User:Claude LeChat/The Wolf and the Father
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
Author: Claude LeChat
The Wolf and the Father
Fri October 12, 158AL
It's an oft-repeated truism that human beings have no sense of scale. At least native Zharusians are better in this regard than their ancestors on Earth. Even so, the mind boggles at the scale of a desert that could swallow entire continents from mankind's planet of origin. Countless brave souls scouring that vastness for over a century haven't come close to exhausting its secrets; how many perished in the attempt, nobody could tell.
So it happens that even today few people would know where to find the handful of hardlight domes sheltering a town of maybe five thousand from the inferno that is the Dry Ocean. Here, the wind can flay meat right off the bones and boil blood before it spills on the ground, while a few steps away, inside the shimmering barrier, it's like being inside an air conditioned building.
The residents of Alpha Camp are grateful for it. Doubly so as some of them still remember the last time the domes failed.
An evening like any other, one of the latter was patiently making his way through the thickening traffic along Main Street: a young man, lightly built, with brown skin and hair that wouldn't stay combed. He was hovering one meter off the ground on a skimmer bike with organic curves reminiscent of a stylized wolf; his t-shirt and jeans looked especially plain among outfits from all over the twentieth century, brought back to life by the vagaries of fashion after five hundred years.
At length, he made his way to the small park at the very center of the town, pulling over next to a water well straight out of a Spaghetti Western. He reached over to place a big paper bag on a nearby bench, his other hand brushing over the dashboard in an oddly tender gesture. To that the bike reacted, unfolding like a giant metal origami which enveloped the young man completely. A hardlight furcoat flickered into being. Seconds later, it was a three-meter-tall humanoid wolf who stood there, wearing only a metal kilt for modesty. The new creature sat on the bench and opened the bag, revealing a big home-made sandwich and a couple of apples.
"Remember when we first ate together, Alex?"
"How could I forget, Rafe? Flora and Henriette had made us a bag just like this one."
The young man's voice broke. Tears welled up in his eyes. From outside, his living armor seemed firm as a rock, but inside man and machine clung to each other for strength.
"We were... we were sitting right here... at dusk..."
"Shh... let's eat now."
They did so in silence. The sun descended towards the horizon, painting the treetops red, then even the long Zharusian day ended. A foam of stars winked into view across the darkening sky. That, too, stirred up memories.
"What's troubling you, Rafe?"
"Is it so obvious?" The RIDE chuckled -- a mechanical grinding noise.
"It's this whole Beta Camp affair, isn't it? I'm shaken too, if it's any consolation."
Rafe gave an inward nod. "What if I hadn't gotten to you first, back in the bad old days?"
Alex shivered. It was a while before he answered. "At least Leona will never bodyjack anyone again. And to think it was our very own Jeanette who caught her."
"Hey, Jeanette is the only human in Alpha Camp who bodyjacked her RIDE instead of the other way around. That has to count for something."
Human and RIDE shared a nervous laugh. Around them, a light breeze picked up: the domes were large enough to have their own microclimate. Other stragglers were walking the alleyways. Humans with RIDEs. Humans in RIDEs. Integrates. One or two even waved to the pair. It didn't help their mood much.
"Let's go home, Rafe, we have work tomorrow."
The metal origami unfolded again, but this time Rafe didn't go back to his vehicle form, instead adopting that of his natural counterpart: an arctic wolf. The night wind ruffled his fur, and he leaned heavily against his friend. They walked away touching each other at every step.
The clickety-clack of high heels echoed along the gloomy corridor, punctuated by slower, heavier steps. The young woman was plump, with freckled face and wavy red hair; her dress would have been the height of fashion in 1938 London. At her side walked a brown bear, wearing a hat in the same style and matching necklace, but nothing else. No-one seemed to notice their presence as they went past door after closed door on either side, silence ringing behind each and every one.
It was a spartan antechamber that awaited at the far end, but nobody there to stop them. They strode right through, into an office bathed in blinding sunlight that the venetian blinds did little to temper.
Someone else was present after all, a three-meter tall humanoid wolf who stood on empty air half a meter above the floor, hands and muzzle hidden by an open panel in the ceiling. His ears swiveled in the direction of his guests, and he floated down to the floor, derezzing the screwdriver he was holding.
"Alice! Helga!" The wolf took a step towards the girl, tail wagging, then checked himself. It was her who stepped forward and hugged him.
"Figured I'd find you two here. Why are you doing the electrician's job?"
"I am an electrician, remember? No point in waiting for the repairman."
The girl pouted. "Guys... Aren't you working two jobs already? I hardly ever see you anymore."
"Oh." The wolf's tail drooped, then perked up again. "But we went out on Sunday! Spent all the day together, didn't we? And the night."
"That was the other Sunday," she replied drily, hands on her hips. "Wait... Rafe, would you mind letting Alex out for a moment?"
"Huh? Sure." Wolf and man separated in one fluid motion. By day, the latter looked distinctly haggard, with ugly bags under his eyes.
"Alex," asked the girl very quietly, "when was the last time you took a vacation?"
"Don't need one," he protested, right before his knees buckled. She caught him and lowered him gently on a chair. He looked like a child as he sat slumped on furniture sized for fused RIDEs.
