User:Jetfire/All Spark Bulletin

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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti

All Spark Bulletin

Author: Jetfire

Summer, 153 AL Cascadia

The young man wandered through the terminal, looking up through the clear roof to the rain drenched dome that covered the facility. "From the freezer to the dishwasher. Not sure if that's much of an improvement," he said, mostly to himself.

Beside him, a tall humanoid robot walked. It had the classic robot look, with white and black panels making up its surfaces. Its face was a hardlight screen, dark with a glowing simple face that was smiling. It chirped softly to its partner and hugged itself, shivering.

"Yeah, I know Sparky. Rain is better than the cold I guess. And we are only here for a layover. The Alohan gate's down this way," Gary said.

Both of them tried not to stare too much at the crowds around them. There was a mix of plain humans, humans with tails, large animals, some fully furred, most with metal skins, and humanoid animals, with a similar furry and metal skin mix. Between growing up and walking the beat in the Laurasian city of Nujose, and months with an officer exchange with the Cape Nord department where RIDEs weren't common yet, they hadn't had much exposure to the robotic animal partners. The number of RIDEs they were seeing now was overwhelming them a bit; and they knew Cascadia wasn't as RIDE crazy as other places on the continent, like Aloha, where they were going.

As they got closer to their gate's waiting area, they realized there was a commotion going on. A couple dozen young people, with a dozen RIDEs of various types, were celebrating loudly. About half of them, male and female alike, were half undressed, with flower necklaces around their necks. From their expressions, the officers could tell most of them were drunk, or nearly drunk.

Exasperated gate attendants were trying to get the group back under control. "People, please, put your clothes back on!" one was saying as the officers got closer. Another was on the comm, speaking to someone else. Gary suspected it was security.

"Welcome to Aloha!" a young woman with a bushy squirrel tail shouted in his face before hugging him. He froze in surprise, intensely aware that she wore only a floral necklace and a very skimpy bikini bottom.

One of the few sober people in the group pulled her away from Gary. "Alice, we aren't in Aloha yet. Put your clothes back on before we get booted off the sub," the fox eared and tailed man said. He looked back at Gary and rolled his eyes, "Sorry about that. End of term celebrations started a bit early."

"Oh lighten up Chris, we're all but there now. Clothing's optional down there!" she retorted, a hand going down to the knot of her bikini. Chris intercepted the hand and continued guiding her back into the group.

A gate attendant noticed Gary and Sparky and approached them. She had no RIDE signs that they could tell. "I'm sorry for this disturbance. The end of term University groups can get a bit rowdy at times. Are you here for the Alohan flight?"

Gary nodded, keeping an eye on the group over her shoulder. "We are. Do you need any help? We're police officers."

She smiled and shook her head, "No thank you. There's no need. Port security is on the way. If you would prefer, you're welcome to stay in the executive lounge over there, until the flight boards. As an apology for this disturbance."

From further down the corridor, a quartet of fused guards came out of a side door. Two canines, a female feline and a male fourth animal type he couldn't recognize. Sparky tapped his shoulder and pointed to the executive lounge door.

"You're right, old friend. We're not going to get the chance to see that lounge that often. Not on our salaries. Thank you, we accept the offer," Gary told the attendant, starting towards the lounge. He half wanted to see how the fused security guards would handle the situation, but he figured he'd have more opportunities in Aloha.

Summer, 153 AL, Aloha

Gary waited, leaning against the wall of the sub-way where the human passengers joined the RIDE and fused passengers to enter the terminal. Most of the RIDEs in walker mode met up with people coming from the upper decks, but he noted a couple of RIDEs leaving without pausing to look for a human partner. Finally, he saw his robotic partner come up.

"Have a good flight?" he asked, falling into step with Sparky.

Sparky raised his hands and gave two thumbs up. Then tilted his head inquiringly to Gary.

"Yeah, I did too. The college group was on a different deck, so they didn't disturb us," he answered. They could hear live music playing at the end of the walkway, a mix of kettle drums and other percussion instruments, along with a piano.

At the end of the sub-way, they were greeted by a large parrot, and a woman. The woman especially startled them both. She had opalescent green and blue feathers instead of hair, and long feathers on her arms, yellow on the inside, blue on the outside. She was smiling, revealing fused, shiny black teeth. She wore only a floral necklace, made from fresh flowers, and a grass skirt. The large parrot RIDE matched her colouring.

"Welcome to Aloha. Enjoy your stay!" she exclaimed, draping another fresh necklace around his neck. The parrot seemed momentarily confused by Sparky, before she dropped a similar necklace over Sparky's head.

"Thank you," Gary said, smiling back at her. Sparky chirped happily and continued out of the gate area. They spotted the source of the music as a small group, dressed similar to their greeter, playing on a platform in the main concourse.

They paused next to the washrooms and looked around slowly. "So you figure out where we're supposed to go next? Someone was supposed to meet us at the port, but they didn't say where," Gary mused. Sparky shrugged and looked around as well.

They didn't realize the large, fully furred golden lab RIDE was approaching them until just before he stopped near them. "Officer Gary Benton? And Sparky? Of Nujose?" the RIDE asked them.

"Yes, that's us."

The RIDE sat down and held up a paw, in a classic shake paw movement. Gary took the large paw and shook it. "I'm Rex, Detective Munn-Daye's RIDE and partner. Welcome to Aloha."

"Detective Munn-Daye?" Gary quirked his head to one side, smirking.

"Yes, we intentionally picked that when we realized the combo. But you can call me Ryan." The voice came from the bathroom entrance behind them. Its source was a well tanned man, with golden hair that matched his RIDE, as well as ears and a feathery tail. He was dressed in khaki shorts and a short sleeved shirt, with a badge clipped to its pocket.

Gary shook his hand, followed by Sparky. "Actually, I was picking up more on the Munn side. It was a group of Munns that lead me to come here."

"The twins? Yeah, they're my cousins in law. Scratch is sort've my brother in law as well. The Munn family tree's still short, but it's spreading fast. If you meet someone with the name, they aren't too far removed from anyone else you've met. So what do you think of our polity so far?" Ryan grinned and started leading them towards the exit. "Do you have any checked baggage?"

"No, no checked baggage save for what Sparky's got. Sold most of it in Cape Nord. Figured there isn't much need for forty below gear around here."

"No, not much need. Unless you're out in the Dry. And even then you'd need a different type of forty below gear."

Gary nodded, "I've heard. As for your polity... I'm still getting used to it. I mean, Cape Nord didn't have nude anything, save for the stripper clubs. Nujose has some nude beaches, but they're a public secret more than anything. This is the first time I've ever seen a nude airport."

Ryan chuckled, leading them to the parking lot. "True. We do have a very laissez-faire attitude around here that surprises most people. It's a big part of our tourist draw. But really, for us, it's no big deal. It's just the body. Everyone's got one. Generally speaking, our view is that if you aren't harming someone else, you can do what you want. Makes our job easier in some ways, and damn near impossible in others, but it works out."

Gary paused as Ryan lead them to a wheeled skimmer with a flat bed. The seats were just protected by the windshield, but were otherwise open to the air. Air that he was beginning to find hot, dressed in his long sleeved shirt and pants. Rex had already jumped up in the back of the skimmer and settled down.

"I figured it would be easier for us to talk on the way in if we stayed together, at least until you and Sparky get used to the traffic flow around here. So I rented this skimmer for us."

Rex grinned from the back, "It's nice to make him haul my furry butt around for a change," the RIDE said.

They climbed into the vehicle, and Ryan set it on autopilot. It left the port's parking lot and joined the light ground traffic on the highway heading to the city to the north.

"OK, this is driving me nuts," Gary said once they were on the road. "What is your accent? I can't place it, and I'm usually good at placing Zharusian accents."

Ryan chuckled, "Good ear to hear it so quickly. But it's not a Zharusian accent. I'm from Mars originally, a Martian orphan from when Earth decided to drop some rocks on Sharp City. I was on a school trip to Olympus at the time, so I missed the fun."

"Oh, I'm sorry..."

"Don't sweat it. It was a long time ago, and a long ways away. You probably never heard of Sharp City, let alone know anything about Martian-Terran politics. Hell I don't even know anything about them now. I'm Zharusian through and through now."

He leaned back in his seat and looked at Gary, then back at Sparky. He tapped the controls and the skimmer slowed down a little. "Right, no time like the present to do the briefing. You've probably read up on this, but they wanted me to make sure you were aware of this all."

Before Gary could say anything, the wind screen darkened and a holographic map of their corner of Gondwana appeared. Stretching above the map was the elevator, and the bulge at the end. Sparky moved forward and leaned between the seats to watch closer.

"Aloha is made of four main cities. First, there was Aloha proper, the biggest city. It's main industries are tourism, government and education mainly.

"Second there was Seahaven, out near the Arch leading to the Dry Ocean. It's pretty industrial and commercial, set up to support the towns and other Dry Ocean activities.

"Third and fourth, are Aloha Space, and Touchdown, anchoring the two ends of the elevator. Both are transportation hubs mainly, designed to get people and material up to space or down from orbit.

"We have other towns popping up here and there, and we expect Tethysport will declare itself our fifth city in another decade or two, but you don't really need to know that. What you do need to know, is that while all four cities have their own police, their, and our, jurisdiction extends across the entire polity.

"You'll be paired with me, or someone else who knows the laws and regs, so don't worry too much about the details. Just remember, that we're a lot more lax compared to pretty much everyone else on the planet. Public nudity, even sex are allowed, though we generally ask people to use privacy fields for the latter. Smuggling is virtually nonexistant; you can bring in Sturmhaven Chocolate, Califia Weed, Rodinian star dust, or anything else, as long as you declare and pay the taxes and duty fees.

"Most of our crime otherwise is the standard stuff. Robberies, assaults, home invasions, murders; though we don't have too many of those thank goodness; Missing people and most importantly, keeping the peace and so forth."

Outside the skimmer, the grassy plains that surrounded the airport became more populated. Industrial parks for research labs and similar formed the outer boundary of Aloha proper, mixed with small neighbourhoods mostly filled with four or five story condo and apartments. The closer they got to the water, the denser the buildings became, passing by open air malls, and taller office buildings, condo towers and hotels.

The vehicle turned onto a broad road, filled with slow moving traffic. On the ocean side, there were small stores and restaurants, interspersed with broad roads and walkways for people to reach the beaches on the other side. Every couple of klicks, there was usually a large hotel complex, with tall towers and flashy hardlight construct advertizing. Most of the buildings spanned the road, connecting to towers on the other side.

"This is the Coastal Boulevard, the heart of Aloha's resort district. Some of our most famous resorts are built along here, in the space between the road and the Boardwalk. City ordinances keep them spaced far enough apart so that regular people can access the shore regularly. The beaches themselves are public, as is the Boardwalk. Technically, Costa Del Sol's beach is a private beach, since they built before the rules were locked down; but they'd be lynched if they tried to close it off.

"APD's got two stations at either end of the Boardwalk, and an excellent relationship with the security departments of the resorts in between. We usually operate out of a station further inland, in the first District, but you'll see that tomorrow."

The skimmer pulled into a parking garage of a resort and Ryan climbed out. Rex hopped off the back, wagging his tail. "This is the Golden Coast. It's got the tallest observation deck in Aloha, at least until Costa finishes it's expansion. I understand Sparky has a fuse mode. Can you fly with it?"

Sparky nodded, and began to swell, panels sliding open on its chest, arms, legs and face. Gary stepped back into his partner, and they slid back, leaving the armored man hovering a few centies off the ground. His face was covered with a metal shield, that just left Sparky's 'eyes' visible.. "Will this do?" Gary asked, grinning behind the face shield.

Ryan nodded and Rex smoothly engulfed the detective, leaving a furry humanoid retriever standing there. Hardlight versions of Ryan's clothes appeared a moment later. "That should do fine. We could have taken the elevators up, but I prefer flying when I can."

They flew out of the garage, and followed the clear tube of an elevator up the side of the golden tower. After landing on the observation deck, Ryan gave the Laurasian pair a long look.

"OK, you can colour me impressed. Even here we haven't seen many of those Emergent IDE's you guys have been making. My father in law, she was a big IDE pilot back in the day, but Sparky, he's something different. Her jets, they were never autonomous for one thing."

Gary tapped his armored side and grinned, "Yeah, it is. You guys got hooked on the animal AI's and ran with it. We saw what you did, and used it to just improve the IDE's, to give them their own minds. Supposedly our fuse connection isn't as strong as yours, but we can also fuse without getting animal traits... No offense intended."

"None taken. But I am puzzled. Can't Sparky speak? All he's done is mime and chirp and beep."

The armored man shrugged, "He's got the equipment, and it works. But some quirk in his core blocks him. No one's been able to sort it out. He was the prototype, and probably shouldn't be on active duty, but we bonded so well in training, we stayed on as a team. I've got an implant tuned to him that he can speak a bit more clearly with, but all in all we understand each other without it."

Ryan chuckled and looked around to get his bearings. "A core quirk. Don't tell my wife that, or she'd take it as a challenge to make him speak. Anyway, to continue our tour.

"Out there, that big trihulled ship there, is the Queen of Thorns. It's the one that Jason and Nick used to discover and found this place. Jason kept the ship, and raised his six kids there. They still live there, or at least their youngest two do. The twins you met grew up there, but they live in the city proper now."

He turned and pointed westward, to the headland just visible. "Up there is the Aerie. It's where Nick settled after Aloha was founded, and where he raised his two kids. Wanda and I took it over when she disappeared, and we still live there. Scratch and Nikki have their own places on the compound up there."

Sparky zoomed in enough for Gary to make out the buildings built into the headland, one large and a couple of smaller ones. The pronoun change caught in his mind again, and he turned to look at Ryan. "Wait, her? That's the second time you mixed up the pronouns."

"Nick became Nikki when he decided to fuse with his female eagle RIDE, Astra. Which as you noticed, makes tracking relations and pronouns trickier," Ryan chuckled, "Of course that's not the strangest part of my lawful family. Little Mary, Jason and Sam's daughter, her mother is actually Jason and her father is Sam. They, Jason and Sam that is, swap RIDE partners every five years."

Gary shook his head and internally began to wonder if they'd taken on more than they could handle. Sparky sent a reassuring impression to his implant.

Ryan lead them along the platform. "Yeah, the Munns are a bit eccentric, in their own way. Not as bad as the Steaders or the Waltons, but up there. But you get used to it after awhile. It's their version of l'Esprit d'Aloha that most people who live here have."

The detective continued with the visual tour, pointing out the other major resorts and buildings in the city, as well as the various districts it was divided into. Finally, sensing even Sparky might be getting overwhelmed, he lead them back to the skimmer and had it take them to an apartment tower.

"We've got a furnished apartment here for you. You're welcome to look for another place if you want, but this one is in a nice part of town, and within your accommodation budget. Plus, Aaron lives two floors above your place if you need a familiar face. He's out of town till the weekend, but I'm sure he and Chimo will drop by," Ryan explained, leading them up to a door on the eighth floor.

"Thanks, I'm sure this will be fine," Gary said, taking the keys once Ryan opened the door.

Ryan stayed in the doorway, while the Laurasian pair entered. "We're on for third shift tomorrow. Be at the station by ten. You want a pick up or do you think you can find your way?"

Gary looked around the sparsely furnished apartment. Sparky was already looking out on the deck. "We'll be able to find our way, I think. Give us a shout if we aren't there."

"Sounds good. Oh! And Wanda wanted me to invite you two up for dinner after the shift tomorrow. Personally, I suspect she and Nikki want to meet Sparky more than they want to meet you, but that's what I get for marrying into a tech family."

Separator f.png

Gary leaned back in the hard light leather seat of Sparky's flitter mode, and closed his eyes, trying to catch up on the events of the day. Their first day at Central Precinct had been like most other first days he'd experienced; a whirlwind of new faces, new names, paperwork, new regulations, unwritten rules and unknown cliques. What made it even more challenging was that he had almost twice the number of names to remember than he was used to. The roster had the normal number of cops on it that he expected from a station of that size; what he hadn't expected was that three quarters of them had RIDE partners as well, with their own names and personalities. He had the hardest time when they were fused; he often couldn't tell which was speaking, or which he should talk to.

"Be careful what you wish for," he mumbled to himself, reopening his eyes and looking ahead. Traffic was getting lighter as they headed for the headland the Aerie was built on. They were a few decametres behind the golden tetralifter that was Rex.

His partner chirped in sympathy, sensing Gary's unease. "Well, we wanted to go somewhere where RIDEs were more common, and now we got our wish. And now we're going into the den of the most eccentric family this end of the continent." Gary sighed.

Sparky flashed an arrow, pointing back to the city. Gary shook his head. "No, we said we'd go. It wouldn't be polite to turn it down now. Into the lion's den we go, my friend."

Soon enough, Sparky and Rex were the only ones flying the invisible air track. The last skimmer had turned away minutes ago. Rex lead them down to a patio that overhung the strait below. The RIDE shifted to walker form and Ryan swung off onto the deck. Sparky and Gary followed him.

"Impressive place," Gary said, looking through the windows to the living room, and up to the second floor. "Would be hard to swing on a cop salary."

"You haven't seen any of it yet. And yeah, the taxes alone were my entire APD salary back when we got married. Luckily, I married a sugar wife, and got a sugar mama along for the ride." he opened the patio door, to reveal a woman, her arms crossed, tapping her foot. A gray spotted tail swished behind her, and her furry ears were twitched back, against her head.

"Sugar wife am I?" she said coldly.

Ryan hugged his wife and gave her a kiss. "Sugar wife indeed. You and the girls are the sweetest thing in my life after all."

Wanda's mock anger faded quickly and she returned the hug and kiss. "Mmm someday I won't fall for that line."

A loud "Ewwww" caused them to break apart, and focused all eyes towards the dining room. A young girl, about eleven years old, with brown hair, was standing there, her face scrunched up in disgust.

"Nikki, go finish setting the table for dinner," Wanda called out. The girl disappeared and the couple turned back to Gary. She held out her hand to him, "You must be Gary, welcome to the Aerie. I'm Ryan's better half whom he probably hasn't told near enough about yet."

Gary chuckled and shook the hand. "Not nearly enough indeed. You wear the fur well. This is my partner, Sparky."

