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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 6: All Aboard!

“You know, you really don’t need to guard me yet,” Zane said as he sat in the back of the Fuser-sized limo skimmer, with the Fused Myla and Sophie in the seat across from him. “I’m not out of the closet yet.” He was still wearing his tiger-Fuser disguise, as he had been most of the time he’d been out in public the last few days. He was starting to get thoroughly tired of keeping up the pretense, however, and was glad that it ended today.

“It’s never too early to develop proper habits,” Myla said mildly. “Besides, you need to get in some practice of listening to your bodyguard. I expect a bit more sense out of you than I had out of teenaged Quinoa. Or even allegedly-adult Quinoa, come to think of it.”

“You might be disappointed there,” Zane said, sighing. “The other day, Quinoa roundly chewed me out for being an idiot—and she was right.

Myla blinked. (Or maybe Sophie did.) “Oh, my,” Myla said. “That’s…unexpected. Is that what’s been eating you these last few days?”

Zane raised an eyebrow. “Eating me?”

“You haven’t had more than about three words for me when I’ve passed you in the hall. Seemed more interested in your feet,” Myla said. “For that matter, there’s a lot of that going around. Rhi and Shelley didn’t seem to be in a very good mood when I had them refit Sophie, either.”

“It’s probably related,” Zane said. “The other day I put my foot in my mouth big-time. Right along with my wallet. I was over there to welcome a new Integrate, and…” He filled her in, leaving out the specific details of what he’d said to Rhianna but admitting it had been patronizing as hell.

“I always just wanted to be able to do little favors for my friends,” he finished ruefully. “I forgot that my little favors weren’t so little to other people.”

Myla nodded. “Yeah, I thought it was gonna be something like that. Your heart’s in the right place, Zane, but you just have to learn to let well-enough alone.”

“Yeah, Quinoa made that pretty clear.” Zane rolled his eyes. “Myla, if you ever see me about to make that kind of screw-up again, I want you to whisper in my ear, ‘You remember that time when Quinoa was right?’”

Myla chuckled. “You got it.”

The hardlight skylight overhead flickered and vanished, and Quinoa’s voice drifted down. “Wow, my ears are burning!” Her head appeared over the skylight, keeping pace with the limo as she peered down into the car. “Nice to see you can take at least some advice.”

Myla tensed, then clenched her teeth. “Quinoa, don’t do that. What are you even doing here?”

“It’s all right, Myla, I invited her,” Zane said. “She’s coming along to the meeting as an observer for the rest of the Integrated. And yeah, Quinny, I can when it makes sense and someone pounds it into my head with a two-by-four. Thanks for clearing that up.”

“You’re welcome.” Quinoa drifted down through the skylight, taking a seat next to Zane. She smiled at Myla, then glanced back at Zane. “Given any thought to my other advice?”

Zane frowned. “Just this. Myla, until and unless we come up with some way to counter Inties’ powers, your bodyguard duties only extend to protecting me from non-Integrated threats. If you’re between an unfriendly Intie and me, just get out of the way. My chances are better than yours.”

“If Integrates are such hot stuff, why do you even need us at all?” Sophie piped up.

“For one thing, Myla’s instincts for trouble of any kind are going to be a hell of a lot better than mine,” Zane said. “I can’t stay out of trouble if I don’t see it coming. Even non-Intie trouble. And as far as non-Inties go, it would probably be best for all concerned that I don’t use my own powers in public as much as possible.”

“Makes sense,” Myla agreed. “But if you’re going to tick off Integrates, too, who’s going to protect you from them?” She glanced at Quinoa. “No offense, girl, but you’re not exactly bodyguard material.”

“None taken,” Quinoa said. “I’ve already told him I can’t protect him.”

“I’ll just have to hope I can find some other Integrates willing to help,” Zane said. “Or that I can learn enough to come up to speed myself quickly.”

“Good luck with that,” Quinoa said. She glanced out the window as the limo pulled into the parking lot of the Brubeck aerodrome just outside of Uplift. “So, shall we jet?”

“I still can’t believe you’re coming,” Sophie said.

“Hey, if he’s going public it’s going to have repercussions for all Integrates, including the ones in the Enclaves,” Quinoa said. “Since I’m hanging around him anyway, I might as well be our de facto observer so they don’t have to send someone else along and complicate things even more.”

Just an observer, huh?” Myla asked skeptically.

“I’m not gonna screw anything up this time,” Quinoa said. “Honest. But I need to be there.”

Myla looked at her for a long moment, then the Fuser’s eyes widened. “You’re worried about me, aren’t you? That’s what this is all about.”

“You always did see right through me,” Quinoa sighed. “Myla, Zane is messing with powers he doesn’t even understand yet. But he will. Oh, yes he will.”

“Maybe some powers need to be messed with,” Zane said. “I’m not going to leave our future in the hands of someone who sneers at ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies,’ no matter how powerful he is.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Quinoa said. “Let me know how it works out for you.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you’d rather transfer to some lower-risk position, by the way,” Zane told Myla. “We’ve got a huge security department with plenty of openings for people of your experience.”

“They say the safest place to be in a hurricane is at the eye of the storm,” Myla said. “Might as well stay.”

“But the safest place to be in a tornado is lying face-down in a ditch,” Quinoa said. “And in an earthquake it’s standing in a doorway.”

Myla looked at her, Sophie’s ears twitching. “What is that even supposed to mean?”

“As with most things I say, I have no idea,” Quinoa said, grinning. “That’s probably Quorra talking. My RI-half,” she claimed.

“Must be nice being an Integrate and having a built-in excuse for any time you do something that doesn’t make sense,” Sophie said. “‘It wasn’t me! It was the one-armed man!’”

Quinoa giggled. “Oooh, good ref! I’ll have to remember that one!”

“By the way, how’s Cindy doing?” Zane asked. “I’ve seen she was at your place the last few days.”

“She’s decided to call herself Cintally for now,” Quinoa said. “She’s going to stay in my place for the next little while, until she’s figured out how her powers work a little better and where she wants to go. I told her how to get to Terrania and J-Park so she can go check them out when she feels like it. She’s a fast flier, won’t have any problems getting there.”

Zane nodded. “Good. You tell her about my job offer?”

“I did, but she says she wants to keep her options open for now.”

“That’s fair.” Zane nodded, as the limo pulled to a halt just off the airfield. “Well, shall we head out?” He reached for the door handle, but Myla held up a hand.

“Wait. Bodyguard first, remember?” She opened her door and slid out, scanned the area, then nodded. “Okay, it’s clear.”

“I’m so relieved.” Zane grinned at her, clambering out of the car. Quinoa followed a moment later.

“So where’s our ride?” Quinoa asked.

“Right behind you.” Zane pointed at the huge cargo suborbital being taxied out of its hangar. It was about 100 meters long and 30 high, with a wingspan of about 85 meters with the swing-wings at full extension. It had the bulbous appearance of a cargo carrier, with huge dorsal and ventral bay doors one third and two thirds of the way back along the body and a flight deck bubble high on the nose.

“Wow, what on earth is that monster?” Myla asked.

“Proof of how badly I really did step in it,” Zane said. “I’ve never actually seen one of them this close before, but that’s the McDonnell-Nextus C-217 Starmaster I was going to sell to Rhianna.”

Quinoa stared up at it as it grew closer, craning her neck back to take it in. “Daaaaaamn.

“In my defense, it looked so much smaller on e-paper,” Zane said. “I confused it with one of those squadron-sized drop shuttles.” Myla looked at him. “Hey, they’re both military, right?” Zane said.

Quinoa looked at him, then looked back at the suborbital again. “Are you sure you’re fit to run a major corporation?”

“Sometimes I really do wonder,” Zane said. “C’mon, let’s get aboard. They’ve got their cargo stowed already; they’re just waiting on us.” The ship had rolled to a halt, then a hardlight boarding elevator appeared beneath the cockpit.

Myla nodded, leading the way. Zane followed. Quinoa brought up the rear, pausing just once more to stare up at the immense thing again and repeat, “Daaaaaamn.” Then she stepped onto the metal-textured platform with the others, and waited as it drew them back up into the hull.

