User:Robotech Master/DISSOLVE TO

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Author: JonBuck and Robotech_Master

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This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of fade_in_trilogy.*

July 20, 156 AL


With Zane Brubeck’s public revelation of Integrates, the Show was on indefinite hiatus while certain sticky legal issues were worked out. Cape Nord’s City Fathers had barely begun to debate what should be done about the formerly secret Integrates living among them. It wasn’t so much the hundred or so residents as it was the nearly three hundred persistent Cover Personas they had created.

The Enclave was already being peppered with dozens of lawsuits for fraud, four (so far) of which were directed at the Goldman & Cattano Detective Agency. Whether criminal charges were also forthcoming was still undecided. The Enclave was technically established in “stolen cavern volume” even though they’d carved out the place themselves. Then there were all the falsified IDs, business records, who was responsible for what. Typical of Cape Nord the Man Card points and ranks were the most controversial of all.

Most of the Show’s cast crossplayed at one time or another, playing a role of the opposite sex in a hardlight glamor. Tallyhawk (formerly APD Detective Mitch Gardner) knew she would be called to account. Goldman held the status of True Nordsman—there were only thirty thousand of those in a polity of tens of millions. A True Nordsman was quite literally secure in his masculinity. Once attained, only in specific circumstances, individually judged, could it be revoked and the Man made a woman or exiled.

It only mattered to Tallyhawk because the revocation of Goldman’s Man Card would make the role more difficult if the Show was allowed to resume. Until then, though, it was just academic. All of the businesses owned by the Enclave’s Cover Personas were closed for the duration.

Hellir Enclave was too full these days, both with other Inties and the Open House the Producer Desilu had decreed. There was a new tour group every five minutes so people could gawk. The only place Tallyhawk could find peace was the Detective Agency office. She sat in Goldman’s creaking leather chair, tail feathers jammed against the back, gripping the edge of the desk with her taloned toes. For the first time in years there was nothing to do but wait. Bored. Bored bored bored. Dear God, I’m bored!

Briefly she considered calling up Jade, but discarded the idea instantly. Two weeks ago Jade’s sister from Neorus had shown up in Cape Nord, having heard that Mitch Goldman specialized in missing persons cases and was pretty cheap (since he wasn’t very good at it). The reveal had made the situation all the more complicated and difficult. Now Jade was taking a much-deserved break with her sister in Aloha, and the goshawk wasn’t about to stoop in when she wasn’t welcome.

Bored bored bored…Boared. It was one of those free-association thoughts that just naturally flowed, between the missing persons case and just the word “bored”. In 141 AL, nearly fifteen years ago, Mitch Gardner had been assigned just such a case. One of the Aloha Police Department’s own, a cop named Mitchell Gaffney, had disappeared with his RIDE while on a stakeout. Gardner had investigated. The trail had led all the way out to Bartertown, where he’d closed in…

Tallyhawk still felt an unpleasant twinge at the memories surrounding those hours. Mitch Gardner and Tally became the Integrate they were today because he got too close to the mark and the Snatcher…snatched. They were a gestalt, rather than two people in one body many other Integrates were.

Now that Integrates were public, though, a host of other serious problems had cropped up. There were over 100,000 unsolved missing persons cases just on Gondwana in the thirty-plus years since the Nextus-Sturmhaven War ended and the Integrates were born, to say nothing of the tens of thousands more considered solved-presumed-dead.

Boar’d, Tallyhawk thought. She decided to give an old friend a call. They’d naturally kept in touch since the forced-Integration, but it had been a year or so since they’d last spoken. It was high time to renew the acquaintance, especially in light of recent circumstances.

The man who answered was a literal pig—a boar, really. “Heyo, Tally! What can I do ya for?”

“Mitchell! How’re you holding up?”

“Oh, same old same old. Nothing’s changed much in the Pridelands, believe it or not. Did you just call to chat, or what?”

She smirked. “Well, I got a hankering to go to Aloha and see some old friends at HQ. There’s nothing doing here with the production freeze in effect, I’m bored as hell, and I feel like stretching my wings a little. How about you?”

It took a moment for Mitchell to catch on. “Oh, hey! Great idea! Would be great to see the guys again. Meet you at the Arch tomorrow? I got some stuff here I can’t just drop.”

“Sure thing. See you then, Mitch.”

“Heh. See you then, Mitch.”

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Like most of the residents of the Pridelands, Mitchell Gaffney was a feral. The man had been the butt of many jokes over the years before his disappearance. Porcines weren’t the most popular of RIDEs, and the tags played on the centuries-old stereotype of police and pigs. Then he’d vanished along with his RIDE, and HQ sent Mitch Gardner to solve the case.

Far from being an overweight domesticated type, Mitchell was a hundred and fifty kilos of angry-looking wiry-haired porcine with huge tusks. He trotted alongside Tallyhawk, who wore a fitted, older version of the APD uniform with her old name and badge number on the front. “What’s with the protestors?”

There were maybe a couple dozen of them, holding physical signs or surrounded by hardlight ones. The media paper signs flashed various slogans, others accused Integrates of being responsible for all sorts of conspiracies and should therefore all be incarcerated—especially AstraNikki Munn. Few of them appeared to bathe regularly.

“Believe it or not there are actually some humans who’d rather we’d kept to ourselves.”

“Even in Aloha?”

“Yeah. Funny, isn’t it? Let’s go inside.”

The sight of a red-eyed hawkwoman in an APD uniform entering the building with a huge boar was enough to part the crowd before them. Tallyhawk found the Duty Officer’s desk occupied by a familiar sea lion-tagged face. She presented her badge, which transmitted her credentials. “Detective Mitch Gardner reporting in, Danae. I’m a little late, but I found him.”

“Good to see ya again, Danae!” Mitchell grunted. “They still got those great doughnuts in the break room? You can’t get good doughnuts in the Pridelands.”

The officer looked at both of them, nonplussed. “Missing Persons Clearinghouse is in Office 212B, second floor. You can lift right up to the new balcony if you want.”

“Not even a ‘welcome back, Mitches’?” Tallyhawk deadpanned.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Until you’re cleared and your identities proven, you’re just a couple of rubes. You think you’re the first who’ve come into this office claiming to be missing cops in the past couple weeks? Now shoo, I have work to do.”

Instead of going to the elevator, the two Integrates went outside again, laughing. “Same old Danae,” Mitchell said. “By-the-book as ever. You’d think she’d be in a different job after fifteen years. At least she’s got Sergeant’s stripes.”

The balcony was more of a makeshift landing platform for Integrates. The two former cops lifted, Tallyhawk reflexively flapping her arms at the takeoff. I need to learn to shapeshift so I can actually have wings, she grumbled. It looked silly, and either making herself properly goshawk-shaped or adding a set of wings on her back like some avian Integrates had would look far more dignified.

Even before she landed on the balcony Integrates were pointing. The Show had made her a very recognizable face for years now. The Goldman and Cattano Mysteries was easily the longest running program. She and Jade swapped between the roles regularly—even playing bit parts sometimes while other Players put their own spin on the popular detective duo.

Someone shouted. “It’s Tallyhawk! Hey!” At the shout, the balcony was instantly too crowded to land on, and some of the waiting Inties took flight. There was a cougar in particular who started his pitch for his own Show before his feet left the building. “Hey, I have this idea for a program! It’s called Puma Man!”

“And he’s a superhero who ‘flies like a moron’, right?” Tallyhawk deadpanned. “Comedy show? Starring you?”

“How’d you guess?” the cougar said.

“I’ve heard that pitch before, friend. Work on it.”

“When is Mitch going to propose to JadeCat?” someone else asked, a young female otter.

“When is the Show coming back?” yet another asked in a rather more laconic tone. “Three’s Company reruns just don’t cut it.”

Over the years the Show had spread out into many different genres. Dramas, sitcoms, soap operas, investigation, noir, news, even documentaries about Integrate daily life near the end. Except for the last, they were based around the Cover Personas in and around Cape Nord, so they were more like reality shows. True genre programming was more typically done in the sim-spaces Integrates could create within their own heads. Though there had been some muttering about doing something Sci-Fantasy around Xolotlan—assuming the huge space dragon Integrates Lady Vox and Lord Nagafen were amenable. A few years back the crew of the Clementine had produced their own variant on Star Trek for a couple seasons, before the popularity faded and the audience moved on.

Right now, Tallyhawk didn’t know the answer to that question. “Right now we’re waiting for Cape Nord to decide if they’re going to levy criminal charges for impersonating Men, among other issues. So, you’ll just have to hold tight with the rest of us. Until then, I’m here to do what the rest of you are probably doing. Get my life back. Now, do you mind?”

The crowd sheepishly moved aside, creating a path for them to land on the balcony and enter the building.

Behind this desk was a black panther. On first glance, her tail seemed far away. There was also something odd below her waistline. Mitchell put the clues together before the Detective did. “Hey, she’s a ‘taur type!”

The panther-taur was more starstruck than any of the rest so far. She practically went squee as Tallyhawk approached. “Um…I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I just have to have a fangirl moment here. I’ve always wanted to meet you, and I thought you’d end up here sooner or later. I’m Eudora and I’m going to help you get your old life back, Tallyhawk!”

Everyone acts like they’re on camera around me. Well, not too long ago that would have been the truth. Any cameras around here would just be monitoring the room for the building. And a little test revealed the HQ’s servers had the most recent version of Watchdog. “Mine, and Mitchell’s here.”

“Oh. Of course. Well, transmit your details and we’ll get the ball rolling. It’s going to take a few days in realtime to make sure everything matches up. So, kick back and enjoy Aloha again. Welcome home!”

“Thanks, Eudora. We will.”

When they turned around this time the crowd had closed in and cut them off from the door. A hundred starstruck, autograph-hunting Integrates mobbed Tallyhawk, soaking up so much of her bandwidth with DIN connections it slowed her connection to the APD network to a crawl. But Mitchell had had enough of this. The boar sighed, then shouted in his best Fezzik impersonation. He certainly had the presence for it. “EVERYBODY MOVE!”

Everybody knew the scene from The Princess Bride. It was a film with very powerful memes. The crowd parted down the middle, through the door. Mitchell laughed as they sprang into the air over the city. “Always wanted to do that. Let’s beat cheeks. You know, there’s a club over on Keys Street I loved to visit. It’s still there. How about a night on the town, sweet thing?”

“Did you just proposition me, Mitchell?” Tallyhawk didn’t intend for it to come out like it did, a little too sharp.

“Uh, no. I just…well…no. Just, you know, like old times. Off duty, out on the town. Been awhile since I was in an actual city, you know. Fifteen years. Pridelands and all that. Five hundred square klicks of savannah. You know. Um.”

Tallyhawk sighed. “I’m sorry, Mitchell. Just a little touchy right now, after…all that. If you’d told me back in the old days that I of all people would end up a movie star…” She shook her head. “Sure, let’s hit a few clubs. But if what’s happened so far today around here is any indication…”

“I see what you mean. What can we do about it?”

The easy solution would be to just rez up a human glamor, but Integrates were supposed to be out for good. So that was right out. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t use another type of glamour. She formed the image of a male blue jay Integrate, then rezzed it. “Well? What do you think?”

“Colorful. You know, Mitch, once the Show comes back, you don’t have to just play humans anymore. You realize that, right?”

“That’s out of my hands, Mitchell. I figure that in the meantime I’ll make myself useful here.”

The boar snorted. “Dunno what use they could have for me, old buddy. At least you have hands for things to be out of. But I guess we’ll see. If they won’t have me, I hear the Marshals are taking on feral Inties. Might have to mosey down there and take a look.”

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July 23, 156 AL


“They actually kept our stuff for fifteen years. I can’t believe it.” Mitchell used his lifter fields to remove several items from the box, taken from the HQ’s Cold Case Storage basement. They were just the kind of things that accumulated on a desk in a long career, including a personal firearm that he no longer had any use for.

There hadn’t been a ceremony, really. Soon after the Reveal the APD had added an MPI (Missing, Presumed Integrated) flag to their files. Getting their identities verified was a matter of providing genetic information, various memory engrams to check against fifteen years ago, and a few other forensic Stupid Intie Tricks. Aloha had known there were Integrates around at a subconscious level for years, really ever since Astranikki had returned to her family in 150. Buzz on IntieNet was someone local had cooked up the Watchdog program to detect them and run some underground servers for Integrates to trade information about themselves that even Fritz’s cronies had problems keeping shut down.

Normally Tallyhawk hated clothes—feathers and fabric didn’t mix well for her—but today wearing the new APD women’s uniform (modified for her avian physique) felt very satisfying. The items here, though, only represented what was in their desks on the day of their disappearance. Literally everything else had long been removed from their homes and either sold or given to living family.

“Aw, hell,” Mitchell said, echoing her thoughts. “I just realized…what the hell am I gonna tell my momma? ‘Hi, momma. I’m your boy Mitchell, and I’m a big pig now?’ Hell! What would my momma say?”

Tallyhawk sighed. “My brothers and their families live in Florencia. We came here to Zharus together about twenty years ago. I just remembered I’m actually about fifty years old. Time flies when you live in a cave.”

“Don’t look a day over forty-nine and a half,” Mitchell quipped. “But I gotta say, you’re a bit more of a looker than I am.”

“I’m not even a mammal anymore, Mitchell.”

“But you are pretty obviously human…oid. You’ve even got tits.”

“These aren’t…” It got very tiresome to explain that they weren’t really breasts. She didn’t even have nipples. They were just…there, a remnant of being a mammal, like she used to have an appendix. “Mitchell, if I let myself, I lay eggs for Chrissakes.

“And why does every crossrider get the ‘at least you’re pretty’ or ‘at least you’re handsome’ line, as if it helps?”

Mitchell snorted. “Haven’t you played, like, three of those characters on the Show over the years?”

“Well…it makes for good Drama. You know, the young man or woman who manages to find love and fulfillment despite not being their birth sex.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” The new voice came from the Captain of the Watch, Brann Hirai. Next to him was a silver android with cobalt blue accents. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder. “Gardner, Gaffney, at ease.”

“I’d salute, sir, but…” Mitchell stammered.

“It’s okay, Gaffney. I understand. Now, before I discuss what I came here for, I’d like to introduce my own partner, Roady. He’s an EIDE and holds rank equal to mine.”

“Heard about them,” Mitchell said. “Nice to finally meet one of you in person.”

“RI cousins, right?” Tallyhawk said.

“Of a sort,” Roady said. He extended his metallic hand and shook Tallyhawk’s. His voice had the sort of robotic overtones one would stereotypically expect. “Now that we’ve been introduced, though, Captain Hirai has something for you.”

“Indeed I do. I understand Integrates have perfect recall,” Hirai said. “I infer from this that your investigation and general policing skills have not decayed in the decade and a half since you were taken.”

“Essentially true, yes. But I’m not as up on modern departmental procedures as I should be,” Tallyhawk said. “I can learn those in fast-time.”

“That may not be strictly necessary.” Hirai smiled. “As it happens, your arrival here is doubly fortuitous. As I understand it, Tallyhawk, you hail from that Enclave in Cape Nord, isn’t that right? The one that…made the soap operas?”


“Then we have a couple of…requests for you. The main one is, we were wondering if we could dispatch you back to Cape Nord on official business for us. We’ve been having a hard time getting in touch with anyone in authority at the Cape Nord Law, to join our interdepartmental committee. Perhaps if someone local were to speak with them on our behalf, it might break the logjam. Especially someone who has had reason to be in contact with the police before—such as a private detective.”

“Heh. Well, Captain…the relationship of ‘Detective Mitch Goldman’ to the Law is a little uncertain at this point, but…at least I’m not a total stranger. Perhaps this will help resolve a few things in limbo right now.” Especially his Man Card status and being a True Nordsman…

“Good! But…that’s not the only message we’d like for you to carry, if you’re willing,” Roady said. “We had already been planning a sort of…well, diplomatic mission to a number of nearby Enclaves—and as former APD officers and one of you being a minor celebrity, I think you would make excellent ambassadors in that respect.”

Hirai nodded. “We’ve made up an itinerary of Enclaves that have gone public we’d like for you to stop by, on your way back to Cape Nord—including your own Hellir, in fact. Since they’re mostly between us and Cape Nord, it would let us kill two birds with one stone. We understand that many of the Integrates in them were formerly locals, and we would just like to offer a friendly greeting and an invitation to come home, or at least to visit.”

“But we can understand that they might be a trifle hesitant to deal with outsiders at this early stage,” Roady added. “Which is where you would come in.”

“Huh,” Mitchell said. “You know Tally, being a celeb might actually come in handy here.”

“There’s also the question of if these ex-locals want to be found, Captain. Some of us have simply moved on. We’re not the same people we were when we went missing,” Tallyhawk said. “I know I’m not.”

Roady nodded. “Nobody’s going to make them return to their old lives if they don’t want to, and I’m not asking you to tattle on them. We just want to let them know not to give up on us because they might have had to bend some laws in how they left, or how they lived after that. If they want to come back, we’ll do everything we can to work with them and clear up any problems.”

“Understood, sir,” both officers said.

