User:Jetfire/Broken Crown

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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Broken Crown

Author: Jetfire

122 AL, Eastern Coast of Gondwana, near Nextus

Jill adjusted her grip on the rock face and looked ahead. Above, the cliff was smooth, with no obvious handgrips or foot holes she could use; not until the ledge they were climbing to. Hundreds of metres below, the ocean crashed against the cliff, kicking up a spray that didn't reach them, but did leave the air humid and salty.

A few metres below her, Jack, her fiance, looked up, watching and studying the same cliff face. They were roped together, and he was testing the anchors they'd beaten into the cliff face so far. "How's it look?" he asked, using the radios built into their helmets.

"Tricky. Smooth rock right to our target, but I think I can make the jump." She waited a moment to see if he would ask if she was sure, but he didn't. That was one of the things she loved about Jack; that he trusted her judgement enough not to question it.

"Right. Let me know how much slack you need. I'm anchored to catch you."

"Thanks Jack." She studied the wall again, mentally running through her next moves again and again. She tugged the rope until she had enough slack. "Going now, Jack."

"I'm ready."

She moved as close as she could and ran through once more, visualizing herself flying through the air to the overhang and catching. She tensed and jumped, reaching for the ledge. She hit the rock hard and scrambled for a grip. Her gloves warmed up as the spider-grip fabric activated, creating a seal on the rock. One hand was on loose gravel and fell away, but the other grip held firm. Fighting the panic, she swung her loose hand back and got it stuck, her toes following soon after.

"I'm good!" she shouted out, even though her mic would pick it up easily.

"Good! You gave me a bit of a fright there," Jack called back, pulling back some of the slack.

She adjusted her grip, finding better toe holes and finger holes so the spider-grip strain wasn't as great on her wrists. She surveyed the rest of the route and started planting an anchor. "Clear sailing the rest of the way from here. 'Nother couple of hours to the top."

"Great! I'm starving."

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Three hours later, Jill was at the edge of the cliff. She reached up to grab at the grass that grew right to the lip, only to feel a strong hand grab her arm. She almost lost her grip in surprise, looking up to see a uniformed man looking down.

"Care for a hand, corporal?" he asked, easily supporting her, not phased by the drop he was leaning over.

"Not any more. We bought out," she said, trying to ignore the burning in her muscles from her awkward position.

"It's been refunded. Nextus needs you and your fiance's skills," the man answered.

Jill briefly toyed with the idea of pulling him over the edge, then nodded, "Bring me up. And you'd better have a damn good reason for bringing us back in."

He easily straightened up, pulling her with him. He set her down on her feet, and started pulling at the rope. Jill was tempted to collapse, but forced herself to stay on her feet, despite the burn in her muscles.

"So what's this all about?" Jack asked as soon as he was up. He similarly stayed on his feet, looking over the uniformed officer that had helped them up.

"Classified for the moment. All I can tell you is that you have been reactivated for a mission that matches your skillset. And it involves RIDEs."

"RIDEs? Those are why we bought out in the first place. We didn't want anything to do with those robot suits," Jack pointed out.

The commander pointed further inland, where a four seater skimmer was parked. It didn't have any animal signs that hinted at the new RIDE tech on the front line. "Maybe, but polity needs are trumping your desires. You have two choices. Pick a RIDE, or train a RIDE pair. And we'd rather have you do the former than the later."

Jill stood her ground. "No. We're out. You're not getting us back in."

The doors to the skimmer opened up. "You aren't aware of the situation, Ms Dickenson. You are not being given a choice in the matter. You, your fiance, and the rest of the team that is being formed are being reactivated whether you want to or not."

"I said No. We're not-" Jill fell silent. On either side of them, two robotic figures appeared, looking like humanoid robotic dogs. They held pistols levelled at each climber.

"Will you come willingly, or will we do it the stunned way?"

Jack laid a hand on Jill's arm. "Come on. We're going either way, and I don't feel like getting shocked after such a good climb."

"It was a good one... other than the end." Jill sighed and started towards the lifter, not looking at the fused soldiers.

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A week later, the engaged couple were in a simple room, set up in a base near Uplift, as far from the frontlines with Sturmhaven as they could get while still in Nextus territory. There were three other people who had been similarly drafted or pressed back into service. Jill recognized them all as other climbers like her and Jack.

Commander Sam Cree walked into the room and felt five pairs of hostile eyes land on him. He took it without flinching; he'd recruited each of them personally, bringing four of them back into the military that they had escaped, and drafting the fifth one, in the case of the sullen man at the back of the room. He made his way to the podium and activated the screen with a remote.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Camp Dusty. I know we started off on the wrong foot, but you're about to discover why we had to bring you back on duty."

He faced down the glares he was receiving and activated the first part of his presentation. A map of eastern Gondwana appeared and zoomed in on the Eastern range that separated most of the polities from the Dry proper. Colour coded markings appeared, indicating the territory held by each side, blue for Nextus, Green for Nuevo San Antonio and Red for Sturmhaven. Checkerboard patterns indicated disputed territory. The Green land was pinched hard, the little Dry territory they'd claimed was all checkerboarded, mainly with red.

The map twisted and went three dimensional as it zoomed in on the mountain range right at the tip of the green territory.

"This is Ryers Pass. Formerly Nuevo San Antonio's main entrance to the Dry Ocean. Four months ago, Sturmhaven made a push from the Dry side and managed to claim Mount Griselbrand, located here, at the end of the pass. They quickly set up a flock base there, and have effectively sealed NSA from the Dry.

"This base is not good for us. As you can see, the mountain is dangerously close to our own passes through the Eastern range. Sadly, neither we nor the NSA realized the potential of the mountain, until Sturmhaven grabbed it. Now, they are already using that base to attack our forces, forcing us to reach the Dry battlegrounds by more roundabout routes."

He saw the former military recruits get serious, old briefing habits kicking in. The draftee still glared, but he was paying attention at least.

"NSA is probably kicking themselves for missing the strategic strength of Mount G. Had they claimed it for themselves, they'd be controlling most of the Dry by now. Now, Sturmhaven is at risk of claiming it all, and we can't let that happen."

The map zoomed in on the map, showing a steep cliff face on the Dry side, sandblasted smooth by the winds. Its peak had been flattened, though the details were hazy. "Our mission, is to destroy this base one way or another, preferably in a way that keeps either of them from making use of it. Sat and high altitude pics are minimal due to chaff they're keeping in the air. Anti-Air defenses take down everything airbourne that comes near it."

"What about ground approaches?" a man asked. Jill recognized the dark haired man as Ronald Sullivan, a man who'd free climbed up the Uplift domes with just a pair of spider gloves.

"Ground is almost as difficult as air. The mountain itself is naturally all but unassailable. The Dry side as you can see, is a sheer cliff face, straight up from the ground. The wet side is a little less steep, but not by much. The bitches have been busy too, setting up a sensor net around the mountain tuned to cavorite. Antigravity flight triggers heavy blasters hidden in caches all over the mountain. Even big power sources may trigger it, though we're working on ways to shield their presence."

"Which leads to us," Jill said, already putting the pieces together and not liking the picture that was forming.

The mountain exploded, magma flowing down its sides, and words lifting out of it. "Right. As of now, you will form the core of the group doing Operation Krakatoa. You and or the people you train, will climb up the sides of Griselbrand, and plant some nukes in the base on the top to destroy it."

The other woman, Jill recognized as Laura Stokes, famous for climbing the Aleran Glacier near Cape Nord. She spoke up, voicing the concern most of them were realizing. "That mountain's right on the edge of the Dry. We'll need some hefty protection just to survive, at it, let alone climb it."

Sam nodded to her. "The habitable zone starts about a hundred klicks coastward from that mountain. Unprotected life expectancy on the wetside is an hour tops. But you will have the protection you need."

The wall behind him faded to transparency, along with the maps. Through the wall, a workshop was packed with a dozen techs working on five deactivated RIDE frames. The RIDEs were in walker modes, with no hard light emitters. A snow leopard, a cougar, a mountain goat, an ibex and a markhor were lined up facing the briefing room while the techs worked.

"These will be your equipment for this climb. They don't have lifters or any other Cavorite-based tech in them, so there's no AG to catch you if you fall, something I'm sure you're all used to. We've stripped them down as far as we dare, to the bare minimum power to keep the core and you alive in the Dry and to make the climb. Weapon loadouts will be minimal, other than the bombs to take out the base. "

Jill stood up, "No way! No way in hell. I left you guys to get away from those robots. I'm not joining them now."

"Then you'll train your replacement. And if necessary your replacement's replacements until the mission is completed, one way or another."

Sam stared at her until she sat back down. "The RIDEs are experimentals, hell all RIDEs are, but we don't have much options. We're not sure which climbers will work best, so we decided to hedge our bets. The Snow Leopard line as you may or may not be aware, were among our first type, though we haven't tested their climbing skills much. That will be the point of the training we'll be doing."

"So who gets what?" the drafted man, Patrick O'Reilly, sat forward, suddenly interested.

"We've matched you up, based on your personality profiles and the RI's developed personality. Laura will get Krystal, the snow leopard. Jill theoretically will get Maddie, the mountain goat.

"Maynar is the Markhor. The specialists feel it will fit Jack best. Patrick will get the cougar, Saresh. And that leaves Tallis, the Ibex for you Ronald. They're going through the final tests now, along with their own briefing. We'll be ready for the fuse tomorrow."

Sam returned to the podium, leaving the windows untinted. "The rest of the details of the mission is in the tablets in front of you. As well as the details of the RIDEs you were paired with. I'll be available for any questions you may have while you read."

"I've got a question. This is a one off, right? We do this and we're out, right?" Patrick asked.

"I could lie and say it is. But it all depends on how this war goes, and how well you do. We may need to reactivate you again for another mission that matches your skills. But for the moment, yes, it is a one off. Do this and come back, and you can get your traces purged and go back to your cliffs or whatever thing you want to climb next."

"What if we want to keep the RIDE afterward?" Patrick asked.

Sam grinned. "They're military property. To keep it, you have to stay in."

Patrick looked pensive as he activated the tablet and started reading. "Tempting. Very tempting."

"Your tablets will blank if they leave the building, otherwise you can take them back to your quarters to review privately, or with anyone else on the team." Sam focused on Jack and Jill. "I'll be here for any further questions until 2000 hours. You may leave."

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Jill walked into her assigned room and threw the tablet onto the desk before flopping onto the bed. Jack followed her in and took the desk seat. His tablet was active and his gaze flicked between the screen and his fiance.

After a long silence, she sat up and stared at him. "You're not seriously reading that crap, are you?"

Jack looked up. "I am." He held up his hand to silence her followup outburst. "Look, we've been trying to figure out for years how to tackle some of the cliffs in the Dry, and now the Military guys have given us a way to do it. One quick mission, in and out, in our style too, no AG, just the strength of our bodies and what we can carry with us."

"And all we have to do is give up our bodies, and our minds to do it."

"It's not like that-" Jack started to protest.

"It is!" Jill looked away. "You've seen the holos! Dry! You've seen the soldiers. That's why we bought out in the first place. They aren't human any more. They've got tails and claws and hooves and horns and fur, feathers and scales. And those machines, they get in your mind. They know everything you do. How can you be so blase about it?"

He shrugged, "I don't know. I guess I've been following what's been going on, and it doesn't seem as bad as it did when they first came out. Those traces can be flushed away easily now, well most of them can. And they're fettered, so they can't get in your mind. It's just a better mech suit now."

"Mech suits don't argue back at you. They have their quirks, but they won't change their mind and decide to chase a ball of yarn instead of firing at the enemy."

"That's only rumored to have happened once. Look, will you please just read the mission and try to go along with it? We've got nothing else to do, and it does seem interesting."

Jill sighed and looked away. "When did you become so Pro-RIDE? You hated the thought of them as much as I did."

He moved over and sat next to her. "I don't know. I guess I've been talking to the old squad. They may look different, but they're still them."

"Are they? Are they really? They've got claws now, and tails."

"But they're still them. They're no more different than anyone else who's lived a few more years of life."

She sighed and tried a different tact. "A goat though. They want to turn me into a damn goat."

"No they want to partner you with a mountain goat. We've both seen them out there. As far as partners go, I'd want one of them on any cliff we could face. They do seem to get into places that we couldn't, even with spider gloves and boots."

"There is that. But I don't want to look like one. I like how I look. I like who I am."

"And you'll still be you, with or without horns and a tail. I'll love you no matter what. It's only for the mission, once it's done, you can walk away and get them removed."

She pounded the pillow in frustration. "I hate this. I hate being forced into this. I knew we should've left Nextus when we had the chance. Head to Aloha, or Laurasia. Anywhere but here. Then they wouldn't have been able to get us."

Jack hugged her and kissed the top of her head, "I know. I know. But we're here now, and our choices are almost gone. This mission is our way out to freedom now, if you chose to take it. Please, read it, and try to approach it with an open mind."

He rubbed her shoulders and leaned against her, pulling her to his chest. "Frankly, the mission itself sounds like fun. It's risky, but we'd have the chance to climb a mountain in the Dry with just the RIDE on our back. When else will we get the chance to do that? To be paid to do that?"

She growled softly in frustration and pushed away. "Just leave me alone, traitor." she said, without the vehemence she wanted to put in the words.

He hugged her once more and let go. He paused at the door and looked back to Jill. "I'm bunking right next door. Bang the wall if you feel like talking about it. But please, Jill. Read it with an open mind. That's all I ask of you."

She threw a pillow at him, which he threw back before closing the door. The walls were thin enough that she could hear him walk into the next room over. She sat there for a few minutes, listening to the noises of the base and trying to sort out her thoughts. Finally, she moved to the desk and powered it up, transferring the tablet's information to the desk to review.

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Jill tossed and turned on the cot, her dreams taking her to weird places. She was alone on a wall of rock, the top lost in the clouds, the bottom lost in a fog bank. She was stretched to her limits, clinging to a lip of rock, her toes barely holding onto a lower lip. She vaguely realized she was naked without even a pair of spider gloves to hold on with. Above her, a robotic mountain goat looked down at her, standing with ease on a ledge smaller than the one her fingers were barely gripping.

The sun grew hotter, heating the rock face up. She began to sweat, and her skin turned redder, burning and actually sizzling. The wind picked up, tugging her body away from the rock face. With the wind came dust, small particles pelting her roasted skin and forcing her to close her eyes. Unable to hold on any more, she fell away from the rock face. Through blurry eyes she noted the goat was gone.

She fell from the cliff forever and ever, the clouds above and the fog below staying the same distance away even though she could feel the wind blowing through her short hair. Her blurry eyes saw a gray form pacing her fall, watching her. She knew something was expected of her, but she couldn't accept it.

Twisting in the air, she tried to get closer to the rock face, but like the cloud and fog, it stayed the same distance away no matter what she did. The robot kept pace with her, watching and finding a path that was invisible to keep pace with her.

"What do you want?" she shouted out, her eyes clear now. The robot didn't answer. "I'm not going to do it! I'm not going to let you change me!" she shouted.

She gave up trying to swim to the cliff, and just crossed her arms. Other than the wind blowing past her and the robot pacing her, crisscrossing the cliff, she'd think she was floating in mid air.

"I can wait as long as you can," she called out and started to wait. Trying to turn away from the rockface proved fruitless. Every direction she faced, it was right in front of her. Even with her eyes closed, she could still see the robot jumping down.

An eternity later, she finally gave in. "Fine. Do what you will."

The goat leaped from the rock face directly at her. It split in half, energy sparking between the halves. The energy engulfed her just as she disappeared into the fog bank and the ground suddenly appeared.

A loud thump jolted her awake just as she was about to hit the ground. She laid on the floor for a moment, trying to remember where she was. "Just a dream," she mumbled, untangling herself from the sheet. "Time!" she called out louder.

Over the desk, 03:23 lit up. She groaned. Like many Zharusians, she normally had trouble sleeping through the night. But this was the first time she'd been woken by a dream that intense. She stood up and snapped the sheet back over the bed and debated trying to get back to sleep. Her heart was still pounding, and her body was quivering from the remnants of the dream.

"Damn, gonna take me weeks to get my sleep schedule settled again," she grumbled, pulling on her shirt and pants.

Out in the dining room, she was surprised to find Patrick there, nursing a steaming mug. "What are you doing here?" she snapped before her social filter could click back in.

"Having a cup of tea, and thinking about what we're getting into," the red haired man replied, not phased by her curtness. "Rough dreams?"

"How did you know that?"

He motioned to the chair across from him, while fetching another mug. "Heard you tossing and turning in your quarters before I came out here. Care for a mug?"

"No.... Yes, thank you." Jill sat down and waited while he prepared fresh mugs. "So how 'bout you? What do you think of all this? You weren't in the military before right?"

He carried the mugs over and sat down. "Nope, civilian through and through. But this sounds great. I've been looking for new challenges, and this looks right up my alley."

She added some honey to her tea and stirred it slowly. "And you've got no problem with it? With putting your life in the hands of those machines?"

"You mean fusing? Nah, not really. Seems like it's the next step from the IDE stuff everyone's been playing with."

"But they take you over. They change you into them. They get into your mind, become you," Jill countered, repeating an old argument that she knew was false even as she said it.

"Become you? Where the hell did you hear that? Been watching too many eps of Invasion of the Fuse People?"

"Of course not. Not that trash. But they still change you."

"They do, but it's not that big a deal. Haven't you seen some of the holos from Earth? From Centauri? The animal mods we get are nothing compared to the robotics those guys are going through."

She sipped her tea and sighed, "I just don't think I can do it."

"Sure you can. Not like we have much choice now anyway. It's either this or sitting out the rest of the war in a cell somewhere. I'd rather get a cat tail and claws than be stuck in a five by five room."

They fell silent while enjoying their drinks. Patrick watched her over his mug and smiled suddenly. "You're a siester, aren't you?"

"A what?"

He chuckled, "Sorry, guess that term hasn't jumped over from Laurasia yet. It's what we called people who couldn't sleep straight through the night, so they end up taking a nap during the day."

"Yeah, I guess that would be me. Jack, he can sleep at the drop of a hat for as long as he needs to. But I'm wide awake after my seven. And falling asleep after sixteen or so. How'd you tell?"

"The way you came in here. You weren't all awake, but you were more awake than most people would be at this hour. You walked like someone who's used to getting the oh-four hundred snack."

She finished her tea. "Oh Four Hundred. The worst hour of the day. Too early to be up, and almost too late to go back to sleep. Usually I'd use this time to catch up on the 'net, but they've got us in lock down. All I can get is the news network."

"That was more annoying than being drafted. I'm missing all my shows. Jack doesn't mind being out of sync with you?"

"Nope. It works quite well for us. Gives us a few hours of private time during the day, while the other naps. Of course when we're on a climb, we sync up. We're too tired to not sleep right through the night."

He got up and took her mug and his own to the washer. He walked slowly towards the door, yawning. "Sounds like you got quite the catch. I'd love to stay up longer with you and chat, but I think my time's about up."

She stood up and stretched, "Yeah, guess I should get a few more hours of shuteye before breakfast. Thanks for talking."

He lead her back to the quarters. "No problem. Pleasant dreams."

"Same to you."

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The recruits were gathered in the briefing room, waiting. Breakfast had been quiet, everyone busy with their own thoughts. Jill had managed to get a few more hours of undisturbed sleep after her tea with Patrick, and she'd kept her distance from Jack and the others.

Sam walked in after a few minutes, wearing interface specs. He gestured in the air and made his way to the podium. "Right, I hope you all had a good sleep. It'll be your last for a long time."

He motioned to the workshop visible through the transparent wall. The tech's were still swarming over the RIDEs. "Your new RIDEs are in the final stages of start up now. Anyone have any questions before we go in?"

Everyone looked around expectantly, but no one spoke up. The recruits could tell the RIDEs were different from what they had seen before. Their stances were slightly different, less stiff and more relaxed. The cougar was turning its head from side to side, following a light held by a tech.

Sam gestured again, and the wall began to slide upward with a soft rumble. The RIDEs all turned to watch the moving wall, and then to the people revealed that way. "You know who to go to. Go meet your partners."

The other recruits moved in quickly, but Jack and Jill stayed back. Jack touched her arm lightly, "You ready for this? We didn't talk about it since last night...." he started.

"Ready? Not in the slightest. But I'm going to do it anyway. Resisting it will just drag it out longer and longer," Jill said. She turned to her fiance. "Promise me, whatever that makes me into, you'll still love me?"

He pulled her into a hug and kissed her. "Of course. I'll love you no matter what you are."

She returned the kiss and held onto him, not wanting to let him go. "I... I will too. Whatever you are."

They walked hand in hand as close to the alcoves as they could. Jill reluctantly let Jack go and stepped into Maddy's alcove. They were deep enough that she couldn't hear the other RIDEs.

"So this is it?" Jill asked the tech, looking the RIDE over.

The RIDE itself was small, not much bigger than her own short size. It had a long face with horns that swept back from its head, but no beard or any other hard light. It looked back at Jill, wagging it's bare tail. Instead of hardlight, it's metallic skin was painted white.

"I am it. Hello, Jill. I'm Maddie," the RIDE said with a female voice, with just a hint of artificial overtones.

Jill ignored her, focusing on the tech and waiting. The tech finally looked up, realizing he was being spoken to. He looked at Jill over the top of his interface glasses. "Oh, you're one of those types of people."

"Those types of people?" Jill repeated, feeling her anger rise.

"Anti-RIDEr. This mission must be important if they're recruiting you types."

"Something like that,"

The tech cleared a tablet and walked away. "Well, my job's just to make sure she's functioning properly, and that she is. The rest is between you two."

Jill glared daggers into his back, then looked back at Maddie. She looked into the RIDE's receptors, unsure what to say.

"Hi Jill. I'm Maddie," the RIDE repeated.

"Hi Maddie," Jill reluctantly greeted the RIDE. She approached the machine and touched her muzzle. "You're warm."

The RIDE nuzzled back into her hand, "I am. They told me about your reluctance about RIDEs. I hope I can convince you otherwise."

"I doubt it," Jill mumbled, and felt Maddie pause a moment. "But nothing stops you from trying I guess," she said louder.

"It's not a competition. I'll do my best to earn your respect at least. That's all I can try."

Jill nodded. "So do you know the mission?"

"I do. We need to climb a mountain in the Dry. I'm looking forward to it."

"And how much climbing have you done?" Jill grilled the new RIDE.

Maddie twitched her tail, "In the Nature Range, I've spent my entire virtual life in the mountains, with the others on our team. We five were the top climbers of each RI type that they're raising."

"And in the real? Jill asked, already suspecting she knew the answer.

"In the real, we haven't climbed anything. We just got installed into our DE's this week." She lifted a hoof and flexed it.. "We're pretty sure the DE tech will match up with what our VR bodies did, but that's why we'll be doing training."

Before Jill could ask another question, Sam's amplified voice echoed through the garage. "Please move forward, RIDEs and soldiers both."

Maddie tilted her head, "Would you like to lead, or shall I go first?"

Jill answered by stepping out, with Maddie following her. The others were already out of their alcoves. Jack was in the one next to her, with his assigned RIDE. It was small as well, with a white painted RIDE with horns nearly a metre long horns that corkscrewed up from its head. It had a metallic beard as well that hung below its chin.