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“Can’t believe he tried to give us a frigging Starmaster,” Kaylee said as the Fused duo looked through suborbital sales listings. “Qixi’s sub was only fifty meters!”

:Yep,: Rhianna replied. :But let’s just enjoy ourselves. I’m not really finding any in the used listings that works for us on our budget. They’re either way too big, or family suborbitals meant for weekend trips to Laurasia.: Frowning, she reluctantly brought up the listings for new subs, but before she could really get started a reminder went off. Lillibet was almost ready for her presentation. The duo de-Fused and left her home above the original Garage.

A lot had happened over the last few days. For one thing, Myla had brought Sophie in several times for more defrag sessions with Rochelle and Uncia, and for the hardware refit she needed to be adequate for Zane’s bodyguard work. The MRS had removed a lot of military equipment when they’d decommissioned her, leaving a lot of gaps to be filled. But fortunately, Brubeck Mining had been generous with its hardware refit stipend. While it wouldn’t cover “mod-jeweller” level hardware, the money would stretch to cover medium-high-end civilian and not-too-obsolete military surplus equipment that was in many cases just as good as and in a couple of cases better than the gear the fennec had lost. RIDEpaks, fast comms, medical gear…all things that might be particularly necessary for bodyguard work.

Also, Lillibet had cleared off all the work on her platter and gotten permission from Rhianna to go down to the RIDE auction and buy more to fix up. Rhi encouraged all her apprentices to do this, as it was a great way to learn the ins and outs of all sorts of RIDE hardware, as well as possibly turn a bit of a profit on a resale. Since Lillibet had more money than most, even with the strict spending limits she set on herself, she was prone to buy several at a time, and it had been a while since her latest batch. The new group had just come in, and this was what Rhianna and Kaylee were on their way down to see now.

And Rhianna and Kaylee had slowly cooled down from their anger since the last time they’d seen Zane. They still weren’t inclined to invite him to any parties—and they’d turned down his one last try at inviting them to come with him to his board meeting, which would be taking place today—but they were inclined to suspect that the next time they saw him they might manage not to bite his head off on sight. Perhaps given a few more days they might be ready to be friends again.

Rhianna and Kaylee stepped into the bay set aside for apprentice use. Lillibet had had her four latest auction finds delivered and laid out on the bay’s maintenance cradles for examination. She and Guinevere were inspecting them now, while four other kids about Lilli’s age, not Garage employees, hung back along the wall, out of the way—one behind each cradle.

The first was an old LNX(f)-LMA-002A unit, similar to Kaylee but with additional refinements to her metal body that showed she was a couple of years’ later model. The unit didn’t appear to be in too bad condition, but she was still only a couple of years down from Kaylee and looked hard-used to boot, which explained why she would have been in Lillibet’s low-end price range. :So this one is your daughter, rather than great-great-granddaughter, maybe?: Rhianna sent, amused.

:Oh, ha ha, very funny,: Kaylee snorted.

There was also a raccoon unit, of a fifteen-year-old Sturmhaven make often used for detailed industrial tasks—especially ones that involved cleaning and precision. Raccoons liked to wash things. This one was also female.

The third one was the only male in the batch, and really an interesting curiosity: a hippogryph. It was a RIDE with the back half of a horse and the front half of a giant eagle. They’d been briefly popular back in the early ‘40s, coinciding with yet another revival of a popular twencen children’s lit franchise, but they’d also been one of the first ever attempts at making RIDEs based on mythological creatures rather than real animals, and the RI cores had been prone to a number of annoying glitches. Rochelle could probably help with that, but she’d let Lillibet see what she could do on her own, first.

The last unit was another avian RIDE, apparently a condor. These types were frequently used for intelligence gathering or search-and-rescue because of their powerful wings and extended glide capability—they could ride updrafts for hours without needing to use lifters, and over the burning desert there were a whole lot of those. Like the others, she was over ten years old, but she was also in the worst shape. Half the panels on her wings were missing, and her tail and one leg were badly bent and twisted. It wasn’t surprising; avian RIDEs in good shape tended to go for the low to mid five digits, at least, but Lilli had set herself a hard upper limit of 5,000 mu for each “project” RIDE—not out of concerns over money, but because she could learn more from fixing beaters than buying good-condition units.

Rhianna glanced at the four teens lined up along the wall. These were the prospective owners, who Lilli would have brought along to the sales to have some say in the RIDEs she picked out for them. Rather than simply resell her finds, Lilli liked to place them with deserving neighborhood kids, giving both RIDEs and kids the friends they deserved, and a line on jobs that they could take to help their families. But as Rhianna looked over these four, she noticed just one little problem. There were three female and one male RIDE, but two boys and two girls—the condor had a boy behind it.

“You did get the parental consent forms this time, right?” Rhianna asked Lillibet.

The girl nodded quickly. “Guinny has them. They’re all kosher, boss!”

Rhianna glanced at Kaylee, who reviewed the forms and nodded. “Good,” Rhianna said. “Always best to avoid little incidents, don’t you think?”

Lillibet nodded again, quickly. Although Lilli always tried to gender-match the RIDEs to the kids who’d receive them, occasionally some kid didn’t want to wait for the right gender, or else fell in love with features or personality of a particular cross-gendered RIDE.

Recently, this had caused Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe (who were originally from Zheng He, one of the other Colonies) from a few blocks away to become rather irate when their 16-year-old son went out Christopher and returned home Christina, accompanied by a she-cougar RIDE. When they came to the garage with blood in their eyes, Lillibet quickly commed her Dad’s lawyer, and in minutes had an ironclad settlement letter for an amount (that Lillibet would barely miss from her allowance) sufficient to let the Forsythes buy RIDEs for themselves as well and start their own family prospecting business. (And Lilli had even given them comprehensive advice on what to look for in a RIDE, which they had accepted with somewhat dazed expressions. But at least Christina had been paying attention and taking notes.) They left satisfied, with their new daughter still protesting about their making a big deal out of a simple present from a friend.

It had all ended happily for everyone, but that hadn’t kept Rhianna from having about three different heart attacks over the course of the event. She now required parental consent letters for every RIDE giftee, especially the prospective crossriders. After the Forsythe incident, Lillibet hadn’t objected.

Remarkably few parents had declined to sign the consents, even in the cases that involved crossriding—especially when they understood how valuable and useful the RIDE their child would be getting for free really was. Most tended to regard it as an investment for the future, like saving up for college. And Lilli and Guin would go to visit any parents who refused and, with cuteness and charisma, could usually talk them around. There were only one or two kids who, sadly, had to have their RIDEs put in storage until they were 18, but even they weren’t too upset about it.

“So, what do you think about them all?” Lillibet asked. “Your professional opinion?”

“Hmm.” Rhianna considered the four RIDEs. “Well, if you’d been wanting to fix them up for resale…you’ve got some interesting picks. The LNX and the RCN are older units but solid ones. If they didn’t take too much work, you’d make a fair profit. Not big, but not high-risk either. Those types are always in demand.”

She glanced over at the condor. “That one, you’ve got the element of risk. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you can make good on something that beat up. I’ve seen ones not quite so bad off that I recommended pulling the RI and getting a new DE on. But that’s not considering the value of the experience you’ll get out of this.”

Lillibet nodded. “And the ‘gryph?”

“Well, that one’s a little trickier,” Rhianna admitted. “They’ve got a bit of a reputation for being…hmm…unstable sometimes. The first RI cores for fantasy types weren’t quite as intelligent either. It drives the demand down.”

“Yeah, I knew when I bought him I was probably paying too much,” Lilli admitted. “But he looked lonely, and Hugh took a liking to him.” She nodded to the boy standing against the wall behind him. “I told him he’d probably be trouble, but…” She shrugged. “He’ll be a challenge,” she concluded. “It’s no fun if they’re all easy.

