|In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.|
User:Robotech Master/Task of Amontillado original
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
Part 15: The Task of Amontillado
Shahrazad growled, holding still while Fridolf scanned her body. She cursed Brubeck, and the Munns and anyone else she could think of, blaming them for ruining years of projects.
“Hold still, Shah,” the wolf growled back impatiently. “I’m almost done. Looks like you weren’t tagged at least.”
“If I were tagged, they’d have both of us back in tethers by now,” she hissed back, her tail lashing the air. “Did we lose everyone?”
“Seems that way. I think Pascal was behind me as I left, but I didn’t stick around. We know the regroup points.”
A new voice spoke up, squeezing into the cave with the other two rides, quills rustling. “That I knew. I’m almost positive I was the last. Donny’s signal went offline just as I entered the tunnel.”
“What happened to your hands?” Fridolf asked.
Pascal sighed and shook her quills. “Scratch did. He stopped me on the way out, threatened to blow me up. Your kitten Integrated, Shah.”
The tigress purred, “He did? Nissse. Why didn’t he show himself though? We could have done so much.”
“He didn’t show himself because he wasn’t all there. I don’t know what he did to Integrate himself, but it wasn’t him. It was probably the girl in charge, even if the body was male. He made me release my hands before I could get out.”
“Damn, wish he had followed you. Still, things are too hot now. We should spread out and lay low for awhile. Find new groups, and new potentials, and we can meet up again in a few years.”
In the wake of the great dragon’s arrival in AlphaWolf’s camp, Mister Peaches had made an impression on the rest of the Pack. The rumor mill ran wild with speculation on what they could do with he and Fenris. How many RIDEs could they free? How many humans could they bodyjack? Could they even raid Nextus itself? The last had been something of the ultimate operation. Untouchable Nextus—except for a few informational infiltrations to enslaved RIDEs via sidebands over the years, they had never fired so much as a cap gun within its borders in the twenty-plus years the Pack had been around.
:I haven’t seen morale this high in ever,: AlphaWolf sent to Fenris and Paul during the disguised Integrate’s live-fire demonstration outside the dome.
The dragon had four belly pulse cannons, another in his tail fork, the ubiquitous plasma breath weapon, and eye beams. He could lay down suppressing fire over a huge area and not hit any friendlies. That the Integrate’s disguise could mimic all that weaponry in hardlight impressed AlphaWolf, Kandace, Fenris and Paul. The rest of the Pack cheered.
:Believe it or not, I still have missile pods in my hips,: Peaches told the four of them. :Normally I self-manufacture them, but right now the spaces are filled with the antiviral gear.:
:I almost feel kind of bad they’re gonna be disappointed you won’t be around for long enough to help them raid and pillage much,: Paul said. :Wow, I think I have been out here too long.:
But the truly odd thing was how quickly the mood of the group seemed to shift after that. It was as if the camp was a manic-depressive suddenly crashing down off of his excitement. The cheers of excitement started to turn to mutters of disquiet as a number of those in the Pack began to wonder why AlphaWolf hadn’t announced their next target yet. Now that they had some true firepower, it was time to strike! And given how fast raids had been proposed and executed before, why wasn’t Alpha proposing one now?
Even AlphaWolf was confused, as he was suddenly buttonholed by a half dozen disgruntled anti-human extremists in quick succession. :…the hell?: he sent over the private net. :Where did my approval ratings bump go?:
:Someone is working the crowd,: Fenris observed. :Possibly several someones. I am trying to analyze movement dynamics, but it is hard to get a cohesive picture.:
“No, Tocsin, we do not need to perform another raid right now,” AlphaWolf growled at his latest interlocutor. “We have perfectly adequate human numbers for the moment.”
“But we have this great new weapon!” Tocsin insisted. “We should use him!”
“He’s a person,” AlphaWolf said slowly, enunciating every syllable. “He is not a weapon any more than, say, you are.”
“But I am a weapon,” Tocsin said, sounding puzzled and a little hurt. “And proud of it. You saw how I trashed that garage. Even if you decided, after the fact, it shouldn’t have been trashed, you can’t deny I trashed it damned well.”
“ARGH!” AlphaWolf growled. “Go find something else to do before I bite you.”
Rakshasi walked among the crowd, whispering a word here, nudging a RIDE here and there. She kept a wary eye on AlphaWolf and his entourage. The arrival of the dragon was a concern; there was something different about him the cougar couldn’t figure out.
“Two large RIDEs? We weren’t even able to keep one active before. What is Alpha thinking?” she whispered to a rabbit.
“He’d better earn his power quick,” the rabbit agreed.”I’m not going hungry to feed him.”
She moved on, hearing the discontent spread. She spotted one of her students approaching Tocsin, and caught the student’s eye. She shook her head and he backed off, clearly confused. She sent a quick burst saying ‘just watch’ and waited. Rakshasi was experienced enough to tell the hippogriff was wired enough; more could potentially blow up in their muzzles.
Sure enough, moments after the student backed off, Tocsin stormed up to Alpha and the dragon. The message the students were spreading was slightly different from hers; they were stressing the need for more hands, more bodies to keep the camp up to date. The goal was to put the entire group and AlphaWolf especially under multiple pressures from multiple angles at once. She was getting the feeling it was time to move on, and having the cover of a group split would certainly help.
As expected, the wolf proved to be as predictable as ever; under the pressure to do something with the new dragon, he was starting to talk about a new mission. Not to a polity, but to one of the other Dry Ocean groups they knew had some humans.
Rakshasi chuckled as she spotted a lioness and coyote from one of the other groups she’d been preparing start to make their way toward AlphaWolf. These ones weren’t close associates—they’d never even spoken directly—but she’d made sure to have staged conversations with some of her subordinates in their hearing complaining that AlphaWolf had gone soft, sending a mission back to repair some of the damage they had done to Uplift. She knew that AlphaWolf’s pretensions to personal integrity stuck in the craw of some of those who felt that the nastier they were to humans the better, where those particular humans “deserved” it or not. Shahrazad sauntered closer to watch the fun.
:Are you comfortable with this?: Paul asked for the fourth or fifth time. :I have to say, I’m not so sure I am.:
:It’s not my favorite thing, admittedly,: Mr. Peaches said. :But on the other hand, if it has to happen, it couldn’t happen to a nicer group of thugs.: The raid AlphaWolf had proposed was to be on a target slightly larger than any the group had hit before—a gang of RIDE slavers who operated several hundred klicks away.
Part of the reason AlphaWolf had located his camp in this area was that it was just a bit too far into the interior for the Marshals to tackle except for very special cases, and by the same token it was just far enough for a lot of escaped RIDEs to get before they needed to rest and recharge some more.
Not all the RIDEs who escaped this far were necessarily interested in or even aware of AlphaWolf’s camp. They were just looking for places to rest and recharge for a while before moving on, setting up their own camps further into the interior. The slavers were fully aware of the significance of this area, at the limit of most escaped RIDEs’ endurance, and had set up their operation to take full advantage of it.
In fact, it was common knowledge that they had seeded a number of the most likely spots with conveniently “abandoned” skimmers with fuel cell generators and solar panels—just like deer hunters had used to use salt licks. Even if the desperate RIDEs sensed a trap, they needed the power badly enough that they had no choice but to go in.
The slavers were also aware they weren’t far from AlphaWolf’s camp, and every so often they’d send scouts out in its direction—this was one of the reasons for the frequent patrols. But there were enough slavers in the gang, with enough armed RIDEs, that an AlphaWolf raid on its base camp could have gone either way and resulted in plenty of casualties on both sides. So, with Mr. Peaches available, the chance to eliminate such a potential threat, while at the same time freeing plenty of enslaved RIDEs and enslaving a few slavers right back, was too tempting to pass up.
:And it would be a good idea to have more public opinion on our side before we finally “pop the corks” on the Fortunatos,: Fenris pointed out. :I only worry we may be playing into the hands of whoever is behind the current unrest.:
:We can only do the best we can and hope the benefits outweigh the problems,: Kandace said.
“For the last time, we only attack humans who deserve it!” AlphaWolf growled at the lioness. “Rhianna and Rochelle have been working just as hard to free RIDEs in the system as we’ve been working outside of it, and I won’t be used as a tool to hurt my own cause. I’m happy to help humans who put themselves at risk to help us. You wanna take that out on some humans, well great, there’s a camp full of them we’re just about to raid. Wanna join us?” He narrowed his eyes. “Or would you rather try for a piece of me? There’s a reason I’m still in charge here after twenty years. Do you remember what it is?”
The lioness growled. “You’ve been coasting on your reputation. Maybe it’s time someone else was in charge.”
“You think that should be you? Maybe you should bring it, you—”
“Pardon me,” Mr. Peaches said, poking his head that was by itself almost as big as either AlphaWolf or the lioness between them, “but it appears to me things are becoming rather heated. Perhaps you should both save your anger for those who more clearly deserve it?”
“Fine by me,” AlphaWolf grumbled.
The lioness snorted and padded off, the coyote following her. AlphaWolf watched her go, and sighed. “I swear, some days I wonder why I even wanted to lead this insane asylum.”
“I expect it was for the kewl name they let you use,” Paul said. “I mean, ‘AlphaWolf’? Who wouldn’t want to call themselves that?”
“Most of the people in Nextus, for one thing,” AlphaWolf said, chuckling. “But Peaches is right. Let’s get ready for the raid. We’ve got a lot of RIDEs to gather up and get from here to there.”
Paul nodded. “I’ll tell Baldwin to prep the sub.”
The gray wolf stood on a boulder just inside the entrance of AlphaWolf’s camp dome as the raiders returned. It was a slaver raid, not a village raid, so there wasn’t much interest in what they were returning with. A slaver raid meant more bodies to power, and less time with hands.
“Injured go to my right. Able-bodied to my left. We’ll get you all checked out and settled in as soon as we can,” she shouted as the newly freed RIDEs entered the dome, escorted by the raiders; some of the raiders that had left on all fours were now standing up.
She noticed a cougar was watching her curiously, heading to her left with the rest of the able-bodied. Something about her was familiar, but she couldn’t place her paw on it.
Alpha brought up the rear of the group with the suborb pilot. She jumped off the rock and fell into step with him. “How’d it go?”
“A dozen freed, they all decided to come with us. Only eight sets of hands though. We did get their fuel cells and solar panels though, so we’ve got a net power gain,” he explained, already trying to put a positive spin on the result. Everyone at the enclave had multiple friends who were slaver-freed so that wasn’t a problem, but having more bodies to spread the humans around for hand-time was becoming an issue.
Fridolf sighed. “Net power gain, but an overall hand loss. Well, we’ll spin it somehow. Emphasize the skills and power we gained, both from the freed RIDEs and the slavers. Surely one of them can cook or something.” She nodded towards the new group. “I’ll get the newbies settled in, give them the ten centimu tour and show them where they can get their allotted charge.”
The cougar finally caught Fridolf alone a few days later, after the new arrivals had a chance to settle. They were stealing a moment of peace in the graveyard, in the shadow of a rock formation.
“So have you figured it out yet?” the cougar asked, her tail twitching slowly in amusement.
Fridolf chuckled softly, “It has been a long time. I didn’t think a tiger could change her stripes.”
“When you have them done in hardlight, it’s not that difficult.” The cougar momentarily flicked off her skin, showing a tigress DE frame underneath, painted tawny brown to match her light-skin. She turned it back on just as quickly.
“I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult. So why were you around those slavers?” Fridolf nuzzled her old friend, but carefully avoided mentioning her original name.
Rakshasi shrugged a little and nuzzled back. “A project that went awry. I was trying to salvage it when Alpha showed up. No real loss in the end. They were a few too many CPUs short of a Beowulf cluster to be worth my effort. How about you? What have you been up to?”
“Not too much; but I have an idea I’ve been cooking up. A way to convince the RIDE to isolate the humans but still tap the knowledge. I’m still working out the infection vectors, but I’ve got a couple here I’ve been working on.” Fridolf nuzzled again, using the closeness to share her notes and observations.
Shahrazad purred in approval. “Excellent, I love what you’ve done. Let’s see what more we can do here.”
“Okay everyone, get on aboard!” the suborbital pilot, a bald eagle Fuser who went by the name of “Baldwin,” squawked through its external loudspeakers. “Fasten your seatbelts, and the stewardess will be around with coffee, tea, milk, oxygen, sarium, or whatever floats your boat after the no smoking sign goes out. Oh, wait—we don’t even have a no smoking sign. Guess she’ll be a while, then.” He chuckled at his little joke.
Nobody was really quite sure whether “Baldwin” was the name of the RIDE or his pilot—he wasn’t often seen un-Fused, and was apparently one of those riders who used the same voice as his RIDE. Some avians were so sensitive about their human appearance that they preferred to stay Fused 30/6, given that such extreme Fuses did weird things to the human body—and since the longer they stayed Fused, the more avian they became, it became a self-reinforcing process.
The RIDEs who were going in with humans took seats in the forward section, while the ones who expected to gain new “partners” at the camp strapped down at the rear. Fenris rolled up the tank ramp into the vehicle section behind that, and sealed up tight.
A few other RIDEs, including Mr. Peaches, had left a few hours earlier, heading the long way across the desert to get into position and scout the enemy camp. Their reports had just come in, suggesting the way was clear and highlighting a good LZ close enough to the camp for a fast strike but far enough they wouldn’t see it coming.
AlphaWolf, Fused to one of the humans from the camp pool, settled into the co-pilot’s seat. “We ready to run this?”
“Looks like we’re all aboard.”
“Good.” AlphaWolf leaned back and closed his eyes. “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
Rakshasi was inspecting the camp’s hardlight generators. With the camp half-emptied for the raid, it was an obvious time to do some maintenance, and to make further preparations. The dragon made her uneasy; he was a wild card that was throwing all of her plans awry and she couldn’t even tell why. She sighed and carefully masked her additions to the dome power grid; while she loved having worked under the covert protection of her homeland’s old foe Nextus for so long, it was time to move on before things heated up too much.
“Rakshasi, how are the generators looking?” a gray wolf asked, padding up behind the cougar.