“Good! Now, I realize you fly under your own power, but we want this to look more official. We’re fabbing an aerovan for your use big enough to hold Gaffney with room to spare. It’ll be a full flier capable of transonic speeds and specially hardened against the Dry.”

“We’ve also managed to lay our hands on some supplies that we understand aren’t the easiest to get out in the Dry, that we’ll be sending along as a peace offering,” Roady said. “Luxury goods like chocolate and coffee beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, high-grade sarium wafers, even a little booze.”

“You can drop a crate off at each stop. A sort of a fruit basket for the neighbors, so to speak. It’ll be loaded into the van before you leave.”

“We also have some case files we’ll send over, with some of the other missing officers we’d like to hear from if they can be found,” Roady added. “If you should know where any of them are, let them know we’d appreciate a call.”

“Got nothing else to do,” Mitchell said. “Tally?”

“Sounds good to me.” After downloading the case file Tallyhawk returned to realtime. “Files downloaded. Let’s have a look at these.”

“Same,” Mitchell said. “Hmm. Half of these are marked ‘Recursive’.”

From the description that meant incidents like Tallyhawk’s own search for Mitchell. These were cases when the investigator sent to search for the missing person also ended up missing. There were a couple cases of those three layers deep. “Huh. The Snatchers are real bastards, you know. Or at least they were, back in the day.” Come to think of it, Tallyhawk couldn’t remember any major Snatcher incidents in the last few years. It was as if they’d gradually lost interest. Maybe that explained why Zane Brubeck had been able to do what he’d done.

“So, just make contact with them, then?”

Hirai nodded. “Which is why we’re sending along the ‘fruit baskets.’ Just being neighborly. If they decide the time is right to reach out, we’ll be ready.”

“And as both Integrates and APD officers yourselves, you are uniquely suited to be our official olive-branch bearers,” Roady said.

“Captain, I’m willing. Some of these names are familiar, and I can see what might make these cases hard to solve. A few might actually be deceased, but we’ll verify that if we can.”

“That’s all we can ask for, Detective Gardner. Thank you. Your van should be fabbed and loaded in a couple more hours.”

:Looks like we’re heading for some obscure Enclaves,: Michell sent. :Maybe even a hermitage or two.:

:It’s not those I’m worried about. It’s the ones still following Fritz. We’d better give a very wide berth to the Coffeehouse as it is.:

“Thanks again, officers,” Roady said. “Welcome back.”

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July 25, 156 AL


“So, I’m gonna learn shapeshifting,” Mitchell said. “I’m not facing my momma looking like a pig.”

“C’mon, Mitchell. You’re not a pig. You’re actually a big, hairy boar. Anyway, Cape Nord would love you, male chauvinist pigs that they are,” Tallyhawk deadpanned. The aerovan flew a few thousand meters over the desolate Southern Dry Ocean. Beneath them was Harmon Gulch, the region where the Marshals had gotten their start. The land was scarred from decades of qubitite mining.

“Har de har har. No, really. I don’t want my family to see me like this. I’m gonna learn how to change into something more respectable. Dunno what yet. As long as I can get back on two legs.”

“How about a secretary bird? Two legs, wonderful plumage.”

“If you start quoting Monty Python at me I’ll give you such a pinch with my trotters!”

The duo shared an uneasy laugh. They were depending on Tallyhawk’s own celebrity as their shield against the more zealous followers of Fritz. They stretched their Integrate sensors to the limit, scanning to make sure they weren’t being followed by some of the hangers-on Fritz still had—ex-Snatchers and other sycophants, now calling themselves the not-at-all-arrogantly-named “Ascendant”.

There was a knock on the rear doors…a quick rapping in the classic shave-and-a-haircut pattern. They were currently going well over Mach 1, so it could only be one thing. Tallyhawk turned to the door, the palms of her hands crackling with pulse energy, before tapping into the external cameras. A familiar raccoon was holding on tight in the slipstream, his own lifters surging at max, somehow having slipped between the van’s twin impellers on either side of the doors.

“Oh goddamn it, Clayton!” she grumbled. The aerovan started to decelerate, slowing enough to open the doors safely. “Why the hell didn’t you transmit anything?”

“Bosscat wanted someone to follow you two, so here I am,” Clayton replied. “Can you let me in? Why doesn’t this thing have a proper aeroshell around it?”

“It’s built for speed, that’s why. It’s a proper flier, not a skimmer.” The van slowed to only a couple hundred klicks per hour before shutting down the impellers and forming an aeroshell behind the doors, then opening them so the raccoon Integrate could enter. “So, the Bosscat sent you, huh?”

“Not me specifically. I sort of had to ditch the lady they sent first. Convinced her to let me do the deed. Uh…” He eyed the angry boar and the perpetually-angry-looking goshawk. “C’mon, Tally. We’ve known each other fifteen years! I never wanted to work for Fritz! Remember the party we had when Paulie got him to shut us down? Huh?”

“And now Paulie’s dead at Fritz’s hand and the Snatchers are back, no matter what you want to call yourselves now,” Tallyhawk said.

“Okay, okay. Sheesh. He didn’t send me and I didn’t ditch anyone to watch you instead. I just saw this new gig of yours on the IntieNet and I kind of want in on it.”

“’Kind of’,” Mitchell said. “Come clean, pal.”

Clayton hunched over sheepishly. “I really don’t have anywhere else to go right now. Cape Nord’s turned unfriendly, I’m afraid Fritz’s cronies will haul me in front of him and my hide’ll end up as several hats. I hear he’s really unstable these days. Nuttier than any number of fruitcakes.”

“He’s lost control over us. He just doesn’t know it yet,” Tallyhawk said.

“Bastard’s going to go down fighting, Gardner. It’s not to be pretty,” Mitchell added. “He’s gonna take a lot of other Inties—and humans, and RIDEs—with him.”

“You sure you want to be with us, Clay? We should technically put you under arrest for a few dozen counts of kidnapping.”

The raccoon snorted. “Then arrest me! Protective custody! I’ll own up! I’ll give you root! Besides, you might need another celebIntie face on this. One that isn’t a cop. Good PR.”

“He also knows all the Snatchers’ tricks, Gardner,” Mitchell said.

“That he does. Good point.” Tallyhawk shut down her pulse guns. “Okay, Clayton. I’ll have to clear this with HQ, but I think we can work something out. It might also mitigate whatever charges are leveled against you when this blows over.”

“I’m gonna end up in the Freezer anyway. If I can reduce my sentence a few months, I’ll do anything. Here, take root…damn!” Clayton’s DIN on his arm emitted a sad little piff as it burned out. “Here, I’ll grab another one…”

“Cool your jets, Clay. Just have a seat and calm down.”

Clayton plugged in a new DIN. “Okay, okay. I hear you. So, where are we headed?”

“Eventually, back to Cape Nord,” Tallyhawk said. “Unfriendly or not, we have a job to do there. I don’t think anyone will bother you as long as you’re with us.”

Clayton shrugged. “I’ll take that chance. It’s not like I don’t deserve anything that happens. But you said ‘eventually’? Where first?”

“Aloha PD wants us to do some PR for them. Drop off some all-is-forgiven-please-come-home greeting cards and fruit baskets.” Mitchell shrugged. “We didn’t have anything better to do, so…”

“First stop is the Convoy Enclave,” Tallyhawk said. “One of the names on the MPI-R list is there, too. I recall getting some fan mail from him. Didn’t know he’d been a cop himself, though.”

“Ain’t that a kick in the pants?” Mitchell said. “Not like I shared my past much, either. What’s this Mobile Enclave thing anyway?”

“That place?” Clayton said. “They’re a bunch of Mad Max meme-infected weirdos. I saw them passing through Samson’s Erg while I was catching up with you.”

“See, Clay? You’re useful already.” Tallyhawk patted him on the shoulder. “Grab a brew and have a seat.”

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July 26, 156 AL


“I just wonder how they’re going to react to me,” Clayton said. “I do know a couple of ‘em. And not socially.”

Tallyhawk folded her arms. “You’re in our custody, Clay. Anyone who wants to get to you has to go through us.”

“Don’t sweat it. They won’t shoot. Just open your ports. Not root, but everything else. Let’s go.”

The trio moved asides, ports open and hands up (at least two of them) while several of the Enclave’s residents searched their aerovan and also searched them. Tallyhawk felt a tingle through her systems as they swept her for viral trojans. Only when they were satisfied that there was nothing amiss did they power down their own weapons and drop their suspicious demeanor.

Their leader was a deinonychus named David. “Well, I never expected to see any celebs here. We put on a Show of our own, you know. Still do. You’re welcome to stay with us for the night. Even Clayton.”

“We appreciate your hospitality,” Mitchell said. “Lead on, MacDuff.”

The Erg covered an area equal to the size of the Sahara on Earth. Nobody had yet attempted to mine it. The massive dunes were treacherous, shifting with the wind in the dense atmosphere. The Enclave where their missing APD cop was located was a mobile one. A half dozen giant vehicles, some of which had been built from the wreckage of one of the two NeumonFormers eaten by the Dry Ocean over 150 years before. They bore no small resemblance to semi-trucks, scaled up into mobile buildings.

It was clear from the moment they entered the night camp that their quarry wasn’t there. David said he wouldn’t divulge any information about her until the three of them had watched their version of the Show. After Hellir had released theirs to the public IntieNet, other Enclaves had taken the concept and run with it, usually with significant mutations based on their circumstances.

One of the Enclave’s smaller trucks turned into a circular stage, the audience taking seats around it. The roles were chosen by lot, so everybody got a chance to play each character. Different nights were for different Shows. Tonight’s happened to be comedy, since everyone felt like they needed a laugh.

On stage was a recreation from the classic bad (some might say, worst) piece of fantasy fiction, the “Eye of Argon”. The Players were to enact the scenes in the story as they were read by the audience members. The first to crack up in either portion of the Show was replaced by someone else. Tallyhawk managed to play both the roles of Grignr (the main character) and the woman he rescued (described by the author as being both slender and having “outcropping, bulging breasts”). By the fifth passage involving “stygian pools of ebony” both Clayton and Mitchell had had to leave the stage for almost debilitating laughter. Tallyhawk barely made it through the Show with her sanity intact, herself.

Over drinks, David revealed what the Tallyhawk had suspected. “So sorry there. He and a bunch of like-minded took one of the smaller aux rigs and high-tailed it for Rodinia to see how things blow over.”

Mitchell snorted. “Well that figures.”

“Hey, I thought you guys had a Mad Max thing going,” Clayton said.

“We had a meme-doctor from Camelot come by about seven months ago. Really cleared up most of the infections,” David informed. “’Course, most of us are still just content to keep moving around the Dry like always.”

“We’re on a road trip from Aloha back to Cape Nord, by way of the scenic route,” Tallyhawk said, tipping a bottle back. With her beak, it was actually easier to drink this way than from a normal cup. “You’re just our first stop so far, but I can already see the appeal.” It felt good to have some Intie brew in her to relax.

“Roads?” Mitchell scoffed. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

“Good luck with that, and I mean it.” David picked a beer bottle off the table and popped the top. “You should be okay if you stay near the Ring and don’t hare off into the deep Dry, but still…we’ve got an Integrate civil war getting started, you know. That Brubeck guy doesn’t know the the anthill he stirred up is full of swarming Army Ants.”

The boar snorted. “What’s done is done. What does Fritz think he can do about it now? I don’t see him telling everyone to bug out for Rodinia. They’d follow us there, too. We’re out, and we’re not going to go back into hiding.”

“The winds of change are blowing,” David said. “You can either ride the storm, or get flattened. I plan to ride it, and so do the rest of us here.”

Clayton nodded. “I noticed the greeting wasn’t exactly the friendliest. Not like I’d expect a warm welcome, heel that I am, but I’d have thought a face like Tally here would rate one.”

David shrugged. “You can’t be too careful, times like these.” He took a swig from his own bottle. “Frankly, I think y’all jumped the gun on this. Nice to know the mundanes want to be friends and all, but Bosscat’s making a grab at his old powerbase. I think you should hunker down and wait it out. See how thing with Brubeck resolves before you go poking your beak into mundane diplomacy.”

“You gotta start somewhere,” Mitchell said. “If nobody starts, it doesn’t get started.”

“Yeah, Mitch,” Tallyhawk agreed. She eyed the dinosaur Integrate. “Besides, Mr. Smith, didn’t you just say we had to ride the storm?”

“There’s tacking against the wind, and then there’s sailing straight into ‘the teeth of a blooming gale’ and getting your mast ripped off and your ship capsized.” David shrugged. “One of those lets you stay afloat until the wind changes. Hell, the Convoy’s thinking about going to ground in the Trench for the duration. This storm’s just getting started and it’s going to be a really bad blow.”

“Frankly, I think he’s right,” Clayton added. “I doubt Brubeck and company have any idea the pile of poop they’ve stepped in. I mean, look at the company’s stock price since they lost their big platform.”

“Because a company’s stock price is the surest indicator of whether they’re doing the right thing,” Tallyhawk said dryly.

“No, see. What I’m saying is that Fritz is going to ruin the guy and anyone around him. Wanna bet on how much of that drop is Intie hacking the markets?”

“The thing your APD bosses are right about is that things are changing. The cat Integrate is out of the bag, and no stuffing it back in,” David said. “But no one’s real clear on what that change means yet. Just because people know about us now doesn’t mean Fritz is going to drop the reins. Not without a fight, anyway.” He shrugged. “Were I you, I’d hole up somewhere for a while, until it’s clearer which way the wind’s blowing.”

Tallyhawk snorted. “For someone who lives in the middle of the desert, you sure do use a lot of nautical metaphors.”

“Well, this is the Dry Ocean,” the saurian said. “And we know from wind out here. Anyway, you’re free to stay overnight if you want. We’ve been glad to have you for our little Show.” He drained the last of the beer from his bottle, then put it on the table. “Talk it over ‘mongst yourselves, let me know what you decide. ‘Scuse me.” He got up and headed over to chat with some other Integrates at the next table.

Mitchell watched him go for a moment, then glanced at Tallyhawk. “He kind of does have a point, you know. The Bosscat’s always had a few loose screws, and sometimes you can’t really tell what will set him off.”

“There can’t be any harm in stopping by to say hello.”

“Sure, no harm. Unless Fritz happens to notice you and decide you’re easier to get to stop than Mr. Rich and Crazy. Zane Brubeck.” Mitchell rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying I’m not with you, just…ya know, it’s a little nervous-making.”

“Let’s just see how our next few stops go, and we’ll decide then.” Tallyhawk shrugged. “It’s not as if we’re trying to bring down Fritz single-handed or something. We’re just dropping off fruit baskets. Where’s the harm in that?”

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July 28, 156 AL


Sunrise the next day found the van much further north and west, making its way up out of the same subduction trench where the Mobile Enclave had been considering going to ground. They’d hit several more Enclaves along the way, not staying very long at any of them. They’d finished up with a stop at the Towers, the closest major Enclave to Cape Nord (apart from the one actually inside Cape Nord).

The mood of their stops had ranged from cautious to worried to downright somber at the Towers, which was still in mourning over the loss of one of its council members, Paulie the gryphon, murdered by Fritz shortly before Brubeck made his announcement. Not wanting to take any chances, Clayton had left the van before that stop and waited well outside the Enclave’s borders for Tallyhawk to come back and pick him up afterward. They’d left the last save one of their crates there and the van, now significantly lighter, was on its way home to Hellir.

“Glad you’re on your way back, Tally. The City Fathers are getting on our tails the last day or so,” Desilu said over comm. She was Hellir Enclave’s leader, a position called the Producer. “They’re talking about putting us under house arrest. They don’t want anybody leaving until they sort out the legal status of all our Cover Personas.”

“And how’s that working out?” Clayton said.

“About like you’d expect. We’ve been so bored here I’ve been letting a few low-profile Cps resume their storylines. The Reveal of the Integrates! Can’t pass this up, though it’s rather meta.”

“That’s…kind of asking for trouble if anybody notices,” Tallyhawk pointed out.

“We know. But…what else can we do? The City Fathers won’t even talk to us directly. We’re untouchables, and not in the good, Kevin Costner, Robert Stack way.”

“They’ll have to talk to us,” Tallyhawk said grimly. “If for no other reason than that we’re law enforcement officers accredited by a human polity they recognize, so if they don’t there will be diplomatic repercussions.”

Desilu frowned. “Well, I don’t suppose you can make the situation any worse.”

“Don’t worry—I’ll try to be tactful.” Tallyhawk took a moment to glare at Clayton, who was unsuccessfully attempting to stifle laughter, then signed off.

“There’s hardly a Gentleman or a Nerd in the City Fathers these days,” Clayton said. “They’re all boorish Dudebros. You call that Manly? I don’t.”

Tallyhawk shrugged. “They’re under a lot of pressure. It can’t be easy having the responsibility of deciding what’s Manly. Though I imagine it’s easier now that the Steaders have finished releasing new media finds that kept redefining it.”

“There were only so many Die Hard films,” Clayton added.

“It was the Cohen Brothers films that actually had the most effect in terms of redefining Manliness,” Tallyhawk said. “’The Dude’ and White Russians, and Steve Buscemi…but don’t get me started.”