:It’s a wonder how they kept the wings off the riders after Fuse,: Kaylee added. Days of memory defragmenting were bringing some interesting facts about the RIDE testing program to the surface and how she’d been constructed. Her rider kept very detailed notes and scrutinized them in close detail every night before bed. As yet they weren’t up to Anny’s first appearance, but the RI thought those memories were just around the corner. There was just so much to learn that had immediate application to her livelihood, and a lot of very odd engineering design choices to puzzle over and quite possibly fix.

“A challenge, yeah, that’s one word for it.” Rhianna chuckled. “Still, I’ll look forward to seeing how you do with him, and I’ll be around if you have any questions.” She grinned at the boys and girls waiting to get to know their new RIDEs. “And best of luck to you all, too. I hope you and your new friends are very happy together.”

The other kids nodded shyly, and Rhianna turned her attention back to Lillibet. It was really weird, but the more she saw of the girl, the more she liked her. She’d started out a bit spoiled, but since Guin had been untethered and able to take a hand in straightening her out, and she’d been able to spend time among more-grounded kids her own age, the girl had shown a remarkably even temper and a degree of sensitivity she’d not expected from a “spoiled rich kid.”

Lillibet’s father was more than pleased. Kenyon Walton knew his wife had spoiled their daughter utterly and hadn’t known what he could do about it without antagonizing her. That Lillibet had taken up her “hobby” on her own had given him the backing he needed to make it stick. She worked for every mu of her allowance now, and worked hard. (And if her “salary” was still about ten times higher than the ridiculous amount Zane had forced on them for making his DIN, well, it was the principle of the thing that mattered wasn’t it?)

That being said, she didn’t seem to care too much about the money, but neither did she go around giving it away to everyone in sight. She used it when she needed it, but mostly left it alone. And she’d never tried to bury Rhianna under an avalanche of it, either, Rhianna reflected grimly.

Was Guinny what made the difference? She wondered. Zane didn’t have that little voice to nudge him in the right direction since Terry was part of him now—and Terry had only come after he’d already grown up, anyway. It was an interesting theory, anyway.

Whatever the reason, Lilli was getting on very well at the Garage. She was popular among the younger apprentices, especially Paul, and a bit of a mascot to the older ones. She’d fully reconciled with Uncia, and could often be found in moments of downtime snuggled up with Uncia on one side and Guinevere on the other.

And she had a pretty good touch with RIDEs for someone so young. Rhianna sometimes wondered where she would be now if she’d gotten involved with them at that age. (Well, ‘he’ then.) Of course, she…he…wouldn’t have met Kaylee then…

Sensing the introspective turn of her friend’s thoughts, the lynx RIDE nuzzled Rhianna’s palm, purring. “Penny-unit for your thoughts?”

“Just reflecting on the importance of being in the right place at the right time,” Rhianna said, stroking the lynx mech’s head. “And Lillibet. Did you have any other thoughts on her RIDEs? Maybe know any of them?”

“You’re thinkin’ ‘bout the LNX?” Kaylee asked. “No. You know I mainly worked with one other partner RIDE back in the MRS. Least I think I did. He seems to be mostly in the memories I didn’t get. That one must’ve been inducted into the Service after I ended up shut in the parts shed. Maybe she even has some of my old parts in her now.”

“Worth checking out,” Rhianna agreed. “For the nostalgia if nothing else. You’ve got much better gear now.”

The RIDE revved her new sport-lifters. “You got that right, partner. In fact, she could use my old ones—well, new-old ones, know what I mean? I think hers were shot the way I read the prelim diagnostics.”

“Want me to wake her up first?” Lillibet asked. “Her name is…Katie. Wow! Check out her service record, Kaylee.”

The lynx reviewed her close descendant’s record. Inducted March 6, 125 AL, a year after Kaylee was shut down and forgotten. Twenty full years of service, assigned to three different riders over that span, in numerous shootouts, a few operations in the Dry Ocean, and more. Sold to a female Burnside prospector who’d owned her for the past eleven years. During that time she’d been heavily used day-in and day-out, accounting for most of her current state of disrepair. In the end, the prospector had been killed in a mining accident while un-Fused, so Katie was sold in an estate sale. A full rebuild would easily give her another thirty years of life.

Her new rider was a seventeen year old girl named Relena Packard, a neighborhood kid who had sometimes spent her summers hanging around the Garage, in-person or virtually via the public feed. While she didn’t have any interest in becoming a RIDE mechanic herself, she still liked seeing how they were put together, and had more of an engineering/design interest. She’d known who Lillibet was from the start, and was frightened of her. But it took a surprisingly short time for Relena to warm to Lilli. It was no surprise Relena had been interested in a LNX unit, as she had long been good friends with Kaylee and well-acquainted with the light RIDE’s specifications.

Now Relena stepped up, biting her lip. “Can I talk to her soon?” she asked. “I…hope we can get along together.”

Lillibet attached some cables to various sockets on the lynx’s head. She sounded very professional going over the checklist. “Running pre-boot diagnostics. Her core’s a hundred percent solid, no qubit or neural map decay. Substrate’s just fine, no quantum fractures or systemic superposition collapse. Just normal wear and tear for her age.”

“And her sarium batteries took a charge and are holding at 94% strength,” Guinevere reported. “Apparently had them reconditioned just two years ago, so there’s a piece of luck.”

“Makes sense, though,” Kaylee said. “You’re a miner in the deep desert, you can let most stuff go, but run out of power and you fry.”

“Her lifters are shot. The cavorite’s completely decayed,” Lilli confirmed. “So are half her internal enviro-seal emitters. I think she caught some major q-dust contamination just before her last rider uh…passed.” Lilli paused uncomfortably. “But we have replacements.” She smiled at Kaylee. “And…wow. I think these actually were your lifters. Check the serial numbers.”

“Wow. Wow! That’s amazing,” Rhianna said. “I never really thought, as many RIDEs as there were, that we’d find one who actually would have some of your parts.” She chuckled. “And just think…after we replace them, she’ll still have your lifters.”

“Fine with me. It looks like she used the first ones well,” Kaylee said, sounding a little choked up. “And they did last over thirty years.”

“I think we can bring her up,” Lilli said. “I wouldn’t recommend a Fuse just yet, not ‘til we’ve flushed and refilled the Fuser nanny tank and fixed her joints, but you can at least get to know each other.” She glanced over at the other kids. “Gina, I’ll probably bring the ‘coon up after that. But Hugh, Carl, your two are going to need some special attention, so don’t expect to meet them today. You can still hang around and watch us if you want, but don’t be disappointed if we don’t get to them. If you do want to go home and watch the feed, I’ll call you before we do any work on them.” The other girl and two boys nodded their understanding. “Now, let’s meet Katie kitty.”

Kaylee padded over to stand in front of the shut down RIDE, sitting on her haunches next to Relena. “Okay, Lilli, boot her up.”

Lilli pulled out a battered pair of interface specs and put them on. They were one of Rochelle’s old cast-offs. She could have afforded new and fancy ones, but she had said she wanted ones that “already knew what they were doing.” She’d been teaching herself to use them pretty well, and now she used them to log into Katie’s control panel and tap the power-up icon. “Rise and shine, kitty cat!”

The first sound out of the rebooted RIDE was a deep, sorrowful sigh. Her hardlight skin came on in patches, including only half her face. Katie looked between Relena and Kaylee, back and forth. “’I’ve got q-dust in my serrrvos,” she said, trying to move. Her voice was a lot like Kaylee’s, though a little higher, with a purring undertone. “Where am I?”

“You’re at Rhianna and Rochelle’s Cro—I mean, Freeriders Garage,” Lilli said, taking off the specs. “We bought you at auction to fix you up. This is Relena. She’s going to be your new…” Lilli considered choices of word. “…friend, if you’ll let her.”

Relena knelt down in front of Katie, putting her face to face with the damaged lynx mech. “Hi,” she said shyly. “I’m…sorry about what happened to your last partner.”

The joints in Katie’s neck made little grinding sounds as she tilted her head. “I told Nance to be carrreful. I told her that ledge was gonna give way. But she didn’t listen. She never listened to me. About anything.” She sighed. “Didn’t like her very much, but I’ll miss her.” She fixed her gaze on Relena. “So I belong to you now?”

