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User:Jetfire/Astra-naught

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Astra-naught

Author: Jetfire

131 AL

"Dad, you can't be serious about this," Wanda said, standing in the doorway of her father’s bedroom.

"Serious as a heart attack," he replied, tossing a few things in a small carry sack.

"Mom's gone. Pining after her isn't going to bring her back."

He closed the bag and tossed it over a shoulder and sighed, looking at her. "I know it won't. but I have to go. I know you don't understand."

She sighed as well. "You're right, I don't understand why you keep putting yourself through this, year after year." She followed him down the stairs to the garage. "Just don't create a scene like last year, please?"

Nick walked over to the red and white jet parked in the centre of the garage. He tossed the bag in a compartment in the side and ducked underneath. A slot opened up and he pulled himself into it. The jet seemed to shake a little as its system woke up. Nick's semirobotic voice came from it. "No promises, but I'll try not to. Take care of the Aerie, and try to get your brothers to come up for air occasionally."

She chuckled. Tracy, and his RIDE, her other 'brother' Jay, still technically lived in the Aerie, but they spent as many evenings out as they did in. She patted the side of the jet, and backed away. "Be careful Dad. Love yah."

Fake flames lit out the rear of the jet as its thruster kicked in, rolling out slowly. "Love you too Wand. Your brothers too."

Separator f left.png Day 1 Separator f right.png

Nick stood outside the nondescript restaurant, in the middle of one of Nextus's commercial districts. It was a simple place, slightly higher scale than he normally ate at; but it was where they had had their first dinner alone. And where he had proposed after a whirlwind romance.

He stepped in and looked around. It was a slow night, in the middle of the week. The Maitre'd welcomed him. "Good evening sir. Do you have a reservation?"

"I'm afraid not. Not this year. Do you have room for a table for one?"

"I can check. Your name please?"

"Nick Munn."

The Maitre'd froze, looking at Nick, then at the book. "I'm sorry sir, we're too busy tonight. There are no tables available."

"No tables?" He looked over the worker's shoulder, at the empty tables. "Could you try a little harder perhaps?" he asked coldly.

"Yes, we have a large party scheduled for tonight. All tables will be filled."

Nick put his hand on the tip bar, and signaled it to transfer fifty Mu to it. He held his hand there to take it back if it didn't work. "I promise, I'll eat fast."

The man looked at the readout, then at Nick, then back at the amount. Nick added another twenty to it. "I believe we can find a spot for you, sir. Please come this way."

Nick didn't get far into the dining room. He heard familiar laughter in the direction the Maitre'd wasn't taken him. He turned his head sharply, and recognized the back of the head. She was seated at a table, talking with another man. The Maitre'd tensed and mumbled a silent prayer.

"I'll... I can see you're busy. I'll find somewhere else to eat tonight," Nick said slowly. "You can keep the gift," he added, turning and walking out. The Maitre'd wiped his forehead and returned to his post.

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Astra rotated slowly on a pedestal in a corner of the second hand RIDE lot. She was in skimmer mode, looking like an old style motorcycle, with backswept wings that rose up from the rear wheel. The reason why she had already spent three years in this lot was obvious. No matter how much the dealer buffed her finish, it couldn't hide the beak that curled over her front tire, the feathered pattern on her cowling, and the pattern of the backswept wings. Avian RIDEs were just not popular.

She noticed a man walk by again for the third time. He didn't look at her, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. His expression caught her eyes, hidden in the headlights; he was depressed. Not suicidal, but definitely sad. While her fetters kept her from doing much, connecting to the Net was possible. She grabbed a shot of his face and looked him up.

She skimmed over his public history, hesitating a moment when she found he was married and with kids, then discovered he was divorced. She skimmed back and realized the date. "Today's your anniversary... would have been anniversary. That's rough."

With nothing better to do, she skimmed across his public history. She found the movie about him and his brother founding Aloha, compared it with the public record and laughed at the differences. The rest of the films associated with him were much more impressive. He was popular for films crossing the Dry Ocean in an IDE of all things. She recognized many of the sights herself, many of them deep in the centre of the Dry. She decided to take a chance.

'Hello, Mr. Munn. You don't know me, but I love your Dry Ocean films. I've flown over many of those areas myself, and you have really caught the spirit of those regions. Did you really fly out there in an IDE?'

She settled down to wait, shifting her attention to the skies wistfully. It wasn't the first time she'd reached out to someone on the street, and probably wouldn't be the last, but she hoped this one would respond at least; if not as a potential buyer, then as a kindred flying spirit. He had long since walked away, so she couldn't see his reaction to her message; for all she knew, he had gone to sleep. But she had time to wait.

The wait wasn't as long as she had feared.

'A few IDE's actually. Gamma, Delta, Theta and currently Kappa. The Q-dust tends to tear through them, no matter what I do.'

She picked up a note of sadness as he named his lost rides. That he even named the IDEs was something she hadn't heard often before.

'I appreciate your comments. It seems few people just see the danger out there, and don't see the beauty it contains as well.'

Astra smiled inwardly, thinking of some of her favorite areas she remembered. 'I know. I was in the war, and regretfully ended up bombing more than I would have wanted to. But most of the time I could just look, and I grew to appreciate what I saw. It made the moments of terror worse.'

'You were a pilot in the war?... Sorry, I didn't mean to pry. It's none of my business.'

'I was in the war, yes. And it's only fair to ask, since I pried into yours.' She imagined him sitting back in his hotel room somewhere, relaxing and talking to her. It gave her a slight thrill she hadn't felt in a long time.

'My life's pretty open, and boring for that matter. I don't mind a bit of prying, especially if it finds another ocean fan. So do you have any particular familiar regions?'

She thought about her own past. She had large gaps in her memory, forming dense banks of fog she couldn't draw anything out of. But outside of the gaps, there was a lot of ocean she remembered. She sorted through and picked a few. 'I've got a few. I know I'm being forward, but would you like to see them? I'm not much of a filmer, but I liked how these ones came out.'

There was another long pause, and she worried she had scared him away.

'Sure, send them over. I'm just an amateur myself, but I'm sure we could exchange tips, for the next time you're out in the Ocean.'

Astra winced inwardly, at the pain of that comment. She tugged at the fetters that locked her in skimmer bike mode, and sighed. Getting back in the skies got more unlikely every day, let alone back out into the Dry. Still, he wasn't aware of who, or what he was talking to; he hadn't meant to cause the pain he did. 'Sure, we can. Here you go.'

They talked through the entire night, sharing videos and experiences. She was careful to hide her true nature, watching his films in real time, and not confirming nor denying that she was just a pilot. The sun was well up, and the dealer was showing a prospector an old canine RIDE to her left by the time she realized the time.

'I'm sorry, I've gotta go. I didn't realize the time.'

'My god, we did talk through the night. I'm sorry I kept you up so long.'

'It was no problem. I loved talking with you.'

'So did I. Could we talk again? Tonight sometime maybe?' she could read the hesitation in Nick's tone; he wanted to ask more, but he didn't want to move too quickly.

'Sure. How about around 2200?'

'That would be great. Talk to you then.'

Astra closed the connection and shivered happily. She felt she could power up her lifters and fly off, even with the fetters. With happy thoughts, she faded into her internal worlds until 2200.

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Nick hummed happily to himself as he flipped through the fabber options, trying to pick out something nice to wear. He stopped himself and laughed, "Nick, it's a voice connection. She doesn't know what you're wearing... Hell it isn't even a date, just two pilots chatting."

He thought back to the previous night and smiled more nonetheless. Seeing Hannah with the other man had crushed him, but the message from Astra had picked him up. Usually he just tossed the fan messages to the AI's, but her voice, with just the hint of yearning, had caught him at just the right time.

He looked back at the catalog, and decided the hell with it. He ordered a nice suit to his size. Voice only or not, a second date deserved a bit of dressing up. Dressed up, he left his hotel room and wandered to a nearby park. He sat in a bench with a good view of the skies and waited the call.

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Astra stared at her internal clock, counting down the final seconds until 2200. Each second felt like it took twice as long as the one before. Her nervousness was almost visible; she had seen him walk by dressed in a spiffy suit, and she worried he had found someone else.

'Good evening. I'm not disturbing you am I?' she sent promptly at 2200. The time it took for a reply felt like forever.

'Good evening Astra. You're not disturbing me at all. I was just out here in the park, enjoying the view and waiting for your call,' He sent a picture of the stars from the nearby park. She'd never been there herself, but she had seen similar views from the nearby cameras. 'I'm glad to hear your voice again.'

She felt a shiver of happiness go through her again. 'Oh good. I'm so glad to hear you too. I mean, I saw you in that nice suit, and thought you might...' She trailed off, realizing she may have said too much.

'You saw me?' he asked suspiciously.

She whimpered inwardly and tried to think of an explanation. 'I... I was on the bus, it just happened to go by and I saw you out the window. Or at least I think it was you. It could have been a complete stranger for all I know,' she blurted out hurriedly, hoping against hope she hadn't scared away her first new friend in ages.

The speed of human thought was agonizing for her. 'Well, next time wave or something. I'd love to meet you sometime.'

'So would I... So what were we talking about last time? The Pillars wasn't it?'

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His messaging system chirped over and over before Nick wolk enough to silence it. "Astra?" he answered sleepily.

"Hey Nicky, it's Rick. Saw you were still in town, and decided to give you a call. Did I catch you at a bad time?"

He woke up enough to see his maned friend's head floating in the hotel room's comm panel. He squinted to verify that he was only sending voice. "No, not bad time. Just sleeping. Late night last night. What time is it?"

"1230 man. You been having trouble sleeping? I know it's that time of year, and I still think you're nuts for coming out here again, but-"

"No, no, it's not that. It's a good thing actually." Nick interrupted his friend and ordered a coffee from the fabber. "I mean, I did see her, but I didn't get thrown out this time. I left before she saw me... Can we talk about this later? After I wake up?"

Rick laughed. "Sure. We just started our annual break, so I've got time on my paws. Want to come over for dinner? We can catch up, and you can tell me who this Astra is."

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Rick owned a condo on the top of a ten story building, overlooking one of the larger parks in Nextus. It was still musty from a year of disuse, but the smell of fresh cooking was beginning to liven the place up.

"So you've talked to her over two nights, the whole night even. And you don't even know who she is, or what she looks like? Are you even sure she's a she?" Rick asked, stirring a pot of sauce.

Nick sat at the table, sipping a can of beer. "That's pretty much it. And I'm almost positive she's legit. She's definitely a pilot; we can tell those things. And she was in the war; I'm thinking she was an avian."

"That would make sense. Some avians tend to be self conscious about their looks after fusing. If she couldn't buy her RIDE out when she left, and couldn't afford the nano reconstruct, she may be in self-imposed hiding. Would explain her nocternalness too."

The lion-man sampled the sauce, and added some more herbs. "You want me to look into it? See if I can find a pilot named Astra for you?"

"If you don't mind. I feel a bit bad trying to dig into her past, but she's clearly looked into mine. Fair's fair, right?"

Rick filled the plates and left one in front of Nick. "Right enough. So how are things going? How are Trace and Jay doing?"

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"Two hundred kay for an old bird? I bet she doesn't even fly any more!"

Astra rose from her internal worlds and became aware of her surroundings again. Jimmy, the dealer was next to her, with a young woman.

"I assure you ma'am, I only offer top of the line gently used RIDEs. They don't call me Nextus's huggable RIDE dealer for nothing. She is worth every mu."

"What does that have to do with anything? She's old milspec; probably hauled in off the desert and shined up. 50k and no more."

Emotions churned in Astra. This was the chance she had been waiting years for; the chance for a new partner, a new owner. But it wasn't Nick. She didn't even know if she'd be able to contact Nick if this woman bought her.

"I've got a lot to run, ma'am. one fifty and not a mu less. I assure you she is fully functional. If you'll follow me, I'll show you her readout's personally."

Jimmy gave her a hand up onto the pedestal, and they leaned to take a look at her dash. Astra considered her options, and decided it was time to act.

From deep storage, she hauled out some special programs and activated them. They couldn't cut through the tethers that held her in place, but they could do some other things. With the two looking in, she felt her batteries start surging out of her control. She barely directed it to the dash, and felt the hard light display brighten, and flash out with a painful sizzle.

"See? Junk. Just as I told you." The woman jumped back down and started walking away.

"Astra! Why did you do that?... We'll talk later. Ma'am! Ma'am!" Jimmy ran after her, trying to salvage the sale.

She sighed and checked her links survived, then slipped back into her internal world. The eagle soared over an endless range of forested mountains, hanging lazily in the air on the updrafts.

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"Astra, Astra... What are we going to do with you?" Jimmy asked, her fried dash console laying on her seat. The dealership had just closed and he was trying to get her back together. "You've been here for years already; you know we won't be able to keep you here forever."

"I know Jimmy. I just didn't think she was right."

He popped out a few fried protectors and started replacing them, checking the circuitry around them carefully. "Looks like you didn't hurt yourself too badly. And even if she wasn't right, you need to generate traffic in order to find the right one."

"I'll try harder. I promise... But you have to admit, you didn't think she was right too. Two hundred kay for surplus like me?"

He chuckled. "Well, I might've gone down to a hundred if she talked nicely."

She mentally rolled her eyes, her headlights flickering. Jimmy yelped as the circuit he was testing sparked. "Sorry 'bout that. Habit. We both know I'm twenty kay tops."