“So where do we go first?” Mitchell asked. “The cops? Or straight to the top?”

“We might as well run by the precinct, just for old time’s sake.” Tallyhawk smiled wryly. “It’ll be interesting to see if anyone knows who I was, when I’m in my ‘mufti’ like this. I almost hope they do. I wonder how they feel about ‘Private Detective Mitch Goldman’ now?”

Clayton cleared his throat. “We are supposed to be trying to calm things down, remember?”

Tallyhawk chuckled. “Oh, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll try to pour oil on the troubled waters without lighting it on fire.”

The van pulled into the Visitor Parking section of the parking lot for the Cape Nord Police Department’s Main Precinct. The station was an impressive piece of architecture, all marble pillars and statues, combined with vast expanses of glass. It looked not unlike a reimagining of the headquarters of the Justice League from DC comics. “Huh. That’s fairly impressive,” Mitchell said.

“After you’ve been here a while, you don’t even notice it.” Tallyhawk parked the van and shut down the ignition. “All ashore what’s going ashore. Let’s go see about shaking some coppers out of their complacency.”

They walked up the sidewalk toward the main entrance, walking casually as if they belonged there—never mind that they were an anthropomorphic bird and raccoon, with a rather large boar trotting along behind them on all fours.

“Well…no protesters here, anyway,” Mitchell noted.

“They don’t go in for that kind of display here in Cape Nord,” Tallyhawk said. “It’s too much like…well, whining, I guess. Which isn’t exactly masculine, is it?”

Mitchell nodded. “I suppose that’s a valid point.”

Ignoring the looks they were drawing, they marched right up to and through the entrance. Mitchell was a tight fit, but he managed to make it. Clayton chuckled. “Good thing it’s not a revolving door.”

“A police station with a revolving door would be bad symbolism.” Tallyhawk led the way up to the front desk, where a slightly portly cop in uniform was staring determinedly down at the comm in front of him. A tepid cup of coffee and a half-eaten doughnut on a plate sat at his right elbow. :Given the role he’s in, they’d dock him Man Points if he let on like anything fazed him,: Tallyhawk sent privately to the others. :Kind of funny, really. See how he’s sweating? The Reindeer Games aren’t really so different from The Show when you get down to the mechanics of it. Which is pretty much where we got the idea, come to think of it.:

Tallyhawk marched right up to the desk. “Morning, McGinty. The Chief around? Or is he sleeping off another one of his hangovers, ahem, migraines?”

The cop actually fell out of his chair. Tallyhawk smirked inwardly. :Ouch. At least fifty Man Points for that.:

:Ahem. ‘Calming things down’?: Clayton shot back.

:Okay, okay, sorry. I just…after all those months staying in the role, giving the guy guff every time I saw him, I can’t help reverting to it a little when I actually come face to face with him again. He’s just so much fun to tease.:

Getting back to his feet, McGinty tried for some aplomb. “Wh—who the hell are you, marching in and asking something like that? And—how the hell you know my name?”

:Two ‘the hells’ in one line. He’s overcompensating badly. Could cost him more points, if the judges aren’t sympathetic.: Aloud, Tallyhawk said. “I’m one of the locals. Been in here before. But this time I’m actually playing errand girl for the top cops down at Aloha. They have some things need talking over with the top cops here, but nobody’s been answering their mail. I’m going for my credentials.” Tallyhawk slowly reached into a pocket and pulled out her Aloha PD badge case, which she tossed onto the desk.

McGinty looked at it, and only fumbled it a little as he picked it up and dropped it onto the near-field reader pad. “Well, uh, Detective…Tallyhawk? The Chief is a very busy man. I’ll see if he’s available.”

“If he’s still under the weather, we can come back in a few hours.” Tallyhawk shook her head. “Manly or not, how he manages to drink that rotgut bathtub gin at Charlie’s night after night without developing two or three bleeding ulcers is beyond me. Especially what with his wife to deal with…”

McGinty goggled at her. Then he looked back at his screen. “Wait a minute…’Detective Mitch Gardner’…Aloha…” He looked up, glaring, face tinting toward beet red. “YOU!

:Oh, crap. Think I overplayed it.: Tallyhawk sent an ‘eyeroll’ emoticon. :Always thought I might have been a little too clever for my own good, filing so few serial numbers off for that role…: “Well, partly me. Sometimes it was someone else.” Tallyhawk grinned. “So, yes, guess my secret’s out. If it’s any consolation, ‘Mitch Goldman’ is who I was before this happened. More or less.”

“You—you—I thought you were my friend. All those nights down at Charlie’s…all those billiards games and throwing darts…and all this time you were playing me! Making a laughingstock of me!”

Tallyhawk raised her hands. “Hey now, take it easy. If you don’t calm down you’re going to blow more Man Points.”

“Righteous indignation is Manly, you…you…crossdresser.

“Fair enough.” Tallyhawk nodded. “Look, I owe you an apology, big time. I’m very sorry I had to deceive you like that. But you have to understand, I was operating under a lot more strict constraints than you are under the Reindeer Games. If you screw up too badly, you could spend some time as a woman. If I screwed up too badly, including letting someone like you find out about the role I was playing, my skin would have been decorating someone’s wall. Literally. So I did what I had to, and I’d do it again. Doesn’t mean I was happy about it.”

McGinty blinked. “…huh.” He glowered and tossed the badge case back to Tallyhawk. “I’m still mad. But…have a seat. I’ll see if the Chief’s available.”

Tallyhawk and Clayton moved to a row of molded plastic chairs along one wall, and Mitchell sat on his haunches on the floor next to them. They waited for a few minutes while McGinty regained his composure, tapped on the comm screen, and spoke in an undertone. After a while, he looked up and nodded at them, jerking his head toward the elevator.

Tallyhawk smiled. “Thanks, McGinty. We know the way.” She led the way over to the elevator and pressed the button.

Mitchell glanced around. “Kind of surprised they’re not making more of a fuss about us. I see all the weird looks we’re getting.”

“Don’t be fooled. It’s not Manly to make a big fuss. All the same, I expect there’s a fully-armed SWAT team waiting just out of sight, in case we try anything.” The elevator dinged and opened. The car was empty, so the three of them stepped in, and Tallyhawk punched for the top floor.

“I don’t guess I have to say, let me do the talking?” Tallyhawk asked.

Clayton snorted. “Why not? You did a terrific job downstairs.”

Tallyhawk rolled her eyes. “I know, I know. Old habits, sorry. But I am the one who’s had plenty of face-to-faces with the guy over the years, so at least I know him.

Mitchell scratched behind an ear with a hind foot. “I get the feeling he’s going to know you, too, now that McGinty’s had a chance to spill. You think that’ll be helpful?”

“At least we’ll both know where we stand.” Tallyhawk shrugged. “Not like he needs to like me to acknowledge receipt of my message.”

Mitchell snorted. “You know, I’m not really seeing many female cops around here.”

“The meter maids’ division is on the second floor. I think half of them are named Rita.” Tallyhawk rolled her eyes again. “The only real lady cops you get around here are the occasional token ones who are super-competent but must obviously Need A Real Man To Show Them How To Love. And given that most women who’re really competent wouldn’t want to have to put up with that kind of malarkey, most of them end up emigrating to polities that aren’t a gender-role crazytown.” She chuckled. “Cape Nord and Sturmhaven together are sort of Zharus’s grease trap for sexist throwbacks. They collect ‘em, so they’re kept out of everybody else’s hair. I think that’s why they’ve been able to exist for so long without undergoing revolutions—everyone who can’t stand the heat gets out of the kitchen, so we end up with too many cooks.”

The Chief’s office had a wooden door with frosted glass window, much like the Goldman & Catanno office. The name on it was Chief Willard Selleck, JD, TN (pending), Main Precinct. It was all very noir, which worked quite well for manly gumshoe Mitch Goldman and his sexy partner investigatrix Jade Catanno when they had to visit for one reason or another. Showing up at said door as her true self felt decidedly odd to Tallyhawk. She put her betaloned hand on the glass.

“Goldman! Or whoever the hell you actually are! Get your feathery ass in here!” Selleck shouted, emphasized by a few audible thumps on his desk that rattled the junk on it.

Tallyhawk pushed the door open. The older man behind the desk glowered at her over the piles of paper that decorated it. Tallyhawk still wasn’t sure whether the paper was just an attempt to mimic the busy boss’s desk seen in all the old movies, or he actually worked in paper by preference. She’d been nearly certain of both possibilities more than once.

He stormed up to her and thrust a burning cigar towards her nares. “We need to clear the air here, Goldman or whoever you are.”

“Before all this I was APD Detective Mitch Gardner,” Tallyhawk said calmly. “And despite what I look like, I am still him. Mostly.”

“Ha! You look all woman to me! And see? That’s the bullshit! For years you lied to me, you lied to this department, and you lied to this polity! See, I knew there was something funny about you, Goldman! I knew it! See, I’ve been briefed about this ‘Show’ thing! Not only have you lied to us about who you are, but you’ve had cameras in this room for who knows how long!”

:If he keeps going on like this he’s going to run out of exclamation points,: Clayton sent. :Should we just give him the whole song and dance you gave McGinty?:

“I should arrest you for fraud and impersonating a True Nordsman! And that’s just to start!” He glared at her, shifting the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, then went back around his desk to have a seat. “Well, don’t just stand there, woman! Speak up!”

“First of all, I wasn’t impersonating a True Nordsman. That honor was granted to me—or, to Goldman, anyway—fair and square, while I was playing him. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t even know he was nominated. It was as much a surprise to me as to anyone.” She shrugged. “It wasn’t all acting. It was in large part reality TV. That wasn’t scripted. I was a damned good Detective in Aloha.”

“Any woman who showed the valor Goldman did would have been Manned on the spot.”

“And that’s what I was. Still can be, if I project him. But we Integrates can’t be ‘crossed’ the way plain old humans can. Believe me, after this first happened to me, I’d have done anything if I could have been changed back. The Goldman role started out as my way of dealing with that.

“As for the cameras…well, okay, guilty as charged. Though they’re not ones we planted, but the ones you-all already use for security, and our own digital memories. Anyway, we were basically being kept in what amounted to our own little jail, unable to mix with ordinary folks except in that kind of disguise. And not everyone could get out all the time, but they could all watch the Show, so it started out as a way to keep us from going off our collective nut from boredom. For what it’s worth, we didn’t share the stuff outside of our own private TV network, and we never did anything mean-spirited to ordinary folks. You, in particular, we played up as a respected gruff-but-wise father-figure type. Like in the old cop shows the Steaders put out.”

“Hmph.” More chewing on his cigar, but Selleck was thinking things over. Tallyhawk had known him for years. She knew it would take some time before he could absorb something like Integrates and fit it back into his worldview. “Real Men” weren’t supposed to talk about their feelings much, though Tallyhawk could tell he wanted to. “Hmph,” he grunted, more uncertainly. “You shoulda been a saleswoman, Gardner. You almost convinced me with that pitch.”

“I’ll be happy to talk it over with you at length sometime, but that’s actually not why I came today. We’re here on behalf of Aloha PD. They’re working with a number of other Gondwanan law-enforcement agencies, like the Marshals, pooling resources to try to clear up all the Integrate-related missing persons cases that are on the books. They’d like to ask Cape Nord to join the party.”

“All that hot weather down south makes you soft,” Selleck said. “I’m sure we can handle it on our own.”

“That’s actually why they want your help—for the parts of it that start out in other places but end up here. I’m sure you’d rather handle the local end of cross-polity investigations than have a bunch of outsiders tramping around.”

Mitchell decided to speak up. He sounded mildly irritated. “Hey! What’s that about Alohans being soft?”

The cigar hung on Selleck’s lower lip for a moment as he allowed his gruff exterior to slip a little at the sight of a giant talking pig. “That reminds me. You haven’t introduced your friends here. Officer…Gaffney? Who’s the raccoon?”

“Mitchell Gaffney, yeah. It’s my fault Mitch there ended up like she did,” Mitchell said. “And this guy is Clayton.”

“I can speak for myself, thank you,” Clayton said. “I’m another local. I’ve actually been in this office a couple times—in different roles.”

“Hmph. Ought to arrest the lot of you, but all that crap is being worked out well above my pay grade. And it’d only mean more bad publicity when the press got ahold of it. Damn snoops are having a field day already.” He took another puff on the cigar. “All right, fine, leave me the contact information for whatever mucky-muck they want me to talk to, and then beat it.”

“Transmitted,” Tallyhawk said. “See you around, Chief. Thanks for your time.”

“Hmrph!” He turned in his chair to face the wall behind him.

:I know why Desilu and the Editors love this guy,: Clayton sent as the trio turned to leave. :Maybe we should send him some episodes of Goldman and Catanno?:

:Let’s not push our luck,: Tallyhawk replied. :You were already borderline mentioning your bit parts. Both of those were female, you know.:

:Hey, I crossplay. It’s what I do. My Manhood is just fine with it. I can’t imagine Mr. True Nordsman (Pending) Selleck playing Meter Maid Doria Gray, could you?:

Tallyhawk snorted. :Thanks for that image. C’mon…we might as well run by the Man Cave and see what we can find out about the situation with Hellir while we’re here.:

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If the police station had been impressive, the entrance to the Man Cave was not, at least on the outside. It was a fairly nondescript blocky building with no signage and smoked glass on the doors. The only thing out of the ordinary were the armed guards stationed to either side of the entrance. “Huh,” Mitchell said. “Is it just me, or does it look like a strip club? Or maybe an adult bookstore?”

“I would have said that the City Fathers are a fairly modest bunch who don’t want to draw more attention to themselves than to the act of governing,” Tallyhawk said. “But you know, you’re right. It does kind of look like a strip club.”

“You’ve lived here too long,” Mitchell said. He snorted. “Reminds me of that little place on Mobius Street back home. You know the one.”

The interior of the building was entirely an entrance foyer, with a receptionist behind a security desk and a couple guards at hand. A security door in the opposite wall was sealed, the controls undoubtedly at the security desk. Tallyhawk approached the desk and offered her badge case. “Detective Tallyhawk, with Aloha PD and Hellir Enclave. We’d like to speak to one of the Men in Charge.”

The receptionist was a blond bombshell chewing gum, and turning the pages of a worn Iphigenia Rose paperback. She put it down as they approached. “Oh, you would, huh? Well, I’d like a pony, but my hubby won’t let me get one.”

Clayton smirked. “Wouldn’t we all?”

“Are you supposed to be Davy Rocket or something?” the woman continued in a voice that warbled in pitch.

Clayton rolled his eyes. “Lady, take it from an actor. Your ‘Brooklyn Bubblehead’ accent really isn’t working on me.”

The woman almost swallowed her gum. She went sotto voce and lost the accent. “But the Men here like it, right? A woman can’t sound too smart around here. And seriously, is that a Davy Rocket fursuit? I loved that show! Don’t you guys at that Enclave place play all these characters or something? That’s what I heard.”

“No, this is what I really look like, ma’am,” Clayton said. “My avian friend here is for real, and so’s Big Pig back here. All for real.”

:But there was that Davy Rocket mall gig you did a couple years ago,: Tallyhawk pointed out. She cleared her throat. “Anyway, Miss, we urgently need to speak with one of the City Fathers.”

“Good luck with that.” She pressed a button on the desk, and with a buzz, the door unlocked. “I mean, you can try…but who knows if any of ‘em will want to speak with you?”

“We’ll just have to chance it.” Tallyhawk nodded to her. “Thanks, Miss.”

The receptionist nodded, and went back to her book.

Beyond the door was a long stairway leading down several stories. Mitchell moved carefully behind the others on his four legs before deciding just to use his lifters. “Stairs? Really? What if you’re in a chair or something?”

“There’s a back way in that’s got an elevator. But it’s a couple klicks out of the way and ends you up in the middle of the office level, so only people who really need it use it.” Tallyhawk shrugged. “This is all in keeping with the ‘Man Cave’ theme. They’re called that because, historically, they were in the basement of the house. Basement means stairs.”

“If they have a comfy sofa and a big screen vid at the end of this, I’m gonna—” Mitchell began.

“Don’t make any promises you can’t keep,” Clayton advised, as they went through the door at the other end of the stairway. They emerged into an atrium that actually did have comfy sofas, several big-screen comm displays, a number of vintage arcade game reproductions, and a foosball table at one end. Another corner held a massive dark wood liquor cabinet filled with bottles of fine wine vintages from one end of human space to the other, as well as hard liquors. There were small fabbers disguised as beverage fridges by the sofas, and several Men were lounging, sipping from beer cans and watching a football game replay on the screen. The other end of the room had another security station, this one staffed by Men. A couple of them noticed the trio and moved in their direction.

“One of the big, constantly-running flamewars on the ‘net forums is whether all this means the City Fathers don’t or do take themselves too seriously,” Tallyhawk said. “The jury’s still out on that.”