Sparky took her hand and bent forward, touching it to its face screen where lips would be. She watched it curiously and smiled. "An autonomous IDE. Dad's gonna go nuts," she grinned. "Pleased to meet you too, Sparky. Feel free to top off in any plug; they're all RIDE safe."

The EIDE released her hand and nodded its head, looking around the room. Its head stopped at a large gray furry mound, laying in the sun coming through the windows. As it watched, eyes opened up, and a large mouth yawned hugely. "Hi guys. This spot is mine," Krystal rumbled, before closing her eyes again.

Rex snorted, slipping past the Laurasians and flopping on another RIDE couch in the room. "Zharus, where the cats finally managed to get their proper 28 hours of sleep a day," he growled playfully.

Krystal cracked one eye opened, "Well anything less than 26 would be criminal. But if you must know, I'm helping Astranikki crunch some numbers on the mesh."

"Astranikki?" Gary asked curiously.

Wanda nodded and motioned for them to move in deeper. "What we call dad sometimes, especially if my Nikki's in earshot. She spends most of her time fused now, so it cuts down the confusion."

"I've heard it's dangerous to spend a long time fused...."

Ryan nodded, "It is. But the damages Nikki and Astra suffered out in the dry, well she's a bit self conscious about her unfused look now, so she's usually fused when company is over. How were the twins today, dear?"

"Little darlings today, for a change. They're both asleep now too, thank goodness. No Nikki, the knives go on the other side."

Ryan grinned at Gary, "Christine and Cheryl, our two newest bundles of joy. Almost a year old now. They're the other reason you got saddled with me. I just got off paternity leave, so my case load was light enough to fit you in."

Wanda continued into the kitchen, "Dinner is almost ready. You want anything to drink before then? Water? Juice? Pop? Beer? Wine? Milk? The milk isn't mine."

"Water will be fine. Thanks." Gary fell silent as he saw another figure step out of the hallway.

She was tall, over two metres, and covered in brown and yellow feathers. She had a hooked beak, and dark piercing eyes. What especially caught his attention, was her wings. She had large wings, pulled in against her back, along with separate scaley arms and taloned hands. She wore shorts, but was topless, and feathered all over. In the dim light of the hall, he could have sworn he saw the feathers glowing slightly, but after he blinked, the glow was gone.

"You must be Gary, the cop that saved my niece. Welcome to our home," the eagle woman greeted him.

He took her offered talon and squeezed gently. He could sense the strength in the grip, as well as the sharpness of her talons, even as she was careful not to squeeze too hard. "I am. Thank you for having me, Miss Munn. But really, Aaron had done whatever it was he did long before I got there. Sparky and I..." he trailed off, realizing her attention was elsewhere.

Astranikki stepped past him, her gaze locked on Sparky. The EIDE realized she was focused on him, and let out a concerned beep. Watching from the sidelines, Gary felt for his partner; her gaze was strong enough, he felt it would take the robot apart while they watched.

"Dad! Down! No taking apart our guests before dinner!" Wanda called out, sensing the situation.

The eagle woman shook her head, and the pressure faded as quickly as it had built up. She studied Sparky with a more normal gaze while approaching it. Both Laurasians felt like something had almost happened that they didn't quite understand.

"Fascinating. A modified RI core, but no animal templates. And using fuse nanies for the connection. Why didn't we ever think of that?" she mused, still studying instead of greeting the robot. Sparky beeped at her, and held out its hand.

She shook her head again and the edge of her beak twitched up. She took the offered hand and shook it. "Sorry about that. I was a jet jockey long before I got my feathers. Not used to IDE's that talk back. At least not talking back as vocally as you. Hello there."

Sparky beeped back to her, and nodded its head. It backed away from her, moving behind Rex as soon as it could.

"OK guys. If Dad's done spooking the guests, dinner is ready. Come and get it."

Separator f.png

The quartet walked along the boardwalk that separated the beach from the main roads. The crowds were thick with sunbathers, swimmers, and people enjoying the city.

"Sorry about Astranik. She can be quite intense without realizing it," Ryan apologized.

Sparky chirped, and Gary nodded, "It's OK. She caught us by surprise. She was quite pleasant once we got to know her." He paused a moment, just out of the main foot traffic. "There is one thing I'm a bit confused about."

The canine RIDE stopped next to him. "What is it?" Rex asked.

Gary pointed to the sky where a trio of fused avians were flying in formation. "I don't know much about RIDEs, but I thought Avians usually only had one pair of arms when fused. Not arms and wings."

Ryan and Rex exchanged a quick look. "It's not that uncommon, but few RIDEs are set up like that. since it is an extra set of limbs. Astra originally had wing arms like those ones, but the storm and her time in the dry mixed things up a bit. Got the experts up and down the coast confused.."

"Oh, I see. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Most people tend to find her strange in person. That's part of the reason she tends to stay at home, or in the Dry so much. Care for an ice cream?"

"Sure, two scoops of chocolate would hit the spot."

The Alohan pair fused up and joined the line leading to a small stand. Sparky and Gary wandered down to the beach, staying on the main paths and trying not to stare too much. One side effect of the popularity of fusing he'd noticed, was that everyone tended to have a fantastic body. With Aloha's openness, it meant there was a lot of eye candy to look at.

They reached the edge of the water and looked out. The shallows were packed with swimmers, and further out, a floating platform was set up with a diving board and slide. He heard shouts coming from that direction, but couldn't make out the words. Sparky noticed them too, and opened up, engulfing his partner.

Inside his armor, the shouts grew louder and clearer. "SHARK!"

They took off from the beach and shot towards the platform, searching for the source of the shouts. They finally found five people paddling frantically for the dive platform. Behind them, a large gray fin cut the water before going under.

"Keep going! I'll protect you," Gary shouted, his voice amplified through Sparky. He noticed more people swimming towards the platform, but incongruously some had stopped to watch. They shifted their attention, trying to pick up the shark.

Sparky chirped and turned their head. Its processors highlighted a shape underwater just as the fin appeared. Gary raised their arms, warming up the palm repulsers and paused. "It hasn't hurt anyone yet. Let's not get the Terraforming board mad by taking out one of their pets. Oh shit!"

As they watched, the form turned in the water and started to pick up speed, heading to a man who was frantically trying to reach the diving platform. People were on the edge of it, shouting encouragements, but the shark was gaining quickly.

"Low power, Sparky. Aim for the nose. Let's see if we can scare it off first," Gary ordered, adjusting their aim and letting his partner do the fine tuning. Power shifted through the armor, and their palms glowed a moment before a pair of glowing pulses flew out. The pulses sizzled briefly through the water before hitting the large swimming creature.

The shark shook his head briefly, and to their surprise, it jumped out of the water and floated up to them. As they watched, the creature shifted, legs separating from the tail, fins growing hands, the torso pulling inward a little, the head tilting forward and a thick neck forming.

"What the hell man? That was live fire! That's not part of the act!" the fused shark growled with a mouth full of sharp teeth. Her voice was low and gravelly, but her breasts and groin made made her sex clear.

Sparky chirped in confusion, echoed by his rider. "Act?" Gary asked, unable to get out anything else.

She rolled her eyes in frustration. "Argh! Doesn't anyone read? There are signs all over the beach and the mesh."

Gary shifted his attention to VR space, and saw the water all around the platform light up. He touched the water, and an alert popped up.

WARNING! Shark infested waters!
Get caught by Jaws and get a 100 mu slots credit at Universal Casino and resort!
Escape Jaws for a 200 mu slots credit!
(see more rules and regulations?)

"I didn't realize," Gary started to say, "I just heard the shouts...." he was beginning to notice that a lot of the swimmers on the platform were glaring at them for interrupting the act.

"You actually thought something as wild as a shark could get this far into the bay?" the shark girl glared at him.

"He's a newbie, Julie. Go easy on him," a new voice joined in. Rex and Ryan arrived, fused and carrying two cones.

The shark shifted her glare to the canine pair, who let it wash over them unphased. "Another newbie pair? I wish you'd stop using us for the awareness test."

"Well it works. No harm, no foul this time too." Ryan handed over the ice cream.

"No harm, less foul. Now I gotta give that guy the 200 mu escape credit." Her RIDE started shifting back to its swimmer form. "See yah 'round, Rex." she called out in a different voice that Gary realized was probably the actual shark. "Oh! And if he takes you to Olympus, the Kraken there is fake too," she called out as an afterthought.

Fully a shark again, she flew higher and twisted in the air. She fell into a face first dive, raising a splash that rolled over the platform. It would have reached the cops if Rex hadn't raised a shield in time.

"What the hell did I step in?" Gary asked as they flew back to the shore. Sparky opened up his face plate so he could start on the ice cream.

Ryan grinned, "Nothing major. As Julie said, it's just a little test I give most newbies, especially newbies from out of town. You did fairly well all things considered. Sure you missed the big signs, but you didn't escalate as bad as you could've."

"I still shot a woman just doing her job!"

"There is that. But you barely tickled her with that pop you put out. Her RIDE's an old sub-tank type; built to handle much more than we're usually loaded out with.

Gary stopped, barely restraining himself from throwing his untouched cone to the ground. "But I still shot her!"

Ryan stopped as well, his expression serious, though the effect was spoiled by the vanilla moustache on his upper lip. "Yes, you shot at a perceived threat. In the future you'll pay more attention to your environment and what's in play. Aloha's an entertainment mecca. Shows of all sorts are going on thirty six-dy. You need to pay attention to where you are, and what's going on. This test drilled that home to you better than me repeating it constantly ever would."

The two continued the stare down for a beat before Ryan continued, "Now, are you going to finish your ice cream, and this patrol? Or are you going to go back to the office? I'm sure they can find lots of tablet work for you."

Gary closed his eyes a moment, then nodded. Sparky released him and reformed next to his partner. "Frankly, I don't care for tests like that. But I have to admit, that one was effective." He pulled a pair of shades from his pocket and put them on. The HUD activated at a minimal setting, letting him see the first virtual overlay of the Alohan mesh. He licked up the melted part of his cone before it reached his hand and pointed forward, "Let's continue the patrol."

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Gary chopped up some onions, channelling his inner anger into the blade. He picked up the cutting board and scraped the vegetables into the hot pan. "Fifteen years without having to fire outside the range, and on the third day in Aloha, I shot a god damn tourist attraction," he growled as he worked on his dinner.

Sparky chirped from a chair, plugged into a charge socket.

"Yeah, I know, we were set up. But we should've thought more. It's our... It's my own damn fault for doing it." He opened the oven and checked on the roast.

The doorbell chimed while he was still bent over. Sparky let out a cheerful chord and got up, rushing to the door. "Don't look too eager to talk to someone beside a grumpy cop," Gary called to his partner.

When the door opened, a young man with thickly furred triangular ears and a thick tail was standing there. He had light blue skin and darker blue hair and fur, and was dressed just in shorts. Sparky chirped happily, then in confusion, miming adjusting controls next to its eyes.

"Hey Sparky, good to see you again," Aaron greeted the EIDE, holding his fist up. The robot fist bumped him back, while still looking puzzled. "Don't mind me. Chimo's in his blue mode again. He keeps wanting us to try out for the Blue RIDE Group, but I don't have the coordination for it."

Sparky stepped to one side and motioned for Aaron to enter. It looked back out the door.

"It's just me tonight. We just got in from the Cave, err well from the Dry. We were pushing it to get in early, and he decided he was too tired to be around others. He's upstairs, loafing about on the charger and the mesh. Hey there Gary. How's Aloha treating you?"

Gary closed the oven and tossed the pan of veggies. "Hi Aaron. Good to see you again, even if you seem rather blue." He opened the fridge and slid a beer down the counter. "Aloha's been... interesting so far. She's been treating me well, but, well I guess you'd say she's like a beautiful lady you meet, who has some idiosyncrasies that weren't obvious at first, and you aren't quite sure what to make of them when you do find them out."

Aaron chuckled and popped the beer open. "Wait, did you just call Aloha subtle? I don't think anyone's ever called this place that."

"No, not subtle. Just some of its craziness is hidden by other craziness. I think I'm still in culture shock to be honest."

"Understandable. It's only been what? Two or three days? Fine for a visit, but moving here and realizing you have to live with this craziness is a bit to get over. Especially when you're from the more straight laced places like Cape Nord."

"Yeah, Nujose's a bit looser than Nord was, but not much. Just from the patio out there, I see enough Nujose violations to make my quota for a month!"

"Tell me about it. When Ash and I were travelling, we went to Sturmhaven first. Man, talk about culture shock there. Oh man, I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was interrupting your dinner. I can come back later if you'd rather?"

Gary shook his head. "Nah, don't sweat it. Cooking's always better when you have someone to share it with. And I'm sure Sparky appreciates having someone around to keep me from ranting through my own shock." Sparky chirped and gave two thumbs up.

"Have you eaten yet? I've got more than enough for two. I'm the third of six kids in my family, so mom never made meals any smaller than battalion size, which means I never learned how to cook small amounts either."

Aaron shook his head and laughed. "I can relate. After Ash and I moved out, dad's always wondering why he has so much food on the boat now. And no I haven't eaten yet. Do you need a hand with anything?"

"Nah, I'm almost done all the hard parts. So your dad was the cook in the family?"

"Yup. Mom spent most of her time working at the health centre when we were growing up, doing what she could to make sure it got off on a solid foot. Plus she says she can't boil water without burning it. She isn't really that bad, but, well, let's just say when we were growing up, if mom was cooking we were hoping for delivery. Or hoping Boris or Melody would be cooking instead."

"Who are they?"

"Mom and Dad's RIDEs. We'd rather RIDE cooking than mom's." Aaron laughed and took a big swig from his drink.

Gary shook his head and chuckled as well. "Well, while I have a sister that has the same skills as your mom, we never resorted to robot cooking. But that might be changing."

Aaron looked pensive for a moment. "The times, they certainly are a-changing. Maybe more than we're ready for."

"Oh? What makes you say that?"

"Nothing really. Just thinking of that ancient Martian curse, 'May you live in interesting times.' . Our times certainly are interesting. Anyway, I heard you visited the tech side of The Family. Did Sparky make it out with all of his parts?"

The EIDE made a show of patting itself down before nodding and flashing a thumbs up. He then held his thumb and forefinger close together.

"He did," Gary translated. "But it was a close call. Your aunt Nikki can be quite... intense."

"She can be. It's something we forget about sometimes because we're used to her. But for newbies. Well, you survived and that's the main thing."

Gary looked at the husky-man curiously, not sure how serious to take the comment, then shrugged it off. They moved on to other conversations while the dinner progressed. After the meal was cleaned up, they were running out of topics to talk about. Gary could sense that, like everyone else in this Family, there were things Aaron didn't talk about in detail, usually related to his aunt, his eldest brother or his friend, Scratch. He mentally filed the new clues away in the growing file, and didn't pry.

After finishing off a post dinner beer, Aaron stood up and started for the door. "Well, I should get going now. It was good to see you again."

"You too. It's always good to see familiar faces when you're in a new place. A shame your sister and Scratch are still out."

"True, but they'll be back by next weekend. It's Naming Day, and we always try to be in town for it."

Gary nodded, "Ryan already warned me about it. We're taking some of the early shifts, and we're supposed to be on standby just in case."

"Yeah, that's normal. Has he invited you out to the boat yet?"

Sparky gave a puzzled chirp and shrugged.

"The Queen of Thorns. Mom and Dad's place. We have a big family gathering there every Naming Day. Big meal, lots of talking, seeing the kids and what not. And the Queen is the best place to watch the light show from."

"Sounds like fun. But sounds like a family thing. You sure we wouldn't be a fifth lifter?"

"Nah, not at all. You're basically here because of us, it's only fair we try to make you feel welcomed. I'm sure Ryan would have invited you once he remembered it; that's the main reason he takes the early shifts on Naming Day."

Gary looked at Sparky who nodded. "Well, I guess we've got plans now. Thanks for the invite. We'll be there."

Aaron grinned and stepped out. "Great! I'm just upstairs if you need anything at all. See you later!"

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The cargo skimmer flew over a grass sea, dotted here and there with clumps of trees. The only signs of man were the rare guidance tower; metal posts with a bundle of electronics on top that barely poked above the grass. The two cops rode in the cab, while Rex and Sparky lounged in the skimmer's cargo section.

"This is the Maasai Plains, the largest plains on Gondwanaland, and the south eastern edge of Aloha's domain. Where the plains change over to jungle is where Punta Sur starts. Laurasia and Rodinia have larger grass seas, but these ones are ours," Ryan explained, in tourguide mode again.

"We're on our way to the Serengeti resort, located at the base of the mountains on the edge of our territory, though technically Punta Sur is closer. It's also about as far away from the Ring road as you can get while still being on the Maasai. Basically, it's a resort for people who want to get as far from the crowds around the Bay as you can, while still having Alohan freedoms."

Gary nodded and looked out. To their left, he could see a massive herd of animals. His specs identified the herd of mainly being made of wildebeests, zebras and elands, with a smattering of other species not necessarily from Earth's Africa.

"So we're going there for prisoner transport? Wouldn't a sub be faster?"

"True, it would be faster, but speed isn't everything. The prisoner's just a young kid who was caught stealing from the guests. A year or two earlier and he'd be in the juvie system. As is, the resort just wants him taken off their hands. We take him back, slap a monitor anklet on him for his probation, and wish him well."

Ryan leaned back in his seat and looked out at the herd. "Main reason I'm driving instead of subbing, is because it lets us get away for a bit during the pre-Naming Day craziness back home. And I love to take any excuse I can find to drive out here."

"Do you find many excuses? To drive out? I do admit these views are incredible."

"Not as many as I'd like. Serengeti is pretty calm most of the time. They have local security for handling the everyday stuff, and Punta Sur can scramble their own forces for emergencies faster than we can get there. But we usually send a few people down every month or two; to show the flag so to speak and make sure they're still following our rules and stuff. We do that with all the satellite resorts in the territory."

The resort itself, and its associated village, was built on the shore of a small lake. The lake was fed by a river that tumbled out of the mountains to the north, and in turn fed a river that formed the dividing line between Aloha and Punta Sur. Dark green jungle covered the far shore of the lake.

The resort and village had about two hundred permanent residents, and could handle three hundred guests at a time. The skimmer skipped the main resort buildings and pulled up to a small building with a subtle APD symbol next to the door. The humans climbed out and stretched, while their partners hopped off the back.