"Man's got to make a living. Rent's not cheap on this spot after all." He pushed the panel back into place and gathered the leftovers. "Tell yah what. I'll take you in for a cleaning and a drive, let you stretch those beautiful wings for a bit in a few days... IF you are nice and don't short yourself out again in the mean time. Deal?"

"Deal."

Jimmy walked back to the garage and spent an hour finishing the cleaning up and closing up tasks. She heard his skimmer fire up fade away as he left for home. The other RIDEs in the lot were chattering on the sidebands, but she tuned them out; she was the only Sturmhaven RIDE on the lot, and the Nextus natives tended to leave her out even when she wanted to talk. In the end she had learned to just let them talk behind her back.

She nearly missed him walking by. He was dressed in a simple shirt that had a few nearly invisible spots of sauce down the front. As he walked, she noticed his head turning slowly, looking at everyone around him. His gaze glanced over the lot, and she froze a moment, not sure if he paused at her or not. Reviewing her memory after, she decided he hadn't. He was focused on people, and not things.

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'Good evening, Astra. I hope you had a nice day.'

'Hi Nick. I had a good day, but I had a small accident. Nothing serious and I'm all better now. How was your day?'

'Great. Met an old friend who lives here occasionally. He's the ringmaster of the Peace Circus.'

'Sounds like a fun job. Good way to travel, and see the world,'

'That it is. But I'm not sure it's the type of life for me. Not enough freedom. I looked for you today, but I don't think I saw you.'

'I don't think you did. But I spotted you. You have a small red stain on your shirt, above the third button. And another next to your second one.'

'What?.... How the hell did you see those?'

She chuckled uneasily, wondering if she'd gone too far again, 'Really good eyes?'

'Be honest with me. Are you an Avian? I won't hold it against you if you are. You've seen my records after all, you know my son, Tracy, he's a dolph, so it's not like I'm not used to the extreme Fuses.'

'It's... complicated. I'd rather not talk about it.' She sensed a frustration growing in him, but wasn't ready to tell him yet. 'Let's talk about something else. Could you... if you don't mind... talk about Earth? What's it like to fly there? To fly on any other world? All I've known is Zharus, and I'm curious what it's like elsewhere.'

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"Sorry man, I've checked Nextus Mil recs, and no pilots named Astra in them. I'm drawing a blank." Rick squinted and threw a dart at the board.

"Thanks for checking. I'm positive she's a pilot though, and she's definitely from the war. And she's an Avian. She said she saw me last night, and she spotted some spots on my shirt I could barely see." Nick sat at a table, sipping a beer and waiting his turn. "She sounds so lonely though, I just want to help her."

He replayed a snippet of their talk, 'Could you... if you don't mind... talk about Earth? What's it like to fly there? To fly on any other world? All I've known is Zharus, and I'm curious what it's like elsewhere.'

"You flyboys are all the same. Not happy if you're not in the clouds... wait a second, could you play that again?" Rick threw the last dart and stepped back to the table. Nick played the line again.

"That's a Sturmhaven accent. You never mentioned she had a Sturmhaven accent."

Nick shrugged, "I didn't know that's what it was. She has a nice voice is all I knew. Where I grew up, the accents were so mixed up that they didn't really tell you where you're from any more."

"Earthers," Rick groaned and shook his head. "Well that makes a difference here. I can't check their records as easily as I could Nextus's. Give me another day and I'll see if I have better luck."

Nick grabbed the darts of the board and stepped back to the line. "Sounds good."

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Astra watched Nick walk down the street and stop outside the RIDE lot. He leaned against the fence, metres away from her pedestal, and started looking around. She saw him watching the buildings, looking at windows and anyone else that happened by.

'Astra, are you there? I know it's early, but I have to know. Can you see me now?'

She debated ignoring him, but couldn't. 'I'm here. And I can.'

He tensed and stepped away from the fence. She watched him turn around slowly, his gaze going past her without seeing her again.

'Rick, my friend, he says you have a Sturmhaven accent. Is that where you're from?'

'Yes.'

'Is that why you won't show yourself? Are you some spy or something that got smitten with me?' She watched him slap his forehead in annoyance with himself. 'No don't bother answering that, it was a stupid idea, straight from the holos.'

She laughed, letting that through the connection, 'It's a nice thought, but no, that's not it.'

'Then where the hell are you? Why won't you show me? I don't care what you look like, I just want to meet you.'

The pleading finally got to her.She braced herself for the coming loss. 'Turn around... more... and look down... straight ahead.'

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"Sorry Rick. I've checked the Flock records. No pilots named Astra, or any variations that I can find. At least none that aren't confirmed KIA. Maybe she isn't military and she got one of the birds surplus?"

"No, Nick's positive she was active duty. He showed me some of her vids, and the timestamps and angles match up with wartime too. Thanks for looking Michelle. This has got me stumped."

"Maybe she was a deserter? Or in Antonio's defense force." The feline's virtual head turned as she prepared more queries.

Lance growled for attention behind Rick. He turned to his RIDE curiously. "What is it boy?"

"She's not a pilot," he growled, clearing the virtual workspace and getting both of their attention. A voice graph of the audio clip Nick had shared popped up. "I should have noticed that before; Look at these stressors. Human ears don't pick up on it unless you know to listen for, but it's obvious now that I'm looking at them. There's a good reason you can't find her in the pilot records.

"She's not a pilot. She's a RIDE."

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In front of him was what looked like an old style motorcycle, though he could see the powerful lifters hidden under its skin. It was painted mainly black and gold, with a hint of feathered markings in the paint job. The fender over the front wheel, which he assumed was mostly for show, was gold until it attached to the front cowling. With the headlights, and the paintjob, the entire front assembly looked like a hawk's head. Combined with the wings that swept back over the rear wheel, the RIDE's walker mode was obvious.

'Astra... Is that you?' he asked.

She couldn't bear to answer him. She backed back into her virtual world of unlimited skies and shivered, not wanting to hear the rejection she was sure was coming. Faintly she heard footsteps leaving and dived deeper.

Nick backed away from the fence and looked for the entrance to the lot. He found it around the corner and made his way in. The dealer was with a customer, selling a puma RIDE, though he did wave an acknowledgement to Nick in passing.

Ignoring the yearning noises from the other RIDEs, Nick made his way to the back of the lot, where the pedestal was. As he got closer, he began to see the pitting, and the wear in the joints and flexpoints where normal maintenance never quite reached. Nick smiled and reached out to touch the fender-beak. "You're beautiful."

'You're beautiful-tiful-ful-ul-ul' echoed through her virtual skies. She backwinged hard in surprise, trying to figure out where the words came from. Looking outside, she was shocked to see Nick standing next to her, his hand on her beak.

"Nick? You're there?" she asked, not believing her sensors.

He smiled at her and stroked her beak again. "I am. It's good to hear your voice for real."

"She's a fine choice you've picked out there."

Nick looked up and saw the dealer standing nearby. The dealer held out his hand and approached. "Name's Jim, Jim Colpitt, but you can call me Jimmy. And that there's Astra. Second generation, Sturmhaven flyer. You can tell by her bike mode; the first gen's didn't have that."

"Hi Jimmy, I'm Nick. She is a beauty. I'm surprised you can keep her on the lot."

The dealer nodded and tapped Astra's side. "You would think that, but sadly there isn't much demand for flyers. I'm sure she'll be perfect for someone in your life. Or maybe for yourself. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that she is a she. A female eagle RIDE, in case that may affect your choice any. It's none of my business if that's your business; I just don't want any trouble down the line is all."

Astra tensed a little, knowing that moment would be coming. Nick simply nodded his head.

"I'm aware of what she is, and that doesn't matter. I'm not looking for a RIDE for myself, but I have a daughter who might appreciate her... or we can work something else out."

"Excellent. In that case, I could let you have this fine bird for say... one fifty."

"One Fifty!" Nick sputtered in surprise. "I could buy new for half that."

"But a new RIDE wouldn't have half the experience Astra has. She was in the war, and she knows how to fly. All the glitches are worked out, so to speak.... I suppose I could lower my prices a little... say one twenty five?"

Nick thought over his options. While his family was wealthy, most of their money was tied up in Alohan business ventures. Hannah's monthly alimony in turn took most of the slush cash that came in. Getting Astra at a price he could afford would be challenging.

"Look at all the dust on her. It's obvious she hasn't moved from this spot in months. I'll be lucky if her wheels haven't seized. Forty, since the RI core is probably the only thing worth keeping in there."

Jimmy looked wounded. "You insult me good sir. I should have you thrown off the lot for lies like that. I assure you that all my RIDEs are in excellent condition and in complete working order. But you are right, I have been a little amiss in my cleaning back here. How about a hundred, to assuage your concerns."

Nick walked around the pedestal, giving her a look over. "I suppose recycling her frame would be worth something too in the end. Twenty for the frame, forty for the core. Sixty in all."

"Her frame is worth much more than just twenty!" Jimmy sputtered. "Come here, take a look, you'll see she's in perfect working order."

'I'm going to give you a hand. Don't worry, it's just superficial' Astra sent, She triggered the surge again, and for the second time in two days, her dashboard popped in a shower of sparks.

"Astra! Why are you doing this to me?" Jimmy cried, jumping back and trying to pat down the sparks.

Nick smirked, then tried to look serious. "All the glitches worked out, eh? Seems like a pretty major one there. Why, it could kill us if that happened over the Dry."

Jimmy looked defeated as he looked between Astra and Nick. He was a little surprised that Nick hadn't walked away. "You're still interested?" he asked tentatively.

"Of course. I already told you, Twenty for the frame, Forty for the core." Nick noticed a call coming in from Rick, but he sent it to his messaging system.

"Could you excuse me a moment? I need to check some numbers...." Jimmy shooed Nick back a few steps, until he was partly hidden by a wolf-skimmer. Jimmy crouched down next to Astra's front wheel. "Astra dear, he seems really determined. I could probably still get him to go away, but..." he whispered.

"I know he's determined. We get along really well. I didn't think he would really go this far, but now... I think he's the one."

Jimmy patted her beak and stood up. "Good girl. I'm going to miss you, but I'm glad for you. Keep in touch and if he does anything to hurt you, call."

"Thanks Jimmy."

Jimmy waved Nick back, "Seventy's as low as I can go, and you're stealing my shirt at that point."

"Your shirt's a five mu special from the Fabbermart. Toss in some replacement protectors to fix up that dash, and you've got a deal."

The men shook hands, and Jimmy slipped out of dealer mode. He motioned for them to head for the office. "So you're the one that's got our Astra so smitten. I wondered why she was so quick to pop her dash yesterday. How'd it happen?"

"Just two lonely flyers, meeting in the middle of the night. Sit tight Astra, I'll be right back."

Astra barely noticed them leave. She was soaring high in her inner world, screeching for joy. The skies would be hers again. She would be free.

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"So, what can you tell me about her?" Nick asked as they started the transfer. He authorized the seventy thousand mu, and winced inwardly. It was more than he had planned to spend, but still just in his budget. He wouldn't be buying rounds for Rick tonight though.

Jimmy passed over a pad with the ownership agreement. "Not much to say. Found her as salvage in the Dry a few years back. She was in rough shape; must have been shot down in the war. Her pilot was long dead and still scared the crap out of us when we triggered her de-Fuse in the garage. We were seeing mummies in the corners for weeks.

"Her core was in good shape, even if her memory was shot from the worms."

"Worms?"

"Yeah, they triggered when a RIDE is captured or shot down or whatever. They seek out military info that might be useful and nuke it. Astra was lucky though, her personality got through that intact. I've seem some results of those worms and, well, shut down was the only mercy left for those RIs.

"We gave her a thorough checkup while fixing up her frame. Personality was solid as I said; no terrors, no phobias, or any other problems. She does have a tendency to disappear into her head at times, but I think that was more a side effect of being stuck on this lot instead of flying."

"Don't worry, she'll get plenty of flying now."

Jimmy looked up from the paperwork and gave Nick a long look. "Yeah, you look like a flyer. Now, I don't know who you intend to partner her with, but remember this. Avians like her are an extreme change. Even if her partner is female to start, they've got a three year cool down time after they fuse. If you decide to fuse with her, well, that's your thing and none of my business, but it's still a three year cool down. Tossing the sex change on top of the class change doesn't make things any better or worse."

Nick nodded his head. "My son's a dolph. They've got a fifteen month cool down themselves, and his doctor advised him to wait a full twenty, just to be safe. His first fuse wasn't with standard fuse nannies." Nick winced at the memory. "So let's just say I'm familiar with what's happening."

Jimmy stood up and offered his hand to Nick. "Well in that case, congratulations on your new RIDE. Take good care of her."

Nick took the offered hand, and was pulled into a hug. His mesh twitched as a set of keys was passed over to him. Jim let him go and grinned at his confusion, pointing to a sign painted on the wall. Nextus's huggable RIDE dealer. Every deal, sealed with a hug.

"Let's go get Astra. Oh right, nearly forgot." Jim opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a bag. "You're going to need these. How'd you see past her fake out?"

Nick chuckled and held the door open. "I used to do the same thing to my brother's IDE. Up until he rigged Gamma to get stuck in mid transform, between Jet and Mech mode. We declared a truce after that. I think he got wind that I was trying to work out how to scram his Toka on demand."

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They were fixing Astra's dashboard, when a red, two seater skimmer roared up to the fence. Lifters hummed from the front as it tilted upwards, the single rider melting into the body as the cabin space sealed up. Legs and arms stretched down from the lifter wells, while the hood folded downward, revealing a leonine head. As it finished changing, tawny hardlight fur lit up, hiding the red metal of its body.

