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User:Jetfire/Sum of Their Parts
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Sum of Their Parts
Dry Ocean, 140 AL
The fused golden eagle flew high over the Towers, their lifters activated just enough to leave them at the mercy of their wings and the winds.
"So how about Baldy?" Astra asked as they followed an updraft higher into the skies.
"Baldy? He's cute, and so's his RIDE. Fun to be around too," Nikki replied, trying to hide the guilty shiver the thought of the bald eagle pair gave her.
Astra snickered a little. "I saw that. We haven't had anyone since Hooter. I've got needs too you know."
"I know, I know. And he is really nice.... I'm just not sure I want someone in the military."
"Military? That thing Aloha has barely counts as a militia, and we both know that," Astra scoffed good naturedly. "Besides, I was in the military too and you had no problems with me."
"True... And they do look so good in uniform too, remember the Naming Day Parade?" Nikki sighed happily, recalling the memory of the eagle pair in the Alohan military uniform.
Astra giggled. "Keep that up and I'll need to find a nice rock to rub against."
Before Nikki could respond, she felt a surge of pain in her head. Her implant flared, outputting more than her gray matter could cope with. A second later, all of her senses faded away as the implant switched to input, pulling in what her body told her mind before her mind could catch it. As quickly as the surges started, they stopped, leaving her with a pounding headache.
"Nikki? Is it the implant again?" her partner was concerned, their flying on automatic as Astra checked Nikki over closely.
"Ye-yeah. Same as before. Damnit! I just got the damn thing checked. It shouldn't still be acting up like that." She groaned and closed her eyes a moment while her senses settled down again. "They couldn't find anything wrong with it. More connections in the gray matter than usual, but still within specs they said. Specs my tailfeathers. If this happens again, I'm getting the damn thing yanked out."
Astra adjusted their flight, heading southwards slowly with the winds. "Maybe we should head home. SpaceMet's getting all riled up anyway. Sounds like the sun's gotten upset and tossed some crap our way."
Nikki checked the reports Astra was receiving. The star was acting up again, sending a burst of high energy particles straight towards Zharus. The highlight of this particular solar storm was a large coronal mass ejection that was already en route. It would hit the planet in a couple of days over the western coast of Gondwana. Space side was already battening down the hatches for the storm; most of the sats powering down and activating protective hardlight bubbles. The last Elevator runs were already gone each way, and the power from the Alohavator was scheduled to be turned off once the cars were cleared.
"Must be a big one if they're closing down the elevators. I didn't think Aloha had enough generators to power itself," Nikki said as she looked over the plans and warnings. High altitude traffic was already being grounded; at the peak of the storm even skimmer traffic would be grounded except for emergencies, just in case.
"They don't, not really. We've been so spoiled by all the power coming down the cable, that we've been lax in setting up new generators to handle our growth. Touchdown's got enough big batteries to ride out the shutdown, but the Alohan Council has already put conservation measures in place, asking people to cut power use to a minimum. The chicken littles are going to be clucking happily once this storm is over."
"Ugh, that's going to be unbearable. I admit, Chuck was right; we should have been putting more into disaster preparedness. But he's so insufferable when he's proven right." Nikki winced as her implant sent another quick surge across her mind. She hoped Astra missed it, but the eagle missed nothing while they were fused.
"We're heading back. With this storm coming, and your implant fritzing, it's not safe to be alone out here."
Nikki sighed a little and looked down at the scorched beautiful land below them. "It's probably the storm that's fritzing me. Fine, let's start heading back, but no rush. I've got you to handle any more glitches."
Aloha, 140 AL
Jason was lost in thought as Boris drove them to the Command Centre. It was only a week since he and Sam had swapped RIDEs, and he was still adjusting. Mel had been such a presence in his mind throughout his ordeal, that having Boris was a shock. The two RIDEs were so similar, and yet so different. Mel was a patient hunter, able to take an anger and channel it to use to accomplish their goals. Boris on the other hoof, he was finding liked to store the anger, putting it in a pressure container to be released when needed. On the surface, the RIDE was calm and unflappable. But when the pressure popped, he was the scariest thing Jason had ever seen. Jason had seen that unbottling occasionally when it was Sam and Boris, and it wasn't a pretty sight. She'd even uncorked the bottle once or twice through the years, and even Melody agreed it was not something she wanted to face off against regularly.
Now, Melody's patient guidance was gone, replaced with Boris's laissez-faire attitude, and he had to admit, he was scared to be RIDEing the bull now. Physically, the bull was still making changes when they fused; buffing him up from his jaguaress form and leaving him ravenous. He rubbed his new horns and leaned back, looking at the city they were driving through.
The city was gearing up for an emergency, and it showed. Away from the tourist districts, things were busy, but not panicky. Mainly it was people rushing to the stores to pick up a few days worth of supplies before the fabber restrictions kicked in.
"So how are things looking B?" he asked, letting his RIDE handle the drive. Hardlight windows opened up inside the bull's cabin, each showing a different region of the polity.
"Seahaven's fine. They aren't on the elevator grid, so they're stayink full powered. Pete's talkink with the outfits out there, arrangink to send as many spare gennies and batts as they can spare, but they're keepink some in reserve. They're expectink to have to do a lot of Dry Ocean rescue work," the bull reported.
"Touchdown is fully powered. They got big batts already topped off. They send what they can spare over da links, but they won't have that much to spare.
"And Aloha Space is mostly locked up, hardlight shields in place. The last cars will clear da elevator in an hour. After, dat, da power's off. They sayink da elevator's already surging badly. Givink off pretty auroras too."
He showed a live feed from a mountain near Touchdown, looking up the silver strand of the elevator. Streamers of all colours arced and swirled around the strand as the storm struck.
"Aloha itself, gonna have trouble. Without power from da stalk, we got maybe 50% normal supply. And da resorts already askink for more. Lots of extra mouths coming to see pretty storm up close and personal. We got more people coming in than going out. Five subs coming from Laurasia, packed full, sneaking in before flight bans."
Jason groaned, "Storm tourists. Figures."
The pair reached the command centre. Boris folded inward and collapsed around Jason, forming into the minotaur mode. They deftly sidestepped around a runner and walked into the building, their ID's being checked along the way.
"Hey dad! Wait up!"
Jason turned and saw his son running to catch up. "What are you doing here, Aaron?"
The young man caught up and started walking next to his father, his husky tail curled up. "Civil Studies class. We were drafted as runners for the duration of the emergency. Ash is stuck back on campus, making sure all the experiments are shut down properly, and watching Mary."
"Right, good to see you. What have you noticed?" Jason put his arm around his son's shoulder as they walked, trying to stay out of the way of faster moving people.
"Tracy's got the dolphs running cables to the Queen and the cruise ships to help with the power in town. Wanda's somewhere out there with that cop boyfriend of hers, and Mom's at A.G for the duration."
The minotaur stopped outside the doors to the main control centre. "And in there? Been in yet?"
"In and out all day long. Things are going as smoothly as you can expect. Chuck and his cronies are pointing out that we'd be better off we'd be if we had listened to them ages ago, but they aren't interfering much."
Jason sighed, "Yeah, they're going to be insufferable after this. But one emergency at a time. Other than the power loss, we shouldn't expect much trouble at least, but you never know."
"And that's the last of them," Astra announced, looking at a point in the sky. "All the sats are offline I think. Or at least the static's so bad, it wouldn't matter if they were online. I don't think the deer could get anything through this mess."
Nikki took control for a moment and looked as well. She zoomed in on a spot in the sky to the south west. "What's that?" she asked, looking at the swirling greens and pinks.
"I think it's the Elevator. Surprised we could see it all the way out here."
"Reminds me of home," Nikki said wistfully. "The northern lights over the Arctic ocean, waving in the sky above and around you. Can't get that here, even if you're at the poles."
They watched the silent lights around the invisible tether for a while, before Nikki gasped in pain. Astra ran a scan and was concerned. "Your implant again?"
"The implant again. Damn thing's acting up again," Nikki groaned, unable to hide the headache it was giving her.
"Turn it off, at least until we get somewhere safe."
Nikki shuddered and relaxed a moment as the surge faded, "I've already tried. It's not responding to the shutdown commands any more."
Astra checked their position on her maps, unable to use GPS any more. "We need to get down, someplace we can defuse and get you checked out. Brubeck's new platform isn't that far away. Closer than Aloha at least." The eagle was getting worried; her scans of Nikki were getting strange, Nikki's responses less coherent. She didn't mention it to her pilot, but she was having issues with her own body. Lag in the response to her commands, blank spots in her sensor net and other problems she couldn't put a talon on, other than knowing they were there.
"Brubeck is nice. Haven't talked to him in months. Wonder if his kids are home," Nikki mumbled before another wave of pain spread across her mind.
Astra wasted no more time. Trusting her own maps, she changed her heading towards the platform and increased their speed.
The lights in the command centre dimmed, causing everyone to pause. "That's that. Elevator is shut down," Boris said quietly. Aaron nodded, standing next to his father until someone found another errand for him to do.
Around them, tension increased. The automatic brownout program was running smoothly, blacking out Alohan neighbourhoods in a preplanned, preannounced pattern to help handle the power issues.
"Got an SOS Burst," someone announced a few minutes later. "In the plains, south of us. Looks like one of the Safari skimmers went down. Dispatching a SAR team to check on them."
Things settled down quickly from there. Mainly the only calls that came in were local emergencies of the normal sort; fights, accidents, births, and a few fires. More SOS bursts were recorded, steadily increasing in frequency as the storm increased. With only a negligible magnetic field to stop it, the solar storm was able to cut through Zharus's atmosphere to the ground, wreaking all sorts of havoc on unprotected systems.
"Wanda wants to talk to you," Boris informed Jason quietly. Aaron had been sent off on a coffee run, leaving the fused pair alone against the wall.
"Put her through. Hey Wanda. Where are you?"
The cat eared woman appeared in his VR space. Behind her, he could see and hear signs of a party going on. "Hey Uncle Jay. We're down on the boardwalk. They're throwing a blackout party to keep the tourists busy. Ryan's on public safety duty, and I'm just hanging out in case he needs me. How're things looking?"
Jason did a quick scan around the room, "Looking good so far. Nothing big has blown up, and the rescues are within the predicted limits so far."
"Great. Look, that's not the main reason I'm calling you. Have you heard from Dad? Neither Trace nor I have heard from her since this morning. They were out in the Dry, up at the Towers."
He shook his head. "I haven't heard from them either. But I'm sure they're fine. They're both experienced out in the Dry. They probably went to Cascadia or one of the mining camps to ride the storm out.
"They're going to reactivate some of the comm sats at midnight, when the planet's blocking most of this mess. We'll be able to get some messages out and in. I'm sure Nikki will have a message waiting for us."
She still looked worried, but she tried to hide it with a smile. "Right, call us as soon as you hear anything about her. Promise?"
"Promise. Now go have some fun. Or at least make sure that detective of yours isn't having too much fun without you."