"Beautiful place. I can see why people show up here," Gary noted, looking around. "You know, it's rather funny. We can cross the vast vacuums of space, but when we go to build new homes, we still build them near water when we can. Guess it goes to show we're still not as far from our monkey ancestors as we might like to think."

"Or something like that." Ryan smirked and waved to a big fused lion-man. He wore a simple khaki security uniform, sized big enough to handle his size.

"Ryan! Rex! Good to see you again!" the man roared, shaking Ryan's hand, the human's hand disappearing in the big man's paw.

"Good to see you too, Kimba. This is Gary and Sparky. Laurasian transplants who are working with me. Gary, Sparky, this is Kimba. Head of security for Serengeti, and an APD Captain."

Kimba greeted the Laurasian pair as joyfully as he had greeted Ryan, though Gary briefly felt a similar feeling to how Nikki had greeted them.

:Rex, these new guys. Do they know about Inties?: Kimba sent while reaching for Gary's hand.

:Nope. We haven't had a need to tell them yet, but they did have a close call with Astranikki. Why do you ask?:

:Damnit. That may be a problem. Someone must have stripped out the subsignals again.: Kimba cursed inwardly.

:Sub signals? You mean this is an Intie matter? Damnit. How bad?:

:Not that bad. The overall story is right. Kid's been integrated a few years now. Was at the Cave until they opened the doors and decided he wanted to get the sand out of his hooves, and came here to start fresh. He ran afoul of your wife's Intie traps when he tried to steal some credit information:

:Yeah we've been exposing a lot of inties back in the city since Wanda's toys have been spread out more. How hostile is he?:

:Little cocky, but not too bad. Appa's message didn't take in him, thank goodness.:

:Guess we'll take the chance. I'll fill Ryan in.:

In real time, Kimba had just taken Gary's hand, when Rex started moving towards Ryan. He fused with his partner while Gary spoke to Sparky. Ryan frowned when he got the news, but Rex kept the expression from showing on their fused face.

"Right, I do wish we could stay here longer, but they'll have my hide if we're out of the city too long this close to Naming Day," Ryan said, shifting gears.

Kimba nodded and motioned to the door of the building. "I understand. We've got a full house here ourselves. At the resort that is, not in the jail. Wish you could be here for the show. We hired BoomEx from Uplift to do our lake show again. They did a fantastic job last year and are planning to top it again this year."

The fused cop followed Kimba in, followed by Gary and Sparky. Sparky chirped softly and pointed to the fused pair. Gary shrugged and shook his head. "If it was important to fuse, I'm sure he would have signalled us," he whispered to his partner, half listening to the chatter ahead of them.

The station was small. The front half had a waiting area and a desk, that was covered with various tablets and printouts, along with a half eaten rare steak and a strange looking drink. A door opened to the back half of the building, where a row of three cells were set up, all empty save the first one.

The man in the first cell glared at the group of cops. He showed heavy fuse signs of a zebra partner, with furry stripes over his body, hooves for feet and a muzzle.

"Wow, that's a lot of changes. Where's his RIDE?" Gary asked.

"Gone feral. Dropped him off here much like that and took off," Kimba said smoothly. "This is Zed, our local petty thief, soon to be your local petty thief."

Gary nodded, the comment about ferals ringing a bell in his memory. "Feral? Does that happen a lot? When I first met Aaron, he mentioned something about stopping those idiots with a trick he used for ferals around here."

Ryan looked confused a moment, then shook his head. "Not a problem exactly. Most ferals don't bother with humans anyway, other than groups like that Alphawolf. But sometimes a RIDE will break their fetters and take off. Usually into the Dry, but not always."

Beside Gary, Sparky let out half a chirp and froze. At the same time, Ryan found himself dumped on the floor. Rex landed on four paws, facing Zed's cell and growling loudly. Kimba and Zed winced in pain, and they seemed to flicker. The lion's legs became metallic below the knees and elbows, with hardlight emitters at the joints. The zebra man's black stripes glowed faintly, as if under dark light, and a pair of sapphire gems in his forearms glowed brightly before cracking and going out.

Gary barely noticed the change in the other two as he turned to his partner. Rex stopped growling soon after Zed's gems cracked. Sparky stood in standby mode, his systems completely offline as far as Gary could tell.

"What the hell just happened?" Gary shouted looking around for a threat while moving to protect Sparky.

Ryan picked himself up off the floor and glanced at the Integrates. Without Rex's interference, they had managed to restore their disguises, though Zed looked both annoyed and surprised while rubbing his forearms. "Script kitty apparently, running some sort of hack. Wanda's installed some safeguards in Rex to protect him from that, but we forgot that Sparky wouldn't have them. Sparky should be fine once you restart him," Ryan said, already moving to Zed's cell.

Gary looked around suspiciously, then put his weapon away and opened one of Sparky's access panels.

Ryan held out his hand to the zebra, making a hand it over motion. "You know what I want. I don't care if they're busted or not, hand them over, and any others you might still have stashed," he growled softly.

Zed mutely handed over the busted pair of DINs. "That's all of them. Honest. He found the rest of my spares. How did that happen?"

"Next time, don't mess with Astranikki's son in law. If you don't want to face her wrath, you'll be a nice zebra-man until we get you back to Aloha." Ryan growled, pocketing the DINs.

Zed paled, his stripes going gray momentarily as he wilted under Ryan's glare and threat. Ryan turned back to check on Gary.

While Ryan was getting the DIN's, Kimba was recovering himself. He looked embarrassed and annoyed, while he went to his desk and pulled out a drawer. After making sure Gary was busy with Sparky, he pulled an amber gem from just above his tail base and plugged in a fresh one.

:Sorry about that. I did search him before locking him up.: he apologized to Rex once he was back online.

:No problem. Sorry about popping your DIN too.:

:Don't worry about it. It's technomage trash. I'm still on Wanda's waiting list for an improved one.:

:So, Twin DINs? Don't think I've seen that before.: Rex commented, keeping a close eye on Zed.

:Neither had the technos. Took them weeks to get him sorted out. One's input only, the other's output only. Might want to have Ryan sterilize those DINs when he gets a chance. There's only one place I didn't search that he might have kept them. And an intie output is no cleaner than a human output.:

Rex sent an eyeroll emote, :Bah, bios. You're all so messy. I'll let him know.:

Sparky's eyes lit up and its stance relaxed as it started up. It dropped into an alert stance and looked around for trouble.

"At ease, Sparky. We're good now," Gary reassured his partner. "It seems our striped prisoner had a surprise left up his sleeve." Gary looked up to see Ryan and Kimba were both looking at them. "How did that happen?"

"Well, I suspect it was actually a surprise up his ass," Kimba said. Ryan caught the implications and started to the station's washroom, holding his hands away from his body and grimacing. "But it was a one shot surprise. Scrambled some systems and stuff that weren't fully protected. We should be good now."

"Once we get home, I'll have Wanda and some of the tech guys look at Sparky, see if they can get his cyber defenses upgraded." Ryan called over the running water in the washroom. "There've been some strange left field attacks happening lately that we've been developing new defenses against, but they haven't spread much from Aloha itself yet."

"Thanks, I think," Gary said, looking warily at the zebra. "You sure we can get him home safely?"

Ryan walked back out and nodded. He stared at Zed while talking. "I'm sure of it. He won't cause us any trouble at all, will you?"

Zed raised his hands and tried to back up against the wall. "No no! No problems at all!"

Rex fused around Ryan and opened a panel on his hip. They took a set of handcuffs and leg irons. "I'll get Zed prepped for transport. You two should go check over the skimmer, make sure the attack didn't break anything in it."

The ride back was thankfully uneventful. Ryan and Rex rode in the back while fused, keeping a close eye on Zed. Gary had the controller's seat, though the skimmer itself was on autodrive. Sparky just managed to fit in the cab's passenger seat, and seemed to enjoy being in the human part of the vehicle.

Back in Aloha, the skimmer pulled into the prisoner transfer section of the garage, and a hardlight door sealed off the entrance. Ryan hopped off the back and motioned for Zed to climb down.

"Why don't you go get started on the tablet work, while I take Zed down to processing," he called to Gary.

"You sure about that?" Gary asked, after making sure the skimmer was properly locked down.

"Positive. He won't cause any problems."

Gary looked warily at the disguised integrate, then shrugged. He and Sparky headed to a hardlight sealed entrance, walking through the glow as scanners picked up their IDs.

Ryan stopped Zed before he could move towards the prisoner entrance. In the corner of his eye, Rex flashed a privacy symbol, letting him know the garage monitors were having a brief technical moment. "One thing, Stripes. I know you spent some time in the Cave, listening to Appa's crap, but this is the real world, with real consequences. Kimba said you had a mostly good head on your shoulders, and I trust him. But know this. If you cause any problems at all in here; any problems at all, and your stripes are mine. Capiche?"

Zed gulped and nodded. "I won't cause any problems."

"Good. A rep from our local Intie group will meet you in the morning to help you get settled. Serengeti isn't interested in prosecuting you further, so if you keep your nose clean this'll be your only night in jail here. But we will be keeping an eye on you. Now get going."

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Gary was giving Zed's file a final read when Rex and Ryan walked into their shared office. The canine RIDE defused and collapsed on a RIDE couch against one wall. Sparky was sitting in a chair, plugged into an outlet.

"Everything good?" Gary asked.

"Yup, Zed's all tucked away for the night. He'll be heading out in the morning with the Intie society."

"Intie society? Who are they?"

Ryan picked up a NeoRusian puzzle crystal and turned it over in his hands. "Local group. They help at risk people reintegrate with society. You know the types, the ones who are just getting out, or the low crime types, or the ones who are on the verge of falling through the cracks. How's Sparky?"

"He's good. Just a bit of a core ache, but he's taking care of it now." As Gary spoke, Sparky's eyes lit up. It looked around and gave the humans two thumbs up.

Ryan smiled at Sparky. "Good to hear that. Sorry I didn't give you more of a warning. I didn't expect Zed to have that."

Gary digitally shoved Zed's file over to Ryan. "Well, the tab work is done, just waiting for your sig. Speaking of unexpected things though, I did notice something strange when Zed did that hack. He and Kimba looked different, more mechanical in some ways. And Zed had a pair of glowing gems on his arms. Did you notice that?"

Ryan skimmed over the file, initialling parts of it. "Nope, I was rather busy being unceremoniously dumped onto the floor at the time," he said.

"Sorry!" Rex called out.

"... But you did have your specs on right? The hack was pretty broad band. Could've shorted out the specs, made you see artifacts that weren't really there. You should probably faber up a new set of specs when you get a moment."

Gary took off his interface glasses and looked at them. "I suppose I should. Pretty interesting artifacts for a short though. What is that thing? I've been wondering about it since I first saw your office."

"This?" Ryan held up the cube and put it on the desk. "It's a NeoRusian puzzle crystal. Extremely high data capacities, with an added boost of being unhackable. If you don't know the way in, you're only getting garbage. Like Sarium and Q, they're illegal to ship off their native colony."

"Then what are you doing with one?"

Ryan chuckled. "Smugglers. We find one every few years. Sometimes they're empty, meant for someone here. Usually they're meant to share data between different branches of the smuggler clans. This one is the one that brought Wanda and I together oh so many years ago."

Gary shook his head and stood up. Sparky followed quickly. "Sounds like a story for another time. If there's nothing else, I'm gonna punch out and head home."

"Another time it is. Have a good night. Remember, double shifts start tomorrow."

"Yup. I'm still not sure if I should be excited or terrified." Gary grinned a moment before Sparky folded around him.

"I've been here decades, and I still feel both around Naming Day. It really emphasizes our 'Anything goes' attitude. Take care, guys."

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Gary sat on Sparky's back, his partner in his skimmer mode. They were stuck in traffic on the boulevard, waiting for a clear spot to open up so they could turn onto one of the bay lanes. Due to the shows at night, high altitude travel was banned over the Bay and around the shore line.

Landing Day and New Years Day were planet wide celebrations that Aloha celebrated as good as anywhere else. But Naming day was its own celebration, and its chance to show how good of a partier the polity could be. The week around Naming Day, the police department stopped all work on all but the most important cases, and went into crowd control overtime. And it was needed. Subs landed and lifted off again from every flat space air traffic control would let them in, not to mention the cruise ships coming in from the oceans, and the skimmer traffic from the highways. Natives made a small fortune renting couch and floor space to visitors.

Gary was exhausted from the triple shifts they'd been pulling, trying to keep the mass of humanity and RIDEs under some semblance of control. It was a frustrating job; more than once there was a shout out for support from a location across the street or down the block from where they were, and it still took an eternity to reach it.

Now, they sat in traffic, crawling among all the RIDEs and skimmers that went up and down the Boulevard. They'd gotten off official duty hours before and gone home for a few quiet moments before their date with the Munn clan. Gary was beginning to think that was a mistake.

Sparky chirped and popped an icon of a flashing light up on the windshield.

"Not yet, buddy. I'm not that impatient yet. Reaching the Queen of Thorns isn't an emergency."

The EIDE sighed and slid forward a few more decis, cutting off a wolf faced skimmer that was trying to cut in. Fifteen minutes later, they'd only moved a few meters. Sparky chirped again and showed them walking, then fusing.

Gary looked at the crowds. They were moving no faster than the vehicles were. RIDEs, humans and fused alike made up the crowd, with no thought for personal space. "OK, we might as well give this a shot. Can't be any worse than this."

The cabin around him began to shift, seams appearing, hardlight padding fading away. He felt the warmth of fuse nannies spread over him as the space compressed. His senses expanded as they synched with Sparky. He felt something bump the back of his knees, and heard a horn honk. Looking back, a skimmer had lightly nudged him, and its driver was waving angrily at him. In front of him, the wolf-skimmer had pulled into the slot Sparky had previously occupied.

They resisted the urge to salute the guy who'd nudged them, and walked off the boulevard, squeezing into the crowd. Progress wasn't much faster, but they were able to use a pedestrian beach access route instead of the vehicle ones.

The beach was fuller than they'd experienced while on duty, but still mostly the same. A massive amount of people and RIDEs, with an occasional small circle of open space. Most of the open spots were filled with jugglers, clowns, fire eaters, unicyclists, aerialists and other buskers. They made their way slowly onto a pier, where kiosks selling food and drinks were doing brisk business. Finally, at the end of the pier, Sparky kicked his lifters off and they walked off, hovering just over the heads of the swimmers in the water and making their way out to deeper water.

Gary waved to some of the closer lifeguards as they flew slowly out to the line of boats that marked the edge of the swimming range. The lifeguards, many fused with RIDEs, some of them solo RIDEs, the rest humans with lifter belts, hovered over the crowded waters, alert for anyone showing signs of trouble. Occasionally one or two would dive down to pluck people out of the water, but it was a surprisingly rare occurrence.

At the edge of the swimming zone, boats and ships were packed in tight enough to walk from the deck of one to the next, as many partiers did. Gary lifted them slightly higher to not interfere with their celebrations, careful to stay under the low ceiling that was active.

The tri-hulled Queen of Thorns wasn't the largest ship in the bay; there were cruise ships, cargo ships and even one or two private yachts that were larger. But as a show of the true power the Munn's held, there was a half klick of open water surrounding the ship. Like the swimming zone, the edge of the no-boat zone was packed with other boats, but none moved into the open water.

The Queen herself was well maintained, shining, almost glowing in the afternoon sun. Its hulls glittered with the nanite infused anti-rust paint. The Costa del Sol resort was built on the shore closest to the ship, but that was still a few kilometers away. It was currently anchored so it presented a broadside to the shore. A hardlight platform hovered in the water, forming the base of a slide that came down from the deck. Kids and adults were sliding down and launching into the water. A couple of dolphin RIDEs were keeping an eye on the swimmers, alert for trouble. A bat was perched on the edge, similarly watching the waters.

Sparky chirped, and Gary sensed a quick identification query going on as they crossed into the open water. They waved to the swimmers and landed on the crowded deck. A couple dozen people were mingling there, along with a half dozen RIDEs. Gary recognized Chimo and a pink furred Samoyed that had to be Chena, as well as Krystal and Rex.

"You must be Gary and Sparky. Welcome to the Queen of Thorns." a woman said behind them, the barest hint of a rumble to her voice.

Turning around, they saw a woman with short black hair, piercing green eyes, triangular furry ears, and a black furred tail. She was dressed in shorts and a bikini top, that showed off a well tanned body. She held out a hand, her nails manicured to dull points. "Hi there. I'm Sam. Aaron and Ashley's mother."

Sparky took her offered hand and bent forward to kiss it with his face plate. "Nice to meet you ma'am. Thank you for having me here at your family gathering."

"No, thank you for coming. And everything you did for the Twins."

"It was nothing-" Gary started to say before he was interrupted.

"Bull crap!" a tall man with big horns announced loudly. The minotaur hugged Sam from behind and nuzzled her briefly. "You didn't directly save them; we've heard that story before. But you handled all the work in Cape Nord for Ashley, which helped more than you may realize. She really did not want to head back back up to that frozen wasteland if she could avoid it."

"Well when you put it that way, I guess it makes sense."

"Of course it does. I'm Jason by the way. Their father obviously." He let go of his wife and thumped Sparky on the back hard enough for Gary to feel it inside. "Now go! Mingle! Have fun! Stuff yourself! and enjoy the show!"

"I'm sure we will," Gary said as Sparky struggled to keep their balance. The elder Munns left them and slipped into the crowd.

Sparky unfolded from around the cop, and stood up next to him. They looked around, and noticed familiar faces sitting on a bench on the far side of the ship. Wanda and Ryan were relaxing on a bench along the railing, watching a pair of girls play in a small cordoned off section of the deck.

"Gary! Sparky! You made it!" Ryan called out, waving them over once he spotted them.

Gary waved back and made his way closer, diverting only slightly to steal a drink from an auto-waiter. "Sorry we're so late. Traffic was horrible."

"Always is, especially this weekend. Why didn't you use your lights?"

"Didn't seem appropriate." Gary shrugged and sipped the drink he'd grabbed. "It was personal use, not police business."

Ryan dismissed his argument with a wave. "Bah, don't worry about that. With the hours we put in, we've earned the right to bend the lights rules a little this time of year. The brass don't mind; hell they expect it."

Sparky nudged Gary and wagged a finger at him. "I know, I know. You told me so. Now we know at least. How are you doing Wanda? Where are your other halves?"

