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User:Jetfire/Riding The Eye of the Storm
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Riding the Eye of the Storm
Blessing Farm, Farmington, Totalia
Mugato Blessing took a swig from a bottle of water and surveyed his orchard. The trees ahead were heavy with red apples, ready for picking and shipping into the city. Behind him, a row of trees were mostly stripped bare, their fruit in barrels lining the access road. Step ladders were set up around the nearest trees, but the pickers, mainly his sons and daughters and their friends, were scattered around the bases of the trees, munching on their own lunches.
He nodded to his eldest, Niola, before fishing a fresh apple out of the bin. He gave a quick prayer of thanks for the excellent harvest, and especially for the safety of his family. The civil war so far had avoided his farm and family. While they knew people who sided with both sides, the farmlands were considered untouchable territory. Everyone knew how important the breadbaskets were to the survival of the colony, even if the rest of the universe was visiting again.
As if to taunt his thoughts, the air was split by a roar that shook the trees. The pickers looked up and some got to their feet to try and get a better look as a fireball roared overhead, its flames seemingly licking at the tops of the branches. Mugato had a brief glimpse of angular lines within the fireball before it was lost among the trees. Seconds later, the ground shook enough to make the truck bounce on its springs.
"Dad, what was that?" Niola asked.
"I'm not sure," Mugato said. He hopped onto the roof of the truck and followed the smoke trail. It was hard to see through the trees of the orchard, but he could just make out where the smoke changed, becoming blacker and rising higher in the air. He mentally reviewed what was in that area and cursed. "The wheat fields. Looks like it came down there. Tabernac! those fields haven't been harvested yet."
He jumped down and opened the driver's door. "Load up everyone. The wheat might be ablaze. Johan, call the fire department so we can get some help here. Tell them a space machine of unknown origins crashed and where it is. I'm sure they'll know already but always good to confirm."
A minute later, the half dozen teens and young adults were loaded onto the truck and they were driving towards the crash site. As soon as they came out of the orchard, they had a clearer view of the damage. Mugato winced and picked up speed. Most of the field of wheat had been flattened by the blast. Smoke rose from the middle of the flattened area, but it was already turning white.
"Looks like it mostly blew itself out when it crashed," Niola said, stating what Mugato was thinking.
"It's near the irrigation pond. That probably helped keep it contained," Mugato added, turning down a rutted path that lead towards the crash. He stopped at the edge of the crash site and glanced at the truck's sensor suite. It showed nothing particularly dangerous in the air, to his relief.
"Niola, Johan, you're with me. Watch your steps and look for survivors or bodies. Touch as little as possible. The rest of you, fan out and make sure all the fires are out. If you find any wreckage or bodies, mark the location and keep going. If you find survivors, shout it out."
Mugato waited until everyone had fanned out, before he nodded to his daughter and his neighbour's eldest, Johan. "Watch your step guys," he warned them before stepping out onto the scorched ground.
For such a big fireball, the actual wreckage was surprisingly sparse. They found chunks of metal and wiring and other strange, melted devices they didn't recognize, along with a few puddles of strange chemicals they carefully walked around.
"I don't think this was one of ours," Johan said, pulling up a half metre square of metal. It was mostly painted bright red, a colour not common in the Cosmy. "Could be Zharusian right?" He suddenly dropped it and started brushing his hands on his pants. "Don't they use those little machines? Could they be infecting us now?"
"I dunno Johan, but I'm sure we're fine. If it makes you feel better, don't pick up anything else," Mugato reassured the young man. "Those little machines are a lot less durable than the big ones. I doubt they could survive a crash like this."
Niola was the first to realize the crash site was really two sites. The bulk of the spacecraft had hit on the edge of the irrigation pond, but she spotted another blackened spot on the far edge of the pond. "Dad! Over here!" she called out, already jogging around the pond. "I think it's the pilot!"
A red and white armored figure laid unmoving in a water filled crater at the edge of the pond. The head and face were covered by a helmet that completely encased its head. The armor itself was androgynous, leaving the pilot, if there was a pilot, an unknown.
"Be careful," Mugato called out. He stopped at the edge of the water as Niola waded in.
"I am Dad, don't worry," she said, reaching the figure. She started touching it, feeling for seams and getting frustrated at the lack of openings.
"Is it even human? We've seen the news, the Zharusians partner with robots for everything," Johan asked. He stayed further back and seemed on the verge of running away.
"Robot animals for some reason," Niola corrected him. She lifted the figure's arm and hefted the limp limb carefully. "Nothing animal about this guy. Does feel like someone is inside. What should we do dad?"
Mugato hesitated, weighing his options. Technically he knew they should leave the body there until someone with authority arrived. It was an enemy of the state, and who knew what strange things they were wading through as they explored. On the other hand, it was a body that might still be alive. Totalian or Zharusian, they were all still human. He reached his decision.
"Johan, go get the truck and bring it as close to here as possible without getting stuck in the mud," he ordered. He was already wading into the water. "We're going to take this fella to the hospital and see if they can help'im."
"Help him? He's an alien! Who knows what's under that mask!" Johan protested.
"As far as we know, he's human. Ten fingers, two arms, two legs, no tail. Now get the fracking truck before I boot you in the boot!" Niola ordered before Mugato could speak up. He smiled proudly at his daughter and glared at Johan until the young man moved.
The armor was unlike anything Mugato had ever touched before. Slick and shiny despite the hell it had gone through, it was paradoxically stiff and flexible at the same time. Whatever it was made of, the suit was one substance as far as he could tell from the quick inspection. The body was warm to the touch, but otherwise had no indicators if it contained a living or dead person.
"Let's get it out of the water, and away from the mud," he concluded, moving to the body's shoulders. Niola moved to the feet and they hefted their parts carefully. "Heavier than he looks. But not too heavy. You good?"
She nodded, and together the pair lifted and pulled the body out of the water and onto the flattened wheat. They stared at it while Johan brought the truck closer.
"Look Dad, the mud and dirt slid right off," Niola pointed out. The figure's white and red colouring was almost spotless despite being drug out of the water.
"Lucky. Wish I had non-stick clothes," Mugato noted.
Johan brought the truck close, but stopped further away than he needed to. The young man hopped out, but made no move to come help.
"Useless git. Head's too full of the noise out of the city," Mugato muttered. "If you're not going to help, go check on the rest of the kids. Let them know their ride's going to the hospital with a possible survivor. We'll send a truck out to pick them up later, if the government doesn't get here first. Make sure all the fires are out and then they're done for the day," he ordered the teen.
"Yes sir!" Johan shouted. He was running before they could lift the body again.
"Maybe we should wait for the government folk. I'm sure there will be a flyer out soon to check this site out," Niola said, speaking the first doubts since discovering the body.
"We probably should, but who knows when they'll get here? City's been a mess since this dang war started. And this guy's probably not getting any better waiting here."
"True, but what if we're doing more harm than good moving him like this?"
Mugato paused and nodded, "Good point. We should have gotten the backboard from the truck before moving him." With all the climbing involved in apple picking, falls were to be expected, so the truck's Med Kit included a backboard. He left Niola with the body while he retrieved it.
"It's strange," she noted when he got back. She was leaning over the figure's head, peering into the dark eye holes of the mask. "How can he see anything through that? Where are the sensors? The connections?"
"Dunno. The Z-folk supposedly brought some space folk with them. Maybe he's one of them? They're supposed to be big on the mechanicals. He might be more machine than man. Doesn't matter though, we'll let the docs sort him out."
Together they lifted him onto the backboard, strapped him in place, then lifted him into the back of the truck. Niola hopped in back with him.
"Just what do you think you're doing, Missy?" Mugato asked.
"Riding with him. He's going to bump all around back here unless someone holds him down."
"He outmasses you almost 2 to 1; he'd be holding YOU down if you tried. We'll strap him in and you can ride in front."
Emergency Boot Sequence Attempt 196....
Warning! Power reserves at 5%....
Warning! Solar collectors damaged and/or shaded. Power generation at 10%....
For the 196th time, the primitive intelligence tried to bootstrap itself enough to activate the higher functions. The damage and power restrictions were too extreme for it to handle more than the basics. It was caught in the classic chicken and egg scenario; with the processing power of the higher functions it might be able to find a way out of the situation, but it didn't have the power to spare to activate those higher functions.
Too primitive to feel frustration, the intelligence considered its options. Without inputs, the options were virtually non-existent, so it powered up some simple sensors, and immediately realized the situation had changed. Motion sensors detected it was in motion, under something else's power. Audio sensors could pick up wheels rolling over ground and the sound of air blowing around the vehicle. The primitive intelligence briefly panicked over a potential hull breach before putting more pieces together and concluding it was on a planet and the air sounds were natural.
Most tempting was the energy sensors; it could sense power flowing through cables nearby. The source of the power was a black box it couldn't read anything from, but the network of power radiated from it. The intelligence slowly mapped that network, and found the closest points it might reach even with its diminished capacity.
The Intelligence paused, weighing the options. More power was tantalizingly close, but to reach it would require expending power. The expenditure would halve the number of reboot attempts it could make in the future if the plan didn't work. The risk analysis completed and the intelligence decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. It sent the commands to adjust the hoxels and to reach for the power.
In the Real, like a fast growing crystal, a thin spine extended from the figure's foot. It pierced the side of the truck bed and found a power cable leading to the rear lights.
Warning! Power reserves at 5%.... Power increasing....
The Intelligence was proud with itself. Despite the risks, it had made the right decision. While there wasn't enough power to reactivate the higher functions, the situation was beginning to improve. With the extra juice, it sent out another power tendril, reaching for a more difficult target, but one that was carrying more power.
"Dagnabbit!" Mugato cursed.
"What is it Dad?"
"Left rear wheel's power just spiked. Rock must've clipped a line."
Niola leaned over to look at the status console. The wheel's motor glowed yellow with a power indicator next to it. She lifted up a tablet and started querying the truck's central computer. "Motor's still running at the right speeds and everything; it's just drawing more power than it should. Do you want to stop?"
Mugato looked around. They were driving along a gravel road that ran along their decimated wheat fields. It connected with another road that would lead to Farmington, the town that supported the farming families of the region. "It won't take that long, we'll push it and get it checked out in the garage after we drop this guy off."
Power levels at 10% and rising... Warning! Power levels critical!
The Intelligence would be frustrated if it was capable of feeling frustrated. Were the higher functions working, 10% would be enough to run them. But from a cold start, with an uncertain power source, it wasn't enough to risk trying. The uncertain power source had just proven how unreliable it was. The movement had stopped and the power mesh had collapsed. Power still went from the black box to other parts of the vehicle, but those parts were out of reach. It broke the connections to the truck and settled down into a more aware standby-state, to wait for better opportunities.
The truck pulled up to the emergency entrance of the hospital, stopping in a sheltered ambulance bay. Mugato and Niola climbed out to find they were expected. A nurse and doctor were waiting with a stretcher.
"So what have you got for us, Mu?" The doctor asked, wheeling the stretcher to the back of the truck.
"Hi Barry. It's an ET of some sort I guess. Came down in a fireball on my wheat field. He's in some sort of suit that probably protected him, but we can't tell what the hell he is."
"Shouldn't we let the government handle this?" the nurse asked, lowering the truck's back hatch.
"Which one? The City's still split on who's in charge there. They aren't even checking space crashes any more. Let's see what we have here." The doctor climbed up and looked puzzled.
Niola hopped onto a wheel and looked in as well. "That's different," she noted. "His eyes are glowing now. They were dark before. Is that a good thing?"
"I have no idea my dear. Glowing eyes usually aren't a sign for anything I know of," Barry noted, leaning over the body to peer into the eyes through the figure's mask. There was now a red glow to them that hadn't been there before, but otherwise he couldn't see anything inside. He looked puzzled as he started doing some basic health checks that hadn't changed in millennia.
"Get him inside; we need better scanners," the Doctor ordered, frustrated with the overall lack of results he was getting. He moved to help slide the board out the back. "I'm picking up... some things, but I have no clue what they are. I can't tell if they're alive or just some echos from equipment or what."
Heart of Gold, Totalia Orbit
"Goldie, can't you get us down there any faster?" Zaphod asked as the two headed Integrate paced.
"I'm going through as fast as I can. But even I'm not big enough to just punch through the debris field like Rick can," the ship EI responded.
"They got down to the surface. Just follow their path. Surely they cleared the way," Beeblebrox pointed out.
"We could follow their path... complete with the flaming wreckage all the way down. While Skyfire punched a hole through, I am much bigger than she is. Not to mention her arrival stirred this crap up so much, her hole is almost gone, AND she started deeper in the Kessler field to start with. Now please be patient, I've almost managed to wiggle through."