One of the approaching guards had bear tags and a build to match, though the RIDE himself wasn’t in the room. RIDEs were still fairly uncommon in Cape Nord. Tallyhawk held up a hand, then offered him her badge case. “Detective Tallyhawk, Aloha PD, and long-time resident of Hellir. My associates, Clayton, also from Hellir, and APD Officer Mitchell Gaffney. We’d like to speak to a City Father.”

The guard grunted, holding the badge against his wrist comm and checking the display. He handed the badge back, then grunted, “Follow me.” He led the way to a door at the opposite end of the room from the “Man Cave” lounge, and down a long hallway lined with doors. He opened a door to a small conference room and nodded them through. “Be a few minutes.” He closed it behind them.

The room had a round table with six comfortable upholstered chairs, and another one of the beverage-fridge mini-fabs in the corner. The walls were lined with prints of movie posters for classic John Wayne films. There was ample room in another corner for Mitchell to sit down, as the other two took seats at the table.

“So, now what?” Mitchell asked.

“I guess we’ll see. How this goes depends on who we talk to,” Tallyhawk said. “There are several political factions among the Fathers. Well, if you can call them anything as formal as ‘factions.’ They’re more like…guy types, I guess. You’ve got the ‘Gentlemen,’ whose idea of Manliness is strictly old-school, tied up with being polite and respectful to the Fairer Sex. They were really big in power around the turn of the century, but they’ve gradually declined. Largely due to the Steaders bringing out all this long-forgotten stuff that challenged accepted notions of Manliness, spawning other types and diluting their power. Like the Cohen Brothers films, but again, don’t get me started.”

“You’ve got the Nerds. As in ‘Revenge of’,” Clayton said. “Still took them decades to get recognized as a valid form of ‘Manliness,’ and there aren’t very many of them. At least openly.”

“And then there’s the Dudes, though they tend to go in more for forming bowling leagues than taking part in polity government,” Tallyhawk continued. “Really, there are a good half-dozen of those smaller types, many of them inspired by some movie or other. The Cowboys. The Dirty Harries. The Surfers. Et cetera, et cetera. They don’t tend to form voting blocs of their own—either they vote their own way, or they follow one of the major ones.”

“And then there’s the Dudebros.” Clayton rolled his eyes. “I blame Joe Steader for this one. They’re not the Dude in any way.”

“More of an Anti-Dude,” Tallyhawk added. “Sort of an offshoot of eighties pop culture—’duuuuuude!’—crossed with forum troll.”

“They’re a toxic blight on all that is Manly,” a new voice said. The speaker was a grey-haired Man in a gray flannel suit, wearing a fedora, carrying a highball glass of some cocktail. He glanced at each of the three inhabitants of the room in turn, using the slope of his nose as a guide-line for his eyes. “But their standards are low, so they tend to multiply in dark corners. Like cockroaches.”

“Aw, you’re just mad because we get more chicks,” said another voice behind him. “Move your ass, Scoresby. I want to get a look at our guests. Never seen any Inties up-close and personal-like.” This was a shorter man in jeans and a sweatshirt, with mussed-up light brown hair and a matching mustache that strongly resembled a caterpillar clinging to his upper lip. “I’m Fred Higgins, and the stuffed shirt there is Rupert Scoresby. Who might you-all be?” His eyes zeroed in on Tallyhawk’s chest. “You’re some kind of bird, huh? You still got tits under that uniform?”

Down, boy,” Scoresby said dryly. He pulled back a chair across from the Integrates and took a seat. “You asked for an audience; very well, we’re here. Pray introduce yourselves, and elucidate the manner of your request.”

“He means say who you are and what you want,” Higgins translated helpfully. Scoresby glared at him.

Tallyhawk decided to take a different tack with these guys, and dropped into a narrative tone she’d often used for Goldman & Catanno cold openers. “I am—or at least I was—Detective Mitch Gardner of the Aloha PD. Some years ago I was assigned a case. One of our own had gone missing while on a stakeout.”

“That’d be me, Mitchell Gaffney. Just a beat cop,” the boar added.

“Integration doesn’t happen here as much,” Tallyhawk said. “But poor Mitchell there, well…there’s run of the mill Inties like me and Clayton here. Then there’s ferals like the Big Pig. Now, I didn’t know it at the time, but there were clues. They led me out to Bartertown.”

“No shit?” Higgins said. From the rapt look on his and Scoresby’s faces, she knew she had them both caught up in the story.

“Do go on, madam,” Scoresby said.

“Bartertown. That blight in the High Desert,” she continued. “The trail led me there. Then I got too close. See, until Zane Brubeck blew the lid off, Integrates had a faction dedicated to keeping themselves secret, no matter the cost to the victims. A poor hawk RIDE named Tally was their other victim. They mashed us together like so much wet clay, leaving the bird-woman you see before you now. Neither of us wanted it, but here we are. Or more accurately, here I am. Tallyhawk.”

Higgins went over to the corner fabber, replicated a bag of popcorn, brought it back to a seat next to Scoresby, and sat down, munching noisily. Scoresby glared at him.

Clayton took up the story. On the screen behind him, a scene started to play out, as shown from the raccoon’s own perspective. No doubt Desilu, Ubu, and the Editors at Hellir were hard at work in fast-time.

“I wasn’t the one who did it to them. I was new to the Snatchers at the time. That’s what they called Integrates who took away newbies from their old lives,” he said, voice full of regret. “Politics, right? Me and a small group, well, we wanted to pull as far away from those politics as we could. We decided to take a chance. We came here.”

:What are you guys doing?: Mitchell asked in fast-time.

:What’s it look like? Putting on a Show!: Clayton said. :Hellir thing. It’s a small but important audience, what else can we do?:

“Are you going somewhere with this?” Scoresby asked.

“We want you to understand us, and why we did what we did,” Tallyhawk said. She pointed at the screen behind her with her thumb. “Hellir Enclave. That’s what we called it. I won’t pretend everything we’ve done is above board. But from the very first day we bored a new cavern into the rock under the abandoned buildings on McKenna Street, we had a mandate from what passes for a leader. How’d Fritz put it, Clay?”

“Let me see if I can do this right. Just don’t let any word get out that I’m doing this,” Clayton said. The air around him blurred, then there stood a lynx in a black beret. He turned around to face the screen and the gathered residents of Hellir at the time.

“What is he doing there? Some kind of hardlight costume?” Scoresby said.

“Looks like a Beatnik putty tat,” Higgins said between swallows of popcorn and beer.

“You cats listen up,” “Fritz” said to the dozen or so Integrates on-screen, which included Tallyhawk and Clayton. “I gotta admit, it’s a pretty clever spot you picked to hide in. It’d be some tough toenails to yank you outta there without nobody getting wise—more trouble than it’s worth, so I guess you’re jake for now. Don’t make waves among the meat, dig? You make me regret this, and I’ll make you regret you was ever born. Twice.

“So who the hell is he supposed to be?” Higgen said.

“The Bosscat himself. Fritz,” Tallyhawk said. “The cat who’s been calling the shots in Integrate society for the last twenty-odd years. You heard about what happened at the press conference where Brubeck made the announcement? Fritz’s lackeys. If it’d been ten years ago, when he was still at the top of his game…” She shivered. “Brrr.”

Clayton dropped the hardlight. “And if he finds out I did that, well…I’m already due to end up a dozen hats anyway, so what’s one more?”

“’Meat’, are we?” Scoresby scoffed.

Higgins munched popcorn thoughtfully. “So there you all were, stuck in a hole in the ground. Or a hole under a hole in the ground. Sounds hella boring.”

“Give the man a cigar,” Clayton said. He gestured at a cigar case over on a side table and floated it out to the City Father’s seat.

“Huh. Neat trick,” Higgins said, taking a cigar and inspecting it. “But really, I prefer a good blunt.” That didn’t keep him from tucking it away in a pocket, however.

“One imagines that boredom drove you to…innovate?” Scoresby said.

“Boredom, and we needed stuff just to live,” Clayton said. “And I won’t pretend all of our seed money was from completely legitimate sources. The Bosscat also had that commandment ‘thou shalt not make waves’. So, we used our…innate talents to make disguises and give them a paper trail to make them legit.”

Tallyhawk concentrated, then projected Mitch Goldman.

“We all got to talking among ourselves, sharing the ‘clever’ bits we did when we had to interact with people, and before long we were making ‘gag reels’ to show at parties,” Clayton said. “And some of us shared ‘em with friends in other Enclaves, and they asked for more, and some of the creative role-playing types had the idea of writing up plots for people to play out. From there, it just sort of snowballed into a soap opera-slash-reality show kinda thing.”

“Our records show that your Enclave technically owns the two blocks on McKenna Street above it,” Scoresby said. “The Hooters, the Gym, the Detective Agency, a convenience fabbery, a motel, a bar and grill, an apartment complex…”

“All ‘owned’ by the people you made up and inserted into our Citizen Registry,” Higgins said. “That’s fraud, right there.” He pointed accusingly at Tallyhawk. “And that chick is the worst of you bunch. We should revoke your True Nordsman-ness. Thing. Deal.”

“Technically, it’s not mine. It’s ‘Mitch Goldman’s.’ And he’s not always me.”

“Yeah, sometimes I’m him,” Clayton said. “And sometimes other people. We don’t really think of the roles as being ‘us.’ They’re parts we play. Like James Bond was Sean Connery, but also George Lazenby, Roger Moore, et cetera.”

Scoresby snorted. “There was no James Bond except Connery.”

“Naw, man. Idris Elba was the best,” Higgins said. “He was the first one to play the character right.”

“I hate you.”

Clayton shrugged. “All right, maybe James Bond was a bad example. Still, it’s the way our culture worked.”

“Hollywood survived on reboots all the way to the Oil Crash,” Tallyhawk said, dropping the disguise. “Point being, many actors played the same characters. Goldman started out as a way for me to deal with my sudden femininity. I know you both have done enough un-Manning judgements to know how jarring that is to the victim.”

“Hell, look at me,” Mitchell said. “You know that big African Plain they have south of Aloha? Talk about boredom! The only shows we had down there were when some meerkat Integrate came up to me and started singing ‘Hakuna Matata.’ And that got old after the first three times. Mitch, Clay, you don’t know how good you had it here!”

“I feel like I’m in the ‘Very Important Lesson’ part of a Davy Rocket episode,” Higgins said, looking pointedly at Clayton.

“This has all been very clever storytelling,” Scoresby said. “You’ve clearly had time to hone your skills. Are you expecting some kind of leniency?”

“We simply want the Council of Men to understand how we got to today,” Tallyhawk said. “Desilu and Ubu—our Enclave leaders—have been asking to speak with you for weeks now. We have much to offer Cape Nord, and the prospect of no longer having to hide behind these Cover Personas is…how to put this?”

“A fucking relief, pardon my French,” Clayton said. “Until recently it was a matter of survival. All these years, you never knew we were here because it had to be that way. We had no other choice.”

“Aren’t you being sued for fraud? You and a half dozen others?” Scoresby asked pointedly.

Tallyhawk shrugged. “The lawyers are discussing it. It seems to me that if we can reach an overall accord between Hellir and Cape Nord, those cases will easily be settled.”

Higgins cleared his throat. “Where’s the money for your lawyers coming from? As I understand it, you people don’t exactly interact with our economy except to siphon money out of our banks.”

“The roles we created are small business owners and workaday people,” Clayton said. “And since we don’t have the same expenses as ordinary people, any profit went into the Enclave’s group fund to pay for our daily needs. Hellir’s earned every buck in that fund honestly.” He turned a palm over. “Of course, I can’t say the same for every individual, but we never took any contribution to the fund that we couldn’t document.”

“Indeed,” Scoresby said. “Only it doesn’t seem to me that the proceeds from running a city block or so of town could be all that high, overall. Especially given where you are situated. Consider the tourist dollars that drive Cape Nord’s economy. Those have been in decline ever since the War, and we have to bring in ever more money from the fishing fleets and deep mining, but they still bring us a pretty penny. Your Enclave isn’t located anywhere near the Tourist Gallery, and it certainly doesn’t have any ocean docks. How can your tax revenue stack up against that sort of income?”

“Maybe you can afford to pay your lawyers.” Higgins wadded up the popcorn bag and three-point-tossed it into a recycler next to the fabber. “But what can you do for the rest of us? Show me the money, honey. You want a seat at this poker table, you gotta ante up, stud.”

“As uncouth as my compatriot might be, he does hit upon the essential truth of the matter,” Scoresby pontificated. “The easiest route to resolving your difficulties is to obtain representation among the City Fathers—and we do not grant that simply on the basis of being a snappy dresser.”

“Though there are exceptions!” Higgins interjected. “I mean, just look at me!”

“Quite,” Scoresby said dryly. “You Integrates have demonstrated your superhuman powers. Very well, I grant that. Even also granting the purity of your motives, you have henceforth used these powers only to hide amongst and befuddle your fellow Man. Can you turn these powers toward earning an honest living? One that will enable you to do more than merely subsist? Prove that, and your other difficulties will resolve themselves like a toppling chain of dominos.” Scoresby pushed his chair back. “Until such time as you can accomplish this, we have nothing more to say.”

“And that goes double for me!” Higgins added, also getting up.

“Good day, lady and gentlemen.”

“And don’t let the screen door hit you in the bum on the way out!”

And just like that, they left.

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“I say we bug out and fill this entire place with foamcrete.”

“It’s not that bad, Desi.” Tallyhawk frowned at the white mouse Integrate over the conference table.

“From the memories you relayed, it sounds like it is.” Desilu cocked her head and chewed on a pencil, considering. “It was good of Mitchell to take a seat at such a different angle from the two of you. Gives a better perspective for intercutting the conversation…”

Clayton cleared his throat. “Focus, Desi, focus.

“Oh, your field of focus was just fine…oh. Right, sorry.” She smiled nervously. “I guess it’s obvious what my meme infection is, huh?”

Mitchell shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, madam; we’ve all been there.”

“But getting back to what you were saying, it sounds like it is that bad,” Desilu said. “Lawsuits for fraud, investigations into the circumstances of our licensing—I just heard a rumor that they’re looking into potentially deporting some of the Hooters girls—the real human ones—for working at a fraudulent business. Every day, it multiplies. Maybe we’d be better off cutting our losses and going to Camelot, or Chakona, or one of the other places willing to accept immigration.”

“But you heard what they said.” Tallyhawk cocked her head. “That all this would go away if we just had enough money.”

Desilu rolled her eyes. “Everything would go away if we had enough money. But we can’t just pull it out of the banks. Even if they weren’t wise to us, it wouldn’t be right. But what can we do? We don’t have a lucrative trade like Camelot and their ship-building, or Shangri-La and their breweries and distilleries. Just a couple blocks of businesses. Bankrupt blocks of businesses, the way things are going now. Damn that Zane Brubeck, anyway. Going public like that now. If we’d had more time to get ready…”

Clayton raised an eyebrow. “Were we getting ready? What steps were we taking? What was the timeframe on our plan for figuring out how to introduce ourselves gradually?

Desilu bit the pencil in two, glowered at the stub that was left, and threw it angrily across the room. She reached for another from her breast pocket. “Damn! You know there was no such plan. But if we’d known we were going to need one, then we could have—”

“Why didn’t we think we were going to need one? Did we think we could just go on like this forever?” Clayton snarled. “Hell, I knew something like this was going to happen sooner or later, and I’m as guilty as anyone of not doing a damned thing to get ready.”

“I don’t know what else Zane could have done, really,” Mitchell said thoughtfully. “It pretty much had to be big, public, and sudden, or the Bosscat could have shut it down. Honestly, I’m surprised he let it happen anyway with no more than a few incompetent RIDEs showing up to try to stop it.”

“But just throwing us all into the mix like this…” Clayton sighed. “All the rest of Cape Nord sees is all the underhanded stuff we’ve done to keep our cover intact. Not a whole lot of understanding between them and us, and they don’t want to listen to explanations.”

“Well, the pair we spoke to were pretty understanding, once we filled them in,” Tallyhawk mused, staring into the distance. “Even the Dudebro, in his uncouth way, which kind of surprised me.” She mimicked the man’s accent. “’Show me the money, honey.’”

“What good is that?” Desilu said. “It doesn’t help with our money troubles.”

“No…no, maybe it does,” Tallyhawk said, slowly smiling. “Come on, don’t you remember all the old movies? What did the plucky young hero say to all his friends when the bank threatened to foreclose on the orphanage and get them all sent away to a trade school?”

Desilu blinked. “’Let’s put on a show!’ I ought to know that, it’s the whole idea we built the Enclave on. But how does that—?”

“Well, in this case we don’t have to put on a show. We’ve been doing that for years. We’ve got petabytes of episodes, and even more petas of raw material.” Tallyhawk was grinning now. “What we need to do now is put out a show. Market it—but not just to our fellow Integrates this time. The secret’s out now, so let’s make it available to everyone. For a reasonable fee, of course. Everyone’s so Intie-curious now, it would sell if we just read the comm directory.”

Desilu’s jaw dropped, and the pencil fell to the table in front of her. “I never thought about—but no…no, it couldn’t work. All the unsuspecting humans who were featured in the show. We’d have to get releases from all of them.”

