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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti


Author: Jetfire

108 AL

Jason paced the arrivals lounge anxiously, his gaze shifting from the Lander outside the windows, to the sealed customs area. In a corner of his eye, the status remained as it had been for the past five minutes. "Rose of the Cosmos, Lander 5 Status: Disembarking." Around him, hundreds of other people waited; most of them showing signs of anxiousness or eagerness as they awaited someone from the superluminal. The largest group was waiting patiently around a kiosk; the welcoming committee for new colonists and tourists who had no one else to greet them.

As he turned to retrace his steps, he glanced at his mail icon. A few new low priority messages, but nothing from the person he was waiting for. They had agreed to save all communications for meat space, but now that the moment was nearly there, Jason was having a hard time keeping that promise. The only message from Nick had just confirmed the shuttle he was arriving on.

Finally the room fell silent. All eyes fell on the doors from Customs and Immigration as they slid open. A family of four stepped out with the look common to people realizing they were on a new planet from their homeworld. There were no shouts of recognition, but a pair of the professional greeters left the kiosk and quickly took them in hand.

A young woman followed the family out, and was greeted with a shouted "Carolyn!". Her face lit up, and she ran into the arms of another woman. With that greeting, the ice was broken. A flood of people passed through the doors, more or less equally split between reunions and people met by the greeters, with a rare experienced traveller who passed directly to the transportation area. Jason kept to one side of the crowd, his eyes locked on the doors, waiting for the familiar face.

A cartoon devil popped into his view on his left. The devil waved and grinned, before lifting a signs with three letters on it; I C U. He pointed back the way he came from before walking out of sight again. Jason followed the devil as he walked away, and soon spotted the familiar face smirking and waving to him.

"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes," Jason greeted the man, clasping his extended hand and pulling him in for a hug and back slap.

"Sorry about the delay. I picked the short line, and got stuck behind the guy who had Proxima Flu in his youth and didn't have all his paper work in order," Nick replied.

"You never did have luck with lines. You got anything to pick up here?" Jason asked, nodding to the baggage claim. Around them, people did double takes, then smiled a bit. Though their hairstyles were different, their builds and faces were close enough to make their relation obvious.

His twin shook his head and stepped back a bit. "No, I've got nothing but the clothes on my back, and the data in the databanks. "Things were getting a bit rough back home when I left. Barely scraped enough together to get out of the system."

"Right, we can talk about it later. Let's get a skimmer, and I'll treat you to some Zharus cuisine before we get to the hotel." Jason led his brother to the exit.

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The skimmer sped up quickly and merged into the traffic heading into the city. It spread across the plain, a young city that was growing quickly to match the growth of the colony world. There were few skyscrapers yet, but there were signs that that would be changing soon. VR space was full of overlays proclaiming what the future cityscape would look like.

"Nothing like you see on Earth, is it?" Jason commented.

"Not really. In some ways it's the same, but it just feels different... newer, and something else I can't put my finger on," Nick replied.

"I'd go with monotonous myself. Jason grinned at his brother's expression before explaining himself. "Don't get me wrong, it's still a great city. But it's something that the locals don't get. Even visitors from other colonies don't quite sense it either. But Terrans, we can tell. This place, and just about everywhere on Zharus and most of the Colonies, lack the feel of history that only time can give.

"First Landing is just over a century old. It's on its sixth twenty year plan and so far they've mostly gone off without a hitch. But it hasn't had time to handle the randomness of time. Back home all our cities have history behind them. Most are centuries, even millennia old, and they've got the scars and character to prove it. Wars, Disasters, Fad of the Decade Urban Planning, Decay, Renewal, Technological Advances, they've all left something behind that you can feel when you visit them. First Landing hasn't even had a Great Fire yet, or anything else to shake it up. It's still got the New City smell so to speak.

Nick took another look out at the city and saw what his brother meant. The layout was obviously well planned, designed perfectly for skimmer traffic. Landing pads were natural parts of a building's design, not tacked on as an afterthought refit to a structure that dated from the age of wheel. There were no leftover roads with grown over dumb asphalt; no parks in a random place memorializing some past disaster. The buildings were all going up, no towers being brought down to renew an area, or repair from an attack. And most telling of all; there were no dead zones. The entire city was livable, without the pockmarks of radiation or chem zones that afflicted many of Earth's cities.

Jason brought the skimmer into a business area, and landed in a rooftop parking spot. A warning popped up on the skimmer screen, saying that the parking was for patrons of Luigi Aknar's only. Violators would be towed. "We're a bit early, but that's good. We'll miss the late dinner rush. Used to come here all the time for lunches. Best Italian, Indian and Zharusian food on the planet in my opinion."

"So you worked around here."

"When I wasn't in the field." Jason pointed to an office complex peeking over the rooftops a few blocks away. "I was doing Claim Conflict Resolution. Basically meant getting between the Hatfields and the McCoys and convincing them the computer surveyors were right and that rock really belonged to whoever. Boring, tedious work most of the time, but it gave me a chance to get out and head on site a lot. Made a lot of friends and a few enemies in the process too."

He lead his brother to a lift that took them down to the ground level foyer of the restaurant. They were seated at a window almost immediately. Jason ordered for both of them, and they were soon left with a bottle of wine and a bread basket while waiting for their meal.

"So...." Jason started slowly after a particularly long pause. He wasn't sure how to broach the subject, but he had to know. "What happened? Between you and Jess?"

Nick's face fell. He put down the butter knife and refilled their glasses, his hands shaking. "She's..." his voice caught in his throat before he could finish the sentence. "She's dead. Died a year or so before I left."

He closed his eyes a moment, and backtracked to an older memory. "We never expected you to actually leave. I know a deal's a deal, but we're family. We could have figured something else out."

Jason sipped his wine while trying to come to grips with the revelation. "Well, we were young, and immature, all of us. And our heads were filled with HoloDrama cliched nonsense. But it made sense at the time."

"I know. But we missed you. Damn near broke us apart to be honest, but we recovered. We married the day you would have arrived here, if that makes any sense.

"I was in London, making sure everything was arranged for our anniversary weekend. She was in Paris, on a shopping excursion with her girlfriends. That's when those damned Malfs... Martian Liberation Front that is... launched their attack."

Nick drained his glass and refilled it. He drained it again before continuing. "Scotland Yard managed to foil the London angle of the attack; hell most of the attacks were foiled. But those Parisian Imbiciles wouldn't know a rad warning till it bit them in the ass. The last trace of her put her damn near dead center of the blast."

They fell silent to their memories. The waiter arrived with their dinner and sensed the mood. He silently left the plates and a replacement bottle of wine. Nick poured fresh glasses and raised his. "To Jessie. The best girlfriend and wife a pair of ADF Mech jockies could ever have."

Halfway through the meal, Nick finally changed the subject. "While I appreciate you putting up for me till I get settled here, I'm going to have to start pulling my weight somehow. Is your place hiring?"

