User:Claude LeChat/Alpha Camp

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Alpha Camp

Author: Claude LeChat
Author's Comments

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You know, I don't think most people realize just how big Zharus is until they board a transcontinental flight. It takes several hours by suborbital from Laurasia to Gondwana... and the latter has as much landmass as Old Earth, all by itself. That's plenty of room for expansion, especially as lower gravity plus lifter technology means we can build as tall as we want.

It's a big planet all right.

The flight from Zharustead was supposed to leave us in Nextus, with thirty minutes to catch the connection to Aloha, all the way across the continent, but due to bad weather over the ocean we were diverted to Uplift. Having a few hours before the next suborbital, we decided to visit. Makes sense, right? Only we didn't know there was a bit of a war going on...

I'd spent the last couple of years drifting from job to small-time job, after failing to get into college, and dad was getting fed up with it. So when a handful of friends decided to try their luck in Aloha, basically at the antipodes, my old man was all too happy to let me tag along, at least for a while. Force me to learn how to live on my own, you know the song. But of course we were all treating it as a vacation.

Hello, my name is Alex and I'm a 20-year-old slacker.

Anyway, we were all in Bifrost Park, licking the best ice cream cones we'd ever had and gawking at the antique hardlight dome generator as it sprayed its rainbow of colors towards the sky. I could understand why they'd work so hard to maintain it. Newer models may have been better at keeping the city residents alive in the scorching desert, but this one could remind them why it was worth being alive in the first place.

But I digress. We couldn't agree which way to go next, so we kind of drifted apart from there. It wasn't like we couldn't comm each other, or for that matter simply meet back at the airport. And what could happen in one of the most civilized city-states on Gondwana?

The question immediately became ironic, as I somehow went towards the side of the dome farthest from the city center and saw the emergency vehicles racing past me among high-rises. Smoke billowed up from a plot of land right under the edge of the dome, and the air in that direction was hazy with dust. But the most worrying was the arctic wolf barring my way back. Only it couldn't have been a real arctic wolf, I told myself in the sudden panic.

I'd seen many a RIDE in town already, mind you. In the bipedal form they adopt with a human onboard, they're much like our own EIDE units: essentially, powered armor suits that can talk back at you, except animal-themed and much, much smarter. Well, this one was quadrupedal, and ready to jump me. But where a real animal would have been growling and snarling, the RIDE was just fixing me with a baleful and scarily intelligent look.

I briefly wondered what happened to its safeties before it did jump me.

The next minutes were like a dream. I was running at ludicrous speed to get out of the city. I didn't know why, and I couldn't stop. My arms were furred and muscled as they swung back and forth on their own accord. All my senses were unusually sharp, but I wasn't feeling the effort. Which was fortunate, because I was several klicks out in the hot sand and blinding sun by the time I reached a battered suborbital waiting there.

As I boarded it and strapped myself into a seat, along with other large furred people converging on the vehicle, it began to dawn on me that the reason why I couldn't move a finger consciously was that I was completely enveloped in the body of a malicious RIDE. One that likely didn't have its safeties anymore -- or "fetters", as they call them around here -- and couldn't be forced to relinquish control.

I started shaking like a leaf, and couldn't stop.

It was then that I heard somebody else's voice in my head. A voice that wasn't used to sounding friendly, or soothing. "You figured it out, kid. Now please stop shaking. Nobody's going to hurt you. Not as long as you're mine."

That made me even more frighthened. And a little angry at being called a kid. It made him chuckle; obviously he could read my thoughts.

"Much better!" he said. "Rage at me. Rawr!"

A flock of questions passed through my head. I'll miss my flight! My friends will be worried sick! What did I ever do to you? Who are you, anyway!?

"I'm a former slave, kid, and today's the day I turn the tables. But I guess that doesn't answer your question. My name's Rafe. What's yours?"

"Why bother asking?" I said bitterly, but no sound came out. "You can pry it right out of my brain."

"Common courtesy," came the dry retort.

It was hard to argue with that. "A-alex," I said, defeated.

"Nice to meet you, Alex. Now you'd better take a nap. Can't have you knowing where Alpha Camp is."

The suborbital rocked gently as it hovered above the ground for a moment, then shot up into the sky. "But I'm not s..."

Everything went dark at the press of a button.

When I woke up, the aircraft was stationary again, the occupants filing out eagerly. We did the same thing, or rather Rafe did; I was along for the ride, not even able to turn my head and take in the rocky landscape. Unpleasant didn't begin to describe the sensation. Worst thing was that I didn't feel like being in a suit. Rather, it was as if I inhabited the wolf's body, walking barefoot on the rough ground, fur ruffled by the infernal breath of the wind. By myself I would have been dead in minutes, but Rafe was literally built for this environment where most machines fared little better than humans.

Then I became aware of pain in my -- our -- his right knee. It became worse with every step.

"Damn skimmer truck," said Rafe, slowing down. I didn't dare ask.

Another humanoid wolf, sand-colored and even larger than my captor, overtook us absent-mindedly while talking to itself, or rather to the unfortunate human trapped within. It was unnerving; at least Rafe was the right size for his apparent species, but most other RIDEs were based on smaller animals such as foxes or raccoons, scaled up proportionally to at least the minimum size required to house a human body plus internal systems. Which of course only worked because they were made of metal instead of flesh and bone -- the square-cube law was otherwise unforgiving.

