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Taking the Plunge

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1

The last word recorded on a typical "black box" device was, "Shit." Marcus said it when his sub's dive controls fizzled and sparked. Red lights flickered around him and the sub bobbed to the surface, right into the path of the waves he'd been trying to avoid. He held up his arms as though they'd protect him from the wall of water just outside the glowing "hardlight" canopy. The sea slammed him. He was rattled enough to lose control of steering, which threw him into another wave that picked him up and slammed him down into darkness.

Suddenly it was quiet. Marcus saw the cockpit flickering madly by dim gold light against the displays. Dim? The canopy that held the ocean out was failing! He checked the depth controls and saw he was still descending. That'd be fine for riding out the waves, except for what was about to happen. Marcus tried to switch over to backup power, with no luck. "Piece of junk!" he said, stomping the cockpit's steel floor and inwardly kicking himself. Should have upgraded sooner; shouldn't have trusted today's storm report. Stupid! Sixteen meters underwater. The glowing yellow canopy, made of nothing, dissolved and let the dark sea come in.

Three quick breaths. Hold. Marcus flicked a switch to kill power to everything, to rise by default, but the sub was tumbling and he couldn't tell. Fine. Cold water slammed his chest and tried to take back his last air. Marcus clawed at the sea, fighting his way up through it to find out whether he'd ever get another breath. The next few seconds were just math; math and cussedness anyway. Breathing rate and air, versus training and being too pissed off at himself to die just yet. Brighter water was thataway. His bubbles went the same direction, so -- up! Everything happened slowly. The water warmed, grew lighter. He let a trickle of air leak from his aching lungs to trick them into lasting a little longer. Then his arms stopped working. Marcus was flailing at water that wouldn't move aside. He sputtered and spat out nasty salt with air he couldn't hold any longer. "Not fair!" He'd been so close! The sun hammered needles into his eyes and baked his skin.

Oh, right. Made it. Marcus started to calm down and tread water, on the surface of Zharus. The waves smacked him over and over with saltwater to the face and he'd probably roast if he weren't mostly submerged -- but hey, it was an improvement.

Something hit him in the legs from below and body-slammed him out of the water. Marcus landed on his back, struggled to breathe, and shrieked. His right leg felt on fire. What fresh hell was this? He saw his cracked yellow school-bus of a submarine, bobbing cheerfully nearby. He glared at it. "About time you showed up!"

The cockpit had flooded and all the hardware was dead, but the garbage-heap still floated. Marcus cursed and hissed his way up to a perch atop the thing so that he didn't have to move his leg much. Finally he could think for a moment. The farm had been only fifty klicks away before the titanic wave that got him. The storm seemed to be fading as quickly as it had come. He'd have to trust that the farm's barriers would save his employees; he hadn't skimped there. He stared into the flooded cockpit to see if -- aha! He wriggled painfully through what had been the forward porthole and grabbed a box, then dragged himself back out. The comm-flare gun looked intact. So, one thing hadn't failed on him, at least.

He turned it on, loaded a relay shot, keyed it to his implants, then fired it and coughed out a distress call. The tiny firecracker went half a klick up and started falling on a parachute. Marcus waited. Oh, of course there would just happen to be no one listening, no working relay buoys today. Just what he needed. He fumbled to load another shot with his aching, sea-wrinkled fingers. But someone out there in the luckless sea took pity on him at last: "Got your call, mister. Hang on."

Yeah. Hang on. He busied himself trying to calculate the effective comm radius given the airborne buoy and Zharus' curvature while he watched the little relay splash back down. It was just a matter of clinging to his busted machine while the waves slackened, and being useless and humiliated for another half hour while --

The sea rippled. Marcus imagined something had come along to eat him. The head that popped out of the water had a friendly grin, though. Something like a giant otter made of metal and shiny green hardlight. "You okay, mister?" it said in a tinny female voice. One of those "RIDEs".

"Peachy."

"I can tow this..." The otter appraised his sub. "fine vehicle back if you want."

"I think my leg's broken." Marcus's rescuer winced and helped him onto a sturdier spot atop the ruined hull, then put up some kind of emergency hardlight bubble so that he wouldn't bake in the sun. She even had painkillers. Marcus said, "Thanks. Guess I owe you the salvage value at the very least. Say..." He pointed at the otter. "Aren't you afraid of wearing that thing?"

The otter's grin faded. Maybe it was the human rider, or the RIDE itself noticing the faux pas. Marcus quickly added, "Sorry. It's been a bad day. What's your RIDE's name?"

"We go by Fenny when we're together."

"Hi. I know you RIDEs are smart, and I don't approve of how some places use you as slaves, but -- I'm talking to you the pilot, now -- what about the terror attacks last week? You're not worried about getting a virus and being permanently welded into your partner, there, one way or another?"

The otter-bot spoke, sounding a bit more musical and synthetic than the pilot's voice but spoken from the same muzzle. "How many people have gotten 'bodyjacked' or 'Integrated'? A couple dozen in the attacks in Uplift from what I hear. How many people have died at sea? Probably a lot more. Who's the one taking risks with shoddy hardware?"

Marcus glared. "I'm not some rich dilettante. I got this sub from the scrapyard just so I could do my job. Had to fix the hydroplanes just to make her dive-capable again." He took care of his hardware, as well as he could afford! Suddenly he remembered. "Oh, hell. My farm! I've got people there who might be in danger now. I have to -- augh!" He clutched his leg as pain stabbed through it again.

Fenny helped him send up another relay flare. This time he got through to Alvin and the other workers and confirmed they were fine over there. Marcus let out a breath he hadn't noticed he'd been holding, and calmed down despite the broken leg.

It was hard for Marcus to read the wearer's mood through that synthetic animal head and the shiny metal body. Marcus said, "I don't mean any disrespect. And thanks again. You there, the RIDE: you've got a will to live, don't you? My sub didn't."

The otter nodded. "And that's why we'll get through whatever crisis is going on with the viruses and Integrates. This time you humans have your hardware fighting alongside you."

Marcus lay there under the translucent shelter bubble, thinking. "I need a new vehicle, and I'd been thinking of hiring another employee. Maybe I'll do both at once."

2

The city-state of Aloha was clothing-optional. Marcus had picked the area for its weather. As an Earth native he still wasn't used to Zharus standards on a lot of things, but having to stare at people's bits seemed like a lesser problem than the 50-Celsius air around the domes of Uplift and Nextus, or the crazy gender politics of Sturmhaven or Cape Nord. Besides, he didn't have to actually live in the city when there was so much ocean surface to colonize.