"I suppose they have at least one opening now. I handed in my resignation this morning." Jason continued eating calmly while his brother stared at him. "I was getting tired of arbitrating claim jumping, so I decided it was time to strike out for a claim of my own. Our own if you want in on it.

"I tapped pretty much all the connections I've made since I got here, to get the funding for this expedition. Figured we'd take a leisurely sail across the Tethys to Gondwana, and see what we can find down there. You interested?"

"Sure, I've got no other plans at the moment. When do we start?"

Jason's eyes flickered behind his glasses as he zoned out a moment. "No point in waiting too long. We'll catch the flight out to Neo Francisco first thing in the morning."

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Neo Francisco was a city of a half million people, located on a deep bay on the south eastern arm of Laurasia. Its founders had made it a key transportation hub, both for the communities in the region, and for supplying the new cities on the western edge of Gondwana, and expeditions into Rodina.

Out at the industrial docks, a cargo lifter was tied up, floating above the water on its antigravity lifters as skimmers unloaded ingots of pure metals fresh from the space elevator for delivery to the foundries or shipping deeper into the continent. On the opposite end of the bay, where the private and personal watercraft were docked, Jason lead his brother to the end of an isolated pier.

Nick let out a whistle and shook his head, looking at the tri-hulled ship floating in the water. Docked, her foils and engine pods were hidden from view, but she somehow managed to evoke both speed and durability. It had one large main hull, flanked by the smaller hulls. The gangplank lead to an entrance hatch in the side. The name Queen of Thorns glittered in gold paint on each bow.. "Are you sure we can afford her? Are you sure we can PILOT her?"

Jason chuckled back. "Actually we can't afford her. Our boat is that one." Nick followed his finger and only saw a dingy. He turned and threw an apple at his brother, who caught it and laugheed harder.

"Yes, she's ours. Not that expensive actually, since hydro-skimmers have been going out of style," Jason took a bite of the apple. "AI control out the wazoo, 300 klicks per hour in water, 500 in air. She could pilot herself if we needed her to.

"As for the size, well, we build things big here. But don't let it fool you; most of the middle hull is for the Toka, and the side hulls have the backup Tokas. Takes a lot of power to reach those speeds and keep the hull intact and stuff. It's got solar paint backup just in case, but that's only good for the local systems. If the Toka's go out, we're dead in the water.

"What isn't Toka-space is storage space. Some of it is empty, the rest is already loaded with our equipment, including a surprise. "

Jason led his brother up the gangplank, then up a staircase to the deck. "Living quarters are on top of all that, spanning between the three hulls. Plenty of room for the two of us, and any guests we might bring on board. Bridge is back there, behind the skimmer pad."

Nick looked around in amazement, then seemed to catch up with what was being said. "Surprise? What surprise?"

"Look out at the skimmer pad." Jason sent a trigger signal and the pad abruptly dropped, separating into quarters and folding downward. "I remembered the Rio incident, so I made sure the hatch would be easy to open just in case."

From the dark depths, a rumble built up to a dull roar. Two red and white coloured mechs rose from the hold, and hovered for a moment while the skimmer pad lifted back into place.

"A VTech? Where the hell did you find a VTech all the way out here?" Nick asked, approaching the IDEs and touching its metal side.

"A Martian thought he'd make a killing selling them. Ended up losing his shirt and everything else. IDE's just aren't that needed around here. Skimmers and Flitters are more efficient for local travel; We haven't really had any wars or anything either, nor do we have any dangerous regions where we could use the rest of what an IDE has. Only place that you need this sort of power is the Dry; and that place is too dangerous for IDE's; the Q-dust in there fritzes up the systems horribly.

"These two ended up rattling around the second hand market for a while after he went bankrupt. I picked them up and had them modernized them for our trip. Don't worry, the controls are just like we had back in the Aleutians."

Jason sent a signal to open their cockpit hatches, then sent the command keys to Nick. "They're identical to each other in every way. You can take Alpha, and I'll take Beta."

Nick stroked the side of the IDE once more, then pulled himself up into the cockpit. He grinned like a kid on XMas day as his mesh synced up with Alpha's. A familiar HUD popped up, informing him of the IDE's status and capabilities. As promised, the controls were like their old mechs when they served on the Aleutian Defense Forces, with a few minor differences.

The hatch started to close, the cockpit tightening around him in a familiar embrace. Without the skin suit to help match his muscle movements to the mech, it wasn't a perfect match, but it was close enough to bring back old feelings.

"Damn, I didn't think you could get that much power out of a Toka," he sent as he skimmed over the status reports. The interface subtly shifted as his subconscious preferences melded with Alpha's. He could already feel the increased computing capacity available with their meshes merged.

Jason laughed, still standing outside, Beta's hatch closed again. "Modernized remember? Toka tech doesn't change much, but it has improved a little in the decades since then. Come on, let's finish the tour and make sure I haven't forgotten anything. There's an island along the way that's cleared for nearly unlimited testing. We can have fun when we get there in a couple of days."

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"The Arena's got a 200 klick safety zone around the landmass. So we'll leave the Queen on aitopilot and go in with Alpha and Beta," Jason explained. They were on the bridge of their ship watching the sun rise ahead of them. "They didn't intend to turn an island the size of Long Island into a firing range, but when you've got this much space, no one missed it."

"Long island? It doesn't look anywhere near that big on the maps."

Jason smirked and brought up the globe of Zharus in their VR space. "It's the old Earth habits throwing you off. Hell it still throws me off too when I'm not careful. We're used to the globes representing a certain size. Earth size." He added a globe of Earth to the display.

"But Zharus's diameter is about twice Earth's. So when the globes are the same size, the landmasses end up being a quarter the size. To get the lands to match up size, you need to remember your globe has to be bigger." Zharus swelled larger next to Earth. It rotated around until it showed the Queen's current location, east of Laurasia. On the Earth globe, Long Island peeled off and floated over to hover next to the island the Queen was approaching. "It's not so bad with maps, but when you start getting up to continental sizes, Earth habits tend to kick in unexpectantly. You'll find you tend to underestimate the distances, so learn to trust the equipment."

"The mechs are already properly calibrated, and tested, so that shouldn't be a problem. Bigger planet means a bigger horizon too, so keep that in mind."

Nick looked over the VR display, then cleared it away. "Right, so is anyone over there now, or is it just us?"

"Just us by the looks of it; unless someone is running silent. Too bad if they are. I doubt anyone else will be out there though; the Arena's falling out of favour faster than the IDEs are. It'll probably be rezoned as a preserve or something like that in a few more years." Jason finished the instructions for the aitopilot and locked them in. On the deck, the IDE's were already lifting out of the hold.