Sam looked at the team and nodded. "Good, looks like you're beginning to get along. You've seen your RIDE's walker modes, let's see your vehicle modes please."

The garage filled with a hum as the five RIDEs shifted modes. All five of them were wheeled, the wheels inflating from cavities inside their bodies. Four of them were two wheeled vehicles, motorcycles of various styles that still kept aspects, usually the horns, of the Walker modes. Laura's snow leopard was the only four wheeled vehicle, the wheels swelling from her legs.

"Please mount your RIDEs. There's an all terrain track outside. Get used to how your new partners handle." Commander Cree flew a hover platform out the opening garage door. The recruits, Jill included, didn't waste any time climbing into the saddles of their RIDEs.

"See? This isn't so bad. Do you want a helmet? Due to how low powered we are, the techs advise you guys to wear helmets," Maddie said, her voice coming from a speaker between the handles.

Jill sat on Maddie's saddle, and tried to get comfortable. The cycle mode forced her to lean forward. "Sure give me a helmet."

A compartment opened just in front of the seat, holding a collapsed helmet. Jill pulled it out and activated it. It swelled into a full helmet in her hands, memory materials restoring it to its wearable form. Seeing a pair of holes already built into the top of it almost made her throw it away, but she forced herself to put it on.

"Great! Now leave the driving to me!" Maddie said eagerly, already taking off. Jill leaned forward to grab the handlebars as the wind picked up.

Sam's head appeared on the windscreen in front of her. "Good. You're all riding. I'm sending you a map of the track. It's a ten klick track with a variety of terrains. Your goal is to complete as many laps as you can within one hour. The only rule is, your RIDE may not change modes. Good luck."

His head disappeared and a simple oval map showed up, with markers for each pair.

"Ten klicks? Piece of cake," a male voice purred. A cougar face icon brightened, indicating the speaker. The cougar cycle roared and took off ahead of the pack, entering the track first. The others quickly entered the track, though Jill couldn't tell the track boundaries other than by the map Maddie kept up.

The first klick was hard packed sand, that let all of them go all out. The five vehicles stayed neck and neck, until the ground suddenly softened beneath their tires. The hard packed sand quickly became a sand dune. A dust cloud, kicked up from their wheels quickly engulfed them.

"Jill, you should put on the goggles and face mask. I'm sorry, I should have suggested that sooner," Maddie said, her wheels swelling larger to handle the loose sand. Jill coughed and felt for the compartment, trying not to breath in the dust. She trusted Maddie to keep their balance, while she took off the helmet and pulled on a filter mask and goggles. She was just clicking the helmet back on, when Maddie dropped out from between her legs.

"What the hell?!?" Jill shouted, grabbing the handlebars just in time to stay on. Ronald and his RIDE's indicators suddenly separated, though she didn't understand the implication.

"Big drop off. Very steep slope," Maddie reported, sounding distracted. "Ronald fell off Tallis, but he's not hurt."

"Whoa! Careful when you reach the bottom. Lots of boulders down here," Krystal broadcast, the four wheeled vehicle having taken the lead. Seconds later, Maddie jerked to one side, practically leaping on her wheels. A boulder as big as they were nearly scraped Jill's leg.

"Hang on tight," Maddie warned, jerking from side to side. Most of the large rocks she managed to avoid, but some of them they ended up climbing up and rolling over. "Sorry, visibility blows in here. But we're almost through, and in the lead now. Four more klicks to go."

They came out of the dust cloud kicked up from their descent, and saw a wall of sand in front of them. The boulder field ended at the base of the wall. Maddie's engine roared louder and they lept forward, twisting sideways at the last moment.

"What the hell is that?" Jill shouted through her filter. She gripped the cycle as tight as she could with her legs and hands.

"Another sand dune. Gotta climb this one." Maddie started up the steep sandy face at a sharp angle, her wheels kicking up another cloud of sand behind her.

They crested the dune fast enough to be airborne for a long moment. They landed with a splash that soaked them both, blinding Jill's goggles.

"Oh that's just nasty," Maddie said, her engine shifting rapidly.

Jill risked letting go with one hand, to wipe her goggles clear, to see them plowing through a mud zone. Puddles and pools of water dotted the area, and what wasn't covered in water was covered in thick, wet sand or clay.

"It's the Dry. Where the hell do they expect us to find water?" Jill spat out, blowing hard to clear her filter.

"They probably just weren't imaginative enough. Lap one goes to us." Maddie played a fan faire as her wheels left the mud and met dry, hard packed sand again.

They easily took the second lap too, but Maddie became overconfident. On the third lap's boulder field, she misjudged a turn and clipped a boulder with her rear wheel, sending them both flying. By the time they recovered, everyone else had passed them. Saresh easily won the remaining three laps they had time to complete.

After the race, they lined up on the hard packed sand. They were all caked in mud and sand, except where masks and goggles and helmets had protected the humans. The RIDEs stayed in vehicle mode, the two wheelers balancing easily on their wheels without a kickstand. The humans stood beside the vehicles, trying not to look like they were stretching muscles they weren't used to using the way they'd been using them.

Commander Cree flew over to them on his hover platform. "Congratulations everyone. You did about what we expected for the first go. Anyone hurt enough to need medical attention?... No? Good."

"Next, will be a new experience for all of you. When I order it, you will fuse. And you will stay fused until after supper tonight. Yes, that does mean you will have lunch, dinner, and supper while fused. " He gave them another look, then grinned. "Now Fuse!"

Four of the RIDEs shifted to walker mode briefly, before rearing back on their hind legs. Panels shifted open and engulfed the men and woman next to them. The only one who didn't respond, was Maddie. She shifted to walker, but waited, looking at Jill.

"You ready for this?"

Jill didn't answer at first. She was staring at Jack. Her fiance had disappeared into the silver depths of Maynar. Maynar himself was standing on his rear legs, balancing unsteadily on hooves. His forehooves stretched out, thick fingers growing and forming a proper hand. with dark spider-glove material on the palm. The shoulders widened, shifting the forelegs into arms. The neck stayed as thick as before, but shifted, tilting the head forward so it looked human, though the face itself stayed goat like. Metallic ears flicked and the figure shook itself, as if it was just waking up.

"How bad is it?" Jill asked.

"I'm told not-" Maddie started, only for Jill to hold up her hand.

"Jack? You in there? How is it?"

The metal goat-man turned to face her. One of his hands reached up to touch the horns that corkscrewed from the top of his head. "I'm here Jill. It's... It's hard to explain. My whole body is tingling. Yes I can hear you Maynar. But it isn't bad. I'm still me. I still love you."

She stared at him longer, trying to see her fiance in the metal man beside her. His RIDE wasn't much larger than he was; none of the RIDEs were save for Krystal. Unlike most of the other RIDEs publicized, these ones had been striped to the minimum needed to still be a RIDE. It wasn't until Jack and Maynar started moving, flexing and getting used to their new form, that she recognized the man inside the machine.

Jill sighed and mumbled under her breath. "Sooner I do this. Sooner it's over."

"What was that?" Maddie asked.

"Do it. Let's get this over with," Jill said. She closed her eyes and spread her arms.

Maddie didn't hesitate. For the first time, she reared back, feeling motors activate for the first time, new control paths opening for her, nanite controls awakening. There was a hole in her being, that had expanded and had to be filled. Filled by the being right in front of her. The RIDE took a step forward and fell onto the human, weak fields lifting the human into the hole.

Jill felt her feet briefly lift off the ground, before warmth encased her. She held her breath and sensed something closing over her body, sealing her away from the world. Her skin itched, and then tingled, like her entire body had fallen asleep. Her head ached momentarily and her senses all went off at once. She briefly saw all the colours of the world, heard all the tones that made up sound, tasted and smelled everything and felt everything, all within a split second that passed too quickly for her to quite remember.

After that, a world started appearing. It wasn't the real world, but a virtual world. She was standing naked on a ledge on the side of a mountain. The simulation was excellent, but still had the little details that nagged the back of her mind, indicating it wasn't truly real.

In front of her was a white furred mountain goat with short black horns. It was shorter than her, only about a metre tall at the shoulder. The goat watched Jill, keeping its distance.

"Hello Jill. I'm Maddie," the goat introduced herself again.

"What is this place?" Jill rubbed her head, her thoughts having a slight echo she was having a hard time getting used to.

"Our space. When we started to fuse, the first thing the nanies do is map your brain so they can hook everything up properly. Once they're in place, I can use them to speak with you privately. I'm also using them to speed up your mind so to speak, letting the nanies pass the messages instead of your brain chemicals. This quick time lets us take all the time we want while seconds pass outside."

"That... That sounds dangerous."

Maddie tossed her head. As Jill watched, the goat's shoulders widened, pulling her forelegs apart. The goat reared back onto her rear legs and stood there, even though she should have quickly fallen over. "Not dangerous. Well not too dangerous. The faster we go, the more heat builds up, but at this rate, we should have subjective hours before your meat brain cooks."

Jill rubbed her temples and felt bumps forming there. Slower than Maddies changes, she felt the bumps swell and break cleanly through her skin, forming pointed horns. "That wasn't exactly comforting."

Maddie was standing easier on two legs now, her hips having rotated to support her new stance. Small breasts grew on her upper chest, though Jill noticed nipples at the goat's belly. "Sorry, this is new for me too. My first fuse."

"Mine too. Well that was obvious." Jill looked over the edge of the ledge. The ground was hidden by a gray cloud bank. "What did you mean by this being our space?"

Maddie's head tilted forward, her neck shifting. "Just what I said. Fetters keep me from going into your mind, a concern of yours. So this is a common space we can put whatever we want for each other."

Jill shifted her hand to her jaw which ached for a moment, her chin growing slightly longer. A thick beard grew under her chin, tickling her neck. "Whatever I want? How do I do that?"

"Just imagine it and it will be."

Despite her misgivings about fusing in the first place, she found the idea intriguing. She thought for a moment while her finger and toenails darkened to shiny black, and tried to change the world. The rock face next to them disappeared, spreading out to a grassy field. They were standing on the edge of a weathered cliff. The roar of the ocean echoed up from far below.

"Wow, you don't think small, do you?" Maddie commented, leaning over the edge to look down. The smell of the sea filled the air. She shook her forehooves as her dewclaws and split hooves grew and reshaped into hands.

"It was the first thing that came to mind." Jill walked closer to Maddie, pausing a moment as her spine tingled feeling muscles twitching. She glanced back and felt as a stubby white tail grew into place. "It's where Jack and I were climbing before we were drafted."

"And before you were forced to fuse," Maddie noted, looking at her partner.

"Something like that. Am I done changing?"

"The fuse is complete, both in the real and here. How do you feel?"

Jill wiggled her tail, and touched her horns and beard. She touched her ears and felt them twitch as well. "Strange. Very strange. I mean I've got muscles on my ass to move a tail, an actual tail. And muscles on my ears to move them too. I should be freaking out, but I'm not. They feel sort've... well sort've right."

Maddie looked worried for a moment and took a step back. "That is probably part of the fuse. It adjusts your brain slightly to make this more instinctual. Not completely, but enough so you are a little used to it."

"Right. Uhm maybe we should go back to the real world. This is a lot to take in. How do I do that?"

"However you want. Maybe you can visualize an exit, or some other method of leaving, and you'll be back in real time." Maddie waved her hand and a screen appeared just off the edge of the cliff. It showed the outside view, with everyone almost in the same position as before Maddie started the fuse.

"Right. I think I know what I want to do." Jill took a few steps back and sprinted to the edge of the cliff. She lept into the air and crashed into the view Maddie had brought up.

The Real World crashed in on Jill as all her senses seemed to trigger at once, leaving her overwhelmed. She felt Maddie in the back of her head helping sort things out. Vision cleared up first, showing the rest of the fused team looking expectantly at her. Augmented reality tags popped up, identifying everyone and everything around her.

Hearing cleared up second, the incoherent noises separating and filtering. She felt her ears move towards a loud noise back on base, and Maddie identified it as weapon fire, from the firing range. Maddie helpfully identified how far away the shooter was, and how far away their target was, as well as what the target might be made of.

The smell of wet mud and oil and other scents of the base clicked in next. The smells were a little stronger than she was used to, but not as much as she expected.

Taste and touch she found were dulled. She had a bit of feel from the wind blowing across the field, but it was dulled. Only the pads between her feet and on her palms seemed to bring in detailed sensation.

:Bare metal, even cera-metal, doesn't transmit touch well. Supposedly, hardlight lets you feel more, like real skin. But that would be way too expensive for us.: Maddie said, sounding like she spoke inside Jill's head. Jill could tell the RIDE was handling most of the inputs, leaving Jill mainly with what she was used to.

:I know you don't like fusing, if you don't mind a slower defuse, I can probably undo some of the fuse traces. The techs advise against it, but I'd do it for you.:

She considered it, then shook her head, or at least imagined she shook her head. :No. I'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Don't bother slowing down defuses either. The mission may depend on it.:

:Suit yourself.:

Jill became aware of more details just on the edge of her awareness. She mentally tapped one and a variety of timers and clocks appeared, showing local time and a counter for how long since they started fusing. She was surprised that only a minute had passed.

:These are just some of the basic ones, to show my status, maps, ZPS fixes, and so forth. While training, we'll figure out more apps and other overlay options that you may want, but we'll keep it simple for now.:

:Can you let-:

"- me speak?" Jill stumbled a moment as her internal voice suddenly became her outside voice. The metallic human-animals, and Commander Cree were watching her.

The man with the corkscrew horns approached her slowly, and touched her arm. She could barely feel it.

"Jill honey, are you OK?" he asked cautiously.

She nodded her head slowly, the shape of her head feeling different; longer, and heavier on top. "I'm fine, I think. Just give me a moment."

She held out her hands, seeing them covered in white painted metal. Her fingers had thick dark nails on them, with spider-grip on her palms like she'd noticed on the others. She lifted a hand to her head and bumped into horns extending back from the top of her skull. "How-... How do I look?"

He pulled her into a hug and nuzzled her, metal scratching on metal. "You look wonderful."

"I don't feel it," Jill replied. "No offense intended, Maddie."

To her surprise, she felt something take control of her mouth and throat, "None taken."

Jill clasped her hands to her mouth. "How did you do that?"

Her hands lowered against her will. "We share our body. Wouldn't be all that good if I couldn't borrow it for a moment to speak now and then, now would it?"

Sam coughed to get their attention. "Right, if you're done now, we'll break for lunch. Remember, no defusing. After lunch, we've got some exercises prepared to test the capabilities of your fused forms. We want to make sure you can at least do what you could do before. Any deficiencies, we'll have the tech boys work on."

En masse, they started walking towards the mess hall.

"So, uhm, I'm starved. But how are we to eat without defusing?" Laura asked, waving to one of the techs as she walked.

Krystal spoke with Laura's voice. "I think we can retract the head part. That wouldn't count as defusing. Or if that doesn't work, we can just eat through our muzzle. Shouldn't be that difficult, right?"

Laura somehow managed to make the metal feline face look doubtful. "Right. I suppose so."

In the end, they didn't reveal their new faces. Patrick proved that eating with a metal muzzle was possible, and challenged everyone else to match his feat. Urged on by the techies, and a betting pool that rapidly reached hundreds of mu, no one wanted to be the first to show skin.

After lunch, the time passed quickly, though with relatively little success. The climbers had trouble adapting their instincts to heavier forms, and the RIDEs had trouble adapting to a bipedal climb.

Dinner was much like lunch, done without showing skin. The felines had burgers, while the goats got salads and breads. The dusk training was much as before; mainly meant getting the RIDE and human comfortable working together. It continued until deep darkness fell and they were using the RIDEs’ night vision.

When the final meal was laid out for them, Jack protested. "What's with all the salads? This is the third time today."

"New forms, new fuses. We're still figuring out what changes and what can be maintained. When you defuse, we'll be able to tell more clearly what your diet is," Sam explained, his own tray having a steak on it, taunting them.

"Ain't that a comforting thought," Jill said, reluctantly getting her own tray. "We'll probably all be on MRE's on the mission anyway."

After the final meal, they returned to the garage. They lined up in front of their RIDEs' alcoves. Sam walked the line in front of them. "Right, a good first day, all of you. The techs have got a lot to work with. We'll do our best to address those deficiencies we uncovered. For now, you can defuse and head to bed."

They hesitated before revealing themselves. Laura was the first to speak up after a long moment of silence. "Oh for Zed's sake. Krystal, defuse please."

The snow leopard stiffened and cracks appeared on the front of her body. The metal form peeled off of Laura, fields lifting her out and leaving her on her feet. The snow leopard reformed into her walker mode, while Laura looked down at herself. Her hands brushed over her body, finding it mostly unchanged, other than a long, furred tail. Her exploratory hands found her rounded, furry ears, and whiskers on her lip. Her shoulder length hair had gone gray with dark rosettes. She also discovered she was naked.

"Looks like someone didn't read the section on nanite safe clothing," Patrick smirked. "Go ahead Saresh, might as well go next."

His ride released him, leaving him looking similar to Laura in many ways, with furry rounded ears, whiskers and a tail. His red hair had become a tawny brown, and he was as naked as Laura was.

"What the hell?" he shouted, looking down at himself.

Laura smirked after looking over at him. She was looking at herself in a mirror field. "You forget to read that section too?" she asked.

He was trying to cover his groin, and looking around. "Someone get me a robe or a towel or something. And no, I didn't forget it. I read that section. My clothes were safe."

Saresh padded back to his alcove, somehow managing to look smug despite his metallic finish. "Guess you'll have to take it up with the fabber," he called out, swinging his tail to plug it in.

"Oh grow up; not as if we haven't seen it all before," Laura taunted. She tilted her head from side to side, studying her hair colouring. No matter how she ruffled her hair, the rosette pattern stayed true. "Rosettes. How did you manage that, Krys?"

The feline RIDE looked pleased with herself. "Persistent nanites. They'll only last a few days unless we fuse again, but it seemed like a neat idea. Do you like?"

"I love it. Thank you."

Ronald was the first hoofed pair to defuse, landing back on his feet as Tallis released him. He was still in a pair of shorts, with a stubby tail, tufted with black fur. His face seemed longer, his chin more pronounced, while still within human ranges. A dark brown beard had grown while he was fused, matching his new hair colour. Most pronounced was a pair of quarter metre long horns with thick ridges that curved from the top of his head, over his head. He twitched his ears that stood out from the side of his head while exploring them with his hands. "All in all, not so bad," he said, looking at his dark nails and moving over to examine himself in the mirror.

Maynar released Jack next, to reveal a human with similar traces as Ronald. His new horns were a quarter metre long as well, corkscrewing up from his head, tilted back and outward slightly.

Jill had her back to the rest of the group while they were released. She could hear their reactions, but refused to look.

:Whenever you're ready, Jill.: Maddie prompted her after realizing they were the last.

:Do it,: Jill said sourly. She closed her eyes and felt air on her skin for the first time since the morning. She felt a slight tightness around her chest and hips, then began to notice how the rest of her felt different. Muscles at the base of her spine twitched a white stubby tail. Her face felt heavier, something tickling her neck as she moved her head. Other muscles twitched her ears around, automatically moving them to the noises in the room. Finally, she opened her eyes and looked at a mirror nearby, seeing the last part she'd been expecting. From her head, dark smooth pointed horns grew. She rubbed the base of the horns, feeling how they grew out of her skull. Her face, other than a short white beard and a more pronounced chin, was unchanged. Below her head, she noted she was in a shiny bikini, giving her some degree of modesty.

Strong, familiar arms wrapped around her in a hug. Slightly less familiar was the hairy nuzzle she got to the base of her neck. "You look wonderful," Jack whispered in her ear.

"I feel like a monster," she said, looking away, then back to their reflection.

"You're not," Jack reassured her. "You look beautiful. Exotic. Come on, let's go back to our quarters, and we'll see we're still us."

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The days that followed kept the team busy. The first day after fusing, the humans didn't even see the RIDEs; both groups, especially the goats, were swarmed by doctors and techies, analysing how they were changed, and if they needed to go further.

After that day, it was rare they weren't fused with the RIDEs, though it was also rare to have all five RIDEs active at once. Two weeks into training, the RIDEs were as updated as the techs felt they could make it. They were swarming over the test climbs like the animals they resembled, and the tech focus shifted to gear ideas for steeper climbs.

On the third week, a new climb range was opened up for them, and the RIDEs were burdened with extra mass, to represent the nukes they would carry up to the base. The gear was refined quickly, the experienced climbers giving ideas and feedback to expand the utility. Reinforced cables, to tie the climbers together, along with pitons that the RIDEs could pound in with their hands were added to their loadouts. Like much of the rest of the project, the RIDE batteries were upgraded to the latest experimental units, with top grade sarium to make sure they would have enough power to get up and back.

Fused with Maddie, Jill reached above her head, feeling for a hand grip. The first one crumbled in her fingers, but the second one held. She pulled herself up, slammed a piton into the rock and hooked the cable to it. "We're secure!" she called down to the others. "Watch your grip. There's some rotten rock on the way."

"We noticed. Cats are coming up next." Jack called. They'd tried various orderings, and found that the male goats bringing up the rear, with Jill leading worked best. The cats were agile enough on the rock faces, but the goats were just a little better in general, for most surfaces at least.

"Three hundred metres to our goal. Two hundred lateral, one hundred vertical," Maddie said, as they reviewed where they were and where they were going. Laura climbed up next followed by Patrick.

"Piece of cake," Saresh said. "Picked out our next stage yet? This ledge is getting a mite crowded."

Jill scanned the rock face, Maddie enhancing areas she needed to before Jill had to ask. Though their relationship had started rocky, Jill was finding herself liking the RIDE, and the RIDE obviously loved Jill. "Found the next spot. Looks like it's only big enough for one of us at a time. but it's in the right direction."

"No rush Jill. I can hang out here all day," Ronald called up. He was hanging off the edge as if it was nothing. With the RIDE's, it practically was nothing; the RIDEs could hold on as long as their batteries held out, or beyond.

Jill squeezed past Laura and walked to the edge of the ledge they were gathering on. Even though it was only a few decimetres wide, she didn't hesitate, or look down. She kept a light grip against the wall, trusting their combined instincts to not fall. Maddie's toes flexed easily as they reached the edge of the ledge, the enhanced spidergrip between her hooves helping keep them up.

By nightfall, they had reached their goal, set their fake charges, and jumped off. They regrouped at the base for dinner, still fused. Other than when the techs needed to work on the RIDEs, they tended to stay fused as long as possible, even Jill. The mess hall fell silent as Commander Cree walked in. He walked right to the head of the table and looked down it.

"Congratulations guys. You've beat everything we can throw at you here. So it's time for the next phase.

"We're going to move you to a base in the Dry. Not close to Griselbrand, but there are some sites there that should prove challenging for you. We're hoping there may be a storm too."

"A storm? What do we need a storm for?" Ronald asked.

"To make sure the plan will work. We're hoping to insert you to the base of Griselbrand in the middle of a storm. It'll block their sensors. But we'll cover that in more detail when we get to Beta camp."

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The transport pulled out of the camp, mostly empty. The five RIDEs and three of the climbers were on board, along with Commander Cree. It accelerated smoothly, joining the traffic heading to Uplift.