Astra examined the ground below her, trying to find a landmark she recognized. She knew the new Brubeck platform should be close at hand, but there wasn't a sign of it anywhere. There wasn't a sign of anything recognizable. She let out a quiet chirp and tried not to let the despair leak through her link to Nikki; she had no idea where they were.
"Astra, where are we?" Nikki asked, picking a bad time to have a moment of lucidity.
Astra scanned her pilot, and found the human was stable, but the readings were strange. She began to doubt her own systems. "I don't know, Nikki. I'm... I'm lost. Brubeck should be somewhere. You can't hide something like that, especially with my eyes. But I can't see it anywhere. I must have gotten on a wrong heading somewhere."
The eagle felt herself remembering a memory. A pre-teen young boy in a uniform, in a group of similarly aged young men and women. A man was addressing the group, "Remember, if you get lost, the best thing you can do is to find a safe spot and stay put. The rescuers will be looking for you; don't make their job harder than it has to be."
"We should land," Nikki said. "Find a cave, defuse and wait for the storm to end. Once the sats are live again, we'll figure out where we are and can get help. Or at least signal help."
Astra was confused; the memory was clearly Nikki's, but it felt like her own memory. She started studying the ground, but she was beginning to have trouble focusing. She spotted a shadow that looked like a cave in a valley, and started to dive. She lost control mere metres off the ground; her body not responding the way she was used to. They rolled through the gravel at the base of the cliff she was aiming for, and slid into the shadows, leaving a trail of silver behind.
Stunned, worried, and confused, the eagle tried to trigger a defuse. She felt her wings soften, and Nikki's arms separate from their wings, and then the process stopped. Barely conscious, Astra kept trying to trigger the defuse further, until the controls melted in her virtual claws. She let out a screech of frustration before sliding into the confused turmoil of her mind.
The boardwalk party continued through the entire storm, quieting down a little in the early morning, but otherwise going full swing. The police had to break up a few fights and other incidents, but overall it went off without a hitch. Overhead, the skies were lit up by the aurora stretching from horizon to horizon, the storm lighting up what little magnetic field Zharus generated.
By the evening of the second day, rumours began to spread that the end was in sight. The resorts projected a holographic countdown on their walls, ramping up the crowd. At Zero, an archaic mechanical clunk echoed across the bay from their speakers, and the city lit up; the elevator was back online.
On the Queen of Thorns, the exhausted family relaxed on the deck, sipping drinks. Boris and Jason flew over the bay, returning from his long stretch in the command centre. As soon as the pair landed, Wanda was on him, Crystal waiting anxiously beside her.
"Any news?" she asked.
The minotaur shook his head. "No news. The sats are still coming back online, but there doesn't seem to be any messages."
Her fiance pulled her into a comforting hug, while Jason continued. "We're still looking. She was last seen in the Towers, so the search has started from there. We'll find them."
Jason defused and patted Wanda's shoulder reassuringly. He grabbed a drink and slumped down in a chair. The city was recovering quickly now that the power was back on, having endured the incident mostly unscathed. He hugged Sam and leaned his head against her. "We'll find you Nick," he mumbled quietly.
She woke up slowly, aching all over. Even before she tried to open her eyes, she sensed the signals coming from above. The atmosphere was still too charged up to get them clearly, but she could just make out the GPS signals. Automatically she triangulated and placed her location on the map. Her first attempt landed her in the middle of Rodinia. After she corrected the signs, she found where she was in the Dry, far away from Brubecks. Running the equations a third time placed her in the same place.
"Damn, we really were lost," she thought to herself, feeling the other presence beginning to wake up.
"Where are we?" the presence asked.
"Literally, the middle of nowhere." The first one showed them the map, with their location.
"Damn that is the middle of nowhere. It's cooled off at least. How's the head?"
The first one laughed. "Feels like I ran into a cliff head first. Multiple times."
They both recalled the final scenes, of Astra trying to defuse. "We should probably separate, figure out what's going on. Should be safe enough to do so for a few minutes at least."
In sync, they both tried to trigger the fusion nanites, only to find nothing there; no sign that anything had ever been there. They froze in confusion for a moment.
"Can you reach your implant?" one asked tentatively.
"My implant? It's your imp... Who are you?"
"I'm-" they froze again, neither sure who they were. Both remembered the same things at the same time. She could remember her childhood as a young boy growing up on Earth. But she could just as easily remember waking up in her DE for the first time, stretching out her wings for her first flight.
"What happened to us?" she asked out loud, in tandem. Her voice hadn't changed that she could tell, but it was time to check everything else.
She opened her eyes finally and looked around. It was dark out, but there was a faint glow lighting up the base of the cliff around her. The GPS clocks told her she had been out for a couple of days. She raised her hands and looked them over. Her talons were as she remembered, similar to her fused form, but slightly smaller. She touched the feathers on her arms and paused in surprise; they were not hardlight feathers, but natural feathers. Well, natural feathers if you counted that they were growing from her own skin as natural. Their texture felt right, but they had a durability that normal feathers wouldn't have.
She started to stand up and fell back, feeling a new weight on her back. Looking back, she saw a wide pair of eagle wings. The flight feathers were part of the source of the glow she realized. A faint golden glow lit up the feathers from within the flight feather shafts. She tried to move them, and was shocked that they answered her commands. With more difficulty, she stood up and managed to control the wings enough to pull them in against her back. The weight threw her off a little, but she began to adapt.
As her weight settled on her feet, she realized how much they had changed. While fused, her feet had been more humanoid, but now they were almost pure bird. Standing on them felt more like standing on her hands, big enough to stand on somewhat comfortably, but walking long distances would be out. She felt power shift within her to her back, and her body lifted slightly, enough that she wasn't putting all her weight on her claws.
She lifted her hands to rub her face, feeling feathers all over them now. A hooked gray beak extended from her face now, no longer hidden by lips. She ran her tongue along the edges of the hooked beak while squeezing it, part of her not quite believing it was there.
Her body overall was similar to her fused form, but smaller she quickly realized. Still bigger than Nikki had been, but much smaller than Astra was. Their feathers were covered in a dried silver dust that she managed to shake off for the most part. Feeling her feathers on her body moving as she shook was a new sensation for her, especially on her firm breasts.
"We... I... Integrated," she said, the personalities crashing together in her mind. She could remember both of their lives, in full detail. It wasn't just reviewing the others memories while fused; she could remember experiencing it all.
She continued preening herself, and getting used to how her new body moved. Having separate arms and wings was strange, but something she adapted to fairly quickly. In the darkness, she found her wings, tail feathers and headfeathers all glowed faintly, similar to hardlight.
Movement caught her attention; a shift in the shadows at the top of the cliff. She looked up and saw a figure dropping down. He landed, his cloak settling around his hooves. He held out a thick fingered hand to her. "Come with me if you want to live," he said seriously.
"That's the corniest pickup line I've ever heard," she told him with a glare, realizing she was naked but trying not to draw attention to it. She didn't know much about Integrates beyond the rumours, so she wasn't sure how dangerous this guy was to her, or how dangerous she was to him.
The stallion grinned and took his cloak off, offering it to her. Under it, he wore a pair of shorts, and a belt with a pair of silver pistols holstered on it. His size made her sure he was an integrate as well. She took the cloak and tried to put it on, only to rediscover her wings.
"Thanks," she said, holding the cloak across her front. She stared at the pistols for a long moment as recognition hit her. "Mike? Is that you?"
The stallion did a double take and looked closer at her. "Aunt Nikki? No way...."
"Small ocean, isn't it? I guess that explains where you disappeared. Your parents are going to kill you when they hear you're still alive."
"Right. Mom and Dad," he said wistfully. He shook his head a bit and seemed to be a bit more nervous."We'll catch up later. We have a lot to talk about. Especially as a new Integrate. I picked up your signals and followed them, but I certainly didn't expect to find you."
"I didn't expect to be here. Is something wrong with the sats? I can pick up the GPS and the broadcasts fine, but when I try to open a comm connection, I'm not getting anything."
He motioned for her to follow him. "That's the first thing a new integrate learns. We can't communicate with the old systems. Something about the integration process scrambles our outputs, sometimes even our inputs. Each integrate has their own protocol for talking to the rest of the world."
She spread her wings and flapped, lifting higher into the air. She gave up trying to cover herself with the cloak and just held onto it as they picked up speed. "So I'm back to keyboards, grips and voice commands to talk to the rest of the world?"
"For now, until you get a DIN." He pointed to a gem embedded in his left forearm, just above his wrist. "It's a translator basically that can talk to the rest of the world. They're still glitchy sometimes, and tend to burn out, but they'll be your link to the world."
She looked at her own arms, but didn't see anything on them. "So do you wear them or something?"
"Or something. There's a slot you'll hopefully have somewhere on your body. When we get to the Cave of Wonders, they'll have someone who can find your DIN slot and figure out your protocol for your own DINs."
The klicks began to pass quickly under them as the sun rose behind them. She felt the temperature rising, but still stayed comfortable. She knew she was part flesh and blood, but she was more than that as well, infused with the strengths of Astra, both mental and physical.
"What's the Cave of Wonders?" she finally asked, shouting to be heard over the wind.
Mike's reply sounded like he was right next to her ear. "It's an Enclave. A home for Integrates, like us."
"Is that where you've been all these yearssss?" Her voice trailed off as exhaustion struck her. Before Michael could answer or react, she dropped from the sky, belly flopping and sliding on the hard packed desert. She discovered pain was something that didn't seem to need much power to transfer, feeling the burn of the landing on her arms, belly and especially her breasts.
The stallion landed next to her. "Aunt Nikki, what's wrong?!?"
She laid there for a long moment, trying to figure out what was wrong herself. "I'm not sure. I'm exhausted suddenly, and starved." She yawned and shuddered. "I can't move a muscle, physical or mechanical."
"Starved? How long were you down there? When did you integrate?"
"A couple days ago. Start of the storm."
Mike cursed and paced, "Couple days... Damn it. I should have thought of that. Have you eaten anything since then?"
"Not a thing. You found me after I woke up. I didn't expect to be out here long enough to need food, at least not food that Astra couldn't provide me."
The stallion paced more, trying to figure out what to do. "Integration uses up a lot of energy; you tend to burn out your nannies as you do it, and it takes time to rebuild them. Time and energy. You're starved, for both food and energy. Just a second." He unshouldered a pack and rummaged inside it, finally pulling out a battery. "Eat this. Or swallow it at least. It'll help."
She took the battery and stared at it. "A battery? That'll kill me!"
"Trust me. You're mech and me-flesh now. Your body will know what to do with it. It's not much, but it should help you get the rest of the way to the enclave at least."
Doubtful, she took the battery in her beak and paused, confused, her neck moving as she gulped but the battery didn't move. She finally tilted her head back and swallowed. "Eating is different from what I remember-whoa!" Energy flowed into her, and she suddenly felt energized; like she could fly the entire width of the Dry Ocean. But she still felt hungry.