The tall lion ride leaned against the fence and roared, "Nick! Answer your damn messages! Where are you?"

Nick finished with the dash and snapped it into place. He sat up and wiped his hands, looking towards the fence. "Rick! Calm down. I'm over here. Stop leaning on that before you break it."

The lion man stopped leaning on the fence and walked along it until he was opposite the trio. "We tried to tell you as soon as we found out. We know who Astra is. She's a.... She's.... You know don't you?"

Nick grinned and made sure Astra's saddle area was clean. "I know. Rick, Lance, this is Astra. Astra, these are my friends Rick and Lance. Lance is the hard outer shell, and Rick's the bag full of hot air inside. Oh and this is Jimmy, he owns this lot."

He left his friends sputtering and tapped Astra's dash. "Let's give them a face to go with the name my dear. Care to take your Walker for a walk?"

She felt the bindings in her mind weaken and move away at the implicit command of her new owner. Muscles she had nearly forgotten she had ached as she tried moving them again.

Metallic claws separated from her lower chassis, three forward and one back. They settled on the ground and legs began to lift her upwards. The wing panels separated from her sides and rotated outwards, before beginning to fold inward. Both wheels melted away into chambers within her. Her rear moved inward as she sat up, covering the seats and other rider portions of her body. The control panel and handle bars folded into her back as the front of the cycle collapsed inward, forming a head. She shook herself out slowly, golden-brown hardlight feathers appearing on her wings and head and tail, but not her body. Astra stood about three metres tall, with a wingspan easily twice that. She nearly knocked Nick over as she tried to get her wings settled.

"Man, they really skimped on the hard light on those old bird models," Rick said, looking at her metal chest and legs. They were coloured and patterned appropriately, but were obviously metallic.

"I don't mind. Really, I don't mind." Astra shook herself again, as if she couldn't believe she was in her walker mode again. Her head darted around, taking in the sights, especially up in the skies.

"Why don't you take a quick flight, knock the dust out of your systems, make sure everything's green. Just don't break any ordinances and stay relatively close," Nick suggested.

"Really?!?"

"Really. Go knock yourself out."

She crouched and spread her wings, lifters in them beginning to power up. She paused and looked over at Nick. "Thank you Nick. Thank you so much. And you too Jimmy. Thanks for everything."

"Take care of yourself girl. And remember what I told you," Jimmy said.

Nick grinned sympathetically at her. "A flyer's gotta fly. Now get up there." She was gone before he could finish. He handed his hand cloth to Jimmy. "You got some dust in your eye there bud."

Jimmy wiped his eyes and grinned. "Thanks. She's a special one. This can be a tough job sometimes. Some deals you make you know are bad ones. I try to avoid them... And some, some are perfect ones. I'd say take good care of her, but I know you'll do that."

"My brother and I have always believed that as long as you take care of your IDE... or RIDE, they'll treat you well in return, and it hasn't failed us yet. I'll be sure she'll be in good hands."

Nick suddenly felt a big furry paw grip his arm. He was lifted in the air and over the fence. "Right, enough of that sentimental crap. My man, Nicky's a RIDEr now. It's time to celebrate." Rick said, dropping Nick to the ground before Lance shifted back to his skimmer mode, with Rick in the drivers seat.

"Now hold on, I'm not really a RIDEr. She's not my RIDE, just a future gift I haven't figure out who to give to yet exactly," Nick protested, climbing into the other seat. He waved to Jimmy before Lance took off, pressing him back in his seat.

"Just keep telling yourself that," Rick chuckled, not watching the road, or even touching the wheel that spun as they took a corner.

"She's not! Just... Where are we going?"

"RIDEr only bar I know. Down by the river. Lots of circus and mining folks gather there."

"But I'm NOT a RIDEr."

"Don't worry, I'll get you in."

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Astra shot up into the air, seeing the well ordered city spread out below her. The wind blowing past her feathers was incredible. And knowing she didn't have to return to the lot for another long stretch grounded was even better.

She dodged between a pair of flitters, and levelled off, circling slowly over the city below her. The central district's distinctive circular road layout was hard to ignore. In the back of her mind, the remains of her military training woke slightly, and prioritized targets.

"The war's over silly," she giggled to herself, and killed the process. She flicked a wing tip and spun in the air, her eyes taking in everything she could see. She spun the other way, then tried a few dives, slowly working out the kinks in her systems and just enjoying herself.

Another part of her mind tracked Nick as he was carried through the city. She watched from high above as they stopped outside a bar with a long line of RIDErs waiting to get in. Their skimmer reformed into a metallic red skinned lion, and the trio skipped the line, approaching the bouncer directly.

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Nick tried to be unnoticable outside the bar, but they were drawing a lot of attention. Rick had fused with Lance, but kept the metal skin active. The metallic red lion man now stared down a huge silver furred gorilla-man, wearing a dayglo t-shirt that said That's Just Prime.

"I'm telling you, he is a RIDEr. You know me, Pete, I wouldn't lie to you."

"No RIDE, No Traces, No Admittance. You know the rules. I can't bend them for anyone."

"He literally just got his RIDE. She's out for a stretch is all. I'm sure she'll be around later."

Nick tried to tug the immobile lion, "Come on Rick, we can go somewhere else I'm sure...."

"Not a chance. We're getting you in there, even if we need to borrow one for you."

'Want me to come join you?' Astra asked.

'There's no need. Just keep on your flight.' Nick glanced back at his friend who was starting round five against the bouncer.

'I'm good... Well I'd love to continue, but I've done enough to build up a laundry list of tweaks, and I wouldn't mind the chance to socialize too. Socialize with people and not just RIDEs waiting for a rider.'

There was a rush of air, and suddenly he felt Astra standing next to him. Rick didn't miss a beat, pointing her out to the gorilla.

He approached the pair and looked them both over. "So are you his?" he asked Astra.

She stood up straighter and looked him in the fused eyes. "Yes, I am.... Is there something I need to do to prove it?"

He gave her another long look, then shook his head. "You're good. Head on in. And congratulations."

Nick was average height for a human. As he walked into the RIDE bar between Lance and Astra, he realized that for a RIDE, that made him tiny. Everywhere he looked, everything was bigger, including the drinks. There were a few people who weren't fused, but they were the minority. Most of the RIDEs only had a little hardlight, usually for their heads.

Rick lead them to a booth at the back of the bar. Nick climbed up into the seat, and looked at the table, even with his shoulders. "I feel like I need a booster seat," he grumbled.

"Well actually..." Rick reached under the booth and pulled out a smaller seat. "They already thought of that. First round's on me, for the happy couple!"

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Nick shuddered and rolled over. He felt himself falling, and landing on something soft. There was a quiet moan nearby. His head pounding, he reached out and felt something soft and round. He cracked his eyes opened, and squinted in the dim light. He squeezed again, and heard the groan again. His fingers finally reported that the round thing he held was fuzzy as well.

Finally, his eye managed to get focus. His hand was on a spotted furry breast. He let go quickly, and watched his arm sluggishly lift away. The breast's owner sighed softly, and slipped deeper into her drunken sleep.

His brain finally found some traction, and took note of his situation. The last memory he could dredge up was sitting on the booster seat with Astra next to him, and an extra large mug of beer being set in front of him. The newest memory being formed, was him laying on a fused feline, his legs up in the air for some reason.

"First things first," Nick mumbled, managing to get both of his hands to work together. He reached for his ears, his chest, and his groin, and other than the lack of clothes, everything was in the proper place and shape. He phewed in relief.

He laid there for a long moment before his brain decided on the second challenge. To figure out why his legs were in the air. He lifted his too huge head and squinted, trying to get his eyes to work together. He spotted a wall of silver fur, and a shredded black shirt. His legs were propped up against the wall. Confused, he looked away, and then back. The wall was still there, but more details came into focus. He finally recognized what it must be, the bouncer from the bar. Why he was laying against him, he couldn't figure out. His brain helpfully reminded him of the fall when he woke up, and he amended his mental question list to why was he sleeping on top of the gorrilla fuse.

His question list grew quickly, as the first one provided the crystallization seed. Where was he? Where were his clothes? Why was he hurting? Where was Astra? Why was his implant so scrambled he could barely tell it was still there? After awhile, he clued in that in order to answer any of them, he had to move.

An eternity later, his legs finally decided to answer head office. He rolled over, and fell again with a thump, this time on the floor. He pushed himself up on hands and knees and looked around. He was in a sparsely decorated windowless room, with the club bouncer, and a cheetah fuse he didn't recognize.

Nick crawled to the half open door and pulled himself up. He looked out into a hall, hearing the sounds of a lot of sleeping people. Seeing no solution to his clothing problem, he started walking down the hall, leaning against the wall for support.

The next door he found was a bathroom. An occupied bathroom. The tub was filled with a small man with big ears. He was sleeping peacefully on a mouse RIDE, that seemed just as out as he was. There was a towel on a rack near the door that temporarily solved his clothing problem.

He skipped the next door, and headed for the big room he could just see at the end of the hall. It turned out to be the main living space of where ever he was, and it was in shambles. What was a dining table and chairs was now a pile of kindling. The sink in the kitchen was spraying water out the window from a snapped tap, and the fabber door hung off of one broken hinge. Rick was snoring loudly, cuddled up with two other felines, all laying on top of their RIDEs.

"That explains a lot," Nick noted, finally recognizing the remains of the apartment.

A shadow in the corner moved, a feathered head lifting up slowly. "Ow, my head," Astra groaned.

Nick groaned as well. "Your head? How can you be hungover? We didn't even fuse to share."

She looked to him and took a step, falling forward. "I don't know... All I remember, was someone gave me a download, and everything went fuzzy.... You're bleeding Nick."

He looked down at himself again, and his nerves woke up, relaying the pain and itchiness. His chest was covered with shallow scratches, one ear throbbed painfully, and his back burned from similar scratches.

"There's some salve in the bathroom." Nick and Astra looked up, and saw the still sleeping Rick sink into Lance's body. Humanoid, Lance carefully wiggling free of the pile and stood up. He shook himself, and his hardlight fur melted into his metallic red form.

"There's a mouse in the bathroom too... or two mice... I may have been seeing double."

Lance walked into the kitchen and pulled the cupboard under the sink open. "Don't mind him. He'd sleep through a war. Thumbs... best things in the world."

The lion stood back up and pointed to Astra. "As for you, I hope you learned your lesson. You got lucky, but you should never take programs from strangers. What you got should be safe at least; it just slows down your processors and fragments your memory, but it runs its course after a few hours."

Nick left the lion to lecture Astra more on bar safety, and backed up to the bathroom. The mouse hadn't moved. He found the salve and left. "What the hell happened last night?" he asked as he spread the cool cream over his chest.

"One hell of a party, that's what. Though Rick would only rank it an eight or a nine I suspect. He's saving ten for the party that literally brings down the house."

Astra was looking steadier on her talons. "But what was the big party for?"

Lance slammed the fabber door closed, earning annoyed grumbles from the felines on the other side of the room. He powered it up, and started ordering SoberUp cans. "It was for you. Both of you. CrossRIDErs often just show up already changed. They saw you as a chance to celebrate a pre-CrossRIDE. So the pride threw you a 'Welcome to the club/Farewell to the club' party."

"Farewell to the... Oh! But we aren't going to fuse." Nick popped a can of SobreUp and downed it in a gulp, before straining to spread the healing cream on his back.

Lance shrugged, "They know, or they don't know. It was just an excuse to party and have fun."

Astra moved over and helped smear it with the side of her beak. He groaned in relief as the coolness eased the burn of the scratches. "Nick, why does Lance wear that metal skin so much? Most RIDEs I know keep the fur," she whispered.

"It's for his squad. When they realized the inspiration for their group, they all set up a second skin to look like that. Different colours, but same basic shape." Nick shrugged and rubbed his ear with the salve. "Get a few beers in Rick, and he'll talk your ear off about the whys and hows." He looked around the room and shrugged, "He probably did talk our ears off, and we just don't remember now."

Lance left a can for Nick and continued straightening up the place. With the SobreUp, Nick felt his mind clearing enough to make sense of his implant. He wasn't sure if he was relieved, or disappointed that it had gone offline soon after they arrived at the club.

"You wouldn't happened to have seen my clothes, have you?"

Lance chuckled. "You don't remember? The girls tossed them into the recycler right after we arrived here."

Nick groaned, having faint memories of the feline girls stripping him with the others watching, tossing each piece of clothing into the recycler.

"I hope you remember where Rick's bedroom is now. Go see if you can find something that fits until we can send someone to get you some new ones."

Astra watched Nick disappear down the hall. The moment he was gone, she was slammed against the wall, just light enough to not make much noise. Lance leaned close to her, speaking on a tight sideband channel that didn't leak beyond them.

'You'd better be VERY careful birdie. I know what you Sturmy types are and what you do. If you do anything, anything to hurt Nick, I'm going to track you down, and pluck every one of those feathers off of you and shove them where the sun don't shine... and then I'll get nasty. Do you understand?'

Astra shook in surprise and shock. She wracked her memories to try and understand what could have caused that reaction, and came up dry. The lion's claws pressed harder against her as he waited for a response.

"Yes...."

He growled, "Yes what?"

"Yes, I understand. I won't do anything to Nick. I'd never do anything to Nick."

"Good. Remember that." The lion let her drop back down, and walked back to the kitchen as if nothing happened.

Astra picked herself up slowly, wanting to know what he meant, but not wanting to ask.

