, and the pair shot after the miner.

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At 0800, the two ships disconnected from Rhodes station and rendezvoused in a quiet sector. The Iron Maiden was an older ship, its plates well battered from the dust and rocks it had hit from countless trips into the field. April and Digger's ship, the Southern Crescent, was a brand new interplanetary shuttle, fresh from the Zharusian space yards. Still, basic space ship technology had mostly matured before humans left Sol system, changing little with the discovery of cavorite and FTL tech. The VI's of the two ships shook hands and plotted the best ways to hook up. Panels slid to the side, and modular components moved around as they approached. With minimal bumps, they kissed and fused together.

Once the combined ships indicated they were stable, April signaled Claude. "We're fully connected and green on our end. Permission to open up?"

"Permission granted," Claude replied. A few seconds later, she could smell a difference in the air. She moved to what was normally a dead-end corridor and found it continued into the Iron Maiden.

"We'll connect to the mining rig in a day, and it's a week out to my sector of the Sporades. Don't expect to spend all your time in my ship," Claude greeted her as she entered the Maiden's main living space.

"Didn't intend to. Digger and I have ways to stay busy. I just wanted to see what you had here. You're welcome to check out the Crescent if you want."

He snorted and turned away, his attention apparently focused on a blank bulkhead, though April knew he was back in virtual space. She looked around, assessing her fathers home and approving of it. Like everything else, the living space was well lived in; showing scrubbed stains, flattened pillows, and worn hand grips. But it was clean and tidy, everything in its proper place, and nothing out of place. She made a mental note to give her own ship another cleaning when she got back.

"So what can you tell me about your claim?" she asked, trying to continue the conversation.

He grunted again, but her implants picked up a shared data signal. She accepted it and the blank wall darkened, then lit up with a model of the Colossus system. The L4 Trojan field highlighted and a cube appeared in the middle of it.

"I inherited this sector from my grandma, I guess it would be after you were born. Our family have been mining this sector of the Sporades since the first Spacers showed up. It's one of the sweeter spots, close to the L4 point so the density is a bit bigger, and a good mix of rocky and icy asteroids to grab. Anything over 10k has to be claimed separately, but there's still more than enough small rocks to keep us going for years to come." Claude paused and gave April a long look. "Not that I'm planning on giving you that sector any time soon."

April held up her hands in surrender, "I'm not sure I want it yet."

"Good. Other than that, there's not much more to say. The big rocks for the most part are still unclaimed; it's easier to crack the smaller ones. There's a ranger base on Skopelos, and an abandoned colony on Skyros and that's it."

"Right. Then what do you want me to do while we head out? What did you do when you apprenticed with grandma?"

Claude hesitated a moment, then shrugged. A locked safe appeared and opened up, filled with paper charts. "Here's an analysis of the rocks in my sector, based on what the Maiden's compiled through the years. Start going through them and figure out what we crack first, and plot an efficient mining route. Have it ready for my review before we reach the brakepoint."

April gathered up the paperwork and slipped it into an envelope. She activated the send command, shooting it to Digger and her ship to start processing. "Aye Aye Captain. We'll have that for you as soon as possible."

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Life on the joined ships quickly settled into a routine. Claude was obviously impressed by the analysis April and Digger provided, pointing out a few details they weren't aware of, and considering their own reasoning for why they decided as they did. When they arrived on site, the first rock they tackled was one picked out by April.

April discovered working a claim was long periods of tedious analysis and trend watching, mixed in with moments of backbreaking labour. The mining rig provided a constant subsonic vibration through the ship frame that was impossible to ignore. When it stopped, it meant that someone, usually April and Digger under Claude's supervision, had to go into the guts to find what surprise Murphy had left this time. Other times the breaks were provided by the rocks themselves; they would have to head outside to get a closer look at a rock, and clarify sensor ghosts to make sure the Maiden's processors were ready for what they were about to receive.

Claude sat in his cabin, reviewing their next target. Due to a broken smelter that April and Digger had spent most of the day replacing, they wouldn't be ready to tackle it for a few more days, but it didn't hurt to look ahead. Especially when the target was exhibiting strange behavior.

He brought up the archived long distance scans and compared it to the recent scans. The pair of two km long potatoes appeared in the air before him. It was a rocky comet, an even fifty fifty split between volatiles and metals. The differences between the old and current scans were obvious. Straight line gashes cut through plains of ice, and deep holes dug into the metal and dirt lodes. The results were even more obvious, piled up neatly around a set of domes at the southern pole. The domes were opaque to the scanners, leaving a different type of hole on the screen, but there was no doubt what was going on.