“On paper, anyway,” Lilli said. “This is Uplift. We don’t much like that ‘belonging’ thing around here.” She blushed slightly. “Not anymore, anyway.”

The lynx’s eyes widened, the robotic one turning brighter. “Uplift? I rrreally have died and gone to heaven.” She looked at Relena speculatively. “Guess I’ll give you a chance, then.”

“Thank you,” Relena said. “I’ll try to be worthy of that.”

“Hmph,” Katie said. “Shouldn’t be a question of you being worthy of me. Young thing like you deserves someone shiny and new, not a crusty old reprrrobate like me. You should just wipe me and start over.”

“I’d never!” Relena insisted, wide-eyed. “I’d just as soon wipe my own grandmother. You’ve got a lifetime of valuable experience, and Mom always said I don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain—when it’s scheduled a year in advance. If you take care of me, I’ll do my best to take care of you.” She put her arms around Katie’s neck and gave the half-metal lynx a hug. Katie looked uncertain for a moment, then gave Relena’s cheek a lick with a hardlight tongue that was only about half there.

Rhianna grinned and rubbed some errant moisture out of an eye. Must have gotten some dust in it. Yeah, that’s it.

Kaylee chuckled. “Yeah, I think they’re gonna be all right,” she murmured.

Katie turned her eyes and looked at her predecessor. They had that look on their faces that indicated they were in the sideband, but started speaking aloud again quickly. Katie was completely awestruck. “Well, zero-zero-one, I have something of yours. They’re a little worn out, though.”

“They did the job they were supposed to, Katie,” Kaylee said, putting a forepaw up on the maintenance cradle, licking an immobile bare-metal forepaw. She looked like a mother tending a sick child. “You’re getting my hand-me-downs again, I’m afraid. But they’re good, solid units. They’ll double your cruise speed.”

“It’ll be an honor,” Katie replied, nodding her head as much as it could move. “Again. You know…you were a legend around the MRS Garage. Among us RIDEs, I mean. A few parts here, a few parts there. Saved many of us from being scrapped ourselves. Funny thing, they never told our rrriders where they got the parts. But we knew. We never directly talked about you or Anny at all. It’s like you were a ghost in the shed. How much sense does that make? Us believing in ghosts?”

Kaylee blinked, touched by the gratitude in the newer lynx’s voice. “Can you share what you have with me, Katie? I’m really curious what happened around the MRS after I was shut down.”

The duo paused, the broken-down RIDE’s bare eye flickering with laser light.

“Thanks, zero-zero-two. We’ll have you back in fighting shape in no time,” Kaylee said, head-bumping her “daughter”.

“Seeing you like this, I’m surrre of that!” the newer LNX said excitedly. As Lillibet started her restoration work on the raccoon, the lynx settled in. She turned her attention back to Relena. “Now, tell me about yourself, young lady. I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

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The inside of the Starmaster was as spacious as the exterior implied. There was plenty of room left over even after filling most of it with immense cargo bays, so the ship had an executive lounge/meeting room on the upper deck, with a conference table that retracted into the floor when not in use, and transparent aluminum windows all along the sides and top for perfect panoramic views. The cushy meeting chairs doubled as acceleration couches.

Myla ducked into the flight deck to chat with the crew for a moment, then came back into the lounge. Her tail and ears were twitching nervously. “I know I shouldn’t be, but this makes me nervous,” Myla admitted. “I haven’t been able to vet the crew or anyone around you, so I’m having to take things on faith. I was favorably impressed by your Carrie-Anne when I spoke to her in virtual, and you seem to have survived this long, so it’s probably not a problem. But I’m going to be spending a lot of time digging into files and interviewing when I get to your platform.”

“Interviewing?” Zane asked.

“Once you go public, one bodyguard isn’t going to be enough,” Myla said. “You’re going to need a whole squad. Fortunately, you’ve got plenty of security on-site to pick from. I might even know some of them. Carrie-Anne says you hired a lot of ex-Nextus military.” She smiled wryly. “She said that if I hadn’t been so anxious to take the first offer anyone made me, they might have hired Sophie and me after we got back from Towers.”

“Well, however you ended up here, at least you’re here now,” Zane said philosophically.

“And we’re glad to have you,” Quinoa said.

The seatbelt warning light went on above the conference room door. “Well, that’s it,” Zane said. “Let’s strap in and get ready to lift.” He buckled the conference chair’s harness into place, and the others followed suit. Then they were pushed back in their chairs as the suborbital’s industrial-strength lifters fired.

The flight was fairly short as flights went. Zane busied himself by going over his agenda for the meeting. Quinoa stared off into nowhere, apparently watching something on an internal display. Myla stared out through the viewports as Zharus receded.

As they reached the zenith of their arc, and gravity receded, Zane grinned. “Ladies and…ladies, your attention please. If I might direct your attention to the viewports, the show is about to begin.”

Sophie’s ears perked up. “Show? What do you—ooooh!” Through the viewport, the starscape began to slide to one side, as the suborbital slowly began to rotate to starboard.

Quinoa unfastened her straps and pushed off from her chair, floating up next to the huge viewport in the ceiling. “You know, it’s funny,” she reflected aloud. “I’d swear this size of bird was supposed to have artificial gravity.”

“Shhhh!” Zane hissed theatrically, and Quinoa giggled. Myla just shook her head in amusement.

Zane joined Quinoa at the upper viewport, while Myla and Sophie de-Fused and drifted to separate side windows to peer out as the planet rotated into view, spread out beneath them. The circular shape of Gondwana took up most of it, reaching all the way to the horizon to the west but with a lot more ocean visible to the east. The fertile ring of green around the coast made a marked contrast to the muted yellows and tans of the arid interior.

Zane drifted over to the window next to Myla. “See, there’s Uplift, where we left. Over there south of it is Nextus.” He pointed.

“They’re so tiny you can barely even see them from here,” Sophie said.

“Yeah,” Zane agreed.

“So where’s your platform again?” Quinoa asked.

“Around in that area. You can’t see it from here, of course.” He pointed. “It’s not far from the southern end of that subduction trench near the Western Wall, a few thousand klicks inward from the Aloha spillway. Same trench but opposite end of the continent as the Towers.” He briefly projected a hardlight map display in the air, with markers at the relevant spots. “The platform’s built onto a small peak off east of where it begins to slope down. We send mobile mining platforms out with RIDES to operate them.”

The sub continued rotating, and the stars began to come back into view again as it angled back to upright for the descent. The seatbelt light lit again. “Okay, everyone, show’s over. Back to your seats. We’ll be landing in twenty minutes.” Zane pulled himself back into his chair and strapped in. The others did the same after a moment, Sophie Fusing back onto Myla for the ride in.

Myla rolled back Sophie’s helmet for a moment to grin at Zane. “Thanks for that. I’ve been in subs before, but never ones where the view was so good.”

“You just have to know how to talk to the pilot is all,” Zane said, grinning back. “Enjoy the rest of the flight. Everything changes after we land.”

“And isn’t that a pleasant thought?” Quinoa muttered.

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Every Apprentice had their own personal project. Lillibet’s was more expensive than the others, but Rhianna did her best not to give the girl preferential treatment, or even the appearance of doing so. As the raccoon RIDE’s boot-up was proving more complex than Katie’s, she decided to check on the others to see how they were doing.

The other two who already owned RIDEs were busy upgrading them, simple enough. Paul, the teenager who was the object of Lillibet’s affections and didn’t own a RIDE, had taken to finishing up the towskim as his project. Though it had taken everyone to change the Deuce’s structure, one person could easily get most everything else installed and tested.

Rhianna checked project status via her cortical implant. The implant was actually from Old Earth, where they were pretty standard for almost everyone. Cybernetic enhancements were cheap and easy enough for any storefront clinic to install. She had upgraded hers for Passive fuse with Kaylee years ago. As a result she didn’t need interface specs like Rochelle did and could control most computers almost as easily as Kaylee. Let’s see…Damn. He skipped a step on the port nacelle thruster.