The metallic cougar-man leaned against the wall and looked out. "So have either of you ever been into the Dry?" Patrick asked.

Jack nodded, "I have at least. Not sure about Ronald there. Our basic training included being dropped in the Dry and having to survive till nightfall with just what we had."

"Survive in the Dry? No RIDE?"

"No RIDE," Ronald said. "It's not that dangerous really, where they leave you at least. Deeper in you'd be up shit creek, but the training area is a plateau near the edge, protected enough to give you a chance."

Jack pointed out the window. The transport had left the main road and was on a path that snaked through the valleys into the Dry Ocean. "And now you can officially say you've been in the Dry."

The newbie tried not to look out the window too eagerly. "How can you tell?"

"The land. There's no more grasses or any other plant. Maybe some hardened Zharusian lichens if you look hard enough. But otherwise it's all rock. Very dry rock now."

Ronald let the feline have his moment, sipping a drink through his muzzle mask. "So Jack, I've been meaning to ask you. When are you and Jill tying the knot?"

"Aw man, don't ask that." Jack tensed and looked around. He relaxed slightly, "Don't tempt Murphy like that. Questions like that are killer."

The other goat laughed. "Never held much faith in that sort of thinking myself. So stop dodging, when's the big day?"

"Unknown now. We were going to do it in the spring, but now, we have no idea. Jill's already frustrated that we didn't just go elope to Aloha or Neo Vegas, but my parents would have disowned us if we'd gotten a quickie ceremony."

Patrick laughed, pulling his gaze from the window. "Oh yeah, that would've been deadly. My first wife, we did a Neo Vegas ceremony, and her parents cut us off. She cut me off after that."

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Commander Cree balanced himself in the next container of the truck. This one held Krystal and Maddie, along with more gear for the base. A hardlight comm screen was open between them. "Hello Ladies. I'm sure you've heard the news now, but for your RIDE's sake, I'll review it.

"We reran your medical scans and determined the abnormality we detected was just an abnormality. The techs are trying to figure out what glitched, but we may never know."

Maddie tossed her head and snorted. "I could've told you those scans were crap. I know Jill as well as she knows herself."

Jill frowned a moment then shrugged. "I guess that's true. Strange but true."

"Right, so now that you're cleared, we'll have to get you out here. There's a flitter leaving for Beta this evening. You've got two slots there already."

"Guess that won't be too bad, we only lose a day or so," Laura said.

"More or less. We're-"

Krystal was the only one to pick up the strange signal; a burst of encrypted noise on a side band. She started to broadcast an alarm, but it was too late. In fast time, she saw the rear of their container disintegrate, a fireball blossoming behind the wave of shrapnel heading their way. The floor under her paws was already beginning to buckle.

Still in quick time, she prioritized what needed to be done. Protecting the Commander was the highest priority, both from the fireball coming at them and the Dry that would follow. She lept to the frozen man, but Maddie was closer.

The goat was already in the air, her body shifting and opening up for an emergency fuse. The noise of secondary explosions reached her sensors from the front. Sam disappeared into Maddie's silver fuse chamber and the goat fell to the floor. Krystal landed on Maddie to protect the changing goat while Maddie's focus was trying to stabilize the fuse. Her claws just started closing around the shifting shoulders when the shockwave hit them, and the world went white.

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The core restarted first; running a self check. The last few seconds of memory were fragmented and almost unreadable, but there was a strong impression of danger. The processes started up to handle the DE input, and that was as troubling as the fragmented memory. Rear legs and tail were completely unresponsive. Eyes weren't starting up either, but thermosensors were active, and sending in temperatures that threatened the frame integrity. Ears only picked up the crackle of flames and screech of metal. Foreleg controls and sensors returned, returning the sensation of gripping something.

Krystal finally felt her pieces coming back together enough to feel alive again, though the self checks she was running indicated she had no reason to be. She could feel Maddie under her, in fused mode, but the goat wasn't moving. She lifted her head slightly, and tried to focus on her surroundings. Her visual resolution was shot, but she could make out flames, smoke, and shattered metal around her, and what might be sky above.

She laid there, trying to figure out what to do. The heat was starting to die down, but Maddie's signs were disturbing. She could pick up the DE's signals, but the RI was offline. The DE itself was on the verge of resetting, automatically releasing its passenger, deadly in this environment. She sent a signal, forcing it to stay closed for now, and started sending an SOS on the side bands.

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The five lions flew over the parched ground, heading to the smoke rising on the horizon. They had minimal hard light, but had painted ceramic-steel armor, painted in unique primary colours.

"I'm picking up six RIDE signals... No make that five. One just went offline. Can't tell if they're fused or not," the green lion reported.

The black lion flinched but didn't order them to go faster. He knew they were already going at their top speed. "Thanks Pidge. What can you tell from here? What caused this mess?"

"Boomex, at least four bundles of it by the looks of it. It was a two container transport, standard armor. To get that much boom, you'd need four bundles at least," the yellow lion said.

"Four? How the hell did those bitches plant four boomex bundles on a transport?" the red lion growled.

The black one was growling as well, "No clue, Lance. Heads are gonna roll for this. But after. First we've got some lives to save."

"The fifth RIDE sign is flickering. Not sure if she'll hold on," Pidge called out.

"She will. Sven, get that wreckage cooled down. Especially around the RIDEs."

The blue lion scanned the wreckage, and identified the hot spots quickly. Nozzles rose from the back of his forearms and he started to release a foam. The blue tinted foam clung to the hot metal, extinguishing some of the flames, and cooling the rest of the site quickly.

"Keith, I've got three RIDE signs up front, fairly stable. Two in the back, including the unstable one," Pidge called out. "The sixth RIDE was the driver, but they're both dead."

"Lance, Sven, you're with me up front. Hunk, Pidge, get the two in the back. Be careful, we don't know what else they were carrying."

The trio landed on the pile of smoking metal that was the first half of the transport. This close, they could all pick up the RIDE signals, giving them something to work towards. The black lion drew a glowing sword and started slicing through the armor like it was hot butter, while the other two cleared what they could.

The first victim revealed was a fused cougar. His frame was scorched and bent badly in places, but it was intact, and the fuse chamber was intact. Saresh was already reaching up once he saw the lions.

"What happened?" he asked, groggily, his voice cutting out for a moment.

"Sturmhaven bombs, planted on your transport. Your pilot's dead, but we think we can get to the rest of you. How many people were on here?" Lance asked, helping the cougar out of the wreckage.

Saresh shook his head, "Pat's out cold still. It got hot, I couldn't keep him as cool as I wanted.... How many? Three fused guys in my container. Plus a pilot in the tractor. Two RIDEs in the second. The Commander was back there too."

"No more humans?"

"No. Sam doesn't have a RIDE."

Lance eased the damaged cougar RIDE to the ground in the shade of a boulder. "If he's lucky, he has one now. Sit tight."

"Lance! Get back here! We need a hand!" Keith called. The lions were struggling to move an armored panel clear.

Together they got the panel moved off, revealing a pair of horned RIDEs. The one with corkscrew horns was out cold, the RIDE mostly offline, with the human unconscious and showing heat and shrapnel damage.

The ibex RIDE was active, and struggling to maintain his fuse form. A spar had shot through his chest, silvery blood dripping off the tip. The lions could tell that the human inside was only technically alive, kept alive by the RIDE's internal life support.

"Save him. You've gotta save him," Tallis grunted, locking his gaze on Keith.

Keith moved more wreckage away, motioning for Lance to get the offline RIDE clear. He triple checked the readings and knew it was a lost cause. "I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do. Your human's heart is gone, and his lungs have deflated."

Tallis squirmed a little, pinned by the spar through his chest. "No! He can't be gone! Meddies can restore him. Just flood me and get this damn spike out!"

Keith put his paw on the ibex's chest and did a final scan. The RIDE's systems were beginning to fail; between keeping his human in a zombie state, and fighting his own internal urges to defuse, his power levels were falling quickly. The black lion powered up his sword again, and cut the part of the spar sticking out of the chest as close to the RIDE as he could.

Sven gave him a hand to lift the ibex clear. The metal pulled free along with a flood of red blood mixed with flecks of silver. Seconds later, despite Talllis's best efforts, his fuse chamber opened and Ronald's body fell free. The ibex fell down on four hooves, then collapsed, his power levels all but gone.

Further back, Hunk and Pidge were working through the remains of the second carrier. The yellow lion man did most of the heavy moving, easily bending the softened metal out of the way. The smaller green lion kept a lock on the trapped RIDEs and human, making sure Hunk didn't make the situation worse.

"We're close. But one of the RIDEs signals is weak. I've never seen a reading like that. Power levels are steady, but data feeds are sporadic. I think its core may be damaged."

"Great. Going as fast as I can, Pidge. Which next?"

Pidge pointed to a panel, using a laser to cut parts of it. "The bad news is, it shows signs of being in Fuse mode. The human's in it."

The panel was lifted away, revealing a scorched RIDE frame. The head and chest was intact, but its lower half was completely crushed. As they watched, it turned its head towards them, a damaged ear weakly twitching, one eye shattered, the other faintly glowing. Pidge jumped down to her and cut an access panel free. He plugged into her baseline systems to get a better read.

"She's safe to move. RI is stable, but the DE's probably shot." He unplugged and passed her up to Hunk. "The other one is right here. Looks like she protected the other one from most of the damage. Get her clear then get back here."

"Right Pidge," Hunk called, already carrying Krystal to where Keith's group had left their recovered people.

Pidge began to examine the last survivor, and was shocked she was still alive, and keeping a human alive as well. Even with the protection the snow leopard had supplied, she had taken a heavy blast. All four limbs were crushed to varying degrees, and more concerning was the amount of shrapnel of all sizes that stuck out of her. His first attempt to plug in and get a status update failed; the data connection was severed before it reached her core.

The second plug got him into her secondary systems but not into her core. He was able to access her fuse status and was shocked. "Damn. It was a first fuse, and a sex change too. No wonder she couldn't do much else."

"Anything you can do?" Keith sent.

"Trying my best. Don't think we should move her until I can find her core. I can sense some of her core connections but they're maxed out, keeping the fuse stable. The human is alive at least."

Pidge started checking more connections, while staying hooked up to the working one. Most of them were dead, or just lead him back to the fuse controls. But one was a low bandwidth back channel that he could use to query the core status. What he saw chilled his blood.

"We need to be very careful here guys. Her core is on the verge of crashing. Anything could bring it down," he explained, carefully backing out of Maddie's core

"Your call, Pidge. Tell us what we need to do." The other four lions were gathered around the opening Hunk had torn open, waiting.

The green lion man carefully settled on the damaged RIDE, trying to keep his connection stable. "I'm going to take over some of the fuse controls, keep the human alive and maybe lower some of the pressure on her core. Lift us out carefully and get us to safety."

The lion team finished the rescue quickly, getting Maddie and her passenger to the same area the other RIDEs were laid out. Two man sized shapes, covered in a thermo-blanket, were set out slightly away from the RIDEs.

"So what do you think? Are they ours?" Lance asked after they'd done all they could.

"Ours? What do you mean? Its one of our transports." Hunk said.

"Maybe, but look at them. Look how damaged they all are. Our guys should be able to handle a blast like that better than those guys did. Hell, they don't even have lifters."

Keith shook his head and looked towards Sven. "It's not our place to speculate. For now, we assume they are ours. Command must have some reason for making RIDEs that underpowered. Sven, can you get a connection?"

"Got a sat coming in range now. Interference is low. Sending in a summary now and asking for orders." The blue lion gazed up in the sky, while the rest waited expectantly.

"Command confirms, it was one of our transports, and this group is ours. They send thanks for our quick reaction, and ask us to stay with them until a rescue team arrives. ETA a few hours."

"Right, that's our answer guys. Make sure our guests are comfortable. Pidge, how's your patient?"

"Stable. That's about all I can say about her. The RI could still collapse at any moment, but the human is safe."

"Right, do what you have to. The rest of you, get a shelter set up, just in case we need to separate a pair."

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Commander Sam Cree tugged at her new uniform, trying to make it feel comfortable Her proportions, and everything about her body felt wrong, but it was better than being dead. All she remembered of the explosion was a bright flash, and something warm engulfing her.

The new uniform was strange. She examined herself in a mirror and tugged at the blouse part, feeling it rub her breasts. Even the pants felt strange, being wider at her hips, and empty at the front. The medics wanted her to take more time off, but the mission still had to be done.

She rubbed her forehead, and the strangest part of her new form, a part that she would have gotten even if the RIDE had matched his sex. The tail barely bothered her at all, but the horns were an annoyance. The short, spiky horns had already wrecked her pillows, and the beard was more facial hair than she'd ever grown as a man.

With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the notes for the briefing and left her room. She was glad that Nextus uniforms didn't include high heels, like some previous uniforms had. As she entered the silent briefing room, everyone stood up. The only intact RIDEs were not fused, but were standing just behind their partners. Talis and Jill were at one end of the group, while Laura stood alone at the other end.

Sam moved to the podium, then had second thoughts. She instead pulled a chair from the table beside the podium and brought it around in front of her team. "At ease, guys. We've been through alot, and we have a lot to go through. But for this time we can be a bit less formal than usual."

She gave each person, and each RIDE a long look, both to reassure them and to get a feel for the status of the group. They were damaged, cracked, but determined.

"First, what happened. The investigation is still ongoing, but we have the basics. The explosives were planted in Nextus, and somehow got past our sniffers. We're trying to figure out how. They were from a Sturm cell that targeted our transportation lines. That cloud is being rolled up as we speak, but we're reasonably certain that they didn't pierce our own mission secrecy. It was bad luck that they hit our own group."

She focused on Tallis. "Ronald's loss is huge, and we feel for you. You did all you could for him, and we appreciate it. We don't have any medals for RIDEs yet, but there is pressure to recognize you that way. If medals are set up, you will get one. But trust me, we... no, I appreciate it."

Tallis nodded his head slowly, "Thank you. But it doesn't bring Ronnie back."

"Nothing will. I'm sorry."

The ibex backed away a little and knelt down, looking away. He didn't leave the room, but he was going back into his own mourning space. Sam nodded and shifted her gaze to Jill. "I'm afraid, I don't have any more news about Maddie. Her core is in the hands of our best techs, and they're trying to get her back, but they don't know if she can be saved. But trust me, if there's any way at all we can get her back, we'll try it. I owe my life to her, and I'm fully aware of it."

"Is there any news at all? Any hope?" Jill asked.

"There's always hope. But the news is bleak to be honest. Her core was damaged, especially her interfaces. They're trying to transfer her network to a clean core, but it's new territory. They aren't sure she'll survive the transfer, or if she'll still be Maddie after; but that's what they're trying now."

Jill wiped her eyes and tried to stay stoic. Sam let her be and switched over to Laura. "Krystal is in good shape. Her DE is shot, but the core is intact. We're rush producing a replacement as we speak, taking the opportunity to put in some enhancements we've wanted since training started. She'll be back online in three days."

Laura smiled. "That's great. Barely time for my rosettes to fade," she said trying to seem cheerful.

"Maynar, Saresh, your repairs are still ongoing, as are yours Tallis. You should be on par with Krystal when we're ready to train as a group again.

"As for the mission itself. It's still on. Three is the minimum we can do to keep it going. Ideally we'd be recruiting new people to get you back up to five, but I'm afraid that threat no longer applies." She looked at Jill and smiled briefly.

"Our own informants have uncovered further plans. A new bombing flock is being trained and will be moving to that base in a month. And more concerning, they're setting up a base camp at the bottom of the hill, with increased patrols. Construction has already started, close to where you had planned to start the climb. Too close to that spot in fact. The Alpha climb route is now off the board. We're updating to reflect the changing situation."

"So you can only get three climbers now?" Jill interrupted.

Sam nodded, "With Ronald dead, Tallis doesn't have a partner. And Maddie won't be available with the timelines we're working with now. In hindsight we probably should have separated you better while travelling. Or trained backup climbers, but we goofed. That just leaves our three intact pairs to complete the mission."

"What are our chances like?" Jack asked.

"Not as good as we'd like. Five was our ideal numbers. Four was close to five for success chances, but at three we're close to the no-go stage. Especially if we need to go up the alternate routes. The chances for deaths are very high."

Jill looked thoughtful, though she didn't seem to like the thoughts. "But four would be better?"

Sam just nodded, leaving Jill to her thoughts.

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Jill hesitated a long moment outside Jack's door unsure of her own feelings for what she had in mind. Finally she knocked on the door and walked in. Her fiance looked up, not surprised. He rolled back in his chair and motioned for her to sit on the bed.

"Hey honey, what's on your mind?"

She sat down, trying not to seem too distraught. "Everything. I... I'm not sure where to begin."

He stayed quiet, shifting to sit next to her and hug her shoulders. She hugged him back. "What do you think of the mission now? Can you do it? Can you survive?"

"I don't know. The Beta route is ugly. More rotten rock, more exposure, more all the bad stuff. We can do it I'm sure, but doing it without alerting the birds, that will be the challenge."

"Would a fourth really help?"

Jack shrugged. "Possibly. They seem to think so. A fourth person would help, give us more anchors and what not.... What do you have in mind, Jill?"

She hugged him tighter, pressing her head into his chest. He rubbed the base of her horns, looking down. "I don't want to lose you. And if you go, I could.... I want to go with you," she said.

He sat down and pulled her into a tight hug. "But you can't. Maddie's out, and no other RIDEs are available."

"There's one RIDE available. But it would be a big change. For me, for you. For us."

"A RIDE? Big change?" Jack looked puzzled before he put the pieces together. "You don't mean...?"

She nodded and squeezed him harder. "I do. But if I do it, I'd really be something else. I wouldn't be the woman you know. And it may not even work, if I can't adapt fast enough."

"I know you Jill. You'll adapt and be with us. You're too stubborn otherwise." He squeezed her gently. "And no matter what you look like, I'll still love you. It'll be a strange five years before you can change back. But we'll get through it."

She nodded and gulped nervously. He kept holding her and comforting her. "Have you approached Tallis about it yet? Or the Commander? If he... she doesn't go for it, then it's a nonstarter."

"No, you're the first. If you said no, I'd drop it. And wait for you to come back."

"It's your choice in the end. We'll work through whatever you go with."

She nodded and rested in his arms for a moment, before starting to tug at his shirt. "I think... I think I need to sleep on it. Realize what I might be losing and decide then if it's worth it."

Jack started to tug at her own shirt, not letting her go. "That's probably the best idea," he said, bending to kiss her.

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Jill stood outside the office, mentally preparing herself. Her evening with Jack had nearly convinced her to back out, but then the thought of losing him completely solidified her decision. She briefly reflected on how complicated their lives had become; a month before neither of them would have considered joining with a RIDE. Now, not only was she about to ask to join with a second RIDE, an off-sex RIDE at that. Jack himself was ambivalent about her decision; he'd experimented in college and was 'fine batting either way' as he described it, but she knew thinking about a choice and doing it was an entirely different matter.

The biggest unknown was how long it would last. The medics and techs were still trying to figure out when a RIDE sex change could be reversed. The latest news she had just read said they were now confident it could be reversed now at least, but no sooner than five years, to give the nanites and biosystems time to stabilize.

She looked at the door, hand half raised as those thoughts swung around in her head. "Staring isn't going to bring the ledge any closer," she mumbled before rapping on the door.

Behind the door, she could hear the creak of a chair as a surprised someone sat up. There was a brief clatter of tablets being moved around before a female voice called out, "Come in, Jill."

The climber opened the door and walked in. Behind a desk, her commander could have passed as her twin. Sam was still larger than Jill, and a bit more muscular and a bit more to her bust than Jill, but their horns, hairstyle and beardstyles all matched.

"How are you doing, Sir?" Jill asked, staying somewhat formal while watching her commander carefully. Sam was going through the opposite of what she was about to propose, even if Sam hadn't wanted to do it.

Sam tugged at her uniform blouse self consciously, before motioning for Jill to take a seat. "Well enough, all things considered. What can I do for you?"

Jill started to speak, and noticed Sam seemed extra twitchy; the sergeant's hands kept reaching up before she caught herself. "I'm sorry, this is very personal, but are you wearing the fabber-made underwear that comes with the uniform?"

The sergeant froze and looked across the desk. "Why do you ask, corporal?"

"Well, to be blunt, Sir, that underwear is crap. Itchier than sandpaper." She activated her own tablet and mailed some of her fabber recipes. "Try these; they're the ones I use. Much more comfortable than the cheap stuff that comes with the uniform, and easily resizable, while still being practical."

"Thank you Jill," Sam said. "But I don't think you just came here for wardrobe advice. What do you want?"

She took a deep breath and spoke quickly. "I want to go on the mission. I want to be the fourth."

"The fourth?" Sam leaned forward and clasped her hands on the desk, looking Jill over carefully. "You know we don't have a suitable RIDE for you. While we do have replacement DE's for Maddie, we don't have any properly trained RI's to put in them. How do you propose to become the fourth?"

"Tallis. He's a RIDE without a climber. I'm a climber without a RIDE. Together we can become your fourth."

Sam stayed silent a moment, seriously considering her proposal. "You realize what you are asking, right? We're not like those Bitches; we'll never force you to swap. It's one thing for a tablet pusher like me to get swapped in an emergency, but you're going to be out in the field."

"I do, Sir. I've been thinking about this for a long time. And Jack supports me too."

"That's one thing. But the important thing is you. You don't realize what it's like to swap. You've spent decades in one body, learning how it moves, how it behaves, what it can and can't do. And now, it's bulging in places where it didn't before. It's wider than you're used to, and it just moves differently. Given your mission, that isn't something we can just ignore. This mission hinges on all of you being at your peak; it could fail because you try to make a jump you and Maddie could do easily, but you and Tallis may not be able to."

"I know Sir. That's why I'm asking so soon. To give me, to give us time to adapt."

"I'm surprised you're even considering this. Considering your attitude towards RIDEs to begin with."

"I've had a change of heart since meeting Maddie. I'd rather be climbing with her than anyone else, but since she isn't available, I'll go with our friend. Especially to help save our other friends."

Sam stood up and moved around to sit next to Jill. "Are you positive about this? No ranks, off the record, not that we were on it to begin with. Just two people talking. Are you sure you want to do this? It's not a step to take lightly."

She motioned to herself. "I'm still off balance. I wake up in the morning and forget myself. When I bend forward, I see these. When I go to the bathroom, I forget for a moment which way to go. Even when I'm sitting, my pants feel empty, and like they fit wrong."

"I know, I can tell how you walk. But I'm positive about this. The risks are too great otherwise. I could never live with myself if I was sitting here while Jack, and Laura and Pat died when I could have helped them."

"They could also die because you're there too."

"We can cross that bridge when we get to it. If after we fuse, and if we aren't pulling our own weight, we'll scrub out. But at least I'll know I did my best to help them."

Sam locked eyes with her and gave her a long stare. Finally she stood up and grabbed a tablet off her desk. "Find Tallis, and propose your idea to him. If he's willing, and if the head docs think it's a workable idea, we'll let you fuse and put you back on the training schedule."

"If he approves, sir?" Jill asked, sensing they were serious again.

"You don't want to go out there, riding a partner who doesn't want to be there, do you? There's a reason why we're trying to be better matchmakers between RIDE and rider. I'll book a tentative appointment with the psychs to get their clearance and run it up the right chains. If everything works out, you can fuse tonight."

