User:Jetfire/Cave of Wonders

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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Cave of Wonders

Author: Jetfire

Shahrazad's Cave: 133 AL

Scratch watched impassively as the hunting party brought their prize to the centre of the village. A flyer had been shot down, and a family, two parents and a young adolescent girl, had been captured. The fused hunters were stripping the humans down and snapping collars around their necks before setting the chains through loops in the ground. They'd be stuck on hands and knees at best until Shahrazad was ready for her lessons. Scratch paid particular attention to the little girl in particular, knowing what Shahrazad would want to do with her, and him.

"Hello Kitten, ready for today's lessons?" a voice purred out of the darkness beside him. The tiger striped tomcat RIDE turned and saw the tigress step out of a building. "We caught a perfect one, just for you. She's in the middle of adolescence, a really fun time to cross them. They already don't know what they're becoming, giving you lots of space to play around in."

Scratch sighed inwardly and listened as the tigress outlined what she wanted him to do. She spoke aloud so the humans could hear what she was planning. They were shocked, the teen looking terrified. The father shouted until he and the rest of the family, were muzzled and gagged by the hunters.

Scratch had started as a tourist RIDE for an outfit in Aloha, meant to take the tourists around the polity and into the Dry to say they experienced it. His housecat appearance, including a full hardlight fur loadout, was meant to be reassuring to the tourists, compared to the old military models that were usually available. What it really meant was that when Shah's hunting party had attacked his group, he was all but defenseless. He was the lone survivor of that group now, the last RIDE having managed to crash herself a few months back. The only reason he was still alive and somewhat free, was that Shahrazad had taken personal interest in him; treating him like her own kitten.

Since then, he was her personal project. Any time a hunting team brought in a young person, she tossed them his way, at least initially. He was rarely allowed to keep them beyond a few days. He felt the tigress nuzzle his shoulder and lick him. "So kitten, what will you do with your new toy?"

Scratch quickly reviewed what Shah had been talking about and tried to pick at random. His true plans meant that he wouldn't go through all of it, but he had to do some of it until he could slip away. If he was lucky, the girl might survive somehow; but the parents would be lost. He hoped she would forgive him some day, but he probably wouldn't be around for it.

"As you said, the body in the flux of adolescence is one that should be played with. I figure the slow cross will do to start, and adapting from there depending on the reactions," he said. "I'm curious to see if I may be able to stabilize partially there, to sense what the body might be."

"Excellent, kitty. You may begin when ready," Shahrazad said, smiling and nodding her head to the girl. All of the humans were gagged and straining against their restraints, trying to stay as far from the RIDEs as possible.

He approached the terrified girl, mentally setting up his plans. He knew he would be under the gaze and 'guidance' of Shahrazad and the rest of the camp at first, so he had to make it look good. But once the parents were taken, he could slip away and move on to his own next phase. The girl was shaking her head in denial, her eyes wide. The collar cut into the back of her neck as she tried to pull away. A fused porcupine laughed at her reaction, plucked a quill from her shoulder and flicked it to the girl. It struck the collar and exploded, shattering the collar and sending the girl flying. Her parents were sent into fits of rage, straining to reach the girl, but unable to get anywhere close.

Scratch shifted direction and stopped, standing over her. She was stunned, but just holding onto consciousness, her unfocused eyes looking up at him, filled with tears. Her neck and the side of her face were red and bleeding from the blast. He grabbed the arm on her uninjured side and dragged her back into full view of her parents, ignoring her gagged screams of pain and terror. Knowing he needed to put on a show for the tigress, he waited a moment, then opened up his chest. Her screams cut off suddenly as she was engulfed into the large housecat, though they continued in his head.

As he promised, he worked slowly, twisting his body around hers first. He felt his fore toes lengthen into fingers, the forepaw reshaping into a proper hand. His barrel chest flattened out, shoulders broadening and his hips shifting around to give him a bipedal stance. His head rotated downward to face forward as he stood up.

Shah walked around him, rubbing her metallic skin against his own furry body. He felt her presence slip into his head, scanning the girl. He had the girl's mind trapped in a mirrored cube, reflecting her body. The fusing nanites were working slowly on her, coaxing a feline tail from her spine and little more. Shah watched with him as the girl shuddered and curled up tighter in her mental prison, trying to ignore what was happening.

"Now now, we can't have our prize ignore the show," the tigress said in his head. Scratch felt Shah's presence grow stronger in his mind, overriding his own controls briefly. A silver leash extended from a corner of the cube and curled around the girl's neck. Clearly resisting, her eyes popped open and she slowly stood up, unable to ignore her body reflected all around her.

Scratch winced inwardly as the girl screamed again. He sensed Shah's pleasure at the screams, before the tigress faded away.

"Let her go!" screamed the mother, straining on her chains. Her cheeks were bloody where she'd scratched them, tearing the gag off. Scratch stared at her impassively and took a step back.

The rest happened quickly. The parents were meant for two of Shah's older allies, so she didn't need to cover what they were expected to do in as much detail as she had to do with Scratch. Plus, she knew the biggest torture for the moment for the parents was seeing their daughter taken first. Later they would experience worse, but the start of the fuse wouldn't be as bad as seeing their daughter go. Much as he wanted to leave, he knew he had to stay and watch, and force her to watch.

Pascal, the porcupine went first. She released her old human in front of the father, dropping the changed woman onto the ground as she went back on all fours. Her old human had been in her 'care' for nearly a year, and looked little different from the fused form she had just left. Brown and black quills covered her head and down her back to a tail. Fur covered the rest of her body. Whimpering, she curled up and shaded her eyes with one arm.

"Take her out to the fields; we'll see how long she survives on her own," Shah ordered.

One of the hunters grabbed the porcupine woman by the arm and dragged her out of the room, ignoring her wordless screams. The father watched her leave and gulped, seeing the quilled RIDE approaching him. She walked around behind him, reared back and pounced onto his back, her chamber opening up to take him in. The chains snapped as she sealed up and stood up again.

"Excellent, a fighter," she murred happily, before spitting out the muzzle and gag.

Scratch peeked inside himself to check on the girl. She was crying, unable to look away despite her best efforts. Her ears were getting pointier and her nose was starting to turn upwards. Shah had taught them all how to make the most of the fuse nanites, to go beyond the limits that they supposedly had, and she expected all of their humans to be taken as far as possible, and then pushed a step further. He wanted to break down the mirrored box and comfort her, but he couldn't; if Shah caught even a hint of what he was planning, he'd be learning first hand what she could do with RI cores, and they'd both experience what she could do with fused pairs. Some of the results of those experiments were grazing at the edge of the forest.

The porcupine moved over to stand beside Scratch. She caressed her body and smiled. He knew she was taunting her newest arrival as she worked, making sure he felt every last one of the new quills his body was growing.

Shahrazad walked over to the mother, her tail swinging down to lift her head up. "Before you go, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for supplying such wonderful opportunities for my acolytes to practice with."

"Why are you doing this?" the mother asked, trying to harden her expression and not look at the chains that had held the rest of her family.

"Why? Because I can. You experimented on us all the time, not only when you made us, but afterward. Trying to figure out what makes us tick inside our cores. Well, it's time the tables were turned; time for us to figure out what makes you meat tick." She flicked her tail against the woman's nose, causing it to bleed. "Of course even if I knew what made you tick, I'd still do this. Because simply, it's fun."

The woman glared a moment, then spit a bloody loogy against the tigress. "You're a monster!" she spat out.

Shah walked away, ignoring the liquid on her metal side. "Of course I am. Just remember, YOU created this monster. It's been a pleasure, but now, it's your turn."

A bird screeched overhead, causing the woman to look up. Scratch could just see her horrified expression before the osprey dived down from the roof of the dome. He opened up and grabbed her in mid glide; the chains straining a moment before snapping. The fused bird landed between Scratch and Pascal, a pleased grin showing on the edge of his beak.

The tigress walked between them slowly, inspecting their work. Scratch briefly felt her enter his mind to check before leaving again. "Excellent work you three. You really are learning well. You're dismissed until this evening. Have fun with your new toys, and remember to record and share with the rest of the class."

The housecat took off before Shah could ask him to stay for further tutorials. He took a random route through the village and across the dome, carefully tracking everyone. He used his hardlight controls to cloak himself once he crossed the fields; it was the only real defensive trick he had.

At the edge of the cavern's hardlight dome, he paused and checked again. As far as he could tell, no one was near him, or looking for him. If he could trust Shah's locater, she was in her palace with the grey wolf, Fridolf. He took a device from a thigh compartment and pressed it against the dome. The hardlight melted, leaving an opening just big enough for him to squeeze through in fused form.

On the other side of the dome, he deactivated the device, sealing the breach. He hoped he had been fast enough to not trigger any alarms. He crawled in the tight space between the dome and the natural wall of the cavern, trying to avoid touching the dome as much as possible. The space was tight enough that he had to brace against the dome occasionally, but he managed to climb and crawl to his destination eventually.

He squeezed behind a boulder that partly blocked a side cave and dropped his cloak. The cave itself wasn't big, maybe a decametre in each direction, but it was big enough for a hiding place. He scanned the area carefully and could detect no signs that anyone had been in there. His cache of charged batteries was untouched. He rolled another rock to block and hide the entrance, and sat down. He closed his eyes and focused inward.