"Claim jumpers," Claude growled, making one further check to verify what he already knew. The rock's path never left his claim space.

He shot a report to the Ranger base on Skopelos, summarizing his suspicions. He knew from experience it would put them on the alert, but until he actually saw the jumpers, it wouldn't bring them out. Once the message was off, he drummed his fingers on the table, pondering his next move. The jumper camp appeared to be deserted at the moment, and there was no sign of any active mining sites, but that didn't mean much. The Iron Maiden would get there in a couple of days, but he could get there within a few hours. He made his decision and headed for the airlock where his EVA suit and shuttle were.

Thirty minutes later, his comm lit up with a message from April. He opened the link and her holographic head appeared.

"Dad, where are you going?" she asked.

"I spotted signs of a claim jumper on our next rock. I'm going to take a closer look. Don't worry, it looks like the place is deserted. We probably caught them while shipping a load. I've notified the Rangers." He saw her expression flash between concerned and relieved and back to concerned as he spoke.

"Is it safe? Do you want Digger and I to come with you? We can still catch up."

"No, it's fine. Most of these jerks are cowards. I'm just going to do a flyby, get a better view of their camp and see if I can figure out who they are. First sign of trouble, I'm outta here. Besides, the Maiden's keeping the Rangers up to date with everything we see and say. They'll be here in a day or two if there's trouble."

April looked concerned, then resigned herself to reality. "Fine. Be careful out there."

"I will be. Don't worry, it's nothing I haven't done before. I'll leave the comm open."

He approached the asteroid cautiously, launching a couple of probes to keep an eye on the far side as he headed for the camp. As the earlier scans showed, the camp was deserted but not abandoned. He soon found an automated ice miner in one sector, and a rock crusher crawling back to the base with a load of material. The domes were small hardlight domes, big enough for a couple of people and not much more. They were opaque and tuned to match the surrounding area, making it impossible to get any decent readings of the inside. He was a few klicks above the domes and debating landing for a closer look, when April spoke up.

"That's strange…" she said, her focus looking away from the camera pickup.

"What is?" he asked, boosting his shuttle away from the asteroid out of habit. Spacers learned quickly that the proper response to anything out of the ordinary was to back away; even if the strangeness was thousands of klicks behind him.

"There was a flicker in the Maiden's systems. Digger's doing a check now," she said, sounding concerned. He was pleased to see she wasn't panicking, and that she was taking it seriously.

The hologram split and the badger's head appeared. "Everything's working as it should. But your data link to the Rangers flickered. There's a 5 millisecond lag now between what we generate and what gets beamed out."

It was Claude's turn to frown. He adjusted his course to take him back to the Iron Maiden, and sent a signal to request a visit from the nearest ranger available. "That's quick. What could be done in that time?"

"All depends on what's doing it. OK that's even stranger." Digger fell silent as she processed the results. "The signal's changed. We're still broadcasting, but it doesn't match what we're sending to the sender." She paused a moment and shook her head. "I just tried to turn off the emitter, and it isn't responding. I've stopped the data feed, but it's still broadcasting."

"Try the backups. Can the Southern Crescent get a signal out?" Claude asked, a chill running down his spine.

"Not the way we're hooked up. Between the Maiden and the mining rig, the Crescents primary and secondary broadcasters are both blocked. The Maidens secondary and tertiary emitters are not responding to my commands," Digger said.

While Claude and Digger talked, April was doing checks of her own. Her head bobbed in and out of view, her expression looking increasingly bleak. "Digger, trigger a disconnect. We need to free the Crescent up. Dad, do you have any Intie security on your gear?"

Before he could answer, a new voice cut into their conversation. "Now that's enough from the Meat. Dry! you guys are so slow!"

The holographic heads disappeared, and his controls blacked out, leaving him with just an outside view. The points of light moved as his shuttle turned around and recentered on the asteroid. He tried all of the controls he could find, but nothing responded as the asteroid began to grow in front of him.

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Digger reacted as soon as the new voice started speaking. She sent orders to the Southern Crescent, and started fusing around April. By the time their mental fuse link stabilized, their ship was completely isolated from the Iron Maiden.

"Can we break free?" April asked, doing her own review of the situation.

"Not without the Maiden's cooperation. The way our ships are fused, to separate forcefully would all but destroy the Maiden and severely damage the Crescent." Digger responded.