"Told you so," quipped the she-bear.
"So you did, Helga." The young woman dropped in another chair, her own bear ears flat against her head. "Rafe, why didn't you tell me he was overworking himself? Why didn't you stop him?"
Now quadrupedal, Rafe looked very guilty. "I tried to tell him..."
"Tell him?! You should have forced him!"
"You know I won't do that!" replied the RIDE, suddenly angry. He calmed down just as quickly and licked Alex's face before curling up at the young man's feet. Helga padded over to nuzzle him.
Across from them, Alice clutched her purse nervously. "Alex, why? What are you trying to prove?"
The young man bit his lips.
"That's it," she said. "I'm comming Alpha Wolf. You have to take a break."
"But..." Alex complained weakly. "He needs us here... Alpha Camp is too big now, and..."
She stared him down.
"All right, all right." He started getting up again. "Let me see if Claude and Kevin can cover for me next week."
"They're not in the office, Alex. Nobody's in the office. It's Saturday."
Alex's wolfish ears and tail drooped, just like Rafe's earlier. After a moment, Alice's expression softened, and she moved to walk him out the door. "Let's get you home, love. You need a nice long sleep and a big warm meal, then we can comm the cat and his human."
::One week? Really?:: Helga sent privately.
::Baby steps, sis...:: Alice replied with a mental sigh.
Behind them, the office remained just as quiet as the rest of the building. Only the sun continued its slow arc in the sky.
The living room wall lit up and acquired depth, like a window opening onto a different place altogether -- a virtual one, as it happened: the porch of an old American farmhouse, complete with rocking chair. A young man occupied the latter, looking not unlike Alex except for the pasty white skin, and a body in better shape despite being ten years older. He was dressed for his surroundings, and busied himself petting a fluffy white Persian cat, whose purring made the hidden speakers thrum.
"Rafe, Alex. Haven't seen you in a while, guys. What's up?" The young man's thick East European accent had softened considerably over the past year, and he sounded a lot more self-assured than they remembered him. "Actually, is everything all right? You don't look so hot."
"Yeah. We've just been working a lot."
"Tell me about it, man. You're always first in the office. And last."
"Yeah. About that. Listen, Alice wants me to spend more time with her."
"Woo! Congratulations, man. And celebrations. This is a good thing, right? It's what you want, too?"
"I do! I do... but there's more." Alex breathed deeply. "She wants me to take a vacation and introduce her to my parents."
The man on the other side of the screen perked his feline ears. "So, go for it! When was the last time you went home, anyway?"
Alex's shoulders sagged. "Not since I left..."
"Yikes! Then what are you waiting for, man? A kick in the behind? Go! We can hold the fort for a while. Right, Kevin?" he asked the cat in his lap.
"I thought he'd never ask," the cat deadpanned, looking up at him. "Oh wait, he still hasn't."
The look of embarassment on Alex's face was worthy of a bad anime.
"Is it settled, then?" Alice padded in, balancing a tray that could barely contain the mountain of food piled up on it. She lowered it to the coffee table before lounging on the couch next to Alex, and shoved a big fat falafel in his hands. On the screen, man and cat alike stood straight, licking their lips and chops, respectively. The girl giggled.
"Want some? Come on over, we can have a good bye party. My doggy boy here has such a nice pad and never uses it for anything." She ruffled Alex's hair, not that it made a difference.
"I'm a wolf, not a dog," Rafe pointed out playfully, raising his head from behind the couch.
"Wolves are supposed to be dignified," she countered, and ruffled Rafe's fur as well.
"Bears aren't." Helga arrived from the other room only to roll over on the floor, kicking lazily at the air. Even Alex managed to laugh.
It didn't take long for the guests to arrive. A small town is made even smaller when people can fly. In meatspace, Kevin was as big as Rafe, an impressive avatar of Grumpy Cat. They sat on the other couch, Claude hugging his feline tail while the RIDE turned into a fluffy backrest. Why they were called RIDE couches as opposed to ottomans was a mystery for the ages.
"So, how's your life been, Claude?" asked Alex while opening the beer.
"Touristy! Kevin took me places. Aloha, Cascadia, even Nextus once." He paused to take a sip from the frosted bottle. "You know, it's strange. Back home, I used to spend most of my time in VR. But here, I can't get enough of the real world."
"I wonder why," snerked Kevin.
"Well... it helps that the women in Aloha love a slender catboy." Claude stretched as if to demonstrate, winking at Alex. "The men, too."
"Hey!" Alice stabbed at the air with a chicken skewer. "He's mine! Paws off, tomcat!"
She tore at the meat with her teeth, growling for emphasis. Even Kevin couldn't help smiling.
"Humans..." he muttered.
The party only took off from that moment on. At some point it was night, then dawn, and daylight again. The sun was rising when they finally went to sleep.
If you follow the Neaera eastward, upstream from Zharustead, the first thing you notice are the endless wheat fields hugging the riverbanks as a blue ribbon meanders across Laurasia, pooling into pretty little lakes here and there before moving on. Farther out, forests and marshes cover the land in a patchwork of earthy colors before blurring together in the distance. From place to place, a silo or radio tower gleams in the sun, as if to reassure travelers that they are never too far from civilization.