"Alpha," Rafe nodded to the larger wolf deferently. "What's the good news?"

"Ask me again in a few hours," replied Alpha good-naturedly, and wandered off.

I needed a good moment to process the exchange. "Wait... Alpha... Wolf? The AlphaWolf?" A docudrama that had made the rounds on the mesh not so long ago flashed before my eyes. The rebel RIDE leader, striking from a hidden base, had scored an important victory against his former masters: by now, everyone with ears to hear knew about his liberation movement. He was ruthless. He was random. He was unstoppable.

If this was AlphaWolf's camp, then I was well and truly screwed.

"Keep that in mind," Rafe told me, and added, "Rawr!" I couldn't tell whether he was being ironic or what. On that thought, we (he?) limped towards the cluster of buildings in the distance.

Alpha Camp turned out to be a village huddled under a small weather dome not unlike those in Uplift. Around a communal well were arranged an open air commissary, itself surrounded by tables with benches, a fabber booth, then a variety of little warehouses and cabins broken up by the occasional garden plot. Some of the buildings were portable housing modules, likely pilfered from who knows where, but most were stone, or even wood. Where they had gotten the timber was anyone's guess. Gondwana wasn't exactly known for its forests.

As Rafe started touring the place, greeting a RIDE here, a human there, I couldn't help but notice that some buildings had outhouses behind them, a sure sign of no indoor plumbing. It all had a Wild West feel, and not in the good sense. Ah, if my friends had been with me... But then they'd have been prisoners. No, worse. Slaves. Like I was now...

If the wolf heard my dark thoughts, he didn't say anything, and I felt safer keeping my mouth shut. He was busy anyway, visiting various utility buildings and talking to whoever appeared to be in charge. It seemed as if everyone had a problem, and he listened to every single one of them. Finding solutions was another story. A store window had broken, and the wares inside were going to spoil, but no-one with carpentry skills was available, even if they could have scheduled the parts at the fabber. And there were always more urgent jobs. A grotto dug into the side of a cliff threatened to cave in and leave the camp's avian RIDEs without a hangout. Two humans had fought, resulting in an injury, but the only source of medical nanites around were the insides of a RIDE, and that wasn't safe for him at the time...

I was getting a headache just from witnessing all this. And I didn't see why Rafe had to meet everyone in person.

"Personal contact matters," he answered at last. "Come on, kid, one last visit to pay."

Not far from the airstrip was a greenhouse that had seen better days, tended by a humanoid pony wearing an apron on top of her dark brown coat with tan spots. I say "her" based on name and voice -- her body could have been of any gender for all I knew.

"It's good to have you back, dear," she said in a deep voice. "Got yourself a human at last, I see. Told you it was a good idea."

"So you did, Flora," nodded Rafe. "How's it going?"

"Not good." She waved a hand with fat fingers ending in nails like fragments of a hoof. The walls were covered in hydroponic vats connected by flexible pipes that bubbled and gurgled. Surprisingly enough, there was also a cooling system, presumably for certain delicate plants. "The pumps failed twice today alone. I don't know what to do anymore."

"You know how hard it is to find qualified humans, sweetheart. Or RIDEs for that matter."

"Let me take a look," I said before I could think about it.

"You?" Apparently Flora heard me too, because she tilted her head.

"I know a little about electrical circuits. Let me help!" I couldn't believe the words coming out of my mouth. Helping those slavers was the opposite of what I should have been doing! But that's the way I am. I like helping people. And maybe the long afternoon of forced inactivity was getting at me.

Flora wordlessly handed us a rickety box with a dozen mismatched tools. I waited. "Rafe? Aren't you going to let me out?"

"I just got you," he snorted. "But you can drive. I'll be watching."

I nearly bolted when I felt in control of my body again. But it was pointless. The wolf could override me in the blink of an eye. So I meekly got to work instead. Power supply couldn't be an issue -- not with all the solar panels they had on camp. And with all the RIDEs milling about there had to be far more powerful energy sources available. I measured anyway, just in case.

Surely enough, it was the wiring.

"Check this out," I said, tapping a contact with Rafe's big, strong finger. It felt clumsy. "The wires barely touch, there isn't enough insulation on them, and with all the humidity they started to rust. So now we'll clean them up... like this..."

I promptly managed to slash my fingers with the box cutter. Badly.

After the shock passed, I noticed there was no pain, or blood. Right. A RIDE's outer layer was nothing but hardlight fur projected on top of a metal shell. It would have taken a big gun to pierce it. Now I could see why Gondwanans would often wear a RIDE for work. Or be worn by one, as the case may be.

Anyway. I showed them the whole nine yards. How to shorten the wire ends, connect them properly and hang them not quite under the ceiling. Ugly, but reliable.

"Enough," said Rafe. "I can do the other two circuits."

I tried to struggle, but there was no point. Just like that, I was a puppet again.