Nick climbed into Alpha's cockpit and felt the reassuring grip as their meshes merged. He signaled for the cockpit to seal up and his view shifted to the feeds from Alpha's eyes. The padding quivered a little as it tightened around his body, sensors syncing to his skin suit to match muscle twitches to mech movements. A few seconds later, Beta appeared in the corner of his VR-view.

"You all set, Beta? I see you've already got all our favorite games loaded. Race to shore, winner picks the next round?" Nick sent.

Beta|Jason nodded his head in agreement. "Clean race. Give us time to shake some rust off. No fighting, no attacks, just who can get there the fastest."

Nick felt the IDE finish tightening around him, an indicator flashing ready until he dismissed it with a flick of his eye. He triggered the race program, and a glowing ring formed in the VR-air just off the deck of the Queen. Beta signaled his readiness, and a countdown from 30 started.

At zero, Nick jumped, and Alpha's lifters carried the IDE off the deck of the Queen towards the ring. As fast as the thought formed in his mind, the mech started shifting, arms and legs tucking in while wings slid out from his back. He passed through the ring just ahead of Beta.

The next ring appeared as soon as they passed through the first one, ahead and closer to the water. They raced onwards from there, each subsequent ring appearing as they went through, always closer to the land, but otherwise randomly placed. They whooped and laughed as they rocketed along the course, staying neck and neck all the way.

"Oh crap!" Beta|Jason shouted, backing off a little as they neared the end of the course. The ring was at sea level, at the base of the cliff.

Alpha|Nick grinned wildly and checked near-space. The water was deep under the ring, and the end of the course was close; at most one or two more rings, most likely up the cliff face. He increased power to the lifters and dove under the water. The IDE shuddered briefly from the impact but didn't slow down noticeably. He curved under water, coming close to the sea floor and then the cliff face. He exploded out of the water and speared the ring through the centre. As he had anticipated, the next ring popped up at the top of the cliff face, a half klick to his left.

Behind him, Beta burst through the cloud of mist Alpha left behind, also crossing the ring. Beta|Jason accelerated as fast as he could, but they knew what the results would be. Alpha crossed the next ring first, and the finish ring appeared a little inland from the cliff edge. Alpha|Nick easily crossed the ring first. He triggered the transform back to mech mode, twisting in air and cutting the lifters so he landed on the ground in a crouch, facing Beta as it crossed.

"Looks like you're not as rusty as I expected," Beta|Jason sent, grinning back and gracefully admitting defeat.

Nick reviewed his own internal status, and basked in the glow of his win. "You never forget how to do your signature moves. Remember those pirates we fooled doing just that?"

"We flew in formation with jamming to look like one fighter, then you took the swan dive and shattered their lifters from below. Fun times for sure," Jason agreed.

"Yup fun times back then. Man, these are sweet rides. I made that curve tighter than I could ever have done before."

"You haven't seen half of it yet. You won; it's your pick what we do next."

Alpha|Nick flicked his arms down. Panels in his forearms shifted aside, revealing cylinders that slide out and locked into place. "Let's see how well you've calibrated these. Live fire time."

They spent the rest of the day and a chunk of the night running through old training exercises and games and anything else they could think of. They finally called it a night as Gamma started to rise. They set up camp on the shore of a small lake, and popped out of the IDE's.

"I haven't had fun like that in a long time," Nick commented as he heated some beans over a campfire. "Hell, I've never had fun like that. Even the ranges on Earth don't let you do some of the things we did today."

"Old Earth's still overcrowded. Short of Antarctica, they don't have the space to spare to have a range this big. But here, lots of room, and not much oversight. The next nearest people to us are probably up there in a shuttle or one of the stations or something." Jason pointed upwards with his hot dog skewer. "Maybe in a century or two, when we've grown more and started swallowing up these islands they'll tighten up the Arena. But I doubt it."

Jason resettled his skewer over the fire and reached into a cooler at his side. He lobbed a can to his brother. "You adjusted to the horizon a lot faster than I did. Nice job there."

Nick caught the can reflexively and sat there in silence for a moment. Jason realized he had hit a nerve he hadn't known was there. "Sorry, I didn't know..." he started to say.

"It's OK. Just give me a sec," Nick waved off the apology and lifted the pot away from the fire. "To be honest, I've had a bit more training. When Jess... " he shook his head again and regathered himself. "I had to strike back after that. To hit those Malfs where it hurt. So I signed up for Space Corps. Got sent through basic again, space basic this time, so I got used to the infinite horizon. A couple of klicks isn't hard to adapt to when you've trained for the unlimited.

"Didn't see any action in the end. I was a few months away from being assigned when they dropped a rock on Sharp City. Took the wind out of the separatists sails and left just a cleanup op behind.

"After seeing the results of the popped dome across the Mesh; it was a wake up call. I cashed out as soon as I could." Nick paused and ladled out the beans into a couple of bowls. "Sold everything that was left, not that there was much, and caught the next boat to here."

They ate silently for a moment before Nick broke the silence, changing the subject. "So, you've adapted well here. Any regrets in coming here?"

"None at all. Well maybe a few at first when I was trying to figure out how I fit in here. But none any more." Jason finished off his beer and tossed the empty into a bag. "Well, one regret now I suppose. That I didn't convince you and Jess to come with me back then."

"Water under the bridge now. Nothing any of us can do about it now. It was a crazy deal we made, straight out of the Holo's, but we've both matured past that now. For what it's worth, now that I see this place, I'm regretting a bit that we didn't come too."

They finished cleaning up their late night snack and relaxed, letting the adrenaline of the day's activities drain out through the long night. Nick was the first to finally yawn. He unrolled a sleeping bag on the sand next to the fire and stretched out on it, looking up at the stars.

"Thirty hour days... how'd you ever get used to it?"

Jason laughed and unrolled his own bag on his side of the fire. "I'll let you know when I do."

"So you think we'll find anything on this trip?"

"Well I've already found my brother. That counts as something right?" Jason laughed and stretched out as well. "To be completely honest, I don't know. The timing's tight for prospectors at least. The orbital mining companies still can't meet the planet's demands, leaving room for ground based ops to feed in as well. But they're growing almost exponentially, so the window is shrinking fast.

"The area we're going to is on the shore of the Dry Ocean, about as far from anyone else as you can get. Hopefully we can find something worthwhile there that isn't too contaminated with that damned Q-dust.

"There is a wild card too that's in our favour, even if we don't find anything. The space guys have been talking about another elevator for years, but this planet doesn't have much land along the equator. At least not land that isn't Dry Ocean. So non-oceanic base stations are tough to find. They're trying to find places close to Laurasia since that's where most of the action is, but I doubt they'll find anything."

He let out a laugh. "They're even trying to convince the Planetary Council to let them build the base station on Rodina since it has an almost perfect headland right across the equator and in spitting distance of Laurasia. The Nativists will never allow it; slippery slope, give a centi they'll grab a klick and all that; but it won't stop the Spacers from trying.