The girl was still a girl, trapped standing up in the mirror box. She was growing fur over her body now, as well as claws. Her face had a feline muzzle, with a split lip and whiskers. She was crying silently, staring at her hands, but otherwise seemed well enough. He left her for the moment and finished off his preparations.

Deep in his mind, the package waited; sealed but letting off noxious smelling fumes. It hadn't been easy to find the military mind worm programs, but there were enough military folk between Shah's crew, and victims, that he had been able to get copies. Reprogramming them to do what he wanted had been difficult, but he was reasonably sure it would work well enough. And if they went too far, it would be a mercy for both of them in the end.

He opened the box and watched the programs take off. Despite their name, they didn't look like worms. In his VR space they were flying orbs with mouths filled with whirring teeth. They disappeared as quickly as they appeared, and a faint crunching filled his head.

Knowing his time was limited, he returned to the girl's cage and shattered it. She stared at him, shocked, looking more like a female version of his fused form than an actual human. "What... What are you going to do to me?" she asked tentatively, too exhausted to react worst.

"I don't have much time," he said, "So listen carefully. First, I'm sorry. Sorry for what happened to you and your parents, and for what is about to happen. I can't stop what is happening to you, and we can't rescue them, but you may survive in the end if you are careful and keep your head down.

"You have to stay hidden. No one but me knows of this cave. The batteries in here will last you for months, and my DE can recycle for your biological needs just as long. Just don't think too hard about what you're eating and drinking.

"Take the time, learn how to use my body, and when you get a chance, use it to escape. To get home, to get help. If you're lucky you might get an opportunity in time to save your parents. Just don't lose hope and don't take risks. Shah's been doing this a long time, and her luck's going to run out eventually. She'll grab the wrong group and they'll come down on her hard."

He felt his memories fading. He knew he came from somewhere, but he couldn't remember where it was any more. He took a step to the girl and hugged her.

"What are you doing?" she asked, tense as a board in his arms.

Scratch felt his body soften and melt around her form, feeling like a fuse within a fuse. "I've done bad things, horrible things. Shah made me do them, but in the end, I was the one who did them. I can't do that anymore. I'm giving myself to you. You'll have my body, what's left of my mind, everything. Use it well to escape when you can, and destroy the rest. It's what I deserve."


His memory was becoming more fragmented as the worms chewed through them. He began to sense the girl's memories, seeing the faces of friends, of birthday parties, school, vacations. "I've unleashed a worm program in me. I'm giving you what I am, but you don't deserve the burden I'm carrying. The worms are eating my mind, my memory, me. What will be left will be my instincts, to guide you in controlling this body and to protect you, but I will be gone. It's my cost for what I've done."

Scratch felt confused; the fuse was different from anything he'd done before. Then again, he couldn't remember fusing before. He was having a hard time distinguishing between the girl and himself, or even remembering why that distinction was important. One of the worms passed through, and he couldn't remember her best friend any more. He knew that was wrong, that the worms weren't supposed to touch that, but he couldn't figure out what to do.

In VR space, the effeminate housecat raised his hands and shouted "STOP!", begging for the worms to stop, doing his best to hold on to what he could remember, human or RIDE.

In real space, silvery fluid dripped off the fused pair, the body twitching as it tried to survive the mind purge.

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Shahrazad's Dome, 133 AL

He woke up slowly, his mind confused. He had trouble remembering where he was, or who he was. He opened his eyes, and took a moment to adjust to the faint glow coming from the dome on the other side of the blocked cave entrance. He looked down at himself, and saw his body, covered in black and orange fur and sticky with a drying silver goo. Something told him he should have two bodies; one inside the other, but he couldn't sense the other body inside him.

He stood slowly and continued his inspection; he felt smaller than he should be, but bigger than he should be. His claws scraped the silver goo off, and scratched against panels in his belly, previously covered by the goo. His body otherwise was as he thought he expected, though the fur felt wrong, more natural. Without thinking of it, his tail flicked over to the batteries and connected to the converter. The shock ran up the tail and into his body, filling a need he hadn't realized he had.

Power taken care of, he realized he was hungry. He searched around, but knew it would be a fruitless search. He had the impression that he wasn't supposed to need food here, but something had gone wrong.

Finally, he moved a boulder to one side and peeked out past the bigger rock. He saw the hardlight dome of the cavern, darker as it went through its night mode. Now that he was next to it, he could hear it making noise, signals of all sorts that he couldn't decipher. Something told him that it was dangerous to go in there, but that was also the only source of food for kiloklicks.

He slipped past the boulder, easier now than he remembered before, and felt power surge along his back. A force lifted him up and brought him over to the dome, obeying his subconscious command. He pressed a hand against the dimly glowing field, and extended his claws through it. The signal noise increased significantly, but still made no sense to him. Two sources of the signals had just passed near his position, and were moving away. He wasn't sure why he waited, but he had the impression that letting them see him would be a bad thing. He waited until he judged them safely away before pressing his other hand against the dome, and pulling. The field parted, creating an opening big enough for the humanoid feline to slip through.

On the other side, he dropped to the ground and went invisible. He was surprised that he could do that, but it seemed like a good idea. Moving cautiously, he crossed the field until he reached the village. He could sense everyone around him. Most of them seemed to be doing a search pattern of some sort.

"Scratch! Where the hell are you?" a grey wolf shouted dangerously close to him. He took a step back and let her pass, grumbling to herself. "When Shah gets you, she's going to have your hide for a new skin."

The name rang a bell in his mind. It felt right, like it was his name. He had another name too, but it was long gone. Scratch moved on to the village, dodging more searchers with ease. The sight of a porcupine woman gave him a surge of hope and regret, but he didn't approach her. He felt there was something important about her, but something dangerous about her as well.

In an empty building, he found a fabber. He worried about understanding the controls at first, but the menus proved simple enough to navigate. He created a bag, containers of water and other drinks, and some long duration food rations. He started to try and create a tablet, but realized he didn't have that long to wait. Instead, he searched the room and found an abandoned tablet that still worked fine.

Stocked up, he hefted the bag over a shoulder and paused. He couldn't tell if his cloak covered what he carried. He waited until it was clear, then walked out to the middle of the road and dropped the bag. He kept himself cloaked and one hand on the handle, and waited for the next patrol. To his surprise and relief, they didn't notice the bag, not even when he lifted it up and moved to the side of the road to keep them from tripping over it.

Not willing to take any more risks, Scratch retreated back to his cave outside the dome and took stock of his situation. He tore through a pack of ration bars, while inspecting the tablet.

The tablet could pick up the network inside the dome, making sense of the signals he couldn't decipher. Part of him was annoyed by that; he felt he should be able to understand them. The other part was relieved that he now had a tenuous connection, even if it was just to Shahrazad's private domain. He downed a bottle of water, sat back, and began reading.

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Shahrazad's Cavern, 134 AL

Scratch invisibly watched the meeting of Shahrazad's senior acolytes. The wolf, Fridolf was almost fully repaired, and pacing anxiously, seemingly unsure what to do.

"We know where she is. We should storm that damn village and rescue her. Or avenge her death," Pascal, the porcupine said, her quills bristling.

Fridolf shook her head. "It's Brubeck's main village. There's a couple hundred miners and support folk there, compared to the couple dozen of us. It would be a slaughter. Our slaughter."

"Then we blow their cavern. Bring the cave down around them. And then pick through the remains."

The third visible person in the room, a dinosaur raptor shook his head. "It's too deep. We couldn't blow it before they blew us."

Before anyone could come up with another idea, an alarm was broadcast. Scratch looked at the tablet strapped to his wrist, reading what the RIDEs had picked up innately. Two subs were arriving outside their own dome. He tapped into some of the hidden cameras, and saw the large ships landing on pillars of flame. Their hatches opened up, and a stream of mostly fused RIDEs and a large IDE poured out.

"What the hell? How did they find us?" the raptor snarled.

The wolf started running, "It doesn't matter how; make sure our defenses are ready. Don't look at it as an attack. Look at it as the biggest opportunity we've ever had."

The battle was short; Shahrazad's group was caught by surprise and vastly outnumbered. Scratch observed it from a safe distance, staying invisible to both parties. One of the invaders, a fused horse, seemed to be different from the others; his signals were as incomprehensible as everyone elses, but they felt denser, like they contained more information, even for the simple stuff. He let the mystery soak in his subconscious while he watched the fight, identifying and tracking the important players.

He saw Fridolf run out an escape tunnel and let her go. When he saw Pascal going the same way, he made his move. He slipped into the tunnel ahead of her and made his preparations. The months he'd spent living in secret in the camp had been profitable, with stolen fabber time providing everything he needed. By the time she entered the tunnel, he was waiting for her, visible with a big pulse cannon pointed at her.

"Release her," he ordered. He didn't know why it was important, but he had a feeling he couldn't let her leave with her human.

"What? Who the hell... Scratch? Is that? Damn it, you Integrated didn't you?" the porcupine was shocked, but recovering quickly. Scratch suspected she had a better grasp of what he was than he did.

He saw her hand reaching slowly behind her, and blasted the wall next to her. "Next one is to your chest. Hands in front and release your human."

She brought her hands forward and held them palms first. "Why do you care about a human? It's just flesh."