"Damnit. And Dad's got no intie protection, does he?"

"Nope. No DINSec, no Watchdog, nothing. The Spacers out here haven't realized the dangers of rogue inties like we have in system."

"How about expanding our own DINSec? Can we fab up some?"

"We have spares, but we'd need your father's access to get it into the core systems, and we'd need to put it into a dozen places on both the mining rig and on the Maiden. We don't have that access any more." Digger paused as she processed another request. "The Intie wants to talk. Shall we open comms?"

"Yeah let's see the bastard who's screwing with us."

Digger opened up a comm window in their viewspace, showing a bloodhound integrate sitting in Claude's chair. "Oh good, the meat and mech fused. That'll make this quicker."

"He's sending at max rate; I'm slowing it down so we both can understand him," Digger commented.

April nodded and looked out. "Who the hell are you? No never mind, I don't care. Get off our ship and return control of it and Claude's shuttle to us."

He took his time responding before shaking his head. "Even fused, meat is so slow… I can't figure out how you bots can tolerate it."

"You were human once too. And RIDE once as well," Digger retorted before April could catch on.

"Yes, but I'm enlightened now. I've ascended, to a level you can only dream of. When you eventually ascend, you'll understand. Until then…" The integrate shook his head and stood up. "I suppose I could give you my name at least. It's only polite and keeps us from having to delve into other name calling."

"Too late," Digger and April retorted simultaneously.

He continued as if he wasn't interrupted. "I am MacGruff. Or just Mac will do. And I can't release your ships. We're building our new enclave out here and your ships have been repurposed for our goals. You and your father are an additional bonus. With us, you will learn the ways of the Integrate and eventually head down the proper paths to enlightenment. I'm sure we could even pair your father up with a suitable RIDE for his path."

"Of course there is one little matter that is currently blocking progress. Those annoying little toys installed in your ship and in your RIDE. Open up access for me, and we can continue peacefully."

"Oh hell no!" April shouted back.

He clasped his hands and leaned forward. "If you are worried about being forcefully integrated, fear not. Short cuts like that create a flawed product that takes even more time to properly train. Under our guidance you will find the path to unity, but you will be allowed to walk it at your own pace. I just need access to your machinery for all our safety."

"Screw you and the rocket you rode in on. We're not going to give you access."

He took a moment, then brought up a model showing the asteroid and the approaching shuttle containing Claude. April and Digger could tell he was still accelerating towards it.

"I do so hate to lower myself to your childish levels, but sometimes it is necessary. Your father is approaching our little mining camp. Give me access, and he will land safely. Continue your tantrum, and we'll see him splash across the surface. Your call."

April tried to ignore the headache she was getting. Digger had ramped up the temporal compression to try and match the Intie's speed. It meant that mere seconds had passed in the Real since they had started talking, but the strain was beginning to wear on her and Digger.

"Why should I care? I just met the man last month. He didn't even know I existed before that. We don't have any mystical family bond that makes me care what happens to him. Hell, go ahead and splash him anyway. I am registered as his family now; it means I'd get his claim now." April ignored the shocked look Digger sent her way, trying her best not to show any tells.

Mac considered her thoughtfully. "I admit you are good, but I can tell you are lying. Still, I don't need you to call that bluff, when I have other options available."

:He's up to something. A dense packet of commands just went through the Maiden, but I can't tell what the orders will do.: Digger privately warned April.

:Nothing good I'm sure. Can you lower the compression down a hair? I'm getting a horrible migraine.:

"I love these Spacer ships. They still have many improvable elements, but the way they've designed them to be so modular, and the integrated fuse technology makes them so useful. You can rearrange the components as you want, to increase living space, turn a ship to a station, or to reprocess a particularly resistant element."

"April, we're moving!" Digger said, not bothering with the private channel. "The Maiden's shifting around us, pulling us back, towards the mining rig."

A diagram popped up, showing the ships as the configuration changed. Their own ship was already almost completely surrounded by Maiden modules.

"Anything we can do, Digger?" April asked.

"You can unlock your ship, and your RIDE. That truly is your only option," Mac suggested.

Digger shook her head, "Nothing we can do. The crusher's almost at our tail as is."

April sighed and considered their situation a moment longer. "Defuse us then. And unlock the Crescent. It's your body, you can decide if you want to risk letting him have access."

The badger didn't argue. The virtual view slowed down and April felt her friend release her. Back in the real, she felt and heard the low frequency rumble of moving ship parts. Behind her, she heard a hacking noise. She discovered Digger throwing up a silvery fluid that rapidly turned black. The RIDE shook her head after a moment, then tensed up. A crunching noise came from deep within her.

