User:Jetfire/DragonRIDEr of Pharos

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Works by Jetfire on Shifti

DragonRIDEr of Pharos

Author: Jetfire

Chapter 1

Mercury Orbit

"This is Ranger ship SR-AJX-01 to Aphrodisian ship APH-969. Please respond." Solar Ranger Ajax Bondar floated in V-space and waited for the signals to crawl to the other ship. To his virtual right, the incandescent bulk of Sol floated, dimmed in virtuality to be more tolerable. His point of view was a few light seconds behind his actual ship, giving him a view of the sleek Ranger ship, its engines at full burn as it sought to catch up to the bulkier ship ahead. Further ahead of the silent ship was the reflective mirror and solar panel complex of Icarus 4.

"APH-969, please respond. You are on a collision course with Icarus 4. If you do not change your course or otherwise respond, we will be forced to take corrective actions," Ajax sent again.

:APH-969, local name Ocean Pearl is registered to Aphrodite Station, over Venus,: AndrAIa, his personal AI reported as the information came in from Mercury and Venus traffic controls. :It has a flight plan registered with Mercury, Lunar and Martian controls for an Inner System tour. Owned by Mikal Checkov, (45), there are 4 passengers on board. Mikal, his wife, and two teenage children.:

"Why aren't they responding?" Ajax asked, getting worried. There was hours to go before the ship would be an actual threat to the solar power generation complex, but the Icarus controllers tended to have an itchy trigger finger when it came to potential threats.

:Unknown. Ocean Pearl swung by Mercury a few days ago, and was swinging around the sun before accelerating to Mars. Ship shows signs of damage and is not accelerating.:

AndrAIa zoomed in the view to the incommunicado ship. It was an older model ship, based on a design that had carried mankind between the inner planets for centuries. Following a hunch, Ajax checked the registry and discovered the ship's hull had been made over a hundred years before.

"It's not going to make a hundred more," he mumbled, taking in the damage. The hull was scorched, but intact as far as he could tell. But where the antenna and emitters would be were only slagged stubs. "Can anyone be alive in there?"

:Environmental envelope appears to be intact. Engines are damaged. Communication arrays appear nonexistent. Local devices inside may still work.:

The ranger shook his head and checked the intercept course plot. If nothing else changed, he would catch up with the Venusian ship well outside Icarus 4's no-fly zone. "What the hell were they thinking?" he mumbled. Modern ship engines didn't need the gravity boosts slingshots provided; pilots only did them because they wanted to.

:Incongruity detected. Lights flashing in a strange pattern.: The AI zoomed in closer, centred on a running light. The light would normally blink regularly, but the pattern had changed, flashing three times quickly, pausing, then three longer blinks, another pause, another quick three blinks again and a final long pause before the pattern repeated. The lengths of the blinks were inconsistent, as if being controlled manually.

"Three short, three long, three short, repeated...," Ajax mused, the pattern seeming familiar to him. He realized what it was and slapped his virtual forehead, "Of course! It's an SOS. Someone's alive in there."

He reopened the communication channels and sent a blast to the ship. "Distressed Aphrodisian ship, I see your SOS. Can you hear me? Send Two dashes if you can," he sent.

An agonizing minute passed and the pattern changed, becoming two dashes and a long pause before two more dashes.

"Great! I see you. I'm coming up on you now. Do you have any control?" he sent. Now that he knew how they were talking, AndrAIa was able to take over reading the signals.

:NO. ... Incoming message from Icarus 4:

"I'm coming to save you," Ajax sent as reassurance, before muting the channel and looking in on the other signal.

Icarus 4 was a power generation station set up in Mercury orbit. It turned the star's energy to power and beamed it via a series of satellites to the particle accelerators that looped around Mercury which in turn created the antimatter for the new generation ship power plants. Icarus 4, and its sister station, Icarus 3, were being upgraded with local accelerators to use the power directly, instead of losing power via the transmissions.

"Icarus 4 to Ranger ship. What is the status with the approaching ship?" the man at the station had a gruff voice and a no nonsense attitude to back it up.

"Icarus 4, this is Ranger Bondar. I am in contact with the ship. They were damaged and do not have working comms," Ajax replied.

While he spoke, the morse code signals continued. Flare Damage. No engines. No comms. Four pass. One injured.

"Confirmed Ranger. Aphrodisian ship is approaching the No Fly zone. If it enters, we will be forced to take action."

Ajax double checked their locations. The no fly zone was coming up, but he would intersect the shuttle in plenty of time. "Confirmed Icarus 4. I should intercept before the No Fly zone."

"Negative Ranger. No Fly Zone has been expanded in light of the accelerator construction. Updated zone limits have been sent."

The red space in the diagram swelled, engulfing the intercept point and nearly reaching the Aphrodisian ship's current position. Ajax's eyes nearly literally bulged out in surprise.

"Icarus 4, I'm begging you, do not take action. The ship is damaged but I can save them. There are four innocents on board."

"Action is automatic. If the ship enters the no-fly zone, we will have to take action. We are at a heightened alert status and can't take any undue risks."

"Damnit! Then send your own ship out to intercept! They are harmless, they just need help."

"We do not have any ships on hand capable of intercepting. You are closest."

Ajax cursed and considered the options. There wasn't much he could do, not with the distances involved. The Aphrodisian ship was close enough to the no-fly limit, he could barely separate the two. He muted Icarus and sent a new message to the ship.

"Change of plans. Can you evacuate? Do you have suits that can get you outside the ship?"

Mercury orbit was no place to go spacewalking, at least not without extra shielding. Most work was done using remote robots. But long term radiation damage from an emergency space walk might be more survivable than what Icarus's response would be.

Yes. Why.

"Don't ask questions. Get in them and evacuate. Do it now!" he hoped the panic in his voice would get across the urgency of their situation.

OK they sent back, before the light went dark.

He moved the intercept point in the virtual display to be just before the No-Fly zone.

"Warning! Deceleration required for new intercept is outside ship specs.:

"I know AndrAIa, I know. Emergency override. Do a flip."

"Warning! Deceleration with flip is beyond the structural integrity field's specs.:

Ajax groaned and shook his head. "I know! Override AndrAIa. We need to be there as fast as we can."

"Override noted. Flip and deceleration starting."

From there, orbital physics took over. He set up countdown clocks to time when Icarus 4 would react, and when he would reach them. He felt a shift of forces in the Real as his own ship started decelerating, so he could actually do something besides zoom past the Venusian family. The flip let them use the more powerful main engines to bleed off their speed. Even with the AG and Inertia fields, he could feel the extra forces trying to squish his real body into a bloody smear.

The close up view of the rogue ship showed a puff of air from an airlock being emergency cycled. Four figures in puffy civilian suits floated out, all linked together, two helping a third. The fourth had an EVA backpack, which it used to pull them away from the ship.

"Good, good," Ajax mumbled, trying not to think of the sleet of radioactive particles that would be shooting through those suits. He was glad to see their visors were fully closed and they were doing their best to stay facing away from the sun.

On the larger scale view, the image of the ship turned red as it entered the No Fly zone. Sections of the Icarus 4 array were already in motion, moving mirrors into position to concentrate the sun's light onto a concentrator. It glowed a moment before unleashing the ultimate Archimedes Fire back towards the sun at the speed of light.

"No..." Ajax paled as he saw the size of the beam. It was obvious the family wouldn't get clear in time.

The concentrated light beam engulfed the Aproditian ship first, hiding it in a glare of light as bright as the sun. An explosion happened within the beam, throwing burning wreckage in all directions.

The family caught the edge of the light beam, and their suits began to blacken. Moments later, the force of their exploding ship blew through them, tossing the limp bodies around. Reviewing the explosion in slow time, Ajax witnessed a couple of bodies smacking into larger pieces of debris, along with the puff of air from tears in the suits.

The destruction done, the beam snapped off. In its wake, it left a slowly expanding ball of plasma and debris, and four limp figures in blackened suits.

"The threat has been eliminated. Thank you for your help, Ranger," the man at Icarus 4 reported, unphased by the deaths he had witnessed.

Ajax took a moment to compose himself before responding. "Confirmed Icarus 4, the ship has been destroyed. Requesting permission to enter Icarus 4 space to collect evidence."

The pause was longer than it should have been. "Permission granted, Ranger. You are cleared for Icarus 4 space operations. Will you be coming in for a visit?"

He checked his supplies and power levels to make sure he didn't need any more. "Negative, Icarus 4. I'll be returning directly to Daedelus Station when I'm done. Ajax out."

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He caught up with the bodies first. Still moving too fast to stop, AndrAIa was easily able to catch them with magnetic grapplers and pull them close. Once they were magnetically connected to a panel on top of his ship, it began to shift. Spars extended out, followed by collapsible panels, engulfing the four bodies in an airtight container. Gas hissed as it filled the space, bringing the air pressure up to survivable levels.

Ajax dropped out of virtual space after making sure AndrAIa was ready to search for the Aphrodisian ship's recorders in the wreckage. He opened his eyes in darkness, still encased in the reinforced G-Pod in the centre of his ship. The pod hissed and cracked open, lights coming on around him. Clad in a lightweight space suit of his own, he pulled himself out of the pod and twisted in mid air to regain his bearings in zero G. He grabbed a handhold in the cramped space and pulled himself through a narrow opening to a tunnel that led directly to the expanded airspace.

In the makeshift morgue, he paused again, looking at the four blackened suits. Two of them were gashed open where debris had torn through the weakened fabric. The other two were blackened, but still somewhat puffy, indicating they were still intact. He cracked his own helmet and gagged at the smells of scorched plastic, fried electronics and burnt meat.

He pushed to the first intact suit and turned the body over. It was the middle figure, the one that had been helped by the other two in exiting. He pulled the helmet off, and only his training kept him from losing his lunch. The figure inside had been a female teenager. Her eyes were open, with a pained expression frozen on her face. The skin was reddened, like she had been cooked in the suit. A bandaged gash covered the side of her face.

"I'm sorry," Ajax mumbled, closing her eyes before replacing the helmet. It didn't fit properly, but it was enough to cover her.

He moved to the last body, the one that had the EVA pack. The pack itself was gone, ejected or otherwise lost when they were attacked. Inside the suit was another woman, older than the first one, but with a familial resemblance that made Ajax feel she was the mother to the first woman. Her skin was lobster red, like the daughter.

After replacing the helmet, he checked the pair in the torn suits. He found an older man and another teenager, father and son to finish off the family. They also had the red skin, as well as signs of decompression and oxygen loss. He replaced their helmets and pulled himself back into his part of the ship, closing the hatches behind him. AndrAIa automatically extracted the air and collapsed the temporary space so it just covered the four bodies.

While that was going on, Ajax took the time to recompose himself. He forced himself to get a bite to eat and sip a tube of hot tea. "Any luck with the recorders?" he asked once he was feeling somewhat normal again.

"Three recorders recovered. All are extensively damaged," she reported.

"Well, nothing else for us here then. Set course for Daedelus."

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Chapter 2

Mars First attack on Icarus 4 Power Generation Complex Averted

Icarus 4 is the latest in the solar power generation complexes built in Mercury orbit. The energy collected is used on site to generate anti-matter which is used to power the new generation of interstellar ships.

"All of the Icarus stations are important for our future. Without them, our ships won't be able to reach the Colonies of Man. I thank the security director of Icarus 4, and the Ranger pilot who helped identify the threat, for their swift action in making sure the station remains undamaged and operational," Timothy McKay, president of Mercury Power, told reporters days after the event occurred.

"Mars First my ass," Ajax snarled, throwing the tablet against the wall. It bounced and clattered to the floor.

"Easy Ajax, it's just a news report. They always mix things up," Christof tried to calm his friend and fellow ranger. The pair were in a rec room of Daedalus Station, relaxing until their next duty cycle.

Ajax glared at the other man, "Mix things up? This isn't a mix up. This is completely wrong! They weren't Martians, and they certainly weren't terrorists. They were just a family that got caught in an accident and got killed by those blood thirsty idiots at Icarus."

"Now, now... I'm sure they weren't killed on purpose. They were entering the no-fly space too."

"A no fly zone that was conveniently extended to engulf them well before I could otherwise intercept. It wasn't that far out when I first went after them."

Christof shrugged, "Maybe you missed a NOTSPAM update?"

Ajax gave the other ranger a dirty look. "I never... NEVER leave without all the updates. The No-Fly extension was activated literally as I was talking to that security jerk, and backdated to boot."

"Well, the ship was covered in Martian propaganda..."

"No it wasn't. I saw it with my own eyes. Other than the scorching from the sunbath, that thing was untouched. I'd almost swear it had its original paint job, but that would be impossible for a ship that old. But what I do know for certain, there was no propaganda on it."

"Your report says otherwise," Christof pointed out. "Most of the information on the ship before Icarus 4 got to it was from you."

"The report is wro-" Ajax started to shout before being interrupted.

"The report is what it is," a female voice said, stopping him in mid rant. Her words dripped with threat, and the promise of bad things if she wasn't listened to immediately.

"Commander!" the rangers jumped to their feet and turned to face the woman. She had arrived unnoticed.

"You," Commander Antonov said, eyes locked on Christof. "Are dismissed."

"Yes Ma'am." Christof almost tripped over his feet getting out of the room, closing the door behind him almost as an afterthought.

The commander relaxed slightly as she focused on Ajax. The ranger stayed alert, his rage rapidly morphing into fear.

"Ajax," she addressed him, her voice shifting to sound weary. "What are we going to do with you?"

"What do you mean, Ma'am?"

"You've been through a traumatic experience. It's never nice to get into messes like this," she shook her head sadly, finally looking away from Ajax.

"It wasn't nice. But what's happened since is even worse. Why was my report changed?" Her shift in tone encouraged him to strengthen his spine.

"For reasons above your pay grade, Ranger."

"But they were innocents! I saw the bodies, I talked with them. I saw the black box data. They were just a family taking their old beater around the block for a family trip!"

"And they had an accident, and now they are a bigger part of history. Your report, as is on the record, will stand. The terrorist story is needed, to lead us in the right directions."

Ajax suddenly had a sour taste in his mouth. "Directions? What directions? What directions need the deaths of a family of four to go in?"

"That is above my own pay grade. But that's the way it is. Can you accept that?" Her gaze locked on him again.

He hesitated, before shrugging, "I'm not sure."

"Then let me decide for you. You are on indefinite leave with pay until you are sure. It was a traumatic experience for you, so the psychs will back me up. Take the time, get your head screwed on straight and your mouth zipped up."

"What?! But-"

"No buts. In light of your incident, I'd also suggest you leave Daedelus. It's not an order, just a firm suggestion. Capiche?"

Ajax gulped, and nodded, then sighed. "Capiche. Where will I go?"

She shrugged and turned away. "I don't know, and I don't care. Once you're off station, you're out of my hands. Technically you're out of my hands now I suppose. But if you want some advice, don't go to Venus. That could raise some awkward questions. Ditto Mars.

"If I were you, I'd look into a trip out to the colonies. By the time you get back, this event will be a footnote in history. If you bother to come back at that."

Ajax grimaced, and nodded again. "I understand Ma'am."

She relaxed her stance and held out her hand. "Off the record, I'm sorry it went this way. You're a good Ranger. But this system doesn't have room for good rangers like you any more. Losing you is going to hurt us more than you in the end. I know you'll do well wherever you end up."

He shook the offered hand. "Thanks Ma'am."

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Chapter 3

Tycho, Luna

Ajax sat on a bench next to some palm trees. Further up, the clear roof gave a view of Earth overhead. The Tycho Gardens were the largest on Luna, built when the lunar colonies realized they had to prepare for life without Earth. The tech was now mature enough that the gardens weren't needed for life support. They were still imperative for morale support in the city.

"Two weeks. Two weeks of nothing. I'm going to go nuts," Ajax grumbled. Solitude wasn't an issue for spacers, and especially not for Rangers. They were picked specifically to be able to handle long stretches alone with little to do. His problem, was he was alone in a crowd, without the long list of chores that helped keep Rangers busy in the emptiness of space.

He had come home to try and gather his thoughts after being put on leave. At first he had tried to keep the real reason for his visit a secret; it only took two days for his mom to pry the real reasons for the trip out of him. Telling them the truth had helped his mindstate for a bit, but in the end, he was an adult now, and it was his problem. Two weeks in, his visit was wearing thin.

"I just don't know what to do AndrAIa. I don't know what else to be but a Ranger. But going along with that story... I don't know what the Rangers are any more."

The AI's avatar looked puzzled, sitting on a bench on the side of his visual space. She smiled suddenly and pulled out a whistle, silently blowing it.

"A whistleblower? It's tempting. Very tempting. We just don't have enough proof. I've got your records on a crystal and that's it. Everything else, they've adjusted to match their story. And people don't care enough about the Venusians to get all up at arms about them."

She dropped the whistle, letting it dissolve away. She pouted and rubbed her chin, thinking hard.

"Maybe I should just drop out of the Rangers. They aren't what I expected any more. I should look for something I can live with instead."

She brightened up and stood up. The virtual view of the Real shimmered and she drew it aside like a curtain. 'Behind' the Real view was plastered with job opportunity signs.

Wanted: Experienced Spacers to work at Europa Shipyards. No construction experience needed.

Experienced haulers needed. Trojan to Io routes.

Free Scotland looking for miners. Prime claims ready to be worked.

Ajax shuddered and cleared all the advertising away. Jupiter was booming, pulling in workers from around the system and causing secondary booms in the asteroid belt territories. He almost considered looking for work there, until the storm of advertising reminded him what would be out there. "No, not that."

"Trying" AndrAIa said, looking disappointed.

"I know you are. I just need to figure out what I want to do next. I need some space to sort things out."

She brightened up with an idea. This time the ads appeared as balloons floating down and popping in front of him.

See the crystal ranges of NeoRus!

Surf Centauri. Best waves you'll ever see!

Visit the Atlantis Resort in Aloha. Loosest slots in the galaxy!

He brushed them away and laughed. "That is an idea. The Commander did suggest that too. But it's so expensive. I've got a nest egg, but it's not that big." In reality, his nest egg was bigger than most. Most rangers when they came into port tended to splurge to make up for lost time. Ajax had never seen the use for that, so other than ship, borg and AI upgrades, his money had sat and grown. Combined with the leave 'bonus' he was under, it left him a decent amount to travel with.

Most of the flashier ads disappeared, and a new set appeared. Cheaper tour operators, that made sure you got from planet to planet, but left you on your own. Most were little more than sleep modules with FTL engines attached.

Ajax laughed and shook his head. "You really want to get out of the system?"

AndrAIa smiled and nodded her head quickly.

"Fine, let's see what's available... The Colossus is leaving tomorrow for Eridani. That's too soon. The Bounty going to Kepler next week; are they nuts?... Here we go, Xanadu heading to Zharus on Monday. They're offering a good rate on Zharus currencies too. I think we've found a place to go. Maybe when we get back things will be saner here."

AndrAIa grinned happily and blinked out, taking everything but the Xanadu paperwork with her.

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Chapter 4

Colonial Cruise Ship Xanadu. En route to Zharus

Ajax floated in the makeshift morgue of his ship. The four blackened suits waited his attention. Two of them were gashed open where debris had torn through the weakened fabric. The other two were blackened, but still somewhat puffy, indicating they were still intact. He cracked his own helmet and gagged at the smells of scorched plastic, fried electronics and burnt meat.

He pushed to the first intact suit and turned the body over. It was the middle figure, the one that had been helped by the other two in exiting. He pulled the helmet off, and only his training kept him from losing his lunch. The figure inside had been a female teenager. Her eyes were open, with a pained expression frozen on her face. The skin was reddened, like she had been cooked in the suit. A bandaged gash covered the side of her face.

