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User:Jetfire/Cat Scratch Fever
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Cat Scratch Fever
Construction site, Nuevo San Antonio, 157AL
Apu hung off a girder and pulled on the ropes to help guide in the prebuilt chunk of the hotel tower into place. The entire framework shuddered as the weight of the module settled into place, and the monkey RIDE joined the rest of the workers in fusing the module to the rest of the building, and hooking up the connections. Unlike most RIDEs, he didn't have a human partner, and he was fine with that; being a spider-monkey RIDE, he had more than enough dexterity to work in the world of humans without needing help. Still, as a RIDE he did have fuse capabilities which coincided well with his side job.
"So you're looking for a quick fuse to cross RIDE?" he asked in VR while keeping an eye on the Real. In VR he was hanging by his tail from a tall tree. In front of him was a woman with heavy red fox tags, not to mention large breasts and a figure that curved so much the eye threatened to go off the edge. She was sitting on a convenient log, just high enough and flat enough to sit on comfortably.
"Exactly. I took this fuse as a bet, and won it. But I'm more than tired of it. Too high maintenance, and my back's killing me," she answered.
"So it's been at least three years since you crossed?"
"Three long, back breaking years."
"Mind if I check? Just so neither of us have a painfully unpleasant surprise."
A purse materialized next to her, and she pulled out a wallet. She lobbed it over to him. He caught it easily and flipped it open, the digital identification information uploading automatically. Her name was Winifred "Fred" Burkle, a student from Cape Nord of all places. She'd turned in her man card and fused with the bimbo RIDE at a strip club in the frozen polity just under four years ago. Soon after she'd moved to Uplift, but the rest of the details were irrelevant as far as Apu was concerned.
He flipped the wallet closed and tossed it back. "Your ID says you're living in Uplift now. What brings you down to San Antonio?"
"I'm looking for a job. Most of the places I've gone to can't get past my appearance now though so it's been a tough haul, unless I wanted to go all in."
"I see, but why didn't you just fuse yourself down to a more normal look? Any female RIDE could've smoothed you down a bit from the Debbie Does Dallas levels."
She glared at him indignantly. "And lose the bet?! No way!"
Apu rolled his eyes at the craziness of humans. A paper airplane appeared in his hands and he tossed it to her. She caught it out of the air and it dissolved. "My fees. If those are acceptable, we can meet up after my shift and return your manhood."
"That's fine. The sooner the better. My hotel room fine?"
"Sure. See you at twenty-hundred."
"Twenty-hundred!" Apu thought he had lost the client the way she reacted. "It'll really take that long before you can cross me?"
"Look, I just do these quick changes on the side. I've still gotta make a living, especially since I'm independent. I ain't got nose human to support my power and sarium bill. Meet me at 20:00, or you're looking for another crosser."
She froze a moment, then sighed. Apu knew she had to have just done another search, and knew all the regulars wouldn't be free until the next day regardless. "Fine, that'll be fine. See you at 20:00. Don't be late."
The connection was broken, and Apu refocused on his Real work.
Apu arrived at the hotel just before 20:00. It was an inland hotel, without a clear view of the beach, so it wasn't as opulent as the resorts on the coast. He floated up to the balcony of the room and transformed from his skimmer mode back to his monkey mode, catching the lip of the balcony above and hanging there. He triggered the doorbell and waited.
The door slid open after a few moments, revealing Winifred. Her VR avatar hadn't been an exaggeration; her Real body was as busty and as curvy as her persona had shown. She was dressed in a blouse and shorts that did little to hide her assets.
"Thank goodness you're here. When can we do this?" she asked, without waiting for introductions.
Apu swung into the room and landed next to the bed. "As soon as you want to. There's just a bit of tablet work to take care of first." He passed over a tablet. "Just need you to authorize the mu transfer, and sign the waiver saying it's just a one time fuse, body change only, no obligations past the fuse, that it's been more than three years since your last cross RIDE, blah blah blah. I need to cover my tail after all."
She didn't even take the time to read the contract. She pressed her thumb at the base of it, acknowledging it and tossed it back. "Now can we get this over with?"
"As good a time as any." Apu stepped closer to her and activated his fuse systems. He felt panels sliding in his body, expanding it so he'd be big enough to hold a human. He stood up straighter, his chest, arms and legs opening up. Automated systems took hold of the woman and lifted her into the cavity that had formed. It closed up, and the silvery nanite fluid flowed over her.
Immediately he could tell something was wrong. Normally when recrossing someone, he expected to find lingering nanites from the original cross, designed to help stabilize the crossed person's bio system. After three years, they were usually either mostly flushed out, or inactive. But in Winifred's case he found her system still flooded, and still very active. It was like she'd only been crossed for a few weeks, instead of the four years she'd claimed.
Shocked, he sent an abort command and started to cancel the fuse, when he got his second surprise. A subset of the nannies in her system lit up even as his own fuse nannies tried to pull back. They grabbed and overrode his commands, forcing his fuse to continue, spreading into his DE's systems to make sure he couldn't abort. All he could do was watch as the two sets of fuser nanites fought to control what Winifred's body would become. The virtual model of her body shifted constantly as the war waged over her body. Ears rounded, then became pointed again. The tail lengthened and shortened, losing and gaining its fur. Hair turned brown, then red, then back to brown. Her breasts shrunk and grew, sometimes in unison, sometimes one at a time. All the while, her body temperature steadily rose.
The war prevented him from forming a fuse link to her mind, but he could still sense some of her brainwaves. He could see the pain centres light up brighter and brighter, though her actual body was paralyzed, keeping her from speaking out. His own body grew hotter as it tried to dissipate the heat of the fuse, cooling the fuse chamber as much as he could, to no avail. The invasive nannies continued to spread through his systems, usually passive until he tried to do something to stop the fuse. He sent a 911 signal out, but barely had time to connect to the hotel's comm system before the invaders muted him.
Shocked and scared, he began to retreat, fighting fire with firewalls to protect his core. He broke the final connections between his RI and DE, just as he sensed Winifred flatline. With the last connections, he had the feeling of the invasive nannies locking his DE down, keeping him in fuse mode even with the human dead. He dove into a dense jungle, surrounded by a wall of fire, and found a tall tree he could climb and curl up in.
The bronze wyvern stopped just outside a hard light isolation field that engulfed three floors of the hotel. The fused pair wore a blue vest with black shorts, a cobalt star over their breast and a stetson settled between their horns. A bored looking officer sitting in a skimmer hovering just outside the field came to attention as they flew up.
"Howdy Officer. Marshal Constantino Saleno here. I believe we were called in?" the wyvern pair greeted him, the bronze coloured wings flapping needlessly in the air. Up close, the wyvern had a hardlight skin that still showed metallic bronze coloured scales, light on his front, dark with black tiger-striping on his back. He had a draconic head with short horns.
"Of course, Marshal. Go right in," the officer replied, pressing a button. A portal spiraled open in the hardlight shield.
The pair flew in and landed on the landing pad just inside the dome. They walked in to find a standard hotel room. The bed had a suitcase with men's clothing in it. In the garbage can was a small pile of female clothing. A couple of investigators were going through both piles carefully. In the middle of the room was another hardlight isolation dome, cleared so they could see the scorched DE frame inside. Four other investigators were talking and scanning the dome. One spotted the wyvern pair and quickly excused himself.
"Tino! Tycyn! Glad you guys could make it," he exclaimed, holding his arms out for a hug. He didn't have any RIDE tags.
"Hi Jimmy. Wish it was under better circumstances. What do we have here?"
The investigator pointed to the smaller dome. "RIDE is an independent spider monkey named Apu. Was originally made to work as a laborer for Eastern Construction out of Uplift. When the RIDE emancipation laws went in, he took his backpay in the form of company shares and continued to work for them here in NSA. Hires himself out as a no-strings attached RIDE, good for those looking to CrossRIDE or just find out what its like."
"Yeah, with Sturmhaven right next door, I suspect he had a lot of business."
"Steady business for sure. He was always cautious though, making sure his clients were well outside the danger zone and knew what they were getting. And he made sure everything was well documented. That client's paperwork is still on the tablet on the bed there."
Tino moved closer to the dome and looked in. Tycyn helpfully lit up some points of interest, noting the DE was still in fuse mode, but completely locked up. The core was still active, but unresponsive. "So what happened here?"
"Beats us. The signs are of a cross-fuse too soon; but it should not have gotten that hot, nor locked up the DE like that. Even if the safeties failed, it would have killed the human and the DE would have ejected it.
"The core is still active, but in lockdown. We can't get any signals in to it yet, so we can't question Apu about what happened."
Tino nodded, gathering information and fitting it in with what they'd been briefed on before leaving the station. "He'd be the first. Lucky him. What about the human victim?"
"First? Uhm well the human victim is one Winifred Burkle of Cape Nord, and then from Uplift. We're trying to dig further, but he nor she isn't showing up in the records of either polity, at least not with the information Apu recorded in his contract. What do you mean first? Why are the Marshals involved?" Jimmy looked worriedly at the wyvern.
Tino held up their hands, "She won't show up in either of their records if the pattern holds. Your initial scene reports triggered some alarms back in HQ, and I was deemed the most appropriate responder who was handy. Tycyn and I are still processing the info dump as is, but it ain't pretty.
"This is the seventh case of cross-RIDE murder we've had in the past few years or so. The first confirmed case was in Nujose of all places, Two in Sturmhaven, one in Aloha, one up in Cape Nord, and the last, before this one, down in Punta Sur. All cases have similar situations; the DE locked in fuse mode, and scorched almost beyond recognition, the human victim's IDs only matching some obscure TwenCen character, and usually the RI core crashed. Apu might be our first witness."
"Seventh? Mon dieu, what a monster! Who could do this sort of thing?"
"No clue. Have you done a nannie scan yet?"
One of the other techs spoke up. "Just finished. We've identified 3 colonies. One matches a standard male spider monkey fuse. Another is a Vixen variant. And a third is a monster, practically above nanite range. But its already self destructing. We're getting what we can from it, but there's just bits and pieces left."
Tycyn spoke up for the first time. "That matches the other reports I'm processing. They found traces of a foreign colony, but only traces; not enough to figure out what they did or who built them. Isolate what you can, we'll need all you can get."
"Trying to, Marshal. It's falling apart as we speak."
"Get what you can. It's probably our best lead," Tino said. He looked back at Jimmy. "I could send you the reports on the other bodies if you want them."
The inspector looked a little green and shook his head quickly. "No no, that's fine. Sounds like this is more of a Marshal matter now. I'll happily pass the monkey to you."
"Right, thanks. I think. You guys seem to have this well in hand. Copy me on everything you've got from here, and let me know as soon as we can attempt to talk to Apu. Tycyn and I have to finish digesting the rest of this mess."
The Next Morning
The Marshals occupied the middle floors of the Central Police Station in Nuevo San Antonio. The theory was that by sharing the same building they were on hand if one ever needed the other, but in practice the agencies rarely met, save for the daily elevator commute.
Marshal Tino Saleno paced in his office, looking at the seven reports glowing in the air. His stetson was hung on a rack against his door, and he was dressed in a vest and shorts. The bronze skin of his wing membranes rustled as he paced, talons clicking on the floor. Tycyn perched on the rail of the landing pad just outside his office, watching his partner and staying quiet. The view from the office was a standard cityscape, with a clear view of dozens of towers. By leaning out from the railing, the ocean was just visible.
"So we caught the hot potato now," he said, looking at the seven scorched corpses. The first was a dog, then two horses, a wolf, a cat, a skunk, and now the monkey.
"Well we do have the latest case, and the most evidence compared to the rest. Those bodies weren't discovered until too late to get much information." Tycyn said. He tilted his head to one side. "The techs just messaged. They've got Apu's core extracted and in a rig. He's still running firewalls, but they can connect to him at least."
Tino signaled to turn off the displays and grabbed his hat. "Well, let's go see what our witness saw."
The department's forensic lab was like most other labs; complete with the seemingly prerequisite raccoon RIDE pair. The RIDE part of the pair met them at the elevator.
"Hi there! Welcome to our workshop!" the RIDE greeted them before turning back and starting to head in deeper. "Please, come this way. We're about to hook up the interface."
"Right, thanks. Was it damaged any?" Tino asked, falling into step behind the big RIDE.
"A little but not much. He had an armored core. The bad nannies tried to goop it, but couldn't get through before they self blew up."
"An armored core? That isn't normal for civie RIDEs," Tycyn pointed out.
"It isn't. But Apu had it retroed in. Lots of construction RIDEs do that. Figure if the humans have a hard hat 'round their noggin, they should have one too. Here we go."
The raccoon-tagged human techie was working around a softball sized gray orb set in a cradle. The surface was etched with lines, but none went in deep. The tech was carefully examining an access port with a scanner.
"Welcome Marshal. Just give me another second here; thought we had it all cleared up but one of the data lines snapped. I'll have it fixed in a jiffy." She inserted another device into the port and watched a readout on her glasses.
"So his core is fine?"
"Completely fine. But his interface got chewed up but good. All done!"
Tino looked at the orb that was all that was left of his witness. "So what now? Hook him up and start questioning him?"
She nodded and plugged in cables. "Exactly… uhm maybe not exactly." She studied more readouts. The RIDE fused around her and the pair continued to putter around while the Marshals waited.
"OK not so exactly. He's got firewalls up. I can't get a signal through to him saying it's safe. I'm not sure what we can do."
"What about an Intie? His DINSec was in his DE, with the hardware exposed, they should be able to get in."
"Maybe, but we don't have an Intie cleared to do such an operation. The only intie on the force caught a memevirus and is detoxifying somewhere out in the Dry. But you guys are sending a Lithium Intie right? To take a look at the remains of the nannie cloud?"
"That explains why the local mesh got flooded with Care Bears. Hope Ursa shakes it soon." Tycyn said before the wyvern looked away. "Shards! We just can't catch a break can we? Just got notice; Our guy's delayed. Nothing case related but his sub got redirected to Omphalos due to mechanical issues. He won't be in till tomorrow morning now."
"Omphalos? How the hell does a sub from Aloha to Antonio end up at Omphalos?" Tino asked.
"Apparently their lifters malfunctioned and sent them higher than expected. They're actually at the Omphalos anchor station."
"Yikes, that would do it." Tino tapped his taloned fingers on a table thoughtfully. "Could you set up a shared space for us even with his firewalls up? Without damaging him?"
"Of course. But what use would it be? He's walled him off from the outside world."
"Dunno, but I'd like to give it a shot. Tycyn please check the Marshal digiarmory, see what sort of extinguishers we've got handy."
The large wyvern flew over a vast grassy prairie. Thunder rumbled around the clouds far overhead, but the air itself was dry and thick with static. Occasionally a bolt of lightning flashed, striking the ground or arcing between thunderheads.
In the distance, the prairie gave way to a thick jungle, separated by a wall of flames that reached into the sky.
:Any ideas Tycyn?: Tino asked his partner.
:Nothing coming to mind. The flames are thick, and loud, We couldn't make him hear us if we wanted to:
:So shouting's out. What about going through?:
:I wouldn't do that. We're not that fire proof. But I've got the specs of the firewall code now. Let me see if there's anything in the Marshal armory.:
The virtual realm froze for a moment, then began to twist. The emulated world became a valley, linking the prairie to the jungle. The firewall condensed and became a fire elemental blocking the way between them. They hovered in the air at the prairie end of the valley, the elemental watching them but not moving from its position in the middle.
:What did you grab?: Tino asked.
:A paradigm shifter so we'd have an easier target. The rest is finishing uploading now.: As Tycyn spoke, metallic cylinders appeared on their back, on either side of their spine. Nozzles flipped into place over their shoulders, connected with piping to the tanks. :Range sucks, but it should work. We just need to get close enough without getting burned.:
The battle went surprisingly quickly. While the fire elemental took up much of the space, it didn't have the speed the wyvern pair had. They dodged its flaming fists and shot globs of foam into the centre of the fiery mass. Each successful strike shrunk the elemental, making the following shots easier. They ended up landing on the valley floor and giving the tiny flames both nozzles to extinguish it completely. The path cleared, they were able to fly on, into the jungles of Apu's core.
:Any sign of him?: Tino asked. The jungle itself was eerily quiet and still. He knew Tycyn's virtual space was constantly in motion, winds, grasses, lightning storms and other elements were constantly moving, representing the subprocesses that made up the RI's mind. Apu's jungle had little noise, and no movement save from those caused by their own passage.
:Over here. I'm picking up some activity.: The fused pair swung around a big tree and over a sluggish river. Tycyn stopped them at a tree that looked little different from any other tree around, save for the torn up leaf fragments that dropped from above.
The wyvern shimmered a moment, and split in two. Both were still bronze scaled, but one was more humanoid, dressed in a marshal uniform similar to what Tino wore in the Real. Tycyn's hands stretched out, expanding his wingspan, losing his remaining humanoid traits.
Still hovering in the air, Tino approached the trunk of the tree and looked up. He spotted movement among the leafy branches, hearing muffled sobbing, mixed with the wet tearing of leaves. He looked at Tycyn and pointed upwards. The wyvern lifted higher in the air, disappearing above the trees.
Tino waited a few moments, then spoke quietly, trying to be reassuring. "Apu? We're Marshals. We're here to help you."
As he half expected, the monkey screeched in surprise and bolted higher up the tree. He screeched again a moment before the hidden sky lit up and a crack of thunder echoed. A few moments later, Tycyn dropped back into sight, a limp monkey in his talons, the monkey's fur standing on end.
"That was easier than it should be. He's really shaken," Tycyn said, carefully laying the RI Avatar on the ground.
"We've got him, but what do we do with him now? Maybe trying to interview him was a mistake."
Tycyn shrugged. A cage materialized around the avatar, the bars spaced close enough that he couldn't wiggle through, but far enough that the other two could see him clearly. "What's done is done. Ready for round two?"
Tino nodded, and Tycyn touched a bar of the cage. A spark leaped from the bar to the monkey, causing it to wake up and screech in surprise.
"No no no no! Get away! Get away!" Apu screeched, bouncing from wall to wall to ceiling, looking for a way out.
Tino materialized a banana and waited a moment. "Apu, please. You're safe now. The cage is for your own protection. We're Marshals, we're here to help you."
Apu stopped bouncing and stood in the middle of the cage, his eyes darting from side to side. He focused on the banana Tino held, and he shook his head. "Bananas? What do you think I am? I hate bananas!"
Tino dissolved the banana and smiled. "Right, silly me. How do you feel? You're safe now. Your DE is gone, but your RI is fine. We're here to help and find out what happened."
"What happened? What happened!? I nearly got killed! Deleted! Derezzed! The damn bitch was sabotaged!"
"Yes, but you're safe now. She's dead, as is your body. But that can be replaced. How did that happen? Is there anyone who might want to kill you like that?" Tycyn asked.
Apu froze a moment and eyed them suspiciously. "Maybe… Let me out of this cage and open a 'net connection and maybe I'll tell you."
Without checking with Tino, Tycyn dissolved the cage. Before either could react, the monkey lept into the branches overhead and disappeared.
"Shit!" Tino cursed, starting to lift up to follow, before his partner stopped him.
"Just wait…." the wyvern cautioned him. Around them, the jungle came back to life. The light glittered, becoming more focused from a hidden sun above instead of ambiently lit. Chirping birds and buzzing insects filled the air. The foliage brightened, the greens and browns becoming more lively. Tino noticed structures built into the trees and at the bend of a nearby stream that he hadn't noticed before. "He's snapped out of his loop now, and fully in control of his core again." Tycyn explained. "If he wanted to, he could probably eject us now."
"I could, but I won't. Youse guys check out." Apu dropped down from a branch, hanging from his tail, a hardhat on his head. "Come on up, we can talk more comfortably at least."
They followed him up through the branches, to a platform built into the top of the tree. It offered a view of the jungle, now alive with movement. The platform proved to be a workshop; Tino recognized models of a new hospital, and the new NSA airport terminal building, as well as a few projects that were just nondescript frameworks so far.
"Right, why don't we start with the basics. Can you share with us what happened? Starting from when you first heard of Winifred Burkle to when you retreated into your shell." Tino asked once they were settled.
In Virtual, it didn't take long for Apu to share what happened. Once they had the basics, the Marshals started trying to figure out the why's as best they could.
"Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm you somehow?" Tino asked. "Maybe another construction company? Or someone on your own teams?"
The monkey smirked. "I'm in construction. Just open the local directory, look under construction and start with the A's and go from there. Then do the same for the Uplift and Nextus directories. But this… this doesn't seem like anything they'd do. Those predator nannies… none of those guys would be smart enough to cook up anything like that."
"We're just covering all the bases. What about Winifred? Did you form any sort of link to her before the attack? Could you get anything from her mind?" Tycyn asked.
"Not a thing. It was too damn quick. And I don't usually bother with the mind link anyway. Too much baggage that neither of us care about. I'm just Wham! Bam! Thanks you're a Man! A mind link might make them come back to me to try and make something permanent."
They questioned him further, but it quickly became apparent that Apu didn't have much information beyond what he had shared. The wyvern pair wound the questioning down and prepared to disconnect, before Apu interrupted them.
"My body. Is it really that bad? No chance to get it back?"
"I'm afraid not," Tycyn answered him. "It was badly fuse locked. The coroner had to chop it up just to get the corpse out."
"Damn! I was afraid of that. I hate breaking in new bodies. But my core's fine right? You're talking to me and I can read the cradle I'm in."
Tino nodded, "Your core is fine. You might want to replace the armoring, but that saved it. It's more than the other six poor RIDEs had. The predator ate their cores as bad as the poor humans it locked in them."
"Other RIDEs? I'm not the first?" Apu asked, looking both scared and curious at the same time.
Tycyn gave his partner a cautious look. "There have been other… similar incidents. We think they may be related, but we have to cover all of the possibilities."
Apu shuddered. "Other guys went through what I did? Who could do this? Why us?"
"That is the million mu question." Tino formed a door on the edge of the platform. "If you think of anything else, please contact us. We'll leave the net connection open for you."
"Thanks. Not that I'll be doing much more than surfing till I get a new body." Apu slapped his chest. "Damnit! I gotta call da boss. Tell her I'm calling in bodiless. She's gonna be pissed."
Tycyn paused at the door that Tino had already left through. "We'll offer what help we can provide. Just ask and we'll do what we can."
The wyvern pair left the tech shop and caught the elevator down to the morgue. Tycyn was processing the coroner's initial reports, but Tino wanted to see the body first hand. The elevator dinged and opened up to a windowless chamber.
The morgue, including autopsy rooms, were located in a subbasement of the complex. The main room was covered in a sterile field, further subdivided into work tables with stronger fields as needed. A fused raptor was studying a device when the Marshal's entered.
"Morning, Doctors. How's the patient this morning?" Tino asked, resisting the urge to scratch as the sterile field flickered over his body.
"Frustratingly uncommunicative," the raptor replied, setting the device to one side. "Good day, Marshals. I take it you've seen my report?"
"We have. But Tino likes to get it straight from the saurian's mouth. You know how humans can be," Tycyn said. He hopped over to one of the sub domes, looking at the pile of RIDE parts contained within. After having to be cut apart to get the body out, it was hard to recognize them as a RIDE, let alone a spider-monkey.
"Guess I'm old fashioned that way. Considering this is the only body I can see in person, I figured I should see it while I had the chance."
The human Marshal moved to the sealed table and was thankful he could only see. The body on the table was a Frankenstein. One ear was foxy, while the other was a rounded simian. The tail was long, fluffy at the base, but less furred at the tip. It wasn't androgynous; instead it looked like a mad puzzlemaker had tried to assemble one person out of parts of a man and a woman. Each part was very masculine or feminine, even if the flesh next to it was the opposite. The only aspect in common through the entire form was the bright redness of the unfurred skin, caused by the pseudo-chemical nanite burns.
"Well, I'm not sure how much more you'll get from this by seeing it in person. Fred has told me all they're going to tell me. Cause of death was system shock due to nanite overheating from trying to multifuse. The third colony, the predator nanites, shut down the safeties and took over the controls to make sure both fuse sets would try to dominate." The raptor faced Tino as he spoke.
"We did see signs of integration attempts; that is often a failsafe the nannies try to do when all else is failing, but the predator seemed to anticipate that and broke up any islands of integration before they could spread. Probably for the best, I'd hate to think what they would be like had Integration succeeded."
Tino shuddered at the thought and put it to one side. "What about implants? Anything from her gear?"
"Nothing. The predators really like to cover their tracks. Fred had a standard loadout. Memory aids, commlinks, sense enhancers, immunoboosters and so forth. But they all got slagged as soon as the fuse started. I suspect most of the predator colonies were hiding in those implants. Techs are trying to recover anything they can, but there are no IDs or any other trackable information left on them."
"So there's nothing else we can use to find out who he was?"
"I'm afraid not. At best, we can guestimate when he crossRode the first time, based on the vixen nanites. But we're looking at the post results, after they were excited to fight the monkey fuse. Our estimates may not be good. If we had the levels before fuse started, it would help a lot."
Tycyn perked up, and a screen lit up near the raptor. "Here you go. Straight from the monkey's mouth. Apu sent me the pre-fuse body stats while we were talking to him."
The raptor leaped to the screen and started mumbling to themselves. "Yes! This is perfect. Telemore strain, cell replication rates, fuse levels, plug them all into the Jorgins Formula…."
Tino smirked a bit and nodded to his RIDE while the coroner pair chugged through the results. Finally the raptors separated, the RIDE crouching down, eyes closed as he focused on some other work. Tycyn similarly looked distracted.
"Sauran's working with Tycyn to arrange an interview with Apu. I hadn't realized the RI was back online. That'll help us greatly I'm sure," the saurian human said. "In the mean time, the initial results do fit together well with our initial guesses. Fred there crossrode sometime between two and three months ago."
"That is a huge help. We're already trying to backtrack where she's been, but her trail disappears in Uplift."
The Dome, 157 AL
Quinten left his quarters and decided to do a quick tour before settling into his office to review the real work. He was in the Dome, a large rocky cave with a hardlight dome, similar to many enclaves across the Dry. This Dome was special however; it was a place where real work could be done. Where the limits could be examined without oversight or interference.
The porcupine Integrate, along with the rest of the doctors, security and workstaff of the Dome, lived in a group of buildings in one quarter of the dome. The rest of the space was dedicated to the labs and fields built for the patients that were brought in from around the planet and beyond.
Quinten stopped outside one lab and looked in through the one way field. Inside, a recent arrival was being prepped. A heavily borged Spacer, more dumb mech than meat, was strapped to a table in a light-G field. A fused blue jay RIDE had already cut away most of the Spacer's permanent pressure skin and was adding interrupts to the his limb control nodes.
He left the lab and moved on to another building, this one run by two of the stars of the Dome. Quinten still had doubts of their loyalty, having recruited them from Appa's ranks, but he had to admit that Francis's and Steiner's work was impressive.
He entered their main workspace without signalling and looked around. Along one row was a half dozen partially disassembled RIDEs, set up in frames. They were little more than their RI cores and fuse chambers, with the rest of their support systems hooked through the frames. A couple of the chambers were occupied, while the rest were in low powered modes. Francis, the frilled lizard, was sitting at a big workbench, his eyes open but unfocused; deep in virtual space.
Quinten plucked out a quill and walked over. He waited a moment for any reaction before jabbing the distracted Intie in the arm. The scaley man jumped in surprised, turning in mid air to face the threat. He hissed as his neck frill spread wide.
As soon as he recognized the other Integrate, the frill collapsed back down around his shoulders and fear flickered in his eyes. "Quinten! What are you doing here?"
"Same thing I always do here. Where's Steiner?" Quinten replied, flicking the quill into a recycler.
"Steiner? He's gone to fetch some more nutrient packs and to check over the new arrivals. He should be back soon."
"That's fine. What's the status of our projects?"
The lizard man started straightening up the devices and tablets on the workbench. "The projects right… Our projects… Well, even though there was a survivor, we don't have to worry about the one in NSA. Our agents in the Marshal's have reported they didn't find anything important that they hadn't already suspected, and the case is beginning to wind down."
Quinten nodded, his DIN flickering a moment. A screen popped up, showing a monkey RIDE in a new shell. "I hate leaving a loose thread like that, but making him disappear would be too suspicious. Oh well, that phase of the project was wrapping up anyway. How about the new one?"
Francis looked to one of the RIDE shells that looked like it might once have been a beaver of some sort. "The RIDE is prepared, and the patient is getting the last of the implants as we speak. I do have some misgivings for the planned drop spot."
"The drop spot? In Nujose? Our agents are already setting it up. Why are you concerned?"
"I'm concerned because it was one of our early drops for the first phase. And the detectives in charge of that first case is rather persistent. If they get this drop as well, they might start making connections."
"But that, dear Francis, is the intent of this project. Not only are we studying the reactions individually, we are studying the reactions societally as well. We are triggering society's immune system to see how it reacts. Don't worry, it will be fine."
The door slid open and a clydesdale Integrate trotted in. In one hand, he carried a bag of bottles. Over his other shoulder, he carried a dazed man. The man's bald scalp had red lines where recent surgery had been done.
"Good news, Francis. The patient was ready… Oh! Hello Quinten. Come to watch the excitement?" Steiner greeted his partner, setting all his burdens down on another table.
Quinten smiled, "I was going to go report to the Boss, but this will be much more fun. And informing. Shall we begin?"
Nujose, Mid 157 AL
"225 Riverside Drive. This is the place," Scott Grimes said, looking at the derelict building. He whistled and shook his head, "Wow, this place is a mess. What happened here?"
The building was a concrete block two story building with a flat roof. The doors and windows had been boarded up long ago, along with a large hole in the side facing them.
"Records indicate it was involved in the big NuWeed bust a few years back. Ownership got tangled up in the courts, so it was left to rot. The knot finally got chopped, so the city wants us to flatten it," Scavenger, his partner said. Scavenger was an Enhanced Intelligence, Nujose's home grown answer to the RIDEs that were popular on Gondwana.
He was currently a large, 3 meter tall humanoid, with squared green armor plating over his body, and a stylized purple face on his chest. He 'wore' a yellow hard hat over his silver masked face.
"Well, guess it's our job now. Let's see how much we can do before Long Haul and Scrapper show up." Scott looked to his partner expectantly.
"Hold on. The building is supposed to be unpowered, correct? I'm picking up a small power draw deep inside. And a heat signature mostly consistent with humans," Scavenger said.
"Must be a trespasser. Give me a hand with the door here, I'll go get them."