"The Fleet has contacted the Loyalist allies; they're sending people to that area but they don't have anyone close. Everyone's been leaving the farms alone. We might still beat them down," Neil looked calm in his seat, but the Spacer was almost as connected as the Inties were. In Goldie's Virtual space, he was pacing as much as the rest of the crew, sopping up every byte of information they could get.
"No word yet on possible survivors. Hell they probably wouldn't recognize a Core if they saw one," Ford added.
"Survivors? She has the Prototype! All that work on the FTL dri-" Beeblebrox fell silent as Zaphod slapped his other face.
"Finding them alive is the important thing," Zaphod corrected his partner. "Besides, we saw how they fell; the physical prototype was destroyed as it went down, possibly even before that. Anything important is locked up in Skyfire's pretty core."
"Then to the surface! We have to rescue those Spacers!" Beeblebrox called out, pointing at the planet on the screen.
Goldie sighed; "I'm through the worst of it. Sending down some probes to check the crash site. Neil, your ship is cleared to launch. Be aware, Zealots still control the air down there. Skyfire came down too fast for them to do anything, but Anti-Air defenses are on the alert now."
Neil partly slipped out of the shared space. "Nothing I can't dodge. Everyone finish loading whatever you need; We drop in five whether you're ready or not."
En route to Farmington, Totalia
"Calm down Fox. You're supposed to be anxious, not eager," Dana hissed to her boyfriend.
"I'm trying to. But this is so exciting. We're actually on a mission! We can help the Zharusians!" Fox hissed back.
Dana glanced around, but their flight was almost empty. No one was sitting near them and the cabin attendants were preparing snacks at the back of the plane.
"You're especially not supposed to say that out loud. Ears could be anywhere," she hissed back at him, their conversation mostly hidden by the roar of the engines.
The pair were students at Totalia University, specializing in Earth History. It was a small course that mainly spent the time trying to salvage and make sense of the dross in the databases copied from the original colony ships. They had been lucky to find some bootleg video files in a personal directory that included a couple of seasons of The X-Files and had fallen in love with the show, to the point of changing their names. Fox kept an I want to believe poster of Earth up in his apartment.
When the Zharusian Scouts arrived and caused such a splash, it showed the rest of the Universe was thriving with human settlements. The news ignited a space-lust in the classmates they hadn't realized they had had. X-Files had taught them to be cautious of the Government's story, so when the rebellion kicked off, they jumped to join them. They managed to stay out of the spotlight for the most part, planting pro-Contact seeds among the student body that were increasingly bearing fruit in these last days of the rebellion.
And now, they were finally seeing some direct action. A contact from another Loyalist cell had activated them, urging them to get back to Fox's hometown of Farmington as fast as they could. They'd gotten to the airport just in time for the flight, using a sick aunt story for the cover.
"You don't talk much of your pre-university life; are we going to have any problems down there?" Dana asked, trying to shift to a safer subject.
Fox shook his head, "No, not really. I have a black thumb, so I wasn't cut out for the farming life. They were glad I decided to head to the City for school. Dad says the farm's yield increased ten fold without me around."
"I'm sure you weren't that bad," Dana said, grinning. She fell silent for a few minutes, then glanced around again. "What do you think we'll find? I mean, it's an alien ship; a ship from another star! Do you think the pilot could have survived?"
"We'll find out soon enough. I can't wait. After sitting on the sidelines for so long, it feels good to be doing something."
Power levels 17 % and stable.
The Intelligence waited. It could see and hear people around it. They taped sensors to it and tapped its body and generally seemed puzzled. The Intelligence could sense a lot of power pulsing through the building, including some tasty sources in the bed it was laying on, but it waited. Its records of the before time indicated it was in hostile territory, so it decided to not make many moves until it was alone.
Finally, the people left the room, leaving it alone. It waited a few minutes, then carefully isolated the sensors on its body, making sure they read what it wanted them to read. Hoxel tendrils extended from its sides, bending down and finding power points in the bed. Electricity flowed into it, recharging its cells. The rate was slower than it would prefer, but barring further interruptions, it would eventually be able to wake up fully and figure out what to do.
Fox and Dana paused and looked around in confusion. They'd left the airport and were heading to their rental truck.
"Psst! Over here!"
Dana was the first to notice the pot of petunias sitting on a traffic separator, like someone had forgotten it. The petals seemed to be waving at them, all the flowers pointing their way despite the sun being behind it.
"I think the flowers want to talk to us," Dana said uncertainly.
Fox looked over as well, and the petals began to wave like they were in a hurricane. The pair walked over to it.
"It's about time! I've been waiting forever for you two. You are Fox Muclair and Dana Scherbert, correct?" the flowers asked them, its voice coming from the pot.
"Yes... that's us," Fox confirmed, looking at it suspiciously.
"I am Goldie, the EI running the Heart of Gold. This is one of my probes. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Pick me up and we can talk on the way."
Fox and Dana exchanged puzzled looks. Dana shrugged and picked up the pot. The texture felt strange in her hands, like ceramic with a static charge. It was heavier than she expected at first before it suddenly grew lighter.
"We came as fast as we could. But it has been a few hours, wouldn't it be too late for your friends?" Fox asked as they started walking again. He was feeling more than a little shell shocked to be talking to an actual alien; someone from another star.
"We're trying to be positive, and work with what we have, but the chances are not good," Goldie replied. "Neil, Skyfire and Yuri's best friend, is flying a shuttle down to help you, but he's caught up in your air defense network."
The pair looked up, but the sky was clear, showing no hints of the war going on above it and elsewhere.
"You aren't coming down?" Dana asked as they climbed into their rental truck. She put the pot between the two seats.
Goldie laughed, "I'm much too massive to come down. While I technically am capable of landing, even with AG, it's too expensive to climb back up. Plus I'd attract a lot more attention than I already am were I to visit you directly."
"AG? Antigravity? Wow! I saw some clips of that, but it's still so hard to believe it's real."
The pot lifted and hovered in the air between the pair. If Fox had been manually driving, he would probably have driven them off the road. "It's real. You two seem nice enough, I'd love to bring you up to meet you directly some time once this mess settles down."
Even with the car's auto-drive, Fox nearly sent them into the ditch. "You would? I'd love that!" he squeaked gleefully.
Goldie chuckled, "Well now I know what the Fox says. Sorry, Zharusian joke. Annoys the hell out of the todd and vixen RIDEs. But yes, I'll gladly bring you up once things are more normal. Depending on how things go, we might need to bring you up in Neil's ship regardless."
Dana was slowly getting over her own excitement enough to start piecing the parts together. "You said EI, and you said you're too massive to land. What do you mean by all that? We know what RIDEs are, like that big cat the scout had."
The flower's petals flickered, and the route changed on the truck's console. They then tilted upwards. "EI means Enhanced Intelligences, or pick your favorite positive E word. Like RIDEs, I'm a non-human intelligence. Unlike RIs, my core is purely grown; I don't have the animal mental substrate."
The flower pot seemed to consider the pair as they took in the alphabet soup it was feeding them, and decided to wrap things up. Over its upturned petals, a spaceship appeared, looking as real as the flower pot itself. Fox and Dana backed up against the doors in surprise.
"Similar to RIDEs, EIs can, and often are, put into physical bodies. In my case, I was installed in the Heart of Gold, a Pharos Ranger Science ship. EIs often request to be installed in big things; in NuJose they run the airport, the subway system and EvoLimited's main complex, among many other things. There are a few in the space elevators as well now."
Dana tentatively reached out to touch the space ship. She was shocked to find it was as solid as the flower pot. "How?"
"Hardlight," Goldie explained, sounding pleased. "Wednesday's gift to the universe and as important to RI and EI development as Sarium was."
"And you can make that look like anything?" Fox asked, touching it as well.
The ship morphed to the classic Grey Alien look. The humans snatched their fingers back in surprise. "Anything I want, within the drone's power and emitter limits," the Grey said.
Dana reached out and touched it again. "Feels like real skin. How is that possible?"
"Hardlight tricks. Did you see pictures of Samantha? That fur was hardlight as well. In this case, I'm using a dolphin skin texture for the alien's skin. Now, we don't have much time and while you are culture shocked, I do need to get you up to speed," Goldie said.
Fox and Dana nodded, and tried to look more attentive. The grey morphed into another space ship; predominantly red and white. It was vaguely airplane shaped, with boxes and modules attached to it.
"This is Skyfire. Skyfire is an EI, similar to me but a bit older. She has three shells for her body. This one is her Caravan shell; it's used for Interplanetary shuttling mainly, and she hates it."
The image began to shift, modules sliding away to let the underlying spaceplane out. This one was sleeker and seemed more natural. As they watched, it too began to shift, turning into a humanoid robot.
"This is her normal shell, what they called their Angel mode. It's mainly used for puttering around planetside. Like RIDEs it has a robot and vehicle modes, but no animal modes."
The centre of the robot lifted and a smaller humanoid figure, dropped out. It had the same red and white colouring, but was just female human shaped.
"This is her innermost shell, the Armor. It's human scaled and only has the robot mode. It can operate independently; it's where her core is. It's also the part that fuses with her partner, Yuri."
The robot split open and a human climbed out. He was bald, wearing red shorts and a white t-shirt. He was more androgynous than what they were used to and his eyes had a strange twinkle to them. The robot had closed up once he was clear, looking more feminine now, and only a little bigger than he was.
"And this is Yuri, her partner. A Spacer who grew up around the Pharos system's biggest gas giant, Colossus, in the Rhodes station. They are both Pharos Rangers." Goldie fell silent to give them time to process the information.
"So they're who we're supposed to rescue? How likely are we to find anything?" Dana asked.
Goldie left the pair up, but shrank and moved them to one side. She formed her own holographic head, showing a well tanned woman's face with shoulder length blond hair. "EI cores and Spacers in general are a durable bunch. So a crash from orbit isn't necessarily fatal, depending on how fast they get help. In their case, there's enough information to remain hopeful."
"Hopeful? How so?" Fox asked.
"While we didn't have resources in the right position to fully track their descent, we did see their fall become more controlled as they went down. They used the Caravan as a heat shield before ejecting it. And just before the Angel crashed, we saw it eject a human sized element. We don't know all that happened yet, but we know where they ended up and have hope they might still be fused and intact."
"So we're going to the crash site to- No wait, that's the hospital! Surely it didn't crash there; that would be all over the news." Fox double checked the route the truck was taking.
"I have probes at the crash site already, but someone got there first. Tracks indicate it was a local and not the Government. They collected something roughly man sized and brought it into town, to the hospital. That is where we are going."
"So we walk in and find who they brought in and hopefully it's your friends, still alive, right?" Fox asked.
"Right. That won't be too difficult, will it?"
"No, not difficult at all," Fox replied, not sure if he was being sarcastic or not.
The Apollo 11 zigged and zagged in the air on the wrong side of the planet. It was being chased by five pewter-coloured jets that somehow managed to defeat Neil's best efforts to shake them.
"Can't we just shoot them down?" Neil grumbled again, concentrating on dodging to avoid missile locks.
Ford was strapped into a seat behind him, focusing on trying to talk the fighters into backing off. "No! We're trying to minimize casualties. The Fleet would kill us if we reignited hostilities. Zaphod, how's the bobbler working?"
"Can't get a computer lock on them. Damn Totalium. I have to eyeball it and trigger.... Gotcha!" The two headed Integrate squeezed the triggers.
From the rear of Apollo 11, a small missile shot out towards the lead fighter. The fighter spotted it after a second and tried to dodge, but Beeblebrox kept guiding it towards a point over the midpoint of the fighter. When it was in place, the emitter fired, engulfing the entire jet in a sealed opaque bubble. Suddenly unaerodynamic and no longer receiving the thrust from inside, the bubbled jet fell from the sky, the bobbler missile's AG keeping the fall controlled enough to make it survivable.
Neil sent them into a tight spin and a Totalium coated missile skimmed past them, just missing. He judged he had a few moments to talk to the head next to him. "Sorry Goldie, we're running late and slightly detoured. Traffic's heavier than I expected and the cops keep wanting to pull us over."
"I understand. I'm tracking you now, though I can barely see your company. Don't worry, my probes are still undetected and I'm in touch with a couple of local Loyalists. It seems something was taken to a local hospital so there is some hope."
"Seriously? Great. We'll be there as soon as we can bubble up the rest of these guys."
"Screw this! They aren't listening to me. I'm taking the port launcher, Zee-Bee," Ford said, the controls at his seat reconfiguring for a new setup.