She sat up and smoothed her feathers a little, picking up a couple that had fallen off in her skid. She dropped them after a moment and lifted off the ground. "Okay, if food's that way, that's the way I want to go."
"It isn't," Mike said once they were on their way again. "Wonders is not my home that is. I've been all over the Dry, doing things ever since I integrated, with no real home."
"So is Tonto in there with you?" she asked.
"Sort've. We're combined now too. We're actually a bit more separated than most Integrates, but we're both here, one person. You should feel the same, don't you?"
She thought his words over and nodded. "I think I get it. Astra and Nikki are in my head, but we are both of us. It feels strange."
"Some of us combine our names somehow to show we're a combined person. But we didn't feel like becoming TonMike, Miketo, or similar, so I stuck with Mike, most of the time."
"Nikastro? Asnik?" she pondered combinations of her old name, then shrugged her arms. "I'll need to think on that."
She followed their progress on her own map, and as they descended, she recognized where they were. "This was Shah's cave, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, I was shocked too. I used to keep an eye on it, to make sure she never came back. One day, I showed up, and they were here, setting up shop."
She sensed bitterness in his tone, but didn't call him on it. They landed where the tunnel used to be. It looked like just another pile of rocks, until Mike waved a hand and it faded away.
"Welcome to the Cave of Wonders, Aunt Nikki."
Nikki's disappearance left the Alohan government in a bind. While the Munn's weren't officially tied in with the local politics, their hand in the formation of the polity was well known, and Nikki's disappearance was felt by many, especially once she was declared dead. Being the first big Alohan personality to pass on, the polity knew they had to recognize it somehow, and that it would set the tradition going forward. The standard 'state funerals' and 'periods of mourning' were considered, and promptly rejected as being too depressing for the polity. After much deliberation, and discussion with the family, they reached a solution.
A week after the search was called off, Aloha held a Remembrance Party on the public beach.
"I just can't believe she's gone. I wish we had something to prove it, one way or another. her body, Astra's DE, something," Wanda said morosely as she leaned against Ryan. They were sitting on the beach, with their RIDEs helping provide a break from the people offering condolences.
Ryan squeezed her shoulders supportively. "Sadly, it's the nature of the Dry. It swallows things up. But she went out doing what she loved; there's that at least." He scanned the crowd, recognizing many people and having the rest identified on his smart lenses. All of Aloha's movers and shakers were around, along with people from all around the continent and Laurasia. Most were dressed and acting in the spirit of the party, even if the joviality didn't quite reach the eyes. More than a few had missed the point however, and were standing in the sand, roasting in dark suits and dresses.
Crystal growled at a lion that was approaching them. "It's OK, Crys. It's just Lance and Rick," Wanda said, patting the sand next to her for the pair.
Rick took a seat while the feline RIDEs nosed each other. The lion flopped onto the sand in front of them, his skin melting to its red metal mode. "How are you doing?" Rick asked as he sat down as well. He was dressed in a simple pair of shorts and a vest. He put a hand on her thigh, and squeezed gently. "I know you've heard it from a pile of strangers, but she will be missed."
She squeezed his hand as well and nodded gratefully. "Unlike those strangers, I know you really mean it. Thanks." She let go and nodded to Ryan. "I don't think you've met. This is Ryan, he's my fiance. Ryan, this is Rick, an old friend of the family. He's part of the reason Tracy hooked up with Jay."
The men shook hands and nodded to each other. "Good to meet you. I've heard all about you, mainly from Nikki. If half of what she said was true, you've lived quite the life." He grinned at the lion. "And if the other half was true, I should be arresting you here and now."
The lion man held a hand to his chest and looked shocked. "All lies I assure you," he said, grinning. Wanda couldn't help but let out a little laugh. "Seriously though, she had a lot of friends all around. If we weren't on the road, half the circus would probably be here now."
"Speaking of which, who's covering the ringmaster duties while you're here?" Wanda asked curiously, happy to put her mind on other thoughts.
"Tony and Sven retired to Burnside, where we were when I heard the news. So I asked them to cover for me for a few shows. He doesn't have quite the flare I do for working the crowd. But a blue lion for a blue circus does seem to fit their mood."
"Blue lion?" Ryan asked.
Wanda pointed to Lance. "They were part of a squad of five lions during the war. Some joker found some ancient Earth show that had five robot lions as well, and the RI's picked their names based on that," she explained.
"And after we cashed out of the military, and bought out our RIDEs, we did a Hardlight upgrade from our combat bonuses. Lance and the rest of the cats decided on a dual mode skin, the metallic one and the fur one," Rick continued. "For all the time I see you in fur, we should have just gotten some spray paint for you guys. It would have been cheaper in the end," he added, addressing Lance.
The lion turned his head, his metallic mouth lifting into a grin, "It may look like metal, but it's got all the flexibility and sensitivity of hardlight flesh. Well worth it, in my opinion."
"Well, you didn't have to pay for it, you damn money pit."
Wanda laughed, raised her arm and rolled against Ryan to avoid the paw full of sand that flew to the lion man. Rick was laughing as well as he shook his head to get the sand from his mane. He smiled and brushed the rest of the sand off of his chest and looked back at Wanda and Ryan. "Anyway, the circus will hit Aloha next month. We're planning on having a small break here, and some of the guys and gals and former guys and gals want to have a small party for your dad. You guys are all invited of course, even you, Copper."
"Thanks, Rick. We'll try to make it if we can. Let us know when and where." They all stood up, and Rick gave Wanda a big hug before he and Lance moved into the crowds again.
Ryan smiled and watched them leave, "So I may finally have a chance to see one of those famous Parties that Nikki was always talking about but rarely remembered?"
She grinned, "Very likely. Crystal hon, please make sure Rick's on the wedding invite list with a star. He can bring as many of his pride as he wants."
Cave of Wonders
"You know you aren't supposed to return here, Tonto," a voice greeted them as the pair entered the cave.
Nikki looked around for the source of it, but couldn't see anyone. Mike seemed unphased by it. "This is an exception. I found a new Integrate in the desert; she's been out there since the storm, with no food, water or charge. "
A tall Clydesdale mare appeared in front of them and hugged Mike. She had bay fur, with white on her hands, feet and muzzle. "You know I'm just pulling your tail. Good to see you again, even if Appa is still pissed at you."
Mike nuzzled her back and stood to one side. "Good to see you too Rissa. Aunt Nikki, this is a friend of mine, Clarissa. She knew me back in the war. Rissa, this is my aunt Nikki and Astra."
Nikki shook the offered hand, taking a moment to puzzle out the names Mike had mentioned. She realized that Tonto had briefly shown his muzzle just then, though there had been no real difference in stance or tone like she remembered happening when a RI would take over briefly.
She shook her head to refocus and smiled at the mare. She wore a plain t-shirt and shorts. A gem glowed faintly at the base of her neck, just above the shirt. Her upper arms and thighs surprisingly were not furred; they flexed as the horse moved, but were shiny, hardlight panels.
"You want to try and keep the relation link on the down-low, Tonto?" Clarissa asked, leading them through the tunnel.
Mike shook his head, "No point. My family's well known enough for people to make the links. Don't trumpet it, but no point in hiding it."
"The family. They've gotta be worried... whoa," Nikki stopped herself as they stepped out of the tunnel into the main dome.
The village she had helped destroy years before was rebuilt and expanded. The buildings were quick build temporary ones that fabbers could produce, but they had all been personalized and looked lived in. Last time she had been there, it had felt like an internment camp; filled with the misery the tigress had caused. This time, it felt like a true village; filled with homes and contentedness. There was something missing she couldn't put her talon on, but she put it to one side for now. Beyond the village, the dome was divided into forests and fields, growing mainly the quick growing crops common around the planet. The dome itself was tinted blue, making it look like a normal sky covered everything.
"They really made it a nice place. You almost can't smell the torture that was here before," Mike commented. "Who's the doc today, Rissa?"
"Colin's on today. We could find a female if you'd rather for your checkup?" Rissa suggested.
Nikki chuckled, "I was Mike's uncle before I was his aunt. I don't mind a male doctor."
Colin turned out to be a raccoon integrate who had been a medical nanist before integrating. He took one look at Nikki as she followed the horses in, and ordered a meal from the fabber. He refused to let her speak until she had a drink and a bite to eat. Eating with a beak was a new adventure for her; Astra hadn't truly eaten before, and Nikki's prefused beak hadn't been that big; but she quickly figured it out enough to get the food down.
"There, do you feel better?" he asked as she finished the fabbered meal.
"Incredibly better. I was hungrier than I thought. But I feel drained somehow still."
He pulled an inductor panel over and had her put a hand on it. "It's no wonder; integration uses up a lot of your old bodies. It'll take time for your body to get that food and water through your system; and you do still have batteries to charge up. You probably have an energy port somewhere too, but in the meantime, induction will suffice."
The raccoon started walking around the eagle slowly, studying and leaning in to separate feathers occasionally. She tried to turn her head to watch him, only to feel his hand hold her beak still.
"Ah ha! Here it is," he exclaimed, his paws lifting the feathers at the back of her neck. "Interesting spot, but not the strangest I've seen," he added.
She reached a talon and felt where his paws were. She was surprised to feel a hole at the base of her skull. "Is that the slot?"
"Your DIN slot yes." Colin nudged her talon out of the way, and reached his hand out towards a cart. A device lifted off of it and floated into his hand.
Clarissa giggled, "Show off."
"This is not the doctor you're looking for," Colin said, waving his hand to the horses. He turned back to Nikki and moved the feathers to the side again. "Hold still, this will feel a bit weird but it won't hurt. I need to get some readings so the technomage can make a DIN for you."
Nikki let out a chirp of surprise, feeling the device slide into her neck. Part of her was used to plugins, while the other part of her was a little unnerved by it. She felt confusing sensations from the device and the slot as it did its magic before it was removed.
He tossed the device back on the cart and turned back. "You should have your own DIN recipe within a day or two. Plug it in, and you're back on the web. Now, would you mind if we did the rest of the examination now? Or would you rather wait? As far as I can tell you are healthy, if a bit starved, dehydrated and discharged, so I don't need to do it right away."
"Let's get it over with. It's not the first time a doc has poked at new parts on me," she said. "I'd send you my records but I can't connect just yet."
He activated a hardlight curtain around them for privacy. She spread her wings enough so she could lay back and realized what was bugging her. "Where are the kids?" she asked.
Colin paused and looked at her. "What do you mean?"
"The village outside. It was missing something and I couldn't figure it out until now... There aren't any kids around."
"The Cave of Wonders... and in fact all of the Integrate Enclaves, don't have any kids. When we integrate, we gain a lot, but part of the cost is that we become sterile."
"If I hear one more comforting platitude, I'm gonna scream," Tracy grumbled, watching the departing Zhar-Ex executive.