Scavenger walked up to a covered garage door and easily pulled the plywood off. The metal rollup door underneath was battered and knocked out of its tracks. The EI crouched and found hand holds at the bottom, and lift it up, bending the metal easily. Once it was high enough, he bent the door sideways so it would stay open.
Scott stepped past his partner, and into the dark building. After the raid, most of the contents had been confiscated and hauled away. In the years since, it had been stripped by scavengers, leaving almost nothing left. So it was easy to see at a glance the light coming from an office space at the far side of the building.
Through the windows, they could see the office had been remade into a primitive apartment. The kitchen part had a big, clunky refrigerator, with a lever door handle. The stove was an old gas range with simple analog controls, and there was no dishwasher.
The other space they could easily see was the living room, set up near the door, it had an ancient looking couch set in front of a huge television with a small curved screen. Against another wall was a record player and a large box with a gauge and dials, all connected to a pair of speakers the size of a child. On a table near the kitchen was an ancient looking phone, with a rotary dial.
"What the hell is all this?" Scott asked, walking over and looking through the windows.
"Is there a problem with my eyes? Is there is no colour in there," Scavenger noted.
"Nothing wrong with your eyes. Everything's black or white or gray in there. Weird… Where's the heat signature you noticed?"
"The back room there, through that door. Looks like there's enough room for a bedroom and a bathroom. What's with the retro tech? Some of it's a shell around modern stuff, but most of it is actually the old style."
The door Scavenger pointed to open and a woman waddled out. She had brown fur and curly brown hair, dressed in a blue floral dress. She had rounded ears almost hidden in her hair, and buck teeth. The dress had a slit in the back where a broad flat beaver tail stuck out. She held a feather duster and was dusting an end table before she notice the pair looking in.
"Beaver Cleaver! Get in here and wash up for dinner," she called out, staring at Scott.
Scott stared back, then looked behind him, "Are you talking to me Miss?" he called back.
"Of course I am. Now say goodbye to your friend there and come in. Your father will be home soon."
"We better call this in Scavenger. I don't think this building's coming down today." Scott moved away from the window, though the strange woman kept staring at him. "Is she an Intie?"
"Nope, just heavily fused. There aren't any RIDEs around though. The Cops and an Ambulance are on the way."
"Beaver Cleaver! Don't make me come out there. Your father is going to be really angry if you don't come in right now."
Scott looked at the strange woman and started to the door back out. "Let's wait outside and let the badges handle this."
The detective climbed off the back of her bike and ran a hand through her curly red hair to detangle it. Her bike flickered, its hardlight aeroshell contracting around it as it stood up, becoming a two metre tall woman in red and gold armor.
"Man, this place brings back memories. I thought they tore it down long ago," Detective Nadia Vert said.
Her partner looked around and nodded, "It was tangled in an ownership knot. Could be a clue, maybe whoever left Mrs Cleaver here may have helped keep it tangled," Pepper said.
"Definitely an angle to look into."
They walked into the old warehouse and made their way to the apartment. Nadia flexed her hand, remembering her last time there. A couple of officers were already there, keeping watch over the scene.
"Hi guys. Find anything yet?" Nadia asked.
"Evening, Nadia. We found cameras and other recorders all over the apartment. Nothing was secret in it. They broadcast to a server tied to the comm lines a block away, and then we lose the traces. Anyone who knew of it could read it and see what was going on."
"Probably whoever did that to Mrs Cleaver." Pepper walked into the apartment and looked around, "Have you done much in here yet?"
"Nope. Just helped the medics get Mrs Cleaver out. She had to be sedated. Kept saying she had to wait for her husband and son to return."
Pepper nodded, "I've got your records, and those of the paramedics. Searching for any other biosigns." The EI took her time, examining each room in turn while the humans waited outside. "No other signs detected, human, RI, EI, or Intie or otherwise."
"What have I told you about tempting Murphy like that, Pepper? One of these days, you are going to find an ALF and then we'll really be in trouble. How about the age of this place? How long has it been here?"
"A few months at most. We've started searching traffic cams and other databases to try and find when they moved in, but there are plenty of dead zones in this neighbourhood. The cameras are turned off, and we're watching the server to see who's watching here, but it has no Intie protections; any Intie or anyone with an Intie box could tap in without us seeing it."
Nadia nodded and stretched. "Right then, let's start tearing this place apart, see if we can figure out who built it and why they did that to Mrs Cleaver."
Virtual Boardroom, Secure Net, One week later
Nadia and Pepper were the first to show up. After the third fuse case, Nadia, frustrated that she couldn't help more, had suggested a monthly status meeting with the marshals working the case. During some of the longer periods, when the case was cold, she and Pepper were the only ones who attended the meeting; most of the time she had one Marshal pair visit. Today, in light of the recent events in Nuevo San Antonio, they were looking forward to the newest members of the task force.
The virtual space had six doors around the table, leading to all the information known on the previous cases. Nadia opened one familiar door, looking at the black lab RIDE image inside, her case.
She heard movement, and turned to see a new pair digitize in, two winged forms, bronze coloured and hairless. They reacted to her and Pepper's presence a split second later.
"Good day, Marshals. Welcome to our little get together. You must be Constantino and Tycyn."
"Hello detectives. You may call me Tino. We came early, hoping to set up before the others," Tino said. He paused and looked puzzled.
"It's the time lag. We are on opposite sides of the planet after all. Lightspeed's a bitch. Add in the slight compression we're running, and the lag is more noticeable," Nadia said with a smile.
She walked over to the last door and pushed against the wall. It extended a few meters and a new door appeared. "You can link in your data here. Since you're lead on that aspect of the case, you own this room, unless you pass it on to someone else."
"Sounds good." Tino walked into the room followed by his RIDE. He pulled out a glowing block and set it down.
It glowed and expanded, a simple desk with notes appearing first. At the back of the room, a metal table formed with a model of a burnt out RIDE frame, labels glowing in the air over it. On either side, two figures appeared; one the human victim before the deadly fuse, the other the monkey RIDE in a new body. Finally, a complex apparatus appeared in the corner, with more notes.
Pepper wandered around the set up room and leaned closer to read some of the notes. "Interesting layout," she said.
"Thanks. It's a bit thrown together to be honest. I've been playing catch up on this task force since this case landed in our laps," Tino said.
"It's fine. Having a survivor is huge. And the readings on the third nanite are great."
Outside the room, they heard movement as more of the task force arrived. They wandered out to greet the Marshals and experts, human, RIDE and Integrate alike, from across Gondwana. Nadia and Pepper greeted them, and introduced the newbies to the ones who didn't know them, and they quickly got down to business.
"So word around the coffee pot is you've got a new mystery on your plate," Sammy said. He was a squirrel RIDE, partnered with a Marshal in Punta Sur. The Task Force meeting had wrapped up, but some had stuck around after.
Nadia nodded, "Yeah, we found an extreme fused woman, with extensive memory implants. She believed she was June Cleaver."
"She's strange. She's got some customized implants and big nannies in her system, changing her world view. She literally sees everything in black and white and shades of grey. She doesn't acknowledge RIDE traces, or even RIDEs, just sees them as pets. EI's and humans are just other people," Pepper added. "There's also signs she was recently crossed too."
"Strange," Tino said. "Cleaver, Cleaver… Where have I heard that before?"
"More TwenCen stuff. Old TV show about a family, focusing on a somewhat troublesome son I think," Sammy's partner, Darrin said. "It gets referenced a lot in later media; seems like it was very influential."
"That fits with the rest we discovered; she keeps asking for her son, Beaver, and her husband, Ward. Both match the show. We believe fusing with a beaver RIDE was intentional."
Tycyn rubbed his wing under his chin, "TwenCen references, big nanites involved. I take it there's no trace of her original personality?"
Nadia shook her head. "None at all. She has no implants other than custom ones to enforce her worldview. They have no identifiers, and she has no memory other than being Mrs Cleaver."
Tycyn nodded again, "Then could it be related to the rest of this? Maybe they've moved on to a new project."
The room fell into a stunned silence as they considered the RIDE's proposal. "It's… possible," Nadia said. "We may be grasping at straws…"
"But it's something to grasp at," Pepper finished.
Darrin shook his head, "It's too tenuous a link, we can't be sure they are connected."
"But we can look into it," Nadia countered. "Try to find more cases similar to Mrs Cleaver's. We can keep our theory between the six of us for now, but it wouldn't hurt to look."
"I can go with that," Darrin said. "Tino, Tycyn, Apu's case is still hot. Continue investigating that, and let us know if you need any help. Nadia, Pepper, I'll leave Laurasia to you. Contact the other departments, keep them on the lookout for similar cases. Sammy and I will do the same for Gondwana."
Nadia looked away a second before refocusing on the group, "Sounds like a plan. We'll be in touch. Now if you'll excuse me guys, Tony just woke up."
"Bye Nadia, Pepper. It was a pleasure to meet you," Tino said before the Laurasians flickered out.
"Take care you two," Sammy said, as he and Darrin disappeared a moment later.
The wyvern pair wandered around the virtual space a few minutes longer, before they left, the space collapsing after them.
Tethys Sea, mid-late 157 AL
Captain Jonas Grumby gripped the wheel of the S S Minnow, trying to keep the ship facing the waves of the turbulent sea. The Gorilla RIDE was exhausted, having been fighting the storm for days, with barely a moment to grab a bit of power from the ship's overtaxed generators. But the clouds had finally broken, and they could call for help now.
"Gilligan!" he roared, calling out to his partner in their venture.
The Gorilla and Chimpanzee RIDEs, after gaining their independence, had decided to take advantage of the TwenCen craze and set up 'Gilligan's Three Hour Tours' out of Califia. They'd bought a boat and had it redone to look like a TwenCen yacht. They'd left port on their inaugural planned three day tour with five passengers, and run smack dab into a storm of the century.
"Hey Skipper, how's it look?" Gilligan asked, the chimp sticking his head through the hatch at the back of the bridge.
"Not good, little buddy. We've taken a lot of damage. The generators are sputtering, the antennas are out, and I have no clue where we are. That storm could've blown us anywhere in the Tethys. How are the passengers?"
"They've got the worst case of seasickness you've ever seen, but they're all alive and eager to find dry land."
"I don't blame them. I nearly got sea sick from all …"
The ship lurched to one side, and the sounds of the sea were replaced by a loud screech as something scratched along the hull. Alarms rang out through the ship.
"Where the hell did that come from?" Gilligan shouted, looking out the window.
The Skipper looked out and was just as surprised. Where there had been open seas moments before, was now a large island with a worn volcanic peak in its centre. It was surrounded by a Zharusian Coral reef that they had just rubbed against. Another wave passed under the ship, forcing it against the reef again.
"I don't know, but we have to land there. The Minnow's taking on water fast," The gorilla scanned the waters as best he could, finally finding a small gap in the reef nearby. He spun the wheel and increased the engines until the yacht shot through the gap.
"Brace for impact!" he shouted, tapping into the ship's comm to make it ship wide. Without slowing the engines down, he aimed for the sandy beach of the island.
There was a loud crunch, and the two RIDEs were thrown forward. Momentum and the engines carried the yacht forward, cutting a trench through the sand until they stopped just short of the bluish green jungle, well above the tide mark.
"You ok there, little buddy?" The Skipper asked. He released one hand from the wheel and brought up a screen with the ship's status. It was quickly obvious they were in bad shape. The Minnow wasn't going to see the seas again.
Gilligan pulled himself up from the stairwell and shook himself. "I'm good, Skipper. Did you have to ram the island?"
"No choice. She was going down if I didn't. This way we keep her supplies. Though her generators have shorted out."
Gilligan winced. "Three RIDEs on Emergency Solar sails? Ouch. We're going to be mighty hungry."
"We're picking up four human and one RIDE sign still down below; so everyone's still alive. Go down and tend to the injured and start evacuating the ship. I'm going to see what I can salvage and repair."
The chimp saluted him. "Aye Aye Captain."
A few hours later, the Skipper was able to rest a moment and try to start assembling the big picture. Other than Professor Hinkley's broken leg, they'd gotten off injury free. The human castaways were now on the beach, in the shade of the wreckage, coming to terms with their situation. The three RIDEs were gathered around the emergency solar sail, careful not to shade it while they topped off their own batteries as best they could. The sail was also charging a Q-battery that, while useless to the RIDEs, would be important for the rest of the devices they salvaged off the ship, including the water purifier.
"So do you know where we are yet?" Ginger asked. She was a red vixen BBV, though it didn't show much in her animal mode.
"We're south of the equator. And possibly somewhere near Rhodinia if I had to guess. That storm really blew us far off course," the Skipper answered.
"How can you tell?"
He pointed to the nearby jungle. "That's a Zharusian jungle. With some Terran interlopers. We'll have some bananas and coconuts for the humans I suppose, but most of that is truly alien."
Ginger sighed and set her muzzle down on her forepaws. "So what do we do now? I'm drained and I'm not getting much from this sheet."
The Skipper shrugged, trying to save his own energy. "We conserve as much as we can. This sheet is only rated for two RIDEs, and with the battery, we're basically drawing four off of it."
"Shouldn't you have had a spare sheet? I'm starved; I can barely pulse my lifters"
"It got lost over the side during the storm." The Skipper watched the sun on its trek to the west. "Once the sun goes down, I'll be able to tell better where we are. Maybe even be able to get a signal out."
"And if you can't?" Ginger asked.
The Skipper sighed, "We'll figure that out when we get to it. The Minnow's food stores are still good for the humans for a few weeks at least. Long enough to try and fix the comms. And if that doesn't work, two of us will go passive to let a third get as full a charge as they can get. You or Gilligan might be able to make it somewhere to get help that way. Once we know where we are."
Ginger nodded, and looked out at the sea. "Well, it's a plan I suppose."
Aloha, late 157 AL
Nadia laid on a blanket-towel on the sand, feeling the heat of the sun on her nearly bare skin. She kept her eyes closed and listened to the sounds around her, hearing the roar of the salt water bay, the buzz of skimmers, the shouts and screams of fellow beachgoers enjoying themselves. "Mmmm you were right. We should do this more often," she mumbled.
Beside her, Rick sat up, partly blocking the sun. "Told you so. Aloha's not that bad, once you get past the initial craziness. Gary and Sparky settled in just fine."
She sat up and smiled, taking a glass of lemonade. "I suppose so, though there are some things I think I'll never get used to." She, Rick and their toddler, Tony, were all in bathing suits, but most of the people around them were just in their birthday suits. "Think we should go rescue them?"
They both looked over to the boardwalk to their partners. Genis and Pepper were swarmed by curious people taking pictures with them. Human, RIDE, and Intie alike all seemed to want to talk or pose with them.
"Nah, they seem to be having fun being celebrities. Genis and I checked on the way down here yesterday; with Sparky, they're the only EIDE's in Aloha, possibly on the entire continent. Honestly, I think Pepper missed some of her uniqueness spotlight as the Doc's released more EI's."
Nadia smiled and nodded, sipping her drink. "True. She never mentioned it, but they certainly aren't complaining."
She turned her gaze to the edge of the sea. Their son, Tony, was playing in the waves under the watchful eye of a German Shepard L-RIDE, no bigger than a natural dog. "Tony! Lunch time!" she called out.
After lunch, Nadia relaxed, watching Rick build sandcastles with Tony's help. Her cop instincts triggered as she heard the tone of the crowd change. Suspicious, she looked around, and relaxed when she saw a third figure had joined Genis and Pepper, attracting even more attention.
"We're going to have a hell of a time getting those guys freed from the crowd," Gary said, sitting down next to her. He only wore a set of brief swimming trunks. "Have any trouble finding the place?"
She gave him a quick hug and smiled, "None at all, what brings you out here? I thought you were on duty today?"
"We are. But our duty seems to be extending in your direction." He tapped his waistband, and a hardlight Alohan PD shield briefly appeared in the air next to him.
She lowered her voice and made sure her husband and son were still distracted, "Oh no! I promised Rick no case work while we're here."
"I know you did, but this has got to be an exception. Since the victims are on their way here and you're here now, I figured you'd want to be in from the start."
"Victims? Bring me up to speed."
She felt a large datafile start loading into her implants from Pepper. It unpacked slowly, seven ID folders setting up on one side, while a stack of photos showed a group, 3 RIDEs, 4 humans, arriving at a dock of a small town.
"Yesterday, the Marshal outpost on Montserrat picked up a distress call. They tracked it down to an island with a shipwreck, and saved the passengers and crew," Gary explained.
"They'd been marooned on the island for a month; took them that long to get a signal strong enough to be detected. But everyone was in good health, if a bit underpowered and slightly malnourished.
"Montserrat as you probably remember, is an Integrate Exclave near Rodinia. While they're public, they still aren't particularly friendly to non-Inties. So as soon as they were cleared for travel, the local Marshal sent them here. They'll be arriving in a few hours."
Nadia skimmed over the data, puzzled, "I'm not seeing the case yet."
"I'm getting there. As a matter of course, background checks were done on all seven. And that's when the red flags came up. They said they boarded their ship in Califia, and went out for a tour and got caught in a storm. But there's no record of them in Califia. No record that they've ever been there.
"The names themselves also triggered alarms."
Nadia shifted her attention to the ID folders. "Captain Jonas Grumby, Gilligan, Ginger, Thurston and Eunice Howell, Professor Roy Hinkley and Mary Ann Summers? Why are those names familiar?"
"Look at the name of the Captain's ship."
"The S. S. Minnow? Wait a second…"
Gary grinned. "Once the connection was made, we put a media blackout in place. It won't hold long here, but it should buy us a few days. As soon as they get here, we're going to be examining all seven of them thoroughly, to try and find out who they really are."
"Didn't anyone notice anything strange about them before? All the victims we've found so far have been firmly in their original worldspace."
"That's the scary part. They know of Gilligan's Island, but they have a blind spot. They never realized they were copying it, that they were those characters. Beyond that, they functioned like normal citizens, human and RIDE alike."
"That is scary. Who's doing this? What's their end game?"
Gary shrugged, "That's why you get the small bucks. You want to meet them fresh off the sub?"
Nadia looked at her family. She saw Rick glancing her way and waved. "No, your crew can handle the initial interviews and intel gathering. Why don't you send Pepper an update once you have more? Focus on the RIDEs; maybe they slipped up and left an ID number somewhere we can track."
"It didn't work for Herbie or Kitt, but we might get lucky. This is a big group, and the primate DE's are still fairly rare. Maybe we can eliminate down to the victims." Gary waved to Rick as well and got up. "Talk to you tonight?"
"Sounds good. Good luck."
"Thanks, we're gonna need it." He started walking back to the trio of EI's, who were busy making creative poses for the crowd. "Come on Sparky, time to go."
Sparky pouted, teardrops appearing on his simple face. He bowed to the crowd, who awed with him. Once Gary was close enough, the EI opened up and fused with his partner. The armored man waved one final time before taking off.
Fused together, Nadia and Pepper walked into Hill Street Blues and stepped to one side, taking the bar in. Like Blue Bloods back home, it was a cop bar, located a few blocks away from Aloha's Central Station. It served as a place to relax off duty, to unload some of the work strains before going back to a normal life. This bar, they noted, felt familiar, but had enough differences to be a bit jarring. Most jarring of all, was the number of RIDEs and Integrates scattered around the place. NuPD was still primarily human, with EI's and L-RIDEs making up the bulk of the rest of the force. APD on the other hand was almost equally divided between human, Inties and the bigger Gondwanan RIDEs. Most of the humans had RIDE partners, including the traces that meant.
:Sparky just signalled me. We're the last to arrive. Everyone else is in the room in the back,: Pepper said, highlighting the appropriate door.
They made their way over, nodding to strangers along the way. Their presence in the bar attracted a lot of curious looks that usually quickly gave way to recognition. Pepper's appearance was distinct enough for the off duty cops to recognize a fellow woman in blue.
:Nice place. Beginning to think we should have brought Rick after all,: Nadia noted in passing.
:We invited them, but they declined. We are here on business, and they want to spend more time with Tony on the beach,:
:Much more beach time, and we'll need to replace Otto with an otter,: Nadia laughed and walked through the door to the back room.
They recognized most of the people in the room right away. Gary and Sparky, the Wyvern partners and the Squirrel partners they knew well. The golden lab pair, and the stallion integrate were new to them.
Gary stood up to make introductions. "Evening, Detectives. You know Tino and Tycyn, and Sammy and Darrin of course."
The fused pairs waved, "Good to finally meet you in the flesh," Nadia said.
"And this is Ryan and Rex Munn-Daye, APD, and Mike Munn, Marshals."
"Good to-" Nadia's voice choked up as she recognized the names.
Ryan grinned and stood up to pull out a seat for them, "Damn it, I was hoping she wouldn't recognize the names. The hazards of marrying into a famous family."
"It's worse when you're born into it," Mike said, grinning back.
Nadia defused from Pepper and took the offered seat, Pepper sitting in a reinforced chair next to her. "Sorry, I didn't expect that. I knew Gary and Sparky had ties with the Munn's now, but I didn't expect them to be brought to me."
"It's no problem. Rex and I've been consulting with Gary and Sparky with the Gilligan group," Ryan explained.
Pepper looked around the room a bit. "Should we be discussing business in here? Wouldn't the station be more appropriate?"
Ryan looked mock shocked and nudged Gary, "She speaks!"
Gary and Sparky rolled their eyes in unison. "I've told you, the newer models worked out that voicebox hiccup," Gary explained.
"Newer? I'm nearly as old as Sparky," Pepper said.
Gary turned and bowed to the seated EI. "Certainly. My apologies, O Ancient One."
"All right, guys. How much have you had already? Pepper does bring up a good point. Is this an appropriate place to talk business?" Nadia asked, trying to steer the discussion back on track.
"This is Aloha, if you want appropriate, you've come to the wrong place. Trust me on that; I've been here since before it was Aloha," Mike said.
"Seriously though, more cases have been talked about, and solved, in this room than in all of Central. Most teams will come down here to hash out the details, outside of the confines of the office. Seems to help the mind flow better," Rex explained.
Darrin raised a mug of beer, "Well, something certainly flows better here!"
The cops settled around the table and the Alohan's began their presentation on the Gilligan's Island group. There was woefully little information to be presented. The four humans had been crossed, but their traces had been flushed out, along with memories of their past lives. New identities had been implanted in their minds, complete with a lifetime of memories. The flaws only showed when they were questioned in detail about their past.
"So is it a murder? The bodies are still up and walking around. Just with different minds," Darrin asked.
Gary shrugged, "That is just one of the big questions to be answered. Luckily for us, it's more a question for the psychs and attorneys. We just need to figure out who is doing this and why."
"And how," Nadia added. "If we know the how, maybe we can reverse it."
"The how is trivial," Mike said, speaking for the first time in the briefing. All eyes turned to the Integrate. "RIDEs, and I assume EIDEs could do it trivially. The mind link you have when you fuse, opens up your mind to them. Usually it's just a read only situation, but under certain circumstances, an RI would be able to rewrite the human's memories, and personality, while fused."
"Has this happened before?" Tino asked.
Mike shrugged, "A few times maybe; cases that have made it to the Marshal records. Usually it's due to an incompatible pair, or a malicious RIDE. We've been lucky those cases are so rare, it hasn't hit the media in force yet. If it did, the paranoia after Inties came out would look like a spring shower."
Rex blinked and lifted his head, "Malicious RIDEs. You don't think this could be Shah's work, do you?"
Mike shuddered and took a moment to recover. "I… I don't think so. While a RIDE could make the changes to a person's mind, they don't have the capacity to cook up the new identity and rework the mind to put it in. The new ID is trivial, but rewiring the cells on the fly… even Inties would have trouble with that. So no, I don't think it's Shah."
"Who's Shah?" Nadia asked.
Over the table, the displays shrunk back, leaving a Marshal Wanted poster, showing a tigress RIDE that flickered to a cougar RIDE every so often.
"She's number one on the Marshal's most wanted list. Her history is more than a little shrouded in mystery. She's an early RIDE, probably Sturmhaven created, but no one on the east coast wants to claim her," Rex explained. "A sadistic bitch, she sees everyone else as playthings, clay to be manipulated in her paws. She's got history with the Munn's." Rex paused and looked at Mike, "You know, cross riding is one of her kinks. "
Mike considered the proposal carefully, then shook his head. "I'm not seeing it. It doesn't feel like her style. Yes, it hits on many of her quirks; but there are problems." He tapped his thick fingers. "First, you'd need Inties to do this. Shah wouldn't like Inties. Too difficult for her to control."
He tapped a second finger, "Secondly, the victims are getting out. They're being released into the public and being discovered. Shah's victims do not escape, and especially are not released. She plays with them until they are used up, and usually tosses the results out in the Dry. I just don't see all this being her style."
"Maybe she Integrated. That could explain a shift in style," Pepper suggested, earning another shudder from all the Marshals in the room.
"If she's integrated… that's too scary a thought to consider," Tino said. "She's bad enough as just a RIDE as is."
"Look, we'll keep her on the suspect list. But for now, it looks like our culprit, or culprits are someone else," Darrin suggested.
"That's almost as disturbing. That means there's someone else out there, whom we don't know, who is as twisted as Shah," Ryan shuddered again. "We should move on before we start chasing our tails."
Rex cleared the wanted poster and the bios of the three RIDEs appeared. The Skipper and Gilligan highlighted first. "We hoped we could get a breakthrough with these two. As far as RIDEs go, primate RIDEs are still relatively rare. We hoped we could figure out who they were from the smaller set of RI's, but no dice," the RIDE continued the briefing.
"Their DE's are blank slates. No ID markers on them. Average in any way, the parts could have been purchased and fabbed anywhere on Gondwana, including the primate specific parts. The core's digital signals are blank as well, matching no known records. We're searching to find out as many lost primate type RIDEs we can, but the list is still in the hundreds."
"Couldn't you match on the specific species?" Pepper asked.
Sammy shook his head. "Not really. While we RIDEs are less flexible with our body types than human, cores can usually fit into similar body types without too many issues, at least for now. So the Gorilla could actually be a baboon or some other big primate. Similar for the chimp."
"In time, the differences in actual body versus expected body will build up in the RI, showing in various ways, but this crew's only been like this for a month or so; not enough time for the symptoms to exhibit," Ryan said and nodded to Rex to continue.
"If we could pop their cores, take a closer look at their minds, we might be able to find some identifiers that were missed. But all three are refusing to cooperate in that respect. It's obviously a leftover command from when they were reprogrammed, but it's an annoying one."
"What's the problem? Can't you overrule them?" Tino asked.
"A few years ago, easily. But not now. RIDEs are citizens now in Aloha. And since they are not arrested, nor are they an obvious danger to themselves or to others, our hands are tied unless they volunteer," Rick said.
"We've taken the case to the courts, but Aloha's openness is working against us here. If we could show the courts a Great Cause to force them, they might side for us. Otherwise, they won't let us force the RIDEs to pop their cores," Gary said.
"Then what about Ginger?" Pepper shrunk the primates down and highlighted the BBV. "Can we get anything from her?"
"Like the others, she isn't letting us examine her core directly, but she is showing symptoms already. From what we can tell, she wasn't always a vixen. Even though her superficial persona is a BBV, the underlying framework was something else. Given everything else, we suspect she's really a male RI, possibly a fox, more likely a canine of some sort," Rex explained.
"I thought that was impossible?" Nadia asked.
"Not impossible. Just unethical, and another thing that should Never Be Done. These… monsters seem to love playing around in that domain," Tino said.
Ryan nodded, "Still her personality is the most fragile of the seven. We're presenting our discoveries and we're hoping she'll let us at her core so we can find out who he was before, and try to undo this mess. It's taking time though."
Mike rubbed his chin and thought a moment. "I might have to rethink my stance on Shah. Some of her generals played in those domains. While we know where she and Fridolf were at the start of this mess, assuming Rover's case was the start, we haven't seen hide nor quill of Pascal since we chased them out of the Cave."
Ryan nodded, "I know you're retired now Mike, but could you tackle that angle? We'll add you to the access lists. The rest of us, we'll cover everything else."
"When it comes to Shah, I'm never retired," Mike said coldly. "I'll talk to Scratch, he knew Pascal the best, for better or worse. And we should talk to Fridolf."
The group talked and drank for awhile longer. Eventually, Nadia stood up and stretched, nodding to Pepper.
"It's been great guys. Good to see you all in person and not in VR especially. But I've got a husband and a toddler back at the hotel. Pep and I should head back before someone gets into trouble."
Ryan and Rex stood up as well, waving to the crowd. "We should be going too. Got twins of our own that Wanda's tending to. Walk you to the door, Detectives?"
Outside, their partners shifted to their vehicle modes. Ryan shook Nadia's hand. "How much longer will you be in Aloha?" he asked.
"Just a couple more days. I think we're almost vacationed out, even if my vacation ended early."
"Well I'm sorry we didn't meet earlier. I'll have to have words with Gary later." Ryan grinned. "Still, how would you like to come up to the Aerie? Meet Wanda and my kids. Nikki's got her head in VR space like her mom most of the time, but we've got two twins around Tony's age. And I'm sure Wanda would love to meet Pepper."
Nadia blinked, struck speechless for a moment. Talking shop in the bar, she'd forgotten Ryan's family, but with the invitation hanging out there, the fame of his family hit her hard.
He grinned, "No shop talk, I promise. Or at least no cop talk. With Pepper and… Genis is it? I can't guarantee Wanda won't geek out. How about tomorrow afternoon, whenever's good for you?"
"Shh Shh Sure," Nadia stammered out, finding her voice. "Tomorrow would be fine."
"Great! Rex sent you our private line. Give us a shout when you're on your way up." Ryan climbed into Rex's vehicle mode and waved as the Alohan's took off.
Nadia climbed onto Pepper's saddle and phewed, her mind churning over the information and the invitation. "Let's head back to the hotel, Pep. I need a break."
The Dome, Early 158 AL
Tyler Langstrom paced nervously in the dimly lit cell, his matted horse tail twitching from side to side. He had no idea where he was nor how long he'd been there, nor even who had him. The last thing he had remembered before awakening in the cell, was his skimmer being shot down over the Dry Ocean, somewhere north of Punta Sur.
Whoever had captured him had served him four meals, and he'd had one long sleep since waking up, making him think a day had passed, but that was all he could tell. His implants were useless; unable to connect to anything off body, and their time clocks were scrambled and running at different speeds.
There was a noise outside his door, and he turned to it, expecting another meal tray. Instead, the door slid open, and a familiar RIDE trotted in.