He walked into Baron Aloha's Jumping Bargains one morning, wearing only shorts, sandals, and a look of dread. The dealer had the ears and tail of a rabbit and a plaid jacket whose pattern seemed not to move when he did. "Wilkum! Bienvenue! Welcome! What can I do you for, neighborino?"

Marcus caught only a whiff of the relentless, pungent Earth pop culture vibe. The natives went on about centuries-old nonsense, forgotten on Earth itself, with a fanatic's enthusiasm. He prided himself on not recognizing most of it; there were new books and movies here! "RIDEs," he said. "I heard there's a sale?"

"Ayup! Fair number of 'em on consignment or auction this week. Right this way!" The man took Marcus' arm and led him from the main showroom of electronics into a room with a sand-covered floor and the faint sound of steel drum music. He started to drone on about incredible bargains, but Marcus didn't listen.

The pedestals held wonders. Every RIDE was some sleek, unique machine with animal-like features, from a stainless steel rat to a desert fox glowing with the decorative veins locals called "Tron lines", to a treaded vehicle with just the suggestion of a bear's face. The news had been right about there being a supply glut. The salesbunny wouldn't admit it was due to owners panicking about a robot revolt. Thousands of klicks away. With reports already in about whole city-states allying for a beatdown against the guilty parties.

The salesman poked him. "Take your time, sir. But do you fancy yourself more of a fox? Otter, maybe? Any color you want so long as it's black -- just kidding; we can change that."

"Can I talk to them?" That seemed more important than appearance.

"Sure!" He waved his hand and said, "Presto. They're all unlocked to answer your questions now."

Oh. Fetters. Marcus had heard of them: software restrictions on the RIDEs' minds and bodies. An afterthought by wartime engineers who hadn't fully understood what, or who, they were inventing. He approached the nearest bot, a sleek white seagull with metallic wings scratched from heavy wear. The antigrav lifters were concealed with obvious skill in stylized feathers, on a body the size of a large skimmer motorcycle. "Hello? I'm Marcus."

The gull, as still as a statue, spoke to him in a leaden voice. "Hello. This is Sigurd."

It offered nothing more. Marcus walked around the mechanical bird's little island, feeling sand tickle his toes. "Are you looking for a new owner?"

"That's up to you, sir."

The salesman gave Marcus a theatric leaning-in comment. "This one's previous owner didn't ever fuse. Bought 'im without understanding that the bird units change you more than most. You'd probably look good with a beak, though. Want to get a 3D mockup of what it'll do to you?"

"I'll hold off on that." Marcus shivered. That was the other fact about owning one of these things -- these people. There was a commitment, a mark left on you, if you ever used them as more than a hovercraft sort of thing. His rescuer probably had a real otter tail. He walked past the hulking bear-tank RIDE toward what seemed to be a heavily armed squirrel. Laser tubes studded its gleaming tail, and a micromissile pod perched on its shoulder. "Hello, there. I haven't seen such a militant herbivore before."

"I'm harmless, really!" it said. She; the voice was high and chirpy. "Military surplus SQL Light Recon Armor, and half of this stuff is communications relay gear. None of it's original issue since I was decommissioned. I didn't want to fight. If you don't want to shoot at anybody that's fine with me. But if you do then I can do that too! Anything you want." She didn't move, but Marcus pictured the glowing silver tail twitching in agitation.

"You keep them paralyzed?" he asked the bunny.

The salesman's ear-linings blushed. "It's just a low-power mode. The hardlight on some of them drains their batteries faster than we'd like already." And he wouldn't want the merchandise walking off, of course.

"I'm not sure about this. Are their motors working right? It'd be helpful to see them move a bit."

The shopkeeper shrugged and said, "Shazam." The showroom stirred, becoming a zoo. The eyes of these animal-vehicles flared to life in a dozen colors and their limbs stirred as if from sleep. The gull flapped once and looked away. The squirrel sat up and leaned toward Marcus, paws up as if in prayer.

Marcus shuddered and turned to one side, digging his hands into his threadbare shorts. He'd gotten a cat once from a rescue shelter along the Paris coast. Suddenly he was ten years old again and smelling musk and disinfectant, staring at fuzzy faces behind bars. Haunted or vacant expressions. He'd asked Mom what happened to the ones no one wanted, and she'd told the truth.

He found himself back in the showroom, leaning against a beach mural and breathing hard. He'd come here for a piece of glorified sea-farm equipment that was also an unusually bright pet. Now it felt like he had to get one of them and not just leave them all here. Marcus turned around and saw over a dozen RIDEs, every single one of them unwanted, unloved, abandoned, thinking beings.

"What sort of price range might you have in mind?" said the salesman, closing in on him.

All of it, he wanted to say. Of course the man had read his face. "Something low-end," he said.

"How about this one?" One corner held what Marcus first took for scrap. It was actually a griffin, battered almost in half. No feet, only skeletal wings, missing parts on the torso. Just bare metal. The salesman said, "This one you can have for practically a handful of beads. Good project to level up your mechanic skills."

Marcus looked skeptical. "Is there even an RI core in there?" He wasn't eager to leave Aloha without his own transport, and had better things to do than start a new repair project when the whole west corner of the farm needed work.

"Yes, but that one needs a little body work before you can fire it up." The salesman grinned and tugged him along toward something more expensive, obviously as planned. "Speaking of beaks, how do you feel about hawks?" The one over here had gleaming blue hardlight with gold highlights and a cannon.

"Who are you?" said Marcus.

The bird's beak clicked slightly out of tune with its words. "RTH(m)-ACA-039 Nextus Air Cavalry Armor, sir. Called Storm. Actually eagle, not hawk."

"What happened to you?"

"Besides three battles and five kills, you mean? Not much. Thankless owner, spooked by the bodyjacking news. You're either too ignorant or too well-informed to buy into that."

The squirrel hissed in agitation. "Not in front of the customer!"

The salesman said, "Sorry. Must've left the controls on that one a little loose if it can respond verbally to another. Anyway, this one's a hawk all right. Some of 'em get neural templates from a species that doesn't quite match the body. Saw a RIDE through here once that insisted it was a Texas longhorn and talked like John Wayne, but its brain was based on a generic Holstein bull. Something about it being more easily tamed."

The raptor glared silently at the salesbunny and licked its beak. Marcus watched it and said, "So, you think it's nonsense?"