Peter chuckled and passed over a sandwich. "They mean well. At least with this party funeral, we don't need to do a receiving line. Never saw the point of lining up so everyone could come up and say how sorry they were that you lost whoever."
The dolphin man shuddered. "Just wish your dad would let us fuse. We've shown our faces, no need to keep them shown." He rubbed Jay's melon and looked towards the boardwalk. "Looks like someone's set the newsies off."
They both watched a small mob of journalists, with their accompanying flock of cameras and mics swarm around someone they couldn't see clearly. Pete turned away, "We should head elsewhere else, before they notice us."
"Good idea," Tracy said, starting to turn. Through a quick gap in the journalists, he spotted the focus on their attention and froze. "What the hell is SHE doing here?" he hissed, turning back and starting to walk towards the boardwalk.
Pete followed his gaze and cursed, "Vincent, Red alert! Tell mom and dad to get their tails to the boardwalk NOW!"
The bat RIDE yawned and took a second to respond. He was in the shadows under the boardwalk, and dozing a bit; the bat tended to prefer shadowed spaces, even though he was equally fine in the dark of night or the bright of day. "Vhat's the emergency?" he asked.
"Tracy spotted his mom."
The woman at the centre of the press was overdressed, in a black dress and heels. She had a string of pearls around her neck and a hat with a veil that was flipped up to reveal her face. "Nick Munn was one of the fathers of this fine city. His loss will be felt by everyone who calls this beautiful area home, and many more beyond. While we did not get along all the time, especially given his choices later in life, even I can not fault for what he helped create," she was saying.
She spotted Tracy coming at her, at the same time as some of the newsies. A path was cleared quickly, while the cameras jostled for the best view of the coming confrontation. "Tracy! Good to see you again, despite your tragic condition. I'm so sorry about what happened to Nick."
Had Tracy been fused, there would probably have been a scorched spot on the boardwalk where the woman stood. As it was, his glare would have melted most other people. The woman didn't even flinch, keeping a sympathetic smile on her face. Peter caught up to his cousin and grabbed the dolph's arm lightly. "Hello, mom. I didn't think you would show up. What the hell are you doing here?" Tracy asked, his voice held at a careful level that barely hid the rage inside.
Her smile never wavered as she stepped closer, to give the cameras a better angle. "I'm here to mourn the passing of my husband, and to comfort my family in their time of need."
"EX-husband!" Tracy spat out. "And you have no family here. Haven't for over a decade. We've grown without you, with Jay and Crystal and Astra...." Tracy's voice caught for a moment as he remembered Nikki's RIDE.
"I'll always have family here. You and Wanda are my children, no matter how much you let those machines change you. My only regret is that I hadn't been stronger back then; to stop those corrupting influences before it was too late. A strong mother was what you two needed."
"Nikki was a better father AND mother than you ever were!" Wanda shouted. The flock of cameras turned in unison to find the source of the shout, discovering Wanda being lightly held back by Ryan. "You abandoned us when you saw you couldn't get your way any more, and we moved on... But you just had to show up and tear open those old wounds again."
"Nick was a great father; you two have turned into fine young people...." Hannah started, unperturbed by Wanda's arrival.
"Nikki! Her name was Nikki!" Tracy shouted, angry tears going down his cheeks.
She shifted her gaze back to Tracy, and restarted. "Nick was a great person, despite the unfortunate decisions he made at the end of his life. Like the rest of you..."
She was interrupted once again, this time by the clatter as all the camera drones dropped to the ground. A fused brown furred minotaur landed between the family, causing the surprised newsies to scatter back. He turned to face Hannah as a Fused metallic red lion landed behind him, an EMP pulser folding back into his tail.
"That's enough, Hannah," the minotaur said. His chest slid open and Jason stepped down in mid step as Boris fell down on all fours behind him. "You've had your chance, but this circus is over now."
"Hello, Jason. I'm glad to see you've partly recovered from your unfortunate condition."
Jason refused to raise to her bait. "It's over, Hannah. Given that it's a public ceremony, I can't ask you to leave. But I can ask you to stay away from my family... INCLUDING Tracy and Wanda. Don't make me request a restraining order."
Her face fell and a lot of the strength faded from her stance. "I loved him Jason. And I still love them."
Tracy started to answer, only to yelp in pain. Peter shook his head and loosened his grip on the dolph, the bat's claws a little bloody from the tight squeeze he gave.
Jason's own stance softened a little, but not as much as Hannah probably hoped. "I know you did, and do. But you lost them all years ago, and you're not getting them back now. You were too inflexible to adapt back then, and clearly nothing has changed since then. They are who they are now, Hannah, and nothing you say or do will change that."
He put his hand on Boris's muzzle. "You need to realize that RIDEs are not just machines. They are our friends, our allies, our partners. You'll never make peace with us until you learn that."
Hannah glared at him with a look eerily similar to the one Tracy had given her. She flipped the veil back over her face and turned, walking away from the group. The newsies were hesitant, gripping their disabled gear, uncertain of where the rest of the story would be.
Rick growled, his tail pulser unfolding out again. "Time to move along guys. Let the family mourn in peace," he warned them, sending them scurrying after Hannah.
The family gathered together, a circle of RIDEs and close friends shielding them from the crowd. "Thanks, Uncle Jason," Tracy said, feeling himself relax. "That woman...."
"Is your Mother," Jason interrupted. Sam came up beside him and passed over Mary, his youngest daughter. She grabbed his horns as he settled her on his shoulders. "She still gave birth to you two, and she does still love you two in her own way. That's part of what makes these encounters so painful. Now I'm not going to say you should hold out the olive branch to her; but I'm NOT going to let you insult her either."
"Quiet down you two; it's time," Sam interrupted, pointing out to the bay.
A quartet of eagle RIDEs were flying towards the city from the east, in a v-formation. Tracy fell silent and hugged Wanda. Jay and Crystal slipped in among the others and nuzzled their partners. As the flyers drew even with the city, one let out a loud screech and peeled out of formation, heading towards the jungle. The remaining trio continued on towards the straits. The siblings held each other tight, their RIDEs surrounding them. The rest of the family surrounded the four, but gave them a bit of space, watching the fliers until they disappeared from sight.
"Right," Wanda said finally, taking a handkerchief from Ryan to wipe her eyes. Crystal folded around her as they fused together. "The Aerie in an hour. I hope to see you all there," she said, trying to sound strong, but just wanting to get away. She waved farewell to a few more people, and took off, her fiance fused with his RIDE following her.
Cave of Wonders
"So... Your aunt?" Clarissa probed as the privacy field went up. They stepped out to the outer office and took a seat to wait.
"Yeah, go figure. Though I'm not entirely surprised. Of all my family's RIDEs, my money was on either her or her son, Tracy, integrating next. Just didn't expect to be like this." Mike sighed and looked around. "So how have things been here?"
"Same as always. Appa's still in charge, and he's still preaching the message. 'Integrates are superior', 'the affairs of the meat and of the machine do not concern us', blah blah blah blah blah. Without you to keep grounding us, Tonto, he's convincing more and more people here."
He refused to meet her eyes, looking at the closed door of the examining room. "I had to leave. It wasn't the time for that argument, not yet at least. Most of these people couldn't make it on their own, despite the vaunted 'Integrated powers'. And there aren't enough enclaves out there to handle one shattering."
"And in the meantime, you're letting these toxic thoughts take root and grow. Sometimes you have to cut it off early before it spreads."
Mike shook his head and looked abruptly at the door. He vanished from sight as it slid open. A large white furred integrated bison walked in, looking around the room slowly. "Show yourself Michael. I know you have returned. With your aunt no less. She's really got the meat riled up. They're still searching up around the Towers."
The horse reappeared, trying to keep his expression neutral. "So you're following human activities now?" he taunted the bison.
"It amuses me, to see the trivial affairs of the lesser folk. And even an ant can take down an elephant if there are enough of them working together. I'm not that stupid after all."
They fell silent as the door to the exam room opened. Colin stepped out, talking back towards Nikki. "You are in excellent health. Get a good rest, plug yourself in to charge up and get some good meals in you and you'll be.... Hello, sir."
The bison nodded to the doctor and stepped closer to Nikki. She paused uncertainly in the doorway. "Good day, my dear. Welcome to the Cave of Wonders. I am Appa, leader of this enclave. And you are?"
She hesitantly took his offered hand, glancing towards Mike. Mike nodded for her to continue. "I'm Nikki, Nikki Munn. From Aloha."
He smiled at her, "That was your meat name. What was your machine name?"
"Astra," she replied without hesitation.
"Nikki... Astra... Astranikki.... Well, welcome to our little enclave, Astranikki. Please, feel free to take as much time as you need to get used to your new life. We welcome all here."
"As long as you're integrated," Mike grumbled just loud enough to be heard.
"All are welcomed here. I believe your nephew has a house he maintains here with his friends; he can probably take care of you until you find a spot for a nest of your own."
She released his hand and stepped around him to stand next to Mike. "Thank you for the hospitality. It is a lot to take in at once. I'm grateful for the support you are offering me. Would it be possible for me to place a call, or send a message back home? My family must be worried sick about me."
The bison hesitated, a frown briefly passing over his muzzle before he recovered. "I'm afraid that isn't possible just yet. The storm damaged some of our systems, so we are cut off from the me- from the rest of the world at this time."
He turned and headed for the door. "Our enclave is small, so I'm sure we'll see each other often. If you need anything, anything at all, please just ask," he said as he left. Once the door closed, everyone let out a long sigh of relief.
"What the frack was that about?" Astranikki asked.
Mike shook his head, "We'll talk about it later, Aunt Nikki."
He paused and looked at her inquisitively. "You sure about that?"
"It's not a bad name, and it is both of us."
He shrugged, "Thanks Doc. We'll see you around."
The pair of RIDEs landed on the patio of the Aerie, and their pilots defused. Crystal signaled for the doors to open, showing the living room prepared. While they were out, a pair of Crystal's employees, had prepared the house for the gathering. She'd tried to invite them to stay, but they refused, saying it was family time.
Wanda and Ryan walked into the living room and looked around. Her employees had cleaned up the living room, setting up snacks on a table, and chairs around the room. Against one wall, holos of scenes with Nikki and Astra cycled silently in the air over a table.
"Every time I hear a lifter, I keep thinking they're going to land on the patio out there," Wanda said quietly, hugging Ryan. Her ears twitched back as another flyer passed through the straits.
Ryan hugged her back and watched the cycling holos. "So do I, so do I."
Cave of Wonders
Astranikki followed the horses to a house on the far edge of the village, next to a pasture with grains growing in it. Mike opened the door without hesitation and walked in.
"This is where you live?" Astranikki asked as she followed them inside. She looked around the living room, taking in the decoration. It had an Ancient West feel to it, with leather seats, and fabbered wood. On a shelf near the entertainment device was a statue of three people. Her first thought was that it was their family, before she realized it was two adults and a young girl.
"When I'm in this end of the Dry. I've got other places in other enclaves depending on where I'm at. It's mainly Clarissa and Scratch's place really. I just have a permanent guest room. Scratch! You here?"