She hugged Ryan and smiled. "I'm fine. Thank you for asking. Rex is charging and sleeping inside. All these triple shifts are hard on his core without a good rest and defrag. Krystal's keeping an eye on Nikki over by the slide. So how's your first Naming Day going?"

"Exhausting, that's how." Gary pulled over a chair so he could half face them while not blocking their view of their daughters. "I'm glad I had some time to get used to Aloha in general before this happened. If my first experience of Aloha was this, we probably would never have gotten off the sub."

He looked around the crowd slowly. "So are these all your family?"

Ryan chuckled and shook his head. "Most of them are. Those that aren't Munns directly are related to Aunt Sam's side of the family. But maybe a quarter of the people here are special guests, close friends and so forth."

Wanda smiled, taking pity on him. "You're welcome to hang out around us if you're feeling overwhelmed. We, well I'm not going far."

Gary pushed his chair back to the railing and leaned back, stretching his arms along it. "That doesn't sound like such a bad idea."

Sparky chirped and pointed towards the top end of the slide. Gary yawned and nodded, "Go ahead and have some fun. Remember to wait for your turn."

The IDE gave a triumphant fanfare and ran off. Wanda chuckled and shook her head. "He really can't speak?"

"Sparky? Nope. quirk with how its core was made. It can understand pretty much every language, but it can basically only speak Charades."

She nodded. "Well, you want us to add in our hack protection right? Dad and I could take a look, see if we can sort it out."

"That's up to Sparky, not me. It's a bit sensitive with people messing in its core."

"Do you always refer to him as it?" Wanda leaned forward to look over her dozing husband. "Seems rather impersonal to call him an 'it'."

"But that's what it is. Unlike the RIDEs, Sparky's not male or female, so calling it a him or her would be wrong."

Wanda shook her head and leaned back. "Strange. That's just weird."

"It's the way we do it." Gary grinned and leaned back as well, closing his eyes.

Separator f.png

"-ville pod was hit again. Two containers of fabber matter, and a builder, fresh from Space, among other things. Started as an impellor failure, like before, then everything went blank. Froze all three ships to boot."

Gary woke to the new voice. The voice was male, but higher pitched, with a bit of a squeak to it. He kept his eyes closed and listened.

"Sounds like it's more of a Marshal matter. Shouldn't you bring Mike in on it?" Ryan asked.

The other voice sighed. "I was going to ask both of you. But Mike's not coming this year. He's busy handling something out at Camelot."

"Then bring it up with the Quantums. Seems like it would be their domain."

"Not quite. It's out of their jurisdiction. The technical difficulties happen just in Rodinian waters."

"That is tricky. But they'd still have jurisdiction right?"

"Technically yes, I suppose. But I've got some suspicions about what might be happening, and I'd prefer to keep it in family. Which is why I wanted Mike."

Gary heard Ryan's voice change, getting harder to heard. "You think it's intie related? All the way out there?"

"It's possible. Not everyone wants to stay in the Dry."

Ryan sighed. "Send me what you've noticed so far, what's been taken, how they were taken, everything you've got. Could you change their routes to avoid that island chain?"

"I'll have Jay send it to the Aerie systems. And we can't avoid the islands. The currents are the key to the success of Tethys Transport's shipping pods, and they go that way."

"I won't promise anything, but I'll look into it. But you really should try to get Mike in on this. It's more his domain than mine."

"I will. But Dad's been hearing some rumours from the Cave that's got her worried; resistance to that new Marshal base and jail. Mike probably won't be available for any non-Dry work for awhile."

They fell silent for a moment, before the first voice spoke again. "So is that your newbie partner? Ash and Aaron's friend with the EIDE?"

"That's the one. Naming Day's rough on newbies, but he handled it well. Dinner's almost ready; we should probably wake him up."

"Let me. I love the look from newbies." The new voice moved closer, and he felt something poke him. Gary kept his eyes closed and acted like he was asleep until the second poke.

Gary groaned and turned away slightly before opening his eyes. "I'm up, I'm up-ack!"

Standing in front of him was a gray skinned man, dressed in a pair of bermuda swimming trunks, altered to fit around a thick tail. His hands and feet were heavily webbed. His head was completely hairless, and his nose and mouth were stretched into a beak almost a deci long. His forehead bulged slightly, and most strange of all, his nostrils were sealed.

Ryan grinned from behind the dolphin man. "Gary, this is my brother in law, Tracy. Tracy, this is Gary."

Gary nodded and lifted his hand to shake Tracy's. "Good to meet you. What time is it?" he asked, looking for the sun.

"Dinner time. You slept through some of the flyovers, but nothing important. Figured you'd earned the rest," Ryan said.

"Dinner sounds great." Gary lifted himself out of the chair and stretched, thinking over what Ryan and Tracy were talking about. Part of him wanted to ask questions, but it seemed more like a private matter. "Sparky hasn't caused any problems has it?"

Tracy shook his head, "No problems at all. For a humaniform 'bot, he's taken to water like a dolph. He's been swimming with Jay and helping with water duty."

"Good. Let's eat then."

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With a full stomach and rested from an afternoon nap, Gary started mingling. The sun was setting, and fewer people were in the water, making the deck crowded. The kids, other than the babies, were lined up along the railing facing the shore, watching the preliminary light shows before the main events started.

"Good to see you again, Officer," a tiger striped furred woman greeted him.

"Hello Scratch. Congratulations on finding your father. How's she doing?"

"Improving. She's gone to Burnside to avoid the Naming Day craziness."

Gary chuckled and sipped his drink. "Don't blame her. If it wasn't my job I'd be tempted to join her anywhere but here. How 'bout you? You handling it fine?"

"Me? Hard to say. Part of me loves this. Loves the crowds, all the strangers, all the fun. Part of me is tired of it all and wants to run to dad. But that part doesn't mind it so much, not after a few years."

"The crowds is what gets me sometimes. How could so many people have just shown up here? Aloha's not even fifty years old yet." Gary shook his head and grinned. "It's boggling at times to think about."

"We're always changing, always growing. Construction is our second biggest industry after tourism." Scratch pointed to the resort on the shore nearest the ship. "Costa del Sol there is the oldest boy on the block. And the only thing in there that still exists from its original hotel is a section of the concierge desk. Most of the big guys out there have a ten year plan to rebuild completely every decade. The smaller guys are usually on a fifteen year plan, if they survive that long."

Gary looked along the shore, and grabbed a drink from a passing waiter-bot. "I think I'm gonna need a vacation after all this," he said.

Scratch grinned. "Might I suggest a tour of the Dry? You haven't been out there yet right? Is Sparky Dry-certified?"

"No I haven't been, but we've been meaning to. We looked into it soon after we got here, but Sparky's internal shielding isn't quite up to snuff in that respect. Should be easy enough to handle, once we find the time."

"Well, Wanda and the tech guys will be Intigrating some new hack protections into Sparky soon right? Sounds like a good time to get him Dry-upgraded too."

"I'll keep it in mind... I think the show's starting for real."

On shore, the lights of the resorts dimmed, holos and neon turning off until the city was mostly dark. The only lights were downward facing safety lights along the roads and marking exits. From the headland where the Aerie was built, five brightly lit avians launched themselves into the air, trailing multicoloured light ribbons. They wove in the air, braiding the streamers into a chord of light. As they passed over each resort, a burst of rockets flew up, 'hitting' the ribbon and blossoming into flowers.

"Tonight is one of the few times the resorts will actually coordinate their light shows," Scratch said quietly next to him as the flower lei was built in the sky. "Normally one tries to out flash the others, keeping their shows a secret until the last moment, especially on event days. But today is for the entire polity, and they want to make sure everyone knows we can work together as one."

The start of the light ribbon didn't start fading until the avian team was almost at the Briny Deep. The lei floated in the air for a moment, before it shattered into flower petals that floated downward. Normal fireworks blew up among the petals, burning them away in a shower of sparks before the laser and hardlight show started up, accompanied with a soundtrack played on the Queen's speakers.

For half an hour, the sky was aglow with special effects of all sorts, and the boom of explosives echoed around the bay. As planned, the sky show gradually shifted northward, across the bay and over the sparsely inhabited jungles of the northern shore. They also compressed inward, slowly focusing the eye on the shining thread of the Elevator. The lights flared brightly, then went out for a moment. Gary could hear applause rising on the shore and started clapping himself. Scratch nudged him and shook his head. "Just wait."

"For-" Gary started to ask, before going quiet. A bright light was falling down along the elevator, bright enough to be seen easily in Aloha. It disappeared among the mountains that surrounded Touchdown, leaving just a glow. A glow that started rising, shooting up the cables, lighting it up in red and orange. 'Sparks' began to fall away from the cable, and blowing up, the explosions getting bigger the higher up it went. Soon enough the entire cable was lit up, and surrounded in a cloud of glowing sparks. Behind them, the casino lights slowly came back up, along with the roar of the crowds.

"Wow," Gary said, rubbing his eyes, while staring at the dimming elevator.

"They wanted to do that last year, for the 20th anniversary, but couldn't get the tech issues sorted out in time. First time they shut the elevator down on purpose, and first time they tested the pod evacuation systems thoroughly. Now that they know they can do it, I suspect 157 will be quite the show, and 160 for that matter."

"I can't even begin to imagine what they'll be able to do then." Gary looked down as his comm began to beep urgently. He glanced at it, and recognized an all call from the station.

Ryan and Rex had already fused up and were in the air, waving to the crowd on the deck of the Queen. Sam and her RIDE were also fused up and taking off after the canine.

:All hands call guys. One of the FX pods malfunctioned, crashed on the roof of a condo complex inland.: Ryan sent. Sparky came up behind Gary and engulfed him before taking off. Ryan's briefing continued uninterrupted. :Fire control's en route, as are the buses. They'll probably beat us. Our job will be crowd control and helping with first aid and triage. Got it?:

:Got it,: Gary sent as the three settled in formation.

The canine and Sparky adjusted their hardlight skins to show APD badges, flashing them in the air around them so they were visible from all sides. To Gary's surprise, the black jaguaress that was Ryan's aunt, showed a red cross symbol similar to their own badges. Sparky, sensing his confusion, brought up Sam's record for him. Gary mentally facepalmed as he skimmed over her medical record and standing in the community.

A few minutes of flying later, they reached the condo tower. It was fifteen stories tall, similar to the one Gary and Aaron lived in. The top two floors were on fire, but the flames were under the control of the fire department.

Sparky identified them to the Emergency Coordinator VI, and got a status update while the simplified intelligence figured out where best to send them.

Gary skimmed the report and winced. "Hit right on the rooftop patio. A dozen confirmed dead already, and twice that with burns and other injuries," he mumbled as he took in what happened. Sparky chirped in sympathy, and took them to one of the main roads leading past the tower. They joined the team managing the traffic, redirecting onlookers away to make sure there was enough room for the experts to work.

A few hours later, the fire was out and the situation was contained. The roads around the tower remained closed, but the last ambulances had left, and the investigators were picking over the remains. Rex found the defused Laurasians sitting on a bus stop bench, looking up at the burnt floors of the building.

"Thanks for the help here," Ryan said, defusing from Rex. Rex's hardlight fur was sooty; the pair had been helping with the last stages of the building evacuation.

Gary waved his hand. "I was just a traffic cop. But I don't mind. Every role is important in these situations. So what was the final tally?"

"Fifteen dead. Forty two injured badly. It didn't quite hit the roof deck head on thankfully, or it could have been much worse."

"Much worse indeed. A shame such a good day ended with such a tragedy."

Rex nuzzled Sparky, and slipped his head under the EIDE's hand. Sparky scratched the canine's ears and chirped softly. "Mmm little bit further back... there you go," the RIDE mumbled as Sparky found the right spot. "It is a tragedy, but all in all the night was a success," Rex said louder. "With this many people around, something is bound to happen. Not usually this bad, but sometimes the odds land against you."

"The good news is, only fifteen people died. And the initial reports are indicating it was just an accident. The pod got confused, and zagged instead of zigged." Ryan explained.

Gary nodded and covered his mouth to hide his yawn. "Someone is sure to be blamed in the end, even if it was just an accident. Poor bugger." His specs flashed briefly, and a message appeared, officially releasing Sparky and him from the scene. "Well, I guess that's it for us. We just got the boot."

"So did Rex and I. Head home, get a good sleep. I've already traded shifts so we don't need to be back in 'till eight hundred."

"Eight hundred? A whole eight hours of sleep? How generous." Gary stood up with Sparky. Sparky shifted to skimmer mode for the cop to climb on.

Ryan grinned and slapped Sparky's lifter. "Just go home and get some sleep. And use your lights and badges. You've earned it. See you later."

Separator f.png

Gary paced back and forth in the small waiting room outside the APD RIDE garage. Every time he turned, he looked through the armored windows, watching Wanda, Krystal and Micky, a fused-mouse pair that was APD's tech lead, work on Sparky. Through his specs, on the VR level he could see dense encrypted info packets floating around the work bay, but he could tell little else.

His comm chirped, and he answered it quickly. Ryan's head popped up in VR space. "So I hear you're wearing a trench down to Rodinia. How's it going?"

Gary stopped pacing and shrugged, smiling ruefully at the bored officer on desk duty. "I have no clue. They've been working on him for hours. I can't tell if it's because they're running into trouble, or if they're just doing something else."

Ryan grinned and seemed to look over Gary's shoulder. "Well judging from what I can see on the garage camera's, Wanda and Krystal aren't stressing out, so it's probably a good sign."

"I hope so. This is the first time Sparky's been serviced by anyone out of NuJose. Even when I was in Cape Nord, we went home when his service came due."

"Don't worry. Wanda's one of the best software gals you can find on this end of the continent. And Micky's no slouch either, especially on the mech side. Sparky will be fine."

"I know that, Ryan. But I can't get it through to my heart. How would you feel if a NuJose garage was upgrading Rex?"

The golden haired man stayed quiet a moment, then nodded. "I understand. But trust me, trust us even. He'll be fine. And for Phobos's sake, Stop Pacing! You're driving poor Julie there up the wall."

Gary dropped into the seat next to him and looked over at Julie. The cop smirked and nodded back to him before refocusing on her hardlight desktop. "Done," he said, properly chastised.

"Good. Don't make me call again, or I'll find something to keep you busy."

Ryan's head flicked out of VR as the connection was broken. Gary glanced back into the garage, and decided to act on Ryan's implied threat. He brought up his notes and continued his reading of the history of the Dry.

An hour later, a tap on his shoulder brought him back to the Real. He closed off his research and looked up to see Mickey waiting for him. The fused pair were small, barely larger than a normal human, with a full hardlight pelt of fur. "You Lauries really do things differently," he greeted Gary.

"Huh? What?" Gary stammered out, scrambling to his feet. "How's Sparky?"

"Sparky's fine. We're just about to bring him back online. But he was an interesting case. It was fun to see how a different line of development led to such similar systems."

"What do you mean?"

"Most RIDEs here in Gondwana are very similar, derived from the initial Nextus research. The Sturmies and Santas won't admit it, but their own RIDE development was heavily stolen from Nextus in the war years. All in all, it means that under our skins, our mechs tend to be similar.

"But you Lauries, you seem to have heard what we were doing out here, and tried to reproduce it based on what you heard. Sparky's got a lot of parts in him that do things in ways we never thought of. Not wrong per se, just differently. He's a fascinating EIDE."

They walked into the bay, where Wanda was fussing over Sparky.

"Well, Sparky wasn't quite the alpha EIDE from Nujose, but it was one of the first ones. Later versions are more versatile, and probably closer to a RIDE than it is," Gary explained.

"That would explain a lot. Are we ready, Wanda?"

Wanda double checked her checklist and glanced at Krystal. The snow leopard nodded. "We're ready, Micky. Everything's green. You may throw ze switch."

Micky cackled happily and moved over to a blank spot on the wall. A hardlight knife switch appeared. "If you don't mind, I'll skip the thunder and strobe lights," he said before flicking the switch.

In the maintenance cradle, the robotic man twitched, hardlight panels glowing as they came back online. Sparky's simple face appeared and its head turned from side to side. Mickey cackled happily, "It's alive! Alive!" The lights flickered a moment and a faint boom crackled through the overhead speaker.

"I thought you were going to skip the thunder and strobes?" Wanda asked dryly.

Mickey blushed and looked away. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself."

Wanda fused with Krystal and offered a hand to Sparky, to help it get out of the cradle. "How you doing there, Sparky?"

The EIDE stood there a moment, before smiling, chirping approvingly and giving a thumbs up.

"Good. Why don't you and Gary fuse up, and we can finish the Dry certification. Just gotta do some readings on your internal fields to make sure they provide enough protection."

Gary turned around, and Sparky smoothly engulfed him. They stood patiently while Wanda ran some tests. "Looking good," she announced. "How does it feel? Any issues you can tell?"

"None I can feel. Fuse went smooth as silk and we're connecting normally."

"RIght. I now pronounce you certified to Dry-6. Unfused and on a full charge, you should be good for a week in the Dry. Fused and under load it would be less, but you should be good for a few days, longer with cell topups. We're ready for the Watchdog test, Mickey."

While Wanda was checking them out, Mickey had wheeled over an opaque screen. He was now standing behind it. "Just give me a sec to get the trigger setup," he called out.

"Should I be worried?" Gary asked quietly, seeing Wanda and Krystal move away from him.

"Not at all. Just don't want to influence the test. That's why Mickey's got the screen, so you can't tell when he activates the hack. You might want to step back though. When Watchdog is triggered, if it's safe, it will trigger a-"

Abruptly, Sparky tensed up and started emitting a siren. A red strobe started flashing on the top of its head. Its chest panels opened up, dumping Gary to the floor.

"a defuse!" Wanda shouted to finish her thought. A few seconds later, Sparky stopped shouting its siren and flashing its strobe. It looked down at Gary, and offered a hand to help him up, looking as confused as Gary.

Behind the screen, Mickey groaned softly. The mouse appeared from behind it, holding the edge of the screen with one hand. With the other, he was swapping out a cracked gem in a socket on his shoulder.

"Damnit girl you should've warned me. That new version of Watchdog's got quite the bite," he grumbled.

She chuckled and held out a hand for the cracked gem. "Just be glad we weren't testing on a bat RIDE, or a dolph. I've been tailoring RIDE reactions to their abilities. Bats and Dolphs would use sonics to try and overload the threat in time."