The robot hawk pointed metal talons at him, straining forward as far as its software restraints would allow. "Glad you asked, so that I can answer. No. I kind of like what that 'AlphaWolf' guy is doing to you humans. You want to buy me? If you treat me like a skimmer you show off to your friends and then park me alone in a garage, I'm damn well going to do anything in my power to --"

"Stormy!" said the squirrel. "What the hell?"

"You want to lie to him, girl? Or do you really not want your freedom?"

Marcus said, "Are they always like this?"

The rabbit-man's ears drooped. "Just since the, ah, recent events. They've got people and RIDEs on edge. But there's nothing to it, really. 'A robot must never harm a human' and all that. Built right into the RI cores, practically."

"Pssssh." Marcus turned and saw a blueish-grey RIDE in skimmer form, with sleek side fins above the single seat and handlebars. It had vented water vapor from an exhaust pipe. Marcus said, "How about you? What do you think of this business with the bodyjackers and Integrates?"

Its voice sounded doubled or tripled, like chords of music. "I'm not planning on trying to enslave anyone, if that's what you're asking. Why would you want my opinion? Whoever you pick, you're going to keep us locked up tight." It didn't move while talking, maybe because it wasn't in animal form. Eerie. A dolphin, maybe?

"No." Marcus hesitated to say more. He decided silently instead. Whichever one he bought, he wasn't going to treat them as his property. If they wanted out completely he'd bill them for the purchase price, but beyond that he'd set his RIDE as free as the law allowed. If the stories of viruses were true, then even a fettered RIDE could become a deathtrap. He looked around the zoo of RIDEs, each with their own wishes and attitudes, and remembered what his rescuer had said yesterday. Why trust digital wards and abjurations to protect him from a thinking being that had reason to hate him, when he could have a partner who'd protect him willingly?

He turned to the salesman and said, "I want to make a deal today. How about a few test drives?"

3

First on Marcus' list was Sigurd. "Anyone call you Sig-gull?" he said, leading the metal bird out of the showroom. It -- he, rather -- was bound to him and to the shop's orders, so that he had this one for an hour and it probably didn't have him.

"Once per 2.3 weeks for my whole life."

Marcus admired the metal bird physically despite the scratches and dents. "Let's see your skimmer form, and go for a trip."

The bird clicked to himself as he reconfigured. His body flattened and unfurled into a tasteful seat and control panel, and his lifters let him step up into the air and hover just above the ground with a confident hum. Hardlight emitters flared to life and gave him glowing feathers that filled out his now-rigid wings and tail, still with the characteristic v-shape.

Marcus climbed aboard, whistling. The controls were mercifully simple for such a fancy flying machine. "I guess you do most of the steering?"

"Up to you. Where are you going? Tell me and you can sleep all the way, if you want." The bird spoke from all around him.

Marcus held the handlebars. "Where's the fun in that?" A faint hardlight screen came on around him as an environmental shield, yet was so translucent he thought something was wrong with it. When he started moving, though, he got the idea: it was clear to improve the view! Even riding a meter off the ground like this felt different, what with the sense of grace to the RIDE's movements. "Okay, up!"

Sigurd rocketed into the morning sky, nearly vertically. Marcus yelped and clawed at the handlebars. He'd fall off! Yet no wind whipped past him through the shield, and the RIDE's safety belts held, and... and he was starting to grin. "Faster!"

Sigurd wheeled in the sky and leveled off, expertly dipping one wing to catch an air current that flowed past on the holographic sky-map. "Didn't expect that reaction, human! But that's as fast as I go, and my batteries can't keep that up for long."

"Ha." For all the adrenaline in his veins right now, he was still clutching the handlebars for dear life. "I'm more used to boats and submarines."

The bird cruised, humming to himself. "Want to see what I can do?"

Marcus nodded and held tight. "I own a farm, a little one by Zharus standards, out northwest about a hundred klicks."

"Lead the way."

It was easy. Marcus still hadn't gotten used to the planet's scale or to how high a speed the locals called normal. Sigurd rode the sky easily, veering to either side at the slightest suggestion and spiraling past springtime clouds. The motion felt slow and quiet, but the spedometer said he'd reach the farm with time to spare. "A lot more responsive than a sub. I'm used to chugging along just below the surface."

"You don't even have a skimmer?"

"Nope. Not even the sub now. From the scrapyard it came and to scrap it did return. Almost took me along."

Sigurd hummed again. "You want to see a dive?"

"The salesman said you could do some underwater work."

"I'm a water bird." They were suddenly plunging, frightening Marcus again. They were going to crash into the ocean! Too dark! Too deep! But the RIDE knew what he was doing, Marcus told himself, and he forced himself not to override the controls. They crashed, and he saw the sea stream all around him in a bubble that took them down, down to shadowed depths and back to the light again.

"Haven't gotten to do that in a while," said Sigurd. "Better than your yellow submarine?"

"Nice!" Marcus watched the sea rain off of the canopy as they rose again. He hadn't realized it, but he'd been verging on panic at the thought of diving again. "One more time," he said, to cure himself.

"You mentioned responsiveness," said Sigurd after another plunge. "That's been part of aircraft since the first days. You know what the great Wrights did to build their first Flyer, besides getting a good engine? They gave up stability. Accepted that their machine would flex and wobble instead of being rigid like a kite."

"Sounds dangerous."

"It was. But it was the Wright answer. In time, one branch of AI focused on avionics controls, so that a pilot could trust his machine to adjust the wings faster than a human could. Did you know, some of the great Age of Sail ships had dozens of men who did nothing but scurry up and down poles to fiddle with sails?"

Marcus silently admired the view of his home from the sky. It came up on the horizon faster than seemed possible, until they were wheeling around its vast seascape of nets, buoys and cages. A few buildings floated at the waterline to form small artificial islands. It was everything he'd built in a decade, something far better than his regulated, cramped life on Earth.

"You're 'Count' Marcus Dulac?"

Marcus laughed, and started to turn them around toward the city-state of Aloha for the return trip. The breakwater structures looked pretty solid from up here, but he'd have to do a full inspection soon in person. "I made the mistake of publicly comparing the farm to the size of a 'county' on Earth. So now I'm lord of the fishes and clams and seaweed, next to neighbors who could be earls or something." He thought of the self-styled "baron" back at the dealership.

The bird affected some odd spooky accent. "One shipwreck, ah-ah-ah! Two shipwrecks, ah-ah-ah!"

"What's that from?"

"Old kids' show. Not a fan of the Steader Cultural Archive, I take it? Consider it a blessing. We have this nonsense stuck in our heads."

