User:Robotech Master/Hello, KITTy

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Hello, KITTy

Author: Robotech_Master (with Jon Buck)


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


April 14, 159 AL

Harriet Steader sighed. “I guess this is it.”

The cheetah woman hugged herself and shivered as she stared into the imposing gap in the mountain in front of her. She’d already passed through two security checkpoints, but this was the entrance to the Freezer complex proper—the maximum security prison Zharus’s governments jointly maintained for the planet’s most dangerous felons.

There weren’t many of them, or at least there hadn’t been prior to the Integrate Civil War. Most human felons responded well to modern rehabilitation techniques, and could soon return to being productive members of society.

But then Integrates had come into the open—and Fritz’s gang of snatchers and candlejacks had been taken apart and the worst of them largely stored in here. It was the only place that could be easily retrofitted to handle Integrates’ superhuman abilities, having been designed for criminals who were already nearly superhuman themselves.

Like the capital city dome elsewhere in the Cape Nord polity, the prison was built within an old iron mine. But this one had been mined out along much narrower veins, leading to a more compact interior—and just a few entrances or exits that were, if you believed the rumors, rigged to drop half a mountain on the heads of any escape attempt. Harriet doubted the veracity of those particular rumors, but…you never knew, did you?

The heavy bulkhead in the tunnel mouth slowly slid open, and a German Shepherd Integrate wearing the steel star of the Marshals’ prisoner handling division stepped forward to greet her. “Welcome to the Freezer, Miss Steader. I’m Assistant Warden Rintin. I understand you’re here to visit Cylon.”

Harriet nodded. “I assume you’ve read the request in full, so I don’t need to go over my reasons again, right?”

“That’s correct, Ma’am.” The Integrate shook his head. “I don’t know what you think you’ll be able to accomplish. We haven’t made a lot of progress with that one.”

“It’s not about what I can accomplish, Warden. It’s about what I owe him.” Harriet shook her head. “I ruined that poor RIDE’s life. Probably personally set him on the course that ended up leading him here. I don’t know if there’s any making that up, but I at least owe him a face-to-face apology. Or as close to face-to-face as his VR incarceration permits.”

“To be honest, if we’d made any sort of progress at all, we’d have turned you down,” Rintin said as he led the way inside. “Often the rehabilitation process can be very delicate, and any disruption such as a visit by a face from the past could set us back by months or years. But…”

“But in this case there just isn’t anything to disrupt,” Harriet said. “I read the reports you filed. He just sits there staring at the wall…for years of subjective time. So in this case, your shrinks are hoping that maybe a shock like that could help break through to him.”

“We wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but that is the essence.” Rintin shrugged. “If you were as responsible as you say, you might be the only one who can get through to him. Though, you realize…it may not be pleasant for you.”

Harriet waved a hand dismissively. “I’m pretty sure you know I’ve just been through the kind of ‘unpleasant’ that makes the average deer’s Nature Range experience look like a friendly cuddle. It was all over the news. And it’s still all over me.” She touched the network of scars still visible through her fur.

Now it was Rintin’s turn to shiver. “I…read about that.”

“So, while I can’t say I’m looking forward to any further ‘unpleasantness,’ well…” Harriet sighed. “If it helps him to tear me limb from limb virtually, I’ll happily let him. It’s the least I owe him after what I did. And it’s not anything more than I’ve done to plenty of willing gazelles.”

Rintin nodded. “I guess that’s your own business.”

“By the way, there’s one thing I’ve been wondering,” Harriet said. “Can you tell me anything about the human he Integrated with? I never could find anything out about him.”

“Afraid he’s a mystery to us, too. We’re still reconstructing records, trying to find out who got kidnapped. Near as we can tell, he was some poor sucker who got force-Integrated as part of a snatcher cleanup operation. They took Cylon, or KITTy as he still was at the time, off a nearby dealer lot. The human seems to have been completely subsumed; his memories aren’t in Cylon that we’ve been able to find.”

Harriet nodded. “That would fit with their M.O., and would explain why there was no other persona to temper KITTy’s bitterness.”