A tiger integrate appeared in the dining area. Astranikki took a step back in surprise before she realized it wasn't who she first thought it was. It was actually a male housecat integrate with tiger stripes.
Mike noticed Astranikki's reaction and nodded. "It's not her, but he was one of her victims. I'll explain later."
The tiger striped integrate saw Mike and started to run, before he spotted Astranikki. He stopped and waved. "Hi there."
Astranikki once again became aware of her nudity, then pushed it to the side; the feathers covered everything that mattered at least, but it was something she resolved to handle as soon as she could. She waved back to the feline. "Hi there."
"Scratch, when was the last time you dusted?" Mike asked getting down to business.
"Just today. The house is clean," Scratch said, holding up a jar filled with metallic dust. "All zapped."
Clarissa slipped past Scratch to the kitchen and started preparing a meal. Astranikki turned a chair around and sat down on it, shaking out her wings and tailfeathers a bit. The smell of the food was making her hungry again. "What's so special about the dust?"
"It's surveillance nannies. I seeded the cavern with them back when we were seeing if Shah would come back. They keep reproducing, so we need to keep dusting for them if we want any privacy."
Her stomach growled as Clarissa set a rare fabbered steak each in front of the eagle and the feline. She had a salad mixed up for herself and Mike. "So what's the story here, Mike?" Astranikki asked, trying not to look too ravenously at the meal in front of her.
He chuckled and concentrated a moment. Something began to hum beneath the house. "There, that'll keep the rest of the curious onlookers from peeking in too. Eat up, Aunt Nikki. You're looking like you want to eat me and it's rather disconcerting."
She sliced the meat into strips and started eating. "So what's going on here?" she asked once half the big steak was gone.
"Appa happened. He and a dozen friends took over this cave about 4 years ago now to found this enclave. He has... strong beliefs as you may have noticed. Believes Integrates are superior to humans and RI's and crap like that. So he doesn't concern himself with their affairs, and encourages everyone else here to 'move past' their past."
"But you haven't moved on. Not completely."
"No, not completely. Underneath our new fur, scales and feathers, we're still partly human; and we still make the same mistakes we used to."
Astranikki put her fork down and glared at her nephew. "Like not contacting your love ones who are worried sick about you? They kept searching long after the marshals stopped. They refuse to believe you're dead."
"Don't you think I know that? I miss them too. Miss all of you. But I can't. It's too risky, for them and for us. Ever since they finished integrating me-"
"Finished Integrating you? What do you mean?"
Mike shrugged; "I met them a few months after they started setting up shop here. At first they thought we were an integrate too, until they got a closer look at us. Appa noticed our 'condition', and somehow managed to trigger it the rest of the way. It confused the hell out of us, and we were pissed, but we got over it eventually. More or less."
They fell silent a moment as she considered what she was told. "I'm not going to be able to call home, am I?"
Clarissa shook her head. "Not likely anytime soon. Appa and his cronies keep a tight control on the links to the outside. And even if you were outside, you'll probably have a wingman who'll block any attempts to connect. They'll have excuses of course, but the end result is the same. Only those he trust can talk to the rest of the world."
"The other Enclaves aren't that much better. Appa's mindset is pretty common, especially among the leaders it seems, or at least the loudest voices in each group. Doesn't help that a lot of integrates are miners and soldiers and other similarly independent types. They don't have the ties back to the rest of the world to realize that Appa's line of thinking is bison shit."
Despite her hunger, Astranikki pushed the rest of her meal to one side. Scratch's fork darted out and stabbed a piece of meat. "So where does that leave me?"
"It leaves you here, for now at least. Lay low for a while, get your DIN pattern, learn how your new body works, and how this Enclave works. I'd take you to another one, but most of them are similar to this one. They've got us by our DIN's and they know it."
"DIN's are made by the technomages and ONLY the techs. They keep the DINs a big secret between them," Scratch explained.
Clarissa nodded, passing a napkin to the housecat. "That's the main problem overall. Without our DIN's, well, you can tell can't you? We're deaf and blind to the modern world. Without my DIN, I can't even decipher a simple sat signal; it's all just an annoying buzz. Some can receive at least, but I've never heard of any Integrate who could send without one. And They are the only ones who can make them."
Mike looked at the eagle. "We could use someone like you though. Another voice of reason against the propaganda Appa's crew spews. A reminder of where we come from and where we're still connected to. I do that where I can. It's gotten me all but kicked out of here. I could fight it more, but I've got other jobs to do, outside the Enclave. I can't stay long enough to make sure those words stick. You don't have to do anything now; but if you could help with that fight, I'd really appreciate it, Aunt Nikki."
The eagle swiped the last piece of meat before the cat could and chewed it off of her fork with the edge of her beak. "I'll need to think it over first. Figure out just what the hell I fell into. But first, I need a charge, a bath and a nap." She looked down at herself and amended her list, "And some clothes. Are all bird integrates like me? How will I get a shirt on past these?" She flicked her wings and grinned.
Cave of Wonders, 10 years later
Astranikki let out a screech of frustration and slammed the door of her house closed. She stamped over to her flat couch and dropped down, her body appearing to fall asleep while her mind went elsewhere to work out her frustration.
The humanoid eagle appeared in mid air, wings already spread and sweeping downward. She let out a screech that echoed around the mountains as the VR Space's restrictions took ahold of her, causing her body shrank, her arms melting into her wings, losing all of her human appearances. The Bambi garden was only meant for the animals, and it was a restriction that the Integrate version of it still enforced.
Far below, a small tiger striped housecat peeked out from under a fallen log, while the Clydesdale mare nibbled on some grasses. After a few more ear splitting screeches, she circled down and landed on the log over the housecat.
"Feeling better, Astranikki?" Scratch asked tentatively from below.
She sighed and shook herself to resettle her feathers. "A little. I just had to get some of my frustrations out before I really hurt someone." The cat crawled up onto the log and leaned against the eagle. She lowered her wing to cover her.
"So the meeting went well I take it?" Clarissa asked, sarcastically, trotting closer to the pair.
"Extremely well. Next time I'll just talk to the dome. I'll make more of an impression." Astranikki clenched her talons into the wood and closed her eyes a moment. "I don't know how much more of this I can take. I miss the open skies, my home, my family. It's been 10 years, and that damn bison hasn't budged. I'm not a woodpecker; there's only so long I can bang my beak against the wall."
"You are making a difference though. Not with him, but with others here. More and more are showing up with ties back to the rest of the world that they don't want to lose. They need a figure to look up to, to focus their fight," Clarissa said.
"I KNOW that. That's part of what makes this so hard and tiring!" The eagle spread her wings in frustration, then carefully folded them back down around the feline. "But I've got family out there. Family I haven't seen in 10 years. I don't even know if they're still alive, and it's chewing me up inside."
"Are you leaving?" Scratch asked from beneath her wing.
She paused and thought carefully. This was a familiar discussion for all three of them, and all the times before 'No' had been the immediate answer. But this time, she had to admit, that in her heart, the answer was yes. "I don't know, Scratch. I'm not sure."
The horse nuzzled her. "It's risky you know. Both for you, your family and for us. Appa will be pissed if you run off."
"Life is a risk. If you aren't taking risks, you aren't living. Besides, the Munns are all risk takers. Mike may be worried about what may be thrown at us, but I know we can handle it."
"Tonto has other concerns beyond just his family," Clarissa said carefully. Both she and Astranikki knew the stallion's secret job; to be a set of eyes for the marshalls in the integrated enclaves, but neither voiced it aloud, even in their private corner of the Garden. "If you do go, please take Scratch with you."
The eagle looked up in surprise, feeling the housecat poke her head out and look as well. "What? Why? Not that I wouldn't mind taking her; but wouldn't she be better off here? Or in another enclave? Mike says there are other Enclaves becoming more moderate; she could go there."
"She wouldn't have friends in other enclaves. We both know after everything she's been through, she needs her friends especially. And if she stays here, she'll be a target; a target to use against me, and Mike and you even. If she's with you, she'll be in your circle of protection."
Astranikki nodded slowly, "And my circle is a lot stronger than Mike thinks."
"I can fight! It's my home!" Scratch growled, rolling out from under the eagle's wing. He grew bigger as he shifted to his male form, extending his claws out.
Clarissa flicked her tail in amusement and nuzzled him back. "I'm sure you can, but remember, a big part of fighting is knowing when to fight, and when to run. This is a run time."
"But this is my home!" Scratch wailed.
The eagle reached her decision. "This isn't your home, Scratch. This is no ones home. Too much bad stuff has happened. You did a fantastic job here, but between Shah and Appa, it's not a home. It's a place you live in until you find a home.
"Come with me, Scratch. I'll show you a real home."
Scratch hissed in frustration, then curled up next to Astranikki. "Fine, I'll go. But if I don't like it, I'm coming back."
"You're your own cat, I wouldn't stop you. But I hope you give us a chance. What about you Clarissa?"
She shook her head. "I'll stay here. Someone has to keep the fight up here. Besides, three Integrates moving to a meat and mech city would surely set Appa off. Give it time, I'll either bring this one around, or maybe I'll just get fed up and show up at your door sometime."
The mare looked up at the sky. "When are you going to go?"
"No time like the present. The longer we wait, the more likely we'll be caught or worst. Scratch, is there anything you really need to bring with you before we leave?"
"Just one thing. I'll get it now." The cat seemed to get excited with the thought of leaving. He blinked out of the garden.
Astranikki shook herself a little. "One thing I'm looking forward to. Being able to set up a garden that will allow natural forms, not just these animal locked forms. With everything Integrates can do, surely we can figure out how to crack an ancient VR space restriction."
Clarissa chuckled, "I don't mind it, and I'm sure you don't mind it that much. But we should get going. I go on tunnel duty in fifteen. You guys can sneak out while we swap."
"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well. It were done quickly," Astranikki said, taking off.
Clarissa looked at her puzzled, her agent starting a search. "What was that? Oh now I get it."
"Don't be a stranger, Clarissa. And thanks. For everything. Take care of Mike." The eagle disappeared out of the virtual space, followed by the mare.
Astranikki woke up and stretched. She looked around as she got used to her arms and wings again. "Scratch?" she called out. She and Scratch were sharing one of the houses in the village, leaving Mike and Clarissa to have their own house.
"Coming," he called back from his end of the building. While waiting, she looked around, trying to decide if there was anything she wanted. She decided there wasn't; everything important was in her head.
The tomcat came out of his room, carrying backpack with a heavy misshapen mass. She knew what it was; the only memory he cherished; and the only survivor of Appa's purge. She reached out to the house and programmed some timers to make it seem like someone was in there, and motioned to the back door, holding a claw to her beak.
Scratch nodded and they both faded away. The back door opened onto the field, the lack of light helping hide the door opening and closing. She realized the problem as soon as the door was closed; they were cloaked from sight, but they couldn't see each other either.