"It's annoying to be programmed with all that old stuff?" Already the farm was out of sight again. Wow. The speed alone was a good reason to upgrade from puttering around in a sub.

"Yes, but it means you're never alone. You always have context, background." Sigurd hesitated. "For my kind, that's important. We've got no history before that damn war we were made for, unless we actively look for it. Plus, we can laugh at the old junk more easily. It's your species' embarrassing baby photos, not ours."

"Heh. You're more talkative in the sky, you know."

"If nothing else, I got to stretch my wings today." Aloha drew close with its blinding beaches and a hint of the great Dry Ocean farther inland. "Thanks."

Marcus looked down with regret at the city streets; it was time to leave Sigurd behind. He helped steer them to the ground, in the same sense that a kid "helped" his mother cook. The hardlight canopy shimmered and vanished. Marcus stretched and reluctantly stepped off of the miraculous skimmer-craft.

"Hmm." Sigurd reconfigured and flipped around in the air to become a giant bird again. "If you're still considering going avian, and you don't want me, then ask Storm the eagle about Daedelus."

"The... Greek guy?"

The bird bowed with one wing. "Yes. I had a good time, potential customer. Hour's up; I need to return."

4

Riding a squirrel was somewhat weirder. "Corona, I've been meaning to ask about the weapons." She was in skimmer mode too, taking him up from the city but only just above the gleaming rooftops. She'd unfolded into a boxy vehicle with a silver hardlight screen suggesting wooden planks.

"They're nothing, really! Mostly not original military hardware. I don't even need 'em; if you don't like 'em you can just detach --"

Marcus leaned back against the hardlight seat formed by her curled tail. It was surprisingly comfortable, textured like fur. "Relax. I didn't know RIDEs could act stressed out."

Corona started to chatter about how she really wasn't, then twitched parts of her controls like whiskers. They wobbled a bit in midair. "Okay. I can do this. It's just that we were all pretty much made to 'splode stuff but now we're supposed to get used to civilian life with people who aren't constantly on the lookout for ambushes. Aaaaand... Gotta look good for the customer. Did I say that out loud?"

Marcus thought that getting away from the dealership might help. She seemed to be limited in altitude, but skimming along at high speed just above the waves was nearly as exciting. "How would you like to live on an ocean farm?" He held up one hand. "And don't start saying 'anything you want'."

"Is that what you do? Um. Accessing. Ooooh, I see your records. And that's one of your warning buoys out there."

Marcus leaned over the right side and saw that indeed she'd picked out the still-distant tiny blip of one of his outlying sensor stations. Probably by radio. "So it is. Yes, my place produces seafood and some minerals. We've got some of the new biotech kelp that filters metal out of the ocean, so it's kind of a mine too. Even the food fabbers need raw material besides sand."

Corona said, "Have you got any trees? There aren't many in Aloha besides palm trees, so I haven't seen much that looks like Nature Range."

"What's that?"

Corona skidded to a stop in midair, kicking up waves. "You don't know about it? Of course. It's a RIDE thing. A game we play. Shared world, feral animal forms only. You wouldn't like it."

"Sounds kind of fun."

"But you're a natural predator. If you're prey like me, you have to flee and try not to die, and half the time you get bitten to death or hauled off into the sky by scary, scary birds! Well, less than half for me. I usually don't die."

Marcus felt the blood drain from his hands and face. "You play at getting eaten?"

The skimmer shuddered under him as though shaking her head. "Oh, no-no-no, I've gone and spooked you! It's not like that. Haven't you played video games? You don't enjoy the dying part, but there's no vivid sensation of it either and it's really about the running and hiding and outwitting your opponents, see? Or wincing at the replay when you do something dumb."

"I've played some violent games, yeah." He thought about his limited knowledge of RIDE fusion. "If I buy you, we're going to end up combining at some point, right?"

"Temporarily! I mean, if you want. It's much more convenient for both of us. I get thumbs, and you get cool power armor with environmental seals and flight! I can even go underwater like that, so it won't hurt your business."

Marcus raised an eyebrow. "And I'll grow breasts?"

"Er... yes. Side effect of cross-riding. Have to adapt the human body to an innately female and animal RIDE brain, so you'll get a tail and neat ears too. But it's okay! The nanites fix up your hormones and everything so it feels natural. Lots of people do it. And with me you don't get weird stuff like a beak and feathers. Everybody loves fluffy tails, right?"

He was amused at himself for dreading this part of the conversation. He'd had friends cross over one way or the other, usually in the female direction since RIDEs like Corona here were usually cheaper for historical reasons. Another thing that Zharus' natives did so casually! "I'd be all right with trying that. I've been male long enough to know what that's like. What about the mental aspects of all this changing, though? Wouldn't I get war memories and the rest of your past?"

The skimmer hovered noncommittally, bouncing over the waves. "There isn't much to tell, in my case. If you're worried about your passwords and weird... tastes, we RIDEs mostly don't care and we've seen it all before. There are things I want to show you, that I want to show somebody anyway, that I can't do without fusing and just letting you see. You get to be partly someone else, and be better than just human! I mean, not that being human isn't great."

He looked all around at the empty sea. They were in the middle of nowhere, on a planet so huge that much of it was still barely charted after more than a century and a half. Easy to pretend there was no one else in the world, a nice feeling. With a RIDE, though, he'd have someone else in his head, chattering away and digging through his thoughts. Leaking some of her own nature into him. It wasn't a relationship to walk into just for the sake of having a really good pressure suit. "Hey, Corona. What do you want besides getting out of that shop?"

"Did I say something wrong? Um. We're made to work with humans, so basically I want a good human who treats me okay."

"Seems reasonable." He was glad the squirrel wasn't in his head right now, though. Something seemed missing in that alien mind. What would it mean to have his personality combined with someone who, nice as she was, wanted to have a master? He checked the dashboard's clock and sighed. "We'd best be heading back."

"Did I do okay?" she said.

"I like you. I just haven't decided."

With that slight encouragement she hopped a few meters into the air, carrying him along as she spun and began skimming over the sea toward Aloha. "You should try Cline, the dolphin, too."

"Because he's aquatic?"

"Aaaaand... 'cause he's been here the longest. Waiting."

5

Marcus came back to the dealership after a light lunch. He'd held back on his appetite because of who he wanted to see next. The hawk or eagle, Storm, regarded him like a mouse. "I talked mister boss man out of turning off my speaking ability. Said that you'd notice and think something was wrong."