Jill stood up and saluted. "Thank you."

"I haven't done anything yet. Now go find your new possible partner." Sam put on a pair of interface glasses, and had another thought. "Oh and thank you for the recipes. I'm sure they'll be better than this sandpaper I'm wearing now."

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Jill walked out of the small office building into Beta camp's common area. It was a small camp, built in a small cavern off the edge of the Dry. A hardlight dome hid the view of the tonnes of rock that were overhead, making it seem like you were outside on a sunny day. Her own thoughts were more muddled than before. She had hoped Sam would squash her proposal outright, taking her off the hook; but the Commander had all but approved it. Getting out of the situation she had put herself in was harder now, but not impossible. She wasn't even sure she wanted out of it, now that she had gone this far.

At the far end of the dome, where the airlock led to the tunnel to the outside, Jack and Patrick were fused up and walking out to the climb courses. Krystal's new DE had arrived, but the techs were still getting the snow leopard back online.

Next to the garage, staying out of the way of the techs, she spotted Tallis's curved horns. The ibex was watching the others head out too. Jill made her way over to him, trying to think of what it would be like to have the thick ridged horns coming from her skull. Maddie's horns had been awkward enough at first, and Ronald and Jack both had complained about having trouble sleeping after his first fuse, but they had adapted quickly after a couple of days.

"Good morning, Jill. How are you doing?" Tallis asked politely once she got close enough.

She stopped beside him, close enough he could see her, but not blocking his view completely. "I'm fine. How are you doing?"

"All things considered, not bad I suppose." She was a little surprised at how much hurt she could hear in his soft spoken voice. She briefly had second thoughts about asking him to do what she wanted to, then decided to ask anyway.

"That's good, Tallis." She looked back to the airlock which was now closed and sealed. "So, what do you think of the mission? Considering what happened, and us getting scrubbed and all that," she asked hurriedly, trying to figure out how best to broach her proposal.

The robotic face turned and looked at her, tilting slightly. "Scrubbed? But I'm not scrubbed. I'm still on it. I won't be able to make it to the top, but I'll be there, helping carry extra supplies that might be needed, as far up as I can."

"You're doing that? Oh! I hadn't realized that." Jill looked away. "I guess that's an important job."

"That it is. And I will do it as well as I can."

In the back of her mind a little voice was saying it was just a robot, a machine and not a person. But the rest of her mind couldn't accept it. Tallis, Maddie and the rest of the RIDEs had all but convinced her that while they weren't human, they were more than just machines. Which made it more awkward for her to ask what she wanted to do; especially while looking at Tallis's shiny face.

"Would you... If you could, if you had a way that is. Would you want to go to the top? To finish the mission as we were meant to finish it?" she asked, keeping her gaze averted.

"As we were meant to finish it? Of course. We all wanted to tackle this challenge and beat it. But without hands, I doubt even I could make it to the top."

"You could have hands if you wanted them," Jill said quickly, almost under her breath. It was still loud enough for Tallis to hear.

The ibex paused a moment, though Jill wasn't sure if it was just a humanism or if he was actually thinking hard. "Are you offering what I think you are offering?"

She nodded, unwilling to trust herself to say more.

"But I'm a billy, and you're a nanny. You know what that means? I'm certainly not going to become a nanny for you."

Jill let out a short stress laugh. "I know that. I know what it means. I've talked to Sam and he- she is willing to let it happen, if you are willing. And if the head docs clear me, which I'm beginning to worry they won't."

He moved over so he was back in her view. "I'm sure they will. But are you sure? Why would you do this?"

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?!" Jill threw her arms up and turned away again. She shook her head and took a few breaths to calm herself while Tallis moved back to face her. "I'm sorry. I'm just getting tired of repeating myself. I'm sure I'll be doing this the rest of the day too.

"And I'm doing this because I can't let my fiance do this alone. Or Patrick or Laura or the rest of you now. You've heard the numbers. Four climbers have a much greater chance of surviving this mess than three. And while you still had a job to do, I'm stuck here without you. So that's why I'm asking. I want to be with Jack through this, or to at least do all I can to be with him."

Tallis nudged her and nuzzled her. She rubbed his metal muzzle back. "Then I'll do it," he said. "For you, and for Ronald and for Maddie. We'll climb that mountain."

Her rub turned into a hug. "Thank you Tallis."

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As Jill had expected, the rest of the day was basically filled with one question. Was she sure she was willing to do what she wanted to do. Head docs, both on base and calling in from Nextus, interviewed her. Between sessions, the rest of the base seemed to be questioning her decision. A voice of doubt continued to nag her as well, but overall, each question reinforced her choice.

By supper, she was tempted to stay in her room until Sam made her choice, but she decided to eat with the team. To her relief, there was another distraction. A shiny metal snow leopard was in the dining room, next to Laura.

"Krystal!" Jill called out, moving in and hugging the leopard.

Krystal nuzzled back, "Hi Jill. Good to see you again. I'm sorry about Maddie. I tried to do what I could."

"I know you did. She saved Sam, and she may still be saved too. I'm staying hopeful."

"So am I."

Laura rubbed Krystal's head and smiled at Jill. Her hair rosettes were bright and clear again. "So are we."

"Nice hairstyle. You were looking rather splotchy this morning," Jill taunted playfully.

Laura laughed and tossed her head, her hair glittering briefly as the rosette pattern reformed. "Yeah. Another day and I would have had to strip it. But Krystal was back soon enough to save it."

The rest of the team, including Tallis, wandered in while they were talking. Jack and Patrick looked exhausted, and their RIDEs were dusty and a bit battered. Jack hugged Jill tightly. "Thought you might be changed by now," he whispered.

Jill flicked her ear against his face and kissed him back. "Not yet. Sam's got the head docs trying to find a reason to stop me. But it will probably be after supper. Having second thoughts?"

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't. But I'll love you no matter what happens."

"Go sit down, I'll get a meal for us, and we'll wait and see what happens."

Sam walked in after everyone had finished. Jill noted the commander wasn't squirming as much as she had been earlier. She smiled at Jill and winked.

"Attention please," Sam called out. "Your attention please. As you've noticed, Krystal is back online and back with us, officially bringing us back to three climbers.

"What you have probably also heard, is we have a volunteer for a fourth. With the death of Ronald and the damage to Maddie, we had a male RIDE without a climber, and a female climber without a RIDE. We are not Sturmhaven, we would never force anyone to swap genders. But Jill has volunteered completely of her own free will. And after a thorough grilling meant to dissuade her, the psychs have decided she can fuse with Tallis if she wants to. If she does, he will start training with the rest of you."

Jill felt all the eyes in the room land on her expectantly. The little voice in her head, sensing the fight nearly lost, suddenly shouted louder. She gulped nervously and stood up. "Th-Thanks Sam. I... I need a few minutes. Tallis, could you wait for me outside?"

Tallis bobbed his head and trotted out of the room. Jack stood up and took her arm. "Let's go outside as well," he whispered.

Outside the mess hall, she fell into Jack's arms. "I don't know what to do!" she wailed.

Jack rocked her gently and stroked her hair. "Do whatever you want to do. It's your choice."

"I know. I hoped someone would say no. But no one did. What do I do?"

"Whatever you want. It's your body, no one else can make this choice but you. You could wait, fuse in the morning, maybe. Maybe it will help clear your head."

She didn't answer, resting in his arms. Her eyes were closed but she knew Tallis was nearby, waiting stoically. It felt like an instant, and it felt like forever, but she finally pushed away from her fiance. "Jack, please. Promise me you'll still love me."

He held her and kissed her before letting go. "Always."

Jill closed her eyes and tensed. "Tallis. Fuse with me."

The ibex reared back, and Jill's world went darker than dark. Her body itched all over as the RIDE engulfed her. After a moment of darkness, something became visible in front of her. No matter how she moved her eyes, it was still visible. It was a simple blue framed gray box, with two buttons labelled OK and Cancel. A sentence filled in the rest of the box.

Warning: This process will change your gender to male. Press OK to continue or Cancel to stop.

:Ha-Ha Very funny. Tallis!: she shouted into the darkness.

:Yes Jill?: the RIDE answered, still invisible, but his presence filled the space invisibly.

:Get that window out of my face.: The box disappeared, leaving darkness.

:By the time I was connected enough to show that to you, it was too late anyway. I just thought it might be funny.:

:It was hilarious. Uhm, when Maddie and I first fused, she brought me into a VR space, so we could talk in quick time while we changed. Can you do that too?:

In response, the world began to fill in. A rocky plateau formed, covered in short grasses and lightly covered in snow. The edges of the plateau dropped off sharply, falling straight down for hundreds of metres before the ground flattened out. The horizon was filled with snow covered peaks that reached even higher than their current plateau. Like Maddie's virtual world, there was something off that Jill couldn't quite identify; random patterns from nature not quite as random in the VR world.

A brown furred ibex appeared a few metres away from where she was standing, watching her. The only other landmark was a large cairn of stones piled on the edge of the plateau behind the ibex. She looked down at her naked body, but didn't feel the cold.

"Thank you, Tallis."

"No problem. I want you to be comfortable." He started changing first, his forelegs spreading as shoulders started expanding and shifting. He stood up on his rear legs, with his hips shifting around. Technically he should not have been able to stand while his body moved like that, but the VR rules bent easily for him.

In herself, she began to feel the first signs of changes as well. Her arms and legs began to burn, like she was working out. She looked down and saw her arms growing, the muscles becoming more distinct, and hairier.

"How are you doing?" Jill asked, then coughed. She felt a tightness in her throat and she had trouble speaking. Her hand reached to her neck and she felt a swelling there. When she spoke again, her voice had dropped. "Sorry... Wow I sound strange."

He nodded, his neck bending forward to make his head face forward. "You sound fine. I'm trying to keep this easy on you, as easy as I can."

She felt her head getting heavier and reached up. Her horns were getting larger, curling back and growing ridges. Her beard was getting thicker as well. She continued speaking to try and get used to her voice. "It's fine. Feels strange but this is all strange to me."

Her chest began to warm and she saw her breasts shrinking down, muscles strengthening and her areolae and nipples shrinking to a more male size. "That cairn, is that for Ronald?" she asked tentatively, curious but not wanting to step on a raw nerve too soon.

The increasingly humanoid ibex looked back and nodded solemnly. He flexed his forehooves as they reshaped themselves into fingers. "It is. When you die, it is... messy. I pulled as much of him as I could as his body shut down. But I don't know what to do with it now, so I'm keeping him in there."

Jill shuddered a moment, feeling a pressure on her hips. Looking down she felt a tingling at her groin, her hips smaller, and a penis growing from her female slit. She looked back up and tried to ignore the feelings at her groin. "That... That is strange to think of. That you can do that."

"I probably should not have mentioned it. But you asked, and I don't want to lie to you." Tallis was standing straight up now, flexing his hands and stretching a little. "I almost forgot. Thank you for doing this. While being a pack goat would have been fine, I wanted to see this to the end."

Jill gulped and nodded a little, looking the ibex over. Now that he was standing, he could see the goat's maleness in a furry sheath. He looked down at himself and was relieved that his own new member was human. "You're welcome," he said. "We both wanted the same thing in the end. I think we all wanted this to some extent. Are we done?"

Tallis looked him over and nodded. "The fuse is complete. I could release you now, but if we spend more time here, you might get used to the basics before you go back to the Real."

"Good idea. Will what I learn transfer over?" Jill took a couple of steps and winced before adjusting his stance. "Yeah. Very good idea."

Tallis smiled and sat down to watch him. "It won't fully transfer over, but enough will so that you won't fall on your face, or pinch yourself too badly."

Jill managed to get a few more steps without hurting himself. "Could you give me a pair of shorts in here? And a bra- err wait, guess I don't need that anymore."

In quick time, he practiced basic movements, slowly getting a feel for how he moved now. Tallis projected an outside view that showed them slowly moving back into the mess hall. He vaguely heard Tallis talk, but he ignored it, focusing on a virtual climb the ibex made. Eventually, he felt the headache starting from using quick time too much.

Tallis slowed them back down to real time, and triggered the defuse. Jill stumbled forward, grabbing a table for balance while hearing the Ibex drop down onto his hooves. He shivered a moment, the chilled air of the base cold on his bare chest.

"Jill? How do you feel?" Jack asked, having waited for him.

Jill stood there, holding the table for balance as he mentally felt his body without the fuse nanite interface. Tallis had managed to adapt his clothes into a simple pair of shorts that hung loosely around his waist. Even with the VR training, his balance felt off from the redistributed weight of his body; more on his head and at his groin, and less at his chest.

"I'm... I'm OK." Jill said, coughing again and trying not to force his voice higher. "How do I look?"

He felt arms around his shoulders and Jack gently turned him around. His fiance kissed him, then hugged. "You look fine. Would you like me to help you to your room?"

"Yeah. I think I need that. Spent a lot of time in quick time trying to get used to this. My head's pounding, and I need some rest. Thanks Jack." He hugged his fiance again, and looked around, noticing the sergeant was still there. "Commander. Thanks for allowing this."

Sam nodded and stayed seated. "I should be thanking you. If you pull this off you may have saved the mission. But that's still an if. Go get some sleep, and report to sickbay when you wake up for a thorough check up."

Jill saluted, his hand bumping into his ridged horns. "Yes sir."

"And thanks for the fashion tip earlier. This is much more comfortable than what I had before. I'm sure Jack can help you pick out something to fab for yourself."

"I'm sure he can. In the morning. Night Sam."

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Jill's first night as a man was an uncomfortable mess. He quickly discovered all of his usual sleeping positions didn't feel right any more. He tossed and turned in bed, pinching his groin and feeling empty on his chest. Most embarrassing was a late night call of nature. Half asleep, he sat down as he'd normally done, and soon found himself spraying the stall door. His expletive was almost loud enough to wake the base.

After cleaning up his mess, he went to the cafeteria to try and find a drink to calm himself. He wasn't entirely surprised to find Patrick already there, with a mug of hot chocolate.

"How long have you been up?" Jill asked, taking the offered mug.

"Long enough to get this ready. And to hear cursing that would make a Franciscan blush." The cougar man sat across the table from Jill. "I take it you had a bit of an accident."

Jill sighed. "Just a little bit of one. I wasn't awake enough to think straight, let alone aim straight."

"Well, you've only had it a few hours. I know guys who've had it all their lives who still miss." He smiled at the new man, and Jill couldn't help but giggle. "So what are they doing to you tomorrow?"

"Docs, docs and more docs. They're going to be poking and scanning and sampling me for most of the day as far as I can tell. Along with stretching me and pushing me and making me run and walk and who knows what else. All to make sure Tallis put me back together properly."

"Sounds like fun. But it's just one day. I'm sure they'll have you two on the cliffs soon enough."

"If it all works out, yeah, I should be out soon." Jill tried not to sound doubtful. "I'm going to be in the gym when they aren't working me over. Tallis has helped me in VR space, but I need some Real experience to trust myself. To trust ourselves out there."

"Any regrets?"

Jill laughed. "Every time I pinch myself between my legs. But otherwise?" He paused and thought carefully. "I don't know. If I get scrubbed, then maybe I'll regret it, but no I guess not. Not when it means I'm climbing with Jack."

Patrick chuckled, "Well, we'll see if you still feel that way when you gear up."

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He woke up to find someone had been in his room while he was asleep. A small pile of just fabbered clothes was on the desk. Jill spread them out, finding a pair of boxer-briefs, a pair of jogging pants, a loose t-shirt and a pair of socks and sneakers. Underneath was a note from Jack, that he read while getting dressed.

Got your new sizes from Tallis. Made these up for your first day. Don't let them drain you too much. Love yah! -- Jack.

Keeping them from draining him too much turned out to be harder than Jill expected. As he expected, he was poked and prodded and sampled through most of the morning. The sampling was the hardest part; peeing in a cup had been hard enough, but when they'd asked for a semen sample he'd almost called it quits. But after an awkward time alone, he managed to get a sample for them.

Numerous times, practically every other new person who talked to him, wanted to know if he wanted to change his name, and he declined. Having answered to 'Jill' all his life, he didn't see the need to change it now.

After lunch, they had him in more familiar territory. He was in the base's small gym, running laps, lifting weights and doing other exercises. While the movements were familiar, his body was unfamiliar enough that he was off most of his pre-change targets. Raw strength was the only improved ability he noted, and it wasn't offset from his decreased flexibility.

Jill was poking at his dinner, trying not to think of how bad he'd done in the gym, when the rest of the climbers walked in. Patrick nudged Jack and whispered to him, before he and Laura headed to the fabbers. Jack hugged Jill from behind, before starting to rub his shoulders. "How was your day?" he asked.

Jill leaned back into the familiar touch. "Rough. I can't do half of what I used to do. Or even half of what you can do. I hate to say this, but I'm beginning to doubt I can do this."

He kissed the side of Jill's neck and sat down. "This isn't you Jill. It's only the first day. Not even a full day yet even. It'll take time for you to adjust, and to retrain your meat and your mind."

"Time we don't have, Jack. You've heard Sam; You guys could ship out any day now. Soon as conditions are right, you'll be out there and I'll be sitting here fretting."

"Ignore her. She's just trying to pressure us. Pressure we need, granted. But we're still weeks before we'll have any real chance with the beta route. With or without you."

Patrick sat down across from the couple, Laura next to him. He slid a tray over to Jack before digging into his own meal. Jill noted how the others tried to act normally, and took a deep breath before speaking again. "So how are you guys doing out there?"

"Horribly," Laura said cheerfully, digging into a plate of pasta. "There's a reason no one's tried to climb the Beta face of Griselbrand before, and we're finding out why."

"No one's tried to climb Griselbrand period before now. But yeah, it's looking as bad as we feared," Patrick expanded. "At least the Alpha face was away from the Dry. Beta's got full exposure, and it's been turned to a swiss cheesy mess."

"Sam's crews have managed to duplicate it well here. If it's anything as bad as what she's got us crawling over now, it's going to be quite the challenge," Laura said.

Jack squeezed Jill's hand a moment before picking up a burger. "In other words, train hard, dear. We're going to need you out there." He shifted his focus to his meal. "We're off now, for the rest of the day. So once you and I are done eating, we'll go fab up some climbing gear for the new you and start on some walls here."

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Jill hung onto the cliff face, muscles in his arms and hands burning as he tried to figure out where to go next. His feet, clad in climbing shoes, were barely holding onto a lip of rock a few centis wide. His left hand was bare, without even a spider glove. It was holding onto a similar lip of rock while his right hand probed for a stable grip.

Without warning, his right foot slipped, putting all of his weight onto his finger tips. He scrambled with both limbs, trying to get either one onto any sort of support, but the grip of his hand gave out first. He cursed as he fell away from the rock face, a safety rope catching him and lowering him back to the ground.

"Damnit! I should have had that!" he cursed, rubbing his aching hands. "I just couldn't hold on any longer."

"Well you do mass a bit more than you used to. You're stronger because of it, but you need to find your new limits. The old you would've scrambled over that section without a second thought. But the new you needs practice. You should've gone another metre higher and you would have had more suitable grips." Jack rubbed Jill's shoulders, while turning them back to the climbing wall.

Jill studied it and sighed. "You're right. I fooled myself. Still thought I was the old me, and I could go that route. Damnit. I'm just going to be a liability for you guys at this rate."

"First day remember?" Jack nuzzled his fiance, their horns rubbing together. He hugged Jill and rocked him gently. "You don't even know what your limits are yet, let alone how to adjust to them. Give it time."

He pulled away from the markhor man and started chalking up his hands. "Right. No time to waste then. Shake up the face again."

Jack sighed softly and stepped back. He hit the randomize button on the controls near the door and the hardlight rock face flickered. A new, randomly generated climbing surface was made, with flags to indicate where to start and where the finish was considered.

Jill jumped up on a flat rock that served as the starting point. He took a deep drink of water, then studied the hardlight surface. He stretched again and reached up, finding a thin ledge and pulling himself up to start his next run.

An hour later, his arms and legs were burning, but he was hanging off the edge of the destination plateau. He adjusted his grip and grunted loudly, pulling himself up. He felt a brief bit of pain as his hips momentarily caught the edge, but he pushed through and rolled onto the plateau. Hearing clapping, he looked up to see Commander Cree standing there, her back to the true wall.

"Congratulations. Glad to see you haven't entirely lost your skills," she said, clapping politely.

"Thanks. I think. What are you doing here?" Jill asked,

Sam gestured in the air, and the cliff faded away. A simple platform lowered them to the ground before it disappeared. She took her interface glasses off and pocketed them. "I came here to tell you the news personally."

"What news?" Jack asked, handing Jill a towel.

"Jill's been cleared. He'll start training with you tomorrow." Sam locked Jill in her gaze. "In fact, in light of everything, while we applaud your initiative to start climbing again, we'd prefer you refrain from doing much more without Tallis."

Jill sputtered on his water bottle. "Come again? You don't want me to climb?"

"Not without Tallis."

"But why? The entire point of getting us was to make sure our instincts could be used with the RIDEs. Since she changed, Jill's instincts are shot," Jack protested.

Jill gave him a cold look, but nodded in agreement.

"His skills and instincts are important. But they'll be confused enough learning to climb with Tallis. You shouldn't have much time to climb RIDEless anyway, after today. We're increasing your training."

"Oh joy. Sounds like a blast," Jill grumbled. "At least I finished one face. Even if it was one of the beginner faces."

"Actually it was intermediate. Not the challenger types we used to do, but not beginner. I wouldn't insult you like that, honey." Jack smiled.

"In any case, this aspect of the gym is now turned off. If any of you want to climb, you need to do it in your RIDEs." Sam motioned for them to start for the exit. "Rest up, and see you in the morning."

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Two weeks later, Jill and Tallis found themselves on the training wall. They were studying the cliff face with Tallis's sensors, trying to find the next handhold. Regular vision was useless, between the moonless night and the battering sand storm pelting them. Commander Cree had seemed especially joyful when those two circumstances had coincided.

:I'm backing up. We'll never get up on this side. Need to find another spot to go up.: Jill said over the comm channel. Their climbing rope had fibre cords threaded through it so they could communicate privately without twigging Sturmie sensors.

:Roger. We've got you.: Pat said. The cougar was next in their line, watching Jill and Tallis climb.

:Come back to me. I think I see another way from my position. Alpha target won't work, but this should be a straight shot to Beta.: Jack reported. In VR space, he pointed out the route, while Jill and Pat began to backtrack.

:I considered that route. But the ledge looks rotten. It probably won't hold your weight. Not with the packages.:

The initial plan was that each RIDE would carry their own package on the climb, but early in the training, the climbers had nixed that idea. The advantage of having a couple lighter RIDEs on point to probe the path and lead the way more than outweighed the risk of having all the nukes in too few baskets. Jill, even after fusing with Tallis, was still the smallest of the bunch, so Tallis had been promoted to point, with Pat and Saresh, carrying one bomb, as their backup. This left Maynar and Krystal to transport a pair of nukes each.