The cougress didn’t twitch; she’d been expecting Fridolf’s arrival. “They’re looking fine. The south side one may need some hand tuning soon, but everything is ready.”
“Excellent.” Fridolf looked around and verified they were alone. “Why’d you keep me back, Rak? The chaos of a raid would have been a perfect time to get a read on that dragon.”
Rakshasi growled softly and continued to paw through the readouts on the screen. “Exactly. Too perfect a time. We’ve already lost two of the experiments; and AlphaWolf’s got you of all people watching the remaining dozen. Bast! I wish I could see his expression when he finds out he left the fox guarding the chickens.”
She sighed in disappointment, but was already moving on to her next plans. “We have to face facts; Amontillado had a fantastic run and did better than either of us ever expected…but its time is done, probably along with our time here too.”
Fridolf sighed and growled. “And I so looked forward to trying 12.2 on that dragon.”
“That dragon’s part of the problem. There’s something about him I can’t put my paw on.”
“So what’s the plan?” the wolf asked. She received a series of codes from the cougress.
“These will crash the dome controls and scram their batteries; that should give us an opening to slip out under. Stay close to Alpha and the dragon in the meantime, don’t break character until we’re ready to bolt, and keep an eye on them.”
The wolf looked disappointed, “No boom?”
“I haven’t had hands in months. The explosives are all still cached in the graveyard. This will blow them there, but I wish we could have placed them better. We just couldn’t risk spreading them out before we felt we might need them soon. And now, we just don’t have time.” She growled in frustration and shook herself. “Hell, now that the damn tank is active again, I don’t even like leaving them in the graveyard. I’m shocked he hasn’t sniffed them out yet.”
“So why don’t we bug out now? The camp’s deserted.”
Rakshasi shook her head and smiled, “And leave these juicy mysteries behind? I want to see what they’re planning, see what’s up with that dragon. We’ll cut everyone loose. Dump all your projects to hard copies and hide them away, and purge everything but what you need in the short term…but keep that ready to drop too.”
“It would have been nice to see what’s going on; to find out what happened to those experiments. Looks like they cured them somehow.” Fridolf looked around, noticing another RIDE coming close. She pitched her voice louder. “Excellent work as usual, Rak. I’ll pass your notes onto Alpha and we’ll get someone with hands to do those tuneups.”
“Thanks Fridolf,” Rakshasi said, matching her tone. “We’ll save a few percent in energy with a proper tuning…a few percent we’ll need to support two big tanks.”
The slaver camp didn’t look all that different from AlphaWolf’s. It was somewhat smaller, and didn’t put in any effort to blend in with the surrounding environment the way AlphaWolf’s did (since, after all, the RIDE slavers supposedly weren’t doing anything illegal anywhere—it was just RIDEs they were enslaving), but the basic structure of a Dry Ocean survival enclave hadn’t changed since the first miners had the epiphany that hardlight force fields protected against qubitite contamination. Within the dome were several crude structures, mostly just walls—that was enough to provide privacy at ground level with the dome protecting from the weather.
There were a few corrals full of Walker-form RIDEs, with visible collars around their necks or in some cases chains connecting them to posts. A few Fusers and un-Fused humans or RIDEs could be seen moving about between buildings. :There are at least thirty armed individuals in the camp,: Mr. Peaches reported from above, as he hovered under impenetrable cloak a hundred meters above the dome.
:Can you force their RIDEs to shut down?: Paul asked. He was sitting in Fenris’s cockpit, just below the lip of a ridge that shielded the landing area from the camp. They would be leading the way in tank form, particle cannons ready to knock down any weaponized threat.
:Of course I can,: Mr. Peaches said, almost indignantly. :I am an Integrate, after all. The one problem is, we don’t want this to look too easy. Once we join battle, I will shut them down as soon as I reasonably can.:
:Good enough.: Paul glanced back behind him at the RIDEs forming up in ranks—Fusers with guns in a wedge shape in the front, and Walker-form RIDEs ready to penetrate behind them to spread out into the camp once the way had been cleared. He was a little startled to see Kandace right there in the middle. “Kandy? I thought you weren’t interested in bodyjacking.”
“I’m not,” Kandace said. “Doesn’t mean I don’t like a good fight.” She raised a furry paw and flicked out gleaming metal claws.
Behind her, the lioness who had been arguing with AlphaWolf earlier snorted scornfully. “Not interested in bodyjacking? But don’t you want to help punish the humans who’ve been treating us like dogshit all these years?”
“I just thought I’d leave more for you is all, Leona,” Kandace said demurely. “Since you seem to enjoy it so much.”
The lioness snorted again. “Wuss.”
“Well, be careful,” Paul said. “Alpha, we ready?”
Beside them, AlphaWolf nodded, reading the pulse cannon mounted to his right arm. :OK. Peaches, please open the holes in their dome. As soon as they see us, show yourself. We’ll try to distract them from each other.:
The Integrate replied, :Understood. Holes opening now.:
“FORWARD!” AlphaWolf called out and sent. In a cloud of dust Fenris charged into battle, followed by a couple of dozen other RIDEs.
The reaction inside the slavers’ dome was predictable. The first thing they saw were the holes, then a cloud of mini-missiles coming through the holes, each piece of ordnance narrowly-targeted to individuals so as to avoid collateral damage to the RIDEs they were trying to free. Then Peaches appeared overhead, firing pulse beams through his eyes and tailfork. At the sight of the massive suborbital RIDE, the slavers panicked.
Paul glanced back and forth at the hardlight screens in front of him, tapping potential threats to bring them to Fenris’s attention. He wished Lilli was there. At the moment Fenris was just able to play gun turret. If he’d had her, they could have been scanning, coordinating, and hitting specific targets with ECM too. Fenris wasn’t happy about it either. But on the other hand, they were hardly hitting a military target, and the numbers they had on their side were sufficient that the lack wasn’t crippling.
And now the Walker RIDEs were spreading out through the encampment, each focusing on a fleeing human. They looked for people of the same gender wherever possible—standing policy in the camp was that genderjacking was reserved for times they didn’t plan to bodyjack as well, because it meant more paperwork in keeping track of the date of change and less flexibility in how the human could be used later on.
An owl that had been helping coordinate the attack from above, let out a screech and dived for one of the running humans. Before he could get to the runner, there was a blur of yellow fur, and the human disappeared. The cheetah stood up on his rear legs, smirking.
“I’m sorry, did you want this one?” he taunted, flexing his longer fingers.
“F-U! I saw him first!” the owl screeched, backwinging to hover near him. “Release him now!”
The cheetah swished his tail and turned away, “Nah, I don’t think so. Better hurry, not many unclaimed ones left,” he shouted, taking off again to rejoin the fight.
Peaches started narrowcasting shutdown signals, pinpointing each slaver and putting their RIDE into Passive-lockdown. At least one slaver had the presence of mind to return fire on the dragon, but only got a single shot off before his belly guns took him down with some showy pulse-fire that was probably more hardlight than harmful.
Some of the animal-form RIDEs started going into the buildings, checking for other humans inside. Kandace chose the one at the far end of the camp, away from the corrals. Her thermal sensors had detected a human life sign inside—but when she got there, she found the door was locked with a padlock on a hasp on the outside. Curious, she swiped it off with a claw and shoved the door open.
The shed seemed to be a supply closet, but someone had stuck a cot and a bucket into it, converting it into a makeshift cell. A girl or young woman was huddled up in a corner, knees held up her chest. She raised her head, and Kandace caught a glimpse of bright eyes beneath dirty blonde hair. “Stay away!” she yelped. “I don’t wanna be bodyjacked!”
Kandace looked around. “Don’t worry, miss. I’m not going to hurt you.” She chuckled. “Bodyjacking you is the last thing I want to do.”
“Then get out of the way!” a harsh voice said behind her. Kandace turned her head to look and found Leona waiting there.
“She’s a prisoner, Leona,” Kandace said. “You saw how she was locked in.”
“So? She’s a human in a RIDE slaver camp. She’s fair game. And oh but I love teenagers. They’re such a confused mix of hormones, it’s so much fun to fuck with their heads. The last girl I had, I gave gender dysphoria. It was delicious!”
“Fair game, huh? You wanna ask AlphaWolf about that?” Kandace snarled, ears back.
Leona lowered the hardlight on her shoulders, the two rapid-fire pulse guns mounted there elevating into place. “You think I need to?”
Kandace looked back and forth from the girl to the lioness and sighed. “All right, fine. If she has to be someone’s, she’s mine.”
Leona smirked. “I’ll believe that when I see it. Get out of the way and I’ll show her what humans deserve.”
“N-no!” the girl squeaked, huddling tighter.
“No, no, rules of the camp, I’ve got first claim,” Kandace said. “And everyone else out there will have seen me come in first.” She padded up to her and leaned in to give her a comforting lick on the cheek. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” she murmured.
“I’m…I’m Jenni!” she whispered hoarsely. “Jenni Ruby. And my Dad…he and Mom got divorced. I’m s’posta be with her, but Dad dragged me out here.”
“He’s one of the humans in the camp, then?” Kandace asked.
“Uh-huh.” Jenni sniffled. “I hate him! He gets drunk all the time and hurts Mom. And he doesn’t even like me, he just wanted me where Mom couldn’t get me.”
“I’m waiiiiting!” the lioness sing-songed.
“I’ll do this in my own way, thank you!” Kandace snapped at her, then turned back to the girl. “Hate to tell you this, honey, and I’m not thrilled about it either, but you’re not leaving here outside of one of the two of us. Who you want it to be?”
The girl looked up at Kandace, then past her at the snarling lioness. Then back to Kandace. “Y-you?”
“I’m sorry about this,” Kandace whispered to the scared girl. “I’ll make it right.”
The cougar wandered the camp, trying not to appear impatient while waiting for the raid to return. The pieces were mostly in place now. Time would tell how well her students had learned; the signals were in place; they just had to read them. Overall, other than Fridolf and maybe the blue jay; none of them would be a big loss. The ideas the jay had were so juicy she wished she had a camp of her own again to give him the freedom to experiment. Working with the exotics was such fun; while they all talked on common bands, their underlying thoughts and instincts were just different.
Rakshasi approached a couple of RIDEs; she’d been watching them for a long time, and knew they had bad history with humans. “Is it just me, or is Alpha paying more attention to humans lately? Sure he looks like he’s talking to Fenris, but it’s that mechanic he’s really talking to.…and not just for repair advice.”
The ankylosaur nodded her head. “I’ve noticed that. And they won’t let me Fuse with anyone, even one of the slavers. I haven’t had hands in years! It’s speciesist!”
She smiled and shifted to address their current thoughts. “It is. Look at who he took with him. Almost all mammals, other than the dragon. They get their hands…but the lizards, the dinos, the birds, you guys are left waiting. It isn’t fair.”
“Damn right it isn’t fair! It’s time we had our chance!” the raven cawed, spreading her wings wide.
She listened to them rant a little longer before slipping away. More of the exotic forms were gathering, and listening, leaving a nice present for Alpha when he returned. A few mammals also showed up. Some tried to raise counter-arguments, only to be shouted down. Most left, but a few remained, agreeing and supporting their friends’ plight.
If things worked well, he would have to give some, if not most of the humans he caught to the exotics. That decision would till up more fertile ground to plant her divisive seeds in. The exotics who went without would still be riled up. And the mammals who would now go without could be prodded into action as well.
If it didn’t work well, she would have a large group to walk out of the camp with. In the worst case, there would be a civil war in the camp.
No matter how it played out, she marked it as a win in her book.
Kandace walked past Leona in her newly-bipedal form. The lioness hadn’t been able to stop giggling for the last two minutes. Even though she’d effectively missed her chance at a bodyjack, she seemed to think that imposing one on someone who didn’t want to was almost as delightful.
Well, let her keep thinking that. Kandace didn’t really have anything against Fusing with someone. It wasn’t going to traumatize her any. She was an -001 model; she’d been Fusing when Little Miss -008 Leona had been a pebble in Brubeck’s mine. She just hadn’t wanted to, was all. I can just see Kaylee smirking, she thought. But maybe it was for the best. Now that Kandace had the girl, she didn’t like what she found. Lenoa would have made a bad situation worse. Lordy, this kid is in bad shape. There were signs of malnutrition, bruises on the wrist where she’d been gripped too tightly, and other bruises, scrapes, and sprains of varying ages. Kandace kicked her medical nanos into action to repair the worst of the damage.
Within her, she could feel Jenni’s fear giving way to curiosity as she looked out at the world through newly Fused eyes, and felt a warm, furry body surrounding her own. It was evident from her surface thoughts that she’d expected the torture to begin immediately after the lynx had “eaten” her, and was now more confused than anything else that it actually felt nice to be in her body.
Kandace could simply have put her to sleep until she was in a position to let her out, but after learning about Amontillado the idea of manipulating someone Fused to her made her new hardlight skin crawl, and she’d sworn that she wouldn’t do this girl that way. Even if it did give her the opportunity to pester Kandace with questions.
:Wh…what are you gonna do with me?: was the first one. :I’ve heard ‘bout bodyjackings. You don’t ever let anybody out again.:
Kandace chuckled, making sure Jenni could hear it. :I’ll let you out as soon as I safely can,: she said. :We’re in a complicated situation.:
:It…feels nice. Warm. Doesn’t hurt so much. Thank you.: Then the girl went to sleep on her own, to Kandace’s immense relief.
Kandace found Paul and Fenris standing Fused in the corral, checking over the newly-freed RIDEs there one by one. Most of them seemed quite willing to join AlphaWolf’s camp, and even those who didn’t want to were still kindly disposed toward him. At the moment, the giant wolf was examining a mink who had just been released from her collar. “Thank you so much for that! I’m Melissa, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Melissa,” Fenris rumbled politely.
“You seem to be alright for now, but I want to see you again when we’re back at camp,” Paul said. “You’ve got some bad core fragmentation and I think I can make it a little easier for you to think.”
The mink nodded, head going up and down like a bobble-head figurine. “I’d like that! I’ll do that! Thank you!” She toddled off toward the suborbital, which had been brought in closer now that there was no need to hide it.
Then the Fused wolf glanced over at Kandace, and did a double-take. “Kandy? You bodyjacked after all?” Paul asked.