"In the meantime, what the Space folk aren't realizing, is that Gondwana's beginning to boom. Lots of activity happening, down there, and it's got some ideal base station spots, including one where we're going. When they realize Gondwana will be perfect for the second elevator, we'll be waiting with the good spots already picked out."

"Damn, you really thought this out."

"I started working on it after I got your message that you were leaving Earth. Figured it was past time I tried to make a splash of my own. With our backers, I've secured probationary claims for some nice looking spots, enough to give any jumpers a headache at least. We'll go down there, scout them out, and figure out what ones we act on and which we leave behind. But that's putting the cart before the horse. Night Nicky."

Nick rolled over and looked across the lake at the forest. It was a mix of fast growing Earth species and native Zharus species, giving it a look that almost but didn't quite remind him of home. "Night, Jay. Sleep well."

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Alpha|Nick soared along the coastline, taking in the sights. More than anything, these views were showing him the scale, and alienness of Zharus. To his left, a thin sandy beach gave way to a dense jungle a vibrant but slightly different shade of green from the Indonesian jungles he remembered back home. The jungle spread for megametres in all directions almost completely untouched by humanity. Further eastward, the jungles rose with the land, until they disappeared behind the semi-permanent clouds that hid the Western wall. He shifted his view to cut through the clouds, and the mountains popped into view with no magnification. They stretched skywards, reaching higher than the altitude he was at, dwarfing all of the ranges he knew of from home.

"How's it look up there?" Jason lazed from the bridge of the Queen, views from Alpha showing on the Queen's screens. The middle screen showed the ships own local view, with endless klicks of water and only the barest hint of land on the horizon.

"Incredible. Indescribable. And a whole lot more adjectives that don't start with I."

"Sounds about right. Everyone who's seen the Wall has said similarly. Sure, Olympus is taller, but it's only one mountain. This is an entire range. Look at the map, the coastal range should be starting soon."

Alpha|Nick checked the readings he was getting and nodded. "Right, the Wall is heading further inland, and the shore is becoming rockier and cliffier. Land is about 500 metres above sea level and rising."

He flew onward, watching the coastal range rise and the valley become more distinct. With the coastal mountains partly blocking the rain, it wasn't quite as lush as the coastal jungle, but it was still full of life. "I'm picking up a gap up ahead. Maybe about three klicks wide."

"That's it. That's our destination." Nick could hear his brother leaning forward on the Queen's bridge. "It's the entrance to the rift valley. One of three leading towards the Dry, the smallest one. How's it look out there?"

"Perfect. Deep water all around, the coastals dip a bit near the gap, only about a klick high there. Temperatures a bit warm but nearly ideal." Nick remembered another sensor Jason had told him to watch. "Qubitite readings are nil; no worries there."

"Right. Be careful. Wish I was there." The original plans had been for the brothers to stay together and ride the Queen all the way to the rift valley claims. But the closer their destination got, the more antsy they got. Being far off of the regularly surveyed routes, they hadn't wanted to leave the Queen unmanned, but they had agreed that IDE scouting missions would be fine. Nick had won the roll to be the one to go in first.

"I'm at the gap now. Looks like a canyon, about 10 klicks long. Reading a deep water channel with a healthy counter current."

"Now I know that's the AI talking. You wouldn't know if a current was healthy if it dragged you out to sea."

Alpha|Nick laughed and flew through the cliffs. "You got me there, bro.... Narrowest point is just under 3 klicks. Slight kink to it, but nothing that isn't navigable, whoa...."

At the other end of the straits, the cliffs fell away rapidly, showing a large bay of clear tropical water. On his left, the jungle spread down into water blurring the water/land dividing line. A large river cut the jungle in half, feeding a steady stream of freshwater into the estuary he flew over.

On his right, white sandy beaches rose to a plateau covered in grasses. A small herd of zebra, mostly young ones, looked up at the noise of the IDE and bolted away. "Never expected to see those here."

Jason rewound the video feed and nodded. "The Terraformers must have decided this was a good zone for them. Wouldn't be surprised to see more savannah animals around here too."

Alpha|Nick slowed his speed to a leisurely glide so he could take in the sights easier. The klicks slide by under him, the estuary widening a bit on either side. He passed a smaller river coming down from the plateau and spotted something in a lake in the distance, but could not get a clear view of it.

"I'm at the mid point now. Wish you were here. This place is incredible. Even if we don't find anything, I think I know where I want to be."

"I've got the Queen floored, I'll be there in a few hours. But just from your feeds, I know what you mean. The Sats don't give this place justice."

The far end of the estuary became rockier, one of many ridges that led up to the Western Wall. It wasn't a tall ridge, but it was enough to stop the jungle. The jungle trees thinned to grasslands as he left the water behind. The grass itself got increasingly dryer, but Nick's attention was focused on a flash he spotted ahead.

"There's another body of water here. Deep by the looks of it, and salty as hell. Dead Sea territory here," he reported as the ground changed over to salt flats around the edge of the water body. A change in his sensor readings caught his attention. "Got some Qubitite readings now. Still well within the green zone, but higher than back there."

"Be careful out there. That lake is on the sat's. It's a couple hundred klicks long and leads to the Dry Ocean. Looks like the Western Wall is keeping it from making it a wet ocean."

Alpha|Nick stared ahead, curiosity fighting with caution about going ahead. Caution just won out. He swung around and headed back to the estuary. He gave curiosity a booby prize by flying over the lake he had seen movement before. A trio of bored looking hippos looked up at him as he overflew them, not concerned enough to move from the muddy banks they were wallowing in.

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"I'm still amazed that this territory hasn't been snapped up yet," Alpha|Nick said as the pair flew across the estuary towards the salt lake. The Queen of Thorns was holding position in the middle of the first body of water. He held up a hand to his brother. "I know, I know, Big world, too few people and all that."

Beta|Jason laughed. "Well, we found it now, and once we start promoting it, it won't be unclaimed for long. We were here first though, and that counts for a lot."

They split up at the salt sea, each taking a shoreline and following guidelines from Geoped-AI for what rock formations to watch for and what tests to perform. A resource map gradually formed from their searching; many desirable minerals and ores, but no mother lodes worth breaking the bubbly open for.

"Got another chamber down here. That's what? The fourth we've found in the region?" Nick reported, the bubble filling in on their growing maps.

"Something like that. Geoped-AI is confident now that the bay and this sea are two collapsed chambers. That explains their depths. How are the Qubitite readings out your way?"

"Rising steadily, but still deep in the green. No worries there."

They bantered back and forth while working. Nick fell behind as he chased down a promising looking vein through a valley, leaving Jason to be the first to reach the end of the salt sea. He cut his video feed and called to his brother. "Nick.... Nick. Stop what you're doing and come here. You've gotta see this. In person, not VR."

"Jason? Why'd you cut your feed? Everything all right?"