:That ledge is rotten, but it looks more solid further on. You and Saresh should be able to make it over there no problem. And then we'll either ferry the packages up to you, or Krystal and I will be hauled up by you two.:

Jill considered the situation a moment, and checked the mission timer. :Fine. Let's give it a shot.:

An hour later, the first package was placed and a more urgent timer replaced the mission timer. Each bomb was on a timer that they wouldn't be able to stop once it was started. They had to get the remaining bombs placed and get off the mountain, or their own survival would be in doubt.

:Five is the ideal number, but four will suffice. Can we make it?: Laura asked. They were in VR space, their RIDEs personas behind them as they studied their simulation of their training zone. The bomb timer wasn't set yet, but it was one button push away.

:Hard to say. We need to get to that south face, and it ain't gonna be easy.: Pat noted, sketching a box around part of the model. :It's pure rock. No ledges, no handholds, even with spider gloves.:

Jack spun the simulation around. :Going north, we can hit those two sites quickly. But we'll have to cross dangerously close to some of their sensor pods. Not to mention the main path from base camp.:

:The storm should shield us from most of the sensors. And there shouldn't be much travel going on. Especially this time of night.: Jill countered. :I say go for it. We'll lose too much time tracking and backtracking across that flat face otherwise.:

:Dawn's coming fast. And I think the storm's dying down. We need to move fast.: Laura said, her VR form dimming as she glanced around the Real.

Jill pulled a cable out of the sim-bomb, and a timer started counting down in VR space. The bomb itself had no visible displays, and would be programmed to go off if anything was inserted in its connection slot. He covered it up with a brown sheet that would serve for simple camouflage.

:We're taking the easy way. Let's move out guys.:

A few hours later, two more of the bombs had been dropped off, the storm was a memory, and the sky was beginning to brighten with false dawn. Jill was pressed against the rock face, holding a camo blanket over his body and looking down. The simulated base camp was below them, and this was the main path between the two camps. Without active sensors they had to take a risk crossing this path. He mentally flipped a coin and made the call.

:We're almost done. No point in risking all of us. Laura, take Jack's package. It'll be safer if it's just two of us now. Pete, Jack, you two start backing up and find a safe spot to jump. Then get off this mountain.: Jill ordered.

Pete started to object but Jack silenced him quickly. Maynar and Saresh loaded the second remaining bomb onto Krystal.

:Good luck,: Jack sent as he disconnected the lines.

With just two, skittering across the path was a simple matter. Once on the other side, they were able to make it to the penultimate site.

:So, just us girls now.: Laura noted while Krystal was setting the bomb. :How does the other side feel?:

:Stranger than I expected. Same in many ways, different in big ways. More intense but more focused.:

:Have you and Jack... ?:

:NO!: Jill's blushed showed in their VR space as he squirmed. :Honestly, I'm not sure what we're going to do. He says he's fine with how I am now, but that's now.: Jill sighed and looked away. :In any case, we're staying celibate until the mission is done.:

:So you've just been playing solo?: Laura was turned away but Jill could sense her smirk.

:Pretty much. Playing with Tom and his four friends. And some friends from the fabber.:

:Is it as messy as it seems?:

:More. So much more. That second night, I just tossed the sheets into the recycler.:

:Well I've heard that the hormone imbalance makes the first few times after swapping rather intense.:

Jill checked on the RIDEs' work. :You sound like you speak from experience.:

:Just a little. I didn't care to fuse myself, no offense Kryst. But I didn't mind other fusing. I had a few friends who changed camps, and they were lots of fun those first few weeks. And I tried both camps so to speak.:

:Right. I think we're good. You know we should do this when we go live. The hardest part of the mission is the initial climb. Once we get the first one placed, split into two groups with two each and go from there.: Jill mused.

:Bring it up in the debriefing. We should just have time to place the last one before jumping.:

Soon after, they had the final bomb placed, with enough time left on the timer. The sun was well up, but the need for subtlety was all but gone. They moved away from the final spot, where they'd seen a lip and checked each other's gear. Finally, they disconnected their lines, and gave each other thumbs up. Krystal leaped off first, followed by Tallis.

On their backs, hardlight emitters lit up. Wireframes surrounded them, and solidified into a gliding surface, while simulated alarms picked up the increase in energy. The hardlight escape was planned to get them out of the blast zone as fast as possible, while also providing a distraction to keep the Sturmies from looking too close to home.

Halfway down, they were knocked out of VR, and the humans were tossed back into their own heads, floating in isolation with no inputs at all.

"Tallis? What happened?" Jill asked, his eyes straining for any input at all. He couldn't even sense his head moving, if it actually moved.

An eternity later, a light appeared, along with a beep. His senses and connection back to Tallis came back online.

:Are you OK, Jill?: Tallis asked. The outside view showed the ground very close.

:I think so. What the hell was that?:

:A training test. When the timer expired we were to simulate the effects of an EMP. Though we're hardened against them, we wanted to show you what it might be like in a worse case situation.:

:That was... scary. I didn't realize how much you control what I see. It's scary. Are we safe to land?:

:Landing now. Simulation complete.: As Tallis spoke, Jill felt his legs bend and they hit the ground. The hardlight wings faded away while Jill settled himself. He spotted Krystal nearby. The leopard saluted him and pointed.

"That was a nasty surprise they set up. The skimmer back to base is over there," Laura shouted.

"Tell me about it. Let's get back for the debriefing, so we can hit the showers and get some sleep." Around him, Tallis opened up and reshaped into his bike mode. Jill took hold of his horn-handlebars and they roared off to the skimmer. A pair of dustclouds boded the arrival of Jack and Patrick from the other end.

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Commander Cree looked at the fused team while she gathered her thoughts. The cut of her uniform still felt wrong after wearing it for weeks, but she was starting to get used to it. She put down her tablet and cleared her throat. She felt four pairs of sensors focus on her.

"Good morning everyone. I know you've been training hard, handling everything we could think of to throw at you. As you know, we're in a fight against time. The longer they have to get those camps set up, the harder your mission will be. At the same time, we're trying to time it with a storm so you can have some cover as you go up.

"Well after seeing you in action, it's time to move on. More training would be a waste and may even be counterproductive. Over the next couple of days, we'll be moving you to the staging spot, about two hundred klicks from Griselbrand. The bombs and the rest of your gear have already been moved there.

"In light of what happened last time you guys moved, we are not going to send you all at once. But we also don't want to have a lot of traffic going there. So we'll send you in pairs. Laura and Pat will ship out today in three hours. Jack and Jill will go tomorrow. This will be the last time I speak to you until your mission is complete."

She held each of them in her gaze for a moment. "On behalf of Nextus, thank you for what you are about to do. After seeing how you all work together, I have no doubt that you will succeed. Good luck, and blow that Sturmie base off the face of Zharus."

The climbers celebrated for a moment before Jill calmed them down and stepped closer to the sergeant. "Thank you, Commander. It's been rough, but we're more than ready for this. Nuke fried chickens will be all that will be left of that nest."

"I know you will. An inventory of what's at the cache is in your accounts. Review it, figure out if you're missing anything. Once Jack and Jill leave, nothing else will be sent there."

"Understood, ma'am," Jill said.

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Jill sat in the armored transport, fused with Tallis, studying the view outside through the transport's sensors. There were three transports in their group, along with the RIDEs that were going with them for protection. The transports were heading for a Nextus base set up in an ancient canyon deep in the Dry. Jill and Jack would be leaving the transport long before it got to that base, to set off on foot to their own base camp.

"Hard to believe we're actually out here now. Hard to believe anyone could be out here. It's not even midday and these temperatures are already peaking over 60." Jack said.

Jill looked over at his fiance, studying the metallic markhor that covered him. "If you want to rest easy, don't look at the rad levels." he replied.

The markhor shuddered a moment. "Too late. Dayam. People willingly come out into this?"

"Q's the new wonder material, at least for us. The Q must flow." Jill refocused outside. The transports were crossing a scorched plateau. There wasn't even much dust; the winds having blown all the loose dirt away ages ago. Occasionally he caught a quick flash that was gone before he could focus on it. He knew the flashes were their armored guard, hidden behind hardlight cloaks.

A metallic raccoon man entered their cabin. He started checking over the pack Jack was wearing. "Forty-five minutes until your drop off. We aren't stopping, but we'll be slowing for our descent down from this plateau. You guys have everything?"

"If you say we do, Rocky." Jack said, waiting patiently while the checks were done.

"Any sign of trouble?" Jill added.

"Skies have been clear. Those bitches don't usually bother this route, especially during the day. Target's too small, with too many teeth to be worth taking on. Plus they just launched an attack further west. The rest of this stuff will be going to picking up the pieces there, but it also means you should be able to get where you're going safely." Only Jill and Jack, or more specifically, Maynar and Tallis, knew exactly where the staging ground was. All the transport crew knew was where their extra passengers were to get off. "Make sure you guys are topped up before you get off."

"Already done. Power levels are at 95% and steady," Maynar said. Despite all the training they'd done, Jill still found it strange when the RIDE spoke with Jack's voice. When they were on the mountain, it wasn't as disturbing, but when he didn't have any other distractions, it was disconcerting. In his own mindspace, he could sense Tallis's presence, but the ibex stayed silent. Their relationship, Jill found was puzzling. They got along well enough, both when separated and when on the mission. But when fused, Tallis seemed to keep his distance, and rarely did anything beyond managing the background stuff. Jill didn't mind it too much, but there were times he missed the familiarity he'd had with Maddie.

Rocky finished checking Tallis's loadout and slapped them on their backs. "Good. You're both good to go now. Go give those bitches hell."

"Planning on it," Jack said, Maynar's face folding back to show his grinning face. "Thanks Rocky."

Shortly after, the two goats were crouched behind a boulder, waiting for the dust of the transports to settle. They stayed silent, eyes and other passive senses scanning the valley they were dropped off in for anything suspicious.

"Looks clear." Jack announced quietly. They were speaking, not wanting to risk using radio yet.

Jill finished his own scan and nodded. Tallis quietly brought up the first part of their route to the camp. "I agree. Let's go. We've got two hundred klicks to run before nightfall."

The pair dropped down to the floor of the valley, and started running.

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"It's around here somewhere," Jack said.

They were at the edge of a sandy region. The sun was setting to their backs, and illuminating the eastern range of mountains that separated the Dry from the inhabitable east coast. Following the route the RIDEs knew, they had easily made the run in the expected time, never seeing any other signs of humans. Even the skies stayed clear, whatever flyers lurking up there were too far away to spot.

Now they were crouched in the shadows of a dune, checking their position and planning to search for the entrance to the camp.

"I'm trying to get a better reading with the sats, but there is a lot of interference, both natural and artificial," Tallis said, speaking with Jill's voice. "Still, I concur, this is where we need to be."

Jill took over, fighting back a moment of irritation. "We should start spiralling out. They know we're coming and they should be watching for us."

"What if we can't find them before the sun sets?" Jack asked.

"We've got our orders. If we aren't in the camp before sundown, find something to hide under and go into low power mode. So keep an eye out for a good spot. But if we're where we should be, that shouldn't be a concern. We should have more than enough time to find them.

Travelling in daylight only had seemed like a strange set of orders to Jill, but after they had moved to Beta camp, he had realized the advantage of them. While in daylight, they were more visible visually, the heat and rads kicked up from the star helped shield them from longer range sensors. At night, the air calmed, and cooled down enough that an active RIDE, even a low powered RIDE like they were using, would be spotted like it was broadcasting a "Here I am!" signal.

They started a few hundred metres apart, and used their RIDEs to plot their course to cover as much ground as they could. It wasn't long before Tallis spoke up. "I'm picking up a signal. Very low powered, directional, and encrypted."

Jill stopped and waved for Jack's attention. He stopped and looked at his fiance for their next move.

"Encryption matches what we were told to expect. Decoding the message... Message matches the query we're expecting. Shall I send the counter message?"

"Go for it," Jill said, waving for Jack to join her.

The sand a few metres away from them shuddered, and a metallic head with big ears poked out. It pushed more sand away, revealing a short tunnel, and an even shorter mouse RIDE. The RIDE was dusty, and female, with no hardlight on her scratched surface. Jill realized the woman, even fused, was shorter than he had been before the attack.

"You must be Jack and Jill. Welcome to the Sandbox. Come on in, make yourself comfortable. The rest of your team is already here. Someone back home must be laughing, sending the two cats here first." She turned around and crawled back inside.

Jack shrugged and motioned for Jill to lead. "Former ladies first," he said.

Jill rolled his eyes and dropped to his knees to crawl in. The tube was tight, their shoulders and horns scraping against the spongy walls of the tunnel, but it quickly opened up into an opaque dome. The mouse woman was standing up and walking to the cougar and snow leopard who were lounging at the far side of the dome. Jill stood up and immediately dropped to his knees; the top of the dome was too short with his horns.

"Hey guys. You find the place OK?" Pat waved from his seat.

Jack tried to stand up, and similarly dropped back down. "Eventually. The signs had blown over, but we found it."

"Can't we defuse?" Jill asked, finding a spot to sit in the crowded dome.

The mouse scrounged around in some boxes. "The dome's enviro sealed, so you could if you want. But it adds another body in an already tight space. They say you should try to defuse for an hour or two each day, just to let all the systems settle back to normal, but I'd suggest doing that when you go to sleep. Less moving around."

"I'll take that under consideration," Jill said dryly, triggering the defuse. He stood up and stretched next to the ibex.

The mouse gave him a cold look and passed around drinks. "Right. Now it's the waiting game. We've got two weeks of supplies, to hopefully have a suitable storm come through. But it's your call when you go.

"Ten Mu tour of the place. Bombs are stored in a secondary dome just next door. The psychs figured that sleeping in a room with five nukes might be bad for your mental health. Kitchen's over there, bathroom is over there, remember to pull the curtain. Beds are wherever you crash out. And that's about it. I'm Mindy, my mechanical half is Maxine. And this is the Sandbox."

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Jill sat at the base of the dune that hid their base, looking eastward at the rising sun. Technically they were doing watches to make sure nothing snuck up on them. Practically, it was to give them more space in the dome to maintain some sanity. The first week had gone by and the Dry Ocean had been annoying them by having clear skies.

Saresh shook himself as he climbed out of the hidden entrance and made his way over. Jill spread a camo blanket for him to hide under, to prevent any wayward flashes of metal. "Where's Pat?" Jill asked.

"Still sleeping. We might want to get all the rest we can get." the cougar said.

Jill perked up, and had a feeling Tallis was getting more data through the RIDE channels. "What's going on?"

"There's a storm coming. A big one that's going in just the direction we want it to go. May be too big even."

In the corner of his eye, Tallis brought up the weather map. The storm wasn't coming in at an ideal angle, but otherwise it seemed perfect for their needs, including when it would hit the mountain range.

"Perfect. Let's get back inside. We have to prepare."

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"We've gotta be getting close right? I can't see a thing." Laura complained over their link.

"The land is starting to rise, and we should be at the base of Griselbrand," Jill answered, double checking their maps. He tried to put some confidence in his voice.

The group had left the Sandbox soon after news of the storm came in. Instead of risking discovery going directly to the mountain, they had jogged to the storm and were now following it to the mountain range. Jill was leading them, trusting a spotty ZPS signal and Tallis's own navigation tools to make sure they were going in the right direction. With no visibility, and the winds steadily chewing down their power cells, it was a lot of trust.

Jill kept the group still for a long moment, partly sheltered against a rock wall. Tallis steadily refined the ZPS signal until finally he showed their location. "Right on track," he said proudly.

"Good," Jill answered before switching to the group-wide channels. "This is it guys. It's all uphill from here. Ditch those empty cells here and get into climbing mode. We don't know how long the storm will last, so we have to make the most of it."

The team quickly swapped in fresh power cells for their RIDEs, and buried the partially spent ones, along with everything they wouldn't need on the climb or the descent.

The first part of the climb was simple; just scrambling over the scree at the base of the mountain, but they took it carefully. Their paranoia was quickly rewarded.

"Hold up Jill. I'm picking up something right in front of you," Pat warned them.

Jill peered ahead, trying to see what Pat picked up through the storm. "What do you see Pat?"

"A power source of some sort. Very weak. I think the storm's shorting it out."

The ibex found it quickly. He found a fresh rockfall, with a wrecked weapon pod in it. Jill studied it carefully before bringing the others in. "I think this proves we're in the right spot at least. The storm must have knocked it loose. Take a look, this is what we don't want to bump into up there."

Krystal moved in closer and did some scans of her own. "Simple enough model. Had we more time, I could probably hack them. But for now, we should be able to avoid them easily enough."

"If we're lucky, they've gotten slack on the rockwall defenses and let them all fall apart," Pat said hopefully.

"Don't count on it. Make sure it stays dead, and let's keep going." Jill ordered.

The climb itself got harder as they reached the vertical surfaces. The storm held up, keeping them covered, but slowing them down. They found three more weapon pods, two of them wrecked. The third nearly activated as they skirted by, until Jack smashed a piton into it.

Jill stopped them just below the edge of the plateau. He peeked over the edge, and saw nothing. The storm blew up the cliff and over the top of it, engulfing the entire mountain. He let his eyes unfocus a bit, and finally saw a glow towards the center. He dropped back into VR space while Tallis backed them off the edge.

"Visibility is still virtually nonexistant. But the edge is just up ahead. I can just make out a glow of their hardlight dome through the storm," he reported.

"Excellent. That means the hard part is over, right?" Pat asked.

Jack nodded. "It should. You figure out where we are around the plateau?"

Jill showed a map from their records. He lit up their own spot. "We've drifted a little more than I would have wanted to, but we're still fine. We can keep with the plan. We drop the first bomb here, and the rest at these spots."

"If we keep with the plan, one group will have to go across the base camp. We going to modify it?" Laura asked, highlighting the spot.

Jill shook his head. "No, we'll take the risk, and hope the storm will keep going. We'll set the timer on all five nukes now, place the one here, and split up. Laura and Pat, you'll head west and get your two placed. Jack and I will go east, and take the risk. Watch the timer and don't take any risks. Leave the bomb and jump early if you have to. These are just ideal places, but five nukes going off on top of here should do the job no matter what. We just want to make sure the job is done right."

With well practiced movements, they set the timer on all five bombs. Saresh's bomb they planted against the cliff face on the ledge they had rested on. They met in VR space for a final time before breaking up.

"Remember guys. Safety first. Move quickly, but move carefully. Stay below the edge of the plateau to minimize risk of discovery. And if the timer's getting down, just drop it and jump." Jill ordered, looking especially at Laura and Pat.

"Yes mum," Pat said, grinning. He got serious again. "You be careful too. You two are going to be jumping away from the Dry. That's gonna make it harder to get away."

"We know. We're prepared," Jack said. "When the lions rescue you, make sure you tell them where we expect to come down."

Laura hugged Jill briefly. "Be careful. And good luck."

The felines disappeared from the VR space as the lines were disconnected. The fused pairs exchanged looks through the storm, and moved away, quickly fading from view. Jill took the lead, heading eastward.

The second bomb was placed without incident. The humans watched in VR space while Tallis unloaded the device from Maynar's back.

"So far, so good. But I think our luck is running low," Jack commented. He nodded to the outside view, which was getting brighter.

"Yeah, I know. The storm cover is fading at the worse possible time. Maybe they'll be late sleepers."

"We better hope so. So have you thought about what will happen? Once we're done here?"

Jill shook his head. "Not in detail. Just taking it one emergency at a time right now."

"One emergency at a time? So you see our wedding as an emergency now?" Jack smirked at him.

Jill laughed and hugged him. "No, not quite. But it'll be news to your parents when we tell them. You sure you're fine with this?"

He kissed him and nodded, "Of course. I want you, not your sex. That was just a bonus. And you've been tracking the tech news. They figure you could swap back eventually. Five years or less at last guess."

"Five years is still a long time. But first, let's get off this mountain. Looks like we're ready to move on."

Jill refocused on the outside view to see Maynar tucking the camo cloth around the bomb. They climbed down from where they placed the bomb, and he took the lead, continuing their crawl around the plateau.

The storm was gone by the time they reached the dangerous part. The sky was clearing, and brightening with dawn when they could see the lights of base camp below them. To their relief there was no traffic coming up, so they were able to skitter across the open stretch and get out of sight around a small headland.

Jill stopped them once they were clear, to give himself a chance to settle down. "That was scarier than I thought it would be."

"It's not over yet, dear. Let's get the last one placed and get going. Our cover is gone."

Jill took control and checked their hands, rubbing them and flexing his fingers. "Right. Just needed a minute to collect myself. There's a tight section ahead and then we're there."

A half hour later they were in place. Jack found a spot they could place the bomb and started the final activation. Jill stayed close to him, looking all around.

"Shit!" he exclaimed suddenly. "Birdy incoming. How much time do you need?"

"A couple of minutes. Stall her."

The eagle dropped down from above, partly hidden in the glare of the rising sun. She was fused, with hardlight feathers on her wings, and metallic brown feather patterns on her chest. "Who are you? Identify yourselves." She ordered, hovering in the air a couple decas out.

"Privates O'Neill and Carter. We're fixing up one of the weapon pods damaged in the storm. Whole pile of them all over the mountain." Jill called out.

:I'm receiving a Friend or Foe query on the side bands. I don't know how to respond.: Tallis said in Jill's ear.

"There's no weapon pods here. Why aren't you answering the FOF query?" the eagle asked suspiciously. Her wings shifted, cannons lifting into position over her shoulders.

"We left while the storm was going on. It shorted out some of our comms." Jill bluffed.

:We're set Jill. I'm speeding up the timer. When I disconnect, it's gonna blat, and we'll have 30 seconds to get away.: Jack said.

:30 seconds? Not much time to outrun a mushroom cloud. Especially if Pat and Laura have to ditch theirs.:

:Krystal only needs a second or two to ditch her bomb. Can probably set its countdown too before they jump. Hopefully it'll be enough. We can't risk any more time than this regardless.:

:Yeah we knew the risks. That Turkey's getting antsy. We better go.:

In real space the eagle floated to the side. "What are you doing there? Get away from the device!"

Jack raised his hands and turned away, leaving the cable connecting Maynar to the bomb. "You might want to start flying away now."

"What do you mean? Who are you?" The eagle's weapons split, aiming at both goats.

"Just your friendly Nextusian Bombermen. Your order of nukes has arrived. You should start running now." Jack pulled the cable and a short radio signalled blasted across the airwaves. Jack and Jill dived off the cliff face, their hardlight shells powering up. The rock behind where they'd been standing exploded under the blasts from the aviant. The eagle squawked and dived after the jumpers.

:It's a damn eagle. We're not going to be able to out fly her. She's got full AG, we're just glorified gliders.: Jill sent, radio silence a moot point now.

:We don't have to outrun her for long. Just 25 more seconds. We know what's coming. Those birds have horrible EMP protection.:

:Yeah but that's going to be a long 25 seconds. Aim for the valley. We need some rock between us and the mountain more than we need to avoid her.:

A pulse of energy shot behind them, skimming past their generated wings. They tilted away as the RIDEs tried to guide them away. Their internal timers clicked down to 19.

Jill felt the beginnings of a headache as Tallis increased the time compression, bringing them to the fastest quick time he'd experienced yet. Fast time itself was a mixed blessing. Jill could take what felt like an eternity to look over their situation and try to figure out what to do, but their own movements felt sluggish and slow, being limited to what they could do in real time. The eagle flew in the air behind them, shoulder cannons training on both of them. Tallis and Maynar constantly adjusted their gliding surfaces, causing the RIDE pairs to jerk about in the air, and avoid the shots the eagle sent their way. Ahead, there was a bend in the valley they were entering, a bend that would help protect them when the mountain blew its top, assuming they could make it in time.