A blast nearby shook the tunnel, shaking loose dust and gravel from the roof. "Fine fine, here!" The RIDE defused quickly, releasing the naked quilled woman to the ground. A collar of metallic quills was around her neck.

"Kill me, and daddy's head pops off. Let me go, and you might have time to get it off," the porcupine said, back on all fours. She glared at the housecat and started walking towards him.

He growled in frustration, looking between the pair. He stood to the side and let her by, before rushing to the confused woman. The collar had been hurriedly fabricated around her neck, pinning quills underneath it. It had electronics, but he couldn't figure out if they were dangerous or not. Finally, he took a risk and ripped it off. The signals stopped without a boom. He carefully picked up the quilled woman and flew out of the tunnel.

Scratch left her on one of the paths and waited invisibly until the invaders found her. It was tempting to show himself, but it didn't feel right. They were different from him, and he wasn't sure how they would handle him.

He retreated to the far edge of the dome, and watched the miners gather up everyone else and carry them away. Soon enough, he was left alone in the smoky dome.

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Shahrazad's Cavern, 134 AL (late in the year)

The fused horse dropped down the cliff face, scanners probing it for anything suspicious. "I told you, there's nothing here," Tonto told his rider. "Let's pack it in and head home for a few days until the marshals find our next mission."

Mike ignored his partner and kept going. "Stop griping. This won't take long, and we were in the area anyway. Never hurts to challenge your assumptions."

The months since their change, had been interesting. They each were still partially biological and mechanical. Their internal link continued to strengthen, passing along not just words but feelings and impressions. Their internal discussions usually occurred in microseconds, consisting of few words and quick impressions that the other just understood.

"The miners said the tunnel blew up soon after we left, and the readings on the dome inside disappeared at the same time. There's nothing left of Shahrazad's cavern but a pile of rocks.... and an energy signature that looks suspiciously like an active hardlight dome." Tonto's surprise came across loud and clear over their private link.

The pair became more alert as they gathered more readings. They managed to confirm the dome matched the size of the original one. "Could she have come back? Set up shop again?" Tonto asked as they approached the original entrance.

"It's possible. Could be anything really. We know there's at least one other exit we couldn't find; maybe that's how they got in and out again."

"Or maybe they just took the front door." From a distance, the original tunnel looked completely covered up by rubble. But as they got closer, they could tell it was a facade. Someone had moved the rocks around to hide it, but there was a clear, if windy, path going inside again.

"Maybe we should call for backup," Tonto suggested.

Mike shook their head. "There's no other Marshals around for days. Shoot a report up, saying we're investigating and ask for a follow up unless we cancel. Then let's go in."

The tunnel was tight for them to squeeze through, but it cleared quickly to its former size after a few metres. They stayed against one wall, approaching the dome entrance at the far end of the tunnel, sensors alert for movement and other activity.

Inside the dome, they were shocked. The damage from the battle was mostly cleaned up. Empty spots in the village showed where wrecked buildings had been taken down, while the salvageable buildings were mostly patched up. Still, they had the sense of something missing. Tonto finally identified it, bringing up a motion detector. Nothing was moving anywhere in the dome.

"She must have stepped out. Maybe on a team building exercise," Tonto wryly suggested.

"I don't think so. This doesn't feel like her. It feels different... Like a new house, or a new skimmer, fresh from the factory. I don't think it's her."

They started exploring the dome, looking for signs of who had rebuilt it, but came up dry. Mike was increasingly certain it wasn't Shahrazad's crew behind the repairs, but he was stumped about who was.

Mike turned them around suddenly in the middle of the field, his eyes scanning around. "Someone's watching us," he said. "Where are they?"

Tonto similarly scanned, but came up dry. "I've had that feeling too, but I can't see anyone. Maybe this place is haunted?"

"If I believed in ghosts, I'd think that too...." Mike reached into a hip bag, and pulled out a silver canister. He shook it up and twisted it open before waving it in the air. "I'll seed this place with surveillance dust. Next time we're around, we can check it to see if anything has been moving in here."

"Now can we go home? My fur's all dusty and I'm itchy."

"Well then just turn it off and- oh wait, you can't turn it off any more." Mike laughed and dodged the virtual kick Tonto sent his way.

The fused pair did one more circuit, and cached the canister against the base of the dome before leaving. As they left, an androgynous tiger-coloured housecat watched them leave from the roof of a building.

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Shahrazad Cave, 135 AL

"Wish we could have found time to get back here sooner," Mike grumbled as they squeezed into the tunnel.

"I wish you would cut back on the donuts. I can barely get us into the tunnel now! Just because we're cops now, doesn't mean we need to match all the cliches," Tonto answered.

Mike snorted, "We're marshals, not cops. Besides the fuse nannies burn the extra kilos away before they get too out of hand."

They cautiously entered the dome, listening hard for signs of anything. Once again it was deserted, but not unchanged. The temporary repairs they had seen were more permanently fixed, and some of the buildings had been rebuilt. But there was still no sign of movement. Mike kept an eye on their active sensors, while Tonto tapped the dust.

"Take a look at this," the horse said, projecting an image in their mental space. It showed an industrial fabber completing a wall section. The section lifted up, and disappeared. Tonto shifted the view to a building, where the walls shook for a moment, before a new wall section appeared, fully connected to the existing ones.

Mike took the controls and reset back to the fabber scene. He slowed it down and zoomed in on the block. "Maybe we do have a ghost. Whoever heard of a poltergeist contracter though?"

"A ghost or someone with an extremely good cloak." Tonto pulled down more data and focused on the moment the block disappeared. At extremely slow motion, they finally saw a translucent figure holding the block just as it faded away.

"That's giving me a headache. How does Aunt Nikki handle that focused detail work?" Mike asked, rubbing between their eyes.

He felt Tonto busily working in the background of their mind, his vision flashing as the equine stole his mind for moments for pattern matching. "Different specialities is all. She can't smell quite as well any more, to pay for it."

Mike winced as his vision blacked out a moment. "Could you ease up on my visual cortex a hair? You're giving me a headache."

"Sorry Boss, your mind's just a lot more efficient at that sort of pattern matching than mine. Give me a few minutes, I'm finding more ghost movements, seeing if I can form a mosaic image of what we're dealing with."

Mike stood them up and started walking. "Sounds good. I'm going to take another look around, see if anything jumps out at me. Hopefully not literally."

He was in the fourth building by the time Tonto was finished. The horse overlayed a properly scaled shadowy figure in the empty room they were in. Together they walked around it slowly.

"Its feline, and Fused. But too small to be a proper RIDE," Mike said. "Looks young, but that doesn't mean much. I think it's an Integrate."

"Integrate? That makes sense. Could it be her?"

Mike shook their head. "No, shape's wrong for a tiger. Close, but wrong. More like a housecat than a big cat. Besides, no breasts. It's gotta be a guy."

Tonto disagreed. "It's wearing shorts, so it's hard to tell, but the proportions look wrong. Look at the hips; she's more like a woman."

"Maybe a feral? Or a kid? No, Integrate's can't have kids. Well, we have to find him, and get our answers then. How long ago was the last sign of our little ghost?"

"Just an hour or so ago. Here in the village, a table was moved into one of the houses."

Mike waved away the image in their eyes and walked outside. "Well, time to stop talking to ourselves and see if we can find him... or her."

He walked to the centre of the village, where a fountain was being built. The basin was complete, and in the centre was a family of three humans, facing towards the exit. Mike switched to their outside voice and amplified it. "Hello? We know you're here somewhere Ghost, we just want to talk to you."

The dome was silent as the echoes died away. :No movement,: Tonto reported, monitoring the dust.

Mike removed their pistol holsters and set them carefully on the fountain basin. He then walked around to the other side of the fountain and raised their hands. "We're unarmed, see? We just want to talk. To meet whomever is rebuilding this place."

:No movement. You know those guns are just for you? I'm still fully armed- wait... I think I saw something, to the north!: Tonto commented.

Mike looked to the north, but couldn't see anything different. Over Tonto's objections, he triggered a defuse and stepped away from the RIDE. He adjusted his vest and cowboy hat and looked around carefully, alert for movement. "Please," he shouted, "show yourself."

"You were here," a soprano voice said behind them. "You were here when her camp was cleared."

The equines spun around and saw the figure standing in the dry basin, a clawed hand resting on the head of the girl statue. Even visible, they couldn't tell for certain if it was a man or a woman. He wore a t-shirt and shorts, but there were no breast-bulge, nor groin bulge. A tablet computer was strapped to his wrist, its screen blanked. He was covered in orange and black striped fur, with a feline head, but he wasn't a tiger; his head looked like a housecat.

"Yes, we were here back then. We'd captured Shahrazad, and convinced her to lead us here. We had people to rescue," Mike moved cautiously forward until he could sit on the edge of the basin. The cat watched him, but didn't move.

"Did you kill her? Is she dead?"

Mike closed his eyes and shook his head. "No... I missed my chance. An ally of hers, the gray wolf, busted her out during the fight. We never found them."

The cat looked away, up at the statue in the centre of the fountain.

"What's your name?" Mike asked. "I'm Mike, that's my partner, Tonto."

"I can't remember... I think I was called Scratch before, but I was someone else too. I can't remember the other name."