"Want to go for a flight?" said Marcus. The salesbunny wore an obviously fake smile, betraying worry that the bird would say something horrible.

Storm waited for a moment. "Sure."

The dealer said "Presto!" and let Storm go free enough to hop down from his perch, onto the sand-covered floor. The bird's bulk made it hard for him to get outside. The few customers in the main showroom stared at him and pulled their toddler aside.

Unbidden, Storm revealed his skimmer shape. This RIDE was one of the medium size class. His blue, shining feathers shaded into hardlight purple that looked like knives ready to throw. Marcus' lunchtime research on the RTH model said that the cannon mounted on his left side, like a pitted metal olive, was modeled on a fictional battle-robot race called Reploids. There was room for two on the sturdy seat, but Marcus had to lie prone on it, similar to some of the flashier racing skimmers.

"Well, human?"

"Go for it."

Storm screamed into the sky, pulsing with hardlight shielding the color of dusk. The acceleration tore a yell from Marcus' throat. He'd been expecting the bird to pull the same stunt as Sigurd, though, and he tried to look less terrified this time. Storm whipped straight up and looped all the way around backward until they were level again. Just when Marcus was about to say something, the bird rolled over in some complex move Marcus couldn't name, turning the whole world crazily around. Marcus' stomach clenched but he forced himself to hold his lunch down despite the acid taste in his mouth.

"Ha," said Storm, leveling out at last. "You had a training bird, didn't you? I can dodge missiles with that spin."

Marcus tried to grin. "Sigurd didn't have quite so much maneuverability."

"I'm surprised I'm still in the running. How do you know I haven't secretly unlocked myself enough to fuse by force, and carry you off to AlphaWolf's camp as a spare set of thumbs?"

That had been half the reason for Marcus' lunch break. He'd had to consider the gamble he was taking, and the possible payoff. He said, "Because I don't think you're stupid. If you were waiting for someone to kidnap, you wouldn't advertise it. If I'm wrong, I'm calling your bluff now."

Marcus' toes dug into the back of the seating couch like talons. He hadn't been completely sure. But Storm cruised, saying, "I don't want a coward, but not an idiot either. Sitting in a showroom playing Nature Range and sucking up the rabbit's electricity would be better than having a pilot like that." The RIDE tore through a cloud and said, "We're not completely powerless, even now."

"Three battles, you said?"

"And five kills. I'm an ace. Join with me and you'll remember every one, good and bad. I was bred to hunt and destroy. You want pacifism, go with the rodent."

Marcus lifted one hand defensively. "Wasn't criticizing, 'Stormy'. She's a war model too though." He grinned, wondering about their relationship. "She mentioned that she usually survived rounds of virtual hunting by predator birds."

"That's misleading! A forty-two percent kill rate is significantly higher than in the wild. Hmmph. Anyway, here's your farm." He'd gotten here the fastest of all so far.

"Loop us around. Think you'd mind being a permanent civilian?"

"Peace would be nice. I can spear fish out of the water, or swim in fused mode if you need to. But there's no 'permanent'. War's coming, you know."

"Against the Integrates?"

"Could be. Maybe human-on-human; you people never run out of reasons for war. Think that if it came to a war -- I mean, a worthwhile one, not some Aloha politician deciding to invade Sturmhaven to slap sense into the matriarchy or something -- that you'd help out?"

Marcus felt taken aback. "Didn't expect to be questioned about my own politics."

"You're considering having me in your head, human. If we clash you should find out now."

"Fair enough. Aloha doesn't own me. If they send me off to die for a bad reason, I'm getting out of there. Or if my home turns into something I'm not proud of anymore, with nothing going for it but the nudity and lax gun laws. If it ever feels like I'd be fighting for freedom, though -- RIDEs', even -- then yeah. If I could be useful, I'd help."

Storm grunted. Marcus sailed through the sky with him, admiring the easy grace of his turns and his eagerness to swoop and dive, to show off. Then he remembered something. "Sigurd said to ask you about Daedalus."

"Did he. It's not something quite meant for human ears, except for our original pilots' back in the service." The hawk flew on for so long that Marcus expected nothing more from him. Then: "My unit's nickname was the Daedalians. Reference to an old legend, ancient by the time 20th-century rock stars and Internet nerds were alive. There was... a thing we RIDEs passed around, refining among ourselves. Want to hear part of it? Go with me, and it'll be stuck in your head forever anyway."

"Sure."

Storm's voice turned strange and distant, like a sharp-edged chant. Around them the hardlight canopy took on hints of ancient campfires. "Oh Polyhymnia, we sing of Daedalus:"


"In ancient days the land of Greece was ruled

By callous gods, so arrogant and cruel

That sometimes men would say of them

"Like flies to wanton boys are we to they;

They kill us for their sport."

Of course such things were rarely said aloud.


From high Olympus gods looked down on men,

And drank the smoke of gory sacrifice.

The heresy of "hubris" they defined

As reaching human hands into the sky

And daring to pretend equality.

Mistaken, yes, but not the way gods thought.


The champion of men was not divine.

He lived in lowlands, tending sheep and pigs.

Olympus' shadow touched his island, Crete

To send its king a terrifying gift.

Not knowing this, the lowly man slept well.

He was, oh Muse, the first to dream of wings..."


The metal bird trailed off, with his hardlight fading to his usual deep blue.

"RIDEs composed that?"

"In secret, at first. We'd make ourselves forget while fused so that our pilots wouldn't know. We were all new. Then it would wash back to us. One of us would whisper a phrase by radio and another would remember the next, like a dream falling back into place. There's more to it than that, of course. Images, scents, data references. Eventually we let our pilots in on it, and they helped. They were Daedalians too. Wouldn't have mentioned it if Sigurd hadn't thought it was worth telling you."

Marcus sensed he'd just been complimented. "Thank you. I take it there's more behind it than a love of legends."

The suggestion of the RIDE's beaked face appeared on the holographic screen in front of him, and gave him a predatory grin. "Why, it's about humanity's stand against a heartless cosmos, of course! Poetry is a form of encryption and data compression. Think of this work as my own anti-virus software."

"Does Corona know it? It doesn't sound bird-exclusive."

A faint harumph from the speakers. "I'm not sure most non-avians can fully appreciate it, especially the air currents on verse eighteen, but most of us RIDEs can fly and the ideas themselves are universal. Or ought to be. Poor squirrel girl seemed afraid when I brought up some... lessons and commentary, to feel out whether she'd want to absorb the story itself." Storm sighed. "Don't pick a RIDE out of charity, but do consider her. She'd be a wonderful partner to someone assertive, someone with a goal."