Gary brushed at his pants and shook his head, still a bit stunned from the sudden defuse. "So why do you have them defuse? Rex booted Ryan out when his triggered."

"Safety. Watchdog sets the RIDE, or EIDE in Sparky's case, to retaliate against the threat that triggers it. If the retaliation fails, the threat can usually take over the RIDE, forcing it passive or worse. By booting you out, the human isn't trapped and can try to continue the fight. A background process in the core continually monitors the environment to make sure it's safe to defuse. If it's not safe, the defuse reaction is cancelled."

"That's... That's rather scary to be honest."

Wanda finished scanning the cracked gem and put it in her pocket. "It's terrifying. But less terrifying than walking down the street and suddenly you and your partner blackout and can't remember what you do next. Or your partner is taken over and you have no control over what happens. We put a lot of trust in our RIDEs when fused, something many people don't usually realize. Watchdog's one of the ways I'm making sure the trust isn't broken by an outside force."

"I'm beginning to realize it. Never really occured to me, even after we were partnered up." Gary looked at Sparky, and nodded to his partner. "Still, mama always said, if you were thrown off the horse, it's best to get back on right away, before you get too scared to go again. Let's do it, Partner."

The pair fused up again and stood there, stretching and flexing before lifting a few centies off the ground on Sparky's lifters.

"Good advice. There is something else I wanted to talk to you about." Wanda sat on the edge of the cradle while watching the pair. "In order to install Watchdog we had to do a thorough scan of Sparky, core and shell. Now this is only my own gut feel, and we'll need to do some deeper scans, but I do believe that with Mickey and dad's help, we could teach Sparky to speak."

The Laurasians paused and looked at the feline fuse. "Are you serious?" Gary asked.

"As serious as a Nextusian."

"It wouldn't be difficult at all," Mickey spoke up. "Just need a voice box from a fresh DE-corpse, and a good lightning storm and you'll be all set!"

Sparky let out a terrified chirp and backed away from the Gondwanans.

"Mickey!" Wanda groaned, facepalming. "But yeah, it shouldn't be too difficult. And it won't involve lightning storms, or DE robbing."

Gary chuckled, while Sparky's actual expression remained pensive. "We'll have to think it over. It's a rather big change, and nothing I want to rush into making, for either of us." Sparky nodded in agreement.

"Remember, you are an emergency responder. Having a voice, an actual speaking voice, should be important. You have to be able to make yourself understood in crisis situations," Mickey said, getting serious.

"We know. It's something we've talked about for a long time. We've been lucky to get exceptions so far, especially since the problem seemed unfixable back home. But it's just not a jump we're ready to make right away."

Wanda smiled and nodded. The fused feline stood up and started putting tools away. "Understandable. But you both know the option is available now. It should be safe enough; easier than a core transfer even. When he's ready to make the jump, let us know and we'll jump."

Gary and Sparky nodded and waved. "Thanks. We certainly will. And thanks for the updates."

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The three skimmers flew a couple decametres above the sands while the sun glared down from above. The skimmers had their shields tinted enough to protect their pilots from the worst effects of the land they were flying over.

"This is the Sandy Sea. An area of sand dunes as big as the Tranq. It's pretty sparsely populated, even by Dry standards, mainly because there isn't any solid ground for kiloklicks around. The sand is hundreds of meters deep, and blows around constantly. In some of the worse storms, you can't even tell where air ends and sand begins," Chimo explained over their comm link. The twin RIDEs and pilots virtual heads were lined up along Sparky's dashboard, with Sparky's own virtual head floating between them.

"So I take it there's been a lot of losses down there?" Gary asked, looking down at the wind-created patterns in the sand.

"Not as many as you'd think. There's not much out here to bring out people to get lost for. No Q deposits, or any other deposits worth digging up, not worth setting up a dome for a base. Not even good to cross over as a shortcut. The only place this is good for is as a tourist trap, but the tour companies make sure the forecast is crystal clear before running out here," Aaron explained. "Much as we did too."

"It's beautiful. In its own deadly way." Gary noted. "And almost completely untouched."

Ashley chuckled. "Well there's a group that wants to create some sandworm 'bots to swim in the sand down there, but they're having a hard time getting sponsors. Even if they did make them, I doubt they'd last long before the sea swallowed them up.

"How you doing there Sparky? All green?"

Sparky chirped and his holotar morphed into a thumbs up fist before returning to his normal head.

"Excellent. Swing to the north, bearing 5 degrees. We'll head to one of Pete's mock Q mines." Ashley said, as Chena's skimmer changed direction.

"Pete, your older brother right? With the Bat RIDE?" Gary asked.

"Older, but not oldest. Mike's the eldest. And yes, he's got Vincent, the bat. He runs one of the Dry-tour companies out of Seahaven."

They flew on for an hour, the huge sand dunes gradually shrinking. Chimo shared his sensor feed, showing the sand depths shrinking as bedrock and other rock types got closer to the surface. The ground soon started showing bare, rocky patches among piles of sand. The ground began to rise on either side of them as they entered a dry river valley. Shortly after that, they came upon a hardlight dome, setup next to a massive machine. The RIDEs handled some signals and a portal opened up, letting them into the protective dome.

The inside of the dome was simple; a concrete platform with few divisions. Tables were set up near a small kitchen fabber close to the machinery outside. An opaque divided section was marked as a bathroom. And another section was labelled as a control room. The only other people in the dome was a man barely visible in the control room, and a bat hanging from a hardlight spar extended from the dome itself.

The visitors landed, and the vehicles shifted back to walker mode. The man in the control room walked out. He was bare chested, with a web of dark skin that stretched from his wrist down to his hips. He had large ears, and golden hair, and a slight, fox-like muzzle. His feet had long toes that gripped the specialized sandals he wore.

"Hey kids, what brings you out here?" the man called out.

"Hey Petey. Just checking on some of my projects and giving Gary and Sparky here a tour of the place," Aaron said, giving his brother a quick hug. "What are you doing out here?"

"Got a tour coming in tomorrow, and I haven't had a chance to check this place out since last week's storm. So we came out to shake the dust off." Peter looked at Sparky and Gary and offered a hand. "Good to see you again. Sorry we didn't get much of a chance to talk on the Queen."

"That's fine. The rest of your family more than made up for it." Gary grinned and shook the offered hand.

Without pause, Peter offered his hand to Sparky. "Rare I can do this with an unfused RIDE... Sorry EIDE. But you were a blast with the kids." Sparky grinned as well and shook the hand eagerly.

"It's funny in a way. You've got all these RIDEs around you every day, but when Sparky and I do a walk along the beach, everyone's fascinated with him. But if we were in Nujose with Chimo or Chena there, no one would bat an eye over Sparky, but they'd be fawning all over your dogs, or any RIDE for that matter."

"It's the uniqueness factor. Aloha loves the unique, and you don't get much more unique than a Humaniform DE. Even with all the tours I've done, Sparky's the first I've seen."

Gary nodded pensively. "I suppose so. Never really thought of it, but we did tend to keep them in state for the most part, and in the police and army. We jumped through a lot of hoops to clear Sparky to go with me. It wouldn't even be here if we didn't get the engineers on side. They want to see how well Spark's handles new situations."

He pat his partner on the back. "I'd dare say he's been handling it fabulously."

The EIDE turned his head away and glowed faintly red, acting embarrassed. The Munns laughed. "He certainly has been," Ashley added.

"Right then, in any case, I was about to wake up old Bertha out there. Care to watch?"

"Sure. Is she a real miner?" Gary asked. "They mentioned how this was just a fake mine for the tours."

"Don't let her hear you say that. It's a real enough mine, but between you, me and the twins, it is mainly just for show." Peter moved to the control room and pulled up a hardlight display, checking some settings. "It's a very low quality vein. Barely F grade. Only suitable for science work like Aaron's projects really. But it's good enough to show how the process works."

"Speaking of which, I should go gather them up. We'll be right back." Aaron fused with Chimo and the pair lifted off.

Peter finished up the checks he was doing, and the screens flickered off. A hardlight knife switch formed and he motioned to it. "Care to throw ze switch?"

Gary blinked in surprise and glanced at Sparky. Sparky shrugged as well and nodded. "What is it with you guys and switches?" he asked as he walked over.

"I blame Vincent." Peter pointed to the RIDE hanging over head. "His colony was named after things horror movie related, and some of the memes have leaked to me." The RIDE opened an eye and rustled his wings before appearing to go back to sleep.

"Doesn't explain the raccoon in the APD motor pool." Gary said dryly.

Peter chuckled, "Mickey has his own issues. I could make it into a button if you'd prefer?"

Gary took ahold of the handle and pulled it down to make contact. "Nah, I was just curious."

The dome fell silent for a moment as everyone looked out to Bertha. A low rumble came from her depths and a cloud of dust rose from her. Soon enough the machine was running steadily, and the dome was adjusted to cut out most of the noise. Peter finished reviewing the status and motioned for Gary and Sparky to follow him as he started describing how it worked.

They were finishing up a simple lunch from the dome's fabber, when all the RIDEs suddenly tensed. Sparky looked around in confusion, chirping uneasily.

"What is it?" Gary asked, seeing the Munns get serious suddenly.

Chimo folded around Aaron while speaking. "An Emergency blat. Someone's in trouble."

"The Dry's too unstable normally to maintain steady signals without a lot of extra equipment. But most Dry certified vehicles, RIDEs included, can do an Emergency Blat." Chena explained as she fused with Ashley. "A couple of intense signals on the emergency band that can cut through most interference."

"People who receive a blat can usually get a direction, if not triangulate on it and come to the rescue. This one came from the Harkonnen Plateau direction." Vincent joined with Peter, and hovered slightly above the floor.

Gary stepped over to Sparky, and they fused up, seconds after the natives. "Well then, what are we waiting for?"

"We're waiting for them to finish processing the signal," Aaron said. "So we know what we're getting into. The Marshal's are building a prison out in that area, so they'll probably get their first in any case."

"A prison? Out here? Well I guess it would be virtually inescapable."

Ashley nodded and spoke cautiously. "That's the theory at least. In practice, it remains to be seen. Looks like it was a cargo transport, bringing supplies to the construction site. One pilot; we're closest if the coords are right, but the Marshal's shouldn't be far behind."

Sparky did a weapons check and sent a ready signal to Gary. They took off towards the exit. "Let's go then. Someone needs help."

They flew along the river, Vincent in the lead, and the twins keeping pace with Sparky. Unknown to the Laurasians, the Munns were talking in VR space.

"We may have a problem," Ashley pointed out, looking at her brothers. "We all recognized the pilot's call sign. It's Vanessa."

Peter looked puzzled. "I don't see the problem?"

"Vanessa's a Quantum, and an Integrate. Gary and Sparky don't know about Integrates yet," Aaron explained.

"They don't? After all that time with Astranikki and Scratch? How are you pulling that off?"

Ashley shrugged. "No clue. But the point is, they don't know yet. And Mike would tan our hides if we spilled the beans. It's one thing to tell people who already know about Inties. It's another to bring a newbie in. Especially a Laurasian."

Peter shook his head and glanced to the view of the armored man. "Gonna be tough keeping them in the dark. And if Laurasia's playing with that sort of tech, they're gonna have their own Inties soon."

"One emergency at a time. In any case, we've got to rescue a Quantum Integrate from whatever took her down. And out here, this close to the Cave, it's gotta be Appa Sympathisers. Which means more Integrates."

"And the cavalry is going to be more Quantums, from the Cave station; which means even more Integrates. Keeping Gary and Sparky in the dark isn't going to be easy."

Ashley shrugged, but Aaron answered. "We'll do what we can. If he discovers or puts it together later, we'll deal with it then. Lives are more important than secrets. But don't blab."

"Right, no problem at all. While I'm at it, I'll finalize my work on FTL comms." Peter sighed and increased his speed. "Picking up weapon fire up ahead, and static. Four DE's against at least two Inties? Guess we're about to find out how good Watchdog is. Inviting them in."

The armored human appeared in their VR space. They hovered over the rocky ground of the section of the Dry they were flying over, the space reflecting the real space based on what the machines could sense. Ahead, a gray fog hung over a dry lake, occasionally lit up by something inside.

"What are we dealing with?" Gary asked, looking at his fused companions.

"One friendly and at least two, possibly more foes somewhere in there. Lots of data agents floating around too so be careful with what you read; Watchdog's going to get a workout." Vincent and Peter explained, their voices synced and sounding as one.

"We're fastest, so we'll go through first. Give you a better view of that fog and maybe scatter a few of them," they finished.

Gary looked at the twins. "Are you sure you guys should be going into there? You weren't armed last time we met."

Ashley spread her arms a moment, then pulled a pair of guns from hidden hip holsters. Aaron's avatar flipped a pair of muzzles over his shoulders. "We're prepared now." Chimo growled.

Sparky reviewed the specs on the weapon loadouts the huskies were carrying and sent Gary a summary. Gary whistled softly. "Wow, I didn't think civilians could get that sort of gear."

"Alohan remember? Anything's available for the right price." Ashley grinned.

Aaron mirrored his sister's grin. "And after Cape Nord, we had enough right prices to make sure we'd be safe."

Gary admired the twins with new found respect, and briefly wondered what other surprises the family had lurking. He checked real time and saw Vincent pulling further ahead of the group, and climbing higher to do a flyby. "So what are we dealing with out here?"

"Dunno. But we have our suspicions. There's a group of people who don't like the Marshals and the base they're setting up here. They call themselves Sympathizers, but they aren't looking for any sympathy from the likes of us." Ashley growled as she double checked her weapons.

"Comms are even crappier than usual, but the Cavalry is on its way. A Marshal squad should get here in five minutes give or take," Vincent sent. "Doesn't look like they're being scared away."

"Idiots," Chimo growled. "Run now while you might have a chance."

"The Marshals tend to come in loud and fast in these situations. The idea being to scare them away before they endanger more people. It doesn't always work." Aaron added.

"Which leaves it up to us." Chena's guns glowed in anticipation, her gaze focused on the foggy section of their VR space.

More of the dry lakebed was visible now, but the centre of the lake was still covered in fog that even Vincent hadn't been able to fill in yet. It was clear enough to see a transport had landed hard and rolled. Vincent gradually guestimated where the fighters were based. The driver's position near the cab of the transport was obvious, and there seemed to be at least three attackers.

"Cover your ears," Vincent said as he got into position. In VR space, the twins symbolically covered their ears, and Sparky cut the audio feeds from outside after another second. The bat dived out of the sky and strafed the crash site. Even with Sparky shielding him, and their distance, Gary could sense the attack, making him shake inside Sparky's armor.

The weapons fire died around the crash for a moment, and even the sensory chaff cleared for a moment, giving them a clearer view. Chena and Chimo accelerated and started firing, feeding back better intel on the attackers as they identified them. Dust hid normal views, but the huskies and bat gave them something to fire at. Sparky's lifters kicked into overdrive and they started firing into the dust.

On the opposite side of the cargo transport, Sparky started to dodge return fire. The EIDE took them down to the ground behind a rocky outcrop as plasma blasts flew overhead. Virtual space dissolved into static as countermeasures flooded the local comm channels. Sparky helpfully tracked the fire, giving probable locations for each opponent. They popped around their defensive position and let loose a few blasts as they could, drawing fire in return.

The next few minutes, they were stalemated. No one had a clear shot at anyone else, but no one could move enough to break the stalemate. Chimo had been forced to land somewhere north of Sparky's position, but Chena and Victor were keeping the airspace locked down. Sparky's own power cells were nearly fully charged from the mining demo station, but their rock shelter was seeing better days.

They swung out from the left side of the rock and fired off a few repulser blasts towards another rock pile that an enemy was lurking behind. Rock chips pinged against Sparky's metallic skin after they ducked back, their foe returning the favour.

"Any luck clearing a comm channel?" Gary asked. "We need to coordinate or something. Our rock is shrinking a lot faster than theirs is."

Sparky chirped sadly, flashing a radio symbol crossed out with a red slash. There was too much interference for them to get anything but a laz comm through, and neither Chena nor Victor could stay still long enough for a laser to lock onto them.

They ducked out for another set of shots, and to look for another shelter spot. The transport was tilted on its side a couple dozen meters away. Occasionally a horse-like figure would pop out and fire from a sheltered spot between the cab and the cargo area. Gary had a clear, if dusty, view of the pilot even when she was sheltered, and he realized chance had worked in their favour. She was keeping the bad guys from moving behind him, and he was keeping them from moving around to her exposed spot.

"ETA for the cavalry?"

Sparky let out another sad chirp, and -2 minutes flashed in the corner of his eye; the Marshals were two minutes late from Ashley's estimate. Movement caught their eye and they swung out to fire, sending the lizard-man scurrying back for shelter. One of their blasts hit his tail, blasting it off. The scaled man rolled back behind cover, trailing a trickle of smoke.

Fire continued to be exchanged with no real effect. The airborne RIDEs kept the four bad guys pinned in place, but the three on the ground couldn't move even with the aerial support. The stalemate continued until a trumpet fanfare cut through the noise of battle. Sparky highlighted a spot on the edge of the lake, where a stallion in a stetson was dissolving a hardlight trumpet. Sparky marked two more points on the map where it detected additional movement.

"This is the Marshals. Lay down your weapons and stand down. This is your only warning." the stallion broadcast, both audibly and across the comm channels, cutting through the static. The marshal's tone changed, becoming more familiar. "Pete, Ash, land behind me. Proper air support will be here in moments."

The interference, and the fight quickly died away as a large dragon dropped its cloak directly over the transport. It's appearance caught Chena by surprise, making her let out a yelp and landing on the transport itself. Not wanting to risk a friendly fire incident, Sparky powered down its own repulsers and they raised their hands, careful to keep them behind their shelter.

With seven marshals surrounding them, the situation was quickly sorted out. Sparky and Gary witnessed a small family reunion as the stallion that lead the charge turned out to be the eldest Munn child, Michael and his RIDE Tonto. One of Chimo's shoulder guns had taken a hit, leaving his shoulder fur scorched black, but otherwise the rescuers had escaped unscathed.