She pressed against the side of the house, and decloaked. "Scratch," she said quietly, just above a whisper. "Touch me if you're here." She soon felt a hand on her own hand. She gripped it.
The cat suddenly appeared next to her, while the rest of the world dimmed slightly. "Walk with me. I'll hide us both," he whispered. She nodded and they took off.
They beat Clarissa to the tunnel entrance. During the day, there was rarely any traffic there. At night, there was even less. But Appa wanted to keep the entrance watched 30-6, to make sure no one caught them by surprise.
The mare didn't show anything different as she walked out. She talked naturally with the greyhound integrate she was replacing, setting her lunch bag just behind the hardlight camouflage.
"Mind staying here a few more minutes? I want to take a step outside, stretch my legs and get some fresh air, watch the stars for a bit."
"Go ahead, take as long as you want. Not like anyone's around," the dog said, flopping back down on a chair.
Clarissa deactivated the camouflage and left it off while she started jogging away. After a short distance, she leaped to the air and flew to the edge of the plateau. She leaned on a boulder and looked up, watching the movement of the shuttles and sats, and listening to the cold wind blowing across the sand. She felt a hand on her shoulder.
"You can still come," Astranikki whispered.
She simply shook her head very slightly, turning it into a head toss.
"Ok, we're gone. Visit soon."
"There are... a lot of people here," Scratch said, cringing back as a cruise ship passed below them. They could see people swimming in the swimming pool on the ship's upper deck.
The Integrate pair were on the northern lip of the straits. Their trip from the Cave of Wonders had been so uneventful, that Astranikki worried she'd start losing feathers over the stress she was under. She was constantly on the alert, waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far, it hadn't.
"It's grown a lot since I was here last," she said, putting a talon on the house cat to try and calm him. She pointed in the distance. "That one there, that's Atlantis, one of our resorts. When I left, it was on the edge of town. Now it looks like it's in the middle. Looks like there are two more being built past it."
Scratch squinted and shook his head. "How the hell can you see that? I can almost make it out, but it's washed out in the sand."
She giggled, "Sorry, I forget sometime. Over there, just across from us there, that's home. That's the Aerie."
Unlike the city, the house hadn't changed much. It clung to the top of the cliffs, the patio overhanging with the garage doors camouflaged in the rocks underneath. "Wait here, I'll go check it out, and we'll decide about showing ourselves or not. Be careful and watch for any other Inties."
Cloaked from detection, Astranikki stood on the Aerie's broad patio, watching the young family through the windows. Wanda carried a roast out to the table, followed by an 8 year old girl carrying a dish of mashed potatoes. The girl had her mother's original eyes, and her father's hair from what Astranikki could tell. Over the years Astranikki was gone, Wanda had let her fuse signs expand; her fingers were clawed now, and she had a slight muzzle and whiskers, though she was still mostly bare skinned. Mother and daughter examined the table and adjusted the food before deciding it was perfect.
"Tracy! Ryan! Anne! Dinner's ready!" Wanda shouted while the girl pulled out her chair.
The rest of the family made their way in from the living room. Wanda's husband was first, a detective on the Alohan police force, he had golden hair and ears from his golden retriever RIDE.
Anne turned out to be a cardinal pilot, her head covered in bright red feathers. Normally the females of her species had duller colouring, but RIDE designers had decided that both sexes would have the bright plumage.
Tracy brought up the rear, and startled her. Had she not been able to sense Jay among the RIDEs hanging out in the living room, she would have thought him fused, or even integrated. His melon and beak had expanded from all his time fused, and his tail was longer, with larger flukes. He simply wore a set of swim trunks.
She watched from the edge of the dining room window as the family settled down for dinner. Table talk was refreshingly normal, and achingly familiar for her. The eagle yearned to walk in and sit with them again, to get back to normal, but she knew that was impossible. Astranikki did begin to sense some undercurrents as she spied on her family. Ryan and Wanda clearly loved each other dearly, and would do anything for the other. Towards Anne though, there was a current of unease; she was the new one there, and she was still finding her place. Anne was a friend of Tracy's, but he didn't seem as interested in her as he should have been.
There were four RIDEs in the living room, some connected to the chargers while their partners ate. Astranikki listened in on their sidetalk, not prying but just eavesdropping. Like the humans, their talk was general, giving her a sense of what was going on in Aloha, but otherwise normal.
By the time dessert was being served, Astranikki had had enough. She left the window, her eyes wet. While there were still signs of her in the house, it was obvious that Wanda had made the Aerie her family's home now, and the eagle loathed to disrupt the family balance that had settled. It was obvious the family had moved on, the wound scabbed over at least, and she wasn't sure she wanted to rip it open again.
"Are you ok, Astranikki?" Scratch sent to her on a tight beam. During their long trip from the Cave of Wonders, they had worked out a way to keep a tight signal locked on the other even while cloaked.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she replied, feeling anything but. "I'm just having... second thoughts about doing this. Maybe we should go somewhere else? Set up new lives in Burnside or Cape Nord or somewhere, far from all this."
Scratch's reply was confused, "But you wanted to see your family, introduce us, reassure them that we were fine."
"I know that. But they've moved on. They have new lives now." She looked back at the window, then dropped off the patio, hovering outside the camouflaged garage doors. "I'm not sure I want to drop back in on them like this. I'm going to go in, snoop a bit more before I decide."
With ease, she used her DIN to override the locks and alarms, and opened the doors. A family skimmer was parked closest to the doors, a four seater big enough for the small family and a friend or two as needed. She noticed scratches on its metal skin where a RIDE or two had hitched a ride when they felt lazy.
She moved in deeper, past the door to the rest of the house to another large set of doors. She overrode their locks and alarms, and signaled them to open a little. She worried they might make a noise from disuse, but they slide open silently along a well greased track. She walked into the room, signaled the doors closed again, and turned on the lights.
Her old workshop was still in use; but not for mechanical work. Ryan was an amateur woodworker, and he had taken over the space. Wood in all shapes and sizes was stacked along one wall; some the perfect form of fabber-supplies, the rest natural fast growing wood from the jungles. The workbench was covered in saws and chisels and other woodworking tools. It was clean, but there was a patina of saw dust and varnish that cleaning could never properly remove; just like her old setup had similar grease and oil spots. It was the sign of someone who knew their art, and practiced it regularly.
She walked over to the bench and ran a talon along a project in progress. The box and cover were complete, but the sides were still being carved with a scene. The figures were simple, almost cartoonish, showing fused RIDErs playing on a beach, but the carvings were from the hands of an experienced artist.
She left the workbench and made her way to the back of the shop, and almost cried at what she saw there. The four alcoves were still there, filled with her old IDEs, from Alpha's scorched frame, to Gamma's crushed form, to Kappa, still in pristine form. She felt a surge of regret over the last; the first three IDEs had fitting deaths in the line of duty. But Kappa had simply been left behind for Astra. She didn't regret joining Astra, but she did regret not giving Kappa a better fate.
"Sorry old friend; you deserved better than what you got," she said, tapping the IDE's foot. Her DIN flickered as she tapped into his systems to get an update. His Toka had been removed long ago, before she'd put him away, but his batteries still had a slight charge. She backed out of the IDE, and paused in surprise. The DIN connection was gone, but she could still sense a connection with the old mech. The DIN flashed again as she explored the secondary connection, and she let out a chirp of surprise. The old remote she'd installed so long ago was still there, both in the mech and in herself. She broke the DIN connection but kept the remote link live and sat on the mech's feet.
She closed her eyes and reached out with her DIN, letting her awareness spread into the house mesh. She tread carefully, stepping around the tripwires, honeypots and firewalls that Wanda and Crystal had set up. Finally, she was in, and able to start catching up on the family history since her disappearance.
She felt anger surge at Hannah's comments at her own funeral, and quickly skipped forward. She watched Wanda and Ryan's wedding, with Jason standing in as Uncle of the Bride; then skimmed over the promotions and accolades they received. She slowed down for the birth of Nikki, nearly sobbing when Wanda, still sweating from the birth of the baby, held her child and named her Nikki, in honor of the child's grandfather. The eagle followed Nikki's thread, from her birth to her first words, her first terminal, her first days of school, up to the young girl she had seen in the dining room.
There were scenes with Jay and Tracy visiting, first with another Dolphin, and a child of their own, then just the pair alone and angry, and finally with a new girlfriend every so often, usually an avian.
The house mesh held information on the rest of the family as well. Ryan was a Martian orphan, so he didn't have any family, but Jason's side of the family more than made up for both of them. To her surprise, she discovered Sam had another kid after they had switched back. Pete had married a woman in Seahaven, and they had a pair of their own.
"I've missed so much," she mourned quietly to herself, watching the twins graduate from University with the whole family there, other than Michael and herself. She reached for the next item in the mesh, only to find it locked down. She slipped into virtual mode and looked around, seeing the snow leopard glaring at her from a datacliff. A humanoid female cat warrior in deceptively primitive clothing watched from an opposite cliff.
The warrior moved first, not saying a word as she threw a net down over the eagle-woman. Astranikki screeched and lifted into the air, the net splitting in half as she shot through it, the code unravelling easily at her touch.
The leopard snarled and leaped at the eagle. Astranikki felt claws dig into her shoulders as the feline tried to get a grip. Before Crystal could stabilize, the eagle flipped over and activated her own armor. Her feathers flared, taking on a golden metal shine. Her skin underneath similarly hardened to metal, pushing the leopard's claws clear. Crystal snarled as she fell, twisting in air to land on her feet and glare upwards. Astranikki ignored them, flying up to a gateway in the sky and returning to the real world.
She opened her eyes to meat-space and froze. The golden retriever RIDE was staring her down, shoulder mounted plasma guns glowing at the ready. Above him, Jay floated in the air, Fused, his own beak glowing at the ready.
"Don't worry, doll. We won't miss you at all," Ryan said calmly, closing the workshop door behind him.
"She's out of the Mesh. I don't know how she got past us, but she blew through us like we weren't even there," Wanda called privately to the other pair. Astranikki listened in with ease.
"We've got her, hon. She was doing her snooping while sitting next to Kappa. Don't feel bad about not stopping her, it's an Integrate," Ryan said out loud, not taking his eyes off Astranikki. "Don't try to run, or do anything, missy. Rex here has a hair trigger. If you move, or try any disappearing acts, he'll blast you before a feather fades."
He walked over to the bench and looked it over. "Frankly, I'm a little disappointed. The rumours of what you Inties could do made me expect more. Surely you didn't think you could snoop around the mesh of the house of an Alohan PD Detective and his white hat wife, and not be noticed?"
Astranikki didn't move, but inwardly she cursed herself for not being more careful. Familiarity had made her sloppy; using her old codes and habits and only lightly covering her tracks. Inwardly, she reached out, lightly touching Rex and Jay to sense their weapon controls and to make sure she could disarm them with a thought, but she didn't want to escalate yet.