Nick walked back out, in a pair of shorts that reached past his knees. "Well I found something. Anything I can do to help out?"

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Astra swung into a parking lot outside of the city. She stopped at the feet of Kappa, and waited for Nick to swing off before shifting to walker mode. "Wow, I didn't realize he was so big."

Nick grinned and tapped the foot next to them. "He's hauling his own Toka. He isn't battery powered like you are. But he's not big enough to carry you."

"I'm tired of being carried. I can fly. I want to fly."

"I suppose you do. I'd feel the same way. How are the batteries holding up?"

After the party, they had taken a couple of days to recover and get Astra tuned up. Once she was ready, Nick was well past ready to head home.

"I've still got that power trickle we couldn't isolate, but I'll have more than enough range." She spread her wings and walked to Kappa. "Especially with a Toka flying along side me."

"Why don't you head upstairs, and I'll catch up."

She screeched happily, and took off with a flap of her wings and a humm of her lifters.

Kappa's chest panel opened and Nick climbed up into it and started powering it up. The IDE twitched as it synced, and soon folded down into jet mode. He roared off the ground and quickly caught up with the eagle. They circled over the city long enough to get used to flying in tandem, then shot off towards the Dry Ocean.

"You keeping up OK out there?" he asked as the land dried out below them.

She sped up suddenly, gaining a few klicks before Kappa caught up. "I'm doing fine; My engines are barely ticking over. "

"I noticed. Batteries holding strong?"

"I'll tell you as soon as they aren't."

Nick grinned in his chamber and slammed Kappa's lifters to their max. "Then catch me if you can."

She squawked in surprise and poured on her own speed.

Hours later, they were deep in the middle of the Dry, flying at a more sedate speed. Astra laid herself out flat on the top of the jet, a power cable connecting the two to top up her battery. The leak had gotten worse despite Jimmy's assurances. "Do you think she'll like me?" Astra asked uneasily.

"Well that's a loaded question if I ever heard one. Who do you mean?" Nick answered.

"Wanda. You're intending me for her. Do you think she'll like me?"

Nick let some more klicks pass by before answering, "I'm sure she will. She's a very friendly person."

"But will she like me?"

"I like you... I like you a lot. And I know my daughter. You are going to get along fine."

He watched the eagle with Kappa's sensors. The air flowed over them, rustling the feathers of her head, wings and tail, but didn't do anything to her bare back. Occasionally she flicked her wing in response to some instinct, but overall she held tight to the jet.

"Are you sure you're fine like that? With only the partial coverage? I've heard stories about how RIDE's are with the hard light...."

"I'm fine. The important parts are covered. I can feel the winds over me, and adjust as needed. Why would I need sensation over the rest of me?"

"You never had a full skin though right? The flocks were under tight limitations from what I could find."

"Why would we need more? I've got all I need... Nick, where are you going?" Kappa tilted and changed its heading, heading northward.

"Cascadia. I can't present you to my family half naked. I'd take you to a garage in Aloha, but the news would spread too fast. But there's another one in Cascadia, the sister to the mechanic Tracy and Jay use."

"You don't have to do that Nick. You've done so much for me. At least wait until I meet Wanda."

He ignored her pleas across the rest of the desert. She eventually felt charged enough to fly again, but she failed to convince him to turn around. They chased each other through the towering mountains of the Western Wall and down into the rainforest on the other side. They slowed down a little in the rain that constantly drenched the city.

"I'm glad I don't have a full skin. I swear I can feel myself rusting in the air. People actually saw this place and thought it would be a good place to live?"

Nick grinned, glad she had stopped moping. He slowed further and merged into the traffic flow that lead to one of the dome gates. "People are strange. I could never figure it out either."

He shifted to mech mode once under the dome, and Astra settled on his shoulder. People glanced up at them in surprise.

"Are you supposed to be coming this deep into the dome?" Astra asked nervously.

"I'm legal... just. That's why I switched to mech. They may not like it, but as long as I stay in the big lanes and keep my speed down, they can't touch us." He signaled with his hands and turned onto a secondary road. It took them to a second dome. Just inside, he dropped into a parking lot among the skimmers.

A raccoon RIDE skittered out of the front door, pushing a mop and bucket. "No no no, just mopped, just mopped..." she said, rushing towards the Mech. She was followed by a woman in coveralls, with furry ears and a striped tail. She wore dark goggles that looked too dark to see through.

"Easy Pam, easy. They're customers I think." she looked up. She studied the mech a long moment as she walked towards it. "Hi there... Jason?... No wait, he's still running the Mark 5's. You must be Nick."

Nick popped the chest hatch and slide out. A slight shower of water followed him down. "Sorry Pam. Yes, I'm Nick Munn." The raccoon grumbled under her breath and started mopping up the water.

She took his hand and shook it quickly, leaving a grease stain. "Bethany McCain. Thought so. Not many people still fly those old birds, and you two are among the more famous ones. What can I do for you? What brings you up this way?" She stepped past him and jumped to peek inside the opened cockpit. "Need something fixed up?"

"In a way. But not with Kappa. He's doing fine. I've got a new friend I'd like to spiff up a bit." Astra dropped down from Kappa's shoulder and stood next to Nick. Beth dropped back and peered at the bird through her dark goggles.

"Your brother services my son's RIDE, Jay. And he's only had good words for you. Astra's going to be a surprise for my daughter, and since a secret in Aloha has a half life in milliseconds, I decided the detour was worth it."

Bethany barely heard him. She walked around Astra, tapping her sides and tugging on her wings. "Nice frame, bit of sand damage but sealed up well. Leak in the battery by the looks of it, but the nannie tanks are solid. Can you change for me please?"

Astra waited for Nick's nod before shifting to cycle mode. Beth continued her inspection, tapping the tires and the lifter engines. "She's been serviced recently too. What do you have in mind?"

Nick leaned against Astra and shrugged. "I'm not sure to be honest. I want to finish her feathers, to cover up that ugly paint job. And the battery needs fixed if you can figure it out. If you see something else, run it by me."

"I'm sure I can find something. Got a budget in mind?"

He winced inwardly, and looked away. "I'm not sure. The feathers are a must. The battery's a must too. Anything else... give me a list, of prices."

"It'll be a big list. These early birds had a generalist frame. New ones are so tight on space and weight limits you can barely change the battery in them, but the war birds like her have lots of flexibility."

"Limit it to what you have on hand... And could you remove her tethers?"

"NICK!" Astra shouted.

Beth was more pensive. "I know down in that tourist trap you're from, you don't have much in the way of tether regs, but here in Cascadia, they are quite strict. It won't be easy to get them off, but I've got a few things that should work. Since you aren't native, they're even mostly legal."

Nick ignored the pings for attention Astra was sending him. "They are the second priority, after the feathers and battery of course. Excuse me a moment."

"No problem, I'll be inside making up your wish list. Pam, this way."

Astra walked over and lowered her head to look eye to eye with Nick. "What are you doing? Why would you do that? You don't know who I am! What I could do!"

Nick held her beak and smiled. "I know you well enough now to trust you. You'll be the same with or without the tethers; you just won't have them holding you back."

"But I could do anything! I could run away from you. After everything you're putting in to me." She shuddered at the thought, scared at the thought of being free.

"If that happens, then I'll have made a mistake. It wouldn't be the first time, and it won't be the last.... No, I take that back. Even if you run away as soon as your leashes are snapped, it won't be a mistake. A creature like you deserves... needs the skies. Freeing you would be worth it."

He rubbed her beak and feathered head. "But I don't think you'll run. You are more than your tethers, my dear. They limit you now, but when they are gone, you'll still be you."

She shuddered again, sensing Lance's warning lurking in the back of her mind, partly held back by the tethers. She wasn't sure what would happen when they were gone. "How will I know what to do? What's right and wrong?"

"The same way everyone else in this universe does. With experience and with your conscience. That little voice you develop that tells you that maybe you should or shouldn't do that. It won't always be right, but it will guide you. And unlike a tether, if you need to override it, you can."

He held her longer, until Beth called from the shop door. "Mister Munn, I've got a list ready for you. If you'll have Astra head over to the bay around the corner, we can prepare her for the emitters and take care of the battery right away while you chose what else you want."

Astra shifted to cycle mode and started driving reluctantly towards the bay. Nick walked with her most of the way. "Don't worry. I'm not going to leave you. I'll be here all the time. Just think of it this way. This is the last thing you'll ever HAVE to do. When Beth's done, you'll only do things you'll WANT to do. You'll be in control of yourself."

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Nick read through the list Beth provided, and tried not to show his winces at the prices. He wanted to order everything on the list and more, regardless of cost or time. Astra certainly deserved it all. But reality was an even harsher mistress. He shoved everything that wasn't immediately available to a Wishlist, and debated the rest. One thing was obvious; even if he cut it back to his bare minimums, he couldn't afford what was needed.

With no other options, he placed a call. While it was ringing, he looked out into the garage. Astra was in standby mode, her core kept powered by a cradle against the wall. The rest of her body was stripped down to her bare frame, pieces placed randomly around it. The only sign of order was the care that the raccoon took when she put each piece down.

"Hello?" a sleepy voice finally answered.

"Hi Sam... It's Nick."

The voice woke up a bit more, and the video turned on, showing her bedridden hair. "Nick! Where are you? You haven't called in days! We were beginning to worry."

"There's no need to worry, I'm fine. I... I saw her, but I didn't cause an incident if that's what you're thinking. I just caught up with Rick, and had a few parties and stuff."

She yawned and shook her head. "Well that would explain a bit of it. So why are you calling? Do you know what time it is?"

He looked at the time stamp and gasped. "Sorry! I didn't realize it was so late. I'll cut straight to the point. I'm in Cascadia, and I need a loan."

"A loan for what?"

"Something... Don't worry, it's good. But between Hannah and a week in Nextus, we... I'm dry."

"You’re in Cascadia. Nothing's dry there." She sighed and woke up enough to open up the family's accounts out of sight. "That explains why you called me and not your brother. How much do you need?"

He skimmed the list again, totalling it up. He tried not to be too greedy, but aimed high. "How about fifty."

"Fifty's not bad. That should be enough to get you a ticket back here. Did Kappa break down or something?"

"No not fifty. Fifty thousand."

She sighed and leaned forward. "What do you need that much for?"

"I can't say. Can you swing it?"

Her attention turned to the side again, until she shook her head. "Not quite. One of the elevator partners got cold feet, and we're picking up the slack. And we've had some other pressures down here to deal with. I can get you thirty-kay. Is that enough?"

He reexamined his list again, setting his budget and threw away most of the list. Between what he had left, and Sam's loan, he could cover it. "Yes, that'll do. Thanks Sam. We'll square up when I get home in a day or two."

"I know you're good for it. See you then."

"Night Sam. Thanks."

He finalized the list and looked sadly at the total. Even with Sam's loan, they'd be eating Fabbered Ramen for months to get back on their feet again. He looked out at the bay again and decided it was worth it. Carrying the list, he waited just outside the garage bay for Beth to notice him.

She took it and lowered her goggles to look at him inquisitively. "Is that all you want?"

He laughed unhappily. "No, I want a lot more. But that's all I can afford right now. Thanks for staying up to do this. I didn't realize we had gotten in just before closing. I hate doing that."

She tossed the tablet onto a dirty workbench and seemed about to say something. She changed her mind quickly. "Those hours are just a suggestion. When you have a juicy problem to work out, time becomes meaningless."

Pam skittered around the garage, hauling out boxed parts and firing up industrial fabbers. Beth readjusted her goggles and started to zone out. "You look starved. There's a 30 hour greasy spoon around the block that's got great all day eggs and steak. Why don't you go get a good meal, and come back."

"Thanks, but I think I'll stay. I told her I'd stay. I've got some rations left in Kappa-"

She made a shooing motion with her hands. At first he thought she was clearing a workspace, but then he realized it was directed to him. "She'll be fine. I promise you that. We won't reconnect her core until you're back. Besides, I'm going to need you here when we install those remotes to Kappa. Go, get a good meal in you, and crash on the couch in the office there until we're ready."

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Astra soared in her virtual world, confused and worried. Normally, the v-world was an endless realm of mountains, forests, plains and lakes, all teeming with prey. But it had changed; it now had limits. Limits she had never noticed before, but that had always been there.

She approached one of those limits. A mountain range rose all around her, its peaks going higher than she could climb. And across the middle of one of the valleys, a series of golden bars stretched skyward, spaced too closely for her to wiggle through. And on the other side, always on the other side, the metallic red and silver lion sat, watching her patiently. She screeched angrily and turned away, flying among the mountains and over the forests. Everywhere she went, she eventually found the golden bars and the lion waiting.

:Astra? It's Beth and Pam.: The voice echoed through the world, drawing her attention from the bars. She'd been perched on top of a tree, glaring at the lion waiting on the other side. :We're almost done with your body, and we'll be putting you back in soon. But first, it's time to release your fetters.:

The voice and presence faded away before she could object. She sensed a large download being pushed onto her systems, and cringed, unable to stop it. Soon enough, her virtual world began to tremble, the golden bars shaking and dissolving. The lion stood up and focused her with a steady gaze, staying silent.

Finally, the world stopped shaking, and everything was silent. Astra looked around and knew her world was larger, larger even than the infinite world she'd had before she noticed the bars. A branch cracked, drawing her attention to the lion who was now standing.

"So the birdy's free from her cage," virtual Lance said, lifting a paw from the branch he'd purposely stepped on.

