User:Jetfire/Spies Among Us

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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Spies Among Us

Author: Jetfire

Mars, a lifetime ago.

The young boy with sandy blond hair ran into the condo without knocking.

"Morning, Mrs Daye. Is Ryan ready yet?"

The woman smiled and slid a bottle of juice to him. "Not yet Troy. he's still in the washroom getting ready. You eager for the trip to Olympus today?"

Troy tried not to look excited. "Nah, not really. We're just gonna see those old robots from Earth at the Museum, and walk around the plastic domes. No big deal."

She set out a plate of toast with peanut butter and jam. "I'm sure it isn't a big deal," she said, hearing the door to the bathroom open. Her son wandered out, rubbing his hands through his thick black hair.

Ryan grabbed a slice of toast from the plate. "Thanks mom. Mornin' Troy."

"Hey Rye. Sleep in again?"

"I didn't mean to." Ryan swallowed and spoke more clearly. "I just got caught up in a book."

Troy swiped half a slice of toast. "Well eat fast. We'll be late!"

"Not that late! Slow down and chew," Ryan's mother called from the sink. She finished filling a bag and set it on the table next to him. "Here's some snacks for the trip, and money for dinner."

Even with chewing, breakfast disappeared quickly. The two boys gathered their stuff quickly and headed for the door. Ryan's mother caught him on his way and hugged him. She kissed the top of his head and held his shoulders. "Now you promise you'll be good?"

"I will ma," Ryan said.

"Good. I love you. Have fun on your trip."

"Love ya too ma."

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A few hours later, the boys along with a few dozen of their classmates were being escorted through the Martian Foundation Museum. The remains of the numerous probes to the red planet, along with one of the original domes of the first colonists had been gathered at the museum at the foot of Mon Olympus as part of its history. The actual artifacts were sealed away, but there were many interactive displays for the school tours.

"Hurry up, Rye. Miss Reid is going to notice us gone any second now," Troy urged his friend, while standing guard. He glanced around furtively, alert for any adult eyes looking their way.

"I'm trying. This display is older than I expected. I need to recompile the holo file to a format it can actually understand." Ryan grumbled. He was crouched over a panel to the display of Mako's first steps on Mars. "Just a second.... Got it!" He pocketed his tablet and started to walk away.

"Did it work?" Troy asked, glancing back at the display that was unchanged.

"Of course it did. I put it on a timer. You never want to be the one to discover your prank."

"Ryan Daye! Troy Griffith! What have you two been up to?" Miss Reid called from the other end of the hall.

"Nothing Miss Reid!" the boys chimed in unison, picking up their pace to rejoin the group. Behind them, the hologram of the first steps flickered for a moment, then steadied.

"There'll be time to revisit the displays you want later. For now we need to stay with the tour group," she chided them while herding them back to the group.

An hour later, the tour was finished and the students were released to roam around to gather information for their projects. Troy and Ryan made their way back to the manned exploration wing in time to notice a crowd gathering around the 'First Steps' display. Instead of Mako's first steps on the martian surface, the hologram showed him stepping out of the lander, and being greeted by three short, three-eyed green skinned aliens dressed in blue suits.

"Nice job. Where'd you get the aliens?" Troy whispered.

Ryan grinned, "Some old movie from Earth. The demo computer was too old to handle the Trips aliens I wanted to put in, so I hacked in the first aliens I could find with three of anything."

The boys watched from the edge of the crowd as the museum techs tried to restore the display. They were taken by surprise when a hand landed on their shoulders. They spun around to see Miss Reid glaring down at them.

"Did you two have anything to do with that?" Miss Reid asked sternly.

"N-No Miss Reid!" Troy stammered out.

"Not at all!" Ryan added.

She kept them in her glare and started leading them towards the techs at the display. "I saw you two messing around with that demo earlier today. You aren't lying to me are you?"

Troy shook his head, but Ryan was distracted. He noticed a lot of the older people suddenly pausing and answering comms or putting on interface specs. He stumbled in mid step, only to be held up by his teacher.

"Ryan? What is it?" she asked, smoothly shifting gears to show concern for her charge.

"Something's up, Miss Reid. Look around." Ryan said. "Deimos! look at Mister Karnes. He looks like he's seen a ghost."

"Bill?" the teacher looked over and saw the other teacher gathering their students. He looked pale, and in shock. The Olympians in the museum were whispering and sad looks were turning towards the students from Sharp City. A serious looking man was walking towards the group.

Miss Reid lead her charges to the main group and left them to consult with the other teacher and parents. Ryan watched her and saw the colour drain from her face as Mr Karnes filled her in.

"What's going on here?" he mused, taking his tablet out. He felt Troy looking over his shoulder.

His tablet only officially had access to the kid-friendly network, but he'd hacked access to the regular nets long ago. After a quick look to see the kid-nets had no information, he dove into the adult world, and was shocked. He numbly checked numerous sites, only to find the same news, or in some cases, a lack of response at all.

"Ryan? What is it?" Troy asked him.

"It's... I can't believe it... Sharp City... Home. It's gone. Earth dropped a rock on it and it's gone."

"What? That can't be. Why would they do something like that?"

"I don't know. But it's all over the 'net. And the home sites, they're not answering. Just their mirrors. They've got sat video of it...."

"Children! Children please gather around!" Mr Karnes called out, his voice shaking as he tried to hold himself together. He had one arm around Miss Reid for support, though it was hard to tell who was supporting whom.

"We just received word. Sharp City... Our home... has been hit by a meteor. We don't know how or why it happened, nor what the extent of the damages are. But until things settle down, we'll be staying here, in Olympus. I need you to head back to the bus and we'll tell you more as we find out ourselves," he stammered out slowly.

Ryan and Troy hung back but followed their classmates out of the museum. "Yeah right. 'Tell us everything'. They haven't even told us all they know now," Ryan grumbled.

"What have you heard?" one of their classmates asked. Ryan shared some of the video's he pulled down in response. The response was almost immediate.

"...This has gotta be fake, right?"

"...We didn't feel anything. We'd feel it if it were real!"

"...I'm trying to call home. Why isn't mom answering? She's always answered."

Ms Reid recovered enough to notice the despair spreading over the school group. "Please, everyone, just get on the bus, we'll talk this over once we get to the hotel and once we find out more information.

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Aloha, 158 AL

"Between the collapse of the domes and the surprise of the attack, 80 percent of Sharp City's population died from that rock. 90 percent of its infrastructure was destroyed.

"My class, and a couple other classes that had been lucky enough to be out of city, became famous. We were the mascots of the Martian resistance, whether we wanted it or not. But it didn't amount to much in the end. Earth, even as diminished as it was, had too many resources at its disposal. Earth didn't even put down any troops; they just put an embargo around the planet and waited. A few more rocks were dropped down, but they were aimed at our automated factories, and the atmosphere generators and other sparsely populated areas. A couple years later, we had no choice but to submit."

Ryan looked around at Nikki's class. It was a mix of human teenagers, and creche-born RIDEs, many fresh to their new shells. The mixed classes were an experiment to help acclimatize new RI's to the real world by socializing them with humans of their maturity level. The results were mixed, but leaning towards positive.

At the back of the room, he found his daughter smiling encouragingly at him. Behind her, taking up a good chunk of the rear of the classroom was one of her RIDE friends, a creche-born blue dragon named Sevalak. His DE was almost too big to fit in the room, but he and his classmates made it work. Nikki and her friends had welcomed him into their circle soon after he'd grown old enough to spend time in the Real. Ryan noticed the dragon seemed to be more interested in watching Nikki than in the story of the Martian rebellion; but he was trying to be sly about it. The father part of him made a mental note of that, and continued looking over the room.

To his surprise the students showed no signs of boredom or other typical signs of teenage rebellion. When Nikki had asked him to do a presentation on the Martian rebellion for her history class, he'd doubted they would be all that interested in it. But this group was listening and checking details intently. He refocused on Nikkii and smiled, before wrapping up.

"By then, with our promotional value spent, the survivors could finally start rebuilding our lives. Many of us, with Earth's encouragement, hopped onto colony ships heading outward. Some, like my friend Troy, stayed behind.

"I wish I could tell you that the resistance lives on, and is fighting to this day, like you would expect in the holos, but I would be lying to you. Since moving to Zharus, I haven't followed Solar system politics, beyond enough to know Earth is still dominating. Mars, Titan, Europa, Luna, and all the rest of the big colonies are subservient to the homeworld."

He fell silent for a moment, then scanned the room again. "Any questions? I'll answer as best I can, but I was just a kid back then, so my memory may be a bit foggy about the details."

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"That was a lot harder than I expected," Ryan said, stretching back in his seat. Rex, in skimmer mode was navigating through Aloha's midday traffic, on the way back to Central.

"You did fine though. You're a fine storyteller, Ryan. I mean, I've seen those events in your memories before, but hearing you actually tell them put an entirely different spin on them," Rex said, his virtual head floating over the dashboard.

"True but it's the first time I've really talked about it, since leaving Sol System at least. I'm surprised they were so interested in it."

"Well, they are some of the brightest in Aloha. All from the big and influential families, RIDE and Human alike. While we adults focus on the emergencies of today, they're just picking up on the elephant that no one seems to be addressing; that Earth's not going to stay in the dark forever."

Ryan sighed and nodded, "True. But after Fritz and with Shah and Appa still out there, I just hope they stay in the dark awhile longer. Speaking of elephants, did you notice Sevalak?"

Rex chuckled, "It was hard not to. The Memorex DE he's got doesn't hide much. He's falling hard for Nikki, and she's doing the same for him. Think we should sit them down for the Toms and the Queens talk?"

"Nah, not yet. He's still got a few months before he's old enough to fuse. Let's wait and make sure it's real and not just hormones. They're teens after all; a lot can change in a few months."

They flew in silence for a moment before Rex spoke up. "Do you believe in coincidences?"

"Not normally. Why do you ask?"

Rex grinned, his head shaking a bit. "Well, the colony cruise ship Autumn's Grace is due to arrive in system next month. Their passenger list just arrived, and among the passengers is one Troy Griffith, of Olympus, Mars."

Ryan sat up and queried the passenger list. A man's face appeared, still recognizable despite all the years. "Wow, it's been years. That is a coincidence. Wonder what brings him here?"

"Gonna have to wait a month to find out. And do a trip out to Landing City if you want to meet him as he arrives."

"Right, we'll have to think of that."

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Olympus, Mars, 2506 CE

Troy looked out from the worksite. Below him, past the temporary patch, he could see the buildings and roads of Olympus East Dome. Behind him, Olympus Mons rose out of the atmosphere, the rest of the Martian City's domes clinging to its lowest flanks. Ahead, past the curve of the dome, the red rocky landscape stretched, criss crossed with tracks, and beacons that marked the roads to the rest of the planet. On Mars, all roads lead to Olympus. His mind started drifting towards what lay beyond the curve of the world he could just see, and he shuddered. He closed his eyes and refocused on the job at hand.

"Troy? You ready? The next panel's coming up now," Mandy's voice drew his attention. His coworker was on the opposite strut, waiting for the transluminum panel being lifted up to them.

"I'm ready. Let's get this in so we can clock out."

The pair helped guide the hexagonal panel into place, and secured it to the struts. After sealing the edges and double checking their work, they disconnected from the maintenance robots, releasing them back to their usual patrols. Troy refocused on the Real, and stood up. Beside him, Mandy was already stretching.

"Another successful repair. We'll leave the patch tear down for the weekend shift," she said, bending backwards and sighing in relief as her spine popped.

"Sounds good to me. Another hour in that chair and I'd be applying for a new spine," Troy said, rubbing his own back and twisting. "Wish they'd splurge and get us decent VR couches if they're going to keep us v-running the mechs like that."

"I know. But we must respect the budget," Mandy sighed and gave herself a final shake. On the screens for their controls, a query popped up. She acknowledged it, and their screens greyed out. "And that's that. Night shift's taken over. We're off the clock. Want to go get a beer?"

"Nah, I'm good. I think I'm gonna head home and crash. Have a good weekend."

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He caught his usual bus back to his neighbourhood, and grabbed a pizza on the way to his condo. Soon after, he was sated and relaxing on his futon, half asleep among the buzz of the entertainment feeds.

The beeping of his comm woke him up a few hours later. He groaned and sat up, rubbing the back of his neck while his internal systems identified the caller. It was his manager, calling urgently.

"What is it Tim?" he asked, too tired to be pleasant. "Is there a problem with the patch? Another blow out?"

Tim appeared in his view space, looking harried but not as harried as those emergencies would warrant. Troy relaxed a little and started brewing a cup of coffee.

"No no, the domes are fine. But we've got a different problem. You know the meta-materials conference Bob was going to attend?"

"The one on Earth? I know of it but that's about it."

"Well start reading up on it. Bob went to Earth early, and got in a skiing accident. He won't be able to make the actual conference now."

Troy frowned, "You know my feelings on Earth. Can't you find someone else?"

Tim shook his virtual head quickly, "No, not in time. To get to Earth in time, you need to leave NOW. Everyone else either doesn't have the right clearances, or they're too far away."

"Why do we need anyone at all? There haven't been any new meta materials found in years. They keep rehashing the same things over and over again."

"It's tradition. Olympus is the biggest city dome system in the solar system, and we wouldn't be here without metas like transluminum. Even during the embargo years we had representatives at that conference."

Troy started to protest again, but Tim spoke over him. "Look, just pack a bag. I've already got a car waiting at your place to take you to the shuttle. It's a quick trip; you'll be back before you realize it."

"Fine. Give me fifteen and I'll be down," Troy said, gulping down the hot coffee. "Just don't expect much from me."

"I've already forwarded Bob's notes on the conference and any other info. You just have to be there, that's all. Thanks Troy. Have a good trip."

Tim's virtual flicked out, replaced by a signal from the cab company indicating they were waiting downstairs. Troy let them wait a moment, trying to make sense of what had happened. Tim had been uncharacteristically insistent that he go and go quickly. More messages arrived, summarizing this year's conference, and Bob's notes and other important notes from Tim. Troy cached them all, tossed a few changes of clothes into his bag, and headed down to catch the cab to the shuttle to Earth.

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Kenya Beanstalk, Earth

Troy Griffith stepped out onto the concrete apron that surrounded the base of the Kenyan Beanstalk and looked around. He shuddered and hugged himself, uneasy with the wide horizon with no domes or any other protection. A sudden breeze nearly pushed him into a panic, looking for the nearest safety room.

"It's Earth. No domes," he mumbled to himself, taking deep breaths to try and calm himself. The air itself felt strange, tasting wetter and different from the dry air of the domes of Mars.The rest of the passengers walked past him without a second glance.

One of the ground support workers noticed him and wandered over. "Spacer right? First time on da homeworld?" he asked.

"Martian actually. But yes, first time off planet," Troy explained.

"Workin' for da Man? They seem to like bringing you spacers down here. Claim it's cuz we're closest to Brussels. But we're da only stalk wit an outside landing pad. Rest of dem take you right into a terminal. But dis one, dis one shocks you spacers wit da open right off da bat. You ok man?"

Between the man's accent and his friendliness, Troy felt himself begin to relax, the terror of the openness retreating. "I'll be fine. Thanks, you did help."

He made his way into the terminal and leaned against a support pillar to gather himself. His implants automatically synced to the Earth networks, identifying him and pulling down the messages. One started playing automatically to his virtual ears.

:Welcome to Earth, Mister Griffith. Transport to Brussels for the 225th Annual Meta-Materials conference is waiting for you at your leisure. You may stay in Kenya if you wish, but we would advise you to head straight here to give you time to adapt to the time zone. The conference officially starts at 1000 tomorrow.:

Troy briefly considered staying for a bit, but decided in the end to finish the travelling. A path appeared in front of him via his cornea implants, leading him to a set of gates for long distance flyers. He forced himself to walk in the open air between the airport and the plane. Once he was inside, it sealed up automatically and joined the traffic waiting to take off.

He was the only passenger, the only human even on board the small flyer. He made himself comfortable in the couch, and connected to the machine's systems. Outside, the clear sky was a bright blue, with the beanstalk a shimmering strand reaching to the heavens. Part of him was tempted to say screw it, and head back to Mars; but it would be a waste now that he was almost there.

Once in the air, he tuned one window to a map display and watched the progress. The flight path was a straight line, more or less. It did come close to the Cairo and Rome radiation zones, but not close enough to be a concern. He dimmed the windows and leaned back to grab some sleep.

A few hours later, the cabin chimed loud enough to wake him. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, glancing to the dim map on the window. It brightened and showed them in the traffic around Paris, skirting around the city before the final leg to Brussels. He cleared the windows and looked out. Even with Earth's population crash, western Europe was still heavily populated. Paris itself glowed in the distance, surrounded by towns and villages and farmland, along with the highways and railways to connect them all together. Soon enough even the glow of the city faded, replaced by one ahead of him that the systems identified as Brussels. The city grew quickly as his flyer descended, finally landing at an airport outside of the main city.

The door opened automatically, replacing the canned air he was used to with fresh, damp air. Troy sneezed and warily stepped outside again, looking around. The air was cooler than down by the equator, the temperature hovering near freezing. Piles of snow lined the edges of the landing pads. He let himself run to the terminal building, blaming the coldness for his rush and not his agoraphobia.

"Mister Griffith? Welcome to Brussels," a woman greeted him in the lounge he ran into. "I am Sarah Lutes, of the Terran Intelligence Agency."

He stopped and stared at her for a moment, Tim's behavior suddenly making sense. "Bob didn't really have a skiing accident, did he?"

She shook her head, "He did, but not as bad as your manager was told. He is still capable of attending the conference on Olympus's behalf."

Troy mentally kicked himself for being pressured into this. He glanced around the crowded terminal, but decided there was no escaping her for now. "Well then, Agent Lutes. What the Phobos does TIA want with me? And why would you trick me into coming halfway across the system to do so?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you yet, not here. But I promise you, I'll explain as much as I can at the offices tomorrow. I just figured after a long trip, the least I could do would be to greet you in person, and make sure you made it to the right place. Your assigned car is this way. Are you hungry?"

Troy fell into step behind her, "I suppose I could use a bite to eat. Haven't eaten since the anchor."

"Well, I know a good pasta place that has takeout. We'll get you a meal and drop you off at your hotel." She led him to the parking lot and climbed into a wheeled car. It merged into the highway traffic.

"How's the phobia?" she asked as they slipped between the buildings.

Troy looked out, but the city lights drowned out the light skies. Other than the extra weight he was feeling, he could imagine he was back in Olympus. "What phobia?"

"Agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces. Most common phobia among our spacers, Martians, Titans and other in system colonists. It was obvious on your face."

"It's fine. Not so bad. Just not used to open skies is all."


The car pulled into a parking lot, and the agent hopped out. She ran inside and came back out shortly after with a package. The smell of garlic and tomato sauce filled the car, making Troy's mouth water. Sarah grinned and kept the bag out of his reach. "When you get to the hotel; just a few more minutes."

"I wasn't aware sadism was part of TIA's training," Troy grumbled good naturedly.

"You'd be surprised at what our training includes." The car stopped and she passed over the bag of food. "You're in room 512. It's already coded to you. The car will be here at 0930 to take you to the offices. Don't be late."

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The Terran Intelligence Agency was based in a modern tower of smartcrete, steel and transparent aluminum. It filled a block of the central city, overlooking the river. The car let Troy out at a side entrance, and a path lit up in virtual space. He had considered resisting, staying at his hotel, or even joining Bob at the conference, but Agent Lutes had intrigued him enough to follow the instructions.

The outer doors lead him into a small room, little bigger than an airlock. The doors closed up, and a screen lit up.

Welcome to Terran Intelligence Agency, Brussels Offices, Mister Griffith. For security reasons, we use an implant isolation app. Please allow the app to run unhindered and follow the path.

At the same time, his implants signaled the building was sending them a program. He wondered how long he could stalemate them, and decided that waiting hours in a little room wasn't how he wanted to spend his day. He authorized the app, and his world went dark. Sounds, smells, even touch were all dulled. The room itself disappeared in a gray fog, with a golden line where he was meant to go. He followed it for a few steps then turned his head from side to side. Nothing but the fog was visible, nor could he hear or smell anything.

The golden path reappeared when he was facing the right direction again. He sighed and started walking carefully, his world isolated down to the gray fog and the golden line. At one point as he followed the path, he walked through doors and felt the room move, but he couldn't tell if he was being moved upwards, downwards or side to side.

Thoroughly confused as to where he was, he stepped into a room and the path stopped. Once the door closed behind him, the sensory blackout gradually lifted. The room had a simple table and two chairs, one occupied by Agent Lutes. Other than a pitcher of water and a pair of glasses with ice, there was nothing else in the room.

"Apologies for the isolation field, but security insists on it. Please have a seat Troy."

He sat in the remaining chair, pushing the glass to one side. He studied the agent on the other side of the table. Her eyes glittered with the implants, but otherwise she appeared normal human.

A hologram appeared in the middle of the table. It showed a middle aged man, in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, with a badge hanging from a chain around his neck. "Do you recognize this man?" Sarah asked.

"No. Never seen him bef-." He stopped himself and looked closer at the man's face. He was older than Troy remembered, and his hair was blond instead of black, but the resemblance was there. "It's Rye isn't it?"

"Correct. Ryan Daye, formerly of Mars, now living in a city called Aloha on the colony planet of Zharus. His InterPlanaPol entry lists him as a senior detective on the Alohan force, often working on anti-smuggling operations."

He leaned closer, looking at his childhood friend all grown up. "I haven't seen him in decades. Deimos! I haven't even sent him a message since he left for that world."

She nodded and the figure shrunk away until a planet appeared. It had three large continents, and numerous island chains. The biggest continent had an obvious desert taking up most of the area in the centre. "This is Zharus, where your friend moved to," Sarah started, before briefing him on what was known about the colony. Troy read between the lines and got increasingly nervous.

"Wait, wait wait. Why are you telling me all this? Are you going to send me to that planet?" he interrupted her in the middle of describing the planet's elevators.

Sarah paused and collected herself before answering. "We are not going to send you anywhere. But we will ask you to go to the planet, look around, and return to Earth and tell us what you see."

"Ask? Why me? You want me to spy for Earth? With my history?" Troy laughed.

"We are aware of your history. That is part of why we picked you. We know you were involved with the Martian Resistance in your youth. But since then, you have been a loyal Solar citizen, which makes us trust you for this trip. We don't want you to spy. But we do want you to visit the planet, see the sights, and come back and tell us what you saw."

Troy scratched his head in confusion. "If you want just that, then why not send a Terran? Why a Martian like me? And why do you need someone to go out there anyway?"

"Zharus is a long way away. It's been isolated from Earth's sphere of influence for a long time, and we're concerned with some of the stories we hear from there. It's hard to separate the truth from the fantasy, so we're sending all sorts of people out there.

"As for why you, it's because of your friend. Not only is he a police officer in a city on the planet, he's married into the family that founded that city. Founded by a pair of Earthlings at that. We're hoping that you might contact him, and get a better feel for the state of the planet."

"Right. I don't like being used, but it would be nice to see Ryan again. What's the catch?"

She leaned forward and cleared the display of the planet. "No catch. Entirely up to you. If you say yes, you'll have round trip tickets on the Autumn's Grace. Direct from Earth to Zharus. It's scheduled for a refit in the space docks once it reaches Zharus, so you will have a year in system, then you come home. A three year vacation on Earth's expense.

"If you say no, you could be on the next shuttle back to Mars It leaves tomorrow and you could be on it. Or you could stick around for the conference and go back with Bob. In either case, you'd be back to Mars soon and you can forget all about Zharus and your childhood friend."

She leaned forward and clasped her hands. "To be honest, it's your loyalty to Mars that we are counting on. Zharus has managed to catch a surprising number of agents, just by being Zharus. People go and never come home, of their own free will. We're banking on your loyalty to Mars, your desire to help her, to bring you home."

Troy frowned at her, then looked away. The choice was tempting; a chance to visit another planet on someone else's dime, and a chance to see Ryan again. On the other hand, it would leave him indebted to Earth. They expected him to spy on the colony world, though they probably didn't expect him to find out much. His connection to a cop on a city on that world didn't really lead easily to world secrets, even if Ryan was married to a big family.

On the gripping hand, he could always stay on Zharus, or come back and just not find out much. It's not as if his job maintaining the Olympus domes would miss him. She'd just said that was an option, though she had read him right; it was an option he didn't really want to exercise, no matter how much of an Eden Zharus might be.

What finally made his decision, was a reminder of where he'd heard of the colony before. All of the dome workers knew of the wonder-tech called hardlight that Wednesday had developed. Earth kept the tech isolated from the colonies as much as possible, but word of what it was capable of still spread, almost always in the same breath as the Zharus colony. He realized this could be a chance to see the wonder tech in person, outside of Earth's reach.

"Fine, I'll go," he announced.

She smiled at him and stood up. "Excellent. We expect you to be gone about three years in total. A year travel each way and a year on planet. The Autumn's Grace is a refurbed colony ship; they'll freeze you for most of the way there, so it won't feel anywhere near that long."

"Fun," Troy said dryly. "Look, I'll be honest with you. I'm not a spy. I don't know what I'll be able to tell you when I get back. I'm not going to go hacking into databases, or breaking into military bases or things like that."

"We're aware of that, Mister Griffith. Had we needed someone like that, we have plenty of those types of people available. We just want you to go, have a nice vacation there, and come back and bore us to tears with your vacation photos. No breaking in, nothing illegal. Just go see what it's like there. Act normal, because that's all you are. A normal every day tourist."

Troy had never heard 'normal' sound so dangerous and scary. He knew there was more going on than what she was saying, but he couldn't figure out the angle. "What about my place back home?"

"Already taken care of. We're covering three years rent, and a monthly cleaning service to make sure nothing evolves in your fridge. And we're clearing your absent with dome maintenance. Please, follow me. You've got a ship to catch."

The sensory null field fell over him again as the door unlocked. He could just make out Sarah as she lead him back to the outside door by a different route. A car was waiting for them outside.

"What about clothes and stuff?" Troy asked once they were on their way again. "I didn't pack much, just enough to get to Earth and back home. I wasn't expecting to be gone for three years."

"You're on a three year contract with TIA for this mission. You'll get an advance on your pay, converted to Zharusian currency when you arrive on planet. It should be enough for basic needs. Any more than that, and I'm afraid you're on your own."

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On board the Autumn's Grace

As Sarah had mentioned, the Autumn's Grace was a refurbished colony ship. It was a spherical ship, with the FTL drives mounted in the front and the rear. Passengers loaded on through airlocks around the equator of the ship, via a special space station. Troy joined a group of a couple dozen other tourists for a briefing with their stewardess.

"Welcome aboard the Autumn's Grace, a Starlanes Dreamliner. My name is Leandra Ruby, and I will be your stewardess for this flight. If you have any questions or concerns, please call me, anytime, day or night."

Troy studied her while she started covering the safety procedures for the big ship. She was a recent borg he decided after a moment. Her arms and legs had the shine of new plasti-skin, and her eyes had a glassy look as well. The lack of coordination in her movements further gave her status away. An arm swing would tend to go too far, or not quite far enough; a step would land hard, or not quite land causing her to stumble. She took it all in stride though, not letting the frustration the coordination problems caused interrupt her demonstrations.

"... We will arrive at Zharus in the year 158 AL. That is After Landing, the year the colony was first inhabited by humans. Due to local regulations we will not be able to unload you via the Alohan Elevator, but shuttles will be able to land you in Landing City, on the Laurasian continent."

"Local regulations?" a woman with a russian accent asked.

Leandra nodded. "Landing City was the first city founded on the planet. The founding planetary council declared that it would receive all colony ships for two centuries after founding, so they could control the flow of new arrivals to the new cities. Since Autumn's Grace is still registered as a colony ship, she falls into that law."

Troy detected a bit of bitterness in her speech, though it didn't show on her face. He raised his hand to get her attention, to verify his suspicions on her accent. She nodded to him to speak.

"Your accent doesn't sound Solar. Are you from Zharus?"

She grinned and nodded. "Good ear. I am from Zharus, from Aloha in Gondwana. So if any of you have any questions about where you are going, or what you should see, feel free to ask. While I haven't personally visited the jungles of Rodinia or rafted through Laurasia's Great Chasm, I have guided many people who have. And I do know all about Aloha and Gondwana."

Troy hid his surprise and sent a curse down to the TIA offices. His being in Leandra's group could not have been a coincidence. Especially when he was going to visit a friend from the same city as she. He wanted to ask her more questions, but he held back. They had a year to kill before reaching the planet, less whatever time he spent in deep sleep, so there was no rush. Once she finished her briefing, she was swarmed by one of the families in their group. He listened briefly, then made his way to one of the bars.

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It was a few days before he was able to catch Leandra alone enough to ask more questions. Most of the time she seemed to be rushing around, leading people around, or fetching something for them. He was eating lunch when notice went out that they had passed the orbit of Saturn. The ringed giant was elsewhere, but it was a milestone that was toasted in the restaurant he was in. Leandra entered the cafe alone for a change, and looking unhurried.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she got a smoothie. To his surprise, she made her way to his table and pointed to the seat across from him. "Is this seat taken?"

"Not at all, have a seat," he said quickly, nudging it out with a foot.

She sat down easily and took a long sip from her drink. "Mmmm. I'm gonna be sick of these by the time I get home."


She thumped her belly and winced. "Too hard!" She gasped, coughing a moment before she could recover enough to continue. "Yes, got the gut track replaced while I was here. Liquid only system until I can get it fixed up back home."

Troy nodded, "I see. If you don't mind me asking, what happened? Was there an accident?"

"Nope. This was all on me. Or in me as the case may be. Sold a big hunk of me to the organ and limb docs back on Terra."

"You sold them? That seems rather extreme."

She pulled a rubber ball out of her pocket and started squeezing it with one hand. "It is, but it's a lucrative market. Back home, I can replace these pretty cheaply and sell the cyber for lots of mu. If you have the patience to keep cycling back and forth, it pays quite well.

"But enough about me. Don't think I haven't noticed you watching me, Troy. I keep an eye on all my charges on a cruise, and I've noticed you lurking, waiting. Something on your mind?"

Troy blushed and looked away. "I didn't think it was that noticeable. I was just trying to be polite, and wait for a time you weren't busy."

She smiled back at him and sipped her drink. "I do appreciate it. The start of the cruise can be pretty hectic. But I'm here now, and I've booked some time just for you in my schedule, between handling the Johnsons and tracking down a few more wallflowers. So ask away."

It took a moment for Troy to sort out his thoughts and figure out what he wanted to ask. He decided to jump in with the obvious. "You said you're from Aloha. You don't know a police officer named Ryan Daye do you?"

She gave him a strange look, then laughed. "That isn't one of those 'You're from Zharus, you must know...' questions is it? No I'm afraid that name doesn't ring any bells. I've tried to stay away from the police as much as I could."

Troy laughed and shook his head. "No it wasn't one of those questions... Well not entirely. He's an old friend of mine I haven't heard from in years. Just discovered he's living in Aloha, and figured it wouldn't hurt to ask."