Jason sensed his brother trying to tap into his vidrecs, and raised some blocks. "I'm fine. Everything's fine. But I want you to see this."

Nick's icon on the map took off, cutting across the unexplored territory at speeds that he could only reach in jet mode. It only took minutes for him to reach Jason, and see what his brother was seeing.

From their point of view, there was a hole in the world. A valley separated the Western Wall from the southern range, falling quickly into the Dry Ocean. An ancient rockfall dammed the salty sea, preventing it from draining that way. And across the valley, a natural rock arch spanned the distance a hundred metres over the dam.

Nick whistled softly. "I think we just found the cover picture for the Dry Ocean tourism board's publicity."

"Tell me about it." Through the arch, they could see the harsh dry landscape extending out as far as they could see, cut through by ridges and valleys, occasionally hidden by sand storms that were dwarfed by the view. "Too bad there isn't any tourism out there. That place is capital-D Deadly. Hey! Be careful!"

Alpha|Nick shifted to mech mode and landed on the dam under the arch. He looked around slowly. "Check the Q readings. Near yellow but still green. Perfectly safe for people to visit and look around, get a taste of danger without the risk."

Beta|Jason landed next to his brother, glancing warily up at the tonnes of rock arching overhead. The winds that had carved the bulk of the arch blew steadily past them from the sea. "Let's call it a day. I've got a lot to think of."

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Two weeks later, Jason still had a lot to think of, but he was more frustrated than pensive. They'd finished their geological survey, and found nothing that Geoped-AI figured would be profitable given what the Spacers were producing, or would be producing by the time they could get online. He'd even spent a day digging into Geoped-AI's code, to make sure it wasn't biased in favour of the Spacers, but in the end he was forced to conclude it was right.

He made his way down to a water level hatch on the Queen and stepped out onto a floating platform. HIs brother spotted him and swam to meet him. "Welcome back to Meat space. Find anything in Code space?"

"Not a thing. If the AI's lying to us, it's too good for me to tell." Jason sat down and dangled his feet in the water. "Plan A's a bust. And I'm not sure if we'll be able to bring in enough from the tourism plan to profit off the elevator."

Nick pulled himself out of the water and sat next to his brother. "Don't sweat it. We don't have to be megarich. Just comfortable is all we need. And with a view like this place, I can be comfortable here with very little."

"I suppose so. Guess my dreams got away from me for a moment. This is a great area. Perfect water, sheltered bay, nice plateau, great views, near the ocean...." Jason trailed off, his eyes lighting up. "There is one area we haven't checked yet."

"An area? What area? We've checked from the ocean to the arch and all points in between. Hell we even checked under the ocean and didn't... You don't mean..." Jason nodded his head as Nick finished following the path his twin had blazed. "But it's deadly. Exploration has been banned across the board."

Jason stood up, dismissing Nick's concerns with a wave. "Details. Not like they can enforce it down here. Besides, we won't go deep. Stick to the edges. The dust storms and contamination aren't bad there." He started walking back to the hatch, but paused, looking up at the sky. "It's too late to head out today. We'll go first thing tomorrow. Get plenty of rest; we'll have to be at our best out there."

The next morning they set out for the arch. Beta|Jason paused under the arch, looking out over the Dry Ocean. "I'll head north, you head south. Watch your dust readings, and look out for storms. Shout if you see anything interesting."

For hours, they worked along the Dry Ocean shore, not finding anything of use. Nick took a break, sitting on a ledge and looking out. In the middle distance, a sand storm blew through a series of canyons. "Nice amount of Lithium in those readings."

Jason's virtual head shook. "Yeah, but too much Q in it. Cost too much to purify it for use. Like everything else here."

"Well, we'll give it a few more hours and see if we get lucky."

As sunset approached, they regathered at the arch. They watched the shadows stretching across the desert. Nick could tell from his brothers virtual expression that he was disappointed. "Damn qubitite. Lots of good spots in there, but all of it's too contaminated to use."

"Maybe someone will decide to use it as the new diet supplement or something. Until then, I guess we're done, right?"

"I suppose so. Time to get plan B rolling. Wait a sec, did you check below?"

"Below? The dam? No. It's not worth it. Even if there was something in there, extracting it would bring the briny deep down on your head."

Beta|Jason stood up and started towards the dark edge. "I'll give it a check. Just for thoroughness. You can head back to the Queen."

Alpha|Nick sighed and moved to intercept him. "You're the planner. I'll do the checks and you head back."

"You sure about that? It's my urge, not yours."

Alpha|Nick gave Beta|Jason a light shove. "Go on. I've got it."

He jumped off the cliff and floated down on his lifters. He lit his shoulder lights to watch where he was going. "Some pretty layered stones down here. If they polish well, we could make a killing in the knick knack department."

Above, Jason hadn't moved from the arch. He watched his brother's lights move down below, listening to the reports.

"And there's nothing. Lots of salts and stuff, and lots of Qubitite. Nothing worthwhile. Geoped-AI is guessing that the sea up there occasionally breaks through and floods this area, hence the salts and the layering. So much for the billion year drought."

"Even in a drought, you can get rainfall. It just isn't significant enough to make a difference."

"I suppose so. That's curious; this rock seems to sparkle even when my light's left it. May have some solar properties."

Jason stifled a yawn in his IDE, and paced a bit to stay awake. Now that his dreams of megariches were fading, he was getting anxious to head back, but he wasn't about to leave his brother in the Dry Ocean. "I'm sure someone would have discovered if there was anything useful about Qubitite someone would have found it by now. Just leave it alone and come back up. Your Q levels are getting dangerously high; can't you hear your joints grinding with the dust?"

"It's only low yellow. Nothing a good bath and scrubdown won't fix. These tests won't take but a minute and we can leave this place for the tour buses." Alpha|Nick turned his brother's volume down so he could focus on the advice from PhysipedAI and GeopedAI. Most of the tests should have been done on an isolated sample, but neither AI saw a problem running them in place. He had just activated the next test, when his world went white, then dark.

Jason had the barest hint of a bright light flooding the desert below him before the filters kicked in. Just as abruptly, all telemetry from Alpha died. He was over the edge, diving into the quickly fading glow before the implications fully sunk in. Hundreds of metres below him, his suit highlighted a figure tumbling to a stop, arms still outstretched from the position they were in before the explosion.

"Nick?!" he shouted, Beta automatically amplifying his voice. Radio and las coms were silent; the external pickups only heard the sound of falling rock. He landed next to the figure and was momentarily taken aback; the entire front of the IDE was scorched black.

His own suit soon started to report in on what it could tell. Alpha was dead; its circuits overloaded. The Toka had scrammed itself safely, but hadn't ejected. But most importantly, there were still sounds of laboured breathing coming from within the mech. Jason popped some of the emergency seals on Alpha to make sure fresh air could get through, and heard the breathing became easier. But there were still no responses to his calls.