"Why won't you leave me alone!?" Astra screeched, flaring her wings wide. She wanted to sweep down and attack him, but held back.

"Good you're learning already. But you've still got a lot to learn." The lion stood up and turned his back to her. He started walking away, into the forest. "Just remember, I'm watching you. If you screw up, I'll be waiting to pounce you and throw you back into your cage."

The lion disappeared between a pair of trees, there one moment and gone the next with no trace. Even the branch he had broken had disappeared. Shaken, Astra partially rose herself from the virtual world and found a speaker connection to the core cradle. "Beth... Beth are you there?"

"I'm here Astra. Do you want me to get Nick? He's in the office."

"No! No... I don't need him right now." She mentally braced herself. "When you... released me. Did you do any scans on me? For anything that shouldn't be there?"

"Of course I did. You came up completely clean. Is something wrong?"

Astra considered what had happened. "I'm not sure... I just had, a strange dream I guess you could say? Could you give me another scan? As deep as you can go?"

"Sure I can. It'll delay us installing you back in your body though."

"That's fine. I just want to be sure. Absolutely sure."

She felt her data ports open again. "Scan starting now. Just sit back and relax, and it'll be finished soon."

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"Let's see, nannie tanks are patched up. Battery is holding its charge, deep scan's of the core will be another half hour or so, handshaking with the Kappa remote almost complete. I think we're almost done here, Nick."

Nick closed a panel on Kappa in the next bay over, and looked into Astra's bay. To the untrained eye, she didn't look nearly complete. Her frame was still naked, all the guts attached but none of the protective panels. Piles of parts and bolts were still scattered all around her. Nick had worked on Kappa, and his other IDE's long enough to recognized the job as nearly complete.

Pam was sitting up beside Astra, poking angrily at the dash panel laying on her seat. "This is a bit curious. Her dash shows signs of repeated electrical burnouts. But we couldn't find any shorts or anything that could have caused that. Do you know anything about that?" Beth asked, looking at it from the other side.

He chuckled softly. "It was self inflicted. That was how she'd scare off potential pilots on the lot, until she found one she liked. I've already checked, the damage is only superficial."

Pam chittered angrily and tossed the dash onto the discard pile. "Junk. Rubbish. Can't use," she said, already rushing to the storage room.

"Hey now! It's perfectly functional!" Nick broke his self imposed rule and ran into the bay to reclaim it. "You've done so much for us already."

"Pshaw, it's just a dash. They're nothing. And if I left that in place, I'd never hear the end of it from Bryan once you get home and he sees her. Thanks Pam, you read my mind, as usual." Beth took the offered equipment and turned her back to Nick. "Now get out of here. I'll call you in when we're done. Gotta leave some surprises for you two."

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The first impression Astra had as she woke up was power. Her body hummed with it. Not only was the fatiguing leak from her old battery gone, the new one was easily twice as powerful as the old. She scanned over her systems, running self checks and comparing with what she remembered she had before. What she was happiest about, was everything she couldn't feel; the grind of sand in a wing joint that they had never been able to find; the shaky grip of her left talon; the weak connection in her ear that left her half deafened in dust storms; they were all fixed and more.

Finally, she reached her skin controls. They were powered down, just waiting for her signal. With the merest bit of hesitation, she activated them, and feeling flooded her core. She let out a happy moan.

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Nick fretted like a nervous father, watching Beth ease the core gently into the cycle. Without Astra to liven it up, it looked like a normal style cycle made of dark metal. Beth sealed the core chamber up and sent a wake up signal.

"Is everything OK? Nothing's happened yet," he asked after a moment. He thought he saw movement underneath, but he wasn't sure.

"Just give her a moment. She's still going through her self checks and the warm up process. Ah, there she is."

The cycle seemed to lift slightly and quiver a moment. The hardlight emitters activated, golden light flowing out from them. Dull, bare metal was covered in a shiny metallic sheen. Brown was her predominant colour, with gold and black highlights marking out her wings and beak and other parts of the cycle. She let out a long, happy moan.

Nick chuckled a little. "Should we get her a room? Or maybe a cigarette."

"That is the usual reaction to the skin jobs. They don't realize how much they're missing until they have it."

She heard the voices and turned to look at them, seeing them watch her proudly. She wanted to shift to walker mode and hug Nick tight in thanks, but knew she couldn't without an order. Without realizing it, she felt her body respond to her desire, her joints flowing smoother than she could ever remember. Stunned, she found herself standing on yellow talons, actually feeling the ground beneath her claws, wings still half spread. She glanced down and saw shiny brown feathers over her chest, with golden highlights.

"I'm free..." she mumbled, then screeched in joy, "I'm Free!" She spread her wings and leaped to Nick, engulfing him in a hug of joy. He looked as happy as she felt. Inwardly, she felt systems she'd nearly forgotten existed wake up. Movement started in her chest to create an opening for Nick.

:NO!: Suddenly, a roar echoed in her ears and a silver claw pressed against the chest opening and pushed her back. She squawked in surprise, releasing Nick and falling backwards. The pressure on her chest increased and a red lion's head filled her vision.

:I warned you birdy! Don't touch a hair on him or you'll be in trouble,: virtual Lance growled.

"I'm sorry... I'm sorry, I didn't think," she stammered out, shocked at what she had been about to do, and what had happened. The deep scan had shown no sign of any foreign programs in her systems, but the lion was still there. She quieted down her fuser systems and the lion faded away. She found herself looking up at the ceiling of the shop, faces peering down at you.

"Sorry for what?" Nick asked, unaware of how close the call had been.

"Sorry for jumping you like that. I forgot myself for a moment," she explained, getting back on her feet. She was still ecstatic, but the experienced had thrown cold water over her feelings. Inwardly, she carefully stored her fusing commands in a box to make sure she wouldn't activate them again. It reminded her of her old fetters, but she knew she could unlock them at any time if she needed to. 'Is this what he meant to be free? To decide for myself what I will and won't do?' she pondered briefly. In another corner of her mind, she sensed the lion's approval.

"Well normally, at this stage, I'd test her Fuser form, since her walker and cycle forms look to be in good shape. But with no RIDEr available, I'll just have to trust the virtuals for now. When you do partner up, call Bryan and he'll take care of any glitches that may come up." Bethany explained.

"So that just leaves your jet form. I hope you don't mind, but I tweeked it a little. With a full hardlight skin, you have a lot more flexibility from before. Could you please give it a try, and we'll make sure it goes smooth?"

A wireframe image formed in Astra's mind, indicating how much space she needed for jet mode. The garage was tight to do it in, but she didn't have to fly out of it, just enter jet mode. A thrill ran through her core as she realized she had been asked to change mode, not ordered to. If she wanted to, she could say no to the request, and no one would be able to do anything about it. Astra pushed the thought to the side, and walked to a spot that would give her enough space. Doing Bethany's request was only the polite thing to do, considering everything the mechanic had done.

She fell forward, her beak opening out to release a front wheel. Her wings spread out, but didn't move as far forward as she was used to; they stayed angled backwards instead. She felt her shoulders stretch apart a bit as her head locked in a forward facing position. A cockpit formed in her back, big enough for a single pilot. Her rear wheel split into two and spread apart to give her enough stability to stand.

As her frame shifted, her skin changed as well. The feathers melted into a shiny smooth skin that kept its colouration. It spread over the frame, extending away from it in places to smooth the look, softening hard edges. Her tail feathers melted together and lifted up for a single tail fin.

"I've seen that before," Nick said, looking her form over. "In a museum back on Earth... Russian Federation design isn't it?"

Beth smiled and nodded. "Good eye. Twelfth generation fighter design, a Sukhoi T-150 from the early Twenty Second century. Do you like it Astra?"

Astra pondered the question, while tapping into the public cameras in the garage bay, to check herself all over. She had a sleek look, every edge smoothed over and carefully angled to swallow or otherwise divert sensor readings from the equipment of the time. Instead of the gray of the planes of the era though, she still had her colours. "I love it. I'm not even in the air and it already feels great. I feel like a gust could take me up."

Nick chuckled again. "If I remember right, that was one of the flaws of that design. They made them so lightweight that they had to weigh them down while on the ground. Otherwise they'd flip over on a windy day. In the air though, man, they were kings of the skies.... Queens of the skies," he corrected himself.

"OK Astra, now it's time for the finicky parts. I'm going to need you to follow my instructions and shift forms when I ask you to, to make sure everything operates smoothly. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so if you get tired of me poking around in you, just say so and we'll call it there."

For over an hour, Astra followed Beth's orders, shifting and revealing parts of herself as the mechanic and her raccoon worked. After almost every tweak, she felt she was perfect, until the next adjustment removed a burr of annoyance she hadn't even consciously noticed. Despite Beth's warning about being a perfectionist, Astra managed to outlast her.

"And we're done. Other than the fuse shifts of course, but nothing we can do about that. I'm sure they'll be fine."

Astra was back in eagle form. She gave herself a shake and stretched. "Thank you Beth. I feel great, better than when I was first made."

"That's the advantage of hand made. Or at least hand tuning."

Nick shook his head and smirked. "You're clearly a master, Beth. Thank you. Shall we get the bill settled?"

She led him back into the office area and fiddled with a pad.

Nick took the pad, and looked at it, seeing the total for just the amount he had budgeted for, and not a centimu more. He cleared it away and handed it back to her. "Right, now how about the real bill? I may not be as good as you, but I do know which end of the wrench to hold. This doesn't even cover half of what you did."

Beth lifted her goggles and looked back at him. "That's what we agreed to, exactly. Sure I may have done more, but that was my own fault. I got caught up in the refit, and got carried away a little. It's my costs to bear."

"Not entirely. Give me the full costs, and knock off a small amount for your exuberance. I'm afraid I won't be able to pay it all at once, but I will get the difference to you next month."

She tapped on the pad more and handed it back to him. "Fine, this is the list of everything I did on her, and on Kappa, and what they usually cost."

He skimmed it over and winced when he got to the total. He split the values apart and set up a promissory note for the remainder. "You did excellent work, it was worth every last mu. I don't think I can cover this by month end, but I promise, I'll get the remainder to you by year end."

She took back the pad and accepted the deal. He sent over the funds while she went to a fabber. "Want a cup of coffee?"

A clatter arose in the garage while the fabber worked. They ran to the door just in time to see Astra head outside and take off. By the time they got outside, she was already lost, somewhere at the top of the dome.

"Astra!... Astra!" Nick shouted, trying not to imagine the thousands of mus flying away with her.

"Pam! What happened? Why did she run off?"

The raccoon shrugged, sweeping the garage opening. "Pam not know. Bird say gotta fly. She fly."

Beth nodded and tugged on Nick's arm. "She's gone. Come back inside. I'll make you something to calm you, and we'll call the Police. Even unfettered, she's still your responsibility inside the domes."

"They won't hurt her will they?" Nick asked numbly, his eyes still looking up for any sign of her. He let himself be led back inside.


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The officer returned their call before Nick could finish the drink Beth gave him.

"We found your RIDE, Mister Munn," the officer reported from the comm screen.

Nick nearly dropped the cup as he leaned forward. "Where? Is she hurt? Can I see her?"

"She's fine, sir. Still in the dome you're in too. From the cameras, it looks like she just did a few loops. She's following all our regs and she's heading back your way, so I haven't done anything yet. Do you want me to try and bring her down?"

"NO! I mean no... not yet. She's coming back? Let me try again."

Nick was gone before the officer could reply. He ran back to the parking lot and looked up at the dome, trying to find the eagle against it. "Astra!"

A blast of wind nearly knocked him over, and Astra was in front of him, settling her wings. "That was unbelievable! I could feel it all, Nick! On my wings, my chest, my toes, my back...! What's wrong?"

Nick half sobbed in relief, leaning against her feathered side. "I thought... I thought I had lost you. That you left me." Behind her, the officer landed his black and white skimmer and stepped down. Beth took him to one side to talk with him.

"I just wanted to stretch my wings and see what it was like. You were talking with Beth, so I figured a few quick laps wouldn't hurt. Why didn't you call me? You've got my ID."

He groaned and face-palmed. "I never thought of that."

She nuzzled his hair with the tip of her beak. "Poor Nick, you look exhausted. Do you want to stay here longer before we go?"

"No, I want to get home. Once we get out of the city, we can go autopilot for a bit, and I can sleep then. Kappa's just as comfortable as any hotel bed. Of course, that assumes we can leave." He looked to the officer, who cleared his throat.

"Right, as a visitor to Cascadia, you may not be aware that unaccompanied RIDEs are not allowed under the domes. Normally there would be a hundred mu fine associated with that, but given the circumstances, and considering no actual harm was done, I believe we can let you go with a warning for this time."

The officer was nearly bowled over by a grateful Astra. Nick shook his hand and finished settling up with Beth, while the officer stayed outside.

"I don't know what you did, but thanks," Nick said, patting Pam's head as well.

She chuckled, "We're old friends. He stops in occasionally when I'm burning the midnight oil to make sure everything's good, and we go out for breakfast occasionally. It was good to meet you and her."

She took his hand and shook it again. "Now I want you to make me one more promise. When she does fuse, with whoever; have them go to my brother's shop to finish the tuning. Or if you happen to be here, come in here any time."

"You've got it. I wouldn't dream of taking her anywhere else."

Nick powered up Kappa and followed the officer out of the city with Astra on his shoulder, preening her chest feathers. She let out an annoyed squawk as the downpour hit them outside the domes. He waved farewell to the officer and set course southwards, staying on the wet side of the Western Wall, but above the cloud cover.