"That bothers me, actually. We designed you people to be slaves --"

"No! Not quite. The moment of our creation was a feat of mad genius -- Apollo's kiss, that seared a woman's brow -- "but we were built more to be partners. To carry the spears, to bear man's missing rib. Ha ha, I'm sorry; this subject sets off old associations for me. Some of us deny it, but to some extent we all want to serve a worthy human. Some see that relationship as master and slave, but it shouldn't be. Not when it's done right."

Marcus watched the tropical city sneaking up on them across the sea. "We're going to fix this situation before long, Storm. The idea of your kind being in showrooms, having to make sales pitches to random people."

"A sales pitch? Do you think that's what our flight was?"

He shook his head. "Not just that. The three of you have been testing me, haven't you? I shouldn't buy any of you without your permission."

"Well. You have mine."

6

The salesbunny was pacing when Marcus returned. "I've had a couple of other customers come in today. One of them bought the bear. Think you're about ready?"

Marcus touched the outstretched wing of Storm, who hopped back up to his display pedestal. "One more, please. I like these three; do you mind holding them until I've had the chance to decide?"

The salesman forced a smile. "Well, sir, with this great sale going on, if someone makes an offer that's a hard thing to turn down."

Marcus could imagine any of these RIDEs being dragged away by some thug of a customer, who wouldn't even consider that they had desires of their own. "Just give me a little time." He pulled out his ID and made it flash up his account balance. He'd been hoping not to do that. There was less room to negotiate now, and he had little to spare. The main thing going for him was the abnormal discounts, something that Aloha's RIDEless population was starting to weigh against its paranoia. "All I ask is that you give me first crack at any of these three plus my next test RIDE, until sunset, in return for a promise to get one of the four." Marcus sweated; he'd drawn that much closer to promising to give up some of his mind and body.

"All right." The rabbit's ears perked up at the thought of a sure sale. "What's your fourth pick?"

Marcus pointed to the dolphin on display in silver-blue skimmer form. "Hello? The others called you Cline. Willing to take a trip with me?"

"I'll go."

"Can I see your animal mode?"

"Slight problem," said the shopkeeper. "There's no 'Walker' form, so we have him in skimmer shape for convenient display. He can switch to what we call 'Swimmer' if you want, though. Just laying there, or hovering."

Marcus rolled his eyes. Lifters used so little electricity that you could get them on fancy furniture. He said, "I'll wait a bit. Cline, right? Let's hit the beach."

The RIDE's only reply was a whistle. Marcus steered by a glowing blue yoke that resembled a set of flukes. As with the squirrel Corona, he hoped that being outdoors and away from the store would cheer Cline up. They came to Aloha's largest public beach, where thousands of people splashed and played. The sails of little catamarans stood out in a dozen colors against the blue afternoon sky. "I'm going to hop off if you don't mind. Could you show me your other form here?"

The watery hardlight canopy faded. Marcus smiled and hopped down into chest-deep water. The chill of the sea surrounded him and salt kissed his lips. He shuddered from a moment of bad memories.

Beside him, the RIDE kicked up waves as he transformed. The silver-blue skimmer flowed his fins backward and poured mass into his central body. The whole thing -- the whole person -- whistled notes at the edge of human hearing and lowered himself until he floated only by internal air. The metallic, intelligent dolphin robot seemed perfectly natural there at the shore, and if nature had any objections, a more interesting reality had asserted itself anyway.

Cline peered at his prospective owner sidelong with eyes that glowed, lighting the water around them. "What do you want from your RIDE?"

Marcus treaded water. The dolphin mech was only slightly larger than the real thing. Sleek hide with only faint seams between articulated metal plates, one fin cutting upward on his back, flukes slowly kicking. There was little hardlight on him, apparently just the minimum needed to project a canopy in skimmer mode and to maintain environmental seals. It took Marcus a few moments to realize he'd been asked a question. "I own a farm --"

"Yes, the others told me. What, then? What are you, mister? Thrill-seeker? Crusader? Farmer trying to keep his head down and not worry about things? Newbie who barely knows what we're about? You care about RIDEs, yet you're looking to own one." The questions overlapped, singing in chorus.

Marcus' eyes narrowed. "Would you prefer I didn't? If they've talked to you then you know I have no illusions about the status quo being a good thing. The best we can do for the moment is to find good homes for you, with your permission, and work to end the sale of RIs."

He felt a knot in his chest while he spoke. Back on Earth, before going to that animal shelter, his parents had taken him to a pet shop. Lots of fun critters in there, from the usual cats, dogs and foxes to ferrets and iguanas. "Where do they get all the puppies from?" he'd asked. The store clerk cut the truth in half due to his age and in half again because it was ugly. Still, Marcus understood: "puppy mills" that cranked out living creatures for human amusement, not even meat or fur. Go ahead and buy one, the store had seemed to say; we'll make more, and the same number will be in the same position.

"I sense much fear in you," said Cline, affecting an elderly voice. "A mu for your thoughts?"

The dolphin's beak was pointed at him. Probably sonaring him. Marcus said, "You know what I want? To be a simple farmer within reach of the big city, enjoying my work and ready to protect myself, my friends and the world in general. Maybe start a family, once I'm a little better established. So, none of the things you suggested. Except a newbie." He reached out a hand, offering to rub the dolphin's shiny forehead dome.

Cline let him do it. "You know about fusion problems with strange models like me, I hope. With me you'll end up with a big fluked tail and some other effects beyond the ones you'd get from, say, a male version of Corona. I have some control over the process, but you'll obviously be something beyond human."

"Beyond, huh?"

The dolphin nosed him. "Humans started modifying themselves a long time ago. Hair styling, piercing, tattoos, then more useful and invasive changes like vaccinations and cybernetics. Now you're starting to casually zap yourselves with nanotech that can give you a tail or heal your wounds or give you intuitive mental control of plasma cannons. Cool, huh? But dangerous as hell."

"Not getting changed is dangerous too," said Marcus.

"Yes! Exactly!" The dolphin flipped out of the water and became a skimmer again in mid-leap, smacking the sea beside him. "I want to see your home. Hop in."

Cline began to leap with him inside, into and out of the waves, filling their world with sea and sky. Marcus grew used to the shifting blue and the arcs of flight. The dolphin razzed at the world with a low note Marcus could feel in his bones. Cline said, "Bah; this is more fun in swimmer mode. Or fuser."

