User:Robotech Master/shell game

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FreeRIDErs story universe

The Gondwana Grand Tour, Prologue: Shell Game

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck

Author's Comments

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

May 18, 157 A.L.
Gilmore Building Penthouse

“Gah!” Joe Steader jerked awake, breathing hard. After a moment, he said, tentatively, “…Julius?”

“Right here, buddy.” The jaguar next to the bed leaned over and gave him a raspy slurp on the cheek, then laid his immense head on Joe’s chest, luminous orange eyes peering up at him. “Bad dreams again, huh?”

“Hard to tell, when I wake up in the night, what’s real and what’s the dream…” Joe reached up to run a hand along Julius’s furry cheek. “The same one. Armistice Day…”

“Yeah, that’s on me again. Sorry ‘bout that. You’d gone and got over it, and then me showing up fuckin’ stirred up all the bad memories again,” Julius said.

“I never got over it,” Joe said. “I just got used to it. And I’ll take bad dreams every night for the rest of my life if it means having you back.”

“Aw, shit,” Julius said. “Don’t get all mushy on me now.”

Joe chuckled. “You’re about three days too late for that. What time is it, anyway?”

“About 0300,” Julius said.

“Still a few hours ‘til Donizetti opens, then. Looking forward to your new shell?”

Julius sneezed. “You really don’t have to do this, y’know. This ol’ thing’s plenty good enough. It’s in good shape, has hardlight, Fuses up just fine. As long as we’re together, you could stick me in a Laurie housecat shell and I wouldn’t complain.”

“Maybe I should get one of those, too,” Joe said, grinning. “But this is just my way of killing the fatted calf. After all, ‘my brother who was dead is alive again.’”

Julius sniffed. “Come into Nature Range with me and I’ll show ya how to kill a fatted calf.”

Joe chuckled. “Thanks, but that sounds like a little too much fun for me just yet. Give me a few more days and I’ll prowl with you, though.”

“Socah’s in the kitchen, by the way,” Julius said. “Damnedest thing, that woman. You toss her out, and she just comes right back in the moment you turn around. Like a cat that way. I think I like her.”

“I think she only sleeps a couple hours a night anyway,” Joe said. And she’s been bored lately… He’d given her the keys to the castle, so to speak. She could come and go as she pleased anywhere he had a home. Joe was uncertain where their relationship would go, but was very willing to find out.

“She’s been tellin’ me stories of the old days,” Julius said. “‘course, I already know ‘em through your memories, but it’s fun to find out what she thought.” He chuckled. “Sometimes it’s reeeeally fuckin’ different from what you still think.”

“Well, naturally,” Joe said. “I’m the only human you’ve ever Fused with, so you only have my viewpoint. If you Fused with, say, my brother Mikel—not that you could—you’d get another view of the same events.”

“Also, you were sorta an idiot back then,” Julius said.

Joe chuckled. “Guilty as charged. But in my defense, I was just a kid.”

“You’re still just a kid,” Julius said. “God, I still can’t believe what you did the last 35 years. You fuckin’ made this whole world over in the image of that crap you dug up. I honestly never expected you could do it. Maybe get a small twencen fandom going, but the whole fuckin’ planet?

“Lovely, isn’t it?” Joe beamed.

“Fuckin’ incorrigible, you are,” Julius said, headbutting him affectionately. “Now, are you going back to sleep or what? We can Fuse-sleep if you want.”

“I think, with Socah here, I’ll at least get up and say hello,” Joe said. “She’s heading back to Uplift tomorrow morning, after all. Then you can show me how to properly catnap in Nature Range. Deal?”

“Works for me, bro,” Julius said. “You’re gonna love it.”

Separator k.png

“I have to admit, that was…different,” Joe said the next morning as he straddled Julius’s skimmer bike form while they cruised uptown.

“Good different, I hope,” Julius said. “Man, wait’ll you see what it’s like to hunt.

“Uh, yeah,” Joe said. “You really hunt other RIDEs in there?”

“Consensually, yeah,” Julius said. “It’s part of stayin’ sane in a metal body kinda thing. They need to feel what it’s like to die to make them feel alive, or something like that.”

“Seems kind of one-sided,” Joe said. “Do you ever have humans in there with big rifles?”

“No, but sounds like it might be fun,” Julius said. “You volunteering?”

Joe chuckled. “Something tells me I’d get my throat ripped out within about five minutes. Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Aw, I’d go easy on ya,” Julius said. “Probably.”

“Yeah, that’s reassuring.” Joe grinned behind the hardlight helmet as they pulled through the gates onto the Nextus RIDEworks campus. Passing by the showroom and more public buildings, they pulled up in front of the nondescript structure that housed Signor Donizetti’s workshop. Joe climbed down from the bike, and Julius shifted into his Walker form to follow him inside.

The receptionist whose bored expression was just as much a constant as the waiting room’s muted décor glanced up at him, then nodded. “Signor Donizetti is with another client right now, Mr. Steader, but he should be available in just a few minutes. Please have a seat.”

Joe nodded to him, and sat down in one of the waiting room’s comfortable chairs. He and Julius were the only people in the room at the moment. “That’s what I like about this place,” Joe confided to Julius. “He’s always ‘with another client’ when you get here. I’m pretty sure he’s almost never really busy, but being kept waiting is such a novel experience for his clientele he feels obligated to provide them all with it as part of the package. And I get the feeling that the more obviously ‘novel’ it is to you, the more of it he feels the need to give you, if you know what I mean.”

“Ah, the rarefied world of the super-ultra-fucking-mega rich,” Julius said. “I’m glad I don’t have to put up with all that crap.”

“You could call it my version of Nature Range, I suppose,” Joe said, grinning.

Tou-fucking-ché,” Julius said, wrinkling his nose.

A few moments later, Signor Donizetti himself, a short, balding fellow in a suit, made his way into the waiting room. “Ah! Signor Steader, and Signor Julius! It is so good to see you again!” He opened his arms and gave Joe a friendly embrace. “Please, follow me. Your part shipments came in last night, and we have just finished assembling your new shells.”

“Shells? Plural?” Julius said, raising his ears. “I thought you were just going to pick one for this time.”

“I got started and I just couldn't stop,” Joe said. “Humor me in my old age.”

Julius rolled his eyes. “Seems like I was always fuckin’ humoring you in your young age, too. One a’ these days, you’re gonna humor me and I’ll be so fucking surprised I’ll have a fucking central coolant pump attack and that’ll be all she wrote.” He padded along behind Joe as Donizetti led the way to the workshop section.

“I have a little surprise for you, too, Joe,” Donizetti said over his shoulder. “When you said you wanted more than one shell, I got to thinking. There’s a little prototype project I’ve been working on with Signorini Seaford from the Freeriders Garage. I asked her for permission to share it with you, and she was happy to grant it in return for hearing how well it works out for you. Given that she has your coin, I thought that would not be a problem.”

“Quite right,” Joe said. “As I told you when I placed the order, I have her and Miss Stonegate and their RIDEs to thank for having Julius back at all.”

“With that in mind, Signor Julius, I would like to present the first shell, the Julius Minimus.” Donizetti pulled a black silk cloth off something very flat, sitting on a marble table.

“It's a hoverboard,” Julius said. He looked at the underside, where a pair of small cylindrical lifters were attached. “Like that guy Griff rode in Back to the Future Part 2. You really got room to cram me into that?”

Si,” Donizetti said. “With modern advances, we can build a core housing very small.”

“That’s…interesting,” Joe said. “I’m not sure my sense of balance is quite up to it, though.”

“It’s got the usual inertial dampers,” Donizetti said. “You will find it hard to fall off no matter how poor your balance. But that is not the important part. Watch.” He manipulated a control on the side of the table, and the hoverboard unfolded into a skeletal frame suggestive of the shape of a large cat, though considerably smaller than Julius’s present shell, closer to life-sized. A moment later, a hardlight representation of a smaller version of Julius flickered into place over it.

“Well, look at that fuckin’ handsome devil,” Julius purred.

“That’s intriguing,” Joe said. “Has it got a Fuser form, too?”

Si! Feast your eyes.” He touched another control, and the hardlight flickered out. The skeletal cat unfolded like origami into a skeletal humanoid shape around a hardlight mannequin, and a hardlight Fuser skin flickered into place over it.

Joe raised an eyebrow. “That’s…really something. Almost like a Laurasian RIDE that can Fuse.”