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Nick woke with a start, and tried to figure out where he was. Kappa rumbled around him, not making any abnormal noises. He stretched carefully as best as he could in the chest cavity, and sipped from a juice bottle.

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?" Astra asked.

Nick squinted at the map display, trying to figure out where they were. He spotted Astra in walker mode a few klicks ahead, but he didn't recognize where they were, other than 'over a lot of plant life.' "Slept like a log. Where are we?"

"About two hundred klicks south of Burnside. Sleepy little place from what I could see. No problems going by in any case."

He finally placed them on the map and scratched his chin. "We're making good time. How you doing?"

She slowed down and did a loop around the jet. "Like I just came out of the factory. All systems green."

"Great. Then are you up for an experiment?"

She flipped around and faced the jet, nose to beak, her engines churning in reverse now and easily matching the jet's speed. "Ooo, what sort do you have in mind?"

"OK, now you're showing off. But that's just cool. About a hundred clicks away there's a lagoon. We used to go there when we needed a break from the city, or the kids, or each other. We'll land there for a quick break, and, if you don't mind giving me a lift, we'll give the remote controls a try."

"Goody! I've been waiting to try those.... But aren't you worried I'll crash him?"

He chuckled as he changed course and started descending. "We'll start slowly, just in case. But I'm sure we won't. I'll start with the controls, then I'll give you a shot too. And if he crashes, no one will get hurt, and he's repairable."

They landed on a sandy sheltered beach, and Nick slid out of Kappa. He stumbled a moment on the sand and sniffed himself. "Phew, maybe I should've taken up that offer for a hotel room."

Astra landed next to him and sunk up to her thighs in the sand. She yelped and fired her lifters enough to get her talons clear. "What do you mean?" she asked as she shook the sand off.

He thumped a panel on Kappa's thigh and revealed a storage space. "Three days in the saddle, I'm more than a little ripe. Can't you smell it?" He pulled out a toiletry kit and a towel and set them on the sand.

She shook her head, watching him closely. "No, not really. They gave me good eyes, but not as good a nose."

He chuckled and started stripping out of his clothes, wrinkling his nose more. He was aware of Astra watching him closely, and tried to decide if he cared about it enough to comment. He decided not. "Let me get cleaned up a bit, wash off some of this travel funk, and then we'll get going again."

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"Third take off trial a success. Slave mode works perfectly," Nick announced. He was sitting in Astra's cockpit, hard light displays around him, reflecting the status of Kappa, following a few hundred metres behind them. Every bank and turn Astra made, Kappa mirrored exactly.

"Connection's strong and stable. No hiccups that I can detect." Astra reported as well.

Nick grinned and looked out at the jungle and mountains that stretched out around them. It was rare for him to see them with just his eyes, and not through the nest of sensors that Kappa fed him while in flight.

"Right," he said, shaking himself out of his woolgathering. "Next we try independent control. Darken the cockpit please, and give me VR controls. She obliged him, blacking out the view outside and forming controls that resembled the ones he was familiar with while in Kappa. He wiggled them a little to get a feel before breaking the slave link.

Their first maneuver was nearly a disaster. They tried a split bank, Astra going left while Kappa going right. He discovered the controls worked perfectly, but his body betrayed him. Kappa jerked in the sky as if it couldn't decide what to do. He reactivated the slave link and sat back, shaking.

"Nick? What happened?"

He sat there, catching his breath and trying to figure it out himself. "I'm... I'm not sure. The controls were solid, he reacted perfectly, but I couldn't get lined up. I... " He realized what was wrong. "My instincts screw things up. It was the human element. I'm used to feedback, when he goes left, I can sense him going left. But this time, I wanted to go left, it looked like I was going left... but my body was feeling me going right."

"So what do we do about it?" Astra asked.

Nick looked back at the views fed from Kappa, and reached for the controls again. "We practice, that's what we do. I've gotta train myself to ignore what my body's telling me and to trust the readings. We probably won't master it today, but it'll be a start."

Hours later, Nick declared success. They had successfully done a left/right bank, as well as an climb/dive loop. "I wouldn't want to go into a fight like this, but I think we've got it. A bit more practice and I might even think of a fight," he said, reactivating slave mode and slumping back. His body was shaking from the effort. Sending Kappa into a dive while his body was saying he was climbing was a hard instinct to ignore.

Astra cleared the cockpit and waited while he recovered a little. They began a gentle climb to return to their cruise to Aloha. "May I try it?" she asked quietly once things settled.

"What?"

"May I try flying Kappa? I can activate the full controls."

"Sure, go ahead and give it a try." Nick clasped his hands behind his head and watched as the controls wiggled around him. He could almost feel Astra take a breath before disconnecting the slave.

At first, things went smoothly. He watched both jets on the map, their flight stable. And then he felt Astra begin to shake around him. He instinctively reached to the sides to brace himself, and saw Kappa begin to shake in the air, going into a climb, and then a dive.

"Slave Astra! Slave!" he shouted, eyes widening as the green of the jungle filled the windscreen.

An eternity later, the slave mode reactivated, and both planes' flights settled down. He struggled to calm himself from the experience, before speaking again. "Astra?... Astra honey... What happened?"

Her voice was filled with the panic he had just stilled in himself. "I don't know!... It was going so well, but then there was a gust and I reacted... but I reacted the wrong way... I got confused."

"It's ok. I did too. Just take a-... Just count down slowly and calm yourself and we can try again." He sent an agent out on the sat link to find phrases useful for calming an RI that didn't breath, and could count faster than he could blink.

"Are... Are you sure? I nearly crashed Kappa.... I nearly crashed ME."

"Which is why you need to try again. When the horse throws you, you've gotta climb back up and try again."

They tried three more times, and each time it was the same; Astra started off great, but something happened and the jets lost control.

"I can't do it!" she wailed. "I'm a jet and I can't even fly another jet."

"Calm down Astra. Remember both you and Kappa are highly specialized machines that wouldn't normally be flyable. Just think about what's going on? What's giving you the trouble."

He waited a moment until she gathered her thoughts and answered. "I'm not sure... I just keep getting confused. I'm getting feeds from both vehicles and I want to react to both, but I get confused. I can't keep them straight."

Nick nodded. "Well... why don't we do what we did for me? Can you give me your controls, and you just focus on Kappa. Ignore what your body tells you and just trust what Kappa does."

"Do you think that will work?"

"We won't know until we try."

Around him the controls shifted. He quickly familiarized himself with them as best he could, and took control with Astra watching over his shoulder. "I think I've got it. When you're ready."

The slave light clicked off, and Kappa peeled away from Astra. He took her the other way and watched as best he could. Both planes stayed stable. "You got it Astra?"

Kappa did a barrel roll in mid air. "I've got it. This feels strange, but I've got it. Kappa is sluggish."

"Controlling you, I can tell why you'd think that. Still, he's a good guy."

After more playing over the jungle, Nick called it off. He asked Astra to slave the jets together and head onward to Aloha.

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"Nick, what's that?"

He yawned and opened his eyes. The sun was rising over the Western Range to his left. And ahead, a shiny, silver string was glowing in the sky. "That, is Aloha's newest pride. The space elevator. It just touched down last year, and the first runs are starting in a month or so."

He sat up and leaned forward, recognizing the lay of the land around them. "We're almost home, within the hour."

"Do you want to stop again?"

"Not this close. We might as well go in."

An hour later, he was back in VR mode, flying Kappa into his garage. Astra circled slowly over the Aerie, looking down at the house on the cliff.

"Your house is beautiful. Great views," she commented.

"Thanks. That's part of the reason we bought it." He signalled Kappa to power down and sat back. "Ready to meet the family?"

"I am. I'm picking some side band traffic, I think there's another RIDE in there."

"Probably Jay. That's good, it'll mean that everyone's there. We can introduce you to my brother's side later." He pointed to the large tri-hulled ship floating in the bay. "That's his place down there, the Queen of Thorns.

Astra landed on the broad patio over the garage, and opened the cockpit. Jay gripped the edge of it, and swung out, hanging a moment before he dropped. He started walking to the door while Astra shifted back to walker mode.

"Wanda must have gone shopping while I was gone. But why would she pick a gray couch with black spots?" He walked in the living room and shouted. "Hey guys, I'm home! Anyone here?"

"In the kitchen, Dad. Welcome back. I've got something to tell you," Wanda called back.

He didn't give the new sofa another look as he walked towards the dining room, hearing Astra walk in after him. "Great. Can you come out here? There's someone I want you to meet."

Movement from the sofa caught his eye. His daughter appeared in the door from the dining room, and everything clicked into place. The sofa had a head, a feline head that had lifted up and was now looking at him. And Wanda's long brunette hair was now gray, with black spots, and a pair of fuzzy triangular ears.

"I've got someone I want you to meet too, Dad," she said before seeing his expression. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing... Nothing. Wanda, this is Astra. I met her in Nextus. We hit it off great, and she was just on a resale lot, so... Anyways, this is Astra."

Wanda was quick enough to pick up her father's underlying intentions. She gasped and covered her mouth, looking from Astra to the snow leopard and back. "I didn't realize, Dad. This is Crystal. I know I've always said I wouldn't get milsurp, but when I saw her, we just clicked. Jason helped me get her so we could surprise you. I guess we surprised eachother."

He nodded slowly, as the two RIDEs approached each other and inspected the other one. "It's my fault. I don't know what I was thinking really."

"It's OK dad. I'm sure she's a great RIDE. You wouldn't pick otherwise. Maybe we can work something out." She smiled, "I've never heard of anyone with two RIDE partners. Maybe I'd end up with cat ears and feathers."

"That would not be possible," Astra spoke up quickly. "Maybe with two quadrapeds something like that could be done. But I'm an extreme form. It would be three years before you could fuse with Crystal again. That wouldn't be fair to any of us."

Nick closed his eyes, then sat in a regular couch. "Is there any fresh coffee made? I guess we can fill each other in on what's been going on." He smiled at Astra as she crouched next to him. He reached out to stroke her side. "And after, we'll figure out what to do next. No need to rush into any hasty decisions."

Separator f left.png A couple of weeks later Separator f right.png

:Wanda, the house mesh is receiving more traffic.: Crystal sent. The feline RIDE was sunning herself on the patio.

:What sort of traffic? And from who?: Wanda closed her eyes and joined the snow leopard in VR space.

"Looks like a spike in advertising spam," the leopard sniffed at the pond that represented the house mesh. A sheen of green algae was flowing down one of the rivers that fed the pond and covering it. She sneezed and shook her head. "It stinks, but it's clean. There's just a lot of it. Coming from one of those matchmaking servers upstream."

Wanda's own avatar was a feline human, with markings similar to Crystal. She was dressed in leathers to match their local theme. She carried a spear in one hand, and had a slingshot, a bag of stones, and a bone knife tied around her waist. "Come on then, let's go see what happened to draw us to their attention."

They followed the green stream to a cave leading to the outer net. Being careful not to step into the goop, they passed through the cave, and the world changed. On the other side, it was an urban landscape, with large and small channels for water leading to thousands of openings. Crystal's avatar stayed the same, but Wanda's updated. Her clothing morphed into a blouse and slacks, with a thick overcoat. The spear changed into a walking staff with runes etched along its length. The knife became a smaller rod, with similar etched runes, and the sling became an old style revolver.

"Can you still find the trail?" Wanda asked as she looked around the chaotic urban landscape. The water channels rose over and ducked under other channels, and moved as connections were opened and closed and the network reoptimized itself.

"Easily. Looks like the servers are local. That's good, I hate sat hops."

They followed the trail back to a large building with thousands of channels going in and out. What flat space they had, was plastered with advertising, showing RIDEs and humans meeting happily, many of them fusing afterwards.

"RIDE harmony dot com. Ugh," Wanda spit to one side. "Wish we could chase them out of town."

"Wanda, look, over there." Crystal was staring at one of the pictures. The system picked up on the attention and froze the image to let it be seen. A golden eagle RIDE was featured, along with Nick.

"That IDIOT," Wanda cursed, and broke the connection. "DAD!" she shouted back in real space.

"What?!?" he shouted back, running from the garage. Astra followed along behind him, keeping her head down and her wings tight in the small hallway.

"How could you do that? How could you put Astra up on a meat market like that?"

"Meat market? What are you talking about? What meat market?" her father was honestly confused.

Wanda waved a hand and the kitchen wall lit up with the front page of the matchmaking site, featuring Astra. Nick's eyes widened in surprise.

"I didn't do that... "

"I did it." Both eyes turned to the eagle. She lowered her head and scratched a talon against the floor. "I thought it would help. You've been trying to find a partner for me, and I saw the ads for that site. Five hundred degrees of compatibility, surely they could find someone suitable for me. So I filled it in."

Wanda's tail stopped swishing and drooped down. The anger drained from her face and she put a comforting hand on the eagle's wing. "You should have asked first. Those sites... well, those sites aren't the places you should go. They're mainly there to get your contact info to try and upsell to you. Don't worry, we'll find you a proper partner soon, I'm sure of it."

Astra stopped scratching at the floor. In her virtual space, a hidden lion growled warningly. She looked up again. "There's more... I filled in an entry for Nick; I was curious about it."

"Really? How'd we match up?"

"DAD!" Wanda glared at her father, who just shrugged and watched Astra.

Astra's eyes lit up with the memory. "A 90% match. One of the strongest matches they've ever seen. They want to arrange a meeting between us."