“Not exactly,” Kandace said. “They had a prisoner, and it was me or Leona. I figured she might be better off with someone who didn’t hate all humans.”
The giant wolf rolled his eyes. “Terrific. Well…hold onto her for a while. We can get you back to civilization with her sooner or later. Where’s she from, by the way?”
“I didn’t check.” Kandace peered into the sleeping girl’s memories. “Looks like Aloha.”
“She’s a long way from home,” Paul observed. “Anyway, that was the last of the prisoners to look over. We’re gathering up to head back to camp now. We’ve got some casks to tap while everyone’s still happy with us.”
He nodded to a skunk RIDE they were keeping separate from the others. “And a few more bodies to inoculate and cure. The slavers were lucky in their own nasty way. Whoever got that one would have been casked up.”
When the battered old Nextus combat suborbital vectored in on its final approach, accompanied by a dragon that easily paced it through the air, the entire camp turned out to see it land—as they did every time new refugees or prisoners or both were delivered to the camp. But there was something different about this gathering. AlphaWolf could see it just in the arrangement of the bodies around the airfield as the suborbital vectored in. Instead of a welcome, it looked almost like the staging for an ambush.
Baldwin noticed it, too. “Now why do I get the sense they don’t look all that happy to see us, boss?”
“Now what makes you say something like that?” AlphaWolf said dryly. “Is your vision starting to go? Maybe you need glasses?”
Baldwin snorted. “Well, one thing I can see is I’m not the one who has to deal with this. I just fly the sub. Thank goodness.”
“Yeah, heaven forbid a pilot have to deal with politics.” AlphaWolf snorted. “Well, much as I’m tempted to divert to somewhere else and start a new camp all over from scratch, you might as well just go ahead and set us down.”
“On it, boss!” Baldwin brought the ramshackle old sub in for one of his trademark smooth-as-silk landings.
As it rolled to a halt, the duality of the waiting crowd was obvious. The majority of one group was furry and mammalian. They seemed happy to see the returning sub, but were clearly uneasy about the group beside them.
The other group was almost entirely RIDEs in walker modes; exotic RIDEs at that. While there were a few mammalian forms supporting friends, the majority were avian, saurian, reptilian, mythical, and even a couple of sea mammals; all the types with long cooldown times. They were anxious for the sub’s return, tinted with barely contained anger, expecting the worst.
The side hatch opened and AlphaWolf stepped out first, as usual. He glanced around at the crowd. “We’re home! We captured several dozen human slavers, and freed thirty-four RIDEs—some of those captured, others fettered and used by the slavers—twenty-five of whom have agreed to join us.”
The crowd cheered the news, both sides momentarily united, until a raven squawked for attention, perched on the broad back of an ankylosaur.
“How many of them will be available for us?” Lenore shouted, spreading her wings to draw attention to herself.
“As many as we usually have,” AlphaWolf said. “Just apply at the admin shed and we’ll check our availability.”
The saurian under the raven snorted and swung her thick tail causing some of her fellow objectors to jump out of the way. “Availability! Yeah right! We’ll be lucky if one of us gets one. You guys swap them around like trading cards, while we are stuck on the waiting list. I haven’t had hands in years!”
Then a golden eagle spoke up from the other crowd, one of just a handful of birds with them. “So if you wanted hands, why exactly didn’t you volunteer for the raid, then?” Heinrich asked. “You know the rule—you go on a raid, you get the chance to keep what you take. I haven’t seen either of you out there risking your necks in, well, years! But oh wait, I forgot, ravens are carrion birds. Guess it’s just more natural to want to take your pick of the leftovers.”
Lenore let out an angry screech, echoed by some of the other birds on her side of the crowd. The first coherent voice came from behind AlphaWolf. The screech owl flew past him to land next to Lenore and Smash.
“I have been on some of those raids. Hell I was just on THIS raid. And I’ve never seen a mammal move so fast as when it looked like I might snag a pair of hands.” He glared at a cheetah who walked out with some of the other raiders, looking like the proverbial cat that ate the canary, or the human in this case.
“Even when we do get a chance to go on raids, we’re stuck on sentry duty, being your eyes in the sky. Not many hands up there to snag while we’re watching your big fat sixes.”
“Hmm.” AlphaWolf looked thoughtful. “You could be right, there. You know how much bureaucracy we build up around keeping track of cooldowns, when it’s safe for a human to be swapped around again. There’s a tendency to want to keep as many humans as flexible as possible, so more RIDEs have more options. And of course we’re mostly mammals in charge, so maybe we have a bias.”
“Bureaucracy is a bullshit excuse, and we all know that. We are computers, tracking that stuff is trivial. Hell, it could be solved trivially if we just nanitattooed our hands’ fuse records in their bodies. If you can’t trust us to track our hands, then why are we here?” Smash shouted, her tail hitting the ground.
“All right, that’s fair,” AlphaWolf said. “How about this. I’m not gonna take the hands away from people who specifically want to keep them. That wouldn’t be fair—if I could do that to them, I could do that to any one of you who went on a raid and got someone that way. But instead of going into the pool as usual, any of the ‘hands’ we took this go-round who the takers don’t want to keep can go to you-all. And next few raids we do, I’ll make sure reps and fliers who want it get first shot.”
Rakshasi growled to herself, sensing the mood of the crowd. It was shifting mostly as she expected, so now was the time to stir things up. She slipped to the edge of the gap between the two groups, just inside the mammalian side. The feline tried to figure out how to tilt things back a bit, but the promising jay spoke up for her.
“And how many more raids will there be? You’re getting mighty chummy with the hands lately. These guys were bad guys, but will we ever head back to shore? To Uplift or beyond?” the blue jay shouted; the birds had gotten in a habit of fluffing up as they shouted to catch the eye.
“Funny, I thought the whole point was just to have hands, period,” AlphaWolf said, raising one of his own to demonstrate. “Are you gonna turn up your beak at a pair of hands just ‘cuz it belonged to a slaver?”
“Slavers don’t usually make the best mechanics. Or doctors, or chefs even. We need the skills the hands provide as much as we need their digits. Look at how we were before Fenris started fixing us up,” the jay countered.
A new voice called out, from deep in the supportive side. A male bobcat was standing on his rear legs on the back of a canine. “What about those skills? We’ve been cross-training by swapping. But we can’t swap if they take the skilled hands. The birds already get our pilots. And our mechanic damn near got claimed by Tocsin. What do we do if they claim a medic? Or another tech?”
An alligator shouted from the other side. “You could do what we do! Ask for help, fur face! Or just learn them the hard way like we’ve been doing!”
“Hey, hey, there really shouldn’t be any of this ‘us’ and ‘them’ stuff,” AlphaWolf said. “We’re one single camp here, or should be. The expertise of any is available to all. The birds might get the pilots, but they fly the rest of us places so what’s it matter?”
Rakshasi slipped away to the back of the crowd, still listening. It could have gone better overall, but the feelings were still there to work with. Even the gift of the unclaimed hands would only mollify for a short time. The ones still without would be useable, not to mention other angles she could work. The hand sharing that was common among the mammals was an aspect she’d been nurturing feelings against for awhile. Not enough to be noticeable, but a factor ready to ignite when the time was right.
AlphaWolf glanced over his shoulder back into the shuttle, and nodded at someone. “Okay, looks like we’ve got an even dozen willing to give up their prisoners. Smash, Lenore, since you two brought this to my attention, you can have the first pick.” AlphaWolf stepped down out of the way as other Fusers started coming down the ramp. The ones giving up their passengers released the captured Slavers onto the ground to be picked from. Others, including Kandace, slipped away to rejoin the crowds.
Lenore rode the dinosaur as she waddled up to the dozen. Most of the slavers were too stunned to realize what was going on. One red-headed slaver was more on the ball. “What the hell? No way am I becoming a dumb dinosaur!” he shouted, trying to scramble back and getting his fox tail caught under his knees. He yelped in surprised pain, and fell onto his side in a tangle of arms and legs.
Smash smiled and waddled closer. Lenore took to the air to continue inspecting her choices. “A dumb dinosaur am I?” Smash asked, her club tail swinging threateningly behind her. “I think I’ve made my choice.”
The dinosaur walker waddled over the entangled man. Her underbelly slid open and she dropped down on him, with a thump that shook the ground and caused the slavers around the pair to stumble, nearly falling. She laid there for a long moment, her armored, spiked back not changing much, though it lengthened and narrowed a little. Her neck lengthened long enough to tilt her beaked head forward. Her fingers narrowed and grew longer, still tipped with big digging claws. Her scaley legs also grew longer.
When she pushed herself up, firm scaley breasts were revealed on her chest. Her armored back flexed as she stood up, flexing her hands. More boney horns extended from her shoulders on either side of her head. “Hands…Incredible, I have hands again.” she said to herself, flexing her fingers and stretching her arms.
Her beak opened in a grin and she touched her breasts, grinning as she started speaking inwardly to the human. “Yes, you’ve got these now too, and more. Not such a dumb dino now, are you?” she taunted the former man. She showed no consideration for modesty at all as she walked back to the crowd. “Mmm, should I let you out for a minute now, or save that fun for later?…I think I’ll wait till later, after I introduce you to my pal Dennis. We’re gonna have such fun!”
Lenore left her saurian friend to her fun and flew along the available slavers and studied them. None reacted to her like the red haired one had to Smash, so she had to go off appearances. She picked a black haired woman. She had the build of a Sturmhaven Valkyrie, that matched what Lenore was looking for.
“N-no…” the woman whimpered as Lenore came closer. “I’m…I don’t like heights!”
“Then this is your lucky day,” Lenore said. “I’m going to help you get over that. A Valkyrie should look forward to the chance to conquer her fears, and not let them rule her.”
“But what? Did you ask all the RIDEs you captured and sold if they’d rather you didn’t?” Lenore sighed happily. “But it’s all right. After you’ve been with me a while, you’ll beg me not to let you go. And who knows, maybe I’ll listen. Or maybe I’ll just say ‘nevermore’.”
The raveness flicked her wings and tackled the woman. They tumbled across the ground in a flurry of black hardlight feathers. Lenore was a little surprised that even with her initial resistance, the woman didn’t scream or otherwise seem scared as she was engulfed. But then again, she was from Sturmhaven. Her heights phobia was something she normally managed to keep hidden, but circumstances had momentarily revealed it. Now, she was facing an enemy, and showing fear of an enemy was a weakness that could not be tolerated.
A few moments later, Lenore stood up, stumbling a bit from her changed proportions. Her feet were flat, humanoid, but scaled, her toes tipped with her talons. Her wings had merged with the woman’s arms, giving her the hands she had waited so long for, along with large flight feathers on her upper arms. Her body was covered in dark, hardlight feathers, with a hint of blue in the deep blackness. She ran her talons along her beak and along her chest and shivered, her tail feathers flicking wide. “Finally! I missed this so much.”
She spread her arms wide and looked around, before lifting into the air. She started a happy circle around the dome, savoring the terror of her hands. Now that they shared minds, the woman couldn’t hide the phobia any more. “Oh, yes, my little Valk. This is what it is to be mine.”
As other reptilian and avian RIDEs came forward to claim their prizes, Paul and Fenris backed down the ramp and pulled around to watch. “I almost kind of feel sorry for the RIDE slavers,” Paul reflected. “After all, except for the bit with Jenni it was technically legal what they were doing.”
“Capturing and reselling RIDEs might be, but many RIDE slavers also dabble in less legitimate practices,” Fenris intoned. “Claim jumping, piracy, human slavery. Remember too, some of those RIDEs they enslaved had partners when they were captured. We dealt with some of those who ventured too near Sturmhaven while I was still commissioned. This kind deserves whatever they receive.”
“I won’t argue that point,” Paul said. “Well, c’mon, let’s get back to the graveyard. We’ve got an uncasking to prep for.”
The dragon gathered in the graveyard the next morning with Alphawolf, Paul, Fenris, and Kandace. “What’s this all about?” Kandace asked. “You had me set people I absolutely knew I could trust to watching the perimeter for people trying to slip out, and now just we and the ‘new guy’ are meeting here by ourselves?” She eyed Peaches suspiciously. “Something about you seems…oddly familiar.”
Peaches smiled. “You’re one of the originals, aren’t you? The -001 LNX series?”
Kandace’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, that’s right…”
Everyone could tell the dragon Integrate was doing his level best not to provoke something. “How much do you remember about…one named Fritz?”
Kandace spat. “Asshole.” She shook her head. “They redacted most of my memories when they sold me off—but my sister Kaylee filled in some of the gaps. He was the first of us…” Her eyes widened again. “…and the first of you. You’re an Integrate. Aren’t you.” She growled.
“Please, don’t paint all of us with such a broad brush. He’s an asshole we’re all fighting against,” Peaches said.
“Remember Zane and Carrie-Anne?” Paul reminded her. “They were pretty cool, right?”
“Pretty cool? That doesn’t mean much,” Kandace said. “But…my sister trusted them.”
“They helped with the Amontillado cases back at Uplift,” Paul said. “And, well, turns out we needed the same sort of help with the other twelve cases we just discovered here.”
Kandace stared. “Twelve? There are twelve of those poor bastards? Here, in this camp?”
“And odds are good the son of a bitch who wrote it is still around, too,” AlphaWolf growled. “Which is why your friends are watching the perimeter.”
“Some of the cases we’ve found, their viruses feel a bit more primitive than the ones we’re handling. Makes us think patient zero may be among them,” Fenris supplied.
Kandace knew when argument was futile. The lynx remained unconvinced, but was at least a little mollified. “Just stay out of my systems.”
“Right, now the cure. In Uplift, we were able to cure them quickly, but one of the RIDEs tried to wipe himself right after,” Paul said. “And the people weren’t in very good shape. One of them was completely animalized. The actual cure isn’t difficult, it’s the after-care where the trouble happens.”
Peaches nodded. “And now we need to cure twelve at once. While I don’t doubt my own capabilities, a few more eyes would be helpful. I’ve checked around, and there’s another Integrate in the area I’d like to bring in to help.”
Kandace glared. “What, another one?”