Donizetti nodded. “Precisely. It has a few limitations, of course.” He ticked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “The environmental capability largely depends upon the hardlight skin, which means changing modes in a hostile environment is not a good idea. It only holds enough air for a few minutes regardless, though we are looking into making rebreather paks for use in water sports. And of course it does not process bodily waste like a full shell, if you know what I mean.”

“So my human has to use a fuckin’ litterbox for a change,” Julius said.

Donizetti chuckled. “Quite. Where was I…ah yes. Even with triple-A-plus batteries, it still needs to charge daily, or twice daily under heavy use. And it doesn’t have room for large Fuser tanks of its own, so it depends mostly on the Fusers you got from your last Fuse with a full-sized shell. But it is not strictly meant to be used by itself. At least not yet.”

“It works with a larger shell, then?” Julius asked.

“Yes.” Donizetti nodded. “What you do is, you put the RI core in the housing for the Minimus. Then the human wears the Minimus while Fusing the other shells. It has the same type of connection within it that Signorinis Stonegate and Seaford put into that big Sturmhaven RIDE, Fenris, to let him link with another.”

“So you don’t gotta fuckin’ pop my core out of one and pop it into another whenever I want to change up, is that it?” Julius said.

“You can still choose to transfer your core directly to one or the other if you wish to use them without the Minimus, or you can pack the Minimus into them without it Fused to your human, but effectively, yes,” Donizetti said. “You could think of it as a core housing that can move by itself.”

“It's basically like the EX-Gear from Macross Frontier, then,” Joe said. “Damned clever idea.”

“Would that I could take the credit for it, but Signorini Seaford brought the idea to me,” Donizetti said. “She and Signorini Stonegate are both extremely talented. They flatter me with their attention.”

“I certainly won’t argue there,” Joe said. “They brought ol’ Jules here back from the dead, after all.” He patted Julius’s head, and the jaguar purred.

Donizetti cleared his throat. “Regardless, we have been through several iterations of the Minimus, and have significantly improved it from the earliest prototypes. We still have some distance to go, but it should be ready for production by the end of next year,” he said.

“Can I get it skinned to look just like the board from Back to the Future?” Joe asked. “But with a jaguar head on it, of course.”

Donizetti chuckled. “It will be done by the time I am finished showing you the rest. Follow, please.” He touched a control and the shell collapsed back into its hoverboard form, then led the way through the door to another room.

“Here we have, as requested, your ‘Ahnuld’ skimmer cycle.” Donizetti whisked the tarp from a sleek skimmer cycle which had some similarities in form to the Chinook on which Julius had been based, but had much sleeker lines, and the animal features were incorporated smoothly into the design instead of seeming stuck-on the way the old shell had.

Julius just stared for a moment, speechless. Then he rubbed his head against Donizetti’s leg and purred like a thunderstorm.

Donizetti chuckled. “I do not usually design ‘Ahnulds’ myself these days, as I feel following in another’s footsteps is not truly creative,” he said. “But this time, the challenge inspired me. I was able to incorporate many of the same features as Signorini Katie’s shell, such as the reconfigurable hardlight aeroshells to mimic a flier. And, of course, it works with the Minimus.”

“Wuh…wuh…” Julius stammered and chuffed. “I don't…mrowl.

“There is one special experimental feature, but it would be best demonstrated when your core is installed, Signor Julius. Your story proved extremely inspiring. I believe both of you will be quite pleased.”

:He does love his little surprises,: Joe sent.

Julius sent a snort emoticon. :No shit, Sherlock.:

“The last one is more an exercise of personal whimsy,” Signor Donizetti said, leading them over towards something concealed behind a hardlight wall. “Perhaps I have gone a trifle overboard, but I simply could not resist.” He wiggled his fingers and the hardlight field turned off, revealing a sleek, retro, convertible sports car sitting on a pedestal. It had a huge long hood that made up most of the length of the vehicle, and very little body at all behind the two-seater passenger space. The car’s paint job was tawny with black spots, suggestive of a jaguar’s pelt.

“It's a 1965 Jaguar E-type,” Joe said, absolutely stunned.

“Oh, a pun,” Julius said. “Um, no offense. It's a fuckin' beautiful pun.”

“Your blunt praise fills me with humble joy, Signor Julius,” Donizetti deadpanned. “It is not a completely accurate reproduction, of course. It has a retractable hardtop. The wheels house lifters and rotate out and down, as is usual for reproductions these days. The paint is programmable for different colors. The Walker and Fuser modes are naturally somewhat larger than the bike version—enough so that it supports Fuse-in-Walker, and has a small separate compartment for cargo or a passenger if you should need to Fuse while carrying one. Fully compatible with the Minimus frame.”

Julius padded around it and sniffed at the tires. “Can’t say I ever expected to run something this big. Or this fuckin’ pretentious, no offense.” He considered. “But I’ll bet you can get some great speed out of those lifters. I’m fuckin’ sold.”

“I might have some ideas for other shells down the road,” Joe said.

“I would be delighted to hear them when you have them,” Donizetti said. “In fact, Signorini Seaford said I might share with you some information on our other prototype project…the Maximus shell.”

Joe raised his eyebrows, and his jaguar ears perked forward. “Oh, do tell?”

“I will forward it to your mailbox,” Donizetti said. “Essentially, it is at the other end of the spectrum from the Minimus: a larger shell that a normal-sized RIDE can Fuse into. Signorini Seaford’s Uncia Maxima is to be a suborbital, but the principle could work with any other large vehicle. A skimmer yacht, perhaps, or a motor home?”

Joe whistled. “That is an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that some.”

:Man, you really don’t have to buy me all these fuckin’ toys,: Julius said. :I’m pretty sure you’ve already blown more dough on me than you’d’a paid me if I’d been here all thirty-five years.:

Joe grinned at him. :Hey, you misunderstand. I’m buying these toys for me. You’re just along for the RIDE.:

Julius favored him with a loud raspberry emoticon.

“If you’re ready to check out, we can make the core transfer right away,” Donizetti said. “We also have the armored core jacket you requested. It uses the very latest alloys; I guarantee you even better protection than the very latest Nextus military specifications.”

Good,” Joe said. “The sooner he’s in it, the better I’ll feel.”

Julius nuzzled Joe’s leg. “Aw, buddy, ya don’ gotta worry ‘bout me like that. I do appreciate it, though.”

“Also, if you wish, we can adapt Julius’s current shell to use the Minima while you are here,” Donizetti said. “As proud as I am of my creations, I must admit they do tend to draw the eye. It is possible there are times you might wish to travel incognito.”

Joe nodded. “Good thinking.”

Signor Donizetti led the way back to the other room, where the Minimus shell's hoverboard form had already been redecorated to look just like the “Pit Bull” hoverboard from the movie, but with a jaguar logo instead of the dog’s. He converted it back to Walker form, and opened the compartment in the cat's head where the core would go. One of his assistants wheeled in a cart with surgical gloves, various tools, and a gleaming metallic armored RI core jacket on it.

Donizetti pulled on the gloves. “Open up whenever you’re ready, Signor Julius.”

:You’re gonna be okay with this, right pal?: Julius sent.

:Sure. Sure I am,: Joe said. That didn’t keep a lump from coming to his throat as Julius’s hardlight winked out, then the plate on top of his skull opened and his optics dimmed. In his head, he relived again that awful moment up on the stage when the hole had been more ragged…

“Ah, bellissimo,Signor Donizetti said as he carefully lifted out the jacketed core. “Such a fine job they always do…” With one of the tools from the cart, he deftly opened the jacket and gently lifted the core out, holding it up to the light for a quick inspection. To Joe, it looked just as it had all those times he had opened the little box and taken it out to speak softly to it, except for the crack—which he couldn’t have seen at this distance anyway. Then Donizetti gently placed it into the new armored jacket, which he locked up tight and inserted into the waiting slot in the Minimus shell. “There we are,” Donizetti said, closing the core compartment.

A moment later the cat’s optics flickered to life, followed by his hardlight pelt. Julius blinked a couple of times. “I feel like I fuckin’ shrank in the wash,” he said, lifting a paw experimentally. “This is new.”

“Hey, buddy,” Joe said, blinking a bit of moisture away. “So, does this shell come with a leash? Maybe a litterbox and a pooper scooper?”

Donizetti chuckled. “Ah, very droll, Signor Steader. Now, if you would try the hoverboard mode?”

“Right. Let’s see…” The hardlight skin winked out, and the skeletal cat collapsed into the hoverboard form, floating a few centimeters off the ground.

Joe chuckled. “You are one flat cat.”

“Hop on, let’s see how this works.”