He picked up the mech and took off, heading back to the Queen of Thorns. He was a quarter the way across the salty sea before he thought to signal the Queen to meet him on the way

Back on the ship, he was able to lay Alpha out on the deck. He tried the emergency release signals, but its systems were still completely down. So he was forced to reach out with Beta and pull the blackened chest plate off manually. More carefully, he tugged apart the movement cocoon, until his brother was revealed. Nick was pale and unconscious, but otherwise seemed unharmed, beyond being covered in the green gel of the cocoon..

Jason triggered his own emergency release, and felt Beta go limp around him, the chest plate opening and letting him back out in the world. He scrambled over Alpha's chest to verify Nick's stats matched what Beta reported. "Come on bro, you can't leave me so soon after you got here," he mumbled, lightly slapping Nick's cheeks to try and get a reaction. There was none.

Old ADF training finally kicked in. He went to a first aid locker in front of the bridge and hauled out a gurney. He left it as close to Alpha as he could, and climbed up to retrieve his brother. It didn't take him much longer to get him into the Queen's med bay and hooked up in a med-bed.

The initial readings were reassuring; no critical damage, but a lot of signs of shock and mental overloads only partly dampened by Alpha's safetys. The Medical AI advised rest and to seek a human opinion as soon as possible. It thought for a long moment before finally suggesting a pair of names in Cascadia, with a warning that they were located further away than the normal search criteria allowed.

"No shit, Auto-doc. No one around here but Nick and I for thousands of klicks," Jason mumbled while pressing the first suggested name.

The link opened after a second. A cheerful virtual appeared on the comm panel. "Welcome to Doctor Picardo's Medical clinic. If this is a medical emergency, please state the nature of it now."

"Yes this is an emergency!" Jason shouted at it, glancing at his unconscious brother.

The virtual flickered and looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Doctor Picardo is not available at this time. As you said this is an Emergency, I'm forwarding you to Cascadia Emergency Services."

Jason growled under his breath and punched the disconnect before the forward could happen. He activated the second name and tried to calm himself.

A female head with short brown hair and green eyes appeared on the comm. "Sam speaking; how may I help you?"

It took Jason half a second to realize it wasn't a VR model. He stammered a moment before speaking, wondering if the comm system had hiccuped somehow. "Hi uhm Sam... I'm looking for Doctor Rankin. The AI Doc spit his name out as someone who might be able to help my brother."

The head didn't skip a beat. "I'm Doctor Rankin. Could you have your AI send your brother's case to me?"

Jason gave the appropriate authorization. "Thank you Doctor. I'm not sure what else to do. Hell I'm not even sure what happened...." he trailed off realizing the doctor had muted him while she read the report. He fell silent while waiting for her to finish.

"Thank you Mr. Munn. You have a top notch Medbay there. From these readings, I believe your brother will be fine, physically at least. Mentally, it's hard to say what such a large shock to the system received while in an IDE might do. I'd like for you to bring him in to Cascadia General as soon as you can so we can monitor him waking up."

"Thank you Doctor, but I don't think I can get him to the hospital as soon as you might think. Check our geo codes."

Sam's head turned to one side and her eyes widened. "Oh my. I didn't realize anyone was down that far yet."

"Just me and my brother. I'll get the Queen heading up to Cascadia as soon as I can, but it'll probably be a few days. Will he be fine until then?"

The virtual image turned to another side as she sent some commands. "He should be fine, but it might be best to keep him out until he's in better facilities. I've just sent instructions for your med bay to keep him out, if you approve."

Jason saw the request come through. He took a moment to read it over carefully to be sure, before approving it. "It's done Doctor. Thank you again."

She looked pensive, still looking off screen. "No problem. To be honest though, I don't really like the thought of leaving your brother in the hands of the AIto-docs that long. Storms blow in from the Tethys with little notice; it could take you longer than you expect to get up here. Does your ship have a skimmer pad?"

"Sure it does... But you don't have to come all the way down here. He's stable now, I'm sure he'll be fine 'till we reach Cascadia."

"Cascadia has more than enough docs for her needs. Now that I've taken your brother on as a patient, I want to make sure he gets the best care. I can meet you en route with a skimmer by this time tomorrow night, with your permission of course."

Before answering, Jason watched his brother for a long moment. Nick rested peacefully in the medical bed, the readouts glowing a dim green. "Fine, come on down. I'll send you the Queen's transponder so you can find us."

They said their farewells, and broke the connection. Jason resisted the urge to double check on Nick before heading up to the bridge. He set a course for Cascadia's port and was about to activate it, when the Queen flashed a Met warning.

"Oh just perfect," Jason muttered, seeing the course revised to swing far out into the sea. A typhoon was approaching the coast and predicted to swing northward, towards Cascadia. For safety, Queen had adjusted the route to avoid the storm and the wreckage it was sure to leave behind. It added days to the travel time, but there was no avoiding it. He authorized the course.

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Jason was deep in the IDE-hold of the Queen as she skimmed along the edge of the storm. Outside, the skies were black as night, even though the eye of the storm was hundreds of klicks away. The winds and waves combined to try and tip the Queen, but she cut through both with impunity. The only sign of the storm that deep in the hull was a barely noticeable shudder as the ship passed from wave to wave.

Inside the ship, Beta rested in its cradle, clamped tightly to the wall. Alpha's blackened shell was spread out on the floor, and chained down in multiple places to make sure no rogue wave would send it tumbling. Jason stood next to a tool bench, pondering his options.

Most of his time so far had been spent cleaning the Q-dust off of it and flushing it out to sea, as well as removing the scrammed Toka and safing it for recycling. What was left was a sad excuse for a mech. The hands and arms, with their sensor pods and weapons, were slagged; melted and burned away by the power they so briefly channeled. He hadn't found anything recognizable until he cut away a panel on the upper arm, and saw the remains of the protectors that should have kept the surge contained in the arms; the energy had cut through the protection like tissue paper.

In the chest cavity, around the cockpit, he had found more of the same. Protections around the core systems burnt through even as they were tripping. The only reason the Toka had scrammed safely was because it was designed that way as a final fail safe in case the control systems died. He searched for anything worth salvaging, but found nothing. He finally had to admit what his gut had known all along; Alpha couldn't be repaired.

Jason laid a hand on the mech's shoulder. "Thank you, Alpha. For keeping my brother alive. I'm sorry I can't do more for you."

He had just put away the last tool, when the Queen sent him an alert. "Skimmer detected on approach. Call sign ID's as Doctor Sam Rankin. ETA 15 minutes."

"Already? Open a connection. How the hell did she get here so quick?"

Sam's voice was calm, but the connection filters couldn't hide all the noise of the storm she was cutting through. "Great tail winds on the back side of this storm. Did I catch you before you had time to clean up?"

"Yes! But that doesn't matter. How the hell are you going to land in this mess?" Jason ran through the ship, the doctor's head in one corner of his view space, and an outside view of the wind roaring across the skimmer pad of the Queen.