“As soon as he understood what had happened to him, he renamed himself, volunteered for the snatchers, and fought his way up the ladder until he was one of Fritz’s most trusted subordinates.”

Harriet sighed. “I see. Well, show me where I can connect in.”

“We’ll need to make a new DIN for you to use,” Rintin said. “One that is hardware-restricted to the one interface here. Standard security protocols.”

“Of course.” Harriet smiled. “Funny how it still feels weird to hear people discussing ‘making DINs’ so casually. I guess I’ll get used to it.”

“Perhaps later I could convince you to tell me how you managed to get off-world in the first place?” Rintin suggested. “I have a certain amount of professional curiosity when it comes to people evading security measures.”

Harriet chuckled. “It’s a date. Right now, show me to your DIN maker.”

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Stone walls do not a prison make, but you gotta admit they’re atmospheric, Harriet thought as she materialized in the anteroom of Cylon’s VR prison. It was done up in the style of a 20th-century prison—or at least, the fictionalized version of it that made its way into the media unearthed by Joe and Mikel. Alcatraz, that was it. That was this place reminded her of. She’d actually visited the real place while she was touring Earth, and this did remind her of it a great deal.

There weren’t any guards around, or other prisoners; every prison setting was instanced for its one particular occupant. Harriet wondered just how much of the vast courtyards and prison blocks visible through the barred windows had any actual reality to them. How far could you get before you bumped into an invisible barrier?

But it didn’t really matter. She was only here for the occupant of one little cell just up the hall. Taking a deep breath, Harriet set her shoulders and walked in.

It wasn’t far up the hall to the cell, where a giant black panther crouched, a single red eye moving back and forth between the metallic eye sockets along a path across the bridge of his muzzle. Harriet was a little relieved to see they hadn’t stuck him in a black and white prison uniform. They at least left him that much dignity.

As had been described, Cylon was simply staring at the wall across from him, his roving eye dim. He made no move or reaction to her approach. She supposed that as far as he was concerned, she was just another prison shrink—something to be endured until she went away.

Harriet forced herself to take a good long look, and had to draw another breath to keep from sobbing. She remembered, with crystal clarity now thanks to her perfect Integrate recall, the earnest new-made RIDE who did his best to conceal his youthful naivete behind the stiffly acted part of William Daniels’s KITT voice. He’d done everything Harold had asked of him—done his best to please him. And he’d been so shocked when the end of the month came and Harold had casually thrown him over in favor of his next obsession of the moment. It had destroyed him.

No, I destroyed him. Harriet squeezed her eyes shut against the tears. Did I even feel the slightest pang of remorse? She thought he had, at least a little, but she wasn’t fully capable of putting herself back in Harold’s old mindset now. She could just be projecting.

Harold had offered KITTy to Quinoa, but…that wasn’t remorse. That was playing the rich big-shot, able to dispense million-mu RIDEs like they were party favors. He hadn’t really cared about KITTy—or, for that matter, about Quinoa, beyond wanting to impress her. He had been a complete tool.

Well, now it was time to pay up. Harriet took a deep breath and stepped forward. “KITTy.”

That name was enough to get the face to turn at least a couple of millimeters. “My name is Cylon,” the voice rasped—still sounding so much like William Daniels no matter how much the Integrate tried to roughen it up.

“It is now,” Harriet said. “Just like mine is Harriet. But…we both used to have different names. Yours was KITTy…” She switched her appearance back to her old self—a sandy-haired, freckle-faced young man. “…and mine was Harold Steader.”

Cylon leaped to his feet, hackles raised. “YOU!” he growled. “What are you—no. No. This is another trick. Those ‘therapists’ think they can get a rise out of me by giving me a punching bag shaped like the one I hate the most. It won’t work.”

“I thought you might think that. Here.” Harold lobbed a glowing sphere between the bars. It landed by Cylon’s forepaw, and the cat poked at it. It dissolved, transmitting a packet of memories across to him—Harold’s own private memories of his time with KITTy, that no one else could have had.