The Deuce had a simple square-tube design with stubby delta wings and forward canards. Hardlight did most of the aerodynamic work as was the usual on Zharus, so the shape of the fuselage was more driven by other requirements. The modifications had moved the thrusters and some of the lifters out to two new wing nacelles while the center fuselage now had room for a yet-to-be-installed tow crane. Young Paul Anders had shut the port nacelle ten minutes ago and started on the starboard—apparently without inspecting the port nacelle’s cavorite capacitor cycler. Rhianna’s implants told her there was a physical break in one of the wires leading into it that he should have seen if he’d looked.

Rhianna climbed up on the wing. The young man looked up, eyes roving over her breasts as he did. “Uh, hey teach. I finished the—”

“You missed something in the other nacelle,” Rhianna said. She remembered being a young man, and could hardly fault him for staring. “Just what, I’m not going to say, but if you find it and fix it you won’t get counted off.”

He swallowed. “Well, crap on a stick. I’ll go have a look, Rhi. Thanks for giving me another chance.” He looked at the open bay where his almost-girlfriend was hard at work trying to get the RCN back up. “What’s the holdup with the raccoon there?”

“She’s just a worn out unit. They worked that one hard. Logs say they didn’t shut her down properly on the last use—just let her batteries run dry.” Rhianna clenched her fists. “You don’t treat people like that. Starved her RI core. We’re lucky the substrate didn’t collapse and blank out all her qubits.”

“It’s like…how you don’t give someone who’s been starving a burger right away, right?” Paul said. “Screws them up.”

“Exactly! We have to raise power levels slowly or the substrate might fracture.” Rhianna checked her status link on Lillibet’s work. “But she’s got a knack for this. The RI will be fine.”

“Doesn’t she?” Paul said, almost glowing. The way he was mooning over Lilli was a little embarrassing to watch.

I hope I was never that obvious about it, Rhianna thought. The lynx-tailed woman had decided not to influence their growing relationship directly, so didn’t comment. It just felt very, very strange remembering being a young man swooning over a pretty girl, when her mind and body insisted differently now. “It looks like she’s almost ready. I’ll be in Bay Six with her.”

The RCN unit’s prospective rider was one Gina Martinez, a fifteen year old girl and an Uplift native with a direct link to the polis’s accidental founder, Dr. Roberto Martinez. The man had had the typical huge Zharusian family, with fifteen children over his century-long marriage. Her family was solidly middle class, but considered a RIDE an unnecessary extravagance. When Lillibet had offered this one, they’d hesitated on signing the consent form for days, claiming they couldn’t afford the upkeep or excise taxes. Nobody knew what the young woman had said to them, but their opinion changed.

“She’s ready for boot,” Lillibet reported, nodding at Gina. “Let’s meet our new friend.”

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The suborbital made its final approach to the platform on full burners, thrust vectored downward to kill the last of its re-entry velocity. By the time it was level with the huge suborbital landing platform halfway up the side, it was all but drifting under its pilot’s expert hand. Finally it hovered carefully into place and touched down on carefully-placed landing gear with barely a jolt.

Within moments, RIDE-clad workers and other heavy machinery were trundling out of bay doors along the platform’s side, attaching charge cables and gathering under bay doors to receive off-loaded cargo.

“So, think maybe you should stay out of sight?” Zane asked Quinoa. “If people see you here, word might get back to Uncle Joe you’re hanging around with me.”

“Good thought, though I’ll probably still unmask for the meeting,” Quinoa said, vanishing into a patch of nothingness as they boarded the elevator down to the landing pad.

“I remember when I came back here just after I met Terry,” Zane said. “Though that time we used the flier platform up there.” He pointed to a smaller pad higher up the peak. “We took a secret passage and popped out in the conference room to surprise the rest of the board.”

“I take it the passage has been secured since then?” Myla asked.

“Well, yeah,” Zane admitted. “We could still use it, but Carrie-Anne would know all about it.”

“Good,” Myla said. “Secret passages seem a little amateur-theatrical, not to mention a big security risk.”

“It was certainly a security risk for my old board,” Zane admitted.

“Whatever happened to them, anyway?” Myla asked. “I haven’t kept up with the newsfeeds in all that’s happened over the last little while.”

“They were sentenced a couple of weeks ago to ten to twenty for embezzlement,” Zane said. “The DA let them plead away the attempted murder charges.” Zane shrugged. “About the best outcome I could get under the circumstances. There were some public opinion issues with the way I bodyjacked them out, though by Nextus law I technically didn’t do anything illegal since they did have warrants out on them. Good thing I got those sworn out first. In the end, I basically sort of ‘amateur bounty-hunted’ them.”

Myla nodded. “Guess that’s a lucky break, then?”

“Yeah. Though I might have to be on my guard in a few years if they get good behavior.” He grinned at Myla. “Or maybe you might have to be on my guard for me.”

“Gee, thanks,” Myla said dryly.

They entered the platform through an airlock, and Sophie de-Fused from Myla in the air-conditioned safety of the interior. Waiting just inside the door were Carrie-Anne, a melanistic jaguar Fuser, accompanied by two uniformed security guards. “Hello, Zane. Good to see you,” Carrie-Anne said. “And Myla, Sophie, glad to meet you at last in the flesh.” She reached out to shake Myla’s hand. “And Quinoa Steader, yet,” she said, glancing at a spot of empty air.

“Hey!” Quinoa’s voice said. “How did you spot me? I’m invisible.” The security guards started at the voice, half-reaching for their guns, but they stopped when nobody else seemed to be reacting to it.

Carrie-Anne just grinned a toothy feline grin. “Jaguars are good at spots.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Quinoa sulked.

:So, it’s true, then?: Carrie-Anne asked Zane. :You’ve Integrated? You don’t look any different—even to my sensors.:

:I’ll show you once we’re in more private quarters,: Zane promised.

:I’ll look forward to it,: Carrie-Anne sent. There was something behind her speech…a sort of strange undertone, almost hopeful, almost fearful. Zane wanted to ask her about it, but then thought he should probably save that for the private quarters too.

“Come to my office?” Carrie-Anne invited. “We still have a few hours before the meeting.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Zane said. “Lead the way.”

The office wasn’t too far away—just down the hall to an elevator, and up several levels to the executive decks. The security guards peeled off to station themselves outside the doors of the roomy office as the others filed inside. The office was about twenty meters on a side, with a desk positioned on a raised platform along one wall with good visibility of the windows beyond. Comfortable furniture and potted jungle plants were scattered throughout the room, though not in such a way as to obscure visibility of any part of it from the desk.

A bank of hardlight security camera display panels hovered in the air above the desk, until Carrie-Anne waved an arm and dismissed them. They were mostly for show, anyway, Zane knew—Carrie-Anne and, supposedly, Audrey were constantly monitoring them in the virtual space inside their head wherever they were. Rather than sitting behind the desk, Carrie-Anne took a seat on one of a pair of facing sofas and gestured the others to do the same. Sophie arranged herself on a conveniently-placed RIDE mattress near Myla.

Carrie-Anne smiled at a patch of empty air, and Quinoa faded back into visibility within it, still looking sulky and muttering something about mechies. Then she blinked, rubbed her eyes, and stared at Carrie-Anne. “You’re…that’s…” She trailed off.

Zane glanced at her. “What?”

Quinoa shook her head. “Later,” she said.

Zane shrugged. “All right. So, what’s the situation?”

“Everything normal so far,” Carrie-Anne said. “The others aren’t here yet. Merle and Frisco Tillman are still checking on the new vein we found on the west side of the trench. They think it’s a double-A play easily, possibly even triple-A minus. They’ll be back in time for the meeting. Tex and Saul Fusco are still at the Nextus distro center and will be arriving in their own personal sub in a couple of hours.”

“That leaves us time to get some work in,” Myla said. “Carrie-Anne, we talked some about this in virtual. I’d like to review the files on your best security agents with a view toward recruiting some of them into a bodyguard team. Preferably ones who’ve already worked well with each other.”

“And with you?” Carrie-Anne asked.