:I'm having one of those feelings again, Sparky.: Gary said privately. They were standing slightly apart from the group of marshals. The dragon was working on getting the transport upright again, under the watchful eyes of its driver. The rest were grouped around the Munns or watching the prisoners. :There's something about all this we aren't getting. The Marshals, the prisoners, even the driver, all have something off about them.:

Sparky sent a wave of agreement, showing it sensed something amiss too. It paused their view of the crowd and started isolating individuals, comparing them against the Munn's RIDEs. The differences became obvious. Compared to the Munn's, the dragon marshal was huge, but the six other Marshals, the pilot and even the four sympathizers, were all slightly smaller, or at best the same size as the huskies.

:Considering there are three equines there, and an elk, their fused forms should be bigger than the huskies? And the rest of them should be bigger than Vincent when fused. But most are his sized if not smaller. Come to think of it, Mickey was a bit small too, compared to some of the mouse fuses we've seen.:

Sparky brought up more RIDEs they'd seen around Aloha and elsewhere, rescaling them to properly compare the sizes. It quickly became obvious that when species types matched, everyone but the Twins and Peter were shorter in fused forms than normal. Sparky flashed question marks over their workspace, then shoved it to one side. Mike and his siblings were approaching them, along with the pilot.

"Good to finally meet you. I'm Mike, and Tonto. Their older brother." Mike introduced himself, holding out his hand.

Sparky took it, while Gary spoke. "Thanks. Good to meet you too. I've heard of you a lot, but we never seem to be in the same place at the same time." A faint bell rang in Gary's memory. He made a mental note to examine the hint of a thought later.

"I do spend most of my time out here in the Dry. It's the Marshal's primary domain, trying to bring law to this lawless land and all that stuff. This is Vanessa, an old friend of ours, and the pilot you helped save."

The other equine shook his hand. Her RIDE was a palomino, though she was the same size as Mike and about the same size as the fused twins. "Nice shooting out there. I think you're the only one who managed to land a hit on one of those bastards."

"Thanks. Just doing what I could. Wish we could have done more."

She smiled, "You did great, considering you were up against four -- assholes like that. We've been wanting to catch them for months."

Ashley grinned and thumped Vincent on his back. "Wanda's gonna be thrilled we actually got to use some of her tricks in the field. They worked great. If you hadn't cracked them at the start, we'd probably be all locked down now."

"They worked well overall. I hope you weren't too inconvenienced, Vanessa. The way you were surrounded made it hard for me to protect you."

"I had a spare - comm handy to replace the one you shattered, so it wasn't too bad. It worked in any case. I better go check on my truck before Draco leaves claw marks in its finish. Thanks for the save."

"See ya Vanessa. Drinks on me next time you're in Aloha," Aaron called out.

Vanessa waved and called back, "You're on!"

"So how's your charge? Got enough to make it home after this mess?" Mike asked once they were alone.

Sparky chittered and gave a thumbs up, his faceplate showing a battery about two thirds full. Mike seemed extra relieved at that.

"Good. I understand this was your first time in the Dry. While adventures usually do happen here, it usually isn't this bad."

Gary chuckled. "Maybe not, but I've begun to think you Munns, or the twins at least, are magnets for this sort of thing."

"Hey! We resemble that remark!" Aaron and Ashley objected in unison, before laughing.

"Do we have to worry about any more sympathizers out here?" Vincent asked, the RIDE's voice similar but more serious than Peter's.

Mike shook his head. "We've been stamping down hard on them over the past few months. Those four are the last ones around here. The slipperiest of the bunch, but we got them."

"Good. This is dangerously close to Bertha's set up. I'd hate to put a tour group at risk." The bat's stance shifted as Peter took over. "Good to see you again Mike. You're looking good. Try to come home more often. Mom and dad do worry."

"I know they do, but things are so unstable out here, with everything going on. Between Appa and Fritz and Shah, and all the other wannabes, it's a wonder this whole place hasn't gone up yet."

"Any new news about Shah?" Ashley asked. Gary could tell from her tone that it was a sensitive subject.

Mike clenched his hands into fists. "Not a thing. She's fallen off the face of the planet. And that's scaring me more than anything. She's up to something, I can feel it in my core. But there's no sign of what she's doing."

Aaron hugged his brother briefly. "Sorry man. We'll find her eventually. I'm sure of it. Make sure you come back and visit soon. Don't make us sic aunt Nikki and Clarissa on you."

Mike relaxed his hands and hugged back. He gave his sister and other brother hugs as well. "Anything but that, Aaron. WIth these guys gone, I think things will calm down a little. Give me a week or two and I'll swing down."

"We'll hold you to that promise, Mike." Ashley said. She looked at Sparky, and lifted off the ground a little. "You two ready to head home? We had more we planned to show you, but after this, heading home is probably safest."

Sparky lifted up next to her, and shifted to his skimmer mode. Gary stretched a little as the connections were broken and he was back to his normal senses inside the cockpit. "That's fine, Ash. We can always come back another time."

The huskies shifted to their own flyer modes, Chimo's shoulder joint made noises that made everyone nervous until the Marshal medic checked him out and declared him fit for a flight home. After a quick loop around the lake, the two huskies and Sparky headed back towards Aloha, leaving the Integrates and Vincent behind.

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Gary sat on a beach chair, just in a set of swimming trunks and his interface specs. The beach itself wasn't on the Bay of Tranquility, but a smaller beach along one of the rivers that fed the bay. While there was signs that people had been to the beach before, there wasn't any development along it yet. In the water, Sparky splashed and enjoyed itself. Gary had asked around for a quiet place he could reflect at, and been told about the beach.

His specs were crowded with information as he did his research. When he arrived to Aloha, he hadn't known much about RIDEs, but now he was realizing there were two types of fused people. The majority were normal looking, but he'd bumped into a significant number of strange fused people. Sparky had helped him review everyone they'd met, eliminating all the ones they had seen as separate human and RIDE, and studied the rest.

All of the outliers were similar; he'd never met them separately, only fused. They all were normally a bit smaller than their animal type's fused form was normally. And they all acted slightly off in some way.

:They must be Integrates. Whatever Integrates are.: Gary mumbled, just loud enough for his mic to pick up and send to Sparky. Their VR space had images of the people they were sure were Integrated, including Astranikki, Mickey, Scratch and Mike Munn.

Sparky shrunk them to one corner of their space, and brought up what little they could find about Integrates on the Alohan mesh. The information was shockingly sparse; describing them as an Urban Legend, theoretically created when a RIDE and Human fused permanently. Beyond that, the information was non existent, even on the APD records. In one corner, there was a list outlining the status of the agents they'd sent out to other polities to see what information they had. Burnside and Neo Francisco had already returned with nothing new to add.

:It's clear Ryan and Wanda and the rest of the Munn's know about their strange family members. It's also clear they're actively hiding that status, and the status of the other Integrated folks we saw. Like Stripes. Why? Why do they keep this up? This is something that should be shared with the world, or at least published as a risk. Not kept quiet.:

Sparky's avatar shrugged, and started a video on Astranikki's return. Her bio outlined how Astra and Nikki had been discovered in the Dry after the storm, suffering from memory loss. Their discoverers were hermits who nursed them back to health. They spent a year with their rescuer, before returning to Burnside as a laborer with a new identity. They stayed there until a mechanic from Cascadia happened to recognize them, and helped them remember who they were. The holes in the story were big enough to fly a colony ship through, but the press had lapped it up.

More agents returned, coming up dry. The Nujose agent did mention something about an Integrate named Fritz in the Nextus-Sturmhaven war, but it was a name mention only. Nextus and Sturmhaven didn't even have the urban legend mentioning; they were notable by their lack of information at all on Integrates.

Cape Nord surprisingly had the most information in its systems. It had the name Fritz, linked with Nextus and identified as the first Integrate; but even they were sparse on further information. Sparky gathered all the information they had gathered, with a virtual broom and swept it under a rug.

:I agree buddy. Someone or someones are going through a LOT of trouble to hide Integrates. Reading between the lines, and from our own experience, I'd say they're somehow greater than just the sum of their parts. There are some out there that have enough influence to keep a family as powerful as the Munns mum on them too. That's rather scary.:

Sparky's avatar armored up, with snow leopard spots on it's classic platemail armor.

:Yup, you're probably right. Wanda's watchdog, it must be some protection against them somehow. They must be extraordinary hackers So now we know. What do we do about it?:

Sparky shrugged, then zipped his virtual lips.

:Keep quiet? That would be playing their game wouldn't it?... Still it might be fun to see how extreme they might try to hide this.: Gary sighed and shook his head. :I don't like this. Neither option is particularly good.:

Sparky morphed into a dolphin and swam across the space.

:Tracy and Jay's pirate problem. That's right. They had hinted it might be an Intie problem.: Gary had shared what he had overheard with Sparky once he'd put the pieces together. :If Ryan and Rex are going to go for a cruise, we should try to make sure we tag along.:

A splash of water brought Gary's focus back to the Real. He saw Sparky standing in the water, near him, looking away, and whistling innocently.

"Fine fine, I get yah. Enough wool gathering. We'll have to figure out other things later." He stood up and left his interface specs on the chair before running into the water with his partner.

  • * *

A dozen dusty files were opened and scattered over Gary's virtual desktop. They'd been in Aloha long enough now that the Constable was urging Ryan to go back on detective duty instead of patrols, and she was urging Gary to follow his footsteps. She'd sent down a dozen cold cases for Sparky and him to review and cast fresh eyes on.

The smell of fresh salt water drew him back to the Real. He took his specs off to see a fused dolphin float in. "Hi Gary, Sparky. Are my cousins in?"

"Mornin' Tracy, Jay. Think they're down in the Archives. Should be back soon."

The dolphin rolled over in mid air and hovered over the guest bench. "Thanks. Mind if we wait here?"

"Not at all. We're just reviewing some cold cases, seeing if anything jumps out at us. Coming up dry so far but you never know."

The golden lab bounded in and nuzzled the dolphin's beak. "Hi Jay! What brings you here?" Rex asked, his tail wagging fast. Behind the canine RIDE, Ryan walked in.

"Not much. Was in the area, figured I'd offer to take my favorite brother out for lunch."

"I'm your only brother. And it's by law at that."

Tracy flicked a flipper and rolled over again. "Close enough. What do you think?"

Ryan hesitated glancing over at Gary. Gary pretended he didn't notice the hesitation, but offered an out. "I've still got a couple records to review, that I want to get done before I go eat."

"You sure about that? The cases are cold, a few extra hours wouldn't hurt."

Gary made a shooing motion. "Git outta here. Have a good meal."

Gary waited a few minutes, watching the station's cameras until he saw the Munns leave. Sparky fused around him and they rushed to leave as well. Sparky used the traffic cameras to follow the dolphin and canine through the streets to a beachside cafe.

"Any-" Gary started to ask, before Sparky zoomed the view out and highlighted a spot next to the cafe. It was another restaurant that served 'authentic' Laurasian style food. Gary had been there once or twice and found it lacking, but passable. Good enough to return to occasionally. "Right, to Laurie's it is. Remind me to get a pack of antacids on the way home."

They got a table overlooking the beach, but a row of plants partly shielded one restaurant from the other. Gary nudged his table and seat around until he could see between two bushes and see the dolphin's shiny flesh. :How's it look Sparks?:

Sparky chirped sadly, and made the specs view quiver, indicating there was a faint blur field between the cafes.

:Damn. Can you filter it out?:

His partner nodded and moved to sit next to a planter. He reached behind himself and the view cleared up. Gary could hear the Munns talking. They were talking about Ryan's kids, and other family matters, though nothing about integrates other than what Astranikki and Scratch were up to. By the time all the meals arrived, Gary was beginning to think it was just a simple lunch, when Tracy brought up his business.

"The Melville pod is in Tethysport, unloading now. They'll be ready to ship out for NeoFran tomorrow with the tides," Tracy said after the first few bites of their meal.

"Tomorrow! I thought you would give me more time!"

"Sorry, it honestly slipped my mind. We've been preparing for this for so long, I didn't remember I hadn't told you the date till now. Can you make it?"

Ryan sighed and shrugged, "We'll have to. I'll get it sorted out." he took a sip of his drink and refocused on the mission. "It's been awhile since Naming Day. Hasn't there been any other pods by there?" Ryan asked.

Tracy shook his head. "No, the Verne pod's been getting refitted in the NeoFran docks for the past few months, so our capacity's been down. This is the first time a pod's gone over that leg since Naming Day."

"So our pirates might be extra eager for this run. You sure Mike won't help out?"

"No, I've checked, He's gone off the grid again. Even after clearing out that Sympathizer cell near Wonders. Last I heard he thought he had a lead on Shah."

Ryan sighed and wiped his plate with a piece of bread. "Damn. I guess that trumps it, but it sucks. Going against Intie pirates with none on our side's gonna be tricky. What about Scratch or Nikki? Err wait, nevermind about Scratch. Slipped my mind."

"I heard about his father. Should be fine, but Scratch needs to stay close for support. As for dad, she's out at the Cave, helping sort out the sympathizer mess with Clarissa. We're on our own."

"Damn. I'm out of personal leave too. Let's head back to the department. I'll bring it up with the Constable, make it a proper case."

"What about your new partner? Wouldn't that get him involved too?"

"He's already involved. Might as well make it official. Gary, I know you hate that fake Laurasian crap over there. Settle your bill and come join us for dessert."

Gary dropped his fork in surprise and looked over. Sparky shrugged, still hidden behind the bush. He glanced between the bushes and saw Ryan grinning, tilting back in his chair to get a clear view. Embarrassed, the Laurasian flagged down the waitress and settled his bill before walking out onto the beach and around the barrier.

"Don't feel bad about it. Jay's ex military, data specialist. He picked up your connection with Sparky. Your sneakiness would probably have worked with anyone else." Tracy motioned to the chair at their table. "But when you've been dealing with a secret society as long as we have, we tend to get a bit paranoid."

"Secret society. You mean the Integrates?" Gary asked after sitting down.

Ryan nodded. "Exactly. Most, the majority are not that bad. They're like you and me, just trying to live their lives like anyone else. But a few bad apples can really spoil the bunch. Those ones tend to be really private, and protective. They destroy all info on Inties they can find. And some of them do things to people that find out."

"Things like what?"

Tracy waited while the waitress took their dessert order and returned with the sweets. "Things like what? Well there's Forced Integration, that's one of their favorite tricks. They would integrate you and your RIDE, or if you don't have a RIDE, they'd pick any random RIDE they can find. Then they would haul you off to a Dry enclave to get indoctrinated with Intie life," Tracy shuddered at the thought. "That happened to Mike and Tonto, long ago."

"And you let that happen?!?"

"It's not as if we have much choice usually. Until recently, they had the upper hand. We had no defenses against them really. But things are changing; we're figuring out how to fight back now, and elements in Integrate society are coming around to our side, reining in the more extreme factions."

Sparky chirped questioningly. "Right, Sparky, that forced thing. Could they do it to me and Sparky?"

Ryan chuckled. "That is a million mu question. Wanda and Dad have been wondering about that since they met you, and we can't decide what would happen. Wanda says Sparky's complexity is probably enough to Integrate, but there's too many unknowns."

"Which means if you were to bump into one of those crews, anything could happen. If they were traditional, they'd probably force you to defuse and integrate with a random RIDE. If they were experimentalists, they might try to make you Integrate together. Luckily those guys are less common now so we probably won't have to answer that question ever." Tracy added.

He waved the waitress down for their bill. "Let's go back to the station, we can answer your questions more and set up your trip with the Melville pod."

They fused up with their partners and started back to the station. Gary opened the comm between them. "So, Astranikki is an Integrate right? So what can she do?"

Ryan chuckled. "Well, you know when you met her, how she stared at Sparky like she was disassembling him with her mind? Well, she could do that if she really wanted to. Most Inties have lifter control fine enough to effectively be telekinesis."

Sparky meeped and dropped a few meters in the air before recovering. Ryan smiled over the comm channel. "Don't worry, she's better than that. She wouldn't really have done it. We'll cover the rest later."

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After the elevator itself, Tethysport was the largest construction in the Alohan region. Technically, it was the final phase of the elevator's construction. The same diggers that had built the tunnels into Uplift, had been used to build a smaller tunnel system from the depths of Mount Touchdown to a bay on the ocean. The excavated rock had been used to shape the bay into an actual port, suitable to receive ships that could handle cargo and help finish the link with the Alohavator. Basic construction had finished five years after the elevator was opened, and since then a proper city was growing up around the bay.

When the cops arrived, the three berths were filled with the three large ships that made up the Mellville pod. Antigrav movers were shifting containers from the storage area onto the ship, or taking them out.

"We're supposed to leave in a few hours, right?" Gary asked, observing the automated dance of cargo carriers.

"Soon as the tide turns, about three hours from now. Why?" Ryan asked back.

Gary shrugged. "Just seems like they're rather empty, for ships about to set sail."

"That's the great myth of Alohan shipping. Everyone thinks that the elevator brings stuff down. The reality is, most of the space factories just drop their products direct to landing zones around the planet. Hundreds are coming down at any moment, landing all around the planet. The cargos are striped out, and what's left over, usually just the anti-grav lifters and some of the control modules, are sent to the elevators to be sent back up.

"That's the reality of the elevators. Their main shipping goal is to lift planetary products up to space. The landing shells make up a lot of that shipping, but other planetary products go up too. Things like Burnside fruit, Cascadian water, sarium batteries, unprocessed Q, they all flow up the elevator for the space habitats."

"So the Aloha to NeoFran leg is basically a deadhead leg for the pods?"

"Exactly. Not completely dead, some of what they pick up from Cascadia and Burnside goes onward to Laurasia, along with some space products that need gentler handling than a drop from orbit." Gary pointed to another set of docks well removed from the cargo docks. "Fishing isn't bad down here too, we supply a lot of fresh fish for the Spacers and Eastern Laurasia. Well, freshly frozen fish at least."

A fused dolphin swam up to them and chittered softly. "Mornin' guys. Good to see you. Ready to earn your sea legs?" Tracy greeted them.

"Sparky's already earned his I think. I've noticed dolphs spend less time in the water than him," Ryan replied, thumping the EIDE on the back. Sparky chirped, red spreading over his face a moment.

"Well come with me then, and we'll get you settled in before launch." The dolphin flipped over in mid air, rolling back upright and started down to the docks. The cops fused with their partners and followed.

"We're setting up in the Ishmael. We're spiking its cargo with gear similar to what was taken before, or what we expect the pirates might be looking for. It's running an older version of Watchdog too, so it should be an easier target to crack than Moby or Captain Ahab." Jay explained as they approached the big ships.