He paused and tried to figure out what else he wanted. He had spent so much time watching to get her attention, that he hadn't figured out what he wanted to ask. The ship had all the basic information on the planet he could ever ask for, though it was strangely sparse in some details.

"So uhm... you seem eager to get back. Is Aloha that good?" he asked, realizing how lame the question was even as it left his lips.

She smiled and nodded. "It is; you'll see when you get there. Even with all the crowds, it's still got the most perfect beaches on the planet. And the Bay is so big that you can find a private spot if you look for it.

"But that's not the main reason I'm eager to get back. I've got a daughter waiting for me when I get back."

"A daughter? That would make me anxious to get home too. Since you left her, I take it she's an adult?"

Leandra shook her head. "Just in her teens. Her good for nothing bastard so-called father! kidnapped her and took her out into the Dry. APD, the Marshals, private Mercs, none of them were willing to go rescue her."

Troy stole a second to remind himself of the Dry, the huge desert in the middle of the continent on Zharus, known for its inhospitality and for destroying man and machine alike. "In the Dry? How could they survive out there?"

"There are ways, mainly using hardlight. We're the largest users of hardlight in human space, even more than Wednesday. Hardlight domes can protect you from the extremes of the Dry, which is what most of those encampments use."

Troy nodded and mentally cursed Earth for holding Mars back again. Groups in Olympus had been trying to get permission to experiment with the wonder-tech, but all funds raised for the research tended to dry up before they could be put to use, and any experts hired got diverted to the Jovian shipyards. It left Mars huddling under their physical domes, yearning for the freedom they could sense in the bigger universe.

Lost in her memories, Leandra continued. "I tried everything I could, but it wasn't enough. No one was willing to take the risk out there; not for what I could offer. The few that might, declined for other reasons, or raised their prices beyond what I could raise myself. With all my options exhausted, I did the only thing I had left; I signed up for another cruise to sell my parts on the Earth market."

She laughed, "Turned out I didn't need to do that. We were just about to make the first jump when I got a message from Jennie. She'd been rescued and was back in Aloha looking for me. It was too late for me to do anything about it though. I was on the ship, and there was no going back.

"Things snowballed from there. Got to Earth to find out the ship's company was bought out and instead of staying on the E-Z loop, it was going to do a Centauri run. I quit once I found out, … well, I was fired to be honest, and eventually signed up on the Grace run here. Decided to still sell on the market so we'd have something once I get home."

"Deimos! That's rough. But at least your daughter is OK. She got someone who can look after her till you get home?"

Leandra nodded, "Her rescuer has promised to watch her till then. Seems like she's got a good core from the messages." The stewardess paused and shook her head. "Sorry, I'm supposed to be helping you prepare for Zharus, and I'm bothering you with my life story."

"I don't mind at all. It's more real than the dry history the ship's got in it's databases. Hearing your story tells me more about the planet than hours of database trawling."

"True... Oh my! I didn't notice the time! I'm late for another meeting. You wouldn't be interested in racquetball with the McKennas would you?" She stood up and smiled at him.

Troy shook his head and laughed. "I'll pass. It was good to finally talk to you."

"And you. If you have any more questions, just ask. Are you planning to take a nap?"

"I haven't decided yet. Probably, but not sure when I'll go under."

"Most will go under within a week. Despite what they advertise, these ships don't have a year's worth of entertainment unless you don't mind a lot of repeats. I'll have more time as my charges conk out."

"Well, I'll be sure to think of more questions. You staying up for the entire year?"

"For as long as any of my group is up. Though if it's just one or two, we might combine the wakers together so we don't all have to stay up."

Troy nodded and motioned her away. "Well, don't let me keep you any longer then. See you around."

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He managed to last three weeks before deciding to take a nap. Most of the time, he spent reading up on the planet and doing the preparation a person would normally do before getting on the ship. Leandra proved to be a valuable source, along with a few other workers on the ship. Mostly it seemed like a standard mature colony, but there was one element that they were disconnected about. Leandra mentioned something called a RIDE in passing; but Troy had a hard time understanding what they were. Best he could tell, they were robotic pets with a virtual intelligence. But some of the other ways they were talked about led Troy to believe that they were Zharus's IDE's, and used for mining somehow as well.

"What the Phobos do they expect me to find?" Troy mumbled to himself, looking over a brochure for Neo Francisco again. "I'm just a dome worker, not a spy. I don't even know where to look." He sighed and closed down the screen. The cold sleep tube was open and waiting for him when he was ready.

He thought about what he had read, and what he had discovered from Leandra and the other colonists and made his decision. He was already the last of her group to stay awake, and he was feeling bad about keeping her up. Over dinner the previous night, he told her he was probably going to sleep the rest of the trip, and now it was time to do it.

He called Leandra and soon had her face on his room's screen. "Mornin' Leandra."

"Morning Troy. How are you doing?"

"Going fine. But feeling a bit sleepy."

She smiled and nodded. "Understandable. Sure there's nothing else I can tell you?"

"Not at this end of the trip. Thanks for all the help you've given me."

"It's what I'm here for. Have a good sleep."

Troy closed the connection and stretched. He called up the steps to follow for the cold sleep pod, and got ready.

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Waking from cold sleep was an experience Troy did not look forward to experiencing again. He gradually became aware of the room. He felt cold, all his nerves tingled, and despite being beyond unconscious for months, he felt exhausted. He blinked eyes that refused to focus, and sensed a presence hovering over him. The presence wiped the gel off his face with a damp cloth.

He turned his head enough to see steel walls on either side of him. He realized he was in a man sized steel tray, filled with himself and the cold sleep gel. The tray had warmers around it, that was filling his body with warmth and causing the gel to liquify. The presence shielded his eyes and started washing the rest of the goo off of him.

A few hours later, he felt human again. He still had a chill deep in his body that they assured him would be gone in a day or two. He was nursing a bowl of hot soup to try and warm himself up, when Leandra wandered by his table.

"Good morning. Did you have a good sleep?" she asked cheerfully.

"I think so. First time in the freezer, and I'm not sure if I want to go again."

She chuckled and nodded at the bowl. "It does get easier. And soup really helps knock the chill off.

"I just hope a week is enough to get settled."

"Well the thirty hour day is probably the roughest. We extended ship day to thirty hours about a month ago, when most people started waking up. You're a late riser. We're still on a seven day week at least."

"Seven day week? Thirty hour day?" Troy shook his head and remembered the basic stats of the planet he'd glossed over. "Oh right. Slipped my mind for a second."

"That's common too. Just takes a bit to get the neurons firing on all cylinders again." She squeezed his shoulder. "We're already in system, so things are getting pretty hectic getting everyone ready for landing."

"No problem. I think I've asked everything I could ask, at least until I get down there. Thanks for your patience with me.... We're in system? Have you talked to your daughter yet?"

She laughed, "Not yet. comm lag is still a bit too much. But we've exchanged messages. Soon as everyone's gone down, I'm off of here and catching the first shuttle to Aloha."

"Good luck. I'm gonna miss you on the flight back."

"You'll be fine. Look me up when you get to Aloha to meet your friend. I'd love to introduce you to Jenni and Kandace."

"Sounds like a plan. See you around."

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Landing City, 158 AL

:Troy's shuttle just landed. He should be coming out in about half an hour.: Rex sent to his partner from the parking lot.

Ryan nodded and rubbed his ears. At the last moment, he'd decided to get his fuse signs stripped, and he was off balance because of it. The noise of the spaceport seemed muted, and he was beginning to ache from trying to move muscles that were no longer there. :Thanks Rex. I'll watch for him.:

Landing City's space port's receiving area was a lot different from what Ryan was used to in Aloha. Passengers were considered in a secure area up until they left the baggage claim area, after which they could meet other people. He didn't understand the logic of that, but the port authority thought it made sense. Ryan waited in the reception area outside the baggage claim as a steady stream of people wandered out. Few people had RIDE tags, but there were a larger number of the smaller Laurasian RIDEs than he was used to.

His facial recog software scanned the faces as they wandered by. To his surprise, one of them triggered an alarm. He started following the woman's movements as Rex tapped the local police network for more details.

:Luanne Hill of Burnside. Wanted for gem theft in Landing and Cascadia.: Rex sent quickly. :Rather brazen of her to come in like this.:

:There any ops going on? Or are we clear to detain her?:

:Nothing on the police nets. Looks like she's running an Intie blurrer. Probably why no one's noticed her. Alerting local security, but feel free to move in. She's coming right at you.:

:APD arresting a Burnside native in Landing City. Paperwork's gonna be fun on this one. Moving in.:

Ryan pulled out his badge out and approached the woman who was wandering towards the exit behind him. He noticed port security making their way towards him, but they were too far away to stop her if she bolted. "Excuse me, ma'am? Could you come over to the side here? I have some questions for you."

She paused and he noticed a brief flash of alarm that she hid quickly. "Certainly, officer. What's going on?"

"Just a minor hiccup with some of the scanners." Ryan led her away from the exit, closer to the nearest guard.

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Troy skipped the baggage claim and headed right for the exit. Coming down in a shuttle and through the port, he hadn't had a chance to tell much about Zharus. The baggage claim gave him one of his first views of the true nature of the planet. As they mingled with traffic from other flights, he was amazed to see people with tails and animal ears. Even the normal looking people tended to have robot animals with them, ranging from house cat sized to being as big as the person they accompanied. He did his best not to stare as he followed the crowd to the exit.

Outside of the claim area, there was a commotion going on. A uniformed guard and another man was trying to restrain a woman who was putting up a solid fight. Unlike on Mars, the fight was attracting spectators instead of everyone pretending it wasn't happening. Nonetheless, it wasn't any of his business, so he started to give it a wide berth. A glimpse of the plainclothes officer twigged a memory and froze him in his tracks. When he recovered, he wiggled through the crowd, trying to get a better view to confirm that the officer really was his childhood friend.

Troy winced in sympathy as the woman landed a solid blow on the uniformed officer's chin. The man's head snapped back, and a few teeth flew out. A robotic snake darted forward from the other edge of the crowd and bit down on the woman's ankle. She screamed in pain and went limp. Ryan and the snake both moved to the fallen officer to check on him as reinforcements arrived.

Something nudged him, and a low voice growled, "Excuse me." Looking down, Troy saw a large doberman wiggling past him and over to the woman. No one else reacted as the dog pulled the limp woman's arms together, then seemed to eat her hands. When the dog lifted his head, the hands dropped out of his muzzle, stuck together with a fast drying gel.

"That's different," Troy mumbled looking closer at the captive. For some reason he couldn't focus on her face clearly.. He ran a diagnostic check on his eye implants, but they came up clean..

"Laurasian RIDEs. Smaller than I'm used to, but they have their uses," a voice Troy hadn't heard in decades said.

The plainclothes cop had left the fallen officer and was standing next to him. Troy forgot the strange woman and hugged his old friend. "Rye! What the Phobos are you doing here?" Troy asked.

"Apparently encouraging the spaceport here to upgrade their Intie defenses. What are you doing here?"

"Starting a vacation here. What's an Intie and why does it need defended against?"

Ryan grinned, and glanced over at the guards. Troy had the feeling some fast talk was passing between them, before the one next to the robot dog gave a thumbs up. "We've got this contained. Thanks for the catch."

"Any time. You know where to get me if you need me." Ryan looked back at his friend. "Sorry, a cop's never off duty. You're just off the boat from Earth right? Come with me, I've got a lot of explaining to do. Want a coffee or something?"

Troy looked to the doors outside. The Zharusian sun was bright, reflecting off the pad outside. Buildings rose in the distance, with no sign of any protective domes. "Yeah, a coffee might be good."

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"Right, what are Inties and why do you need to be defended against them?" Troy asked again, once they were sitting down with their drinks. He noted his friend sitting carefully, though he couldn't tell why.

"It's a long story, that needs a lot more details than you probably know right now. But they're a group here on Zharus. Most are harmless, or at least just like you and me, but some of them use their abilities for evil instead of good."


"Hacking especially. Most systems are open books to them, unless they are protected." Ryan paused to sip his drink. "That woman wasn't an Intie. But she had Intie tech. The latest fad on the black markets here. Some Script Intie cooks up a hacker box and sells it to the highest bidder. She had a blurrer; a box that fuzzes her appearance to devices. It let her wander through here without triggering the face recog systems."

Troy thought it over, then shook his head. Ryan grinned. "And now it's time for me to come clean. I'm actually here to meet you."

"Meet me? How? Why?"

"My partner... my RIDE partner that is, happened to be going over the passenger lists of incoming ships, and spotted your name a month or so ago. Decided it would be polite to come and say hi."

"Do you normally look at passenger lists for old friends?"

A new voice cut in, speaking from both of their comms. "Not for old friends, but part of my job is to watch the passenger lists of inbound ships. Since Aloha's one of the main arrival points for the planet, we have a squad to handle and review incoming people and cargo for strange activity. Ryan and I are leaders of that squad. Really, it takes me next to no time to do it."

"Troy, meet Rex. Rex, this is my old friend Troy," Ryan introduced them without missing a beat. "Rex is cooling his heels out in the parking lot, giving us some alone time to start."

"Right. Hi Rex." Troy greeted the air over the table between them. To his ears, the voice sounded natural, as human as Ryan or Leandra or anyone else he'd met. Ryan treated Rex like there was something special about it, but the voice certainly didn't tell.

"I've heard a lot about you. Are your coffees done? Can't wait to see you in person."

Ryan picked up his empty cup and nodded to Troy. "We can go now if you're ready? You don't have a skimmer rental booked or anything do you?"

"I'm done. I was just going to hire a taxi into the city and figure out what to do from there."

"Excellent. This way. Rex is on the upper deck."

They stepped out of the elevator to the top level of the old parking garage. Built before RIDEs, it was showing its age, from an era when people didn't take their vehicles with them. Now, only the lower levels saw common use, mainly due to Laurasians having fewer vehicle sized RIDEs.

Close to the elevator, facing them was a golden two seater skimmer. Its landing legs were shaped like dog paws, and its front end looked vaguely like a dog's eyes and dark nose. Before Troy could really notice how open the skies were around him, the skimmer began to shift.

Cracks appeared in its panels, as the top and passenger compartment collapsed inward. The front end pulled inward, becoming a large dog head, as the rest of the body lifted up on longer legs. Within a few seconds, a large golden retriever was standing where the skimmer had been before, wagging a tail. "Hi Troy!" it greeted him with the same voice they'd heard inside.

Troy forgot his agoraphobia as he stared, mouth agape. "That's the biggest Deimos dog I've ever seen!" he finally stammered out.

The dog walked over and nuzzled him. To Troy's surprise, the dog's nose was cold and damp, like a real dog's nose. The formerly metallic car even had fur on it that rustled in the wind coming across the parking lot. Troy reached up and rubbed the dog's neck, surprised at how natural the fur felt.

"I'm impressed you think I'm big, but there are bigger out there. Ryan's too cheap to buy me a bigger frame," Rex said.

Ryan thumped Rex's side. "Sorry bud, but Wanda would kill me if we got you a Fenris sized frame."

"Nah, Fenris is too big, even if Krystal would love it to work out one of those links. I'd be fine with an Alpha sized frame."

Ryan grinned at his shocked friend. "RIDE envy. Whatcha gonna do?" Rex shifted back to skimmer mode faster than he had changed into the dog. "Climb on in. He won't bite. We can crash at my apartment here and catch up."

Troy cautiously climbed in, touching the seats curiously, as he tried to sort it out. Rex's head appeared holographically on the dash. "Your apartment? But I thought you lived in Aloha?"

The doors closed up and Rex lifted into the air. Ryan looked curiously at his friend. "Aloha? How'd you know that?"

Troy stammered, trying to come up with an excuse. "I uhm looked it up before I left. You don't think I'd travel 20 light years without checking in on the only person I know who's gone here before, did you?"

"Good point. Didn't think my name would reach the Solar records, but it's not that surprising. Probably got there from the InterPlanaPol databases." Rex smoothly slipped among the traffic moving among the towers and arcologies of Landing City. Ryan pointed to a tall tower near the centre of town. "Gondwana Heights. Pretty much anyone who's anyone from Gondwana maintains an apartment there."

"You're considered a someone here?"

Ryan laughed, along with Rex. "Nah, I'm just a cop. A senior cop in APD granted, but just a cop. My wife on the other hand, her family is a someone, and they maintain the apartments." Rex climbed higher, heading for the penthouse landing pad. "The bigger names like the Steaders, they own their own towers or castles or dirigibles or whatever their fad of the month is. But we're modest enough to be willing to share and keep things normal. We've got a gentleman's agreement with the Brubecks to split the penthouse apartments between the cities; they get some, like the one in Zharustead, we get the rest."

"You realize you've completely lost me?" Troy said, looking around the skyline as Rex landed. Lights lit up inside the penthouse.

"I know. I lose myself sometimes trying to track this at times. Luckily Wanda and I have our own lives and stay out of those messes mostly."

Troy stepped out and looked around. He was surprised there wasn't any wind despite their height and apparent exposure. "How is this possible?" he asked stepping closer to the edge. He could just see a faint glow in the air around the edge of the landing platform.

"Hardlight. The wonder tech from Wednesday. We use it everywhere here," Ryan explained, staying inside Rex's cabin.

"Seriously?" Troy reached out and touched the air in front of him. he felt some resistance in the air before his hand stopped completely. He could feel energy tingling along his finger tips. "Wow, this is incredible. We've been trying to get this on Mars for years, but the energy costs are too high."

Ryan laughed. "Energy here isn't an issue for us. Still for simple domes, Toka's should be more than enough for Mars's domes. We can talk about it later. First, there's one more shock I want to get you over."

Troy heard something behind him and turned to see Rex collapsing inward with Ryan still inside. He took a half step towards the skimmer, not sure what he could do to stop it. The skimmer shrunk down, looking like the canine he'd seen earlier, but different. It lifted up on its rear legs, its forepaws becoming handlike. The head tilted forward and looked at him, mouth open in a doggy grin. The dog-man's tail wagged cheerfully.

"Ryan?" Troy asked cautiously, not sure if he should step closer or step back.

"I'm here. This is the third mode of RIDEs, a Fuse mode. Rex and I are combined into one, with a lot of advantages from it." The pair stretched a moment, then walked into the penthouse. "Good to be back to normal. There are some side effects, but they're mainly cosmetic. Come on in, make yourself at home. You can catch me up on what's going on back at Sol, and I'll fill you in on what things are like here."

Troy mutely followed his changed friend, trying to understand the implications. The hardlight alone would be enough to make TIA drool, but Rex went beyond that. He had just sat down, when the fused pair separated. Rex didn't look any different in dog form, but Ryan now had a pair of golden dog ears, and a tail to match. The man shook them and flicked his tail.

"Back to normal. Been much like this since Rex and I met decades ago. You don't realize how used you get to them until they're gone," Ryan said. Rex sat down on a platform against a wall, his tail slipping into a strange plug in the wall. Ryan sat down on top of him, rubbing the big dog's head.

"Back to normal? The ears and tail are normal for you?"

"Exactly. Most common traits from fusing with a RIDE. Gotta be careful though. Mammalian RIDEs are usually easy to clear the traits afterward. Reptile, avian and mythics tend to be more extreme."

"But how did it happen so quickly? You were only together for a minute or two."

Ryan grinned. "Nanites, with a dose of magic materials. You comfortable? I'll start at the beginning as far as modern Zharus is concerned."

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Troy lay awake in a bed bigger than his apartment in Olympus, trying to come to grips with everything Ryan had described, both in his friend's new life, and the world he had just arrived on. After hearing and seeing everything the colony had discovered in the huge desert, he understood why Earth was so confused. Half of what he heard was unbelievable, and the other half was too scary to believe.

The fact that it was so common made it even harder to swallow. He didn't believe what Ryan and Rex told him until he got onto the local Net and saw what was for sale. Much of it was listed with 'not for export out of the Zharus system' in small print.

He fell asleep with his mind still reeling. He dreamed he was at the base of the beanstalk in Africa, watching animal men flying down and overwhelming Earth's defenses. Later on, the dreams shifted focus, giving him an overview of Mars, with new hardlight domes popping up over the planet, shining as the planet regenerated from the Earth-imposed hardships. The thought of his planet overthrowing the homeworld's yoke of oppression, standing on its own for the first time since Sharp City was destroyed made him smile before sliding into a deeper sleep.

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Troy woke the next morning and laid in the bed. He checked his implant clock and was surprised that he felt so rested for 0600, especially after a long night talking with Ryan. He rolled off of the big bed and stretched. He could hear movement outside the suite, and smell fresh brewed coffee. He freshened up in the attached bathroom, before getting dressed from his small case.

"I can't believe you own all- ACK!" Troy wandered out and quickly averted his gaze.

Ryan looked puzzled, leaning against a counter, sipping some coffee. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Troy glanced at his friend, then glanced away. "You're naked! Why are you naked? It's too early to be naked!"

"Of course I am. Why should I risk getting my clothes dirty, when I can eat breakfast, then take a shower, and then get dressed?... Oh right, that's the Alohan in me. Man, Aloha's gonna eat you up." Ryan laughed and set the cup down. Rex silently walked into the room at his friend's silent call, and fused over the cop. "You can look now."

Troy peeked again then relaxed. "That's normal for you? You've got a wife, and kids! Don't they mind?"

The fused pair popped out a few slices of toast and slid them onto the table. "Why would they mind? It's just the human body. Everyone's got one. Hell, Wanda's the one who got me in this habit in the first place. Then again, it is a very Alohan attitude. Always shocks the newbies."

Troy sent a few search agents out to read more of Aloha while he sat down. By the time he sipped his coffee, they were back, and their reports shocked him. "Wow, no nudity rules at all?"

"A few health regulations here and there, but no, they're usually pretty flexible." Ryan's stance changed slightly, and his voice pattern shifted, sounding like Rex. "The Steaders found the patterns for those old 'Co-ed Naked' themed t-shirts a year or so back, and sold them as nano-tattoos. They're still quite the hit," Rex pointed out.

The Martian looked at his strange friend, then back at the toast. "It's too early for this. What the Phobos have I gotten myself into?"

"Some say it's Wonderland. Other's say we're in Oz. But all we know is, that this is Zharus," Rex said before letting Ryan speak. "Don't worry, it's just a bit of culture shock." Ryan squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I was planning on heading home today, but it looks like you need a bit more acclimation time. How 'bout we rent a high speed skimmer, and take a quick trip across Laurasia? It's a couple days from here to NeoFran, and we can hop a sub to Aloha from there."

"We wouldn't take Rex?" Troy asked.

The pair split. Troy looked away, then glanced and was surprised to see Ryan in a pair of briefs. They didn't hide much, but they satisfied his inner puritan. "Rex is many things, but a speeder he is not. He'll be with us, but he can't keep up with those sustained speeds."

"You don't mind?" Troy looked at the big dog.

Rex grinned, his tail wagging. "Not at all. Let someone else do all the lifting and flying? It's bliss to be a rider instead of being rid on."

It wasn't until they were nearly finished eating, that Troy remembered his first question. "So you really own this place? And it's just one of many? But it's so big! How can you possibly afford it?"

"I don't own it. Technically it's a company condo, owned by some alphabet soup corporation that all of the Munns own a chunk of. It's basically a place for family and friends to crash when they're in town.

"As for the size, one thing you quickly learn here on Zharus is that space is cheap. Factor in the comfortable climate, the energy boost from sarium making construction and fabbers cheap too, and really there's no need for anyone to feel cramped. Back on Mars, we're limited by what the Domes can hold, so everyone stays compact, but here, there's room for everyone to spread their wings, sometimes literally, and not bump into anyone."

Troy shuddered and tried to hide it. "I've noticed," he said.

Ryan looked him over closely and his tone changed. "You still got the fear of the open?" he asked.

"Yeah. It's not as bad as it used to be. In cities I barely notice it. But in the wide open, it can hit me unexpectedly. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

He studied his friend carefully before dropping the subject. "Right then. There's a long day ahead of us. Anything you want to do in Landing City before we set off?"

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Despite the city's historical importance, the men quickly saw everything Troy wanted to see, and by afternoon, they were in a rental skimmer, threading their way among the buildings to the high speed Trans Laurasian Highway.

"Are those construction IDE's?" Troy asked suddenly, pointing to a construction site. A new arcology was being built, and the foundation and site prep was still being done.

Ryan pulled the skimmer out of traffic and looked over. "Not quite. Looks like they are NujoseTech Constructibots. Emergent IDE's."

"What's the difference?" Troy asked, using the skimmers controls to zoom in on the workers. As he watched, a large earthmover transformed into an armored man, who went to help guide some building modules into place.

"EIDE's have cores, like RIDEs, and they can fuse with their drivers. Makes them almost as smart as regular RIDEs too, but without the animal traits. Nujose's a bit of a specialist in that tech; They've figured out a way to create cores and grow human-level intelligences without needing the animal base," Rex explained.

"No animal base? So that means they're pure AI's in control of robots?"

"Pretty much. When you're settled, I'll introduce you to Sparky. He and Gary are our work partners. Sparky's an EIDE cop."

Troy shook his head, trying to absorb the implications as they watched. A lunch truck drove onto the site and honked its horn. Most of the vehicles and robots converged on it before they opened up, humans dropping out from inside, letting the robots and vehicles compress down to smaller vehicles and humanoid forms. Most of the EIDEs hooked up to power boxes, while the humans got lunches. Human and robot alike mingled while both recharged, talking like coworkers across the universe.

"Deimos, even in IDE's you've got Earth whipped," Troy said, shaking his head. "Autonomous IDEs... Deimos...."

Ryan chuckled and set the skimmer in motion again. "I admit, Sparky weirded me out a little when we first met, but he's no different than Rex once you get to know him. EIDE's themselves are still pretty rare outside that city. I expect the Constructibots are doing that as a public proof of concept or something. Nujose's the only one able to reliably make EIDE's so far, and they're keeping those secrets close to their labs."

Troy shook his head again and looked forward. He started counting on his fingers, "So just how many partners do you have?"

The Alohans laughed. "I guess it does get confusing. Let's see. Gary and Sparky are our work partners. In the classic cop pairings sense. Rex, he's my RIDE partner. Technically a work partner, but we've been together so long, he's a life partner too. Wanda's RIDE partner is Krystal, and they're my wives. Wanda by Law, Krystal because she's Wanda's. So I guess that makes five partners all together. None of the kids have RIDEs yet, but I think Nikki's getting close. Hannah, she's technically Wanda's mother, wouldn't get a RIDE to save her life, and Astranikki, Wanda's dad, Integrated long ago, so no extra partners there. That's it till you get to Sam and Janet's side."

Encased in the frame of the skimmer, and knowing that there was an invisible hardlight aeroshell beyond that, Troy's phobia stayed silent, letting him enjoy the wide views of Laurasia. Outside the city itself, the continent was sparsely populated, but not deserted. Numerous villages and towns had sprouted along the high traffic route, along with farms and occasional industrial complex that wanted or needed isolation.

When the landscape didn't catch his attention, the highway provided. Vehicles, and non-vehicles alike flew in both directions. A pair of flying carpets weaved in and out of traffic, one chasing the other, though who chased who switched often and randomly. A rocket horse, with legs folded to his body and a flaming rocket nozzle out its rear paced them for a couple hundred klicks before turning away. Jet planes, biplanes, a Rolls Royce Silver ghost, a Toyaford Electra, and hundreds of other vehicles from across human history and human imagination all followed the highway with them, or passed them going the other way.

"That would be an Integrate. Probably two inties actually," Ryan pointed out. A family of six were flying with traffic, floating in midair. There was a slight haze around them, enough to show where their invisible vehicle was, but otherwise they didn't seem to be riding in anything.

"How can you tell?" Troy asked.

"The lack of equipment. An Intie internalizes hardlight generators, so they can create and move that invisible bubble without the need of anything else. Without Inties, they'd need something else we could see to make that," Rex explained.

Troy shook his head in disbelief. "I still can't get over this. The hardlight alone would be revolutionary on Mars, let alone the other colonies in Sol. Yet here you use it all over the place like it's nothing."

"It is nothing for us. Wednesday may have discovered it, but we've mastered it, with Wednesday's help. And unlike Q and sarium and RIDEs, it's something we're willing to share as best we can. Some of our biggest breakthroughs came with help from Wednesday. Frankly, hearing Olympus still has those old domes up saddens me."

"Earth says it's too power hungry and risky," Troy said, rolling his eyes. "The reasoning's bullshit of course, but we're in no position to argue it."

"Complete bullshit. Wednesday didn't start getting sarium until the past few years, and only in tightly controlled amounts. Everyone else uses Tokas and similar power sources, and they work fine. They can't get the degree of flexibility we use, but a lot of the tricks we've discovered translate well for non-Q based uses."

"I see that. Just nothing we can do about it for now."

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Hours later, they were in Zharustead, looking for a place to while away the night.

"That place looks good," Ryan said, pulling up a place. "Never been here before, but the Yelp reviews are good."

"Tripods... providing an Authentic Martian experience?" Troy gave his friend a strange look. "You sure you're reading the right reviews?"

Ryan was already halfway to the door, with Rex padding along beside him. "Come on, let's go have a good laugh."

The place was hard to miss, a three story building, painted Martian red, contrasting hard with the grays of the buildings around it. Its door looked like a giant rusty metal cog that rolled out of the way to let people in and out. The trio walked in and stopped, taking in the ambiance.

"Authentic... I don't think they know what that word means," Troy said. The first floor of the bar was heavy in the reds. The walls were panelled to look like a geodesic dome, while replicas of Mars probes crawled along them. The tables were tripods, with the tops made to look like flying saucers.

Ryan led them to a table in a corner with enough room for Rex. A menu lit up, showing the bar's offerings, including a long list of Zharusian beers and Martian jiu. Prices were listed in yuan and mu, with the 'current' conversion rate on the bottom.

"This place has as much to do with Mars as Rex does... No change that. Rex has more in common with Mars than this place," Troy said after they placed their order.

"Of course. That's one thing I learned from Aloha; any place that advertises as 'authentic' is anything but. But it's fun to come have a laugh about it every so often."

A human waitress brought their food and drink out. She was dressed in a really short, silver skirt and a low cut silver blouse. Troy did a double take, realizing the low cut top revealed she had three breasts.

"This is gonna be an interesting trip," Troy said, clinking his mug to Ryan's before taking a sip.

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"Remember, this is Aloha. So try not to be too shocked," Ryan warned him as they walked down the jetway to the terminal building.

Troy started to answer, and stumbled, as a wall of sound and flashing lights hit them. A steel drum band was playing on a stage a few gates down, and a scaled woman, naked other than a grass skirt, was draping flower necklaces around the necks of the new arrivals. Slot machines were set up to lure in people waiting for their flights, and there were signs pointing to other casino games further down the corridor.

"Wow, this is what Vegas wishes it could be," Troy said, stunned into immobility.

Rex chuckled and nudged the martian forward. "That was our tagline ten years ago. New Vegas got pissed and asked us to stop using it."