“All right…” A bit uncertainly, Joe stepped up onto the board. It felt as steady beneath his feet as a concrete step. Once he had his feet in the right positions, he felt an inertial damper field power up, locking them into place. “I see what you mean about balancing,” Joe said. “It would be hard to fall off like this.”

Donizetti nodded. “You could even fly upside down. Though I do not recommend trying it for very long. The blood will rush to your head.”

“So how ‘bout it? Shall we go for Fuse-up?” Joe said.

“Coming up,” Julius said. “Gimme sec. This bod’s new to me, so I’m running a few sims first to get the hang of it. Okay, here we go.” The hoverboard split apart under Joe’s feet and folded up along his body, enclosing arms, legs, and head in a thin metal framework. Then a moment later the hardlight flickered into being, and Joe felt the familiar sense of being furry all over—except smaller than he was used to.

“I see what you mean about feeling like you shrank in the wash,” Joe said, raising his arms and looking at them, rotating his wrists back and forth and flexing the fingers. Signor Donizetti nodded toward a full-length mirror on one of the walls, and Joe walked over to have a look.

“Sheesh. We look just like a fuckin’ Intie, don’t we?” Julius mused.

“Except for no visible hardlight projectors, yeah,” Joe agreed, watching the muzzle move directly with his lips as he spoke. “That might be confusing for a while.”

“Hey, check this out,” Julius said. The hardlight pelt flickered, and suddenly it looked like Joe was wearing baggy pants and a hoodie sweatshirt. Then it flickered again into a double-breasted pinstripe suit with fedora. The suit was only slightly larger than it should have been, and it was only obvious if you looked closely.

“Hey, that’s pretty slick,” Joe said. “A concealed-carry RIDE. Well, that’s one way to take your bodyguard with you wherever you go.”

“I could get used to this,” Julius purred. He moved one of Joe’s arms to touch the brim of the hat. “And I still got the same full-body motor override as in the big size. I could fuckin’ bodyjack you and live life as an ordinary human and no one would ever know, muahaha.”

Joe grinned. “Hey, if you ever wanna take over, just say the word. I could use the vacation.”

“Speakin’ a’ concealed carry, you got anything in the way a’ sidearms for this zoot suit?” Julius asked.

“A full selection, for all three shells,” Signor Donizetti said. “We can go over them later. For now, let’s go ahead and fuse up with your other shells so we can take care of any necessary adjustments before you leave.”

“Fair enough,” Julius said. The suit flickered back into his pelt, and they followed Signor Donizetti back into the other room as more of his assistants came in to take the old shell away for the retrofitting he’d promised.

“So, what, we just climb on the bike and power it up?” Julius said.

Si,” Donizetti said. “The link works by near-field communications. As long as you’re within a meter or so of the bike, you link up. You can extend the range with Signorini Stonegate’s ‘DINcomm’ gizmo, though you will have to speak to her to obtain those, and they do not work especially reliably as yet.”

“Gotcha.” They climbed onto the seat. “Well, this is comfy,” Julius said. “Can’t say as I’ve ever sat on myself before.”

Joe reached out and thumbed the power switch on the dash, and the panel gauges came to life, echoing in the Minimus suit’s head-up display projection. “Atomic batteries to power…turbines to speed…”

“I see what you mean about the link,” Julius said as the bike lifted free of the pedestal. “I can split my attention or shift it back and forth.”

“Right. The shell will handle like an ordinary skimmer bike without you in it,” Donizetti said. “It can even operate that way, and Fuse passively without you, much like the AIDE it descends from, but the usual performance penalties apply. And you can also operate its self-drive remotely—in case you should want to bring the bike along while you inhabit the car, or vice versa.”

“Fusing up!” Julius said. The bike wrapped itself around them, more smoothly than either of Julius’s earlier shells ever had. It was almost liquid-metal smooth in the transition, with thousands of little parts rearranging their configuration to turn them into a three-meter humanoid jaguar. They stepped down from the pedestal, moving around experimentally.

“Oh my fuckin’ God,” Julius breathed. “Holy shit! I’ve…never felt anything like this before. It’s like I’m fuckin’ Pinocchio and just got turned into a real live boy.”

“And that is the Donizetti difference,” Signor Donizetti said—a little smugly, perhaps, but if so Joe had to admit he was entitled. “Now for that surprise I promised you. Julius, this shell has a fourth mode, which we are calling ‘Shell Mode’ for now. Engage the mode-change at quarter-speed this first time.”

“I see the subroutine, hold on…” Julius said distractedly. And then Joe felt himself being pushed forward. He instinctively took a step down, then he was standing un-Fused from both the full-sized and Minimus shells. He turned around in time to see Julius’s Fuser form finish contracting into itself, becoming a shorter and stockier version of its usual humanoid shape before the hardlight came back on. He was still about thirty centimeters taller than Joe, but a good half meter or more shorter than his usual three-meter height.

Joe whistled. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Now what the fuck is this?” Julius said wonderingly. He lifted his arms and flexed the fingers, just as anyone Fusing for the first time naturally would. “I got thumbs…but no one inside. How is this even fuckin’ possible?”

“Technically, it has always been possible, in a manner of speaking,” Donizetti said. “There is nothing innate to articulated arms, opposable thumbs, and walking upright that put them beyond the abilities of your quantum core. Indeed, look at all the raccoon and primate RIDEs who are almost human-dextrous in Walker form, or the EIDEs from Laurasia who operate naturally with no human inside.”

“So they could have built RIDEs to have their own thumbs all along?” Joe said.

“At least in theory,” Donizetti said. “You would have to ask Dottores Patil and Clemens why they did not. It could be they just did not think of it, due to the existence of Fuse, or perhaps it was intended as a safeguard against some imagined robot revolt.” He shrugged. “The designers of the EIDEs, they came from a different background and with more experiences, so they made their creations more complete from the start. We are only now catching up.”

Julius attempted a step forward, then wobbled and nearly fell over. “…the fuck?”

“Be careful there, Signor Julius,” Donizetti warned. “I have found that many light and medium RIDEs are used to relying on their human’s inner ear in Fuse rather than their own gyroscopes, because it is simply most convenient. The largest RIDEs are not so affected, since their humans do not so much ‘wear’ as ‘pilot’ them.”

“Right. Got it,” Julius said. “Running a few sims to get used to this…all right.” He took another step—still fairly awkwardly, but with more assurance.

“‘Put one foot in front of the other,’” Joe sang, “‘And soon you’ll be walking across the floor…’”

“Don’t make me wanna fuckin’ smack you while I’m getting used to working this thing,” Julius said. “I don’t think I know my own strength yet.” He took a few more halting steps, getting smoother as he moved along.

“Give it an hour or two of practice, and you should move as smoothly as any human,” Donizetti said. “Manual dexterity might take a trifle longer—again, most RIDEs not built with dextrous paws from the outset use the human’s motor reflexes as a shortcut and must build new neural networks to use the hands properly.”

Joe grinned. “Excellent! You know what this means? You can finally do your share of chores around the house!”

“Be fuckin’ still, my beating central coolant pump,” Julius said, rolling his eyes. “But seriously…this is the fuckin’ shit, man. You realize, you’re gonna put AlphaWolf right the fuck outta business? Well, if he was still in the business, which I hear he’s not anymore. Not like I even heard of him ‘til a couple days ago.”

Si. This is exactly the point,” Donizetti said with a self-satisfied smile. “Indeed, many older shells can be retrofitted with a sort of Shell Mode. It is easiest with the largest RIDEs—Signorini Stonegate did it for Fenris already, and your larger shell has that capability also. You simply remove the limiter. For smaller ones, you must make it so they can shift parts around to fill the inner cavity and make themselves shorter. This is not always possible, nor does it always bring the most satisfactory results—you do not always get full range of motion, and the proportions of the body might make the RIDE look strange and dwarfish that way. But it will be a stopgap for those who cannot afford new shells.”

“When are you going to start rolling those shells out?” Joe asked.

“We hope to start making them, and making available the conversion process, sometime late next year, around the same time we introduce the Minimus,” Signor Donizetti said. “As Nextus Nano did with sarium batteries so many years ago, we will license it cheaply to all shell manufacturers for the first few years, then release it to the public domain once the research costs have been covered. This is my contribution to the RIDE rights cause. It has been a long time coming.”

“You, sir, are a fucking Gentleman and a Scholar,” Julius said. His hardlight winked out and he reconfigured himself down into his Walker form, a much sleeker version of the metallic jaguar he had been before. His skin came back on, and he padded over to rub against Joe’s leg. “It even feels better in Walker form. Gotta tell ya, you’re fuckin’ spoilin’ me for anything else here.”