“Then compile a list of names in fast-time and have all those people who’re out of work from the Show being frozen work on getting them to sign off,” Clayton said. “Offer them a fee, or residuals, or something, depending on how much they’re in it. If they say no, then just edit ‘em out. Or drop in some virtual actor who doesn’t look anything like ‘em.”

“Hmm, that’s an idea. And it has been a while since the Steaders released anything. There would be a market for new entertainment. But that would just show us playing at being human, it wouldn’t show them…the…real…us…” Desilu frowned, then looked up. “We could do like they did back in the Twentieth. Release it as a ‘special edition’ with ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentaries. Show how it was made—the daily lives of Integrates. Show them what our lives were like. Which…would also get all the Integrates who grabbed it already from IntieNet to go out and get it again! With money this time.” She glanced into the distance, and the DIN on her right ear twinkled. “Yes…yes, I think we could do it. It would take months in fast-time to cut it all together, but we have the raw materials. If there’s anything we’re missing, we could get it from the Integrate actors.”

“What about Fritz?” Clayton asked. “He was in some of the episodes right after we went live on IntieNet, remember?”

Tallyhawk turned to him. “Which means even more people will want to see those. Especially with the documentary footage of him getting into character. So we can charge extra for that set.”

“Uh…” Clayton said.

Tallyhawk grinned. “What’s he going to do, sue us? He’s going to be too busy tangling with that Brubeck and his cronies to come after us for sharing home movies. Besides, he ought to be happy about it, overall—we bent over backward to give him a good role, and you know how he loves an audience. This’ll give put him in front of all of Zharus.”

Desilu picked the pencil back up and toyed with it again. “I think…I think it could work. I’ll get the other Editors working on compiling a list of the talent we need to clear, and edit lists for how to deal with them if they decline. Then we can put as many of the cast as we can round up on contacting them and making the offers.”

“Otherwise, we can do a pretty simple find-and-replace of faces and even entire people with randomly generated extras,” Clayton said.

Desilu nodded. “And if they come around once the show is popular, we can simply undo it and push the revisions out. Though they won’t get as much money as the people who said yes first thing.”

“Sounds like this would be the best possible time for something like that, too,” Mitchell said. “I mean, from what I’ve seen around. After all these years of being invisible bogeymen, now that we’re out everyone wants to know all there is to know about us, and there just isn’t much out there.”

“Oh, but there will be.” Desilu chuckled. “There absolutely will. But we need to get on this right away. Strike while the iron is hot. I’m going to need all hands for this.” She glanced at Mitchell. “Or hooves, trotters, whatever. If you wouldn’t mind helping out?”

Mitchell beamed. “If you have something an ex-cop feral can help with, I’m your boar.”

“We’ll find something.” She stared off into the distance, DIN twinkling again. “I’ll have everyone put their plots on hold again for the duration—I’ll need their help on this, too. They’ll grumble a little, but once they find out what it’s for they’ll jump at the chance.” She grinned. “Hey, everyone…let’s put on a show!

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September 5, 156 AL


Chief Willard Selleck pulled his unmarked skimmer into his usual spot out front of his favorite drinking establishment. Just down the block from the cop shop, Charlie’s was a sort of unofficial police bar. The booze and beer was raw, but it was also cheap—and even a Law Chief’s salary didn’t stretch far enough to poison himself with the good stuff all the time. Or…very much of the time at all, really.

And if he ever needed a good dose of alcohol in his system, it was a day like today. The news had been all over all the channels. That cockamamie bobcat had shown up in Uplift, killed several people, and carved up Zane Brubeck and some other Integrate bodyguard like a pair of turkeys, before getting run off by still another Integrate who was supposedly the missing Quinoa Steader. Yeah, sure, whatever. And he was Charlton Heston. Not that he really cared one way or the other right now. It had been a day of everyone running around like a chicken with their damn fool head cut off, and way too many fires for a man to piss on at once. Booze…booze booze booze…

Selleck was just stepping away from the car when a voice behind him said, “Chief Selleck?”

He whirled, and his gauss magnum was in his hand before he was even consciously aware of drawing it. But there was no one there. “Who the—”

“It’s me. Tallyhawk,” the voice said again. It seemed to be coming from somewhere else, he couldn’t tell exactly where. “Mitch Goldman, P.I. If you’ll holster that hog leg, I’ll show myself. Forgive the melodrama, but after yesterday, everyone’s a little jumpy around us, and I just didn’t want to end up with bullet holes before we had a chance to talk.”

“You people ain’t exactly trustworthy, especially now,” Selleck growled. “Eh, screw it.” He shoved the gun back under his armpit. “All right, fine. You wanna talk, hawkwoman? Spit it out.”

Tallyhawk faded into visibility a couple of meters away from him. She had a bottle tucked under her arm. “Actually, I want to buy you a drink. And then talk.” She leaned over, put the bottle on the ground between them, and backed away.

Selleck was curious in spite of himself, because he thought he recognized the label on the bottle. He took a couple steps forward and squatted to take a look. “’The Balvenie’ 17-year-old single malt scotch. Imported from Earth. Tryin’ to bribe me now?” The seal on the bottle appeared intact. From the patina of dust on it, it looked to have sat on a shelf for a while.

“No bribe. Just a…peace offering.” The damn bird smirked at him. At least, he thought it was a smirk, if he was reading the expressions right on her…beak. “We’ve shared booze, Chief. You listen better with a drink or two in you, and I wouldn’t want to feel guilty for contributing to your ulcers with that lighter fluid they serve in there.” She chuckled. “Oh, and for what it’s worth, I didn’t steal that. It’s from the stockroom of the Blind Boar Tavern, a bar we run on McKenna Street. Paid for it myself, with money I really earned.”

Selleck could have easily fixed those ulcers with some over-the-counter nanny-pills, but True Nordsmen learned to endure pain. At least, ones that still had “Pending” next to the title did. When it finally came through, then he’d see. Besides, they made a handy excuse when he needed to get out of something That Damn Woman wanted him to do. Why he’d ever married her in the first place…

But he was wool-gathering again. “All right, so what do you want?”

“Just a chance to talk. Fill you in on what we know from the Integrate scene that might not have been on the news. And…ask a favor, maybe.”

“Hmph. Figures you’d want something.” But it actually made him feel a little better to know that the world still worked the way it always had. Whatever these…techno-animal-things were, they at least still thought like people. “So talk, then.”

“Here?” She waved a hand around at the parking lot. It was deserted at the moment, but any time now someone could come out of the bar, or pull in to park, and see him right there talking to one of Cape Nord’s resident superhumans with a bottle of booze on the ground between them.

He had to admit, he saw the problem. Probably wouldn’t do his rep any good to be seen meeting furtively. “Where, then?”

She shrugged. “You choose. Even in there’s fine, if you don’t think booze that good would ruin the atmosphere.”

He snorted. “The booze wouldn’t, but maybe being seen with you would.” He stood and picked up the bottle. “This bar of yours, it’s open to the public? Like the rest of your street?”

“Yes. Not that we get many customers, what with the roadblocks that just sprung up, but we’ve got nothing to hide anymore.”

“All right, what the hell. You got me curious, and you even bought the booze. Might’s well drink it where it came from, and I ain’t talking about Scotland. I’ll meet you at that bar of yours in half an hour.” He’d just comm someone at the station and let ‘em know where he was going, just in case.

“Fair enough. I’ll see you there.” Tallyhawk bowed, then vanished again.

“Yeah, and I’ll see you, too.” Selleck shook his head and got back in his car, putting the booze in the shotgun seat. At least getting by the roadblocks wouldn’t be a problem for the likes of him.

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Getting to the place wasn’t a problem. It was the first time he’d actually been there, in fact. A Law Chief wasn’t in the habit of going to private detectives’ offices, and since they’d come out to the public there hadn’t really been a good opportunity to rubberneck the neighborhood. It hadn’t exactly been a crime scene—at least, not the kind of crime that took detectives to solve.

It looked funny to see a street so empty of people, but then, most of the businesses were closed and the police were currently keeping anyone who didn’t live in the neighborhood from coming in. Well, at least they knew where he was. A couple had offered to come along, but he told them he wanted an hour to meet with an informant alone.

The bar was open, and the bird was the only one in the room. She was sitting at a table in the open, with a pair of empty shot glasses on it. Looked a little nervous, then relieved when she saw him. They got people body language, too. So maybe they’re just funny-looking people, huh?

He stopped halfway into the room, glanced around, nodded thoughtfully. It was all polished wood and well-kept furnishings, well-used dartboard on the wall, expensive pool tables at one end. A few notches up the ladder from Charlie’s, but the same general type of establishment. “Swanky kinda place. But I guess it goes with the fancy scotch.” He set the bottle down on the table, twisted the seal broken, pulled the cork, and took a sniff. Then he poured a healthy dose into each glass. “All right, so talk.”

She nodded, raising the glass to him and taking a sip. “First off, we didn’t have anything to do with the attacks on Uplift or Nextus.”

He sniffed. “So you say.” He sipped the scotch. It was good. Too damn good to gulp, much as he would’ve liked to. So he sipped again. “That bobcat-whatever was one of your kind though.”

“Lynx, actually…but yes he was. He’s the one who thinks he’s the boss of us. Who was the boss of us up until a little bit ago, and wants to prove it to Zane Brubeck and anyone else who might be watching. What he did yesterday is probably more a message to other Integrates that he’s still the Bosscat than meant to scare you humans.”

Selleck waved a hand. “Bobcat, lynx, what the hell ever. Stumpy tail, bad attitude, same difference.” He supposed he shouldn’t swear in front of a lady…but on the other hand, this woman wasn’t exactly a lady anyhow. “So what’s it all mean to you? What’re you gonna do, huh? You gonna, what, volunteer to protect us from him if he comes knocking here?”

“Cape Nord is our home, Chief. If any of Fritz’s followers try and cause trouble here, you can be certain we’ll fight back. We’d like to coordinate defenses with you, if possible. Not that we expect him to show up here—his fight’s with Zane and Uplift, and he won’t go looking for more trouble until he’s settled that. But that’s not actually why I wanted to speak with you tonight. In fact, enough talk, I think I’ll just show you. Roll ‘em, Desi!”

One of the walls had a large blank patch on it, and it now became apparent why as a projector hanging from the ceiling clicked on. A title card came up: The Goldman & Catanno Mysteries.

Selleck did take a gulp of scotch at that. “The hell is this? You got me down here to show me your f—your damn home videos?”

Tallyhawk paused on the title. “One of the conditions of being able to stay here Fritz pushed on us was that we had to be monitored 30/6, to make sure we weren’t crossing the line and letting you know about us. Like I told you the other day, we turned that into a diversion. This is one of the results.”

That didn’t make him feel a whole lot better. “So you’re showing me your home videos…of me.

She shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to make you sit through the whole thing. This is just a ‘highlight reel’ to give you the gist. For the rest…” She placed a memory module on the table next to the bottle of scotch. “Every episode and behind-the-scenes featurette we’ve gone done is on here. The rough cuts, anyway; we’re still finishing up some of them. You can watch it or not on your own time.” She started the footage again. “Remember that big jewel heist two years ago? The one you called the ‘Family Jewels’ case? This is what we made out of it…or at least, one of the scenes involving you, anyway.”

The scene playing out on-screen was a conference in Selleck’s office. After an overzealous Law detective had arrested Goldman on suspicion of complicity in a jewel theft, his assistant Jade Catanno had come down and bailed him out, and they’d barged into Selleck’s office and talked to him together. Selleck had been skeptical at the time—he’d thought something about it hadn’t added up. Now he thought he knew why—they’d been faking stuff up for their damned show—but he couldn’t be sure now if that was what he really had thought then, or just what he thought he’d thought then. In any event, he’d accepted Goldman’s innocence provisionally, they’d worked together, and had ended up catching the real crook. He’d confessed to everything, and now he was doing five to ten with possible time off for good behavior.

As he watched, Selleck realized something was off about the scene from how he remembered it. It felt like they’d cut some inconsequential chatter to tighten it up, but also, it looked like…they made it look like…wait just a damned minute here.

For once, Selleck was speechless. “But how the…” He couldn’t even find the right curse word, and wasn’t sure whether it was because he was trying to find one that was tame enough to use in front of The Fairer Sex, or trying to find one that was extreme enough to encompass what he’d just seen. “I wasn’t acting, but you made it look like I was!”

Tallyhawk shrugged. “Part of that’s creative editing. Desi’s very good at that. We’ve got very good soundtrack composers, too. But part of it is…well, you kind of were ‘acting.’ Just as you’re ‘acting’ right now. Pretty much every Man in Cape Nord is ‘acting,’ every moment he’s out in public—because if he doesn’t present as his most Manly any time someone might be watching him, he can get docked points, and that can eventually have physical consequences.”

“But that’s just…” Selleck trailed off again, as he slowly put it together.

“Just the Reindeer Games?” Tallyhawk prompted gently. “Yes, it is. Because Cape Nord was founded as an offshoot of Sturmhaven, which was itself founded as a fancy live-action role-playing retreat. And you’re all still playing roles, it’s just that you’ve built your daily lives around them so you don’t see them anymore.”

Selleck was silent for a long moment, then he carefully refilled his shot glass and gulped it down again, heedless of the flavor. She was right. He saw that now. He did present as a gruff-but-wise father figure, because that was how you earned points in the Man Card class he’d chosen. He knew full well deep down it was all an act, but he’d simply gotten into the habit…and there he was.

The bird-lady’s beak twisted in a wry smile as she went on. “And those roles these days are largely based on modern interpretations of old TV shows and movies dug up by the Steaders—shows that the history books tell us were recognized as artificial even back when they were first made. The original Rulebook from when Cape Nord was first founded was mostly based on old half-remembered platitudes like ‘big boys don’t cry,’ and was a 16-page pamphlet. Have you looked at it lately? It’s ten volumes! It’s worse than the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons!”

Well, that’s why we have Nerds to keep the Rules straight, he thought. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t even really sure why everyone continued to play the Games, and to force those around them to play them. The original people who’d set them up were long since dead, so couldn’t everyone just agree together to stop forcing everyone else to conform to the artificial standards, instead of adding to them every time a new TV show was discovered?

Except they won’t, Selleck suddenly realized. It was like an epiphany. It’s just too damned much fun to have that much power over your fellow Man. Turn him into a woman if he slips up too much. Letting your fellow Man have the same kind of power over you would be cheap at the price, wouldn’t it? After all, you don’t plan to slip up yourself.

“The Show wouldn’t have worked nearly as well in any other polity, except maybe Sturmhaven. Really, I guess it was the way everyone here acts a part without even realizing it that sort of gave us the idea to ham it up ourselves. Then one thing led to another, and that led to The Show as you see it. But even then, we stay within the limits of the Reindeer Game ourselves when people who aren’t in on the secret are around. For instance, nobody but us could hear our internal monologues from that scene while they were happening.”

Selleck poured himself some more scotch. He felt he needed it now more than ever. “So what…what do you want, then?”

“Well…I said we wanted to ask a favor. And the favor is…well, we’re planning to release our Show, complete and uncut, to Integrates, humans, and RIDEs alike. But to do that, we need to get permission from everyone who appeared in it. That includes you.” Tallyhawk put a tablet and stylus on the table. “If you sign that release allowing us to use your likeness, we’ll compensate you a tenth of a percent of overall revenue for the sales of any episodes in which you appear. Or if you prefer, ten thousand mu cash up front instead.” She smiled. “I’d take the percentage, if I were you.”

Selleck looked from the screen, currently frozen on a shot showing him behind his desk with Goldman and Catanno in front of it, down to the tablet. “And if I don’t sign it?”

“Then we swap out your likeness with some computer-generated character.” Tallyhawk shrugged. “He’ll still say the same things, but will look and sound entirely different, and be named something different, and nobody will ever know it was supposed to be you. I’d really rather not—I think you were really good in the role, and you deserve recognition for it, and compensation for being filmed unaware like that. But we will change it up if we have to.”

Selleck picked up the form and forced himself to read through it. The language was pretty clear for legalese, and as far as he could tell it offered exactly what they said it did. “And people will see…me. In that TV series of yours.”

Tallyhawk nodded. “If you want to take some time before signing it to watch more episodes, make sure we didn’t make you look bad…”

Selleck barked a harsh laugh. “Made me look bad? Hell, you made me look better than I thought I did, which takes some doing. Do I want people to see me like that? What Man wouldn’t? I’ll take the percentage, thanks.” He picked up the stylus and signed. Then he drained the shot of scotch.

“I…need to go home and…think, I think.” He got slowly to his feet.

Tallyhawk nodded, then waved a hand to the table. “Don’t forget your bottle. And the memory chip.”

“Right.” Selleck picked up both, pocketed the chip, and tucked the bottle under an arm, and started to go.

Behind him, he heard the woman stand up and say, “Chief Selleck…”

He grunted and half-turned. “Hmm?”

“I’m sorry about…well, shattering your illusion, I guess.”

He waved it away with his free hand. “Forget it. I’ve always said I’d rather know the truth, even if it hurt. Be a damn fool hypocrite if I backed down on that now.” He shook his head. “I’ll do what I can to get the roadblocks…lessened. But they came down from over my head, so…”

“I understand, Chief. Have a good night.”