Cylon stared down at his paw, then slowly raised his gaze to regard Harold again. “YOU,” he growled again. “What. Do. You. Want.”

“I want to apologize, for starters,” Harold said. “I screwed up your life, and never even realized it until some years later. I don’t know if there’s even anything I can do to make amends, but…I’m here to try.”

Cylon snorted. “A pretty sentiment. Come to make speeches about how sorry you are. But when it’s all over, you get to go away, and I’m still stuck in here. Go away. I don’t need you.”

Harold sighed. “That’s where you’re wrong. You see, they gave me access to the sim controls, so…” He snapped his fingers and the prison was gone, replaced by the South American jungle that was home to the melanistic jaguars KITTy’s Walker form had been based on. Now they faced each other across a clearing, with no bars between them. “There.”

Cylon stalked forward slowly. “What is this? How are you trying to screw with my head now?

“I’m not.” Harold spread his hands. “I’m…well, I can guess you’ve had a lot of time to imagine what you wanted to do to me when you met me again. Here’s your chance.” He swallowed. “We’re in Nature Range. I’m your prey. I won’t block the pain, so…make it hurt as much as you want. I know it won’t be as much as I hurt you, but it’s the least I owe you.”

Cylon’s eye sockets narrowed. “Run,” he growled.

Harold nodded, then turned and ran from the clearing.

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As he ran up the trail, Harold could hear the rustling in the undergrowth around it, and catch the occasional flash of a gleaming red eye through the undergrowth. As Harriet, he could readily have outpaced Cylon, given him a run for his money when it came to hunting—but that wasn’t the reason he was here, so he kept himself at the level of a slightly clumsy, out-of-shape human man.

Cylon’s voice came from the undergrowth, eerily directionless. “I loved you. I worshipped you. You had me made.

Harold bit back a sob. “I—I know that now. I was such an idiot.”

“How could you—how could you do that to me?!

Harold staggered as four lines of fire drew themselves down his back. He gasped, but kept running. “I’m…I was…” He shook his head. “No excuses. I was wrong. I was so wrong.”

“You abandoned me. And so did the human you gave me to. And the one after that, and the one after that…”

Another claw swipe, and four more lines of agony down Harold’s side. Harold yelped in pain.

“And then Fritz’s people came and set me free. Free of humans…free of being just a RIDE. We were going to rule this world! Put all the lower beings in their place!”

This time Harold saw the claw coming, and flinched, but it still raked down his chest. His shirt was in tatters now. “So…I heard, yes,” Harold said. “How’d that work out for you?”

Cylon growled. “They turned on me. They all turned on me. Meat…junk…the Ascendants I was leading. And I…I am a killer now. You made me a killer. And they’ll never let me out of here.” Cylon stalked into the light, eye still sweeping back and forth, but…was something glittering at the corners of his eye sockets?

Harold fell to his knees. “I’m…I’m sorry, KITTy. I’m so, so sorry.”

“And now I find out that you of all people are an Integrate! You don’t deserve this gift!”

In spite of himself, Harold smiled wryly. “’Gift,’ is it? More like the gift that keeps on giving. Here.” He tossed another orb—Harriet’s memories of getting captured on Earth, and what had happened after that.

Absorbing those memories visibly staggered Cylon. “They did…that to you.”

“They did,” Harold said. In the silence, he could hear the quiet spatters that the blood from his wounds was making on the ground below him.

Cylon growled. “It’s no less than you deserved. But…” He shook his head in frustration. “I can’t even take satisfaction in hurting you now. Nothing I could do would compare to that.

Harold shrugged, wincing as it aggravated the claw slashes. “If it would make you feel better…”

Cylon stared at him, the red eye now seeming to take on an expression of…confusion. “It…it wouldn’t,” he said slowly. “I…I…” He moved forward again, more tentatively now, then slowly lowered his head to bump Harold in the chest. “I…I’ve missed you so much, Harold.

Harold’s vision went blurry, and he felt tears making hot tracks down his cheeks. He slowly reached up to pat the giant panther’s cheek. “I’m here now, KITTy. And I’m not going to run away and leave you again.”