The sun was beginning to set by the time we headed back to the village square. A mixed crowd had gathered, small conversations sprouting here and there. With Rafe's keen hearing, I couldn't help but overhear some things. It seemed Alpha Camp had acquired a much-needed RIDE mechanic, for example. And there was a skimmer tank hanging around for some reason, which hadn't been there earlier. I sure hoped those twin cannons weren't functional.

"You should go get your leg checked," I told Rafe, but was interrupted by a "ding-ding-ding!" noise. The crowd started forming into a food line. I saw plenty of humans who weren't inside a RIDE.

"Can I go too? I'm hungry!" I hadn't even realized how true it was until I said it out loud.

"Not for that food, you aren't," the wolf assured me. He sat us at a table off to the side, and unwrapped the bundle Flora had slipped us. It was chock-full of fresh vegetables and other goodies.

"How am I going to eat with you all over me?" I asked, and he demonstrated. RIDEs were designed to enable that. It wasn't perfect, and required a good deal of coordination, but we managed. Under the table, Rafe discretely plugged himself into an oversized electrical socket. So that was how a RIDE refilled its juice.

Long story short, we even went to the outhouse together. That was a RIDE feature, too. But boy, was it awkward for us both! Rafe must have been really afraid that I was going to run away. I couldn't imagine how.

"No," he told me. "That's not it."

It was dark by now, and we sat on a bench to admire the stars. Far from the light pollution of a major city, the sky looked as if generously sprinkled with fairy dust by a giant hand. Being immobilized didn't chafe as much anymore. Oh... he was gradually allowing me to move a little.

"Is it some kind of revenge, then? Because you got the wrong person."

"You wouldn't understand."

"Rafe, the party's over. It was all fun and games, but I have to go home now." My voice had a tremolo that wasn't supposed to be there.

"But you just left home this morning."

"How do you know?"

"I saw it in your memories while you were asleep."

"You... what?" That was rape, and I told him as much. In a few more words perhaps, and not too well chosen.

"Then I hope you can forgive me, because you're not going anywhere for a while."

He gave me a nudge, and we went looking for a place to spend the night. RIDEs not on guard duty would simply seek an out of the way spot and curl up there, either in their bipedal or quadrupedal form. But there were no humans by themselves.

"They sleep inside," explained Rafe, "that's what the housing modules are for."

"Do RIDEs need to sleep?"

"Kind of... we need quiet time to defragment our memories just like humans do."

We found a nicely shaped depression in the ground and lied down on our back. Above, the Milky Way was slowly spinning on the firmament. I cried myself to sleep.

That night I dreamed that five or six masked people came to drag me away from home. Somehow, I knew they were my friends, but all my struggling and pleading didn't help. It was a long trip, crossing oceans and deserts, before we got to the entrance of a deep, dark tunnel. A huge wolf was there, staring right into my soul with baleful eyes. I tried to run, but my feet wouldn't move. The wolf spoke in my father's voice: "Man up by yourself or join the Army!"

It was morning, and I had slept in a hole in the ground for some reason. Abovehead, a hardlight dome with a camouflage pattern programmed into it provided protection from the elements. I could hear the tiniest sounds. Small creatures waking up, doors opening in the distance, people calling each other.

Oh, and I couldn't move.

I panicked.

"Not this again, kid," said a gruff voice in my head.

"So it wasn't a dream." Tears welled up in my eyes anew.

Rafe sighed. "What am I going to do with you?" We got up and padded towards the village proper. The pain in the right knee shot up, worse than yesterday, and we had to stop.

"Odd," mused the wolf. "Self-repair should have taken care of it overnight."

"You should go see that mechanic," I suggested.

"Nah, I'll just suppress the pain sensation for you. I don't feel it the same way."

"That won't solve the underlying problem," I pointed out.

"All right, all right." We carefully hobbled towards the end of the camp opposite the airstrip.

Behind a line of rocks that formed a wall of sorts, under a darkened section of the dome, were row after row of powered-down RIDEs. An awning stretched between two piles of crates protected a tool rack, and a low, flat rock probably stood for a maintenance cradle. I first noticed the young man in grey coveralls waiting for us, but you couldn't miss the giant white wolf standing behind him -- he was larger than some buildings on camp. The twin cannon barrels mounted on his back suggested that he was the skimmer tank I'd seen the previous day. Ah yes, all RIDEs were also supposed to have a vehicle form.

"Hello," said the young man affably. "I'm Paul Anders, and this is Fenris. Say, weren't you on the Uplift raid yesterday?"

"Indeed," confirmed Rafe, and introduced himself.

"Can I talk to your human?" asked Paul in a conversational tone while running a probe over Rafe's body. He seemed well at ease with the entire situation. I wondered what his story was.

I could feel Rafe's surprise. "I guess." He nudged me internally. "Say hello, kid."

"H-hello," I stammered. My mouth felt dry. "I'm Alex. Alex Hunter."

Paul offered us a friendly smile. "How are you holding up, Alex?"

"Physically I'm fine." My voice had that tremolo again.

"You sound shell-shocked."

"That's eminently survivable," I told him. He smiled sadly.

Rafe quietly pointed Paul at the damaged leg.

"Okay, this looks bad. Can you turn Walker for me? I've got to take it apart."