"Digger, what did you do?" April asked.

"Scrammed, then flushed my fuse nannies. Then crushed my nannie tanks. Just some extra insurance. I don't know about you, but I don't trust him to not integrate us. Now if he wants to do that, he'll have to get his paws dirty. You ready to hand it all over to him? I'm giving him my keys too."

April hugged her partner. "Do it. We'll figure out some way out of this."

The rumbling suddenly stopped. April looked around; there were no other changes to the ships, but she couldn't shake the feeling that another presence was in control now.

"Well that's disappointing. I gave you my word I wouldn't try to forcefully integrate you," Mac's voice came over the speakers. "But you had to go and make a mess of the floor and damage yourself as well."

"You haven't exactly been doing much to gain our trust," April shouted to the air. She refocused on her partner and hugged again. "You OK Digger?" she whispered.

"I… I think so… I'd forgotten what fetters feel like. I could feel him in my systems, but I can't tell what he did."

A new vibration started up, one they both recognized. The ship was moving again.

"Now that that's all taken care of, it's time to finish off my tasks. We've got a colony to supply after all."

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"It's been a week. Where the hell are the Rangers?" April griped, taking a break from monitoring the mining bots.

"Hard to say. I would have expected them by now, but you say Mac was modifying our transmissions, so who knows what they actually heard." Claude finished his bag of coffee and motioned for April to move out of the control seat.

Once the Integrate took control of the ships, he sent the humans and Digger down to the asteroid to take over the mining camp. He claimed he was putting them to work as the first steps on their paths to enlightenment, but April and Claude agreed he just had a sadistic streak bigger than the asteroid.

Digger, he kept heavily fettered, limiting her communication vocabulary to the command set of the mining machines. She worked the metal veins on the far side, only returning to recharge and never entering the dome, not that the dome had room for her even if she wanted to go in.

Claude and April shared the dome, which was only about ten meters in diameter. It had no artificial gravity, and the asteroid's own weak pull was just strong enough that things eventually settled downward. To keep them inspired to work, Mac kept the dome's life support reserves at a minimum; the more they pulled in, the bigger the reserve was, but they never had more than a day's worth in the tank.

"I don't see why he's having us use these dumb bots to mine this rock. The Maiden's mining rig could crush it up completely within a few weeks without us needing to lift a finger," April continued griping, moving to let her father take over. As a further 'learning experience', Mac had fettered their implants, keeping them around human baseline levels, and forcing them to monitor the mining operations through a physical console.

"Just another aspect of his sadism," Claude said. He took over one of the miners and had it scan the skies, looking for signs of rescue. "Didn't you say this could be part of what he was pre-integration?"

April pulled out a meal pack and activated its heaters. "Yeah, the bloodhounds were prospector RIDEs, originally designed to sniff out enemy camps, most became independent Q prospectors, looking for good mining sites. That meant long times alone in the Dry, with just his human partner. When he integrated, he must see that as a needed step or something. It's all crap regardless."

Claude focused on making sure the miners were heading to the right places, giving April time for a bite to eat. After a while, he spoke again. "Are all integrates that… well that strange? Granted I haven't met many, but of the few I have, most of them seem to hang out in the shallow end of the sanity well."

"That's one way to put it," April laughed. "And honestly, I'm not sure. I've met plenty of Inties since they went public, and I'd agree with you. Most of them do seem a bit special in the head. But I don't know if that's from the Integration, or from spending years hiding out in the desert, or from some other reason. That all said, there are lots that are just as normal as you and I, whatever that means. We just had bad luck to bump into some of the crazier ones."

"You know more about them than I. And you've been partnered with Digger even longer I guess. Aren't you worried you'll ever permanently join like that?"

"When they first went public, we were a bit worried. Nowadays, not as much. People are still sorting out the hows and whys and whats of integration, but as far as natural integrations go, they tend to either be emergency situations, or because you and the RIDE get really close in personalities, such that it's a natural extension. Dig and I talked about it a lot back then, and we realized that there isn't much chance of that. With Grandma it might have been possible, she still misses Grandma June horribly. But me and her, we're still too different. Alike enough to be great friends, but on the Integration index, we're still klicks apart."

"And forced integrations?"