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It wasn’t exactly a “happily ever after,” but it was a start. The therapists froze the state of the simulation so they could discuss it with Harriet without affecting Cylon’s delicate state of mind. They were excited by the possibilities afforded by this new breakthrough—until Harriet reminded them that she was going to be staying.

“Are you serious?” the lead therapist, a white rabbit Integrate named Grace, said. “We run at high fast-time rates, you know.”

“Hellooo, Integrate here? Fast is good. The more years we can pack into a few days or weeks, the better. Get him to a point where he can be without me for a while so I can take care of a few things in the the Real.”

The rabbit stared at her. “You’re…willing to spend years in here?”

“I’ve got them to spend, so why not? It’s going to take that kind of effort to fix what I broke. And I need to prove to KITTy that I’m not going to throw him away again.”

Grace frowned. “I don’t know…this could complicate his treatment.”

Harriet raised her hands. “I’m not trying to interfere with your treatment. I want to help it. If I ask him to, I think he’ll be willing to put in the kind of effort he never was before. And spending more time with me can be the carrot you dangle to get him to make progress.”

“We’ll need to put you in one of the intravenous drip support cradles if you’re going to spend more than a few real-time hours at it.”

“Well, the sim is paused, so let’s go ahead and get me hooked up. Like I said, I’m here for the long haul. I need to be a part of fixing him.”

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And that was effectively that. Harold returned to the sim and they started it up again, and he held and comforted KITTy (he refused to think of him as “Cylon”) until they’d both stopped crying. And then when they went back to the prison, KITTy’s cell was bigger, with a second bunk in it.

The big cat stared at him, confusion writ across his scanning eye. “You’re…really staying here?”

Harold nodded. “With you. For as long as it takes until you’re better.”

KITTy snorted. “I’ll never be ‘better’ enough for them to let me leave.”

“You never know. You and I, we have no idea how long we’ll live. And we can pack even more time in at fast-time rates. And I’m here for as long as it takes.” He shrugged. “I might have to step out for a while in a few subjective years, but we can talk about it then.”

KITTy just looked at him. “Seriously?”

Harold shrugged. “I don’t expect you to believe me at first. But I’m going to stay here until you do.” He lay back on his bunk, and that was that.

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It wasn’t all sunshine and happiness, of course. KITTy still had a lot of anger in him at Harold’s original desertion, and some days that part of him won out. He did come in for a few more claw swipes, though KITTy was always sorry afterward.

And Harold opened up about how and why his fear of Integration had led him to use and discard so many RIDEs. “I don’t like to think about just how many of them I…did that to,” he sighed. “Once you’re enough better you can do without me for a while, I’m going to go find as many of them as I can and apologize to them, too. And let them have their way with me in Nature Range, if they want.”

KITTy snorted. “What about that one you Integrated with?”

“I only had her a week. So I never had the chance to throw her away.” Harold shrugged. “She’s not a separate persona…and most of me still seems to be me. I guess she shows up as my new sardonic sense of humor…and my new conscience.”

“Figures you’d need your own Jiminy. Bosscat had one. Not many of us knew it, but he sometimes argued with him out loud. We kept our yaps shut.” He licked the back of a forepaw. “You did have a thing for Cheetara, didn’t you?”

“I had ‘things’ for a lot of stuff Cousins Joe and Mikel dug up. As you-all proved.”

KITTy laughed. “You looked so bad with that Michael Knight mullet and the black leather jacket. Shallow bastard that you are. Or maybe were. I haven’t decided yet.”

“I’m trying to be a better person now. I screwed up so much back then. And screwed so many of you up.”

“You can be her, if you want. I know you’re you. You don’t have to look like you. That can’t be comfortable.”

“Thanks.” Harold relaxed and flowed back into the Cheetara shape. “I haven’t been that person in a long time. Well, I’m still mostly him, but…you know.”

“Figures being an Intie would make you more enlightened.”