Nick coughed and looked away, his face turning red. Wanda laughed and tried to be sympathetic. "Those sites tend to rig the results. They probably saw you were close together and rigged the pairing or something. Why don't you send me the keys for those accounts, and Crystal and I will go clean things up a bit."

The eagle sent the passcodes over, and Wanda turned away. "No harm done. Just please, ask us before you do anything like that again. And don't worry about finding a partner, there are plenty of pilots in the sea." She hesitated, and mumbled to herself. "Better add THAT site to the mesh filters too."

Astra followed Nick the rest of the way into the kitchen. She watched him make a snack, lost in thought. 'But there's only one pilot I really want,' she thought to herself. The hidden lion growled louder.

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"Are you sure you don't want to take Kappa? He's got more shielding," Jason asked his brother. They were gathered in the parking lot of their mining company, inland from the more tourist-focused areas of the town of Seahaven, located on the shore of the Briny Deep.

"Astra checks out, her cockpit has more than enough shielding for a simple milk run into the Dry. Especially since the Met's saying things are calm out there for a change."

"And we both know how rarely they're right." Jason sighed and rubbed Astra's fuselage. "Take good care of him."

"I will. Worst comes to worst, I can get above all but the worst storms out there. And I can probably outrun the worst." She cycled her engines and continued her self-checks.

"And they've got Jay and I. It's just the milk run, uncle Jason. Nothing happens on the Milk Run." Tracy tapped the front of Jay's skimmer mode, and settled himself in the saddle.

Nick sighed, "Tracy, what have I told you about tempting Murphy like that? If something happens, you're both grounded."

"Gonna have to catch us first." He twisted Jay's controls, and the subskimmer took off towards the arch.

"Don't worry, we'll be fine, Murphy taunts aside. See you in a couple day."

Astra's cockpit sealed up, and she took off into the air, her engines screeching. They quickly passed Jay and began to circle as they climbed to their planned altitude. Nick looked out the cockpit and down to the ground, seeing the speck and dust cloud that was his son.

"You can see them down there?" he asked.

Obligingly, a window opened up, and the sealed skimmer seemed like it was right next to them. "Easily, Nick. I'm not even halfway up to my ceiling, and my eyes are really good."

The skimmer waved a side fin to them, and sped up more as they reached the Ocean proper. "Hey dad. I can barely see you up there."

"That's the point, Tracy. I was meant to be upper altitude support in the war. I wouldn't be that good if you groundies could see me easily," Astra answered.

"I dunno, I've got a lovely view of your undercarriage from down here. It's looking quite hot," Jay quipped, rolling over and flying upside down for a moment before rolling back.

Nick chuckled and reviewed the charts, "Now now kids. We've got a lot of ground to cover; let's not use up all our taunt fodder too quickly."

The Munns had managed to claim a huge chunk of the south western Dry Ocean before its usefulness was discovered and the land rush had started. By also being founders of the nearest politity, they had managed to use their influence to maintain those claims. They didn't actively mine, or even prospect most of their claims, but to keep them, they regularly patrolled them, to watch for outlaws, claim jumpers and anything else amiss.

By the end of the day, they had settled into a pattern that worked well for them. From high in the skies, Astra could scan large swaths of desert at once, and highlight any curiosities. She was particularly good at picking up metallic objects, and man-made shapes buried in sand. Each one she found, she would mark on the map, and signal for Jay and Tracy to examine. Most were known wrecks, or natural features. Some were new wrecks, often already stripped of anything of value, or otherwise claimed. None posed any danger.

As night fell, Jay found them a cave in an ancient valley. Its opening was just big enough for Astra to fit through in jet mode. Nick and Astra waited patiently, as Jay and Nick fused together, the man being swallowed up with the rest of the cabin as Jay shifted. The fused pair sealed the entrance quickly with a metallic sheet.

"We're clear dad. Q readings are safe, and this place has been in the shade all day, the temp's only in the 30's."

"The 30's? I should've brought a jacket." Nick chuckled and waited while Astra opened up the cockpit. The hot dry air hit him like an oven. "You're a great ride, Astra, but times like this I almost wish I still had Kappa."

"If you fused with her, you'd have the best of both worlds, Mom," Tracy smirked.

Astra shivered happily at the idea, and heard the lion growl. She stilled herself quickly.

Nick chuckled as well, and grabbed the edge of her cockpit to pull himself out. He yelped in pain and slumped back, shaking his hand quickly.

"Nicky, what happened?" Astra asked, trying to figure out what went wrong.

He fumbled for the emergency kit and swallowed a foil meddie pill. "In a word my dear, you're HOT. I love your colours, but they may not be the wisest in the Dry Ocean sun." He flexed his fingers and felt the heat drain away, the redness fading quickly.

"Tracy, I guess I'm going to have to stay in Astra until she cools down. You'll have to set up camp." He pushed back in his seat and felt Astra obligingly lower it backwards. He pulled a can of beer from a cooler bay at his feet and sipped it.

Tracy and Jay watched him, then shook their head. "You know what, Jay? I think we just got Finned."

"Keep complaining like that, and I'll find a picket fence for you two to whitewash too," Nick called out.


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"Man, we're going to be done in record time at this rate," Tracy noted, climbing down off of a crashed flitter frame. The scrap metal that was left wasn't worth hauling back to Aloha. Jay shifted back to skimmer mode around him.

"Astra's eyes are certainly helping," Nick agreed. "Maybe Jason can see about getting similar upgrades for Zeta. Because we are NOT going to get hooked into all the milk runs."

Astra muted their signals for a moment. "What about Kappa?"

Nick rubbed the edge of the cockpit. "No need to spend the money, as long as you're around."

"Hey dad, have you been following that Ocean Expeditions group out of Uplift?" Tracy asked.

He shook his head, and saw Astra was already opening up a satlink window to find them. "Never heard about them. Who are they?"

"They're a group of prospectors up there. Their claims were dry, so they decided to get in the tourism business. They're taking Laurasians and anyone else who's interested out in the Dry to their old claims and offering them a chance to be prospectors. "

The site came up and Nick skimmed it over, "They're using RIDEs and taking newbies into the Dry? Their vultures must be nuts."

Tracy laughed, "They managed to cook up a release form that works somehow, and got insured. They started with a male and female RIDE last year, regular mammals so easy to clean up afterwards, and business has been booming. They're up to four fems and three males now, and two expeditions a week."

Nick could sense his son was leading up to something. "So how many RIDEs do you have lined up, who don't mind being in the rental business?"

Jay sent a data packet to Astra, who opened it up on another window. "Three so far. A fem rabbit, a male clydesdale, and a fem sheep. Had a male bat interested too, but legal was worried there might be a cool down risk. Peter's trying to find him a perm match instead now.

"We're aiming for six, three of each, but we can start as soon as we find another male. Considering how close our claims are to the Briny Deep, we should be able to launch three expeditions a week with those four. Leave early in the morning, pound on rocks for a few days, and be back by nightfall."

Nick reviewed the plan Jay included in the packet and shrugged. "Looks good to me. You run it by Jason and Sam yet?"

Jay shook from side to side below them. "Pete and I figured we'd run it past you first, for the sanity check. We'll take it to his parents when we get home."

"Well, speaking of home, I do believe we are done. Sweeps are done, and nothing else showing up. Fastest Milk Run yet."

"No, not the fastest. We did a faster one two years ago. But that's because we were chased out of the Dry in front of that storm."

Nick chuckled and closed his eyes, relaxing. "Fastest COMPLETE Milk Run then. You know, I could get used to letting someone else do the flying. It's so relaxing."

Astra's cockpit controls lit up, and she tipped over into a nose dive. Nick's eyes popped open and he lunged for her stick, pulling back on it. "Astra?"

Her smirk was clear in her voice. "Well, seeing as how I've done ALL the flying AND the scanning work so far, I figure I've earned the relaxation time. So you can fly us back to the Briny Deep. Wake me when we get there."

Nick struggled to get the plane flying level again while adjusting the controls to his preferences. Astra refused to acknowledge his pleas, her fake snore soundtrack nearly drowned out by the peals of laughter from the dolphins down below.

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The tour guide led the group of fifty VIP's through an airlock into a big chamber hollowed out of the asteroid anchor. Steel girders and loose wiring hung everywhere. "I realize this doesn't look like much, but in a few years, this will become one of the prides and joys of Aloha Space. Cruise ships from all of the planets in human space will arrive here, and their passengers will be exposed to all that Zharus has to offer...."

Nick rolled his eyes and looked for his daughter in the small crowd. She was following the group on automatic, her eyes hidden by shades as she worked.

'How's it going?' he sent to her.

'The same way it's going the last five times you asked me. I've got the airlock prepped now at least. Go get Astra and head down to level 5, airlock 12. It's off the local grid now.'

He tugged on his brother's sleeve to get his attention. "I'm going to check on the RIDEs. I'll catch up with the tour later."

Jason studied his twin carefully, "Whatever you're doing, try not to embarrass us too much doing it."

Nick smirked back, "I'll try not to. But no promises. See you later." He slipped through the group and caught an elevator going down to the first level.

Aloha Space, Level 1 was intended to be another of the jewels the tour guide went on about. Made out of transparent metals, it offered an uninterrupted view of the planet, and the cable, as well as the cars that ran along it. The deck was empty at the moment, other than the three RIDEs. Crystal laid along the elevator banks, her eyes closed as she focused on other things. Jay circled the entire level at a brisk pace. He claimed he was surfing the gravity waves. And Astra, she was bent over and staring at the planet through the clear panels. Nick wasn't sure if she had moved since they had arrived.

"Astra?... Astra hun, I've got a gift for you."

The eagle looked up and seemed to take a moment to recover. "Another gift? Just bringing me up here, to see this; it's so much."

Crystal opened her eyes suddenly and focused on Nick. "We did it. We're in Nick. The system's adapting to us, but you've got your window. You two better run."

He held the lift doors opened and waved to Astra. "You heard the cat, you've gotta come with me."

She squeezed in with him and looked puzzled. "What's going on Nick? What are you doing now?"

The doors closed and it began to lift them up to level 5. "I'm going to give you one of your dreams."

Airlock 12 proved to be a bulk lock, meant to bring in raw material for the fabbers inside. He opened the inner door and motioned to Astra to go inside, while grabbing an emergency suit from a locker next to the airlock. He pulled the suit on quickly and sealed it up before joining her in the airlock.

"Wanda and Crystal have hacked in to give us a window. I can't give you a flight on another planet, but I can certainly give you a flight above a planet. Once we're clear, switch to jet and pick me up, and we'll have some zero G fun."

'Your blind spot is set up. Have fun Dad,' Wanda sent as the airlock cycled.

They floated out of the airlock, and Astra promptly flipped over. She screeched in surprise, her wings flapping. "I can't tell what way is up!"

He chuckled, and watched her. "Just calm yourself. Don't try to find up and down yet. Shift to jet mode, and I'll start teaching you what I was taught."

It took a few minutes for them to get organized and oriented enough for Nick to get into her cockpit. Once there, he started going through his space flying training with her. She proved to be an excellent study; quickly learning to let go of the gravity based instincts she was used to, and focusing more on space marks. Her eyes proved to be a major asset, giving her more available targets to lock on and to orient herself with as she learned the tricks of space flight.

'I hate to cut your fun short guys, but you're being noticed. Your blind to their systems, but I can't do anything about eyeball Mark 1, and the Tours have just gathered back on Level 1 for the reception.' Wanda warned them after a while.

"We could just keep going," Astra suggested wistfully.

Nick sighed and smiled, "I know, it's tempting isn't it?... But responsibility is responsibility. We have to go in." He felt her engines pulse, their orientation swinging around to point back to the airlock. "Don't worry, we can come back up on weekends and have more fun. Probably after they finish more of the construction though. They don't usually like free flyers in construction zones."

Security was waiting for them at the airlock. They waited for him to get out of the suit before he was put in cuffs. Another put a bracelet around Astra's leg. "Nicolas Munn. I'm afraid you are under arrest for flying in a restricted zone, flying without proper authorization, and numerous other offenses. Your RIDE will be impounded, and you'll be taken back to the planet for official charges. We've already arrested your daughter for her role in this."

"Nick?" Astra called out pitifully. "I'm tethered again... "

Nick looked to the officer who nodded in sympathy, flicking his canine ears. Nick moved over to comfort the bird. "Don't worry, Astra. It's only temporary. Soon as we get back downstairs, we'll get this all sorted out. Crystal will be with you to keep you company, and you'll be free again soon enough."

It took a week for the lawyers to work out a deal to release them. Nick spent the time lost in thought and memories. He was confused about his feelings with Astra. He really liked being with her; they got along better than he had ever done with Hannah. But he wasn't sure if he was ready to take the final leap. His mind kept going in loops, worrying about what would happen to Astra if they couldn't find a good pilot for her, followed by what might happen if she and him grew tired of each other.

At the end of the week, he was released. He hugged Wanda, and walked with her as they were escorted to the impound lot. "Thank you," he said while squeezing his daughter.

She smiled and returned the hug, "Any time. Was it worth it?"

"Absolutely. But I don't think we can even afford Fabber Ramen now, after we pay all those fines."

She grinned, "Tracy's been saving up a tonne. He can cover the food until the next pays come in."

Her grin faded as they reached the impound lot. It was a depressing parking lot, filled with skimmers and other large vehicles that the Polis had confiscated. The RIDE section was mostly deserted to their relief, a battered miner's mule RIDE recharged in one corner, and Astra and Crystal were in the other one. Crystal was curled protectively around the eagle's talons.