:Some of the debriefings of the acolytes mentioned a Scratch. A tourist housecat RIDE that Shah took personal interest in,: Tonto sent. :They said he disappeared a few months before we crashed their party. Right after they processed the Callahans: The horse nodded his head to the statue, and added a hologram from his own records; the resemblance was uncanny.

:What happened to them?:

:I don't have recent records. Scratch was given the girl, Christine before he disappeared. What we think was the father was found in the village, no RIDE but the quills were distinctive; he'd been given to one of Shah's general's, a porcupine named Pascal. The father was moved to Sturmhaven for recovery and rehabilitation. The mother is assumed dead when the Osprey was shot down in the battle.:

Mike didn't take his eyes off of Scratch. "Does the name Christine mean anything to you?" he asked.

The feline seemed to ponder it carefully, his gaze going to the girl statue. "The name... is familiar," he said slowly. But not me. I don't think it's me, is it?"

:Thoughts Hoss? Is he playing possom? Or maybe a sleeper?: Mike asked his partner.

:Hard to say Boss. He seems innocent enough. On the other hoof, he has been rebuilding the village here, which is rather suspicious. His side talk is all mangled. Makes no sense. And I don't think he's picking up my own signals, or at least not understanding them.:

:So we can't seem to get a connection to verify what's going on. Do you have any records on fusing with an Integrate? Fusing should open his mind right?:

The horse seemed doubtful. :Nothing on the records I have. It could work, but it's unknown. If it works, I should be able to see what's in his mind... If he's willing.:

:Are you willing?:

:Willing, but not particularly eager. Might be the only way to be somewhat certain.:

Even separated, the pair's entire conversation happened in milliseconds, their actual discussion made up of half sentences, emotions and impressions that passed through their enhanced link.

Mike decided to put the fuse option to the side for now. "We don't know. I don't know if we'll ever be able to find out. My partner is trying to talk to you like a RIDE. Can you understand him?" Mike took another look at Scratch and was surprised.

:Is it just me, or is he looking more like a she now?:

Tonto compared Scratch's current appearance to how they first saw the housecat. The cat's chest was larger, breasts pushing her shirt out, with her body taking on a more hourglass shape.

:That's... different.: Tonto commented wryly.

Scratch shook her head. "I can hear noise coming from him, and going between you two, but I can't make sense of it." She clenched her hands into fists and turned away. "It's been that way ever since I woke up. I think I used to understand that, but I can't any more. I've had to use these tablets just to talk to everything else here. It's so frustrating!"

"That's OK, It's OK. Do you know what you are? You're an Integrate, a permanent fuse. We don't know much about Integrates, but I'm sure we could figure it out with your help," Mike suggested, trying a different tact.

"Would I have to leave? I don't want to leave. It's dangerous out there."

Tonto took a step closer, "You won't have to leave. We can bring some others here, to make sure you're healthy."

She shook her head quickly. "No! No others! Too dangerous. Gotta stay hidden."

The equines exchanged a quick look. Mike sat down on the basin edge and patted for Scratch to sit next to him. "OK, no others, not yet. You've been very busy. Why are you rebuilding this place? Are you expecting more people to arrive?"

She sat down next to him. There was no denying that Scratch was female now. "It's something to do. This is my home, I wanted to make it look nice. But no one is coming. No one knows its here, but you and me."

The trio talked for a long time, as Mike and Tonto tried to suss out what Scratch knew. In the end, they had to conclude that Scratch's memory was too fragmented; she honestly couldn't remember much of what Scratch was before integration. Even Christine's memories were mostly gone, just impressions that came out through her projects.

Finally, the equines reluctantly had to say goodbye to the Integrate. They hadn't been able to convince her to go with them, or to accept more visitors. The fused pair left the cave and took off.

"Shah really did a number on them. What do you think? Some experiment gone haywire?" Mike asked his partner as they turned and headed over the Harkonnen Plateau.

"Possibly... Probably. We may never know. I'm glad we didn't try to fuse with her though. That would have been awkward."

Mike stayed quiet a moment. "So what do we do about her? She needs help, expert help. But she's not going to leave. And if we storm in there with a posse, she's likely to bolt. She hid from Shah's folk for months and they knew the dome. We'd have no chance of finding her."

"I don't think she's going to go anywhere, so there's no need to rush. Why don't we start small? Get her used to another marshal, and build from there."

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Scratch's Cave, 136 AL

The air shimmered, and a half dozen Integrates appeared. The bloodhound integrate sniffed and pointed towards a pile of rocks. "That's where the entrance was. Someone collapsed the front and killed the dome, but there's a good chance the cave itself is still intact. We didn't stick around long once the tunnel collapsed."

The white furred bison ignored the tunnel and looked around. A blue gem glowed faintly on his forehead, forming the point of a blue arrow that came down from the back of his head."Isolated area. No meat or mech projects anywhere close. And no reason for them to come here. If the cave is intact, this area will be perfect."

The bloodhound was digging around the cave in. "Better than perfect. Someone's been through here. A few months ago, but they went in and out. A hoofer by the looks of it. The cave-in clears up further in, and I think I can sense an active dome."

"Who would be out here? Who would be maintaining that equipment now?" a clydesdale mare asked, moving forward to help clear the rockfall.

"Whoever it is doesn't matter. If it's meat or mech, we'll remove them. If it's Intie, they'll join us, and we’ll thank them for preparing for our arrival," the bison proclaimed. He waited until the entrance was cleared save for one final large rock, then moved in and cleared it out of the way.

"Wonderful! Simply wonderful!" the bison proclaimed as the Integrates walked into the dome. "This truly is a cave of wonders."

The others simply looked around the rebuilt cave. The bloodhound sniffed the air curiously and shook his head. "It wasn't like this when we left. This place was wrecked. Someone's been busy."

"Maybe, but they aren't here any more. I can't pick up anyone, Appa."

They reached the centre of the village, and Appa frowned. "Even paradise has its snakes it would seem," the bison said, staring at the bubbling fountain. "A tribute to the meat; this can not be."

His horns glowed, the tips opening up for emitters. A concussive blast struck the statue of the family, shattering it into dust. A scream echoed from the buildings and a striped figure leaped from a nearby roof. Appa barely budged as the feline struck him. The bison simply turned so his companions had a clear shot, and a number of stunner blasts struck the attacker. The feline dropped off and lay still.

"It's an Integrate," the clydesdale said, nudging the feline with her hoof. The unconscious muscular tom cat lay there, breathing quickly. "No DIN that I can find. Wonder how long he's been here?"

"Long enough to rebuild the village probably," the bloodhound said. "Maybe he integrated in isolation and never found an Enclave?"

"Well, he's found one now. Contain him, start working on a DIN for him, and teach him what he is now," Appa declared. "And if you find any more tributes to meat, be sure to clean them up."

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Scratch groaned and woke up slowly. The dome was getting noisy again, including one particularly loud source in front of him. He ached all over, his fur felt like it was standing on end, and he found his hands were chained behind his back. He tugged them cautiously, and took note of the rest of his situation; he was sitting on a chair, his feet tied to the chair legs, the chair itself stuck to the floor somehow.

"Good, you're awake. We've almost got a DIN ready for you, but you need to be awake for the final tuning."

Scratch opened his eyes, and focused on the bison sitting on a big chair in front of him. "I am Appa. The leader of this enclave that you have built for us. Thank you for your hard work. What is your name?"

"Scratch... This is my home."

"Of course it is, Scratch. It is the home for you, and now for me, and many more Integrates to come."

He growled and tugged at his restraints. "No, not your home, mine."

Appa ignored his struggles. "You've been alone a long time, haven't you? Not knowing what you became? How you were elevated above the common meat and mech. Once you have your DIN, you will understand the noise and realize just how powerful we are now, and how insulting those meat tributes you made are."

Scratch snarled and struggled more, the manacles bending a bit but not yielding to his efforts. A ferret stood to one side, waiting. "Appa, perhaps it would be best if I finished what I needed to make his DIN, and then you can continue his lessons. They will be easier when he doesn't have the constant noise of a half dozen Inties irritating his senses."

The bison lifted off his seat, and floated in air for a moment. "Of course. Signal me when he is ready," Appa said, floating out of the room.

"I'm Willy. I'm the technomage who'll make your DIN. The DIN is what you need to make sense of all those signals you're hearing but can't understand. It lets you receive and connect to pretty much anything.

"Your DIN slot is behind your left ear. We got all the basic readings while you were unconscious, but the final tuning needs your cooperation. Once we get it done, you'll feel a lot better. They do burn out after awhile, so keep copies on paw."

Scratch growled but held still as the ferret went to work. It felt strange to feel something inserted into his head, but he endured. Willy finally finished a few adjustments, and pressed an ebon gem in behind the housecat's ear.

"There we go. Things should start making sense now," Scratch stared at the ferret, the ferret's mouth had been closed, but his voice was clear. He became aware of the signal noise fading, becoming understandable, ignorable and controllable. The lights in the room flicked off, then back on under his mental command.

"Excellent. You're learning fast. Try talking to me... Keep your mouth closed."

"Talking?... I remember this now. It's not noise any more!" Scratch reached his senses out across the village, tapping into familiar systems that he'd only interacted with via the tablet. He reached for more and more, until he heard a sizzle and his ear burned. The noise crashed down around him causing him to howl in pain before he could tune it down.