Astranikki connected to the house again enough to tell Wanda was heading to the workshop, fused with Crystal. Tracy's girlfriend was keeping Nikki safe on her RIDE in flyer mode, just off the patio.
As if to echo her own thoughts, Wanda sent another message. "I'd swear, there's something familiar about the pattern of this intrusion. She hid the IDs she came in under, but the patterns... What sort of Intie is it?"
"Who are you? And what are you doing in here of all places?" Tracy called down from above.
Ryan subvocalized his response for Wanda, "An avian. Looks like an eagle."
Astranikki slowly stood, being careful not to make any fast moves. She needn't have bothered. Scratch appeared, clinging to the ceiling of the workshop. Snarling, he dropped down on Jay, "Let her go!" he shouted, as he dug his claws into the surprised dolphin pair.
True to his word, Rex really did have a hair trigger. Astranikki sensed both of the RIDE's fire at once, and was too surprised to stop it. She raised a hardlight shield, knowing she could block one blast, but the angles were too far to block both. She braced herself for an impact that never came; the second blast shattering against Kappa's arm. The IDE had somehow managed to move in place in time to cover her.
"Scratch! Get down from there before you hurt yourself!" she shouted, making her own move. :Sorry guys, but we need calmer heads without weapons: she sent to the RIDEs, locking out their weapons. For good measure, she reached to Crystal just outside the door and shut down her weapons as well. She added a suggestion that would let them move, but still stay out of reach of the two Integrates. Finally she put a filter on all communications to and from the Aerie, to make sure nothing could get in or out without her knowing of it.
Scratch hissed and dropped down next to Astranikki in a crouch. Jay's hardlight skin was scratched but the damage was superficial. Crystal, fused with Wanda, burst into the room, arms extended. The feline looked surprised that her wrist guns didn't activate.
"I'm sorry about that," Astranikki said once she had everyone's attention again. "Despite my friend's over enthusiastic response, I truly don't mean any harm to any of you." She looked up and moved Kappa back into his slot, his arm smoking and scorched where it had blocked Jay's shot, but otherwise undamaged.
It was hard to tell for certain since they were fused, but her children seemed to be the most stunned by what was happening. "Nice way to show your intentions," Ryan growled at her. His eyes were visibly darting around the workbench, estimating the threat value of the tools on hand. She let him go, knowing nothing there would be of any real risk to her or Scratch.
"Who are you? And why were you snooping in our records?" Wanda asked. Astranikki sensed both of her kids request a defuse command and allowed it. Her daughter and Crystal walked up to stand next to Jay and Tracy, recognition and disbelief beginning to cross their faces. In a dark corner of her mind, she noted how slow humans thought, compared to Integrates. She squashed the thought angrily.
Astranikki couldn't stand it any more. Tears were running from her eyes into her cheek feathers. "Kids, it's me. I'm home," she said. She sent a data dump summary to Jay and Crystal. It covered what had happened, but didn't mention Mike or the location of the Enclave. Once she was sure the RIDEs were chewing over the information, she released all of the holds again, with an additional apology. She kept Rex contained.
"Wanda?" Ryan asked suspiciously, looking between his wife and the Integrates. "What's going on?"
Crystal sent a quick confirmation first, followed by Jay. "Ryan, it's Dad. Dad came home," Wanda was sobbing as she broke into a run and hugged the eagle, followed quickly by Tracy.
Scratch squirmed away from the family hugs and moved away. He and Ryan exchanged wary looks before refocusing on the reunion. He seemed to have a hard time sorting out his own feelings as he watched on.
Ryan looked back at him, "So is she really?...."
"She is. Or rather she was, Nikki Munn, and Astra. Now goes by Astranikki pretty much ever since her nephew found her," Scratch explained.
"Her nephew?" The gears were almost visibly turning in Ryan's head as he considered the possibilities. "Mike?"
Scratch nodded, then held a finger to his lips, "It's a secret," he said. "I'm Scratch, her friend," he added, holding out his paw.
Ryan looked at it suspiciously, then back at the family reunion. They weren't talking much, but just savouring the contact. Jay and Crystal were in the mix, and even Kappa had bent down again, one large arm suspiciously looking like it was trying to hug the whole group. Ryan had known Nikki before she disappeared, but not well enough to feel comfortable getting into that mix just yet.
He took the offered hand, and squeezed. He found it warm, and fuzzy, and surprisingly strong, stronger than the house cat was showing. "I'm Ryan. So you're her 'friend'?"
Scratch snickered, "Get your mind out of the gutter. Not that way. We're just friends."
The feline moved over to the reunion and started to tug gently on whatever limbs he could find. "OK, Ok, break it up guys. Break it up. We've got a lot to talk about, and I hope you still have some of that roast leftover because I'm starved."
Astranikki laughed a little, and thankfully took an offered clean rag from Ryan to wipe her eyes and feathers. "Right, Scratch is right. We need to figure out what to do. I... I hadn't intended to be found, not like this..."
"What!" Wanda shouted. "You thought you could sneak in my house and sneak out and not even let us know you were alive?!?"
The eagle held her claws up in defense. "You don't understand. I'll explain later. There are risks in you guys knowing I'm still alive. When I saw Nikki upstairs, I didn't want to put her at risk too. But it's done now."
"No point in spreading the risk. I'll get Nikki and send Anne home," Tracy said, reluctantly heading for the door. "I'll signal when it's clear to come upstairs."
She nodded, "There are some other precautions we can take. Remember what we talked about on the way here Scratch?... Oh, Scratch, this is Wanda, Crystal, Jay and Tracy. My kids. Kids, this is a friend of mine, Scratch."
Scratch waved, and looked back. "I remember. Do you want to do it now?"
"We should. When we get upstairs, we don't want things to look like something strange is happening." She had the feeling she was being watched, but her scans failed to find anything.
She reached out to the RIDEs and included Scratch. "Stay alert guys; I think there's someone else here, but I can't find them. Keep your weapons ready just in case. If it's another Integrate, Scratch and I can keep him from shutting you down,"
"So you say," Rex growled. She sensed the canine didn't trust her. There was nothing she could do about that for now, but Crystal and Jay quickly accepted the adhoc plan.
Her feathers glowed brighter as she formed a hardlight disguise around herself. She soon looked like she had years before, a fused golden eagle.
Scratch reluctantly closed his eyes and concentrated. His hardlight patches glowed as his body swelled larger, becoming a fused housecat. His hardlight skin continued to shift though, pinching inwards at the waist and swelling at the chest. She looked at the surprised onlookers, and caught Astranikki's shake of her head.
"What? I never could get the male disguise to flow right. It looks like one of those old 20cen CG movies," she said.
Astranikki sighed and shook her head again. She looked to the door to the rest of the house. "He won't have any trouble with Anne, will he?"
"Her? Nah. She's just his latest birdbrain... Sorry dad. But ever since he and Sandra broke up, he's been the target of every Q-digger on the continent." Wanda scratched Crystal's head, earning a satisfied purr. "Everyone knows that he's meant for Sandra, and she's meant for him; but they're both too stubborn to make peace and make right.
"Sounds familiar," Astranikki chuckled sadly.
Wanda's tone lightened up, "It's not like you and mom. Mom was too inflexible to adapt. Sandra's nothing like that. You'll see when you meet her; their problem is that they're both too flexible. One tries to adapt to the other, only to have the other already adapting to them.
"It seems they rarely can get on the same wavelength, but when they do, you'll never see a more perfect couple."
"Tracy says it's all clear," Jay reported, interrupting them. The integrates had heard Tracy send the message to his partner, but politely waited for the dolphin to announce it.
"Good, we'll be right up. Wanda, dear. You don't mind if we raid your leftovers do you? It's been a long trip, and we're starved, especially for good food."
"Help yourself, Dad; it's your house."
"No, it's your house now. But if you can find a spot for me and Scratch for a bit, we'd appreciate it." Astranikki started to the door and paused, reaching a decision she'd been pondering since she was discovered. "Oh and are Sam and Jason home?"
"Janet and Sam are home. They don't swap back for another month, on their anniversary."
"Give them a call please, and ask them to come up." Astranikki smirked, "Tell them it's important, but not urgent."
Scratch tore into the remains of dinner ravenously. Wanda barely had time to prepare a plate for her father before the feline claimed the rest of the food.
Astranikki ignored the plate for the moment, and focused on the girl who was watching the two strangers curiously. She leaned forward, her beak opening a bit in an avian smile. "Hi Nikki, I'm your grand-" she stopped and looked puzzled. She looked to Wanda for help.
"She's got a grand aunt and grand uncle that have changed once in her life, and will change again in a few weeks. Not to mention two cousins that are similarly swapping. So she knows the concept at least. We always said she was named after her grandfather though," Wanda explained, ruffling the girl's hair.
Astranikki nodded and refocused on the girl. She was a little shy, but curious enough to stand near the eagle. "I'm your grandfather, Nikki. Though I'm Astranikki now, so we won't get confused."
"I thought you were dead?" Nikki asked.
"No, they thought I was dead. I was just missing, missing for a long time. But if I knew there was someone as pretty as you waiting for me, I would have let myself be found a long time ago."
Nikki giggled and moved closer to touch the hardlight disguise. Before she could, they all heard the noise of lifters coming up the cliff face. "We'll talk later, dear. I've got adult things to do now," Astranikki said.
Wanda shooed Nikki back to her bedroom, while Astranikki disappeared. "Scratch, fade out!" she ordered.
"Do I have to?" Scratch whined.
The tomcat faded away. A second later, his plate also disappeared, followed by another scoop of potatoes.
The skimmer landed on the patio, and its doors opened up. The first out was a woman. She had long, black hair, feline ears and tail, and fur over most of her body, as well as claws and a cat nose. She ran to the door, barely letting it open before she slipped inside.
Behind her, a minotaur climbed out and helped a young boy climb out. The boy was about the same age as Nikki, with black hair and emerald eyes. A jaguar RIDE and a bull RIDE, both in walker modes, jumped over the patio railing and followed their pilots into the house.
"Where is he?!? Where's Nick?" Janet shouted, storming into the room, looking around.
Wanda smiled a little, starting to clean up the table. More food was disappearing before she could get the dishes moved away. "What do you mean, Uncle Jay?"
Melody seemed to pick up on it. She sniffed the air around the table, watching the dinner remnants suspiciously.
"That term. That's our term. Why did you call me like that?" The jaguar woman looked around, sniffing the air and beginning to prowl.
She found herself knocked back onto a RIDE couch by an invisible force. She felt feathery arms hugging her and tried to hug back. The force became visible, as the eagle integrate appeared, forgetting her disguise. "Hi Jason, I'm back." she said quietly, going silent as her emotions took over again.
Janet stood there, stunned for a moment before she managed to return the hug, slipping her arms under her wings and lifting her a bit. She squeezed hard, her head buried in the feathers of the eagle's neck. "I knew you weren't dead, I just knew you weren't dead," she mumbled, tears going down her cheeks.