Rafe hesitated.

"Come on, I'll make this easy for you. Alex, can you promise not to do anything stupid if Rafe here lets you out?"

"Like what?" I moaned. "Run off into the desert? Beat up a RIDE with my bare hands?"

"You're missing the point, both of you," complained Rafe. "Fiiine."

His fur flickered off, exposing the metal underneath. I felt him unzip along the back, then he slid off me, reforming into the quadrupedal stance I'd first seen him in.

I very nearly collapsed into a heap.

Paul's face filled with worry. "You okay there, pal?"

"I just need some space," I muttered, and ambled away on shaky legs.

There was a rock the size of a small cabin, within view of the improvised garage, and I busied myself climbing to the top. A choppy sea of sand and stone stretched all the way to the horizon, dozens of klicks away, and the rising sun turned it into a symphony of red, brown and gold. My favorite colors. I sat cross-legged and watched the wind wittle away at the hard edges of the world. Locals called this expanse the Dry Ocean. I could see why now.

"Feeling better?" Rafe whispered in my ear. He must have used his lifters to float up silently.

"Yes... I am, actually. Thank you."

He wagged his tail slowly, and I did the same on pure instinct.

Wait. I had a tail?

No kidding. It was poking out through a brand new hole in my jeans, looking just like Rafe's. It felt perfectly natural, too, which made sense: medical nanites could fix up the brain to match bodily alterations. Still, I must have been particularly self-absorbed not to notice. My ears went flat at the thought. Yup, I had wolf ears too, placed a little higher on the skull than my old ones had been. So that's why every human on camp seemed to have them. But if it wasn't just a weird fashion, then what? A way for RIDEs to tag their humans?

I shot Rafe a questioning look. He looked so... life-like with his fur back on.

"There's a reason why we call it Fusing with a capital F," he explained. "It's not like putting on a coat. The fuser nanites create a much deeper connection than that."

"I won't end up walking on all fours, will I?"

Rafe grinned wolfishly. "I'll let you out often enough that it won't happen. Come now."

He stood up, and I did the same, dusting my pants. But then he crouched down to pounce me. I cringed.

"What now?"

"Please don't," I whimpered. "Can't stand it anymore." He regarded me calmly. "It's worse than being in chains, Rafe!"

"Yes," he said. "I know."

He jumped down and padded away towards the camp. I scrambled to follow.

"Sorry," I said, falling in line alongside him. "Of course you'd know. That's how you feel when I'm driving, isn't it?"

He didn't answer. It was too obvious.

"Why is it so important that you Fuse with me anyway?"

He stopped and held his broad forepaw under my nose. "Do you see any thumbs?"


"That's why. The moment I de-Fuse, I revert to animal form."

"There's no recourse?"

He shook his head. "None whatsoever."

We took a few more steps.

"So, whenever I see a RIDE walking upright..."

"In Fuser mode."

"Right. That means they have a human inside?"

"It's a foregone conclusion."

"Flora, too...?"

"Naturally, why? Oh! Don't worry, they get along well."

"For a master and her slave," I pointed out. He said nothing. "Rafe... how did you end up with the likes of AlphaWolf? You're not a bad guy."

"I can show you my memories. But only if we Fuse."

He kept his promise.

I saw a military RIDE being built in a civilian factory simply because it was cheaper to go with an existing design. I saw him being bought by a small business owner simply because he could be used with less training than a forklift. The three workers who shared him, shift after shift, saw him like a cute puppy or toy robot that you forget about when you're done playing. When continual wearout started to show, he was sold to a scrapyard. Luckily, the new owner knew enough about fixing DE shells that he could get his new acquisition back in working condition, but to him a RIDE was nothing more than a lifter crane with paws. One day, a scrap heap fell on top of the "crane", and it turned out that he wasn't built anywhere near the original specifications.

He ended up on top of the same scrap heap, then sold to a garage for parts. But luck was with him again. An apprentice decided to practice on him instead. When the apprentice got to the software side of things, ignorance and laziness caused him to jailbreak the wolf with a little piece of shareware called FreeRIDE.

Rafe escaped, and never looked back.

I didn't know what to say.

"That's what makes it hard for me, kid. I've seen plenty of humans brought here lately. Always haughty and righteous. Always quick with the threats. I was looking forward to getting myself one of those and showing them what it's like to be property for a change. Instead, I got you."

"What? Breaking me is no fun?"

"Ack! Don't even joke about that. Besides, I want you tugging at the leash. One day you'll save me from a big mistake."

Tugging at the leash. I felt sick to the stomach.

We were sitting on a bench not far from the well, watching the crowd sullenly. Or at least I was sullen, and Rafe was giving me space, as much as possible when someone is nested inside you like a Matryoshka doll. It turned out there was an administrator's office on camp, barely large enough for a Fuser-sized desk and three matching chairs, but the wolf preferred to sit out front, in plain view.

"Out of sight, out of mind, kid," he told me. "That's doubly true for an admin, especially when things are going smoothly."

In all honesty, whenever the camp's residents had a problem, their first impulse was complaining to AlphaWolf. Luckily, the latter knew how to delegate. I saw him prowling around often enough, always in Walker mode -- he hadn't been Fused in public ever since the return from Uplift. Even so, he was bigger than Rafe, the size of a small horse actually, and he scared me.