"THAT is another matter entirely, and probably one of the few things Mac, Dig and I would agree on. You're forcing square pegs into triangular holes, with two personalities that probably don't want to mix in one head. Anyone with common sense would realize that can't be a good combination. Considering how much forced integration was going on in the dark days, that might explain a lot of the craziness we're seeing now."

Claude shook his head. "Yeah, it does sound nuts. I think I'll just stick with my VI's. Seem to be less dangerous overall."

April smirked, "Maybe. You should see some of the things they're cooking up on Laurasia. evolved VI's or something, RIDEs without the animal mind templates. VI's may be becoming as antiquated as the transistor at this rate."

"Hopefully I'll be enjoying my retirement before that becomes an issue for me."

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A few days later, their little mining camp shifted focus. Mac appeared on the screen just as Claude was handing controls over to April. The tent's systems slowed Mac's speech down to speeds they could understand.

"Well, for meat bags, you performed adequately. Now it's time to see the fruits of your labour. Order all the mechs mining to standby and ship what you've refined up here. We're going to your new home."

"What about Digger? She's still out at the pole." April asked, quickly realizing that the Intie might intend to leave her RIDE behind.

"Who?" Mac asked, letting a real pause show before pretending to remember. "Oh yes, your mech suit. Fine, order it back to the camp and we'll take it with us, if it gets back in time."

April wasted no time; she sent the recovery signals to the RIDE, and helped her father direct the bots to send the remaining resources up to the Maiden. An hour later, they lifted off the asteroid, clinging to Digger's sides, leaving most of the camp behind.

When they docked with the ship, Mac had Digger stay latched outside, while forcing the humans into Claude's living quarters. They found the connections to April's ship were sealed off.

"Probably figures I might have some Intie-proof surprises left on the Crescent," April grumbled after half heartedly checking the door.

"Do you have any?" Claude asked. He activated what he could and soon had a diagram of the asteroid field shown on the wall.

"Dunno. I'd have to see what he got into while we were gone." April sighed and wandered over to the kitchen area. "Your ship, you get first dibs on the shower."

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"Welcome to Skyros," Claude announced as they felt the slight acceleration of the ships' engines change. The display showed a round planetoid, about 500 km in diameter. "Largest rock in the Sporades. When the Spacers first arrived here, one bunch of them set up a colony dome on it, intending it to be the hub for operations here. But like many bets, it never paid off. Technology marched on, and Colossus's stations became the dominant force in this orbital, in the outer system even. The last people left fifty years ago, when their dome popped."

"Seems like someone else wants to take a stab at it," April said.

"Exactly my dear," Mac holographically appeared next to the ship. "We have claimed this planetoid, this region even, in the name of Appa and for the Integrated nation. Welcome to the Cave of Wonders in Exile. Your new home."

"Cowie?" April smirked. "You named your new home Cowie? Is there a bull intie in charge down there?"

Mac glared at her and flickered out. "Pallet controls are unlocked. Landing zones are marked on that display you love wasting your time looking at. Make yourselves useful and unload the ship. I need to go find some intelligent conversation."

"This would go easier if you unlocked our implants," April shouted to the empty air.

"Maybe. But you insulted your new home. You'll have to earn your remote controls back."

"But we're just simple humans. We aren't perfect. Aren't you worried we might dent your new home by mistake?"

"Consider it more training. People think Inties are a fusion of man and machine, but we are beyond that. We do not ask implants to do the heavy calculating for us; it comes to us innately, as easy as you might add two and two. Now get to work; there are hungry fabbers waiting for that material."

An hour into the transfer, they were surprised as a series of explosions rumbled across the landing field.

"What the hell?!?" Claude and April exclaimed in unison, immediately checking their readings to try and figure out what happened.

Moments later, the comms clicked on with a broadcast message. :Attention Appalytes! You've ruined your own lands you'll not ruin mine!:

:Naggy! Stick to the script!: a second, female voice corrected him over the channel.

:Right sorry. Damn memes. Attention Appalytes! This is Lord… I mean Commander Nagafen of the Pharos Rangers. Stand down your defenses and surrender!:

A new voice replied to them, unfamiliar to them. :Never! We have hostages and we're not afraid to use them!: A further burst of static hinted at more data than their hobbled systems could process, before the signals cut out.

"It's about damn time they showed up. Always looking for the flashy entrance," Claude grumbled, swinging their limited sensors around, trying to get an idea of what happened.

"Look! There!" April stopped him, catching some movement near the main dome. The remains of the original transluminum dome could be seen under the energetic glow of a hardlight dome. A pair of dark jets flew from around the limb of the planetoid. Defenses both outside and inside the dome shot at the pair, but seemed to have as hard a time tracking them as April and Claude did.