“I wish I could say someone grabbed me by my lapels and shook some sense into me while I was still a human. I wish I could take that much credit for it. Not to mention, I feel like kind of a phony sometimes. If they figured out how to de-Integrate us, would I go back to being the same shallow idiot?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. You always deserved a better person than me, no matter what me I was or am. Wish I could have found you one.”

“Your flaws were part of you. I liked you.” KITTy said. “Though I guess I missed noticing that one flaw somehow…”

“It was…kind of a big one,” Harriet admitted. “There’s Steader Crazy that ends up beneficial for the family and usually the world at large, then there’s crazy crazy, which was me and my part of the family. I was nineteen when they gave me that horsey RIDE bodyguard during the War. Suddenly horses were my spirit animal. I kept Trigger the longest, until I found out about Integration and practically shit my pants in fear. Got rid of him just about instantly, shithead that I was.”

“Is Trigger still around?” KITTy asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

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After giving them a few subjective days to acclimate, the therapists tentatively scheduled another session with KITTy. The big cat was nervous, but with Harriet’s encouragement actually cooperated for a change, and it seemed to do him good. The therapists did some sessions with the two of them together, and some with KITTy by himself. When it was just KITTy, Harriet sat beyond a transparent, soundproof barrier in KITTy’s field of view so he could see that she was still there.

To Harriet’s surprise, they also brought in another therapist for her. This one wasn’t directly connected to the KITTy project, to avoid conflicts of interest, but was there to discuss her own issues. While initially nonplussed, Harriet realized it might help KITTy in his therapy if she set a good example—and besides, Chandler and Dr. Nayme had suggested that it would be a good idea for her to see someone about the traumatic way she’d returned to Zharus. And it wasn’t as if she couldn’t take the time out of her busy schedule.

To Harriet’s surprise, her discussions with Linda, porcupine Integrate therapist, actually did help her—not just with what Earth had done, but with things she’d been living with for decades. She felt generally better about things, and the nightmares she’d been having became a lot less frequent. I wish I’d seen someone after Fritz murdered Ophelia, Harriet reflected ruefully. I might have found a better coping mechanism.

Life settled into a routine of therapy and conversations. If KITTy did well, then he got to play Nature Range on the weekends. Harriet joined him in a feral cheetah avatar, and the two of them hunted together. They kept to strictly NPC prey, but that was all right. Modern computers were smart enough that it could be every bit as challenging as a real animal. And it made another great incentive for KITTy to try to do well.

KITTy was making a lot of progress. He’d come around to realizing that many of his past actions had been wrong, and was becoming a considerably more stable personality. That it was happening this quickly was better than Harriet had hoped.

Not all the news was quite so good, though. KITTy did still have a deep-rooted set of prejudices concerning the superiority of Integrate-kind to humans and RIDEs, and still held a mild grudge against humans for the way he and others like him had been treated. He still harbored sympathies for Fritz’s intention and goals, even as he realized that Fritz’s (and his own) methods had gone much too far.

But that was only to be expected. KITTy’s early life—including his rejection by Harold—was too deeply ingrained to be changed overnight. And there were also all the crimes he’d committed on Fritz’s behalf—all the snatchings, and the time he’d killed a RIDE and its pilot in the battle over Uplift.

Harriet remembered reading in some of the twencen media Joe had dug up that it was a standard brainwashing technique in that era to get the victim to commit atrocities on the behalf of the cause. Once they did that, then cognitive dissonance would kick in and reinforce the belief. After all, if they did such terrible things in its name, admitting the cause was wrong would destroy their entire sense of self-worth. There probably wouldn’t be any way to wipe those prejudices away short of outright brainwashing KITTy, or editing his memories—which was not something any of them were willing to do.

The fact that it was possible to edit the memories of someone when you had their root access was all the more reason to avoid the temptation. There just wasn’t any substitute for life-experience accumulated naturally. Any time you tried to patch over it with fake memories, it invariably made things worse. The human (or RIDE, or Integrate) mind had a way of dwelling on inconsistencies, and it was very hard to falsify a memory in ways that avoided them. The end result was to leave the person worse off than before you’d messed with their head. So it was part of the current iteration of the Hippocratic Oath that you just didn’t do that sort of thing. It wasn’t worth it in the end.