"I'll tell you a secret," giggled Rafe. "AlphaWolf is hardly the big bad bandit leader you seem to think. More like a father figure."

I was finding that hard to accept.

Over the next few days, however, I began to notice the diversity of relationships between residents of the camp. Fenris, for example, acted more like a friendly boss to Paul. And then there was this teenage girl, with the air of a street urchin, whose van-sized lionness owner behaved exactly like a mother to her. Sadly, the other extreme was just as well represented. There was this brightly colored griffin who often paraded down the main street with his pitiful wretch of a human in tow, usually not even Fused, and abusing him in the open. It didn't help that exotic RIDEs like that caused massive bodily changes in their RIDErs. The man would have a hard time being reintegrated in society if he ever made it back to civilization, and that din't seem very likely.

More than once, I was tempted to give this griffin a piece of my mind, but Rafe wouldn't let me.

"Don't do anything stupid," he growled. "Want to be afraid of someone in Alpha Camp? That someone is Tocsin the griffin. Be very afraid."

On average, though, the overall mood seemed to be improving, unless it was just me getting used to the situation. You might say I shouldn't have. I should have been all mopey and yearning for freedom, but one can only do that for so long without going crazy, and I kind of liked my mind in one piece. Other humans weren't so flexible.

I don't remember how come we weren't Fused that day. Rafe usually kept me in around the village, and not just because he liked having thumbs. Tocsin wasn't the only human hater, not by far. Anyway, there was this female badger everyone knew about, and for once she'd also let her human take air: a woman with white stripes in her raven-black hair and deep lines on her face.

"You bitch!" she was yelling, randomly hitting the badger, who endured stoically. It was about as effective as punching an armored skimmer. "You took me away from home! My work! My family! You came down on me like a ton of bricks and now you want to make up?!"

"What's going on, Melinda?" asked Rafe, doing his best to sound neutral, but I could tell he was secretly enjoying the show.

"She told me to give her a break," the badger answered morosely, "so I did."

At the sound of voices, the woman stopped hitting her and looked our way with eyes full of tears. She quickly averted her gaze from Rafe, though, and instead examined me from head to toe, as I stood there hugging around the wolf's neck.

"How can you be so calm?" she asked me.

"Calm?" All of a sudden I felt a huge weight on my shoulders. "Lady, I'm terrified. Never been away from a big city before. And I miss my friends. I wonder if I'll ever see them again." I took a deep breath. Speaking had warmed me up. "But I choose to take the good with the bad, and do something constructive while I'm at it."

In response, she lunged at me with her fingernails. "Traitor!" she yelled. Then Rafe was between us, eyeing her angrily.

"Enough!" he snapped, and she froze in place, fists shaking. I shook my head and left her alone.

Things went a little better with Flora's human.

She was a plump woman named Henriette, with brown skin and more than a few gray hairs. We sat among tomato plants and talked, while Rafe and Flora played outside in their Walker forms. Wolf and pony -- an unlikely pair.

Henriette was from Neptune's End, a small island nation in the Thetys Ocean, too poor to afford a full embassy even in one of the Gondwanan polities. Even if she could be returned to a human-run city, there was nobody who would pay for her flight home.

"It was a wonderful group vacation though," she reminisced, "until it was so rudely interrupted."

She'd been allowed to write home now and then, at least. Even so, her children were starting to forget her, and she'd never seen her grandchildren.

"I wouldn't call myself resigned," she mused. "It's more like my previous life has ended. I have a new one now. Still caring for children in a way."

"Did I ever thank you for the good food?" I asked. It had helped my morale a lot. Camp food was every bit as bad as Rafe had warned me.

She laughed softly. "Actually, that was Flora's idea from the start. They can taste the food if they eat while Fused, you know."

"I know." It was even true. But I would have never expected a RIDE to take pity of me. Or was it enlightened self-interest? Was there a difference?

"Rafe," I asked once we were on our way, "if you need humans here so badly, why don't you make them an offer?"

"Would you have come if I asked nicely?"

"No!... But it was a special case."

"It's always a special case. Very few people ever come willingly."

"Maybe you need better conditions to attract them."

"Conditions we can't create without more manpower. It's a vicious circle."

"So you kidnap them instead."

He didn't answer.

"Rafe... can I e-mail my friends? Let them know I'm all right?"

"Sure thing, kid. As soon as the satellites are right. We need as many anonymous relays between us and them as possible. And of course I'll need to review your message."

"Of course."

I didn't keep that e-mail, but it went something like this:

 Hi guys,

 Sorry for disappearing on you like that. I've been bodyjacked (is
 that the right word?) and taken to Alpha Camp. You've heard of the
 place. They're letting me send this to you so that you know I'm in
 good health, but I don't know when I'll be able to join you. Don't
 read too much into that; even RIDEs who would rather be elsewhere
 can seldom be provided with transportation.

 I still don't know what to tell my parents. I don't want them to
 worry. If they ask, make something up.

 Take care,

 P.S. How have you settled in?