The first jet didn't slow down as it reached the dome. It lifted just high enough to miss it, dropping a device on it in passing. The second jet slowed, transforming into a metallic black humanoid robot. The device activated just as the second attacker reached the dome. It flared bright enough to trigger the filters, and when the glare faded, the device and second fighter were gone, though the dome pulsed with energy as it tried to restabilize.

"And now things really get interesting," Claude said, shifting the view around to try and find some other signs of the fight. They heard remote clunks echo through their ships, and the lights dimmed slightly. "Looks like Mac found our cracker controls."

"Anything anyone should be worried about?" April asked.

He shook his head, "Nah. It'd take weeks for the crackers to do much damage to the rock down there. And they move way too slowly to be a threat to anyone outside."

The lights dimmed again, and the scanners showed a beam of light shoot off into the darkness of space.

"Course that doesn't mean Mac's not stupid enough to shoot anyway."

The screen fritzed, and went out for a moment. When it returned, the signals were severely downgraded and responded slowly to Claude's commands. "Now what?" he grumbled, raising his hand before he realized he didn't have anything to bang.

"Dad, we should get into our suits. It is a war zone now. We don't want to risk Murphy," April said, tugging Claude's arm.

"Right, good idea… who's that?"

They both stopped and watched a face appear in their sensor space. It was a draconic face, white scales tinged with icy blue. She had ear frills and a pair of straight horns that extended back from her temples.

"Claude Barbeau, April Morash, are you unharmed?" she asked, her voice and imaging fritzing occasionally. It was the same voice that corrected Commander Nagafen.

"We're fine. Who are you?" April asked, forgetting her goal to suit up.

"I am Sub commander Vox. Second in charge of this rescue mission. I apologize we couldn't come save you earlier, but we-" her image disappeared in a cloud of static before returning. "Sorry, we can talk later. I am fighting the Intie on your ship for control of your ships. Is there anything you might be able to do to help?"

"Not on the Maiden, something I'm sure dad'll correct once we get back to Colossus. But the Crescent might have some tricks left. Can you free Digger?"

"Done. Please be quick. This is a tough fight. He's a few generations behind in Intie Info warfare, but he has local access to my remote access."

Her image fritzed out again, but the sluggishness of the systems still showed the ongoing battle. They heard bangs and clunks at the airlock. A few minutes later, the frosty badger RIDE was inside.

"Finally! I hate fetters!" Digger exclaimed. "And do you realize how hard it is to operate an emergency airlock with claws?"

April stopped herself from hugging her partner in relief. "We'll fix it up when we get back to Colossus. It's good to see you, and hear you too. How are you doing?"

"DINsec is reenabled and scrambled again. No Intie's getting in me again. I'm warming up as fast as I can, but my fuse tanks are still fubared. Whatcha got in mind, April?"

April frowned, "Right, your fuse tanks. I forgot about that. In hindsight, probably not our best idea."

"We'll work around it," Claude encouraged her. "What do we do first?"

"First, we get some privacy, and get our implants unlocked and protected. Then we'll figure out how to get our ships back."

"Privacy's easy," Digger announced. Hardlight stripes glowed brighter, engulfing them in a dome that opaqued itself. The humans found themselves partly pressed against Digger's slowly warming DE frame. "There, nothing in, nothing out, for as long as the dome stays up. As for the implants, yours are no problem, April. But Claude's could be. He doesn't have any DIN protection at all. And we don't have the time to try and hack a fabber to make some for him. I can reset him, but as soon as my dome goes down, Mac could read everything we did."

"In that case, maybe I should wait outside. I'll follow your lead as best I can, but I won't know the details so he won't be able to find out."

"No, that won't work, Dad. I need two people with hands for this. One to keep him busy, and one to reset the Crescent's Intie guards." April rubbed Digger's head as she thought.

"Keep him busy? That would be Digger's job I assume?"

"Yes, but she can't do it alone. Or at least not without hands helping her somehow. But her fuse chambers are busted…" April felt her thoughts quicken, feeling her implants come back online fully. She slipped into her personal VR space to play with some ideas. "I think I have an idea… Digger, haul in those two space suits. We don't have much time."