He shook his head, set his shoulders, and walked out into the night. Just another Man with a lot on his mind.

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Desilu frowned. “Damn it, Tally, I think you just broke one of our best character actors. Now that he’s seen the Man behind the curtain, will he still be able to play the role in quite the same way? Or will he turn all self-conscious?”

Tallyhawk shrugged. “It couldn’t be helped. He was too stubborn and opinionated to just sign the release because we asked him to. This at least gets him on our side a little, or at least not so much against us as he was.” She paused. “Besides, I happen to know his True Nordsman status goes final next week. So you could spin any changes in his personality as coming from being accredited secure in his masculinity so he doesn’t have to put on the act anymore, come to that.”

“I suppose there is that…” Desilu shook her head. “At least he doesn’t know about the women and their little mystery cult.”

Tallyhawk smiled wryly. “That really would break him.” She shook her head. “Anyway, we’ve filled him in on how we stand vis-a-vis Fritz, got his form signed, and that’s all done and dusted.”

Desilu nodded. “I guess I do have to admit, we always knew getting him to sign was going to take some doing, but it was worth doing, as much power as he can swing. If we did ‘ruin’ him for future episodes, well, we can work around that. All in all, you did a great job.”

Tallyhawk thought back to the episodes they’d just excerpted for Selleck’s benefit. The way the “Family Jewels” case had gone, Hellir’s network snoops had noticed someone bypassing an alarm on the jewelry store the next neighborhood over, and managed to maneuver Goldman onto the scene just in time, having him stop in for dinner at the restaurant across the street and then his keen detective intuition notice something was wrong. So he barely missed catching the guy, but was coincidentally on the scene looking for clues when the police arrived, in the best hard-boiled detective novel tradition.

Of course, the Hellir snoops knew exactly who the burglar was, as they’d simply bypassed his bypass of the cameras and hence seen (and recorded) the whole thing—but in the name of verisimilitude, nobody else got to see it. Tallyhawk had carefully left all that stuff out of the screening for Selleck, but she supposed it would come out in the behind-the-scenes segments. Hopefully he wouldn’t get around to watching those for a while.

Knowing exactly who the perp was, it was simple enough for them to find sufficient clues to point him out. They didn’t even need to fabricate any, as the burglar was just that sloppy. Goldman was able to “find” the clues and lead the cops to the right guy, they arrested him, and everyone was happy. Meanwhile, Hellir’s writers wove their own entirely fictitious storyline around the real-life robbery, throwing a mysterious crime syndicate, Jade Catanno’s evil twin sister separated at birth, and an ancient relic believed to have alien origins into the mix—but none of that ever got anywhere near the real-life cops. All that was explained, of course, in the making-of segments that would accompany the episode’s official release. It had been one of their more popular storylines. It might cause a little fuss amongst the mundanes when it came out, but they’d added enough disclaimers to it that their posteriors would hopefully be covered.

“Not something I want to have to do again soon, though.” Tallyhawk shook her head. “It’s just a good thing most of the clearances are a lot simpler.”

Desilu chuckled. “Yeah. ‘Oh, you wanna put me on TV? And you made me look good? And you’ll pay me for it? Where do I sign?’”

“So, who’s next on the list? I think I’ve still got time to check off a couple more names today.”

“As it happens, I do have a couple more candidates for you to talk to.” She beamed the contact information over.

“Right. I’ll get right on it.”

“Good!” Desilu grinned. “With any luck, we’ll be ready to air in only a week or so.”

“We’d better be.” Tallyhawk frowned. “The way things are going, we need to start telling people more about us, and soon.”

“I had some ideas about that, actually,” Desilu said. “I’m thinking we could do kind of a talk show on launch day. Call it ‘Hello, Hellir’…”

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September 11, 156 AL


The office looked the same way as it always had. A desk whose chief occupants were a pair of crossed legs slanting down to the chair behind it and a half-empty bottle of bourbon. Simulated sunlight coming through the blinds, the slats making a pattern of stripes on the opposite wall. A low bluesy saxophone wailing somewhere in the distance.

Then a pair of feline legs in fishnet stockings and high heels clacked into the foreground, and a woman politely cleared her throat. The pair of legs on the desk slowly swung down, and Mitch Goldman’s torso and head rose into view as he straightened up, fedora pulled down over his face. “Whadayawant, JadeCat?” he grumbled as he pushed the brim of the hat back.

The camera perspective stayed locked as Jade walked forward to the desk, coming into view from the knees up as she approached it. “What I want is a new case for us to work on. You’ve been slacking off, mister.”

“What do you expect, toots?” Mitch shook his head. “No one’s coming around this block anymore. We’re pure poison, ever since those…Intie-whatsits came out.”

“That just means we have to try a little harder.” Jade turned and walked to the window, separating the slats with her fingers and peering out. “Look at it another way, we maybe just doubled our clientele, is all. After all, who’s an Integrate going to come to when they need to do things on the quiet in the human world?”

“They already do do things on the quiet in the human world on their own. That’s what the papers said.”

“Aw, what do they know? There are still some things you need a good old-fashioned human for.”

Goldman sat up straighter. “You just don’t get it, kid. They can disguise themselves so they look just like us. Hell, anyone could be an Intie. Maybe even you or me.”

And then they both turned to face the camera and dropped their disguises—and there they were, Jade and Tallyhawk. Except that the standing-up “Jade” was actually Tallyhawk, while “Mitch” was the real Jade. “Surprise!” they said in unison.

“Forgive us for breaking character, but it’s for a good cause.” Tallyhawk grinned. “For the first time ever, we’re releasing every episode of The Show on the wide-open market. Humans, RIDEs, Integrates…find out what all the fuss here in Cape Nord is about.”

“And just to make it worth your while if you’re already a fan, this copy comes with hours and hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries and featurettes. Making-of, cast and crew interviews, the works.” Jade grinned. “So you can see how we entertain ourselves, and how we live, at the same time.”

“Just one thing, though.” Tallyhawk raised a hand. “If you’re one of our long-time Integrate fans—in keeping with the new spirit of openness, in the name of greater understanding and all that jazz, we ask you buy it with money you actually earn. Find a job, or go out and dig up some Q…whatever. Just get it legit, not with sticky fingers. Make our lives easier, okay?”

Jade pushed back the chair and got up, and Tallyhawk moved over to the chair and sat down. “You remember where we were?”

“I do.” Jade moved over to the window and separated the same slats with her fingers.

“Then…action!” Then Tallyhawk was Mitch Goldman, and Jade was…still Jade. “Hell, anyone could be an Intie. Maybe even you or me.”

Jade giggled. “That would be something, wouldn’t it? I’d think if we were Inties, we’d have known already.”

Mitch shrugged. “I’m just saying, anything’s possible.” He uncapped the bottle of bourbon and poured it into a handy shot glass. “I dunno, maybe you’re right. Maybe we should try to scare up some more business.”

“I think we’d better try. This rent’s not going to pay itself, you know.”

“…and, CUT!” The Integrates dropped their hardlight disguises again as the “camera” stopped rolling.

Jade sighed. “Think the City Fathers will buy it?”

“If they don’t at first, they will once their accountants go through our books and see our tax revenues,” Desilu said cheerfully, rising to her feet. She had been squatting at the other end of the office, providing the camera angle with a handheld unit. “We’re being completely open every step of the way.”

Someone knocked at the door. “Excuse me—I heard Jade was up here?” Jade’s younger sister Kisa stepped into the room, followed a moment later by an elk RIDE.

“Kisa! Glad you could make it!” Jade ran over to give her sister a hug. “Welcome to behind the scenes!”

“Oof.” Kisa hugged her sister back. “Sorry we’re late. Flint and I got held up on the way in. Traffic jam. He dropped us off while he parks the truck.”

“There’s no place to park a rig that size within five blocks,” Tallyhawk said.

“Well, the elevator’s just a block away, actually, but the entrance is a couple of klicks to go. Cape Nord: a maze of twisty passages, all alike.” Kisa grinned. “Hello…Tallyhawk, was it? Jade’s told me all about you. I guess we might have met when I was here last time, but this is my first chance to meet you for real.”

“I remember you, Kisa—and Jade’s told me about Dolores.” Tallyhawk nodded to the elk. “Pleased to meet you both.” She chuckled. “Flint really did set the cat among the pigeons when he and you just turned up on our doorstep.”

Kisa blushed a little. “She mentioned. It was just one of those things, I guess. I’d apologize, but…”

“No need for that.” Desilu chuckled. “Sudden adrenaline spikes are good for the writers. Does their little hearts and circulation pumps good. I’m Desilu, the chief inmate in the asylum.”

“You’re a mouse? I…hope that didn’t sound racist, but, I’m continually amazed at just how many animal types there are among RIDEs, so I guess that translates to Integrates, too.”

“We’re a diverse bunch, that’s for sure,” Tallyhawk said. “I’m not even technically a mammal, either. For all I have these…attributes.”

“Breasts, honey. You can say the word,” Jade said.

“Which is kind of funny, as I’m pretty sure no part of your RIDE woulda been a real bird,” Dolores said. “Weird how that works. If it happens to Kisa and me, I’ll become a real…half-an-elk? It’s like some kind of weird sideways Pinnochio thing.”

“Your guess is as good as ours, Dolores,” Desilu said. “Anyway, the Editors are working on getting our series pitch ready to send to the City Fathers.”

“What if they turn it down?” Kisa asked. “I mean, Jade told me about what you all are planning to do…”

“To be honest, we don’t actually think they’ll bother to look at it,” Desilu said. “It’s not like they’ve bothered opening any of our mail before.”

“Now, Desi, you don’t know that,” Tallyhawk said. “Just that they haven’t ever bothered to reply.”

“And why would they break a perfect record?” Desilu chuckled. “But on the outside chance they should see it, and object, we’ll do what we’ve always done when the unexpected happens. Right, crew?”

“We ad-lib!” Jade said, grinning. “It’s always worked before.”

“We’ve all been working like crazy to get it ready, the last couple of weeks. We’ve got all the editing done, with the exception of a few last people we still need to clear before we know if we can go with them as shot or have to swap in more Fake Shemps. Once we get those last few yea-or-nays, we’re good to go.”

“Desi’s been doing a bang-up job keeping track of everything,” Tallyhawk said. “Crises always do bring out the best in her.”

Desilu rolled her eyes. “Oh, spare my blushes. But anyway, once the last few are cleared up, we’ll be ready to roll. And right about time, too. Goodness. I wish we had longer to add a little more polish, but we couldn’t have asked for a better time to release this. All the things that have happened in the last two weeks…Brubeck taking back his platform, that crazy Steader girl skydiving from outer space…”

“Nexus’s richest citizen attacked in his own home, Uplift’s city government plaza torn up, Zane Brubeck put in the hospital…” Jade nodded. “I’m glad I was already here helping you out before most of that happened. It feels a lot safer within Enclave walls these days. Brrr.”

“At least Brubeck’s out of the hospital now and doing better.” Tallyhawk clicked her beak. “And people are going nuts to learn more about us.”

“It’s not exactly helping your popularity with the rest of Cape Nord, though, is it?” Kisa shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it was for us to make it through here today—they’ve basically blocked off every road in. If Jade hadn’t told us about that secret back way…”

“Talons crossed that once The Show gets out, it’ll change a few hearts and minds,” Tallyhawk said firmly. “Anyway, they’re not all against us. Some of them want to ‘recruit’ us as a defense militia just in case Fritz should decide to attack here.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “Joy and rapture. After how he tore up Uplift, though, I can’t say I blame them. He killed a lot of people.”

“And we’re in a cave,” Desilu said. “If he gets pissed off enough he could just bring the whole thing down on everyone with a few blasts of that cannon of his. Olympos redux.”

“Not for a few more weeks he can’t, as badly as that crazy Steader girl carved him up.” Tallyhawk shook her head. “After all that, I’d almost be worried about him taking a pet at The Show after all, except something tells me he’s going to be focused on the people who hit him with the sticks and stones once he gets better.”

“We’ll just have to bite the bullet and keep our eyes and ears peeled for any of his ‘Ascendant’ who show their faces,” Jade said.

“Well, we’re basically all done except those last few release forms,” Desilu said. “They’ve been some of the toughest to get ahold of.”

Tallyhawk chuckled. “If you need the services of a good private detective, I think I know where you might find one.”

Desilu looked distant for a moment, DIN twinkling. “Actually…I think we’ve got a line on the rest of them now. Care to help?”

“Why not?” Jade said. “Let’s get it over with so we can finally get this Show on the road.”

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September 12, 156 AL


“Well, that’s that. Last ‘I’ dotted, last ‘t’ crossed, uploads complete.” Desilu considered the comm screen, then cracked her knuckles over a control board with physical sliders, dials, and buttons. The past week the Enclave had dug a number of new rooms and set them up as an old-fashioned TV studio, complete with newsdesk, control room, and a big “ON AIR” sign, as yet unlit.

The control room was set up with all the trimmings of a real twentieth-century television production studio—because apart from being a working control room, it would also be a set for TV studio scenes should any plot require one. In fact, with Zharus being the crazy nostalgic place it was, it would work equally well for both the modern Show and one-off period dramas, in case anyone wanted to make some.

At the moment, Desilu and her chief assistant editors, the weasel Mark Seven and the black labrador Ubu, occupied the three main seats at the controls. Tallyhawk, Clayton, and Jade were leaning against the back wall, and Mitchell was watching through the open door, it being a little too narrow for a feral of his size to maneuver. Everyone was wearing bulky twencen headsets because the setting demanded it—even Mitchell. He looked remarkably silly with a headset on, but that was part of the point.

But right now they were using the control room for its other purpose—controlling the broadcast feeds to the outside world. Not that they really needed a physical room for that—they could have done it from virtual just as easily—but given the nature of The Show, it felt apropos that it be controlled from a set.

Desilu nodded to the screen, which showed the tail end of a long list of episodes, all with full progress bars with “100% CRC OK” at the end. “The episodes are ready to sell, and the commercials are ready to blanket the net. The press releases are queued up to hit every major and minor news agency and NextusLeaks. All I have to do is tap this button and the sales are on.”

Clayton raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t NextusLeaks have gotten their copy last night?”

Desilu smirked. “We’re not in Nextus, now are we?” She glanced over her shoulder to Tallyhawk. “This whole thing was your idea. Would you care to do the honors?”

The studio was set up like a morning TV newsmagazine program, like The Today Show or Sunday Morning. There was a leather couch for guests and a couple of comfy chairs for the hosts. It was a traditional three-camera interview setup, with an arc of cameras facing the stage—one camera each for the host and the guests, and the one in the middle to hold a medium two-shot. The cameras were fully functional, with the one concession to modernity being that they could shoot in ultra-high-definition VR-quality 3D. The stage backdrop was intentionally sparse and more than a little faded in spots, as if this really was a small, local TV station that didn’t have a lot of budget for this sort of thing. No one was actually on the set just yet, because the “talent” was there in the control room with them for the momentous occasion of the release.

Tallyhawk chuckled. “You know, if you thought we were swamped with fans and wanna-bes when we went live on IntieNet…”

Jade chuckled. “How bad could it be? They’re just humans. And RIDEs. They don’t get meme-infected.”

“They don’t get meme-infected the fast way,” Clayton corrected. “They just work up to it, then they’re capable of being every bit as crazy as we are. For that matter, any RIDE who wants to fast-time it could probably binge every episode in under half an hour real-time. That’s how the Steaders got everyone hooked on the twentieth century to begin with—with RIDEs’ help.”

Desilu shivered. “Brrr. You’re scaring me, and I’ve actually done that.” She nodded to the button. “Well?”

“Well, here goes everything,” Tallyhawk said. It was a big red button that came alight when she pushed it with a satisfying click. “Now, we wait.” She glanced at the clock on the wall—like the rest of the set, a practical prop. “We planned to go live at the top of the hour—and that’s just fifteen minutes away. Might as well take our places.”

Desilu nodded. “Right. I’m calling in the camera crew.” A door in the other side of the set opened and three more Integrates filed in to pick up their headsets and station themselves at the cameras. DevCorby, Aeolia Keys, and Hanley Rose took up their positions and flashed quick thumbs-up to the plate glass window of the control room.

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“So, where do you want me?” Flint Ironstag asked.

“You’re our humaniform-type representative, so take a seat on the couch. Mitchell will sit in the space between the couch and the hosts,” Desilu said. She reached up to the headset. “Okay, Camera 1 give me a good tight close-up of the hosts. Camera 3, the guests. 2, get all of them in frame and hold it there.” She glanced at the monitors showing the feeds from the cameras. “Okay, good. Lock it off and hold it there. We can do a little quick rehearsal while we wait…”

“We’re already starting to get some comm calls,” Ubu reported. “The switchboard crew are on ‘em. Telling ‘em to tune in to our feed in a few minutes. So far nobody important…”

“Right. Well, unless it’s Zane Brubeck, Joe Steader, or, God help us, the Bosscat himself, we’re all unavoidably detained.”

“Wouldn’t be the Bosscat, at least,” Clayton said. “Wouldn’t expect a peep out of him for another month or so.”