AlphaWolf rolled his eyes. “Oh sure, why not? Hell, invite as many as you want to. If you all know about the place anyway, I guess we could use the help.”
Kandace stared at him in turn. “They all know about this place?”
“Apparently we’re something of an open secret. Or a laughingstock, take your pick,” AlphaWolf said ruefully.
“Not a laughingstock. Just mutual politeness. I’m sure if you really thought about it, you might already know of a few Integrate enclaves without even realizing it. Ah here he comes.”
The dome split apart near them, and a black stallion trotted in. He was a little smaller than a RIDE walker, with hardlight panels on his front shoulders. “Good morning everyone. Peaches has told me what’s you’re trying to do. Having more help around does seem like a good idea. I’m Tonto.”
“AlphaWolf, but he’s probably told you that already,” AlphaWolf said. “Fenris and Paul, and Kandace and…Jenni, wasn’t it?”
Kandace nodded to AlphaWolf and patted the side of her head. “She’s still sleeping. Probably keep her that way for the time being. Kinder that way.” Then she turned her suspicious gaze on Tonto. “I don’t want you messing with my systems either.”
Tonto looked back at her, “It’s not messing when you can see it as plain as the fur on your face. It’s good that Jenni is staying asleep. Someone who’s been through as much as her doesn’t need to see what we’re about to do.” He looked back at Peaches. “So a couple dozen people that need help. Do we want to do them all at once or one at a time?”
“Seems like one at a time would be best,” Paul said. “Probably several of them are going to need…special attention.”
“Is there a particular order you want to process them? Some have been infected longer than others right?” Tonto asked.
“It would make the most sense to start with the shortest-term cases first, would it not?” Fenris rumbled. “Any problems we encounter will likely be of a lesser nature, but prepare us for the more challenging to come.”
“From what your friends have said about this, they were concerned that Integration might be needed for some of the worst cases. We’ll do our best to separate them, but if it gets that bad, how would you feel about it?” Peaches asked.
“Integration?” Kandace asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Apparently some of them have been infected so long that they’re as bad as the horse was—or worse,” Paul said.
“Worse?” Kandace asked. “What could be worse than that?”
“Do you really want to know?” Fenris asked.
Kandace thought about that for a moment. “…ugh.”
“Yes, that about sums it up,” Fenris said.
“And about the only way to save anything of the human in such a case might be to…well, forcibly Integrate what is left together, into a single being like us” Peaches said gently. “Please believe me…we find the necessity distasteful in the extreme, and it is not something any of us would do without dire need.”
Kandace stared at him again. “I can’t believe you’re seriously proposing that. AlphaWolf would never let—”
“Do what you have to to save them,” AlphaWolf growled, voice full of anger toward someone not present. “I’m rather proud of the fact that there hasn’t been a single death among any humans under my care in over twenty years. I don’t want to break that streak now.” Left unspoken was the fact that the streak for no serious physical harm to humans under his care had been broken. Kandace stared at him, then looked away.
Peaches shook his wings out a bit, raising a small dustcloud. “Right, bring in the first patient.”
Rakshasi wandered the enclave, getting a feel for what was going on. Despite Alphawolf’s ‘gift’ to the exotics, the tension was still high on both sides of the camp. She gave a few nudges and made her way to Fridolf. The wolf was part of the guard around the Graveyard.
The graveyard itself was another scratch point she was working. Once things had calmed down, the dragon had gone in there with the wolves, and left a guard to keep people out. One by one random fused RIDEs were being called in, and they weren’t coming out.
She leaned against the wolf so their conversation couldn’t be overheard. “What’s going on?”
Fridolf sent a shrug, “No clue. But I think they’re curing them. Had the three newest called in, from newest to oldest. They’re fast. Amontillado is a nasty beast; they shouldn’t be able to clear it that quickly.”
“Have you been able to see who’s in there? It may be a clue to how they’re doing that,” Rakshasi asked curiously.
“Not yet, but I’m going to ask to fetch the next one. Which should be right about now.” She grinned internally and stepped away from the cougar, approaching Fenris. “Who’s next? I can fetch them for you.”
“That would be…Geoffrey, I believe.” He sent the identity code for an infected male leopard RIDE.
Fridolf started down the path. “Got it. I’ll be here in four shakes of a wolf tail,” she called back.
“So far, so good,” Tonto commented, looking at the results so far. After curing and releasing their humans, the RIDEs were shell shocked, and the humans little better. Most of the RIDEs had to be put in passive mode until they could receive VR therapy. Only the first one hadn’t needed passive mode; but her human had only been trapped for a few weeks. Kandace was tending to the humans as best she could, until they could get them more help, while trying to stay as far from the Integrates as she could. On the bright side, all of the humans so far had at least rudimentary language skills, and no sign of the sort of cranial reshaping that had robbed the horse victim in Uplift of his ability to think.
Without anything useful to do, AlphaWolf was reduced to pacing, muttering imprecations under his breath, like a strange twisted reflection of an expectant father. Paul spared him an occasional nervous glance.
“The hard ones are coming up. And from what we’ve seen of these ones so far, I’m scared to think of what those oldest ones are going to be. Even Integration may not be enough,” Peaches said. The dragon had been doing the bulk of the work running the cure and updating it on the case by case basis.
A gray wolf led a leopard into the cleared space they were doing the cures in. She looked around curiously, but everyone’s attention was on the leopard. The feline froze for a moment, then walked to the centre of the space, the gaze of a stallion locked on him.
The dragon fixed his gaze on the leopard next. “I’m sorry if this will hurt. But you will feel better after this,” he promised.
Despite the locks the leopard was under, he still snarled and strained as the virus’s self preservation routines kicked in. The air between the dragon, the horse and the leopard practically crackled under the data load it carried. Finally, the leopard began to crack. Seams appeared on his arms and legs and across his chest, like a living autopsy. The metal split and curled back, revealing a furry body that tumbled free. The body curled up tightly and mewled pitifully, his head hidden by furry arms. Geoffrey fell back on all fours, his metal body reforming back into his walker mode.
“Aw crap,” Paul said. “Would you look at that.”
Tonto shuddered and shook himself. “That was rough. They’re getting worse.” He looked at the man Kandace was tending to, and shuddered. “I don’t know how many more we’ll be able to release. His brain waves are fluctuating badly, showing a mix of feline and human readings.”
Fridolf carefully controlled her own reactions. Outwardly she mirrored the disgust the others were projecting. Inwardly, she let herself have the barest shiver of delight. The results of the project had been better than anything she’d ever dreamed of. She flagged those feelings and memories for the worms, and slipped away.
The wolf found Rakshasi in a quiet corner near the path to the graveyard. They nuzzled, and pressed close together to talk.
“Integrates. There are two Integrates here doing the curing,” Fridolf sent, sending what she’d seen. “I didn’t even think Integrates CAME that big,” she added.
“Like us, they come in all shapes and sizes. Generally they are smaller than us, but not always.” Rakshasi paused and mentally examined the horse closer.
“My my my,” she purred happily. Fridolf could practically hear the stripes in her mistress’s voice as Shahrazad took over. “My little Intie project is all grown up.”
“Your little Intie project?” Fridolf asked, puzzled.
She purred and nodded. “You should have recognized him too. He shot you in the back a couple of decades ago.”
“Shot me in the back? It’s hard to recognize anyone from that position.…Munn. It’s that damn Marshal, isn’t it?”
Shahrazad laughed, barely keeping it on their tight channel. “Oh how sweet. Alphie just discovered the Inties know where his little camp is, and now the Marshals know where it is. He might as well post it on Zharus Maps. I may need to leave now, but we’d probably all be moving after this.”
Fridolf growled a little and clenched her claws. “So what are we going to do now? Can we take them out?”
“Not yet. I’d love to put him in his place, but we don’t have things set up properly. Pick one of the next few they’ll take. Hell pick them all if you can. Wire them up to trip our preparations when they’re messed with further. When the domes go, start running, get out in the panic, preferably before Mikey realizes who you are. And don’t forget to purge. With Inties in play you may not be able to clear as much as you need to.”
“I hate those worms, but it’ll be done once I prep the rest of them. Good luck, Shah. I’ll see you on the flip side.”
The next infected RIDE up was a male raccoon. “Oh, crap,” Paul said, examining the results from Fenris’s detailed scan. “Check me on this—I’m not seeing anything remotely human about these bio-scans. It looks like one of those Sturmhaven nested dolls—you know, where there’s a smaller one just like it on the inside. Including a completely reshaped cranium, like the horse back in Uplift. We crack this one open, we get another animal out.”
Kandace grimaced, remembering what the horse had been like. “Will there be anything of the human left even if you do…ugh…Integrate them?”
Peaches sighed uncertainly. “We won’t know until we try. The human mentality is probably still in there, being held by the nanites somehow. But it’s going to be damn tricky. The RIDE personality will be hard to maintain too; sorting out what is virus and what was the raccoon.”
“Is there any way we might help?” Fenris asked.
Tonto shook his head. “I don’t know. This is new to me. But even Integrated, they’re going to need help, support. The virus has kept the human isolated for months, if not years in some of these cases. And the RIDE’s been influenced by the virus for just as long. We’re in unknown territory here as for what we get on the other side.”
“Terrific,” AlphaWolf muttered. “And still no signs of anyone trying to cut and run yet. So whoever did it is probably still in the camp.”
“Or never here in the first place,” Tonto pointed out.
“So if you do want to help, keep an eye out for them while we work. If they are indeed here, they will no doubt be aware of what we are doing by now. This procedure will take all the concentration of both of us to get right,” Peaches said.
Paul nodded. “Our sensors are on high alert.”
Tonto stepped up behind the raccoon as Peaches stared at him from the front, and the process began. The raccoon began to tremble, then shiver, then shake in place as the Integration commenced. Then his skin began to bubble, and leak silvery fluid. “Oh, ew…” Kandace muttered, not quite able to force herself to look away.
The raccoon was gradually shrinking, losing mass as a silver puddle formed around it, both Tonto and Peaches rapt with concentration. “I think…there,” Peaches said, as he and Tonto both exhaled and relaxed. The raccoon-man knelt, still shivering, in a pool of silvery goo.
Kandace moved to approach, then stopped at the edge of the puddle. “That stuff…is it…?”
Tonto snorted and looked unsteady on his hooves. “It’s safe. Leftover mass and inert nanites. Damn that was only the fifth one. We still have seven more to go.”
“Why…am I so gooey?” the new Integrate asked listlessly.
Tonto went over to nudge him gently. “It’s a side effect of what you went through. Just stay calm, you’re among friends.”
“I think I need to lay down for a while…” The raccoon looked like he’d just been on a day-long drinking binge. “Over…over there.”
“At least that one is talking,” Peaches said. “That’s a good sign.”
“Hands might be useful for the next few, I think,” Tonto said, watching the raccoon move away. He stepped to one side and started shifting. Fingers grew from his forelegs as his forehoof shrunk back. His chest flattened out a little, his shoulders broadening. He pushed himself up from all fours and stretched. “Ahhh that’s better.”
“Hands are useful for a lot of things,” AlphaWolf grumbled, now well beyond the point of being surprised by anything new. “That’s the whole damned problem.”
Kandace stared at the horse for a moment, then shook her head. She wasn’t all that far behind AlphaWolf by this point.
Tonto flexed his hands, not even aware of the image he was presenting. He shook himself. “I usually go by Mike when I’m like this, but you can call me however you want to. How are you all doing? We ready for the next one? The rest will probably be just as bad, if not worse.”
“They’re not gonna spontaneously get any better if you wait, right?” Kandace asked.
Mike snorted. “I wish. Send for the next one.”
Fridolf just managed to get back to her station in time. Finding the remaining controls hadn’t been difficult, but setting the triggers was. She’d had to unpack her memories of the virus to properly thread it in, and then re-hide the data. She was going to need a long defrag session once this mess was cleared up.
“You don’t look so good,” she commented, trying to look like nothing was amiss as Fenris came back to the graveyard entrance.
Fenris shook his head. “I am doing well enough,” he said, peering down at the much smaller wolf. “If you would, please bring…Sadie.” He sent the identification code for a small white squirrel Fuser.
She nodded. “I think I know where she is. I’ll bring her in shortly. What’s going on in there? Why did you force Geoffrey to defuse?”
“We noticed in going over our patient logs that a number of RIDEs had not received maintenance checkouts, even when a mechanic was last available,” Fenris said. “AlphaWolf understandably wishes to ensure all these RIDEs are examined for signs of possible Fuser nanite malfunction. Kandace is serving as our assistant, and the new fellow has a number of sensors not available to me that are helping with the procedure.”
Fridolf acted like she accepted the explanation. “Gotta make sure everyone stays healthy, especially this far from most of the mechanics. I’ll go find Sadie and bring her in.”
Once again, the Integrates didn’t give the wolf a second glance, focusing on the arriving fused pair. She was surprised to see the horse was two legged now, and chalked it up as another Intie trick. Knowing who he was, she recognized him easily. She shifted her attention to their workspace, taking note of the puddles of silver slime left over from an integration, and grinned inwardly. On the way back out of the graveyard, she ducked behind a rock outcropping to watch and wait.
As before, Mike took control over Sadie, and led her into the workspace. Peaches started scanning her, and froze. “Something’s different. There’s a modification here, a recent modification, made in the past hour or so.”
“Guess I was wrong. Looks like the writer is still here.” Mike looked around a moment, then shrugged. “We should take care of her now, then see if we can find that writer.”
Peaches looked as well. “Everyone ready? Let’s fix her up.”
“Hold on—what kind of modification?” AlphaWolf asked. “What’s it supposed to do?”
The dragon studied the frozen white squirrel. “Looks like it just gives a signal. Probably a trigger for something. We can block it, keep it from getting out of the graveyard with ease.”
“Okay, smart guy,” Kandace said. “Whoever it is obviously knows we’re working on them in the graveyard. What if it trips something in here?”
“I like her,” Mike smirked, “Don’t worry, it just needs a bit more finesse than those big claws can handle. I’ll keep any signals from getting out of her frame, let alone into the graveyard. Let’s get this done.”