"I'm sorry," Ajax mumbled, closing her eyes with one hand.

He moved to replace the helmet, only for a hand to reach up and grab his forearm. The young woman's eyes opened, filled with pain and anger.

Why?! she mouthed silently at him.

Shocked, he let the helmet float away and pulled away, momentum pushing him to the top of the morgue room and pushing her downward. Her hand let go and her body went motionless. His eyes looked around and he realized all of the suits had disappeared, leaving the bodies in their every-day wear. The young man had a bloody stump where debris had torn away his lower leg. The father had a chunk of metal sticking through his chest. All four of them had red skin, hair floating away from their heads. They all looked at him and kept mouthing Why?

"I don't know!" he shouted at them. "I don't know!"

The bodies didn't move from their positions. But with each protestation, they were suddenly closer to him, looking at him.

"I DON'T KNOW!" Ajax screamed, opening his eyes. The makeshift morgue space disappeared, showing a simple cabin. He was laying on a bed only slightly smaller than the cabin itself, tangled up in the bedsheet. His pulse was pounding and his body was shaking from the nightmare.

"Lights. Time." Ajax called out, his voice squeaking from the stress of the nightmare.

The cabin lights rose to a twilight level to give his eyes time to adjust. A pleasant voice told him, "The local time is estimated to be 26:16 Alohan standard time on Sunday, November 23, 156 AL."

Ajax hugged him tight and tried to think past the nightmare. "Estimated. So we're still FTL," he mumbled to himself. Once they arrived in system, the ship clocks would sync with the Zharusian atomic clocks more precisely. Until they left hyperspace, it was just a best guess at what the time would be when they arrived.

"ETA to real space three hours and change," the helpful voice informed him.

"Thanks. Activate Fabber. A bowl of chicken soup and a mug of coffee, black." Ajax stood up finally and tapped a button on the wall. The bed pulled back in, reforming into a chair, while the replicator on the other wall hummed into life.

He took the hot liquids to a small table that dropped from the wall, and just held them, letting the warmth seep into his hands. He'd just woken from cold sleep the previous day, and still had a chill deep in his bones not caused by the nightmare. The nightmare itself was unnerving. Cold sleep experts said there was a slight chance of wakees having nightmares soon after cold sleep, especially if they went under while conflicted about something. It was apparently his lucky night.

After finishing his meal, he left his cabin to wander the ship. The Xanadu was a smaller ship that cruised between the colonial worlds and Earth. It sold itself as a cheap way to get from Alpha Centauri to Zharus and all points in between. Since it expected most of its passengers to sleep, it only had the minimal facilities on board. Most of the passengers getting off at Zharus would wake up in a few days when they were back in Real space and closer to the destination. Ajax was one of the few who chose to wake up earlier.

Attention. This is Captain Barr. Please prepare for transition back to real space in sixty seconds.

The announcement was just for psychological effect, since there was little anyone could do to prepare. Screens around the ship started counting down from sixty and the fabbers locked down to minimize extra power draws. The former solar ranger took a seat in a lounge and waited.

At zero, nothing seemed to happen. If Ajax really thought about it, he decided he did feel a slight change in forces, like applying the brakes to slow down from going in an impossible direction. The room lights might have pulsed a little.

Transition back to Real Space is complete. Local time is now 27:56 Alohan Standard, on Sunday, November 23. We are approximately 90 Zharusian Astronomical Units from Pharos. We expect to reach Zharus in approximately 1 Zharusian week, that is 6 days, after we clear customs. More details are available on the ship networks. Thank you for flying Colonial Cruise Lines.

"Two hours off, not bad," Ajax said, sensing the clocks in his internal systems rolling back as they and the ship synced to the time signals in system. He went to the fabber and got a mug of hot cider and took a seat next to the wall. He tuned the wall to an outside view, and put his data specs on. He sipped on the public data updates being sent out while sipping his cider at the same time.

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A day later, the Pharos Ranger ship caught up with them. Ajax watched it approach via the ship's public networks. The ship was different from what he was used to. It had engine pods mounted on wings, and a body containing the main living quarters and a beaklike 'head' containing a cockpit. Most curious was the bird-themed paintjob it had.

Once the ships matched vectors, the 'glass' part of the cockpit flicked off and the pilot launched herself towards the Xanadu. She wore the strangest space suit Ajax had ever seen. The suit seemed to have a griffon theme to it. The upper half of it had brown feathers and seemed surprisingly form fitting in the breast area. The feathers thinned out to orange talons on her gloves. The helmet was covered in white feathers and had a similar orange slightly hooked beak. The lower half was covered in golden fur where it wasn't covered by a pair of shorts. The boots looked like cat paws, complete with orange claws.

As she launched from her ship, her EVA pack activated. He couldn't see the pack itself, but it made brown wings that spread out, individual feathers glowing slightly as they spread. Tail feathers spread from her rump as well, with a similar glow. She covered the distance between the ships quickly.

Curiosity gave him wings. He had to meet this ranger with the strange space suit. He'd heard a bit of the armor tech on Zharus, but most of it was rumours and hearsay that he'd dismissed. Keeping the view of the ranger's progress in one corner of his specs, he ran to the main airlock. He turned a corner, and nearly ran into the captain.

"Oh! Excuse me!" he stammered out, grabbing at the corner to stop his momentum before he banged into her.

Captain Jean Barr smiled at him, dressed in her sparkling white uniform. Her husband and first officer stood next to her, facing the airlock hatch. "No problem, Ranger Bondar. Decided to meet your fellow ranger?"

"Former ranger," Ajax politely corrected her. At the last moment before leaving Sol, he had decided to officially resign his commission. "And I guess I did want to meet her."

"She certainly is interesting. An excellent example of the craziness of this system," Officer Ross Goodman said. Before he could explain further, the light next to the hatch turned green and it began to open.

The Ranger in the airlock was still in her suit. She stood over two metres tall, the feathers of her helmet brushing the airlock ceiling. As Ajax watched, the wings of her EVA pack flickered, pulling inward and disappearing in her shoulders. The tail feathers seemed to pull together and roll up, turning into a long feline tail that glittered with embedded faceted jewels.

"Ranger Petra Gryff requesting permission to board, Captain," she asked, the beak of her helmet moving with her words. She held out her taloned hand to the Captain.

"Permission granted, welcome aboard Ranger," Captain Barr greeted her, shaking the hand. She seemed puzzled by the ranger's appearance.

"Thank you Captain. I'll try not to delay you too much, but I am new at this, so I'll probably be following the book a bit more closely than you may be used to."

"Oh no! The slow boat to Zharus might be a few minutes late. Don't worry my dear, the Xanadu's not known for her speed. Short of tearing her down to bare hull, there's little you could do to make us late." Captain Barr grinned. "This is my husband and first officer, Officer Ross Goodman."

The FO shook hands with the ranger and looked shocked. "Please excuse my bluntness, are you...?"

"I am an Integrate, yes," Ranger Gryph replied.

Ajax watched the interaction and suddenly felt like his world was spinning. He finally acknowledged what his subconscious had been screaming; the ranger wasn't in some strange space suit; she was exactly what she looked like. He missed the next few seconds staring at her, trying to decide if she was maybe in a mech suit, or a remotely operated robot, or just heavily cyborged. The flesh parts, which there seemed to be a lot of, looked too real to be simulated, to soft to have the reinforcing a lot of spacers did. He couldn't explain how she had crossed the vacuum so easily.

"And this is Mister Ajax Bondar. Formerly a Solarian Ranger." He snapped his attention back to find the ranger in front of him. She looked and moved so naturally, and yet looked so alien. Her taloned hand was held out to him.

Not trusting his tongue, he took the offered hand and shook it. It was warm and dry to the touch, slightly rough with the scales, and with sharp talons she carefully kept from pressing too hard.

"Nice to meet you. We have many of your compatriots in the Rangers here. Pharos and Zharus tends to be sticky when it comes to visitors," she said, shaking the hand briefly before releasing him.

"It does?" he asked, almost managing to keep the squeak out of his voice.

"It does," she confirmed. Her expression was tricky to read, but he thought the muscles at the edges of her beak lifted. Her eyes certainly had a mischievous twinkle to them. "It's a great place to settle down on, especially if you aren't eager to go home. I'm an import too, well part of me is. Came from NeoRus and decided to stay."

Ajax felt like his mind was on the verge of bluescreening, trying to cope with the information. "Part?"

Officer Ross nodded, "Petra is an Integrate. It was included in the catchup briefing sent out; I guess you didn't get to that point on the data dump. I'm a bit unclear about them myself."

"Don't worry, Captain, Officer, I'll answer all the questions you may have. As you said, we aren't in that much of a rush. Ranger Bondar, I look forward to speaking with you when we're done."

"So do I," Ajax said, resisting the urge to immediately bring up the briefing packet. "I'll be in the passenger lounge."

"Sounds good. We'll meet for drinks later." Petra stepped past him and motioned to the ship crewmembers. "Let's get the business done first. To confirm you have 312 corpsicles on board, and 25 walking dead?" she asked.

"Correct. Twenty walking and eight frozen are crew, the rest are pass-," Captain Barr agreed, her words getting cut off by the doors of the lift.

Separator k.png

Ajax sat at a table in the lounge, nursing a glass of pop. The Zharus data pack had explained a lot of things, including what they meant by an Integrate. The trick now, was making his mind believe what he had read and seen. The tech to do it all seemed impossible, even with that strange metamaterial.

The doors to the lounge opened and Petra walked in.

"Hi," he called out, giving a quick wave.

"Well you're looking much less stunned," she responded, tilting her head in greeting. Before joining him, she stopped at the fabber. Without her apparently doing anything, the machine lit up and started filling a glass.

"A little. it's hard to swallow. You were really two beings?"

She held up an orange talon and made him wait until the drink was done pouring. Once the lights turned off, she carried the mug over and sat down across from him.

"That I was, a long time ago."

"But how?"

Petra shrugged and tilted her head back. She opened her beak and poured a healthy swig of the foaming liquid into her mouth. "No clue really. You take the man, you take the machine, mix in magic pixie dust and tada! You have an Intie."

"And you were from NeoRus originally? How'd it happen for you?"

She paused a moment. "Well, as I said, it was a long time ago. Before Inties came out. I came here on vacation, to see the big planet and all that and signed up for a tour of the Dry Ocean. Back then, the Dry was a lot wilder than it is now, filled with nasty folks who want to do nastier things to you.

"I joined a Dry Tour out of Aloha with a dozen others. Our tour group was kidnapped by some whacked out folk, RIDEs and Humans alike. They'd apparently grabbed a shipment of mythic type RIDEs from Nuevo meant for a new resort in Aloha, and they wanted to see how they worked.

"They forced the RIDEs to fuse with us, usually a cross-fuse as often as they could, doubling up in a couple of cases. And the months that followed, they had their way with us, every way you can imagine and a few you shouldn't."

She shuddered, her talon scratching the heavy mug. "Finally a nearby Enclave stormed the dome. I guess they were tired of those idiots lowering the property values or something. The perpetrators, they were disappeared in the Dry somewhere. Us victims, we were force integrated to 'save' us and taken to join their enclave, where I stayed until reveal happened. Soon as I could, I left and decided I had enough with the planet life. Signed up with the Rangers as soon as I could get to the top of the Alohavator."

"I see..." Ajax said slowly, still having questions, but sensing it was a sensitive subject, he decided to leave it be. The pair stayed quiet long enough for Petra to finish her drink. The fabber lit up and started making up another.

"So how about you? What brings you here?" she asked, the new mug floating through the air and settling on the table next to her empty.

Ajax shook his head and refocused. "Here? I guess I'm looking for a sane place to hang my hat, considering how crazy Sol is getting."

"Sane?" she laughed hard, screeching a couple of times. "You think we're sane here? This whole system's probably the black hole for craziness in all of Human space. If you want sane, you should hop back into your freezer and wait for Xanadu to stop anywhere else."

He laughed a little as well. "I'm beginning to think that as well. I'm not even past the outer planet yet, and this seems nuts. The thing is, it feels like a safer insanity than what's going on around Sol. Sol... well Earth really, is getting senile in its old age. That's the only way I can describe it."

Petra fell quiet and seemed to be thinking. She tried to hide it with a big gulp from her drink. "Hmm, that is interesting. What makes you say that?"

"I'm not sure. It's mainly a gut feeling. The system is changing. Sol System that is. They're pushing everyone to walk in step and watch you suspiciously if you go differently. I was ignoring it for the most part; it was happening to other people, or it was just Earth things. It could never happen to me right?"

"Until it did," Petra prompted.

He nodded and looked at his drink then hers. Without asking, he grabbed the mug and took a big gulp. "Until it did...."

With the help of the beer, he shared the story of his last Ranger mission. Petra stayed quiet through most of it, silently bringing over more drinks when needed.

"While I was at Tycho, AndrAIa and I started looking closer. There's been an upswing in stories lately. Martian Resistance and Outer system Pirates and stuff. I didn't even have to dig into them deeply; the stories collapsed faster than a holed spacesuit in vacuum.

"Commander Antonov was right; someone, probably on Earth, is building a story. Getting everyone riled up about boogy men everywhere and using that to make everyone paranoid to strike out where they want to."

"But why would they do that?"

"I have no clue. It might be political. Probably is. Isn't it always politics? Bunch of old folks who think they have power and are realizing they are losing it maybe? In any case, Earth's gone senile, and she's pulling the rest of Sol down with her."

Ajax took his data specs off and twirled them in the air. "So yeah, Sol's going insane, the bad sort of insane. I don't know much about Pharos, but you guys, you seem to be the good type. The type that raced to Mars and Centauri back in the day. The type that thought putting an airtight box on top of millions of pounds of dynamite and pointing it upwards might be fun. I don't know if I'll stick around here, but just the little I've seen so far, it's a million- no an infinite times better than where Sol's going."

Petra nodded, "That I can see. In that respect, you're completely right. So what do you plan to do?"

"No clue. I've got a nest egg I brought with me. Enough to finish a grand tour of the colonies on the cheap, or to get started somewhere that feels right. I resigned from the Rangers, but I figure I can find something to do eventually."

"Once a Ranger, always a Ranger. With a record like yours, you'd fit in any Ranger system out there and they'd be honored to have you... Well maybe not the Kepler Rangers; you don't seem to be the bribable type."

"You looked at my record?"

She lifted her talons and held them close together. "Just a peek. Just the public stuff... mostly the public stuff. Anyways, you're clearly a good guy in a bad system. The last report, only an idiot would think you wrote that. Style's completely wrong and an obvious cover up. Regardless, were you to look to join us here, I'm sure you'd fit in fine."

Ajax bristled a moment at the slight intrusion, then forced himself to relax, draining his own mug to buy time. "So I've got lots of options, and no clue what to do. Suggestions?"

"Hit the planet first. I know you're a Spacer and think planets are just a waste of resources, but Zharus really is a good place to visit. At the very least you'll get a better feel of our brand of nuts.

"Spend money in Aloha, get your man card stamped in Cape Nord, take a tour of the Dry, see the Azure Gate bridge of NeoFran, visit the Z-Valley at Nujose and so forth."

"Tour the Dry, get kidnapped by mad RIDEs," Ajax noted, and immediately regretted it.

Petra winced, then managed to put on a fake grin. "That doesn't happen any more. Now that the Enclaves are public, the Dry's a lot more populated. Hidden bad guy bases are bad for land values. Though I'm sure someone in Aloha will sell you that experience if you wanted it. Alohan's will sell any experience they can."

She moved on quickly. "Once you're spent on the planet life, get back up here. Pharos Space is one of the most populated spaces in Human space.... Man that's a lot of space. Anyway, we've got more people in ZeroG than some colonies have people. Check the elevators, the orbitals around Z-space, head out to Colossus and so forth. They're your people, so I'm sure you can find stuff to do. And maybe, when you're done, you'll find a place or reason to stay."

"And if not, I can always get on the next ship out. Maybe to Wednesday or NeoRus."

"Not Wednesday. The only thing deader than that planet is the space around it. They just have a token Ranger base for skywatch and that's about it.

"Now NeoRus, da, that would be a good choice," she got wistful as she thought back. "The crystal ranges of Yakutsk are beautiful this time of year...."

"Sounds like you want to go back."

"I'd love to go back... But I can't. Not any more."

"Why not?"

The gryphon laughed. "Believe it or not, export restrictions. Sarium is a strictly controlled substance here in Pharos. They only let it out to Wednesday, and even then only if you jump through a lot of hoops."

"Considering what it can do, I can see why they want to keep it controlled, but what does that have to do with you?"

She tapped her chest. The air crackled and her glowing wings grew out. "Everything. I'm an Integrate. Sarium is a key element for RIDEs and Inties. Since it's restricted, it means we can't leave either. Keep that in mind if you get any ideas down on the planet."

"Oh... I see... Those are incredible." Ajax mumbled, distracted by the wings. They were feathered, dark brown with a hint of glow around each feather. She shook them a little and pulled them back in a classic angel resting pose.

"An incredible pain in the ass. Before I integrated, I hated them. I had real ones back then, and no matter what they say, the biology of separate wings just doesn't work on a human body. When I integrated, the real ones melted off, and I got specialized hardlight emitters that could make these ones. Being able to turn them off at will makes them a lot easier to handle."

"Right," Ajax agreed, not sure what else he could say. "So what about the Pharos Rangers? What are they like?"

"As crazy as the rest of this place, but we make it work. We're also very welcoming of new folk, even if you don't have a RIDE or are Integrated. Probably a quarter of us are non-Pharosian." She waved a talon at the wall. The outside view disappeared into a rainbow. "Let's see, where to start? Well, each division has a colour..."

Chapter 5

Celestial Weyr, Zharus Orbit

The taxi pulled away from Uptown and began to accelerate, moving smoothly through the traffic around the elevator station. Ajax sat alone in it, letting his mind wander. Petra's advice had been worth its weight in sarium. He didn't go everywhere she advised, but the tour around Gondwanaland had been worth it. After a month on planet, he'd had enough of the constant gravity and singular direction of down. He headed back up the elevator and started looking through the list of orbitals and other colonies, planning a route between the highest ranked ones.

His first target was Celestial Weyr. It was built in one of the hundreds of moonlets that the Spacers had shot inward to fuel the industrial growth of the planet. A recently founded colony, its claim to fame was a combination of its shipyards and the high proportion of dragon types that lived there.

The colony's orbit was close to Uptown, so the taxi covered the distance quickly. It approached the potato shaped rock and zoomed around it, looking for the entrance. The path gave Ajax a good view as they came down. The colony was built into a moonlet that had been mined out decades ago according to its wiki description. The surface showed signs of that past, covered in tunnels and mine tailings. Through many of the tunnels, he could see a glitter of domes, half buried in the rock for added protection.

The taxi slowed further and dived down to a particularly large tunnel. Rock flew by for a few seconds before it passed through an osmosis shield. The tunnel lit up and he could hear the roar of air running past the ship. Finally, the tunnel opened up into a cavern with a landing grid glowing in mid air. The taxi shook slightly as control passed to the landing cavern's controls.

Ajax stood and grabbed his travel bag. The taxi could comfortably seat twelve. For this trip, it only held the former Ranger. The flight from Uptown was cheap enough that he'd paid the 'Leave Now' cost instead of waiting to try and split it. The airlock hissed open and he stepped out, releasing the taxi to find more clients if it could. Glowing arrows in the air lead him to a tunnel towards the main habitation cavern.

The first thing that hit him was the heat. The air temperature was hot compared to what he was used to in other orbitals; hovering in the high twenties he guessed. The humidity was higher than normal too, and there was a different scent in the air, slightly different from the scents usually left by hundreds of humans living in a confined space.