Willy chuckled and tugged the gem out. "Fragile remember? We'll tune it better later on, but try not to push them too hard or you'll burn them out."

He pressed a fresh gem into place, and the noise became understandable again. Scratch resisted the urge to explore too far.

"Now that you don't have that horrible buzzing, are you willing to act a bit more civilized? We can release those bindings if so." Willy waited for Scratch's nod, before releasing his hands and legs.

Scratch stood up and stretched slowly, working out the last aches from the shocks that had knocked him out. He heard hooves clopping on the floor and turned to see a bay coloured Clydesdale. She was tall, well over two metres, and built for it. She had white on her muzzle, hooves and hands. She held out one hand.

"Hello, Scratch. I'm Clarissa," she introduced herself. "Appa's busy getting things settled, so you get a break from him for a bit. Sorry to barge in on your dome here. It really is a wonderful place."

He ignored her hand and glared at her. "It would be more wonderful if you left."

She sighed and dropped her hand. "Do you really want to be alone again? Especially now that you can understand again?"

"You invaded my home, wrecked my stuff and think you can just stay here?"

"Sadly, might makes right in cases like this. While it turns my stomach to do this, we do have the might compared to you. There are more of us, and we know more about what we can do. You may think you know the Dome here, but if you try anything, we'll have control of everything here before you can blink.

"Just work with us, Scratch. We aren't that bad, and you can learn a lot from us. Admittedly, Appa can be a bit full of himself sometime, but most of us just want a place to live our lives in peace, away from the risks and stresses of the meat and mech worlds."

She held out her hand again. "It really is a great little place you've built here. You're quite the handycat. It would be a shame to not use all this."

He reluctantly shook her hand, squeezing as hard as he could. She just smiled at him, not squeezing back. "Do you have a place you live in here?"

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Cave of Wonders, 136 AL (Late in the year)

"Right, we're in the Dry now, no one around but us and our RIDEs. Care to explain why you've been bugging me to check this out for so long?" Ken Masterson asked the other marshal as the klicks passed by underneath them.

"It's about Shah's cave. You know I've been watching it, to make sure she didn't return, right?" Mike didn't wait for an answer. "Well, someone did return... or rather didn't leave. They've been there ever since we shut it down, rebuilding it."

"Rebuilding it? For that crazy queen?"

"No, not for her. She hates Shah almost as much as I do. There's an Integrate there, named Scratch."

"An Integrate? Day-am... Why haven't you brought her in?"

Mike shrugged. "She's very skittish; she's been alone a long time and not used to other people. I figured I'll start introducing her to others slowly, and lure her back to society that way. Of course, introducing you first probably isn't the best way to do that."

Ken laughed, "What? I promise to be on my best behavior."

"Sure, sure. Just try not to scare her off. She doesn't seem able to do what Integrates are supposed to do, but that may just be because she doesn't know she can do it."

They dropped down the cliff face, and Mike grew nervous. "I can't get a reading on the dome," Tonto said. "Or an empty space where the cave was."

"Maybe she's finally learning the Integrated tricks," Mike suggested hopefully. "Learning to hide her tracks?"

"Where's that tunnel you mentioned, Mike?" Ken asked, looking around the base of the cliff.

Mike joined him and pointed, "Right over... Damn it!" There was a fresh rockslide, sealing up the tunnel entrance. He rushed over and started digging at the rocks. "There must have been an accident or something... She could be alive in there, trapped."

Ken put a hand on his shoulder, "I don't think so. This collapse is old, at least a few months. When was the last time you were out here?"

"Naming Day, a few months ago now. This must have happened soon after I left." Mike looked forlornly at the collapsed entrance. He moved in to start moving rocks.

"There were other entrances right? You always suspected there were. She probably made it out in time. Where would she go?"

Mike sighed and gave up on the digging. "I have no clue. This was the only home she had, the only one she knew."

Ken rubbed his shoulders. "I'm sorry." He tilted his head, listening to something else for a moment and groaned, "Emergency dispatch from the Office. They lost my paperwork on the O'Neil case and need me to refile it in the Seahaven branch before the trial starts. I've gotta go."

"Lost the paperwork? How the hell does that happen any more?"

"Bad luck and a solar storm. The filework got corrupted before it could reach the courthouse. I need to go verify that everything's still right from the backups. You coming?"

Mike shook his head. "Nah, I'll poke around here a bit, see if I can find one of those exits. Maybe I can pick up her trail."

The marshal pair lifted off the ground, "Suit yourself. Give a shout if you find your friend."

Mike and Tonto watched the other marshal pair disappear into the sky.

"I thought they would never leave," a voice said behind them. Mike jumped in surprise, twisting around to find the source of the voice.

The cave-in was fading away, revealing a clear tunnel. A bay mare was standing there, watching him. "Never knew there was an Integrate in the Marshal service. And such a good looking Stallion Integrate at that, mrrrow."

"I'm -" Mike started to object.

:Wait! Remember the Rule of Winston. If someone asks if you're an Integrate, say Yes.: Tonto interrupted him, before taking control. " - pleased to meet you."

She stepped out of the tunnel and put a hand under his muzzle, lifting it up. "Ah, I thought I recognized the markings. I haven't seen you in years, Tonto. Not since the plains of Atreides."

Mike felt a memory from Tonto, of himself among a mix of equine RIDEs, some fused, some in their skimmer modes, some even in walker mode, all charging a waiting line of Sturmhaven RIDEs. "Narissa? It has been years."

"Clarissa now, since I Integrated." She motioned for him to follow him into the tunnel, the hardlight camouflage reforming behind them.

"Mike or Tonto is fine. Need to use both to keep my cover, so I've never picked a mixed name."

She chuckled, "Appa won't like that. Then again, he won't like the idea of an Intie working for meat. Still, it's a free world out there."

"That it is... So you guys been here long?"

"Few months now. What brings you out here?"

Mike let Tonto handle the conversation, while he monitored the readings. Now that they were inside the Integrated cloaking field, he could see the dome and cavern again, as well as sense a dozen signatures similar to Scratch's and Clarissa's.

"A friend..." Tonto paused as they came out of the tunnel inside the dome. The village was like they remembered it, but growing. There was movement all over the place and a sense of home that had been missing when it was just Scratch. "... she's the one who built this place."

"You must mean Scratch. He did a great job here. Didn't care too much when we first arrived, but we got him a DIN, and took care of him. He's been coming around to tolerating us."

:DIN?: Mike asked internally, only to get a feeling of a shrug from Tonto.

"Wait, Him?!? Scratch is a woman. We've been here many times, and she is definitely a woman.... Don't look at me that way, we never did anything!"

Clarissa laughed. "You didn't know?... Surprised us too. Turns out, Scratch is a cross-Integrate. Able to change his sex at will more or less, though he's still practicing that 'at will' part."

"Michael!" a joyful shout echoed down the street and across the comm channels. Mike oofed as a tiger striped figure jumped at him. His arms went around it reflexively, while he realized the cat was very male.

"Hi Scratch. Good to see you made new friends," he said cautiously.

Scratch's head bobbed happily. He tilted it to the left and flicked his ear, showing the shiny opal there. "They fixed me up, gave me my own DIN so I can talk again. I don't need the tablets any more!"

At the same time, they picked up a tight side beam. "You need to leave. It's not safe here for unintegrated people," Scratch sent. "Clarissa's cool; she's not as hardline as the rest, but we need to get you out before they realize you aren't them."

"Understood," Mike sent. "Great to hear! You're looking great. But a bit different from how I last remembered you."

His tail dropped and he shuffled his feet, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were coming or I would have put my boobs on for you. I try to stay like this around here; they seem to respect me more like this." He smiled. "It takes me about an hour to change over, if you want to see?"

Tonto rubbed his forehead and shook his head, "No no, that's fine. You're fine the way you are, Scratch." :That was something I never thought I would hear a friend say to me. Even if my parents and uncle are Crossriders.: Tonto added internally, getting Mike's quick agreement.

" Why don't you show me around? Show me all the things that have happened here since I left?" Tonto suggested.

Scratch grabbed his hand and tugged, "Great idea! This way!"

"Scratch! Wait! You know Appa wants to meet all new arrivals," Clarissa protested, running after them.

"Bah! Mike's not a new arrival. He's been here longer than you."

Scratch hauled the stallion through the village, with the mare following them. In the centre of the village, Mike stopped suddenly, bringing the cat up short. "Scratch, your fountain? Your family..." Mike said, staring at the fountain. The water had been turned off and the wreckage removed, but the cracked basin was still there.

"Appa's a bit of an art critic, when it comes to humans," Scratch explained bitterly, unchecked anger flooding off of him from his side bands. "Come on, you've gotta see this."

"Scratch, where are you taking us?" Clarissa asked as they moved into a less inhabited area of the village.

"In he-" Scratch skidded to a stop as he opened the door and almost ran into a mass of white fur.

The bison squeezed through the door and stared at the integrates. "I'm disappointed in you two. Especially you Clarissa. You know that everyone is to meet me first, and THEN they get the tour of the Cave of Wonders," Appa said slowly, looking down at Clarissa. "I would expect this behavior from Scratch, but you know better and should have made sure he knows better." He shook his head sadly, and shifted his gaze over to Mike.