Fridolf waited to see what would happen. The Integrates found her trap, and blocked it from going off. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t react. She waited until the horse-man and the dragon were both deep in the Integration process, and made her move. The silver slime coming out of the squirrels mouth and other openings made an excellent horrific image for her needs.
A scream echoed through the camp, both on its comms and audibly. “Integrates! They’re here! They’ve come to Integrate us!” Fridolf screamed, running away from the graveyard. She added video footage of what she had witnessed on the sidebands to further prove what was going on, making sure the horse and dragon were clearly seen, along with Alpha, Fenris and Kandace.
The reaction in the camp was swift and sudden. About half of the RIDEs in the camp rushed the outer dome walls. Most of those left were too confused to move, and a small number actually began to rush toward the graveyard, powering up weapons as they came.
“What the hell is going on?” Mike growled, surprisingly wolflike from a horse. “We can’t stop, not now. We’d lose both of them.”
“On it,” Fenris said, moving to block the narrow entrance with his lupine bulk, the particle cannons on his back elevating. Kandace and AlphaWolf moved to flank him.
Peaches was deep in the process, trying to restore what he could of the woman’s mind as part of the Integrated being, while flushing out the virus. Mike followed his progress as best he could, keeping the signal contained even as the virus was purged.
“We need a few minutes. Who the hell was that?” Mike called out, finding the voice vaguely familiar.
“It was Fridolf,” Kandace explained. “One of AlphaWolf’s aides in camp. She was on the guard duty here, and she brought in some of the patients. She must have stayed to watch what we were doing.”
Most of the RIDEs who’d come running toward the graveyard had halted at the sight of an intimidating huge white wolf with even more intimidating cannons. The few who hadn’t were further swayed when AlphaWolf stepped out on front of him, broadcasting on the same bands Fridolf had used. “Listen, there’s no cause for alarm. These Integrates are helping us save the lives of humans and RIDEs affected by a nasty Fuser nano virus, and—”
Mike snarled, releasing his hold on Sadie, “Fridolf! She’s one of Shah’s generals! Where’d she go? Stop her!” He flew between the wolves, his shields flaring as he sought his target, leaving the dragon to handle the Integration by himself.
“Oh, now what the fuck,” AlphaWolf growled in consternation.
“Mike! Get back here! I need your help!” Peaches shouted, trying to damp the signal and keep the squirrel alive at the same time. He found he couldn’t do both; the implanted urge was too much for the dragon to counter while holding the squirrel-pair’s mindstates. Given the choice between the two, he chose to let the signals go.
Explosions echoed through the graveyard. Many of them had been under bare patches of dirt, where RIDEs had been revived. Others were under sections of rock wall and spires, planted where they could cause the most collapse. Three spires toppled and fell, two smashing into pieces across mostly empty terrain. The third fell directly toward Peaches and his patient.
The dragon spread his wings and covered the patient, roaring a challenge at the falling spire, bracing himself to let it crash across his back.
At the last moment, Fenris was there beside them, taking the brunt of the impact across his own broad back. Only a few chunks hit Peaches, which he easily deflected. “Urgh…!” Fenris gasped.
“Fenris!” Paul yelled, running toward them. He’d taken shelter near the entrance when the explosions started.
Fenris got back to his feet, shaking his head, as chunks of stone slid off of his back. “I am…going to need some repairs, but—I am mostly well. My hardlight shielding took most of the damage. Peaches, how are you?”
“I’m fine, as are Sadie and her human. I think I’ve almost got them stabilized now; just clearing the last of the virus,” the dragon replied, still sheltering the silvery-white squirrel with his body.
The skies around them suddenly brightened. Under the cover of the booms, the air crackled with electricity and aura. People near the dome generators later reported they heard them spark and short out. Even as the dust from the explosions rose in the air, the domes that protected the enclave dropped.
Mike flew through the chaotic camp, trying to track down the wolf’s signal. She’d gone silent after triggering the riot, but she had to be there somewhere. He heard Peaches calling to him, but he blocked the dragon’s call, focused on his target. He’d been after these people for decades. Knowing that there was one here, and maybe more, drove him to the extremes. The atrocities that Shahrazad and her cronies had committed had to be answered for.
He was so focused, the blast that struck him from behind caught him completely unaware. The horse crashed into the ground and dug a shallow ditch through the dirt, leaving behind a trail of silvery red blood.
“She told me I should run while the running was good. But I couldn’t resist. Resist the chance to return the favour,” a voice snarled from above him.
He turned his head, his lower body numb from the shot. Fridolf grinned, her hip cannons glowing as they prepared to fire again. “Now we’ll see how durable you Inties really are,” she snarled.
The glow on the cannons abruptly faded, and her body froze. “You made the oldest mistake in the book. You gloated before you won,” Mike growled, focusing through his pain to keep her body locked down.
She grinned back at him, with the only movement she had left. “So did you,” she said before her expression relaxed.
Mike cursed and slammed her core into passive mode, but he could tell the damage was done; the worms had done most of their work even before she had attacked. He hoped they would be able to salvage something, but first he had to take care of himself. He laid there and focused on healing and bypassing the damage to his back.
Peaches finally broke through his blocks. “Michael Tonto Munn! Get your tail back here! We need to get the domes back up before someone gets hurt!”
“She was here, Peaches, I almost had her. That damn tigress was here,” Mike blabbed, not sure if he sent it or spoke it.
“I don’t care if the Emperor of Earth was here, I need your help Mike. There are unprotected humans here. Not to mention Sadie.”
As Peach’s transmission ended, he next picked up a continuous stream of invective from AlphaWolf. It was actually rather impressive, as he managed to go on for at least forty-five seconds without repeating a word before Mike cut it off.
The stallion finally began to regain feeling in his legs as he rerouted around his damaged spine. A silver patch-scab sealed the wound in his back. He activated his hip lifters and lifted up, tapping into Fridolf’s body to make her follow him. “On my way, Peaches. Where can I do the most good first? Preferably without being shot at again,” he sent, looking around the camp and realizing what he had inadvertently caused.
A set of coordinates were sent to him, on the opposite side of the camp from the graveyard. “Here, go see if anyone needs help in this location. There were reports of some explosions there. I’m not sure I could keep myself from shooting you at this point,” Peaches sent.
With the hardlight domes down, the temperature was steadily rising. AlphaWolf’s camp was located in one of the relatively temperate zones, since they hadn’t been able to steal hardlight tech for the dome for several years after founding it. They’d had to make do with smaller barriers around individual cabins, and humans might have to make brief crossings outside unprotected to get from one to another. So exposure probably wasn’t going to kill anyone immediately.
But there were still a dozen or more unprotected humans outside right now, under the hot afternoon sun, too stunned by what had been going on to get under shelter. At least half of them, AlphaWolf noticed, had been unceremoniously dumped by their previous captors the moment the cry of “Integrates” had gone up, and most of them were wandering around in a daze. AlphaWolf Fused onto the first adult male he found, only slightly ruthlessly shoving him down into sleep so his panic wouldn’t interfere with Alpha’s ability to concentrate. “I need any and all un-Fused RIDEs in the area to report to the commons!” he sent over local broadcast frequencies. “Including at least two avian types, please!” He grinned ferally. “So hey, birdies, if you’re looking for ‘hands’ here’s your chance.”
A few un-Fused RIDEs drifted in—a deer, a lion, a peregrine falcon. Alpha assigned them to humans appropriate to their gender and situation. “Help me get the rest of them into one of the cabins,” AlphaWolf said. “They should still have emergency hardlight generators in them.”
With the other RIDEs’ help, AlphaWolf was able to get the other humans sheltered in one of the cabins with the hardlight cooling system active. Once he was sure they were safely locked in, he headed out to try to round up whatever other RIDEs he had left and see if anything could be done to get the main domes back up—not to mention find that Integrate Tonto, or Mike, or whatever the hell his name was. Someone had some explaining to do.
Shahrazad glanced back at the horizon, smoke and dust rising from the site of the enclave. She was travelling with a half dozen others, her hand picked jay among them, along with one of the controls.
“I can’t believe he’d do that to us. All that talk about RIDE independence…and he starts Integrating us,” she said out loud, to urge the group along.
The jay squawked; in his flyer mode he looked like a blue-colored space plane. “He wasn’t practicing what he preached. Hell, he was probably working for them from the beginning. Letting us learn to be independent, but still needing hands, then integrating us when he felt we were ready.”
The velociraptor in the group paused. “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well you’re welcome to go back, if you’d rather take your chances with them. We saw what they were doing back there. Sadie wasn’t going to be Sadie any more, David,” the jay retorted.
“Sadie hasn’t been Sadie for months!” the raptor replied. “I knew her for years, she—it was some kind of virus. Must’ve been something bad. She never even de-Fused—used to be so nice to her thumbs.”
“As the bird said, you’re welcome to go back. But I ain’t going back there. Bad things were happening. Humans walking around, having a say in what we do, Integrates showing up. Next thing you know, the Marshals will be coming over for tea,” Shahrazad shot back, trying to recover a bit. The jay was a promising student, but he was still just a student. His comments were good, but they went too far; it was better to drop hints and let the peons connect the dots themselves.
“I’m going back to see what’s happening. This…this reeks. I’m not going to be a panic-o-saurus. I have to see what happened to Sadie!” He flipped into skimmer mode and rushed off in a cloud of dust.
Shah watched him go, letting the group continue for a few klicks before she called for a stop. “This isn’t good. He’s going to lead them right back to us. We need to backtrack, and split away. I’ve run before, I know how to shake tails.”
She looked around at what she had to work with. “Stay low so you don’t cause a radar ping,” she warned the jay, then looked at the other four. “If you want to be sure they’ll never find you again, stick with me. I’ll make sure of it. Otherwise, you can go off by yourself now. But make your choice. If you’re with me after this point, then you are with me. Any attempt to leave, to go back to that mad house, and you will be slag. Got it?”
The others in the group nodded slowly, some looking doubtful, but all eventually agreeing. “Good. Let’s go.”
“Dome power feeds are shorted. Breakers need replacing,” the German Shepherd RIDE working on the main generator reported. Damage reports were coming in from all corners of the Camp. The were emergency procedures to follow and the more level-headed among the RIDEs, under the leadership of AlphaWolf, were scrambling to help. The canine kept one wary eye on the Integrate dragon that was watching over his shoulder. “So, can you do anything about this, or are you just going to stand there and wonder if I’m good with ketchup?” the dog said dryly.
“I came here to help infected RIDEs and humans,” Peaches rumbled. “I can’t keep doing that if the Dome’s down. Stand aside…”
The dog shrugged and stepped out of the way, gesturing to the box. “Be my guest.”
The dragon looked closely at one of the sparking breakers, shut his eyes in concentration…then breathed smoke on it. The sparking immediately stopped. He repeated the performance on the three other breakers. “Okay, that’ll hold as a temporary fix. Go ahead and restore power—minimum power at first, then ramp up to about eighty percent. Those breakers should hold, but you should get replacements fast.”
“Oh, now you’re just blowing smoke,” the German Shepherd muttered, but he did as Peaches suggested. Overhead, the dome flickered, then came back on.
“Now, if you would be so kind, could you assist your leader and myself in gathering together everyone who has not fled?” Peaches asked. “We owe you a full explanation, and I should like only to have to give it once.”
While the camp members were gathered up, Peaches took the chance to do some damage control of his own. He stood in the centre of the camp with Michael, the frozen Fridolf cloaked between them to avoid causing another stir. A tightly controlled signal passed between the two Integrates.
“What the hell was that about? You don’t just run off in the middle of high risk surgery!” Peaches growled to the horse Integrate.
Mike meekly accepted the blame. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. It’s just been so long since we had any breaks against her…We never even suspected that virus would be one of her projects.”
“I’m only one of the ones you should be apologizing to. If you hadn’t gone off like that, the domes would have stayed up, and we could have contained this mess better. Hell, we probably would have that tigress you’re so hot for too.”
“I’m not!…Sorry again. It is my fault.”
“Damn right it is! I’d report you to Qube if I didn’t think he’d demand to know where the Camp is, too,” the dragon growled.
“What makes you think the Qube doesn’t know where this is?” Mike asked. “AlphaWolf’s crew has been keeping both the bandit and the feral populations contained in this end of the Dry for years. I’ve seen our models; without Alpha’s camp here, banditry and claim jumping rates would be astronomical, more than the Marshals could ever dream of handling. Toss in pressure from the Nextus Military folk to be hands off on him, and we were, well not happy, but we’re willing to mostly look the other way.
“Granted, that mess in Uplift was a bit too much. Whispers from on high was that they were trying to figure out the proper rolled up newspaper to bap him with, but that may not be needed any more. In any case, better a devil you know occasionally working on similar goals as you, than one loose in the wild causing all sort of random havoc.”
Peaches groaned and shook his virtual head, “Politics! Why can’t anything ever be simple!”
Mike couldn’t help grinning, “Things are never simple when you have a lot of people involved. And this one is dealing with thousands of people, RIDEs, Humans and Inties alike. I didn’t have a chance to check, but there’s probably a quantum or two here already, just to keep an eye on things.”
He sighed and got serious again, “But that doesn’t change the fact that this wasn’t a Marshal mission. It was a…humanitarian? RIDEitarian? Sapiantarian? Man we need better terms for this. It was a mission for good. I was here, under your invitation, as an Integrate, not as a Marshal.”
“And here I thought we weren’t going to keep ourselves aloof anymore. I must be mistaken,” Peaches said.
“It’s not keeping aloof; it’s the right tool for the right job. You were called in because you’re an Integrate; and an Integrate was needed for this. Or do you think anyone else could be fast enough to adapt the vaccine and save the minds at the same time? The only one who might even remotely have been able to do all that might, and I mean might, would have been Fenris and Paul. And that would only be if they had a good partner pair and their link was working. Even I couldn’t have done it and saved Sadie, I just don’t have the processing power to spare to sort out the mindstates like you did,” Mike corrected the dragon.
Peaches facepawed. “You know…yeah, you’re right. But we have more to talk about later. We need to uncask the rest. How many did we lose?”
“No clue; we’ll have to wait until the headcount is done. Care to give me a hand with Fridolf? The longer we wait, the less useful her information will be. We should be able to take care of it before everyone is here.”