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Mac fought the dragon for control of the ships, both in VR and in the Real. He was holding the dragon off so far, but it wasn't easy. Losing the fetters on the RIDE had been an especially jarring blow, but it had let him refocus on holding onto the rest of the ship. In the Real, he used the point defense lasers and the slower asteroid crackers to keep the dragon at bay. The only reason he was holding her off in the VR was the minimal light speed lag advantage he had, mere milliseconds, but enough to keep her out of control. The lasers kept that advantage in his favour.

With almost all of his efforts devoted towards the dragon, he still managed to spare a cycle or two to ponder what his charges were up to. They were hidden within a dark hardlight dome, opaque to anything he could spare to look at it. Had he more resources to spare, he knew he could crack it easily, but the dragon kept him on his toes. Still, they were only meat and mech, imperfect creations. Nothing they could do could possibly defeat him.

The last spare cycle he had, he spent trying to tell what was going on, down at the enclave. There were only a dozen inties at the enclave. They should have been able to handle the meat and machines attacking with ease, but the reports seemed to be indicating otherwise.

He growled in frustration and unleashed another wave of laser bolts towards the dragon. She spun in space, dodging easily. "Stand still!" he shouted.

"And ruin an ideal distraction?" she taunted back.

"Distraction?"

He checked the hardlight dome and wasn't surprised to find it gone, and a hatch between the Maiden and Crescent had opened. Two figures were bolting down the short hallway between ships.

"How is that possible?" he briefly wondered, seeing Digger in fuse form. The other figure was in a space suit, its helmet opaqued so he couldn't tell who was inside. He tried to hack the suit, but was surprised to find it was protected as well.

"Dad! Keep him busy long enough for me to use my voice code to reset the Crescent's core," Digger shouted as they burst into the room.

"Stupid meat. Can't do anything without blabbing your plans," Mac growled, focusing on the Real enough to assess the dangers. The RIDE's weapons, shoulder mounted repulsers, were already glowing and firing at him. He dodged the blasts and jumped towards the RIDE. The human, clearly Claude, was irrelevant. Whatever surprises they were planning needed April or Digger to pull off, and they were both in one place and easily handled.

He tackled the RIDE, launching them back into the hall between the ships. He let her go and pushed away just before her clawed fingers dug into his belly.

"Resistance is futile. Why are you fighting? Integrates are the superior race. Let us guide you along the path to enlightenment." he asked, the strain of fighting in the Real and in VR slowing him.

Digger leaped at him, claws ready to dig into his belly again. "I don't like claim jumpers. I really don't like hijackers. And I absolutely DESPISE bullies."

He dove under her and winced as her claws scratched along his back plates. He twisted around and felt something change. The Crescent's core flickered, and a wall arose in virtual space, locking out his control of the ship. His surprise was enough for the dragon to break through. The Maiden in virtual space iced up, freezing him out of both the ship and the mining rig.

A heavy weight settled on him, and something clamped around his neck. "My turn. Give me Root or give me your neck. I'll take either of them," Digger snarled at him.

Shocked at how fast the situation had turned on him, he gave the RIDE access. He sensed her pass it along to someone else, and soon the dragoness was in his head, reading him his rights.

"You may release him. He is in my custody now," Vox announced over the ship's speakers.

The jaws around his neck loosened, and the weight backed off of him. He had enough freedom to sit up, but his legs refused to let him stand up.

"How?" he asked, too numb to speed up his speech. "I stopped you…."

"Didn't you?" Digger asked, grinning and opening up.

Claude fell out of her dull gray fuse chamber, wincing a bit in pain. April, still dressed in the space suit, but her helmet removed, caught her father. "You good Dad?"

Claude reached up and felt his ears, chest and finally his groin. "Yeah… but damn that pinched. How can you stand that?"

"Fuse nanites make a stronger connection. You don't feel the Real with the fuse overlays," April said.

Digger nodded, "A cold fuse like that was just like the IDEs. I could only connect to your implants, not the full mind meld a fuse would provide. Plus I couldn't adapt around you as much as I could normally. Since you're just a bit bigger than April, it meant an extra tight fit."

"Well, it was uncomfortable, and I'll probably be singing soprano for the next few weeks, but it worked. Nice idea April," Claude said, smiling to his daughter before walking bowlegged back to his ship. "Subcommander Vox, how soon before we can get this trash off our ship?"

"The colony is contained and in our control now. A friend of yours, Lieutenant Carter, is coming to collect the prisoner now. I'd do it myself, but I'm afraid I'm a bit beyond your scale."

"Dad, look outside," April called out.