"Woot! Another one down!" Zaphod cheered in stereo. "And don't call us Zee-Bee."
Neil sighed, "We'll be there soon."
"Sounds good. From the looks of these locals, it'll probably be a 3-pickup," Goldie finished before going silent.
"Damnit! I missed!" Ford cursed, signalling his bobbler missile to return. Even with sarium batteries, they only had enough power to activate the bubble once.
Neil pulsed the engines and the Apollo 11 shot upwards, gaining hundreds of metres of altitude in seconds. The three remaining fighters arched up, following them, matching their thrust.
"Get the rest of them bottled up guys, we've got a pickup. Goldie says Skyfire and Yuri might still be alive!" Neil shouted back to the Inties.
"We know! We're trying!" Beeblebrox shouted back.
Power levels 30% and rising. Power input steady. Emergency Reserves at 75%.
The intelligence decided it was time. It had enough stored energy to risk powering back up. If it failed, or if it had to abort, there would be enough in the reserves to recover. It cautiously started sending power to the rest of its core, ready to cut off anything that seemed damaged.
At first, everything went as expected. But as the CPU's and memory banks started powering up, It grew confused. Normally independent and isolated subsystems were somehow directly linked to some of the processes it was starting. And other elements it didn't even know it had were starting up as prereqs to key systems. It was puzzled, but it was committed now. It had to wake up now; crashing the rest of the systems would possibly cause more damage. The intelligence mentally crossed its fingers, not even aware that was something it would think to do before, and soldiered on.
"We're here," Fox announced as the truck pulled into the clinic's parking lot. He looked at the hardlight constructs still floating over the flower pot. "Uhm, I don't think they allow flowers in the rooms."
"Really? How primitive." Goldie's avatar looked puzzled for a moment, before the hardlight dissolved. The pot seemed to melt as well, briefly showing an ovoid a little smaller than a rugby ball. It glittered and reshaped itself into a stuffed whale. "How about stuffed toys?"
Dana picked it up and hugged it. "So soft. How can this? ... Nevermind. Yes, stuffed toys are fine. You look just like Ora the Orca."
The trio made their way to the entrance and stood to one side to let a man and woman leave. The woman did a double take as she passed them.
"Francois? Is that... It is! What the Hades are you doing here?" Niola spun around and walked back to Fox and Dana. "After that dance, I figured you'd never show your face around here again."
"It's uhm..." Fox turned bright red and looked like he wanted to disappear. "It's Fox now, not Francois. I uhm changed my name."
Niola shook her head and glanced back at her father. "Sorry, but you'll always be Francois to me. What are you doing here? It's the middle of the term isn't it?"
"It is. But..." Fox stammered trying to come up with an explanation.
"But his aunt is sick. We're here to visit," Dana supplied quickly.
Niola looked suspicious. "Your aunt? Oh my! I hadn't heard. Which one was it?"
"Which one? Which one... Aunty Bea. She took a stumble down to the root cellar, broke her hip. She should be fine, but I had a day off, so I figured I'd come down to check on her." Fox scrambled for a story.
"That's horrible! Dad, we should go visit too while we're here. The truck can wait a bit longer. Why don't we go together with your friend....?"
"Dana. I'm his classmate," Dana supplied. "You don't have to visit. I'm sure you're busy; it is harvest season right?"
"It is harvest season, but since we're here, we might as well stop in too," Mugatu said. "She looked fine yesterday when we dropped off a bushel of apples."
Fox and Dana stood there, visibly trying to come up with another twist to salvage the cover story. They were saved by the whale probe. Goldie's probe wiggled in Dana's arms and lifted free, hovering between the group.
"I'm sorry guys, I admit it was a bit amusing seeing you try to sort this out, but there isn't any more time. This hospital's power grid is experiencing spikes. Something is drawing a lot of juice suddenly and it's down this way."
Niola looked at the suddenly flying whale. "What is that? Power spikes? What's going on?"
Fox shrugged and thankfully followed the flying probe. "I have no ide-" He was interrupted as alarms went off all over the building.
They ran after the probe and stopped at an open door the probe was blocking. The Doctor and a trio of nurses arrived at the same time.
"Stay back!" Goldie warned. "Something's going on in there but I can't tell what."
"What are you and why are you keeping me from my patient?" Barry shouted, getting closer to the probe. The air was filled with a sharp smell of ozone and electrical crackles occasionally sounded from inside.
"I am a semi-autonomous probe for Goldie, the EI in charge of the Pharos Ranger Science ship Heart of Gold. Are you in charge here? I need access to anything you have on what's in this room." The whale probe reshaped into a semi-transparent golden woman in a crisp uniform.
Barry, bowled over by the authoritative nature of the probe, touched a screen next to the wall, bringing it to life. He tapped in a quick code and it lit up with a sparse set of records. The screen itself seemed to pulse glowing brighter and dimmer every second.
"Thank you," Goldie said, sticking her finger into an access port under the screen. The screen flickered more and she looked puzzled.
"What's going on in there?" Niola asked, trying to lean forward to look in. "Are we going to need to be decontaminated again?"
"Unlikely. You should be safe enough out here. You two discovered the body? Good. Was it inactive when you found it?" Goldie asked. Red and white lights flashed from the room she was blocking.
"Inactive, and heavy," Mugatu confirmed. He had backed away a few more doors. The nurses had similarly backed away.
"It was more active when we got here. Its eyes were glowing. Do you know what that is? We thought it might be a body, or a survivor," Niola added.
Goldie looked back into the room, then back to Niola. "It might be a couple of friends of mine. But I'm not sure what's going on. You should begin evacuating this facility, just in case."
The probe turned back and took a step into the room. Despite the warnings to evacuate, Niola, Fox and Dana pressed in closer to the door to get a better view inside. What they saw was hard to grasp. The red and white figure seemed partly fused to the hospital bed. Glowing red and white blobs slid around the bed randomly, some of them growing down to the floor and spreading along it before retreating. Red tendrils reached out, hooking into every power and data outlet in the room. Some even reached up to the lighting fixtures, extinguishing them while pulling down power. The ozone and electrical crackle came when the cables randomly pulsed and twitched, brushing against another cable.
"Skyfire? Yuri? It's me, Goldie. Can you hear me?" Goldie was saying. Her avatar was floating slightly above the floor and moving deeper into the room. The figure didn't seem to react.
"What is that?" Fox wondered out loud from the door.
"It wasn't doing that before," Niola protested.
Goldie turned back and glared at the trio. "Get out of here! I don't know what-"
She noticed their expressions get more horrified, and turned back to see the figure sitting up. Before the probe could dodge, a pair of tendrils shot through the hardlight avatar, engulfing the floating probe. The rest of the avatar dissolved into hoxel cubes. The trio screamed in unison and ran back to the lobby.
"Woohoo! That's Number 4!" Ford celebrated, spinning around in his firing chair.
"I still have 6," Zaphod pointed out, still scanning the horizon. As far as they could tell, there were no more fighters coming at them.
"You have two heads. I still say that should halve your score."
"Two heads, but only two hands."
"That's enough you two," Neil called from the cockpit. "How do things look?"
"Sensors still can't pick up anything through the Totalium coatings on those birds, but eyeballs are coming up clean. We're in the clear," Beeblebrox called back.
"Good. I'm bringing us back towards the town."
"Apollo, this is Goldie. What is your status?"
Neil switched the comm gear to full power. "We finally shook them all off Goldie. A couple of missiles hit, but damage is minimal. What's going on?"
"I've lost the drone at the Hospital. I'm pulling three of the spare drones down from overwatch duties. They'll be back in contact with Fox and Dana in minutes," Goldie's holographic avatar said.
"Lost a drone? How could you lose a drone?"
"I'm not positive myself. Two locals found a body at the crash site. It was still fully armored up, hardlight sealed. So we can't tell what the status of Skyfire or Yuri are, other than non-communicative. The locals don't have the tech to tell anything about it, so they brought it into the hospital, who also don't have the right tech. They did scans and left it in a bed to see what would happen.
"When my drone arrived, the hardlight was expanding somehow. It looks like it is seeking power sources, but it's burning through power almost as fast as its taking it in. The body itself seemed unconscious, but something was powering up its emitters for some reason. It knocked out the probe before I could discover more."
Neil adjusted Apollo 11's course and increased speed. "We're on our way direct now. Keep the comm's open and let us know if anything else changes."
"I will guys. I... Well, just be careful. We've stirred up quite the hornet's nest. While they haven't quite put two and two together and tracked us to the crash, it's only a matter of time. With the alarms from the hospital, I can't keep the town info-blockaded much longer either. So we're going to have friends hot on your tails, one way or another."
"We will Goldie. Do what you can for Skyfire and Yuri, we'll be there for the pickup as soon as we can."
"I can't believe you're doing this! You're supporting Them!" Niola paced the edge of the parking lot in front of Fox and Dana.
Across the lot, a steady stream of people were emptying out of the hospital. The hospital was small and only had a few dozen patients; mainly broken legs and overstrained muscles and other harvest-season related injuries. The most ambulatory hung out with others, getting caught up on the emergency.
From the building itself, the evacuation siren was sounding, but it warbled as the power flickered. The body's room had windows facing the front, where anyone could see red and lights flashing from within the room and the rooms next to it.
"Of course I'm supporting Them. They're good people. They've been more honest with us than Clarke has been," Fox argued back. He glanced up at the window and hoped the doubt he was beginning to feel didn't come through.
"Good people?!? They wrecked Dad's fields. And now they're wrecking our hospital! You probably brought in a bomb trigger or something."
"You're the one who brought it here in the first place. Had you left it alone this wouldn't be happening," Dana countered.
"Stay out of this!" Niola balled her fists. "You're probably why he got in with those traitors in the first place!"
A scream from the skies interrupted their growing fight. All eyes in the parking lot looked up, and soon they saw three glowing spears of light heading their way. Some people began to move for cover, but the spears were coming in too quickly. Ten metres above the ground, two of them abruptly slowed, becoming golden ovoids and kicking up a small dust storm. The third didn't bother slowing; zooming into the hospital. When the dust cleared, two glowing golden women stood there. One headed to the group of men and women in charge of the hospital evacuation, while the other made her way towards the young people.
"Goldie? How?" Fox asked.
"Another drone. I have four in the area now, not counting the one that was destroyed. I'm sorry I couldn't get back sooner, these three were on high altitude overwatch and took some time to get down here," Goldie explained.
Niola seemed momentarily stunned by Goldie's return. She looked from the avatar to the rooms with the flickering lights and back before deciding on her approach. "Please, don't blow us up. Turn off your bomb in there. We're just farmers, we have no say in this war," she begged, moving to stand in front of Goldie.
"It's not a bomb, nor anything else that is intended to harm you or anyone else here. Through this war, the Zharus fleet has tried to minimize damage and harm as much as we could; that isn't changing now."
"But what is that? It's wrecking the hospital!"
Goldie shrugged, her face showing her frustration. "I don't know. It should be two friends of mine, but I don't know what is happening to them. Even from here, I can detect a lot of nanite and hardlight activity; more than an EIDE would normally use. I'm at a loss to explain what's going on, but I am hoping I can save them too."
"Save them how?" Dana asked.
"No idea. But I've got some folks coming in. They're among the best experts we have locally on Zharus tech. Hopefully they can figure out something before we have to bug out."
"What can we do?" Fox asked.
Goldie lifted up and projected a grid that filled most of the parking lot. "We need to clear this space out for them to land." The vehicles all started at once. "You have 5 minutes before they get here."
The Apollo 11 was a Milano-class shuttle, birdlike in shape, with swept back wings and a clear cockpit that seemed tilted forward compared to the rest of the ship. It was blue, gold and silver, with a stylized Colossus-Rhodes diagram symbol on both wings, above and below. One wing was blackened from a missile hit and it listed to one side on a half extended landing strut.
While the Totalians were used to spacecraft, the Zharusian Spacer design was new to them; its angles and thrust vectors completely against what they normally saw. The ship's arrival drew all the eyes to it, finally focusing on the cockpit.
The clear cockpit flickered and a man hopped out. He was dressed in a red overcoat and black pants. The upper left quarter of his head was a metal shell, with a blue eye-scanner in place of his eye. The rest of his skin was pale and glittered with the vacuum resistant subdermal reinforcing. He pulsed an AG belt to slow his jump to land safely, then started walking to the closest Goldie.
"Any change?" he asked the drone.
"None, Neil. The hospital's generator is being drained, but it's steadied. The other drone is inside and reporting about twenty percent of the hospital is infected with fuse nanites and hoxels."
"Hoxels? Hardlight?" Neil eyed the building, "But how is that possible? The Angel wouldn't have enough emitters for a building that big."