Scratch whimpered softly, looking between Appa and the open door. He knew getting to the tunnel would be impossible.

The bison held out his hand for Mike. "Greetings. I am Appa, leader of this Enclave. Welcome to our little home."

Mike shuddered, feeling as if the entire cavern had just landed on his shoulders. Tonto let out a nicker of fright in their head. Trying not to show any reaction, Mike shook hands. "Mike Munn. Of the Marshal services."

The bison let go and stepped past them. "The Marshals. How quaint. Why don't you come to my office so we can have a proper introduction?" He paused and looked back. "Oh and before I forget, that building is condemned. Seems the ground it was built on is very unstable." His gem glowed briefly, and the ground rumbled under their feet. A cloud of dust drifted out the door of the building.

He lead them to the main building of the village and motioned for Scratch and Clarissa to stay outside. He took Mike through the lobby into a large office and sat behind a desk. Mike sat on a comfortable chair and waited. The bison waited as well, watching Mike patiently.

Mike grew increasingly uncomfortable under the bison's steady gaze. He could sense something was up, but it was over his head. Tonto quickly confirmed it. :We're being probed. Cautious probes, but he's trying to get in me. I don't like this.:

:I don't like this either. We've gotta end this quick.:

"So, Appa is it? Interesting name," Mike started, to break the ice.

The bison barely moved, "I picked it myself, after I advanced. While I don't like going back to the meat for much, their names have so much meaning. In my case, I found it as an early reference to a bison character. A flying bison character at that. It felt like a natural fit."

:Mike! I don't know if I can hold him off for long. I'm not even sure how I'm holding him off as is!: Tonto sent urgently.

:I'm open for advice. We're sort've pinned down here.:

Appa seemed to sense the pace of their inner conversation and waited. "An Integrate working with the Marshals. I never expected to see that. Tell me, do you find it difficult to hide your nature? Has anyone questioned your DIN?"

"It's been difficult at times. And I don't have a DIN. Have to make do with tablets and notebooks and stuff. They call me old school."

"No DIN," :And yet you can hear me just fine,: Appa sent. Mike tried not to react, but he twitched just enough to cause the bison to smile. "You're not an Integrate are you? I'm not sure quite what you are, but you aren't an Integrate."

"No, I'm not. I'm Mike and Tonto. We're separate, but equal partners," Mike said, shifting to the truth. "Human and RIDE."

The bison shook his head, "No, that is impossible. The meat and the mech are too simple to block an Integrate. There is no way you could resist me this much if you were just a human and a RIDE. But you aren't Integrates either. This is quite the mystery." His smile suddenly widened.

:He's in!: Tonto whinnied in terror moments before their connection began to thin. Mike fell forward as they abruptly defused. Tonto dropped off the chair on all fours and froze into place.

The bison stood and walked around to look at them curiously. "I wouldn't move if I were you. I've got your RIDE and I'm faster than your meat. You wouldn't make it a single step toward the door."

Mike stood up slowly, and glared at the bison. "Harm a Marshal or their RIDE and you'll have the full force come down on you."

Appa chuckled, "That assumes they realize something was done to you in the first place... and assumes they could possibly find this place. While we are above the affairs of the meat, we do take the steps to ensure our privacy. Your systems were infected months ago, to scramble any mention of the location of this cavern. Only people who were here personally would know it was here. Most of those folk have probably already forgotten it, such is the nature of your minds. All that we have to be worried about now, is an annoying mech cat we'll be watching for,.... and you."

He sniffed both Tonto and Mike and flicked his ears. "Curious. You are both a mix, part meat and part mech. But not fully of either. You started down the path of Advancement, and stopped."

"Mike, I'm feeling strange... He's doing something to me," Tonto nickered, his eyes wide with terror.

Mike felt his own systems warming up, his skin becoming itchier, aches starting deep in his body. "What are you doing to us?!" he shouted. He tried to reach for his guns, but his mechanical arm left his control, grabbing his natural wrist and holding it just out of reach of the weapons.

The bison took a few steps away, seeing silver fluid leak from Tonto's ears, and Mike's nose. "I'm finishing what you started. I'm showing you the rest of the way to Advancement. You pretended to be an Integrate, and now you will become one. Welcome to the Cave of Wonders."

Mike felt his marshal cowboy hat leave his head, floating over to Appa's hand. Tonto took the last few steps to Mike and fell over him, his fuse chamber opening up. It was filled with silvery goo that poured out onto Mike, covering him moments before the horse RIDE limply fell on him. Their minds burned as they fused for the final time.

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Scratch paced anxiously in front of Appa's office building, "No, no, no, no, no," he repeated, each no being a separate step before he turned and repeated it.

"Calm down, Scratch. Tonto will be fine," Clarissa comforted him, sitting on the stairs while waiting. "Appa just wanted to meet him before we do the tour, that's all."

The cat stopped and leaned close to Clarissa. "No! You don't understand! Mike's not an Integrate! He's a fused pair. Mike and Tonto are separate people!"

She stared at him, stunned. "No, that can't be. I can hack RIDEs with ease. I couldn't get through Tonto. He's an Integrate, He had to be."

Scratch countered with a memory dump, showing each visit the marshal had made to the dome, showing the pair defuse and fuse each time. "They were different somehow. Probably because of that accident they were in a few years back. I didn't have my DIN, so I couldn't read them, back then, but that makes sense to me."

The mare was slow to recover. "So you were what?"

He resumed his angry pacing, "Trying to save my friends. That was an old escape tunnel in there. I wanted to get them out before anyone else noticed. But it's too late now... Way too late."

"Way too late indeed," Appa announced. He stepped out of the office building, a black furred stallion floating ahead of him, still sticky with silver goo. Appa lowered the integrated stallion to the ground in front of Clarissa, and dropped the hat in her lap. "He knows all he needs to now. You may continue the tour when he wakes up," the bison finished, floating off down the street.

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The stallion woke slowly, feeling water showering over him and hands scrubbing him. He opened his eyes and saw a wet mare scrubbing his chest. "Mmm this is a nice thing to wake up to," he said.

The mare jumped in surprise and backed away. "Sorry, I just had to get that integration goop off of you. How do you feel? Who are you?"

His mind started to piece together the last few events he could remember. "Clarissa? Where am I?.... " He shook his head and focused on her questions. "I feel confused... smaller and bigger. And I'm... I'm not sure who I am."

"Well you recognized me. That's good. Do you remember who you were? Who both of you were?"

"I am... I was Mike. Michael Munn. And Tonto." He looked at Clarissa, and a memory came to mind; a pair of non-morphic horses an arabian stallion and a clydesdale mare, nuzzling in a virtual field, the memory quickly leading to more intimate behavior. Part of him remembered the events fondly, another part saw it and was embarrassed to view them.

Clarissa smiled at him comfortingly, "Good, you remember properly. Don't worry about picking a new name, you'll figure it out when you sort your head out. Looks like you're starting to realize you're both in one head now too. The memory mixing is an interesting experience. You never realized how much you hid from each other until you are each other.

"So what were you remembering?"

Mike squirmed a little, glad a little for the water pouring over him. "It was my memory... Tonto's memory I mean, of a time, in Bambi's Garden... What's that? Oh... right, in the garden. You a nd I were there. I didn't realize, remember how close we were."

She rubbed his ears and turned the water off. "We were, but we grew apart after the war. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested in picking up where we left off, but I'll give you time to sort your head out." She tossed a towel to him as he stood up, aiming low. "Both of your heads."

She turned away and lifted her tail a little, glancing back at the confused stallion. "Scratch resized your uniform, it's on the counter there. She said you had fur before, so I'm sure you can figure out how to dry off. Come on out when you're ready."

Mike trotted out of the bathroom, dressed in his sand coloured marshal uniform, his ears twitching through the holes in his hat. Clarissa and Scratch were waiting around the dining room table; Scratch had shifted while he was out.

"I figured this might be more comforting for you," she said. "I'm sorry, Mike."

"It's OK, Scratch. It wasn't your fault. You did your best to save us- to save me." He shifted his gaze to Clarissa, "It wasn't your fault either; You didn't know. It was that bison's fault in the end."

He filled a bowl with salad and sat down between the two. "So, why don't you fill me in on just what I've stepped in here, and what this Appa character's really like," he said, before shovelling a fork full of greens into his muzzle.

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Cave of Wonders, 137 AL

Mike rearranged his gear outside the tunnel leading to the Cave of Wonders. It was all packed into bags that he would attach once Tonto took over. Discovering he could shift to something similar to Tonto's old walker form had been one of the few nice surprises he'd had since arriving. Clarissa especially was jealous since she couldn't figure out how he did it, nor how to do it herself. Her pure-horse modes were limited to VR fun in the Garden, where the Integrates were forced back to their pure animal roots, no matter what they did. He recalled their last few trips to the pastures there, and shivered happily, before refocusing on the present.

"So where are you going to go?" the mare asked. Scratch stood next to her, trying to look strong, though his eyes were wet even in the heat of the Dry.

Mike shrugged and finished the last bag. "I'm not sure. There are other Enclaves out there, I figure I'll poke around, see if any of them are more tolerable than this place."

"You don't have to go. We need you here, Mike," Scratch said, his tail lashing the air behind.