"Etoile!" he shouted, hugging his partner in joy. "What happened? Where are we? Are you ok?"
The horse nuzzled him back, "I am fine…. I think. They disabled my DINSec and accessed my systems, but it doesn't feel like they did anything. My external systems are disabled however; I can't tell where we are."
"What about weapons? defenses?"
"All locked down I'm afraid. I'm just running on basics at the moment."
Their reunion was interrupted by a clunking noise from near the ceilings. White mist began to pour out of the vents.
"What the hell is that? Should we fuse?" Troy asked, moving to the middle of the room, the mist quickly covering his feet.
Etoile moved to a vent and sniffed it. "Water vapour primarily. Nothing dangerous. It might be intended to make us fuse however."
"Yes, please fuse." A new voice said, coming from overhead speakers. It was clearly artificial and androgynous, with no emotional overtones.
"Who are you? What are you doing to us?" Troy shouted, ignoring the command. The mist was up to his waist now and quickly climbing.
"Please fuse," the voice repeated.
"We won't. We won't do anything you tell us."
"The mist contains very flammable compounds. They will be ignited on the count of five. If you are not fused, you will die in a very painful way. One."
Troy looked at Etoile, who nodded, "I can detect the compounds. If a spark is let off in this room, it will cause a fireball that will engulf us."
"Would it hurt you?"
"I have enough hardlight control to withstand the heat, fused or unfused. You however, have no protection at all."
"Fuse then." Troy said, not letting himself get any second thoughts. Etoile wasted no time either, opening up and engulfing the human.
As Etoile closed around Troy, he saw the outside world light up, and had a hint of heat before the horse sealed around him. As the fuse settled, he could sense the outside world, and saw the scorched walls of the cell. Etoile's temperature readings made ovens look cold.
:Damn, you weren't kidding when you said you were locked down,: Troy noted, seeing most of his friend's systems ICEd up. :Any idea what time it is?:
:My time keepers are confused. Some say it is the 20th of Smarch, 242 AL, other's say it is February 31st, 10 AL. And various other times. :
:Damn, I was hoping you could tell. Any idea how long we've been here?:
:No clue, I was shut down for various times for various durations since we were shot down.
The door opened, bringing in a gust of cooler air and two Integrates, a horse and a lizard. The first people either could remember seeing since the crash.
:We should defuse. They wanted us together, so let's not give them what they want,: Tyler said.
Etoile pointed to another red lit command stack, :No go. That's locked out too now. So are the lifters.:
"Who are-" Tyler started to say, shifting to the Real.
The Inties didn't let him finish, not even acknowledging his attempt at a question. "Luke Skywarp," the lizard said, watching the pair closely.
Darkness descended on the fused minds. The pair stood in front of the Integrates, frozen in place. After a few seconds, Etoile's black hardlight fur flickered, and turned white. The white star in the centre of his forehead that was his namesake turned black, and began to grow, a hardlight spiral horn growing out.
"Nice touch," Steiner said approvingly.
Francis grinned, "Thanks. Unicorns are the easiest mythics to fake when you have the right starting material. Figured it would help confuse the issue."
They looked back at their project. "Darkstar, can you hear us?" Francis asked.
The fused pair turned their head to the lizard. "I hear you," Darkstar said, his voice a mix of the human and RIDE speaking at once.
"Excellent. Darkstar, I want you to leave the room, turn left and enter the next door on the right. Shoot the human in the room until they are dead, then return here. Understood?"
Without hesitation, Darkstar stepped between the Integrates and out the door. A young, terrified man looked up as he walked into the room. The man barely had time to scream as Darkstar lifted his hand, a lazgun lifting from his forearm. The beam pierced the man between the eyes, killing him almost instantly. Once the fused pair was sure the job was done, the gun retracted, and they returned to the cell.
The Integrates watched gleefully. Francis nodded to his partner, "Do you want to do the honours?"
"Gladly!" Steiner turned back to their experiment. "Prawyks Ekul!"
The hardlight horn dissolved, and the fur turned back to black, with the white star on the forehead. They looked confused at the integrates.
:What happened? I blacked out there…: Tyler said privately.
:I'm not sure… I blacked out as well. That's strange. My lazgun is warm. Looks like it fired recently. But there's no sign of any laser damage in here.:
"Defuse. The human stays here, the RIDE will come with us," Francis ordered.
"NO!' Tyler and Etoile said in defiance.
"You have very few freedoms here. I suggest you use them when you can. You can either defuse of your own accord, or we will defuse you," Francis pointed out.
The pair resisted a moment longer before Etoile opened up. Tyler dropped out and immediately started sweating in the still overhot room. Francis put a hand on Etoile's back and lead the RIDE out of the room.
"You can't leave me in here! I'm roasting!" Tyler shouted, trying to follow, only to be blocked by Steiner. "At least get me some water…. please!" he begged.
"We will consider it… if you cooperate." Steiner shoved Tyler back against a scorched wall, and left the cell, the door clanging shut.
In the days that followed, the experiments continued, as Francis and Steiner tested what the hidden Darkstar fuse could do without the human and RIDE knowing. They only had to use the fireball once more to force them to fuse; later on, they fused willingly, if grudgingly.
Finally, Tyler's cell door opened. He looked up and was surprised not to see Etoile there. Instead, Francis was there, wheeling in a strange chair. It was made out of metal, and seemed to have a wolf RIDE head on a short pole over the sitter's head.
"Where's Etoile? What are you doing now?" Tyler asked, trying to build up some anger.
"He is being attended to. You have been excellent test subjects, performing beyond our wildest expectations. Now, there is one final test to perform, then you can go home."
Tyler laughed, "Go home? Yeah right. We know too much. Set us free, and you'll be hunted down no matter where you go. You're going to kill me. Kill us both aren't you?"
Francis made a show of inspecting the chair before turning back to the human. "Please, have a seat. We do not intend to kill you. That would ruin the next phase of the experiment. But we aren't worried about you telling anyone about us either."
Tyler pushed back harder against the wall, suddenly more worried. Death had an element of finality that the lizard Intie was implying he wouldn't get.
Francis sighed and raised a clawed hand, "It goes so much easier when you just obey my orders."
A hardlight TK field gripped the human tightly and pulled him to the chair. It turned him around and forcefully sat him down. The armrests closed in around his hands and forearms, encasing them in wolf RIDE paws. The front legs of the chair similarly closed around his feet, engulfing them in wolf paws. More normal looking straps curled around his chest and thighs, holding him firmly in place, his tail caught under his butt, tugging uncomfortably.
Francis checked him over, then lowered the wolf RIDE head over Tyler's head. "Just try to relax now," he said, the head holding the human's in place.
The chair activated and Tyler felt a tingle around his scap, similar to a fuse but different. He sensed a personality touch his mind and shied away from it. The other mind was Mad; completely insane from the little he could tell, though it was also mostly completely contained.
The madness spread over his own mind, latching onto his memories of the cell. He felt disconnected, confused as something else was pushed in in their place. He tried to keep ahold of anything he could of the past few days, but the strain overwhelmed him. He slipped into a deep unconsciousness.
Primordial Vats, Punta Sur, Early 158 AL
The fused horse pair pulled a train of hover pallets loaded with barrels marked with warning signs. The air was tinged green, and humid, especially over the bubbling open vats that surrounded them. Every so often they would pause, take some readings from a vat and dump a barrel in.
At one vat, they found another fused pair working on a valve caked with green ooze and fungus.
"Hey there, Emma, Andrea. How's it going?" Tyler greeted the ermine pair.
"Going fine. Just flushing out a clog here," Andrea replied, carefully aiming a jet of water against the valve. "How was your vacation?"
Tyler shuddered, leaning against the vat and watching her a moment. "Don't ask. If you ever get an invite to the Oasis Resort, run the other way."
"That bad? The brochures didn't seem too bad."
The fused horse thought back and had a brief flash of a dark room, before the memories reasserted themselves. "It's all one of those timeshare scams. They pushed it on us everywhere we went. It was like one of those TwenCen comedies, where the main characters keep getting a pitch no matter what they do."
"Ugh, that sucks. I hoped it would be better than that. Guess we'll head somewhere else, right Emma?"
"Right Andrea. I think this one's all clear now."
The fused ermine stepped back to a console on the vat and tapped some buttons. There was some gurgling noises that quickly faded away as the flow stabilized.
"So, to make up for your bad vacation, how about some dinner tonight? Our treat."
The equine pair grinned back, "Sounds good. It's a date."
RIDE Correctional Facility, Bad Wolf Island, Cape Nord. 158 AL
The fused wyvern flew over the white capped sea, the cliffs of the continent behind them, their destination a dot on the horizon. Inside the fuse, Tino shivered.
:Man it's cold out there. We good on power?:
:For the twelfth time, we're fine on power: Tycyn reassured him. :We could always comm ahead, tell Mike we'll decline this visit.:
Tino briefly considered it before rejecting it, :No, we've come this far, might as well finish up.:
The island grew quickly. It was a small, rocky outcrop barely standing above the icy waves of the northern sea. It had one flattened area, big enough for a sub to land at, and a few low, snow covered buildings. Tycyn found himself answering constant challenges from multiple layers of security on his way in to the sub landing pad. On the pad, they were met by a familiar integrate.
"Welcome to Bad Wolf Island, Marshals," Mike Munn greeted them. "Come on, let's get inside, out of this wind."
"Thanks," Tino said. He looked around at the piles of snow and ice. "I never thought you could get cold just by looking at a chilly place."
"The human mind can be funny that way," Mike replied. He led them into a room that was warm and empty. The other end of the room had an elevator, its doors already open and waiting for them.
"This is the Marshal's RIDE Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility. It was built originally for Alpha Wolf and his cronies, back before we decided he was doing more good than harm overall. And long before he went legit. I think they're still keeping a sim cradle warm for his core, just in case." Mike said as the elevator took them down slowly. "And yes, the island was partly named with Alpha in mind."
The doors opened to another room, this one with a big door, and an armored office to one side with a pair of marshals keeping watch.
"You'll have to defuse and show your ID's," Mike said, waving to the window.
The wyvern pair separated, and a scanning beam went over them. The lights turned greener and the door started rolling out of the way.
"We have 17 RIDEs imprisoned here. Sixteen in low and medium security, one in high security."
Tycyn looked puzzled as they were led down a short hall to an office room. "That's strange, I can't access the local network. What is the difference in the security levels?"
"The networks are locked down. You need an intie box to access it. And no, you can't have one. I don't even have one. Only the staff here can access the net," Mike explained.
"As for the security levels, it basically comes down to how much time you can spend in the Real. Low security, you keep your DE, neutered of course, and can spend as much time in the Real as you want, outside of therapy sessions. Medium, you spend most of your time in a small virtual world, only allowed occasional trips to the Real in a low powered DEs. High, you spend all your time in Virtual. In Fridolf's case, time slowed as well."
"Why is she even still alive? Amontillado was nasty, the evidence was more than enough to convict her for core destruction," Tino asked.
Mike sighed. "She's alive for just this sort of situation. She still has information, about Shah and possibly Pascal. Her execution is stayed at least until Shah is captured. We've gone over her mind with a fine tooth Intie comb, but she's got encryption methods that are stymying all of us."
"So do you think we'll get anything out of her? She's been here for years, she probably doesn't know anything about these cases," Tino asked.
"It's a long shot, but you never know. The first few crossride cases were before Fridolf was captured, so she might know something."
The door opened and a robin integrate walked in, with the steel marshal star on his chest and stetson. "Good day, Marshals. Welcome to Bad Wolf."
"Hello again, Warden Grayson. These are Marshals Constantino Saleno and Tycyn, from Nuevo San Antonio. Marshals, this is Warden Bruce Grayson, the guy in charge of this facility."
After shaking hands, the warden spoke up again, "We're done setting up for your interview. I'll take you down to Fridolf's station as soon as you are ready," he said, looking tellingly at Mike.
Mike looked annoyed, "Do I have to? That was a long time ago."
"A deal's a deal, Mike."
The equine integrate sighed and stood up. After a moment's concentration, he fell forward onto his hands, his hands shifting to hooves. His shoulders pressed inward and his chest barrelled out. Soon a stallion stood in the room.
"This is embarrassing. I'm the same guy, and have been for decades now," the horse said.
"That's the deal, Tonto. Mike isn't cleared to see Fridolf, but Tonto can." the Warden said. He looked at the wyvern. "Tonto is Marshal Munn's RIDE part before integration. He tends to be a little less emotional when Tonto is dominant."
Tonto flicked his tail and winked, "Clarissa would disagree in that respect. Come on, let's get this over with."
Warden Grayson shrugged and turned to leave the room, "Still, given the Munn's history with Fridolf, that's what the higher ups have decided will happen."
He led them to a small room with a window looking into a lab. The window shimmered with a hardlight field. Inside the lab, was an RI cradle with a core, and a couple of data cables.
"The lab is shielded. No data in or out. It's also filled with white noise, so wireless signals won't work. You'll need to fuse together, since you don't have the right implants for a hard connection VR sim. The cradle will watch everything that goes on in the sim, to make sure she doesn't slip any malware back to you. Any questions?"
The wyverns fused together, then shook their head. "No, I think we're good. Any taboo topics?" Tycyn asked.
The warden shook his head, "Anything is fine. She is fully aware of her situation and her imprisonment."
They walked into the lab and a tech connected the data cables. Soon enough, the wyvern pair and the horse were standing in a clearing in a forest.The wyvern's looked around then frowned.
"This is her prison? Where is she?" Tino asked.
Tonto looked around as well, then tossed his head. "Not sure. She can't be far, she only has a few decametres worth of space to play with."
They heard a branch crack, and turned to see a grey wolfess wander out of the woods. She jumped onto a log and made herself comfortable before speaking. "Hello Tonto, Marshals. You're early."
"I wasn't expecting visitors for a few more months… " she paused and considered the implications. "Does this change mean something?"
"It doesn't mean a thing. Shah regrettably is still on the lamb. But your day will come," Tonto said.
"The only lamb she would be on, would be the one she was eating."
Tonto rolled his eyes and snorted, "Look, we're here for information. We want to know everything you know about what other projects Shah was working on. Or maybe that Pascal was working on."
Fridolf yawned, "This again? I've told you, I don't know what they were doing. Not then, and especially not now."
Tonto nodded to the wyvern. "Show her."
Tycyn unpacked the records he'd brought with him, starting with the crossride cases. Fridolf stood up and started examining each in turn, showing no reactions at first.
After the last record, she paused and surveyed them all again before speaking. "Impressive work. I can see why you would suspect Shahrazad to be behind it."
"So you recognize this? Some of them did come before you were caught," Tino asked.
"Now slow down, young drake. I didn't say anything of the sort. I just said it was impressive. There are few people out there, RIDE, Human or Intie alike, with the skills and fortitude to do all that. Shahrazad and her followers would qualify. But I have no idea who did that, nor where they are."
She hopped back onto the log and dismissed the records with a wave of her paw. "Now is there anything else I won't help you with today, Marshals?"
Tino took a step forward, only to be blocked by Tonto. "That is all, Fridolf. Until next time."
The virtual space dissolved away, leaving them back in the Real. Tino shook his wings a bit and looked at the horse, "Was that it?"
"She would not have told us anything else. There was no point in staying. Most of our visits are this long. She's too good to reveal anything consciously, but depending on how we approach her, we can sometimes surprise her into revealing more than she intends to." Tonto looked at the tech in the room with them. "Did you get anything?"
"Only one thing. When you showed the first case record," the tech said. The room flickered and the clearing reappeared around them, a still from their own talk. The tech zoomed in on a space behind the Marshal's and a timestamp appeared. It increased slowly, until a figure flickered into view.
Tonto trotted over and looked it over. "A porcupine… looks like an integrate."
The wyvern went over as well. "Male though. Pascal was female right?"
"That she was, and a lot more colourful. Scratch said she took pride in having rainbow quills.
"It's been a long time. Maybe her tastes have changed. Especially if she integrated and crossed."
Tonto studied the figure, then turned away. "It's all we have at the moment. Thanks for your help. Sorry it wasn't more."
Tycyn shrugged, "It was a long shot anyway. But it does give more weight to the Shah angle. Fridolf does seem to know something, even if she isn't telling it."
"I'll stay here, work with the techs to see if we can find more. Do you want to find a bunk here too?"
Tino smirked inwardly, seeing the tech's annoyed look. "No, I think we'll head out. If we hurry, we can grab the next sub back to Nextus. You'll let us know if you find any more?"
"Of course. Have a good flight."
Outside Alpha Camp, 150 AL
Rakshasi signalled to the guards that she was going to do a quick patrol and left the RIDE camp. She followed a normal patrol route, making sure no one was following her, or otherwise watching her. Finally, at the point furthest from the camp, she shifted to skimmer mode and flew away, following a faint signal.
A couple hundred klicks from the camp, she slowed and shifted back to her animal mode. The signal was stronger, coming from an outcrop of rocks. She prowled around it cautiously, alert for any hints of a trap. She could detect nothing beyond herself and an unidentifiable figure in the shadows.
She gave up the search and approached the figure directly, her shoulder guns extended but still safetied.
"Well it's about time you showed up. Satisfied that I'm alone?" the figure called out in a male voice.
"Mostly. Come out into the light so I can see you better." Rakshasi called out.
The figure began to move, quills rustling as the bike sized porcupine came out of the shadows.
"How did you get that signal?" Rakshasi asked, taking a few steps back. "That's close enough."
The porcupine stopped, then started shrinking a bit, forelegs lengthening into arms, toes growing into fingers. He crouched on the sand before standing up, head tilting forward. "I go by Quinton now, in public at least."
"Ugh, an Intie. What the hell do you want?" the cougar asked.
Quinton continued changing, his hips widening, his waist pulling in a little, his pecs growing into furry breasts. The hard quills on his back began to change colour, a rainbow pattern going down her back. "In private, I have another name. Come now, Shahrazad. Surely you recognize an old friend when she calls?"
"Pascal! Where the hell have you been? We've been watching for you, but you fell off the face of the planet!" Shahrazad grinned, retracting her weapons and her sour mood at once. She approached her old ally and nuzzled carefully.
Pascal sat down on a boulder and scratched Shahrazad between her ears. "It's a long story. Why don't you call Fridolf in from the watch and we can catch up."
"She'll remain on watch, but I've got her networked in. Let's catch up first."
"Always the paranoid one. Still, it has served you well. As for me, it happened soon after we abandoned the Cave of Wonders… sorry, I mean your dome."
"I've heard of what has happened since we left, and what it is now," Shahrazad said.
"Well after we split up, I grabbed some thumbs from a mining rig and laid low for awhile, working on a few side projects.
"One of those projects went in a bad direction. Before I knew it, I was integrating. I had a couple of days to adjust, and learn a few tricks Quinton granted me, like the gender shifting, before I was discovered.
"Since then, I've wandered from enclave to enclave, learning what I could. I learned Fridolf was at Alpha's camp long ago, but I couldn't find you until last year."
"I wasn't here until last year. Before that, it was rough."
Pascal nodded and continued. "In any case, I have kept myself busy, learning about Integrates and preparing something new." A signal passed between them, and in virtual space another rock dome appeared. "I discovered this a few years ago. It's isolated, away from the main travel routes, but close to Punta Sur and the southern polities. I've already begun preparing it for habitation."
Shahrazad examined the dome's numbers carefully and nodded, "It looks great. More space than we'd need, but that's a minor quibble."
Pascal shared another set of data. "Considering we now have a third type of intelligence to study, the space will be useful. I've started on a few feral integrates, and the results are fascinating, as is the integration process itself. I've been carefully recruiting new acolytes to help our studies, and the results have been very promising.
"Very promising indeed. Some of the new acolytes are Integrates as well?"
"They are. A slight risk, but worthwhile."
"Acceptable." She paused and sent another packet of data to the porcupine. "This is Fridolf and my work to date. Having to work in secret within Alpha's camp is a bit confining, but we are staying active."
"I see that. We found one of your earlier victims, and recognized Fridolf's work. I know a few people who will love to play with this updated dataset."
"And I look forward to meeting them. But at a later date. I need to get back to the camp."
Pascal rubbed Shahrazad's ears again, "It was good to see you again. I'm already looking forward to our next meeting."
"So am I. We'll get together again soon. When Fridolf and I can spare some time away from Alpha's camp, we'll be checking out that new Dome, and the new workers. You've done fantastic work, Pascal."
"Thank you Mistress. I aim to please."
Pascal bowed and stepped back into the shadows before dropping back onto all fours. Shahrazad shifted to her skimmer mode, and took off, not bothering to hide her route this time.
Cliffside Apartments, Punta Sur
Tyler whistled cheerfully to himself as he prepared for his date with Andrea. They'd gone out for dinners and shows often since he got back from his horrible vacation, but this was their first official date. He checked himself in the mirror and adjusted his bowtie, then turned around for one final check. His inspection was interrupted by a beeping, and the mirror signaled he had an incoming call from an unknown location.
"Tyler speaking," he answered, leaning close to the mirror for a closer check.
"Luke Skywarp," the voice at the other end said, before the connection was broken.
Tyler froze a moment, then looked puzzled. He tapped the screen to bring up the call stats, but found they were all private or blocked. "Huh, must've been a wrong number," he mumbled, clearing the mirror and making his way out.
"How do I look?" he asked Etoile, grinning at his companion.
"Great. We ready to go? Traffic's a bit thick, we might be late if we don't go soon."
"All set. Let's fuse up."
Etoile looked confused, "Fuse? I thought you wanted to skimmer over to pick her up."
"Bah, fusing is just as fast. Now open up."
The horse rolled his eyes and reared back, starting the fuse. As the connection solidified, subliminal commands, triggered by the call Tyler had received activated. A new presence bubbled up, made from the fusion of their two minds, subsuming their existing minds. When the fuse finished, the horse's fur flickered, turning white, and the black hardlight horn growing out.
Blackstar stretched a moment, looking around and getting his bearings. He slipped onto the 'net and found a data cache tied to his keys. Opening it up, he read his orders and smiled. "This is going to be a great night," he said to himself, walking out the door. On the table, the bouquet of flowers Tyler had purchased were left behind.
The Next morning
Tyler groaned and started to roll over, when his body signaled moving further would be a Bad Idea. It jolted him awake enough to open his eyes and discover he was on a park bench, on the verge of rolling off said bench. He rolled back onto his back and rubbed his forehead. "What the hell happened?"
"I'm not sure," Etoile said, the RIDE's voice coming from towards his feet. Tyler pushed himself up and found the RIDE standing at the end of the bench.
"What time is it? What day is it?" As Tyler recovered, he answered his own question, and was shocked to discover the night had disappeared. He also discovered his mailbox had dozens of messages from Andrea, as well as a couple more from mutual friends. The increasingly irate subject lines made him reluctant to open the messages.
"Etoile, what happened to us?" he asked, checking himself. He seemed intact.
"I'm not sure… I'm picking up traces of Riphonal in my system. That does inhibit short term memory creation in RIDEs and Humans."
"Ugh, but why? Anything missing?"
"Not that I can tell. Our accounts are intact, and our apartment reports no one has been in since we left last night."
Tyler groaned again and stood up, stumbling a bit. "Right… Let's go home and try to figure out what happened. Send Andrea a message please, text only, saying we're fine, but we don't know what happened last night. We'll be in touch later. Skimmer mode please."
"Done and done," Etoil said, shifting to his hoverbike mode. Tyler climbed into his saddle and the pair took off back to their apartment.
Regenesis Night Club, the night before
Darrin Stephens spun on the dance floor to the music, letting his poofy tail spin out enough to brush against the untagged girl he was dancing with. She grinned back at him, so on the next turn, he stopped to face her, letting his tail curl around for her to grab. He pulled her into a hug, and continued the dance with her. It had been a long time since his schedule had been open enough to have a night just to himself. He briefly looked away from the girl to the RIDE section of the dance floor and corrected himself; a night to his and Sammy's self.
"Would you like a drink?" he shouted, to be heard over the pounding music.
"Sure," she shouted back.
Hand in tail, they wiggled and jyved their way across the dance floor until they stepped off. Sound bafflers dampened the music down to levels that made normal talk possible. Darrin lead her to a spot at the bar where two stools had just opened up. He ordered, then turned to face her, ignoring the discomfort of bending his tail enough for her to keep ahold of.
"I'm Darrin. A Marshal," he introduced himself.
Her eyes widened and she smiled, "A Marshal? Really?"
"Really. But I'm off duty now."
"Well, I'm Nicole. Just a scientist at NuEarth."
The barkeeper dropped off their glasses. Darrin reached over to take a sip of his, when a strong smell of rotten eggs hit his nose. He turned his head away, about to complain about the drink, when he realized other people were reacting to it.
"Darrin, what's going on? What's that smell?" Nicole asked, putting her own drink down untouched and covering her mouth and nose.
"I'm not sure," Darrin replied, looking around.
The club normally kept a white mist active over the dance floor; but now there was a green mist spreading through the club. More people were reacting to the smell, grimacing and covering their mouths and nose. The DJ stopped the music.
"Apologies everyone. We're working to find the source of that smell and to clear it out. Please do not panic and start making your ways to the exits," the DJ announced.
Darrin winced, knowing that wasn't the right thing to say, though the desire was admirable. His nose and throat were beginning to burn, and Nicole was coughing next to him. He grabbed some napkins and leaned over the bar to dunk them in the ice bath to soak them. One he held over his own mouth, while the other he passed to Nicole.
"Cloths! We need all the cloths you can get. Wetten them and put them over your nose and mouth and offer them to everyone else," Darrin ordered the barkeepers. They followed his orders quickly.
:Darrin, where are you? The crowd is beginning to panic. The exit doors are jammed,: Sammy sent to him.
:I'm at the southern bar, at the wall. Signal the RIDEs around you to fuse up as soon as they can. Come find me ASAP we need to get fresh air in here.: Darrin's eyes began to burn, and he was feeling short of breath. The green mist was thick enough to hide most of the night club now.
A dark shape came out of the mist, resolving into the large squirrel. Its chest folded open, glowing silvery green in the mist. Darrin jumped inside and felt the familiar tingle of the fuse. Once they were connected, he lifted Nicole up onto the bar and grabbed a wet cloth from the bartender. "Keep your eyes closed and your mouth and nose covered. Breath through the cloth." he ordered.
At the same time, he reviewed the nightclub's layout with Sammy. They were at an exterior wall, but one with no doors.
:We need to bust the wall down, Sammy,: Darrin concluded.
:The owners won't like it,: Sammy grinned, already moving to a relatively clear spot.
They shoved some bottles out of the way, and punched the wall, reinforcing their fist with a hardlight glove. Cinder blocks shattered and a wiff of fresh air came through the gap.
:Insurance will cover it. We need fresh air now, and we don't have time to get to the doors yet,:
They punched again, then started pushing and pulling at the loose bricks, expanding the opening. Once it was big enough, they moved a few metres down the wall and punched another hole. Other RIDEs picked up on what they were doing and were tearing holes into nearby walls as well. Some were unlucky and just holed inside walls, but most made their own vents.
The third hole, the Marshal pair made wide enough to scramble out of. They picked up the sirens of incoming emergency vehicles, but help was still minutes away. They kicked off the ground with their lifters and flew to the entrance. They discovered in passing, every emergency exit was chained up and blocked. They paused at each one to clear the exit, making sure it opened up to release the green mist and coughing club goers.
At the entrance, they found the bouncer was pinned to the doors by a skimmer. The skimmer itself was active, its lifters pushing steadily at the doors, enough to keep them closed but not enough to break them. Confused clubbers were trying to figure out what to do. The bouncer himself was stunned and barely conscious.
"What happened here?" Darrin shouted, letting Sammy show their Marshal badge.
A girl shrugged, looking confused and worried. The banging on the doors was getting weaker. "I don't know. This skimmer came up the street, slammed into Cameron there, and pinned him to the door. There's no driver, and the doors are locked. What can we do?"
Sammy studied the situation and eliminated many options right off the bat. :The cabin is reinforced. We can't break our way into the controls. And we can't move it as long as its running.:
:Pulse it?: Darrin suggested.
:Agreed. Pulsing it.: Sammy moved to the hood of the skimmer and placed his hands on it. "Everyone back up!" he ordered, giving them ten seconds to retreat. The squirrel's hands glowed and a tightly focused electromagnetic pulse shot through the skimmer's engine compartment.
The skimmer sputtered and fell to the ground, sliding back slightly. Sammy caught the bouncer and passed him to the onlookers. The doors immediately bulged forward from the pressure inside, but the skimmer continued to block them.
"Everyone get away from the doors!" Sammy shouted, moving to the back of the skimmer. He grabbed the rear bumper and lifted, then began to drag it back.
The doors burst open, unleashing a wave of coughing red eyed people, along with a cloud of green mist. They stumbled out of the club blindly, just as the first ambulances arrived.
The Next Day
The final results of the club attack were sobering. Seven people killed, either crushed in the crowd or overcome by the mist. Another forty three were in the hospital, getting new lungs grown, or having crushed limbs tended to; in some cases having both done.
Darrin sat in a chair at the edge of the room, as the local police went over what they knew so far about the attack. Technically, the Marshals had no standing on this case, but as a victim, and as a hero of the night, it earned Darrin and Sammy some leeway.
"The attackers stole a NuEarth tanker, filled with Primordial Gas. They flew it to the roof of the club and hooked it into the building's ventilation system," the lead investigator briefed the crowd. Beside him, a screen showed the large tanker still on the roof.
"From there, he went to the emergency exits and sealed them shut. A chef was found knocked out outside the back door of the kitchen, before that door was closed and chained shut as well. She says she didn't see anything.
"Finally, the skimmer was hotwired and remote controlled. It drove into the doors, pinning the bouncer and keeping them shut. As soon as the doors were blocked, a remote opened the valves of the tank, flooding the club with the poisonous gas."
"Any idea how many attackers we're dealing with?" one detective asked.
"We're still recreating the scene, but it does seem to be just one person. Either an Intie or a fused RIDEhuman pair. Humans are not strong nor fast enough to pull this off, and a RIDE alone lacks the dexterity needed."
"What is NuEarth's role in this?"
The lead investigator nodded to the questioner. "NuEarth appears to be a victim here as well. They are cooperating fully. They have confirmed the tanker had arrived on their site early yesterday, and was being kept in a low security lot until they needed it. Anyone could have gotten it easily."
"Any pictures or other evidence of who this was?"