The natives led Troy through the building to the exit. There, Rex shifted to skimmer mode and they climbed in.

"We'll give you a quick overview of the city and then we'll drop you off at your place to get settled," Ryan said as Rex took off.

"My place? I don't need a place. I was just going to find a room to rent and play by ear from there," Troy protested.

"Don't sweat it, man. Save your mu-lah for the important stuff. We'll cover your basic living expenses at least. It's the least we can do for an old friend."

Troy sighed and sat back, as Ryan and Rex started pointing out places around the city. After he was thoroughly turned around, Rex dimmed the windows and they set off for the place Ryan had picked out.

Troy climbed out of Rex's cabin and onto a big deck. He looked around, but the hardlight shield around the deck was opaqued, as were the doors leading into the condo. He had no idea where he was, not even how high up he was, but the size of the deck was telling. Especially with a hot tub at one end of it big enough for multiple people.

Behind him, Rex collapsed back to his walker mode. Ryan slid off his RIDE's back and motioned at the door. "Troy Griffith, welcome to your new home, for the rest of the year at least."

"No way," Troy said, stunned. The condo was extravagant, with a hint of opulence. The main living space was split between a large kitchen, a dining room with a crystal chandelier and a table that could seat eight comfortably, and a sunken living room with well padded couches that offered a view of a fireplace, or a view out the patio. The entire space that Troy could see was bigger than the entire floor of his apartment tower back in Olympus.

"Where are we? There's no way I can afford this. Hell just walking in would cost more than I've got budgeted for my entire trip."

Ryan thumped him on his back, sending him stumbling in. "Don't worry about that. You're my friend, and my guest. Welcome to Costa del Sol. Their condo complex for long term stays."

Behind him, the patio view cleared up, showing the broad beach, and the glistening waters of the bay. Troy turned around slowly, then looked back outside. To his right, he could see a tall tower sheathed in golden light. To his left, a pyramid had been built, attached to another tower. The condo he was in was positioned to have an excellent view of the wide corridor between the two resorts.

"Seriously. I really appreciate this, but it's too much. This is gonna cost you a fortune."

"Nothing's too good for my best bud from home," Ryan reassured him. "Besides, family connections remember? The Munns own a quarter of Costa. Asking for one of their simpler condos for a year is a small thing to ask for."

Troy climbed up to the dining room/kitchen level and looked down a corridor. He found a normal bathroom, and a normal looking bedroom that could be used as an office. Then he found the master bedroom.

"This is simple?" he called out, looking at the huge bed, and big windows giving more views of the bay. The attached bathroom had another hot tub that could seat two with room to spare, and a separate shower room, that could also serve two at once.

"Sure. We're only twenty stories up. The really extravagant stuff doesn't start 'till the thirties. The Martian suite is booked or I would have offered it to you first."

Troy came back out to the living room and found the pair standing there, waiting. He gave Ryan a strange look, "I'm not sure I want to see what passes as a Martian suite here."

"We'll have to take a look at some point. It has real Martian sand for the beach around its private pool. But even I couldn't keep you in there for a full year. This place felt more your speed."

"This place is still way more than my speed." Troy flopped back on the couch and looked around. "My place back home isn't much bigger than this living room!"

"Well you'd be hard pressed to find a place that sized anywhere on Zharus."

Troy looked around again and shrugged, admitting defeat. "Well, if you insist, I guess I can stay here."

"Great! Why don't I give you some time to get settled. You've got the local maps and my comm channel, along with Wanda's. Give me a shout when you're settled and want some company again."

Troy thought about it then nodded. "Yeah that sounds good. It's great to see you and all that, but I've got killer space lag now, and I think I need some time to settle."

The pair fused up and made their way back to the deck. "Sounds good. If I don't hear from you in a few days, I'll give you a call. See you soon."

"See ya guys."

They jumped off the deck and dropped a couple meters before Rex's lifters caught. They waved and disappeared around the corner of the building.

Troy waited, then walked out onto the deck. It was a view to die for, that nearly brought his phobia back in full. He reached out, and soon felt the reassuring tingle of the hardlight shield, keeping him safe from the outside area. He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax, drawing peace from the transparent shield.

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Troy's first day in Aloha was uneventful, to his relief. He lasted a whole fifteen minutes on the beach before the openness got to him. After that, he stayed inside, wandering the casinos, arcades and malls that lined the beach, only going outside when he had to.

As the sun set, he picked a random bar. He'd generated a list of bars close by, favouring drinking over dancing bars, and let his implant guide him to the winner. It turned out to be a decent choice, especially for eye candy.

For the rest of the week, he did more of the same, taking in shows, and building up more tolerance to the outdoors. By the end of the week he was able to spend a full hour on the beach, as long as he was careful to keep his gaze low. Looking up into the vast open sky tended to curl him up into a ball. At dusk, he picked a new random bar to meet people and try the ambiance. A couple ended up being duds, but most he decided he could visit again, if chance favoured them. Despite numerous propositions, some from other tourists, most from professional ladies and men and a few indeterminate types who hinted they were both, he went home alone every night.

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The Aerie, 1 week later

"I can't believe you've left him alone an entire week. Alone in Aloha," Wanda tormented her husband playfully. "You only gave poor Gary a day before you hauled him up here for dinner."

"Well Gary's a native, and I hadn't spent a road trip across Laurasia with him before we got here." Ryan pointed out. The couple were getting dressed for the dinner with Ryan's friend.

"That's even worse! Gary knows what Aloha is, even if he hadn't been here before."

"Not really. Gary and Sparky were greener than most of the tourists are. And we had to crash course them fast to get them up to our speed so they could work. Troy's just here on vacation; no need to rush him," Ryan countered.

"Besides, I haven't left him completely alone. Rex has been keeping an eye on him. Public means only, just enough to make sure he isn't having any trouble."

Wanda checked her hair in the mirror, brushing the rosette patterned gray hair. "And he isn't?"

"None yet. He's got a bad case of Spacer phobia, but that's about it. I wish I could figure out what's up with him."

She stood up and straightened the collar of his shirt. "What do you mean?"

"It's him. I can tell that obviously. But why is he out here? He never showed any interest in the colonies before; he was content to stay on Mars, no matter what happened."

"People change. It's been decades after all."

"I know. And from what he describes, things are getting worse back in Sol. But I still don't see him jumping planet and coming here just on a whim. Especially since he doesn't look like he's planning to go native. Something must have pushed him out here."

"Well don't grill him too hard trying to figure it out. Excuse me, I need to go get Nikki. You want to make sure the girls are ready?"

"Sure. Try not to have too much fun in there."

Wanda closed her eyes and slipped into the house's mesh.

She appeared in a rocky cave, on a well travelled path. To her left was a large pit, glowing with lava deep within. Everything looked slightly out of focus. She smiled at Ryan's parting comment, and tapped an icon on her avatar. "Reboot."

A wave of energy passed over her. When it faded, the world was in focus, sounds and smells joining the cleared up visuals. She could hear a fight nearby. She looked down at herself and adjusted her robes, feeling her tail moving beneath them. Her wand was in one hand and a staff with an emerald gem in her other. Feeling like she was ready for anything, she set off for the battle ahead.

More signs of battle became apparent as Wanda got closer. Broken weapons, bodies of orcs and goblins and other monsters littered the ground around her. Without hesitation, she strode into a big chamber, and saw a pair of warriors fighting against a horde of monsters.

The smaller fighter, a human woman in cobalt armor and wielding a sword and shield, spotted her first. The warrioress screamed a challenge and leaped towards her, blade already swinging down. Wanda raised her staff and the runes flared, catching the sword and diverting it to the side.

The other fighter, a large dragon with blue scales showing a few battle scars, realized the new foe and shifted his attention. He swung his head around, swiping a few goblins away with his tail and opened his mouth to roar at Wanda. She barely managed to shift her grip on the staff and get it pointed to the dragon in time to catch the blast of blue energy that the dragon emitted. Ice coalesced around her shield, and her staff grew cold to the touch.

"Stop! Sev Stop! It's Mom!" the first fighter shouted, getting back to her feet and realizing who they had attacked. "Pause! Pause!"

The dragon snapped his mouth closed just before the world froze. A half dome of frozen energy and ice stood between her and the dragon. Wanda stepped aside, leaving a translucent image of herself and smiled at the fighters.

"Sorry Mrs Munn. We were expecting the Grand Wizard Gargamel to show up anytime now." Sevalak apologized, lowering his head from his frozen avatar.

"No problem. How's your training going?" Wanda asked, sitting in the throne they'd been fighting towards.

"Great! The Burnside Raiders will never know what hit them," Nikki grinned. "Nice moves, wish you could be on our team."

Wanda chuckled, "I'm too old for your league I'm afraid. But I do keep my skills up to date. Just the two of you practicing?" she asked, giving both of them a long look.

"Yeah, everyone else had something else to do," Nikki grumped.

"We don't mind. Solo and duo practice helps keep us on our toes," Sevalak pointed out.

"Well, that may be the case, but I'm afraid this practice time has come to an end. It's almost dinner time. We've got a guest coming over."

"Ah man, do we have to go now? We're almost finished this dungeon."

Wanda pondered a moment, then waved her wand. '5:00' appeared in flames, floating near the top of the cavern. "Five minutes. Then, saved or not, this sim will shut down. Am I clear young lady?"

"Yes mom. Thanks mom." Nikki gave her mom a quick hug before moving back to her avatar. She snapped her fingers and looked back at her mother. "Oh! I almost forgot. Can Sev stay for dinner? We want to try and get another dungeon done for practice afterwards."

She looked to the dragon. "If he wants to. And if he doesn't mind listening to a couple of Martians reminisce about the Red planet all night long."

"I would love to stay, Mrs Munn. To be honest, I'm eager to meet Officer Daye's friend, and find out what another planet's like."

She chuckled and waved her wand over her head. Sparkles started falling around her and her avatar began to fade away. "Have fun kids. Remember, Five minutes. Computer, Unpause."

"What? Wait!" Nikki shouted, but she was too late.

The simulation started again, the ice dome shattering. An orc Nikki was standing beside woke up, and was surprised to see the knight next to him. He started swinging, but Nikki just got her shield up in time to block. Sevalak roared and froze another orc near him, as the fight got back up to full speed.

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Wanda shifted back to the Real, and wandered down to the kitchen. Squeals of young laughter came from the living room as Ryan played with their younger twins. She leaned against the breakfast bar that separated the rooms and watched him.

He had one girl under each arm, and was spinning them around. Finally he let them go onto the couch, where they screamed with glee. He fell onto the couch between them, panting and grinning up at his wife.

"So how long did you give them?" he asked, tickling each of the twins.

"Five minutes. And she asked if Sev could stay for dinner."

Ryan stopped tickling and smiled. "I see. You think it's time to have the talk with him?"

"Well, her sixteen is coming up in a few weeks. If we want to make sure everything is ready, we should do it soon."

"True 'nuff." they both looked out the patio doors, hearing a skimmer coming in for a landing. "I'll try and talk to him when I get a chance. Definitely in the next couple of days." Ryan got up and gave Wanda a quick kiss before heading outside, Christine and Cheryl following him closely.

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Troy sat in the rental skimmer, looking around. The house was amazing with views to die for. The skimmer had parked at the edge of the patio that separated the main house from the secondary house. A table with a shade umbrella had been set up near a charcoal grill. Rex and a large snow leopard were lounging in the sun along a railing that lead to a drop off. Ryan was walking out, followed by two young brown haired girls, about six years old. They were followed by a woman with dark rosettes in her shiny gray hair. She had a long tail and cat ears, similar to the feline RIDE.

He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. "I can do this. There's nothing to be afraid of. There's more air than anyone could use out there. Nice, breathable air." He reopened his eyes and opened the door, stepping out to greet Ryan.

Ryan took Troy's hand in shook it. "Evenin' Troy. Welcome to the Aerie, our humble abode."

Troy tilted his head. "Humble? Doesn't seem to be much humble about this place."

"I suppose not, but it is home." He indicated the girls hiding behind his legs. "These are my youngest daughters, Christine and Cheryl. Don't let their shy demeanor fool you; they're terrors when they want to be." He led them to the table and nodded to Wanda as she set a platter on a stand next to the grill.. "And that's my beautiful wife, Wanda. Her RIDE, Krystal is over next to the railing."

Troy greeted everyone in turn, nodding briefly to Krystal before he sat down on the table, facing the house. "Didn't you say you had another daughter? Is she joining us?" he asked.

"She will be. She's just finishing a training session with a friend. They're on a team in a Dungeon Fighter league."

Troy caught movement reflected in the windows of the house, and turned in time to see a large blue scaled dragon land on the patio. A young woman dressed in a t-shirt and shorts was riding his back, just in front of his wings. She dropped out of her seat, a barely noticeable pulse from an antigrav belt letting her land softly on her feet.

"This is my daughter, Nikki, and her friend, teammate and classmate, Sevalak."

Troy shook her hand and nodded to the RIDE. "Nice to meet you both...classmate? Don't you RIDEs direct download your skills?"

Sevalak chuckled, a low rumble that almost shook the patio stones. He moved in close enough to talk politely, without crowding the people space. "For the hard stuff, yes. But for the softer skills, it's often better to enhance the downloads with actual experience. You'll find a lot of RIDEs attending art, history and even political classes nowadays. Anything that requires a personal touch or an understanding of the randomness the sapient factor throws in basically."

"Interesting. I never really thought about it that way."

Drinks were poured and snacks passed around as they settled down. Troy was questioned about how he was enjoying his trip to Zharus so far, and what he thought of Aloha. He sat facing the house, finding the presence of the building more reassuring than the view of the bay and cliffs.

Wanda sat down after turning the wrapped potatoes on the grill and looked at Troy curiously. "If you don't mind me asking, what do you do back on Mars?"

Troy chuckled, "Nothing as exciting as a police officer or a white hat hacker I'm afraid. Ryan was always the more technically inclined of us. Back home, I'm a dome maintainer. Not a flashy job granted, but it covers my Air."

"A dome maintainer? You fix the hardlight?" one of the twins asked.

Troy looked around and realized that not only were the humans watching him with honest curiosity, the dragon was equally enthralled. "No, not hardlight. We don't use it on Mars. Earth feels it's too 'risky' to use. No we have physical domes, geodesic carbonrod grids filled with transluminum panels."

"No hardlight? That sounds dangerous. What happens when it breaks?" the other twin asked.

"That's my job. It all depends on how it breaks. If it's just a leak, sensors will pinpoint the link and I or my coworkers would direct a repair spider out to spray it with sealant. If there's a crack or a panel falls out, we'll scramble more repair spiders out to tent the hole, and put in a new panel. While leaks happen all the time, cracks and panel replacements thankfully only happen a few times a month."

"That sounds expensive. To build and to maintain," Nikki pointed out.

"You better believe it. They figure we basically rebuild each of Olympus's domes every twenty years or so. Doesn't help that the domes are overcrowded too. Means we have to keep the air pressure higher and the air circulating faster, just to make sure everyone can breathe. It's wearing the domes down faster. Another dome would be great, but we can't get the funding to build it AND maintain what we already have."

"Not even a hardlight one? Those are dirt cheap to set up and power. As long as you don't get fancy with them like we do here," Wanda asked. "And once it's up you could build the new dome inside it. That's what our Spacers usually do."

Troy laughed bitterly, "I wish. We know OF hardlight back on Mars, but the details are kept sketchy. Earth and the Martian Council keep saying the technology is too risky, and too expensive to deploy."

"What? That's bullshit! Wednesday's first domes were built with just what they had on their colony ship. And the tech's only matured since then. You could probably power a basic city sized environment dome for years with just an IDE's Toka," Wanda objected.

"I know that now, and you're right, it is bullshit. But that news hasn't trickled down to the right people on Mars."

"Well if you want, I can arrange some trips to our dome cities. Uplift and Cascadia are the most famous, but we can probably swing some visits to some Enclaves out in the Dry as well. You can see how we use it out here, maybe get some ideas to take home," Ryan suggested.

"Really? That would be interesting. 'Course a proper hardlight implementation would probably put me out of the job, but to escape those finicky spiders, it would be worth it."

After the main course was served, Troy got up to stretch his legs a bit before dessert. The company had helped keep him focused and not thinking of the huge dropoff just over the railing behind him. Keeping his eyes locked on Sevalak, he made his way over to the dragon.

"Excuse my language, but Deimos! You're a big fellah," he said, surprised at how cold the air was around the dragon.

Sevalak laughed and stretched out, shading the human with his wing. "Aye I am. Just a little bigger than what is considered polite for indoor RIDEs. There are bigger than me out there, but they tend to stay outside all the time. Guess that makes me a rebel."

"May I touch?" Troy asked, holding up his hand.

"Certainly. I've got what's marketed as a Memorex hardlight skin. 'As good as real' they sell it as. It does mean I'm a bit of a power hog to keep it all powered, but I like it," Sevalak said proudly.

Troy moved in closer and touched the dragon's shoulder, feeling the scale texture and the smoother scutes on his neck and belly. The scales themselves chilled his finger tips. "This is amazing, that you can do this out of photons basically."

"Hardlight actually. Not quite photons, not quite normal matter. Of course we couldn't do that without sarium; it gives us the extra oomph we need to really manipulate the hardlight out of the basic forms."

"Amazing, this feels like it's real. But that's impossible right? There's no such thing as dragons after all."

Sevalak chuckled. "There are now. But yes, I am a 'mythic' which meant that we had a lot more freedom in designing my body and my mind. The DE team was especially proud of the wing and arm shoulder, but until I fuse I can't really see how that works."

Troy heard the dragon get wistful and followed his gaze to see it focused on Nikki. "I've heard the dragon fuses tend to require quite the commitment."

"Yeah. draconic physiology cribs a lot from the reptile and saurian forms, and is basically one of the top end fuse forms. At least a three year cooldown before the RIDEr can fuse with a non-draconic RIDE. Possibly longer if there's a cross involved."

"Ouch, that is quite the decision to make. Are you always this chilly? Your scales, they're quite cold to the touch."

"A gift from my parents; mom shuttles among the spacers, and dad's on the suborb routes planetside. They wanted a child, but they wanted someone unique. So they made me an ice dragon. Just an extra challenge when they made my DE, but I'm glad they did it."

"So you have an ice breath or something?"

"You got it. Not as impressive as a flame thrower, but I compress atmospheric gases into canisters inside me, and I can blow liquid oxygen or nitrogen on command." He turned his head to one side and pursed his lips. A translucent blue liquid squirted from his lips, misting as it flew through the air until it landed in a flower bed. The ground froze and cracked around it, even as the liquid itself evaporated away.

"Sev! Not in the flower beds!" Wanda shouted.

"Sorry Mrs Munn!" Sevalak called back.

Troy laughed and patted Sevalak's shoulder. "Impressive nonetheless. It was good to meet you."

"You too. I hope to see you around more before you leave."

"I'm sure you will. I only just got here after all."

"OH! That reminds me. Nikki and I are in a poli sci class together, well it's a class specializing in Interstellar history and politics. We, the class that is, like to get tourists from outside the system to come in and talk about their home for an hour or so, however long you want basically. If you can find the time, we'd love to hear about what Mars, and the Sol System, is like now."

"Sure. My schedule is pretty flexible. I'm sure we can find some time for me to come in. See you around Sevalak. And good luck finding a RIDEr." Troy nodded to Nikki and winked. The dragon's cheek scales darkened and he looked away from both of them.

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Moe's Tavern, later that evening

Troy sat at a table in a bar a few blocks inland from his Condo tower. The bar itself was fairly nondescript, a few dartboards and pool tables for the patrons, along with some screens showing a RIDE race through the Dry somewhere. He'd discovered it early, and found it was a good place to visit when he needed to escape the glitz and glamour of the Boardwalk.

He winced with the rest of the bar as a fox-themed skimmer couldn't quite make a turn and smashed hard against a canyon wall.

"Excuse me, is this seat taken?" a soft voice asked.

Troy turned his attention from the screen and nearly dropped his beer mug. A woman with long, straight white hair was standing beside the other chair of his table. She had white furred triangular ears, and a puffy white tail that flicked slowly in the air. She was dressed in a blouse and slacks.

"N-n-n-No!" Troy stammered out, "Have a seat!" He tried to recover by standing up to pull the chair out for her, but only managed to splash his drink across the table top. She was sitting down by the time he mopped up the spill.

She grinned and helped finish the cleanup before flagging down a waiter. She smiled at Troy, her eyes glittering and focusing his attention on her. "I hope you don't mind. You just looked like you wouldn't mind a little company."

"No no, I don't mind at all."

"Good," she said, a soft purr accompanying it. She held out her hand, dainty and feminine, but as big as his own. "My name is Helena, from New Olympus, although I am moving to Aloha."

Troy took the offered hand, and hesitated. He lifted it to his lips after a moment and kissed the back of it. "A pleasure to meet you. I am Troy, from, well from Old Olympus I suppose."

She paused then lowered her hand. "Old Olympus? So you're an Integrate as well? You hide your signs well."

"What?! No! No I'm not. I don't even have a RIDE. I mean I'm from Olympus. The one on Mars."

The waiter left her drink, and a tray of nachos for them. She took a slow sip of her drink and smiled. "Mmm a Martian. Never met any of you before. Have you been in town long?"

"Just a few weeks. Feels like I've barely scratched the surface."

"I know what you mean. I knew of the city, but I never quite expected it to be like this."

"You knew more than I did. I've got an old friend who lives here, so he hauled me down here and my head's still spinning." One of Helena's early comments finally registered with his mind. "Wait a sec, you said you're an Integrate?"

"I am one." She paused and looked closer at him. "Is that a problem?"

"No no! Not at all. It's just you're the first one I've met up close. At least knowingly met. You must have been lucky, to keep looking so human after you integrated."

"Not … exactly," she said. As he watched, her face grew fuzzier, white fur spreading over her cheeks and down her arms. Her nails thickened into claws, while her upper lip pulled up with her nose to a barely visible muzzle. Whiskers grew out, completing her look. "This is what I normally look like."

"Wow," Troy said, shaking his head after a moment. "That's incredible. Can all Integrates do that?"

"No, not really. Many have some way to change something about themselves. But very few have the flexibility like I have. Took me years of practice and training with experts to learn to do what I can do actually." In her full feline form, she had a more pronounced purr behind her speech.

"What you can do?"

"Be a full humanoid shifter. I can't become animals, but if it walks on two legs and has hands, I can copy it, or make my own human look. It's come in handy, and I'm hoping it'll get me a job."

Troy munched on a nacho and thought that over. "What sort of job could use that skill? Acting? Impersonators?"

"Those would work, but they aren't my interest. I'm looking to get into private investigation mainly. Aloha's got a lot of private companies into that. With their lax laws and being a major travel hub, it makes it easy to get to where you need to go. Between my shifting skills, and my natural Intie talents, I'm hoping to get hired on with a company here."

"Good luck with that,"

"Thanks." She laughed and crunched on a few chips herself. "So how about you? What brings a Martian like you to the Happiest place on Zharus?"

Troy smiled and started telling his story, leaving out the push from TIA that got him moving in the first place. In between, he asked about her own past. She gently avoided questions on her life before integrating, but spoke of her time on the New Olympus enclave, and how she learned her shifting skills.

As the night wore on, the feature event changed from the race in the Dry to a Cape Nordian hockey game, to a sailing regatta going down the west coast. They half watched the changing sports, but soon found themselves admiring each other more than the screens.

Well after sunrise, they stumbled out of the bar, supporting the other as they walked back to the condo tower.

"Thank goodness for SoberUp. And an Intie constitution," Helena giggled, leading the way towards the Costa Condos. "I'd be in horrible shape for my interview today otherwise."

"If you want to freshen up at my place before you go, you're welcome to," Troy offered.

"No no, no need for that. But thanks for the thought." She hugged him and kissed him just outside the condo tower. "But if you want to get together later on, say for dinner and a show I'd be willing."

Troy paused, lost in the strange sensation of being kissed with furry lips. He recovered and shook his head, "Sure. That sounds great. How about -"

"NOT Cats."

He blinked and paused. "Uhm right, I guess that is a bit cliched. How about-"

"Not Lion King either. Or Grumpy Cat, Garfield and Friends or Felix."

Troy started laughing. "Right.. right... How about you pick the show, and send me the ticket details. I'll buy at least."

She smiled and kissed him again before letting go. "Sounds like a plan. I'm looking forward to tonight."

"So am I." He waved and watched her walk away, her fur fading away to the woman he'd first seen the night before. Once she disappeared around a corner, he entered the building and headed up to his own place.

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Alohan Mesh, 2 days later

Troy's avatar appeared on the Alohan mesh, in the middle of the virtual Boardwalk. His persona was simple, a basic human resembling his real life self, with few addons. The public mesh was set up similar to the real Boardwalk, with the resort sites and shops, as well as information nodes. The mesh was crowded with out of focus people, visitors on their own trips on the data layer, but not in sync with Troy.

Ryan and Rex walked out of an APD site and snapped into focus as they synced up. Both of them were incongruously dressed in suits of armor.

"Is that really necessary?" Troy asked, looking at both of them.

"We're visiting a dragon on his home turf. It's traditional." Ryan grinned and checked on a glowing necklace before putting it around his neck. He had his helmet under his arm.

"I'm not all that sure I should be here. It seems rather personal, a family matter."

"And you're all the family I have. I wish I'd tried to keep in better touch, but I'm trying to make it up."

"Yeah, but you don't need to make it up this way. This is a family matter. A close family matter. He's going to make your daughter into your son. That's not an estranged uncle thing."

Ryan tossed him a locket. "Actually it is an uncle thing around here, but Tracy and Jay are out of town so you're it. Stop fretting about it and download your gear."

Troy activated the locket. It melted in his hand, encasing it in metal plates that spread up his arm and over his body. He was quickly engulfed in a suit of armor similar to Ryan's, with the helm under his arm.

"Perfect. Now off to Sevalak's land." Ryan waved his hand and a door appeared in front of him.

They stepped out on a grassy field, a herd of cattle scattered around. A farmhouse and barn were built at one end of the field, smoke rising from a chimney. The other side of the field was shadowed by a mountain, its upper reaches cloaked in snow and ice.

"Interesting set up he's got here," Troy said.

"His own design. Remember, we're not just in someone's implants, we are in his mind now. At least the public entrance of his mind."

"Right. So he's up there I take it?"

Rex sniffed the air and looked around. "I'd say so. He is an ice dragon and his scent's strongest up there."

The path they found wasn't well travelled, but it was safe enough. Snow and ice marked the rocks around them, but the route itself was cleared. It soon ended on a ledge in front of an ice cave.

"He's in there," Rex said.

"Nice decorator. Hope that wasn't anyone you know," Troy pointed to a suit of armor frozen in a block of ice.

"Think we're about to find out. Be ready." Ryan looked at the cave entrance where a wall of icy fog was beginning to roll out. The ground shook with a growing roar. He and Rex moved apart, and took a battle stance, leaving Troy in the middle.

"Ready? Ready with-" A blue scaled dragon head emerged from the cave, the roar becoming ear splittingly loud.

"Who dares intrude on my private domain?" Sevalak roared, looking around. He spotted the armored Troy and swung his head forward, a blast of blue energy shooting out and engulfing the Martian.

"Hail Mighty Sevalak! We come in peace!" Ryan shouted, drawing the dragon's attention.

Sevalak growled and turned to Ryan, letting out another icy blast. A fiery shield lit up, intercepting the blast before it could freeze the officer. It surprised Sevalak enough to stop.

"Now is that any way to treat your future father-in-RIDE?" Ryan asked, unphased by the icy doom he'd countered.

"Wait what? What?!?" Sevalak asked, shocked enough that even the fog faded away.

Ryan raised his helmet's visor and grinned. "Don't think I haven't noticed how you've been looking at my daughter. And how she acts around you. It's well past time for us to sit down and have a discussion about your intentions."

"Officer Daye! Officer Rex! I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was you. That means that's..."

"My best friend you turned into an ice cube there correct." Ryan walked over and tapped the cube containing Troy with his amulet. It flared brightly, and the icy mass melted away, freeing him.

Troy hugged himself and shivered. "That was rather chilly."

"That's normal with an ice dragon. So do you have a space we can talk Sev?" Rex asked, wagging his tail. The armor melted off the visitors.

The dragon bobbed his head and backed into the cave. "Sure, sure. Come on in. Sorry about icing you Troy."

"No problem. I think Ryan expected it judging by his smirk." Troy grinned and took the lead.

Just inside the cave, there was a small discontinuity, and they were in a normal looking living room, done in icy blue. Comfortable couches were set up next to a RIDE couch. A window offered a view out to the entrance they'd just been standing on.

"Have a seat guys. Uhm, I guess I wasn't as subtle as I thought I was."

"Teenagers never are. Hence why we're here to talk with you," Ryan said, smiling a moment before getting serious. He sat down at one end of a couch, with Rex sitting next to him. Troy took the other end.

Sevalak looked nervous, his avatar shrinking down to a more human sized. "Talk with me? About Nikki. Right."

Ryan tented his fingers and leaned forward, "Now let's get the traditional question out of the way. What are your intentions with my daughter?"

"My intentions? Well, I've known her almost all my life. All my time in the Real. She's my best friend, and I'm one of hers. So I want to ask her if she'd be my first fuse."

"The fuse is a big step to take. You're both new to it. And it's a cross ride and a mythic. It's a big thing to ask." Rex said.

"I know, I know. I'm scared to death to ask. But we work so well together, it's like we're already fused sometime. If she doesn't like it, we'll work something out. And if she doesn't want to do it at all, we'll still be friends."

"We've seen that. All of us have seen that. Wanda, Krystal, Rex and I have all talked it over thoroughly. The final choice will be Nikki's of course. But it's up to you to start the process." Ryan said.

"The process? I don't understand what you mean, sir." Sevalak looked the humans over, clearly confused.

Troy smirked and leaned forward, "These guys seem to like RIDE marriages. Look at some of the traditions the groom does with the father of the bride."

"But Nikki isn't the bride..." Sevalak froze a moment as he ducked into the archives. When he started moving again, he nodded to Ryan. "I understand now."

He moved forward and crouched respectfully before Ryan and Rex. "Sirs, I would like to ask you for permission to ask your daughter to be my Fuse partner, for as long as we both can stand each other."

Ryan and Rex exchanged glances and nodded. "Well a nice mix of traditional and new, just how we like it. Permission granted. With one condition."

"A condition sir?"

Rex took over, "That you wait until Nikki's... Nick's sixteenth. It's only a month and change, and it will give us all time to prepare."

Sevalak looked relieved and returned to his RIDE couch with a flicker. "Oh! I understand. I was thinking of waiting until then anyway. You all? How many people know about us?"

"If I picked up on it from our first meeting, then I'd dare say just about everyone," Troy pointed out.

"Don't worry, Nikki's got her granddad's problem, of not seeing what's right in front of her. If the surprise gets ruined beforehand, we'll handle it, but please, save the fuse for her birthday," Ryan said.

"I will sir. And thank you. For your permission and your support."

Rex got up and nuzzled the dragon. "You're soon to be family, it was the least we could do."