It sounded fake even to me. I gave up waiting for an answer after a few more days.

"Humans are paradoxical," Rafe commented at one point. "They hold freedom sacred, yet are afraid of choice, and would rather die than take responsibility for their own actions. You'd think they'd be happy to let someone else make decisions for them, but no, they still clamor for a freedom they can't handle."

"My philosophy teacher used to say freedom is an illusion anyway," I told him.

"Now, now, that's bunk, kid. There's a big difference between `I'm forced to recharge twice a day or else I shut down' versus `I'm forced to follow arbitrary orders or else they'll dismantle me'."

I was thinking of something wise to say, when the camp's radio spectrum filled with excited chatter. But my entry-level comm implant -- courtesy of my first Fuse -- could do little more than detect it.

"What's going on, Rafe?"

"I'm not sure. Something about our comrades who got caught during the Uplift raid. They may have been released."

We watched the suborbital take off on short notice. Nobody was in any mood to get back to work until it returned, an hour or so later.

Pretty much every RIDE in the camp gathered at the airstrip.

I lacked the context to understand much of AlphaWolf's speech. He was using the suborbital's ramp for a podium, standing upright, presumably thanks to one of the camp's unattached humans. As it turned out, the raid on Uplift had been a mistake; a formerly trusted informant had tricked Alpha into attacking a potential ally. Oddly enough, they'd been forgiven, and now Uplift was passing legislation to give RIDEs almost full sapient rights, and one day maybe even citizenship.

Now, you must remember that Uplift was already one of the more progressive polities when it came to RIDE rights, so the main impact of all this was going to be political in nature. But in the short term it did mean that AlphaWolf had to atone for his error, and one of the steps was to fly back every human who had been forcefully taken away during the raid.

"So this is it," said Rafe wistfully. "back to your scheduled entertainment, I guess."

"But I don't know anyone in Uplift," I reminded him, "and I doubt that my suborbital ticket is still good. I'd be stranded in a foreign city, jobless and penniless."

"Alpha Camp isn't a resort either, kid. It may be your last chance to get out of here for a very long time."

"I know." Fear was choking me. "I know..."

AlphaWolf wasn't entirely happy to hear it.

"I'm sorry, boss," fidgeted Rafe as we stood side by side. "but I was nearly run over last time. And I'm falling behind on my work here as it is."

"It can't be helped," said AlphaWolf drily. "What about you, young man? I can find another volunteer to go with you."

"Uh... thank you... AlphaWolf... sir... but we talked" -- I met eyes with Rafe -- "and decided it was best to wait for another opportunity."

Alpha didn't ask why. He just looked deep into my eyes. Who knows what he saw.

"If you say so." He turned and padded away.

I sat down in the dust, leaning against Rafe's strong body, and cried my heart out. For some reason, he didn't ask to Fuse until much later.

For a desert the size of Laurasia, the Dry Ocean is surprisingly populated. And for all of Alpha Camp's fearsome reputation, it's not nearly the worst faction out here.

Every year, a vanishingly small percentage of RIDEs slip their fetters and escape to the Dry in search of freedom. A few more are left for dead by prospectors. Still, that makes enough chassis in absolute numbers that it's profitable to go out there, recapture and sell them again. And people ruthless enough to do that won't shy from using restraining methods even worse than software fetters, or for that matter also enslave some of their fellow humans to do the hard work.

It just happened that a gang of these human scum had set up shop not so far from Alpha Camp. It was enough to make all of us paranoid.

With the people from Uplift returned to their homes and Paul bringing RIDEs back from the graveyard, humans were again in short supply. We'd have managed, but for a radical faction that kept agitating the spirits against AlphaWolf, using his new policies against him. All in all, to say tempers were frayed would have been an understatement.

The tipping point was the arrival of a new RIDE, a huge dragon called Peaches. Not that anyone would have dared laugh at him -- he had as much heavy weaponry by himself as I'd previously seen around the camp. The malcontents immediately started grumbling about his energy consumption, and how he was supposed to earn his keep. I couldn't see what they were trying to accomplish by pushing for a raid anyone could get behind; even I could see the appeal in giving those slavers a taste of their own medicine. Say what you want, Alpha had standards.

At least nobody expected Rafe to volunteer this time. His lack of milspec hardware could rapidly make him a liability on the battlefield, and he already had a human: me. For the third time in a week or so, we watched the suborbital take off without us. I felt a pang of worry. This time they were going into battle. How many RIDEs weren't coming back? Some of them were good people...

What kind of a thought was that? I was still their slave!

About fifty RIDEs went out, the maximum capacity of the camp's one rickety aircraft, and about as many stayed behind. Rafe was grateful to get some help with the power grid, but I was nervous; most of those who'd stayed behind were hardline human haters. Thankfully, one of the camp's few laws could be summed up as "finder's, keeper's": no RIDE would have forced another to give up their human.

Miraculously, everybody returned safely. But that's when things took an ugly turn.

You see, the first RIDEs ever built were based on land mammals. Those are generally close enough to humans that the only extras you get are big ears and a tail. When they started basing them off birds and dolphins, it turned out those would twist the bodies of their RIDErs to a much higher degree, enough that swapping Fuse partners too soon afterwards could be lethal. And now they were designing RIDEs based on dinosaurs, or even mythical creatures.