As he walked down the extra large corridor, he noted the hardlight shield generators set up every few decametres, and the real hatches, propped open, but obviously well maintained and ready to isolate regions in emergencies. He nodded approvingly at the practice; while he wasn't familiar enough with hardlight to trust his safety to it as much as the Pharosians did, it was obvious that this colony wasn't taking any risks.

He stopped midway down the corridor and closed his eyes. He spread his arms out and turned slowly, feeling the tug of the gravity fields. The asteroid itself didn't have much of a field by itself, so artificial generators gave a steady half-G field. It was enough to provide a solid down force, while letting everyone walk with a bounce in their step. As he spun, he could just sense faint conflicting tugs where the fields overlapped. For most people, the field differences would be unnoticeable; for him, it was another sign of a well maintained home.

At the end of the tunnel, the opening flared wide, until the floor smoothly joined with a vast cavern. The entrance of a Space Hilton took up most of the opening, but he ignored it, walking around the building. The partially obstructed opening led to a chamber that gave Ajax pause. The chamber was tens of klicks around, lit by a Sun Sphere tuned to mid afternoon. He was in an urban section of the chamber with buildings clinging to the inner surface. Beyond that, he could see green spaces, intersected by rivers and lakes all curving up and over his head. The far end of the chamber had a large opening leading to another chamber he couldn't see clearly.

When he got over his initial impressions of the chamber, the movement began to register with him. The air was busy with winged figures of all colours; some with four limbs, some with six. He adjusted his eyes one some, and saw dragons of all sorts and flavours. Some were obviously RIDEs, full sized dragons, usually with no humanoid traits. Others were humanoid, though he couldn't tell for certain which ones might be Integrates and which were just partnered with a scaley RIDE partner. Once he saw past the dragons, he noted the others moving around; drones and vehicles flying around, tagged and untagged humans without scales, and RIDEs of other types, most of them flyers. After a long moment just watching, he looked away and logged into the hotel's system. He booked a room and headed in to drop off his gear.

The room had a balcony with a view into the cavern. He sat in the balcony chair and looked out, skimming the local boards. He picked a personal tour guide at random and sent in a hire bid.

He spent the next half hour watching people go about their daily lives. The variety still amazed him, even after his trip to the planet. Having met various RIDEs, it boggled his mind that they were considered property until recently.

He was so distracted by his being watching from afar, he almost didn't notice the ones closer to the hotel. A flash of green between two buildings a few blocks away caught his eye. As he watched, he saw a small figure flying between them. When it got to the hotel, he realized it was a small green dragon, its main body not much bigger than a large cat, with a long neck and tail to balance out the spread out wings. The emerald dragon arced upwards when it reached the hotel, heading right towards Ajax. It landed on the railing, looking him in the eye.

"Ajax Bondar? I am Jadia, of Emerald Tours. You hired me for a spin around Celestial Weyr?" the dragon greeted him with a female voice, a pleasant soprano with an accent similar to the ones he'd heard around Aloha.

"Yes, that's me," Ajax held out his hand then realized it didn't quite work. "Uhm sorry, I didn't expect you... Are you... what's it called, an L-RIDE?"

She flew closer, cavorite lifters humming softly, and tapped his extended hand with a forepaw. "I am in a Laurasian shell as you guessed. Not many would care to note the difference. You're Terran?"

Ajax bristled a moment, and opened her mouth to correct her, but she caught his reaction first. "Oh, my mistake. Solaran. Sol Spacer. I'm sorry."

"Don't be, most wouldn't know that difference either. It's just habit mainly. I've never set foot on Earth, and never plan on it, but that distinction seems petty way out here."

"Well, I am in the hospitality industry. I should know the difference. In any case, welcome to Pharos system. I hope your stay has been pleasant so far."

"It's been incredible so far. Such a big difference from Sol System, so vibrant and lively and open."

She tilted her head quizzically. "Open? That's funny to say, considering we just stopped a few decades of keeping a major secret. And technically we're still keeping more secrets from the other colonies and Earth."

"Maybe. But you can't have been as bad as Sol is now. Sol, it's all keep your heads down, do what you're told , and ask no questions. At your worst can't be anything like what Sol's like at its freest."

"Interesting. I never considered it that way. Then again, my perspective is limited to this system. So, when would you like to start? Anything in particular you'd like to see?"

"Anything and everything I guess. I'm potentially looking for a new home, and checking out the interesting places around here."

She lifted off the railing, her scales glowing slightly, "You're moving here? Excellent! I hope I can convince you to stay here then. There aren't many other places as interesting as Celestial Weyr."

"I'm realizing that. Still, I've gotta give everyone a fair shake. After this, I'm heading out to... what is it? Babylon Five?"

"Seaford's Folly to us locals," she chuckled. "Space may be big, but when gravity tech came around, we didn't need a spinner that big. Hell, I don't think anyone needs a spinner that big, even in the old days."

"Probably not," Ajax agreed. He checked his lifter belt and locked up the door to his room. "So shall we begin?"

"Begin? Oh right! The tour. I'm sorry, I'm not normally this light headed. Shall I meet you downstairs and we can start?"

Ajax lifted off the floor of the patio. "No need. I am fully trained in lifter belts. And Celestial Weyr's flying regulations are similar to ones in orbitals across human space. I should be fine flying here."

Jadia flicked her wings and backed up, hovering a few metres off the railing of the hotel room. "Excellent. It's so nice to meet someone who likes flying. A lot of my tours are Zharusians who never seem to get a grip on using the third dimension to travel in."

"Must make for a lot of unneeded walking," Ajax noted. He flew over the railing and hovered near the dragon, metres of empty space between him and the ground.

"Especially around here. With so many natural flyers, the ground routes tend to be an afterthought. So, let us begin at the beginning.

"Celestial Weyr started out as a rocky moonlet in orbit around Colossus. Soon after the spacers arrived to prepare Zharus, they picked it out, strapped some rockets on it, and shot it in towards the planet." As she spoke, her eyes lit up, forming a holographic diagram of the early days. "This was pre-cavorite, so all the work was done with Inertia drives and so forth of course." She paused and looked closer at Ajax. "You seem the type to have read the wiki earlier. I could skip it if you want?"

"No please, proceed. Reading on the wiki is one thing, but hearing others take on it is fascinating," Ajax encouraged the dragon.

"Right. Well the next century was pretty basic. The spacers used mining bots to hollow out the moonlet, extracting useful metals and shipping them down to the planet. In the early days, they were used to build the Neumonformers reforming the continents. Later on, the material went into building the foundation of Landing, and then the rest of the cities down below.

"When the moonlet was played out, it was abandoned. There was talk of just dropping it down on the planet, but there's too much mass left for that. Shipping it back out to Colossus, or in to Pharos was deemed too expensive, so they left it alone in the Lagrange five spot.

"Skip ahead a few years, and to a different event. In quick succession, two interplanetary shuttle Dragon RIDEs integrated. Since they were passenger shuttles, the integration caught a dozen or so passengers in the process. Ranger Integrates saved them, the new Integrates and the passengers, but there was an issue. The passengers were changed by the experience, turned into pseudo-integrates. Since this was before Integrates were made public, they couldn't easily be released back on the planet."

"They couldn't? Why not?" Ajax interrupted.

Jadia shrugged, "No clue. Politics of the time I suppose. There were some strange deals going on in the upper echelons to keep Integrates as a myth back then. The dragon humans were different enough to not be just RIDE tagged people, though a couple did go back to the planet with that story.

"In any case, figuring out what to do with them was a challenge. The Rangers bought the rock that would become Celestial Weyr, tossed in some habitat modules and put the survivors in there. With the pseudo-Inties, there were some bright folks now living here, with the world of Integrates partially opened up to them. They learned of an Enclave named Camelot on the surface that was famous for shipbuilding and for being the home of mythical integrates like dragons. They arranged a partnership to offer space and supplies for shipbuilding up here, in return for personal and financial backing.

"With Camelot's backing, the founders were able to buy the rock out from the Rangers, and go independent, leading to the dragon haven you see now." Jadia ended her introduction with a flick of her wings, twisting in air to show the whole space.

"Celestial Weyr is now the home of around a thousand permanent residents. That is, Humans, RIDEs, Integrates, and I think we have one or two EIs living here now too. We were one of the first groups to recognize everyone as a person, though admittedly we're just a sub-clave of Camelot technically, so it didn't get much attention. In a few more years, we'll be able to go fully independent though, and when we do, look out!"

She grinned and motioned for him to start following her in mid air. "About 75% of the population is dragon themed; Dragons, wyrms, drakes, wyverns and so forth. And yes, a human with the RIDE tags of a dragon, counts as a dragon type. Another 10% are less common types; mythics, saurians, birds, reptiles and so forth. The remaining people are your regular old mammals; humans, canines, equines, felines and so forth. And the EI's too I suppose technically."

Jadia paused suddenly and pointed. "Of course, there's still debate on where they fit, but that's a statistician argument."

Ajax followed her wing claw and saw a pegasus flying towards the next tunnel. "What's the debate about?"

"Whether it falls into the mammal category, or the mythic one. On the one hoof, it's just a horse with wings. Bats aren't mythical even though they're just rats with wings. On the other wing, horses with wings aren't normal like bats are, so technically they are mythics. As I said, a statistician argument. And for the record, you didn't hear the 'rats with wings' comment from me."

Ajax laughed, warming to her humour rapidly. Inwardly, he shook his head, amazed once again that Zharusians had ever considered the RIDEs as property. That view was changing rapidly now, but he couldn't believe it had happened in the first place.

"In any case, as I was saying, we have about a thousand permanent residents, and at any time we have around 200 visitors. Most are here to check on the ship building, or are companions and families of people checking on the ships."

"I take it most of your tours are with those visitors?" Ajax noted.

She nodded her head, "Got it in one. While mommy and daddy are doing business in the shipyards, they hire a tour guide to babysit the little ones and their nannies."

"Well I'm sorry, I left my nanny back in Sol System."

Jadia laughed and flipped in the air. "That's fine. I wouldn't do this if I didn't like it. It's like anything really; some clients are bastards, but most are just regular folks. And sometimes you're lucky and get a great client, like you."

Ajax debated letting the compliment go by, then decided to bite. "I'm sure you say that to every well tipping client you get."

"Well, we do have to pay for this rock somehow," she turned her head and seemed to wink at him before getting serious again. "What you are in now is the main habitat dome, Cavern Three. This is the biggest internal space in the rock, and the furthest from the surface. Most people live in the town where your hotel is. Those that don't tend to live in caves in the green areas, or under the water of the lakes."

"Under the lakes?" Ajax looked up at one of the lakes over his head.

"There are all sorts of dragons, including aquatic flavoured types. Our Nessies have claimed a bunch of the lakes for their homes, though they'd be as comfortable anywhere else like the rest of us. Me, I'm fine with a room in town to keep my stuff in."

The next few hours, they crawled along the inside surface of the cavern. Jadia kept up a steady stream of commentary about what happened where. It was less a tour and more an escorted descriptive history of the colony. "This is where Mac and Gloria had their wedding. They were such a perfect couple.... And this is where Natasha had her baby. He's a toddler now, and even without wings, he's in the air more than I am..."

During the few quiet areas where even Jadia couldn't come up with something to say, she asked Ajax about his own history. He described the sights he'd seen in Sol, and his Ranger past. He realized in one sense she was pumping him for information, but he didn't care; Sol was his history and he was happy to share, even if the last bits were less nice than the early days.

Eventually, even Jadia ran out of things to say about Cavern 3, so she lead him to Cavern 2. This one was smaller than the first one, closer to the surface from what he could tell. It even had a section exposed to space behind a transparent shield. This area was lit with a sunglobe as well, but it was much more utilitarian; less green space and more industrial spaces.

"Cavern 2 was the original living space here. This is where the founders settled at first, though most of them have moved on into Cavern 3. Now, it's mainly industrial stuff. A lot of the heavy duty guts of the colony are in here. That's why it has the spaceport window there, to make it easier to move the heavy equipment in and out" Jadia explained.

"Is that a hardlight shield?" Ajax asked, catching a flicker of movement across the space view.

"That it is. All of our spaceports have hard light osmosis shields. Don't worry, in case of power failure, they have backup hardlight systems on a separate power supply. And physical locks will close at the same time."

"Smart. Hardlight's virtually unknown in Sol. So part of me is shocked you seem so dependent on a powered device to keep the vacuum at bay, but you seem to have accounted for that."

"Well, vacuum isn't that big a deal for most of us. The RIDEs are vacuum proof, as are most of the Inties, at least for quick trips. Even the humans usually have Spacer boosts, so they can duck outside safely if they want to.

"Still, we aren't stupid. All of the spaceports have physical closures that will seal if the power fails. And there are safety alcoves people can get into if needed."

Ajax nodded approvingly. "Smart. I've noticed the colony is very well maintained. I could barely feel the gravity overlaps."

Jadia smiled proudly. "Camelot is famous for her ships. Since we're piggybacking on her reputation, we need to make sure we reflect her quality. Like the original Spacer habs in the Pharos system, Celestial Weyr is basically a huge ship in itself, so we hold it to the highest standards."

Ajax floated to a column and studied it a moment to make sure it seemed safe. He wasn't positive what its use was, but it didn't seem dangerous at first glance. He adjusted his fields to 'sit' on it and watched Jadia for a reaction. The dragon flew over and sat next to him.

"So speaking of Celestial Weyr, where'd that name come from? I don't recognize the term."

"Well, you've been down to Zharus, you know how crazy they are for the old Earth stuff. This is no exception. It comes from something around the Turn of the Twen. Weyrs are where dragons and the people who rode them lived while protecting the planet. We hit enough of the common points, it stuck easily."

She smirked. "The dragons in that book could speak telepathically, breath fire with help, and teleport through space and time. We've basically mastered all but the teleportation now, and even that's being worked on. The sciency types here have been trying to crack the macro-teleport issue, but haven't had any luck yet."

"With what you guys have pulled off here, I don't think I'd be that surprised if you said you had teleportation too."

"It's not for lack of trying. Come on, there's one last chamber to see. Cavern 1 is the economic heart of the colony."

She lead him back through the third cavern and down a wide tunnel, lined in ceramic metal. It opened into a space bigger than Cavern 3. The far end was open to space, but sealed with multiple levels of hardlight shielding. A dozen ships were under construction, ranging from a half dozen smaller ships suitable for travel around a planet, up to a couple large ones that dwarfed the space, more than capable of getting a drive ring and leaving the system. Unlike the other caverns, this one was kept in microgravity, letting the workers move about freely between the ships.

"Most of our ship building is in the interplanetary range. Camelot does mainly orbitals, and we take what they can't handle. We handle the interplanetary ships, and an occasional interstellar ship," Jadia explained.

They moved among the construction bays and stopped where they had a view of four similar ships being built. "These are Milano class ships. Long range planetary ships. They are mainly designed to work close to planets and moons. Capable of trips to the surface, with or without atmosphere, they also have expanded range to handle inner-system travel, and with extra modules, they can handle most in-system travel. The design's gotten popular both here around Zharus and out at Colossus, especially with the local Rangers."

This caught Ajax's attention. He looked closer at the ships and nodded, recognizing a design similar to Petra's ship. The Milano class had a triangular unibody, the wings containing space for storage and living quarters depending on the load out. It had two decks, a lower deck accessible from a rear hatch and stairs to the upper deck. The upper deck had the flight controls, and a pilots seat under a canopy that could open up. The pilots area tilted forward to give a better view ahead.

"The design looks fine, but some of the placements are questionable.... Let me guess, it's based on another cultural thing?"

"You got it. TwenFirst this time. Still, people like the looks, and the tradeoffs aren't that bad. It's also EI-compatible, if you can find one to hire or partner with. Our bodyworks folks are working on a RIDE-body version too, but the tradeoffs aren't working right just yet."

"Is there one I could step in and look around?" Ajax asked. "You might even manage to sell another one here, depending on how things go."

"Of course. Let me check, and see what's available." Jadia tilted her head, pausing to communicate with some unseen foremen. Finally she started towards the most complete ship on the lower right. "This way. It's not fully kitted out yet, but all the basics are in place."

She lead him up the ramp at the rear. He stopped and looked around. "Wow... It's so... So spacious."

"Spacious?" she asked.

He touched the lip of the hatch, looking closer, then shaking his head. "The living space of my ship back in Sol would have fit in here thrice over. The walls, they're so thin."

"Hard light shielding. No need to have as much actual mass. These ships, if they were given a lift, could go from the surface of Pharos to the outskirts of the Oort cloud with no changes."

"That's very impressive. Let's see what other surprises you have in here."

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After spending more time than he expected inspecting the various ships in the shipyards, Jadia lead them back to Cavern 3. Ajax was startled at how dark it was in there, compared to the bright lights of the shipyard.

"Cavern 1 is kept at full light all the time. But the habitat caverns operate on Zharus time, Aloha time to be specific."

"The thirty hour days are a bit much to get used to, but I'm getting there," Ajax grinned and took a moment to admire the inhabited sphere. Lights were turning on all over it, mainly concentrated in the village part, but also random lights in the fields, forests and under the lakes.

"Rhodes tried to stay on a 24-7 clock for awhile, but once the colonists arrived, all the spacer eventually shifted to Zharusian time. It just makes things easier."

"Most of Sol is still on Terran time as well. Universal Time is still universal there," Ajax noted.

They reached the hotel and settled on Ajax's balcony. The Sol Ranger deactivated his belt and dropped into a lounge chair. The dragoness settled on the railing. "And that concludes my tour of Celestial Weyr. I hope you enjoyed it," she said.

"It was great. More thorough than I ever imagined. Thank you." Ajax triggered the pay, with a decent tip.

Jadia, to her credit, didn't visibly react to the payment. "De rien," she said in French. "I hope I convinced you to consider moving here. The other orbitals in Zharus space have interesting things, but I doubt you'll find one with as much potential as we have here."

"It is intriguing, but I'll have to wait and see. I want to check out a few more places here, and out at Rhodes first." He sighed and shrugged, "In the end, it probably won't mean much. Ranger is in my blood. Once I'm more familiar with this system, I'll probably sign up again and go where they place me."

Officially off the clock now, Jadia hopped off the railing and glided over to the lounge chair. She settled on its arm, facing Ajax. "That's not a bad thing. You'd get to travel all over, see things few others will see," she said a bit wistfully.

Ajax lifted his hand and hesitated a moment. Jadia ducked her head under the lifted hand and began to rub against it. She didn't have horns, but she had ridges over her eyes, and running down her spine. As she rubbed, she let out a low purr of pleasure. Ajax relaxed and began to rub more, surprised at the texture of her scales, warm and flexible but tough on the fingers.

"There is that, and I do have a travel bug. I was born in Tycho City on Luna, but after joining the Rangers, I was basically no fixed address. I did time out at Europa, on Titan, Pluto and Mercury before I left. Now I'll have a whole new set of planets and moons and stations to add to my visited list.... You really like this, don't you?"

She purred louder and spread her wings, pressing upwards to guide his fingers to the base of her wings. "Mmm yes, I do. Hardlight helps us feel, so contact is appreciated, when we can get it."

She fell silent a moment before continuing. "Well, everyone should have a place to call home, even if you never visit it. You don't seem the planet type, but maybe the Weyr could be it."

He chuckled, "Yeah, Zharus itself is a nice place to visit, but not for me. Believe it or not, it's the first planet I've been on unprotected. Never did make it down to Earth before I left; never saw the need."

"That's a shame. I'd love to see Earth some day...."

Ajax kept rubbing longer, then let his hand drop away. "Well, if I am to consider this as a possible home, I should know more about it. What sort of dining is available around here? And nightlife?"

Jadia shook herself and slipped back into guide mode. "Dining? Well, due to the number of visitors we get, Celestial Weyr has a surprising number of eateries and dining options. So let's try to find something you like."