Wanda took her cousin from Sam and knelt to him. "Why don't you go play with Nikki? Your parents will explain later."
The young boy looked on and ran off. Sam watched him, then looked at the hugging pair. "Nikki's alive? What happened?"
"It's true; she's alive. It's dad and Astra. They integrated, that day they disappeared in the storm," Wanda whispered back. "And there's more. We'll explain in a moment."
The twins stood there, hugging teary eyed, neither wanting to let the other go. When they finally separated reluctantly, Ryan passed around bottles of beer and everyone settled down.
"Can I fade back in now?" A voice asked from the table. Melody growled and stepped closer to the voice's source.
"Sure Scratch," Astranikki called back.
The cat reappeared at the table. She'd seen Astranikki had dropped her disguise, so she had done similar. She'd also shifted while hidden. Melody hissed in surprise, stepping back a little then stepping forward. "How the hell did you hide like that?" she asked.
"I'm good at hiding, that's all," Scratch answered, offering a peace offering of a piece of beef.
The jaguar shook her head and backed away.
Ryan stared a long moment at Scratch. "Wasn't he?...."
He had a box of beer he'd taken from the fridge. One of the bottles lifted out of the box and floated to the eagle's hand.
Astranikki laughed, "One more thing in a long list of things to explain. That's a friend of mine, Scratch." She popped the bottle cap and lifted the bottle. "Alohan Red; I've wanted one of these for years."
She sat down and took a swig from her bottle. Janet sat next to her, close enough that their legs touched, as if she was scared her twin would disappear again.
"What happened, Nikki? Where have you been all this time?" Janet asked.
The eagle took a deep breath to gather her thoughts. The air was buzzing with sideband talk as the RIDEs shared the data dump. She wasn't sure how they had found out, but they seemed to be thinking that Michael was involved too. She slipped into their conversations, "Let me do the talking please, guys. I'll explain it to the me- to the humans. And don't mention Michael to them."
"Is Michael alive?" Melody asked. She had the impression of the five RIDEs pressing close to her, anxiously awaiting an answer.
"I can't say one way or another," she answered cautiously. It was too much.
Joy flooded the RIDE sidebands as they celebrated Mike's survival.
"QUIET!" Astranikki ordered, reinforcing her order with a mental muzzle that quieted all five at once. She cancelled it as quickly as she realized it. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry guys. I... I picked up some bad habits out there. Just give me a chance to talk to everyone else, and then you can talk about it all you want."
She sensed their joy turn to uneasiness and suspicions. Disappointed in herself, she made herself stop watching the sidebands and refocus on the real world. Barely a second had passed.
She took another deep swig from her beer, and started her story. She didn't explicitly mention Michael, nor where the Cave of Wonders was, but explained everything else. Occasionally she would stop and nod at the hall to the bedrooms. Wanda or Sam would chase the kids away, and she would continue.
Sam got increasingly anxious as the story went on, but managed to hold his questions to the end. "What about Michael? Have you seen Michael in those Integrate Enclaves? Our RIDEs are buzzing about him. Is he alive?"
The eagle hesitated, uncertain how to respond. The sense of being watched was still nagging the back of her mind, and she couldn't tell if it was from a friend or a foe. The feeling finally coalesced into a figure standing at the patio doors. She recognized him immediately and broadcast a "DON'T FIRE!"
"I guess it's time we all came clean. She did in fact see me there. In fact, I was the one who found her Integrated self first. Hi mom, da-oof!" The arabian stallion integrate was tackled by his parents before he could finish speaking.
The others watched the reunion silently, until Tracy spoke up. "So we got any more long disappeared relatives that are going to pop up? Maybe Grandpa Munn is going to crash down on the patio in a suborb."
"If Grandpa Munn shows up, I'll be halfway to Proxima before the orb cools off," Astranikki replied, grinning. She looked to Michael, and sent a question to him. "Were you following me?"
"Not really. Clarissa told me what you were going to do, and I knew where you'd be. I've been watching for days, waiting for you to show up."
"For days? And you didn't show yourself to them?"
"It was tough... Harder than I thought. Probably why I'm doing this now."
"What are we going to do now? It's going to be hard to keep our return quiet. I tried to stay silent, just take a peek. But I was careless."
The horse sent a smile and a wink with his answer, "Sure, 'careless'. What's done is done. Their threats have become increasingly toothless over the past few years. And with two integrates to watch over them, Appa won't make a move."
"Two integrates? I'm here too!" Scratch butted into their conversation.
"I was counting you."
Astranikki paused a moment, "You're not staying, are you?"
Mike virtually shook his head, "I'm a Marshal. I've still got a job to do out there. But I can be more open with you guys, and with the family at least. Just knowing I'm out there will be a huge relief for all of them. And for me.
"And I'm here now. Let's live for the moment. Tomorrow, we'll figure out how to bring Nikki and Astra back from the dead, and bring Scratch along for the ride. Today, we savour what we've missed all these years."
"And I'd be right there beside you," Janet chuckled, unaware of the conversation that had passed between breaths.
Wanda suddenly tensed up and ran to the bedroom hallway. Astranikki and Mike both tensed, expecting the worst.
"Nikki Astra Munn! Put those scissors down! You are NOT going to cut your uncle's hair!" Wanda shouted.
"Aww ma, I wasn't really going to do it," Nikki called back.
The integrates relaxed and chuckled. "It's good to hear normal family stuff again," Mike said.
Sam flicked her tail and took a swig of his own beer. "Or as normal as this family gets. When we realized that Nikki and Hugh would be the same age, but also be niece and uncle, we decided that was enough."
"How's Clarissa doing?" Astranikki asked.
"She's fine. Appa's pissed that you two slipped out, but he's realizing his hold isn't as strong as it used to be. He put her under house arrest basically, but she's not harmed otherwise," Mike explained.
"If you don't mind, could I share these reunion memories with the Enclave? They could be the straw that will break the bison's back,"
"Sure, if you wait a few days. I'll organize mine and share them with you too. And maybe have some more to go with them."
The Aerie, 152 AL
The Aerie had grown. It was no longer just a house; it was now a complex, with a second, less grand house built a few decametres away for the Integrates. The buildings were connected by both the patio, and the underground garages and workshops the family was maintaining now.
Bringing Astra and Nikki back to life had been a nightmare, even for the Integrated, but the lawyers finally worked everything out. The fact that Astranikki was intending to keep a low profile and stay out of the businesses had been a huge help. Creating Scratch's two new identities (one male and one female, to hide the fact that he could switch so quickly) had been trivial in comparison.
Kappa sat in a cradle in the mechanical workshop that was Astranikki's domain. The IDE was stripped down to its bare frame while they worked on it, rebuilding Kappa as Sigma.
"Starting DIN control test 25," she announced, sitting at a bench next to the cradle. She closed her eyes, ignoring the remote control link and used her DIN to take control. Sigma's systems hummed and lit up, before the eagle let out a pained screech. She clawed at the back of her head and pulled out another fried DIN. "Damn it! I thought I had it this time," she growled, rubbing her DIN slot a moment before putting in a replacement device.
"I've been telling you dad, the problem's technical. The DIN's don't have the capacity to handle the load you want to put through for a proper link," Wanda said from behind a second console.
"While the remote control can more than handle it, but it doesn't have the capacity." She scratched her talons on the wooden workbench; the second she'd had to make since setting up the workshop.
"Face it, our skillsets have a great big hole in them. I've got the software side of things covered, and you can do the mechanical side till the cows come home; but we need a techie. Someone who can handle the nano side of this."
The eagle sighed, "I know. I just don't know who to approach. I don't want just anyone poking around back there. Guess I'll just keep studying and try to fill in that gap. Not like I've got much else to do."
Wanda chuckled. "Considering you can practically see the nanoscale with the naked eye, it does make sense." She grunted and put a hand on her belly.
Astranikki looked up, concerned. "How are they today?"
"Tap dancing on my bladder it feels like. You had to pass the twin genes down to me," she replied, rubbing her belly a bit more before relaxing. "Still a month or so to go. How did you manage to dodge this bullet? Uncle Jason had one almost right after he switched."
She chuckled and started shutting down the project for the day. "Luck, and not having anyone around to father it, though not for want of Astra's trying. Integrating didn't hurt either I suppose. Sorry I wasn't here for your first one... and that I don't have any advice to offer you."
"That's fine dad, we're learning this all together." She pulled herself to her feet and followed the bird out. "How's the latest update going?"
"Great, other than the throughput to Sigma. Everything's so much clearer now."
"Good to hear. I can't believe they put such sloppy coding in your DIN. A high schooler could have done a better job. When you see Scratch, tell him or her that I've got another update for them too."
"Will do." Astranikki waved, and watched her daughter waddle down the hall to the main Aerie building. She floated up the stairs to her own house and sensed something was amiss. She wandered around the house, trying to figure it out.
"Looking for someone?" a voice asked, the fifth time she passed through the living room.
Astranikki let out a screech of surprise and jumped as she twisted to look. The large mare was laughing her head off on the couch.
"What the hell are you doing here? Is Mike OK?" The eagle turned her jump into a glide, all but tackling the mare in a hug.
"Tonto's fine. We're all better than fine actually. Appa's gone!"
She stepped back incredulously, "No way! What happened?"
"You did, in the end. It took some time, but it was your reunions that did it. Started reminding people of what they had left behind. Appa tried to stop it, banned the files and stuff, but the cat was long out of the bag." Clarissa stood up and led the pair into the kitchen. She started rummaging in the fridge. "He and about a dozen of his staunchest supporters just up and left about a week ago. Two have returned since, realizing just how good they had it at the Cave, the rest, have vanished off the face of Zharus."
"Day-am... Never thought that would happen." She reached past the mare and pulled out a couple of bottles. She popped the tops off and offered one. "So now what's happening?"
"The usual; Chaos! Confusion! Power grabs! But everyone's willing to be a bit more moderate. Not enough to welcome meat and mech, but enough to not break out the tar and feathers when someone gets homesick."
"The feathers I didn't mind. The tar was a pain," Astranikki chuckled.
Clarissa waved to the house, "Looks like you've got quite the homestead here. I doubt you'll want to move back. But if you ever feel like visiting, you're welcome to come by. You and Scratch both... well, Scratch especially. It was his cave after all. Not sure if he wants to move back or not, but it's rather impolite to evict the guy who built the home you took over."
"That's up to Scratch. But for me, I could probably swing that." Astranikki pondered her options. "How long will you be in the city? If you give me a few days, I can go back with you. For just a visit. I need to be back in time for Wanda; she's continuing the family tradition of twins."
"Of course. I'll wait for you and her." The mare finished her bottle and left it on the countertop. "So know any places an inti-girl fresh from the Dry can have some fun in this burg?."
Astranikki laughed, "Honey, this is Aloha. If you can't find fun here, you must be dead. And even the dead can find fun here if they look hard enough."
Cave of Wonders
|Aloha, Zharus||Succeeded by:|