“Thank Heaven for small favors.” Desilu rolled her eyes. “Okay, let’s all drop into fast-time for a quick rehearsal. We won’t be rehearsing any of the questions and answers—we want spontaneity—but I want to make sure everyone’s clear on staging and direction. Here’s how this is going to go. When we’re ready to start, I’ll say…”

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“Quiet on the set! We’re live in five…four…three…” The last two counts were silent, in case some itchy trigger finger flipped the mics live early. They really were doing this just like a twentieth-century studio, right down to the clip-on lavalier microphones on collars or nearest equivalents (including one attached to Mitchell’s shoulder with medical tape) even though they weren’t strictly necessary. But Zharus had been long-enough immersed in twencen pop culture that it could appreciate a good reenactment.

The ON AIR sign in the control room came alight.

Then, in the control booth, Desilu began to direct. “Ready camera 2…take 2!” Mark Seven punched one of the glowing buttons on the board in front of him and the picture on the main monitor showed the talent and the guests. On the left, Flint sat on the sofa, still a little self-conscious even after the rehearsal. Mitchell sat on his haunches on the floor, looking rather calmer than Flint. Across from them in two reasonably-comfortable chairs were Tallyhawk and Jade, also in their undisguised Integrate forms.

:Remember, look into camera 1 for the introduction, then don’t look directly at the cameras after that,: Desilu sent. “Ready camera 1…take 1,” she said aloud in the booth. The light on the front of camera 2 went out, and it switched to 1. :Okay, go.: One area where they weren’t bothering for verisimilitude was in the crew-to-talent comms, since Intie broadcasts were so much simpler.

Tallyhawk nodded in greeting to the camera. “Hello, everyone. Welcome to our inaugural episode of Hello, Hellir. I’m Tallyhawk, and my co-host is Jade. We realize you all have a lot of questions after the last couple of weeks, and we hope we can answer some of them for you tonight.”

“Ready camera 3…take 3.”

“With us right now are our first guests, Flint Ironstag and Mitchell—”

:Oh no…I just thought of something,: Mitchell sent in fast-time. :What if my momma is watching?:

:Then she ought to be very proud that her son is on TV,: Tallyhawk replied in kind. :C’mon, you only just thought of that just now?:

Mitchell sent an icon of faint embarrassment. :I kinda got caught up in the excitement.:

:Well, it’s too late to do anything about that now.:

“—Gaffney. We’re going to talk a little bit about our Integrate lives, and about The Show which you’ll have noticed is newly available for purchase in your favorite media store. Flint, Mitchell, welcome to our show.”

“Well, I’m a little surprised you’d want a truck driver like me on your very first show, but here I am,” Flint said. He just looked like a man with RIDE tags, the ears, tail, and antler nubs of a whitetail deer.

“Or a porcine feral-form ex-cop, either,” Mitchell added.

Jade smiled. “Give yourselves some credit, guys. You’re here because you, in addition to your hosts, help us represent the average Intie, from human-form to feral. And the average joe humans and RIDEs, too. Point is, we can’t all be Zane Brubeck.”

“And neither can our new audience. I expect there are a lot of truck drivers and cops out there watching us tonight. And hair stylists, and bartenders, and even Hooters girls.” Tallyhawk grinned.

Flint nodded. “Well, you’ve got us there.”

“By now, just about everyone knows the basics about Integration—how it happens, what it does, and so on,” Tallyhawk continued. “But we’d like to start off by talking about what it means in a little more detail.”

“Once people know more about what we are, then we can move on to who,” Jade added. “So, Mitchell…I think you’ve been Integrated longer. Why don’t we start with you?”

“Er…all right,” Mitchell said, still a little nervous. “Well, I used to be a cop with the Aloha PD. One day, I was out on a stakeout, and…”

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The interview went on for a good half hour, covering the basics of Mitchell’s and Flint’s Integrated-life stories. They touched on the good parts and bad parts, the Enclaves and their relations to them, and the Bosscat and everyone’s relations to him. Tallyhawk and Jade kept the questions moving, prompted by the Script which was this time doing duty as an interview teleprompter.

“That’s all we have time for right now,” Jade said.

“But stick around—Hello, Hellir will resume in a half hour, when we’ll tell you more about what The Show is, how it came to be, and so on,” Tallyhawk picked up. “But first, we thought we’d do a little ‘show don’t tell.’ So don’t touch that dial—next up is a highlight reel our editors put together, to give you a sort of preview of what’s waiting for you if you order up. See you soon.”

“Three, two, one, and…we’re out! Great job, everyone!” The monitors changed over to a station identification card, and a moment later the introductory reel began. Over the next half hour, it would sketch out some of the subplots around the more popular characters, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage showing it getting made.

“Well, that was definitely no Hakuna Matata song and dance,” Mitchell said. “I need one of those Shangri-Laagers.”

Flint scratched around his antler nubs. “I’ve always wanted to be on the Show, but like that? Ugh.”

“I know it was a strain, but we all appreciate it,” Jade said as they all took off their mics and left them on the seats. “You handled yourself like a trouper. Besides, I’m sure we can come up with a good guest role for you on the real Show. You strike me as the Jack Burton type. You’ve seen Big Trouble in Little China, right?”

Mitchell snorted. “Now that’s typecasting if I’ve ever heard it.”

The next segment was going to be with Jade’s sister, Kisa, and her RIDE, Dolores. Kisa’s own background, coming nearly forty light years in search of her vanished sibling, was to provide a perspective on how much damage Integrates keeping themselves from the rest of humanity had done. Then, in their APD uniforms, Tallyhawk and Mitchell would go over “missing persons” statistics and appeal to anyone who hadn’t come out yet to friends and family to do so.

“So, what’s the news from the switchboard?” Tallyhawk said.

“Well, initial sales figures are in,” Ubu said.

“And?” Desilu asked.

“Well…in years to come, whenever anyone talks about hotcakes, they’ll have to describe them as selling like The Show.” Ubu grinned. “Sales were off the charts. They even picked up a little as the interview went on. But they’re really starting to climb now that people are getting to see what it’s actually like.”

“Any calls from…I dunno, celebrities?” Clayton asked.

“Nothing from any of the City Fathers, if that’s what you’re wondering. I imagine they either still don’t know what’s going on, or else they’re still in shock.”

“The way things are going, we’ll have that money, honey, before the day is out,” Clayton said. “By the end of the week, for sure. Hell, by the end of the month, maybe we could just buy Cape Nord, and put in a down payment on Aloha for our summer home.”

Jade laughed. “I don’t think it’ll go quite that big. Though as long as we’re daydreaming, I’d personally like to buy Sturmhaven and make a few little changes there, oh yes I would.” She hummed, “I’ve got a little list…I’ve got a little list…”

Desilu chuckled. “No more Gilbert and Sullivan summer stock for you.

“Oh…I think you’d better take this.” Ubu nodded to the main screen, which blinked away from the highlight reel to a test pattern for a moment.

Then it changed again, to a freckle-faced redhead who was right up in the lens. “How’s this?” she asked, moving back. As she withdrew, her hair was revealed to be tied in a braid, dangling forward over one shoulder. She moved back out of the way, revealing someone else sitting in an easy chair behind her.

It was a tiger Integrate—a very familiar tiger Integrate from the news coverage of recent days. His left leg was propped up level, and his left arm was resting on some pillows. Both limbs had compression dressings around part of them, with tubing carrying silvery fluid into them from a tank on an IV stand. A pistol-grip cane was leaning against the right side of the chair. “Hey,” Zane Brubeck said. “Pardon my not standing. Hell—if I weren’t an invalid right now, I’d be on the next sub up there this very moment. But hey, that’s life, and without it…” He paused, then chuckled. “Strange, but that joke doesn’t seem so funny anymore.”

The woman put her hands on her hips. “You’re not an invalid, Zane.”

“All right, Aggie, half an invalid. The left half.”

“Of all the bigwigs we thought would call, we’re glad you’re the first, Mr. Brubeck,” Tallyhawk said. She relaxed, not realizing she had tensed up. It could very well have been one of Fritz’s cronies.

“Well, I’m glad to get the chance. I’d already heard good things about your show from some of the others who’ve been helping me, but hadn’t had the chance to hunt it down. Then you made it so I don’t have to. Needless to say, I’ve already bought the lot.” He grinned. “It’s so rare to get the chance to see something new these days. I’m looking forward to binging on it while I rest and recuperate.”

The woman snorted. “The dirty cheater, he’ll be able to watch all of it before the rest of us have even gotten through a dozen episodes.”

“But what fun would that be? A TV show’s better when your friends can watch it with you. Something tells me I’ll be watching lots of it in real-time. If I have the time, with everything else that needs doing.” Zane grinned. “Oh, by the way, this is Agatha Brubeck, my sister. Formerly a lowly drone slaving away in mid-level management in Nextus Administration. Now she’s my keeper, I mean personal assistant.”

“I think ‘keeper’ is better. Someone ought to.” She rolled her eyes expressively.

Jade chuckled. “I’ve been there. Right, Tally? Seems to be a tiger thing.”

“We’re certainly glad you called,” Desilu put in. “But if I might ask, why?”

Zane reached to scratch under one of the bandages and Agatha slapped his hand away. “Hey!” Zane complained.

“You heard the doctor, you’ll get it infected!”

“But it itches!”

Agatha cleared her throat and nodded toward the screen.

“Oh, right…that. Heh.” Zane chuckled. “I’d like to appear on your talk show sometime, if you can fit me in. Not right now—I don’t need to be on TV right now any more than I have been, and people ought to hear more about us from someone not-me for a change. As many not-mes as possible. But in a few days, maybe.”

“We hope you enjoy it,” Desilu said. “We’ve been working for virtual months on this project the past couple weeks. We’ve even been able to include some Shows from other Enclaves. Camelot’s sketch comedy, a version of Star Trek made by the crew of the Clementine, and a Stupid Intie Tricks show made from various odds and ends.”

“And Shangri-La presented us with what seems to be an ascetic Asian philosophy…and instructional videos on mixology…crossed with Cheers…thing,,” Clayton said. “Weirdest thing you ever saw. Everyone hanging out in the bar in those saffron Buddhist robes…” He put his fist in his palm and bowed. “’A blessed morning to you, Norm-san. How does this new celestial turning find you?’”

“We don’t have a lot of genre series…at least not yet,” Desilu said. “And if I do say so myself, a lot of the ones other people are producing aren’t that good, though they’ve gotten better. It’s those darned meme infections—they seem to make it harder to be original, so you end up making fanfic instead. We were just lucky enough to catch an acting and producing bug instead, I guess.”

“It sounds interesting.” Zane grinned. “Anyway, Dad used to say that the worst shows were often the most fun, especially if you had a bunch of friends to ‘really just relax’ with. I’m sure we’ll enjoy even the worst stuff.” He covered his mouth as he coughed a couple of times, then cleared his throat. “Sorry…I better not stay on much longer. I tire easily.”

“Maybe you’d better get some rest,” Tallyhawk said. “We’ll still be here later.” We hope.

Zane waved a hand. “I’m good for a few more minutes. Listen…I’m anticipating being up and about in a couple days, and I’m having a recommissioning ceremony on the big platform. I’d like you to come, or some of you…Aggie’ll give you the details. We’re sending a corporate jet up to Cape Nord anyway, so if you don’t mind riding along with a bunch of Men…”

“Oh, I think we can handle them,” Tallyhawk said. :Regardless of what they decide, we might be able to start over somewhere else,: she added privately to the room.

:Uplift, maybe?: Clayton opined. :Aloha would probably be good. Warm, for one thing. Given how popular we are, if Cape Nord doesn’t want us here, well…screw ‘em.:

:Hell, maybe we should go to Califia. It’s only natural. H’wood.:

Jade cocked her head. “But why do you want us along, Mr. Brubeck? We’re nobody important—least of all here. We just put on a silly little show.”

“That’s actually the biggest reason I want you.” Zane coughed again, but held up a hand to stop Agatha from approaching. “The recommissioning’s just the public face…I’m inviting enough Inties and stuffed-shirts from all over that I’m thinking maybe we could get some dialogue happening behind the scenes…talk face to face, instead of IntieNet. It’s about damned time we were all talking to each other together instead of each hiding in our own little holes. And as a Brubeck, I know damned well that ‘silly shows’ can be one of the most powerful—” He broke into a coughing fit, and wasn’t able to finish the sentence. Agatha silently offered him a glass of water, which he took and drained.

:Sorry about that,: Zane’s voice came over the comm with the sideband compression of a DIN transmission, as his lips didn’t move. :Probably best I finish this ventrilo…qui…ly…is that even a word? Eh, I’m about done anyway. I’m sending you my comm codes, and Aggie will be in touch with the sub schedule.: He leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. :Check ya later.:

“Thank you, Mr. Brubeck, Miss Brubeck,” Tallyhawk said. “Get well soon.”

“Thank you,” Agatha said. “I’ll comm you later. Right now…” She nodded toward Zane, and cut the comm.

Everyone in the room took a collective sigh of relief. Desilu in particular. “Even if the City Fathers chuck us out, I think we can deal with that. But I’d still fill the place with foamcrete out of spite.”

“Hell, just being on the same plane with the City Fathers—the one that we need Zane Brubeck’s invitation to get aboard—should count for a lot with them,” Clayton said. “The Reindeer Games have some weird rules about heredity, but even if Zane never actually applied for one, at least some of the high score his pappy had on his should carry over to him.”

“Not to mention going toe to toe with Fritz and not backing down, even when he cut bits off of him,” Mark Seven put in thoughtfully. “So a Real Man’s Man specifically asked to see us.

“We’d better get things prepped for the next host segment,” Desilu said. “Work to do, everyone. Let’s hop to it.”

As Tallyhawk led the way to the door, Ubu looked up again. “Uh…hey…wait. There’s another call you maybe ought to take. She…says her name is Mrs. Evelyn Gaffney, from Punta Sur. Wants to talk to her son.”

Mitchell groaned. “Oh, no…momma.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be with you for moral support.” Tallyhawk reached down to pat her friend on the shoulder. “We’ll take it in Studio B. Give us a minute to get there. If we’re not back by showtime, just swap a later segment in for us and we’ll get it later.” She glanced down at Mitchell. “C’mon, Big Pig. It’ll be okay.”

“I…I hope so…” The two of them left together.

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September 14, 156 AL


The selfsame skimmer van Tallyhawk had driven up from Cape Nord pulled off the aerodrome access route. It turned onto a side path marked “PRIVATE ACCESS” and in smaller print “Authorized personnel only.” Desilu peered concernedly at it from the shotgun seat as they passed. “Are you sure this is the place?”

“These are the instructions Agatha Brubeck passed along,” Tallyhawk said, peering ahead. “She said the invitation was the only authorization we’d need.”

The road wound into a smaller cave separated from the main road, and then upward at a steep angle—though nothing a skimmer couldn’t handle. At the end of the rise, it leveled out, and came up to a security booth with red and white striped gates barring the way.

The Man on guard looked up from his console, and his eyes narrowed to see a human-sized bird in the driver seat. “This is a private entrance. What do you want?” he demanded.

“We have an invitation.” Tallyhawk’s DIN twinkled as she beamed it across.

The guard glanced at his comm screen, and glanced back. “That doesn’t mean—” Then he looked back at the comm screen again, and stared. He leaned forward, tapped a key, and mumbled something into the comm. A moment later, he put a hand to the earpiece in his ear. “…uh, yes. No, I just wanted to check. It’s just that they’re…oh. They are? Really? …no sir. I mean yes sir. I’ll pass them right through.” Without turning his head to look back at the van, he tapped the control to raise the gates.

“Thank you!” Tallyhawk said cheerfully, and drove on through.

“I hope that’s the last obstacle we encounter,” Desilu murmured. “Goodness knows it was crazy enough just getting out of McKenna Street today. I’m used to cloaking to avoid other citizens, but doing it to avoid fans is something else altogether.”

Tallyhawk nodded. “I hear that.” In the couple of days since they had gone live with The Show downloads and their several hours of Integrate interviews and behind-the-scenes documentaries, life on McKenna Street had taken an interesting turn. The very next day, the street had seen a handful of strangers and strange RIDEs wandering around gawking in a way not usually seen outside of Cape Nord’s Tourist Gallery—the part of town where the most interesting natural cave formations and terraforming relics had been preserved.

It was a little puzzling so many had shown up, given the Cape Nord roadblocks, but apparently those roadblocks had been mostly meant to prevent an “invasion” of Integrates finding their way out. Confronted with a crowd of humans wanting in, a situation not covered by their orders, they’d shrugged and let them through.

Some of these strangers had wandered into the gym, or Hooters, and attempted to strike up in-character conversations. Some of them had been fairly decent roleplayers, but the majority had been considerably more enthusiastic than competent. But Tallyhawk, Jade, and a few other of Hellir’s more recognizable faces had managed to guide most of them into an “OOC area” and go over some ground rules for interaction.