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Chapter 6

Celestial Weyr

Ajax groaned happily and rolled over in bed, his mind slowly rising to wakefulness. He had a momentary sensation that something was wrong, and blindly pawed at the sheets. There was a residual heat to the sheets that helped wake him up. He rolled over and sat up, the night snapping back into focus.

After a pleasant dinner with Jadia, she'd taken him to a club and introduced him to some others she knew. RIDE, Intie, Human, even one of the dragon-founders, all blurred together with the rest of the evening. He recalled making it back to the hotel with someone, his jumbled mind remembering red and a taste of cinnamon. He reached back and pulled a pillow over, sniffing it deeply. The cinnamon scent was strong there, as were the smells of adults having fun.

He stood up after two attempts and wandered over to a table under the screen set to mirror mode. His eyes eventually focused on the image in the mirror; bald head, dark skin, a few scars, but otherwise the same face he'd always had. He inhaled deeply and smelled fresh fabbed coffee, with another hint of cinnamon. Following the smell down, he saw a mug still steaming on the table. An icon flashed on the screen next to it. Ajax picked up the mug and sipped it. He added a packet of HangUp to help sort out his head, and tapped the icon.

The upper half of a naked woman appeared on the screen. She had strawberry red hair that reached below her shoulders, and had a pair of short horns lifting up from her temples. Fine red scales ran down the sides of her face and neck, completely enveloping her arms before continuing down her sides. The unscaled skin had a red tint to it that somehow didn't look like a burn victim. Her shoulders looked strong, normal up above, but with extra mass just below her armpits, where scaled wings grew out. The wings were slightly extended, blocking the view behind. His mind pulled out the name 'Cindy' from the depths of the night before.

"Howdy Earther... Sorry, Solar. I hope you had a good time last night. I certainly did," she said, fanning her face with a taloned hand and winking at him. The cinnamon scent and taste came back to him triple fold; he wasn't sure if it was something she wore, or something she sweated out, but it had certainly made the night memorable, once he began to remember it. "In any case, I hate to leave you like this but the A-G engines aren't going to install themselves, and you looked so cute sleeping like that."

She moved to one side, swinging a wing away, and the embedded picture caught the Spacer, sprawled out on top of the sheets face down, sleeping deeply. She moved back in front and grinned, "I don't know what your plans are, but feel free to keep in touch... if you want to. Ta-ta!"

The screen blanked for a moment before returning to mirror mode. Ajax finished the coffee slowly, letting his mind defrag and reassemble the night before. Most of the names and faces were a blur, but he finally concluded that he had fun. Especially the parts with Cindy. He let his body react naturally as he went to the bathroom to prepare for the day.

After a pleasant soak in the bathtub, followed by a rinse in a cold shower, he felt up for the day, but at a loss for what to do. He'd toured Celestial Weyr, and seen everything he'd wanted to see, but he didn't feel ready to leave yet.

He poured a fresh mug of coffee and settled on the lounge on the deck of his room. The sun globe was lit for early morning, and the sounds of the waking village surrounded him. He took the time to consider his feelings and finally realized part of what he was feeling. As a Ranger, he was used to operating alone for long periods, so he'd expected his trip to Zharus and beyond would be the same. But now, he realized there was a difference to being alone on duty, and being alone on vacation. The thought of going to the other orbitals alone depressed him.

"Right. Problem identified. Now what will I do about it?" he mumbled to himself. He watched a stream of winged beings cut across the spherical space to the Cavern 1 entrance, and a thinner stream coming back out. While the ship construction was a 30-hour a day process, the morning shifts were still when most of the workers seemed to show up.

"I could invite Cindy I suppose," he said aloud, then remembered the message. "Nah, she's got a job here, probably wouldn't want to go off with a one night stand... But maybe..."

He placed the call, and soon a holographic green dragon appeared in front of him. Her wings, head and tail were hanging at awkward angles, until he mentally turned the image over and realized the image she was sending was laying on its back on something unseen.

"Hel-*ksss*-lo?" Jadia said, her hologram glitching.

"Jadia? It's Ajax. Is everything OK?" he asked.

"Aja-ksssh? Oh!. Yeah *ksssh*ing's fine."

He leaned forward in concern. "You're glitching out. What happened?"

"Glitchissssh -ut? Sec-k-k-k-k."

Her hologram flickered and dissolved into pixels before reforming. This time her body seemed to be sitting up properly. "Sorry about that. I had a few too many Warp Core Breaches last night. I'm still cleaning up the data worms in my main processors."

Ajax stared at her hologram, his own mind putting the pieces together, "Warp core breaches?... You mean you're drunk? Or hungover or?"

She laughed, bobbing her head. "The RIDE equivalent yes. Inties figured out how to do it ages ago. Harmless for us, but it ties up our processors and scrambles our indices for quite a bit. I shifted your call to a clean subnet while my main networks untable-untubble-untangle themselves. What can I do for you?"

"I'm not sure I should do this right now, not in your current condition...."

"Don't worry. I'm fine. This subnet is capable of handling anything you might ask... Unless it's to fuse. If you want that, then you'd better wait until my head's intact." The small dragoness's head swelled larger, turning to look at him with one eye. "You don't want to fuse, do you?" she asked suspiciously.

"No! Not at all! It's not that!"

"Good. Because I'd probably decline. That's too big a commitment for someone I only know one day."

"It's not a fuse request," Ajax said, getting flustered and beginning to have second thoughts. "But it is a pretty big request from a one day encounter. I want to make you a job offer. I want to hire you as my native guide, at least for around Z-Space."

"Native guide?" she asked.

He nodded. "For at least Zharus space. If it works out, I might extend it for a trip out to Colossus as well."

"So you want me, to go with you, while you visit all the colonies and orbitals floating around Zharus?"

"It should only take a few weeks. Less if we are incompatible. More if you want to go see Colossus."

"Why?" she asked bluntly.

Ajax excused the bluntness as a side effect of her compromised networks. "Well, I guess it's because I'm lonely. I've met a lot of people since leaving Sol, but its all transient. I'm looking for a possible friend, or at least an acquaintance to show me around. To be a familiar face, an anchor amongst this strange system."

"I might be able to do that. But really, I haven't been anywhere but Aloha and Celestial Weyr here. As a guide, I'll just be regurgitating what I'm skimming off the wikis."

"So be it. We'll learn together. You seem to have an itch to travel you can't scratch; I'm giving you the chance."

"That sounds... very nice. No strings? I can cut you loose at any time?"

"No strings. I'll pay you for the time at each location, and your transport back to Celestial whenever we go our own ways."

She flipped in virtual air. "In that case, I accept. When do you want to start?"

"Well, today would be good, but if you need more time..."

The dragoness paused, considering her options. She seemed to make a decision. "Nope. I'm fine. Nearly done defragging now. But before you order the taxi, why don't you come by my place?"

Ajax received the address and loaded a map overlay to his view. He looked around and saw a spot light up at the far edge of the village. "Sure, I'll be right over."

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It only took a few minutes to reach the address, cutting through the air. The Robot Arms Apartments building was a simple apartment complex, four floors, with a half dozen units per floor. Balconies provided entrances to each unit. He lifted up to the third floor and knocked on the door.

"Come on in!" Jadia shouted, the door cracking open.

Ajax pushed it the rest of the way open and stepped in. The apartment was a couple of rooms big. The main room had a small kitchenette at one end, and was otherwise set up as a sitting room. A closed door lead to the second room. The dragoness laid on a nest in one corner.

"Welcome to my home. It's not much, but it's where I keep my stuff," she greeted him. She lifted from the nest and flew over.

"Thanks for inviting me. How are you feeling?"

"Back to normal. Doesn't take long to purge a Core Breach if you want to."

"So what did you want? Do you need me to help pack?" Ajax asked.

Jadia smirked. "In a way. Just a sec, it's been a while since I've dusted her off."

The dragoness fell silent, her eyes dimming as she stared at the door to the other room. A rumbling noise started up, before fading away. The door slid open, and the first thing Ajax noticed was a pair of glowing green eyes near the top of the doorway. The eyes lowered a little and a figure hidden in darkness started to move. There was a loud clunk as the figure's head hit the top of the door jamb. Seconds later, the figure lowered its head further and a green dragon head came out, followed by a long neck and the rest of the dragon. It matched Jadia's figure, scaled up to the size of a personal shuttle.

"Been a long time since I brought me out. Forget how big I am," Jadia said. Her eyes lit up as the figure stopped.

Ajax looked between the dragons. "That's you?"

"The original me, yes." She flew over and landed on the big dragon's back between its wings. "Just a second."

The smaller dragon folded up, pulling her wings and legs in tight. She curled her tail and head around until her body was an emerald egg shape. A slot opened in the big dragon and the egg slid in.

The big dragon shivered and came to life quickly. A shimmer spread over the metallic green plates, solidifying into an iridescent scale pattern. The dragon stretched carefully, losing the awkward movement it had earlier.

"There we go. Much easier inside than outside. Whoa you're tiny."

"You have a full RIDE?" Ajax asked.

She nodded, looking at him, swinging her head from side to side. "I do. I was built in Aloha and had a partner for a few years. She decided she wanted to go back to the mammal side, and I decided to head up here."

"But the smaller body?"

She flicked her wings, stretching them out. "Latest fad in space RIDEs, at least those without partners. An L-RIDE is easier to move around in up here. And the tech to Powermaster like this is maturing rapidly. I'm glad to help out.

"And while I can fuse like this, I don't intend to fuse with you. It's not good for client relations."

"I wouldn't ask it. I'm happy as I am. I take it you intend to bring your big self out with us? That's going to be more expensive to transport."

She carefully walked to the door. "Not that much more expensive, and the experience should more than make up for it."

Outside, she leapt out into the air. Her wings stiffened, legs pulling up into her body. The scaly appearance shifted back to metal as the head pulled back. The base of the neck turned translucent, revealing a passenger seat of a cockpit. The cockpit hatch slid open.

"Hop in. I'll finish the tour of Celestial Weyr now."

Ajax shrugged and swung over the railing, dropping into the seat. It wasn't dusty but it had a stiffness to it that hinted at the age. The back was narrow, and there was a large gap between the back support and butt support. The hatch sealed up again, and the controls lit up, complete with a holographic dragon perched on the armrest next to him.

"Welcome aboard. Before we leave, I just wanted to show you one final angle of Celestial." As Jadia spoke, she took off, heading for the shipyards.

Ajax wiggled in the seat, getting comfortable. He could feel it warm under him, the seat swelling and adjusting to support him better. "You're space capable?" he asked as they approached the hardlight field.

"I am. Good enough to flit between the near orbitals if we wanted to, but we'll probably want to take a taxi. I'm not as fast as they are, nor as comfortable," she explained as they phased through the field. The air noises abruptly went silent, leaving just the hum of fans and the other internal noises of the dragon-plane. "I can also land on moons and planets if we need to. If we go to Zharus though, we'd need to take the elevator back up. I don't have quite enough thrust to break the atmosphere."

At first, Ajax stayed alert, listening for any flaws or any other indicators of problems. His eyes focused on the sensors and controls in front of him, well aware he was only seeing what Jadia was letting him see. Eventually, he managed to relax, and look outside.

They spiralled around the misshapen moonlet slowly, getting a view of all sides of the rock. Its surface was pockmarked where the miners had extracted the metals. Most were sealed up now for the colony underneath. The rest provided access to the caverns.

"Take a look over there. Nine o'clock high," Jadia said, her holotar standing up.

"Nine... Do you use a twelve, fifteen or thirty hour clock for that?" he asked.

She laughed and pointed. "I never really thought of that. I think most of us use twelve. It's over there silly."

Ajax looked where indicated, and caught a flash reflecting off metal. Jadia shifted her course to head towards it. The flash quickly expanded into a starfish shaped framework that clung to the barest skeleton of a large ship.

"More shipyards?" Ajax asked.

"You betcha. As you saw, Cavern 1 is near capacity, so we're setting up some construction sites nearby. The Starfish just came online a few months ago."

They flew around the Starfish. Its scale was hard to tell against the backdrop of space, but Ajax estimated it could hold a ship a few hundred metres long easily. Robotugs were bringing a steady stream of material in from elsewhere.

"This is incredible. You guys are doing so much. Not just the Weyr, but everyone here in Pharos in general. There's a life here that Sol doesn't have."

"We are in a bit of a golden age. Integrates have proven to be a boom that people are coming to terms with, and giving us advances we never imagined."

"Yeah, Sol is languishing a bit. We're still doing stuff; the Icarus project is incredible, and the Jovian shipyards are booming again. But you're just a single colony tied to a small town on the planet, and what you're doing..." Ajax shook his head. "It's a bit humbling to be honest. But it makes me eager to be a part of it."

"Glad to help you decide."

They carefully buzzed the shipyard, and started to head back to the colony. Jadia started to call for a taxi, but Ajax stopped her.

"You said you could fly to the nearer orbitals. So you can fly to Uptown like this right?" he asked.

"Of course. It may not be too comfortable for you. And don't you need to get things back at your hotel?"

He shook his head and stretched a little. She didn't have gravity, but various fields held him in place in the seat. "It's been a year since I've had a chance to fly like this. And you're more than comfortable. Let's stretch your big body's wings a bit with a spin around Uptown and plan for more tomorrow."

She laughed. "Sounds like a plan. Here we go."

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Chapter 7

Celestial Weyr, 2 months later

The dragon-plane circled around the moonlet habitat, just because she could. Ajax watched the view silently within the cockpit, trying to sort out his feelings. The past few months had been great, and he was loathing the idea of leaving Jadia. The more they had travelled, the more alive she seemed to be. Now that they were back, they were both sliding into a funk, realizing their close friendship would be separating.

The pair shot through one of the osmosis shields into a tunnel towards Cavern 3. As soon as they had air, the plane began to shift, wings beginning to flap, legs extending, tail folding out. The cockpit pulled down around Ajax and stretched forward, until he was riding at the base of the neck of a green dragoness, an airshield protecting him from most of the wind. They burst into the cavern and climbed towards the sun sphere, stopping a few hundred metres above the ground.

"Thank you for being my guide," he said, leaning forward to rub her neck.

"No, thank you for letting me tag along. I never realized everything that was out there.... I just wish we could have seen more," Jadia replied.

"So do I. We barely saw anything of Colossus, and nothing at all beyond. But my budget only goes so far; it's time for me to start looking for work."

"What if I deferred-"

"We already talked about that, back on Rhodes. The difference wouldn't make a difference. It's past time I figured out what I wanted to do, not that it's any surprise. Everyone saw it before I did. I want to go back to the Rangers, and its time I started working towards that."

Jadia sighed. The big dragoness stiffened slightly, her movements becoming less fluid. Behind Ajax, a panel slid open and the green egg unfolded into a smaller dragon. She flew over his shoulder and landed to face him. "I know that. It's just... You've shown so much to me. I don't think I can stand being here any more."

Ajax reached out and scratched her under the chin. "Now now, Celestial isn't that bad. In fact, it's quite nice. It's important to have a place you feel comfortable out, a place to come home to after a long trip away."

"Maybe. But after all we've done and seen, it seems a bit bland to me. You, you're going to the Rangers. You're going to be going all around the system. Me, I'm just a tour guide. I'm the gal people like you hire to see the interesting spots of a place. I don't get to travel."

"You don't have to be a guide. You could be something else. Join the Rangers, transfer out to Colossus or whatever you want."

Jadia shook her head. "I'm not sure I'd be cut out to be a Ranger."

"Nonsense. All you need to be a Ranger is a willingness to travel and explore, and a desire to help others. You've got both in spades."

The dragoness stayed quiet for a moment before speaking again. "You remember when we left. I said I'd do whatever you asked, as long as it wasn't to fuse?"

Ajax smiled, "Sure. I do. You were obviously just kidding about fusing back then."

"I was. But I'm not now. I changed my mind. It's a big decision, but, do you want to fuse with me?"

The Ranger's eyes widened in surprise as the seriousness of her question sunk in. "I-"

She lifted up quickly and pressed her small claw to his mouth, silencing him. "Don't decide yet. It's too big a decision to make like this. Give it a week, think it over, research what you want, and let me know. Or don't, and I'll know anyway."

Silently, she dropped down to the ground, near the hotel. A hatch on the bigger RIDE opened and a few bags dropped out. Jadia refused to meet Ajax's eyes after he dropped off. "Call me when you make a choice. It's a big one, so make sure you really think about it."

Ajax nodded wordlessly. His first reaction to her offer had been a yes, but now that he was thinking of it, he was wondering if he was ready for that. "I will, Jadia. And no matter what I decide, I appreciate all you've done. I had a great time."

"So did I. Thanks for inviting me along." She curled back up and slipped into the big RIDE again. She shook her wings and lept into the air, quickly heading away.

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Chapter 8

In the hours that followed, Ajax's feelings ranged across a wide emotional range. When Jadia had first proposed fusing, his first reaction had been to say 'Yes!'. After she left, forcing him to think on it, he had time to think of what it would entail (and enwingen and transsexify), and his second reaction was a solid 'No!'. A few hours later, he found himself pacing his room, angry the RIDE had put him in that situation, and waffling between wanting it and not wanting it.

"Damn you Jadia for putting me through this," he grumbled, stopping his pacing. He knew he needed some advice, someone to sound off of, and there was only one other person in system he could think of that would fit. He activated the room's terminal and sat down to make a message that didn't sound too desperate.

"Ranger Petra, it's former Ranger Bondar. I'm not sure if you remember me much, but I'm not sure who else to talk to. I'm in quite the situation and I'm not sure what to do about it. Don't worry, it's not money related, nor life threatening, but it is life changing.

"So if you happen to be somewhere not too light laggy, I could really use someone else to talk to. I've got some time before I have to decide one way or another. And if you are too far out, don't worry. I'll figure something out.

"Thanks for listening. I look forward to hearing from you."

He stopped the recording and paused, his hand over the Send button. Deciding he had to do something, he pushed the button and waited.

Fifteen minutes later, he realized how stupid he was being. He'd only met the Integrate Ranger once, light hours away. Even if she cared to answer, it would probably be hours before she received the message. As if to confirm it, the comm window dinged.

Recipient is not currently in the Zharus local system. Do you wish to try other planetary networks?

"Yes, regular priority," he ordered. He drummed his fingers on the table, watching the timers tick down until his message arrived to the various planetary subnetworks until he realized how useless that was. He called another contact and the red dragon-woman answered almost immediately.

"Howdy Alf. Was beginning to think you lost my number," she greeted him.

"I didn't lose it, I just left the habitat faster than I expected. Is this a- wait Alf?"

She giggled, "Well your neck's too short to be an ET, your ears too short to be a Spock, but you do have the nose to fit an Alf."

"What the hell is an Alf? or any of those?" Ajax was getting so confused he was forgetting Jadia's request.

In response Cindy tossed a trio of images, with the simple FX of TwenCen media. The Alf was apparently a stout brown furred alien with a beak-like nose. "I am not an Alf!"

"Well you're not a Zharus native. That makes you an Alien Life Form in my book."

Ajax decided to drop it before he got more confused. "Is this a bad time?"

"Not at all; I'm at Shards with some coworkers. We just got off shift. You're welcome to join us."

"Are you sure? I'm an outsider, I wouldn't want to be a fifth lifter."

"Not at all!" He realized she was already multiple wings to the wind. "You know some of us, and we all love hearing what's happening out of system."

He barely kept from rolling his eyes and glanced at the side where the transmit times were still ticking away. "No one really likes to hear others people's travel stories. But I could use a break."

"Fantastic! See you soon!"

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Ajax woke slowly, his head aching from the previous night. He could feel the buzz from the hangover killers working slowly through his system, though he couldn't remember taking them. He could smell the scent of cinnamon, and could sense a warm body in the bed next to him, one arm draped over him. He rolled over carefully, trying not to disturb the other body and opened his eyes.