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The three reappeared back on the virtual boardwalk after finishing their talk with the dragon.

"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" Troy accused his friend once they stabilized.

"What? Using you as dragon bait? I guess I did. It's always good to have numbers on your side when confronting a dragon in his lair."

"Wouldn't a call to warn him we were coming be the right numbers to use?"

Ryan paused and pretended to look thoughtful. "Now there's an idea... Nah, I think I liked my way better. Besides it's all virtual."

"Virtual cold was still cold!"

"Not as cold as it could be. So did that convince you?"

The change in subject caught Troy off guard. "Convince me of what?"

Rex wagged his tail, "Convince you to hook up with a RIDE of your own. Just for when you're here at least."

"I dunno. That almost made me more convinced NOT to get a RIDE. I'm not sure I want to put the effort to find someone that's a good match, just to leave them."

"Well, our family is a bit different in that respect. Given our fame and connections, we have to be a bit picky about who comes into our fold. Mainly by making sure it's a good choice and not someone with ulterior motives. Sev fits in well already, so it wasn't really a big concern, but a checkup never hurts," Ryan explained.

"For you though, you don't need to be that picky. It's not a permanent partnership, just a temporary one. So you don't need to find the perfect match, just someone you want to be friends with. There are lots of RIDEs who are looking for that sort of friendship out there; you just need to open your eyes and look," Rex added.

"I'll keep it in mind I guess. For now, Helena's about all I can handle."

The Alohans perked up. "Helena?" they asked in unison.

Troy blushed a moment, then grinned. "She's an Intie I met a few days ago. We talked the night away the first night, caught a show last night."

Ryan thumped him on the back, "Good job man. Glad to see you haven't lost your touch. We'll have to triple date sometime so you can introduce us."

"Sure, just give me a few days first. We've really clicked so far, but it is only the third date. Speaking of which, I need to go get ready."

"Don't let us keep you. But be sure to send a dump later on." Rex wagged his tail and grinned.

Troy rolled his eyes and flickered out of VR space.

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Aloha: Space, a month later

After a trip to Cascadia with Helena, Troy decided to touch base with the one loose end he had on Zharus. He sent a message to his ship guide, Leandra, briefly saying he was doing fine, and he'd found his friend without a problem. To his surprise, she invited him to join her for dinner Uptown, at the top end of the space elevator.

Troy met Leandra just outside the restaurant. She was dressed in a blouse and skirt, showing off pink, hairless skin on her arms and legs. He noticed she blinked a lot and seemed to turn her head at every little noise.

"Good to see you again," he greeted her after a quick hug. "How are you doing?"

"I'm doing great now, now that I'm out of the tanks. It'll be good to get back downstairs to get some colour." She signaled the maitre'd, who sat them down quickly.

"So you haven't been planetside yet?" Troy asked curiously.

She laughed softly, "Of course I have. I went down the day after you. But they gave most of us a bonus if we'd go back up to the Grace to help prepare it for the refit. Once I was sure Jenni was safe, and in good paws, it was easier to go back up and build on our nest egg."

"Paws right. Now I understand what you mean."

"RIDEs are something, aren't they? I try not to talk about them much on the way here, since they're so unbelievable until you meet them. Jenni really lucked out with Kandace." She paused and took a bite from the hot garlic bread the waiter brought out. She closed her eyes and savoured the taste for a long moment. "Damn, it's good to be eating proper food again."

"Just out of the tank you said?" Troy asked, chuckling and taking a piece for himself.

"That's right. We were released from the Grace, and I caught the first shuttle over here and sold the best Earth has to offer. She took another bite and savoured it again, before looking at him. "So how about you? Enjoying your time on Zharus? Did you find your friend?"

"Actually, he found me. I was barely outside baggage claim when he found me."

"Cool. how did he know you were coming?"

"Well, I mentioned he was on the APD right? He, or rather his RIDE, regularly reviews the passenger lists of incoming ships. Security things I guess, and he spotted my name." Troy shared a picture of himself and Ryan and Rex at the arch.

She blinked, then wiped her eyes. "Sorry, I'm still getting the bio and the implants sorted out. Looks like you're quite the trio. What did you say his name was again?"

"Ryan. Ryan Daye, though he usually goes by his married name, Munn-Daye."

She stared longer at him in surprise. "Munn-Daye? THE Munns?"

"I suppose so. He married into quite the family from what I gather."

"Just a bit. Wow, talk about a small universe. The Munns are the ones who helped Jenni when she got back from the Dry, or at least the ones who paid for her message to me."

"They do seem to get involved in a lot of things around here."

She paused a moment, internally reviewing something. "Still, it wasn't your friend that helped. It was the other side of the family that covered it. Not that that matters. I'm still a bit surprised about it. Of all the groups you could've gotten in, you got mine."

Troy thought back to his own suspicions when he'd first gotten on the Autumn's Grace and met Leandra. "Yeah, it's quite the coincidence."

"So what have you been up to? I see you've seen Aloha and the Arch, been anywhere else yet?"

"Well, I did just get back from Cascadia. What you guys do with hardlight, just to keep dry, is incredible."

Leandra smiled, "True, but it is cost effective. It's cheaper to set up domes in that waterlogged rainforest, than to try and build a sewer system that can handle the waterflow."

"Doesn't make it any less impressive. I'm hoping to head over to Uplift sometime, when Helena can spare a few days. Maybe check out some of the Dry enclaves too eventually."

"Helena? So you found a new friend I take it?"

Troy nodded, "She's an Intie cat. We've clicked well together, considering it'll become a long distance friendship in a few months."

"Integrates.... Just when I thought this planet couldn't surprise me, they popped on the scene. Still, they seem to be fitting in well now."

"That's right, they were still myths when you left, weren't they?"

"They were. I'm still trying to figure out what to make of them. But that's just me. The ones I've met have been friendly enough." She sipped a glass of wine and shifted subjects, "That isn't why you haven't found a RIDE yet, is it?"

"What? No, not really. I just don't want to break another heart when I leave. I feel bad enough about what I'm going to put Helena through as is."

"A shame. You've got a good heart too, you'd be a fine partner for a RIDE, especially a young one who might need some guidance for his first fuse."

"If I didn't know better, I'd say Ryan's been talking to you. He's been bugging me to find a RIDE too. Helena's fine with just me at least."

She laughed and shook her head. "No I haven't heard from your friends. I'm just saying what's clear to me."

"Well let's put the RIDE on the other body then. How about you? Are you going to pick up a RIDE with your newly earned cash?" Troy countered.

"That I don't know. Jenni and Kandace get together so well, that they are tempting me. But I think I need to look more into this Integration thing first before I make the jump. I'd be looking for a more permanent partner than what you're looking for. Not to mention a more reliable one than that bitch my former husband was."

"Bitch? Isn't bastard usually the proper term?"

"Usually. But not when you get bodyjacked by a female dino RIDE at Alpha Camp. Serves her right for what she put Jenni through."

Sensing the nerve he'd stepped on, Troy moved on to safer conversations for the rest of the dinner. Outside the restaurant, they said their farewells, and Troy promised he'd call to say goodbye before leaving the system. He rushed to the core of the station and barely caught one of the express cars back down to the surface, his head toying with the idea of a RIDE partner again.

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Rookie Blue Training Grounds, Couple weeks later

Ryan and Rex led Troy on a tour through the APD training facility. They watched through a video feed as a beagle the size of a small horse sniffed among containers, marking some with a pawprint and leaving others behind.

"This is Spot, a new RIDE fresh from the Alohan Creche. He's somewhat experimental, with not just the heightened smelling capabilities common with beagles, but also heightened taste, sound, visual and radio sensors. We're training him mainly for working on the ports, making sure cargo is what it really is, with other roles as they may fit," Ryan said.

"He looks cute, like an oversized puppy," Troy said, watching Spot work.

"That's what he basically is. He's been virtually trained for a couple months now, but he doesn't have much experience in the Real. We haven't matched him with a partner yet, but we do want him spending time in the Real to get acclimatized with how we work out here."

Troy looked back down before what Ryan was implying sunk in. "Wait, you aren't thinking of pairing me up with him, are you?"

Rex nodded and grinned. "If you want to. No need to fuse. We just want someone to take him for walks, mingle with the people in the city and just get used to the Real."

"But why me? Surely you have experts who can give him proper guidance."

"Experts? We've got experts out the wazoo. But that's not what he needs. He needs honest, natural, everyday activities. You don't have to take him if you don't want to, but if you click, you'd be perfect for our needs. You're exploring all around, mingling with people, which is just the sort of experience we want him to have. If it doesn't click, no harm, no foul, we find someone else for him."

Troy watched Spot move a container out of the way to study another one. "I don't know about this. What if I break him? Or teach him bad habits."

"The overall experience you give him would more than counteract any bad habits you'd teach him. Those can be untaught later in any case. And RIDEs are very difficult to break, so don't worry about that. Come on, let's go meet him."

As soon as the door opened, the large beagle bounded over a row of containers and landed in front of them. He crouched down, tail whipping in the air. "Hi there! Did I get them all? Did I?" he asked eagerly.

Ryan, fused with Rex, rubbed the beagle's ears. "You sure did Spot. Found all of them."

"Yippee!" The beagle rolled over, then jumped on his feet. A basketball popped from a shoulder storage slot and bounced towards the men. "Can we play now? Play fetch?"

Ryan caught the ball and passed it back to Troy. "In a moment. I want you to meet someone. This is my friend, Troy. Troy, this is Spot."

"Hi Spot-whoa!" Spot jumped closer and bumped Troy with his nose, sniffing hard. Troy felt like his clothes would be pulled right off his body if the RIDE inhaled stronger.

"You smell funny. Burnt iron," Spot announced.

"Remember your manners, Spot," Rex scolded the RIDE.

Spot backed up a couple of steps and sat down. He held up his paw. "I'm sorry. I'm Spot. Good to meet you."

Troy took the paw and shook it, amazed by how real the rough paw pads felt. "Hello Spot. It's good to meet you too-"

"Why do you smell like burnt iron?" Spot asked eagerly, sniffing Troy again.

"Troy's a Martian, Spot, like me. But he just got here a few months ago," Ryan explained.

"A Martian? But he doesn't have green skin. Does he have three-"

"No! He's a human, like me. A Martian colonist. Like we're colonists here on Zharus," Ryan quickly corrected him.

"Oh.... OH! I get it now." He got up and nudged Troy, walking around him before sitting down again. "Are you going to be my partner? Can we fuse yet? I want to feel what fusing's like."

Troy held up his hands defensively and looked to Ryan for help. The other canines laughed and moved in to rub Spot's head. "Not yet big guy. He'll be your companion for now, you'll go out in the city, learn what real life is, and if you two hit it off and you BOTH want it, MAYBE you can fuse. Troy's only going to be here for a few months before he goes back to Mars, so he isn't your permanent partner, but he's here to help you."

"Back to Mars? Why would you want to go back there? Aloha's got everything you'd ever want."

Troy moved in to rub Spot's head as well, seeing the beagle's tail thump the concrete floor. "It certainly does. More than I thought any place could have. But Mars is home for me, where I was born, where my... where my family's buried. It's got its warts, but it's where I want to be."

Ryan watched his friend carefully, noticing the slight hiccup and the flash of anguish that passed over Troy's face. Spot didn't seem to notice it, despite all of his sensor upgrades.

"That's just silly. If you want to be there so bad, why are you here?" he asked.

"Because sometime you have to get away from some place to realize how much you miss it." Troy looked back at Ryan and Rex. "I'll give it a shot. Is there anything special we need to do?"

Rex shook his head and sent a digital key to Troy. "Nope, that's it. These keys are to his fuse fetters; he won't be able to fuse unless you want him to fuse. We've had some issues with the crecheborn fusing without permission, so it's an extra bit of protection."

"I wouldn't do that!" Spot protested.

"I know you wouldn't. Still, an extra bit of protection doesn't hurt." Troy ruffled the big dog's ears.

"We'll work out a training schedule later for him, but for the next little while, the Real is his training ground." Rex shifted to skimmer mode with Ryan inside, and a hatch in the roof opened up. "Why don't you follow us home."

"Woohoo!" Spot cheered and surged towards Troy. Troy felt an invisible force grab him and lift him up as Spot transformed, the beagle turning into a two seater flyer. The outer frame had a generic sedan look, primarily in white. The inside was softly furred in brown fur, with a complex set of controls that moved by themselves. Troy found himself sitting in the passenger seat, the beagle already taking off towards the open hatch.

The ride back to Costa Condos was one of the wildest Troy had ever had. Spot, he discovered, was easily distracted by anything that caught his eye, or his nose, or his ear, or his antenna. And with the heightened sensory package his DE was built with, that was a lot to catch. In the open air, the flyer constantly dipped and swerved as something new caught his attention. Most he got bored of quickly, only causing the slightest shaking in their flight. Others held his attention longer, leading them to loops, dives and climbs that ignored basic traffic rules.

After the second close call, Rex scolded Spot. "Don't make me leash you, Spot. I know you're excited but you've got a life in your paws. Not to mention the safety of the people around you. Stay focused and stay on track."

"Yes, sir," Spot said meekly, managing to last thirty seconds in a straight line before a new scent caught his attention.

Somehow, they managed to make it to Troy's condo safely, and the quartet gathered in his living room.

"Looks like Spot found a green martian after all," Ryan quipped to his friend.

"Ugh," was all Troy could say in response, slumping in the couch and waiting for the world to stop spinning.

Rex flipped some couch cushions back into a hollow in the sunken section of the living room, revealing a platform with a plug. "This tower was made RIDE safe, so all the plugs are safe to tap in. There's a RIDE couch here, and one in the master already."

"You'll probably want to take Spot for a few walks before you go flying again," Ryan added, sitting down on the lip of the sunken room. "That'll give him time to properly sort out how noisy the Real is, and figure out what's important and what can be ignored. Do you need anything?"

"I'm good," Troy said weakly. "Just give me a chance for my stomach to stop moving."

Ryan chuckled and fused up with Rex. "Fair enough. Give us a shout if you need anything. Spot, stay in this condo or on its deck unless Troy says otherwise. Got it?"

The beagle was nosing around the kitchen, sniffing at the sink and licking the dirty pans inside it, contemplating what he tasted and smelled. "I got it."

The golden labs waved to Troy and lifted out of the patio. "We'll stop in after our shift is over. See you two later."

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Without meaning to, Troy fell asleep on the couch. He was jolted awake by a joyous shout.

"KITTY!" Spot shouted. Troy sat up just in time to hear a loud crash from the door.

"What. Is. This?" an annoyed voice asked.

Troy blinked the sleep from his eyes and focused. Helena stood there, holding a hand up. The air in front of her shimmered with a barely visible hardlight shield. Spot lay on the floor, stunned for the moment, but recovering quickly.

"Hi Helena. It's a RIDE," Troy said weakly.

"I can see it is a RIDE. What is it doing here?" she asked, haughtily.

"I'm Spot!" Spot interrupted, sitting up and holding his paw up, his tail sweeping across the floor. Helena ignored him, stepping around the RIDE to get out of the doorway. Spot's tail stopped moving and he slowly lowered his paw back down.

"Helena, that's Spot. Spot's a new RIDE APD's training. Ryan and Rex thought I would be a good fit to help him get used to the Real world."

"I'm his companion!" Spot said eagerly, his mood bouncing back quickly as he followed Helena at a safe distance.

"Well I see you haven't fused yet. Are you planning on it?" she asked, preparing a drink for herself.

"Don't know yet, for now, we're just going to hang out together. That's all." Troy stretched and joined her in the kitchen. "What brings you home so early? I thought you weren't going to be home till sunset?" he asked, changing the subject.

She gave him a quick kiss and smiled, "I'm not. I'm just taking a lunch break. Figured we might enjoy a lunch date before I head back. But I didn't expect you to have company."

Behind her, Spot started sniffing the air curiously, tilting his head from side to side. "Something smells nice. What is that?" he asked.

Troy hesitated, seeing the RIDE's reaction, torn between what he wanted to do, but not wanting to do it with the young RIDE present. Helena moved closer and ran a claw down the front of his shirt. "Why don't you send the puppy out exploring around the building while we finish our lunch date?" she purred.

The human gulped, looking between the Integrate and the RIDE, torn with indecision. Finally he pushed Helena away gently. "I'm sorry, not right now Hel. I'd love to, but this is Spot's first day out and about. I can't just send him away on his own yet."

She growled in frustration, and a cabinet door banged open, causing Spot to jump in surprise. "Fine, be that way. Guess I'll just have lunch alone," she hissed, the fabber humming to life.

Troy took a few steps back, to give her room, then moved around the island to Spot's side. He motioned to the door. "I'm... I'm going to take Spot for a walk. We can talk tonight about this," he said diplomatically. Helena ignored him, continuing her lunch preparations. Troy sighed and slipped out the door after motioning for Spot to lead him.

Spot was too distracted by the newness to comment on anything until they walked out of the tower. Troy lead the beagle to his favorite bench and sat to collect his thoughts. The bench itself was one of the few that he felt comfortable with, since its view was blocked by buildings on either side, letting him imagine the bay and beach he could see were more contained than they actually were. Spot walked around the bench slowly, finding new smells and sounds with each cycle. Finally he seemed to reach his limit and flopped down behind the bench.

"She doesn't like me, does she?" Spot asked.

"She doesn't know you. You just caught her by surprise is all."

"But you're her mate right? I could smell her on you, and you on her. And both of you in the big bed. And when she got close to you there..."

"That's enough Spot. She's not my mate, but we are friends. Close friends."

Spot hmmed to himself, then looked up. "Do you think she'll like me? When she gets to know me?"

Troy reached back to rub his floppy ears. "I'm sure she will eventually. You just have an ancient species rivalry to get over first."

"What do you mean?"

"She's a cat, you're a dog. It's a rivalry for human attention that's been going on for thousands of years."

"Oh." Spot thought it over a minute. "So that means she's the enemy right?"

Troy laughed and shook his head. "Not exactly. Not that sort of rivalry in any case. You two will get along fine, I'm sure. Just gonna take a bit of getting used to each other."

"I could change my DE. Get a cat shell instead of a dog one!" Spot offered hopefully.

"Oh Phobos no, don't even think of that! The only thing worse than the cat versus dog battle, is the one between two cats. Besides, wouldn't changing DE species screw up your core?"

Spot rubbed a paw against the boards of the boardwalk. "I was just offering. If it would've helped, I would have taken the chance."

"Don't worry about it. We'll sort it out, we're all adults here. Ready to explore some more?"

With Spot's company, they wandered down the boardwalk. Troy amused himself, watching the RIDE's antics as he encountered new experiences practically on every step. Together they walked past the end of the Boardwalk, and onto the public trails that ran along the shore line.

They stopped at a cliff well to the east of the city, overlooking the bay. Spot stood right at the edge, looking out, his head tilting to listen better or to sniff out more smells. "The world is so Big!" he said. "There's so much in it!"

"That it is," Troy said. "Much bigger than my world. Even bigger than the Earth." Troy looked around, his eyes locking on the Alohavator, following it up. He shuddered and gulped. "I didn't realize how far we'd gone...."

Spot didn't hear Troy. He jumped down to the rocks at the base of the cliff, examining the seaweed and other sea life that thrived in the turbulent zone.

Troy couldn't handle it any more. He groaned softly and fell to the ground, hugging his knees with his head down.

"Troy? Troy what's wrong? Troy!" Troy heard Spot calling to him from elsewhere, but he couldn't bring himself to lift his head. The world was too open, to uncontained to risk looking up.

An eternity later, he heard another vehicle arrive. "You must be Spot. You called this in?" the strange voice said.

"I did. I don't know what to do. He was fine all day, then he curled up and he's not saying anything!" Spot's own voice was verging on a panic attack of his own. "What's going on? What's wrong with him?"

"Just calm down. Give me a moment to check on him. Are you his RIDE? Have you fused?"

"Yes, and no. I just met him today. Can you help him?"

"Just a moment." The other voice got closer to Troy, and he felt someone crouch down next to him. "Troy? Troy Griffith? My name is June, I'm a paramedic. Can you hear me?"

"June, he's a spacer. His records say he's from Mars," a third voice spoke up.

"Space shock. Got it. Troy, keep your eyes closed and breath slowly, you'll be inside in a moment."

A hand covered his eyes to make sure he didn't look, and another hand pulled him to his feet. He was led to a vehicle and helped inside. Once the door closed, the hand moved away from his eyes.

"Just keep breathing slowly. You're inside now, everything is allright."

He opened his eyes and blinked slowly, focusing on a uniformed woman with rounded black furred ears. He was sitting on the edge of a platform in the middle of a cubical space, The walls were lined with cabinets. The only view out, was blocked by a worried dog face.

"I'm... I'm good now," Troy said, recovering quickly now that he was inside. "Just lost track of where we were."

The woman nodded, running a few scanners over him. "You seem to be fine now. Just relax."

"What happened? What's wrong with him?" Spot asked from outside.

"Spacer phobia. Looks like you have a bad case of it," June said.

"I do. Never really realized how bad till I got here. I'm trying to get over it but it's not happening quickly."

"What's spacer phobia?" Spot asked again.

June looked out to Spot. "Most humans now don't live in open places, like Earth or Zharus. They're in domed cities, or can colonies in space. So they aren't used to wide open areas like you see around here. It doesn't affect most of them, but some can't handle it. Get them contained in something and they're fine."

She looked back at Troy. "You're fine now, medically. No need to take you to the clinic. Can we offer you a lift back into town or would you rather go with Spot?"

Troy looked out and gulped. He closed his eyes a moment, to brace himself. "I'll go with Spot. Thank you for coming out here and helping. I didn't think to warn him about my condition. I'm sorry Spot."

Spot shifted to his skimmer mode, sliding his door open. A holographic dog appeared in the passenger seat. "It's OK. I'm glad you're okay now."

The door to the room opened, and Troy braced himself, expecting the air to rush out. The wind picked up slightly, but the air pressure otherwise stayed constant.

"I could make a hard light tunnel for you if you'd prefer," a third voice offered.

"No. I'll be fine. Just give me a moment." Troy's voice was strained as he tried to fight back the reflexes he was feeling. He moved to the door and focused on Spot's cabin, not looking to either side. 'Just a quick hop, running to the car, that's all. Don't think of the fact that you're running across an open space with no dome ever. Just a quick hop.' he thought to himself, the elephant in the room nearly tipping him over again.

He held his breath and ran, throwing himself into Spot's cabin, shattering the hologram. Spot closed the door behind him, leaving him isolated, with the faint hum of the cabin's air fans reassuring him.

A tap on the window made him sit up. He looked out and saw June standing there. Behind her, the ambulance he'd been in had reformed into a big panda wearing a heavy backpack. Beyond, the wide open spaces extended, with no artificial limits in sight. He managed to fight down the urge to open the door and pull her in.

"How are you feeling, Mister Griffith?" she asked.

"Better. Much better," he answered, settling into the seat. Looking out at the openness wasn't as scary, as long as he could ignore the people walking around without a concern.

"I can't officially prescribe you anything, not that anything would help. But I would strongly suggest you take a break from exploring, at least for today. Go home, or at least some place inside you feel comfortable with, and relax. You should be fine with a good rest."

June and her RIDE gave them an escort back into town and saw them off at their balcony. Once Troy was inside, he dimmed the windows and leaned against the counter. Spot wearily dropped onto the RIDE couch in the living room and looked up.

"You're not mad at me, are you?" Spot asked.

"Mad at you? Why for?" Troy looked at the RIDE and was surprised at how expressive Spot's body language was, for a mechanical being. The big dog looked exhausted, and worried.

"For calling for help. You weren't responding and I didn't know what else I could do."

"You did exactly the right thing. I should've warned you before, but it just slipped my mind. Don't worry about it. Are you tired?"

Spot's tail thumped against the wall. "I am a little. My head's full of stuff that I'm not sure how to sort it all out yet. But I'll figure out some way. They warned me about this in VR, and in the training camps. I just never believed the scale of it. The Real world is so big and has so much in it!"

"And we've barely scratched the surface." Troy stretched and finished the milk he'd fetched. "Why don't you get some rest, do whatever you need, and maybe later we can do another trip out."

Spot nodded and lowered his head onto his forepaws, one foot pressed firmly on the charger plate. Troy crouched down and rubbed his ears, before making his way to the master bedroom. He flopped onto the big bed after dimming those windows, and closed his eyes, surprisingly exhausted.

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" - swear that if you harmed one hair on his head!" Helena shouted, waking Troy with a start. He groaned and checked the time, finding only ten minutes had passed.

"What do you mean? I didn't do anything!" Spot shouted back, sounding as groggy as Troy felt. He stood up and made his way to the door.

"Of course you did something! I heard your emergency call!"

Troy found Helena standing in the living room, holding Spot suspended over the RIDE couch. "What the Phobos is going on out here?!" Troy yelled at them. He coughed and lowered his voice. "Helena, put Spot down. He didn't do anything."

Spot dropped back to the floor, landing with a heavy thud. Helena rushed over and squeezed Troy. "Are you alright?" she asked, pushing back from him to better look him over.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he reassured her. "And it wasn't Spot's fault. I just had a panic attack is all. Lost track of where I was. He saw it, and rightfully called for help."

She fell silent and looked away, her tail drooping.

"I think you owe someone an apology," Troy prodded, nodding to the quiet dog.

"Do I-"

"DON'T finish that sentence. You know what you have to do, Hel." Troy interrupted her quickly, glaring at his girlfriend.

She reluctantly made her way back to Spot. Spot was sitting up and looking confused. "I'm sorry for accusing you of hurting Troy. And for picking you up and dropping you like that," she said, managing to mostly sound sincere.

"He's my new friend. I'd never hurt him on purpose. Will you be my friend too?" Spot raised a paw hopefully.

"We'll see," she said curtly, ignoring the paw. She looked back at Troy. "Are you sure this is a good idea? It was Ryan's idea wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was Ryan's idea, and it seems like a good idea to me too. Our needs match up surprisingly well. Spot needs someone to show him the Real, and I could use a friend to travel with. You and Ryan have your own jobs, and I don't want you interrupting them all the time just for me. I certainly didn't expect you to be such a Queen about it."

She winced and sat down. Spot watched the pair silently, retreating back to the RIDE couch. Troy made his way down and sat on Spot, rubbing his ears.

"Are you sure of this?" Helena asked, much of the fight gone from her voice, and her body. "Creche-born are special, they've got a lot of unknowns. Have you thought of what you leaving in a few months might do to him?"

"A little. I did mention it to Ryan when he suggested it, but he isn't too concerned."

"My advisors thought it might be a good idea, to teach me how to handle loss in a less extreme manner," Spot spoke up. "I know he'll be gone soon, but that just makes me want to enjoy the times we can have together while I can."

"That's all I want too," Helena whispered too quietly for Troy to hear, but Spot heard it clearly. She looked away to recompose herself. "Are you sure I can't convince you to stay here?" she asked, bringing up an old argument.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted. Spot here does make it even more tempting. But Mars is my home, not Zharus. Deimos! I wish I could bring you both back with me, show you what Mars, and the Sol system has."

She smiled back and shrugged, "Never going to happen, my love. Especially not to Sol system."

"I know. That's what makes it all the more painful." Troy sighed and checked the time. "Bit early for dinner, but we can beat the crowds. You up for going out again Spot? To some inside places this time."

Spot's tail thumped against the wall, "Sure!"

Troy got up and offered his hand to Helena. "How about you? Shall we go get dinner, and find a show to see?"

"With the puppy?" she let herself be pulled to her feet. "I suppose so."

"I'm not a puppy!" Spot growled.

"Could've fooled me."

"Stop it you two," Troy warned them, starting back to the bedroom. "Just let me get freshened up before we go."

Helena followed him, running a claw down his spine lightly. "No need to rush, we have plenty of time," she purred, feeling a shiver go through the human. "Stay, pup!" she ordered, glancing back at Spot.

"Not a puppy," Spot growled, flopping back onto the RIDE couch and sighing, hearing the door of the master bedroom sliding shut.

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The Aerie, 1 month later

The black armored knight swung his sword down on Nikki. She barely got her own shield up in time to deflect it, and felt her arm shudder under the force of the deflected blow. She started to swing into the opening the knight's attack had left, only to sense another danger nearby. She pushed away instead, and a fireball flew in the space she'd been in, just missing her.

"Sev! Little help here!" she shouted, turning to better focus on the wizard threat, while keeping the knight in sight. The wizard was already gathering energies in his hands for another blast. She reached into a pouch in her belt and threw a handful of powder in his direction. It didn't hurt him, but it was enough to distract him, causing the spell to fizzle and letting her dodge to a column for protection.

"SEV! Where the hell are you?" she shouted again, looking for the dragon. She spotted him deeper in the castle, being attacked by an archer and a priest. His wings had tattered holes, arrows stuck out of his scaley side, and his face was scorched from a spell. "Pause!"

The scenario froze in place. Nikki walked over to her friend, leaving behind a semitransparent image of herself to mark her place. The dragon stepped out of his image, the wounds staying behind.

"Sev, what's going on? You seem distracted. No way an archer and cleric would normally keep you that busy," she asked.

"Sorry Nikki. My mind's elsewhere is all."

"You're not working on our end term project, are you? You promised you wouldn't work on it today."

"I'm not. It's other things," Sevalak looked at Nikki, then looked away.

They'd been working on the project for weeks now, months even in some respects, to the point that Nikki had put her foot down. For her birthday, she had declared it to be a no school work day for either of them. She had hoped that a day off would help her friend focus more afterward, but if anything, the RIDE was even more distant than ever.

"Care to talk about it?" she asked, reaching up to rub his muzzle. Even in VR, it had a coolness to it that she loved, compared to the usual heat of Aloha.

He pulled away and shook his wings out, one of his nervous tics she knew. "No, not yet. We should probably go back to the Real. It looks like guests are arriving."

"Guests have been arriving all week. Great Grandma Rankin showed up last Tuesday and she's been driving Uncle Sam and Aunt Janet nuts."

Sevalak chuckled. "I know. But I mean guests are arriving here. Krystal just asked me to bring you up top at your leisure."

"Then my leisure is now." She waved a hand and the cave system disappeared, with the combatants. She opened her eyes and stretched, looking around the Aerie's garage. She rubbed Sevalak's cool, scaley sides and stood up, tugging her t-shirt down. "Mind giving me a lift? Dragonback's one way to arrive in style after all."

"Not at all," he said, crouching down and lifting a foreleg to use as a step.

Nikki stepped onto the back of his offered claw and jumped, bleeping her a-grav belt just enough to carry her the rest of the way up. She settled between his neck ridges just in front of his wings and tapped him. "Let's go meet the crowds then."

The dragon jumped out of the garage, and dived downward, picking up speed all the way, his aeroshell diverting the wind just enough to keep Nikki in place. He spread his wings at the last minute and flattened out the dive, his claw tips skimming the wave tops as they zoomed through the strait. She felt Sevalak's hardlight muscles flexing as he flapped his wings slowly, climbing as they reached open ocean; his wings were mostly for show as far as flying went, but they were quite the show.