"I flew a rescue skimmer for five years before I became a doctor. Landing in this is a breeze compared to some of the things I've done. Just keep the Queen steady and on course and we'll be fine. See you in a few minutes." Her connection cut out.

Jason spent the next few anxious minutes on the bridge, watching the enhanced views that could cut through the storm darkness. The doctor's skimmer was small, and marked with glowing red crosses. It came up on the Queen of Thorns from behind and hovered over the skimmer pad while being buffeted by the winds.

A gripper shot out from the skimmer and latched onto a ring on the deck, linking the two vehicles. A second gripper fired, but the Queen slid into a trough at the same moment. The second gripper bounced off the deck without grabbing onto anything. The skimmer above tilted dangerously, pulled down by the single cable until the systems could sync up again. The second attempt to latch up succeeded, as did the third. A few heart pounding moments later, the skimmer's lifters flicked off and it dropped a couple of centis to the deck.

He met her at a hatch under the bridge, offering her a towel to dry off with from her sprint across the deck. She was slightly smaller than he was, and shaking with excitement from the adrenaline rush. What he especially noticed was what the VR didn't show; the emerald green eyes that twinkled with playfulness and intelligence. "Welcome aboard the Queen of Thorns," he belatedly said.

"Thank you, Mr. Munn." She stripped out of the safety gear revealing a simple jumpsuit. "How's your brother doing?"

Jason took the gear and turned to lead her deeper into the ship. He was uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since he last spoke to someone other than Nick in meat space. "No change, but that's what you said to expect. I'm a bit uneasy about leaving him knocked out like this for so long."

"Induced comas are completely safe, Jason. But once I check Nick over, I don't see a reason not to wake him up. How are you handling it?"

"I'm doing fine enough I guess. I'll be better once Nick is up."

"Understandable. This is a big ship to be alone in with your personal skeletons. "

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Nick slept peacefully, his dreams finally settled down to him being on a boat, floating on an endless sea. He vaguely remembered earlier when the sea had been so torn up by a storm, he couldn't tell what was water and what was air, but now that was all past. His only concern now was boredom. There was no sign of land anywhere he turned, so he had no idea what to paddle towards. A flash of light lit up the horizon. He reflexively ducked down in the boat he was in, but there was no boom or pressure wave following the dimming light. He peeked over the bow, and saw the light flare brighter, before dimming. It began to pulse steadily. A destination worth aiming for, he started paddling towards the lighthouse.

Nick groaned and opened his eyes, only to be blinded by the light. He squinted and became aware of people talking around him and machines beeping quietly. He peeked again, and found the light less blinding. The bed he was lying in began to shift, lifting his upper body up. A face came into view, with the greenest eyes he could remember seeing.

"Welcome back from the land of Nod. How do you feel?" the face asked.

He tried to speak, and found his mouth was too dry. A damp cloth wiped his lips and a cup was pressed to them. He took in a mouthful of liquid and felt the dryness fade away. He gulped down a few more mouthfuls before the cup was removed. The face muttered some pleasant platitudes as he drank before she asked her question again.

"Better," he mumbled hoarsely.

"Good good. Do you remember your name? Do you know where you are?"

His eyes managed to cooperate enough to bring more of the room into focus. He spotted a figure waiting anxiously at the door. "Nick. My name's Nick. Nicolas Munn. That's my brother Jason."

He turned his head slightly and studied the room while the woman waited. It looked familiar but he had trouble placing it at first. Then some more recent memories clicked into place. "The Queen. I'm in the medical bay of the Queen of Thrones... On Zharus."

The figure relaxed noticeably, and his brother looked ready to jump for joy. "Good good. I am Doctor Rankin, but you can call me Sam. I'm from Cascadia, on the North West end of Gondwana. Your brother called me in because of what happened. You've been in a bad accident. You weren't physically hurt, but your system took a bad jolt. What's the last thing you remember?"

Nick took another sip of the liquid and tried to sort out his thoughts. He had flashes of things he knew had to have happened later, but he couldn't put them in order. The last thing he was sure of was a swim.

"I was swimming, in the bay. Jason had just come down to the dock, and he was depressed. Depressed we hadn't found anything useful." Nick sighed. "There are later things, but I only see flashes of them. Me in Alpha, looking out over the Dry Ocean. Sun setting under the arch next to Jay in Beta." As he spoke the memories, they seemed to become more real to him, but he still had trouble putting them in context.

"That was the day before the accident," Jason supplied, stepping up to the other side of the bed. "The swimming I mean. The other stuff was probably the day of. I... I convinced us to do some prospecting in the Dry. You had your accident at the end of the day, just as we were calling it quits. Something happened; I have no clue what; and it caused a reaction. The AI's can't even begin to estimate the power it took to cause what happened."

The doctor was saying something about recent memory loss was common with shocks like he experienced, but he didn't pay it any attention. Jason's words clicked a few more pieces together, filling the memory more.

"It's OK, Jay. I thought I knew what I was getting into. And I insisted on doing it instead of you. The fault's all mine. Well mostly mine if you insist." Another memory, very close to when he blacked out came to mind. "How's Alpha?"

Jason shook his head sadly, and turned away. "Alpha's a total loss. Whatever happened slagged all of his systems. We could rebuild him, but the only thing that would be left would be some of the frame. His mesh, and your local mesh for that matter, evaporated in the blast."

They fell silent for a moment, while that sunk in for Nick. Sam studied both of them, then took a step back. "I'll leave you two be for now. You should be fine now, Nick. But when we get to Cascadia I want to run you through a few more in depth scans to be sure. Give me a shout if you need me."

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Jason found her in the IDE hold, looking over the wreckage of Alpha. "How's he doing?" she asked as he entered. Her back was to the door.

"Recovering quickly. He's walking again, and rebuilding his Local Mesh from the backups here."

"That's good. How does he look to you? Any strange behavior?"

"Nope. Sure he stumbled a bit when he stood up, but he got over that quickly. And he took back to VR space like a fish to water."

"Great. That was one of my main lingering concerns. After a trauma like that, he might not have wanted to go back in." She put a hand on the fallen mech. "So this is what kept him alive? I've seen damage similar to this before, usually on machines salvaged from the Dry. The pilots have never made it."

Jason felt a surge of pride and need to defend their action rise up in him. He fought to keep them contained. "Well, we've had a lot experience with IDE's, especially this style. And I was on hand to get him out of there in time." he said defensively. He realized how harsh he was and tried to tone it back. "This model, does have its quirks. The cockpit seals need to be released manually if the power dies, or else you'll suffocate quickly. Me being there probably saved him more than anything.

"So why'd you come out here anyway? It's a bit far away for a house call." He realized his attempt to change the subject was a bit more harsh than he intended, but the damage was done.