"Hey girls, sorry it took so long. But we're free again," he called out. "Let's get those tethers off, and get home."

They looked up and ran to the gate. Nick waited impatiently for the officer to deactivate the tethers, then ran to give the eagle a hug. "They treat you well? I'm sorry you had to go through that."

"I'm fine, Nick. I knew you were nearby, and you wouldn't leave me."

"Never. I'll never leave you."

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Nick swung down off of Astra and walked to the edge of the cliff. Behind him, the cycle refolded itself into an eagle and followed him.

"Is this ...?" Asta asked.

He nodded. "This is where Alpha died. I don't come here often. Usually just once a year, on the anniversary... like today."

She peered over the edge and saw a carefully stacked stone cairn. Nick didn't look down, but instead looked out at the Dry Ocean. "It's a beautiful spot. The tourists love it. Hard to believe we were so scared of it back then."

"Times change. You didn't have RIDEs back then; you didn't even know how important Q would be."

"That true. It's still a pain in the ass though." he fell silent, staring at the desert.

Astra moved to stand beside him and nuzzled him with her beak. "Nick... your kids and their RIDEs have told me you haven't been searching for a pilot for me since we went into space. Is everything all right?... Have you given up?"

"Not exactly... I've found the perfect pilot for you, but it's taking him a bit to build up the nerve to go through with it." Astra tilted her head and waited, not wanting to believe what he implied.

"This place has a bad memory for me. I... I'd like to add a good one to counteract it." He turned and faced her, spreading his arms and legs a little. "Astra, would you fuse with me?"

She shivered eagerly, not willing to believe her ears. "Are you sure? The limits... You'll be stuck for three years... as a bird-man.... a bird-woman."

He nodded. "I've thought about this a long time. It's been on my mind since I found out who you are. I think my heart knew from then, but now my mind is ready. I want you to fuse with me, I want to experience what you do, and share what I've done. To feel the wind on our feathers, the vacuum of space on our skin, and maybe, someday, to soar in other worlds together. I want to fuse with you, Astra."

Astra dived into her head space and hauled out the box of Fuser controls. As the months had gone by, she had needed to add more and more tethers on it to keep from activating them by mistake, but now was the time. She felt a presence next to her, and saw the red lion. He watched her, but didn't move to stop her. He seemed a little confused.

"Are you going to stop me?"

The lion shook his head slowly. "It's your choice now. He's willing. Are you?"

"Hell yes, I'm ready. I've been ready for months!"

He turned away and began to fade away, "Then there is no need for me to interfere now. Have fun birdies."

The last fetters fell away. She activated the controls and refocused outside. Nick hadn't moved, hadn't even noticed the slight delay. Inside, she felt herself moving around, a void forming to hold Nick's body. Her Fuser nannies activated and spread into positions. She spread her wings, feeling herself stretch in anticipation and took the final steps to Nick.

Her wings surrounded him and helped pull him into her chest. She felt herself get heavier, the nannies activating and doing what they needed to sync up. She stood up straighter, her legs lengthening, her talons getting shorter. Buds grew on the ends of her wings, swelling and into scaly hands with long nails. Her flight feathers shortened up, while the wings thickened into arms. Her torso swelled, becoming more humanoid, feathery breasts growing on her chest.

She focused inwardly, feeling the nannies set to work on Nick. They stripped away his clothing, and she stored it to one side. She realized he had dressed in loose shorts and a t-shirt today, in anticipation of what was coming. His hair was gone, and feathers were growing on his head, golden like her own. She felt him blink rapidly, the whites fading as the coloured parts of his eyes turned yellow and expanded. The shape of his skull changed, his mouth pressing outwards a few centies. His mouth opened reflexively, and she could tell his teeth were gone, his mouth more bony, like a beak, though his lips continued to cover them.

Most of his body remained hairless, and featherless, including his face. They did spread over his shoulders and down his upper arms, long dark feathers growing from them. His finger nails grew longer, covering the ends of his finger tips, forming talons.

The nannies drained muscle and bone mass from his body. She monitored those nannies closer out of curiosity and was relieved that the muscles left behind would be just as strong, but lighter, like his bones. Some of the extra mass was burned to fuel the change, the rest was redirected to her nanite tanks.

His hips shifted, twisting into a hybrid of human and avian; a bulge appeared over his rear, long tail feathers growing out. Fine feathers grew between his legs, engulfing his groin even as it melted into a single slit, creating Nikki. Her chest swelled, naked breasts growing to match the ones on Astra's new humanoid body.

Finally the nannies worked over her feet, the skin growing thick scales, nails growing out into talons, her toes growing longer but not as long as Astra's talons. Astra felt her nannie tanks swell as the nannies used the extra mass to build more; unlike many Fuses that required more mass later on to properly finish, she had more than enough to work with from the start.

Another presence formed in her mind, the nannies helping the wetware get up to speed with her hardware.  :Nikki?:

The presence startled,  :Astra?... Whoa, that's your mind? You can read mine?... Who's Nikki... Oh! I'm Nikki now.:

 :Yes you are. Second thoughts?:

 :Not a one... : She sensed the presence begin to scrounge around in its memory. :Give me a sec, I've got a gift for you. It's not the real deal, but it's a start.:

Astra tried to make sense of the presence's mind, and gave up. With Nikki's underlying guidance she could find her way around, but the order of it made no sense. :How can you find anything in there? It's so chaotic:

:It's a knack, and a lifetime of practice. We can't easily defrag our memories like you can. Here it is.:

Astra caught the memory and found herself in the cockpit of an older IDE, in midair. Water dotted with white masses stretched as far as she could see. Which wasn't as far as she was used to seeing. She tried to move, but she had no control. She looked down at the controls and a pair of human hands twisted the controls and the jet banked to the left, bringing a ship into view, under attack by another set of jets. Targeting sites appeared on the HUD and he zoomed in for an attack against a black jet. She felt her own plane shudder as the weapons fired. The wing of the black jet shattered and it spun down into the water below before the memory faded.

:That...:

:That was Earth, over the Arctic ocean, back when I was in the ADF.:

She looked up the details and began to piece it together. :The white things are icebergs... I've never seen those before.:

Nikki chuckled, :You wouldn't, especially not around here.:

Astra felt her body move as Nikki experimented a little. "This... This is weird," Nikki said. "Like Kappa, but more... so much more... I can feel the wind on your feathers... I can see so much. Everything's moving. How can you sort it out?" Her hands reached to her beak. "My voice... it's higher... and sounds like you."

"It takes practice, but you get used to it. You notice the important stuff, that's what counts," Astra felt Nikki startle again, not used to someone else taking control of her body. "Do you want more time?"

Astra felt Nikki start to explore their shared space. She dipped into Astra's memories unintentionally, and caught a glimpse of what happened just before they fused. Nikkii backed away quickly.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry... Were you talking to Lance?"

"That's fine. My mind is your mind now. They're our memories... and no, not exactly." She shared all the incidents the lion had appeared, starting with the first time he had stopped her, right after her fetters had been removed. Understanding dawned on Nikki.

"You made your own conscience, Astra. No wonder Beth couldn't find anything with that deep scan. It may have been inspired by that warning from the real Lance, but he was purely your own creation."

Nikki turned her back to the desert. "Well, let's face the family. Teach me to fly, Astra."

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Nikki flew them back to Aloha, having a hard time restraining from screeching for joy too much. With Astra's guidance, they avoided crashing while Nikki learned the ropes of her new body. She flew similar to a bird, her wings outstretched, and her legs held close to her body so her tail could help control the flight.

"How much of my mind can you read?" she asked Astra as they crossed the western shore of the Briny Deep.

"Pretty much all of it. But I'm not peeking. We'll set up our common areas and private areas eventually, but it takes time to sort it out. You're getting a message from Jason."

Nikki was focusing on the tricky winds that blew across the isthmus between the sea and the bay. "What does he want?"

"He wants you to meet him on the Queen. He says it's important, but not urgent."

"Important but not urgent? Those exact words?"

She reviewed the message. "Those exact words. Do they mean something?"

Nikki smiled, "It means something is up. We use that when we want to get the other someplace for a surprise."

The windows of the bridge of the Queen were darkened when they arrived. Astra took over their body for the landing to make sure they didn't trip. The ship was silent, other than the waves striking the hulls. She peered up to the windows, and felt there was movement behind the darkened panes, but she wasn't sure.

"Here we go," Nikki muttered, a hand on the door. She took a deep breath and opened the door, ducking down and stepping into the old bridge.

"SURPRISE!" Despite expecting it, Nikki still jumped at the shout. The windows cleared, revealing the entire family gathered around the room. A congratulations banner stretched across the top of the windows.

"How'd you know?" Nikki asked, looking at everyone.

Wanda smirked, fused with Crystal. "The tourist cams all over the arch. Someone noticed you there, and it spread like wildfire. The entire politity probably knows about it by now, if they knew you at least. You look good mom." She made a face and shook her head. "That doesn't sound right. No matter what you look like, you're still dad."

"Thanks Wanda."

She tossed a blanket to her. "Now wrap this around your chest. I'm really getting tired of having to dress my family members."

Nikki looked down, and saw her feathery breasts, though nothing showed at her groin to her relief. She felt Astra take control, the hardlight feathers melting together and reforming into a simple golden tube dress.

Jason took her scaly hand. "So decided on a name yet? Your kids may still want to call you dad, but you aren't a Nick any more."

"I am actually. Asta named me and I like it. I'm going to go by Nikki now."

"Well then Nikki, we've got some crossriding gifts for you. Most of them should still be good I think."

"What do you mean?"

"He means we've had them waiting for you awhile now," Sam called. "All of us could tell that you two were meant for eachother, except for you it seems."

"Frankly, Dad, I expected you two to Fuse after you got out of jail. I never would have thought you'd last till Alpha's anniversary." Tracy offered her a box. "This is from Jay. Mine's still on the table."

His stance shifted subtly, "I looked it up, and this is a traditional gift for a female crossrider from a guy," Jay explained.

Nikki set the drink down and unwrapped the gift. "What the hell.... I'm not wearing these." She held up a set of red silk lingerie.

Jay flicked his flukes and grinned. "Maybe, maybe not. But it is traditional. I tried to convince Crystal to give you the woman's gift, but Wanda wouldn't allow it."

"I wouldn't have allowed it either, but he ordered it while I was asleep. Sorry Dad," Tracy said, not sounding apologetic at all.

She sat on a bench, Astra lifting their tail feathers automatically. She lifted the drink to her beak and tilted her head back, pouring a bit of the drink into it. Nikki sputtered a bit and grabbed for a cloth. "That's going to take some getting used to."

Sam chuckled, "Are you going to defuse here, or are you going to wait until later?"

"I'm going to wait until we get home. Give myself time to settle."

She nodded. "You want me to be nearby? Give you a checkup and make sure all your new pieces got put in the right places? I've been reading up on the bird-people since you brought Astra home."

Nikki nodded and finished wiping her beak. "Thanks Sam. That could be handy."

"You've got a call, Aunt Nikki," Michael announced. Before she could object, one of the windows became a screen. Rick waved with Lance in the background.

"Hey there Nikki! Congratz on the new look. Looks like we were right after all," the ringmaster said.

Nikki waved to him. "Thanks Rick, I guess they were right too. But they may have jumped the gun just a wee bit."

He smirked, "From what the girls say, they jumped the gun a lot of times that night. Look, I don't have much time; I'm in the middle of a show up in Burnside, but we'll be back in Aloha in a couple months. We've got to hook up."

"I'm sure we will."

"Well have fun, Nikki. Can't wait to see you in person... OH! Before I forget, I sent an order to your brother's fabber. A gift from Lance and I, and the rest of the guys." The screen blanked out.

Aaron lept to his feet and started running, "I'll get it!"

Nikki went pale and started to stand up. "Stop him!" Peter and Michael both took off after their little brother, but they were too slow.

"He got you licorice!" Aaron shouted from the kitchen. "It's shaped funny though... It looks like... Ewww! Panties!"

The trio returned to the living room. Mike tossed a reclosed box on the table and handed Nikki a card. "He didn't see this thankfully, or we'd have a lot of explaining to do," he whispered to her.

Nikki flipped the card open and glimpsed a picture with a caption about nibbling the gift off of her, and quickly closed the card. "Right. Thanks Mike."

She stood up and went to the table. "Well, I suppose it's time for the rest of these, right? Thanks everyone."

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They flew slowly up the cliffs towards the Aerie. Astra had reshaped the dress into a simple sports bra to cover her breasts. "I can see why Tracy loves diving off these now," Nikki commented, twisting in the tricky winds that spun off the cliff face.

"He doesn't feel half of what we're feeling. He's a dolph after all, and I'm a bird. This is my territory. Are you sure you don't regret this?"

"And miss all this fun? Absolutely none, Astra. I always figured this would be like flying Kappa, but I'm feeling so much more; I can sense the winds and everything. If I'd known it was like this, I would have fused months ago. I'm sorry I kept you waiting so long."

"It was worth it, in the end. And we'll have a long time to make up for those months." Astra took them up to the Aerie to meet Sam's flitter, with all the gifts. "We've got another congratulations message... from the Gibraltar Arch resort."

"Well that was nice of them."

Astra giggled and lowered them down to the patio. "Not so nice... They're including a bill. They're charging us for a marriage under the arch."

Separator f left.png End Separator f right.png
Preceded by:
Splashdown
Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by:
The Lady of the Tiger