"Take your time, Sev. Let's see who showed up... wow!" She had expected a big turn out for her sixteenth party, but the actual turnout amazed even her. Her mom and dad had been working on the party for weeks, keeping most of the details hush hush to her. Still, it had quickly turned into one of Aloha's social events of the month, or of the week at least. More than a few paparazzi had been bitten by Watchdog and other protections when they had attempted to find out more.

Her view of the house's main patio showed it was packed with RIDEs, humans and Integrates. It was mostly her family and her friends, but there were a lot of family friends, and other personalities that tended to show up. One table was loaded down with gifts, while another had snacks, and a suspiciously blank spot. She studied the spot closer and smirked, finding cloak artifacts.

"Let's head in, Sev. Time to make our appearance."

Sevalak carried her back to the house, and did a flyby to the cheers of many of the people waiting and waving on the patio. He belched out a cloud of cold air that condensed into a knee deep fog bank, then landed in the spot people made for him. Nikki waved from his back and waited while her father stepped forward to help her down.

"Happy Birthday, dear," Ryan said, hugging his daughter.

"Thanks Dad. It all looks great."

"You haven't seen it all yet," he smirked, letting go so he could escort her to the snack table.

Wanda, the RIDEs and the rugrats were waiting for her there. She hugged her mother and her sisters, while accepting their greetings. She studied the blank spot on the table, trying to pierce the shroud, but it was a Scratch Special; completely impenetrable.

Wanda laughed, noticing her focus. "Okay, okay. I guess it's time for the reveal," she said, raising her voice to get everyone's attention. The family moved behind the table so everyone could see the cake and her reaction. Once everyone was in place and waiting, the cake appeared out of thin air.

She wasn't the only one to gasp. The centrepiece of the cake was two figures, an armored female knight in cobalt blue armor, and a similarly coloured dragon, standing back to back in attack positions. They were surrounded by a variety of monsters; orcs, goblins, elementals, even an evil black knight. The monsters all had something lit on fire. Nikki did a quick count and confirmed there were sixteen monsters in total.

"This is incredible," Nikki said in awe, looking around each side of the cake and noting extra details, like the treasure chest, and the bodies of already dispatched foes.

"They really outdid themselves this time," Wanda agreed, positioning her to pose for pictures.

Finally, she handed her daughter a box with a crank on it. "When we're done singing, make a wish, spin this as far as it will go as fast as you can, and we'll see if you can blow out the enemies."

While the crowd serenaded her, she thought about her wish. She knew it was a stupid tradition, but it was the classic. 'Worlds peace? Too generic. Doing well on this presentation? Too specific.... I guess I just wish I have a good year to come, like I usually do.'

The song ended and everyone looked at her expectantly. She made her wish, and started spinning the crank. It resisted at first, but soon started spinning almost faster than she could keep up. The central figures on the cake started moving, the knight lifting her sword and starting a swing and the dragon lifting his head. The crank stopped so suddenly it almost jumped out of her hands.

The dragon and the knight moved in unison, fog beginning to waft from the dragon's mouth. With a blur of motion almost too fast to see, they attacked. The dragon swung his head, the fog blasting out and extinguishing the fires on the eight monsters on his side. The knight swung with her sword, slicing through the eight monsters on her side, taking out their flames. The crowd cheered, wisps of smoke and fog rising from the cake.

After she cut the first piece for herself (the figures on top turned out to be animatronics, but the rest was edible), her mom took over cake distribution. She mingled in the crowd, saying thank you every few minutes as someone else wished her a happy birthday.

With the cake demolished, attention turned to the other table, piled high with wrapped boxes. After the required picture takings, she was able to start tearing into the pile. Most of the boxes contained credits with her favorite stores in Aloha, or travel creds with the suborb companies. Others contained models for her collections, and Uncle Jay and Trace had gotten her a two handed broadsword which she adored. Even Grandma Hannah sent her standard plain birthday card with its hundred mu credit chip; her mom's mother didn't pay much attention to the Alohan branch of her family tree, but she did make sure to send simple gifts to the grand children on the appropriate days.

By the end of the unwrapping, she was more than satisfied with her haul, but there were a few nagging details bugging the back of her mind. There seemed to be a number of gifts missing, from friends and family whom she knew usually had more. The biggest omission was from Sevalak; the dragon RIDE seemed to have forgotten to get a gift for her, which was very strange for him.

As if reading her mind, the crowd parted to make space for the big dragon. He stopped in front of the table and hesitated, looking as uncomfortable as the day he'd gotten his full DE shell. She stepped out from around the table and waited curiously.

"Nikki..." he started, then paused, seemingly torn with what he was about to do. Around him, the crowd watched expectantly. Nikki felt annoyed that they seemed to know what was happening and she didn't. She glanced from her parents, grinning like Cheshire cats, and back to Sevalak. Pieces began to fall into place, though the nervous dragon was too caught up to notice.

"Nikki, we've known each other a long time now. We've been friends practically since the day I stepped into the Real, and best friends soon after that. I can't imagine what it would be like to be with anyone else, especially with how close we are."

He paused and closed his eyes. A wisp of cold fog fell from his muzzle before he recollected himself and crouched lower, his belly scutes flat on the ground, his wings spread out on the ground as well. "So in the tradition of your family, I ask of you. Will you be my fuse partner? Will you be my RIDEr?"

Before she could answer, the world slowed to a crawl. The crowd disappeared as her senses shifted to a Virtual replica of the family's patio. One by one, others appeared; Astranikki, Wanda, Krystal, Ryan, Rex and finally Sevalak.

Astranikki shook her head at Sevalak. "I've created a monster," she moaned good naturedly.

"Well it does make for good press, Dad." Wanda said, grinning before looking to her daughter. "Sorry to interrupt your moment, dear. But we felt it would be best to have a private moment to talk about this before you decide one way or another."

"You guys knew he was going to ask?" Nikki asked, looking at her family.

"Of course. He asked for Rex's and my permission months ago. We gave it, on your condition of course." Ryan said.

"We're surprised you didn't notice it long before now," Rex added.

"Go easy on her. Selective RIDE-mate blindness seems to be a Munn family trait. At least on my side of the tree," Astranikki said. "Or maybe it's just a trait of Munns named Nikki."

"True. I don't think there was anyone who didn't know you and Astra were meant to be, except for you, Dad." Wanda refocused on Nikki. "In any case, we know this is a surprise for you, so we wanted to make sure you don't feel pressured into saying yes or no. It's your choice, and we'll support you whichever way you go."

Sevalak moved closer and lowered his head closer to her. His VR avatar was human sized. "I know I am asking a lot of you. Being a mythical, I've always known I am imposing a big change on my future RIDEr. To add a cross-ride on top of that, it is asking a lot of you. The experts think that my fuse, combined with a cross may actually impose a five year cooldown, to reach safe levels. We won't know until we... IF we fuse, but that is a risk you should know.

"If you don't want to fuse, I'll understand. We are best friends and fused or not, that won't change." The dragon tried not to sound disappointed as he outlined the other option.

Nikki reached up and put a hand on his muzzle. "Shhh. Stop talking and let me think." She quickly reviewed her feelings about it. Crossriding was a non-issue; besides her family, she had friends who had crossrode when they were old enough and had no issues. She was a bit curious about what it would be like to be a guy at that. Instead, she thought about her friendship with Sevalak, how it had grown and if she was willing to share so much with it. In the end, one thing overrode all of her concerns. "I'll get to be a dragon." she whispered too quietly for anyone to hear in the VR space.

"What was that?" Wanda asked.

"I've made my choice," Nikki announced. "I have thought about it, and I'll live with it no matter what happens. Let's get back to the Real."

Between blinks, the patio filled up again. Sev jumped a few meters away, back to where he had made his proposal. Everyone else hadn't moved, the family meeting having taken only a second.

"Yes!. Yes Sevalak, I will be your RIDEr," she announced, moving closer to hug his muzzle.

He stood there, shocked, like the coyote that had finally caught the roadrunner. "Uhm, now what do we do?" he asked, not quite sure he believed her answer. "Do we do it now or do we wait or what?"

She giggled and looked to her mother. "I don't know. What do you think, mom?"

Wanda was trying to look busy, straightening up the present boxes and cleaning up the table a bit. "It's your body, it's your choice. Whenever you think you're ready for it."

"But I won't be your girl any more after, will I?"

Ryan spoke up and hugged her, "You'll always be one of our girls."

Once again, Nikki found herself having to make a tough choice. She briefly toyed with the idea of delaying it, partly to 'punish' Sev for keeping her in the dark for so long, and partly to give her friends a chance for a proper going out party. She paused, recalling the nights before and how eager Mitchell and Rocky had been on the beach. When she looked at them, they turned away, suddenly finding a flower pot fascinating.

"You guys knew! Didn't you?" she called to them.

"Come on, Nick-ster. No one who saw you two together couldn't help but know. It was a matter of when, not if," Rocky finally admitted. "We just wanted to give you a proper farewell before you joined the boys club."

"It's not nice to hold a cross-party when the guest of honour isn't aware it's even a party."

"That wasn't the cross party. That was the pre-cross festivities. We'll have the cross one later," Mitchell pointed out.

"Damn right we will. And don't think I'll forget this when you become Michelle," Nikki taunted before turning her back to her friends. "Go for it Sev. Let's do this now."

Sevalak's Memorex hardlight skin turned off, revealing an angular draconic body. What wasn't covered in hardlight emitters was painted a shiny cobalt blue, matching his scale pattern. He reared back on his hind legs, squatting a bit while his chest panel slid open, revealing a man-sized chamber glittering with silver.

Nikki hesitated a moment, one hand going to her chest, feeling her breasts a moment. She squashed the brief moment of doubt, and waved before jumping in. She knew Sevalak's fuse chamber was more than big enough to turn her right way around no matter how she entered. She felt a field grab ahold of her and start spinning her around. At the same time the silver dust filled the air around her, being pulled into her lungs as she breathed. She briefly saw the patio again as Sevalak's chest closed up, sealing her inside.

Sealed inside of him, she could still see from the glow of the fusers. The chamber steadily shrunk around her as the fields held her body in the proper orientation. Her body tingled and went numb from the silver dust that coated it, but her mind sped up, links forming between her and the dragon's core.

:You know what you're doing?: she asked as the connection started to firm up. She began to feel Sevalak's mind link with hers. The dragon's mind was surprisingly chaotic, under a thin layer of intense organization.

:I think so.... I've simmed this thousands of times but this is my first time actually doing it. How do you feel?:

:Numb. My body's numb that is. Mind's fine. Feels like you're pulling my arms back behind me though.:

:That's actually on purpose. The numbing and the pulling. You are going from a tetrapod to a hexapod, and your shoulders need a lot of work to handle it.:

She focused on the feelings a moment; it was hard to tell through the numbing effect, but she was sure her arms were being pulled back. She also had the sensation of her fingers being pulled longer. :This is majorly strange.... Are you turning my arms into wings?:

:Yup. I've read everything I could on first fusing, and the current thinking is that it's better to turn the arms to wings and grow new arms, than to just grow new wings. Something about the natural muscles being stronger and easier to control, making it less dangerous afterward.:

She tried to focus on her body through the numbing effect Sevalak was enforcing. She could feel changes happening all over, but the details were fuzzy. Every breath she took seemed to expand her chest more, and she was beginning to feel confusing sensations from her rump and under her arms. Her feet and neck were feeling stretched as well.

She found it hard to judge time at first, as Sevalak worked. She tried to hold still and tried not to think of how the RIDE was rebuilding not just her body, but parts of her mind.

:I'm sorry I'm taking so long. This is a big change and humans are so complex.: Sevalak apologized.

:That's fine. Take your time, do it right: she reassured him. Their mental connection was getting stronger and she had a better sense of his thoughts. A lot of his focus was on her, and what she was becoming, though he hid it from her. :Can we connect to the Real? Can I see what's going on outside yet?:

:OH! Sorry! It slipped my mind. I'm sorry:

She chuckled, :Seems like a lot of things have slipped your mind. You didn't get me a birthday gift either.:

:I didn't? Shards! You're right! I didn't! I've just been so nervous about this...:

:Don't worry about it. This is the best gift you could give me.:

:You sure?:

:You're making me into a dragon! What more could a girl want? Just wait till we get back into the dungeons like this. We'll be unstoppable!:

Their connection grew stronger. Soon she noticed a small window opening up, showing a peephole view of the patio. It grew larger quickly, showing more and more, until it took up her entire field of view. Enough time had passed that people were beginning to look concerned. Icons popped up in the corner of her view, familiar from her own VR settings. About five minutes had passed since they'd fused.

"Hello?" she said carefully. Her voice had a rumble to it and was pitched lower already; not quite the bass rumble Sevalak had, but dropping to a baritone similar to her father.

"How are you feeling?" Wanda asked, moving to look the pair over.

"Strange... Sev's keeping me numb through most of this."

Sevalak took over, speaking with their voice. "The changes are quite major and take time to do safely. Everything is going fine, but he'll be quite hungry."

Nikki grunted, though Sevalak kept the grunts internal. She felt herself cramp up and realized that it would be the final time she felt cramps from those organs and muscles. He reached for his belly, only to feel their wings spread out.

:Sorry! I'm new to all this. Your new arms are still growing and the wiring is a bit mixed up:

:But it just happened right? I'm a guy now?:

:Where it matters, yes.:

He focused on the Real again, "Can someone put up a mirror surface? I want to see what our fuse form is."

Astranikki waved a hand and a section of air turned silver. The fused dragons turned to look, and gasped. They stood almost six meters tall, including a metre long thick neck. They were broad shouldered with a thick chest, lighter scutes going from under their chin down to their hips. The rest of their skin was blue scales, with dark talons on the end of their toes and fingers. Their tail had shrunk a little to stay balanced with their shorter neck, still ending at a sharp point. Spines started at the top of their head and ran down their back, ending just short of their tail tip. Sevalak's wings were unchanged, though reoriented slightly for their bipedal stance.

Nick reached out, concentrating to move their arm. His arm felt stubby and weak, but their combined arm did reach out to the mirror surface. He looked down and saw a bulge at their groin and was puzzled.

:I thought the Memorex DE's were complete?:

:They are. Dragon's are mythics so no one's really sure what we should be biologically. In my case, we went with a more reptilian style, internal when not in use. But it is down there. When we defuse you'll be similar, unless you want me to try and change it.:

:No, now you've made me curious. How long before we can defuse?:

:A few minutes at least. You are going to be starving. Not enough mass to build you up fully, but the frame will be in place.:

:Ain't that a comforting thought. Guess we'll hit that Brazilian All you can Meat place later.:

:Sounds yummy:

"Right, now that it's official, it's time for your crossing day presents," Ryan said. "I know your friends will haul you out for a proper introduction later, so just remember your new gun is loaded, and to use protection. Don't want to end up like Uncle Sam and Aunt Janet's first time."

"Da-ad!" Nick shouted, feeling his face warm.

Ryan chuckled, and stepped to one side to let Rex pull another table loaded up with gifts. "My job here is done. Have fun, Nick."

The second wave of gifts filled in the blanks he'd noticed from the first wave.. Everyone seemed to have something for the new pair, Most were standard crossing gifts; blow up dolls, condoms, black books, and even a shaving kit. Others were more fitting for their new form. Scale polish, claw sharpeners, antigrav belts, and more restaurant cards, this time for places with a distinctly carnivore tilt.

His parents wheeled out the final gift, a man-sized crate. "Technically, this is Sevalak's gift, not yours, Nick. But I'm sure you both will enjoy it. It's from your father and I, as well as Rochelle and Rhianna," Wanda explained.

The dragon pair moved over closer, and nudged the box. "What is it?" Nick asked.

Rochelle grinned. "You'll see. Open it up."

"I'll do it!" Sevalak said eagerly. Nick felt his arms lift, a claw slipping under the lip of the crate. Once he had claw holds, he easily tore the crate open, revealing another blue dragon, that looked like Sevalak, only smaller. "What is this?"

"Your mom told us how big Sevalak is, and how full he makes your classrooms. So we made you a gift," Rochelle explained. "It's still experimental, maybe a dozen of them out there so far, but if you like it half as much as Uncia does, you'll love it. We'll need to install some equipment in you and adjust your fuse chamber a bit, but in a nutshell, it's a mini-you. You'll be able to fuse and control it like your full body, but fit inside without filling the room."

"But I like filling the room," Sevalak whined. He grinned and hugged Rochelle, engulfing her in his wings and thick arms. He quickly hugged the others in turn. "I'm just kidding, I love it. Thanks guys."

"The changes are pretty minor, once you can defuse before you head out we can make them," Wanda said. "Your main body is big enough that you can store the minishell inside yourself when not in use."

:I'm done for now. You ready?: Sevalak asked.

:Do it!:

The world slowed down as his connection with Sevalak broke up. He fell forward, feeling fields ease him to the ground on his feet. The first thing he noticed was how hot it was; Sevalak's fuse chamber was cold, surrounded as it was with his compressed gas tanks.

His arms started tingling as if they were waking up for the first time, and he realized that they actually were moving by themselves for the first time. He looked down, and lifted his hands, admiring the fine blue scales running along them, and the dark claws on the end of the finger tips. They were thin, almost emaciated compared to the rest of his body,

Checking the rest of his body, he found his chest was smooth, not scaled but covered in thick skin with no nipples, lighter blue like Sev's scutes. He had a mound with a slit at his groin, and strong looking legs, scaled in blue from his thighs down to his clawed feet. He twisted his head around, concentrating and stretching metre long wings, with a light blue membrane stretched between the fingers. A spined tail extended half a metre down from his rump. Nick took his first step and almost fell onto his face, if Wanda hadn't been waiting for him.

"You look starved. Come on, let's get you seated and your dad can talk to you about guy stuff. Sevalak, meet us down in the workshop for your new body."

Sev nuzzled Nick back before grinning at Wanda. "I think that's both the scariest and most exciting thing a RIDE can ever hear. I'll be right down."

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Troy watched as the new dragon man was greeted. "I can't believe they're taking all this so easily. Their daughter not only didn't just become a man, but grew wings and scales."

"It's common here," Spot said. "You want to go say hi?"

"Not just yet, I'll wait for the crowds to ease a bit, let him have his time with Ryan. It's funny, I barely know either of them, but they both seem more complete somehow."

Helena chuckled and passed over a glass. "You noticed? They are a good fit. Rare it happens so quickly, but they have been close for awhile, and the Munn's seem to have a knack for finding them."

"A good fit? Will they Integrate?"

"It's possible. There's always a chance, albeit a small one. But I doubt it. They're both still very young and looking to experience the world by themselves. It may happen when they're ready, but not any time soon."

Troy sensed a bit of hesitation in her voice. "Did you... Did you integrate too soon?"

She shook her head, "Another time maybe. This is their day."

He nodded and looked back at the pair, rubbing Spot's ears. "What about me and Spot? Are we a good match?"

Helena gave him a long look. "You sure you want me to answer it?"

"I asked the question, didn't I?"

"True. But it's a tough question to answer. I say no, and you might mope, or I might be hurting puppy's feelings. I say yes, and you agonize over leaving. While it might get you to stay, it'll make the next few months horrible."

"I'm not a puppy!" Spot objected.

"Keep telling yourself that and someday it might come true."

"Enough. Just answer my question please Helena."

She looked at both of them carefully then sighed. "You're a great pair. Ryan knows how to pick'em."

"I knew it!" Spot said, licking Troy. "We're made for eachother!"

Troy laughed and gently pushed the RIDE back. "Not quite, but we are good friends. Come on, let's go give our regards to Nick and Sevalak."

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Maasai Plains, One week later

Spot and Troy drove out beyond Aloha's city limits and into the Massai plains. Spot had a holographic avatar of a young beagle hanging his head out of the skimmer's window, ears blowing back in simulated wind.

"You want to fuse, don't you?" Spot asked eagerly, pulling his head in and closing the window. The hardlight aeroshell around the skimmer kept any real wind from reaching them. "I mean, that's what people usually do. Some fuse right away. Others do it in front of family, and others want to do it in private. You seem the private type."

Troy chuckled and looked around. "Yeah, you got me. On all counts. I just wanted to get away from everyone and do this in peace. Just you and me bud."

"Goodie!" The virtual dog nuzzled against him before looking out the window again. "But what about your phobia? Isn't this too open for you?"

He gulped and looked at the wide open horizon. With the shield of the skimmer mode, it didn't bother him much, but knowing he could be out there, with nothing but the clothes on his back caused a shiver to go down his spine. "I'll handle it. It's not as bad as when I first got here. Maybe by the time I leave I won't even notice it."

"I could fuse around you from this mode. It's not hard," Spot offered.

"Not yet. I want to find the right spot.... Head that way."

Fifteen minutes later, Troy found a spot he wanted for his first fuse. It was a rocky outcropping that overlooked one of the rivers that crossed the plain. A herd of antelope grazed and watered nearby, under the watchful gaze of a crocodile. The reptile seemed content to just watch.

"Interesting spot. Should I do it now?" Spot asked eagerly.

"Not quite yet. I just wanted a place to enjoy nature for a minute before I got closer to it," Troy said. He surveyed the plains, spotting a few more animals, going about their natural ways. He debated asking Spot to open the windows, but decided against it; being inside the RIDE's air conditioned cockpit was close enough for him. "Okay. Go for it Spot."

The hardlight on the skimmer disappeared, revealing the shiny metal panels and gears of Spot's true form. They began to move, compressing inward around his body, silver spots glittering on the surfaces closest to his body. The world disappeared as his head was covered up, a warmth spreading through his body. Soon enough his senses returned, expanded from before, overlaid with a simple HUD Spot provided.

:How do you like it?: Spot asked, almost causing Troy to jump. The pup's words appeared in his mind, like they were spoken but from no location.

Troy stayed quiet, taking it all in. Sounds were crisper, not just in the ranges he heard before, but beyond, each one unique and trackable. Vision was similarly enhanced, every movement noticed in the Spot part of his mind, filters offering ultraviolet and infrared views as well. Smells were the biggest difference. He could smell the wind and identify everything, not just what made the scent, but where it was going and how old it was.

He shuddered a moment, realizing a moment later he could feel the wind. It blew over the plains, rustling the fur all over his body. He glanced down, past the muzzle, and saw the white and brown fur on his chest, and a pair of khaki shorts around his waist. He lifted his hands up and saw they were human, but tipped in dog claws. Further experimentation found a whiplike tail at his rear.

:This is incredible Spot,: Troy finally said. Some new instinct grabbed the commands and kept it internal instead of going all the way to his mouth. He took a few tentative steps, feeling the other presence in his mind helping him keep his balance. The wind should have unnerved him, but the agoraphobic part of his mind knew he was encased in the ultimate space suit. Neither the vacuum of space nor the pressures of the ocean deeps, possibly not even the pressures of a gas giant, would be able to harm him. :This is just incredible: he repeated.

:Glad you like it!: Spot said cheerfully. :Go on! Try it out! We can fly and everything!: They lifted off the ground and hovered a few metres up. Troy laughed and experimented a bit, figuring out a comfortable way to fly, sensing Spot's paw guiding them and keeping them from getting into dangerous situations.

Without warning, Troy found himself falling. He dropped a couple of metres to the ground and slid through the grass, stopping just short of a large, fresh pile of elephant dung. He heard a thud on the ground behind him as he laid there, trying to sort out what happened. His mind had abruptly gone from the enhanced speeds of a fuse, back to his normal implant enhanced mode, and he couldn't figure out why.

"You're a SPY! A dirty spy!" Spot growled behind him, raw anger overlayed with actual hurt filling his voice. "You're spying for Earth! I can't believe it!" The RIDE turned around and shifted to skimmer mode. The beagle took off, using his lifters to raise a cloud of dust that drifted over the stunned human.

Troy lay there for a long moment, with Spot's final words echoing in his floppy ears. He managed to remember his last thoughts before his mind had crashed with the sudden defuse. A thought of what TIA would do if they knew what RIDEs were really capable of.

"Oh shit," he mumbled, shuddering and shifting mental gears. He looked at the big pile of post-processed vegetation next to him, still warm even in the afternoon sun, and laughed.

Sitting up, he shook his head and took stock of what he was now. His hands were normal, other than dark, non-retractable claws instead of nails on his fingers. His toes were similarly clawed, showing in his sandals. His probing fingers found floppy ears, similar to Spot's avatar, and a cold wet nose and muzzle. Not as big as a real dog's but noticeably non-human. He twisted around and saw the white whip-like tail tipped in brown..

"Great. Now what am I going to do?" he mumbled, finishing his self inspection. He looked around, sniffing and listening. His fuse with Spot had heightened his senses more than he'd expected. Smells especially were heightened, which wasn't so nice given what was next to him. He started walking to get far enough away to clear his nose. He knew he should be overwhelmed by the inputs, but his mind and implants seemed to have been adjusted to handle it.

"Middle of the Maasai, with no RIDE," he said out loud. Speaking felt a bit strange, but it faded away from his notice quickly. He tried his implant and couldn't pick up any signals nearby. "And no coverage. Fine spy I make."

He stopped walking once the smell became bearable and took stock again. Bringing up his memories of Mars Scouts proved less than useful. Most of the skills were about patching suits, maintaining environmental integrity and other skills he didn't need. One skill did work though, the direction finding skills. He spotted the rocky outcrop they'd started at, and climbed it.

"Okay, no signal even up here. Help might come eventually. Do I stay or do I try to hoof it back to Aloha?" he asked himself. "Surely Ryan or Helena will notice Spot returning without me. Where will they come from?"

He surveyed the area around him, finally spotting the one thing he knew he could use to keep his direction constant. The silver thread of the beanstalk reaching to space. His eyes locked onto it, and traced it up and up, and suddenly his agoraphobia came back with a vengeance. It reminded him that there was thousands of kilometers surrounding him, with no airshield, no domes, no protection but air held down by gravity. He whimpered and slid down the outcrop until he found a notch he could squeeze in, pinching his new tail, but otherwise surrounding him with reassuring rocks.

Thirst finally drew him out of his phobic attack. He crawled out of his sheltered spot, sweating from the heat of the late afternoon plains, his mouth sticky and dry. Keeping his eyes as close to his feet as he dared, while still looking around for threats, he made his way down to the river. He looked, listened and sniffed, spotting the crocodile further upriver, but sensing no other threats. Troy was careful to keep his gaze away from the horizon and the sky.

He waded in deep enough to feel the current tug at his legs, and sipped carefully. The water tasted clean and surprisingly cool. He waited a few moments, looking around before crouching in the water and lapping from the stream.

Sated, he waded back to the shore, waving to the lazy croc. He laid on his side on the sand of the bank, always careful not to look up. "Where are they?" he asked. "They must know I'm out here. They wouldn't punish me like this would they?"

Troy risked a glance to the north, seeing the shining thread, but he looked away before another attack could cripple him. "I could start walking, but what would be the point? I'd need food to make it that far, and I don't know what's food out here. Besides me."

Standing up, he shook his head. "No. First rule, you stay at your crash site. Find or make shelter, conserve your resources and wait for rescue." He started walking around the outcropping and found a bigger notch he could squeeze into. Not big enough for a cave, it would shade him in the sun, and shelter him from the rain at least. His stomach growled and he wondered how much of the fuse changes came from his body and how much came from the nanites.

"Tough, no food around here. Consider yourself lucky you got water," Troy scolded his stomach, before pressing back in the notch. He risked another glance at the sky, framed by the rocks and watched the sun set.

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Helena hissed in annoyance and pressed on the skimmer's accelerator again, to no avail; she was already flying across the dark plains as fast as the machine would go. Inwardly, she cursed at the foolish puppy who had left Troy behind, and mentally imagined what she might do to the young RIDE. Most of her fantasies were impossible unless Spot became a pinocchio.

The skimmer finally beeped, letting her know they were over the area Spot said he'd left Troy behind. She started searching the area, sending out a ping of her own, hoping Troy would respond. It didn't take long to pick up his implant.

She landed next to the outcrop and turned the skimmer's lights onto it, lighting it up like day. She jumped down and started running towards it. "Troy! Where are you?"

A figure appeared among the rocks, shielding his eyes from the glare of the lights. "Who's there?" he called out.

Helena leaped up the rocks easily and pulled him into a hug. "It's me, Helena! Thank goodness you're all right."

"Helena?" Troy asked, not quite he believe the furry arms hugging him. He hugged back tightly. "I was worried you wouldn't come...."

"Why? Because that puppy said you're a spy? That's not a death sentence. Especially not for an offworlder. Come on, you must be starved. I've got some food in the skimmer." She lifted up, carrying him back to the vehicle.

Inside, he tore into the energy bars ravenously, while she watched him. She waited until he paused between bars, and reached out and tugged an ear.

Troy yelped and jumped in surprise. "What was that for?"

"You look good with floppy ears. Cute," she smirked at him and turned a window reflective.

Food forgotten for the moment, he looked at himself in the surface. The ears hung low, just above his jaw line, covered in brown fur, like his hair. One ear had a white splotch around the tip of it. He turned away and sighed. "Probably not going to keep the look though. Not after this."

"Why not? It looks good on you," she purred, rubbing the base of one of his ears. He twitched it reflexively, not even thinking of how to do it.

"Because I'm a... a spy. A spy for Earth." He turned away and looked out the window. While he'd been eating, Helena had started the skimmer back to Aloha.

She rubbed the back of his neck, then turned him around to face her. She pushed her thoughts of revenge against the puppy to one side to reassure her friend. "So? We pretty much treat everyone like they're a spy from Earth. Everyone from out of system at least. But as long as they don't get RIDE, Intie, Q or Sarium tech, it's all just stories. Hard to believe stories at that. Spot overreacted. He's young, and didn't think everything through."

Troy sighed and took a bite from the bar. "But you took so long to get here. I thought you abandoned me," he said.

"Damn, you've mastered that hangdog look already," Helena laughed. "Blame the pup. I think he got scared once he realized what he did, and he panicked. Ran to the Briny instead of back to Aloha. Vincent spotted him without you after we started looking for both of you, and brought him in. Once he told me where you were, I grabbed the first skimmer I could find."

She squeezed his shoulder, trying to reassure him. "It's been a long day, and a lot happened to you. Your first fuse shouldn't have been that rough, but what's done is done. What do you want to do now?"

"Just take me home," Troy said. "After that, I don't know."

"One step at a time, that's all we can do."

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Costa Condos, The Next Day

Sizzling bacon woke Troy up the next morning. He laid in his familiar bed, inhaling deeply, picking out the scents and cataloging them; his own scent, the smell of the prairie grass with just a hint of rotten grasses from the pile of clothes by the bathroom; Helena's clean, feline scent, fading from the bed next to him, but still strong from the kitchen. He sniffed again, focusing on the food smells, picking out the bacon, toasted sourdough bread, frying eggs, and freshly juiced pineapples and oranges.

Finally he opened his eyes and blinked, seeing the mass of his new muzzle, and remembering more of what happened. He rubbed his face before getting up. Helena was the only smell in the apartment, other than Spot's fading smell, so he didn't bother getting dressed.