"We're still processing the scene. They were aware of the cameras in the area, and avoided them. The ones they couldn't avoid, they destroyed. We do believe it is a hoofed RIDE of some sort, probably horse, considering the hoofprints found at various points of interest..." The lead inspector trailed off, noticing another investigator slip into the room, looking excited. "Do you have something to add, Detective?"
"Yes sir, we found an image of the attacker." The new investigator made his way to the front and tapped the display computer. "He missed a private camera in a business where the skimmer was stolen from."
On the screen, Sammy and Darrin recognized the skimmer they had disabled. It was parked on the street outside a store. The view was a bit hazy from being taken within the window, but a white furred unicorn with a black horn was clearly seen using a device to open the door and leaning inside to do something to the controls.
"We've already searched the registered RIDEs in the city. Only three unicorns, and they're all female," the investigator added. "We're waiting to hear back from hotels and hostels to see if any more have visited lately."
"Excellent work, Detective. Everyone else, you'll find your tasks on the roster list. We know who to look for, now we need to find them. Dismissed."
As the room emptied out, the Inspector made his way to the marshals. He shook Darrin's hand, and Sammy's paw. "Great work inside the club there. You saved many lives with your quick thinking."
"We did what we had to do. My skin was on the line there too," Darrin said.
"Any lingering effects?"
"No sir. Sammy's meddies flushed it out of me before it could do much damage, thank goodness."
"Excellent. I know officially this isn't really a Marshal matter, but this case is receiving a lot of press locally. It's one of the worst terrorist attacks we've ever had here. So if there's anything…"
Sammy nodded, "Of course. I've already grabbed those shots of the terrorist and I'm scanning the marshal archives. A black horned unicorn is rather unique, if there are any around, we'll find him, and we'll let you know what we find."
The inspector looked relieved, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
"It's no problem at all. We're all on the same side after all."
Francis and Steiner relaxed in an office off their main lab space, reviewing Blackstar's results. They had VI agents watching for news about the attack on the club, as well as real agents in the field, embedded in various organizations to get the information that didn't hit the press.
"Blackstar has done better than we anticipated," Steiner noted. "The hardlight disguise was inspired."
Francis smiled and nodded, "Appa will be pleased, his plans are much more feasible now. Who is next?"
"Our netters are bringing in a dome engineer from Cascadia. She has access to useful areas of their dome generators."
Francis tented his fingers together, "Excellent."
They continued their review and congratulated themselves on a job well done. When they reached one report from an agent in the Punta Sur police force, it made Steiner pause.
"This could be a problem. The Marshal Task Force is already involved."
Steiner sat forward, "Already? How did they link this to the old experiments? They don't even have a suspect yet."
Francis skimmed further and relaxed, "They haven't. Or at least I don't think they have. It was just bad luck that the squirrel marshals were visiting the club when the attack went off."
"So it's just a side project for him. You know, this could be an opportunity for us. A new mission for Blackstar and a new test for us. Somewhat risky, but the payoffs could be good."
Francis skimmed over the skeleton of a plan Steiner was forming. "Risky indeed. But we've wanted eyes in there for a long time. Let's kick this off after we finish with the Cascadian."
Punta Sur, a few months later
Tyler and Andrea walked out of the theatre with the crowd. He glanced over at his coworker, thankful that they had managed to patch things up after his strange attack a few months before. He noticed her grimacing.
"Ugh, that was horrible," she said. "I should've known better. That director draws off the Archives way too much."
"It wasn't that bad. Sure it had light sabres, and ewoks. But it was still set here on Zharus. Just in Lucas Land."
"Ugh, still too much ancient history for my tastes. But I guess I picked it." She noticed him twitch "Answer your phone."
"What? How'd you know?"
"You twitch every time you get the incoming signal. I don't mind, answer it."
"Thanks." Tyler turned away, and accepted the call. "Tyler speaking."
"Luke Skywarp." the voice said, before disconnecting.
He stood there a moment, then turned back, looking puzzled. "Wrong ID I guess. Would you like me to walk you home?"
Andrea looked puzzled, "Walk me home? I thought we were going to go get a drink after the show."
"We were? Oh right, we were… Uhm…."
She glared at him, then turned away, "Forget about it. I can walk myself home. I'll see you at work."
"Bye Andrea!" Tyler called after her, turning to head to his own place, feeling a bit confused over what happened, but letting it fade.
Lanayru Desert, East of Punta Sur
A hundred and sixty years before, thousands of automated machines had rolled across this terrain in a line stretching from the mountain slopes of the Southern Dry Range, to the ocean coast. They moved with a single minded purpose, chopping, crushing, pulping, and extracting all of the biological matter in the land, and sending it back to the Neumonformer for reprocessing into Earth life. Normally, a second wave of machines would have quickly followed them, seeding the ground with the life of another world, but on this corner of Zharus, that didn't happen.
Before the seeders could spread, the great machine in charge of all these machines, shut down. The Neumonformer named Zelda puffed her last gasp and with her, most of her daughters shut down as well. Only the extractors missed the shutdown signal, leading them to continue their work until the Spacers noticed them. By then, a swath of the continent's southern ring had been cleared, leaving a thousand klick long and wide sterile desert.
Darrin sat in a hardlight chair in the middle of that desert. Information on his active cases were projected in the air around him, though he wasn't looking at any of them. When he got stuck, he often came out to the desert for the peace and quiet to let his mind wander. Sammy didn't care for the barren desert, but his RI partner tolerated his quirk.
"If we get another cold case, I'm going to have to bring out another generator for you," Sammy said. The squirrel was laying on his back, nonchalantly tossing a large rock up and catching it.
"If that happens, I'll just shelve the task force for a bit. We're only tangentially tied to it anyway," Darrin replied, looking to his left where the task force information was. Now that they had tied it to Shahrazad, the volume of data had exploded. He'd skimmed through it, and had nightmares for weeks. Still, it was the same problem the task force always had; it was all old information. There hadn't been another case they could tie to the rest in months.
"Still, something just doesn't make sense about all this. Historically, Shahrazad didn't leave bodies behind. Or at least doesn't leave them behind where they can be found. Which means they're probably not her directly. That or there are a lot more bodies out there than we know of."
"Probably both." Sammy rolled back onto his feet and walked among the records, sniffing at a couple of them. "Here's a random thought I just had. What if the unicorn is another of her projects?"
Darrin chuckled, "Random indeed. But I don't think so. It doesn't fit her style. That was a pure terrorism attack, not the psychological attacks she likes to do."
"Was worth a guess." Sammy nuzzled the unicorn file open, and expanded some of the details to examine them himself.
Darrin busied himself in the Task Force file, but quickly grew tired of going over the same ground over and over again. He compressed the data again and looked out at the barren wasteland. In the distance, a muddy river ran, with a thin skirt of greenery. While the rivers had helped wash away the loose, dusty sand left behind decades ago, they were now providing the route for life to slowly return.
"Well, I'm not sure how much more I'll get out of this today. Ready to head home, Sammy?" he asked, turning back to his partner. He was surprised to see a life sized image of the unicorn at the edge of the data space. "Wow, you trying to create a better image? That one looks almost life like."
"Better image?" The squirrel looked to his partner, and spotted the image. "That's not in the records."
The 'image' grinned, "I wondered how long before you fools would realize that. Name's Blackstar, not that you'll remember a thing." He raised his hand, and fired a stunner at Darrin.
Darrin rolled off the chair and felt his vest stiffen as it absorbed the shock. Sammy snarled and leaped at the unicorn, and the pair started wrestling. Darrin pulled his own weapon and scanned the area for more threats, before focusing on his partner. The pair were too close together to give him a clear shot. He crouched, using the chair to brace himself and let out a quick whistle. Sammy lept to one side, and Darrin shot, striking the unicorn in the chest.
The unicorn looked down, surprised. "Was that supposed to hurt?"
His response was a stronger blast, striking his side, and sending him crashing to the ground. He started to push himself up, before slumping down. Sammy chittered happily, the tip of his tail closing to hide the pulse cannon. "No, that was supposed to distract."
Darrin looked around warily for more threats. "We'd better call this in. You got the RIDE restraints?"
"I do, but comms are blocked." Sammy opened a panel on his side. Darrin walked over and pulled out a lockdown collar. "He probably has the blocker on him somewhere."
"I'll see if I can find it. I suddenly don't like being out here incommunicado," Darrin made his way to the unicorn, being careful to keep out of Sammy's line of fire. He crouched down to start attaching the collar.
"Huh, well that explains it. The horn's a fake. He's just a horse," Darrin said. "All locked up. Now let's find the jammer."
"A horse? Man, we really should have thought of that." Sammy shifted his attention to the surrounding area, his tail tip glowing as he slowly panned around. "I wonder what he meant by we wouldn't remember?"
He heard a thump and turned to see Darrin slumping down unconscious on the disabled RIDE. He felt something splat against his side, and managed to see what seemed like green slime, before it glowed brightly, and his systems shut down.
"It means the Docs shouldn't send their toys out without proper combat training." a chameleon integrate flickered into view, and looked over the scene. "Load'em up boys, the Docs want them back to the Dome by nightfall. And someone free up that damn horse, Gotta get him home before his old selves clue in."
A trio of fused RIDEs appeared and went to work, cleaning up the fight scene. The marshal's and their gear were loaded into a skimmer, which took off with the RIDEs. The chameleon revived Blackstar and unlocked his RIDE half.
"Ugh, what hit me?" Blackstar asked, sitting up.
"A Marshal Squirrel's Ion Tail. Don't worry, there's no damage."
Blackstar seemed to remember where he was, and looked around urgently. The chameleon sighed, "Don't worry, the mission's a success. We got what we came here for. You are to go home and Prawyks Ekul. You've been out for a big workout and you're thinking of picking up some proper fight training, especially for your human part. Do you understand?"
Blackstar froze, then nodded. "I understand."
The unicorn took off, heading back to Punta Sur. The chameleon took one final look around the scene to make sure nothing was missed, then flickered out of view as well.
Unnamed valley near the Arch, Dry Ocean, 2 weeks later
Fused together, Sammy and Darrin were in a small valley, watching the entrance of a cave carefully.
:How you holding up?: Darrin asked.
:Rough. But we got a signal off. Seahaven's got a squad coming to clean this mess up. We just have to make sure they don't move before they get here,: Sammy sounded as tired as Darrin felt, but it was worth it.
By pure luck, on their way back to Punta Sur, they had overheard an Intie talking to an associate about an upcoming big boom. Suspicions aroused, they had cloaked and started following the suspect over the Inner Range to the Dry proper.
The days that followed had pushed both of their limits, both in avoiding being caught, and gathering further information on what the trio of inties were planning. They were able to raid a Marshal stash for food and power, but they never reached a position they felt safe enough to try and signal for backup.
Now, the trio were doing their final preparations, a few hundred klicks from their target. If they weren't stopped soon, the Alohan Arch into the Dry would be destroyed.
:Ping! Just heard a Marshal squawk.: Sammy reported, looking around and finally finding the source, indicated by a slightly hazy patch in the cloaking field. He sent a response and soon the worn out Marshal's were joined by a lioness intie and a zebra fuse.
"Wow, you two look rough. You doing alright?" the lioness asked as they landed near him.
"We're well enough. Two weeks hard living in the Dry will do this to yah," Darrin answered. "You get my briefing?"
"We did. Security around the arch is being beefed up, but we're all they could spare to help. Think we can handle it?" the Zebras asked.
"With ease. For Inties, they aren't all that bright. Hell they aren't all that bright by human standards. But they are dangerous," Sammy said.
The lioness grinned, "Often, it's the dumb ones you have to be most watchful of. They're the ones willing to do the stuff the smart guys would never dare. Shall we go show them our claws?"
Sammy flicked his tail, the tip opening and glowing, "I've been aching to do this all week. Let's get them."
Now that their latest project was released back into the wild, Steiner and Francis had the time to review the information they'd extracted from the detectives. Some of the theories they found laughable, others were scarily close to the truth.
"Herbie? Did we ever mess with a rottweiller RIDE named Herbie?" Steiner asked, looking at the suspected victims list.
"Not that I can recall. Who is it?"
"Some RIDE in Uplift. Believes he's one of those round TwenCen cars, what were they? Hoppers? Bugs? Beetles!"
"Beetles? Oh right, I think I recognize the reference. But we never did Herbie. Nor did any of Shah's group." Francis brought up their own records and rubbed his frilled chin. "Nope, no rotties, let alone any from Uplift. Could it be another group?"
"I don't think so. Shah's managed to suck up most of the outliers. There might be some crazies upstairs, but most of the planetside ones are here."
"Then he must be a naturally nutty RIDE. That task force's net is so wide, they got the real crazies mixed in with our made ones."
Steiner grinned, "Well it works for us. Helps hide what we're doing."
Francis glanced around the room and sent a tight com signal to Steiner. "What are we doing here now? We've succeeded more than we ever expected. Appa's over the moons with how successful Blackstar and Greyheart are. He's going to want to bring this op home and move to the next phase."
Steiner responded in kind, "Well, it's hard to say. As you said, we've done what Appa wanted. But I do like our setup here. It would be hard to argue for a reason to stay, but I can think of one."
"One? What are you thinking of?'
"Well, we've had everything we could want. Inties, RIDEs, Humans, even some old AIDE's, to work with. But we haven't gotten any EI's yet. They're all still too rare, too concentrated in Nujose. The only local one we have, is off limits because he's too close to the Munns."
"Intriguing…." Francis cleared their virtual space of the Task Force records, and brought up an old file. It expanded, showing everything they'd been able to find on EI's. "A live subject or two would be useful for our studies. And it would be easy to convince Appa that we should know more about our children."
"But who should we get? Our choices are somewhat limited due to the rarity and being a continent away. We can probably get one of the construction or tourist EI's fairly easily…"
Francis grinned and pulled a file from the Task Force. "Why think so small? If we're going to do this, we might as well go big. This one is perfect after all. Look at her records, she hasn't been tainted by RIDEs at all."
"Challenging. I like a challenge. Let's see what we can do…."
Nujose, late 158 AL
Pepper stood in front of the stove, watching the frying pans carefully. While she couldn't directly taste the food, over the years she'd become quite adept at making breakfast for the family. She gave the scrambled eggs in the pan one final stir, and removed it from the heat, sliding the results onto a plate, then adding the plate to the table with the other two.
"Breakfast's ready!" she called out, turning back to the fridge for the orange juice she'd squeezed earlier. She could hear the thumping and scraping of chairs behind her. By the time she'd poured the glasses and turned back, the family were at the table.
"Thanks Pepper, perfection as usual," Nadia said, smiling to her partner, before concentrating on cracking open a soft boiled egg.
Rick had already broken his sunny side up egg yolk with a piece of toast. "Yeah, perfect as always. I'd hate to think of what we'd do if this family had to rely on my breakfast making skills… Or worse, on Nadia's skills."
"Hey!" Nadia shouted, eliciting a peal of giggles from their son, Tony.
Once the initial feeding frenzy died down, they were able to talk of their plans for the day. "So they've got you walking a foot patrol down on the campus?" Rick asked.
"We asked for it. The foot patrols are nice. Gives us a lot of time to think on the actives and the colds, while keeping us in touch with everyone."
"Seems like you've been spending a lot of time on the campus lately. Anything going on?"
Nadia shrugged. "It's hard to say. Z-First has been making waves again. We're keeping our eyes and ears open in case they want to try anything."
Rick chuckled. "Well it's been ten years since that incident when we met. Maybe they're planning something for our anniversary."
"Don't even joke about that." Nadia paused and did a double take, "It has been ten years. You can barely remember your own birthday, but you remember that?"
"Well, I'm a boomer. I tend to remember my big bombs. Especially the one that dropped a pair of beautiful bombshells into my lap like that one did."
Nadia stood up and leaned over to kiss him before beginning to collect the breakfast dishes, "Lines like that make me forgive your calender-nesia. So what are you two planning to do today?"
"Not sure. I think we were going to head down to the park, meet some of Tony's new classmates and see what sort of trouble we can get into. Right buddy?"
"Sounds like a good plan. Wish I could hang out with you both, but work calls." Nadia leaned over to kiss her son, but he pulled back, grimacing and ewwing. She managed to give him a quick kiss on the forehead, and ruffled his red hair. "Don't cause your dads too much trouble. I love you."
Nadia and Pepper walked side by side around the university campus. EI's were a common sight now, and the students pretended they were too 'cool' to get excited about meeting them, so they didn't get swarmed like they did when they went to the malls or parks. Privately, Nadia preferred it this way, since it let them focus on their work more.
"So what are you feeling, Pepper?" Nadia asked, stopping them in the middle of a busy quad with views of some of the big lecture halls. She'd been working with the Doctors on improving Pepper's 'gut instincts', trying to teach the EI how to read the meta data of the human world.
Pepper paused and turned around slowly, looking puzzled as she collected her own impressions. "Some jitters and fears, mainly from the frosh. Some anxiety, I believe from all of the students since the first waves of marks are coming in. But overall, everyone seems relaxed, and at ease now. There doesn't seem to be anything but the normal university campus."
Nadia did her own turn, her eyes skimming over the students, professors, and other workers that kept the university going. She didn't stare, but just let her subconscious do the analysing. "Good, I agree with you there, Pep. Just a normal day, nothing unusual going on. No sign of Z-First in any case."
She motioned to a bench out of the main traffic flow, and they wandered over to it. Nadia called into Control to give them an update while Pepper stood nearby. After giving her update and checking for any new orders, Nadia disconnected and stood up. She looked around and realized Pepper hadn't moved since they arrived at the bench. Nadia waved her hand in front of the EI's face, but got no reaction. Finally, she tapped Pepper's head. "Pepper! Breath!"
The EI twitched and focused on her partner. "I'm sorry, Nadia. I got distracted. Is something wrong?"
"Nah, you just zoned out on me there. What's on your mind?"
"Shahrazad, that is what. I was reviewing the case again, trying to get new insight on it."
"I see. And did you get anything from your woolgathering?"
Pepper hesitated, uncertain on how she wanted to proceed. "I'm not sure. I've been examining the drop sites, where victims were left, looking for patterns. While I don't think it is a pattern exactly, there are a couple of sites here in NuJose that would match. I would like to examine some of them in person, if we could."
"In person? What do you think we would find there?"
The EI shrugged, "I'm not sure. To be honest, probably nothing. These connections are so tenuous, I'm having trouble following the logic that lead me there. But it's what you would call a gut feeling."
Pepper looked pleadingly to her partner. "You know how it is. You've had them before. How many times have you taking us somewhere based on your feelings? And succeeded based on what we find there? I've been in your head and I still can't figure out how you make those sorts of leaps, but I trust you to make them. I want you to trust me in a leap of my own."
Nadia held up her hands, "Of course I trust you, Pepper. If you have a hunch, we can go check it out. Why would you think I wouldn't let you?"
The EI was surprised, "I… I'm not sure. You expect so much of me, I just want to make sure I have a reason for everything. But this, this is so unstable. I can't nail down why I want to check these places out, just that I feel it is important. But if it turns out to be nothing, I don't know what I'll do."
"You'll keep on doing what you've always done. We've worked enough cases to know that not every gut feeling works out. But they are important nonetheless. If you're that worried about it, book some time with your parents when we're off duty.
"In the mean time, let's transform and roll out to check those suspicions you've got. You can call it into Control."
Pepper leaned forward and her body shifted, becoming a wheeled cycle. "You sure I should call it in? What do I tell them?"
Nadia climbed into the saddle and felt the hardlight helmet form. "Tell them we're heading off campus to check out a gut feeling you've got for an unrelated case. And that we'll stay in touch."
Wilmot Park, Nujose
Rick watched Tony play in the sandbox under Otto's watchful gaze. A blond haired youngster joined him and the sand castle complex he'd been building quickly fell apart for grander plans.
"Hello, Rick. Good to see you again."
Rick smiled and turned to the woman standing next to the bench he was sitting in. He stood quickly and offered part of the seat to her. "Good afternoon, Julie. How are you doing?"
"I'm well. Just brought Johnny out for the afternoon. Much like you brought Tony I see. Is Nadia not around?"
"She's on duty today. Just a boys day out today," Rick said.
Julie smiled, and looked around. "And your partner…?"
"Parked over in the skimmer lot. He's doing some VR sim's and likes the quietness," Rick waved to the flat area near the road. A blue unmarked open back skimmer-truck was parked there. "So what have you been up to?"
The parents chatted away while their children played. More joined and left as the day whiled away; the kids easily shifting their games with the changing numbers. Rick was debating when to head home, when his comm lit up with alarms. Seconds later, the other parents began to react to alerts.
"Tony! Otto, come to me!" he called out, sensing Genis moving up behind him at full speed. The big EIDE engulfed him before anyone else could react.
:What's going on?: Rick asked, feeling his mind speed up to Genis's levels.
:Z-First. They struck first before spamming. Blew up the cruise ship terminal down at the docks. Luckily, no ships were in so casualties are limited. They're spamming their message on all comms now, but they've already been pushed to the side for normal traffic.:
:Guess we're on duty. They got other targets yet?: Rick sensed a side channel open, Genis anticipating his other needs, and shifted his focus to the familiar face.
"Rick!" Lois exclaimed. "What's going on?"
"Not sure yet Lois. But they're calling us all in. I know it's short notice…"
"Of course! You never have to ask. Where are you now?"
"Wilmot park, in the sand castle garden. Otto's with him of course, and some of his classmates."
"Clark and I will be right down as fast as we can."
"Thanks Lois. We owe you big time as usual."
Rick glanced around in Real once he disconnected. The remaining parents were looking at him, most of them holding their charges close. Tony tried to look brave, one hand on Otto's shoulders, but specifically standing apart from his fathers.
"We're getting the news. What should we do?" Julie asked, hugging her son.
"Stay calm everyone. Everything is well under control. You should return to your homes unless told otherwise. Z-First seems to have a bit more bite than usual this time, but it's nothing to be worried about," Rick called out, trying to calm the crowd. It took more reassuring than he was used to giving, but eventually they started dispersing.
He crouched down and spoke lower, "Julie, I know it's a lot to ask, but we've got a couple friends coming to pick up Tony and Otto. Would you mind staying close until they get here? If you didn't live in the same tower, I wouldn't ask."
"Of course I don't mind. You sure it's safe?"
"Z-First seems to be hitting transportation hubs this time. You're in walking distance and not near any of the main roads or subways. You should be completely safe."
She nodded, and Rick turned to his son. Genis pulled back his face mask, and gloves so they could see each other clearly. Rick crouched and motioned for Tony to come closer.
"Mom and Dad are going to work now. But Lois is coming to take you home. You ok with that?"
Tony hugged his father and nodded, his young face trying to look brave. "Of course. I love visiting Auntie Lois and Uncle Clark."
"Good good. Now stay with Mrs Gerard and Johnny until Lois gets here. Otto will watch over you till we get home." Rick hugged his son, and ruffled his hair before reluctantly stepping back.
Otto barked and wagged his tail, "We'll protect him sir. Nothing will harm him under my watch."
"I know you will Otto. Thanks."
Julie stepped forward and put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Be careful out there," she called.
Genis sealed up and nodded to her, and to the boys, "We always are. Thank you."
They looked back once more before taking off, finally answering the deployment call that had been nagging in Genis's order queue for the past few minutes.
Guadalupe River, outside Nujose
Nadia groaned and woke up slowly, trying to figure out what happened. Her body was stiff and caught inside something immobile. Her implants, she discovered, were being jammed, and her senses were muffled. She gradually became aware of a slow rise and fall, along with the faint sounds of water. She decided she must be floating somewhere.
"Pepper?" she whispered, trying to find her partner. There wasn't a response, though she realized she still had to be fused with the EI, even if the EI was passived.
She wracked her mind, trying to recall what happened. They had visited a number of Pepper's hunches, with no luck. The last one they had visited had gone differently. It was a warehouse on the docks, near the cruise ship terminal. She recalled Pepper getting excited, picking up traces of explosives, but before they could signal it, the entire dock complex had blown up around them.
Over the noise of the water, she heard footsteps. "Hello!" she shouted, "Is someone there?"
"Ah good, you're awake. And not damaged. They'll be glad of that." The voice was male, with a hiss Nadia knew was common with reptilian RIDEs and Inties.
"Yes, I'm alive. What happened? What's wrong with Pepper?"
"Nothing is wrong with Pepper; it's just easier to keep her knocked out while travelling. Humans on the other hand, are much less dangerous. So I figured I could talk to you a bit before we leave.
"As for what happened? It's simple. We blew up the docks all around you. Then we fished you out of the river and loaded you on a barge. Soon enough you'll be well on your way to your new home."
A chill ran down Nadia's spine as she realized her situation. She struggled a moment, but Pepper was completely immobile around her, holding her fast. "New home? What the hell do you want with me?"
The voice seemed to come from near her head, slightly to her left, not that that meant much to her. "Me? Nothing. You're just someone my masters want dearly. They went through a lot of effort to get you for their plans. Just setting up the explosion; we found it easier to resurrect Zharus First than to plant a fake terrorist group in your records like we would do in the old days."
"Old days. So you're Inties. What did Z-First do?"
"Just their usual bluster. Keeping them primed to go until Pepper took the bait was really hard. But we were able to get it going. We blew up the docks to get you, and there are enough other bombs around the city to keep your husbands and the rest of your boys in blue busy for the rest of the day. By the time anyone realizes you are missing, you'll be halfway to orbit with no one the wiser."
The voice shifted a bit nearby. "Speaking of which, the first handoff is coming up. Time for you to go to sleep. When you wake up, the real fun starts."
"Wait! Where are you taking me? Who are those masters you mentioned?" Nadia turned her head slightly towards the voice, even if Pepper's head was immobile.
"You're going to the Dome. That's all I'll say."
"It's Shahrazad's isn't it? She wants us for some reason?" Nadia was grasping at straws. Still, the figure did hesitate.
"Shahrazad does not know you, nor would she give a damn about you. But you are close enough. Nap time."
"Wait! Please! Let me see outside. One last time."
There was another long pause, and then Nadia felt herself being pulled. She was tilted upward and leaned against something. Finally, Pepper's face plate lifted up. She squinted in the bright setting sun and looked around as best she could. There was no sign of her captor, nor anyone else. They were on a small barge, filled with rubbish, floating down a river. The shore was a jungle, showing no signs of anyone.
Nadia tilted her head, trying to see her situation better. Pepper's red and gold armored body was scuffed and blackened with soot, but was otherwise undamaged. Devices were strapped around her, with faintly glowing lights. She was leaning against the side of a skimmer, hidden under more debris. The only way she could be spotted would be someone looking directly at her.
"That's enough now. Nighty night." Without further warning, a device was pressed to her forehead, and the world went dark.
Train Bridge, Guadalupe River
Genis and Rick hung under the bridge, studying the bomb package carefully. Initial scans had hinted at a cavorite detector, so they were hanging in a harness, their antigrav turned off.
:Any word on Nads and Pep?: Rick asked again, waiting for Genis to finish the scans.
:Nothing yet. Control says they are busy elsewhere. Red or Green?:
:Green. It'll kill the AG sensor. What the hell are they doing? She'd call us if she could.:
Genis clipped the green wire and added a bypass. :I'm sure they're fine. We need to focus. :
With worry nagging at the back of their minds, they managed to get the bomb disarmed and loaded onto a skimmer to haul it off to the range. They were one of the last to finish.
"OK Control, all the bombs are gone, you can stop hiding from us. Where are Detectives Nadia Vert and Pepper?" Rick asked as soon as the clear was given.
"I'm sorry Specialists, we don't know. Last time they reported in, they were heading to the docks. They never signed in on duty. We… We haven't heard of them since before the first bomb."
Rick shuddered, and felt Genis take them into the air. They were heading to the docks. "Where were they last seen Control? Have the docks been secured?"
"Docks have been secured. All bodies have been accounted for and the detectives were NOT among them. The last record of Pepper's signals were a few blocks away from the docks."
A new voice cut into their conversation. "Rick, Genis. We know Pepper and Nadia are missing. We're already looking for them with all hands we can spare; more now that the bombs are handled. But you two are exhausted, and won't do any good to us right now. Go to your son, get some rest, and we'll update you as soon as we have anything. That is an order."
Rick gulped a bit then sighed, "Yes Captain, we understand."
"Good. Now get off the line. Don't make me get you an escort."
Genis reluctantly shifted direction, heading to their friend's apartment. Rick briefly considered objecting, but let the EI take control. Genis quickly got them to Lois and Clark's apartment.
"Come on in, Heroes. Welcome home," Lois called out, the door opening automatically for them. Tony ran to the pair, dressed in his pajamas.
Rick defused and hugged his son, trying to put on a brave face. "Hey kid. What are you doing still up?"
"They already said school's delayed tomorrow. Auntie Lois said it was ok."
"He really wanted to see his mom and dad come home. Speaking of which, where is…" Lois fell silent as she saw Rick's expression, hidden from Tony.
"Fine, you can stay up a bit later. Why don't you find Otto and play for a bit while I talk with Lois and Clark."
"I'll be with him," Genis said. "I could use a bit of a top up."
Lois lead Rick into the kitchen, where she offered him a drink. Clark joined them, looking at his wife curiously.
"What happened Rick?" Lois asked, keeping her voice low.
"Nadia and Pepper… They're missing. They haven't been heard from since the bombs on the docks," Rick stammered out.
"Oh no! What happened?" Clark asked.
"We don't know. The Captain herself sent Genis and I off the case. I don't think anyone knows anything yet."
"What do you want to do? If you guys want to crash here for the night, you're always welcome to."
"I don't know. We should probably be home in case one of them checks in… But… maybe Tony? If you don't mind? If something's happened and they come back badly, I'd rather not he be there…."
"Of course. We'll keep him here as long as you want."
Rick finished his drink and hugged both of them. "Thank you. Thank you both. If anything happens, you'll be the first to know."
"Of course. We know that. We'll get Tony and Otto off to school and play it from there."
"Don't let him stay up too late, even if school is running late tomorrow." Rick smiled at them and struggled to compose himself.
He made his way to the living room, and found Tony hanging off of Genis. The boy dropped down and ran over.
"Hey kiddo. Daddy's gotta be on call tonight, just in case there are more surprises from the bad guys. So you're going to stay here with Lois and Clark. You good with that?"
"Yeah! Sure dad!"
Rick hugged Tony tight, then ruffled his hair. "We'll see you tomorrow, after school tomorrow. Don't cause them too much trouble. Promise?"
Tony wiggled and grinned, "Promise!"
Rick held his son a long moment before letting him go. "Come on Genis. Time to head home."