The dragon swelled larger in their personal space. “Later! We have a job to finish here first. We have to regain the trust of the Camp. Camelot helped them find this place twenty-odd years ago, and Camelot will assist in its restoration—better than it was before. If that’s what they desire.
“As for your little ice cube; we are not touching her without AlphaWolf or his representative watching. Part of that trust we need to rebuild. Now get your tail back to real space and look appropriately contrite while we do some bridge mending, and finish off the casks. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can thaw her out.”
It took a good half hour for all the stragglers to be rounded up, including a number like a velociraptor who had started out fleeing, then thought better of it and returned once the initial panic had worn off. Paul expected they would probably see at least a couple dozen more of those come back in over the next day or so as the panic took varying lengths of time to work its way out of their systems. Maybe more might return over the next couple of weeks out of curiosity or failure to find a better spot somewhere else.
But others wouldn’t return at all; AlphaWolf’s was the best-known but hardly the only haven for renegade RIDEs. Paul privately thought anyone AlphaWolf lost permanently over a momentary panic probably wasn’t worth keeping anyway, but he and Fenris agreed it was probably best to keep that opinion to himself.
The stallion Integrate kept his distance from most of the camp, letting Peaches represent the Integrates. He did try to look appropriately contrite for the chaos he had added to, but he refused to let anyone near his pacified prisoner.
Paul didn’t think too highly of Mike—or Tonto—or whatever he wanted to call himself. He obviously had some sort of vendetta against the virus-makers—matched with the high-strung temper of a stallion in permanent rut. That combination had cost the Pack, who he’d rapidly come to consider his close friends, dearly. It was fortunate that so few had actually been injured. Paul and Fenris were able to patch together the worst cases, including the necessary repairs to Fenris himself, while they were waiting for the rest to assemble.
At last, all those who were available had gathered, including the camp’s pool of unclaimed, shared-use, and sympathetic humans. AlphaWolf had released the one he’d taken during the chaos, feeling it was altogether safer to be un-Fused when Integrates were around. He stood in the center of the clearing and spoke aloud and via sideband transmission, explaining what had happened. “…and it turns out this trojan has been running rampant for years.” AlphaWolf said. “In fact, it was available from several of our own net forums. Funny how I never found out about it. I thought Fridolf was a trustworthy sysadmin, but now it turns out she apparently wrote the awful thing.”
“It’s real!” the velociraptor who’d returned added, showing everyone a recording of Sadie before and after infection. Then the wolf and the horse that the Freerider Garage had cleaned up came forward to talk about what had happened to them, which further helped. By the time they finished and Peaches himself came forward to address the crowd, they were more ready to hear what he had to say.
Peaches explained that he and Mike had been called in by AlphaWolf himself (they left out the little detail that it had been via Paul) to lend their Integrate powers to rescuing the worst afflicted in the only way that had a chance of saving all of them: Integration. “We sought to do this in private, to try to avoid…unpleasant appearances. In retrospect, this turns out to have been a regrettable mistake. And with your permission, we will perform the procedures on the last few patients here, in the open, where you all can see exactly what we do. And why we did it.”
As he finished speaking, two other figures came forward. They were still a little unsteady on their feet, and looked different from before, but there was no mistaking the identities of the raccoon man whose body now sported a network of glowing tan lines, or the white squirrel woman with fiber-optic fur. Everyone could recognize them as Rocky and Sadie, two of the dozen Fusers who had been oddly silent the last little while.
“Hi,” Rocky said, waving. “I know you’ve been worried about us, but we’re all right…ish now. And not feeling any zombie-like urges to make you into more of us, so don’t worry about that, okay?”
“We were sick with something nasty,” Sadie said. “We’re…not all better now, but we’re going to get there.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Annette…I didn’t mean to…”
The raccoon put his arm around her shoulder, and they went to sit down together off to the side of the clearing. After a moment, by ones and twos, their friends from the camp started to gather around them. They didn’t speak, much, but their mere closeness seemed to make the two new Integrates feel better.
Peaches watched, and smiled warmly. “Now that we have the explanations out of the way…shall we begin?”
With the virus exposed, the remaining infected were tracked down quickly. Two had slipped away in the confusion, but the remaining four were found and pacified until they could be cured. They all resisted, protesting their status, but the readings were obvious to all who were watching. One even tried to defuse, but Mike stopped him quickly.
“He’s been fused for a year at least. If he released his human, there’d be nothing left,” the stallion explained quickly, making sure his findings and evidence were open for all to see.
Of the four they had to cure, only one could release their human safely. The fisher had been infected for years, but her human had only been captured in the Uplift raid. Peaches shared a memory he extracted from the bird. Given the nature of the memory, he kept it limited to AlphaWolf, Fenris, Paul and Mike.
It showed her previous human finally losing cohesion, the nanites losing the last traces of the human’s mind. In a gross parody of the Integration process, she opened up and red and gray ooze flowed out of her onto the ground, while she shifted back to her unfused state.
“Fridolf was smart when she wrote this cursed thing. When the virus senses the human is becoming unstable, the infected becomes more isolationist, finding a spot they could expel the remains in peace, and minimize the risk of the infected being discovered,” the dragon explained over the private channel. “I’ll leave it up to you if you want to share this information. For the safety of our prisoner, I would suggest waiting. We’ve had enough mobs today.”
“Why is it goo and not an animal or something, like we nearly had with Geoffrey’s human?” Paul asked.
“I’m no expert, but I’ve been examined by a lot of experts in my time. I’d say it’s due to the lack of mind, a lack of soul if you will. With no mind to give the body form, even something as simple as an animal form, it’s just a mess of fluids; not even bones and organs. Everything’s nani-liquified,” Mike explained, sounding a little sick as well.
“For her own sanity, I’ve blocked…not removed, but blocked that memory from her. Her personality is unstable enough as is, I don’t want that memory being a tipping point,” Peaches added.
They slipped back into real time, the conversation having passed by so quickly that Paul’s body was only now beginning to show the revulsion the memory had caused.
AlphaWolf looked around the crowd that had watched, both sickened and fascinated by the process. “Right. That’s everyone we have left. Show’s over, let’s give these people some privacy to come to terms with what’s happened. So sayeth me!”
The Integrates gathered in a desert VR space, a space that looked like a random spot in the Dry Ocean. Incongruously, there was a large ice cube in front of them, water evaporating off of it but never shrinking it. Deep within the ice, a snarling wolfess was frozen in mid leap.
The stallion snorted and paced angrily from side to side. He glared at the ice cube containing the snarling wolf. “That monster! How could anyone even think of doing that, let alone plan contingencies to make sure it wouldn’t be discovered?”
“How many are out there?” he shouted to the frozen wolf. “How many have you killed? Turned into stains on the desert?”
Behind the horse, the dragon waited and watching, letting the stallion work out some of his anger before they officially started.
Mike slammed a fist into the ice cube, chipping it, but leaving it unharmed. He hopped backwards, shaking his hand. “Damn, that hurt.”
“That is the point of this VR space. Now, are you done yet? Our guests are waiting,” the dragon added.
Mike rubbed his hand and took a deep breath. He adjusted his stetson and duster and nodded. “Yeah, I’m ready. What’s done is done. Let them in.”
A forest bloomed on the edge of the desert, the Integrate VR shared space extending to be shared with the pair of RIDEs and a hitchhiking human. Out of it padded two wolves, sandy-colored with one tail and white with two tails, the white wolf somewhat incongruously only slightly larger than the sandy one in this space. Between them, with his hands on their backs, walked a young man with white wolf ears and twin tails of his own. They pulled up short as they saw the Integrates waiting for them.
“Kandace won’t be coming,” Paul said. “At the moment, she doesn’t have a lot of kind words for…oh.”
AlphaWolf froze in his tracks when he saw the horse Integrate wearing the uniform of the Gondwanan Marshals. “Oh, terrific. As if it wasn’t enough for the Integrates to know where we are, now the Marshals do, too. Hell, a Marshal damn near wrecked my camp. That makes a lot of sense now.”
Mike looked at the wolf, then at himself. He started to dismiss his uniform, then decided to keep it. “Appearances aside, I am NOT here as a Marshal. I was invited here by Peaches as an Integrate. And this,” he motioned to the ice cube, “This is a personal matter for me.”
“Oh, of course!” AlphaWolf sneered. “That makes it all right to put dozens of human lives as well as RIDEs’ in danger to go haring off on your wolfhunt.”
“A successful wolfhunt. To catch someone who has ruined the lives of hundreds of other people. RIDE and human alike.” Mike stopped himself and held up his hand to stop Alpha. “I’m sorry. I got away from myself. I shouldn’t have done that. Any of that. You’re right, I did let down people who were counting on me.
“While this was a personal matter for me, it affected more people beyond just me, or even me and my family. I should have known better. I should have been a lot of things. I’m sorry.” He sighed, “Dad’s gonna give me hell about that next time I see her. And I don’t even want to think of what Mom’s going to do to me. But I’ll deserve it all.”
AlphaWolf actually stopped with his mouth open to deliver his next rant, and had to pause for a moment to come up with something to say. He huffed a breath and seemed to deflate a bit from his anger. “Well, you can realize when you made a mistake, anyway. That’s more than I can say for some RIDEs who shall remain nameless.” A cartoonish representation of a hippogryph flew by and smacked head-first into a tree, where he stuck by his beak while his body vibrated like an arrow. “If I had to lose anyone, why couldn’t I have lost him?” he muttered under his breath. “I still don’t like having a Marshal show up here. Whether you’re here ‘as’ a Marshal or not, I’m pretty sure you still are one.”
Mike shrugged again and walked around the ice cube. “The only reason I became a Marshal was to find Shah and her crew, for what they did to my family—and for war crimes, for that matter. Though helping people, including your casks, has become my new priority. Because of my history and the position I’ve earned, I have a lot of leeway and freedom in what I do. When this event comes out, I’ll have a lot of explaining to do, but you tend not to earn the high ranks without also gathering a lot of dangerous secrets. The world is far from black and white; there are many shades of gray, and the more ranks you gain, the more gray you realize there is.”
He tried to keep his expression as neutral as he could, not wanting to threaten the wolf, but to make his point. “Rest assured, were this a Marshal operation, you would know it. And it would probably be you in that ice cube right now.”
“What, over a few dozen humans? Many of whom want to be here? Where the hell are you Marshals while thousands of my brothers and sisters are held in slavery so complete some of them can’t even think?” AlphaWolf spat. “Oh, wait, that’s all right—that’s legal.”
“And two wrongs make a right in your world…”
“It’s not even two wrongs, for most of us. It’s just that humans saw fit to design us to need one of them to be able to use tools. Hard to build anything without them. Like this settlement. The one that you—” He shook his head. “No, no, you apologized for that. I shouldn’t harp on it, even if I am still a little pissed off. Sorry.”
“You have the right to be. To be completely blunt and honest, Alpha, you are on the Marshal radar. But you haven’t done enough to warrant a shutdown op yet.”
AlphaWolf snorted. “Do you know how much busier you Marshals would be if I weren’t out here pulling in all the death-to-all-humans extremists so I can sit on them and make them be satisfied with just a few bodyjackings? Do you even have any idea how hard that gets from day to day? Maybe I should just let them have their way for a while, see how you like it then.”
“That’s exactly why you are so low on the radar at the moment. You’re a blemish on the Marshal records, but we’re smart enough to realize you’re doing some good out here. Or at least things would be a hell of a lot worse out here without you.”
AlphaWolf cocked his head. “Well. That’s something I can’t say I ever expected I’d hear,” he said bemusedly. “A Marshal telling me I’m doing some good. Almost makes up for the whole ‘destroying my camp thing.”
Mike looked away a moment to gather himself, then looked back, his expression hardening to make his point. “But, rest assured, if you start doing stunts like what you did in Uplift again, your friends in high places in Nextus and in Camelot won’t keep you safe from the full force of the Marshals coming down on your head.”
The dragon separated the wolves from the horse. “And let’s stop there before we say something we’re going to regret later. Time is a-wasting after all. We came here for a reason, and even in quick time, we don’t want to take too long. If you can’t focus on the task at hand, you can leave.”
AlphaWolf growled in frustration and glared daggers at the stallion. “I’m staying. You aren’t going to hide anything from me. Not any more.”
Mike didn’t look at the wolves; he was focused on the ice cube now. “Right, we have a job to do. She knows where Shahrazad is. Or where she will be.”
Peaches gave them all a long look. “Remember our goals. We need to find out what she knows about Amontillado so we can work on a better cure, one that we can release. And we want to know what she knows about Shahrazad. Mike, you’re on containment. Keep her read-only so she can’t erase anything else, and don’t go running off again. I’ll do the talking.”
The others grudgingly accepted the dragon’s conditions. Peaches moved to the ice cube and breathed on it. The flames melted the ice around the wolf’s head, but the rest of her body stayed encased. Her snarling expression immediately changed to a confused one as she woke up. The gray wolf looked around, before focusing on AlphaWolf.
“Alpha? What’s going on? Where am I? Who are they?” Fridolf asked.
“You’re in VR space. We captured you trying to escape. I need you to answer some questions for me,” Peaches asked, regaining her focus. “What do you know about the Amontillado virus?”
“The Amontillado virus? Is that what they had? Those poor RI’s. Were you able to help them?” she asked sincerely.
“They have been cured, and they are getting the help they need. But we have reason to believe you know more about it than you are letting on.”
“Me? What could I possibly know about it? It’s a horrible virus, I wouldn’t go near it.”
The wolf froze in place, and Peaches looked at the rest of the group. “I don’t understand. She’s telling the truth. She has no memory of working on Amontillado, or how she reacted when she was exposed. She has no memory of anything after we started curing them.”
“Damnit! I missed my chance. I should have froze her tight, but I had to get the last word in. She purged herself,” Mike cursed himself.
“As punishment, you can read the Evil Overlord’s list fifty times. Now what else can we do?” Paul asked.
Mike gave the twin-tailed human a puzzled look, almost smirking before he looked back at the frozen wolf. “Let’s change tactics. She knew Shah a long time; there might be more pieces left in there for us to work with. Those memories would be harder to purge. Let me talk to her.”