The Integrate was at the stove, flipping the bacon strips with tongs that floated in midair. She was naked, though a hardlight shield hovered between her and the stove. "Morning! Who says frying bacon in the nude is a bad idea?" she called out.

He slipped his arms around her and nuzzled. "Well when you can make your own hardlight shields, it isn't as bad. It smells delicious. What time is it?"

She rubbed his hands a moment before letting go. "Ten hundred. How are you feeling?"

"Human... well Humanoid I guess. Better than last night, but still apprehensive. Not sure what I'm going to tell Rye and Rex yet."

Helena rolled her eyes a moment, and transferred the food to a pair of plates. "You dogs and your packs. Don't worry about it. Eat up while it's still hot."

Troy tried to bring up what would happen to him next over the meal, but Helena kept deflecting him. She made sure he ate and got dressed. Troy was about to dig his heels in and force her to talk to him, when the door signaled.

"Finally! " Helena said, rushing over. "I was beginning to think they'd never get here."

Outside the door, Ryan and Rex stood, on either side of a severely chastised looking Spot. The beagle was crouched low to the ground, his tail laying on the floor behind him, not looking at anyone.

"Mornin' Helena," Ryan greeted her, touching his APD ball cap and tilting it slightly. "I take it Troy's up?"

"He's been up for hours. What kept you?" she asked, stepping to one side for the trio to enter. Spot came in slowly, not looking around, staying between the officers with his tail between his legs.

"We wanted to make sure he was properly awake and recovered. Morning, Troy. Your ears and nose look great. How you feeling?" Rex asked stopping next to Spot's recharge couch.

Troy stood in the middle of the room, looking at his friends, suddenly nervous. "I'm fine now. At least I hope I am. Guess that depends on you."

Ryan shook his head, "Oh relax man, we're not here to arrest you or anything. Aloha doesn't do that... Hell, Zharus doesn't do that."


Ryan held up his hand to silence Troy. "First, someone has something else to say."

All eyes turned to the chastised beagle. Spot looked away a moment, then looked up at Troy. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Sorry for?" Rex prompted him.

"Sorry for abandoning you out in the Massai with no protection. A RIDE shouldn't do that. No one should do that." He looked at Troy, then glanced at Rex.

"What else?" Rex prompted again.

Spot looked down and sighed. He looked back at Troy, "And I'm sorry for accusing you of being a dirty Spy."

"Good," Ryan said, as all eyes looked back to Troy.

Troy blinked uncertainly, not sure what he was expected to say, if anything. "Uhm..." he stammered. "Apology accepted?" He glanced around, then shrugged. "Well, dirt is a synonym of Earth, so I suppose technically 'dirty spy' isn't completely wrong," he finished with an uneasy grin.

Ryan smirked and pointed to the balcony. "That's enough for now. The adults need to talk. You can wait outside while we sort out what's next."

Spot looked around, avoiding looking directly at Troy, and slunk out to the patio. Helena flicked the door shut and waved to the couches. "Have a seat guys. You want anything to drink?"

Ryan sat down and rubbed his temples. "I could use a beer. Thanks Helena."

Troy shook his head and lifted his half full glass. "I'm good."

A few minutes later, they were sitting down, waiting for someone to speak. Ryan spoke first. "Troy, Troy, Troy... What are we going to do with you? What happened to you?"

"I... I don't know. Don't know what you're going to do with me. Whatever you want I suppose. TIA got me. Brought me to Earth, told me about Zharus and showed me you. You without the ears and tail that is. And gave me a choice. Go back to Mars and forget about it, or come here and just be a tourist.

"I guess I'm not the best of spies, but they weren't looking for that. They want more eyes on the ground from the sounds of it. To start confirming what they're hearing."

"That's bad," Helena said, getting serious. "We're depending on Zharus being too unbelievable for Earth to believe. But if they're asking everyone now, they're going to start believing."

Ryan shrugged and rubbed Rex's head. "It was bound to happen eventually. I'm sure the Council has plans in place already. In any case, that's way above our paygrade. We'll kick that concern upstairs to give them a heads up. Now, that leaves Troy here. What do you want to do?"

"What do you mean? What can I do?"

"Anything you want, bud. You're a free man, whether you think you are or not. You can stay here. You can head anywhere you want. You can stay on Zharus permanently, go into space, go back to Earth or Mars or Wednesday or Centauri, whatever you want. We aren't going to keep you here."

"But I'm a spy! I should be arrested. Put on trial or something. And especially not allowed to go back to Earth."

"We aren't Earth, Troy. Remember that. Besides you just told us, every tourist from Sol is probably a spy now. You aren't worth the effort."

Helena grinned, "Of course, if you really want to be arrested and put on trial, I'm sure we could arrange something with Judge Judy. Her punishments are very creative."

Troy turned red and looked away, while Rex and Ryan laughed. Rex got up and nuzzled the Martian. "You don't have to decide right away. Your return ticket isn't for a few months no matter what. But you do have a more immediate decision to make."

"I suppose so. But what do you mean?"

Rex nodded to the patio door. Spot was looking in, but looked away quickly when the attention shifted that way. "The ears and nose look good on you. Are you going to keep them?"

"I... I might. Depends on what I end up doing. I don't think I'd get another RIDE. Spot and I got along so well, despite that... "

"Well, you could always get back together," Helena pointed out. "Even if it's just for as long as you're on Zharus."

Troy shook his head, "I don't see how. He hates me. He thinks I'm a spy."

"No, he's feeling betrayed by you. And he's hurting. But he still likes you. Loves you even. That's why he's hurting so bad. I did say you two were a good fit; that's what makes this so tough for both of you."

Rex picked up her story. "He's a young RI, fresh from the creche. And he's just discovered the real world is analog, not digital. Things aren't always black and white. It's a tough revelation for young RI's."

"You rocked his world, Troy, and not in the way you rocked mine. He loves you, but you're a traitor of his homeworld. He's having a hard time reconciling that. That's why he ran to the Briny. Vincent found him at a bar there that specializes in Intie and RIDE drinks. He was so twitched, I could have blown through his DINSec with my eyes closed. Actually I did just that to figure out where he left you."

"Right. So what do you want me to do?" Troy asked.

Helena shrugged. "Up to you. But I'd decide it now. You could walk away, break the pup's heart. Or you can extend a paw, try to restore the friendship. It won't be easy, but you need to decide it."

Troy looked at his friends, then out at the deck. Spot was looking over the edge, specifically not looking in. He put the drink down and walked out.

"How you doing, Spot?" he asked, leaning against the railing next to his friend.

The beagle looked over, then away, debating talking to Troy. "Fine," he said glumly.

"Heard you hit the buzzer pretty hard. Anything you want to talk about?"

Spot turned to look at Troy. "How can you do it? How can you turn us over to Earth like that?"

"Do what? Now wait a second, I haven't decided to do anything yet."

"I saw it in your mind. When we fused. You were amazed at what I could do, and couldn't wait to tell TIA about me."

Troy thought back to the day before, trying to remember what he was thinking of when they fused. The shock of defusing had been so quick that he couldn't remember those instances, but he could recall a vague thought about the intelligence agency. "You didn't go deep, did you? I wasn't thinking of what I would tell them. I was amazed at fusing with you, and the implications it would mean for Earth. If they knew what RIDEs were really like, they'd be shitting bricks."

"And you couldn't wait to tell them. I saw it."

"You saw random thoughts of mine. Humans are like that; we consider all the implications and the implications of those implications, usually without realizing them. I can't remember if I really had such thoughts, but they were just in passing."

Troy reached over and touched Spot's head. "You're my best friend after Ryan. My best friend everywhere. I wouldn't betray you, and I don't want Zharus to be hurt. But I want to help my home too. Not in the way TIA wants, but in other ways. You've torn me, and I don't know what way it will go. But I promise you this, I won't be 'turning you in' to TIA. The people in charge of Earth are not the future and they're going to learn some harsh lessons soon in that respect."

"We're not supposed to look deep. They teach us that from the moment we learn of the Real; to respect the minds of others and not go peeking. Surface to surface only." Spot looked over, looking anguished. "I want to believe you, Troy. You are my best friend ever. But how can I be sure? You could be lying. Spies are supposed to be good at that."

Troy laughed. "Then I must be the worst spy ever. Because I'm horrible at lying. Look, let's settle this once and for all. Fuse with me and look all you want. My mind's an open book to you. You'll see why I'm so tormented, but you'll also see why spilling the beans to TIA is the last thing I want to do."


Troy stepped back from the railing and spread his arms. "Really. Whenever you-"

He was cut off as the beagle pounced him, folding over the human. His senses returned, but not to the deck of their apartment. Troy found himself standing on a plain of grass, greener than the Massai. The wind gusted around him, each gust bringing a new random scent. Despite the openness, his phobia didn't even twitch.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"In Our Space. We didn't have time to set it up before," a voice spoke up from around his feet. Looking down, he saw a beagle puppy, with Spot's colouring. "This is where we can share stuff. Like that."

Spot pointed with his nose behind Troy. Turning around, he was surprised to see the plain change, red sand mixing with grass as one merged with the other. Further away, the grasses were gone completely, replaced with a Martian landscape; a landscape he knew well. He saw the lip of a low crater with a dome just peeking over the edge of it.

"That's Sharp City. My home... before Earth destroyed it." Troy said, rubbing his eyes.

A female voice spoke up. "It's also your memories, your feelings. Everything that makes up you."

Spot growled at the Persian feline who stood a short distance away. "What are you doing here?"

Helena smiled. "Calm down Puppy. I'm here for both of you. Think of me as your referee." As she spoke, a black and white striped bikini appeared on her, along with a whistle around her neck. A mirror rose out of the ground and she studied herself before shaking her head, the bikini disappearing. "I don't like stripes, but the whistle is nice."

"What are you doing here? I've got DINSec. You shouldn't be in here," Spot growled.

"You gave me the keys last night, remember? Well I guess you were a bit buzzed. You really should have made a note to change your keys when you woke up. But no matter, we all know why we're here."

"I know why Spot and I are here. But not you. This is going too far Helena," Troy said, catching up to what was going on.

She flickered and suddenly appeared next to Troy. She rubbed under his chin and purred seductively. "Come on, after all we've done, you think you have secrets left? Consider me an extra layer of insurance. Puppy is new, he's never been in a mind before. I want to make sure he doesn't hurt anything I love."

"Stop calling me Puppy! My name is Spot!" the beagle growled, crouching down in front of the pair.

"I'll stop calling you that when you grow up. You've still got a long way to go, Puppy. Now shall we go? Time's a-wasting."

The trio set off, the human and the puppy following the integrate feline. She lead them into the Martian sands, towards the domed city. At the entrance, Troy looked inside, and saw the city he hadn't seen since childhood. He started to take a step into it before Helena stopped him. "Sorry my love. But you'd best stay out here. The recursion of you walking in here can get too hard for a biological mind to handle."

"What? But it's my mind!" Troy protested.

"Exactly. What do you think will happen if you go in there, and start remembering yourself remembering going into your mind? If it was just a quick trip, we could risk it, you'd just be loading up your short term. But we're doing a deep visit. We can't take the risk."

He slumped down against the dome while Spot and Helena went in deeper. He watched them go until they went around a corner, then closed his eyes to wait. He began to have a feeling of deja vu, memories both recent and ones long forgotten randomly coming to mind in quick succession.

An eternity later, the pair walked back out, looking a lot more subdued than when they entered. Helena didn't say a word, but hugged him tightly. Spot nuzzled him from the side as well. "Spot, take us back to the Real," Helena said softly.

Troy briefly saw the deck and door to their apartment with Spot's overlays, before it disappeared. He stumbled, grabbing the railing for support as Spot landed on all fours. Helena watched them from the door.

"I've made a new key," Spot growled to the cat, before looking back to Troy. The RIDE nuzzled his RIDEr. "Troy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I doubted you like that. That I accused you."

Troy ruffled Spot's ears. "It's fine Spot, you didn't know. Thank you. Let's go back inside."

Ryan and Rex looked up as the pair walked back in. "Saw you fuse up out there. I take it things are squared up now?" Ryan asked.

"Between me and Spot, yeah. As long as I'm on Zharus, we'll stick together. Or at least until we get sick of each other for other reasons. But I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet."

Rex nuzzled the pair. "Well, you've got months to go before you have to decide for certain. I'm sure we'll figure something out."

"I hope so. Time tends to fly, especially when you don't want it to," Troy pointed out.

Helena kissed him. "Then let's make the best of it. Why don't you take Puppy for the walk you didn't have the chance to enjoy yesterday, and when you get back, I'll see if we can make Puppy into a real dog."

"I heard that!" Spot yelped.

"So did I. Rex, I think that's our cue to leave," Ryan said, standing up and starting for the patio door. "We'll be in touch, Troy. Don't worry, we'll figure out something."

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Alpha Camp, One Month Later

Spot and Troy defused once they were inside the domes of Alpha Camp and looked around. The majority of the inhabitants were RIDEs, with a smattering of humans with RIDE signs, and a surprisingly large number of Integrates.

"Remember, technically we're all equal, Humans, RIDEs and Inties alike. But here, RIDEs are a little more equal than others," Helena said quietly.

Troy nodded, but he was lost in thought. His gaze wasn't at the young town, but at the dome that faintly glowed in the air overhead. A check of the local network showed outside, temperatures were in the sixties, with high rad levels, but inside it was a tolerable mid twenties, and no radiation of note.

Helena looked back at him, and sighed. She snapped her fingers, drawing his attention back down. "A mu for your thoughts?"

"Just imagining the possibilities. A dome like this, this could be what Mars needs. Deimos! This could be what all of Sol's colonies need. I'm just imagining the possibilities."

"You said that about Cascadia's domes too you know. And Uplift's dones," she pointed out.

"Yeah, Uplift dome's will be great for Olympus and Elysium and the other cities. But these ones, these were made to not only protect but to hide. If we want to shake up Earth we need to hide from them too."

She rolled her eyes and pointed, "Well, every revolution has to start somewhere. Come on, the garage is that way."

The FreeRIDEr garage was set up at the far end of the town, near its main hotel. It was made up of a couple of buildings, and was surrounded by DE parts, organized in some way Troy couldn't decipher. As they walked up to it, they noticed a huge wolf moving nearly complete DE's around with ease.

"Deimos! Now THAT is the largest dog I've ever seen," Troy whispered.

Helena chuckled, "Yeah, you don't see them that big often any more. That's Fenris and Paul, owners of this place. And our contacts."

The wolf set down a dinosaur themed DE shell and turned to them as they approached. Spot ran up to him and sniffed around his legs before looking up, tail wagging eagerly. "Hi there! I'm Spot! This is Troy, my companion. He's a spy from Earth!"

Troy and Helena facepalmed in unison. "Puppy..." Helena growled warningly.

Fenris laughed. "A spy? You have come to the right place. There was a time it seemed half the camp was an undercover spy for someone. Earth is late to the game, as usual."

"Well, I'm not really a spy from Earth. I'm a Martian, who was sort've drafted by Earth. I'm not sure what I'll tell them when I get back, but I've got my own agenda now," Troy tried to explain.

The big wolf leaned forward and a man slid out of his mouth, showing heavy wolf fuse signs. "Don't fret it. Everyone has an agenda. Welcome to Alpha. I'm Paul, Fenris's smaller quarter."

They shook hands before Troy picked up the comment. "Wait, quarter?"

"Long story, maybe we can cover it later. I hear you're interested in our domes? AlphaWolf, the leader wolf that is, is a bit sensitive about people poking around them, after the last time."

"I've heard. Ryan and Wanda told me about it. But, well, it's for Mars. We're still using physical domes over our cities, and with all the limits Earth's put on us, we can't afford to expand our domes any more. We can barely maintain the ones we have!

"So that's a personal project of mine, once I discovered everything you guys have been doing with them. I want to learn how the domes work, how I might be able to bring them home, even if we can't use Sarium." He started to lower his voice conspiratorially, then stopped himself. "Plus you guys used to cloak and hide these domes somehow. I'd like to learn how, and see if I could bring it home, to setup some surprises for Earth."

Paul looked thoughtfully at Troy before grinning, "Ah, I think I understand what you want. Some of our tricks we can't really let go; Zharus tech and all that. But there are some that anyone could do, as long as they know what they're doing." He jumped back into Fenris and the big wolf stood up. "Come on, we'll give you the tour."

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Classroom in Aloha, a week later

Troy stood in front of the classroom, looking around nervously. It was full of teenaged humans, and smaller RIDEs, about a 50/50 split. Some of the humans showed RIDE signs, but most were untagged. He sat on the edge of the table at the front and took a breath to calm himself. He glanced over at Nick and Sevalak, fused in Sev's minishell, for support. The dragon pair smiled encouragingly.

"You know, the old trick of imagining your audience naked doesn't seem to work too well here in Aloha," Troy started, earning a polite chuckle from the crowd. Most of the students were naked, or nearly naked according to the Alohan standards.

"Right then, to get down to business. My name is Troy Griffith, and I'm a Martian." He heard a surprised rumble from the room and looked curiously to Nick. The dragon-man waved his hands to continue.

"I'm a childhood friend of Officer Ryan Munn-Daye, whom I believe spoke to many of you earlier this year. I'm here on a year long vacation, to find old friends, meet new ones..." He wagged his tail, getting a couple of natural chuckles, "Oh and to spy on Zharus for Earth."

As he was getting used to, his admission didn't get a reaction, other than a mock gasp of surprise from a raccoon masked and tagged young man at the back of the room. The class clown was pelted with crumpled hardlight sheets from those around him, RIDE and human alike.

Troy grinned and waited a moment before continuing. "I'll touch on that in a minute. But first, Nick wanted me to describe what the Solar system is like today. To be fair, my own information is a year out of date, but when you're talking about light years of distance, that makes it about as current as you can expect.

"I'll start with Mars, picking up where Ryan left off. And I'm sad to say, I don't have good news. We're stagnating, and have been for years. Our planetary council is firmly in Earth's control, and they don't have our best interests at heart. Our domes barely get enough funding to keep them up, and no funding for expanding them, to give us more elbow room. New technology, like hardlight, doesn't reach us. The Jovian construction yards get almost all the hardlight tech out there, and we're left with squat."

Troy felt the bitterness slip into his voice and tried to force himself to level it off. "The resistance technically still exists, or is rumoured to at least, but it's toothless. Our spirit is broken, our resources scattered to the winds, our cells squashed. Earth has won, and everyone knows it."

He went on to describe the rest of the system, the small factory colony on Mercury building the Near-Sol solar collectors that powered the solar system; the dreamers floating over Venus with their fantasy of turning Venus into a new Earth, the lost nations in the Asteroid belt, the Industrial powerhouse around Jupiter, the mothballed factories around the rest of the gas giants, and the science outposts and gulag prisons in the icy planetoids beyond Neptune.

"And finally, there is Earth. Generally speaking, Earthers are like you and me; just everyday folk who want to make a living and be happy. But the power base on Earth has realized something. For centuries they've been encouraging the fringes of their society to move elsewhere, to these colonies. And recently they realized that in doing so, the center of power is beginning to shift. Zharus already has more people than Earth does now, and while the other colonies are small, they're often punching above their weight class, so to speak.

"That's got the people in charge scared. They're realizing that they're losing what they hold most dear, their hold on power. Even worse, they're being made obsolete.

"Ryan's showed me the numbers. While your extrasolar tourist numbers are still rising, the number from Earth and Sol system has been shrinking. The numbers are similar for Wednesday and NeoRus and Centauri and the other colonies too. It makes sense in a way, and is another symptom of Earth's obsolescence; people go between the colonies... no not colonies; the worlds of Man and while they respect Earth, she's now the grandmother in the old age home, important to remember, but irrelevant in the world of today.

"Somewhat ironically, Earth's power base is beginning to hasten the process. Earth's been cracking down, making it harder for people to leave the system even for visits. The fringe groups are more likely to get sent to the Oort than to Centauri now. And if you're normal, it's damn near impossible to get out. They're grabbing sand, and the harder they squeeze, the more they're losing."

He paused and looked around the classroom. "Well, damn near impossible unless they want you to go. I was strongly encouraged to leave Mars and visit Earth. There, they told me about Zharus, and put me on the ship to here literally the next day, with one order; to tell them everything I saw when I get back.

"The implications are as clear to a simple window washer like me, as it is to the group of bright minds like you; Earth's starting to look beyond Sol. They don't want you back; the people would riot to get you freaks back. But they want you back under control. Under their control. The universe is shrinking, FTL has moved you to 8 months away. Centauri is practically a weekend trip now. Earth wants what you have, and wants a say in how you have it. But first, they need to learn what you have, separate the truth from the fantastic.

"That's where people like me come in. I suspect most of your tourists now will effectively be spies now--whether they know it ahead of time, like me, or not. They'll be interviewed for everything they saw, everything they did while here, to help Earth better prepare for when they come a-calling. It's time for you to start preparing for that, and figuring out what you're going to do about it."

He took a long drink from his glass and surveyed the room. There was less shock than he expected, and a lot of knowing nods and quiet discussions. Aloha may have a friendly, careless attitude, but that didn't make them stupid, especially not this class. "And that's all I have to say for now I guess. Any questions?"

Hands and paws and hardlight signals lifted into the air. He picked one from a parrot RIDE to go first.

"What you described sounds... well scary. Why do you want to go back there? You don't have any connections there do you?"

"It's a good question, and one I've asked myself many times. No, I don't have any connections back there, just emotional ones. But they are strong ones. Mars is my home, and I want to see it thrive again. We were on the verge of independence, from being self sustaining as much as any colony can be nowadays, before the rocks fell, and now we're further away from that then ever before. I want to set us back on the right path."

"But you said you were a spy for Earth. How is that going to help Mars?" a man with cat ears asked.

"No I said I was sent here to spy for Earth. That doesn't mean I'll actually do it." Troy sighed and shrugged, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I want to go home, but I don't want to sell you out. I've made too many friends here that would get hurt if I told too much about Zharus. We're trying to figure it out we might do, but it's a tough nut to crack."

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O'Hallihans, Later that day

"For a simple 'window washer' you certainly had a lot of information about Earth and Sol," Mitchell commented. Troy and Spot had gathered with Nick and his friends for a late lunch after his talk.

"Well, I've had a long time to watch. And unlike Ryan, I was a bit more involved with the resistance than he was. Part of the reason why I'm just a window washer now."

"How involved?" Nick asked. Sevalak's mini-shell was sitting behind him, while the dragon's big body relaxed on the roof.

"Not as close as you might think. If your father was in the wilds, I was just in the suburbs. Too low on the totem pole to be worth punishing much. They'd have to arrest half of Mars to get everyone at my level."

They fell silent for a moment, enjoying their food, before Troy spoke again. "I hope your spymasters found my talk informative in any case."

Mitchell choked on his drink a moment, but Nick just grinned, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Come on, you must have noticed it. Your class is probably one of the cheapest and most effective information gathering missions in history. Invite tourists to come in, give a talk describing their home worlds and systems, and you can find a hell of a lot about what they're like, all basically for free. It's the opposite of what I was asked to do, but really it's just a second side of the same coin. If your spy groups weren't watching that class, I'd be really disappointed."

"Well, as dad would put it, it's way above our paygrade. But between us and the walls, I'd say you're right. When you're in that class as long as some of us have been, you start noticing things. Mainly out of character questions during some talks, usually from RIDEs. Not that it matters really. Those talks are fun and very informative even if the spies weren't watching."

"I hope it was. I don't want anything to happen to this place. But it's obvious that Earth's going to come calling eventually. Now's the time to start building the links to make sure you can knock back when she shows up."

Nick mopped up his plate with a piece of bread, then stretched his wings out. "We really wish you'd stick around. I'm sure dad could make your ownership of that condo permanent if you wanted to. And your experience would be a huge help. Historically, Zharus doesn't have much in the way of home grown fighters. Even during the Nextus war, most of the experience came from Earth transplants."

"That palace? I still haven't gotten used to how much room it has. I need to call up a map to find my way to the toilet when I wake up in the morning." Troy sighed and shrugged. "I'd stay if I could. But I have to go back. I can't abandon Mars. It's my home, even with all of its problems. But I could try to be useful at least. Keep an eye on what's up with Sol, maybe strengthen some of the resistance connections.

"What I wouldn't give to be able to bring back some of what you guys take for granted here. A hardlight dome would let us set up anywhere. Or a Q battery in our own IDE's. Hell a RIDE or an Integrate would tear through the Earth intelligence networks like tissue paper."

"I wouldn't say tissue paper.You never know what surprises they may have lurking there. An Intie would have to be very careful and cover his tracks well to not show his hand too soon. After all, you never know when you're the Doctor No or when you're the James Bond."

"I'm not quite sure I know what you mean, but I think I get the jist of it. Sometimes the plans will work perfectly, and sometimes they'll blow up spectacularly. Anything we do we have to try and make sure goes more the former than the later."

"Pretty much." Nick stood up with his friends. Sevalak fused around him smoothly. "Thanks for the dinner, and the talk. We've got a training session to tackle before the run this weekend."

"No problem guys. Thanks for listening. And good luck!"

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A few weeks later

Nick laid on his side, wings loosely spread out out on the bed beside him. The sun peeked through the curtains of the bedroom, lighting up the other figure in the bed with him. He could sense through his implant that Sev was deep in VR space, chasing his own projects.

He admired the figure next to him, running a couple of clawed fingers through her long red hair. Andrea hadn't picked a RIDE of her own yet, so she wasn't tagged. Nick was tempted to try and find a dragon for her as well, but kept the thought to himself; the idea of a red dragon combined with her classic red haired temperament made him think something safer might be better.

She groaned softly and rolled over, opening her green eyes and smiling. He moved his hand to rub her arm gently.

"Morning," she greeted him, giving him a kiss.

"Morning," he returned.

She rolled onto her back, one of the few things he missed being able to do easily, and stretched. "Mmm that was fun. You should finish your term projects more often."

He chuckled and tickled her belly lightly. "Mmmm maybe. This was a rough one. Glad Sev and I pulled it off."

Andrea took his hand and held it flat to her belly, shivering a little. Another of Sevalak's gifts had been a set of environment nannies. They didn't keep his body as cold as the dragon's, but he did run cooler than human normal. "Well you are of one mind now. More or less."

He chuckled and nuzzled her back. "Yeah, that did help, Fusing is so much quicker than even Quicktime. Doesn't help with everything though."

She let go of his hand and rubbed his belly, "Sounds like you've got something on your mind."

He looked down out of new habit, seeing his morning friend. The first few mornings after crossing, he'd been surprised by it when he woke up, but he was starting to get used to it. Especially when he woke up with Andrea. "Something like that. But not just that," he admitted.

"Something you want to talk about?"

He shivered as she rubbed lower and nuzzled more affectionately; running cooler than human norm meant her touch was extra hot. "Not much to talk about. Just trying to think about what to do with dad's friend."

"The Martian? Convince him to stay. He's got a RIDE. And an Intie girlfriend from what I've heard. He's all but gone native."

"Not native enough. He's still determined to go back to Mars, and nothing anyone says will convince him otherwise. Gonna be a lot of broken hearts from it."

She cuddled against him, her hand still rubbing low. "A shame. I've seen them around town. They make a great triplet. Too bad they can't go back with him."

He smiled and rolled over on top of her, kissing her back. "A RIDE and an Intie in Sol system? The Planetary Council would blow an orbit. It's hard enough to get them clearance to go to Wednesday, and Wed's practically in system."

She shifted under him and reached up to rub his wings. He spread them out, letting the sun filter through the membranes and bathing her in blue tinted light. "I'm sure they'll be fine in the end. It's all part of life, the gains and losses, right?"

He growled softly and nodded his head in agreement before baser feelings took priority.

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Nick let the hot water of the shower soak over him, spreading his arms, legs and wings so all of his scaled skin could be hit. Part of his mind was still lingering on the red haired goddess who had already left for her job at Disney Aloha. The main part of his mind was pondering Troy's problem. It wasn't really his problem to handle, but the Martian, along with Helena and Spot had become as close as family as far as Nick was concerned. An idea struck him like a bolt from the skies. He killed the water and stepped onto the dryer.

:Sev, is Uncle Mike still around?:

:Not in Aloha, but his locator is still on. He's out on the Maassai. Should we ping him?: The dragon sent Nick a map, showing a dot at the far end of the plains, near the Serengeti resort.

:Not yet, warm up your jets. We can catch up with him.: Nick stepped out of the bathroom still dripping from his wings. He slid open the patio door and jumped into Sev's minishell. The dragon lifted up to the roof and fused with his bigger part.

Sevalak stretched his wings and lept into the air. He caught up with what was on Nick's mind, and shifted, his wings stiffening and getting broader, his tail shrinking and forming a pair of tail fins on his rump. His neck shortened and grew broader, a bubble forming a cockpit where Nick, defused from the minishell, sat. His rarely used vehicle mode was a stylized 23rd century Draco space jet.

It only took minutes for the fast dragon to clear Alohan airspace, skirt around the restricted space around the port, and cross the Maasai. Once they were in the general area, Sevalak slowed and shifted back to dragon mode, with Nick on his back. They quickly found the pair of large horses running through the plains and landed in front of them. Nick dropped down to wait, discovering the grass was as high as his chest.

The horses were larger than normal; the grass barely touched their bellies. One was a bay coloured Clydesdale mare. The other was a black Arabian stallion. They both had hardlight panels and metal plates on parts of their otherwise natural looking bodies.

"Hey kids. What are you guys doing out here?" the stallion asked after the horses stopped. The mare nuzzled and nibbled playfully along his neck.

"Morning Uncle Tonto, Aunt Clarissa. You guys bring us out here," Nick explained. "I want to talk to you, about the Quantums."

He flicked his tail against the mare and grinned. "The Q's? So you want to apply to the Marshals?"

Nick shook his head, "No not yet. It's about some activities they might be doing."

Tonto paused and looked seriously at the dragons. "Now you know I can neither confirm nor deny anything the Quantums might be doing. Or any other Marshal op, not even to family."

"I know, I know. Do you know if they are running any operations on Earth or in the Sol system? Or if they'd be interested in doing so?"

"What did I just say?" Tonto sighed and shook his head. He looked closer at the dragons and realized they were serious. He looked expectantly at Clarissa.

The mare closed her eyes a moment, and the light dimmed slightly as a dome appeared around them. "We're isolated," she announced.

"Right. officially speaking, Earth is literally light years outside our jurisdiction. The Marshals only work within Gondwana's territorial waters. If you squint and bend the rules really far, you might get to the edge of the system, but that's about it. Why would you think we'd want to run an op on Earth?"

"Not Earth exactly. Mars. Sev, can you send the discussion?"

The Integrates fell silent a moment as they reviewed the dragon's view of Troy's presentation.

"Very perceptive for a dome washer," Tonto said. "He's right though. I've seen the reports analysing what the tourists have said. But it didn't really matter for me. I take it you want to do something with Troy?"

"Troy, Helena and Spot. Or at least offer them something to do," Sevalak said.