The savage continent of Gondwana is half a planet away.
As the sun started its long descent towards the Thalassic Ocean, two shooting stars moved in the opposite direction at nearly the speed of sound. Helga's vehicle form hardly suggested it, but she had no trouble keeping up with Rafe's perpetually underpowered lifters. Politeness alone kept her from taking the lead; this was, after all, Alex's home. It was only fair that he showed the way, if only as a symbolic gesture: their destination was visible to the naked eye by now.
"Venars started out as a farming town," the young man spoke into his comm implant, "and it still is, for all their bragging. Ask my parents, there's nothing to life but hard work and austerity."
Fifty meters to the side, Alice nodded at the camera on her dashboard. "That's why you left?"
"It was that or the Continental Guard."
She nodded again. The city's skyline raised before them, a mass of grey towers south of the river, while to the north a single long road branched out like a pine tree before dissolving into suburbia, then farmland.
"What's that?" asked Helga, indicating a third of a ring circling the west side of the city, higher than most buildings.
"The Sky Bridge," explained Alex. "All that's left of the old weather dome. They didn't have hardlight a century ago."
"Ooh! Can we visit?"
"I'm yet to meet a tourist who doesn't."
The skimmer bikes were flying lower now, their shields turning from shimmering bullet shapes to barely visible blobs as the RIDEs shed most of their speed, and they eased onto the invisible spiderweb weaved by traffic beacons. They touched down on a lively street, between a garage with a funky name and a pizzeria that seemed to be on its way out.
"There are more RIDEs than I remember," noted Alex. His helmet derezzed, and he got out of the saddle to let Rafe transform.
Alice did the same. "Is that unusual?"
"This side of the pond, it is. Then again, Venars was always... special."
"So we won't attract stares," Helga said pragmatically.
"As if I care," counted the young woman. She surveyed the Brutalist architecture of the area, hands on her hips. "Pretty impressive, actually. Your parents live downtown?"
"No way," laughed Alex. "The family estate is up north. I just wanted to give you the grand tour first."
"Are you sure you don't want to get a hotel room?"
"Mom would be offended if we didn't stay with her."
The wolf paced around. "Do we ride there?"
"It's a short walk, Rafe. Half an hour, tops."
"You've never spent much time on a farm, have you?"
Helga was already strolling down the street. "Coming, girl?"
"As soon as I can get the boys to move."
::Still pondering what to tell your parents?:: sent Rafe as they followed. ::Delaying the inevitable helps little, Alex.::
They dragged their feet after the girls, while a colorful crowd swirled around them, humans and machines mingling together like one big happy family.
Beyond East Square, with its fountains and moving metal sculptures, behind the concrete geometry of the new town hall, monumental stairs climb down to the riverbank, at one end of a long and narrow public park dotted with beer gardens. The city's three bridges are clearly visible from here, spaced no more than one kilometer apart; the one in the middle allows the main road to cross the water. On the other side, rows of ancient apartment buildings soon give way to small businesses with ample parking spaces in front: most residents still use skimmers rather than RIDEs. From every sidestreet beckons the shade of trees leaning out over decorative fences.
Down one of these streets, far enough that verdant hills and blue sky can be seen at the other end, stretches a wrought iron fence backed by a tall hedge, one painted a vivid green, the other in the colors of autumn. From the gate, an alley covered in dead leaves passes through the shadow of cherry trees to a sprawling house in the background, its spotless white walls contrasting with the cracked, uneven flagstones.
"Nobody's home," spoke Alex, after ringing the interphone failed to elicit a reaction. "And they changed the encryption keys, too."
"My batteries are getting low.", Helga reminded him.
"We have RIDE-safe sockets in the garden. A water tap, too. I'm sorry, that's..."
"Those were luxuries for us two years ago," Rafe reminded him.
"And look what I have," added Alice, holding up two handfuls of energy bars.
Alex blinked. "When did you even... Never mind, I don't want to know."
They were having seconds by the time crackling dry leaves signaled new arrivals. The woman resembled an older version of Alex, except dressed in a sari worthy of Phileas Fogg's princess. The man was rounder than Alice and just as fair-skinned, with dark blond hair cleanly cut below the edge of a homburg. His three-piece suit was straight out of the Roaring Twenties, complete with gold chain going into a breast pocket. Neither was going gray yet, despite looking to be in their sixties already: Zharusians were seldom in a hurry to have kids.
"Amma?" whispered Alex, slowly getting up from the table. "Amma!" he shouted, wrapping his arms around the woman so hard she gasped.
"Easy, son," said her companion. "Save some for your old man."
"Oh. Hello, dad." Alex hugged him as well.
The woman was trying in vain not to cry. "Our son has grown up."
"So I see," agreed the man. "And who are your friends, son?"
"Ah... Alice, Helga, these are my parents. And this is Rafe," he added. hugging around the wolf's neck.
"I'm Sahzadi," said the woman with a curtly bow. "Welcome."
"George Hunter," added Alex's father. "Nice to meet you."
They all looked at each other for a moment.
"Aren't you going to ask our son how he's doing?"