Gary's eyes widened as they got closer. "Damn these are bigger than I thought. How many men do you need to run them?"

"The pods are the biggest man-made things in Zharus's seas. While they're based on Drive Extenders, they are not RIDEs, nor even EIDEs. No cores, just old school VI's. They've got bunkspace enough for ten people plus RIDEs, but we usually run with a crew of three to five." As Tracy acted the proud father, Jay sent floor plans of the three ships to the cops, along with crew lists.

"Do the crew know about Inties?" Ryan asked. They were heading for a hatch near the bow of the ships, where the crew quarters and bridge were located.

"No, not yet, but it was a close call, assuming the pirates are Inties. This crew's been hit once before and they're looking for revenge."

"What exactly happened last time?" Gary asked.

"Your guess is as good as mine. From what Jay and I have sorted out, it had to be Inties. The Ismael was running fine in its pod when it had an issue with its impellers. It surfaced while the rest of the pod continued on. Before the crew could get out to inspect the problem, the ship went into lockdown, isolating the crew inside, and sending their RIDEs into passive mode.

"A half day later, the ship reactivated, along with the RIDE crew, and there wasn't any problem at all. But it was missing a dozen containers; generator parts, fabbers, fabber matter, that sort of thing."

"The rest of the pod didn't notice anything amiss?"

Jay shook his head. "Not a thing. They still regularly sent status reports, so no one suspected a thing, until the crew was released and could tell what really happened. By then it was too late.

"Once Ishamael reached NeoFran, we put him in drydock and searched him from bow to stern, but we couldn't find a damn thing wrong with him."

Jay paused at the hatch, looking back. The ship's hardlight skin was turned off so the loaders could fill up the vast empty back of the ship. "We've been hit twice more since then, all three times near the Rhodes islands, a chain of islands that make up the eastern edge of Rodinian territory. Different enough that we can't really figure out their base, but we're fairly sure they're in those islands somewhere.

"The Nautilus was hit the same way 'Ish was. When Moby Dick had the same problem on its run, the entire pod stayed and waited while they tried to get the engines going again, to no avail. All three ships were locked down in quick succession, and the cargo pods stolen."

"How many do you figure they are?" Gary asked.

Tracy shrugged, "No idea. Jay and I figure probably no more than a half dozen or so, maybe with a couple of heavy lifters. They move pretty quick, and some of the missing containers were buried pretty deep. Buried behind a lot more valuable and more easily obtainable stuff."

"More valuable, but more traceable perhaps?" Gary pointed out. "Just because it is valuable doesn't mean the pirate can unload it easily enough to be worth while."

Jay chitterd a little. "We checked, what they skipped over was virtually untraceable. If they were after valuables, they missed the motherlode.

"In any case, we're gonna cast off soon. Crew's busy with final preps, but Sparky and Rex know where you can go. Feel free to stay up here till we seal up if you want. I'll introduce you to the crew later when things are calmer."

Separator f.png

Gary and Ryan stayed on top of the ship as the three person crew prepared for departure. A fused beaver pair and otter pair swam around the large ship and chatted with similar crew on the other two ships. The captain, a female dolphin pair, stayed on board doing the final preparations.

Jay and Tracy surfaced next to the vast ship and swam up to join the cops. The ships were passing by the headlands that surrounded the Tethysport bay and picking up speed slowly. Ahead of them, the Moby Dick 's surface shimmered, hardlight emitters powering up and sealing the ship. It took on the appearance of a great white whale. It spurted a jet of water hundreds of metres into the air before it dove underwater.

"Time to head down guys. We're sealing up and going under to meet the Grand Current."

He lead them down a hatch into a wide, brightly lit corridor. The living quarters were built at the bow of the ship, made up of the bridge, rec rooms and cabins for individuals. "Space isn't an issue on this ship, so we were generous with the quarters. Some day we may open these routes up for passengers too."

The ship rumbled softly and the air pressure increased slightly. The mech's showed their pilots an outside view of the ship as it dove underwater, gray hardlight skin flexing as the whale-ship dove deeper.

"Kitchen and dining room are here. There's a games room there too. We'll have a couple of days before we reach the attack zones, so make yourself comfortable."

Gary nodded and defused from Sparky. "Don't worry about us, we've still got a lot of reading to catch up on. Thanks for watching out for us."

A couple of days later, Captain MacNally called them to the bridge. The bridge was spacious, but not too big. It was dominated by a hardlight screen at the front, with views from the other ships of the pod and their whiskers; unmanned drones that swam all around the ships, giving them a view of the surface, the depths and other areas.

"Welcome to Rodinia," the captain said, motioning to the screen with her gray skinned hand. Her signs weren't as extreme as Tracy's, but she had a beak, and shiny gray skin.

One part of the screen showed the Tethys, their route and the territory boundaries. Gary could see the pod was just entering the dotted line marking that denoted the Rodinian Isolation Zone. The map zoomed in and showed a chain of islands that followed their projected route.

"The first of the Rhodes Islands are just coming into view. The attacks don't usually happen until we're deeper in the chain," the Captain said. Another view from an aerial drone expanded, showing a small landmass on the horizon. It was a rocky island, with a jungle centre. The colour of the jungle looked bluer than Gary was used to.

"Native, truly native Zharusian life," Ryan said. "We've got some spots like that near Aloha, but the terraformers were pretty thorough."

"Anything dangerous in there?" Gary asked. "Beside human-dangers that is."

"Nah, we got here before land life really got its legs. The Sea life is putting up a good fight against Terran life, but on the land, we dominate. They only had plants and insect, lizard and amphibian equivalents. Not even any flyers." Ryan explained.

"Just don't try eating any of it. Most of them tend to do bad things to the ol' digestive track."

The captain stiffened silently, listening to the ship. She fused with her RIDE and went silent, under the expectant gaze of the visitors.

"We're surfacing," she finally announced. "The starboard impeller just went offline."

"Already? This is earlier than they usually strike," Tracy said, fusing with Jay. The cops fused with their partners as well.

She nodded, "Earlier but in range. The rest of the pod is continuing as planned. We've already signaled them our status."

"They've gotta know it's a trap now. That we'll be prepared for them." Gary said.

Tracy shrugged and scanned across the views. The outside view was getting lighter as they approached the surface. "One thing most inties have in common is attitude. Many think they're superior, that there's nothing we can do to stop them, and until recently that was the case. But Watchdog's got enough teeth to surprise them, and we can go from there."

"Inties?" Captain MacNally asked.

Jay chittered softly and grinned back at her. "We'll explain after we get this sorted out. Just act normally and keep to the plan." Tracy explained.

She sighed and looked back at the controls. "Great, another one of your schemes Trace? Should've known. Be careful out there."

"We will be. Don't worry about us too much. Make sure Carl and Bob sit tight; this shouldn't take too long." He motioned to the door. "We better get to our positions to greet our guests."

The three partners made their way to the cargo hold. Near one of the entrances, they'd prepared a trio of empty containers to wait in. As they entered, Jay reached up and cracked a pipe running along the wall. Steam hissed out, filling the short corridor with a fog.

"Cheap cloak countermeasure." the dolphin explained. "Keep an eye on the fog, you should see if someone walks through the door even if they're cloaked."

"Sounds like you speak from experience," Gary noted.

Jay winced and smiled. "Yeah, a couple of missions went pear shaped because we walked into a foggy hallway. In any case, go wait in your containers and ping if you spot anything strange.

The containers had been placed specifically for this mission. While there were other entrances to the cargo holds, the one they watched was handiest to the top deck and the bridge, and the one the pirates had always used. The men settled down to wait, with the RIDEs surrounding them going to minimal power.

Muffled clunks echoed through the ship. "Those would be the door seals compartmentalizing the ship and isolating the crew from the rest of the ship. They should be manually overridable, but we discovered they were spot welded shut in the areas the crew were in," Jay explained over a fibre cable they had threaded between their spots.

"That implies they know where the crew is. Won't they wonder where we are?" Gary asked.

"Shielded containers, they can't see us in here. And the ship sensors are still reading us on the bridge."

They fell silent and waited, watching the door and listening. They didn't wait long.

The hatch opened slowly, causing the steam to billow. They could see a short figure at the hatch, waving to try and clear away the steam. The figure wasn't even trying to cloak.

"Damn ship's falling apart already. Looks like a burst steam pipe," a strange high pitched voice said. Metal creaked and the pipe pinched shut around the crack Jay had made. The figure dropped down on all fours and walked through. "That's better."

The figure moved out of the short corridor and paused on the catwalk that went around the upper level of the storage hold. From his container, Gary could see it was a large rat, not much bigger than a big man. He walked on all fours, and had brown fur over most of his body. His claws and teeth glinted metallicly, while his eyes glittered in the dim light. At his hips, there was a pair of large black hardlight panels. His bare tail was shiny silver as well. He moved to the edge of the catwalk and sat back on his haunches. He lifted his forepaws into the air and a hardlight screen appeared.

Sparky isolated the rat and zoomed in on the rat's chest. A gem glittered there, ruby red.

"Yeah that must be his DIN." Gary said in agreement. "Look behind him."

Unaware of his audience, the rat turned his head and shouted. "Hurry up Packy. These containers aren't going to move themselves!"

"For the two hundredth and forty ninth time, It's PATRICK!" a deep voice boomed back. The hatch darkened again, completely filled by the large man wiggling through. The elephant-man straightened up once he was in the open area and shook himself. He wore a pair of swim trunks, and nothing else. His gray hairless skin was covered in green tron lines, like many dolphins had.

Sparky chirped softly in their shared VR space, indicating there was something familiar about the elephant integrate, but the EIDE couldn't figure out what it was. Gary studied the integrate closely, but nothing rang any bells. His DIN wasn't visible that he could tell.

"Take it easy big guy. We all know Rattrap just does it to get your goat." The female voice belonged to an otter. She slipped around the elephant man, her dark brown fur still glistening with water. She was dressed Alohan style, which meant nothing but a utility belt around her waist. Her DIN was obviously a sapphire nestled above her breasts. From a distance, it seemed to be part of a golden necklace that went around her neck, though both the DIN-gem and the necklace were fused into place.

"I know Sandra. Doesn't mean I have ta like it." Patrick glared at Rattrap and leaned over the catwalk railing. "Which ones are we grabbing?"

"Two here. Four more are buried deeper in, and another three in the next compartment," Rattrap said, ignoring the glare from the elephant. The exact locations seemed to be passed on silently, as Patrick moved to line up with the first container.

In the back of his mind, Gary could sense Sparky receiving and sending quick data bursts over the fibre link as the RIDEs sorted out the tactics. They all agreed that they probably wouldn't have a better chance to take on the three Integrates than they had now, and the chances of a fourth, or more Integrate lurking elsewhere was low. Targets were assigned and a quick countdown started.

Their container doors flew open and the three pairs came out firing. Sparky fired its repulsers at Rattrap, smashing the surprised rat hard against the wall, leaving a dent. Sandra's fur sizzled, the water evaporating quickly as Rex's plasma blasted into her, knocking her over.

Patrick received the strongest attack, a screech from Jay that echoed around the hold and hurt Gary's ears even with Sparky's baffles. The elephant trumpeted in pain, his hands clasping against his large ears under the sonic barrage. It was the other part of Jay's attack that had the most effect though, as one by one, the DIN's cracked under a digital assault. Patrick's unseen DIN revealed himself as the elephant suddenly jumped in new pain, and his hands dropped down to his crotch. Thus he was caught unprepared as Rex and Sparky shifted their own attacks over to the elephant man, scorching his hide and knocking him hard against the back wall. He slumped down and lay motionless next to the rat.

"Quick! We don't know how long before they recover," Tracy ordered, already rushing towards the elephant. Sparky and Rex were in the air, going to their own stunned targets. Sparky snapped a special collar around the rat and plucked the cracked gem free before the rat stirred.

"Worst DIN-Slot. Ever," Jay chuckled. With Rattrap contained, Sparky and Gary were able to look over at the Dolphin pair. The elephant had needed two of the special collars to reach around his neck, but they all had spares. With the collars in place, Jay had pulled the elephant's swim trunks down, and found the cracked DIN. It was in a slot between the man's legs, behind his genitals.

"Don't think I can think of many worse spots," Ryan agreed.

The otter stirred first, causing the RIDEs to spread out, covering the inties with their weapons. She groaned and winced in pain, some of her fur scorched off from the canine's blast. As she recovered, she reached up to the white band around her neck.

"Don't touch that. Not unless you want to lose your head. It's got a VERY fine trigger," Ryan warned her, Rex adding a growl to their voice. She froze, her hands centies away from the band. She slowly lowered her hands and focused on the canine RIDE. "Who are you?"

Before Ryan could answer, Rattrap groaned and opened his own red eyes. His paws started reaching for the collar around his neck, before Gary warned him off. Patrick woke soon after that and received a similar warning.

"Can I at least pull up my shorts?" the stunned elephant asked as he gathered his wits.

"Why do you want to do that? I'm liking the view myself," the otter purred, grinning at her companion.

Jay chittered softly and flipped in the air. "Go ahead. But move REALLY slowly."

"As you have been warned, around your necks are explosives. They have multiple trigger methods and they are armed. Attempt to take them off by any means and you'll be joining the Headless Horseman club.

The elephant pulled his shorts back up slowly. "Who the hell are you? And how'd you do that? Inties are supposed ta be superior."

Despite the risk, Sandra kicked him. "Are you blind and stupid? That's Tracy Munn. He owns this ship."

"Actually, I own the company. I just lease the ship. There's a rather pissed off captain locked on the bridge who owns the ship. But we'll deal with her in a minute.

"As far as superiority goes, it's bullcrap as you can see. You guys are better at some things, but you aren't invincible. We were prepared."

Rattrap snarled and shook himself carefully before rubbing his fur. "Yeah right. I bet these collars are duds. You wouldn't dare risk killing us."

Jay pointed at Sparky. "Mind doing the honours?"

Gary took out a spare collar and snapped the ends together. They hadn't known how many Inties they would be dealing with, so they each had five to start, with more cached nearby. Sparky sent the arming signal to just the collar in their hands, and threw it off the catwalk. A second later, a boom echoed through the hold, and small pieces of plastic and ash flitted down over them.

Patrick and Sandra looked suitably terrified, the elephant man going as far as to sit on his hands. Rattrap tried to look nonplussed, "Fine. You caught us. Now what? You going to keep us as your pets? You can't watch us all the time, we'll figure out a way. Or someone will break us out."

Ryan leaned against the railing, while keeping Rex's weapons trained on the Integrates. "There are options. Like that Integrate prison the Marshals are building out at the Cave of Wonders. While we can't watch you constantly, we can watch you long enough to get you there."

The integrates stiffened a moment. "How do you know about that?" Sandra asked.

Rex showed his APD badge. "Ryan and Rex Munn-Daye. APD. Wanda's husband, and Astranikki's son in law."

The inties froze. Sandra managed to look pale under her fur. "Oh crap oh crap...."

Patrick tried to look strong and focused on Sparky. "You look familiar. You a Munn too?"

"Nope, just another cop. Ryan's current partner." Gary leaned against the railing, appearing relaxed even though they were hovering over the space between the railing and the cargo.

Tracy let out a blast from his blow hole. "Right. So that's one option. And given who we are, I'm sure you know that's not an idle threat right?

"Now the next option is entirely up to you. Why the hell did you take up this pirate life? And why these containers exactly?"

"We ain't telling you anything," Rattrap snarled. He was ignored by the cops and Tracy. They kept their gaze focused on Patrick; they were experienced enough to recognize the weak links.

Patrick sighed, snorting out his trunk. He reached to the collar with it before stopping himself. "Atlantis needs supplies. We just started it and didn't bring everything we needed, and then the storm and the volcano...."

Rattrap hissed and glared at the elephant man, but he just shrugged and refused to meet the gaze.

"Another Atlantis? Well at least this one's on water. I thought this looked like a hurting colony," Tracy said. "So in that case, Option B. You tell us where that new Enclave is, we drop you off there, no harm, no foul, and we work out a supply contract to get you what you need in the future, and to cover what I've got for you on this load."

"What?!" Sandra sat up suddenly, "You can't be serious."

"Serious as a body jack. I'm a business dolph, always looking for new opportunities. It's what founded Aloha, and what's started those runs out to Cave once dad came home. This leg's been a lame leg for my company so far, but adding a stop at Atlantis... seriously, you couldn't have been more original? There are fifteen Atlantis's on Gondwana alone, not counting the Enclave in the Trench... anyway, adding a stop there would give it a boost."

"But we're on Rodinia. That's illegal. We'll be booted off if They found out," Patrick pointed out, a bit of hope in his voice.

"You're in the Rhodes Archipelago. It's the Eastern edge of the Rodinian no-colonize zone, but that's just because they were a handy marker. Rodinia itself is still thousands of klicks away. Far enough away the naturalists won't give much of a damn," Ryan pointed out.

Tracy nodded, "And I'll admit, I've been toying with the idea of a Zharusian resort, a chance to see native life with the comforts of home. Laurasia and Gondwana are all Earth'ed out, but these islands would be perfect... eventually. No rush there."

"I can't believe you're considering this! We left the Dry so we could get away from it all. To have a chance to get out on our own and not get tied up in the Intie-Human-RIDE affairs. And you're seriously considering inviting them in?" Rattrap snarled, his tail lashing the air angrily behind him.

"No, I came here to get out of the damn Dry. I didn't give a damn about politics and you guys sold me on setting up somewhere wet. Too bad you don't know a damn thing about starting a new colony by yourselves. We were nearly dead of Sarium-deficiency before Patrick noticed the pod coming close."

Tracy grinned, "Sounds like we have a lot to talk about. Why don't you tell me where Atlantis is so we can get going, and hash out the rest of the details along the way?"

"No way! Do NOT tell him where the Enclave is," Rattrap shouted.

Sandra glared back at him, "And why not? I'd prefer what they're offering more than what you do. If you don't like it, you're welcome to keep going to Rodinia. Frankly, I'm tired of it just being us." She looked back at the dolphin and held up her hands. A map of the archipelago appeared, with an X on the third largest island, in the middle of a bay. "That's it. There's a reef that shelters the bay, but you shouldn't have any problems."

Rattrap hissed and shifted tactics. "It'll do you no good. Soon as you get there you'll be outnumbered. We'll capture you and Integrate you and keep you there. Even you, Iron Man."