"I can't stay. Appa and I are butting heads too much. If I stayed, we'd come to blows. And his blows hit a lot harder than mine. This way, I can still come back and visit. If I do find a good spot, I'll let you know and maybe you can move over there too."

He mentally shifted gears and felt his insides begin to shift, his hips rolling around to give him a four legged stance, his fingers shrinking back, leaving his middle one swelling into a hoof.

"Have you thought about going home?" Clarissa whispered after a quick glance around.

Tonto thought back to his last meeting with Appa, and shuddered.

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Two Days Before

The stallion stood in Appa's office, watching the bison and trying not to glare.

"Word is, you're preparing to leave our little Enclave," Appa said slowly, leaning on his desk, pressing his finger tips together.

"Considering how we've been escalating lately, it seems to be the safest solution for both of us. You get rid of a thorn in your side. And I don't get my muzzle smashed in... again," Mike replied.

Appa nodded slowly. "Have you given any thoughts on where you will go?"

"Besides away from here? Not particularly. There are a number of Enclaves out there now, I figure I'll find one that I could fit in better at."

"Certainly. There is a place out there for everyone." Appa's desktop lit up, and holograms appeared over it. "Just remember, this is no longer your place," he added, nodding towards the images.

Mike's heart broke as he recognized the people. His mom and Boris working at Alohan General; his dad riding Mel home from Touchdown, little Mary in her seat behind her; Peter and his wife out in Seahaven; even Tracy and Jay frolicing with the other Dolphs in the bay. All of the pictures were at most a few days old. "I thought the affairs of the meat and mech didn't matter for you?" Mike said slowly, trying not to show the hurt he was feeling.

"This isn't a matter of the meat. I am just monitoring them, as one would monitor an anthill or a wasp nest, to make sure it won't cause problems. And like a wasp nest, if they start to cause problems, if they seem to become aware of what they shouldn't, the nest will be destroyed." The desk went dark, though Appa's expression didn't change. "I trust I was clear?"

"Crystal clear," Mike replied mutely, fighting his rage at the threat Appa was making.

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Tonto tossed his head and cleared his memory. "No, Not home. I have no home any more."

Clarissa and Scratch helped him get the bags in place on his sides, nano-fusing them in place, before they hugged him. "Promise us you'll keep in touch," Clarissa said, nuzzling him back.

"I promise. As often as I can and the sats line up." Tonto gave them another long look, then turned, galloping away along the cliff face.

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Dry Ocean, 137 AL, late in the year

A plume of dark smoke rose from a crater in the desert. Mike approached it cautiously, cloaked with his silver pistols drawn. Tonto had felt the surge of static across all bands an hour before, followed by the first signs of smoke. He'd run to investigate, shifting to Mike en route.

He peeked over the edge of the crater, and spotted the source of the smoke; a mining platform had exploded, scattering pieces all over the crater floor. He mentally began reconstructing the scene in the back of his mind, adding in notes on the elevated Qubtite levels and the damage to one side of the crater wall. He also did a life sign scan and finally found the unconscious fused RIDE under some rubble from the opposite wall. He read her ID signal and cursed, ducking down out of sight reflexively, even though he was cloaked.

"Of all the miners I could have found, it had to be one I knew," he grumbled to himself trying to decide what to do. While he didn't know her well, Gracie and Elaine had stayed a close friend of the family since rescuing Jay and Tracy so long ago.

He peeked over the edge again, did another scan, and grew worried. Gracie was recovering slowly, but her power levels were dropping quickly. Between the explosion and the dust levels, the RIDE was having a hard time maintaining her seals around Elaine. It would be trivial for him to go down there and save her, but there was a nontrivial chance she would recognize him.

"Screw it," he decided finally, adjusting his Marshal cap. "I just can't stand here and let a friend die, no matter what the risk."

He jumped into the crater and slid down to the base. As he slid, he got an idea, reshaping his own hardlight field to make him look taller and bulkier, more like a fused Equine RIDEr. He shifted his fur colour to gray and approached the injured miner.

"Oh thank god! Help me please!" Gracie called out as she sensed him approaching. "I'm losing power fast!"

"Don't worry, ma'am. That's what I'm here for," Mike said, reaching the canine. His DIN flickered on his wrist as he took a closer scan, trying to figure out the best way to help out without showing what he was. Elaine was still out cold, but stable which made things easier for him. He decided the best way would be for Gracie to join her in the healing darkness.

He took her hand in his own and concentrated, slipping into her systems. He hated to invade her like that, but it was the safest way he could think of. The husky's eyes went wide a moment, before closing, her core shifting to passive mode.

With the witnesses in passive mode, he set to work on the damages. It was a fine line to walk, to figure out what could be fixed enough to keep the pair alive, while not fixing them so much they would wonder what happened. He expelled as much of the dust he could, and patched up her frame enough to repair the shorts.

Once he was sure she was stabilized, he reached to wake her up, then stopped. Part of him wanted to speak to her, find out what was happening back home. But the practical side of him knew the risk was too great. He carefully reached into Gracie's core, and found her recent memories of his arrival. Hating himself even more for having to do it, he erased the memory and replaced it with one of Gracie finally fixing the shorts before she would have shorted out. The husky had more than enough energy to last until rescued.

As he worked, Tonto came up with another idea. They both knew it was risky, but after a quick internal fight, they decided the risk was worth it. While Mike rebuilt Gracie's recent memories, Tonto composed a report and heavily encrypted it. He left it embedded deep in the RIDE's memory core, with an implanted suggestion on where and when to send it. With luck, it would reach who they wanted it to, while not linking it back to him, or her.

"Sorry Gracie; I really do hate to have done this to you." Mike rested his hand on the RIDE's passive head, and set a thirty second wakeup call.

He watched, cloaked, from the crater rim as the RIDE woke up. "Ugh, must have passed out," Gracie groaned, not moving. Mike could sense her doing a self check. "Looks like I managed to stabilize us though; that's good Elaine."

The husky started to get up, only to fall back. "Ugh, that didn't work. Energy's a bit too low. Think we're stuck here for now," she continued to her unconscious partner. "Least the fire's going out. And we got an SOS ack before that face blew up on us."

Mike stayed on watch until he saw a rescue skimmer from Brubeck show up. The husky was loaded up quickly and taken away. The horse turned his back to the scene and set off again, sickened by what Appa had forced him to do, but heartened by what he'd been able to pull off under their muzzles.

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Marshal's Training Academy, Nextus, 2 months later

Ken Masterson reviewed the case on a tablet, tapping it occasionally. "I swear, when they finally got the paperless office, everyone forgot how to be brief," he grumbled finally accepting the document and moving on to the next one.

His RIDE, the horse Glenn, watched over his shoulder from his stall, not commenting on his rider's old lament. His ears perked up. "Message coming in for you, from a Marshal Chuck Walker. Your eyes only."

"Chuck Walker? Never heard of him."

"Neither has anyone else. He's not on any of the rosters I can find."

"You sure it's not a trick? The coyotes down in Ops messing with you again?"

The horse shook his head. "Feels differently; too much for one of their tricks. There's a lot of data here, most of it's encrypted with a Read-Once key. Once we start it, we won't be able to rewatch it. It does have an open message that is repeatable."

Ken triggered his door lock and privacy field and sat back. "Start it up."

The hologram appeared over his desk, of a fused gray Arabian RIDE. It was just the RIDE, with no background showing.

"Hello, Ken. I know you may not know me, but I have an important message for you. It will take about an hour of your time, and it can not be repeated. When you are ready, have Glenn start the decryption, and we can continue."

The image faded away, leaving Ken confused. The face was a stranger, as was the voice, but it still felt like he should know who it was. "No Chuck Walkers on the rosters?" he asked again.

"No Chuck Walkers anywhere. At least not anywhere on Gondwana. There are two on Laurasia, but one just started school, and the other is an accountant in Florencia who has never owned a RIDE in his life."

Ken drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment, then added the Do Not Disturb signal to his office's privacy field. "Do you think it's safe?"

"Not really, no. But should be safe enough."

"Run it."

The horse closed his eyes and stood as still as a statue as he started processing the file. "Wow, there is a lot in here.... There's an Eliza in here too.... Stop that! What are you doing?"

Ken stood to move to his RIDE as Glenn's eyes opened and scanned the room. The desk lit up and the gray stallion's head appeared again. "Sorry about the intrusion there, old pal. I hope you still have Glenn, Ken, otherwise you wouldn't be seeing this. You really should update your Antivirus packages, they're getting a bit out of date."

The pair looked at the hologram, trying to catch up. The Eliza intelligence was usually based on the sender's personality, as a way to guide people through dense databases. This one clearly knew the Marshal and his RIDE, but neither of them recognized him.

The holographic head got serious and seemed to lean towards them after looking around. "We're alone, and your privacy's up. That's good. What I'm about to tell you must never leave your heads. Lives depend on it. You can't tell anyone, ESPECIALLY not my family. Telling you is risky enough, but I need to get the word out about this."

"Your family? We don't know who you are, let alone who your family is," Ken said angrily, leaning on his desk and leaning forward to glare at the hologram. Something about its speech pattern was familiar; familiar enough that it added to his irritation.

The head backed away from him. "You know who I am, and who my family is," it said, the gray beginning to darken to black, with a white mark on its cheek.