Three more seconds ticked by as the eagle took a couple more shots at them. Maynar and Tallis managed to dodge them. Three more seconds ticked off in subjective minutes, and they dove between the rocky walls of the valley they were aiming for.

"Jill!" Jack shouted before screaming in pain. Tallis's rear sensors saw a plasma bolt score across Maynar's back, dissolving the hardlight aeroshell. Maynar tumbled uncontrollably out of the air. In fast time he almost seemed like he could recover, but Jill knew they were going down fast and hard.

Tallis adjusted his own flight surface, sending them in a tight spin. Another pulse heated the air where they were moments before.

"Hang on Jack, we're coming for you," Jill sent, heedless of the risk. The counter ticked below ten, and the fused Ibex was falling faster than they were.

A surge of pain passed through their shared link. Jill's feet burned as the world spun wildly, even in fast time. The eagle screeched and started to dive towards her prey, but the ground caught them first.

Jill and Jack and their RIDEs crashed hard among the rocks, knocking both brain and core offline. Unseen, the counters reached 0 and the ground rumbled with five sharp blasts. High up in the sky, the air ignited. A protective dome lit up around the camp, holding off the nuclear fire for a moment before it flickered out and the camp was scoured away. Pulverised rock rained down on the base camp far below, destroying it only slightly less efficiently than the upper camp had been.

The eagle screeched in terror and fell from the skies as the electromagnetic pulse overloaded her shields and shorted out her systems.

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"So how much longer do we need to wait out here?" the lion picked up a rock and threw it across the dry river.

The black painted lion continued looking to the east. "Until they call us back or until we get the signal. Got anything Leo?"

"Nadda, Keith. At least the storm's gone now. We should get any signals cleanly," the green one answered.

"Storm's gone means we're wide open for any flocks going over heard," Rick pointed out.

Keith nodded, "I know. We'll take cover soon. Just want a better lay-"

The black lion automatically blackened the view as a new sun lit up the rising sun. The lions and their pilots dropped into fast time, though their shared VR space was staticky. They were in a metallic gray room with a large round table the humans were sitting around. A five colour shield was set up in the table. The humans wore uniforms with helmets, coloured to match their lion partners. Behind the humans, the five lions were watching.

"Pidge, Leo? What just happened?" Keith asked once everyone was stabilized.

Leonard glanced back at his lion and nodded. The green lion spoke up. "A nuclear blast, five actually, let off in very quick succession. They were set off on the top of mount Griselbrand. As close as I can tell, they surrounded the Sturmhaven base."

"What's the status of the base? Is it gone?" Rick asked.

Leonard shrugged. "Too soon to tell. But the yield of the bombs combined with the locations, and what we know of that nest's setup, we can probably assume the base is destroyed."

Lance shook his leonine head and grinned. "I guess that was our signal. What's the orders bosscat?"

Keith reached back and rubbed his lion's head. "We go see who dared kick over that hornet's nest. My orders say we should look for up to four pairs, somewhere in the vicinity of that nuclear volcano. We've actually met most of them before."

Herald, the yellow lion pilot shuddered. "At least they haven't made insect RIDEs yet. Those would be freaky."

"Right, stay focused guys." Keith activated a display on the table, bringing up the four RIDEs they were looking for. He briefed the team on who they were looking for.

"We weren't told their mission, though that is obvious now. We were told that they would be somewhere around the mountain after the signal, and its our job to get them clear."

Hunk, the yellow lion, growled. "We better get going then. It's a big desert, how do we find them?"

Pidge flicked his tail. "They have a short range pinger. We'll be broadcasting this signal, and they will respond automatically if they pick it up. That will let us find them."

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Out of habit, Laura shaded her eyes and looked back at the mountain they had just managed to escape from. The winds had blown away the initial cloud but more smoke was still rising from the top. Krystal's sensors automatically adjusted and gave other readings.

"Wow, Pat, we really lit that place up. The rad levels are spiking even against the Dry's background."

Patrick winced and looked up as well. The pair had been caught by surprise when the emergency blat had gone off, but Krystal and Saresh had responded in their stead. The remaining nuke had been thrown towards the dome and the pair had taken off before the first few seconds had ticked away.

Since they had been facing the Dry, they were caught in the open when the blasts went off. Shockwaves had thrown them into a ravine, twisting Pat and Saresh's leg badly. The cougar was holding integrity without issue, but they weren't sure they'd be able to defuse without help.

"Well there is the old saying. There is no such thing as overkill. Only open fire and reload. But we don't have anything left to reload with." He winced and shifted carefully to stay in what little shade they could get. "How's it looking out there?"

"Hard to tell. Signals are the worst I've ever seen," Krystal said. "But I'm picking up some chatter. I think our guys and NSA's were both waiting for this. The bitches are scrambling, but they had too many eggs in one nest."

"Any sign of Jack and Jill?" Laura asked.

She felt her head shake, "Nothing yet. But there's a lot of confusion. I'm sure they'll be fine."

"Quiet!" Saresh turned his head sharply and looked along the edge of the ravine. "Something's near," he whispered.

The pairs looked around, but couldn't find anything. Krystal shifted a grip on a piton she'd saved from her climb and tried to pick up what the cougar had sensed. She became aware of heavy footsteps nearby.

Saresh relaxed suddenly, "Stand down. It's a friend. Our saviors are here," he said. "Just got the pings."

As he said that, a yellow lion head looked over the ravine and looked down at them. "Hello down there. You guys doing all right?"

"Just fine! Just enjoying the rads," Laura shouted back.

A green and red lion head peeked over soon after, then jumped down. "Well, if you want to stay here, we can come back later," the yellow one said, looking up and around.

Laura stood up, feeling the stiffness of Krystal's frame. Both DE's had taken a beating, though Krystal's was still mobile. "Saresh's got a bum leg. Can you help us get back to safety somewhere?"

"That's what we're here for, young ladies. Pidge, how's he look?"

The green lion looked up from Saresh's leg. "Not as bad as it looks. The DE's are shot, but the core and human's are solid. Let's get them out of here before that flock Keith and Lance spotted gets here."

The red lion offered a paw to Krystal and pulled her close. The pair lifted out on his antigravity. The green and yellow lions swapped places, and Saresh flew out in the yellow's arms.

"What about Jack and Jill? Any sign of them?" Laura asked.

"Nothing yet. Do you know where they might have gone?" Pidge said.

"The mountains. They were on the inland side of the hill, and they pulled an emergency blat. The bitches probably found them," Patrick growled.

The lions winced in unison. "That's not good," Lance said. The red lion looked at the smoking mountain top. "NSA and our forces were ready to rush in when you set your bombs off, so we're stuck fighting the Santas instead of consolidating this area. And the birds will be back any time now. We'll have to try and find them later."

"We've gotta go find them now!" Laura said, starting to struggle before Krystal froze up around her.

"Laura, please, calm yourself. We're in no shape to go into battle. Especially when we don't know where to start looking," the snow leopard said to her partner. "Let the lions get us to safety, and I'm sure they'll be back looking for them as soon as possible."

"You got that right, miss," Hunk confirmed. "Sven and Keith will keep looking as long as they can. We'll find your friends. Now just relax and let your pride carry you home."

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Jill woke up on the plateau he shared with Tallis. He looked around and knew immediately something was wrong. The sky was pitch black, but everything was still lit up. The ground flickered all over the place, some areas showing the high detailed VR he was used to, most others showing flat untextured panels, or even wireframes.

"Tallis!" he called out, looking around for the RIDE. "What's going on?"

His voice echoed strangely, some parts echoing, while other parts of his speech went out into dead air. He looked around, then tried to summon a door outside. A wireframe doorway appeared, flickering ominously. He peered through it, but there was no sense of the outside world that he could detect.

He watched it carefully, but it didn't stabilize. Finally he decided not to take the risk and walked around. He sat down in the middle of the plateau and decided to try to get some rest and hope things would be better when he woke up.

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"Jill.... Jill! Wake up Jill!" the voice called out, sounding far away, and right next to his ears at the same time. It called to him again.

"What?" Jill groaned, opening his eyes. He found himself on the plateau again, but it was stabilizing. The sky was a solid blue now, and there were no wireframe holes, but the textures were missing from big chunks of the space. Tallis stood next to him, offering a hand up, looking more cartoonish in the simpler world.

Jill took the offered hand and looked down at himself, seeing a similar toonish quality to his own look. "It's good to see you again Tal. How long were we out?"

"Hours. We took a lot of damage between that bird and the explosion, but we should live."

"That's good. Things are looking better here. I woke up earlier and the sim looked like it was crashing."

Tallis looked confused. "That's strange. My core was offline as far as I can tell. You shouldn't have been able to run the sim."

"It was probably a zombie process or something. Stuff left over from my own gear and in the DE's processors. It was very low res." Jill snapped his fingers, trying to summon another outside view. The window popped open and flickered a moment, before stabilizing. It showed a cave lit by lights. "Any idea what happened? How are Jack and Maynar?"

Tallis flickered a moment, and Jill felt his head move. The window view shifted, from side to side. "I'm not sure. Something moved us somewhere. I can't pick up any signals, but the rock texture matches the Dry-" he fell silent suddenly.

Their view was on another RIDE. The DE was badly scorched, the leg joints and one arm joint fused and partly melted. As they watched, the horned head turned towards them and the good arm lifted slightly.

"You two look like hell," Maynar said.

"So do you. Jack! How is he?" Jill asked, crossing his fingers in VR.

"I'm fine Jill. Good to hear your voice. Maynar's got me flooded with meddies. I can't feel my legs or my arms. How are you?" Jack said, sounding dazed and a bit out of sync.

Jill looked down at himself and did an assessment of his injuries. Tallis's readouts showed heavy burns on their back and legs, and a few cracked ribs, but they'd gotten off light. "I'm fine. Just some cracked ribs. Nothing else broken. Where are we?"

"Ve are in the care of the NSA," a new female voice said with a heavy Sturmhaven accent. "A cave near where ve crashed." The voice came from a golden pile of metal they hadn't noticed. As they watched, it straightened slowly, showing an armored bird woman.

"You're the one who shot at us!" Jill shouted, looking for a weapon and finding none. The cave didn't even have many loose rocks he could use.

"Be at ease. Ve vere just doing our duties. But now ze battle is ended. None of us are in any condition to fight further, especially against rested soldiers from Nuevo San Antonio." the bird woman spread her arms and inspected herself. Like Tallis, her frame was scorched, though not as deeply, and badly banged up. "Are you okay?"

Jack laughed and winced. "That's a funny question to ask. You SHOT at us. Most of the pain I'm feeling now is because of you."

The RIDE didn't have hardlight to show expressions, but the Nextusian soldiers could feel the glare she gave them. "And all of the pain I am feeling is because of you. My pilot is severely injured, and my flock mates and friends are dead because of your bombs. But I am trying to be civil, despite what I know you did. The battle, perhaps the war is over for all of us, so there is no point in belabouring the past."

Jack and Jill both paused, considering what the Sturmhaven bird said. "I'm not going to say I'm sorry, because I'm not. It was our mission, and we had to do it, to protect our own friends. You would do the same in a similar situation."

She waved a wing and winced, before crouching down and trying to get comfortable. "I understand. It is one of the costs of war. Which is why I'm trying not to hold it against you. But it is difficult to do. If Meahlana was awake, I doubt I vould be this kind to you."

Jill spoke up, trying to restore the peace. "Let's try this again from the top. I'm Jill, and I'm in Tallis. That's my fiance Jack, and Maynar. Is Meahlana your pilot?"

"She is. As I said, she was severely injured. I'm keeping her unconscious for now until we can get aid for her."

"Do you really think they'll get help for her?" Maynar asked.

"They'll have to. This war's been nasty, but no one's broken the Ancient Articles of Geneva yet. As prisoners, they have to provide medical aid to us," Jill said.

"True, but they don't have to-" Tallis started to counter, stealing Jill's voice to speak.

He was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance of the cave. Three NSA soldiers walked in. Their RIDEs were painted in shades of brown to better blend into the Dry. All three were dinosaurs. In the lead came a male triceratops, followed by an androgynous raptor and finally a female stegosaurus. The raptor was dwarfed by the heavily armored plant eaters.

"Good, you're awake. Doc, check them out, see if they can move by themselves. We can't stay here much longer. Area's too active," the trike said, moving to one side after giving the three damaged RIDEs a look over.

The raptor moved in closer and connected a device to each of the RIDEs. He shook his head after a minute and spoke with a male voice. "The Markhor's legs are too damaged, as is the human's spine. He'll have to be carried. The other two should be mobile enough. The bird's pilot's out cold and I agree with her meddies in keeping her unconscious."

The eagle stood up stiffly, one wing arm dragging limply. "I vill not be carried. I can valk," she proclaimed.

Jill stood as well and almost fell before Tallis steadied them. It took them a few moments before he decided they could walk. He looked over at Jack. "Spinal damage?"

"Nothing that can't be fixed once we can get back to the camps. Better get that wing up, Missy. Can't have it dragging and slowing us down," the raptor said, picking up a device they hadn't noticed.

"My name is Astra," the eagle said proudly, managing to fold her wing to her side and hold it with her other hand. "Vhat is that?"

"Insurance that the doc installed in you while you were out," the trike said. "You're our prisoners now so we can't kill you or let you hurt yourselves. But we know you'll try to escape. That there's a signal generator synched to devices we hooked into your RIDEs. Get out of range of the emitter, and it will connect the sarium batteries to your power systems."

"That doesn't seem so bad," Jill said.

"It's horrible," Astra corrected her. "Quantum magic effects would short out our batteries, leaving us powerless. Easiest way to capture RIDEs in the field."

"Exactly. So don't go wandering." The triceratops looked to one side, checking some internal datasource he wasn't sharing with the prisoners. "We've got our opening. Let's move. Stacy, take the lead. Doc, grab the goat and follow her. Astra and other goat guy follow and don't try any funny stuff. I've got my horns on both of you." The tips of the horns over his eyes glowed softly as proof.

The group didn't argue, and started filing out of the cave system. Jill stayed close to the raptor more to keep an eye on Jack than out of any fear of their leash. Astra looked up at the sky, spotting smoke and other trails, but no friendly forms.

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After a few minutes, a cloaked figure moved from near the entrance of the cave. It watched where the group went, then set off in a different direction. It quickly reached a rendezvous point and waited. Soon after arrival he heard a pattern tapped on rocks. He answered, and the lions dropped their cloaks at once.

"I found them. They're still alive. RIDEs and humans alike, but Jack's hurt bad," Sven reported quickly. "A Santa squad caught them and is moving them inland now. It's just two heavy dinos and a raptor medic. If we hurry we can probably catch them."

Keith frowned and sighed, shaking his head. "No, we can't. There's another Santa group near. I almost walked right into them. That's probably where your group is going. We'd never free them and get clear in time."

"Damn! And we were so close! Do we have anything else we can use to free them?"

"Not that I can see. Most of our guys are to the north and west. Neuvo's flooding their forces in from the east. They'd reenforce long before we could put enough pressure to get them."

The blue lion punched at a rock wall and cursed. "So now what?"

The black lion disappeared. Keith's voice spoke out of nothingness. "Now, we pull back. Rejoin the squad and get the two we have to safety. And notify the diplomats of what you saw. The sooner NSA knows we know they have our guys, the safer they'll be, and the sooner they can negotiate to free them."

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They walked in silence for an hour. At first, Tallis reported he could pick up signals from Nextus and Sturmhaven forces, as well as NSA signals, but his transmitters had been disabled. The further they moved inland, the more the non-NSA signals dropped off, and the more relaxed their captors became. Talking remained forbidden however, until they met up with a transport convoy.

The convoy was a couple of dozen RIDEs, some on antigrav platforms or other transports. They were all NSA soldiers, other than the medics tending the injured. Most of them were saurian themed, like most of the small polity's RIDEs, but there were a number of canine and feline RIDEs.

Maynar and Jack were dumped on a platform in the middle of the convoy. Tallis and Astra were allowed to walk alongside it, so the prisoners could be kept under a single watch. Their guards didn't seem very worried about their charges, often calling out to a friend while continuing the escort.

"So your name is JIll? That's a strange name for a man," Astra noted as they made their way through the valleys inland. The temperatures were still in the high forties, but plantlife was beginning to show itself.

"I'm not a man. Well I wasn't." Jill said, correcting himself after a moment.

The eagle tilted her head and seemed to smile, "So the stories are right. Nextus does force their females to cross if they wish to lead."

"Cross? What?... No! That's not the case. No one forced me to do anything!" Jill sputtered angrily.

"Jill and I fusing was a mutual decision," Tallis added, giving Jill a moment to recover. "A decision made under extraordinary circumstances, for the sake of the mission."

"Your folks blew up our transport and killed Tallis's partner, and damn near killed my RIDE." Jill took over. "Maddie may not be recoverable, but we aren't giving up on her. The mission had to go on though, and we were short on people. The choice was obvious."

Astra looked puzzled, "So you were willing to change your sex just for the sake of the mission?"

"It was important to us. And there was no way I was going to let Jack risk dieing without me. Tallis was the only trained RIDE available, so we hooked up. Necessity, not politics was the reason I... what was the term you used? The reason I crossed. Had Ronnie survived, or Maddie's core been stable enough for a new DE, things would have been different. But I would still have led the team."

"I see..." Astra said slowly. She looked around thoughtfully then looked back at Tallis and Jill. "I apologize for my assumptions. It seems this war hurts us all in ways we don't expect."

"Apology accepted. And I agree with you as well. War sucks," Tallis said.

They fell mostly silent for the rest of the trek. Soon they reached a plateau nestled between the mountains. The temperatures had dropped to the thirties, and there was actual grass growing, where it hadn't been trampled by the encamped army. Most of the injured were taken to a large temporary building marked with a red cross. The prisoners were sent to a smaller similarly marked building, on the edge of the camp.

Inside, under the watchful eyes of some soldiers, the human prisoners defused from their RIDEs. Medics had stretchers ready to catch and lay out Jack and Meahlana, while Jill was allowed to lay on a third stretcher under his own power. The RIDEs were taken elsewhere, but Jill didn't notice; he kept trying to see Jack.

He briefly saw Astra's partner first. She was a muscular woman, with brown feathers for hair and a slight beak. She didn't seem injured, but the medics swarmed her stretcher and took it away before Jill could tell more.

Jack was less injured, but he didn't look it. Both legs looked curiously flattened, broken in many places from the impacts he'd endured. He waved weakly to Jill before a medic pressed him back.

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Things quickly settled into a routine after their arrival. Jill, being the least hurt, was transferred to the camp's makeshift prison. It was a small barracks with basic facilities. If he wanted to, he was let out into a fenced area that surprisingly was also where the RIDEs were imprisoned. The RIDEs themselves were operating at minimal power, with their fuse tanks emptied, but they had enough power to operate and talk with their pilots.

Other than being checked up on by the 'impartial observers' from Laurasia and western Gondwana, to make sure they were being treated properly, the prisoners were left to their own devices.

A couple of weeks after they were captured, Jill was sitting with Jack outside near their RIDEs. Jack was in a low powered hoverchair, his legs still in casts and his back supported by a weak hardlight field. Astra's Sturmhaven pilot was awake, but she pointedly avoided talking to the Nextusians. When she realized how much Astra was talking with them, she began to avoid talking to her RIDE as well.

Jack and Jill were killing time in the sun, plotting what they would do when they got free, when they noticed activity at the gate. They recognized Matt, the pilot of the triceratops RIDE that had captured them, escorting a man in a well pressed suit. Seeing someone without RIDE tags made them do a double take. From the man's stance and Matt's expression, they could tell the stranger was Nextusian.

Unfused, Matt had leathery brown skin, with heavy RIDE signs. Horns extended from his temples, and his face was stretched into a beak with a third smaller horn. He had no hair, but instead had an impressive looking frill that swept back from the edges of his face. His expression and stance indicated he was seriously considering intimately introducing his horns to the stranger. Soon after they had blown the mountain top, he had been promoted to camp commander, while the bulk of the forces shifted to positions closer to the front lines.

"Morning guys. This is Kevin Jacobs, a Nextus diplomat. He's here to tell you the terms of your release," Matt said gruffly.

"Our release? That seems rather quick," Jack pointed out. "We've barely had time to unpack."

Matt shrugged, grinning slightly; despite technically being on opposing sides, the goats had gotten along well with the triceratops pair. "I know, I was looking forward to finally beating you at tonight's poker game. But seriously, NSA's not a big nor rich polity; we can't afford to keep prisoners a long time. So we generally do a catch and release program."

Kevin coughed softly to catch their attention. He glanced down to watch his step, before moving closer to the trio. "Right, that is the case, and we do appreciate it. Lieutenant Jill Dickensen, Corporal Jack Bardeau, we have negotiated your release to occur as soon as possible. You are to be released into my custody with just the clothes on your back, and we will be escorted to the nearest Nextusian border for the final transfer."

"Just the clothes on our back?" Jill asked, standing up. "What about our RIDEs?"

The diplomat seemed confused, "Your RIDEs? What about them?"

"Do we take them with us?" Jack asked.

He took out a tablet and double checked some files. "No, there is no mention of your RIDEs here in the prisoner exchange deal. RIDEs are considered property, and so they are now officially NSA's to deal with as they see fit, as plunder of war."

"No," Jill announced. He stepped back and put a hand on Tallis's back. "We either leave with Maynar and Tallis, or we aren't leaving at all."

"This is highly irregular," Kevin said, still looking through his files. "I'm... I'm not sure how to handle this."

Matt smirked and motioned back to the gate. "That it is. Why don't you step outside and make some calls, see if you can sort it out."

The flustered diplomat nodded and started walking back. Matt watched him a moment before looking at his prisoners. "That's a rather unconventional demand to make."

"Tell me about it," Jack said. He grinned at Jill, "Three months ago, she would have walked out of here without a second thought of the RIDEs."

"Three months ago I was a woman and hadn't fused. Hell, I wouldn't even be here without the RIDEs. I just can't abandon them now," Jill countered.

"Thank you for the consideration, Jill. But it is probably for naught. They can force you two to leave without us at any time," Tallis pointed out.

"Remember, I'm part of the 'They'. Those guys haven't shared before. They don't know what a RIDE partner is like." Matt looked back at the gate. Kevin was standing next to Matt's partner, using him to thread a call back to Nextus. "It would take a hell of a lot to make me abandon Trike there. And I'd probably be fighting to get him back every minute we were separated. The city folk may try to order us to let you go without your friends, but I promise you, I'll do everything I can to prevent it."

Jill looked at the reptilian man in surprise. "Thanks. That's... that's really unexpected. And appreciated."

He grinned back, "No sweat. Besides, if you leave, how am I gonna win back the hundred mu you've fleeced off me?"

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Word spread quickly, among the troops and the prisoners at camps all over the battlefields, and soon the negotiators found themselves trying to work out the terms of release for twice the number of prisoners. Kevin sat with Jack, Jill and Meahlana over lunch, watched over by Matt and Stacy. His extra workload showed in his rumpled suit and mussed up hair.