The dragon-woman was still deeply asleep, laying on her side, wings and tail relaxed and hanging off the far side of the bed. He studied her scaly hands and arms, recalling the feel of them on his own flesh. Blushing a little, he shifted his focus to the wings, looking at the scaley appendages. They rose from her back just below her arms, in a strange double shoulder. He tried to imagine how it would feel to have them on his back, to be able to move them at will, with the spade tip tail.

He sensed Cindy's breathing change, and shifted his gaze upwards. Her red eyes were open and watching him, still somewhat droozy.

"Didn't slip away this time," he mumbled. He reached out and rubbed the scales on her neck, following them over her shoulders.

"I'm off cycle. It's the start of my weekend," she mumbled.

"I hope it's been a good start so far."

Her talon rubbed his side down to his hip. "So far, so good. Let's see how much better it can get."

The pair rested on the bed, tangled in the torn sheets after their morning exercise. Cindy ran her dulled talon over his nipples, nuzzling against him. "You're good for her you know."

"Thanks," Ajax replied, mishearing the question.

Cindy gave him a playful slap. "Not me. Though you were decent for me. I meant Jadia. You've been good for her."

"I have? I didn't notice. In what way do you mean?"

"In every way really." Cindy rolled over until she was sitting on the edge of the bed. She spread her wings a bit and rubbed her tail against the Solarian.

"I don't know if she mentioned it, but we go way back. Cinnamon and Jadia are broodmates. Janice and I partnered with them while we were still in university; we worked at the Excalibur Resort in Aloha while studying. We were their first, and only partners.

"We graduated a few years back, and started working with one of the shipyards in Uptown. Most of the work was virtual, so we would work on that while Cinna and Jadia did the work at the resort. It was a good combo until we paid the RIDEs off and could actually move up here to be more hands on.

"The day came, we paid them off and owned the dragons, well up until they gained independence. That should have been a happy day for the four of us, but Janice dropped a bombshell on us. She was tired of the wings and scales and everything. Right after she owned Jadia free and clear, she told us she was going to trade Jadia in for a pony RIDE."

Ajax could tell Cindy was getting angry. He reached up and began to rub her arm and wing shoulders. "That sounds awful."

"It's worse than that. Janice showed no signs of wanting to change so it caught the rest of us blind. Jadia, she'd been looking forward to being free. Sure she'd still be technically owned, but we knew, or we thought we knew, our friendship would be better than that.

"Cinna and I, we may have helped Jadia before Janice could complete the sale. Some fetter breakers and root hackers may have been left where Jadia could find them easily. A day or two before she was to be traded in, she bolted out to a RIDE camp in the Dry, Cinna and I went uptown and none of us have spoken to Janice since."

He hugged her tight. "I see, but you're back here now. What happened next?"

"When Celestial Weyr opened up officially, Cinna and I were one of the first ones in here. Jadia, in the L-RIDE, came out of the Dry when Aloha recognized RIDEs as people too, and eventually made her way up here. We hooked back up together right away. The time alone hadn't been good for her. The Jadia we knew was there, but it'd been hardened, less trusting. We didn't even know she still had her old body until you got her out in it."

"You mean the big body? She said the smaller one was more efficient, and easier for moving around in."

"It is. Cinna wants to get one eventually, but we haven't had time yet. Jadia on the other hand, hasn't been in her big body since coming up here. It's not just because she hasn't had a partner; any RIDE wants their big body if they can get it. She just hasn't wanted to get in it at all, until you showed up."

"So I've been a good influence on her? It didn't seem like it. I mean she's great, friendly to be around. And she did drop that bombshell on my lap."

"You didn't know her before, before Janice nor before you. That bombshell is the most telling thing about it all. She hasn't mentioned fusing once since Janice left. But you, after a couple months travelling around the system, she's ready to fuse again. Cinna and I have noticed it, and we're liking what we see. Every time you guys left to go somewhere else, she'd send us a travel log; she was having real fun out there with you. Our Jadia was back, at least for a little while."

Ajax sighed and shook his head, moving to sit beside Cindy, letting her stretch a wing around behind him. "Right. As if I didn't have enough to consider about this."

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to pressure you. If you aren't ready for this sort of jump, I'll understand. It's just so nice to have the old Jadia back, well I guess Cinna and I are a bit greedy about it."

"I know. I just have to think for myself too. We're a good fit now, but if I don't like what she makes me, I could become another Janice."

She nodded and stood up. "That's the scary part. Another Janice could break her. Granted you telling her no would be a blow. But compared to having another Janice in a few years, it might be a safer blow. Part of me loves to see my friend back to normal. Another part is cursing her out for putting a stranger like you through this mess."

Ajax reached out and tugged her tail playfully. "Well, after all we've done, I would hope I'm a little more than a stranger by now."

She giggled, "Point to you. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to use the facilities."

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Ajax checked his messages while the dragon woman cleaned up in the washroom. The indicator showed a message had arrived while they were sleeping. Petra's bald eagle head showed on the screen. Compared with everything else he'd seen in this system, the Integrate no longer seemed so strange to him.

"Hi Ranger Bondar. Good to hear from you again. Once a Ranger, always a Ranger as far as I'm concerned; especially when it comes to a one in need. From the tone of your message, you are in need. Since you said it wasn't life threatening, or immediate, I take it you've found a RIDE you want to fuse with. Given you have to actually THINK about it, there's either a mythic (likely since the message came from Celestial Weyr) or a female RIDE involved, probably both.

My advice to you, is to wait. Think hard about it, what you gain and what you lose. It's not just the biology involved, there are other things that you may not realize.

I'm hitching a ride on a fast courier in from Colossus and should be there in a day or so. If you can wait, we can talk then. If you can't wait, well, I should be in time for the Cross-party.

See you soon."

He was still looking at the last image of Petra when Cindy wandered back out, rubbing her hair with a towel and otherwise undressed. "Friend of yours?"

"I suppose so. She was the first Integrate I met; before I even knew about RIDEs even. She's going to swing by in a few days."

"I look forward to meeting her."

Ajax nodded, and found himself staring at Cindy again, not sexually this time, but practically. She'd been fused with a dragon for years, and it showed in the smoothness of her movements. He tried to imagine himself like that, and came up short.

"Why would she do this to me?" he asked in frustration.

Cindy sat on the edge of the bed. He noticed how naturally she lifted her tail enough to sit there, followed by curling it around her side until it was on her lap. She let the towel drop beside her.

"Well, first of all, I'm not an expert. I've just been fused with a RIDE for a decade now, so this is all personal experience. That said, you need to remember, RIDE intelligences are not human. Sure they sound and act human, but that's how they were designed to be. You need to remember that behind that intelligence facade is some of the most powerful computing processors ever developed, along with some meta stuff we only guess we know. The human-like aspect we interact with, it's just an emulation they run in their spare processes. Below that, their true minds are almost inconceivable. We're plodding along at chemical speeds while they're zooming at light speeds."

"I've read some of that," Ajax noted. "I didn't understand much of it but I read some. Some say it's a subconscious thing. Even human minds, especially once we started doing brain implants, are processing more data than we are aware of. Most of it happens at a subconscious level while we interact with the world at a slower speed, one that our bodies can handle."

"And in the case of RIDEs, they have a similar buffer between their minds, only they can interact with their subconscious more directly than we can. I've heard that theory, it has some valid points," Cindy agreed. "In any case, Jadia has had a long time now to spend time alone in her own head. Not just the Real years, but the centuries and millennia in fast time. That's the alienness of them again; we can't just look at their core creation date and decide if they're grown up yet or not. By human standards, most RIDEs are either still kids; or they are the oldest things we know. We're still working out how to classify their maturity."

"So are you saying Jadia might be immature?" Ajax asked. "She seemed pretty knowledgeable to start."

"No! Not at all!" Cindy frowned and rubbed her temples at the base of her horns. "I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. I guess, I'm saying things may not be fully as they seem. When it comes to RIDEs, they are all over the map. Just because they look and act mature and knowledgeable, they may not have the experiences to know what the right thing to do is. They are only a few Real years old at most, and have often had sheltered lives to some extent. That leaves gaps in their knowledge that can surprise you. They may do things they think are right, but are really absolutely the wrong thing; usually because they're cribbing reactions off the media. They mean well, they just don't have the right reaction patterns set to know what a good way to respond is."

"So you're saying, Jadia gave me this week deadline because of something she grabbed from some TwenCen stuff?" Ajax was getting as confused as Cindy was.

"Yes... No... Maybe? Her intentions were right. She also knows this isn't something to be rushed into. Her deadline probably makes sense to her by some twisted logic path."

Ajax looked away, catching the paused image of the gryph integrate on the screen. "So what should I do? What would you do if you were me?"

Cindy got up and squeezed his shoulders reassuringly. "You realize that's the first time you actually asked me that question? It's been on the tip of your tongue since you joined us."

"I know. It's my problem to solve, I didn't want to burden it on you."

"Well, before I answer, I'll share one last bit of RIDE theory I have. RIDEs are alien intelligences, but they are also created intelligences. They were made to link with us. We provide the depth of experiences they haven't made on their own yet. So in one respect, RIDEs need humans to be complete. Some can go alone, but most won't feel right without a partner. Jadia thinks she's a loner. Cinna and I know her better; she hasn't been right since Janice left."

"So you're saying I'd be a help for her."

Cindy gripped his shoulders tighter, dulled claws pressing against his skin. "No, I'm saying that she comes with a lot of baggage. Perhaps too much baggage for someone who isn't used to Zharusian culture. She's giving you time to think it over, take it. Really, the fact that you haven't run off to anywhere else is very telling."

He tapped the comm screen, switching it back to mirror mode and looked at them in the reflection. "How is it telling?"

She tapped his chest. "This knows the answer. Now you need to figure out how to listen to it and convince this..." She tapped his head. "... that it is what you want."

He thought about it and nodded slowly. Cindy hugged him, then let him go abruptly. "I'm sure you'll figure it out. Take some time, get some space and the answer will be obvious."

"Yeah, I think it is. I'm just not sure I want to accept it yet."

The dragon-lady walked over to the patio and opened the door. A large red scaled dragon head waited just off the railing. "And that's why you need the time. As you can see, my RIDE is here. Give me a call tonight and we can 'talk' more." She air quoted 'talk' and winked at him, before jumping on the dragon's muzzle.

Cinnamon tossed her partner up in the air and seemed to fall backwards in the air. In clear view of Ajax, the RIDE's chest split open, showing her fuse chamber. Cindy fell backwards into it, wings pulled in to clear the space, and the dragon quickly sealed up, taking on more humanoid traits in the process. The fused pair waved at him, and took off across the chamber.

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Chapter 9

Ajax puttered around the room for an hour, cleaning up himself and the room, thinking about what Cindy had said. He could feel himself sinking into an infinite thought loop again, and decided to take her advice. He ordered a space taxi to Uptown.

When he arrived at the anchor weight station, he headed for a sun park. Sun parks were well tended green spaces built in cube frameworks hanging off the side of the station. Other than the support structure, they had hardlight walls, giving visitors a clear view of outer space, the large planet below and the cable between the two. Ajax figured it was good a space as any to try and sort out his head.

He picked a bench near the outer wall. Above and outward, he could track the movements of numerous ships and orbitals and other space traffic that filled the planetary space. He knew one of the larger ones was Celestial Weyr, but didn't bother trying to identify which. Looking down, below his feet, the planet spread out. To his left was a large ocean, partly covered in clouds. He recognized a couple of eye-shaped structures, indicative of hurricanes heading somewhere. To his right, a glaring bright desert spread out to the edge of the planet. It had hundreds of shades of browns and tans, and not a single pixel of green or blue. Like the water ocean to his right, he could see the dust clouds of storms blowing across the desert ocean. In between the two oceans, stretching ahead of him, was a stretch of green and white. He could make out the mountain ranges, flattened from his altitude, that separated wet from dry. He knew he could bring up overlays to identify locations on the planet and what moving dot was what spacecraft or orbital; he left it off. Instead he just took advantage of the peaceful park to relax. The distance was helping him regain a bit of perspective.

Feeling ready, he put on his interface specs and connected to the local networks. He put out a search on information on RIDEs, Fusing, cross-RIDEing and mythic RIDEs. As expected, the search engines warned him there was too much information available.

"AndrAIa, wake up,: he ordered. Compared to the RIs and EIs he'd met, his old friend seemed woefully primitive. Still, she was his, and he desperately needed the familiarity to help him through the rabbit hole he was diving into. After a few seconds, her translucent head appeared in the corner of his workspace.


"AndrAIa, monitor search results. Highlight items of interest I may miss." he ordered.

Confirmed. Monitoring.

With his own personal life guard on duty, he dove into the mountains of data. Very quickly he tossed out the basic information on how fusing worked, along with theory on RI development; he was a little curious about them, but he had more important things to focus on. He discovered that mythic fusing and cross fusing had many data points in common, mostly related to how extremely they changed the human, and how and why the cooldowns existed. The amount of data was still a mountain bigger than Olympus itself as far as he could tell.

"What to do when force cross fused'. 'What to do after emergency cross fusing.'. Willing cross fusing, you and your new genitals. He mumbled the titles of the datapacks to himself as he quick sorted them into various piles for later examination. Occasionally AndrAIa would flag one he threw away for closer examination. Most of them he tossed in a duplicate or uninterested pile.

Sometimes, curiosity got the better of him, especially when it came to the forced crossfusing stories. Skimming over the public victim reports often left him chilled. Entire industries existed on the planet below him, just to support people who suddenly found themselves trapped in a new sex, or a new body and every combination in between. He was thankful he didn't find Petra's story in the lists.

He shifted his search focus to willing crossfusing stories and found a different mountain of data. Most of it was polity specific, and irrelevant to his situation. Based on reputation, he peeked at Cape Nord's and Sturmhaven's crossriding propaganda, and was surprised at how similar their views were, for supposedly opposite polities.

Pushing past the propaganda, he found a treasure trove of information on handling a crossride. There were hundreds of guides on handling crossrides, coming from every major organization on Zharus and beyond that dealt with RIDEs or health in general. The Nextus ones he found most useful; breaking down what would happen during the change, immediately after the change and later on, though the actual descriptions he found dry and very clinical. Alohan, Upliftian and other guides helped make clear how much of an emotional and hormonal roller coaster it could be.

AndrAIa whistled for his attention. Found something. Might be interested.

"Show me."

His open documents shrunk away and a new document opened. It was a guide from Nuevo San Antonio about dinosaur RIDEs.

"What's this for?" Ajax asked, puzzled.

Dinosaur leads to dragon. Similar tech. Similar consequences. Similar care needs.

"Gotcha. I've been too focused on the sex change, I forgot the wing and scales side of it."

Her holographic head smiled and morphed into a thumbs up.

He skimmed through the guides and histories she found and got further lost. The small polity was famous for making dino-RIDEs and they'd spun that into some of the more famous mythic types. Hours later, with a pounding head, he closed off his virtual space.

"That's it for me AndrAIa. If I read or watch anything else my head is going to explode."

The avatar exploded, then reformed, smirking at him.

Keep searching/sorting?

"No. I think I have enough for now. I know what to expect I guess, in more detail than I thought possible. What I do with it, I don't know."

New task?

"No new task. You may... wait!" An idea occurred to him at the last moment. "New search parameters. Scan and summarize guides. Keywords Pharos Rangers. Pharos regulations. Ranger cadets. Transfer from Sol. Feel free to expand if it seems appropriate."

Gotcha. Searching.

Ajax closed down his virtual space and stretched. The hours in virtual space were hitting him with a stiffness in his muscles. Below, dawn was lighting up Gondwana, the terminator rushing across the Dry Ocean. Following the lights of the Alohavator downward, he could see the city's lights around the bay, still bright even in the late hour.

"Well, that city never sleeps. Let's see what's still awake up here," he said to himself.

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Chapter 10

After being in system for months, Ajax was beginning to get used to the locals. People with animal traits, animals walking on two and four legs, robots, cyborg spacers, and integrates were all just other people he barely paid attention to when walking around Uptown. When he joined the Rangers, he knew he would have to be more aware of his surroundings. For now, he was happy to just be another face in the crowd while staying lost in his thoughts.

The talon on his shoulder nearly made him jump to orbit. Twisting around, he saw the gryphoness smirking.

"What the shards are you doing here?" he asked, louder than he intended.

Petra shook her hardlight wings a little and laughed. "Apparently surprising you. I could ask you the same; I thought you were over at Celestial?"

"I needed a break, to get some space to clear my head and gain some perspective."

She nodded and looked him over closer. "No scales, no breasts. Second thoughts?"

"I'm well into the hundredth thoughts by now." Ajax sighed and shrugged. "Still, whatever I decide, I won't be able to say I wasn't informed. Weren't you supposed to get in tomorrow?"

"Fast couriers are fast. Though this one's SIF was a few months past due for a retuning and overhaul. When I got your message I was already light minutes out of Colossus." She leaned closer and seemed to look through him. "Ah yes, I see you have been doing a lot of research. Here, let me."

Ajax felt a virtual weight land on him as the Intie pushed a big data packet onto his local firmware. AndrAIa's avatar sputtered and reformed, looking perturbed and annoyed. A virtual hand reached up to rub her virtual cheek.

Confusion. What happened?

"There you go, all vaccinated to Zharusian standards, and I purged all those nasty bugs you picked up on the wild net."

He felt as confused as his AI. "What bugs? I was fully up to date when I left Sol. And I grabbed all the compatible patches when we got in system."

"Yes, you were. But Sol doesn't have unfettered Intelligences running around its networks, spawning an entire virtual ecology wilder than they can imagine. Between the RI's, EI's and Inties, there are a lot of nasty stuff out there that would see most non-Zharusian protection as tissue paper. Luckily you didn't get anything too bad. Just the usual suite of trackers, watchers and spammers. There are Inties on the planet that drive agents to make sure the popular search terms stay safe to search, especially searches popular with aliens."

"Thanks," Ajax said, checking his firmware stats and noting an improvement.

She closed her eyes again and this time Ajax noted a golden feather nestled among the white ones on the left side of her head. It flickered brighter and another data packet dropped on him.

"That's a software DINSec. Not as good as a hardware version, but if you install it, it will alert you if an Intie is trying tricks with your system. I sent the specs for a hardware version that should work too. I'm sorry I didn't do that in the outer system, it never crossed my mind."

"Thanks again. I hadn't even thought about that. I guess I'm still coming to terms with how much computing power is in this space."

"Well, RI's or EI's alone, could brute force their way through just about all the systems in Human space. Eridani and NeoRus would give them challenges due to local advantages, but everyone else, we've got them beat."

"I've begun to realize that. One thing I don't understand though, is what makes Inties so special. You're a fusion of a RIDE core and a human brain. What makes that more powerful?"

She tapped the side of her head. "Technically, we aren't more powerful. The grey matter does slow the core down a hair. Not much, but enough to be noticeable in brute force calculation metrics. The Intie advantage is that we work smarter, not harder. Somehow, cooking a core with neurons in a sarium bath makes us innately aware of some quantum tricks they can't see on their own."

She grinned and pulled him over to a cafe that overlooked the busy boulevard. "So, enough about me, how about you? I take it a pretty RIDE has caught your eye?"

"Something like that. Uhm, don't you have business to take care of first?" Ajax asked, trying to change the subject after placing an order.

"Already handled before I found you."

"Right..." He sipped the coffee that was dropped off at their table and took a moment to gather his thoughts. "Well, you've guessed right so far. It is a dragon RIDE. Her name is Jadia." He went on to describe how they had met, just a random choice on the local lists, and his spur of the moment to invite her along for the rest of his local space tour.