"What's the point?" retorted Hunter senior. "I can see he's in one piece."
She shook her head slowly. "Come inside, everyone. You must be tired. Just watch your step, I'm afraid our house was built before RIDEs."
"Speaking of which," added her husband. "You never told us you did have a RIDE, son."
"Actually Rafe has me, dad. But I must have mentioned him in my e-mails?"
The older man frowned at the correction. "It slipped my mind. I'm not twenty anymore."
::Should I feel offended?:: Rafe sent as they entered.
::Yes... but don't bother telling dad, he won't understand.::
In all honesty, the ranch-style house had far more floor space than its occupants needed, like mostly anything built on Zharus. It was cluttered, though, and more than one door was too narrow for Helga. They ended up sitting on the back porch, with the bay doors wide open. Halfway to nowhere, tractors tenaciously combed the dark soil.
"You should have commed ahead," Mrs. Hunter said mildly as she brought coffee and homemade cookies. "We were in town to meet someone."
"It's my fault," explained Alice. "We wanted to surprise you."
"I hear you're a doctor?" Hunter senior asked her.
"Why, yes," she chirped. "At the best clinic in Alpha Camp."
"The only clinic in Alpha Camp," specified Helga. Alice poked her.
"Alpha Camp?" Mrs. Hunter asked worriedly, glancing at Rafe. "Isn't that where all those evil RIDEs were? Why, I remember talking to Mrs. Vernon at the time..."
Alex facepalmed. "Amma, I was there. It wasn't like that."
She looked helplessly at her husband, who merely frowned again. "So... how long are you staying?"
"Well," said Alice, "we were thinking to go for a tour of Laurasia since we're here. Our vacation lasts until the first of December."
"I still can't believe Alpha Wolf gave us a six-week break," added Alex.
His father's frown deepened. "You work for a RIDE?" The icy tone left no doubts as to the man's opinion.
Alice sipped cold coffee and changed the subject.
In the soft afternoon light, a humanoid wolf sat with his back against an oak tree, overlooking an irrigation canal half full of dirty water. Far away, the tractors still worked tirelessly: Virtual Intelligences didn't need breaks. Much closer, a rat darted by, almost invisible in the brown grass. A dragonfly landed in the ditch, only to have a fish jump after it. Higher up the bank, children with interface spectacles sat on a broken fence, waving their hands through the air with little shrieks of delight.
The wolf didn't move even when heavy steps came from behind the tree. Fused, Alice and Helga were the very definition of a Mama Bear, thick fur making them seem even bigger than their already substantial bulk. A faux leather skirt and apron preserved their modesty where that wasn't enough. Woman and machine sat next to the other pair, and the tree groaned.
"All that was going to be mine one day, you know." Alex waved his hand at the farmland spread in front of them.
"Dad decided I wasn't worthy of it, and then I left. Since then, he keeps threatening to sell the whole lot. Mom stops him every time."
"Now I understand why you were in no hurry to take a vacation. Shouldn't have insisted."
He shrugged. "Coming home is a rite of passage. We had to do it sooner or later."
"I guess." She was silent for a while. Then, "What will you do now?"
"Try and enjoy the stay. For mom's sake."
She nodded slowly.
"Come on." The wolf got up. "Let me show you one of my favorite childhood places."
They raised into the air hand in hand, lifters sparkling, and floated towards a patch of forest across the canal. Behind them, two children took off their specs and gazed in awe.
The morning light seeped into the hallway through the crack of a door. Inside, the bedroom looked barely touched, just as it had been for the past two years. Even the bed was made. On a closer look, somebody slept in the room after all: Alex and Rafe were on the carpet, hugging each other so close it was had to tell where one body ended and the other began. The boy's mother watched for a moment, wiped a tear, and tiptoed out, closing the door after her.
Back in the kitchen, Alice was still nursing her tea, in pajamas stamped with teddy bears, while Helga peeked in through the window. The former got up as their host came back in, and moved to help with dishes.
"Why, thank you, dear. I'll have breakfast done before you know it."
She fired up the stove, and Alice boggled. "You cook?"
"When I have the time. Don't you?"
"Ha ha, no way. I'm just handy with a fabber."
"To each his own," the older woman said graciously. "Say, dear, can I ask you something?"
"What's the relationship between you and Helga?"
The she-bear tilted her head, but kept quiet.
"I don't know," mused Alice. "Never really thought about it. We're basically sisters, I think. Right, sis?"
"Works for me, girl."
Their host fiddled with the content of a sizzling pan. "What about Alex?"
Alice sipped more tea. "You mean whether we're just friends with benefits, or in love, or serious about living together?"
"She means Rafe," Helga said quietly.
"What about us?" Alex walked into the kitchen yawning, his hair even more of a mess than usual, if that was possible. Rafe poked his head in, but there was no more room.
"He does that every morning," said his mother. "The smell of warm food wakes him right up."
"Good morning to you, too. Where's dad?"
"He went to the bank early to try and get ahold of a real representative. Virtual intelligences are so unhelpful."
The young man grabbed a chair. "Why does he need to go there in person? They don't take calls at your bank?"
"I... didn't think about that." She set a plate in front her son and started filling it. "But you know your father."
Her comm rang.