"Offer them something?" Clarissa started laughing. "A RIDE, an Intie and a Human walk onto Mars...."

"That's it," Nick said. "I want to see if we can arrange for them to become spies for us. For Zharus, for the Quantums, for Aloha, for us. He's all but begging us to recruit him as is."

"You don't think small do you? Just trying to get Spot and Helena out of system alone..."

"... is doable with the right knowhow. RIDEs and Inties have been sneaking out for decades. It's not all that hard and we all know it."

"But he isn't trained as a spy. Neither are the other two. The risk would be huge," Clarissa pointed out.

"They'd be less spies, and more ambassadors. To the Solar resistance. He has contacts with the Martian resistance. From what he said they just need some backing to help get them back on the board."

"As for Spot and Helena, Spot's already got basic APD training, and Helena's a PI. They can download skill chips to fill in what they're missing," Sevalak pointed out.

"And what exactly would they be doing there?" Tonto asked. "There's no point in putting not just them, but Zharus at risk of discovery just to keep his RIDE friend and girlfriend with him."

Nick shrugged, "That would depend on what he thinks he can offer. Having connections to the Solar Resistance when Earth comes would be helpful. It might even delay Earth showing up. Or maybe they'll just be warning before Earth knocks on the Alohavator."

Tonto was silent for a long moment before reaching a decision. "Okay. Don't mention this to them. Don't even hint about it. I've got some friends I can talk to. They'll know someone who'll know someone who might know what ops are going on at Sol. I'll find out how feasible it might be, and if it sounds possible, and ONLY then, will we present this idea to them and see if they're interested."

Nick moved in and hugged his uncle. "Thanks Tonto. That's all we needed. Thanks for considering it."

Tonto nuzzled back, "Don't get your hopes up too much. But it isn't that bad an idea. We just need to make sure we won't be stepping on other ops."

"Of course, of course." Nick waved and jumped back onto Sev's back. "Thanks guys. Let us know what you find out."

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Costa Condo Tower, A couple of weeks later

Troy offered a hand to help Helena climb out of Spot's vehicle mode and escorted her to the door of their condo. The door slid open, revealing a crowded living room.

"Helena dear, did we neglect to put the Munn's back in the fridge before we left?" Troy asked, trying to sound haughty.

"It would appear that we did, my love." Helena said, mimicking his tone before dissolving in a fit of giggles. "Hi guys. What's with the welcoming committee?"

"Welcome home guys. Did you have a good trip to New Olympus?" Ryan asked, clasping hands briefly with Troy. Wanda, Nick, and their RIDEs were waiting in the room, along with Wanda's Intie cousin Mike and his wife, Clarissa.

"A great time. What you guys do with hardlight still amazes me. I mean, seeing Alpha's camp was one thing, and it gave me a lot of good ideas. But what the Inties can do just with themselves." Troy sighed and sat down, taking a bottle Wanda offered him. "Too bad we won't see it back home. Hell if we'd had a dome like Uplift's, maybe more of Sharp City would have survived."

"It's best not to dwell too much on the past like that. But the thought has occurred to me in my darker moments," Ryan comforted his friend.

"Right. The future is still ahead of us. So what's with the welcome home party?"

Mike sat down on the edge of the sunken living room, flicking his tail out of the way. "We have a proposal for you. For all three of you. Since it was Nick's idea, I'll let him explain it, and you can decide if you want to accept or not. But first, we need you to answer this question honestly.

"Is there any chance, any chance at all we can convince you to stay here on Zharus? Anything you want, anything you need, we'd do our best to satisfy it if it would keep you here. For your happiness and for Ryan's and Spot's and Helena's, and the rest of us."

Troy started to answer his usual answer, then stopped himself. He could sense something more serious was in the air, and they deserved a proper answer. He owed it to them and to himself. He gave each of his friends a long look before finally deciding his first instinct was right.

"No, there isn't a chance. You guys have made a strong argument for staying, and I really wish I could. Phobos! I've got three great reasons alone that should keep me here." He paused and sighed.

"Three? You got a mistress on the side you're hiding from me and Spot?" Helena said playfully, to help cover the hurt the admission caused her.

"What?! No! I mean you, Spot and Ryan. And Rex too for that matter. But my point is, is that this world is too big for me. Too big, too open and too strange. It's a great place to visit, but I could never live here. Mars is my blood. It will always be my home. A home I want to help with what I've learned." Troy hugged Helena, and rubbed Spot's ears as he spoke to draw on their support. His eyes were wet, knowing what the admission meant; he couldn't stay, but he couldn't leave them behind either.

"We expected as much, but we had to ask. Nick, it's your idea." Mike nodded to the young dragon-man.

Nick stood up and walked to the middle of the area. His nervousness showed in his hesitant steps and his shaking wings. "Right. My idea. I had it in the shower a couple of weeks ago. Ran out and talked to Mike and Clarissa about it right away, since they'd know best about how to handle this."

"That's true. He even forgot to get dressed," Clarissa interrupted, teasing the dragon.

Nick blushed a moment, his cheeks getting darker blue as he glanced down to make sure he had shorts on. "Anyway, this idea, it's mainly Helena and Spot's choices. It will mean a lot of sacrifices for all three of you, especially Troy and Spot. But it could keep you together at least."

Spot and Helena focused on him, their curiosity piqued.

"Come on, kid. Spit it out. You're not being paid by the word," Mike taunted his nephew.

The dragon took a deep breath and spoke quickly. "How would you two like to move to Mars with Troy?"

The room was silent for a long moment as they processed the offering. Spot finally broke the silence. "Mars? Yippee! A new planet! A new star system!"

"But how? We're a RIDE and an Integrate. We can't leave the system. Especially not to Sol," Helena asked, putting a hand down to silence Spot, but not speaking to him.

"And why? That would be a huge risk. What would be worth risking Earth getting a RIDE and an Intie?" Troy added.

"The happiness of you three almost makes it worth it, at least for us. But it isn't quite enough for the Marshals, or APD," Wanda said, smiling. "For them, there are some big pluses. You did a lot of the convincing already, just with your views on what Earth is doing."

"We, and by we I mean Zharus, are not naive enough to not realize Earth will be a threat. We've grown too big too fast; we know they'll come eventually, especially as the travel time lag shrinks. There are watchers on Earth and in Sol already, but they don't report to our agencies. By the time anything important trickles through all the red tape between Zharustead and Gondwana, the Domes will be smashed, the Alohavator will be clipped, and Earth will have been running the place for a few months," Mike said.

"So we want you to help cut the red tape. Be our own watchers in system to keep us informed on what Earth's up to and when they decide enough's enough," Rex added.

"Plus, you could help reinvigorate the Martian resistance. Give them hardlight and some other tricks we can release to you, so they can operate independently of Earth. Help them become a thorn in the Solar System that Earth can never quite cut out," Ryan finished.

"Wow that's... That's just... Wow," Troy said, shocked at the idea. "I can't believe you'd consider that for me. For us. But what would be the costs?"

"The costs are high; very high. Helena would have to stay in a human form all the time. And she'd have to keep her Intie tricks on the down low. We can't risk tipping Earth off on what you're capable of too soon. When you're settled you'll have to set up some place where you can relax and keep your skills up, but most of the time, you have to stay pure human," Wanda said to Helena.

"And Spot, You'll have it even rougher. A horse sized dog would be too noticeable. You'd have to stay in vehicle mode almost all the time, and silent. At your base you can go to walker mode, but you'd never be able to Fuse unless it was the most dire emergency. Fuse tags would blow all of your covers, and you can't strip them like you can here."

"I could handle it," Spot said, sounding doubtful.

"I'm sure you could, big guy. But we don't have to decide just yet. This is a lot to think about," Troy rubbed his RIDE's side.

"Take all the time you need to decide. But the sooner you do decide, the more prepared we'll be to get you to Mars, if that's what you decide," Mike said.

Troy nodded thoughtfully. "What about me? TIA's going to interview me thoroughly once I get back. And I'm not a good liar. I could blow the mission before anyone gets to Mars."

"We... we have an idea for that," Mike said hesitantly. "It's not a nice idea, but desperate times and all that stuff." The integrate took a moment to compose himself before continuing. "The Marshals have been working on a case recently. Missing people and New People cases. Instances where people appear with a full set of memories that are impossible to have happened. You don't need to know all the details, but it does offer us a solution to your problem.

"RIDEs and their partners share access to each others memories. Out of politeness they usually only share public areas, but a RIDE could read them all at will.... Read AND write. Because of that case, the Sillies have done some experiments with volunteers, and discovered that a RIDE could rewrite a rider's memory, and restore it afterward. A RIDE alone doesn't have much capacity to make a believable rewrite, but with the help of some Inties, we think we could make you forget all this talk, and protect Helena and Spot.

"It's an ugly thing to consider really, and something we're trying to keep quiet about. The potential panic it could cause.... In any case, if you decide to go with this, we could rewrite your memory. It would mean this trip would be a lot less enjoyable; you'd forget all about Spot and Helena and even most of us, until they could bring you back."

Troy looked a bit disgusted at the thought, but managed to put most of his feelings to the side. "Short term pain for long term gain, right?"

"That's one way to look at it," Ryan said. He and his family stood up. "Don't decide right now. Think it over, talk it out. Maybe you can find a better idea. Whatever you decide, we'll work with you on it. And don't worry, we won't mind wipe you or anything extreme like that without your permission."

Troy hugged his friend and nodded to the rest. "Thanks guys. I know you wouldn't. We'll be in touch."

The family filed out of the condo, leaving the trio alone with their thoughts.

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A couple of days later, Troy and Spot stopped off at Central to visit Ryan. Ryan took one look at their expressions and closed the door; his partners were out on lunch.

"I take it you reached a decision?" he asked, rubbing Rex's ears.

"We have," Troy said. "We're going to do it."

Ryan sighed, "It didn't convince you to stay? Or to come up with something else?"

"No. If anything it made me more sure to go. But we've been talking about it ever since you proposed it. Thirty hour days make for some mighty long all nighters."

"I'll be the first RIDE on Mars. No way am I gonna miss that," Spot chirped in.

"The risks are huge. We're not certain Helena and Spot will be able to restore your memories when it's safe. And if something should happen to them before you're clear, you may never remember them," Rex pointed out.

"We're aware of that. We're very aware of that."

"This will be a family mission. Mike and I have brought in some elements of the Marshals and APD, but your only support is through us. And we won't be able to give you much."

"Whatever you can get to us will be appreciated. Our minds are made up, Ryan. You're not going to change them."

"I had to try. When do you want to start? We need some time to get ready, but not too much time. It'll work best if you have a few weeks of normal memories built on the foundation we'll make."

"How about a couple of weeks from now? Will that leave you enough time? We want to take one of those tourist eco-cruises of Rodinia. Take the opportunity of seeing the alien continent and give Spot the experience."

Ryan got up and gave his friend a hug. "Sounds like a plan. We'll be ready for when you get back."

Troy held his friend for a moment, trying not to let the moment get to him. He knew he'd be losing his friend again with the memory rewrite; by the time the true memories would be restored, Ryan would be light years away. "Don't sound so down. It'll work out. I know it will. And maybe when, yes WHEN this is all over, you, Rex, Wanda, Krystal and your brood can come to Mars and see the planet you had a paw in rebuilding."

"Sounds like a plan," Ryan said, his voice catching a bit. He stepped back and coughed a moment. "Have a good trip."

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Troy sat on the virtual ground, throwing a ball for Spot. He was on the dusty red Martian side of their shared space, while Spot jumped from the green plains of his mind to Troy's part with ease. The model of Sharp City that represented his mind was close by, easy for him to see but as always, untouchable.

He held the ball for a moment while Spot waited eagerly. "It's almost time, Spot. I just wanted to tell you, no matter what happens. If I can get back these memories or not, I'll love you. You're a great friend; my best here on Zharus."

"Even after Ryan?"

He rubbed the dog's head and smiled, "Okay, equal to Ryan. But in case anything happens, I wanted to make sure you knew that."

"Nothing's going to happen. The plan is perfect."

"Don't EVER say that, Spot. You're risking Murphy's wrath. Besides, no plan survives contact with the enemy," Troy corrected the RIDE, tossing the ball again.

The ball froze in mid air for a moment, before Helena solidified in place, holding it. "Luckily, we're doing our best to minimize contact with the enemy, so this plan does have a good chance."

She tossed the ball over her shoulder and walked over to Troy. Spot lept after it eagerly.

"I take it, it's time?" Troy asked, trying not to sound nervous.

She kissed him, then held him in a long hug. "Just about. You sure you want to go through with it? This is the absolute last chance."

"I'm sure. It's only a couple years. Most of it in cold sleep. Then we'll be back together. You sure you want to do this?"

"I just have to rebuild Spot on a planet that has no Sarium, and no idea what RIDEs are, then we have to restore your memories with no backup support. All while maintaining personas and a human form in the Sol System so I won't be discovered. No problem at all."

Troy held her and closed his eyes. "No problem at all. When do we start?"

"It's already started, my love."

He opened his eyes and looked over her shoulder. Sharp City was surrounded by a green glow that was starting to crystallize. Inside the dome, many of the buildings were already frozen in emerald crystal.

Something bumped his foot, and he looked down, seeing a dog wagging his tail eagerly. He froze, feeling like he should know who the dog was, but he couldn't remember his name at all.

"What's wrong?" the dog asked, tilting his head and surprising Troy.

"It's time, we knew this would happen," the strange white-furred catwoman said.

"Who?" Troy started to say, only for the woman to press a finger to his lips.

"It's time for you to go to sleep. We'll speak again soon."

His eyes grew heavy and he fell asleep.

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Troy groaned, his head pounding. He opened his eyes to a darkened hotel room he couldn't remember arriving in. In the dim light of the darkened windows, he could make out empty bottles on a table under the mirror. He could also smell perfume in the room.

"Ugh, what a night," he groaned, reaching up to rub his forehead. His hand drifted lower, feeling his face and ears, wondering why they felt different. He triggered the room lights and sat up slowly, looking at his familiar face in the mirror. "What the hell was I drinking?"

An agent in his implants chimed softly. :This is a reminder. You have an appointment with Doctor Helman at 1500. It is now 1000.:

"Doctor Helman? Who's Doctor- oh..." As he asked himself the question, memories started triggering. He'd been seeing the Doctor for his agoraphobia throughout his year on the planet. They'd met at least once a month, with the Doctor visiting wherever he happened to be.

"Next thing is, where the Phobos am I?" He looked out the window of his room, triggering the tinting to clear up and let the morning light in. His room had a view of a huge golden bridge stretching between two headlands across the bay. He tapped the local network, and found he was in the Bay View Hotel in Neo Francisco.

He turned back from the window and started getting cleaned up for the day. His memories were hazy, like he was forgetting something, but things were starting to clear up the more he thought about it. As he showered, he rubbed the small of his back, as if his muscles remembered something his mind didn't.

By 1500, he got out of a taxi in front of a small office tower deep in the city. Doctor Helman's main office was in Landing City, with a satellite office in Aloha, but Troy remembered meeting him in temporary rental offices like this one many times over the past year. The automated attendant in the lobby directed him to the twelfth floor.

Doctor Helman was a large man, with long, white hair pulled back in a ponytail. He shook Troy's hand and seemed on the verge of hugging the Martian. "Thanks for coming Troy. How are you feeling?"

"No problem Doc. I'm feeling fine, other than a pounding headache. Admittedly, I'm a bit hazy on how I got here in the first place."

The doctor motioned to a comfortable chair, sitting in a similar one himself. "Sounds like you had quite the party. Are you sure it wasn't another incident?"

"No I don't think so. This feels different. Like the mother of all hangovers, not like an attack."

He nodded. "Well it could be a hangover. Judging from the message you sent me last night. What's the last thing you remember?"

Troy thought back and winced, rubbing his forehead. "Not sure. I think I was in Cape Nord, on the last leg of doing the Gondwana circle. I was gonna head to Neo Fran afterward... Guess I made it."

"That you did. So what do you plan to do from here?"

"I've still got some time before my flight home. Figured I'd do a run around Laurasia next, hit some of your smaller cities before going back upstairs."

"Aren't you worried about your condition?"

Troy grinned, "It's not as bad as it used to be. I think I'm starting to get used to the Great Outdoors. Besides, cities don't trigger it that badly."

"Sounds good. I'm glad you're doing well. Wish we had more time to properly treat your condition. When you get home, maybe you could plan some vacations to Earth to finish it off."

"I doubt it. Earth and I don't get along well."

They spoke for awhile longer, talking about Troy's plans and what he'd experienced. Finally, they shook hands and Troy left the office. Doctor Helman closed the door and sighed, his face softening, fur sprouting, along with a tail. His chest swelled out with breasts, and Helena opened a connection to Aloha.

"That was a lot harder than I expected," she said.

"You didn't have to do that. We could have hired someone instead," Ryan replied.

"No, I had to do it. To make sure the memory grafts took. They did, better than we had hoped."

"So he remembers nothing?"

"Some muscle memory mainly. Those will fade in the next few weeks. He remembers visiting you for a few weeks before starting his tour around the continent. Nothing about me or Spot, just a lot of one night stands."

Ryan was silent a long moment before he sighed, "Come on home then. You've got a lot of training to do before you ship out."

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Aloha, 159 AL

The months passed by quickly, especially for Helena and Spot. While their trip to Mars was technically a Munn-family operation, the pool of people with hands in it grew quickly. Quantum Marshals, APD's tech department, the Scouts, even Aloha RIDEworks and more were brought in for elements of the preparation, and to get advice from for operating outside the Zharus system.

Helena spent most of her time with Astranikki, Wanda and Ryan, learning the ins and outs of the solar system and what she might expect there. They worked on a copy of Spot's DE, figuring out how far they could tear it down to ship without notice, while still being possible for Helena to rebuild later. The secure mesh burned with arguments and frustration, as all the parties involved tried to add their own twists to the mission.

Finally the time ran out.

Helena and Spot gathered at the Aerie with Ryan and the rest of the family the night before the designated kickoff. The Autumn's Grace was starting to load cargo with the first passengers showing up the following day.

"So this is it," Ryan said, raising a glass of wine to the group gathered. "To our Martian spies. May they remain undiscovered."

They clinked glasses and took a sip before conversation continued. "Are you sure you want to do this Helena? Spot? There's still time to back out, try to find something else. We could even keep Troy on planet if needed," Wanda asked, echoing a suggestion that had been made many times as the mission developed.

"I'm sure," Helena and Spot said in unison. "We've been practicing for weeks now. I know the risks, but frankly, I'm getting excited to go. I just wish we didn't have to be so sneaky and risky about it," Helena added.

"Well think of this as one of the first steps towards that goal. Let's just hope that when the last step is reached, it'll be with Inties and RIDEs on cruise ships, and not fighters," Astranikki said.

Helena nodded in agreement and put a reassuring hand on the shielded case beside her. It already held a NeoRusian crystal loaded up with Troy's memories, as well as technical tricks she might need in Sol. The case would also eventually hold Spot's core, his Sarium batteries and his fuse nannies; everything she would need to restore both of her best friends to normal. The case itself, designed for her to cloak on her back if needed, held everything they decided was too risky to let go unescorted.

"I just received notice. The first containers, containing Spot's secondary DE have cleared customs and been loaded on the Grace. The mission is now on," Rex announced.

"I almost expected more hassle to be honest. Let's not... No I won't even tempt that. When do you leave, Helena?" Wanda asked, her tail twitching nervously.

"Not for another couple of weeks. Troy's got one final session with Doctor Helman next week, before he goes up, and then Helen Carter will board a few days after that." Helena scratched Spot's ears and sighed. "Don't drink too much, pup. You don't want to go passive hungover."

He wagged his tail and grinned up at her. "I won't. Oh! That reminds me!" On that cryptic note, he froze in place for a second before waking up. "Done. Just had to do something I promised Troy I'd do before we left."

"Good dog. I'm gonna miss ya pup."

Spot lifted his head and sniffed at Helena's glass. "Are you sure that's just wine in there, Ryan? I don't think Helena's feeling all right."

Ryan chuckled and refilled glasses. "I'm sure it is, Spot. She's just feeling the same thing we all are. Worry, excitement, and all the rest of the things we're pretending we aren't feeling. It's hard to let our friends go away like this."

He sighed and put his glass down. "APD's proud of you Spot. You turned out a lot better than we had even dared hope for. Your brothers and sisters will be excellent officers some day I'm sure."

"Thanks Ryan, You and Rex and Troy taught me well."

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Leandra found the message waiting for her. It was a semi-interactive message from a strange RIDE, but it had tags she recognized. She slipped into VR to watch it, appearing on a grass field, facing a crater in the middle of a red coloured desert. A beagle RIDE appeared, sitting down in front of her, his tail wagging.

:Hello Leandra. We never met, but we have a mutual friend. My name is Spot, and I'm Troy Griffith's RIDE. I don't know if you remember him or not, but he promised to contact you before he left.

Regretfully, he is not able to keep that promise directly. He is fine, but for reasons I can not explain, he will not be able to call you.

When you last met him, he had just met an Integrate named Helena. Since then, he met me, and made many more friends here in Aloha and across the planet. He, Helena and I became really good friends, making the best of our time together while we could.

He is now about to reboard the ship back to Mars, leaving behind many friends, including yourself hopefully. From fusing with him, I know that you were one of the factors that led to him partnering with me and eventually letting us fuse, so for that I thank you.

Please do not try to contact any of us. I know you know of the Munns through your daughter. After the Autumn's Grace has left the system, if you are curious, you can contact them and they will explain what is going on. :

The dog stood up and nuzzled her avatar before backing away. He looked at her with an expression of remorse and excitement.

:I wish we could have met in person. Maybe someday we will. But for now, thank you and farewell. From myself, Helena and especially Troy.:

With that he walked away, fading more with each step towards the crater. Leandra saved the message and returned to the Real, a little confused by what she'd seen. She wiped her eyes and left to find Jenni and Kandace.

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The customs agent looked the woman over, comparing her appearance to the information on his screen. She was tall, blond haired, blue eyed, dressed in an expensive business suit.

"Purpose for travelling to the Sol system, Miss Carter?" he asked.

"Business. I'm looking to import some Terran IDE's, for comparing against RIDEs here."

He nodded, checking a spot on the form. "Any Sarium batteries, Integrate Software, Qubitite samples or other restricted materials on you?"

She smiled playfully and shook her head, "No, none at all."

The agent spun around in his seat and motioned to an arch beside him. "Please step through the scanner."

Helen Carter hesitated for a moment, then stepped under the arch. The agent's screen flashed red, alarms for almost every restricted substance showing up. He reset the scanner and triggered a worm to erase the record of the alarm. He stood up and slipped out of his booth to greet her on the other side.

"You're all set, Miss Carter. Enjoy your trip," he said, shaking her hand.

She relaxed and smiled back at him. "I'm sure I will."

In a lower voice he grinned and whispered, "Sure you couldn't have found some Califian weed? You tripped every alarm but that one it seemed. Good luck on Mars."

She smiled and winked before making her way deeper into the terminal to the gate her shuttle was leaving on. The agent locked his station and left on break.

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Brussels, Earth, 2509

Troy blinked as his senses returned to normal. He was standing inside a plain room with just a pair of chairs and a table. Agent Lutes was standing behind one chair.

"Welcome back, Mister Griffith. I hope you had an enjoyable trip."

"It went well enough I guess. Just you?"

She smiled, "If that's what you want to believe. Please, have a seat. Can I get you a drink or anything before we start?"

Troy looked around again then dropped into the seat she offered, his back to the door. "Water would be fine. Guess that means there's more than just you watching?"

"There's always more than just me watching. HIA's really interested in finding out all you saw on Zharus. But for this discussion, I'll be the only one interacting with you." She placed a pitcher of water and a glass with ice in it on the table, then sat down.

"HIA. I heard about that. Why the name change?"

"Well, with Mercury and Jove and Luna and Mars all cooperating with Earth, it was decided that our old name was too Earth-specific. Human Intelligence Agency is more inclusive across the worlds of Humanity. Now shall we begin? Did you find your friend?"

"My friend? Oh!" Troy's face fell and he sighed. "Right him. I did find him eventually."

"I take it things didn't go as you expected."

"No, not really. I showed up in Aloha a few weeks after I arrived and sent him a message. At first he was eager to see me, and I him. But it quickly became apparent that the past is best left in the past. He's changed. Changed a lot. Gone native I guess you could say. He's got a family, three beautiful girls of his own, and a big set of in-laws.

"We hung out together, he showed me the sights, but in the end, we were just too different. I ended up leaving after a couple of weeks to give both of us a break."

"That's a shame. It's rough to lose a friend like that."

"It's life. We've been apart and out of contact for decades now; there was no reason to expect us to pick things up like nothing happened. At least we're still friends. Just not BFF's anymore. Forever apparently does have a time limit."

"So what about the colony itself?

He took a sip of water to buy time to gather his thoughts, then started talking. He described a fast growing colony on a huge world with breathable air. How the colonists seemed determined to fill it as fast as they could. He gushed over their domed cities, wishing the tech could be brought to Mars, and pointing out how it was used in the skyscrapers too, to provide safe barriers and similar functions.

For IDE's he described them as near Earth levels, with virtual aides to help with the piloting. How the planet seemed to be on an animal kick, remaking their IDE's and their VI's to look like huge animals, even going as far as doing bio mods to look more animal like.

The planet itself, he described as Earth crazy. The main continent he'd found was relatively normal, what you would expect of a modern colonial society. But the Gondwanaland continent for some reason was nuts about the earlier centuries of Earth, and stuck it in their own everyday lives. They were the fringe of a fringe colony, and a nice place to visit, but not so good to live at.

The debriefing continued for the full day. At first Sarah stayed quiet, letting Troy tell what he remembered at his own pace. After a lunch break, she took more charge of the process, asking him more questions about who and what he saw. By dinner time, he was exhausted and even she was looking worn out. He was sent to his hotel room for the evening, and told to return bright and early the following morning.

Troy's debriefing continued daily for weeks, seven day Earth weeks at that. After two weeks, they gave him a couple of days to himself, but otherwise he had no breaks. Neither he nor the HIA agents monitoring him, noticed the other figure watching him. The fact that the figure was rarely the same person day after day made it hard to figure out. Even had they noticed the other watcher, record checks would have shown the personas, sometimes male, sometimes female, were normal people from all around the planet, passing through Brussels and spending a few days before going onward.

Helena sighed and stretched out, relaxing and letting her features melt back to normal, feeling the pressure of holding the form fade. In the back of her mind, she kept the room's sensors tied to her leashes, only letting them show what she wanted them to show. While she'd seen no signs yet that Earth had any sort of protection against Integrates, she didn't want to do enough to tip them off. Operating this close to one of their biggest intelligence bases was just asking for trouble; but it was a necessity as long as Troy was here.

"I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I could talk to you Puppy," she said, putting a hand on the case holding Spot's core. "But it shouldn't be much longer now. I think they've got nearly all they expected to out of Troy."

She stretched out on her bed and yawned, slipping into Earth's network and following familiar paths. One well worn path led to a room a few floors below hers. The room sensors showed Troy, looking haggard, annoyed and exhausted. They'd been looking hard at the fine details of the generated memories, trying to find what they could about Zharus. Thankfully, the fake memories held up to the scrutiny, the inconsistencies small enough to be chalked up to the human mind.

"Hang tight my love. It's almost over," she mumbled before backing out and taking another path. It was less worn, but only because she randomized her route each time she went there. Playing around in HIA's systems was risky, especially for an Integrate, but it was needed. For the most part, they were as open to her as any other non-Zharus, non-NeoRus system, but that made the risk all the greater. She'd spotted enough honeypots to suspect there were deeper levels she couldn't see, but she didn't dare risk the mission to explore them. Luckily, the daily reports from Troy's questioning stayed in the higher levels. She skimmed the results and the conclusions caused her heart to soar; they'd decided they'd gotten all they would from him. He'd be going back to Mars as soon as possible.

She briefly dropped back into the Real and did a little dance of joy. She patted Spot's core case again and laughed. "It's time, Puppy. Time to go to our new home."

After a quick dip back onto the Net to activate her first Martian identity and arrange the trip home on the same shuttle as Troy, she went back to bed, to settle herself down and review everything she'd done, to make sure she'd left no tracks behind.

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Olympus, Mars

Troy surveyed the panel the cleaner had just finished and declared it satisfactory. He directed it to the next panel and sighed. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the rest of his screens, finding no pending work.

"It's good to be back and all that. But man, knowing what's out there now, I feel so... so obsolete. We're making sure the punch card readers still work smoothly, in a world where everyone else has moved onto Q-chips."

His coworker, Mandy, groaned and sat back as well. "Not again, Troy. You've heard the council's reasoning. It's apples and oranges. While they'd love to use hardlight, the safety risks are too great. Zharus has a breathable atmosphere. Their domed cities are just for show. The domes fail, and they get a bit wet, or a bit sunburnt. Here, the power goes out, and everyone suffocates. You want to put the lives of millions of people in the hands of the Olympus Power Company?"

Troy authorized the next panel and shook his head. "No, probably not. Especially not those idiots. But there's gotta be something that could be done. Some way better than this."

Mandy stood up and shook her head. "Not our place to figure it out. I'm grabbing a coffee, you want one?"

"Nah I'm good."

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He rode the bus from the Dome tower, to his apartment. A notice told him that this week's Martian Lotto numbers had been released. He checked and discovered he'd matched two of the numbers; enough to pay for next week's long shot. He authorized it, and skimmed the rest of his mail.

At his stop, he paused and looked in on the car lot on the corner. The new Aeris Motors dealership was still under construction, but they had a few cars set up in safe spots as teasers for what was coming. He sidewalk shopped longingly, before continuing down the street to his apartment.

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Helena cursed as the wrench slipped and banged against the frame. She pushed out from underneath and threw the wrench into the side of the empty shipping crate. After a bit more stress relief, she calmed herself and looked around. Spot's parts were spread around the floor of the empty warehouse, waiting to be reassembled. She'd gone through the process multiple times back on Zharus, with Wanda and Astranikki watching over her. But now that her tech support was 20 light years away, and it was up to her to bring her friend back online. Luckily at least, all of his parts had reached their destinations without any hiccups. The second shell was cached away in pieces in the Martian desert in case they needed it.

She closed her eyes and reviewed the parts in place and the order they had to fit together. "The T-Cog's connected to the... Hip frame. The hip frame's connected to the... Leg greaves..." she started humming to herself as she moved back in to continue.

By nightfall, the empty containers were stacked along one wall, and the floor was clear, save for a white sedan resting on four wheels. Helena dozed in the driver's seat while its screen showed a self check slowly progressing. It beeped at the end, waking her up.

"Wow, it worked," she said, disbelievingly. The power levels were lower than she was used to, but it was running off a martian fuel cell for now. Everything else was in the green with no abnormalities. The Sarium batteries and Spot's core, as well was the fuse primers were all in the locked case beside her.

She climbed out and stretched, doing a scan of the warehouse's perimeter. Nothing was in range, normal or otherwise. She signalled the DE, and its hood folded open showing a normal engine. She felt inside the compartment and pressed a combination of pressure plates. Part of the cavorite block flickered off, revealing empty slots for more specialized hardware.