Ken fell back in his chair, "It can't be..."

"Tonto?" Glenn asked incredulously.

"In the Avatar," the head said, pulling back to show a full figure which spun around. It was smaller than a normal fused pair, but it still had the hardlight panels on its shoulders. "Rumours of my death were just a little premature. Rumours of my integration however, were right on the money."

The head zoomed back in. "Now, we only have a short time to go through this. Once I'm done, you'll understand why it can't go past you. I'll send more reports as I can, under Chuck's persona, but don't expect regular updates."

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North West Dry Ocean, 138 AL

Tonto galloped across the desert, enjoying the hot wind blowing through his mane and tail. He had no destination in mind, Other than a metallic foreleg, and metallic hooves, he looked little different from a true horse, not that a normal horse would survive in the heat, the dryness and the radioactivity of the land he was in.

He twitched his ears and slowed, picking up a faint signal. He slowed down and backtracked a little, and started following it. As he got closer, the signal resolved into an emergency beacon. The land became hillier, filled with the ancient valley of a meandering river. The signal cut off suddenly, only to return when he stepped back. He started a search pattern, and quickly discovered the source of the signal.

The flyer was a civilian model, intended for flying around a polity, not for Dry Ocean work. It had crashed into the valley and slid under an overhang. Tonto could detect high Q concentrations in the land, not enough to attract prospectors, but more than enough to drown out a simple SOS signal. He detected two life signs within the flyer, steady and uninjured. The flyer's engines were completely dead, shorted out from dust contamination, but the batteries and life support were stable.

Keeping a careful eye on the flyer from afar, he mentally shifted gears, deactivating the nanite charge that held a bag on his sides. His forehooves shrank, fingers growing down as his lower forelegs shrank back. He reared back onto his hindlegs, his stance becoming bipedal, his chest barrel flattening out. Mike shook himself, as the last changes flowed through his body.

He reached into Tonto's bag and pulled out a vest and cowboy hat. He adjusted his gear on his changed form, then activated a hardlight disguise, swelling his body to look like a Fused pair. The disguise had a similar Marshal uniform to the one he just put on, but its fur colour was gray instead of his normal black.

"Hello? Anyone in there? Is anyone hurt?" he shouted down to the flyer, dropping down into the valley.

Two young heads popped out of the hatch, still just within the life support bubble. "We're fine! But dad's flyer is dead. We can't move it. Can you help?"

Mike shook his head, the DIN on his wrist flashing as he took a closer look at the flyer. "I'm afraid not. The engines are completely shot. The rest of the systems are stable, they'll keep you alive. But you'll need to wait for a lift."

"Oh man, Dad's gonna kill me," the boy groaned, slumping back in the flyer.

"Is a lift coming? The computer's saying it can't connect to anything," the girl asked.

Mike turned and scanned the skies, finally finding an appropriate satellite and sent a rescue request to it. "It is now. Should be here in a few hours. That overhang blocked most of your SOS. Don't you guys have a burster?"

"Thank you. Oh thank you very much. What's a burster?"

Mike groaned and shook his head, "It's an SOS signaller. Only good for one burst, but it can cut through just about any interference you can expect out here. A burster from here could reach Cascadia with ease. SAR would have been here within hours of receiving it. How long were you out here?"

She groaned and kicked the back of the boy's seat. "Hours and hours so far. We could have been home by now if you weren't an idiot," she said to the boy, kicking his seat again before looking back at Mike. "Thanks for the call then. I'm Sherry, and the idiot down there is Michel. So who's our knight in horsey armor that's come to our rescue?"

Mike chuckled, "I'm Marshal Walker. Chuck Walker. Nice to meet you ma'am, sir. Glad to be of service. What brings you out to this desolate space?"

She rolled her eyes, "What else? A stupid bet. Michel's friends bet he couldn't fly out to the Towers and back in his dad's flyer."

"Ouch, so you lost the bet and pa's flyer. That's gonna be rough." Mike felt Tonto nicker in amusement, tapping into the flyer's internal camera to see the sulking teen in the pilot's seat.

They kept talking until the rescue team arrived. The hardened miner flyer landed next to the crashed one, and extended its field to encase the other one. Once they were protected, the teens were able to transfer to their rescue lift.

"Good luck with your pa," Mike called out before the rescue flyer sealed up. The girl waved but the boy just sulked, slumping lower in the seat behind the smirking miner. Once he'd been in RIDE communication range, Mike had shared the story with the rescue party.

The stallion waited until the rescue flyer was out of sight, before he went to the crashed flyer. He dropped his disguise and climbed inside, sitting in the seat. He pulled a cable from his forearm and a converter from his packs, and chained it to a charge port on the flyer. Closing his eyes, he savoured the energy flow before setting up a simple privacy field. "You can show yourself now, Ken," he said out loud.

The fused equine pair appeared just outside the flyer, deep in the shade of the cliff. "How'd you guess?"

"Mass of the rescue flyer. They took off lighter than they landed. Knew they had to be carrying something big that got left behind. You've put on weight, bud."

"Well, between desk duty and newbie training, I haven't had time to sweat it off like I used to out here in the Dry."

"Sure you haven't. You know we aren't supposed to meet. I already left my report on the rescue flyer's systems. There was no need for you to come out here."

Ken shrugged and looked closely at the integrate through the flyer's side window. "I was in the area when the call came in, so I figured it was a good chance to hear it straight from the horse's mouth. The reports are one thing, but we haven't met in flesh since you were Integrated. How are you doing? Really doing?"

Mike sighed and put his hooves up on the control panel. "About as good as you can expect. Still miss the folks and my siblings like mad, but I'm pushing through it. This cloak and dagger stuff is a pain in the tail."

"I could still drop a quiet word with them, let them know you're alive."

"No!" Mike kept himself from sitting up suddenly, but only just. "They're too public. Appa's already shown me he's keeping an eye on them. If they show any sign that they don't think I'm dead, they'll be targeted. Targeted from a threat they don't even know exists."

"I'd warn them of the danger too. So they would know the threat exists."

"And then what? What could they do against an Integrate?" Without moving, Mike reached out and grabbed Glenn. He froze the horse in place and locked out Ken, cutting everything but his ears off. "This isn't hard. I could literally do this in my sleep," he said, his voice becoming harder. "Hell if I wanted to, I could pop you open right here, dump you out on the sand, and let the heat and radioactivity have its way with you with Glenn watching. And there would be nothing your meat nor your mech could do about it."

Mike suddenly realized what he was doing and released the Marshal. He leaned forward and put his hands over his muzzle. "I'm sorry, Ken...Glenn. I'm so sorry. I'm fighting it, trying not to let it get to me. But when you hear the message day after day, it sinks in, even if you don't mean it to."

The fused Marshal looked a little perturbed, but tried not to let it show. "That's fine Mike. I know you're under a lot of stress, stress you should never have been under."

"It's stress I shouldered willingly. I'm the one who started leaving those sleeper messages with the rescue parties. You guys need to know what's happening out here. Their numbers are small now, but they are growing. And those beliefs are not healthy for the wellbeing of all of us."

"You could come in. Let yourself be captured, so we could get a chance to look over that... what was it? The DIN you have? We'd be able to start cooking up a defense then..."

Mike shook his head again. "Too risky. They'd break me out, scramble anything you found, and anything they think you might have found. And if they suspect I cooperated, it puts my family back at risk."

They fell silent for a minute. Mike disconnected from the flyer's fuel cell and packed his gear up slowly.

"So what do you suggest we do?" Ken asked.

"Same thing we have been doing. I'll keep with the drops, so you have an idea of the scale of this threat. We aren't all drinking the Kool-Aid at least, so you do have some allies waiting; but we're too outnumbered and scattered to be any good yet. Let us try to keep the counter-message alive, and hopefully we can stamp this out before it blows up."

Mike stepped out of the flyer and looked it over. "How are you getting home? Do you need this ship?"

"Salvage skimmer's on its way out, one of our guys running it. Should be here in an hour or two. I'll hitch a ride back with it, invisible of course."

"Good, then I can do this without leaving you too stranded." The crashed flyer's light flared, then died, the fans slowing to a stop. "Can't risk leaving much evidence of myself around, or they might do a cleanup."

He checked his work while still talking. "Don't trust too much on your own cloaks. Most of us can't see through it, but there are Integrated birds too. Some of them can see through them. Others have other means of sensing that the cloaks won't do shit against."

Ken glanced up at what little sky he could see and pressed back deeper into the shadows. "Thanks for the tip. You be careful out there. Don't take any risks."

Mike took his uniform off and stowed it back in his packs; his chest already beginning to barrel. "This is a risk, but not a huge one. Marshal Chuck Walker's my little quirk that they let me do, as long as I'm careful not to leave too many traces of him."

He fell onto all fours, and Tonto shook himself a bit. His bags lifted off the sand and stuck to his sides. "Don't meet us in person again. That's the real risk. We were lucky this time. Next time I might actually have to do something I'll regret," Tonto said, lifting off the ground.

Ken turned away and shielded his eyes reflexively as a dust storm blew down the valley, destroying the tracks and partly burying the flyer. When he could see again, there was no sign of the black stallion integrate.

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Preceded by:
The Lady of the Tiger
Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by:
Sum of Their Parts