"Seriously?" she said, and rubbed her pendant in a complex motion. The wall opposite the cooking range lit up.
"Mrs. Hunter?" asked the person on the screen, an androgynous face and voice. "This is Venars General. Your husband has been pulled from the river half an hour ago. He was under the influence."
"He'll be fine," the holographic figure told them -- the same who had spoken to them on the comm, and in the same impassible tone of voice. "You can take Mr. Hunter home as soon as the doctor is finished."
"I want to see him right now," stressed Mrs. Hunter.
"That would be against the rules, ma'am. I'm sorry."
"Can we at least know who rescued Mr. Hunter?" interrupted Alice. "We'd like to say thanks."
"That would be Officer Mizuno over there." The receptionist indicated an otter Integrate wearing bell-shaped shorts and a vest of many pockets over a swimming suit. Glowing lines underscored her athletic body where clothing or fur didn't cover them. Trying to guess at her age would have been a fool's errand.
"Vicky, please," the woman said, approaching. "I'm not even on duty."
Alex stopped his mother from falling to her knees. "Thank you," she said, then tears choked her.
"How did it happen?" asked Rafe.
The otter sighed. "He apparently fell off Big Bridge through a hole in the handrail. Do you know if he has a drinking habit?"
"He used to..." said Alex.
"He started again after you left," his mother explained. "Thought he could hide it from me, too."
"Is it possible he tried to commit suicide?" asked the policewoman. "Sorry... this must be hard for you. Old habit. We can talk later."
"No... it's all right." She steeled herself. "My George would never do that."
"Why do you ask?" intervened Rafe.
Mizuno hesitated. "I don't want to alarm you, but there's been a wave of suicides among farmers in the region as of late."
"Financial reasons?" asked Helga. The officer nodded.
"Mom," Alex asked quietly, "is there something you're not telling me?"
She didn't have time to answer. The doors leading further in from the hospital lobby opened, admitting someone in a wheelchair and escorted by nurses.
"Right," said Mizuno. "We'll keep in touch." But by then nobody had eyes for her anymore. She extended a hand, making a sporty bag leap onto her shoulder from three meters away, and walked out.
The whole family gathered on a bench in front of the building, among waist-high rose bushes. The air was cooler than the previous day, and clouds were gathering, graying out the sky.
"I'm telling you I was pushed!" the man repeated for the second time.
"Dad, we have footage from the security cameras. Nobody was with you."
Hunter senior retreated into a morose silence.
"Did you run into someone at the bank, George?"
He nodded. "Papa Janiczek. They wouldn't refinance his loan either, so we went for a drink. But there was someone... someone else. Sah, are you sure we have no other options?"
"I went over the books three times since you last asked me. We're bankrupt, George."
He started crying, and she wrapped his shoulders in a hug. After a moment, Alex joined in.
"Dad, who cares? It's just a piece of land."
"How can you say that, son? I left the army when your mother was pregnant. Bought this farm so I'll have something to leave you when you grew up. But then you never returned home. What am I supposed to do with my life now?"
A chilly wind was the only answer that fit.
"Let's go home. You and mom can ride with Helga, she's got more room."
"That will be the day, when I need a RIDE to carry me!" the older man said rudely, slapping his son's hand away. "What am I, a cripple?"
He tried to get up.
"OK..." he puffed. "OK... just this once."
The sky was a slab of cement above the city, and the old oak tree was shedding its last leaves. Alex sat with his back against the rough bark, throwing pebbles into the ditch. The tractors couldn't be seen that day, but a low rumble reached him through the hazy air. Farm work had to go on. Off to a side, Rafe lay on the ground in a tight ball.
"Rafe, come on. What's wrong?"
"Your father thinks I'm making you weak."
"Well he's wrong! I'm making you strong. That's the point. It's why you wanted me in the first place."
"It was selfish of me. I see that now."
"No, it was selfish of him to think of me as yet another achievement to be proud of, and nothing more."
"That's why you've been working so damned hard as of late? To prove him wrong?" The she-bear gently lowered herself to the ground next to the young man, and he startled, having failed to notice the hum of lifters.
"I work because I have a purpose," Alex said stubbornly. "That's what Rafe gave me."
"But you're destroying yourself. Who will be left to do your work if you fall apart?"
He didn't answer.
"Anyway," resumed the she-bear, "we've been reviewing the public records of small farms in the region."
"I could swear there's some sort of pattern, but it's just out of reach. I'm not Kevin."
Thinking of the misanthropic RIDE who had taken so long to find himself a human made Alex snort. Even for a walking quantum supercomputer, the cat was exceptionally good at crunching numbers.
"Yeah, too bad he's not here. Oh wait, that's our fault."
The she-bear chuckled. "Right. Well, I was thinking. You should go talk to the friend your father mentioned. Maybe he knows more."
"Papa Janiczek? Yeah, good idea. What do you say, Rafe? Feel up for a visit?"
"Being social would be a nice change of pace," said the RIDE getting up. He stretched from nose to tailtip before changing into his skimmer bike form. "But you do realize there's probably nothing. We're just acting paranoid."
"Be careful anyway," the she-bear called as man and wolf rode into the haze.