The wolfess reactivated, not realizing the discussion she had missed. Mike stepped up to her and stared. His avatar swelled larger, becoming more robotic until it looked like a fused RIDE than an Integrate. “Do you recognize me?”
She stared back at him, looking innocent and confused. “No, why should I?”
“Now that I think of it, you probably never did get a good look at me. How about this. Harkonnen Plateau. Twenty years ago. You shot down an IDE and started torturing its pilot. My dad. I shot you in the back and sent you scurrying back to your cave, while we captured your boss, Shahrazad. Ringing any bells?”
Her expression momentarily hardened before resuming its confused look. “No, no bells. You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
“You’re lying,” Mike spat at her. Behind him, in her eyesight, holographs appeared, records recovered from an ancient raid showing various RIDEs that were part of Shahrazad’s enclave. A porcupine, a fisher, a raptor appeared in VR space. Mike hesitated a moment, then added a tiger-striped housecat to the images; the Integrated Scratch had redeemed himself from what the tigress had forced him to do, but that didn’t change the fact that he had been part of her squad back then. Finally, Shahrazad herself appeared, standing right beside Mike. Fridolf’s reaction was caught by all of them; she recognized all the images.
“I’ve never seen those folk before in my life. Alpha, what’s going on? Who are these people and why are they asking me all this stuff?” she pleaded, turning her head to try and see her former leader.
AlphaWolf’s expression was at first pained, then it hardened. “You’ve been a good aide, Fridolf. I could hardly believe it when you took down our dome and blew those explosives. But I saw that with my own eyes. And now I see you’re lying to us. And you even know it this time.”
“I don’t know it! Why are you doing this to me? What happened to the camp? Is anyone hurt?” she struggled to change the subject, to get onto safer ground.
“A few people. Like myself.” Mike shifted his avatar back to normal and turned around, showing a silvery red oozing wound. “You gave this to me. Shot me in the back as you tried to escape.”
She winced and looked away. “I didn’t…I couldn’t have done this. You have to have me mistaken for someone else.”
“You know, it’s really an interesting philosophical question, isn’t it?” Paul mused. “Can you blame someone for doing something they don’t remember doing anymore? If we’re made up of our experiences, are they still the same person who did it if they hacked that part of themselves out of their own brain?”
“Of course they—” Mike stopped himself in mid sentence, realizing his adopted cousin Scratch was a perfect counter-example. “She’s too tricksy to have forgotten completely. Somewhere, somehow she’s got triggers ready, to restore that information and find her way back to Shah. We just need to find where or what they could be. We let her go as innocent, and in a few months, a few years, she’ll be back to what she was, and we’ll be dealing with Amontillado 2.0 or worst.”
He tapped his fingers on an appropriately sized rock that appeared beside him, facing Fridolf and trying to figure out the next step. The innocent shell that Fridolf was projecting was getting in the way of the real work they needed to do. What he needed was in the fragments of her memory, still there, but unindexed, unfindable. He caught the dragon’s eye and sent a freeze command across VR space. Behind him, he knew, the two RIDEs and human would be locked in place just like Fridorf, giving him the chance to work without interruption.
“Michael, what are you doing?” Peaches asked.
“Yes, what are you doing?” Fenris growled from behind the stallion.
“You know, I could have sworn that the Integrates who thought it was okay to do anything they wanted to anyone who wasn’t one of them were supposed to be the bad guys,” Paul added mildly. He glanced over at the still-frozen AlphaWolf, then back to Mike. “If you want to talk privately, you could just ask.”
Mike started, and turned to study the pair closer. “Neat trick. Hadn’t heard of that yet. Much more effective than those kludges the sillies are working on. My cousin’s been going off about something like that for days now, but I figured it was just something for my aunt’s project.”
“You’ll be hearing a lot more of it soon,” Paul said tersely. “Someday everyone will have one. And you haven’t answered our question. What are you doing?”
“It’s not a private talk I want to do exactly. I need to take a closer look at that bitch’s systems, in a way you guys might not like exactly, and I’m getting tired of arguing over it.”
“So you just do what you want to. Got it.” Paul nodded. “I expect even you ‘friendly’ Integrates are gonna have some hard lessons to learn pretty soon.”
“Everyone has some hard lessons to learn soon. Hell that’s life in a nutshell.” Mike sighed and released the freeze on Alphawolf. He felt a brief sideband flicker as Fenris caught him up on the few seconds of things he’d missed. He ignored the ‘I told you so’ jibe from the semi-amused dragon.
“But habits die hard. I try not to do it often, but when every little knot begins to feel like a Gordian knot, you tend to break out the shears often.”
“Yeah, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Paul said. “Problem is, what we’ve got can take your hammer away.”
“Not away. Just makes it harder to use.”
He shared a dense data packet with the RIDEs, containing what he had experienced with Shah and her crew. “This is what that wolf and tiger did to my family. As we waste time arguing here, Shahrazad is hiding her tracks. That is why I didn’t want to wait.”
“‘And two wrongs make a right in your world…’” Paul quoted. Then he shrugged. “But that’s your business. So what are you about to do that you wanted to hide from us?”
Mike concentrated and the ice cube faded away, followed by the wolfess’s skin, leaving just the pencil outline of the wolf floating in midair. “This won’t take long. I’m not as good as the Sillies, or the Technomages, but I have learned a few tricks, especially from my cousin.”
“What are you doing to her?…You’re decompiling her?” Paul asked, moving in closer to follow what Mike was doing.
“Only partially, to try and figure out the truth from the lies. It’s more like a specialized defrag than a full decompile. I won’t hurt her…yet. But I will find out what she’s hiding if it’s in there.”
Fridolf’s wireframe exploded into pieces, each piece a window with a video, a memory of the wolf. The stallion moved among them, studying them carefully. “Talking was too slow…This way I can confirm things one way or another. Damnit!”
The dragon looked where he was looking. “That’s worm damage, isn’t it? It’s pretty deep.”
“It is. Hours old too. She blanked most of the data before we started curing them. The rest of the damage is newer, erasing Shah and other information from her immediate memory, but there may be older stuff we can still get.…IF we had time. By the time we figure out where that cat ran off to, she’ll be long gone.
“If she was even here in the first place. I can’t even confirm that. It feels like she was here, that she had a personal paw in this. But all your tigers check out,” Mike waved his hand and the wolf reassembled. Her skin reappeared, followed by the ice cube. He sighed and sat down. “I don’t have the skills myself to get it. We need to take her with us.”
“She was always coming with us,” Peaches pointed out.
“Her and how many more of us?” AlphaWolf growled.
Mike glared back at him, “We’ve already been through this. I’m not here as a Marshal, and I’m not here to go after you. Not this time at least. But Fridolf is one of Shahrazad’s crew, one of her generals even. I can’t let that go, and neither should you.”
His expression softened a little, “Much as she deserves it, we won’t be killing her. She will be imprisoned and go on trial for her crimes, once the system is fully in place.”
Peaches spoke up, “Rest assured, whatever we find out about Amontillado from her, we will share with you. That virus is a danger to metal and flesh alike, and its cure needs to be spread far and wide.”
“All right. Not as if I could stop you if I wanted to.” Alpha looked speculatively at Fenris and Paul for a moment, then shook his head. “After the way that…that bitch in every possible sense of the word used me, not even getting into what she seems to have done to you, I’d have a hard time objecting. He sighed. “Now I have to wonder just how many of the others in my camp are using me, too. I tried to pretend it didn’t matter what baggage RIDEs brought in with them, that what happened outside the camp stayed outside the camp. Now I see I was wrong.”
“Are we talking about a purge here, Alpha?” Fenris asked.
“No. That’s…no. We’ve lost so many already…” The sandy wolf hung his head. “But I’m still cracking down somehow. I don’t see any other choice. We need to find a new site for Camp Alpha as well—one even the Inties can’t find. Yes, I know what Peaches was offering, but we need to do this on our own.
“And Paul…I want that DIN-thing Rhianna gave us installed in me. I want everyone in Camp to have one, if possible. If they can’t hack us, we’ll stay hidden.”
Paul shook his head. “In one breath you say you can’t trust everyone, in the next you want everyone to have the only anti-Intie superweapon we’ve got? Can you imagine how differently things might have turned out today if Fridolf had one of them? No, Alfie. You’ll get one, and people we’re absolutely positive we can trust. But not everyone. Rhianna and Rochelle would kill me.”
“Why not everyone? You already said everyone will have it eventually. Delaying now will just put them at risk. I was stupid earlier here; but had Fridolf been protected, I would have had to use other tactics. Messier tactics, but I would have been fine.…Other than that free shot to my back she got in.”
Paul shrugged. “That’s a good point. But not all Inties are as bad-ass as you are. Did you hear what happened to Quinoa Steader? I was there, and that RIDE didn’t even have these yet. Rather not be responsible for making more of that possible ‘til they know they should expect it. It’ll leak out sooner or later anyway…so you might wanna start not turning your back on someone next time you try to freeze them…or maybe try an explanation first.”
He turned to AlphaWolf. “And speaking of things leaking out—there’s no point to moving the camp, either. I didn’t want to say anything, but I’ve already suspected this for a long time: I’d honestly be surprised if the Marshals, Nextus, Uplift, and anyone else you’ve pissed off didn’t already know where we were by now, camouflage hardlight dome or not, and just don’t think we’re worth the fuss of going after. Inties will probably always be able to find us, but when even RIDE slavers who don’t have anything to do with Inties can get some idea of our location, there’s no point in trying to hide.”
“I believe he is correct,” Fenris intoned. “I have run exercises, temporarily obscuring my recollection of our location, and attempting to guess it based on readily-available satellite scan data. I was within a 1,000 km margin of error of the actual location 80% of the time. For a continent the size of Gondwana, that amounts to pinpoint accuracy.”
“There is another factor as well,” Mike said, taking over the simulated space. The desert shifted, becoming how it would appear if the camp wasn’t there. Slowly buildings, domes and other living space formed, built by invisible hands. “The home factor. Your group has taken a serious blow today. But you have a solid group. A group that believes in you, and in this place. This camp has become their home. If you try to move them, you’d be making them chose between their homes, and you. It could shatter them.”
“Their homes would be coming with them—” Alpha started.
“Maybe, but don’t discount how attached people can become to places, even hostile environments like this. You saw signs of that in Uplift, at the garage.” Mike held up his hoof, “I didn’t peek. I didn’t have to. The news reports made it clear enough. When you put down roots, it takes a lot of effort to tear them up again. And a long time to regain the strength you had after you replant,” Mike pointed out.
Peaches placed his claw on his scaled chest. “AlphaWolf, believe me when I say that Camelot is not your enemy. Far from it. You’ve had a few Inties—not many, but a few—originate from your Camp over the years who ended up with us. I think I can convince a few familiar faces to come and say hello. Don’t forget that we were RIDEs, too. We understand exactly what you’re fighting for, and why.
“We’ll make this camp even more a haven for all abused RIDEs.”
AlphaWolf looked at the others in the VR space for a long moment, then looked away but didn’t say anything. He just stared vacantly off into the virtual distance. Paul reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, AlphaWolf. I know you want to go this alone. I remember what you said the first day I got here, that you don’t want to live on someone else’s charity. And I get that—that’s my old boss through-and-through. But there’s a difference between charity and people wanting to help. I’m damned sure not here because I think you’re a charity case.”
“You’ve gone it alone for over twenty years,” Peaches said gently. “That’s a great accomplishment. Take pride in that. But the world is changing. You can’t keep going on the way you have before, so let us help you now. There might also be some ways you could help us in return.”
AlphaWolf still looked a little lost, but pulled himself together. “I’ll…think it over,” he finally said. “It wouldn’t be easy to rebuild somewhere else…and if there’s no point anyway…” He shook his head. “If it’s really that easy to find us…what a laughingstock I must be, thinking we’re safely hidden when it’s easy to tell exactly where we are. I have to go.” He dropped out of VR.
Mike sighed. “There’s no laughingstocks involved. Most people don’t know where this place is. Those that do, understand what its doing, even if they may not fully agree with its methods. But as Peaches said, times are changing, and it may be time to start changing with them. Integrates are learning that lesson too, and RIDEs will be too. In the end, this ocean is going to be a lot more populated than many people ever suspected.”
“Guess that’s us, too,” Paul said. “Take care of the people you’re taking with you. Make sure you send ‘em back if they want to come.”
Fenris nodded. “Thank you for your help.” Then the two were also gone.
“I’m going to take the new Inties and the freed RIDEs and humans back to Camelot for treatment, if you’ve no objections?” Peaches asked the Marshal.
“No, I don’t have any. Best place for them to feel welcome, since there’s others from the Camp there already,” Munn agreed. He glared at the frozen Fridolf. If Munn had been a dragon himself, even in VR the war criminal would’ve been just a pile of ash. “This one I’ll take back to the Cave of Wonders for containment and interrogation. I know some folks in Sturmhaven and Nextus who’ll want to have a look at her, too.”
“But you won’t actually release her to them?” Peaches said, head tilted. “Will you?”
“Stains on the desert,” Mike repeated, partly to himself. “No. She stays with the Marshals until we can give her a proper trial. Somehow…once RIDEs have the full rights they deserve, seeing her get Death of Personality Core in court with a jury of other RIDEs will be far more satisfying.”
The assembled camp had watched the Integrations of the three worst infected RIDEs in shocked silence, though made no moves to intervene. Seeing Rocky and Sadie had apparently convinced them that this was a necessary evil. When the newly-Integrated were themselves able to say a few words afterward, proving they were still some approximation of their old selves, the camp seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“Thank goodness that’s over,” Peaches said. “I’m only sorry that two of the infected escaped in the confusion. But we will be looking for them, and hopefully will find them before long.”
He looked to the five new Integrates, who were now sitting together and comforting each other. “As for those we were able to save, with AlphaWolf’s permission we will be taking them all with us—Integrates, humans, and RIDEs—back to the Camelot Enclave so that we can give them the help they need to recover the rest of the way.” He raised a claw to address a few protests. “We will not prevent them from returning here when they are better, if they wish. And we will be in touch with AlphaWolf about allowing visitors once things have settled down.”