"Dad, wait!" Rick crouched and Tony leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "Give that to mom when you see her."
"Of course kid, of course," Rick turned away quickly and barely kept himself from running out the door.
As soon as they were outside, Genis fused around Rick and they started home. :Anything news yet?:
:Nothing yet. They've promised to let me know as soon as anything comes in.:
:Thanks Genis. They've gotta be fine, right? They're fine….:
Nadia groaned and tried to figure out what was going on. Her implants were sluggish, and not picking up any outside signals. She could tell she was no longer fused, and that she wasn't harmed, but that was all. She opened her eyes and blinked, slowly adjusting to the light.
She found herself in a room, strapped down naked to a slanted table, scanning devices pointed her way. She could see Pepper across from her, most of the armor plating removed, and a pair of integrates poking around inside. The scaley one turned to her as soon as her eyes were opened.
"Ah good, the daughter awakens. How do you feel?" he asked, moving over to adjust some of the scanning devices.
"Pissed off. Who the hell are you? What are you doing to Pepper?"
"I am Steiner, and this is my partner, Francis. We are preparing Pepper, and you, for the path of Enlightenment. You will be the first of our children to go down it and join us. But first, we need to remove some annoying elements that are in the way."
"Path of? What the hell are you talking about? What do you mean children? You sure as hell ain't my parents."
The second integrate, a big Clydesdale, turned to her, "The path of Integration. You will be the first Enlightened from a human Evolved IDE fusion."
Nadia struggled against her bindings, but they held her tight. "What? No way! It's impossible to integrate with EIDE's anyway!"
"Hush, please stop struggling. You are messing up the scans." The first Intie wandered over and pressed a device to her neck. Her body went numb from the neck down. "Tell me the truth, have you ever fused with anyone other than Pepper?"
"No!" Nadia shouted. She tried to toss her head, but her neck was as numb as the rest of her body. "Please! Just let us go!"
"Excellent. She is untainted. Our readings are pure."
The second intie waved the first over. "Steiner, look at this. It's as we expected. The EIDE's core has changed from its initial creation. There are islands of chaos within its ordered elements."
"The human's mind scans are similar. Islands of extreme order among the usual human wildness. They have been affecting each other as anticipated."
"What did you mean?" Nadia called out, trying to interrupt the analysis she was overhearing. "What did you mean by your children? Aren't Integrates sterile?"
The first turned back and smiled. "They are. But there are other ways to have children. Few know this, but the Nujose EIDE program was started by Integrates. Shapeshifters hiding as humans. They took knowledge from the enclaves and used it to make the first EIDE's.
"You mean the Docs? Yeah we know they are Integrates. But we still aren't your kids. What makes you so interested in Pepper and I?"
"We are interested because you are the first. The first we've been able to capture and one of the oldest EI pairings active. When you walk the path, you will be blazing new trails. You will become famous among us, though sadly you will not have long to bask in that fame. As the first, we will have to study you intently, find your limits. Regrettably, you will not survive. But your descendents, future EI Enlightened, will have the advantage of all we learn from you."
Despite her paralysis, a chill ran down Nadia's spine. "You're monsters!"
Steiner shook his head, "No we are not. We are scientists. We simply are making use of monsters. The tigress was very disappointed we claimed you before she could study you. But it was important for us to have pure base stock."
"The Tigress? Shahrazad? Of course, that makes sense now. This is one of her camps?" Nadia shuddered inwardly and tried not to show it.
"That it is. Don't worry though, you are under our protection. She will not harm you."
The Integrates returned their attention to Pepper, poking deep in her DE shell. Nadia tried to follow what they were doing, but the angles and distances were too great. She tried to track the time, but her implant clocks were too messed up to rely on. Frustrated, she let her head drop and let her mind wander, taking in what she could see and searching for escape opportunities. They were nonexistent as far as she could tell. Her mind drifted as they worked, wondering what Rick and Tony were doing, worrying over how they were handling her disappearance. Finally the Integrates stepped back, and the armor plating lifted off the table and snapped back into place. Pepper's eyes glowed as she came back online.
"Pepper!" Nadia shouted out. "If you hurt her…."
"I am unharmed, Nadia. They… They just removed my Integrate protections. I am unfettered, but I am unprotected as well," Pepper said after a moment.
"She is our daughter. We wish her no harm, but those devices were annoying and impure. Nothing will block your future," Steiner said.
Nadia tensed up as the horse approached her, but he simply went behind her table and started pushing. The other pushed Pepper's frame, leading them to another room. The room was sparse, a chemical toilet in one corner, a cot in another, and nothing but bare walls otherwise. Nadia prepared herself for the worse, but nothing happened, other than a cold jet against her neck. Her body lit up, tingling as feeling returned.
"We have much to discuss, to plot out your path to Enlightenment. You will be safe in this room, but do not try to leave it."
The straps loosened, letting Nadia drop down to the floor. She pushed herself up on shaky arms and glared at her captors. "Or else what?"
"Or else you will leave our protection and the Tigress or one of her acolytes will capture you. Rex will watch over you, making sure you don't leave." Francis answered.
Growls answered a signal the Inties made. A fused pitbull ran in, running on all fours. It stopped right outside the door, sniffing a bit. After a moment, the armored frame split open and a man dropped from it. Nadia forced herself not to look away from the heavily fused man. He walked on all fours, and was furred, showing little remaining intelligence. The RIDE part reformed in walker mode and the two large dogs sniffed each other curiously before sitting down at the door.
"Do not worry. We will be back to guide you soon."
Central Command, Nujose
Rick and Genis sat in the meeting room with the Captain, Lucy and Farouk. The rest of the room was filled with hardlight avatars with law enforcement representatives from across the system. The room's VI struggled to keep proper continuity with all the avatars, occasionally shrinking some to make more room.
The Captain cleared her throat, and the room quieted down. "Thank you all for coming. Two of our own have been kidnapped, for purposes unknown. But it is an assault that we can not ignore, nor leave unpunished.
"Full details are available for those who need them. I'm just going to quickly summarize what we know so far."
She looked around the room and took a breath before starting. "Yesterday, Nujose was attacked by an eco-terrorist group known as Zharus First. It's a group that was thought defunct years ago, but had a resurgence in recent months. They have some history with the missing detectives, in that it was through their first attack that Detective Vert met her future husband Specialist Jones. Here in Nujose, we are finding everything we can about this resurrected group to see if there are any connections.
"To back up a little, yesterday, Detectives Vert and Pepper were on foot patrol on the UNJ campus. They reported nothing amiss, and requested, and were granted, permission to leave to check out some hunches Pepper had. Details of the hunches were not relayed to us, but we believe they are related to the Shahrazad Task Force they were part of.
"At 17:15, the Dock district's mesh collapsed, followed seconds later by an explosion in the cruise terminal and surrounding docks. Ten people were killed, another dozen injured. The Detective's last known positions were in that area, though no trace of them has been found."
The Captain scanned the room once more. "As of now, their disappearance is the top priority here at NuPD. Z-First and the explosions are being examined as possible connections. Since this is where they disappeared from, we expect most of the evidence will be here, but we'll appreciate any and all help the rest of you can offer. You don't stay in the force as long as she has without making enemies. Any one of them could be behind this."
She nodded to a dragon Integrate. A few seconds later, he spoke. "Ranger Nagafen, from Rhodes, currently in Omphalos. While I don't know your missing detectives personally, they were known to the security forces up here. The Rangers are working with Aloha and Omphalos and the other big orbitals to make sure they aren't snuck off planet."
"Thank you." She nodded to a woman with otter tags.
"A few years back, those detectives helped break open the NuWeed cases. Embarrassed a bunch of the local drug companies here in Califia. We're tracking them down to make sure there isn't a revenge factor."
"Thanks Nancy. We really appreciate it."
The rest of the room slowly sounded off. Most of the representatives could only promise to search, and offer any other help they were asked for. Tino reported he and Tycyn were on their way to Cape Nord to question Fridolf, hoping to get a location for Shahrazad's base from the wolf. Darrin and Sammy said they were reexamining all the victims, to try and find any common elements that may lead to the base they were manipulated at.
Finally, the Captain thanked everyone a final time, and dismissed the meeting. The avatars flickered out, leaving the five locals.
"Don't worry, Rick, Genis. We'll find them. The entire planet… the entire system even is looking for them."
"I know, Captain. I just hope we can find something soon. We haven't told Tony yet, but he can tell something is wrong."
"Hopefully we'll have some good news soon. If you'll excuse me, I need to go make some statements to the press before they go crazy."
Rick kept his neutral expression until the door closed behind the Captain. Once she was gone, he slumped in his chair, his face in his hands. "I'm lost. I don't know what to do. To lose them both… Isn't there anything you can do? You're Inties. You made Pepper. Don't you have any Intie tricks you can use?"
Lucy moved over and rubbed his shoulders, "I'm sorry, but we're as lost as you are. Pepper's completely off the Net; we can't find any trace of her newer than what the Captain had."
"We're doing everything we can, calling in all our connections to look for them too. She's our daughter, and we don't want anything to happen to her, or Nadia." Farouk sat opposite Rick.
"What are you going to do now?" Lucy asked after a quiet moment.
"I'm… I'm not sure. Her mom and Jeremy… that's her oldest brother, are flying in from NeoFran this afternoon. And I have to tell Tony something. Once school is out. We'll probably keep him out from now at least. Otto already knows, and he's keeping quiet."
"Good. Do you need anything from us? We'll do whatever we can to help out," Farouk offered.
"Thanks… I think we're good. Lois and Clark are going to help too, and some of our neighbours. I'm sure we'll be fine, for now at least. Long term… we just need to find them."
While they reassured Rick, Lucy cast a side band message to Genis. :How about you? How are you holding up, big guy?:
:I am enduring. For his sake. And bracing for the inevitable.:
:The inevitable? Don't get so down, it's still early.: Lucy chastised him.
:Yes, but the stats are not on our side, even with the entire system helping us. I am planning to be the rock this family will need to survive the coming storm.:
:Great. They are going to need it. But don't strain yourself too much. If you need anything, anything at all, call us. Even if you just want to talk and unload some of the strain a bit. We're here for you.:
A knock on the door caught everyone's attention. A young officer stuck his head in. "Rick, Genis? The Captain wants me to escort you back to your home."
"Escort? We don't need an escort!"
He paled but stood his ground. "My apologies. The Captain wants me to hang out at your house in case the kidnappers send a message there. Would you prefer we go together, or I can wait there until you get home. Another uni will pick Tony and Otto up at school too."
Lucy smirked and made a mental note. :Quick thinker,: she sent to Farouk.
:I noticed. We'll keep him in mind.: Farouk squeezed Rick's hand. "He's just doing his job. Same as all of you. Why don't you show him to your home and with luck, we'll find Nadia and Pepper in no time."
"I know… I shouldn't snap like that. I know the procedures…" Rick sighed and stood up. "Come on, let's go home guys."
Nadia paced the room, trying to think of a way out and coming up dry. They had quickly discovered the Integrates' touch on Pepper had been light, but firm. While she didn't feel fettered, she discovered limits in unexpected places. As soon as they were released in the room, Pepper discovered she was prohibited from self harm. Try as she wanted to, she could not scram her fuse nanites, nor otherwise damage herself. She also discovered she couldn't let Nadia harm her either. They had done a half dozen laps around the room discovering that aspect. Finally, they found that Pepper would not let Nadia leave the room, with or without Rex.
Rex proved to be less scary than he first appeared. Somehow both the RIDE and Human's minds had been reworked to being little more intelligent than a real pitbull. After the initial hours, Nadia managed to befriend them somewhat, though they only got close when no one else was around. The pair seemed to have a constant urge to fuse, but soon after they did, they would defuse, and the RIDE part would be unable to fuse for sometime after. Nadia had no idea why they were remade that way, but she eventually spent her time trying to comfort them.
Time quickly lost meaning for the captured detectives. The Integrates had disabled all their time keepers, and messed with the system clocks so they couldn't even maintain a steady count. Meals came at random times, and the lights remained constantly dim. Individually, or together, they were pulled into the lab area for more experiments, usually just scans as far as both could tell.
Meal times became a time Nadia dreaded. They were delivered on a tray by one of the experiments. Usually human, or at least formerly human, they only walked in and left the tray on a table and left. They all showed signs of work, in the fuse traces, or the mix of sexes or the cyborg elements. After the first few, Nadia took to facing the wall and ignoring them when she heard the door open.
"There's gotta be some way we can get out of here, Pep." Nadia said. They had just gotten back from a particularly intense scanning session. Her mind still ached from the artificial stimulation they'd put her through. "Frank'n'Stein are still human, well part human… theoretically. They're going to make a mistake sometime."
"I've been watching for one, but they are thorough. Nothing is in my reach when we are in the lab, at least not while I have control over myself. And we can't leave the confines of this room when we aren't in the lab. Or at least I can't."
"A signal. An open comm. Hell, smoke signals even. There's gotta be a way to reach someone."
"I'm trying. But everything's locked down."
Nadia squeezed her hands into fists hard enough to draw blood from her palms. She squeezed her eyes and felt tears rolling down her cheeks. "It's got to have been a week now. The search would be scaled back. I'm sorry Rick… Tony. I never wanted to put you through this…."
The next morning, as best they could guess, after the meal was brought in, the routine changed. A scaled human entered with a cart of bath supplies. Even naked, Nadia couldn't tell if it was male or female.
"I wasss ordered to prepare you. To cleansse you for your nekssst ssstep," the lizard hissed, its voice as androgynous as its body.
Nadia and Pepper separated quickly, backing to opposite walls. "Next step? No! Stay away!" Nadia shouted.
The integrates walked in and stayed at the door. "Calm yourself. This is merely the first step along a long path. You will not become Enlightened yet," Steiner said.
"Though will be the last time you will be separated. We wish you both to be clean before the final fuse. A cleaning isn't necessary, but we want you to feel nice," Francis added.
Nadia shook, barely keeping her terror contained. "Fuh-fine… But I'll do it my way. Get me a tub. With warm water and soap. If I'm going out, I want it on my terms."
The Integrates exchanged looks, hesitating. "You've got Pepper controlled. If I tried to drown myself, she'd stop me before my head went under. Just let me have this last moment of my own."
"That is acceptable. Give us time to get those supplies."
Nadia estimated it took an hour to get a tub prepared and wheeled in. It had a built in heater, filter and massage jets, as well as a privacy curtain and bath supplies. After making sure she had everything she wanted, she was left alone, save for Pepper. Nadia took her time, scrubbing off the grime that had built up in the days since they were captured. Once she was cleaned, she turned the jets on full and slumped in the water. She pretended the wetness of her cheeks was due to the steam from the tub.
"We're not going to get out of this, are we Pepper?" she called out.
"It's possible. Anything is possible. But it isn't looking good."
"Do you think they can do it? Force us to Integrate?"
The armored form shrugged and sat on the edge of the tub. "I don't know. There is a possibility. If it does happen, it may give us better chances. I'm not looking forward to it, but it might open new options for escape."
"At the cost of our individuality. I can't do this Pep. I love you, but I can't…."
"I know Nads. I don't want it either. Maybe when fused we can find some openings we can't find by ourselves."
Nadia fell silent, feeling the water shoot over her skin and through her hair. She drew the bath out as long as she could, but eventually she couldn't stay in any longer. She stepped out and dried herself off.
The integrates showed up as soon as she wrapped the towel around her chest, her first covering since she woke up in the lab. "This way please. We want to make sure we record this in as much detail as possible. For posterity," Francis said.
Nadia debated resisting, but was too tired to put up a fight. The floor felt different as they walked out, and she realized the Inties were projecting a hardlight floor for her to walk on. Pepper climbed onto a platform and waited for her. She climbed onto the platform, and felt the air tingle as a hardlight field surrounded them.
"When ready." one intie said.
She took the towel off and balled it up. She threw it at the Integrates, but it just bounced off the field and dropped to the platform. She glared at the pair and stepped up to Pepper, using her rage to counter the fear, frustration and despair she was feeling.
"Do it Pep."
"I'm sorry Nads. I'm so sorry."
Pepper's red armor slid open, revealing her silver fuse chamber. Nadia hesitated and felt her partner hesitating. Normally, the fuse was fun, but this time it was ominous. There was a finality to it that she wasn't used to feeling. Finally, Nadia turned away and fell back into it.
Her skin tingled all over with the familiar feeling of the fuse nanites. She felt her implants speed up, hooking up with Pepper's systems in a familiar configuration. Her mind quickened as they synced up. A familiar simulation appeared, a forest similar to the ones outside of Nujose, bordering a sterile cityscape. A Tron cycle roared out of the city and stopped on the plain between the two environments, transforming into a robotic woman. Despite their situation, Nadia hugged Pepper tightly.
"Is there anything you can do?" she whispered.
"Nothing. I'm sorry Nads. They've locked out my fuse controls. I can't release you. I can't transform either. We're locked like this."
"Damn. I was hoping they would forget that. Let's see what they want now."
The virtual landscape dissolved to a view of the Real. They were still on the platform, but the field was down and the Inties were surrounding them, waving various sensors over them. While fused, the pair found their systems were almost back to normal, but it didn't mean anything. Everything in the lab was locked down hard against any manipulation but the Inties.
"Excellent. Everything is going as we expected," Steiner proclaimed after a long session of scanning. "You may return to your room, we'll come for you later."
"Oh thank you very much," Nadia snapped back, the sarcasm bouncing off the Inties.
As soon as they were in the room, she tugged at their armored hand. "Can't you do anything Pepper?" she asked.
"Nothing, Nadia. I can't release any of the armor or any part. We're locked together as one for better or worse."
"Great…. just great…."
Shahrazad Task Force, Shared Data Space
The lemur integrates floated in virtual space, the files spread out among them. "Damn," Argon said. "This has gotten a lot bigger since we last looked in here."
"Well once they tied it to Shahrazad, we never had a reason to come back. That pulled in that wing of the case." Luke flicked a tail, pointing to a hall extending below them.
"And you really think there might be an answer in here to what happened to Pepper?"
"Maybe. It's the only thing we have left. Rick and Genis both said this was where they spent a lot of their spare time, so if there's something, it should be in here."
"And so is everything else. I'm pretty sure we could find the DaVinci Code here if we looked hard enough."
"No need to look hard; it was recorded as evidence as part of what was on the Minnow for the Gilligan's island crew."
Argon rolled his eyes and picked a record at random. Even with compressed time and Intie-enhanced processing, the volume of data was daunting.
Finally Argon gave up. He tossed a video file across the room and snarled in frustration. "There's too much. We'll never get through this."
"We have to. Pepper and Nadia are depending on us."
"But that doesn't mean we have to work stupidly. We need to work smarter." Argon concentrated and the virtual space began to shift. "First, throw out everything added since they disappeared. Then chop it to just the past few months worth of changes."
The space grayed out as he added more filtering options, dismissing more data as irrelevant. "Finally, add what Pepper has accessed recently."
They floated in virtual space in front of a stack of files, changes highlighted within them. Luke picked them up and flipped through them, code flickering through his fingers. "Hmm, your logic is sound, but this doesn't make sense. There's nothing here."
"What's strange is the changes themselves. Most of them are minor details. Not much more than timestamp updates. I dunno, it feels like there's something here, something I can't quite put my tail on."
"Maybe we're thinking of this the wrong way." Luke tried to bring the spark of an idea to flame. "Think on it. Who has access to this information normally?"
Argon brought up the access lists and started sorting them into various groupings. "The usual suspects. NuPD, Marshals, Specialists like us…."
"Stop! What do you see there?" Luke pointed at the division.
"What? Humans, RI's, Inties, EI's…" The EI list was the shortest, with Pepper at the top, followed by Genis, Sparky and a few other Iron Cops from NuPD.
"Other than Pepper, when was the last access by an EI?"
"A few months ago, by Sparky. I'm getting you…" Argon spun to one side and threw out a comm request. Soon after, a floating, glowing female head joined them in the virtual space.
"Hi Valerie, Thanks for answering so quickly," Argon greeted the head.
"Any time. What can I do for you?" Valerie was one of the EI's that helped run the EvoLimited complex, the labs and workshop forming what she considered her body.
"Take a look at these changes to the data. Feel free to look at the context too. Tell us if anything jumps out at you." Luke said, pointing to the data elements they had isolated.
The head floated over and absorbed the files. She closed her eyes and flickered a bit as she processed it. Finally, her eyes opened. "I'm sorry, I'm not getting anything from it. The changes are puzzling, but there's nothing special about it."
"Damn! I thought we were on to something."
"Hold on a sec…" Valerie closed her eyes again, her lips pursing as she continued processing. "I followed a bit more of the context, and now something seems to be there. You really have to squint to see it; I'm not sure it's really there."
"What is it?" Argon asked eagerly.
"Locations. Locations in the city." She brought up a map and highlighted the marks. "And a date, to a week ago, when all that excitement happened."
"That's it! Look! It's all the places Pepper and Nadia visited before the first bomb."
"A subliminal message, only EI's can pick up. Very clever. But how did they get it in in the first place? And how did they make it in the first place. RI's should have picked up on it too but they didn't…"
"Valerie, we're going to need your help a bit longer. But this is great so far."
"No problem, I'm glad to help."
"It's an interesting theory, and would explain a lot. But why?" Mike Munn looked across the virtual table to the Integrates. Luke and Argon sat there, with Rick and Genis to one other side.
"To get Nadia and Pepper. They were kidnapped under the cover of the explosion and bomb threats. Then they were taken somewhere. Where? We don't know yet."
"But who, we do know." Luke brought up a changelog. "These are the changes needed to plant that message."
"Sammy and Darrin? But they've been working with Nadia practically since the beginning," Rick looked exhausted, and the apparent betrayal hit him hard. "What are we going to do now?"
"Yes, they've been in this taskforce for a long time. Which makes everything suspicious now. That's why we went to you Mike. We didn't know what other Marshals we could trust."
Mike nodded slowly. "Good call. Until we know more of why this happened, and how this happened, we don't know how far the corruption has spread. I've got some people I can trust, we'll bring in the Marshal part of the Taskforce for a closer look and see if we can figure out why Darrin and Sammy did this. And make sure the rest are clean."
"Is there anything we can do?" Rick asked, trying not to sound desperate.
"Sorry, but this is a Marshal matter now. I'll call you personally as soon as we find out anything at all."
"We'll be in touch if we find anything else. So far we've found traces of three earlier attempts in the records. We're trying to find when they first started trying this. That might give us a clue for when they were flipped. If they weren't flipped all along," Argon said.
"Right. See you guys. Good job." Mike flicked out, leaving the Nujoseans alone.
"We're not giving up, Rick. We'll get them back," Lucy tried to reassure him.
"I know you aren't. This is huge. I'm just feeling so Useless!" Rick stood up and clenched his fists. "Thanks guys. I've gotta get back to Tony. He doesn't like to be alone since…"
"If you want, we can swing by later. Try to entertain the kid a bit, take off some of the pressure."
"Sure. See you later." Rick and Genis flickered out, leaving them alone. The Inties closed down the sims of their presentation, and flickered out as well.
A new routine started up in the days that followed. The only time any of her skin was revealed, was when food was provided. Then Pepper could open up the mask's mouth area enough for Nadia to eat. She ate slowly, drawing out those moments of human skin, gulping in unfiltered air and touching her lips as much as she could, savouring the few moments she had to remind herself she was still human.
The Integrates took them to the lab every few hours for more experiments. They seemed reluctant to go further yet, but Pepper received large data updates each time that she couldn't stop and couldn't identify once she received them.
A few days later, Nadia's food was delivered, but Pepper refused to open the mask.
:What's going on?: Nadia asked.
:We're not alone,: Pepper said, turning them to a corner and shifting their vision frequencies. A feline figure stood in the corner, barely visible even in infrared.
"Come to watch me eat?" Nadia called out.
The figure shimmered, dropping its cloak, revealing a fused tigress. "I'm just trying to figure out what's got my pet Integrates so busy. I must say, you aren't much to look at. Then again, humans are so weak and limiting. Other than thumbs you aren't very useful."
:Shahrazad!: Nadia identified their visitor. :What the hell-: "Does she want?" Nadia's armored hand went to her mouth in surprise.
Shahrazad waggled a finger at them. "Didn't anyone tell you that inner talking isn't polite? At least it's impolite while you're still two minds."
"How'd you do that?" Pepper asked.
"I've been working with Inties for years. I've picked up a few tricks along the way." She paused and smiled, looking to one side. "Now now Richard. I told you it wasn't polite. Then again, I am the hostess, I am allowed some freedoms."
"What are you doing here?" Pepper asked again, sharing the fuming Nadia was doing.
"Just what I told you. I'm here to see my Intie's project. To see how it is going. And to give you an example."
Nadia gulped warily. "What sort of example?"
"An example of what could have been." The tigress continued pacing slowly in front of them. They found their body frozen in place, forced to watch. "I've been fusing for decades, since the first RIDEs were made. And I've been experimenting with the limits of the fuse since those early days. Few are as capable, as flexible as I am. But sadly, I rarely get a chance to show off my projects, at least not to an appreciative audience."
The tigress stopped and began to open up. Nadia and Pepper tried to look away, but they were a statue in the RIDE's control. The human dropped out of the RIDE, and lay there twitching for a moment while the RIDE dropped down to all fours. A leash clicked onto a ring on the RIDE's shoulder, already connected to a loop on the back of the person's neck.
"What did you do to him?" Pepper asked, unable to look away.
"What haven't I done? Let's see… Crossriding is normal. I can draw that out as long as I want. He'll have at least another week before she'll be done at this rate. But that's nothing. No, for RIchard here, I'm doing something I've been curious about a long time. How much do you need to be human? To be alive?"
The figure sat up slowly, seemingly shocked to be let loose. He was hairless, but his skin was different, shiny like rubber and painted in tiger colours. His chest was growing breasts at breast level, and a second pair of nipples had grown just below them. He still had a male's wide shoulders and shrunken male genitals. A foot long tail twitched behind him. Clawed hands felt himself, while triangular ears turned towards any noise. The skin around his neck was coloured black, in a collar, with a loop of thick flesh for the leash to connect to. He growled, then whimpered, looking to Pepper and Nadia for help.
"Richard was just a simple prospector, captured around the same time you were. He's been an excellent test subject. HIs skin has been completely replaced with that rubberized version you see, and he still lives… Well as long as I fuse with him. A few days away from me and he would overheat and die. I'm still debating if that's a flaw I want to bother fixing."
"You're a monster!" Nadia shouted. She tried to activate Pepper's weapons, to no avail; they were doubly locked behind the tigress's control and the Integrate's control.
"Of course I am. A lone RIDE wouldn't survive out here if she wasn't." Shahrazad reared back, opening her fuse chamber again. The man was lifted with a field and pulled into it, looking terrified and struggling every second it took. "Don't forget that. And my future Intie, don't be fooled by your future brethren. I am the one in charge here."
The RIDE turned and walked out on two legs. As soon as she crossed the doorway, Pepper and Nadia felt their body release back into their control.
:She's mad! She's crazy!: Nadia stormed, forgetting about the food on the table.
:That she is. But she's smart. She wouldn't have gone this long without being caught if she wasn't.:
:We've gotta get out of here. Contact the Marshals and bring them down on here. That poor guy… I don't know if he can be saved. I don't know if any of them can be saved.:
:Eat up. We need the energy. You ready for another fast time session? I think we're getting closer to figuring out the blocker pattern.:
:I hope so…:
Cave of Wonders
Mike walked through the Marshal base in the Cave of Wonders, lost in thought. The Shahrazad Task Force had been ordered to the enclave for various reasons, and the first was arriving now.
"Hey Mike. Nice to meet you in warmer circumstances," Tino greeted him. The fused wyvern pair waved. "What's going on?"
"We'll explain shortly. For now, I need you to defuse. Tycyn can go with Chuck to the lab, while you can come with me."
The wyverns split apart and looked puzzled. "Seriously, what's going on?"
"We'll explain later. For now, we have some questions we need to clear up. Everyone on the task force is going to go through this."
Mike lead Tino to an interview room and started questioning the marshal. Mike questioned him for hours, covering recent cases and everything Mike could think of for the task force. Mainly, Mike was looking to establish a baseline for the scanners embedded in the walls.
Finally, Tino had enough. "Mike, what the hell is going on? What's with all these questions?"
"I'm sorry, Tino. I can't explain any more yet. Not until I'm done. But I think we have enough. Tycyn is done now, so you can head to the barracks"
The days that followed, Mike and his handpicked interrogators worked through the rest of the task force. They paid extra attention to Sammy and Darrin, keeping the squirrels isolated from the rest of the task force when they were done.
"Mike? We've finished processing the interview results." The Integrate raptor stuck his head into the office, looking the stressed horse over. "Do you want to see them?"
"Just summarize them please."
"Well, most of the team looks clean. No holes in their stories, no missing time. Scans show normal brain and core patterns."
Mike sighed, "That's good. I was worried it would be worse. How many exceptions?"
"Just Sammy and Darrin, as expected. They don't show any signs of remembering the hacked files, but they also have holes in their continuity. It was easier to see with Sammy than with Darrin, but both have gaps. Short gaps."
The raptor brought up scans. "And there's this. Modified patterns in their brain and core. Not complete patterns by themselves, but when fused, they could overlap and take control."
"Of course! That explains a lot. I've seen that recently… in a family project. Ugly business, but it explains why Shahrazad's gone silent lately. Their experiments have gotten less visible."
"So what do we do now?"
Mike stood up. "Now we let the Taskforce get back to work. And let them know the new information. The betrayal is going to be hard to take, but maybe they'll find Nadia and Pepper."
After Shahrazad's first visit, she became a disturbingly regular visitor to Nadia and Pepper. Usually while their minds were still numb from the day's experiments, she would show up with the meal and a movie. The movies, she claimed, were some of her inspirations, trawled up from the darkest archives of the TwenCen and beyond, usually unrated items that even the Steaders wouldn't touch.
When the movie was over, they would go for a walk, so the tigress could show off what the movie, or the movie clips had inspired. One of the first movies had been something called The Human Centipede. From that movie, she'd been inspired to find two Integrates, a doberman and a panthress, and had crudely sewn them together at the shoulder, side and hips, while removing the extra limbs. The results almost made Nadia bring up what little of her meal she'd been able to eat; only Pepper's control managed to keep it contained.
The only advantage of their tours with the tigress, was seeing where they were. As far as Pepper could tell, they were in an underground dome, reinforced with hardlight. She built up a map of the place as they went, and guessing where exits might be based on where they didn't go.