The two men sat on overturned crates, under a colorless awning that protected them from scattered raindrops. The mobile home next to them hadn't flown in years by the looks of it, and judging by what could be seen through the open door it served as a field office. Alex's host was a short man with a fierce mustache, blue eyes shining in the middle of a face covered in wrinkles. He poured two glasses of a yellowish liquid and raised his before drinking.
"Aah! It's good to see you again, Alex. Where have you been as of late? Seeking your fortune in the big city?"
"Gondwana, actually. It's a long story." Alex sipped gingerly from his own glass and made a face.
"That would explain your new friend." Janiczek nodded to Rafe with a smile. "Good call. RIDEs saved everyone's bacon during the Fright."
"Indeed?" Rafe asked politely. He sat on his haunches next to Alex, ears swiveling at the sounds of nature around them.
"Sure thing! When Inties tried to take over. Can't trust them, I say."
"I didn't know the war made it all the way here." The RIDE eyed his human partner curiously.
"You were in the garage after the big battle. I... hid the memory. Didn't want you to think I was forced to choose."
In the ensuing silence, the old man took another sip. "So, what brings you around, Alex?"
The young man told him the whole story.
"So you really are bankrupt," said Janiczek. "That's too bad, I was about to propose your father we form a cooperative."
Alex nodded. "What did you two talk about at the bar?"
"Eh. George thinks there's a big conspiracy to kill farming in Venars."
"Is there?" asked Rafe.
"Ha ha, no. Business is just bad. Immigration from Earth has slowed down to a trickle, the Spacers are learning to make their own food... There's just no room to grow anymore."
"What will you do?" Alex drank more of his glass. It still tasted horrible, but the feeling of warmth was welcome.
His host shrugged. "Weather it out. Wouldn't be the first time. I've had this land since before your parents came to town."
They listened to the rain for a while, staring into their drinks. Scattered strands of smalltalk soon withered. At some point, Alex found his glass empty.
"More?" asked Janiczek.
"No, thank you, sir. I should go back. Thanks for having me."
"You're always welcome. Give my regards to your parents."
They were well out of sight and earshot, skipping lightly above the muddy ground, when Rafe slowed down without warning, coming to a stop in mid-air under the shoulder of a mound.
"Have you noticed something strange?" he asked, a miniature of his face looking up from the dashboard.
Alex tilted his head in a very canine manner. "What do you mean?"
"None of his machines were out in the field today. What was he doing there, all alone?"
"Now who's being paranoid?" Alex laughed at Rafe's pouty face. "I'm teasing you. Can't hurt to go back and ask a few more questions. But briefly, all right? I wanna get home and see how dad is doing."
The young man was still wondering how to bring up the issue when they got in view of the trailer again. The first thing he noticed was the intruding skimmer, a dirty four-seater with the traffic beacon turned off. Then there were the three men in black coveralls pushing Janiczek around. It was too far to make out any words, even with wolf ears, but that hardly mattered.
"Suit up, Rafe, we have work to do."
The wolf came in too fast for anyone to react, charging through the mud. He slammed into the first attacker hard enough to send him tumbling. The second one he lifted above his head with one hand, then let him drop to the ground; the man might as well have fallen off the roof of a house. Yet a third backpedaled in a hurry, pointing a gun at the Fused pair. The wolf snarled and flashed his shields. When he took a step forward, his opponent turned and jumped into the incoming skimmer. The goon at the controls drove straight at the three meter tall warrior, forcing him to dive for safety. By the time he could regain balance, the vehicle was flying away with its four occupants.
The old man was too shaken to resist when the wolf carried him home.
"And that's pretty much it," Alex concluded. "I haven't commed the police yet. He asked me not to."
The living room of his parents' house felt warm, but crowded. Odd how he didn't feel like it was his house as well. Not anymore.
"But what could those people want from him?" ventured Alex's mother.
"Money," stated Helga. "He must have borrowed from mobsters when the bank wouldn't credit him anymore."
The older woman covered her mouth with a hand. "George, tell me you didn't do something of the sort."
"Of course not, Sah. You know me better than that."
Alice sighed. "I just wish we could help."
"Maybe we can," said Alex. He bit his lip. "Dad, he's your friend. Talk to him, please. He needs to get the law involved."
Hunter senior pondered. "All right. Help me up. I'll comm from my office."
They sat and fidgeted while they waited, Alex petting Rafe's head in his lap while his mother idly moved some knick-knacks between shelves and Alice leaned on his shoulder. In the middle of the room, Helga seemingly did her best to pass for a carpet. Rain rapped intermitently on the windows, as gusts of wind came and went; the smell of moisture drifted through the air like a ghost.
It didn't last long. The door opened brusquely, Hunter senior keeping himself upright against the frame. "I got his daughter. Papa Janiczek tried to kill himself."
The women of the house went over to the Janiczeks as soon as the police was done asking questions. With the old man in intensive care, they knew better than to leave his daughter alone. Awkward silence filled the empty space in the living room as Hunter senior fished for old music on the local mesh, coming up with forgotten albums from the storage of some unlikely device nobody had bothered to unplug after becoming useless years ago. Alex changed his place a few times only to end up on the floor, holding Rafe. His father pretended not to notice. After a while, the older man got up to fetch a bottle of wine from the kitchen -- made in a vineyard and aged naturally, he made clear -- and they drank it while playing ancient videogames from the Steader Archive, complete with replica controllers.