"We got back and she offered to fuse, with the week long deadline. I've been wrestling with it over the past few days, talking it over and digging up everything I can on what will-might happen in five days."

"Four days. Zharusian weeks are six days."

Ajax winced. "Four days. Even better. I don't know many people here; hell I barely know you. I'm not sure why I even called you."

"Because I'm one of the first you met, and the only one you know who crossed," Petra pointed out. "Even if my own case wasn't a willing cross."

He winced again. "Yeah. That was selfish of me. I'm sorry. It probably brings up bad memories."

"It does. Horrible memories." Her gaze shifted to a point over his shoulder, not focusing on anything. "It was a scary situation, to be on a strange planet, kidnapped by strange people, forced into a strange machine and then to have your body changed into an alien thing against your will. But that was a long time ago and it's behind me. I've been like this almost as long as I was male human now. I'd say I can barely remember what it used to be, but Intie memories aren't like that. Experience wise, it's a foreign land now."

"I shouldn't have done this to you. I'm sorry," Ajax repeated, reaching to take her taloned hand in his own.

She squeezed back and refocused on him. "No, it's okay. You were looking for advice from someone you know who has been through it. I'm one of the few you know who has, so it made sense. The fact that you are asking all these questions is a good sign. You're going into this fully aware, which is more than a lot of people can say. Too often people are blinded by the fuse and don't consider all the implications. For the RIDE it isn't too bad; they can always look for another partner. For the human, they're committing years of their life to that new form. If they don't like it, they're stuck with it."

"I know, that's what's giving me so much doubt. I've been reading the stories and the warnings. It scares the crap out of me."

"As it should. It's not a decision to take lightly. But that's not why you called me. You called me for the first hand experience."

"I suppose I did. What would I have to expect?"

She leaned back and touched her chest. For the first time, Ajax realized she was naked. It was so common in the Alohan anchor station, he'd stopped noticing it. "Well first, the sex change? It's no big deal. Sturmhaven and Cape Nord and similar make a big deal about it. But the basics are still the same in the end. The sensitive parts move around a bit, you get an innie instead of an outie and a more advanced factory in your belly. You will have to adjust, and learn new habits and a new maintenance schedule. In the end, humans are still humans."

"Culturally you will be treated differently, partly because you're now a woman, partly because you've crossed. It's not as bad up here in space compared to the planet, but you can expect some differences. The fact that you're Solar will probably be a bigger factor around these parts."

She spread her wings wider and curled them around the table. "Now the animal traits, those will catch you every time. Mammal RIDEs usually aren't bad; you get a tail, ears, maybe claws or hooves and some extra hair. The more extreme RIDEs, the more extreme the changes. Learning to eat and drink comfortably with a beak was a challenge. Feathers and fur care is a bitch. Scales itch when they get too dry. Wings will never lay comfortably and get in the way in tight places. And the tail is a literal pain in the ass."

"Well, Jadia's a dragon, so I won't have to worry about most of those. She has a muzzle, not a beak. She doesn't even have horns."

"Lucky. You still get the wings and tail. Are you ready to wear them for the next few years to the rest of your life? If you get really desperate, you could have them docked, but to do it properly is tricky, and fusing again you'd just have to regrow them."

Before answering, Ajax looked Petra over closely. He shifted in his seat until he was sitting closer to the edge, similar to her. He reached back and rubbed his rump then hugged himself, trying to imagine what it would be like to have the extra appendages and tail. "I think I could handle it. You know for someone who's complained about your wings since I met you, you've been keeping them out a long time."

She chuckled and shook them, hardlight feathers rustling. "I hated them when I couldn't make them disappear. Then they always get in the way. Now that I can turn them on and off at will, I don't mind giving them a stretch when I can."

She refocused on him and looked him over. "As for you handling it... I think you can. Jadia will have some instinct grafts and engrams she can apply if you want. They won't change your mind, but they'll help make it easier to handle the new equipment."

Ajax shuddered a little and shook his head. "Does she have to apply those? I don't mind her peeking in my head, but changing things? That seems too far."

"Well she doesn't have to, but it will make things easier. Don't worry, the tech is very mature now."

"It'll have to be something else I have to think about. At this rate, I have so much to think about, I might as well paint myself grey and lock myself in stasis on a pedestal."

Petra laughed. "Well at least you're thinking about it. That's a good first step. Now, something else to consider. The first fuse. The practice nowadays is to give you some flexibility as you fuse. She'll be able to show you the new you as you are baking, and give you a chance to adjust it. Take that chance and figure out what you want. Dragon types especially have a range, from human with wings and tail, to full out dragon person. Pick one you feel comfortable looking at in the mirror every day. You can change it later, but the first reveal seems to be the one that sticks best."

"I hadn't thought of that at all. How much time would I have to decide?"

"All the time in the world really. Once the fuse starts, you can join her in fast time. Still, it would help to have an idea of what to expect."

She held out her hand and turned it over. A hardlight emitter in her palm glowed and a sim of a naked Ajax formed. "Let's see, Jadia, a green dragon RIDE. So let's see what would be possible...."

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A few hours later, they'd narrowed Ajax's choices down to a trio and they'd sampled at least one of each type of baked good the cafe had.

"Don't worry about finalizing your choice yet. Sleep on it, and one will click I'm sure."

Ajax laughed, "Sure, 'click'. I can't believe we just spent most of the day designing my new body. I don't even know what I'm going to tell Jadia yet. This world really is insane."

Petra picked at some crumbs on her plate. "I told you we're crazy here. But you're wrong about not knowing what your choice is. You made it practically when you first met her. Like Cindy said, all the rest is convincing your head."

"What? No, that isn't the case. I didn't even know about RIDEs before I got here, let alone wanted to partner with one."

"True, but that's the things with RIDEs. They do form partnerships with people. Now that they're recognized as people, it's turning the divorce courts and inheritance rules upside down, but that's beside the fact.

"For some people, RIDEs are a casual contact. You connect up, fuse for the experience and go your separate ways. For others, they're a business contact. You combine for the job, do the job and continue on with your lives, sometimes staying in touch, sometimes still working together, but that's it. A lot of RIDE pairings are like that.

"But for some people, human and RIDE included, there's a special someone out there. A special RIDE or human just for them. If they're lucky, they will meet, and the magic happens. " As she spoke, she projected a scene from her palms, showing a man and an eagle RIDE at a rocky arch.

"That's what's his name? The Alohan guy and his RIDE? I saw that when I was touring downstairs," Ajax said.

Petra nodded. "Probably one of the more famous hookups in RIDE history. When they finally recognized what was as obvious as the beak on my face, it was magical. Most of the strongest RIDE pairings are like them to some extent.

"In your case, it sounds like you had a similar click when you met. It probably wasn't obvious at first, but you felt it. That's why you invited her on the space tour. And why she brought her big DE out of mothballs. You were both trying to recognize what your hearts already knew. When it looked like you were going to try and leave, Jadia forced the issue. And now she's waiting for your human speed body to catch up."

Ajax looked at the three models still in v-space. They ranged from simple human woman with wings and tail, to full on dragoness, with scales and muzzle. He wasn't sure which he preferred yet, but he did acknowledge one thing. He would be one of them soon.

"Yeah, I've reached my decision. I think. Thanks for listening. And helping. I should head back to Celestial now."

She stood with him. "Great. We can split a cab over."

"Split a cab? Don't you have other duties?"

"Not right now. I'm supposed to ship back out with the fast courier; but he's not leaving spacedock until he replaces that flakey SIF generator. That'll take a couple of days. Besides, I can file this trip under Recruitment. I'm helping a transfer and recruit get on the right track after all."

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Chapter 11

Celestial Weyr

Petra and Ajax stood outside the Robot Arms Apartment complex. Ajax shifted nervously from foot to foot, glancing up at the entrance to Jadia's home.

"So this is where she lives. Figures. Did they go with the binary room numbering scheme?" Petra asked, trying to distract the other ranger.

"What? No, I don't think so. I didn't notice. What do you mean figures?"

"I mean the name. For single RIDE living space, most of them eventually name their building that. A subtle TwenCen nod to the ThirCen I guess. Are you going to call her or what?"

"I suppose I should." Ajax closed his eyes and sent out the call. "Jadia? It's Ajax. Can we talk? I'm outside."

A long few seconds later, the dragoness answered. "I'll be right down."

By the time he opened his eyes again, the small green dragon was already dropping down from her entrance. She landed a few metres from the pair. From the slight quiver in her wings and the twitching tail, Ajax could tell she was nervous.

"Hi there," she said carefully, glowing eyes looking at each ranger in turn. "I... I saw you left the Weyr. I didn't think you'd come back."

Ajax gulped and shook his head, resisting the urge to get closer and hug her. "I'd never do that to you... to anyone. It's not polite, nor honorable. No matter what I decide, I'd do it face to face."

"And have you made your choice?" she asked cautiously. Her eyes were locked onto his.

"I have. After a lot of reading and watching, and long talks with Cindy and Petra here." Jadia barely gave the Integrate a second glance. "I'm ready to decide." He paused and decided to get another element out of the way first. "Cindy told me about Janice."

"Janice is history. She grew tired of the wings and scales and decided to try something else," Jadia said, barely hiding the bitterness in her voice. "Cindy probably should have left well enough alone."

"I'm glad she did tell me. If we fuse, I would have found out anyway, right? And knowing has helped me make my decision. Knowing what Janice did to you... It makes me want to promise you I won't do the same. But its a promise I can't make."

The dragon's wings slumped and she looked away. "I see."

"No you don't see. Please let me finish. I would like to promise you I'd never leave you, but I'm too practical to make promises like that. The future is too hazy. Still, it's a future I'd like to travel with you, for as long as we can stand the other's company."

He saw her pause the moment the words sunk in. She looked back at him, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. Or as sure as I can be. If you can wait until tomorrow. Apparently if the cross is planned, there are certain before and after events that are expected to occur." Ajax looked at Petra who nodded.

"Cindy's already getting ready. If you will take him," she explained.

"I asked him in the first place. Of course I'll take him! ... Damnit, I just flushed the big shell, getting it ready for storage again. And I need to check for updates... I don't know if I'll be ready tomorrow. Do you want horns? I can get horns if you want them."

Ajax went over and crouched next to Jadia. He scratched under her chin. "I'll be ready when you are. Take your time and do it right. And no, I'll pass on the horns unless you want them."

"Good. Horns are a pain. Just get in the way... I can't believe this, are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Do you want me to come up and help? I may not have any DE experience, but I am a pair of hands, and it's going to be my body too, sort've."

She nodded eagerly and hopped up onto his shoulders. He continued to rub her under the chin as she settled.

"Well you two look good. I'll see you at Shards later. Remember, no fusing till tomorrow. Cindy will be awfully disappointed if you pop early."

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Chapter 12

Ajax woke up in a familiar situation, mind fuzzy as the hangover cure worked through his system. The room was dark, the sunglobe outside in pre-dawn mode. Beside him, Cindy snored, laying on her side facing him. He laid there for a moment, admiring her, feeling the stings from scratches and the aches in his hips. He hadn't realized how much the dragon-woman had held back until she had no reason to.

Abruptly, his bladder realized he was awake and raised the red flag. He rolled out of the bed and fell to his knees, surprised at how exhausted and weak he felt. Cindy let out a playful growl from the bed, but still seemed asleep. He used the bedside table to pull himself up, and limp-stumbled to the bathroom. As he emptied his bladder, he realized it would be one of the last times he did it standing up.

When finished he washed up a bit and used the mirrors to look him over. For decades, the same body, the same face had looked back at him, aging a little more each day. Tomorrow, a stranger in a strange body would be looking back.

"Going to be a day of lasts. Having second thoughts?" Cindy asked. She leaned against the doorway, tail twitching against her leg.

"I lost count long ago. But I'm still going to do it. A day for firsts too, for me at least."

She nodded and came up behind him. She hugged him under his arms, rubbing his chest then running talons down to his groin. "You want one more last?"

He groaned a little and reluctantly pulled away. "Part of me wants as you can see... but I don't think I have enough left in the tank. Better to finish on a strong note instead of a disappointing one."

She moved to the shower, letting her tail brush past his legs. "Good point. I've got to get ready for my shift. Care to help me wash up?"

"Of course."

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Once Cindy left, Ajax looked around the hotel room. They'd ceremonially burned (with Jadia's fire breath, a trick he didn't know she had) his clothes the night before, leaving him a pair of underwear and a simple robe they'd fabbed for him. New clothes would wait until after fusing, when Jadia and he worked out her new sizes.

Just before noon, Petra landed on his room's deck and knocked on the door. "Ready for this?"

"As ready as I will be. You sure you want to do this?"

The gryphoness laughed, "I was going to ask you first. I'm just witnessing it, you're the one doing all the work, or at least getting all the work done. Jadia's waiting in the meeting room."

"Well we might as well go meet her."

Petra hugged him and lifted him out of the room and down to the ground. They walked through the unmanned hotel lobby to the meeting room they had rented.

"What do you think about her proposal?" Ajax asked as they went. "Selling the experience, it just feels strange to me."

"It is, but it's safe enough. No private data would get out, just the feeling of the changes. It's the latest fad with the net heads downstairs. With all the firsts you hit, it's sure to be a hit," Petra said.

"Virgin fuse, cross fuse, dragon fuse, alien fuse. I guess that does hit a lot kinks people might have. But does the fuse really give that much to experience?"

Petra laughed, "Not really. The RIDEs amp it up for the sensorium experience, so it's about fifty-fifty real and simmed. Especially after you strip out the private parts. And I mean that both ways."

Ajax nodded. "Well, my nest egg from Sol is starting to dry up. It's why we came back so soon. A boost would be useful, if it was worth it."

"As you said, it hits a lot of popular kinks with the nethead crowd. With all those firsts, you can charge quite a premium for it. If you want, I can review it before release?"

"Thanks. I'd appreciate that."

In the room, they found Jadia perched on a large hardlight box, decorated in green with white stars. "Hi guys! Did you have a good time last night?" she asked cheerfully from the crate. She jumped down and flew over, landing on Ajax's shoulders and nuzzling him.

"A great time. You look like you've been busy," Ajax said, scratching his new partner under the chin.

"I have. I got my body cleaned and tuned up. Made sure I had all the updates and stuff too. Open it up, take a look," she chirped eagerly.

At his touch, the box collapsed inward, revealing the big RIDE inside. Ajax and Petra both whistled at the sight of it. Ajax was used to Jadia's full size body when it was dusty from lack of use. This version looked like it was right off the factory.

The green dragon was curled nose to spade tail, with the wings folded along her spine. Her hardlight scales glittered and flexed with simulated breathing, each scale distinct and sparkling in the light. Jadia leaped off Ajax's shoulders and curled up, merging into the slot at the base of the dragon's neck. A second later, the eyes opened, showing faceted emerald optic sensors. The wings spread open, a glittering hardlight membrane between the fingers. She uncurled and stood up, revealing a lighter green on her belly compared to the deeper green on her back. She lifted a dexterous forefoot and wiggled her dark talons.

"You like?" she asked.

"You're beautiful," Ajax replied, moving closer slowly. He put his hand on her larger head and stroked it slowly.

"No, we're going to be beautiful. Thank you." Her hardlight skin flicked off, revealing a metal dragon in matching colours. Her wings pulled in, legs pulling up and her tail folded into a triangular shape. Her head pulled back, neck thickening until a triangular space plane floated just above the floor, with a translucent cockpit.

"How long did it take you to do all this?" he asked, rubbing the hull now. It tingled under his fingers, a subtle hardlight field covering it.

"Not long. Helps to live in a shipyard colony. Are... Are you ready to do this?"


The ship shifted back to the dragoness. Jadia lifted her head and looked confused. "Almost? What's wrong? Did I do something wrong?"

Ajax hugged her quickly. "No. You look fantastic. You've done nothing wrong. It's something I don't want you to do. Petra mentioned there are some 'instinct patches'. I'm not comfortable with them."

"It's mature tech, Ajax. It won't change you; just make you comfortable with your new limbs," Petra explained.

"I know. But it's my mind. It's the only thing that won't be changing right? I'd rather learn myself. Or learn my lesson about it. You can add them in later if needed, right?"

Jadia nodded, "I think I can. It's not normal but I can honour your request. What about the recording? Should I give it a try?"

Ajax laughed and dropped the robe, leaving him just in his underwear, "Strangely enough, that bothers me less than you hacking new instincts into my head. Let's go for it. It'll help pay for your new body here."

"The FAQs I've read say to get a good sensorium reading, to amp up the feedback cycles. It won't hurt, but it will probably make everything more sensitive," Jadia warned him.

"After what Cindy's put me through, I say bring it."

Without further ado, Jadia reared back on her hind legs, her body already shifting around, her chest pulling back. Panels slid open, revealing a human-sized silver chamber. Ajax similarly didn't hesitate, jumping into it face first.

His world turned silver. Sparks danced across his vision and phantom smells, tastes and sounds rolled over him. He felt fields grab him, turn him around and tug him into a proper orientation. Finally his skin began to itch, sparks running across his nerves from all directions. Erogenous zones lit up all over his body, and he briefly realized they would be his last male sensations.

The sparks flared, the phantom sensations congealed and suddenly he was on a white plain. Looking down, he found himself still unchanged, other than being naked. If he concentrated, he could still sense his real body, tingling all over. Jadia appeared in front of him, not as the four legged dragoness he was used to, but a two legged humanoid dragoness.

"Wow, it's been a long time since I was like this," she said, looking down at herself and turning around. "How do I look?"

"Wonderful of course. Though this isn't quite what I expected." Ajax looked around, trying to put his finger on what was off. "I thought fusing was supposed to be a close connection, but this seems..., well pretty standard."

She giggled and sat in thin air in front of him. "Well yeah, it is pretty standard. This isn't the fuse connection. The nanites are still saturating your body. I'm just piggybacking on your implant network."

He was increasingly becoming aware of an itch through his body; spreading deeper and deeper. Somehow it felt like his lungs and heart were itchy, even if that didn't make sense. "How much longer will it take?"

"Just a few more moments. I sped you up, but they're still faster. Brace yourself."

He didn't have time to brace. Abruptly, he felt he was boiling and freezing. He was deafened by loud noises and straining to hear the subtle ones across his entire hearing range. Colours of all hues and brightnesses saturated his vision. Smells and tastes from the most beautiful roses and delicious meals to the stink of rot hit him and faded before he could react. Light touch brushed his skin all over, followed by the sensations of slaps, pokes of needles and thumps of a blunt object.

As abruptly as it started, the sensory overload ended. Ajax took a moment longer to recover. When he could see clearly again, the space had changed. Instead of a featureless plain, they were in a sterile windowless and doorless room. The air was fresh and dry, carrying a faint hint of Jadia. He could hear a faint hum of ventilation fans and feel the breeze on his skin. Jadia herself was in more detail; she looked realler than real, sitting in the air in front of him, her tail twitching slowly, her body moving like a real dragon.

"Now we are fuse linked," she said, smiling.

"Wow..." He shook his head and looked at himself. His body was unchanged so far. He could faintly feel the connection to the real. "This is certainly different from the implants."

"It is. When I'm not busy designing your new body on the fly, we'll have more freedom. For now, we'll keep things simple."

"Simple is good." He shivered, a wave of pleasure washing over him, hardening his nipples and raising an erection. He tried to hide it for a moment then gave up.

"That's for the sensorium recording. There'll be some overlap, I can try to keep it contained if you want?"

"No no... better go for the truest experience for the best sale, right?"

"For this part, we can tune it back. They won't notice the difference."

Ajax felt a wall form between his avatar and his real body, helping him focus. "Once you decide, we can go back to the full experiences, but I think you want to be clear headed for this."