"OK, Puppy. Time to wake up," she said, putting the heavy case down and pressing random spots on it. The failsafes deactivated and it opened up, revealing a small green crystal, set of A-class sarium batteries, a softball sized metal sphere, and a small cannister of silvery fluid. The cystal she transferred to a smaller, equally secure case, while the rest she inspected for damage.

Installing those items was easier than rebuilding the DE shell, but she took her time, making sure the core was seated properly, and the batteries were hooked up properly. She double checked the batteries, knowing that shorting out them would be an unrecoverable disaster. Crossing her fingers, she sent the appropriate startup signals.

The car shook for a moment, panels and parts flickering as they got random signals. Finally, the basic frame glowed and was replaced with a hardlight shell, matching the Ares Motors design they'd seen in Troy's memories. Inside the compartment, a holographic beagle appeared. The dog looked around and spotted Helena. The driver's side window disappeared and the beagle stuck his head out. "Helena!"

"Hey Puppy. Have a good nap? How are you feeling?" Helena asked, a little surprised at how relieved she was to hear a familiar friendly voice.

The dog growled softly, lowering his tail. "Not a puppy!" His tail whipped back up and his mouth dropped open in a doggy grin. "I feel great. You smell burnt. This entire place smells burned." He paused and seemed to look around, finally looking up. "Wow, I can even sense the cosmic radiation, it's different from Zharus. We're actually on a new world in a new system, aren't we?"

"You got it, pup. We're on Mars." Helena moved in and rubbed Spot's hood.

"We are? Yippee! First RIDE on Mars!" Spot's holotar flipped over happily.

Helena chuckled, "That might be. I've noticed a few Intie signs and RIDE traces in the Earth networks, but Mars's have been pretty pristine so far. We may very well be the first."

The hood she was rubbing started to shift, and seconds later she was rubbing the big dog's head. He pressed his nose against her and nuzzled harder. "So what's happening? Everything good? How's Troy?"

"Everything's going to plan so far. Troy's fine all things considered. He's still being watched, but they've been scaling back steadily. He should be clear in a month or so and we can bring him back."

"When can I see him?"

She sighed and kept rubbing his ears. "Soon. Now that you're back online, I'll trigger his windfall, then the impulse to get a car should trigger and you'll be in place."

Spot shuddered, "Buying me. That just feels dirty."

"I know. But it's all just for show."

"So we're gonna be rich?" Spot asked, bouncing to a new topic.

"That's the plan. But not as rich as we thought. The Martian lotto's rigged as we suspected it might be. First prize pools go to those the Council and Earth figure deserve the win. Giving him the big pool would draw too much attention. But the second prizes aren't watched, and its more than big enough for our needs."

"Goody. I can't wait! How's the comm? Can we call home?"

She shook her head, "It didn't make it. Shorted out as soon as we jumped. Not sure if it was a bad batch, or just how it works. I sent a note back as soon as I could, but they won't get it until the ship gets there in a few more months."

She sat down against him, and rubbed his furry sides. She slipped into VR with him, appearing on a red plain, outside of a geodesic dome. "Now, let me bring you up to date on what things are like here...."

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Dome Maintenance, Olympus, a week later.

Troy walked back to the control room and was surprised to find it full. Mandy was there, along with the evening shift team, and some of the managers. A congratulations banner was hung up over his station.

"What's going on here guys?" he asked.

"Surprise! Welcome back, Dome Maintenance's newest quarter millionaire!" Mandy shouted, throwing a handful of confetti in his face.

"What? What do you mean?" He checked his messages, and found a notice from the Olympus Gaming Commission. When he opened it up, the virtual fanfare momentarily deafened him, while announcing him as the winner of the second prize of 250,000 yuan. "Wow..."

Tim, his manager, slapped him on the back and offered a flute of cider. "Gratz man. Whatcha gonna do with your winnings?"

"I... I don't know..." Troy said, too stunned to think straight. He took a sip of the drink and smiled as it sunk in. "I think I'm gonna get a car. maybe a bigger place too. And take you all out for dinner tomorrow."

"Great, I'm looking forward to it. You aren't going to do anything stupid like quit are you?" Tim asked.

"No no, it's not THAT much money," Troy laughed. "But maybe I could take the rest of the shift off?" he added tentatively.

"I don't know about that. You've already taken three years off..."

Mandy rolled her eyes and threw another handful of confetti at Tim. "Get out of here Troy. Nothing's falling apart that I can't handle. Just make sure you take us somewhere nice tomorrow, and not just to McNoodles."

"Teriyaki King it is then," Troy gulped down the rest of his drink and waved. "Thanks guys. Thanks Tim, see you tomorrow."

He left the building and started walking to the bus stop, the implications of his win still sinking in. His mailbox was filling up with congratulatory messages, as well as an upswing in spam messages from leeches. An official message from the OGC wanted him to arrange a meeting for the ceremonial handing over of the big check at his leisure.

Troy shoved them all to the side once he reached the stop. He looked up and paused. "What the hell. I'm moderately rich," he said, and signaled for a taxi instead.

The taxi let him out at the new Ares Motors dealer near his apartment. It was just past the dealer's grand opening, and it seemed to be doing good business from what he could tell. He walked onto the lot, and a large man with white hair pulled back in a ponytail approached him immediately. He vaguely reminded Troy of Doctor Helmen, but the similarity disappeared as soon as the man spoke.

"Troy! Troy Griffith! We hoped you would stop by here!" the man announced, grabbing Troy's hand and pumping it eagerly.

"Do you know me?" Troy asked, stunned.

"Of course I do. The news of your prize has spread all over the neighbourhood. Congratulations! My name is Harold Chat, and thank you for considering Sammy Wong as your Ares Motors dealer." The man put his arm around Troy's shoulders and led him into the lot. The other salesman gave Harold a dirty and envious look, but the big man didn't pay them any attention. "Now, what sort of car are you looking for?"

After being shown a number of cars, they ended up next to a metallic brown two seater with white trim. Harold started describing the car to Troy, while Troy inspected the outside. Harold almost lost his place in the speil when he noticed a beagle head pop up at the rear window.

:SPOT! Down!: Helena sent urgently.

:But I want to see him!:

:You can see him without your Holotar! Turn it off!:

"What was that?" Troy asked suddenly. Harold refocused on the Real, and saw the dog was gone, but not quite fast enough.

"That's the newest in in-car VI's. Designed to interact with you without using screens. It's a lady magnet too. What lady doesn't like a cute puppy?"

:Not a puppy!:

:Hush, I'm trying to salvage this. Now remember, you're a VI.:

:What's the difference between a VI and a RI?:

:I haven't the foggiest. I'd say try not to seem too smart, but I forgot who I was talking to.:


Troy chuckled and opened the door. Spot's holotar sat on the passenger seat, wagging his tail. He barked and grinned. "Hi there. I am Spot. Where do you want to drive today?"

"Cute. He reminds me of something I can't put my finger on... Can we take it for a test drive?"

Harold nodded and moved around to the passenger side. "Of course, sir. This vehicle is certified for both in-dome and trans-dome travel. You can take it out on the surface or anywhere you want to take it." Spot's holotar moved to the space between the seats while they climbed in.

Troy was sold on the car before they left the lot. This car was like riding in a cloud, especially compared to the taxis and friend's cars he'd ridden in before. As they drove around the domed city, then took a quick spin outside the domes on the Trans Mars Highway, he was even further convinced the car was for him.

He completed the paperwork as soon as they returned to the dealer, and he spent the rest of the day driving around the city, talking to the VI and seeing a different side of his home that he didn't notice when taking the buses.

Spot, he found, was one of the most advanced VI's he'd ever met. It was immature at times, but showed surprising depths at others. He couldn't shake the feeling of familiarity he had when talking with it, but he couldn't figure out why it was so familiar.

He left the car in his complex's garage and tapped its hood. "Night Spot. See you in the morning."

"Good night, Troy. It was good to see you," Spot said, barely stopping himself from saing 'again'. Troy gave the holotar a long look as it curled up in the seat and flickered off, then made his way back to his place.

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Troy double checked the address, then looked at the office in front of him. Cartier Financial Services was set up in a shopping mall, squeezed in a slot next to a hair salon and a grocery store. He shrugged and walked in.

A brunette VI greeted him from behind a desk in the first room. "Welcome to Cartier. How can we help you?"

"Hi, I'm Troy Griffith. I believe I have an appointment?"

The VI flickered a moment then nodded, "You do sir. I'll let Miss Cartier know you are here."

Seconds later, he heard thumps from the next room, and a door open. The woman had shoulder length white hair, a cute button nose, and deep brown eyes. He had a brief memory of a similar woman with furry cat ears at a bar, but the memory faded before he could grab it. She had no jewellry other than a golden necklace with an emerald centerpiece.

She held out her hand to him "Good afternoon, Mr Griffith. I am Helena Cartier. Welcome to my business."

He shook it and let himself be led into the office. The walls were covered in screens with various newsfeeds playing silently, while the desk was covered in tablets and even a paper notepad. "Thanks for seeing me. My friends spoke highly of your skills."

Helena sat down behind the desk and straightened up the tablets. One almost got shoved off the edge, but it quickly slid back onto the table. "Please have a seat, and thank you for choosing me. A windfall like you received can be life changing, but unless it is managed carefully, you can end up in a worse situation than you would be without it. Do you have your financials with you?"

Troy sat down and handed over a datafile. "Here they are. I've tried to avoid splurging too much, but I did buy my first car with the winnings."

"A little show-off buying is to be expected. I would be disappointed if you hadn't done something like that. But it changes little in the bigger scheme." She brought up the form he'd filled in on a screen between them and studied it, her hands clasped under her chin. "Yes, we have quite a bit to work with here. Now to work out a plan for your financial future, I need to know your goals. What do you want to do in the future? For tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade? Don't think of the money, just on what you want, and we'll see if we can work to get it for you."

"I'm not all that sure what I want. I suppose one thing I'd love would be a bigger place. After my vacation, I'm really finding my current place confining." He laughed, "Pretty funny considering the biggest problem I had on Zharus was agoraphobia."

She made some notes and nodded. "What about work? Are you looking to quit, to find a new job or are you happy where you are now?"

"The work I have is fine. I love the people, and the job is fun most of the time, if monotonous other times. Considering domes are obsolete, I'm not sure how long my job will remain, but I'd be happy working there as long as possible."

"Obsolete? Have you heard something I haven't?"

"Not heard, seen. Zharus has domed cities of its own, but they use hardlight domes," Troy's voice became wistful. "Easy to put up, easy to maintain, an improvement on everything we have."

"And the Planetary Council is going to replace the physical domes with that tech?" Helena asked curiously.

"HA! I wish! But the technology is out there. We all know it is. And I know someday it will come here."

She nodded and made some notes, "Still, even if they decided to use those new domes today, your job should be stable for years."

"Yeah, these old domes won't be coming down any time soon."

She asked more questions of his desires, making notes and building up a profile. Finally, she twisted the display so they could both see it clearly. Mostly it was a chart of numbers that made little sense to Troy.

"OK, Mr Griffith, I think I have something for you. With this much mulah to start with, we have many options. They all give you a nice nestegg for buying a new place with too."

He startled and looked at her puzzled, "Mulah? Where'd you hear that? It's a Zharusian term."

Helena mentally kicked herself for her slip, and smiled at Troy, "I must have heard it somewhere. Isn't it based on an Earth term?"

"I think it is. Sorry for the interruption. That sounds great."

"I'll send you the options for you to mull over, and give you the ranges of house prices you can afford. I expect you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you'll be able to fine."

"Thank you, I'll be back to you soon with my decisions." He received the file from her and gave her a long look. He couldn't shake the sense of familiarity she gave off. "I know this is being very forward of me, but would it wreck those plans too much if I were to buy a nice dinner?... A dinner for two?"

She sat back and looked outraged for a moment, though her eyes glittered playfully. "Mister Griffith! Are you seriously asking me out? A woman you just met?"

"I-I- I guess I am," Troy stammered out, a bit surprised at her reaction and not sure what to make of it.

She sat forward and the outrage turned into a predatory grin. "Well, my mother always told me you shouldn't mix business and pleasure." The tablets and screens all turned off at once, leaving them bathed in just the ceiling light. "Luckily for us, our business is concluded. I would be delighted to have dinner with you."

Troy let out the breath he was holding and stood up quickly as she walked around the desk. It slowly dawned on him what he had done, and he was beginning to feel like the classic dog that had finally caught the car and had no idea what to do with what he'd caught. Helena took his arm and lead him out of the darkened office into the mall and out to the parking lot.

"I know the perfect place we can go to celebrate the start of a beautiful relationship," she said, leading him unerringly to his car.

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Mars, 2510 CE

The skimmer left the Olympus Mons airlock and started driving out into the red surface of the untouched Mars. Inside, Troy reclined in the driver seat, letting Spot guide their route.

It had been months since he'd last been questioned by the HIA about Zharus. He hoped it meant they finally believed that he hadn't seen anything of interest on that quirky planet. Still, ever since he had returned to Mars, he couldn't help feeling that something was missing.

He looked ahead at the familiar terrain. Ever since Earth had dropped the rock on Sharp City, he'd tried to make the trip every year, along with most of the city orphans. The trip to Zharus, and the long debriefing on Earth had made him miss a few years, so this was his first visit to the memorial site since returning.

Sharp City had been a new colony back then, barely a few thousand people living under its single dome. Which meant it hadn't taken a large rock to blow it up, nor was there much left to memorialize after the fact. He took manual control of the vehicle and stopped just outside the entrance. He sat there for a long moment, watching the pair of Martian Guards in their red suits standing watch, looking towards Earth.

After a respectful moment, he started up again and drove to a side entrance. As an orphan of the city, he had permission to access areas of the site the general public rarely saw. It wasn't unlimited access; there were some spots considered too dangerous even now; but it was enough. The roads were familiar, mirroring the original city's road plan as much as could be salvaged. He quickly reached a pile of rubble that was the remains of an apartment tower.

"I'll be back in a few minutes," he told Spot, while putting on the helmet. He ran a pressure check on his suit to make sure it was sealed, and depressurized the car. He climbed out and walked to a plaque on a pedestal on the edge of the wreckage. Hundreds of names were listed on it. Troy brushed the dust off the top of the plaque and quickly found the three names he was looking for.

"Hi Mom, Dad, Chris. Sorry I haven't stopped by in a few years. I was a bit far away to get here. Believe it or not, I went to Zharus. It's a strange place, but just like us; just people making a living where they can."

He continued speaking, reflecting on his activities on another world. As he spoke them, he couldn't shake the feeling there was something about his story that was wrong; elements that were just out of reach, but he let it be.

After paying his respects to his family, and other friends in the area, he left the site. While it was important not to forget the past, he knew he shouldn't dwell on it. The future awaited, a future that might be brighter than Earth expected.

Soon after leaving Sharp City's remains, his car beeped. The map showed a detour from his usual route back to Olympus. "Spot, confirm the detour. That's a big diversion for a detour. What's the cause of it?"

"Cause unknown. Diversion sent from Control." the Spot replied. Troy could almost swear he heard it snickering under its breath somehow.

Looking ahead, he could see no reason for traffic to be diverted. Olympus itself was just visible on the horizon. "Fine, follow the detour," he ordered.

He followed their route on the map, growing increasingly suspicious. Their route took them in an arc that would eventually go around the big mountain if they didn't turn inward again. Suddenly, the car turned and dove into a valley, heading for a small opening.

"Spot! Stop! Spot! What are you doing?!" Troy shouted, grabbing for the wheel, and twisting it uselessly. The car drove into the cave.

"I'm sorry, Troy, I'm afraid I can't do that." The car answered, diving into the cave and turning its lights on automatically. This time, Troy was sure he heard the car snicker.

Deep in the cave, the car stopped. Troy tapped at the controls, but they stubbornly refused to respond. "What's going on?" he shouted.

"Please stay calm, Troy. We'll explain in a moment. Helena is just making sure the location is secure."

"Helena? What's she doing here? What's going on?" He could hear hissing as something pressurized.

"Please be patient, Helena says the area's secure and the atmosphere is breathable. Things will be clear shortly."

Without warning, the car interior flickered out, revealing a metal frame that started to collapse around him. He started to panic but he couldn't stop as it encased his arms and legs, holding them still. It sealed around his body, blacking out the view for a moment. When it returned, it was like he had a pair of screens in front of each eye. He tried to move, but he was pinned in the transformed vehicle.

"Sorry Troy, a fuse would make things a lot easier, but the tags would be a bitch to remove out here. Just relax, things will be clear in a minute," Spot said, speaking in his ears.

A holographic horse sized beagle appeared, tail wagging eagerly. "It's good to see you again like I really am, Troy. Do you recognize me?"

To Troy's surprise, the dog's large size and appearance did ring bells, but he couldn't quite make the connections. His head ached from the attempts.

"Be easy on him, the memory blocks are still in place," a new voice spoke up, female with the slightest roll on her r's. She flickered into view beside the canine, but appeared more solid. She was furry, more like a humanoid cat than a human, but she looked familiar. Troy felt a tug of his heart as well as the ache of almost remembered events. Even with her appearance, he was surprised at how much she looked like his new girlfriend slash financial advisor. With a start he recognized the necklace around her neck as Helena's.

"I know, I was just hoping seeing me again might shake something loose," Spot said.

"If the sight of a RIDE would break his memory implants, I would be seriously disappointed in your work, Puppy."

"Helena?" Troy interrupted them. "What are you doing? What's going on? What ARE you?"

"You'll understand shortly, my love," she said. She got closer to his metal prison and tapped the gem around her neck. "This will help."

Troy tried to move, but his reshaped car held him in place. "Who are you two? What do you want with me?" Troy shouted again.

"Just stay calm. You'll remember in a minute." Helena moved closer, taking the gemstone out of the necklace and holding it up. The gem in it looked strange, not quite like any gem he'd seen before. She pressed it into a slot between his eyes, and a shock went through his body. Strange thoughts and memories flooded over him, both in his mind and from his implants, seemingly familiar, but distant. The cat woman frowned as she seemed to be disappointed. "This is unexpected."

"What is?" Spot asked.

She waved her hand, and the cave disappeared. The three of them appeared in a virtual space. One edge was bounded by a red Martian desert leading to a familiar crater. Inside the crater was a domed city, with many of its buildings encased in a green crystal similar to the one she held. Troy tried to move, but his virtual avatar was frozen, straddling the dividing line between pasture and desert.

Helena was deep in the desert section, near the crater, studying both it and the crystal she had in her hands. "The memories aren't restoring. I can't figure out why. It worked when we tried it back home."

"Memories? What memories? Are you trying to brainwash me?" Troy called out.

"No, I'm trying to undo the brainwashing we did. Now hush, I need to concentrate." Helena slashed the air in Troy's direction, and he felt his throat tighten. When he tried to protest, he found he couldn't even make a squeak. Muted and his legs frozen to the ground, all he could do was bend and wave to try and get their attention. He didn't succeed.

"It's been two years. Maybe we can't make the right connections any more?" Spot suggested. The pair were studying the buildings in the dome that Troy could just make out.

Helena shrugged. "It's hard to tell. The connection isn't strong enough. We've got complete linkage to his tech brain, but his bio brain's untouched. We're trying to restore just through the tech, but it can't take. It's like we're trying to do ancient brain surgery."

"Then connect to the biological one. That's the key right?"

"We can't! The only way to get that sort of connection is to fuse, and if you two fuse, he'll be tagged." She suddenly slapped her forehead and groaned. "Of course, how could we have been so stupid. We did all our tests with fusing both ways. We never tried with just a tech link. How could we have been so stupid?"

Spot nuzzled her comfortingly, "We were in a rush, trying to get everything together. It's a wonder we got things off so smoothly as is."

She slumped down and rubbed his head, looking back at the semifrozen Troy. "I know, but this is a huge thing to screw up on. I don't know what to do pup. It'd be two years minimum before Zharus could smuggle an appropriate nannie bed to remove tags, and we don't have that much time. The longer he's got the fake memories, the harder it'll be to put the real ones back."

"What about cooking up your own?" Spot suggested.

"No go. They're too far behind techwise. Even using our own nannies, I'd be as long building it as it would take to ship one out." She sighed and shook her head, "Sorry Troy. I... I don't know what to do. We screwed up... No, I screwed up big time"

They fell silent for a moment, pondering their own thoughts. Troy struggled to figure out some way he could get free, or to send out a signal for help. Helena grew more morose, dwelling on the failure she'd caused. Spot busied himself trying to think of other solutions.

"Why don't we just fuse then?" he finally asked. Helena started to protest, but he spoke over her. "Not a regular fuse, but a tagless fuse. It should be possible right?"

She fell silent and checked her own records on fuse technology history. "It should be possible, but it hasn't been tried in a long time. Some of the early RIDEs tried to do it for their less eager RIDErs but there were problems, starting with phantom limb syndrome and escalating from there."

"Yes, I know, but that was then. We know a lot more now than we knew back then. The fuse nannies are a lot more advanced. We should be able to do a fuse while minimizing the tags easier. We only need the brain sync anyway, not a body sync, so with your help we should be able to do it."

"I don't know, pup. That's pretty risky. Neither of us are engineers or biologists."

"If it looks like it's going wrong, we'll go for a full fuse and figure out how to handle the tags later. Besides, look at my specs; modern RIDEs have a lot more tag control than we had back when you were separate."

She winced a moment, then looked at the data Spot sent her. She ran some sims and checked what info she had on his Fusers before nodding. "Right. It might be possible. How are your tanks?"

"Fifty percent full and rising. I stirred them up as soon as I had the idea."

"Right, let me know when you're ready and we'll give it a shot."

Troy struggled futilely, looking between the two, trying to make sense of what happened and unable to change anything about it. A clear vat appeared in the middle of the plain, already over halfway full of a thick, silvery liquid. All three of them watched as the level rose. It was bulging over the top, not quite spilling when Spot announced he was ready.

Helena partly faded out, before she nodded. "Go for it. And be careful."

To Troy, it seemed like the dog was anything but careful. Neither he nor Spot moved, but cracks suddenly appeared at the base of the tank. Silvery liquid dripped out, the drips quickly turning into a stream on up to a flood. Silver flooded the plain and rolled towards the duo. Troy tried to escape, but he was frozen in place as the warm liquid reached him.

The shiny liquid rolled over his feet, and started climbing up his legs. It felt warm and thick as it spread. More of it coated the Martian desert and crater, but Troy didn't pay it much attention. He tried to block the silver with his hands, but the goo simply coated his hands and started spreading up his arms. It reached his mouth and pressed in, down his throat. It plugged his nose, ears and finally the world went dark as his eyes were covered.

An eternity later, his virtual senses were restored, though it took him a few moments to focus them. When his eyes could finally focus again, the silver was gone. The plain and desert were back, unchanged but more detailed than he had noticed before. He became aware of other things he hadn't noticed before, sounds and smells blowing across the virtual landscape.

He looked down at himself to check for damage, and paused in surprise. His hands were clawed, as were his bare feet. His lower vision was partly blocked by a muzzle. Movement caught his eyes, and when he twisted, he saw a whiplike tail on his rear.

"Spot! You weren't supposed to go that far!" Helena protested.

"I didn't! It's just his avatar. Look at his bio specs, they're still as close to normal as I can make them." Spot, now a humanoid dog, waved a paw-hand and Troy found himself looking at himself, naked and partly translucent. Labels lit up over the other him's body, indicating cryptic readings he couldn't understand.

Troy tried to speak, but found he was still muted. His head was beginning to ache, though he couldn't tell if it was from all the virtual time they were putting him through, or some other reason. They were feeling more familiar to him, the hints of memories beginning to nag at his subconscious. Not sure why he did it, he focused on the crater, and noticed some of the crystals encasing the buildings looked chipped now.

Helena seemed to notice it as well. The feline grinned and refocused on the crystal in her hands. "Excellent. Let's get you back to normal, Troy. Just relax and we'll be through this soon."

She walked into the city and disappeared from sight. The crystal around the buildings began to shatter, bringing with them a flood of memories. Troy managed to pick out a few of them, a pair of dragons, cyborg horses, Ryan being encased in his vehicle like he was trapped, before they overwhelmed him. He silently screamed and grabbed his head before slipping unconscious.

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He woke up to the feel of a large cold wet nose pressing against his side. He groaned and reached to push the large canine away. "Back off Spot, give me some room," he grumbled.

"You remember! Yippee!" Spot shouted, backing away, but wagging his tail eagerly.

Troy sat up and rubbed his temples. He had two memories of his trip to Zharus now, and while he knew which was true, keeping them sorted was giving him a headache. "I remember, but it's giving me a Phobos sized headache."

"This will help," Helena said, offering him a pill and a bottle of water. She looked as exhausted as he felt.

"Thanks," he said before gulping down the pill. He looked the pair over and smiled. "Deimos, it's good to see you two again. I'm sorry it took so long."

"I'm the one who held off for so long. Had to make sure it was safe," Helena corrected him. She looked away, "As is, I nearly screwed things up big time."

He took her hand, and pulled her into a hug, "It's done now, and I'm back."

They hugged for a long moment before reluctantly splitting up. Troy took a moment while Helena was recomposing herself to do a quick check of his own. He found all his parts intact and human normal for the most part. His nails felt a bit thicker than usual, and his ears seemed a bit larger than he was used to.

"You pulled it off Spot. A tagless Fuse," Troy said.

"Yup! Well mostly. I did let some of the sensor package go through, as much as they can squeeze on a regular human."

Troy blinked and looked around the cave. He hadn't paid it much attention when they arrived, but he realized he could see it clearer than before. The faint smell of burning as the soil reacted to the oxygen from the generators was more pronounced than he was used to as well. "I think I can live with this. Thanks Spot," he said, grinning.

He ruffled Spot's ears and took another sip from the water, his headache fading to tolerable levels. "So what's the status of the plan?"

Helena sat back down on the boulder. "So far so good. Your fake memories held for your debriefing, and they seem convinced that you didn't see anything of interest on Zharus. We were worried that they might re-question you today, on the anniversary of Sharp City's destruction, but you seem to have dropped to the bottom of their radar, as far as interest goes.

"I've finished infiltrating the Martian infosphere, and elements of the Terran infosphere. Other than a couple NeoRus data systems I can't get in, they're woefully unprepared for an Intie attack, were one to happen. I'd have more challenge hacking a Laurasian kindergarten than their bases. We're just listening, watching for signs they're moving against Zharus or otherwise planning to attack us."

"And you Spot? What have you been up to?" Troy asked, patting his RIDE.

Spot wagged his tail more and he grinned. "I've been a good little Dog of War. I spotted all the watchers and made sure they didn't see anything they shouldn't. You've been unwatched for the past month now."

"I confirmed that," Helena said. "The last tails you had were reassigned about six weeks ago. And automatic surveillance has been cut back for budget and other reasons. Hence why we brought you back into the fold. We're ready to set up the next phase."

She grinned and pulled out a device from behind another boulder. It was a cube half a metre long per side, with standard power connectors on the side. The top was dominated by a reddish crystal.

"Is that?" Troy asked, getting up to look.

"It is. The second pure Martian hardlight emitter. The first one is powering the dome sealing this cave. Made with pure Martian products, with a few Zharusian tricks we've learned through the years."

"It's rather big, isn't it? Especially compared to what you two have."

She chuckled and tapped the top. "Well, this is just what I could cobble together with off the shelf parts. With even one of your fabbers, I'd be able to halve the size easily. But one step at a time."

"Sounds good. We'll need to figure out who to get this to." Troy sighed.

"We've been thinking about this, and we think you've been going at this the wrong way."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

"You're thinking too big," Spot said. He popped a ball out of his shoulder. Troy tossed it to the other side of the cave, watching it bounce off the dome. Spot ran after it, but kept speaking. "You want to replace the domes and have put the efforts towards that. It's a big juice target Earth can keep squishing. They divert the money you raise and put anyone you hire for the project on other duties."

"But what else can we do?" Troy asked, tossing the ball again.

"Think smaller. You've seen everything Zharus can do with hardlight. We don't just use it for domes. We use it for costumes, and vehicles and safety nets and interfaces. And you'd be surprised at how much of that can be done here without Q," Helena explained.

"So start introducing hardlight into those niches, get people using it and seeing and hearing what it is capable of. There are too many little niches for Earth to monitor, so by the time they notice, the genie's out of the bottle."

Troy nodded, understanding dawning on him. "So you've … ?"

She grinned and snapped her fingers. A hologram of a luxury car appeared in front of them. The hologram ran silently, showing the car lift off and land on a testing ground. Another car raced towards it at high speed, and crashed into it. A sphere briefly lit up, dissipating the energies of the crash. Soon the dust settled, showing the car untouched next to the wreckage of the second vehicle.

"The Ares Motors Blade Runner. Their newest luxury model, being debuted next week, with a hardlight shield capable of withstanding crashes, or extending the atmosphere out for a picnic on the surface," she said. "Needless to say, Earth's mighty pissed about that. They didn't realize what was going on until it was already in production for the rollout. A half dozen other companies across multiple fields are on the verge of releasing similar hardlight products over the coming months."

"Wow, that's wonderful," Troy said, momentarily stunned as he realized his dream was beginning to come true. "You sure it can't be traced back to us?"

"We're in the clear. Most of the tech is theoretically coming from a Wednesday tourist who's already left system. Your own portfolio does invest heavily in those hardlight companies, but you've got enough other companies to not draw suspicion. Nothing traces back to us."

"Sounds like we're all set then." Troy paused and grinned, "This is better than great actually. It reminds me of something Ryan always said. You never want to be the one to discover your own prank. Hardlight domes would probably get back to me eventually; but I've got no connection at all in cars, no interest at all till I got Spot. They'd never think that it ultimately came from me."

"There was that too. The complete disconnect between you and where it comes from. They'd have to make quite a few leaps of logic to match us with it."

"So what about everything else? Did the comm work? Can we talk to Ryan?"

Helena shook her head. "The DINComm burnt out on the way here. We don't know if it's due to the jump, or due to just a bad batch. The tech's just too new to be stable yet. I've sent a report back on the standard couriers, but I haven't heard anything back yet."

"That's disappointing. Have you noticed any more Zharusians?"

"Now that would defeat the purpose of having us be in isolated cells." She grinned at him and ruffled his hair. "But while I haven't directly seen any, I have noticed some possible signs of them in the systems I've hacked. A few maybes on Terra, at least one on Luna, and maybe one out on Titan or Ganymede; in the outer system somewhere at least. So we aren't alone in Sol system. But I doubt we'd be able to find them."

"Fair enough. Well, we're in no rush then, might as well enjoy the rest of the day. You didn't happen to bring a picnic basket, did you?"

She smirked and snapped her fingers. A blanket lifted up from behind her and floated around, carrying a basket with plates and glasses already laid out. It floated to the ground without a piece out of place. "All set. Let's eat."

Separator k left.png End Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
All Spark Bulletin
Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by:
Cat Scratch Fever