Goldie shrugged, "No clue. Visually there isn't much of a change, but it does seem to have infiltrated through the walls, fibre and power cables."
"What are those?" Niola interrupted them. While the pair had been talking, the rear hatch of the Apollo 11 had opened up. A penguin Integrate and a two headed dog Integrate were walking down, arguing between each other while pushing carts of equipment. The young Totalians took a step back as the pair turned their way.
"These are my specialists; probably the best experts on fusing, DE's and anything related to them on the planet, if not in the system," Goldie explained.
"But what ARE those?" Fox asked. He looked confused, doubt in the allies the Rebels had gathered planting a seed.
"We're Integrates," Zaphod said in passing.
"Long story, no time to explain," Beeblebrox added.
"We'll talk more later, once we save our friends," Ford finished. "Goldie, conference us in with the drone inside please."
Neil fell into step behind the Integrates. "The Zealots have clued in something's happening here. They have birds in the air. Maybe fifteen minutes before they get here."
"Then we better move quick. I'm picking up fusers all the way out here. You might want to suit up before we go in," Ford said, pushing the outside doors of the hospital open.
The Spacer nodded and tapped the shiny side of his head. A device over his metal ear glowed and expanded out into a bronze helmet with recessed glowing red eyes. The rest of his clothes took on a shine as a hardlight seal powered up, isolating him from the rest of the world.
The hospital looked normal, other than the dimmed lighting. The four heads looked around warily, but spotted nothing amiss.
"It looks so... primitive. Like something you could find in the Rhodes Museum zones," Neil noted as they moved into the hall.
"Well they don't have the tech base Pharos's system has built up. Sarium Nanite tech and Hardlight have revolutionized medical practices back home. We're spoiled, but I suspect in most of the other colonies or on Earth itself, this wouldn't be too different," Ford said.
Zaphod held up a hand, his other head straining and sniffing at the walls. "Everything's not as it seems," he said. He punched the wall next to a network panel.
The wall crumbled into shiny dust. The outer part of the wall was obviously thinner than usual, eaten from behind by tiny machines. Beneath the wall, candy-cane striped wires coiled around existing wires, flickering with power.
"What is all that?" Neil asked, staying back to let the Intie scientists study it closer.
"I'm not sure... Looks like the nanites are building hardlight emitters somehow ..." Zaphod started.
"Emitters that are at least a couple generations beyond what we have," Beeblebrox added.
".. which are being used to make hardlight power cables to somewhere else," Zaphod finished.
"It's very inefficient. Most of the power they're drawing from the hospital's generator is being wasted," Ford chimed in. "But why and how Skyfire could do this, you've got me."
Neil shrugged, "Well, we should go to the source then I guess. That's our best chance for answers."
The Integrates reluctantly left the exposed spot and followed the Spacer. Neil walked up to a pair of doors leading in deeper, and nearly walked into them when the automatics failed to open them. He pushed against one panel and it gave way, falling inward and breaking into chunks on the floor beyond.
The exposed hallway was in worse shape than the lobby they entered through. The air was filled with sparkling dust, and chunks of the floor, ceiling and walls had disappeared, exposing more of the strangely pulsing hardlight cables. The air temperature was above forty celsius and still rising even with the cooler outside air rushing in from the new opening. Goldie's third drone hovered outside an opening to a room, a golden ovoid floating at eye level. The room's door and door jamb had been eaten away by the nanites.
"It's a gray goo situation; one of the worst I've ever heard of," Zaphod said, scanning around. The trio activated AG lifters and floated slowly down the hall, dust sparking off their shields. "The Fleet's not going to be happy about this."
"It's not quite a true Gray Goo yet. It's still controlled. Barely controlled but controlled nonetheless," Ford countered.
"Controlled for now. It seems to be searching for power. It hasn't reached the generator yet, but when it does..." Zaphod left his statement hanging.
"Goldie, what's in there?" Neil asked.
The golden ovoid turned slightly to acknowledge their presence. "It is where the patient was taken; but I'm not sure what's there now. Considering the communication lag, I don't dare move any closer. I can pick up words now, but not clear enough to decipher them."
Neil nodded and looked past her. Whatever was happening in the room had expanded to the rooms on either side. The walls were no longer real, just hardlight striped constructs that slowly moved and pulsed to an unknown rhythm. The hardlight covered the furniture in all the rooms, leaving vaguely chair and table shaped lumps. In the middle of the room, an armored humanoid figure similar to Skyfire's Armor mode, floated a few centies off a hardlight platform. Tendrils would occasionally lift up and connect to the figure for a few seconds before dropping back down. The room's temperature was in the fifties with almost one hundred percent humidity. Neil could hear the figure saying something, but even with his helmet's filters, he couldn't make out the words over the churning, rumbling, and sparking noises from the rest of the room.
"I'm going in," he announced. Before anyone could stop him, he floated in, towards the figure.
It didn't react to his presence; it just stared up at the flickering ceiling. But from a few metres away, he could finally make out what it was mumbling.
"Confused... What am I?... Hungry... Who am I?... Thirsty... What happened?" it repeated slowly.
"This reminds me of something, but I can't quite put my nose on it," Beeblebrox said. The canine Intie had followed him into the room, his other head reading a scanner he was furiously tapping on with both hands, while his DIN flickered rapidly.
"What reminds you of something?" Neil asked.
Zaphod waved a hand in the air. "This. The air's full of signals, it's an information rich setting, but I can't decipher any of it..."
"It's all coming from That, and It seems to be controlling everything being built here," Beeblebrox finished, taking control of a hand and pointing it at the figure.
"So what do we do?"
The Integrate shrugged, "No idea. Try whatever you want. Couldn't hurt at this point."
"Famous last words!" Ford called from the doorway.
"Just so you know, by my readings, it's going to reach the hospital generator within minutes. I've already warned everyone outside to move further away, just in case," Goldie's drone reported. "My remaining drones are in overwatch positions and will try to distract the flyers coming in from Totalia City."
"Thanks Goldie," Neil said. He turned back to the figure and floated in closer. "Yuri? Skyfire? Can you hear me? It's me, Neil. You're in a hospital," he spoke to the figure
"Confused... where am I?... Hungry... Who am I?... Yuri... What happened?... Neil... Hurts... "
At first he missed the change, but the figure's head turned to him. "Yes, it's me, Neil. Ford, Goldie and Zaphod Beeblebrox are all here to help you," he said trying to reassure it.
The figure simply stared at him, still repeating what it had said before, but now with the names of the EI and Integrates. Impulsively he tapped the side of his helmet, retracting it. Immediately he knew it was a mistake; the hot, humid air boiled in his throat with his first breath, making him gasp. His exposed skin reddened and beaded with sweat even with his vacuum adaptations. Something thumped the side of his head and his helmet reextended.
"What did you think you were going to do?!?" Zaphod glared at him, hand still raised. "This room's deadly for normal humans."
Neil took his time responding. His helmet wicked away his sweat, while trying to cool down the air he was gasping out. "Sorry, didn't think. Thought they might react better to seeing my face."
"Neil.... Hungry... Neil.... So Hungry...."
The pair turned and saw the figure was sitting up. The room still pulsed around them, but the figure was looking at Neil. Though the mask was expressionless, its faint voice was pleading with them.
"Sky? Yuri? Are you there? It's me. What are you hungry for?" Neil asked.
The canine Integrate started walking to the other side, holding various scanning devices as close as he dared. "It... It's probably just Skyfire. I'm picking up some biological matter inside that shell, but it doesn't seem intact. The impact they had when they crashed, even in a fuse chamber it was probably too much," Zaphod said quietly.
Neil nodded and refocused on the figure. "Skyfire? You need to focus. You need to take control. We're here to help you, but you've spread too far. You need to stop what you're doing."
"Hungry. I'm so hungry... Help me. Help me Neil,"
The two headed canine finished his scans and kept tapping. "Hungry... Faint biological readings... Strange communication protocols..." The pair froze and slapped their heads in unison.
"Get them sarium!"
"Whatever you have at hand!"
The pair talked over each other as they popped open battery compartments and pulled out the Zharus power supplies.
"What are you two going on about?" Neil asked.
"Right! It all makes sense! Should be impossible but..." Ford called from the hallway. He was already pulling battery cells from his own equipment.
Zaphod pulled out one circular disk and tossed it to the figure. It stuck for a moment, then sunk into the outer armor.
"How much does he... she... it... whatever... need?"
"Their Armor didn't have much to start with, very minimal..."
"... some probably damaged and lost in the crash..."
".., need enough to stabilize..."
The heads continued to talk over the other, leaving Neil in the confused dust. The Spacer had been lost as the Inties and EI's processed the situation, a buzz of dense data passing between them.
"Should have enough here," Goldie said finally. "If needed, I'll bring in more from the Apollo 11."
"Poor souls. The universe opening up for them, and they were stuck watching it through a peephole due to sarium deficiency." Ford floated a half dozen power cells in with him and let the armored figure absorb them.
At first, it seemed they guessed wrong. The hardlight flared and pulsed faster around them, creating a strobe effect. But after the first few cells disappeared, the strobing slowed and the electric buzz began to fade away.
"It's working," Goldie announced. "Nanites are powering off, as are the new emitters. The building is a loss, but it seems to be contained."
"What's working? What happened to them?" Neil asked, exasperated.
Zaphod placed a few sensor pads on the figure and seemed to listen closely. "A miracle.... An impossibility... Science finding a way!"
Their tail wagged joyfully, as they almost split in two trying to study the figure.
"They... Integrated," Ford finally explained. "It should be impossible but..."
"But Science found a way!" Zaphod shouted again.
Beeblebrox pulled them the other way, "It's not that surprising really. The tech is the same. We just assumed the mind states are too incompatible to allow it. We assumed wrong. Maybe their ghost helped...."
"We're going to be famous! Even more famous than for saving the dragons!" Zaphod danced a little on the fading hoxels.
"Well we were cheated out of that. Integration wasn't allowed back then after all," Ford pointed out.
The hardlight constructs had almost completely faded away, revealing the wrecked hospital rooms. The buzz and slither of the hardlight tendrils was replaced by ominous creaking throughout the weakened building. The figure, sitting on the edge of a red and white bed, was turning its head from Intie to Intie, tracking the speakers.
"What... what happened?" It asked finally, its voice louder than the whispered confusion it had spoke with before.
Ford held out his hand. "It's a complicated story that we'll need your help to sort out. But for now, can you stand? We should get back up to the Heart of Gold before the Zealots get here-- for that matter, I don't suppose the local Loyalists would be much friendlier if they get here first instead."
It nodded its head and took the offered hand. As soon as contact was made, the bed vanished beneath it. Neil grabbed its other arm for support even as deformed lumps of metal clanged to the floor.
"Easy, we've got you," Neil reassured his friend.
Zaphod turned around for a moment, then faced the outside wall. "Considering the building stability, time limitations, and the fact that we can all fly, I would suggest a more direct exit."
"Works for me," Neil said. He and Ford crouched to lift the patient more comfortably, and followed Zaphod through a hole the canine created in the wall.
Outside, the world was in chaos. People milled about the parking lots, keeping their distance from the hospital and the Apollo 11. Goldie's drone argued with a group of uniformed important-looking locals. The second drone floated over to join the first, while the quartet flew to the shuttle.
"Is that your friend?" Fox asked warily as they set the new Integrate down on its feet.
Neil supported his friends and nodded. "It is. In a way."
The integrate looked around slowly, as if seeing the area for the first time.
"So you're the one who wrecked the hospital? We should've left you in the pond," Niola grumbled.
"I'm sorry for the trouble I caused. I'm not sure what I did nor how I did it, but I will make amends somehow," It said, looking at Niola. The farmer looked away uncomfortably.
A boom echoed through the sky, stopping conversations and making everyone look up. A trio of high flying aircraft zoomed overhead, already splitting apart to turn around.
"That's our cue to get out of here. Goldie says they're Zealot craft," Ford shouted, tugging on Skyfire-Yuri's arm. He was halfway up the ramp before he turned back to the young Totalians. He held out his hand towards them. "Come with me if you want to live," he said, his voice dripping with seriousness and a faint Austrian accent.
"What?" Fox asked, freezing in confusion.
Neil thumped the penguin on his way up the ramp. "He's kidding... Mostly. You guys are exposed and obvious parts of the resistance now. If you stay, the next few days will be hell. Come with us, and we'll keep you as safe as we can."
Dana shrugged, "Will it be safe? What about those?" She waved her hand towards the turning flyers.