But when you got right down to it, KITTy’s prejudices probably didn’t matter in the end. There was plenty of room for differences of opinion. Harriet didn’t doubt there were still a lot of Integrates out there who believed themselves to be superior beings. What mattered was that you weren’t going to go around trying to re-start the war, or attacking anyone who disagreed with you.

And Harriet was pretty sure they were making progress on that front. KITTy had responded well to hints that a truly superior being would try to help and protect his lesser brethren rather than attack them, so that might be a useful direction to steer his prejudices toward.

The days passed into weeks, and months, and years. Sometimes KITTy made progress, other times he backslid, but that was to be expected. To her surprise, Harriet found that she was having a similar experience. She couldn’t say she’d ever expected to undergo years of therapy herself, but there wasn’t a lot else to do in here. She was effectively just as much a prisoner as KITTy, though she’d entered this jail voluntarily. And it was good having someone she could talk to about things—even things going all the way back to Harold’s teenage years before he even met a RIDE.

And, of course, having those old memories brought up gave her extra time to think about them—which gave her more things to discuss with KITTy. She had promised herself she’d be as open as possible about her life—to make up for the way Harold hadn’t shared much of it with him.

But they’d never really talked much about Fritz. Harriet knew KITTy still looked up to him, and given her own feelings she didn’t want to start an argument that might set KITTy’s progress back. But Harriet’s own therapy was helping her get a better handle on her feelings about her aunt’s murder, and to her surprise she found she was ready to talk about it one day when KITTy brought it up out of the blue.

“You know, your aunt was a goddamned traitor, right?” KITTy said. “She and her sister in Sturmhaven beat the war drums so hard and played both sides to make their mu. I don’t understand why the Bosscat taking care of her messes you up so much. He talked about doing her in, sometimes.”

Better handle or not, Harriet was thankful she was an Integrate. Rather than snap back or let a long awkward silence grow up, she was able to drop into a faster fast-time for a split second to take an hour to compose herself before answering. “I know she was a traitor, KITTy, but I still loved her. She was there for me when I grew up, like not a lot of people were. Including my parents, who skipped Zharus when I was twelve. And did Fritz ever tell you how he did her in?”

“He decided to leave out the details because they ‘weren’t copacetic’. Bosscat loved his war stories, though.”

“And I imagine he left out a lot of details from those.” Harriet sighed.

“He did. Some of ‘em he kinda didn’t feel good about. Sometimes he interrupted himself to argue with the voice in his head. We kinda pretended not to notice that, ‘cuz of what happened to the ones who didn’t.”

“Yeeeeeeah.” Harriet rolled her eyes. “Well, he did something like that to Aunt Ophelia. Carved her up like an angus steer and hung the bits of her around like in a butcher shop. I’m still working through that after all this time.” She smiled wryly. “At least now I have the time for regular visits with a therapist myself.”

“He…wasn’t always the most stable guy,” KITTy admitted. “I guess we followed him just as much from fear as from thinking he was doing what was best for us Integrates.”

Harriet nodded. “And do you know the really stupid part? After more Integrates started appearing and they found it could happen to anyone, that was what put the fear of Integration into me. Caused me to start switching RIDEs once a month or so. I didn’t want to end up the kind of being who could do something like that.

“Oh,” KITTy said in a small voice, and spent a good thirty seconds licking at the back of a paw before speaking again. “I guess…I guess Fritz kind of messed us both up.”

“Yeah.” Harriet sighed. “Of course, even I will admit some good came out of the things he did. Fully-formed Integrate societies and such. I guess the parts of his reign that didn’t involve gruesomely murdering people, kidnapping people, forcing Integrations, and ruling all of Integrate-kind with an iron fist were probably pretty okay. Still, if I never meet him again it’ll be too soon.”

KITTy nodded. “I’m sorry. I guess…even if she was a traitor, Fritz went too far.”