Jadia stepped to one side and his three preferred forms appeared next to her. "Now let's design the new you. Just give me a moment and I'll retune these with your actual bio-stats."

"Do we have time?" Ajax asked.

"All the time in the world. The fusers are still mapping your body and waiting for the orders. Now that we're fused and linked mind to mind so to speak, we can get a much better time compression too."

The three models shifted subtly as Jadia updated them. They became more realistic, looking more like living beings. All three were the same height as him, with emerald wings and a spade tipped tail that reached the ground. The wings were folded along the spines of each model, clawed wing 'thumbs' hooked on the model's shoulders.

The first model looked human, other than the wings and tail. Pale skin, human face with green eyes and matching hair on her head and crotch. Her face was eerily similar to his own, softened, feminized. With Ajax's attention on her, Jadia had her move; jumping, jogging in place, crouching, kicking, stretching. She extended her wings and flapped them, and wiggled her tail and hips.

"Bouncier than I expected," Ajax noted, seeing the models bosom move.

"We can adjust that easily enough. When given a choice, guys do tend to oversize the breasts," Jadia noted. "Or at least that's what the FAQs note." On all three models, their breasts shrank to a smaller cup size.

The winged woman stood at ease as he shifted his focus to the third one. The third one was the most changed, at the far limit of what a RIDE could safely do. It looked very similar to Jadia's two legged form, save it also had breasts and hair. She was completely scaled and had short talons on her toes and fingers. From her chin to between her legs she was light green, while her limbs and back were darker coloured. Her face showed the least amount of Ajax's male face in it, most of it hidden behind scales and a draconic muzzle. Like before, Jadia animated it when Ajax focused on it.

"The hair really isn't working with all those scales," he mused. Jadia helpfully stripped the hair off. Ajax frowned and watched the model move and twist. "I'm not sure...." he mused, looking away. The model returned to an at rest stance.

The middle model was a halfway model, midway between the near human and near dragon versions on either side. Her face was almost human, with a slight muzzle pulling the nose and chin out. Fine scales ran down the sides of her face and neck and sides, enveloping her arms and legs. Her eyes and hair were a matching green to Jadia's, along with the scaly wings and tail. Her finger and toenails were a hybrid of nails and talons, thick and sharpened to points, but not overwhelming their digits. Like the other ones, she animated while under Ajax's attention, showing off her moves.

"Are you making her flirt with me?" he asked after a few moments.

"May-be," Jadia said playfully.

"I take it you like her best?"

"It's your body. You're the one who has to like it."

He rubbed his own bald head and hmmed. "Well, I'd be lying if I didn't say she was front of the pack. I'm not sure if I'm ready to care for hair though."

The hair vanished and his frown deepened. "No that still doesn't seem right. How about just up top- yeah that's better.... How fancy can we do the scale patterns?"

They fiddled with the middle model, letting the other two fade away. A virtual eternity later, Ajax turned away.

"Enough. It's going to be me, we better move on. Most of this we can adjust later, right?"

"Of course; most of it is just cosmetic. The core is settled and ready to go once you are."

He closed his eyes and looked down at the last time he'd see his male self, even if it was virtual. "No going back now, just forward. Go for it."

The model froze and the pipeline to his real body opened up, letting the sensations flow over his avatar. His erection returned with a vengeance and without release. The arousal flowed up, warming his body up, hardening his nipples and spreading out to the tips of his fingers and toes.

The first signs were barely noticeable. As a spacer from one of the oldest lunar families, Ajax shared many of their traits. He had a short lithe, agile body type instead of the bulky muscular ones that planetary folk often had. The fusers pulled in his waist, giving him a more triangular body shape in the chest, but leaving the arms and legs mostly unchanged.

He groaned, the sensations amplified by Jadia. His hands went to his chest, cupping his hard nipples. With each breath they pulsed in his hands, growing larger, the nipples rubbing his palms.

"Is it always... like this?" he grunted.

"I'm not sure, it's my first cross too. I may have the feedbacks too high for the recording. Should I tune it back?"

"Just a hair please."

The sensations eased a little, enough that he could think. He lowered his hands from his breasts, their new virtual weight pulling at his shoulders. The warmth concentrated at his hips, pulling them wider. One hand went to his groin, feeling his scrotum pull tighter, pushing his balls through a reshaped hole in his hips. As he looked over his breasts, his erection steadily shrunk. The sensation intensified even as it pulled into a new cleft between his legs.

"The first part is done," Jadia announced. "Ready for the next part?"

Ajax reeled under the feelings of the changes. Filtered through the fuse link, he wasn't sure how much was natural and how much was Jadia manipulating the senses for the recording. He didn't really care either way. He looked down at his changed body, and mentally corrected herself; she didn't really care either way.

"Go for it," she ordered the RIDE.

After a slight pause the next phase of changes started, with an itch in the small of her back. Her spine extended quickly, tingling with pins and needles as the nerves activated. She rubbed it, and felt her hand on the new mass, muscles twitching and moving it under her hand. The tail followed the curve of her spine before dipping down to her ankles. The tip flared out in a classic spade tip. At the base, it was broad, mostly covering her ass if she kept it low. The skin itched and dried out, turning green with pebbly scales all around it, broader, lighter coloured scales along the underside.

Next came an ache in her shoulders as the bones grew and reshaped. Fleshy stubs sprouted from her back, just behind her armpits. They grew downward, stopping just above her wider hips before an elbow joint grew and a new part of the limb began to grow upward. Skin stretched from her back to the new limbs, forming wing membranes.

As the second part of the wing reached shoulder level, a 'hand' grew out, a thicker muscular section to support four long fingers and a short muscular thumb. The digits grew quickly, tingling with new sensation, more skin stretched between each digit. The wing-thumb grew a full sized talon, while the fingers were left with smaller claws at the end. The thumb rested on each shoulder, helping support the folded, relaxed wings, at least until the itching became unbearable and Ajax tried to spread them to shake out the pins and needles effect.

Her right wing lifted out sideways, along with her right arm. Her left wing was less coordinated, banging into her similarly extending left arm and making her even more confused.

"Easy Ajax, Easy. Give your mind a chance to sort it out. Are you sure you don't want the skill patches? They really do help you sort out the new limbs."

"NO! I've got this!" Ajax gritted her teeth and stubbornly focused on her body. Her arms and wings felt like they were wired to the same controls, making it nearly impossible to control a wing without moving the arm too. Soon enough, she managed to sort out the sensations and move one without the other. She was doing well until she took a step and realized she'd forgotten the tail.

"Just stand still for now. We're nearly done. I can help you once the fusers are finished. Help you without using skill patches," Jadia reassured the new dragon lady.

Ajax forced herself to stand still, wings spread and drooping slightly. Her skin itched all over as the texture changed; still human but with scale highlights where they'd plotted it out. Her toe and finger tips ached as the nails thickened, sharpening to pointed pseudo-talons. Her wing fingers moved as she flexed her shifting hands. Her jaw ached and began to stretch, pulling her nose and broadening it. The muzzle wasn't as pronounced as the third model's had been, but it was distinctively draconic. Finally, her scalp began to itch.

"You did this on purpose," she accused the dragon RIDE, reaching up to touch her head and just managing to resist the urge to scratch with her new sharp talons. Silky hair was growing out quickly, stopping just above her shoulders.

"What?" Jadia asked innocently. She looked tired, but proud.

Ajax shook her head and looked down. The tingling sensation was fading away as the fuse completed. Some sensations lingered, especially the arousal that had started with the fuse; now centred in her loins and nipples instead of standing proud in front of her. It was a sensatio she wasn't sure how to handle yet. Instead, she focused on the new stuff, concentrating on her tail and moving it from side to side and up and down. Most of the movements were hidden by the wings that were still stretched out. She could feel their weight hanging on her back, not entirely uncomfortable, just different.

While she experimented, the chamber changed. The white walls and floor faded away to grey concrete walls. Planters and trays full of plants and trees sprouted out of nowhere, filling the virtual air with humidity, fresh oxygen and pollen, along with the earthy smells of wet fertile soil. Far overhead, the ceiling broke into hexagonal panels that turned transparent, revealing the blackness of space. The light changed, a mix of sunlamps and a blue glow coming from a planet just visible through the ceiling.

Ajax took a deep breath and shivered, letting out a happy moan. "Tycho Gardens... But how?"

"I... I borrowed it from your memories. With how strange your body has become, I figured you might want to be somewhere familiar, somewhere you loved," Jadia explained.

"You can do that?" She looked around in amazement. The old lunar city's garden district was literally exactly as she remembered it. She wiggled her wings until she got them settled on her shoulder again and walked towards a flowering bush. The scents were exactly like she remembered.

"The fuse is complete. I have full access to your memories, and you can access mine if you want. I'm not looking yet, not deeply. The memories of this location were near the top, making them easy to snag."

She nodded to her partner and looked up at the planet overhead. The eastern edge of North America was visible, lit up by a midday sun. "It's a bit freaky, to realize you can see everything that's me that easily. But I knew it going in.

"This is what made me decide to become a Ranger. When I was a kid, I'd come here after classes and look up at the stars and orbitals and ships, and dream of going out there." She laughed and picked a flower. "By the time I graduated, I was either going to be a Ranger or a Gardener."

"You made a good choice," Jadia said, looking up as well. "It is beautiful, at least in your memories. Maybe someday we can go back and you can show it to me personally."

"That would be nice, but it probably won't happen. Too many restrictions. Plus you can't see some of the nastiness going on from this scale."

"I know. But there's still a lot of good out there. And a lot of niceness. Some day Earth will come to its senses and join her children colonies as equals. Just like some day Zharus will come to its senses and realize they can't keep RIDEs and Inties system-bound much longer."

Ajax chuckled and kept walking around. They were the only people in it. "My, how rebellious of you. I never knew you had that streak in you."

The dragoness walked next to the new her, close enough to help, far enough to let her learn at her own speed. "What can I say? You've been a bad influence on me.

"In any case, you can practice here as long as you want. It's not a skills patch, but some of what you learn will feedback to your real body once we defuse."

Ajax shook her head, "Maybe in a bit. I think we've spent enough time in our heads. Let's see what we look like in the real."


The gardens dissolved, and Ajax found herself looking at a small room. She could sense the ceiling close to her head and the walls felt much closer than they were before fusing. "Whoa, did we move somewhere?" she asked. Her voice sounded strange, higher pitched with a mechanical overtone to it.

"No, you just got bigger," Petra said. "Watch your step."

Looking down, she saw the gryphon integrate standing next to her. Before, she'd been a few centies taller than Ajax. Now, she was nearly two metres shorter.

She had a strange feeling of something else taking control of her mouth. "Wow, it's been a long time. I nearly forgot what this felt like," Jadia said through their mouth. "How do we look?"

"Incredible. I'm almost jealous," Petra said. She flicked her own wing and a mirror field formed in front of the fused pair.

They looked into the reflection and saw the bipedal dragoness looking back. Jadia's fused mode looked like her avatar, only a little more robotic. She didn't have breasts nor hair nor genitals. Jadia took control and carefully turned them around, spreading their wings and moving their tail so Ajax could get used to the feeling.

:How does it feel?: she asked her newbie fuse partner.

:Incredible... Much different from the DE's back in Sol.... Just incredible. Can I try to move?: The strange feeling of someone else controlling her body was quickly fading. It wasn't just her body now after all.

:Go ahead. Don't break anything. We can check out an exercise zone later when you want to try out the options.:

Jadia pulled back and suddenly Ajax was in control. Immediately she stumbled, falling to a knee.

"Relax! Don't think about it, just do it!" Petra called out encouragingly.

"I'm trying," Ajax grunted, standing up again. She took another couple of steps and felt herself begin to fall. She reached out to the wall to brace herself, only to have her wing stretch out as well, the metal limb smashing through the thin wall like it wasn't there.

:So much for the damage deposit: Jadia noted wryly. Ajax could sense her in the back of their mind, arms crossed and trying to look stern. The expression was ruined by the amused twinkle in her eyes. :I knew we should've gotten a bigger room.:

Ajax grunted and pulled the dusty wing out of the wall. She shook some of the gyprock off without shaking her arm, and managed to get it hooked back onto their shoulders.

"If you think that's hard, wait till she starts giving you flying lessons," Petra called out, on the verge of laughing her tail off.

"Believe me, I'm looking forward to that. But I think I'll wait until we can get outside and hopefully she won't crash us into a moon or planet," Jadia called back.

"Very funny guys.... I think I'm starting to get the hang of this," Ajax growled, clipping off Jadia's last words.

She managed a few more steps without feeling like they were about to fall. Gaining confidence, she forgot about the tail. The appendage twitched against her walk pattern and suddenly was in the way of her foot, sending them crashing to the floor with a boom that shook the room.

"You're hanging on to something," Petra said. "Jadia dear, maybe you should take control and get you outside. Many more trips like that and you'll be buying the pile of rubble that used to be this place."

"I'm getting this," Ajax protested futilely. The RIDE took back control and stood them back up.

"Sorry my dear, but right now you have the coordination of a drunk rhino-RIDE, and just as much mass. Let's get us somewhere we can't do as much expensive damage."

Ajax pouted and sat back, feeling the intelligence move their body through the large door and outside. They started walking to a park space a few blocks away.

:Wait, we aren't even going to fly there?:

:Gotta know how to walk before you can fly. You'll get the taste for it soon enough.:

The park was a four block sized green space. It had benches and flower gardens, and enough grass for Ajax to practice running, walking and moving in general in. Jadia made sure they stayed grounded, to her partner's frustration. After an hour or two, Petra scrounged up a basketball and they practiced catching.

"I'm feeling more like a dog than a dragon," Ajax grumbled, lobbing the ball back to the Integrate.

"It's all about the coordination. Since you won't do the patches, you need to learn things the hard way. The important thing is sorting out wings from arms. When you can move one without the other, then you're ready to fly." Petra lobbed the ball back to the fused dragon, well to their side.

Ajax leapt at it, and knew she wasn't close enough to reach. Instead, her wing flexed forward, wing fingers outstretched. She felt the ball hit the hardlight skin between the fingers and snapped them closed. She landed on her front and skidded in the grass, holding the wing with the caught ball up in the air. There was a smattering of applause from the half dozen curious onlookers who had gathered to watch them.

"And breakthrough," Jadia announced once they stopped moving. Ajax could hear and sense the pride.

She stood up and twisted her hand back. She relaxed the wing and let the ball drop down into it. "Now can we practice flying?"

:Patience grasshopper. There is one final thing you need to do before you take to the skies,: Jadia said. :Before you can fly, you need to hatch.:

:Hatch?: was all Ajax could say before the rich feeds of Jadia's sensors faded away. She had a glimpse of silver, replaced by a view of the inside of the orbital from her own eyes. Fields lifted her away from the RIDE and deposited her lightly on her feet, before Jadia dropped back onto all fours.

Everything she'd learned, flew out the airlock. Suddenly alone in his head, he was in a strange body, not sure what to do. He stood still, not wanting to move a muscle.

"You look great Ajax... are you okay?" Petra came up to him, admiration quickly turning to concern. "Damnit, you stubborn fool, you didn't take any of the adaptations? Right, stay calm, take it one step at a time." She grabbed his left hand and squeezed it. "Focus on your hand. This hand, the one I'm touching now. Wiggle your fingers. Just those fingers."

The first attempt made his wings and both hands spasm. The next one he managed to just move his left hand and left wing fingers. A few more attempts and he managed to move the hand without the wing. The feelings were confusing; the wiring for the arm and the new limb seemed crossed until he sorted out what feelings went where.

Petra worked on the other hand, and then the wings, pulling each one out lightly until he got used to how they moved. She had to help him fold them back to his shoulder, smoothing out the flight surfaces to get them to lay right. Gradually the virtual lessons and practice came back and gelled with the real experiences he was getting.

"Told you these were a pain in the ass. How are you doing?" she asked.

Ajax took a deep breath to stabilize himself. The movement of the wings was distracting, but becoming easier to ignore. It brought his focus to the movement and weight on his front. Looking down, the other aspect of the fuse finally hit home. "I'm... coping," she said, mentally correcting her thinking again. For the next few years, like it or not, this was who she was.

"Jadia probably shouldn't have dumped you out that quickly; but it was probably for the best." Petra glared at the chastised RIDE before looking back. "Everything feel all right?"

The new dragon lady laughed, "What's all right? Everything's new to me. But nothing's hurting." As she spoke, she was more aware of the sensations she was getting. While fused, she'd been disconnected from her body enough to not feel them. Now that she was alone in her head, the leftover fuse feelings were surging through her.

Looking down, she saw her bare breasts, nipples perky with arousal. While fused, Jadia had dressed her in a simple set of silky green shorts, little better than panties. They were going to do little to hide her feelings.

"Is something wrong? It's been a long time, did I mess up anything?" Jadia asked anxiously.

"No, she's fine. She just needs some human girl time to get adjusted," Petra said.

Ajax nodded, tentatively touching her nipple and pulling her hand away like it was burned. "Yeah... I'll be fine..."

Petra grabbed her arm. "For now, let's get you back to your room. You need a crash course in girl training. Celestial Weyr's laws are close to Aloha's open rules, but they draw the line on what you're on the verge of doing."

"Anything I can do to help?" Jadia asked. "We can re-fuse to get back there quicker."

"Not yet, not now. It's best for Ajax to have some alone time to settle down. Why don't you check on Cindy and Cinnamon, let them know how it went and to get ready for tonight," Petra reassured the RIDE.

"I'll be fine," Ajax similarly reassured her partner. She tried to ignore how her movements made her body move, how sensitive parts of her were especially when rubbed certain ways. "Thank you Jadia."

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Chapter 13

Ajax stood in the shower, feeling the jets of water shoot over her body. She spread her wings and let the liquid flow over the broad surfaces. She was still on a bit of a euphoric high from the change, but it was finally easing back to normal levels. After two days, she was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable with her new limbs and tail, along with the rest of her new body.

Reluctantly, she turned off the water and turned on the air jets. Hot air dried her skin quickly. She moved in the shower stall and spread her wings until she could cup the up-blowing air jets with her wings. Her feet lifted a few centies off the floor.

"Today. We're going flying today," she vowed, killing the air jets and stepping out. Petra and Jadia had refused to take her flying until she was better adjusted. They'd even confiscated her grav-belt while she wasn't looking.

In the bathroom's mirror, she studied herself carefully, wings half extended. The face and body looking back was becoming less and less of a stranger. Soon she might even recognize herself in it. She glared at the hairbrush and picked it up, running it through the tangle of green on her head. The brushing activated latent nannies and helped untangle it and sort it into a more presentable mess. Haircare was one of the more annoying aspects of the change. She almost wish she had stayed bald, though the overall look was better with than without.

"Knock knock!" Jadia called out.

"Be right out!" Ajax called back. She looked at her reflection once more and padded out to the bigger hotel room; she'd upgraded after paying off the damages. The small RIDE perched on the desk, looking her over.

"You're presentable," she concluded. "Other than your nudity. Getting the hang of things?"

The dragon woman rummaged in a pile of clothes and pulled out some underwear. She tugged the panties on and adjusted them over her crotch and under her tail. "Yeah. Thanks for helping with the sizing. Mind giving me a claw with the bra?"

"Should I? It's got a smart clasp, it should be able to do it itself." Jadia flew over while Ajax slipped her arms through the loops and held the garment over her breasts. The ends stuck to her back and began to wiggle towards each other, making her squirm.

"It's a smart clasp but they tickle like mad while they're wiggling to connect... Ahhh." The clasp snapped together when the ends met. She let go and the straps tightened up automatically. She grabbed a shirt and pulled it on over her head. It had slits for her wings and clips that would link the front and back together once it was on. "So what's the plan today?"