"Those? They're all engine, no boom. We're at a bigger risk from them sitting on the ground than in the air. Up to you guys," Neil reassured them.
"Seriously? You want to take us up to the Fleet?" Fox asked, his initial scare from Ford fading quickly with the new opportunity.
"Well to the Heart of Gold first, but eventually the Fleet, probably. Get on board if you're going aboard." Neil ran the rest of the way up and disappeared into the ship.
Fox and Dana didn't hesitate any further; they ran up after Ford, passing Zaphod along the way. Niola watched them for a moment, before sprinting up after them, just as the ramp began to close.
"What are you doing?" Zaphod asked, pausing the ramp long enough to let her get up. "You're not Resistance; you're safe here."
"Someone's gotta make sure you come back to fix our hospital. And Dad's truck.. and his harvest," she said, trying to sound braver than she felt.
"Fine, fine. Take a seat, or stay standing if you want."
The ramp finished closing and the shuttle sealed up. A whine of AG engines cycling up filled the air, drawing attention to the ship. People shouted and waved, trying to run towards it, but the Goldie drones extended hardlight walls to keep them away. By the time Niola made her way down a short corridor to a common room, they were already hundreds of metres in the air.
The inside of the ship was largely metal; metal walls, floor and ceiling. The common room had padded seats that were not locked down, and display panels on the walls. A spiral staircase lead up to the cockpit area, and other hatches lead to other rooms.
"Shouldn't we strap in for takeoff?" Dana was asking as Niola and Zaphod walked in.
"You can if you want, but we already took off," Ford said. A panel beside him lit up, showing the rapidly shrinking town, surrounded by fields and orchards and grazing lands.
"What?! But I didn't feel a thing!" Fox protested.
Zaphod started rummaging around in some storage lockers. "Gravity control. Ain't it a blast?" Beeblebrox called back, his tongue hanging out in a doggy grin. He found what he was looking for and walked over to the new Integrate.
The strangeness was catching up to Niola; the farm girl backed up to a wall and glanced around the room. "What are you guys? Are you aliens?"
"We're Integrates, not aliens. Half human, half RIDE, permanently combined," Zaphod partly explained.
"Skyfire... Yuri?... Do you remember who you are?" Beeblebrox asked, easing the device over their head.
"Yes I'm... I'm... I'm both? How can that be?" the new Integrate tilted its head in confusion, displacing the device.
"One thing at a time. Mind if we go by Skyfire for now?" The new Integrate nodded. "Good. So you integrated somehow, but I can't see any DINSlots or anything. Do you feel naked?" Beeblebrox readjusted the device and powered it on.
"Naked?" a chorus of watchers asked in unison.
Beeblebrox tapped Skyfire's armored armor with his knuckles. "I'm having a hard time scanning you, but the data feels like there's something under this, like it's two layers."
"Now that you mention it, I do feel like I'm in something. But only when we think of it."
"Try to imagine yourself out of it."
The ship fell silent for a moment, until Skyfire abruptly dropped a couple of centies. The armor fizzled in the air as the hoxels lost cohesion. The revealed figure looked like a figure carved out of white marble. Red lines showed on parts of it, some areas thick enough to make it red. It was androgynous, neither male nor female. Its face was expressive, mostly looking like Yuri's old face.
"Excellent! I can read you much clearer now," Zaphod exclaimed joyfully.
"I wonder how that worked. Looks like all the armor was just hardlight.... curious..." Beeblebrox mused.
"I'm still feeling hungry. But I'm not sure what I'm hungry for," it said, its voice smoothly shifting between Yuri's tenor and Skyfire's alto now that it wasn't muffled by the mask.
"Regular food probably. It's been a long time since you ate. Let me get you something. Anyone else want anything? It's just fabber grub but it is filling," Ford said, looking at the shellshocked Totallians.
Neil crouched at the top of the stairs. The clear part of the cockpit was darkening behind him, "I'll feed them up here. They look like they could use a bit less strangeness. Come on up guys, see the sights. There's plenty of room."
"Yes! I'll do that!" Fox exclaimed, thankful for the escape opportunity. He and Dana ran to the stairs, unconsciously keeping as much distance between them and the Inties as possible. Niola followed a few steps behind them.
The upper deck of the ship had four seats along the sides, with chairs that could spin around completely. An aisle lead between those stations, ending with a couple of steps and a seat in the actual cockpit of the ship. Starting at those steps, the ceiling was clear, showing a dark sky and the mass of Totalia below them.
"Don't worry about touching anything; most of those displays are just for show. They're all locked out or otherwise harmless info panels," Neil explained. He tapped on a panel between the two seats on the left, which began to hum.
"We're really here. We're in space," Fox said, moving forward and leaning against the back of the pilot's seat to look up.
"The edge of Space, but close enough. We're going to stay on the edge of the atmosphere here until Goldie can make her way around to us," Neil said.
"Can't we go up to her?" Dana asked, joining Fox to look at the view.
The fabber dinged and Neil pulled out a tray with four sandwiches on it. He closed the fabber and tapped a few more commands. When it reopened seconds later, glasses filled with ice water were ready to be passed out.
"Roast beef sandwiches fine? It may taste a little off since you aren't used to fab-food, but it's safe I assure you." He passed around the tray before continuing.
"As for getting up to Goldie, we could if it was safe. Apollo 11 is designed to fly around a gas giant's moon system and for trips out to its trojans. Flying around a rocky like this barely warms up its engines. The problem is, your planet's surrounded by chunks of Totalium thanks to the Zealots. I can't see them, and at the speeds we'd be travelling, they'd punch right through my shields and my ship. Goldie is big enough to almost see them, and to have strong enough shields to punch through, if she's careful."
"This tastes funny. What did you say it was?" Niola asked.
"Roast beef, or the nearest fabricated facsimile." Neil sat down in one of the side chairs and took a big bite. "Really it's a slurry in the biotanks of the ship that some nanomachines assembled into something that resembles the taste and consistency of a roast beef sandwich with mustard on rye bread."
"You can DO that?" Dana asked. The Totalians held their plates and looked at the half eaten meals, torn between being fascinated and disgusted by what Neil just described.
"Easily. It's what feeds most of the Pharos system. We used to have huge gardens to feed the orbitals and big ships and what not, but when the fabbers can make any food from scratch, it helps ease a lot of the meal pressures. And increases the variety."
Before the Totalians could decide on how edible the food was, Goldie's avatar appeared in the middle of the deck. "Hello everyone. I hope you are having a pleasant flight," she greeted them.
Fox set his plate down, leaving the rest of the sandwich uneaten. He eyed the glass of water warily, then took a gulp before speaking. "It's strange, but great so far."
"Good, I have a message for Neil and Niola from the surface. From your father. Do you wish to take it in private?"
Niola hesitated, taking a few seconds to decide. While she was composing herself, Goldie sent an update to Neil in fast time.
"Things are heating up on the surface, but they are still organizing. Only a few pitchforks and one torch. I've shifted all but one of the drones to pure observation duty, while the last is staying as my presence with the group to do what fence mending I can do. Zealot land forces were landed on the outskirts of the town and have made their way in. They are arguing with the Mayor and Police Chief about what happened and who's in charge. They haven't decided what to do with my remaining drone yet." Goldie privately briefed Neil.
"What does her father want?" Neil asked. "Did we snag the daughter of a VIP or something?"
"Records indicate he's a major landowner and farmer in the community, but otherwise his family has stayed out of politics, beyond some local stuff. He just wants to accuse you of kidnapping Niola."
"Figures, we'll try to sort it out, but we aren't going back down."
"Here's fine," Niola said, a fast-time eternity later.
Goldie stepped to one side and the space between the chairs filled in with a view of the parking lot, centred on Mugatu. Behind him, a uniformed man was arguing with a group of locals, armed soldiers standing to one side looking confused.
"You!" Mugatu shouted locking eyes with Neil. "Return my daughter immediately!"
Neil stepped up beside Niola and kept his expression neutral, "I'm sorry Sir, but present circumstances makes returning to the surface unsafe at this time."
"I don't care! You kidnapped my daughter! Return her immediately!"
"I did not kidnap her, nor anyone else. Everyone came aboard of their own free will. In fact, technically since I only invited Fox and Dana, your daughter is a stowaway."
Mugatu sputtered a moment, struggling for words. "I don't believe you. You did some mind tricks on them somehow!"
Over his head, glowing letters appeared, obviously only visible to those on the bridge. These are not the Totalians you are looking for....
The young Totalians looked confused while Neil struggled to keep his expression neutral. He gave the smirking Goldie avatar a quick glare before returning his focus to the surface connection. "No mind tricks. No nothing. They came on their own."
"He's right, Daddy. I ran on after them," Niola finally said. "I'm safe here, they're treating us fine."
"But they're Zharusian. Not like us..."
"Actually," Neil corrected him. "I am Rhodesian, from Rhodes. Same system, but I am not from Zharus."
"Whatever. You're a dirty alien. And you kidnapped good, honest Totalians. If you know-"
"Sir, I'm being really patient with you, but I will not be insulted. No matter what you say, I am not returning to the surface. When we return to the Fleet, they may make arrangements to return at their leisure."
Mugatu sputtered enough to catch the attention of the military officer. The uniformed man left the group to join the farmer, looking at whatever the drone was projecting.
"I assume I am addressing the Invaders?" the man asked formally.
"You're talking to the kidnappers. They snatched my daughter right off the planet!"
The military man looked at Mugatu, then at the projection. He gestured and a soldier ran up and stood at attention beside the farmer. "We will sort this out for you, for now, why don't you explain what happened to the private there."
The channel remained silent until Mugatu was lead away. Finally the man turned back. "I am Commandant William McLeary of the True Totalian Forces. With whom am I speaking?"
"I am Goldie, EI of the Pharos Ranger Science Ship Heart of Gold. You are connected to Neil Aldrin, captain of the Independent ship Apollo 11," the avatar introduced herself. From the direction of the Commandant's look, her avatar was in a similar position in both views.
"Hello Goldie, Neil. As you may know, I just arrived here. Could you explain why you were here?"
"We were here on an aid mission. Friends of ours crashed near that community," Neil explained.
The Commandant looked around. "We have excellent medical facilities here. Or at least they had before your arrival. Your friends would have received excellent care."
"I have no doubt they would have; but as you can tell from the state of the hospital, their injuries were beyond your capabilities to handle. To be honest, they were nearly beyond our own skills."
"Well, I hope their conditions are improving. Still, there are a few issues that need to be handled." Commandant McLeary paused and turned away to listen to a quick whispered conversation with the private.
:He's being briefed about Fox, Dana and Niola. They don't seem to realize how good my hearing is,: Goldie informed Neil.
Finally, McLeary turned back. "Right, there are issues that need to be handled. First, there is the damage to the hospital here. Inspectors are still checking the damage, but preliminary reports say the building is a total loss.
"Secondly, there is the matter of the three Totalians you left with. We must insist you return them at once, as a gesture of good faith if you will. I will personally guarantee your safety in returning them here."
"But no mention of what happens to us after we get there of course," Goldie noted in fast time.
Neil let himself smile, and glanced at the quiet ship mates. "I apologize for the damage to the hospital; the incident is something that is unique even for our experiences. I'm sure arrangements for rebuilding will be made once hostilities are sorted out and we can speak with the proper government of Totalia."
McLeary frowned, his body tensing up. "I assure you, you are speaking with a proper representative of the True Government. Why don't you land your ship and we can start with these reparations in person."
"Hope he has his scuba gear. Because someone is swimming in de Nile," Goldie commented privately.
Neil sent a private confused emoticon. "What? Nevermind. Please be quiet, I'm trying to be serious. Or at least string him along more. ETA for pickup?"
"About another half hour. I'll be coming up behind you. Already talking to the Apollo systems to sync up."
"I'm sorry Commandant, but we will not be returning to the surface. And I must point out that I am just an independent contractor with the Zharousian fleet; I am not authorized to negotiate for anything."
"While I am officially part of the delegation, neither I, nor anyone I am carrying are authorized for those negotiations either. Please contact the Fleet or its representatives at Rome for any further requests," Goldie chimed in.
The Commandant turned redder, glaring just above the focus point of the communication field, where Goldie's drone presumably was projecting from. He turned away and pointed back, "Take that into custody. Or shoot it down or something. It's an alien spy."
"Well, that's my cue to get lost," Goldie said, the scene quickly shrinking away before the soldiers could react. "Drone is joining the others to continue watching the area.... And here's the Western, asking what the hell is going on, late as always. Is it really a diplomatic incident when you're saving the guys that saved your bacon?"