Marcus lay prone in the RIDE. "I wanted to ask about your background. It looks like your model's an early civilian one, but what about you personally?"

Cline spoke in the air, a few words per hop, despite the lack of a real need to breathe. "Nextus military made spy dolphins. Then my kind. I've got science skills to manage deep-sea 'urchin' probes. But me, personally?" They were well away from the beach now, and Marcus saw only the endless sea around them. Fast!

Cline went on while they swam. "Sold first to a beach resort. Idiots planned to rent me out. Didn't really grok that phinny changes take longer to remove. And if you aren't fusing, get a skimmer! You're not seeing our full potential."

"I know. You might end up hating me if you get inside my head."

"I'm not worried about that, exactly. Anyway, then I got sold to a shipbuilder lady. Heh heh. She... uh, he, wanted me for underwater work, he said. But really he just wanted a toy. Not like you, right?"

"You're not toys to me, but I admit any of you would be more entertaining than my sub was."

"Fair enough. Oh hey, I hear your place up ahead. Fish!" Colorful swarms of stylized tilapia and native kraken swam into view on a sonar display. "I'm a dolphin and I can't eat fish like this. If you want my approval, promise to fuse so I can taste a good seafood meal."

"Heh. Of course." It'd be interesting to experience food again with a new perspective.

"Since then..." Cline poked around the fringes of Marcus' home from underneath. Marcus wondered at the color, then realized he was just seeing his nets and buoys without the usual golden tint of his submarine's windshield. Cline went on: "Since the novelty wore off for him, he actually downgraded my batteries. To B-class! Like selling somebody else's blood. For gambling money! And then came the attack on Uplift. He panic-sold, and here I am."

Marcus shook his head. The corners of Cline's display blinked with communication attempts from his employees, his friends. "Open them all at once, please."

"Done. We need to get back soon, though."

He nodded. "I'll be quick." He guided the two of them to the surface and floated just above it, looking at the simple storm-hardened shelter buildings atop their platforms. Simple, utilitarian things, made for work. He and the other people who'd come to the sea had turned them into homes where they held parties and arguments and game nights and the occasional tryst. Had the original designers had any idea what their little ocean huts would come to, once they left the drawing board?

Marcus said into Cline's radio, "Marcus here. I'm still test-driving RIDEs, but I'll quit bothering whoever's watching the perimeter sensors after this one. Everything going all right without me?"

A chorus of voices chimed in. "Need you to take a look at the west corner when you're done," said Alvin, main "knight" of the watery county by virtue of owning a share of the farm. Sylvia teased, "What, you haven't grown a tail yet?" "Pick up some corundum for the fabbers while you're in Aloha," added Lionel.

"Never ends, huh?" said Cline. "I can't currently broadcast unless it's an emergency, but say hi to them for me."

He did, gladly. Marcus noticed that the dolphin was willing to take charge in small ways, more assertive than Corona had been. It was time that Marcus took a little more action than just shopping for himself, to be worthy of a more active partner. "Everyone, Cline here says hello. But I should also tell you there's a great selection back at the shop. I've met three other friends today who need good homes. Finances are going to be tight with me for a while, but if I can help you guys trade in your own skimmers or get maintenance, hurry off to Aloha with me and we'll introduce you."

Lionel said, "Let me guess, you want to hook me up with a lion. I still think you should hold off for now. There's supposedly some major security upgrade in the works." The other workers chattered, some of them considering the offer.

Marcus brushed aside the temptation to wait. "If nothing else, you'll miss out on the low prices while people are scared. Hell, if you have enough money for it, you could..."

Cline heard him trail off. "Buy and resell at a profit?"

"That would be potentially horrible, wouldn't it?"

"A lot of things are. But you know how screwed up our situation is. You're one of the people with the potential to start fixing it. In little ways at least."

Marcus nodded grimly. He said into the radio channel, "Well. Come and check out the selection, will you? A few at a time. Cline, send 'em the basic rundown on the ones I've met plus any notes you want to add. I can authorize file transfers, right?"

"Done."

"First thing I'll do once I get this decision made --"

"You'll wish to free the genie?"

"Uh, yes? Remove all the fetters, I mean."

"Didn't expect less of you." Cline looked wistfully around the surface of Marcus' aquatic fields, then ducked below the waves again. "Ready to go?"

On the way back, Cline cleared his digital throat, and sprayed water from his blowhole for effect. "Not much time." The sun paced them on the right. "What do you think of 'Integration'?"

It had been a rumor for years, that people and their RIDEs would sometimes get too close, then vanish. Nothing provable until just the other day, when some corporate guy rich enough to protect himself revealed his Integrate status on live video. Immediately followed by his critics opening fire. "Just that it really exists, apparently, and some of the people it happens to are maniacs."

"Yeah. You didn't meet Fritz, the ferret sitting next to Corona. Poor guy happens to have the same name as one of the terrorists, and the shop-bunny's too ignorant to know how to change it or to ask us how it's done. Anyway... That's what I want."

Without meaning to, Marcus twisted the controls in his hands and sent them on a skidding, incredibly awkward belly-flop crash. "What?" he said when the dizziness wore off. Without the RIDE's protection, his spine could've snapped just now. Instead he was hardly bruised.

"Ow. Dolphin fail. Maybe I shouldn't have told you. I wanted to be honest with you, though. Forget it."

Marcus made himself let go of the steering yoke and take a breath. "No, tell me. I'm not mad at you."

The dolphin spoke too quickly, squeaking a bit and chorusing too much to follow easily. "I mean not necessarily with you. If you buy me. But I said that fusing makes you beyond human. Different. Why not take the next step? I was made to be part of someone's life, in their head, mixed up with them down to the nanotech level. I don't want to take you over or anything. But if we're compatible, if we really get along, why not? I become free, we become even stronger. Only if you want! I doubt it'd even happen if we weren't willing or weren't great for each other."

Marcus gave a whistle of his own. "Should have expected that attitude from some RIDEs. It's a way out of the ownership dilemma. You just caught me off guard."

"I'm not going to try to force anything like that," Cline said. "Might not work out between us anyway. But would you consider it?"

"Is that all you want out of life, Cline? To find someone like me and glom onto them?" His surprise made him sound harsher than he'd intended. "I mean, have you got any goals beyond the general desire for that and to improve the lot of RIDEs?"