Donizetti chuckled. “It is always good to hear from a satisfied customer. Now come, let’s try the larger frame.”

“You bet.” The jaguar’s hardlight smoothly phased out from nose to tail, then a hatch opened on its back and a smaller jaguar hopped out.

“Whoa,” Joe said. “That’s just like someone spilled water on a metal mogwai.”

“Don't charge me after midnight, then,” Julius quipped.

“Don’t tempt me to get you a shell based on an AMC Gremlin,” Joe said. “I might just do it.”

Julius snorted. They followed Signor Donizetti over to the sports car RIDE, then Julius hopped up onto the hood. He positioned himself over the middle of it, and his paws sank into four panels directly beneath them. Then the hood split open under him and he sank out of sight. It sealed seamlessly shut over him again. Then the car’s headlights lit up and its motor—or the noisemaker imitating an internal combustion motor—revved.

Joe grinned. “Sweet!” He walked around to the driver side, opened the door, and climbed in. The dash and steering wheel looked completely authentic to the period—then it winked out, revealing a more modern flat panel display and control yoke. “Hardlight dashboard? You think of everything.”

“A craft of this size, considering the hardtop and impeller, is technically a flier under current regulations,” Donizetti said. “It will also work like any other skimmer in this configuration without Signor Julius plugged in.”

“Awright!” Julius purred from all around Joe. A light in the middle of the dashboard flickered in time with his voice.

“I’d make a joke about you being a KITTy now, except one of my idiot cousins already had one made—a melanistic jaggie, Trans-Am skimmer mode,” Joe said. “Quinny tells me he Integrated with his next owner after Harold sold him, renamed himself Cylon, and was assigned to keep her under house arrest when I stuck her in the Aloha counterweight masion. He’s now doing ten to twenty realtime in a fast-time VR prison for second-degree murder during Fritz’s uprising.”

“I heard of this one. He was not one of ours,” Donizetti said. “We never did business with that cousin of yours. The way he would get a new one every few months, it was clear he had no respect for RIDEs before we even opened our shop. But not all of our competitors felt that way.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Joe shook his head. “That boy messed up more RIDEs…”

“Ugh,” Julius said. “Ophelia’s brother, wasn’t he? That branch of the family fuckin’ never had a lick of sense. Whatever happened to him, anyway?”

“Disappeared a few years back.” Joe shrugged. “The prevailing theory is either his latest RIDE ‘jacked him or else they Integrated. Or both. He hasn’t come forward since the Enclaves went public, and nobody’s ever really bothered to look too hard for him. Or her.”

“Okay, think I’m familiar with this thing’s systems. Let’s do this.” The hood of the car surged up toward the windshield as the roof collapsed and panels slid up along the sides. Everything went dark. Then a moment later, Joe was standing on all four feet on the pedestal where the car had been. Wait, all four feet? He blinked, looking around, then looking back at his car-sized furry jaguar body.

“Well, I’ll be a son of a queen,” Julius said. “It really works. This is just like those really big deuce-truck RIDEs they had in the Home Guard Battle-lions.”

“This feels really weird,” Joe said. “It’s like my legs don’t bend right.” He lifted a forepaw and examined it.

“It’s just like in Nature Range,” Julius said. “Okay, alley-oop!” He stood on his hind paws, his body shifting to make the hind legs into humanoid legs. Then he stood a good five meters tall, his ears nearly brushing the ceiling. “Mmm…some of the same sort of balance issues from Shell Mode on the little one. I can see I’ll have to get used to this.” He took a few tentative steps forward. “But hey…the view is great from up here. I feel like jagzilla or something.”

“What happens if I’ve got someone in the shotgun seat when we do this?” Joe asked. “I mean, I could see being on a cruise out in the Dry or something without any good place to put ‘em.”

“There is a passenger compartment in the body in both Walker and Fuser forms,” Signor Donizetti said. “It is not necessarily the most comfortable, as it approximates the size and shape of the one where your own body resides…and unlike you, their perception is not overridden by the Fuse. But it is better than getting dumped on the ground.”

Joe withdrew his senses from the Fuse for a moment, and discovered he was curled up in a fetal position, his arms around his knees, within a small round space that didn’t offer much room for movement. “I see,” he said. “Is it all right being Fused like this for long periods? I could get a pretty good crick in my neck without even knowing it.”

“The nanos’ medical function straightens that sort of thing out when you de-Fuse,” Julius said. “Like they do when you’re Fused with my smaller bod, for that matter. Though they don’t do that for the passenger, so yeah.”

“Probably wouldn’t be a problem for Socah, though, with that mechanical body of hers,” Joe mused. “Huh.”

“De-Fusing now,” Julius said, and his body collapsed back down into skimmer car form, metal panels sliding down and away and the hardtop rolling back so Joe was sitting in a convertible—wearing Julius’s Minimus shell.

“Sweet!” Joe said, grinning, as he opened the door and climbed out.

“Now about those weapons paks?” Julius said.

“Come with me to the next room, and I shall show you what we have,” Donizetti said. “You can walk out with personal sidearms, but the larger paks will need to be delivered.”

“Works for me,” Julius said. “What do you think, Joe?”

“These are your bodies, and you are my bodyguard,” Joe said. “You know what you need better than I would. Knock yourself out.”

Julius grinned. “Aw yeah. This is gonna be fun.”

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Joe and Julius chose to ride the skimmer bike home and have the car and Julius’s old body delivered by truck later that day. Since it was the size of his old one, the skimmer version was going to be Julius’s default “indoor” body, those times when he wasn’t sticking with the Minimus shell anyway.

They didn’t go directly home, of course. Instead they headed out of the city, into the wilderness where they could push the new bike flat out to see how fast it went. A few minutes later, they were streaking over the Dry in a hardlight aeroshell shaped like a Colonial Viper starfighter. A sonic boom rumbled through the air behind them as they broke the sound barrier.

“Holy shit this is fast!” Julius whooped. “At this speed, if we could keep it up all the way, we could be in fuckin’ Aloha in something like 8 or 10 hours.”

“I think even your super-duper AAA++ batteries would run dry before we got about halfway there, but if we stopped to gas up at a friendly Enclave or two, yeah,” Joe said. “Or we could shave a few hours off that if we took the car, which would run even faster. I think we could even get add-on booster paks and go suborbital like a Redstone.”

“Hey, don’t fuckin’ spoil me too much here. I gotta have something to put on my Christmas wish list.”

Joe chuckled. “C’mon, pal, let’s head back to Nextus.” The Viper banked over into a broad, sweeping curve and headed back toward the city, shedding speed as it went.

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May 24, 157 A.L.

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The next few days in the reopened Gilmore Building penthouse were almost like old times. Julius was still inclined to shake his head and mutter when he looked out the window and saw an Olympic pool where the gun turret they’d taken such care to protect had been, but he accepted that the turret was no longer needed in peacetime. After the “new” wore off, they found they were largely content to leave the Minimus shell installed in Julius’s cycle body most of the time, and they only took the larger car out a few times. Mostly, Joe and Julius hung out on the sofa—the same sofa as thirty-five years before, just a little creakier—and watched movies on their media wall. Julius got to see Kill Bill for the first time, and pronounced it “fuckin’ awesome.”

But after a while, the deja vu started getting to Joe. Weird as it was, the happiness of having Julius back still didn’t cancel out the bad memories from losing him in the first place. And those brought Joe back to thinking about all those other things they’d never had the chance to do. “You know, bro, there’s a ton of things we never did together because of the damned war.”

Julius looked up from the kitchen table, where he was busy with dexterity exercises with his new hands. Simulations gave him the basics, but nothing beat real practice in real time. At the moment, he had a loop of string and was on his fourth try making a cat’s cradle with it. The servos in his hands made little whirring sounds as he tried again. “Like what?”

“Well, we sat at home watching movies because we had to. Energy conservation, that sort of thing, and there wasn’t really anywhere safe to go, what with the war on. Then there’s, well, that I was on the wrong side very recently,” Joe said.

“With Fritz, you mean?” Julius said. “Didn’t you end up in jail for tax evasion, too?”