A week of movie time with Shahrazad went by mostly uneventfully, other than the nightmares Shahrazad's projects caused. One day, the nightmares were not tigress-caused.
They walked into the lab as usual, and they could tell Frank and Stein were extra eager. They took a seat on the slanted platform and watched the Inties warily.
"What the hell's got you two so worked up?" Nadia asked, feeling Pepper lock up around her.
"You'll see," Francis taunted her, popping panels open on Pepper and attaching cables. "This is going to be so revealing."
"You've seen both of us in the nude. How much more revealing can you get?" Pepper taunted back.
"I'm glad to see you're in such a good mood. It will make today's work much smoother." Steiner flipped a few switches and studied some screens. "Everything is ideal. Ready for the download?"
"No!" Nadia and Pepper shouted in unison, but they were ignored.
Francis flicked a switch, and the world slowed down. Nadia could sense a dense packet of data being pushed onto Pepper's core and into her own implants. Her own mind seemed to burn from the side effects of it. As usual, the actual data was cryptic machine code neither of them could make sense of, but Pepper's base systems lapped it up eagerly.
An exhausting eternity later, the download stopped, and the world mostly returned to normal. Nadia could still feel a sluggishness to Pepper's systems.
:Pepper? You still with me?:
:I'm… I'm here Nadia. That was a big one. It's not running yet, but it's slowing me down just decrypting it. I feel like you do when you're drunk.:
"Decompression at 55%. Going as we expected. Nice job girls," Steiner announced.
"Fuck off," Nadia snarled back.
:It's opening Nadia. I can't stop it….:
Nadia felt her body warm, as the fuse nanites reactivated. At first, her entire body tingled, but it quickly concentrated on her left hand. She winced in pain, feeling like thousands of fine needles were slipping into her hand and forearm. She looked at the hand but other than a faint glow, she couldn't tell any visible differences. Internally, the changes were impossible to ignore. Her hand and forearm burned, the nerves tingling. As it sank deeper into her body, the texture of the feelings changed, the senses becoming more detailed, more specific in what they transmitted to her mind.
The burn spread above her elbow, not as bad as her hand and forearm, but it ran all the way up to her mind and in. New sensations came from her mind, a sense of energy levels, and strange muscles in her palm that could adjust a repulser crystal.
Eventually, the pain faded. She slumped against the slanted table, feeling exhausted, her left side aching from her head to her hand. The Integrates didn't give her a chance to recover; Francis grabbed her left arm and clamped it in a brace to hold it still while more scanners swung around it.
:Pepper, I can't feel my fingers… I feel them, but I can't feel them in your fingers…: Nadia said as she sorted out the strange feelings.
:I know. I'm the same way. The hand feels solid, like you aren't in there. But we are… :
Nadia could feel herself and Pepper on the verge of a panic attack. She struggled to keep calm, to hold onto hopes, barely hearing Francis and Steiner go on about what they saw.
:It's just the hand, and the forearm. We aren't integrated, just borged. Soon as we get out, we can defuse and I'll get a new one grown. We'll both get new hands.:
:Right. People replace limbs all the time. We're still ourselves, we can still separate. We can still get out.:
Cave of Wonders
"I've told you, I don't know what those edits are. I don't know a thing about Nadia's disappearance." Darrin was at his wits end. He'd been professing his innocence every day since being arrested, to no avail.
"We know you don't know. But part of you knows. You need to find that part, Darrin, and let it speak to us." Mike was getting frustrated as well. He'd been working with neuro and core experts, trying to awaken the other personas, to no avail.
"Your scans must be busted. That's all I can think of. I don't have multiple identities. Hell I don't even have VR IDs. It's just me and Sammy."
The equine Integrate drummed his fingers on the table, then stood up without another word.
Outside, he looked at the techs. Scans of Darrin and Sammy's mental states were floating in front of them. "Anything? Anything at all?"
"Nothing, sir. As dark as it's always been."
"Maybe you're wrong? Maybe it's not a hidden ID and just some mental quirk they've developed. Always said the squirrels were… well squirrelly," Tycyn said. He and Tino had stayed on at the Cave to help where they could.
"No there's something there. It's as plain as the nose on my face." Mike sighed. "We don't have a choice. We need to move to Stage 2."
"Stage 2?" Tino asked.
"We have to let them fuse. Maybe the ID will come out when they're together."
"When do you want to do it?" a tech asked.
"First thing tomorrow morning. I want to come at this fresh. Give Sammy a thorough going over, I don't want any surprises if the ID is hostile."
"Will do sir."
The next day, Darrin was lead into the interrogation room. He was dressed in prisoner orange, with his hands cuffed and his feet shackled. Tino watched him shuffle in, noting his tired expression and twitching tail.
"Tino. Tycyn. You guys know me. I'd never do anything to hurt anyone. Especially not anyone on the Taskforce. After the things we've seen, why would I put any of us through that?"
"I know you wouldn't Darrin. But the evidence is damn solid. If you didn't do it, someone who has access to you must have done it. Until we get this sorted out, there's nothing else we can do."
"I'm innocent. I don't know how it happened, but I didn't do it."
"That's enough, Mr Stephens. Move onto the platform there and please wait," Mike ordered.
Darrin glared at him, and stepped onto the platform. A dome snapped up around him.
Soon after, Sammy was lead in. His hardlight fur was turned off, and a collar was around his neck, projecting orange over his metal skin. His tail drooped and he looked as dejected as Darrin looked. He looked at the others in the room, but stayed silent, stepping onto the other half of the platform and getting sealed away.
Mike moved up to address them. "Right, we've been interrogating you constantly for the past few weeks, trying to awaken the personality we believe is working for Shahrazad. To no avail."
"Ain't no one in my head but me," Darrin grunted.
"The only option left to us, is to fuse. We're hoping fusing together will bring out what we couldn't find individually. We won't force you to fuse; that's not our way. But until you do, or until the case is otherwise resolved, you will remain here. Do you both understand?"
"So we fuse, and we can get out of here?" Sammy asked.
"He means we fuse and we get weeks of together time answering the same questions we've already answered, buddy." Darrin said.
Sammy shrugged. "Fine, I'll do it if you want to. Anything's better than all that constant poking and prodding."
"Yeah, let's do this. Sooner the better."
Mike waved a hand, and the restraints dropped off both of them, along with the wall dividing the platform. The pair wasted little time in fusing together.
"Right, let's start at the beginning," Mike said once they were stable. He started going through the questions everyone knew well and were bored of.
An hour into the fused interrogation, Tycyn poked Tino. :Check the tech's. Something's happening.:
The fused wyvern glanced back and saw the techs were moving more energetically. Tycyn tapped into their data feeds and brought up the familiar mind scans. What was different was the dark spot was lighting up.
On the platform, the fused squirrel was changing. The fatigue he'd been showing was replaced by new energy. His worn down expression lit up with a cocky attitude that neither of them had had before.
"Alright, alright. Enough's enough. You got me," the squirrel said.
"Who are we speaking to?" Mike asked.
"The Docs never got around to naming me. But I'm partial to Genie myself. I'm Darrin's little genie in a bottle after all."
Mike made the tenuous link first. "Darrin Stephens was on Betwitched, not I Dream of Jeannie. You're mixing up your sources."
Genie shrugged, "Same era, close enough. So what do you want?"
"We want to know what you know about Shahrazad's operation. We want to know where Nadia and Pepper were taken."
"Ah yes, I remember now. Sorry, can't help you."
Mike closed his eyes and mouthed counting to ten. "Can't help us?"
"You got it. I mean, I did see where their base is. But it's underground. A big dome, big enough for a small town. Hardlight sealed. But I have no idea where it is. I wasn't exactly in control of myself when we arrived or left."
Mike sent a message to the team. :Large dome. Like the Cave probably. Start searching for lava domes in the Dry. They're probably in there somewhere.:
In the Real, Mike refocused on Genie. "Right, let's start at the beginning. What have you done?"
Hours later, Tino and Tycyn were sitting in a kitchenette near the interrogation room. Tino was nursing a cup of coffee, still in shock. Genie's revelations had struck both of them to the core. He hadn't done much directly, but he had shared the Task Force's data with Shahrazad's acolytes. Which meant the tigress was always a few steps ahead of them.
"This is a mess. How do we go forward from here?" Tino asked.
"We'll figure out a way. We know they were watching now, and how they are watching. We might be able to use that somehow. The real challenge is going to be finding new victims. How many Genies have they got out there? Our work just got a lot harder."
"No, not yet. Once we find Nadia and Pepper it'll be a lot harder. But for now, they are the priority." Tino sighed, and swirled the liquid in his cup. "The worst of this is, finding Genie hasn't really gotten us closer to Nadia and Pepper."
Mike trotted in, looking exhausted. He pulled a mug of coffee and added a few crystals from a can with an Integrates Only warning sticker.
"We forced Genie to defuse. Sammy and Darrin are back; the techs confirmed that. No trace of Genie at all, other than the ghost on their scans."
"So individually they are innocent. Fused, they are guilty as hell," Tino noted.
"Exactly. But not exactly. Genie only came out when we forced him out. Before that they were still innocent." Mike shook his head and slumped. "I'm not sure what we're going to do with them, we'll have to get Genie out eventually, but for now, information's our priority. We need to find all we can about Shahrazad's Dome. Which means working with Genie."
"What's scary is, we couldn't find Genie until we looked for him. Shah could have done that to who knows how many people out there," Tycyn said.
"I don't think so. It's not her style. None of this is her style. It could be those Docs Genie mentioned though. From the sounds of it, most of what we've discovered has come from them. They're focusing on more societal experiments on top of the personal ones. They are the ones to worry about."
"How about the Dome? Any contenders yet?"
"Hundreds. And that's just what's been surveyed in the Dry. We need more info." Mike finished his mug and stood up. "Information I'm going to get."
Nadia and Pepper were only given a few rest periods to adjust to their new hand. During 'lab time', they were poked, prodded, scanned, and in some cases cut open, as Francis and Steiner tested the limits of their integration. The vivisection experiments were the most painful, since Pepper had a hard time figuring out the pain routes to dampen the pain of their integrated limb.
Shahrazad left them alone over those days, giving them plenty of time to themselves.
:Those bastards. They're going to kill us before they integrate us at this rate,: Nadia grumbled, holding their integrated hand. :Frankenstein was a saint compared to those two.:
:I'm sorry I couldn't numb the pain any more than I did. The inputs from that arm are so confusing. I'm feeling the pain as much as you. That shouldn't be.:
:I know you're doing your best. It's new to both of us.:
Nadia rubbed the arm and looked closer at it. The Integrates had used lasers to cut Pepper's bracers open along the length of their forearm and cracked it open. Underneath, they had found a blackened 'skin' covered in circuitry traces in red, green and blue. Below that skin, they had cut further, exposing sensor nerves, technobiological muscles, metal bones, and power conduits. When they had finished their exploration, they had simply glued everything back together and bent the armor bracer back around her forearm.
:Nadia… Our arm… Look at it.:
She stopped rubbing her arm and looked down to see what had caught Pepper's attention. At first she didn't notice it, until she twisted her forearm around to look at the underside.
The seam from the cut Frank and Stein had made had bubbled up a little, like a weld was trying to pull it back together. She ran a finger along it, and could feel a roughness along the cut, like a healing scar.
:This is impossible. It's just metal and hardlight sensors. It can't heal.:
:But it is part of us now. Inties can heal, even their non-bio parts. It must be full of our nanites now. It's our skin now, our carapace of sorts.: Pepper theorized.
:I'm not sure I can take this right now.:
Nadia forced herself to look away from their changed hand and went to the table. Their meal was waiting for them already, a gruel with a metallic aftertaste that was surprisingly filling, and some juices to wash it down. It was another thing Nadia tried not to dwell on, since it implied they were more changed than just the arm.
Breakfast was waiting for them when they woke up. It was the same meal as before, but Nadia felt ravenous. She examined the cut bracer when they were done eating, and was unnerved to see the scar was all but gone; only a thin line showed in her armored forearm.
They threw a rubber ball for Rex to fetch and connected Pepper up for her allotment of power.
:That's strange. There's more power than usual here.: Pepper noted as the energy fed into her starving batteries.
Nadia could feel it too; since the integration, she was more innately aware of Pepper's power levels, a hunger that no amount of eating seemed to satiate. :How much more? Can we do anything with it?:
:Maybe. Not a full charge but a lot more than we've been getting. I'm worried Nadia. This is a change. Change is NOT good.:
:Pull in as much as you can. We may need it.:
The door to the labs opened up as soon as the charger was drained. They briefly debated not walking out, but knew resisting that way was pointless. They walked out, and the door slammed shut behind them.
:Shit!: Nadia exclaimed when they saw the lab. It was packed full of visitors. Shahrazad, Pascal, a blue jay RIDE, and more. All of Shahrazad's acolytes were there to see them.
"Please move to the platform, ladies. It is a big day for all of us," Steiner said.
"And if I refuse? The great Doctors Frank'n'Stein, unable to get their subject to follow a simple command."
"Stop calling us that. And if you refuse, we'll move you ourselves," Francis's frill spread in irritation, but he kept himself under control, focused on the consoles in front of him.
Shahrazad chuckled, in fuse mode with her current project. "How cute. I wish I had thought of that nickname. It's very appropriate."
Nadia clenched her fists and walked slowly to the platform in the room, not looking at anyone else.
:This is it, isn't it? Nadia, I'm scared…:
:So am I Pepper. But we can't show it. We can still get out of here. There's gotta be an opening, something we can use. Wait for it and be ready to grab it, no matter how small a chance it is.:
They stepped onto the glowing platform and looked back at the door to their room. Steiner stepped closer and waved a hand scanner over them, pausing at their fused arm and looking at it curiously before moving on.
"I hope you are excited. As you probably suspect, you are about to become Enlightened. The first of your kind. It's been challenging, but we're positive we have it all right."
"Well ain't that reassuring," Nadia grumbled. "What are the chances of this failing? Fifty percent?"
"Oh no, nothing so horrible. We're pretty sure after our earlier experiments, there is only a ten percent chance of catastrophic death."
"Please proceed. No matter what happens, I'm sure it will be very entertaining," Shahrazad said, watching intently.
The integrates moved to consoles on opposite sides of the platform and their DIN's glowed as they started. Pepper felt her systems slow as an update was forced on her. It started running as soon as the first packets were processed.
:Nads! I'm free! We're free! All the fetters… they're gone!: Pepper exclaimed in surprise.
Nadia wasted no time in figuring out what to do. :Activate weapons. We only have one shot at this while we're us.:
:What? Oh I see…:
They raised their hands palms outward, pointing at the tigress. Repulsers warmed up quickly to the release point while Shah didn't react. The moment the charge reached its peak, they fired. Energy flowed from Pepper's batteries into the weapons and out their palms in a concussive blast. It struck the dome sealing the platform in, and was dissipated around the field.
"We can do this… For our sake. For Rick… For Tony..." Nadia grunted, her changed hand feeling strange. She could feel the power surging through it, and feel the weapon crystal, mechano-muscles twitching to try and tune it into a more effective weapon to break through the barrier.
It was not enough.
All too quickly, the beams died, and the pair collapsed, their reserves exhausted. The dome flickered, and hummed louder as it continued to dissipate the energies, otherwise unharmed. Some of the watchers had ducked behind tables, but neither Shahrazad nor the Integrates had moved.
"Informative and entertaining," Shahrazad said, grinning at the exhausted marshals. "You Marshals never fail to entertain."
Nadia pushed herself to her hands and knees and glared at the tigress. "Not a Marshal. I'm NuPD and don't forget it."
The tigress waved a hand dismissively. "Already forgotten my dear. Along with the rest of your former life. You have a new future ahead of you. Albeit a short one."
Nadia didn't respond. The burning feeling she'd felt in her hand had returned, this time in her feet. Her nerves burned while passing along the feeling of being squeezed tightly. She heard a clank, and managed to focus her eyes enough to see some of Pepper's red armor plating had fallen off, revealing a blackened foot glowing with lines of circuitry of all colours. Muscles twitched and spasmed out of her control. New feelings fed into her awareness, a sensation of the pull of gravity, along with the contained gravimetric forces contained in the lifters of the RIDEs and Inties around her. She twitched again, and a new sort of muscle moved, pushing her up into the air before dropping her back down.
:I'm sorry Nadia. I can't stop this. I'm trying but I can't stop this!: Pepper said, sounding as terrified as Nadia felt. Their other hand was burning now, the integration spreading from their limbs inward.
She dropped into virtual space and nearly cried. Their private space was in turmoil. The sky, normally reflective of their moods, was glowing silver; in fact, everything was glowing now. The trees of her area glowed neon green and blue; Pepper's urban buildings tended more towards reds and oranges. Fine dust filled the air; when it touched the ground, a building or a tree grew up, not respecting her space nor Pepper's space.
Not that there was much distinction between either space now. Nadia's forest was on the move, vines and entire trees walking into the roads between Pepper's buildings, nudging them to the side, knocking them down or just engulfing them when needed to make room.
Pepper's side wasn't any less ambitious. Construction equipment rolled out of the avenues of Pepper's mindscape into Nadia's, knocking down trees, laying glowing smartcrete and building buildings randomly. Pepper's ordered mind was invading Nadia's as thoroughly as Nadia's chaotic one was invading Pepper's.
Looking at it from on high, it seemed to Nadia that chaos was winning. But as she looked closer she recognized patterns in the forming result. She wasn't sure what it meant, but it was unstoppable. She searched around and finally found what she was looking for; one plateau of stability in the morphing world. A lone figure sat on the shrinking island, armored legs pulled up to her chest and rocking slowly.
Nadia dropped down to join her. As her feet touched the island, a wave of confusion passed through her. She tried to shake it off, but the figure looked different. Her legs were armored, like Pepper, but her arms were bare skin. She looked at herself and realized she was the opposite; her arms cloaked in metal panels, but her legs bare skinned. She suddenly realized she couldn't figure out if she was Pepper or Nadia. She pushed it to the side and approached the figure.
"So confusing. So much chaos," the figure mumbled, rocking faster, her head down. "I can't handle it."
The standing woman put a hand on her shoulder, making her look up. The sitting figure had Nadia's hair, but Pepper's face mask. "Yes we can handle it. We have to. We have to make those bastards pay. Not just for us, for everyone they've hurt," the standing figure said, pulling the sitting one up to her feet.
"But it's gone. The Order, it's all gone. I can't find anything!"
Nadia smiled, sure for the moment she was herself consoling Pepper. She hugged her EIDE partner tight. "Welcome to the human mind. Don't worry, I'm here. I'll guide you. We're both strong, we can get through this."
"I don't know if I'm strong enough for this, Nads," Pepper said.
"Sure you are. We're more than strong enough. Don't leave me; I need your help as much as you need mine. We're partners, now more than ever."
"I'm sorry I couldn't stop it. I tried, but they're just so much stronger," Pepper looked into Nadia's eyes, her own eyes glowing red.
"Don't be sorry. We never had a chance. We had to fight, and we're stronger for it. But realize now they made a mistake. We were separate before, now we are One. They won't know what hit them."
Pepper nodded, their bodies melting together into a glowing female figure. The island of stability shook and shattered, dropping them into the shifting mindscape.
Vert-Jones Apartment, Nujose
Rick stood in front of a fused Nadia and Pepper. Around their neck was an explosive collar that he'd already trimmed back to reveal the wiring. Overhead, random symbols flashed a countdown he couldn't decipher.
"Cut the blue wire. You have to cut the blue one," Nadia pleaded with him.
"There are no blue wires! They're all red!" Rick shouted back, feeling frustrated. He raised his hands, intending to probe the wiring, only to discover his hands were broad pinchers, unsuitable for the fine work he needed.
"Hurry, you don't have much time Rick!"
He clicked his thick fingers together, "I don't know what to do. I can't find a blue wire…."
A buzz filled the air around them, freezing it. Instinctively, Rick dived for cover, but there was no explosion. He peeked, and saw his wife dissolving with the collar, the world around them fading away. A second buzz echoed around the empty space. He opened his eyes again, and found himself on the couch of his apartment, the buzz of the doorbell fading away.
"Coming!" he called out, the apartment's system automatically passing the message to the visitor. He rubbed his chin, feeling the fuzziness of days without shaving. He glanced around, noting the empty takeout food containers and other messiness that had built up since Nadia disappeared.
The door slid open on his signal, revealing Lois. The biologist had a casserole dish in her hands. He saw her eyes glance around the living room. "Hey Rick. I come bearing gifts. Figured you two could use some homemade food. It's pure Terran this time."
Rick smiled and motioned for her to come in. "Thanks Lois. Tony will love it; I'm not the cook that Nadia is, let alone Pepper."
She pushed some empty pizza boxes to the side and put the dish down. "Any new news?"
Genis stirred from his spot in the corner. "Nothing. The Marshals just took down another Dome. It was filled with pirates, but no sign of Shah, or Nadia and Pepper."
"That's what? The eighth dome?" Rick asked.
"Yeah. The southern Dry is going to be as safe as Nujose at this rate. Other than the deadly Q-contamination."
"So how are you and Tony holding up? I heard you're on leave," Lois said, beginning to tidy up the boxes.
"You don't have to do that. It's my mess, I should clean it up," Rick tried to get ahead of her, but she waved him off.
"Don't worry about it, I'm used to it. You should have seen Nadia in University. By the end of the term, we'd completely filled our window with pop cans."
"Yeah, I realized that after we married. Pepper's the neat freak of the pair. She does a lot of the cleaning while we sleep. Amazing they got paired up when you think of it; they're so opposite in some ways."
"Not in the ways that counted. Mom and Dad's methods worked well in the end," Genis pointed out.
"And you're dodging the questions. How are you doing?" Lois repeated, tossing a pile of boxes into the recycling pile.
Rick sighed and slumped against the counter. "We're getting by, as best we can. Tony's doing his best, but his teachers have noticed his work is faltering. For me, Genis and I are on leave till the new year… and on desk duty until the psychs decide I'm fit for the squad again."
"Oh, I'm sorry…."
"Don't be. I know my state of mind, and how it affects Genis. I wouldn't want me anywhere near anything explosive either."
Lois looked around and made a decision. She grabbed her casserole and put it in the fridge. "Go get cleaned up. School's out soon, we'll go get Tony and we're going out for dinner. At a real restaurant. One that doesn't have a clown mascot."
"What? No, you don't have to do that…" Rick protested.
"You're right, I don't have to do it. But I want to do it. Clark's working late at the lab tonight, so my night's free. And you could use a night out, as could Tony I'm sure."
"But I need to stay available. In case they find any news," Rick continued resisting.
Genis shook his head, "A night out would be good for you… for us, Rick. And I'm sure Tycyn will appreciate a day without you standing over his virtual shoulder."
She smiled at Genis and gave Rick a shove towards his bedroom. "Go on, get cleaned up. And after dinner, we can go see a show. The Steaders have found a new TwenFirstCen movie for kids. Based on some toys or something, but the reviews are saying its Awesome. I'm sure Tony will like it."
Rick let himself smile and closed the door to the master bedroom. "Fine, fine. One night wouldn't hurt."
Awareness came back to her slowly, though she had no concept of how fast it actually came back; it just felt like an eternity. Her mind, as it came up to speed felt strange. Part of her was amazed at how fast her thoughts flowed, faster than even the greatest fused time compression she'd experienced. Another part of her felt a little sluggish, like it could be faster but it was faster than fuse at least. She remembered the whos she was before, and realized she was still them, just improved. She considered what name to go by, and deferred it for now until she had less pressing needs.
Her mental state stabilized, she started focusing beyond her mind. She found her senses expanded, not just the five human ones, but extended electromagnetic and gravometric senses, including ones for connecting to the networks. At least she assumed that's what it was for. She could read the signals, but she had trouble parsing them. They were frustrating, the signals on the edge of understanding, but still incomprehensible.
"Incredible. This went off better than I ever thought possible," Francis said, his words cutting through her woolgathering.
"Careful, she's coming around," Steiner warned.
"Don't worry, she's contained. She's not going anywhere."
Seeing no reason to play possum, she opened her eyes. Part of her wanted to squint against the sudden brightness, but the other part of her stilled the reflex. Instead her eyes quickly adjusted, faster than biological eyes could. The brightness dimmed and shifted, finding a spectrum range that gave her clear visibility before she could begin to close her eyes again.
She was laying on an examination table, still naked as far as she could tell. She wasn't sure if that meant anything for her any more. Her hands and feet were strapped down tight, along with more straps she could feel around her chest and head. Her palms tingled warmly, pulling in satiating power from induction plates under her hands. Frank'n'Stein hovered near her, looking positively overjoyed.
"Hello my dear. How are you feeling? Any headaches?" Steiner asked, leaning in closer over her.
She took her time responding. She was aware of part of her mind was busy, going over all the sensations she was feeling, hearing, seeing and otherwise sensing. It was sorting out the chaff and flagging some elements as stuff to pay attention to. Part of her was familiar with it, while another was in awe; the Nadia part had never realized how much background work Pepper did just standing still. She internally shook her head at the awareness, realizing it wasn't completely what Pepper did normally. She was studying everything, trying to identify threats both current and future, and identify anything that might be useful for escaping.
The first priority was figuring out what she had to deal with. Which included what she had in herself. She turned her head to one side and noticed a pile of red and gold armor plates stacked on another table; Pepper's old exterior plating. That was confusing; the armor had seemed to be an integrated part of her when she was partially integrated, but now it was just a husk she had shed. She shelved that confusion and continued scanning the room. Other than Frank'n'Stein and Rex dozing at the door to her room, the lab was deserted.
"Nuh-oh." she stopped, puzzled. Speaking confused her for a moment. Part of her wanted to breath out to speak, another part just sent signals to a speaker in her mouth. She took a microsecond to sort out her confusion. Her body did still need to breath, though not as much as before. If she focused on it, she could speak like a human, but the speaker was easier.
"No…. Mirror. Get me a mirror," she ordered.
"Of course. Seeing yourself is important for reestablishing your sense of self." Steiner waved his hand over her, and the air shimmered, turning reflective.
She didn't recognize the figure in the surface. It was humanoid and female, but it didn't seem like it could be her. She started on the head and worked down.
Her head was human shaped, but earless. The bulk of the skull was black, networked with fine circuitry in red, blue and green. Her face was a silver mask that just covered her eyes, nose mouth and chin. Her eyes glowed blue, blue irises on black circuit covered orbs. When she opened her mouth, she saw the reflection's silver mask move to match; her mouth human looking, but silver and circuit-black instead of blood red and with silver human teeth.
Her shoulders were bare, like her skull, but her arms were covered in the silver skin from her upper arms down to her fingertips, like she was wearing gloves.
Her sides were bare, but her chest, from her breasts down to her groin were covered in silver, like an extra tight swimming suit. She couldn't tell if the silver was part of her skin, or something else yet. From the angle of the mirror, she couldn't tell how female she really was, though the sensations of her body indicated she was as complete as an Intie could be.
Her hips, other than the triangle of silver going between her legs, were bare black-circuitry. The black moved down to her knees, where the silver picked up again, extending down to her feet. Other than the fact that her toes were individually covered, she looked like she had knee length boots on. She had a moment of confusion, recalling the circuitry on her feet while she integrated, but it was obvious some later phase had painted the silver on after. She noted there were anklets and bracelets around her wrists and ankles, not part of her, but something added at some point.
"Can you release my hand?" she asked.
Francis nodded and touched the restraint on her left hand. "Just realize this. Don't try any tricks with your repulsers or lifters. We'll test those in more controlled situations later. These anklets and bracelets you're wearing will read any attempt to power those up, and redirect it back into you. It's quite the shock as you can imagine."
"Fine fine, I just need to touch. To confirm for myself," she retorted impatiently, shelving the plan to blast her way out. The thought had crossed her mind, but she wasn't surprised they had anticipated it.
He lifted his hand away, and she could move her arm. She immediately lifted it up to her face, the silver covered fingers rubbing her face. Her fingertips were as sensitive, if not more sensitive than she remembered, but even with the extra sensitivity, she could feel no seam between the silver of her mobile face mask, and the circuitry of the rest of her skin. Further exploration proved that as far as she could tell, it was all part of what was now her skin. It was as flexible as her old human flesh, but it had a strength in it she couldn't identify.
Abruptly, her self inspection was interrupted by the Inties. "Enough of that, time to continue our studies," Francis said, guiding her over to the next set of sensors.
On her first day as an Integrate, she discovered many things with her captors. They discovered she was Dysnetic like most Integrates, but they were unable to find a DIN slot for her, to their frustration. She hid her own frustration at the idea of being cut off from the modern world for the rest of her life. They verified she was still female through and through, though they showed no more interest in her sexually than they had before she integrated. The rest of the tests were mainly sampling, to try and sort out what she was made of now and how she ticked.
The first rest period, she spent on the cot in her room, trying not to show the emotional turmoil she was feeling. She could sense a new dome just around her room, preventing her from leaving; without a functional DIN they couldn't control her directly, so the more obvious restraints were needed. She still wasn't sure who exactly she was now, but she kept putting that to the side; her bigger concern was escape. They'd already told her she would be killed once they'd gotten all they felt they could out of her. Before integrating, that day seemed far off. But now, she knew her days were numbered.
Rex was suspicious of her at first, both halves of him sniffing her curiously. She let him sniff as much as he wanted. Finally, he decided she was friendly and let her rub his human head. While sitting, she found his ball and decided to do a small experiment of her own. She held her hand to it and concentrated. Nadia didn't know how to do it, but Pepper had some experience with it. The exposed circuitry in her shoulder glowed brighter and she could sense power flowing down her arm and out her finger tips. She could sense fields of force extending outward, taking hold of the rubber ball and pulling it back. The ball dropped into her palm and she stared at it in amazement.
"Woof!" RIDE-Rex barked at her, wagging his tail and looking at her expectantly. She looked at him, then at the ball and threw it to the far side of the room. He barked again and ran after it, chased by his human half.
"This is going to be a bit to get used to," she mumbled, heading to the table and the gruel meal waiting for her. While they'd let her draw power, they hadn't fed her since before Integration, and whatever passed as her stomach now was screaming to be filled.
She threw the ball for Rex again, and sat at the table. She sniffed the meal and drink, an olfactory process sorting out the molecules and identifying them. They seemed normal enough. She took a fork full of the gruel and put it in her mouth, moving it around with her mouth as more processes analyzed the food.