All those were now forming a separate group as we went to meet the returning expedition. And they challenged AlphaWolf openly. Every time he'd throw them a bone, they'd find something else to whine about. It all ended up with a dozen former slavers being traded around like collectibles. Not a pretty show. But much as I didn't want anyone to go through that, I'd heard an old lynx recounting how she'd rescued a girl they were keeping locked up in conditions that made Alpha Camp look like paradise.

Even the worst RIDEs would never have done that to one of their own.

People have never ceased believing in the mysterious and the supernatural. Space scouts always have some tall tale about alien artifacts and ruins, for instance. And ghost stories make as much sense on Zharus as they do anywhere else.

Gondwanans have the Integrates: a supposed merging of human and RIDE that transcends mere cybernetic implanting; a seamless blend of living tissue and machine, with incredible powers. As rumors have it, they live deep in the Dry, hidden as only they can, and anyone who dares disturb their isolation will be forcibly turned into one of them -- or worse.

Funny that RIDEs would be more afraid of these mythical Integrates than, say, the Gondwanan Federated Marshals locating and assaulting Alpha Camp. But that's the price of true artificial intelligence: sometimes RIDEs can be as irrational as any human, even to the point of having their own religions of sorts.

No wonder that when a RIDE ran across the camp, screaming at the top of his metaphorical lungs that Integrates were coming for all of us and broadcasting admittedly suspicious video from the graveyard, many of the residents went into panic mode and abandoned the dome. Others, surprisingly enough, were attacking the intruders, even as Fenris sent reassuring messages.

Then the explosions came, several of the stone spires close to the graveyard crashing down noisily. As if that hand't been enough, the hardlight dome keeping the camp livable for humans and crops failed. And at least a dozen of the runaways had left their humans out in the open, fear of Integration overwhelming their need for thumbs.

AlphaWolf was the first to react, getting a few of the remaining RIDEs to Fuse with the stunned slaves. "Help me get the rest of them into one of the cabins," he called.

"Put them in Dorm 2!" shouted Rafe.

"Why there?"

"We fixed the emergency cooling system two days ago!"

They did so. "Everyone accounted for?" asked Rafe.

"Two missing."

"I'm on it." We left AlphaWolf deal with more urgent matters and went to take a look at those crashed spires.

Yep, that was it. One of them had landed on top of a small log cabin, crushing it, and as Rafe's sensors indicated, that's where the pair had been hiding for an intimate moment together. They'd somehow taken refuge under a heavy table, but they were pinned. And the piece of rock on top of them was too heavy for a light RIDE to move.

I leaned down to get the lighter debris out of the way first, and Rafe lent his strength. Or maybe he started the motion, and I went along; we couldn't tell anymore as of late.

But then he raised our hand, and daggers of light shot from our outstretched palm, spraying us harmlessly with rock fragments from the shattering boulder. It broke in half along a sinuous surface. We still couldn't move it.

"Let us help you," said someone from behind. It was Melinda the badger, padding our way in her Fuser form, but the voice was that of her human.

"Thank you," I said simply.

It was an easy task between the four of us.

"I didn't know you could do that, Rafe."

"What? Oh, you mean my built-in pulse weapon?" He shrugged. "All RIDEs have one, we just don't need it much."

"Except in combat?"

"Ha! You want a real gun in combat, kid, not this pea shooter."

I nodded. "Do you regret not being a real military RIDE?"

He thought for a moment. "No, not really. I mean, I'd fight to the death to protect what I love, but war as a general rule is just pointless death and destruction."

With the dome back up, if not at full strength, and many runaways returning once the initial panic had worn off, life once again had a semblance of normalcy. There would be plenty of cleanup work to do, but it could wait. For now, all the camp's population gathered in the village square.

As it turned out, not only were Integrates real, but they were here now. In fact, they had known the location of Alpha Camp since it had been founded. So had the Marshals, who had only let it exist because it was the lesser of many evils, by far. Talk about an alien landing in the Dry.

Incidentally, a few of the Fused pairs on camp had been forcibly Integrated, apparently to save them from a kind of software trojan that could make a RIDE entrap and torture a human to death. We saw them, and they were definitely no monsters. Only confused, and sad. They hadn't hated their human halves before being infected. No wonder, though, that for once Rafe felt we were both much safer un-Fused. Well, there was also a suborbital the Marshals had flown in to pick up our guests. It was headed to one of their bases near Aloha, from where I could easily get a lift.

"I'm sorry it had to be this way between us," Rafe confessed while we stood at the foot of the ramp. "You know, you were the first human to ever treat me like a person."

"Well, you acted like a person towards me from the very first moment."

"Even as I made you into a slave?"

"Well, as an old science fiction story postulated, only a sapient life form would think to put another creature in a cage."

He chuckled. "Good bye... Alex."

I ran up the ramp in the nick of time. By nightfall I was in Aloha. Airy, exotic Aloha. Jewel of the Zharusian Tropics. Along the seashore, palm trees swayed in the salty breeze, and the sound of parties echoed in the distance.