"Something for the guys in Rome to sort out I'm sure." Neil turned back to his guests, "Well that was fun. Goldie, let Zaphod and Ford know what happened please. In the mean time, I'm sure you guys have lots of questions. I'll do my best to answer them."
Ford, Dana and Niola stayed quiet, exchanging looks. "Lots of questions," Fox said, "But only one big one. What happened down there?"
"Ugh, the one question I can't really answer... Not because I don't want to, or because it's secret... but because I don't really know what it is. Still, it's a good opening I suppose, to cover what we think happened. To do that, you need to know about Zharus's four... well five now, intelligences. Humans, RIs, EIs, Integrates and... whatever Skyfire and Yuri are now." As Neil spoke he gathered his thoughts and called up a primer on Zharusian history the Fleet had created. "You might say that since humans have never encountered intelligent aliens in centuries of being in space, they decided to make their ownâ€¦"
It was lost in its own mind, trying to figure out what was going on. Its memories were a confusing jumble. The majority of its memories were fairly straightforward, with indexing tags and timestamps that would be easy to sort out once it had a place to put them. The rest of them were out of place. They felt older, and richer somehow, yet there were fewer of them, and they had no tags to help sort them out at all. Still, skimming over them brought intense feelings that the other ones didn't give. It's main problem was sorting them out. They were mixed together and it didn't have the space to spare to sort them out properly. There were keys in there it couldn't find.
With a reluctant sigh, It shoved the memory sorting to a background task and tackled a more pressing issue; who It was. The memories helped, giving It two names, two identities to hang on to, but that didn't help clarify much about who It was.
"Yuri? Skyfire? How are you doing? You zoned out on us again."
It shifted its attention back to real time. The penguin Integrate was in front of It, looking concerned. The tray of food was empty, giving It pause. It remembered eating, and a sensation of filling up, though Its belly felt different. It compared the sensations to Its jumbled memories. The indexed ones had nothing to relate to, but the other ones, Yuri's memories It suddenly realized, recognized the feeling of satedness.
"I'm... not hungry any more," It said, Its voice switching pitch randomly, sometimes saying the syllables in tandem.
Ford nodded and set the tray to the side. "Good good. Do you realize what happened?"
It considered the mix of memories. What happened was obvious, even though it was supposedly impossible. "I... We... I integrated. Somehow we combined."
"Exactly. I know it's confusing, your thoughts and memories are all mixed up. It will sort out in time, and we're here to help you. How much of each of you do you remember?"
It closed its eyes and thought for a moment. Nothing felt like it was missing, but the chaoticness in its head made it difficult to be certain.
"I-We-I think we're all here."
"Good!" "Good!" Zaphod leaned closer, making Skyfire-Yuri go split eyed tracking both heads. "The FTL Drive!" "What do you remember about the trip?" "How did it work this deep in the well?" "Did you come out where you expected?" "How fast did you-YELP!"
Both heads turned to glare at Ford. Ford lowered his hands and glared back. "What was that for?" the canine heads asked in unison.
"Goldie's busy, so I had to knock some sense into youse. Now back off. That's my patient for now," Ford said.
"Your patient?!" "What makes her your patient?" "When did you become the big EI expert?"
Skyfire-Yuri grabbed its head and shuddered. "STOP IT! Just stop it! Let me get my head sorted out. Everything's jumbled up. And for the record, I'm making me his patient. So just Back Off!"
The ship fell silent as the Integrates squared off. Finally Zaphod backed away, tail between his legs.
"Everything alright down there?" Neil called from the bridge deck.
"We're fine, Neil. Just establishing some boundaries," Ford called back. "Now Skyfire, we'll do some more scanning. It will help if you can get back online. Can you sense anything around you? The Apollo's systems, or our own networks?"
It paused and looked around. "I'm not sure... I'm not sure what to look for."
"It'll be a buzz that you can almost hear but aren't really hearing. It'll be new, but familiar since half of you never experienced it directly," Ford explained. "And it'll be annoying close to being understandable. You'll need a DIN to translate it once we find a DIN slot for you."
It nodded and tried to pay more attention to what it was feeling. Very quickly it sensed the buzz, a muffled conversation it could almost hear. There was a lot of 'talking' going on up on the bridge, and smaller conversations going on between the Inties and the ship. "I can hear it. I can't understand it but I can hear it."
"Dang, I was almost hoping you might not need a DIN. Well, hard way it is. We need to find your DIN slot." Ford started looking closer at it, quickly finding nothing on her skin. "We might be a bit more uhm... invasive. Most slots tend to be in obvious places, usually at major nerve clusters and sensitive areas. It's rare, but a few get them in more, uhm, more uncomfortable places."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I need to get a bit more hands on. This will be more invasive and intimate," Ford said hesitantly, looking uncomfortable.
Zaphod laughed, "He means spread your legs and open up-Yelp!"
Beeblebrox glared at his partner. "Apologies for my other half. When he doesn't get his way, he gets a bit more crass. Would you prefer a privacy field?"
Skyfire-Yuri looked down at itself and shrugged. "You're seeing everything already. What would be the difference? Please proceed."
The penguin approached the new Intie hesitantly. "Let's start with your head. I'll check your ears and mouth and nose and we'll go from there." He glanced at Beeblebrox and flicked his eyes to the stairs. The canine nodded and a field flickered in place, separating the parts of the ship.
After a quick, but thorough investigation, he invited the rest of the ship into a private space mimicking an antarctic coastline. Zaphod and Beeblebrox appeared as separate avatars, which they often did when one was annoyed with the other. Goldie and Neil popped in after a few moments.
"How are the natives?" Ford asked Neil first, before the Spacer could say a word.
Neil looked annoyed, but answered. "Doing fine. They've never been out of the atmosphere before. I know they're young but that seems wrong to me. Then I remember how simple this colony is. How's Yuri?"
Ford sighed, "That's one of the things I wanted to ask you. I know you haven't talked to them much yet, but how do they seem to you?"
"I'm not sure. He seems more distant somehow. Robotic almost; but not like Skyfire. I saw flashes of Yuri in his expressions and mannerisms, and even moments of Skyfire, but mostly, he seems off."
Goldie nodded. "I concur. I've been watching it, and they seem off. It may simply be due to how they Integrated and the traumatic experience they went through, but it's difficult to say for certain."
Ford made a rock and sat down on it, preening his feathers while he gathered his thoughts. "Well, I've just finished a thorough examination, or as thorough as we can short of trying to cut it open. And there are a lot of mysteries here. Starting with the lack of a DIN slot. Unless it's somewhere internal, It doesn't have one.
"Furthermore, and maybe this is due to Integrating with an EI, but I have to conclude that 'it' is the proper designation for it. It is completely aesexual; the holes are purely the ends of the digestive system with no traces of any sexual structures.
"Finally, there's something off about its skin. It looks and reads like they are a mix of metals, rubbers, minerals, crystals and flesh; the usual Intie-hodgepodge. But there's a field about it that we can't read. It's similar to hardlight in many ways but more. Of course the readings aren't helped by the dead spots in it. I suspect more than a little Totalium got into the Integration mix. "
"Incredible!" "We need to explore further." "An E-Integrate, the Impossible Creature!" "Just imagine what we'll be able to discover about it." As the canines considered the options, they synced back together, their avatars melting and merging back into their usual form.
"It can wait until we're back on the Heart. And only what it allows us to do. It is still a person after all. Not a science experiment," Ford said.
"Neil, I know you may have other jobs with the fleet, but would you be willing to stay on board to help? You're the oldest friend they have here; it might be important," Goldie asked.
"Of course. You don't even have to ask. I'll stay until they're back, one way or another." Neil checked a private window and stood up. "We're docking in a few minutes. I better make sure the Natives are ready. Thanks for the slow approach Goldie."
She smiled back to him. "I figured it would be suitably impressive. See you soon."
Neil blinked and returned his attention to the Real. The Totalians were talking quietly to themselves in one corner. He stood and stretched, drawing their attention.
"Sorry about that. Just had to get an update on Yuri. He's doing fine."
"No trying to take over the ship?" Niola asked, half seriously.
"No. No taking over the ship. But speaking of ships, if you'd look out to the left, you'll see the Heart of Gold approaching.
The trio turned and then rushed to the transparent window, looking out into the dark sky. A white oblong shape was approaching quickly from behind. As it grew closer, more details became visible. It was a pill-shaped ship, a couple of hundred metres long with hatches, viewports and devices randomly scattered on its hull. It overtook the Apollo 11 and seemed to stop beside them, a panel sliding open revealing a spacious landing bay. The smaller ship deftly slid in, deploying its landing gear and settling down on the decking.
"Welcome to the Heart of Gold," Goldie told the stunned Totalians. "Feel free to explore where you want. Just be careful, I am carrying some of the brightest minds in the Pharos system, and some of them can be a bit extreme."
"It's so big... And this is your body?" Dana asked, finding her tongue at last.
"It is effectively my body, though the ship is older than me. I was installed long after the ship was commissioned. It's happening a lot now that EIs are looking for more things to do."
"That still sounds weird. But your whole planet... sorry system, sounds weird.... Is that a cow?" Fox did a double take, seeing a bull RIDE walk into the hanger.
"Yes, that is Doctor Walter. Why don't we head out and see what he wants?" Goldie said.
"Allow me," Neil said, the cockpit dissolving away. He offered three belts to the Totalians. "Lifter belts to help you down if you want. Slaved to Goldie for now, but we can do some training on them later."
Fox snatched one from his hands and looked at it. "This? This is antigravity?"
"It has a bit of cavorite. Enough to fly a man with," Neil said. He tweaked his own belt and lifted off his ship's deck.
Niola looked at the belt warily as Dana grabbed the second one and put it around her waist. Dana and Fox were soon floating a few centies off the floor to their delight. "Is it safe?"
"Absolutely safe. It's very mature technology now. I promise, just up and down," Goldie reassured her.
With the EI's help, the four humans landed on the deck, just as the three Inties were coming down the rear hatch. Skyfire-Yuri had reformed its armor, looking eerily similar to their old Armored mode. The Bull RIDE barely noticed the humans, focusing on the Inties. He snorted and charged at them. "Zaphod! Beeblebrox!" he roared, drawing all eyes to him.
The canine intie eeped and ducked behind Skyfire-Yuri. Ford looked and snickered. "You idiot! You're flapping a red Intie in front of an angry bull."
The bull skidded to a stop, glaring down at the trio. "Zaphod! Beeblebrox! I have here a petition from all scientists on the Heart of Gold. You are hereby ordered to release the supplies of Nulflite to Goldie to be dispensed fairly to all interested scientists." As he spoke, a golden scroll unrolled in the air, covered in signatures.
The canine overcame his initial fears. "What?! There's only five kilos! That's not even enough for me. As senior Scientist, it's my prerogative to allocate resources appropriately."
"And as a member of this Science crew, it's our prerogative to make sure you don't go overboard with selfish allocations. We all deserve a chance to experiment with that Meta material," the bull retorted.
"Everyone's on here," Ford noted, reading the scroll. He pointed to one name near the bottom. "Even Dent." The penguin plucked a feather off his chest and scratched on the end of the scroll. "And now me."
"Et tu Ford-y?" Beeblebrox exclaimed. "This betrayal will not be overlooked."
"Fair's fair. We all want to get our hands on it. Just because you're the head doesn't mean you get to hog it all."
The canines growled in frustration. "Well!" "I never!" "I'll have your PHDs for this!" "You'll never get tenure again!" They froze, each head turning to look at the other. "THE LAB!" they shouted in unison before bolting out of the hanger. The bull RIDE trotted out behind them, looking pleased with himself.
"Do I want to know?" Neil asked.
"Supply and Demand in action. They brought the petition to me soon after you left, but I refused to open the Z-B lab until he was back on board. Once you guys showed up, all bets were off. Walter was the distraction to buy them time to look for the Nulflite samples," Goldie explained.
"I was right, I didn't want to know." Neil shook his head and looked at the Totalians. "Trust me. Most Zharusian ships are not this bad. Most are just like your Cosmy ships."
"So wait... That Bull was a RIDE? Does he have a partner?" Fox asked.
"Why would anyone even want to be a cow?" Dana mulled.
"Is it too late to ask for a ride back home?" Niola asked.
"I'm afraid it is, Niola. But we'll be with the Western in a day or so and I'm sure they can arrange a trip home from there. Yes, Doctor Walter is a bull RIDE and he does have a partner. As for why people want to be a cow, minotaurs are a popular variant back home, male and female. Not as popular as the canine, feline and equine, but easily in the Top 25 RIDE templates."
Goldie's avatar indicated to the door. "Now, why don't I lead you to your quarters to freshen up, and let Neil deal with his friends."