Jadia nosed through the pile of fresh fabbered clothes. "Well I figured we could go house hunting. My place doesn't have enough human amenities, and you're living out of a hotel."

"True, but we don't know where we'll be in the end. The Rangers could station us out to Xolatan or something." Ajax fished out a couple of pairs of shorts and considered which she wanted.

"Xolotlan. And those ones. Every Ranger needs a home right? Even if years go by between visiting it. This is my home, and to be honest, it's where most of the few friends you have live. Celestial Weyr would be a good place, at least until we decide on somewhere else."

Ajax nodded and pulled on the shorts. She straightened up, tucked in the shirt, and rested her wings. "True. But I have one condition."

"I don't think you're ready-"

"Stop! It's been two days.Sure I'm still a bit clumsy. But I'm also going nuts. If you don't take me flying, I'm liable to grab the first grav belt I see and take off. I'm a spacer, and now I'm a dragon. And you've kept me grounded for longer than I've been since I left Tycho."

Jadia flew over to the deck entrance. "You're right. We have been too cautious. After-... It's been so long I'm still learning. I'll teach you to fly, but not in here."

"The room is a bit too small."

"No, I mean not in the orbital. The Council takes a dim view on people crashing into the sun sphere."

"I wouldn't... Fine. Where'd you park yourself?"

"I'm just off the deck. Climb into the cockpit."

They found the space plane hovering just off the deck. Jadia folded up and reconnected to it, while Ajax climbed in. The seat conformed to her wings and tail easily, giving her enough support without pinching or crushing the appendages. The cockpit sealed up and they took off towards the nearest port.

"So where are you taking me?" she asked. "And can we fuse like this?"

"We've got some space isolated for roadtesting designs. I'm renting one for the day for you. Wide open space, where the only things you can hit are fake."

"Rented? Sounds expensive."

Jadia's holotar appeared on the dash. "It's a bit pricy, but we can afford it. Your virgin fuse is a hit. It's selling well in Aloha, Uplift and Sturmhaven. And surprisingly well in Nextus and Cape Nord. We won't get rich off it, but my half easily covers this."

"Wow, really?"

"Really. I'll show the numbers later."

They flew into the blackness of space and slowed to a stop in the middle of no where. Zharus was far below, and one of the moons was rising around it. Otherwise there was no movement.

"Can you fuse like this?" she asked again.

Jadia smiled and disappeared. Ajax's seat melted and began to surround her, pulling her backwards into the ship before she could fully realize what was happening. Her mind quickened as the fuse took hold. She had a brief sensation of strangeness before Jadia began to transform. Their arms and legs stretched out, wings unfolding, head stretching forward. Moments later, they floated in space. Jadia waited silently as Ajax realized where they were.

:This... wow. It feels like I'm in space. I mean really in space. No suits, no protection... I can hear the comm channels, see the spectrum, feel the rads. Wow.:

Jadia chuckled. :This is just a trickle of the inputs I'm actually handling. Now, we'll try flying like this. Just spread the wings and try to go in a straight line. I'll handle the rest.:

Ajax half wanted to point out that wasn't really flying, but the feeling of being effectively naked in space made it a moot point. She spread their wings, feeling a surge of energy as the sun hit the collectors imbedded in them. She experimentally flapped one wing, and the world started spinning.

:WHOA!: She flapped her other wing and they began to corkscrew in place, not really going anywhere. :Uhm... Help?!:

:You're the Space 'expert'. I'm sure you can figure it out,: Jadia teased.

Ajax growled at her partner and closed her eyes a moment, sorting out the vectors. She carefully spread her wings again, not enough to adjust their movement. With some careful wing and tail movements, the spins gradually cancelled out.

:This is just a bit different from flying a ship,: she noted, looking around. She could 'see' the boundaries of the test space, along with dark objects scattered randomly through it.

:That's why we're here. We'll cover flying ourselves as a ship later. Now, try it again, without the spin.:

She spread the wings again and flapped them at once. She sensed Jadia translating the movement into an impulse, and they shot forward. A couple more careful flaps and they were shooting through space.

:Heads up,: Jadia warned. One of the dark objects lit up and coalesced into a large asteroid dead ahead.

Ajax yelped and twisted, sending them into a spin right into the asteroid. It shattered into hoxels around them.

:You got the straight ahead down. But you need to work on turns.:

:Normally what I need to turn around doesn't pop up out of nowhere.: Ajax grumbled, stopping their spin again, faster this time.

:You haven't seen how busy Z-space is. Especially with Intie cloaks. You're lucky if you get that much warning.:

She grumbled again, but the anger was hard to keep up against the thrill of being in space. She got them going again, and did her best to keep her distance between the barely visible hardlight sats. Jadia quickly wised up to her plans. A pair lit up and combined their fields, forming a moonlet directly in their path. Ajax flicked their tail and managed to curve upward, skimming just above the fake surface. She barely resisted the urge to reach out and touch it.

:Wonderful. You learn fast.: Jadia applauded her rider.

:It's an incredible experience to learn. Let's see what else we can do.:

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Hours later, they landed on a hardlight asteroid for a break. Around them, the space was filled with fake rocks, denser than Ixion's rings. Jadia had gradually filled the space as Ajax's skill improved. She was now easily moving among the obstacle course, twisting and turning like a natural.

:Well, I think you're safe to fly in Celestial Weyr now.: Jadia pronounced.

:Were you serious about crashing into the sun sphere?:

The RIDE giggled, :Yup, I was. Some inties crashed into it after a bachelor party last year. Broke half the sphere. Took them months to get the parts in to rebuild it. We were stuck in twilight the entire time. You ready to head back?:

:Sure. It'll be nice to try this in atmosphere. I'm even looking forward to try it down on the planet.:

The asteroid field powered down, leaving them floating again. :One thing at a time. Now, you get to see how I fly.:

Ajax felt strange, feeling their body stiffen and fold inward. Energy flowed in unimpeded from solar collectors in the wings, and their engines felt stronger.

:It's all tradeoffs. Dragon is more agile but not as fast. Plane, a lot faster, but harder to turn. So take it easy. If you dent our body, I'm grounding you for a week.:

:Yes mom,: Ajax replied, grinning and taking in the power. She looked around, listening to the comm and id signals until she found Celestial Weyr. They zoomed forward with a careful burst of their engines.

Turning proved to be harder than she expected. The body was uniform, with literally no wiggle. This forced Ajax to control the turns directly, manipulating the impulse and repulsor forces. She leaned heavily on Jadia's automated systems to help figure out the vector forces and keep them in the right direction.

:Good good. But there's no need to go home just yet. Let's see how you handle traffic.:

:Traffic?: A chill ran down her spine. Ajax suddenly felt like a kid with a learner's permit going onto the BosWash freeways during rush hour. :And I've never even been down to Earth, let alone seen the BosWash freeways,: she mumbled.

:Well, now's your chance to see the Zharusian space equivalent. Listen to TraComm, watch your vectors and dars and you'll be fine.: Jadia reassured him. :Now bring us over to the Alohavator.:

Moving from the relatively empty space around the weyr to the busy space around the elevator scared the scales off Ajax. She did her best to keep full awareness as they joined the traffic flows.

:Just relax and go with the flow. You've got this,: the RIDE reassured her. :It's just like flying in Earth-Luna space. Just as busy. That's where you learned to fly a ship right?:

:It was. But I wasn't the ship when I learned. AndrAIa warned me when I was about to mess up,: Ajax countered, the stress starting to get to her.

:And you don't have this here? You flew me from the controls; they are still there. You're just more innately connected to them.:

Ajax nearly sent them spinning to dodge an ore carrier. Jadia deftly brought them back on track and handed back off to her. :You're thinking at the ship level. Maybe that's too close for you at this point. Try imagining you back in the cockpit, reading the sensors and controlling that way.:

Ajax gulped and tried to follow Jadia's guidance. Instead of seeing unfettered space, a wireframe outline of a cockpit formed around her. Screens lit up, filtering the inputs into familiar layouts. Control sticks and pedals formed and she relaxed, back in a familiar setting.

"Yeah, this is better."

Jadia appeared in her usual place. "Just be careful, you aren't in the actual cockpit. You're much closer to the raw inputs and outputs here. Reaction time will be quicker. And you have to admit, flying with the personal touch is more fun."

"Well you're the one who threw me into this pool. Let me have the training wheels for now. Eventually, I'm sure I won't need this."

"I look forward to it. Tell TraCon we want to do a loop around the elevator and head back to Celestial. We still need to look for a new home."

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Chapter 14

Uptown, a week later

Ajax stood among a set of mirror fields, looking herself over. She was dressed in a Solar Ranger uniform; black pants and shoes, white undershirt and a pseudoleather black jacket, all adjusted for her new appearance. Stars on the jacket shoulders and the sides of the pants indicated her rank and home base; Three white stars in her case. Three for the rank as a Ranger, like the bulk of the Solar Rangers, and white for the 'no fixed base'.

Ajax spread her green wings and twisted, feeling the jacket tug and stretch a bit with the wing movement. The movement also tightened her undershirt, rubbing her nipples more than she wanted to think about. The Solar Ranger uniform wasn't designed for the variety of forms that Pharos had, so they had needed to be creative. Jadia had fuse-sewn the uniform over Ajax and adjusted it to her new sizes. While the pants could be removed with only a bit of difficulty, the only way the jacket and shirt would come off would be another fuse, or a pair of scissors.

"How does it look?" Jadia asked, flitting over the mirror fields to look. Her large body was in the other room.

"Looks great," Ajax replied. She ran her fingers through her hair, still not sure she wanted it or not. The green did match her scale and skin tones, but hair was something most spacers skipped on when they could.

She turned and looked at herself in a side view. She was adjusting to the wings and tail easily, but the breasts for some reason seemed to catch her by surprise; especially the way the fabric rubbed them. "Fits better than my original uniform did actually. Maybe a bit too good actually."

"I could try and adjust them again. Maybe a bit more slack would help?" Jadia offered.

Ajax dismissed the mirrors. "No time. We have to get up to level 20 in time for the meeting."

She picked up the last element of her uniform, a black ball cap with the Solar Rangers logo on the front. It had her rank stars on the back. Unlike the rest of what she was wearing, it was part of her original uniform, the only part that could still fit.

Jadia fluttered over and settled on her shoulder, tail curling around her neck for added support. "Then I guess I'm as ready as you are."

The pair left their hotel room and headed out. They were in Uptown, the anchor station to the Alohavator. They walked purposefully through the crowds to the elevators. Their uniform caught a few curious looks, but otherwise went unnoticed. They got into the public lifts and rose up to Uptown's twentieth floor.

That floor was devoted entirely to the Rangers. Instead of having open spaces and buildings, it had a lower roof and was entirely office space. The immediate elevator area was a large lobby, filled with seats, information nooks, low-G fountains and plants, but it still felt like an office space. Ajax registered his arrival with an AI receptionist, and received directions through the maze of twisty corridors all alike.

They arrived in another lobby, this one on the edge of the anchor station. Large windows offered a view of Zharus down below, and the space around the station. A receptionist station was set up in a corner well away from the windows. A man sat at the desk, wearing brown shorts and tshirt of the Pharos Ranger support staff and the full star of a high level cadet. His upper head was wrapped in a metal replacement skull, leaving just his original mouth exposed.

"Solar Ranger Ajax Bondar?" the man asked, standing up. He didn't seem surprised by their appearance. "And Ranger Applicant Jadia? Welcome to Uptown Base. I'm Cadet Nick Melville. Recruiter Ivan Jemison is in a meeting, but he'll be out shortly." The Cadet indicated a corner of the room near the windows that was enclosed in privacy fields. "Can I get you anything while you wait?"

"We're good, thank you," Ajax said. She wandered over to a bench in front of the windows and sat down to wait. Jadia purred softly on her shoulder when she scratched the small dragon RIDE's head. "Still time to bail out if you want," she teased the RIDE.

"And be stuck being a tour guide for who knows how long? I'm good for this. When opportunity knocks, you've gotta answer," Jadia retorted, nuzzling against her partner.

They waited for fifteen minutes, before the privacy field dissolved. A wave of chatter rolled over them as a couple dozen mostly untagged young men and women made their way to the exit, not giving the dragons a second glance. Ajax stood and waited, watching the man in the white recruitment uniform talk with a few stragglers. Recruiter Jemison seemed normal at first, untagged and with some of the more subtle Spacer enhancements, but not many cybernetic replacements. Only when he managed to escape from the stragglers, did Ajax realize his legs were not original.

Ivan didn't go to the newly paired dragons at first. Instead he checked in with the Cadet at the desk, who pointed them out to him. Ajax and Jadia could see a flash of surprise cross over his face before he wandered over.

"Ranger Ajax and Jadia. Good to meet you. Sorry for the delay," he greeted them, holding out his hand.

Ajax shook it while Jadia bobbed her head politely. "No problem, sir. Thank you for meeting with us."

"Aloha's next generation. The Rangers sponsor a trip up the Alohavator for the senior classes in the polity. Gives us a chance to give them the 'Join Us' spiel while they're still deciding what they want to do," Ivan explained.

"Do you get many that way?" Jadia asked.

"A few every class or two; they are Grounders after all and most don't have the head for zero-G, but it's a cheap recruitment drive. The grounders we do get help keep the Rangers from developing too many Spacer versus Grounder attitudes."

Ivan moved them back to their bench and waved a hand in the air. A privacy field solidified, isolating their corner of the room from the rest of the station. "Please, have a seat."

Ajax sat back down on the bench, taking a moment to lift her wings and tail high enough to clear it. After a moment, she remembered to cross her legs, then finally she decided to sit partly crossways on the bench, her tail stretching along the length.

Ivan watched her get comfortable with a hint of amusement on his face. He sat down on the opposite end of the bench. "When you decide to go native, you didn't hold anything back, did you?"

"What do you mean, sir?" Ajax asked.

"Ivan's fine. I've read your record with Sol, at least their version of it. And I've seen enough to know what isn't said. This meeting is mainly just a formality; you are in as soon as we can find a spot to put you.

"As for what I mean, well it's obvious. Crossriding with a Dragon RIDE. Both alone effectively keep you in system for years. You've got so many sarium enhanced nannies floating in your blood now, it would trip the export alarms if you so much as looked at an interstellar ship. How long since you first fused?"

"About a week now," Ajax stopped herself from adding 'sir' to her answer.

"A week?! You haven't even fully gelled yet. No wonder you're so damn twitchy."

Ajax was suddenly extremely self conscious. She became aware of just how much her wings and tail moved, muscles flexing to find a comfortable resting state for the wings and to subtly shake their membranes, her tail flicking from side to side. She was even more aware of her tongue flicking in the air, a new habit she hadn't realized she had before. She tried to still her body.

"She even skipped the skill patches. She's been learning everything the hard way," Jadia pointed out.

"No patches? It's a wonder you can even walk yet."

"Is that going to be a problem, sir?" she asked.

Ivan shook his head, "No not at all. As I said, this is just a formality. You'll settle down soon once you figure out how to get comfortable with all your new stuff. But speaking of formalities, I understand you wish to join as well?" The recruiter's eyes suddenly locked on Jadia.

"Me? Yes, sir," she said, straightening up on Ajax's shoulder. "I did make him who she is now, and she in turn showed me there's more to this system than just a shipbuilding rock colony."

"Celestial Weyr, figures. How long do you know each other?"

"A couple of months," Jadia said. "He hired me to be his native guide around the system, and things happened from there."

"Well, I guess I can't say you rushed into this too quickly. There's an entire industry downside built around people who fuse too quickly and regret what they signed up for. You aren't feeling any regrets are you?" Ivan asked, shifting back to Ajax.

"None yet. Ask me again in a month when I stop jittering, and I might have some. But I went into this with my eyes open, knowing the costs. If I regret it in the end, it's my own damn fault, not Jadia's nor anyone elses."

Ivan nodded approvingly. "A realist. Good. I'll ask you again in a month." He shifted his attention back to the RIDE. "Clearly she didn't do this in your current body. Was it a rental?"

Jadia snorted a burst of flame in annoyance. "A rental? No way. It was with my original body. I own both clean and clear now."

"Interesting; two bodies? How do you share?"

"The latest Powermaster Tech updates. I was an early adopter, but I missed the beta."

"Inter-Sorry, I'm repeating myself. Since you know so much about the Powermaster Tech, and you're from Celestial, I assume you know about the experiments in RI-ship linking?"

"I've heard a bit. Still some bugs to work out. EI's can go into non-transforming bodies no problem, but RI's are having body-issues in them. Last I heard they were working on mapping a ghost body into the ship frame to help with the link."

"Right. Well, Rangers are looking to help that research as much as we can, so if you clear training, would you be interested in that?"

"Interested? You mean I'd have my own proper space ship body?" Jadia asked. She nearly tipped off of Ajax's shoulder in her eagerness.

"Non-transforming, and not fusible. And it would be partly Ajax's as well. But you would have an Interplanetary ship basically as your body."

"Hot damn, of course I'm interested. I mean, my current one, it can barely handle flitting around Zorbit. A full ship that's me, where do I sign up?"

Ajax chuckled and tugged the eager dragoness back. "You already signed up."

"That you have. I guess it's time to wrap this up." He held out his hand to Ajax. "Welcome to the Pharos rangers."

Ajax shook it, "Thank you. So what do we do first?"

Ivan took out a pad and started checking some notes, "Let's see. Provisionally, we'll start you both off as Cadets. Ajax, we'll be doing some skills testing, and you'll need some study on Pharos rules and regs, but you should be back up to your old rank within a few weeks.

"Due to your recent crossride, and because the next duty rotation isn't for a few weeks, you'll effectively be on leave until then. I'll have Nick send you some homework to do in that time, and I'm sure the Intel folks will want to poke your brains on the Sol situation."

He tapped the pad in a few places and held his thumb on it for a scan before sweeping the document away. "As for Jadia, we don't like partners to be off-rank for too long. Luckily, RI's and EI's have some fast track options humans can't follow as easily. You'll start off as a cadet like everyone else, but there are some sims and other training options you can do. By the time Ajax's rank is reinstated, you should easily qualify as a junior Ranger. Within a year, you'll more or less be equal rank. And as a pair, and in light of the eagerness you've shown, I should be able to nudge you closer to the top for a ship of your own."

The pair thanked Ivan profusely, before he lowered the privacy field. He walked them over to Nick to receive their remaining orders.

"Oh, I didn't think to ask. Do you two need bunks here on station?" Ivan asked.

Ajax shook her head. "No, we've picked out a new place on Celestial for now. At least until our posting comes up."

"Good good, we do have bunks for new recruits, but if you have a home close enough, it's all the better. Nick will take care of everything else. Good luck you two, I look forward to hearing what you do."

"Thank you again, sir," Ajax said, shaking the recruiter's hand, and the cadet. "I'm looking forward to getting back out on the job and seeing what Pharos has to offer."

"You'll find we have quite a lot I'm sure."

The new Rangers left the offices and headed back down to the more public levels of Uptown. "That, was easier than I expected," Ajax admitted as they stepped out.

"Well, Petra did tell you Pharos tends to be sticky. They're used to getting Ranger transfers from other systems," Jadia noted. "So what do we do now?"

"I'm not sure. We should start studying and simming... But that feels more like a tomorrow thing. Today, we're still independent, more or less."

Jadia smiled, "Well there's one aspect of your training we haven't finished yet," she hinted, pointing downward.

Ajax looked down and only saw the floor. "What do you... Oh! Atmosphere flying."


"Sounds like a plan. Shall we take the lift down, or fly the dragonzord down?"

Jadia flicked the back of her head with a wing. "Call us that again and I'm leaving you on the planet. Still, no point in wasting a chance to drop out of orbit. To the airlocks my loyal steed!"

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