She swallowed and felt a pleasant sizzle from the food as it went down her throat to her stomach. "Oatmeal… with something else… some metallic iron and other metals… powdered cavorite and qubitite?" Her eyes widened at the last results. She knew that should be deadly to her, but it did taste good, and her body wasn't reacting badly to it. Hunger beat suspicions, and she finished the meal while throwing the ball for the Rexes.
"You know, I think the thing I'm missing the most is talking to myself," she said to Rex. They'd moved to the cot and she was laying out, rubbing his head. They were maintaining a fuse longer than usual, to their enjoyment. "Pepper and Nadia, they're in here," she tapped her head. "But it doesn't feel right to talk to them directly… since I am them." She sighed and shook her head. "At least I'm still sane… I think. I'm not sure anyone is sane here."
Rex woofed in agreement, and split apart. The two Rexs sniffed each other, then curled around each other to doze off.
"Good idea. Get some rest, figure out what we'll do next."
Ba Sing Se Enclave
The tigress, fused with her project, walked through the thick walls and into the enclave. Pascal followed a few steps behind her, close enough to show her status, but far enough to make it clear who was in charge.
Inside the enclave, Shahrazad resisted the urge to look around. The enclave was still fairly new, and had a rawness to it that was hard to ignore. Most of it was open to the Dry Ocean air, with buildings built out of the raw stone of the ancient river valley. She could hear chatter around her, both vocally and on the sidebands, as the Integrates recognized her. She knew she was special; few RIDEs could walk into the heart of the Integrate Superiority Heartland like this.
They walked into a castle and approached a throne room, where the big white furred bison floated above a large jewelled throne.
"Welcome to Ba Sing Se, my dear. I hope you had a pleasant trip," Appa greeted her, arms extended.
She ignored the offered hug and stood in front of him, staying upright. "The trip was what I would expect. It's always good to get out occasionally, keep an eye on the big picture."
Appa lowered his arms and frowned before forcing his smile back. "Yes, the big picture is good to keep track of."
A tense silence settled over the throne room as the two leaders faced off. Finally, Shahrazad decided to make the opening attack. "Ba Sing Se. Interesting name. You sure your meme levels are under control?"
She smiled inwardly as he bristled. She'd hit a nerve that few dared hit.
"It is a perfectly fine name for a rocky city. Personally, I would have preferred Agrabah, but my advisors felt this one would be better."
"Agrabah, Cave of Wonders. You're still playing to the memes." She looked at her claws while letting the bison fume before continuing. "So what do I owe the request for my presence?"
Appa fumed for a moment before restoring his calm expression. "Your presence. Right. As we are both aware, we have had an excellent working relationship for the past few years."
"You have provided me with a nearly inexhaustible pool of humans, RIDEs and Integrates to study, and I have expanded our pool of knowledge on how the fuse and Integration works. A net positive for both of us," Shahrazad agreed with him.
"Yes, but I'm afraid times are changing. Plans are in motion, and I need my chief scientists back."
"Frank'n'Stein are free to leave whenever they want. But with only the knowledge in their heads. That was always the agreement. It keeps your hooves clean after all."
Appa snorted and clenched his fists before forcing himself to relax. "We both know we need more than that. You have three special RIDE cores that the Doctors have been working with exclusively."
"The programmers? Yes, I know what you mean. Very useful cores they are. I'm looking forward to when the Doctors leave and I can do my own projects with them."
"We need those cores. They are key for our future plans."
Shahrazad found her claws fascinating again, taking a moment to polish them. "If they were so important to you, you should have thought of that before making this deal. We always said material would only go one way. To me."
"That was then. Things have changed."
"Yes, things have changed. But not that much." She looked up and met his eyes. "Frank'n'Stein know what you need for those cores. I'm sure given time, they will find a fourth with the right properties."
"It took hundreds of RIDEs to find the right types. Older RIDEs that are getting harder and harder to find. Most of those types have Integrated already."
"Not my problem. But I suppose I could be a bit generous." She nodded to Pascal. The porcupine's quills glowed and a woman appeared, ebony black with multicoloured circuitry where she wasn't covered in silver.
"If you hadn't heard, their latest experiment was a success. Meet the first E-Integrate. She hasn't decided on a name yet, not that it matters."
Appa stepped forward and walked around the hardlight image. "Incredible. She's more than I ever expected."
"Their plans, as you know, are to study her to destruction. Then to study the pieces. When they are done, if they haven't left before then, I will let them take her remains with them."
"And the cores?"
"Cores are mine. That's non-negotiable."
He growled and stepped past the projection to get closer to Shahrazad. "You're playing a dangerous game, Tigress."
"I've been playing it since before Alfonse and Palka ever met. You think you're the big Intie around now, especially since Fritz got leashed. But you're just an amateur with delusions of grandeur. I've been playing it for years, and I'll BE playing it long after you're locked down in some Marshal isolation cell."
Appa's eyes flared red. Shahrazad could tell he was struggling to restrain himself from reaching to her. "Get Out." he snarled, turning away and floating back to his throne.
She waved and turned her back to him. "Pleasure talking to you as always, Appa. You should swing by the Dome sometime, see what your good doctors are up to," she called over her shoulder, making sure to leisurely stroll out of the throne room, Pascal following her, quills shining, on guard against any attacks.
The days continued on, time spent doing experiments for the Inties, or locked in her room. They gave her a chance to test her repulsers and lifters, but otherwise made sure they were safely locked. They'd also tricked her on one test, telling her the restraints were deactivated when they were still live. The feedback shock had left her arm numb for the rest of the day.
"She truly is fascinating," Francis commented once while studying a scraping of her silver skin. She was strapped to the table, enduring their experiments as best she could. "I wish we had more like her. How much of this physiology is unique to her, and how much would be common among other Evolved Enlightened?"
"I've put in a request for the hunters to look for another pair for us, but I doubt it will be granted," Steiner said. "Shah's still annoyed that we spent so much time on this one. She wants one of her own to play with now. It's too bad they're so rare on Gondwana."
"There's the other cop right? Down in Aloha? Maybe we could go down and get him."
"Are you NUTS!" She couldn't see Steiner, but the panic in his voice was enough to make her grin. "He's tied in tight with the Munns. Try and grab him and you'll have them coming down on you. Not to mention Shah herself. She's got her own plans for that family and their friends."
"A shame really. He's one of the Alphas. I'd love to get my paws on him. Can you come over here and give me a hand with this?"
She listened to the Inties move to the far side of the lab, their noise getting muffled by the equipment between them and her. As usual, she looked around for anything that might be useful from her position on the table. Her legs and one arm were locked in place, but Steiner had been sloppy, leaving her other hand free.
She turned her head, and could just see another table with stuff on it. Most of it she couldn't identify from her angle, no matter how much she tried to stretch. She reached out and felt over it, finding various sensors, but little of use. Her hand brushed against a small object and she almost gasped in surprise. A small spark went from her fingers to the device and back, carrying a signal that something in her recognized. She grabbed the device and found it was one of Steiner's spare DIN's. While most Integrates were getting the more durable DINs available since they went public, the Inties in Shah's camp still used old style ones, that cracked when you looked at them strangely. Which lead to Steiner and Francis keeping spares handy while they worked.
She held the gem in her hand, trying to figure out what it meant for her. While she held it, the signals from the equipment around her seemed to make more sense. Not enough to understand, let alone control. But better than the gibberish she got before. She shelved the mystery for now and popped the gem in her mouth, swallowing it quickly. The understanding faded, but she could still feel it in her stomach. She reached out and snagged a couple more, swallowing them before the Inties returned.
After she was locked back in her room, and was sure the Inties were gone, she brought her prizes back up, keeping her head between her knees to hide her actions. She was a little surprised they were untouched from when she snagged them, but put the thought to one side.
One of the gems was cracked and useless, causing no reaction when she held it in her hand. She put it to one side, then realized she didn't want to be found with it. She swallowed the gem again, this time feeling a change inside her, and a slight increase in energy; that DIN was not coming back up.
The other two DINs were identical. She tucked one under her pillow and held the other in her hand and concentrated on it. As before, she felt the signals around her become clearer, almost verging on understanding. The silver on her palm retreated a bit, exposing her circuitry skin underneath. Her palm glowed slightly, followed by the DIN, and the signals began to get stronger. Suddenly something came through cleanly.
:A clock!: she inwardly exclaimed in excitement. Since being captured, they'd been keeping her out of sync, never giving her a way to tell the time. Now she had a signal she could understand and synchronize on. A weariness and ache she hadn't realized she was feeling evaporated, her body finally settling back with the pulse of the world.
Abruptly the signal popped and dissolved back into a cloud of static. She was briefly dismayed, but the few seconds she had with the other clock was enough; she knew she wouldn't be out of sync again. Looking at the DIN, she discovered the gem had cracked.
:Man, these really are cheap: she thought, verifying it was completely busted before swallowing it to join the first one.
She pulled the final one from under the pillow and debated saving it or experimenting further. Knowing her days were numbered, she set it on her palm and continued carefully practicing.
Fused and cloaked, Tino and Tycyn hovered a few klicks away from an isolated peak deep in the Dry. It was the tenth probable Dome they had guessed as a possible Shahrazad base, and the team had become well trained in busting them, even if none had been Shahrazad's base yet. Word on the darknets had it that more and more black-ops were moving out of the region, not wanting to be swept up with the search for the tigress.
The reaction on the darknets was confusing to both wyverns. With that much disruption to their normal ops, someone should have spilled the beans on Shahrazad's location, if only to get the heat lifted off of them. But so far, the lack of knowledge was universal.
:We've gotta be missing something. Maybe she's not in this end of the Dry,: Tino commented as they waited.
:Or maybe they're still more scared of her than they are of us. She's had decades to build up her Fear Factor.: Tycyn countered.
:Possible, I suppose. Guess we'll just have to keep doing things the hard way until someone cracks.:
Two Combat Septs from Cave of Wonders had been rolled out for this one. A sub with medical and other support staff was waiting just over the horizon, ready to move in once the dome was safe.
Moving in five… four… three…" Control sent on the encoded signal. As the countdown completed, a pair of Integrates opened fire on the entrance they had identified. Return fire quickly answered their attack, coming no where near their actual positions.
The distraction active, three fliers landed on a preselected spot and set charges. They cleared out and the side of the mountain blew outwards, the shockwave spreading across the plains around the peak.
Tycyn shifted frequencies to cut through the dust and found one that highlighted the inner hardlight dome. Another team moved in with a disrupter rig, setting it on the dome and working the controls. Soon enough, an opening appeared and the signal went out.
The wyverns joined the flock of fliers converging on the opening. They dove through the hole in the Dome and dodged incoming fire that was trying to stymie the flow.
:I don't think this is it,: Tycyn said as they moved into formation with the rest of the invaders.
Tino looked down and agreed with his friend. The Dome was occupied, but not by enough people to support Shahrazad's operations. Most of the buildings were simple temporary fabbed structures, put up without any planning.
:Picking up a dozen… no make that eighteen enemies, and two dozen unknown RIDEs. Twelve are fused RIDE Human pairs, three are Inties, and the remaining three are unpartnered RIDEs:
:Pick a target and let's clear it out.:
The wyverns spotted an unpartnered rhino RIDE helping reinforce the entrance, and lined up for a dive. Before he realized what was going, the taser cannons in their wings struck him with concentrated lightning. The RIDE froze in place, his systems trying to reset from the shock. It was the only shot they needed to make.
With surprise on their side, the Marshals needed little time to contain the dome. Its purpose was obvious when they examined the non-combatants.
"RIDE Slavers," an intie Marshal spat on the ground. "They ain't Shah, but they'll do I guess."
"Still gets us no closer to finding Nadia and Pepper," Tino noted, sighing and trying to keep his disappointment in check. Ten false alarms were draining on him.
"Don't lose all hope yet." Commander Suresh Palmer nodded to Tino. "Shah's group have been using slavers to supply their experiments. These guys might know something yet."
Tino nodded to the fused smilodon. "You're right sir. And even if they haven't, it's still another Slaver group taken out. A positive regardless."
"Now you're thinking. Let's get these guys wrapped up and cleared out people!"
"Pascal and Shahrazad want to see you two now!" The bluejay RIDE shifted from foot to foot in the doorway of the lab, not stepping in.
"Now? Why do they want to see us now?" Francis asked, not looking away from his work on their toy's arm. He had it partly flayed open, studying the internals while she looked away and ignored the pain.
"Dunno. But I was ordered to get you two and bring you in as soon as possible. So stop wasting time with the stupids."
Steiner sighed and got up from the microscope scanner. "Come on Francis, let's see what her Majesty wants. This one's not going anywhere."
"I suppose not. Be careful my dear, you wouldn't want to pull anything." Francis patted her on the head and got up, leaving the lab with the other two.
She gritted her teeth and looked at her arm. This was the chance, she knew, but taking advantage of it would be hard. Shiny metallic bone showed in her forearm, the mass of muscles, fibre optic nerves and arteries clamped back. Even with the pain turned off, she could barely handle it. She closed her eyes and focused on her arm, restoring some of the sensation so she could tell what was going on. It took longer than she wanted to, but they'd given her ample opportunity to practice healing. The muscles and flesh slowly pulled back in, slipping out of the clamps and healing up until the silver skin sealed up.
Her arm healed, her next problem was getting her restraints removed. She'd been practicing with the stolen DIN and was reasonably sure she could hack it enough to release them, but the DIN was in her stomach, and inaccessible from her current position.
She looked around for other options, and found Rex dozing at the door.
"Rex!" she called out. "Here boy. Come over here!"
The pitbulls looked up, both of their tails wagging. They noticed each other and tried to fuse, only to fall apart again after a few seconds, just long enough to get to her table.
"I need your help Rex. I need you to free my hand. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?"
The pair sat up, putting forepaws on the table and looked at her in puzzlement. She nodded towards her extended wrist, wiggling her fingers to get their attention. RIDE-Rex noticed the movement and started sniffing the ring around her wrist.
"There you go! Just break the ring," she encouraged him. She worried he might bite her hand off with the ring, but soon his jaws clamped on just the ring. With a crunch, the ring shattered, freeing her hand.
In quick succession, she removed the remaining restraints, including the ones on her weapons and lifters, and was able to stand up completely free for the first time since being captured. She took a moment to stretch, lifting a few centies off the floor with her lifters, before looking at Rex. "I need a way out of here. Do you know the way?"
They sat side by side, smiling playfully at her, but not moving.
"Figures. Was worth a shot. Guess I'll use guesswork." She sighed and looked around for anything that could help her escape. She found a dozen good DIN's, some belonging to Francis, some to Steiner. She didn't know if Francis's would be useful but she grabbed them anyway.
Finally she noticed something she'd almost forgotten; Pepper's armor plating, left on a table against the wall since she integrated. Not knowing what exactly she was doing, she held out a hand to the table and wiggled her fingers. At first she felt silly doing that, but then a piece wiggled in the pile. More pieces started moving and lifting into the air, sorting themselves out into a vaguely humanoid shape. They flew towards her, thumping into her and sticking in place somehow. Pepper had been taller than her originally, but somehow everything fit right.
Feeling more complete somehow, she looked to the door, then back at Rex. "Stay here buddy. I'm going to get help. Everything's going to be all right."
He woofed back at her and watched her go out the door. He spotted himself and jumped, fusing again, only to fall apart in confusion a few seconds later.
Outside the lab, she found herself in a big cavern filled with buildings. She crouched in the lab entrance, looking for an exit, alert for anyone who might see her. She knew she should be able to cloak somehow, but that was an ability she hadn't tested yet. She briefly wondered if dressing in bright red and gold armor was wise, but decided the extra protection was more than worth it.
Picking a direction she hoped lead to the exit based on the sketchy map she'd built up earlier from Shahrazad's tours, she started running, pausing at each corner to make sure the way was clear. She spotted a few people, some victims even worse off than she was, others seemingly untouched but eager to do something. None of them noticed her.
Finally she reached a corner and saw a wide open area. At the far side, was the entrance to a tunnel, with a guard booth. She studied the situation and realized there was too much open ground to get across undetected.
:Now what are we going to do?: she pondered, watching the pair of guards at the gate. One was a fused griffon, the other an unfused blue wyvern RIDE. Both seemed to be taking their guard duty seriously, and no one approached the gate without being challenged. She knew her time was running out; once her disappearance was discovered, the gate would be sealed. But if she left too early, she'd be showing she had escaped.
The bark echoed around the open space, drawing eyes to a road. Rex ran in, following himself, running right towards the guards, barking again and drawing the guards' attention. The griffon stayed inside his shack while the wyvern stepped out.
"What the hell are you doing Rex?" she asked, not sure what to make of the situation.
The RIDE half of the pair lept against the guard shack door, pinning it shut while looking in at the griffon inside, panting hard. The wyvern guard found himself partly tackled, the human part hugging him around the neck, licking eagerly, tail wagging. She realized he was distracting the guards, whether on purpose or not she didn't know. It was an opportunity she couldn't miss.
She started running towards the gate, a simple archway in the hardlight dome that sealed the cavern. She focused on going through the gate as fast as she could. Unexpectedly, her body began to respond in strange ways. Her legs locked up, sending her flying face forward. Her arms shot forward to catch her in her fall, but instead of palms down, she found herself gripping a hardlight rod that appeared in her hands. Before she landed, light flowed out between the edges of her armor, morphing it into an aerodynamic shell around her. Glowing wheels formed between her hands and between her feet, already spinning.
She shot past the guards, briefly hearing them shout, but she was gone before they could do more. Beyond the gateway she found a tight tunnel sloping upward. She thought of how handy it might be to collapse the tunnel, to buy more time, but she was through it before the thought could finish. She launched out of the mouth of the tunnel, crashed through some tree branches before landing in a pile of snow on the edge of a clearing. The aerodynamic shell sputtered and faded with the wheels, her armor pulling back into its normal appearance
"Snow?!" she exclaimed in surprise, sitting up. She'd assumed they were somewhere in the Dry; finding herself somewhere wet was an extra shock. Shaking off the surprise, she lifted off the ground and started cutting through the trees as fast as she could, trying not to leave a path. In passing, she noted how the trees were Zharusian, not Terran, though there were signs of invasive Terran species.
:Gotta figure out where I am. Gotta get word out somehow,: she repeated to herself. She knew she was as good as dead if they caught her, but if she could get a signal out, the base would be compromised, and hopefully the victims rescued.
:It's dark. I know the time. Find the stars.: The date and the snow told her she was either near the poles, or in the northern hemisphere. She hoped it was the north; she was less familiar with the southern constellations than the northern ones.
Running as fast as she was going, she shouldn't have been able to see the skies clear enough to start plotting; but she found her integrated body was more than up to the task. Glances upwards as she ran through clearings were as good as hours of careful stellar study. It also confirmed her fear; she spotted Scorpius, with Sol at the tip of its tail, verifying she was south of the equator. Internal processes calculated the angles and figured out her latitude. The results came in just as she ran out of land.
"Shit. We're on an island!" she exclaimed, looking down the cliff face at the waves crashing against it.
She faced north across the open sea, and scanned the horizon, knowing there had to be satellites up there. Not as many as covered the northern hemisphere, but something might pick her up. She pulled out one of Steiner's DIN's and listened, finding what she hoped was a satellite. The signal was faint, and barely understandable even with the DIN's help, but she grabbed it. She sent a quick SOS with her location and ID towards it before the DIN popped in her hand. She used up the rest of Stein's DIN's doing similar, finding more sats and ships to signal, hoping one could get through.
The last broken DIN dropped to the ground, leaving her wondering what to do next. Hiding would be difficult, and fatigue was already spreading through her, making her doubt she could make it across the water. She pulled one of Francis's DIN's out, but it was almost incomprehensible to her; she could sense the patterns in it, and was already adapting to them, but it would take precious time she didn't have to fully bring the DIN online.
Her decision ended up being made for her. A concussive blast struck her in the back, knocking her forward, almost over the cliff. She laid there, limbs twitching, as Frank'n'Stein walked up.
"Well, our little child still had some surprises. You pulled off some neat tricks there. But as you see, escape is futile. Islands make excellent escape proof locations. Humans, they can float and rest up in water. But even water RIDEs and Inties are too heavy, too dense. We run out of energy, we sink, making it almost impossible to find. As I'm sure you realize," Steiner taunted, nudging her twitching body.
"Shut up Steiner. Look! She had your DINs. And they're all cracked. Cracked recently."
"So? She doesn't even have a slot. Probably broke them trying to handwire them or something. Come on, we gotta get her back into the Dome. Shah wants to talk to her."
Francis looked up into the sky and shook his head. "Forget about that damn tigress! I think it's time we bugged out. I think she got a signal out. I don't know how, but I bet this place is gonna get mighty hot really soon."
"You're just paranoid, Francis. Look at what she did! We can't just leave her here. She's shown abilities we never even suspected."
"And look at her smile. She did something, somehow. We'll take her with us, if we can. But we need to bug out. Appa'll have our hides if we don't get those Cores to him."
"Zap her again, to be safe, then grab her. We gotta get outta here."
She smiled, hoping her plan had worked even as a spike jabbed against her spine between sections of armor. A jolt of electricity shot through her, knocking her silly for the trip back to the dome.
Cave of Wonders
Tino jolted awake to the blaring of an alarm. He rolled out of the bed and looked around, regaining his bearings. "Tycyn? What's going on?"
He felt warmth engulf him, and the sleepiness was banished from his mind. :SOS call came in, relayed from a Ranger ship in orbit. With a location and ID.:
:A location? Who was it from?:
:Signal was really weak, but it looks like it was Detective Nadia Vert.:
:Nadia? Seriously? Woohoo!: They picked up their pace and sprinted to the briefing room. It was already crowded with eager Marshals.
"Where's the location?" Mike ordered, standing in the middle of the chaos. "What's there?"
A globe of Zharus filled the middle of the room. It expanded to a spot south of Gondwana, finally zooming in on an island south of Punta Sur, near the antarctic circle.
"Limited information. We're retasking space assets to get a better view of it. It's volcanic in origin, but long dead," one tech reported.
"Could it have a dome?" Mike asked.
"Possibly. At a glance, the geology looks like it's right."
Mike nodded, sensing the excitement build. The room grew silent as Commander Palmer entered; fused with his partner. Mike nodded to them and stepped back, surrendering command to the sabre-tooth tiger fuse.
The feline turned around slowly in the quieting room, his gaze locking on each marshal for a moment. He spoke when he finished his silent inspection. "It would seem the good Detectives have grown tired of waiting for us to rescue them, and have taken matters into their own hands. As we speak, subs are being prepped to head to the island. One will leave from here within the hour with three Combat Septs on board along with all the medical and technical support staff we can spare. A second will be leaving from Aloha with another four Septs plus support staff. We will be coordinating our flight to arrive simultaneously and take the Dome by surprise. An hour later, a second Alohan Sub and a Punta Sur sub will be taking off, with reinforcements; other Marshals who can't make the first subs, APD and PSPD squads, and further medical and technical aid.
"If this signal is real, we'll be walking into Shahrazad's camp. There will be nightmares there, along with who knows what traps. We're going in fast, but we're going in smart. The tighter we make the net around that place, the less likely anyone will slip through it."
He looked around the room again, seeing the excitement in the eyes of everyone, old veterans and new recruits alike. "Orders are being sent out now. If you're on the attack subs, get to the armory, gear up and get to the subs. You will be left behind if you aren't there in time. Let's move people!"
Tino saw a message arrive while the Captain was talking, and wasn't surprised to see he and Tycyn were in the combat Seven's. Almost all combat capable Marshals at the Cave of Wonders base were being drafted, other than a skeleton crew to hold the base. Beyond the 21 combat Marshals, most of the base's Silicons, Chromes and Iodines were being pulled in anticipation of what they would find in the Dome. Even the specialists could handle a gun, and they needed every hand.
He joined the crowd heading to the armory, forwarding Tycyn's preferred gear style. When they got to the head of the line, the taser loadout pack, adjusted for their wings, was waiting for them. They latched the gear into place, and took off to the sub field and joined in the briefing.
"We have two RAAT teams on hand, hopefully to smooth our arrival. RAAT 1, a team from Uplift that had been training in Aloha, and Cave's own RAAT 2. Since the Alohan sub will be on site first, RAAT 1 will be going in first and blinding their eyes. With luck, that will let us get in faster with the element of surprise," the Commander briefed the team as the sub loaded up.
:Tycyn, has anyone called Rick yet?: Tino asked his partner as the briefing continued.
:I don't think so. Should he be called?:
Tino considered it, then nodded, :He should. He should know what we've discovered, even if it turns into a false alarm.:
Tycyn put in a request for an outside connection, and was surprised when Mike answered. :What do you two think you're doing?:
:Contacting Specialist Rick Jones. It's his wife, he deserves to know, to have time to get here in time.:
Mike thought it over, then nodded, :You're right. Permission granted.:
The secured connection was opened up and soon a sleepy voice answered the call, leaving the video off. "Hello?"
"Rick? It's Tino, Tycyn and Mike." Tino answered. "We've got news."
Almost faster than the signal lag, the video came on, and the virtual space stitched together. An exhausted looking Rick faced them with Genis beside him. "What news? What happened?"
"We got an SOS call. With Nadia's ID and a location," Tino said.
"Really? Where? I'll be right there."
"An island south of Punta Sur. We're already on the way. It may be a false alarm, or a trap even, but we… I figured you should know."
Rick's face fell for a moment then he shook his head. "No, it's her. I knew she'd figure out someway to get free." He looked to one side, "Go kick some tigress ass. I'm going to get down there as fast as I can. Genis?"
"Already looking at schedules. We can get a lift to Landing in time for the next Sub to Aloha…."
"Forget about the schedules," Mike interrupted him. The Integrate sent a contact to Rick. "Here's the private line to my parents. They'll arrange a sub charter for you as soon as you're ready. Bring anyone you feel appropriate; there'll be room."
Rick blinked, stunned, the fatigue of the past month showing clearly. "Seriously?"
"Your wife may have just helped us catch my own family's boogeywoman. That alone earns you guys our eternal gratitude. But even if Shah wasn't involved, you're both cops; it's the least we can do for you to save two women in blue."
"Thuh- Thank you. I've gotta go… Get Tony ready… Call the Doc's… It's gotta be her right?"
"We won't know for sure until we get there. But considering the response we're scrambling, it'd be a stupid trap if it wasn't her. As soon as we find out anything, I'll call you," Tino reassured him.
The connection died, and Tino blinked, returning his focus to the Real. He was surprised to see Mike sitting across from him. Around them, loud thumps caused the sub to shudder as it sealed up.
"This is it. This could be the end of a long path," Mike said.
"Or just another false trail," Tino countered, trying not to let his hopes get too high.
"Still, if it is true, you ready for this?" Mike waved to the others in the big hold, filled with fused pairs and Integrates. "Shah makes nightmares. I was there when we cleared the Cave. And when we cleaned Alpha's camp. It's not a pretty sight. Most of those guys don't know what they're getting into; it's one thing to read the reports, and hear the stories.
"But you. You've seen what she can do. You saw Apu personally. You've questioned Mrs Cleaver, and the Gilligan's crew. And you've seen Genie. You ready to see the factory floor that made them?"
Tino and Tycyn nodded. "We are. We're more than ready for this. They need to be stopped, and now's the time to stop them, before more monsters get released," Tycyn said.
"Good. Just be ready to see the worst. And remember, treat everyone as potentially hostile, even if they look like a victim."
"Got it," Tino said. He felt his stomach drop as the big sub lifted off into the air. "We're as ready as we'll ever be."
Steiner stood in the middle of the lab while Francis ransacked it, tossing hardware into crates while data downloaded onto portable drives.
"I still think you're being paranoid. She's got no DIN. How could she send any messages? Especially with my DINs?" Steiner said.
"I don't know how she did it. We didn't finish the studies. But you saw how she reacted when we caught her. She did something. It's time to bug out," Francis countered. He powered down the three RIDE frames at the back of the lab and started working on removing the cores.
"We can always call our pet Marshal, see if they got anything…."
"Our pet Marshal's been offline for weeks. There hasn't been a trace of either of them since they went to the Cave."
"I still can't believe you just handed her over to that Tigress. We can't leave without her."
"It's either her or the Cores. And the Cores are more important. We know how we made her, all we need is another EI and we can make another. This way, she'll be the distraction we need to get out."
An urgent beeping interrupted their argument. Steiner glanced around, then activated a smaller, opaque dome around the lab, sealing it off from the rest of the base. Francis accepted the call, and a familiar bison head appeared over the comm.
"Good day, Gentlemen. I understand you've had a bit of excitement."
"Hello, Appa," they greeted him in unison, trying not to look frazzled. "Just a bit of excitement, nothing we can't handle," Steiner added.
"Nothing you can't handle. Right." Appa looked thoughtful, while his doctors watched increasingly worried. "So you can handle seven Marshal combat septs coming down on you like an asteroid? Because that is what's on its way as we speak."
Francis's neck frill flared in shock, while Steiner slumped weakly against Nadia's table. "Seven Septs? Forty nine combat Marshals?" Francis said weakly.
"And support staff. Anyone who knows which way to point a gun basically. My agents in Aloha alerted me as soon as they took off. It's safe to say, the Dome is now Doomed."
"Right," Francis said, recovering and forcing his frill down. "We're already preparing to bug out. We'll be evacing in five minutes."
"With the Cores?" Appa asked.
"Of course. Got them right here, along with the software. Rebuilding the frames is trivial."
"Excellent. Don't let me slow you any further."
"Sir! The E-Intie. She's in-" Steiner interrupted Appa before he could disconnect.
"She is irrelevant. She was a distraction I tolerated you playing with. But playtime is now over. We need those Cores. Don't let anything else slow you. Especially not that E-Intie."
"Yes sir," Steiner responded weakly, before the connection went dark.
Francis snapped the case with the cores shut and looked around. A count down from one hundred was already ticking on everything with screens. "Come on. Time to get out of here."
Steiner sadly looked around, then sighed. He followed Francis into Nadia's room. There, they deactivated part of the dome, revealing a rectangle scribed in the concrete of the floor. Steiner raised his hoof and stamped down hard. After a couple of stamps, the concrete shattered, revealing a tunnel. The pair dropped down into the darkness and started running.
Back in the lab, the countdown reached 69, and the equipment sparked and shorted out, the worms destroying the data within them quickly and effectively.
"What did you do?!?" the tigress repeated her question, glaring at the Integrate suspended in front of her.
"Detective Nadia Vert, NuJose Police Department. Badge number 147 993 426," she repeated in turn. She knew help was coming, but she had to keep Shahrazad busy until then. The only way she had was to keep the tigress frustrated.