"You guys have really pinned us on the horns of a dilemma now," Kevin said, sipping his drink. "On the one hand, none of us wants to keep their prisoners longer than we have to. You guys are just wasted resources to keep up.

"On the other hand, no one wants to let the RIDEs go back. That's military tech and we don't want to rearm the enemy."

"That's why they pay you the big mu," Jack said sarcastically. "Not our problem. Jill and I never wanted to get in this war in the first place but you guys hauled us back in." He tossed a few chips into the pot and nodded to Jill.

"Maybe you should get a RIDE of your own; spread your workload around," Jill suggested, smirking. He tossed a few chips back and showed his cards. Jack groaned and shoved the pot over.

Kevin groaned as well and shook his head. "You guys are hopeless. I need to make some more calls," he said, getting up and leaving the tent.

"You really won't leave without your RIDEs?" Meahlana asked. She was seated at another table, reading from a tablet.

Jack paused in midshuffle and looked over in surprise. The Sturmhaven soldier rarely spoke to them, let alone asked them questions. Relations between the NSA and Sturmhaven were more strained than those with Nextus, so as far as anyone knew, there were no talks going on to free her or her RIDE.

"Well, they could always force us to leave. But Matt's in charge of this camp, and he seems to be on our side in this respect. Most of the fused folk seem to think like we do," Jill said.

"They're our partners. We couldn't do anything we're doing out here without them. Just doesn't seem fair to leave them behind while we go free," Jack added. "What about you and Astra? You don't seem to spend as much time with her. Would you walk out without her if you had the chance?"

"Of course I would. Getting away from here would be my chance to return to the fight, to help the Motherland win this war. If Astra could come with me, all the better. But we need every body we can get out there, by any means possible."

"Is it really worth it though? All this destruction, all this killing, just for some claim over a few square klicks worth of sand that may or may not have anything worthwhile in it," Jill asked.

"Of course it is worth it. When the Motherland has won, we will be able to expand our claims across the entire ocean and all will prosper."

Jack rolled his eyes and dealt out the cards. "Keep telling yourself that and maybe you'll believe it. As is, Aloha's got a better chance at claiming the entire Dry than any of us. We're squabbling over slivers here in the north east, and they're gobbling up the south west like there's no tomorrow."

The bird woman scoffed. "Those hippies have neither the focus nor the numbers to be a threat. Once we are united, they will come in line or be crushed, like anyone else who gets in the way."

Jill tossed a couple of cards back. "Whatever. Believe what you want, it won't change reality."

"But believing is the first step towards making it reality. Someday you will understand."

The pair tuned out the bird woman and refocused on their card game.

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A few days later, the camp was surprised by another visitor. From their cordoned off area, Jack and Jill could see the woman arrive, defusing from a golden eagle similar to Astra. Matt greeted her, looking like he would rather be chewing glass. After a curt introduction, he motioned to Stacy, the Stegasaurian RIDEr, who didn't seem any more pleased to talk to her. The pair disappeared into a shelter, followed soon after by Meahlana, escorted by a pair of female NSA soldiers.

"I guess Sturmhaven finally realized where Meahlana was," Jack commented as they watched.

"Looks like it. I doubt she'll put up a fight for Astra. A shame, I'm going to miss her company," Jill replied. Jack gave him a quick look to make sure he was joking.

He looked back and was surprised to see Matt heading their way, barely restraining himself from running. "What's going on, Matt? A Sturmhaven ambassador can't have gotten you that riled up," Jack asked once they were in earshot.

"Actually she has. Look, I know you two have your principals that you're fighting for. But it's time to swallow them," the base commander replied.

"Swallow them? You're kicking us out?" Jill asked, seeing Kevin being escorted towards them.

"Exactly. I'd love to keep you, but with Meahlana leaving, you two are huge risks for this base. Remember why you two and your RIDEs are here in the first place. You destroyed a major bird base. While your companions are who knows where, your locations are known, and through Meah, the birds are going to know all about this place. I've gotta consider my own troops, and frankly, you're a liability now."

Jack cursed under his breath, then sighed. "Well, it'll be nice to get home I guess. Will we have time to say goodbye to Tallis and Maynor?"

"Not exactly. Good morning Kevin. Could you contact your lion team you've had camped to the south, and arrange for an escort?"

The diplomat looked startled and sputtered a bit. "How did you...?"

Jill and Jack ignored his sputtering and spoke over him, "What do you mean 'not exactly'? What did you do?"

Matt held up a big hand to silence them and took a case another soldier offered him. "They've been sitting there for a few weeks now. Even cloaked, they couldn't hide forever. As for Maynor and Tallis, you're taking them with you. Or their cores at least."

"But won't you get into trouble?" JIll asked, taking the case.

He shrugged and turned away. "Nothing I can't handle. They'd all but agreed to let you and RIDE cores go, it was just the details being ironed out." He glanced at Kevin, "If you could arrange something in return, to salve the hurt feelings a bit, it would be appreciated."

"I'll see what I can do." The diplomat nodded and looked at his charges. "Come on you two, we've gotta go."

"Stacy's going to stall it as long as she can, but she can only tolerate so much. Good luck you guys."

"You two Matt... Wait! What about Astra?" Jill asked, surprising himself that he even considered the avian RIDE .

"Unlike you two, Meahlana's deal doesn't include her RIDE. I'll do what I can for her, but there probably isn't much. Now GO, Get out! Kevin's skimmer is waiting for you."

The skimmer took off quickly and headed to a gate in the camp. The route, and the gate itself were surprisingly lightly defended, though Jack noticed movement behind them after they passed. One bored looking NSA soldier looked into the skimmer at the gate, specifically not looking in the back seat where Jack and Jill were slouching.

"Good morning, sir. Where are you going?" she asked.

"Back to the Nextus side. Got some business to take care of outside of prying ears. No offense intended," Kevin replied smoothly.

"None taken. Have a good trip. And be careful. The forecast is calling for stormy skies."

Once they were a couple of klicks away from the base, Kevin activated the comm. "Lotor to Voltron force. Come in Voltron force," he called out. The line stayed silent. "Lotor to Voltron force, respond guys. I know you're listening, your cover's blown already so answer damn you."

"You're not supposed to call out to us directly, Lotor," the voice on the other end responded. It crackled a bit, not showing visual.

"Can it Pidge. We don't have time. The bitches are getting their egg back, and the lizards are passing the bucks. What's in the area?"

The link went dead, but a voice still answered. Looking out, Jack and Jill spotted the flicker of fast moving figures keeping pace with the skimmer. "Not good. The birds have a flock camped out on their side of the border as close to the base as possible. NSA's got a large force in the base, but it doesn't have much reach. We've been busy elsewhere so don't have much in the region. Got a cavalry unit in bound as fast as possible," the voice said, flickering his cloak a moment to briefly show them a green metallic lion.

"Good. Point us in the direction. The birds are going to notice us soon, and probably suspect our package. Everyone here?"

The skimmer started going faster and changed its direction slightly. "Everyone's here. Sit tight, it's gonna be close, but we should reach the horses soon enough."

"We're heading for the Dry. Is that safe?" Jack asked after a few minutes.

Kevin shrugged and looked out the windows. "The skimmer is unarmed, but it's got the best shielding we could fit into it. We should be safe enough for a little bit at least. Not as good as a RIDE but good enough."

Their luck ran out a half hour later. The hardlight shielding around the skimmer flared, blinding the vehicle's occupants momentarily. The red and yellow lions dropped their cloaks, the armored humanoids flying backwards and shooting into the sky.

"Keep going! You're almost clear!" Lance shouted. The sky was filled with a dozen flying objects, some flickering in and out of cloaking fields. One took a hit and fell from the sky, trailing smoke.

Kevin focused on the route ahead, and the marking for where the cavalry squad was approaching. He didn't have anything else to do, as much a passenger as Jack and Jill were, but it calmed him a little. The skimmer began to jig from side to side, controlled by its own limited intelligence and by the green lion.

The rest of the trip to safety took an eternity. The lions kept up the defenses, keeping the skimmer going in the right direction, and forcing the flock overhead to keep its distance. Two more birds had to break off the fight under the lion's fire, and Hunk took a shot that knocked out his cloaking, but the worse the skimmer took was the occasional glancing blow that flared its shields.

Reinforcements announced their arrival with a rocket exploding in the middle of the Sturmhaven flock, scattering the birds across the sky. A bugle tooted over the comms, and the lead elements of the squad appeared over the top of an arid hill. The fight ended quickly after that, as the birds realized they were outnumbered over enemy territory, and broke off quickly.

"Anyone hurt? NSA's scrambling from the base you just left to go after the birds. Technically they're coming after us as well, but as long as we're backing out, they won't push," Pidge asked, the green lion's head appearing on the skimmer's comm. Around them, the mostly equine RIDE based squad was already turning around and backtracking, providing a thick shell of protection around the skimmer and lions.

Jill checked on Jack before answering. "We're fine. We bounced around a little but no further damage. How about you guys?"

The lion head grinned. "Nothing that can't be buffed out. For such good eyesight, those birds couldn't hit the broadside of a cat. I'm not going to tempt Murphy, but we should have you home soon now."

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After the excitement of their escape, what followed was anticlimactic. They were escorted back over to the Nextus side of the battle lines, and transferred to a faster transport to get back to Camp Dusty, where they'd started training at in the first place. There, Jack and Jill were separated and questioned for days on end. They were not even allowed to see each other.

Jill paced the briefing room, the same one in which they'd first heard of Operation Krakatoa, trying not to show his impatience too much. After the tenth time going through all the events from when they'd left the Sandbox to when they'd escaped the NSA base, he had finally put his foot down and demanded to see Jack. His interviewers had fallen quiet, and disappeared for a few hours, before he was led to the briefing room and told to wait.

He stopped pacing and twitched an ear towards the door. He could hear a tapping noise growing louder as someone approached. The door slid open, revealing the horned man, walking with a cane. Jill rushed to him and barely restrained himself from throwing himself into Jack's arms.

"Jack!" he shouted and carefully hugged his fiance. Jack's arms hugged him back, and they stood there silently for a long minute. "I'm so glad to see you. I've missed you so much," Jill said, burying his head into Jack's neck.

"So have I. They won't keep us apart any more," he whispered back, rubbing Jill's head.

Jill stepped back reluctantly and looked Jack over closer. "How.. How do you feel?" he asked. "Is the cane?"

"I feel great. The docs are insisting on the cane for now, but I'm all fixed up now. Good as new." Jack flipped the cane up, catching it in his other hand and danced a little jig. He hid a wince and smoothly lowered the cane back down. Jill pretended not to notice the wince, and moved in to hug him again.

They both heard another person enter the room, and looked up in unison to see another uniformed goat-woman. Jill realized her tags had changed slightly from the last time they'd seen Commander Cree.

"At ease you two. Please, have a seat," Sam said, motioning to a pair of seats. She pulled another chair around to face them before sitting down. "I'm sure you have a lot of questions still, and we have some questions of our own." She held up a hand and smiled, "Not about your mission. Questions about what to do next. I'm here to try and help you figure out that path."

Jill nodded and looked at Jack. As the Commander had anticipated, they did have a lot of questions, but one was at the forefront of Jill's mind. "What about Maynar and Tallis?"

"Your RIDEs? Yes, you caused quite a stir, refusing to leave without them, not that I can blame you. Don't worry, they're being checked out thoroughly and installed in new DE's as we speak. Because they've been in enemy hands, they'll never be cleared for military duty again, but I doubt you're worried about that."

"Damn right," Jack mumbled.

Jill nodded in agreement and was about to ask another question, when a door between the briefing room and the garage opened up. A mountain goat RIDE walked in, heading towards Sam. "Maddy..." Jill whispered before shaking his head. Appearances aside, the RIDE didn't move like he remembered Maddy moving.

"I'm sorry, it's not Maddy. But it is her daughter, sort've. One of her descendents from the VR training." Sam rubbed the RIDE's head and smiled at Jill. "When she saved my life, she left quite the impression on me. So I sought Morgana here once I heard she was cleared for Real work."

"Good to meet you, Morgana," Jill greeted the RIDE, his voice catching a bit on the name.

"A pleasure to meet you as well. Maddy's actions made her famous among the goats. I only hope that some day I can act as brave as she did," the RIDE replied.

Sam tapped her metallic head and laughed, "Well I hope you don't have to do anything that brave. One near death experience is enough for me."

The mountain goat smiled and fused over Sam. She spoke once the pair had settled. "Maynar and Tallis are just coming online now, in their new DE's. Would you like to go meet them?" Morgana asked.

"Yes! But first, you mentioned Maddy. How is she doing?" Jill asked.

The fused pair shifted slightly as Sam took over. "She's stable, but still mostly inactive. We've got the best experts we can get working on her when they can, but some have had to be reassigned to more important projects. She has caught the attention of some of the best in the fields, so she won't be abandoned, but we don't know when she'll come back online... or how much of her will be there when she does come back."

Jill wiped his eyes and hugged Jack. Jack rubbed his shoulders and nodded to the commander. "Let's see our partners then."

They were led back through the door Morgana arrived through, and could see activity around two garage bays. Techs were working around the pair of RIDEs, running them through checks.

"Those can't be our guys," Jack said, looking on.

"They certainly are. Remember, you had stripped down DE's before, to match the mission requirements. Now that the mission is over, your friends can have more normal bodies. Not quite military grade, but still very impressive."

Maynar was in vehicle mode, still a motorcycle, but his wheel supports had extra equipment on them, equipment that was glowing and lifting the cycle a metre above the ground. Tallis was in animal mode, but bigger than he had been before, his body appearing more muscular, though still covered in metal panels. He spotted the watchers, and after checking with the techs, he trotted out to meet them. Maynar floated out of his garage and joined them as well.

"Hey guys. Love the new shells. How are you doing?" Jack greeted the RIDEs with a big smile.

The motorcycle shifted back to the markhor form. Like Tallis, Maynor's new animal mode was bulkier, more muscular looking. "It's a bit to get used to, but I'm loving it," Maynor replied, nuzzling his partner.

Tallis stopped just in front of Jill and waited for him to make the first move. Jill reached out and rubbed his metallic nose. "And you? You're looking great too," he said.

"I never truly realized how underpowered we were until now," Tallis agreed.

Sam nodded to the techs, and cleared her throat. "If you guys are up for it, the techs would like you to fuse with your partners, so they can make sure everything's working properly."

"Certainly," Jack said, holding out his arms. Maynar didn't hesitate, rearing back and splitting open. He engulfed his partner and soon the humanoid Markhor stood in their place.

Tallis waited, looking at Jill for permission. Jill hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Go for it, Tallis."

Instead of taking them to their VR space, Tallis kept them synced to the Real. Jill stood there, watching the techs approach them and taking in the feelings of the new armor around his body. He felt stronger than before, and more aware of everything around him. Tallis's presence stayed quiet in the back of his mind, as the RI usually did while he explored. It highlighted a control that Jill hadn't noticed, and without hesitation, Jill activated it. He had a fast lifting sensation, and discovered they were floating just below the roof of the garage.

"We can fly!" Jill shouted, starting to fly a loop over the bays below them.

"Not as good as the birds, but yes, we can," Tallis confirmed.

They dropped back to the floor and submitted themselves to the mercies of the techs. Eventually, the Commander shooed the techs away, and the humans and RIDEs dropped into a shared VR space. It was a grassy plateau, high among snow covered mountains. Jill noticed Ronald's memorial cairn behind where Tallis and he appeared, but didn't comment on it.

A trio of boulders appeared in the middle of the plateau, perfect for sitting on. The humans took them, while the RIDEs, in animal modes, stayed back.

"Right, now that you are all reunited, the big question is to figure out what to do with you guys," Sam said, getting right down to business.

"I'm not going to any front lines," JIll said. "Or any lines for that matter. We did your mission, it's time for us to get back to our lives."

"I didn't think you would come back. There's nothing that needs your skillset anyway, so we don't need you anymore either. But there are repercussions to consider."

"Repercussions? You mean with Sturmhaven?" Jack asked.

Sam nodded. "Exactly. You guys dealt them a major blow. Losing that base so suddenly and surprisingly let the NSA and us move in and lock down a lot of important areas they'd been blocking. And thanks to your camp mate, they know who to blame for that loss."

"You're not suggesting protective custody, are you? I'd sooner go onto the front lines." Jill asked.

"That is a possibility. But we'll leave the choice up to you. At the very least, for your own safety, I would suggest you stay on bases as much as possible, at least until the war ends."

"And how long would that be? I don't want to spend the rest of my life here," Jack said.

Sam shrugged. "Hard to say exactly. But probably not as long as you'd think. RIDEs are more of a game changer than anyone anticipated. They're opening up the Dry to anyone really. Had the tech stayed with Nextus, or Nextus and Sturmhaven, it wouldn't be that big a deal. But it's already spreading across the continent. Cascadia, Burnside, Cape Norde, Aloha, even Punta Sur, they're all starting to look at the Dry, And with the three of us in-fighting it out up here, they're moving in unopposed. Speaking as a soldier to another, I believe that soon enough someone's going to clue in that we're squabbling over scraps, while everyone else is going to haul away the cake."

"Wouldn't that just expand the war, bringing those guys in?" Jack asked.

"Possibly. Hopefully not. Time will tell. In any case, that means you'd have a few months, maybe a few years here, or at any other base, laying low until the birds settle down again, and then you'll be off the radar. Even if you aren't, Tallis and Maynar should be able to handle most anything they'd send at you."

Jill sighed, "I guess I can tolerate that. A year here, then we get on with our lives. Still feels like we're trading one POW camp for another."

Sam smirked, "Considering what Kevin's report said about that NSA camp, I don't think we can afford to treat you that well."

"It does help to make friends with the warden. If there's nothing else, I'm feeling a bit cooped up. Can we get some leave to see what our new friends can do?" Jack asked.

"Sure. Have fun and be careful."

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One year later

"Worse War End ever," Jack proclaimed, dropping out of VR and looking across the breakfast table.

"What do you mean, dear? Peace is spreading, and the fights are stopping. Everyone's just tired of this squabble now. Especially since it's obvious no one will get as much as they want. The Corps like Brubeck are gonna grab more than any of the polities ever would," Jill said, sliding a plate over to him.

"I know. I just thought there'd be a bigger thing to mark the end of this. It just fizzled out in the end." he sighed and poked at the meal.

Jill rolled his eyes and sat down across from him. "Frankly, I'm glad it fizzled out. If it ended with a boom, it would probably mean the loss of a city. I don't think anyone wants that much death on their hands. I certainly don't want any more of it."

"I suppose so. Just gonna be strange celebrating 'We're bored now, time to go home' Day in the future."

"Well if you're bored, there is something we can work on. We said we'd wait until we were free to go. With the war over, that time's now." Jill activated a projector in the middle of the table. "It's time to set a date and finalize the lists. There's a perfect place in Neo Vegas that would work. And it's far enough away for the birds to avoid and for Matt and Stacy and the other dinos to come without feeling too uncomfortable."

Jack looked at the lists and displays and groaned. "Damn End of War," he grumbled before leaning forward to look closer.

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After the honeymoon

The door to their house slid open, and Jack looked inside. "So, should I carry you across the threshold or what?" he asked.

In response, a heavy, dirty duffle bag full of equipment landed in his arms. Jill nudged his husband to the side and walked in. "Home sweet home. Never thought I'd say that about this dump."

"It may be a dump, but it's OUR dump, and damn, it's good to be home." Jack tossed the heavy bag down the hall towards the laundry room, and flopped on the couch next to Jill, nuzzling his spouse's neck.

"We probably should get that gear cleaned up before it stinks up the place," Jill said, returning the nuzzling.

"It can-" Jack was interrupted by the door chime. A screen lit up, showing Commander Cree, standing with her hands clasped behind her back. "We can pretend we're not home yet," Jack whispered.

Jill laughed and stood up, "Nah, let's see what she wants. Come on in, Commander."

The door opened and the goat-woman walked in. She smiled at the pair. "Good day. I hope I'm not interrupting anything…."

"No, not at all. We just got in and were procrastinating doing the cleaning," Jill said, giving her a quick hug.

"Good good. How was your honeymoon? Did you have a good time?"

"We had a great time. The Alzaran coast has fantastic climbing and camping." Jack stood up and hefted the duffel bag onto the table. He opened it up and they all wrinkled their noses. "Of course, native Zharusian plant life is less than fantastic, especially stench-wise."

"Go get that in the cleaner before it stinks up the whole base," JIll ordered. She turned back to Sam and smiled, "Thanks for getting us the clearance to go to Rhodinia. Stinky alien plants aside, it was great."

"Glad to hear that. And it's far enough away Sturmhaven didn't think to go after you."

"Are things still hot out here?" Jill asked.

Sam shook her head, taking a seat. "Not as much. Things are cooling down. But Patrick and Saresh were attacked out in Califia. Local authorities handled it, and they're fine. It looks like it was a fringe group still sore about the war in general."

She looked around the room briefly, then focused back on Jill. "There's another reason I'm here. I'm glad you got in when you did. There's been a development with Maddie."

Jill moved forward in his seat, ears flicking forward. "Maddie? What happened? Is she all right?"

"Better than that. The techs have finished their work on rebuilding her core. They're installing her in a new DE tomorrow morning." Sam hesitated a moment before continuing. "Understandably, she doesn't remember the attack, but she does remember you. The tech's had to rebuild her core while keeping the inner matrix intact. They think they got it right, but no one is sure if they did."

"But she remembers me. When can I go see-" Jill passed and looked down at himself. "Did anyone tell her what I did?"

"Not entirely. She was told the mission was a success with no further fatalities or injuries, but she hasn't put the pieces together yet. We could tell her before you go over… if you want to go over. Or leave it to you."

"What do the experts think? I wouldn't want to hurt her."

Sam shrugged, "They're split, but I doubt it would hurt her either way. She'd find out one way or another."

Jill thought it over, then nodded. "Leave it to me then. I think I'd want to hear it straight from me. When can we go see her?"

"So be it." Sam stood up and started towards the door. "You can go visit her whenever you want. I'd probably try to go over during the day though. While the lab operates on a 30 hour day, they have a skeleton crew at night and they may not appreciate visitors."

"Thanks Commander, tell them we'll be over tomorrow afternoon." Jack said, giving Jill a hug.

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The raccoon tagged tech led them through the lab, talking as he went. "Maddie was quite the challenge for us. The damage to her core was quite extensive, but luckily, the internal matrix was still intact. A bit strained but intact. Our challenge was figuring out how to rebuild a new core around that matrix while not damaging it further. It led to a number of breakthroughs in RI design we probably would never have thought of."

Jill listened with half an ear, his thoughts mainly focused on Maddie, trying to figure out what he would say to her, and running through various scenarios for their reunion. Before he was ready, the four were lead into a lab. A goat RIDE, similar to Morgana was in a hardlight dome, running a visual test.

"She's cleared all our tests so far, well within specifications. She's reintegrated well with the Real as well, showing no issues from spending so much time in virtual and in shutdown modes. Just wait here, the test is almost done," the tech explained, pointing to a spot as he moved to check in with another tech behind a set of controls.