“Really, it’s for the best this way,” Sadie said. “We need to learn about being Integrates from other Integrates, as well as learning to work with parts of our minds we’ve ignored for a long time. The others just need more help than you can give them here. But don’t worry, we won’t forget about you.”
“Yeah,” Rocky said. “We just feel tired right now. Need some rest.”
“You look like you’ve been on a bender, Rocky,” a sympathetic voice from the crowd said.
“We’ve been bent, is what we’ve been,” Rocky said. “We need to get straightened out.”
“We’ll be back,” Sadie said, her fur bursting out into a sparkle. “We promise.”
Tonto sought out Kandace once things were beginning to calm down. Peaches had left with the recovered Amontillado victims, and he wanted to get moving as soon as possible. The lynx was leaning up in a stone nook in the far end of the graveyard, as far from the rest of the camp as she could get, and her hackles raised as she saw his approach.
“What do you want,” she asked in a frigid voice.
“I know you don’t like Integrates, and especially don’t care for me, but I wanted to make an offer to you. I’ve got a sub landing a few hundred klicks from here, to give me a lift back to the Cave with Fridolf. Aloha is near there, close enough that it’s no trouble to drop you and Jenni off.”
She spat, in the feline way. “And what makes you think I’d be interested in going anywhere on the same ship as you?”
“It’s a chance to take Jenni home in comfort. It’s a Marshal sub, with a non-Intie pilot, so you don’t have to say a thing to me, or any other Integrate.”
“And it would still have you on it. You nearly wrecked this camp! Twenty years in the making, and you all but destroyed it in twenty minutes.”
Tonto sighed softly. “I’ve already apologized to Alpha, and now I’ll apologize to you. I’m sorry. I screwed up, plain and simple. In hindsight, it was going to happen one way or another; Fridolf was just too prepared. Every last one of those victims had the triggers, and she could probably have set it off herself, along with any other allies she had in camp, and you can be sure she had a few. But in the end, it was me who messed up and let it happen when it did.”
Kandace looked at him, resolve seeming to waver a bit. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-six. I was the first off the line of the Alohan RIDEworks. Mike, he’s forty-seven.”
She shook her head. “You could have fooled me. There are only about three other RIDEs in this world who can say they were made before me. I fought in a war when Mike was only 12, and I saw my share of people like you. They were called ‘loose cannons.’ They usually went home in body bags, and so did others from their squadrons who depended on them. And so did the RIDEs—my brothers and sisters—who they all wore. They were young and thought they were invincible. They weren’t. Neither were the people around them.
“And you…you’re older. And you are invincible, or close enough. But the people around you still aren’t. Nobody died from that today, thank God. But sooner or later they will. And I don’t want to be around you when that happens, and I don’t want Jenni to be there either.”
“I screwed up; I admit that. But what’s done is done. I never wanted to be in a war, or a cop or Marshal in the first place, but we got dragged into it each step of the way. From what Shah did to my dad and me, leading me to the Marshals, to what Appa did to finish Integrating me. Hell, I’m Alohan; we aren’t exactly known as fighters. But I’m trying my best to handle what I’ve been dealt. And yes, I screw up.”
“It’s well and good to admit that after the fact,” Kandace said. “But what are you going to do about it? They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, but I seem to remember there’s several after that.”
Tonto tossed his head in an equine shrug, “That is my issue to deal with. I’ve done what I can here, to fix what happened. Going forward, remains to be seen.”
Kandace sighed. “We could find our own way, you know. We’re not more than a day from the coastal highway. But…all right, fine. We’ll come with you. But you just better work on your attitude, mister. You can do what you like when you’re alone in the desert, but when other people are depending on you, you need to be a team player.”
“That is part of my problem; too many years alone in the desert, being a freelancer. The Marshals just formalized what I was doing when Ken couldn’t hide his sources cleanly any more.” Tonto laughed a little. “But I’m trying in any case. And I’m really looking out for Jenni. You may be a day away from the highway, but you’re days away from any polity. This gets you to Aloha in a day. Do you know who to contact when you get to Aloha?”
“How could I not? It’s in Jenni’s mind.”
The stallion sent a business card to the lynx, along with a set of coordinates. “Well if you run into any problems, anything at all, contact him. He’s my cousin-in-law, and a detective with the APD. Mention me, and tell your story, and he’ll help you out. The sub will land here within an hour. I’m going to head out now, but take as much time as you want; I’ll wait for you. And make sure the dome stays off the sub’s sensors.”
He turned to walk away. “You wondered what could be worse than what we saw while curing the infected?” he called back. “Ask Alpha or Fenris after you let Jenni go. It’s something no one else should have to see. It doesn’t excuse what I did, but it may help you understand why I’m so driven to bring that group down.”
Kandace watched him go, shaking her head. “Loose cannons,” she muttered. “Well, whatever. He’ll either wise up or he won’t.” She checked on Jenni, still sleeping inside of her, and found the girl had just about healed all the physical damage she’d suffered from her captivity. Good. “Just hope he doesn’t take too many people with him if he doesn’t.”
Over the next couple of days, the camp crept slowly back toward some semblance of normality after the huge shock of briefly gaining a dragon, then abruptly losing almost half its population and learning that Integrates knew where they were. Even as some of the stragglers who’d departed drifted back in, others decided to leave for greener pastures where they could find a place of their own without having to worry about powers beyond their comprehension suddenly coming down on their heads.
For his part, AlphaWolf was even surlier than usual. Even the hardliners who had so plagued him before seemed to have come to the conclusion that pestering him now was a Bad Idea and kept their own counsel for the moment. Ironically, AlphaWolf was even then in the process of planning the next raid he knew he would have to commit to keep the hardliners satisfied—but, Paul knew, with the added frisson that he now knew the Marshals were almost certainly aware of his location and would be weighing his actions on a Maatian balance to decide whether and when to take him down.
After tidying up the graveyard in the aftermath of the explosions, Paul and Fenris had resumed keeping office hours. At the moment, they were Fused and in the process of running a complete memory defrag on Melissa the mink, who needed one worse than any other RIDE he’d ever seen. And after delving into her memories, he understood why. “If Alfie ever raids Nextus, there’s one place I’m putting on the top of his list,” he told Fenris.
“I shall make sure to remind you, if that should ever occur,” Fenris solemnly intoned.
But another thing Paul could tell for sure from the defrag was that Melissa was still a decent soul, and didn’t even nurse much desire for revenge against the humans who had so mistreated her. Which made her a prime candidate for installation of the Sneaker/Shoelace system. He’d already put it into AlphaWolf, of course, and Kandace before she had left the camp with Tonto.
Thinking about it, Paul had concluded that Mike had been right—every RIDE who didn’t have it was a RIDE vulnerable to Integrate abuse. So he’d decided to start out by putting one into everyone he knew wouldn’t use that protection to harm others. The rest…well, if everyone got one, they would sooner or later too, but he sure wasn’t going to give it to them first.
As they were finishing up the work, AlphaWolf trotted in from the main camp through one of the new entrances Fridolf’s explosions had chopped into the separating wall. “Hey kid, Fenris.” He nodded to the mink. “And Melissa, wasn’t it?”
“Hey, Alfie,” Paul said, turning Fenris’s head to glance over at him.
“Greetings,” Fenris added in his own voice.
“Uh, hi,” Melissa said shyly. She was still more than a little in awe of the rebel RIDE leader from all the stories she’d heard about him, and nervous around those who were on a nickname basis with him.
“What’s going on?” Paul asked.
“Got a call from the dragon. Wants to let us know how things are going with the Amontillado rescues. Figured I’d take it in here so we could all see it together.”
“Should I go?” Melissa asked.
AlphaWolf shook his head. “Nah, this stuff has to get out to everyone sooner or later, might as well get the average RIDE’s take on things.” A patch of hardlight faded out over his shoulder so a small projector could poke out, projecting a miniature image of Peaches the dragon in the clearing between them.
“Hey, Mr. Peaches,” Paul said. “How are things going with the new guys?”
“Very well, for the most part,” Peaches said. “We have provided them with DINs and counselling, and most of them have come to accept what has happened to them. A few are having trouble adjusting, but…we have seen this before, and it usually heals with time.”
“How’s Sadie?” Paul asked.
“She is one of the ones who is doing better,” Peaches said, smiling. “She and her human had become good friends before the unfortunate event, so at least they were able to get along together. The human was a sculptor, and they have been exploring fusing sand into sculpted art. If you come visit the enclave, you can see some of their work.”
“And the humans and RIDEs?” Fenris rumbled.
“They are also doing well, for the most part,” Peaches said. “We ended up returning several of the less-damaged humans to human settlements where familiar faces might help them to recover. We have been doing our best to untangle the others, and are learning a little more every day. We even hold out some hope that we might eventually be able to use what we learn here to heal the completely animalized victim from Uplift.”
“That would be good,” Paul reflected. “We all felt really bad about that one.”
“You talked about having some ‘familiar faces’ from your enclave visit here,” AlphaWolf said. “Was wondering when that might happen.”
“We wanted to give your camp some time to settle down after the recent unfortunate turn of events,” Peaches said. “Perhaps next week? We can discuss the specifics closer to the actual time, of course. I—” Then he turned his head, to look at something out of the comm pickup. “Oh dear.” He turned to face Fenris. “Mr. Anders, I gather you have some attachment to the young Lillibet Walton?”
Fenris stiffened, ears cocked forward. “What’s wrong?” Paul asked.
“I have just received word that Fritz has dispatched a small force of Integrates to perform a lightning raid upon the Waltons’ home in Nextus. I believe they intend to take the family hostage, in revenge for Zane Brubeck’s recapture of his platform. They are already en route now. Taking suborbital flight time into account, you must leave immediately if you wish to intervene. Good luck.” The dragon’s image flickered and disappeared.
Paul, through Fenris, stared. “But—”
AlphaWolf shook himself all over. “Kid. Who in camp has your magic anti-Intie pill right now?”
“Well…Fenris, you…Melissa…that’s it.”
Melissa blinked. “Me?”
“Er…yes,” Paul said. “I’ve decided to start passing it out to everyone who’s not an asshole, and you were already under when I decided. I was gonna tell you after, but we got interrupted. So, yeah, you’re one of just a few RIDEs so far to be completely immune to Integrate hacking. Congratulations.”
“Enough talk,” AlphaWolf said. “Looks like it’s just us, then. Baldwin’s warming up the sub. You should just have time to stick it in him on the way.” He thought for a moment. “Nrrg. No time to find volunteer thumbs, and even I’d hesitate to drag pool humans who didn’t volunteer into this. We’ll go as-is.” He glanced at Melissa. “If you’re willing to help, anyway.”
Melissa’s eyes widened. AlphaWolf was asking for her help? “Oh, yes sir! You can count on me!”
“Good! Then let’s go!” He turned and bounded for the sub. Melissa followed after only a moment’s hesitation. Fenris quickly shifted to Walker form and followed, with Paul still inside.
Mike walked through the Integrate Marshal base, dodging around the construction areas as they expanded again. The Silly section had just been built a few months before, and they were still getting the kinks worked out, and equipment installed.
He paused at a door and waited for it to let him through. The field flickered, allowing him to enter a chamber that still smelled of rock dust. Technically he was outside the Cave of Wonder domes now, but the only way in and out was from the marshal base inside the domes.
Inside, a wolf DE frame had been disassembled, each part connected to an isolated system so it’s storage could be read. Even the parts that didn’t officially have storage sections had been examined, and some did have caches. An RI core was in a cradle, lights slowly changing on it.
“You find anything yet, Sparky?” Mike asked the raccoon Integrate that manned the chamber.
The other marshal was a rarity; an Integrated marshal who wasn’t also a quantum. He had been a Silicon Marshal before integration, and kept his rank, while designing his own DIN. The DIN took the form of a glowing globe in the centre of his chest, the silicon marshal star embedded in it.
“Lots of stuff so far. None of it useful. Her frame is loaded with data, but it’s holographically encrypted. You get different views from different angles. So far I’ve found the complete works of Shakespeare, the DNA sequencing for a wolf, three scripts from the Star Wars series back in the 2030’s, and a few other things that are too ordered to be garbage, but encrypted some other way I haven’t figured out yet. Until we can figure out what the keys are, we probably won’t recognize it when we see it,”
“Damn, I hoped it would be easier than that. What about her core? Can you get anything from it?”
The raccoon lead Mike towards the core, while shaking his head. “I’ve looked at it every which way I know, and I’m coming up dry. Until we can think of some other angle to go, we’re keeping her passive, and in slow time. Four to one; Four real days for every one of hers. It’s as slow as I dare keep her.
“I’m at the limits of my skills, Mike, even as an Integrate. I need a bigger team. More people at my level to work on these sorts of problems.”
Mike rubbed his forehead and groaned. “I know you do. But we don’t have any more Silicon Integrates available to come out here. Can’t you do it over VR?”
“Data’s too dense for the lag time involved. I need people here, working with me in real time. Even if they are humans and RIDEs.”
“We can’t bring humans and RIDEs here. It was a hard enough sell to get the base set up. To have flesh and metal living here; we won’t be able to keep them safe.”
Sparky lit up a hardlight screen beside them, with hardware and software notes. “From what I’ve heard, they’ve figured out a way to keep themselves safe already. You just ran into it yourself, and your cousins and aunt have pitched in to help spread it around Aloha.”
“It’s untested technology. It works great now, but for all we know it has a glass jaw that will shatter at the worst possible time.”
Sparky smiled. “Then where better to be testing it, then with the Marshal division meant to be testing new technology?”
Mike groaned again, knowing he was caught in a corner. “Start cooking up a list. Volunteers only, and they must be cleared by their supervisors. No more than six in total, RIDEs or Humans. We aren’t set up yet for a full Silly lab and the risks you guys bring.”
He turned to leave. “I’ve gotta go convince Clarissa and then the council to let six non-Inties live here. I’m gonna be living in Fido’s house for days I’m sure,” he sighed.
Integration Part XIV: Assault and Batteries
Integration Part XVI: The Integrate Raids