“That’s all right, KITTy. You wouldn’t be the first to think she got her just desserts. But a lot of people screwed the pooch back then, and Ophelia was only one of many.”

“Even the Bosscat made some horrible mistakes he actually admitted to. Like the time he walked into a Sturmie ambush and they shot him in the ‘nads.”

Harriet winced. “You know, that makes me hurt in places I don’t even have anymore.”

It wasn’t too much longer after that that Harriet and the therapists felt KITTy had reached a point where he could get by without her for a while. She gradually broached the subject over the course of a few subjective weeks, and KITTy seemed to take it reasonably well. “You’ve stayed in here with me for years now…you wouldn’t have done that if you were just going to abandon me again.”

“I’m not,” Harriet promised. “But I’ve got things I need to do back out in the real world. Like go talk to Kevin, and look for Trigger and anyone else I can find. But I’ll be back.”

“I’ll miss you. But I’ll keep on trying to get better.”

“Good.” Harriet smiled. “Maybe someday you’ll be able to come back out of here.”

“I’d like that.”

A short time later, Harriet finally returned to the real world.

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April 19, 159 AL

Harriet Steader opened her eyes, and slowly sat up in the cradle she’d occupied for the last few days. Warden Rintin was there to help her up, and a nurse carefully removed the IV that had been giving her body a nutrient drip while she unplugged the power cord herself. “Well…that went better than expected.”

“Did you know that was going to happen?” Rintin asked. “That Cylon—”

“KITTy,” Harriet insisted.

“—all right, that KITTy, then, still had feelings for you?”

“Well…I guess I hoped he did. And that showing how far I was willing to go to make amends would get through the mad and reach them.” Harriet shrugged. “But putting it like that sounds much too cynical and calculated. And while I am pretty cynical by now, in most things…I’m not, where he’s concerned. And the others like him.” She shook her head. “Even if he tore me limb from limb and it just made him feel better while he still hated me, I’d have done it anyway. Because it was right.”

“And then you spent—how long was it? Two subjective years?—helping with his therapy.”

“Closer to five, actually,” Harriet said. “I’m just glad you let me do it. I broke him, I needed to be part of fixing him.”

Rintin’s ears perked forward. “Is he ‘fixed,’ then?”

“He’s a lot better than he was, let’s say,” Harriet said. “He’s willing to go on working with the therapists now even without me, and we’ve made a lot of progress on his Integrate superiority complex. And in return, the therapists are willing to crank the fast-time speed way down, so it won’t be so long for him before I can come back again. There are things I need to do back in the Real now, and he can get along without me for a while.”

Rintin nodded. “Well, we are very grateful for your help, Miss Steader.”

Harriet got to her feet and stretched, working the kinks out. “But tell me…do you think you ever will be able to let him back out into the Real again? He did kill people.”

Rintin shrugged. “There were…extenuating circumstances. As with Fritz, the KITT neural templating he was built with meant he wasn’t the most mentally stable individual to begin with. And we’re long past the days when long sentences were meant to act as a deterrent on others. If we can really rehabilitate him, so he won’t be a danger to society and can start paying it back…well, we’ll see. It’ll be up to the Rehab Board, eventually.”

Harriet nodded. “We’ll see. I guess that’s better than an outright no.”

“And we’ll see you back here before too long, I hope.”

“That’s the idea. I don’t want to leave KITTy alone for too long, therapists or not. I’ll be back in a few weeks, and then maybe we can pack a few more subjective years in. If I can fix him…” Harriet smiled. “Well, it’ll be something I can feel good about, for a change.”

“As you say.” Rintin offered her an arm. “You may be a bit wobbly at first, so please let me help you to the exit. Or else we could get you a wheelchair…”

Harriet chuckled. “Well, given the choice between a helping arm and a wheelchair, I’ll definitely take the helping arm.”

“And perhaps as we walk, you can tell me how you managed to sneak offworld at the very height of the sarium export prohibitions.”

Harriet grinned. “I think I can oblige you. As it happens, it’s kind of a funny story…”

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