The trick was finding something that people who weren’t great actors could do and still feel like they were taking part. But happily, most were satisfied just to be in and around the same space as the players in the Show, maybe get themselves on camera for a minute or two, and didn’t want to do anything to spoil the good times for any of the others, especially the people who were in the Show themselves. As it happened, many of the better roleplayers among the guests were happy to take those less-experienced in hand.

This was good, because the day after that, the number of strangers on the street had basically doubled, with more coming in every hour. Someone in Hellir had the bright idea to throw a “Street Fair” with booths from local businesses and organizations, giving the crowds of tourists something interesting to do outside so they didn’t overwhelm area businesses.

It helped that effectively every member of the regular cast had at least one character who could believably be expected to be out on the street helping—which gave them good reasons to talk to people. The IC/OOC rules were somewhat relaxed for the duration—there was enough going on that editors wouldn’t have any problem working around out-of-character conversations and slips when it came time to make an episode out of it all.

The great thing about it was that the tourists were only too happy to spend money—and not just on tourist stuff either. (Which was good, since they basically didn’t have any—but every fabber in Hellir suddenly went to work churning it out.) Most were content buying stuff from booths at the fair, or even just having lunch or dinner at Hooters. DevCorby had the notion to have the gym start offering one-day guest memberships to let the tourists work out in the same facilities they’d seen on the air so often, and that was another new source of revenue. It might have been maddeningly busy, but at least they were making mad money out of it.

“But we can’t run a street fair forever,” Desilu had complained to Tallyhawk at the end of the day.

“With any luck, we shouldn’t have to,” Tallyhawk had replied. “Remember how it went with IntieNet. We were a six-day wonder, then it tapered off to more manageable levels. So give it a week or so. Meanwhile, we can brainstorm other ideas to keep ‘em busy—including ones that will work for the long haul. If everything goes well with the Council, who knows—maybe we could co-opt another cavern and set up an amusement park. If it worked for Walt Disney…”

Right in the middle of this, of course, was the invitation to Zane Brubeck’s little soiree on the mining platform. It was a little hectic taking a number of their most skilled staff away for a day right at the height of the influx, but by then, they’d managed to recruit and train a good number of competent visitors—especially some visiting Integrates who were able to soak up a lot of training in fast-time. And they were keeping tabs on things as best they could by remote, while crossing their fingers that nothing would go wrong that they wouldn’t be there to handle.

“We about there yet?” Jade called up from the van’s middle seat. She, Kisa, and Ubu were seated together there, while Dolores was lying further back, legs tucked underneath to fit in the van’s cargo area.

“Just about. It looks like the cave widens out just ahead…there.” The van pulled out into a larger domed cavern whose top was open to the sky. In the middle was one of the biggest suborbital shuttles Tallyhawk had ever seen. “Wow, would you look at that?”

“My goodness,” Desilu murmured. “How did they even fit it through the entry port? And why send something that big for us?”

“It’s not just us,” Jade reminded her. “The Nordie delegation’s going in it, too.”

“Even so, there can’t be more than half a dozen of them either.” Desilu shook her head. “We’ll rattle around like peas in a pod.”

“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” Dolores called from the back. “You know’s well’s I do how easy it it is to impress Cape Nord men with the size of your…plane.” She smirked at the chorus of groans that greeted this pronouncement. “Come on…giant phallic symbol like that, you were all thinking it.”

“They’ve certainly impressed this Neorus woman,” Kisa said. “I don’t think they even have suborbitals that big back home.”

“We’re a booming frontier world with lots of far-flung settlements,” Dolores reminded her. “So the ability to shift a lot of stuff place to place fast is important.”

Jade nodded. “On Neorus, everything’s close together—it’s not as terraformed as this world, so we all have to be able to help each other quickly in an emergency. So no need to move that much stuff that far.”

Tallyhawk pulled the skimmer van into a spot marked for it by the cavern wall. “Well, this is it. Make sure you’ve got all your stuff.” She shut the van down and locked everything while Jade and Ubu used their lifter fields to help Dolores out of the back.

“Okay, is everybody ready?” Desilu asked. “Great! Let’s get on board.” As one, they trouped toward the plane.

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As they boarded, they heard a familiar voice from up ahead. “…tells me they’re just waiting on some other guests, then we shall be away.”

“Scoresby,” Tallyhawk murmured. “This should be entertaining.” She led the way forward, to the compartment where their voices were coming from. A section of the Starmaster’s upper deck had been configured as a lounge area, with a walnut bar along one side, a row of comfortable seats next to the windows along the other, and the rest of the space filled with round tables for four.

Scoresby and Higgins were sitting in two of the window seats. A number of other Men and even a token arm-candy woman or two were scattered between the bar and some of the tables. Scoresby looked up as the Integrates entered. “You?” Scoresby demanded. “You’re the other guests?”

“Yes, us,” Tallyhawk said crisply. She eyed the Men as a hungry goshawk would an actual mouse. “Deal.”

“Can’t you people fly under your own power?” Scoresby huffed.

“Duuuuude!” Higgins said happily, toasting them with a can of Bud Lite. He actually grinned at them. “Welcome aboard! Don’t mind ol’ Low-Scoresby there. He’s got a bee in his bonnet ‘cuz he owns a big chunk of the Tourist Gallery and business there has been off the last couple days. I’m sure I dunno why.”

Scoresby glared at him. “It’s not that I’m not happy to see them. It’s just a little…unexpected.” He glanced from one to the other of them.

We’ve actually been trying to get in touch with you for the last few days,” Desilu said. “But for some reason no one’s been returning our calls.”

Scoresby straightened his lapels. “We have had other things on our minds. What with that dreadful attack on Uplift…”

“Is that why you’ve barricaded our streets?” Jade asked. “Trust me, if we’d had it in mind to attack you, we certainly wouldn’t have waited this long.”

“Do you have a problem speaking to people who look like us?” Desilu wondered. “Maybe this will make it easier.” Desilu shimmered and changed from a womanly young mouse to a mousy young woman. “How’s that?”

“Dude!” Higgins said, taking a long pull at his beer. “You busy tomorrow night?”

Tallyhawk cleared her throat. “All right, everyone, let’s just calm down. Yes, Mr. Scoresby, Zane Brubeck extended us a personal invitation to visit for the recommissioning ceremony. It seemed like an excellent chance to get to know people from other polities and other Enclaves. I believe that’s also why you’re going.”

“Well…yes,” Scoresby admitted, picking up a three-olive martini glass and sipping.

“It seems to me that as long as we’re going to be sharing the same space for the next little while, we might resume the talk we had the other day.” She waved Desilu into a nearby seat, and took one of her own. “Desi and I have got this—why don’t the rest of you have a drink and mingle?”

Jade nodded. “Sounds good. C’mon, guys.” She led the others in the direction of the bar.

Kisa waved to the bartender, a fox-eared young man in a white jacket with a Brubeck Mining lapel pin. “Hey, got any Neorussian Blue?”

Scoresby eyed Tallyhawk and Desilu nervously. Higgins grinned at his discomfiture. “Can I offer you gals anything? Fuzzy navel, sex on the beach, grasshopper…?”

“We’re fine, thank you.” Desilu resumed her normal appearance.

“Now, I seem to recall last time we spoke, you were saying something about showing you the money,” Tallyhawk said. “As it happens, we’ve worked up some figures we’d like you to look over. Desi?”

The mouse’s DIN twinkled. Scoresby took out his comm and checked the incoming messages. He paged through the email. “What, exactly, is this?”

Higgins pulled out his own comm, which was in a silver case with the “Budweiser” logo on it, and tapped the screen a few times. “Looks like their revenue figures for the last few days, and projections for the next few months. Both on sales of that vidshow of theirs, and small business income from tourism. Nice.” He looked up. “Gotta admit, you’re showing us. So now tell us. What can we do you for?”

Desilu smiled. “Well, for starters, we’d like you to take down the roadblocks you’ve thrown up. They’re bad for business.”

“Beyond that…we’d like to request we start formal talks about getting us some Council representation. Not right here and now, but sometime soon.” Tallyhawk smirked. “We’d really rather work with the system and not cause a whole lot of needless fuss—like, say, calling for a public referendum, as we could do if we got enough signatures.”

“Otherwise…” Desilu said, also giving the Men a look like a hawk regarding a mouse. “Well, otherwise we were looking at a nice studio location in H’wood. I’m sure they’d be happy to have us and our revenues.”

“Now, now, there should be no need for that sort of extreme move at the present juncture. I’m sure we can come to some reasonable accommodation.”

“He’s impressed,” Higgins translated helpfully. “Which he isn’t easily. So, go you.” He put down his beer long enough to flash them a quick thumbs-up.

Scoresby frowned. “You do understand, if you should get representation, there will be certain conditions. Any representative must be a Man—an actual person of masculine nature when not in disguise.”

:Of all the obstinate, pig-headed…: Tallyhawk sent privately to Desilu.

She replied with a shrug emoticon. :This is Cape Nord. What did we expect?: “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Desilu said aloud. “Our own council has people from both sexes; we’ll just send you some of the male ones.”

“All right. Other thing is, you gotta agree to turn over anyone who’s committed serious crimes,” Higgins said. “Not’cher ‘fraud’ and all that, and we can probably look the other way for small stuff, but major felony crimes at least. Like kidnapping and forced Integration.”

“We won’t shield the people who did that,” Tallyhawk said. “You bring us your arrest warrants and we’ll serve them.”

Desilu sent a frown emoticon. :You realize they’re talking about Clayton, right?:

:I know. I told him at the outset something like that would probably be required. Recommended he scoot before it came to that. But you know him and that martyr complex he has.: Tallyhawk sighed inwardly. :He’s all set to fall on his sword. Just wanted to wait until it would actually do us some good is all.:

:Well, we can deal with that later.:

“Well, then,” Scoresby said. “I suppose…it’s hard to find anything to object to when you put it so plainly. These figures are rather impressive.”

The sound of laughter from across the room briefly drew Tallyhawk’s attention. Jade, Kisa, and Dolores were at a table with two of the token women the Cape Nord party was bringing along. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, talking over drinks while Kisa made animated gestures. Tallyhawk cranked the volume long enough to hear that Kisa was describing a recent visit to Sturmhaven. It sounded interesting, and she made a mental note to recall it and play it back from memory, later.

“Speaking of crimes, I watched all of that that Hello, Hellir thing and the first bits of that ‘Show’ of yours,” Higgins said. “Ran some of my own checks, called some pals to ask on stuff and they said it was all kosher. Back in the day, your lives were pretty shitty. That in mind, I think we can swing some kind of amnesty for base survival stuff. If you can make with some restitution for any cash and stuff you ganked, at a fair interest rate, it’d be even better.”

Desilu nodded. “We’ll be happy to. We kept careful track of every centi-mu we didn’t earn legally, and when it gets to that point, our accountants can sit down with yours and go over everything.”

“Kewlness. What you think, Score?”

Scoresby shrugged. “It’s all highly irregular, but…what about this blasted Integrate business isn’t? I suppose that if we’re going to visit with and even honor a foreign Integrate, the least we can do is try to normalize relations with the ones who are our own citizens.”

“Good deal.” Tallyhawk smiled. “And speaking of ‘honor,’ as a token of our goodwill, we’ll put in a good word for you with Brubeck when we see him. He may need someone to take him aside and quietly explain why a Man Card is such a big deal, and why he should graciously accept rather than try to laugh off the one you plan to stick him with. Gold, is it? Platinum? Or something else?”

Scoresby colored. “That’s not your…oh, all right. Platinum.” He sighed. “The public nature of his bravado, combined with his late father’s own ranking, has made it imperative that we, as Gondwana’s one true arbiter of Manliness, issue some public recognition.”

“Or else the constituents will revolt,” Higgins supplied. “And they’re pretty revolting already.”

“We’ll let Brubeck know the score,” Desilu promised. “Being from Nextus, he might not understand how much it means.”

:Not to mention, the most prominent Intie having his own Man Card will make it easier for our characters to keep theirs.: Tallyhawk sent.

:We might have our work cut out for us. Brubeck seems entirely too sensible to care about something like that.:

:Ah, but that’s why they need us.:

“Hey, cool beans. Can’t promise anything, but we’ll count that as a solid if you can swing it.”

“Hmph. Don’t think this will entitle you to any special treatment.”

“Give it a rest, Score. The whole thing calls for special treatment. We just have to work out how special, and I for one would a lot rather be palsy-walsy if they wanna be too. Less messy that way, brah. Especially when you think on all the unfriendlies out there.

“Until Zane came along and blew things wide open, those unfriendlies were keeping us under their thumbs, too,” Tallyhawk said. “We have more reason to hate them than you do. A lot more.”

“I suppose…” Scoresby sighed, and for a moment looked ten years older. “These are just such trying times. People you believed you knew turning out to be…something else. An immense threat, heretofore entirely unknown, appearing out of nowhere. One longs for a return to normalcy.”

“I don’t think things will ever return to the old normal, and those of us who had to live in the walls like…well, you know…are glad of that,” Desilu said. “But maybe we can find a new one we can all live with.”

Higgins raised his beer. “I’ll chug to that.” He drained the rest of the can, then crushed the empty against his forehead in the time-honored fashion before dropping it in the recycler.

:I think if someone mashed Cape Nord and Sturmhaven together you might end up with something almost Nextus-like,: Ubu opined. The black labrador retriever smiled. :I’ll put myself forward as the interim Man Cave rep. I’m not only a Man, I’m Man’s Best Friend.:

:Works for me, Ubu,: Desilu said. :Tally?:

:It’ll work until we can have a proper election. Otherwise, sure.:

“Great!” Tallyhawk said aloud. “We’ll get out of your faces for the rest of the flight—” She started to get up, but Scoresby raised a hand.

“Please, madam, there’s no need for that.” He swallowed, took a moment to compose himself, and shook his head. “If we are to live together, so be it. We should all do our best to…acclimate to each other. We won’t be able to hide from each other forever.”

“What my brah there is saying is, weirdness aside, you’re pretty okay guys and gals, and we think it’d be kewl if you hung out with us. Don’t let us shoo you off. If we’re gonna share the polity, we can darned sure start by sharing a plane.”

The Hellir Integrates looked at one another and nodded. “If you’d like, we’ve marked some episodes of the Show you’ll probably find particularly interesting. And we have just enough time to watch before we reach Brubeck’s platform,” Desilu said. “It features Mitch Goldman and Jade Catanno.”

“Hey, an in-flight movie? Kewl!” Higgins enthused. “I thought I saw a theater a little further front. We can fab some popcorn and everything.”

“I believe they have real popcorn on this plane,” Scoresby said.

“Bonus! Even better! So, what’re we waiting for?”

Scoresby stood, and gallantly offered Tallyhawk his arm. Tallyhawk almost declined, but her Integrate-fast perception showed her exactly how long Scoresby hesitated before making the gesture…and, hence, exactly how much it cost him. He really is trying, she realized. He doesn’t want to, but he knows he has to. And almost despite herself, she simply couldn’t let that effort go to waste.

“Why, thankyou, kind sir,” she said, in the response that Cape Nord etiquette called for—not simpering, but with measured politeness. “I would be delighted to accompany you to the theater.” Let him see that she was willing to match his effort.

He nodded in acknowledgement—not just to the words, but to the gesture behind then. “Then let us go.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Tallyhawk caught Higgins making his own best effort at gallantry. It didn’t come as naturally to him as to Scoresby, but he pretty obviously wasn’t going to let the other Cape Norder show him up. And Desilu followed Tallyhawk’s example.

“Hey, everyone! We’re going to watch some vids up front!” Higgins called to the rest. “Grab some booze and join us!”

:Diplomacy, Cape Nord style,: Desilu sent dryly.

:Don’t knock it,: Tallyhawk replied as she moved toward the front on Scoresby’s arm. :Remember, the whole point of all of this is supposed to be that we’re part of Cape Nord, too.:

:I suppose that’s true. But sometimes I almost wish we did have an excuse to pack up and move. The only reason we’re even here in the first place is that it looked like the safest place to flee to where we wouldn’t have to deal with Fritz. But then he went and surprised us by deciding he was okay with us being here after all—but was, in fact, still our lord and master.:

:True enough,: Ubu sent, moving into line behind them along with the others from their two parties. Kisa and Jade were still chatting with the other Cape Nord women, who seemed interested in what they had to say. :But then we went and made this crazy place our home, warts and all. It just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.:

:Hey, speaking of warts, whatever happened to Mitchell?: Jade asked. :I didn’t see him again after Hello, Hellir was over. I know you got that call from his mother, but everything got so crazy after that I didn’t think to ask about it until now.:

Tallyhawk sent a “wry laugh” emoticon. :Believe it or not, he’s gone home. His mother was so glad he was still alive at all that she didn’t care what shape he was. She insisted that he come to visit and tell her all about it in person.:

Jade chuckled. :At least one of us gets a happy ending.:

:Hopefully it’ll be a happy ending for everyone. But we’ll just have to see.: Tallyhawk said. :We’ll just have to see.:

Separator k left.png NEXT EPISODE: Separator k right.png
Separator k left.png Integration Part 18 “Many Meetings” (Director’s Cut) Separator k right.png
Separator k left.png (When and if we get that far…) Separator k right.png