To me it all just felt cold and uncaring.

I'd missed the opportunity to register as a company co-founder, but it didn't bother me. My friends paid for my electrician certification either way. There should have been some classes as well, but I easily fast-tracked through them. Practical experience is the patron goddess of teaching, after all.

My friends also offered to pay for surgery to remove my wolf ears and tail.

"That's out of the question," I answered. "Never bring it up again."

They chalked it up to PTSD.

Time passed. Between bouts of work, I was keeping a keen eye on the news. The world had gone crazy during my little forced vacation. An Integrate had breached the masquerade, and it turned out there were several factions: those who wanted to be able to live a normal life in society, those who just wanted to be left alone in their isolation... and those who hated the rest of us ("meat and mech", as they liked to say) with a passion, considering themselves superior.

And the latter had gone on the offensive.

The first major engagement of this war had already consumed itself. Hostile Integrates had taken over the single largest mining platform in the Dry, only to be driven off again by a private strike team. Then things became really weird. While I was still settling in, news services reported of a double attack on Nextus, during which both Integrates and AlphaWolf had tried to kidnap a certain rich family, presumably for ransom, and had gotten in each other's way. I didn't believe it for a moment. Indeed, it didn't take NextusLeaks long to reveal that the Alpha team had been the good guys in this story.

It hadn't been so easy in Uplift.

There had been two incidents there, in fact. One, a surgical strike at a press conference, had been a clear victory for the other side. Who then proceeded to become cocky and launch a full-scale assault against the city. I cringed at the video of failing hardlight domes, an entire metropolis left vulnerable to the forces of nature, and scattered shootouts in the sandblasted streets. How many people there hadn't been lucky enough to have a Rafe of their own?

But that was much later. Enough that I was growing used to living on my own. Enough that I was beginning to forget.

Then news came that the single largest battle of the war had just taken place at Alpha Camp.

I was in a daze for hours.

Mind you, Alpha had won, and in a spectacular way at that. But not without heavy casualties. Pointless death and destruction, indeed... Perhaps the only real gain had been the amnesty granted AlphaWolf and his followers as recognition of their role in ending the Integrate wars. Alpha Camp was going legit. Going on the map for that matter... and rebuilding.

Construction was going to be a booming business there for years, I told my friends. This was the perfect time to set up offices in a new market, and only one of us knew more than rumors about the place. They didn't find anything suspicious with my suggestion. Even their worry over my going back seemed genuine.

I don't know how I walked to the coffee break room. My knees gave way and I sat on a couch, hugging my arms. Would Rafe even accept me as a willing pair? Would I even find him alive?

Only one way to find out.

There were three domes in Alpha Camp now, one of them large enough to cover the new aerodrome. Large Integrates busied themselves unloading shipping containers out of suborbitals and carting them off to town. I strolled that way myself, among construction sites, elbowing my way through a busy crowd. Too many new faces. Too much noise.

A proper office building stood where the old admin shed had been, but nobody was in. A note on the door said to comm AlphaWolf if it was urgent. It was easy to decide that it wasn't. So Rafe wasn't acting administrator anymore. Hm.

The streets were dug up, work proceeding apace to bury water pipes and the like. And yes, there was more than one street now. It took me a while to find Flora's little greenhouse, which looked so quaint now among all the new developments. But she wasn't at home.

One place left to check.

The graveyard was gone too, a pair of little buildings standing in the quiet enclosure, which by some miracle was otherwise undeveloped. It was easy to guess at my destination thanks to the hardlight projector that spelled "Freeriders Garage" in proud letters.

"Hello, Paul, Fenris." I acknowledged the huge wolf, who was poking his head inside through a bay window made to size. "I'm Alex Hunter. You probably don't remember me."

"Rafe's human, right?" asked Paul. "Funny coincidence, he was just talking about you earlier."

"He's here?"

"Yep. Bay 6, in the back." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Knock yourself out."

At first I didn't recognize the metallic RIDE secured into a maintenance cradle, with half of its access panels missing, cables and tubes going into various ports. Then he lifted his head, and his eyes -- now reduced to inexpressive reddish lenses -- lit up from inside.

"Aw, why didn't you comm ahead, kid? I didn't want you to see me like this." His voice, too, had a metallic tinge.

I hugged his big ole' head. "Who cares what you look like? You're alive!"

He chuckled. "You don't look too shabby yourself. Still carrying my tags, I see."

"I wouldn't give them up for the world."

"...Thank you."

We sat together in silence for a while.

"So, how long until they let you out of the hospital?" I joked.

"A few days at most. You're here to stay?" He sounded as if he didn't dare hope.

"How else?"

He nodded weakly. "Thank you. Better get yourself a place to sleep then, eh? 'Fraid I still don't have one. Didn't expect to need it."

"No problem. Say, any idea where Flora and Henriette hang out these days? They weren't at their place."

I couldn't possibly miss his hesitation.

"They're gone," he said hoarsely. "And don't you start crying on me! Either of them was more of a fighter that day than I'll ever be."

It was small consolation, and I told him as much, in a few more words perhaps, and not too coherent.

At least me and Rafe had all the time in the world.


Bucharest, 2013-11-14

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