“Oh yeah, that. More of Fritz’s doing.” The events that had started everything felt really tangled to Joe now. There were things that didn’t make much sense and he wondered if they ever would. To paraphrase comedian Jonathan Winters, he hadn’t just been Crazy Joe, he’d been Crazy Crazy Crazy Joe. “It was just one of those things. Quinnie had just Integrated, and Fritz needed a way to distract the press while he snuck her away. He got me back out again in a couple of days. Really, it was more of an insult than anything else. Me, one of Nextus’s preeminent Gamesters, sent up for tax-dodging? It’s as if they busted Arsène Lupin or Slippery Jim diGriz for shoplifting. My rep still hasn’t quite recovered.” He shook his head. “Then there was that stunt Fritz and I pulled, when Quinoa had just seen through him…before I woke up and realized Fritz really had gone off his tiny little nut.”

“I’m kinda shocked that you spent thirty years palling around with Fritz to begin with,” Julius said. “Psychotic bastard he was.”

“Well, I have you to blame for that,” Joe said. “You told me not to give up on my dream of cracking all that media, and then you told Fritz, ‘You…help him with that.’ And he damned well did. Psychotic he might have been, but he had his own twisted sense of honor, and he was our friend, for a while there at least. You think he was going to ignore your dying wish? And, well, I couldn’t exactly turn down the help.”

“Okay, okay. I give. My fucking fault.” Julius’s ears folded back as he got his fingers tangled in the string. “Fuck this for a lark. I don’t know who the cat was who came up with this thing…”

Joe smirked. “Time for me to cut the Julian knot again?”

Julius demonstrated that his mastery over his hands was improving by showing Joe just one finger.

“Classy. Anyway, I was thinking we really ought to go visiting,” Joe continued. “Get out of Nextus and see all the places we always wanted to see after the war. And some of the people, too,” Joe said. “Ol’ Clint’s not around anymore, sadly, but his kids Zane and Agatha are. And there’s a couple of people you wouldn’t know—Kenyon and Nigella Walton. Met ‘em a few years after the war. Nouveau riche folks from a big Q strike. Clint kept dragging me out to play golf with Kenyon and Marshal Mosley to try to break me out of moping over you. And he kept insisting we let them win.”

Julius snapped the threads and dusted his hands free of them. “Liked ‘em that much, did he?”

“I think he was just setting them up for a sucker bet somewhere down the road,” Joe said. “Then he had that flier accident before he could take them up on it. I sort of dropped out of society after that.

Then Quinoa and Quorra Integrated and he spirited them away, and Fritz’s ‘suggestions’ suddenly started carrying more weight. After all, he was the one taking care of my bro’s little girl now. So he said ‘frog’ and I jumped, the little son of a bitch.”

“After all the shit he did, I’m surprised he’s not rotting in a VR prison…or in pieces in a lab or something,” Julius said.

“He’s still got his last pilot accidentally locked up in his head, or so Dr. Patil told me. The guy always did his level best to keep Fritz from being a complete psychopath, but had no direct control. That’s the only reason why Fritz was given perpetual public service,” Joe said. “Integrates have some rather sticky legal issues.” Joe shook his head. “If they ever figure out how to split them up, that’ll probably be it for him.”

“So I guess this means we won’t be inviting the dickweed over for a bad movie night anytime soon,” Julius said.

“Forgiveness is a virtue, but not yet,” Joe said. “Maybe Dr. Patil can forgive him, but not me. Not yet.”

Julius stood up, still a little wobbly, then shifted back to Walker mode. “Ugh. Never thought having my own hands would be so hard after using your brain in Fuse. I mean, I can go anthro in Nature Range. Out in the Real’s a different kettle of fish.”

“You’re doing just fine, Jules. Just fine,” Joe reassured, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m going to comm the Waltons and see if they’re free. I haven’t seen their new home since the dragon Intie burned the last one down.”

“I read about that, Joe. Only on Zharus,” Julius said.

“Oh good, they’re in,” Joe said a moment later. “Let’s head on over, buddy.”

“Works for me.” He paused for a moment. “Uh, you think we should keep this Shell Mode thing to ourselves? It’s not ready for primetime.”

“Probably a good idea,” Joe said.

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Joe mounted up, and they cruised uptown, toward the hilly suburb on the outskirts where a lot of Nextus’s hoi polloi had their digs. As always, Julius’s eyes were part of the instrument panel screen. “This reminds me,” Julius said. “Whatever happened to the mansion you said you’d donated for hospital space?”

“Eh. Let the government keep it. It’s an orphanage or something now,” Joe said. “Just didn’t feel like coming back to Nextus after…well, you know. I’d mothballed the penthouse until just a few days ago.”

“It still smells like ‘em.”

Joe waved a hand. “Nah, that’s just my cologne. Eau de Humanity.”

“Pfft. City’s grown, though. Immigration stats, up six million? Dafuq is happening on Earth that they’re sending all their weirdos our way?” Julius said.

“It’s the Darth Vader effect. Earth’s government’s tightening its fingers, people are slipping through its grasp. I’m not surprised.” He shook his head. “It’s bad. And their loss. Weirdness results in creativity,” Joe said.

“I gather they started becoming assholes all of a sudden right about when the war happened?” Julius asked, orange eyes blinking at him from the dashboard. “I got that something happened when the circus got back, but your memories are such a mess from right about then. All the booze, I think.”

“Heh. I’m afraid I was sloshed for too long. Couldn’t deal. Anyway, Earth’s uprooted every single wildcat colony they can find for over thirty years, before they can get a toehold,” Joe explained. “Granted, a lot of them actually were ill-prepared, underfunded clusterfucks who needed someone to save their asses. Not every colony can succeed. But some of them were doing just fine. The Earth Stellar Navy didn’t care. They just scooped the colonists off the planet like the Borg and glassed what was left.”

“Ugh. Any idea what happened to the people?”

“Taken back to Earth, dispersed among the ‘legit’ colonies…some of ‘em eventually ended up here thanks to that whole weirdness purge thing, or just from wanting to get as far from Earth as they legitimately could. There’s a few towns in Laurasia and a few coastal ring settlements not quite big enough to be called polities that are basically made up of people from those places who found each other once they hit Zharus. Just search on ‘New Such-and-Such’ where ‘Such-and-Such’ is the name of one of those colonies; they’re not hard to find.”

“What a fucking travesty,” Julius said.

“Socah was on one or two of those types of missions late in her career, I gather. Once there stopped being brushfire wars on Earth, they sent their seasoned forces to the stars. I’m not going to pry, but she said she’d retired because she hated being a ‘grubby mitt’. I’m glad.”

The Waltons’ home had been recently rebuilt from the attack by three of Fritz’s “Ascendant” groupies, one of whom had been a medium-sized dragon. Joe had watched everything unfold on the news, but his military contacts—sounding distinctly embarrassed—had actually refused to give him any more information than Kenyon and Nigella Walton had given to the Steader News Network. (Nigella’s story about the “darling little mink” that had stood up to the big, bad AlphaWolf had been amusing, but even the reporters themselves hadn’t exactly found it plausible. It had been amusing watching them struggling to suppress their laughter during the interviews.) That Kenyon Walton still sported the tags of AlphaWolf himself piqued Joe’s curiosity more than a little.

Of course, the Waltons didn’t know about Julius either. So maybe they had some stories to trade.

Mrs. Walton was waiting at the front door, mink RIDE by her side, as they landed and Joe climbed down from Julius’s saddle. “Joe Steader, it’s good to see you!” She stepped forward to greet him with a friendly hug. “You’re looking well! The jaguar ears suit you.”

Joe chuckled. “Good to see you, too, Nigella.” Anyone familiar with Nigella Walton’s aloof public persona might have been surprised to see her being so friendly. But she’d grown up playing the Game. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that her Nuevo San-born husband had learned to play it even better, when he wanted to.

“Nigella, I’d like to introduce Julius,” Joe said.

The jaguar smoothly changed to Walker mode then padded up to rub noses with the mink and give Nigella a friendly feline headbump. Nigella chuckled and reached down to give his head a rub. “Nice to meet you. My furry friend here is Melissa.”

“Hi!” the mink said cheerfully.

“Charmed an’ shi…uh, stuff,” Julius said.

“I’m so curious how you and Joe met, but it can wait until Kenyon is finished in the garage. He’s working on the Falcon again.”

“He’s still fiddling with that? He’s braver than I thought,” Joe said.

Julius facepawed. “You never could resist making references like that, buddy. Even when nobody else knew what the fu—” The jaguar stumbled over the cuss word. Somehow, Nigella’s presence had put the brakes on his pottymouth. “Um, when nobody else had even seen Star Wars yet. Yeah.”

“Hey, it’s me,” Joe said with a goofy grin.