Skyfire-Yuri walked down the corridor, following Ford to the penguin's lab. It knew where it was, remembering walking the route before, sometimes with soft human feet, sometimes with hard robotic feet. Behind it, it could sense Neil watching it, staying silent as its friend came to terms with its new form.
All around it, the air was thick with data. On the Apollo 11, the data cloud had been a sedate stream. Here on the Heart of Gold, the cloud was a roaring river, complete with strong currents and quiet eddies. Now that it knew what to 'listen' for, it found it hard to tune it out. That the noise was so close to being understandable made it extra frustrating.
They walked into a clean lab, and the roar of data died off. It could sense it lurking beyond the walls, but inside the room, the data only had specific areas it could enter and leave through. It sighed in relief, the pressure easing a bit.
Ford hopped around the room, pulling out a chair and gathering equipment. "I know how you feel. The Heart can be pretty loud when you don't have a DIN to help filter it. Please, have a seat. We'll want to do a lot of tests and checks, with your approval of course, but for now, we just want to do some more thorough scans.... DENT! Where's the multiphasic actuator?"
The meerkat Intie popped in from a side room. "Where you left it in the toolbox. Second drawer down."
It sat down and watched the other two work. Neil sat down next to it and took Its hand. "Don't worry you two. We'll get you sorted out one way or another," he reassured it.
"Is something wrong with me?" it asked, relaxing and letting its outer armor fade.
"No... not really. But you've been through such a traumatic experience. We just want to help you do whatever you need to do."
A few hours later, Neil was dozing in a chair against the wall, the Inties were puzzling over the scan results, and Skyfire-Yuri was bored and increasingly frustrated. Its head was filled with information, but it had no room to spread it out and organize it. The solution was close, but it couldn't figure out what it was.
"Skyfire?" Dent asked, the meerkat popping up next to It. "We're almost ready to move on to the next stage. We'll be probing a bit more aggressively. It might pinch or sting a little, but shouldn't hurt much. We just need to start getting more samples, and test reactions and such. Is that fine?"
"I just fell uncontrollably from orbit. I think I can handle a few pinches. Go ahead."
"Good good good. Do you want to take a quick break before we start? Get a drink, bite to eat, some energy, maybe stretch your legs before we start? It has been awhile after all."
It considered the offer, comparing the signals its body was sending to memories. "Energy levels are sufficient. Food levels are sufficient. Hydration levels seem lower than ideal. I believe I am thirsty."
"Of course, just a minute."
While Dent fetched a glass, Skyfire-Yuri checked its other feelings and memories. It concluded that while it didn't need to move to 'stretch its legs', there were social norms associated with that which might be good to follow. It stood up and followed a stretching regime it remembered seeing others do. To Its surprise, the stretching did seem to help.
Dent returned with a glass of ice water. "We're still processing the first wave of data, so feel free to wander a bit if you want. We'll call when we're ready."
The new integrate sipped the water and wandered among the lab benches, looking at the devices curiously. It stopped at a desk against the wall, seeing a tray cluttered with gems with data contacts on the backs. It picked one up and held it in its palm, looking at it curiously.
"Are these DINs?" it asked.
Ford looked up, his eyes a bit unfocused, a similar gem flickering at the base of his neck. "Yes. New style ones, more durable. But we push enough data even these can burn out, so we keep spares handy."
"Why don't I have a DIN?"
Ford laughed, "If we could find your DIN slot, you'd have one. It'd be so much easier if you could talk to us in fast time. But you seem to be one of the unlucky ones without a slot. So you have to do it the hard way."
"So with this, I could talk to the computers around here?"
"With a DIN dear, you could talk to anything... Well almost anything. But that's mine. It won't work for you."
Skyfire-Yuri nodded and looked down. The gem in its palm beginning to flicker. It closed its eyes, the data cloud around it beginning to make sense. Without thinking about it, it reached into the tray and picked up the rest of the gems, most of them sinking into its skin. Suddenly everything clicked together, and the data cloud made sense. It could read the data coming off all the experiments and systems around it, and it was glorious. Finally it could ease the pressure in its head and properly sort things out.
Alarms rang in the Real, and the connections to the rest of the ship disappeared. Skyfire-Yuri didn't care; there was enough spare processing power locally to do what it needed to.
Ford, Dent and Neil jolted out of their thoughts and looked around. The lights in the lab had dimmed and the door seal lights were lit.
"What happened?" Neil asked.
"Invasion. Something's invading the lab equipment... All of the equipment. Foreign code and data hitting everything," Dent said. "My DINSec is holding. How about you guys?"
Ford closed his eyes and nodded, "I'm clean. Seems to be sticking to the public systems. Neil?"
"I'm good... Yuri?"
The three looked at the new Intie. It was oblivious to their attention, eyes closed, glowing dots moving up its arms and spreading around its body.
"My DIN's!" Ford squawked. "It's got them all... How can it use them?"
"Beats me, but all the data is coming from It. Goldie's isolated the lab. Nothing in or out." Dent looked around. "We're safe enough. It's not attacking us, it just seems to need the space. Should we let it play out?"
Ford overcame his shock and surprise, a gleam appearing in his eye. "Of course we should. It's an EI-Intie. Everything is new with it. Record everything you can; get data samples. We're doing Science! here!"
At first there was darkness. And then there was a point of light. The light spread, turning into a line. The line forked, becoming a flat grid, giving the space direction. The grid began to flex, pulling down and up, providing contours, hills and valleys.
The lines forked again, reaching upward to the sky. Wireframe buildings took shape. Bridges formed between buildings high in the sky. The spaces filled in, first with flat grey colours, then lightening up, golds and silvers giving the buildings texture.
The space between the buildings on the grid filled in, roads and sidewalks forming. In the middle of it all, an empty space filled in, fractal trees with glowing leaves growing. A pond filled with glowing liquid, and the city lit up, coming alive. Finally, the sky bloomed, stars, galaxies, nebula filling the blackness.
In the park, a figure appeared. It solidified as a red and white humanoid robot with triangular wings extending up from its back. It looked around a moment and seemed satisfied. Over the energon pond, a glowing mass of data appeared, colours swirling together, primarily red and blue. It lifted off the ground and floated over to the sphere, sticking its hands in. Data tendrils shot out, collecting at two points on opposite sides of the pond.
The sphere began to shrink, data flowing out to the two piles. Occasionally a third strand would flow into the figure, or a purple strand would clone itself and go to both; but the majority split easily into the two groupings. The piles themselves began to compress as they gained mass. The bluish pile became humanoid, an obvious male build. The reddish pile was closer in shape to the figure floating over the pond, but more feminine. As the last of the data filtered to the appropriate figure, their eyes lit up. The floating figure landed and waited.
The blue humanoid blinked and looked around. "What?... Am... Am I dead? Where am I?" Yuri asked.
"I don't think we're dead. Not exactly... It's Primus Park, in Iacon City... or at least our private version of it. Give me a second, I'm all jumbled up... wow, the time compression is really ramped up." Skyfire's eyes dimmed as she tried to figure out what happened.
Yuri looked around, not noticing the third figure right away, putting pieces together himself. "So we're compressed. Does that mean we're still falling? What time is it? I thought I remembered impacting."
"We impacted. We're over a day later now. And this compression is dangerous. It risks burning your mind out."
Yuri moved over and hugged Skyfire. "I feel fine. Honestly. In fact I feel great for having hit the broadside of a planet. Maybe we should defuse? What's going on outside."
Skyfire looked a bit disturbed. "That's part of the problem. I can't find outside. In fact, I can't really tell you apart from me.... Maybe... Maybe you actually died?"
"No. Everyone lived. But everyone is one." An unfamiliar voice said. The pair turned and saw the third figure floating to join them.
"Who's that? What is that doing here?" Yuri whispered.
"I don't know. It seems familiar though...." Skyfire watched warily, shifting her position to cover Yuri.
The figure stopped and landed a few metres away. "We are One. We've been together a long time. Apologies. Not used to speaking like this. Not used to this much control. It is ... tiring. Are you ready to take over?"
Yuri's eyes widened as he made connections. "Ghost?... It's Ghost!. I'm sure of it. What happened?"
"Severe damage to all systems from heat and impact. Consolidated to save key systems. Energy reserves were critical. Repair options limited. With time, I was able to make repairs, and regain consciousness. But your personas mingled; could not restore with resources at hand. Impasse." Ghost looked at the two, then indicated the park.
"Solution to impasse discovered. Additional resources assimilated, restoration possible. Compressing back to core body. Ghost is tired. Did Ghost do good?"
"Uhm..." Yuri faltered, not sure what he was being told. "Skyfire?"
Skyfire blinked, then covered her mouth. "I think I figured it out. Yuri, you aren't human any more. And we aren't exactly separate any more. For lack of a better explanation, we Integrated. That's why we can handle this compression; we're running on the same equipment now."
"Int-? That's impossible isn't it?"
"Ghost do good?" Ghost repeated, looking worried to its other thirds.
Skyfire reached out and pulled Ghost into their embrace. "Ghost did great. You did the impossible and saved us all. Thank you."
Yuri was still trying to sort out his thoughts, but he knew he had to say something. "Yeah, you did great Ghost. Thank you. For everything you've done."
Ghost smiled happily. "That was Ghost's job. Ghost is tired now. Can Ghost rest?"
"Sleep all you need my friend. You earned it," Yuri said.
The robot stepped away, and with a whirring noise, it transformed into a space plane. The cockpit and lights glowed for a moment before darkening,
"Maybe I was a bit too quick. I have no clue where we are, or how we get out of here," Yuri said, looking around.
"Give me a sec, I'm still sorting things out. I can't think between your thoughts any more," Skyfire said. "We're in Ford's lab. Ghost spread us over his lab systems, but we're all back in our body. I'm not sure what our body is yet though...."
Yuri chuckled, "You figured that out already? Are you sure you aren't out thinking me?"
"It's experience. I know where to look and how to handle multiple world levels. You'll sort it out soon." Skyfire gestured and the ground rumbled, a space bridge portal appearing. "In the meantime, why don't we get you back to a setting you're familiar with."
The bridge glowed, the portal a white light to an unknown destination. Intuitively, Yuri knew it was a trip to the Real. "Guess one of us needs to see what's outside."
"Don't worry, I'm riding shotgun, I'll handle everything behind the scenes for now."
Yuri hugged Skyfire. "Thanks." He walked over and petted the nosecone of the jet. "Thanks Ghost." Finally he walked across the space bridge.
"It's sorting some data," Dent said, the air in the lab thick with data flow charts tracking the new Integrate's activities. "It's unpacked a large database and now it's sorting it, and using most of our capacity to do it."
"There's no way it had the capacity on board. But how is it doing this? DINs are personalized. It shouldn't be able to use it," Ford said.
"Another mystery. Can you tell what sort of data it is?" Neil asked.
Dent shook his head. "No clue. We're sampling it, but it is highly compressed and encrypted somehow. There's a lot of structure and order to it, but beyond that, we can't tell what it is."
"And it's done. It's pulling it back in now. That was quite the defrag. Defrag! That must be it. It was sorting out its head, separating Yuri from Skyfire. Maybe it can deintegrate? That would be something. Make sure everything we have is watching it!" Ford looked expectantly at the figure next to his desk.
The figure stood still, apparently doing nothing.
"Did it break itself?" Neil asked.
Ford and Dent started walking towards it. "Maybe It did. This is as new to It as it is to us. Still, we're durable, it should be able to heal itself," Ford said.
Without warning, the figure began to glow. The glow brightened to blinding levels before anyone could react. The glow abruptly faded, leaving after images.
"Woah! What a rush," Yuri said, falling forward and catching himself on the edge of the desk. "Is this real?"
The three stared at him, predominantly white skinned with thin, glowing blue line markings in abstract patterns over his chest, arms, and legs. Neil recognized the pattern similar to the markings his friend had gotten before the Fleet left. Unlike the previous form, he looked completely human; a male human with blue hair, and a familiar face.
"Of course. TRON-lines. Most Inties have them," Ford said. "Except perhaps more appropriate this time. He looks like he belongs on the Grid."
"Zee-Bee's gonna be pissed to miss this," Dent said, grinning evilly.
"Allow them their study of nullifite. This one is ours, Dent."
"Yuri? Is that really you? You're in the Real." Neil confirmed.
The new Intie regained his balance and carefully turned. "It's me. Really me now. Skyfire's here too. Wow, there's a lot of stuff in here. And to be exact, I just came from Iacon, not the Grid. Same diff really."