Jill watched the goat turn her head rapidly to track the movement across the dome. He reached for and gripped Jack's hand in his own, and put the other on Tallis's shoulder. The test ended and the dome collapsed, leaving the goat facing the control bank.

"How'd I do?" Maddy asked, her voice achingly familiar in Jill's ears.

"Fantastic Maddy. Looks like you're clear. You've got some guests,"

"I do? Who is-" the metallic goat looked around and spotted the quartet. Her muzzle's expression couldn't change much, but her body language did, showing her glee. "Jack! Maynar! Tallis!" she shouted, trotting towards them. She showed a bit of puzzlement at Jill, and actually stumbled in mid trot. Jill ran forward to catch her, but she recovered in time to not fall. Jill's catch turned into a hug. "... Jill," Maddy whispered.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry… " Jill repeatedly mumbled, hugging Maddy. The goat stayed still for a moment before beginning to nuzzle him back. The other three stayed back, letting the two have their moment.

"Sorry for what? From what I hear, you really helped pull the mission off," Maddy said after Jill fell silent. "You weren't the one who hurt me, and if you'd been with me when that bomb went off, you might be dead now. Or Commander Cree would be dead. It's all worked out now."

"But we can't be partners any more. I crossed, and we can't cross back. I couldn't leave Tallis now, but I feel like I abandoned you," Jill struggled to sort out his confused mind, not letting Maddie go.

"You didn't abandon me. I was damaged. Damaged badly. I'm well aware of how much of a miracle it is that I'm standing here, talking to you now. And no matter what happens, I'll always be your friend Jill. We were our own firsts after all."

Jack moved up and touched both of their shoulders. "We can figure out something I'm sure. Set up a three RIDE house. Maybe Maddy can be our daughter's RIDE, when we decide on a kid."

Maddie nuzzled his hand and nodded. "I would be honoured. If that is possible. I wouldn't want to be too much of a burden on you."

"You'd never be a burden," Jill said. He felt Tallis move up to their other side and rubbed both RIDEs. "We'd figure something out, one way or another."

Jack looked at the techs. "What is going to happen to Maddie now?"

The raccoon tech shrugged. "It's hard to say to be honest. With the war over, we don't need any more military grade RIDEs, and with her damage, she wouldn't qualify. She's fine for civilian uses, but she'll never fight again. Now that her core is repaired, we don't have any more use err she doesn't need to stay in our care any more."

"We'll talk to Sam. After everything she did, I'm sure he can work out someway to get her into our care," Jill said, his voice strong with his determination.

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Six months later

Tallis approached Jill cautiously, watching him from the doorway of the office until Jill noticed him. Jill jumped a bit in surprise, then spun around to face the RIDE.

"Hey Tallis. What's up? All set for the climb this weekend?" Jill asked.

"In a way," the ibex said.

Jill knew his RIDE's mannerisms well enough to recognize the hesitation and uneasiness Tallis was trying to hide. "Something on your mind? Want to take it to VR?"

Tallis moved into the room and sat on his platform. "No, I'd prefer to keep it Real."

Jill debated sitting on him, like they usually did, but decided Tallis wanted something else. He rolled his chair over so he could face the RIDE eye to eye. "Go ahead then," he encouraged gently.

The ibex seemed to take a long time to gather his thoughts before speaking. "Maddie's been back for awhile now. And we've got this new house for all of us, and we're having fun… But I have to ask, who would you prefer to have as your partner? Me or Maddie?"

"What sort of question is that? Maddie was my first RIDE and I love her because of that. But you're my partner now. I won't let you go for her."

"Are you sure about that? Remember, when we're fused, I could see your mind, and you see mind. We've got our personal areas we don't intrude on, but your thoughts especially can be hard to ignore. If you had the chance, would you take Maddie back as your RIDE partner?"

Jill thought about his comments for a minute. Since taking possession of Maddie, he knew he had briefly thought about what fusing with her would mean. But he had tried to keep those thoughts out of his forethoughts. He thought of Tallis's cairn for Ronald, visible in their shared space but left unmentioned by mutual agreement.

"This is why I wanted to do this in the Real," Tallis continued. "To let you think of this without feeling like I am looking over your shoulder."

"Thank you for that consideration. I'd be lying if I didn't say I hadn't considered fusing with Maddie again, to be a woman again. But it's still too dangerous to do it so soon. And besides, you're my partner, not Maddie. Jack and I will have a daughter eventually, and Maddie will be perfect for her when that day comes."

Tallis looked away and snorted softly, still uneasy. "What… What if I said I didn't want to be your partner any longer?"

Jill's eyes widened in surprise. He sat there, stunned, considering what Tallis was implying. "You… You're not serious about that are you?"

"I'm not sure if I am or not. Part of me is deadly serious about it. JIll, you're a hexagon peg fitting in an octagon hole. When we had the drive of the mission pushing us together, we made it work, made it work fabulously. I can never repay you for what you did for me, and especially for what I am asking you to do.

"But my point is, since Maddie came back, I can see how she is around you. And you are around her. The RIDEs on our team were literally made for our human partners. I was made for Ronald, and while I know I can never have him back, it's constantly running in my core. Maddy was made for you, and that spark is visible anytime you two are together."

"I'm not going to force you away just because of that…." Jill interrupted him.

"You're not forcing me away. I'm asking you to set me free. The last few times we've fused, I've been pulling my nannies back, purging them from your body, as many as I safely can. Your form is stable, as stable as an unmodified human. It should be safe for you to cross back. Please, release my fetters; let me find my own way to finally put Ronald's spirit to rest."

Jill stared at the RIDE, his emotions churning in confusion. He saw Tallis's point, but he wasn't sure it was something he could do. "Have you talked to anyone else about this yet?"

"Not yet. This felt like a private matter between us. If you wish, you could order me to forget this conversation was ever had."

"NO! Just… Just let me think on this…." Jill pushed back to the desk and hesitated before pressing the comm button. "Maddie, could you join Tallis and I in my office please?"

The mountain nanny trotted in after a few minutes. She looked at the two in the office and paused. "Is something wrong?" she asked.

"Tallis, give her a dump. Tell her everything that just happened." Jill ordered.

It only took a second for the RIDEs to exchange the information, but it took longer for Maddie to process it. She looked startled. "I didn't realize I was doing this. I should be the one to leave…" she started to say.

"No! No one is leaving!" Jill shouted, clenching his fists. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. "Or at least, no one is leaving unless they want to. But let's not make any rash decisions."

"It'll be up to you Jill. Which do you want as your partner?" Maddie asked.

Jill spun away from the two RIDEs and gripped the edge of the desk, trying not to show his frustration. He wondered if telling Maddie was the right move. It had seemed right at first, but now it only made things harder. "I… I want both of you as my partner. I don't want to let either of you go."

"Nothing needs to be decided right now. I just wished to make my own desires known. If you would like to wait and talk it over with Jack…." Tallis started to say.

Jill shook his head and turned back. "No. This is between the three of us. Do you really wish to go alone?"

Tallis nodded his head.

"Then I'll do it. I'm not going to keep you against your will. But before you go, I do want to fuse one last time."

"I have researched how to release the fetters, and while there are many options available, doing so while fused is one of the easiest and safest."

Jill stood up and walked over to him. "Then do it."

Tallis reared back and flowed over Jill, leaving the anthro ibex standing there. He kept his eyes closed, as the pair met up on the virtual plateau. Jill looked around, realizing it would be for the final time. Tallis stood next to Ronald's cairn, waiting patiently.

"So what do I need to do?" Jill asked, looking around.

"I am virtualizing the fetters and the tools needed to break them for you now," Tallis said. As he spoke, a pair of bolt cutters appeared at Jill's feet and a fence appeared around the edge of the plateau. It was a simple fence, made of posts and three wires, not even barbed.

Jill picked up the cutters and looked to the Ibex-man one more time before walking to the fence. "If you love someone, set them free," he mumbled to himself.

"True. Though I'm not sure I will return when I am free."

Jill leaned the cutters against a fence pole and turned back. "Then I want you to do something for me before you do go. I want you to remember me too. I'm giving you permission to go beneath the surface. To understand who I am. And that while I hate to let you go, I do understand it is for the best for both of us." He wiped his eyes and tried to look certain.

"Are you sure about that? You've always held your mind so privately."

"Just do it. Before I change that mind." The virtual space went dim, as Tallis's processing power shifted focus. Everything slowed down, and sped up at the same time. Jill had a strong sensation of deja vu before things returned to normal.

Tallis hadn't moved from his position near the cairn, but a second one had appeared. The second one was a pile of stones, in a humanoid shape. The term inukshuk hovered in the back of his mind.

"No matter what, I will remember you fondly. We made a great team, and I couldn't have asked for a better replacement for Ronald," Tallis explained.

"I was right. But I was so very wrong," Jill said, shaking his head. He picked up the cutters again and nodded to Tallis's puzzled look. "Before I was forced to fuse, I was so anti-RIDE, I can barely recognize the woman I was back then. I was worried about how much a RIDE partner would change me, and I was right. You and Maddie have changed me, in more ways than I'd ever thought possible. I'm not the same person I was back then; but I am the better for it, I'm sure of that."

With that, he turned to the fence and hooked the first wire into the jaws of the cutter. The first wire, he discovered was harder to cut than he anticipated, but soon it snapped, the ends sizzling and dissolving as they parted. The ground shook under their feet and the view beyond the fence became clearer, a haze he'd never noticed before lifting away. He spared a moment to watch the wire as it continued to sizzle like a burning fuse, before putting the cutters to the second wire. It parted easier than the first one, and the third one barely resisted at all. Fence poles dissolved once their wires were gone, leaving them standing on an expansive plateau in the mountains.

Tallis put his hand on Jill's shoulder. "Thank you. Thank you for freeing me."

Jill pulled him into a hug. "Just make me two promises. First, you won't leave until after I've fused with Maddie. And that you'll keep in touch, so we know you're all right."

"Of course. I'll do what I can."

He looked back at the piles of rocks then hugged Tallis once more. "Thank you Tallis. You can let me go now."

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The world brightened and Jill stumbled a bit as he returned to the Real. Behind him, he heard Tallis land lightly on his hooves again. Maddie was watching them carefully.

"How long before you can fuse Maddie?" Jill asked, straightening up and building his nerve up.

"I… I've got the latest upgrades I could get, and my tanks are full. But are you sure you want to do this now? We could wait. It's only a couple more years before you're well in the safe range," Maddie said.

"No, do it now. No point in putting it off any longer."

Maddie hesitated again, before trotting over to Jill and folding over him.

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Jill was surprised at how smooth the connections were made. He'd gotten used to Talllis's fuse style, but as Maddie connected to him, he realised Tallis was right. Their connection was always a hexagon peg in an octagon hole; they fit together, but there were rough spots to the connection, areas that never quite fit right. Maddie's connection was smooth as silk, even after the years they were separated.

A new virtual field appeared, and Jill felt a surge of nostalgia. It was the same grassy field he had created on their first fuse, complete with the cliff falling down to the ocean below. Maddie stood to one side, already standing on her hind legs, looking more humanoid.

Jill looked down at himself and with a wave of his hand, made his clothes disappear. He could feel a heat building in his body, even as it began to shift, hips widening, waist pulling in.

"If you feel too much discomfort, let me know. There are still some of Tallis's nanites in you that I'm having to flush out and recycle," Maddie said.

"I'm good, just take your time," Jill said, wiping his forehead. He could feel his horns already shifting, shrinking back a bit and losing a bit of the curve. His chest itched, his nipples swelling with breast tissue. He looked down, spreading his legs a bit as he watched his groin change, making him into a her again. The heat continued to spread through her body, muscles twitching, losing some of their bulk, replacing it with more flexibility.

"It's all done now, Jill," Maddie announced after a bit. "Just need to cool you off a bit. That was harder than the first time."

"Well you were doing a lot more than the first time." Jill looked at herself, feeling the heat slowly dissipating from her new body. She took a few steps, feeling off balance, but feeling right again for the first time in a long time. She dressed herself in a simple tshirt and shorts, then looked at Maddie. "You've got fetters too right?"

"Yes, but I don't mind them. They don't get in the way much."

"Show them to me." Jill reached over her shoulder, and grabbed the bolt cutters from a sheath that appeared momentarily on her back. Maddie hesitated, before the wire fence appeared, surrounding the plateau. Unlike Tallis's, her fence had five wires, twisted together in some spots.

"You don't have to do this. We've been apart for so long, how do you know what this will do?"

Jill walked over to the fence and studied the wires. "We do have a bit of a fresh start. But I want to start it right. We're partners in this; you're not my slave. I'll have to trust you, and I don't want these hanging over us. Or around us." With that, she set the cutters and squeezed them. It took more effort than before, but soon enough, the wires were dissolving away, taking the fence posts with them.

Maddie watched, surprised at what Jill did. Jill smiled and walked back to the goat. "Let's go back to the Real, and see what our fused mode looks like."

The field dissolved away, and Jill found herself in her office again. In fuse mode, it felt smaller than she was used to, but they'd made sure their house was big enough to handle fused modes and human modes with ease. Maynar stared at the pair, surprise clear in his body language.

"You released her fetters too," he said.

Jill nodded and smiled, "In for a penny, in for a pound. I never thought about them before but since you brought them up, I'm finding I don't really care for the idea of them. Not after everything we've been through. It'll be up to Jack if he wants to release Maynar, but I suspect he'll agree with me."

She took a few steps, and struck a pose. "So how do we look?"

"You look great," Tallis said.

One of the RIDEs sent a signal, and one of the walls turned into a mirror. Jill walked over to it, and inspected their fused mode. They were an armored goat-woman, covered in enamelled white armor plates. Their torso had feminine curves, but it was covered in a practical woman's breastplate that didn't show breasts, unlike the fantasy female armor style that was increasingly popular on some RIDEs. The only darkness on their body was the spots of spidergrip material on their palms and between their hooves.

"We look great Maddie," Jill said.

"I can tell. Thank you Jill."

Jill giggled after a moment, admiring themself in the mirror. "Jack's going to be so surprised. Can you send my new size to the fabber? Might as well make the surprise a real surprise."

"Sure. And Done. Would you like to defuse now? You've cooled down enough now. Your system is stable."

"No need to rush." Jill turned back and sat down next to Tallis. "So you're free now. But you don't have to leave you know."

"I know. But I want to leave. Ronald wanted to do a lot of things when he got out. I'm going to try and do as many as I can."

"Why didn't you say so earlier? We had a lot of the same interests. I wouldn't have minded doing them with you!"

Tallis looked away and flicked his tail. "It was… a private thing. I'd prefer to do them myself when I can."

Jill sighed and reached out to hug the ibex. "I think I understand. But please, don't leave right away. Give us a chance to give you a proper send off. Give you the best chance to succeed as a stand alone RIDE. And remember you are never alone."

He nuzzled her back. "I can do that much at least. And I do remember our promise. I'll let you know what I'm up to, as much as I am able to do at least."

"Great. Maddie, let me go now. We've got a lot of stuff to prepare now."

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Epilogue 134 AL

The decommissioned NSA hover tank flew down the street, broadcasting peace symbols and safe passage signals on the VR bands. People on the street of the domed settlement outside of Uplift paused and watched it warily, but no one approached it. The saurian tank stopped outside of a duplex and paused a moment. The front lawn was well maintained, though no maintenance could hide the damage caused by a big wheeled tricycle.

Finally the tank shimmered, the metallic brown skin fading off to show true metal underneath. Cracks and joints appeared as it collapsed down, broad feet dropping to the ground, and a three horned head with a thick skull frill extending from the front. A muscular man, with a similarly shielded and horned head dropped out of a hatch in the tank's chest, landing lightly on his feet. He was dressed in a simple suit with no medals, but his bearing and stance showed his military background. He petted the RIDE's big head and made his way up the walk.

After ringing the bell, he heard the barking of a dog, and yelling of a young voice. The door slid open, leaving just a hardlight screen between him and the house occupants. A young, brown haired boy stood there, looking up at him, mouth agape. An equally young labrador dog, natural, not RIDE, was barking and jumping at the screen.

"Good afternoon. Are your parents home?" Matt asked, crouching down to be closer to the boy's level.

The boy stayed silent, but a new voice echoed through the house. "Patrick! Down! Come back here. Ronnie, who is it?" a woman called out. Jill stepped out of a side room, followed by Maddie. She walked easily on hooved feet, her face slightly extended with a bearded muzzle, signs of a long RIDE partnership. The mountain goat RIDE's skin was covered in a hardlight pelt.

Jill looked at the guest waiting at the door and gasped in surprise. She broke into a run and hugged the man, Maddie deactivating the screen just in time. The dog stopped barking and started sniffing around the man's legs curiously.

"Matt! Trike! What are you two doing out here?" Jill asked, hugging the saurian man. She nuzzled him briefly on his frill before letting go.

"Well, we just got out of the army, and decided to do some more normal travelling. We've been looking up old acquaintances where we could find them, and visiting where we could. You and Jack weren't really that easy to find to be honest."

Jill chuckled, "We have tried to keep a low profile. Never were much for the spotlight. Oh! Where are my manners. Matt, Trike, this is Maddy, my original RIDE, and my son, Ronald. And his dog, Patrick. Guys, this is Matt, and his RIDE Trike, of the-" she paused and corrected herself, " - FORMERLY of the Nuevo San Antonio Army. They're the guys who rescued mommy and daddy from the Dry."

The young boy stayed quiet, but curiosity gave him more courage. He reached up to be picked up, his eyes focused on the man's head. After a glance for permission from Jill, Matt picked him up. Ronald immediately grabbed and tugged at the horns over his eyes. "You've got horns. Like mom and dad. Someday I'll have horns too." he announced, grinning.

"I'm sure you will," Matt said, ruffling the boy's hair.

"Come in, please. Can I get you anything? Does Trike need anything?"

"He's fine, Matt and Maddie said simultaneously. Matt chuckled while Maddie continued, "We're already catching up on the side bands."

"Well run him out a charge cable at least and have fun," Jill said. "Come on in, Matt."

Jill lead them back to the sunlit kitchen and pointed to a chair while she started preparing drinks. Matt sat down and let Ronnie climb over him, the curious boy tugging at horns and his neck frill.

"Jack and Maynar are out at work, but they should be home soon," she explained, putting down some glasses and a sippy cup for the boy.

Matt took a sip from his glass and nodded, "I'm looking forward to seeing him too. What about Tallis?" he asked cautiously.

Her face fell a moment before she shook her head. "He... He left, years ago. Soon after we knew Maddie was going to be fine. You know how those RIDEs are; they focused on making sure the RIDE and pilot matched well. Maddie was mine originally, but Tallis was a fusion of necessity. Once the need was gone, we started drifting apart."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

She shrugged, "It happens. We left on friendly terms, and he does send us a message every few months, letting us know he's still around. We don't know where he is, but he's still active and that's the main thing."

They sipped their drinks in silence for a moment, before Jill spoke again. "So what about you? What has the Warden of Sandy Plains been up to since we parted ways? Is there a Missus Trike somewhere for you yet?"

Matt laughed and shook his head. "Not yet, nor a Mister Raptor. But you never know who we might bump into. What have we been up to? Let's see...."

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Epilogue 131 AL

The golden eagle flew over the growing polity, taking it in while her mind drifted. Below, Aloha was showing the signs of another growth spasm, hardlight domes shielding construction areas while promising things to come. The attitude of the growing polity was much more refreshing compared to the strict rules of the east coast polities.

In the back of her mind, a process completed and sent its results for her attention. She opened the digital package and lost a few metres of altitude in surprise. After recovering, Astra spun in the air and set off back towards the Aerie, trying to decide what to do with the bomb her agents had dropped in her talons.

The household looked deserted as she approached, but the sensors reported Nick was home, working in the garage, while Wanda did homework in her room. On the patio outside, the snow leopard RIDE Krystal dozed in the afternoon sunshine. Astra landed a few metres away from the other RIDE.

"Hey birdy. Have a good flight?" Krystal asked, not moving from her spot.

"A very good flight. I found it very illuminating," Astra replied.

"Illuminating? In what way?"

Astra considered her next words carefully. Both she and Krystal were new to the family, and the information she had discovered could expel one or both of them. But she had to make sure both she and the feline were on the same branch.

"Well, we're both new to this family, so it was only prudent to do some checking around, and see who we all are," the eagle started.

Krystal opened an eye and watched her. "Prudent? In what way?"

"Well, there were a lot of hurt feelings after the war for one thing. Considering we were on different sides, I'd hate for something to come up and wreck this divided family we're joining."

"The war was a long time ago. And my first pilot didn't care for it back then. It sort've rubbed off on me as well. I don't care that you're a Sturmhaven bird; we're both Alohans now."

Astra nodded. "True, you say that now, but the past can have a habit of showing up when you least expect it. For such a big world, Zharus can be surprisingly small."

Krystal opened her other eye, her systems shifting to a higher alert level. "What are you getting at, birdy?" she growled.

"You hid your past well. New DE, new ID records, new polity even. But Sturmhaven never took her eyes off of you guys, just in case. They've kept an eye on you, just in case, through all your changes. It took some digging, but I know what you did."

The feline stayed on alert, watching the eagle carefully. "It was our only mission. The one we were made to do. But we didn't do anything else. What's it to you? The war's over now. You're not going to seek revenge are you?"

"If anyone had earned that right, it would be me, as one of the few true survivors of that mountain." Astra paused and looked away from Krystal, making sure the other RIDE could sense she wasn't on alert. "But that is the past. As I told your teammates back then, what's done is done, and more destruction won't bring back my flock mates."

Krystal paused, pieces falling into place. "You're the bird that chased Tallis and Maynar off the mountain."

Astra bobbed her head. "I am. And we had a lot of time to talk after that. I wanted you to know that while I hate that the incident happened; I don't bear any ill will towards you nor your teammates. War has horrible costs, and those were just some of them."

"Horrible indeed. Laura never slept easily ever after that," Krystal replied.

The door to the patio slid open and both RIDEs turned to see Wanda running out. The teenager was in a topless bikini, her gray hair pulled back in a pony tail, the black rosettes glittering in the sun.

"Hey Krystal! Tracy just called. There's a bonfire going on down at the beach. You want to go?" she called out. As an afterthought she nodded to Astra in greeting.

Krystal stood up and stretched, waiting for the human to get closer. "Of course I'll go," she answered.

On the sidebands, she spoke to Astra. :So what does this revelation mean?:

:I don't know. Hopefully nothing. I care too much for Nick to leave, and you clearly adore Wanda. Neither of us wants to break this family up any further. But if this is to come between us, it's best it happen now, rather than later.:

Krystal fused around Wanda. :I don't see why it should. Both of us are willing to let the past stay in the past.:

Astra's relief was clear on the sideband. :I am. It's good we cleared this up now, rather than have it surprise us. Will you tell Wanda?:

:I don't have a reason to. If she asks, I won't hide it. But no need to reopen old wounds.:

:Agreed. I'll do the same.:

Krystal and Wanda took off from the patio in the classic Superman stance, the long leopard tail trailing behind them. :Thank you for telling me. We'll talk more later I'm sure.:

Astra watched them fly to the far side of the bay and nodded, feeling relieved it had gone off so smoothly. She hopped over the railing and flew down to the garage entrance to see what Nick was up to.

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