“It is you, Joe,” Kenyon said. He was covered in oil and grease, like any good mechanic that had just spent hours rebuilding an antique Ford Windsor V-8 engine. His lupine ears and tail were covered in a plastic film to keep the dirt off. “When did you adopt a RIDE?”

“I’ll be happy to divulge if you’ll give me the lowdown on what happened here last year,” Joe said. “And how you got those. I’ve seen you Fused with AlphaWolf when you visit Camp, you know.”

“It’s…a complicated relationship,” Kenyon said. “Let me go clean up and we’ll talk over a few beers. I want to know what the hell turned you into Snidely Whiplash for a year.”

“Oh, come on. I wasn’t that bad, was I? I never tied any damsels to the railroad tracks. And I donated an orphanage, I didn’t foreclose on it.” He snorted. “Like you’d even know who Snidely Whiplash is if it weren’t for me. Besides, I’m more a Dick Dastardly. I built about five of his cars from Wacky Races.”

“Hold that thought. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Kenyon headed into the mansion, plastic-wrapped tail wagging.

“I must admit, I can’t remember ever seeing you this cheerful,” Nigella said, leading the way into the house. “I used to wonder if you ever smiled.”

“I’ve kind of been in a thirty-five year funk,” Joe said. “Is Lillibet around?”

“Not lately. They’re spending some time out in Sturmhaven. Politics.” Nigella wrinkled her nose. “Did you hear she actually fought in a duel there earlier this month?”

“I think I saw something about that on the news, but I was a little too busy with politics myself to pay much attention. You’ll have to tell me all about that.”

“I’ll be happy to.” She smiled. “Really, she’s becoming something of a stranger in her own home, lately, between that and Alpha Camp. She and Guinevere are out there practically every time we turn around. Even when they’re physically here, they’re just as often communing with Fenris remotely.” She shook her head, smiling. “It seems as though we shall have to surrender to the inevitable. We’re already looking into purchasing some land out there for a summer cottage.”

Nigella led the way into the living room and nodded to a fancy sofa. “That’s built at RIDE strength, by the way.” She took a seat in an easy chair across from it, Melissa sitting on her haunches next to the chair within easy petting distance.

Julius curled up on the couch, making a comfortable fur-lined place for Joe to sit. The jaguar groomed his forepaws while Joe gave him a thorough petting. “Very comfy, Nigella. Thank you.”

While they waited, a hovering servitor drone offered food and drink.

“Lay off the booze,” Julius said as Joe reached for the scotch decanter. “My Fusers are still working on your liver as it is, bud.”

“My conscience, hard at work,” Joe said, taking a ginger ale instead.

“I have one of those, too,” Nigella said, patting Melissa. “Old Clint always said you needed a keeper.”

“I’ll say he does,” Kenyon said, returning in a clean shirt and slacks and most, though not all, of the grease cleaned off. “Thought he’d found one for a while, then they let him out of jail.” He glanced at Julius. “I see you’ve been to visit Signor Donizetti lately?”

“That obvious?” Joe said.

“Donizetti RIDEs do have a certain look to them,” Kenyon said. “Something specific to the brand of hardlight emitter he uses. I suspect he tunes them specially that way, just so people know them on sight even in hardlight.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Joe said. “It’s hard to brag on how much money you spent if you can’t tell on sight. Maybe he imports them from Wednesday?”

Kenyon nodded. “One of these days we’ll see about getting a Donizetti for Melissa.”

“I’m still quite happy with what I’ve got right now, but I appreciate the offer,” Melissa said.

Joe pointed at the younger man’s lupine tags. “You know, it’s eating me up. How in the world did you and AlphaWolf pair up?”

“Well, therein lies a tale,” Kenyon said.

“Yeah, and a couple of fu—of funny ears, too,” Julius said.

“Please, Julius, you don’t need to spare our delicate ears,” Nigella said. “Kenyon’s a former gangbanger from Nuevo San’s mean streets. He can cuss in a half dozen languages—and often did, when we were first married. Rather endearing, really.”

Julius blinked. “No merde? Interesting friends you got, Joe.”

Joe grinned. “Hey, this is the first I heard of it. But now that I think about it, it makes sense. I expect the only thing they use golf clubs for in the mean streets of Nuevo San Antonio is whacking each other over the head with.”

“It’s a skill, picking the right club to whack the right amount of ass down the alley,” Kenyon said. “And I had practice. Unfortunately, due to the size differential, the best clubs for heads don’t tend to be the best ones for balls, and vice versa.”

“That explains your large handicap,” Joe said. “We’re gonna have to get together for another nine holes sometime, now that I’ve got my new caddy.”

“Hey, I’m a jaguar, not a Caddy,” Julius said. “Tail, not tailfins.” Joe thumped him lightly on the head.

Kenyon grabbed a bottle of Guinness from the servitor and popped the top. “Okay, so…where to start? Well, you already know something about what happened to us here. You and Julius act like old buddies and I know for a fact you didn’t have a RIDE just a few days ago. Explain that.”

“Julius here is an old soul,” Joe said. “About thirty-five years old, give or take.”

“I was mostly dead for almost that long,” Julius said. “Had a crack in the brain.”

“From saving my life,” Joe said.

“It’s what a bodyguard does, and I’d do it again,” Julius said.

“See, when RIDEs came out, I didn’t know the first thing about what they really were, but I figured they had to be better than the Schnook that they’d issued me for keeping safe. So I asked for one, without knowing exactly what I was asking for. They say be careful what you wish for…” He chuckled.

“That must have been some first encounter,” Nigella said. “I knew what RIDEs were before I met Melissa. Or at least I thought I did, and I’m still amazed at just how much of what I ‘knew’ was wrong. But to meet one with no idea…”

“He thought I was a fuckin’ ELIZA subroutine, ‘til I started cussing at him,” Julius said. “I wasn’t exactly fuckin’ thrilled at first myself, given I was supposed to be smackin’ Sturmies around on the front lines, not playing bodyguard for some rich schmuck, but orders is orders.”

Joe grinned. “After that, Julius was the best part of my life for a couple of years. Then on Armistice Day, this lone-assassin nutjob tried to take me out, but got Julius instead. So now you know why I’ve been a mopey alcoholic the last thirty-five years.” He shook his head. “Adding insult to injury, the whole thing barely even gets a footnote in the history books, when it gets mentioned at all. Because, after all, it was ‘just a RIDE’ who got kacked..”

“Wow, Joe. That’s…heavy,” Kenyon said. “Shit. It’d drive me to drink, too.”

“Yeah. I ended up putting the core in a little box and carrying it around and talking to it,” Joe said. “But really, it’s kind of lucky I did. In the end, turned out they’d finally figured out how to fix cracked cores.” He shook his head. “I don’t like to think how many salvageable cracked cores must just have been thrown away or recycled over the years.”

“Brrr,” Julius said. “Yeah. Remind me never to give you a hard time about that ever again.”

Joe chuckled, and reached over to give his head a rub. “Oh, you can keep on giving me a hard time. That’s part of what I like about you.”

“You know, I’ve got a Tornado and a…Chinook, in my garage.” Kenyon said, obviously trying to change to a lighter topic. “I don’t think I’ve ever turned on that Ad-I. I run Q-coprocessors running common AI instead. Still not a patch on Alpha.”

“We called those Schnooks and Tomatoes during the War. There’s a reason they refer to running an Ad-I as ‘doing the hokey pokey,’” Joe said. “You want to put your left foot in. It tries to put your left foot out. You try to force it to put your left foot in, but what with the argument going on between the two of you, you effectively just end up shaking it all about. I think both sides spent half the war fighting their own gear rather than each other…but sometimes, that’s what it’s all about.”

“Joe, we argue about a lot of things anyway,” Julius said.

We argue over what the hell the director of Battlefield Earth was thinking with all those screen wipes and tilted camera shots,” Joe said. “Over and over, every single damned shot! Every! Single! One!”

“I still haven’t forgiven him for making me watch the damned thing,” Julius said, rolling his eyes. “I think I’d rather have taken another fucking bullet for him.”

Kenyon started laughing. “You two are a riot, you know that? I don’t think I’ve ever seen the vintage you’re talking about. I’ve seen Zharus remakes.”

“Oh good gawd, they remade it?” Julius said. “What, were they a bunch of masochists? Or sadists?”

“Cruise and Travolta cultists,” Kenyon said.

“Oh, so both, then,” Julius said.

“Anyway, they were only just able to bring him back last week,” Joe said. “And so my life has changed again, for the better. What about you?”