It didn't stop raining until dawn.
Late morning found the family at a run-down pizza parlor downtown, where creepy animatronics were putting on an equally creepy show on the stage, acting eerily smart on occasion. Judging by the reactions of most patrons, the decrepit ambience was part of the show. Besides, the food and serving were perfectly fine, Alex had to admit. There was even enough room at the table for him and Alice to eat while Fused with their RIDEs -- hardly an unusual sight even in Venars.
"So..." the wolf cleared his throat. "Mom, dad, we've been thinking..."
He looked at his silent parents on either side of the table before going on. "We make good money, and don't spend much. Why don't we buy the farm from you?"
"You mean you and Alice, son?"
"I mean me and Rafe, dad. Well, you can buy in too if you want, Alice."
Hunter senior frowned, clamping his mouth shut.
"George, I think that's a great idea." The older woman looked pointedly at her husband across the table. "He's our son. It was supposed to be his in the first place."
She placed her hand on the wolf's arm, feeling the artificial muscles under the fur. Yes, this was her son now, she told herself. Two people for the price of one. Not less, but more.
"I wouldn't mind owning shares," said the she-bear in Helga's voice. "I'm a land survey and disaster response model. Owning land should be my thing."
"Will that make you visit more often, dear?" Mrs. Hunter asked her.
The she-bear nodded curtly. "We'd love to."
Across the table from her, the wolf finished his large glass of soda. "No alcohol for me today" had been his exact words to the waiter. He could see the fake animatronic staring at them unsettingly with its one eye. It had been a minor surprise to notice that the vaguely pirate-y character was in fact an Integrate actor projecting a suit, the servomechanisms exposed through missing patches of fur being just hardlight. Then the waiter vanished into the kitchen, but the sensation of being watched did not.
It was high noon, or what passed for it in late October, and from the middle of the Sky Bridge they could see the entire city, an anthill drawn with straightline and compass, its traffic -- its lifeblood -- flowing incessantly around and around. There was little sign of the recent struggles, apart maybe from the ruined manufacturing plants off the south side, the letters A.C.E. still visible atop the highest tower. Any other damage had been long covered by rapid construction.
"Well," said Alex.
Alice eyed him with amusement. "Well what?"
"I guess this wasn't the visit you expected."
"Maybe. But this is really about you, isn't it."
Alex nodded. "Can you believe I spent my entire childhood down there? Thinking it was the world. And now it's just an insignificant backwater."
She took his arm and leaned against his shoulder. "It can still be your backwater, if you want it."
"That's the problem. I don't know anymore."
"You don't have to decide right now. Come on, let's have fun. I spotted an arcade on the way up here."
He smiled at her. "OK. Let me just call mom and tell her we'll be late."
"Odd..." he said after a moment. "Her comm is offline. Dad's, too."
"Guess they want a little privacy right now? Just like we do?"
"I should still be able to text them. They're gone from the mesh."
"Let's swing by your place real quick," suggested Helga. "If all is well, we're wasting a few minutes. Big deal."
The door to the house was unlocked. Wide open, in fact, and it soon became obvious that nobody was at home.
"Maybe they're over at the Janiczeks?" offered Alex.
"I commed while you were looking in the back," Alice told him. "No dice. But Sylvie says someone broke into their barn a few minutes ago. She's been too scared to go check."
"Mmm. Dad's workstation is unlocked too. This is no coincidence."
"Should I go to her?"
Alex rubbed his chin. "No, stay. Someone should be here for the police."
"What about you?"
"We're going to check out that barn. I know where it is." Alex patted Rafe's back.
"Alex, we don't know what's going on."
"We'll be careful," answered Rafe instead. "I know my limits."
"Perhaps," she said once they were out of earshot. "But do you know those of a human being?"
The barn wasn't far from where they had visited with the old man a day before: a long two-story building with skimmer loading bays at both levels and a ramp for tractors at the far end. The wolf slid out from among the trees, not that they provided much cover at this time of the year, and made a bee line for the main doors; there were no windows on the short side of the building. There was no lock on the door anymore, either, and it slid open with little noise. Gloom reigned inside, clinging to the rough walls, and a chill draft blew along the central corridor. Hundreds of bags filled with corn ears piled up, unsold, in storage rooms on either side. Another set of doors at the far end couldn't muffle the voices and heat signatures of half a dozen people in the next room.
The wolf shoved them open.
Alex's parents were there all right, sitting in a corner with two guns pointed at them. There were two more thugs apart from the gunmen, watching the windows for any sign of movement. The wolf reflexively checked the network signal. It was jammed. Of course.
"Don't lift a finger," spat one of them, "or we plug them."
"And void your insurance policy?" asked the wolf.
The man laughed. "What are you going to do? You're no killer."
"Oh, you'll survive... probably. But I'll make sure you serve your sentence in Alpha Camp."
He said that in a voice much calmer than either of his halves felt, and noticed the gunmen hesitate.