Patrick shuddered at the comment, and hugged himself tightly. Sparky let out a few hardlight sparks and glared at the rat Intie.

Tracy's own expression hardened, the smile all but disappearing. "You're taking a risk showing us this Enclave. We're taking a risk going there. But don't believe we won't take precautions. My family already has three Integrates in it, one of them a Marshal. And my sisters are two of the top DIN hackers out there, despite still being flesh and mech. As soon as we leave this room, they will all know exactly what happened here. If anything happens to us at all, you'll wish we just killed you. Capiche?"

The rat cringed back and gulped. He took a deep breath and tried to regather his fight. "It doesn't mean anything anyway. We've got your ship locked down. It's not moving anywhere without our say so."

"Right, about that." Jay chittered and grinned evilly. The fused dolphin floated above the catwalk, tailwalking in midair. They spread their arms and lifted them. "Let there be light!"

Deep in the ship, a deep clunk echoed. Soon after, the lights brightened and the air buzzed as the ship's network came back online.

"Captain MacNally. Everything all right up there?" Tracy shouted.

"Just peachy now. The secondary computer's waking up and everything's coming back online. The old whiskers are still trimmed but we're launching new ones soon. I take it our guests are contained?"

"They are. Jay's sending an updated course for us, for our new destination, as well as a briefing of our guests and what's happening. We'll be up shortly to answer any further questions."

"You'd better. The Ishmael's not moving a metre until you do." Tracy grinned at the stunned Integrates as the intercom clicked off.

"But how? We scrambled your control codes. It'd take an Intie to decrypt them to regain control," Sandra stuttered.

"Yes, I'm sure it will. But while this ship was being refitted, we added a sword to cut through the gordian knot of your encrypted controls. A second control system, almost completely powered off save for a signal watcher, that could replace the original one when needed. This whole ship was redesigned as a honeypot to catch you guys.

"Now, let's go somewhere more comfortable. There's a place nearby we can use. Follow me, and remember, don't try any funny stuff."

In light of Patrick's size, they took the Integrates to the ship's dining room. Sandra and Patrick sat down against a wall, far from any doors, while Rattrap settled a few metres away. Ryan and Gary kept watch near the doorways, but let the Inties have a little bit of privacy, while Tracy left to go to the bridge.

"Gotta say, those collars are surprisingly effective against them. Though they feel a bit extreme," Gary said quietly to Ryan once things had settled down. They'd gotten water and snacks for their prisoners, and were just waiting to hear what the next step would be.

"It is extreme, but for us, it's the best way we have for now. Taking the DIN's keeps them out of the networks, but they're still got their hardlight TK and other tricks. Please don't mention this around Scratch," Ryan explained.

"Around Scratch? Why not?"

"We cribbed the idea from him. From Pascal actually, one of Shah's generals. When Scratch rescued her dad from that 'pine, she'd put a bomb collar around her neck. Turned out to be a dud, but Scratch didn't know that. In any case, we don't want to bring back too many bad memories for her."

Gary nodded. "Understandable. Our lips are sealed."

"Hey! You guys know Scratch? Small tiger Integrate?" Patrick shouted from the other side of the room.

The cops looked over at him in surprise. "Yes, we know him. But he's a house cat, not a tiger. It's a fine distinction, but one he makes sure to make. How the hell did you hear us?" Ryan asked.

Patrick wiggled his big ears. "These aren't just for show yah know."

"No, they're for heat dissipation. What do you know about Scratch?" Rex taunted back.

Patrick laughed and bowed his big head slightly in recognition of the successful verbal parry. "He rescued me. The RIDE me that is. Twas a year or so ago, and I was driven by a bastard who tried ta kill some gal who knocked him and his brothers around bare handed."

The elephant managed to snap with the end of his trunk. "That reminds me! Now I remember who youse is," he said pointing to Sparky and Gary. "Youse the transfer cops they made a big deal 'bout from Nujose. The guy wit da robot RIDE."

Sparky sparked a moment, but Gary calmed his partner down. The pieces were falling into place, and they finally recognized why the elephant was so familiar to them. "You're the elephant RIDE that attacked the twins and Scratch? But the MacIntyres are still in jail. What happened?"

"Yeah, dey still in jail and good riddance. Hated fusing wit dat bastard. No, Scratch, after he locked us down in the forest, he left us a gift. A time delayed release of our fetters. Bryce and Rhox, they ran as soon as they were clear, but I stuck around. I liked working in the mines, and with the fetters gone, I could actually talk with my partner. Pat and I got along great."

He sighed and looked down. "Not great enough ta Integrate, but we didn't have any choice in da matter. We was wit a group prepping the new mine, when a couple of Inties found us all. Thought it would be a hoot ta integrate the lot of us. Five of us all at once, and we had no choice but ta follow them out into the Dry."

The cops winced, while Sandra put a comforting hand on Patrick's lap. "He was miserable in the enclaves. A square log trying to fit in a tiny hole. We met up while I was looking for recruits for Atlantis, hit it off, and he followed me out here," she picked up his story. "I'm afraid we weren't quite able to give the life we advertised out there...."

"But it's better than I was getting in the Dry. And maybe thing's'll look up now with some more help from outside." Patrick looked up, hopefully to the cops. "When you see Scratch again, tell him thanks. For me at least. I don't know what happened to the other two, but I think they appreciate his gift too."

Gary shook his head in disbelief. "We will. Ryan is sort've his adopted brother in any case. Damn for such a big world, Zharus can be small at times."

A few minutes later, the ship vibrated as its engines started up again. Tracy and Jay returned, but the rest of the Ishmael 's crew kept their distance.

"We're on our way to Atlantis. Angela and Dora are pissed off at me, but that's par for the course. We should reach there in about an hour." He looked at their prisoners. "I've also sent word to Wanda and Uncle Jason. Told them everything. If we don't keep in touch, you can be sure they'll come looking for answers."

"Nothing will happen," Sandra tried to reassure them. "Most of us, we just wanted to be left alone. To get out of the mess of Intie politics and just live our lives. Hell, most of us were force integrated, and it's not something we'd want to do to anyone else."

Rattrap snorted and turned his back to the group, trying to look like he was going to sleep. The rest of the group ignored him, other than to make sure he wasn't up to anything.

When Captain MacNally signaled the island was in sight, they moved the Integrates to the top of the ship. There they found the platform the Inties had planned to use to carry their haul back on. It was made of flattened cargo containers with antigrav lifters.

Ahead of them, was a tropical island. Its most prominent feature was a conical mountain rising in the centre. Smoke rose from the top, and the blue-green Zharusian jungle that climbed the side was gashed with a fresh lava flow that reached the water of the large lagoon. A small community was built near the beach cut in half by the lava flow.

"Damn, I've seen castaways with more permanent lodgings," Ryan said, using Rex to get better views. Zoomed in views showed houses built with no pattern or thought of layout, solar collectors scattered willy-nilly, most of them in the shade for part of the day. "When did the volcano erupt?"

"Three months ago. And a week after a storm chased us inland. We used a lot of our reserves moving the camp twice and saving what we could, and now most of us are hurting bad," Sandra explained.

"How many of you are there?" Gary asked. His vision was flickering as Sparky spotted and identified Integrates or possible Integrates. They were beginning to notice the whale-ship approaching their lagoon.

"Around five hundred. Some have gone back to Gondwana, some have moved on to Rodinia. The rest of us, are too stubborn or too sick to leave."

Tracy nodded and looked back at the Integrates. The Ishmael was slowing to a stop next to the reef outside the lagoon, hovering just above the water. "Right, things are a bit rougher than I expected, but we can work with this. But first, a show of good faith. You brought us here, so it's time to treat you as partners, not prisoners." He clicked a quick pattern, and the collars released and dropped off.

"I'm not bringing him in closer until you clear us," Captain MacNally said over the comm. "We're keeping an eye on you and the shore just in case."

"That's fine, Captain. I'd do the same in your fins. Prepare for unloading, and set up a sickbay and a buffet please. It looks like we'll need both."

Behind them, loud clunks filled the air, and the back of the whale-ship began to crack open. Tracy motioned to Rattrap. "After you please."

The rat snorted and lifted into the air, starting towards the shore. Tracy followed, followed by the other two Integrates. The cops brought up the rear. They landed on the sandy beach, to the left of the cooling lava flow. The bulk of the remaining village was ahead of them, hurriedly set up among the smooth skinned trees of the jungle. The beach itself was covered with debris from an earlier encampment, obviously destroyed by a storm and in many cases subsequently burned by the lava.

"Gonna need to get some Burnside Volcaneers out here. Set up some pressure controls, lava streams and geo power plants," Jay noted quietly as they surveyed what they could see. Rattrap was about to say something, but a welcoming committee stopped him.

Five integrates made their way down from the village, watching the new comers warily. Gary and Sparky compared them to the Integrates they knew, and they could tell these ones were in rough shape. They all had an emaciated, hungry look to them. Fur and feathers were unkempt and falling out, scales flakey, tronlines dim or out completely, hardlight panels hazy and cracked in some places. They looked nothing like the superior race that Fritz, Appa and their allies were selling.

"Damn. This reminds me of those African famine villages from the twentieth. Or the Central American Radiation villages of the twenty second," Rex mumbled beside Gary.

Jay seemed to have a similar thought. The dolphin RIDE sent back a highly encrypted signal back to the cops. When Gary decrypted it, an old style twentieth century human woman appeared beside the welcoming committee.

"For just ten mu a week, no more than the price of a cup of coffee a day, you too can help feed a starving Integrate in Rodinia," the virtual woman said.

Ryan broke the solemn mood by snorting, choking back a laugh. He slapped Jay across the back of the fused dolphin's head. "Stop that!"

The Integrates looked puzzled at the Alohans. Gary noticed a pantheress didn't look happy to see them, but the others showed varying degrees of hope.

"Greetings. Welcome to Atlantis," a roan horse-man greeted them. "I'm afraid we are not in the best of conditions for handling guests," he added.

Tracy nodded and stepped forward, defusing from Jay. "Understandable. I've heard of the troubles you've had setting up your new enclave, and I wish to offer my help. My name is Tracy Munn, owner of the company whose ships you've been... borrowing supplies from over the past few months."

Patrick and Sandra looked away at Tracy's tactful explanation of their activities. Some of the other Intigrates nodded, while looking a little embarrassed as well.

"At first, I was planning to come to you to propose a less stressful deal, to service your Enclave as part of our shipping route. But in light of your recent disasters, I see now more immediate aid is required.

"Captain MacNally has offered the Ishmael to you, as a place to mend your sick, and as a dry place to rest in comfort while your village is rebuilt. Furthermore these supplies are yours. I realize they aren't quite what you need, but we didn't know your current situation when the ship was loaded." A hardlight tablet passed from Jay to the equine Integrate.

A black furred hand swatted it out of the air, though the actual data had already passed between them. "No! We don't need charity. Especially not from Meat!" the panthress snarled.

The horse looked tiredly back at her. "Panthra, open your damn eyes! We're hurting. Hurting bad. This beautiful island's damn near killed us."

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And we're stronger than those lesser beings will ever be. We can rebuild. Recruit more people from the Dry, get more supplies."

"Recruit who? Everyone knows we're a failed enclave already. We'd have better luck starting off fresh," a dinosaur integrate spoke up. He was almost as big as Patrick, with the neck frill and triple horns of a triceratops.

Panthra snarled back and turned her back, fast walking back to the village. Rattrap took a few steps after her, then paused, glancing back. No one paid him any attention, giving him the courage to run after her.

"I apologize for Panthra. Superiorists are endemic in any Enclave it seems. But most of us just want a peaceful place to call home. A place that isn't a desert, or a fake oasis in the desert."

"Understandable. I know of a few villages and neighbourhoods outside the Dry that are almost enclaves themselves now, from all the Inties in them," Tracy said.

The horse held out his hand. "I am Rupert, what passes as a leader in what's left of this enclave. And any help you can provide will be appreciated openly and safely. You have my protection."

Tracy shook it while Jay glanced back at the ship. It started turning to enter the lagoon. "Thank you. We'll do what we can to get you properly set up."

Rupert flicked his ears and glanced down. "Yeah, we could use the help. We were too naive for our own good when we picked this place." He glanced at the approaching cargo ship. "Uhm, how many are you?"

Tracy chuckled. "Not many. Six humans, Six RIDEs." Sparky chirped angrily. "Five RIDEs and one EIDE. But we will probably need to bring more people in, to get the proper expertise to set you up safely."

The horse glanced at the others on the beach, then back to Tracy. "Right, that's good. I know it's impolite to ask much of your generosity but..."

"I think I know what you mean. I'll do my best to only bring out other Integrates, or people who know of Integrates. The Alohan Intie community should have most of what you need, or know who to talk to to help you out. I'm sure there are a few Inties in Burnside who could come down and help out too."

They visibly relaxed. "Thank you. We really appreciate it. Not that we don't like you meat- err well you guys help, but it'll be less hassle if most of it is Integrated."

Tracy nudged the bigger Intie and pointed towards the path leading to the village. Behind him, Jay dived into the lagoon water, chittering happily. "Come on, why don't you show me what we have here and we can start planning for the future."

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Out of habit, Gary and Sparky stood at the edge of the small crowd, scanning it for signs of trouble. He couldn't sense anything building, among the roughly hundred Integrates and random RIDE and human watching the stage.

On the stage, the equine Integrate, Rupert was wrapping up his speech, extolling his vision for the future of the newly renamed Montserrat, and thanking those who had helped the enclave get back on its feet. Three of the biggest helpers were on the stage next to him, Jay and Tracy Munn, and a Burnside lizard Integrate who was in charge of the geopower plant they were officially turning on. Unofficially, the village had been running off of it for a week, but Rupert, like any politician, Integrated or otherwise, knew the value of a good holo op.

The crowd itself was eager and excited, but in a good way. All the Inties looked healthy to their inexperienced eyes, with no faded lines, flakey scales, bald patches or dead panels. As Tracy had expected, once they got the colony past the emergency stage, most of the independent minded folks moved on to other places, leaving a core group of around three hundred. That number had grown quickly as word spread through Intie channels, and good samaritans and people looking for a fresh start alike arrived to help out.

They shifted their gaze from the stage and the crowd and looked around the village. The smell of wet smartcrete and setting fabber matter still hung in the air, and all the buildings still had the crispness and blandness of quick fabbed structures. But unlike what Sparky and Gary had seen originally, these ones would not be moving anywhere.

"Hard to believe they did all this in just a few months," Gary said, finally looking to his companion. Ashley and Chena Munn had shown up soon after the true scope of the enclave's troubles became known, and they'd stayed there almost ever since. Ashley was following in her mother's footsteps, taking up medical studies, but her focus on Integrate issues couldn't be officially listed. She covered it under a bigger umbrella of 'Fuse Related and Nanite Related health issues'.

"It's not that hard to believe. We've become quite adept at building towns out of nothing, especially on Gondwana. Inties have been doing it even more recently than us. So the experience and skills are here. These guys just had horrible luck when they set out, but that happens sometimes," she said. "Still to recover from what they were hit with is quite incredible. Most would have slunk back to the Dry."

"If you say so," Gary said, smirking behind Sparky's face plate. He could hear the pride and admiration in Ashley's voice, despite how dismissively she tried to treat the colony's recovery.

"... And without further ado, I welcome us all to Montserrat, our new home!" Rupert proclaimed, pushing a physical button built on a pedestal visible to all.

The night lit up as buildings and streets brightened. It wasn't any brighter than it had been the night before, but for the announcement that night, they'd been slaved to the signal Rupert had just triggered. What was new was the pillar in the centre of the village, behind the stage. It came to life with a shower of sparks, and a dome formed over the village, leading to true cheers from the crowd. The dome itself was meant mainly for storm and volcano protection.

With the dome flickering overhead, the party kicked off. Gary excused themselves and wandered around after snagging a beer bottle. He hadn't been back to Montserrat since the first visit, and they were curious about the rebuilding.

"So I hear you are leaving us," a familiar voice said behind them as they studied a small apartment block being built.

They twisted around in surprise, and found a huge elephant man standing behind them. Sparky chirped while they recovered.

"Packy-Patrick! Don't scare me like that. Where'd you hear that?" Gary asked, holding out their free hand.

Patrick shook his ears before shaking their hands. "Big ears. Good for more than just heat control. Story 'round the island is this is just a pit stop on your way back to Nujose. "

Gary chuckled and shook their head. "No, no, not at all. Leave it to the grapevine to screw up the news. Yes we are going to Nujose from here, but it's not for good. We're officially transferring to APD for good. I just want to do it in person. Figure we owe the Captain enough to do that at least, instead of through a terminal."

"Oh, that makes more sense. I just thought you'd had enough of RIDEs and Integrates after all that's happened. I worried we scared you off, and I was gonna try to convince you to stay."

Sparky chirped happily and patted Patrick on the trunk.

"No worries about that. Don't think we could get away with what we know now anyway. But it was nice of you to think of that."

"It was the least I could do, after all you did for me, for us here."

Sparky mirrored Gary's puzzled look. "All we did for you?"

"Trusting us on the Ishmael, helping rebuild the village here. Hell even helping me get away from those bastards in Cape Nord." He looked back to the party and sighed, "Though Ashley Munn still won't have anything to do with me."

"Those bastards were pretty rough, even if you weren't responsible for what you were doing." Gary shook his head and looked back. "In any case, Sparky and I, we didn't do any of that! We were just along for the ride. Hell we didn't have much to do with you in Cape Nord at all."

Patrick shrugged and looked away. "Maybe, Maybe not. But you did help, even if it wasn't much."

"Man, everyone keeps giving us credit for stuff we didn't do. It's enough to give me a complex," Gary said. "Well it's the thought that counts I guess. Glad to help out."

"So when do you head out?" Patrick asked after a minute. They were all looking back at the party building up in the centre of the village.

"Tomorrow sometime. Whenever Skylance sobers up enough to fly."

Patrick chuckled. "You hired Skylance? Hope you aren't in a rush. That drake's a great pilot, but he loves his parties."

"We've heard. Luckily we aren't in a rush." Gary finished off the bottle and held it up. "Shall we go get some refills and join the party?"

"Sounds like a plan. Let's go. There's a few more people I'd love you guys to meet."

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Preceded by:
Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by:
Spies Among Us