“As I understand things, it started because Fritz wanted some revenge after his cronies were curb-stomped on the Brubeck platform,” Kenyon said. “Basically, they went after us because of Lillibet’s connection with the Freeriders Garage and Zane Brubeck.”

Joe grimaced. He remembered Fritz ranting at him over that loss. He’d been convinced Zane must have had inside help, and had ended up skinning about half of those Integrates who’d managed to escape the assault on the principle that even if they weren’t the spy, they still hadn’t done enough to thwart the attackers. At the time, Quinoa was still in lockup, so all he could do was smile and nod, and hope whatever his niece was meditating to prepare herself to do would work. Between “Cylon” guarding her and Quinoa’s own ingenuity, she’d been rather more direct than usual with a focused dose of the legendary Steader Crazy.

He was very proud of her. That didn’t keep him from having her clean up the mess…or then again, perhaps it was the whole reason he’d had her do it. Being extra-hard on her to hide how proud he was? He shook his head and turned his attention back to what Kenyon was saying.

“At the time, AlphaWolf was feeling especially guilty about the whole trashing-the-garage thing. Not to mention having a lot of anger to work off over something unrelated that had just happened out at the camp. So when he got word of what Fritz was planning, he corralled Paul and Fenris—”

“—and this darling little mink Paul had been repairing at the time—” Nigella put in, reaching down to hug Melissa around the neck.

“—and off they came to the rescue.”

“Sounds super,” Julius said. “I’ve been reading up on AlphaWolf—including that fucking movie your media empire made about him, Joe. ‘So sayeth me’? What dafuq?”

“Hey, all good villains need a tagline,” Joe said. “I was kind of thinking of Serpentor’s ‘This I command’ but I wanted something a little more original.” He grinned. “Anyway, he’s pretty clearly taken the line and made it his own.”

“Frankly, I think the director took too many cues from Roger Corman,” Julius said.

“To make a long story short, Alpha and the mink were right with us when that stupid dragon collapsed the mansion,” Kenyon said. “So, to keep us from getting squished, they Fused up with us on the spur of the moment.”

“Always thought that cover story was complete bullpucky,” Joe said. “Of course, that does make it better than the truth for Nextus purposes, since Nextus runs on complete bullpucky.”

“You won’t find a better bio-power source than bullpucky,” Kenyon agreed. “We dumped a lot to NextusLeaks anyway. Not everything, but enough.”

“Melissa and I hit it off right away,” Nigella said. “I had never imagined that Fusing a RIDE could be like that. She’s such a little darling…” She reached down to stroke Melissa’s head, and the mink chirred happily.

“And Alpha and I found we had a few things in common as well,” Kenyon said. “Though our situation was rather more…complicated by our individual obligations, of course. I decided to keep the tags for a multitude of reasons.”

“It does tend to enhance both your and AlphaWolf’s mystique,” Joe said.

“My Kenyon’s always been a wolf in the boardroom,” Nigella said proudly. “Now he just has the outward signs to match.”

“In the bedroom, too,” Kenyon said. “Grrrr.” Nigella blushed and giggled.

Julius rolled his eyes. “A little TMI there…”

“I did consider getting another RIDE after that,” Kenyon said. “I even toyed with the idea of finding one of Fenris’s type. But somehow, it just wouldn’t be the same.” He shrugged. “So Alpha and I get together when we can, and we’re making plans for our retirements in a few years when we no longer have to worry about what other people think. Frankly, I don’t think he’ll stay more than two Camp Council terms. He’s like the George Washington of RIDEs, I’d say.”

“And Kenyon is laying the groundwork to step down from the board,” Nigella said.

“Already? You’re half my age, Kenyon,” Joe said.

“The way things are going, we’re talking lifespans of two hundred years,” Kenyon said. “And that’s not even counting the rumors I’m hearing that they’ve found out how to upload brains now. I’m not going to do the same job for a century or more. I’ll retire for a couple decades—or less—go back to school, learn a new trade, and start anew.”

“Who knows, maybe in a few decades we’ll be colonizing again,” Joe said. “With RIDEs and Inties to help us out. I’m sure there are plenty of good planets out there.”

“There’s just the little matter of Earth,” Kenyon said. “Your little planet-of-the-twentieth-century-otaku dodge won’t work forever, you know.”

“Oh, you saw through that?” Joe said.

“It wasn’t exactly hard, considering,” Kenyon said. He chuckled. “Though I suspect a lot of the youngest generation wouldn’t thank you. It’s become fashionable these days to wear a Proxima or Centauri flag on your gear when you travel to other colonies, just to avoid the ‘twentieth century hick’ stereotype.”

Joe grinned. “Seriously? Cool! We really are having an effect, then.”

“Yes, but again—not forever,” Kenyon said. “Earth might be a bunch of stuffed shirts, but I get the feeling even they are starting to take notice of all the mutter about ‘Integrates’ coming out of here lately. All it would take is them starting to pay attention to what their spies tell them rather than keep circular-filing it under ‘Not Invented Here.’”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I guess more than half a century or so of stupidity is too much to hope for. But on the bright side, the military and police build-up that’s happened in all the polities since Integrates came to light will work just as well defending against Earth troops. Especially since we have RIDEs and Inties and they don’t.”

“Not that war’s something to wish for in any case,” Julius said. “God, Earth…bunch a’ fuckin’ assholes, all of ‘em. Wish they’d just leave the rest of us alone.”

“But hey…enough talk about depressing subjects like Earth and war,” Kenyon said, finishing off his beer. “Joe, why don’t you and Julius come out to the hangars with me and I’ll show you my latest projects. As one gearhead to another, I think you’ll appreciate them.”

Joe grinned. “Hey, works for me.”

Julius rolled his eyes. “Aw, great…more geeking.”

“Um…” Melissa said tentatively. “I…don’t suppose you’d care to play some Nature Range, instead?”

Julius perked up, his ears swivelling forward. “Hey…that sounds like fun, actually.”

“Great! Why don’cha come with me up to the belvedere and we can plug in?” Melissa said.

“Fuckin’ A!” Julius said happily.

Joe chuckled. “I guess I’ll see you later, then.”

“Have fun storming the castle!” Julius said as he followed Melissa out of the room and up the stairs.

Kenyon grinned. “RIDEs, huh?”

Joe nodded. “Gotta love ‘em.”

“I’ll just go make us all some lunch while you boys play with your toys,” Nigella said, getting up.

“That would be wonderful, dear,” Kenyon said. “C’mon, Joe, the Falcon’s in the same garage as my all my other Fords.”

“Well, that suits me to a Model T.” Joe followed him out of the house.

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“So, where else can we show our faces?” Joe pondered once they’d returned to the penthouse that evening. “We could do Uplift again. You hardly got to see any of that place except the inside of a garage and the way out to the tunnel. And that’s where Socah lives…”

“Hey bro, something caught my eye on the feeds.” Julius threw a poster for the Califia Coastal Ring Grand Prix up on the media wall. “Perfect excuse to take the Big Jag out for a spin, you think? It needs a proper break-in.”

“I actually did that in the Mach 5 about fifteen years ago. It was a blast,” Joe said. “Unless the rules have changed, you can’t actually enter that one with a RIDE—has to be a single-mode skimmer within certain specifications, in the interest of keeping the playing field level. There are some freestyle touring races where RIDEs and EIDEs are permitted, though the soonest one’s not for a couple months.”

“Awww,” Julius mumbled.

“Nothing keeping us from doing our own tour, mirroring the route,” Joe said, trying not to laugh at his partner’s unexpected mope. “Give us time to get in some tourism at our own pace. Plus…maybe we could bring Socah along.”

“Yeah, I want to see this Califia place, and Burnside, Cape Nord, Baltica…dunno about Sturmhaven, though. Fuck those Valk bitches.”

“So,” Joe said, “Which one of us gets to be Martin Milner and which one is George Maharis?”

“I was kind of hoping to be Dan Cortese,” Julius said. Joe smacked him. “Anyway, give Socah a buzz. See if she’s game. I’ll warm up the Big Jag.”

“You’re really enthusiastic about this,” Joe said. “I’m surprised.”

“I think it’s actually sinking in that the fuckin’ war is over, that’s all,” Julius said.

“Hey, it’s only been thirty-five years,” Joe said. “Give it another thirty-five and life might return to normal.”

Outside, the flier pad split open, the Big Jag rising up on a lift. Julius padded outside and split his Minimus frame from the Ahnuld, which changed to dumb-skimmer mode. He then lifted to the hood of the E-type and plugged himself in. “Vroom fucking vroom. I’m the Jagmobile.”