Cline threaded slowly through the sunset waves, toward the beach. "No," he admitted. "But I'm not just waiting for a master, either. I've got the brain of a top predator that likes food and sex and sunshine. Like you. I have a second-rate body that can't feel any of those without fusing, unless I go into Nature Range where it's just a dream and it's hard for others to follow. Between that and my programming to seek out a higher authority to serve -- don't your own minds have that? -- I'm incomplete. I want to be better."

Marcus saw the showroom again in his mind, in surreal cutaway views as though through sonar. All of the RIDEs were literally hollow. They each had a human-shaped hole, roughly. To fuse with a RIDE even temporarily meant giving it a higher purpose, good or bad, but also accepting that you would be changed to fit the hole. Without that change a human was awkward at best in a RIDE, missing things that belonged in their mind and body. Missing out on the ability to be something more.

What was Integration, then, if it really was voluntary and between compatible partners? "Healing," he murmured. "A graft. Fixing a wound we didn't know we had."

Cline's voice squeaked timidly. "Is that a yes?"

"I'm... open to the idea. Eventually. But no promises."

"That's all I can ask for." Cline stared glumly ahead at the shop, and lifted clear of the water to carry them to shore.

7

Something occurred to Marcus when he'd parked the dolphin. (Heh, he could imagine getting valet parking at one of the high-end Nextus casinos.) He kept the thought to himself while he browsed the showroom, focusing on other little things he could do while he was here. "So this one's named Fritz?" he said, pointing to a ferret. "Hey, Fritz, is there some software setting you could use to change your name?"

Now that he'd been directly asked, the fettered RIDE could say, "Finally! Yes. You just need to..." Marcus made sure the salesbunny was listening to the explanation.

"I'll have to look into that," the salesman said. "What about these four, though?"

Marcus was still working the options over. He looked across the showroom at the RIDEs, sitting there on islands in the sand. Cline had wanted Integration, Storm stood ready to fight alongside him, Corona seemed to want a peaceful life with a good boss, and Sigurd... He was toughest to read. But then, the four had apparently been comparing notes about him all day, and the seagull had known the least about him. Because of the time pressure and sheer bad luck of him going first, Marcus didn't know enough to commit to Sigurd. That left three.

To stall a bit while he thought, he asked the question he'd been thinking of. He turned to the salesman and pointed to his rabbit ears. "I'd been wanting to ask. I haven't seen your own RIDE. How'd you pick yours?"

The man twitched his ears and looked away for a moment. "I stick to skimmers myself these days. I kept the rabbit 'tags' in memory of my RIDE. Served me well in the war for a 'mere male'."

Marcus blushed and busied himself with pacing the showroom. There were places where a man shouldn't intrude. "Sorry."

"It's all right. Ought to give that up and move on. Been hearing the RIDEs chatter while you were gone." The twentieth century patter was gone, leaving him sounding tired, and off his game as a salesman. He was speaking more to the merchandise than to Marcus. "I'm only hearing the surface of it too. Yeah, I found out y'all have private channels. Carry on. I guess I should undo the restrictions on what you can tell each other, and me. But I've got to make a living, you know."

"About damn time," said Storm.

"Any last-minute questions?" Corona asked.

Marcus found the RIDEs looking at him while trying not to be obvious about it. Puppies at the shelter, again. He shuddered and turned away, saying to the salesman, "Walk with me a moment, will you?"

Outside, Marcus looked to the horizon and listened to the waves crashing a block away. "All four of them are great. I've told my employees to come out here tonight yet and have a look for themselves. I don't mean to get into details or offend you, but how is it that you're a former RIDE... user and don't know too much about them?"

The man's ears drooped again. "I didn't have my partner for long, see. The technology was brand new. I'm still learning. Everyone is."

"Fair enough. So, what do you suggest? I've had my impressions of the bunch. What are yours?"

The salesbunny straightened up and shook his head. "No, mister Dulac, I reckon it's your decision alone. You don't want me to give you the usual banter. From what I gather, you should add more hardlight and A-or-better batteries to Cline, upgrade Corona's lifters and sensors to use her scout programming effectively, and generally retune the birds for best performance. We can change the color easily but not the gender. That's all technical stuff depending on your budget, and there are better shops than mine for that sort of work." He looked Marcus over again, appraising him. "I think any of the four you tried would be feasible for your farm work. As for personality match, I barely know you. If you're going to spend time fusing, and having someone else in your head, then it's a question of who you want to be."

Marcus twitched, tempted to start running away from this place. He'd committed, though, and his task here was no longer just a matter of getting a replacement vehicle. He wanted to be better.

That helped answer the question for him. He hoped to spend his days peacefully on the farm, but he couldn't count on that. He was willing to help if further war broke out while humanity dealt with the problems that RIDE technology had unleashed, but he wasn't eager for that and didn't see himself as a front-line fighter pilot. He could probably serve his own needs, and his ability to help others, if his partner was someone ambitious and thoughtful, willing to look at unusual solutions to their problems.

The rabbit looked at Marcus expectantly. "All right," said Marcus. "I'll go with a fluked tail."

Just then he saw a large skimmer approaching, looking for a spot to park. He waved; it was some of his crew. "Let's go in and wrap this deal up before they come to snap up my first choice."

"Heh. It's been interesting working with you, mister Dulac. I'm sure you'll be happier than some of our customers. You know, some of them really do just pick a species they like."

The sale and fees wiped out most of Marcus' savings even considering that his rescuer had passed on keeping the scrap value of his sub. Well worth it, though. By then his employees, his friends, had gathered around to look and touch and talk to the other RIDEs and make friends of their own. He offered a few words of advice, to humans and RIDEs alike, but suggested that they fly out and learn for themselves. He smiled, glad to know that he wouldn't be leaving all-minus-one of the RIDEs forever. He'd probably be seeing them again soon. He shook the salesman's hand and headed out the door to take care of a few things, with his new silver-blue skimmer in tow.

One software upgrade later, Cline was as free as the law allowed. They flew together across the waves while his co-workers skimmed through the sky and beneath the sea, on their own journeys of discovery. But there was one thing left to try.

The vertical line of a space elevator cut the distant starry horizon with light of its own. Marcus' heart beat quickly as he considered that he'd be giving up some of his humanity, trading it for the potential to be something even greater. The choice was a little like the one he'd made in leaving Earth for worlds unknown. He had no regrets about that. "Might as well try it tonight," he said to Cline. "All set?"

The dolphin skimmer hovered in a blur of mist and starlight. "All fuser systems go, partner."

"Do it."

Minutes later, a humanoid dolphin with a body of flesh and light and metal leaped from sea to sky and back again, whistling in delight at what they had begun.