Myla blinked. “With me? You’ve really got some people who I’d know out here? You said you hired ex-Nextus, but I hadn’t really dared to hope…”

Carrie-Anne glanced to Sophie, and the fennec RIDE perked up her ears. “Oooh! Myla, they do! She just shot me the files, and you’ll never believe who they’ve got!” She bounced up and down excitedly, lifters whining.

“Why don’t you take my desk to review them? I’ll give you full access to all but my private systems.” She waved a hand at her desk and the screens reappeared, this time set to Myla’s preferred configuration. “Comm me if you have any questions.”

Myla grinned. “I’ll do that. Come on, Soph.”

“Aww, I just got comfortable!” Sophie protested. But she followed Myla over to the desk.

As she left, Carrie-Anne turned back to Zane and grinned at him. “Now. Show me.”

“All right…” Zane said. His disguise vanished, leaving a much shorter tiger with gleaming hardlight lenses embedded into his fur and a larger lens-shaped comm device on his left wrist.

Carrie-Anne caught her breath and her eyes widened. She gazed excitedly at him. “So it really is true,” she breathed. An odd shiver went through her body, and she stared at Zane with an almost hungry look. “How…how did it happen? I need to know.”

Quinoa bit her lip, looking between the two of them. She opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. Instead, she sent to Zane, :Be…careful what you do here.:

Zane blinked. :What? Why?: he sent back.

:I…I can’t say,: Quinoa said. Then aloud. “Um…excuse me. I’m just…going to go help Myla.” She got up and drifted through the air across to the desk. Myla looked up at her and blinked, then shrugged and went back to staring at screens.

Zane shook his head. What was that all about? He wondered. Then shrugged. “Well, I can download you the memories if you really want to know. I already gave them to Sophie and Myla.”

She nodded emphatically. “Yes…yes, please.

“All right.” Zane reached out and took Carrie-Anne’s hand. His DIN flashed as he sent the memories across. He wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next.

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“Say hello to Jinkies, everyone,” Lillibet said, taking off the old specs again.

“Mmmy optics! Where are my optics?” the reactivated RI exclaimed in a crisp, precise voice, paw-hands waving around in front of her.

“Hold tight, Miss Raccoonie. I’m still running diagnostics,” Lillibet said. “The farked-up shutdown messed up a lot of systems, I’m finding alternate routes…”

“This sucks! Sucks!” Jinkies grumbled. Her eyes flickered on, a pair of blue slits on her pointed metal head, and her hardlight followed. She looked rather more like a cartoon animal than other RIDEs, having a bargain-basement hardlight skin—it was on Lilli’s upgrade list. “Oh, that’s much better! Thank you. Those idiots in Aerodrome Maintenance damn near killed me from neglect. Uh, who are you?” She turned her head to look at Lillibet. “Oh, my stars, I’ve been sold. But you’re…Wait, I know you! Well, I know of you. Seen you on all the celeb vids. Lillibet Walton. What am I doing in a maint cradle in front of Lillibet Walton?”

“Being mainted, silly!” Lilli said, grinning. “Er…maintenanced? Maintained.”

“Maintained is just fine,” Rhianna said. “Welcome back, Jinkies. You’re among friends and we’re going to put you back on the road—fetter-free, and hopefully in a home where you’ll be happy. Meet Gina Martinez.” She nodded for the girl to come forward.

The dark-haired girl had a reputation around the neighborhood for being a little cold. “Hello, Jinkies. I’m Gina. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The girl extended her hand amiably.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” the raccoon RIDE replied, taking it with a firm shake. “You know we—” she broke off as her gaze darted around the room. “Hey! These are DR-20 maintenance cradles! Really top-end stuff!” More looking around. “Pretty lights! But it’s soooo dirty in here!”

“You get a lot of dirt around places like this,” Lillibet said. The Garage had one bay that could act as a cleanroom environment if necessary, but it was rarely used. The other girl’s RIDE, the dust-contaminated Katie, would need to spend time in there to clean all her joints.

“Don’t like dirt,” Jinkies said. She looked at the girl in front of her. “You don’t like dirt either?”

“I tolerate dirt,” Gina said, sounding more like a thirty-year-old. “Dirt is necessary sometimes. It improves the immune system for starters. What I object to is too much dirt.”

“Well, what kind of dirt are we talking about here?” Jinkies asked in the same precise tone. “’Dirt’ and ‘dust’ are imprecise descriptions of a very complex…”

Rhianna turned away to allow the two to get to know one another. Gina had a scientific frame of mind, much like her great-great-grandfather. Her now-assured partner needed a lot more work, though. Her batteries were as shot as Katie’s lifters had been, never having been flushed or replaced for the raccoon’s service history. It was otherwise a matter of replacing normal wear and tear and upgrading her to “real” fur. Jinkies would be going home with Gina in a couple days at the most.

The last two of Lillibet’s project RIDEs sat in their cradles, waiting for the young apprentice mechanic’s attention.

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As he copied the memories over for Carrie-Anne to view, Zane experienced an odd moment of…backwash, he guessed. Or reciprocity. He wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not, but Carrie-Anne was sharing her—and Audrey’s—least few months with him, too.

After the old board had been captured, and Audrey had given herself to Carrie-Anne, she’d actually gotten over her feelings of guilt very quickly and arrived at a good working relationship with the RIDE. And after she’d discovered that the RIDE’s facilities for working virtually put the best interface she’d been able to use with her desk and implants to shame, she set up a “virtual office” in the RIDE’s cyberspace where she could get all her work done in peace, ceding control of the outer body and conversations over to Carrie-Anne.

Audrey would make and take calls, write reports and evaluations, and do all the other myriad little things she never had time to do without getting interrupted, and Carrie-Anne would act as her “secretary” in the real world, taking care of business for her and only consulting her on things that were too important to decide for herself.

With this arrangement in place, Audrey actually was able to do her work much more quickly than she ever had before. And she ended up with more free time. But after experimenting a bit, she discovered she was really rather disinclined to return to the real world. She didn’t really have anything to do in the real world. Her husband was long since dead, and her daughter was more or less estranged from her with a family of her own. Carrie-Anne could really get a lot more use out of her body in Fuser than she could outside of it. So she retreated to her inner world and read, viewed movies, played games, and otherwise occupied herself.

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that she eventually began to fantasize, imagining herself as a software program instead of a disembodied human—a subroutine that Carrie-Anne could feed data for analysis, and that would have no choice but to process and reply. What would it be like to be such a program? She wondered—and daydreamed.

It all started innocently enough. Carrie-Anne was fully aware of the fantasies, and touched and a little flattered. And she wanted nothing more than to make her partner happy. So she built a data structure for Audrey in their shared cyberspace—an adjunct to her personality core, with limited input and output channels and a command structure, that would simulate for Audrey what being such a program would actually be like.

When she proposed her idea to a visibly flushed and excited Audrey, the woman immediately accepted. And so Carrie-Anne sealed her into the structure (with an appropriate “safeword” command for immediate release) and began slowly feeding her sensory data for analysis, taking her thoughts and impressions through the output channel as the “subroutine’s response.” Audrey gamely began “processing” for Carrie-Anne—and loving every minute of it.

Carrie-Anne expected Audrey to grow bored with the game after a while, but to her surprise she didn’t—in fact, she got better at it. Carrie-Anne slowly had to widen the data channels, then remove all restrictions on them altogether as Audrey was able to feed responses as fast as the data came in. And they were useful responses, giving Carrie-Anne the benefit of the same instinctive analytical abilities that had made Audrey so good at placing new hires throughout her career. As Audrey spent all her time this way, Carrie-Anne found herself taking over her partner’s work entirely—but since she could perform it at lightning computer speed, including simulating a flawless Audrey avatar as she needed it, it wasn’t a burden.