Joe scratched his scruffy beard. “You know, let’s bring the bike along with us. I’m sure Socah would love a spin on it.”

“Fuckin’ A, Joe,” Julius said. “I’ve got it on remote. Now you gonna call her or what?”

“Hang on,” Joe said. “I’m still trying to decide whether we should go clockwise or counter-clockwise. And should we start from here, Uplift, or somewhere else? We can fly up there in the Pan-Am…”

“Fuckin’ ask her what she wants to do, an’ do that,” Julius said. He changed the car to its large Walker mode and laid on the flier pad, covering much of it. He rolled his orange eyes. “Call her already. Jeezus. We’re not going anywhere ‘til you do.” Then he yawned, rolled on his back, shut his eyes, and started a catnap.

Joe chuckled, and reached for his comm. “Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to…” he sang under his breath as he punched in her comm code.

She picked up on the second ring. “Hello, Joe. How are Julius’s new shells working out?”

“Better than we ever expected,” Joe said, looking at the great furry lump sunning himself on the flier pad. “But, it’s Donizetti, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise.”

“I salivated over his skimmers on Earth, but could never afford one,” Socah said. “So, why the call?”

“I’ve got this kernel of an idea here,” Joe said. “I’ve done the Coastal Ring tour a dozen times in my life, but Jules hasn’t, and neither have you. And we have all these new skimmers to break in. How’d you like to come along?”

“Is that a proposition, Joe Steader?” Socah asked coyly. Joe had an odd moment of cognitive dissonance at hearing those tones from the tough-as-nails mecha commander he’d known on Earth, but it quickly passed.

“You’re damn right it is,” Joe replied, pulling himself together again. “Maybe after that, Laurasia. Hell, we can even fly up to my space HoJo, Aloha counterweight mansion, or even the moon for a weekend. Whatever turns our fancy.”

“So much for subtlety,” Julius said.

“I accept,” Socah said.

“Any thoughts on where you’d like to start ze Gondwana Grande Tour, madame?” Joe said, putting a little bad French in his accent. “I can fly us anywhere on the Coastal Ring, then we can circle around ‘til we get back.”

“Not yet, but I’ll have made up my mind when you two get here,” Socah said. “What exotic locale to choose from, hmm…”

Julius rolled back onto his belly, then changed back to the skimmer. “Okay, Joe. Now we can head to the aerodrome.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Joe said dryly, getting into the driver’s seat.

“Jules is such a hoot!” Socah said. “Meet you at the South Uplift Aerodrome, boys. Are you bringing the Pan-Am you’ve talked about so much?”

“You’ve got it, Socah! She’s a beaut, I guarantee,” Joe said. He switched the dashboard controls into flight mode and lifted the E-type replica off the landing pad, Julius retracting the wheels. The skimmer had a smooth, aerodynamic shape even without a hardlight aeroshell, so he started out without one, descending all the way to ground level before extending the wheels again.

“Taking our time, are we?” Julius asked from the dashboard. “I’m not complaining, I’m just surprised.”

“When you get to be our age, Julius, you learn the value of slowing down,” Socah said over the comm. “Let me know when you’re about to land, boys. Gates out.” She hung up the comm.

“Didn’t even let us say goodbye,” Julius said.

“Old habits die hard, I guess. She was military for fifty years,” Joe explained.

“The spaceplane’ll be ready to launch by the time we get there,” Julius said. “Take your time. I’m fucking enjoying these wheels. Vroom! Vrooooom!”

“Now who’s acting like a little kid?” Joe said, chuckling.

“Hey, learned from the best,” Julius said. “We’ll be at the aerodrome in twenty minutes.”

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The Jaguar sports car pulled up short just inside the open doors to the Steader hangar where the Pan-Am Orion SSTO jet resided. “So this is it, huh? The end fucking result of me calling you in to laugh at the stupid-ass people in the lame gorilla suits?”

“That it is,” Joe said. “Well, one of them, anyway. Sometime we should go visit the Howard Johnson. But later for that. This thing’s my pride and joy. Hang on, I’ll lower the cargo ramp.” He tapped in a command on his comm, and a ramp at the base of the plane below the tail lowered. “Drive all the way to the front of the bay; it’ll chock the car automatically.”

“Got it.” The cargo bay took up perhaps a third of the plane’s length. There was room for several vehicles, though the bay was empty at the moment. Julius pulled all the way forward and killed the motor. Chocks raised out of the floor and slid into place. After Joe got out and closed the door, padded braces came out of the walls and ceiling to hold the car gently but firmly in place.

The motorcycle hovered up behind them a moment later. Julius popped out of the Jag’s hood and padded back to merge with the bike again, joining Joe in his two-legged Shell mode a moment later. “So, show me the rest?”

“Come on.” Joe tapped the comm, and the ramp raised closed behind them. He led the way through a hatch at the front of the bay, which led into a small utility kitchen type area with a fabber and tray cart storage. “There’s another room like this up front,” Joe explained. “The one back here is for the passengers further back.” He led the way further on into coach seating, where seats were arranged in two rows alongside viewports in the sides.

“You seriously built this thing like a fuckin’ airliner?” Joe said. “What, you ever carry passengers?”

“Well, no…but I wanted the ambiance,” Joe said. “Sometimes I’ll just…y’know…come down here and sit, and pretend to be Dr. Heywood Floyd. I even have one of those space pens. But the living quarters are upstairs in the First Class section.”

He led the way up through the next kitchen, then tapped in a five-digit code on a keypad next to the door. Musical notes sounded in time with the keypresses.

“You’re mixing your movies there,” Julius said. “That’s from Close Encounters. Or Moonraker.”

Joe shrugged. “I thought it was cool.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t. Just pointing it out is all,” Julius said.

Beyond the door was the flight deck, with seats adjustable for RIDEs or humans. “I’ll show you the living quarters later. Let’s go ahead and get in the air.” He slid into the pilot’s seat and started punching keys.

Julius sat in the co-pilot’s chair and eyed him suspiciously. “Joe? I just wanna make this one thing crystal clear. If I have to listen to the fucking Blue fucking Danube all the fucking way to Uplift, I will be personally disemboweling every fucking speaker on this tub until it stops. Capice?

“I think I’ve lost my taste for that song, really…” Joe admitted. “Used to have it on continuous looped broadcast everywhere I went, as kind of a personal signature. Ugh. I must have been out of my mind.”

Julius reached overhead and started to flip switches—all the right ones for a preflight. “Let’s see…aft impellers…check.”

“Sideloaded the piloting chip already?” Joe asked.

“Passed the sims in fast-time, got the license,” Julius said. “Been there, done that, got the fuckin’ t-shirt.”

“Well, I’ve flown this bucket a few dozen times by my lonesome. Let’s do this together,” Joe said. He picked up a tablet. “Control surfaces and RCS…”

The checklist went quickly, and by the time they were finished clearance had come from the tower. Joe shoved the throttles forward and the plane taxied along the runway. “In the book, I think the plane was launched by a catapult like they use on aircraft carriers,” Joe said. “But even I couldn’t get them to let me build one at the spaceport.”

“Oh you poor thing,” Julius deadpanned.

Joe tapped some more controls on the dash, and classical music started playing through the speakers—but not the Blue Danube. “There.”

Julius’s ears perked up. “Bolero? Okay, I suppose I can see that. Just like in Legend of Galactic Heroes.”

“And it’s just long enough for the flight to Uplift,” Joe said. “You feel like a take-off roll, or a lifter ascent?”

The jaguar put his left hand on the throttle, gripping the levers with a confident flex of his fingers. “Let’s goose this fucker.”

“Just don’t ask me to buzz the tower,” Joe said. “We have clearance.”

“Then here we go!” Julius pushed the throttles all the way forward, then grasped the control yoke with both hands. The starliner started to vibrate as the engines powered up. He grasped the yoke firmly, flexing his fingers. “Damn, this is great! I can’t wait until we can spread it around! It’ll be a fucking revolution!

Joe raised an eyebrow. “You say you want a revolution? Well, y’know…”

Julius removed one hand from the yoke long enough to demonstrate his increasing mastery of their use for gesturing one more time.

Impellers on full thrust, the Pan-Am spaceliner streaked skyward. Joe grinned and hummed to himself. Don’t you know it’s gonna be…all right. “Next stop…Uplift!”

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Preceded by:
Joseph Steader, This is Your Life!
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter One: Uplift and the Tunnel