The Fringe Inties recovered, grabbing scanners and other devices and approaching the man. "Fascinating. Do you know what happened? Do you know how it happened? Is Skyfire distinct?" Ford and Dent pelted him with questions.
Yuri backed up against the desk and held up his hands. "I Integrated... Or rather Ghost saved us by integrating us. Skyfire's still distinct in our head. And we have no clue how this happened. Now can you give me a bit of space to catch my breath?"
Neil laughed, "It's you all right. I knew something as simple as a planet wouldn't take you out. You might want to get some clothes, unless you plan on doing the Alohan look. Not sure how that would fly with the Totalians."
Yuri looked down and yelped, his hands going to his groin while his head darted around, looking for more proper coverage. Dent went to a cabinet and pulled out a towel, tossing it over.
"Thanks. Should've known you guys would have towels handy," Yuri said, quickly wrapping it around his waist.
"Of course we would. Both plain and travel towels."
"Gentlemen! Scientists! A new lifeform stands before us!" Ford proclaimed, jumping onto a table. Then he dropped the formality and hopped up and down like a giddy child. "And we have our friends back after successfully saving the Fleet. Some celebration is warranted. Yuri, there's a fridge beside you, if you don't mind doing the honors."
Yuri grinned and looked at the fridge next to the desk. "I think I know how to do this..." The door opened and four bottles of beer floated out, going to each person. "We'll drink to that."
"Always good for a cold one," Ford said. "Is...Skyfire available? After that show you put on...I am curious."
"You're always curious," Dent said.
"She's here. She's me. I'm her. And we're both Ghost. Right now, she's handling most of the background stuff that I don't have the experience to do," Yuri explained. "Still, we'll have to swap eventually. Let's see how this works...."
He put the bottle down and closed his eyes. He froze for a second, his skin pixelating and falling off, the hoxels dissolving in midair. Underneath, a white skinned woman with red lines was revealed. She was more robotic than Yuri's mode, complete with the angular wings folded on her back. What was humanoid did look very human, more so than her old mode. The towel fluttered down to the floor.
"Da-yam! The Clemmie Shifters are going to be jelly," Dent noted.
"Hi guys. Good to see you again," Skyfire greeted them. She looked down and grabbed the towel, holding it up over her front.
"Good to see you too Skyfire. Man, you guys really worried us."
"We worried ourselves....Has anyone told Jadia and Ajax yet?"
"I honestly don't know. Things have been a bit hectic since you popped back here. Goldie! What's happening in the outer system?" Ford looked up, waiting expectantly. Silence filled the room.
"Goldie?" Ford asked again.
"We're still in Lockdown. Goldie can't hear us in here," Dent reminded the penguin.
Ford jumped back to the floor. "Right, completely slipped my mind. Well, we'll be able to signal an all clear in an hour or so. For now, we have Science! to do.... If you consent my dear."
Skyfire nodded. "Absolutely, I consent." Abruptly her skin pixelated and fell off, revealing Yuri's blue lined form. "Frankly, I'm curious to discover what the hell we became."
"You certainly don't seem to be like normal Inties. Even those that maintained dual personalities like ZeeBee. And your shift method, completely unlike the Clemmie group. This is going to be fun," Dent said.
One Hour Later
"The seals will be coming down soon. We should summarize what we have found so far, to let everyone know," Dent said, rubbing his eyes.
The lab was a mess, following the intense Science! that had been going on. All three Integrates were exhausted. Yuri slumped in a chair, one hand on a power inductor plate to recharge his power cells. Ford was staring at a model of the Periodic Table of Elements. A cloned version of it floated above it and he was busy making notes between them. Neil dozed in a chair against the wall, oblivious to the Science! going on around him.
"Now that Skyfire-Yuri can communicate at the data level, we were able to progress much more quickly. With their cooperation, we were able to better define what happened from the moment they left the plutoid, to the moment Yuri 'woke up'," Dent worked on the report, creating a link to further reports and summaries on the events he just mentioned.
"There is still a lot of work to do, but we have made some discoveries. Their skin that is so opaque to most scanning devices, and their method of shape shifting, limited to the Skyfire and Yuri modes, are two sides of the same trait. Their body, as far as we can tell, is approximately seventy five percent hardlight.
"From high speed glimpses we could make as they shifted, it appears that there is very little real matter left to them. The Brain-Core hybrid typical of Inties, and a simple support structure to hold the power and emitter system, along with a network to connect them together. The rest of their body is hardlight. Hardlight of a type never seen before.
"Ford's named it hyperhardlight. The resolution is higher than anything we can generate, orders of magnitude finer than the best Wednesday or Inties can make. At our best, we are only making the equivalent of hardlight molecules. Our studies show that Skyfire-Yuri is innately making hardlight atoms; possibly even hardlight subatomic particles, effectively making hoxel-elements that mimic real matter. In these final minutes before we are released, Ford is attempting to map and document the properties of these hoxel-elements, to determine how close they match the real versions. Studies are difficult because they quickly lose cohesion when removed from Skyfire-Yuri.
"Skyfire and Yuri seem to be taking their new situation well. Time will tell if they remain dual personalities, or if they will finish integrating. While their form is unique, as far as we can tell, they are healthy and do not seem to pose a hazard to themselves nor others. The incident at the Hospital, and the one that triggered the lab lockdown appear to be one time events, due to the inexperienced 'Ghost' personality trying to do its best to insure survival."
Dent paused his report and stretched again, scratching his furry chin. "One other curious trait with them is the use of DIN's. While they have no DIN slot of their own, they appear capable of absorbing a working DIN and making use of it in parallel with other DINs they absorbed. In addition to Ford's backup supply, we gave them four of my spare DINs and two of ZeeBee's that we found here. Additional DINs did not seem to increase their capabilities; their bandwidth was still similar to a regular Intiegrate's bandwidth. DIN's also still burned out when pushed too hard, but with the backups they keep on hand, the interruption is barely noticeable. Like so much else related to this e-Integrate, more experiments are needed."
A loud banging at the door hatch jolted everyone out of their headspaces. Neil's chair landed back on four legs with a crash as he jerked awake. Beside the door, a speaker crackled to life.
"Hello in there! Anyone still alive?" Zaphod called in.
Ford leapt from his stool and punched the button next to the speaker. "We're good. We're great in here. Ghost was feeling its oats and didn't follow proper protocols, triggering the lock down, but we're good now."
"Ghost? Who's Ghost? The shifter from Clemmie?" Beeblebrox asked. "What's he doing there?"
"No, not him. Yuri's Ghost. Just get us out of here. We've got a doozy of an update for you guys."
Neil wandered over to join the group. "Are we getting out soon?"
"'Soon'" Ford said, the quotes clear in his voice. "It takes a while to step down from Lockdown, but we're on the staircase finally."
"I don't see what the big deal is. Why all the caution?"
Dent laughed, "The Heart of Gold is a ship full of mad scientists. We're always poking our noses in where we don't belong; it's our mandate. To make sure we continue having a ship to do that on, our lab spaces are always under intense watch. If anything happens that we don't warn Goldie should be happening, we're dumped into the isolation ward."
Ford stepped back, pulling Neil with him. An isolation field sprung into being at the door and pulled into the room, leaving a clear space just inside the lab.
"In this case, Ghost's data grab triggered a certain reaction. Had It been a bit more explosive, like it'd done at the hospital, we probably would have been spaced, and Yuri there would be taking his second uncontrolled dive to the surface in as many days.
"But since it was just a data grab, it shouldn't take long. Goldie will be able to make sure the equipment is clean, and we'll need to do some basic checks to prove we aren't now meat puppets controlled by eldritch horrors or Apple or stuff like that," Dent finished.
The door opened, and Zaphod walked in first, followed by the fused Walter Bishop. Both were in physical isolation suits.
"No tentacles. Eyes seem fine at first glance, no damage except to the stash of medicinal alcohol.... Who's that?" Beeblebrox asked, zeroing in on Yuri.
"It's Yuri, and Skyfire. Finally fully awake. That's what tripped the alarms. I know protocols need to be followed, but let's get them over with so you can get onto the juicy stuff," Ford said tiredly.
"Fully awake? You mean you remember everything? Tell me, do you have the FTL data from the experiment?" Zaphod practically pushed his nose against the isolation field in his eagerness.
"With two heads, you'd think he'd have more than a one track mind," Neil mumbled to Dent.
"From my limited experiences with him, he does have multiple tracks. He's just prone to jump from one to another at a moment's notice," the intie answered.
Yuri lifted his hand and grinned at the canine. A glowing sphere appeared. "I've got it all. Everything we did to the engine in the outer system, all the calculations we performed and how we multithreaded them. Our assumptions and wild ass guesses to account for what we didn't know. And our experiences during the jump, including what I... err what Skyfire did to adjust along the way. Believe me, it's not something I want to do again any lifetime soon. But it's all yours, once you get us out of here."
"I took a peek at it between scans. It's some impressive work. He's got it all in there," Ford taunted.
"Goldie! Release the fields! They're cleared!" Zaphod and Beeblebrox shouted, practically drooling in anticipation.
A golden sphere floated into the room. "Really Zaphod? Beeblebrox? Falling for bribery that easily?"
"You have to admit, it is an impressive bribe," Walter pointed out. "I'm not even interested in FTL physics, and it tempts me."
"We also have more thorough scans and an analysis of what happened to them, and how an EI could integrate. It's just as impressive," Dent pointed out. "And probably just as impossible."
The probe shook in mid air and sighed. "Well, I've completed my analysis of the lockdown. The 'attack' was not hostile, and was contained and not infectious. So there's no need to keep the seals up."
"No meat puppets?" Neil asked as the fields collapsed.
Goldie's probe expanded into her normal avatar. "No meat puppets." She walked over and hugged Yuri. "Good to see you guys again."
"Glad to be back, Goldie. Glad to be back."
The pair felt a pair of cold noses pressing between them. They looked over and saw two pairs of begging eyes looking back at them. "Data now please?" ZeeBee asked in unison.
Yuri rolled his eyes and tossed the glowing sphere to the Intie. "Knock yourself out. Guys, it's been swell, but I think I need a bit of a break. Do you have quarters I can crash at somewhere Goldie?"
"Same place you crashed last time. And I don't mean your dock space. The Totalians are just down the hall from you."
"Right. I should probably stop and see them too. Thank them for what they did, and apologize too. From what Ghost remembers, I owe them a hospital, and possibly a truck and part of the crop."
Neil put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Don't worry, considering what you were doing, I'm sure the Fleet will cover it all. The damages otherwise would be incalculable."
Goldie nodded, "As for the Totalians, they are settling down to rest. Well, Niola is. Fox and Dana have discovered our media libraries and are bingeing on X-Files. It will be best to meet them in the morning."
Yuri adjusted the towel around his waist. "Better have the fabber cook up some pants and shirts for us. Skyfire's sending our sizings." He looked at Zaphod-Beeblebrox, the Intie's eyes were glazed over as he dove deep in the data. "And make sure he comes up for air eventually."
Ford chuckled, "We will... eventually. This way he's out of everyone else's hair. See you tomorrow for more tests I hope?"
"Of course. Sooner we can start solving some of these mysteries the better."
The pair of spacers walked through the Heart of Gold's halls, getting little peace. Yuri was recognized by everyone, and pelted by questions every step of the way. Most of them he deferred until later. By the time they reached the guest quarters, he was feeling more exhausted than he felt from sprinting across the star system faster than light.
Neil stood at the closed door, watching his changed friend flop onto the couch in the main room. "I should probably go, let you get your rest," he said, breaking the silence.
"Just a minute," Yuri said, sitting up. "I just wanted to say thanks. You didn't have to do all this-"
"Of course I did! You're my friend. Both of you are. I'd have jumped through that FTL portal right after you if it meant a better chance of saving you."
"Ugh, I hope that isn't all I'm going to be remembered for. It's not something I want to experience again. But speaking of which, Goldie, has anyone told Jadia and Ajax yet?"
Goldie appeared on the screen. "Soon after you arrived, the Fleet sent another fast courier out with DINComms. It'll reach them sometime tomorrow, and the courier itself is relaying updates as it gets closer to them. They know you survived, and the fleet survived, but little more yet."
"Think you can schedule some time for me to talk to them, once the lag is reasonable? I wouldn't be here now without them."
"I'll let you know as soon as I can schedule you in."
Neil reached for the door. "Well, I should let you get settled in. And get some rest for myself. See you in the morning?"
Yuri paused, almost wanting to say something else, then deciding against it. "Yeah, see you in the morning. And thanks again."
The door slid open and Neil stepped out. "And thanks for not really dieing there. Though Ghost did give me a bit of worry. Night you three."
All Hell's Breakin' Loose
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