A quadrupedal dragon appeared next to their ship, the size of a small two person shuttle. Her bluish white scales shimmered as she dropped her hardlight cloak. She waved a wing and dived down to the planetoid, passing a black plane coming up.

"Thank you for your help. I'm sure we'll have more time to talk once things settle down," Vox said as she left.

The plane stopped near the airlock, and a figure lifted out of the cockpit. It flew to the airlock and started cycling into the ship.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" a female voice called out as the inner lock opened.

"Granted, Jocelyn. Welcome aboard. Didn't know you did garbage duties."

An armored figure stepped out and removed her helmet. She was hairless, with various implants at her ears and replacing her eyes. The back of her head was a molded plate with more connection pads. She took in the situation quickly and relaxed slightly. "Well, I was in the area, and heard you had an uninvited guest you were looking to ditch. You should get your airlock checked out. Someone scratched it up horribly."

"My bad. Hard to work the controls with these digging claws," Digger said. She and April joined Claude, while escorting Mac. "How'd things go down there?"

"Like clockwork. They never knew what hit them. Sorry to leave you hanging for so long. I got your messages, but we couldn't do anything without tipping our hand. We've known about these guys for months, and planning to take them out just as long. It just took time to get the right guys here, like those dragons from Hali. Hope you weren't treated too badly."

Claude grinned, "Nah, not too badly, but Digger might disagree."

"You got that right," the RIDE said.

"Why don't you get this trash off my ship, and then you can come back up for beer and stories."

"That's a date." She put her helmet back on. It hissed and tightened around her face, showing a mechanical face of its own. She grabbed ahold of Mac, and shoved him into the airlock. "See you soon."

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The ships shuddered, and a block of material shot off. A few seconds later, it twisted in space before accelerating towards the moon-sized disk of Colossus.

"And there it goes. Your first sale. Congratulations, you are now officially a Colossus miner," Claude said, raising a beer bottle up.

"Thanks dad, couldn't have done it without you," April answered, clinking her own bottle to his. As an apprentice, April and Digger had earned a quarter of their haul. Claude had left it completely up to them to handle the negotiations with the factories, but he was impressed at the deals they had made. The story that had spread through the Colossus communities of their escape from the Inties certainly hadn't hurt their reputation value.

"You couldn't have done it? Without you, I'd probably still be in that damn Intie enclave!" he grinned and took a deep drink. "So what do you think of the family business? Integrates aside that is."

April grinned and savoured her own drink before replying. "It was good. I could see us, Digger and I that is, doing it. We can't quite afford a mining rig like you've got, but we've got connections in system that could probably sponsor us." She watched Claude's reaction carefully as she spoke, not mentioning a private hope.

Claude looked away and distracted himself with a few reports. "Right, sponsors. I'm sure you'll do great. You've got a good head on your shoulders, and an excellent partner there. Any idea where you might want to make a claim?"

"Not really. We haven't looked that far ahead, but I've got some ideas. Maybe find a fallow sector of the Cyclades, or maybe the rings of Ixion. Or maybe we'll take a risk and jump out system. The grapevine's abuzz about the increase in shipbuilding that some of the companies on Zharus are paying for. Rumours of a new system opening up."

"A new system? That could be interesting."

"It's all rumours, and probably as real as a generous Centaurian. But for a pair of unattached girls, it could be worth examining."

Claude took another deep drink and briefly considered his thoughts, debating if he was ready to propose what he was about to. He decided he was. "There is another option," he said slowly, watching April's reaction. She looked at him hopefully, and even Digger lifted her head to watch.

"That was just one run you made, an exciting run, but one run doesn't teach you everything. If you and Digger are willing, I'd like to keep you as my apprentices for a few more runs. It would give you a chance to build up a better nest egg, to buy your own rig."

"You would offer that to us? You don't have to. Digger and I can always fall back to mom on Zharus. There's no chance we'd end up in the factories," April said, testing his resolve, but her expression showing her hope.

"I am offering you that." He took a deep breath and decided to go for the bigger leap. "And if it works out, if we don't hate ourselves when it's over, I'd be willing to reregister my company, bring you on as a partner. Both of you. Stars know, my claim is more than big enough to support three people for centuries as is. Especially if we leave it fallow a few years to check out other opportunities that may come up."

April didn't wait. She held out her hand, "Well then, dad. On behalf of Digger and myself, we accept."

He held out his to take hers, only to be pulled up into a hug. When she released him, April turned away as if nothing had happened. "So, all that sorted out, let's park this rig and head in for some real food and drink to celebrate."

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