"We don't want any trouble," offered one of them. "Just to make sure nobody squeals before we skip town."
"And figure out what you told the cops," added the other.
"Perhaps recoup some of our losses, too," came a new voice from the shadows. "A RIDE would do nicely."
The wolf could have sworn the man in front of him hadn't been on his sensors a moment before. He had a cheap suit on, that clashed with his fur, triangular ears and bushy tail painting him as some sort of canid. Round lenses on his forehead and the back of his hands glowed dimly: an Integrate.
"Kindly de-Fuse," he ordered calmly.
Outwardly, the wolf stood his ground. Beneath the metal, a freezing storm howled. From the corner of his eye, he saw his mother cover her mouth with one hand. The gunmen seemed more preoccupied with keeping the older couple from intervening. He made a decision.
"I'm not giving up my human so easily. Worked too hard to acquire this one."
The Integrate grinned. "So that's how it is. And what will your human say if I ventilate his parents?"
"What makes you think I care?" asked the wolf in a voice that seemed to come from the darkness of a forest at night. A kernel of light was growing in the cup of his right hand.
"Very well. Shoot t..."
The energy pulse struck the Integrate squarely in the chest, and sent him staggering. Then the wolf was at his throat, the furred fighters grasping and pummeling each other. The Integrate was smaller, if still bigger than any human, his partially synthetic muscles more tightly packed. Every one of his blows made metal crunch.
"Your armor is weak," he grinned.
"You don't have any," retorted the wolf, wrestling him to the ground. His massive fist raised, then dropped, and the Integrate doubled over. For a moment he seemed beaten, then a shockwave blasted outwards from his body, throwing the wolf off his feet and across the floor. In the background, unnoticed, a massive shape floated silently down through a hole in the ceiling.
"What are you waiting for?" the Integrate snapped at his gunmen.
Blue bolts of light sizzled through the air, and the weapons fell to the floor along with their owners.
"You forgot to secure the loft," said the she-bear calmly, stepping into the light.
Silvery-red blood trickled down from the corner of the Integrate's mouth as he got up. His other two accomplices were already gone. "This day keeps getting better," he said, hands starting to glow. His pulse bolts shattered on the she-bear's shields.
"The smart move would be to run," she added. "We don't even know you."
"You know too much," he replied, before firing again. "And you owe me for the ruined operation."
The she-bear angled her shields to deflect. One of the bolts hit the wall dangerously close to Alex's parents, blowing chunks out of it, and she closed in to her opponent, defenses visibly weakening with every impact she had to absorb. Yet she pressed on, and he backed into a column then tried to dart past her only to be caught in a bear hug from behind.
"Integrates have to train their powers," she pointed out smugly. "RIDEs simply get upgrades."
"Who says I haven't trained?" he retorted, twisting into the arm lock until his palms pointed upwards. The twin pulse rounds narrowly missed his own ears, but burned into the she-bear's face, and she screamed, stumbling backwards.
"Alice! No!" shouted the wolf. He tried to stand up and couldn't. Bright bolts streaked from his outstretched hands, one after another, but the Integrate easily dodged most of them, the rest bouncing off his own shields.
"Missed me!" he smirked, right before half the ceiling collapsed on top of him.
Morning sunlight snuck quietly into every corner of the bedroom. Alex found himself awake among twisted sheets, wondering why he was alone. The carpets were soft and warm under his naked feet as he followed the sounds of the house to the living room. Rafe was there, on the back porch, talking to the young man's father over the morning tea, but he couldn't hear what they were saying.
He moved on.
At least the kitchen looked just like three days before, complete with the smell of warm breakfast. He made sure to hug his mother and Alice before leaning outside to pet Helga.
"Hey, girl," he said softly, "you're looking great."
She licked his face. "They do good work at that garage you recommended. Almost as good as Paul and Lili back home."
"What a name though," said Alice. "La Wrench of Paris? Really?"
"That's Venars for you," he answered, sitting down to a full plate. "Any news?"
"Actually, yes." His mother nodded. "They called from the hospital. Papa Janiczek is awake. He insisted to thank you for saving him."
"After all the damage I did?"
"He said not to worry, the barn was too old anyway."
"Sounds like him all right." Alex set down the fork to pour himself a glass of apple juice. "I just wish we could have done more."
"You can't shoot an economic downturn in the face," Alice quipped. She walked around the table to give him a hug. "Aw, darling, don't be so glum. You did well back there."
"There are always more sharks in the sea." He kissed her in return.
The sound of steps in the hallway preceded Alex's father squeezing in.
"Good morning, son. Any plans for today?"
"Morning, dad. I guess we'll head to the mall or something? Between the police investigation and all the paperwork, we're stuck in town until Halloween anyway."
"I'm glad you are. Me and your mother have missed you."
"Yeah. I missed you too, dad."
The autumn day was more beautiful than it had any right to. Someone had even fixed the hole in the handrail on Big Bridge, and... was there a large furry shape snaking its way through the river's murky water?
"What did you and dad talk about?"
"I thought you didn't care about that stuff."
"It's in my blueprints. I can't help but wonder what might have been."
"A very different story," the young man answered, passing his fingers through the wolf's fur as they walked on.
Return to Alpha Camp
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