Of course, keeping her frustrated was painful in itself. The fused Tigress had many tools at her disposal to try and make her crack. One foot was flattened despite her best efforts to reenforce it. Her gold and red armor was scuffed, worn out from trying to anticipate where the next attack came from. Despite it's solid appearance, they had both been surprised at how mobile it was. Sections would thicken to catch the monomolecular blade, keeping her hand from being chopped off. Another section had thickened to ablate away under the burn of a high powered laser. The armor seemed to reflect her inner resolve. But now, with her power reserves at critical and her own mental fortitude failing, it was growing less effective.
The tigress snarled and turned away. She snapped her fingers and the Rex's were brought in. "If hurting you won't make you talk, let's try your friend. Don't think I've noticed how friendly you became with Rex here."
She gulped and braced herself. She didn't want to see Rex hurt, but more lives were on the line than just his, or hers.
"Rex was a fun project. He was very informative. We had to strip the minds, both RIDE and Human, down to the base animal. Then came the really fun part; we had to instill duelling desires. When separated, they yearned to be together. But when together, we instilled a sense of revulsion, building off some of the fuse safeguards already in place, to push them apart."
The Rexs sniffed each other and strained at the collars held by a pair of fused acolytes. Shahrazad smiled and approached them. "Now, let's see what happens when a repelling force meets the ultimate fusion force."
The collars released, and RIDE Rex leaped onto Human Rex, engulfing and fusing with him. As usual, the fuse held for a few seconds, until the fused pair began to tremble and open up. Shahrazad held out her hand, and squeezed the air. Rex yelped in pain, and while the trembling continued, the RIDE part found it impossible to open up.
Rex whined in pain and confusion, rolling onto his side and kicking. He tried to open up, but Shahrazad somehow held them together. Soon, a liquid began to leak from the cracked joints, silver ooze that spread over the RIDE part, melting the metal and causing the pair to contract. When the process was well underway, Shahrazad released her grip.
Free again, Rex twitched, causing silvery good to splatter, but the process was irrevocable; human and RIDE integrated in front of their eyes. The new Integrate collapsed, his chest heaving, eyes closed as the process finished up.
Shahrazad frowned and looked at him. "Hmmm, well that was unexpected. Still, one more data point I suppose."
She chuckled, "Didn't work out quite as you wanted, did it? He's probably better off now than he was before."
"For now, he may be. But once he recovers he can still be useful to get information from you. If you don't spill before then."
"You'll get nothing from me!"
Shahrazad turned away again, kicking Rex hard enough to slide him to the wall. The integrated pitbull whined, but didn't wake up. "I will. I always get what I want, one way or another. Still, time is of the essence. I had hoped it wouldn't have come to this… No wait, I did hope it would. I'm curious to see what this will do."
A raven Integrate wheeled in a large hardlight vat, filled with a purple liquid. He handled it nervously, reluctant to touch it. As soon as it was next to the suspended E-Intie, he looked to Shahrazad for permission to leave. She shook her head and smiled.
"Do you know of FOOF? Dioxygen Difluoride. One of the most reactive natural substances known. Useless for centuries after it was discovered, until someone figured out it could be used to make artificial cavorite."
Shahrazad walked over to the Integrate and the vat, taking his taloned hand. "Regular FOOF is very dangerous to work with, but you can work with it with the right materials. But mix in qubitite, and the Q-effect happens. It becomes even more reactive. The only way to hold it is in a constantly regenerating hardlight container."
With no further warning, she pushed the terrified Integrate's hand through the side of the container. He screamed in terror, and then in pain. Inside, the purple liquid bubbled and fizzed, hiding most of the action. After a minute, the raven's screams grew louder and he thrashed harder in the tigress's grip, but she held him firm.
After another minute, she let go. he pulled his hand out, drips of liquid falling to the floor and sizzling through it. The hand that was revealed had been stripped down to half melted metal bones. Silver blood dripped and sizzled from the forearm, while nerves and power lines sparked, exposed to the air.
"Get out of here. Next time, don't hesitate to obey my orders," Shahrazad ordered, glaring at the raven. The Integrate whimpered in pain and stumbled out of the room, holding his half dissolved arm away from his body.
Shahrazad adjusted the cables until the Integrate was suspended over the vat. She lowered her until her feet were on the hardlight top.
"Now, that fancy armor of yours seems to be hardlight based. More so than normal Integrates. I suspect you could normally spend hours in a bath of this and not feel a thing… If you had power. But, you haven't had power since you got here, and it's time you realized this."
The tigress lowered her a centimetre. "One centi every six seconds. Until you start speaking. Or you're completely submerged. I'd be fine with either."
She lowered her down more, and the Intie lifted her feet enough to keep it out. She glared at her captor and shook her head. "Detective Pepper. Nujose Police Department. 157 423 923."
The next few minutes were an eternity. She was able to lift her feet enough to keep out of the acid, but she was rapidly running out of room. Shahrazad seemed to find her situation amusing, even as she ended up with her knees to her belly.
Finally, she could avoid the reactant no longer. Her toes and feet quickly slipped into the purple liquid and started fizzling. Her armor held, but it warmed up quickly. She could feel power going out to the armor to rebuild it as quickly as it dissolved away. Sometimes it didn't regenerate fast enough, and she felt a sting and burning as it hit her true skin.
When she felt the bubbling liquid reach her bottom, she played her trump card and hoped it worked.
"Tell me, Shah. How well do you know Frank'n'Stein?" she spat out, trying to ignore the liquid bubbling around her legs. Some of it was leaking in past the armor and burning her badly.
The tigress paused in her prowling to watch her closely. "They've served me well through the years. Absolutely inspiring even. Many of my breakthroughs are due to them."
"Are you sure they serve you? Or do they have another master?"
A clawed hand shot out, slapping her across the face. Her mask deformed under the blow but reformed unharmed.
"I am the only Master here," Shahrazad growled.
"Then it's a good thing they aren't here anymore. Are they?"
That bought her a few minutes of respite, while the tigress sent runners off to find the Integrates. An acid bath wasn't the most comfortable positions she wanted to be in, but compared to what she had endured already, it was almost luxurious.
A Laurasian rat RIDE scurried in and whispered to Shahrazad. The way he cringed back, she knew the Master was getting bad news.
"Where are they?!" the tigress roared, sending her acolytes scattering. "Tear this dome apart and FIND them. Bring me their heads! The bodies are optional!"
The room emptied out faster than a holed space ship. Soon only the tigress, Rex and the detective were left. She debated goading the tigress on further, but she didn't have to. Pascal showed up with more bad news.
"They got the Cores," she announced solemnly. The multicoloured integrated porcupine didn't flinch at the tigress's reaction. The tigress swiped the vat of reactant, her claws cutting through the weakened hardlight along with a power cable. Purple reactant leaked out and began to dissolve the floor around the vat, the vat itself slowly losing cohesion with its power reduced. Pascal lifted into the air, staying above the liquid.
"We should leave. They clearly know something we don't. This base is compromised," Pascal continued.
RIDEs didn't have to breathe, even while fused. But the detective was sure Shahrazad was panting hard, trying to contain her anger.
"Are you sure they got the Cores?" Shahrazad asked, struggling to keep her voice level.
"The frames are still here, but the Cores are gone. Along with the console software. The rest of the lab was destroyed but I could tell the data was copied first. Those are the keys; the rest can be rebuilt trivially."
"You've been played Shahrazad. Played like a fiddle. Only fitting I suppose, since they do use catgut for the fiddle strings," the detective taunted. "Some master you turned out to be. You've grown sloppy. Fritz and Alpha went legit and you had no one to compare yourself to."
Her taunts fell on deaf ears. Both the RIDE and the integrate were suddenly looking elsewhere. "Damnit! That's the beach alarm! How'd they get so close?" Shahrazad cursed, shifting into a sleek bike mode. The rubber skinned woman looked stunned, laying on the ground. She began to cough and gag from the fumes coming from the spilt reactant.
"Figure it out later. We've gotta go," Pascal replied, already heading for the door, the tigress hot on her tail. The dome boomed as the attack started.
The detective slowly lowered her legs; the enhanced reactant had dissolved through the vat and leaked out enough that she was no longer immersed in it. She hung there, looking at Shahrazad's other victim. The woman had collapsed away from the main pool, but was clearly having trouble breathing. She looked to the new Intie and saw him stirring.
"Rex! Over here Rex!"
Rex looked up, looking confused. He strained a moment, then tilted his head.
"Rex! See the girl there? You need to get her outside. Out of this room. Can you do that?"
The pitbull tilted his head, then spotted the rubbery woman. He leaped over to her and lowered his head.
"Don't hurt her! just drag her out! Don't step in the acid!"
Rex glanced at the hanging detective, then carefully took the woman's upper arm. He dragged her out the door and out of sight.
A few minutes later, he came back in and sat in front of the Detective, wagging his tail. She looked at him, and sighed. "I suppose this is as safe a place as any. Stay close to me and don't hurt anyone. Be careful of the spills there."
He woofed and laid his head on his forepaws.
Tino and Tycyn hovered above the mountain peak in their usual pre-attack position, watching the battle and waiting for their cue to join the fight. As expected, the RAAT team on the Alohan shuttle had managed to silence the outer alarms. So when the subs arrived, they had caught Shahrazad's forces by surprise. Caught by surprise, but not unprepared.
One Sept was pinned down at the only entrance they knew, in a stalemate at that choke point. The solution would be coming soon, but in the mean time, Tino and Tycyn were on air watch, looking for emergency exits to make sure no one snuck out.
"We've got movement. Heading for the bluff to the north east," Tycyn reported, catching an orange flicker among the forest.
"Got it. It's near me. I'm on it," Mike Munn responded.
:He's not that close to it,: Tino noted. :There are three other Marshals closer.:
:Let him have it. They're all responding anyway so whoever that is, they won't get away.:
They both felt a shockwave in the air and looked down. One side of the mountain was sliding down, revealing a flickering hardlight dome. The Cave's RAAT team flew at the dome and stuck devices on it. A few moments later, it flared brightly, and went out. Since they weren't in the Dry, they decided to bring the whole thing down instead of making holes.
"That's our cue. Let's go!" Tino shouted, Tycyn already sending them to the exposed opening.
Shahrazad flew among the Zharusian trees, cursing her change in luck. Her two main escape routes had been compromised in the initial attack. This third one was clear, but was too exposed for her own tastes. All she had to do was reach the shaft entrance a klick ahead, and she'd be safe.
A tree exploded ahead of her, falling across her path. She transformed in mid air and landed on the ground, her feet digging into the earth. She automatically plotted where the shot came from and ran in the opposite direction, her shoulder cannons blasting back to the source.
Another shot made her change direction again. A voice filled the forest. "Stop! Surrender now and you won't be harmed!"
"Yeah right," she growled, scanning ahead for a safe route. The forest was too dense for her to risk her flyer mode.
A third and fourth blast struck nearby, and she realized she was surrounded. She skidded to a stop and turned slowly, searching for an opening. Four Marshals dropped down from the treetops, weapons trained on her.
"Holy crap! Is that?" one of them said.
She recognized one Integrate and focused on him, "It is. Hello again, Mike. How's your father?"
"Kill her," Mike growled, firing his own weapon. The blast struck Shahrazad in the shoulder, blowing up the cannon and knocking her to the ground. The other Marshals held their fire, surprised at his reaction.
"I surrender!" Shahrazad shouted, releasing her other weapon and letting it drop. "Don't shoot! I surrender!" In the confusion, she slipped a signal back to the base, activating one of her escape clauses. A high powered transmitter warmed up and prepared to send a message.
Another blast struck her again, jamming the armor on her other shoulder. One of the other Marshals finally reacted and moved to knock Mike's aim off. "What the hell, Mike?"
"It's Shahrazad! You know what she's done! She doesn't deserve a surrender."
The transmitter reached full power, and pulsed, sending out its compressed message. Shahrazad and the Marshal's felt it pass over them, the strength of the message strong enough to cause static on their comms.
"That, gentlemen and women, was the conditions of my surrender," Shahrazad said, trying to make herself comfortable with a frozen leg.
Mike decrypted the message first. He snarled in frustration and turned away, kicking a tree trunk and shattering it. "Damn it! You didn't? You couldn't!?"
The tigress smiled and loaded up her copy of the message, projecting it for the other Marshals. She watched herself float in midair as the recording spoke.
"I am Shahrazad. I'm sure I need no further introduction. If this message has gone out, it means I have been captured and need a bit of insurance from 'accidents'.
"Since I was built, I have been a curious cat. I've explored the limits of my world and what I am capable of. Limits well beyond what most people find acceptable. I have had many patients through those decades, human, RIDE, and Integrate alike. Most of them, regretfully, did not survive my exploration.
"Now that I am caught, I want to explore the limits of the justice system. I am willing to supply a complete record of what I've done. Who I did it to. And what became of them. In return, I wish to be tried for my crimes under your system. All of my crimes. I believe what I am offering is closure, for the families of my subjects. And all that you have to do is leave me operational, to leave me alive, to face the justice I deserve."
"It's a trick!" Mike growled. "We should kill her now."
"And destroy what I am offering? Why should your family get closure that will be denied so many more?" Shahrazad taunted back.
"Marshal Munn, stand down," a new voice ordered. The smilodon-tagged Commander dropped out of the sky on a feline-skimmer cycle. "Everything is on the record. There will be no accidents here."
"Thank you Commander. I knew saner heads would prevail."
"Shut your mouth or I might have an accident after all," the sabretoothed man growled. He pointed at a fused Marshal. "You two, escort Marshal Munn back to the Cave Sub. He's to remain on board until it returns to the Cave.
"The rest of you, will escort the prisoner and myself to the Alohan sub."
The man glared at Shahrazad. "As for you. Pop open your core chamber."
The tigress looked surprised, though she wasn't too surprised. She'd anticipated this requirement would be a condition. "Now hold on a second. That wasn't part of the deal. I've surrendered."
"Yes, but we don't need, or want your body. Open your Core up, or we'll take it by force."
Shahrazad sighed. "Fine," she grumbled, before her body froze up. A panel opened up, revealing her softball sized Core.
The Captain plucked it out and put it in a carry case. He climbed back on his RIDE and looked at his escort. "Grab her shell too, and let's go people. This island is far from secure."
The Dome's air battle was short lived. While most RIDEs and Inties could fly, the native flyers like Tycyn could literally fly circles around them. Tycyn only had to taser a few avians, and dodge a few rockets before the Dome's skies were declared secure.
They were ordered to drop to ground level to secure the buildings, and that was when the atrocities of the Dome were revealed to them.
The first building they walked into was refrigerated. Most of the building was empty, but in the middle of it, they found an occupied lab. An arctic fox RIDE was watching something through a window of a chamber. When Tino and Tycyn got close enough, they could see a woman writhing on the floor in the chamber.
"The experiments must go on. I'm so close to perfecting this," the fox said, his voice having a maniacal edge to it that sent a chill down their spines.
"What did you do?" Tino shouted, shifting his gaze from the chamber to the RIDE.
"Chamberless fusing. The next big thing!" The RIDE giggled.
Tycyn's readings of the chamber indicated it was minus thirty inside, but the woman was sweating like she was in a sauna. She writhed on the floor, in obvious pain as her body reshaped slowly. Her shoulders swelled, her breasts flattening on her chest. From her spine, a fleshy tail grew out, puffing out in white fur. Her hips narrowed, while her genital closed out, her clitoris swelling larger.
"We've gotta stop this," Tino said. They pointed their weapons at the fox. "You've gotta stop this. Fuse with her, do this the proper way?"
"And wreck my experiment? It's going so well! I'm sure I have it right this time."
:Get the medics here. Anyone have any idea what we can do?: Tino asked desperately.
:Medics are already overwhelmed. So many horrors, some as active as this one. She needs a fuse chamber, a proper fuse chamber, to stabilize her. And no, we can't do it. She's crossing, adding a mythic on top would be deadly.:
Tino moved closer to the RIDE. "Fuse with him NOW. Get her stabilized or… or…"
The fox looked at him and tilted his head. "Or what?" He smiled and turned his head. A silvery fluid dripped from his mouth, quickly dulling to grey. "Ooops! Those were my fuse nannies. Can't fuse till I get more and that will take hours to program right."
Tino growled angrily and jammed their taser against his head. Before he could fire, they heard a noise behind them. A polar bear fuse with red crosses on his upper arms ran in.
"Sorry we're late. Came as soon as we saw the case."
"She's in there. Anything you can do?" Tycyn asked, not moving from the RIDE.
He looked in the chamber and shuddered. "Not sure, but I'll do what I can. It'd be safest if we could get her into a proper fuse."
"Sorry, fuse nannies all gone!" the fox said cheerfully. "No fuse for you."
Tycyn fired and lightning shot through the RIDE. He twitched and collapsed. "Do what you can, if you can. We'll get this one to the holding areas."
The bear nodded and stepped into the chamber. "I don't know what we can do, but we'll try."
She rested with Rex, listening to the battle outside, and conserving what she had left. Hunger gnawed at her stomach, and her fingers and toes were numb from the lack of power. Her armor that had protected her through all of Shahrazad's torture had all but faded away, a paper thin layer over her skin. The building shook from another explosion and Rex whined worriedly.
"Don't worry, they're on our side. Help is coming," she reassured him. The air was full of dust and chilling rapidly, indicating the Marshals had probably made their own entrances. Without a DIN she couldn't communicate with anyone, but she could sense the pulse of the battle with her combined senses. The combatants could be identified easily by the dense data clouds centred on them, or the gravimetric tangle of their lifters.
One in particular dropped down and landed at the door the dome's former Master had so recently fled through. The golden wyvern hovered just above the ground, weapon turrets on his shoulders following his gaze. He spotted the occupants, and the turrets adjusted quickly, splitting to lock one on each of them.
Rex growled warningly, standing up, his shoulders hunched forward.
"Easy Rex, he's a friend," she reassured him. Rex relaxed slightly, but stayed standing, watching the wyvern warily.
"It's about damn time you got here. I was running out of stories to tell," she called to the marshals.
"I thought Shahrazad was the story teller, not the tellee. My god! Pepper! What happened to you? How's Nadia?"
"Get me down first please. I've been hanging here for hours while you guys took your sweet time getting here. Careful, there's acid on the floor."
He floated behind her and she soon felt the restraints loosening. She tried to use her own lifters to hold herself up, but found she didn't have the strength left. She fell forward, onto Rex's broad back.
"Sorry about that. Are you OK?"
She twisted around so she could sit up on Rex's back, rubbing her canine friend's head. "I'm fine. Let's go. Did they get her?"
"Shah? Yes, finally. They read her her rights, and popped her core as soon as she surrendered."
"Popped her core? I'm surprised they didn't crush her then and there."
"It wasn't for lack of trying, but she's quick. She did an All-comm surrender as soon as she realized the jig was up. Though I doubt anyone would shed any tears if there was an accident; it's harder to have one now."
She looked at her friends, reading their fused body language. "How bad is it?"
Tycyn answered, "Shah's acolytes aren't really fighters. We rolled over them pretty easily once the dome was cracked. But the victims…" Tycyn and Tino shuddered in unison. "The psychs are going to be busy for years."
"Is it that bad? Shah showed me some of her projects, but I didn't exactly get a fully guided tour."
"I don't even know where to begin. We always thought she was still in the Dry. We never considered she would set up shop off the continent. And the numbers are hard to grasp. There are people here from all over the planet and beyond. Some of the Spacers..." Tino explained.
"How are you two doing? Do you want to defuse? The Dome's not secure yet, but this building should be safe," Tycyn asked.
Her face fell. "We… We can't defuse. Not here. Not ever again."
"What?" the Marshals asked in unison. "What happened? What did they do?"
"They did the impossible," she said, mentally willing her armor to clear her head. It dissolved into fine cubes that fell around her shoulders, exposing her bare face and head.
"You… You integrated? But how? Pepper's an EI. That's impossible."
She shrugged, "It's Zharus, we take the imp out of impossible. In my case, it only took two very determined Inties."
"I'm sorry. I don't know what to say…"
"Say nothing. I could use a bite to eat. And some juice. Power that is. I haven't been fully charged since I was kidnapped.."
The wyvern bobbed his head. "Right right… I just briefed the commander. He wanted to know as soon as you were found. There's a sub about to go back to Aloha. They're going to hold it for us. You can fuel up there. Can you last that long? To the sub that is, not Aloha."
"I'm sure Rex can get me there fine. Lead on." She rubbed Rex's head and closed her eyes. She reopened them just as quickly. "There's another person. A woman, with rubbery skin. She was Shah's thumbs."
Tycyn shook his head. "We found her. She didn't make it. Overcome by poisonous fumes by the looks of it.
Her face fell and Rex whined. She rubbed his head, "You did what you could. It's not your fault."
They left the building, and she could see open sky in the air overhead. Tycyn took off and hovered, looking down at the pair.
"I'm outta juice. Think you can fly big guy? Or we'll have to walk."
Rex woofed and after a moment's hesitation, his paws lifted off the ground. He followed Tycyn up out of the dome and towards the clearing where the subs had landed. Three subs were already on the ground, with a fourth hovering in mid air, waiting for a spot to clear up.
"Aloha's got the most experience with EI's and Inties, at least at this end of the planet," Tino babbled as they approached. "So I'm sure you'll be in good hands with them, at least till we get some folks down from Nujose…."
"Yes Pep err Nadia err… what do I call you?"
"Call me whatever you want, but could you be quiet? I'm trying to conserve my power."
The South Pole
The high speed submarine cut through the dark depths at top speed. Hundreds of metres of water, and an additional few hundred metres of ice separated them from the rest of the world. But it wasn't enough to cut them off completely.
The comm panel of the sub chimed, and Appa's head appeared. "I see you managed to escape. Do you have the Cores?"
Steiner tapped the case between them. "Right here. Everything is intact, including the software."
"What happened back at the island?" Francis asked.
"As anticipated, the Marshal's landed like a meteor. Shahrazad and most of her followers were captured. No word on Pascal, so I suspect she slipped away as usual."
"And our project?"
Appa smiled, "Still alive. They are not publicizing her condition, but the survivor lists do include her pre-Integration names."
"Excellent. She is surprisingly durable. I look forward to continue our work on her someday."
Appa's expression hardened. "Not any day soon. You have more important work to do."
Steiner gulped and nodded, "Of course."
"Set course to Omphalos. If the Marshal's don't know who you are now, they will soon. We'll pick you up there and get you to Lake Laogai. There we will continue laying the groundwork for our future world."
"Omphalos. Right. Course adjustments made. We'll be there in a day."
"What about you, Sir? Won't they link you to Shahrazad once they finish off the base?"
"We are Leaders, even if she was just mech. Our meetings were political, no more. Besides, while the Enlightened work with them, they are still held back by the simple folk. I am not concerned about any conclusions they may draw."
"I'll see you at the lake." Appa's head disappeared, and the Integrate pair breathed a sigh of relief.
En route to Aloha
The sub arched through the atmosphere, on its path from the small island near the south pole, to Aloha. It was filled with some of the worst cases that could be safely moved from the Dome. The detective sat at a table, trying not to think of what she'd seen on the lower decks, one hand pulling in power from an induction plate as fast as she could, the other shovelling food into her mouth. She had a spare DIN from an Integrated Marshal on her unarmored chest, the silver skin having separated around it and somehow holding it in place. In the back of her mind, she was adapting to the DIN, figuring out how to talk to it, and through it.
:Who am I?: she wandered to herself. :Who am I now? I'm not Pepper, and I'm not Nadia. Not any more. I was them but it's not who I am now.:
Finally, the DIN clicked and the world opened up to her. She found she could sense but not touch the DINSec protected flight systems of the sub and the various RIDEs on board. She ignored those protected systems and went on the public ones. She let her mind wander over the public networks, skimming over name registries and finding nothing that felt right. A subtask she wasn't aware of dug into her own history, wandering into her class's history, and the origin of part of her original name. One aspect jumped to her attention, and she smiled. :A strange name, but a bit fitting. At least until I find something else I like.:
An unfused Tino tapped the table, drawing her attention back to the Real. "Hey there. How are you doing? Getting enough?"
"Getting as much as I can handle. I'm about 75 percent and rising. Thanks for your concern."
"No problem. Uhm, you haven't mentioned it yet, but I figured you should know. Rick knows about your message. He's on his way to Punta Sur now, probably with Genis and Tony."
She froze in shock, surprised she'd gone so long without thinking of them. Thoughts of her family had kept her strong through their captivity, but now they were free she hadn't even thought of them. "I… I'm horrible. I didn't even think of them."
"It's okay. You've had a lot to deal with. Plus hunger does strange things to your mind."
She looked at her ebony circuit-skin and became self conscious. Pepper's armor reformed around her, shiny and unmarred now that she had more power, spawning from tiny cubes into something that felt more solid than regular hardlight.
"Wow, that's a lot to get used to," Tino said.
"Tell me about it. Punta Sur? Why are they going there?"
"It's the closest polity to the Dome. We figured that would become our mainland base. But they don't have anywhere near the capability to handle what we're bringing home, so we're going to Aloha instead. As soon as their sub lands, it's going to bounce over to Aloha. They'll get there a half hour after we do."
"A half hour? That's not enough time…"
Tino hesitated. "Well, I don't know if it would help, but we do have comms too. You could call him?"
"Yes, call him. That's a good idea." She stood up and moved to the comm panel. Tino started to leave, but she waved to him. "Stay please. I may need some real support."
Looking uncomfortable, he moved to the table and sat down. "Sure. Whatever you want."
She took a moment to compose herself, then activated the panel and called Rick. At the last moment she disabled the video feed. A few seconds later, his head appeared in the air.
"Hello?" he asked cautiously. She could hear and see the exhaustion and stress in his face; he'd aged ten years since she'd last seen him.
"Hello?" he asked again. She tried to speak, only to find her throat and speakers both seemed broken.
"Who's there? Who is this? How'd you get this ID?" he asked suspiciously, with a hint of frustrated anger.
"Rick…" she finally squeaked out.
His expression froze long enough that she briefly wondered if the connection was locked. Finally an expression of cautious joy spread over his face. "Nads? Is that you Nads?"
"It's… It's me. We made it. We're alive," she got out, slowly finding it easier to speak now that the ice was broken.
"That's great! I can't believe it! Why's the video off. Is something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. Just… bandwidth limitations. The Docs are doing a lot of conferencing to sort out what to do with the victims we're bringing in."
"Oh I see. I shouldn't keep you long then."
"No! No it's fine. One connection's not bad. Just limiting the vid is all." Now that she was talking to him, she didn't want to let him go.
"Sure. Sure. Just a second!" Rick disappeared suddenly.
She reached out into the space his head had been, missing him again already. Through the DIN, she could trace the comm signal as it passed through the sub's systems to the transmitter and receivers.
An eternity later, he reappeared, along with another head. Her voice disappeared again when she saw the boy's head, his eyes showing a hurt she wanted to hug away. "Tony, it's Mommy. She made it."
"Mommy?" Tony asked.
"It's me. I'm here my little Iron Man," she stammered out.
"Mommy!" he exclaimed, his face lighting up. "Why can't I see you?"
"Network limits. Don't worry, you'll see me soon. For real soon."
Rick hugged Tony a long time, then let him go. "We're landing soon, buddy. Why don't you go make sure Otto's ready? We'll talk with mom again soon."
She was glad to see some of the hurt had faded. "Sure daddy. We'll see you soon mommy! Don't go anywhere!"
"I won't Iron Man. I'll be waiting for you. Pepper and I. I love you."
"Love you too, Mom!"
Tony disappeared from the screen. Rick faced away for a long moment, before looking back. "He's in the other room now. Nads, what's going on? You're receiving our video signal. If you can receive, you should be able to send."
"I know. I just… I can't…."
He nodded and smiled encouragingly. "We'll work through it. No matter what they did to you, you're still my wife. And Tony's mother. We're landing soon and bouncing right over to Aloha."
"I can't wait to see you," she said, not sure if she was completely truthful. "I'm sorry. Sorry all this happened."
"Don't be. It comes with the job. You're alive, that's the most important thing. We'll see you soon. I love you."
"Love you back."
The connection died and she stared at the empty space, wanting to reactivate it again. Finally she turned away, surprised at the wetness of her cheeks. Tino offered a cloth to her.
"We're on final approach to Aloha now. We're drawing a lot of attention, as expected. With Shah's history with the Munn's, her capture is quite the news here. And the victims are icing on the press cake so to speak."
"Sounds ugly," she said.
"Alohan press are as ugly as they get. Especially if you want to keep a quiet. Smiley- sorry, Commander Suresh, wants to keep your condition on the down low for now, if possible. As long as you stay armored up, you'll pass as your fused self. Think you can do that?"
"Sure, easily. If he really wanted us kept quiet, he'd redirect the sub to Cape Nord."
Tino nodded. "True, but Aloha's where the experts are coming in. Funny you should mention Cape Nord though; between you, me and the walls, this subs bouncing up to Cape Nord as soon as we clear out, for one final delivery. Shah's core is going up there as fast as they can get it, before her acolytes can react."
They both felt a change in the engines, and a tingle as the gravity fields adjusted for the final landing. Tino stood up and headed for the door. "One more thing, have you thought of a name for yourself yet?"
She nodded, "I have. It's based on something related to Pepper's namesake." She paused, briefly having second thoughts, but decided to try it. "You can call me Rescue."
Tino looked puzzled for a moment, and she could sense data agents going out and returning quickly. He then smiled encouragingly at her. "Sounds good. And fitting for what you did."
"Well it's something to call myself with. I'll probably change it later when this all sinks in for me," Rescue said, suddenly self conscious. "Rick might have other ideas about it after all. And Genis."
"It's a free planet, you can call yourself whatever you want. Did I ever tell you about my niece? I swear she changes her name every month. It'd take an Intie minutes to download her name change log."
Rescue laughed and finished her sandwich. The rumble of the sub changed tone again, and a warning chime went off.
"That's the landing signal. We're going to be transferring most of the victims by ambulance cycled through the sub, so they don't have to face the press crush. Do you want to slip out with them? Some of the details of what you did have already leaked and they're sniffing for more, but they haven't clued in to your condition yet. If you go with the victims, you'd get a bit more peace at least."
Rescue reformed her helmet over her head, and shook her head. The mountain of messages in Pepper and Nadia's public and private boxes had been steadily growing since she'd gotten back online. "I'll have to go out eventually, might as well get it over, give them their pound of flesh now."
Spies Among Us
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