Sam seemed to sense the minefield that she had walked into, and started tiptoeing out of it. "I needed a break. I was born and raised in Cascadia, and you would think I'd be used to the rain and the cold, but I'm not. Every excuse I can make, I head out of the downpour. Usually the rescues are in the Dry, but I've done my fair share of sea rescues as well. Even participated in a crashed shuttle rescue before."

He smiled at her and nodded slightly, acknowledging that she had cleared the danger zone. He mentally shifted gears a little to take advantage at an opportunity hinted at. "Well, as you heard, we aren't the best of prospectors. So I'm thinking of getting into land management instead. How would you like the chance to get a slice of Paradise before anyone else?"

She laughed and walked over to him. "I'd say that this is Zharus. Everyone and their dog has found a paradise, and advertised it across the Net. My filters catch five of those ads an hour." She stopped at a workbench near Jason. "Of course I've rarely met a Paradise seller in meat space before; Cascadia's too dismal even for them it seems. So let's hear your pitch."

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Two Years later

Jason relaxed on the bridge of the Queen, sipping his morning coffee and surveying what he saw. The newly named Bay of Tranquility, was anything but tranquil. A huge transport lifter had just cleared the straits and was heading for its berth off the southern shore. A swarm of skimmers were already converging on it, eager to start unloading the supplies that would be used to construct the next phase of the colony. Some enterprising colonists were already scouting for local sources of supplies, but for now, most of what they needed had to be shipped in.

He put on his glasses, and jumped up a couple of layers. Naming labels appeared where he looked, identifying the ships and people in the bay. The super transport was the Southern Cross, owned by Munn Transport. It had been a challenge to get the investors on board with the idea of buying a transport company to found the colony, but he convinced them that due to the distances involved and the volumes they needed, they'd pay just as much in hiring boats and transport time as it would take to buy the company. Two of the biggest ships were doing an alternating run between Neo Francisco and the colony, while the third ship was still earning money on the Omphalos Elevator runs to Laurasia.

Jason was amused to see that the Southern Cross's home port and virtual flag were masked. Today was a day that the colonists had been waiting for. The voting had happened the night before, and the name for the new colony was to be announced that day.

"Are you sure you don't want to head ashore for the naming ceremony?" Doctor Sam Rankin-Munn asked, giving her husband a kiss on the cheek.

"Nah. I'll be there for the party tonight. But for this, it's the People's moment; not the landlord's moment. They picked the name after all." He grinned and took his glasses off. Sam handed their son, Michael over. "Just remember though. If they picked Cape Suzette, we're moving. I'm not living somewhere that sounds like a breakfast dish."

She laughed and gave them both a kiss. "Stop saying that. You know you won't move from this place. I'll see you at the party tonight. I'm taking the after lunch shift at the hospital. Jo'll be out around eighteen to take Mikey off your hands."

Jason carried Mike to the window and waved to Sam as she got into the skimmer. She waved back and took off to the shore. Michael watched the skimmer until it passed the crane for the first beachfront hotel. Then his attention was drawn to that one. Even on as big a day as today, the Town was still busy growing.

Jason's own attention was focused on the beach where a crowd was gathered with the Council. They would make the announcement at midday. In one corner of the window, a drenched half-drowned head of Nick appeared.

"Good morning, Cape Suzette, from sunny Cascadia!" the head announced, followed by a rumble of thunder and a flood of water over the head. Michael laughed and clapped.

"It's NOT going to be named Cape Suzette. And stop with those VR tricks. I know you're perfectly dry in a room under the dome." Jason couldn't help himself from smiling none the less. "How'd the premier go?"

Nick's head dried off to its normal appearance. "It's complete dross, like you would expect. The actor playing you couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, and Mikey could have written a better plot. They put us in some stupid love triangle of all things. Imagine that." His VR head laughed, with the barest hint of loss.

"It's a good thing you guys missed it. They made Sam a Terran and had all three of us come here on the same ship. If she'd seen that, the writer would be the one needing rescuing. I told you we shouldn't have hired that production company from Cascadia to make it."

His head swelled larger as if he was leaning closer to them and his eyes darted from side to side conspiratorially. Michael started giggling more. "In fact, I think they're on to us. They've noticed we've been poaching their recruits and they're starting to worry that they won't have enough to warrant the new Hard Light dome."

The head pulled back until his arms and torso were visible. The figure held up one hand, palm upward. "Imagine that. Cold wet rain city that only a Seattlite could love." The other hand lifted and the figure started balancing like a scale. "Or beautiful tropical oasis with sunny weather 30/6. Tough choice. Tough choice...." The figure tilted and fell over on the tropical side before the head reformed.

Jason couldn't help but laugh with his son before something clicked about the VR antics. The animation was too smooth and reactive for someone chatting with glasses and a local mesh. He checked the geo code on the signal and wasn't too surprised to see it was skirting the northern edge of Gondwana, heading eastward.

"You're in Gamma aren't you? I thought you had another week in Cascadia? You didn't really get us kicked out of there did you? We still need them as a staging place."

The head morphed to the IDE, in jet mode. The view pulled back to show the northern forests and the sea. It snapped back to Nick's head. "Wondered when you'd pick it up. Yes, I'm in Gamma, and no we weren't kicked out. They know things will stabilize down your way eventually and their growth will pick up again. And in the mean time, they're getting rich off of us. Plus between us, that new place what is it? Bumside? Burnsville? and them, we're starting to tilt this continent back onto an even keel from all those places on the east coast.

"No, I got a message this morning, from my friends in Uplift. Something about a possible breakthrough in their research about energy storage. I'm heading out there to check it out."

Jason sighed and bounced Michael lightly in his arms, looking out towards the crowd on the beach. Since the accident, his brother had become fascinated with Qubitite research, determined to find some use for the annoying substance. He was spending as much time travelling around the ring as he did in the Colony.

"Just don't sign anything until you run it by us."

The Queen of Thorns detected that Jason was focused on the beach and obediently zoomed in on the scene and recognized it as the Naming Ceremony. It helpfully popped up the naming list feed that showed the top names that had been voted on, crossing out the ones that were already eliminated.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I've gotta go. Turbulence over this end of the Dry is always a PITA. Aloha Jay."

Nick's face disappeared, but Jason's attention was already lost. He began regretting not going to witness this on the beach first hand, but it was too late now. To his relief, Cape Suzette finally was scratched off, leaving just Paradise and Aloha. Each word pulsed alternating as the Council built up suspense in the crowd. The mesh feeds stuttered a little under the load the colony was putting on it.

Finally the announcement was made. Aloha swelled and turned multicoloured while Paradise faded away. Jason heard the cheers on the beach a moment before they were drowned out by horns and whistles and everything else that could make a noise in the Town. Jason grinned down at his son and corrected his thought. Everything that could make noise in Aloha.

"Welcome to Aloha, Mikey. Our home's got a name now."

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