Carrie-Anne frequently worried about her partner, asking if she was sure she wanted to spend all of her time doing this. But every time she brought up the idea of stopping, it so terrified Audrey that she simply stopped bringing it up. She knew that a psychologist might have felt it was imperative to break the woman out of her addiction to this fantasy world—but on the other hand, she knew every thought and feeling her partner had and understood that this was not simply some passing fancy or obsession on Audrey’s part. It was what she genuinely wanted to do with her life. Her family was gone, she had nothing else in the real world—but her existence in the virtual world felt so good, every second of every minute she was helping her partner, she didn’t want to give that up.

So Carrie-Anne effectively shrugged and let it continue. Besides, the analysis and feedback was so helpful and useful in doing their jobs that she was every bit as dependent on getting the analysis now in her own way as Audrey was in giving it.

But in a small part of Audrey’s mind that she didn’t share with Carrie-Anne, Carrie-Anne’s suggestions that they stop had caused her to worry. Since she only had access to the inputs Carrie-Anne was giving her, not her partner’s whole mind, she didn’t know but what Carrie might change her mind one day and stop, and that must not be allowed to happen. And there was a way to make it impossible…and as it happened, to cut out the last few millisecond delays in input processing altogether.

So one day, when Carrie-Anne was occupied with other things, Audrey extruded the tiniest portion of herself across the ever-thinning border that separated her from Carrie-Anne’s personality core. In her own mind, she imagined herself gently inserting her feet into a sleeping jaguar’s mouth and letting it slurp them in. As she’d expected, her connection to Carrie-Anne became that much faster—at least for the parts of her that were directly in touch. So after waiting long enough that she could be sure Carrie-Anne hadn’t noticed, she poked a little more of herself over the border…into the jaguar’s mouth up to her knees.

And Carrie-Anne still didn’t notice. Audrey supposed their shared interface was a blind spot—so much data was moving across already that she didn’t notice something else slipping across, too. It was lost in the flow, like a trickle of dye in a swiftly-flowing stream. Emboldened, Audrey slipped in deeper, up to her waist…her chest…her neck. She felt the reassuring warmth of her partner all around her, the data soaking into her skin and seeping out through her pores. She was processing for Carrie-Anne faster than she ever had before, and soon she’d be all the way in—part of her forevermore.

However, then Carrie-Anne finally noticed what had happened, and how much of herself her partner had merged into her. She nearly panicked—but when her panic fed into her partner, her partner fed it back out again as soothing calm, acceptance, desire…and the panic went away. But now that Carrie-Anne was aware of what had been happening, Audrey could slip within no further—but neither could she pull herself back out.

And here they were, stuck just on the threshold, neither sure quite where to go from there. Their shared process was now so fast that they were almost the same person…but not quite. And as much as Audrey wished to slip the rest of the way in, Carrie-Anne’s awareness of her there was still blocking the path.

But then Zane’s memories flooded through them. They watched him grow closer to Terry over time, and spend one last uncertain night on their own threshold of what they would become. And then, in one shining moment, they became it.

And in seeing it happen to Zane, Carrie-Anne and Audrey realized how to move forward from where they were. And, in perfect agreement, they did it. Zane’s last impression of the two of them was of a human face within a jaguar’s mouth, smiling beatifically out from behind the fangs. Then the jaguar’s tongue came up, obscuring Audrey’s face, the muscles rippled, and a lump moved down that furry throat.

And then, in the real world, Carrie-Anne began to shiver and shake…and melt.

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Lillibet checked the chron display in her interface specs. “Still about half an hour ‘til quitting time. That condor’s gonna take a whole day by herself, and I really want her body to be in better shape before we boot her back up, but Hugh, how about we go ahead and bring up your friend here for long enough to see what he’s like?”

Hugh grinned. “Hey, great!”

“He’s really in great shape for being sold at auction for so little,” Guinevere noted. “A little wear and tear, batteries not too great but not too bad either. RI core shows little degradation. Was there really that little demand for these?”

“His name is…Tocsin,” Lillibet said. “He’s named after poison?”

“No, it’s spelled differently,” Rhianna said. “With a ‘c s’, not an ‘x’. It’s an old word meaning ‘alarm bell.’”

“He’s a watch-hippogryph?” Hugh asked.

“Well, we could wake him up and ask him,” Lillibet said. “Don’t see any reason not to boot him up now. Stand back, he’s coming ‘round.”

The hippogriff’s optics lit up, and his metal beak opened and closed once or twice. He shook his wings, though there wasn’t enough room in the cradle to let him flap them, then looked around. “Where am I?” he asked. His voice was a metallic rasp—it would probably sound more natural if Lilli had brought up his hardlight projectors and other secondary systems, but she wanted to be sure his core worked properly before she did that.

“The Freeriders Garage in Uplift,” Lilli said. “We picked you up at auction, and we’re going to recondition you.”

The eagle-head swiveled to look at her. “To resell me for more money, no doubt.”

“No, actually we’ve got a partner for you.” Lilli nodded to Hugh. “Hugh Jenkins, Tocsin the hippogryph. I hope you two get along.”

“Oh.” Tocsin regarded Hugh for a moment, then shook his wings in a shrug. “Well, I suppose that’s better than being sold again.”

Hugh considered Tocsin for a moment. “Are you this enthusiastic all the time?”

Lilli grinned at Hugh. “Don’t worry, he’ll come ‘round.”

Tocsin opened his beak again, then apparently thought better of whatever he’d been about to say. “I guess…I can give it a try.”

Lilli beamed. “That’s what I like to hear!”

But then there was the whine of a set of sport-lifters from down the street, and an alert popped up on Lilli’s specs. “Oops! There’s my ride!”

“There? But I’m right here,” Guinevere pointed out. Lilli bapped her lightly.

“Time to say good night, Tocsin. I’ll be back to work with you some more tomorrow.” Lilli brought the hippogriff back down to passive mode and clapped Hugh on the shoulder. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a good one, but I need to spend more time with him to make sure he doesn’t have any hidden gotchas before I let you have him, ‘kay?”

The boy nodded. “Works for me. Thanks.”

Shortly thereafter a hover-converted red 1967 Ford Falcon Futura coupe parked at the Garage.

The ancient car was a curiosity and no more. There were a lot of that sort of replica flying around—some of which, apparently like this one, had even been made by painstakingly disassembling an original and fabbing an exact duplicate of each part before adding modern propulsion. But the person who got out of the driver’s seat made the entire Garage stop work. Kenyon Walton himself had arrived to pick up his daughter from school.

Drawn by the commotion, Uncia peered out from the door to Rhianna and Rochelle’s private garage. Then her eyes widened and she dropped to a low crouch, starting to slink backward, whining a little. But as it happened, the movement caught Walton’s eye, and he turned to face her, then came toward her.

Rochelle came to the door, then crouched to put her hand on Uncia’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Un-hon,” she said. “I’m here.” Though she didn’t seem to be in much better shape herself. Her usual poise seemed to have left her—even her hair hung flat and limp at this moment.

But as Kenyon came up to them, he squatted down in a crouch himself to face Uncia from closer to her level. “Uncia, I need to apologize to you, first.”

Uncia’s whining choked to a stop, and she gazed up at the billionaire unbelievingly.

“Lillibet told me all of what happened. Girl seemed to think it was all her fault, but it wasn’t. It was mine if it was anyone’s. If she couldn’t be bothered to read the manuals for her new toy, her father damn well should have made the time. If I had, I’d have known about those tethers, and I’d have…well, I don’t know if I can honestly say I’d have released all of them, knowing only what I’d have known then, but I’d certainly have released enough of them that you’d have been a lot happier, and could have protected my Lilli when she…” And it was now his turn to choke up. “I let my wife spoil her, but after all that…all that almost costing her life. When I saw her take an interest in RIDEs, I finally put my foot down.”

Uncia opened her mouth to reply, but for a change couldn’t seem to find the right words.

Kenyon looked up at Rochelle and continued, “And I owe you an apology, too, for indirectly contributing to your involuntary crossride.”

Rochelle waved it off. “That? That’s nothing. I’m native Zharusian, it’s hardly more trouble than changing clothes.” She grinned. “Besides, if it hadn’t happened, I’d never have met my best friend.” She gave Uncia a quick hug around the neck.

Kenyon inclined his head, conceding the point. “I also owe you a debt of gratitude for saving my daughter from infection by the nanites Uncia had—by taking the bullet in her place.”

“Well, I don’t know that I can say that, really—it was my program that caused them to get screwed up in the first place,” Rochelle said hesitantly.

“If they were vulnerable to one glitch, something else could have triggered them down the road anyway.” He waved it aside. “No matter. They were one of the ‘optional’ extras she decided she didn’t care about when I had her buy Guinevere herself.” He turned his attention back to Uncia. “I know you’ve already forgiven Lillibet, and that was big of you. I hope you’ll forgive me someday, too.”

He stood, dusting himself off. Rochelle followed suit, and Uncia got to her feet, still tongue-tied. Kenyon smiled down at her, then shook his head. “I always prided myself on caring about the well-being of my lowliest employee…but I never thought of RIDEs that way. That’s changed.” He turned his attention back to Rochelle. “I’ve heard you folks have a thing or two against accepting gifts from rich people. And you seem to have acquired one particular million-mu item from me already.” He chuckled. “So I’m going to limit myself to just one little thing I hope you both will accept.” He reached into a pocket and offered a small data chip to Rochelle.

Rochelle took it and slid it into her wallet, and blinked. “A…lifetime property tax waiver on Uncia.”

Kenyon shrugged. “It won’t buy you anything you don’t already have, but it’s one fewer thing in your lives you need worry about. Please take it, for her sake.”

Rochelle frowned for a moment, considering it. “If it were just something for me, or even a silly present for us, I’d hand it back. But it’s an insult and an injustice to have to pay ‘property tax’ on a friend. And you picking this as your gift means you get that, too. So in that spirit…we accept, with gratitude.”

Walton nodded, and offered Rochelle his hand. “Good luck, Miss Seaford. And Uncia.”

“Th…thank you, sir.”

He simply nodded to them, then turned toward the bay where his daughter awaited. He didn’t say anything else, like “If you need a favor, just ask.” That was understood by both of them without any need for either to express it.

As he walked away, Uncia finally found her voice. “Mr. Walton?” she said quietly. “I…forgive you.”

He turned and smiled at her, eyes bright. “Thank you.” Then he turned away and wiped discreetly at his eyes. “Are you and Guin ready to go, Lilli? I brought the Falcon.”

His daughter’s eyes brightened. She and her ocelot RIDE came out of the garage bay. “You got the hover conversion done on your own? Finally?”

“What can I say? You’ve inspired me. Of course it’s not the real thing, just the replica. Your mother really would kill me if I turned a 550-year old car we shipped from Earth into a daily flier. It was hard enough to get her to let me have it taken apart for replication.” He gestured for his daughter to come alongside him. Lillibet smiled and waved goodbye to everyone.

Only once the replica Futura lifted back into the air and headed for the Uplift Aerodrome did Rhianna finally come out of the almost-completed towskim, breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

Separator k.png

Myla looked up from her displays as the convulsing jaguar caught her attention. “What in heaven’s name—?” Then her eyes widened as she recognized the symptoms from that time in the Towers, then narrowed again as she turned her gaze on Zane. “You didn’t! Tell me you didn’t!”

Quinoa quickly put her hand on Myla’s arm. “It’s all right. He didn’t force Integration on them.”

Myla blinked and stared at Quinoa. “He didn’t?”

“Trust me, I’d know.” Quinoa smiled at her. “This is the natural way. Zane might have catalyzed it, by showing her the same memories he showed you, but it was just about ready to happen anyway. I saw it clearly a few minutes ago.”

Sophie looked askance at the rapidly-diminishing Carrie-Anne, then back at Quinoa. “He’s not…contagious or something, right?”

Quinoa chuckled. “No. No, he’s not. Those two spent their last few months growing together just like Zane did. It’s just our good luck to be here for the birthing pangs. Let’s go down and welcome her into this world.” She offered Myla her hand, and her former bodyguard took it. Together they went down to where a befuddled-looking naked melanistic jaguar-woman Zane’s size was sitting in a pile of silvery-black goo. She had no obvious hardlight lenses, but the darker fur of her rosettes seemed to have an odd fiber-optic shininess to it when looked at from the right angle. And there was something odd about her navel—it had a familiar-looking interface socket in it. There also seemed to be a power plug at the tip of her tail—the usual spot for RIDEs, but not as common for Integrates.

The woman looked up. “What just happened to us…to me?”

“Welcome to your life,” Quinoa said. “There’s no turning back.”

“You’ve just joined a very exclusive club, I’m afraid,” Zane said, offering her a hand up. “As a new Integrate, I guess we should call you Carrie-Anne-Audrey. Do you have a shower around here? You’re going to need a bit of a wash.”

Carrie-Anne cocked her head, then looked down at herself. “Just…Carrie-Anne I think. If you can be just Zane. She’s…” She smiled faintly. “She’s gotten what she’s always wanted. She’s one of my subprograms now, and couldn’t be happier that way. I think I could…let you speak to her, but she doesn’t want the distraction right now.”

“As long as she’s okay in there, that’s good enough for me,” Zane said.

Quinoa shook her head. “Wow, you really dodged a bullet. It’s not uncommon for Integrates to end up stuck in their Walker shape when the RI is the dominant partner.”

“I wasn’t dominant,” Carrie-Anne said, a touch sadly. “She was just…recessive.” She glanced back at the desk—then frowned. “I’m…off-line. I cannot connect to the network at all.”

“Um…yes, I’m sorry about that,” Quinoa said. “I’m afraid you are. Until you can get a DIN made, like this.” She held up the necklace on her neck. “Or that.” She tapped the lens on Zane’s wrist. “They’re our interfaces to the network. And you can’t just use one of ours because they’re all different. Personalized to the owner.”

Damn I wish I hadn’t pissed Rhi and Shelley off,” Zane sighed. “If I hadn’t, they’d probably be here right now and could make you one from the facilities downstairs. But you’re going to have to go either to her place in Uplift or to an Enclave to get one done.” He glanced at Quinoa. “Is there one near here?”

Quinoa bit her lip. “There are, but…with you about to go public and all, I don’t think it’s fair to draw fire onto any of them for helping you.”

“But that’s—” Zane began, then deflated as he thought about it. “—an entirely fair point. Damn. We could get you on a sub to Uplift, but the process could take hours, which means you’d miss the board meeting, and you need to be there. Will you be okay ‘til it’s over?”

“If I have to be,” Carrie-Anne said. “There’s just one thing.” She frowned and walked over to her desk, heedless of the slimy footprints she left in the carpet. She pulled up a hardlight keyboard and entered a code. “Myla, login here. I’m appointing you and Sophie pro tem heads of security with full access to all files.”

Myla stared. “Me? Us? Head of security for a whole corporation?

“For the few hours it will take until I can be whole again,” Carrie-Anne said. “The job needs someone who has full net access. I…do not. And you’re the only one who does who knows about…all of this.” She waved a hand at herself, Zane, and Quinoa.

“As long as you take the job back when you’ve got your DIN. I don’t have the experience or qualifications to do something like this for real,” Myla said, coming over to enter her biometric scan for verification.

“Don’t worry. We won’t keep you in it that long, no matter what happens.” Carrie-Anne turned back to Zane and Quinoa, then looked down at herself again. “Ugh. Slime. I’m going to go rinse this off.”

As she left the room, Quinoa shook her head and looked at Zane. “Boy, there’s just never a dull moment with you, is there?”

Zane threw up his hands. “All I can say is, Murphy, whatever I did to get on your bad side, I’m really sorry and I promise I won’t do it again.”

Myla sighed. “Well, at least now we’ll be able to view everything while review those personnel files. Sophie, can you grok Carrie-Anne’s files and get up to speed on anything that needs special attention?”

The fennec nodded. “On it!”

Zane sank down on one of the sofas and wondered what else could go wrong today. Though very carefully did not say so aloud. It was just a few hours until the meeting. Surely things would be okay until then, right?

Preceded by:
Integration Part V: N00bs
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part VII: A Meating of the Board